I just got word that Ralph Waite has died. You probably know him as the father on The Waltons. But more generally, he was a character actor—undoubtedly the most fulfilling kind of actor one can be on the screen. But I have long admired him for a film I’ve never seen. In 1980, he wrote and directed the film On the Nickel. It is the story of a ex-drunk who gets lonely for his old skid row drinking buddy. So he goes and finds him and stuff happens. Like I said, I haven’t seen the film, but it looks like an inspiring work. I do have mixed feelings about it. I’m not fond of people romanticizing drug addiction. On the other hand, the film clearly shows the drunks as more than the sum total of their problems. My hope for it is that it is as good as They Might Be Giants. And that is very good indeed. Here’s the trailer:
On this day in 1910, William Shockley was born. He is best remembered as the co-inventor of the transistor. So he is one of fathers of modern electronics. But he is most remembered for his beliefs in eugenics and racial differences in intelligence. The thing about all of this is that intelligence tests are a mess. I’ve discussed this a bit with regard to Jason Richwine and the Flynn effect. But regardless of the science, what we see with Shockley is racism dressed up as science. It just goes to show that you can easily be brilliant in one field and clueless in another.
And now, if you don’t mind, we are going to have a little musical interlude. There are a number of musicians with birthdays today. I don’t have a lot to say about any of them, so I’m mostly just going to present some songs. The first musician is Tennessee Ernie Ford who was born in 1919. Yesterday, I wrote about the Red Army Choir singing “Sixteen Tons.” That was a whole lot of fun, but it was Ford who had a mega-mega-mega-hit with the song. So get those fingers snapping, because here we go:
Peter Tork is 72 today. He was the member of The Monkeys who wasn’t all that cool with it. He was also the one with red hair. Here he is doing Goffin and King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday”:
Peter Gabriel is 64 today. I used to be a huge fan of his, but I’ve been out of touch for some time. For now, let’s listen to his first solo single, “Solsbury Hill”:
And then the unique Henry Rollins is 53. He was, of course, the primary lead singer of Black Flag. It is interesting to see him now because he is so muscular. But he used to be a skinny little thing. He started working out because of all the violence at Black Flag concerts. Anyway, here he is with Rollins Band, doing a very good and funny song “Liar”:
Other birthdays: great Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682 or 1683); economist Thomas Malthus (1766); philosopher Lev Shestov (1866); economist Roy Harrod (1900); Burmese painter Aung Khin (1921); actor Kim Novak (81); actor George Segal (80); actor and personal man-crush Oliver Reed (1938); theologist Elaine Pagels (71); actor Donald Sumpter (71); actor Stockard Channing (70); and Jerry Springer (70).
The day, however, belongs to the great painter Grant Wood who was born on this day in 1891. He is best known for the painting American Gothic. I think it is a remarkable painting just because of its composition. Thematically, no one seems to really agree about it. Some have claimed that it is is satire about American repression and others think it is a celebration of American hard work. I side more with the satire crowd. Wood, of course, was satirizing nothing. But the painting does bring to mind the vacuousness of the American work ethic: we work a hard and long because that’s the way we are, and we get no special joy out of it. The father looks right at the observer, so one gets a sense of resolve from him. The daughter is looking away, providing a sense of acquiescence. For good and bad, it is a representation of America.
I haven’t seen a lot of other works by Wood, but nothing that I have seen is as powerful as American Gothic. But his work is quite impressive nonetheless. I see in his work a mature synthesis of a lot of different art trends. There is especially a lot of illustrative and “primitive” aspects to his landscapes. I would like to know more of his work. I’ve requested a number of books on him, so if he becomes another of my fascinations, I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it.
Happy birthday Grant Wood!