Day 990: The Wonderful Wizard Of Political Allegory

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When digging one’s mental spoon into the lumpy broth of film studies, there are three things one must remember:

  • A disturbing number of gender-based analyses will reveal that most cinematic conflict is based upon the male fear of castration.
  • With a little imagination, you can build a political or social allegory out of almost anything.
  • No, seriously, it’s all about castration. Whether it’s Woody from Toy Story, Andy Dufresne or Han Solo, it’s all about castration.

Turning our attention to point #2, it should come as no surprise that a humongous heap of thread-pulling has been devoted to perhaps the most widely-revered and universally beloved of 20th century fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz. Everyone knows it, and the characters within are so bold and unprecedented, drawing a line from them to some aspect of modern society is a natural academic pursuit.

It helps that the heart of the movie can be found in a series of books, written by a man who was very much aware and engaged with the politics of his era. This adds a measure of validity to any political dissections of the literary world of Oz – though it should be restated that, like most conjecture and analysis, this is a wide portal of interpretation. This isn’t fact, but it’s a friendly maybe.

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Frank Baum has gone on the record as describing his Oz books as modern fairy tales in the style of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, only without the romance and heavy-handed moralism. He was also seen as a political activist in his day. So who’s to say L. Frank wasn’t looking to poke a few of his own ideas about 1890’s politics into the flesh of his story? Read more…

Day 989: The Medicinal Repast Of History’s Maddest Madman

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There’s a tiny voice inside my head, that interminable squawk of the ever-shrinking crimson-lensed optimist, who wants to believe that Dr. Theodor Morell was doing his best to assassinate Adolph Hitler from the inside out. Morell was the Fuhrer’s personal physician, and as the world began to warp around the consequences of his patient’s actions, his freewheeling approach to the prescription pen increased. Was he doing his ill-informed best to keep Germany’s leader in good health? Or was he subversively hoping to kill him?

Okay, that’s an easy one; Dr. Morell was an incompetent putz who appeared to have forged his medical path through a garbled jungle of whim and outlandish guess-work. Had he truly been looking to snuff out Hitler’s flame he would have been just a bit more thorough in his boobery. Also, he would have likely been facing a swift execution by the other Third Reich brass.

The truth behind Hitler’s health is a curious stew of horrors and weirdness. The man deserves none of our pity of course, but in looking over what we have learned about his bizarre journey through Germany’s medical industry, I have to wonder if some of his unmitigated evil might have been a result of the strange goings-on within his innards.

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In November 2008 a curious story wormed its way into the news cycle. The story can be traced through Polish priest and amateur historian Franciszek Pawlar, who claims to have once spoken with a man named Johan Jambor (pictured above). Jambor had been a medic for Germany during the first World War, and it was he who treated a wounded Adolf Hitler at the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916. Hitler had received a wound to the “groin” – a more specific account I’m afraid I can’t offer. Read more…

Day 988: That’s No Moon

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With only a dozen days remaining of my self-imposed sentence in this asylum of perpetual prose, I am scootching toward the realization that there are some topics I will never get to. The hidden subtext within the dialogue of each Misfits of Science episode will remain unexplored, and I’m afraid the sacred ghost notes that elevate the percussive harrumph of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Toto’s “Rosanna” will fail to make the kilograph cut.

Instead I must devote these dog-yawn final days to loftier, more resonant subjects – yesterday’s investigation into Mozart’s poop jokes notwithstanding. And so I look to the moon – that luminous gob of celestial spittle, that pearlesque voyeur who knows all of our funkiest sins, the swiveling muse of the incurable drunkard. The moon pours elbow grease on our tides and provides an alibi when we need one for our meandering sanity. And before we had the cognitive wherewithal to stack our chips on science, the moon provided the palette for some of our strangest superstitions.

The moon puts on a nightly spectacle; what earth-bound broadcast can compare to the thrill of a clump of rock bigger than our entire continent dangling in the air over our heads? And even with Neil Armstrong’s size 9½ prints on her cheeks, she still retains an exotic air of mystery.

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Before Georges Méliès stabbed it with a wayward rocket ship, the man in the moon had a starring role in olde-timey mythology. In the biblical Book of Numbers, one of the more cynical stories tells of a man who was sentenced by God to death by stoning for the heinous crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Early Christian lore suggested that the man in the moon was that very man. Another tradition claims the man is Abel’s blood-bro Cain, forever doomed to circle the Earth. Read more…

Day 987: Wolfgang Mozart’s Love Of Poop

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The deeper I claw through the muck-pit of history, the more perverse and bizarre clumps of trivia get crammed beneath my fingernails. And just when I think I’ve scraped the scabby floorboards of curiosity, I stumble across the intensive breadth of study that academics have placed on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s apparent obsession with poop.

I’m not judging, mind you; it’s not like Mozart was passing off his digested lunch as foie gras at cocktail parties, and he certainly never pooped in a janitor’s mop bucket or anything – he simply had a penchant for scatological humor, that’s all. And don’t we all? Isn’t there an inherent absurdity in the most gastronomically magnificent entrée becoming the same wretched stink-pile you would have made had you snarfed a box of Pop Tarts? Just as a well-timed emission of flatulence can crumble even the most stoic of facades, every soul on the planet can share in a clever poop joke.

Not according to some historians and psychologists though; it’s not acceptable to assume that Mozart simply hit a few grounders for his fellow aficionados of the low-brow. No, a man who has crafted some of the greatest melodies in the history of sound must also possess a ribald wit and sophisticated gauge of appropriate merriment, right?

Guess again.

I mean come on - he was played by Otter from Animal House.

I mean come on – he was played by Otter from Animal House.

What some have interpreted as a slight defecatory obsession on Mozart’s part has been the subject of much debate and even some concealment by historians and scholars. In 1798, when a batch of his letters were posthumously sent to publishers Breitkopf & Härtel for a biography they were compiling, his wife Constanze expressed in her accompanying letter that while Mozart’s letters to his cousin were chock full of wit and wackiness, perhaps they should be somewhat downplayed in the finished book. You know – focus more on the music and less on the turd-gags. Read more…

Day 986: James Randi & The Magic Of Truth

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One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.

I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.

James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.

Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.

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The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 984: Love For Freedom – The Biddle Boys Break Out

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Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.

The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.

These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.

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Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.

They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald. Read more…

Day 983: Pistols At Dawn On Bloody Island

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Allow us a moment to reflect upon our broken culture and praise the glorious days of yore – the days of righteous morality, of a productive and contributory collective ethos, and of… duelling. Stupid friggin’ duelling.

Of all the ridiculous traditions that we hauled on our societal backs from the grubby landscape of the Middle Ages, duelling has to be among the most laughable. Honor and respect marked the blinding colors of the duelling flag, and men chose to end one another’s lives rather than take the more accepted modern approach of simply living in a perpetual state of passive-aggressive loathing.

When gloves would slap faces in 19th century St. Louis, the moment of stone-chinned confrontation would usually take place on a small divot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River called Bloody Island. This sandbar had crept above the water’s surface in 1798, and throughout that renegade century, Bloody Island was a lawless haven for antiquated honor defense.

Authorities agreed to look the other way when duels were to be fought on this crunchy piece of turf midway between Missouri and Illinois. Firing at pistols at one another in either state was illegal, but on Bloody Island nobody cared. It was all about nobility, about virtue, about manhood… and whatever.

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Thomas Hart Benton (also called “Old Bullion”, probably because he was a big fan of chicken soup cubes) was a Missouri Senator who pushed strongly for western expansion of the United States. He also pushed a little too hard upon the feelings of one Charles Lucas while they were battling over a land deal in court, back when Benton was an attorney. The two exchanged rather public words, which culminated when Benton had the audacity to call Lucas a “puppy.”

A puppy. More vile words were never spoken. Read more…

Day 982: Opening 40

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As some of you may have heard (I have griped about this rather frequently lately), the cold, icy grip of 40 is looming around my next corner, poised to wrestle my youth to the ground before September’s end, pummeling it with its grey-haired, middle-aged fists.

But I’m okay with that.

Not only because I will finally experience my first day off from writing since December 30, 2011, and not because I believe some faucet of inherent wisdom will squeak open and gush the solved riddles of the universe upon my anxious brain, but because I simply refuse to stack my plate full of anxiety and dread over a number. 40 can be the new 30 – except my kids are mostly grown-up, my time is more my own, and my taste in beer has matured to a delicious and luminous plateau.

Besides, I’m not the only one packing air into his lungs for a big 40-candle blow-out. Skittles turn forty this year, so does the Volkswagen Golf. The Intel 8080 chip was released four decades ago, as was the San Diego Chicken (from whatever oversized, freakish coop in which he was reared). Let’s see what else will be launching its fifth decade on earth in 2014.

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The toy whose very visage defines the 1980’s was born in Budapest on January 16, 1974. The Rubik’s Cube is, quite literally, Rubik’s cube. Ernö Rubik worked at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts (where I suppose you can begin working on your major in kindergarten), and he designed the toy as a way to solve the design problem of having the parts move independently without the entire thing falling apart. After playing around with it for a while, Rubik discovered that putting it back to its alpha state, with all six sides sporting a uniform color, was a nifty little puzzle. Read more…

Day 981: The Double-Agent of Staffordshire

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Every so often while sifting through the corrugated rubble of history, one lands upon a figure who is a trifle harder to figure out than the rest. Whatever may have spirited his soul this way or that gets lost in the grey ink of facts and dates, leaving (for those of us who care) a certain freedom for speculation.

Was Gilbert Gifford an English hero? Was he a traitor? A coward? His actions directly led to one of British history’s most infamous executions, but the footsteps that led him there may have been driven by precisely the opposite intent. Such is the riddle that four centuries of dust and distortion have thrown across his legacy.

I’d like to paint Gilbert with passionate swirls – not moved by an allegiance to politic or royal hullabaloo, but by the colors of his faith. Not his faith in Catholic dogma, though undoubtedly that old rhythm spent a considerable amount of time tip-tapping upon the inside of his skull. I’m talking about his faith in flesh, in love, and in the non-negotiable immediate.

In short, Gilbert danced to his own boogie.

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The 16th century was a sketchy time to be religious in Europe. If you were Catholic, you kept your mouth shut around Protestants and vice-versa. Gilbert Gifford was born to a recusant Catholic landowner in Staffordshire. This label of ‘recusancy’ was given to those who continued to wear their Catholic jerseys long past the time when the Church of England (Anglicanism as we know it today) was chosen to be the home team. It took a certain amount of guts on the part of John Gifford, and to some extent that chutzpah was carried on by his son. Read more…