Thursday, July 27, 2017

On Dreams and Heads

The Crosstown Cup is in full sway, delighting Chicago's fans of interleague baseball and extremely nasal arguments that end with the brandishing of switchblade sausages.  There's even more underlying tension in this year's matchup as Cub fans continue to bask in their team's championship and the White Sox languish in a rebuild. It has been the sad lot of White Sox fans to suffer through decades of historically moribund baseball only to be overshadowed by the Cubs because the Sox have been less famously and catastrophically inept.  Even ESPN got into the act, omitting the Sox's 2005 championship from a list of Chicago sports titles while giving themselves over to the sporting world's unchecked Cubmania.

ESPN's 2005 World Series graphic vs the graphic shown on its 
Oct. 25, 2016 broadcast

The other bit of intrigue floating about the Crosstown classic comes from a rare blockbuster trade between the two teams.  The Sox sent their ace Jose Quintana to the Cubs as part of their scorched earth rebuild strategy, a grand purge of baseball competence.  In return the Cubs sent four prospects headlined by their heralded outfielder Elroy Jimenez.  The front offices hope this trade benefits both teams, with Quintana helping to stave off the grim reaper that has been stalking the Cubs' aged rotation this season and Jimenez joining the Sox's armada of superstar prospects to launch them into contention down the line.  For fans, the stakes are much higher-- if the trade turns out to be lopsided, fans of the swindled team will have to read about the exploits of their lost superstar in the same paper every day and will be unable to move about the city without being confronted by opposing fans sporting their Barrett or Pierzynski jerseys mocking them with fingersnaps and pirouettes.

This year's series has already erupted into fireworks.  John Lackey, the grizzled old Cubs pitcher who looks like he has hunted Tony Robbins for sport and taken his teeth as a trophy, hit four White Sox batters, including an astounding three in the same inning.  Lackey's maniacal beanball rampage provoked the ire of White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, who managed to drag himself to Chicago for the series in case anyone needed to be challenged to a duel.
The venomous way he spits out the word "LACKEY" is his greatest achievement in a long baseball announcing career of threats and grievances. Harrelson further clarified his comments on Lackey on Wednesday, telling a Tribune reporter "“I was hoping that they would drill his ass big time because he’s an idiot.”  "He's full of shit and you can print that," Harrelson continued, adding that Lackey's "gonna look pretty funny tryin' to eat corn on the cob with no FUCKIN' TEETH."

The Cubs-White Sox rivalry has seemed to cool after the novelty wore off; the crosstown series has reached its twentieth year, and interleague clashes have faded into the fabric of the regular season.  Perhaps the Lackey-Harrelson feud can spice things up beyond the Quintana trade and the Rick Renteria Vengeance Quest.  Or they can find a way to drum up excitement beyond baseball by throwing each other off the Reichenbach Falls.


Here in 2017, Werner Herzog has been more or less Walkenized, almost entirely engulfed by his own caricature of a grim-voiced German who looks at an idyllic meadow and sees a hissing cauldron of murder.  Herzog is the maestro of the word "murder."  The word murder was invented for Werner Herzog to use it over narration of adorable penguins; in the same film, he repeatedly pronounces the McMurdo research station in Antarctica as "McMurder."

There are elements of that in "Burden of Dreams," the 1982 Les Blank documentary about the making of Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo." Towards the end, after years of fighting the logistical and political difficulties of filming in the Amazon and the impossibilities of shooting a Werner Herzog movie in the Amazon with its attendant Herzogian problems, Herzog breaks down and goes on a Herzog rant:

But the Werner Herzog in most of the movie is not the expected despairing sourpuss.  He's possessed, singularly focused on finishing his movie, seemingly indifferent to the suffering of his cast and crew and workers that will be placed in wholly unnecessary danger by his unwieldy, bulldozer-driven winching system. 

"Fitzcarraldo" is about a 1920s opera buff who hopes to finance an opera house in the Amazon lavish enough to lure Enrico Caruso through a quixotic rubber scheme that hinges on hauling a ship over a mountain between two rivers.  Herzog tries to make a movie about a man's quixotic quest to haul a ship over a mountain by hauling a ship over a mountain, quixotically.  At one point, a frustrated Herzog explains to his engineer that he simply must haul the ship over the mountain because of his metaphor.  But there is no metaphor.  The struggle to haul the ship over the mountain has become completely literal.

"Burden of Dreams" continuously plops viewers down in the middle of various crises-- the departure of his two stars Jason Robards and somehow Mick Jagger; the delicate political situation between his crew, indigenous groups, and various South American governments; a late-night arrow attack; the laws of physics-- but the larger question of Herzog's obsession with hauling a 320-ton steamship up a mud-slicked mountain remains barricaded in Herzog's psyche.  Somehow, the film, which is more or less an unbroken chronicle of calamity, always seems to hint at something stranger going on in the background as Herzog offhandedly explains some other insane, herculean task by pointing out how a ship has been towed through thousands of miles on a map or with snippets of a scowling, jumpsuited Klaus Kinski stalking about the set.  I would watch a documentary about the documentary crew filming this movie, complete with a documentary about that crew in an endlessly recursive pre-taped call-in show loop of televisions until we can get to the bottom of the ludicrous lengths Herzog went to in order to film "Fitzcarraldo."


There are a multitude of uses for severed heads: triumphant displays of justice, phrenology, cryogenically freezing them for some sort of future resurrection that I always imagine involves being medically stapled to a robot body and and then rampaging about New England as a terrifying Irving-esque Reverse Horseman, and Frances Larson explores them all in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. Larson has a serious-minded and scrupulous approach for a topic that in lesser hands could lend itself to the pages of “Gross Let Me Look At That Magazine” for summer camp twelve-year-olds. Nevertheless, the book does not dilute the bizarre and macabre element of its subject by including sentences like “Rosenbaum vomited in disgust, but his physical revulsion could not temper his desire to take possession of Haydn’s skull.”

Larson writes that she decided to write this book while doing research at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, famous for its collection of shrunken heads. She places the collection at the center of a booming nineteenth-century trade in shrunken heads as curios for the Victorian elbow-nudging set and for museums and other institutions on a worldwide mission to collect and categorize artifacts. As Larson explains, lecturers and museums used shrunken heads to titillate and unnerve Victorian patrons by presenting them as barbarous practices to contrast with Western civilizations. At the same time, Western demand for the heads completely divorced them from any cultural context as they became commodities produced exclusively for export; some British head collectors in New Zealand, Larson notes, became victims themselves, their heads posthumously tattooed to be sold as Maori heads betraying an expression of simultaneous horror and appreciation for grim irony.
Augustus Pitt Rivers, a man who could 
not possibly look more like the exact 
person you are picturing when thinking 
of the namesake of a museum known 
for a dubiously-sourced collection of 
shrunken heads

Another important nineteenth-century use for skulls was phrenology, the pseudoscience that I hope influenced numerous plays with stage directions like MRS ORKENNEY dropped her ladle, for she could see in the flash of lightning that MR CAVENDISH had the brow ridges of a monomaniac. Here’s Larson, with one of the greatest sentences ever composed in the English language: “Historian Roger Cooter has described how, by 1826, ‘craniological manica’ was said to have ‘spread like a plague...possessing every gradation of [British] society from the kitchen to the garret.’” Phrenology dovetailed with a general mania for collecting and studying skulls. Larson points out that, like with the collection of shrunken heads, this scientific collection of bones encouraged gruesome behavior; scientists colluded with all manner of tomb raiders and grave robbers to build their head caliper ossuaries then used them as the basis of bogus racial science that these scientists would invariably find proved to them that the most advanced civilization was the one that had the scientists ankle-deep in purloined skulls.

Larson writes that prominent phrenologist 
Franz Josef Gall's "appetite for skulls became 
so well known that eminent men began to 
fear for the safety of their crania."

Larson provides an eclectic and broad, if sometimes scattershot, look at our severed heads and ourselves.  In doing so, she expertly walks a fine line between historical rigor, contemporary resonance, and, let's face it, the type of oddities a person seeking out a book described on the jacket as "an idiosyncratic history of decapitation (the New Yorker)" would be looking for-- grotesque stories involving medieval executioners attacked by bloodthirsty mobs with flaming projectiles for their lack of beheading competence, pictures of frowning muttonchops standing around large piles of labeled skulls (there are few things more unnerving than reading a book about severed heads and immediately being presented with a multipage listing of illustrations), a historian of phrenology named Roger Cooter. Severed does not offer up a Grand Theory of Head Collection; it can be read almost as a catalog of things people have figured out to do with heads including shrinking, guillotining, graverobbing, dissecting, worshiping, and cryogenically freezing them.  Larson displays an impressive breadth of research into these disparate practices raising all sorts of fascinating questions that would have never popped into my head that remains for the time being anchored safely into my neck until I insult the Dauphin. 

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