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Posts tagged as “book reviews”

Leslie Zemeckis Continues Filling In History with Feuding Fan Dancers


Special To Topanga Journal

Viewing the “fan dance” in the year 2018 is a quaint, cutesy activity on par with listening to an old radio play or riding a horse.

From the comfort of your own home, in front of the glow of your laptop computer, you can search for the dance online and get its general gist. The dance will involve a lady, maybe nude, maybe merely scantily clad, and she’ll be holding two large ostrich feathers in her hands. She’ll use the dual objects to cover herself, and now and then—purposefully or otherwise—she’ll allow a brief glimpse of skin to the audience’s prying eyes. That’s what the crowd—men, mostly—has been waiting for, and they’ll hoot and holler their approval at the sight. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

It’s fun, in an outdated, mostly innocent, sort of way. It’s a hobby for the privileged or curious, largely unnecessary for the general public to know or understand, certainly with no role in pushing the world’s culture forward. It’s time has come and went, sort of like that old form of the English language with its awkward misspellings and phrasings. Interesting to see, but in an era when you can see literally anything from one’s smartphone, we’re well past the allure that the fan dance originally created. For better or worse, we’ve moved onto more outrageous forms of self-expression.

“When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it.” Rick Paulas

But of course, this wasn’t always the case. When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it. 

For the fan dance, this culminated in a battle between Faith Bacon, “the world’s most beautiful woman,” and Sally Rand, one of the world’s most famous showgirls of all time.

This fight is the driving force throughout Feuding Fan Dancers, Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating and page-turning dive into the lives of Bacon and Rand. But the book isn’t so much a stodgy legal thriller satisfied with merely picking the nits of creative ownership, but rather widens its scope to become a meticulous, behind-the-scenes analysis into the intersection of show-business and femininity in post-Depression America. 


I won’t spoil the ending, or announce who prevails, other than to say, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is that here, finally, is the story of these two largely forgotten women. Part of that is because of the lack of media affordances that didn’t yet allow the ease of recording, but largely it’s been due to publishing gateways frankly not really caring all that much about the stories of women. The book’s ultimate goal—and increasingly the goal of Zemeckis’ work—is correcting those wrongs by filling in history’s blanks.


Leslie Zemeckis has been on a hell of a roll. Her 2015 book, Goddess of Love Incarnate, told the story of Lili St. Cyr, the so-called “highest paid stripteaser in America,” while her recent documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer highlighted Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. With Feuding Fan Dancers, it’s become even more clear how Zemeckis sees her role in the cultural discourse.

History, it is said, is the story of the winners, but really, it’s the story of those who storytellers consider powerful. Historical analysis has long been dominated with the stories of men, for the obvious reason men have largely held positions of what’s been considered power. But contrary to the inherent narrow framework of storytelling, power is not a top-down hierarchy. Kings get dethroned, managers retire or are ostracized, congressional officials retire or get impeached. Actual, real power comes from those changing society at its base. And one arena for that shift—the one that Zemeckis has chosen to focus on—is the world of popular entertainment. When it’s at its most potent, that is the true nexus of democracy and organizing, of creating and spreading propaganda strong enough to change the world.

It’s this lens that makes Zemeckis’ work important and vital, particularly in today’s post-Trump era, when the world’s most powerful positions are held by overtly feckless buffoons. The emperor has no clothes, but never really did, and there was never really a true emperor at all, just someone who happened to be sitting in a big chair. Now, like always, true power resides in the largely nameless figures who push the cultural football further down the field. They don’t campaign to get elected, or own billion-dollar businesses, or live in castles. They take what once was, and make it what it will be. Quite often, contrary to high school history classes, these figures are female. And now and then, they may even wear nothing but enormous ostrich feathers.

ON THE WEB:

http://lesliezemeckis.com


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Art Is Dangerous In The Artists’ Prison From X Artists Books

Special To Topanga Journal

The cover is simple, unassuming, even inviting. You open the first page to redacted information, like classified materials seen in the military. For Eyes Only. It’s a dedication page that’s been redacted. It states “For” and there’s a big blotch where a name should be. A name wiped out. The reader will never know the name that black spot belonged to. Knowledge is both a privilege and offense in this book, and so is art. Creative expression is temporary, something Big Brother gives and takes away. The warden controls your art. The warden even tells you your prison cell can only have certain forms of expression because you are dangerous if you express yourself in any other manner. 

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

This is the The Artists’ Prison, with text by Alexandra Grant and drawings by Eve Wood. Grant created an Orwellian world where creativity can be a criminal offense and art making a punishment.

Topanga Journal conducted a Q&A with the artist, Eve Wood, who completed  the graphics in The Artists’ Prison to find out her driving need to be a part of the book and such a dark world.

 

TJ: What drove you to be a part of this particular book?

WOOD: I approached Alexandra Grant several years ago and asked her over for a studio visit. During the visit I suggested we do a collaboration and asked if this was of interest to her. She responded resoundingly saying she had a project, a book she had written, sitting in a desk drawer and perhaps I could give it a read through and see what i thought of it. The text is disarmingly dark and seductive, and given that my life at that time was also strangely unsettling, I felt an instant connection with the work.

More and more I feel that art IS a near criminal offense, especially in light of the oppressive, censorial political climate we currently live in, so the material felt somehow necessary and vital,” said Wood.

TJ: What made you create, in collaboration with Grant, such a dark world where art is a criminal offense?

WOOD: More and more I feel that art IS a near criminal offense, especially in light of the oppressive, censorial political climate we currently live in, so the material felt somehow necessary and vital. Artists have, historically, operated outside societal structures, which gives them the unique ability to then reflect honesty on what they see and experience. The darkness in this book feels no more or less threatening and heartbreaking than the world I see around me every day.

 

TJ: How did you meet Alexandra Grant?

WOOD: I met Alexandra Grant fifteen years ago when a friend recommended her to me for a show I was curating at Cirrus Gallery.

 

TJ: How did you come up with the ideas for each character, like the water artist, the blind draughtsman and the fire artist?

WOOD: Well obviously the titles she provided were a starting point, but beyond that, I tried NOT to create literal responses to the text, but more metaphorical, associative responses, so for example with The Fire Artist we see an eye on fire. It’s rather self-reflexive. As a viewer you are looking at the page, just as I looked and considered Grant’s words, yet the eye is looking out from the page even as it is being consumed from within

 

TJ: How long did it take you to create this work?

WOOD: It took me six months to make all the drawings.

 

The Artists’ Prison is 157 pages of dark expression where the reader is left on the last page with a paragraph titled End Of Day. Even at the end when the reader found a brief release, the writer once again drew her audience back in again into the prison cell of creative control and punishment. The writer left her audience feeling something of a paradox or labyrinth.The maze of utterly angering rules in this prison world never stopped. The redactions never stop. Even at the end the character’s name is wiped off the page. In this world, the audience understands life is precious. You could become a blotch on the page if Big Brother so deemed.

ON THE WEB:

The Artists’ Prison is available for purchase for $35 from X Artists Books here: https://www.xartistsbooks.com/books/the-artists-prison

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