Friday, November 26, 2010


Pee-wee Herman

"Let's face it, the world needs more Pee-wee Herman," Judd Apatow recently told Daily Variety, discussing the plan to make a brand new Pee-wee Herman film. And yes, I couldn't agree more. As a child growing up in the '80s and early '90s, Pee-wee (a character Paul Reubens invented in 1982) both amused and amazed me; essentially, Pee-wee is a grown man who never actually grew up. A grown man who still acts and sort of looks like a little boy, but with a unique-to-Pee-wee wacky sense of humor.

I was introduced to Pee-wee through his show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, which ran from 1986-1990, together with the Tim Burton (then relatively unknown) cult-classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and also Big Top Pee-wee (which, believe it or not, holds the world record for the longest on-screen kiss!). While Burton's film showed a slightly more troubled and anxious side of Pee-wee, The Playhouse served as his colorful and ageless habitat, a place where Chairy, Konky, Globey, Terry, Floory, Magic Screen and all other characters communed to entertain and enlighten Pee-wee, along with millions of child viewers like myself. And when I tell you I was obsessed, I mean obsessed. My father gave the blue living room chair paper eyes and a mouth to look like Chairy, I owned a replica of the Playhouse with tiny figures, and of course I loved the Pee-wee doll that talked (and now the voice sounds Satanic).

My admiration for Pee-wee didn't simply lie in the fact that a grown man was acting so childish, and thus defying the adult world I was already subconsciously preparing for, but that his TV show didn't try to make kids feel childish. Pee-wee spoke directly to his audience during each show, but since the children watching were basically on his level, Pee-wee seemed like an equal. He tapped into child imaginations; in the Playhouse, everything was alive: animals and objects, flowers and the floor, claymation dinosaurs who live in the wall, and even the food in the fridge! He walked kids through writing letters (with a giant pencil), talking on the telephone (tin cans!), making a healthy breakfast, meeting new people, making heartfelt wishes, learning new words, and wearing a helmet. He was visited by aliens, a cowboy (played by Morhpius!), puppets, "the most beautiful woman in Puppet-land," the King of Cartoons, and many other characters.

Paul Reubens was exceptionally dedicated to his creation, appearing for multiple interviews and awards ceremonies as Pee-wee. And though he hadn't at first intended his character as one for children (when he first performed with The Groundlings), he turned Pee-wee into a proper role model, making his show a morally positive one that cared about issues like racial diversity and compassion. Reubens was also very careful about his influence; even though he was a heavy smoker, he never allowed himself to be photographed with a cigarette, and he also refused to endorse candy bars and other kinds of junk food. Reruns of Playhouse lasted until 1991...until, that is, Reubens' arrest.

We all know the story: he was arrested for "indecent exposure" and his career was, for that moment, through. But there's more to this tale: he was arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater, where he was watching a porno film, in the dark, alone. My question is: why were the police patrolling an adult movie theater? Was there nothing better for them to do in Sarasota, Florida than catch, or watch, lonely guys touching themselves? In my opinion, Reubens' offense was mild, very mild, especially when compared to the crimes rumored or committed by other celebrities. And obviously the courts didn't even consider it a hefty offense, since all Reubens had to do was pay a $50 fine and perform seventy-five hours of community service.

The major problem here was that he was still a role model for children; except, of course, Reubens was not actually Pee-wee. The public didn't quite see it that way. Reubens had not been in character for a year and a half, so his mugshot was shocking: long-haired, a little bearded, and wearing a tee-shirt, oh no! The public couldn't fathom how this Paul Reubens was the same guy who donned a too-small gray suit, shiny white shoes, little red bowtie, and closely cropped boyish haircut. Many assumed that the arrest caused the cancellation of his TV show, even though the show was already in reruns. CBS did cease airing the show after the incident and Reubens, as well as Pee-wee, kept a low profile for the rest of the '90s.

But in recent years, Reubens has both managed to act in major films and also to dredge Pee-wee from the ashes. As evidenced by his new production, "The Pee-wee Herman Show," running first in Los Angeles and now on Broadway, Pee-wee is still loved and respected. I was fortunate to have gotten to see the Broadway show this month, and I cannot even describe how wonderful it was to witness the love Pee-wee devotees expressed throughout his show. Many wore his signature red bowtie, and some even full Pee-wee regale. The place was jam-packed, sold out, and I even spotted Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green sitting together.

When Reubens parted the big red curtain and walked out onto stage, the theater roared with applause for several uncontrollable minutes. The diverse audience just couldn't clap enough. It may sound strange, but the support and love for Pee-wee brought me to tears! Here was a character who touched so many lives, and now those who religiously watched the show as children could all revisit a collective childhood for a solid ninety minutes.

After the curtain fully parted, the Playhouse, in all of its original glory, came into view. There it was, right in front of me! I was sucked back into the world Reubens so artfully and carefully created, and even the original Jambi, Miss Yvonne, and the mailman appeared through the zig-zaggy red door. Essentially, the show was made for Pee-wee afficianados, though anyone could enjoy it, revealing Pee-wee's aluminum foil ball (it has grown quite large over the past two decades), "la la la la, connect the dots," cartoonish eyes in the dark (from Big Adventure), a Penny cartoon, and the years in which it existed.

A new character, Sergio, decided to properly wire the Playhouse so Pee-wee could go on the internet, but after Pee-wee finally logged onto AOL on his gigantic, out-of-date computer, he became overly obsessed. Soon, he realized that he didn't need to make "new" friends via Chatroom because he already had his loyal ones right beside him (cue the "aw"). While the show relied on childish humor, it was definitely geared to adults, just like The Pee-wee Herman Show that existed prior to his children's show days. He referenced gay marriage, children in the Israeli army, group sex, and of course, masturbation! If the standing ovation Reubens received has proven anything, it's that Pee-wee is far from finished...."I know you are, but what am I?!"

-amy dupcak.
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Friday, September 10, 2010


January Schofield and Early Childhood Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a strange illness. While there are many commonalities among its "sufferers," it's quite the unique-to-the-individual type of condition. And while it seems to be devastating and dangerous for some, for others, it offers creative and artistic insights.

Take Mark Vonnegut, for example (yes, he's Kurt's son). His memoir, The Eden Express, chronicles his descent into madness, and also enlightenment, after taking LSD. When the acid-trip brought on his dormant schizophrenia, he had to be taken off the Canadian island where he and his hippie friends were living and farming, and handed over to a mental institution. After a plethora of medications, Vonnegut learned how to handle his disease organically, changing his diet to alleviate his personal symptoms. Others do not possess the same amount of control.

January Schofield is only eight years old, and far too young to properly devise her own coping mechanisms. But thanks to her parents bringing her on Oprah, Discovery Health, and other programs, she's become a well-known face of childhood mental illness. I'm not particularly interested in the controversy surrounding her father's admittance to hitting her (during one of her violent rages) on his blog, nor am I won over by his plea "to get the general public to reconsider that when they see a child acting up in public, it may be because of a mental illness and that they should not be so judgmental," since I think this is completely self-driven as well as overly idealistic, but I am interested in what goes on in young January's head.

Here is what I do know: Jani (as she's often called) apparently has a genius I.Q, and a generally soft spoken manner. Despite adult-dosages of the most potent anti-psychotic medications available, she continues to battle vivid hallucinations, delusions, and uncontrollable violent rages. She lives with one foot in the "real world" and one foot in her own personal world, called Calalini. As she said to Oprah herself, Calini is "on the border of my world, and your world." This imaginary place is home to mysterious animals and little girls that play with Jani and sometimes tell her to do bad things. Two recurrent creatures are "Four Hundred" the cat and "Wednesday" the rat; last year, Wednesday told Jani to find a place that was fifty feet high and then jump from it. Luckily, Jani didn't listen, but it's possible that one day she may involuntarily kill herself, or badly hurt someone else. At present, her parents maintain two apartments so that she does not injure her little brother. Jani also suffered some oxygen deprivation during or shortly after birth, which killed some brain cells. Doctors think that this exacerbates her psychotic states; however, they do not think this caused her mental illness.

Her father attempted to explain Jani's obsession with numbers and animals: "Every schizophrenic has certain hallucinations. My personal theory is that when Jani's illness was becoming acute, she was learning a lot at the time. She was learning about animals and numbers. At 13 months old, she knew her numbers to 20, and she always loved animals. And I think that is the form her hallucinations took."

My own childhood was colored by my vivid and overactive imagination. I'm sure this is the case with most children, and certainly I brought many other people (like my sister, cousins, and friends) into one of many worlds we could create together, but I do think that my ability to simultaneously exist in my head and reality lasted well beyond the age that most kids stop "pretending." I did not experience uncontrollable hallucinations (well, I did have an imaginary friend I don't remember, as do many kids) or violent episodes like Jani, but I did pace back and forth for hours on my lawn or in my basement, talking to myself. My sister makes fun of me to this day for the way I used to do this, oblivious to anyone else watching and wondering who I was talking to.

My inner world fostered a rich connection to myself, and I mourn the loss of the ability to create an all-encompassing inner-reality in which I could exist. At twenty-six, I am far too self-aware, and also too self-conscious, to fully "pretend." However, the ability to make things up, and keep myself entertained when nothing or no one else can/could, simply by way of my thoughts, has evolved into a love of and passion for writing. One day, I hope to make things up for a living.

Curiously enough, another thing that connects me to January is that my name was almost January too, since I was born on January 27th. Eventually, my mom decided that she didn't want anyone calling me "Jan" for short, so that idea was nixed, but I always thought it was a pretty cool name.

Well, we all know that Western medicine loves to put a label on a disease and then determine what the sufferer can or cannot do based on empirical evidence, but schizophrenia falls so outside any circumscribed course of action, rendering the predictable unpredictable and the sufferer largely misunderstood. Doctors also love to over-medicate anyone and everyone, even if that person is only a child.

Daniel Johnston lived in his own world too, and he wrote some gems of heart-wrenching songs, both before and after his own psychotic breakdowns. My hope is that January manages to function within the world that she subconsciously created, or perhaps within a world/realm that does exist somewhere but only she has access to, in addition to the one dictated by society. I guess we shall see.

-Amy Dupcak
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Saturday, August 7, 2010


German Expressionist films Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu

The Expressionist movement began in Europe around 1908: first as a style of painting, and then as a style of theater. It inspired Robert Weine’s famed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was released in 1920 and instantly recognized for its stylized mise-en-scène (or everything that appears before the camera) and theatrical choreography. The crux of the German Expressionist movement came two years later, with F.W. Mernau's classic film, Nosferatu.

Expressionist films like Cabinet and Nosferatu are characterized by their painted backdrops, symmetry and patterns, abnormally large proportions, sharp angles, artificial shadows, and slanted walls. These distorted landscapes create the illusion that the viewer is observing a painting set in motion: each shot, taken out of context, might be seen as its own piece of artwork. By expressing extreme psychological states via backdrop and costume, everything that occurs in front of the camera creates a heightened, maddened version of reality. Shadows are also used to create an added element of mystery and fear.

The actors in Expressionist films blend into surrounding scenery through dramatic costumes and makeup that mimic the fabric, lighting, or texture of accompanying sets and objects. The actors’ physical placements may also blend them into the scene, like Cabinet's Cesare the Somnambulist when he is unveiled, rigidly upright in a box, or Nosferatu's Count Orlok hunched in an archway that acts like a coffin. Many of the doors within Orlok's castle are also reminiscent of coffins, reflecting his living-dead state. Human bodies, much like the rooms, landscapes, and objects, are distorted and exaggerated in order to highlight and heighten the characters' emotions and personalities. Faces are also pale, with dark, sunken eyes.

The acting itself is exaggerated; embellished facial expressions and body movements represent psychotic states, likewise represented by the bizarre sets. In Cabinet, these feature impossible angles like triangular windows, crooked staircases, oversized doors, inclined walls, and a room with thick lines converging at the center. In Nosferatu, ongoing patterns, like the checkerboard floor, covey a sense of infinite space, unrestricted boundaries, and the illusion of endlessness.

Expressionist films tap into viewers’ imaginations and blatantly disregard all social and scientific norms of the ordinary world, or even of other types of film. There is no firm foundation to ground the characters, no set location or era in time to guide us as viewers, and no denoted reality. All events of the film take place within a mythical world; although resembling our own, the world of the film is a separate entity, surrealistic in its ability to trick the eye and fool the mind.

Dream and reality are also interchangeable and inseparable, especially in Cabinet. We are never sure whether we're watching the internal workings of a (perhaps dreaming) human mind, an artistic representation, or a film that speaks on behalf of the actual conditions of some place we've never been.

To take that idea even further, we can also consider the mental state of the actor, Max Schreck, who played the rat-like, long-nailed, vampiric Count Orlok (Mernau did not have permission to use the name Dracula, although Nosferatu is the first filmic version of Dracula). Some have speculated that he thought he was a vampire, although this is mostly a myth. Or is it? In 2000, the movie Shadow of the Vampire was a fictional account of the making of Nosferatu, where Max Schreck was indeed a vampire. I guess we'll never really know.

-Amy Dupcak
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Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Tattooist Anil Gupta

It seems like everyone is sporting a tattoo or two nowadays (especially in NYC), but that doesn't mean that everyone has good ones. Most of them fall way below what constitutes as art, let alone quality art, but every now and then a piece of ink really stands out. Anil Gupta's work, for one, reinforces the notion that tattooing is a valid, if not universally accepted, art form, and that tattooists are true visual artists who happen to use skin as their (perhaps more complicated) canvas.

Years ago, along with Lower East Side historian Clayton Patterson, I interviewed "tattoo mechanic" Wes Wood in his Chinatown superstore, Unimax. According to Wood, Anil Gupta learned the art of tattooing from a psychiatrist in his native Bombay, before moving to the states. In New York around 1990, when tattooing was still illegal, he teamed up with Wood, who recalled Gupta's early techniques: "In the beginning, it was like scar city, he wanted to do everything with a single needle. But he got over it, he has an incredible ability to learn and to invent in his own way. He didn’t want to know from anything, he would try this and try that and he was able to do things right away. It didn’t take years of effort, it took months and then he was ready to fly."

Today, Anil is one of the world’s greatest artists for realistic color design, working by appointment only in NYC. After he got into full-fledged color and highly refined detail, he became the first and most eminent tattoo artist of the realistic style, and even does miniature "postage stamps." Wes told me the story of how the two would compete, using rubber grips on pens, to write the entire alphabet in the smallest amount of space. “And he would do it like that,” Wes said, pinching his fingers together, “his eyes could see that. He could look at a needle and tell you if there’s the slightest thing on the edge of the needle that you and I can’t see; we can’t see that, but he can...his eyesight was beyond belief.”

Yup, and so are his tattoos:

I'll let you know when I get one ;)

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010


"Elegia" by New Order + More by Mark Osborne

Sometimes visuals and audio, like a film and a song, come together to create a poignant work of art that changes the meaning of both elements involved. Once interlinked, each serves a completely new purpose. Like when a song accompanies a scene in a film (take, for instance, "Mad World" and "Head Over Heels" in Donnie Darko), or when a music video brings a song to life (quite literally, like "Kiss of Life" by Friendly Fires), or when a song is chosen to stand-in for a lack of dialogue: to act as the voice of an otherwise voiceless visual piece. Such a thing transpired when filmmaker/animator Mark Osborne used New Order's "Elegia" for his short film, More. He created perfect harmony.

As prolific as New Order was, "Elegia" is one of their most profound, and most unusual, songs. Sure, I love "Shellshock," "Age of Consent," "Ceremony," and so many others, but "Elegia" is just...unreal. For one thing, it's 17 and a half minutes long. A shorter, more "radio-friendly" version was released on their album Low-Life, in 1985, but the full version is available on the 2008 Collector's Edition Bonus Disc (there are five albums, with bonus discs, in the series). The band has supposedly stated that "Elegia," an elegy, was written in memory of Ian Curtis. It is an epic, morose tribute that has nothing to do with "Bizarre Love Triangle."

"Elegia" is dramatic and dynamic, long and sweeping, dark and gaping; and while it was oddly placed in a dramatic scene of Pretty In Pink, Mark Osborne knew how to use it best.

Stop-motion and claymation are no easy feats (I should know, I've tried 'em), but Osborne breathes such life, and such misery, into his clay character. Through this "man," we glimpse into the dystopian future, or maybe a symbolic representation of the world in which we already live. We feel for him, and through him, without words.

The short film screened in over 150 film festivals worldwide and was the first IMAX animated film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award, in 1999. But while it is brilliant and evocative in its own right, I do think it draws some of of its power, and emotional edges, from its marriage with "Elegia:" that nearly endless elegy for the tragic loss of a friend. Like I said...perfect. harmony.

Please watch, and watch again.

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Monday, July 26, 2010


The Mending Man, by David M. Collins

The mark of a good book is that it sticks with you, in your pores or your teeth if you will, long after reading. Even if you've only read it once, or say ten years ago, a book you've fully digested should never completely exit your body, after the two of you have bonded. A meaningful book continues to haunt you, inspire you, flash an image or two at will and force you to make comparisons with other works of art or literature. For me, this is The Mending Man, by David Collins, one of the most unique books I have encountered.

During the summer of 2004, my first summer living in New York City actually, I was interning at an independent publishing company (wait, that sounds familiar). I often read manuscripts proposed by agents and then wrote reader's reports for the editors. Usually, you're encouraged to read the first 50 pages, and then, if you really like the text, 50-some-odd more, but I was so invested in The Mending Man that I took the manuscript home and read the entire thing in one night. Despite the praises I offered in my lengthy report, the company decided not to publish it, or rather, not to republish. The novel had already been published in Canada in the '70s, but it was nowhere to be found in the US and apparently hadn't received much attention. In fact, if you try to find information about this book on the internet, you'll come up pretty empty-handed (try).

I have only read this book one time, but luckily I still have the reader's report I wrote six years ago, and thus the story is still fresh in my mind. Here is the synopsis, based on memory, my earlier writings, and those haunting images that continue to lurk:

This is a novel about hope. The unnamed narrator composes stories about his conflict-ridden life because he has been arrested and sentenced to prison. For a good part of the book, though, we have no idea that he is in prison, and assume he's trapped in some sort of mental hospital. He is writing for 99 days straight, one hour each day, and hence 99 sub-sections appear within 11 chapters. He is fascinated with numbers.

As he recounts his troublesome life, beginning with how he became handicapped (one leg is significantly shorter than the other due to a childhood accident), we learn that he was neglected and mentally abused by his mother as soon as he became “crippled,” picked on and physically abused by boys at school, and ignored during high school, never once going on a romantic date. He had a difficult time holding down a job and always tried to support himself while attempting to strengthen his relationship with his mother, which never quite worked.

At age forty, he attends The Institute to learn about Health. Dr. Bliss, his mentor, has a unique, alternative method for "helping people" with their medical problems (I distinctly remember suction cups as a healing method, and perhaps some strange machine). The narrator studies philosophy, anatomy and science, becomes an apprentice, and eventually sets up his own (not-so-legal) Health Enterprise. Now we learn that he is telling us his life story for a reason. He has something important to share...the truth.

He never meant to hurt anyone, only to provide them with Health. He never meant to kill that young girl when her father asked him to give her an abortion. He had no idea what he was doing, not having had proper medical training. We, the readers, must come to our own conclusions about the narrator's decisions and moral standing, not only based upon the stories of his difficult and traumatizing past, but upon how we view these types of situations based on our own, distinct morals.

We then come to a further realization that we have learned from him; he has taught us. No matter how we feel about his decisions, he will somehow remain innocent. Pure. This is a novel about many different things, but I say it is about hope because I believe Collins’ main character. He feels as real as anyone, and he is hoping, throughout his writings, that we understand.

My favorite passage from the book:

“Your lifetime is 70 years – three scores and ten – and that’s not much time. Here I can almost touch both walls with my hands outstretched, and yet as far as space is concerned it’s plenty enough for me. But who can touch his own childhood when he’s a grandfather? In fact, who can touch yesterday or tomorrow? It’s way over there some place, already out of sight or not yet into sight. We need both ends of it, or even a little bit of it, at a time. Only this moment we’re in right now, is all the time we can see.” --Collins

-amy dupcak.

(arbitrary artwork by Odilon Redon)
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Friday, July 23, 2010


Genie, the Wild Child

I have a personal fascination with feral children. The child I find the most remarkable, and the situation I find most bizarre, is "Genie," the subject of several books and films (such as a documentary by NOVA and a movie called Mockingbird Don't Sing).

While the concept of a feral child usually involves one who has been raised in the wilderness by animals after abandonment early in life, there are many others who become “feral children” after years of intense isolation indoors. Genie (which is a name given to protect her identity) is probably the most famous case. Discovered in California in 1970, she had the appearance of a seven-year-old, weighing just 59 pounds, even though she was thirteen.

During a routine medical exam as a baby, a doctor told the family that Genie seemed “slow” and could possibly have a form of mild retardation. Genie’s mentally unstable father, Clark, decided to “protect” her from the rest of the world by holding her hostage; Genie’s mother, Irene, was partially blind and dependent on her delusional husband. The parents and their older son slept in the living room while Genie was confined to a bare bedroom. She was tied to a potty-chair and made to sleep in a crib enclosed with metal screening, bound in a makeshift straitjacket. Year after year, Genie sat in the chair wearing diapers, with very little mobility. Clark beat her for making noise and would growl and bark like a dog to terrify her into silence.

Finally, Irene left the house with Genie and entered a welfare clinic, where a social worker alerted the police to the child’s condition. Shortly after, Clark killed himself, rather than face prison.

Genie soon became a prized patient for many doctors, psychologists, and linguists, as she bounced from home to home and endured an endless variety of tests, treatments, therapies, and examinations. She had be taught to chew, as well as to divert her anger and emotions outward, instead of violently scratching herself. During frequent temper tantrums, she would bite and kick, and would often urinate or masturbate without discretion. She also had a strange walk, which therapists called the "bunny walk;" she functioned as if blind due to her lengthy sensory deprivation and thus walked with her elbows bent and hands pointed down.

Eventually Genie, who gravitated toward shiny, plastic objects, warmed up to acts of affection, made eye contact, smiled, and formed personal bonds. But the biggest challenge was language acquisition, since she was practically nonverbal.

Language is the most important method of human communication and interaction, and it is integral to society and the functionality of its participants. Noam Chomsky wrote of the human brain’s innate language ability and believed that if you placed infants on an island together, they would eventually form their own language despite having never been exposed to one. Another theory suggests that puberty acts as an age limit for acquiring the ability to speak a language, as well as the proper use of grammar. When she was discovered, Genie was dangerously close to that barrier, having surpassed the “critical period” of early childhood when language is typically learned. Though she did begin to speak, as well as to sign, Genie was never able to create syntactically correct sentences and could not hold a conversation or communicate abstract thought.

Genie's fate and situation may be sad, but her case serves to show just how bright the human spirit can shine, against all odds.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010


The Pearl; Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Sometimes an album hits you, or blankets you, or reaffirms you in a way that's impossible to articulate because words don't do it justice. The feeling has everything to do with your life at the particular moment, or string of moments, where you find yourself listening to said album over and over, especially alone. It's an emotion tied to a place, a person, a calamity, or all of the above that blends seamlessly with one album to create a nonverbal attachment. A sort of musical photograph.

[Not to be confused with "favorite albums" that permeate your existence; what I'm talking about is an album that more-so applies to a certain set of circumstances and that you feel on a deeply emotional, or subconscious level. Mostly of the melancholy variety.]

If you ever attempt to coax others into feeling this specific album the way you do, you'll probably feel exposed, cracked open, splintered; not to mention hurt by their possible critiques ("it's boring" being my least favorite). If they weren't immediately connected to your initial experience, or string of experiences, that embedded the album in some unknown part of you, then it's impossible to pass on the internal significance.

For me, The Pearl is one of several albums that act as emotionally driven, nostalgic forces. Interestingly for me, The Pearl was released in 1984, the year of my birth (along with Treasure by the Cocteau Twins, which is just as, if not more, personally significant), although I didn't hear it until 2006.

Two famous ambient musicians, Harold Budd and Brian Eno, came together to create this album. I love both of them apart (like Budd's The Room and of course Eno's Another Green World), but this collaboration really speaks to me, without the necessity of words. And I deal with words all day long, so when music can line my bones and course my bloodstream without so much as a relatable set of lyrics, it means something.

It simply doesn't work to describe, define, or god forbid analyze the songs using words. I will say this: the piano glides and whispers, the same melodies drifting in out like flickering lights; in one moment, everything is new, and another moment everything familiar. This is, in my opinion, the mark of a perfectly conceived cohesive album, which begs to be listened to from start to finish, and then start to finish once more. The colors and abstract contusion of the cover symbolizes the blending and fading that happens throughout this watercolor-hued record, where the ocean, the sky, and your solitary bed converge at the break of dusk, or dawn, or whenever/wherever you choose to listen.

What makes this album particularly "Surreal" for me is that I used to fall asleep to it night after night, the waves of piano accompanying me. The music blurs the distinction between my self-aware mind and my subconscious; between the waking world where the music exists and breathes, and the sleeping one where it is but an echo, a reflection, an infinite stream of sounds.

Even just the titles of these songs are poetic:

# "A Stream with Bright Fish"
# "The Silver Ball"
# "Against the Sky"
# "Lost in the Humming Air"
# "Dark-Eyed Sister"
# "Their Memories"
# "The Pearl"
# "Foreshadowed"
# "An Echo of Night"
# "Still Return"

dream. and listen.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


French films Fat Girl and Sex is Comedy

The French certainly have a way with the cinema. From Godard to Tati to Catherine Breillat, they're not afraid to incorporate a sense of humor with sex, and to explore strange, unconventional, non-linear, or slower-paced storylines. As a female director, Breillat is a risk-taker, the most profound risk of which, in my opinion, involve her back to back films Fat Girl and Sex Is Comedy.

In 2001, Fat Girl challenged the notion of female sexuality when an overweight, thirteen-year-old girl becomes obsessed with sex, unlike her slightly older sister who, although much more beautiful, has reservations about sex and considers it dirty. In one poignant, almost unbelievable scene, the older sister, Elena, is in bed with her new boyfriend while "fat girl" Anais is "sleeping." The boy pressures Elena into sex, but she decides that anal sex is the less sinful option, and they engage in this act while Anais is wide awake and listening.

In 2002, Sex Is Comedy was shot in the style of a documentary, and Catherine Breillat played the director. She's directing another film that involves a very intimate bedroom scene between two young lovers who actually hate each other in "real life." Roxane Mesquida, who played Elena, now plays "The Actress." She prepares to shoot the same anal-sex-in-lieu-of-sex-sex scene she did for Fat Girl. Rather meta, isn't it?

Breillat, as a character, needs to coax Mesquida, as a character, into doing the scene (again) and getting it right. Finally, Mesquida gives the role even more emotion, fragility, power, and pain than she could muster one year earlier shooting Fat Girl. The dual scenes are successful on all levels, and Sex Is Comedy offers a unique look into how the first shooting of this scene might have (or might not have) gone. Maybe we're all just characters leaping in and out of roles and realities, trying to give our best, most convincing performance.


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Sunday, July 18, 2010


The "Gloomy Sunday" Suicides

David Foster Wallace might have gotten an idea for Infinite Jest (I won't say what it is, in case you haven't read this monster, although to be honest I've only made it through about 300 pages) from the legends surrounding "Gloomy Sunday."

The song was written and recorded by a Hungarian pianist and composer named Rezső Seress in 1933, using a poem by László Jávor. In 1936, the song became connected to a number of suicides in Hungary; those who committed suicide apparently did so after hearing it, or while it was still playing on their gramophones, or they included the lyrics in their note. The song was then allegedly banned in Hungary, a country that already had a high suicide rate.

In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded an English version of what became known in the US as the "Hungarian suicide song." Legend has it that radio stations banned the song for fear that it would cause people to off themselves, but it seems that only the BBC did so, citing the tragedies of WWII. While some sources claim up to 200 American suicides could be linked, others report no such connection.

However, Rezső Seress did commit suicide when he jumped to his death from his apartment in 1968. Also, Billy Mackenzie, a vocalist for the Scottish band The Associates, committed suicide in 1997; the band had recorded a cover of Billie Holiday's version fifteen years prior. And of course, David Foster Wallace killed himself as well (rip).

Mere coincidence? Collective unconscious? Read the original lyrics and listen to Holiday's version, if you dare....

The literal English translation of the original Hungarian lyrics are as follows:

Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday

I happen to think Radiohead's "How To Disappear Completely" also makes for a good suicide song. And let's not forget Nirvana's "Something In The Way" and NIN's "Hurt." Have a great Sunday!

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Thursday, July 15, 2010


The View-Master

Believe it or not, this childhood toy, which transfixed me in the late '80s, was actually made available in 1939, when the retail sales of View-Master viewers and disks first started. The idea was to create stereoscopic images, where two film slides are viewed simultaneously, one for each eye, to simulate binocular depth perception and make the picture appear three-dimensional.

It was in August '89 that the View-Master product line was sold, for the third time, to Tyco, which then merged with Mattell and became a Fisher-Price toy. In total, there have been about 25 different models of viewers and 1.5 billion disks produced, although the fundamental design and viewing experience remains pretty similar, unlike so many other inventions (what would Alexander Graham Bell think of the iPhone?).

I remember looking at pictures of Snow White through the View-Master and feeling like I was the sole observer of a completely separate world. As soon as you place your eyes to those little holes, you're lost to everyone else on the outside; and as you pull down that plastic lever and hear the reel click into place, a new picture sucks you in even deeper.

For me at least, the magic of the View-Master sure beats 3D movies or rides or tv screens. There's something so purely simple about the optical illusions you enter in your solitary, private, tiny viewing of View-Master images. Even Noi the Albino (from the Icelandic film of the same name) was able to escape his wintry white, lonely world and enter sunnier landscapes via View-Master. It's one of the most poignant moments in this beautiful film, and certainly one surreal and wonderful element of my childhood.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010


JT LeRoy

The story goes a little something like this. A boy named Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy is "raised" by his single mother, Sarah, who at first gives him away and then fights for him back. She dresses the young JT like a girl, nicknames him "Cherry Vanilla," and teaches him how to shake his stuff for truckers at truckstops. JT's life story is filled with sex, prostitution, drugs, abuse, and outrageous experiences few would desire.

Several years later, in 1999, he writes and publishes a book called Sarah, which details his days as a twelve-year-old boy who pretends to be a virginal girl while employed by Glad, the pimp who runs the truck stop brothel in West Virginia. JT calls himself Sarah and tries to be the best 'lot lizard.' Then JT publishes a second book of short stories, detailing more of his wacky and downright awful childhood moments, including sexual abuse and rape at the hands of his mother and many men, and painting the picture of his pained, yet loving relationship with Sarah.

Many in the literary world supported LeRoy, including celebrities like Shirley Manson and Madonna, and writers like Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill. But while he made public appearances and hung out with such celebs, LeRoy claimed he was too shy to appear without a wig, hat, and sunglasses. But then, in 2006, the whole house of cards came tumbling down...when it came out that JT LeRoy wasn't real. It was all a hoax. So, who was the real JT LeRoy?

Well, the books were written by former phone-sex operator Laura Albert, with quite a history of her own, and the public appearances were made by her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop...who is actually a woman. For me, this makes the whole thing even BETTER.

For starters, knowing that it's indeed fiction means that a boy named JT didn't suffer all of these atrocities, and that a woman named Sarah didn't let guys sodomize her son. I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of people who have had similar experiences, but at least there's one less with JT being invented by a female author. I think it takes guts for a writer to create a real-life character and attempt to make that person exist in the world, and though it does seem like a ploy to get more publicity and to rack up sales, I'd like to think of it as a gusty, art-driven (rather than commercial-driven) endeavor meant to shake things up and maybe even to expose the ridiculous irony of a nonfiction story about someone's traumatic life being more compelling than fiction. I think Albert's "hoax" was an interesting little experiment, as she hung out in the shadows of "his" fame, anonymously lending "JT" her writing skills. Even after she was exposed, many who met and hung with JT still supported "him." Asia Argento being one of them.

Argento claimed to have even slept with JT, while she was working on a film based on his stories. That film, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, is dark and scandalous, starring Asia as Sarah, Marilyn Manson as a drunk boyfriend, and Michael Pitt as...well, I'm not quite sure who he was supposed to be. Not to mention those Disney twins of Zack and Cody fame as ten-year-old JT.

Long live JT LeRoy.

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Monday, July 12, 2010


Two underwater album covers...

In addition to the infamous Nevermind cover, I often find myself captivated by underwater photographic work. My favorite is the cover of Catherine Wheel's Chrome, which also happens to be an amazing album. In fact, the underwater dancing perfectly symbolizes the shoe-gazey, slick and somewhat murky album, especially the song "Fripp." The photo was shot in an indoor swimming pool by legendary Storm Thorgerson of the Hipgnosis design company (think Pink Floyd)...which makes it that much better.

Now, Chrome was released in 1993, but just this year, just last month actually, British indie band Foals put out their second album, titled Total Life Forever. Since obtaining a copy of this album months before its June release, I've been listening nonstop...and, as you see, the cover art is eerily similar to that of Chrome. While the dancers in the blue underwater world of the former photograph are poised, fluid, and seemingly in effortless formation, the guys in Foals' underwater world look like free-falling hipsters. They're either drowning and sinking to their deaths, or they've grown some gills and are just hanging out down there for kicks. Either way, both bands are British, both covers surreal and both albums blissful.

...A note on Storm Thorgeson: he did another surreal watery cover for the Mars Volta, which is nearly as breathtaking, as well as a very emotive cover for The Cranberries. The man clearly has a thing for the color blue. See below:

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Sunday, July 11, 2010


Brooke Greenberg: The Girl Who Doesn't Age

So I've always been fascinated by people with abnormal medical conditions and mysterious disorders, partially due to my own sick curiosity and partially because they challenge the conventions of what it means to be "human" by representing a very wide range of possibilities of the human form...even though some of these conditions usually make the person's life much more difficult. One of the most intriguing cases I have heard about lately is a girl with a condition known only as "Syndrome X," since she is the only known person in the world with her specific abnormality. Although Brooke Greenberg looks and acts like a one-year-old child, this girl is actually a teenager, seventeen to be exact. Some believe she is "frozen in time."

Brooke has a mutation in Chromosome 1, but specialists and geneticists cannot explain how this affects her growth and development. She is unresponsive to growth hormones and any other type of treatment. Her sixteen-pound body is not developing as a coordinated unit, but as independent parts, out of sync. Her bones are like those of a ten-year-old, but she still has baby teeth.

Children's brains obviously grow and change as they age, yet Brooke's is not much more mature than that of a newborn, even though she was a newborn seventeen years ago; doctors estimate her mental age to be around nine months to a year old. What that says about her memories of the last sixteen years nobody can know for sure because while she can make gestures and recognize sounds, Brooke cannot speak. The medical field believes that she presents "a unique opportunity to understand the process of aging," even though her telomeres, which limit the number of cell divisions and indicate the body's true age (much like tree rings), seem to be shortening at a normal rate.

Another bizarre aspect of her condition occurred when she was five, after she'd already undergone other severe medical issues. Doctors found a mass in her brain and diagnosed it as a tumor; this caused her to sleep for fourteen days straight. When she woke up, the tumor had mysteriously vanished.

Brooke has three perfectly normal sisters, two very loving parents, and one full-time nurse in her hometown of Baltimore. It is unknown whether or not she will ever age in the future, or how doctors might make use of her very special case. She certainly represents the idealized "fountain of youth," which seems to be all the rage in the world of vampires. But while it might seem great to never age beyond eighteen, few would prefer to live their entire lives as an infant.

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'Anemic Cinema,' by Marcel Duchamp
This will eventually inspire my next tattoo...

Duchamp was a pioneer of the Dada movement, which rejected earlier artistic traditions and tried to sabotage the bourgeoisie culture. But aside from his Readymades which mocked high-art, his works of anti-art, and his obsession with the notion of artistic indifference and visual anesthesia, this film is beautiful and somehow least to me.

The beauty of this six-minute film (from 1926) lies in its two main features: visuals and words. The viewer’s visual experience and his/her literary understanding are equally important and yet consequently meaningless. In essence, Anemic Cinema is entirely conceptual because it lacks narrative, characters, emotional content, or even everyday objects with which to identify. It's simply ten varying, rotating spirals and nine rotating discs with inscribed phrases, which test your visual cortex.

In the spirit of the Dada Movement, Anemic Cinema is childlike, playful, and spontaneous. It is also anti-narrative, anti-logical and nontraditional in terms of standard forms of self expression. Unlike other works of art from the time, Anemic Cinema is not based on Dadaist or Surrealistic principles and seems to serve no intended purpose, while other works of Duchamp’s sought more specific responses from the audience. This film requires only that viewers watch, read, and let themselves become absorbed. Hidden morals or subversive motives appear absent.

The spirals are comprised of white and black lines of varying thickness. They rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise at different speeds and appear on the screen for slightly varying lengths of time, before fading to black. Each spiral is an optical illusion; the white and black lines serve to represent positive and negative space. As with any illusion, there are multiple ways of viewing the same illustration or object and, in the case of these spirals, they appear to be either expanding, popping out at the viewer, or contracting, sucking the viewer in. Some of the spirals seem to possess a textural surface, being one whole object or solid oscillating mass, while others look like circles within circles, which may rotate at different speeds, suggesting multiple spirals within a single disc.

Anemic Cinema’s spirals rotate infinitely as the film is viewed repeatedly, and yet they too are affixed to celluloid. All of the motion is actually individual still shots of a real-life machine (once displayed at the MoMA) that was moving in real-time, back in 1926. When placed together, the stills allow for the movement of the original machine to be translated to the still screen. Therefore, the motion has become infinite. The circles that create the illusion of spirals are likewise infinite, with no beginning or end. Does your brain hurt yet?

-amy dupcak.
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