A Rich Semi-Reality: Eleanor Grace Miller’s Still Life Paintings

If Eleanor Grace Miller’s oil-on-board still life paintings of fabric and solid objects were photographs, the camera would have to be suspended in perpendicular alignment from the ceiling – and the lens would have to stay open for a long, long time. So dark and rich are Miller’s colors, that an almost surreal sense of depth infuses each carefully-arranged scene.

Miller’s work was lately on view at the wonderful Garrison Art Center, which backs up to the icy Hudson River in Putnam County just across from West Point; the show, with Hudson Valley painter Donald Alter, closed today.

Although realistic and fully representational, these are views that do not exist in everyday life – indeed, they are created by the painter herself; Miller has designed some of the patterns on the pottery and material in the paintings. So each view is not merely a collection of items interpreted by the artist – the still life itself is the creation. Each painting seems an execution of the original vision of color, design, and assembly.

The dominant colors are blacks and reds and gold, with bowls and fruit serving as the three-dimensional focal points for swaths of brilliant fabric, some of it designed by the artist specifically for the painting. The result is brilliant – a golden view at a simple world.

The object is a bright and clear vision. As Miller says in her exhibit statement with a quick slash of wit: “I dislike beige. I find it arbitrary: I like the clarity of color.”

The Twisted Head: Chaos and Comedy in the North Bronx

The action films of the 1970s shot in and around New York embrace a curb-level realism – an obsession with gritty locations – that no studio or backlot can possibly reproduce. The storefronts, dented cars, barren parks and filigreed subway els dress movies like The Seven-Ups, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, and the French Connection, racing along with the action in glimpses and high contrast light and murky shadow. But there was life in those shops and apartments and row houses, life in a city that no longer exists, a life that was both tougher and less material than the New York three decades on – a city that still expects cartoonish credit-laden consumption even as the consumer markets that created neon expectations can no longer deliver on the promise.

In one of the Bronx neighborhoods Ray Scheider drove so recklessly through in chase of some drug-dealing punks, a dysfunctional family of Italian-Americans sweated out the tough times – times that inspired Twisted Head, a hilarious and cutting memoir by its youngest progeny, the actor and writer Carl Capotorto.

You may remember Capotorto as “Little Pauli” in The Sopranos, but there was nothing of the mythical mob glamor about his childhood in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. Capotorto was the youngest child of a family dominated by a father with a violent temper, and the book’s title comes from the literal translation of Capotorto – “twisted head” – which seems so perfectly suited to the temperament of Philip Vito Capotorto.

The Bronx of Carl Capotorto’s youth was still recognizable in the Bronx of the 1980s, where I arrived as a rookie political reporter for The Riverdale Press. Congressman Mario Biaggi, the pornographic Globe Theater, the shops on Arthur Avenue, Bronx Park and even Cappi’s Pizza and Sangweech Shop under the el on White Plains Road are all familiar.

But equally familiar is the close-in third generation immigrant American experience in New York; mine was Irish and based around Yonkers, but Capotorto’s experience was the same as many of the kids I knew who grew up around Dunwoodie in the 60s and 70s. I recognize the characters from their families, and from my own – the always-simmering pot of “gravy,” the uncles and their tales of European war, the trips to Playland, the allure of “the city,” the music, the cars, the long family gatherings.

Capotorto keeps his personal memoir moving and although his father’s anger provides the dramatic core of the story, the episodes with the women in his life – his mother, his sisters, his grandmother – give Twisted Head much of its richness and humor, as does the author’s struggle with homosexuality and acceptance in adolescence. The story never tips into either self-absorbed pathos or two-dimensional ethnic and sexual cliche; Capotorto deftly balances the details of the city and the times with the story arc of his family and his life.

In the end, despite the author’s evident personal struggle, you’re not at all sorry for Carl Capotorto’s early life in the Bronx. It was, after all, a rich childhood filled with picaresque characters that gave Capotorto a rare gift: a story well worth telling.

A Book for the Times: World Made by Hand

For many years now, curmudgeon-blogger-painter-author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the downfall of America’s vast consumer society in stark terms, in his non-fiction books (like his 2006 The Long Emergency) and on his iconic blog, Clusterfuck Nation. Read Kunstler for a couple of weeks, and he will piss you off. Read him for a few months, and you’ll question the financial underpinnings of the western world – some of the verities slowly begin to fray. Two months ago, for example, Kunstler posted a typical essay called “The Coming Re-Becoming” that factored the assumptions we Americans make for our strength and general well-being in the alleys and by-ways of sheer luck:

Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don’t mean that we are a better people than any other society — these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts — but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle “time out” from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we’re sailing into now.

Fortunate, indeed – and now that the entire financial system is shaking, I’d like to recommend Kunstler’s 10th novel, World Made by Hand, a sharp cinematic imagining on everyday American life after the failure of the energy grid.

I read the book between trips upstate this summer, which was perfectly appropriate, as World Made by Hand unfolds in the sleepy town of Union Grove, New York along the Hudson River north of Albany – a region down on its economic luck even before the apocalyptic events hinted at in Kunstler’s tale. But as Robert Earle, a former software engineer, attempts to balance his base own survival with more human pursuits in a town edging toward violence and anarchy, we glimpse that world through his eyes.

The New York State Thruway as a walking trail. Abandoned strip malls, gas stations, and shopping outlets. The absence of mass media, except for the occasional Bible-thumping when the power cranks the radio back on. The real meaning of horsepower. In short, it’s like a field trip to an Amish village or a 19th century agrarian recreation – but littered with carcasses of automobiles, commerce, mass production and media. The Hudson is again the super-highway it was when the French and British fought for it. All food is produced locally. Drugs are scarce to non-existent, and contagion sweeps away whole generations. Recycling isn’t a feel-good fad – it’s survival. And violence in the absence of real law threatens the last of civilization.

The people in World Made by Hand are thin; they’re hungry, sure – but there’s not too much meat to their characters, either. Women fare the worst: feminism has not survived, and they are reduced either to a means of production or sad, wandering specters. The men aren’t much better, because life has become cheapened and introspection has as much validity as 50-inch Trinitron.

The most affecting character is the cultish preacher Brother Jobe who comes to town to build a new community of believers, only to find personal tragedy. Jobe has seen trouble all over the east coast, and knows that his chances in upstate New York are his last; although things are bad, they’re not as bad as elsewhere – there are terrorist bombs and lynch mobs across the land. The failed nation is rarely addressed directly, but unfolds in conversation – like this one between Earle and his new live-in lover, a young widow of Union Grove’s increasing violence:

“The world has become such a wicked place,” she said quietly, just a statement of fact

“There’s goodness here too.”

“Where is it?”

“In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.”

“I’m afraid sometimes that we drove those things out of existence.”

“No, we carry them in our hearts. They’re always with us.”

“I don’t know what’s in my heart anymore. It’s too dark to see.”

“Light follows darkness.”

To a writer and soap-box shouter like Kunstler, World Made by Hand is not so much of a warning as a promise. Yet, you can also sense a yearning from the author – who lives, after all, in Sarasota Springs – for a return to that earlier time. Indeed, there are portions of the new life in Union Grove that are admirable; the reliance on a communitarian movement for survival is one. A closer tie to the means of food production is another. You get the feeling the author himself thinks he might do well in the reinvention years he hints at in economic/political blog posts circa 2008.

This economic spasm is a result of the credit explosion in all its variety and complexity and derivation. Kunstler’s bleak future stems from energy policy. Yet the events of these last two weeks can be tucked neatly into the back story for World Made by Hand. It’s a good read. And it sure as hell beats watching the Dow or sorting through the bailout paperwork.

Paying the Piper

We’ve just closed a fantastic five-part film series hosted by Lance Mannion here at newcritics, some of the best live-blogging we’ve had since our launch 18 months ago – but it was also interrupted by a hacker-induced breakdown of the site’s infrastructure. And that reminded me that we needed to improve or perish, so we did. And now I’m asking for all good newcritics to come aid of our group blog with a small contribution against the costs of keeping the doors open. I won’t wear you out, but we occasionally need to fix the plumbing and we’ve moved to a much better server. And can you imagine life without Project Runway blogging, Mad Men blogging, Oscar blogging, two dozen Rolling Stones posts, assorted cultural festivals, theater reviews, and literary gabfests? I cannot! So please click on the sponsor link and do what you can to keep newcritics flying. Do it for culture!

And We’re Back…

Bonnie and Clyde

After an attack by “malware” hackers last week, newcritics looked more like Bonnie & Clyde’s bullet-sliced sedan than the functioning cultural colossus that it is has been over the past year and half. Well, the site’s back up, folks, and it seems like most of the data is intact. Finger crossed, of course. A huge note of thanks to a (thus far) silent newcritics supporter, WordPress expert Larry Aronson – a great man indeed who helped us with the scarred and riddled chassis, and got this thing running again (with an assist from Howard Greenstein). Let’s all thank Larry. And speaking of a hail of bullets, this thing’s running just in time for Lance’s cimematic shin-dig tomorrow night. Fingers crossed, of course.

Earle Hagen, 1919-2008

If it had only been the whistle, Earle Hagen would have qualified for major send-off from TV Land. That’s his own windy pursed lips at the beginning of The Andy Griffith Show as Andy and Opie head to the fishing hole, and it’s his tune as well. But Hagen, who died this week at 88, was a prolific television themesman. He also wrote the opening riffs to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Gomer Pyle USMC, That Girl, I Spy, Eight Is Enough, and The Mod Squad.

Quite the line-up. His Mayberry theme and Dick Van Dyke work open two of the great sitcoms, instantly recognizable. But Hagen also scored Call Me Madam and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, played trombone with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble, and wrote Harlem Nocturne as a tribute to Duke Ellington.

So in Earl’s whistling honor, a list of sorts – please add to it. My favorite television theme songs, in no particular order:

– The Rockford Files (Mike Post)
– Sanford and Son (Quincy Jones)
– The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason)
– The Dick Van Dyke Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Bob Newhart Show (Patrick Williams)
– The Odd Couple (Neal Hefti)
– The Andy Griffith Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Sopranos (Rob Spragg)
– The Office (Jay Ferguson)
– Underdog (Ortala le Clerc Germaine)
– Dragnet (Miklos Rozsa)
– Chico and the Man (Jose Feliciano)
– Miami Vice (Jan Hammer)
– Fat Albert (Herbie Hancock)

Shine a Light – Any Light

James Wolcott’s right: “it’s wealth that’s required, not scrappy resilience.” So we won’t be reviewing Shine a Light here, because I haven’t yet seen it. In lieu of the requisite Scorcese-mauling, how about a brief Tattoo YouTube for a Friday night, a shambling mess of videos that just percolated up from the series of tubes.


Classic 1974 Keith Richards interview.
Continue reading

The Adams Chronicles

John AdamsWhat to make of John Adams, the highly-promoted mini-series now unwinding through the late 18th century on HBO? The formula of the weekly episode is well-set and sadly telegraphed: Adams unsure and agitated as portrayed by a bewigged Paul Giamatti, some heinous medical procedure filmed in gruesome detail, tension in the long-suffering but strong Adams marriage, and lush and gorgeous locations and set design.

The medical tic particularly detracts. Yes, we know all about smallpox and the gory separation of limbs from wounded bodies in naval settings – we learned at the literary knee of Stephen Maturin, after all. What made John Adams a great man, always my favorite Founding Father, wasn’t his exposure to nasty colonial doctoring. His greatness originated in the rare combination of political philosophy with political tactics, wrapped into a sturdy bulldog temperament. Giamatti’s Adams occasionally captures this quality, most memorably during the too-short portrayal of negotiations of the Second Continental Congress. But too often, this Adams looks like a second-tier player, a utility infielder among revolutionaries like Washington, Franklin, and even Jefferson.

In reality, Adams was the indispensable political engine; Washington regarded him as the Revolution’s most able political actor and for good reason. The latest episode portrays virtually his entire European diplomatic forays (there were two in the 1770s, the series conflates them) as personal failures, massive wastes of time. In fact, as David McCullough’s fine biography – upon the which the HBO series is based – conveyed, Adams provided a valuable counterbalance to Franklin’s more easy-going diplomacy. While Franklin undoubtedly knew the French, Adams pushed for the fledgling republic’s immediate needs; without Adams’ urgency, Franklin’s success was hardly guaranteed. Continue reading

William Buckley: A Television Persona Passes

William F. Buckley may be twisting painfully in the eternal hellfires right about now, condemned for rejecting civil rights in a cynical wager against his own views of liberty, but his passing does recall a type of conservative who would gladly make a public argument on the relative merits – and not try to merely shout the opposition down with bully talk and cheap sloganeering.

His death also removes another one of those classic 60s and 70s television personalities from the talk show set, a singular face and voice and style that those of us who can feel those years mourn the dearth of these days. From his half recline, one arm thrown back over a corner of the chair, a pen clutched in the other, Buckley unpacked slow-moving questions on Firing Line – big slow righty curves compared to today’s ‘roid-raged speedballers – and he inhabited a public world of curling cigarette smoke in black and white, talking world that included names like Mailer, and Vidal and Capote. Continue reading

The Yearling

Tonight, some of us will gather at the Paley Center for Media to celebrate the first year of this little cultural experiment we call newcritics. It’s going to be a great night, thanks to our host Ellen….er…the fabulous Ms. Peel! You know, on some level this blog feels like a gathering of superheroes in the League of Justice hall – sure some of us use our real names, but the pen names are better. Lance Mannion and Tony Alva – they could be 70s crime shows starring James Garner and Mike Connors. Blue Girl and the Self-Styled Siren are like characters out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. We’ve also got The Shamus, Viscount LaCarte, Neddie Jingo, Trickster and Gotham Gal – what powers go along with those virtual superhero constumes?

I love the names, and I love this community. It began very simply and a year later, it remains so.

You know, newcritics is non-influential. It is non-profitable. Indeed, by any standards of the day it is non-successful.

And yet a year on, we gather to revel (some in person, some virtually) in the minor media glory – but the sweet karmic profit – of this little blog. Continue reading