Misfits? Guess again!

People often wonder why I was an art historian, and why I took Visual Culture classes. There is nothing
lucrative that you can do with art history. And visual culture must be the silliest subject in the world. I mean all you are doing is looking at pictures, right?*

Yes, I know, your 5-year-old can look at pictures*. But that doesn’t make him a cultural critic. That doesn’t give him an understanding of the language of the visual world (visual semiotics and semantics) and the ability to analyze the power of images over popular culture. That is what we do in art history.Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop)

This might not seem so interesting or useful. I mean they are just harmless pictures, right? Why would anyone want to criticize pictures? Well, some pictures, like children’s illustrations, or paintings, are fairly harmless. But the majority of pictures that we see every day are not art or illustration. Most of the images we see today are advertising, and I believe advertising must be criticized and historicized. That doesn’t mean that we have to think ads are “bad”. But we should see ads for what they are, an attempt to sell us something in a very seductive way. Sometimes ads are cool. But they aren’t art.

I was recently thinking about those great 1990’s ads for Guess jeans (Georges Marciano). They were so beautiful. They looked like dramatic films stills and they featured top models like Claudia Schiffer or Anna Nicole Smith. They usually had a very “American” feeling to them, like something from a western. But others were very European like an old Italian realist movie. They felt gritty and cinematic.adv_4540

It occurred to me that a major influence on the 1990’s Guess ads was John Houston’s 1961 film, The Misfits. You know the one with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. If you don’t know it you should see it. It’s set in the American desert and tells the story of a divorcée and some struggling cowboys in Nevada still trying to live the frontier life in the 1960’s, but probably well on their way to just becoming trailer trash on the outskirts of Las Vegas in a world where global distribution and spreading suburbanism was killing the frontier. It’s a study of the end the cowboy persona and the American idea of “freedom” that came with it.

misfits

The Misfits and those Guess ads have so much in common. Passionate love, beautiful dumb people, and a gritty, black-and-white environment. But I would say that the Misfits is art and the Guess ads are not. John Huston, filmmaker of the Misfits, wanted to say something about how the frontier no longer fits daily life. Like an advertiser, he used beauty to make his message attractive and seductive. But his message was so much more thought provoking than the Guess message, which is simply “buy jeans”. But I don’t think much more of an argument needs to be made for these differences.

guess_2But lots of people who grew up on the Guess ads (like me) stop there and see the ads as iconic. The ads do have the feeling of the film, but they are derivative. They only communicate how the film looked, and not Huston’s overall message. To get to the message, you have to think harder and find the thing in history that influences the ads. But in our visual world where new images are constantly replacing old ones, we are not conditioned to look up the older things. We are so caught up in watching the ever-changing slide show of new images, some of which make us forget the past, but many of which, like the Guess ads, evoke it. These “throwback” images represent consumer culture’s obsession with nostagia that post modernists like Fredrick Jameson referred to as the “historical amnesia”.

And it’s cool. After all, we don’t want to overanalyze and over think things. And yet, sometimes being constantly entertained gets old. We start to wonder if we are making our own choices any more. That is why I personally love old images and old things. I love to see what people watched on TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I love to see the products they bought, the brochures they looked it, their flowery kitchen wallpaper, their speech and lack of clever irony. I even love more recent old things, like techno from the 1990’s. I think it’s important to try to remember or research how people behaved in other eras. And I’m not just talking about cool hot rods and rockabilly music or raves and pacifiers. I’m talking about the boring everyday aspects of a past era. How they might only have had one telephone in the house, or a girl might only have had two dresses because clothes were made in America, the little forgotten details.

The misfits 2So overall, art history is good and useful. We see lots of images – art primarily. We see how they have been received through history. An understanding of these older images serves as a triggers for memory when we are looking around our highly mediated environment, so that we can demystify popular advertising images and understand where they came from, and we don’t get too swept up in the seduction of novelty, like hapless cowboys trying to live in a romantic past that doesn’t really exist.

* Here is the rest of my diatribe about your five year old. It felt like I was getting off-topic so I made it a footnote: Your dear child CAN make something that looks like a Rauschenberg, or a Jackson Pollack (more likely a Pollack. Rauschenbergs were really complicated multi-media collages and most 5-year-olds couldn’t do the nailing or sawing involved). What your 5-year-old cannot do is make them at the right historical moment. Your kid doesn’t understand the evolution of painting over hundreds of years, and the “art rules” that were in place up until the 50’s that caused manipulating paint in a seemingly haphazard way to be so revolutionary. Sorry. Your 5-year old is not avant-garde.

Dorothy Vallens, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

firewalkWhen I was a child I had a special connection to certain interiors. I would imagine a world within the walls or in the far corner of the room, the odd places where nobody looked. I loved interior spaces that were small and irregular, high up, or just weird. My parents used to go to a thrift store in Long Beach, California, which I remember quite well. They had furniture arranged up on some old scaffolding (at least that’s how it seems in my foggy memory of my experiences at age 5). For some reason I always wanted to climb and explore around there, with the old things it seemed like a different world. That memory still gives me a very nostalgic feeling.

Another weird interior was the doll museum in the back of Dooley’s Hardware store in Long Beach, CA. It had old porcelain toys and dolls in glass cases and seemed like it was a secret place. I would spend hours there. At Christmas they would decorate it and it seemed so magical and perfect.

Of course I loved the doll house which my mother made for me. It was an imperfect, homemade little space full of old-fashioned Victorian furniture which I collected for years – a coal-burning stove, velvet sofas, a tiffany lamp, a little toilet with brass pipes and a lion claw’s bathtub. It was my perfect, miniature little world which was nothing like the Southern California ranch that I grew up in. I can relate to that episode of the Twilight Zone where the man falls in love with a dollhouse doll who comes to life for him at night.

blue_velvet_apartment
Apartment in Blue Velvet by David Lynch

David Lynch seems to understand the hidden psychological power of interiors and furniture. He understands how rooms come to life and hold secrets. I love Dorothy Vallen’s apartment  in Blue Velvet.
The exterior is run-down and seedy. It’s a big building in a small town (another obsession of mine) and I read that it was built in the 1930’s by an architect who was inspired by buildings he saw in New York City. It’s in a neighborhood that seems abandoned except for underworld gangsters who make unwanted visits in the middle of the night. The interior walls are deep 1930’s mauve with rounded beige furniture and elegant plants in shiny brass planters. There, in the shadowy “noir-ish” 1930’s elegance, lives Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) a woman who holds a secret that two teenagers feel compelled to discover. The velvety furniture cast a rich loungy hush over the entire room and seem to keep her secret with her.

Nightclub in Blue Velvet by David Lynch

Dorothy Vallens never seems to leave this apartment, except at night, when she goes to a place that is equally weird and shadowy, a mysterious old theater with red velvet curtains where she sings her famous performance of “Blue Velvet”. It seems blurry like it is 3 AM or a dream and she is lit by blue light as she sings. In that scene Jeffrey and Sandy (Kyle MacLaughlin and Laura Dern) sit watching her, transfixed and transported out of their familiar daytime world of school and bright sunny small-town life. Jeffrey stares at Dorothy as Sandy watches him, jealously aware that this older woman’s sexual power is taking possession over her teenage boyfriend. The old decaying theater is a symbol of jealousy and secrets and night-time visits.

Laura Palmer's bedroom in Twin Peaks by David Lynch
Laura Palmer’s bedroom in Twin Peaks by David Lynch

The bedroom where Laura Palmer lived is another example of Lynch’s powerful interiors. Laura Palmer is the beautiful high school prom queen who is murdered in the beginning of the Twin Peaks series. She lives in a cute little house in a small town in Washington. Her bedroom is bright and tidy, a portal between childhood and womanhood with the frilly bedspread and doll collection, (including a clown doll that makes it all the more disturbing). Because the sexually precocious Laura is dead already in the movie, and kept her experiences secret to the grave, her bedroom becomes an ironic shrine, a child’s room inhabited by a teen who would never reach womanhood, but in many ways already had.

I love old rooms of any sort. I love velvet furniture, old peeling wallpaper, old pianos, and crumbling theaters with velvet curtains. I don’t like to update the places where I live. In my den is the original wood-paneling from the 1970s. The decor is kind of Brady Bunch – bright colors and thrift store art. If I ever get more money perhaps I will replace it with 1930’s club furniture. But more likely I will have to wait until I find a perfect untouched old brick apartment with a fire escape in a forgotten town somewhere in America.

A Discussion of Belinda Carlisle and Exene Cervenka as Fashion Icons, Wherein I Also Talk Trash about Madonna

blog post

A lot has been said about the coolness of 1950’s thrift-store clothes, and how essential they were to the punk scene. For me, a middle class punk in the 1980’s, whose family refused to buy expensive clothes like Izod shirts and such, thrift store shopping allowed me to have an identity, beyond that of “nerdy girl who couldn’t afford the expensive stuff”. I’m not the first one to have said this, either.

But shopping in thrift stores gave me so much more than coolness at school. It started me off on a road of nostalgia and my love for old, forgotten pop culture. It also helped me to appreciate the real history behind material objects, the story that each one of them has to tell. While many girls just wore the rockabilly knockoff looks (socks with pumps, colorful plastic jewelry, novelty prints like black/pink triangles), I knew a bit about the decades that actually inspired them. Anyway it also inspired me to go to graduate school, learn programming, have children, buy a house, and select a good 401K program (Well, OK that last part is bullshit but still thrifting was pretty cool)

My love of thrift stores also gave me a bond, however imaginary, to some of my favorite fashion icons of the 80’s….

Put down the Go-Go’s as much as you like, but we all loved them, and you probably did too! When they hit it big, clawing their road to success over the backs of some, they were fun. They were beautiful and inspiring. They gave me a love of my own town through their videos, shot in L.A., which always seemed to involve local street scenes, colorful music and their great combinations of thrift store clothes and kitschy scarves and jewelry.

I mean, everyone seems to think that Madonna was the queen of 80’s fashion,  but, umm…Madonna only wore black. Like, BORING!! The Go-Gos were much more colorful, much more inspired in their 50’s retro looks.

Belinda was my fashion inspiration back in the early 80’s. As pictured here, she captured exactly how I was trying to look, artsy, colorful and very new wave. This picture reminds me so much of an outfit I had in 1983 or so: bright blue tights, a long sweatshirt that said “Privilege” (which I think I actually purchased at the Glendale Galleria or at least the Lakewood Mall), and red ballet flats, or maybe pink moccasins. I can’t quite remember. But I love Belinda’s combination of 50’s pumps, baggy mini-dress and red sunglasses. OK, I don’t know why she chose the Vera Bradley knockoff bag, but it was 1981 so I will still give her credit. The overall look was shocking. Bright. Very L.A. pin-up fun, like the sun reflecting off of the pavement on a street full of 1920’s bungalows and palm trees with bright flowers and billboards.

My other fashion icon was Exene Cervenka. Exene was darker and more punk than Belinda. Exene had great instincts – 1940’s dresses, lots of bangles and chains mixed with the bangles. Red lipstick, and old lady shoes with white socks. Scraggly hair. Exene didn’t just look “shocking” or “punk”. Her intelligence always shined though. By wearing clothes from another era, she evoked history and therefore something timeless. Like an old weathered film poster from the 1940’s, glamour gleaming through the dust, the way she wore raggedly vintage clothes was poetic and  played to our sense of nostalgia.

I love this blog post about Exene. The writer, Caviglia, actually goes into the folk aesthetic that was so important to understanding L.A.’s particular twist on punk culture in the 80’s. It wasn’t about being streamlined, European, slick, technological, like so many imagine the 80’s to be. It wasn’t Depeche Mode or Duran Duran in L.A. Well it was, a little. In L.A. we were into high-tech MTV video stuff. But we were also into the old: “I Love Lucy” reruns, Gumby, old western films, Mexican folk culture and old sit-coms or teenage b-movies. X captured that aesthetic so well, as did the Go-Gos with their 60’s beach movie kitsch. And it was always about thrifting and looking funky as hell.

I loved this video and still do. Jane Wiedlin’s little solo just the best. I think she is wearing a 50’s swimsuit! I’m going to tie a scarf around my ponytail next week and go for a splash in a fountain…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3kQlzOi27M&feature=artistyoutube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3kQlzOi27M&feature=artist]

The Importance of Bright Plastic Jewelry

I think I found another piece in my ongoing fashion puzzle – “How Do I Have More Fun Wearing 1950’s Vintage Clothing?”. The answer: Plastic jewelry! It’s what they actually wore in the 1950’s. It was there all the time, the natural choice for those great 1950’s dresses. It can be necklaces or earrings. It can be dark:

black and pink dress

Or Bright:

Vintage 1950's aqua blue plastic flower earrings
Clip-On Pineapple Earrings

 

These types of plastic earrings are so bright and fun. How could one not wear them?.

I could see them with a 1940’s rayon dress, bright red lipstick and not too much eye makeup. (Of course they would also look great with jeans or low-top converse, or capris, flats and a bulky cardigan).

dark blue 1940's rayon dress

Of course, back in the 1980’s, vintage 50’s styles were just becoming popular. We wore lots of colorful earrings then.

Raspberry 1980's Earrings on eBay
1980s raspberry earrings

Yes they were tacky, and much more Valley-Girl than the 1950’s styles they were trying to copy, but at least they were an early attempt to be “retro”, wild and bright. Think of Peg Bundy from “Married With Children”.

The Bundys from "Married With Children"

Although I have been collecting vintage clothing of the 1950’s, since the 1980’s, I never realized how much more fun plastic jewelry adds to the whole look. I had always just worn vintage with my typical silver, red, and black “hippie” jewelry.

beaded hippie earrings

I mean, these are really pretty, but they don’t complement a 1950’s dress like plastic does. They are better worn with a miniskirt and boots or a long 1970s-style hippie skirt and sandals. That’s great stuff, but it’s for another post, and frankly, I think it’s going to be a really long time before I stop wearing button earrings, now that I have reached this level of inspiration.

I will start with these leather pistol-and-stamen beauties that I won in eBay auction yesterday for $1. Don’t worry, leather may be a natural material, but I will work my way up to plastic.

Yellow Leather Earrings

And next time you try on a vintage dress but are wondering what it is lacking, go for the plastic beads.

Peg Bundy would be proud.

Hollywood and Western

Staying at a hotel on Hollywood Blvd. the past two nights. Ten years ago I never would have dreamed of that. But now everything here is cleaned out, bright and shiny for young decent people with decent intentions. It is sanitized. So a hotel on Hollywood Blvd. caters to young tourists now instead of prostitutes and weirdos.

I’ve been driving along Memory Blvd. for the past 3 days. Hollywood Blvd., accompanied by a soundtrack of my years in Hollywood – 1988-92 approximately: X, Jeffrey Lee Peirce, more X, and New Order (this is the soundtrack of what I was listening to then). I’ve been trying to recreate my own personal L.A. and I must say it’s hard, in a city that continually erases and redraws itself. However, unlike Tokyo, the L.A. architecture is mostly left alone

Friday night we went to the Dresden, a beautiful old restaurant from the 1960s, from the rat pack and Vegas era. The Dresden is not much to look at from the outside, competing with bright trendy Thai restaurants and sushi and cuban, etc. But inside the Dresden you find a sea of creamy white naugahyde booths and huge custom made white chairs, skinny wood beams spiraling up to the ceiling like strange modern DNA chains and modern glittering chandeliers. It is not 90’s wannabe James Bond 60’s modern. It is the real thing, and it must be seen to be believed.

On Saturday we got back on Memory Blvd. (aka Hollywood Blvd) and went to Denny’s at Hollywood and Van Ness. Back in the Guns N Roses era we called this “rock n roll Denny’s”. Anything east of Highland Blvd was prefixed with “rock n roll” hence “rock n roll Ralph’s”, etc. Does anyone remember this? The waitress didn’t. The old sunken cocktail lounge has been made into a bright room full of booths. That was the only Denny’s I knew of where you could get a martini with that Grand Slam, but no longer.

heather at rock n roll dennys

Then on to Melrose. Nothing much left there from the days it was filled with rockabilly, glam and punk kids. Cowboys and Poodles, Flip of Hollywood, Vinyl Fetish, Aron’s Records, even Lip Service is gone. But one place still stands – AAArdvarks Odd Ark. It was good to be in this jam-packed vintage clothing store, and they still had some 1950’s dresses even if most cost upwards of $40. I guess AAArdvark’s is moving soon. Melrose will officially become just a collection of small unrelated designer clothing stores, instead of the nexus of a shared subculture.

Next we went to Amoeba Records at Cahuenga and Sunset Blvd. Supposedly Amoeba is responsible for the closing of most L.A. record stores, such as Aron’s (where I used to work) or the Virgin Megastore, and even Tower on Sunset. Man what a place is Amoeba! It is a like a huge arena of new and used CD’s and vinyl in every genre, rock, lounge, rap, soul, ska, reggae, classical, and on and on. There is a huge separate room for jazz, the techno section spans about 5 racks. There is a separate rap wing. There is a small bin just for old Northern Soul 45’s. There are cases with funny rock collectibles and all over posters line the walls. Frank Gehry? Rock Museum? Seattle? I would prefer a walk through Amoeba instead of any officially sanctioned rock museum.

Then we went for a few boring hours to the Autry Center in Griffith Park. I like “Back in the Saddle” and other songs of the singing cowboy fine, but the stately new building and wordy exhibitions were a bit boring. Sorry.

We drove a bit around Silverlake. Fun to listen to Jeffrey Lee Peirce sing Hey Juana as we drove down Glendale Blvd. In fact the soundtrack seemed perfectly coordinated to our driving as “The Fertility Goddess” was playing as we drove into a pagoda-like strip mall of Thai Restaurants in Thai Town for dinner. RCA (red corner asia) has yummy thai food!

We finished the day by seeing “Sweeney Todd” at the Vista in Silverlake. The Vista is a beautiful old unchanged movie palace with red velvet curtains and Egyptian Goddesses adorning the wall sconces. Sweeney Todd was all right. Starring Johnny Depp it is the story of a razor wielding London hairdresser who collaborates with a neighboring pie maker to obtain meat for the pies and revenge for the loss of his wife and child. It is loosely based on a true story from medieval Paris. The plot was ok but I was a bit bored with the surreal darkness of Tim Burton’s sets. Too apocalyptic, too Goth, too Matrix, as everything is these days.

So we had some fun. I think I’ve seen enough of Hollywood now and I’m ready to go on. My youth is gone and no one remembers it but me and this blog.

Watching TV with Paul Morrissey

I just spent the past hour in an unexpected TV-viewing encounter with Paul Morrissey. For the uninitiated, Morrissey was Andy Warhol’s film director and made many of the films starring Edie Sedgwick, such as “Chelsea Girls”, “Trash”, “Flesh”, “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”, etc.

As a long-time (20 years) devotee of Warhol, Edie, the Velvet Underground and all things Factory, I obviously had a lot to ask Morrissey. His responses were unexpected in many ways.

Obviously the first thing I asked about was Andy Warhol. Seems like everybody has a strong opinion about Andy. “Andy was materialistic”, “Andy was obsessed with stardom,” etc. Morrissey observed that what you hear about Andy is mostly the media’s fabrication of him, since it has become fashionable to make him into a total charicature. Morrissey himself recalled Andy as being a very challenged person. Andy was dyslexic. Andy had difficulty speaking. So, when he met people on the street Andy always had a few handy one-liners in his back pocket – “Can I take your picture?” “Do you want to buy a copy of my magazine?”, etc to distract people from starting a conversation which may reveal his communications failures.

Being a self-titled bohemian girl (OK, houswife), I obviously asked Paul about Edie. Edie was always one of my idols. Morrissey basically repeated what you often hear about Edie. She was a rich, pampered girl. She was incredibly good-looking. She had an amazing body. She was very disturbed as a result of the way her family treated her, but also thanks to the asylums where she had been continually sent and the drugs she had been given there. I was surprised that Morrissey actually liked “Factory Girl”, which I had heard described as “Edie for dummies”. However, he said that the portrayal of Bob Dylan was completely inaccurate. The film made Bob out to be a moral hero, putting down the factory crowd for their speed and hard drugs and begging Edie to leave Andy, a “bloodsucker” and come with him. According to Morrissey, Bob invited Edie to Woodstock and there he gave her heroin. Bob was apparently no better than any of them.

Surprisingly, for a Factory regular, Morrissey didn’t take drugs. Here is what Andy said about Morrissey (from warholstars.org)

Andy Warhol:

“Paul didn’t take drugs – in fact, he was against every single drug, right down to aspirin. He had a unique theory that the reason kids were taking so many drugs all of a sudden was because they were bored with having good health, that since medical science by now had eradicated most childhood diseases, they wanted to compensate for having missed out on being sick. ‘Why do they call it experimenting with drugs?’ he’d demand. ‘It’s just experimenting with ill health!'” (POP118)

 

Warholstars goes on to say that although Morrissey himself didn’t take drugs, he was known at the Factory for making films of people shooting heroin. Did those people want him to film him like that? I doubt it.

Morrissey’s strongest opinions are about pop culture and rock and roll and the way this has affected society. Basically, he hates rock and roll. He says that after the first few good acts of the sixties: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, then rock and roll was ruined. It produced a mentality of chaos, sexual promiscuity, and a drug culture which has completely destroyed young people. Basically, his rhetoric is that of the conservative right wing or the 1950’s establishment. He hates rock both socially, for encouraging promiscuity and dissipation, and aesthetically, because rock’s hard relentless beat is ugly, discourages healthy critical thought and just reduces people to animals. He compared the youth rituals of listening to a rock concert, dancing and having sex to a Nazi or communist rally. As we watched Grace Jones sing in a new wave reunion concert, Morrissey praised disco which caused music to become melodic again and broke the destructive trend of rock.

I observed that today, with 1 million different channels for expression on the Internet, there are endless producers but no audience. He blamed this again on the 1960’s rock culture. Thanks to drugs and rock, kids today have damaged their nerve endings so that they need constant stimulation and cannot concentrate on slow culture. There may have been some truth to this, but it was a bit ironic that Paul himself was busy channel-surfing on a large screen television as he spoke.

My conclusion about these points of view coming from the man who used to produce “The Velvet Underground” and hang out at the Factory was that obviously he has seen so many people go down the tubes when their habits caught up with them, that he reacted viscerally.

He condemned me when I told him that I had loved garage rock for about the past 20 years since I was about 15 and had discovered the Velvet Underground, and about my father, a record collector and rock and roll historian who had dedicated his life to the music. He disagreed with my opinions that rock is necessary for young people as it helps them express their natural angst. Well, you can imagine his response. I was just a knee jerk fundamentalist liberal. OK, we went around with the same old tired arguments for some time. Still, he let me express my views – that rock was cathartic and powerful, and sometimes that was what we needed. We don’t want to listen to pleasant , melodic music anymore since frankly, life has not been pleasant and unified since before WWII.

Like just about anyone else, Paul Morrissey is good and bad. For all his right-wing opinions, he was a surprisingly pleasant and humorous man. He was about 70, Scottish descent, good-looking and altogether very smart and astute. He continues to be a well-respected film artist amongst those who look beyond the mainstream blockbusters that fill our cineplexes and minivans.