Tuesday, December 21, 2010

technology crusader formation

Since my November column for the Gettysburg Times got lost in the shuffle last month, I got their permission to repost it here. The column is basically an excuse for me to research obscure historical trivia, so I'm awfully fond of it, and I think this was a good one. Enjoy!

Now that I'm officially down from the sugar high I've been riding since Halloween, it's time to sit down and write this November column. But where to start? November's a weird month, hosting both Thanksgiving and American Indian Heritage Month, which makes for some awkward holiday mingling on the calendar. Like, middle school dance awkward. And speaking of sexless misery, November is also National Impotency Month and National Novel Writing Month (colloquially known as NaNoWriMo). I participated in the latter event last year and, the way my health is going, will be eligible for the former at some undetermined point in my life.

But that's another column altogether. We're taking a different tack this month; since winter is fast approaching and, for all I know, it'll be another exceptionally cruel and cold one for the Mid-Atlantic region, let's steam up the Times a bit by taking it back to November 18th, 1915, when the movie Inspiration was released.

You've probably never heard of Inspiration (which is hardly your fault, since no prints even exist anymore), but it was the first non-pornographic movie to feature a fully-nude woman. Curiously enough, censors equated the film's nudity with what they saw in Renaissance art and passed on banning it, which means that people who were old when my grandfather was a baby were more progressive than contemporary society. Fantastic. The critics were more of a mixed bag – the film was a hit, but succeeded amid sternly polarized reviews.

Anyway, Inspiration follows a young sculptor who finds the perfect model in a poverty-stricken girl played by real-life model Audrey Munson. Unfortunately, the movie somewhat parallels Munson's life, as she was often the infatuation of unstable men. The most chilling example of this is Dr. Walter Wilkins, who owned the boarding house Munson lived in and killed his wife to pursue Munson. The negative publicity surrounding the whole thing ruined Munson's career and nearly drove the poor woman to suicide. As it turned out, she was sent to a psychiatric facility in 1931 and stayed there until her death in 1996. Can you imagine? Being paranoid and miserable enough to kill yourself and then living until 104 is like something out of Chekov. Call it insensitive gallows humor if you must, but her life unraveled in the shadow of a much greater cosmic irony.

And in some way, Munson isn't really dead at all. While the film that set landmarks for cinema has dwindled into obscurity, she was the basis for at least 15 statues around New York City. She might be standing in your local art museum right now, in fact. And the movie she made after Inspiration, titled Purity, was recovered from French archives in 2004. It's basically the same movie, too, complete with nudity. So when you're giving thanks for things in two weeks, keep poor Audrey Munson in mind. All the college sex comedies you've ever seen would have been way less interesting without her.  (originally published in the Gettysburg Times, Nov. 18, 2010)

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