Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Moment for Elizabeth Taylor: Jane Eyre

Elizabeth Taylor (1932 - 2011)
The Movie
A classic.  You know the story: Orson Welles' sulking and bombastic Rochester, Joan Fontaine's doe-eyed Jane, with Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited performance as Jane's childhood friend, Helen.  Over 27 movie versions have been made and this is the best (although I prefer my older Jane with a bit more spice).  It isn't Elizabeth's movie, but her small role as the very sympathetic Helen Burns provides a poignant scene and serves as a counterpoint for passionate young Jane.  Jane Eyre (1943, directed by Robert Stevenson) was made the year before Elizabeth became a true star in her own right for the movie National Velvet.

The Elizabeth Taylor Image
White Diamonds...
I first became aware of Elizabeth Taylor when I was a child.  The picture at left shows her style - where the culture was really - at that point in time.  Big hair, frosted highlights, press-on-nails, Dynasty, shoulder pads, People magazine, gold-tone QVC jewelry, multiple divorces and marriages.  In truth, she embodied the defining style of every decade:  haltertop dresses and short curls in the 50s, stacked bouffant hair and cat's-eye liner in the 60s, (lets skip the 70s), the aforementioned 80s style, and vacuous blond wigs in the aughties.  Thank goodness there's so much more to her (and us)!

Activity and Activism
On closer inspection, there was much to admire in Elizabeth Taylor, not especially the jewels or expenses, but in her passion and generosity.  She was also brave enough to advocate for a cure for a disease (AIDS) that, at the time, was both misunderstood and socially repugnant.  Owner of many gems, she donated several to auction for various charities, including an engagement ring donated for AIDS charities and the famous Burton-Taylor Cartier diamond donated and sold to build an entire hospital in Botswana.

The mother of four children from three of her seven marriages.
A dual citizen of the United States and Britain, she was named a Dame of the British Empire in 1999.
Was photographed and painted many times by Andy Warhol
As a child star, was cast in several classics, including Life With Father and Lassie Come Home

Oh right, the 70s...  well, at least the Oscars must have been fun

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pre-code Zombies: White Zombie

Those were the happy times, weren't they dear?  I mean before we met that Haitian witch doctor who killed you, raised you from the dead, turned you into a zombie sex slave and forced you to do his bidding.  ...You know what? On the next vacation let's just go to Niagara.

The Movie:
It's the 6th post, a good time for zombies.  We'll get to the vampires later.  Maybe. 
White Zombie (1932, directed by Vic Halperin) is a tale of Caribbean voodoo starring Bela Lugosi and Madge Bellamy.  Considered to be the first zombie picture, there's not a whole lot to the plot beyond the photo caption above.  Still, I found the movie to be really interesting, mostly because of moody and foreboding visuals and the mystifying movements of Bela Lugosi's outrageous eyebrows - does anyone else find him more hilarious than frightening?  Just so no one who is interested in blood-smacking action wastes their time (that is if I had any readers), there is no blood, gore or brain-eating in this movie.

Haitian Voodoo
I learned a lot from the research here, having previously been owner of all the voodoo-related misconceptions:  blood sacrifices, the undead, spirits, malice, witch doctors, dolls, potions, etc.  These can be part of the belief set, but isn't where vodou starts.  Contrary to the usual stereotype, vodou isn't considered as a religion, but rather a set of beliefs that can be compatible with other religions.  Many practicing Catholics in Haiti also hold on to their traditional beliefs.  The practice of voodoo has its roots in African spirit-worship and religion brought over by the slaves.  In 1804, Haiti became the first black republic, winning freedom from France and developing from then on along its own course, including gaining some individuality in the way voodoo was practiced.

A Lugosi sampler.
In vodou, much attention is paid to the spirit world.  Ancestral spirits, sometimes called 'loua' can be inherited from one's family from either or both sides, and they belong only to that family. Loua have different characteristics, depending on the family or group they belong to, and have personality traits similar to real people.  Family members are aware of their loua through dreams and trances and are even considered to be the source of possession of children.  In trances, people can assume the traits of a loua - probably handy when one wants to do something out of character or socially irresponsible - these usually occur during certain rituals.  The dead also have certain powers under voodoo - ancestors can make members of the family ill and bring good and bad luck. Followers of voodoo believe that, after death, the spirit separates from the body but can be called back into a connection with the living through rituals This connection to the dead has made the recent earthquake in Haiti (January, 2010) more difficult to bear when bodies were not found and/or could not be given the proper services and gravesites.

Witch Doctors or Bokor
Bokor are considered sorcerers who practice both white and black magic and are able to create zombies and call on spirits.  The typical zombie creation process of a bokor is presumed in myth to involve a potion with the pufferfish poison (a type of tetrodotoxin). Bokors are chosen at birth.

If You Meet A Zombie...
In voodoo, zombies are dead persons reawakened and controlled by a bokor.  Multiple hypotheses have been made as to the origin of the zombie mythology, and it seems to be related to several concepts in various African religions, including the notion of the zombi astral, which is part of the soul captured and used by the bokor to become more powerful. Also, zombi is another name of the powerful luoa Damballah, the sky god, believed to be the creator of life and represented as a snake.  A medical mix of drugs including tetrodotoxin and dissociative drugs have been postulated to send a person into a death-like state before they arouse into a psychotic trance.  This possible explanation has been pretty much debunked at this time.

If you meet a zombie, give it salt to turn it back to the grave.  (At least that's my mother's advice.)

The moody visuals of White Zombie.
Links and Sources:
Traveling Haiti:  Haitian Voodoo
National Geographic: Haiti Earthquake & Voodoo
American Museum of Natural History:  Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou
Wikipedia:  Zombie
A link to the band.  Listened to their first album countless times, and had no idea what they were named for:  White Zombie VEVO

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

1930s Car Design: If You Could Only Cook

"Hands up, yous mugs!"

 The Movie
Another enjoyable Jean Arthur flick.  In If You Could Only Cook (directed by William Seiter, 1935), Jean's down-on-her luck at the start of the picture but manages to sit on a lucky park bench.  She catches the eye of a fellow (played by Herbert Marshall) wandering the park, who is, unbeknownst to her, a prominent car designer-engineer.  Beknownst to us, he is also about to get married, but has taken a brief holiday from his job and tiresome fiancee.  He doesn't correct Jean when she assumes he is in the same dire straits that she is, and she persuades him to act as husband-butler to her wife-cook-maid so they can both become employed.  The house in which they find themselves employed turns out to be run by a gang of toffs...  Overall, it's no masterpiece, but a fun movie with some great art-deco and Depression-era details.

Car Design Leaps Forward in the 1930s
Herbert Marshall is a car designer (so famous his picture is frequently in the paper - ?!), and his draft designs figure in several plot points.  At right he is sitting with his buddy in a cab, and out the back window you can see the transitioning cars of the early 30s - boxy, narrow wheels, like a stagecoach with an engine up front.  His design, shown below, is a forerunner of more rounded, wide-tire designs to come.

Interestingly, most of the advances in auto-design didn't come from the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, GM) who had already established themselves as auto-making giants.  Instead most of the advance came from smaller, independent automakers who used their unique designs as a selling point. Independent automakers were also hit hard by the Depression, a point made in the movie when one of Marshall's character's new designs is rejected for being too far out of the box.  Cars remained rather utilitarian throughout the 1930s (although there were some gorgeous luxury cars being made, just look up the Bugatti Type 57 if you need proof).  Streamlining of cars was a big trend during the decade.  Towards the end of the decade shiny trim and bells and whistles were added to attract nervous buyers.

 Links and Sources:

Art Deco and British Car Design: The Airline Cars of the 1930s by Barrie Down
The Development of 1930s Cars