Thursday, December 22, 2016

Interesting Times

There's a Chinese saying: "May you live in interesting times." 

This appears to be a blessing but, if you ask Chinese people, they will tell you it is, in fact, the most brutal of curses. Interesting times are usually times of tumult, horror, and misery; war, famine, and disease. Times are only interesting, the belief goes, if they are bad. Therefore it's a condemnation of people to wish interesting times upon them.

Conversely there is a Japanese saying: "May you have a boring life." This really is a blessing.

We are, sadly, living in the Chinese version of interesting times. A fascist, racist, misogynistic, demagogic bully who brags about his penis size, assaulting women, terrorizing immigrants, de-humanizing minorities, encourages violence towards others, and has really bad hair and taste in home decor is due to become the 45th President of the United States in 2017. This awful evil man is going to inhabit the same office as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. That's interesting. It's also scary. It's a curse. Or is it something else?

This ogre was "elected" because he promises to make our country great "again." He promises to restore the past. As I've blogged about before, this is an impossible goal. But here we are.

In NYC, this clash between the past and present is never ending. Gentrification has made the battle lines stark. That's why you should read this article from Salon that is also an interview with the author of a book about nightlife in NYC from 1988 to 1999. Called "No Sleep", it's a coffee table book collection of "nightlife" flyers for downtown clubs and parties, etc. If you lived in NYC back then, you probably remember seeing these flyers all over the place. They were also sent around to places like my high school, trying to lure out young people with too much money. In short, these flyers are relics of an "interesting" time that no longer exists -- namely, downtown NYC when it was still funky. 

It's "interesting" to look at these flyers and and read what the author has to say about the book and take a peak at a world that no longer exists. NYC back then was a rougher place. Many would argue that it was more "interesting." Or not.

What's clear from this book and from the world we're currently living in is that the times are always "interesting." They never stop being interesting. It's hard to think of a time that wasn't. Interesting times never end. But eras do. They are replaced by other eras. And remembering them is a good way to gain perspective on our present and our hopes for the future.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Memo from NYC

"There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre" - Kurt Vonnegut

I have never known anyone in my life who committed suicide. In this, I consider myself fortunate. But now I feel like I live in a country that chose to kill itself -- and I have no idea what to say. I have no idea what to say about a country that chooses to massacre its own ideals and decency. To paraphrase Mr. Vonnegut, there's nothing intelligent to say about the hideous decision to make Donald Trump, a product of NYC no less, the 45th President of the United States -- because there was nothing intelligent about it at all. 

These are dark days in America. 

Let me get straight to the point: Trump only won this election through the Electoral College but he lost the popular vote. That means the majority of Americans, however slight, DO NOT want him to be president (bless them all). Yet this monster slipped through because several states in the Midwest hammered by de-industrialization chose to believe Trump's big lie that he will restore manufacturing jobs in the USA.

He won't. He can't.

The global economy, despite his promises to his followers, is here to stay. Technology as much as trade deals is responsible for the disappearance of those great old well-earning, little-skilled and no-education needed factory jobs. Hillary Clinton and the other GOP candidates for president didn't promise to bring back these jobs because they knew it was impossible. But like the great con man he is, Trump promised to deliver something that he knows he can't. He sold these angry, desperate people snake oil and they bought it because they didn't see any alternative. 

That's our failure, that's American society's failure. We didn't give them an alternative, we didn't provide them with any other hope, so they fell for this con man's promises. What else did they have? America has failed so many of its people for so long that they chose to make the most dangerous decision in its history. It took decades for us to get to this point. Hopefully it won't take quite so long for America to rid itself fully of the stench of the Trump presidency and re-gain admission to the decency of the world community.

It'll be interesting to see in four years when Trump's (hopefully only) term will end. Will those great manufacturing jobs have come back? What about all the other stuff he promises? Will he have built that "big beautiful wall" between the USA and Mexico -- and gotten Mexico to pay for it? Will he really deport more than 10 million "illegal" immigrants? Will he really cut taxes, beef up the military, and build our infrastructure while maintaining fiscal discipline? If he does, then he will have succeeded -- at least on the terms he and his supporters litigated this election on. But if he doesn't, then he's a failure. 

And I think he'll fail. He'll fail because he was never serious about succeeding in the first place -- he just wanted to get the presidency and did so by selling snake oil to the masses. In four years, he'll be president and they'll still have nothing except broken promises. But actually, they won't even be broken promises because, as I said, they're promises that Donald the con man never intended to honor. How can a man who has no honor actually honor anything? In short, he'll be a bad president because he's a bad man.
      
That said, it was heartening to see here in NYC and around the country that many Americans aren't taking this nightmare lying down. They're on the streets, protesting. The resistance starts now and let's keep it going until he's president no more. 


Friday, October 21, 2016

The 2016 Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner

Here are two New Yorkers, the two major party nominees for president in 2016, at the annual Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. This clip tells you everything about this surreal election campaign. It's wacky and historic at the same time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: "The Front Page"

It's hard to believe but there used to be very few outlets for people to get the news. No Internet. No blogs. No social media. No cable. Radio and television beamed news reports into people's homes and cars but, if you really wanted to know what was going on in the world, if you wanted to "deep-dive" into the complexities of the world you lived in, then you needed to read a newspaper. Yes, read. Read paper. With words on it. Carefully written words backed up by reporting and facts. Written by reporters. Professional reporters. Interesting concept, no?

The world of newspaper reporting is a romantic one -- think movies like His Girl Friday, All the President's Men, and last year's Oscar-winner Spotlight. Newspapers were places where hard-boiled types (usually men) wearing hats and ties quickly pounded out stories on a typewriter, trying to make that midnight deadline, stories that would speak truth to power and reveal all the rot beneath the surface of respectable society. Increasingly newspapers are disappearing as the economic foundation for them melts away. Back in the day, however, newspapers were powerful and profitable. They broke news and made news. And perhaps no play better captured the fevered world of newspapers than the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. 

Currently playing in a popular revival on Broadway, The Front Page is one part a newspaper romance, another part a thriller. It's set in Chicago in 1928, the night before a Communist-sympathizer accused of killing a black cop is set to be executed. As the plot unfolds, a conspiracy involving politics and the miscarriage of justice is revealed along with the personality conflicts and divided loyalties of the reporters covering the story. Believe it or not, it's a comedy, a mystery, and a love letter to newspapers rolled into one. It's fun. I shan't go into great detail about the plot (it's complex) but, if you want to know more, go here

This production technically does not open until October 20th but I recently caught a preview of The Front Page. It has, in short, an amazing cast: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Renee Scott, the legendary Robert Morse, and many fine others. It's an orgy of talent and everyone in the cast plays their parts to the hilt. The play itself is quite amusing if not always laugh at loud funny but the characters are well-defined and compelling. The plot itself is basically an excuse to play out the wacky interactions of the different characters and it mostly works. However, given that what I saw was a preview and therefore an early rough draft of the production, the timing of the play felt somewhat off, somewhat forced. It was clear, to me at least, that the actors were getting used to playing their roles.

That said, when Nathan Lane finally arrives about half-way into the play, it becomes a different show. It becomes fast and funny. It becomes the kind of screwball comedy you were expecting. As the swaggering, outrageous owner of a Chicago tabloid, Lane goes full bore into his character, tearing up the stage with his big personality and perfect timing. The rest of the cast does its best. John Slattery, better known as Roger from Mad Men, is wonderful and John Goodman is lovable even though he's playing a bad guy. I love the actor Jefferson Mays who plays a snooty reporter (I've seen him in I Am My Own Wife and Journey's End) and I just wish that he had a bigger part but he's always fascinating to watch on stage. I'm also glad to have finally seen Sherie Renee Scott on stage but, like Mays, I wish she had more to do. However, it really is a great cast and worth seeing.

So I recommend The Front Page if you love comedy, newspapers, the 1920s, and Nathan Lane. It's a paeab to a lost world.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan in NYC

Newly-minted Nobel laureate Bob Dylan -- the first American to win the literature prize in more than two decades and the first member of a super-group to be so honored -- was born and raised in Minnesota. But it was here in NYC, Greenwich Village 1961 specifically, where Dylan's genius first revealed itself to the world.

Working the downtown clubs, singing in venues all over town, Dylan's brilliant songs and lyrics caught fire with a new generation that had just elected its first president born in the 20th century, a spiritually hungry generation that had survived the worst war in history and the conservative era of the 1950s. 

For the next fifty-plus years, Dylan would become more than just a popular singer/songwriter -- his music and lyrics would become part of the American conscious for late-20th/early-21st century, a communal reference point for the existential dilemma of a nation of plenty and a nation of tumult. Dylan didn't give us easy answers -- or any answers at all. Instead he asked us questions, hard questions, and dared us to be brave enough to answer them for ourselves.

"How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone"

Questioning, searching, longing, yearning, giving in, giving up, hoping, hating, loving, wondering -- it's all there in Dylan's lyrics, the jumble of emotions and thoughts, the emotive and repressed feelings that we all have at the same time, in various shades, in various ways. And it's precisely because it's so hard to express them that Dylan -- through his poetic voice -- expressed them for us in language both economical and powerful, haunting and familiar. He took the complicated frustrations of this complicated nation and made them clear:

 Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a' changin'!

If you're interested in the early days of Dylan, you must read this recent New York Times article but you should also read Dave Van Ronk's great book The Mayor of MacDougal Street about the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene that Dylan emerged from. (Van Ronk was a friend of Dylan's and an early influence -- and Van Ronk is immortalized in the great Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis that takes place in January 1961 right as Dylan emerges.) 

And if anyone out there doubts that Mr. Dylan should have won this prize, just remember that he's the guy who wrote: 

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

Thursday, October 13, 2016

To Live and Eat in NYC

Walk down any street in our fair city and you'll find food options a plenty. Chinese, Indian, Italian, Mexican, seafood, fast food, diners, etc. etc. -- all the usual culinary suspects are present and accounted for ad infinitum all over town. Even some of the more obscure, off beat, less obvious choices -- like Korean Cajun or Afghani food -- can be found here as well. To live in NYC is to eat NYC, if you catch my drift. 

One thing that NYC does very well, even our city's biggest detractors would agree, is deli. This is a town where you can get all kinds of great soups, "sammiches", and other tasty Jewish inspired fair. Some delis, like Katz's, are world famous -- even infamous. (The food at Katz's is so good that it made someone have an orgasm in a movie.) Another revered deli is the Carnegie, also made famous in a movie (Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose). And yet, like so many old-school institutions in NYC these days, the Carnegie is fated to close. On December 31st it will shut its doors. 

Now this blog is nothing if not nostalgic. I harp on and on about how this town has become gutted by money, the old and wonderful being replaced by the new and cheesy. But I cannot include the Carnegie Deli on this list. First, the Carnegie is not a victim of gentrification and rising rents -- the owners simply wish to close it. Second, even its biggest fans agree, the Carnegie long ago stopped being a real grubby New York joint and became a complete tourist trap. Third, and this is just my humble opinion, the Carnegie was never really that good to begin with. Yes, it had NYC "cred" (for a while at least); yes, the great comics and writers and showbiz types hung out there; and yes, the sandwiches were huge. But really, it was overrated. The tables were cramped, the waiters were rude, and, while the meat in the sandwiches was first-class, the bread was bad and the lettuce was cheap. Even though the meat was good, there was so much of it that eating the sandwiches was more of an ordeal than a pleasure. Who in their right mind can or wants to each that much meat in one sitting? It was ridiculous and not charming. So while I'm sad, in theory, that the Carnegie is closing, it does not mark for me, at least, a great loss for the NYC culture.

That said, Rao's, the historic East Harlem Italian restaurant, is a great piece of the NYC food culture. The impossible-to-get-into "joint" serves some of the best Italian grub that I've ever had -- the lemon chicken, the meatballs, and the cheesecake are outstanding. The original NYC Rao's is 120 years old but now there are locations in LA and Las Vegas that are very popular, and you can also buy their sauces in grocery stores and their cookbooks online and in bookstores. Vanity Fair has a huge article this month about the history and lore of Rao's and it's worth checking out. I've eaten there twice (one of the lucky few) and it really is a fun place. If this place ever closes, I'll actually be sad.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Crazy Eddie RIP


The genius has died. All New Yorkers who remember the 1980s mourn.  I wrote about him in 2008. Read it here.

Friday, September 9, 2016

How to Live in NYC

Living in NYC - it's oh so hard. And yes, it is, that's not mere hyperbole. (I'm sure I need not count the ways.) But there are a couple of counterfactuals, things that go against the popular grain of the exigencies of life in NYC.  

First, paid sick leave -- it's a roaring success! Several years ago there was much debate in this city about whether or not requiring companies to provide paid sick leave would hurt the economy and cost it jobs. (Oh yes, 'twas very controversial.) Turns out -- it doesn't! In fact, ever since paid sick leave was mandated, the city's economy has boomed and more jobs have been created. So in NYC today there more jobs and they provide paid sick leave. Ain't that grand?

Okay, great, I got a job with paid sick leave. So where am I gonna live? Where can I find a place I can afford?

Staten Island might be the place. There is a boom in apartment construction there, it is becoming an increasingly desirable place to live. No longer is it a Guido Alabama, the black sheep of NYC. Staten Island is becoming a housing magnet, a place where you can still be middle class (sorta) in NYC. 

So yes, life in NYC is hard but not, always, impossible.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Future Always Wins

We've been at war a lot for the last few decades -- and I'm not talking about literal shooting wars like Vietnam or Iraq. No, I'm talking about the various wars that we've declared on poverty, cancer, drugs, crime, terrorism -- you name it -- on any number of nouns and tactics. As George Carlin once said of Americans: "We like war! We're a warlike people!"

Indeed. And this year of 2016 might be the year that we declared war on something else -- the future.

You see it in our politics, both right and left. Donald Trump declares that he'll make America great "again" -- we were great once, in the past, you see, but no longer, so he'll bring that great past back if elected president. And yet another person named Clinton aims to occupy the Oval Office, with all the perils and benefits that a President Clinton can offer. Both candidates promise to take the world's greatest superpower into the future by appealing to our feelings about its past.

Our popular culture has been an even bigger dredger-upper of yore: look at the reboots of movies like Ghostbusters and TV shows like Full House. Even new stuff is old: the most popular new pop culture event of the summer was a Netflix series called Stranger Things, a creepy show that takes places in a creepily believable 1983. Nostalgia is all the rage.

More ominously, this strong desire to resurrect that which is gone has taken the form of terrorism, specifically those terrorists who think that if they kill enough people or blow up enough stuff that it will somehow resurrect a 7th Century Caliphate. Less bloodily, but in many ways more consequentially, the United Kingdom decided that it loved its past so much that it voted to shatter the post-World War II European economic consensus and chuck its membership in the European Union, thus becoming a true island nation once again -- the so called "Brexit."

The allure of the past is so great that the world seems ready to muddy its present and compromise its future in pursuit of a time that is well and truly gone -- forever.

Why? Why this overactive drive to revivify previous eons?

Well, the easy answer is that the present sucks. Wars, recessions, gentrification, growing student debt, decreasing worker wages, the spiraling cost of living and the stalling creation of jobs, technology that becomes obsolete the moment you buy it, is making people mushuggina. Things are changing, things are always changing, but more and more things seem to be changing faster and faster -- and for no good reason except that it benefits a wealthy, elitist few. More and more people feel that they have less and less control over their lives, that there are fewer paths to prosperity and security for them and their families, and that the future is a bleak, unsparing, hopeless place. So we want to retreat. We want to go back. We wish to return to a "safe space" where we are in total control, where we already know the ending to the story, where the worries of the present and the threats of the future are nought.

As the great English author Evelyn Waugh famously wrote: "We possess nothing certainly except the past."

Certainly, here in NYC, the past is something that people cherish. In a dynamic world, NYC is probably the most dynamic place in it, so attempts to remember, mourn, and, yes, even recreate its past abound. Just look:
  • The Stork Club, the place where Walter Winchell once ruled, making and unmaking reputations with his powerful newspaper column, is fondly remembered.
  • Television, specifically local television, which used to set the agenda for the city in a way it rarely does today, is also being recalled. Back in the day, a TV anchor named Bill Boggs was one of the most important people in town and these days he's reminiscing about it.
  • Local businesses, stores that served the community while also making a profit, are vanishing. This article is about TekServe, the Chelsea Mac service store, that I used to go to many times back in the day and that was a staple of NYC life, has closed down. This one really hurts because, as the writer of this article notes, this closure is another "downside to the city’s real estate boom. It’s driving away the unique, friendly places that make living in the city worth the effort ... [a] rapid deterioration of the city’s street-level fabric."
  • Here's one counterfactual: Chumley's is coming back. The old speakeasy that closed in 2007 after an industrial accident is set to re-open soon. I remember going there many years ago and loving it -- but this resurrected saloon just won't be the same, it simply can't be. Times may heal wounds but it doesn't fully obliterate them.
Then there are those who make it their business to give old NYC a voice:
  • The Bowery Boys are a couple of guys with a long-running, very successful podcast about the history of NYC. Now they have a book out, about "adventures in old New York."
  • Even porn is getting in on the act! Yes, pornography is now a nostalgic reference point for NYC. Check out the Rialto Report, a comprehensive website, blog, and archive about the adult scene in NYC back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. For a subject matter that is so naughty, this is an incredible elegant and beautifully presented site that makes art and history out of something lots of people consider simply obscene. And it's history alright -- an incredible history that you won't learn about in school or museums.
What the aforementioned demonstrate, I think, are what is good and bad about nostalgia and our changing city and world. It is painful, awful, and ultimately detrimental for local businesses to close and even local television stations to become irrelevant. It lessens the vitality of life in NYC. And I do understand -- oh man, do I ever! -- at how frustrating and scary the rate of change in our world today is, at how fast things vanish only to be replaced by something unrecognizable and nowhere near as good. It's not something that anyone, I think, under the age of 25 will ever get used to. At the same time, how wonderful is it, thanks to the Internet, that blogs and websites can exist that remember the past, that preserve it, that give it context and meaning in a way that, otherwise, would elude it? And how wonderful it is that new things are being invented that will improve our lives and (perhaps, just perhaps) give us all better futures.


Loving the past and trying to remember it should never be the same as hating the future and seeking its destruction. Trump/Clinton, Brexit, terrorists, pointless TV show and movie reboots, etc. etc. do nothing, ultimately, to make us feel better. They don't bring the past back. They can't! They are, to varying degrees, acts of desperation, a metaphorical lashing out at our present (obviously TV/movie reboots are not as awful as Donald Trump nor are either as awful as terrorists but I hope you get the drift). The brilliant comedian Marc Maron recently said on his podcast, specifically about the 2016 election but also, I think, about this larger issue of fearing the future:

"It’s a tragedy that there’s so much desperation ... How do you relieve that desperation, that anger, that hopelessness? ... Here’s why people vote for Trump: ‘Fuck It!’ ‘Fuck It All!’ That’s got to be the rationale ... It's the possible annihilation of all progress with no real plan."

And that's ultimately the problem: people want to "annihilate progress" that they feel has hurt them but, for the most part, people have no idea what to replace it with except with some gauzy nostalgia. The Trump candidacy is a perfect, almost frightening example of this: he promises to "make America great again" and "bring the jobs back" and "restore law and order" -- but how? How will we be great again in way that we aren't now? What jobs are coming back? Law and order -- believe it or not but our country has never been this safe! Again, he plays on our anxieties about the present and our fears about the future by invoking a past that will never return. And here's the rub - that past was never that great to begin with.

Do you want to go back to a world where gays were closeted? Where minorities were openly discriminated against? Where smoking was tolerated everywhere? Where women were raped and the men who did it got away? Where there was no Internet? Where people who were born into poverty stayed there. Do you really truly want to return to that world? Not me.

But at the same time part of me does. Part of me wants to go back and relive those supposedly simpler times. Part of me, a big part of me, fears the future. But the future is coming, it's always coming. The future always wins even as we strive to beat it. So let's get ready for it and work to make it better. Not destroy it -- or think we can replace it with the past.


As the great American author Scott Fitzergerald wrote: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessy into the past."

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lou Reed Forever

Do you believe in ghosts?

I do. Not literally, of course. I don't believe in white-clad spirits rushing around to and fro, haunting houses and terrorizing people. I don't believe our deceased ancestors spy on us from "the great beyond". I don't believe in anything mystical or spooky or weird. I'm not into any of that kind of stuff.

But I do believe that certain places can still capture the spirit of a person -- or people -- who inhabited them long after he or she or they have physically left it, especially after they have died. If you ever go to Rome and visit the Colosseum or the Forum or any of the great sites of Roman antiquity, it's impossible not to feel the eternal presence of Julius Caesar and the other great Romans who built it. (Rome is, after all, the eternal city). Go to Philadelphia and Constitution Hall -- it's impossible not to feel the lingering shadow of the Founder Father as they hammered out the Constitution. 

You get the idea. When people make a profound impact on a place, the spirit of that impact endures on it, even after they have passed on.

Such is the case of Lou Reed and New York City. The self-proclaimed New York City man wrote extensively about his hometown, naming a whole album after it and penning numerous songs about this place: "Coney Island Baby", "Coney Island Steeplechase", "NYC Man", "Sally Can't Dance", "Rock'n'Roll", "Dirty Boulevard", "Walk on the Wild Side", and on and on. I don't think I can ever travel to 125th street, especially Lexington Avenue, without the lyric from "I'm Waiting for My Man": 

Up to Lexington, 125
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive

Lou Reed died almost three years ago but his music and spirit still live in NYC. He may be dead but he never left. As this article explains, New York Is Still Lou Reed's Town (You Just Live in It).

This past weekend, as Lincoln Center, there was an all-day tribute to the music of Lou Reed. People performed his songs and read his lyrics. People kept his spirit alive -- not that they needed to since it never died. 


In NYC, Lou Reed will always linger on ... 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Postscript: Howard Stern Supports Hillary Clinton

Even Howard Stern doesn't want Trump to be President!

Please go on the show Hillary, please! You will literally win millions more votes! 

Donald Trump will Steal Your Girlfriend

Donald Trump is a horrible human being. Either you agree with that -- or you're a horrible human being too.

As this freak-show of a presidential election winds its way to a miserable conclusion, it's fitting to go back to look at the man who might be Commander-in-Chief and Leader of the Free World.

In the early 2000s, long before he ran for president, Donald Trump called into Howard Stern's radio show to boast about how he had stolen away the girlfriend of gossip columnist AJ Benza. Trump utters such presidential turns of phrase as "I was very successful with your girlfriend" and "Any girl you have, I can take from you" and "You're a loser." 

Lovely stuff. Such a great role model for our nation's children. If you want to listen to it, you can go here:



Oh yes, we know. He's "politically incorrect." He "tells it like it is." He's gonna "shake up the system." He's such a hero, such a badass, and, as he told us in his convention speech, he "alone" can fix the nation.

Among certain kinds of people, being a bully, a racist, and sexual predator is considered something to be proud of. Clearly Donald Trump is one of those people. And the people who support him? They want to be like him even though they never will be. 

It's scary. But hopefully Trump and the kind of mentality he represents will be resounding rejected this November. 

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyeOmPMHRYg.

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.

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Taxi Driver" @ 40

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."  

No, this wasn't something said by a Donald Trump supporter. It was a line memorably uttered by the great actor Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver which turns 40 years old this year. If you've never seen it, Taxi Driver is about a mysterious cabbie named Travis Bickle who roams a nightmarish NYC, lonely, detached, adrift in a chaotic world that he doesn't understand and hates. Eventually he becomes a gun-totting vigilante and unleashes his fury. It's a horrifying and amazing film to watch. 

Taxi Driver was a quintessential example of the 1970s New Hollywood ethos: brutal, profane, centering on an "anti-hero," and totally unsentimental. It's also, in many ways, a document about NYC in the mid-1970s: dirty, crime-ridden, and failing. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese, right after his earlier films "Mean Streets" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", and it rocketed him into the leagues of major American directors, paving his way to legendary status. The cast is also notable: besides De Niro, the film stars a pre-"Moonlighting" Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, a very young Jodie Foster, and, of all people, a frizzy haired Albert Brooks providing some much needed comic relief. Like all Scorsese films, it's brilliantly directed and has first-rate performances.
 

Looking at Taxi Driver today, it seems both very dated and totally relevant. Dated, because it's about an NYC that doesn't exist anymore. Watching the film, in an NYC where broom closets cost millions of dollars, is like looking at a world that is both familiar and distant, recognizable and unrecognizable, a friend from the past who has aged and whose body has changed (either really well or really badly). Yet, it's more relevant than ever because it's about rage, alienation, mistrust, a world gone mad, and the temporary but very real allure of senseless violence. Look at our current political climate. Can anyone possibly argue that this atmosphere of anger isn't even more real and toxic today? Is rage not a constant in American life today? Taxi Driver was prophetic.  

This fascinating oral history tells the story of how Taxi Driver was made and about the impact it left on America and American film culture. Forty years on, and so much and so little has changed.