Saturday, July 9, 2011

Coney Island Interlude

(morgtage or sketch for forsider painting, which may be titled Coney Island Interlude.)

One of the best midnight movies must be David Lynch's Eraser Head. Just hearing the title will summon up in your mind a special mood. Plot? It certainly has one, but the mood is what the film is about. Mood is what you first recall about great films, as you do with dreams.

Todd Browning's Freaks is the other legendary midnight movie. Eraser Head's mood is a dense fog of night, the deep sound of a boiler room's hum. Freaks' mood is more attenuated, a shrill garbled whistle on a scratchy 78 rpm disc. But it's a film I would sooner see.

I first became acquainted with Freaks from an uncanny still in a book about horror movies, a prized possession I got in the early '70s. This book stated that the film was banned. Browning, director of the iconic Dracula of Bela Lagosi, had not used makeup or special effects in Freaks, you see. He had used nature, actual sideshow performers of the 1930s era. The audiences of the day were disturbed by this—as they are today, 80 years later.

A week or two ago a seed for a painting was planted in my head as I mused about Coney Island, after seeing a good montage movie made from clips housed at, the public domain's modern Alexandria. I recognized some of the performers from Freaks, still in their prime on Coney Island in the 1940s. I was just blown away by the place, marveling at what once was, as compared to what remains in Coney Island today. It is still one of my favorite places, but it's just a husk of what was.

I decided to make a montage, a reference sheet for my painting. I call these morgtages (yes, looks like a nice typo related to the housing crisis, but it's morgue + montage.) I paste together a multitude of references of a subject, gleaned from the net. In the old days illustrators had a file cabinet called a morgue, wherein they kept their references. Now our references are found over the internet.

While gathering these references I was amazed to find that several of the side show performers have incurred a great cult following. In some cases whole websites are devoted to them. Perhaps the most popular is Schlitzy. Masterful underground cartoonist Bill Griffith's flagship character, Zippy the Pinhead, counts Schlitzy as an inspiration.

My forsider painting will be called Interlude. I imagine Coney Island in the evening, an amalgam of what is there today, and what was—including the elephant hotel. In the foreground a trio of sideshow performers stroll on the beach, taking a break. It is a quiet scene, contradicting the riotous, humorous and disturbing associations the characters and place summon up in our minds.

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