Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hitting Rock Bottom

Spelunking for Rare Rock Books in the Bowels of the Pratt Library

One of the perks of working at Baltimore's Pratt Library is exploring the "red dot" books on the "first stack" - geographically the rock-bottom basement of the building, though the finds there are far from the bottom of the barrel. "Red dots" are basically older titles that have been relegated to storage from the above-level bookshelves either because they are dated or for space considerations. And what I like about the first stack is that this is where the old music and film books are, many being non-popular tomes about obscure subject matters (like early MTV music videos from the '80s or the history of American death ballads or 1960s Japanese experimental films). What's great about these older, out-of-sight titles in Pratt's subterranean jungle is that many are not just off the public racks but are also out-of-print (OOPs, as I call 'em) as well. So it's reassuring to know that Pratt has them archived for the discerning music and film scholars. They even have a book by the great music writer and New York Rocker founder Alan Betrock (Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound), whose books are all OOP (and all well worth tracking down).

Herein in a list of some of those rarities found in the belly of the books beast known as Pratt Central.

OOPs - There It Is!

San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, 1965-1968
by Gene Sculatti and Davin Seay

This is one the best books on San Fran's '60s music scene, written by a cool author, Gene Sculatti. Sculatti is, in fact, author of the essential but out-of-print pop culture compendium The Catalog of Cool (now online and a title Pratt also owns in its Social Science & History Department!), so his cool creds are completely covered.

As one writer on The Internets observed, "Sculatti was actually there, was a fan, and kept note of all the trivia (and very detailed scrapbooks). So unlike many who rely on published sources or artist interviews, he is a firsthand observer. But also unlike many, he's not an old hippy, and doesn't care about sticking to the 'big names' (to him, the Mystery Trend is as important as the Grateful Dead), so his critical perspective is all the more valuable. Besides all that, you get facts on the pre-hippie SF music history, which you won't find elsewhere."

Skimming this book made me think how similar in tone it was to Mike Stax's Ugly Things magazine. In fact, the only other place many of the bands written about here turn up is in the pages of Ugly Things, where the obscure and forgotten are found and feted. For example, I learned all about Emperor Norton, the nutcase who inspired Emperor Norton Records and who personified the Frisco weird-with-a-beard image (he even kinda looked like Baltimore's own Vermin Supreme!). And they say rock music isn't educational!

This Ain't No Disco: The Story of CBGB (1988)
by Roman Kozak

If you've read Legs McNeil's punk oral history Please Kill Me, then you're already familiar with many of the bands and personalities covered in this great read. But whereas McNeil's history covered the whole movement in New York, London and Cleveland, Roman Kozak (a former Billboard magazine writer) focuses on just one club - THE club - where New York City's punk scene was born and blossomed: CBGB-OMFUG (Country BlueGrass Blues and Other Musics For Underground Gourmands). Reading it made me feel nostalgic for my music era, back in the late '70s and early '80s at Baltimore's Marble Bar. It made me understand how today's kids relate to the Ottobar as their cultural base. I especially liked passages in This Ain't No Disco (which should not be confused with the New Wave album covers book called This Ain't No Disco) talking about the bathrooms at CBGBs, where the men's room had a graffiti chart detailing sexual conquests and the ladies' room had a similar "rating" system (e.g., "Dee Dee has the biggest prick in NY"). That really struck home to me, given that the Marble Bar had the same scene going. There was even a peephole in the men's room where you could get more "intimate" in your interaction with the ladies room (which was filled with guys half the time anyway!).

My most famous memory of the Marble Bar bathroom was pissing right next to Huey Lewis, whose band the Newport News, played there in, like, 1980. I recall I used the toilet and Huey used the sink (hey, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go!). I did not wash my hands.

Back in the U.S.S.R.: The True Story of Rock in the USSR (1988)
by Artemy Troitsky

Back in the late '90s, I used to work with a Moldavian computer programmer (who was also a former car mechanic who never stopped singing the praises of Volvos!) who used to plop on his headphones and sing along to Russian rock music while coding away at his PC. Actually, I worked with three Russians at this computer company, including a very sexy (also very married) chain-smoking Russian woman named Natasha and a quiet Muscovite named Sergei. But Alex (or Dumina, as Natasha called him - I think it was Russian for "wood" and meant "dummy" in slang) was the only one who rocked out in his cubicle. One song in particular caught my ear, as Alex would sing - always off-key, mind you - "One way teekit, yeah yeah, one way teekit!" Across the aisle I'd shout, "What the hell are you listening to?" Wherein Alex would effuse, with a passion usually reserved for Volvos, about the band known as Time Machine (Mashina vremeni). I think he even made me a tape (yes, this was before iTunes and the uniformity of CD burning - even for computer techies). It was real 70s prog rock-ish, as I recall, like ELP or Yes. In fact, whenever I mention Time Machine to the young Russian exchange coeds who come into the library to check their e-mail, they giggle and say "Oh, is old group; is musics from '70s!"

Well, finally I found this book that mentioned Time Machine - the first print reference I've ever found! - as well as other Russian bands.

Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954-1988(1990)
by Timothy W. Ryback

The next day I found an even better tome, Rock Around the Bloc, Timothy W. Ryback's history of rock music in Communist Europe from the '50s to the '80s.

Besides the great write-up on Moscow's Time Machine, whose concerts were compared to the early days of Beatlemania, Ryback examines other Iron Curtain bands in detail, from East Germany to Hungary.

Digging out my Planetary Pebbles CDs, Surfbeat and Surfbeat 2, I found most of the "various subversives" bands discussed in Ryback's informative and detailed study, like Leningrad's Singing Guitars (Pojuschie Guitary), who formed in 1966 and were considered Russia's first real "rock" band, famously releasing the first USSR rock opera, "Orpheus And Eurydice," in 1975. And Prague's Zappa-influenced Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), who were actually jailed by the Czech authorities in 1976 for "organized disturbance of the peace" after a performance and had to go underground. Future Czech president Václav Havel was a fan and got the band to reunite in 1997.

The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video (1984)
by Michael Shore

Subtitled "The Definitive Look at Visual Music from Elvis Presley - and Before - to Michael Jackson - and Beyond," this OOP rarity more than lives up to the hype. Nothing else comes close to analyzing the fledgling years of music video. Though MTV was hatched a scant three years (August 1, 1981, to be exact) before this book was published, it's amazingly spot on. No where else will you find as much detail on the USA Network's Night Flight or the early music video artists (Devo, Bowie, Tubes) and directors (like 10cc's Godley & Creme and Steve Barron, who did A-ha's "Take On me" as well as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Hayzi Fantyzee's "John Wayne Is Big Leggy"). But Michael Shore does more than just critique MTV music videos like a highbrow Beavis & Butthead - he studies the whole history of music and visuals, with special attention given to pioneers of experimental film like Oskar Fischinger, Bruce Conner "(Devo's "Mongoloid"), Chuck Statler, Disney's Fantasia, Panoram Soundies (a pre-Scopitones visual jukebox from the 1940s), Scopitones, Mike Nesmith of The Monkees (Elephant Parts), and so on. I liked this one so much I sought 'n bought a used copy from eBay.

Lost in the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed
by Kim Cooper and David Smay

OK, it's not OOP, but I also ran across this fairly obscure work from the geniuses behind the essential rock read Bubblegum Is the Naked Truth (not to mention the music fanzine Scram, which describes itself as "dedicated to rooting out the cashews in the bridge mix of unpopular culture"), Kim Cooper and David Smay. Cooper and Smay assembled reviews from various scenesters and zinesters, including people like comic artist Pete Bagge (a Raspberries fan - who knew?), psychedelic revivalist Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate), music-lovin' author George Pelecanos, cataloger-of-cool Gene Sculatti (who operates the Catalog of Cool website with Kim Cooper), Greg Shaw (Bomp), and a host of rabid music fans from what the editors call "Zinedom's First Wave."

At first skim-through it seemed all over the place, but as I read the alphabetical band entries (from the UK's Auteurs to ole Yankee Doodle dandy Warren Zevon), I saw the common thread running through the picks and raves: overlooked nuggets. Each artist or song or album highlighted is, in its own way, a still undiscovered gem - except by these discerning critics and fanboys/fangirls. Or as Barney Hoskyns (author/editor of Rock's Backpages: The Online Library of Rock & Roll) describes the effort, "Caprice is everything, and Scram's lost grooves are a music geek's very heaven. The zinester spirit of lauding the officially uncool lives on in this eminently dip-worthy collection."

I really liked seeing such obscurities as Japanese cutesy-artnoise rockers Ex-Girl (who I saw play at Baltimore's old Ottobar on Davis Street - now the Talking Head - and later featured on an episode of Atomic TV), French anomalie Michel Polnareff (before he plummetted to mediocrity in the late '70s, he was the French Todd Rundgren, a "peroxide poodle...with layers of baroque and continental weirdness" thrown in, who had Jimmy Page play guitar on his Euro hits), and even local stab-from-the-past, Maryland's Appaloosa, making an appearance for their 1969 self-titled debut LP. Klaatu, Vivian Stanshall, Martin Mull, Monty Python, Slim Gaillard, Emitt Rhodes and other oddballs and obscuros all fill the pages of this hard-to-put-down read.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cardiacs Attack

O'Connor is on the Mark!

Friday afternoon I was looking at music books in the Towson Barnes & Noble when a voice behind me said something like "This ain't a library you know!" Turning around I saw my long-time-no-see friend Mark O'Connor (pictured at left). Mark is one of the few legitimate musical geniuses I have known in my lifetime. Though he now toils for Social Services, I knew Mark from undergrad days at Towson State University (the Mason-Dixon's College of Knowledge - perhaps you've heard of it?) - where he was a Philosophy Major (like me at one point) - and from Marble Bar band days. The former songwriter/keyboardist for Oho, Dark Side, Trixy & The Testones, The Beaters, Food for Worms and, most recently, BLAMMO, always had great taste in music (just today we agreed on how awesome the first two John Foxx-era Ultravox albums were) and an unerring sense of humor. The Food for Worms songs that didn't make me wanna dance made me want to laugh out loud. In a word, he's a most clever fellow. So when he recommends something to me, I listen.

So when I asked him what music he was listening to of late and he elatedly effused "Cardiacs!", well, I had to take notice. And I have to say: good call!

The Cardiacs

According to Wikipedia, "Cardiacs are an English band formed in 1977. Their broad combination of styles is sometimes referred to as pronk (progressive punk), although singer Tim Smith prefers the description Psychedelic or simply Pop. Fusing the excitement and 'raw energy' of punk rock with the intricacies and technical cleverness of early British progressive rock, their sound is unique, varied, complex, and intense."

Unfortunately, other than a few downloads from their website and a few videos on YouTube, their work is only available as VERY EXPENSIVE IMPORTS from the UK - like $50 to $90 dollars per album on Amazon! But I can see why Mark loves them so much - they're funny!

In a follow-up e-mail, Mark raved:
I am the official Cardiacs apostle for the Eastern seaboard. Say the word and I’ll send you a cd or two. I’m in the process of collecting them all and am up to 10 or so. You should go to their website ( for some interesting history and general bizarre prose. Read some of their journal, for example, which is hilarious. Tim Smith is my new hero. And the Cardiacs are the band I’ve been waiting for all my life - a punky proggy band that sounds like everyone and no one simultaneously. It’s become customary for me to have hour-long exegetical conversations about them with Joe, Gyro or Bob. What can you say about a band with song titles like “The Duck and Roger the Horse” or “Pip as Uncle Dick But Peter Spoilt It”? Incidentally, most of their YouTube videos have been uploaded by just a few people, like TallBastard and especially GehennatheHorse. Check out the latter’s own video under “Message from Gehenna”. Careful though as there’s a sludgy heavy metal group with the same name. You’ll know you have the right one if you see violent black and white nature footage (mostly water) over which is superimposed a cheesy, undulating picture of a horse. OK, gotta go and order “The Sea Nymphs”, which was a Cardiacs side project involving three members recorded in the woods somewhere.

Thanks for the tip and for the links, Mark! And for fans of clever Brit punk-pop, I advise: check 'em out!


Cardiacs Website (

Cardiacs at Wikipedia

Cardiacs Museum (Fan Site)


Tarred and Feathered

R.E.S. Music Video

Is This the Life?

Suzannah's Still Alive (cover of the Dave Davies/Kinks song)

The Duck and Roger the Horse

Dirty Boy

Firey Gun Hand


Friday, March 21, 2008

Baltimore Art Crimes


All that glitters isn't gold. After walking by Mount Vernon Park and seeing the "art" there, I got to thinking about all the public art works around town that annoy non-art school educated laymen like me.

Mt. Vernon Park Gold Chain Link Fence (2008)

"Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above - Don't fence me in/Let me ride through the wide open country that I love- Don't fence me in."
- "Don't Fence Me In" (Cole Porter & Robert Fletcher)

Portrait of the Artist as a young asshole

I hate it. And I'm not alone. As part of a collaborative art exhibit sponsored by MICA and the Walters Art Museum ("Fencing Mount Vernon Place"), art student Lee B. Freeman puts up an ugly chain link fence that looks like all the other fences around construction sites downtown, paints it gold, and calls it art. Meanwhile people can't use the public park to walk their dogs or enjoy the Spring, and bums can't bed down for the night. The only people happy with it are certain elitist MICA students who seem to be flesh-and-blood embodiments of the caricatures Dan Clowes created in Art School Confidential.

Isn't it beautiful?

I especially love the poster at the Sun's Critical Mass blog who told them: "Please graduate and move to Williamsburg ASAP so I don't have to deal with pretentious nonsense like this in my own backyard, which you've stolen from me for two weeks. Thanks for nothing."

Some area residents were so upset by the fence that they plastered "Exclusionist" stickers on the fence, as shown below:

According to the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts' mission statement, "Public Art enhances the cityscape, quality of life and artistic and creative climate in Baltimore. It often encourages civic pride, provides opportunitites for enrichment and sometimes sparks cultured debate." They sure got that last part right!

Freeman laments lost integrity of his work

As I write these words, I've just read that the artist (pictured above) and MICA have backed down and will now open the gates to the four fenced-in Mount Vernon Park squares today - hooray! The people have spoken! The only thing worse than erecting the fence in the first place was the decision to lock the park up in order to "maintain the integrity of the work" (fancy art school mumbo-jumbo for denying public access to a work). But how can you hurt a chain-link fence? They're strong, they're sturdy - they can handle assaults on their "integrity" - that's why they're used all the time around construction sites to keep people out or in prison camps to keep people in!

Passerby mindful to respect integrity of the work

See more comments about the fence at the Sun blog: Fencing Mount Vernon Square.

Male/Female at Penn Station (2004)

In 2004, the City of Baltimore shelled out $750,000 to sculptor Jonathan Borofsky to create a 51-foot-tall aluminum statue entitled "Male/Female" as the centerpiece of the redesigned Penn Station Plaza. It has generated controversy ever since.

Klaatu barada nikto!

Ah yes, the first sight that greets out-of-towners as the leave Penn Station is...absurdity. How can anyone take us seriously looking at this towering quadrupedal sculpture that Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks rightly ridiculed as looking like the robot Gort from the '50s sci-fi flick The Day the Earth Stood Still. Welcome to Baltimore, hon! Now bow down to Gort and say "Klaatu barada nikto!"

Hmmmm, didn't Gort's message mean "We come in peace"? Given Bodymore, Murderland's rep for being a body-count heavy homicide town, maybe there's something to our Penn Station Gort's symbolic pronouncement of peace. I come in peace, please don't kill me!

I think I'm beginning to understand art.

Like Zippy the Pinhead. After a visit to John Hopkins University last year, cartoonist Bill Griffith was quite taken with Male/Female, featuring it in several of of his comic strips. I guess that means it's a sculpture only a pinhead can appreciate?

Final Thoughts on Public Art

Don't get me wrong. I like public art, but only when it's non-invasive and works with - not against - its environment. Male/Female is vertically invasive, an eyesore that obscures the Penn Station building and the surrounding skyline. And the Gold Fence project in Mount Vernon, well...fences have negative connotions, making me think of internment centers and refugee camps. I mean, they erect fences along the Texas-Mexico border to keep immigrants out of the USA, not to celebrate the border or reflect on the artistic nature of the landscape!

But I do like many of the public art murals around town, like John Ellsberry's mural on the marquee of the old Mayfair Theatre on North Howard Street. It makes decorative use of an abandoned building that otherwise would be just another eyesore in an area of urban decay.

And I'd even consider the billboard across from Penn Station - the one depicting Mr. Boh proposing to the Utz Potato Chip Girl - as a more worthy example of good public art than the egregious examples cited above. With its local connections, it certainly meets the Baltimore Art Council's criteria of encouraging civic pride while enhancing the cityscape and sparking cultural debate - in a good and positive way because everyone loves this couple (despite their considerable age difference)!

Engaging Public Art: Mr Boh woos the Utz Girl

Related Links:
Map of Baltimore Public Art

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Quiet City

directed by Aaron Katz
USA, 2007, 78 minutes

"Mumblecore" is the new buzzword for independent films about twentysomething slackers - you know, the type people who hang out at Baltimore's Ottobar in nondescript t-shirts, tight jeans and hoodies - though some people also use it to describe films by John Cassavetes (aka "Slackavettes") and some brogue-heavy films from Scotland and the UK's Midlands. It's also sometimes called "bedhead cinema." According to Wikipedia, "Mumblecore is an American independent film movement that arose in the mid-2000's. It is primarily characterized by ultra-low budget production (often employing digital video cameras), focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors." Filmmakers in this genre include Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha), Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City) and Joe Swanberg (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs). In 2007, New York's Independepent Film Channel Center even presented a 10-film mumblecore series that it called "The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y." to address the phenomenon.

I recalled that Joe Swanberg's LOL (2006) and Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) were screened at last year's Maryland Film Festival, but other than that, I didn't know anything about the genre. So when my library received a copy of Aaron Katz's Quiet City, I took it home to check it out. Hand-held camera work in the beginning scene on the New York City subway gave me a moment's pause as I was afraid the entire movie would be one of those overdone herky-jerky handheld indie flicks that induce migraines. But I stuck it out, and I'm glad I did. This movie was really good. Like Seinfeld, it was about nothing, but most people's lives are about nothing. Isn't that why we watch reality TV and get high? We're looking for something to occupy our time.

The non-narrative narrative, according to IMDB, is this: "Jamie is 21. She's from Atlanta. She's come to Brooklyn to visit her friend Samantha, but she can't find her. Jamie tries calling, but Samantha's phone is dead. Jamie meets Charlie when she asks him for directions. Nothing to do and nothing but time leads them to bowls of coleslaw, footraces in the park, art shows, and after parties."

It sounds a lot like Richard Linkletter's Before Sunrise, except Katz's film never follows the "strangers meet and romance blooms" storyline. And, unlike Linkletter's carefully (and brilliantly) scripted Slacker, what the characters say is never profound or thought-provoking, instead being the kind of natural, often awkward and inarticulate, speech people use in everyday life. In fact, the two most frequently used words are "like" and "awesome." Not exactly David Mamet material. The two leads, Cris Lankenau (who is credited along with Aaron Katz as the film's script writer and who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Adolf Kowalski, lead singer in my old punk band Thee Katatonix) and Erin Fisher, just hang out. Even at the end, we're left to savor their time together and not see it turn into anything other than what it is. A moment. A brief connection. Maybe the two new friends will become lifelong friends. Maybe not.

Portait of the Artist as a Young Adolf: star Cris Lankenau

But there's a method to the nothingness here. Katz uses beautiful still shots of trees, parks, skylines, and the signature sunset at an airport to serve as placeholders linking the "hanging out" vignettes that make up the film's brisk 78-minute running time. This is probably a nod to Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese director who liked to use shots of static objects as transitions between scenes.

In between are the two leads who make the film the success it is. This film is all about casting - we like the leads and we want to follow them on their journey to wherever it is they're going in Mumblecore's Mecca, Brooklyn, NY. They don't emote. They don't go Method Actor on us. And they're not overly beautiful or overly plain; they're just plain ordinary. They walk and talk like us, going about their business, eating, drinking, sleeping, commuting. Making small talk and drinking wine out of coffee mugs. Just ordinary folks waiting for something interesting to happen. Just like real life.

FYI: Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau, director Aaron Katz and producers Brenden McFadden and Ben Stambler were all nominated for the John Cassevetes Award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards.

Related Links:
Quiet City (IMDB)

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pirates Seek Bounty for Jackie Nickel

Pirates of Essex Come Ashore for Relay for Life Walk

On May 9th The Pirates of Essex will walk from dusk 'til dawn to honor the memory of Jackie Nickel and try to reach their fundraising goal of $1,500 dollars during the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life" charity event at the CCBC-Essex Campus.

Toss some doubloons Jackie Nickel's way!

To join the landlubbering crew in support of Essex's beloved journalist and community activist, who lost her battle with cancer last year, see Relay for Life of Essex, MD.

The roster currently includes Jackie's son Scott Huffines, Kristin Miller, Melissa Darwin, Jane Brettschneider, Patty Irwin, Sea Dog and The Parrot.

Related Links:
"Relay for Life" honors Jackie Nickel
The Pirates of Essex

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Queen Is Dead

Ayako Miyake abdicates her Ninja Warrior Throne

Ready for anything...except failure!

Saturday, March 8, 2008: International Women's Day

What better way for the guy-centric G4 cable TV network to celebrate International Women's Day in the Women's History Month of March then airing the first four episodes of the new (seventh) season of Women of Ninja Warrior (known in Japan as Kunoichi, from the Japanese term for a female ninja or practitioner of ninpo/ninjutsu) during a Saturday night programming marathon. Only one woman had ever won the sports challenge competition in its first six years, but that woman, Ayako Miyake, had won the last three years in a row and was poised for her fourth crown this evening.

But she failed.

Unexpectedly, inexplicably, inconceivably.

And for the first time ever the reigning Queen of Ninja Warriors fell into the drink, plunging into the icy waters of Mount Midoriyama in the second stage. From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat...Miyake, the acrobatic star of Tokyo's G-Rockets dance troupe and popular Muscle Musical revue (known in the West as Matsuri, which is now playing at the Sahara in Las Vegas), seemed dazed as her mascara ran down her face, merging with her tears.

The crowd couldn't believe their eyes as a huge collective groan followed the splashdown. Their agonized faces belayed their shock, like post-War survivors being told Emperor Hirohito wasn't a god.

All a dazed Miyake could do was mumble, "I failed..." and, addressing the crowd, "I sorry."

Besides Miyake, another acrobatic star of Japan's Muscle Musical had previously plunged into the water, and she too burst into tears and bore a grimaced expression. These two women took the competition very seriously and acted as if they had disgraced their entire nation. I worried for a moment that perhaps these despondent damsels might commit hari-kari to abet their shame. Even everyone's Kunoichi heir apparent, intense celebrity athlete Yuko Mizuno (pictured at right - without her constricting sports bra) wasn't that shattered when she was eliminated.

Last year's runner-up, Maho Tanaka, the beautiful and leggy snow and wake boarder, also failed and was clearly disappointed (me too - I thought she was the most serious contender for Miyake's crown this season), but she showed exceptional poise under pressure, seemingly resigning herself to the fickleness of fate and the vanquishing vicissitudes of athletic competition. She'll be back next year for sure.

To say I'm heart-broken is the understatement of the world. I haven't been this sad since Pee-Wee Herman got busted at the movies. Alas, a hero ain't nothing but a sandwich in today's topsy-turvy world.

Here's the video showing Misake's - and her closest rivals - undoing on the Season 7 premiere of Women of Ninja Warrior. For me, watching it is like seeing the Zapruder footage of Kennedy's assasination. Unbelievable but irrefutable. And still shocking.

The Agony of Defeat, Lady Ninja-style

That's OK, Ayako. I still love you. And will be rooting for you next year!

So take heart from Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" and "come back even stronger." Repeat after me (and Helen): I am woman. I am [almost] invincible. I am strong.

Related Links:
Japan Probe's Kunoichi Season 7 Videos
Women of Ninja Warrior (previous AD post)

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99 Words for Boobs


In honor of March being national Women's History Month, I give you this topical viral video from bohab1969 set to the beat of Nena's "99 Luftballoons":

Related Links:

Joe Bob Briggs' Canonical Hooter List
The world's most complete list of synonyms for breasts of the female variety

Down Mammary Lane
A pointless meditation on breasts

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

White Light, Black Rain

On August 6th and 9th, 1945, two atomic bombs vaporized 210,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those who survived are called "hibakusha"--people exposed to the bomb--and there are an estimated 200,000 living today.

Oh, the Humanity!

Last night I took a break from watching the G4 channel's "Duty Free TV" programming block - which routinely makes fun of "those wacky Japanese" via MST 3000-style commercial spoofs in between episodes of Japanese TV shows like Ninja Warrior, Unbeatable Bazuke, and Super Fun Product Show - and watched a documentary about the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Yes - quite the mood swing!

It was a 2007 HBO documentary by Steven Okazaki called White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it may be the best film ever made about the event Japanese survivors call "pica don" ("pica" referred to the flash of light, and "don" was an onomatopoeic reference to the tremendous sound) because it largely glosses over the scientific, military, and political background that has been done to death on countless History Channel programs, concentrating instead on the survivors and their stories. Add to this some horrible and disturbing archival film footage/photographs that had previously been suppressed for over 25 years and the survivors' own paintings and drawings and, whatever your stance is on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I really think it will change the way you look at the bomb. I think you'll agree with me that regardless of whether justified militarily or politically, morally these bombings were a crime against humanity. Human beings should not do this to fellow human beings.

As one post-war Japanese-born IMDb commentator(lastliberal from Florida) put it:
To see your mother crumble to dust in front of you is a pain that is incomprehensible. It is so horrific that some children could not take it and ended their lives. To see children with horrific burns all over their bodies, in excruciating pain for many months, with no relief and wanting to die will touch the hardest hearts.

As director Okazaki explained, "With WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN, I wanted to tell one of the great human stories of one of history’s monumental tragedies. The personal memories of the survivors are amazing, shocking and inspiring. They put a human face on the incalculable destruction caused by nuclear war."

Okazaki met more than 500 survivors and interviewed more than 100 people before choosing the 14 subjects featured in the film (many of whom had never spoken publicly about their experiences), as well as four Americans (scientists and military personnel) involved in the bombings.

In one amazing scene, Enola Gay co-pilot Capt. Robert Lewis appears on a 1955 episode of This Is Your Life and apologizes to featured guest Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Japanese minister who survived Hiroshima. He repeats the words he wrote down in his log immediately after witnessing the blast: "My God, what have we done?"

But I was most impressed by survivor Kiyoko Imori who lost her entire family - including a sister who survived but later threw herself in front of a speeding train because she could not go on with her disfigurement - when she said there are two types of courage: "The first is the courage to die, which my sister had. The other is the courage to live, which I chose because I didn't have the courage to die."

Dying is easy, many survivors said, and some prayed for it often in the immediate aftermath of the bombings when they were undergoing treatment and, later, dehumanizing examinations by American doctors and scientists. Death was seen as more honorable than living and not being treated as human in Japan, where survivors are an unwelcome reminder of a past the Japanese government (which only recently started offering medical assistance to the hibakusha) would rather forget. Plus many survivors felt guilty that they lived while their friends, neighbors and loved ones perished. Survivors were and are discriminated against socially and in terms of employment, with the same phobias and misconceptions we have today against HIV-positive people - not to mention employers not wanting to inherit the considerable medical risks insuring survivors would entail (especially since the government didn't recognize their rights). And women survivors had trouble finding mates because they were either barren or it was believed that they would give birth to deformed children - a subject covered extensively (and painfully) in Shohei Imamura's award-winning 1989 feature film Korei Ame (Black Rain). Imamura's Black Rain - curiously out-of-print (given that it won so many international film awards) - should not be confused with Ridley Scott's Black Rain, which also came out in 1989 (how's that for timing?).

The most famous survivor interviewed in White Light, Black Rain is Keiji Nakazawa, best known as the author of the autobiographical manga series Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), which he started serializing in 1973. Nakazawa was six years old at the time and lost most of his family in the bombing; he credits his survival with a brick wall collapsing on top of him during the blast. In addition to the manga series, two animated features, three live-action films and an opera have been based on Barefoot Gen.

And speaking of other versions of the Hiroshima bombing, check out these two great animated films:

(dir. Renzo Kinoshita, Japan, 1978, 10 minutes)

Pica-Don was the first attempt to discuss the Hiroshima blast by means of animation. Renzo Kinoshita says he was inspired in a heart-rending way when he saw paintings and drawings of those who survived the bomb. "Pica-Don" is an onomatopoetic word meaning thunder and lightning and referring to the bomb. Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library has a 16mm print of this very hard-to-find title. I showed it last year as part of our Hiroshima film program, along with Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959).

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haku)
(dir. Isao Takahata, Japan, 1988, 89 minutes)

Fantastic film from Ghibli Studios. As user Charles Solomon describes it:
Isao Takahata's powerful antiwar film has been praised by critics wherever it has been screened around the world. When their mother is killed in the firebombing of Tokyo near the end of World War II, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left on their own: their father is away, serving in the Imperial Navy. The two children initially stay with an aunt, but she has little affection for them and resents the time and money they require. The two children set up housekeeping in a cave by a stream, but their meager resources are quickly exhausted, and Seita is reduced to stealing to feed his sister.

The strength of Grave of the Fireflies lies in Takahata's evenhanded portrayal of the characters. A sympathetic doctor, the greedy aunt, the disinterested cousins all know there is little they can do for Seita and Setsuko. Their resources, like their country's, are already overtaxed: anything they spare endangers their own survival. As in the Barefoot Gen films, no mention is made of Japan's role in the war as an aggressor; but the depiction of the needless suffering endured by its victims transcends national and ideological boundaries.

I haven't seen the Barefoot Gen films, but they look to be essential viewing as well.