Monday, October 20, 2008

My 99 cents:Danse Macabre

I thought something a bit different was in order for this week's 99 cents. Obviously, Halloween will be here before we know it, and music gets you in the spirit like nothing else. While 19th century classical music doesn't scream Halloween, Camille Saint-Saens' 'Danse Macabre' is an orchestral piece about Death standing in a graveyard tuning his violin and playing a song that raises the skeletons and ghosts from their resting places. I know a lot of people feel classical music is stodgy or something for old white people or super nerdy Asian kids, but I've played classical music for 11 of my 20 years and I love it. I just downloaded the version of Charles Dutoit conducting the Philhamornia Orchestra. For people into classical music, Charles Dutoit is a big deal.

The idea of the Danse Macabre came about when the Black Plague was wreaking havoc on Europe in the 14th century. Paintings, drawings, and engravings started popping up all over the place showing Death, usually a skeleton or a partially decomposed body, leading popes, paupers, and everyone in between in a wild dance on the way to the grave. Famine and war added to the problem as well. The Danse came to symbolize the fact that no one could really escape the Plague once it came to your town; the Black Plague wiped out one third of Europe's population. Death was the great equalizer.

Danse Macabre is a tone poem, an orchestral piece that uses transparent devices to get a pretty clear story across. Those xylophone thingies you hear in the piece? Yup, those are the skeleton's bones. French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) based this piece, which was originally conceived as a work for voice and piano, on a verse by poet Henri Cazalis:
Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack—
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

There's a French superstition Cazalis tapped into that says Death plays a song at midnight every Halloween for the dead to dance to until dawn. Many composers have made Death a fiddler, but not always. I once saw a cartoon set to the piece, but I can't find it now. It's a bit morbid, I know, but Danse Macabre is really cool. For listening notes, go to the Wikipedia article, but I think listening to it with the poem in front of you makes it easier and more fun. Enjoy. Here's a recording by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, but the Charles Dutoit version is better.

MixwitMixwit make a mixtapeMixwit mixtapes

More about Danse Macabre
Dance of Death origins on JSTOR [long article]

Friday, October 17, 2008

Vintage, Kitchen Edition

I pass Krup's Kitchen & Bath on my way to work and every time I see their vintage refrigerators, my heart melts. I never liked dolls when I was little and I barely played with my Easy Bake Oven, but these appliances make me want to put a frilly apron over a perfectly ironed A-line skirt and make kitchen magic. When I grow up, I'm going to have one of these goodies in my kitchen. Nevermind the fact that it will most likely be stocked with frozen dinners.

Krup's Kitchen & Bath is located at 11 W 18th Street in Manhattan.

I sweep naked all the time...don't you?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gangster Lean

This semester, I was lucky enough to get into a course about gender and film. It focuses on fairly mainstream movies from the 1910s to the 1960s. My favorite movie so far [and the one I write a 5 page paper one due next week] is The Public Enemy (1931), starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow. It's a great movie. You can see how this was the beginning of gangster movies after it is similar, though not many actors have the swagger and violent energy of Cagney [that means you, 50 cent]. People pinpoint Little Caesar as the start of the genre, but I'm stickin' with Cagney. Cagney got so into his role that I thought, wow, he couldn't ever be anything other than an Irish gangster.

"He's a small-time hood who gets involved with a Prohibition racket in a big way!" That's what it says on the back of the DVD, and that more or less gives you the whole story. Tom Powers [Cagney] and his best friend from childhood, Matt Doyle [Edward Woods] live in a rough Chicago neighborhood, stealing here and there to get by. Just as Prohibition, they get pulled into big business with local bar owner Paddy Ryan and big time gangster Nails Nathan. They become the biggest bootleggers in all of Chicago, buy fancy clothes, cars and women, and are challenged only by the Schemer Burns mob. I hate to give away the ending, but you can sort of guess at it anyway.

The Public Enemy came out at a time when people, especially Protestants and Catholics, were all in a dither about degenerate pictures ruining the moral fiber of American society and moving towards censorship. I suspect that's why the movie's bookended with two screens claiming the film isn't glorifying criminal behavior, but simply pointing out this problem so the public could then solve it. Even in the reviews I found from 1931 [I'll start writing that paper any minute now], people knew that was a joke. They loved Cagney's vulgarity and violence, though the New York Times wrote it off as just another gangster movie but with good acting. Who were the producers fooling? Everyone loves a good gangster movie.

The fanciest woman in the movie is played by Jean Harlow and she sucks. She seems bored as hell with her role and doesn't sound anything like the Texan she's supposed to be. Her character is neither a badass gun moll or a loose flapper, though some of the dialogue implies she's a tease. Oh, well. Cagney and the plot more than pick up the slack for her lackluster performance.

I'll leave you with the famous grapefruit scene:

and a trailer:

Also, random fact: did you know 'gat' was used in the 20s as a word for gun? I had no idea. I thought that was really intersting.
All that being said, what's your favorite gangster movie?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Paddington Bear Turns 50

You probably saw this on Google, but yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first Paddington Bear book , "A Bear Called Paddington". What an adorable little bear. As much fun as Corduroy? I don't know. Corduroy was my favorite adventurous bear when I was little and my mom likes to tell me that she nearly went crazy reading that to me almost every night before bedtime.

I know this is getting dangerously close to mommy blogging territory but Paddington is such a fun story for little kids. Do little kids even read Paddington any more? My 4 year-old cousin is heavy into High School Musical and all the other non-animated crap on Disney. I'll forego the rant about lost innocence in kids due to the advent of technology. For now, happy birthday, Paddington Bear! Buy your favorite toddler a book today.

Anniversary celebrations for Paddington