Impressions of New York City

I grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island, 30 miles from the great city and came to consider its size and energy the norm for urban centers, only to learn, slowly, it is more unique than typical.  I now live in San Francisco and hadn’t been back in 10 years, although it’s seemed as if I’ve been to just above every other major city on the planet.  In 2013 it was time to make up for lost time.

I’ve made a separate post on the differences between the cold, crowded, dull MOMA and the warm, inviting, innovative Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was a total surprise since MOMA had been ground zero for my discovery of art as an expressive medium in the 1960s.  I don’t know if it can ever recover from the disastrous architectural monstrosity of its grandiose but repellent addition.

At the Met I discovered the photography of Julie Margaret Cameron, an early 19th C photographer who captured likenesses with amazing insight.  She used the camera not for its crisp focus and generous depth of field but as a foggy mirror in which she saw the inner spirit of those she photographed. The images are haunting.  A lengthy, quite sensitive discuss of them is in a recent (August 2013) New Yorker by Anthony Lane. He manages to reflect on her work without any of the wit (clever but basically diminishing of him and his subjects) that is a sad staple of his film reviews; it was like reading a different Anthony Lane. Although the show is tucked into just a couple of rooms and could easily be missed, it alone makes a visit worth while. She saw with a distinct, against-the-grain eye that remains both stunning and intriguing today.

Thomas Carlyle by J Cameron

The same could be said for the more highly publicized exhibition on art and photography related to the Civil War.  Found in three different locations, without the cross-referencing that there might be, it is an awesome survey of what photographers and painters saw and captured of that fearsome war. Like the paintings, the photos are almost always after the battles have ended and the photographers can enter the killing fields with time to set up their bulky cameras and wait out their length exposure times but the results are harrowing and precise, unvarnished with the rhetoric of victory and defeat. That the Met draped canvas over the walls of the galleries housing the photographs is a stroke of genius: it effectively transports us back in time and acts as a modest iconic reminder of the rough and tumble world from which these photos arose.

Then there is Times Square, a spectacle or inferno, depending on your point of view, but not the tawdry and beloved place of old.  Now it swarms with visitors (New Yorkers avoid it like the plague) who can even seat in bleachers to absorb the billboards and crowds that stretch from 45th to 42nd Street. Run-down movie theaters and men in raincoats have long since disappeared.

Central Park remains a vital place of green, a haven of calm, a summer’s delight. More roads are now devoted to cyclists and pedestrians.  A stroll from the west to the east side remains one of the simple pleasures of city life, especially when it takes you from the Museum of Natural History to the Met in less than 15 minutes.

Cars stop at stop signs and yield, patiently for pedestrians, far more so than in edgy, gotta get where I’m going and get out of my way San Francisco or slow me up and I’ll honk you into oblivion Lost Angeles (sic).  The number of bikes is surprising, as if Beijing of 20 years ago had arranged a trade with New York.

Four African-American enter the C train subway I’m on from 86th St back down to 59th on the west side. The car is fairly full and they huddle at one end. Then they burst into song–a barber shop quartet–and slowly make their way through the car.  My hands are full of packages and an umbrella and by the time I can dig into my pocket they’ve passed.

The World Trade Center memorial is still little more than a giant construction site but the towers that have been completed truly tower, soaring into the sky with majestic reach.  This will be an awesome thing when it’s finally completed but now it is a busy, congested, crowded melange of commuters and tourists.

Phillip William’s poster shop is just a short walk away.  A cigar style store (much longer than wide), it’s crammed with 1000s and 1000s of posters of all kinds from all countries as well as photographs, publicity stills, postcards and other memorabilia, including some impressive pieces of outsider and African art. It’s one of the little treasures that make cities what they are.

The Neue Gallerie and its amazing collection of secessionist furniture, paintings by Kokoschka, Schiele and Klimt, and interior design artifacts is another gem.   The cafe prepares classic Austrian cuisine and some of the patrons even manage to find art nouveau and secessionist style clothing for their visit. Small but sharply focused it is a jewel of a museum. I almost don’t mind paying $6 for a cup of coffee to go with my apfelstrudel.

It’s a day later and the same four men get on the subway again!  This time I move more quickly and have some money to give them as they pass.  I wonder if all the others giving  money are visitors like myself, on the one hand, and if I gave enough for their lively, engaging music, on the other.

A man comes alongside on the street.  I’ve left MOMA and he’s just waved at a man selling gyros and falafels from a street cart.  “He’s from Pakistan and he’s playing reggae from Jamaica,” he remarks. We start a conversation. He’s worked nearby for 45 years and points to building site after site, recounting how the street has changed. Up ahead is a large office building.  “There,” he points, ” they tore down an old apartment building.  1949.  But the safety wasn’t good. Scaffolding collapsed and the entire crew,over 20 men, died, right there.” I ask if there’s any memorial and he says “No, there’s nothing, just my memory.”

Memories keep people, places and things alive.  These are some of mine from a visit to New York in August, 2013.


A Terrific Film on an Impressive Artist: Breaking the Frame (on Carolee Schneemann)

Most film people know Carolee Schneemann as the creator of a pioneering piece of avant-garde filmmaking: Fuses (1967).  She used a hand held camera, striking color effects, expressive editing, evocative sound and her own naked body to celebrate sexuality in a direct, sensous way.  Throughout the short film she and her partner (the composer, James Tenney) make love.  Far from pornographic, it is a loving, engaging tribute to the body, the act of making love and to cinema.

Beyond that Carolee Schneemann is not very well known but now we have Marielle Nitoslawska’s Breaking the Frame ) (2012), a feature length profile of Schneemann and her massive achievements as a performance artist, painter, and filmmaker over five decades.  Schneemann proves a highly articulate guide to her own work and life.  It’s a fascinating life, based on a farm from which she simply went further, more often and more daringly than many of those in the hot house climate of the great art cities of New York, Berlin, and Paris.  Perhaps too far and too fast.  A close friend of Stan Brakhage and a generation behind Maya Deren she has been a true pioneer since the 1960s  but remains overshadowed by both of them and by the wry, far more ironic film work of someone like Andy Warhol.  Unlike Warhol, Schneemann lacked a savy business sense and clearly was drawn far more to her art than her celebrity.  She never gained the recognition she was clearly due.  But the film is far less a  lament than a celebration. Still active, the film serves as a superb introduction to her work and life on its multiple, complex levels.

MOMA meet the Met: Reversals of Fortune

2013-08-20 10.09.27I may be the last person to compare the new MOMA and the expanded Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Much ballyhoo attended MOMA’s big expansion while the Met was adding here and there over the years and now, in 2013, the difference is spectacular: what was once a crusty, dingy, rather dark and dreary place, the Met, is the place to be and what was once the cutting edge of the provocative and new is now a disaster. A strong word for a great musuem but, in this case, deserving.

Ironically, my belated visit to MOMA coincided with a show on the work of Le Corbusier, one of the major pioneers of the modernist style of stripped down, no nonsense architecture.  Watching a video of him presenting his vision of a city of pencil like high rises separated by little more than lawns, I thought how sad it is that this notion has taken root so often: big, anonymous buildings with no distinctive character, access or amenties at ground level surrounded by a vast green desert of barren space.  His vision seemed demonic and one that came to fruition more from his own charismatic persuasiveness than the human scale and emotional appeal of his designs.  He must have mesmerized, if not intimidated, his clients into submission.

But did that happen to MOMA with Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect of the new monstrosity of its massive expansion? The space is grey, cheap in the small touches like flooring and signage, lifeless, vastly overcrowded with both vistors and objects, and without respite.  It is modernism architecture that has not learned from the postmodern upheavals that have, with playful and inventive turns, revitalized the field and given us buildings of grace, wit and elegance.  Taniguchi’s space has a monotonous, propulsive energy, sending the visitor onward in search of a moment of unhurried calm that never arrives. And where it is expansive, as in the passages that look down on the great atrium or the windows that look out on the sculpture garden and original MOMA buildings, it is entirely solipsistic: it looks at only itself. The rest of the city stands outside the gates.

And outside the gates but nestled securely in Central Park, stands the Metropolitan Museum of New York.  It has expanded mightily in the last decade or more but always with taste and subtlety. The enormous glass enclosed addition housing the remains of the Temple of Dendur is worth the price of admission alone (which is whatever one wishes to pay, above or below the recommended amounts!) and yet it is but one of the enormous number of special exhibitions and spectacular spaces we’re invited to take in.  Despite a crush at the entrance no less daunting than at MOMA’s, once inside the museum absorbs its guests into a calm serenity. Even the best attended exhibitions such as the current “Photography and the American Civil War” and the complementary “The Civil War and American Art” lack the propulsive move-along, don’t-linger, get-out-of-here energy of MOMA. And the standard gallery shows, such as the fabulous atelier-like space devoted to  contemporary art, take the breath away with their hospitality, audacity and beauty.  The image at the top of the Post is of Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum V, fills the entire wall of gallery 925.  And it is obvious from the photo that the energy is habitational, contemplative and serene compared to the frenzied pace of MOMA.  It’s possible to linger, ponder and absorb the magic of this simple but subtle work that simply could not be shown without a space of the kind the Met has created.

Enough said. I’m late to the show but it’s worth keeping thought, dialogue and recommendations of where to go and what to see, alive.

The Act of Killing

How we frame what we encounter matters enormously. Take documentary reenactments.  Reenactments say, in effect, the events being represented do not represent what the events for which they stand would represent.  They represent a retrospective attitude toward the original events, which may be that of a character or omniscient narrator. They always convey the perspective, or voice, of the filmmaker as well. Some reenactments remain disguised as representing contemporary events directly such as we find in Nanook of the North, Coal Face or Night Mail so that the irony may be lost, or, if discovered, treated as deception.  More usually, documentaries embed reenactments as acknowledged reconstructions (fictional representations) of historical but originally unfilmed events within a larger context of authentic representation. But this need not be the case, as The Act of Killing amply demonstrates.

In The Act of Killing, the mise en scène of historic but unfilmed events derives primarily from the film’s subjects—gangsters who formed, at the Indonesian government’s behest, death squads to capture and execute alleged Communists in 1965-66. The aging but unrepentant gangsters frankly recount their past exploits, demonstrate their grizzly methods, and reenact their actions through the filter of Hollywood film genres (most notably, western and gangster films). The reenactments take the form of stylized typifications. Various scenes make it clear that the government still honors and protects these men and the paramilitary group, Pancasila, to which they belong, allowing them to speak with complete impunity and minimal remorse. They may even still be doing what they did so long ago.

What is yet more unhinging for the viewer is the looming impression that a sharp distinction between reenactments and authentic documentary representation fails to materialize. The gangsters live out their own phantasmatic representations of their current state of mind, which Joshua Oppenheimer, the director, refuses to label either openly or with a wink. To what extent their speech and action in the present is another form of calculated performance becomes acutely undecidable. A lavish musical number amidst lush vegetation with dancing women surrounding and venerating the gangsters as though they were tropical deities is clearly their fantasy, but the TV talk show that praises their past exploits and celebrates the film they’re making (the one we see), and the principal gangster’s return to a place of execution to stumble and retch, as if unable to control his body’s revulsion as what he did, near the film’s conclusion, are less clearly so.  Is the TV talk show what Anwar and his buddies imagine such a show would be like or did Oppenheimer document an actual broadcast?[iii] Is the reenactment of a village massacre indeed too savage, as a government minister, who helps orchestrate it, states, or a prime example of the reason why the gangsters, and the government they serve, should be feared, as he then goes on to claim? For killers so self-aware of their image and the role of movies in shaping it, is a show of remorse near the film’s conclusion, even if somewhat genuine, not also a possible attempt to earn a little sympathy before the final fade to black? Does the fact that Anwar Congo retches but does not vomit suggest he is going through the motions of showing contrition or is it simply the best he can honestly do?

The film withholds the visible winks that would allow us to sort social from psychic reality. The killers reconstruct a past and live out a present that glorifies their crimes. The many government figures who appear in the film make it clear that these men continues to possess considerable use value for the Indonesian state. The current situation takes on the form of a phantasmatic nightmare of corruption and terror. By giving the gangsters such free reign and by depicting such a depraved social structure, the film withholds, as did, in another key, Luis Buñuel in Land without Bread, the independent, non-ironic perspective we anticipate and desire so that we may distinguish the phantasmatic from its surrounding reality.[iv]  Instead of gradually dissipating, the sense of confounding doubt that launches Man Bites Dog intensifies. The Act of Killing unhinges our grasp on social reality to a degree most films labeled mockumentary do not even begin to approximate. Like the son who withdraws at the sign of his mother’s stiffened body, do we recoil in horror at these men’s gruesome descriptions of mass murder, only to be told, by their nonchalant demeanor and boastful candor, that we ought not be afraid of our feelings of admiration and respect?

These encounters with irony involve paradox: things are and are not what they seem. Such paradox is less logical than existential. It depends on the lived relationship between filmmakers, social actors (or film subjects) and viewers; it occurs within a frame that one individual or entity, usually the filmmaker, controls. It invites the extension of belief or trust in what is said, even as it confounds us. Existential paradox involves a corporeal experience: it registers in our very bones.  Akin to what have come to be called “body genres” (pornography, horror, melodrama and the like) the ironic text, unlike the contemplative object of classic aesthetics, produces a visceral affect: it boggles the mind and unnerves the body; it confounds our sense of certainty.

This excerpt if from a forthcoming article, hence it is a bit in media res but still a fairly autonomous response to a most disturbing film.  It is definitely the most powerful film I’ve seen this year.

Note: I’ve deleted some footnotes but left a couple that clarify points in the review.

[iii] Possible winks include the presence of prosthetic heads on a table in front of the show’s hostess, presumably representing the killers’s victims, an audience composed primarily of Pancasila members, the use of English rather than Indonesian, which prevails in most of the scenes, and the completely uncritical veneration of these killers by the hostess.  It seems far too fantastic to be real, but, on the film’s website, Oppenheimer describes how the state television network learned of his production, arranged to produce the talk show and broadcast it nationally. It became another iteration of the narrative of terror and power that has supported the existing regime since 1965. “Production Notes,”  Accessed 8/8/2013.

[iv] In Moi, un Noir (1958), Jean Rouch invites a group of Nigerian friends to play out their own fantasies as movie stars—from Edward G. Robinson to Eddie Constantine, as they journey to Cote d’Ivoire in search of work. The blurring of fantasy and reality, though, is greatly attenuated, and interpreted, by Rouch’s voice-over commentary, a device Oppenheimer refuses to employ.