Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Liebestod" from "Tristan und Isolde" by Eileen Farrell

The death of Eileen Farrell, on this day in 2002, put to rest any possibility she would either perform or record Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde in its entirety - one of the great tragedies in a genre which itself excels at great tragedy. The opera, of course, was based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, which is thought to pre-date (and therefore inform) much Arthurian legend.

Here Farrell performs Mild und leise, the opera's closing aria, in which the Irish princess Isolde mourns the death of her knightly lover Tristan in one of opera's greatest moments.
share on: facebook

In Memoriam: Cedric Gibbons

For every high-strung flash-in-the-pan pretty face in front of the camera, Hollywood has had a long-haul hard worker (or ten) behind it. They may be as obscure as you or I; they may be as celebrated as - or, in some cases, even more celebrated than - those they painted, clothed, or lit simply because their jobs didn't rely on looks alone but talent, fortitude, and discretion...

PhotobucketCedric Gibbons - born on this day in 1893 - was one such technician; he began working in the art department of Samuel Goldwyn in 1918, and when Goldwyn later merged with Metro and Mayer Gibbons went on to work with the fledgling MGM from 1924-1956 - a 32-year career under the thumb of Louis B. Mayer, a feat of the utmost endurance. During his tenure there the famed art director personally oversaw 150 productions and had his name on ten times as many - a feat which I can safely say will never be replicated.

As Head of the Art Department at MGM, Gibbons was one of 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an initiative by that studio to give itself trophies for work from which it already made obscene amounts of money. He even designed the Oscar statuette - a knight (whose physique was based upon that of Emilio 'El Indio' Fernández, a friend of Gibbons' then-wife Dolores del Río) standing atop a film canister with five spokes (one for each of the founding creative branches of film - namely actors, writers, directors, producers, and technicians); the work was then sculpted by George Stanley from Gibbons' design. From the day he designed it until the day he retired he earned 11 of them for his work, out of a total of 39 nominations.

It was said of Gibbons' work that if he was called upon to design Paris for a movie, it could out-Paris Paris; the films he worked on are simply redolent with style. I can single out one - Gaslight (1944) - that depicted a Victorian London so lavish that an actual Victorian would have been appalled by its exuberance. No slave to sentiment, he was also the first designer to use modern architecture in film, being especially fond of Art Deco and Art Moderne styles. For viewers, though, whether they knew it or not, his sets were a big part of the enthralling experience that was movie-going in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

After Gibbons and his ilk began retiring from the grinding schedule that was the film business during the studio era Hollywood underwent a sea change that took a full three decades to correct; while his successors in the 1960s and 1970s favoured a greater naturalism in film, their successors since the 1990s have begun to return to the more lavish style that made American cinema so great in the first place, many of them consciously honouring the work of great artists like Cedric Gibbons in the process.
share on: facebook

"Parklife" by Blur

Birthday wishes go out to Damon Albarn, the brains behind Blur, and lately Gorillaz as well; n between times he's been involved with yet another side project, the critically acclaimed The Good, the Bad and the Queen.

I chose to feature Parklife - rather than, say Girls & Boys or Song 2, which are equally good - because the song's quintessential Englishness meant it didn't get played in North America much; whereas quintessential Englishness makes whatever it is a dead cert to be published here. Plus, I adore the song's estuarian sprechgesang, almost as much as I love typing the phrase estuarian sprechgesang.

The title track to the band's third album (a smash after the predictably sluggish reviews for their sophomore effort Modern Life is Rubbish) Parklife - the album and the song - catapulted the band back into relevance in 1994, debuting at Number One and remaining on the charts in the UK for 90 weeks.
share on: facebook

Happy Birthday Your Royal Highness

The youngest daughter of the Duke of York and Sarah, Duchess of York, turns 20 today; as with the births of Princes William and Harry and Princess Beatrice before her, I was on high alert waiting to hear the news - from London's Portland Hospital - that she'd been born...

PhotobucketHer Royal Highness - having completed a gap year after graduating from Marlborough College that included a high-profile mugging in Cambodia - keeps a low profile as is usually the case with young royals (her cousins William and Harry being glaring exceptions) who generally wait until after university to decide if they're going to carry out royal duties or not. Princess Eugenie has, however, been quietly carrying out royal duties since October 2008, when she opened a cancer ward for teenagers in Leeds; when not on duty, though, she's been known to use public transportation. Since September 2009 she's been reading a Combined Studies BA at Newcastle University.

Currently sixth in line to the British throne, she is named for a famous granddaughter of Queen Victoria, namely Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain, the consort of Alfonso XIII.
share on: facebook

Pop History Moment: Taco Bell's Big Gamble

Since I am always looking for a bit of variety for my readers, here's what is definitely our (and may in fact be the world's) first-ever pop culture math word problem for you to ponder...

PhotobucketGiven that a) the Pacific Ocean has a surface area of 169.2 million square kilometers - give or take - and b) the Mir space station had a living volume of 350 cubic meters, and that c) on this day in 2001 the Taco Bell corporation placed a 144 square meter target in the ocean 15 km off the coast of Australia with the stated aim that if any part of Mir that didn't burn up on re-entry struck the target following its deorbit they would give every American a free taco, what was the chance of them actually having to pay out on their PR stunt?

The odds of this potential occurrence have been calculated by crack mathematicians (or were they mathematicians on crack?) at the Pop Culture Institute as being Not Bloody Likelyshitload*. Then again, math never was our strongest subject - obviously; William Ailor, director of The Aerospace Corporation's Centre for Orbital Re-entry Debris Studies, told the Associated Press at the time that the odds were 'slim to none'. Gee, for a smart guy that doesn't sound very scientific.

Still, as PR stunts go, it was pretty effective; even with a probability of 'Not Bloody Likely to the power of shitload' Taco Bell took out a pretty hefty insurance policy, just in case. After all, 280 million tacos costs a lot of money; not to mention what it would have done to the sales of Charmin. Had Mir hit the target, it would have gone down in the annals - not to mention the anals - of history.

Nevertheless, when Mir made it's run for the border of space it was the largest item in history to have been de-orbited; Skylab's mass was 77,088 kg compared to Mir's 124,340, and when it returned to Earth in July 1979 pieces of it rained down all over the town of Esperance, in Western Australia, the largest one the size of a washing machine. (The town fined NASA $400 for littering - a fine which has never been paid, I might add.) Had Mir struck land the possible fine could easily have bankrupted the Russian government, just as surely as it could have bankrupted Taco Bell's insurer had it struck the target.

*Kudos to regular commenter and Brain Trust member Sr. Mainar for providing some calculation of the possibility of Skylab hitting the target, which sounds pretty accurate to me; check it out in the comment section below.

share on: facebook

"You Might Think" by The Cars

Birthday wishes go out today to Ric Ocasek, one of the lead singers for and founding member of Boston-based New Wave pop group The Cars - along with the late Benjamin Orr, Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, and David Robinson.

You Might Think originally appeared on the band's 1984 album Heartbeat City, and it's trippy video with cutting edge special effects won numerous awards for its director, Alex Weil - including the very first Video of the Year at the very first MTV Video Music Awards. The video costars Ocasek and model Susan Gallagher.
share on: facebook

POPnews - March 23rd

[The E.V. Haughwout Building - located at 488 Broadway and the corner of Broome Street in Manhattan's tony SoHo district - was designed by John P. Gaynor to house Haughwout's emporium of fine china, which once attracted such bold-named clients as Mary Todd Lincoln. The building's original Otis Elevator - the first in the world - cost $300 and went the amazing speed of 20 cm (8 inches) per second; it is no longer in place.]

1568 - The Peace of Longjumeau ended France's so-called Second War of Religion when again King Charles IX and Catherine de' Medici (his mother and widow of Henri II) made substantial concessions to the Huguenots.

1708 - James Francis Edward Stuart - son of the deposed James II and VII of England and Scotland, known colloquially as the Old Pretender - attempted to invade England by landing a French fleet at the Firth of Forth; the ships were ultimately driven back by Admiral Sir George Byng.

1775 - American patriot Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech - proclaiming 'give me liberty or give me death' - to the Virginia House of Burgesses at St. John's Church in Richmond, supposedly in the presence of fellow revolutionaries Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Or did he? And was he the first to utter those famous words?

1801 - Russia's Tsar Paul I was struck with a sword, then strangled, and finally trampled to death in his bedroom at St. Michael's Castle in what was surely one of the most labour-intensive assassinations in history... In the end the Tsar was killed by a group of men led by Levin August, Count von Benningsen and General Vladimir Yashvil.

1806 - After traveling overland through the vast territory encompassed by the Louisiana Purchase and reaching the Pacific Ocean, explorers Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery set out from Fort Clatsop in the Oregon Country to begin their equally arduous journey back to St. Louis.

1848 - The ship John Wickliffe arrived at Port Chalmers carrying the first Scottish settlers for a proposed colony at Dunedin, resulting in the founding of New Zealand's Otago province.

1857 - Elisha Otis's first elevator was installed at 488 Broadway in New York City.

1889 - The free Woolwich Ferry officially opened connecting Woolwich in the Borough of Greenwich to North Woolwich in the Borough of Newham in the east end of London across the Thames.

1896 - The Raines Law was passed by the New York State Legislature, restricting the Sunday sale of alcohol to hotels, rather than saloons - which anyway soon found a loophole by fitting out 'rooms' in storehouses which later proved highly propitious to prostitutes and their clients. The Raines Law's principal depiction in pop culture remains Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh, in which the saloon room has been outfitted for use as a gambling parlour.

1908 - American diplomat Durham Stevens was attacked while staying at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel by Korean assassins Jeon Myeong-un and Jang In-hwan, leading to his death in a hospital two days later.

1919 - Benito Mussolini founded his Fascist political movement, the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Squad), in Milan; within two years the organization became known as the National Fascist Party.

1931 - Revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged during the Indian struggle for independence, their request to be executed by firing squad having been refused.

1933 - Germany's Reichstag passed the Enabling Act of 1933, effectively making Adolf Hitler that country's dictator.

1983 - US President Ronald Reagan made his initial proposal to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative, a technology designed to intercept enemy missiles from space.

1994 - At an election rally in Lomas Taurinas, a poor neighbourhood in Tijuana, Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio of the centre-right PRI party was assassinated by Mario Aburto Martínez.

1996 - Taiwan held its first direct elections, choosing Lee Teng-hui as President despite offshore missile tests conducted by China, which were intended as a scare tactic in support of such candidates as Lin Yang-kang, who supported the One-China Policy.

1999 - Gunmen assassinated Paraguay's Vice President Luis María Argaña; no saint himself - he was a high-ranking judge during the regime of Alfredo Stroessner - Argaña's death was thought to have been masterminded by his political rival Lino Oviedo, although no proof one way or the other has ever been found.

2001 - Russia's Mir space station became a 'mere' memory when it was removed from orbit, breaking up in the atmosphere before falling into the southern Pacific Ocean near Fiji.

2007 - A pile-up involving three trucks and four cars in Melbourne's Burnley Tunnel resulted in an explosion and fire which rescue crews estimated burned as hot as 1000 °C (1800 °F); three people died, including Commonwealth Games gold medal cyclist Damian McDonald.
share on: facebook