Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tramping The Galleries

Saying that the Autumn 2011 season on the gallery scene is the hottest in years would be an outrageous understatement. There’s something for everybody: “Pacific Standard Time”, the most sprawling retrospective of Modern Art In Los Angeles, dozens of photography shows featuring the most outrageous American shutterbugs, and even some wild lowbrow favorites. If it wasn’t happening at the movies or in the nightclubs it was definitely popping in the galleries!

Late October set the stage for the opening of the Ellen Von Unwerth show at the Fahey/Klein Gallery on trendy La Brea Avenue. Her new show coincided with the release of her new Taschen book, “Fraulein” ($500 – cheap?). The pieces featured were black and white - no color shots this time, and looked like some kind of Louise Brooks porn shoot complete with “Story of O” masks, making the models look like off-duty steampunk superheroines getting into sexual mischief. In the smaller room was the incredibly awesome fashion surrealism of Melvin Skolsky, showcasing his “Paris 1963” work. Skolsky is the photog who shot those insane “Model In A Bubble” in the streets of Paris series. The limited edition book was on sale there, also. One of the best Fahey/Klein shows I’ve been to.

Mid-November got even crazier starting with Travis Louie’s “Curious Pets” show at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery. The pieces were black and gray acrylic portraits with static white backgrounds fabricating the illusion of old turn of the century engraved photographs, but naturally with a wicked twist. Pieces included “Martin and His Bat”, a young man with a vampire bat sitting on top of his head. Then there’s “Agatha and Her Beetle”, a frail, anemic lass with a big, gnarly beetle resting in her wiry hair. Each piece was accompanied with a short fable telling a tale of these folks and their strange pets.

Pictured above is "Uncle Six Eyes", a great resin bust created in two versions: a white version and a black version. It's a great parody of the Ludwig Van Beethoven bust that was de rigeur in every home during the 1950s and 1960s. Overall the style of the pieces in the show was like an ungodly union between Mark Ryden and Basil Wolverton. By the way, a quick scan of the upcoming show schedule at Karnowsky’s gallery shows every indication that she will be the mid-city lowbrow capitol of Los Angeles.

Getting back to photography I saw the Hedi Slimane show, “California Song” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) at the Pacific Design Center. Slimane’s right up there with Von Unwerth, Richardson and LaChapelle in the new breed of crazy fashion shooters that’s burning up the editorial fashion magazines internationally. The show appealed to my deadpan sense of humor: on the ground floor his photographs (all black & white) were on display, all unlabelled and mounted on drab wooden crates, as one-dimensional as you can possibly get.

Upstairs was another matter entirely: slides of the very same shots and more were projected on a three-sided wall over 10 feet tall, creating a much more satisfying and, dare I say it, moving experience. It sort of makes you question the whole gallery system in one fell swoop. There were enough showbiz photos to keep you happy (John Lydon smoking, a rotting Brian Wilson, and LOTS of Michael Pitt, maybe too much), but the best shots of all, ironically, were his surfing photos.

That’s ultimately a true testament to the brilliance of Slimane’s artistic eye. Taking exciting surfing pictures makes you a good photographer, but shooting awesome ones in BLACK & WHITE makes you a GENIUS.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Smell Check 2011

Xmas is just around the corner and Jesus may be the reason for the season, but so are massive purchases made on alcohol and men’s colognes. Next to Father’s Day no other time of the year inspires more panicky runs to the men’s cologne counter at the department store. As a result, this time of year there are more cologne testers in magazines and department store mailers than ever, so it’s time to review the prime candidates vying for your attention. In other words, welcome to the 4th Annual Edition of Smell Check. Let’s get started:

Guess Seductive: Touting itself as “an alluring oriental woody fougere”, the first thing I want to ask is what’s a “fougere”? And can a fougere have the capacity to be alluring? At any rate, it didn’t smell very woody to me, but rather talcum-like and too faint to leave a lingering, let alone alluring memory. So, fougere to all that!

I Am King (Sean John): I’m confused, does this cologne aspire to make me worship Puffy Combs and say, “Yes, your Highness, yea verily, you are King” for making this cologne, or is the cologne supposed to make me say, “Yes, I AM KING!” for wearing this swill that smells like dried grape soda. Quelle ghetto.

Eau De Lacoste (Lacoste): Yes, the polo shirt kings have entered the fragrance fray with three different tones: Pure, Powerful and Relaxed (sounds like me). Pure was okay but had a generic drug store scent to it, Powerful smelled a little sportier, and Relaxed smelled kind of woodsy. At least none of them smelled like an old alligator.

1 Million (Paco Rabanne): Designed like a bar of gold, this came with high hopes because Paco always makes great colognes. This tester made me go back over and over again with its insane conglomeration of bubblegum meets musky sex odors. Whoah! I’m losing my mind, we have a winner here.

John Varvatos USA: Nice bottle, shaped like a chemistry test tube for all you “Breaking Bad” fans out there. Usually Varvatos doesn’t disappoint but this one just smelled very citrus-like with no real standout olfactory pleasures. Back to the old chemistry set for you.

Armani Code Sport (Giorgio Armani): The ad for this cologne shows a naked guy in a swimming pool standing before a rich woman wearing a backless formal. That might be the only interesting thing about this scent. On a separate note, I used to enjoy wearing Armani Code until I found out the surly janitor in my building wore Code, too. Thanks for nothing.

Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens): You’ll never catch Lutens hawking testers in Esquire Magazine, and it’s just as well. He’s way too cool. Ambre Sultan is an explosive symphony of coriander, amber, oregano, bay leaf, myrtle, angelica root, sandalwood, patchouli, benzoin, and the ubiquitous stench of vanilla. Lutens’ publicity team describe it as “a trip to a Bedouin tent in a desert far away, thick incense burning on coal with spices filling the air, mysterious eyes flashing and pierced female slaves succumbing to your BLAH BLAH BLAH”. For once the scent is actually better than the Yul Brynner hype. Etcetera, etcetera.

One thing to bear in mind when you buy a cologne is what makes one special and what doesn't? A men's cologne is a lot like a night club. One year it's pretty cool, but once the d-bags know about it and use it the coolness factor's long gone. A scent like Acqua Di Gio or YSL Homme had a coolness factor when it first hit the scene, but now it's the kind of slobber your aunt buys you for Xmas or the swill you smell on some oily hip-hop bastard. That's when you go for the more private clubs in town, like Serge Lutens or the more exotic Rabanne stuff. Happy buying!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Louise Brooks and Veronica Lake

Somehow the idea of wishing someone a happy birthday who’s deceased is kind of like showing up to a party thirty minutes after its ended, but there has never been two actresses more unorthodox than Louise Brooks and Veronica Lake, this year’s Scorpio birthdays. On first glance they don’t seem to have much in common, but upon closer inspection are very similar.

Both Ms. Brooks and Lake share the same birthday, November 14 – different years, of course, but their lives were very closely alike. Professionally both actresses were as adept at doing comedy as they were in drama, work was hard to come by, and their careers were heavily battered by studio systems that were too simple-minded to utilize them properly. The negligence that damaged their careers culminated in serious bouts of alcoholism and misanthropy that would make a riot grrl run home to Momma.

Still and all, the fact that Brooks and Lake are now regarded as major glamour icons of the cinema is highly ironic, an irony definitely not lost on them. As Veronica Lake once said, “I’m not a sex symbol, I’m a sex zombie”.

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Although Brooks was recognized by French cinephiles in the 1950’s for her amazing screen presence she was widely forgotten worldwide until she published her memoirs, “Lulu In Hollywood”, in 1981. Her candid account of Hollywood’s golden age and working relationships with legends like Fatty Arbuckle, W.C. Fields and John Wayne were off-beat, revealing and occasionally shocking.

Her early career includes some cool comedy turns from her with W.C. Fields in “The Old Army Game” and “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” (both 1926) where she plays the roommate from hell, stealing her friend’s boyfriends and snaking all their dresses. It’s kind of a slapstick “Single White Female”. In 1928 she made a fine drama for neorealist director William Wellman called “Beggars of Life”, which also starred Noah Beery and Richard Arlen. A year later she went to Germany and starred in her two greatest films, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary Of A Lost Girl”, both available on DVD.

A typical Louise Brooks performance showed a woman who effortlessly vascillated between acting like a frenetic little girl, sexy vamp, and illuminated angel all in a matter of seconds, like some enchanted flicker ring. This could either be attributed to great acting or as the product of a personality scarred by a childhood episode of being molested by a neighbor and receiving no sympathy from her mother.

After turning down the James Cagney classic “The Public Enemy” (which eventually went to Jean Harlow), Brooks had trouble finding work, eventually opening up an unsuccessful dance studio, a stab at writing a novel (never finished), a Saks Fifth Avenue counter girl, and unfortunately ending up as a pilled-up Manhattan call girl. Several marriages failed, but through it all she was always close to her brother, her only friend until her death in 1985 from a heart attack due to emphysema.

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While Veronica Lake didn’t earn the enmity of the entire state of Kansas like Brooks did, she just about pissed off everybody else. Married four times to Louise Brooks’ two, she turned off every leading man in her films, with the sole exception of Alan Ladd. Lake made four films with Ladd because she was shorter than him – she stood at 4’11 ½”. Like Brooks, her comedy chops are underrated, based upon her great performances in “Sullivan’s Travels” and “I Married A Witch”, the O.G. “Bewitched”. She even has some excellent deadpan humor lines in “The Blue Dahlia”, thanks to Raymond Chandler’s screenplay. (Chandler allegedly hated her, too. You just can’t win!) Just about the only guy on her side in Hollywood was Preston Sturges, who fought the studios to cast her in “Sullivan’s Travels”, her first major movie role. She was pregnant during filming, posing a serious undercover challenge for designer Edith Head.

The public loved Lake until the late Forties, when Paramount passed on renewing her contract. She had to file for bankruptcy on the heels of her mother suing her for “support payments”. Her mother later wrote an awful biography on her daughter which pulled in a tiny chunk of change. Lake wrote a slapdash autobiography a few years later as a rebuttal to her mother’s tawdry book.

Lake, like her predecessor Brooks went through a downward spiral in New York, living in fleabag hotels and getting arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct. Her beautiful long locks now long gone, she found work as a barmaid at a downtown hotel. Busted by reporters who found her working there, she garnered sporadic TV and theater gigs from all the attention, even appearing on “What’s My Line”.

Veronica Lake died in Vermont at the age of 50 from hepatitis and acute renal failure as a result of her alcoholism. Her ashes were scattered over The Virgin Islands per her request. A memorial service was held in New York which her son Michael attended, her three daughters long estranged from her.

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I hate tired Hollywood clich├ęs but there is one that sometimes rings true, and that’s when someone says “The camera loves her”, and it was definitely hypnotized by these two ladies. Whatever Louise Brooks and Veronica Lake’s faults were, there are few actresses that can rival their ability to illuminate the movie screen. That means when Louise Brooks celebrates Christmas in a cold cellar in “Pandora’s Box” we forget how hard her situation is because the warmth of her beauty is enough. That means whenever Veronica Lake is on screen in “The Blue Dahlia” or “This Gun For Hire” everyone else disappears because she commands your absolute attention. That’s no small accomplishment for a dame that can’t even clear 5 feet.

Whether these ladies got along with the car crash we call civilization or not almost seems unimportant. Aspiring actresses, clothes designers, filmmakers, models, and even artists can tell you what Louise Brooks looks like or what Veronica Lake looks like. Their hypnotic beauty is immortalized by the silver screen, and for that we will always revere them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

"American Yodeling"

Everybody likes to brag about the great deal they got from downloading music, but there has never been a deal as amazing as the one I got early this summer. For a mere $11.98 I downloaded a 100-song, 2-disc set of incredible sounds called “American Yodeling”. You will never find a deal as truly phenomenal as this.

“American Yodeling”, as you can assume is a compilation of songs featuring singers yodeling their hearts out, but the compilation itself is so sprawling and sweeping in its scope that it covers an endless panorama of genres. The first assumption is made that you’re going to hear nothing but country music, but alas, you’re wrong. Sure, there’s tons of cowboy music, great stuff, too, but there’s also Cajun music, cowgirls singing, folk, bluegrass, polka, blues, western swing, Swiss mountaineer jive, and even Black hot twenties jazz yodeling. Everybody’s covered and get to twirl their tonsils out.

There’s something bizarrely athletic in the way these crooners go into their yodeling pyrotechnics. Tracks like “She Taught Me How To Yodel” by Kenny Roberts are almost surreal in the way he can make his voice bend at supersonic speed that has to be heard to be believed. Legendary faves like Bill Monroe’s badass “Muleskinner Blues” get represented here, too. Some guys really tear it up with several tracks on here like Yodeling Slim Clark with his “I Miss My Swiss” who has a classic Swiss mountaineer tone to his yodeling. Elton Britt’s pretty awesome with “Chime Bells”.

The cowgirls like to put a nature slant in their yodeling, making wild bird noises, purring like kittens and scatting in their vocals. My favorites include Carolina Cotton with “Mockingbird Yodel” and the demented Dezurik Sisters with their insanely bitchen “The Arizona Yodeler”. Their harmonies are so perfectly synchronized it would put an army of talent show losers to shame. Other range fillies include Patsy Montana, Girls of the Golden West, Rosalie Allen, and Texas Kitty Prins, to name a few.

A lot of the perennials are on here, too, like Rex Allen, Gene Autry, Patti Page (!), Hank Snow, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry, who all sound incredible here. But the obscure names are the real finds, like a rail-riding hobo named Goebel Reeves who really swings his dirty panhandling pie-hole. Sweet!

When the crooning’s not about riding the range there’s a whole lotta jive about romance in the Swiss Alps: songs with titles like Visit Me In My Swiss Chalet, Swiss Echo Yodel, My Swiss Moonlight Baby. The girls have some pretty sexy songs, too, with titles like Salt Bush Sue and I’m Gonna Straddle My Saddle. Woof!

If you want the Cajun stuff there’s Paul Brunelle’s “Le Boogie Woogie De Prairies”, The Guidry Brothers’ “La Valse De Marriage” and a couple of other crazies.

“American Yodeling” never gets boring and almost sounds quaint in its depiction of a world that’s virtually vanished from the American landscape. It sounds like radio broadcasts from a parallel planet that’s saner and happier than anything we’ve ever created. And what’s better, it makes everyone smile real wide whenever they hear it.