September 2008

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Walking to the neighborhood theater last week (to watch Man on Wire a second time, which was even better than the first) we noticed a glut of superselfconscious Williamsburgy hipsters crowded at the corner of Bowery and Houston for what turned out to be an opening. The gallery space is only temporary; it’s eventually going to be a pizza joint. But for now it’s dedicated to the kind of wheat-paste pop-ups you typically see on plywood-covered construction sites and abandoned buildings. The Modesto Kid (our lonesome commentor) had tipped me off to the work on the building’s exterior a couple weeks ago:

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The piece, by the French street artist known as “Jr,” announces that much of the show inside — dubbed “The Outsiders” — deals in forms more at home on the street, plastered in the middle of the night when no one’s looking, than in a high-art gallery space, though we shouldn’t miss the fact that we’re talking about a group of street artists here who, as the glitz last week would suggest, have serious gallery representation. (You’ll find another Jr piece currently on 12th St. between 1st and A.)

The show is organized by London’s Lazarides gallery, and it’s a shame they’re not staying longer. (This feels more exciting than anything that’s turned up yet at the New Museum down the street.) For the time being, though, the buzz seems to have generated an outburst of pop ups in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Sun speculated that they may be the work of Lazarides artist Banksy, who’s not in the show but who has done up NY corners before; bloggers have discounted the claim and attribute the work to Mr. BrainWash (MBW) instead, which makes sense, given that his website currently sports the Warhol spray-soupcans that also dot the neighborhood at the moment. My favorite, SuperObama, makes me want to go buy a cordless jigsaw and take one of these babies home:

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(Top photo from Lazarides site; bottom one from animalnewyork.com)

“The Outsiders” shows at 282 Bowery through 12 Oct.; the MBW pieces around the neighborhood are already starting to wear after last week’s rain, so see them while you can.

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md_popup_cover.jpgI’m a big fan of the pop-up books created by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. My favorites are Sabuda’s adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas and Reinhart’s Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy and Mommy? (with a story by Maurice Sendak.How delightful then that his apprentice) and his

Last November, Sterling Publishing brought out Moby-Dick: A Pop-Up Book, created by Sam Ita, who studied graphic design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and apprenticed for five years with Sabuda and Reinhart, working on pop-up titles such as America the Beautiful, Encyclopedia Prehistorica, and Mommy?. He’s created some fabulous Christmas cards for the Museum of Modern Art too.

Ita retains Melville’s dialogue and dramatizes some of my favorite scenes. Here’s a taste, though no 2-D picture can really convey what it’s like to open the book and see the Pequod popup up from its pages.

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Left: “Call me Ishmael”; right; Ishmael in bed at the Spouter Inn.

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Ahab on the quarter-deck.

md_popup_wreck.jpgThe Chase, Third Day.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of either Melville’s novel or adult pop-up books!

BY RICHARD HORWICH
EAST HAMPTON CORRESPONDENT

A couple of weeks ago, another in a long line of Meaningless Baseball Records was set when Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig in the non-category of Most Hits at Yankee Stadium. Never mind that Jeter still trails Gehrig in total career hits by over a hundred; the press, the fans, and even the players unleashed a chorus of hosannas that made the Bronx shake.

yankee_stadium.jpgOf course, this is Yankee Stadium’s swan song, and any opportunity to heap encomia on the venerable arena (it opened in 1923, the first three-tiered ball park and the first to call itself a “stadium”) was not to be shunned. But from Queens, where Shea Stadium is also scheduled for demolition, nothing. Who has the most hits in Mets’ history? Does anyone know or care? It happens to be Ed Kranepool, who has probably never been mentioned in the same sentence with Jeter or the Iron Horse.

That’s part of the Yankee Stadium “mystique” that even visiting players acknowledge, the echo of baseball history that they experience either as a paralyzing burden or a spur to greatness. It’s much more than just a baseball park, of course. Three Popes have celebrated mass there; Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano all fought title bouts there; and both the New York Yankees and Giants football teams played there as well. But it never worked as a football stadium.
 
The gridiron sat awkwardly in its peculiar dimensions, and nobody (I’m speaking from memory here) had a great view. It was indeed the House That Ruth Built, or at least, that was built for him: after the Yanks stole him from the Red Sox, flush with cash, they tailored their new home to his peculiar strengths. The result was as lopsided a baseball field as has ever been seen: the Babe was a dead-pull left-handed hitter, and the right-field stands stood only 295 feet from the plate – a pop fly by Ruthian standards. By contrast, left-center was an enormous poke — over 490 to deepest left center — and perhaps righty Joe DiMaggio’s career home-run stats are as impressive as Ruth’s when that’s taken into account. Fans used to entertain themselves in the off-season by speculating on what trading Joe D for lefty Ted Williams would have meant: Joe would have been bouncing balls off and swatting them over the Green Monster at Fenway, and Williams could have picked up where Ruth left off.

My first memory of Yankee Stadium (the old one, mind you, not the 1975 make-over) was sitting next to my father, watching a DiMaggio line drive split the outfielders for a double during his last season, 1951, against Boston. Later in the same game, Ted Williams defeated the Yanks’ defensive shift (pretty much the same as the one used against Giambi these days) by scorching the ball just inside the unguarded left-field foul line; I could see him laughing as he stood on second base, though Dad had to explain to me the subtleties of his gambit. Another vivid memory is of a game that my high-school baseball coach took the team to, in which Mickey Mantle, in the ninth inning, hit a two-hopper to the shortstop that lifted him off his feet and literally knocked him on his ass. Mantle, sensing an infield hit, turned on the speed and ten feet from the bag went down as if shot. To stunned silence, he curled into a ball and tumbled over and over, clutching his thigh. The play ended the game, with the Yankees losing, and the crowd filed out in silence, like mourners leaving the funeral chapel. That quadriceps pull was one in a long line of leg injuries that cost Mantle his speed and stability, and the chance to become the greatest outfielder in history.

Over the following decades, perversely, I seem to have attended more games at the stadium when the Yankees had lousy teams than when they were on top. In the early 60’s, all my friends were baseball crazed and we went all the time (with a student ID, it cost no more than a movie), and we got to watch Howard and Boyer and Kubek and a team that was always in contention. But after I was married, though I successfully made my wife a baseball fan, the roster had turned over: the big bopper of the early 70s was Curt Blefary (who?), and his supporting cast included the likes of Horace Clarke, Stan Bahnsen and Jerry Kelley. I remember us arriving there on a promotional day when anyone under 14 got in free. Nancy was 22, but we thought she could pass; she put her hair in a pony tail and untucked her blouse, bought one seat, and made it past the ticket-taker before a security guard gave her the fish-eye and sent us back to the box office. But we kept going to games, though the stadium was literally disintegrating around us: one night (it was a playoff game), a light mist was falling, and we thought we’d be OK because we were in the lower deck protected by the mezzanine, but the water was channeling down the rusting girders over us and splattering on our heads like a cold shower until we gave up and left in the fifth.

Still, win or lose, the park itself — particularly in the daytime — had grace and majesty, a dependable thrill whenever I emerged from the ramp into the sun and saw that distinctive columned façade and that extraordinary curve (is there a mathematical name for it?) that enclosed two-thirds of the field. Anyone could have thought up Shea – just draw a circle, stick a diamond in it, and fill it with seats. Some of the newer parks like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, at least on TV, look inviting and stylish. But none of them has the charisma of the ballpark in the Bronx.

Dave Anderson asked, in the Times last week, what’s the big deal about the Stadium closing? It’s not as if the team is moving to Los Angeles; they’ll be at the same subway stop, a few hundred yards away, in a new Yankee Stadium that will closely resemble the old one. Granted, Dave.

But the idiosyncrasies will be gone. No more Monument Park right there on the field of play (everyone has seen film of Bobby Murcer trying to wedge himself between two stone slabs as he chases down a ball); no men’s rooms with long troughs for urinals; no more wooden seats, painted blue, with just the right curve for the spine. Instead, diminished capacity because of the sky boxes, huge price increases, and of course a very iffy team in the midst of a difficult transition. No longer will a rookie outfielder trot to his position in the first inning thinking, “I’m standing where Babe Ruth stood.” Instead, it will be more like “Hey, I might be the best right fielder who ever played here.”

Further reading: Harvey Frommer, Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of “The House That Ruth Built” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2008).

Richard Horwich teaches English at New York University and writes about Shakespeare, sports, and food.

Cutting Corners

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Now that WaMu’s been seized by the government (before being sold off to JP Morgan) is it too much to ask that we get all our corner 99 cent stores and bodegas back?

Photo from an old 1000 Bars post, lamenting the Brooklyn Bank Virus.

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Adapting Moby-Dick (I)

newyorker_moby_demi.gifBryan’s reference to the mid-1990s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore reminded me of a cartoon that ran in the November 20, 1995 issue of The New Yorker. Drawn by Warren Miller and entitled “Moby Dick the Demi Moore Version,” the cartoon pictured a big, dead, white whale (with crosses for eyes) hanging from a scaffold. At the bottom left were a peg-legged man holding a harpoon in his left hand and hugging a buxom lass with his right arm. (Click the thumbnail at right to go to the cartoon’s page at cartoonbank.com.)

The thing is, Hollywood has already made the Demi Moore version Moby-Dick — twice.

The first was a silent adaptation called The Sea Beast (1926), adapted by Bess Meredyth and starring John Barrymore, Sr. as Ahab Ceeley (yes, they gave him a last name); George O’Hara as Ahab’s brother, Derek (yes, they gave him a brother); and Dolores Costello as as Ahab’s love interest Esther Harper (yes, they gave him a love interest!). Plus, there’s a dog.

The film was remade with sound as Moby Dick (1930), with Barrymore reprising the role of Ahab Ceeley, though the writing credits are given to Oliver H.P. Garrett (for the adaptation) and  J. Grubb Alexander (for the dialogue and screenplay). Lloyd Hughes now plays Derek, and Ahab’s love interest is renamed Faith Mapple and played by Joan Bennett.There’s still a dog.

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But this time, with the Melville Revival underway, the filmmakers decide to acknowledge that Moby-Dick is a classic book, so the film opens with a book opening:

md_1930_book.jpgAnd then we get some text. If you’re expecting “Call me, Ishmael,” you’re going to be disappointed, though if you paid attention to the open credits, you’ve already realized that there can’t be a “Call me, Ishmael,” because — well, there’s no Ishmael.

md_1930_credits.jpgSo here’s the text we see. It’s not particularly Melvillean:

md_1930_words_1.jpgThe next screen is a little bit better (but not much):

md_1930_words_2.jpgI often show clips from this version to my American Lit I classes, which have read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and learned about Hawthorne’s remark about “d___d scribbling women.” I suggest to them that what Hollywood does to Moby-Dick in these two adaptations is to transform the novel so that it fits into the tradition of sentimentality against which Melville was positioning his novel. Gone, with Ishmael, are any hints of the homosocial, though Queequeg is retained — as Ahab’s buddy.

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Noble Johnson as Queequeg and John Barrymore, Sr. as Ahab in Moby Dick (1930)

What happens? Well, let’s just say that the logic of domesticity and marriage prevails (sorry, Moby). Ahab goes off to seek revenge on the white whale because the whale has maimed him and thus rendered him undesirable in Faith’s eyes — or so he believes. When he returns (yes, he returns) from his successful hunt (yes, I said “successful”), he finds that Faith has, well, kept the faith.

I found a copy of the Sea Beast on DVD from amazon.ca. It’s not a very good print. The opening credits identify it as a transfer from a
print held by the George Eastman House, originating from the Henry
A. Strong collection, and it interpolates some of the opening of the 1930 Moby Dick. Unfortunately, the later sound version does not seem to be able on any kind of video. I was lucky enough to tape a copy years ago when it was shown on TNT.

I figure if Moby-Dick can survive its sentimentalization in these two early Hollywood films, it can survive the new anime adaptation as well.

But, guess what: when I write “new anime adaptation” I mean “new anime adaptation” and not “new, anime adaptation.” You see, there’s already been an anime adaptation — and it takes even more liberties with the story than the new version promises to do.

Stay tuned for a later post in which all will be revealed.

Adaptations ahoy!

Yglesias laments the recent announcement of a new Moby-Dick film adaptation — directed by the guy with the unspellable last name who just directed Wanted, written by a team that has only teen comedies to their credit (including the Olsen twins vehicle New York Minute), and co-produced by the folks who’re bring us the American history adventure series National Treasure. (Recall Nicolas Cage peering at the all-seeing eye on a dollar bill: “I think the Illuminati were trying to send us secret messages!”)

Is it indulging in Ivory Tower elitism to join Matt in thinking: “Terrifying!” — and not in a good, White-Whale-crushing-your-boat way?

Part of what’s to be lamented, apparently, is that the writers are conceiving this as “an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the
advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an
action-adventure revenge story” — something more akin to dramatizing a graphic novel.

Actually, Melville wrote that version of the story himself. And then he spent a year rewriting it into Moby-Dick. Biographer Delbanco draws on Melville’s own words to set the scene as a vampire story:

Looking back at his labors on Moby-Dick, Melville saw “two books … being writ … the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for [his] own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink.”  Moby-Dick was Melville’s vampire book. It sapped him — but not before he had invented a new kind of writing that, we can now see, anticipated the kind of modernist prose that expresses the author’s stream of consciousness without conscious self-censorship.

So what’s lost in reducing Melville’s two-in-one grand-slam to a film adaptation of a graphic novel? Lots, I suspect, as is true with all other film versions of the book. This time they’re jettisoning the first-person narration, for one — something most of the graphic novel adaptations of the book don’t even manage, as far as I can tell.

The news of the new adaptation — and its conception in relation to graphic novels — led me to do some poking around. I quickly realized the graphic adaptation of Melville’s book had gone through many more versions than I was aware of. I grew up on the old Illustrated Classics rendition; my wife picked up one for our kids when she worked for Scholastic. We own the pop-up version, of course. What self-respecting Am Lit professor under age 50 doesn’t?

Moby Dick - preview.jpgBut I hadn’t realized until this morning that there’s a Will Eisner version, along with two others that feature major figures from my experience as a teenage comic book collector in the 1980s: Dick Giordano and Bill Sienkiewicz. And just this year Marvel published a six-installment adaptation, due for single-volume hardcover release next month (see illustration to the left). I’ve just put in orders for all of the above — of course there are many more — but I have to say that list of names here heartens me. Certainly some of these adaptations are smart? Maybe this will turn out better than the 90s version of The Scarlet Letter, before filming which Demi Moore didn’t even feel the need to read the novel.

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THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

The Chicago Cubs defeated the New York Mets last night, 9-5, clinching home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs and damaging the Mets’ playoff hopes.

This morning’s New York Times reminds us of a match-up between baseball clubs from Chicago and New York that took place one hundred years ago today in the old Polo Grounds in Harlem, which also adversely affected the New York team’s playoff chances.

On September 23, 1908, the New York Giants had a one-game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the standings, and their game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. With a man on first and two outs, nineteen-year-old Fred Merkle, the Giants’ rookie first baseman, hit a single, sending the runner to third. The next batter hit a fastball over second base, a clear base hit, and the man on third scored, giving the game to the Giants. Had the ball not been hit out of the infield, Merkle could have been called out at second on a force play, but because the ball was hit out of the infield, Merkle didn’t run all the way to second — which was customary. But Johnny Evers, the Chicago second baseman, retrieved the ball, took it to second, argued that Merkle should be called out and the run nullified. The umpire at second refused to rule, but at 10:00 p.m. — from the safety of his hotel room — he ruled Merkle out.

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 New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle in 1908.

To make a long story short, the game was ruled a tie; the Cubs and Giants ended the regular season tied, forcing a one-game playoff — which Chicago won. They went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series — and that was the last World Series the club ever won. Make of that what you will.

Merkle went on to have a respectable 14-year career, but he never really lived down his “mistake” — which, given the conventions in use at the time, wasn’t really a mistake at all.

Kevin Baker’s account in the Times is more detailed and a lot more vivid. Take a look.

And you can read the Times account of the game from one hundred years ago here.

THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

This is a week of endings for New York baseball. The Yankees played their last game at Yankee Stadium last night and will move across the street to a new stadium next year. The Mets final season at Shea Stadium also seems also to be coming to its end, though (as of today) they remain in the hunt for both the division title and, failing that, a wild card berth. But when you have to start a rookie pitcher against the National League’s best team (the Chicago Cubs, who have already clinched the Central Division title) and that rookie gives up a grand slam to a pitcher; and when the governor of New York, David Patterson, jokes about the unreliability of the Mets’ relief pitchers (“The Mets bullpen is gonna kill me. It’s not the Fed, it’s not AIG, …it’s the Mets bullpen.”) . . . well, perhaps the handwriting is on the wall.

So it might be a good time for New York fans to find some cheer by remembering the city’s association with the beginnings of the game.

One hundred-sixty-five years ago today, on September 23, 1843, a bank clerk named Alexander Joy Cartwright (1820-1892) codified the constitution and by-laws of the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. While still a member of Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12 during the previous year, Cartwright had been playing regular games of “town ball” on a vacant lot in Manhattan. The by-laws for the New York Knickerbocker were signed by the team’s Committee on By-Laws, which included Duncan Curry, the president; William Wheaton, the vice-president; and William Tucker, the secretary and treasurer. The by-laws also contained a set of 20 rules, written down by Cartwright, which were later published in pamphlet form. Many of the Knickerbockers had been members of the Gotham Base Ball Club, which had been formed in 1837, and it is thought that the Knickerbocker Club may have existed informally before its official founding moment.

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Members of the New York Knickerbockers baseball team. Alexander Cartwright is in the top row, center. [Source: www.19thcbaseball.com]

Something close to baseball was being played in the New York area since at least 1823. In 2001, George A. Thompson Jr., a research librarian at NYU, discovered two newspaper accounts of a game played in April 1823 in New York City on a site just west of Broadway between what is now Eighth Street and Washington Place (largely occupied, appropriately enough, by buildings belonging to NYU). It seems that both the National Advocate and the New-York Gazette and General Advertiser had  received the same letter from someone who had observed the game.

The Gazette summed up the letter in a paragraph that began: “We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base
ball.” The Advocate published a longer account: “I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men
playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and
that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond
of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity.” Thompson noted at the time
that the letter contained no explanation of what “base ball” was, suggesting its author assumed that it would be familiar enough to
newspaper readers.

It was Cartwright’s rules, however, that ultimately distinguished “baseball,” which became known as the “New York Game,” from both “town ball” and another variant called “The Massachusetts Game.” Cartwright’s rules laid the foundation for modern baseball:three strikes to a batter, three outs to an inning, tags and force-outs in lieu of hitting a runner with a thrown ball, and the addition of an umpire. (Throwing the ball at a runner is still played in some schoolyard variants of baseball, and it’s called “pegging.”) The rules also established the idea of “fair” and “foul” territories; in town ball, the batter could run no matter where the ball was hit. You can find a listing of the rules in the Wikipedia entry for the New York Knickerbockers and more information about the team at 19thcbaseball.com.

The Knickerbockers eventually began to play their games in Hoboken, New Jersey at a place called Elysian Fields. What baseball historians refer to as “the first officially recorded game” took place at Elysian Fields on June 19, 1846. Cartwright’s Knickerbockers lost to the New York Nine that day, 23-1, but in the end they prevailed: the game was played according to “Knickerbocker Rules,” which were then widely imitated. Their style of play ultimately proved more popular than the variant played in Massachusetts.

So you see, as my father-in-law would put it, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox come by their rivalry honestly.

circus_amok_redline.jpgYesterday evening, my family and I went to Washington Square Park to catch Circus Amok‘s second show of the day. This year’s show is called “Sub-Prime Sublime,” and it features some of the circus’s trademark set pieces: the opening on stilits; the introductory patter by director and bearded lady Jennifer Miller; juggling by “the Liberty Sisters” (Sybil, Statua, and Liberty Belle), all of whom have beards; tumbling fun; and left-liberal politics. As its title suggests, this year’s show takes aim at those responsible for the lending practices and speculation that have brought the country to the brink of economic cataclysm. Indeed, givent the events of the past week, the show has probably become even more timely than it was at its first performance at the beginning of the month. Dick Cheney loomed large (as a target) in last year’s show, “Bee-Dazzled,” but this year the Bushies barely rate a mention, though Sarah Palin is excoriated at the conclusion of the show by a large puppet-head representing Shirley Chisolm.

This year’s edition sends a blonde-wigged Dorothy (played by Michelle Matlock), who has been rendered homeless in the aftermath of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, on a quest to visit the CERN particle accelrator in search of answers to the great mysteries of the day, accompanied by the Liberty Sisters (Miller, Carlton Ward, and Fernando Wanderley) and Harry Potter (Victor Vauban, Jr.), who’s trying to escape being burned. In addition to Chisolm, the finale features a visit from R. Buckminster Fuller.

My kids, almost-eight- and four-years-old respectively, laughed hysterically at the hijinks, and the older one pronounced it better than last year’s (I think he got more of the jokes).

Here’s a video excerpt of the show shot by yours truly:

You can catch the show at Bedford Playground at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday; Battery Park at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Friday; Seward Park at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. The final performances of this year’s season take place on Sunday in Tompkins Square Park at 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Impact

A rather remarkable drama unfolded last week over on Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man blog:

no_impact_man.jpgAfter nearly being crushed by a black Mercedes driven by a recognizable state senator, Jeff Klein, who happens to have an autocentric voting record to say the least, not to mention a foul mouth and a general lack of civility, Beavan asked his readers to phone Klein’s office to demand he meet with Beavan and others from Transportation Alternatives.

I’m impressed most of all by Beavan’s call for his readers to exercise civility even as they engage in this little bit of political and environmental activism. When I get squeezed off the road by a suit in a black Mercedes, I often lose my temper and come out with the same kind of language Klein deals in. My bad.

In any case, after hundreds of phonecalls, Klein’s office agreed to set up the meeting. Should be interesting.

Via Streetsblog. Photo credit: ABC News.

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