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The Liberator Offers an Elementary-School Version of Simon Bolivar

To celebrate Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s answer to George Washington, is to mourn the death of a fanciful and impossible idea: the pan–Latin American state.

A key figure in Hispanic America’s independence from Spain, Bolivar is eye-rollingly romanticized as a wonderful lover and an even better fighter in Alberto Arvelo’s lushly produced, dully reverential The Liberator, Venezuela’s submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. Played by Édgar Ramírez, this Bolivar isn’t any deeper than the elementary-school version of the hero: He came, he saw, he liberated. Timothy J. Sexton’s bilingual script merely lists the military leader’s triumphs and setbacks, with scant attention paid to dramatic structure or character development.

The portrait of the general as a young man is the most compelling, as when the idealistic aristocrat initially tries to buy independence by hiring an aging mercenary to lead his men for him. Speaking mainly in slogans, Ramírez never manages to find Bolivar’s humanity. It is, rather, the film’s intricate and restless geopolitics that intrigues most, with English investors (represented by a magnetically slimy Danny Huston) and Irish allies eager to find their footing in — and possible claims on — this new New World.

Fascinatingly but frustratingly, the film insists on eulogizing Bolivar’s never-realized dream of a unified Latin America governed by a single administration — an ambition never backed up by convincing justification. Those craving nationalistic inspiration might well look beyond Bolivar to Venezuelan-American conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose unobtrusive but elegant and varied score best conveys Latin America’s proudly hybridized history.

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TRAIN DREAMS

A holiday tradition for more than 20 years, the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show returns to the Bronx location’s spectacular Haupt Conservatory, offering as good a date or family time opportunity as you’ll find anywhere across the boroughs. As past attendees know, the show’s stars aren’t the trains but the buildings, intricate replicas of some of the city’s finest, crafted only from materials found in the garden. As you walk under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and George Washington bridges, you’ll be struck by replicas of everything from Yankee Stadium to Coney Island’s Luna Park.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Dec. 17. Continues through Jan. 13, 2012

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WAR HEROES

England and America have long enjoyed a special relationship, but it wasn’t always so cordial. Some 200 years ago, in Yorktown, Virginia, General George Washington, assisted by the French won a decisive battle against British troops. Robert Manns’s new play investigates how we slapped down perfidious Albion.

Thursdays, Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. Starts: Aug. 6. Continues through Aug. 28, 2010

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BAROQUE BASH

The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights has historical blue blood—George Washington’s forces convened there before the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. Their resident ensemble, Brooklyn Baroque, will harken even further back in To the Nines, a program of composers with milestones in 2009. On the bill, and hopefully smiling down from the conductor’s riser in the sky: opera and concerti grossi composer George Frideric Handel, who died in 1759; Mannheim symphonist Franz Xaver Richter, who was born in 1709; and string quartet pioneer Joseph Hadyn, who died in 1809.

Sat., April 18, 4 p.m., 2009

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HEY THERE, GEORGIE BOY

If you ask us, everyone is focusing a bit too much on the wrong George W. The dance-theater artist Ann Liv Young brings us back to our nation’s roots with The Bagwell in me, a solo performance piece with original music focusing on the “life and loves” of president number one, George Washington. So what kind of guy was G.W.? “I didn’t know him, and I’m not going to speculate,” says Young. “I am retelling a story based on fact and fiction. The fact is stated to be fact, but I guess the fact could also be fiction, since I wasn’t there when it was recorded.” Since we can’t even tell what’s fact or fiction about our current administration, we’ll take it.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 2. Continues through Oct. 4, 2008

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David Gordon Green Moves to the Mainstream?

Has David Gordon Green gone pop? The question hovers over BAMCinématek’s retrospective, which culminates in a preview of Pineapple Express, a “stoner-action-comedy” from the Apatow family, and the first script Green’s directed that he didn’t write.

More accurately, Green’s gone pragmatic: “The passion projects, they’re necessary for me to make, regardless of if anyone wants to show up at the box office or get behind them and market them,” he says. “[But] there’s an actual business, an industry that needs to be respected if not catered to.”

Recall that the film that broke a then-25-year-old Green, 2000’s George Washington, was the antithesis of a careerist calling card, shooed from Sundance’s doorstep. From the filament of a young-adult-fiction plot device shines a racially mixed cast of nonprofessionals, mostly children. Their voiceovers and monologues, in which the kids yearn toward true love and civics-class ideals, give the compartmentalized scenes a melic unity.

Here, Green and stalwart cinematographer Tim Orr establish their signature visual vocabulary, taking pages from William Eggleston’s Guide, rendering train yards and gutted Studebakers widescreen-epic. “Rustic” may be a real-estate cliché, but when we’re acclimated to accept Ontario as a stand-in for every American landscape, it’s invaluable to discover the dead ends of George Washington‘s North Carolina towns.

Green’s All the Real Girls (2003—great title) traced the contours of first love as Paul (co-screenwriter Paul Schneider), a Podunk pussyhound, moves in on Noel (Zooey Deschanel), a virgin with saintly sad eyes back from the boarding-school cloisters. Paul’s self-consciousness justifies Green’s deliberately awkward scene-setting (canoodling in the middle of a bowling lane etc.); Paul wants every moment with Noel to be different from anything before—their first kiss is the film’s coda; he kisses her palm instead of her mouth. As Paul learns, unconventionality doesn’t always work out—the film contains a handful of scenes that should make anyone want to charge the projection booth with corrective scissors and splicing tape. These first movies finally “work” only as much as a viewer can accept them as innocent rather than unctuous—in this case, good faith gives better than resistance. Sync up with Real Girls and it’ll ransack the mental attic where unhappy youthful memories are stowed away; it gets me so blue I can’t even tell you.

Undertow (2004) was Green’s first attempt to use his atmospheric sensitivity as a means rather than an end—his Southern-fried thriller. It’s cluttered with allusion: to Malick (producer here), to that old-time religion and Macon Country Line, to Charles Laughton’s nonpareil Night of the Hunter, which it screens alongside at BAM. The movie’s grisliness resonates, but the rigged-together peripheral scenes forming the film’s on-the-road section don’t build to any cumulative effect, with non sequitur small talk frequently upstaged by flora. After some years grounded on unrealized projects—prominently, a Confederacy of Dunces adaptation—there was Snow Angels, Green’s relocation to the frost-blanked North, released earlier this year. Its tale of interlocking small-town love affairs, rendered with curlicue camerawork, was sentenced to death-by- indifference, labeled an oh-so-last-season study in suburban soul-sickness. Maybe, if its triptych of relationships was intended to signify universal truths—but as a movie about humans rather than archetypes, it’s potent stuff. Audiences passed it by on their way to Juno.

For Green, it’s a familiar feeling: “To watch those movies not thrive and barely make a ripple within the industry is pretty frustrating.” And so: Pineapple Express, concerning two habitual koosh huffers who misstep into a drug war. More of Superbad‘s Cult of the Best Bro and Seth Rogen’s scene-stampeding blue comedy is cause for alarm, but this is the best movie (as opposed to an arrangement of scenes) to ever come from Camp Apatow, steeped in the textures of Valley lowlife, with beautiful work from James Franco and Danny McBride, who looks like a Birmingham grocery bagger and exhales pure comedy. The concussive brawl between three guys all having their first fist fight is the action set-piece to beat this summer.Would Green rather be Michael Ritchie now than Terry Malick? “I’m doing a lot of things that are all over the place . . . so I don’t get kind of bogged down in what could otherwise be a pretty depressing angle of the industry.” Upcoming is a remake of Suspiria (“The way that horror is going, I think we’re losing sight of the artistry and the complexity and the kind of strange, surreal, emotional element”), a John Grisham true-crime adaptation, and “a cartoon TV series.” (“That doesn’t include all the weirdo projects— little, bizarre, personal, intimate portraits and things that I try to develop on the side.”)

Is it a triumph for Hollywood cynicism when Green, who made his rep with a movie where kids and adults commiserate over dreams, now scores laffs off grown-ups peddling weed to grade-schoolers? Before hoisting the “Sellout” effigy, let’s show good faith once more. How much stagnancy in the multiplex (and arthouse) comes from our best and brightest sticking to the ghetto of indie cred when they could be working? Green’s a smart producer now (he backed last year’s superlative Shotgun Stories), a proven hustler, and committed to giving back to vernacular American film culture. I’ll only say: Godspeed.

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Snow Angels: On Thin Ice

Stomping about on a frozen football field, shy trombonist Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) and his high-school bandmates fumble their way through a rehearsal for an upcoming game. Unclenching his jaw, the conductor, Mr. Chervenick, unleashes a peevish motivational critique of their Peter Gabriel number: “PEOPLE!? DO YOU HAVE A SLEDGEHAMMER IN YOUR HEART!?”

More than one false note is sounded in this portentous opening to Snow Angels, an unusually blunt melodrama by David Gordon Green, melodious poet of such sentimental delicacies as George Washington and All the Real Girls. There’s no mention of “sledgehammer” in the celebrated debut of novelist Stewart O’Nan, from which Snow Angels has been adapted, but they agree on what comes next: a pair of gunshots, followed by a flashback narrative to account for them. O’Nan discloses the nature of this catastrophe on his fourth page; Green keeps mum until the end, charging his tale with an effective (if manipulative) aura of suspense.

Snow Angels‘ cumbrous metaphorical overture develops into a full-blown symphony as the film cross-cuts between the emotional bludgeoning of two unhappy couples. Louise Parkinson (Jeannetta Arnette) is splitting with Don (Griffin Dunne), a self-absorbed philander and science teacher at their son’s school. Across town and miles further down the path of estrangement, Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale) has a restraining order against her alcoholic, suicidal, Jesus-freak ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Caught in the middle are Annie’s young daughter and adolescent Arthur, whose burgeoning romance with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a quirky art chick, complicates the dramatic counterpoint of Snow Angels.

As always, Green’s sympathies lie with his melancholy youngsters and, happily, his own heart is full of subtle instruments. The affair between Arthur and Lila is beautifully played—tender, restrained, honest, and good-humored, graced with wry, pitch-perfect dialogue that nails the defensive snark and vulnerability of the Juno generation. “I like your shoes,” Arthur offers without the slightest sarcasm. “What’s wrong with them?” Lila snaps back.

Snow Angels exhibits a mellowing—if not full abandonment—of Green’s trademark emo-Malick mannerisms. His camera can’t entirely resist an ersatz-’70s art effect here and there, but by and large he plays things straight, erratic as they become. What saves this heavy, heavy material from sinking into the chill, familiar turf of the Small-Town Midwinter Tragedy is his practiced ear for verbal idiosyncrasy and off-kilter conversation rhythms. Scenes tend to end a beat or two early, syncopated by a bit of whimsy or deadpan that skews the immediate tone and gives the movie a jittery forward thrust. Resolution is all the more satisfying, then, when the script calls for a sustained dramatic payoff or big emotional crescendo.

The film feels transitional for Green—one foot in the moody, interiorized indieverse of his previous work, the other taking a big step toward more conventional projects. In shaking off his influences and affections, will he shed imagination and intuition as well? Snow Angels answers—with apt hesitancy—probably not.

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Sex Machine

Laura Sessions Stepp is scandalized. The Washington Post writer, whose claim to teen-expert fame was an exposé on middle-school blowjobs in 1998, embarked on a year-long journey into the world of young women’s sex lives—and came out worrying that girls today give it up way too easily and have no idea what they’re missing.

Stepp spent hours with teenage girls, concluding that co-ed dorms and feminism have spawned an epidemic of unfulfilling sex. Unhooked treads on irritatingly familiar territory, like the casual-sex breeding grounds of George Washington and Duke Universities, well-known havens for your garden-variety, sexually lost, well-to-do suburban chick doing the walk of shame from a beer-encrusted frathouse. Stepp does go beyond the sorostitute stereotype, interviewing thoughtful, ambitious young women. Stepp’s group is also racially, if not economically, diverse, to reinforce her view that college’s hookup machine will corrupt you no matter where you’re from. But Stepp’s reportage left the 22-year-old New Yorker in me smarting. What about the girls at my small liberal arts college who were practically married to their hippie boyfriends? Or those at community colleges who have been dating the same guy since eighth grade? Where were the city girls who may feel fine about one-night stands? Stepp advises us all: “Explore your feminine side . . . Admit it, the bar scene is a guy thing.” Phrases like these harkened back to a 1962, girls-against-boys sensibility.

Sometimes Unhooked rings a little too true for comfort, as 19-year-old Shaida agonizes over ambiguous text messages or fears that she’ll always be a “glorified fuckbuddy.” But my sympathy didn’t convince me that feminism had gone too far, that women being “freely sexual beings” gets in the way of true intimacy and love. If anything, the pangs of recognition reminded me that feminism had not gone far enough.

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Hillary Clinton Wakes Up

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty—and the destiny of the republican model of government—are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked out on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. President George Washington, First Inaugural Address

Having often criticized the junior senator from New York for her tepid and too rare responses to Bush administration attacks on the Constitution’s “sacred fire of liberty,” I must credit her now for a September 28 speech on the floor of the Senate during the debate on the Military Commissions Act of 2006—which gives the presidency the most radical expansion of power in American history.

Senator Hillary Clinton’s warning to her colleagues and the nation received scant press at the time and has been washed away by Mark Foley’s e-mails and North Korea’s bursting pride in having joined the nuclear club. Hillary, speaking of the June Supreme Court decision (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld)—which forced Congress to pretend to correct Bush’s unconstitutional military commissions at Guantánamo, and his five-year violations of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of our prisoners anywhere in the world—said of the new military commissions bill, since passed by House and Senate, that “it allows a discredited policy . . . to be largely continued and to be made worse.”

For example, Clinton continued, “the bill before us allows the admission of evidence [against prisoners] of statements derived through cruel, inhuman, and degrading interrogation. This sets a dangerous precedent that will endanger our own men and women in uniform overseas.”

She then gave the senators a history lesson that may well have been new to them, and to most Americans, in view of the steady disappearance of courses in American history throughout our school systems. Between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution in 1787, New York and Long Island were captured by the British. George Washington and the Continental Army retreated to Pennsylvania, with huge casualties, and crossed the Delaware. In a pivotal victory at Trenton, Washington captured over 1,000 foreign mercenaries.

“The British,” Senator Clinton added, “had already committed atrocities against American prisoners, including torture. . . . There are accounts of injured soldiers who surrendered being murdered; countless Americans dying in prison hulks in New York harbor . . . and other acts of inhumanity perpetrated against Americans confined to churches in New York City.”

What were General Washington’s orders on the treatment of thousands of new prisoners and other British soldiers captured? As reported by Hillary Clinton, Washington commanded: “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.”

The senator from New York then turned to today’s commander in chief, George W. Bush: “This military commissions bill undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the president to issue executive orders to redefine what are permissible interrogation techniques. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach? By allowing this administration to further stretch the definition of what is and is not torture, we lower our moral standards to those whom we despise, undermine the values of our flag wherever it flies, put our troops in danger, and jeopardize our moral strength in a conflict that cannot be won simply with military might.” (Emphasis added.)

The day before Hillary Clinton’s unveiling of the “compassionate conservative” in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—himself previously unfocused on Bush’s five-year authorization of torture—woke up too. Speaking on the Senate floor about this Military Commissions Act, which tears apart our vaunted “rule of law,” Reid, declaring his vote against the bill, said that it “authorizes a vast expansion of the president’s power to detain people—even U.S. citizens—indefinitely and without charge.” For terrorism suspects caught in its unrestrained definition of unlawful enemy combatants, Reid said, “no due process is provided, and no time limit on the detention is set.”

You can be designated an “unlawful enemy combatant” by the president or Donald Rumsfeld for “purposely and materially” supporting the enemy—by contributing to suspect Muslim or other charities listed in government data banks as having terrorist connections.

Democratic congresswoman Doris Matsui of California is chilled by this expanded definition of “unlawful enemy combatant.” She was born in an Arizona detention camp during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s roundup of Japanese Americans, approved by the Supreme Court in the heat of the Second World War. On September 27, Doris Matsui told National Public Radio:

“From my family’s perspective, I know something about what can happen to the rights of Americans when the executive overreaches in a time of war.”

After George Washington, who turned down an invitation to be king, no president has overreached as far as George W. Bush. And now, in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress has overturned the restrictions on his power imposed on him by the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, as well as in the Court’s 2004 ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declared: “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of American citizens.” (Rasul v. Bush on the same day included noncitizens.)

In the Military Commissions Act, Congress has given Bush a sheath of blank checks. And if there’s another 9-11, will Congress rush to give whomever then is president what is left of the Constitution? Even if the Democrats by then control the Congress and White House?

In her admirably blunt speech, Hillary Clinton did not, however, go on to call for a filibuster of the Military Commissions Act. Neither did Harry Reid. The midterm elections are looming, and Senate Democrats were afraid that the dread Karl Rove machine would skewer them as unpatriotic. So this bill, with 32 Democrats voting against it, including Clinton and Reid, passed.

If Senator Clinton does ascend to the Oval Office, I hope many George Washington-style patriots will send her copies of her September 28 speech.

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Right Up Your Alley

You can imagine our founding fathers plotting the revolution over plates of fresh game and swigs of hearty country wine in a place like Freemans. The intimate 50-seat restaurant is decorated in a rustic American colonial style with black painted woodwork, unfinished plank floors, and taxidermy along the walls. An oil painting of what owners Tavvo Somer and William Tigertt like to think of as a young George Washington hangs next to the bar. Like all good settlers, Somer knew this uncharted location was the spot to lay his claim when he discovered it while looking for a party space a couple of years ago. The official address was 191 Chrystie Street, but after they knocked out the bricked-over entrance on Freeman Alley this former halfway house was transformed into a culinary hideout with a Masonic feel. Dishes are traditional American and hint at the old-world influences brought here by the Irish, English, and French who established this very neighborhood over 200 years ago.



photo: Brian Kennedy

We took a good look around Freemans and then did some hunting of our own to find a few items that will help give your place a little colonial kick in the knickers:

Reproduction Edison Lights [25 to 40 watts (equivalent to six to 10 watts), $20 to $23 each] At night the dining room is well lit while still maintaining remarkably flattering light for overhead bare bulbs. The key is using reproduction Edison lightbulbs with visible filaments that give off such a warm dim glow that a shade is unnecessary. Lighting and Beyond, 35 West 14th Street, 212-929-2738

Staghorn Fern [$40 each] Somer recently picked up a couple of staghorn ferns in the Chelsea flower district. Grown on a piece of bark and hung on the wall, these air plants have leaves that resemble, as the name suggests, deer antlers. Chelsea Garden Center, 499 Tenth Avenue, 212-727-7100


photo: courtesy Moss

Porcelain Skull [$330] The restaurant’s somber vibe is achieved with taxidermy and old oil paintings as well as a few human skulls (our favorite is above the bar), creating a secret-society atmosphere. Moss, 146 Greene Street, 212-204-7100