UNSPEAKABLY COOL: LITTLE SAMMY SNEEZE

The third of the four coolest books published in the past few years is (I am compelled to report) also from Sunday Press Books — a collection of Winsor McCay’s pre-Nemo comic strip Little Sammy Sneeze.

This book is not a gigantic volume reproducing newspaper pages in full size, simply because Little Sammy did not command a full page on Sundays.  It is, instead, a good-sized coffee-table book — all that’s needed to reproduce McCay’s color Sammy Sneeze strips almost exactly as they were originally published.

Sunday Press’s philosophy in regard to reproducing old color strips is
very sensible.  They use modern digital techniques to correct the
fading of colors and the yellowing of paper, but don’t try to improve
on the colors as they would actually have appeared to a reader of the
time and don’t try to eliminate minor characteristic printing
errors.  What one sees in their books is thus a very close
approximation of the medium the comic strip artists composed for.

In Little Sammy Sneeze, McCay took a very small idea and made something wonderful out of it. The strips normally employ either six or eight panels, all showing the same location and generally from the same point of view.  Activity proceeds within the space of the location as Little Sammy works himself up to a sneeze, which usually produces catastrophic effects within the location and causes Sammy to be ejected from it angrily.  For some reason, this mechanical formula produces endless delight — much the way simple variations on a  musical theme can produce endless delight.

The drawing, of course, is brilliant, as you’d expect from McCay, and the period detail within the mostly realistic settings has only grown more magical with time.  The strips are in part about time, of course — small segments of time in which many things happen.
Seeing the way static pictures on a page can evoke a sense of the passage of time is intrinsically fascinating.  It’s like deconstructing the process of cinema, with the illusion laid out anatomically before you.

In one instance, McCay deconstructs his own medium, as Sammy’s sneeze fractures the frame of the comic strip panel itself:

If the gag in the strip is always the same, or more or less the same,
it is nevertheless always surprising — or perhaps one should say
always suspenseful.  There’s a psychological phenomenon involved
here that’s at the core of any good joke, which can make you laugh even
if you’ve heard it before.  In part, it’s the shape of the joke that
makes it work — a tension is created that can only be resolved with
the release of a laugh.  The same phenomenon is at work in all
stories, which is why it’s possible to cry every time you read A Christmas Carol — even if you know it almost by heart.

You can obtain Sammy’s sneezes here.

UNSPEAKABLY COOL: WALT AND SKEEZIX

The second of the four coolest books published in the past few years is another oversized volume from Sunday Press Book — Sundays With Walt and Skeezix.  It collects a number of Sunday pages from Frank King's brilliant long-running strip Gasoline Alley,
one of the glories of American popular art.  I've written before about the
series from Drawn and Quarterly Press which is reprinting the entire
run of the daily strip in a succession of handsome volumes — but the Sunday
pages are something else again.

In the daily strip, King created a narrative masterpiece graced with
many flights of visual invention, but in the color Sunday pages his
visual imagination grew much bolder — lyrical, almost abstract at
times.  He looked at the Sunday page sometimes as an arena for the
wildest experimentation — to see just how far the expressive potential
of a comic strip might reach.

In the Sunday Press collection we can see these Sunday strips almost as
their
first viewers did — in the same colors and in the same size. 
It's a measure of our culture's descent into mediocrity and triviality
that no work of such ambition and grace now accompanies any daily
newspaper in the land, and certainly no cable news channel.  It
used to be assumed that the visions of great popular artists ought to
be part of every American's daily dose of media.  Today only cheap
digital graphics and portentous musical jingles accompany the canned “news”
doled out by the major media outlets.

Americans have never liked being spoon fed “culture” — meaning culture
that somebody decided was good for them.  That was the beauty of
the comic strip — it was an art form so unpretentious, so vernacular
and casual, that Americans could consume it over breakfast or before
dinner without a trace of self-consciousness or social anxiety.  But its
expressive range was almost limitless.  We know that from the work
of artists like Frank King, who in their own quiet but audacious ways
tested its limits to the full.

You could read through these comics and weep that stuff this great used
to be thrown up on the porches of millions of Americans by
paperboys every Sunday morning — and isn't anymore.  Or you could read through them
and take heart at the fact that stuff this great could ever have been part of
American popular culture — and so might be again.  Why not?

You can buy Sundays With Walt and Skeezix here.

OTTO PREMINGER

In 1963 Jean-Luc Godard published in Cahiers du Cinéma his list of the top ten American sound films of all time. 
It featured many of the usual suspects — Vertigo, The Searchers — and one film you'd never expect, at least not these days . . . Angel Face (above), a classic film noir directed by Otto Preminger.

Among the French New Wave directors, Preminger was considered one of the
masters of cinema, who could be spoken of in the same breath with
Welles or Ford.  Today he holds a place somewhere between Cecil B.
DeMille and Fred Zinneman — considered a first-rate showman, as an
incarnation of the directorial persona, but otherwise a merely
competent craftsman of studio product.

I really can't explain what happened to his reputation as an
artist.  Perhaps the theatricality and commercial calculation of
his directorial persona cheapened him, made him seem less than serious,
as it did for DeMille and even Hitchcock for many years.  Truffaut
made Hitchcock respectable again, and DeMille seems to be undergoing
reevaluation these days.  Preminger is admired, if he's thought of at all, for his early noirs, and for the noirish Laura.  The major works of his later years are appreciated somewhat less enthusiastically.

These later films, like In Harm's Way,
for example, have the feel of standard studio prestige pictures of
their time — but in truth they're far more interesting than that,
certainly on a visual, cinematic level.  They are
filled with movies within movies — elaborately choreographed scenes
that often play out in one or two shots with a highly mobile
camera.  These passages are breathtaking — they impart a sense of
being someplace rather than of watching something.

They are, as the New Wave critics might have put it, passages of pure
cinema — examples of the discursive style largely lost to mainstream
movies since the coming of sound.  Ford, also working in the
mainstream, got away with this sort of thing mostly because he worked
in genre — in Westerns we were supposed to sit back and enjoy watching
men ride horses through spectacular spaces.  But the long tracking
shot that contains almost the whole first scene of In Harm's Way,
set at a naval officers' party in Hawaii on the eve of Pearl Harbor, is
very unusual in a big-budget studio melodrama.  It's exceptionally
effective — drawing us into the time and place on a subliminal level,
making us feel vulnerable to the Japanese attack that's unleashed the
next morning.

Almost all of Preminger's films have passages like this and they linger
in the mind, even if the film as a whole is disappointing.  Bonjour Tristesse
is one of the most disappointing of Preminger's films, but its mood and
sense of place were the things Godard riffed on to produce Contempt
– which is almost a formal variation on the visual and dramatic themes of the
earlier work.  (And of course it was Jean Seberg's odd but
compelling performance in Bonjour Tristesse that inspired Godard to cast her in Breathless.)

Preminger is due, overdue, for a comprehensive critical reevaluation.

UNSPEAKABLY COOL: LITTLE NEMO

The
four coolest books published in the last few years all reprint work by
masters of the American comic strip.  These books are so cool,
so unspeakably cool, that when I look at them I can't quite believe
they're real.  But they are.

The first of them, Splendid Sundays 1905-1910, is a huge volume that reprints in full size many of the Sunday color episodes of Winsor McCay's classic strip Little Nemo
McCay was the most cinematic of all comic strip artists — he created
fantasy worlds that are visually plausible but wildly whimsical,
exploding with dazzling transformations and dynamic movement through
deep spaces.

One should also say that McCay was not by any means the wittiest of all
comic strip artists, nor the best storyteller among them, but the
visual imagination of his strips transcends those limitations. 
The strips reveal their brilliance more fully the better and
bigger his work is reproduced.  That's the importance of Splendid Sundays, which
for the first time in nearly a hundred years lets us see the strips in something resembling the
medium for which they were created — a full-sized newspaper page.

With even small reproductions of the Nemo
strips we can sometimes feel as though we're falling into the spaces of
Nemo's nighttime dreamworld.  With Splendid Sundays we tumble headlong into
that world — and it's a truly magical place to be.  Sunday Press
Books has done a signal service to our culture in creating this huge
and hugely wondrous book.

You can buy it here.

A TISSOT FOR TODAY

Tissot loved the Thames and its waterfronts — which offered him
endless opportunities for the sort of spatial drama that he reveled
in.  The example above is especially dynamic, with its small boat
moving forward into a space in front of the picture plane as the
taller ships lead our eye backward into the space of the painting, reinforcing the sense of
movement.  The result is a highly cinematic image.

JOKERMAN

Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame,
Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain.

        — Bob Dylan, Jokerman

To call Bob Dylan the greatest Christian poet of the 20th Century (and the 21st Century so far) is probably to damn him with faint praise.  There just weren’t that many great Christian poets in the 20th Century.  His Christian poetry, however, is more alive and vital than the work of other poets with greater reputations, like Auden and Eliot, who were nominally Christian but whose poetry is less concerned with expressing passionate faith than with charting the ennui of a faithless age.

And Dylan is not quite a poet in the modern literary sense — his words don’t live on the page, only in conjunction with the music that is inseparable, expressively, from those words, and mostly only in his own voice.  Very little of his poetry survives in cover versions of his songs — although it can.  (Hendrix knew how to sing Dylan, and Dylan’s Gospel songs come gloriously alive in the versions of them by black Gospel singers collected on the recent CD Gotta Serve Somebody –  most other versions fail because the artists who attempt them don’t realize how deeply Dylan’s work is steeped in the blues, or have no great feel for the blues themselves.)

Dylan wrote two types of Christian songs, one type that fits more or
less directly in the Gospel tradition, however quirky his take on that
tradition might be, and one type that follows the image-collage strategy of
another American tradition, what might be thought of as Whitman by way
of the Beats.

Jokerman is of the second type.  It’s a powerful evocation of the image of Jesus, or rather the images of Jesus, but it’s hardly a catalogue of familiar icons.  It’s more like a passionate torrent of Dylan’s own various imaginings of Jesus, his own various attempts to comprehend him.  The momentum of the work seems to be deeply personal — not an intellectual or aesthetic meditation but a desperate attempt to record a racing stream of thought in which one image of Jesus is instantly rejected as insufficient, replaced with a corollary or opposing image.  The ultimate effect is a kind of lyrical portrait in the round — but a portrait in which the subject just won’t sit still.

Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.
Distant ships sailing into the mist,
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing.
Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?


The first quatrain presents us with the image of an almost pagan figure — a terrible Jesus who stands in conflict with the ancient false gods, the iron gods.  Dylan, too, was born with a snake in both of his fists and did not reject the terror of the predicament.  (Just try to imagine Auden or Eliot with their hands full of venomous reptiles — they would certainly faint dead away, once they realized that the snakes weren’t metaphors.)

But the last couplet jolts us back to a different kind of complexity.  Jesus, the lord of nature, the destroyer of false idols, is not free like the gods of old.  His power is useless in the absence of truth within the hearts of men.  This is the difference between Jesus and the other, older gods.  His power and his freedom count for nothing if they can’t be shared, communicated, translated into the language of simple men.  This fact defines his mission, his incarnation.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Bird fly high by the light of the moon,
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman.

Why “Jokerman”?  Because the paradox of Jesus’s mission is like the paradox of a good joke — too surreal to be taken seriously by a slow-witted humanity.  Many of the climaxes, the final unexpected twists, of Jesus’s parables are like the punchlines of jokes.  Laughter is not an inappropriate response to them.

In Dylan’s recording of the song, listen to the yearning, the hopelessness in Dylan’s voice as he sings the last line of the chorus above.  He is bemoaning the limits of language and music and human thought.

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed,
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space,
Half asleep ‘neath the stars with a small dog licking your face.

In the first couplet above, the paradoxes are almost resolved.  Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the scriptures, to reconcile them with the laws of nature.  The message of Grace will find unsentimental expression in light of a harsh view of this world and its inexorable destructiveness.  The issues, the stakes, won’t be fudged.   (See the couplet at the beginning of this post.)  In the next couplet above, Jesus is exalted, aestheticized — worshiped as he’s worshiped in art:

But Dylan can’t leave Jesus here — a figure carved in marble.



The last couplet above startles like a bolt of lightning — because
suddenly Dylan is back imagining Jesus as he walked the earth, sleeping
rough, on the road between two villages, as he must have done on so many
nights, getting just a little rest, and alone, probably grateful for
the affection of the little dog who undoubtedly showed up at the
disciples’ campfire looking for a handout.  This is a good man,
the dog senses — he won’t kick me.


All the allegories and all the art fade away.  The image of Jesus
won’t be fixed by any convention.  It always returns to the dust
of the earth and to mystery.  There are no “answers” in
Jokerman
just a question . . . who is this guy, who is this joker?  It’s
the question Dylan is asking himself, and it’s unanswerable.

Lyrics copyright © 1983 Special Rider Music

AFTER ACTION REPORT

My
friend Jae and I supplemented our modest cooking skills with large
doses of improvisation and luck to concoct a truly splendid
Thanksgiving meal.

Jae, in an impulse of reckless ambition, decided he would make mashed
potatoes.  “I'm going French with them,” he said, but would not
explain what he meant by this.

In the end he made stupendously
good mashed potatoes and only after they'd been tasted would he reveal
his ingredients.  Half-and-half for creaminess, a large but not
overpowering amount of finely chopped garlic, one single, large
shallot, a small amount of freshly grated Romano cheese and a pinch of
cayenne pepper.  I can't say
what's French about any of this but I can say that the results were
delicious.

Jae made stuffing but added to it at my request some oysters and, on
his own initiative, as likely to complement the taste of the oysters
well, some crumbled fried bacon.  Again . . . delicious.

Our large turkey for some reason did not produce much in the way of fat
drippings, so that late in the cooking of it we despaired of having
enough liquid in the pan to make gravy.  On another inspired
impulse, Jae poured some pumpkin ale into the pan, which made for a
very fine gravy in the end — an improvisation that could well become a
Thanksgiving tradition.

I confess I couldn't savor the meal as slowly and carefully as I might
have, because I started drinking too early in the day, and too many
different things.  A rosé wine, then some of the pumpkin ale,
which had a cheerful, festive taste to it, then some Chimay ale and finally a
Merlot with the dinner.  I was past consciousness even before I
got to the pumpkin pie, which served as a fine breakfast the next day.

Friday was a bit of a blur, sharply focused only by a turkey sandwich and by a viewing of Vertigo, which still yields up treasures after countless viewings in the past.

And so the time of leftovers begins.  From the look of things this should last quite a while.

A WILLIAM BLAKE QUOTE FOR TODAY

. . . the pang of affection & gratitude is the Gift of God for good. I am
thankful that I feel it; it draws the soul towards Eternal life &
conjunction with Spirits of just men made perfect by love &
gratitude—the two angels who stand at heaven’s gate ever open, ever
inviting guests to the marriage. O foolish Philosophy! Gratitude is
Heaven itself; there could be no heaven without Gratitude. I feel it
& I know it. I thank God & Man for it . . .

THE SHOW

Jae
and I headed back to Death Valley Junction from our dinner at the
Longstreet Casino coffee shop with plenty of time to spare before the
performance by Marta Becket (above) at her Amargosa Opera House.

We were amazed at all the people who'd showed up — the little theater
could hold about a hundred people and it ended up nearly full.

The place is a hoot — all its walls and ceiling painted by Marta
herself to resemble the inside of a Baroque opera house.  It took
her four years to complete the job.

Today she is frail and birdlike, but still carries herself as a
dancer.  She walks out onstage, sits in a chair and talks and
sings for about an hour.  She has great presence, partly
diva-like, partly girlish.  You come away from the show, from the
whole phenomenon of the Amargosa Opera House, with a swirl of questions.

Is it silly or sublime to be the biggest star in Death Valley, where there
are no other stars?  Is it heroic or preposterous to create your
own world out in the middle of nowhere and dare the rest of the world
to ignore you?

All of the above, I guess.  Marta's world is part David Lynch,
part Fellini, part senior high school play, part good old-fashioned
show-biz, utterly disciplined and professional.  Once she
bought a ghost town and brought it back to life — now she's a bit of a
ghost herself, but right at home in the spotlight.

What's profound about it all, I think, is the reminder that all theater
deals in the presentation of spirits, not quite flesh and blood, not
quite illusion.  She painted an audience for herself on the walls
of her theater, and every Saturday night at 8 o'clock between November
and May she conjures a real audience out of thin air, there on the edge
of Death Valley — she conjures us out of thin air, and we become part
of the ghostly goings-on.  We lose some of our solidity in the process and feel
that we know what it's like to dance on air.

[Photos © 2007 Jae Song]

DEATH VALLEY NIGHTS

On
our visit to Death Valley my friend Jae and I decided to attend a
performance at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, just
outside the boundaries of the national park.  The opera house sits
at one end of a large u-shaped arcade built in 1923 by the Pacific
Coast Borax Company as a kind of company town.  It incorporated
living quarters, offices, a hotel, a dining room and a community
center, which is what the opera house started out as.

When New York City dancer Marta Becket and her husband chanced upon the
complex in 1967 it was a deserted ruin, but Marta imagined the
community center as a theater in which she could exercise her
art.  She and her husband leased it, renovated it and gradually
bought up the rest of the complex, reopening the hotel and presenting
shows in the “opera house” every year from November to May, all
starring Marta.

She's still at it, though at 84 she can no longer dance.  She
gives a seated performance these days, in which she reminisces and
sings songs of her own composition.

While waiting for curtain time we drove seven miles north to the
Longstreet Casino, Hotel and RV Park.  Like everything else in
these parts, it's in the middle of nowhere.  As I learned from a
bartender there, the casino's fortunes rise and fall with the numbers
of RV campers who stop in on tours of Death Valley and the American
West.

There only seemed to be locals on hand when we visited.  “Why do
people live out in places like this?” I asked myself.  The answer
came to me after a while — “There are no yuppies here.”  It
was refreshing.

Jae and I had some decent burgers at the casino's coffee shop, and I won 57 cents at a slot machine.

Then we headed back to Death Valley Junction for the show.

A NEW LOW



My friend Jae is in town, visiting from New York, and yesterday for
some reason we decided to drive to Death Valley, which is about three
hours away.  It was like a journey to another country.

We headed straight for Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western
Hemisphere — 282 feet below sea level.  It was amazing to think
we'd sunk so low.



There was a broad pathway from the parking area whose surface was
packed salt.  As you walked out into the valley on this pathway
you could see other figures walking far in the distance.  It made
you feel like a pilgrim on some supernatural highway leading to the end
of the world.

The good news was that the only way we could go from Badwater Basin was up.

A ZORN FOR TODAY

Like Renoir, Anders Zorn seemed to be intoxicated by female flesh — the sensual surface of his canvases seems to be a sexual response to the female nude, whose aura radiates outward to affect her surroundings, which take on her sensual properties, as in the painting above.  The whole world seems made of flesh.  Renoir said, “I paint with my penis,” and the same can almost be said of Zorn.

Renoir’s world sometimes seems about to melt in the sexual delirium but Zorn kept a stricter control over his draftsmanship and his sense of modeling, of space — he was more academic in that sense.  The tension between the sensual surface and the precise rendering of forms makes Zorn’s work more interesting to me than the late Renoir nudes, which always seem to threaten to dissolve into goo (see above.)  They become more and more about Renoir’s mood and process, less and less about real women.