Thursday, February 28, 2013

Not Your Grandma’s Moses: Taking Folk Art to the Street (in Manhattan)

Guest post by Karen Mulder
Howard Finster, If a Shoe Fits, Wear It, 1977; Cathedral in Heaven (closed view),1979
Howard Finster, the Georgia preacher who became the darling of the New York art scene, once told a New York Times reporter that he could easily sell the paint-spattered sneakers he happened to be wearing for five, ten thousand dollars. Time was, he could hardly afford to feed his family. The man who preached a church down to four members ‘so I could really DO somethin’ with it,’ as he once said, also managed to snag the longest ever interview on the Johnny Carson Show (largely because he started proselytizing the audience, and Carson thought it was bad form to cut him off).
But Finster, who died in 2001, had no pretensions about the works that took him from itinerant church-planter to art world celebrity.  When fancy-schmancy gallerists from SoHo and TriBeca visited his studio and Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia, to snag the latest works for their adoring clients, Finster wouldn’t let them see a thing until he led them to an open coffin inscribed with biblical apologias concerning their salvation, and gave them several earfuls of sermonizing. But ever since the day a daub of paint on his finger told him to make art, he was unapologetic in speaking about it.  “Mah work is scrubby,” he once said in his earnest, deep South twang. “It’s baaaad, nasty art. But it’s tellin’ somethin’. You don’t hafta be a perfeck artist to work in art.”
Finster’s imperfect compositions—just a few of the 50,000 he meticulously numbered over 25 years of obsessive productivity—speak out with other so-called ‘masterworks’ in a profusely illustrated 2001 catalog called American Anthem, which features the collection of the American Folk Art Museum.

“Mah work is scrubby. It’s baaaad, nasty art. But it’s tellin’ somethin’. You don’t hafta be a perfeck artist to work in art.”—Howard Finster

Is it patently feckless to slap the weight of a ‘masterwork’ on art made of string, tin, matches, wood, odd fabric swatches, bottle caps, old buttons, and cheap lead house paint—generally the kind of stuff you find in the cobwebby corners of a dusty garage? By the time Grandma Moses died, in 1961, she’d probably had as much print assigned to her oeuvre as Pollock had to abstract expressionism—but she was still a standout. Eventually, folk art went through various terminological filters imposed on it by art historians or critics, who accepted or rejected qualifiers that were meant to validate or include it, yet still distinguish it from so-called ‘fine’ art —a term that may shortly disappear. It’s been called primitive, self-taught, outsider, vernacular, visionary (in Baltimore’s museum), or l’art brut (roughly translating to ‘raw’ art, this is Dubuffet’s rubric for his collection in Lausanne).
Game of Chance: Slaves and Auctioneer, mid-1800s, possibly Maine origins
By whatever name you call it, the terminological wrangling mostly reveals how academicians and curators have grappled with a prolific mess of pieces put together by dedicated, yet untempered, untrained artists. The self-proclaimed or unproclaimed artists just kept making the art, regardless of the vagaries of scholarly validation. So Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses of Rensselaer County, New York) is now one of thousands represented in major collections throughout the nation, accompanying the anonymous crafters of anniversary ‘tins’—meticulous metallic versions of everyday artifacts given to those celebrating their nuptials.
Anniversary Tin, unidentified, c.1880, Gobles, MI
American Anthem celebrates the founding of the new museum on West 53rd Street, just a hot dog stand away from MoMA. Both museums had to be shoehorned into former townhouse and storefront properties, although the Rockefeller’s shoeboxes were much larger for MoMA. The single width, five-storey-high façade of the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, is clad with pitted, hammered, cast-metal panels that speak to craft and irregularity, only a few imaginary doors away from the site of its original townhouse gallery opening in 1963. The director’s Foreword, which tidily sums up the advances and challenges of the entire enterprise, is followed by two short curatorial takes that underscore the museum’s philosophy about the art it celebrates.
Along with Finster, the celebrants include all the major ‘players,’ like Bessie Harvey (Faces of Africa I [tree branch], 1994, Alcoa, TN) or the renowned New Mexican santeros maker José Benito Ortega; quilters working in the early 19th century with glazed wool and indigo dyes to those from (of all places) Queens, Long Island; and a tremendous swath of unidentified, unidentifiable unknowns. Collectors will appreciate the inclusivity, beginning as early as 1690 with quilts, hooked rugs, portraits, furniture, samplers, funerary images, shop signs and paintings, and going right up to the 1990s. Masonite, as an invaluable art material, reaches its supremacy here.
Charles Dellshau, Flying Machine 4575: Broad Cutt, c. 1920, Houston, Texas
Possum Trot Dolls, c. 1953, Calvin and Ruby Black, Yermo, CA
Catalog notes in the back fill out the known narratives and curatorial fillips of each piece. You may learn, for example, that Prussian-born Gold Rusher Charles Dellshau made cartoonish watercolors of a clunky flying machine that purportedly flew in the 1850s, although the plans were guarded in the secret files of an aviation club and were never shown to anyone. Or you might learn about the Possum Trot Dolls that acted in roadside “Fantasy Doll Shows” during the 1950s, along stretches of the Mojave Desert in San Berdoo, California. The stories of railroad workers, former slaves, itinerant preachers, barbers, and the like come through in such splendid variations, flavored by the real life experiences of African-Americans, native Americans, Latino-Americans, and immigrants of all stripes. It is a richly visual tour of a rich, if scrubby, world of unfettered art.

Art and architectural historian Karen Mulder is seriously attempting to recover from academia by guest writing for The Daily Glean, and was contemplating a Howard Finster cartoon portrait of John F. Kennedy that she owns as she wrote this post.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marie A, Anne B, Lady Di, and Kate

In these excerpts from a feisty and challenging talk for the London Review of Books, Hilary Mantel speaks about how the bodies and appearances of those most public of women, queens and princesses, have been appropriated by the societies in which they live. Mantel is the widely acclaimed author of the novelized Tudor histories Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
[Marie-Antoinette] was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip. Despite the weight of her mountainous hairdos, she didn’t feel her head wobbling on her shoulders. When she returned from that trip, to the prison Paris would become for her, it was said that her hair had turned grey overnight….
Marie-Antoinette ca. 1775 (Musée Antoine Lécuyer; Saint-Quentin, Aisne France)
Sue Townsend said of Diana that she was ‘a fatal non-reader’. She didn’t know the end of her own story. She enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland. I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after. Diana didn’t see the possible twists in the narrative. What does Kate read? It’s a question.
Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture. Diana was capable of transforming herself from galumphing schoolgirl to ice queen, from wraith to Amazon. Kate seems capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother, with no messy deviation….
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage….
Diana was more royal than the family she joined. That had nothing to do with family trees. Something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the carrier of myth. She came near to claiming that she had a healing touch, the ancient attribute of royal persons. The healing touch can’t be felt through white gloves. Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed: unfortified by irony, uninformed by history. Her tragedy was located in the gap between her human capacities and the demands of the superhuman role she was required to fulfill. When I think of Diana, I remember Stevie Smith’s poem about the Lorelei:
There, on a rock majestical,

A girl with smile equivocal,

Painted, young and damned and fair,

Sits and combs her yellow hair.
Soon Diana’s hairstyles were as consequential as Marie Antoinette’s, and a great deal cheaper to copy....
"It often surprises people that there is no attested contemporary portrait. Just because an unknown hand has written ‘Anne Boleyn’ on a picture, it doesn’t mean it’s an image from the life or even an image of Anne at all. The most familiar image, in which she wears a letter ‘B’ hanging from a pearl necklace, exists in many forms and variants and originates at least fifty years after Anne’s death."
It’s no surprise that so much fiction constellates around the subject of Henry and his wives. Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do. But with the reign of King Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story. The history of the reign is so graphically gynaecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love; and readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying. Popular fiction about the Tudors has also been a form of moral teaching about women’s lives, though what is taught varies with moral fashion....
Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.
Portrait by an unknown artist of a youngish Henry VIII, c. 1520. In her talk, Mantel discusses several hypotheses as to why he became so irascible and irrational later in life.
 As the odious and asinine Oscar show opening demonstrated, women's bodies are perpetually ripe for objectifying, no matter how elevated their status. But back to Mantel. NPR and the book review media in general raved about both titles published so far in her projected trilogy on Henry, his wives, and Cromwell:
Like its predecessor, Bring Up the Bodies is unremittingly exciting. Even though you probably know how the story ends, it's hard — almost painful — to stop reading. But it's not just the plotting that is stand-out. More than any other novel she's written, Mantel's latest overflows with stunning prose. Including the weirdly beautiful first line, "His children are falling from the sky." The author writes the kind of sentences you want to live in, even when describing something as broad and universal as the passage of time: "The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter, the summer has gone."
Mantel has been held in high esteem ever since her 1985 debut, the exceedingly black comic novel Every Day Is Mother's Day, but she seems to get more ambitious and self-assured with each new book. Bring Up the Bodies isn't just her boldest book; it's also her best — and it reaffirms Mantel's reputation as one of England's greatest living novelists.
Read an excerpt from Bring Up the Bodies here. Think you know a thing or two about the glories and travails of queens and such? Quiz yourself with Royal Women Knowledge Cards! Or read about Henry's extra-marital affairs in The Mistresses of Henry VIII.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Crowd-sourced cartoons: The New Yorker caption contest

Did you know that men vastly outnumber women as entrants in the New Yorker's back page caption contest (5 to 1)? That's a stumper. Do they have more leisure time to participate in such endeavors? Are they more competitive?
Here's a popular favorite on the topic of reading drawn from The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book.
I actually like the second-place winner just as well: "You won't believe this, but I just remembered where they buried the remote." (As it happens, winners often squeak by the second place entrant by one or two percentage points.)
Because three New Yorker staff members vote on the three finalists before they're submitted for popular polling, it's their take on humor that rises to the top. I've seen many a published cartoon in the magazine itself I would have moved post haste to the reject pile. But contest contributors are dogged: more than 1 million captions have been submitted since the feature began in 2005.
Workplace tropes show up frequently, as do dog cartoons. Here's one that combines both.
(If you're a committed caninist, you will also find much to savor in The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.) 
Many of the finalists interviewed turn out to be professional scribes of some sort. One such was playwright and screenwriter Peter Fox, who captioned the dog cartoon below "He's a stray, but I think I'll keep him." With the winning caption ("Don't laugh. He's made partner"), it no doubt adorns many a law office.

What makes a superior caption? Shorter and sweet say the experts, and having perused this anthology I concur that the pithiness factor reigns supreme. Take the sample below: 
 Compare John Maynard's winning caption with the increasingly wordy second and third place finalists: "Our conflict-resolution seminar ended a bit early today." / "Just remember to keep away from Fletcher's wife, and Davidson's daughter, and Harris's iPod." Like many of the interviewees, Maynard says that the caption came to him all at once. After being harassed by a caller who said the idea was his and he should have won and by disgruntled acquaintances who had submitted fruitlessly multiple times, Maynard decided that his neophyte plunge was enough and never entered again.
Responsible for the above caption, two-time contest winner Michelle Haimoff hasn't let success go to her head. She lists her "greatest accomplishments to date" as the following: 1) Assembled a small nightstand; 2) Introduced two friends who dated for a full year until their miserable breakup; and 3) Winner of the New Yorker cartoon caption contest.
There are some cases in which one person has a divine spark of inspiration and lesser mortals fall by the wayside. That was the case with this image, winningly captioned by Eric Sagalyn of Worcester, MA as "This is the most advanced case of Surrealism I've seen."
Time for one more? It's by Adam Schulman of Richmond, VA.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Fasten your seatbelts; it's gonna be a bumpy night"

Davis's career-saving star turn in 1950's All About Eve.
Because of any number of capricious quirks of Academy voting, many of the best outings by great actors have been eclipsed on Oscar night. Bette Davis, for example, was passed over for her stellar performances in All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Two engrossing books on film I'm dipping into at the moment give canny perspectives on Davis's persona and career trajectory.
From Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema, here's Gary Giddins on her breakthrough role in Jezebel and on Baby Jane:
Wyler seemed to recognize her for what she was: a magnificent gorgon, a whirlwind of short-fused energy, and a bowstring waiting to be plucked. In their subsequent films, The Letter and The Little Foxes, the material is almost as taut as Davis. Jezebel is southern-friend malarkey, but never as languorous, smug, or racially oblivious as Gone with the Wind. From the moment Davis whirls through a ball in an inappropriate dress, even Henry Fonda is outclassed.... Davis's admirers often observe that she lacked vanity in her willingness to look ugly and incarnate evil. What her vanity could not abide was playing small. In Baby Jane Hudson, she created a gargoyle for all time.
In Matinee Idylls, longtime film critic Richard Schickel devotes a chapter to the Davis phenomenon as well.
The brisk way she clipped her words and the singular pauses she often made between syllables— nobody took command of the language in quite the way she did, bending it to her inner rhythms rather than submitting to its tyranny. The abrupt gestures that accompanied her speeches—it was as if she were brushing aside the gnats of insincerity and indecision that so often distract ordinary mortals. The impatient twitch of her shoulders, indicating something less than gladness in the face of foolishness, even on occasion her own—it strongly implied she could bear tragedy, if that's where fate was leading her, more readily than she could stand dither.... Her pictures all ran on her energy and stand the test of time because of the tensile strength, that inimitable electroplating of heedlessness and vulnerability, her soul’s chemistry provided them.

Schickel also offers a deliciously long chapter on Charles Laughton, a particular favorite of mine. Laughton played Javert in Richard Boleslavsky's film version of Les Miserables.
His Les Miz, broodingly photographed by the great Gregg Toland, remains the standard by which all film and theatrical versions of the Victor Hugo classic ought to be judged. The same must be said for Laughton's Javert, so tightly wound, so  aware of the monstrousness of his pursuit of the unhappy Jean Valjean yet equally aware of how helplessly he is entrapped in his own obsession.
Wondering how Schickel would rate the Miz that was up for Oscar consideration this year, I found a review on the website Truthdig. I really agree with him on the dynamics of stage vs. screen vis-à-vis musicals:
On the stage, the show’s cast of dozens crammed into a limited space achieved—or so it seemed to me—a genuine jostling energy. There was always something afoot with them. They were busy and wayward and alive. You succumbed to them, almost against your better judgment. They believed in this enterprise and they carried you along with them.
But a big budget movie can do pretty much what it wants to do. Does a scene require a crowd? OK, Hooper will give you a crowd—in spades. And, paradoxically, nothing is left to our imagination. The force and focus of the stage presentation is thus dissipated. There are times when a cast of dozens, working intensely, is actually superior to a cast of hundreds working routinely. And that’s case with this movie.
Will anyone who has seen the Laughton Les Miz give us their take on it? I'm looking forward to revisiting more favorite films and stars with Giddins and Schickel, as well as discovering new ones. Giddins (who mostly writes about jazz)  has some interesting things to say about Hitchock in rating several boxed sets.
His films have achieved something better than timelessness; the older they get, the more astutely they function as social critiques. They may be frostily schematic, but long after we know who did what to whom, we return repeatedly for the nuance, the humor, the stylishness, the daring, the frisson, and the sex, which is invariably delayed, frustrated, or undermined with perversity.
Above: cover illustration by Nick Morley from a British Film Institute monograph on the movie some consider Hitch's masterpiece.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Oscar windup; early Kodachrome films

Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall of this space when it's filled with the crème de la crème of filmdom? Designed by Madeline Stuart and inspired by art director Cedric Gibbons, it's the Architectural Digest's greenroom for the 2013 Oscars. A cat, a glass of wine, Mozart, and a book and I'd be in heaven on one of those couches.
"Here's a red carpet alternative: What are you reading?" That's the question posed by Robert Gray, an editor at the book industry blog Shelf Awareness. "After all," he writes, "book-to-film Best Picture winners have been commonplace in recent years: Slumdog Millionaire (2008), No Country for Old Men (2007), Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), A Beautiful Mind (2001).

 Five of the nine Best Picture nominees this year have a book connection, including Lincoln, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals; Life of Pi, adapted from Yann Martel's novel; Argo, inspired by events chronicled in Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio; Silver Linings Playbook, based on the novel by Matthew Quick; and Victor Hugo's book-to-musical-to-movie musical Les Misérables."
Sakai Hōitsu (1761 – 1828), The Poet Hitomaro (detail), first decade of the 19th century. Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk, Berkeley Art Museum.
Lately we at Daedalus Books have been pulling our noses out of our latest acquisitions and putting some of our attention into finding kindred spirits on Twitter. (A bunch of us live tweeted the last episode of Downton Abbey, for example. You can follow us @daedalusbooks.) Boy, did I ever find a kindred spirit in Robert Gray, who is also a former bookseller. When I went to look at his Twitter page, I saw that he he had joined the literary magazine Spaces as an editor and written the most lovely post. Here is an excerpt from an essay on his work space that is so resonant for me, from the sentiments on reading to the love of Japan Society exhibits.
Sometimes–now, let’s say–I cocoon myself in this office for an hour or two and read whatever has drawn my attention to the bookcase nearby. Reading is the place where the world briefly makes a little more sense. Reading is my refuge. Reading is my best side.
Of the three books currently resting on this desktop, two are new: The Garden of Evening Mists and Silver Wind: The Arts of Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828),” the catalogue for an art exhibit I saw last month at the Japan Society in New York City.
How does one capture stillness on paper? Not in an exhibition catalogue, to be sure, though the book sparks visual memories of the museum visit and the stunning works I encountered. If reproductions are a catalyst, so are the words: “In this large hanging scroll, Kiitsu depicts Japan’s tallest, most sacred peak as a majestic, gleaming vision, using only white pigment to define the mountain’s sharp-edged ridges, covered by snow and ice.”
Getting back to the Oscars, I wonder which of the films on this year's list will be revered, re-watched, and imitated in the decades to come? We're carrying two collections on films that have endured by writers whose opinions I've respected for a long time: Richard Schickel's Matinee Idylls: Reflections on the Movies and Gary Giddins' Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema.When all the carpets have been trod, the weighty statues clutched, and the glitterati all dispersed to their after-parties, it's not a bad finale to curl up with a book about movies.
From 1922, these tests of Kodachrome film stock from the George Eastman House collections are strangely entrancing. The first full length color feature film did not appear until 13-years later (Becky Sharp).

Actresses include Mae Murray, Hope Hampton (modeling costumes from 1922's The Light in the Dark, which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film), and the Ziegfeld Follies' Mary Eaton.
Will you be watching the Oscars live? And is there somebody special you're rooting for?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The real Downton Abbey

Diehard Downton Abbey devotees know that the series is shot in the breathtaking historical environs of Highclere Castle, longtime residence of the uber aristocracy. The two charming and all-too-brief glimpses of its luxurious interiors below are provided by the current Lady Carnarvon (who wrote the bestselling book on Almina, her racy predecessor). I couldn't help but be transfixed by the enormous equestrian portrait in the dining room. I guessed Charles I ... and was right (by Van Dyck no less). Ah, the stately homes of England!

For a mere £18.00, you may have a look 'round and gawk all you like, and even have tea—but don't expect to see the spaces downstairs inhabited by Mrs Patmore, Carson, Daisy et al., because the kitchen areas were renovated long ago. You will have a glimpse, however, of some of the Egyptian art and artifacts—including jewelry, coins, pottery, and a coffin of a noblewoman from 3,500 years ago—collected by Lord Carnarvon, the co-discoverer along with Howard Carter of King Tut's tomb. After the Earl's death in 1923, his widow had to sell the collection to the Metropolitan Museum to pay the death duties. Carter commented that "a few unimportant items" remained at Highclere, and so they were packed away until being re-discovered by the family in 1987. Deemed not so unimportant after all, they are now exhibited in the cellars, along with items originally lent to The British Museum by the Carnarvons.
Bronze statue of an ibis, Ptolemaic Period. The Ibis was sacred to the birth of the god Thoth, the god of the moon and patron deity of scribes and writing.
Have a yen to explore ancient Egyptian art and culture? Try Egyptian Art: The Walters Art Museum Egypt: 4000 Years of Art; or Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth
The classes mingle with ease as these favorite Downton cast members lark about while in New York City to promote the show's third season. All of them will be present and accounted for, thankfully, in Season 4.
Impersonations? How impertinent!! 
This enterprising actor cycles through a score of Downton characters in one take, capturing their voices and mannerisms brilliantly. Maybe he can sub when one of them takes sick leave.
The music room at Highclere. The Canarvons have lived there since the early 17th century. Plenty of time to decorate with priceless treasures, including Napoleon's desk.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Murder will out!

"When I told my agent a few years ago that I was going to write a detective story, he recovered as quickly as could be expected, but made it clear to me (as a succession of editors and publishers made it clear, later, to him) that what the country wanted form 'a well-known Punch humorist' was a 'humorous story.' However, I was resolved upon a life of crime; and the result was such that when, two years afterwards, I announced I was writing a book of nursery rhymes, my agent and publisher were equally convinced that what the English-speaking nations most desired was a new detective story. Another two years have gone by; the public appetite has changed once morel and it is obvious now that a new detective story, written in the face of this steady terrestrial demand for children's books, would be in the worst of taste…."
So wrote Alan Alexander Milne in the introduction to a new edition of his popular work of detective fiction, The Red House Mystery. Originally published in 1922, it amply supplies the hallmarks of genre classics: a locked-room murder, a facetious but frightfully clever amateur sleuth and sidekick, secret passages, a motley assortment of guests assembled in the English countryside for a house party, and so on. But I'll let Milne pick up the thread:
On the great Love question opinions may be divided, but for myself I will have none of it. A reader, all agog to know whether the white substance on the muffins was arsenic or face-powder, cannot be held up while Roland clasps Angela’s hand “a moment longer than the customary usages of society dictate.” Much might have happened in that moment, properly spent; foot-prints made or discovered; cigarette-ends picked up and put in envelopes. By all means let Roland have a book to himself in which to clasp anything he likes, but in a detective story he must attend strictly to business….
The detective must have no more special knowledge than the average reader. The reader must be made to feel that, if he too had used the light of cool inductive reasoning and the logic of stern remorseless facts (as, Heaven bless us, we are quite capable of doing) then he too would have fixed the guilt. ...
And now, what about a Watson? Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but a prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other, and, by that, more readable. A Watson, then, but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. 
Bruce Montgomery, aka Edmund Crispin
I discovered The Red House through Daedalus, but my gratified acquaintance with Edmund Crispin (pictured at right) and his Oxford detective Gervaise Fen preceded our acquisition of several quite spiffy reprints. Pick up The Moving Toyshop and The Case of the Gilded Fly along with the Milne and you'll qualify for the 15% discount being offered in our special mystery promotion. And in terms of touchstone sleuths on film, one surely can't go wrong with Great Detectives Anthology: Hercule Poirot; Jane Marple; Sherlock Holmes

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Downton Abbey Season 3 Finale highlights: “Diamond stars and one tiara”

Location, location, location
The Season 3 closer was one of the most visually splendid episodes, as the family travelled to the fictional Duneagle Castle to visit cousins in the Scottish Highlands. (In real life, Inveraray Castle is home to the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, and it's a stunner inside and out. Dibs on a turret room!)
Although it looks like "Cousin Shrimpy" (and his wife Susan, aka Shrewy) are filthy rich, he confides to Lord Grantham that he will have to give up the grandeur of the castle because of his failure to modernize, which Lord G finally concedes is a good thing for Matthew to have pushed him into. There are intimations that the series might touch on colonial rule next season, as Shrimpy talks of taking up a consular post in Bombay.  He also confides that he and his wife "don't like each other" but that "amongst our people divorce just isn't an option"—so when they eventually sell up and move to London, he plans to spend a lot of time at his club and to avoid her like the plague. Filling out this dysfunctional family triangle is Rose, who won't be going to India ("Unless you want her married to a third rate colonial official, with no money and bad teeth" says the Dowager Countess) and whom Cora agrees to take under her wing in a very nice scene with the aforementioned Shrewy. I'm sorry, but I'm not looking forward to the future shenanigans of Rose, whom I find fairly unsympathetic. I hope she grows on me.
Amongst the servants, Anna gets both "racy" and jiggy, whilst Molesley collapses in a heap at the dance party after downing a tumbler of spiked punch meant for O'Brien—whose hairdressing skills have provoked the eternal enmity of Shrewy's glowering maid.
Back at Downton
The young folk are looking for a bit of fun, but partly because I'd read What the Butler Winked At, I just KNEW Carson would make the kitchen staff polish the silver! But at least he let his underlings go to the village fete (a prospect he found so personally distasteful that he said he'd rather chew glass .... ewww!). Mrs Patmore gets all dolled up for the importunate grocer Joss Tufton, who turned me off from the moment he arrived on the scene and jabbed his fat fingers into a tart. Thankfully, she didn't even need Mrs Hughes to tell her that this Dickensian personage was all about what Mrs P could do for him and not vice versa, although it was good to see the ladies having a laugh over him. Mrs Hughes also briskly handles the impertinent and annoying new maid Edna who throws herself at Branson, as well as being ultra motherly to Branson when he breaks down because he misses Sybil so much: "You let Edna make you ashamed of your new life. But you’ve done well. And Lady Sybil would be so proud." Hurrah for Mrs H!~ (Anachronism Alert? Branson's "I've been on a bit of a learning curve, as it happens.")
Loved the dress!
Nothing like a little familial support....
Lord Grantham to Michael Gregson, Edith's employer and secret suitor: "It puzzles me why you choose to employ amateurs like my daughter."
Edith: "Mary has decided to be nasty about Mr Gregson."
Matthew to Mary: "You are horrid when you want to be." You can say that again!
Divorce, or lack thereof, rears its ugly head again
Michael Gregson: "I’m prevented from divorcing a woman who doesn’t even know who I am [i.e., his mad wife]. Does the law expect me to have no life at all until I die? Would Lord Grantham?" Here's a question for you, Mr Gregson: Just what sort of arrangement do you envision for yourself and Edith? And why should the lady's father give a toss about your having a life?
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls"
It tolled for Matthew. Which it was hard not to be apprised of beforehand if you participate in any kind of media whatsoever. Who knows what would have happened if Dan Stevens hadn't felt the need to leave the show? In any event, we savored the few lovely, precious moments with Mary, Matthew, and the new Downton heir ("dearest little chap") all the more before the lorry bore down on him and he was no more.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Maggie Smith, a Dowager with attitude

Smith reckons she'll stay on as a Downton cast member for the duration, even if they have to ferry her around in a wheelchair because of her advanced age (in the series that is!).
Did y'all watch Maggie Smith on 60 Minutes? (The whole world knows by now that she's never, ever watched the show that made her a household name: "It’s frustrating. I always see things I would do differently and think, ‘Oh, why in the name of God did I do that?" she explained, with true Dowager contrariness).
I had a "Maggie squared" weekend, what with going to the movies to see Quartet (she's fantastic) and watching the final episode of Downton Abbey Season 3 (check in tomorrow for the recap!). A longtime Smith fan, I always tape any film she's in on Turner Classics, and am never disappointed. There's a reason Julian Fellowes gives her such choice material—because she always delivers. Fellowes is himself an accomplished actor, so he knows how to write for them as well as how to value outstanding actors who, like Dame Maggie, can spin straw into gold.
"What I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but they never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person. A lesser actor would find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously, or superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman and, of course, she's very, very funny, so whatever you write for her always sounds much funnier than it was when you thought of it…. All of those reasons make her very rewarding to write for."—NPR's Fresh Air December 11, 2012
Don't miss the favorite Dowager moments, quizzes, polls, and recommended reading on Daedalus's all-things-Downton Forum! We'll be adding more, so check back often. Above is Dame Maggie in her younger years, in a vintage skit with Carol Burnett. ("Let the old bag hit the ship with the bottle!")
In the 60 Minutes interview, one could see sadness in her eyes when she said she probably won't be taking on any more stage roles. How I wish I could have seen her in Peter Schaeffer's Lettice and Lovage! Here's a clip.

And if you have a little more time, this is an entertaining mix of film role highlights.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Vintage Soviet posters: galvanizing and gorgeous

In addition to making its own indigenous contributions, Russian poster art in the 20th century mirrored Western movements, from art nouveau through psychedelia. Here are some beautiful examples, in somewhat chronological fashion. First up are advertising images.

Next is a group of vibrant and kinetic circus promotions.
 Finally, theater, music, and film posters.
Pyshka, Mikhail Romm`s 1934 adaptation of Guy de Maupassant`s story “Boule de Suif.”
Grigori Kozintsev's adaptation of Hamlet, 1964.
Journey to Mars
Ewald André Dupont`s English film Moulin Rouge (1928, starring Olga Tschechowa, Jean Bradin, and Eve Gray).
Don Quixote.
Do you love posters too? Feast your eyes on these collections, focusing on films, rarities, Americana, nature, and more.