Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: August, 2011

Material Girls

I feel for Madonna, I really do. Not exactly young and spritely, it isn’t easy jockeying for attention with theatrical pop princesses like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. It can’t be good when even the gays have stopped talking about you. So, to the perennial question ‘Can she act?’ (short answer: no) Madge is about to add ‘Can she direct?’ when her first feature film is released early next year.

Awkwardly titled ‘W.E’, the movie tells the story of Edward VIII, who was King of England for a few months in the mid-thirties before giving it up for the woman he loved, a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson.

Abandoning the throne to his stuttering younger brother Albert (father of the current Queen), Edward and Wallis were free to marry. Wallis became a Duchess by default, but was denied the title Her Royal Highness and would never be officially accepted by the family. To make up for this, her husband gave her a lot of jewelry.

It will be a tad too easy for critics to draw a connection between the would-be Queen and the Queen of Pop: Madonna, another ambitious American divorcee who’s had her morals questioned on more than one occasion, knows a thing or two about gate-crashing Buckingham Palace. Indeed, in the last decade she has pilfered from the moribund world of the British aristocracy in the way she used to from inner city black drag queens, trading black lace for tweed and Vogue-ing for curtsies.

Somewhat embarrassingly, in some interviews she has gone so far as to adopt the clipped English sounds of the tongue of Rupert Everett.

“It was easy to get swept up in the historical relevance and epic romance of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII,” Madonna told Vanity Fair. “The fact that they were also the fashion icons of their day added to their allure for me.”   The film’s costume designer turned to Dior, Cartier and Dunhill for Wallis’s 60 outfit changes, and remarks that “Wallis and the Duke both made a lifestyle out of presentation.”

But the glamorous couple comprise only half the film, as the plot also concerns a young woman called Wally Winthrop (a contemporary New Yorker, despite the Dickensian name) who becomes obsessed with the Duchess after a Sotheby’s auction of her belongings (presumably, a lot of jewelry). A little ‘Julie & Julia’, yes, and also very meta: Madonna being inspired by Wallis for a movie about a young woman who is inspired by Wallis.

And while I won’t scoff at the idea of identifying with cultural figures and relating them to your own life (that is one of the themes of this very blog) I can’t help but think there’s a better story to tell about Edward and Mrs. Simpson.

For instance, they were probably Nazis.

Not long after their wedding in 1937, (Wallis wore a cinched-waist Mainboucher dress in light blue, to match her eyes) the lovebirds went on a trip to Obersalzberg, Germany, to meet Adolf Hitler at his mountain retreat. During the visit the Duke, who earlier had been in favour of an alliance between Great Britain and the Third Reich, gave the full Nazi salute.

No less of an insider than Albert Speer, the designer of Hitler’s monumental, imposing architecture, a very good metaphor for Fascism’s rejection of the individual human life, said of Edward, “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.” Decades after the full extent of the Holocaust came to light, the Duke reportedly remarked to a friend, “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”

Two years later, war was declared and the British government, worried that they could be used as spies, sent the couple down to the Bahamas, where Edward was installed as Governor. He won some praise for attempting to fight poverty, while still making patronizing, racist remarks about the country’s people. In 1945, the war ended, the Duke resigned and never held another official position.

To supplement his stipend from Buckingham Palace, he wrote articles and a few books, mostly about his sense of style and his family’s history. (Wallis’s bejeweled brooches didn’t grow on trees, after all.) The couple, who bounced between Paris and New York, were regulars on the dinner party circuit, although Gore Vidal once described the “vacuity” of their conversation.

Just as the recent allegation that Coco Chanel was a Fascist spy during Paris’s occupation undermines the heroic romance of the French resistance, remembering the Duke and Duchess’s unsavory ties is a useful reminder that, for all the Churchillian resolve of some British leaders, others were not convinced Hitler was altogether such a bad chap.

Madonna’s largest filmic contribution up to this point was ‘Evita’ (1996), playing yet another glamorous and controversial official’s wife, one who also has been accused of being Nazi-sympathetic (probably unfairly).

One hopes that this time around the Material Girl has done her research and recognizes that the most truthful retelling is, in this case, also the most interesting. But with her preoccupation with tweeds and jewelry, I suspect her film will be a vacuous as the couple’s conversation.

The Philadelphia Story

“The time to make your mind up about people is never.”

— ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)


People like to joke that politicians lie a lot. It’s a stereotype I’ve always found unfair: often politicians spin the truth because they are asked hundreds of questions a day, because they have talking points to get across, because they honestly don’t know an answer or they would get heck from word-parsing reporters if they spoke too bluntly.

Then there are the most sympathetic lies, the ones to make us feel better. When Jack Layton held a press conference last month announcing his leave of absence from politics, claiming that he would fight his cancer now so he could fight for families in the near future, how much were his brave faced words for us, his supporters and well-wishers, and how much were they for himself?

Another word for lies is fiction, and the story of the NDP over the last six months has the dramatic twists and turns of a Victorian melodrama: years of patient and at times-plodding ground work leads to a historic breakthrough for the party, ricocheting to second place to become the Official Opposition, only to have the leader who cleared the path snatched away before getting to fulfill his new position.

And what happens next? With no obvious replacement in the wings with the same mix of Quebec folksiness, Toronto activism and telegenic star quality, many columnists are already pitying the NDP (indeed, even the future of progressivism in Canada) for all its dashed potential. To which I have one thing to say; the NDP has always been underestimated, particularly by reporters. Just give it time.

For the leader of a political party which has been treated at worst patronizingly and with hostility, but often just plain ignored, the overwhelming outpouring of grief is surprising. Facebook profile pictures are awash in orange and the spontaneous memorial at City Hall would even bring a tear to Mayor Ford.

Perhaps its because so many voters, who never supported the NDP before, finally felt like they trusted Jack and believed in his hopeful vision. It’s like becoming good friends with a person you’ve known for years, only to have them snatched a way. The unfairness is cruel.

But let’s not end on that note. Instead, we should take inspiration from everything Jack accomplished. We need to continue to fight for the ideals he held dear, especially with the prospect of Mayor Ford, Prime Minister Harper and (potentially) Premier Hudak at the same time, and with far-right Ayn Rand nut jobs crowding the Republican primaries down in the States.

Government is not evil. Government is where people come together to make things better. As Jack said in his farewell letter, Canada is one of the best countries in the world, but it could be better – “a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity.”

I’ll end with the ending of Jack’s letter. It’d be too daunting to write a better one.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Understanding the ‘General Idea’

“We never felt we had to create great art to be great artists,” the collective General Idea once said. For Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, who came together in Toronto in 1969 and were active until 1993, the performance of being artists was the work itself. Their motto “Form follows Fiction” is a simple post-modern rebuttal of Modernism’s “Form follows Function”.

The task of Frederick Bonnet, curator of Haute Culture: General Idea at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the group’s first comprehensive retrospective, is to link the triad’s one-time happensings (such as the tongue-in-cheek Miss General Idea beauty pageant) with their short films, TV special, mail art, architectural plans and traditional art objects.

Their Mondo Cane Sutra series shows three abstract, candy-coloured poodles rescued from resembling a corporate logo only by their pornographic positions. The poodle would become one of General Idea’s main symbols, a subversive twist on the neutered feminine frivolity of campy gay men.

By the mid-1980’s, General Idea’s work centered increasingly on the AIDS epidemic, morphing Robert Indianna’s LOVE poster into the word AIDS. They constructed gigantic pills out of vinyl to show the medicalized nature of suffers’ lives. Most poignantly, a painting of three precocious baby seals, standing in for the three artists, questions which kind of victims we feel more sorry for.

The artists themselves never focused on their own sexualities. Zontal claimed that the only thing worse than being dismissed as gay artists was being called Canadian.

The gallery might have done a better job explaining the more opaque works, but in displaying such a diversity of multi-media, the AGO has done a valuable service in reasserting General Idea’s important place in the development of conceptual art.

The Summer of ’79: Liza Minnelli and Mikhail Baryshinkov at Studio 54

Blue Birds, Smiling at Me

I held out against Twitter for a long time. A long time. Frankly, like skinny jeans, I was waiting for the trend to kill itself. I hated how TV news quoted tweets as though they were legitimate sources. I resented it as a platform for the insane ramblings of Charlie Sheen and Sarah Palin. And, most of all, for a verbose writer such as myself, being limited to 140 characters felt as constricting as shackles.

But I wanted to increase my blog readership beyond my friends and my Dad, and the little blue bird seemed to be the way to do it. So far, it’s been working, with my followers list growing gradually but steadily. They might be adding me for my witty insights into American politics and Britney Spears songs. Just as likely, they’re laughing at me as I learn to use hash tags and embarrass myself as I realize that even established writers check their @mentions, so don’t compare them to Carrie Bradshaw or profess your lustful love.

I’m going to give my 100th follower a lap dance or a car or a sincerely written thank-you message. What would Oprah do? Follow me today!

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Up until this week, I only knew three things about Ava Gardner: she was married to both Mickery Rooney and Frank Sinatra; at the height of her career she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world; and that thin-faced Brit Kate Beckinsale was a ridiculous choice to play her in ‘The Aviator’ (2004). My pick would have been Catherine Zeta-Jones, who shares with the late star facial features, as well as a certain earthy flirtatiousness.

I rented ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’ (1951) knowing nothing about it, which is always a fun way to go into an old movie. The film, set in a Spanish fishing village in the 1930’s, is like a feverish dream of a Technicolour MGM drama. The insane plot is based on the old Dutch story about a sailor, doomed to travel the seas forever, who must make a woman love in love with him so his spirit can be released. Hold on, it gets weirder: the ghost sailor is cursed because he killed his original 17th century wife (wrongly suspecting her of infidelity) and the only thing that will lift the spell is for Ava Gardner to kill herself. Because, you know, she loves him so much.

Also, the sailor is played by James Mason.

The wealthy characters, all sumptuously costumed in outfits not-completely-inaccurate for the 1930’s, wander around beaches festooned with crumbling statues, spouting dialogue which is either vague and mysterious or laughingly direct. Many of the scenes appear to take place against the pale blue skies of twilight or dawn. In one scene, at the spur of the moment, Ava slips off her gown to swim out to the phantom boat. Once onboard, naked and dripping, she wraps herself in a rain cover.

The painting the sailor is shown working on near the beginning looks like the work of Giorgio de Chirico, and you begin to notice that the art direction for the entire film has a capital-S Surrealist quality. It comes as little surprise that photographer Man Ray did the painting, as well as designing some of the still photography and the abstract chess set briefly spotted in one scene.

As for La Gardner herself, I don’t know if the gal could really act, but she has a bold forecfulness even when her lines are offensively submissive. And her beauty was not overrated: a classic face made more interesting by a clefted chin.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those romance movies which forgets to show the central characters actually falling in love. One wishes that director Albert Lewin had pushed the melodramatic plot and dream-like atmosphere farther. If the film had been made in the late 1950’s or 1960’s (when movies like ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ combined histrionic plots with nightmarish imagery) it may have become a camp classic. As it stands, it’s like a nap dream from the late afternoon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a hazy vision of a style yet to come.

Myles Sexton

Check out my interview with Model Extrodinaire, and my new friend, Myles Sexton on the WORN Fashion Journal blog. He talks about concealer, Lady Gaga and the Aztecs.

“I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.” –Montaigne (1533-1592)

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