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From Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise:

[John] Cage’s definitive refutation of Beethoven came in the form of an epic, almost daylong performance of Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations. The original score is only a page long and would normally take just a minute or two to play, but at the top appears this instruction: “In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities.” Cage took this sentence at face value, and, on September 9 and 10, 1963, at the Pocket Theatre in New York, he presented Vexations complete. A team of twelve pianists played from 6:00 p.m. until 12:40 p.m. the following day. The New York Times responded by sending a gang of eight critics to cover the event, one of whom ended up performing. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who remembered the experience when he made an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building the following year.

Cage was the fifth pianist to perform; John Cale was the fourth.

Previously. And.

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One of the ways that I have typically contextualized the final pages of E. B. White’s Here is New York has been to show a clip from Edward R. Murrow’s news program See It Now, which began its life as a radio program called Here It Now, but moved to television in 1951. The show ran for two years and is remembered for the strong stance it took against Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. Some commentators suggest that it played a crucial role in McCarthy’s downfall.

I did not have time this year to show this clip from an eye-opening episode that aired in late 1952 and featured a simulated air raid in which New York City is attacked — a simulation of White’s dreaded “flight of planes.” Take a look and be amazed (not only by the implications of the simulation itself but by Murrow’s on-camera cigarette-smoking: it was a different age!):

How is it that Cookie Monster wasn’t asked to do this years ago?

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Am I the only one who hears the resemblance between these two songs?


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Glee New York

Okay, I know we all have mixed feelings about “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. But, come on, didn’t you get just a little bit of a kick watching the Glee gang perform the song outside their Ohio high school in order to attract new recruits so that they could create a massive wall of sound that would take them all the way to the national glee club finals in — where else — New York City? A New York arc in one of the hottest shows on TV!

Of course, the number went down like a ton of bricks. Natch. William McKinley H.S. did not end up in an Empire State of Mind.

A bit of verisimilitude in a show that is otherwise awash in Broadway-show-tune-1980s-pop hyperreality.

Well, here’s hoping for a Big Apple cameo at season’s end.

Wednesday night, when the new NYU Bookstore (726 Broadway) kicks off its inaugural programming season by featuring our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, Brooklyn-based writer Caleb Crain will be reading from his piece on the literature of nineteenth-century New York’s affluent classes. In the chapter Caleb spends some time with Nathaniel Parker Willis, “the writer who invented the concept of [New York’s] upper ten thousand.” As Caleb notes, Willis remained somewhat ambivalent toward the upper classes and their social rituals, but he was particularly insightful about the role “fashion” played in shoring up the elite’s boundaries:

What did American fashion reward? “Conspicuousness in expense,” Willis wrote with dismay. (A few years later, he would identify New York as “the point where money is spent most freely for pleasure.”) He hoped that this preference was temporary and that Americans could change it by force of will. But he feared that no one would bother to take the problem seriously. Like Willis himself, fashion seemed trifling to most people. He insisted it wasn’t, because it determined which virtues the ruling class would welcome into their beds and thereby into the elite.

I couldn’t help but think about Caleb’s piece while watching last night’s season premiere of Gossip Girl, a guilty pleasure I justify in part because it so clearly positions itself in a Whartonian tradition — or perhaps one that stretches back to Willis — of simultaneous discomfort with and celebration of New York’s moneyed classes. (Whether or not Gosssip Girl‘s tween/teen viewers here or in the hinterlands comprehend the levels of satire at play in the show is another subject for another day.)

This afternoon, New York Magazine‘s Vulture blog posted an amazing interactive chart by which the show’s viewers or other curious onlookers can account for the dense network of sexual activity and romantic relations among the show’s characters. That chart itself reminded me of something else I’d wanted to blog, though it focuses more on Victorian British rather than New York fiction: new work by a team of Columbia University computer science and English Ph.D. students mapping the social networks represented in nineteenth-century novels. (A Berkeley computer science Ph.D. student blogged about it in a post widely re-tweeted by digital humanities types.) Maybe Vulture blog and the Columbia folks can team up to create a similar map of literary New York — something that goes beyond the incestuous network of this one TV show? Caleb’s piece would be a good starting place for discovering inroads into such networks.

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Welcome back

I know I used this last year, in case anyone’s paying attention who would call me on the carpet for the re-run, but I can’t start a new school year without humming the Welcome Back Kotter theme song. As I noted last year, these Brooklyn street scenes and images of the F train were, along with Sesame Street, responsible for most of my sense of what New York City was like when I was a kid in the remote mountains of northern Arizona:

Since I already used that clip last year, I’ll offer up this segment from Gabe’s first day on the job. Though I do live in a building that also houses a couple hundred students, luckily they don’t come climbing through my windows:

And that, my friends, is why Al Gore invented the Internet: so I could eventually rediscover where I picked up the phrase “Off my case, toilet face” as a kid.

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In keeping with the 1977 flashback that’s dominated our late-summer “Don’t Ask Me to Blog, I’m on Vacation” posts, here’s an interview with John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil, founders of Punk Magazine, conducted by an Austrailian teen TV show, Flashez. It has a few regrettable silent spots in the soundtrack.

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I’m still on vacation out West and Cyrus, I believe, has been in Europe in his capacity as an associate dean of humanities for NYU Abu Dhabi. I’ve meant to post more often than I have but really, I’m on vacation, my summer’s short this year, and I just haven’t found the extra energy required.

Still, for those four or five people who haven’t written us off completely yet, I thought I’d at least direct you to recurring features on two blogs I quite admire — both of which are ideas I’d had without being fast enough on the draw to execute.

Both features in question fall into the TV after-show blogging department. The first has to do with Work of Art, Bravo’s New York art world answer to Project Runway, whose formula it shamelessly mimics. Most people I know who have an interest in contemporary art watch the show, though they almost universally despise the contestants, the host, the challenges, and the end results. If it seemed a stretch to expect fashion designers to turn out something worthwhile in the 24-hour period allotted most Project Runway challenges, the task seems even steeper here. The bottom line seems to be: Can artists make anything interesting or even coherent under the circumstances of reality TV competition? Even if the answer, in most cases, has clearly been no, it’s been more than entertaining to watch them try, and it’s also been entertaining to watch critics, artists, and gallerists who are well respected become TV characters themselves. (My own experience with the art world is marginal, I admit: I own a little art, including work by someone formerly represented by one of the judges, and I was for a single show a member of a performance art Patsy Cline covers band with someone who served as a guest judge early on. I have friends who are artists and collectors, though, and at least feel conversant enough to know that Jerry is married to Roberta and to get the ways in which the show both magnifies and distorts the art world’s idiosyncrasies.)

Seriously, though, this show would be much less interesting than I find it if it weren’t for some intelligent and bitingly funny Twitterers (including some of the show’s contestants) and the aftershow posts on the blog Art Fag City. Not only is the main commentary there usually spot on, but the comments threads tend to attract art insiders, including eliminated contestants, and TV insiders who have smart things to say about the way Bravo’s producers are shaping the narrative that emerges over the course of the season. For instance, this week someone in comments introduced us to the Reality TV insider term “Frankenbite,” a set of spliced-together comments from a contestant offered in voice-over to introduce or manipulate a particular narrative thread the show wants to foreground. For the most recent episode this problem emerged when Miles, the OCD (faux-CD?) Machiavellian manipulator and darling of the judges, apparently plotted to get his challenge-mate naked and masturbating as they prepared their piece. (The show comes with a Parental Advisory.) However, as one AFC commentator explained: “if you notice he is not on camera saying those things and the inflection of his voice is different between the parts.” AFC, reviewing the tape, agreed. Do I recommend Work of Art? Yes, especially if you have more than a passing interest in new art. But I wouldn’t recommend the show without the new and social media commentary it occasions.

The same shouldn’t be said for Mad Men, which is, simply, terrific TV all on its own. Knowing that Cyrus was also a die hard fan, I suggested before the current season that we should start a series of Monday morning posts in which we tease out some interesting historical allusions or contexts from the prior night’s episode. The new season seems to have coincided with our summer travel, however, and it doesn’t look likely we’ll pull off this feature, at least not this season. But I’m thrilled to note that the intrepid and indefatigable Bowery Boys, among our favorite NYC history bloggers, have taken up the same idea and are offering post-show history lessons of their own. This morning’s post has to do with an allusion to the Ziegfeld Theater: “I’m not sure if Don Draper would have actually met anybody at the Ziegfeld in December 1964,” the Boys write, “as there were no shows running. Although perhaps NBC was still using it at this time as a soundstage; certainly Don might latch onto a script girl or production assistant while visiting a client filming a commercial.” If you’re into Mad Men, this talk-back feature over at BBs looks like a great way to start your week this season.

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Ric Burns was our guest at the Faculty Resource Network seminar on Wednesday. We screened the seventh episode of New York: A Documentary Film (“The City and the World [1945 – Present]) in the morning and then engaged in a conversation with Ric about the making of the film and about the craft of documentary in the afternoon.

Early in the afternoon session, Ric told us a story about one of his first nights as a resident of the city: lying in bed with the window open, he suddenly became aware of the “roar” of the city — that omnipresent background noise — and he burst into tears. Not out of sadness, he said, but because he felt overwhelmed by the city. New York: A Documentary Film was his attempt to understand the history, meaning, and emotional power of that roar.

Ric cited the work of Joseph Schumpeter and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan as two of the influences that led him to explore what he called the dynamics of “persistence and change, desire and aspiration” that shaped  New York over time. When asked whether any of his beliefs about the city had changed as a result of his making the film, Ric answered that he no longer believed that the city was “unintelligible.” He suggested that much of its history arose from a few big ideas, especially the “experiment” of having all the peoples of the world living together in a single place, united not by ideology or religion but by the desire to pursue commerce. Ric spoke at length about the need for “provisional master narratives” that can help us to make sense of history.

Perhaps Ric’s belief in the importance of provisional master narratives arises from the discipline in which he works. Part of the conversation treated the difference between the documentary film and other forms of documentary representation, and Ric argued that film requires you to think in “a severe and aesthetic way”: every film is a story, even the most postmodern of films. And that story has to resonate with the film’s viewers, sometimes necessitating hard choices.

Ric presented an example of one of those choices by showing us a scene that was cut from the seventh episode (but preserved in rough cut among the extras on the DVD for episode seven). The scene recounts the crashing of a B-52 bomber into the Empire Building in 1945. It’s riveting footage and, seen by itself, makes a powerful statement. But when it was part of the seventh episode, Ric told us, it stopped the narrative flow and felt repetitive — because it was ultimately — in narrative terms — the same scene as the one that opens the episode: Fiorello LaGuardia typing alone on his last night in office and ruing the power that he had allowed Robert Moses to accumulate. Ultimately, according to Ric, the two scenes are both about large-scale forces that have been unleashed by modernity and have come to seem uncontrollable and dangerous.

And putting the footage into the eighth episode didn’t work either. That episode, “New York: The Center of the World,” was made after 9/11 and depicted the story of rise and fall of the World Trade Center as an encapsulation of the forces at work in New York’s history of commerce and globalization. There was no way, Ric said, to use the scene about the Empire State Building crash, without seeming “hideously self-congratulatory.”

Before 9/11, the World Trade Center played only a bit part in the provisional master narrative that the New York series constructed. The building of the towers is referred to only briefly as part of the seventh episode’s treatment of Robert Moses’s attempts to reshape Manhattan. The World Trade Center, Ric said, “came late in a process of anti-urbanism and urban renewal” that was already well-documented in the film. Treating it at length would seem repetitive.

But, “within hours after 9/11,” Ric told us, he realized that he had to make another film. He and his colleagues had fallen prey, he said, to a certain kind of parochial cosmopolitanism that New Yorkers often have: they give cosmopolitanism a lot of lip service, but don’t really pay enough attention to the rest of the world — and what it thinks of them. Noting that people often remember the “clear blue sky” of that day and suggest that the attacks literally happened “out of the blue,” Ric said that the eighth episode was designed to show that 9/11 didn’t come out of the blue at all. “When were those planes really launched,” he mused. “Probably 1945.” But that wasn’t an insight that many viewers weren’t ready to hear, even in 2003 when the film was finally broadcast, and it did receive criticism for its suggestion that New York and the U.S. should bear some responsibility for the attacks. For that reason, using the Empire State Building footage to frame the film would have made the filmmakers seem “insufferable.” (Click here to read an article about the episode in the New York Times.)

We ended the session with a scene from Ric’s latest documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, which explores some of the themes that have interested him before: commerce, industry, and globalization (as in the New York series) and cannibalism (which Ric explored in his film about the Donner Party). The DVD and Blu-Ray of Into the Deep are available now at

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