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by Rob Horning

10 Dec 2008

Social services in America are probably sufficient to prevent a noticeable outburst of nouveau hoboism, no matter how long the recession lasts. We probably won’t again see lean, bearded men riding the rails from agricultural day-laboring gig to gig, pleading for an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work. Socially necessary labor isn’t as fungible anymore, and the newly unemployed are not manual laborers so much as information processors who would be useless on a farm or in a factory anyway. And unemployment benefits are probably sufficient to prevent people from having to abandon their families and migrate aimlessly in search of employment.

But if we did have a return of the itinerant worker (who was not a Mexican immigrant), it might put to rest the myth of the hobo brotherhood that tends to crop up in Hollywood depictions. I have in mind one particular hobo trope, which I suspect is highly overrepresented: the way in which hobos carved fence posts with special symbols to share with other hobos important information about who lived there. This most recently popped up in Mad Men, where young Donald Draper has an encounter with a hobo who marks his family as evil.

Interestingly, the NSA, of all institutions, has a page detailing the history of this phenomenon.

The origin of the signs, like the Hobo name, is lost to history, but some of the symbols and their meanings have been documented. Carl Liungman’s Dictionary of Symbols makes a connection between the hobo signs in the U.S. with those in England and the gypsy signs used in Sweden. A few of the symbols are the same. Several look the same, but have a different meaning. And still more are completely different, even if the information being relayed is similar. Like any language, written or spoken, over time it develops independently to meet the needs of those using it.
What’s interesting to note, as Liungman points out, is that the system developed at all. Hobos, in general, travel alone and enjoy their independence. And yet, they still congregate in hobo jungles or travel with an occasional partner only to split when they decide to go a different way. Despite this preference for solitude, they still feel a certain camaraderie with their fellow hobos, an obligation to assist their brethren – thus, the creation of the signs and symbols.

I guess I am too cynical to believe in this mysterious camaraderie among the hobo brethren, or at least believe it was as widespread as you’d think from the movies. Hollywood producers and writers must find this romantic image of hobo communication irresistible; it perfectly captures the idea of their leading a secret life of adventure and all working together to subvert square, straight life. It makes it seem as though hobos have a code of honor, like knights errant or repo men. It almost encourages us to regard hoboism as something one volunteers for rather than something one is driven to by economic misery, anomie, or the stultifying conditions of everyday life.

Still, you wouldn’t think drifters would be so cooperative. Their incentive to help other drifters doesn’t seem particularly high, as the more drifters there are, the more they will be regarded negatively. Marking a fence post to indicate that the getting is good would probably alienate those who have helped hobos before, once they are inundated with new ones. And you’d think the choice to drift would indicate an inability to cooperate with social norms, with the ethic of cooperation that getting along with world requires. These are people who can’t integrate—I know that we are supposed to regard this as proof of their purity, their inability to get along in a corrupt system and deal with all the plasticity and checking out of the rat race. Kind of like how the crazy people are the ones who are really sane.

 

 

 

by Christian John Wikane

9 Dec 2008

Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, Billy Porter headlined a special two-night run at the famed NYC venue. Accompanied by keyboard, bass, and drums, Porter treated the sold-out audience to what he called contemporary American standards. Whether re-casting Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”, giving a hair-raising rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, or tossing in rare gems by Oleta Adams and Julia Fordham, Porter held the audience rapt for a flawless 70-minute set. His take on the Marvin Gaye classic “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, which also incorporated a rap based on The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and an audience call-and-response, was a riveting tour-de-force.

Though he made no mention of a new album, Porter certainly has a wealth of material to accompany him back into the studio or on the stage, should he release a recording of his latest set. Few performers can make the familiar seem new but, on two bone-chilling nights in New York, Billy Porter excelled in doing just that.

by Zeth Lundy

9 Dec 2008

Since we’re in the thick of the holiday season, I should mention that the instrumental theme song to Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) is incredibly similar to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—specifically, the “He knows when you are sleeping” line. Except that last note (“sleeping”) goes pear-shaped on what sounds like an oboe. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUUUUH. Subliminal holiday tie-in? Or have the seasonal jingles merely corrupted my sentimental (and susceptible) brain?

by Sarah Zupko

9 Dec 2008

Continuing in the Hitchcock vein, Universal has reissued three of the auteur’s finest films in deluxe two-disc sets packed to the gills with extras. If I had to pick a single Hitchcock flick to own, I’d say Rear Window in a heartbeat. The film is a master class in movie making art, reflecting on the voyeuristic nature of film itself, exposing the audience’s complicity in that very voyeurism. There’s hardly a more frightening moment in film than when Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) looks straight out at the window at L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) and us the audience, knowing that he’s been seen and that we know of his guilt. Not a single drop of blood or a scream. Just a look. That’s the Hitchcock genius. These Legacy Series discs come with in-depth documentaries detailing the making of the films and make these sets worth owning even if you already have DVDs of these movies.

Rear Window (Universal Legacy Series)
Psycho (Special Edition) (Universal Legacy Series)
Vertigo (Universal Legacy Series)

by Sarah Zupko

9 Dec 2008

With this new set of eight early Hitchcock classics from 1927-1947, there are now three fine sets on the market spanning the majority of the Master of Suspense’s career, the other two sets being the superlative Alfred Hitchcock - The Masterpiece Collection and the also excellent The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection. The highlights here include the World War II era Notorious with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and Spellbound with Gregory Peck and Bergman. Other movies include Lifeboat, The Paradine Case, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, Rebecca, and The Lodger. Essential for any fan of classic thrillers or Hitchcock completists, which all film geeks really ought to be.

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