23 June 2014

The Immigrant

There is a shot of Lady Liberty as seen by passengers on an incoming ship at the beginning of James Gray’s The Immigrant that’s misty looking and almost sepia in colour. It sets the mood for a period film that is as unsettling as it is engaging.

It’s 1921 and Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), from war-torn Poland ready to make a fresh start. They have no money but Ewa can speak English and they have a loving uncle and aunt waiting for them. Things go wrong though once they depart the ship. Magda is held back and quarantined for what we later learn is tuberculosis while Ewa discovers that she’s been labelled a woman of “low morals” for an incident that occurred during the crossing and that the address she has for her relatives is fake. She’s waiting in line to be deported back to Poland when a man appears who says he’s from Travelers Aid and that he can help her.

This man is Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an entrepreneur who runs a “theatre” in the Lower East Side. It’s really a second-rate burlesque show whose performers supplement their income (and Bruno’s) by turning tricks. Upon first appearance Bruno seems kind, offering Ewa a place to stay and promising to do whatever he can to help her and her sister. He is soft spoken and jokes with the other women whom he calls his "doves” but something sinister is lurking beneath his demeanour. When he places a hand on Ewa's shoulder and she tells him not to touch her, he becomes angry and shouts “shame,” shocking both Ewa and the audience. It soon becomes apparent that Bruno is falling for Ewa even while he pushes her into prostitution.

Enter his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) to further complicate the situation. The opposite of Bruno, Emil is funny and filled with nothing but flattering words for Ewa. At their first meeting at Ellis Island where he's performing (he makes a living as Orlando the magician), he tells her she’s beautiful and hands her a rose. He quickly declares his love for her and asks her to run away with him. Yet Ewa is unsure because her sister is in New York (as is Bruno).

Marion Cotillard, for me, is one of the best actresses working today and she's wonderful as Ewa. With her expressive large eyes, she would have made a great silent screen actress. In fact, Ewa is very much a character out of a silent melodrama—an innocent thrust out in the cold big city where evil lurks at every corner and a villain attempts to steal her virtue. The difference here is that while Ewa’s virtue is taken she is no milksop, refusing to be subjugated by the men around her. Bolstered by a steely determination, she never detours from her ultimate goal, being reunited with her sister. While she may appear fearful of Bruno’s outbursts she stands up to him, coldly repeating “give me my money.”

And speaking of Bruno, who else to better portray a character of such complex emotions than Joaquin Phoenix? Unable to control his feelings, Bruno literally lashes out; he is unpredictable and dangerous. Yet even though Bruno is a pimp and a little psychotic, Phoenix makes the audience sympathize with him (a difficult feat). There is a certain sadness about Phoenix that's present in most of his roles and here we see it when he looks at Ewa and when his luck starts to run out. It's almost heartbreaking to watch.

If there’s one misstep in the casting it's Jeremy Renner who is a fine actor but who just reads as too modern for this story (and the black eyeliner he wears while performing his magic act unfortunately brings to mind Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange). Or perhaps it's just that he's not as compelling to watch as Phoenix.

So often period films appear glossy, too new but The Immigrant looks authentic thanks in part to the brilliant work of cinematographer Darius Khondji. The muted colours add a historical air to the film as do the sets, which are incredibly authentic. When Bruno first brings Ewa into his tenement flat, I thought for a second that it had been filmed in the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, the layout was so perfect. 

With The Immigrant, James Gray has given us the story of a woman whose American experience is more nightmare than dream. And it may just be the best film I've seen this year. 

16 June 2014


"Marilyn Monroe" Eve Arnold (1955)

It's Bloomsday, the annual celebration of Leopold Bloom's journey around Dublin on June 16, 1904, in James Joyce's Ulysses. Since its publication in 1922 in Paris by Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company and one of Joyce's biggest supporters, the book has baffled and delighted generations of readers. Once labelled obscene and banned from the US and Britain, Ulysses is now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and is a part of the literary canon.

If you've never read Ulysses, you should give it a go, even if you read just one chapter. As T.S. Eliot said, "I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape."

Marathon readings and Bloomsday parties are going on all over the globe today. To find out about Bloomsday events near you, visit here.

Around Town

Every time I look at the Archive column on the right side of this blog and see that the numbers are down from what they normally are I feel a bit guilty. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about; on the contrary, I’m doing a lot of writing at the moment, just not anything I can share on the blog (at least for now). I will do my best though to post as often as possible.

In the meantime, I encourage you to follow me on Instagram and Twitter (I just joined) where you can see daily images of New York and other objects (usually gardens and buildings with nuggets of historical information thrown in) and find out about events around town that may never make it onto the blog like this past weekend's screening of Mary Pickford's Amarilly of Clothesline Alley at the Silent Clowns Film Series or the Portugal Day NY event in Central Park (both of which I enjoyed). And do let me know your thoughts on the posts, images, tweets, favourite cocktails, whatever. I love hearing from you.

10 June 2014

Pre-Raphaelites Revisited

My first apartment in grad school was decorated with posters of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, most of them dark and foreboding. I loved their rich tones, their allegorical symbolism, their Englishness (to my credit, I was getting a masters in English Literature at the time so the decor suited the situation). My taste has since changed but when I saw that the Met had a small exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite works, I decided to check it out.

"The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design" focuses primarily on works by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the three leaders of the second wave of the Pre-Raphaelite movement whose original founders (Rossetti was one) had rebelled against academia and rejected classical art in lieu of the more ideal (to them) Quattrocento Italian art. The exhibit consists of 30 objects—paintings and drawings as well as furniture and pottery—by these artists and those who were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement like Julia Margaret Cameron and Ford Madox Brown. Much of it is beautiful and can be admired for its craftsmanship, especially the pieces by Morris who went on to be a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement and whose textiles are still coveted by some designers today. 

Yet what struck me the most about the exhibit is how much my attitude had changed toward these artists. While I still found some of the paintings quite pretty, I didn't exactly love any of the work. Most of it seemed just too one-dimensional, populated with idealized women. The artists' models, who in real life tended to be either the lovers or wives of the painters (sometimes both), all appear to have the same features: large eyes and mouths, thick necks, and crazy wild hair. After a while it's just boring.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones' "The Love Song," the  painting at the center of the exhibit, was one of the more interesting pieces. It's very striking from the lovely colours to the medieval garb to the attention to detail like the flowers along the bottom. Yet ultimately it looks like an illustration from a book of fairy tales, which can be said about many of these works. In the case of the Aubrey Vincent Beardsley designs they were just that, illustrations created specifically for an edition of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

In the end, I realized that Pre-Raphaelite work is no longer my cup of tea (although I still admire a nice William Morris design) and that none of their prints will be decorating my place anytime soon.

"The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design" is on display at the Met through October 26, 2014. For more information, visit here.

06 June 2014

Capa and D-Day

"You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you...I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle."—General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Seventy years ago today, on June 6, 1944, nearly 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops landed in Normandy, France in what remains the largest seaborne invasion in history. The Allies suffered almost 10,000 casualties that day but the event was a crucial turning point in the war and helped lead the Allies to victory. Only four photographers were chosen to cover the start of the invasion: George Rodger, Bert Brandt, Bob Landry, and Robert Capa.

"US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings" Robert Capa (June 6, 1944)Capa, the daring war photographer who had made a name for himself during the Spanish Civil War, had already seen action in North Africa and Italy. Assigned to the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry, he chose to land with Company E of the 2nd Battalion as part of the second assault wave on the “Easy Red” section of Omaha Beach. Armed with two Contax II cameras and a handful of film, Capa would find himself in the thick of things.
In his World War II memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, Capa described the scene as he approached the beach: “The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle. A soldier got there at the same time, and for a few minutes we shared its cover. He took the waterproofing off his rifle and began to shoot without much aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage to move forward, and he left the obstacle to me. It was a foot larger now, and I felt safe enough to take pictures of the other guys hiding just like I was."

Capa continued to advance and shoot, later recalling that he kept repeating a phrase he had learned in Spain, “Es una cosa muy seria” (“This is a very serious business”). In 90 minutes, he managed to take 106 images before turning back and jumping on a landing craft, which took him to one of the ships where he helped unload the injured before collapsing below deck.

Arriving in Portsmouth, he handed his film off to a courier for delivery to the Life Magazine offices in London where picture editor John Morris eagerly awaited its arrival. Enclosed with the film was a note that said, "John, all the action is in the four rolls of 35 mm."

In order to make the next issue, the film had to be developed that night and sent to New York the next morning; the whole office was on edge. “I felt…that the whole world was waiting on these pictures," remembers Morris. "‘Rush, rush, rush,’ I told the darkroom.”

Unfortunately, rush they did. Later that evening, a hysterical lab technician ran into Morris’ office shouting, “Capa’s films are ruined; they’re all ruined.” In a hurry, he had placed the film in the drying closet, turned up the heat, and closed the door; the result was the emulsion on the film melted. Just 11 images remained, slightly blurred, lending them an almost ghost-like appearance.

"Robert Capa in Portsmouth, England" David Scherman/Time & Life Pictures (June 6, 1944)

Morris got the surviving images to New York in time and Life Magazine printed eight of them in their June 19, 1944 issue in an article entitled “BEACHHEADS OF NORMANDY: The Fateful Battle for Europe is Joined by Sea and Air.” In the article it was unfairly noted that "Immense excitement of moment made Photographer Capa move his camera and blur the picture." Yet the editors were thrilled and sent a cable that read, “TODAY WAS ONE OF THE GREAT PICTURE DAYS IN LIFE’S OFFICE, WHEN BOB CAPA’S BEACH LANDING AND OTHER SHOTS ARRIVED.” 

Dubbed the "Magnificent 11," these were the first photos that the American public saw of the D-Day Invasion, and they become some of the most iconic war images of the 20th century. Capa would go on to cover the rest of the war including jumping into Germany with the 17th Airborne Division and witnessing the liberation of Paris but nothing would compare to that day on the beach on Normandy.

To see more of Robert Capa's images of the Normandy invasion, visit here.

02 June 2014

Bill Cunningham Facades

One of the great treasures of New York City is its architecture. Walk through any neighbourhood in the city, and you will encounter buildings and landmarks that reflect a range of architectural styles and time periods, all of them reminders of New York’s past.

In 1968 photographer Bill Cunningham, himself a New York treasure, began shooting a series in which he paired a New York building with a model, usually his great friend and muse, Editta Sherman, in clothing that matched the decade in which the building was constructed. Entitled Facades, the eight-year long project was done at a moment in the city’s history when it was just starting to grapple with issues of preservation.

"St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

The New York Historical Society's new exhibit, "Bill Cunningham: Facades," highlights images from this project including some of the 88 silver gelatin prints that Cunningham donated to the society back in 1976. Arranged in chronological order, they are a wonderful history lesson in the changing trends in both architecture and fashion.

"Apthorp Apartments, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

"Carnegie Mansion, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

Cunningham covered almost 200 years of history from the late 1700s to the 1950s and included many of the city’s great architectural landmarks—The Guggenheim Museum, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station—as well as numerous houses and apartment buildings. While some of the locations have since changed, it was fun spotting those that look the same. I didn't have to read the captions to identify Grove Street in a couple of images; I recognized the houses and private court that I’ve walked by countless times. At a quick glance, many of the images appear like they were taken in the decade alluded to by the clothes while in others anachronisms pop up like a modern day taxi cab.

"'21' Club, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

One of the most striking elements of the photos is the accuracy of the costumes. Cunningham went to great lengths to find authentic period items, searching through thrift shops and markets. Sometimes he struck gold: once he found a mob cap circa 1770 for $6; “the shop thought [it] was a doily.” And Editta, dubbed the "Duchess of Carnegie Hall," was his perfect model. In the photos she looks like she's really enjoying herself, smiling and striking a pose for the camera. Although she's fabulous in all of the outfits, she seems to have been particularly suited to the clothing of the Gilded Age; it's easy to picture her waltzing into a drawing room of an Edith Wharton novel with the latest gossip. 

"Paris Theater, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

While the images may make you wistful for the past (I'm a sucker for an Art Deco building and an elegant gown) they are a fun juxtaposition of two New York obsessions—real estate and fashion—that Bill Cunningham captured perfectly.

"Bill Cunningham: Facades" is at the New York Historical Society through June 15, 2014. For more information, visit here.

01 June 2014

Hello, June

June's arrival means it's time to put away coats and blankets, stock up on the sunscreen, and make sure the AC is installed and ready to start blasting. The weather in New York has been nice these past few days, and I can only hope that it continues for a little longer before the hell that is summer humidity hits. Lots of plans for the month including seeing a bunch of new films, photographing some more of my favourite streets, and posting more often on the blog (May just got away from me). Have a great month, everyone!

To see more Snappy Stories covers like the one above, visit here.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...