March 2008

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looking_for_langston_1.jpgThis week, in conjunction with our Writing New York course, we are showing the 1989 “documentary” Looking for Langston, by the black British filmmaker Isaac Julien. A sensual and hypnotic meditation on both the Harlem Renaissance and the AIDS crisis, Looking for Langston is informed by the critic Eve Sedgwick’s theorization of the experience of being a closeted homosexual.

Julien’s black-and-white film queers both the Harlem Renaissance and the documentary form, mixing documentary footage of Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance figures with dream-like sequences set in nightclubs and bedrooms. The soundtrack features poems by Hughes, Bruce Nugent (1906-870, and  Essex Hemphill (1957-95), as well as Toni Morrison’s moving elegy for James Baldwin (read at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1987).

langston2.jpgA shot early in the film recalls James Van Der Zee’s The Harlem Book of the Dead and shows Julien himself in a coffin. Dedicated to James Baldwin, the film meditates on the lives and deaths of Hughes and Baldwin and what it means to be forced to live a double life.

The film was finally released in the U.S. last summer on DVD. Extras include a commentary track with Julien and Director of Photography Nina Kellgren, a photo gallery, and the short film The Attendant (1993), which also explores the experience of living a double life.

Those of you who can play Region 2 discs might be interested in the UK DVD, which is available from amazon.co.uk. This deluxe edition, produced by the British Film Institute, includes a 46-package booklet of essays by bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and others; an interview with Julien; biographies of Harlem Renaissance figures and others who are important to the film; and the Julien’s short film Portrait in Blue: Essex Hemphill (2005), and an audio recording of the 1990 radio show “First and Last Words: Essex Hemphill and Larry Duckette in Converation.” Like the U.S. DVD, it also includes a commentary track and photo gallery, but omits The Attendant.

Looking for Langston has a run-time of 45 minutes.

A few weeks back, my dad emailed me a link to John Strausbaugh’s Times article on the history of jazz and other popular entertainment at Lincoln Square, a “cradle for serious grooving” roughly in the area where Lincoln Center now stands.

The email also served as a reminder that I’d promised here, last fall, to keep tabs on Strausbaugh’s series of neighborhood notes and walking tours. So I should mention that, since I last mentioned these installments, Strausbaugh has also published entries on the Upper East Side and what he calls “P.T. Barnum’s New York,” meaning lower Manhattan in the 19th century.

I’ve also noticed that the Times is maintaining an interactive map with convenient links to each piece in the series, allowing you to get more details on specific sites Strausbaugh mentions along the way. As always, each installment is accompanied by a downloadable walking tour, though I have yet to give one of these a go. I’d love to hear from someone who’s tried out one or more of them.

Phineas_Taylor_Barnum_and_Ernestine_de_Faiber.jpg

Of course, when it comes to Barnum, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you to the extraordinary resources available from the CUNY Social History Project, including their site “The Lost Museum.”

Also in the realm of virtual NY, I’ve been meaning to say something about the Virtual LES articles that popped up in the paper a while back. You can visit the virtual LES at vles.com. I have more I want to say about that — including some gossip about the site’s treatment of rock and roll venues — but that will have to wait for another time.

On the general subject of the LES — cleaned up, virtual, or otherwise — I’ve been keen on getting Richard Price’s new novel, Lush Life, set in the neighborhood in the 90s.  Friends have recommended that I listen to his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. I haven’t yet, but you can beat me to it by clicking here.

(Price, incidentally, will be speaking at the Tenement Museum on Tuesday, April 15, at 6:30 pm.)

One reason they’ve been on me about Price is that I’ve been obsessing, over on The Great Whatsit, about nostalgic and antinostalgic strains in New York writing. I haven’t had the time or space to work out everything I’m thinking on the topic, but for initial noodling around — with fugitive comments on Edith Wharton, Michael Chabon, Adam Gopnik, Theodore Dreiser and others — you can begin here.

[update, later that night: if Lush Life is half as entertaining as Sam Anderson’s review of it in New York  magazine, I think I’ll dig it. Sam, by the way, among other things is an advanced PhD student in our department; he just won the NBCC’s Balakian Award for his reviewing. Go, Sam!]

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