Sparrow Eccentricity

Here's something you probably didn't know. In 1940, two weeks after her husband died, Clare Kipps (right) found a "crippled" baby sparrow on her front porch.  She took the bird in and named him Clarence (but that's NOT him in the photo). During the London blitz, Clarence became a minor homefront celebrity by amusing everyone in his local bomb-shelter.  He could do card tricks, pretend to read the paper, and in a stunning finale, impersonate Hitler (a beautiful image: the Luftwaffe flying in formation above, Clarence the flightless sparrow mocking Der Fuhrer from below).  Clarence passed away in 1952 at the age of 12, and Mrs. Kipps published a memoir of his exploits in 1953 under the title, Sold for a Farthing.

For most people, sharing a home for 12 years with a sparrow hopping from room to room would probably be enough (Kipps describes the difficulty of not stepping on Clarence, especially after his stroke of 1951 made him less able to discern domestic traffic patterns). Only a few months after Clarence died, however, a woman contacted Kipps to ask if she wouldn't consider adopting another wounded sparrow.  At first Kipps was hesitant (Clarence's death, she remarked, had finally made her free to travel a little), but with a little more persuasion, she adopted "Timmy" (above) in 1954.  This photo is in fact from Mrs. Kipps' second (!) sparrow biography, Timmy: The Story of a Sparrow (1962). 

Timmy, we learn, was a much more gregarious and quarrelsome sparrow than his predecessor. And while he couldn't impersonate Hitler, he could do his "church" trick (below), which consisted of Mrs. Kipps giving Timmy a coin and telling him to give it to the Vicar.  Timmy would then dutifully take the coin behind a photo frame and place it in an ashtray.  

The British public does not seem to have taken to Timmy with quite the same fervor as Clarence, even though the "church trick" was actually more impressive than Clarence's Hitler impersonation (which appears to have consisted of Clarence chirping louder and louder atop a little tin cup until he at last swooned and fell over).  The real hero here, of course, is Mrs. Kipps, who ended up sharing her home with an uncaged sparrow for 22 years.  And her friends, perhaps, who willingly came to visit a woman who kept an uncaged sparrow in her home for 22 years.  

Most fascinating of all, however, is the strange proto-logic of the sequel: the belief of a small British press that the market could sustain not just one, but two books about the intrigues of sparrow companionship.  

A Poorly Conceived Lecture on Glands

Low-budget filmmaking has to find spectacle wherever it might be, especially in genres like horror and science-fiction that have promised to deliver some form of gruesome and/or futuristic attraction. In The Unearthly (1957), mad scientist John Carradine discusses his plan to insert a newly created "17th gland" in the body, thereby creating "eternal youth." As gland function did not figure as highly as UFOs or irradiated locusts in the sci-fi imaginary of the late 50s, Carradine turns here to a helpful anatomical model (no doubt on loan from a local medical school) so that he might point out a few glands and explain their purpose. The scene is fairly typical of clunky fifties exposition--Carradine quite literally lectures a house-guest and the audience about the ability of glands to control growth, intelligence, emotion, etc. As spectacle goes it's pretty cut-rate, but in a film where the only other attraction is the massively rotund body of former wrestler Tor Johnson, a brief look at a dissected body, even if it is only plastic, will have to do.

But director Boris Petroff finds he cannot resist the temptation of returning to Mr. Viscera once again. Later in the scene, after a series of axis-jumping shot/reverse-shots between Carradine and his guest, Petroff cuts to this two-shot (3-shot?) as Carradine threatens to blackmail his co-star. Incredibly, this shot holds unchanged for a staggering 66 seconds, Petroff attempting to milk every last ounce of grotesquerie out of this lowly prop. That's over a minute of staring face-to-face with popeye here as the two actors attempt to deliver their lengthy dialogue exchange.
As so often happens in such exercises in duration, what is meant to be scary, creepy, or unsettling simply becomes humorous. And upon reflection, one begins to wonder about issues of scene dissection as well. Perhaps if Petroff had featured this shot before Carradine's helpful glandular lecture, the model might have provoked a greater degree of shock. Having already played its expository role in the scene, however, the model's anchoring of this static 66 second composition only recapitulates the creative and spectacular poverty of the entire film.

Fast-food Archeology

If there are any amateur sociologists out there who are looking for something to do, here's a question to ponder: why do so many bankrupt fast-food chains become low-end insurance huts? This is a former Long John Silver's on Pulaski Avenue in Chicago reborn as "Handzel and Associates Insurance." You can tell it's an old LJS, not just from the distinctive shape of the roof, but from that franchise's familiar door placement (yaargh, in on the right, out on the left maaties). Trademark Cape Cod windows that used to frame families eating fried fish, hushpuppies, and enigmatic LJS "crispies" now showcase nervous drivers looking for basic collision coverage (Note too the city of Chicago's ongoing attempt to transform all of its crosswalks into simulations of 1890s urban design--the traffic cones are protecting a recently installed "brick" crosswalk that, in fact, contains no actual bricks but is instead a brick-signifying template impressed into hot asphault and then painted red).

Abandoned LJS and old Taco Bells seem to be particularly attractive homes for low-budget insurance firms, liquor stores, pawn shops, and other stand-alone, unfranchised local businesses. Much of this is no doubt tied to demographic changes in older middle-class neighborhoods. For example, as this particular neighborhood in Chicago became increasingly settled by immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American nations, the need for basic insurance coverage clearly became a more pressing local concern than access to the nautical fantasy of a New England-like grease emporium. When the older ethnic whites leave, they seem to take the franchised fast-food joints with them. With any luck, a Taco Bell then becomes an actual tacqueria, or failing that, a reasonably priced chiropractor's office.

In the case of Taco Bell, architectural changes are important as well. When TB made its move to be a national player in the fast-food game (after Pepsi-Co purchased the chain in 1978), they embarked on redesigning their restaurants to better accommodate increased kitchen and drive-thru traffic. As the old TB design (top left) could not be effectively retrofitted, many of them were simply abandoned and replaced by a newer facility (bottom left). Maintaining an uninterrupted flow of taco income was apparently so important that Pepsi-Co chose to construct a whole new facility just down the street rather than tear down the old structure to build the new one on the same site. Once the new building was ready to conduct its unholy experiments in lard, beef, and bean structuralism, the old site could then be leased to a new occupant.

Driving through older neighborhoods and down major urban arteries, you often see these old fast-food huts disguised with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they result in odd ethnic shifts of form and content, as in the example of Yiassoo Greek Specialties (right). Whatever the new business within, however, these re-purposed examples of branded architecture remind us that fast-food and fast-architecture are closely related--mutually symptomatic even. No doubt this explains why so much of the United States is so hideously ugly and so many of its citizens are fat and dyspeptic. There is a causal, direct relationship: sociological, asethetic, perhaps even karmic. In this respect, access-road blight and urban stripmalls are to public space what the most foul gaseous burp is to gastric distress. If the nation willingly consumes foodstuffs magically conjured into life from dehydrated bean dust, why should we expect it take the time to consider how a zillion faux-adobe huts might transform the landscape into an architectural vomitorium? Take any urban freeway exit or small town "business route" and you will see a Venturi-esque Las Vegas where nothing is learned, except perhaps the despair that comes with seeing the avenues of American consumption reduced to their most elementally horrifying vehicular and intestinal forms.

Doubtlessly the overlords at Pepsi-Co see these franchises as efficient and attractive temples of tidy commerce, as evidenced in this hallucinatory architectural model for a "typical" Taco Bell (below).

As is generally well known and accepted, architects have little use for actual people--and so this TB remains pristine and ideal so long as it stands apart from the actual everyday implications of fast-food commerce (even the "kill floor" of an abattoir no doubt looks gleaming in the original blueprint). With its greenery and picnic tables, this model is meant to signify a public park more than a gastro-scenic invader--its balanced rectangles of building, grass, and parking offered as a temple of orderly corporate beauty (perhaps most enjoyable to the cars that will one day fill its lot). It is the type of vision offered to zoning commissions and reluctant neighbors to emphasize Taco Bell's positive contribution to the surrounding community.

Of course, as anyone who has worked in or lived near a fast-food franchise knows, they are disgusting beyond belief--a repressed reality that only occasionally bubbles back to the surface when some high-school punks are caught on the surveillance camera pissing in the sink or flickin' boogers into the special sauce. We should salute these heroes, who have sacrificed saving up for a Wii or making next month's child support just to remind the rest of us that the insanely enthusiastic fast-food worker so often featured in Mickey D.'s advertising is nothing more than a subterfuge to distract us from the fact that the line-cook is actually out back in the parking lot tweeking-up to finish the night shift.

Now that the FDA is taking control of the cigarette industry, maybe they can move next to fast-food franchising. No warnings labels necessary: all that needs to be done is pass a law requiring that customers have to enter the "restaurant" through the back door, near the dumpster. Stuffed with greasy packaging, greasy half-eaten meals, greasy rats, and grease in general, the typical fast-food dumpster is perhaps the most potent emblem of contemporary alienation imaginable--an alienation of labor, the body, and the community. Certain municipalities attempt to blunt this horror by forcing the chains to reduce the height of their signage out front, as if this makes both the food and the architecture more "tasteful." But as anyone who has ever cleaned the grease trap on a fry machine will agree, a leper colony would make a better neighbor.

Some High Theory Hi-Jinxs

How long does it take a crucial intellectual intervention to become a literary example? At what point do philosophy, science, theology, history, and other forms of critical discourse arrive at their inevitable rendez-vous with poetics, fiction, and primary documentation? In the case of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, the answer appears to be 37 years. First published in 1972 as an ambitious coup d'etat against the state of Freudian theory (and no doubt the intellectual dominance of a certain fellow Frenchman), a new edition of Anti-Oedipus appeared last month under the Penguin Classics imprint. Thus a founding work of post-structuralist theory is now a "classic," appearing in the same series as Bronte's Villette, Larsen's Passing, and Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

This is assuming, of course, that Deleuze and Guattari meant for Anti-Oedipus to be taken seriously in the first place (along with its even better known sequel, A Thousand Plateaus). Organized around the advocacy of schizophrenia, "schizoanalysis" and the productive energies of "desiring machines" (concepts that were to replace Freud's repressive theatrics of the Unconscious), Anti-Oedipus was never really a player in therapeutic discourse (it's hard enough for intellectual neurotics to find an orthodox Freudian or Lacanian, imagine the challenge of tracking down a schizoanalyst). Like much of the work that would eventually come to be known as "post-structuralist," Anti-Oedipus was always more a speculative exercise in theoretical play and critical conjecture than a naively sober attempt to "explain" something. By mimicking the discourse of the insane, the book attempts to hallucinate into being the very reality it seeks to describe--a world where subjects divest themselves of guilt, lack, and perpetually absent desire to inhabit a new world of flowing aleatory pleasure. And why not? The Unconscious itself didn't exist until Freud gave it a name, thereby making it a real thing (because now it had a name). Who is to say the equally audacious proposition of a "Body without Organs" might not enjoy a similar success? It was worth a shot, anyway.

Over the years, many less humorous critics have attempted to map Deleuze and Guattari's tortured and self-consciously psychotic discourse onto other objects of inquiry. Who can know why? It would make as much sense to use Finnegan's Wake as a critical template, a work that Anti-Oedipus arguably more closely resembles than Studies on Hysteria. As an intellectual gambit, Anti-Oedipus (like so many other "theory" texts of the era) appears more interested in the stakes of aesthetic competition than those bound up in philosophy or even psychoanalysis. Only a crazy person would think a "theory" based on extolling the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the insane could be anything other than a terminal aesthetic in its most narrow sense--a critical path designed, in its willful eccentricity, to go nowhere.

In 1966, only 6 years before Anti-Oedipus, Lacan introduced the full edition of Ecrits by front-loading his seminar on the purloined letter, pulling it from the chronological context of his lectures so that it might stand as an introductory exemplar of Lacanian "style." These are the words Lacan himself uses--the essay is not an introduction to his thought or his theory, but to his style. Later, in the first essay of the actual seminar, Lacan emphasizes that his first publications were in Minotaure, the famous surrealist journal of the 1930s where he shared pages with Breton, Dali, and Picasso. Despite his reputation for obtuse prose, how much more deliberate, legible, and exacting could Lacan be in signaling his desire to be engaged as a poet, a novelist, an artist? Could he have known that an entire generation would miss the art and instead embrace the science of a linguistified Freud as a science?

One can only hope that Delueze, Guattari, Lacan, and (what the hell) Baudrillard are all in surrealist heaven now, having a drink with Alfred Jarry and toasting this new edition of Anti-Oedipus. Perhaps now, with a spiffy new cover, it will finally be appreciated for what it is and always was-- an uncompromising literary work of pataphysical genius.

Brain-Dead Sex: Tantricism vs. Autoerotic Asphyxiation

In this recent round-up of entertainment stories, The Huffington Post teaches its generally liberal-minded readers an important lesson in sexual experimentation. Creating an exotic sandwich around the comparatively pedestrian sex appeal of an oily, tight-butted Gwyneth Paltrow, Huffpo provides links to two celebrities looking eastward for sexual enlightenment.

As has now been widely reported, former Kung Fu star David Carradine was recently discovered dead in the closet of a Bangkok hotel room, an apparent victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Here we are promised that even more lurid details of a "rope around the genitals" are but a click away, all the better to enjoy the delicious titillation of a genre grounded in everyone's primal adolescent fear of private masturbation made public knowledge. Given the spate of high-profile deaths from this practice, one would think those who enjoy this kink would have recruited spotters or a buddy-system of some kind by now. Then again, that probably defeats the entire purpose of hanging oneself in a closet for sexual gratification. Mechanically it may be about the intensities of oxygen deprivation--but no doubt the possibility of taking it too far and winding up dead (and on TMZ) is part of the thrill as well.

Below Carradine's embarassingly lurid plight, meanwhile, Huffpo teases its readers with the "news" that actress Heather Graham has apparently followed Sting into the esoteric practice of "tantric sex." Says Graham: What most people know about tantric sex is that Sting does it and it lasts eight hours. But he's not having sex continually. You can take a bath, massage your partner, listen to music. The idea is that you let the whole thing build very slowly until finally you merge with your partner. It works for me. Like Yoga, apparently, the once deeply spiritual tradition of the tantric has now been appropriated by idle westerners as a means of maximizing their hedonistic pleasures of leisure and lifestyle (a hardcore Marxist might point out the class privilege here--how many people have eight continuous hours to set aside for sex, even if they were capable of it?). No doubt she goes out for some Frogurt afterwards.

The lesson? When it comes to sexual experimentation, it's better to be a hot young blonde looking for tasteful ways to expand your sensual array than it is to be an elderly C-list celebrity found dead in a closet with a rope around his junk. Hardly a surprising truth--but a revealing one nonetheless.

But in the end, it's hard not to admire Carradine at some level. Any 72 year-old still that interested in sex has to be championed, especially if he found a way to realize the hydraulics of his desire without our era's ubiquitous boner pills. Sure--he'll always be remembered now as one of those guys who died from auto-erotic asphyxiation, but is that necessarily any worse than only being remembered as the Kung Fu dude? And who knows--twenty years from now when the asphyxiators have found a safer way to indulge their tastes, Carradine and his brethern may be regarded as pioneers of some kind, men who were willing to take their sexual quest to the very edge of death (and, tragically, sometimes beyond).

In that same future, one can only hope that Heather Graham and Sting will be seen for the posers they are. At least Carradine was discrete in his sexual pursuits. No doubt this silence was rooted in a certain shame, which is regrettable, but I'd also like to think Carradine's modesty serves as a counter-weight to those A-listers who are a little too comfortable telling us how groovy their sex lives are. If there were any justice in the world, Carradine would have cut the rope just in time, his secret in tact so that he might continue making odd cameos in a series of low-budget movies for the next decade or so. In this same more perfect world, Sting and Graham would be crushed to death by a freak avalanche of designer tantric fuck-mats in the Barney's health and fitness section, hopefully with the paparazzi there to record every excruciating detail.