April 2009

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The Bowery Boys have a terrific post up today commemorating the 70th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair. It’s packed, as their posts always are, with terrific images, including this one from Life magazine:


The Perisphere, as this structure was known, happens to be the setting for one of my favorite scenes from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon’s hero, Sam Clay, is taken to the abandoned fairgrounds somewhat against his will by his new boyfriend, Tracy Bacon. Chabon describes their entry into the Perisphere this way:

The Perisphere was supported by a kind of tee, a ring of evenly spaced pillars joined to it at its antarctic circle, so to speak, all the way around. The idea had been for the great bone-white orb, its skin rippled with fine veins like a cigar wrapper, to look as if it were floating there, in the middle of the pool of water. Now that there was no water, you could see the pillars, and you could see Tracy Bacon, too, standing in the middle of them, directly under the Perisphere’s south pole.
     “Hey,” Sammy said, rushing to the wall and leaning across its top.  “What are you doing? That whole thing could come right down on top of you!”
     Bacon looked at him, eyes wide, incredulous, and Sammy blushed; it was exactly what his mother would have said.

After they hoist themselves up through a trap door and explore the interior for a while, lighting their way with cigarette lighters and occasionally stepping on buildings from model towns, we get this end to the chapter:

     “Ow!” Sammy said, dropping his lighter. “Ouch!”
     Bacon let his own flame go out. “You have to kind of pad it with your necktie, dopey,” he said. He grabbed Sammy’s hand. “This the one?”
     “Yeah,” Sammy said. “The first two fingers. Oh. Okay.”
     They lay there for a few seconds, in the dark, in the future, with Sammy’s sore fingertips in Tracy Bacon’s mouth, listening to the fabulous clockwork of their hearts and lungs, and loving each other.

It’s the kind of scene Chabon writes best.

The other New York anniversary for today, the BBs also inform us, is Washington’s inauguration: April 30, 1789. Two hundred twenty years ago today, America got its first president. The events at Federal Hall on Wall St. were described by William Maclay, Senator from Pennsylvania and inveterate if cranky diarist, this way:

“The President advanced between the Senate and
Representatives, bowing to each. He was placed in the chair by the
Vice-President; the Senate with their president on the right, the
Speaker and the Representatives on his left. The Vice-President rose
and addressed a short sentence to him. The import of it was that he
should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have
forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for
some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. He finished with a formal
bow, and the President was conducted out of the middle window into the
gallery, and the

Washington takes the oath

oath was administered by the Chancellor. Notice that
the business done was communicated to the crowd by proclamation, etc.,
who gave three cheers, and repeated it on the President bowing to them.

As the company returned into the Senate chamber, the President took
the, chair and the Senators and Representatives, their seats. He rose,
and all arose also, and addressed them. This great man was agitated and
embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed
musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read,
though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of
what I think the tailors call the faIl of the breeches (corresponding
to the modern side-pocket), changing the paper into his left (right)
hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of
his right hand.

When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish
with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression. I
sincerely, for my part, wished all set ceremony in the hands of the
dancing-masters, and that this first of men had read off his address in
the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper, for I
felt hurt that he was not first in everything.

He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword.”

More on the day’s events here, which is where I found the Maclay account. You can also find some good stuff here, including images of the 1939 medallion that commemorated both the President and the Fair:


Once the oath of office and speeches were through, Washington and company paraded to St. Paul’s, a few blocks to the north, and once the requisite prayers had been offered, the President headed home, down Broadway, all the way to the bottom, where the Smithsonian Museum of the Native American now stands.

Prepare Ye

So I looked back at last year’s Angels post, which I linked to earlier today, and noticed the link had been disabled to the Godspell number “Prepare Ye”: an earlier Broadway/Hollywood use of Bethesda Fountain.

Here’s another link to the same clip:

And, for good measure, because I know you love cities — especially this one — and that you also have a hankering for kitschy religious musicals, I give you another terrific number from the same film adaptation:

To close my second lecture on Kushner’s Angels in America, I typically show two film clips, one from Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film, and one from the HBO production of Angels. I preface the clips with the idea that they will illustrate the process by which old meanings and materials get reassembled into something new — a note the play hits over and over — in this case, a new set of meanings assigned to the angel at Bethesda fountain in Central Park. (I wrote a long meditation on the fountain and its incorporation into Kushner’s play last year around this time; it includes — along with great clips from Godspell and video of the street performer Thoth — my discussion of a historical flaw the Burns film makes regarding the fountain, as well as my defense of the mistake: Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true!)

The final scene of the play is also about the magic of the theater–the real effects of something artificially staged. “The magic of the theater” is a phrase Harper, the valium-popping Mormon housewife, uses earlier in the play when she encounters a magically speaking mannequin in the Mormon visitors’ center uptown. At the conclusion, Prior breaks through the fourth wall to address the audience directly, in a way doing something like what the pioneer woman from the diorama did for Harper.

Here’s the fountain scene:

And here’s how I read that moment, when Prior ends the play by blessing the audience: above all, it needs to be understood in the context of other blessings mentioned in the play – blessings that come from wrestling, struggling with the Almighty, as the Rabbi and Louis’s grandmother say Louis needs to do. This would include blessings raised intertextually: Jacob’s inheritance, as well as his blessing and new name received after struggling with the angel and ascending to heaven — one of Prior’s antecedents.

All of these blessings are intensely physical, and bodily issues are ever present in this play, as you might expect from a play dealing with AIDS. There is promise and peril in the exchange of fluids, particles — little pieces of Louis going up Joe’s nose. The experience of watching Angels, especially in the theater, is likewise extremely physical: by the time you get to the Bethesda blessing at the end, your body is aching from laughing and crying so hard–something that isn’t totally replicated in the experience of watching it on TV. At least I remember my sides splitting and a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion by the time we got to the end.

I think what Kushner’s getting at in having Prior perform a blessing as the play’s conclusion is again metatheatrical: rituals and blessings are among the oldest uses of theater, the oldest ways to organize new communities. Rituals like this one promise “more life,” which, as Kushner notes in a postscript, is a translation for the Hebrew word for “blessing.” I know some people who are offended by the blessing at the end of the play — that it’s foisted on the audience whether or not they want it, that it comes off as condescending to pronounce your viewers fabulous citizens, that in order to do so Kushner had to think pretty highly of his own prophetic calling. But that’s not how I see it — or feel it — at all. Count me among the converted: I’ll take that kind of blessing any day.

openforumsexandthecity.jpgFriends of mine know how much I detest Sex and the City and the loathsome version of New York it celebrates. Among its more repulsive effects: the proliferation of downtown cupcake shops with long lines of midwestern ladies stretching from the Sex and the City tour bus to the shiny glass counters inside, clogging sidewalks, winding around corners. I have nothing against cupcakes, but I do not think you should have to stand in line for them, especially behind people who think that Carrie Bradshaw is someone to emulate.

Thanks to Teri Tynes, author of the always useful and edutaining blog Walking Off the Big Apple, we now know that Sex and the City has somehow managed to go back in time and infect the Village in the early ’80s with an anachronistic love of red velvet and buttery frosting. Writing for Reframe about the Tribeca Film Festival, Teri gives us the down and dirty:

In an early sequence of An Englishman in New York, a film
receiving its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, we
see Quentin Crisp (John Hurt) walking — well, more like floating,
placing one foot in front of another as a ballet dancer on a tightrope,
along MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. The year is 1981. As he
turns and walks west down the charming and colorfully decorated Minetta
Lane, it’s possible to spot a chronological oddity in the background.
In just a glimpse, a relatively new cupcake shop, opened in a small
storefront in 2007 or 2008, appears on the shot of MacDougal. The shop,
a cultural artifact of a later time, specifically Sex and the City, a cupcake-generating TV phenomenon of the straight girl’s sexual revolution, might appear as an anachronism for some viewers.

Teri turns this anachronism into a smart reading of the film — which sounds like a relevant supplement to this week’s lectures in Writing New York. (The rest of Teri’s piece here.) But the idea of the specialty cupcake’s evil empire heading back in time is enough to make me want to make me run screaming downtown to that as-yet ungentrified neighborhood, Tribeca. Surely I’d still be able to afford a loft there …

WNY Speed Levitch

Bryan began his lecture on Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America today with a brief clip from the video of the “Central Park Sunset Tour” that Timothy “Speed” Levitch took us on three years ago. By that time, we’d been showing excerpts from The Cruise, Bennett Miller‘s documentary about Levitch and his Grayline bus tours, for a couple of years, and when one of our TAs turned out to have a connection Levitch and found out that he was going to be in town . . . well, we jumped at the chance to have him lead us and some of our students on our tour.

Levitch began the tour auspiciously, for our purposes, talking about Central Park and cosmopolitanism, and he then led us to Bethesda Fountain to talk about the “healing waters” of the Croton Aqueduct. It’s that moment that Bryan showed this morning. (Those of you who know the play know why.)


Spring 2006: Speed leads the “Central Park Sunset Tour” to the healing waters of Bethesda Fountain.

Recently, a couple of our former students saw Speed filming outside of Grace Church. They introduced themselves and told Speed the latest about the Writing New York course. Speed wasn’t in town long enough to lead us on another tour, but in an e-mail he told us, “I was with a few Texans. Mystical Texans. Richard Linklater, me, Franklin and Kevin … when we met the gals, we were finishing up a three-day-guerrilla-shoot for a new show we’re working on called Magical History Tour.”

If you’re interested in a quick Levitch fix, check out this interview with Speed, conducted by our former student Toni Cruthirds, who has a blog devoted to New York City experiences.

And you can read Bryan’s account of the Sunset Tour on the site The Great Whatsit.

Gotham: a dark and complex Manhattan. Ingredients: Maker’s Mark bourbon, vermouth, kahlua.

Source: The Redhead, 349 E. 13th Street New York, New York 10003, http://www.theredheadnyc.com.

The Gotham is one of a number of interesting drinks on the menu at The Redhead, which the owners describe as a “neighborhood restaurant.” Not to be missed: the bacon peanut brittle! On Sunday, May 3, the restaurant is hosting its 2nd annual Crawfish Boil, starting at 1:00 p.m. and lasting until 10:00 p.m. (or whenever the crawfish runs out). It’s $29.99 per plate and includes crawfish, sausage, corn, potato, artichoke, and roasted garlic. No reservations.


Sal’s “Wall of Fame” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing
is in part a response to a series of racially charged incidents of violence against African Americans in New York during the 1980s, the film depicts a racially diverse neighborhood, primarily African American, in which Puerto Ricans, an Italian American family, a Korean couple who own the local grocery store, a WASP brownstone-owner, and white cops all play important roles.

The drama in the film erupts around the question of whether Sal, an Italian American who owns the local pizza joint, should display pictures of African Americans on his “Wall of Fame,” which honors famous Italian Americans only. Sal invokes the rights of private property, but he is challenged by Buggin’ Out, a young African American who points out that Sal’s customers are almost all African Americans. Sal, the movie suggests, has a right to hang what he wants on his walls, but–given that the pizzeria is also an important community space for the neighborhood–is omitting African Americans the right thing to do?

Part of the neighborhood’s problem is that no one can talk about problems like this without resorting to shouting or, even worse, racially charged language. The neighborhood’s civil society is impaired because it lacks any sense of civil discourse. Even friends swear at each other and refer to one another as “nigger,” and in one of the film’s signature set pieces (described in the script as the “racial slur montage”), some of the film’s characters do “the dozens”–a ritual of “trash talking” that is an element from African American oral tradition–by insulting different ethnic groups; the African American Mookie insults Italians; the Italian Pino insults blacks; the Puerto Rican Stevie insults Koreans; the white police officer insults Puerto Ricans; and the Korean grocery-store owner insults Ed Koch (and by extension New York’s Jews). 

Uncivil discourse is the norm in this neighborhood on a good day, and therefore at a moment of crisis, the neighborhood’s residents lack the linguistic resources to stave off violence through conversation and negotiation. Challenged by Buggin’ Out and the menacing Radio Raheem, Sal, for most of the film the voice of reason and cross-ethnic and racial sympathy, suddenly spews racist invective, which leads to a riot. The film depicts the failure of cosmopolitan conversation, although the one bright spot is that the Koreans are spared the wrath of the primarily African American crowd, which is persuaded by the grocery-store owner’s plea, “Me no white. Me no white. Me Black. Me Black. Me Black.” 

Do the Right Thing presents the opportunity for cosmopolitanism, but dramatizes the powerful obstacles that prevent it from being realized.

Today’s lecture on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) presented the film as if it were a rejoinder to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It wasn’t intended that way of course, but juxtaposing the two films enable us to highlight aspects of each film that might otherwise be obscured. From the perspective of Lee’s Brooklyn, Woody Allen’s Manhattan appears even more restricted in its purview, and deliberately retrograde in its nostalgia and final hopefulness. Meanwhile, watching Do the Right Thing with Allen’s film in mind makes us more aware of the way in which Lee’s film is deliberately stylized and artificial. Allen evokes romanticism through his use of Gershwin’s music, but Lee’s film has the same relation to cinematic “realism” that Hawthorne’s “romances” had to the novels that he considered to be bound to a “minute fidelity” to the “ordinary and probable” (as he put it in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables): Lee needs to sprinkle in the “marvelous” in order to go beyond realism and reach what Hawthorne called “the truth of the human heart.”

Watch the two openings for yourself below. Compare Lee’s use of images, cinematography, music, and spoken words in the title montage for Do the Right Thing to Allen’s use of these cinematic elements in Manhattan? In what ways are the montages different? What, for all their differences, do these two montages have in common?

The opening montage of Manhattan lasts for about 3 1/2 minutes. The opening credits for Do the Right Thing are a minute longer. 


Seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and 42-year-old Isaac (Woody Allen) out together in Manhattan (1979).

In our Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City, Woody Allen’s Manhattan serves as an emblem for the shifting dynamics of ethnic cultures in the city’s literary and cultural history.

Manhattan was the follow-up to Woody Allen’s successful romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977), which used a failing love relationship to explore Allen’s sense of the differences not only between Jews and WASPs (the film critic Pauline Kael described the film as “the neurotic’s version of Abie’s Irish Rose”), but also between the cultures of New York and Los Angeles.  Annie declares New York “a dying city,” but the film suggests that its virtue lies precisely in its connection to the past.

Annie Hall was a defense of New York in the aftermath of its celebrated fiscal crisis of the 1970s, but in Manhattan Allen resists the temptation to romanticize the city. The film begins in a romantic vein with a stunning montage of scenes from the city that shows off the film’s widescreen black-and-white cinematography, as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays on the soundtrack. But the romantic imagery serves only to heighten the contrast between the grandeur of the city and the smallness of the lives that the film goes on to depict.

Manhattan‘s New York is a rarefied place, consisting mostly of midtown Manhattan, from Lincoln Center to the Upper East Side, a reflection of the limited perspective of its protagonist, Isaac Davis. The choice of Gershwin’s music not only emphasizes Isaac’s propensity for nostalgia, but also serves as an emblem for both Isaac’s and Allen’s aspirations: Gershwin, after all, was a Jewish popular entertainer from New York who yearned to be accepted as a “serious” artist. Running throughout both Annie Hall, which begins with a jokey conversation about anti-Semitism, and Manhattan is the worry that Jews remain outsiders in some crucial way.
By the late 1970s, however, Jewish American literature could no longer be considered either marginalized or emergent. Saul Bellow had won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” and Allen’s Annie Hall had received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress. As Robin Bernstein points out in her Companion contribution on gay and lesbian theater, citing Cherrié Moraga’s reaction to Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, “Jewish humor … is ‘synonymous with New York’ and abundant on Broadway and television,” and therefore can serve to make a challenging play like Angels in America palatable to audience members who otherwise might resist representations of gay experience.

In other words, Rodney Dangerfield may claim that he gets no respect, but the tradition of Jewish humor to which he belongs has become, by the time of Kushner’s play, eminently respectable. And that may be one of the things that worries Allen and his protagonist Isaac Davis the most in Manhattan. Perhaps it explains the need for the seventeen-year-old girlfriend.

What was it the Stones sang on their 1978 New York album Some Girls? “We’re so respectable …”


This morning Cyrus is lecturing on Woody Allen’s Manhattan in our Writing New York class. It’s one of my favorite lectures of the semester — one of the real pleasures of team-teaching a course like this. Even better, sometimes, than getting to teach some of your favorite books or other cultural artifacts is getting to listen to someone else do it.

I’ve seen the Allen film probably a dozen times by now, but I really don’t ever get sick of it. For one, it’s interesting to return to it each spring with a group of new students — many of whom haven’t seen it before. (I know, it seems amazing! When I was in college one of the first rites of passage was finding the right group of people with whom you could rent — and then memorize and recite whole chunks of — Woody Allen’s oeuvre.)

cemetery.jpgOne of my favorite viewings of the film, though, came not for the class but during a summer’s research trip to LA, when I went with a few friends to see it outdoors at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I wrote about that viewing elsewhere, if you want to read my whole take on the weird LA/NY tension that organized the evening, but for now I want to call out a moment near the end of my post when I misquoted some lines from the film’s ending. I wrote:

When he lectures on this movie, my team-teacher asks our students to consider what it means that the film ends where it does. Why go back to Tracy? What does it mean to make her the film’s moral center? What does it mean that she refuses to put off her London plans, that she delivers the final injunction to have a little faith in people (even as she acknowledges that everyone gets corrupted sometime)?

From my misremembering of Tracy’s line, I went on to speculate on how Tracy’s face aims to work for viewers:

Is the return to Tracy too easy, too predictable — a reaffirmation of traditionalist masculine fantasy in the face of things like the ERA (invoked in Bella Abzug’s MOMA fundraiser cameo)? Or can we take it seriously that Tracy’s face, which Allen’s camera has lovingly preserved for posterity (remember that scene when she cries? The size
of those tears!), belongs at the end of his index of things that make life worth living? Here’s the list in full, delivered by Isaac to his tape recorder/proxy therapist:


Well, all right, why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Um. Well, there are certain things I — I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um, for me … oh, I would say … what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing … uh ummmm and Willie Mays, and um, uh, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and ummmm … Louie
Armstrong’s recording of “Potatohead Blues” … umm, Swedish movies, naturally … “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert … uh, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra … ummm, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne … uh, the crabs at Sam Wo’s … tsch, uh, Tracy’s face …

Every one of these items reaffirms not only the film’s nostalgic tone, but more specifically its nostalgia for traditional masculinity, bodily pleasure, or male artistic prowess, even as they can be read more innocently as merely celebrating a range of human productions that do indeed counteract the universe’s terrifying problems. The film manages to convince its viewers of this second reading, at least if viewers like us, nestled among the graves of dead celebrities, can be taken as representative.

In the comments thread, my friend Wendy, with whom I’d gone to see the film, pointed out my mistake:

I believe Tracy’s last lines of the move are “Not everybody gets corrupted. You gotta have a little faith in people,” an idea which only reinforces Tracy’s role as the film’s moral center – and the hope that we all have that cities and lovers will be the same when we return to them, even though we know, really know that they won’t. The very act
of watching this movie, which won’t be corrupted – it will be the same every time we watch it, no matter where we see it – is one way for us to live Tracy’s last lines. In this sense the movie becomes our Tracy. That Diane Keaton will always say Van Gogh “Van Gawk” or that the soundtrack to fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge will always
be Gershwin is a way for us to have a touchstone that is pure, that is faith-inspiring, no matter how your life has changed since the last time you saw it.

And another LA friend, Ruben, disputed my reading of the tape-recorder-therapy laundry list:

As for the famous list, I loved it as a younger person but it strikes me as more than a little self-aggrandizing now. I realize that part of the point is that it makes us consider what our own lists might look like but Woody veers dangerously close to those NYRB personal ads where the people define themselves by all the devastatingly perfect and culturally precise things they like to do and places they like to go. In his defense, I remember a specific joke of his about those ads, something along the lines of “Sensitive intellectual would like to get together for discussions of Kafka and sodomy.”

Granting that I’d gotten Tracy’s line wrong, was I right about the list? Or is Ruben right that it’s a pastiche of pseudo-intellectual cliches? I’d be interested in hearing how others — our students or other readers — understand the film’s final scenes.

p.s. Wendy, who’s written for a number of major television dramas, posted her own response to the film a week later. I responded to Ruben’s comment — though perhaps lamely — in the comments thread there. Isn’t the interweb magical? Behold its acts of historical preservation.

p.p.s. Speaking of ephemera: The film was shown on the side of Rudolph Valentino’s mausoleum. Not too long ago the blog Ephemeral New York posted on the actor’s 1926 funeral procession down Broadway.

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