Category Archives: musings

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Tattie Bogies, Kuebiko and Feathertop: The Scarecrow of Folklore and Fiction

Scarecrows. Ancient Egyptians hung tunics on reeds to scare quail away from crops that grew along the Nile. Wooden statues of Priapus, a well-endowed rustic fertility god, likewise frightened birds from planted fields in Greece. Even the Japanese, as early at the 8th century, had the Kuebiko to keep sparrows from the rice; in Kojiki (a Record of Ancient Matters) (circa 712), it is written that “though his legs do not walk,” Kuebiko knew everything.

Flier for KUEBIKO, a Finnish Art Project from 2011
Flier for KUEBIKO, a Finnish Art Project from 2011

Known as bootzamon to German settlers and Tattie Bogies to the Scots, scarecrows, culturally (if not etymologically) have long been tied to the supernatural boogeyman, a monster of legend who is, curiously enough —like the scarecrow — often depicted in tattered clothes. To a superstitious agrarian society, it would seem that there was utility in not only frightening birds, but scaring children as well. There are strange things out there among the rows. You’d do best to avoid them.

Yet monsters need not always be evil. Many, in fact, like the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, simply want to be human.

Others believe they are human.

Take for example the title character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 short story “Feathertop.” A scarecrow brought to life by a  witch seeking revenge on a judge, Feathertop appears human — and believes himself to be so — as long as he puffs on a pipe given to him by the old crone. He falls in love with the judge’s daughter Polly, only to have her recoil in horror when the couple gaze into a mirror and Polly sees Feathertop in his true form. The daughter thus made despondent, the witch has her revenge, but the cost is the despair of her creation: a “wretched simulacrum.”  Aware of rejection, Feathertop dejectedly drops his pipe and falls into a lifeless heap.

From the Patriot Scarecrow Series by Win Jones
From the Patriot Scarecrow Series by Win Jones

“There are thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and charlatans in the world, made up of just such a jumble of wornout, forgotten, and good-for-nothing trash as he was!” reflects the witch. “Yet they live in fair repute, and never see themselves for what they are.”

Two months before the unimaginable happened on 9/11, Florida artist Win Jones created his “Patriot Scarecrow Series.” Simply meant to be a scarecrow with an American flag — painted for its color — the image became a symbol that the artist did not intend.

“I was listening to this guy talk, a young man, college age, he was telling me, look, they’re all dressed up, fit to kill,” Jones said of his scarecrow, brandishing what by then, in late 2011, was draped over every window and rising on every pole. “Oh, my God, am I thinking that? I don’t think that I am, but subconsciously like a lot of these… you react to them. But that’s where I am at now with the scarecrows, and all these ghosts that are coming in and out of space, you’re not too sure where you are.” (Win Jones, taken from, “a news source for Flager, Florida and beyond”)

Dr. Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow from Batman Begins
Dr. Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow from Batman Begins

Deep within our psyche, we need the scarecrow — and this need exceeds the utility of frightening birds. He is, in Jungian terms, the shadow: an archetype that is the inverse of the ego. He is supernatural.

Be it the self-aware Feathertop or the all-knowing Kuebiko, the scarecrow is at once less than and more than us.

He is Dorothy’s clumsy companion from the Wizard of Oz and the terrifying  villain of the Batman’s rogues gallery — a psychiatrist who preys on our fears.

In the end, he is whatever we want him to be. He is truly a straw man: a distorted, exaggerated version of ourselves — foreign and familiar.

Dress him as you like. He will take on a life of his own.

Silence is Golden: Retrofitting Cinema and Rebuilding Greed

Programming note: Turner Classic Movies will show a four-hour-and-fifteen-minute restored and reconstructed version of Eric von Stroheim’s GREED at 6 a.m. [EDT] on Labor Day.

Erich von Stroheim‘s GREED, the story of three friends whose relationship is destroyed by avarice after one wins $5,000 in a lottery (no small sum of money in 1924 when the film was being made), is one of the earliest and, arguably, most ridiculous examples of how a director’s clash with a studio executive — and not just any executive, but, in this case, “boy wonder” bigwig, producer Irving Thalberg — can result in cinematic infamy.

Greedy Hand-Colored Hands from GREED
Greedy Hand-Colored Hands from GREED

Intended by von Stroheim to run almost nine hours (at one point, he proposed the idea of having an audience see the film in four hour segments over two successive days), GREED was poorly reviewed and a box-office flop when its butchered (but logistically necessary) two-hour edited version was released in January, 1925.

Despite its many problems, the film is nonetheless beautifully shot (with effective details such as hand-colored yellow accents in scenes where gold appears), and is now highly regarded by modern critics — most notably, for the final grueling sequence, shot in death valley, that uses potent symbols (such as a caged bird that cannot survive despite being set free) to make clear that with all-consuming avarice comes the inevitable corruption of the soul.

In all, 446,103 feet of film were shot for what became an 8,500-foot long movie. The excess that wound up on the cutting room floor would eventually be burned. And that would have been the ignominious end for this otherwise unimportant film had not stories of the director’s war with the studio over its editing become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Perhaps it was the romantic ideal of an artist not wanting to bow down to the demands of a businessman. But whatever the reason, finding an uncut, restored version of the entire film became a sort of holy grail for archivists and film historians.

One-Sheet poster for von Stroheim's GREED
One-Sheet poster for von Stroheim’s GREED

Though no intact version has ever been found of von Stroheim’s film, it was learned that the director did, in fact, create a continuity prior to production. In 1999 — seventy-five years after principal photography — this continuity, along with still photographs from lost scenes, was used to recreate the missing parts of GREED.

It is this version that TCM has aired in the past and will air on Labor Day.

But is the reconstruction really a film? Still photographs that are “panned and scanned,” zoomed in upon and moved across the screen to simulate motion do not a movie make. Much like the long anticipated but hugely disappointing reconstruction of the entirely lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT starring Lon Chaney, the re-assembled GREED is no more a “film” than a a sketch artist’s flip book or scenes projected from a magic lantern.

In an age when Blu-ray discs carry the label “director’s cut” or contain deleted scenes along with a filmmaker’s commentary (from both directors and producers), it is curious to wonder what von Stroheim and Thalberg would have done with such technology. Could such a movie have even been made?

Perhaps, in the end, it is the technology of the time that determines what a film truly is.

As the mechanics of making and financing movies has changed, so too has the mechanisms for distribution, promotion, engagement and study.

For more information about TCM’s presentation of GREED this Labor Day, click here.