Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do Electric Sheep Dream of Philip K. Dick?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMy first exposure to the work of Philip K. Dick - like a lot of people's, I guess - was Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, which was itself based on Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

While I occasionally dabble in writing sci-fi and spec-fic, I try to avoid the dystopianism inherent in such pastimes, mainly because I realize how draining they are to my psyche, which desperately wants to be happy despite what often seems like lengthening odds.

In fact, the same thing seems to have happened to PKD; born on this day in 1928, he seems to have driven himself at least to the brink of sanity (if not beyond it) by worrying about things over which he had no control... Namely a vast, all-controlling government, greedy corporate monopolies, environmental degradation, and the proliferation of artificial life forms.

Whereas these are all the things I love to mock... I don't want to mock them, understand, I have to mock them - for my own sanity's sake. So I don't end up like Philip K. Dick - a paranoid drug addict whose mind shorted out in March 1982, at the age of 53.
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"Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)" by Eurythmics

This song doesn't have much to do with Beethoven - aside from his name in the title and a snippet from one of his famous melodies in the tune - but I can't help myself at this point; I'm a blogging fool. It must be all that banging my head on the desk I do for...  Er.  Inspiration.

From my personal favourite Eurythmics album, Savage, it's Beethoven (I Love to Listen to). The video was directed by Sophie Müller as part of a movie-length project which I first saw in 1990 and have never forgotten; this particular video occurs at the beginning of a three-video arc - alongside I Need A Man, and You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart.

Watch as a drab housewife (played to the hilt by famed hilt-player Annie Lennox) who is haunted by her childhood self and inner glamazon and - either loopy from the fumes of household solvents or else ready to check herself into the Laughing Academy - wigs out (quite literally) and breaks her shackles with a persona not unlike Courtney Love, only not scary.

It's still only available on VHS, though. To which I say: if those responsible don't soon put this amazing piece of work out on DVD I may have a breakdown like the one in this video, find those responsible, and have words with them. And as good a look as this is on Annie Lennox, well, that's how awful it looks on me. You've been warned.
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I Love To Listen To Beethoven

Although the exact date of birth for Ludwig van Beethoven is not known, his family celebrated the event on December 16th, which is good enough for me; the year of his birth, though, we do know - 1770 - as well as the place, Bonn, where today the house in which he was born serves as a museum.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEven within his lifetime, Beethoven was considered one of the world's foremost composers by his contemporaries... He studied with Joseph Haydn and Antonio Salieri and was inspired by Mozart; his work bridges the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras in music, containing as it does echoes from Bach as well as innovations which were wholly his own. In this he was guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment, which was then all the rage in Europe.

Although* a genius, Beethoven was troubled; physically abused by his drunken father from childhood, he began to lose his hearing at the age of 26, suffered abdominal cramping which may have been caused by lead poisoning, and generally became renowned for his irascibility. He would stop playing if there was any chatter in the audience, refused to play on short notice, and generally behaved so abominably that his patron Archduke Rudolph (the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II) had to waive the usual rules of court etiquette to accommodate his favourite composer. Despite this, and the fact that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder, Beethoven maintained a close circle of friends throughout his life who provided him with ample moral support.

In October 1802, while staying outside of Vienna and contemplating suicide, Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, one of the profoundest statements ever made by an artist concerning the whys and wherefores of the creative process; in fact, he continued to live for his art long after living his life had become unbearably painful. Yet for all its power, it was only one of two cryptic documents Beethoven wrote in his lifetime; the other, a love letter to an unnamed woman (possibly Antonie Brentano) coined the phrase with which he is most associated - Unsterbliche Geliebte**. He lasted until March 1827, at which point he died; more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to witness his burial, at the cemetery in the city's Währing district. His body was exhumed in 1862 so they could be studied, whereupon his remains were reburied at Zentralfriedhof in 1888.

Although in modern times Beethoven never had a greater champion than Schroeder (in Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts) he's only recently been played onscreen by Ed Harris (in Agnieszka Holland's 2006 film Copying Beethoven), and more memorably still by Gary Oldman in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved (which admittedly is an altogether catchier title than Unsterbliche Geliebte).

Oldman's portrayal is an even greater triumph when considering the perils with which it is fraught. Many of Beethoven's letters - not to mention the more scurrilous of his famous conversation books - were destroyed upon his death (in March 1827) by his secretary Anton Schindler. Ostensibly this was done to protect Beethoven's reputation, with no foresight into the apologism his future biographers - myself included - would inevitably try to bring to their critical understanding of the man and his moods as they relate to the creation of his inestimable musical legacy. What it did accomplish, though, was to obscure the total picture of a great man, forcing us who did not know him to fill in the blanks...

*Another word that also works in this space is 'because'...
**Or 'immortal beloved'.

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In Memoriam: Jane Austen

Whether it's my relentless modernity, Y chromosome, or disdain for 18th Century grammatical construction, I simply cannot get into the works of Jane Austen. I know they're classics, and I know there are only six of them, but by two pages in I invariably find myself scratching my head trying to figure out what the Hell just happened - at least a hundred pages before anything even has! I keep telling myself that like classical music and what's so funny about Adam Sandler, the works of Jane Austen are something I'm saving to discover in my old age. In other words, any day now...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTrying to write about the life of Jane Austen is almost as difficult as reading her works, seeing as out of the the 3,000 letters she is reported to have sent in her lifetime - the best available source - only about 5 percent remain, and some of them are censored; fortunately, I like a challenge.

Born on this day in 1775, Jane Austen spent her brief life at the top of England's new middle class; the Austens were landed country gentry, her father the rector of Steventon, in Hampshire, one brother became a banker (and later served as her literary agent), another an admiral. Jane was educated at boarding school alongside her sister Cassandra, though only until the age of 11.

The following year Jane Austen began to write - poems, mostly, in the time-honoured tradition of 12-year-old girls - but her early works (called the Juvenilia) offer a glimpse into the developing writer before mannerism shaped her works into the well-loved stories they are today.

In 1808 or 1809 Austen left her family's bustling home for a cottage at the nearby village of Chawton, where Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother (also named Cassandra) set up housekeeping; the house is now a museum dedicated to her life and works.

In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was published in London by Thomas Egerton, under the coy pseudonym 'A Lady'. The book was an instant success, and was followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and Mansfield Park (which was not as successful) in 1814. In 1815, Austen was more or less compelled to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, a big fan of hers of whom she was no fan at all.

Changing publishers, Emma and Persuasion - not to mention a second edition of Mansfield Park - were released by John Murray. In 1816, Jane began to feel ill while finishing Persuasion; she finished it despite her encroaching illness (some have said, due to Addison's disease) and was at work on a seventh novel - published in its incomplete form as Sanditon in 1925 - when her pen was finally stilled.

Jane Austen died in July 1817, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral; like the much-later Sanditon both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously. Her works - especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility - have been made into films; the latter not only earned its star Emma Thompson an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1995 but it's famous as the only one of Jane Austen's works I've not only sat all the way through in any form but also thoroughly enjoyed while doing it.
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"(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" by Sylvester

Disco's first male diva, Sylvester James, died from complications related to AIDS in San Francisco on this day in 1988, cared for by his friend Jeanie Tracy. He was 40. Arguably his most famous song, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) had been released in 1978; other hits included Dance (Disco Heat), Do You Wanna Funk, and Someone Like You.

Asked by his record label in the 1980s to act less gay onstage, he began appearing at meetings in full drag, and the matter was quickly dropped; even record executives, even in their cocaine-induced haze, even given their complete and total lack of knowledge about anyone or anything, knew better than to tangle with a drag queen, especially a black one.

Originally a member of The Cockettes (where he met Divine) Sylvester appeared in The Rose, starring Bette Midler; he also sang backup for Aretha Franklin on her 1985 album Who's Zoomin' Who? and was close friends with Patti LaBelle. In 2008 he was played by Mark Martinez in Milk - Gus Van Sant's brilliant biopic of Harvey Milk.
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Remembering... Catherine of Aragon

Born on this day in 1485, the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile - whose lust for gold and desire to find room for Catholicism to grow set off the colonial era - Catherine of Aragon was originally imported to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Henry VII, in November 1501.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNot a person given to waste (or returning rich dowries), when Prince Arthur died in April 1502 his father simply off-loaded his new daughter-in-law on his other son; because of her vehement insistence that her first marriage had never been consummated, and because her parents were such good pals with the new Pope, Julius II, no special dispensation would be required to marry them to each other, merely a Papal bull, which duly arrived in December 1503.

In April 1509 this other son would become Henry VIII and within a fortnight in June of that year Catherine would find herself both a blushing bride and Queen as well; this time would prove to be an all-too-brief respite in the sweep of her otherwise unhappy life.

Although six years older than her new husband, she was beautiful, talented, and most importantly popular. Their marriage would be happy for many years before what he saw as her inability to bear him a son - which we now know is a product of the father's chromosomes, not the mother's - made his continuing marriage to her (in his eyes, anyway) an impediment to the survival of his dynasty.

The live birth of a healthy son to his mistress Elizabeth Blount in June 1519 was all the proof Henry needed that his marriage was cursed; of the two sons born to Catherine of Aragon, Prince Henry, Duke of Cornwall lived for the first 52 days of 1511, and another lived a few hours in November 1513. The only child of theirs to survive to adulthood was Mary, born in February 1516.

Catherine's life in England had never been ideal; having been raised in the sophisticated court of Spain, she found her bumptious British hosts both provincial and xenophobic, their food coarse and ill-prepared, and then there was the weather...

But things went from bad to worse in the final decade of her life, as her husband campaigned Pope Clement VII for a divorce - which was refused after much stalling - following which Henry simply seized the leadership of the Church of England for himself, passed the Act of Supremacy (1534), embarked upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries (essentially a cash grab), and in general caused a world of hurt throughout Europe.

Removed from Court following the rise of her rival, Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon died in January 1536 at Kimbolton Castle - her heart completely black, according to contemporary reports; but was it just the superstitious imagination of the times, or evidence of poison?

Today, the truth lies somewhere beneath the floor of Peterborough Cathedral...

Maria Doyle Kennedy gives a truly electric performance as Catherine of Aragon in the Showtime/CBC co-production of The Tudors, whose first two seasons are now available on DVD; likewise, Philippa Gregory breathes life into her character and personality in her historical novel The Constant Princess, which suggests that Catherine's marriage to Arthur had been consummated.

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The Death of Thelma Todd

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As a child it was Thelma Todd's dream to become a teacher; in a way, then, it's appropriate that her life and suspicious death have provided many lessons for young girls and boys looking to be seduced by the allure of Hollywood...

All told the woman known as The Ice-Cream Blonde made more than 140 movies before 1935 including numerous comedy shorts with both ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly which hilarious antics and stock situations would later give rise to the sitcom. Along the way she made friends with almost everyone she met, including the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Jimmy Durante.

In the early 1930s, she opened a restaurant called Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe in Pacific Palisades which drew a great crowd from her crowd of Hollywood friends; career going great guns, business a roaring success - Thelma Todd appeared to be on top of the world when, on this day in 1935, she was found dead in her convertible in a closed garage, evidence of a serious beating beginning to show in bruises and welts all over her body.

Many theories abound about how Todd met her tragic end; simple accident, jealous boyfriend (director Roland West), spiteful ex-husband (Pat diCicco, who later married Gloria Vanderbilt) and even the Mafia (in the person of 'Lucky' Luciano). The authorities agreed it was carbon monoxide poisoning that killed her but failed to speculate as to the cause of (or even mention) her disfigurement, after which her legion of Hollywood friends closed ranks around her memory; the truth of what really happened will probably never be known, but West was later shunned by the film colony, which points to his responsibility as much as does his deathbed confession to Chester Morris in 1952.

A 1989 book by Andy Edmonds, entitled Hot Toddy, is out of print but available through Abebooks (naturally, there's a copy in the collection of the Pop Culture Institute) which investigates the murder of Thelma Todd more competently than the LAPD ever did; in 1991 the book was made into a TV movie starring Loni Anderson, called White Hot. The mystery surrounding her death is also discussed in Kenneth Anger's deliciously salacious 1958 book Hollywood Babylon.
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"Sharp Dressed Man" by ZZ Top

In honour of Billy Gibbons' birthday I thought I'd throw caution to the wind, and for a change of pace show a music video...

From their 1983 album Eliminator, which I used to listen to as an occasional respite from the electronic bleeps and droll English accents which were my favoured listening material in the Eighties, it's just one of ZZ Top's smash hit singles, Sharp Dressed Man.

Which reminds me... Maybe I should start wearing something other than my hoodie and jeans when I go out. Plus, I definitely need a shave.

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"Leader of the Band" by Dan Fogelberg

While the Pop Culture Institute has not exactly been the go-to destination for praise of fathers and fatherhood - my own having generously disowned me when he found out I was gay* - I have nonetheless always had a soft spot for this song; because I have, over the years, collected the occasional father figure or two, I've occasionally had reason to plumb these sensitive lyrics with something less than cynicism and come away somewhat healed in the process...

All of which would doubtless give the late Dan Fogelberg (who died on this day in 2007) yet another reason to be proud of his most famous creation - Leader of the Band, taken from his 1981 album The Innocent Age. He's seen here performing it live at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri on June 25th, 1991.

*It's okay - he was an abusive self-loathing closet case anyway...
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Pop History Moment: The Boston Tea Party

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Although I'm sure very few tea parties on Beacon Hill today involve the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Narragansett Indians, the most famous 'tea party' in American history certainly did...

On this day in 1773, in order to protest the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, more than 8,000 colonists crowded into Boston's Old South Meeting House just long enough to get their dander up; following that little pep rally they repaired to the harbor, where the HMS Dartmouth, HMS Beaver and HMS Eleanor were relieved of 45 tons of tea (worth £10,000), which was then ignominiously dumped into the water. One of the leaders of the rebellion was John Hancock, who was not only the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, but the only one to sign it on July 4th, 1776.

The event would light the fuse for the American Revolution, but could have easily been prevented had colonial officials been able to secure some kind of representation for them at Westminster; the right of the population to expect representation in exchange for taxation was one of the key dicta of English common law dating back to the Magna Carta. Instead, the English responded to this nascent colonial uppitiness with a series of legislation collectively known as the Intolerable Acts starting in 1774.

And we all know how well that approach turned out for them...
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POPnews - December 16th

[The last eruption of Mount Fuji blanketed the region in 800 million cubic meters of volcanic ash, which (as the photo clearly shows) turned out to be the ideal thing for cherry trees.]

1431 - England's King Henry VI was crowned King of France at Notre Dame de Paris.

1497 - Vasco da Gama became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope.

1575 - An earthquake took place in Chile, flooding the city of Valdivia; a similar - albeit much larger - earthquake in May 1960 resulted in a similar destruction of the Riñihuazo.

1653 - Oliver Cromwell was named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.

1707 - The last recorded eruption of Japan's Mount Fuji took place.

1811 - The first two in a series of earthquakes occurred in the vicinity of New Madrid, Missouri, events which are thrillingly recounted in Simon Winchester's book A Crack in the Edge of the World.

1850 - The Charlotte-Jane and the Randolph brought the first of the Canterbury Pilgrims to Lyttelton, New Zealand.

1907 - America's Great White Fleet began its circumnavigation of the world at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt.

1920 - The Haiyuan earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.5, killed an estimated 200,000 in China's Gansu province.

1922 - Newly-elected Polish President Gabriel Narutowicz was assassinated by Eligiusz Niewiadomski at Warsaw's Zachęta Gallery.

1937 - Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe escaped from Alcatraz; if they were ever seen again, no one's telling.

1938 - Adolf Hitler instituted the Cross of Honor of the German Mother to reward Aryan women for their fecundity.

1946 - Léon Blum became Prime Minister of France for the third time.

1955 - Her Majesty The Queen opened The Queen's Building at London Airport.

1957 - Sir Feroz Khan Noon succeeded Ibrahim Ismail Chundrigar as Prime Minister of Pakistan; he would remain in power until October 1958, when President Iskander Mirza declared martial law.

1971 - The surrender of the Pakistani army brought an end to both the Bangladesh War of Independence and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

1977 - Queen Elizabeth II opened the Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 station of the London Underground's Piccadilly Line, which connects central London to Heathrow Airport.

1985 - Paul Castellano and Thomas Bilotti were shot dead on the orders of John Gotti, who thereafter assumed leadership of the Gambino Family.

1989 - Walter LeRoy Moody began his terrorist bombing streak when he sent Judge Robert Smith Vance a bomb in the mail, instantly killing him near his home in Birmingham, Alabama; Vance was the third federal judge in history to be killed in the line of duty, after John H. Wood, Jr. and Richard J. Daronco.
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