Perm (11.2010)

Два Гомера... Символ современной эпохи, докатились. Уличное искусство Перми, работа украинского автора.Perm sounds like the Minneapolis-Saint Paul of Russia. I want to visit there just to shake the hand of the genius behind this mural.

Writer On the Set!

I spent Easter weekend this year helping a short film shoot for a script called “Late Late,” that I had written. What a range of reactions I got as I told friends what I was doing. Many offered congratulations, naturally, but just as many skipped the congrats and went straight for the furrowed eyebrows full of concern.

The writer on the set? To writers it sounds like a punishing experience: Your beautiful, dancing child traumatized, forced to walk a straight line by sadistic kindergarten teachers. To anyone who has directed or worked in film production, it sounds worse: Just being there I had to own up to some culpability for the power struggles that would erupt.

If a film set is the last bastion of fascism in an increasingly democratic world, as Francis Coppola once said, then a writer hanging around the donut table will naturally attract all the ideas that challenge the director’s authority. As if a script is the only higher authority one can appeal to when trying to trim the director’s egotistical overreach. That’s not how it has to be.

I had gotten a phone call asking to help with the script two months before, and wrote and rewrote it around five or six times. I’d attended one production meeting and read-through, so that I could be sure that we all saw eye-to-eye about the meaning of each moment; it being comedy, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s funny from just words on a page. I declined to attend a night of rehearsals, because I was overdue to go see a movie with my wife.

Now that shooting day had come, and I was busy with other projects anyway, it wasn’t clear how much help I could be. I’d taken on casting one of the parts and figured I’d “drop by” the set to make that introduction. I even brought my laptop with me, figuring I might spend half the day working on something else. The story is about a guy who’s chronically late and absolutely has to be on time for a lunch date.

Thirty hours later, with about three hours sleep in between, I’d busted ass all weekend for the short, and I still gave less than the rest of the crew.

There is always some ridiculous problem on shooting day, and ours came because the script calls for a taxi to get stuck in traffic. Finding a traffic jam is never very hard in New York…except for Saturday mornings of holiday weekends! Just a few weeks before, I was in a car on the Lower East Side on a Sunday morning, and we sat for a half hour due to bridge construction, so I figured I’d go find it again. You never feel like quite as big a loser as you do when you’re looking for a traffic jam and can’t find one. Not only was the L.E.S. around the bridges unclogged, and Canal Street moving nicely, but the Holland Tunnel around Broome and Varick, which is always a shitshow, was moving too. I asked a cop. She referred me to 1010 Wins. Finally a taxi driver told me to relax: as the afternoon set in, the tunnel traffic would start to clog up Tribeca, and it did. I guess I was a nervous parent.

I admit I was a little surprised by the broad, cheap laughs in some of the scenes, but it is comedy, and I had been invited to rehearsals and said No. I made sure not to give any unsolicited coaching, and if anything in the performances didn’t seem right, I brought it up to the director out of earshot of any actors. There’s a time for imagination, and there’s a time to make yourself useful.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Stories About Brothers

Thousands of police are all over the Boston suburbs as I write this, trying to corner a 19-year-old terrorist named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “Dumb boys” is the first thing that comes to mind, “boys” being the key word: You rarely hear of girls losing their way socially or mentally, and then deciding that the best way forward is a pre-written script perceived as a shortcut to heroism that involves killing strangers and waiting for the law to come down. “Why doesn’t it happen more often?” is another gloomy sentiment that comes to mind.

What’s truly heart-breaking about it, though, is the age difference between the two brothers who pulled it off: 19 and 26.

Lots of gangster movies, including many of Scorsese’s films, take place mostly inside the duality of two brothers or close male friends. One brother sees that his alter-ego is no good for him, but either his love is too great to cut him off, or there is something deficient in himself that his brother clearly has a whole lot of.

All the time, I am writing, even if I am just sketching out a story in the roughest phase, scribbling it on index cards in my jacket pocket. When I listen to the news today I imagine Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the college undergrad, graduate of a Latin high school, interacting with 26-year-old Tamerlan.

Preliminary word is that Tamerlan was a boxer who hated school. He spent years in the US but never mastered English. None were particularly religious or political. Perhaps the parents had a good reason for moving back to Central Asia, who knows? But they left Dzhokar essentially in the care of Tamerlan, and that wasn’t the best move.

Dzokhar was at that age when he’d really start to think for himself, so Tamerlan had to provoke a crisis now. This is what the brothers we call “dynamic characters” do: provoke a crisis to preserve the bond with their brothers, because they have nothing to lose. Their brothers, the protagonist-heroes, then face a hard choice between loyalty and goodness. These plots often have a woman who personifies that “goodness,” or that life beyond the confines of the stupid male peer group. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and On the Waterfront come to mind.

Had he waited a year, Dzokhar would have figured out that Tamerlan is an asshole. They were both athletes, Tamerlan a frustrated one, so he hatched a plan to bomb the mother of all American athletic events. His uncles have no compunction describing Tamerlan as a “loser,” so it’s not hard to figure out that Tamerlan was in turn adept at hazing his little brother, who wore his hair bushy to distinguish himself from the commando. He hung out and studied with women in his dorm, and it was a matter of time before he started spending holidays in Woonsocket with a girl whose parents had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sleepover policy for college boyfriends.

A part of Dzokhar didn’t want to do it, but he went along. Now he’s holed up with a gun.

Of course, I’ve made the story about me. I’m the youngest of four brothers, and see myself in Dzokhar’s sweet face. When I was his age I was skipping sociology class to volunteer for an environmental organization.

Another writer might feel for Tamerlan. Poor guy, semiliterate, gets into boxing but doesn’t quite fit in in that world. People make fun of his accent. Makes a serious go at the Olympic team but fails. Dreamy-eyed little brother falls under the sway of a radical thinker, and Tamerlan goes along for the ride.

We’ll see. The facts are finite, but the writing goes on and on.

Sha Na Na at Woodstock: History Inside of (Fake) History

When you think of a rock star writhing his way through a solo at Woodstock, you think of Jimi Hendrix, or possibly Alvin Lee or Santana. Or, in my case, I think of Rob Leonard, who sang “Teen Angel” for Sha Na Na.

I always loved how the guys of Sha Na Na seemed like they were bursting out of their sequins at Woodstock. I’d heard John Entwistle say on the radio long ago that The Who were miserable there, because they weren’t politically radical at all – Townsend in fact is quite conservative – but also, not least, because they got dosed by acid in the coffee. I mean, you might want to mention to somebody about to go onstage, “By the way, there’s LSD in that.”

I was already familiar with Sha Na Na from 1980s TV,when I heard them sing “At the Hop” in the Woodstock movie. They seemed like a seasoned troupe of doo-wop devotees from deep in the 718 area code finally letting its greasy hair down. It was lovely how they subtly responded to the occasion, yet dutifully hit all their cheesy marks, and the hippies politely paid their respects.

It turns out, that’s not how it went at all. Far from working class musical purists, Sha Na Na had only recently been formed at the time by members of a Columbia University a capella group. The very same Rob Leonard, now a linguistics professor at Hofstra, wrote in a Columbia alumni magazine a few years ago that the explicit purpose of the band was to appeal to a pre-Vietnam War teenage Eden to calm down the bloated rhetoric of intolerance versus revolution that was causing physical fights at Columbia.

Leonard’s older brother George, a founding member of Sha Na Na who was reading Susan Sontag at the time, called the band’s first performance “The Glory That Was Grease” as a reference to an Edgar Allen Poe line, “The Glory That Was Greece.” Grease, as in the male hair product, only became the emblem of that generation after the fact, after hippies had turned male hair into a hunk of cultural vocabulary. No one used the word “greaser” till the 1970s when they were writing imagined stories about life in the ’50s. Touchingly, Rob Leonard’s article is a sort of mea culpa. Scholars are pointing out that Sha Na Na started a wave of 1950s nostalgia that served the political reaction for a whole generation, and Leonard doesn’t dispute that.

The story goes, Jimi Hendrix himself asked Sha Na Na to perform at Woodstock second to last, before his finale, and you can see him in the “Teen Angel” clip, apparently enjoying the set from the side of the stage. You can’t help but suspect that he was using them as a setup, to show how far rock and roll had come in just a decade; these songs were newer at the time than the White Stripes or Norah Jones are now. Or I like to think that maybe he just liked the songs. In my experience, visionary artists are usually respectful of traditions, even the ones that they’ve uprooted. Anyway, to paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can’t shake my ass to Sha Na Na, I don’t want to be a part of your acid subculture.

“The Hive” of Subways

Whenever distant friends visit New York, and I’m called upon to give train directions, I take the opportunity to editorialize about private versus public services.

The subways in New York are so nonsensically laid out because they were once three competing companies. To transfer from the N Train to a 6 Train at Canal Street, for example, you have to walk up and down two separate stairways and down a dank corridor that smells like a sewage pipe. It’s because they weren’t designed to interface. They were designed to compete, and the city has done its best to make the lines interface with a sometimes baffling patchwork of connecting halls, stairs, and elevators.

You can still see signs that read “To I.R.T.” or “B.M.T. Trains” in the fixtures and tiles, but the old Interborough Rapid Transit and its competitors have long gone out of business, and just a handful of old-timers still call the lines by those names. Whenever someone under 50 refers to a 1-2-3 train on 7th Avenue as “the I.R.T.” I suspect that they’re putting on airs.

That’s our way of doing things. Start them as private ventures, and once they’re absolutely essential to lots of people’s well-being, run them knowing that if they’re mismanaged, then the government will have no choice but to take them over. (Sounds like our healthcare system.) Seventy years since the MTA took over the trains and unified it into one system, it is still just now getting around to making some improvements. One obvious one was the transfer from the BDF and M lines at Broadway-Lafayette to the uptown 6 Train, whose Bleecker Street Station is at the end of the block. (The transfer to the downtown 6 has been possible for years.)

Now that it’s finished the MTA commissioned an artist named Leo Villareal to install an LED display on the ceiling, which is most spectacular while you’re taking the escalator from the inbound D/F platform to the Bleecker Street Station.

One of its conspicuous elements is how fragile the lights look. During the 80s these lights wouldn’t have lasted a week. It gives the impression that the MTA system is a giant, electric hive, and we are the bees!


Of course – and New Yorkers will appreciate this – the first time I had an occasion to take the escalator and discovered “Hive (Bleecker Street)” – I got to the top and found…

…the uptown trains were not running that Sunday:

Resurrect Dead: A Just About Perfect Stab at Subjectivity

Rambling post. Bear with me. It arrives at a sharp point before you know it. A month ago I’m waiting for a D train at West 4th Street after midnight, and a saxophone player of exceptional talent is playing on the platform – the Brooklyn-bound D and F platform being one of the best music venues in the whole MTA system. And who comes limping around collecting money for him, but a man whose face betrayed some kind of organic brain damage from a head injury or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or something.

I’m a believer that fewer video cameras are better in lots of cultural circumstances. I even got into a fight with a Danish guy at the temple of the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul one time over the subject. He was aghast that I was taking up a prized seat during one of their weekly performances and hadn’t read so much as a single book about Sufism (fair enough), but he meanwhile had a video camera with a large microphone mounted on it. Whenever you introduce a video camera to an environment, you change it, and it’d better be for a damn good reason.

So there I was: great jazz, brain damaged dude collecting money, video opportunity, and I reach for my iPhone. No! Don’t even. Let it be.

Two weeks later I’m walking down the street in Philly, and my friend points to a linoleum-looking tile in the crosswalk. It’s a “Toynbee tile,” she says, and recommends the 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.

Its subject matter is the person or people who started putting tiles in the streets of Philly and elsewhere in the early 1980s that read “Toynbee Idea/In Kubrick’s 2001/Resurrect Dead/On Planet Jupiter.” Fascinating detective story about amateur obsessives delving deep into the world of political paranoiacs and short wave radio in the early 80s.

Great documentaries take you someplace new – in this case, a working class block in Philly. The Philly accent has never sounded so delicious! But writer-director Jon Foy makes two great choices in telling the story: First, he settles on a narrator, the leading detective, who has baggage of his own, an obsessive and a misfit who started documenting the tiles while he worked as a foot messenger in the 1990s. Second, as they exhaust every possibility and start to settle on a lonesome paranoiac in South Philly, Foy shows his detectives attempt to reach out to him, but then…they respectfully back off. It’s clear enough who did it, but there are some places a camera shouldn’t go.

It’s also worth watching to study how nimbly it uses re-enactment footage for things that already happened, presumably before Foy started shooting video of them, and artfully gets into the head of the paranoiac. Foy had the nose to be there with the camera rolling during some key moments in the investigation. Light touch. Just enough of everything. A new favorite.