Published: December 22, 2010
It's not a quirk or a mathematical trick — fractals are everywhere in the universe: mountains, trees, leaves, coastlines, galaxies. The fractal is nature's chosen building block. And it took human civilization until 1980 to discover it via a curious French mathematician who decided to run some old mathematical series through a modern computer and discovered the revolutionary ramifications of what's now known as the Mandelbrot set.
"The thumbprint of God." Infinity itself. Really fucking trippy. All apt descriptors of the Mandelbrot set, a series of points on a plane that describe a very particular shape, like a reclining Buddha, or cat, or hodgepodge of stubby minarets. What it looks like is less important than that it looks the same everywhere. Not everywhere in the from-all-angles sense, but everywhere in the sense of near and far — if you magnify one of its edges you will find more of the initial shape and if you look at the edges of that shape, you will find that shape again. Forever. And the equation that describes it is so basic, it's unbelievable: /z/=/z/^2 +/c/, where /c/ is a complex number and /z/ is some position on a plane. Simplicity yields infinite complexity.
Mandelbrot was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1924, though most of his youth was spent in Paris after his family was forced to flee during World War II. With two mathematician uncles and a doctor mother, it's no surprise he eventually graduated with a doctorate in mathematical sciences from the University of Paris. Over the next 30 years, much of it spent within the research arm of IBM, Mandelbrot developed his fractals, applying the concept to fields as varied as biology and information theory — all of it to explain the previously unexplainable or, in other words, applying fractals to discover the "order within chaos." —Michael Byrne
Before Daniel Dumile donned a mask and became MF Doom. Before Kool Keith became the extraterrestrial time-traveling gynecologist Dr. Octagon. Before OutKast transformed Hotlanta into an ATLien land. Before producers and emcees took hip-hop production and lyrics way, way, way into the unknown. Hell, before Michael Bay required a team of CGI special effects specialists to turn the detritus of shiny modern technology into robotic aliens, Rammellzee was inventing the future through the power of his bottomless imagination in New York. There will be imitators, there will be admirers, there will be those who are inspired by, but there will never, ever be another.
The man who became Rammellzee was born in 1960 and grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens. In interviews and Greg Tate's definitive 2004 Wire magazine profile, he says he started bombing trains with graffiti art in 1974, and eventually met up with other now legendary graf and street artists of the time, an NYC era that birthed what became known as hip hop. And he was right there. That's Rammellzee just killing it on the microphone while waving a sawed-off shotgun in the air in 1983's Wild Style. That's him delivering the nasally "gangsta duck" rhymes in the theme music to 1983's Style Wars documentary. The 12-inch single of that song, 1983's "Beat Bop," became one of hip hop's sacred objects. Credited to Rammellzee and K-Rob and featuring a cover designed by Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Beat Bop" delivers some 10 minutes of meandering vocal excursions over a strolling, electro-funk background that's less backing-beat pulse than the outer-space colloid the emcees float through.
Rammellzee was no hip-hop Zelig, though, hanging around at the time underground art moved from the streets into galleries. He had his own thoughts, ideas, and pursuits, which he meticulously worked on, figured out and articulated into a unifying metaphysical philosophy-theory called Gothic Futurism. To Rammellzee, letters were weapons, mystically empowered by 16th century monks, and graf writers were trying to liberate their power from a constricting alphabet. If you think that sounds a little wonky, take it from the man himself: "Knowledge knowledges knowledge; the elevation of WILD STYLE-knowledge is concluded as a SYMBOL DESTROYER, ARMOURED, MEDIEVAL MECHANISM. This formation shall be known as IKONOKLAST PANZERISM: R.O.K.: GOTHIC FUTURISM, THIS IS WILD-STYLE CORRECTED." That's merely one thought in his "Ionic Treatise Gothic Futurism Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated Square Points" at gothicfuturism.com.
According to mainstream obituaries, Rammellzee lived in an apartment in Tribeca for roughly 30 years, where he continued making art and refining his thoughts. He shows up in — and practically steals — Dave Tompkins' indispensable book How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, the Machine Speaks from earlier this year. Since he passed away from illness on June 28, the web overflows with sincere appreciation and beatific mystification — all of which is worth seeking out — for the man who only walked among us for 49 years. May our consciousnesses all eventually transformigratevolve so that we might hear his word. —Bret McCabe
IN HER OWN WRITE
Peacock-proud rock writers like to point toward the wild late 1960s and early '70s as a time when critics' voices and writing really let the shit fly. But by the time the boys were making noise about rock 'n' roll in Crawdaddy!, Creem, Rolling Stone et al., one woman had been experimenting with colloquial styles, heady aesthetics, mundane humor and '60s eros for the better part of the decade — and doing it as a dance critic. Jill Johnston, who passed away Sept. 18 following a stroke, began her nearly 15-year run at the Village Voice in 1959, just before early 1960s choreographers and dance companies would shake up the art form. Her writing followed suit, becoming more limber, approachable and personal, and freely intermingling her many ideas. She didn't just make Yvonne Rainer or Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg or "happenings" approachable, she made the experience of reading a discussion of ideas exciting and nourishing. And by the '70s, her career was just getting started.
Johnston, by sheer force of her intellectual curiosity, expanded what dance criticism — and criticism in general — could include in its discussions, and, by 1965, she started turning her weekly Voice column into an omnivorous investigation of self. That period of exploration arguably culminated with her 1973 Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, which not only widely announced Johnston as a lesbian and feminist to a mass audience (she came out in 1969), it signaled her arrival as an American public intellectual. This was the woman who argued for lesbian separatism to counter the centuries of patriarchal rule: Men were the enemy. And given that Johnston was the woman whose irreverent humor appalled walking-advertisement-for-himself Norman Mailer during a 1971 Town Hall debate on women's liberation, it's a rather understandable position.
Lesbian Nation may have dominated the popular discussion and media profile of Johnston during the '70s (Dick Cavett Show appearances, etc.), but she was far too vibrant and smart to be pinned down by anything. Born in London in 1929 — her unmarried single mother brought her to Long Island, N.Y., as an infant — Johnston carved one of those singular writing careers, notable not for the one thing she did but for its many evolutions, its variance, its maturity, its fearless curiosity and confidence, its boundless integrity. By the mid-'80s she was writing for more conventional publications, such as the New York Times Book Review and Art in America, as well as writing autobiographical books.
She never lost her power to provoke, however. As early as 1993 she argued in favor of autobiographical writing as a literary genre, and her 1996 Jasper Johns: Privileged Information drew ire from the art world for its penetrating, psychoanalytic investigation of the artist's life and works. A 1997 review of the book in the Times calls it "a psychobiography spun out of opinion, theory and chutzpah." It's an opinion that not only fails to acknowledge Johnston's thesis — that Johns' sexuality had an effect on his life and work — but dismisses the investigative rigor, originality and readability of a profoundly generous critic. —BM
THE BEAUTIFUL ONE
Calling something beautiful shouldn't be faint-praise damning, but during New York's boundary-expanding free and avant-garde jazz scene of the 1960s, sensuality sometimes took a back seat to extended technique, ecstatic density and political potency. Alto saxophonist Marion Brown, who died Oct. 18 after many years of illness, dared to be beautiful, but he did so in a way that coexisted with and complemented the decade's more radical ideas. His lithe touch still makes his music and playing feel refreshingly sublime.
Brown announced his arrival in New York's frenetic jazz and African-American arts community as a sideman on two of the more kinetic albums recorded in 1965: Archie Shepp's Fire Music and John Coltrane's monolithic Ascension. That was the year of such heady and impassioned statements as Don Cherry's Complete Communion, Sam Rivers' Contours, Sun Ra's The Magic City and Ornette Coleman's Chappaqua Suite. One late 1965 album, however, hits the ears with a disarmingly gentle warmth. Brown's Quartet (ESP-Disk), his bandleader debut, revealed an artist who could pack his humanity into music as lyrical as it was impressive, as poetic as it was intelligent. "Capricorn Moon," the 22-minute opening song that occupied the entirety of the LP's first side, finds Brown's sunny alto riding a strolling pulse traced by drummer Rashied Ali and bassist Ronnie Boykins. And for the first eight minutes of the song, Brown's dancing solo takes you on a bucolic carnival ride.
Brown would continue charting his own musical path for the next few decades. Born in 1931 in Atlanta, Brown completed a military stint before heading north, attending college (studying music at Clark College and prelaw at Howard University), and arriving in New York in 1962, where he started hanging out with Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones), Coleman and Shepp. Brown had many talents and interests — he penned "The Negro in the Fine Arts" for 1966's The American Negro Reference Book and a memoir of his Georgia youth; earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University; taught at Bowdoin, Amherst and Brandeis; and took up visual art in the '80s — but music remained his principal voice. A '70s trio of musical meditations on his roots — Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Geechee Recollections and Sweet Earth Flying — are often cited as his best works, but there's something about his collaborative work (such as with Mal Waldron or Gunther Hampel) and more expansive outings (such as 1976's Awofofora) that best showcases his range of ideas and expressive range.
Sadly, his recent life was hard. In a 2003 allaboutjazz.com interview, Brown related that he had had brain surgery, all of his teeth removed, and his left foot amputated. He was living in an assisted-living home in Hollywood, Fla., at the time of his death. —BM
S. Neil Fujita
Many people can come at least one or two of the painters, musicians and architects who helped introduce modernism to America during the mid-20th century. Few can name any of the graphic designers who popularized it, made it familiar and approachable and as much a part of the average household as a toaster or vacuum cleaner. S. Neil Fujita can claim more credit on the latter score than most, thanks to a string of iconic designs.
Fujita's parents immigrated from Japan to Hawaii before their son Sadamitsu was born in 1926. Bearing the Americanized first name "Neil," reportedly foisted on him at boarding school, he eventually moved to California to study art, but at the outbreak of World War II found himself packed off to a Japanese-American internment camp in Wyoming. Despite this indignity, Fujita joined the U.S. Army, seeing combat in a largely Japanese unit in Europe.
After the war he finished his studies in painting and drawing and met and married his wife, Aiko. Looking to support his budding family, he launched a career as a graphic designer. His bold, modernistic work at the Philadelphia ad agency N.W. Ayer and Son caught the eye of Columbia Records in New York. In 1954, he was hired to continue the work of legendary designer Alex Steinweiss and head up the design of a still relatively new way to sell music: the 12-inch long-playing record with a picture sleeve.
"We thought about what the picture was saying about the music and how we could use that to sell the record," Fujita said in a 2007 interview with the American Institute of Graphic Arts. "And abstract art was getting popular, so we used a lot more abstraction in the designs — with jazz records especially but also with classical when there was a way for it to fit, like with the more modern composers." Dave Brubeck's composition "Take Five" introduced "modern jazz" to millions, and Fujita introduced "Take Five" to many of those millions with his cover for Brubeck's 1959 album Time Out, which featured his own colorful geometric abstraction. So did Charles Mingus' 1959 classic Mingus Ah Um. Even the covers that didn't feature his own art bore his stamp, from the fragmented color blocks of the Jazz Messengers' self-titled 1956 Columbia LP to the saturated reds of a blurred photograph of a wearing-sunglasses-at-night Miles Davis on the cover of the trumpeter's 1957 'Round About Midnight. Fujita's job was to make this music of that moment look hip and alluring. His work succeeds at that to this day.
Tired of album covers, Fujita left Columbia in 1957 (he returned briefly in '58 and left for good in '60) and went into book design, where he came up with at least two other omnipresent classics: the original cover for Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, with its Midwestern tan background, slightly sinister serif font, and pricking pin the color of drying blood; and the looming puppeteer's hand and stark white-on-black type treatment for Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, a design that then wound up on the movie posters and in any number of homages and ripoffs since, as much identified with the films and the Mafia in general as Nino Rota's theme or "an offer he can't refuse." While none of his subsequent designs proved quite as iconic, Fujita continued to design and teach design for decades. He died Oct. 23. —LG
Actress Ingrid Pitt only appeared in a handful of horror films, most famously The Vampire Lovers and The House That Dripped Blood (from 1970 and '71, respectively). But her seductive — often barely clad — curves, Eastern European accent, and bold personality gained her a cult following that remains fervent.
Pitt's early life was the stuff of true horror. Pitt, nee Ingoushka Petrov, was born in Poland in 1937, the daughter of a Polish-Jewish mother and German father. The family was rounded up by the Nazis in 1943, and Pitt and her mother ended up in the Stutthof concentration camp, where they spent the next three years. Pitt later said that during that time she saw her mother's best friend hanged and her own best friend, a little girl, raped and killed.
After the war and a series of refugee camps, Pitt settled in East Berlin and, in the early 1960s, embarked on a stage career. But, because of her outspoken criticism of the East German government, she was eventually forced to flee. She dove into the city's Spree River and, improbably, was rescued by Laud Pitt, a U.S. Army lieutenant whom she married. She later divorced Pitt, as well as her second husband, a film exec named George Pinches.
During a sojourn in Spain, a press photographer reportedly took a picture of Pitt crying at a bullfight, and a film producer was so moved by the photo that he cast her — though she spoke no Spanish — launching her film career. She moved on to Where Eagles Dare (1968), a World War II spy film with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Soon after, Pitt starred in a series of horror films for British low-budget production company Hammer Films, donning her fangs, baring her bosom, and entrancing a generation of young men. (One commenter on a Telegraph obituary for Pitt echoed the thoughts of many when he wrote: "You never watch telly with your trousers round your ankles in quite the same way after 17, do you? Farewell Ingrid.") Pitt went on to appear in a variety of films and TV shows, not all of them horrific; she appeared in Doctor Who, for instance, and played a nymphomaniac librarian in the cult classic The Wicker Man (1973).
Despite her tragic beginnings, Pitt had a wry sense of humor and tendency toward mischief. In her 1999 autobiography Life's a Scream, she wrote this about an early encounter with John Wayne: "I found myself relegated to the sideboard to pour drinks, while the Duke exacerbated my irritation by referring to me as 'little lady.' I wasn't anyone's 'little lady' and I was grumpy enough to want to prove it." Pitt proceeded to enter into a men-only poker game, eager to show Wayne up.
Pitt was much loved by her fans, and graciously returned the favor. She regularly attended horror conventions, wrote a slew of books — with titles such as The Ingrid Pitt Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers — and even ran a dating website or two: "Auntie Ingrid will pick the best date 4U straight from Transylvania."
Pitt died on Nov. 23, at age 73, of apparent heart failure, leaving behind her third husband, Anthony Rudlin, and a daughter, Steffanie Pitt. For her many loyal fans, she remains what Hammer Films marketed her as decades ago: "the most beautiful ghoul in the world." —Andrea Appleton
You don't know what Van Snowden looks like, but if you grew up in America, you've likely seen him countless times. Well, maybe not him, but his arm, or sometimes an extension of it, or maybe his entire body, only encased in layers of foam and fabric. Snowden, who died Sept. 22, was a puppeteer, an art without a particularly august heritage here in the United States. But we do have Hollywood, and chances are, if TV show creators or film directors needed a puppet during the past 40 years, it was Snowden's phone number they dialed.
Available details about Snowden's early life are sketchy, other than the fact that he was born in San Francisco, in 1939, and grew up in Branson, Mo. At some point, most likely in the early to mid-1960s, he began working with Canadian puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft, who in 1969 created the seminal psychedelic children's program H.R. Pufnstuf. Most sources state that Snowden was the person inside the costume of the titular friendly dragon throughout the show's run (with the voice provided by actor Lennie Weinrib); in a rare 2008 interview with Toy Collector magazine, Snowden said he didn't put it on until 1972. Regardless, once he did, he wore it whenever it appeared, in live performances and in guest appearances on shows ranging from CHiPs to George Lopez.
The Kroffts kept Snowden busy on their wealth of post-Pufnstuf projects; he appeared in The Bugaloos, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Land of the Lost and other '70s Saturday morning staples. As the Kroffts' TV empire faded, Snowden moved on and kept working. He was the lead puppeteer on Paul Reubens' much-loved Pee-wee's Playhouse series. He operated the puppet of killer toy Chucky in several of the Child's Play movies and worked on Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. He maneuvered the cadaverous Crypt Keeper puppet on the long-running horror anthology series Tales From the Crypt. He worked on fantastic big-budget blockbusters ranging from Francis Ford Coppola's vintage-tech adaptation of Dracula to Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers to the X-Files film. Chances are, if you spotted an unreal moving figure on a movie or TV screen up until the advent of affordable CGI, Snowden had a hand in it — at least.
The advent of computer-generated imagery as the go-to solution for almost every effects challenge coincided with Snowden nearing retirement age. His last known screen credit was a final appearance inside the Pufnstuf suit on an episode of My Name is Earl in 2007. He died on Sept. 22, at age 71, but his work will live on via reruns and DVDs, anonymous and hidden in plain sight. —LG
Michael Jackman is Metro Times associate editor. Lee Gardner, Michael Byrne and Bret McCabe are editors of Baltimore's City Paper, where their contributions to this package also appear. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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