Category Archives: new york

better than a million Step Up 3s: NY Export Opus Jazz

A bonus review this week. Article first published as DVD Review: NY Export: Opus Jazz on Blogcritics.

NY Export: Opus Jazz proudly announces itself as the first film conceived, created, produced and danced by the New York City Ballet. But the film’s directors have some creative cachet as well. Co-directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes came fresh from very different projects: Joost was part of the team that brought you the controversial Catfish (his co-director and co-star of that film, Ariel Schulman, is production designer here), and Lipes made the fascinating documentary Good Times Will Never be the Same, about controversial artist Brock Enright. Whatever you think of those films, Opus Jazz may not be what you expect.

Jane Jacobs wrote of the city as an “intricate ballet, in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.” The work of choreographer Jerome Robbins could be seen as a stylish embodiment of that romantic ideal. Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz was envisioned as a companion piece to his work in West Side Story, and the paralells are clear in the kind of gangland tension and young sexuality, lines both flowing and staccato.
Lipes’ Good Times proved the cinematographer-turned director’s gift for the casual detail, carefully composed but still intimate and organic. His camerawork throughout is as impressive as you’d expect from the Brock Enright film, expansive or contemplative when needed, with a few stagelight lens flares thrown in for a sparing touch of the spotlight. The wide-angle lens used for most of the dance sequences give the performers room to breathe, and don’t make the mistake that dance films sometimes do of cutting away too much from the performers bodies. The aspect ratio is so wide that the film would be wonderful to see on a big movie screen.

The film was shot in various locations in New York, from old-school diners to the McCarren Park Pool to a stretch of the High Line before it was cleared, when it was more of a wild park than the manicured lawn it is now. The music by Robert Prince is full of youthful, brassy outbursts, and the young performers of the New York City Ballet are a joy to watch. Now if somebody can do this with Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, perhaps live in an abandoned warehouse, I promise full Stendahl Syndrome overload.

A featurette included with the DVD traces the history of this “ballet in sneakers” from its performance on the Ed Sullivan Show to its revival for a modern audience. If you love dance, jazz, and New York – or even if you only love two of the three – this is a must-see. And if you’re anywhere near a screening – the film is still making its way through the festival circuit – I envy you.

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every camera I own: the superheadz superwide

The superheadz wide and slim  is based on the design of the defunct but much-admired Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim, a  plastic camera that had an unusually wide 22mm lens. A variety of Vivitar clones are made by the Japanese company Superheadz, who, like Lomo, make overpriced plastic cameras for the hipsterati. But the Superheadz models are more appealing to me, so I forgive them their entrepreneurship. One of their keenest models is the Blackbird Fly, a plastic twin lens reflex camera for 35mm film. I have an orange Blackbird (which I got a few years ago but have never used) and will feature that in a future camera-with-a-kitty post. Anyway, the wide and slim lists for $30 but I got mine at a steep discount from the clearance table at an Urban Outfitters. I’ve used the camera once before with mixed results.

I loaded the wide and slim with fresh Fuji 200 and shot most a of a roll in New York last weekend:

This is the view from the fire escape of a Murray Hill hotel where I have stayed probably a dozen times in the past several years. I used to be able to look out onto that green-patched deck and see somebody’s Boston terrier lounging under a patio table, but I haven’t seen the dog for some time. I don’t know if the owner’s moved or the dog died, or both.

the ballad of the sad puppy

But here the missing puppy is redeemed by a living, if sad-looking, one. I made this picture while crossing the street, lowering the camera to just about the pup’s nose level, hence the motion blur. I was just down the street from the Flatiron Building:

what the shake shack saw
Which I try to photograph whenever I’m in the city.
the high line

And this is  The High Line, park space near the West edge of town built atop what used to be elevated freight train tracks. High Line history notes that the last train crossed these tracks in 1980, and pulled three carloads of frozen turkeys to hungry New Yorkers. The structure in the distance that looks like something out of an Antonioni movie is the Standard Hotel. Soon after the park opened in June 2009, the occasional hotel guest was known to disrobe and or perform some or other act of exhibitionism by the picture windows that overlook the park. The hotel, whose “best available rate” for a Friday night in June is $695,  actually encouraged such behavior. Public outrage may have lowered your chances of spying on the lifestyles of the rich and naked.  I certainly didn’t see anything, and would rather happen upon the ghosts of hundreds of frozen turkeys clucking over Chelsea than see some rich asshole in a cashmere bathrobe.

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50,006

That’s how many words I wrote during November for National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo.). The organizers of NaNoWriMo encourage those who take up this challenge, which entails writing an average of 1667 words a day for 30 days, to develop outlines and characters and notes – anything but actually writing the book. But that felt like cheating to me (outlines and notes are part of writing, are they not?), so I wrote without a net, as it were, though I did come up with a concept on October 31st:


I thought my working title, Fifty Easy Pieces, gave me a framework that would give me some direction, but also left it wide open for whatever performance art piece my gallery-crawling hide could come up with. My artist was loosely based on Marina Abramovic, who I wrote about here, and some of the pieces I wrote were not so thinly disguised variations of her work. I also wanted to use the exercise to work out ideas I had for my own art, like for an abandoned department store that played old muzak tapes, or a piece that would take place on a bus.

But it was a lot harder than I thought, and I found myself committing that most base of artistic sins, one that plagues the work of  talented but precious artists from Tom Robbins to Tim Burton: I was trying too hard. I kept up the pace for the first week, but much of what I wrote, which I plan to throw out, came off labored and forced. Hannah wouldn’t take me through the month. The second week began badly, as my word count went down to 800 on the 8th and 117 on the 10th, the lowest word count I posted all month.

So what did I do on the 11th? I went to New York, where I thought I’d get some writing done (and see the opening night of The Pee Wee Herman Show on Broadway, but that’s another story).

And it worked — before I even got to the Lincoln Tunnel. I was on a packed Boltbus with minimal elbow room when I began to write my performance art piece to be performed on a moving passenger bus. Hannah would maker her way around the bus chatting up passengers and using a different persona for each passenger (psst – trying too hard) and one of the first passengers she chatted with was a ventriloquist named Bill.

My interest in ventriloquist dummies grew out of a fantastic gift from my homie, a Carol Channing dummy that became a recurring inspiration for photo shoots. But when it came time for my fictional dummy I wanted to find a model, a name, and somewhere on I-95 I Googled “ventriloquist dummy,” and the resulting images which led me to eBay and what would turn out to be my muse for the rest of the novel.

I didn’t start writing about him till the next day, but when I did, for the the first time since I started NaNoWriMo – maybe the first time ever for me – instead of me writing dialogue for a charcter, the character spoke for himself. The trouble was that spoke the way you’d expect a jawless ventriloquist dummy to speak:

”Mma dmmt seah!” exclaimed Mmrma, struggling with his deformity. “Mha, Mma nemmh mmep mha mmrst mmdy mmre!”

I was touched by his inability to communicate, and identified with the inarticulate longing to communicate. The dollar bill, used for scale in the eBay listing, also hinted at a Skid Row past. But I couldn’t sustain the jawless patois, which is harder to write than you’d think, so I devised a way for him to get his voice back and let him sing. An unedited excerpt:

While Mmrma was sleeping, his legs started to twitch. He was dreaming – he dreamed that he was running in a field holding hands with Hannah and he had his jaw back and two eyes to see her with. He looked at her and she at him, and he dreamed within the dream, of a grueling twenty-four hour surgery that restored his voice and his vision. He dreamed within the dream within the dream of the time he told Hannah all about how he lost his jaw and an eye.

A bassline begins and Glen Campbell sings, “I am a lineman for the county …”

“Bill was a telephone man in Louisville and he took me along on jobs. We’d roll along the country roads in his Chevy pick-up truck and he’d strap me along his leg while he straddled up the utility poles. We climbed as high as the birds, Betty [the name of Hannah’s persona at this point] , we could see for miles – it was the most beautiful countryside you ever saw Betty! It was a hard living but man I woulda paid for that view – I’d pay to see that again and I’d take you and we’d count the pigeons – we’d count the pigeons Betty!”

And I want you for all ti -i -ime

“Then one time a storm was coming, but we were young and cocky and we thought we were invincible.

‘Are ya sure you should go up so high there, Bill, I mean, doncha see the storm clouds comin’ – can’t ya see them Bill? Bill!’ 

‘Aw c’mon Mortimer, we’re almost up to the top and after I check out the cables we’ll head right back down.’ 

‘I got a baaad feelin’ about this Bill. A baaaaad feelin’.’

And wouldn’t ya know I was right! The storm moved in quicker than he thought and a cloud pased on right over us and it got almost pitch black. ‘Ah, let’s get back down Bill, this makes me noivous!’

‘Oh alright, if you say so Mort–’

And then – I didn’t know what hit me Betty. It was like the sky opened up and went right through this bag o’ bones!” Mmrma knocked his head, whole now. “The bolt struck the pole and Bill came tumbling down twenty feet and as he slipped off my face caught one of the climbing pegs on the utility pole – BOOP right through the peeper! Tore my eye out and ripped my jaw clean off! I still get nightmare about it Betty! I wake up screaming, except I can’t scream. Get it, Bett? I CAN’T EVEN SCREAM! All I wanna do is let out a big holler, let out the pain, but I can’t Bett, I can’t! I CAN’T SCREAM!”

It was November 12. I was in New York, and I wrote 3064 words that day, and also found time to eat at my favorite ramen joint, do a gallery crawl in Chelsea (I quite liked the paintings of Tony Scherman at Winston Wachter and Paulina Olowska at Metro Pictures, and the sculpture of Kristen Morgin at Zach Feuer), and see a documentary on the influence of Finnish television broadcasts in Soviet Estonia.

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twelve thirteen things I ate two weeks ago: part 3: Flushing

I go to New York regularly but I seldom venture out of Manhattan and even more seldom into Queens. I may complain about increasing gentrification of  the Lower East Side or the Sexandthecitification of The Bowery but I never run out of things to do there. Well for once I was at a loss for things to do, and maybe the few hours I spent in South Philly gave me a taste and yearning for a big city that was not losing its regional character. Forty-five minutes on the subway, to the eastern terminus of the 7 train, I found that character in Flushing, where the advetrtising was predominantly in Chinese even before I got out of the station.

Whenever I watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations,  I always salivate over at least some of the regional dishes he tries, and no less so than when he devoted a program to New York. Still, as I tend to do with things I see on tv, I forgot about it. But my friend G., whom I’ve run into in several different neighborhoods in New York over the years, strongly recommended The Golden Mall in Flushing, not just for the food but for the sensory overload. Thanks, G.

Xi’an Famous Foods, was easy to get to but not that easy to find – I saw at least four different entrances to Golden Mall, and couldn’t reproduce how I got there. There is basement entrance to 41-28 Main Street on the corner, and if you can find that, you’ll find the liang pi (cold noodles, $5, pictured) and the lamb burger ($2.50, not pictured – it looks like a sloppy joe, but, laced with green chilies and cumin,  it tastes much more fantastic), and have an outrageously good and spicy meal with change from a sawbuck.

About a block down and across the street from Golden Mall is the Tai Pan Bakery. Wouldn’t animal cupcakes be an intriguing variation on the cupcake craze? The mobile cupcake van could tweet that they’re running out of goat. This ram was made of two layers of tiny sponge cake with a creme filling. Not as sastifying to eat as it was to photograph.

See the sidebar on seltzer in part 2. This can of agua con gas is courtesy of the cafe at PS1, the Long Island City affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art, which are both currently exhibiting surveys of performance art – in general at PS1, and, specifically, Marina Abramovic‘s at Moma. Also recommended at Moma: the work of found poem/collagist/ Manhatan Project scientist Bern Porter, which I found more inspiring and much less crowded  (I was the only one  there) than the Cartier-Bresson show upstairs. Peppy, a performance artist in his own right who travels with me frequently, is courtesy of my homes. The patriotism is from one of the dollar stores (real cost $2.99) in one of the sensory-overloaded malls along Main Street in Flushing.

Finally, it took me years of visiting New York before I found a chocolate chip cookie to go back for.  Within stumbling distance of  Eisenberg’s is this chewy, vanilla-soaked answer to your cookie questions, from The City Bakery, which is home to an annual hot chocolate festival and the sippable cuppa cocoa you see here.

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twelve thirteen things I ate two weeks ago: part 2: Manhattan

My next stop was New York, where my usual first stop after getting off the bus or train is for the double katsu at Go-go curry, the sole American outlet of a Japanese chain that honors New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui with a gorilla mascot and an excellent roux-based curry. But I was heavy laden and saved my Japanese jones for the Tan Tan Men @ Menkui Tei in the East Village. I don’t know how many times I’d walked by this place before finally venturing in last year, but  since I’ve discovered it, I haven’t been to New York without stopping by. The ramen noodles and spicy ground pork are perfect for a cold winter night. The $4 Sapporo draft makes it fine for all seasons.
Depending on the browser you’re using to read this, about here you’ll see what layout designers call trapped white space. I learned about trapped white space, and that it was something to avoid, from, if memory serves,  Mr. John Bailey, the contracted liaison between the high school yearbook staff I worked with and whoever our publisher was. I never forgot the lesson, and in fact much of what I learned about photographic composition comes from cropping photos for the yearbook, even though I wouldn’t pick up a camera for some years after that. So if you happen upon a 1983 or 1984 Aetonian, and find a photo of my friend Jim waving from across the school library, his hands strategically, and unintentionally,  spread from a vortex formed at the base of a crucifix (thank you, Society of Jesus, for the strong education); well I didn’t mean to crop out the top part of the crucifix – it was an editorial decision made above us.

As this digression may have entirely negated the trapped white space I was  afeared of, let us continue apace.

New York hotels don’t often have the “continental breakfast” that many chain hotels offer guests, but The Mave (on Madison Ave) had good coffee and okay pastries available from 7-9 every morning. But getting up before 9 in the morning in New York isn’t something I normally do. So to fuel up for a morning of browsing in the Antiques Garage, I wracked my brain and then Google to find the name of the sandwich shop I’d seen written up in the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York for their exemplary formulation of the iconic New York drink, the egg cream.

Eisenberg’s is the name, and at 22nd and 5th just south of the Flatiron Building it’s another of those places I’ve probably walked right by a few dozen times, blissfully unaware of the deliciousness within. When I found the place, I couldn’t even remember resting my eyes upon it for even a glance before. I had the pastrami and eggs: juicy, spicy, tender pastrami, the best I’ve ever had (and that include’s Katz’s Deli).

That’s the egg cream. I haven’t had enough egg creams to maneuver the nuances of seltzer-to-syrup proportions, but I can vouch for its tastiness.

Not pictured: the cortado from Joe’s the Art of Coffee on 23rd St. near 9th Ave; the best cuppa joe I’ve had since returning from a trip to South America last year. Which reminds me. Among the culinary discoveries I made in South America, besides the fantastic $9 steaks to be had in Buenos Aires and the revelatory bacon cheeseburger I had in, of all places, a Ruby Tuesday’s at the Santiago airport, was agua con gas. In restaurants, diners are offered the choice between agua con gas or sin gas, the latter being regular tap water and the former being the carbonated water known here by the brands Perrier or San Pellegrino, and the generic seltzer.

Me gusta!

In DC it’s easy to get Perrier or San Pellgrino or club soda in single-serving bottles. But seltzer is a rarer bubbly animal.  Merriam-Webster defines it, with endearing circularity, as water from the German town of Selters (what genius added the “z”?!), and if I am reading the wikipedia article correctly, there appears to be no real difference between seltzer and other carbonated water. But seltzer is a lot more fun to say and write, and hear, which you can do right now from the disembodied neutral voice of Merriam-Webster online. And it is part of the regional lore of New York, so much so that the city was abuzz when the last remaining seltzer-delivery man had to take time off to recover from an injury in 2009.

Which is a long way of saying I get seltzer, be it in egg cream or in its raw form, whenever I’m in New York. Your corner bodega chooses Canada Dry, but the seltzer syndicate is in completely different territory in Penn Station, where Hudson News proudly stocks only Seagram’s seltzer.

The foodstuffs pictured above and adjacent to these spring-watery passages are, first, what remained of the fish special at Cucina di Pesce. I never got what the name of the fish was, despite hearing it at least three times from my friendly waiter Sal; and the beginnings of a heavy night’s sleep brought on by the same restaurant’s tiramisu. I wish there were an Italian restaurant this good in DC, but I know that if there were, it would cost twice as much.

Apologies for the trapped white space.

Part three: Flushing and back again.

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Seven Uneasy Pieces

Marina Abramovic, “Entering the other side.” Courtesty of Microcinema.

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Blogcritics.org.

Belgrade-born Marina Abramovic, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, is the first performance artist to be honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with “The Artist is Present,” Microcinema has released Seven Easy Pieces, a document of Abramovic’s week-long residence at the Guggenheim in 2005, in which the artist spent seven hours a day performing one of five landmark performance art pieces by other artists and two of her own.

Performance art is by nature ephemeral – documentation may exist only in photographs or perhaps no more than the memory of an audience. Abramovic seeks to remedy this institutional loss – but is anything lost in translation? Seven Easy Pieces, directed by Babette Mangolte, condenses forty-nine hours of performance into a ninety minute video. Abbreviated as it is, the time given to each work conveys a sense of the passage of time: a summary of gestures is introduced and cycled through and repeated, and the gestures are cumulative. So for Bruce Nauman’s “Body pressure,” as the artist presses herself repeatedly against a Plexiglas divider, you see the traces of skin grease accrue over time, obscuring the view of the artist as she steps back from the wall.

The pieces run from the sublime to the ridiculous, the funny to the self-indulgent, the simply uncomfortable to the frankly disturbing. A re-interpretation of Vito Acconci’s infamous “Seedboard” is a case in point for any number of these. In 1972, Acconci spent nine days masturbating for eight hours in the crawlspace under a ramp in Sonnabend Gallery in New York, fantasizing about those walking over him and murmuring explicit thoughts through an amplifier. Ambramovic, despite a repertoire that includes generous amounts of self-flagellation and other varieties of pain, seems in this piece less self-contemptuous than Acconci. She invites her audience, sitting in an intimate circle above her, to interact and tell her their fantasies; in one shot an excited male spectator is seen lying face down, caressing the plywood and gently humping it.

In 1969, a black-leather jacketed Valie Export cut the crotch out of her trousers and trained a machine gun on a movie theater audience. [Ed. – it was a pron theater, and she addressed the men in the audience to “deal with a real woman.”] “Action Pants, Genital Panic” dripped Punk Rock at the time, but lost some balls, as it were, in the institutional confines of the Guggenheim. A heckler can he heard telling Abramovic, “Put down that gun or use it!” This may be fodder for those who believe that a work of performance art belongs to its own time: an event that once subverted expectations of passivity has become, if not passive, inert.

Gina Pane’s “The Conditioning” is tailor-made for the ascetic element in Ambramovic’s work (for her current show, she asked the young performers participating with her to adhere to a strict program of fasting). A jump-suited Abramovic lays on a steel bed atop an array of lit candles, which she switches out as they melt down.

Joseph Beuys, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” may be the strangest of the pieces, and this is coming from someone with a very high bar for the strange indeed. The artist’s face is sloppily plastered with gold leaf, fragments of which dangle from her face and fall to the stage (she sweeps up the detritus during the piece). She’s accompanied by a taxidermied hare, which she alternately cradles in her arms, walks along the stage with and holds with its floppy ears dangling from her mouth.

“Lips of Thomas” is one of Ambramovic’s own pieces, from 1975. Originally performed over the course of two hours, this piece was expanded for the Guggenheim. It is uncomfortable watching at any length. The artist sits naked at a tale, eating honey from a jar and drinking wine as a metronome slowly keeps time. She gets up from the table to stand fully naked before the audience, revealing a five-pointed star drawn on her stomach. She takes a razor blade and cuts along one line of the star, then proceeds to lie on a cross made of ice (underneath a space heater aimed at her stomach), and then sits up to flagellate herself. She puts on boots and a military cap, and waves a flag, lined with the blotted stains from her razored belly, while a Russian folk song plays. Repeat, for an excruciating seven hours.

The seventh day must have come as a relief to both audience and artist. In “Entering the Other Side,” Abramovic simply stands in a giant blue dress in the center of the Guggenheim rotunda.

Abramovic said, “I do not want the public to feel that they are spending time with the performances, I simply want them to forget about time.” For ninety minutes of at times taxing performance – albeit not nearly as taxing as the seven-hour iterations – I was largely compelled, if not entirely convinced. Seven Easy Pieces is a frequently uneasy time, and may not win the artist any converts. Nor will it answer the questions of purists who may argue whether performance art should be recreated at all. But as a well-produced document, fans of the artist will find it essential viewing.

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Au revoir Alphaville

I meant to blog this when I got back from New York a few weeks ago. I was saddened to learn that Alphaville, the antique toy shop on West Houston just across from Film Forum, is closing up shop after 16 years. I’d always wondered how such a specialized shop could make do in such a large space. The co-owner told me that wasn’t a problem, as they had an understanding landlord. The prospects of an expensive heater repair helped the owners decide to call it a day. They’ll continue to operate online, but I’ll miss stopping in there before a movie to browse the display cases:

And, more often than not, get my fix of Italian 3-D plastic. As you can see above, they stocked their share of kittens and puppies, and the owner kept an eye out for 3-D popes for me. But it was this horrifying subgenre that I will remember best:

nero fiddled

I mean, how do you look that up on eBay? Alphaville was also good for the occasional lenticular teddy bear cottage:

Thanks Alphaville! And if you happen on one of these, save me two!

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