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Grogged by Noon: Get Ready for Black Tot Day


“Drunk as a sailor” may be a cliché, but for those serving in the English Royal Navy it was also a reality—a government subsidized reality, in fact—until this day in 1970. That’s right, mateys: A mere 45 years ago today the Royal Navy stopped giving sailors rum rations known as daily tots. Needless to say, Her Majesty’s seamen did not go quietly into this new order. For the final tot, sailors called out “Up spirits!”—the signal it was time for the pre-noon shot of rum—and, wearing black armbands, held funerals for their fallen comrade. “Up spirits!” was not the only tot-related parlance hurrahed on the high seas. A sailor whose mate was having a birthday, for example, often shared his rum, cheering “sippers,” “gulpers” or “sandy bottoms,” this last meaning said mate could down the entire ration. But free booze never lasts, and this particular provision was likely doomed from the start. Centuries before Black Tot Day, English sailors enjoyed daily beer rations. On longer journeys, however, the beer spoiled and took up too much space, and so what began as a gallon of suds a day dwindled to an eighth of a pint of rum, and even that was watered down. Sailors put off by the taste of grog—weak rum flavored with lemon, sugar and sometimes cinnamon—often hoarded their rations, saving them up in order to catch a better buzz. Black_Tot_Day_connects_sideObviously discipline was also a problem. In 1969 the Admiralty Board declared, if awkwardly, that the “rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend.” It’s uncertain whether the soaks sitting on the board were themselves drunk as they wrote this. Nevertheless, the Great Rum Debate commenced the following year in the House of Commons, and the aptly named James Wellbeloved argued in favor of upholding tradition. A former wartime seadog himself, Wellbeloved claimed a nice rum tot emboldened sailors “to face the coming action with greater strength and greater determination.” He lost, and the new law went into effect three days later. Other Commonwealth countries followed suit, with New Zealand holding out the longest, until 1990. These days sailors still get their rum on, but they have to come by it like the rest of us—with their own money. That’s why the seaman responsible for doling out rum, among other onboard necessities, is called the purser. Eventually this title became “pusser” because, well, sailors have salty tongues. The point is, midday drinking is no longer just for the watery part of the world. Anyone doing battle in today’s urban jungles knows the need for celebration and comfort remains relevant to this day. So right around noon, take a break and enjoy a shot of rum. You know, Up spirits! Just don’t act, spend or curse like a drunken sailor afterward. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jul 31, 2015

Thomas Hart Benton Today


In 1934, Thomas Hart Benton was the first artist to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. But by 1959, when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow introduced him as “America’s best known contemporary painter,” the artist’s reputation was already in decline. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, the first major exhibition of Benton’s work in 25 years, is now touring the country. It’s time for America to rediscover Benton! Austen Barron Bailly, curator of American art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the museums collaborating on American Epics, was saddened that “only about one in four people coming through the door had ever heard of Benton.” The show is a revelation even to a Benton fan like myself. I was amazed by one of his earliest murals, American Historical Epic—14 immense canvases bursting with creative energy. Benton did some work for Hollywood, but overall his art is uniquely cinematic. He used lighting, character and dramatic narrative to paint his vision of the American story. [caption id="attachment_8262" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Achelous and Hercules, 1941. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia. Achelous and Hercules, 1947. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.[/caption] Benton was born in 1889 to a political family in Neosho, Missouri. Against the objections of his father (who, Benton recounted, saw artists as “pimps” who “lisped a silly jargon about grace and beauty”), Benton studied art in Chicago and Paris. In a letter home, Benton wrote, “As each day goes by I become more and more conscious that in me lies some unexplainable power,” a power he felt would help him “rise above the level of the ordinary mortal.” But, also in his own words, Benton “floundered, without a compass, in every direction”—until he read an article on the Renaissance painter Tintoretto. He embraced Tintoretto’s process of creating preparatory sculptures as models for his paintings, saying this allowed him to “feel my paintings in my hands” and to develop his signature style of narratives rendered in giant panels and murals. In a review of the “wonderfully theatrical (and even cinematic)” recent exhibit Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New York Times wondered if the show “might even convince a few anti-Bentonites to look anew at this cantankerous and controversial figure.” Benton created the mural’s 10 panels to fit the boardroom of a new building at the New School of Social Research, in Manhattan. The sensory overload of Benton’s life-size images of stockbrokers, burlesque queens, cotton pickers, farmers and cowboys in 1920s America is an overwhelming, magical experience. And Benton was paid in eggs to paint it! He received no fee for his work but demanded the New School supply the eggs he needed to make his tempera paint. But America Today (1930–31) thrust Benton into the limelight. [caption id="attachment_8260" align="aligncenter" width="600"]SteelInset America Today: Steel, 1930–31. Photo courtesy of garrettziegler/Flickr.[/caption] Around this time, Benton became the only art teacher Jackson Pollock would ever have—though Benton famously joked that the only thing he taught Pollock was “how to drink a fifth a day.” As Henry Adams writes in Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, “Pollock was the sort of person that Thomas Hart Benton pretended to be: the child of poor, working-class drifters, with little education and few prospects.” Benton and his wife, Rita (shown together in this post’s feature image), treated Pollock like a surrogate son. Pollock not only posed as a model for America Today (see the large figure in the foreground, above), he also helped deliver and install it. In 1935, after Benton announced he was “sick of New York” and moved back to Missouri, Pollock began drinking heavily. Benton later wrote to his protégé, “You’re a damned fool if you don’t cut out the monkey business and get to work.” By 1947, Time magazine was calling Pollock the “greatest American painter of the 20th century,” his drip paintings ushering in a new age of abstract expressionism. Benton never trashed Pollock but said wistfully, “Jack never made a painting that wasn’t beautiful.” Pollock, however, was not as gallant, spreading the oedipal lie “I used to fuck Rita Benton.” As biographer Justin Wolff explains, Benton was “infamously pugnacious” and “had a reputation for making outlandish comments about modern art, museums and homosexuals.” The equally opinionated architect Frank Lloyd Wright once dismissed Benton’s tough-guy persona and theories on art by asking, “Mr. Benton, isn’t that the attitude of an unregenerate bad boy?” This bad boy who wanted to paint “the people” wore everyone out. In the 1980s, renewed interest in Benton shocked and dismayed former New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who said with a sigh, “Twenty-five years ago, one never dreamed there would be a revival of Benton.” But Benton best understood his own appeal: “I am a very fortunate artist. A lot of people have disliked my art intensely enough to keep it under continuous attention.” Americans have long embraced Benton’s follow regionalist painter Norman Rockwell and his sugarcoated version of the U.S., yet Benton’s sweeping, complicated vision of the country more closely mirrors its messy reality. Thomas Hart Benton was Norman Rockwell with balls. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is at the Peabody Essex Museum through September 7. Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Thomas_Benton_connects_bottom

by Colin J. Warnock

Jul 30, 2015

Listening to Marlon


For a good chunk of his life, Marlon Brando kept an audio journal, and in the excellent new documentary Listen to Me Marlon, the public gets to hear it for the first time. In the journal’s bulk form, musing on the vagaries of existence, its hundreds of hours would overwhelm most consumers. But the patient professional, in this instance British documentary director Stevan Riley, sifts out the shining moments and arranges them to speak of their source—the storied and enigmatic Brando, unquestionably among the very best actors of his generation. Also including a bevy of clips from his many films, behind-the-scenes footage and press coverage, this movie is pure, uncontaminated Brando. His are almost the only words we hear. Through these, Brando’s significant intellect becomes clear; more than merely eloquent, his ramblings are philosophical. Accompanying his words are familiar images of his often heartbreakingly handsome face and, strangely, a holographic simulation of an older Brando’s head. Generated from 3-D scans taken during his lifetime, this floating, white-eyed visage utters things like “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.…” It’s creepy (especially when silently screaming) but fascinating. The disembodied head even comments on itself, musing that someday this is how all acting will be rendered in films—a prediction that may prove true (see the unusual 2013 film The Congress). In pleasingly rough chronological order, the doc moves through Brando’s life, starting with his early career, his extreme fondness for his mother and his issues with his hard-edged father. His feelings about his father were a well of potent emotion for Brando to draw from in his Method acting, as taught to him by the great Stella Adler, of whom we see some good footage. The Method, they both say, is about “always finding the truth of it,” and we increasingly see how deeply Brando applied this principle to his own life. Riley (Fire in Babylon, Everything or Nothing) appropriately seems to embrace the Method in his filmmaking, showing us raw but carefully curated chunks of Brando at his most personal and vulnerable. [caption id="attachment_8199" align="aligncenter" width="600"]DB3WN8 A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Warner Bros., 1951. Directed by Elia Kazan With Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. Photo from Alamy/courtesy of SHOWTIME.[/caption] It’s remarkable how voluptuous Brando is with himself in these journals, or perhaps, since they were private, how profoundly Brando thought about his life. The widespread perception of Brando as a difficult actor to work with, and at times a pretentious and reclusive weirdo, begins to dissolve. His sending a Native American woman to accept one of his Oscars, for example, appears more genuine as we discover his passion for the civil rights movement and the Pacific island peoples among whom he later found a home. He respected what he saw as the purity of their lives, something his own increasingly lacked, and he speaks of “waking to the nightmare that the white man lives in, the nightmare of the want of things.” Brando reflects particularly on the nature of fame and how it removes one from reality: Admiration becomes a protection from insignificance, and, in the eye of fame, if you aren’t “somebody,” you’ve committed a crime. Brando admits he was too sensitive, a naturally shy man who liked to study strangers’ faces and try to intuit what they didn’t know about themselves. This invites us to do the same with his holographic head, but it offers little. The burden of wisdom weighs heavy in his voice. For Brando, the cost of fame and his own capacity for emotional complexity was great. Adler said, “It is against the nature of human life to withdraw,” yet that’s what the older Brando ultimately did. Haunted by tragedies involving his children, he equates himself to a fighter who has taken too many punches. Of all his roles, Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now seems to me the most germane—perpetually half in light, half in shadow, a weary genius mumbling about “the horror.” It turns out Brando wrote much of his own dialogue for that part (another habit he was criticized for), and as this documentary proves, Kurtz’s ponderous, broken musings could have been lifted straight from Brando’s journals. Also in the journals are Brando’s attempts at self-hypnosis. Calmly urging himself not to eat so many sweets and unhealthy foods is perhaps the most vulnerable thing we hear him say. Listen to Me Marlon is a rare, strikingly intimate look into a man most everyone already knows a little bit. The way the film broadens those limited impressions is a beautiful exercise, offering a complete (or near as can be) picture of Brando’s life, revisiting the most important themes but never lingering too long. There’s no fat in its 95 minutes. It’s something of a masterpiece and may just be Brando’s finest performance. Feature photo by Mike Gilman/courtesy of SHOWTIME Listen_Marlon_connects_bottom

by Jonathan E. Roche

Jul 29, 2015

Hot Shots: 7 Genre-Defining Western Shoot-Outs


The blood of the gunslinger runs thick through our collective veins. Portrayed in countless films, TV shows, comic books and old dime store novels, the gunslinger is among the most potent and ubiquitous of American heroes. He informs, consciously and unconsciously, our real-life expectations of honor, confrontation and violence, as well as our emotional, rather than rational, debate over the right to bear arms. Where did it begin? The first Western-style gunfight—a “quick-draw duel,” in technical terms—occurred 150 years ago, on July 21, 1865. It wasn’t the bedlam-in-the-streets kind of shoot-out we’ve come to recognize as “real.” The duel to begin all duels started when James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok challenged David Tutt in a dispute over a gambling debt, with the honor attached to a pocket watch that was being used as collateral. Hickok owed Tutt anywhere from $25 to $45. Tutt held Hickok’s watch in surety and used it to taunt him. Hickok set the challenge for six p.m. in the Springfield, Missouri, town square—not the middle of Main Street at high noon, as most Westerns would have us assume. The duelers, both in a sideways stance to minimize their exposure, fired one bullet each, ’cause them’s the rules. Hickok stood unscathed. Tutt, hit in the ribs, staggered onto a porch and into the street, where he fell. Rather than ride off into the sunset, Hickok faced a proper trial, in which he successfully pleaded self-defense. Harper’s magazine picked up the story, launching Hickok and the gunfight into the realm of myth. The Hickok-Tutt duel became the ur-contest for settling scores in the Western genre, with each movie shoot-out becoming more elaborate and dramatic. Have a look at some of the most breathtaking in that evolution: Shane, 1953 A showdown that puts the class in classic, Alan Ladd’s Shane drops Jack Palance’s Wilson, along with his minion, in a sleepy cantina. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966 This is the Mexican standoff to beat, with an al dente spaghetti Clint at the apex of the triangle. The eye twitches alone give you palpitations. Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968 Charles Bronson’s icy harmonica announces a stark presence—and two horses too many. The Wild Bunch, 1969 More like a blistering dash to Valhalla than a gunfight, Sam Peckinpah’s masterwork reflects the grisly barbarity of the Vietnam war, then being shown on the evening news. Red Dawn, 1984 In a modern James Gang–style outlaw Western with a wash of 1980s Red Scare, Patrick Swayze is every bit the American gunslinger, with a duster, bandolier and nickel-plated revolver. Unforgiven, 1992 Paying homage to the spaghetti Western, Clint transfigures from bumbling old coot to chilling angel of death when he goes back on the sauce. No Country for Old Men, 2007 This contemporary Western masterpiece features Josh Brolin’s opportunistic Moss fleeing Javier Bardem’s psychopathic Chigurh in a desperate glaze of sweat until he catches the upper hand—if only briefly. Feature photo courtesy of Everett

by Mediander Staff

Jul 28, 2015

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