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The Fates Drive Me To A Yardsale August 27, 2016

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Baseball, Books.
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dome-of-the-cathedral-1420-1436The only reason I saw the neon green sign pointing towards a local sale was because I took a right turn and not a left, since a car was heading towards me and I didn’t feel like stopping and waiting. I figured I’d take the equidistant alternate route to get to my first errand stop, Home Depot.

That’s right… Home Depot, on a Saturday. All part of being the manly man I am.

Anyway, I saw the sign and figured why-the-hell-not, and drove the extra block to where I saw a driveway lined with assorted chazerei.

And then the actions of the fates became more clear.

I looked through the sole box of books sitting in the driveway and found a couple of big illustrated kid books about boats & sailing I earmarked for my nephew. I noticed the ENTIRE box of books centered around boating, the sea, or Captain Horatio Hornblower.

I asked the price, and the guy told me he had more books they were planning to sell next week, and he let me take a look. Turns out it was all his father-in-law’s stuff and they were selling it all off.

More books on the sea and boating. A box of Louis L’Amour novels.

But then a box of hardcover anthologies of old comics – Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, Superman, etc. I chatted with the guy and told him he ought to look some of them up to see if they worth more than a couple of bucks. Then I found what looked like one of the old Collier series of Hemingway from the late 30s or whatever, as well as some old book of Civil War Songs published in 1889.

Nope, did NOT buy them for 25 cents a pop & flip them for thousands on ebay, I told the guy he ought to look up what they’re actually worth, and THAT little bit of charm got me some major discounting on the sailing books and two books on Renaissance Architecture I’m looking forward to, Brunellschi’s Dome and The Feud That Sparked The Renaissance, about Brunelleschi’s rivalry with Ghiberti.  I loved visiting Florence some years ago. Maybe these two volumes will take me back there for a while, for fifty cents a pop.

And then, as my conversation with the guy went from Florence to art to history to where I’m from, we somehow found ourselves in baseball, and I got the entire biography of the yardsaler, who turned out to be a former pro baseball player who got bottled up in the Orioles organization of the early ’70s since they were overloaded with pitchers already. He had the bad luck to land in the farm system of a team with FOUR twenty game winners on their starting staff. Oy!

He recounted some stories from his minor league days, his later coaching days and so forth, but what stuck with me turned out to be something I’d almost expect from any former pro athlete.

He could recite all of his stats from more than 40 years ago.

His walk to strikeout ratio, his innings pitched, the then-future major leaguers he defeated in Class A and Class AA games in 1972, what the score was each time, you name it. I’m sure he could have told me the pitch sequence to every batter he faced if I’d asked.

We talked a bit about how the game had changed, especially for pitchers.  He told me how be blew out his rotator cuff and back before they figured out how to fix Tommy John and how it basically ended his baseball career.  It was an entertaining chat with another guy who misses playing actual hardball a lot more than I do, which is saying something.

And then Home Depot beckoned. The new a/c unit at Castle Wagstaff takes a different filter size than its predecessor. It will provide respite from the triple digit temps outside while I read my books on Florence and drink wine, perhaps. Maybe then I won’t miss playing baseball as much.


My Eyes! My Brain! My Schvantz! Okay, okay, not my schvantz… July 14, 2014

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, General.
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Granted, they left out the post office line moving quickly and Cary Grant actually winning an Oscar and any attractive woman actually smiling back at me instead of getting a restraining order, but…

Check out these 29 very cool optical illusions. 

Number 17 is exceptionally freaky, even if I’ve seen it before.

Almost as freaky as this



Admit it, you’d kill for LOLCAT abs. Kill a mouse, anyway.

Call Me Mr. Helpful January 10, 2013

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, General, Writing.
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The other day the Los Angeles Daily News asked for reader suggestions as to how they might retool their comics & puzzle pages in the coming year. So, I wrote them the following email, from which I’ve yet to get any sort of response:

You asked for it, you got it! With today’s football games getting boring, I’ll go ahead and give you my thoughts on your “streamlining” the comics pages for 2013.

For me, the strips that are mostly funny are Pearls Before Swine, and the collection of single-panel jobs which all seem to follow in the wake of the old Far Side weirdness, like F Minus, Brevity, Off The Mark, Rubes, Bizarro and Argyle Sweater. As long as any of those guys are batting .300 with good jokes, there’ll be something worth a laugh each day. Keep ‘em all.

I also make a point of reading specific comics in your paper for different reasons. For example, I’m fascinated by Funky Winkerbean. What started out decades ago as a silly comic centered around dorky high schoolers with jokes based largely on puns and high school marching band clichés has devolved into a maudlin soap opera complete with limbs lost in drunken car accidents, cancer deaths, frustrating career disappointments, parents with alzheimers, and the main character’s constant battles with alcoholism and his abject failure as a father. I’m hoping that Tom Batiuk continues to get more and more depressing and the strip will finally reach its inevitableRequiem For A Dream-type pinnacle in terms of the ways he’s been torturing his characters. In any case, I read that strip every single day, and every day I keep shaking my head. Whatever you do, keep running it. It’s not easy to be amazed, after all.


A New Treasure Trove October 28, 2010

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Blogroll, General, Movies, Music, Television.
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I just discovered this site, The Pop History Dig – loaded with interesting articles on all things American pop culture history.

I’ve been exploring it for a while this evening, and it’s loaded with stuff on silent film, sports, advertising… all sorts of cool stuff, well researched, documented & presented. Big thumbs up!

Racconti dell’Italia April 26, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Cooking, Food, General.

pasta_eaterI spent ten days of my vacation taking my first ever out-of-the-USA trip (just got my passport last summer) to Italy – a few days in Rome, a few days in Florence, and a day trip to Pisa.

Still not crazy about flying, especially long flights (despite the generosity of one of my friends who got me into business class), but actually BEING in Italy was just plain amazingly wonderful. I got to see (and walk on) a lot of stuff I’ve always been fascinated by from ancient Roman history, as well as medieval and Renaissance periods. Saw plenty of old Roman brick ruins from a distance, like the Baths of Caracalla, Trajan’s markets, city walls and surviving pieces of aqueducts – up close were the old Roman forum, the ruins on the Palatine hill, the Colosseum, Capitoline Museums, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona with its 3 Bernini fountains, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s basilica & square, and a real highlight was the day spent at the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel.

Basically: history, art, amazing food & the most beautiful women I HAVE EVER SEEN IN ONE PLACE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE.

Good GOD every few minutes I was swooning over another bella donna walking by. I even got a few smiles returned! (Evidently being a creep got lost in the translation, helping me out a lot.) I even spoke enough bad Italian to help a babelet find the right train to Pisa at the Florence station. I kept getting “struck by the thunderbolt” like Michael did when he saw Appolonia. (And she spoke English very well – Sunday, Monday, Thursday…. too bad she blew up.)

Florence was cheaper than Rome when it came to getting snacks at cafés, maybe slightly cheaper at its own collection of amazing trattorias offering the best food in Europe (I know, I’ve never been to France, but I’ve always thought the Italians were better cooks and were just plain nicer). Florence is more of a medieval set-up, with unbelievably narrow streets and a more compact set-up (you can walk all over the whole city – Rome required taking the subway as well as walking). The Duomo is quite impressive, as is Michelangelo’s David at the Academy of Arts. I toured the Uffizi as well as the Pitti Palace, getting a full dose of the Medici art collection. I’m guessing one of the Medicis had some definite mommy issues since I’ve never seen so many “Madonna & Child” paintings EVER, and I’m thinking that if the guy was obsessed with that particular aspect of the story of Jesus enough to fill his collection with every version of it he could find, there had to be some sort of psychological need in there somewhere.

Pisa was interesting too – basically a little university town, with the leaning tower, some old medieval buildings and Roman ruins, and a shopping district. The train rides between there and Florence, as well as between Florence and Rome, provided some nice scenery of distant little villages on hilltops.

Amazing how many pieces of art I saw for real that I’ve seen endlessly in books, movies, Terry Gilliam animations, etc…. there was Botticelli’s Venus, Raphael’s School of Athens, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, and so on. My traveling companions were “art-ed out” after the Uffizi so I toured the Pitti on my own while they got even more coffee & gelato, and it was all good.

Oh, the food, yes…. go to any mom & pop place and you’ll find homemade pasta, wonderful inexpensive local wine, and a variety of secondi to dazzle you. While the food varied, it was always good to excellent, most usually excellent. I think I ate more cheese in that week than I’ve eaten in the past few years, so hopefully the half liter of wine I was putting away every night flushed my arteries clear. When I had lunch one day at the cafeteria at the Captoline museum of antiquities, I noticed the place was filled with local business people lunching as well – I got my tuna panini and had the minor epiphany that if museum cafeteria food is this good, the food must be AMAZING all over the city.

Did I mention the gelato? I started with chocolate and coffee flavors, and moved on to the fruit flavors like strawberry and raspberry… it tasted like frozen fresh fruit, intense and not overly sugared. Yeah, I ate a ton, but managed not to put on any weight. Portion size is the key here, never mind all the walking.

And as I walked through the Roman forum, a small gray tiger cat came strolling down some ancient steps AND I PETTED IT.

I LOVE Italy!

A Treasure Trove Of Victorian Funnies January 11, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Blogroll.
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bringingupfatherCourtesy of an old student of mine who might hold the record for understanding EVERY single obscure reference I’d throw into whatever I said in class comes the wonderful Barnacle Press website made up of assorted newspaper strips from long long ago.

An early favorite is the one he sent to me – The Outbursts of Everett True, where panel one depicts someone pissing Everett off and panel two depicts Everett beating them up. My hero!

So if you’re maxed out on Sally Forth or Cathy, why not surf on over to Barnacle Press and enjoy Everett True beating the crap out of various people that annoyed him a hundred years ago? He’s like my grandfather with a bigger vocabulary, now that I think about it.

How You Can Tell It’s Summer At The Movies: Hellboy II: The Golden Army August 5, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Movies.
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If I’m going to turn my brain off and enjoy a silly cartoon of a movie, I’d better get some dazzling visuals, fast paced action, and most important of all, absolutely NO pretense towards anything deep or meaningful. Hellboy II: The Golden Army certainly fulfills those categories quite well, thank you.

Picking up from where Hellboy I left off, our grown up kitten-lovin’, beer-swillin’, cigar smokin’ horn shavin’ demon from another world (Ron Perlman) works for a not-so-secret government agency that battles monsters. By his side are his main squeeze Liz (Selma Blair) who has the mutant ability to set herself and everything around her on fire, Abe Sapian (Doug Jones) a super intelligent and psychic fish man, and a new member of the team, Johann Krauss, a German scientist made entirely of ectoplasmic gas. Together, they must fight the evil Elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) who plans to piece together the ancient golden crown that will give him command of the Golden Army of self-repairing mechanical goblin-designed robot soldiers who will lay waste to humanity!

This is based on a true story.

While there are many films out there that fall into the category of “entertainingly stupid,” this one is blessed with the amazing visual sense of its writer/director Guillermo Del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth was one of my favorite films of the past few years. Del Toro’s cinematic monster creations come from his deep deep immersion in the art of Bosch, Goya & Dali and they are an absolute wonder to behold on screen. While they were in service of a more serious fable in Pan’s Labyrinth, they provide mostly action, fright and laughs in Hellboy, but it’s all good. If you’re going to make what’s essentially a movie for the Creature Double Feature, it will be the look and personality of those creatures that will carry the day.

Del Toro comes up with some great stuff here – an opening set-up to the mythic world back story depicted with beautiful wooden puppets, a piranha-like infestation of little tooth fairies who chew you up, a troll market filled with a monster population that makes the Star Wars cantina or Total Recall’s mutant town tame by comparison, an absolutely magnificent tentacled angry forest spirit, and a creepy angel of death who may have been right at home in Pan’s Labyrinth. Along with the lost goblin city and the Nuada/Hellboy battle in its turning clockwork gears, this movie is pure eye candy from start to finish.

Granted, I’ve never read the comic book and have only seen both Hellboy movies (and enjoyed them both), so perhaps purists might notice differences in tone here and there – but as a fan of Del Toro, I’ll see anything where he gets to create eerie underground worlds & the monsters therein. It’s like taking a tour through Goya’s black paintings, only everything is moving. It’s also why I can forgive the weakness of the story, the rather blatant product placement, and whenever some humor misfires.

And the hero loves kitties! What’s not to like?

See You In The Funny Papers February 29, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Blogroll, General.
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What is it about certain newspaper comic strips that spark huge amounts of passionate devotion or visceral hatred from people?

Whenever a paper alters its comics lineup or moves a strip from one section to another, they tend to get more angry letters to the editor than they do concerning any other issue out there. I remember back in my young’n days whenever Jack Major, then the TV critic of The Providence Journal, would regularly use Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy as his go-to example of banality for any review, and a flood of letters demanding his head would follow.

Rhode Island loves Nancy, Jack! So just cut the shit and tell us whether Supertrain is any good!

Today I came across this, Garfield Minus Garfield. It explains itself, and it’s just DAMN BRILLIANT! Go there now!

It reminded me a bit of this site, Lasanga Cat, a frightingly elaborate “Jack Major-ing” of the Garfield strip produced by the technically proficient God-love-’em sick bastards over at Fatal Farm (also check out some of their re-done television themes, especially “Duck Tales” or “Cheers” if you want to see some top tier examples of truly sick humor that would make Michael O’Donoghue proud.)

Up there with Garfield in attracting satiric venom from the twisted is The Family Circus, a comic traditionally so sugary sweet that it’s just BEGGING for some fun. The easiest thing to do with Family Circus was to simply take an existing strip and rewrite the caption into something else, much the way “The Dysfunctional Family Circus” website did until the lawyers from King Features shut it down (but just try stomping something out once it gets out there online, shysters!!!) Want a more highbrow rewriting of it? There’s always The Nietzsche Family Circus.

I could go on by ragging on some of the strips that I’ve personally found to be drawn poorly and unfunny (Cathy leaps to mind here – Wow! She just can’t seem to lose that weight, eh? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!) but here are a last couple of links to some guys who I’d only be unconsciously cribbing from since their sites that I just found while composing this opus look like some decently snarky analysis of all things newspaper comics: The Comic Strip Doctor has some nice articles on a few major strips, though it looks like this website is no longer updated, and The Comics Curmudgeon who regularly blogs about various strips and seems to hate everything! That makes him MY HERO!!!!

It’s A Big-Eyed World Of Keane! February 16, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, Books.
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A recent book hunting safari into assorted thrift stores yielded some more added weight to the eventual pile they’ll find my body under after no one has heard from me in several weeks.

“First, we noticed the smell….”

“Yes, even worse than the usual one.”

“My God! This is the largest porn collection I’ve ever seen! And it looks like he’s even choked on part of it…”

And so on.

Anyway, one of the books I came across is the turns-out-to-be-sorta-rare The World Of Keane by Walter Keane. This book from 1983 pretty much offers us Walter’s side of the story in the Keane controversy, which I suppose makes it a fairly interesting example of amazingly elaborate self-denial since it was fairly obvious after a court battle that his wife Margaret Keane was the true creator of all those big-eyed waif paintings we’ve all come to know, love, and shake our collective heads over.

Long story short: Margaret, who had divorced Walter in 1965 because of his claim to creating the paintings, sued him in a Hawaii court in 1986 over the money at stake, and the judge ordered them both to paint a big-eyed kitten to see who the real artist was. Margaret slapped one onto the canvas in less than an hour and Walter claimed he had a sore shoulder and couldn’t paint. An earlier 1970 “paint-off” produced similar results, with Margaret painting in public and Walter a no-show. So, she won recognition and Walter went to his grave right after Christmas 2000 still claiming to be the real artist.

I’ve jumped around in parts of the book, which is written mostly as autobiography, but I skipped ahead to Walter’s version of the battle over the waif painting authorship, and it reminded me somewhat of the tail-end of Lenny Bruce’s autobiography How To Talk Dirty & Influence People, except instead of degenerating into trial transcripts, it degenerates into rant about a trial gone bad.

It’s odd reading little chunks of the book while believing Margaret’s side of it all – sections on how he created the paintings, sections on the process from sketches to finished product… all the while with me marveling at the amazing level of self-delusion being put forth by someone taking credit for someone else’s work. I guess I can put it alongside any material I feel like gathering on the classical pianist Joyce Hatto, although I’m sure there are connoisseurs out there who’d argue that Hatto (via her husband, actually) was claiming ownership of material of greater artistic value than paintings of starvin’ Marvin with big bug eyes.

Perhaps one day I’ll manage to slog through the entirety of The World Of Keane (and perhaps my eyes will resemble his wife’s paintings…. call me “The Weeping Waif Jew,” perhaps, but only if I manage to lose some weight). In the meantime, I’ll keep it around for kitschy laughs. I could do worse for the dollar it cost me.

The pic up top? Jerry Lewis and his family, painted by Margaret Keane. I’d like to see him wear that harlequin outfit at the telethon one of these years.

Random Thoughts On Art & Its Purposes January 4, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art.
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Two museum trips I took during my vacation got me thinking about this, since what was on display at them seemed to come from opposite ends of the spectrum as far as the function of art is concerned.

The first trip was my self-guided tour of the reopened Getty Malibu museum, which features all the Greek and Roman art in the rather impressive Getty collection. A lot of my fascination with ancient art and artifact comes from my amazement that any of this stuff survived time, regardless of the degree of how intact it is. This is why I can marvel at any display of ancient glassware, since its survival must have been due to some totally random series of fortunate events. Glasses in my kitchen cupboard don’t have the lasting power of some of this stuff. Much of what has earned the art label in the Getty are no more than ordinary everyday items from a lost era – children’s toys, perfume bottles, various wine jugs, and so forth. The people who crafted these items long ago made them for everyday use, not for admiration alone, though one must admire the happy depictions of orgies and debauchery that cover so many of the Greek wine kraters. Though remember, those pictures are not so much for visual admiration as they are for visual instruction: Drink out of this vessel if you want to join in! remains the clear message of all things Dionysean.

Remind me again, why did my Maccabean ancestors have a problem with these people?

So if everyday items stand the test of the ages, they become art as we know it, despite the intent of their creators. While this might produce a vision of all the crap in my house being unearthed and put on museum display by some future archeologist, much of the purposes of the material filling the Getty villa reminds us of the public function of art in the Greco-Roman world. The Greek sculpture depicts their Gods, Godesses and mythic heroes, in ways designed to inspire public ceremony. The Roman sculpure depicted realistic images of actual people (for some reason the Caligula bust looked way too much like Robert Walker to me… perhaps I was merely casting some unmakeable movie…) Especially haunting are the Roman-era mummy portraits from Egypt – are they all so young because people died young, or because that’s how people wanted their portraits painted? In an era of art devoted so to realism, it makes me wonder. A mummy on display at the Getty was of one poor slob who died of a bashed in skull at age 18 or so after enduring numerous other broken bones, which means he was either involved in dangerous construction work, or merely had a short and suckariffic life. But again, back to purpose – the purpose of putting those faces on the casket was to show the world what one looked like alive, and for us in modern times, it’s a treasure trove of information about hair styles, clothing, jewelry and make-up.

Moving from the public purposes of art to the more selfish, we switch museums and go to the Salvadore Dali exhibit at the LA County museum. Now I enjoy viewing Dali’s art and his oddball dreamscapes filled with his signature mix of Freudian imagery and random silliness, but a walk through this particular exhibit reminds us very clearly of Dali’s commercial calculations and the role of personal fame and celebrity in the modern art world. After a while, it struck me that Dali had a go-to list of bizarre images he would pluck from to compose his paintings, sort of like putting together material from a large database of clip-art – add some burning giraffes here, a melting clock there, some ants, and put it all on some tables that vanish into the horizon and Voila! Mix, repeat, and come up with yet another painting. And so on.

Much of the exhibit dealt with Dali’s forays into film, first with Bunuel and later in Hollywood. The storyboards for the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound are on display, as well as numerous illustrations for Destino, a Disney film that did not get made until the studio completed it from Dali’s sketches in 2003. There are also numerous sketches for films that never got made, like one for the Marx Brothers which featured (again) those burning giraffes and a wonderful sketch of Groucho as Shiva answering numerous telephones. The whole artist-in-commercial-Hollywood angle is interesting, especially when the artist in question has many of the same business instincts that the American film industry survives on. The joining of art and commerce has often been described as a shotgun marriage with the shotgun pointed at art, but in the case of the majority of Hollywood’s product and I believe with Dali as well, art is willingly spreading its legs and counting its money.

Towards the end of the exhibit we have Dali’s close-up screen test for Warhol that was shot in 1966, and it’s here that Dali’s legacy to the art world, as I see it, displays itself. Warhol was himself more of a celebrity than an artist, and more fascinated with the nature of celebrity than that of art – and we see those roots in Dali, who early in his career trumpets surrealism but then reproduces it and commodifies it to the point that Dali becomes a respectably reliable brand name in the surrealist world. Much of modern art relies on hype, trendiness and the ability to sucker the self-anointed tastemaker as opposed to the ability to move and inspire. Clearly the dark side of what we see in Dali’s career trajectory has only mestastisized as we begin the 21st century, aided by heavy doses of postmodernist and deconstructionist crapola.

Don’t get me wrong – I am greatly entertained by Dali’s paintings and many of the ones on display at LACMA I absolutely love studying (such as his portrait of Lawrence Olivier as Richard III) – but I can’t help be reminded how far away we are from the Greco-Roman art of the ancient world and how so much of it was dedicated to the purpose of community celebration, cultural identity, and the savoring of everyday life.