Monday, May 28, 2012

The Other Nabokov

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Another Mother's Son

Just like another famous mom who’s been in the news, my mom raised five boys.
That it was a lot of work is obvious.  That she did it while working full time on a Board of Education salary is improbable.  It’s hard enough to get myself out of bed most days.  How did she manage to rouse the five of us, get us to school, go to work and still find time not just to do things like grocery shopping but to feed our minds as well?  My Dad helped of course but he was off to work before we were even awake and not back until dinner was on the table if not later.  He always cleaned up the kitchen afterwards but my mom took care of all that “in between” stuff.  And there was a lot of it.
When AIDS took two of my brothers nearly twenty years ago it was every mother’s nightmare but my mom had her faith to buoy her and she had the rest of us.  After my little brother Peter died a few years later from a myocarditis that literally came like a thief in the night the nightmare took on cruel proportions.  At one time we thought ourselves defined by the very future my parents had worked hard to give us, something we knew would come true for us just as it had for my parents.  My dad served in Korea on the GI Bill and became a teacher.  My mom went to college and got a masters degree in social work.  They met a Catholic youth dance where they were chaperones.  They got married and had a family, a big one.  Then one day a very different future arrived and it looked like we were done with dreams.
A few years ago my mom reconnected with my cousin Maria who was born in Brooklyn like the rest of us but had moved to her father’s native Mexico when she was very young.  She and her family would visit us for a couple of weeks each summer but after her own mom died of breast cancer we lost touch.  Recently though our family has gotten together to relocate Maria and her family back to the U.S..  Her youngest, Nina, named after my late aunt, was born with Downs Syndrome and autism.  In the states she can finally get the kind of medical care and developmental support she needs.  Josie and Gustavo, her big sister and brother, are both scholarship students glued to Facebook, and their dad has found steady work doing maintenance at a local community college.  Next year he can join the union, earn more money and have real job security.  They all look to my mom, Tia Carmen, as the strong and reassuring center of everything, working hard to help yet another family build a future.  
It’s hard to describe the excitement and pride I have watching my cousins become American, but I’m also in awe of a dream that’s coming enthusiastically true in a world where possibilities have for so long seemed so fragile.  I’m in awe too of Maria who I always remembered as my little cousin too scared to do anything.  Now she’s a mother of three, her days wrapped up with adolescent anxieties and the challenges of a special needs child.  When we were kids and didn’t get what we wanted my mom always told us to “offer it up.”  That’s something no kid really wants to hear but like most moms she was right at an annoyingly consistent rate.  Her lesson though wasn’t about having to settle for less but about being thankful and happy for what we did have.  Improbably, my mom’s never stopped believing in the possibility of happiness, never despaired or given up despite how much fate has conspired against her motherhood.  Even with everything she’s lost she’s never stopped trying to find some way to make someone else’s dream come true.  But that’s the real work that mothers do.  More than anything they remind us to keep our eyes on our dreams (and maybe our elbows off the table).  Quite a job, and like they say if you’re lucky it’s never done.  

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bored To Death - Literally.


      Although you can count me among the disappointed I was surprised to see the intense reaction to HBO’s canceling of Bored to Death.  I enjoyed the show firstly for that same hometown pride, for that kind of insider thrill we used to get from watching Law and Order and to try to recognize all the on-the-street locations.  Likewise it was a kick to see Schwarzmann get baked with Jenny Slate in the stock room of the the Park Slope Food Coop, or hang off the clock of the Williamsburg Bank Building where I went to the dentist for years, or to watch Zach Gallifiniakis wrestle with a baby on stroller clogged Seventh Avenue, because who among us hasn’t faced that peril?  

But more than that it was a funny, well built comedy of urban manners, and while Jason Schwartzman, the charming avatar of Jonathan Ames, real life novelist and the show’s creator, leads a somewhat improbable life as a struggling writer the show did deftly illuminate a funny little cultural niche.  Schwartzman and Ames also created an unusual type of hero, a humble, sensitive, self-deprecating leading man, fond of pot and white wine, likes girls but is not opposed to at least trying a threesome with another man.  Other shows like Portlandia and Parks and Recreation have offered up a crop of similarly awkward if endearing characters, continuing the millennial worship of the geek/nerd personality type.  Schwartzman takes this model to a much cooler dimension though, he’s no Napoleon Dynamite after all, but in a way closer to Carrie Bradshaw, HBO’s other emblematic New Yorker of an earlier moment.

The show was similarly clever too, especially in the beginning, and the premise of Ames’ character falling into private detective work was silly enough to amuse us but believable enough to propel the scripts and illuminate the psyche of the fictional Ames.  The idea of shrimpy Schwarzmann as heir to the hardboiled Chandler and Hammett was undeniably funny too and the meta-world of a fictional novelist named after real life novelist, emulating the fictional creations of other (dead) real life novelists’ was handled perfectly, providing the right dose of intellectual acrobatics without getting pretentious.  Schwartzman’s quirky Jonathan was well supported by his fellow actors too.  Ted Danson, in some of his funniest work on television as the deposed magazine magnate George Christopher, replete with Graydon Carter coif, perfectly embodied the bemused perspective of old, rich Manhattan, quite comfortable in its bespoke skin but so curious as to what it’s upstart little sibling was getting into across the river.  Together with Zach Galliafinakis, who brought his trademark calamitous if cuddly stoner neuroses, they rounded out one of the most original threesomes on TV.

I’m a Brooklyn native and struggling writer myself, and I always looked forward to the show, especially after a joint and a glass of a nice pinot grigio.  I never quite felt like I was watching myself, (actually I hate the idea of identifying with characters) but any show about books, Brooklyn, and bud will get my attention.  If Facebook is a good cultural barometer for anything (Wait, don’t answer that question) then apparently a lot of other people felt the same - but I never would have thought it veered into fanboy territory.  Why the outrage, one wonders?  But also why the drop off in viewers then, and ultimately the cancellation?  (Apparently only 200,000 people watched the show’s season finale.)  Bored to Death had all the right elements after all and quite frankly had hit the ground running.  Then - pfffft.

I think, finally, that what kills most show is that they lose what is known in business parlance as “core competence”, though in TV has been called jumping the shark.  Usually it takes a few seasons, five in the case of Happy Days, which is where the reference actually comes from (Fonzi, on a trip to California, well, jumps a shark while waterskiing thus dismantling forever the show’s credibility and marks its irrevocable decline).  I don’t think any single moment did in Bored to Death, but without a doubt it crept from it’s original funny mashup of Woody Allen-style neurotics and Sex in the City escapades to a mostly directionless muddle that traded inventiveness for shtick.  The once effective premise of Schawrtzman’s private investigations provided him and Gallifinakis and Danson with their urban and urbane adventures, madcap perhaps but never at the cost of witty scripts or genuine characterizations.  That changed.  The real Ames’ and the show’s other writers increasingly pursued laborious, plot driven contrivances, discarding the natural charm of their characters, forcing them into artificially absurd situations with every “case” and extracting them with equal incredulity.  Sure, the wackiness was what gave the show it’s unique perspective, but even absurdity has to have at least one foot in plausibility, if only to make it funnier.  Once the main stars all don catsuits for example, or when sandbags are actually dropping out of the sky we’ve gone off into cartoon land and abandoned the players for gags.

The half hour comedy, while necessarily dependent on plot (how else to do something different each week?) needs to respect it’s players.  We relate to them, not their escapades.  We like to see them challenged by their circumstances but bend them too much too soon and we no longer recognize them, and no longer watch.  Only Danson really held his ground and remained believably George through whatever was thrown at him.  The fictional Jonathan Ames in finding himself not so much in implausible situations but  became considerably less compelling and Galliafinakis, despite a wickedly funny arc as young lover to octogenarian Olympia Dukakis, was forced to turn in the same expected if funny gags, becoming a clown instead of flexing his talents as an actor with a real comedic gift.  The Galifinakis/Dukakis affair, while improbable in itself was handled instead so simply and matter of fact that its humor was only amplified by the realness both actors brought to the relationship (and to the sex which was pretty explicit - see: “bathtub handjob”).  A pratfall spotted episode however on the Dick Cavett show vastly underused Cavett’s own laser-like wit, and exemplified the show’s further descent into gimmickry.

I also had issues with much of the dialogue, which again often abandoned the idiosyncrasies of the characters, Jonathan in particular, and at times was downright flat.  It was as if the writers expected the show’s plot convolutions to carry everything.  I know that the Schwartzman’s Ames was supposed to be a little shy and self-effacing, but he is a writer after all.  Could we not have had a little more verbal wit?

I would have rather that HBO give the show a little while longer to find itself again. This season Jonathan’s main investigation was to discover the identity of his biological father after learning he was conceived from donated sperm.  Jonathan’s quest for his real dad, (Stacy Keach as a could-have-been-funnier Coney Island schlock-merchant) was a compelling one, and a perfect foil for the comedy that fronted it.  That he inadvertently slept with his half sister, Isla Fisher, who was also investigating her origins at the sperm bank, and veered off into incest was daring if a little off-putting, though how it would have played out we had yet to see.  We’ll never get that chance I guess.  

Maybe it was just an insurmountable sophomore slump or maybe the demise of Bored to Death is the harbinger of something else.  If anything we were drawn to its well tuned cultural perspective.  It was a show about the “right now”  without feeling cloyingly hip and while the show made many nods to the texture of Brooklyn life, it never became a lifestyle catalogue.  Schwartzman was always spot on too, perfectly balancing Jonathan’s self deprecating charm with a writer’s quiet, urgent passion.  Something else changed.  It became harder to believe that these characters actually inhabited the lives they were written into.  We can believe anything after all, sexy vampires, an ethical serial killer, even a horny Betty White.  What we can’t believe is how it only takes two seasons to fuck up a good show.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jess @ Tibor De Nagy

Jess (born Jess Collins, 1923-2004)  is one of those idiosyncratic American art figures with a trajectory that defies categorization. California born and bred he became a nuclear chemist, joined the military and even worked on the Manhattan Project.  Disenchanted with the realities of atomic energy he turned to art in his late twenties.  Immersed in the pre-Beat San Francisco scene he soon met the poet Robert Duncan (author of the landmark essay “The Homosexual and Society” ) and the two stayed together in improbable monogamy for almost forty years until Duncan’s death in 1988.
Long a hero in the San Francisco scene, especially among the radical queer hyper-aesthete set, Jess is not as well known outside that city or art circles in general (despite an amazing retrospective at the Whitney in 1994), and among those who are aware of him he is primarily thought of for his inventive collages (or “paste-ups”) particularly the Transitions series which in their frantic recombinant density almost redefine horror vacui for the modern age.  The current show at Tibor de Nagy however shows us a different side of this very different artist.  This suite of simply lovely paintings is drawn from Jess’s early work, mostly from the fifties, some even from Jess’s student days at the San Francisco Art Institute.  He covers familiar ground: landscapes, still lives, portraits and interiors.  While simple and sometimes even spare, the traditional subjects however are given special intensity, often by heavily worked surfaces and glossy impastoes, that take them beyond the physical reality they actually possessed into a realm located instead somewhere deep inside.   But that’s usually the case with masterful figuration, right?  - because what makes all these paintings feel both special and of a singular mind is an pronounced sense of interiority.  The works don’t have the same complicated sensational qualities as his later collages, and feel anything but socially or historically observant.  In fact they bear little if any reference to an outside world at all - anything beyond the artist’s field of vision at the moment.  They are restrained, quiet, self contained and the simple glance they offer is actually a glimpse into an sensitive artistic intellect, one which for his young age was quite impressive.  
But these are not works about the “artist” himself.  They’re not filled with psychological signifiers of the kind found in some of the collages with their chemical/alchemical references, but instead simply display subjective feeling.  (That’s something all too often missing in modern work, especially without qualifying self-conscious quotation marks.)   As a result the paintings are all beautiful, courageously felt and darkly luminous and their unassuming subjects belie the intensity of the witness and his brush.  A few do have Jess’s signature flat “paint by numbers” feel but are nevertheless inhabited by beautiful if humble light - the kind other Bay Area painters would later interpret in much more overt ways but in Jess’s hands is much more matter of fact and less sentimental.
Few galleries today are as invested in the tradition of figural painting and assert its vitality the way they do at Tibor De Nagy - Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter - all familiar names from an often under-sung midcentury moment in New York when Abstract Expressionism started to collapse under the weight of its own ponderous importance and artists began looking at things again (right before Pop jaundiced that view however and drew us into another half century of irony).  Last year’s “Poets and Painters” exhibition at the gallery gave us the clearest and most comprehensive survey of this interesting moment in American history when the poetry (Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch) upended tradition while their painter friends and lovers seemed to reinvent it.  They held hands while they worked and the result was nothing less than an illuminating double-teaming of the zeitgeist.  Jess finds a natural home at deNagy, and even his hopped-up Transitions find a place in this same trajectory.  (The collages are almost textual themselves after all.)  This is not just a place for pretty paintings then but instead one of the most cogent clearinghouses for an oft neglected curlicue in the too often rigid branches art history offers.  Few other galleries seems as loyal to context, and do so without clumsy pretense.  A number of hard-to-pigeonhole artists like Ashbery and Joe Brainard exemplify the ecumenical deNagy outlook.  Jess in his deep and complicated career is another, and it is a revelation to see.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Spain is the land of flat red earth.
She points herself at you at dinner after a glass of red wine.
She stinks after love but you can only bathe her with questions.
Ask the darkness, the fur of her brow and wrist, her navel delicately inscribed.
A dream from the land where dreams are written in unholy wine.
With such severity has she parted her hair.
She is afraid of her father.

The sadness of music and drinks.
But the happiness inside that sadness too.
Not much is better than tears cried in happiness. 
Even the idea of tears.
Even the memory of tears.
Even just one drink.
But never just the idea of a drink.
Some things are not that happy.