Archive | Essays

I’m Everybody! Are You Everybody Too?

I slipped into the theater as Cynthia Nixon was cooing to a newborn: “I’m nobody! Are you nobody too?”

It was the newly renovated Quad Cinema, and I’d scored a ticket because I was presenting the Emily Dickinson film, “A Quiet Passion,” to a cinema club later in the week. Normally I would not be spending such a beautiful afternoon indoors, but I’d had a terrible writing morning—the sort that robs one of all confidence and joy—and I was keen to get out of my house, neighborhood, and head, in that order.

The new Quad seemed a lot like the old Quad, down to ticketing confusion and the long, skinny screening rooms with tiny screens, but the seats were more comfortable and the film, a stately swoon. I settled into the story that had begun 20 minutes before my arrival, and tried to block everything out.

Dickinson was bright and glaring in her strong tempers, with the knit brow and bitten lip of a nineteenth-century woman heeding too many wrong lessons. She and her kin bickered against the austere backdrop of their Amherst estate, and I sat back against red cushions and exhaled in pleasure. This was not the New England of so many films-forbidding and confined to a palette of greys and more greys. This was the New England I long for 25 years after emigrating to New York: amused and amusing, with bursts of colors so extravagant that there’s no point in competing with your own person. Continue Reading →

The Magic Social Realism of Alice Neel

Though it was widely accepted that the artist Alice Neel was a big fibber, her boast that she was “old as the century” was never a falsehood. Born January 28, 1900, she grew up with the twentieth century, and the trajectory of her life – her struggles, her triumphs –twinned that of our country though significant success eluded her until she was in her sixties. Today, her hard gems of truth and beauty continue to find new audiences, most recently via “Alice Neel, Uptown,” an exhibition of her portraits at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. I believe this is because her work, like Neel herself, was not just a product of its time but also ahead of it.

Neel first came on my radar last year, when I was cruising through a gallery of contemporary paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Though I was rushing, I screeched to a full stop in front of “John I. H. Baur,” her 1974 portrait of a former museum department head. With a palette of slate and ochre and a bold, almost slapdash brushstroke, she’d conveyed the man as both an institutional hack and a bemused enabler. It was a funny portrait but rueful and rich, too. I rushed on, but when I saw the Zwirner gallery was hosting a show of her work, I hightailed over not once but thrice. These paintings of her family, neighbors, friends, lovers, and political comrades in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side are not perfect. In some cases, they could ask more; they could tell more. But they grip as few twentieth-century portraits do because they are so vibrant, so cock-sure – and so defiantly resonant.

Though his book, White Girls, offers general cultural commentary, Hilton Als is employed by The New Yorker as a critic of theater, not fine arts. Yet he curated this Zwirner exhibition, perhaps because Neel’s intensely democratic curiosity snags his own. (His book on the topic will be released this June.) In a catalog essay, he shares what this child of West Indian immigrants, raised in deep Brooklyn to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, initially recognized in her work Continue Reading →

Mercy, Mercy and ‘Hallelujah Anyway’

Anne Lamott may be one of the most high-profile progressive Christians in America today, but she’s better known as the author of such bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction as Imperfect Birds and Some Assembly Required, not to mention the beloved writing guide Bird by Bird. This may change with her newest book, Hallelujah Anyway. Though all her essay collections have centered on themes of faith and compassion, this one is her most explicitly Christian. In it, she wrangles with biblical stories, and not just the ones that make everyone comfortable. Ruth, Mary, Martha, Jesus, and controversial Paul dance through this book about mercy and self-reckoning. It’s wonderful, and not just because her combination of leftist politics and Christian beliefs bridges a looming gap in our country.

Lamott acknowledges that her sources of strength may put some people off. “Where do I look for answers when I’m afraid, or confused, or numb?” she writes. “A dream-dancing Sioux grandmother with a tinkling laugh? No, more often than not, the North Star that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah [who said] ‘What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ Oh, is that all?” Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy