Saturday, June 21, 2008

Crypt Sleeper

From the vault:

One Last Death Ride: Bellamy's Latest Horror Show Makes It Five Of A Kind
by Mark Satola

TO LOOK AT John Stark Bellamy, you wouldn't think that this friendly-faced guy in a sportcoat and tie was the Keeper of the Cleveland Crypt, as author of five volumes of what he likes to call “Cleveland dismalia.” But then, many a dark, roiling inner life is concealed behind a mild façade.

“I had the good fortune to grow up two blocks from Lake View Cemetery,” Bellamy says, as if about to tell you he liked to build model airplanes as a kid. “I learned quickly how you could sneak in there at night. On the lower part of the Mayfield wall, someone had actually put up a kind of metal handhold that you could reach up and grab and pull yourself up by.

“I spent a great deal of time at night in Lakeview, in the most perfervid years of my adolescence,” he says. “I'd just walk around, look at tombstones -- no flashlight, of course. A couple of times I slept inside mausoleums.”

Come again?

“They were open,” he says with a smile. “Of course now you couldn't do that, what with crime and security concerns.”

While you may not be able to experience a night bedding down on cold marble at Motel 666 anymore, it's still possible to peer inside the vault of Cleveland's dark past with the help of Bellamy's latest volume of mayhem and disaster, Death Ride at Euclid Beach (Gray and Company, $13.95). Like its predecessors (They Died Crawling, The Maniac in the Bushes, The Corpse in the Cellar and The Killer in the Attic), Death Ride chronicles a wide variety of heinous crimes, heart-rending accidents and manmade disasters, culled from over a century of old Cleveland newspaper records and related documents.

It very well may also be the last of its species. As Death Ride hits the stores, Bellamy is packing it in and packing it up, leaving the grim streets of Cleveland for a retirement of sorts in the green hills of Vermont. Death Ride at Euclid Beach marks the crestline of the tide of blood and tears he has lovingly chronicled for over a decade.

His five books, however, will not be his only legacy. “I now have a calendar of Cleveland dismalia from 1800 to about 1984, about 1,200 pages in electronic almanac form,” he says. “So if you wanted to know the 20 worst things that happened in Cleveland on, say, your birthday, it could be accessed with a keystroke.

“When I leave town, I'm going to bequeath it to the citizens of Cleveland as my final gesture, probably on the Internet, the way I did my electronic book on hangings.”

Bellamy's teenage angst (“I was a fairly morbid, introverted adolescent, no doubt about that”) might have led, as it does in so many cases, to the dead end of attenuated, pot-bellied Goth bachelorhood, but he was fortunate to be infused with literary DNA from both sides of his family tree: his mother was a reporter for Hearst's Wisconsin News; while on his father's side, he was preceded by three generations of print men -- his father, Peter, was longtime drama critic for the Plain Dealer, his grandfather was an editor-in-chief of the PD, and his great-grandfather had penned the fin-de-siècle dystopian satire Looking Backward.

“My grandfather came out here in 1907 to work on the Plain Dealer,” Bellamy says. “I just discovered his first bylined story the other day -- a story in the Cleveland Sunday Magazine from August 1907, about what was then a famous Ohio murder. It made me feel as though I were part of an apostolic succession.”

While Bellamy has written about horrors of every stripe, he remains fondest of those involving the gentle art of murder. “In most murders, there are very strong, very unusual personalities involved,” he says. “One of the reasons I've disliked the whole Torso Murder saga in Cleveland is because it lacks that personality quotient. Most of the victims were nonentities -- prostitutes, low-level criminals, vagrants -- whose disappearance we would not have noticed if someone hadn't stumbled over the body parts.

“I'm interested in quirky people with quirky motivations, the kind of woman who kills her husband because she's embarrassed by the slurping noise he makes when he eats soup at dinner parties. To me that's a motivation found in a person who's not run-of-the-mill, who's not operating by the same impulses and restraints that the rest of us are."

Photo by Mark Satola
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 7, 2004.

Potemkin Village Threnody

From the archives, 2004:

Tearing Down Walls: James Conlon Champions Music Silenced By The Nazis

by Mark Satola

VIKTOR ULLMANN's final musical testament was a piano sonata that was much more than a piano sonata. Incarcerated in the Nazi “show city” of Theresienstadt (Terezin) along with nearly 60,000 other Jews, many of whom were artists, composers and performers, Ullmann was a leading participant in the cultural life that spontaneously appeared within the confines of the walled city, first in secret, then later with full approval of the Nazis, who found that the vision of so many Jews happily making music provided a perfect PR cover for their Final Solution.

Shortly before his deportation to Auschwitz, Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his seventh piano sonata, leaving behind a manuscript nearly indecipherable from many revisions, but also, tantalizingly, replete with cues for instrumentation -- incontrovertible proof that the sonata (which is entirely performable as a keyboard work) is really a sketch for a symphony.

Thanks to the labors of German musicologist Bernhard Wulff, that symphony has been brought to life as Ullmann's Symphony No. 2 in D Major (Wulff performed the same feat for Ullmann's similarly cued fifth piano sonata, presenting it as the Symphony No. 1, “On My Youth”), and is the centerpiece of concerts being given by the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend under the baton of guest conductor James Conlon, who has been a tireless champion of music by composers who had been silenced by the Third Reich.

“There's a saying in Germany, that these composers were murdered twice,” Conlon says, “once in reality, and a second time in postwar Europe's musical world.”

Indeed, the decades following World War II were dominated by composers who followed the musical ethos of Anton von Webern, the disciple of Schoenberg who essentialized to aphoristic miniature the serial methodology of his mentor. Composers such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek and Franz Schreker, with their commitment to tonality, were ignored or forgotten; while such composers as Ullmann, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff perished while prisoners of the Nazi regime.

Conlon, who has spent the last 20 years in Europe, piloting such institutions as the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Cologne Philharmonic and the Paris Opera, has been at the forefront of the 30-year drive to return these composers to the concert halls.

“My interest was an outgrowth of my years in Germany,” he says. “I developed an interest which became a passion for the music of Zemlinsky about a decade ago, and made a recording or two of his music.”

Zemlinsky was one of the composers whose music was forbidden -- entartete Musik -- by Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw cultural matters in the Third Reich. Grounds for such proscription in the 1930s included “decadence” (read: modernistic tendencies) and a Jewish background. “A lot of the music contains a world of feelings about the time -- what the Germans call the Zeitgeist -- which can only be appreciated by hearing the music itself,” Conlon says.

“I think 2004 is the year to try to get as many American orchestras to get at least one piece [by “entartete” composers] on their programs,” he notes. “I have a sense of mission about this.”

Conlon's American mission will be facilitated by his return to the United States. He'll continue his 25-year relationship with the Cincinnati May Festival, and in 2005 takes over the directorship of the Ravinia Festival, but beyond that, his plans are refreshingly open.

“For me the exciting part is that it's the first time in 20 years that I'll be free to do what I want,” he says. “I'll be able to pick and choose.”

He returns to a culture that is markedly different from the one prevalent in Europe. “Classical music has a different function in our civilization,” he says. “It makes actual demands on the listener, to think more, feel more. It's a very important difference that needs to be fostered in our culture.

“It's all fine to be fast and new,” he continues, “but classical music brings out another part of our souls, our brains, that is not addressed by the speed of television and the Internet. Our culture needs profundity, modes of thought brought out by classical music. It's necessary for civilization.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 21, 2004

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time Stands Still

An archival venture into photography, from 2004

The Accidental Modernist : Eadweard Muybridge And The Revolutionary Art Of Moving Pictures

by Mark Satola

PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ART may have been kissed in its cradle by the fairy of inferiority complexes, but the earliest practitioners of the new science were too busy rocketing forward with technical developments to concern themselves with the issue of whether images of the real world, realized in light-sensitive chemicals, were not superior to the brush-and-palette blandishments of painters. The sunlit world beckoned, and they rushed out to meet it, dragging their cumbersome gear and noxious chemicals with them.

Some of that excitement has been recreated in the exhibit "Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement," which opened last weekend at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Nearly 200 rare photographic works, highlighted by Muybridge's groundbreaking motion studies, are on view in the museum's hushed exhibition galleries through May 16.

By the time Eadweard Muybridge landed on the scene in the American West as a landscape photographer of no small vision, photography had already become commonplace, if still something of a novelty. Born in England in 1830, Muybridge had undergone a few interesting personal transformations (including a name change from the less fanciful Edward Muggeridge) before discovering that he had a knack for the infant science and art of photography. He settled in San Francisco and opened a studio there.

Muybridge's beautifully composed landscapes drew the attention of Leland Stanford, former governor of California, U.S. senator and president of the Central Pacific Railroad. The powerful plutocrat had something less than artistic in mind for the photographer, however. As owner of a stable of racehorses in Palo Alto, California, Stanford was interested in studying the gait of his equine properties as they coursed across the turf. The human eye's inability to see just what legs were where at which fleeting moment, Stanford reasoned, would be compensated for by the camera's quick and clinical shutter.

Muybridge set to work devising a system of tripwires and cameras to snap images of a horse as it galloped across the field of view. The resulting sequence of photographs was a success: the true positioning of the horse's legs was revealed -- all four legs off the ground only when curled under the beast's mighty trunk; but more importantly, Muybridge had hit upon a technique, however crude initially, that would through refinement and invention lead to motion pictures. Photography was, as it were, off to the races.

"Time Stands Still" places Muybridge in the historical context of what was called “instantaneous photography,” a phrase that sounds like an oxymoron in our supremely impatient age, when the immediate gratification of point-and-digitize cameras bought off the shelf at Wal-Mart makes waiting an hour for old-fashioned prints seem positively Paleolithic. In the 19th century, taking pictures was a much slower process: photographers had to prepare their own film (usually a glass plate treated on the spot with a wet-collodion formulation), expose it for long minutes and then develop it in the portable darkroom the photographer had to drag along with him, before the chemicals on the plate dried.

The method was not conducive to capturing life as it swept by the eye, and since life would not slow down for them, pioneers of photography worked feverishly to bring their procedures up to life's speed, devising new recipes for faster chemical media and applying them to such notoriously uncooperative moving subjects as ocean waves, street scenes, animals and fidgety children. In “Time Stands Still,” the now-quaint vignettes of these photographers, by themselves unremarkable beyond their historical interest, nevertheless prepare us nicely for the impact of Muybridge's horses, dogs and naked musclemen as they go through their paces before the camera, highlighted before a white-on-black grid that serves to remind us that the first order of business was to study how things moved.

While Muybridge's work may have had initially a scientific basis, others who came after him, known as “chronophotographers,” were more imaginative in their work, sometimes flashing light stroboscopically on a moving subject to produce a multiple image on a single negative (as in the work of Etienne-Jules Marey), and leaving the studio to photograph nature in its unstill glory -- a photographic sequence of storks alighting in their chimney-top nest is particularly exciting. Eventually even Muybridge left the studio grid and took his cameras into the daylight, there to photograph birds, ostriches, deer, dogs, bison, elephants, tigers, baboons and naked people walking, running, jumping, lifting -- in short, being alive.

Muybridge and his fellow chronographers must have ached to be so close to pictures that actually moved. A 1972 reproduction of Muybridge's invention, the zoöpraxiscope -- which you can actually operate in one of the darkened rooms toward the end of the exhibit -- shows how near to movies these early photographers had come, though its image of a cantering horse is so brief as to hardly qualify as a vignette, let alone an actual scene.

A short film, however, running on a continuous loop in an adjacent gallery, gives you a better idea of how close the chronographers were to movies. Based on the sequences in Muybridge's magnum opus, The Attitudes of Animals in Motion , the 10-minute movie was created in 1968 by Canadian moviemaker John Straiton, who simply took the logical step of making the snapshot sequences into moving images, which he then cunningly edited to create the sense of a progressive (if not exactly narrative) arc, set to the coltish ballet music of the Second Empire. The quotidian never seemed so miraculous, as birds fly, animals walk about, and humans do the little things they might normally do in their daily life, albeit quite naked and sometimes with a hint of coy sexuality (a nude woman lolling provocatively in a chair and smoking; two nude woman dancing shyly together).

James Agee, who never met a hyperbole he didn't like, was for once not leaping over the top when he called the camera “the central instrument of our time.” That was in the 1930s, when pictures not only moved with realistic ease but also spoke, when an amateur photographer could load a Leica with 35-millimeter film and take quick snaps of life's fast-moving parade, and when Muybridge and his contemporaries seemed like antediluvian ancestors viewed dimly through the sepia-toned haze of time. Time Stands Still serves to clear the haze and demonstrate, in lively and (literally) moving sequence, the unbreakable connection with our photographic forebears whose work forms the basis of our depicted world.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, February 18, 2004.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Creature Feature

From the celluloid archive:

There Goes Tokyo : On Its 50th Anniversary, A Glimpse Of The Real Godzilla

by Mark Satola

IN 1954, 23 Japanese fishing boat crewmen were accidentally exposed to nuclear fallout when prevailing winds shifted and sent radioactive ash from the Bikini Atoll H-bomb blast 80 miles away onto their vessel like so much deadly snow. Aikichi Kuboyama died from radiation burns suffered in the accident, thus becoming the first fatality from a hydrogen bomb blast.

The similarity to the Bikini incident of the opening scenes of Godzilla could hardly have been lost on Japanese audiences attending initial screenings of the film in 1954. In director Ishiro Honda's first kaiju (“giant monster”) movie, a commercial fishing trawler is struck by a mysterious energy blast that sears the crewmen and sends the vessel to the bottom of the open sea.

American audiences saw no such thing when an edited version of Godzilla opened in theaters and drive-ins across the U. S. The Stateside distributors brought the movie more in line with what they apparently believed to be American tastes by introducing the character of Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter caught up in Godzilla's destructive rampage through Tokyo, helpfully narrating the events for the presumably clueless audience. Along the way, they also removed the most obvious elements of Godzilla's anti-nuclear message.

The Cleveland Cinematheque will show a new 35mm print of the original version of Godzilla this weekend (Friday 9:20 p.m., Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m.) Where the version American audiences know best from television “Creature Feature” screenings is burdened with clumsy, poorly translated dubbing, this 50th-anniversary print features newly translated subtitles, and Raymond Burr's lumbering presence is, thankfully, nowhere in sight.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Godzilla in its original form is that it's a real movie. Toho Films spent more on Godzilla than had been spent on any Japanese movie up to that point, investing in set design and construction, first-rate photography (by Masao Tamai), notable scoring (Akira Ifukube), and a first-rate cast, headed by Takashi Shimura, best known as the leader of the Samurai in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and here cast as Professor Kyohei Yamane, Japan's leading paleontologist.

To direct Godzilla, Toho selected Ishiro Honda, a sometime collaborator with Kurosawa, who had been working as a director, assistant director, writer and occasional actor in the Japanese film industry since the early 1930s. Honda, who co-wrote the movie as well, crafted a balanced narrative arc for Godzilla, giving the audience a subtle crescendo from the initial mystery surrounding the disappearance of commercial ships and the havoc wrought, one terrifyingly stormy night, on remote Odo Island and its inhabitants, to the genuinely shocking climax of destruction and its pathos-laden aftermath.

The version deemed accessible to American viewers (and palatable to paranoid Cold War sensibilities) used only about an hour of Honda's footage, chopping it up and reordering scenes to accommodate the framing device of the American journalist waking up amid the rubble of the destroyed capital (in medias mess, as it were) and narrating the previous events through flashback. Along the way, the sharply condemnatory anti-nuclear message was either toned down or eliminated completely -- most tellingly in the final scene, after Godzilla's destruction by something called the “oxygen destroyer,” deployed underwater by its inventor, Dr. Serizawa (who sacrifices his own life in the process). In the original, Dr. Yamane, who has been torn between the impulse to study Godzilla and the recognition of the need to destroy the monster, admits that man's scientific folly has brought about the disaster: “If we continue testing H-bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear again, somewhere in the world.”

But for Western audiences, with their carefree “Kiss the Cook”-style barbecues out back by the bomb shelter, it was morning in America, as Raymond Burr's narration boldly proclaimed: “The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.” Or at least pretend to.

Photos by Mark Satola
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, August 25, 2004.