Tuesday, July 8, 2014

L.A. Story, Part One


So I've been rediscovering an old favorite on cable, Boyz n the Hood. I've always loved this movie--engaging, three dimensional characters [even Doughboy and Ricky's mom--she's awful but that shot where she sobs over Ricky's SAT scores is heart-breaking], riveting performances and sequences, and an unexpected poignancy amid the nihilism and endless cycle of murder. Watching it in 2014 something jumps out immediately--how very early '90s is this movie.

The haircuts:


"You gotta problem with my high-fade?"

Werk the Jheri curl, Doughboy.  WERK IT.


The fashions:




The lingo:

Trey, you really need to work on your game.

But in another way as well. The early-to-mid '90s was one of those periods when Los Angeles was on the public mind a lot. That happens sometimes--for whatever reason a city is hot and happening, piques our collective interest. In the mid-aughts that city was Boston--after the '04 ALCS, when the Red Sox came from a 0-3 deficit to win not just the playoffs (defeating their arch rivals, the Yankees), but then went on to win the World Series in spectacular fashion, Boston's stock went through the roof. Movies were made about Boston, like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone and The Departed. The Patriots finally won not just one but three Super Bowls. Heck, even the Big Dig finally concluded. Boston was IT.

But in the early '90s, L.A. was getting the attention. Perhaps inspired by Steve Martin's delightful fantasy L.A. Story, movies like Boyz n the Hood and Pretty Woman appeared, both of which came out in the very early part of the decade. Oh and a hot new TV series called Beverly Hills, 90210 which [flowery granny dresses and mullets aside], actually holds up rather well today. Equal parts titillating and level-headed, 90210 as much as any other pop phenomenon helped crystallize our early '90s collective cultural fascination with L.A.

You know that 90210 must've been referencing that famous snooty saleswoman
 scene in Pretty Woman with this subplot: Brenda's boss is stealing commissions 
["Look sweetie, we are coming off the worst Christmas ever..."--more early '90s topicality!]...

..so Carol dresses up as a rich BH matron and makes her look a fool.  
Almost as satisfying as Julia's "You work on commission, right?...
Big mistake.  Big.  HUGE.  I have to go shopping now..."

But as engaging as 90210 and Pretty Woman were, ultimately they were upstaged by the stark reality of the 1992 riots which exploded in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and whose aftershocks reverberated throughout the decade. [Appropriately 90210 referenced the riots in an episode that aired just a few months afterward.]

I well remember the coverage of the riots, especially the horrific footage of the attack on Reginald Denny from the news helicopter hovering overhead which are the defining images of the riots for so many reasons. 



  •  The odd angle of the footage, the weird you are there quality* as if the attackers could reach up and pull down the helicopter just as they had opened up Denny's truck and plucked him out. 
  • The way the attackers danced around, performing for the camera and taunting the viewer, and the casual nature of the incredible violence, as though it were a game to stomp on another human being, to drop a concrete slab on someone's head. 
  •  And the final surreal note, that it wasn't even dark yet--the Denny attack took place in broad daylight... 


[I thought about embedding in this post some of the pictures from the terrible attack on Reginald Denny and in the end, decided not to for a couple of reasons, the main one being because nearly every site where I found the images online had some sort of racist agenda.]


Although most observers attribute the violence to rage and frustration over the acquittal in the King case, another much-less known incident helped stoke public anger as well. In March of '91, just a few days after the video footage of the King beating surfaced, a girl by the name of Latasha Harlins was killed by a shop owner. The woman mistakenly assumed Latasha had stolen the orange juice she was carrying and confronted her. The confrontation turned violent, the girl tried to leave after discarding the juice container and the shop owner killed Latasha as she walked away--shot her in the back of the head. The case went to trial later that year and, incredibly, the woman received no jail time whatsoever, notwithstanding a guilty verdict for voluntary manslaughter. Without a doubt Latasha's tragic death contributed to the rage many of the rioters felt--many rappers and hip hop artists such as Ice Cube and Tupac specifically referenced her.



Tell me what's a black life worth/
A bottle of juice is no excuse...

So 90210 and Pretty Woman polished off the fantasy and the '92 riots shattered our glitzy, safe illusions.  And then came OJ.....


To be continued...

*This you are there potential was fully realized when four ordinary, unarmed citizens--all black, by the way--saw the attack on TV and ventured out to help Denny. Which was more than the damn LAPD, who had abandoned the Florence-Normandie neighborhood once the riot had gotten well underway, did.








Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Neither a Fanatic Nor a Dreamer...


Just finished Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X--I’d added it to my Netflix queue and then forgot about it.  I ended up loving it--Spike’s fantastic direction* [God, that opening crane shot of Roxbury!] and Denzel's performance helped me get over the fact that holy crap two full disks with a running time of 3+ hours.

I didn’t know much about Malcolm X other than his reputation as a black separatist and kind of a firebrand. [I had heard about the red hair though! Frustratingly nearly all the pictures I can dig up are in black and white—Denzel publicity stills will have to do for now.

Check out that awesome Art Deco jewelry store sign font in the background--
I know they filmed in NYC but I can't seem to track down that particular location.


The movie takes a pretty candid, unbiased look at his life—his whole life, not just his career after prison [and Malcolm had a pret-ty colorful life before he went to prison].  But my favorite section was the closing sequence, when Malcolm arrives back in the States after making his hajj to Mecca. At this point he has left the Nation of Islam on very poor terms--having firebombed his house, someone is now planning his murder. The explosive pop of the flashbulbs at the press conference, the constant ringing of the telephone in the Shabazz household and in his hotel room, daring Malcolm or his wife to risk hearing another hissed threat, another promise of death--it is genuinely nerve-wracking. 

Then the murderers show up at the Audubon Ballroom the day before to case the joint, lurking in stairwells and checking out exits as a room full of black teenagers do the Jerk and the Monkey to the exuberant, relentless “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All-Stars—and the camera does a dizzying, tight 360 turn on Malcolm’s face as he is forced to acknowledge what is closing in on him. 

I said shotgun!
Shoot 'im 'fore he run now...
     Do the jerk, baby
     Do the jerk now
Put on your red dress and then you go down yonder...
I said buy yourself a shotgun now, we're gonna break it down baby now
We're gonna load it up baby now
And then you shoot 'im 'fore he run now...

And over all this is the shrill sound of the telephone, constantly ringing. It's a brilliant scene.  It’s unbearably claustrophobic--it's hard to breathe.


This picture is frequently used to illustrate the idea that Malcolm was trying to start a race war against Whitey (often with the caption "By any means necessary!")--but this was actually taken after the Shabazz household started receiving threats.  Malcolm is on the defensive here, not the offensive.

And then Lee brings us to tears with a marvelous sequence of Malcolm on his way to the Ballroom and knowing, somehow, that today is the day.  He's in his car at first, hunched over the wheel of his car wondering whence his fate will come. That car next to me? Those men driving behind me? Who's pulling up next to me? And then we see him walking his last few steps, his final march, toward the Audubon. It's a dolly shot [the camera and the actor are wheeled along a track] and it gives Malcolm's last march an incredible grace, an elegaic dignity, as Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" floats overhead.


video


One of the saddest** things about Malcolm’s murder—besides, of course, that three men pumped numerous rounds into him knowing his four little girls were watchingwas how...pointless it was, how unnecessary. Unlike, say, Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln, Malcolm wasn’t murdered because of his principles. The killers were angry because of Malcolm’s break with the NOI, and his growing stature--in other words, it came down to junior high school drama. Certainly Malcolm X has a complicated legacy and among Americans in general nowhere near the saintlike status of Martin Luther King [but then I suspect he would not have wanted that kind of approval]. But it cannot be denied that he was gifted and intelligent, a thinker and speaker who never stopped challenging himself and evolving, who went to prison and became a better man, who traveled across the world on his pilgrimage and came back a better man. A man with that kind of promise, those gifts to offer--not just his community but all of us--was gunned down...because of drama. [It’s nearly as depressing as John Lennon’s murder—that voice, that talent, snuffed out because some useless tub of butter wanted to be famous.]


We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition...for the right to live as free humans in this society.

God.  That pride.  That fierce pride.

*I’m a biiiig fan of Spike Lee’s work--the man just loves making movies and it shows in his work. Started with the fantastic Summer of Sam [about 1977, a seminal year in NYC history what with the Blackout, the Yankees and Mr. October and…oh, yeah, the Son of Sam
], then went on to the awesome School Daze [raise your hand if you have “Good and Bad Hair” as one of your YouTube favorites--oh, I see you in the back row, hellz yeah!] and his wonderful documentaries, the heartbreaking Four Little Girls in particular.

**I find it indescribably sad that this past week, as I was writing this, Malcolm's grandson and namesake was found dead in Mexico City, beaten to death over a bar bill.  Malcolm Shabazz had a terribly troubled past and was in fact responsible at the age of 12 for the death of his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, Malcom X's widow.  Going back further, Malcolm X's mother was committed for mental illness after her husband, Malcolm's father, was murdered by white racists, so there may have been a genetic component there.  So much sadness for one family.  May those six little girls [twins were born after Malcolm was assassinated] find some peace.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Habemus Papam!

So, as the pithy Latin saying goes, we have a Pope!



As both a medievalist and a feminist I have mixed feelings about this. The latter part of me wants to wave my hands impatiently because I find it difficult to get excited about an institution that privileges straight men quite as sanctimoniously as the Roman Catholic Church does. Pope Joan would NOT approve (nor, for that matter, Mary Magdelene, the Virgin Mary or St. Bridget). This argument that the Big Guy Himself didn't have disciples does not hold water with me--any way you read the Gospels, Mary Magdelene was a privileged follower of Christ [and in fact was the first one to see the risen Christ on Easter. She also stayed at the Cross when pretty much all the rest of the dudebros had bailed. Take THAT, St. Peter!]. Another strong feminine presence in the early church was St. Bridget who was either officially ordained as a bishop or did an awfully good imitation of one, running what was essentially a co-ed monastery and bossing all the monks around. Gotta love those headstrong Celtic women during the Dark Ages!


On the other hand...as an historian, I find the whole business FASCINATING--papal history is chock FULL of piping hot dish. I've talked before about the skanktastically dysfunctional Borgias but they are just one episode in what needs to be a trashy reality show on the History Channel: The Real Vicars of Christ [or as post-1534 Henry VIII might call it, The Real Bishops of Rome. Oooh, SNAP, Henry]. One of the most awesomely gruesome chapters in papal history has to be the Shake 'n' Bake Papal Viewing of Pius XII in 1958. Pius had a couple of questionable characters in his household: a VERY devoted housekeeper known as La Popessa who ruffled bishopric feathers by controlling who got to speak with Pius, as well as an outright quack who had a great idea after the Pope's death--let's preserve the earthly body of the Holy Father with this newfangled spray-on embalming process! We'll put him in a plastic bag with herbs and oils and spices--that sounds perfectly legitimate and not sketchy at all. Only he forgot about Rome's heat--the corpse turned black and literally cooked in the coffin, which resulted in the bier's actually CRACKING OPEN from...gasses. The Swiss Guard had to be spelled every few minutes as they were fainting from the stench, and Pius's nose fell off.

But even that shitshow has to pale next to the Cadaver Synod, aka Zombies on Trial. I'll leave that for another post, along with the Pornocracy--yes, there really was a period in papal history called the Pornocracy, the Rule of Whores. [I like to imagine Mary Magdalene up in heaven, hiding a giggle behind her hand after so many centuries of being trashed as a prostitute. The Da Vinci Code's history was, uh, creative at best but it was certainly right about that slander.] And if the new Pope seems a bit uptight compared to his colorful predecessors, let us imagine Alexander Borgia slapping a goblet of wine into his hands and saying impatiently



Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Story of One Holy Episcopal and Apostolic Church

Cliopolitan blogs from the road!

This past week I was home for the holidays, coming back to the Motherland, the Cradle of Presidents, Virginia. As it turns out I crossed the path of the most eminent of the 8 Presidents who were born in the Old Dominion--George Washington himself! The Sunday before Christmas I attended the Lessons and Carols service at The Falls Church, a very old, historic parish in my hometown--ol' GW [in between stints of fighting the French and Indian War, establishing a new Republic, posing for statues as he's just getting out of the shower and generally serving as the Father of Our Country] was actually a vestryman there!

The church dates back to the early 1700s, although its current building is not the original structure as you can tell from its coolly elegant Georgian exterior.



Note the door in the middle and the row of windows above--hallmarks of the Georgian/Federalist style.

My OCD-self has a special fondness for Georgian architecture--the buildings are so structured and pared-down and symmetrical! [What can I say--I'm a Virginian!] Early on in The Falls Church's history, George Washington, who lived near [-ish] by in Mount Vernon, was a church warden--and according to the Church's official literature, 


During the Revolutionary War, the building was a recruiting station for the Fairfax militia, and tradition holds that the Declaration of Independence was read to local citizens from the steps of the south doors.

...And now I'm thinking someone needs to write a Young Adult novel with this delicious history, a kind of southern fried-Johnny Tremain. Instead of a silversmith's apprentice who gets injured, the main character could be an acolyte or a parson's daughter who realizes that No Man Is An Island and dedicates her- or himself to the Revolutionary cause. Hijinks would include rafting down the Falls, trolling the dens of iniquity across the river in that Gomorrah across the Potomac [aka Georgetown--this would be before the District of Columbia was even conceived, much less designed and laid out--the only two cities around were Georgetown and Alexandria] and palling around with George Washington and George Fairfax. I smell another Newbery Award winner!



"Mr. Washington and Mr. Mason are SO MUCH COOLER than that crazy Mr. Otis.  I think it's the climate.  And the food."

The Church's history gets even better--I spoke with one of the parishioners that morning who told me that during the War Between the States, the church was actually used as a stable! Look, I'm an equestrian myself [what can I say--I'm a Virginian!], I appreciate that you want to bed your horses down in good quarters but in the sanctuary?! What do you think this is, the Inn at Bethlehem [or the Limelight, God forbid--literally!]?  Understandably, once the Falls Church parishioners Took Back the Night, they reconsecrated the sanctuary.  Although one wonders how long it took to get the smell out...



A few good "bells and smells" Episcopal services, and I bet that l'odeur du cheval was out in no time!

As I said, the building currently standing is not the original 1734 structure--in fact this was built in 1769 and was designed by James Wren, who also designed the Fairfax County Courthouse. [Weirdly, as far as I can find out, James Wren, Architect of English descent is no relation to Sir Christopher Wren, English Architect.



We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, 
but in thy manifold and great mercies. 
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.
But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy...

In the Anglican/Episcopalian mass, there is a palpable sense of historical continuity, as well as an amazing comfort and feeling of community.  It's kind of incredible to know you are one of millions to join in these lyrical prayers, going back for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years--back to the Tudors! [it helps knowing that Thomas Cranmer wrote much of the liturgy] --and even more so when you stand in that 200+ year-old sanctuary, intoning those ancient phrases, and realize that George freakin' WASHINGTON also stood here, saying those same words.  A communion of saints indeed, now and forever...


*As opposed to the town of Falls Church, whose settlement predates the church but which was named after the church. I know--it's confusing. To muddy matters further, both are named after the Falls of the Potomac.

**George was an extremely popular name in the Colonies and after the Revolutionary War. Pre-1776, Georges were usually named after George III [and his Hanoverian predecessors, Georges I and II], the "tyrant" who sparked the Revolution and whose hapless reign eventually devolved into insanity [and the reign of whose son inspired a whole genre of romantic novels!]. Post-1776, Washington himself was the namesake. Other famous contemporary Georges include George Mason [also a Falls Church vestryman!--and the namesake for the high school in Falls Church which I attended GO MUSTANGS], George Calvert and...well...Georgia.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Our hearts are broken..."



He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Rest in peace, little ones and the heroes who gave their lives to protect you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Babies Are the Royal We




To TRH the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge...


Congratulations!

♚   Soon-to-be parents of a new royal bambino!   

And for the first time, the baby, whether boy or girl, will be the Heir Apparent, the next in line after Charles and Wills
! And so the United Kingdom joins Sweden, Norway and four other European monarchies in overturning male-preference primogeniture.  Cool Britannia!

Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden says 'BOUT TIME, GUISE.



Primogeniture of course is the idea that the succession is determined by birth order--with male primogeniture, brothers automatically supplant their sisters, and subsequent children supplant their aunts and uncles. It can be HELLISHLY confusing to figure out the line of succession, so here are the current standings :

1) Charles, Prince of Wales (b. 1948)

followed by his children...

2) Prince William, Duke of Cambridge
3) Prince Harry of Wales

and then followed by Charles's next brother...

4) Prince Andrew, Duke of York (b. 1960)
5) Princess Beatrice of York
6) Princess Eugenie of York

followed by the youngest brother...

7) Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex (b. 1964)
8) James, Viscount Severn
9) Lady Louise Windsor

and finally Anne and her two children bring up the rear...

10) Anne, The Princess Royal (b. 1950)
11) Peter Phillips
12) Zara Phillips

BOLD = Children of Queen Elizabeth. Note how Anne is last after her brothers and their children, even though she is the second oldest [
and most badass] of her generation.

If we want to go beyond this--that is, beyond the children and grandchildren of the current Queen, we would then follow her younger sister's line, that of Princess Margaret. Even though she is dead, her two children's [
and their children's] places in the line of succession remain. This system can be followed indefinitely--once you've exhausted the current generational crop, you just go back a generation [in this case, to that of Elizabeth and Margaret's father] and start following the descendants of all those siblings. Which explains how back in 1727 when Queen Anne died with no immediate suitable [i.e., Protestant] heir**, they finally tracked down the next candidate, an elderly German who didn't speak any English, and dragged him from Hanover to London to slap the crown on his head. YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN'T HIDE.

It is fascinating to remember that for all magnitude of Elizabeth's reign [
and she is very close to surpassing Victoria's record as the longest-reigning British monarch]...



...she almost certainly never would've been Queen had she had even one brother. Once Elizabeth's father, King George VI, ascended the throne, Elizabeth was the next in line, the heir--but since she was a girl, she was the Heiress Presumptive who might still be replaced. Other Heir Presumptives include the current Prince Harry, who is currently next in line after Wills--but only until next summer when Wills becomes a father. [
At which point Harry will be heard cackling with relief and ordering rounds of shots and strippers...In other words, a typical Saturday night!]

Part of the fun of anticipating babies are the NAMES. Aloysius? Guy Clarence? Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs? No such luck--with Baby Wales, tradition and protocol will prevail. In general English names are not exactly trendy...



...there is a comfortingly historical familiarity to the Eleanors, Matildas and Isabellas that dot the lists.  And our new prince or princess will have an especially small and traditional pool of allowable monikers***--for a girl, look for first names like Mary, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Victoria, Alexandra, Catherine [I am personally pulling for Alice or Margaret]. Diana, for obvious reasons, is a possible middle name. For a boy, Edward, George, Frederick and Albert are possibilities. [Arthur and John, however, are considered bad luck within the royal family--they can be middle names but not first.]

So congratulations on your Blessed Event, Kate and William!  Take it easy girl, get off your feet, and don't be afraid to have that glass of wine every now and then.  Oh, and when's the baby shower again?  My invitation seems to have been lost in the mail...

*
Technically the only Heir Apparent right now is Charles--I'm using the term rather casually for the purposes of explicating the rules of succession. Once Charles ascends to the throne, William becomes the next Heir Apparent, and so on.

**In fact poor Anne had no living direct descendants at all when she died--she suffered through 17 pregnancies, and every one of them miscarried or died young.

***Princess Anne was allowed to get away with naming her daughter Zara because she's so far down in the line of succession. And also because she's, well, Anne.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Once on this island, there was a terrible storm...


As always, fervent apologies for my slackness in updating--I've been busy since early June directing two back-to-back musicals and am now recuperating! With that I'll wade right into today's topic:


Man v. [Mother] Nature


The Empire State has had some rare visitors in the last year--a couple of genuine, honest-to-God hurricanes. We get plenty of wet weather [and how!] but hurricanes are a relative novelty. Even Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm, a massive weather system that spanned the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the Grand Banks off of Nova Scotia [where the Andrea Gail went down]




and which hit Massachusetts very hard indeed, was mostly a m├ęsalliance between an unnamed tropical cyclone, a good ol’ fashioned nor’easter, and the remnants of Hurricane Grace.

The reason hurricanes are rare in the northeast is because tropical storm systems, which generally start to form off the northwestern coast of Africa in the late summer months, derive their energy from one essential element—warm water. New York and New England are far enough north that usually by the time a storm has traveled all the way up here over several days, it has started to cool down and hence lose its cohesion and so, unlike the Atlantic South and the Gulf Coast, the New York area is generally protected.



However there was one notorious exception 1938, a September storm that devastated Long Island and Points North (in fact it is still New England’s most destructive, deadly storm). This was before the United States Weather Bureau had started trying out official naming systems, and so the 1938 storm had a plethora of sobriquets, including:



I first became interested in this bit of meteorological history when I came across a child’s book of famous storms—according to the book, this hurricane got its locomotive nickname because of its incredible speed. Hurricanes have two kinds of speed metrics--wind speed within the storm, and how fast they actually move across the land. Most hurricanes travel relatively slowly, around 15-20 miles per hour. The Long Island Express, in contrast, moved at a whopping 70 miles an hour, zooming up the length of the Atlantic coast, from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina to New York in six hours. When it finally made landfall, it slammed into the coast so hard, seismographs on the other side of the country picked it up. In other words, it literally shook the continent.


Needless to say, in those ancient days before radar and when meteorology was in its infancy, Long Islanders had no way to expect this monster. One famous story about the Express tells us of a man who received in the mail that morning a barometer that he'd ordered. But upon opening the package he was annoyed--his new device was apparently already broken, as it was a clear beautiful day out and yet the reading seemed to be stuck on the lowest level:


Hurricane.

The Express also ripped the coastline asunder, its fury shaping a permanent reminder in Shinnecock Inlet, which was carved into the barrier island south of Long Island as the storm tore through.





New York City started on an island and is surrounded by rivers, tides, bridges and seawalls--and yet for most of our history we’ve been able to take that uneasy relationship with Mother Nature for granted. Denizens of the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, Florida could have told us--ignore the power of the planet at your peril. All very well for King Lear to shake his fist at the skies:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout...

…but the white cliffs of Dover didn’t really have to worry about storm surge.


PSA:

Occupy Sandy is a boots-on-the-ground organization that is helping areas in the New York City area that have been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, including Red Hook, the Rockaways and Coney Island. Please consider volunteering with them--if you can't offer your elbow grease, you can help by donating through their gift registry on Amazon. Every generator, every blanket, every flashlight helps--let's rebuild our wonderful city!