Tag: new york

Day 999: Buh-Bye, So Long and Hallelujah

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It’s a completely valid question.

For the past 50 or so days I have been fielding one question more often than most: what am I going to do for Day 1000? Will the final kilograph reflect upon the 999 that came before, like some extended clip show of my greatest guffaws and most aww-rending moments? Will I spend my final entry in closing-credits mode, thanking those who have made this all possible and put up with my considerable dearth of free time over the last 2 years and almost 9 months?

In short… no. While my original intent was to meander down that self-serving footpath for my final article, I decided that I would only do so if I could cite the Wikipedia page that had been created about me – as it turns out, that doesn’t exist yet.

In order to figure out my final missive, I felt I should turn to the moulder of my wisdom, the sage oracle who has helped to shape my morality, my perception, and even my understanding of the world: television. I have experienced the highs and lows of series finales – certainly at least one of them could illuminate the road to a poignant, entertaining, and (most of all) worthy coda to this monstrous undertaking.

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My first option is the beloved trope of bringing back a classic character for the finale. In my case I could introduce a surprise cameo by Yoko Ono, Craig David, Mary Nissenson, or if I really want to stretch to my roots, Phineas Gage. I could style the entire piece in a blend of haiku, musical theatre and secret code (did anyone ever figure that one out?). It sounds trite and cliché, but that’s always a place to start, isn’t it? Read more…

Day 997: Hollywood’s Original A-List, Part II

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Last year I penned a heartfelt tribute to Lilian Gish and that first generation of cinematic ladies who made male hearts swoon, back when it was still gentlemanly to swoon in mixed company. Alas, the big bold number at the top of this article threatens an accusation of sexism if I don’t supply that article’s flip-side in short order. So here you go: five sploosh-worthy gents who first glued eyes to screens.

It’s important to note that the qualifications for being a sex symbol in the 1910’s were somewhat different than today. Washboard abs were barely an asset; Fatty Arbuckle was a lady’s man and he had the body shape of a Barbapapa. Acting back then was all in the eyes, and it was to the eyes that our attention was drawn. I suspect that in 1914, Channing Tatum’s beady greens wouldn’t have made the cut.

The style of acting required for silent film is truly unique; no one knew (or cared) whether these men could sing, or if their voices sounded like a sack of wet noodles being dragged through a frog’s trachea. We say that Hollywood is superficially mired in its obsession with physical looks today (seriously, why has every on-screen cop since Andy Sipowicz been traditionally attractive?), but back then looks was all they had. Looks, and the ability to brood on cue. Gotta have that brooding glare.

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Those eyes will look into your soul, rearrange the contents therein and leave you a changed person. This is Sessue Hayakawa, and he was causing hearts to throb before literally any other Hollywood star. In his time – which began about a hundred years ago – he was as popular and beloved to audiences as Charlie Chaplin. Born in Tokyo, Sessue broke down racial barriers before the paint had even dried on their walls. He refused any role that perpetuated schlocky Asian stereotypes, and was thusly thrust into the spotlight when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the romantic lead in 1915’s The Cheat. Read more…

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

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I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Milton Bradley, 1860s

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans. Read more…

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 980: The Man In The Zoo

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Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.

Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.

Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?

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A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave. Read more…

Day 965: The Inaugural Road Trip

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Roll down your windows, crank up the vintage Lindsey Buckingham and ready your innards for a deluge of fast-food grease – we are hitting the open road.

In 1903, right around the time those two bike-shop brothers in North Carolina were writing the first stand-up routines about in-flight meals, the general public was underwhelmingly embracing the automobile. Many thought it was a passing fad, that nothing could beat classic oat-eating, poop-dispensing horse travel. Those who disagreed were eager to test the physical boundaries of motorized transportation. They pushed for faster speeds, longer voyages and snazzier features. Even the kids were too enthralled with the technology to ask, “Are we there yet?”

It was a magical time of firsts for car fans. Among them were Toronto-born doctor Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic friend, Sewell J. Crocker. When the opportunity arose to break the bi-coastal barrier, they couldn’t resist. This is how they grabbed hold of their own little chunk of history.

For those of you who now have "Holiday Road" stuck in your head, I apologize.

For those of you who now have “Holiday Road” stuck in your head, I apologize.

While visiting friends at San Francisco’s University Club, someone bet Horatio a whopping $50 (which is about $1300 in today’s money) that he couldn’t drive from coast to coast in one of those new-fangled auto-thingies. Despite the initial handicap of not owning a car, Horatio agreed to the bet. He had faith in the technology, the kind of faith that propels men to stupid manly endeavors. Endeavors that either result in a comical or ironic death, or a dusty little corner in the cubbyhole of history. Read more…

Day 964: The Engineering Of Consent

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To be perfectly clear, Edward Bernays was not in advertising. Yes, he was hired by companies, corporations and entire industries to convince the public that they should buy a given product, but there’s a fundamental philosophical difference here. Advertisers want the public to accept a product or service, and then to pay for it. Edward Bernays made use of the public’s sense of morality or their collectively accepted world-view, then manipulated those as needed in order to get us to pay for a product or service.

The correct term for Bernays’ life’s work is ‘public relations’. To say that Bernays invented P.R. would not be an overstatement – in fact, he helped to coin the term in the early 1900’s, and subsequently taught the first course on the subject at New York University in 1923. That we presently live in a society that can be manipulated and swayed by an expertly-placed pile of verbal bullshit is, in part, Bernays’ fault.

But don’t hold it against the guy. He changed the world – and in particular the North American way of life – more than almost anybody else in the 20th century. You may have never heard of him, but you have almost certainly conformed to his machinations, even if only subconsciously. As long as he gets to you – that’s all he needs.

He even has me convinced that's a real mustache.

He even has me convinced that’s a real mustache.

Sigmund Freud, the great grand-pappy of psycho-analysis, was perched upon two branches of Edward Bernays’ family tree. His mother was Anna, Sigmund’s sister, and his father was Sigmund’s wife’s brother. As such, it is little surprise that psychology wormed its way into everything Bernays did. Beginning as a press agent in 1913, fresh out of Cornell University, Bernays tweaked the concept of the ‘press release’ (which at the time was only a few years old) into something magical. Read more…

Day 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

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What can be said of a criminal mastermind? I’d always been deterred from a life of misdeeds by my utter conviction that I’d be lousy at it, and that the inevitable consequences of such a career are either prison, demise by the hand of the swarthy hero, or if one is lucky, a paranoid, skittish retirement. With my luck, I’d be foiled by some cartoonish gaggle of meddling kids and their talking stoner-dog.

Some of history’s most capable crooks have piqued my interest throughout this project, more out of my fascination at the tenacious longevity and the sometimes-cinematic flair with which they’d plied their trade. While I don’t aspire to join their ranks, I do envy how they have crafted their own good fortune.

The key here is that the criminals about whom I’ve written are famous – or at minimum, famous enough to warrant at least a brief Wikipedia page. But shouldn’t the truly successful master-crooks still be anonymous to us, even after the final curtain of death has ushered them off the mortal stage? Perhaps. But I believe a case can be made for the exquisite professionalism and enduring evil genius of those bad guys whose names nonetheless appear in print – even those who have risen to become legends. Take, for instance, the near-perfect vocational aptitude of the 19th-century criminal genius, Adam Worth.

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Adam turned to a life of crime as soon as he’d been kicked off the grid. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Adam ran away from home at ten, then at seventeen he lied about his age so he could join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. After getting wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Adam learned he’d been listed as Killed In Action by accident. He took advantage of his premature death and disappeared.

He found easy work as a bounty jumper; he’d be paid off by citizens to sign up for the army in their name, then after he’d collected his army paycheck he’d flit back to the shadows. Adam pulled this off several times, never getting caught, though he did attract some attention. Local law enforcement was in no position to help out the armed forces, but a new type of heroic protagonist had emerged on the scene in the form of Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s was the first private investigation firm in American history, and they were happy to chase after Adam Worth and the other bounty jumping scum who were profiting from military desertion.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI's swarthy mustache.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI’s swarthy mustache.

The war ended, and Adam settled into the pickpocket business in New York. He was an entrepreneur, however, soon acquiring his own gang of pickpockets, and working his way up to little robberies and heists. Well-known criminal fence Marm Mandelbaum took Adam under her wing, helping him plan more elaborate capers. At Mendelbaum’s request, Adam helped to tunnel under the soil outside the White Plains jail in order to liberate safecracker Charley Bullard. Charley and Adam became close friends and partners in their nefarious deeds. Read more…

Day 960: Day Three of Peace & Music

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“And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.

And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.”

 

As the bone-soaked and weary revelers packed together their tin-foil hash pipes, their mud-crusty jean-shorts and their near-sentient hangovers to leave the festival, one wonders if the historic weight of their experience could be fathomed among any of them. Leaving a grisly wake of discarded garments, blankets so infused with dirt and sweat they could never be clean again, and a weekend’s worth of rubble from the small city that rose and fell upon Max Yasgur’s farm over four days, they likely had other things on their minds.

Would their parents be worried? Those whose jobs necessitated a Monday appearance had likely been trapped in Bethel, New York until the crowd was ready to disperse – would they still have employment upon their return? No doubt a handful were wondering how they’d describe the wondrous soul-swoosh of the previous weekend to their friends and family serving overseas in Vietnam, or if they’d ever get the chance.

Judging by the overwhelming jubilance witnessed in the Woodstock documentary film, some may have tasted the optimistic truth that such massive accumulations of good vibes are possible, and that a few more parties like this might end the war and straighten up humankind’s preternatural bent toward self-destruction. Could any of them have foreseen the generation’s collective retreat from idealism and decay into boring ol’ adulthood?

And how were they going to clean this mess without the use of flame-throwers?

And how were they going to clean this mess without the use of flame-throwers?

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Love Generation, when Free Love meant death from AIDS, when the only war we could protest was the UN’s righteous removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and when drugs were not – as we were told – a liberating force, but rather the egg goop that would sizzle upon the frying pans of our brains, Woodstock became an ideal. We watched the movie, we found the music more engaging than M.C. Hammer’s instructions of what we can and cannot touch, and we subsequently glorified the festival and its citizens. Where was our Woodstock? Read more…

Day 959: Day Two Of Peace & Music

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Said I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock & roll band.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

 

Somewhere amid the cultural symbolism and the anthemic declarations of a generation’s identity lies the actual music performed at the Woodstock festival. Contrasting that weekend with the tighter and more disciplined Monterey Pop Festival from two years earlier reveals an evolution in rock culture: the glittering aftermath of psychedelia, the re-blossoming of foundational blues and folk through rock-tinted lenses, and the collective embrace of instrumental mastery.

The Who sent jaws dropping to the dusty floor in ’67 when Pete Townsend assaulted his guitar into pieces; at Woodstock they were neck-deep in exploring the possibility of rock-opera. The Jefferson Airplane soared on the strength of their early hits at Monterey; two years later their music was more introspective and demure. Soul music, which had tickled the Monterey crowd to the tune of Otis Redding, Lou Rawls and Booker T. & The MG’s, had rocketed into the realm of cosmic funk by 1969, with Sly & The Family Stone representing. And Janis… well she was just Janis. No higher compliment could be given.

Some of the Woodstock performances were iconic. Others were merely adequate. Then there was Sha Na Na, which fit into the vibe of the festival like a can of tuna fits onto a dessert cart. But the music is unquestionably the skeleton that gives the experience its historic form and structure.

Just imagine what could have been.

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A number of acts were either rumored or invited, but never made the bill. Bob Dylan, the poet-rebel of the Newport Folk Festival four years earlier, was the most logical invitee. He lived near Bethel in the actual town of Woodstock, but he’d already committed to the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of the month. Shiny new superstars Led Zeppelin were selected, but promoter Frank Barsalona didn’t want his band to be just another name on the bill. The Doors figured it would be a second-rate Monterey Pop so they turned it down, an act that guitarist Robby Krieger claimed they later regretted. Read more…