Friday, July 29, 2016

Stronger Together

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

NYC on TV in the 2000s

This blog harps (perhaps too much) about the changing nature of NYC -- the gentrification and evolution of funky town into sterile city -- so I need not belabor that point ad infinitum. Yet as NYC has changed and evolved over the decades, popular TV shows have reflected this upheaval in numerous ways: think of the working class worlds of All in the Family and Night Court in the 1970s and 80s, to the more middle-class worlds of Seinfeld and Friends in the 1990s, to the luxe worlds of 30 Rock and Gossip Girl in the 2000s. Yes, TV has reflected the changing image of NYC back to ourselves for years and years, and we can't get enough of it.

And here is where I dare to be the contrarian to my usual feelings what's happening to NYC: TV shows about NYC have never been better. Certainly, they've never been this numerous (thanks generous tax credits!). Dare I sound a little too sanguine, just check out this list from Esquire magazine about the 20 best NYC shows from the aughts.

It's a pretty amazing bevy of quality (not that I've seen them all): think Mad Men, think Louie, think Girls, think the aforementioned 30 Rock, even think How I Met Your Mother (or, as New Yorkers might have said in the past, "Your Muddah'). Pretty great shows. And shows that bring to life the struggle and the promise of living and working in NYC, the glamour and the indignities, the valleys and the peaks. This list has some of my personal favorites, like Bored to Death and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. They keep a little funk alive.

If you haven't caught up this any of these shows, and you love NYC, you must watch them. They prove that while NYC might not quite be the town it used to be, the creativity and vitality of NYC is still very much alive.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Michael Cimino, RIP

When did you last get excited by a movie? When was the last time a movie came out that made you want to see it - again and again and again?

I remember in the 1990s when Pulp Fiction hit theaters - it was so exciting, such daring filmmaking, such thrilling storytelling, that I went to see it four times in the theaters. Back then, movies seem to matter to people, personally, and they seemed to be important cultural touchstones as well. Movies were, dare I say it, important. They mattered. They lived.

Today? Movies suck - or mostly suck. These days, TV shows have the cultural edge that movies once enjoyed. For the most part, movies now are either one of two things: huge, cynical, money-hungry enterprises (think of the proliferation of "franchises" and the unending number of sequels) or calculated "Oscar-bait", movies designed to win awards and make some money but are otherwise forgettable. Movies don't excite anymore. They don't live inside us or the culture. The artistry of film making isn't moving forward, taking strides. It's stuck. And that's sad.

So how did we get here? It took a long time. While movies were burning up the culture in the 1970s through the 1990s, the seeds of their downfall were being planting at the same time, namely the era of blockbusters and sequels, along with the upwards spiral of production costs. But most of all came the huge costs of failure. When movies fail, they not only lose money but can destroy careers.

In 1978, a director named Michael Cimino made a movie called The Deer Hunter, about working class men and women who's lives are shattered by the Vietnam war. The movie was a huge success - it made lots of money and won several Oscars, including Best Picture. Two years later, Cimino produced his follow-up, Heaven's Gate, about 19th century land wars in the American West. This movie failed catastrophically, so much so that the studio that financed it went under.
It was the first time that a movie's failure actually did something so devastating. Needless to say, the studios reacted accordingly. In the decades that followed, movies became increasingly "safer" so as not to offend audiences and critics. That's not to say, in the ensuing decades, that there still haven't been other huge failures as well as other exciting movies (like Pulp Fiction). But over time, safeness won over daring. The deary cinematic landscape we live in today is largely due to the failure of Heaven's Gate -- a movie that tried every bit to be as good as The Deer Hunter but wasn't.

Michael Cimino died last week, and his professional trajectory tells us a lot about the culture we live in today. After his once promising career was derailed, Cimino only directed a small number of movies, most of which critics and audiences ignored. This was, and is, a shame. A daring director was largely sidelined because of this (certainly huge) failure and the art of film, I think, suffered as a result.

Movies matter less now because directors are increasingly not the voices of their own films. When was the last time you saw a movie and really felt like you saw art being created? Yes, such film "auteurs" like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen Brothers are still making movies - but for how much longer? And when they're gone, who will replace them? I have no idea. There seem to be no young auteurs on the horizon.

When you watch both The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, putting aside both movies' virtues and flaws, what strikes you about them is that these are stories being told by a great directorial voice; that you are watching someone's singular vision spring to life; that these are movies that do what only movies can do best: tell a story through moving images, the director as storyteller. Like a painter using paints and brushes, like a writer using words and a pen, like a sculptor using stones and chisel, this is a director using camera and film to tell a story and imprint an artistic style on your consciousness. Cimino didn't need special effects, he didn't need clever dialogue, he didn't need fancy editing, he didn't need any visual or storytelling tricks - he was amazingly confident in the way that he simply pointed and moved the camera, coreographing his scenes with such skill, that his vision came across so strongly that you were left with an impression that lasted long after these movies were over. 

Having seen both films, I remember them - the storytelling is unconventional, the performances are bold, the camera work is thrilling and confident, a master clearly at work. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw movie where you felt like this? Probably a long time.

And as good as television is these days, it will never have the cinematic visual power of the movies. Television is still mostly a writer's medium with the director serving as the writer's handmaiden. That's fine! But movies are first and last a director's medium, and they are at their most powerful when the director's voice rings loudly.

In many ways, Cimino both exemplified everything that used to be great about movie making and was also indirectly responsible for its decline. His ego, apparently, got in the way of his work. But now that he has passed on, it's important to remember that filmmakers like him used to reign supreme in our culture and that hopefully, one day, movies will live again.

PS. You must read Final Cut by Steven Bach, generally considered the best book ever written about the movie business, which chronicles the turbulent history of Heaven's Gate. It paints Cimino in a very unflattering light but, after reading it, you'll understand how movies are what they are today. You can find the documentary based on the book at

PPS. Cimino was a New Yorker, originally from Long Island, but he got his start working in advertising in NYC in the Mad Men era of the 1960s.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

There will be nine million stories out there ...

There's an old saying about NYC: "There are eight million stories out there."

Today, there's over 8.5 million stories. And it's keep growing. And growing. And growing.

By 2040, it's projected that NYC will be nine million stories strong. 

Oy vey.

How high can it go? Where will they all live?

This article takes an exhaustive look at the city's population boom, at the perils and the promise of NYC as a growing phenomenon. 

When I was a kid, the problem was population decline. Now it's the opposite. 

The amazing thing is that as the city gets more expensive to live in, more people than ever want to live here! It makes a total mockery of the economic theory of supply and demand i.e. when the supply of something gets more expensive, the demand for it decreases. Here it's the opposite -- the cost of living in NYC keeps going up yet more and more people want to pay it. Strange. 

Just goes to show you, people love NYC and want to live here ... no matter the price.

Bill Cunningham, RIP

In a city that celebrates high culture but takes pride in its grittiness, none captured both realities better than Bill Cunningham, the legendary New York Times photographer who died last week.

His photos ran every Sunday in the Times and were usually what made the bulky edition's inflated price worth paying. Cunningham's pictures were gorgeous, detailed, interesting, and always evoked some emotion. Cunningham photographed everyone, from the most famous celebrities, to models, to ordinary people -- anyone who looked interesting to him, he snapped. No subject was beneath him. And he did this for decades, without fail.

A few years, a wonderful documentary called "Bill Cunningham New York" was released and it's really quite touching. You meet the gentle man behind the lens and explore the soul who helped define the soul of NYC. It's worth seeing if you can. Now that he's gone, he leaves behind a treasure trove of photos that create the legacy of a New York City man giving the city back to itself.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Primary Warning

Today is Congressional Primary Day in New York State. Since NYC is such a Democratic town, most the action is in the various Democratic Congressional Primaries taking place across the city.

The primary with the most historic importance is the one that will choose Congressman Charles Rangel's replacement. Rangel has represented upper Manhattan since 1971 and he was on the Watergate Committee (voted to impeach Nixon which is pretty cool) as well as on the powerful Ways and Means committee. Believe it or not, this area has only had TWO congressmen since World War II - Adam Clayton Powell and Rangel. So whoever wins this primary will be stepping into the shoes of giants.

Just south of Rangel's district, however, is a lower profile primary that is actually very scary.

Congressman Jerry Nadler has represented western Manhattan since 1993 (I grew up in this district) and he's done a fine job. (This district runs oddly shaped, running down the westside of Manhattan from Morningside Heights to Lower Manhattan and then hopping across New York harbor into inner Brooklyn. Honestly this district lines defy logic but it is what it is.) Anyway, Nadler is being challenged by a young man named Oliver Rosenberg. I wasn't paying any attention to this race until yesterday when, on WNYC radio, Nadler and Rosenberg debated. And. It. Was. Nuts.

Nadler is your typical Congressman -- on message, disciplined, touts his accomplishments, and takes about policy. He's not an exciting guy but he's clearly experienced and knowledgeable. This guy Rosenberg is ... obviously insane. Listen to the debate. He begins by yelling about his sadness that H&H Bagels no longer exists -- he literally shouts "We want our bagels back!" -- and then blames Nadler for gentrification (which I hate too but is not really a Federal issue) as well about how Nadler is "all talk and no action" and on and on and on. And he quotes Hamilton -- not the man but the musical and apparently he can't tell the difference between either. (Rosenberg also doesn't know that H&H closed down, not because of gentrification, but because the owner was a criminal). Rosenberg's main beef with Nadler is that Nadler supports the Iran Nuclear Deal which Rosenberg opposes. Okay, but Rosenberg, instead of giving a clear policy critique, yells about how horrible the Iranian regime is which isn't really the point. He's incoherent and evasive -- and nasty.

Rosenberg is clearly mentally unhinged and unfit to serve in any office -- he's basically a Donald Trump clone -- not to the mention the fact, as Nadler clearly exposed in the debate, Rosenberg is actually a Republican who's nostalgic for President Bush (!) and he's not even from NYC, but from California. Rosenberg talks about how he used to be a Democrat trapped in a "Republican body" and that he felt family pressure to conform -- until, apparently, the age of thirty.

Voters in Nadler's district -- please, please, please, for the love of God and everything that is holy, go out in droves and vote for Congressman Nadler. This is not a primary between equals, not a choice between two compelling candidates -- this is between an experienced, well-regarded congressman and a certifiable loon. Don't take it for granted that Nadler will win -- go out and vote! 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Slaves of New York" @ 30

To read Tama Janowitz's acclaimed short story collection Slaves of New York is to gaze upon a world both familiar and distant.

Published thirty years ago this summer, the book was prescient about the exigencies of life in NYC: the spiraling rents, the ruthless ambition, the preening narcissism of the successful, the desperation of those who aren't -- and the way that people and their relationships are warped by this existential maelstrom. The book is set mainly in the world of artists, where creativity clashes with reality, where love clashes with money. According to the book, a "slave" is someone in NYC who lives with someone they don't really like (or even loathe) but are forced to by economic circumstances; the "slaves" are the focus of Janowitz's funny and moving book.

Today, when so New Yorkers can barely afford to live here, there are probably more "slaves" here than ever before. Ms. Janowitz was on to something way back when. 

And yet ... Slaves of New York is about a time and place gone by. In 1986, when the book was published, the "downtown art scene" still existed, even thrived. Sure, crime was a lot higher, the city was in rough shape, and people were fleeing. But the NYC art world seemed more like a community, a world unto itself that defied the city's decay, a defiant flower blooming in the tundra. Today, the downtown art scene doesn't really exist in NYC anymore. Sure, there are still big fancy galleries downtown but most of the struggling and innovative artists have been banished to the outer boroughs or out of the city altogether. The creativity, for the most part, has gone elsewhere. Go to downtown today and it's mostly fancy clothing stores and restaurants and glass buildings. The NYC art scene is much more diffuse today, less of a community and more of an abstract idea.

That's why, in many ways, Slaves of New York is more relevant today than ever. It saw where the NYC art scene and NYC itself was headed: into a world of concentrated wealth and mass economic disparities, into a world where art wasn't valued except for how much it could be sold for, where relationships were transactional and fungible, where NYC is a place so many live in but few believe really belongs to them. In many ways, this world existed then but in a somewhat more primitive form; today, it is institutionalized, absolute.

I wrote about Slaves of New York several years ago when I did a blog post about the NYC art scene in the movies. In 1989, the book was turned into a movie by the Merchant-Ivory team, better known for adaptation of classic British novels. The movie is, in a word, funky. It stars the always fabulous Bernadette Peters as Eleanor, an aspiring hat designer who lives with her awful boyfriend artist Stash in his downtown loft (she is his "slave"). The story concerns how Eleanor liberates herself from the her "slavedom" and re-starts her life as a single woman and an artist in her own right. (Some might call the story a feminist statement but, if so, it's not very a preachy one.) The movie, like the book, also concentrates on an artist named Marley Montello, a rather absurd character who intersects with Eleanor at various points.

What I love about the book and the movie is how the story is both so New York and so rooted in the 1980s art world yet also universal, timeless. It's about struggle, it's about love, it's about the complexity of all sorts of relationships, it's about wanting to become something and facing so many immovable obstacles to achieve it, it's about confronting your fears. And it's also a wonderful snapshot of NYC at a time when it was no longer a place where people really could afford to starve but where it was still possible, with very little money, to eke out an existence. Without knowing it, it was a swan song. Without knowing it, it was about the mythic downtown NYC art world -- just before the deaths of such icons as Andy Warhol and Basquiat, who ruled and defined it -- came to an end.

I remember discovering Slaves of New York and Tama Janowitz many years after the book was published and the movie came out. It was the summer after I had graduated from college, and I was working in a miserable job in a sterile corporate environment, dreaming of a life that was more artistic, more fulfilling, more ... funky. The Bravo Channel (then a great arts and independent film channel and not a reality TV grindhouse) was showing Slaves of New York endlessly. The movie and then the book inspired me. It felt like Tama Janowitz had created this story just for me. She seemed to get me -- get my anxiety, my fears, my hopes and dreams, and my romantic yearnings about the possibilities of life and NYC. No, I wasn't an artist and didn't aspire to be one (except, maybe, a writer). But Slaves of New York, Eleanor's story, seemed to be the only thing understanding me at a time when no one else seemed to. Eleanor, c'est moi (even though I'm a dude).

Slaves of New York has a proud legacy. It's a real NYC story and a poignant encapsulation of an era. But its the pure delight of the writing and the story's universal message that makes it great. And that's why, three decades after it's publication, people still read and remember it. And when my kids are old enough to read Slaves of New York, and I want them to learn more about the NYC I grew up in, it will be one of the first books I'll give them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Making it in NYC

"If I can make it there ..."

As NYC falls further into the abyss of gentrification, "making it" in NYC is harder than ever before.

Now "making it" is an abstract term -- does it mean becoming rich and famous or just being able to "make" a living? Maybe it means eking out a minimal existence while doing something you love? Or maybe it has nothing to do with money or success -- maybe it just means being happy? It can mean anything you want it to! "Make" of that what you will ...

Still, the idea of "making" in NYC is an irresistible one, subject of many a romantic song and film. Make it here and "you can make it anywhere."

WNYC radio has a good series this week called Making It in NYC. The series mostly interviews artists about how they are making it (or not) in the world's greatest metropolis and the various challenges they face. Since this is a subject that will forever obsess almost all New Yorkers, it's worth listening to.