Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poster Boy


There’s no such thing as time travel, but a trip to the International Vintage Poster Fair comes awfully close.

The event is really meant for serious collectors, which rules me out, but I enjoy looking at these fabulous images that can combine art, history, politics, and advertising all on a single sheet of paper.

This may be hard for young people to believe, but posters were a primary method of getting your message out back in the days before TV and the Internet. They’ve been called the "seven-second medium," since that's about all the time they had to catch the eye of a speeding pedestrian.

The artists who created these illustrations did so knowing that they wouldn’t last long. The posters would go up on a wall or fence where they might be stolen or defaced and eventually covered up by another poster. But that didn’t stop these people from doing great work.

I got interested in vintage posters a few years ago when I did a story for TheStreet.com.

The economy was booming way back in ‘06 and the site had a feature section called “The Good Life,” which ran stories about expensive activities that would allow people to dump their excess cash and have fun at the same time. It all seems like such a long time ago…

I really wanted to contribute to this section but I had trouble coming up an idea. Then one night I was on the elevator, looking at one of those TV monitors that so many elevators have now, and I saw a notice about the poster fair flashing across the screen.


So I went to the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street, had a blast, and started interviewing vintage poster dealers all around the country.

“These posters weren’t meant for us,” a dealer in Hawaii told me, which was one of my favorite quotes in that story. No, he said, they were meant to be seen by people living 70, 80, or 100 years ago. The ones that survived give us a feel for day-to-day life in another era.

You can get some very nice posters for under $1,000, which is a lot cheaper than many paintings. But if you’ve got the money, you can easily spend thousands of dollars.

And you can choose any number of themes for your collection: travel, propaganda, film, or war, for example. You can also collect posters from a particular era or focus on the work of an individual artist.

The travel posters make you long for the days of great ships and railroads when the world seemed to be a more exotic place. Movie posters remind us that the classics we rent from Netflix were once playing in theaters and the actors we now consider icons were once living and breathing human beings.

It’s fun to view posters in other languages and try to figure out what is being advertised. I saw one poster advertising a performer named Miss Dore and a small dog known as “L'Inimitable Dick.”

A poster advertising a psychic showed the face of a man in a turban with a huge question mark behind him, and the words “Alexander: The Man Who Knows” running across the bottom. I don’t know what Alexander knew, but I do know he had a pretty cool poster.

One of the dealers was going through a pile of his stock and I saw a poster for the 1939 World’s Fair, which my father used to tell us about when we were kids. The very next poster advertised the 1964 World’s Fair--where my father took us when we were kids.

The posters from World War II were particularly memorable, largely because my father was a veteran of that conflict.

There were rousing messages calling upon people to be strong and to support our fighting men. Looking around at today’s toxic political environment, it’s hard to believe that Americans were ever so united.

Many posters warned people to keep their mouths shut—the old “loose lips sinks ships” theme. One of the most memorable was an image of a drowning serviceman pointing his finger directly at the viewer and bearing the words “Someone Talked!

There were enemy posters as well. One Italian poster depicted a bombed out church being looted by an African-American soldier who was drawn to resemble a marauding ape. The message was quite clear: Evil black American soldiers are going to overrun our country.

The fair isn't the biggest event in town, but I hung around for a couple of hours enjoying all the artwork and collecting memories that will last a lot longer than seven seconds.

Monday, October 25, 2010

High Incident


I came out of my house this afternoon to dump some trash and walked right into the middle of a neighborhood drama.

I had the day off from work and I thought I’d relax and enjoy the lovely weather. But things didn’t go according to plan.

I was about to go back into my house when I saw some people standing in a semi-circle around an Asian woman who was stretched out on the ground a few houses away from mine.

She was barefoot, clad in pajamas, and rolling her head from side to side, sobbing and moaning unintelligibly.

One of my neighbors told me that he had seen her walk up the block, sit down on the ground near his house and lay down on the pavement.

She continued to roll her head and wail, while one man dialed 911 and the rest of tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

I spoke to her softly to calm her down, but I don’t think she heard me. I wondered if she had gotten out of a mental hospital, given the pajamas and the lack of shoes. If she lived around here, then somebody should have been watching her.

I asked one Asian woman standing near me if she could speak with this lady and find out what the trouble was, but she informed me that she wasn’t Chinese. Hand me that dunce cap, if you please...

Another neighbor who did speak Chinese said the woman wasn't making any sense. Then somebody else heard her say something about her son…and then she mentioned a number, which we took to be an address on the block.

One of my neighbors—I don’t know anyone’s name—went to that particular house and told a young man who lived there what was happening.

The young fellow said this woman lived upstairs from him. He started asking her questions and we learned that her son and her husband had gotten into some kind of fight and that they had never gotten along. She wouldn’t stop crying or get up off the ground.

“She said she wants her son back,” he said.

We talked among ourselves while waiting for the ambulance to arrive and the group grew larger as people stopped to ask us what had happened.

An EMT from the Fire Department arrived and started asking questions, though it was slow going due to the language barrier and the woman’s condition. He called for help on his radio.

“You’re breaking up,” a static-filled voice said.

“Clean the shit out of your ears,” the EMT muttered as he took out his cell phone.

I helped him and the young neighbor get the woman to her feet in an effort to sit her down on a nearby stoop, but she wouldn’t cooperate, and we had to put her back down on the sidewalk. And then the poor woman started to vomit.

A police car and an ambulance arrived and we had a minor traffic jam happening on the block, complete with blaring horns. The woman continued to cry and moan and then she got to her knees and began bowing before the young translator. He took hold of her arms and made her stop.

I felt a little ghoulish standing there, but just walking away wouldn’t have been right either.

The police officers helped this woman down to her home, but there was no one inside. Finally two EMTs put her on a stretcher and wheeled her to the ambulance.

“The whole block is out,” one of them said to his partner.

It wasn’t the whole block, but, yes, there were a lot of people watcing them. To be honest, how often does this kind of thing happen?

And while this woman may live on my block, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before today. I doubt if I’ll ever find out the whole story here, but I hope she gets the help need she so clearly needs.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bane There, Done That


“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

I was speaking with my aunt recently and I told her I had just rented The Wolfman, a remake of the old horror movie classic that our family had enjoyed for so many years.

“Why?” she asked me with gentle exasperation.

Struck for answer, I reverted to my standard adolescent response.

“Uh…I don’t know.”

Actually, I did know. I was hoping for an easy night at the movies where I could sit back and relax with some enjoyable junk cinema. As it turned out, the only thing I got right was the “junk” part.

This wolf was a dog and the enjoyment for me came when I dumped the DVD into the mailbox and shipped it back to Netflix.

What was I thinking? That today’s filmmakers could actually create something that would rival the old 1941 Universal creepy starring Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, and the incredible Maria Ouspenskaya?

No one could top Ouspenskaya when she intones “the way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end…

Sure, it’s a load of crap, but it’s really great crap. Just like all those other old Universal horror flicks—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and God knows how many more that made my Saturday nights when I was a kid.

Cheesy dialog, flimsy sets, and plots as creaky as the hinges on Dracula’s coffin—I couldn’t get enough of them. At least these movies were fun, which is more than I can say about most of today’s gore-filled, CGI-crammed retreads.

I don’t care for remakes on principle, the notable exception being The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, which was actually the third time around for Hammett’s novel.

For the most part, however, remakes to me come off as a low rent way to may a fast buck off of established material.

The new version stars two actors I like— Benicio Del Toro as the tortured title character and Anthony Hopkins as his father—but that didn’t help any.

In addition to being much bloodier than the original—what a surprise!—the remake puts an Oedipal/edible slant on the proceedings that leads to an embarrassing monster-on-monster showdown.

I much prefer the pairing of Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains, one of the more unlikely father and son matchups in movie history. We were asked to believe that this slight, dapper English was the father of the towering, rather doofy-looking American.

I had an easier time believing that a man could turn into a wolf than accepting that these two were related. But it didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I enjoy the movie so much.

The original was written by Curt Siodmak, author of the novel Donovan’s Brain, and the scripts for such gems as I Walk With a Zombie, The Beast With Five Fingers, and--one of my favorites—Non-Stop New York.

Siodmak came up with the little ditty about a man turning into a wolf even though he’s “pure of heart,” which was repeated in all the other Universal werewolf movies.

And there was always a scene in these movies where Chaney, in attempt to protect the general public, would hide away in a remote inn. Just before turning in for the night, he’d whirl around with his eyes rolling and shout to the innkeeper, “Lock me in! And whatever you hear, don’t open the door!”

I used to wonder why the innkeepers didn’t boot Chaney out on his ass the moment they heard that. But no, they went along, although they often peeked into the room when the howling started. Big mistake, as any horror movie will tell you.

I guess it’s too much to ask for movie studios to leave the classics alone. No, for as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so will my tears run as directors continue to feast on the remains of old horror films.

Hey, that sounds like an idea for a movie…

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Whole Tooth


I’m always a little surprised when I walk into my dentist’s office and see that computer on his desk.

He’s had the thing for years, of course, but I don’t go to the dentist as often as I should, so it takes me a while to get used to changes around the office.

I was in Dr. Cohen’s office on Saturday for this tooth ache that was lighting up whenever I drank cold liquids.

I decided to break with my tradition of letting problems go until they mutate into irreversible catastrophes and actually do something about this particular issue right in the here and now.

As I walked into his office I started thinking about how long I've been his patient. I was literally a child, a grammar school student, when I first came here. Back then the only place you could find desk top computers was on Star Trek.

I believe I was an eighth grader when I had my first appointment with Dr. Cohen. I went straight from class at Our Lady of Angeles to his office a few blocks away.

Naturally, I was a nervous wreck, convinced I would be facing an afternoon of unbearable torture. It didn’t seem fair. Wasn’t going to Catholic school punishment enough?

I also had been having some bad luck with dentists. Before Dr. Cohen there was one guy who used to insert three of his fingers in your mouth while he was putting in the filings. He never wore gloves and seemed decidedly indifferent to your discomfort.

I suspect he was a horse doctor before he made the switch over to homo sapiens.

There was another guy who used to make obnoxious remarks and even yelled at me one time—as if as a child in a dentist’s chair, I didn’t have enough to worry about. I’m kind of sorry I never bit that guy’s finger.

I don’t know how we found Dr. Cohen, but I’m very glad we did. I recall that first day when I filled out the dental form and handed it back to Mabel, Dr. Cohen’s assistant. She looked it over and gave me this lovely smile.

“You have a birthday coming up soon,” she said.

I couldn’t believe it--somebody actually smiling in a dentist’s office? I thought they only smiled when the patients were screaming.

That must have been close to 40 years ago and I’ve been going to Dr. Cohen ever since. There were some gaps—no pun intended—when I was living in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but it never occurred to me to find a more conveniently located dentist. I just made sure to see him whenever I was back in Brooklyn.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I looked into getting a job as an English tutor in Japan.

I mentioned this to Dr. Cohen and he told me about a trip he took to Mount Fuji when he was in the service. And then he scheduled several appointments for me just in case I got the job.

That didn’t happen, but if I had moved to the Land of the Rising Sun, I’d still probably make yearly pilgrimages to Dr. Cohen’s office.

I have long since given up the candy and sugary sodas I used to live for back when I was in grade school. I remember Dr. Cohen giving this bit of advice to get me away from the sweet stuff.

“A cow lives on grass,” he said. “But if I try to eat nothing but grass, I’d die. It’s the same with cavities. Bacteria lives on sugar; no sugar, the bacteria dies.”

Nearly every one in my family went to Dr. Cohen and most of them still do. My mother always spoke so highly of him, how nice and polite he always was. And I actually lost my fear of dentists.

We also lost some of loved ones along the way. My mother’s gone now, along with my dad. Dr. Cohen lost his father and Mabel, that sweet lady whose smile took away all my fear, died several years ago.

In addition to the computer, the equipment has gone all modern. No more paper files; it's all digital. And the water fountain is environmentally correct, requiring the patient to fill the cup by pushing a button instead of filling up automatically.

It turned out on Saturday that I didn’t have any cavities, thank the Lord. So Dr. Cohen gave me cleaning along with a mini-toothbrush and a recommendation to buy a special kind of toothpaste, which I have yet to do.

We talked about the old days while he updated my chart on that computer. He was sitting in Mabel’s old seat and I looked up to see a photograph of her on the wall.
It’s almost like she was still there.

I shook hands with Dr. Cohen and wished him well. I was glad I had come to see him, not only for my tooth, but for the memories as well. When think of all the years I've been coming to this man, I just have to smile.