Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Driving down Park Avenue at dusk yesterday, stopped at a red light, I had Hamlet on my mind -- specifically the scene in Gertrude's bedchamber, in which Hamlet forces his mother to confront two pictures -- his father and her present husband -- in which his villainous uncle comes off far worse:

Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself. . . .
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?

The light turned green, and I looked forward, down the avenue to its vanishing point -- which used to be the graceful silhouette of the Grand Central building, but is now the shapeless colossus of the Met Life Building just to the south, which (as one architecture critic said when it was built as the Pan Am Building in 1963), is wedged into the space it occupies like a fat lady trying to get through a narrow doorway.

So, like Hamlet, I superimposed the pictures of past and present, and came to the much the same conclusion: Park Avenue, whose terminus used to be as graceful as the Champs Elysee leading into the Arc de Triomphe, now simply hits a brick wall, so to speak. Lever House and the Seagrams Building, which had brought some architectural distinction to the famous boulevard, has been decisively trumped -- and not by the Donald, who later accelerated the process. The Pan Am / Met Life usurper, like Claudius, has irreversibly blasted its wholesome brother.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


I’ve lived in many New York apartment buildings – I think the total is up to ten – but none of them more wonderfully situated than 2 West 67th, to which my parents moved when I was about 13, and which was my home away from home during prep school and college. Aside from fronting on Central Park, our building had the advantage of being situated directly across the street from the storied, landmarked 1 West 67th, better known as the Hotel des Artistes, built in 1916 as an artist’s cooperative (all the south-facing windows are double-height) and home, during its illustrious history, to Child Hassam, Isadora Duncan, Noel Coward, Norman Rockwell and Howard Chandler Christie who, in lieu of paying rent, executed the murals that graced the restaurant that, until last year, graced the main floor, the CafĂ© des Artistes. What he painted was a series of panels featuring naked woodland nymphs gamboling about a Grecian landscape, and I believe that the elderly woman who could be seen almost every afternoon during the 60's sipping an aperitif under one of the larger panels was the model he had used for all the figures 50 years earlier.

I’d never been inside any of the apartments until last night, when a very well-connected woman in Nancy’s pottery class threw a birthday party for a friend, the centerpiece of which was a piano recital by the composer Philip Glass, who filled the huge, stunning apartment with his own piano works. Sipping champagne as the music rolled in lushly around me, I marveled at the architectural details – the 25-foot ceiling, the kitschy second-floor balcony – and that wonderful mix of West Siders that no other neighborhood can boast, the multiracial academic/intellectual/bohemians of a certain age, leavened by a sprinkling of young men and women whose collective coolness was easily a match for lower Manhattan, a few toddlers, and an enormous cat who prowled among us as we listened.

My people, I realized. I’ve lived on the East Side for 40 years now, and such a gathering would never have taken place on Park Avenue. Money on the East Side is stodgy; everyone wears a suit, and it would have been a charity event to be endured. Money on the West Side has style; everyone wears what they want, and it was a musical event to be cherished. I’m so glad, after all these years, finally to have found my way into a building in the same class, culturally and architecturally, with the Dakota and the

Friday, January 1, 2010


On New Year's Eve, Nancy and I stayed home and watched DVDs. I'd like to pretend that we turned down invitations to all sorts of glamorous parties because it's a long-standing tradition with us to view It Happened One Night every December 31st, but such was not the case. We went to a friend's house for a drink at 7, and were home by 9.

The friend's daughter, however, is a member of the Motion Picture Academy, and she offered to lend us "screeners" of two possible Best Picture contenders, Up in the Air and Precious (whose full title, annoyingly, no doubt for legal reasons, is actually Precious: Based on a Novel by Sapphire). We took and watched them both.

Disclaimer: Stop reading here if you haven't seen, and want to see, either or both of them, because I'm going to have to tell you a little about them to make my point.

On the surface, no two films could be less alike. Up in the Air is about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who has no life and likes it that way; he travels 300 days a year for his soul-destroying job (he works for a company that fires people for other companies), and he hates the days he's not travelling. The element in which he lives is the world of business class, airport lounges, car rentals, and hotels, all of which he enjoys mightily because his huge total of amassed frequent-flyer miles entitles him to upgrades in every department. He has no friends; he's estranged from his family; the only women in his life are one-night stands he meets on the road, and his only ambition is to become only the seventh person to achieve 10-million-mile status on American Airlines.

Precious is about a depressed 16-year-old black girl who lives in Harlem and faces a future so bleak it's painful to contemplate. She has a child with Down's Syndrome and is pregnant with another, both fathered by . . . her own father. She lives with her satanic mother, who abuses her emotionally and physically, screaming at her to give up school and go on Welfare, as she, the mother, has. And, though she fantasizes about herself as a celebrity, she's startlingly obese. At school, Precious is doing all right in math but she can't read the simplest of sentences. The second pregnancy causes her to be expelled, and just as she's settling into an alternative school, she discovers that her father has given her AIDS.

I had been looking forward to Up in the Air because it sounded like a breezy, sexy comic recreation for grown-ups. I had little interest in Precious because it sounded like something worse than tragic -- the inexorable downward spiral of someone whose life is insupportably awful and who never expected or had a shot at anything else. Wrong on both counts. What makes the films similar is that both Ryan and Precious blossom as the narratives unfold. Ryan reconnects with his family, saving his sister's wedding; he mentors his young assistant, who manages to teach him a thing or two about what's wrong with the business they're in; he meets a woman in an airport bar who turns out to be smart, funny, and interesting enough for him to abandon their transient relationship (meeting in hotels whenever their business travels intersect). He takes her along to the sister's wedding, and the relationship develops depth and human texture.

Precious, too, comes to life. Monosyllabic throughout the first half of the picture, she's taken under the wing of an extraordinary teacher at her new school, and she begins to read and write and talk out loud. This sounds like a lot of inspirational-teacher movies you've already seen, like Dangerous Minds, but it's not; such is the brilliance of Gabourey Sidibe and her mostly anonymous supporting cast that everything looks, sounds, and feels almost unbearably real. She rescues herself from her mother, moves into a halfway house, finds the courage to live with her disease, and at the end of the movie is well on her way to her GED and a life with some dignity and the promise of rewards in it.

Ryan is not so lucky. Breaking a cardinal rule, he surprises his new-found ladyfriend at home, and discovers she's married with children. He learns that one of the countless people he's fired on the job has committed suicide, and his career breaks into a thousand little pieces. Achieving his 10-million-mile status, he finds himself indifferent. The assistant goes off to a real job in San Francisco; the girlfriend says she's still up for intermittent escapist sex but nothing more; what passes for his home is a studio apartment in Omaha, where the movie leaves him contemplating the bleakest future imaginable.

So what begins as a feelgood movie turns out to be a downer, a story of a clever, resourceful, sympathetic man who loses his way in a life that has become a trackless wasteland from which he'll never emerge. And the movie that looks to be a heartbreaker is instead that rarest of beasts, a heartwarmer for adults, a story of someone who seems doomed but who will survive and if not thrive, at least cope. So in the end, they are, indeed, very different films, except in two ways: they have the same narrative structure, if not ending, and they're two of the best movies of 2009.