June 2005 Archives

Tiny Art Displays

I was flipping through this month's copy of Westways, the Southern California AAA member magazine, of all things, when I ran across a feature on vintage automobile stamps. I was attracted to the images from my favorite period in U.S. automotive design, the 50s, but then I saw a link to something called the Postal Art Gallery. This site, operated in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Service, offers framed display-size images of U.S. stamps.

There's some pretty damn cool stuff there. Like check out the train, man, or the retroid Space Fantasy, or the suggestively titled Space Exploration: Probing the Vastness II. I searched to see if they offered framed displays of the Richard Nixon stamp, but it was nowhere to be found.

If you like stamp art, you may be interested to known that John Lennon was a philatelist. I heard a news report just this week stating that John Lennon's stamp collection is going to be on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

The Changing U.S. Blogosphere

I've been posting a lot lately after a fairly long period of silence, so I thought I should probably explain what was happening during that time. Basically, I was discouraged. Mainly about U.S. politics, but also about blogs as a form of expression, and so I just sort of dropped out for a bit.

When political blogs first started to become popular, I was worried that they would drown out other types of blogs, especially cultural blogs. However, I think there are some great political blogs out there, like AmericaBlog and American Samizdat, and they are essential in a media environment that delivers propaganda, lies and sheer nonsense in place of news.

Although I believe political blogs are on the whole a positive force, there has been some cost to the blogosphere as a result of the attention paid by the media and others. The more that CNN, Jupiter Research, and other mainstream power brokers engage with blogs, the more focused the blogosphere becomes on conversing with the establishment rather than with each other.

I see many blogs moving away from the things that I like most about blogging: a personal tone, generosity and openness towards strangers, the sharing of old enthusiasms and new discoveries. For now, I have decided to continue asserting the value of these aspects of blogging, against the tide of opportunism and self-promotion that have become such prominent features of blogs today.

Super Freak

After having seen one of its authors, Steven D. Levitt, on Jon Stewart, I decided to pick up a copy of the book Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. I enjoyed it, though it read more like a series of interesting magazine articles rather than like a book.

Freakonomics is not a new discipline or way of thinking, and the economist referred to in the title (Levitt; his co-author is Stephen J. Dubner) is not really rogue. The book encourages you to think both are true, and that's it's biggest failing: the book totally believes its own hype. But setting that aside, Freakonomics is engrossing in the way that most freaky things are engrossing. Despite it's problems, I found it difficult to put down.

The "freaky" part involves the application of regression analysis to a variety of real-world questions, like "Who cheats?" or "What makes crime go down?" The answers given are usually not what one would expect, but in a way, that's besides the point. The real focus is watching the authors unravel their unusual data, documenting cause and effect and showing where and how our intuition about these problems leads us astray.

One of the chapters, titled "How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?" explores a part of Superman's history that I wasn't aware of. The chapter begins with a brief but informative history of the rise and fall of membership levels in the Ku Klux Klan. With high-profile Klan trials in the news lately, this was pretty timely reading.

On the first page, the authors refer to the Klan as a "multi-state terrorist organization." I had never thought of the Klan in exactly that light before--as domestic terrorists. But as it turns out, the authors didn't apply the term first, a past U.S. president did. In an address to Congress, President Ulysses S. Grant charged that the Klan's goals were

"'by force and terror, to prevent all political action not in accord with the views of the members, to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms and of the right of a free ballot, to suppress the schools in which the colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely allied to that of slavery.'"

The book details how, despite Grant's efforts to defeat the Klan in 1872, the organization continued on into the twentieth century. In the wake of World War II, the Klan's numbers began to grow again. One man, Stetson Kennedy, decided to infiltrate the Klan in an effort to subvert it. He discovers the Klan's most precious secrets, including details of the group's structure, its special rituals and passwords.

Kennedy passed the material on to the producers of the Adventures of Superman radio program. Although the book doesn't mention it specifically, from surfing around the web, I gathered that this was during the program's "Unity House" season of 1946. In this season, Superman took on racial and religious intolerance in his fight for truth, justice and the American way.

The Klan information was woven into radio plots, where, the authors write,

"It had the precise effect he hoped: turning the Klan's secrecy against itself, converting precious knowledge into ammunition for mockery. Instead of roping in millions of members as it had just a generation earlier, the Klan lost momentum and began to founder."

This was definitely my favorite chapter in the book. Although people make fun of superheros all the time, here's a great example of how one superhero had an undeniably positive effect on society.

Superpower Science

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Popular Science has a recurring feature where it looks at the representation of science in popular culture. This month it takes on the science of superpowers in It's the Nanomeds, Stupid. The article isn't about comics, but rather comic book films. Spider-Man II, The Incredible Hulk and the upcoming Fantastic Four come in for some gentle ribbing over their scientific explanations of how various characters got their powers.

Tut 2, or Tut Tut

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This past Sunday I went with the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend to see Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. Although it's been billed as "King Tut Returns," it's not the same exhibit that traveled to the U.S. in the '70s.

The museum was a mad house. Throngs of people were waiting to see the show. In what I assume must have been an effort at crowd control, LACMA closed off all restroom access inside the museum and set up lines of Port-a-Potties for outside use instead. In addition, once visitors are let inside, the exhibit follows a one-way throughpath that does not allow for any wandering.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs has definitely been staged to be a blockbuster. Before being let into the exhibit, we were shown into a screening room for a short film, narrated (of course) by Omar Shariff. The Hollywood intro was an apporopriate set-up for the first exhibit room, which had been decked out as if it were a stage set.

My first impression was that the exhibit reminded me of a high-end ride at Disneyland. I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way, since the production quality was high and the end result impressive. For better or worse, it felt like I was standing not in a museum gallery but in an ancient setting, amid crumbling stone pillars offset by dramatic lighting.

The exhibit tech kept on coming. In one darkened, tomb-like room, very large, mounted flat-panel screens showed intensely colored motion displays of Egyptian artifacts. Another wall offered a short multi-screen film on the possible explanations for King Tut's death. More focused on science than art, the film's content was similar to that of the excellent PBS series, Secrets of the Dead. I later discovered it was part of a National Geographic special.

Like most people, I imagine, I have a sense that ancient Egyptian art has one style of representation. But many of the objects chosen for displayed experimented with representation and its meaning. There were some playful patterned jars that showed efforts to recreate or simulate one type of material with another. I was also struck by how many diverse methods the artisans devised for incorporating writing or written symbols in art or on objects.

One of my favorite displays was a series of small dolls, less than a foot tall each, which were placed in the tomb when an important person died. The dolls were supposed to be afterlife maids. They were expected to run around the tomb doing day-to-day work for the deceased.

Although many of the objects on display were funerary objects, this did not fully register on me until I came to a display showing a gold casket about the size of a sub-compact automobile. Then morbidity got the best of me and all I could think about was whether a body was still inside the casket. And if not, where did it go? "Sorry, we need your casket for an art exhibit! Out you go!" I read the display cards diligently, but my question was never addressed.

At the center of the final room was a half-height table in the shape of King Tut's coffin. Over the course of minutes, the image on the surface would dissolve into a new image. One was an illustration of where the objects on display in the room were located inside the coffin when it was opened. Another was a photograph of Tut's mummy inside the coffin. And most impressively, another was actually a CT scan showing the condition of King Tut's body beneath its wrappings.

At the end of the exhibit, we exited directly into the gift shop. I immediately set out to find the schlockiest object in the store. I found it near the cash register: a tissue paper holder in the shape of King Tut's death mask, with a hole at the mouth to pull tissue paper through. Regretably, I was unable to find a picture of it in the LACMA gift store, but you might want to peek at the Egyptian Sarcophagus Backpack for children. It's actually kind of cute.

When I was a kid my parents used to take me and my sister to local Catholic school and church fairs. They were in mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods in East Los Angeles. My parents would hear about them or see them on the news, or sometimes my Dad would spot a new one on the way home from work. He'd notice the arcing lights on the rides from his car. During certain times of the year, we might go to one of these fairs every week.

Most of the fairs had some mechanical carnival rides, the kind that get put up and taken down in a week's time. We'd pay something like 2 dollars to get in, then buy script for the rides and games. We would listen to mariachis, or some sort of musical entertainment. Play a little bingo to round out the evening. Before we left, my parents would buy a week's worth of homemade enchiladas or tamales and that would become our dinner for the next week.

I mention all this because I've been writing about the Gay Pride Festival here in L.A. What I wanted to say is that when I first started attending the festival many years ago, it was kind of like a low-budget version of one of these fairs. I mentioned in a previous post how the entertainment at the festival has changed over the years. Another thing that has changed over the years is corporate sponsorship. As a result, today's Gay Pride Festival feels more like a business fair crossed with a county fair.

At the entrance to this year's festival, a Hummer was on display as part of a car giveaway. I didn't take a close look, but I imagine it was the new H3. This seemed wrong on several levels. In L.A., we go through car fads quickly, and the Hummer is so last year, so I-just-cast-my-vote-for-Ahnold. But this is what has happened with gays going mainstream: you can't even count on gay men to reliably stay on top of trends anymore.

It's not just the gay men who've succumbed to mainstream influence. There was a time when putting a gas-guzzling, military-inflected vehicle favored by the ultra-wealthy in front of a crowd of lesbians would have been an invitation to mayhem. At the very least, it would have been pushed over on it's side, possibly even defaced. Many harsh words would have been spoken. Now, it's a door prize.

Of course, I recognize that there's also a positive aspect to corporations' interest in gays. Corporations have found gays and lesbians' pockets, and no matter how much the religious right tries to threaten Disney or Ford or Microsoft, it doesn't change the fact that our money is still green. It just goes to show that one man's disordered sex deviant is another man's potential Subaru owner.

I always like to see what companies have decided to market to us, or which products or brands they think we will embrace. So I walked through all the festival booths, noting the banks and bottled water and whatnot. Then something caught my eye; it was the Tylenol PM booth. I was floored. "Now this relates to my lifestyle!" I thought. I scurried over to the booth and was greeted by "the sleepy boys," two attractive pajama-clad men. They ladled sample packets into my outstretched hands.

Batman Continues

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I can think of no better example of the destructive power of advertising than the Batman series of films. Each time one is released, I tell myself in advance I won't go see it. Each time, the hype penetrates to some place in my skull that makes me powerless to resist seeing it. I wind up sitting in the movie theater looking around like an amnesiac wondering "How did I get here?" Then I leave the theater at the end of the film filled with self-hate.

It remind me of that drug they supposedly give to women about to give birth. It doesn't keep you from experiencing pain, it makes you forget the pain once you've been through it. Could I have been exposed to a time-release version in the movie theater? I just don't know how to explain it.

So I am wary of Batman Begins. I am also resigned to seeing it. I hold onto a glimmer of hope that it won't completely suck, based on Roger Ebert's positive review. I generally trust Roger in otaku matters, even though I've never really gotten over his thumbs-up review of The Passion of the Christ.

The Ann-Margret Connection


Lucy strikes an Ann-Margret-like pose.After reading my earlier mention of Lucy Lawless's resemblance to Ann-Margret, a reader, Anne, sent me a picture of Lucy to illustrate the point further. I've also put up a pic of Ann-Margret for reference, just in case her image has not been burned into your memory banks by long fits of lust as it has been with me.

I also want to point out that more of Anne's photos from Lucy's appearance at Gay Pride as well as a detailed report of the event are available elsewhere for your reading and viewing pleasure. It's a worthwhile read and I concur with everything she has to say about the performance.

Incidentally, I wanted to thank everyone that took the time to comment recently and to apologize to everyone who tried to comment and had difficulty with the forms. I realize now that somehow my MT installation has gone awry and needs to be fixed. Heavy sigh.
Ann-Margret performing in Las Vegas.

A Tale of Two Blondes


Blondie is one of those bands that seems to punctuate my life's timeline with their music. Certain songs and albums are a date-stamp for different eras or periods in my past. Although they're not my favorite band, I have quite a lot of sentiment tied up with Blondie and the band's lead singer, Deborah Harry.

When I was in high school, Blondie's first album (still my favorite) was the main soundtrack to the first teen party I attended where illicit drinks were served. My friends and I would always demand that the song "Rip Her to Shreds" be played at regular intervals.

I think of that era as "pre-gay." Many of my male high school friends would later become gay adults, but in high school we shuffled along in romantic indeterminacy. My male friends worshipped Bowie and Abba; I was enthralled by Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal. We paired up in intense but platonic mindmelds based on our shared sensibilities.

At a certain point in my teenage years I became more entwined with L.A.'s rock culture. Those were my punk years. I met Deborah Harry then, at a party for a local radio personality. We stood next to each other at a meager refreshment table, sharing Triscuits from a box. It was one of my first experiences of the dream-like ennui that results from hanging out with celebrities.

Another dating memory comes from the debut of Eat to the Beat. Blondie released the album along with an unusual cable TV special consisting of videos that went with each song. At the time, cable TV was a luxury so finding a place to watch the Blondie videos was a challenge for me and my teenage friends. We watched and found the whole "music video" concept a bit arty and avant-garde.

Parallel Lines was unforgettable because it spun off a mainstream hit, "Heart of Glass." The song rose steadily higher on the charts, eventually reaching the point of painful ubiquity that only the biggest, fattest megahits can achieve. Songs like "You Light Up My Life" or "I Will Always Love You." They soon become unbearable to listen to.

How strange and gratifying then, that so many years later, while seeing Deborah Harry perform at the L.A. Pride festival, I felt an almost transcendent joy when I heard the opening beats of "Heart of Glass" boom over the outdoor speakers. It was by far my favorite song out of a short but fantastic set that included "Rapture" and "In the Flesh."

I really wasn't expecting such an amazing performance. But the songs, the attitude and the choreography were just right for the occasion. Debbie came out in a costume similar to the black short shorts and halter worn by Liza Minelli in Cabaret. Behind her, dancers in similar Cabaret-inspired outfits provided performance accompaniment.

During the opening song, one of the male dancers twirled twin fire batons while Debbie sang. Throughout the set, the dancers unfurled a giant rainbow flag behind Debbie. Sometimes, they would tuck the flag in the back of Debbie's shorts and she would stomp around the stage with the flag fanning behind her, like some demented psychedelic peacock. It was very punk and very gay. The whole thing drove the audience wild.

The second blonde alluded to in my title was introduced to the crowd as a special surprise guest just before Deborah Harry came on. I was standing near the stage, close to a metal barrier at the time. Suddenly, a fast-moving gang of faux-Secret Security types went rushing by me, dressed in black suits and shouting into walkie talkies. Peering into the middle of these self-important bouncers, I realized who was less than 5 feet in front of me. It was Paris Fucking Hilton.

A wave of horror mixed with fascination seemed to sweep over the crowd as people recognized her. I imagine this is the standard reaction to seeing Paris Hilton. We were told by the emcee that Paris Hilton would be introducing Deborah Harry and were reminded that she was this year's Parade Grand Marshall (along with her mother, Mrs. Hilton). Around me, people began to ask, "Why is she the Grand Marshall?" It was a question I overheard strangers repeat throughout the weekend.

Paris Hilton took the stage wearing a fringed sheaf dress in the gay rainbow colors and began gushing to the crowd about how much she loved gay people. I suppose it's a good thing that there are pro-gay millionaire heiresses out there. Perhaps gay people should encourage it; perhaps the world would be a better place if only there were more pro-gay millionaire heiresses. Maybe it's even a tipping point of sorts: if only enough millionaire heiresses were for us, the whole country would then rush to embrace gay civil rights. Still, I find it hard not to interpret the stark fact of Paris Hilton acting as Parade Grand Marshall as a slap in the face.

Lucy Lawless at Gay Pride 2005 wearing golden wig.Last night, I went to go see Lucy Lawless at the Gay Pride festival in Los Angeles. Before Lucy came on, I also caught Ce Ce Peniston and Deborah Harry performing onstage.

The night made me think back to the first time I attended the Gay Pride festival in L.A., more than 20 years ago. (Did I just write that?) It was a very different time then, and the gay scene was much more underground. There were no celebrities onstage back then, that's for sure. In fact, if I remember correctly, the highlight of the performance schedule on Saturday night was a drag group called "The Mandrew Sisters," who sang covers of golden oldies by the Andrew Sisters.

So it was really exciting for me to see acts like Peniston, Deborah Harry and Lucy Lawless performing at Gay Pride. I wrote last year about how excited I was by Lucy's appearance at the Gay Pride Run. I wasn't expecting her to come back this year to sing, but I was certainly happy she did. Especially as I didn't see much else in the way of lesbian-centric entertainment this year.

Lucy was wearing a costume that included a long, luxurious golden blond wig. I actually think the audience was a bit unsure it was Lucy at first. But since I've seen Lucy in different wigs and costumes at the various Xena conventions it didn't throw me off one bit. In her costume and wig, I felt I could see a certain physical resemblance between Lucy and The Ultimate Sex Goddess of All Time, Ann-Margaret. Lucy sang a single disco song--I wish it had been a longer set, but it was still great to see her.

I was sort of hoping that someone from the L Word might make an appearance at Gay Pride but that wasn't the case. However, it makes me appreciate Lucy's willingness to perform for a lesbian crowd all the more. It's still an act of bravery for a celebrity to appear at Gay Pride, and I'm grateful to Lucy for having the guts to do it.

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