Friday, January 30, 2009

New York State of Mind

Writer's Note: I haven't been in New York since September 2008 and I miss it, and miss it less than I thought I would, but much more than I can convey; and this piece, written about seven years ago, captures some of what I think there is to miss...

Memorial Day 2002
A Letter from New York: “Tomorrow Mountain”

On 13 Conversations about One Thing, Gosford Park,
Verve Remixed
, Lena Horne, and Imagining a Changed World

I stood at the edge of a block looking down the street, trying to decide if I wanted to walk down this street to get to the main avenue on which I’d walk until I found a place where I wanted to eat. I stood and I watched the green car go slowly—certainly no more than twenty-five to thirty miles an hour—down the street when suddenly an East Indian girl, slim and in a purple top and black shorts, backed into the street to catch what looked like a spongy football. From my perspective she seemed far enough in front of the car to make it to the other side of the street…

I had expected it to be another quiet holiday weekend. I had made no significant plans; I rarely made significant plans these days. On Thursday, May 23rd, I saw Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest, an entertaining movie with especially good performances by Frances O’Connor and Colin Firth, though not as well-made or as potent as Parker’s treatment of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (I also found Rupert Everett meretricious in both films.) On Friday, I saw 13 Conversations about One Thing, a film directed by Jill Sprecher. The film unfolds in the form of interconnected cinematic short stories set in New York and focusing on the meaning of existence and the occurrence of happiness, love, and luck. One segment featured a manager in an insurance claims office who has a rather bitter take on life, played by Alan Arkin. The manager has been work-driven, and that alienated him from his wife and son, and so he now has an ex-wife and a son who is a drug addict, thief, and subject to legal prosecution. The manager has a conversation in a bar with a successful young lawyer, played by Matthew McConaughey, in which the lawyer disputes the notion of luck, and on his way home the lawyer hits a young woman, and leaves her, but suffers guilt. The young woman, a housecleaner who had previously believed her life had a purpose even though she wasn’t sure what it was, is played by Clea DuVall. The accident is one thing that forces this young woman to reconsider her positive perspective; another more important factor is her being suspected a thief by a man whose apartment she conscientiously cleaned. The filmmaking is austere, clear, and the conversations, direct and believable, contain daily details, observations, questions, feelings, and human contradictions. The conversations are part of stories that connect and flash back on one another to create an interesting puzzle-like form in an exploration of contemporary human existence, making this the kind of film that justifies and enriches my own film-going experience.

Saturday, I took the train from Queens into Manhattan to see a personal acquaintance perform as part of a band named George in the bandshell in Central Park, near Summerstage, not far from 72nd Street. The concert started a little after noon, and the group consisted of two guitar players, a harmonica player, a drummer, a lead singer and two backup singers. The music was uptempo rock with strong rhythm and blues and folk music influences (Native American, for one; and country for another, according to the lead singer). The show was part of a Memorial Day weekend celebration. There was military personnel in attendance, with men in camouflage clothes wrestling on a mat (their faces were bland and boyish, but their eyes had a kind of hypnotized glaze that made me wonder about repressed homoeroticism); and there was also a display of guns and artillery. I enjoyed the musical performance, then walked over and spoke to the wife of the guitar player who’d invited me. She and I had met when we worked for a nonprofit corporation in the early 1990s, and had become friends, a friendship partly rooted in my sense of her as more bohemian and radical than she actually was. I hadn’t seen her or her husband in about a year, and there was now a hesitant affection and attention when we spoke. When her husband joined us, he gave her a hug, hugged me, then he picked up their daughter. They are an “interracial couple,” she African-American and he an American of European descent, and their daughter is an obviously loved child. I told him I liked the show though the acoustics weren’t good, and he agreed that the bandshell hadn’t actually been built for that kind of music (electric music?). He went back to help pack up the band’s instruments, and me and my friend talked a little before I said goodbye.

I walked through a pathway designated as a poets’ walk; it is a broad walkway lined with benches, fences, trees, and beyond the trees are lawns; and it is one of my favorite places in the park. Nearby was a large sculpture in the form of a silver tree, the kind of thing that might be seen as ugly or vulgar, but I liked it.

I began to walk out of the park. I thought about the hesitance that had hovered over my conversation with my friend. I thought about the things within me that had sometimes made my own life difficult: my idealism, my shyness, my impatience with others, and my anger at perceived misunderstandings and stupidity.

Then, I delivered a package of journals featuring my published work to an older male friend who lived near by. He’d told me when we’d had lunch in the restaurant Josephina near Lincoln Center weeks before that he wanted to see the publications. I walked around before going to see Robert Altman’s Gosford Park for the second time, this time in a theater on the upper east side of Manhattan.

The film had broken and been crudely repaired since I’d first seen it—it’s been playing for months. However, it’s a very good-looking film, well-organized, with smooth pacing. The film is set in England on a large country estate. It is a comedy of manners, a melodrama of bad marriages and relationships, a critique of class roles, and a murdery mystery, with an implicit tribute to art in the appreciated piano and singing performances of Jeremy Northam as actor-singer Ivor Novello. All the film’s performances are terrific. I especially liked Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald, and Jeremy Northam. If the film has a flaw, I cannot see it. Leaving I asked the concession stand operator, a very young man, if he liked working in the theater and he indicated that it was a rather mixed experience. Walking away from the theater, it occurred to me that, unlike in the past, I rarely saw films on the upper east side of Manhattan. I used to see films all over the city often, and now I’m more likely to see films in Greenwich Village, the refurbished Times Square area, the west side of Manhattan, or in Queens. I thought how easy it is to develop habits and made a small promise to vary soon the theaters I visited.

I walked around the city, and I didn’t get home until late, and I read and listened to music before falling asleep: Verve Remixed, and Lena Horne’s Stormy Monday.

The Verve album provides an opportunity for contemporary dance music producers to give the voices of singers such as Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone new musical contexts, though it is a sense of emotional or social context that many of the songs lack thanks to these remixes. (The dance music is almost abstract, which gives it a likeness to some jazz; however, jazz has greater sonic texture, and one perceives more intellectual and emotional content, more humanity, in jazz.) One of the strongest productions on Verve Remixed is Dinah Washington’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” with a remix by Rae and Christian. Washington brings the world into the song in her attitude—tough, honest. The two Nina Simone selections are probably the best. Simone is an iconoclast, and her “Feelin’ Good,” remixed by Joe Claussell, has a jazzy ambience with percussion and tinkling piano. Simone’s “See-Line Woman” is remixed by Masters at Work. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wait Till You See Him,” remixed by De-Phazz, is terrific, enchanted and enchanting, full of desire and admiration. However, Sarah Vaughan’s “Summertime,” remixed by UFO, has the greatest of singers hardly making an impression. Nor is the Shirley Horn (“Return to Paradise”), remixed by Mark De Clive-Lowe, or Billie Holiday (“Don’t Explain”), remixed by Dzihan and Kamien, noteworthy. However, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” remixed by Tricky, has a blaring trumpet and drumbeats that offer nice accents to Holiday’s dramatic reading. Possibly this album will serve as an introduction of these singers to a new generation. (Must the preferred styles of the young be utilized to attract them or are talent, intelligence, and use-value enough?)

The Lena Horne record is a pleasure. First released in 1957, the album has just been re-released with ten bonus tracks for a total of twenty-one. The original album’s highlights include: “Tomorrow Mountain,” by Duke Ellington and John LaTouche, along with “Summertime,” by Gershwin and Heyward, “Mad about the Boy,” by Noel Coward, “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?,” by Warfield and Williams, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” by Arlen and Mercer, and “Just One of Those Things” by Cole Porter. The bonus tracks include: “Come Runnin’,” by Roc Hillman, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein II, and “Sweet Thing” by Walberg and Herget. Horne sings these songs as if they are part of her natural method of self-expression.

Many of these songs are love songs, and the secret, or the principal energy, in Lena Horne’s singing on this album might be eroticism. One of my favorite songs on the album, a bonus release, is “What’s Right for You (Is Right for Me),” written by Doris, Goodman, and Gluckman. Horne sounds charming, excited, and (to my ears) sexually greedy—she sounds almost masculine in her directness, in that usually one hears a man “on the make,” but not a woman—and it’s a funny, sexy, and wholly persuasive performance.

“Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” is an assertion of restless independence, but there’s a movement in the song when the music goes low and Horne’s voice turns contemplative. One hears a reflection on the lyrics, and of the self’s interpretation of phenomena, that evoke the mystery of personality.

Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I often think that I hear something southern in her very feminine voice. (Masculine? Forceful. Feminine? Pretty, sensitive. Horne’s singing is at once forceful, pretty, and sensitive.) Horne’s career began when she was very young, and she was performing in the chorus line at the Cotton Club by the time she was 17. She performed as a singer with several well-known bands, including those of Noble Sissle, Charlie Barnet, Teddy Wilson, and Artie Shaw. She starred in the films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. She was favored as a World War II pin-up among African-American soldiers. However, neither Horne’s career or glamour image prevented her from becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement, which she did as part of the National Council for Negro Women and as an individual. Unfortunately, her father, son, and husband died in the early 1970s and she withdrew from performing. She returned almost a decade later, co-starring in The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and starring in her own one woman show on Broadway, The Lady and Her Music, which received critical and popular acclaim. Her more recent albums, such as We’ll Be Together Again, exemplify her unique talent.

In “Tomorrow Mountain,” the song that begins the Stormy Weather album, Horne sings, “Just across Tomorrow Mountain there’s a happy city, they say.” It is a happy city where people are grand and every day is Christmas, with a “scotch and soda fountain” and “cigarette trees.” Kitchens are lined with gold, it rains Chanel No. 5, and there are diamond bushes. “Can’t you see Tomorrow Mountain? Can’t you watch it glimmer and glow? It’s a wonderful town, that’s upside down…and it’s full of easy dough. Won’t you pack your bags and go?” It is, of course, a utopia: nowhere; but Horne sings this song and the other songs on the album with an enthusiasm and intensity that make the album as fresh as morning coffee, afternoon sun, or evening coolness.

Sunday, I came into the city and had a late breakfast in a pleasant diner in the upper 40s on the west side. I walked downtown and stopped at Barnes & Noble on 8th Street and read from Robin D.G. Kelley’s The Black Radical Imagination in which he argues that love and hope, a vision of changed selves and changed institutions, not oppression and anger, have most inspired political thought and social movements. Then I sat in Washington Square Park reading from The Works of Plato. Reading Plato on Socrates, I thought how interesting it was that Socrates’ attempts at acquiring knowledge and providing philosophical critique were hampered by rumor and the personal vanity and resentment of others, as well as established tradition supported by the power of the state. How little and how much has changed?

I thought about things I have hoped for over the years: intellectual comrades, and financial security.

I slept in a little late on Monday, Memorial Day. I had dreamed that I was happily helping a female relative cook a holiday meal, a pleasant dream that caused me pain upon awaking—she has, in fact, been dead for five years.

I went out for a turkey breast sandwich and sat in a park, where I ate. I thought about how being disenfranchised (not part of established systems of effort and reward) is similar to being free in that one has the time to pursue one’s inclinations—though, unlike a state of freedom, one doesn’t have the opportunity or resources. I went home, and went to bed, listening to music, reading, sleeping. I read some of Jerry Rosco’s biography of writer Glenway Wescott and a newspaper article in which someone said people should take a moment from their shopping and barbecuing to remember that Memorial Day is intended to commemorate people who gave their lives in service to their country. I woke in late afternoon, did minor chores, then felt very hungry and went out.

I stood at the edge of a block looking down the street, trying to decide if I wanted to walk down this street to get to the main avenue on which I’d walk until I found a place where I wanted to eat. I stood and I watched the green car go slowly—certainly no more than twenty-five to thirty miles an hour—down the street when suddenly an East Indian girl, slim and in a purple top and in black shorts, backed into the street to catch what looked like a spongy football. From my perspective she seemed far enough in front of the car to make it to the other side of the street, but she was not. She was hit. A small crowd began to gather, and I began to walk toward the accident. The girl—about 13?—was in a semi-fetal position on the ground, mostly unmoving. The street was one block away from the one on which I lived, parallel to it, and I often walked here but I did not know the girl who was hit nor did I know the people gathering. Someone, after hesitating to watch, went inside to call an ambulance. The tanned woman in the car, middle age, attractive with dyed blonde hair, cried out, “You see, I stopped,” then “Would someone please call my husband?” She had an accent but I’m terrible with accents: was she Latino, East European, East Indian? There are no pay phones on the street, which is lined with private family homes. I watched for a time, but didn’t like the sight of the growing crowd. Were they concerned or was this entertainment? I couldn’t do anything. I walked away, and saw an ambulance coming.

I walked to a pizza place for a couple of slices. I thought of how quickly the accident had happened and wondered how anyone who saw it could be entirely sure of what he saw: was the girl’s top purple and her shorts black? When I got back to the scene of the accident, the girl, the woman in the car, the crowd, and the ambulance were gone. I asked a man on the street, “Did the ambulance take the girl to the hospital?” He said, “I don’t know anything about that.” Neither did I. We are simply unknown and unknowing neighbors.

(c) DG