Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pop History Moment: "Animal Farm" Was Published

On this day in 1945 George Orwell's satirical novella Animal Farm was first published, in London, by Fredric Warburg; the book is a sterling condemnation of Stalinism - a condemnation made all the more sterling by the fact that it was published before most of the world had twigged to the fact that Joseph Stalin was even then one of history's worst villains. There's nothing so unusual about that in and of itself, of course, except it does underline the fact that the author was clearly gifted with considerable powers of insight*...

PhotobucketThe story concerns a plot by animals to overthrow the rule of the humans who run Manor Farm, where they all live; since it's written in an allegorical style each character, naturally, represents an historical figure. Old Major, for instance, represents Karl Marx whereas the farmer Mr. Jones represents Tsar Nicholas II, and so on; still, it's clear where Orwell's sympathies lie - all the pigs are Communists**. Where Orwell's cynicism proves prescient is in how the utopian society initially desired by the animals is soon riven with class distinctions and generally destroyed by the same tensions it was meant to overcome - in the same way Leninism and Stalinism gave rise to the same sort of elites within the Politburo that Communism was supposed to eliminate.

Orwell encountered considerable reluctance when seeking a publisher for Animal Farm, since at the time he was writing it most of the Western powers were still aligned with the Soviet Union; one publisher was dissuaded from publishing the book by a supposed government official who was later revealed as a Soviet spy! In the United Kingdom, oddly enough, Orwell's preface to the book was more heavily censored than the book itself, probably because it didn't hide behind allegory, but directly addressed the censorious attitude of the British people and their press, which in his view was entirely self-imposed.

Animal Farm has been adapted for film twice: an animated version, made in 1954, which was Britain's first feature length animated film to receive an international release, and a live-action version in 1999 which was slightly rewritten to provide the story with a happy ending - in which Napoleon's regime collapses in on itself, a reflection of that happiest of all endings, the fall of European Communism in 1990. Additionally, the book has been the subject of many cultural references, including The Kinks' song Animal Farm, from their superlative 1968 album The Village Green Preservation Society.

*Another of Orwell's masterpieces, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is flat-out spooky in its perception of the future as a world controlled by the lies and propaganda of mass media, whose specious hatred shrieks - Fox News-like - out of viewscreens on every wall...
**Leading us to surmise that Orwell's view of Communists was equally porcine.
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"Mon coeur s'oeuvre a ta voix" by Mae West

Under normal circumstances one wouldn't expect to find Mae West - who was born on this day in 1893 - singing opera... Then again, as we're so fond of saying around here, there is no such thing as a normal circumstance at the Pop Culture Institute. The place is lousy with puppets, the receptionist is a cat... And that's just for starters!

In which case, the fact that the featured clip (from the 1935 film Goin' To Town) has one of the American cinema's greatest sex symbols playing one of the Bible's greatest sex symbols - namely that of the tonsorial temptress, Delilah - must seem downright normal by comparison. Of course, West doesn't play Delilah in the whole movie, just in the scenes shown above; the rest of the time she's Cleo Borden, a poor hoofer who strikes it rich and then sets her sights on the big time, in the person of Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanagh). Aspiring to class, West's character sashays her way through this famous piece of mezzo-bait, Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix (My heart opens itself to your voice, also known as Softly awakes my heart), from Camille Saint-Saëns's opera Samson and Delilah; her duet partner is Vladimar Bykoff.

Goin' To Town is available on DVD, just not on its own... Instead, it's been considerately bundled with four other Mae West classics for your viewing pleasure as Mae West: The Glamour Collection (along with her screen debut Night After Night (1932), my personal favourite I'm No Angel (1933), the under-rated Go West, Young Man (1936), and 1940's My Little Chickadee, which famously paired her with W. C. Fields); given the quality of her work specifically and the quality of movies from that era generally, this is one package that will not disappoint. If you know what I'm sayin...
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"My Old Flame" by Mae West

Here our birthday gal Mae West sings My Old Flame backed by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in the 1934 film Belle of the Nineties.

West, of course, was one of the most controversial cultural figures of the 20th Century; unlike many of her colleagues, who enjoyed the thrill of being shocking just for the sake of it, West was actually jailed for presenting plays such as Sex, which she'd also written. Not only did she walk the walk and talk the talk, she wiggled the wiggle and barbed the barbs as well.

While her attitudes towards social issues such as homosexuality and sex education seem rather quaint today, the fact that she not only held them but openly advocated them when she did have ensured that she is as remembered today for her advocacy of free speech as she is for the seemingly involuntary way she had with a double entendre.
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Remembering... Vivian Vance

While television audiences of the 1950s may have loved Lucy, they could also be said to have been inordinately fond of Ethel as well - at least as she was portrayed by Vivian Vance; yet, even as the viewing public embraced Ethel both instantly and enthusiastically, it would take a bit of convincing on the part of the woman who played Lucy...

PhotobucketIt seems that Lucille Ball originally wanted her friend Bea Benaderet for the part, only she was unable to accept it due to a scheduling conflict; a visit to the theatre with Desi Arnaz to see Vance in The Voice of the Turtle helped to change her mind. Still, while the backstage story of I Love Lucy is nearly as entertaining as the show itself it's also in direct contrast to the warm chemistry between its four leads as shown on camera.

First there was the issue of Vance's appearance; considerable trouble had been taken to present 40-year-old Ball in the most flattering light possible*, while 42-year-old Vance had a more natural loveliness, owing to her inherent vivacity, that even the crudeness of early television couldn't disguise. The fear was that the second banana (Vance) would outshine the star (Ball) - an unthinkable possibility. To this end, Vance was given wigs and dresses to wear which played up the character's frumpiness at the expense of the actress' beauty; rumours abound that she was even padded, while Lucy herself was being cinched into corsets.

Vance also had trouble with her co-star William Frawley, who was not only 22 years older than her but a cantankerous, bitter alcoholic besides; despite their terrific onscreen chemistry, when the cameras stopped rolling they hated each other. Clearly, this gave the Mertzes - who'd only just met in real life - the same energy in their onscreen relationship as an old married couple. Still, when I Love Lucy went off the air in 1957, Vance flatly refused to appear in a proposed spin-off featuring herself and Frawley in their iconic roles. For all her trouble, though, Vance became the first winner of the Best Supporting Actress Emmy in February 1954, and would be nominated three more times in all.

Vance later appeared with her (by now) good friend Lucy in The Lucy Show from 1962-1965, as well as being allowed to appear more glamourous and playing a character with the same first name - she'd grown weary of being called Ethel for years; while the new show didn't have nearly the zing of its predecessor, it was still a big hit. It even gave Vance the opportunity for a second first: she became the first to play a divorcee on American television.

Her last public exposure was in a well-liked series of TV commercials for Maxwell House coffee.

Vivian Vance died on this day 1979 following a battle with breast cancer and a stroke, which had left her partially paralyzed; seeing as she had no children, the Pop Culture Institute would like to adopt her (in keeping with our long-standing policy) and so help to fulfill the primary role of offspring - namely, that of keeping her memory alive.

*Not only was it the first sitcom shot on film rather than videotape, I Love Lucy was also lighted like a movie and photographed by Karl Freund, who'd made his career making actresses 'of a certain age' look like the ingenues they thought they still were.
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Happy Birthday Ken Ryker

I have never made any secret of my abiding appreciation for porn, which feels for all the world like it was designed for someone like me - not just as a sexual outlet but for attaching some plot (however minimal) as well as the all-important aspect of art direction to what is (let's be frank) a rather clinical proceeding, especially when merely watching it. Yet for all that, porn is definitely flawed; for one thing, it sets up unreal expectations, and for another it seems to encourage those people it's intended to educate to engage in cookie-cutter sex - making it ultimately counter-productive. Still, I cannot help but think, after twenty years of consuming this unique consumer product, that in many ways sex (at least at the high level it's practiced in porn) is best left to the professionals*...

PhotobucketGay porn is unique in that the expressions of male sexuality in it seldom adhere to the same narrowly defined categories the punditocracy would have one believe; whether straight, gay - or the one that makes the other two uncomfortable, bi - or whether top, bottom, or versatile, porn's variety reflects reality far better than the cliches would have one believe. Beyond even the charted universe of sexuality is the nebulous grey area inhabited by men who are known as 'gay for pay'.

As might be expected, the whole 'gay for pay' thing is highly controversial. Identity politics being what they are, many professional homosexuals tend to scoff at the idea that straight men might have it off with each other without somehow being closet cases. These are usually the same people who think that any good-looking straight guy - especially if he's famous - is secretly gay. Straight men, too, can have their various insecurities sorely tested by the idea that they could have enjoyable sex with someone who doesn't arouse them visually because sex is about the interplay of all the senses, but most especially touch.

Honestly, given the trouble many straight guys have getting women into bed without the purchase of important jewellery and the playing of Olympic-calibre mind games - and given the aggressive nature of male sexuality - the solution seems elegant as well as purpose-built. No less a paragon of heterosexuality than Tim Allen has frequently stated in his stand-up act that if straight guys could only learn to give each other blow jobs the world would be a better place - guys would get what they want most from someone who knows how it's supposed to be done and women wouldn't have to do badly what they least wanted to do in the first place**. This is what is known as a win-win situation. Unfortunately, none of the straight men I know seem to feel the same way, but it doesn't stop me from making my argument now and again, when I have a clear escape route and they're too drunk to chase me.

Among the more famous of the 'gay for pay' pornstars is Ken Ryker - now retired - who for a number of years could be counted on to fulfill the popular gay male fantasy of getting banged by the quarterback. Although he also starred in bisexual and straight videos, Ryker's oeuvre consists mainly of all-male titles such as The Backroom, The Matinee Idol, and The Other Side of Aspen 4: The Rescue. This 6'4'' stunner - endowed with a compelling 11 inches - now works as a rep for Frixion Lube.

*Not that an amateur can't also have fun in the pursuit... The presence of a professional baseball league, for instance, doesn't affect the enjoyment of tossing a ball around.
**Forgive me if this passage smacks of casual misogyny, because that's not my intention; for both men and women sex is a biological function, but it seems that women are more often socialized to treat sex either like a business transaction or else as something more than it is, which is a biological function.
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"Through The Barricades" by Spandau Ballet

Today, in memory of Peter Fechter, it's the oddly appropriate song Through The Barricades; I say oddly appropriate because the band performing it, Spandau Ballet, has another connection to the day - namely that of the death of Hitler henchman Rudolf Hess on this day in 1987. The band was said to be named for the twitching done by Nazi war criminals when they hanged themselves in West Germany's Spandau Prison; whether or not the story is true, it suits my agenda, so I'm happy to repeat it.

Hess was the last prisoner in that facility, who killed himself* (coincidentally) on the anniversary of the murder of Fechter by East German soldiers as the 18-year-old bricklayer attempted to flee to safety in West Berlin across the Berlin Wall on this day in 1962. Currently there is a memorial to Peter Fechter at the spot where he died** - on the Zimmerstrasse, in the reunited Berlin; Fechter's friend Helmut Kulbeik, with whom he'd attempted the escape, was successful. Spandau, on the other hand, was razed following Hess' death, to prevent it from becoming a neo-Nazi shrine; the Wall, of course, famously fell in November 1989.

Through the Barricades is the title track of a 1986 album by Spandau Ballet, and is seen here being performed live.

*Naturally, there is some disagreement whether Hess killed himself or was murdered. Like it matters.

**Fechter is recognized as the Berlin Wall's first victim.
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POPnews - August 17th

[Golden boy Michael Phelps rocked the Water Cube a record eighth time on this day in 2008, bringing his career Olympic medal total (so far) to 16 - the most ever for an American... Phelps' achievement tied one set by Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin at the Moscow Summer Games in 1980 and his overall achievement (14 gold and two bronze over two Olympiads) has only been surpassed by the 18 (including nine gold, five silver, and four bronze) won by Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina during the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Games. Naturally, the Baltimore Bullet is poised to take on the world at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London - at which time my money is on him shattering even this extraordinary record!]

1807 - Robert Fulton's first American steamboat - originally called the North River Steamboat and later known as the Clermont - left New York City for Albany on the Hudson River (which is also known to New Yorkers as the North River) inaugurating the first such commercial service in the world.

1883 - The Dominican Republic's national anthem, Himno Nacional, was first performed; an immediate success musically, lyrically the song left much to be desired. It was rewritten to be more historically accurate in 1897, which version is still in use today.

1907 - Pike Place Market - the longest continuously-running public farmers' market in the US - opened in Seattle.

1908 - The very first animated cartoon, Émile Cohl's Fantasmagorie, was first shown.

- Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia, for allegedly murdering Mary Phagan after his death sentenced was commuted by Governor John Marshall Slaton.

1945 - The Indonesian Declaration of Independence was first read, sparking the five-year Indonesian National Revolution against the colonial rule of the Netherlands and eventually bringing about the abdication of Holland's Queen Wilhelmina.

1947 - The Radcliffe Line - the border between Union of India and Dominion of Pakistan - was revealed; it was named for Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man who drew it.

1953 - The first documented meeting of Narcotics Anonymous was held in Southern California.

1959 - Quake Lake was formed by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake centred in Yellowstone National Park near Montana's Hebgen Lake.

1960 - Gabon gained its independence from France; the country's first president was Léon M’ba.

1962 - East German Peter Fechter became the Berlin Wall's first victim, when he was shot trying to cross it into the West.

1969 - The Category 5 Hurricane Camille made landfall along the Mississippi coast near Bay St. Louis, killing 248 people and causing $1.5 billion in damage.

1970 - The Soviet Union launched Venera 7 as part of its Venera Program; the spacecraft would later become the first to successfully transmit data from the surface of another planet (in this case, Venus).

1978 - Double Eagle II became the first hot-air balloon to cross the Atlantic Ocean when it landed in Miserey, outside of Paris, 137 hours after leaving Presque Isle, Maine. (Honestly, if I had to spend 137 hours in a hot-air balloon I'd be in Miserey too...)

1980 - Ten-week-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared during a family vacation to Uluru - likely taken by a dingo - leading to what was then the most publicized trial in Australian history, and later providing Meryl Streep the opportunity to blow movie audiences away yet again.

1987 - Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess was found dead in his cell in Spandau Prison.

1988 - Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel were killed in a plane crash near Bhawalpur.

1998 - US President Bill Clinton admitted in taped testimony to an 'improper physical relationship' with White House intern Monica Lewinsky; later that day he went on TV to confess to the nation that he 'misled people' about the true extent of their relationship.

2008 - Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal at the Beijing Summer Olympics, surpassing swimmer Mark Spitz's 1972 record for the most gold medals won by an American in a single Olympiad.
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