Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

NY Giants in the Canyon of Heroes: You call that a ticker tape parade???

Football is not exactly my thing, whether it’s soccer or American style, but like any New Yorker, I was glad that the local team won the Super Bowl. When I heard that the mayor was giving the team a ticker tape parade up Broadway on Tuesday morning I decided to go and check it out. I had only been to one for the Mets in the 1980s, and it was a big thrill. I had always loved the photos of the old ticker tape parades of the past, when the ticker tape flowed down from the 1920s skyscrapers in blizzards of joy. This one I attended was a good simulacrum as workers, in that less security conscious age, dumped the contents of the office paper shredders out the windows. It turned out to be a dying art form, though. In recent years, the city has imbedded metal strips into the sidewalk of lower Broadway, “The Canyon of Heroes” commemorating each of those historic parades, and the list is truly impressive, from Brazilian presidents, to French and British war heroes to aviators, including Wrong Way Corrigan. Would Mayor Bloomberg really be adding to that venerable list of honorees with a ticker tape parade in this age when ticker tape itself is only a distant memory? I had to see what would happen.

Well, unfortunately, not very much. I couldn’t get onto Broadway in the crush of people so I had to content myself with a vantage point on the curb at Battery Park. But it didn’t seem to make any difference. Of the several sponsored floats that passed by carrying corporate suits on cell phones and anonymous family members in various stage of desultory interest, a few team members were recognizable to the crowd (if not to me). Some enthusiastic fans threw whole toilet paper rolls at them, letting the TP unfurl in the air in a lurid imitation of ticker tape. It was faintly amusing when one of the suits would cringe instinctively as a fat roll of white toilet paper came crashing

The evidence. Pathetic.

through the air at him, and his attempts to throw it back into the crowd could be interpreted in several ways. Then when the floats turned the corner at the edge of the park and rolled slowly up Broadway for the real parade, they did so under an intermittent shower of … letter sized copy paper. Copy paper being a bit more expensive than old dustbin destined ticker tape, there was not very much of it, and it floated aimlessly around in the air.

So this is what a ticker tape parade is reduced to in 2012. It doesn’t seem worth the effort and definitely does not seem worthy of the name, much less of an added strip to memorialize it in the sidewalk.

There is talk of a ticker tape parade to honor the military men and women who have served in Iraq. This is a wonderful idea, as yet to be approved by the mayor (who is resisting). If this does come to pass, it HAS GOT TO BE done better than this. It would be an insult to “honor” these Iraqi War Veterans, who have risked life and limb for us, by subjecting them to a shower of toilet paper and the contents of the office paper jam. Let’s have that parade, but let’s do it right!

February 8, 2012 Posted by | daily life | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Martí, Bolivar, Duarte and Rivera perch in a Ponce Park

There is a wonderfully tranquil corner of Ponce, Puerto Rico where a group of small parks meet the Portuguese River. Here each park has a theme, and I sat in the one dedicated to the thinkers and statesmen that are national heroes of independence in the Spanish speaking Caribbean. Busts of the four famous men of this region gaze across a patch of green at each other: Simón Bolivar of Venezuela, José Martí of Cuba, Juan Pablo Duarte of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico’s own Luis Muñoz Rivera. They are modest scupltures that perch just barely above eye level and they seem at home among the foliage and the occasional visitor that chooses to commune with them here. Beyond this park is the Bridge of Lions and a road that leads traffic into the old city, but the park itself is leafy and quiet and perfect for meditation or photography, or drawing.

Drawing is what I do when I forget my camera, or as on the day I visited this park, forget to charge my battery. Instead of imagining how every vista would look in pixels on a screen, I was forced to draw the scenes that I liked, and thus experience them in an intimate way. It is a lesson I reluctantly learn over and over again. With cameras we hunker down behind the lens, seeing everything from a technician’s point of view and thus cutting ouselves off from the very experience we are trying to capture. When we draw, in contrast, we are forced to look carefully, at every detail, to really see. It was a bit tedious and it took up an entire morning, but it felt like a real accomplishment and now, with a little help from photoshop, I have some nice souvenirs, too.

Juan Pablo Duarte

José Martí

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Puente de Leones crosses the Río Portugués at this point. This city is named in honor of Ponce de León, who as an explorer in the service of the Spanish crown became Puerto Rico’s first governor. Like the city of Léon in Spain, the city of Ponce has the lion as its symbol. A lion stands atop the two columns at the city end of the bridge, the Wise Lion, symbolizing the city’s heritage, and the Young Lion (seen in this drawing) symbolizing the city’s future.

February 6, 2012 Posted by | daily life | , , , , | 2 Comments

Cabu, Paris and Vélib: a slightly bitter aftertaste

Cabu is the pseudonym of Jean Cabut a prolific cartoonist who has illustrated Parisian life for over 50 years. The city held a fine exhibit of his work this past winter. Here is a sample of his Parisian drawings from a website:
Cabu on Linternaute Paris

However, the drawing that Cabu has just done for an ad campaign recently appearing on kiosks and in print for the City is a bit less Joli-Paris than usual. It concerns the city’s Velib Program, a network of bicycle stations all over the city where Parisians and visitors can pick up bicycles, ride around the city and then drop them off. The program has hit a snag,.. the exact problem that would pop up in any New Yorker’s mind at the mere mention of such a scheme: a high rate of vandalism. According to this ad, 16,000 bikes have been vandalized and another 8,000 stolen. (The New Yorkers say, “Well, … duh!) The cartoon says, “It’s easy to destroy a Velib, it can’t defend itself,” hoping to shame those people who would damage the bikes just for kicks. Will such an appeal have any effect? Do such people have any shame? It remains to be seen.

This ad for the City of Paris admonishes those who have vandalized or stolen the city's free bicycles.

This ad for the City of Paris admonishes those who have vandalized or stolen the city's free bicycles.

June 24, 2009 Posted by | daily life | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

La Fête de la Musique and the sight of blood

This year’s Fête de la Musique came at an awkward time. When I got up in the morning and looked on the computer one of the first things I saw was the cruel death of Neda on a street of Tehran. It was a sickening sight. This photo is from the beginning of the video, before the blood rushed out of her mouth and nose,Neda leaving her dead within seconds. The other photos on the web are too graphic to post here. One could say that it is a senseless death, a young girl, forced to her death on the dirty pavement of a city street, but it does not have to be seen that way. In the language and symbolism of martyrdom that is such a central element of Shi’a culture, she gave her life for her people, and she died among them, contributing her life force to them and letting it multiply far more than she could ever do on her own.

tambourinesLater in the day, at the demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in Place d’Iena, the music was chanting, whistles and speeches, punctuated only by a short burst of drumbeats by a group of people playing Dafs, the very large Persian tambourines. It was a jolting, insistent and fortifyng sound.

Later on, I went to the Institut du Monde Arabe for the concert on the plaza there. It was full of a jubilant crowd, and this was a good way to end the day. The images of Neda and of other bloody victims that I remembered from the demonstration (many people held up digital images taken from the internet), and these new images of happy faces blended in my mind to restore some balance.

The first performer was Makhlouf, a singer from Mekla, a city in the Kabyle region of Algeria. The MC described his style as Andalusian, and I found this curious, and then when he started singing, I could hear the connection. In his handout blurb, it states that he studied at a conservatory of Andalusian music, and the style of his music is called hawzi, which relies on a subtle and masterful vocal art. His compositions were very well received by the crowd.

Makhlouf Aberkane

Makhlouf Aberkane

The obligatory shakey-shake

The obligatory shakey-shake

After that, the next act was Tunisian, a young man at the synthesizer, named Slim. He started out playing music in the clubs of Djerba, but eventually moved to France, where he has been building his career in the Tunisian community. He played Tunisian standards which got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd,

Slim Ghanouchi

Slim Ghanouchi

who sang along and danced up a storm.

June 22, 2009 Posted by | daily life, happenings, music | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iranians pick up where they left off 30 years ago!

mousaviOur friends in Iran have been waiting for their revolution for thirty years and they are sick of waiting. They suffered and bled to get rid of the Shah only to have their revolution sabotaged and highjacked by reactionaries and medieval fools.

For those who live far away, there is very little we can do to show our support. However, one small thing that we can do, that costs us nothing, but means so much inside of Iran, is to finally GET TO KNOW who the Iranian people really are, behind all the propaganda. You can begin right here:

What are the media saying?

The Iran Times

But you’d rather get some SOURCE Information? Try this forum:

iran.whyweprotest.net

Or this progressive news service:

Rooz on line

Citizen journalists:

CNN iReports

The blogs? A good place to start is this report by Omid Memarian on Huffington Post:

Omid Memarian’s Coup Manual

tehranlive.org

What are well known Iranians saying?

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Persepolis writer Marjane Satrapi.

A gallery of selected photos from the many many many you can find on the web:

There’s lots of raw video on You Tube. An example:

June 17, 2009 Posted by | daily life, happenings | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imitation of Life, from pulp fiction to American myth

Imitation_book_poster2Finally seeing the 1959 film, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner, brought up mixed emotions. I smiled and cringed at the same time, throughout the film. In this overwrought tearjerker, the story meanders from illogical to idiotic to absurd, but at the same time, it is unfailingly fascinating. It was like finding a long elusive itch, one that you had forgotten that you had. I vaguely remember that there was some amount of controversial atmosphere around this film’s release. My curiosity was piqued and I decided to investigate a bit.

The Novel by Fannie Hurst
So let’s start at the beginning. The novel, Imitation of Life, first appeared in 1933. It was written by Fannie Hurst, a very well known writer of popular fiction, and it was an immediate best seller. Reading the excerpts that I can find on the internet, I am curious about this novel, but not curious enough to want to read it through. The story seems hackneyed, and the writing is strange, dated and almost unreadable at times. A few lines describing the main white character’s widowed father:
“Since her passing, Evans Chipley was somehow, to his daughter, looking so dwarfed. Almost as if he had shriveled into his clothes and hung in the middle of them like a spider close to the center of his web. Poor Father. Life for him must be made to proceed as closely as possible to the pattern she had woven about his fastidious little needs.”
It appears that Fannie Hurst wrote a cliché ridden pulp novel, an imitation of literature, so to speak, but it turned out to be an imitation of American life, as well, and that was its value. The novel would have probably run its course and faded from memory, like the rest of Hurst’s oeuvre, except for the new life breathed into it by the film version, one year later. This first Hollywood version of Imitation of Life was an elaborate production directed by one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors of that time, John Stahl, and it starred one of filmdom’s biggest stars, Claudette Colbert.

claudette
The 1934 film, directed by John Stahl

To modern eyes, the 1934 film is a very eerie and odd Imitation of Life. In this version, two struggling single mothers, one black and one white, team up to face the world together. Never mind that “teaming up” means that the black woman will serve as the white woman’s maid, there really weren’t many other options for teaming up at that time. The real problem is with the rebellious daughters, especially the black one, who is so light skinned that she defiantly passes for white and rejects her black mother. Meanwhile, the two mothers work their way out of poverty, so much so that Claudette Colbert ends up living in grand luxury selling the black woman’s pancake mix, while the black woman still lives in the same old maid’s quarters, without a share of the profits. And the inequality is accepted not only as the status quo, but as inherent and perpetual. The two daughters are brought up under the same roof, but under completely separate conditions. One to be a rich, spoiled heiress, and the other to be a poor worker. But never mind that! The real tragedy, remember?, is the black daughter who, in passing for white, has lost her soul.

 

colbertposter
Colbert was a sophisticated actress and she plays her enlightened white woman role with a modern naturalness. It is a noteworthy performance, given that we are in 1934, close to the beginnings of “talkies” when the art of movie acting was still in its infancy, and still heavily influenced by the overtly histrionic traditions of stage acting and silent film mime. But it is a bit stilted, oozing good intentions as she merrily lives off her friend’s talents. The demands of the Hollywood dream factory during those Depression years dictated an aura of affluence for the star Claudette Colbert, and the visual conventions of that time, when realism was still a dirty word, also necessitated keeping the star made-up, powdered and painted and coiffed even as she slept, all of which undermines the basic premise, that for the first part of the film, both women are broke.

imitation_of_lifeLouise Beavers, who plays her black friend, attempts to give her character some depth, and she is very convincing in depicting the abject social conditions a woman in her position would have to face. Beavers’ acting is one of the first attempts to use film to simply juxtapose real characters and this uncivilized reality, and the effect is revolutionary. The film says nothing unconventional, but by its very existence, it is daring and courageous for its time. Nevertheless, it is still Hurst’s silly and retrograde story. The basic message to blacks in that story seems to be, “know your place and don’t act too uppity, or you will suffer.”
Thus, the story is working on several contradictory levels, each one reinforcing the other by its very opposition. The more ridiculous the story, the more intense the human suffering. We are expected to empathize with the black maid to a certain point, and then stop at the brick wall of segregated aspirations. This stop doesn’t work, and the underlying tension is palpable, however hard it would have been for those contemporaries to put into words. The story had a truth and an importance beyond its own artifice. It touched on something raw and painful just below the surface. It was not something easily explained but it was felt quite clearly, by African Americans as well as by whites.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, as quoted in the Duke University Press edition (2004) of the novel:
“Although it’s a ‘white’ novel, Imitation of Life is certainly a part of the African American canon. No film was more important to me as a ‘colored’ child growing up in West Virginia…”

One of the most remarkable (and remarked) aspects of the acting, was the extraordinary performances given by Louise Beavers as Delilah, and Fredi Washington, who plays Peola, her light-skinned daughter.
In their review of Donald Bogle’s book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, Matthew H. Bernstein and Dana F. White state that the 1934 film, “… boasts two black actors transcending their flatly scripted roles. Even the film industry trade press and major white northeastern newspapers expressed surprise at the power of Beavers’ and Washington’s performances.” (“Imitation of Life in a Segregated Atlanta,” in Film History: An International Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2007)
Bernstein and White also state, “At the same time, the film’s popularity with black audiences is well-known: Imitation of Life was a cultural event, a watershed. Bogle notes that ‘Black ministers preached sermons about it while black intellectuals wrote about the film as well.”

Download and read the article. First page pdf. Second page pdf.

It seems that the process of filming this story put it through a strange metamorphosis; the scenes convey far more than the writers put into them, the words convey much more than their superficial meanings. Here, as the story passed through other hands, as it was retold over and over again, by screenwriters, actors, director, cameramen, and became interpreted and re-interpreted over again by the movie audiences, it took on more and more of a life of its own, and it became more imbued with the knowledge and experience that we all, as members of this multiracial society, have brought to it. It underwent a process of mythification.

The 1959 film, directed by Douglas Sirk

Twenty five years passed, and the story was revisited in 1959. This version stars Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner in the four female roles. America and Hollywood had changed in that period, but there were still many intricate rules, prohibitions, taboos and fetishes. Imitation of Life was still a hot button connected to something deep, inexplicable and upsetting about America.
For the visual element, something more glamorous and upbeat was needed in the America of postwar economic miracle. Now the white woman, Lora Meredith, played by Lana Turner, has become a theater actress, and a tinselly celebrity context is introduced. Everything is much more visually appealing, and of course, colorful for this lavish production.

imitation59posterIn those 25 years since the earlier version, few things had changed materially in the black and white relationship. For instance, the imagery in the publicity material for the 1959 film still focuses almost exclusively on the white performers, even though the real story is among the black characters. An ad campaign that pushed black actors to the front would have been box-office poison. However, there was a new sense of critical social analysis and a greater sense of social justice. Thus, certain changes were needed to make the story palatable to mid-century viewers. The white woman starts out a bit more convincingly poor, and she brings the black woman to live with her in a working class flat, rather than Colbert’s lovely suburban digs. Nevertheless, the basic mythological significance was never weakened. The black woman, Annie, played by Juanita Moore, is still the maid. She is allowed by the writers to improve her lot a bit, and later in the film, she refers to the large nestegg of money she has amassed over the years. More importantly, the blatantly exploitative pancake business has been abandoned, and now Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) gains her wealth more honestly through her own theater work.

Lora Meredith is still a positive, sympathetic person, but far more nuanced. She is proud of her openmindedness, but is perhaps a bit more racist that she realizes. She says to Annie, “I didn’t know you had any friends,” and this one replies, “Oh, I have many friends. You just never asked.” This is later contrasted by the image of Annie’s large funeral where indeed many friends mourn her death. We also get a glimpse of the dark side of Lora Meredith’s ambition, when she immediately falls in love with the first powerful Broadway playwright that she meets, thus guaranteeing her career. There is nothing in the words themselves that Turner speaks to show that she is anything but sincere in her love, but it is to the great credit of Lana Turner and a very talented director that she clearly conveys the ambiguity and oddness of this turn of events. This director, Douglas Sirk, a filmmaking émigré from Nazi Germany, understood this phenomenon from his unique angle, and using this conventional Hollywood writers’ mill script, he managed to make this film his signature Hollywood piece.

Another important change in 1959 is the shifting of more emphasis onto the black characters, who are indisputably the dramatic center of the story. Both Moore and Kohner get much more film time than did Beavers and Washington.

Susan Kohner

Susan Kohner

There is more playing toward the youthful audience, with both daughters’ stories more prominent, one for good reasons and the other, not so good. Sandra Dee’s star status and her scenery chewing performance which seems like a throwback to the 1934 era, make her impossible to miss, and sometimes it is necessary to try to see around her and listen past her voice to keep up with the story. At times it seems she is there simply to give an excuse to bring on Kohner, whose compelling story is the true nexus. Now when we see the black daughter padding around the house nervously while the whites have an elegant dinner party elsewhere in the same house, her agitation is more fully developed psychologically, and it rings true. We can perceive and understand her inchoate outrage, rather than tsk at her pouting, as in the 1934 film. Susan Kohner’s seething portrayal of Sarah Jane is quite artistic, and it seems to tap out the whole mythical key to this drama. She may not be the main character of this silly tale, but she is the dead-serious protagonist of this myth, and Kohner knows it. The critics knew it as well, and she was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Shelley Winters), and won a Golden Globe.

Another innovation is the elevation of the black musical interludes from the folkloristic level of the 1934 film, to a more dignified, professional level in 1959, reflecting the heightened awareness of the importance of black musical art in American culture. Whereas the spirituals are sung in the background by an unseen choir in 1934, as an atmospheric exercise in ethnomusicology, in 1959, Mahalia Jackson is showcased, singing Trouble of the World. She is facing right into the camera, singing to the film audience, and this is significant, because it demonstrates how Hollywood has come to recognize at this point that American black music speaks to all Americans. We are not just listening to the sounds that comfort the black woman, but rather listening to the sounds that comfort us all. Here she is, in the funeral scene:

If it were filmed today?

Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington

Maybe it’s time for a new version of Imitation of Life, 50 years later. Only this time, I suspect that the focus would shift even more dramatically, to the one character that truly speaks about the enigmas and paradoxes of our world: the daughter who “passes.” Even today it would be a difficult story, one that would raise controversy and conflicting emotions. Maybe a new version would use Hurst’s “Imitation” as simply a story within a story, and focus on the real life trials of the actresses who played the key roles. Both Fredi Washington and Susan Kohner faced great pressures and injustices as actresses because of their ambiguous position in a segregated film industry. A film about their own lives would be fascinating, though something similar has already been done in the made for TV biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, for which Halle Berry won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

Every society finds its myths. There are basic problems, ironies and paradoxes in every society that can be expressed only through art. They are immune to logic, for logic can never explain the love hate relationship we all have with the frailties of human existence, the weaknesses that inform our creativity, and thus, our art and our beauty. Imitation of Life is a flawed story: maudlin, unrealistic, shopworn and naïve, but it deals frankly with one of the most basic ironies of U.S. society, and that is the symbiosis between Europe and Africa in our culture: white and black. And at its core is an old primal fear of racist society; Blacks passing for Whites. We may not fear this so much as in the past, but it does make people of all races deeply uncomfortable to talk about. Perhaps in the new version, we would be courageous enough to really explore the dilemma of this young woman’s fate.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | cinema, daily life | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment