Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Where I Hang My Hat

These are representative upright Nordic male citizens of Kingston, New York, in the year 1909. They are in fact--someone wrote on the back of the card--the Van Alen murder jury, although they might as well be the Ale and Quail Club. They do seem to have been put together by someone with an eye as attuned to physiognomy as Preston Sturges's: the bearded sage, the hapless pale accountant, the man whose mustache is bigger than he is, the tall and insufferably earnest farmer, the butcher whose jacket sleeves are always too short, the malevolent elder, the town slob--and that's just the front row.

I've just moved to Kingston.'s a long story, but let's just say that while I've hovered in the orbit of Kingston for some time, I now am truly of the place, a homeowner on a quiet street, one of those settled in the mid-nineteenth century and given a Dutch name in honor of the oldest families. Kingston is one of those sociologically stratified towns; you can tell at a glance that the accountant might have lived on my street, while the banker would have lived one block west, the butcher one block east, and the dog barber two blocks east. Kingston has dozens and dozens of such stratifications--it is an unexpectedly vast town, with at least four and up to a dozen distinct sectors plotted along two perpendicular axes. It was once quietly prosperous, a microcosm of the United States in its early middle age. Now it's merely quiet, and has spent the last half-century bravely trying not to crumble.

I never quite thought I'd fetch up in a place like Kingston. I was meant for the bright lights, I liked to think. But no, life has instructed me: I was meant for Kingston. It is not the bright lights. It possesses a number of railroad grade crossings, two chop suey joints preserved in amber, a bus depot, a dozen diners, some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses, giant bronze statues of Henry Hudson and Peter Stuyvesant, an authentic-looking Dutch step-gable house that turns out to have been built in the 1920s as a hotel, patches of fairly dense woods within the city limits, a few buildings in the port section that look as if they took a wrong turn on their way to lower Manhattan in the 1880s, collections of varyingly derelict tugboats and trolley cars, two outfits that sell medieval fantasy costumes for adults, the remains of a brickworks, a large and extremely variegated array of places of worship, a model railroad club in its own dedicated building, an empty lace-curtain factory, a string of functioning shipyards, a brewery, and two competing urology clinics that believe it pays to advertise. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Post No Bills

Pinakothek is enjoying a brief hiatus while its archives are moved to a more secure location. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Because M. Marcel Duchamp is currently in America, I am unable to meet today's deadline. Because M. Duchamp is currently indisposed, I am unable to give the matter my complete attention. Because I am indisposed, M. Duchamp will be the one handling your account. Because M. Duchamp has been promoted sideways, I will not be able to answer my emails. Because I am indisposed, your request did not cross my desk. Because M. Dominguez has taken over my email account, I cannot hear you. I'm very sorry. Please call back after the dust settles.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My Mom

I never got around to asking my mother about the circumstances under which this extraordinary object was produced, so I can only conjecture. Had I found it in a pile at a flea market I would have assumed such a confection of airbrush and hand-tinting to be a generic romance image, such as the postcards you can still find in places like Greece or Mexico that feature a young woman looking misty, with or without a sentiment printed in cursive. Judging from the hairstyle I'd guess the picture was taken within a couple of years after the end of the war. This print measures roughly 9 1/2" by 7" and I also have a postcard version--on which the lips have been retinted bright red--so I think it might have been a package deal offered by a photographer: one large print and from three to five cards for one low price.

My mother is in her early twenties here, still living with her parents and employed by them as maid-of-all-work as well as holding down a secretarial position with a governmental family-welfare agency. She may not yet have met my father, for all that he sometimes lives with his parents directly across the narrow street from her. Marriage and family are her only prospects, aside from the nunnery the only ones even conceivable to a young woman of her time and her class. She has little education, has principally been schooled in sewing and penmanship. She has been through war, fear, hunger, cold, flight to the south of France in 1940 accomplished in part on foot, strafings by Stukas on the road, bombs falling within yards of her family's apartment, nighttime encounters with Wehrmacht foot patrols--yet none of this has managed to dent her innocence.

To me she is entirely enscribed in this picture: her hazily romantic dreams, her naiveté so profound it might be willed, her deeply buried intelligence, her sufferings at the hands of her family, her enclosing wall of fear, her cruel and only intermittently comforting piety, her constant depression that only fluctuated in its depth, her rigid mask of good behavior. I see a lot of myself in that face: eyebrows, mouth, maybe nose, shape of eyes. We shared many of our worst qualities. We were very close once, and then we weren't. My failings wounded her, and my successes meant nothing to her because they occurred in a world she couldn't or wouldn't understand. She screamed at me and then hung up on me the last time we talked before her death. Her account in my ledger will always remain troublingly open.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


No, I didn't attend this show--it was in far-off Boston, and I had neither money nor a car. But the fact that the poster was put up somewhere in New York City for me to steal it tells you something about the reggae scene in 1979. There were relatively few Jamaican expatriates in New York then--there were considerably more in Boston, where I first heard the Wailers on the radio in 1973--but there were people in New York who would have traveled several hundred miles to catch Gregory Isaacs, the cool ruler, the lonely lover, appearing live. He certainly didn't play NYC that I knew about in those years, and I would have known.

His voice then--at least before he "macked it to shreds," in Robert Christgau's phrase--was syrup and pain and swagger all at once. Like the Rastas I'd see at Isaiah's on lower Broadway, who seemed barely awake as they hugged the walls, dancing with an occasional inflection of hip or ribcage, as if it were inadvertent, a reflex that happened to fall on the one, Gregory's affect was languid to the point of somnolence. He was totally bedroom. There was steel just underneath, however. You knew that if you crossed him you were done for. Listening to "Poor and Clean" or "Mr. Know-It-All" or "Stranger in Your Town," I could vividly imagine him slouching across the stage, eyes half shut, crooning into the mic as if he were asking for a glass of water, while the audience cried "Murderer! Murderer!" It was a standard Jamaican bravo of the time, but it just about summed him up.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


All photographs are ghostly to one degree or another, but silent-film stills truly belong to the realm of the uncanny. Photographs are ghostly because they are slices of the past; even pictures taken yesterday record things that no longer exist, if only the after-dinner still-life on the table. Silent movies, because of their limitations, were and are more specifically photographic than sound pictures--they could not rely on anything but the image to convey meaning. The most interesting silent movies made use of an arsenal of techniques for this purpose--double exposures, irises, split screens--that have largely disappeared from commercial cinema. In addition, silent movies relied on various pictorial and theatrical conventions that predated the motion-picture vocabulary and have since faded away.

Silent-film stills, then, are slices of heightened experience from the past, which at least potentially makes them preternaturally vivid, but they are mediated by ways of seeing and means of expression that are unfamiliar to us, making them to some degree alien. And since a still isolates one moment of a story, with the steps leading up to and away from it unknown to the viewer who hasn't seen the movie, stills are particularly mysterious and tantalizing--more so than the average photograph, which is designed to fit its entire story within its borders. Silent-film stills at their best are vivid, alien, enigmatic, and alluring all at once. They are not simply pictures of dead people in unguessable circumstances, but views of the subconscious residue of dead minds--a whole other planet.

Today I finally saw Marcel L'Herbier's El Dorado (1921), which I'd been wanting to see for twenty or thirty years, largely on the basis of this shot. It's a melodrama, as the credits announce immediately. The story is maybe laughable--it's a variant of Stella Dallas: the doomed low-life mother who sacrifices herself for the future of her child. It trades on the exotic power of Spain as it then was--the exteriors were shot in Granada and Seville--although most of the movie takes place in the titular nightclub, which in many ways is the same room as every casbah hotspot you've ever seen in the movies, from Casablanca on back. Everything of real visual interest happens in that nightclub: looming shadows, voracious mouths, insistent headgear, expressionistic decor, and smeary distortion employed to convey drunkenness and squalor.

The shot above occurs at the very end, and when I got there I felt as though I should have guessed its context from the start: she's dead, of course, and has now symbolically attained heaven, which is to say the real El Dorado. The lettering is the same as the nightclub's sign, only done up in what we're invited to see as gold. Appropriately, I feel like the man in Stephen Crane's poem, who sees a ball of gold in the sky, goes up to investigate and finds out it's actually mud, then comes back to earth and looks up, once again seeing a ball of gold. I have now seen the movie, which while it is a great deal more than mud is nevertheless a bit of a letdown. But the still retains its uncanny power. I could attempt to break it down: the shimmering letters, their appealing crudity, their relative size, her position relative to them, her position on the table, her makeup, her magician's-assistant bisection, her gravity--whatever. The picture forces my rational mind to surrender. It remains a mystery, even if I can account for all of its particulars.

Thanks to Benjamen Walker for making it happen.