November 2011 Archives

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Karl Slover, one of the last surviving munchkins from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz died a couple of days ago.1 One of the weirdnesses of moving to the eastern suburbs of Syracuse was discovering that the munchkins were regular visitors to nearby Chittenango; when I first came to locate a place to live they were having a parade featuring them for Oz-Stravaganza.2 I had always thought that the Wizard of Oz took place in Kansas. It was downright weird. Turns out that Chittenango was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum.


Birthplace of L. Frank Baum

I drove over there yesterday, because I was curious about just what sort of place Baum might call home. There's no trace of it, really. The address on Falls Blvd. is in the shadow of a hill and it seems logical that someone would build there. The Baum's only lived there for two years, so it seems unlikely that this is the place that Frank would have called home. But fittingly, in The Wizard of Oz the kingdom of the East is the kingdom of the munchkins.


Judy Garland Museum, click through for full photo set

I'd actually never read the Wizard of Oz before coming here. Like most people I suppose, most of what I know came from the movies. Krista, though, is a huge fan-girl of the movie. In 2007, we drove to the birthplace of Judy Garland— Grand Rapids, Minnesota— where they turned her childhood home into a museum. There's more to see than just a tract-style home. Reading the book this week, I was somewhat shocked to find that there are no ruby slippers.3 In the book, it is sliver slippers and the magic phrase is "Take me home to Auntie Em!"— dashing my hope for a clever hook into musing that "there's no place like home."


Home is—more frequently than not— transformed beyond our recognition or memory in the blink of an eye. I had forgotten that The Wizard of Oz begins with just that sort of transformation. Dorothy's home in Kansas is ripped from the ground and transported to a new place, landing on top of the wicked witch of the east. Having lived for a significant time in the West, South, North, and East now it makes for a really interesting read. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to the centennial edition, sets up an opposition between Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as touchstones of light and dark world views:

Choosing Alice, are you then a cynic, a skeptic, or just a disillusioned drop-out?

Choosing Dorothy, are you an impossible optimist, the happy warrior, the convivial far-traveler who runs his own lost-and-found to always be found?

Choose.

I don't claim that we can judge readers by such choices. There must be travelers, like myself, who can go a-journeying through both countries, dark and light, and come forth intrigued, insightful, and happy. Wonderland may be fog and drizzle, but Alice stands as a beacon in its midst, stays sane, comments, and survives 4 (xiv).

I suppose I've been living on the dark side for most of my travels, but as I get older I am more open to coming into the light of the Emerald City. Writing snarky comments is a lot easier than trying to write something that is both intelligent and optimistic. Cynicism has always come more naturally to me. That is perhaps why I have not really felt compelled to write that much the last few years— I've actually been quite happy living here in New York, although when I read the hyperbole painting Syracuse as the Emerald City it's hard not to choke-up with laughter and wonder what these people have been smoking.

Roselawn: Boyhood home of L. Frank Baum
Site of Roselawn, boyhood home of L. Frank Baum— "Watch us change," indeed.

Roselawn, Baum's boyhood home was located on Brewerton (a.k.a. "Plank") Road north of Syracuse. Naturally, the good witch lives in the north. Every other direction was the domain of the wicked.5 Interestingly, the plank road was the first toll road in the U.S. (opened in 1846). Some speculate that the road composed of hickory planks (yellowish wood) might have inspired the "yellow brick road," but that really seems unlikely to me. I mean, after at least 20-30 years of wagon traffic one doubts that there was any yellow left under the mud. I've not been able to find out much about exactly where the 16.5 mile stretch of planks was originally, or when it might have rotted away. I suspect that since it isn't visible in the 1878 book of views of Syracuse I've got, it was gone by Baum's boyhood. That's the nature of change, really. While it's logical to assume that Syracuse had some impact on Baum's writing, it just doesn't follow that one might map his fictional work on this all too actual space.



1. As far as I know, Margaret Pellegrini is still alive. Looking around the net, I find it interesting that she denies that the munchkins were hard partiers: "I was only 15 when the movie was filmed. There were a few of them who liked to drink, but it wasn't what they said it was. A lot of those stories were false," . The really interesting thing I turned up was that Toto the dog got paid more than the munchkins:


OzzyChangingHands02-20-2010.jpeg2. I suppose they had to call it Oz-stravaganza because Ozzfest was taken. Though if the rumors of hard-partying munchkins were true then it might be appropriate. In completely unrelated news, it seems that Black Sabbath announced on 11/11/11 that they were getting together for their first studio album in 33 years in 2012. As a big fan of the dark side, I find this to be good news.
Judy Garland Museum 3. There are no ruby slippers at the museum either. They were stolen just before we visited the place, and have not been recovered as far as I know. It's a shame, really. The idea of some shoe fetishist somewhere privately adoring his big score is a bit frightful.
1983 4. Coincidentally, my western home, Bakersfield, was renowned for its fog and drizzle. I once got lost in a parking lot down by the Kern River for three hours because the fog was so dense. I drove around with the car door open watching the curb for breaks that might signal the exit. Besides that though, I wouldn't say that Bakersfield had much in common with Wonderland.
Chittenango5. While it seems unlikely that Baum held any animosity towards his birthplace in the east, his mother-in-law lived most of her life in Fayetteville, another eastern suburb. Wikipedia notes that Baum's relationship to his mother-in-law was wrongly portrayed as antagonistic and any identification with the wicked witch of the west seems wrong on multiple levels.
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masks.jpgRobert Sidney and Harry Peterson (The Masks) in The Boys from Syracuse
adapted from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (1938)
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Syracuse
Syracuse, NY
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Where Your Home Begins
C. W. Lewis Lumber sign, between Bauxite and Benton, Arkansas circa 1996.*

I went to great lengths quite some time ago to find this photograph. It exists only as a negative. As I recall I couldn't bring myself to print it. After I started to really embrace my new home in upstate NY I shot the negative with a macro lens and worked on it a bit in photoshop because I don't currently have a negative scanner. I really wanted to write about it, and the circumstances of its production. For better or worse, arriving in upstate New York was the culmination of a horribly twisted journey, and I have been hell-bent (even with my serious reservations about the place) on calling New York home.

California was my home for 37 years. John Hiatt pegged it though: there's nothing to do but turn around. Just about the time the Internet was coming into everyone's consciousness, I hitched my dreams to a sculptor in Arkansas. As everyone around me knew, but I wouldn't admit, these things seldom end well. I found myself unemployed, penniless, divorced, and without a car struggling to make a comeback of sorts. My father spotted me the downpayment and signed for a loan to get me a car, and I secured a job while staying with of my soon-to-be ex-wife. As was/is my usual way of making sense of things, I often got into my car just to drive. Just past the turn-off to a road leading to the man that ultimately won the woman I loved (only fair, he was her husband after all) headed toward the place I thought I was going to call home I saw a sign in the woods.

I pulled over and wept. I took this photograph and wondered if I was ever going to feel at home again. Arkansas was a strange place that never really felt like home. It was close to my family, and I'm grateful for the time I got to spend with them before they passed away. I'm grateful to Arkansas for making it possible for me, at such an advanced age, to go back to school and try to find a new way to be. I never got the chance in California; I was too busy just being. I'm glad I turned around, though for better or worse I never would have imagined that I could end up in New York. Love found me in Arkansas eventually, and that part of my life is better than ever. In the end, Krista is my home, regardless of what place we live in.

*Apparently C.W. Lewis lumber is still there, though C.W. Lewis only ran the place from 1920-1928. The lumber yard around the corner from me here in New York is even older, over 100 years old. I suppose that home always does start somewhere in the trees. I noticed, also, that I actually started trying to resurrect this photo around a year ago. It took me that long to bring myself to write about it I guess.

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CNY
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CNY
"The women's lacrosse team did a fine job"
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The Light the Living Room Project

As I mentioned, I really want to make some progress on making the living room more welcoming. We ordered the second couch a couple of months ago, so by next month we should have it. I couldn't wait to improve the lighting, though, because Syracuse winters are so terribly dark and grey.

It only took five days and around $300 to install the track. It started out innocently enough: just a little L-shaped track above the two couches which I plan to arrange in a L. Then, the L grew into a U so that I could get some light down where I'm planning to have the cabinets for all the records currently residing in white boxes. By the third day, it seemed obvious that I should remove the track I had installed on the wall above the turntable and move it to the ceiling completing the large gallery circuit around the perimeter of the room. Yet another wish fulfilled. My living room can now be lit like a gallery.

On the fifth day, I installed a Lutron Maestro dimmer because the standard three-way dimmers just seem wonky. Now, when you enter the room the lights sort of slowly come up to a glow. Not sure how permanent the paper lanterns are going to be, I might design some hanging fixtures eventually. But for now, the room glows pretty nicely. It's wonderful to watch the sun go down listening to my Magnepans.

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Leonard contemplates the doorstep

Picked up Leonard in the Twin Cities. Krista drove around with him buckled in the back seat of her Kia for a long time. Finally pulled him out of the basement for this halloween, but forgot to post a photo. The children were quite polite to him.

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I was researching Harvey Ellis a bit yesterday, and found some strange confluences. Ellis was involved in the design of several buildings in Minnesota, though what brought me to him was his inlay/design work with Gustav Stickley in Syracuse. Apparently, Ellis designed a dormitory for the Farm School in St. Paul (now University of Minnesota) in 1887, and I was trying to figure out where it was. As near as I can figure, it was destroyed probably not long after it was built, replaced by a couple of other dormitories (Brewster and Dexter Hall) that were also destroyed before the 1950s. I have really fond memories of the St. Paul Campus where I studied rhetoric. It was moved to Wesbrook Hall on the Minneapolis side, and rebranded Writing Studies just before I dropped out.


Ellis had nothing to do with Wesbrook, but he apparently had a hand in Nicholson Hall next door where the writing center was located. I always liked that building, it was really full of light. He also was a designer for Pillsbury Hall, around the corner, one of the oldest surviving buildings on the campus. Eventually, after several other stops, Ellis ended up in Syracuse too. I'm looking forward to finding out more about him. A Minnesota historian has written a rather difficult to locate book about Ellis and I've ordered a copy.

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In other Minnesota news, I was surprised to see a story on Faribault Woolen Mills on the NBC news last night. I was suprised to find out it had closed in 2009. Krista and I had toured their factory store somewhere around 2007, and wanted to buy something but really couldn't afford to. Locals have purchased the factory, just before the equipment was to be shipped overseas to Pakistan. They are currently employing 35 people, and hoping to expand next year. I went ahead and advanced ordered one of their revival blankets. I'm looking forward to that as well.

It dawned on me that Minnesota was the only place that I have really chosen to live. Most other locations have been happy or not so happy accidents, but I consciously chose to live in Minnesota.

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I've not been able to make it through a James Bond film for the last few years. They are just too brutal, too violent. I miss the stylish Bond, where taste supersedes action. Oddly though, I've been listening to Bond film soundtracks. The difference between David Arnold's throbbing soundtrack to Casino Royale and Burt Bacharach's soundtrack to the faux-Bond Casino Royale is jarring. The latter film is so fun, and while listening to the former I just feel pummeled. Critics do call the new Bond "stylish" but if this is style, you can have it as far as I'm concerned. Soundtracks are integral to the Bond franchise, carefully reinforcing the brand at critical moments.

Sometimes, film music is inseparable from the drama of the moment , such as the shrieking violins in the shower scene of Hitchock's Psycho. In other cases, such as the Bond films, the soundtrack can be playfully ironic. John Barry's score for Goldfinger with its brash brass layers on not simply a commentary, but a commentary on style. My difficulty with the latest Bond isn't simply the violence though, it's also the constant sense that I'm being lead through the eyes, ears, nose and throat to be told what to feel. And I really don't want to feel violent. It's simply not a world I want to inhabit, and yet it's polyannaish and impossible to avoid the presence of violence. Why do some modes of violence in reproduction seem important and "real," others gratuitous, and still others, diverting and almost charming?

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I'm beginning to think that music has a lot to do with it. In most cases , even though it purports to be an incidental background, the soundtrack tells us how to feel. It's not simply an affectual nudge. Music can be a narrative element that pulls you through something. Or, in the case of Psycho the soundtrack music almost physically create a tear— an extreme case of what Roland Barthes labeled as punctum. This sort of extreme affect/effect is by its very nature contrived as artifice. Music is in actuality primarily incidental both in the sense that it is a part of a physical territory we happen into, but also in that it helps isolate temporal incidents of daily life.

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I want so many moods and then I want so many more
Cars and tape decks carve eternal between my worlds
Windshields are like TV screens and I'm not involved at all
My entertainment takes me everywhere, nowhere at all
Everywhere, nowhere at all.

My soundtrack tells me what to think of what I see
Interpretation by the music, and not by me
I don't point myself anywhere where I can't turn away
I'm only going places, I never mean to stay— I never mean to stay
I don't intend to stay.

Soundtrack, Thin White Rope, Exploring the Axis (1985)

I've written recently about my experiences/perceptions of nature growing up. So, when Krista and I watched Hitchcock's The Birds last weekend it seems a given that it would push my buttons. What I hadn't counted upon, though, was how the lack of a soundtrack made watching the film far more powerful than I remembered. The film, in a lot of ways, simply doesn't make any sense. Birds start violently attacking people. There is no rhyme or reason, no explanation. A couple of characters in the film offer hysterical explanations for the violence, such as it is surely a sign of the apocalypse. But the violence escalates without pattern until it ultimately just stops.

Because there is no soundtrack at all except a few electronic bird sound effects and snatches of truly incidental music. The real score for the terror is silence. Silence is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

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When I read a short review piece by Brian Dillon this morning linked by Mark Woods, I realized that I had achieved a lifelong goal. I am now, without question, a dropout. It was hard to get past the first few sentences:

What mode or degree of attention does photography demand, or deserve, today? It sometimes seems the photograph as such is no longer really with us: suborned to contemporary art practices for which mediumistic integrity is beside the point, dispersed in myriad online quotidia that flummox efforts at a cult-studs overview, the medium meanwhile a decade and more past its heyday as gallery-bound pretender to painting’s spectacle and presence. And yet criticism carries on much as if photography were still parsable in terms of the old problems.

The photography that Dillon speaks of here is photography as an institutional or industrial (as in "art industry" or "culture industry") practice. It's a curious way to start a book review, steeped in academic jargon— but, after all, the books under review are targeted at precisely that sort of academic (or pseudo-academic) audience. Photographic practice has perhaps never been more omnipresent, as the glowing waves of cell-phone cameras at any social or political event easily demonstrates. But does it deserve attention? Uh, yes— is the only sane answer for a general audience. But for an academic audience, perhaps not. Glad I'm a drop-out from all that.

Driving to the hardware store for some track to continue the current "light the living room" project, I was listening to the Elson Lecture by Elizabeth Murray. Murray begins by talking about listening to a very intelligent man discussing the relevance of painting using terms like modality and temporaneity saying that she wondered to herself why he felt the need to use such terms to isolate and distance himself from his audience, in effect erecting an academic wall around himself when what he was actually saying was easily understandable and might be restated in plain language. As I read Dillon's review of three books, which I do have some interest in, I had to ask myself why he felt a book review was the place to exercise his vocabulary regarding pointless debates. Murray suggested that, in the case of painting, people would still be doing it "until the rubble of civilization was bouncing." I agree.

Of course, Dillon sidesteps his opening cynicism by lauding Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum (Aperture, 2011) as the indispensable antidote. Not the first rave of that one I've read, but I'm not moved to read it yet. James Elkins’s What Photography Is (Routledge, 2011) sounds a lot more interesting, though Dillon pretty much pans it. It dwells on Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes' seminal (though a bit shopworn) text. Barthes book is yet another of those books that has launched a thousand misappropriations and misreadings. I'd be far more curious about Elkin's correctives than Dillon's.

But, given that I need to install more light in the living room to look at such wonderful recent acquisitions such as Robert Bergman's A Kind of Rapture — a truly amazing piece of photographic / literary work (and a terrific corrective to Alec Soth's pretentious twaddle)— I'll have to put off Elkin's book for another day. As for Dillon's essay, well, I think I'd much rather listen to Toni Morrison reading her introduction to Bergman's book again than comment further.

Now, back to that living room!

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