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An Evening in the Life of Washington Heights

 

Children watch as friends play volleyball at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.
Kids play along the riverfront at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.
Neighborhood friends celebrate the birthday of Miss Shay, who is turning 15-years old (center left) in Washington Heights on a summer evening.
12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Washington Heights residents practice volleyball and softball in the Hudson River Greenway on a summer Sunday evening. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Friends sit at the riverfront at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.

12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Friends play a game of Ecuavolley in the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening. Ecuavolley is a variant of volleyball invented and played in Ecuador. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Anthony and Orlando, long-term residents of Washington Heights, sit on Amsterdam Ave on a summer evening.
16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights on a summer evening. The street is filled with cars and set designs, as the community is being used for the filming of “The Deuce” for HBO this week. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Jahmel, Liam, Mia, Kourtney, Jared, and Bria sit on the stairs in front of their apartment building in Washington Heights on a late summer evening. The group lives on 164th, where they have grown up together their whole lives. They are not related, but feel the same as family.

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights on a summer evening. The street is filled with cars and set designs, as the community is being used for the filming of “The Deuce” for HBO this week.
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The Exquisite Therapy of Michael Stamm’s Paintings

A couple of years back, I met the painter Michael Stamm while I was doing studio critiques at New York University, where he was a grad student. Struck by the graphic grace of his blend of text and imagery, I brought up the fact that Roy Lichtenstein, despite his painstaking craftsmanship, was a poor draftsman, a terrible letterer, and a worse designer.

Stamm said, “You don’t really mean that.”

I replied that I certainly did, and that Stamm’s own compositions of geometrically rigorous figures overlaid with evocative snippets of prose were more compelling examples of how the verbal can be transmuted into the visual.

Michael Stamm, Tincture #2 (Philosophy of the World), 2017 Oil, acrylic and flashe on linen 57 x 42 inches (144.7 x 106.6 cm)
“Tincture #2 (Philosophy of the World)”
(2017)

The majority of the paintings in Stamm’s first show at DC Moore Gallery depict the highly stylized, well-dressed torso of a therapist draped in elaborate jewelry (which, according to the press release, tacitly refers to Stamm’s own therapy sessions). The cropped perspective of these roughly two-and-a-half-foot-high canvases—basically, the distance from neckline to waist—implies a patient’s averted gaze. The bling in Nicety Necklace (2017) features self-help buzzwords cut out in gold, such as “You! Me / Us!!!!!” and “We Did It!” More text is stacked in the middle of the composition; gray and receding, it reads, in part, “Imagine the future??? My future???” All of this is enclosed in a speech bubble, imparting a sense of the pressure built up by discussing primal conflicts—be they emotional, sexual, familial—compounded by the mannered constraints between the person on the couch and the one with the notepad. Around the periphery, brown circles float like lens flares in a snapshot, perhaps light glinting off the gilt phrases. (And isn’t psychoanalysis always about someone’s guilt?)

The word “virtue,” placed vertically and split by the opening in the doctor’s quilted vest, provides the title to 2017’s Virtue Vest. Pale flesh and purple fingernails are fastidiously aligned with the rim and handle of a gray ceramic mug from which obscuring steam rises like a serpent. The volume of the hands is implied less by gradated shadows than by the careful tuning of hues, which shift and interplay with the panache of a Joseph Albers color study. A necklace of brown beads supports a stylized face, with pink baubles for cheeks, a ruby pendant nose and lips, and silver eyes, bizarre bling that reaches to the doctor’s stomach. The effect, for patients used to navel gazing, is of the therapist’s own belly button now staring back at them, though whether in rebuke or sympathy is unfathomable. Like the recounting of a dream, the outline of a pair of small, gloved hands emerges from behind the jeweled visage, at first seeming to grasp what might be the doctor’s skinny tie, which morphs into a sword. Is this a childhood memory of storybook knights or visions of Oedipal rage?

Michael Stamm
Psychoanalysis is all about the gilt: “Nicety Necklace” (2017)

Not that gender is clear-cut in these works—everything drifts in gray areas both literal and metaphysical. Cheers Cloak (2017) features strung glass spheres refracting a beige, gray, and brown horizon, implying that all is proper, measured, and calm regardless of the fears or anxieties brought to the surface during a therapy session. From one finger the doctor dangles a locket, open to reveal a woman. Her mother? Daughter? Lover? Or is this just an object she uses to hypnotize a patient and spelunk his or her—or the viewer’s—psyche? This composition is wordless, yet everything is again framed by a dialogue balloon—image literally made narrative, the various elements loaded for interpretation. Here’s one: With starched cuffs and tightly buttoned collar, the therapist figure recalls the taut geometries of both husband and wife in Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic, emphasizing an androgynous gloss on a Midwestern icon from—as culture critic Greil Marcus aptly termed it—“the old, weird America.”

Michael Stamm, Bauhaus Beads, 2017 Oil, acrylic and flashe on linen 28 x 21 inches (71.1 x 53.3 cm)
The mannered constraints between the person on the couch and the one with the notepad: “Bauhaus Beads” (2017)

Stamm’s palette favors plums, umbers, and burgundies; bright colors are generally cut with gray, as if a veil—of depression?—hangs between mind and eyes. And yet subtle layers of detail and narrative slowly emerge, in the way that objects or characters behind a theatrical scrim become visible as light angles change. Stamm’s use of graphics is akin to Ed Ruscha’s bank-shot blends of color, texture, and verbiage, as in Ruscha’s deceptively simple Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped (1976), in which a mottled, bubble-gum-pink background adumbrates an ingénue’s downfall.

Each of the nine panels in April 27, 2016 (2016) is 16 inches high by 12 inches across, which could be the size of a wall calendar. Arranged horizontally, a simple scene is repeated left to right: A swizzle stick is refracted by liquid and the flat sides of a half-full (half-empty?) drinking glass. The sun is reflected in the glass planes, rising in blue tones on the left, passing through the warm beiges of midday, and then disappearing in the last, lead-colored panel. We are observing the passage of one day, and yet numbers and letters in the background—some obscured by shadows and reflections—imply months, years, and centuries measured by the rise and fall of an unconcerned sun. Of course, April is—as T.S. Eliot informed us in freshman English—the cruelest of months. But it is another poem, questioning how single days somehow morph into lifetimes, that more aptly synchs with the melancholy loveliness of Stamm’s visions.

Days by Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

 

Michael Stamm: Mediation Inc.
DC Moore
535 West 22nd Street, 212-247-2111
dcmooregallery.com
Through February 3

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Normel Person

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Donald Trump’s Sinking PR Crisis

“As a Puerto Rican living in Chicago, this is how I picture the President of the United States is managing the crisis in Puerto Rico with no sense of urgency after two hurricanes hit the island.”

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Normel Person

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The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, And More Rock On In New Book

There were two posters taped to the ceiling of Lizzy Goodman’s childhood bedroom in Albuquerque, New Mexico: Gavin Rossdale’s Rolling Stone cover and a photo of the Manhattan skyline. In a way, each represented her goals: rock ’n’ roll, and New York City. Fast-forward a few years — through college on the East Coast, a midtown restaurant job alongside Nick Valensi of the Strokes, and a teaching stint at an Upper East Side all-boys school — and Goodman found herself at the center of a music scene ready to explode. These years would later become the subject of her new book, Meet Me in the Bathroom, out this week.

“Meeting Nick kind of clued me in to the fact that the people making this stuff weren’t different from me,” says Goodman. “The people I met in my everyday life seemed to be doing this really interesting work, and it seemed like adults were letting them get away with it.”

BOOKS_05242017_DEMARCO_Goodman_Katia Temkin-CROPGoodman’s timing couldn’t have been better. She arrived in New York at the turn of the millennium, while Valensi and his buddies were developing the sound that would come to define the scene. Meanwhile, New York’s nightlife was dominated by bottle-service mega-clubs and hamstrung by Giuliani-era anti-cabaret laws. On the radio, nu-metal and rap-rock jostled for airplay alongside Britney and the Backstreet Boys. But downtown, the legacy of bands like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, and Sonic Youth lived on in Lower East Side bars and clubs such as 2A, Brownie’s, and Lit and at the TISWAS party at Don Hill’s.

Meet Me in the Bathroom captures this world by way of oral history. The story of New York’s rock revival in the decade after 9-11 is told by the bands themselves. The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, and Vampire Weekend all lend their voices to Goodman’s chorus. Filled with raucous accounts of nightlife, copious drug use, and Mean Girls–worthy backbiting — the scene in which the Strokes go full Regina George on Ryan Adams is enough to make even the dirtiest rocker’s skin crawl — the book reads, Goodman admits, like “a dirty cocktail party.”

The inspiration for the work emerged from what was billed as LCD Soundsystem’s final show, at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. The Strokes played MSG the night before, and it appeared the groups were bidding farewell to a decade. Goodman attended both performances. The two bands — the Strokes in their leather jackets and Converse exploding onto the scene; the calculating James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem cohorts with their slow build — provide the twin backbones to Goodman’s tome, despite their divergent paths to success. “The idea for the book began where it ends,” she says. “I kind of had this awareness wash over me that something was ending. Not necessarily in a dark way, just a story that I’d been a participant in, following and living for ten years now.”

The challenge was how best to tell this story. “If you think of New York City during that time, and rock ’n’ roll in New York City as the main character, then all of these other sources whose stories belong to that time period are sources in that story,” says Goodman, who has written for Rolling StoneNew York magazine, Elle, the NME, and the Village Voice, among others. One of the first conversations she had was with Ryan Gentles, the Strokes manager and an old friend. She would need his help in rounding up the interviews, which amounted to more than two hundred conversations, ranging from Ryan Adams to Nick Zinner. The breakthrough, though, was in realizing that to encapsulate this era in text, she needed “the space, the sense of playfulness and internal contradiction that oral history allows.”

At better than six hundred pages, the result seeks to do for the first decade of the 21st century what Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me did for New York’s Seventies punk heyday: capture the collective voice of a turbulent scene. “[The sources] can disagree with each other, they can call each other out, they can support each other and say surprising things about each other,” says Goodman of the form. “And it’s all part of the truth about what happened.”

The time capsule of the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-iPhone 2000s feels at once debauched and innocent. “That sense of intimacy, exploration, and discovery by a gang of kids operating with abandon in a landscape of misbehavior, but where nobody is really watching,” says Goodman, “I do think that’s the last time that’s going to happen in quite the same way.”

For her own part, when Goodman wants to go back to that time — to that feeling of “youth and abandon” — she plays the album Fever to Tell by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She heard it for the first time at a party in her apartment, when her then-boyfriend, Marc Spitz, brought over an advance copy. (Spitz, a veteran rock critic who serves as something of a Greek chorus throughout, died unexpectedly in February; the book is dedicated to his memory.) After he gave Goodman the album, she hid in her bedroom and played it twice through at top volume.

“When I want to remember what it felt like to be there during that time, the excitement of hearing these bands that were contemporaries of mine, making this music that felt like my soul — you know, the sound of my soul — that’s the album I play,” she says.

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Pioneering Performance Artist Joan Jonas Takes Flight

“I think of myself as a kind of medium for information to pass through,” Joan Jonas once said of herself. Since the late 1960s, this pioneer of video and performance art has channeled information and ideas with a deep sense of and sensitivity to how they manifest differently between one medium and another, and to how space — theatrical, televisual, conceptual — is broken open by the eye of an artist. A show by Jonas is always a grand occasion, and her latest, “What Is Found in the Windowless House Is True,” covers three floors of GBE’s sprawling new gallery space on 127th Street, presenting for the first time in the U.S. two of her most recent major installations.

Jonas was born in 1936 and came of artistic age in the late 1960s, when she began to make performances. She studied dance with Trisha Brown and performed with Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer. The sculptor Richard Serra, with whom she would collaborate on two short films in 1971, recalled seeing one of her earliest pieces in her loft in 1968. “The personality of Joan was long gone, a fiction,” he explained of her altered presence. “In her place was a magical invocation.” Ritual and folk culture suffused her work from the get-go. (A favorite biographical detail: Her stepfather was an amateur magician.) In 1972, she incorporated live video into her performances, a new space to generate aura and magic. The black-and-white video Vertical Roll, from that same year (considered Jonas’s first masterwork), made use of a common television glitch — the rolling bar — as a frantic frame within which to perform, to present herself. Since then, she has created a luminous and trenchant body of work quite unlike any other.

In the first-floor gallery, laid across wooden tabletops, is a selection of her props: masks, wooden animals, toy houses, stones, and other objets that may appear and disappear throughout her work. Here, too, is a series of body drawings she makes during performances by placing a large piece of handmade paper over her torso and tracing it in charcoal. On the opposite wall is a series of sweet, loose-handed watercolors of birds, plucked from the past two years of her practice.

Up a flight of stairs there’s Reanimation (2010/2012/2013), which the artist devised in collaboration with the MacArthur grantwinning composer and musician Jason Moran. The work exists as both a performance and an installation. (A video document of the performance gets the flatscreen-and-headphones treatment on one wall, while the installation fills the room adjacent to it.) Taking both inspiration and segments of text from Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness’s 1968 Under the Glacier, Jonas’s glimmering, mesmerizing, fraught piece deals in part with the unnatural fate of nature when left in our hands. It’s one of Jonas’s greatest achievements.

Reanimation isn’t a taut narrative; it’s an unfolding, a refraction of moving images and sounds across four screens that face one another at off-angles, like walls of a house that’s been blown open. Roving footage of snowy mountains; driving through frozen tunnels; a seal half-immersed in water; a goat, sweet-eyed and curious, in a barn; Jonas’s shadow cast over the ice-covered earth. There are also static, in-studio shots, a camera hung overhead to record hands making drawings — Rorschach-like blots — by pushing ice cubes around in small puddles of ink. Dozens of crystals hang from a knee-high steel grid placed before one of the projectors: They cast shadows over the images while also reflecting the light as prisms. Over all this and more, we hear the resounding voice of Sami yoik singer nde Somby; Jonas’s strange sound effects; and Moran’s graceful yet frenetic piano, which together can either sound like a shamanic healing ritual or blare like a warning signal, an urgent siren.

“Time is the one thing we can all agree to call supernatural,” says Jonas, quoting Laxness. In one of the videos, we watch as she paints a figure in the snow. This, too, shall melt, it seems to say. Reanimation traces the traces we leave behind, the marks — whether art or otherwise — that may or may not last into the future.

Given the art and the artist’s position regarding time, the exhibition causes an itch around the question of posterity, particularly where Jonas’s performances are made available as videos. Video documentation is useful as proof and as reference, of course, but far less so as an experience — as a work of art unto itself. The purists among us (and I confess that I teeter into this category) would stump for some breathing room between the performance and the installation. In other words: Let what is live be live; honor the ephemeral by consenting to its power as a fleeting presence, and allow the video installation to tease out its own sensations in its audience at its own scale and speed: of time looped, rather than lost; of rattling, full-body confrontations with images of icy landscapes; of shifting qualities of light; of Jonas’s performance gestures.

The same might be said for the objects displayed on the first floor. In theater, props just take up space until they’re taken up by the performer, in whose hands they find their best, most potent use. Displaying Jonas’s lovely curiosities here in the “real world” is certainly an educative move — we can see close up what might otherwise remain a bit inscrutable onscreen — but it does divest them of their magic.

On the fourth floor of the gallery is stream or river, flight or pattern (2016/2017), a contemplative, lightly melancholy installation of three projected videos entwining footage shot during the artist’s travels to Vietnam, Italy, and Cambodia, at her home in Nova Scotia, and in other places, too. Hung along the gallery walls are drawings of birds done in china marker; from the ceiling hang paper kites made by hand, which look like birds, or planes, abstracted. Across the videos, Jonas continues to play with her images’ depths of field, at times quite literally: Performers are filmed in front of projections of images from nature both moving and still, so that they in effect become moving screens; at other times, they block the light like shadow puppets, silhouettes interacting with vibrant landscapes. A regal bird in a cage, dancing, preening, then coming toward the camera for a closer look; caressing close-ups of ancient mosaics; celebratory paper animals burned; Jonas painting in a cemetery: All this and more joins the whirl, as nature unnatural. A favorite moment: Jonas, wearing sunglasses and a funny mesh helmet, with both arms and one leg stuck straight out behind her, posed as though a bird in midair. It’s a gesture that stretches beyond broad imitation. It’s desire, perhaps, a funny dance, yes — but it’s also a portrait of an artist in full flight, at the height of her powers.

Joan Jonas: ‘What Is Found in the Windowless House Is True’
GBE
439 West 127th Street
212-627-5258
gavinbrown.biz
Through June 11

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Exploring the Rise of the European Far Right at MoMA P.S.1

The recent defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential runoff offered a break in the tide of political ugliness that has surged in recent years in Europe. But, given how deeply hatred and confrontation now pervade public life in much of Europe, any respite can only be temporary. That’s the overwhelming message of “New Nationalisms,” an exhibition of up-close video that the Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa has made since 2009, traveling across Central and Eastern Europe, getting in the fray with fascists and antifascists, riot cops and refugees, queer and Roma activists, football hooligans, and others facing off in public spaces. On view at MoMA P.S.1, the show is intense, loud, brutal — and necessary.

“A few years ago far-right groups were on the boundaries of society,” says Rafa, 37, speaking via Skype from Bratislava. “It’s been growing exponentially since maybe 2012. It’s everywhere now.” His work as activist and documentarian has followed. Initially a sculpture student at an art school in Slovakia, Rafa was moved to act when towns in his country began putting up walls to segregate Roma settlements. He organized a soccer match with Roma youth next to one of these walls, filmed it, and put the video online. “It started discussion,” he says. “And I saw that this could be the role of the artist.”

Next came clashes between queer activists and neofascists in Bratislava; skinheads versus antifa in Brno, in the Czech Republic; and a roster of incidents stretching from Ukraine to Switzerland, eventually taking in the 2015 refugee crisis, which Rafa filmed in intimate detail, running with refugees through cornfields on the Croatia-Slovenia border, crowding with them at the entrance to Hungary, seeing them herded onto buses at the Budapest train station as skinheads approached, and filming the confrontation between the fascists and riot police. In the process he put into effect his second graduate degree, from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Grzegorz Kowalski, a celebrated Polish experimental artist. The theme of Kowalski’s studio was “audiovisual space,” Rafa says. “It gave me good experience with video art and political critique.” He is now a teaching assistant at the academy.

A principle of Rafa’s practice is to make his work accessible: The videos are archived on his website (newnationalism.eu) and YouTube channel, and you can find a collection of stills on Flickr. The video sequences typically range from five to fifteen minutes, with relatively few cuts, the camera moving with the flow of events. At P.S.1, however, the organizers — chief curator Peter Eleey, museum director Klaus Biesenbach, and curatorial assistant Oliver Schulz — stitched together six longer films in collaboration with the artist, creating a viewing experience meant to both draw in and unsettle the viewer.

Five of the films run on monitors set around a small room. One focuses on xenophobic protests against the Roma, another on neofascist aggression toward refugees and Muslims; one follows refugees trying to cross southeastern Europe to get to Germany; one documents the Euromaidan protests in Kiev and the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The last one offers a measure of reprieve: It shows the painting workshops Rafa and fellow artists have organized for Roma children in Slovakia every year since his initial football match initiative. These longer films, lasting between 26 minutes and close to an hour and a half, run with the sound on, creating a purposeful din. “We didn’t use headphones,” says P.S.1’s Schulz. “You’re in a kind of cacophonous space that in some ways gives you a physical relationship to what it’s like to be surrounded by that kind of intensity.”

The sixth film is the pièce de résistance, including elements from several of the others. Titled New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe, it runs in an adjacent area on a wall-size screen, with several rows of comfortable cinema seating to encourage viewers to watch the full 52 minutes. It is harrowing stuff. It opens with Slovakian nationalists rallying at the grave of Jozef Tiso, leader of the fascist Slovak Republic during WWII; next come several sequences of virulent Czech demonstrators screaming anti-Roma slurs and fighting with riot police. Later comes a long series of very difficult scenes involving refugees; anti-immigrant demonstrations in Poland; men in Slovakia surrounding and threatening a Muslim family; demonstrators holding mock trials and executions of actors playing “suspects” such as George Soros. Racial slurs fly, along with sexual taunts and references to gas chambers. The insults draw on deep wells of grievance. “You occupied us for two hundred years, as the Turks!” the harassers shout at their cowering Muslim victims.

In keeping with the precepts of cinema vérité, Rafa offers no narration. “I am not commenting,” he says. Still, he makes decisions that consistently humanize the work and anchor it squarely in the antifascist camp. At times, he pauses for interviews with, for instance, volunteers who are trying to supply refugees with basic necessities amid squalid conditions. He lingers, too, on truth-tellers, such as the elderly Slovakian Jewish man who confronts the demonstrators in the name of his mother, who gave birth to him in Theresienstadt concentration camp. (“The Holocaust affected Slovaks the most,” someone shouts back. “Not only Jews!”) The close shots reveal affecting detail — witness the bewilderment of young border guards faced with a roiling tide of refugees in evident pain. By contrast, the smirk of complicity that one neofascist gives to a cop who is telling him to back off is downright sinister.

Getting into this tangle isn’t for everyone — being a young, white man with an all-purpose scruffy look, Rafa can get close without standing out too much, but riled-up neofascists have a way of spotting the interloper. “It’s about experience, and also adrenaline,” he says. “It’s dangerous, but it’s important to keep calm and focused. Of course there have been situations; I’ve been injured a couple of times. It’s good to know where are the limits.”

The work has carried other costs, too, in the loss of friendships with peers who have fallen prey to the ambient xenophobic discourse. “A lot of friends are antagonists now,” Rafa says. “This populism is everywhere — anti-Islam, anti-refugee, anti-Roma. People see this attitude on official TV news, and it’s impossible to discuss.” On the other hand, he says, artists are mobilizing: “There are more and more artists and culture institutions standing against far-right ideas, when three or four years ago there were just a few.”

Rafa says he holds out hope for nonviolent resolution to what ails European societies, but he is worried. “We may be beyond the crossroads of polite discussion,” he says. He hopes that staging his work in the United States will send Americans a message about forces that are at work here too. “I’m showing results: This is what’s happening in Europe,” he says. “This is reality. This is history. It’s a message, and it’s also a warning.”

 

Tomáš Rafa: New Nationalisms
MoMA P.S.1
22-25 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City
718-784-2084
momaps1.org
Through September 10

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Fab 5 Freddy Remembers Glenn O’Brien, Downtown Icon

I cannot stress enough how influential Glenn O’Brien was on my life. I went to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for about two semesters in the Seventies, and around that time I started reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. I became a huge fan of this column in the back: “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” Glenn would write about all kinds of music, from punk to disco to funk to reggae to dancehall reggae, and I would read his column and then I would go and get those records. And I would hear exactly what Glenn was writing about. At the time, I had a weekly college radio show focused on Caribbean music. We called it The People’s Beat, and had an idea to reach out to Glenn O’Brien: Maybe he would come and do an interview. And Glenn O’Brien responded yes.

We set up a date, and Glenn came to Brooklyn. We interviewed him at the station, and when I was walking him back to the train, I told him some of my ideas about how I was envisioning myself being an artist, how I saw these connections between graffiti and pop art. Glenn was totally encouraging. He told me that in a couple of months he was going to do a public access TV show on cable called Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, and he wanted to interview me on it. Now, at the time in New York, cable was a luxury. For the outer boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx — cable was something that other people had.

Two months later, I get a call from Glenn to come on his show. It was going to happen. So I show up at this funky little bar on 23rd Street in Manhattan called the Blarney Stone. There were all these cool new-wave, punk-rock folks, and we walked across the street to the studio, which was no bigger than your average living room. And it was very low-tech, very lo-fi; the video cameras we used were actually black-and-white. Glenn had explained he wanted his show to be like Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, which was like a very sexy cocktail hour on TV. At the beginning of each show, he would say, “TV Party is the television show that’s a cocktail party but which could be a political party.” You can see tons of it on YouTube. At the taping of the first show, which I also appeared on, the guy who was supposed to work the camera didn’t show, and Glenn was like, “Fred, man that camera!” And that began a change in my life.

Glenn O'Brien and Fab 5 Freddy

This is where I met Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. David Byrne. The B-52’s. Filmmakers, writers, poets, other painters, photographers. It was amazing. It led me to meet Charlie Ahearn and pitch an idea to him for a movie that connected all this rap and graffiti stuff: Wild Style. And the downtown scene connected to the new culture of graffiti/street art, rapping, breakdancing, and DJ’ing now known as hip-hop.

At almost the same time, Glenn was working on another movie, New York Beat (a/k/a Downtown 81). Glenn wanted it to center on a cool downtown guy, and in the end he chose Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I was very close with. Everyone in that film was friends, and a lot of the movie mirrors actual things that were happening around us. That’s why that film feels so much like a documentary at times. It felt so real. We walked those streets every day. All of that really started the wheels turning on a journey for me. The key players on our scene definitely wanted to make a big impact on culture. Cool is subjective, but confidence — the courage to be different and go against the grain — was a trait among leaders of the scene like Glenn. That’s what was going on with those in our creative circle. Glenn totally understood what our mission was and what we were trying to do. He had such an impact on me, on New York, and on culture at large.

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The Quad Cinema’s Facelift Caps Off a New Golden Age of NYC Cinema

[pullquote]Programming will have to strike a balance between cinema’s various canons and the films that speak to different voices and experiences.[/pullquote]

“Eva, there is a man on the floor having sex with a blow-up doll.”

Eva Rode still remembers the day, way back in the 1980s, when she heard a strange sound emanating from the men’s room of the Quad Cinema and sent a male usher in to check. “I almost had a stroke,” she recalls, thinking back to what went through her mind when the ashen-faced usher informed her of what he had seen. “Minutes later, I heard another sound,” she continues. “Pffffft. He was deflating his girlfriend! Then I see him coming out of the men’s room, with a duffel bag, and he just strolls into the theater, all happy and no problem.”

[pullquote]“I can’t tell you how many times I’ll find myself walking down the street and people will stop me and ask, ‘When is the Quad coming back?’ ”[/pullquote]

Things have, to understate it considerably, changed since those days. The Quad, which originally opened in 1972 as New York City’s first multi-screen movie theater and survived in the heart of Greenwich Village for more than forty years, will reopen this April under new management, nearly two years after it closed its doors. The theater has undergone a total redesign — new programmers, new seats, new screens, new lobby, even a new wine bar next door. Listening to the new owner, Charles S. Cohen, a real estate developer and film buff who also owns the arthouse distributor Cohen Media Group, enthuse about the changes he’s made, it’s clear he’s conceived of the project as a high-tech reinvention, with a video screen in the lobby, color-coordinated seats, and a fancy new logo designed by Pentagram; he likens the new theater, half-jokingly, to a “22nd-century experience.”

The good news is that he doesn’t expect to make a ton of money from the venture, though he does say he hopes it will be “marginally” profitable. “It’s not so much about making money as creating the right venue for the kind of movies that I think people want to see — both classic films and new,” he says. And Cohen’s taste in films is impeccable: Cohen Media Group has put out such fare as Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning The Salesman, Abderrahmane Sissako’s masterpiece Timbuktu, and the recent restoration of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. The company also owns a film library with more than 700 titles, including the Merchant Ivory collection, and classics by the Taviani Brothers, Maurice Pialat, and Buster Keaton.

Cohen is sensitive to the Quad’s history as a scrappy neighborhood venue where the employees and patrons often knew each other by name, which is why he brought back both Rode and Robin Keegan, who managed the theater for decades. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll find myself walking down the street and people will stop me and ask, ‘When is the Quad coming back?’?” Rode says.

The bond between the Quad and its audience didn’t happen by accident. For many years, this was where you’d come to see the latest in independent queer films. In the early 1990s, when other cinemas had yet to hear of the internet, the Quad’s then-owner, Elliott Kanbar, created an e-newsletter to keep in touch with patrons. “Every Friday, you would open your computer and there’d be a letter from him, talking about everything from politics to films to his travels,” Keegan recalls. “And people would write him back, too, commenting and arguing.” For many years, the theater also had the best damn popcorn in the city; Keegan and Rode insist it’s because they used real butter and kept the popcorn machine super clean.

The Anthology Film Archives has been joined by the likes of Metrograph in appealing to a new generation of filmgoers.
The Anthology Film Archives has been joined by the likes of Metrograph in appealing to a new generation of filmgoers.

As the independent-theatrical market became more financially dicey, however, the Quad became known for the practice of “four-walling” movies — where producers essentially pay a theater to book their movie for a week, practically guaranteeing reviews in the New York Times, Time Out New York, and, yes, the Village Voice. Speaking as someone who often had to review four-walled movies, I can tell you that they did the Quad no favors in the eyes of city cinephiles. Toward the end, the theater seemed to be falling apart — less scrappy and more scuzzy.

The theater’s new programming team of Christopher Wells, formerly of IFC Center, and Gavin Smith, formerly of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, are well aware of the Quad’s history, and of the balance they’ll have to strike. “We’re kicking off by looking back to the roots of the Quad,” says Smith, with a retro focusing on the films of Italian director Lina Wertmüller, who became the first woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar, in 1977, for her hit Seven Beauties. “Wertmüller was somebody whose films lived at the Quad in the Seventies,” Smith says. “At one point we even considered calling her, ‘The Queen of the Quad.’?” But he also cautions against living too much in the past: “Some theaters are always looking backward, and some are always focused on what’s on the current cutting edge. I like to think that we can mix and match those two.”

The Quad’s reopening is just the latest instance of a burgeoning revival in the New York moviegoing scene. The Metrograph recently celebrated its first anniversary on Ludlow Street. The Alamo Drafthouse, part of the Austin-based chain that offers a “dine-in” experience and shows a mixture of first-run mainstream, arthouse, and repertory titles, opened in Downtown Brooklyn last October. Not far from the Alamo, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is in the midst of a $25 million expansion.

Meanwhile, the IFC Center has been slowly but steadily making its way through zoning approvals to add six more screens. The owners of Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, who in 2011 helped overturn a state liquor law that forbade serving alcohol in movie theaters — thereby opening the door to the Alamo and others — acquired and are renovating Park Slope’s decaying Pavilion. All these will join a bustling arthouse and repertory ecosystem that already includes such established warhorses as the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Forum, MoMA, Anthology Film Archives, and the Museum of the Moving Image, plus thriving microcinemas like Spectacle NYC, Videology, and Union Docs, in Williamsburg; Light Industry, in Greenpoint; and the Maysles Cinema, in Harlem. Not to mention impressive screening series at institutions like Japan Society and Alliance Française.

Metrograph
Metrograph

All this might come as a shock to anyone who’s been told that cinemas are on their last legs thanks to apathetic, iPhone-addicted youths with their TV and their YouTube and their texting. Reality is, in fact, strikingly different.

“Moviegoing is back in New York,” Wells insists, “and younger viewers are driving it.” He says audiences are growing citywide and getting younger, too — not just film students but young professionals and film buffs eager to experience movies in special settings, and who often discuss what to see via social media. When Metrograph opened with its generous-size screens, a regular drumbeat of special guests, and an elegantly designed lounge area, the plan was for a slow build, says founder and design director Alexander Olch. Instead, he notes, attendance and interest far exceeded their wildest dreams: “Right from opening day, we found ourselves reassessing everything and scrambling to deal with the crowds.”

“We’ve had a core audience for thirty years — it hasn’t really wavered,” says Bruce Goldstein, who has been programming repertory screenings at Film Forum since 1987. He has noticed that audience tastes have changed: Despite their widespread availability, classic titles seem to be doing better. “We had one of our biggest repertory grosses in years showing Casablanca in 35mm during the Christmas season,” he notes.

Cristina Cacioppo, who programs repertory screenings at the Alamo, says there’s been a generational shift among programmers. “I was lucky enough to be pretty young when I got a programming position,” she says of her days at the now-defunct 92Y Tribeca Cinema. “And then, you saw places like BAM and Film Society also got younger programmers involved.” But it also took a while for audiences to connect with her more unexpected offerings. She notes with amusement that the Mark Wahlberg–Reese Witherspoon teen stalker thriller Fear and George Miller’s beloved studio flop Babe: Pig in the City did little business when she programmed them at 92Y a few years ago, but have since played sold-out screenings at places like the Alamo and Metrograph, as a new generation of viewers who had discovered the films as kids have come of age.

Some of this renewed interest also seems fueled by a fascination with 35mm. Over the past decade, as almost all mainstream first-run theaters switched exclusively to digital projection, celluloid film looked to be circling the drain. But more and more, younger audiences — many of whom only have vague memories of 35mm prints of first-run films — are intrigued by the visual allure of celluloid. “It goes way beyond the world of cinema,” Olch observes. “There’s an interest in authentic process: How is this thing that I’m about to purchase and consume made?” To that end, many of the city’s programmers — including those at the Metrograph, Film Society, Film Forum, BAM, Alamo, and now the Quad — will go out of their way to locate good 35mm prints of films, even if it means shipping them from abroad. (The Metrograph has even helped finance the striking of new prints for some films.)

Metrograph
Metrograph

Can New York’s current moviegoing renaissance continue? Five or ten years from now, will we be looking back on these days with nostalgia, as we lament a new round of theater closures or mourn the death of film all over again? And what about these prices? Or those philistines who giggle their way through classics such as Leave Her to Heaven? And should people really be drinking beer and eating burgers while watching movies? And oh god, why is this person clipping their nails in the seat next to me? To be a cinephile often means to never be entirely satisfied, for reasons both good and bad. Some of us think the seats at the Metrograph are too hard. Some of us will invariably think the seats at the new Quad are too nice.

Making theaters fancy and comfortable and ensuring that every screening is a special event are noble endeavors, but it will be important not to price out or alienate the film buffs and students who make up a sizable part of these theaters’ potential audience, and who are already being squeezed by a more expensive and transactional city. And programming will have to strike a balance — between deep-cut rare finds and beloved classics, between cinema’s various canons and the films that speak to different voices and experiences. (Where is my Yilmaz Güney retrospective, folks?)

“It’s also important to make sure that there is always a younger generation of programmers coming in,” says Cacciopo. She offers one example why: “As much as I try, movies after 2008 just become a bit less interesting to me. But there will be younger people who can say, ‘No, we know what the gems are from these years.’ It’s important to make sure those voices get heard.” The increase in screens will no doubt help this broadening of perspectives. In the end, it will be critical that the city’s theater owners, managers, and programmers remain open to the world around them, to the people coming through their doors — and to those who are not.


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