Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists and Charles Simic is one of my favorite writers so you can imagine how thrilled I am to present a few excerpts from Simic’s charming—and irresistible—volume,Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (NY Review of Books). Reprinted with the author’s permission, and illustrated with photographs by fellow Manhattan-wanderer, Bags, along with a few of my own pictures and collages. Enjoy—Alex Belth]
I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970. I was either working at lowly office jobs, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street which Cornell frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his shadow boxes. When I was young, I was interested in surrealism, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction of his art that way. Cornell made me feel that I should do something like that myself as a poet, but for a long time I continued to admire him without knowing much about him. Only after his death did he become an obsession with me. Of course, much had already been written about him, and most of it was excellent. Cornell’s originality and modesty disarm the critics and make them sympathetic and unusually perceptive. When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.
THE MAN ON THE DUMP
He looked the way I imagine Melville’s Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window.
There are always such men in cities. Solitary wanderers in long-outmoded overcoats, they sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale, have tired eyes, and their lapels are covered with crumbs. Once they were something else, now they work as office messengers. With a large yellow envelope under one arm, they climb the stairs to the tenth floor when the elevator is out of order. They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.
He was a descendant of an old New York Dutch family that had grown impoverished after his father’s early death. He lived with his mother and invalid brother in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and roamed the streets of Manhattan in seeming idleness. A devout Christian Scientist, he was a recluse and an eccentric who admired the writings of French Romantic and Symbolist poets. His great hero was Gérard de Nerval, famous for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.
THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
Poe has a story called “The Man of the Crowd” in which a recently discharged hospital patient sits in a coffee shop in London, enjoying his freedom, and watching the evening crowd, when he notices a decrepit old man of unusual appearance and behavior whom he decides to follow. The man at first appears to be hurrying with a purpose. He crosses and recrosses the city until the aimlessness of his walking eventually becomes obvious to his pursuer. He walks all night through the now–deserted streets, and is still walking as the day breaks. His pursuer follows him all of the next day and abandons him only as the shades of the second evening come on. Before he does, he confronts the stranger, looks him steadfastly in the eye, but the stranger does not acknowledge him and resumes his walk.
Poe’s is one of the great odes to the mystery of the city. Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger? Cornell followed shop girls, waitresses, young students “who had a look of innocence.” I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind.
“How wild a history,” says Poe’s narrator, “is written within that bosom.” On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude play hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there. The city is the place where the most unlikely opposites come together, the place where our separate intuitions momentarily link up. The myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, and her thread continue here. The city is a labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences.
Like a comic-book Spider-Man, the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.
WHERE CHANCE MEETS NECESSITY
Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.
He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.
I WENT TO THE GYPSY
What Cornell sought in his walks in the city, the fortune-tellers already practiced in their parlors. Faces bent over cards, coffee dregs, crystals; divination by contemplation of surfaces which stimulate inner visions and poetic faculties.
De Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance…”
He’s right. Here comes the bruja, dressed in black, her lips and fingernails painted blood-red. She saw into the murderer’s lovesick heart, and now it’s your turn, mister.
CHESSBOARD OF THE SOUL
Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation.
Many of the boxes make me think of those chess problems in which no more than six to seven figures are left on the board. The caption says: “White mates in two moves,” but the solution escapes the closest scrutiny. As anyone who attempts to solve these problems knows, the first move is the key, and it’s bound to be an unlikely appearing move.
I have often cut a chess problem from a newspaper and taped it to the wall by my bed so that I may think about it first thing in the morning and before turning off the lights at night. I have especially been attracted to problems with minimum numbers of figures, the ones that resemble the ending of some long, complicated, and evenly fought game. It’s the subtlety of two minds scheming that one aims to recover.
At times, it may take months to reach the solution, and in a few instances I was never able to solve the problem. The board and its figures remained as mysterious as ever. Unless there was an error in instructions or position, or a misprint, there was no way in hell the white could mate in two moves. And yet…
At some point my need for a solution was replaced by the poetry of my continuous failure. The white queen remained where it was on the black square, and so did the other figures in the original places, eternally, whenever I closed my eyes.
WHAT MOZART SAW ON MULBERRY STREET
If you love watching movies from the middle on, Cornell is your director. It’s those first moments of some already-started, unknown movie with its totally mysterious images and snatches of dialogue before the setting and even the vaguest hint of a plot became apparent that he captures.
Cornell spliced images and sections from preexisting Hollywood films he found in junk stores. He made cinema collages guided only by the poetry of images. Everything in them has to do with ellipses. Actors speak but we don’t know to whom. Scenes are interrupted. What one remembers are images.
He also made a movie from the point of view of a bust of Mozart in a store window. Here, too, chance is employed. People pass on the street and some of them stop to look in the window. Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it’s the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions. In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist. He believes in charms and good luck.
THE GAZE WE KNEW AS A CHILD
“People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images,” writes René Magritte, and I could not agree more. Nevertheless, this requires some clarification. There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, expressionists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes are, however, of the third kind. They partake of both dream and reality, and of something else that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s art, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It’s that mingling of the two that makes up the third image.
It’s raining on Utopia Parkway. The invalid brother is playing with his toy trains. Cornell is reading the sermons of John Donne, and the box of the Hôtel Beau-Séjour is baking in the oven like one of his mother’s pies.
In order to make them appear aged, Cornell would give his boxes eighteen to twenty coats of paint, varnish them, polish them, and leave them in the sun and rain. He also baked them to make them crack and look old.
Forgers of antiquities, lovers of times past, employ the same method.
It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.
The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.
The blind preacher and his old dog are crossing the street against the oncoming traffic of honking cabs and trucks. He carries his guitar in a beat-up case taped with white tape so it looks like it’s bandaged.
The final episode The Night Of, HBO’s engrossing eight-part series co-created by Richard Price, airs this Sunday and if you have not been watching, have a little binge and catch up—you’ll dig it. Price is a distinguished novelist and screenwriter—I love the talk in movies like The Color of Money and Sea of Love—and one of my favorite Scorsese flicks, Life Lessons. Like many of us—thank you, P. Kael—he lost it at the movies. Back in December 1982, American Film magazine published Price’s charming essay about some of his favorite movie theater memories, and, with the author’s permission, we’re happy to now share it with you. Dive in, this will make you happy.—Alex Belth
“Gorgo, Warhol, Rocky, and Me”
By Richard Price
Over the marquee of a beat-up two-dollar movie house in Times Square, there’s an ancient faded sign: “Get More Out of Life—See a Movie.” The visual contrast between that sentiment and the desperate seediness surrounding it would yield, in its bitter irony, a photograph worthy of Walker Evans.
Nonetheless, the sign gives solid advice. Movies have always been a source of self-realization in my life; from Jerry Lewis to James Dean to Woody Allen, the shock of recognition has always signaled the Big Change for me.
But there’s another source of epiphany in a movie house, one much more profound and subtle than the screen—and that’s the audience. And I’ve always felt that the action in the seats was the greater teacher.
Rebel Without a Cause was pure bush-league in the life-lessons department compared with the ever popular torture of trying to worm a finger inside a steel-trap bra while keeping a two-hour, eyes-ahead poker face, or compared with the frantic in-crowd scrambling for who-sits-next-to-whom seating among a group of thirteen-year-old boys. Deep Throat was a rambling, flatulent dirty joke compared with the awesome sexuality of first tongue kiss while watching Topkapi. Psycho was so much “Mister Rogers” compared with the torture of sitting in front of six greaser cretins, who, after ordering you not to turn around, amused themselves through Viva La Vegas by treating your skull to sporadic slaps and buttered popcorn.
Everything—sex, power, kindness, cruelty, love lost and found—was acted out in the dark, no “The End,” and nothing could be exorcised by chanting, “It’s only a movie.”
The following memories are selected from my personal Book of Revelations.
From the age of five to eleven, the highlight of my week was spending Saturdays with my grandmother, who lived in what is now known as the South Bronx. Our itinerary never varied: a double monster-movie matinee at one of the local theaters, dinner at a deli, and then back to her place for an evening of pro wrestling, roller derby, and “Zackerly’s Shock Theater” on the ole Emerson. But the crème de Ia crème was the monster-movie outing. She’d load up a shopping bag with sandwiches, fruit, and a few thermoses, and we’d head on out—nothing could be finer.
But it all began to fall apart two weeks before my twelfth birthday, when we went to see Gorgo.
Seated in the theater, surrounded by kids howling and yowling for the picture to start, my grandmother muttered her usual, “Animals,” a few times, jerking her head in annoyance to all points of the compass. One kid ten rows down from us got dragged out even before the lights dimmed. An eleven-year-old with a cigarette, dragged up the aisle by the tall, bony, gray-haired, tomahawk-faced matron in a white uniform like that of a school nurse, her eyes razors of determination, the kid trying desperately to be cool, trying to drag on his cigarette as he was hustled by his neck and armpit out of the theater, his friends laughing and whooing in a wolf chorus: “Efram, man, she too bad for you.” “Bite her, man.”
My grandmother squinted in admiration at the matron. “She’s a tough one.”
The kids were my age, but in every way it seemed like no contest; they were bigger, badder, louder, definitely not College Bound. As the matron came back down the aisle slightly huffing, my grandmother nodded to her. The matron smiled back a “How are you, dear,” then continued down to Efram’s friends brandishing her flashlight like a nightstick: “An’ if I see anybody else light up a cigarette, ya’s gonna get the same treatment.” That got a chorus of “whoos” as she tromped up the aisle, her face in an “I ain’t kiddin’” expression.
“Watch ’em,” my grandmother murmured. “I see two packs… these little bastards… just let ’em light up… they don’t think anybody’s watchin’.”
Halfway through Gorgo, while a mother dinosaur destroyed London in a search for her baby, one kid bent over the crotch of his friend for a light and both of us caught the brief orange flare reflected off the seat back in front of him.
She grabbed my arm. “We got him!”
The kid sat back in a low slouch, casually checking out his sides, the cigarette cupped inside his palm, lit end between his legs.
“Go get the matron!” my grandmother said, her eyes widening. I hesitated, not wanting to rat on another kid and not wanting to get beaten up. “Go, go! He’s almost finished!”
The matron was lounging against an archway, arms folded across her waist, eyes scanning the crowd. “Excuse me, miss? My grandmother wants to talk to you.”
She tromped down to our seats and bent over my grandmother, who didn’t say a word, just raised her eyebrows, made a slight motion with her head in the direction of that row of kids, and pressed two fingers against her lips as if she were dragging on a butt.
I saw all this from where the matron had been standing. I knew there was a chance that she would hustle this kid past me, that the kid would get a good look at me, and that maybe my ass was grass, but I didn’t really feel that worried. What I felt, more than fear was deep sorrow. For the first time in six years of movie outings with my grandmother, I found myself wishing I was one of her “animals,” wishing that I was sitting right in the middle of those kids, cupping a passed butt, taking a drag, and passing it on.
Much to my relief, the matron decided to lay off. When I sat back down, my grandmother was sitting hand to mouth, eyes wide, staring down at those kids. “Oh, honey, what a world,” she whisper-moaned, shaking her head behind her fist. “What a world…”
For the next several hours, I ate, she drank black coffee, too aggravated to eat, and we watched the kids. Every time one would come up the aisle to go to the john or get candy we would stare at him until our heads were almost completely turned around. We would do the same when he came back down. And we watched the movie. It struck me that my grandmother was a very lonely person and that in the very near future she would get a lot more lonely.
When we got out, it was twilight. The kids streamed around us, my grandmother’s tottering, arthritic bulk like a rock splitting rapids. One kid locked eyes with her, caught her death-ray sneer, and nudged his friend. My heart stopped. I envisioned my grandmother and me back to back fighting them off, but nothing happened, and I wound up watching them bop down the street, counting how many of them wore Keds and how many Converse.
THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH
When we were all thirteen years old, my friends and I would go see any film anywhere at any time. We didn’t go to watch, we went to hunt. We knew that in every movie crowd there was at least one eighth-grade girl just sitting there waiting to put out. We’d go in, take a row, hiss, elbow each other, and snigger for two hours, then head on home calling each other faggots.
Everybody was pretty happy with the arrangement, but during Christmas break, early 1963, things were thrown into chaos at a neighborhood kiddie matinee of The Day Mars Invaded Earth.
Surrounded by seven-year-olds, we scoured the darkness, muttered variations on “I was up for it, too, man” and settled in for a few hours of wisecracks. At some point during the first hour of the movie, I was lurching down the aisle on my way back from a popcorn run when I heard someone hissing out my name. It was my main man, Howie, who, obviously out of his mind, was sitting in between two teenage girls. Giving me a look like he was sinking in quicksand, he said, “Hey, yo’, this is Jackie; she thinks you’re cute.”
Too freaked to think up an out for myself, I took the offered seat and concentrated on the movie. I had never wanted to be sitting next to a guy so badly as I did at that moment. The other girl was Jackie’s sister, Carol. Like the sluts they obviously were, they both had plucked eyebrows and more eye makeup than Cleopatra.
After a debonair half-hour pause to show her I was no beggar, I draped my hand along the back of Jackie’s seat and caressed Howie’s similarly outstretched arm. Howie responded by diddling the hollow of my elbow. I was in stud heaven for fifteen minutes before I glanced down and saw that both of Jackie’s hands were in her lap. Whipping my arm away from Howie’s like it was touching something with teeth, I sat reeling in retroactive revulsion, then made my move. I scored waist right off the bat. After what seemed like days later I made it up to the edge of her bra. Suddenly she hunched over and drawled out, “Hey Carol! I got another rib counter here.”
Carol had a look on her face as though she was at the end of a line at the Motor Vehicles Bureau; Howie was sitting there with his hands tucked in his armpits.
Turning back to me, Jackie grabbed my hand and planted it on her small left breast. My forehead tingled like a tuning fork. Now what? My hand lay on top of her sweater inert and splayed like a starfish until Jackie got up, gave her sister the high sign, announced a trip to the bathroom, took her umbrella and shoulder bag, and vanished forever.
When we all got outside, Howie bolted for a cab and rode alone the three blocks back to his house.
I walked home like Moses returning from a conversation with the Burning Bush. Oblivious to the frantic six-man press conference that circled me from the theater to my building, I was obsessed with trying to keep my wrist curled and my fingers spread in “the exact shape of Jackie’s breast. It had taken thirteen years for me to score, and, fearing that it would be another thirteen before I saw some action again, I felt that I had to preserve the mold of my conquest to tide me over the years.
But by the time I got inside my apartment, my hand was killing me. I began to panic. My first thought was to trace it on paper. Photograph it. Plaster of Paris. Luckily it was too late by the time I noticed the baby shoes on top of the family television. Before I realized that I could have bronzed it, my cramped hand had become unbearable and I had shaken it out.
THE T.A.M.I. SHOW
The T.A.M.I. Show was a rock concert filmed in 1964, at the dawn of the British invasion and the California sound. It was also the epitome of the racially integrated rock show, an amazing mix of three worlds—White America, Black America, and Liverpool—your hosts, Jan and Dean.
I saw The T.A.M.I. Show with three friends and our girls, all of us fifteen years old. My girl friend didn’t really love me, but in our crowd, if you weren’t part of a match, you might as well have a bell around your neck, and I was the only guy available. Unfortunately for me, I loved her madly.
All through Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, I sat there in the Saturday-matinee darkness totally focused on Mary’s hand, which lay in mine like it was carved from wax. Everybody around me was screaming and bouncing, and it pissed me off. I hated surfing music. I hated the British sound. And although I loved Motown, not even the synchronized svelteness of the Miracles could pull me away from agonizing over the implications of Mannequin Hand.
But suddenly, without warning, James Brown came flying across the screen, shrieking like he was on fire, and, without thinking, I found myself standing in a half crouch, pulling Mary’s hand over her head. Backed up by the Famous Flames, he seemed like the Devil in a doo, screeching and doing splits in celebration of his own bad-ass status. I’d never seen such a ferocious refusal to compromise, to “make nice,” and for twenty minutes he turned the world into something best seen from the portal of a Sherman tank.
The crowd was enjoying his set, but with a slight pall of wariness and detachment. There were no teen screams for “Please, Please, Please” or “Night Train” as there had been for “It’s My Party” or “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” James Brown was definitely not cute; no fantasy escort for a sweet sixteen. I felt as if all through the movie I had been at odds with the crowd and now we had just passed each other again. My girl friend stared at the screen like she was being forced to watch a massacre. She pulled her hand out of mine and crossed her arms in front of her chest. To hell with her.
At fifteen I had already established myself around school as a poet, but I was more into the wrapping than the gift. I wrote poems because it made my run-of-the-mill adolescent mooniness seem romantic and intriguing, elevated me from loner to lone wolf. Persona was everything because, allegedly, girls are suckers for uniforms.
But James Brown was a true outlaw artist, and sitting there watching him crooning and yowling, tearing up the boards with the smoking intensity of a flamenco dancer, face twisting and writhing into a catalog of passions, I found myself exhilarated by the making of art rather than the posing of the artist.
Walking out of the theater at two-thirty in the afternoon, I was astonished that it was still daylight.
I still wanted “poet” to shelter me from Mary’s coolness, still wanted “artiste” to rationalize my lovesickness as part of the forging process, but as I walked home, filled with the sights and sounds of James Brown, for the first time in my life I found myself wondering if I had any talent.
1970—Being in Love Means Never Having to Sit Through Andy Warhol
During the late sixties and early seventies, my college years, movies were divided into two categories: “Amerikan propaganda” and “surreal.” Any movie where the cowboys, the cavalry, or the GIs won the battle was Fascist and sinister. Same for anything heartwarming or corny—all “part of the problem.” Surreal became synonymous with Good: Fantasia,Betty Boop cartoons, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bergman, Putney Swope, Mickey One,anything low-budget or starring mainly unknowns or shot in black and white—all surreal, all good.
I saw all the required movies, in part because I was enjoying my new role as a hippie aesthete, but also because I was a devout believer in “no pain, no gain”—Sugar Pops tasted better, but oatmeal made you strong. Outside of the hip comedies, most of what I found myself buying tickets for seemed to me boring, pompous, or just plain incoherent. In my heart of hearts I was still a Sands of Iwo Jima junkie, but I restrained myself for the good of the Movement.
When I was a junior, I had a first date with a coed whom I didn’t know if I really liked or not. Date meant movie. Our choices were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Nazi Sex Crimes in Third Reich Love Camp Number Seven, Slaves,and Andy Warhol’s Trash.
Five minutes into Trash I felt myself going into a coma. In the first forty-five minutes I left to go to the bathroom three times. I would have died before admitting I was stupefied with boredom. I wouldn’t even turn to my date for fear that she would see my eyes rolling up into my head. An hour into the flick she touched my arm and asked me what time The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly started. I was embarrassed to know, but when I told her she looked at her watch and said, “That’s in five minutes; if we run we can make it.”
I said, “This is starting to mesh,” nodding toward the screen, amazed at my own cowardice.
She sighed and whispered in my ear. “Last year I was handing out flyers for a student-worker alliance rally at some construction site in New York. Some Puerto Rican guy in a hard hat—we’re talking prime-target minority labor here—he took the flyer, read it, and gave it back to me. He said, ‘If you don’t like it here, go back to Great Neck.’ Now we have only three minutes to make it.”
Two blocks into our dead run for the Strand I was in love.
1976—Just One of the Boys
In 1976 I had my own apartment. Being a self-supporting writer and having just finished a novel, I found myself with too much free time on my hands. It was a restless, boring time for me, and I filled in a number of empty afternoons by going alone to the movies. These solo excursions didn’t bother me, because I didn’t really consider myself a lonely person. I rarely had dinner alone.
But I always hated seeing other people sitting in the dark by themselves. Anybody, young or old, three-piece suits or babushkas. I could account for my own circumstances, but I always saw the others as tragic loners, destitute hearts doomed to a life of Chock Full O’Nuts counters.
On one Tuesday morning a few months into my “fallow” period, I woke up with a bad case of the Gregor Samsas. I felt lethargic and aimless; the refrigerator was stocked, the rugs vacuumed, the roaches in temporary retreat. I had nothing to do and the day yawned open ahead of me like a stretch of Kansas highway. A movie day if there ever was one.
I went downtown to see what all the hoopla was about with Rocky. I was supposed to go to the movies that evening with a girl friend, but I knew she’d rather see Scenes From a Marriage minus the subtitles than submit to two hours of Meatball Ascending.
From the moment I sat down in the half-empty theater I knew I was in trouble. I found myself surrounded by lone men, and from the screen credits on, my attention kept shifting from Rocky to the 3-D sad sacks in the seats, all of whom seemed to be perfectly self-contained and enjoying the show. Nonetheless my heart went out to them.
Whenever I concentrated on the movie, I found myself getting hot eyes and golf-ball throat at the most embarrassingly inane moments: Rocky not having the heart to break a longshoreman’s thumbs, Rocky doing push-ups, Adrian slaving over kitty litter in the pet store. It wasn’t Rocky,it was all those guys around me, kicking my ass with their painful solitude.
And then the whole thing blew up in my face.
During the final round of the climactic fight, when Rocky and Apollo Creed were pounding each other to pizza, the Bill Conti score pulsing with Rocky’s superhuman efforts, the audience lost control and people started yelling and cheering for the Italian Stallion, egging him on; a few were on their feet ducking and weaving and throwing punches at the screen. Suddenly, the guy to my left, an enormously fat black man nursing a tub of popcorn, belted out, “For God’s sake, Rocky, you can do it,” his cheeks slick with tears. My first reaction was shock that he wasn’t rooting for the black fighter.
Embarrassed by his outburst, the fat man looked around to see if anybody was laughing at him. When he turned in my direction, I was waiting for him with a commiserating basset-hound face, but when our eyes met, the contact was more than I had bargained for. Neither of us could turn away. We sat there, entranced with each other’s grief, pop-eyed, our mouths working wordlessly like beached fish; then we simultaneously burst out crying. Afraid that he would offer me some popcorn, I bolted from the theater.
Two weeks later, I moved into a huge apartment, splitting the rent with three roommates.
1979—What Ralph Ellison Meant by “Invisible Man”
THE ONION FIELD
AII my life I’ve gone to movies in the Times Square area. The crowds are ethnic mix ’n’ match, the fare usually critical crap, but the action is nonstop. If the movie is going over, the house is pure empathic Sensurround; if it’s a dud, everybody just turns to each other for their five dollars’ worth. People bring in grass, radios, babies, and portable televisions. There are always a half-dozen flakes arguing with the screen and another bunch who have no idea where they are. For years I saw that scene as a major goof; I was proud of my ability to feel at ease in any movie crowd in New York, from the Gold Coast theaters near Bloomingdale’s to the two-dollar roach sanctuaries on Forty-second Street. Mister Manhattan..
One evening I went down to Times Square to see The Onion Field. It was a Friday night and the house was packed. I could have caught the movie in the Village or on the Upper West Side, but I wasn’t in the mood to sit there with people who might applaud cinematography credits. I wanted audience juice.
At first the crowd started out with the usual woofing and cackling, goofing on everything from John Savage’s glasses to Ted Danson’s bagpipes, but as the focus shifted to the relationship between the two cop killers, white James Woods and black Franklyn Seales, the party mood began to fade. Woods played a cool and domineering psychopathic con man, Seales a quivering, spineless petty thief, and every scene between them hammered home their master-slave relationship.
At first, the mainly black and Puerto Rican crowd responded with sullen silence, but after a particularly degrading exchange, someone lost control and yelled out, “Stand up for yourself, chump!” and the audience erupted, cursing out Seales. A spray of popcorn landed on the screen, but nobody laughed. No one cursed out Woods, like I expected. No one cared about the dead cop or John Savage’s slow breakdown. I was amazed at the fury around me, but I didn’t feel it in myself. I felt like a social scientist, an outsider. I realized I was surrounded by people who had no addresses, no childhoods, and no names for me. I was slumming. Always had been.
When the two killers came to trial, Seales finally rebelled. He started cursing out Woods—even tried to physically assault him, and the crowd cheered with humorless encouragement.
But the rebellion was short-lived. Once Seales got to jail, his lawyer informed him that unless he and Woods cooperated in court, they’d both end up in the gas chamber. Blubbering and shaking, Seales confronted Woods in the prison shower room to beg forgiveness, but Woods had his price, and as the black man slowly slid to his knees, the white man’s hand on the back of his neck, the crowd was on its feet shouting, “No!”—pleading and threatening.
A young black guy standing in front of me wearing a knit skullcap bellowed, “Be a man, you punk!” At the end of the scene he remained standing, heaving with outrage, staring’ wildly around the theater. He saw me sitting behind him, slouched down, my face partially obscured by my hand, and before sinking back into his seat, he glared at me and drawled, “You enjoying the show?”
* * * * *
And there are any number of Honorable Mentions:
◻︎ I was taken to see The Ten Commandments for my eighth birthday and experienced my first religious crisis when my father told me that not only was Charlton Heston just an actor playing Moses, but that the guy wasn’t even Jewish.
︎ Experienced another religious crisis years later when I found myself sitting through The Bible a second time just to see the Sodom and Gomorrah part again.
︎ Sat through three consecutive showings of Mean Streets one afternoon, then went home, rifled through a box of family photos, and started the first chapter of Bloodbrothers that same night.
︎ Realized that I was no longer part of the youth vanguard the day I found myself in a revival theater surrounded by a roomful of punky-looking kids cackling at the horrifically dated slang of Easy Rider and Woodstock.
︎ Saw a sneak preview of Bloodbrothers booed by a full house because everybody was expecting the sneak to be Superman.
But the strangest of all my movie house experiences had to be the night I sat in a huge theater and watched myself up on the screen in The Wanderers. I was on for two minutes, playing a lounge lizard in a bowling alley. I talked, I sneered, and I got strangled with my own tie.
Sitting there, I felt absolutely no connection between myself on the screen and myself in the audience; no excitement, embarrassment, anger, or giddiness. I became so unnerved by the numbness of it all that I had to turn my head away from the screen, and in an effort to come back into myself, I put all my energy into watching the crowd watching me.
EC: Where were you when Lennon was shot?
LS: By a truly bizarre coincidence, I was actually on West Seventy-second Street when the shooting occurred, having an after-dinner drink with a friend who lived across the street and a few doors west of the Dakota. We heard the shots. After that my memory gets really hazy. Can’t remember when we learned exactly what had happened. I think I must have been in clinical shock. No memory of walking home or the rest of that night. Really a difficult time.
I was 9 when Lennon was killed and don’t remember where I was. I probably didn’t hear the news until the following morning. I do recall watching the news and seeing the footage of the crowds of people outside of the Dakota and in Central Park–singing and crying. I knew John was a Beatle, of course, but oddly, I thought of him more as an Upper West Sider.
Woody still worked out of the Manhattan Film Center, his screening room and editing suite. The theater was comfortable and somber, the walls covered with an inviting soft forest-green flocked velvet. Woody had prints of current movies delivered to the center. On the weekends, his parents came in with a gang of their friends to watch the latest films. Woody’s father was said to be the real cutup in the family.
Just outside the center was a small storage room where, years earlier, a small workbench had been set up for Morse when she was pregnant. Otherwise it was a storage closet, full of editing supplies and regular office supplies—plus chips, soda, and beer (and the good kinds, too). I was set up in that closet, not quite ready for prime time.
Behind the bench, resting on the shelf next to reels of fill (old 35mm print) and leader (colored strips of film used at the front and tail of each reel), rested a gold mine of unreleased material: the original production of September, a movie Woody shot and then reshot with a new cast (Sam Shepard, part of the original cast, told Esquire in 1988 that Woody and Robert Altman were “pisspoor as actors’ directors”; Michael Keaton’s few weeks of dailies on The Purple Rose of Cairo before he was replaced by Jeff Daniels; and most tempting of them all, outtakes from Annie Hall. Two big reels of them.
What a treasure—tantalizing but unattainable gold. When I closed the door and was alone inside, I never felt so close and yet so far away from such a score; I felt like Woody looking helplessly at Sharon Stone in Stardust Memories. But you can’t “accidentally” borrow a reel of film for the evening. Even if you could sneak it out, which was possible, where would you watch it? Who the hell has a 35mm projector at home?
That is, our past. Not only the refusal of white people to live with people of colour, but their conviction, running back through the history of the US, that any black space is not legitimate – that whatever black people own can and should be expropriated by whites, if they so desire it. During the second world war, this idea of white primacy sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, after white people insisted not only that Detroit’s federal housing built for war workers be segregated, but that all of it be turned over to white residents.
The riot was no anomaly. During the first world war, in 1917, another white-on-black race riot all but annihilated the black community of East St Louis, Illinois. A few years later, armed white mobs (backed by local law officers) razed to the ground the all-black Florida towns of Ocoee and Rosewood, and the prosperous black Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Scores of black people were killed in these onslaughts. Greenwood was burned to the ground as airplanes dropped incendiaries on the neighbourhood. Some 10,000 African Americans were left homeless.
These flourishing black communities were erased not only from physical existence, but also from living memory. Bodies were hidden, accounts censored and the survivors scattered or intimidated into silence. To this day, we don’t know exactly what happened, or how many people died.
One of the most vibrant communities in black America vanished just across the street from where I lived almost all of my adult life. Until a few years ago, I had no idea it had ever been there. Soon after I graduated from college in 1980 – at almost the exact time the federal government joined a lawsuit by the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP) against the city of Yonkers – three friends and I moved into an apartment on West 99th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Sam Fragoso: You’re more prolific than most people.
Woody Allen: But prolific is a thing that’s not a big deal. It’s not the quantity of the stuff you do; it’s the quality. A guy like James Joyce will do just a couple of things, but they resonate way beyond anything I’ve ever done or ever could dream of doing.
Would you say your quality, in spots, dipped because of the quantity?
It always [has]. When you start out to make a film, you have very big expectations and sometimes you come close. When I did Match Point, I felt I came very close. But you never get that thing that you want. You always set out to make Citizen Kane or to make The Bicycle Thief and it doesn’t happen. You can’t set out to make something great head-on; you just have to make films and hope you get lucky.
Have you considered scaling back, making a film every few years?
It wouldn’t help. It’s not that I feel, “Oh, if I had more time or more money, I could make this better.” It’s coming to terms with the shortcomings in one’s own gift and one’s own personality.
What are your major shortcomings?
I’m lazy and an imperfectionist. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence. Another shortcoming is that I don’t have the intellect or the depth or the natural gift. The greatness is not in me. When you see scenes in [Akira] Kurosawa films … you know he’s a madman on the set. There would be 100 horses and everything had to be perfect. He was crazy. I don’t have any of that.
In the spring of 1977 my parents moved from Manhattan to Westchester. I turned 6 that June and shortly after that came the blackout, which we missed. I don’t even recall anyone talking about it though the rest of my relatives experienced it first-hand in Manhattan.
Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram. In 1933 St. Clair McKelway, the managing editor of the eight-year-old New Yorker, noticed Mitchell’s newspaper work and invited him to write for the magazine; in 1938 the editor, Harold Ross, hired him. In 1931 Mitchell married a lovely woman of Scandinavian background named Therese Jacobson, a fellow reporter, who left journalism to become a fine though largely unknown portrait and street photographer. She and Mitchell lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village and raised two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Kunkel’s biography is sympathetic and admiring and discreet. If any of the erotic secrets that frequently turn up in the nets of biographers turned up in Kunkel’s, he does not reveal them. He has other fish to gut.
From reporting notes, journals, and correspondence, and from three interviews Mitchell gave late in life to a professor of journalism named Norman Sims, Kunkel extracts a picture of Mitchell’s journalistic practice that he doesn’t know quite what to do with. On the one hand, he doesn’t regard it as a pretty picture; he uses terms like “license,” “latitude,” “dubious technique,” “tactics,” and “bent journalistic rules” to describe it. On the other, he reveres Mitchell’s writing, and doesn’t want to say anything critical of it even while he is saying it. So a kind of weird embarrassed atmosphere hangs over the passages in which Kunkel reveals Mitchell’s radical departures from factuality.
It is already known that the central character of the book Old Mr. Flood, a ninety-three-year-old man named Hugh G. Flood, who intended to live to the age of 115 by eating only fish and shellfish, did not exist, but was a “composite,” i.e., an invention. Mitchell was forced to characterize him as such after readers of the New Yorker pieces from which the book was derived tried to find the man. “Mr. Flood is not one man,” Mitchell wrote in an author’s note to the book, and went on, “Combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” In the Up in the Old Hotel collection he simply reclassified the work as fiction.
[Photo Credit: Therese Mitchell/Estate of Joseph Mitchell]