One of our students snapped this photo in class today while Cyrus was lecturing on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. With our building not fully converted to cooling yet, it certainly felt like the hottest day of the year. And that’s the double truth, Ruth.
If you want to get a flavor of Cyrus’s take on the film — which both draws on the history of racial politics in the making of modern Brooklyn and thinks about the breakdown of civility in American public discourse — you can scroll through the #wny11-tagged Tweets from our Twitter feed. Over time we’ve written about the film here on the blog. Cyrus gathered many useful links around the time of the film’s 20th anniversary, in 2009. Earlier that year he blogged a few of his thoughts about the civility question and wrote briefly about the thought experiment he routinely conducts by asking our students to compare the openings of this film and Allen’s Manhattan. We’d love for you to leave your thoughts about the film in the comments section here. Is Do the Right Thing still relevant to NYC, more than two decades on? And what are we to make of this image, posted to Twitter by another of our students?
Cyrus will be lecturing Monday morning on Allen’s 1979 film. As has been our practice for much of this semester, I’ll be live-tweeting the lecture (#wny11). Here’s last year’s round-up of content from the blog related to the film and our takes on it. We certainly welcome readers who aren’t in the course to play along from home. A warning to our students: you’ll see the opening sequence, above, several times before the end of the semester. Start thinking about it now.
Earlier today, as part of his lecture on Abraham Cahan’s Yekl (1896), Cyrus showed a clip from Ric Burns’s New York that offered the history of the popular song “Sidewalks of New York.” The version featured above situates the song in a medley of other popular songs about the city and has some nice illustrations of the city from the turn of the twentieth century.
Another way of thinking about New York’s sidewalks, especially on the Lower East Side from the same moment, comes via Thomas Edison’s footage of a “ghetto” fish market:
For more clips along the same line, check out the uploads from YouTube user TigerRocket.
For a round-up of our earlier posts about Cahan’s novel, click here.
Yesterday Jeremiah posted about the 1974 Martin Scorsese doc Italianamerican, featuring the director’s parents. Jeremiah’s post is one in a series about the contest in Little Italy/Nolita over the future of the San Gennaro Feast. My own take on that debate is that I get annoyed by high-fashion Nolita newcomers who poo-poo neighborhood tradition, but I also get annoyed by drunk people roaming Little Italy at night and streets slick with coconut milk and puke (neither of which has any intrinsic tie to Italian heritage). My own preference would be for the festival to amp itself up on the tradition side, to make the whole affair a celebration of the neighorhood’s history, not just an excuse for generic carnival attractions. But … I’m just a newcomer to that neighborhood myself, so I’ll stop now.
Here’s the first installment of Italianamerican. I do think that newcomers to the neighborhood have an obligation at least to find out a little about the place to which they’ve come to live or work:
Just in time for Oscar season, today’s WNY lecture on Henry James’s Washington Square included a few clips from William Wyler‘s 1949 film adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 stage adaptation of James’s 1880 novel. (Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted their play for Wyler’s film.) Olivia de Havilland won Best Actress for her portrayal of James’s heroine, Catherine Sloper; the film won three additional Oscars, including one for Aaron Copeland’s score.
For a few years, Cyrus and I attempted a film series to run alongside the course, something I wish had worked a little better than it actually did. When we ran that series we screened not only The Heiress, but also Wyler’s earlier film Dead End, which resonates with gentrification battles in our own day and deals with parts of town James pushes to the margins of his narrative. (35 Cooper Sq, anyone?)
In the spirit of the Academy Awards, here’s the trailer to The Heiress. It looks like the film is available in segments on YouTube. I showed the stellar finale — which doesn’t exactly replicate James’s conclusion — in lecture this morning.
Today from 12:30-1:30 I’ll be tweeting about Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire from the Museum of Modern Art at the invitation of WNYC. The film’s entire 8 hours will be accompanied by commentary from a series of guest tweeters, along with participation from readers worldwide. If you don’t use Twitter, no worries: the entire conversation will be funneled into a scrolling text window at WNYC.org.
10:30am: WNYC’s Carolina Miranda (@cmonstah) and Liz Arnold (@lizarnold or @wnycculture) kick off the chatter. 11:00 am to noon (and throughout the day): @MuseumModernArt (aka Victor Samra), will discuss MoMA’s exhibit, Warhol in the collection, etc. 12:30pm – 1:30pm: @_waterman (yours truly) will discuss the building and New York City in literature. 2:30pm – 3:30pm: @marklamster (Mark Lamster) will talk architecture, etc. 4:30pm – 5:30pm: @ARTnewsmag (Robin Cembalest) and @Hyperallergic (Hrag Vartanian) will talk about Warhol’s artistic legacy.
I’m probably going to show up a little early: I want to be there to applaud when the sun starts to set and the observation deck lights go on.
What I’ll tweet about depends largely on what kind of conversation emerges from the interaction on Twitter (follow the hashtag #empirefilm). But I’ve been thinking in terms of recent work by Reva Wolf, Daniel Kane, and others about Warhol’s relationship to New York’s poetry and downtown arts scenes in the 1960s. Warhol was one of the unifying threads when I taught a course on the Downtown Scene, 1960-1980 last summer. I’m teaching it again this year, along with a graduate seminar on New York writing in the Age of Warhol.
Here’s a great poem, for instance, inspired not by Empire, but by the earlier Warhol film, Sleep, featuring the poet John Giorno. It’s written by Ron Padgett, one of my favorite figures from the the “second generation” New York School poets:
Sonnet for Andy Warhol
I think the poem applies to Empire equally as well as it does to Sleep, and though on first glance it may appear the poem endorses the commonplace criticism that Warhol’s epic films (in which not much happens) are boring, I think neither the film nor the poem is boring, nor is either of them about boredom. Rather, both crackle like a freshly struck lightning rod. Look again.
For a useful overview of Empire, see the entry at Gary Comenas’s excellent Warhol Stars site. At WNYC.org, Liz Arnold has an interview up with Jonas Mekas, the legendary underground filmmaker who served as cinematographer for Empire, and Carolina Miranda’s been scouring the archives for Warhol- and ESB-related bits. You’ll find annotations, links, and parallel content at WNYC’s Tumblr through the day. For historical peeps at the ESB, start with a series of posts over at The Bowery Boys.
Wow. In case you missed this story at the Local East Village yesterday: our friends at Fales Library are acquiring a treasure trove of documentary concert footage and interviews from the heyday of New York punk. I’m wishing I’d had access to these over the last six months while writing about CBGB’s origins, but still glad they’ll be available to future researchers. From the blog:
The Fales Collection at New York University will shortly begin the process of preserving and cataloging an extraordinary video archive of punk and new wave performances known as “Gonightclubbing, Ltd.,” mainly recorded in the nineteen seventies at East Village clubs like CBGB using reel-to-reel video.
The archive is the work of video artists Emily Armstrong and Pat Ivers, and until collected by a team from Fales last week it occupied significant cupboard space in Ms. Armstrong’s apartment. Although the material has been presented at museum and theater shows, it has never been commercially available. Almost 200 live shows by acts like the Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers, Iggy Pop and Suicide have remained largely unseen since the two young cable TV employees hauled their gear around downtown clubs more than 30 years ago.
Fales has been collecting documentation of the downtown art scene since 1994. Marvin Taylor, director of the archive, told The Local, “You can’t talk about the art scene without talking about the birth of punk rock.” He described the Armstrong-Ivers material as the “premiere collection” of live recordings from the period, with great sound quality because the makers were able to record directly from the soundboards at clubs. “It’s the very best. I have never seen anything like it,” he said.
Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (previously best known as the documentarians behind The Celluloid Closet ), opens in limited release today, showing at Angelika, Clearview Chelsea, and Lincoln Plaza. I managed to catch a preview last Monday, part of a fundraising evening for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, where Allen Ginsberg taught for ten years before his death and where the film’s star, James Franco, just completed an MFA in creative writing last spring. Here’s the trailer, followed by a few preliminary thoughts — preliminary because I do plan to see it again.
I can’t say that the trailer or other early clips I’d seen inspired a lot of confidence. Franco, though I was a big Freaks and Geeks fan and certainly respect his ability as an actor, seemed, well, too pretty to be Ginsberg. But I jumped at the chance to see the film early, even though the price tag was a little hefty, because he and the directors would be taking questions after and because I planned to take my 16-year-old daughter, also a big Freaks and Geeks fan, who has had a crush on Franco since the 4th grade and occasionally refers to herself as the Future Mrs. James Franco.
And I was more than pleasantly surprised. The film toggles between three primary structural sequences: a smart if celebratory reading of the poem (accompanied by animation based on Eric Drooker‘s visual collaborations with Ginsberg before he died); a compelling take on the poem’s autobiographical content, cobbled from published sources and delivered as an interview Franco gives to an unseen interviewer; and a clever use of Ferlinghetti’s trial for peddling obscenity by selling Ginsberg’s poem, the dialogue drawn entirely from court transcripts. The latter winds up doubling as a classroom setting for the audience to consider just what poetry is, how it can be read and misread, and why reading and writing poetry matters, fifty years ago and now. The filmmakers very wisely decided not to flesh out the trial’s participants as characters, a la Capote. The focus, that way, remains on the poem, large portions of which are featured two or three or maybe even four times — in Franco’s voice, in courtroom dialogue, in the interviews. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with the poem — my daughter, say — should walk away being able to identify key features. (We had a great conversation on the train home.) The film isn’t a Ginsberg biopic in any traditional sense; it puts the poem first, its place in Ginsberg’s life next (reading it as part of a coming-of-age story as well as a Bildungsroman), and its place in American culture last.
Franco himself is quite credible as Ginsberg. If he comes off as a little buttoned-down in the recurring sequence set at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, 7 October 1955, it’s a useful reminder that Allen didn’t always look like a hippie prophet wandering the streets. And Franco clearly prepared for the role: in Q&A he described taking a full year to work with the directors, prepping by reading Ginsberg bios, journals, and the myriad interviews from which much of the screenplay is drawn. He has also clearly listened to a lot of tapes and watched a decent amount of video, though the latter only exists for Ginsberg’s older incarnations. All of this for a film shot in 14 days. Franco has Ginsberg’s mannerisms and tics down so well that, especially during the interview sequences, it’s not hard to forget this is him and not AG. In Q&A he had smart things to say about the poem and the process of making the film: sounding a little like a literature grad student (which he is, as of this semester, when he begins Yale’s PhD program in English), he said that he found the autobiographical reading of the poem to be surprisingly productive, but that it was important to remember it’s just one way to read the poem, not the final word. I would agree with him on both counts: I also found the autobiographical reading to open up some portions of the poem I’d not really paid much attention to, but in the end it would be a mistake to reduce the poem to a psychological milestone in Ginsberg’s development as a poet and a person: clearly it’s resonated on a much larger scale for over half a century.
The film isn’t perfect. I was skeptical of the animated sequences, especially since they begin with a cringe-inducing visualization of “Negro streets at dawn,” but as they progress the animated parts (I use the word “parts” advisedly, since the animation features a proliferation of penises) even themselves out. The score is a bit heavy-handed, if not outright maudlin, especially at moments of key growth for Franco’s character. The Six Gallery reading seemed a little tame to me, at least tamer than Michael McClure’s famous descriptions of Kerouac chanting “GO!” in cadence with Ginsberg’s delivery, but you do get the sense from those scenes that Ginsberg’s initial audience encountered the poem as something incredibly new, a decisive moment of change, of no turning back, as McClure also described it. In its finale, with the “Footnote to Howl” the Six Gallery reading takes on a slightly anachronistic feel: we can only be as introspective about the intensely personal meaning of some of those lines from the perspective of decades passed. I wanted a more raucous and less lyrical delivery of those lines. Something more like this, but by that point the autobiographical reading has pretty much determined that references to Kerouac, Cassady, Solomon, and especially to Naomi Ginsberg, will mean that Franco’s delivery slows to an introspective, hushed conclusion. Perhaps it’s a fitting finale for this particular reading of the poem. Let me know what you think once you’ve seen it.
Today I begin teaching a two-week intensive undergrad seminar on New York’s Downtown Scenes, 1960-80. The course meets four hours a day, five days a week. It promises to be a little intense.
To set the stage, today we’ll discuss Ginsberg’s Howl, talk about the physical space and population of the Village and the LES in the 1950s and 1960s, and head out on a Beats-themed walking tour led by Cary Abrams of the Lower East Side History Project. (You can take the tour Thursdays at 2:00 if you’re interested.)
We’ll also, assuming the new super-smart business-school classroom we’re meeting in has something as old-fashioned as a VCR, watch Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s 1959 film Pull My Daisy, considered a watershed in avant-garde American film. Narrated by Jack Kerouac and adapted from his play, the film stars Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as themselves and also features the musician David Amram, both as music director and actor. Amram discusses the film in this three-part interview, which includes enough clips to give you an idea of what the film’s like:
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.