The National Treasures of the Horsepunk Republic, or, Keep The Muse in Museum

“Daily through the city stalks the picture of famine, L’Enfant and his dog. The plan of the city is probably his, though others claim it. He had the courage to undertake any public work whatever that was offered to him. He has not succeeded in any, but was always honest and is now miserably poor.”*

That’s according to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, in his diary in 1806. Every homeless person I saw when I visited Washington, D.C. this month reminded me of Pierre L’Enfant, who was himself homeless for a time on the streets of the city whose layout he designed.

I love D.C., and took a break from New York to get some air there during its slushy-sandy thaw. D.C. is a city with a keen understanding of itself. Visiting there is like being in a geographic enigma, sprawling and aristocratic. Its subway platforms are mod, but dark and atmospheric, as if a nightclub opened at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, a true national treasure, is about as long as Central Park. While Central Park makes you feel like a fish in a rich person’s fishbowl, The National Mall is completely open to the sky and horizon. It gives you the impression you own a share of a vast estate.

The Washington Monument, from inside the Jefferson Memorial.

The Washington Monument, from inside the Jefferson Memorial.

If Steampunk is a fantasy of a Victorian vision of the future, then the United States is Horsepunk, an Enlightenment vision of the future. The National Park Service reinforces this at the National Mall by keeping the path you walk on a sandy-gravelly mix, which gives you the tactile feeling, and ambient sounds, of walking through the 18th Century.

Dominating all of it is the Washington Monument, which gives a bizarre, Egyptian flare to the otherwise Roman look of the republic’s holy grounds. By law it is the tallest building in the city, by far, and it’s so simple and elemental you can’t help but feel that the binding spirit of us as a people is an abstract principle. If you put a 500-foot replica of Brancusi’s Bird in Space halfway between Grand Central Station and City Hall, and then knocked out every building on the East Side of Manhattan below 50th Street, you could maybe achieve this kind of grandeur.

My favorite, though, is a place I managed to revisit one morning this month after over 20 years, the Jefferson Memorial, that dome across the tidal basin from the Washington Monument. Jefferson speaks to that part of the American heart that just wants to go to a farm and read books all summer. Never mind war and business, and the messy work of getting stuff done. Let’s dwell in ideals.

Jefferson strikes me as the smartest guy in the dorm room, the kid who already read all the books you’re struggling with, back when he was in high school. Who had an easy time with the women and already tried every drug, and whose political sensibilities could never be satisfied. Whatever you believed in, it wasn’t good enough. And his father, you find out during sophomore year, is the vice president of a nuclear bomb manufacturer. He is both wilder and more priveledged than you’ll ever be. Great idea putting this across the water from the others, since it celebrates an impulse that requires going away and thinking.

How nice it would be to have a Roman temple built in one’s honor, with a few of your prose’s greatest hits up on the walls around your statue. I was so inspired, I thought I’d take the long way back around the tidal basin.

That’s where some cheeky Virginians tucked a hidden monument behind the hidden monument! George Mason, whom both Washington and Jefferson apparently regarded as a mentor, gets a lovely fountain – empty for the season, all the lovelier – with a strange little statue behind it, and bits of his prose that all seem to protest too much. We get it! “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was a rip-off of Mason. He is the Chuck Berry to Jefferson’s John Lennon, the founding father’s founding father.

Yikes.

Yikes.

 

Next, since the last time I’d visited, F.D.R. and M.L.K. have gotten memorials, both completely dreadful. They’re sterile civic fitness trails meant to uplift the visitor who walks through them in an experiential manner, reading globs of text, without which they’d look like unfinished courtyards of corporate headquarters. I’m a liberal, and I can’t stand them. I can only imagine what conservatives think. They’re an embarrassment to liberalism, and should be dismantled. Start over.

A good memorial is like a good film or screenplay. It works without the dialogue. If a monument can’t be appreciated on purely aesthetic grounds, no uplifting words can save it.

(*As quoted in Scott Berg’s Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.)

And while we’re talking about excessive text or narration, let’s give museums back to the Muses.

I wonder sometimes, when exactly did the unwritten rule of museum curatorship go into effect that says an any art exhibit must be 100% real artifacts, but an exhibit at an equally prestigious history museum is allowed to be mostly text written by the curators, with maybe some video and just enough artifacts to justify going to a museum instead of a website or coffee table book?

I lasted five minutes in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Longer in the National Museum of the American Indian, mostly because it has a mind-blowing exhibit right now called Nation To Nation, a history of the major treaties between the United States and the various sovereign native nations. I bet that curators are under pressure to come up with exhibits about social history, and the till-now undervalued stories of history, but if you insist on providing all of the interpretation all the time, then you’ve curated the life out of a subject. If you can’t find any muskets or moccasins, you might as well post an essay on the website.

The Victorians used to jam their museums full of stuff, and it probably frustrated lots of visitors, who just saw something like a glass case full of arrowheads, many of them broken, and nothing to interpret them with. Numbing as that may sound, when you walk into an exhibit about the Dakota-U.S. war of 1862, at the national museum, and all you see are panels with text on them, then it’s time to restore some balance toward the museum’s other mission, to give us a chance to contemplate the artifacts for their own sake.

I learned something about history at the history museum, but I dreamed about history at the National Gallery of Art, where you’re left alone with a fragment of a Renaissance fresco or a Colonial soup terrine with cupids on it.

A scalloped 18th-Century pickle dish from Colonial Philadelphia, at the National Gallery.

A scalloped 18th-Century pickle dish from Colonial Philadelphia, at the National Gallery.

The Smithsonian can learn something from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Passing through last summer, I discovered that Deerfield is basically a big historic district. You probably need twenty signatures and a permit to put a kiddie pool in your yard. I took a recon lap around town, and the first museum I saw said “Memorial Hall.” When I stopped at the general visitors center, and heard about how my admission was good for all the different houses open to the public, and something very professional-sounding called the Flynt Center for Early New England Life, I asked, “What about Memorial Hall?”

“Oh no, that’s a separate admission,” the uniformed attendant told me.

An old Yankee town with competing historical societies! Now I was curious! “Thank you very much, ma’am,” I said, and went straight to the Memorial Hall Museum. I guessed right. It’s what a museum should be. It’s full of 19th-Century plows and old shoes and every reasonably intact butter churn they could find in their basement.

“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams famously said, and that applies to monuments and museums. What good are they if you can’t sit and muse with them?

Crazy Love

I watched a very odd theater-home double feature last night, two strange films. First was Amour Fou, written and directed by the Austrian Jessica Hausner – not to be confused with Amour, the Michael Haneke film that’s positively perky compared to Amour Fou. In fact, Hausner’s script makes The White Ribbon seem like The Sound of Music.

Based on a tragic real-life affair, of sorts, between the German Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist and the married Henriette Vogel, it turns the story as it’s usually told on its head by making Henriette the lead character. Vogel is a modestly popular fixture on the Berlin social circuit in 1810, and von Kleist is portrayed as a predatory depressive searching for a woman with whom to make a suicide pact. Hausner adds just enough setbacks and simple, eleventh hour turns to keep it interesting, while the script meditates on the nature of love. It goes to illustrate something a female fiction writer once told me: No matter how big a scumbag a guy is, there is a woman out there who will gladly let him walk all over her.

Crazy Love: Who could resist him?

Crazy Love: Who could resist him?

Amour Fou is one gorgeous composition after another, like a museum of period rooms with live reenactors, delivering their lines with comic understatement. Funny but not funny ha-ha, it’s a movie you respect more than you actually enjoy.

Back home, I was in the mood for something a lot lighter, and I’d been postponing Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share ever since it came out in 2012. Its marketing hooks are so transparent, I didn’t want to see Loach’s social realist creds yoked to another middle-brow tourist board showpiece, a Trotskyist, Scottish Sideways.Though my prediction may have been proven right, I still found myself moved by it at times.

As much as I’d like to give credit for its touching qualities to screenwriter Paul Laverty – for I’m always inclined to credit the writer for a film’s merits, and blame anyone else for its faults – I think it belongs to Loach. Specifically, his casting. By casting Paul Brannigan as Robbie and giving him ample time to get smacked around, and show off his glaring faults, Loach put a sadly self-defeating electric wire in the middle of this otherwise predictable film. Even when the plot becomes an implausible heist, I found myself still riveted by Robbie. Ditto for John Henshaw as the sympathetic corrections officer who takes him on the scotch tasting that changes his life.

You get the feeling that Laverty and Loach were laughing all the way to the bank, or to the bankrolling of their next “workers of the world, unite” message film, while they were making this one.

 

It Follows

Believe the hype about It Follows. It’s the first horror film I’ve seen in a theater in years, so I’m not a fan of the genre, obviously. I find horror films too horrific. Too much attention on the shock, and not enough on developing whatever else is going on thematically.

Jay (Maika Monroe) had sex with the wrong guy!

Jay (Maika Monroe) had sex with the wrong guy!

That’s precisely where the very high concept but low-fi It Follows, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, excels.

It’s about a group of teens who’ve gotten a sexually transmitted demon that kills people in a gruesome manner – but here’s the trick: If you sleep with someone else, then the demon will haunt them instead of you. As long as that partner manages to stay alive, you’re off the hook. Partway into the story, we learn that additional rules apply, but I never blinked about the premise at all.

One thing about the demon is that he/she appears to you in all kinds of forms, even as a friend or family member. Mitchell claims he dreamed about such a demon as a child, but fans of Kolchak: The Night Stalker will remember the Rakshasa. Kolchak was a series starring Darrin McGavin, who was kind of a poor man’s Jack Lemon, as a Chicago reporter who encountered every type of paranormal experience, including the shape-shifting Hindu demon, during one single season of network TV.

Fun stuff, and in It Follows Mitchell mines the conceit for all the obvious material. Sure, it’s normal for teen horror to objectify their young bodies, and to associate sex with danger – this time maybe more than in most – but I just loved how this set of suburban teens has practically no adults in its cosmos, unless of course they’re murderous demons posing as parents in sexually charged ways. Sheltered kids. Above-ground pools. Borrowed cars. Sneaking out at night. Waiting for the slow, certain march of adult consequences. It felt like a Jeffrey Eugenides horror film.

The dark underbelly of Middle America is so old and overdone a theme, I only want to see a film that dips into those waters if it’s there to stay on a more specific topic. It’s cheap Freudianism, which morphs into a meditation on the impossibility of finding safety in the suburbs, but it also spoke to me about sex, and the way we pass feelings back and forth to one another via sexual relationships. Among the many interpretations of this film you can read about online, rape and STDs among the cheaper ones, I’m yet to come across the writer who relates to it quite like this, but when you start a sexual relationship with someone, or even just sleep with him or her once, you’re inviting them to witness your madness. The net result is often that you send them away carrying your grief, or trying to heal some wound that originated in your heart, and this film is a fun and easy-to-look-at iteration of that.

Only once did I feel like it was over-directed, a dizzying 360-degree pan shot that made me say, “Alright, stop it.” And only one hunk of the plot was a misstep: why the kids, who were reasonable up to then, thought going to a pool was such a good idea.

It must have been a lot of fun to write this story, and I was cheering for Mitchell all the way. It’s given Andrew O’Hehir an excuse to call our attention to Mitchell’s previous film, the overlooked 2011 romantic comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover, and I’m all eyes and ears.

Saint Patty’s Day 2015: The “Irish Problem”

Expect a somber Saint Patrick’s Day at my local bar this Tuesday afternoon. Not that I’m not proud of “my people.” Nor am I a stranger to a pint of Guinness, and have drunk more than one for flimsier reasons.

And it’s not because I say “mine” in quotation marks. I am 25% Irish, via the grandparent who happened to give me my last name. I mentioned that I’m “not really Irish” to every native I got to know while attending the Galway Film Festival a few years ago, and without exception they all said something like “Stop it.” Meaning, that’s plenty Irish. As long as you show up with an open heart and good intentions, you are welcome home. It’s honestly easier sometimes to relate to the Irish than to Irish-Americans.

This year, I’ll drink to John Decker, an Irish-American hero I’ve been reading about in The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, by Barnet Schecter. Decker was the chief engineer of the New York City Fire Department in 1863, when the city erupted in riots the day the U.S. government put the first-ever federal military draft into effect. He used persuasion, eloquence, and force to try stopping mobs from destroying innocent people’s property.

Nothing unexpected there, right? That’s what Irish New Yorkers do, support law and order, and fight fires. The early firehouses were often Irish gangs with some firefighting equipment, and the city police department was already an important source of  jobs for the Irish. So a guy like Decker would have been caught between the two worlds: the streetwise firefighters and the professional, mixed Irish and WASP administration.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

But here’s the rub: The mob Decker was fighting was overwhelmingly Irish. The WASP leadership of the city talked openly about the “Irish problem,” and considered us a different race. According to The Devil’s Own Work, when the Civil War broke out, we signed up in huge numbers to stop the rebellion. It was a means of becoming more American. In 1863, though, Lincoln deftly changed the objective of the war from putting down a rebellion to ending slavery, and we were less enthusiastic, to say the least.

True enough, the draft at the time was unfair: A rich person could get out of it by paying $300. That’s why the first targets of the Irish rioters, after the draft offices, were the houses of rich New Yorkers known to be supporters of Lincoln. It took only half a day, though, to start attacking abolitionists in general and successful African-American businesses, a seamless transition that made perfect sense to many of us.

By four o’clock that afternoon, a mob gathered in front of the Colored Orphan Asylum on 43rd Street. That’s when Decker showed up at the front door with only a dozen men, presumably Irish too, and two firehoses, and stared the mob down long enough for the staff and 230 Black children to walk out the back door to look for a police station that would take them in.

One relevant, and very ironic, detail is that the party of Lincoln and Seward had taken over the New York state government a few years before, and was so annoyed with the city police department that it replaced it with its own police force, called the Metropolitans. So New York had just undergone community policing in reverse, and the Irish ghettos went nuts.

As the orphans fled, according to the orphanage’s founder Anna Shotwell, the mob was taunting them, until an anonymous Irishman spoke up and pleaded for pity. The mob, according to Shotwell, “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces” as she led the kids away, though it’s not clear if this is figurative or literal.

Back at the main entrance, Decker fought the mob, and the mob won. Plundered the furniture. Burnt the orphanage to the ground. That evening and the next day, there were lynchings in New York City as gruesome as the worst atrocities of the K.K.K.

Let me rephrase that. Not, “There were lynchings.” “We lynched.”

A major through-line in the story of our community is racism, and hostility to Black people in particular, and any Irish-American who doesn’t admit this isn’t being honest. Stepping up for material fairness for ourselves, and confusing that with stopping “the negro” from getting something that’s rightfully ours, is one thing we do.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

The recent political fights between the NYPD leadership and the civilian government of New York is just the latest skirmish. “Worst mayor ever!” the crowd chanted at Mayor DeBlasio at the Rockaways Saint Patrick’s Day Parade last weekend. I can only imagine what Blaz feels about the big parade on Tuesday.

Patrick Lynch (his real name) of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association can willfully misunderstand the reasonable things DeBlasio has said about race, and the bit of fairness he’s tried to restore to Black New York, which, in the eyes of the Irish, must suffer collective punishment forever for every crime committed by every fool during the bad, bad days of crack. And he can count on the New York Post and Fox News to back him up every day.  The anti-Lincoln and Irish-American papers during the draft riots blamed the atrocities on the abolitionists. If only they hadn’t provoked the mob by trying to free the slaves… In this mindset, it’s always the African-Americans and the liberals who cause racism. It’s never the police, and never the Irish.

Bill O’Reilly’s parents are 100% Irish, a New York City boy who moved to Long Island when he was two. Hannity is also 100%, also born in New York, and also grew up on Long Island. Like the Italian-Americans on the Supreme Court, I imagine they have, deep inside, a phobia of being found out. Scalia and Alito are Trenton Italians who will always be haunted by the “dago” thing, who will never have the effortless class of a Princeton housewife, at least not in their own minds, no matter how many Ivy League degrees they have, and whose path to claiming a hunk of the Republic is to fetishize the intentions of the long-dead planter class that wrote the Constitution. And like Martha Stewart, the Pole from New Jersey who taught a generation to be more WASP-y, O’Reilly and Hannity have the zeal of the converted, to uber-Americanness, that is.

The Eric Garner-Patrick Lynch-Mayor DeBlasio story has created a “Which side are you on?” moment for white New Yorkers. White millennial and middle-aged people who migrated here after college have had a privileged relationship with the old school whites such as the Irish and Italians, up to now. Some of us are even known to say things like, “I love my Polish neighborhood!” as if a neighborhood is a gym membership and we just had a euphoric spin class. We may sometimes get the uncomfortable sense that we are more welcome as tenants and patrons of their establishments than some certain natives are, but we try not to dwell on it. It’s hard finding an apartment or an affordable, quiet place to drink a beer, so why rock the boat? The longer the P.B.A.-DeBlasio feud lasts, the more times we’re asked potentially friendship-ending questions about our sympathies.

McSorley's

The sidewalk outside of McSorley’s Old Ale House has a charmingly homespun inscription that reads, “Please help us keep our neighborhood in order.” You could call it cuteness, like a sign that reads “Clean Rooms 5¢.” After reading The Devil’s Own Work, though, it feels sinister, like it  reveals something about the Irish-American hard-wiring. Each of us is both thug and self-deputized officer of the law, ready to help keep the order at any time, and “order,” then as now, is an elusive concept.

Groups are always more than the sum of their parts, and there’s something magic about groups of Irish-Americans. We’re good craic, as they say back home. But there are devils in our hearts too. That’s why this Saint Patty’s Day I’ll be toasting to John Decker, and to the unnamed Irishman who spoke up for the Colored Orphans and paid the price. To the ones who got what Lincoln meant by “the better angels of our nature.”

Still Alice

Coincidentally, the day I’d finally made plans to see Still Alice, the film in which Julianne Moore plays an intellectual with early-onset Alzheimers, one of its two writer-directors died from A.L.S. Death was in the air. It was also three months since my father died from Alzheimers. “Are you sure you want to do this?” my friend asked me. Then more definitely: “You sure?”

"Still Alice" or "Already Demented"?

“Still Alice” or “Already Demented”?

Yes, I was sure, and no, it wasn’t especially difficult. My pop was over 80 by the time he died, and his body was failing ever so slightly faster than his mind. The terrifying thing about the early-onset type is that you can have the active body of a mid-50s person while your mind declines, often more precipitously than the later-onset cases. That’s when you get into some real trouble.

The milieu of Still Alice (script by Wash Westmoreland & the late Richard Glatzer) is a family of over-achievers out of a Woody Allen ensemble, but one that has a real problem, not just some neuroses and self-inflicted wounds of betrayal.

I’m sorry to say that otherwise the film is a little like an after-school special, or maybe an early-onset On Golden Pond. It’s a story that vindicates a troubled mother-daughter bond, while playing the disease for simple tragedy. It was, I must admit, very inventive, and realistic, in the family’s use of technology to communicate, including one device in which Alice, while still of sound mind, records a video and sends it to her future self, telling her that it’s time to commit suicide, and instructing her on how to do it.

It makes for an interesting litmus test. I don’t know whether most people were hoping she would succeed or not. I know I was.