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Six Packs & Soft Underbellies: ‘The Outsiders’

Like many growing up in the 1980s, I regarded “The Outsiders,” Frances Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 young adult novel, as the ultimate babe fest. To date, it may be the greatest shrine to young male beauty ever filmed. Starring Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Emilio Estevez at the apex of their hotness, a pre-orthodontia Tom Cruise was the ugliest dude in the cast. Turning flips in the air, popping perfect biceps in rolled-up black tees, lolling cigs out of rosy pouts, and batting long lashes beneath expertly combed pompadours, these boys were so appealing that they triggered early puberty in a whole generation of tweens (then called preteens).

Thirty-odd years later, I dig this parade of Aphrodites even more, and for mostly loftier reasons. Howell stars as 14-year-old protagonist Ponyboy Curtis, so named by dead parents who left him in the care of 17-year-old brother Sodapop (Rob Lowe), a dreamboat of a high school dropout, and biggest brother Darrel (Patrick Swayze), who has forfeited his dreams of college to keep his younger siblings out of foster care. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Curtis boys live on the wrong side of the tracks – we’re reminded of this from the first scene’s lonely train whistle– and they provide a homebase for all the tenderhearted, rough-hewn “greasers” in their gang. 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 →

American Tragedy on Film

I’ve been trying to figure out why I love “Patriots Day” so much. Though I moved to New York City from Greater Boston decades ago, it’s a fact that you can take the girl out of Massachusetts, but you can’t take the Massachusetts out of a girl. And “Patriots Day,” Peter Berg’s adaptation of the book Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is one of the most Massachusetts-proud movies ever made. But I also love this docu-drama because it has enough heart and brains to help heal its audience.

The United States always has had a hard time navigating tragedy. Perhaps this is because, in the grand scale of world civilizations, we are a very young nation. When it comes to boundless optimism, this often works to our advantage. Even today, Americans tend to believe that a good attitude and persistence can change the most direst of circumstances. It is the backbone of our founding story – how we scrappy mavericks defeated the Brits – and certainly the classic Hollywood premise. But the downside of our youthfulness is a widespread, culturally reinforced immaturity. This translates into an immunity to critical thought and an inability to process complex emotions. So when confronted with trauma, we are uniquely ill-equipped to grieve without resorting to finger-pointing or dissociation. To the degree that we address our pain, we do so through the arts – especially film and television, which, even more than sports, is our common denominator. Continue Reading →

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