For a while there I wasn't getting out of town and doing too much, just hanging around Reading and my room trying to watch my budget and get some work done. (I may have also been a bit gloomy for the last few months, but that’s another issue altogether.) I’ve been trying to take advantage of some free time in London lately, though, culminating in a huge culture bender yesterday.
In the morning I went to the Design Museum to catch the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year (I know, but it's better than the name makes it sound) exhibition and a retrospective of architect/designer/engineer Jean Prouvé.
The Design Awards show had lots of nice things, but it wasn't especially stirring since I’d seen so many of them reproduced before. The fashion bits were a really great surprise, though, and some of the interactive stuff seemed interesting but I was prevented from getting a closer look by a pack of French school kids swarming around anything shiny in the gallery. It was also nice that they included Titus Nemeth's sketchbook as well as some of the proofs from his development of his Naseem typeface, which was perhaps the only part of the whole exhibition that shed any light on how some of the winning work came about.
The Prouvé show was excellent, and luckily the ticket for the museum lets you experience the brilliance of his stuff for a bit more, since it also gives you admission to his protoype Maison Tropicales, which has been reassembled over at the Tate Modern. (Hopefully I'll get a chance to check that out before the end of the weekend, at which time I may indulge in the big Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia exhibition they're running.)
The highlight of the day was an impromptu visit to the Design China Now show at the V&A. It's really Uh.May.Zing., especially since so much of the design work (except for the architecture) doesn't seem to have been shown around much in the West before, not even in the current explosion of design blogs. It's packed with gorgeous work, and for those of you with real jobs and stuff the related products they're selling in the shop might be just as tempting as the show itself. Seriously, just go.
For well over twenty years this man has been my hero. No lie. No exaggeration. It was John Waters and his affectionate fascination with with trash — and his own stylish, articulate, and eccentric way of blazing his own trail — that encouraged me to fully embrace whatever aspects of the high and low culture around me that caught my fancy. I was always a quirky kid. It was John who taught me that was a good thing.
Waters is most famous as a filmmaker, of course, but it was actually his books that first blew my mind. From the moment in high school when I first read Shock Value and Crackpot, I was hooked. When I finally caught a double feature of Polyester and Desperate Living some time in 1987 or so, they just confirmed what I had already come to treasure about his view of the world.
It's easy to peg Waters and his work as campy irony or immature shock tactics, but everything he's written, ever talk I’ve heard him give, and every interview I’ve ever read has made it clear that he really believes in the underdog and the honesty of being what you want to be, no matter how trashy. In Waters' world, you're only evil if you're a superior asshole who doesn't want others to be happy doing their own thing. For a man of refined tastes, his sense of irony is not something he uses to maintain a distance from anything, it's a way of celebrating the lovable in the generally unloved.
He's demeted and sweet and mischievous. When Hairspray first came out, I loved that the master of trash had made a subversive movie the whole family could love. Even the musical version throws a sucker punch or two in the midst of its squeaky clean reinterpretation of the movie:
Waters is entirely unconcerned about his oeuvre becoming softened as it goes broad. "In a way, the most subversive thing I ever did was think up Hairspray, because now families are sitting there watching two men sing a love song," Waters said, as a car finally pulled over. "Who would ever have thought that Jerry Mathers, who I grew up with" — the child star in the title role on Leave It to Beaver, who now plays the father in Hairspray — "would be singing to a man in a dress on Broadway in something I wrote!" (From his New York interview)
I want to keep trying to be like him as I keep trying to grow up.
It's a tricky thing, this whole appreciation of superheroes and comic books and such. Part of what seems so nerdy and embarrassing about it is how often people — even others who love the capes and the four-color reality — seem to get it wrong, how often they fail to grasp that we each love different things about the genre. No, not just this particular fictional genre — the whole idea of superheroes and comics.
I can't blame people for not getting it, because a love of comics is just so personal. They've been part of our culture for so long now, pushed and pulled and reinvented in so many ways that they can be something different to everyone. Every fan of comics loves them for a personal reason, and is convinced that a naysayer just has to read the right comic that will resonate and change his attitude forever. But not even all lovers of comics appreciate them the same way. Venture if you dare into any discussion forum about comics and you'll see what I mean. Some folks love the escapism, some folks love the intersection with or reflection of reality. Some folks are obsessed with details and continuity, and some with the core of any legend. Different strokes, y' know?
And it's hard to begrudge anyone who doesn't get into comics, because even though he — or shockingly enough, she — might just need to read the right one, the fact is that there's so much crap out there it's easy to say they're not worth any attention. And when the world of comics strays into other media — novels, TV shows, movies — the magic and myth usually just fall apart.
Usually, I say. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of the most breathtaking looks at superheroes and comics I’ve ever read. It takes the whole world of comics and wraps up the mythology and the excitement and the context in a delicious little package. When I read it, I was stunned that he cut through all the bullshit and the cliches and the cultural baggage around superheroics and put his finger on the wonder of it all, and the way drams of men and women in tights can speak to kids and adults alike. Sometimes in different ways, sometimes in the same ways.
There's a certain sense of wonderment and wish-fulfilment at the heart of my love of superheroes. It has endured, even as my world has expanded to other passions as I’ve grown up, and even as my taste in comics has slowly spread out to non-superhero comics. Again, Chabon shows that he gets it at the most basic level in Secret Skin, a lyrical, insightful essay for the New Yorker about the whole problem of men in tights. He gets down to the core of it all, the basic idea and how it defies practical reality because it's not about reality. It's about something other than reality, and perhaps closer to it than anything else:
We say "secret identity," and adopt a series of cloaking strategies to preserve it, but what we are actually trying to conceal is a narrative: not who we are but the story of how we got that way — and, by implication, of all that we lacked, and all that we were not, before the spider bit us. Yet our costume conceals nothing, reveals everything: it is our secret skin, exposed and exposing us for all the world to see. Superheroism is a kind of transvestism; our superdrag serves at once to obscure the exterior self that no longer defines us while betraying, with half-unconscious panache, the truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story's recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of story itself.
Oh, hell yes.
My old pal Mark has been living in Cambodia for the last few months, having the kind of adventures that could make for yet another exhilarating chapter in his biography, should one ever be written. (Seriously. The man has survived more cycles of adventure and misadventure than anyone else I have ever encountered.) His description of his recent birthday will freak you out. I’d summarize, but you should just read it for yourself. And maybe watch the video if you're feeling courageous.
Mark, in case you're checking in: I love you man! Happy birthday!
I had to tear myself away before I got sucked in forever.
Apelad makes me smile extra big today.
Happy St. Patrick's Day from the Muppets (via Sean):
I can't stop laughing once Beaker chimes in. It's perfect.
As you might imagine, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Danny Boy, since it's effectively been my family nickname my entire life. The story goes that my Uncle John came waltzing in the room singing it at one point when my mom was pregnant with me, and it stuck.
It is a lovely little ditty, though, if it's done right. Most versions of it I run across are a little over-the-top Oirish-y or — even worse — a little too vocally precise but lacking in heart. (Shane McGowan gets it right, if you ask me: a little sad, a little sweet, a little boozy, and a little rough around the edges.)
My favorite version is actually by Harry Belafonte:
Danny Boy — Harry Belafonte
I never really appreciated the song very much until one of the times I saw Joe Jackson in concert in concert. He sometimes does this brilliant bar-by-bar analysis of Danny Boy (well, I guess technically it's an analysis of The Londonderry Air, which is the original melody that was grabbed for Danny Boy in 1913), detailing exactly why it's the perfect example of a Irish ballad that can "bring tears to a glass eye", as an intro to the Faustian story in a song of his own:
The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy — Joe Jackson