Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Trouble Man

Last October, my good friend Num Amen'Tehu and I went out to take photos for his latest project.

Num and I have worked together several times over the years.  My photos have ended up being used for his headshots, promotional materials, and album covers.  

Originally known as a percussionist, Num’s also a fantastic soulful singer who's music is able to bridge many styles and genres of music.  Num has worked with a variety of artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Burning Spear, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scot-Heron, Naughty by Nature, Common, Bootsy Collins and numerous others.  

He and I have developed a rhythm where we talk through the different ideas of what we want to obtain, and then in a very relaxed manner we walk around the neighborhood capturing looks.  I've seen Num perform numerous times and I'm always struck by how his ebullience radiates to the audience.  I've tried to not only give Num the images that he's looking for but to also capture some of that natural enthusiasm I see when he's performing.

Despite many differences, Num and I share a passion for not only music but also true soul music.  Many times when trying to articulate ideas I find myself saying to him, "well the image I'm looking for looks like how this song sounds."  And amazingly, he completely understands.  

The first time we went out, and trying to figure the next shot we were sharing ideas and I said, "I'm looking for a basic joy that feels like Al Green's 'Let's Stay Together.'"  The sun was shining and we were in front of an old gothic looking church on the corner of 127th St and 5th Ave.  Num began singing a Capella 'Let's Stay Together.'  His entire disposition changed.  Static shots became alive as I was trying to catch him in mid-performance.  Num no longer focused on the camera or me but became enraptured in the song.  A small crowd gathered to watch.  I believe that some of our most true shots came from that moment. 

As his image has changed over the last couple of years I've noticed maturation in spirit that I hoped to capture.  The first time I took Num's pictures was in the middle of summer; he had long dreads and was looking for a cover shot for his latest reggae album.  However, over the last couple of years, Num has lost the dreadlocks, and has slightly thinned, giving him a very different appearance. 

Riding on the 4 Train on my way to Harlem, Marvin Gaye's 'Trouble Man' started playing on my iPod.  'Trouble Man' was a song Marvin wrote for an early 70s movie of the same name.  The song came out a year after Marvin's seminal album, "What's Going on" and the song clearly shows the personal creative leap Marvin made into a very adult self-aware type of soul music.  Marvin played the drums and piano on the track as well as singing in a falsetto with tinges of a gospel growl.  With "What's Going On" Marvin had entered a new phase of recording career that left behind the 60s and the factory type of pop music that Motown had become famous for.  The music was concerned about grooves, a heavy combination of jazz, rock, soul, gospel and crooning.  According to Wikipedia, Marvin called the song one of the more honest recordings he ever made.  

As I sat on the train listening to the groove and song over and over again, I began to think of the ideas that I wanted to express to Num about what I'd like to accomplish.  When I saw him, the reference I started with was Marvin's "Trouble Man."  And I explained further how I had an idea of an experienced adult musician that can turn the energy on whenever called, in the tradition of the great blues performers like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf.  Once again, Num completely understood what I was trying to express. 

We walked to Marcus Garvey Park, down the street from where he lives in Harlem.  The park has a public swimming pool, an amphitheater and is famous for having the Harlem Fire Watchtower, the only watchtower out of eleven the city had built that still stands from the 1850s. 

I played around with settings and lighting.  I tend to take an excessive amount of pics, figuring that since it's digital it doesn't cost anything, plus there's no fear or worrying about getting the right shot.

As we passed the amphitheater on our way up the hill, I asked Num to get on the stage.  After a few far away shots, Num started to sing Marvin's "What's Going On."  Once he began to sing, Num began to tap into that eternal cosmic groove.

Eventually, we ended up on top of what's called The Acropolis, the artificial plateau where the Watchtower sits.  All of Harlem was before us, on a crystal clear late October afternoon, while the sun was setting over the Hudson River.  

I believe that the images we captured present a musician in the prime of his creative life, completely in command of faculties, more mature and wise.  I have hundreds of pics from that afternoon that captures various looks and ideas that both Num and I were attempting, but I'm sharing the pictures that emulates that groove I can hear in my head.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

1 West 72nd Street, New York City

1 West 72nd Street, New York City. December 8, 1980. 10:50pm
 -Photo taken with an iPhone, early December, 2011, Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New York City. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street


I went down to Zuccotti Park in early October.  The protest was still in its relatively infancy.  The weather was warm and the feeling of the park was relatively festive.  

Downtown Wall Street is in relative walking distance from where I live.  Close enough that on a whim on a nice day I was able to go and see what's going on, far enough that I never heard one drum beat when I was asleep.  

In comparison to other city parks, Zuccotti Park is more of a large public plaza.  There are no facilities nor is their much grass.  Close by are both Battery Park and Battery Park City, where there are lots of grass and trees and restrooms.  

However, after reading a profile piece in the New Yorker on Kalle Lasn (, the choice of Zuccotti Park was more strategic as a gathering place than as a place to start an occupy movement.  

When I visited, the park had just gained national attention.  News vans, swat teams crowded the perimeter.  Protestors had begun a long term encampment.  Plus, the 9/11 memorial had recently opened up, a block away.  At times, the park seemed to be as crowded with tourists as protestors.  

The actual protest felt like a music festival that was still going on, weeks after the bands left, strong smells of urine, body odor, incense, cigarettes and dope.  However, signs of a working society were apparent, a library, a kitchen, a health center, the drum circle on the South end and the protest-speech area on the North end.  People of all walks of life were there participating in different forms, whether in conversation, observation, or debate.  Suits, hippies, flower girls, blue collar union guys with their hard hats, trannies, punks, educated hipsters, older retirees, all showed up and were trying to say something.  

I walked the grounds, took photos of who I could and of what I saw.  I read the signs and listened to the protest.  After a couple of hours I walked over to Wall Street, barricaded with parade gates.  The plaza in front of the exchange was cordoned off and guarded by mounted police.  The tourists herded and funneled past, watched intently by cops.  I managed to peel off on Broad and then walked up through canyons of skyscrapers and eventually back home. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tintype Headshots

The photos were taken in San Francisco in September.  The photographer only took two shots.  The were done on an old fashioned tintype style.

Wikipedia defines tintype as:
Tintype, also melainotype and ferrotype, is a photograph made by creating a direct positive on a sheet of iron metal that is blackened by painting, lacquering or enamelling and is used as a support for a collodion photographic emulsion.
Photographers usually worked outside at fairs, carnivals etc. and as the support of the tintype (there is no actual tin used) is resilient and does not need drying, photographs can be produced only a few minutes after the picture is taken.
An ambrotype uses the same process and methods on a sheet of glass that is mounted in a case with a black backing so the underexposed negative image appears as a positive. Tintypes did not need mounting in a case and were not as delicate as photographs that used glass for the support.
Last month, I was in San Francisco visiting my cousin and extended family.  One night we were wandering around the mission district and wandered past a store that was getting ready to throw a party.  My eye was caught by a large portrait hanging in the back wall that reminded me of Richard Avedon.

I wandered in while the caterers were setting up the bar and kitchen and walked over to the photograph.  I struck up a conversation with a slight man that was setting up a table beneath the picture.  As we talked, I discovered that he was the photographer.  The party that they were setting up was a grand opening of the store which featured new independent photographers.  For the party that night he had set up a station to take portraits of the guests with his tin-type camera.

My cousin asked the photographer if he could take my portrait before the party started.  The photographer agreed and said that we could even pick up the photos that night during the party.

The difference between this sitting versus the others was the preparation.  The photographer was gentle, unassuming and quickly put me at ease.  I sat on the stool that had a large arm like contraption coming from behind that was to support and hold still my head.  The way the stool and arm forced me to sit straight was awkward and slightly uncomfortable.

The exposure time is three seconds.  The subject has to remain perfectly still, otherwise the photo becomes grainy and out of focus.

As I sat, he calmly prepared the chemicals for the positive.  

The photographer and I talked for a few seconds.  The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street was playing in the back ground, the song Let It Loose.   My cousin and extended family waited patiently in the store.  The studio lights were bright in my eyes.  In a very gentle manner the photographer said, "ok, just relax and hold."

He then let out a slight, "ok."

He walked looked into the camera and I started to get up.

He looked at me and then into the camera and said softly, "ok, I liked that.  Do you mind if we do another, but just slightly different?"

Of course.

"Turn your chin slightly towards me," was the only direction he gave me.


Another three seconds passed and then he let out another, "Ok.  I think those are going to turn out great."

We chatted for a few more minutes and he said we could come back later in the evening to pick up the photos. 

After dinner, we returned to the store.  A major party was raging, music, food, drinks, crowded with people spilling out into the street. 

My cousin and I fought our way to the back of the room to where the photos were being displayed in a glass case on the table that was positioned under the portrait that had originally drawn me into the store hours earlier.

The photos were raw, immediate, direct, incredibly honest.  They were unlike any other photo of me.  At first, I was just fascinated by the novelty of the photographs, but after reflection believe them to be an interesting professional headshot.

I went to go thank the photographer and say goodbye, but he was surrounded by a crowd watching him prepare the positives for the next sitting. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

25 years earlier.....

On YouTube, there's a bootleg clip of Bruce and The E Street Band playing Incident on 57th St. from a 1978 concert in Passaic, NJ.

The clip is raw, yet all all the passion, energy, soulfulness, drama and bravado of the song is captured.

Philly '03 Incident On 57th Street

Ok, I found on YouTube a bootleg copy of Incident on 57th St. that Springsteen played the night that Stacy, her daughter, my brother and I were there. The recording is really bad, for the most part unwatchable, which is comparable to the sound, entirely horrible.

Yet, you still get the sense of excitement and gravity that he brought to the song that night.

The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle

Twenty years ago, I spent my last summer as a kid in my parents’ hometown of Washington, Pennsylvania (WashPa), a steel town Southwest of Pittsburgh.  I was fifteen, not quite sixteen.
Growing up, my parents would send my brother and me off to Washington during the summer for weeks at a time.  During the school year we were stuck in New Jersey, except for the occasional trip back for major holidays or special occasions.  The summertime was a chance to spend time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Despite the distance, WashPa was considered "home," and our ties to Southern New Jersey were akin to expatriates living abroad.
I was the youngest grandchild on my father's side and the youngest male grandchild on my mother's side.  By the time I reached my teenage years, my brother was away at college most of the time, and many of cousins were either at school or had begun their adult lives, mostly out of the area.
I could see that my endless summers of shuttling between relatives, reading in the middle of large backyards of rolling hills, swimming at various pools, heading into Pittsburgh, going to the cottage on the Youghiogheny river with my cousin Stacy and her in-laws were soon coming to an end.  I'd start working summers in South Jersey and my time "home" would be very limited.
In every life, there are landmark years, where the events that occur take a glowing prominence that has deep repercussions.  Starting in the spring of 1991, my life began seismic changes.
My grandmother died in April.
My brother graduated from college in May. 
In June the Penguins, lead by Mario Lemieux, won their first Stanley Cup.  I went to the Naval Academy for an intensive wrestling camp.  I came home from camp and heard that one of my great friend's mother had been murdered.
And then, I went to WashPa. 
I was a mess.  I never slept.  I couldn't.  But that's a different story for a different time. 
While in Washington that summer, I spent a lot of time at my Aunt Billie's house.   She had this large rambling house, on a corner lot just off an exit on Route 70 that lead into town.  The constant background dissonance from the highway traffic became like hearing the rumblings of ocean surf. 
Her daughter, Lisa, was home from grad school for the summer and living back at her mother's house.  She was in and out of town a lot, but she had a part time job at a clothing store at the mall through family friends. 
Billie's boyfriend, JR, and I were buds.  JR was a city cop but he was on leave for the summer rehabbing an injury.  During the day, he and I ran around town, went to Pittsburgh, watched Twilight Zone episodes.  My aunt provided the ambulance service to area's concert amphitheater, in Burgettstown, so he and I were able to go see many of the summer's best acts on their summer tours. 
JR's aunt had a large farm out in the county sticks.  I spent days riding a four-wheeler up and down the rolling hills that made up the acres of the estate.  The farm had a giant man made pond where I would go swimming with JR, Lisa and her friends.  Lisa's friends were twenty-five and I thought, absolutely gorgeous.  In high school in South Jersey, I couldn't get the girls to even acknowledge I existed.  Yet, in my parents’ hometown, I was able to hangout with women that not only tolerated me, but also actually enjoyed my company.  One of the best nights of the summer was spent night swimming in the pond under a perfectly clear night in the middle of July.
Cathy, the manager of the clothing store where Lisa worked, was a family friend.  Her husband, Bracken, was a local city politician.  They had a son, Jamie, a pre-med student at Notre Dame, who was about four years older than me.  There was also a daughter, Colleen, who was only about six months older than me.  Lisa and Cathy thought a great idea would be to set up Colleen and me as summer friends. 
Despite my teenage nerves, I thought this was a great idea.  I had the hots for her.  She, of course, didn't see me that way.  However, she was kind to me.  And we did have many laughs.  We both loved the Pirates, who were in the middle of their last golden age.  We went to a couple of games at the old Three Rivers Stadium.  My favorite player was Andy Van Slyke, the centerfielder.  Her favorite was the young pitcher, Stan Belinda, which would be slightly apocryphal.  Belinda was the guy who gave up the game winning single to Francisco Cabrera in the bottom of the ninth of game seven in the '92 National League Championship Series. 
Colleen brought me around to many of her friends, and to local teenage parties.  She had a license to drive. 
She came up to Peters Township to swim with me at my Aunt Connie's house.
We went to Pittsburgh, movies, innocent friendly dates.  I had fun. 
The first time Colleen and I were set up, Lisa had a friend who owned a boat on the Monongahela.  My parents and my brother, Chris, were also visiting WashPa that weekend.  Lisa brought Chris, Colleen and me to meet up with her friend with the boat, along with a few other friends.  We spent the day boating.  At night, we went into Pittsburgh and ended up having ice cream on the top of Mount Washington, which overlooks the three rivers and downtown Pittsburgh. 
That night I was staying with my mother at my grandmother's place on Henderson Ave.  My mom's parents lived a tiny rancher house that sat close to the road, but had a huge expansive backyard.  Henderson Ave doubled as Route 18, an old two lane country highway that lead North to Burgettstown and eventually up to Beaver Falls.  Many cars and tractor-trailers still took this winding road to avoid the major highways that circled around the city.  The trucks would cruise past and shake the rickety old house. 
Lisa and Chris dropped me off at about 12:30am or so and quickly split, before I had entered the house. 
I waved goodbye and turned to open the door to the screened in porch next to the side of the house.  My gram kept a spare key hidden on the porch that opened the side door to the kitchen.  The porch door was locked.  The porch door was never locked, especially if I was going to be out and coming in after she went to bed.  I thought well maybe the basement door is unlocked.  I went around the house and down the stairs that lead to the backyard and tried the cellar door.  That was locked as well. 
I couldn't get inside and I really didn't want to knock on the bedroom window.  There were incidents of nutters on the highway that tried to break in neighbor's houses.  There was also a biker bar about a half-mile down the road that I was always told had sketchy characters.  I thought if I knocked on the window I might frighten her to death.  Once that thought dropped in my head, I was scared to ring the doorbell.  I didn't want to cause a panic at 1 in the morning by ringing the front door.   
I was stuck outside, with nowhere to go.  I became petrified.  If I wasn't exactly a city kid, I was definitely not country boy.  I thought of sleeping out in the backyard under a tree, but then I realized that wasn't me either.  I had no love for lying down in a completely open space with the potential of wild animals cruising past. 
I found a bit of space on the front porch stairs and crouched up.  In my book bag that I always carried had inside my Walkman, which I was never without, either.  However, I only had one cassette, Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.  I was familiar with the album, my family had it on vinyl, but I only really knew the one song Rosalita.  The rest seemed dated, rambling, and not nearly as fresh as Bruce's first album Greetings from Asbury Park, or as complete as his later work.  I had read a review in Rolling Stone that had called it a classic.  Plus, the cassette always seemed to be the one that was in my oldest cousin, Stacy's car.  I thought I should give it another chance.  That morning I had packed my bag and threw in the one cassette in the off chance that I would be bored. 
That night as I sat on my grandmother's porch staring off into a pitch black rustic highway, I listened to the cassette, front to back, from one in the morning until about half past six, when I finally heard Grammy beginning to stir in the kitchen. 
Occasionally I drifted into a light sleep, but I would be shaken awake by a passing car or truck.  Mostly, I just sat listening, thinking, absorbing.  The album became imprinted on my brain, intertwined into my DNA. 
The bravado of Bruce's storytelling sucked me into the world he created.
The album was New Jersey, the New Jersey in my mind, if not my reality.  The album was Perth Amboy, where I was born.  Tragic, operatic, daring, bold, conflicted, it was a portrait of youth, of the seventies, of the Jersey Turnpike and the lives that are centered and splintered around it, a plea of desperation.  Most of the towns I knew in Jersey were well past their days of grandeur, yet people remained.  The question then becomes if not what's next, then what do I do with what's left?
The album was the magic, the mystery of shore, of the boardwalk at night, the swagger, arrogance, immaturity and confidence of youth.  The theme of proving yourself while questioning the status quo, a theme that haunts all of Bruce's music carries across as raw and mythic.
The album was Manhattan, my Manhattan.  To me, the album's most enthralling imagery came on the second side, where two of the songs were explicitly about New York City.  A place of mystery, crime, rough lives, shady characters, dashed hopes and dreams, but still vital, still alive and bursting at the seams.  The songs upended the traditional suburban notions of NYC. 
Growing up in New Jersey, the state was dominated by two cultural gravitational centers, NYC to the North, Philadelphia to the South.  To the social outsiders, the dreams of getting out of town to be somebody always lead to either city.  Just getting to the city meant life, culture, excitement.  "Incident on 57th St" and "New York City Serenade" told stories from inside the anguish and gloom of the city.  The characters' hopes and dreams of a better life meant fleeing New York. 
Yet, at fifteen, I assumed that my living in New York City was an inevitability.  I couldn't picture myself living truly anywhere else. 
The books I read, the movies I watched, the music I listened to, the paintings I saw in museums, all had an undercurrent in my perception that dragged me to what I thought New York City was, endlessly mysterious, alluring, addicting, Noir films, jazz, full of life. 
There's a world, a universe deep in my body, that's completely influenced by Bruce's second album.  Every time I hear the opening notes of "Incident on 57th St" on the piano that leads in the guitar solo, my mind goes back to that dark night in July on my gram's steps, totally alone on the planet, yet completely connected to a place, to characters and to universal themes. 

A coda to that story…
I mentioned that my oldest cousin, Stacy, seemed to always have a cassette of The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle in her car. 
Despite the seventeen-year age difference, one of the things that Stacy and I were able to bond over was a love of Bruce's music.  She was a teenager when Born to Run came out and growing up I knew of no bigger fan. 
In the summer of '03 her cancer was in remission.  Through a friend, my brother was able to get tickets to a Springsteen concert at the newly opened Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.  My brother, Stacy, her daughter and I went.  The concert was Bruce and the E Street Band at their best, playing in front a sold out football stadium, throwing a huge party that everyone felt invited to. 
In the middle of the concert, Bruce stepped back and took a breath. The band settled down for a moment.  Bruce stepped back to the mic and the piano started the opening notes to "Incident on 57th St." 
There was Springsteen lore at that time that he hardly ever played in concert tracks off of The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, at least not since the '70s. 
I can remember looking at Stacy and her eyes getting really big, her face lit up, a gigantic smile and then her singing all the words. 
In the midst of 70,000 people, I felt that Bruce could hear her personal request. 

Cinema Night in Brooklyn


My webseries, Places Please, will be screening an episode this Thursday night, November the 10th in Brooklyn.  Places Please will be apart Cinema Night,  a Brooklyn based film festival that features New York City Filmmakers.

The event is very informal and a great chance to meet and interact with underground filmmakers.  Brooklyn's Tiki Bar hosts the event in their backroom.  

The Facebook pages states:

Come and see a series of short films from talented filmmakers. Q & A to follow with filmmakers.
Special Guest Host: Miss Bomba Claudie

Live Performance by Alex Montanez

"The Cost of Bread" Lucia Grillo
"Places Please" Rodney Reyes, Rachel Skrod, Jonathan Weirich
" A Hero's Return" Daryl Denner
" Teddi Bear" Sachia Dumont & Paul Robinson
"Toilet Blunts" Marquis Smalls
"Looking the Wrong Way" Tyriq Mustaqiym
"La Casita" Perla DeLeon

$5 Admission.

 Brooklyn's Tiki Bar
885 4B 4th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
(between 33rd & 34th St.)
A showcase of short films from talent filmmakers. A night of writers, actors, producers, directors and those who just love the arts. A great mingle of artists. A live Backstage!
Directed By
Frances Lozada
Produced By
Luis Pedron, Franky G, Antonio Alvaira, Monique Lola Berkley, The Lozada Family

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Thin Man

Has there ever been a detective movie more sophisticated, swift, charming, breezy, fun and less interested in the crime than the The Thin Man?  As Nick and Nora Charles, William Powell and Myrna Loy (along with the dog Skippy playing Asta) created two of the most iconic characters of the early years of sound.  Witty, bantering, smooth, rich, the Charles are unique in Hollywood as a couple that actually enjoys being married.  

A mega hit from 1934, The Thin Man is based on the book by Dashiell Hammett.  MGM bought the rights to the book for $14,000 and then relegated the production to B movie status.  

However, after Louis B. Mayer tapped W.S. Van Dyke to direct, Van Dyke in a moment of genius, cast Powell and Loy as the disinterested sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles.  At first, Powell at 41 was considered too old for the role, and Loy usually was cast as the femme fatale.  However, Powell and Loy had just shot Manhattan Melodrama with Van Dyke and Clark Gable, and Van Dyke insisted on making the movie with the two stars.  Fortunately, Mayer relented.

The movie was shot over twelve days for the small amount of $231,000.  Eventually, the movie made $1.4 million in it's initial run, a giant hit for the time.  

Powell became one of the biggest movie stars of the 30s and Loy was reinvented as the witty, professional, urbane perfect wife.  The movie became the symbol for Hollywood escapist fun during the early days of the depression.  A good looking, fun couple, spending money, going to parties in New York City, laughing at each other, and maybe solving a crime. 

Hammett first claimed that the banter was based on his relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman.  Then, the screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich said that the dialogue was based on their relationship. 

Yet, to anyone watching the movie, the source of the dialogue is less important than the chemistry between Powell and Loy.  Their ease and comfort with each other comes across as effortless fun, a treat to watch.

The pairing of the two actors was so successful that they starred in fourteen movies together, including five more Thin Man movies.

Oh, and then there's the plot.  Nick Charles is a retired private investigator who lives with his wife in San Francisco managing her families investments.  The Charles are visiting New York City during the Christmas holidays.  A former client of Nick's, Clyde Wynant, has gone missing and the Wynant's, their lawyer, and the police all believe that Nick will solve the case.  Some people die, but mostly Nick and Nora drink. 

A lost fact in all the success of the movie is that the title actually refers to Clyde Wynant, not to Nick Charles.  Plus, to add to the confusion, most of the paperbacks of the The Thin Man are published with a dapper looking Dashiell Hammett on the cover.  However, Powell's characterization of Nick Charles is so extraordinary that it ended up embodying everything Thin Man forcing all subsequent sequels to have the name Thin Man in the title.  The Thin Man is a state of mind, a level of coolness, suaveness, dapperness, unflappability, swing jazz and the perfect martini. 

The other less talked about but equally as crucial piece of casting by Van Dyke is that of Skippy to play the dog Asta.  Originally, Asta in the book is a female schnauzer.  Skippy is a male wired-hair fox terrier.  If Nick and Nora is the couple ever wants to be, then Asta is the best friend that everyone wants.  Especially since Asta never interferes with the Charles' banter, he's the perfect companion.  He tugs them around town, hides from danger, and does a bit of detective work on his own.  After the success of the movie, the interest in terriers as a pet skyrocketed.  

My family's love for the Thin Man movies was such that we, also, had a wired hair fox terrier, Casey.  Casey was my high school and college dog.  He had more energy and personality than I thought possible from dogs.  Aggressive, funny, proud, cocky and at times obnoxious (if that's possible from dogs), he would drag my parents around the neighborhood chasing after birds and rabbits.  When they visited me in college, Casey would drag my parents through Colonial Williamsburg, and chased one girl living in my dorm, up, over a couch and into the arms of one of my friends..  I almost felt bad, but I couldn't stop laughing.  Casey might not have solved crimes, but he was the perfect companion for me. 

The Thin Man was nominated for four Oscars:  William Powell for best actor, Van Dyke for director, best screenplay, and best movie.  The movie didn't win any awards, but it's energy is still infectious.  A young Maureen O'Sullivan, the former wrestler Nat Pendleton and a very young and dapper Cesar Romero also star.  Skippy went on to have one of the great movie careers for animals.  He also starred in The Awful Truth as Mister Smith with Cary Grant and Bringing Up Baby as George, again with Cary Grant.  That dog was in three classics......

Saturday, October 29, 2011


October is Buster Keaton month on Turner Classic Movies.

My DVR is full of Keaton's silent shorts and feature lengths.

Tonight I watched Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, which guest stars Buster Keaton.

A very strange movie. The story is about an aging performer coming to terms with his declining abilities, told by a filmmaker whose abilities were noticeably declining.

Chaplin plays an older stage clown who tries to mentor a young ballerina. At times, the movie is almost unwatchable. The female character bounces between hysterics and a mysterious inexplicable paralysis. Ultimately, she ends up being a sounding board for Chaplin's gripes about getting older, his frustrations with a changing audience, and even working out his issues with women. There's actually a scene where you begin to wonder if he's in character yelling at Claire Bloom, or if he's in therapy working through his complicated relationship with his mother, who was mentally ill.

When Chaplin's character wasn't being preachy the movie fell into a spine tingling level of schmaltz. As Chaplin aged, his movies bent more towards maudlinism. In The Great Dictator, he walked a very tight, brilliant line between comedy, poignancy, and melodrama. The funny scenes are very funny and the final monologue is one of the great moments in cinema. Limelight has none of that balance.

Chaplin even says to a stage producer, "It's the tramp in me." Inside joke maybe, but jarring.

The draw of the movie is the last scene where Chaplin's character has one more shot at the big time. He enlists the aid of his old comic partner, a character played by Buster Keaton. Limelight will always be a historic movie of note as the only time the two titans of movies were in the same film (they once appeared in a minor publicity reel Seeing Stars in 1922).

Keaton and Chaplin were two of the three biggest and most innovative stars of the silent era (the third being Harold Lloyd). During their heydays, there was an active debate about who was the biggest, the funniest and the most influential. However, after the advent of sound their careers went in very different trajectories. Chaplin went onto even greater heights of success and freedom. After "The General" flopped, Keaton joined MGM. At MGM, Keaton lost control of his films, personal problems arose, he began to drink and his career went into a downward spiral.

By the time that Limelight was being made in the early fifties, Chaplin heard that Keaton was in financial straits due to a recent and disastrous divorce. Chaplin originally thought the part would be too small for Keaton, but eventually changed his mind. Despite the stories created by rival competitive fan bases, Keaton and Chaplin had always been friendly, and Chaplin was excited to have a Keaton on the set. Chaplin even loosened his strict directorial style to allow Keaton to have some free reign for improvisation.

I sat through the entire movie so I could watch these two together, hopefully a last gasp for their genius of an age gone by. Instead, I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to laugh or cringe. Their first scene together, backstage was mesmerizing. Chaplin's voice is high and slightly accented, Keaton's deep and full of character. There's an intimacy in watching these now old men go through the motions of getting ready for the stage, where they began their careers as children.

Then came their performance. I agonized through their stilted and static jokes. I couldn't figure out if the train wreck I was watching was intentional or if Chaplin's skill had deteriorated that badly. Plus, as the scene moved on, Chaplin began to ham it up to the camera and and audience. In early movies, such as City Lights and Modern Times, the classic Chaplin schtick worked. The last scene in Modern Times, Chaplin sings jibberish, but the hamming and act comes across brilliantly. Here the comedy and his actions seemed as desperate as the character he was playing.

A different stronger movie could have been made with these stars, even with these two characters. Instead of the focus being on Chaplin's odd relationship with Clair Bloom the movie would have focused on the dynamic and changes over the years of the comedic team. An early version of the Sunshine Boys, featuring two of the biggest stars the movies have ever created.

Instead, Keaton becomes overshadowed and underused as Chaplin relentlessly plays to the camera, trying desperately to forever be the Little Tramp to an audience that was no longer interested.

Since the release of Limelight, rumors have persisted that the movie was edited and re-cut to suit the desires of each fanbase. Keaton's fans believe that his best parts were cut out to so he wouldn't upstage Chaplin. Chaplin's people argue that he edited the film to enhance Keaton's performance. Neither notion is supported by much fact.

The truth is that the material isn't very good. The moment to maximize the talents of two aging genius comics coming to grips with changing times is completely squandered. Chaplin's own belief in his ability and material is ultimately the movie's undoing.

And because of Chaplin's decline I'm unable to dismiss Limelight. In fact, I'm fascinated. The movie has lingered in my thoughts. Chaplin's accomplishments and adeptness have few rivals; one of them is Buster Keaton. And Chaplin's success over such a large body of work is truly unprecedented. So, to watch a movie where not only his skills have diminished but to see him work through his insecurities and awareness of losing his audience make the movie entrancing.

Limelight was the last movie Chaplin made in the United States. After post-production, the McCarthy hearings forced him out of the country based on his supposed communist leanings and leftist politics. Limelight was officially released twenty years later in 1972, after America and it's politics had greatly changed and the score won Chaplin his only competitive Oscar. The movie also stars Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, the great character actor Norman Lloyd (no relation to Harold Lloyd) and an unprecedented amount of the Chaplin brood: Sydney, Geraldine, Josephine, Charles Jr., Michael and Oona.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Glass House Self Portrait

More From New Canaan....

He who lives in a glass house.......

A few weeks ago, a friend and I finally went to visit Philip Johnson's glass house in New Canaan, CT. We were originally supposed to go in August, but hurricane Irene forced us to reschedule, for the best, I believe.

The weather was a beautiful early October day, slightly overcast, but a wonderful time to explore the grounds.

I was never the biggest Philip Johnson fan. To me, he appeared to be more a rich patron cheerleader than innovator, or great artist. He had amazing connections and forged a fantastic career of finding the next great architect while actively borrowing their style. He claimed he was inspired but at times, the appearance can be seen as copying.
Yet, after walking around his New Canaan estate, I was left with his sense of how much fun art and architecture can be. I loved how he had smaller buildings built on the grounds by different architects for different purposes. The art gallery and sculpture building were two of my favorites.

I saw a documentary on Johnson on Ovation (yes, there's that oddball channel again), that was filming him in his later years as he was working with Frank Gehry on a new building on the grounds. An aging Johnson was visibly perplexed with the structure and what ultimately the purpose was going to be. Yet, the camera captured how much joy, love and enthusiasm he still had for the process of creating and building. The structure ended up becoming a meditation/class room sort of thing, although probably by default. A funny thing is, some of the best pics came from either inside or outside the building.

Walking the grounds allows for a bit of fantasy projection. The main houses sit surprisingly close to the main road, which makes the grounds seem even more accessible to the rest of society.

The mind wanders to how wonderful life could be when you can buy a large chunk of land in Connecticut and place structures by famous architects which includes galleries that can house your extensive art collection by giants of the twentieth century. Plus, you can have many of your friends like Jacqueline Kennedy and Andy Warhol visit from the city. A very similar sensation to watching screwball comedies from the 30's is created. Wouldn't we all love to be as smooth as Cary Grant, drive around in a roadster, drinking without being drunk, a beautiful bombshell in the passenger seat, driving from one glorious party, where all the guests are witty without a thought for money?

Yet, that's unfair to Johnson's legacy. Yes, he grew up in a life of extreme of privilege which prepared him lead to an absolutely remarkable life. However, he did take that wealth, time and privilege to promote great ideas and people.

I do really love the PPG building in Pittsburgh and the effect it has on the skyline. I love the top of the AT&T building in midtown Manhattan.
And yes, I loved my trip to the Glass House. I'm grateful for the opportunity to dream of what might have been and what, yet could always be.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Fool on the Hill

Before my parents and I visited Falling Water, we spent the morning visiting Kentuck Knob, another Frank Lloyd House in the area.

Kentuck Knob was built almost 20 years after Falling Water and is still in private hands. The house is subtle and magnificent. Yet, the owner wanted no pictures of the inside of the house. Mostly, I think it's because the house is cluttered with his collections, and the opposite of what Wright intended.

Unlike Falling Water, which is fit into the side of a hill next to a brook, Kentuck Knob sits on top of a hill, with view of the valley. As you circle down the hill, the owner has created an incredible sculpture garden.