Sunday, March 31, 2013


I've been watching one of TCM's "Forbidden Hollywood" collections, which showcases movies made in the 30s before the Hays Code really became active and movies were forced to become coy and generic for the good of the viewers.  I always have to put my hand in the air when someone refers to the sweet, good old days when men were men and women were babies and no one cursed or took their clothes off, as my grandmother would say.  I don't think so.  Shit was raw when your grandparents were running it.  You just don't know because they didn't tell you.  Ask Ruth Chatterton. 

These early movies were mostly free of censorship and contain all kinds of things like near-nudity, violence, portrayals of women that violated the conservative norm (running businesses! doing drugs! sex with non-husbands!), and difficult topics like rape, abortion, incest, abuse, addiction.

Unfortunately, the drawback to many of these earlier films is they are terrible.  They have weird, pointless plots, bad acting, continuity issues, and, worst of all for me, stupid and convenient endings.  Still, I love them best.  I watch them over and over because there are so many small details and I love absorbing all of the sets, street scenes, clothes, slang.  They seem like much truer reflections of life than glossier, more edited films. 

Since the code was enforced from the mid 1930s to the late 1960s, I would guess most people probably haven't seen films made before it.  My first exposure to pre-code movies was FEMALE (all caps for emphasis, as in, not a lady but a-), which is a story about the fall of a corporate titan who learns the same lesson that all women learn in these films: being independent will ruin your entire life.  Societal constraints for women are for their own good!  Examples:

The Divorcee (1930): A wife learns that her beloved husband has cheated on her with someone named Janice, for god's sake.  She gets very drunk and sleeps with his best friend as payback.  He divorces her and she's never happy again.  Until he takes her back.

A Free Soul (1931): A girl is raised by her libertine father whose lack of conservative parenting lands her in the bed of a mobster who looks a lot like Clark Gable.  Clark tries to ruin her life and Leslie Howard rescues her and brings her back to the prim world she should have occupied all along.

Three on a Match (1932): A bored and fickle housewife leaves her goodguy husband for some scumbag she meets on a cruise.  She gets addicted to heroin and the boyfriend abducts her child from the ex-husband to ransom him for money to pay off his debt to the mob. A very young and vicious looking Humphrey Bogart is one of the bad guys who decides to just kill the child, which the mother prevents by jumping out of a window with a note to the police about the kid's whereabouts written on her dress. 

Starting to get the idea?  I think it's safer in the house, babe.

Another thing that shocked me about the pre-code films is seeing big stars playing some scandalous roles as younger women.  One day I was searching for photos of Claudette Colbert in her Cleopatra outfit, as you do, when I found this clip from The Sign of the Cross, another crazy early film.  I thought the Cleo dress was risque for her, but apparently not.  Here she is, playing an Arab princess and bouncing around topless in a milk bath.  Well, she is French.

I was also surprised to see Norma Shearer in similar roles, although they apparently couldn't get her to take her clothes off, and the extent of her sex scenes are outside shots of some drapes closing, or of her being in a man's house in the morning, which tells you all you need to know about her night.

Edit: OH MY GOD, Universal has gone through and had all the clips from The Sign of the Cross taken down!  Don't they have better things to do?  But I did find this, in case you didn't believe me earlier:

A few years later, she'd become America's considerably more modest sweetheart in "It Happened One Night"

Friday, March 22, 2013

Next Stop is the Grave

Well I did it.  I reached into my heart and/or soul and conducted out a 10 track playlist about flagrant gothery. 

In my review, however, I realized two things: 1. This is obviously just an installment and 2. All of these artists are British except Dead Can Dance, who are Australian, and Christian Death.  Of course the British make better music in this realm.  They're just standing on a big pile of bones and angst over there.  There are American goth outfits, of course, they're just all later and suck. 

This list contains nothing but well known, well-loved hiteroos, including the excellent Bauhaus cover of Ziggy Stardust, which I actually like better than the original, although only kind of if you're going to get all heated about it.  I don't repeat any artists, which was obviously a hardship for me.  I also stay largely on track, genre-wise, which is actually totally impossible at all times and we start with punky goth, then move into more baroque eyelinery stuff and then into neo-folk with almost no attention paid to new romantic this time.  Deal with it?  Don't worry, next time there will be Marc Almond.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The smell of creosote is so everywhere lately that I barely noticed that I should be smelling orange blossoms right now. 

I'm always on the edge of desert now.  I veered from my path today to drive through my old north central neighborhood, sure it was a space where the white blossoms would take over for the little creosote poms.  It was.  Dueling spring scents.

I love the musty musky smell of orange blossoms, and the creeping smell of the creosote, which makes me think of rain and delicate green grass that looks like carpet on the mountains.

I volunteer at a tiny art gallery every once in a while.  Because my schedule is insane, I only ever make it there about once a month, but I keep it on my schedule because why not.  The gallery is on the first floor of City Hall, almost completely unknown to the public, which is fine by me, because I just sit and read for a couple of hours in almost completely uninterrupted silence.

I was interrupted this morning by a quiet, somewhat grizzled older guy in all black and a feathered hat who came in to ask me about prints of the pieces, all recent shots of architectural landmarks around Phoenix.  He pointed to the Valley National Bank on Camelback and 44th st, saying, "That's my building."  Maybe I've just had too many downtown kooks up in my face recently, because I just smiled and nodded to the guy, thinking, yeah buddy, it's my building too, we all like it.

I asked him for his contact information to follow up about the prints and watched as he printed his name in exacting block letters, then spent the next 10 seconds squinting blindly into space, my mind desperately trying to remember and fact check without the internet.  As soon as he started to leave, I concluded: he designed the Valley National Bank building, the "mushroom bank," in 1968.


I didn't call after him to tell him that I had finally figured out who he was, because really.  His demeanor was interesting, very quiet, almost awkward, although I usually find introverted, subdued people to be interesting. 

Anyway, he is cool.  About the building.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Julius H. "G." Marx

Groucho: Say, I wanna register a complaint. 
Captain: Why, what's the matter?
Groucho: Matter enough. You know who sneaked into my stateroom at 3:00 this morning?
Captain: Who did that?
Groucho: Nobody, and that's my complaint!

All of the Marx Brothers films have little spaces after each zinger, allowing time for the audience to laugh without missing the next one.

It's amusing that Groucho is always the lech in the movies, but that may be an exaggerated reflection of life.  Lines like,

Waitress: What can I do for you?
Groucho: I'll tell you later.

...would probably piss me off in a modern film, but the way he alternates being completely ridiculous with making sly dog side comments just amuses me instead.

Like a lot of things that feel like a given now, the humor of these movies seems like part of a universal cultural memory.  When I first started watching these films, I was surprised at how familiar the jokes and antics felt.  Did I watch them as a kid and forget?  Maybe.  What's more likely is they were copied, referred to and lampooned in a lot of old cartoons and came to me that way. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Oh, battleaxes.

Here's the thing - people hate salty, bitchy, eccentric old women.  Even salty, bitchy, eccentric younger women hate them.  Why?  That's you in 25 years, dummy!  Recognize! 

I like tough, grouchy old women because I find them to be kind of charming, and oftentimes, that brand of no-fucks-giving eccentricity is a sign or byproduct of above average intelligence.  Most people would have to agree that a quick survey of the most intelligent people they know also contains the fussiest, most self-embattled people they know. 

This Bette Davis appearance on Dick Cavett inspired me to explore this topic.  Look at her!  Wearing a mink beret and Emma Peel boots, and looking good.  She's sassy and funny but you know she could attack at any time. 

I have a weird relationship with battleaxes in that I almost always get along with them while the rest of the world avoids or merely tolerates them depending on their level of importance.  I don't find their gruffness to be a personal affront, and I seem to know how to talk to them in a way that quickly gets me out of their bitch zone.  Did you see The Horse Whisperer?  Like that.  It's amazing what funny little skills we develop based on adaptations made for survival in childhood.  My family is filled with "difficult personalities," and I grew up in a coven of old women and their friends.  I'm in.  I'm one of them

That's not to say that all crotchety old women are secret-charmers with valuable things to share with the world.  Like most old men, some old women are just bastards, perversely spreading their sourpuss misery as widely as they can.  I worked in retail as a kid, and the most unfairly, unpredictably mean people by far were old men, and then women of menopausal age.  Sorry - realtalk.

Since entering the museum world, I have been exposed to lots of eccentric old women, and I have cultivated positive relationships with them all while the rest of our peers can't stand them.  At the same time, I have a very difficult time connecting with those bubbly, frivolous persons most loved in their little networks.  I find them irritating, and they find me off-putting.  I belong to another world, and we'd all prefer that I stay there.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Today is the 10th anniversary of my grandma's death. 

I don't have a lot of introspection about this "milestone".  It somehow feels like much less than a decade, and infinitely more.  It's still a bit of an open wound for me and everyone else in my family.  After she died, I went home and wrote a long account of the experience, but I think I'd rather do just about anything than read it again.  There's no need to as it's all part of the architecture of my brain now.

Some people are just bigger than others.  She somehow managed to be highly relevant to everyone she knew, a detail that was never more evident to me than when I turned around at her funeral to see my dad's old friend, Big Don, dressed like a Guns & Roses roadie as usual, crying openly on the grass.

Her life is an interesting piece of Americana lost to the contemporary world, along with those of all her peers.  Her mother was born outside of Deadwood, South Dakota, around the time when it was at its rowdiest peak of now-cliched wild western danger, to a French mother and a Scottish father.  In her early twenties, she (the mother, Rose Emma) went off with her sister to participate in a land race whereupon they staked a couple of claims in Vermillion, SD.  Soon after, she met Tom Monaghan and returned with him to the family parcel in Percival, Iowa.  My dad's favorite stories are about Tom's father, Ed, the "Irish wetback," who almost got sent back to Ireland in the 1870s when his ship was quarantined in New York Harbor, containing as it did more sick people than healthy.  Certainly disappointed and probably figuring that another few weeks in that floating deathbox would be the end of him, he and some conspirators jumped ship and swam in, stealing onto the beach and into the streets, bypassing Ellis Island all together.  He deprived me of those records, but I understand.  Ed worked at some manual labor jobs for a few years before striking moderate wealth in something to do with the railroad, at which time he sent home for his wife and daughter, and resumed their family in America.

The reason my dad likes him so much is because he was a large, brutish man who drank and cursed like 19th century Irish dudes are supposed to, and because he survived having a house fall on him, unlike some witches we know.  Apparently, Ed wanted to pick his first Percival home up and move it over a few acres, but when he was underneath the raised structure, the supports failed and the house came down.  Ed wasn't killed, but he was physically pinned for a few hours.  The local papers dramatically retold the story of his herculean survival.  My dad can't get enough of stories like this.  I'll look for the articles on chroniclingamerica soon.

My grandma was born in 1920 and used to joke to me that she didn't bother to "get born" until the 19th Amendment came along and straightened things out a little.  She was the tenth of eleven children between Rose Emma and Tom, and caught and nearly died from scarlet fever as a child.  Her lungs were scarred by this experience and she lived the rest of her life with fluid in her lungs and a rattling cough.

The one in the middle, sticking her tongue out.
Home was a five-bedroom Victorian house built by her grandfather Ed not long after the old house fell on him.  He had come into more money and required a more luxurious domicile to house his large family.  The house was fancy, compact, and cute, with a scalloped roof, widow's walk, gingerbread detailing and spindles that had been turned by hand on the site.  As far as I know, it's still there.  My dad threatened to buy it the summer after she died, and I barely survived the life-rending disappointment when he changed his mind.  The house is hours from city-slicker civilization, an isolated and vulnerable white speck in a sea of soybeans and corn.  He didn't want to deal with it, but I had already sold myself on holding court in there for the rest of my life like a mid-western Little Edie Beale, wandering glossy wood hallways with a scarf tied around my head, making up dances, regular stuff. 

8th grade
My grandma didn't care about all that and if I cooed over the beauty of the house in photos, she would tell me what it was like to clean it with six filthy brothers tracking mud and grass all over it and having to beat those rugs and do that wash. 

Cleaning with her mother, mid 1930s
She attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse and probably high school in Nebraska City.  She was the first of her siblings to bother to stay in school long enough to graduate; her brothers were all farming, one sister had been married off and the other had joined a convent as soon as she was old enough to go. 
Graduation 1938
Education was important to her parents, and she told me her father supplemented she and her sibling's schoolhouse education in their cellar using a chalkboard he had ordered by mail for that purpose.  He focused on math and language, primarily.  Unfortunately, he died in 1941, at which point they almost lost the farm, and five of his sons and one daughter trundled off to war, leaving my grandma and her mother to handle things on their own.  Rose Emma gave more than most to the war effort, with six children overseas and German POWs sent to work detail on the farm.  Almost as soon as he enlisted, the youngest boy was killed over the Pacific in 1941.  Straight out of a novel, he was 18, charming, and the shared favorite of a clan of contentious siblings.  My grandma said she felt sick to her stomach for a year every time she heard a plane flying overhead, and years later, her sister the nun recited to me from memory the contents of the letter that came to her at the convent to tell her of the death.  He was the only war casualty in the family.

My grandma remained in Iowa until, at age 26, she was told by a doctor to get her wet lungs out of the midwest or die.  So she moved to Sante Fe, where she lived with a girlfriend in an adobe house in the old part of town and worked in a typing pool.  

Far left, like you couldn't tell.

...until she met a dark dirtbag named Dale Benz on a blind date and was swept away to Arizona.  I don't know how she and my grandfather ever stood each other, but then, I don't know how my parents ever did either.  Vast differences in personality and goals seem less important when you're young. 

They moved to Arizona in 1949, and my dad was born the following year.  For some reason, a doctor had told my grandmother that she was barren prior to her pregnancy.  This was the blow of all blows to her because she so desperately wanted a large family.  "I always loved a crowd," she said.  This fear was compounded by the fact that she was already 30 and skating the precipice of old maidness.  She was so distraught by the thought of never having her own children that she said she went to church almost daily to pray to St. Jude, begging for children and wearing the finish off his toe.  Jude is my father's middle name.

My grandmother, her sister in law, my uncle, and Rose Emma in 1960
My grandmother loved children.  She delighted in playing with us, and was able to patiently take seriously all of the things that other adults seemed to dismiss.  We would very seriously embark on our crafting afternoons in which I glued plastic jewels and sequins to paper plates, and made wall art out of doilies.  We drove to craft stores all over town looking for the perfect supplies, but ultimately, our favorite resources were the dirty barrels filled with old buttons and trimmings at the local SAS store.

She would tell me stories about life on the farm, when her dad went out to work before dawn and returned after dark, or about learning to drive on the deeply rutted dirt roads, and about fleeing from the moccasins while trying to play in the ditches and "criks" in the summer.  Years later, on a pilgrimage to the old house the summer after she died, my cousin and I walked those dirt roads and peered into the wet ditches, looking for the snakes.  With disappointment and relief, we found none.  I can't think of many things more satanic than a swimming snake.  The roads and the fields and the house and the yard and ditches, trees and flat horizons in all directions felt like a hallowed place to me.  It was quiet and breathless for me to imagine her there as a young person.  Funny to think how many people have passed through that area not knowing what it is.

Somehow, her being gone still feels like the worst thing that has ever happened to me, because it's all still there.  It's a tripping hazard.  I feel disappointed and deprived, like a cosmic cheat has been committed in an area that I never thought was a vulnerability.  I have dreamt of her two or three times a year with total consistency since she died.  In every dream, she's alive again.  I'm always so surprised to see her, like finding a ring in the grass, there you are!  Usually, the dream-me exclaims and tries to ask how this can be, but she's always busy, shuffling around in her house, waving away my questions and putting me to work to fix or plan something.  She's always in her house. 

My cousin had a dream about her in which she was flitting about her living room in a great, loud party, drinking and talking and laughing.  My cousin started to cry at the sight of her in the dream and my grandmother said, "What? I'm fine! Look at me. I'm fine!"  Then she leaned in and advised her on a matter in her life, which turned out to be true.  I'm sick with the self-pity of missing her.  I can't imagine it any other way.

My three grandmas. 1920 on the left.
She looks alarmed in this pic, but she's actually just talking shit to my dad.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tormenta Who Can No Longer Chew

I love shop cats.  I enjoy that homeless cats sometimes find a home in the business of some kind fool who can't stand to see them on their own.  I often resent the official policy in the city park where my museum is, which states that I, and people like me, must refrain from feeding and/or encouraging the many feral cats to hang around.  Obviously these people don't understand that feral cats do whatever the hell they want regardless of whether I'm giving them names and trying to pet them or not.


Our botanical garden has a sister garden in Guanajuato, Mexico, presumably because they are the two largest desert gardens in the world (ours is biggest).  I was browsing their site today when I noticed a post about a cat named Tormenta, who has been living in the garden for some years.  A local artist has been selling pictures of Tormenta to help support her in her final years.

"This work is currently on exhibit in our Gift Shop and shows our dear Tormenta, the cat that has been living in El Charco for 15 years. Tormenta arrived just eight years after the Garden’s creation (1999), a few months old and since then has been the watchman and charm of the reception of El Charco.

The work was donated by the artist, Terra Mizwa, who also has made postcards from the painting of this famous feline which are on sale in the Gift Shop for 15 pesos. The money from the sale of these postcards will go to buying special food for Tormenta who can no longer chew."

It appears that prints and postcards of Tormenta cannot be purchased online at this time, which is a shame.  You can make donations, however, and probably specify that they are for La Tormenta.

El Charco Del Ingenio