Monthly Archives: July 2011

time to bring in the seaweed

I think you’ll like these photos of amasan (sea women) by photographer / sake distiller Iwase Yoshiyuki.

Yoshiyuki Iwase, Harvesting Seaweed, 1956

Iwase Yoshiyuki, Harvesting Seaweed, 1956.

Yoshiyuki Iwase, Bluff Gazing, 1935

Iwase Yoshiyuki, Bluff Gazing, 1935. Photos via Creatures of Comfort Tumblr here.

Amasan harvested things from the sea such as seaweed, turban shells, urchins and abalone. The fetching little shorts they wear are called fundoshi and I urgently want to transition into a profession where I’ll need a stack of those in my wardrobe. (For adventuring in, obviously, not serving beer and grease-snacks in). Women are reportedly better-suited for diving into the ocean for goodies than men are because we have a bit more body fat, so we can stay warmer in the cold water, even topless, without whining about the temperature. I have not yet personally tested this theory in competition against male friends but it seems sound.

a few suggestions for people with monolith problems

dun dun DUN DUN

There’s an interesting story in today’s New York Times (via Gothamist) about some people in Brooklyn who have a monolith problem. Specifically, Verizon plopped a big grey fiberglass pole down in Flatbush without consulting anyone. It’s twenty feet high! Obviously Verizon is an asshole. An Episcopalian priest (and Kubrick fan?) who lives in the neighborhood told the Times “[t]he neighbors started gathering around it like it was the monolith in 2001.”

Flatbush monolith

Photo by Josh Haner / New York Times.

So many of our new technologies are small or otherwise unobtrusive or exist only in the cloud — I’m pretty fascinated with the fact that these people have a new object on their block to encircle, inspect, possibly (probably) kick, and figure out how to deal with. It brings to mind a college class I took at Sarah Lawrence called The Philosophy of Technology, in which we read a lot of Herbert Marcuse and talked about the phallocentric nature of rocket ships, that sort of thing. I can’t remember my professor’s name but I can tell you that for sure he’d say it’s not a monolith, it’s a big, late-stage capitalism boner.

I’m not trying to poke fun at it. It isn’t funny, this ugly object. Actually it is quite funny, but I feel bad that these people have a big, shitty technological thing hulking on their block through no fault of their own. I also feel it is contemptible Verizon didn’t have the wit to go full monolith with it — it really is just a big pole, and that is an act of aesthetic cowardice. The company says it is now working with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to identify “alternatives” to plopping down more of them, but in the meantime, a friend and I have come up with some ideas about alternative ways of living with this particular pole:

1. Make it into a candy cane. We feel that the green and white kind are less Christmassy than the red and white kind and more suitable for year-round looking-at. The fruity kind are less Christmassy still, but those don’t seem right for Flatbush.

2. Make it into a Maypole like the one in The Wicker Man.

There has to be a Brooklyn band that could come up with a fantastic new Maypole song for the people of Flatbush.

3. One person greases the pole and everyone else tries to shimmy up it. (Annually, with prizes). I have seen this happen at a country fair in Connecticut. It still happens in other places too. This particular pole is pretty thick so it’s probably a good one for urbane, middle class people with limited pole-climbing skills to start out on.

4. Get Claes Oldenburg to make a sculpture of a giant pair of trainers and hang it off the top of the pole, the way drug dealers supposedly do. Maybe a bit too edgy for a historic district in Flatbush, but it will draw art tourists, and they’ll want to buy some lemonade or kombucha or tote bags or whatever from the locals, so it will bring money in. Voila!

sentimental Herculean cravats

Cravats cartoon from a Milan newspaper, 1827, scanned from The Art of Sewing: Classic Techniques, by the editors of Time-Life Books, 1973. Bookmark it so you’ll have something to refer to the next time you’re seeking a Byronic Irish gastronome or a sentimental ballroom mathematician.

sentimental Herculean cravats

More from this series of books coming very soon — they’re amazing. In the meantime, see how nice they look in a stack here. I didn’t buy that whole stack but I’ve got a good start on my own stack.

among the turtles and the cacti in Queens

On Saturday afternoon I went to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. It’s near JFK airport but it’s a peaceful place. The trail is short (I think 1.7 miles?) but there are interesting creatures to meet and plants to admire, and the views of Manhattan are excitingly Wizard of Oz-esque.

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I live in Harlem so we got on the FDR at 116th St. Here’s Uneeda Check Cashing in East Harlem.

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Voila, the Wildlife Refuge isn’t very far. If you’ve got a cashed check burning a hole in your pocket there are some interesting places to eat in Queens along the way.

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A turtle depicting a turtle in the Visitors’ Center.

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Manhattan in the distance.

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Shy turtle.

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A pile of logs with snakes reportedly living inside.

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There’s cacti growing all over the place. Yucca too.

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And rosehips.

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Shore birds.

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A pair of ospreys in their nest.

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Cannoli Italian ice from Uncle Louie G’s in Howard Beach.

scratch-and-sniff blog post

Perfume Quiromantico

I am trying to share my new favorite scent with you but I’m not sure I’m operating WordPress’s blog-o-smell technology properly. There are a lot of knobs to twiddle! You are meant to be beguiled by the scent of Quiromantico Levantador, a Peruvian concoction I ordered from (of course) Shamans Market. The packaging was irresistible — 70s nudies! — and the description intrigued me:

This Perfume is an extract of the roots of live and esoteric plants such as Hiebras Doncella, Savila, Rosemary, Ash Tree, Hazelnut and Pine. It also contains the spirit of the great teachers of the Peruvian Forest. When your fortitude is low and you think that your life disappears in the suspense, then it is time to use this Esoteric Perfume, which has the roots of these diverse plants, that have the virtue of giving you OPTIMISM.

Perfume Quiromantico bottle

It’s basically Florida water for people who live in yurts and teepees. I’ve only been wearing it a few days and I’m not appreciably more optimistic yet, but I do smell thoroughly esoteric. Success!

1-2-3 plant vs. 1-2-3-4-5 plant

1-2-3 plant Lolo

1-2-3-4-5 plant Lolo

1-2-3 plant encountered in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens. 1-2-3-4-5 plant encountered in Chatfield Hollow State Park, Killingworth, CT.

mid-week stationary field trip No. 2

Apparently this is an irregular feature now. (The first in the series is here). Pack your bags full with your tightest pants because this week we’re going to fat camp! It will be fun, Elizabeth Taylor is there.

Liz's fat camp legs

Click on Liz’s fat camp legs to view a slideshow at Vanity Fair. The photos are by her friend Maury Hopson.

Have you seen any clips from the particularly transporting Liz-flick Boom? It’s got Noel Coward in it too — he plays a character called The Witch of Capri — but the biggest attraction for me here is Liz’s headdress. The video quality isn’t great but oh well. Surely balancing such a wondrous thing on one’s head would stimulate mental consolidation of all the most thrilling bits of flotsam and jetsam.

One needs proper equipment to prepare for the wearing of kabuki headdresses: “a cold bottle of mineral water, suntan lotion, cigarettes, codeine tabs, a bucket of ice, a glass, a bottle of brandy . . .”

all the latest news about my marimo balls

My marimo balls arrived a few weeks ago and are quietly doing whatever it is they do. They arrived in a little glassine envelope, moist and fuzzy to the touch, perfectly spherical and smelling very pleasantly mossy. I’m pretty happy with them. Take a good long look at them now because I probably won’t show you them again until they’ve achieved thunderous girth, and that’s going to take a while.

my marimo balls are here

my marimo balls are quietly minding their own business

My marimo balls at present.

it's just grass -- yawn

An approximation of what my marimo balls will look like the next time I show them to you. I plan to keep them intact so you should picture me reclining on top rather than posing inside, as this woman was doing inside a dull old grass ball at the Hampton Court Palace garden show. Photo by Luke MacGregor/Reuters via The Guardian.

A certain helpful someone who was cleaning up my apartment while I was at work blearily mistook my marimo balls for some sort of culinary experiment gone wrong and flung them into the sink, but they don’t appear to have suffered for having spent time out of their little glass home. The ensuing email discussion (“those are intentional pets!”) brought forth Gmail ads for Mr. Big Moss Collection (“You should see whether they might be interested in retaining your consulting services . . .”). Fellow moss-keepers take note, Mr. Big does not go around “collecting” other people’s mosses the way houseguests do; instead it is a big — supposedly — collection of mosses for sale, some of which are nearly as attractive as my marimo balls.

Black Narcissus

What a strange movie. Visually it is gorgeous — the painted Himalayan backdrops, Sister Superior’s steely blue bedroom, Sister Superior’s face in its starchy, trembling frame — Deborah Kerr’s face.

Black Narcissus, Mopu

sister br

Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr as Sister Superior

It’s a 1947 Powell-Pressburger melodrama about an order of nuns who are given the run of an old Himalayan palace for the purpose of setting up a school and a medical dispensary. I’ve been thinking about various scenes and images from it lately — I recently saw it for the first time, then promptly watched it again with the intention of writing about it.

Even for a melodrama it’s uncommonly melodramatic. This movie is chock full of women who are visibly utterly lost in their moods. They need to function as a group but they’re more colleagues than friends, their hierarchy a source of endless friction, their collective mood increasingly misshapen by their individual torments; they work until their hands are blistered in an effort to keep hysteria at bay; they have flashbacks about things like the time a conflict with their fiancee set their lower lip a-trembling; they eventually go apeshit, some more spectacularly than others. They almost unanimously blame it on the strange atmosphere. One of the nuns says that in the clear air “you can see too far.” Nearly all of the characters seem to be sexually frustrated all of the time — even the oldest woman, a wizened native caretaker older than just about everyone else around, longs for the palace to be filled with concubines rather than nuns, as it once was — and their conflicts with each other take on a corresponding shadow of bitter anticipation. They desperately need to get out of their own heads for a few moments but it isn’t going to happen.

The film does have a few humorous moments to lighten the mood, such as Mr. Dean — the agent of the old general who owns the palace — bouncing up and down as he arrives to meet the nuns on a very small, very ordinary-looking pony.

Mr. Dean on pony

Or when he brings conversations with nuns perilously close to the subject of sex, which he does as pointedly and repeatedly as one can probably manage in conversation with nuns. In one scene, for example, Sister Superior greets him by saying she wants to talk about business. “I didn’t suppose you’d want to talk to me about anything else,” says Mr. Dean. On another occasion she complains that the locals are undisciplined, “like children.” “Oh,” says Mr. Dean. “Don’t you like children, Sister?” This latter remark is followed by a brief pause and the simultaneous raising of eyebrows, his out of pleasure with himself, hers out of surprise, then sudden exasperation.

I didn’t feel Mr. Dean was entirely convincing as a provocative character, though. The BFI describes actor David Farrar as “[a] strongly virile figure” and I suppose there is something virile about his appearance, but his character here is feckless, ultimately harmless. He’s inappropriately sexual with the nuns but it comes off more quirky than predatory. He eyes Sister Superior up and down when they first meet — I laughed; my male friend watching the movie with me said “that’s preposterous!” — and he’s always walking around shirtless in short shorts and finding little ways to call attention to the fact that nuns don’t fuck, but I found it implausible that he should sexually torment them as he supposedly does. It’s not Farrar’s acting or his looks that are to blame; the character, I think, is made slightly ridiculous, as if to allow him to unfurl his sexuality without poking fun at it would be too much for the setting. The little ponies he rides around on are the opposite of butch, the short shorts more of a silly affectation than a proper tease, and his manner of flirting is more clumsy than provocative. It’s adequate in the Himalayas but imagine him checking out nuns in London and I think you’ll see what I mean.

David Farrar in a stupid hat

At the same time he seems to have been thwarted before the nuns even arrived on the scene. What’s he doing there in the mountains of Nowhere if not refusing to have a love life? He is the one who brings the Jean Simmons character to the nunnery for safekeeping — a young local girl named Kanchi, ripe for marriage and related pursuits. There’s a strong implication that he might very well have kept her to himself — she’d been hanging around his house in hopes that he would — but he chose not to. Later in the film he yells at one of the other characters “I don’t love anyone!” but it’s obvious, it hardly needed to be said. He is the closest these nuns are going to get to a fully operational adult male so it’s not entirely implausible that they should want to fling themselves over cliffs on his account, but as a love interest he’s irredeemably shabby. It brings to mind stories like the one about the swan who fell for a swan-shaped boat.

Is the idea that the nuns, in choosing to repress themselves as they do, have also chosen to prevent themselves from seeing the world as it is? From seeing, for example, that Mr. Dean probably isn’t really into sex? Or is it that the exotic setting is meant to have a debilitating effect on the Westerners who find themselves there, such that they can no longer tell whether they’re grasping at a live wire or a more illusory excitement? Maybe I’m making too much of this point. Sometimes all it takes is one glimpse of a sullen rustic atop his idiotic little pony to turn one’s mind to cement. What a tidy parallel there could be, though, between the characters of Mr. Dean and the holy man, a constant presence (24 hours a day, rain or shine) on the palace’s property, and an irritant for Sister Superior, who can’t make sense of whether he’s a figure of advanced spirituality or a loony old man. She wants to evict him anyhow, and cries with frustration that she can’t, when he turns out to be a relation of the general who owns the place. He also turns out to be a decorated former general himself who reportedly speaks perfect English. She was mostly wrong about him, but essentially correct that his manner of refusing the world clashes with her own.

Black Narcissus, holy man

There is also something resembling a parallel between the characters of Mr. Dean and the young general, who is apparently meant to be alluring to some of the women, particularly Kanchi — he’s pretty, he dresses well, his family’s got money — and who is trying to become more refined, educating himself among the studious nuns. In order to convince Sister Superior to permit this, he argues with her that she shouldn’t think of him as a man, and that anyhow Jesus was a man, would they have turned him away? Cut to a shot of a statue of Jesus on the cross that the nuns apparently had hauled up the mountain by sherpas, and wonder, as a viewer, whether he counts as a man, as a potential lover. The work of an order of nuns is a strange business indeed. The young general remains juvenile and seemingly unaware of himself as a sexual being, unaware even that he might seem glamorous to them. When one of the nuns comments on his exotic fragrance being a bit too worldly for one engaged in religious studies he cheerfully tells her it’s something he picked up at an Army Navy store in London, “Black Narcissus.” (There is a lot of imperialism-centric irony in the film, all very nicely done, all very timely too – India became independent from British rule the year it was released).

One thing I really noticed while watching the film for the first time, it’s not terribly accurate. There are a million ways in which a film can feel inaccurate and not all are detractions — I am one of those people who thinks there is something interesting about Hitchcock’s use of backdrops in Marnie, for example — but in Black Narcissus I found the inaccuracies a detraction during my first viewing, far less so during my second. Maybe I’m overly sensitive about the Himalayas. I traveled in the region while in college — I spent a semester studying in northeastern India and in Kathmandu — and I’ve seen a lot of monasteries and temples up close, and I couldn’t help but notice that the nunnery in Black Narcissus and its cultural environs are a mish-mash of various Asian styles. As a film it evokes a period of time when people went out for chop suey and thought they were having exotic “Oriental” cuisine. Of course it’s easier for contemporary art directors to thoroughly immerse themselves in their quarry than it was pre-jet travel and pre-internet, but it wasn’t impossible then, and I think it would not have taken away the novelty or exoticism of the location had the filmmakers taken a bit more care with their research; to the contrary, it would have heightened them. I don’t mean to imply that it should have been a documentary instead, but the film’s aesthetic integrity seems to have been needlessly compromised at moments. The birds calling out in the forest surrounding the palace, for example, are distinctly from a different continent. (IMDB says they’re Australian kookaburras). The urns in one of the sets appear to have been grabbed from the swords-and-sandals section of the prop warehouse, their discus-throwing Greeks given a once-over with spray paint before being pressed into service. The natives have a habit of forming drum circles whenever someone is ill but their drumming sounds far more African than Indian. The characters, too, often feel more stylized than accurate representations of people generally do, and the natives with speaking roles are not portrayed by genuinely brown people. Kanchi, the sexy local girl I mentioned above, is played by Jean Simmons in an awkward — almost maliciously so — slap of bronze makeup. She gyrates in her room like Britt Ekland’s double in The Wicker Man (clothed, alas) and makes eyes at the sharp-dressed young general, and gets whipped by a cackling, snaggle-toothed old crone for stealing a chain from one of the prayer rooms to wear as a necklace.


The film is very much worth watching despite these flaws. It’s filled with passion, it’s well-written and terrifically acted, and visually it’s beautiful. Those backdrops! According to IMDB they were “blown-up black and white photographs. The art department then gave them their breathtaking colors by using pastel chalks on top of them.” Sister Superior’s bedroom was for me the most desirable location. It reminds me of the Bakst set designs for Schéhérazade I posted about months ago, but the incredible windows have the added attraction of framing incredible mountain views. She’s camping out in Shangri-La.

If you’re inclined to read more criticism of the film, there’s a Michael Walter essay with some interesting psychoanalytic bits here, and a thoughtful review by Joseph Jon Lanthier here. I’m very fond of this essay by Evan Bryson, digressions and sexy bits (“Is it obvious that the enormous bell Sister Clodagh pulls every morning is a homolog of God’s mighty genitals?”) and all.