Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Bayonne Bridge: Sydney it ain’t, but it’s a beautiful span anyway

The Bayonne Bridge has been a beautiful sight on the New York harbor horizon since 1931. And for me, it has remained on the horizon – far away, as the urge to travel between the  depressed residential area of Port Richmond in Staten Island to the rusted industrial area at the tip of the Bayonne peninsula in New Jersey has never been high on my list of things to do. But a recent article about the bridge has stoked my interest enough to convince me to get up close and take a walk across the span.

Most people don't get any closer than this.

Most people don’t get any closer than this.

When the bridge opened 80 years ago, arching gracefully over the watery passage known as the Kill Van Kull, it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world. It is still the fourth longest. If the parabola design looks familiar it is probably because of its celebrated cousin, the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia (in fact, the same golden scissors were used to cut the ribbon on both bridges). Although its span is a few feet longer than that Australian bridge, it seems much lighter, without the massive masonry pylon towers. But an even greater difference is the destiny of each bridge in its city’s life. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is centrally located, a major artery and a major conduit for the economy of that city. It is a symbol of the city and valued enough to be well maintained and kept in the public spotlight. The Bayonne Bridge, on the other hand, is almost unknown to most New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. Connecting two perennially depressed areas, it has never really reached its potential (a second roadway, though planned, was never deemed necessary) and it has slipped into the shadows, rusting away at the periphery of New York Harbor. Most people only know it as a nameless silhouette on the horizon as they ride across the harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. Even commuters

A view of the Staten Island along the Kill Van Kull.

A view of the Staten Island along the Kill Van Kull.

between Staten Island and New Jersey are far more likely to use the other two bridges, the Goethals and the Outerbridge Crossing.

However, the bridge’s obscurity may finally come to an end, as the Port Authority now plans to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge in order to allow container traffic to reach Newark Bay from the harbor.  It is considering plans to include in the new roadway an extension of the Huson-Bergen Light Rail line into Staten Island, beyond its present terminus in Downtown Bayonne. Let’s hope they also keep the walkway, which gives such unique views of harbor traffic westward between Staten Island’s North Shore and New Jersey.

Some more pics taken on the bridge:

Shipping in the channel

Shipping in the channel

Way in the background is the Newark Bay Bridge, another steel arch bridge.

The steel arch. Longer than the Sydney bridge by a few feet.

Suicide prevention sign on the walkway. Every year someone tragically jumps into the dank Kill Van Kull.

Overgrown station of the abandoned North Shore rail line on Staten Island.

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September 27, 2011 Posted by | architecture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Book Festival Grows Fast in Brooklyn

Once again the cultural expansion in Brooklyn was on full display this weekend, this time at the Brooklyn Book Festival. There had been a surprising number of side events at bookstores

BBF at Brooklyn Borough Hall

and beer gardens throughout the borough in the three days leading up, (for instance, the Vin Fiz readings posted about below) but I was still unprepared for the extent and scope of the main event itself on Sunday. It was enormous, with vendor booths and stands stretching throughout the lanes of Cadman Plaza in front of Borough Hall. At each hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. there were readings and panel discussions going on at eight different halls, including the courtroom in Borough Hall, the main hall of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the auditorium at St. Francis College. There were a couple of outdoor stages and even the expanses of the beautiful St. Ann’s Church were pressed into service.

There at St. Ann hundreds of people filled the pews under the gothic ceiling to hear an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. It was an astounding sight.

Sheri Holman, Terry McMillan, Nina Revoyr and Bernice McFadden

Star power was certainly on display elsewhere at the festival. Diva power is not one of my favorite spectacles, so I decided to skip Paul Auster, but I did manage to get my nose full of egomania anyway, from some more satisfying providers. Terry McMillan, the author of Waiting to Exhale, was the quintessential diva hamming it up for her adoring fans during her panel, making faces as her fellow panelists read, ostensibly in support of the text, but in the end just making sure that all eyes remained on her. I don’t know much about stagecraft, but I am sure that this is a cardinal sin of ensemble acting. When McMillan read, however, all was forgiven, as her writing is spot-on and her presentation skills were enthralling. She brought the text, from a work in progress, to life with the first syllable. And what a text: the inner voice of a housewife struggling to come to terms with a flawed marriage was powerful and haunting. Another divo who was not above antics to draw attention was Arthur Phillips, who whooped it up at the intro for another writer, again to make sure all eyes were on his chiseled good looks and stubble whiskers which had been perfectly aged to outline his dimples and square, manly jaw. He was the author a few years back, of the gimmicky titled Prague (the novel was about Budapest). And again, it was a case of drop-dead fantastic writing and championship presentation – in this case an autobiographical passage about a young woman throwing herself at his sexy bad self. The writing was tour-de-force brilliant and could even whet the appetite to read more

Kevin Wilson, Jessica Hagedorn and Arthur Phillips

about him in The Tragedy of Arthur. This was a great panel, with Kevin Wilson reading from The Family Fang about a flim-flam family in Atlanta. I instantly liked him when I saw that he was wearing a tie that I own (owned?) that I must have bought for a  dollar about thirty years ago. His reading voice was mellifluous proving how beautifully fitting a Southern voice can be for a thoughtful text. Jessica Hagedorn read from Toxicology about a quirky, aging couple in the West Village. All three were worthy of far more attention than the short hour they had to share.

There were other big draws with some of them, like Edmund White and Bernice McFadden, in the capacity of moderators as well as panelists. There were writers to meet, too. 290 different writers were listed in the program as signing books during the day at various locations! They ranged from the sublime (Joyce Carol Oates at St. Francis) to the slime (Senator Joe Lieberman at Borough Hall).

Amintava Kumar

There were ideas that inspired. I attended the discussion about time travel with Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else, historical fiction centering on Nikola Tesla, and with Diana Galbadon. Galbadon, another big draw at the festival, is the author of the NY Times #1 bestselling series of Outlander novels. With her insight and ironic sense of humor she showed why people are willing to plod through thousands of pages of romance and then beg for more. Unfortunately,  her reading from her latest work showed just how she arrives at thousands of pages – in the excerpt, which consisted of a couple of thousand words, her hero does nothing but look around in one spot of a dark tunnel he finds himself stuck in. I also attended a panel about unreliable subjects in non-fiction writing with a very charming Amintava Kumar (A Foreigner Carries in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb) and a confused discussion about the guidance that religious traditions can give to a spiritual writer, with Michael Mohommad Knight, a follower of the Nation of Islam (the “Black Muslims”), who tried, I think quite unsuccessfully, to explain why he (who is white) believes that the white man is the devil. Other, only slightly less perplexing apologias were given by Darcy Steinke and Peter Bebergal who spoke about the dilemmas that they faced, tapping into traditions for inspiration, but at the same time attempting to maintain their conceptual autonomy.

The festival was ample proof of how much the cultural life of New York City needed to expand beyond the confines of Manhattan island where the concentration of power and wealth leads each culture event to eventually wall up into a rarefied exercise in elitism. Just compare this totally free festival with the New Yorker Festival where audience tickets range from $30 to $75 and well beyond. The open, free wheeling atmosphere of Brooklyn provides a home where a more daringly innovative approach to the arts can thrive. Marty Markowitz, the indefatigable borough president, who usually hits the mark with his unabashed boosterism (usually – I hate the fuhgeddaboutit sign on the Belt Parkway) says in his short welcoming lines in the official program that this festival is “the most hip, smart and diverse book festival in the Northeast – not to mention the biggest!” You got it, Marty!

The ceiling at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church

September 19, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vin Fiz Centennial: the grape soda that flew

100 years ago today Cal Rodgers took off in his Wright Brothers plane from Brooklyn on his way to Los Angeles, in an attempt to win the $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst for the first air journey from coast to coast in less than 30 days. Rodgers’ flight was sponsored by the Armour Meat Company and his plane was named after the new soft drink they were peddling – the Vin Fiz.

The 1912 advertising image

At the oddest literary reading I ever attended (or was  that the Paris metro reading?) excerpts from E. P. Stein’s Flight of the Vin Fiz  and Eileen F. Lebow’s Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fizwere presented in the little exhibition room at Hangar B of Floyd Bennett Field, near where the Vin Fiz took off. That helped me to see the Vin Fiz as a real aircraft, and not as I imagined it: some kind of grape soda. Alas, there was no Vin Fiz served at the event, since the soft drink never really

an overgrown runway at Floyd Bennett Field

took off (see testimonials below). The other Vin Fiz did take off, but it didn’t quite make it to Los Angeles in 30 days… more like 49, having crashed and sputtered several times along the way.

Afterwards, the attendees were allowed to wander around in the hangar to puzzle over the airplane carcasses in various stages of recomposition there. It is a workshop for the reconstruction of historical aircraft, and there were some marvelous examples there. Afterwards, my friend and I wandered around the disused airport that has sat idle along Flatbush Avenue for decades. It was a beautiful day and we watched as enormous airbuses and boeings lumbered low in the sky as they approached JFK airport just a bit to the east. We also took some time

One of the many planes being restored

to watch the model airplane enthusiasts fly their own tiny aircraft on one weedy runway. It was an interesting day to reflect on the caprices of fate: the beverage that gains immortality as an aircraft, the prize that was never won, the world war two bombers and troop transports that retire to lives as tinker toys and the airfield that still lives, but only vicariously. I have to appreciate history’s ironic sense of humor. It leaves me with one burning question. What did Vin Fiz taste like?

With the wonders of the internet I was able to find out not only where it can be found today (in New Hampshire and Ohio!) and also an idea of its taste, judging from the following testimonials from 1911:

“Tastes like a cross between river water (sludge) and horse slop.”

“You have to sneak up on it to get it down.”

“It has a laxative effect.”

Doesn’t that make you just want to go out and get some? Well, you just missed it. An attempt was made to revive the brand in recent years… but it fizzled out. 

September 17, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , | Leave a comment

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino brings the bite of the tarantula to Alphabet City.

CGS, a group, from Southern Italy performs an astoundingly lively and living folk music that has existed undisturbed and undiscovered right in the middle of the Mediterranean for centuries. It is wonderful to hear it played so authentically in New York, albeit at Drom, a small club on Avenue A in Alphabet City.

Folk Music of Southern Italy

When people think of Southern Italian music, they generally conjure up Neapolitan music, which being the product of a large city, has a long history of commercialization and interaction with other musics. (see my article about Passione below). World music lovers might be familiar with other folk styles from the Neapolitan region, Campagna, through the efforts of La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, but the tarantella of the rural Salentino, with its characteristic pizzica style, a frenetic dance music which has been said to cure the bite of the tarantula, has remained in obscurity, ever in danger of extinction through emigration and indifference.

That would be a tremendous pity. This music has a historic quality that is unmatched elsewhere in Italy. The music of La Nuova Compagnia is closely related, but it is from a far more cosmopolitan and urban environment around Southern Italy’s main city and seaport. It reflects a society that thrives on cultural cross-fertilization and academic musical training. When you listen to the albums of NCCP you can hear the influences of other Mediterranean cultures, the melodies that gave inspiration to operatic composers from Pergolesi to Rossini and singing styles that grudgingly acknowledge the dictates of bel canto conservatories. In the music of the Salento, (in Puglia, the heel of the Souther Italian boot) in contrast, you hear the  sounds as they have existed for centuries in all their rustic glory. Right there, at very nearly the geographical center of the Mediterranean, the Salento culture has remained strong, like a little land in the permanent eye of the storm that has been the history of this sea over the centuries.

Even with the modern embellishments of violin and popular melodies that CGS brings to their music, there is nothing that I can point to as a close cousin to this sound. Sure, I can hear a wisp of fado in the ballads and clearly hear the Balkans resonating in the hollow-fifth male harmonies that imitate the sound of the bagpipes, and in the raw female voices, but the pizzica, with its frenetic drumming and bagpipe drone and its hypnotic melodies is something that can only be related to musics of a renaissance era past. Those simple melodies, often based on a triad of notes ascending and descending over and over again can be tiresome in some the songs, giving the tarantella a ninna-nanna lullaby quality, but in the pizzica they reveal their power: it is their very simplicity that gives the music its trance inducing dynamic. It is a music that comes alive in performance.

Alessandra Belloni performs

The Heritage Musical Groups

The post 1968 period brought an ethnic reawakening in Western societies as part of a broader urge for cultural exploration. The NCCP was formed in 1970 and the CGS later in the decade, as part of a new awareness of the value of the tarantella. In 1980 the formation of a New York group, the Giullari di Piazza brought the Southern Italian folk music to American audiences. The founder of that group, Alessandra Belloni, has dedicated herself to this music, laboring to bring this music to light from under a mountain of misconceptions and an active indifference from the Italian American community, who instead of championing the music of our people, generally turn up their noses and plug their ears at the very mention of the word “tarantella.” It is a word that conjures images of obligatory wedding dances on a level with the Hokey-Pokey and walking like an Egyptian. Belloni made a guest appearance with Canzoniere at Drom last night, and she made a spectacular impression with her passionate singing and dancing (to the point of writhing on the floor in pizzica passion). Although much older in years, she held her own with this group of virtuosi, blending perfectly with their incessant idiophones and string drums, blaring bagpipe, feverish violin and the smoking fisarmonica (can you imagine hot licks on an accordion? I couldn’t until last night).

An Audience for Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

During the past decade, with the establishment of the annual tarantella festival in the Salento, La Notte della Taranta, (see below) the CSG has finally begun to gain recognition outside of its small region. Certainly there is a wider audience for this music. Anyone interested in world music would be enthralled by this sound, it is unique and vibrant and expressly danceable, a fact that was attested to by the unusually large number of people who ended up jumping around on the dancefloor in front of the musicians. If you get a chance to get to Casa Italiana at NYU on October 3rd, prepare to be enchanted, and bring a few extra dollars to buy one of their CDs.

Some Links:

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino website

Alessandra Belloni, Giullari di Piazza

La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare

Casa Italiana at NYU events

La Notte della Taranta

The venue: Drom

My articles:

my ezine article about Il Sibilo Lungo della Taranta

re: Passione, musica napoletana

September 16, 2011 Posted by | concerts, music | , , , , | Leave a comment

Tales from the Golden Age: Cristian Mungiu hits his stride

The film Tales of the Golden Age (Amintiri din Epoca de Aur) is a black comedy about the absurdities of life in the late Ceausescu era of the 1980s.

click for an article at Libertas Film Magazine

The film is a perfectly tuned cavalcade of characters who fill the screen with their dread, charm, zeal and depression, but never despair. It is also deeply satisfying to see the filmmaker Cristian Mungiu outdoing himself while revisiting that period, the setting of his highly successful 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That might seem like a difficult task, considering the oddly lavish praise that he received for that previous effort, which landed him the Palme D’Or at Cannes, as well as the European Film Award and making him the undeniable Flavor of the Month for quite a few months running. But that movie, “4 – 3 – 2” which focused on the wrenching troubles of a college girl as she procures an illegal abortion in the dark days of communism benefitted perhaps too much from favorable timing, a desire to reward new Eastern talent and a feeling that Romania’s time had come, and all the inscrutable politics that go into film jury awards. It was indeed darkly moving and effective, but to my mind it suffered from the usual Balkan indie syndrome: plodding direction, hermetic dialog and worst of all, Tarkovskian pretentiousness that often brings the concept of the long take to absurd extremes, to the point of stopping the action altogether.

“Tales” is quite different, and probably because Mungiu has carved out a different role for himself, as writer and executive director, that obviously fits him much better. He has brought together a group of new (but not young) directors to present a medley of short pieces. These are all stories that had circulated among the population in that period, “urban legends” that like the epics and minstrel tales of earlier times, embody the spirit of a people. Each one tells of ordinary people who squirm and operate in resistance to the capriciousness and Kafkaesque inscrutability of governmental authority. They are all eventually done in by the overwhelming force of the official machine, but things are not all that bleak: the stories have more than a bit of the comedy all’italiana to them, and there is an indomitable spirit and a joie de vivre that energizes the film. These directors, all in their thirties or early forties, have had the time and life experience to emerge from that Balkan gloom to look at their past with an understanding and sympathy that only they could provide. They have created a film about petty greed, corruption and silly revolutionary zeal that speaks about the human condition in a way that everyone can relate to. I especially liked the first tale, about a village that is trying its best to prepare for a state visit drive-by. The communist party petty officials who come to give them the list of hoops they must jump through are buffoonish but charming in their way and we readily go along for the ride as the villagers are swept into the excitement of it. Unfortunately for them and the petty officials, they all end up riding endlessly strapped into a carnival ride all night long. The story is topped off perfectly, as local shepherds watch cynically, misunderstanding their cries for help as shouts of decadent joy.

Cristian Mungiu and Iona Maria Uricaru are credited with the screenplay, and it is outstanding: crisp and funny and so revealing of the way people thought in those almost forgotten days. I lived in Romania for three years in the 1990s and although I never knew the communist apparatchiks, I recognized the people in this film and their every action and reaction immediately. Of course, one could quibble about the props, the outlandishly expensive carnival ride and the high quality of some of the clothing, for instance would have been out of place even in the small town Romania of 1992, much less that of the Ceausescu era, but any more accuracy would probably be more of a distraction than anything else.  I doubt that today’s audiences would even believe the post-industrial squalor of that period, and would take it as propaganda. The directors, besides Mungiu and Uricaru, are Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu and Constantin Popescu. And although direction for the individual tales is not listed in any of the press material or on screen,  …. in the Village Voice states that festival rumor mills credited Mungiu for the last two tales (which were released as a separate feature film in Romania). This sounds reasonable. The penultimate tale, about young people scamming apartment dwellers in order to collect their empty bottles for the deposits, is set in the type of milieu that recalls 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. There are some fine moments here, with the two teens, played by Diana Cavallioti and  Radu Iacoban, collecting apartment air in the bottles (supposedly for chemical analysis) with comic ineptitude. The last tale, about a truck driver who gets himself caught up in the sale of stolen eggs, is a bit less effective. It is slower than the previous tales, and the sudden reappearance of the pregnant pauses makes one suddenly realize how mercifully free of such conceits the previous pieces had been. Here, the silences (and the long takes of the nape of the truck driver’s neck) are used to convey the loneliness and inhibitions that the driver Grigore (Vlad Ivanov) feels, and they are somewhat effective in this. Such devices can work if they are used in extreme moderation, like a light seasoning of black pepper on your stuffed cabbage. Less effective was the dreadful device of open ended ending, which the director uses here to finish his tale and finish the film. It is the trademark cop-out of Balkan arthouse films, and it is particularly unwelcome here, where just one sentence from Grigore or his female accomplice in crime could have said something really poignant, revealing, prescient or encouraging. The director of this segment (Mungiu?) has let the dramatic tension percolate and rise so effectively, leading us up to a great platform on which to say something… and instead we are left with nothing… the frame goes black…. supposedly so that we can fill it in for ourselves.

Cristian Mungiu is interviewed at Cannes about how this film differs from his “arthouse” style.  Unfortunately, he still hasn’t  quite given up that art house elitism. On  youtube:

In spite of the backsliding in the last segment, Mungiu’s ability to put all the pieces together in this seemlessly stitched together tapestry bodes well for future productions. I hope he continues on this path and continues to help create an artistic representation of that surrealistic world of the late Twentieth Century.

Click here for Tales from the Golden Age on the Sundance website, with clips.

Some related posts about Romania on my blogs:

Page for my novel, The Shriek and the Rattle of Trains, set in Romania in 1993.

Some of my Romanian photos on my art blog.

The Paper will be blue, film by Radu Muntean

My Reviews about other Balkan films:

Former-Yugoslav filmmakers explore the dark

I am from Titov Veles

Beyond the Kosovo rainbow

Bulgaria’s mosquito problem

Sarajevo’s Historical Museum

No one’s Croatian Son

A Man without a Mustache

Bosnian War as absurdist theater

September 1, 2011 Posted by | cinema | , , | Leave a comment