Everything Old School Is New Again

When you’re hosting an art opening it’s probably not a good idea to leave a six-foot-long two-by-four stud propped up where it can accidentally fall and smack a visiting critic on his writing shoulder. (Though, God knows, there are a few artists who wish it had landed on his head.) But raining lumber is of a piece with the rough-and-tumble ambience of “Painting to Survive,” a group show of works created between 1985 and 1995 that embody the fervid energy and off-kilter beauty of a moment in history when AIDS was ravaging the artist community and gentrification was pricing painters out of lofts. But it was also the age of Madonna and Public Enemy pouring from the radio and adventuresome theatrics in the downtown clubs, captured at the opening by the Frank’s Museum Project’s reunion performance of a sweetly melodic ditty about “the mayor’s boyfriend” fixing parking tickets and cadging restaurant meals “all over town” — verses that might have been cribbed from one of Wayne Barrett’s Voice articles about street-level corruption during those years.

It was the best of times and the harshest of times in New York City, and the contrasts and connections between hard partying and tragic illness emanate from a number of the works on the walls of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition’s vast, raw spaces. Lushly painted canvases by Jonathan Weinberg combine vistas of crisscrossing girders and staircases with triple-X signs and grappling nudes, conflating the labyrinthine structures of the West Side piers with intimations of the hardcore sex that took place in those derelict spaces back in the day. Weinberg also curated the show (in addition to his studio work, he is an art historian and teaches at Yale). The press release notes, “The early ’80s saw an explosion of possibilities in Lower Manhattan for young artists to make and show work. Taking advantage of the economic upheavals of the 1970s, these children of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ viewed New York with a sense of great optimism.” Indeed, though gentrification was about to descend, the early ’80s were similar to the late ’40s and early ’50s, when the Abstract Expressionists could find cheap lofts as military contractors left the city at the end of World War II.

Jonathan Weinberg, “XXX” (c.1994)

Joel Handorff’s livid colors channel this careening vibe. With magenta, yellow, and orange skin tones edged with acid-green highlights, the figures in Mary (1988) might recall German Expressionist works from early last century or a particularly garish MTV video. This aura is enhanced by Handorff’s technique of painting on the back of Plexiglas, adding a heightening gloss to his hues. Conversely, the quieter colors in the artist’s strong composition of two strolling men, one lofting a young boy onto his shoulders (#8 Three, from 1990), winningly convey the relaxed body language of a tight-knit family out together on a weekend.

Joel Handorff, “Mary” (1988)

Audrey Anastasi similarly delves into relationships. In Leaving (1993), a woman sits on the edge of a bathtub, fully clothed and adjusting her beret. The figure is naturalistic but the paint handling is invitingly limber, quick slashes of gray imbuing her forearms with luminous shadows engendered by the sun bouncing around bathroom tiles. A knotted tie is draped over the tub’s rim — one of the androgynous accessories of the era that she’ll put on as a final touch, or evidence of a relationship she is ending? In 1991’s Balthusian, a young woman splays herself atop a table, a long coat hanging open to expose her thong and bare legs. She looks frankly at the viewer — who, of course, was initially the artist. The challenge in her stare, as the title informs us, is directed at the painter Balthus and his penchant for painting provocatively posed pubescent girls as being passive and welcoming of the male gaze. Questioning the French-Polish painter’s Lolita-ish subjects is nothing new, but Anastasi was certainly ahead of the current controversy surrounding Balthus.

Audrey Anastasi, “Balthusian” (1991)

With titles such as Growth and Against All Odds (both 1995), Fran Winant’s contrasting colors and fluttery shapes — basically symmetrical, save for the odd waxy drip — might be insects, or maybe flowers. Or possibly manifestations of the biomorphic machinery that permeated one slice of the zeitgeist from the mid-Eighties on, whether in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer or in The Terminator onscreen (both debuted in that auspicious year of 1984). In Winant’s imagery, nature is adulterated by forces beyond evolution.

Fran Winant, “Against All Odds” (1995)

Snarls of rich black paint partially obscure the eponymous blob in Suzan Courtney’s Yellow Shape (1993–1994), but glimmers of white within the yolk-like form pull a viewer past the bold composition and into an abstract narrative of shifting space. In large oil-stick drawings from the early ’90s, fittingly titled Metamorphosis 1 and 2, the artist’s imaginative forms oscillate between biology and architectonic structures.

Suzan Courtney, “Scapegoat” (1993-94)

Jean Foos brings a vibrant formal wit to her slathered matrices of paint. Hudson and Spring (1995) was perhaps titled for the street intersection in Manhattan, but the mossy flagstone pattern overlaid with a sinuous net of color-shifting strokes conjures the primeval geometries of nature, before humanity segmented the island into a paved grid. Spheres reminiscent of buckyballs seem to hover within a red web in Foos’s gorgeous, octagon-shaped canvas Snowball Sale (1991). The title made at least this viewer laugh, as he recalled a piece by David Hammons performed near Cooper Union, in 1983, in which the brilliant conceptual artist sold snowballs to passersby from a red-striped blanket stretched out on the sidewalk.

Even if the viewer is wrong about that antecedent, the enthralling visions arising from Hammons’s aesthetic jujitsu helped define the most trenchant cultural currents of those years. New York City was in thrall to the spectacle of vulgar consumption practiced by voracious real estate speculators and hedge fund manipulators. At the national level, President Ronald Reagan saw government not as a tool that could solve society’s problems but as a cudgel with which to further afflict the afflicted, including those affected by a mysterious illness some were calling “the gay plague.”

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This official neglect took a high toll on the community of artists, including two painters in this show. Judging from the photo on display, Richard Hofmann (1954–1994) was marquee handsome, but the expressionist figures in his large woodcuts and even bigger paintings all look to have spent plenty of seasons in Hell. Twisted, stretched, crushed, and tortured, these characters give as good as they get, accepting both pain and pleasure as the price of our carnal desires. A sense of youthfully boundless energy emanates from some of the huge canvases here, not surprising coming from an artist who painted murals in such East Village meccas as Danceteria and the Pyramid Club. But it is the small work Aqua Man (c. 1985) — which features a Polaroid print of a man’s blurry face peering out from a surrounding maelstrom of paint and wax—that crystalizes how an individual soul must always negotiate the hurly-burly of humanity.

Richard Hofmann, “Aqua Man” (c.1985)

Marc Lida didn’t make it out of the decade either, but his art exudes a frank freshness. In the acrylic painting on paper Sex Series (c. 1985), a pair of entwined men are caressed by a skeleton while a naked figure observes from a brightly lit doorway. Studded with silvery stars and half-moons, the composition delivers Eros and Thanatos to beat the band. In a fatalistically droll watercolor, Art Dealer at Leisure (1985), Lida imagines the scene when, in a drug-fueled frenzy, the 57th Street art dealer Andrew Crispo ordered his coked-up chauffeur to shoot a man after an extended bout of sadomasochistic sex. The underling went up the river for 25-to-life, but Crispo, like Al Capone decades before, was sent to prison on a mere tax-evasion rap. Through his title, Lida (1957–1992) allows a wry humor to acknowledge Crispo as an outlier, understanding that most art dealers are merely mercenary as opposed to murderous. Think of Leo Castelli, who, when asked about Andy Warhol’s condition as the Pop artist underwent surgery for gunshot wounds, in 1968, replied only, “I’m afraid there are not that many paintings left.”

Marc Lida, “Art Dealer At Leisure” (1985)

Stephen Lack is another painter undaunted by the dark side, perhaps not unexpected from an artist who early on exhibited in Gracie Mansion’s first gallery — the bathroom of her East Village apartment. In one work, Lack depicts a fallen wrestler in slashing pink strokes as bright as neon (On the Ropes, 1989); in another, a figure spread-eagled against a wall is menaced by a man whose arm and barely seen face glow as if radioactive (Calisthenics, 1991). Lack’s ravishing paint handling belies the brutal ambiguities of the scenarios in which his lithe characters find themselves.

Stephen Lack, “Calisthenics” (1991)

Michael Ottersen’s abstractions also traverse ambiguous realms — is that an old-school keyhole or a mutant treble clef in the bizarrely titled Silver (Drool), from 1991? Perhaps the variegated blue-green and black bars of the background augur for the first interpretation, but both possibilities are likely wide-of-the-mark whimsies of a particular viewer. Still, the gray and blue biomorphs of 1990’s Throat (Lake) cry out from a narrative miasma, separated as they are by a metal screen taut as a tennis net. Madder Lake is an ancient color that can be as intense as dried blood and as buoyant as pink roses, both notions easily subsumed by the rich, murky depths of the purplish background.

Michael Ottersen, “Throat (Lake)” (1990)

At first glance, Jane Bauman’s paintings on aluminum come across as brash abstractions, as in the roller-coaster-like orange struts placed on a polka-dot ground in 1990’s Chair for Dean. But even without the title, one might soon comprehend the symmetrical form recalling those sling chairs where canvas is stretched over a curving metal framework to provide a seat and back rest. Bauman’s surfaces radiate like sunlight through smog, imparting a tarnished loveliness. More blunt, but equally compelling, are stencils that look, through accumulated layers of spray paint, to have done some serious street duty. One, of a now old-fashioned phone handset hanging from a coiled cord, will make viewers of a certain age laugh, recalling dead pay phones drooping around the city like urban Spanish moss.

Jane Bauman, “Green Phone Stencil” (1983-1990)

A number of the painters here achieved success in those days, and continue to show, sell, and teach today. In the work on display in this sprawling exhibition, you can feel the pulse of that decade, an era overripe with painting. It was a time when surveys of works by the German artist Anselm Kiefer — paint slathered over woodcuts, straw, or lead sheets, evoking the blasted interiors of Nazi-era buildings or desolate, wintry fields — barnstormed major American museums. And few painters in New York City at the time missed Terry Winters’s late-’80s drawing shows at Sonnabend Gallery, or his 1992 Whitney retrospective of paintings that ranged from taxonomies of fungus and seedpods, diamonds and spores, to evocations of dystopic landscapes. Add to that the posthumous exhibitions of Eva Hesse’s organic abstractions found up- and downtown, inspiring artists all over the city.

Exhibitions like “Painting to Survive” throw into relief the loam of culture, that deadfall of late-night studio jags that may blossom into the new and, sometimes, the frighteningly original. Of course painters want to sell scads of their canvases, but the truest ones keep working regardless, and decades after the fact maybe their work will be truly seen.

John Bradford, “The Butchering of Agog” (1994)

Which brings us to the final painter in the show, John Bradford, who ignored the era’s landscape of neo-expressionism and the later conceptual undulations of the neo-geo movement in favor of intense religious visions. Bradford’s vibrant compositions exquisitely balance dramatic figures against large swathes of mottled background colors, imbuing his scenes with a down-to-earth grandeur. In 1994’s The Butchering of Agog, one man raises a wedged sledgehammer above a kneeling figure, the soon-to-be murderer’s robe a checkerboard of dark and light that heightens the eternal tension of the blow that never falls. This is a painting, so we have time to take in the victim’s upraised face, his eyes meeting those of his executioner. The King James Bible reads, “And Samuel said, ‘As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.” The biblical names don’t quite align over the millennia, but the impulse to violent revenge is understood in the darkest reaches of our viscera. It is no small feat to compel a viewer, through roughly brushed pigments, to contemplate just what it means for one human being to kill another, breaking through history’s numbing repetition of such acts. Bradford at times paints with a splashy abandon, but rather than expressionist bombast, his energetic brushwork seems a way to leaven the purity of the divine with the messiness of the real world. If I gotta go to church, these would be the paintings I want on the walls.

Overall, this is a powerful show — exuberant and rough, joyful and tragic, it leaves you with mixed emotions. A bit like getting a love tap from a falling two-by-four.

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‘Painting to Survive: 1985–1995’
Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition
481 Van Brunt Street, Door 7
Open to the public weekends from Sunday, March 18, through Saturday, April 14, 1­ to 6 p.m., and by appointment weekdays from March 13 to­ April 14 — to arrange an appointment contact 917-603-2154 or

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Avedon’s America

“We all perform,” the late Richard Avedon once wrote. “It’s what we do for each other all the time, deliberately or unintentionally. It’s a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognized as what we’d like to be.”

In an introductory essay to his photo collection Portraits, Avedon located this instinct in the family albums of his youth. When Dick was growing up in Manhattan — most people who knew him called him Dick — his family was firmly upper-middle-class and owned a store on Fifth Avenue. But in the aftermath of the Great Depression, they lost the shop. Dick’s father, Jack, went to work as a clothes buyer, sometimes taking on two or three jobs at a time, and the Avedons relocated to a smaller apartment in the Bronx, where Dick slept in the dining alcove.

However, the family photos presented a different sort of life. “When I was a boy, my family took great care with our snapshots,” Avedon wrote in Portraits. “We really planned them. We made compositions. We dressed up. We posed in front of expensive cars, homes that weren’t ours. We borrowed dogs. Almost every family picture taken of us when I was young had a different borrowed dog in it… Looking through our snapshots recently, I found eleven different dogs in one year of our family album. There we were in front of canopies and Packards with borrowed dogs, and always, forever, smiling. All of the photographs in our family album were built on some kind of lie about who we were, and revealed a truth about who we wanted to be.”

Bob Dylan, singer, New York City, February 10, 1965

That impulse informs much of “Avedon’s America,” a new exhibition opening August 12 at Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton on Long Island. The show offers a career-spanning view of Avedon’s work that delves into the cultural, political, and sociological complexion of the United States in the postwar era, from a 1945 portrait of a young James Baldwin (with whom Avedon co-edited the Magpie, their high school literary journal in the Bronx) to 1960s studies of Jacqueline Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Malcolm X to a 1971 image of a napalm victim in Vietnam. Later works include a 2004 tableau of the U.S Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Fort Hood, Texas, as well as pictures of Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton taken in the years just before Avedon’s death in 2004.

John Cage, musician; Merce Cunningham, choreographer; and Robert Rauschenberg, artist,
New York, May 2, 1960
Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches

Avedon’s approach to portraiture changed over the years. Even in his earlier fashion work for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and ’50s, he sought a kind of truth in artifice. One of his favorite subjects back then was Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, a model from Queens with a chipped tooth; she had adopted the name “Dovima” after an imaginary friend she’d concocted when she was sick in bed with rheumatic fever as a kid.

Florynce Kennedy, civil rights lawyer, New York, August 1, 1969 Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches

As Avedon moved into the 1960s, he trained his eye on the insurgent, countercultural spirit that was taking hold, and his images themselves became more challenging and transgressive: His 1963 portrait of poets and partners Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky depicts the pair nude and embracing; Warhol’s face is cropped out entirely from Avedon’s 1969 portrait, as Warhol raises his shirt to reveal the surgical scars and remnant wounds from his shooting the year prior by Valerie Solanas.

Andy Warhol, artist, New York, August 29, 1969
Gelatin silver print, 59 x 471⁄2 inches

Toward the end of the decade, Avedon began to lean more heavily on the stark white backgrounds and rough-hewn frame edges that would characterize his later work. He was drawn to what he called “the avalanche of age” and captured wrinkles and creases with great clarity. A tonal gray or black background, Avedon said, allowed the artist “the romance of a face coming out of the dark” (a romance turned menacing in his 2001 portrait of Trump, whose head appears to hover in a dimly lit environment). But the white space had the effect of creating an emptiness in the image, stripping it of the symbolism provided by clothes and surroundings, the subject appearing out of context, space, and time. “A white background,” Avedon offered, “permits people to become symbolic of themselves.”

James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York, 1945
Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches

In some ways, the lack of idealism in Avedon’s portraits mirrored the slow erosion of idealism in American life since World War II, as this notion that everyone holds their own truth has now become one that divides us. It’s an idea that Baldwin broached back in 1964 in Nothing Personal, a collaboration with Avedon featuring a handful of Baldwin’s essays amid a selection of Avedon’s portraits. “One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light,” Baldwin wrote. “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.”

RZA, producer, New York,
January 22, 1999
Gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 inches
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An Element of Chance: A Celebration of John Perreault

Village Voice art critic R.C. Baker recently spoke at the opening of a survey exhibition of the work of John Perreault (1937–2015), “It’s Only Art,” on view at Marquee Projects. Perreault was an artist, critic, poet, and teacher, as well as the chief art critic at the Voice from 1966 to 1974.

On John Perreault, at the exhibition “It’s Only Art,” Marquee Projects, June 23, 2017:

I’m going to keep this short and hopefully on point, because that’s how John wrote some of his greatest reviews. Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say that: In 1970, Philip Guston exhibited his magisterial cartoon figures for the first time, paintings influenced by Renaissance masters from 500 years earlier. Within a decade it would become apparent that Guston’s own masterpieces would join that pantheon and similarly influence serious painters for all time. Back in 1970, though, most critics — and too many artists — gave Guston terrible reviews. These first cartoon paintings were almost universally reviled. But one critic, writing in the Village Voice, saw something that almost no one else appreciated in those works. I’ll quote a few excerpts from John Perreault’s two-paragraph review:

“Guston’s new paintings are cartoony, looney, moving….It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart….It’s all in the service of a tragicomedy of errors or terrors. It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.”

If that is all I said about John tonight — that in those brief sentences he got right what almost no one else did, except Willem de Kooning; John and de Kooning got it right — if that was all I said, it would cement John’s legacy as an extraordinarily insightful critic. But how could John have had such insight when nearly everyone else missed the beginnings of one the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century?

One clue might come from the great underground filmmaker Jack Smith, who wrote in a groundbreaking essay in the late 1960s, “In [America] the blind go to the movies.” What he was charging was that film critics didn’t understand the medium because “film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”

The gallery at Marquee Projects

And so, as we look around these galleries, we begin to understand why John Perreault got Guston right, or why he saw in a young student named Ana Mendieta such astounding promise — we see why right here on these walls and on these floors. Because John was not uneasy with visual phenomenon. In fact, he reveled in it. Because John created his own visual phenomena — he was an artist.

For instance, what do we see in the painting Don’t? At first glance, those two elongated red globules might be twins, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that they are doing very different things. One stretches exactly from the top to the bottom of the canvas; the other comes up a bit short. This is visual poetry. This is the full stop of a period on one side, the pause of a comma — or perhaps the clean break of an em-dash — on the other. This is the rhythm of stanzas, the charming echo of assonance.

Perreault’s “Don’t” (2014)

And then we have those two red wheelbarrows. I’m not sure the children should be allowed to see them in their rough embrace. These are found volumes — we know that wheelbarrows are designed to trundle around heaps of dirt or compost or what have you. John has destroyed this utility while creating a comical narrative that in its brawniness — to my eye, at least — brings the sheer physicality of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers into a garden on the South Shore of Long Island.

Or how about those yellow, right-angle drips in the painting around the corner there, which is called Three. This might be a modern dance, the troupe moving first in one direction, then all pivoting gracefully to another. Abstract, yes, but also a physical record of force and weight and velocity. And how much would John appreciate the way in which this painting is displayed in this gallery at this moment? How serendipitous is it that in a painting that is all about right angles and gravity, that in this charming — but old — building, it was necessary to put a small wedge under one corner to keep this piece level, something absolutely crucial to its concept.

But as John often said, “It’s only art.”

That statement is a wonderful, worldly wise view of this thing called art, one that John shared with Gulley Jimson, the main character in Joyce Cary’s great 1941 novel, The Horse’s Mouth, and perhaps fiction’s greatest evocation of the earthy, humorous, and at times fatalistic view of life I believe all truly great artists possess. I think John and Gulley Jimson would have shared a laugh at the way one of Gulley’s cardinal rules has been broken here: In the novel, Gulley says, “When I had my canvas up, it was two foot off the floor, which just suited me. I like to keep my pictures above dog level.”

“Three” (2013)

Which brings me to what John once wrote of Andy Warhol’s — well, let’s use the polite name, Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings.” John said, “Shower queens will rejoice and others will be simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What could be better?”

And so, with this inherently human contradiction, we arrive at a discussion of alternative mediums. I mean, are you kidding me — toothpaste? Oil-soaked beach sand? Coffee?

When I first saw John’s coffee drawings I thought of an amazing show at the Drawing Center in the late 1990s, by another writer who was also an artist — Victor Hugo.

Hugo’s drawings, like his novels, are Romantic, gothic, overblown, and thrilling — castles in mist, a murder of crows surrounding a hanged man, a menacing octopus, and ultimately completely abstract vistas. One of Hugo’s friends said of his methods: “Any means would do for him — the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper. The dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one.” There is a wonderful sense of play implied in this mucking about in the dregs of the world.

And that is what you feel here, in John’s work—the world. Not just the art world, but this vast combination of things, of ideas, of culture past and present — of coffee grounds and toothpaste and polluted sand — everything was grist for John’s work. Or, as Hugo once said, “Great artists have an element of chance in their talent, and there is also talent in their chance.”

In a painting such as City, we are startled by the way chance and insightful skill and decision-making combine into a powerful, glowing composition. This is drips as architecture, a matrix of light and dark, civilization as abstraction. And to me, it is so beautiful how John, having made a life and a career for himself in the labyrinth of New York City — something that is not easy to do, as so many of us here tonight understand — John (along with his husband Jeff Weinstein, of course) then made a home out here on Long Island. And I think these two worlds are combined in this painting, both literally — grids blotted and ground down by sand — and also formally, in a way that borders on the spiritual. Because, as much as we are all denizens of civilization — of this vast network that makes art and culture possible — we are, before that, children of the edge, of that place where land and sea meet. This painting captures something so very much larger than what it represents.

So, ultimately, this is serious business, this thing called art and culture. But it means nothing if we cannot enjoy it, and John, through his writing, his poetry, and, yes, look all around here, through his art, through all the stuff that made up this singular, wonderfully expansive life, John left the world — and I’m not talking about the art world, understand, but the real world — John left it better than he found it.


“It’s Only Art”
Marquee Projects
14 Bellport Lane
Bellport, New York
Through July 16




Save a Piece of Your Heart for ‘60s Pop-Music Doc “Bang! The Bert Berns Story”

You know the tunes but maybe not their source. Though Brett Berns and Bob Sarles’ film boasts appearances by Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, it’s (mercifully) not another boomer-rock hagiography; they’re the draw to get you into the theater for a film honoring their inspirations, the likes of Solomon Burke and the Isley Brothers — and the man who wrote many of those artists’ best songs.

Early on, the documentary argues that Jewish and black kids in 1960s New York had a natural affinity for the same kinds of music; though not the primary theme here, that seems like a topic ripe for further exploration. Berns became a hitmaker at 31 and was dead at the age of 38, felled by a heart defect. One of his biggest hits, “Piece of My Heart,” is literally about his condition; many of his other tunes (“Cry Baby,” “Cry to Me,” etc.) similarly evolved from his sense of imminent mortality. (An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bearns has had an Off Broadway musical, Piece of My Heart, based on his life.)

Blending stock footage, vintage audio, re-creation, and many testimonials from heavy hitters from Ben E. King to Van Morrison, Berns’ son Brett keeps things visually lively, and not as morose as may be implied: The origin story of “I Want Candy” is hilarious, and Berns’ mob-adjacent associates play like forerunners of Suge Knight. Best of all is the story of how a young Phil Spector so ruined the original Top Notes version of “Twist and Shout” that it drove Berns to learn production so he could do it better one day.

Bang! The Bert Berns Story
Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles
Opens April 26, IFC Center


Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” Lays Bare the Costs of Thriving in a Corrupt Society

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about corruption. That’s true despite the fact that Mungiu underplays the typical elements found in tales about this subject: You won’t find many fast-talking crooks, sinister cops or elaborate sting operations here. Or a looming sense of justice and judgment, or even tragedy. You’ll just find mostly good people doing what they think is right, and then the acute mess that they find themselves in.

Mungiu’s primary vessel for exploring this world is Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a respected Cluj physician and upstanding pillar of the community whose high-school-senior daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) has secured a conditional college scholarship to study in Britain; all she has to do is pass her final exams. But an attempted assault outside the school leaves her injured and shaken right before the day of her first test. Believing that an education in England — far from the despair and deception of daily life in Romania — is the girl’s best and only chance for a better life, Romeo finds himself becoming what he hates most: someone who tries to game the system.

But it happens slowly, without him quite realizing it. Romeo first has to convince the school officials to let the girl take her first exam with a cast on her hand. That violates the rules, as kids have been known to cheat using such devices. But Romeo is Romeo, he knows the right people, and he has a way of softly talking his way into things. Then, when Eliza’s grade on that test winds up unsatisfactory, his police captain friend (Vlad Ivanov, a face unnervingly familiar to anyone who’s seen Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) arranges for Romeo to talk to Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), a local bigwig who needs a liver transplant and who can arrange for the school authorities to give the girl the necessary grade; all Romeo has to do is put Bulai at the top of the liver transplant list.

Such a cursory description of the plot does no justice to the casual, organic way that Mungiu allows Romeo to consider forsaking his values — or at least what Romeo thinks are his values. He fancies himself an idealist, above deceit and graft until misfortune suddenly strikes his family. He reflects plaintively about how he and his wife Magda returned to Romania from abroad to try and make the country a better place. Driving through the city’s drab, desolate streets in his fancy sedan, listening to Baroque music, Romeo imagines himself in a cocoon of honesty, when in fact, it’s one of privilege. Not for nothing is one of the film’s earliest images a rock thrown against his windshield. We eventually realize that Graduation is partly about how people like Romeo have always benefited from cutting corners, from the insular security of their connections and their status.

At the same time, Mungiu refuses to condemn these characters. We sense throughout Graduation that what we’re watching is a way of operating that has insinuated itself into daily life because, unlike everything else, it works. Institutions are inadequate: Eliza’s assailant might be an escaped convict, so the law has already failed her; meanwhile, the school’s stringent policies are ineffective at dealing with a student’s very serious crisis. Romeo and his friends are merely taking advantage of the existing order of things. But what about those less fortunate — a group that includes Romeo’s own mistress, whose son needs a speech therapist but whom the good doctor, ever so certain of his rectitude, refuses to help?

Graduation is about relatively mundane occurrences, but as Romeo is pulled further and further from his moral certainty, the film becomes incredibly gripping and unsettling. Mungiu’s subtle visual style also enhances the suspense, plunging Romeo further into darkness as he falls deeper down the well. One evening, thinking he’s seen his daughter’s assailant on the street, he jumps out of a bus in pursuit of the man. Romeo runs into an empty slum, the night pitch black around him, and finds himself alone, out of breath and afraid. He looks around in bewilderment, like someone who’s experiencing night, solitude and uncertainty for perhaps the first time in his life. It’s an indelible image: a good man forced to confront his own fallen soul.

Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Sundance Selects
Opens April 7, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas


Morality Drama “The Ticket” Uses Blindness to Tell Us All to Open Our Eyes, Man

In Ido Fluk’s The Ticket, the miraculous restoration of one man’s blindness becomes a metaphor for a destructive kind of all-American tunnel vision. If blindness taught James Harvey (Dan Stevens) humility, being able to see again quickly transforms him into an egotistical monster chasing after purely material success. Thus, on his way to the top of the ranks at his real-estate firm, he leaves his wife Sam (Malin Akerman) for sexy co-worker Jessica (Kerry Bishé) while carelessly stomping on the affections of his blind colleague/friend Bob (Oliver Platt).

Fluk barely seems interested in James as a character beyond painting him as an Icarus-like totem, flying too high in a simplistic morality play. Without the nuances to give him convincing human dimension, James’ inevitable fall and attendant ineffectual attempts at redemption inspire little more than a contemptuous “too little, too late” shrug.

If Fluk’s film has any impact at all, much of it is thanks to Dan Stevens, who brings an empathy to James that occasionally complicates the director/co-writer’s two-dimensional view of the character. Fluk also begins and ends The Ticket with imaginative visualizations of James’ blindness, his disability presented onscreen as a disorienting series of blurry colors and sensations, with the sound design more vividly heightened than usual. In these abstract sequences, Fluk evinces a desire to explore an inner life that he otherwise forsakes for easy moralizing.

The Ticket
Directed by Ido Fluk

Shout! Factory

Opens April 7, Cinema Village


Here Alone’s Undead Apocalypse Is Familiar but Still Compelling

There are two types of movies about the undead: those that call ‘em like they see ‘em (zombies!) and those that attempt to transcend horror’s usual rules and lingo. Here Alone is the latter, following a young family’s retreat from civilization after an epidemic ravages the country and turns almost everyone into something we’ll call not-zombies.

Director Rod Blackhurst’s film bounces between the present day’s eerie stillness and the first frenetic days of the plague as Ann (Lucy Walters) and her husband Jason (Shane West) seek refuge in the woods with their infant daughter. The setting would be bucolic were it not for the horde of bloodthirsty flesh feasters that counterproductively shriek whenever they’re on the hunt. Now, Ann forages for food in dead people’s houses while slathered in mud and excrement to hide her scent.

Walters ably carries Here Alone on her character’s weary shoulders. Ann becomes a staunch survivalist despite setbacks when she attempts to find edible berries (she barfs) or craft a trap out of Cheez Whiz and a cooler propped with sticks (it fails). Her involuntary hermetism is interrupted when she discovers teen Olivia (Gina Piersanti) hobbling along the road with injured stepfather Chris (Adam David Thompson).

The new additions to Ann’s camp bring more mouths to feed — and differing opinions about how to survive. Here Alone attempts to unearth what people do when faced with the absolute worst days of their lives — and why they even bother to go on.

Although writer David Ebeltoft’s post-apocalyptic story feels familiar at times (reminiscent of parts of Stephen King’s The Stand), the scenery and Blackhurst’s direction make Here Alone a verdant, suspenseful treat.

Here Alone
Directed by Rod Blackhurst
Vertical Entertainment
Opens March 31, Cinema Village


“Five Came Back” Illuminates the Art and Fate of Great Directors in WWII

Unpromisingly, Five Came Back, a series that surveys the military service of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler — who cut off their Hollywood careers to serve in the Second World War and were thereafter irrevocably changed both in profession and in life — opens with footage of the Academy Awards. There, in brisk montage, are the five moviemakers, all dressed up and receiving Oscar statuettes, as if upfront evidence of prestigious hardware were required to grasp the attention of fast-scrolling Netflix subscribers. It seems a weirdly superficial entry into a narrative — adapted from critic and journalist Mark Harris’s history Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) — of carnage, horror, and trauma. Harris concluded that exposure to humanity’s capacity for evil challenged these men’s grasp of the world and altered their work. Watching this version, you might wonder: Should such a metamorphosis mean having to care about Academy Awards?

For the first of its three hour-long episodes (which are playing on the big screen at the IFC Center), Netflix’s Five Came Back numbs the strength of its source material with broad-overview contextual introduction and a sometimes navel-gazing quality. (There are a few too many vintage photographs of macho Golden Age directors sucking on cigars.) Beneath the airy seriousness of Meryl Streep’s narration come helpfully colored maps of Europe diagramming the spread of Nazism. We’re subjected to innumerable examples of sounds-good-but-says-nothing generalizations that proliferate in easily consumable televisual series of this mode. When Paul Greengrass, no doubt sincere, observes of Ford’s World War I–themed Four Sons (1928), “What it was was the beginning of Ford trying to address reality,” it seems about as helpful as saying, “The Searchers is a movie with John Wayne.” Greengrass is but one of the coterie of name directors — also Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro — dishing out commentary on his forebears.

Fortunately, as the series progresses, the profit of translating Harris’s thorough and engrossing text into the footage-rich format of the docuseries materializes. If Harris, who wrote the adaptation himself, and Laurent Bouzereau, who directed, gloss over ambiguities in their hurried setup, their interests snap into focus when their narrative catches up to the war. The U.S. enters the global conflict, and the storied moviemakers dedicate their craft to the cause. Like the day-to-day business of their Hollywood gigs, the men’s wartime work was defined by compromise and negotiation, their artistic aspirations being fought at each step by powerful overseers with concrete interests. The U.S. government had even more restrictive demands than the studio bosses: It wanted short, professional docs made to persuade American boys and men to enter the fight.

The transition into the theater of war also inspires the talking heads. No longer saddled with reciting backstory, the five directors speak with specificity and power about individual movies. Ford ventures into the Pacific and makes The Battle of Midway (1942), a plunge into combat on the open water. Greengrass is marvelous as he relates the power of Ford’s document, speaking of “the image distressing” and emphasizing the “accidental” nature of some of the shots. Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro (1945), at the time presented as legitimate pictures of combat, was years later revealed to have consisted largely of staged re-creations. Coppola comes alive as he explains Huston’s ingenuity in instructing soldiers to look at the lens — a totally artificial gesture that, onscreen, instead produces an effect of reality.

Spielberg delivers sobering testimony regarding The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), for which Wyler climbed into actual B-17s to grab footage during air missions. Spielberg pauses on a struck enemy aircraft making a “slow spiral” downward, marveling at Wyler’s refusal to turn away from the carnage, the sedate pace of the plane’s descent suggesting something almost dreamlike. Capra and Stevens, while invested in the plight of the soldier, developed work that reaches beyond, into larger geopolitical tensions. Capra embarked on his ambitious, seven-part “Why We Fight” series, whose first entry, Prelude to War (1942), cemented for many Americans the intensity of the totalitarian threat. (Another Capra Army project, the 1945 Know Your Enemy: Japan, co-written with Huston, proffers risibly racist characterizations of the Japanese people.) And Stevens, remaining in Europe after the close of the conflict, brought his camera into the grounds of Dachau; his subsequent Nazi Concentration Camps (1945) provided instrumental evidence in the Nuremberg hearings.

The quintet, surrounded by death, faced frequent danger at the front, mostly due to their insistence on getting close to the action: Ford came out of Midway wounded by shrapnel, while the noise of one of Wyler’s airborne missions left him deaf (his hearing was later only partially restored). That experience shaped their postwar work back in the States. Stevens, in the Thirties a leading exponent of “light entertainment,” turned to dramas like A Place in the Sun (1951). Wyler made the smash hit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), one of whose three main characters, each a returning vet, has a hook for a right hand.

Not all their war-informed work was celebrated. Capra’s sometimes despairing It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) did poorly on initial release, to the grave disappointment of its maker. And while Huston achieved later triumphs, his proto-PTSD doc Let There Be Light (1946), now a fixture in university film programs, was disparaged by the government and held from wider circulation until the Eighties. Set in a hospital for returning vets, the movie, in Coppola’s persuasive estimation, exhibits “a bigness of soul.” It also exhibits one of the fresher revelations of Five Came Back, which is that many of classic Hollywood’s greatest directors, when stranded outside the artifice of the backlot, possessed impulses that gelled toward the documentary. Huston, like his four contemporaries, was seeing things he didn’t understand, and his response at that hospital was simply to watch.

Five Came Back
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau
Opens March 31, IFC Center



Sample Ready: See’s Candies Finally Arrives in NYC

Last June, without any fanfare, West 8th Street quietly welcomed the 96-year-old California-based chocolatier See’s Candies, the brand’s signature striped awning the only sign of its arrival. Any ensuing buzz surrounding the beloved west coast chain’s arrival came courtesy of its fans: Alec Baldwin and Martha Stewart professed their excitement on social media, and early online reviews trickled in from the populace, rhapsodic from stumbling upon a local outpost.

“See how this is happening?” asks Bill Rhodes, the bowtie-wearing gentleman behind the candy counter, pointing out the female pedestrian stopped outside the shop windows. “Four hundred times a day, all day long people walk by, [then stop] and get excited, scream, cry, take a picture, send it to mom. It’s very exciting—people are thrilled!” Rhodes is president and CEO of Travis Melbren, Inc., and partnered with the 96-year-old chocolate company to bring it to the Big Apple.

“I’ve always thought there really needs to be a See’s Candies in New York,” explains Rhodes, whose past includes a history with brands like Cartier and Harry Winston, and spills that a Saudi Arabian princess staying at the Plaza recently called in an order for 20 cans of toffee-ettes. “I’m here to bring it in a 100 percent full way [as] there are so many caveats to New York City that make it an anomaly, and make it an amazing place. We can bring in [this experience] at the level it should be at.”

At the trademark candy counter at the West Village store, customers can choose from from the 80-plus varieties on display, some of which include notes or even remnants of the sage honey the company favors for the rich, unexpected way it sweetens the chocolate. The Bordeaux, a brown sugar buttercream, is the bestseller with the perplexing name; the Scotchmallow features honey-marshmallow, caramel and dark chocolate; and the special of pure coconut flakes and honey coated in dark chocolate. The candies have a creamier mouthfeel than most chocolate, which Rhodes says is from its freshness and the lack of preservatives, wax or paraffin. “We place orders on Sunday, and they’re air-freighted in by Thursday or Friday, so there’s constant turnover.” assures Rhodes, who was formerly a jeweler to the friends and families of Berkshire Hathaway and refers to their CEO as “Mr. Buffett.” (Berkshire Hathaway purchased See’s in 1972.)

So what took so long for this Buffett-backed company to come to NYC? Legend in California had it the See family wouldn’t allow it to expand, citing concern for quality control, and thus making it the chocolate equivalent of In-N-Out Burger and a very popular gift. Rhodes, a New Yorker since 1994, says he’s dreamt of bringing See’s to his hometown for the last 10 years.

“This is an old great amazing candy company, and when you walk in here, it needs to bring [that] all together,” says Rhode’s of the company’s decision to open downtown. “Nowhere best represented the dichotomy of [old and new] New York than West 8th Street. If it were in Midtown or Times Square, it would take on a whole different feel.” Kiosks of the company-owned chain are also found at retailers like Lord & Taylor’s and Macy’s, which carry limited packaged candies.

“Chocolate shouldn’t last,” says Rhodes, about how See’s focus on freshness sets the brand apart. “Ours is meant to be eaten fresh. Once customers taste it, they know it. It’s a difference you can taste.”

See’s Candies
60 West 8th Street @ 6th Avenue


Bill Paxton’s Offhand Mastery Powers On-the-Run Thriller “Mean Dreams”

Even if it were not for the fact that Mean Dreams has become Bill Paxton’s penultimate picture, Nathan Morlando’s thriller would be worth recommending entirely on its own merits. Start with cinematographer Steve Cosens (The Tracey Fragments), who uses sharp focus and the occasional faded Polaroid-style filter to lovingly caress every bump and contour of the jagged tree stumps and run-down farmhouses that litter the beautifully middle-of-nowhere setting. The effect makes this world alien yet universal: The two teens who will become our leads fall in love because they are literally the only boy and girl in the world as far as their eyes can see. Jonas (Josh Wiggins) is an only child who works on his parents’ farm; Casey (Sophie Nélisse) has just moved to town with single dad Wayne (Paxton), who’s a cop and has recently been reassigned.

For better or for worse, Paxton’s performance will be the focus of viewers’ attention, so it is decidedly to the good that he doesn’t just deliver. He gives a sort of master class on why we’ve loved him: Paxton was amazing in the role of regular guys, and equally compelling as the subversion of same. Here, our trust in him when he’s playing laid-back is expertly twisted once the actor snaps and reaches the end of his rope; like Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader, we can see in him the good person who went bad.

In Paxton’s first Mean Dreams scene, this dynamic is played for ambiguity: Wayne and Casey are in a new house, far from anything they know, and there’s a tension between them. Is it standard teenage-girl-forced-to-relocate huffiness, or something more sinister? Could be either, just as Wayne’s slightly menacing initial stance toward Jonas might just be typical cop-dad aggressive protectiveness, or a sign that this is a terrible human being.

Minor spoiler: It’s the latter. Casey potentially getting a boyfriend isn’t Wayne’s problem; being a murderous drunk is. When he beats Casey and tries to drown Jonas, the teenagers decide to run away together. Wayne pursues them, and the tension thickens when they discover evidence of activities far worse than the occasional alcoholic rage. Paxton seemed the epitome of well-adjusted but was adept at playing the opposite. At his side as the local police chief is Colm Feore, as coldly distant and sinister a sidekick as he could ask for, all restrained villainous ego to Paxton’s evil id.

The teen romance that’s front and center is as charming as it is chaste — these kids are too young to be getting it on, and so they don’t; they’re just looking for a break from their parents long enough to perceive the joys of their surroundings. Said surroundings are as much heightened beauty as Paxton’s bad dad is heightened evil, and show us the world as an infatuated young adult might see it. Morlando (Citizen Gangster) either has a great memory of what it was to be 15 or a powerful enough imagination to dream it again.

Bill Paxton’s last movie will be The Circle, a star-studded thriller with Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt and Karen Gillan, meaning that in one sense he’ll go out in splendor surrounded by friends. But Mean Dreams reminds us why we fell for him in the first place, as he and it are no-frills portraits of a heartland both good and ill, making every moment count.

Mean Dreams
Directed by Nathan Morlando
Vertical Entertainment
Opens March 17, Cinema Village
Available on demand