Monthly Archives: August 2012

August 2012

Obsession & Empathy: Nan Goldin, Michael Chabon, & A Home for Indigent Bohemians

By |08.31.12|

 

Two weeks ago, artists and art lovers converged on the quiet town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, for a chance to meet some of the most talented contemporary artists working today. Each August the famed MacDowell Colony opens its doors to the public and gives visitors from around the country an opportunity to tour its 32 studios, historic sites, 450 acres of forest, vegetable gardens, streams, orchards, and fields.

When composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian established an artist retreat in the New Hampshire woods in 1907, the idea seemed nothing less than ridiculous. Skeptics were quick to pounce, accusing Mrs. MacDowell of creating “a home for indigent bohemians.” But remarkably, the idea worked. The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist retreat in the United States, has supported over 6000 writers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, architects, and performers, and spawned hundreds of other programs based on its model. For two to eight weeks at a time, artists are given a private studio, three meals a day (lunch is delivered in the now-legendary picnic baskets), and quiet time to work on a creative project within a community of artistic peers.

What makes MacDowell’s Medal Day unique is the diverse range of artists, art lovers and supporters who are thrown together for a weekend of socializing, open studios, and conversations about the value and meaning of art—art on a personal level, but also a national one. Medal Day is like a family reunion of sorts, with the usual cast of crazy cousins and wise matriarchs mingling with all of those black sheep (and there are plenty of black sheep).

But regardless of your role in the MacDowell family—whether you’re a colony fellow, a local resident, an out-of-town visitor, a volunteer, a staff member, a friend, a supporter, or in my case, a former staff member turned press—there is always a sense of homecoming when you step onto the Colony property. From the moment that MacDowell fellow and board member Michael Chabon steps up to the microphone, you become hyperaware that in this oasis the value of art is not only assumed, but considered as essential as food, water, or air.

 

 

 

 

 

 
During this year’s ceremony, I appreciated Executive Director Cheryl Young’s thoughts on “bohemianism” and the financial struggles of working artists:
Luc [Sante] devotes a chapter to bohemia in New York in Low Life noting it was a state of mind more than a place. Therein he quotes a definition of the term by the author Ada Clare: “The Bohemian is by nature, if not by habit, a cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts and for all things above and beyond convention. The Bohemian is not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs… Above all others, the Bohemian must not be narrow-minded.”
She goes on to say that Bohemians do not strive to be poor. They are poor because they have eschewed more stable ways of earning a living to pursue life more freely. Bohemians like Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane were good examples of artists who embraced the idea of creative freedom, who eschewed the mainstream and remained on the fringe even after success.
Not all artists are bohemian, but they all-too-often share the common trait of being poor. For Edward MacDowell, who was employed as a professor and struggled to carve out time to make new work, creating a colony was a brilliant scheme to temporarily free artists from their everyday commitments to work and commerce. The Colony is a kind of sanctioned bohemia, one that works particularly well within a capitalist economy where the state only slimly supports artists. MacDowell provides opportunity for research and development for ideas that may or may not register in the commercial marketplace. And residency programs have proven their worth many times over and are today one of our country’s most copied ideas. In the past twenty years there has been an explosion of these sorts of programs internationally.
 

 

 

 

The Colony has been awarding the Edward MacDowell Medal, a prestigious lifetime achievement award, for 53 years. Past recipients include visual artists Robert Frank, Edward Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, and Georgia O’Keeffe; composers Leonard Bernstein and Sonny Rollins; architect I.M. Pei; filmmakers Chuck Jones and Stan Brakhage; interdisciplinary artist Merce Cunningham; writers Robert Frost, William Styron, Eudora Welty, and Joan Didion; and playwrights Thornton Wilder and Edward Albee.

Photographer Nan Goldin was the 2012 medal recipient. Goldin is known for her highly personal photographs of friends and lovers coping with AIDS, physical abuse, and addiction. Luc Sante, chairman of this year’s Medalist selection committee, said,“Nan Goldin’s photographs of her life, her friends, and her family—unflinchingly honest, nakedly emotional, sometimes brutal, but most often tender —redefined the autobiographical use of photography and influenced everyone who has come after her.” Sante, who introduced Goldin during the event, described the artist as a “visual diarist” who tries “to freeze time” by capturing her friends at the beach, at parties, in bed. “The moment is the subject,” Sante said. They are “emphatically not snapshots.”

 

 

 

 

[…]

The Sunday Poem : Hayden Carruth

By |08.19.12|

 

 

 

 

 
For Geof
 
I’m eighty-four now. Now I know what I
Should have done. After the war I should
Have stayed in the army. And now I’d be
A retired sergeant or captain with a pension
Much bigger than social security. Instead
All those years of puzzling with a stubby pen-
Cil over a dog-eared tablet of scrawly lines,
Synonyms listed in the margins and arrows flying
This way and that. Years, I say. Thinking
Of words, words, words, nothing but words
Zipping or fluttering above a cotton field
In the dull Louisiana of my consciousness.
And all the recompense was now and then
A moment’s elation or a tipsy smile
From one passing female or another. Now
What have I left to do? Only this penta-
Metric shuffle in the checkout line with my
No Advantage Card clutched in my greasy hand
While Frank Sinatra is eating soup on the Muzak.
Give me a break, man. I’m doing the best I can.
Oops.

 

 

 

For Wendell
 
For the light is changed.
For the song of the brook is
Changed. And we too are changed.
So select a pod and pick it.
Press it to make it split
And run your thumb along
The spine to gather the green
Peas and throw them into
Your mouth, and taste—
And taste the green spring!

 

 
[…]

Samein Priester on Fatherhood, Film, & Loss of His Wife, Artist Denyse Thomasos

By |08.17.12|

 

How do you learn to be a father, particularly when there are no fathers around to be an example?

This is the question at the heart of Samein Priester’s personal documentary 1st&4ever. The dilemma of fatherhood has taken on new significance for Samein since the tragic loss of his partner, artist Denyse Thomasos, last month.

Denyse’s visit to the hospital on July 19th was supposed to be routine. She was there for an MRI, but during the procedure she suffered a fatal allergic reaction. Her sudden death has left her husband, friends, family, students, colleagues, and the New York art community in shock. Denyse was only 47 years old.

Since 1995, Denyse taught in the Arts, Culture and Media Department at Rutgers University, Newark. When she met Samein, he was preparing to complete his undergraduate degree at Hunter. It was Denyse who pushed Samein to apply to graduate school at the City College of New York. “When I first got into grad school,” Samein explains in 1st&4ever, “my mother didn’t even know what that was, but she knew it was something big.” In December 2009, during his first semester, Samein’s mother passed away. She was the glue that held the family together, and her loss was a terrible blow to the family. In June of 2011 Samein graduated from City College.

 

 

Denyse and Samein were not only best friends and spouses, but also partners in life, work, and parenthood. In June of 2010 the couple adopted their first child, Syann, a joyful event that Samein chronicles at the end of 1st&4ever. “I’m going to be the best father that Syann can possibly ever have,” he says in his film. Samein repeated the same sentiment when we spoke at length on the phone last week. He is clearly stunned and grieving the sudden loss of his partner, but he is also focused on his daughter and creating a healthy, stable life for her in spite of Denyse’s absence.

“From the moment I met Denyse my life turned around,” Samein told me today via email. “She really made all of my dreams come true, down to my baby girl Syann. That was a name I had since I was 15. I always knew I’d have a daughter and her name would be Syann.”

 

 

 

 

Samein and Denyse were both fellows at The MacDowell Colony. I met Samein at the Colony in the spring, just as I was leaving my job after 13 years to work on Gwarlingo full time. “Denyse told me I should apply,” Samein told me. “She knew I needed time to work, but she also thought the experience would be good for me as an artist.” Denyse clearly was supportive of her husband’s film career, just as he was supportive of her residencies, teaching job, and career as a painter. Tending to work and parenting was clearly a juggling act, but he said that he and Denyse were up to the challenge.

While in Peterborough, Samein talked a lot about his daughter, Syann, and how hard it was to be away from her, even for a short time. Each day when I ran into Samein returning his lunch basket in the main building, he smiled and expressed gratitude for the time, space, food, and community that MacDowell was providing him. He was well-liked by residents and staff alike, and we were all sorry when family obligations required him to return to New York after only a brief stay in New Hampshire.

But none of us forgot Samein or his powerful, short film 1st&4ever, which he screened during his residency. Half of the audience was in tears by the time it ended, but 1st&4ever is far from a sentimental tearjerker. It’s an honest, intimate portrait of a family doing their best to overcome the absent fathers who have left gaping holes in their lives. The minute the film was finished I knew that I wanted to share 1st&4ever with Gwarlingo readers.

Priester’s film won “Best Documentary” in the Newark Museum Black Film Festival 2012, as well as “Best Documentary” and “Best Cinematography in a Documentary” in the 2011 Citivision thesis show.

 

 

The central focus of the film is Samein’s nephew, Donte Clark, a football player whose mother was only 18 years old when he was born. Donte has had contact with his father only twice in his life — once by phone and once through a letter his father sent him from jail. Samein was 13 when Donte was born, but he stepped up to the plate to help his sister Vanessa by mixing baby formula, changing diapers, and babysitting. “When you’re in the hood,” Sameine says in his film, “you don’t have a choice. It’s like all hands on deck. You don’t set out to be a father figure. You just start to multitask…There’s no daycare or nannies. There’s just family.”
“Donte’s father was never around. My father wasn’t ever around. Really nobody’s father was around. They were in jail, dead, or missing in action. It was like no-man’s land. I thought it was normal, but it’s really not.”
These intimate glimpses of Samein, his mother, and Donte are interspersed with memorable images of Harlem, subway trains, and the distant skyscrapers of New York City. But these views are mostly seen through mesh screens or chain-link fences. In Priester’s film, there is always something standing in the way.

Football is a lifeline for Donte. While other kids are “getting beat-up or shot,” he spends time in the park playing football. New York Venom head football coach Booker T. McJunkins says that his job is to be a foster father by helping each individual ball player. He explains that being a father figure is more important than accolades or the team’s success as a whole:
“A lot of these kids don’t know how to be men, they don’t know how to raise a family. They don’t know how to show compassion. That’s why we have the problems we have in the city, because a lot of these kids don’t have male figures in their lives…People look at these 18, 19-year-olds, 2o-year-olds, 21-year olds, even 22-year-olds as grown up men, but those are still little boys wrapped in a grown man’s package.”
Samein lost his own father when he was three. “He wasn’t there to teach me how to be a man or to teach me how to be a father,” Samein says in 1st&4ever. “None of us have role models for that. Helping raise Donte made me want to be a father, but how do you learn to be a father without examples?”

 

 

 

 

The intimate images of Syann, Denise, and Samein that conclude 1st&4ever are supposed to be a hopeful ending to this story of a close-knit, fatherless family. Seeing the three of them together during and after the adoption, we’re confident that some old patterns have been broken at last.

But as I watched the film again today, it was impossible not to feel the sting of Denyse’s loss. Being “a good father” is challenging under the best of circumstances. Now Samein must tackle the job without the support of his wife and partner. I can only admire Samein’s dedication to Syann and his nephew Donte. The path to fatherhood has been, and will be, hard-won for Samein, but he has a strong support network, including the help of Denyse’s family in Canada.

When I asked Samein to share some of the directors who inspire him most, he mentioned John Cassavetes, Spike Lee, and Francis Ford Coppola. Favorite movies include Fight Club, The Conversation, True Romance, Reds, The Piano, and She’s Gotta Have It.

Priester has two new projects in the works. The first is a film called Harlem Sons about three men from Harlem who are released from prison after serving nearly 30 years. Like 1st&4ever, Harlem Sons focuses on family and redemption.

While continuing the search for a full-time film teaching job, Samein has also been piecing together a film about Denyse for Syann. “I have received cards and calls from around the world with people wanting Syann and I to know how sorry they are,” Samein told me by email. “Every card or call is a message of love. Every person has a personal story to tell about Denyse. I plan to take the road trip and capture each story, no matter how short the story or how far away the person lives. When the time comes, I’ll be able to show Syann who her mother was.”

 

 

 

[…]

The Sunday Poem : Frank O’Hara

By |08.12.12|

 

Art critic and New York School poet Frank O’Hara studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944 and served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.

With the funding made available to veterans he attended Harvard University, where artist and writer Edward Gorey was his roommate. He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and received his M.A. in English literature in 1951. That autumn O’Hara moved to New York City where he began teaching at The New School.

Known for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O’Hara had hundreds of friends throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds. Soon after arriving in New York, he was employed at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and began to write seriously.

As his biography on the Poetry Foundation website details, he brought a refreshing new casualness and spontaneity to poetry, making deliriously funny and surprisingly moving verse out of everyday activities recounted in conversational tones. What he called his “I do this I do that” poems often featured glimpses of his adored New York City or anecdotes about friends—most of whom were themselves poets or painters.

Friends with artists like Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell, O’Hara also worked as a reviewer for Artnews, and in 1960 became Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art.

 

 

In 1966 Richard O. Moore produced and directed USA: Poetry for National Education Television. The twelve part documentary series showcased many poets including, O’Hara, Anne Sexton, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Koch, Ed Sanders, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Richard Wilbur, and Denise Levertov. This classic film of Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You” is one of my favorites in the series.

Tragically, O’Hara’s brilliant career as a writer and art curator was cut short by a freak accident just four months after this film was made. In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, the poet was struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island beach. He died the next day of a ruptured liver at the age of 40. He was buried in Green River Cemetery on Long Island. The painter Larry Rivers, a longtime friend of O’Hara’s, delivered the eulogy.
 

 
As part of the New York School, O’Hara’s poetry shows the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Russian poetry, and poets associated with French Symbolism. In the introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, the poet John Ashbery says, “O’Hara’s concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it was strengthened by his intimate experience of Pollock’s, Kline’s, and de Kooning’s great paintings of the late ’40s and early ’50s and of the imaginative realism of painters like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers.”

O’Hara discussed his own approach to writing in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry:
“What is happening to me…goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them…My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred…It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”
 

 

 
 

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[…]

Being André Gregory : Before and After Dinner

By |08.08.12|

 

 

We gathered around André Gregory like children eagerly assembling around the librarian for story hour. André perched in a picture window inside Winsome Brown and Claude Arpels’ fashionable Tribeca apartment. Behind him, the sun was setting over the Hudson River. On the wall hung a series of striking self-portraits by Gregory.

We were gathered in Tribeca with some of André’s closest friends and supporters to hear the legendary raconteur tell stories. The event was also a party for Before and After Dinner, a new documentary about Gregory directed by his wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine. The genuine affection the guests felts for André was palpable as he moved around the room embracing old friends and asking questions of acquaintances and strangers. The passion, empathy, and sincerity Gregory radiates on screen also comes through in person, a fact that is quite remarkable when you consider André’s personal history.

“How many of you have seen the film The Shining?” he asked. “That’s a documentary about my childhood,” André said with a laugh. And he wasn’t kidding.

On May 18, 2009, the opening day of Wally Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors in London, which was directed by Gregory, André received a disturbing phone call from his brother, who informed him of a document implicating their prominent Jewish father as an economic spy for Hitler. The next day, André came down with a severe case of shingles.

As André told us that evening in Tribeca, most people would have balked at receiving word that their father was potentially a Nazi collaborator, but in his case, the disturbing revelation, while unexpected, was not unbelievable. The quest to confirm or disprove this shocking story would become the centerpiece of Kleine’s film. The filmmaker’s marriage to André placed her in a unique position to capture intimate stories about Gregory’s dysfunctional childhood—stories that took on new meaning in light of his brother’s discovery.

 

 

 

 

As Klein’s documentary reveals, André’s parents were “Jews who forgot to tell their kids they were Jews.” Fugitives from Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, the family was on the last ship to leave England before the war began. Looking back, André’s family was often one step ahead of the Nazis, a fact that raises further questions about his father’s connections with Hitler. The fact that Hitler’s foreign minister also visited his parents’ home was another worrying piece of the family puzzle.

During our evening together, André described his father as “non-human”—a manic depressive with “no empathy.” His parents would leave André and his brother in the care of a babysitter, then disappear. Instead of returning home as scheduled or sending home news of their whereabouts or travel plans, they would send money. Once, when André’s mother was passing a woman and child in the street, she declared, “What a beautiful baby!” The woman answered, “But Madam, he’s yours.” “My Nanny saved me,” Gregory told us.

His happiest times were in Beverly Hills in the 1940s, where the family lived in a lavish house with a plastic driveway lit from below. André remembers Charlie Chaplin visiting regularly. One afternoon Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo played tennis in his backyard, a doubles match against Thomas Mann and Errol Flynn. According to rumors, his mother had an affair with Errol Flynn.

“I know when I die, you’ll dance on my grave,” André’s mother once chided the family. “It was so true,” Gregory explained, “no one knew what to say.”

Gregory grew up in an overly formal household where people said horrible things about the people they loved most. As a child, André was never touched, hugged, or shown any sort of physical affection. An attractive girl once kissed the teenage Gregory in a graveyard and he fainted in shock.

 

 

It was his desire to heal his parent’s unhappiness and dysfunction that honed his role as the family caretaker, a role he has also assumed within his theatre company. “If you go into the theater,” his mother once told him, “your father will have a heart attack. He’s already had one.” As a boy, Gregory longed to have a magic wand to fix his father. “I wanted to persuade him that his life was really beautiful,” Gregory reveals in an intimate moment in Before and After Dinner. “You have such a nice life…wonderful friends…you’re so well off.”

Most people know André Gregory through his critically acclaimed film My Dinner with André (or, from the other end of the film spectrum, as the warden who has his eye gouged out by Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man). Gregory has had numerous film acting roles. He played John the Baptist in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and appeared in Woody Allen’s Celebrity and Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast. Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn, and Gregory also collaborated on the film Vanya on 42nd Street with Julianne Moore. Kleine told me that Gregory is frequently recognized on the streets of New York, but his celebrity is of a peculiar sort. Those who recognize him from My Dinner with André often approach Gregory “with gracious awe, the way one approaches a great rabbi or teacher.”
 

 

 

 
But Gregory’s impact on the art world extends far beyond these high-profile acting roles. In the theatre world, André Gregory is revered as a master storyteller, an influential teacher, and as a visionary director who believes that the role of theatre is to awaken the audience and make them question themselves and the world around them (no small goal). For Gregory, this means keeping audiences small and venues intimate. “What happens in these small spaces because of their intimacy,” Kleine explained, “is that audience members become active participants in the ritual being performed.” In the same way that chamber music loses its impact in an oversized concert hall, live theatre can also lose its effectiveness if a venue is too large.

From the very beginning of his career, Gregory had a fresh and personal approach to theatre. Deeply influenced by both Brecht and Tarkovsky, he is one of the original creators of the regional and off-Broadway theatre movements. His legendary, Obie-winning production of Alice in Wonderland played in New York for seven years. “People screamed during the play like a roller coaster,” Shawn told Noah Baumbach in an interview. It was “thrilling.” Alice toured the U.S., Middle East, and Europe and was eventually made into a book in collaboration with photographer Richard Avedon.

Gregory often says that Alice in Wonderland is a “portrait of his own childhood.” Alice is born into this terrifying, insane world and is simply traveling around trying to make sense of things, but she never gets a direct answer to her questions.
 

 

 

 
Kleine’s film gives us a rare look at how a childhood can shape the creative life of an artist. But be forewarned, this is not a traditional documentary. To better understand Kleine’s approach, it’s useful to revisit My Dinner with André, for Before and After Dinner is really a companion piece to the much-discussed, art-house hit from 1981. If My Dinner with Andre gives its audience a glimpse of “André the Character,” Before and After Dinner addresses the gap between fiction and reality by giving us a taste of “André Gregory the Man.” Both films ask versions of the same question: “Who exactly is André Gregory?”

Directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle, My Dinner with André was a radical concept in 1981 and remains so today. The entire 110-minute movie depicts a conversation between André Gregory and his friend Wally Shawn during dinner in a chic Manhattan restaurant. The two friends talk about experimental theater, love, work, money, spirituality, and the nature of life itself. There are no flashbacks depicted on screen, only verbal exchanges like these between André and Wally:
André: What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold, don’t in any way affect us? I mean, were animals after all. I mean… what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we’re living in a fantasy world of our own making.
Wally: Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I’m looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I’m trying to protect myself because, really, there’s these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!
André: But, Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.
 

 

 

 
For six months Shawn and Gregory met in a room at NYU to work on the project. Each session began with André telling Wally a story. By the time they ended these regular meetings, the typed transcript from their conversations was over 1500 single-spaced pages. Shawn spent more than a year wading through the transcript identifying central themes that could be used in the screenplay. From these themes, he crafted a three-hour script comprised entirely of fragments from his real conversations with Gregory. Malle, Shawn, and Gregory then edited the script down to a two hour film. Malle was able to trim My Dinner with André down to 110 minutes in the editing room.

They shot the film in the then-abandoned Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Because heating the immense building was too expensive, the crew ran heaters in between takes. Gregory says he wore long-johns and kept an electric blanket on his lap during the shoot (a funny irony in light of the above dialogue).

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen My Dinner with André, I encourage you to watch it again, for it’s one of those classic pieces of cinema that only improves and expands with time. It’s one of the few films I know that investigates the cinematic potential of language. Gregory discusses this idea further with Noah Baumbach in a DVD interview for Criterion. In the late 70s and early 80s, we were living in a time “when no one was talking…in depth. It was all…very superficial. If I had one goal with this movie, it was to hopefully activate people to talk again.”

For Gregory, My Dinner with André “is as big as Lawrence of Arabia or Cleopatra” because the film takes the viewer to Tibet and the Polish forest, but each viewer sees his own Tibet, his own Polish forest.” My Dinner with André is a radical piece of cinema because it isn’t doing everything for you as a viewer. Instead, it’s activating your imagination. “If you like the movie,” Gregory explains to Baumbach, “it’s waking you up, which was one of the intentions of the movie.”

“The film is about men, because men tend to be so hidden,” Gregory adds. “And Wally is hiding behind silence. I’m hiding behind words. The progress of the movie is that Wally is able to come out and start revealing and I’m able to to listen…These were radical actions as characters.”

 

 

In Baumbach’s interview with Wally Shawn, the playwright agrees with his friend’s description. “The film is about being asleep and waking up. Are you just crawling through your life like a mole…? Are you not observing what’s going on in your own life and not letting your consciousness speak to you?” Shawn is also quick to point out what is NOT overtly stated in the film: political consciousness. My Dinner with André depicts “two upper-class guys spending hours talking about life, while others are working and suffering,” says Shawn. “I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film because that guy is totally motivated by fear and he’s defending himself and he is the bourgeois human being.”

In his conversation with Baumbach, Gregory says that there was one question that initially vexed him during the making of the film: Who exactly am I? In My Dinner with André he is playing a character based on himself. But even in real life the André that his doctor sees is completely different from the André his wife knows. Gregory’s breakthrough came when he got the idea for using four different voices in the film:
1. André the Peter Brook theatre guru
2. André the off-the-wall, spacey, dilettante rich kid
3. André the spiritual used car salesman
4. And André  when he is being sincere, as seen in the last part of the film
If Malle’s movie gives us these four sides of André Gregory the character, Cindy Kleine’s documentary Before and After Dinner fills in the gaps with intimate glimpses of André the loving husband, the loyal friend, the searching son, the patient director, the encouraging father figure. In many ways the films are two sides of one coin, or of one man in this case.

 

 

Kleine’s dual role as wife and director gives us a unique perspective on André. We see him in some of his most intimate moments—making breakfast, bending over a steam inhaler, frolicking naked in a hot tub with a puffy shower cap on his head. It’s hard to imagine that such moments could have been captured by anyone other than his wife. To see a public figure letting relaxing and letting his guard down is a scarce thing in documentary film. Watching such scenes only confirms the impression I had upon meeting André in person: this is a man who has a passion for living, someone who appreciates life’s fragility. “He is a man who is not afraid to step into his own life,” says Kleine, “and is, therefore a rare and precious bird.”

Before and After Dinner is really a love story of sorts, for it captures something exceedingly uncommon in the movies: a happy marriage. “The only two films I can think of that depict happy marriages are Mrs. Miniver from 1942 and Mike Leigh’s Another Year,” Kleine told me over the phone this week. “But unhappy marriages…There are plenty of films about miserable relationships.”

[…]

The Sunday Poem : Merry Fortune

By |08.04.12|

 

 

 

 
God Quest
 
And when I have toilet paper I say thank you toilet paper god and when I
have food I say thank you food god. Clothes: thank the clothes’ god, shoes
and accessories- thank the same god. For lifts: the elevator god, and wine-
the god of grapes till I see stems and pits and oranges then I am lost in
contemplation of that […]

Amy Hempel & Matthew Zapruder : Lessons from the Writing Life

By |08.03.12|

 

A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet writers Matthew Zapruder and Amy Hempel for the first time. The event was part of a reading series at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, an annual summer workshop at the University of Massachusetts that brings students and accomplished writers together to explore the craft of poetry, fiction, and memoir.

Zapruder and Hempel did not disappoint. Zapruder read a selection of new poems, including “Poem Without Intimacy,” which was a featured Sunday Poem here on Gwarlingo. His most recent book, Come on All You Ghosts, includes two of my favorite works, “Pocket” (also published on Gwarlingo) and “April Snow,” which Zapruder read at UMass.

Here is an excerpt from “April Snow” (courtesy Copper Canyon Press):
Today in El Paso all the planes are asleep on the runway. The world
is in a delay. All the political consultants drinking whiskey keep
their heads down, lifting them only to look at the beautiful scarred
waitress who wears typewriter keys as a necklace. They jingle
when she brings them drinks. Outside the giant plate glass windows
the planes are completely covered in snow, it piles up on the wings.
I feel like a mountain of cell phone chargers. Each of the various
faiths of our various fathers keeps us only partly protected. I don’t
want to talk on the phone to an angel.
 

Zapruder’s poems are provocative, unexpected, and capture contemporary American life in an entirely original way. In “April Snow” it is the “scarred waitress who wears typewriter keys as a necklace” and the “mountain of cell phone chargers” that prevent the poem from lapsing into a conventional, snowy reverie. Amidst the emotional insights and vivid descriptions of place in Come on All You Ghosts are mentions of a Xerox machine, David Foster Wallace, the unemployment rate, Joni Mitchell, ESPN, and Diet Coke. Not every poet could make this combination work, but Zapruder does.

 

Zapruder came to poetry in his twenties while earning his PhD in Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley. He realized that compared to his fellow students he didn’t have the focus and dedication he needed to pursue his field of study professionally, so decided to follow his true passion instead: poetry. Zapruder went on to earn his MFA at the University of Massachusetts.

“There’s a lot of bullshit about MFAs, and people complaining about them,” he explained in an interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli, “but the fact of the matter is that I’m the perfect example of someone who really benefited from it. I would learn something in a day just by talking to someone, or by being in a bookstore when someone happened to be there, or having someone put a book in my hand that it might have taken me months or even years to run across on my own. It helped me start to become an artist; I had a long way to go, but it got me from being a complete ignoramus to beginning to have some sense of what was going on.”

 

When discussing his writing process on the Pen American Center blog, Zapruder explained that many of his most recent poems are the result of writing exercises, “either ones I have found or those I have generated myself, in order to move from the terror of the blank page into the actuality of language. As always, I then take this language and move it around as necessary, until I feel real, deep, human concerns are emerging.” His ultimate goal is to write poems that feel “close to a natural speech act, language an actual person might use when feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged and committed.”
“What intrigues and electrifies me is the possibility of beginning with total freedom, intuitive knowledge, instinct, even randomness, and building out of those states or qualities into a poem…I continue to try to find ways, whether it is through the processes mentioned above or through new ones such as writing exercises I find or invent, to move from the unformed chaos of free language to the formed poem.”
When I chatted with Matthew after the reading, he told me that he is working on a non-fiction book about poetry, as well as a new collection of poems, tentatively titled Sun Bear. In addition to being a talented writer, Zapruder is also a translator, teacher, and editor at Wave Books, a press that is as obsessed with the quality of its books as printed objecst, as it is with the quality of the writing itself.

“I think that people are most happy when they do things that are deeply connected and integrated with who they are,” Zapruder explained to Toffoli, “and that fulfills that need in themselves to feel connected to others and productive.”

 

Like Alice Munro, Amy Hempel is one of only a handful of contemporary writers who has built a career on the short story. I’ve read Hempel’s The Collected Stories three times now. I never tire of her wit, empathy, and ability to convey a range of powerful ideas and emotions in only a few words. Her story “Memoir,” which appears in The Collected Storiesis only one sentence long:
Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?
Hempel shared three stories with us during her reading at the University of Massachusetts—“Moonbow,” a micro-fiction story called “Sing to It,” and her most recent published piece from the current issue of Tin House, a moving story about a high-kill animal shelter titled “A Full-Service Shelter.” Although the story was published as fiction, Hempel explained that everything she describes in the story is true: sometimes the wrong dogs are killed, shelter compliance records are inflated, and sedatives are judged too costly and eliminated during the euthanasia process with shocking results.

The point of view and structure of “A Full-Service Shelter,” which repeats the phrase, “They knew me as the one who…,” was inspired by Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties.” It was this line by Michaels that caught Hempel’s attention:
“I had personal relationships with thirty-five rhesus monkeys in an experiment on monkey addiction to morphone. They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose.”
Animals are a continual presence in Hempel’s life and fiction. She volunteers at a high-kill shelter in New York City, has trained seeing-eye dogs, and is co-founder of the Deja Foundation, a non-profit that offers direct assistance for care, training, recovery, and rehabilitation to dogs rescued from high-kill shelters. After the reading, Hempel told me that she started Deja in order to give death-row dogs a second chance. “Many of these dogs just need behavior training or vet care before they can become viable adoption candidates,” she said.

 

One of Hempel’s many volunteer duties is writing the biographies of dogs housed at a shelter in New York in an effort to get the animals adopted before they’re euthanized. She considers it some of her most important work since the end result can mean the difference between life and death for a dog.

In her 2003 interview with The Paris Review, Hempel told Paul Winner that during her childhood, “the two things that were always there were reading and animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but slipped up when I hit organic chemistry.” Words and animals continued to be a life-line for Hempel during a particularly difficult two-year stretch when her mother took her own life, her mother’s younger sister committed suicide, she was injured in two serious auto accidents, and her best friend died from leukemia.

It was at Gordon Lish’s workshop at Columbia that she began to transform these life tragedies into fiction. In one exercise, Lish told his writing students to reveal their own worst secret—“the thing we would never live down,” Hempel told The Paris Review, “the thing that, as Gordon put it, ‘dismantles your own sense of yourself.'” Hempel’s “worst secret”? “I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.'” This short story masterpiece would become Hempel’s most anthologized piece of fiction.

 

 

In The Paris Review interview, Hempel credits her early training as a journalist and her study of stand-up comedy for her concise style and well-timed humor. “I don’t feel I have a particularly large imagination, but I do have some powers of observation.”
“Journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one. You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential… You start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason. So the trick is: don’t give them one. Frontload and cut out everything extraneous. That’s why I like short stories…Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.”
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