Monday, February 28, 2011

A ROYAL TREATMENT


     Long after the fall of the great Hollywood movie factories, those wonderful studios like the original MGM and Paramount that gave us “Gone With the Wind,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Best Years of Our Lives,” “42nd Street,”  “Greed” (a 1924 film which could have been made today, with the same title), “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Quiet Man,” tremendous silent films and all our favorite titles, today’s cobbled-together studio conglomerates offer some remarkable work despite, as always, being driven by profit. Witness “The King’s Speech,” winner now of Academy Awards.
The old studios were guaranteed to produce winning movies, since they were long-running and huge, with an uncanny eye for budding and developing talent, training actors, directors, choreographers, camera operators, lighting and sound people and everyone else in what truly became a craft. With so much constant expertise and the insatiable appetite of the pre-TV movie-going public for new films, there were bound to be many winners. And so there were.
One of the staples of old Hollywood was the “historical” movie, not always accurate as the films took dramatic license, but usually close enough to give many of us lessons in history. Some, including myself, may have day-dreamed through social studies, but we did learn about the French and Indian War via Spencer Tracey’s “Northwest Passage.”
With the withering of the big studios, beginning with 1950s TV and federal anti-trust suits, and because moviemakers were then going for psychological dramas like “On the Waterfront,” historically set films became a disappearing treatment.  
Many fine movies have been made since the passing of the old structured studios, especially through the creativity of independent, ground-breaking directors and gifted actors, but for so long, the flicks have been set on personal relationships that seems to depend on what is good for one person or two rather than for the people affected by those one or two.That reflects the me-centered society, of course. And such films are of interest to many.
So, it might surprise that “The King’s Speech”  has become a winner. At first glance, this movie about soon-to-be King George VI’s speech difficulty and his wife’s remarkable, matter-of-fact search for an unorthodox teacher to help him, set in the mid-1930 against the backdrop of the coming war with Germany, and, first, the abdication of King Edward VIII, attracted an audience of 95 percent senior citizens when I saw it some time back. But then the buzz began about Colin Firth’s  stunning performance as the Duke of York, of the film’s other great acting, of the precise British touch of it all, that what might have been seen initially as a “boring,” old-style history movie suddenly became a deeply moving study of human difficulty, struggle, stumble and success. 
A metaphor for our times. A script and performances that we can all relate to in a difficult economic, changing age. And don’t we all learn a bit of history in watching such a film as “The King’s Speech”? Not a boring moment. Not a second to be wasted in day-dreaming. Not a movie about something or someone dysfunctional. Not a film about personal feelings alone, but those set in relationship with the greater nation and its people. A story that old Hollywood would have done no better. And a “welcome home” of sorts for the historical film genre.
Bravo. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

TEMPORARY RESPITE




     Snowy winters seem easily predictable after the fact. “Yeah, I seen them squirrels collecting acorns, so I knew it was gonna snow big,” says neighbor Ben in July, safely away from the previous heavy snowfall and still far enough from next season to make him sound authoritative. He didn’t tell me about squirrels and nuts in November.
Or, Sally tells you in spring that “I was just sitting on my deck overlooking the river, and the chill that hit my bones that August night told me we would have five storms.” She never mentioned the chill in winter.
Where I live, in a sometimes-memorable part of the Northeast, 25 miles from New York City, we don’t get the relatively heavy winters of Albany or Buffalo, but we can be hit hard every so many years. The current season is one example, with a gently falling but heavy snowfall as I write this. It is beautiful, covering the very dirty ground left by ice, once-white snow and tons of road salt, sand and other debris. Leftover leaves and litter are there, too, the product of the untidiness that comes with suburbs around here, though Fred’s house, a small, even modest, one-level abode always kept neat as a pin, was shining like a jewel in the recent but short-lived thaw. 
Fred’s fourth generation, having lived through the Depression when so little was to be had and what you did have you kept clean and working so you could reuse. He also recalls non-suburbia in Rockland County and a less consumer-oriented time, when the roadside had no litter. There were no fast-food places, so no wrappers tossed from car windows. And how many had cars anyway? And did people toss things into the street save in city gutters, where they were supposed to do so and which were cleaned by manual street-sweepers?
Leaves were raked and burned in the country before suburbia, and that method added to pollution, yes, but the fact is the lawns were raked in the first place.
Snow in suburbia is a sometimes welcome sight since it covers faults, fooling you for a short while that all is hunky-dory under the great cover. But like Henry, who quietly says in November that December, January and February will see many storms and is simply right, nature has its smarts, too. It will tell you the truth, eventually.
For those of us who see “progress” as inevitable but who reluctantly but actually welcome gradual and planned change as opportunity for others, the misuse of land through overgrowth, through insensitivity, through greed and selfishness, is a collective eyesore that literally can be next door. Many in suburbia keep their places neat, a fair number do not. 
Old Fred’s place is a model of care. The McMansion nearby is not, three abandoned cars left on a deteriorated driveway. Ironically, an army of landscapers descend weekly in season, keeping the green grass trimmed. They mow around the cars protruding off the broken drive. Up a bit, there is the 1977 home not painted since, cars parked on the lawn but at least registered, a broken washing machine under a huge deck just completed for many thousands of dollars. This is the second owner, the first having left the building in long disrepair after telling us he was going south because suburbia was too built-up and the taxes too high. He was welcomed from Gotham in the “progress” of 1978 but for 25 years abused the invitation through property neglect. Taxes rose to provide him services. Then he left us holding the bag.
Now it is snowing, and the unsightliness look at his old home and the McMansion are covered by the same white blanket that graces Fred’s small spot. But spring is coming, in suburbia, too. The truth awaits.

Monday, February 14, 2011

WARMING MORE THAN HEART

     Today is the one set aside for valentines, and I hope you all get them in one form or another, but my love affair for this moment is more about another sort of heat -- steam heating, actually.
It has been a long, cold, old-fashioned winter this season in my part of the Northeast, and the forced-air and water-filled baseboard heating systems that are either in my house or my sons’ or in other places have proven inadequate. Once, there was steam heating, used way back in the later 1800s,  and some of those installations are still operating beautifully. The setup, with his occasionally hissing valves, puffs of humidity shot into the air and some pipe-banging, has done the best job of keeping me warm whenever I have found it.
It was “progress” that took us to forced air, in which a coal, then oil or gas or even electric furnace heats air and then forces it out registers by a fan. It was “progress” that put hot water rather than  steam into cast-iron radiators, which at least retained heat after the furnace had stopped running, and then  into thin sheet-metal baseboard units, which go to cold almost instantly. These systems generally get you warm but then quickly have you chilly as they cycle on and off.
Steam heat, on the other hand, not only warms cast-iron radiators but fills the room with humidified air, which makes you feel warmer at lower temperatures. It has a psychological component, too, since the gentle sound of steam rising out of a radiator valve  makes you feel cozy. It also has you nostalgically recalling old school classrooms with steam heat, wet mittens and hats drying atop. I add  the memory of leaning my derriere and the back of my legs against steam radiators in various Rockland County, N.Y,. town halls when I was a newspaper photographer some decades ago. Running from assignment to assignment in a small Volkswagen Beetle, which had a poor heating system, left me chilly, and I was thankful for the radiator stops.
Radiators of any sort are difficult to locate anywhere these days, though I have hit upon a few in nearby South Nyack and Orangeburg.
I suppose that heating engineers can give you reasons why forced air, hot water and other systems are used today instead of steam. Perhaps there is greater efficiency. Maybe radiators take up too much room. Perhaps it is really the bottom line: the more profit you seek, the more “progress” has to be shaped away from product improvement to compromise on quality.
If I could, I would retrofit my own abode to steam heat, tossing the baseboard units into recycling. But that is not affordable. Instead, come winter, I will just have to visit friends who have steam heat. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

COME TO THE SHOW


    NYACK, N.Y. -- Pardon the marketing, but there will be a free photographic exhibition in this village of artist Edward Hopper’s birth  Saturday, Feb. 12, 5-7 p.m., when “Hopperesque: Realism and Light in Photography” is presented in the famed American realist’s family home at 82 North Broadway.
Hopper caught his first glimpse of Hudson riverfront light at his Nyack birth in 1882 and never drew the curtain on it, imbuing his copper-plate etchings, watercolors and, most of all, his haunting horizontal oils with interpretive illumination. His portfolio is a spotlight on the American experience of the 20th century.
     This was the man, tall and lean, quiet and introspective, whose symbiosis with film noir was so interwoven that it is difficult to say who or which came first. Until he passed in 1967, Hopper captured urban solitude and country landscape, his reduced painting symbolic of the independence, the moods of America, its very idiosyncrasy.
     Today Edward Hopper is iconic, his “Nighthawks” and other works recognizable worldwide. Recent museum shows in Boston, Washington, New York City and Europe have drawn thousands in reverent communication with an artist who said so little by speech but who in his paintings expressed deeply and extensively facets native to the American being. Hopper offered as much in this quote: “If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint. The whole answer is there on the canvas.” 
     The artist’s boyhood home is part of that “canvas,” a source of the light, real and figurative, that was Hopper’s painting harmony. After the deaths of Edward and his wife, the painter Josephine  Nivison, the house was rescued by local residents who organized a committee to obtain incorporation in 1971 as the Edward Hopper Landmark Preservation Foundation.  For 40 years, this non-profit organization, its trustees and members have contributed time, expertise, labor and donations to maintain 82 North Broadway as an multi-arts center; to keep an archive of Hopper documents and memorabilia; to serve as a resource for scholars, art historians and art lovers worldwide; and to encourage and nurture community engagement with the arts. 
     The Edward Hopper House is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2011, presenting "The Year of Edward Hopper," a series of special events and exhibits honoring the painter and his legacy. Highlight of the year will be a major exhibition of his early work, entitled "Edward Hopper, Prelude: The Nyack Years," scheduled from May 21 to July 17. 

     Before Prelude unfolds, Hopper House will mount a photographic show, “Hopperesque: Realism and Light,” from February 12 through March 27. To launch the exhibition, Co-Curators Art Gunther and Ken Karlewicz began an international search for photographs inspired by Hopper’s use of light, his color saturation, his take on realism and his view of American solitude.  Thirty-three photographers from Rockland as well as Europe and Australia were selected to express photographically how Edward Hopper got into their artistic souls.
   So, if you are anywhere near this New York part of the universe,  come on by and see Hopperesque. If you can’t, go look at some Edward Hopper works and be inspired in your own way.