Dec 312011
 

I’ve been road tripping a lot this year to research a big project I’m writing. When I got home from one of the most recent trips, I plugged in my digital camera to download my pictures and it stared at me blankly and said, “Pictures? What pictures?”

PhotoRescue took care of most of the problems, still, some of my images turned up corrupted. But my camera is an artist. It didn’t turn my images to snow. It inserted wry counterpoint and beautiful geometric juxtapositions. It found brilliant ways to immaculately bend my own visual commentary. These are true works of art.

Jackson Pollack did not credit gravity as a collaborator of his splatter paintings. So I also claim my camera’s binary hiccups as the fruit of my initial inspiration.

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Dec 172011
 
Warren G. Harding

Harding of hearing

The Treasures of the British Library exhibit is one of my favorite sights in London. Every time I’m there, I see something electrifying, be it Lewis Carroll’s original hand-drawn Through the Looking Glass, the Magna Carta (two copies!), or an 11th-century copy of Beowulf on vellum. And that doesn’t even include the priceless stuff the British stole from other cultures!

One of the things that grabbed me there was a panel where visitors can press a button and listen to the actual voices of famous people who we never realized were recorded in sound. When you suddenly hear the timbre of Florence Nightingale, she becomes flesh-and-blood real. She actually happened!

Many historic recordings have finally migrated online so we can all hear them. Because it’s so energizing to close your eyes and feel these printed names come alive again, I’ve linked a few here. They link to an audio file (usually, at a library). Because of stupid WordPress nonsense, not all of the names are colored as links, but they indeed are, so click on the names.

Florence Nightingale, recorded in 1890

Edison’s representative in Britain clearly instructed her to speak slowly and clearly. It was, after all, 1890, and if you wanted to be heard all the way in 2012, you had to enunciate. When she refers to Balaclava, she’s talking about raising money for survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, many of whom were living in poverty 36 years later despite their service to their country. Sound familiar?

When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.

Theodore Roosevelt, recorded in 1912

You’ll never hear 10-dollar words like his in a campaign speech today. People prefer bumper stickers now. But here, after some disarming political foreplay, TR goes for the gusto and advocates for industry regulation, a living wage, work hours reform, and child labor laws. Newt Gingrich would blow a gasket. An industry that was “injurious t the common welfare” was heavily on American minds in 1912, not least because the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which I wrote about in March, happened the year before. (For the record, Roosevelt lost, but it was a messy election with an outcome greatly affected by internal politics in the Republican party. Again, Newt should take note.)

[My favorite bit:] As a people we cannot afford to let any group of citizens or any individual citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare. Industry, therefore, must submit to such public regulation as will make it a means of life and health, not of death or inefficiency. We must protect the crushable elements at the base of our present industrial structure. We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living–a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit a reasonable saving for old age. Hours are excessive if they fail to afford the worker sufficient time to recuperate and return to his work thoroughly refreshed. We hold that the night labor of women and children is abnormal and should be prohibited; we hold that the employment of women over forty-eight hours per week is abnormal and should be prohibited. We hold that the seven-day working week is abnormal, and we hold that one day of rest in seven should be provided by law. We hold that the continuous industries, operating twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, are abnormal, and where, because of public necessity or for technical reasons (such as molten metal), the twenty-four hours must be divided into two shifts of twelve hours or three shifts of eight, they should by law be divided into three of eight.

Vladimir Illich Lenin, recorded in 1919

Yes, Lenin spoke! But in Russian. He made many gramophone records between 1919 and 1921 to spread the tenets of communism, but in this one, he praises Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov, who was instrumental in the revolution of October 1917 and in forming Russia’s communist government, the world’s first. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

[Translation.] All those who worked day after day with Comrade Sverdlov now appreciate fully that it was his exceptional organising talent that ensured for us that of which we have been so proud, and justly proud. He made it possible for us to pursue united, efficient, organised activities worthy of all the proletarian masses, without which we could not have achieved success, and which answered fully the needs of the proletarian revolution. The memory of Comrade Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov will serve not only as a symbol of the revolutionary’s devotion to his cause, not also as the model of how to combine a practical, sober mind, practical ability, the closest contact with the masses and ability to guide them, but also a pledge that ever-growing masses of proletarians will march forward to the complete victory of the communist revolution.

Harry Houdini, recorded in 1914

Harry Houdini, like FloNight, was obviously told to enunciate when he recorded this, and the showman delivered. Here, he works up excitement for his most famous trick, the Water Torture Cell. The complicated clauses make it also clear that it was probably scripted, but his pronunciation of “locked up” and “demolishing the glass” give you a sense of his streetwise immigrant roots. Before this natural-born Hungarian’s unnatural death in 1926, he told his wife Bess that he would send a signal from the afterlife if it was at all possible. She tried for 10 years but gave up, heartbroken, after years of silent séances. Hearing this clip makes you wonder if he’d actually already left his message.

Ladies and gentlemen, in introducing my original invention, the Water Torture Cell, although there is nothing supernatural about it, I am willing to forfeit the sum of $1,000 to anyone who can prove that it is possible to obtain air inside of the Torture Cell when I’m locked up in it in the regulation manner after it has been filled with water. Should anything go wrong when I am locked up, one of my assistants watches through the curtain ready to rush in, demolishing the glass, allowing the water to flow out in order to save my life. Harry Houdini, October the 29th, Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen, Flatbush, New York.

President Warren G. Harding, recorded in 1920

The party puppet anoints some purple prose by one of his more talented speechwriters with the lustless pallor that typified his career. This snippet from his “Americanism” message is adapted from an address delivered at the Waldorf Hotel for the Ohio Society of New York, which was packed with big contributors to whom he doled out prime posts. Hotels played a huge role in Harding’s corrupt presidency. Not only was he a notorious philanderer, but he got his biggest job in a hotel. Despite being at the back of the pack of Republican presidential candidates, party bosses forced him as the Republican nominee in a “smoke-filled room” at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. It’s where the phrase, synonymous with backroom deals overriding the will of the people, comes from. You can still rent that room if you want, although I’ve been and it has a dull Renaissance Hotel décor now. Harding also died, still holding office, in a hotel: In 1923, he was rendered nearly as lifeless as in this clip in a bathtub of a suite at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. Some people say his wife poisoned him.

[After invoking the Constitution, he intones this nugget:] In simple truth, there was no thought of nationality in the revolution for American independence.  The colonists were resisting a wrong and freedom was their solace. Once it was achieved, nationality was the only agency suited to its preservation.

Thomas Edison, recorded in 1927

In the 1870s and 1880s, everyone was racing to come up with the most practical way to record voices, but Edison had the advantage of employing an army of some of the country’s sharpest minds, all of them helping him come up with inventions that he could patent and get rich off of. Sometimes he succeeded in coming up with ideas, but most of his grand business ventures flopped. Here, an elderly Edison recreates one success: his 1877 proof-of-concept recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (that recording no longer survives). At the turn of the century, he was recording the biggest entertainers of the day in an effort to make his proprietary version of sound recording the most attractive to the American market. The recording studio was directly upstairs from his study and library in West Orange, New Jersey, and you can visit it today at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. It’s just as he left it.

Ernest Shackleton, recorded in 1910

Fresh back from his Nimrod (mis)adventures at the South Pole, Shackleton, who was knighted for his efforts, retells a hint of a snippet of the hardship he and his heroic men endured. (If you’ve never learned about what he went through, don’t let Shackleton’s chilly storytelling skills deter you. It’s incredible.) Incidentally, he left some crates of whisky behind in Antarctica in 1909, and they were discovered last year, the recipes are being duplicated. You can buy Shackleton’s whiskey soon.

William Jennings Bryan, recorded in 1908

At Bryan’s Nebraska home, Edison recorded an argument against too much federal control of the railroads. As ever, the politician hinges his point on the matter of states’ rights. Some things never change. Bryan was so very nearly America’s president (he ran three times and was running when this recording was laid down on the cylinder), and figures so powerfully in the national goings-on of his era, that it boggles the mind he isn’t better known today. He certains sounds like the folksy leader his followers purported him to be.

William Howard Taft, recorded in 1908

Taft was Bryan’s opponent in the 1908 election. Labor rights were a huge issue in the day because America had so few of them and the vulnerable classes were being exploited so outrageously. To us today, Taft’s definition of what a labor strike should be permitted to do sounds like the very definition of a strike, but at the time, worker actions were a very scary thing, and they degraded into violence far more frequently than happens nowadays. So his prescription must have seemed soothing — and as civilized as what came to pass and we now take for granted. Taft won.

David Lloyd George, recorded in 1909

DLG was the then-future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the reason for this recording is as pertinent today. The early 20th-century British people, disgusted by how rampant industry had stained their cities and poisoned their people, realized it was for the greater good if they took care of the poorest among them. As groups such as the Fabian Society stirred popular empathy, they began taxing the rich to make sure the least fortunate of society were kept healthier. DLG was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and this was his pitch to make that happen.

I am one of the children of the people. I was brought up amongst them and I know their trials and their troubles. I therefore determined in framing the budget to add nothing to the anxieties of their lot, but to do something towards lightening those they already bear with such patience and fortitude. No necessity of life will be dearer or more difficult to get owing to the budget. On the other hand, out of the money raised by taking superfluity, funds will be established to secure honourable sustenance for the deserving old and to assist our great benefit societies in making adequate provision for sickness and infirmity and against a poverty which comes to the widows and orphans of those who fall in the battle of industry. This is the plan, this the purpose of this government. We mean to achieve these aims whoever stands in the way. David Lloyd George.

Christabel Harriette Pankhurst, recorded in 1909

The daughter of Emmaline Pankhurst was equally badass. Right after being released from prison for her pro-suffrage demonstrations, she repeats this eloquent ultimatum to the government: Give us the vote or else.

The militant suffragettes who form the Women’s Social and Political Union are engaged in the attempt to win the parliamentary vote for the women of this country. Their claim is that those women who pay rates and taxes and fulfil the same qualifications as men voters shall be placed upon the parliamentary register. The reasons why women should have the vote are obvious to every fair-minded person. The British constitution provides that taxation and representation shall go together. Therefore, women taxpayers are entitled to vote. Parliament deals with questions of vital interest to women, such as the education, housing and employment questions, and upon such matters women wish to express their opinions at the ballot box. The honour and safety of the country are in the hands of Parliament. Therefore, every patriotic and public-spirited woman wishes to take part in controlling the actions of our legislature. For forty years this reasonable claim has been laid before Parliament in a quiet and patient manner. Meetings have been held and petitions signed in favour of votes for women, but failure has been the result. The reason of this failure is that women have not been able to bring pressure to bear upon the government and government moves only in response to pressure. Men got the vote not by persuading, but by alarming the legislature. Similar vigorous measures must be adopted by women. The excesses of men must be avoided, yet great determination must be shown. The militant methods of the women of today are clearly thought out and vigorously pursued. They consist in protesting at public meetings and in marching to the House of Commons in procession. Repressive legislation makes protests at public meetings an offence, but imprisonment will not deter women from asking to vote. Deputations to Parliament involve arrest and imprisonment, yet more deputations will go to the House of Commons. The present Liberal government profess to believe in democratic government, yet they refuse to carry out their principles in the case of women. They must be compelled by a united and determined women’s movement to do justice in this matter. Next session we demand the enactment of a women’s enfranchisement measure. We have waited too long for political justice. We refuse to wait any longer. The present government is approaching the end of its career. Therefore, time presses if women are to vote before the next general election. We are resolved that 1909 must, and shall, see the political enfranchisement of British women.

It didn’t. It took nearly another decade. She even had to flee to France to avoid being arrested for her pull-no-punches convictions. She hated DLG but was forced to ally with him for politics’ sake. In the 1920s, fed up with British chauvinism and war hunger, she moved to California. She’s buried in Santa Monica.

Queen Victoria? Recorded in 1888

In 1929, descendants of Samuel Morse gave London’s Science Museuma wax coated cardboard cylinder, saying it had been used with a graphophone that was demonstrated to Queen Victoria. There was no way to play the tube and no way of verifying the donor’s story. But a half century later, a researcher found mention of an 1888 letter that said Morse had indeed visited HMQ and shown her the new invention. It’s possible that this is her faint voice on this primitive equipment, fumbling for something to say into the cone: “Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten.” But we have.

Houdini Water Torture Cell

Houdini: Alive forevermore through your magic box

Dec 152011
 

That day, I was sick as a dog. I should have been in bed. But how often am I in Tokyo?

So I walked everywhere I could. I was in the neighborhood of Shibuya, crossing in an overpass, when I saw something that astonished me.

I whipped out my junky little Canon Powershot A95 (with the swivel screen) and waited for it to happen again. This is what I recorded and uploaded to my non-personal YouTube account. It has now racked up 1,011,000 views, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

This simple little YouTube video of wonderment — sarcasm-free, no trendy jump cuts — still astonishes me. And so does the fact that it thrills so many people across the world.

Capture all you can.

My regular YouTube account is bastablejc.

Dec 122011
 

Over the weekend, I noticed that people began finding my website using a brand new phrase. It’s not a phrase people have ever used before to find me, and what’s more, it wasn’t a fluke. Multiple people successfully got to this website using it.

The phrase is “jason cochran porn.”

At first, I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted that my adoring public was thinking of me that way. Then, I had a sinking feeling that maybe I did something at last year’s Christmas party that slipped my memory.

But when I plugged the same search into Google, I found my answer. It turn out that I have a newly minted namesake. Here he is. Grab some blue!

Jason Cochran, porn star

I'm surprised they stuck with the 'h'

So that should give my life some future fodder for Three’s Company-style miscommunications.

Welcome to the Web, Jason, and thanks for the clicks! Shame about your clothes. But I truly hope your erotica-craving fans enjoy my recent post on how dirty Oklahoma! is.

It has not escaped my notice that there are a lot of incoming Cochrans these days. This guy is John Cochran, known simply as “Cochran” from CBS’s Survivor. Cochran also takes his clothes off on camera:

John Cochran, Survivor

Cochran the diabolical mastermind. Well, the other one.

I’d make some amusingly crass crack now, but Cochran attends Harvard Law, so I have to be careful. He also probably endured the same witless grammar school Cochran puns that I did (“It ran? Where did it go?”), and besides, I like the guy. So maybe I should just ask him to write a stern lawyerly letter to the porno Jason Cochran to demand he stop using my name, although Jason Cochran Two’s guns certainly give me credit.

The only person that should be allowed to use my name on screen is me. And besides, in this economy, I need to keep all options open.

I have a few other namesakes on the web. One is an aspiring racecar driver. One is in Arizona real estate. But as far as I can tell, most Cochrans do their jobs clothed.

Most.

 

Dec 092011
 
Colonel Tom Parker: How Much Does It Cost If It's Free

He was a crank, but he was right

Hard-core capitalists and campaigning Republicans love to tell us that the free market does for America what is best. Given time and the protection of a velvet rope, competition will mollify inadequacy and the blessings will trickle down upon us all.

It’s bullshit, of course. That’s not the way it works in America anymore. Anyone who has been to a movie in the past 15 years — and sat through 10 minutes of unwelcome TV-style commercials before the show — will tell you that the movie-going experience was better before we had to do that, and that ticket prices did not come down as a result. The product got worse.

The truth is competition will not equalize squat if a business can do one thing: lower the expectations of the consumer. Because all the cinemas across the country shoehorned commercials into the bill at the same time — just as the cell phone providers are capping speeds together and the airlines implemented baggage fees together — consumer expectations were suppressed.

Once you’ve got the expectations low, you can do a few things to make sure your competition can’t end-run you now that you have cheapened things. One is to snag exclusivity with another big partner. But that can backfire. Everyone knows that if AT&T, which diligently bricks some 36 million bricked smartphones nationwide, didn’t have the benefit of years of exclusivity for the iPhone, it would have hemorrhaged customers.

Exclusivity can be expensive, too, since it dings your potential market. After all, if Pepperidge Farm licenses the recipe to the intergalactically awesome Australian cookie Tim Tam , but it only sells them through Target and refers all customers to Target to buy them, then everyone in Manhattan, where there is no Target, will suffer without Tim Tams. This makes bearded travel writers extraordinarily testy, so as you can see, exclusivity can backfire on you.

But there is a second, more lucrative thing you can do once you have subtly gotten Americans to accept your downsized, diminished, flimsified product. That magic money-maker: the add-on fee that makes it whole again.

Take Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. Traditionally, cruises were all-inclusive. But in 2008, it had the bizarre notion of charging customers $15 if they wanted a steak. At the time, it spun the surcharge by saying the meat would be “all natural,” hence the cost.

Which should have begged a big, loud question in the travel press (but didn’t): Does that mean Royal Caribbean is admitting that its regular meals are artificial?

When businesses charge customers more for the “good” variety of their product, they are admitting their core product is substandard. In fact, to make more money, they need it to be.

Don’t you think that Six Flags is more likely to convince you to splash out another $80 for its line-jumping Flash Pass if its makes its queues as Purgatorial as possible?  Isn’t it in Apple’s interest to confound consumers to the point where they either buy AppleCare or lay out $49 for a pay-per-incident consultation with customer service? Why replace the old padding on the coach seats if it prods your ass into buying a paid upgrade?

Nearly every major cruise ship also has several additional restaurants that compete with the non-fee meals served in the main dining room. These supplemental restaurants charge extra fees because the food is deemed to be (and often is) gourmet, and those meals are talking points among passengers on every cruise you’ll ever take.

That begged the other question no one in the press seemed to ask: “Why isn’t your main dining room as good?” It’s hard to come up with an answer that doesn’t make excuses for the vendor or patronize the consumer.

And if they’re going to assume passengers are going to crave that better meal, why do people at the cruise lines get so agitated when I write that their food is substandard? They want it to be substandard — so I feel obligated to spend more money in the supplemental restaurant. They just want it to be subtly so.

At the Apple Store, the shelves are stocked with software that, if you squint, exists because there’s a failure of some kind in the boilerplate system software. Why else would I need to buy a program that cleans up my iTunes songs or makes my iPhoto images easy to edit? If the standard Apple product was as splendid as the fanboys say it is, then you wouldn’t need to embellish it by buying more stuff to plug its holes. There wouldn’t be any.

The airlines have learned to turn this concealment of incompetence into a profit model. It will sell you a seat, yes, but if you want a good seat — not one in the middle, or one in the back — then you have to pay more. US Airways’ Choice Seats fees are levied on windows and aisles toward the front of the plane.

For decades, the airlines spent millions on TV ads proclaiming how comfortable their seats and service were. They drummed it relentlessly into our ears. Now, though, the airlines need you to be dissatisfied with their standard service. They need you to upgrade. Their stock prices depend on it.

So you will only hear airlines praise their first class service now.

Even the TSA has gotten in on the add-on bonanza. If you have the cash, you can buy yourself some faster screening. That’s the function of Clear, which enables richer Americans and corporate expense account holders to pay for better access to a government function. Hey, only the little guys wait in line anymore.

The net effect of all these fees is that classism is now oozing into many of the American industries that used to be rather democratic.

Apologists for these add-ons, like the companies themselves, twist things around to rhapsodize that you don’t have to pay them. They will tell you that they provide the option of comfort only for those who demand it. This, to me, is sophistry, and it ignores the historic and unmistakable fact that companies have intentionally eroded their core products to the point where an optional upgrade is nearly necessary, and they have done it under our noses.

The basic product is intentionally designed to be not good enough. It was never like that before.

So how do you persuade consumers that your basic product is basically unworthy without exposing yourself to outright scorn? Simple. You do it by covering your flanks with those two important defenses: exclusivity agreements, like AT&T did, or passionate brand loyalty, like Apple.

It only works for a while.

 

 

Dec 062011
 
Oklahoma movie poster

Fire down below: Laurey and Curly reach the climax

You may think the musical Oklahoma! is a sweet little show about friendly farmers and cowmen, but I’ve got an arousing awakening for you. Oklahoma! is drenched in sexual innuendo, rape metaphor, and bestiality references. After all, the whole plot revolves around who gets to take Laurey to the “box social” — a coded consummation metaphor if ever there was one.

Many years ago, I wrote this (don’t worry, it’s pretty short and it moves fast) about the 1955 Fred Zinnemann movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s 1943 Broadway musical Oklahoma!. As I decode this assumed G-rated masterpiece for torrid subtext, I guarantee that you will never look at that chestnut the same way ever again.

I wrote this for a film studies course at Northwestern University. It’s a little-known fact that the history and writing of the American musical is a special discipline of mine. I don’t talk about it much, but it’s true. I even have an MFA in music theatre from New York University, a lot of good may it do me.

I wrote this mostly as a lark to see what I could get away with, but it holds up. May my perspective make this old snoozer recharged with sexual energy for you.

+++

Much has been written about the significance of Oklahoma! in the history of American musical theatre.  Most historians place it as the milestone in the integration of the musical’s construction in conveying themes, plot and character.  Its reputation among laymen is one of a simpleminded, quaint musical.  What both factions ignore in their analyses, however, is that Oklahoma! is full of subtle but rough-hewn sexual and violent undertones that in fact contradict its reputation as mere mild entertainment.

Oklahoma! was released in 1955 after the New York and touring companies had closed and introduced the new wide-screen process called Todd-AO.  It was re-released in 1956 by 20th Century Fox in CinemaScope.  It tells story of Curly McLain (Gordon MacRae) and Laurey Williams (Shirley Jones), who, in a fit of coquettish spite, accepts an invitation to a social from the brute farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger).  Laurey’s ensuing self-torment plus the tension between Jud and Curly drives the plot from that point on.  True to the Rodgers and Hammerstein style, there is also a contrasting subcouple in the form of Will Parker (Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame), who pines for any man with a seductive intent, including the peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert).

Oklahoma! has reached the status of an enduring classic, thanks mostly to its mainstream proliferation through the Fred Zinnemann film.  While its bumpkin characters seem homey and charming in light of modern musical works, the film itself remains fresh and entertaining.  The songs and dancing are in part responsible for that, but one might argue that its nearly perverse subthemes of sexual desire and violence help the film maintain a gripping, if subconscious, appeal.

The primary sexual themes of Oklahoma! play themselves out in its characters.  There is Laurey, the virginal girl coming of sexual age; Curly, the suave, sexy charmer clearly obsessed with bedding Laurey; Ado Annie, the girl, recently come of sexual age and unable to control her sexual impulses — a victim of her own Freudian id; Jud Fry, who represents an unfettered, unchivalrous sexual carnality that contrasts the cultural expectations of Claremore; Ali Hakim, also a victim of his own id but, unlike Annie, quite aware of his manipulatory manner of obtaining gratification; Will Parker, who is like Laurey in his virginal, wide-eyed view of sex; and Aunt Eller, the matriarch-cum-madam of Claremore, wise in the ways of sex and lust and engrossed with matchmaking her Laurey with a suitable sexual partner — the handsome Curly.

It is Aunt Eller who carries out the first sexual act, which, like everything else in Oklahoma!, is disguised with a down-home flavor.  She is seen daydreaming and churning butter (a subliminally phallic gesture), no doubt dreaming of her younger, sexual days.  When Curly chats with her, she keeps her eyes focused on him, surveying him and continuing her phallic strokes.  The first thing she says to him also indicates her sexual desire for the virile Curly: “If I wasn’t an ole woman, and if you wasn’t so young and smart-alecky, why, I’d marry you and git you to set around at night and sing to me [i.e. be intimate with me]”  Aunt Eller’s churning halts when Curly mentions Laurey, her niece.  Although Aunt Eller wears a smile as he mentions her, she promptly stops her action and opens up the churn — in essence, castrating Curly in any hopes of making love to such an “ole woman.”  In a moment, she’s scooping out globs of butter and saying “you young ‘uns!” (The dairy product metaphor for sex is repeated during “I Cain’t Say No”: “S’posin’ ‘at he says ‘at you’re sweeter’n cream/ And he’s gotta have cream er die?”  And later, women’s home-cooked meals are auctioned to their suitors at the Skidmore Ranch.)

The butter metaphor is by no means the only sexual undertheme perpetrated by Aunt Eller.  In fact, throughout the film, Aunt Eller is the only person in Claremore who seems to be wise to the ways of sex and appreciates fully the sexual goals of the courtship ritual.  Her primary function is that of matchmaker for the girls, helping them obtain a suitable sexual partner.

Oklahoma movie still

Nice basket: Curly is obsessed with getting into Laurey's hamper

For example, she opens her home to all the couples on the way to the Skidmore Ranch.  Once inside, the ladies undress and primp themselves in preparation for their evenings with the menfolk.  Not only is the “Many a New Day” scene voyeuristic on behalf of the viewers, but it is a depiction of how Claremore girls pride themselves on catching a man.  The number itself represents contradiction — it’s a feminist stance yet sung while in underwear.  Although Laurey may deny the idea that her world centers around a man, we also discover the shallowness of her decree when she nearly breaks down at song’s end.  During the song, there are a number of sexual issues: girls try to outdo each other with attractiveness and showiness, women tie their corsets with thrusting, rhythmic pulses and two pubescent girls become frustrated with their own lack of expertise.  While the girls primp and preen inside, comparing undergarments and discussing sexuality, the men are outside, dipping their heads in a horse trough.   The statement of who’s luring who is more than implicit.

Aunt Eller in essence affects the whole plot.  She uses Jud to make Curly jealous enough to try harder for Laurey but when Jud’s obsession becomes apparent, she gets worried.

Aunt Eller also endorses the men in their own pursuit of more vigorous sexual satisfaction.  In the “Kansas City” scene, she reacts to the assumed pornography inside the “Little Wonder” first with the expected, gender-ascribed disdain (“The hussy!”) but then gives the men approval from the other side of the sexual fence of experience when she says “How do you turn the thing to see the other pitcher?”  Plus, underneath her grey dress she wears a flaming red petticoat, which she flashes along with her legs to the camera in “Kansas City.”  Later in the number, Will Parker chooses Aunt Eller over the two adolescent girls, presumably because of her knowledge in sexual matters.  The lyric of the song depicts sexual awakening (i.e. the stripper in Kansas City) and sure enough, soon the two adolescent girls are petting Will and sheepishly trying to get him to notice them.  At the point when he does embarrassedly notice the two girls, Aunt Eller vanishes off the left of the screen into the train office.  It’s almost as if she was making herself scarce to matchmake Will with the young ladies.

She matchmakes at other times, too, stressing physical contact over romantic courtship: (“Why don’t you grab her and kiss her when she gets that way, Curly?”)  When Laurey and Curly finally do wed, she protects their intimacy within the house by halting the shivoree crowd at the stoop.

Aunt Eller seems to be very much in control of the townspeople and supervises their mating.  During “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” she is shown as the only object in the Todd-AO vista, gazing intently at Curly and Laurey.  In “Kansas City,” she escorts the ensemble to the far end of the train platform with outstretched arms, as if pushing them.  In “The Farmer and the Cowman,” she whips out a pistol and forces everyone to dance.  Also, even though Curly is about to be killed by the “Little Wonder,” Hakim wastes time in telling Aunt Eller about the hidden knife, and she is the one to save Curly’s life; the matchmaking must go on, and by her hand.  She even literally auctions off the girls at the social like a whorehouse madam.  Yet, however in control she may be, as when she threatens Ali Hakim with an eggbeater down his windpipe, she retains her sexuality, getting a pair of garters in the bargain.

Violence is hardly scarce in Oklahoma! as far as sex goes.  In fact, Oklahoma seems to be teeming with an undercurrent of unfulfilled sexual desire and violence waiting to emerge, be it between farmer and cowman or two eligible ladies.  Each man seems willing to kill to obtain his love.  Curly tries to convince Jud to commit suicide.  Jud tries to kill Curly twice (once with a sexual toy).  Will tells Ali he would kill him for Annie.  Gertie Cummings has fights with both Annie and Laurey (rolling on the ground, of course).

The community structure of Claremore revolves around obtaining sex through appropriate societal channels.  Marriage is usually the way to get that sex.  When a marriage proposal (and thus the promise of sex) arrives, it is monumental.  When Annie is engaged to Ali, she promptly goes to report it to the other girls in the community.  Laurey and Curly’s marriage is also a community spectacle.

Premarital sex is often alluded to, however, particularly through the lusty characters of Annie and Ali, who would be termed “sexual addicts” in today’s America.  Says Will: “I’m goin’ t’marry her!”  Ali: “On purpose?,” implying the famous Oklahoma shotgun marriage.  Obviously, any moral code isn’t apparent to Ali.  He wants to bed Annie in the Claremore Hotel.  He also suggests that he, Laurey and Annie engage in a menage a trois by skinny dipping together.  He’s been “feeling up” Annie behind the haystack (his confession that results in his shotgun engagement to Annie). At the end, he’s caught in illicit (by Claremore standards) sex and forced by shotgun to marry Gertie Cummings.  Finally, he sells garters and bloomers and other forbidden delights like drugs (the Egyptian smelling salts).

In Oklahoma!, women obtain sexual fulfillment when in a semi-drugged state.  “Laurey’s Dream” is the most obvious example.  Ado Annie, too, seems ever-comatose and virtually unresponsive, doggedly singing her number “I Cain’t Say No.”

Gloria Grahame as a vamp

This is how movies audiences knew Gloria Grahame before she played Ado Annie: As a sex addict of another kind

Also, the sexuality of women is related to beasts in Oklahoma!  During “Kansas City,” as Will describes the round shape of the burlesque queen, the non-diagetic sound of a horse whinny is mixed in.  Later in the number, he sings to his horse as one of the pubescent, sexually-unready girls faintly tries to grab his attention.  Before the reprise of “I Cain’t Say No,” Annie compliments Will’s manner of roping horses in between his sexual advances.  He also tells Annie that roping steers all day makes him think of her.  The connection between beasts and sex is obvious. Later, after “All ‘Er Nothin’,” he pens Annie in with a farmyard fence like a common hog before kissing her.  Even Ali Hakim joins in, describing Annie’s “soft, round tail.”  At first glance, these allusions seem rustic and apropos for the midwestern setting, but in actuality they are blatant objectifications.

As in other film musicals, dance implies sex.  In “Kansas City,” Will tries to teach the young girls how to dance — i.e. how to become sexually mature enough to capture his attention.  In her dream, dancing with Jud symbolizes Laurey’s moral decay and at the social, she reels in disgust at the prospect of dancing with Jud.  Also at the social, Annie and Will go from dancing together to immediately and furtively sneaking away for hanky-panky — the natural progression.  Also, Annie laments Will’s own fidelity after he dances with the two pubescent girls.

Unlike other film musicals, however, blatant objectification of sex is not used much.  It is cloaked instead under the character and custom of the Oklahomans.  Lusty observation of the opposite sex is frowned upon.  Jud peeps on Laurey twice in the film but that act is in no way presented as positive or does it instill desire in the audience.  The only time the women are put on pedestals for the men in the town is during the hamper auction.  Although the metaphor of the woman’s sexuality as a scrumptious meal for her suitor is striking (and it is repeated when Will compares Ado’s mouth to ripe berries in the reprise of “I Cain’t Say No”), it is hardly as blatant as, say, a Ziegfeld girl, showing legs and bosom with come-hither glee.  Like all sexuality in Oklahoma!, the sexuality of the girls is obscured by the charm of local custom.  As an audience unused to such coding, we see the custom but not the actual sexuality itself, mistaking it for chivalry.

Each character fits into this chivalric custom.  Jud is ostracized not for his sexual desires (even Will owns the “Little Wonder”) but mostly for his selfish and coarse refusal to cooperate with the chivalric code.  Curly is attractive because he tries to turn its tables and have the women proposition him.  Romance comes when we sense his intense desire to abandon egocentricity and conform to the code, which he eventually does when he proposes humbly to Laurey.  Annie’s sexual drive is not reprehensible because she is unaware of her indiscretions and is instead fulfilled by them.  Furthermore, she obeys the chivalric code and promptly responds to all gentlemanly advances.  Laurey is the perfect ingenue — virginal and a victim of a man’s romantic system, resorting to dreams for her sexual fulfillment.  Will, intent on obeying the code at the cost of $100 total, is just discovering the wonders of romance and thus excusable from his reckless tendency to woo every available female.  Ali Hakim is a rascal for his shrewd manner of circumventing the code, and also forgivable because of his pure wheedling, con-man ability.

Oklahoma! is not without out-and-out innuendo, however.  Take, for example, Will’s “Oklahoma Hello,” in which Annie is straddled (like a horse — the woman as a beast theme) about the groin.  Later, at film’s end, a disheveled Will and Annie have clearly been screwing around behind the house: “You missed all the excitement!” someone says.  Annie responds, dazed: “No, we didn’t.  Hello, Will,” and Will giggles. Did they engage in sex during the trial scene? The audience must guess, but given Annie’s insatiable appetite and Will’s hankering for Annie, we imagine they have.

Naturally, such open-ended presentations and cultural cloaking was the only way that Oklahoma! could appeal both to New York’s sly but conservative audiences and later slip by the film’s censors.  Like Cole Porter’s famous double-entendres, Hammerstein’s suggestive script (which was adapted almost word for word by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig for the film) managed to carry off dozens of sexual themes under the pretense of a simple, enigmatic culture.

There’s a storehouse of sexual activity swarming in Oklahoma! and enough to fill several ten-page papers.  In overview, however, it suffices to note the several main themes in the film: the cloaking of continual sexual pursuit beneath local custom and chivalry, the dependency of each character on that custom, the matriarchal presence of the madam Aunt Eller and the existence of other major themes such as the sexual linkage of beasts and dancing as they relate to Oklahoma!‘s setting and genre.  In those themes alone there is enough to give any Rodgers and Hammerstein fan pause as she or he considers Oklahoma!‘s innate sexuality and perversity.

+++

Gertie Cummings? Really?

College is hot.

Oklahoma movie still

It's not "Porky's." It's R&H: Laurey bathes in front of Ado Annie

Dec 022011
 
Jason Cochran at Universal Studios Orlando

You've seen me without my beard. You'll have to die now.

Sharks must keep moving or they die. What we have here is a dead shark.

Universal Orlando just announced that it’s eliminating the Jaws ride at Universal Studios Florida. It was one the last of the rides that was original to the park’s 1990 opening. (Well, sort of original. It’s a retool of a hitchy version that included some impossible-to-maintain gimmicks such as red “blood” billows in the water and a turntable that turned the boats around.)

And now this still-too complicated boat ride is mooring in that great chlorinated wharf in the sky. It puts me in the mind of 2005, when the New York Post pitched Universal Orlando on a story: Would it let me come do a theme park performance job for a day? Could I see operations from the resort’s point of view? To the park’s credit, it agreed to try it. I flew down to play skipper for the Jaws ride (which it screamingly calls JAWS) for a day.

The nervous P.R. people sent me a videotape of the ride shot from the back of the boat, and by playing it over and over, I learned the script and flew down. The Hard Rock Hotel welcomed me to my room with an over-the-top, custom-made confectionary platter complete with half-bitten chocolate surfboards poking out of a plate of blue “water” frosting.

The resort’s risk paid off. I gave a great show. I was a test case for backstage journalist access, and it was a smash. It went so well, in fact, that when Ellen DeGeneres came down to tape her show a few months later, Universal put her to work on the Jaws ride, too. I’m not bitter or anything, but it bears noting that she didn’t stick to the script like I did. I’m just saying.

Here is my experience, which appeared in a different form in the New York Post (here’s a scan, since it’s no longer online there) and in my book on Orlando for the Pauline Frommer series.

++++

I’ve been attacked by a shark, unprovoked, 84 times.

And I haven’t even had my break yet. In the name of journalism, I’m working Universal Orlando’s 2.5-acre JAWS attraction, which begins as a scenic cruise of sleepy Amity Island but, as these things do, goes horribly awry when a vicious great white menaces my vessel. From my introduction to the guests as “Skipper Jason” to the harrowing, high-voltage climax, each ride is 5 minutes of fishy mayhem. Fireballs, explosions—the whole circus. And I’m the ringmaster.

When I was a kid, any carbon-based life form with opposable thumbs could operate a theme park ride, but here, training is a ritual. Normally, I’d have to go through 5 days of it, including a swimming test at nearby Wet ’n Wild, before being allowed to “skipper” a JAWS boat, but for the sake of journalism, Universal treats me to an abbreviated education. I learn it’s not a ride, it’s a “show,” and it’s not narration, it’s a “spiel.” As a spieler, I’ll usually run three boatloads in a row before taking a break—each show takes more than 5 minutes, so that’s 15 minutes of opera-level intensity. Phil Whigham, the attraction’s trainer, shows me where they keep the Gatorade jug. I am gonna need it, especially in this heat.

I receive a costume (cleaned daily by Universal and picked up at a huge wardrobe facility), a script (eight pages, annotated with acting “beats”), plus a nine-page workbook (Essay question: “How do I feel about the grenade launcher?”), and a tongue-in-cheek dossier on people and places in Amity (in case anyone asks). Normally, I’d go through at least 4 days of training before setting foot on a boat. But I’m thrown into deep water, so to speak, with just a morning’s education behind me.

Out on the lagoon, Phil adjusts my microphone headset and explains what the boats’ dashboard buttons do. One errant elbow could shut down the entire ride. So that provided exciting potential for lifelong mortification.

I meet Mimi Lipka, Universal’s resident acting coach. Although she’s a great-grandmother, she has more perk than the clean-cut college-age kids she shepherds through JAWS’ acting rigors. Before the park opens, Mimi has me run the “show” on an empty boat while she rides along, taking notes for my improvement as the mechanized shark rams us.

Interacting with the attraction’s timed special effects is like doing a pas de deux with a pinball machine. The machines are going to do their thing even if I forget mine. I have to fire my grenade launcher at the correct targets, yank the steering wheel at the right moments, and with full-bodied emotion, I must trick the guests into thinking I don’t anticipate that pesky shark’s pre-programmed re-appearances. Like clockwork, I go Rambo on the beast. “Eat this!” I bellow, blasting away at it, while Mimi scribbles. (A typical tip: “Look for survivors!”)

Finally, with a proud flourish, she writes my name on a dry-erase board hidden behind the unload station. I am “signed off” and officially on rotation. The ride opens.

I nervously guide an empty boat to the load station, where “deck crew” assigns seating by playing what they jokingly call “Human Tetris.” Now I see 48 open faces before me, waiting for me to take control of them. Judging by their expectant—some might say passive—grins, they’re dying to buy whatever I’m about to sell. I press the green start button. No return now.

“Well, time to start our voyage,” I chirp, on cue. “Wave goodbye to the happy landlubbers!” That line was always the start of my script, but I’m surprised to see my passengers actually do it. Once I fight the urge to rush, I realize I have them. Children gleefully point to the merest ripple; grown men shy from teeth they know are fake. The interaction—a triangle between me, a multimillion-dollar machine, and my audience—is invigorating, and I stop fretting about timing and just have fun. Show by show, my voice grows hoarser and I get thirstier, but the feedback from the guests’ faces feeds my energy level. When my passengers disembark, and as I catch my breath between runs, I eavesdrop.

“I wanna go again!” squeals a boy. “I wasn’t scared,” fibs another. And from a British girl: “I’ve got a soppy bottom!”

To me, a wet customer is a happy customer. Fin.

Jason Cochran skippers JAWS at Universal Orlando

My classic attempt at misdirection is as hilarious as what I'm packing.

Jason Cochran skippers JAWS at Universal Orlando

And so JAWS goes out in a blaze of glory.