Posts from 5th December 2004

5
Dec 04

A JOHN WATERS CHRISTMAS

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A JOHN WATERS CHRISTMAS

I just love that phrase. It shouldn’t exist per se and yet there it is, and the link takes you to, among the other things, the cover art, which is even better. It’s what caught my attention a couple of weeks ago when I was in Amoeba in LA looking through their Xmas section — I always buy one Xmas album per year as a matter of course, and while I had picked up the two Projekt holiday singles already, I wanted an album, wasn’t sure what to get, then all of a sudden saw this. I didn’t think twice.

It’s not John himself singing or talking about Christmas or anything (though at the same time I would love to read an essay about his holidays growing up, maybe it already exists!), instead it’s a collection of a bunch of holiday songs that are just a little off or odd or forgotten, regional hits, deserved obscurities, a couple of unexpected homeruns even. Think of it as a soundtrack album to what a seventies JW version of A Christmas Carol might have been, with Divine as Scrooge and David Lochary as Tiny Tim and Edith Massey as the Ghost of Christmas Past. (There is the great Christmas sequence at the start of Female Trouble, at least.)

His essay on the selections is worth it as well, but the music foremost — naming everything would require a full essay, so suffice to say that I have three flat out new favorite Christmas songs, Tiny Tim’s utterly winning “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva burning down the house with “I Wish You a Merry Christmas” and AKIM and the Teddy Vann Production Company’s stupefyingly great “Santa Claus is a Black Man,” which on a single with James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” might be the ultimate antithesis to everything Mannheim Steamroller ever tried for this time of year.

And then there’s the kitsch. OH GOD. And John Waters knows what he’s doing when he picked these. Little Cindy’s gloptastic “Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child’s Prayer)” is some horrifying artifact of mid-century religious sentiment that will make you want to kill and slay. Roger Christian’s “Little Mary Christmas,” meanwhile, packs it ALL in — dead parents, an orphan, a CRIPPLED orphan, the threat of death! There’s a happy ending but ANY ending would have been happy. Meanwhile, I don’t know if the Chipmunks doing “Sleigh Ride” is kitsch or just a welcome change from hearing that damned Christmas song of theirs again.

And yes Virginia! There’s NO “Santa Got Run Over By a Reindeer!” If only this comp was longer (full price at half an hour is a bit much) then it’d be flawless. As it stands, fave new Christmas album of this year by a long shot. (If you’re in San Francisco, he’ll be signing copies at Amoeba on the 11th.)

THE DADDINO FAMILY TREASURY OF CHRISTMASES PAST

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THE DADDINO FAMILY TREASURY OF CHRISTMASES PAST
Christmas 1972

L-R: Nanny, Mom, Uncle John

Nanny wasn’t anyone’s nanny but my maternal grandmother; likewise, Uncle John was my maternal great-uncle. Grandpa (maternal grandfather) and Aunt Millie (maternal great-aunt) you’ll see later. Collectively, my stepdad called them (not unfondly) “the old folks.”

They had a powerful sense of attachment. Both couples lived in the same Brooklyn house for years; later, not long after my parents moved out to Long Island, they moved, too — only a mile away from us in a nice little two-story apartment complex, and again, right next door to each other. (Later my paternal grandmother would move to the same apartment complex only a few doors down.) Subsequently, they were always around us. Always. Nanny and Millie took care of the family wash, Grandpa and Uncle John would do manly odd jobs around the house, and and all of them picking up some of the loose ends of household management and child-rearing: feeding, shopping, transport, amusement, protection, dotage. Or they would just, you know, “hang out” and read the paper, have a cup of tea, watch the stock market returns on our cable TV, and so on. Friends sometimes cluck in envy that, unlike their own family members who’ve passed away early, leaving only a sad vague trace of remembrance and some old photos (if that), I knew my grandparents. (In comparison, my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, is as much of a cipher as most of my other relatives.) The other side of the coin…well, the kind way of putting it is that they often drove the family crazy in a kind of Everybody Loves Raymond sort of way.

Anyway…what is my mom laughing at? It’s not clear from the photo, and the ones before and after don’t reveal anything. (Such an odd-looking laugh, too, with the arms and hands so delicately out-stretched, suggesting an over-rationalized response.) I’ve asked her and she doesn’t remember. She thinks she might be reacting to me or my brothers opening a gift, and if that’s the case, it sure would’ve been nice to see exactly what (there are not nearly enough pictures of toys in our collection, which shows you where my priorities are). The switch in photography from flash-powder formality to point-and-click immediacy has encouraged a much more casual relationship between the frontal lobe and the trigger finger; consequently, in any Western family’s photo library there is always a healthy percentage of photos like this which are completely inexplicable to anyone involved. Why this reaction? Why this gift and not that one? Why then and not a little later? Why the food and the immaculate set table and not that expensive toy? Why? Why? Why? Nobody can remember. We get to experience the echo but not the actual gunshot. (And yet a photo is itself an echo.) But we do get my mom’s crazy-ass patchwork maxiskirt (Which she still has! Which by all rights oughta be on someone’s waist in My Comrade‘s next issue!) and a really blank wall which seems to hover over the three like existential doom.

THE ADVENT CALENDAR OF CHRISTMAS FILMS 5: The Snowman

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There was much controversy about allowing TV specials into this list. I allowed them via the justification that most of these films were seen on the TV in the first place. I just did not want to seperate that viewing experience. And whilst The Snowman is a bit short for a feature (at 50 minutes) it does everything else magnificently.

Raymond Briggs’ original is a wonderful wordless comic. To bring that to life we have what is fundamentally a silent animated movie – and the silence of the characters is countermanded by the remarkably expressive animation. It is not actually silent, and much of peoples memories of the film will be tied up with Walking In The Air. Okay, its got Classic FM written all over it but it is a magical Christmas moment when Briggs artwork meshes perfectly with that Aled Jones voice. A film which calls out for Ginger Wine.

Though “I’m Singing Very High” was a better song.

Merry Christmas Titan!

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Merry Christmas Titan! — though the gift will be delivered late. A quick check on the Cassini-Huygens mission (all’s going ridiculously well so far, next Titan flyby in seven days) shows that the Huygens probe will be released on December 25, with it arriving at Titan three weeks later. It really has been an astonishing year in terms of solar system exploration — Spirit and Opportunity on Mars (Spirit has lasted over 300 Martian days, which is really just wonderful), the seeming disaster of the Genesis solar wind probe return apparently mitigated by some excellent recovery work, the launch of the Mercury Messenger probe and Cassini’s flawless work at Saturn so far — that a successful separation of Huygens would be the perfect topper. Roll on 2005!

Napoleon, for the eight millionth time

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Napoleon, for the eight millionth time — every so often I get a fit to revisit a subject I already know about and enjoy, partially to see what alternate perspectives or different foci could provide, and while I’m not a Napoleon fanatic I am a history buff, so the return of two separate texts recently at the library — Nigel Nicolson’s Napoleon 1812, published in 1985, and Alistair Horne’s Napoleon: Master of Europe 1805-1807, from 1979 — were unexpected pleasures. Quick reads and not necessarily surprising in and of themselves, they still provide enjoyable enough takes on the subject, even when Horne readily admits in his foreword (an amusing piece of self-justification that says more about Britain in the 1970s than Europe in the 1800s) that he’s creating another book to join ‘the three hundred thousand already existing.’

Nicolson’s is the more focused, a study of the 1812 Russian campaign that has since been a byword for disaster. Intriguingly, to my mind at least, in a brief space Nicolson does his best to view both sides of the campaign as essentially unsure of what to do — Napoleon focused on a goal but nowhere near as apt as he once was to know how to achieve it, the Russians under Kutuzov led by someone who was both inspired and cautious, and often bitterly criticized by his staff. It’s a portrayal of a war of attrition and desperation, where the winter wreaked just as much havoc among the Russians as the French, but at least one group knew how to function in it. The book also sheds light on obscurer figures, perhaps the most truly heroic being a French engineer whose desparate work with his corps enabled the remnants of Napoleon’s forces to escape Russian territory via improvised bridges over the Beresina river.

Horne has a broader scale and a chattier range, as it were, less focused on a military campaign as it is a general overview of European society — it’s a proudly Anglophilic history, self-consciously so, where in the opening chapters it’s less about Napoleon than it is the English resistance to him, detailing plans and actions done to prepare for the invasion that never actually occurred. The character of Pitt the Younger is studies in detail, there’s talk of the political cartooonists of the time, Horne takes the time to quote Churchill talking about the time so he can then talk, at least briefly, about Churchill. The focus does at least return eventually to Napoleon and his campaigns of triumph — the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz, then of Jena and so forth — leading up to the meeting at the Tilsit between he and Alexander of Russia, arguably his highest point of success. The discursiveness and addiction to anecdotes, while seemingly deadly for a book so small, actually helps keep it from being too bald, and it’s one of the more picture happy of such texts I’ve seen — including a slew of images I’d never seen before, so that was a nice change.

All that said, though, I’d recommend Alan Schom’s extremely critical biography for a detailed if lengthy read. While criticized in turn for lacking balance, the book does an excellent job at stripping away cant to focus on a core fact, namely that in the service of Napoleon’s desire for power and control, hundreds of thousands died, yet even more raped, wounded and maimed for life, and that it’s easier to be fascinated by power and war from a safe distance. The Code Napoleon was paid for in blood.

The Advent Calendar Of Comics: Dec 5

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The Advent Calendar Of Comics: Dec 5

The Blue Bayou (ribbit ribbit — sorry, obscure

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The Blue Bayou (ribbit ribbit — sorry, obscure Muppet Show joke)
located in Disneyland

As mentioned elsewhere, I ended up at Disneyland yesterday and among other things, thanks to a reservation from friend Julie, had lunch at what I still think is one of the best spots in the place for any kind of food, the Blue Bayou. Unlike many of the other grazing grounds in the place and thereabouts, it’s directly integrated with the start of one of the rides, and one of the classic ones at that, the Pirates of the Carribean (and to their credit, as yet none of the figures have been replaced with, say, Orlando Bloom). It’s part of the whole New Orleans Square setup, and really it’s best visited during summer — the start of the ride is meant to be the swampy Louisiana bayou at night, lots of cricket sounds and fireflies and delicious murkiness, and where the tables are is like a ‘riverfront’ view across to the departing boats. So coming into this setting from a hot summer’s day is just grand, while at night it’s even better atmosphere. Visiting during a colder winter day isn’t quite so striking a contrast but it’s still pretty good in the hyperreal Disney fashion.

Thing is, for the longest time food here and food most ANYWHERE in Disneyland was a byword for bland. Understandable, perhaps — the idea that in order to cater to America/the world, you couldn’t accidentally offend or spook anyone, so stick with the utterly generic. So while there were such vaguely regional cuisine spots like the Blue Bayou around, nothing too esoteric was served and/or everything was near totally spiceless. Horrifying, really. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that my jambalaya had actual bite to it, and everyone confirmed that similarly spicy dishes actually WERE spicy. Julie, a Disneyland aficionado, noted that things had improved over the years on this front, and I suspect it has more than a little to do with the inculcation of modern food/cooking TV culture, for better or for worse — after the success of Emeril, a place allegedly serving the best of New Orleans food would actually need to taste the part. Combined with the actually quite good clam chowder — it was served at a perfect temperature — I found myself having the first enjoyable meal at Disneyland ever, to my memory.

Mind you, the mint juleps served there are still nonalcoholic. But there are margaritas over in the California Adventure park.

VIVISECTING

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VIVISECTING ALEXANDER — Oliver Stone’s purest folly — or at least the one I’ve directly experienced, as I’ve avoided a good slew of his films precisely because I didn’t like the other ones — was never going to be viewed by me as anything other than ridiculousness and the joy that comes with operating on a patient without anaesthetic (if you will). It actually was never going to be viewed by me at all but then I read the cast list and saw some of the promo photos and the historian buff in me was horrified (Alexander himself has been a figure of fascination to me since I was eight or so) but the bad movie fan was thrilled. Ridiculously campy idiocy? The modern Showgirls? Hell, the modern CLEOPATRA? No Taylor and Burton but wasn’t Anthony Hopkins supposed to be the next Burton anyway, even if he wasn’t the lead here?

So having recruited a few friends to join in with me as a Thanksgiving eve treat, we made vague plans to get a bit drunk beforehand and then see all three hours of the damn thing. We didn’t get drunk enough, we realized, and more to the point we had to deal with a crowd. Except it wasn’t much of a crowd, more a half-full (in a VERY tiny theater, considering) assemblage of people who…well, I couldn’t tell what or why they were there, which may seem obvious. Still, they mostly seemed in their forties or older…dedicated Stone fans since Platoon? Colin Farrell fanatics? It all seemed very studious, like a slew of folks who normally only watch the History Channel came to see a movie before going home and then watching Charlie Rose on PBS.

So that left us as the only four people in the theater who, as far as I could tell, came to be entertained. As the movie proved to be a damp squib all around — it wasn’t good, of course, but neither was it scintillatingly bad, with only moments of hysteria rather than a royal procession of same — the four of us whispered and commented and snarled to each other about Stone’s inability to end a scene and Farrell’s dewy-eyed roaring (strange but true) and Jared Leto’s eyeliner. At no point were we told to shut up — nobody was sitting next to us, which helped, but I suspect, based on the groans that escaped from elsewhere during particularly egregiously dumb parts, that they wanted to join in (a feeling confirmed by their post-movie complaints and quick fleeing at the end credits). But I think we felt like we couldn’t be as catcalling as was deserved, as after all we’re all aware that there are limits in a movie theatre and have dealt with obnoxious patrons before. Maybe we should have waited a week or two and then we really would have been the only people in the theatre.

DISNEYLAND AT CHRISTMAS

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DISNEYLAND AT CHRISTMAS

You read that right, and to some it may suggest unnerving horror and to others the exact means of perfection, and so forth. To talk about it in huge detail would be worthy and maybe I’ll yet do that in the essay section, so Andrew Farrell won’t cast an askance eye at me. ;-)

But more seriously — friend Thea had suggested it to me because she’s going to be moving with her husband to London next month, and wanted to do one of a series of going-away adventures and the like. So she and her two friends Amy and Julie and I decamped over there yesterday. I had been there in October for the first time in 13 years so I knew what to generally expect, but I hadn’t even been there during December, and it was…well, very well lit.

Perhaps the most specific thing to talk about for now would be the fireworks display, which Disneyland has every night as a matter of course. So for the holiday they transmogrify it, much like much else in the park, into something called “Believe in the Spirit of Christmas” or the like, I forget the details, and Disneyland being what it is, there were announcements from mysterious speakers and towers as the time drew near. Julie, a Disneyland addict, suggested watching from near Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Haunted Mansion, which we did.

The display was good enough, I’ve seen better and worse but it was a masterpiece of synchronization to the music (which amusingly included a brief Hanukkah section with white and blue fireworks — something about the marginalization of that just seemed, you know, so American), but the creepy parts came at the beginning and end, reminding me of the bizarre Big Brotherish bits of the NYC July 4 firework experience I caught last year. A generic old woman voice delivered all sorts of trembly voiced reflections on ‘do you remember the spirit of the season?’ and urged us to ‘believe,’ while there was an opening and closing metapopDisneyballad that was effective in a state of the art way but still bizarro on the other as whoever it was (Lohan? Duff? Vanessa Williams?) sang about all the nostalgia hot buttons, hot chocolate and snow and ginger bread and OH GOD MAKE IT STOP. Some things aren’t camp, they’re just unsettling.

Mind you, I was amused by the snowfall at the end of the display. Sure it was a bunch of clumps of tiny bubbles and all but they drifted down out of the sky from those towers so it had to be Disneyland magic! Eep.

Quick ILXor.com update

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Quick ILXor.com update — just in case anyone’s been wondering (I’ve received a slew of e-mails asking!), Andrew G., who oversees the machine in Melbourne, Australia, is aware of the machine shutdown but won’t be able to investigate until Monday morning his time. Please hold tight until then and read all the FT blogs and comment instead. :-)