Together Through Life: Darkness in the Groove

At this stage, the Bob Dylan test is simple: listen to a new record a few times and before you make your judgment, pretend it’s the work of a largely unknown old circuit rider named Robby Zimmerman playing bars and beer halls with his traveling blues band in the upper midwest.

Then decide.

By the high cultural standards generally ascribed to America’s generational poet, Dylan’s unexpected new album Together Through Life is light and occasionally pleasing, an interesting fourth record in a blues-based “comeback” that begin with his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind in 1997. To Dylanologists and obsessive critics, it’ll never make the canon.

But to anyone scuffling through the the hard rain of springtime, 2009, the new Dylan record is a low and pleasing rumble of traditional blues and front parlor numbers, latched to the back-end of a cross country semi hauling one hell of a groove across the American wasteland.

If this were the work of an unknown veteran, in other words, the critics would be patting themselves on the back for their tremendous taste and ability to spot a new talent.

About that groove: the guitar work of Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and the accordion of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo weave a border cafe filigree of melody and rhythm, while Dylan’s touring band – bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile, and Donnie Herron on banjo, steel guitar and mando – lay down a rich bed of sound that’s part vintage Chess sides and part nouveau Texas swing.

Dylan’s voice has never been scruffier, a lonely warble grooved with years aural scars. But in other ways, his singing hasn’t been this good in a decade. It’s crisply enunciated. And the singer sells the songs completely, even though most of the lines turn downward these days at the end, the antithesis of the characteristic upward snarl of “how does it feel?”

This 67-year-old Dylan knows how it feels and the songs – mostly co-written with lyricist Robert Hunter – tell small and personal stories. Dark tales with dark humor and lost dreams: Dylan knows it’s late in his game (and perhaps ours as well). “I feel a change comin’ on and the fourth part of the day’s already gone,” he sings over happy upbeat blues on the record’s best song. Then he adds: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”

That he does. Most critics thought Dylan had finished his late-career blue trilogy (which also included Love and Theft from 2001 and Modern Times in 2006), but as Dylan sings in Jolene on the new disk: “I keep my hands in my pocket, I’m moving along, people think they know, but they’re all wrong.”

Catechism Culture

A couple of weeks back, I met a friend for lunch downtown and wondered at the choice – an East Village UK-style pub, replete with an iconic red phone box out front. Fair enough, but an interesting choice of venue. I was early and perusing the menu when I realized at an instant why we were there. The famous fish and chips, halfway down the menu.

Of course. It was Friday. In Lent. And we’re both Catholics.

Not the daily Mass sort, yet the culture is so strong, so nearly biological, that it still persuades secularists to traipse at least at least an extra subway stop to avoid a meaty midday repast during the period of Lenten sacrifice that will conclude next Sunday. Palm Sunday is tomorrow, and Holy Week follows – concluding that particularly New York version of the liturgical calendar that adds the green of St. Patrick’s Day to the purple of the passion play.

On Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite bloggers, Lance Mannion, wrote about his formal break with the Catholic Church, noting that he’d been “holding onto my faith by the threads of a frayed alb anyway.” Lance’s post plumbed some of the gnawing away of formal church-based hierarchical religion in this country, but I was also struck by one of the comments: “I haven’t been to Church in years. But I’m STILL a Catholic.” And that blend of personal cultural and religious self-identification, which riles traditional (and conservative) Roman Catholics, hasn’t lost its power. Reading Lance’s Lenten post (and it was a Lenten post because Lance is still a Catholic) called to mind the lyrics of punk poet Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy from 1980:

And they can’t touch me now

I got every sacrament behind me

I got baptism, I got penance

I got communion, I got extreme unction

Man, I’ve got confirmation

I was a Catholic boy

Redeemed through pain

And not through joy

And now I’m a Catholic man

I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can

Patti Smith, the force behind Carroll’s angry, poetic record, was a Jehovah’s Witness – at least until she hit New York, and quickly adopted Catholicism (the cultural variety) as the perfect canvas for poetry. Is there a more Catholic opening line to a song from 1970s than Smith’s iconic “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine?”

That the song was a reinvention of Van Morrison’s Gloria added to the hymnal quality – Patti clearly leaning on the in excelsis Deo side of the double meaning, fresh from posing as Mary Magdalene for Robert Mapplethorpe, himself an Irish Catholic divorced by sexuality yet entirely married in culture and personal reference. This was a common formula in 1970s New York. In 1973, Staten Island Catholic boy David Johansen asked with mock incredulity: “Then all the old ladies they are on their way to the church…yuh go ta church?” That same year, St. Rose of Lima Catholic grammar school graduate Bruce Springsteen cracked, “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception” in Lost in the Flood.

I grew up on this stuff, in the years just after my service as an altar boy, and the incense never quite abandons the cultural DNA, even after the orthodoxy has fled; I’ve observed the same phenomenon among non-observant Jews who’ll still place the pebble on the headstone every time. You can’t shake childhood, and in middle age, it’s surprising what remains of the old relationship with the cassock and the ritual. Skinny young heretics like Bruce Springsteen harbor second thoughts in the years of thickening middles – witness his 2005 conversation on Devils & Dust:

In the garden at Gethsemane

He prayed for the life he’d never live,

He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove

The cup of death from his lips

Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,

A destination that can never be reached,

A light you’ll never find in another’s face,

A sea whose distance cannot be breached

Well Jesus kissed his mother’s hands

Whispered, “Mother, still your tears,

For remember the soul of the universe

Willed a world and it appeared.”

Another of my favorite bloggers, M.A. Peel, also had an Ash Wednesday post at the beginning of this Lenten season, linking this period of contemplation for Catholics to the world’s crisis: “Avarice is a mortal sin – the wisdom of that classification is now sadly clear.” And she posted a video and lyrics to the song Hallelujah by the brilliant singer/songwriter Rufus Wainright, culturally Irish Catholic on his mother’s side and quite conscious of it:

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

As my own children make their sacraments and some days are a struggle to reconcile their upbringing with my thin personal faith and disdain for the patriarchy of the formal religion, Wainright’s words ring like communion bells. The shadows and doubts and reason are all our own. I’m not alone, I think, in harboring an entirely personal relationship with a formal religion – or thinking the blaze of light is my own. No less of a  church-goer than John Updike riffed on that individuality of faith and identify when he accepted an award as a prominent Christian writer by a Catholic magazine in 1997:

“St. Augustine was not the first Christian writer nor the last to give us the human soul with its shadows, its Rembrandtesque blacks and whites, its chiaroscuro; this sense of ourselves, as creatures caught in the light, whose decisions and recognitions have a majestic significance, remains to haunt non-Christians as well, and to form, as far as I can see, the raison d’être of fiction.”

Updike’s identity, his Christianity, was portrayed in doubt and human failing wonderment, in the brutal light of clear-eyed observation and realism (very Catholic in practice). On his deathbed, in what may be the most moving pages of verse to grace an American magazine in a century, Updike didn’t shy away for a moment from either the doubt or the faith:

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tong reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely – magnificent, that “surely” –
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the ays of my life, my life, forever.

When I was in Oxford last week, I stayed in student lodgings at Trinity College that were nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever seen in London. Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope in 1555. A devout catholic with no surviving children, Thomas Pope saw the Foundation of an Oxford college as a means of ensuring that he and his family would always be remembered in the prayers and masses of its members.

The gardens at Trinity are very beautiful, but one border of the College harbors a little secret: the gates constructed along Parks Road are purely ornamental and are never opened. Tradition holds they’re only swung open when a Jacobite monarch resumes the throne of England (and presumably ends the reign of the Church of England as the state religion). While I was there, the news was full of talk about PM Gordon Brown’s move to overturn the part of the 1701 Act of Settlement that bans Catholics from marrying into the royal family. Maybe the gates of Parks Road will be opened sooner rather than later, I thought, my Catholic upbringing going off like a ring tone set to the Angelus.

Flying home last week, I found myself 40,000 feet over the North Atlantic, wedged into what American Airlines dashingly refers to as a “seat” and holding onto sanity only by dint of the seatback video movies. The dinner cart came along. It was Friday. The choice came: “chicken or pasta?” And there, in some pain and without a conscious inkling, the DNA of the catechism kicked into autopilot:

“Pasta,” says I, only vaguely aware of my current timezone.

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.”

Blago! (The Musical)

With the sensational success of Milk, an Oscar contender if ever one rolled on a projector, we have new project for Mssrs. Penn and Van Sant – another ode to a governmental folk hero in the making. For nothing captures these early Depression Era II days of strange municipal doings than a little side project I like to call Blago! (The Musical).

Now, I’m not generally a fan of musicals – in my experience, people don’t generally break into elaborate song and dance routines during the grind of everyday life. But I’m thinking of something more along the lines of Blues Brothers, a great Chicago musical movie with its big pay-off in Richard J. Daley Plaza – maybe a State House rock opera in the style of Quadrophenia, with the mod/mad Guv driving his heavily-mirrored career scooter over the cliff to the crash of the last power chord.

Not since Chicago mayor Anton (Tony) Cermak traveled to Miami in early 1933 – during the great lame duck last days of Herbert Hoover – has Chicago blood spilled so liberally during a presidential transition. Of course, back in ’33 it was poor Mayor Cermak’s literal blood that washed into Biscayne Bay, as he was shot to death shaking hands with President-elect Roosevelt by an assassin named Giuseppe Zangara – thereby taking a bullet to preserve the life of the man who would converse so famously with the American people about “fear itself” just a month later.

These days, even as we anticipate with barely-concealed glee the next stirring inaugural address, the Chicago blood is all political in nature – that is to say, metaphorical. Yet, as in all great musicals, you can see the next big number coming. Blago! (The Musical) would certainly include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political death scene, perhaps a fumbling Mercutio’s lament after the self-inflicted wound of barring Roland Burris at the schoolhouse, er, congressional doors for lack of a permission slip from the Illinois Secretary of State.

Rod Blagojevich deftly out-flanked Senator Reid in appointing Burris, the former Illinois Attorney General who seems a decent – if a bit obsessed with grave rubbing and divine ordination of appointments – semi-retired public servant. Now, Blago faces his own public trial by the Illinois Legislature…and you have to wonder if that August body, production plant for Lincoln and Obama, has fallen into yet another clever Blagojevich trap. The incoming President (who has a Swiss watch of a political instinct compared to Reid’s primitive sundial) can hardly be happy about the potential for long Blago defense in the well of the Illinois State Senate. What theater! What drama! What a distraction from the disaster facing the American economy!

Maybe it’s a distraction we need – I, for one, will revel in the political theater and envision the ultimate casting for Blago! (The Musical). Dan Aykroyd’s a little old for the title role, but I think he could’ve done wonders in his Fred Garvin salad days, perhaps throwing down a few Little Walter harp shrieks in the musical numbers. Ditto Kevin Costner, who played the stiff-backed Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and who would’ve made a fine Patrick Fitzgerald. The brilliant Don Knotts is sadly no longer breathing, so we’ll have to cast about for Harry Reid. In my script, Barack Obama would remain serenely off camera, entirely absent but for occasional clips of his best speeches – a one-man center of morality, a uniform Greek chorus. (But I’m really tempted by Nick Nolte in the Bill Ayers part).

So OK, it’s just a concept thing right now – but can’t you see it? Can’t you hear it? Cultural diarist M.A. Peel did some wonderful location research during a visit to the state capitol in Springfield:

We stopped by an office on one of the floors, and the guide made a point of saying that this the “actual working office” of the governor. We were allowed to take pictures of the anteoffice, and there is a portrait of good old Honest Abe next to a statuette of Elvis, which the guide made a point to say is an important possession of the governor.

Under the watchful eye of the great Lincoln, the ego is the Las Vegas Elvis, with all the undertones of the delusions of kingship. That pretty much sums up the Blago. New Yorkers can’t really throw stones at governors these days—the era of Mario Cuomo being long over. But, woah.

Blago ended yesterday’s press conference with Tennyson’s Idyls of the King:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”

That’s the same way that Frasier Crane ended his last radio show. This is one pop culture kind of leader.

Yeah. And, if we’re not careful, Blago (a man with a sense of comic drama) might become another midwest cultural hero, an electoral Clyde Barrow. After all, he’s legally innocent – and as Lance Mannion says, “he’s written Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel into his story and with his appointment of Roland Burris he’s added the entire Democratic membership of the United States Senate to his cast of characters.”

And he’s dancing one hell of a political two-step. Cue the Muddy Waters soundtrack. Opening Scene: the Governor’s office, Chicago, Illinois.

The Newcritics Year in Review

In this quirky, personality-driven, iconoclastic corner of the media universe, any kind of year-end list-building runs up hard against two competing factors that tear at any kind of universality: as middle-brow armchair critics, our tastes are rather catholic, but our production is – in the kindest sense – distinctly idiosyncratic.

We write about what we want to write about in these precincts, with neither fame nor money at stake (I’ll resist the obvious jibe about the market-driven and Internet-enabled trajectory of all critical journalism these days).

Nonetheless, faces its second anniversary much as it did the first: committed (very loosely, but still) to a cultural conversation that binds us to a shared experience in film, television, literature, music and all the related art forms. This is no academic forum, however. It’s a collection of media-obsessed consumers who gather around the smoking hearth of opinion, poured neat and without the trappings of a higher calling.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few year in review highlights from the newcritics database – you can add your own in the comments, or just wander off on any tangent you choose. And by the way, if you’re a regular here and would like to become a blogger with full posting privileges, just drop me a line.

And so, to the “awards” – they’re based on popularity, acuity of newcritics blogging, and my mood on this particular December morning. As Chuck Tryon notes in his own year-end list of lists post: “Favorites matter. We find solidarity with others who share similar tastes.”

2008 Movie of the Year (tie)
The Dark Knight
Quantum of Solace

In brief:  we’re Bond fans through and through, and we loved the Joker. No two films elicited the response that these two blockbusters did in 2008 – at least among movies actually released this year (more on that in a moment).  Of Bond, M.A. Peel wrote in a decidedly mixed review that “QOS is still big time Hollywood in its excess best. It’s slick, polished, and exhausting to watch.” And NYC Weboy summed it up well, I think: “This is not your father’s Bond; this is not your brother’s Bond, either. And, frankly, we are better for it … The gin-sozzled, dapper dressed, gadget-y plaything of the past doesn’t suit our times, or our cultural needs.” Chris Nolan’s already-iconic The Dark Knight wore more passionate reviews and comments. Jason Chervokas called it “modern Gothic eye candy of the highest order” and argued that TDK ” is almost certainly the best Batman movie that will ever be made, up there with the best Batman stories of Steve Englehart and Frank Miller.” Blue Girl also dug the flick, but she posted a review worthy of The Catwoman anyway, ticky-tackying some feline flings at some of the performances: “If that’ll bother you because you must be so serious about The Batman, please click away so your delicate psyches are not damaged for all eternity.” Meoww!

1967 Movie of the Year
Bonnie and Clyde

This was a close one: our wildly-successful Wednesday Night at the Movies series kicked off with a 1967-themed film fest, keyed to Mark Harris’s revealing Pictures at a Revolution on the five Best Picture nominees from that revolutionary year. Thanks to Lance Mannion and the Self-Styled Siren, the first newcritics virtual fest was a box office smash and we all spent countless comments on DVD classics – for my money, Bonnie and Clyde‘s bullet-riddled commentary eked out top honors over In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate, the two other ’67 classics that elicited the most passionate discussions. I enjoyed going back and just reading the comments about Bonnie and Clyde (including some New Left insights from Nixonland author Rick Perlstein) and Lance’s primo, quote-filled introduction – a great newcritics moment. Here’s a taste via a comment on the famed death scene from the Sireen: “…they die as the result of institutional corruption and a low trick, and they die in a manner that’s simultaneously beautiful and gruesome, like a saint’s martyrdom. No Code movie would have countenanced the way law enforcement is portrayed there, as simple murder.”

Best Picture – New York Precincts
Rear Window

Our second filmfest was curated by the Siren (hence the more traditional, old-school Hollywood title for this category), with a hand from Mannion and me. And I think the discussion of Hitchcock’s almost over-hyped soundstage thriller edged out the pure LOL appreciation The Apartment and the bloggy ramble through the dark Manhattan of The Sweet Smell of Success. (You may, of course, disagree! It was a great series indeed). Rear Window has always been a favorite, but I really discovered some new territory in the Siren-led discussion. Typical of the eye-opening comments was Tony Dayoub’s: “What I really enjoyed about the “NY” location is its artifice. It really contributes to this being the landscape of the apartment-bound Jeff’s mind. Each little window is a peek into a nightmare Jeff has about commitment to Lisa or the loneliness should they break up.”

Best Dramatic Television Series
Mad Men

We loved it. We hated it. We loved to hate it. In truth, AMC’s Mad Men was almost universally acclaimed by the so-called professional critics – and panned, in a strangely respectful and admiring fashion, here at newcritics. But it was the conversation that made it so damned fun, the gathering here each week (even in the age of Tivo, for all love) to live-snark the stylish series, captained by M.A. Peel or yours truly. The thing is: both Ms. Peel and I always loved the ambition of Mad Men, the basic idea, and the setting. We just parted ways with Matthew Weiner on the execution, particularly in the writing around the two central characters, the pretender Don Draper and his psychotic mannequin wife Betty. Though we dug the ensemble, work-a-day cast a Sterling Cooper. Still, the gathering was the thing – as Ms. Peel captured so well in a September lede: “It’s been a week of certifiable madness. Stock market insanity; bank and company failures on an epic scale; the dollar amount of 700 billion said with a straight face. And now the maddening reality of the loss of Paul Newman, who embodied the sea change of generational sensibility that is rocking Don Draper’s world…”

Best Reality Television Series
Project Runway

For sheer snipery set on the West Side of Manhattan, nothing turned the fashionista amplifiers to eleven like the tear-laden, back-stabbing, playground of ambition that was Project Runway – and for part of its run (how we mourned when it didn’t last!) newcritics was fortunate in having Claire and Jennifer as our intrepid guides and weekly hosts. Here’s Claire before last season’s finale: “Have the contestants been suitably humanized so that you care who wins or loses? Has that crazily-haired Christian burrowed his way into your hard little hearts? More importantly, are you ready for Posh Spice guest judging? Frankly, that last bit, I am not. Posh both frighten and annoys me. Plus I think she has dreadful fashion sense.” Let’s hope PR blogging returns in 2009 – maybe we’ll give Tim Gunn and call and see if he can persuade our newcritics?

Record of the Year
Your Playlist

Just before he nominated The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive as the best record of 2008 a few weeks back, Jason Chervokas wrote this: “There’s just too much new music released every year to an audience too scattered for a marketplace too micro-targeted and boutiqued for me to claim I can tell anyone what’s best.” Exactly. In terms of new music, there’s precious little that those of us above the Jonas Brothers demographic all share anymore – and that sharing (of blockbuster movies and TV shows) is what tends to populate the best threads on newcritics. So, this year’s winner (as it may always be) is simply the playlist in your iPod or on your laptop. And in that area, we had many, many great music posts this year. Our most prolific music blogger, Jason covered the work of the Columbia band Vampire Weekend and he wrote this about the George band, The Whigs: “It doesn’t take virtuosity, genius, or even that much ingenuity, just well conceived parts working together–melodic choruses, guitar hooks, bass parts you can sing along with, drum parts that breakup and orchestrate a song, the processional hand clap or tambourine for color and propulsion.” True that. We also loved M.A. Peel’s sexy ode to Bing Crosby, Levi Asher’s insistence that modern hiphop is alive and well and rhymin’,  Robert Stein’s post on Johnny Cash photography, NYC Weboy’s piece on critics and philharmonics, Dan Leo’s appreciation of Little Steven’s garage music movement and his controversial list of best male rock vocalists, and the Viscount’s terrific review of Joe Jackson’s comeback album, Rain and his post on Ian Hunter. Needless to say, however, that nothing can touch actual music created by that intrepid pair of newcritics, Blue Girl and Neddie Jingo, who once again teamed up across the digital miles on a song that brought on a smile.

Newcritics Remember

Finally, we all wrote our share of fond obituaries during the last 12 months, as befits our average age and cultural era – here are a bunch of good ones to remember by:

Suzanne Pleshette (Bob Stein)

William F. Buckley (Tom Watson)

Roy Scheider (Self-Styled Siren)

Richard Widmark (Bob Stein)

Charlton Heston (Lance Mannion)

Earle Hagen (Tom Watson)

Sydney Pollack (NYC Weboy)

George Carlin (Viscount LaCarte)

Bo Diddley (Jason Chervokas)

Jo Stafford (M.A. Peel)

Paul Newman (Robert Stein)

Levi Stubbs (Jason Chervokas)

Harold Pinter (Bob Stein)

Almost despite itself – and in defiance of a helacious mid-year hacking attack – newcritics carries on as a small-scale center of middlebrow cultural attutide and conversation. It’s been a great year, thanks to all the bloggers and commenters and readers and linkers. Let’s do it again, shall we?

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.

Trapped in a Rat Pack Suit on a Soundstage, Looking for Grit

Among true fans of Mad Men, Jon Hamm’s loss at the Emmys was something of a body blow. Hamm’s portrayal of the surly two-faced creative director Don Draper on the early 60s period drama was the favorite going in, a buttoned-up Madison Avenue heir to Tony Soprano – the new leading leading man.

But as good as Hamm is physically – and he does seem literally cut from the paper doll outline of Matthew Weiner’s storyboards – his character slips and slides, particularly in this second season as the rest of the Sterling Cooper ensemble cast rises so surely. At times violent, at times wistful, at other times seemingly confused, Don Draper doesn’t so much drive the action on Madison Avenue as drift along with the current; we won’t speak of the strangely-locused Ossining sub-drama, a distracting bit of melodrama (tinged with faux existentialism) unworthy of the soaps for which Sterling Cooper’s non-superstars wrote copy.

In her magazine column, The Times’ Virginia Heffernan took to worrying aloud for the Hamm character:

It’s Jon Hamm I worry about. The star of “Mad Men,” Hamm is a swoon-inducing, physically graceful actor — a through-and-through Hollywood person, without much training in New York’s Method-derived acting styles. As he remembered it in a panel discussion in January, the first scene he shot of “Mad Men,” in which he plays the evasive and cruel Don Draper, required a flurry of stage business. Cigarettes had to be lighted, rooms had to be crossed, shirts had to be changed, ties tied. Hamm says he struggled with this manual ballet, but anyone who saw the first season of “Mad Men” can testify that he made it look natural. And not only natural but also intensely expressive: Hamm in the first “Mad Men” season made midcentury pantomine both nervous and beautiful, elegant actions that sublimated Draper’s anarchic energies.

But this season, the Draper character is losing his touch, and the part doesn’t require so much dexterity. Draper loses control of his car and his reputation; he shows less Rat Pack finesse. The camera seems mad at Draper, and it gives him long, stung looks, during which he has almost nothing to do but be. Sometimes these are cutaways from when another character is dressing him down, flattering him or exposing him. Sometimes they are close-ups on moments of self-doubt. But Hamm, the actor, does not seem to like the silence, and he has a hard time staying steady as Don in the quiet interludes.

At these times, an incongruous vulnerability presents itself in the reptilian Draper. Accidentally, Hamm seems to flash on an exaggerated look of melancholy or distance — as if the actor were thinking, I don’t want to be this man. Perhaps Hamm, like many Hollywood stars, wants to be liked above all, and Draper is written as less likable in nearly every episode. If the show is to mature and last, Hamm will have to risk being hated.

The demands of what Heffernan quotes Vincent Canby as defining as the “megamovie” on television – that is to say, holding a cinematic emotional center week after week after long, long week – may not be possible for Jon Hamm in Mad Men. James Gandolfini, as Heffernan says, “was responsible for ensuring the show’s continuity and coherence even as everything perpetually changed around him: directors, writers, cast, crew.”

But I’d suggest Gandolfini had a huge assist not just from his supporting cast (most notably Edie Falco as Carmelo Soprano, who carried an emotional weight a hundred times greater than the cartoonish Betty Draper character) from one key decision made at the outset: setting The Sopranos in northern New Jersey and shooting all its exteriors there. If Matthew Weiner had taken one key aspect of The Sopranos with him to Mad Men, it should have been Chase’s move to liberate a big dramatic series from the soundstage.

Gandolfini inhabited a real landscape, from the bottom of his suburban driveway to downtown Newark to the various Turnpike exits and strip malls. They helped to make Tony Soprano real. Not only is Jon Hamm in super-stylized costume, he’s also very much on the super-stylized set. Quite a bit of the real New York on 1962 still exists, but we never see Don Draper walk its streets. Instead, we get obvious Hollywood backlot exteriors and banal gaffes like Draper parking his car right in front of Sterling Cooper on near-empty Madison Avenue, and Betty riding horses in what is obviously Southern California.

Tonight, it looks like the ever-developing cast at Sterling Cooper is evolving still; in this second season, the best moments of Mad Men have some out of the workplace. That’s beginning to seem real. I’m suspending my disbelief from 9 to 5. But not fully from 10 to 11 every Sunday night. Because they haven’t given me New York.

Race, Drugs and Murder: A Brooklyn Tale

The best book ever written about the scourge of drugs and the racial chasm in the deep interior of Brooklyn was Greg Donaldson’s gritty 1994 true life new journalism book, The Ville. It covered the lives of two men – one a Housing cop and the other a gang member – along with a vast cast of extras in a two-square mile area encompassing parts of the Brownsville and East New York. In The Ville, justice was elusive and escape from “the life” almost impossible. But it was the portrayal of race and an endless cycle of urban failure that stayed with this reader.

The new first novel by Justin Peacock, A Cure for Night, doesn’t really pack the same chilling portraiture as Donaldson’s non-fiction account of the early 90s, but it does build a cinematic and dramatic story that contains the same elements of crime and race and failure in the public housing projects of New York. At its center are two public defenders – Joel Deveraux, a former white shoe litigator whose personal drug habit destroyed a highly-paid career, and Myra Goldstein, a feisty and committed defense attorney – drawn together over a shooting in the courtyard of a Brooklyn housing project.

The story unfolds mostly in dialogue and it’s got a ripped-from-the-headlines feel that ties it closely to some of the best crime procedurals on television. Peacock’s story is undoubtedly authentic, based on his own experiences as a defense lawyer, and he reveals a healthy disrespect for a criminal defense system that seems like a revolving door of poorly-tried cases and quickie plea bargains.

The crime at the center of the novel forces a view of the racial realities of life in inner city public housing that is free of any blinders: a white college student is killed during a meeting with a black drug dealer. Naturally, the murder hits the tabloids. Peacock’s lead character is weak, only semi-skilled, and easily pushed about by the currents in his life – he’s a follower. Luckily, he’s paired with the best of the Brooklyn Public Defender’s office, a young woman driven by both her belief in the law and her own abilities.

It’s a procedural whose best moments lie not in the highest drama, but in the mundane turning of the court calendar and the droning job toward a verdict. It’s a darkly liberal book: some victims clearly have no chance in the society Peacock presents. But it’s also a tale that is frost-bitten by a cold existentialism; this is life in New York for many people and it will always be so. The title is, in a way, a kicker to a journalist’s front-page story – there really is no cure for the night.

In Honor of Sarah Palin

I believe we must treat our political foes with respect in the arena of public opinion. And so I will dedicate this post to the Governor of Alaska. This is Banned Books Week, and it’s always appropriate to look at what drives literary censorship in this country. According to the American Library Association, more than 400 books were challenged in 2007. The 10 most challenged titles were:

1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Click here to see why these books were challenged. And read one of ’em. That’ll show the bastards.