November 4, 2002

Some Quotes and Links

"Asbury's book is a tribute to the magical power of naming: long stretches of 'Gangs [of New York]' are taken up by lists of gangs and villains and even fire engines, and, like the lists of ships in the Iliad, they are essential to the effect...We read of Daybreak Boys, Buckoos, Hookers, Swamp Angels, Slaughter Housers, Short Tails, Patsy Conroys, and the Border Gang, of Chichesters, Roach Guards, Plug Uglies, and Shirt Tails, and we melt."
-- Adam Gopnik discussing Herbert Asbury's cult-fave 1928 book in the New Yorker

"What you really are afraid of is that you're competing against somebody who is rich and irrational. I mean, it used to be a given, a saying in the industry: Don't ever bid against Rupert Murdoch for anything Rupert wants, because if you win you lose. You will have paid way too much."
-- media mogul John Malone, in an interview with Ken Auletta at

"Just as Italians don't translate Johnny Cash as 'Giovanni Soldi,' and we don't take Federico Fellini and rename him 'Freddy Cats,' so the term Arte Povera has to stand unchanged and unexplained."
-- Blake Gopnik, brother, writing (entertainingly but incorrectly) about the Hirshhorn Gallery's latest show in the Washington Post

"Then sometimes you're given the chance to make a memory for someone, give them a pleasant moment to remember, which is the greatest thing you can ever do. Keep the Oscar and all that."
-- Rod Steiger, Oscar winner, on Jon Favreau's Dinner for Five on IFC

"We're a little tired of the thin-skinned whining, which is much of what we get from north of the border...
-- Pat Buchanan, defending his comment about "Soviet Canuckistan" on the CBC's As It Happens [Pat's about 12:00 into the stream.]


Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is on. [Dig that vintage website. Can you imagine anyone--besides me--putting so much text on a film site?] It's been a while since I've seen it; remembering how good it is. It was from more innocent days, just before Leonardo DiCaprio became Leo. It has a gang of excellent performances: John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora, Paul Rudd, Dash Mihok, Miriam Margolyes... but it's Luhrmann's ecstatic vision that conquers all. One thing I didn't anticipate, though: the degree to which audience perceptions and expectations can change over time. Romeo + Juliet's like freakin' Ozu compared to Moulin Rouge.

Sometimes I get fed up with the course of human events abroad and I wonder if it isn't better to just forget all that annoying international conflict for a while and just pay attention to what's going on at home. You know, focus on what's nearby. In my town. My community. My neighborhood. After all, it worked 30 years ago when my neighborhood was Sesame Street. There's even a guy who makes short films about the people that he meets when he's walking down the street; it's called Neighborhood Films. New York's not really known as a get-to-know-your-neighbor kind of town, but hey, I'll give it a shot. I walk around the block.

Pakistan House, 8E65 India House, 3E64 The Pakistan U.N. Mission and Indian Consulate, off Fifth Avenue, adjoining lots on the same block

Who are the people in my neighborhood? No one who's gonna take my mind off things. Within a block there's India and Pakistan, for example. In back-to-back Beaux-Arts townhouses. Can't figure out which country bought first, but these two trigger-happy nuclear rivals have essentially replicated their sub-continental situation. Except they're sharing their backyard fence peaceably, while enduring the same Upper East Side hardships we all face: dire shortages of video rental stores and cabs. (Wouldn't you know, the Kashmiris still figure in somehow?)

Temple Emmanuel, 5&65th Palestine UN Observer Mission, Park&65th Temple Emmanuel and The Palestine Observer to the UN, just down the street

Continuing around the corner of Fifth Avenue, it's Temple Emmanuel, the "power synagogue," as one friend put it. A nephew of a rabbi there, he also said, "it's a great congregation if you're looking for an apartment." And just east of this Jewish holy site is the Permanent Observer to the United Nations for Palestine, complete with high-profile security. How's this one working out? Well, you can see the Jersey barriers around the synagogue, and Palestine's whole block was in lock-down for months after September 11th. No cars allowed, and residents only past the sidewalk checkpoints. Nearly drove 212, the eurotrash clubhouse/restaurant out of business. Hmm. Sounds like they've managed to replicate their home setup pretty closely, too. Just without the killing.

Giving up on giving up on the world's problems for a while, I try instead to make some sense of it all. And? It's all about location. Real estate, it all boils down to real estate. While it fuels bloody feuds around the world, the worst we have to deal with is the co-op board interview or getting the Landmarks Commission to approve your fiberglass cornice. What doesn't differ between my neighborhood and the world: it's all about having a good broker.

Whatever else it may be,
Jackass is possibly the purest cinema experience ever. It is undiluted, unadulterated and unambiguous. It will make you run. You certainly don't need me to tell you, though, if you should run toward or away from the theater; whatever your pre-existing inclination, you will do well to follow it. Jackass will not mislead you.

Hustled out to Queens to get press screening tapes of Souvenir (November 2001) to MoMA's Film Department. Falling a little behind on delivering the printed press kits; it's going to be a working weekend.

Brick Kilns, Clay Bluffs 1900 Miles above St. Louis, George Catlin, 1832
Brick Kilns," Clay Bluffs 1900 Miles above St. Louis, George Catlin, 1832

Painter/enthnographer/showman/lawyer George Catlin saw and captured a moment in culture and time--the rapidly changing/disappearing society of over 50 American Indian tribes on the cusp of westward expansion. The largest exhibit of Catlin's work in 100 years is currently at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery. Sanford Schwartz, in the NY Review of Books, describes the paintings wonderfully, but he doesn't quite get a handle on Catlin himself. It's work, though, with an honesty and immediacy, a pretty relevant, contemporary feeling.

The Circus, Verne Dawson, 2001 The Circus, Verne Dawson, 2001

Contemporary artist Verne Dawson's work is very much of this time. While apparently set in an idyllic pre-historic past (23,800 B.C. is the date in some Dawson's titles), they sometimes include anachronistic civilization/technologies that can induce Planet Of The Apes-style post-apocalyptic pangs. Stylistically similar yet separated by over 160 years, both bodies of work feel very much of their own times.

Far From Heaven Still, Todd Haynes, 2002 Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes, 2002

Todd Haynes has accomplished something similar with his latest film, Far From Heaven. He didn't simply approximate the look of Douglas Sirk's 1950's melodramas; he inhabited the entire aesthetic and moral structure of the genre to create a thoroughly original film. In Geoffrey O'Brien's Artforum article, Haynes forefronts the utter intentionality of moviemaking. "Everything about film is always artificial. You can come to something far more surprisingly real by acknowledging how much of a construct it is first. It always feels so much more false to me when you set out to be real."

November 2, 2002

On on Memorials

After posting my review and response to the Pentagon Memorial Competition, I realized that in addition to writing "about making films, about art," I have written quite a bit about memorials. So I collected those weblog entries in one spot. Click here to read them. The entries include:

  • discussions of efforts to rebuild the WTC and downtown Manhattan
  • WTC memorials, including the Tribute in Light
  • other memorials, such as the Vietnam Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial
  • stories from shooting Souvenir (November 2001), my movie about WWI memorials, and
  • the experiences that inspired the film.

    Please let me know what you think. Thanks to the many people who have already done so. I greatly value your points of view.

  • Ben, Jen, Kevin on the set of Jersey Girls

    On his illustrious entertainment portal Movie Poop Shoot, Kevin Smith is publishing a weekly production diary of Jersey Girls, his latest, which he calls "hands-down, the best movie we've ever made." The dates are a little ambiguous. The Week One entry is dated July 12, and the Week Two entry isn't exactly dated, but the original schedule had the 11-week shoot wrapping on November 1, er, tomorrow. It's got Ben Affleck and Jen Lopez in it, who also star in the unofficial off-the-set production diary, E! Online. Bonus: There's a big show tunes musical number in it.

    Since the eerie gap in this online production diary overlaps perfectly with the lag on Full Frontal (where it was Week 3 for two+ months), my theory is Miramax had some kind of summer web embargo, or fired their sysadmin and couldn't do updates, or something.

    pentagon pre-9/11 aerial view, with memorial site marked by a red star

    In the 45 minutes between reading about it in the Washington Post and seeing the competition exhibition itself at the National Building Museum, I had designed a memorial for the Pentagon in my head. In fact, I debated going home to document it before seeing the 70+ designs--6 finalists and 60-something "semi-finalists" from both amateurs and professionals--submitted to the competition sponsor, the US Army Corps of Engineers. (See submissions of the six finalists at the competition website.) After making a movie that uses precisely this subject to explore how people--and places--deal with horrible events, I felt compelled. I still feel compelled, but for different reasons.

    In the Post article, Benjamin Forgey laments that while (Vietnam Memorial designer) Maya Lin's influence is "mightily felt here" in the competitors' attempts at "direct, highly charged personal encounter that Lin made possible with her dark, reflective wall," "there were no Maya Lins in the competition. I found just the opposite: there were far too many Lins. The Vietnam Memorial's combination of heavily programmed "experience" and minimalist form has become the default setting for memorials, at least in the US.

    Among these best designs, the vocabulary of contemporary art is widely used without hesitation or fear of high-brow backlash. One semi-finalist Rogers Marvel, rather beautifully and ingeniously uses the form of James Turrell's Roden Crater, incorporating the Pentagon's cornice and planes flying overhead en route to National Airport in ways that subvert the artist's sought-after serene sublimity. Other semi-finalists quote or Tadao Ando's churches with remarkable literalism. Lin's memorial itself is mimicked as well, with names or photos carved on highly polished or translucent panels.

    The Post article didn't prepare me for the large number of entries that marked the approximate flight path of AA77 and oriented themselves to the "point of impact." My own memorial design was to address this overlooked (I thought) but crucial element of the attack. But while no design incorporated it like I would (i.e., "meaningfully"), I soon found out why it featured so obviously in so many entries; the path and the point of impact are marked prominently and clearly on the location plan that was part of the competition materials. While supposedly claiming no specific program, the Pentagon's own documents actually "told" many people what to include in their design.

    A final observation on the competition finalists: The program for remembering every person killed has clearly reached some kind of conceptual endgame, to the overall detriment of the resulting memorial. Terry Riley, MoMA's curator of architecture and one of eleven jurors in this competition, once said that the Thiepval Memorial to The Missing--a monumental arch with 75,000 names on its surfaces-- was the first major example of a memorial to individuals lost in battle. Before that, memorials were to generals or battles, but not lowly soldiers. Inspired by this Memorial, Lin brought this powerfully inclusive idea into her design. But at least since Oklahoma City, memorializing each individual individually has become the norm. An overwhelming percentage of the designs called for 184 somethings: benches, pools, stone markers, glowing human-height columns, wind-chime-like reeds, trees. One finalist includes 184 "life recorders," individual "black boxes"; another proposes 184 "memorial units." Indeed, without dismissing the losses of these people and their families, such individually totemic shrines have become the devalued currency of tragedy, drowning out the significance of an event which means much more than the sum of the lives lost, and limiting the memorial's audience unnecessarily.

    I'm going to go ahead and make some sketches anyway.

    I spent a couple of hours this morning thinking about the Pentagon Memorial, and I made a design in response to those selected by the jury for the Army Corps or Engineers Competition. Click here to see it.

    To be honest, my original idea embodied the somewhat escapist idea that we could go back to the time before the attacks, that we could undo what had happened. I wondered, "What if, somehow, Flight 77 veered at the last minute and resumed its original course, heading uneventfully toward Los Angeles?" I found that, instead of escapism, my response had to painfully acknowledge that, while briefly entertaining such thoughts is a natural human response, we must inevitably confront what happened and deal with the losses and changes in our world.

    To some degree, my design is also a response to Benjamin Forgey's wistful comment in the Post: "Still, I'd like to recognize the Pentagon memorial at a distance, to reflect on it as an identifiable part of Washintgon's symbolic landscape." It's a comment I can understand well.

    The memorial in Thiepval was designed to dominate the surrounding landscape, built as it is on a promontory with key strategic value to both sides in the Battle of the Somme. Also, Forgey understands Washington well; this place is nothing if not a symbolic landscape, and for every tourist who pulls up to a memorial, thousands of people drive right on by. A memorial that doesn't take them--or the millions of others who experienced the attacks on television--into account drastically limits its own impact.

    Click here to read a compilation of my weblog entries about of memorials.

    October 29, 2002

    These bus shelter posters

    These bus shelter posters in London seem so fake, it's shocking to read the text: "CCTV and Metropolitan Police on busses are just two ways we're making your journey more secure/Busses are getting better/Mayor of London. Police and CCTV on a bus? I saw that movie in 1994; didn't seem very secure to me...

    I was looking on Indiewire for the official MoMA Documentary Fortnight screening schedule announcement, so this headline made me flinch: "'Failed Artist' Allen Talks Up European Film". Fortunately, it's not about me or my "European film," it's Woody, who disingenuously (but accurately, especially lately) calls himself "very, very mediocre."

    Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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