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Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred

It was 3 a.m. of a Saturday night on Fire Island, pitch black on the beach except for the head­lights of a disabled taxi and those of another jeep headed its way, sloughing through deep ruts at maybe 25 miles an hour.

Frank O’Hara, one of nine tem­porarily stranded passengers, stood alone off in the darkness, his companion and friend J.J. Mitchell wasn’t sure just where. Within inches of the crippled taxi, the second jeep churned past. Evidently O’Hara was just turning to face a blaze of its lights when it ran him down.

Panicked, Mitchell rushed to him. O’Hara stirred, then muttered something. He was in a rage. His delirious fury made it hard to hold him still during the efficient relay from jeep to police boat to ambulance to tiny Bayview Hospital in a place called Mastic Beach. There he subsided, however, and was examined, then laced with innumerable stitches. The doctor was encouraging: contusions, gashes, shock, and a badly smashed left leg, but nothing ostensibly lethal.

Then around dawn O’Hara’s blood pressure fell. Pints of rare RH-negative blood began arriving at the hospital by police car every few minutes. The exploratory operation that afternoon, when enough blood was on hand, revealed a partly ruptured liver and some damage to the kidneys, among other things: The liver, now a good deal smaller, was sewn shut; the kidneys were left for later.

Meanwhile, the New York art world was collectively thunder­struck. In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.

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So Much Grace

The next day, Monday, July 25, the day of his death, he seemed to be holding his own, even improving. A very few friends were let in to see him, a few seconds apiece. In his speech at the funeral two days later, Larry Rivers, incensed at fate, said O’Hara “lay in a bed that looked like a large crib” and that he resembled “a shaped wound.” He said he had always expected Frank to be the first of his friends to die, but “romantically,” somehow, voided by his generosities and done in by his methodical excesses, not shattered by a jeep on a white sand beach. Willem de Kooning found O’Hara in terrible pain. “When I spoke his name he opened his eyes and he said, in that way of his, ‘Oh Bill, how nice!’ With such elegance! He had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.”

At about 8:50 p.m., very suddenly, he was gone. He was 40 years old.

The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by Rivers 11 years ago. The account of O’Hara’s funeral, in Thursday’s Times, led off with an exaggeration of people’s shock at Rivers’ speech, proceeded to misspell 10 of the 25 names it mentioned (uncorrected in later editions) then invented the presence of “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara,” a funny thing to lie about.

Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Indian Sutras

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Before the funeral, Reuben Na­kian had a member of O’Hara’s family attach to his coffin a terra-cotta sculpture from the se­ries “Voyage to Crete” — work that had moved and excited O’Hara in his preparation of Na­kian’s show. After the funeral, Allen Ginsberg stayed to intone Indian sutras over the grave. Ginsberg: ”I never realized un­til now how attached I was to the presence of that man on Earth.”

His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the ­revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

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Every Area

This attitude of reverence and enthusiasm may in part account for the virtual mystique O’Hara generated around himself, for it extended into every area of his life, attaching to whatever and whomever he found in the least admirable or delightful — and triggering responses so intense his oldest friends do not affect to understand them. Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to “understand.” And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.

Little is generally known about his early life, except that he was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, serving with the Navy in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946, when he entered Harvard. The one member of his family to whom he was close, a younger sister (now Mrs. Maureen Smith of Brooklyn Heights), respects his unwillingness to speak of those years.

In the spring of 1949, when O’Hara was a junior at Harvard, John Ashbery was a senior. As an editor of the Harvard Advocate, Ashbery had published some of O’Hara’s first literary efforts (mostly in prose) but knew of him only by his reputation as a hotshot intellectual with something of an undergraduate following. One afternoon in a bookstore, Ashbery heard a voice behind him airily expounding on the then almost totally unknown French composer Poulenc. Fascinated, he eavesdropped. The voice said: “Let’s face it, ‘Les Secheresses’ is much greater than ‘Tristan.’ ” Ashbery instantly turned and introduced himself; and their friendship was joined. “That,” he recalls, “was the sort of thing NOBODY said in those days. It didn’t matter that he was wrong.”

O’Hara’s first visits to New York, while finishing at Harvard and getting his M.A. at University of Michigan (where he also won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry), were suitably auspicious. In Ashbery’s Jones Street apartment and at gathering places of what would be known as the New York School “Second Generation” painters, he met Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and scores of other young artists and poets, all engaged in a kind of vertiginously euphoric life and activity which O’Hara’s presence seemed just naturally to grace with point and inevitability. He was the first of the young New York poets to start reviewing for Art News (to be followed by Ashbery, Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) and in the fall of 1951 he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, a tenure he was never, save for one two-year hiatus, to relinquish.

Exclamation Point

Frank O’Hara’s body was small and lean — classically “bantam” — and was topped by a face organized around a preposterous Roman nose, like a falcon’s beak. He had a smallish, sensuous mouth; a high, freckled forehead, and limpid blue eyes of a certain hypnotic charm. His every movement bespoke will and self-assurance, poise, and a kind of unmannered courtliness. His physical presence in a room was like that of an exclamation point on a page. That presence quickly became one of the most sought-after, and one of the most freely granted, in the city. The painter Helen Frankenthaler says personal invitations to parties in the ’50s often carried the information “Frank will be there” — the ultimate inducement to attend.

O’Hara seemed to be every­where at once. He attracted no­tice even on the Olympian heights of “The Club” on 8th Street, fabled clearinghouse of the New York School. De Kooning recalls: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way.

“There was a good-omen feeling about him.”

Delmore Schwartz had given O’Hara his first professional poetic acceptance in 1950, taking a poem for Partisan Review and strongly encouraging the young poet who was to outlive him by two weeks. His first book, A City Winter, was published in 1952 by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, then virtually the only showcase for the overshadowed young talents of the “Second Generation” — among them, Miss Frankenthaler, for whom O’Hara’s effulgence of creative and emotional excitement “smacked of Paris scenes in the ’20s, their principle of passionate involvement with one’s comrades. As the circles and dimensions of our thing grew, everybody had moments of feeling intensely close to Frank. He climbed into your life.”

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Secret Continuum

Ashbery: “He gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea about things, which made you feel you could think independently too.”

Ginsberg: “His feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.”

Berkson: “If you were one of Frank’s friends, you were given a grand permission to be direct and interesting, to be full of ideas and feelings.”

Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with Ashbery, Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — ­to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

Goldberg: “If you were close to him, Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity. You were always scrambling to keep up with him. He ran through people; almost everyone fell by the wayside at one time or an­other. It was his incredible ap­petite for life…”

If O’Hara had a motto, it was perhaps his own summary of his approach to poetic composition: “You go on your nerve.” Or, meaning the same thing, a line of Pasternak’s: “It’s past, you’ll understand it later.” At any rate, O’Hara was not always tolerant of friends whose nerve failed them, who looked back. On rare occasions, drunk at some late hour, he would mount titanic and vituperative personal rages. He could instill misery and dread to the same extent that he habit­ually evoked affection and joy. Yet, in the words of a young poet who knew him, “No matter what he did, he never lost that movie-star quality, in the best sense. He never seemed less than glamorous and heroic.” Most people saw, at very least, a certain “rightness” to even his wildest tirades, perhaps because, as Goldberg says, “Frank almost always concealed the side of him that was deeply hurt and suf­fered; you only knew it must be there.” So his anger had the inexorable “justice” of a vol­cano. And when he demanded a return on the love he usually lav­ished, it had, with whatever an­guish, to be credited.

Tactic of Survival

For a man who, in the words of one friend, “indulged every feeling he ever had,” this may have been the simple tactic of survival.

If “other people,” Sartre’s Hell, were O’Hara’s element and atmosphere, other people’s art was his constant source of inspiration and delight. Jewish Museum Director Kinneston McShine, who worked with him at the Modern, speaks of O’Hara’s “amazing clarity” in instantly perceiving the special, most in­teresting aspect of any work. Painters, poets, and musicians speak of the quality of his con­cern. He was, on the pattern of Apollinaire, “a poet among the painters,” an artist whose do­main was all of art.

Elaine de Kooning: “He had a sense of what painters are after, he helped you see what you wanted to do.”

Rorem: “What amazed me most about Frank’s interest was that he really wanted you to be good, he really wanted to like your work.”

Ginsberg attributes to O’Hara’s persuasive enthusiasm his own first whole-hearted appreciation of the poets Peter Orlovsky, John Wieners, and Gregory Corso: ”He had the genius’s insight into other genius, plus total lyrical sympathy and magnanimity.”

And perhaps no poet since Apollinaire was the subject of so many portraits.

It is generally agreed among the current crop of young “New York poets” that whatever sense they may have of common identity, and of identification with the older, established poets, is due largely to O’Hara. Certainly his loft at 791 Broadway — as, earlier, his apartment on East 9th Street — was a depot for poets re­gardless of age, clique, or stylis­tic allegiance. Koch: O’Hara acted as though “being an artist were the most natural thing in the world.” Also, he acted as though the art and literary scenes were really for artists and poets, any artist and any poet who wanted to move in them. He held parties expressly for the purpose of bringing peo­ple together; at one such he in­troduced dozens of young writ­ers to the venerable Italian poet Ungaretti. His personal, direct (never patronizing) warmth had a way of melting one’s feelings of intimidation at the threshold to his world. Now, it seems, all that may be gone forever.

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Uncanny Ability

Unquestionably O’Hara’s continuous involvement with others hurt his own poetic production, though to balance it he had the uncanny ability, as Koch tells it, “to write while other people were talking, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter, and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while doing so.” Moreover, there was in principle no absolute cleavage between his social and artistic spheres. To a degree more radical than that of any poet before him, O’Hara made his whole life, his milieu and experiences and friends, the raw subject matter of his work.

To Donald Allen’s endlessly influential 1960 anthology, “The New American Poetry” (in the assembling of which he was a main force and arbiter), O’Hara contributed 15 poems and a “statement on poetics” which reads in part: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations I try to avoid, goes into my poems… My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of what I know and can bear without hatred… It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

Human Perceptions

As it is written, O’Hara’s poetry is tough, dazzling, supple and fast, very funny but incipient with the deepest feelings, aglimmer with linguistic and human perceptions, and subject at any moment to lyric eruption or the breakthrough of intelligence.

Ashbery: “His poetry, more than anyone else’s, reconciles all sorts of conflicting material. In it, things exist in a sort of miraculous emulsion.”

Ginsberg: “Of course he had a tremendous sensitivity for style, for chatty campy style and also for real high style… He was at the center of an extra­ordinary poetic era, which gives his poetry its sense of historic monumentality… And he integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all author­ity back to person. His style is actually in line with the tradi­tion that begins with Independ­ence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in metropolitan spaceage architec­ture environment.

“He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Mid­town his intimate cocktail en­vironment. It’s like having Cat­ullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.”

O’Hara’s major books are “Meditations in an Emergency” (Grove, 1957), “Lunch Poems” (City Lights, 1964), and “Love Poems (Tentative Title)” (Tibor, 1965). His reputation, as Ted Berrigan suggests in an article in the current East Village Oth­er, will probably ultimately rest on such poems as “Second Aven­ue,” “In Memory of My Feel­ings,” “For the Chinese New Year (and for Bill Berkson)” and “Rhapsody,” but already a handful of his short poems, em­bodiments of unique and perhaps unprecedented ways of thinking and feeling about things, seem destined for a kind of immor­tality — e. g., “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” His best plays include “Awake in Spain!” and “The General Returns from One Place to Another.”

And much of O’Hara’s work is yet to be published, exactly how much is not immediately clear.

O’Hara did not, while he lived, win a very extensive poetic reputation. For one thing, his preference for the “commercial” world of art over the academic “community of letters” cut him off from the latter’s well-oiled media of (relative) fame. The New York Times, as it has again so eloquently indicated, is innocent of poetry unless informed of it through proper channels. Beyond that, O’Hara deliberately neglected measures, such as simply sending off his work to the prestige magazines or using his influence with larger publishing houses, by which he might effortlessly have ascended into a more general view. In the early ’50s he published frequently in Poetry, for example, but never since 1956.

His reluctance to be bothered with literary renown bespeaks the confidence of a man who knew he had it coming. But, more than that, it testifies that the locus of his ambition lay elsewhere. O’Hara affirmed, in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s (and his own) “belief that the poet must first be a person, that his writings make him a poet, not his acting of the role.” And what is the alchemy by which a poet is first a person? An O’Hara line: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

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To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

— Frank O’Hara

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Autobiographical Doc Burroughs Paints William S. as an Elusive Persona

By respectfully minding the gap between Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs’s experimental fiction and his real-life passions and traumas, biographical documentary Burroughs — shot in 1983 with its subject’s participation — paints the artist as an elusive persona.

Director Howard Brookner defines Burroughs’s fiction by its autobiographical elements and elliptical prose style, and establishes Burroughs’s slippery character through his interview subjects’ impressionistic, off-the-cuff commentary. Fragmentary asides, like the scene where journalist Lucien Carr regales poet Allen Ginsberg with his impression of Burroughs as a womanizing college student — ” ‘There’s a thunder in my chest,’ he’d say, and all the women fell to the floor” — are given as much weight as sequences where Burroughs tentatively explains the philosophy behind his Dada-esque “cut-up” style.

Likewise, the major players and events in Burroughs’s life are not introduced or situated within a linear biographical narrative. In one scene, Burroughs matter-of-factly explains that he developed an interest in opium because he’d heard it gave users “strange dreams.” Soon after that, Burroughs and Ginsberg hazily speculate on the circumstances that led Burroughs to accidentally shoot his wife Joan Vollmer in a game of William Tell. Ginsberg speculates that it was an assisted suicide, while Burroughs grumbles unintelligibly about a “malevolent spirit” that haunted him.

Burroughs‘s free-associative style allows viewers to enjoy tantalizing interview footage — like the scenes where Burroughs rambles about Wittgenstein’s conception of human existence as a “pre-recording” — without necessarily understanding what he’s saying. Come for the bawdy anecdotes, stay for the defiantly soundbite-proof rambling.

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Fifi Howls From Happiness Finds a Long-Lost Artist

You don’t know his name, but Bahman Mohassess was a titan — a publicly gay, happily misanthropic midcentury Persian art-world powerhouse whose brutally Expressionist paintings ring up six figures at auctions today, and who galvanized his reputation by mysteriously vanishing from Iran for good after the ayatollahs had much of his work destroyed.

The man’s Pynchon-esque absence gets punctured years later by Mitra Farahani, who tracks Mohassess down to a Rome hotel and settles in to shape the chain-smoking septuagenarian’s final testament.

The resulting documentary is never less than addictively fascinating — Mohassess’s story is a heroic torch of individualism battling mad-state ideology, from the Shah to the mullahs, and his autumnal stance toward all things non-Mohassess is hilariously derisive.

But Farahani pushes the saga into even more beautiful territory, sweetly nurturing the old fart and negotiating a large commission from a pair of rich Iranian brothers (one Allen Ginsberg schlubby, the other Jimmy Fallon svelte), as she obediently allows Mohassess to control what goes into her film, and Greek-choruses his final struggle by retelling Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece.”

The lovely ball-&-socket meeting of the two artists’ sensibilities is what makes the doc sing, even if it is a chronicle of a death foretold.

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BOHEMIAN SPIRITS

The ghost of Allen Ginsberg rises again when the HOWL! Festival returns to haunt the East Village. It starts tonight at 7 with a benefit at the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge (101 Avenue A) for the HOWL! Emergency Life Project, which provides financial assistance and social services to artists who live in the East Village and L.E.S. Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) hosts the bash, featuring performances by Warhol Superstar Bibbe Hansen, playwright, actor, and master storyteller Edgar Oliver, and others. Highlights of the fest (all happening in Tompkins Square Park) include the annual reading of HOWL! (Friday at 4:30), a performance by Riki Colon’s Men in Skirts (Saturday 5:30), and a tribute to the great ladies of the Lower East Side titled Bowery Bombshells (Sunday at 5:30).

Thu., May 30, 11 a.m., 2013

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THE MAN INSIDE HIM

Since that cold, dark day in 2006 when Arrested Development was cancelled by Fox, David Cross, one of the show’s most endearing stars, has kept busy with film roles (most memorably as Allen Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There), his own wonderfully absurd television series The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret on IFC, and the recording of his third nonsensically titled comedy album, Bigger and Blackerer. But this May he returns to his finest role as Tobias Fünke, the denim-cutoffs-loving “buy-curious” 
wannabe actor on Arrested Development, which is being revived on Netflix with the entire original cast. Tonight, his fellow cast member Michael Cera talks to Cross about his career in comedy, returning to the Bluth family fold, and rumors about the film adaptation.

Wed., March 20, 8 p.m., 2013

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Sundance 2013: Sex with James Franco, Sultry Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Radcliffe’s Jew-Fro, and a Great Film From Jordan

In his brief remarks before the first public screening of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford praised the Sundance Institute’s ongoing filmmaker development labs as “our core,” noting that the festival itself was conceived “to create an audience for the filmmakers in our lab program.”

That program has now birthed a series of satellite Sundance labs all over the world, including the one in Jordan that was responsible for developing actress-writer-director Cherien Dabis’ May in the Summer, a buoyant comic drama about three Palestinian-American sisters navigating currents of love, loss, and dysfunctional parent-child relationships in present-day Amann. May, one of four opening-night selections to screen in Park City Thursday night, is Dabis’ second feature, following 2009’s Amreeka, also a Sundance lab project.

Where Amreeka looked at a Palestinian Christian family emigrating from Ramallah to suburban Illinois, May charts an opposite journey, with American-born May (played by Dabis herself) traveling from New York to Amann to prepare for her impending nuptials. She’s a published author who’s just written a book about Arabic proverbs; her fiancé, Ziad, is an Islamic studies professor who, much to the chagrin of May’s devoutly Christian mother (the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), happens to be Muslim. That’s just the start of the familial complications: Mom is divorced from May’s American diplomat father (Bill Pullman), who has recently gotten remarried to a younger Indian woman (Ritu Singh Pande). Sister Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) is a party girl newly laid off from her job, while sister Dahlia (Arrested Development‘s hilarious Alia Shawkat) is a lesbian tentatively trying to step out of the closet. And then there’s Ziad (Syriana‘s Alexander Siddig), who’s conspicuous by his absence on May’s arm.

That may risk making May in the Summer sound like an overstuffed sit-com, and there are moments when it feels like one, but as in her previous film Dabis is smart enough to balance broadly accessible comedy with sharply drawn, three-dimensional characters and a personal, reflective sensibility. Dabis, who is Palestinian herself, grew up in Omaha, and there’s a poignancy to the way her characters grapple with their amorphous cultural identities — not quite at home in the U.S. or in Jordan, where Palestine looms just across the Black Sea. You could swim there, one character notes, were the water not teeming with land mines. And that’s about as directly as Dabis engages with the ever-present “conflict” between Israel and its Arab neighbors, preferring instead to focus on the ways ordinary people go about their everyday lives — shopping, partying, looking for happiness — no mater the war planes that periodically streak loudly across the sky.

Meanwhile, the first full day of Sundance 2013 might have been subtitled “Sex sells, but who’s buying?” (A question sure to be answered over the next few days as buyers begin whipping out their checkbooks.) From mid-afternoon until late evening, the screen of the Eccles Theatre (Sundance’s largest screening venue) lit up with one high-profile premiere after another that featured well-known stars in a series of explicit compromising positions.

First up was director John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, about the ill-fated love triangle between the young Allen Ginsberg, his libertine fellow Columbia student Lucian Carr, and the obsessive David Kammerer, whom Carr stabbed in Riverside Park, bound, and dumped into the Hudson River on an August night in 1944. Ginsberg is well played — to the evident surprise of some critics — by erstwhile Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, sporting the requisite “Jew fro” (a point of discussion at the post-screening Q&A) and the hesitant but hungry demeanor of a brilliant poet about to bloom. But it’s the always inventive Ben Foster, lurking on the edges of the movie as the young William Burroughs, who handily steals the show. One of two Beat-era nostalgia trips premiering at Sundance (the second, Michael Polish’s Jack Kerouac-centric Big Sur, screens later in the week), is an unquestionable improvement over last year’s paint-by-numbers On the Road, but it still falls victim to the kind of idol worship that has made most movies about the Beats hard to take, and to ham-fisted dialogue like “It’s our turn. Let’s show them what we can do!” (Did people ever talk like that, even in the ’40s?) Suffice it to say that the climactic montage juxtaposing Kammerer’s slaying with Ginsberg’s full-on homosexual deflowering doesn’t exactly best The Godfather‘s influential-to-a-fault baptism/massacre.

From the Beats to beating off: next up was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hugely enjoyable directorial debut, Don Jon’s Addiction, in which the former child star turned solid character actor casts himself as a muscle-bound, spray-tanned Jersey guido with a debilitating addiction to online porn. Sporting a slicked-back pompadour and a marked aversion to sleeves, Gordon-Levitt’s Jon is an intentionally outsized comic creation, and the actor gives himself over to it fully, taking obvious glee in imploding his thoughtful, somewhat bookish screen image. And Gordon-Levitt the director gives the film an addict’s cyclical rhythms, making amusing leitmotifs out of the startup chime from Jon’s computer, the clack of his fingers on the keyboard, and the swoosh of his wadded-up kleenex hitting the wastebasket. Breaking this vicious cycle is a radiant Scarlett Johansson as the sultry seductress who forces Jon to confront his addiction, and Julianne Moore as the earthy, pothead cougar who shows him how to actually overcome it. For at the heart of the often outré Don Jon’s Addiction is a nugget of seriousness about the search for true intimacy in a world of so much instant gratification. Rounding out the game-faced cast: a sublime Tony Danza as Jon Sr., an even more uncanny JG-L doppelganger than Bruce Willis in last year’s Looper.

Finally there was Coco Before Chanel director Anne Fontaine’s Two Mothers, an English-language French-Australian co-production set along the idyllic coastline of Seal Rocks, New South Wales — a town so small that there is, evidently, nothing better for two handsome teenage surfers (played by Animal Kingdomdiscovery James Frecheville and Twilight‘s Xavier Samuel) than to sit around playing cards, getting drunk and eventually climbing into the sack with each other’s middle-aged mom. Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are the two sun-kissed MILFs of the title, and they play the parts with such conviction — as do their young co-stars — that, at the late hour it screened, there was something guiltily pleasurable about Two Mothers and its high-toned Skinemax vibe. Fontaine is too straight-arrow a director to push the material fully over the absurd precipice — the way that, say, Paul Verhoeven readily would have — but that didn’t stop the Eccles audience from erupting in waves of laughter during some of the more risible sections. When asked, during the post-screening Q&A, what surprised her most about the audience’s response, a befuddled Fontaine answered in broken English, “Ze laughing. I’m not sure what that means.” If a ballsy distributor picks this up and markets it as a full-on camp melodrama– Mommies Dearest — they might just have a hit on their hands.

And Sundance 2013 is just be heating up. Still in the wings: James Franco and co-director Travis Mathews’ Interior. Leather Bar., which purports to “reimagine” the 40 minutes of hardcore S&M material rumored to have been excised from William Friedkin’s 1980 gay serial-killer drama, Cruising. Park City locals, lock up your children.

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FEMME FATALE

The influence of singer and Warhol superstar Nico, who would have turned 75 this year, persists in goth culture as well as in older adherents of the slow-music movement she pioneered with fierce, uncompromising intensity. As one critic wrote, “When Nico stared into the abyss, you felt sorry for the abyss.” When John Cale first presented his Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico in 2008, the singers mostly eschewed nostalgia and familiarity for the darker, more Germanic corners of Christa Päffgen’s harmonium-accompanied dirges. Kicking off a three-night BAM run tonight, Cale reprises “Borderline” with guests Joan As Police Woman, Mark Lanegan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Peaches, Yeasayer, the Magnetic Fields, Kim Gordon, and Sharon Van Etten. He returns Thursday and Friday with complete performances of Paris 1919, his 1973 concept album. (Coincidentally, you can also take a nostalgia trip tonight with Lou Reed, who will be at Housing Works Bookstore Café [126 Crosby Street, 212-334-3324] for a program of poetry and songs in honor of the vinyl and digital reissue of Allen Ginsberg’s First Blues, a collection of his studio sessions featuring Bob Dylan and Arthur Russell.)

Wed., Jan. 16, 8 p.m., 2013

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THE GODFATHER

One would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who has done more to champion underground film than the self-proclaimed “raving maniac of cinema” Jonas Mekas. His long list of achievements include pioneering the ”film diary” form, his Movie Journal column for the Voice, and co-founding several institutions dedicated to avant-garde filmmaking. One of those institutions is, of course, Anthology Film Archives, which is celebrating his birthday this month with Jonas Mekas Turns 90!, a look at his lesser-known works with introductions from scholars, critics, and filmmakers. It starts tonight with his most recent feature My Paris Movie, his tribute to the City of Light. Upcoming highlights include his short Web video of director Harmony Korine, a video record of Allen Ginsberg’s wake in 1997, and the NY premiere of his 2005 documentary on Martin Scorsese.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Dec. 17. Continues through Dec. 23, 2012

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LARGER THAN LIFE

Richard Avedon famously changed fashion photography in the 1950s by taking models out of the studio and placing them in unconventional settings—nightclubs, casinos, even the circus. But as America radically changed in the ’60s, Avedon’s portraits also shifted to record the cultural and political revolution. Richard Avedon: Murals and Portraits at Gagosian Gallery includes his legendary large-scale murals (between 20 to 35 feet wide) of Allen Ginsberg with his extended family; Andy Warhol and members of the Factory; Abbie Hoffman and the radicals of the Chicago Seven; and the Mission Council, the war administrators behind the Vietnam War. All of his portraits are done against his signature white background because, as he once remarked, “White backgrounds make it difficult not to let the subject take over.”

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: July 5. Continues through July 27, 2012

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Howl! Festival Swoops Into East Village This Weekend

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl! has inspired generation after generation, having had influence far beyond anything the poet ever imagined during his first reading of it in San Francisco in 1955. Since 2003, East Village residents have celebrated the seminal poem every year with the Howl! Festival–a gathering of writers, artists, musicians, dancers, and more. This year’s bash kicks off Friday afternoon with a group reading led by poet Bob Holman, featuring a “Greek Chorus” of voices from the poetry group Pop Up Poets, in Tompkins Square Park at 4:30 p.m. The free fest continues throughout the weekend with a variety of events, including readings, a carnival, and dance performances. The weekend tops off at 5 p.m. on Sunday with “Low Life 6: East Village Others,” a show paying homage to the explosion of culture in the East Village between 1966 and 1972.