Friday, November 29, 2013

Best Thanksgiving Movie: "Broadway Danny Rose"

A lesser-known (?) movie by Woody Allen, Broadway Danny Rose (1984) is a perfect little gem. I place it high in my [as yet unwritten] list of 100 favorite films, and it's my favorite film set at Thanksgiving (well, along with Rocky).

Here's loser Danny Rose delivering his self-improvement advice:
"Look in the mirror and say your 3 S's: Star, Smile, Strong":

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Me cooking, Marz decorating, and birds bathing on the back porch

Thank you for being your wonderful selves, blog friends!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Me, Bruce, and a Turkey

I'm hardly ever home alone, living as I do with a friend in a little apartment that's part of a house owned and occupied by a friendly family.

The family has left for Thanksgiving, though, and Marz is at work, so, I've cranked up Born in the USA while I've been turkey wrangling: WHY do they stick the giblets in the turkey, so you have to stick your hand inside its cold cavity and wrest them out? (Isn't giblets a cute word for "edible fowl offal.")

The turkey is now soaking in a citrus marinade of o.j., lime juice, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and spices. It's the same marinade used in parts of Latin America to flavor pork.
From here: citrus-marinated turkey.

 If I had to choose an American song for Thanksgiving, I'd choose something by Bruce Springsteen--maybe Land of Hope and Dreams, a hymn of promise and lament.

Here's a little love from Bruce & Clarence, to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

More kisses here

Monday, November 25, 2013

Storyboard Research

 Found it.

"Looking at War: Photography’s view of devastation and death," by Susan Sontag, New Yorker, December 9, 2002.

That's the article my mother had left spread open to its centerfold photos on the table next to the bed where she died.

My siblings had gone into our mother's apartment the day before I had–– (of course public servants, bless them, had already taken my mother's body away)––so I didn't see the original scene. Lytton didn't leave a note (contrary to myth, lots of people who kill themselves don't), but she did leave some meaningful things around, including this magazine article.

Yesterday, I decided to hunt it down.
My sister said the article was a photo essay of 20th century genocide. This fits  my mother-- the Nazi concentration camps were central to her view of humanity.
But it took some googling to find the article because it wasn't exactly that---it was an article by Susan Sontag on photography and war. I found the article online, but without any photographs. Still, it had to be the one; the issue was the week of Lytton's death. 

To make sure, I took the bus down to the library, which happily is open Sunday afternoons. A librarian showed me where old magazines are kept in the open stacks. 
(Civilization. Sometimes it works.)

I opened the volume of bound New Yorkers from fall of 2002, and sure enough, there was the photo spread.

Doing background research for my LVD project is taking me places I hadn't been ready to go in the 11 years since Lytton's death. With huge relief, I'm finding that I can look at some hard stuff around my mother's death without being paralyzed for days afterward.

But what to do with stuff such as this?
Now I have my painting project, I have a place to put this, but in what form? 

I couldn't stand to watercolor copy the photographs. I don't even want to reproduce them. (You've probably seen many of them, or ones like them---they are by famous photo journalists such as Gilles Peres, who photographed in Rwanda and Bosnia.)

Yesterday morning, I'd been talking to Joanna about the old question, how to handle the material of other people's lives? Am I exposing my mother too much?

And Joanna said, "Well, but this project is about you."

I'm not sure what this project is, or what it will turn out to be, but it's not a biography of LVD.

In many ways, it's starting to feel like film-making: 
you get a big idea, and then you have to come up with illustrating the idea in very concrete ways. I like seeing film director's storyboards---where they work out the setting and the action.

It came to me that I can storyboard me going to the library. I don't have anything to say about genocide or war photography. But I can show a daughter, me, doing research into the background of her mother's life, which is, in part, also her own.

I can't, however, draw from memory. So, today I am going to take the bus back downtown to photograph the library. 
Storyboard from The Sound of Music, the first movie I remember seeing in a theater:

From "Storyboards from 15 Beloved Films," in the Atlantic. They aren't always this artistic--I like Scorsese's scratchy sketches for Taxi Driver.  

For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tea Leaf

I ask myself, why bother to paint these images, when I could just photo-collage them? 
But something happens during the time it takes to paint a photo. This time, halfway through copying my mother's obituary, I felt I was painting a picture of myself. I don't think of myself as looking much like her, but sometimes I see the resemblence.

My siblings wrote the obituary, which is entirely factual (I shortened it here), except for the bit of psalm at the end. 
It's fine; it's what they wanted, but I would have made it more personal. (I'd also have used the King James version, which I know our mother loved: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...")

Painting it now, I've made it my own.

I couldn't stand to paint bullet flowers, after all. Instead, I based the border on the "tea leaf" china pattern. I have some dishes with this pattern from my mother, who inherited them from her mother, Meribel, who collected them. 

Stone and Bone

I looked the tea leaf pattern up: it was a very common one, made in England for export, often by the Alfred Meakin pottery in Staffordshire. 

And sure enough, that's the name on the underside of my plates: 
Royal Ironstone China
 Alfred Meakin.
I like the periods. (More on Meakin, here.)

What's ironstone?
Hard, strong, white earthenware––distinctive for containing iron slag as one of its ingredients–– developed in the 1800s by potters in Staffordshire, England, as a cheaper, mass-produced alternative for porcelain.

Um, so what's porcelain?
"Porcelain is a ceramic made by heating materials, generally including kaolin clay, to temperatures between 2,192 ºF and 2,552 °F. The toughness, strength, and translucence of porcelain arise mainly from the formation of glass within the fired body at these high temperatures.

Porcelain's name comes from old Italian porcellana (cowrie shell) because of its resemblance to the translucent surface of the shell, which appar. was likened to the vulva of a sow, n. use of feminine of porcellano of a young sow =porcell(a)"

China is called china because porcelain was invented in China in 200 BC.

Bone china includes ash from animal (cattle) bones, the strength of which makes it possible to create very thin china. 

[I cobbled together much of the above info from various Wikipedia entries.]

Thursday, November 21, 2013

LVD Project Research

I've started doing some background research on the life and times of LVD (my mother, Lytton Virginia Davis), for this, this... whatever it is I'm doing, water-coloring pictures about her. 

This art project. 
Painting her life in pictures (from the perspective of knowing it ended with her shooting herself dead). The great thing about pictures, of course, is you don't have to rely on words, which are insufficient on their own.

My time is pretty open right now, and I've been feeling a little unpleasantly aimless. What, I thought, if I dignified this project with the same research I give to my hack work?  

When I was working on the geography series for kids––(the books kids use to write reports about countries, or used to use, before the Internet)––I read novels, watched films, cooked recipes, listened to music from the country I was writing about, even though little or none of that would make it into the book. 

But I was interested, and maybe that made the books a bit better, though honestly, I'm not sure it did. I'm afraid it may have contributed clutter and confusion rather than clarity.
(Of course that's reality: countries, and people, are cluttered and confused, but it wasn't the intent of the series to show that.) 

Anyway, I thought I might plunk in here some of the background stuff I dig up.
Like, this is the cover of the Life magazine my father was holding in my "LIFE" watercolor. 
It's the 25th anniversary issue, from December 26, 1960:

 This double-tulip silver pin by Georg Jensen is not the one my mother is wearing in that same picture, but it is one she owned. 


Research is fun, but this story can get pretty cruddy sometimes. I caught a cold a couple days ago. Not to make too much of this; it is November, after all. Still, getting a stuffed-up head felt about right.

I'm not sure how to handle some of the darker stuff about my mother's life and death, both for my sake, hers, and any viewers'.
It's not a question of whether or not to depict anything really graphically disturbing. I'm not interested in that myself: I never looked at the police photos of the death scene, for instance.
But there are some hard parts that I want to depict, and it feels right and fitting to depict them. 

I'd already found images of her gun a couple years ago (wrote about it here). Yesterday I googled images of hollow-tip bullets, which she used.

I found these surprising photos of the bullets after impact: they open up like flower petals. 

These horrible things are pretty, aren't they? They remind me of the floral design on this Japanese manhole cover.

I think I'll use them as a border for the obituary I'm water-coloring, if I can stand to.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


 I told Marz I wasn't sure I could handle painting my mother, it made me feel so heavy, and she said, why don't you paint her things?

1956 Buick, lipstick (orangey), Marlboro cigarettes

Monday, November 18, 2013


My mother, 7-months pregnant with me, and my father (1961) 

Not sure what I'm going to do with these watercolors, but when I've finished a bunch, I'd like to add words somehow...

Meanwhile, I am liking spending time with the images, as I copy them. Details come to the fore, like the brooch my mother is wearing. I think it's a piece by Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, which my sister has now.

Where did it come from in the first place, I wonder. Maybe my father will know. Though my mother left the family in 1974, my father remembers all sorts of details.
Otherwise, there is no one left to ask.

Friday, November 15, 2013


My mother, Lytton(a) Virginia Davis, twenty-one years old (1955)

This winter solstice will be the 11th anniversary of my mother's suicide. I've been wanting to do some sort of project about her for the past few years, to spend some time with her life (and death). Every time I've done anything, though, the push-back was too strong, like trying to approach a fire.

Now a set of watercolors feels doable; I've managed two so far, anyway, without melting from the emotional heat.

Art as asbestos?

My friend Anita says, "There's nothing so scary you can't draw it."


Watercolor from a still of a home movie of us at the circus (1964).
My mother helps me feed peanuts to an elephant, while my sister looks on. 
I still remember how softly the elephant touched my hand.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Le Havre"

Filmmakers who bother to cast a dog as a character... do they always make better films?

Probably not, but dogs feature in Finnish moviemaker Aki Kaurismaki's films The Man Without a Past (2003) and Le Havre (2011), and 
I love both films, which are about people being decent, even loving, in grim circumstances.
And his women characters are real people too. Actress Kati Outinen (above in Man Without a Past) is in both films.

They fit in the category I made up to describe a kind of art I like, the OK, We're Fucked; Now What? category, when the answer is somehow, even slightly, positive.

Kaurismaki even says as much, calling Le Havre a semi-realistic fairy tale: "The more pessimistic I feel, the more optimistic I need to make my movies. That’s my refuge."

The movies are beautiful too: Karuismaki sets scenes up like paintings. I highly recommend both films.

SYNOPSIS from the film's website:

In this warmhearted portrait of the French harbor city that gives the film its name, fate throws young African refugee Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) into the path of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a well-spoken bohemian who works as a shoeshiner. With innate optimism and the unwavering support of his community, Marcel stands up to officials doggedly pursuing the boy for deportation. A political fairy tale that exists somewhere between the reality of contemporary France and the classic cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville and Marcel Carné, Le Havre is a charming, deadpan delight.

dir. Aki Kaurismäki / France/Finland 2011 / Color / 35mm / 1.85 / Dolby SRD / 93 min / in French with English subtitles

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Making Our Marks; ...also, Wombats in Victorian England

Doesn't Cy Twombly's name match his scribbly art so well, like he's a talented wombat with vertigo and some sticks of carbon?

I've always liked Twombly's scratchy marks, and I like them even more in this era of smooth computer images.

This photo (by Mario Dondero) of him scritching on canvas makes me want to go home and mark up some paper. 

BELOW: Center panel of Twombly's triptych 
"Three studies from the Temeraire"
You can see it whole (and read art jargon about it, if you like that sort of thing ) here: Art Gallery of NSW.

Even though these are named after Turner's Temeraire from the early 1800s, to me they look like ships out of Homer. 

I've written before--here--about how Turner's painting of the Temeraire being hauled off against a setting sun looks like the starship Enterprise going down in flames in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (really vice versa, of course).

I don't see any of that sadness or loss in Twombly's tritych: to me it looks more like it's about bravery:
How brave we humans can be, launching out into the unknown, whether that's a sea or outer space or an empty piece of paper.

Making our marks. 
Turns out it is illegal to mention wombats without a picture of one. 
So, keeping with the theme of marks on paper, here is a drawing by British painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti of his beloved Jane Morris with a wombat, 1869:
--from the British Museum
Rossetti really had a pet wombat; two, in fact. 
Here is the text of a  scholarly lecture that seriously, yet hilariously, considers the question, "Why were Rossetti and his protégés so interested in wombats?": 
"Rossetti's Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England"

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Scariest WPA Poster

Yes, the clowns (post below) were scary, but when I found this among other WPA posters, I thought it was even more terrifying. I feel its message is just right for today, Veteran's Day:

Burt Lancaster, The WPA Circus, & Trapeze (film)

I. Burt Lancaster and the Circus

After going to see Trapeze (1956) on the big screen (!) last night, I got wondering more about Burt Lancaster as a circus performer.

Lancaster was a circus acrobat when he was in his twenties. Lancaster  performed aerialist acts in the WPA circus too, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

Here he is in Trapeze (left), and in his circus days:

Below: "Aerealist Burt Lancaster" and his circus partner, Nick Cravat, from the Library of Congress:

I found some other photos of the WPA Circus too.

Below: Purchasing tickets to FTP's Circus in New York City, photo from George Mason Univ. SC&A

Lancaster and his partner Nick Cravat performed a pole act too, like this one:

"Tightrope Walker"
WPA Fed Theatre Project Circus in NY 1935

From the LOC site:

"The Circus Unit was part of the larger Variety Unit of the FTP. Employing as many as 250 performers in 60 acts, circuses toured regionally and drew huge crowds that included both the young and old.
Many of the performers, such as Katie Sandwina, known as the world’s strongest woman, had been in the circus for years, but the ranks also included individuals who had unique talents that were not typical of those who performed in traditional theater.
Performers included clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers, cyclists, and aerialists—one notable example is Burt Lancaster, shown here, who began his career as an aerialist.
Although few animals performed—Hallie Flanagan stated “There were no elephants on relief”—there was one elephant in the FTP named “Japino,” seen on the image loop in this exhibition. At some point, Japino escaped and was accidently returned to Barnum and Bailey Circus, who quickly returned the escapee to its rightful owner."

BELOW: "Burt Lancaster with fellow circus performer on parallel bars, between 1935 and 1939. Photograph. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (038.01.00)
From the Library of Congress

BELOW: Rope dancer, WPA Circus, 1935, Fed Theatre Project Circus in New York, NY--from the New Deal Network (more performance photos there)

I went searching for more info & images of the WPA circus.

From The Paris Review, review of "Circus and the City: New York, 1793–2010":
"The Federal Government stepped in to keep the New York circus alive during the depression. Under the auspice of the Federal Theatre Project, the WPA Circus employed 375 performers, and entertained millions of New Yorkers, 1935 to 1939." 
II. The WPA Circus: Posters 

The WPA Circus was part of the Federal Theatre Project, funded by the $4 billion works program appropriation by Congress in April 1935. 

The two posters (below) that I found for the WPA Circus are pretty scary.

ABOVE: From the Library of Congress's collection of WPA Posters
ABOVE: “The World’s Greatest Circus / Under the Big Tent… ,” 1936. Silkscreen poster, printed by the Poster Division, Federal Theatre, New York City. Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
III. WPA–Sponsored Circus-Themed Art

ABOVE: "Circus Performance" (WPA), lithograph by Lester O. Schwartz 
--from Annex Galleries (of American prints)   

"Barbara Warren was the blockprinting design foreman for the WPA's Milwaukee Handicrafts division. One of the most diverse and progressive branches of the Work Projects Administration, Milwaukee Handicrafts employed thousands of women and African Americans who were otherwise unable to find work during the Great Depression. They designed and manufactured household goods ranging from textiles to books, as well as dolls, toys, and costumes for local theater." 
ABOVE: "The Circus," 1938, photograph of a mural created by Albert Sumter Kelly for the children's ward at Lincoln Hospital, NYC for the Federal Art Project
--from the Smithonian's Archives of American Art

ABOVE: "Circus Queen" by Harry Leroy Taskey, lithograph, 1936, done for the NYC-WPA with their stamp lower left
ABOVE: "Side Show", lithograph by Basil HawkinsMichigan artist active as a printmaker on the WPA
IV. The WPA Circus: Photos of people attending a WPA circus

ABOVE: Children at WPA festival in Sheep Meadow, Central Park, May 2, 1936. Photograph. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
--from Antiques & Auction News review of "Circus and the City" exhibition

BELOW: Note the boy on the left looking into the camera:

ABOVE: both photos of the WPA circus from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum (#2 and #3 on the list of images)
V. TRAPEZE (film)

Trapeze was much better than I expected: I enjoyed it a lot. 
I should have known it would be good: it was directed by Carol Reed, who seven years earlier had directed the classic The Third Man (1949). 

Both movies are about close male friendships. 

Below left: Tony Curtis as the flyer and Burt Lancaster as the catcher in Trapeze (1956)
Below right: Joseph Cotten & Orson Welles on a Ferris wheel in The Third Man

Here's a fun blog post about what an incredibly slashy (homoerotic) film Trapeze is, with lots of pix:
"One flies and one catches, and no one comes between"

Of course there's a woman in both movies too, whom both men fall for.
Below, Gina Lollobrigida as a rope dancer in Trapeze working really hard to get Burt's interest by "testing her costume," she tells him, for wardrobe malfunction:

VI. Graphic Novel On the Ropes
 Jim Vance and Dan Burr created a graphic novel about the WPA Circus: On the Ropes (2013). 
From a review by Cory Doctorow:
"On the Ropes ... finds Fred working in a travelling WPA circus in the midwest, assisting the show's last remaining freak, an escape artist named Gordon Corey, who puts his head in a noose and his hands in shackles and then escapes and saves himself from hanging in a count of five, performing for an audience that pays a nickel a head to watch him risk death."

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Patti Page

Turned in my review of Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry (1960) 
I feel pretty green, but I'm loving reviewing movies for "community journalism" online .

There are several strong female roles in Elmer Gantry, though the movie doesn't pass the Bechdel Test (the only time any women talk to each other, it's about Elmer).

The actress who impressed me most was singer Patti Page, in her first film role. My mother used to sing "Tennessee Waltz," which was Page's hugest hit.

Page plays the choir leader Sister Rachel whom Elmer Gantry romances as a way to get to the true object of his desire (evangelist Sister Sharon, played by Jean Simmons). Rachel was earthy and real, Elmer should have gone with her. But Elmer Gantry is not a movie about good choices.

I like photos of artists of all types at work. Here Page is, on the set of Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster, who liked to talk.

Below: "Page who, musicians say, never needs to rehearse a number more than twice to get the proper 'sound and feel,' is shown rehearsing for her newest disk. August 1962."
[Mercury Recording File Photo]

Patty Page

The technical details of music and movie making is interesting too. Page was the first singer to release a recording with overdubbing. When there wasn't money for backup singers for her single “Confess,” she learned to dub her own voice. 
She describes this in 1970s interview:

From Wikipedia: The invention of magnetic tape (in 1928)  opened up new possibilities for overdubbing... The first commercially released overdubbed recording was recorded by Patti Page.... It was made by painstakingly recording voice on top of voice with acetate disks.

Here's the song:
Patti Page, "Confess," recorded December 3, 1947

Page wore all sorts of cool outfits, though it's amazing to me that anyone would sing with such a tightly cinched waist.

Page sang pop, but she blended in Country and Jazz too.

One more, for Marz, who likes Western wear with fringes:

Friday, November 8, 2013

3 Cat Carvings on Circus Wagons

I took this picture for Eeva, because it looks like the cat on the way to Finisterre. The bottom 2 photos are by bink.

From the gorgeous collection of circus wagons at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin