Bryan: April 2009 Archives
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.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:
"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.
"Ow!" Sammy said, dropping his lighter. "Ouch!"It's the kind of scene Chabon writes best.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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 ...
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.)
One 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:
In the comments thread, my friend Wendy, with whom I'd gone to see the film, pointed out my mistake:
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: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.
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 ...
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.
Today we celebrate the vital but increasingly endangered institution of the record store. (The proclamation above comes from the mayor of Bloomington, Indiana, but His Majesty Bloomberg has released one as well, encouraging folks to head to J&R or their local neighborhood store.) It's no news that record stores big and small have been battered by new technologies and a damaged economy -- and, I think, by the industry's bad business models. But every time I hear about a small record store folding it hurts: How many times have I walked into a store and left with something I'd never heard of, simply because an employee recommended it or it was playing over the store sound system?
I grew up in the transition phase from vinyl to cassette. I owned both. Most new releases I purchased on cassette -- I never belonged to a mail-order LP club, for instance, the way people only a few years older than I am had -- but for special releases I'd buy vinyl, and I also loved to dig through the used record bins at music stores. The biggest find of my 80s teenage years was a beautiful copy of "U-2 3," a reissue of U2's first EP, which although it wasn't one of the original 1000 copies pressed wasn't the easiest thing in the world to find back then.
I stopped buying vinyl around the time I started buying CDs. I was one of the fools who was convinced they would last longer and sound better. But five or six years ago I realized there was a host of old, weird stuff out there on vinyl, much of it to be had for 50 cents or a dollar, that had never made it to CD and wasn't available for download. So I bought a new turntable and started digging through crates again. Or just picking stuff up off the street when people threw out their old collections. In the last couple years I've returned to buying new releases on vinyl; downloading's convenient, but I do love the tangible artifact, especially when it involves nice artwork.
I've got a date with my record club tonight -- I've written about that venerable East Village institution here -- or I'd probably be at Other Music, listening to Bill Callahan, one of my long-time favorite performers. (I just bought his new release, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, on vinyl the other day, actually.) Maybe I'll catch the DJ set by another favorite act, Grizzly Bear, earlier in the afternoon. (Their Yellow House sounds fantastic as an LP.) Other places I hope to celebrate the day: Generation Records on Thompson, where I bought my daughter an eclectic 7" collection last Christmas, to go along with her own turntable in a suitcase. (She's a fan of antique technologies.) I also really dig the 50 cent bins and classical section at Housing Works. I probably won't buy as much as I tend to when the WFMU record fair rolls around each year -- but I'll gladly pitch in a couple bucks to keep these institutions alive.
What are your favorite record stores or record store moments?
Beloved half-century-old ice cream parlor in Bellerose, Queens, torn down to make room for controversial, as yet unapproved, hotel. Workers take out the neighbor's bushes while they're at it. [Queens Crap]
A podcast on the remaking of The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 [City Room, via BoogieDowner]
Greenpointers! Don't let the recession deprive you of your regular Brazilian waxing! [Unemployed Brooklyn]
Whimsical wooden sunbeams in St. George [Walking Is Transportation]
p.s. Anyone out there know of some other Staten Island blogs?
[Christian] Lorentzen, who penned a polemic called "Why The Hipster Must Die" for Time Out New York in 2007, declared the idea of the hipster a great fraud, and said he had come to apologize for his part in it. "No member of my family, no close friend, no enemy, no rival, no dance partner, no party guest, no barkeep, no doctor, no lawyer, no banker, no artist, no guitar player, no deejay, no model, no photographer, no author, no pilot, no stewardess, no actor, no actress, no television personality, no robber, no cop, no priest, no nun, no hooker, no pimp, no acquaintance known to me, has ever been a hipster," Mr. Lorentzen said.Rest of the piece here. So does he no longer think Mailer was prescient in his prophecy of the coming hipster class? Here's what he had to say a couple years ago, looking back at "The White Negro":
"The fraud held that there are people called hipsters who follow a creed called hipsterism and exist in a realm called hipsterdom," he continued. "The truth is that there was no such culture worth speaking of, and the people called hipsters just happened to be young, and, more often than not, funny-looking."
But plenty of what Mailer prophesised has come to pass. He predicted either widespread rebellion marked by violence, or that "Hip would end by being absorbed as a colourful figure in the tapestry." As it happened, the absorption came after the rebellion. Mailer saw the hipster class which he estimated at around 100,000 "politicians, professional soldiers, newspaper columnists, entertainers, artists, jazz musicians, promiscuous homosexuals, and half the executives of Hollywood, television, and advertising" as a rebel elite that had succeeded the radical Marxist elite of the 1930s at a time when dissent was no longer safe. Whereas Marxism is now less seditious than laughable, the rebel aesthetic has been absorbed and co-opted by the only elite we have left the wealthy.
It seems hardly a week passes that we aren't subjected to a profile in New York, the New Yorker, or the New York Times Magazine of some courageously trend-bucking tycoon rebel. Whatever violence is left isn't perpetrated by hoodlums in candy stores; it grinds away quietly behind the phrase global capitalism. Meanwhile, the character who in the style pages and the service magazines appears under the name hipster is distinguished mostly by the eccentricity and capriciousness of his consumption, repopulating blighted neighbourhoods and ironically reappropriating exhausted cultural artefacts. The menace is gone, but the hipster remains now as merely the most colourful figure in the tapestry of commerce.
Rest of that one here. To me, Lorentzen sounds like a disillusioned believer.
Save Coney Island benefit @ Southpaw, Saturday 11 April [Kinetic Carnival]
Notes on a pre-Parkchester New York Catholic Protectory -- with a terrific postscript on a Staten Island Protectory alumna and the secret file the nuns held over her head for years [Bronx Bohemian]
A gallery of historical images of the Queensboro Bridge, still basking in the glow of its 100th bday celebration [Greater Astoria Historical Society]
Staten Island wins the stimulus package sweeps [WNYC]
Now on view at the Museum of the City of New York: The Worlds of Henry Hudson and much more [MCNY]
"What Was the Hipster?"I'll be on a walking tour in Chinatown that afternoon, but perhaps someone else will avail himself or herself of the invitation and report back. The announcement has relevance to our Writing New York course material this week, especially today's discussion of Howl. In parsing the poem's invocation of "angelheaded hipsters" "dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," I wondered aloud in lecture what relation Ginsberg's imagery had to Norman Mailer's infamous essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," which appeared in Dissent the year after Howl was published and was collected in Mailer's 1959 book Advertisements for Myself. (The essay used to be on Dissent's website in full, but it looks like it's been removed; here's a meditation on it that followed Mailer's death a few years ago -- written by one of the n+1 panelists, it turns out.)
An Afternoon Panel, Symposium, and Historical Investigation
--Saturday, April 11, 2009--
Mark Greif (n+1)
Jace Clayton (dj/Rupture)
Christian Lorentzen (Harper's)
+ Special Guests TBA
Free and Open to the Public
Who was the turn-of-the-century hipster? Who is free enough of the hipster taint to write the hipster's history without contempt or nostalgia? Why do we declare the hipster moment over--that, in fact, it had ended by 2003--when the hipster's "global brand" has just reached its apotheosis?
A panel of n+1 writers invites n+1 subscribers and the public to join a collective investigation. Short presentations will be followed by audience debate, comment, and recollection, to be transcribed and published in book form this year.
Saturday, April 11, 2009, 2 pm - 4 pm.
The New School University, Theresa Lang Center, Arnhold Hall
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor.
Admission: No tickets or reservations required; seating is first-come first-served.
The quote I put on the screen contained Mailer's formulation of the idea that white and black outsider cultures had come together, in the Village, to form a new type: the hipster, which Mailer considered synonymous with "the white negro." Here's the quote:
"In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed--the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life. ... marijuana was the wedding ring."Since we were short on time -- lecture was coming to an end -- I didn't have time to elaborate or contextualize as much as I would have liked. It may not have been clear where Mailer positioned himself in relation to this new cultural type, but in fact he's not being a crank complaining about a phenomenon he finds disturbing. Rather, he identifies himself with the hipster/White Negro he describes. By identifying spiritually with black men's alienation (and with their primitivism and virility, which he also celebrates as psychopathy), he argues, white men can achieve better orgasms and feel more courageous about life in general.
Of course there's a lot in his idea that's offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it's hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it's just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we've examined (Jolson and O'Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It's hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg's angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed's "Waiting for the Man," and Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger." Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn't respect notions of cultural purity?
I kissed Allen Ginsberg. Once. Years ago. It was a wet, full-lipped, slightly scruffy kiss. And I'm sure it was quite different from kissing James Franco--who happens to be playing Allen in Gus Van Sant's upcoming film Howl.[The rest of the post here.]
Pretty sure the Diet Coke and the parka aren't period-appropriate.
I dunno. What do you think? I mean, Ginsberg had his own kind of sexy, but it was a different kind than Franco's. I especially like this early photo:
Is he pointing to his apartment, or just to Moloch in general?
JF does have a history playing smart, sensitive, outsider stoners, though -- all the way back to Freaks and Geeks. But will he be able to pull off the beard?
Maybe the film won't get to the beard phase: it reportedly centers on Ginsberg's 1957 obscenity trial in the wake of Howl's publication. Franco's castmates, according to the Hollywood News, include David Strathairn as prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh, Alan Alda as Judge Clayton Horn, Jeff Daniels as prosecution witness Professor David Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker as radio personality and prosecution witness Gail Potter, and Paul Rudd as literary critic and defense witness Luther Nichols.
Coke with that slice? DEA busts drug-dealing pizza parlor in the Bronx. [Animal]
A guide to Boerum Hill [Lost City]
Images of America publishes new volume on St. George, Staten Island. Plus: "town" or "neighborhood"? [Walking Is Transportation]
The making of Manhattanville: What will be lost when Columbia expands? [Manhattanville.net, via an older post on JVNY]
Bonus: From my own back yard -- if you haven't seen Jon Kessler's amazing installation "Kessler's Circus" at Deitch Projects (76 Grand Street) you've only got through tomorrow. Here's an older VBS.TV documentary series on Kessler, set in his long-time Williamsburg studio, that should give you a feel for the work.
Image from Newyorkology:
James Brooks, Artist, 1938-40
Collection of the City of New York
Marine Air Terminal
Delano & Aldrich, Architects, 1937-40; Restoration by Beyer Blinder Belle, Architects, 1995-6
West end of LaGuardia Airport, Flushing