30 January 2014

Get Closer

This morning I had the chance to attend the media preview of the new "Robert Capa in Color" exhibit at the ICP. Readers of this blog can already guess how excited I was to see the museum's walls full of his work. A full review will be up on the blog later this week but I didn't want today to go by without noting that this marks the final day of Magnum Photo's "Get Closer" project. Since October 22, 2013, the 100th anniversary of Capa's birth, Magnum has posted a different Capa photo alongside a responding image by another photographer while encouraging people to "Get Closer" and post their own responses on various social media platforms with the tag #GetCloser100. The image above is today's 100th Capa image, which has an added level of humour thanks to the inclusion of the nun (it is one of Capa's colour images that's in the ICP exhibit)It's been interesting to see what's been uploaded everyday and quite compelling once you start going back and looking at the 100 days as a whole. So if you haven't checked out "Get Closer" yet, visit here.

23 January 2014


Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929)

A few years ago the British Film Institute (BFI) completed their largest restoration project to date, fully restoring the surviving nine silent feature films of Alfred Hitchcock (a tenth, The Mountain Eagle, is believed lost). During the process of preserving the films, additional footage was added and new musical scores were commissioned. The BFI sent the “Hitchcock 9” out on the road for viewers to enjoy and last summer I spent a weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) watching some of these films. My favourite of the bunch was Blackmail (1929).

Set in London, Blackmail opens with a couple of detectives capturing a wanted criminal. That evening one of the men, Detective Frank Webber (John Longden), takes Alice White (Anny Ondra) out on a date. When they get into an argument Frank leaves only to return in time to see Alice leaving with a man (Cyril Ritchard), an artist she had secretly planned to meet.

Alice allows herself to be talked into visiting the artist’s studio. After admiring a portrait of a jester, Alice creates her own painting (with some help from the artist) before she dons a model’s outfit and dances around while he plays a song for her. While changing, the artist attempts to rape Alice who ends up killing him with a knife. Frightened, she tears at the painting of the jester before putting her clothes on and fleeing, leaving her gloves behind. She walks the streets until dawn all the while seeing symbols of her crime (an extended arm, a knife) wherever she goes.

Naturally, Frank is assigned to the case and when he recognizes both the dead man and one of Alice’s gloves, he keeps quiet and goes to confront her. Still in shock over the events of the previous evening, she can’t speak. The two are together when Tracy (Donald Calthrop) arrives carrying Alice’s other glove. He apparently saw Alice enter the dead man’s flat and intends to blackmailing the couple. At first they agree to his demands but when Frank discovers that Tracy has a criminal record and is wanted for questioning in the case, he calls in the police.

What follows is a chase that ends with Tracy falling to his death through a skylight above the Reading Room at the British Museum. The police consider the case closed but Alice, unaware of what has transpired, arrives at New Scotland Yard to confess. Before she can speak with the Chief Inspector, he gives instructions for Frank to deal with her. Alice, finally finding her voice, tells Frank that she did it but that it was a case of self-defense. The truth remains a secret between the two of them but at what cost? 

Hitchcock actually made two versions of Blackmail—one silent and one with sound. The film started out as a silent but with the growing popularity of talkies, the film’s producer asked Hitchcock to film the last reel in sound. Thinking the idea ridiculous, he filmed most of the scenes with sound and delivered two versions to the studio. This gave Blackmail the unique distinction of being both Hitchcock’s last silent and first talkie. 

There were issues with using sound though starting with the film’s Czech lead, Anny Ondra, who spoke with a heavy accent. Hitchcock solved the problem by having actress Joan Barry stand out of frame and speak her lines into a microphone while Ondra mouthed the words, the first time an actor’s voice was “dubbed” so to speak. When the two versions were released, the silent one proved to be more popular, most likely because many theatres at the time were not set up for sound. Having seen both, I have to say the silent version is superior to the talkie.

Even though this was only Hitchcock’s second thriller, in Blackmail we find what would become some classic Hitchcock elements: murder, a beautiful blonde, a wronged man, a chase scene involving a famous landmark, and themes of guilt and moral ambiguity. It also features one of Hitchcock’s best cameo appearances as a man being bothered by a little boy while riding the Tube.

The very pretty Anny Ondra is a standout in a cast that is fine if not a bit bland (John Longden as her boyfriend, for example, is totally forgettable). Hitchcock’s first “blonde,” Ondra turns Alice, who at first appears to be just a silly girl, into a sympathetic character even after she allows an innocent man to be blamed for a murder she committed. And without speaking a word, she's able to convey all the horror of being assaulted with just her eyes.

And then there is London as the setting. While many scenes were shot at the studio, some actual locations were used including the crowded Lyon’s Tea House and Piccadilly at night with all of its blinking lights. One of the most dramatic moments in the film involves the British Museum. Unfortunately, the light in the actual museum wasn't conducive for shooting so Hitchcock employed the Schüfftan process. This involved pointing the camera at a mirror tilted at 45 degrees in which was reflected a transparency of the museum. Some of the silvering was then scraped off the mirror so the camera could capture the actors who were on a set behind it, resulting in the actors appearing as if they were in the museum. 

The master of suspense always knew exactly how to heighten the tension in a story and Blackmail is no exception. When the artist attempts to rape Alice the event occurs behind a curtain, which the viewer sees moving, violently, before a hand (Alice’s) reaches out from behind it and grabs a knife off the table. When the curtain becomes still there is a pause before a lifeless arm (the artist’s) falls out. Alice, dressed only in her slip and her hair in disarray, emerges with the bloody knife in her hand, moving as if in a trance. Seeing the actual events taking place behind the curtain would have been shocking but keeping them hidden from our view makes them all the more horrid in our imaginations.

As for the newly restored print, luckily the BFI had the original negatives to work with as well as an early print made from those negatives before any damage had occurred to them. The result is a great looking silent, far superior to the versions that were available before.

For those of you who may have missed the “Hitchcock 9” on its first American tour, Film Forum here in New York will be showing all of them along with Hitchcock’s other films (the program is called “The Complete Hitchcock”) for five weeks starting February 21, 2014 (more info here). See Blackmail if you can along with the rest of the nine. After all, Hitchcock did say that, “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema.”

19 January 2014


"And something is cracking
I don't know where
Ice on the sidewalk
Brittle branches
In the air."—Suzanne Vega

Whenever I hear Suzanne Vega's song "Cracking," I think of Central Park in the winter. With the lyrics running through my head, I went up to Central Park today to take some photos, deciding to concentrate on the Mall with its famous elms and Literary Walk. Even though I was wearing my trusty parka I had forgotten a hat, and I bloody froze. But I did manage to capture a few shots before hightailing it to Eric Kayser's for a much needed hot coffee. Here's some of what I saw.

Even though there was no snow on the ground, there were plenty of signs that it was wintertime. The Bethesda Fountain was empty and there was an ice sculpture modelled on the Angel of the Waters. The iconic Angel statue was created by Emma Stebbins in 1873, the first woman to receive a public art commission in New York City. The fountain itself commemorates the founding of the Croton water system, which brought fresh water to New York City for the first time in 1842. Meanwhile the nearby Lake was frozen over bringing to mind Holden Caulfield's visit to the pond and his wondering where the ducks went in winter (like in the book, they were nowhere to be found).

Walking through the arcade to the Mall, I took time to notice the beautiful tiles that cover the ceiling (above). A woman was standing at one end singing Pucinni, which echoed throughout the passageway.

The Mall is the only straight line in the Park, a formal design in the middle of nature. Originally referred to as an "open air hall of reception," its proportions were made wide enough so carriages could get through, dropping its wealthy patrons off at one end so they could walk and mingle with other folk before picking them up at the other end. American Elms create a canopy over it and are quite spectacular, even in winter. Once common in New England, the American Elm was decimated by Dutch elm disease. The ones in Central Park are kept separate from other elms and closely watched over by park gardeners. Today they are one of the jewels of the park.

At the southern end of the Mall is the Literary Walk where one finds sculptures of four poets—Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Shakespeare, and the once popular Fitz-Greene Halleck (a fifth statue is of Columbus, go figure). Scotland's beloved Burns looks like he's getting inspiration straight from God while Shakespeare is off on his own, away from the others. Perhaps a nod to his elevated stature?

No offense to the poets, but the trees in Central Park are much more interesting. In a city with way too much concrete (one of the reasons why the city is so unbearably hot in the summer), trees are a welcome sight especially in such abundance.  

And then there are all of the animals and birds to see, both real and imagined. There's always a large number of horses in this section of the park decked out in an assortment of colours from the white horse in jaunty red who appeared to be racing a park worker to the black horse in purple who reminded me of a horse in a Victorian funeral procession. Not to mention the numerous dogs out for their daily walks and the countless squirrels busy digging up their hidden food supplies.

Right before I called it quits for the day the sun came up behind the buildings at the edge of the park, casting some lovely afternoon light on the surroundings, reminding me that regardless of the temperature the park is always a beautiful place to be.

All photos by Michele.

18 January 2014

Happy Birthday, Cary Grant!

I can't believe I almost let the day go by without saying Happy Birthday to my favourite actor, Cary Grant. Born on January 18, 1904 in Horfield, Bristol, England, he was, in my opinion, the handsomest and most stylish man to ever grace the screen. Yet he wasn't just tall, dark, and good looking. He was also an excellent actor who could play serious, even menacing, in one film while doing prat falls and uttering witty one-liners in another. Just look at some of his films: TopperThe Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Gunga Din, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, My Favourite Wife, Penny Serenade, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, The Talk of the Town, Mr. Lucky, Arsenic and Old Lace, None But the Lonely Heart, Notorious, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, North by Northwest, Operation Petticoat, That Touch of Mink, Charade, Father Goose. And this isn't even a complete list! So Happy Birthday, Cary Grant. To borrow some words from Cole Porter, I will always "get a kick out of you."

Certain Emotions

“There are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathize with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you.”—Björk

Spending the day at home looking through books and watching old black and white movies. The hours have flown by as I get distracted by a passage or scene. A perfect way to spend a grey Saturday recharging ones batteries. Have a restful weekend, everyone!

16 January 2014

The Kid

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921).

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin stepped in front of the camera wearing a bowler hat, ill-fitted suit, and small moustache, and carrying a cane. The short was Kid Auto Races at Venice and the world was introduced to the Little Tramp for the first time.

For this centennial year of the Little Tramp’s birth, Chaplin tributes are being held all over the world. Film Forum started things off on New Year’s Day with a marathon screening of Chaplin’s major features. Being a good film nerd, I was there and watched Kid Auto Races at Venice (very funny) and Chaplin’s first feature film The Kid (1921).

The Kid opens with a distraught woman (Edna Purviance) leaving a charity hospital with her newborn baby. A quick shot of a handsome artist with a copy of her photo (which ends up in the fireplace) lets the viewers know that this is the father who is not going to be marrying the mother. Out of desperation, she leaves the baby in the backseat of a car in front of large home with a note that reads, “Please love and care for this orphan child.” She soon has a change of heart but when she returns to the scene discovers that the car has been stolen and her baby is gone, forever.

Upon discovery of the baby, the car thieves dump him in the garbage where the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) stumbles upon him. After a comic scene in which he tries to leave the baby in a woman’s stroller he decides to keep the boy and names him John. Five years later we find the two are a happy family living in a rundown, one-room apartment. The Tramp takes care of his adoptive son (Jackie Coogan), making sure his hands and ears are clean. Meanwhile the Kid helps earn his keep: he shares in the cooking and more importantly, throws rocks through the windows of houses that the Tramp can then conveniently repair.

Meanwhile, the Kid’s mother has become a famous opera singer and spends her free time doing charity work. One day while bringing toys to the poor she runs into the Kid and gives him a stuffed animal, not realizing he’s her boy. Soon after he falls sick and a doctor is called. Learning that the Tramp is not the Kid’s biological father, the doctor takes the note left by the Kid’s mother and notifies the authorities who arrive and take the Kid away. The Tramp manages to free him, and they hide out at a flophouse until the manager recognizes their description from a newspaper ad and takes the Kid to the police where his mother, who was shown her note by the doctor, is waiting to be reunited with her lost son.

The Tramp, after a frantic search for the Kid, returns to their old home and falls asleep on the doorstep and enters “Dreamland” where he and his neighbours, all wearing wings (including the dogs), live together in harmony until they are interrupted by a group of devils. Woken by a policeman, the Tramp is put in a car and driven to the woman’s house where he is reunited with the Kid.

The Kid may not be Chaplin’s greatest film but it is one of my favourites mainly because it is a story about love. Regardless of the circumstances of the Kid’s birth, there is no doubt that the Tramp and the Kid love each other like a father and son. The Tramp expresses his pride for the Kid when he accomplishes something and the Kid looks to the Tramp for approval. They may be poor but they have each other and when people try to separate them, the Tramp goes to any lengths to get his boy back.

There is a reason why the Little Tramp—a tragic clown with a huge heart—is one of the best-loved characters in film history. Chaplin brilliantly portrayed him with a wonderful mix of slapstick and sentiment that created a bond with moviegoers that continues to this day. There may have been other great silent screen clowns but none of them, including the amazing Buster Keaton, affected an audience's emotions like Chaplin.

As for the Kid himself, no one could have played the part better than Jackie Coogan. A skilled mimic blessed with comic timing, he was the perfect companion to Chaplin’s Tramp, able to make the viewers laugh at his antics one moment while causing them to cry the next. Chaplin thought so highly of Coogan that when filming of The Kid had to be put on hiatus so he could make a short, A Day’s Pleasure” (1919), he cast his young co-star to play his son. It goes without saying that Coogan was also absolutely adorable, which is a bit strange when you think that he grew up to become Uncle Fester.

The most famous scene in the film is when men arrive to take the Kid away. After a big struggle, the Tramp is restrained, his eyes filled with tears while the Kid stands in the back of the orphanage wagon, his arms outstretched, crying out for his father. It’s utterly heartbreaking and never fails to make me well-up. Chaplin was inspired to write The Kid after suffering the loss of his first born, a son, and one can only imagine the personal anguish that he drew upon for this scene.

Though set in contemporary times, there are Dickensesque overtones to the film reminiscent of Chaplin’s own haphazard childhood in London. Again, love not money seems to be the answer in this film. The poverty that surrounds the Tramp and Kid are seen as livable as long as they are together. Therefore it’s not strange that when the Tramp enters “Dreamland” his heaven is not a golden palace but his own beloved poor neighbourhood.

At the beginning of The Kid there is a title card that states “A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” No better description could sum up this film.

10 January 2014

Be Fabulous

Claudette Colbert in Tonight is Ours (1933)

What a tough week. Polar vortexes, rain and snow, and a freezing apartment (that never happens). Luckily those days appears to be behind us and it's back to just normal January temperatures. I'm looking forward to going out and exploring the city this weekend and having some fun. Hope you do too. Have a fabulous weekend, everyone!

08 January 2014

Lewis Hine

This is no Disney musical. "Midnight at the Brooklyn Bridge" Lewis Hine (1906)

The International Center of Photography puts on some of the best exhibits in the city and their latest, “Lewis Hine” and “The Future of America: Lewis Hine’s New Deal Photographs,” give a comprehensive overview of the work of a photographer whose name may not be familiar to viewers but whose images have become iconic American symbols of industry and social reform.

Trained in sociology, Hine was teaching in New York when he first picked up a camera. The result was a series of images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905. The exhibit, comprised of more than 150 images from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, begins with these before moving on to photographs of tenement life, child labourers, African Americans in the 1920s, and industrial workers. There are also photographs that he took in Europe of the American Red Cross relief effort after the first World War and his celebrated “Men at Work” series, which documents the building of the Empire State Building.

"Italian family looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island" Lewis Hine (1905)

Hine was not a true photojournalist by today’s definition. His work was often staged, his subjects posed in a way to make a statement. Some criticized these choices but Hine's interest was in exposing the social injustices that he saw. He hoped that his images would "exert the force to right wrongs.” 

They did. In 1918, the National Child Labor Committee hired him to document the working conditions among child labourers. For the next ten years, Hine photographed children along the East Coast in all fields from newsies to coal miners to factory workers. His images often accompanied sensational articles in muckraking newspapers, which were published across the country. The result was a debate about child labour practices and a change in child labour laws.

"Spinner in New England Mill" Lewis Hine (1913)

Seeing his photos, you can understand why they moved people to act. Look at the little spinner girl's bare feet or the newsie asleep on the stairs. Speaking of which, look at the newsies in the image at the top. Those are boys who have seen more and lived harder than any one their age should ever have to; Disney dancers they are not. As for the fiddler in war-torn Europe, is there any greater symbol of the cost of war than a displaced child?

"Mechanic at steam pump in electric power house" Lewis Hine (1920)

"Candy worker, New York" Lewis Hine (1925)

Yet there is beauty in his work as well. The famed image of a man working on a steam pump is a perfect example of composition with a subject who would look at home in an ad for a men's cologne or a clothing line. And the pretty candy worker with trays of chocolates looks like an ingenue right off the studio lot. Hine definitely knew how to get a viewer's attention.

"Steel worker touching the tip of the Chrysler Building" Lewis Hine (1931)

The most breathtaking images in the exhibit are in a series he did on the men who built the Empire State Building. I practically had an attack of vertigo looking at these daredevils balanced precariously high above the city. In one, a worker cheekily poses with his pointed hand as if touching the top of the Chrysler Building. In another, a man dubbed Icarus stands on some cables looking like he doesn't have a care (or in this case, fear) in the world. They are absolutely mesmerizing while reminding us of the danger people undertook to build our city.

The photos in the smaller exhibit, which are from the ICP’s collection, are ones that Hine made between 1936 and 1937 when he was hired as the chief photographer for the National Research Project, a division of  the WPA. They explore working conditions along the East Coast as well as document emerging new technologies. They are interesting, like the one above of the man working in a doll factory, but lack the emotional pull of his earlier work.

After a lifetime spent fighting injustice, Hine found himself toward the end of his life unable to get work and when he died at the age of 66 in 1940 he was living on welfare, having lost his house. His archive of work was offered to MoMA in the 1950s but they declined. Lucky for us the George Eastman House took it, ensuring that his work would continue to be seen by future generations and act as reminders of our country's past.

The exhibits are at the ICP through January 19, 2014. For more information, visit here.

06 January 2014

Ollie and the Borzoi

On this dreary Monday, let’s look at something cheery—some photos of the lovely Olive Thomas.

Of all the images I’ve seen of the star, some of my favourites are these taken at the Hartsook Studio in Los Angeles in 1919. Olive, looking like a symbol of the all-American girl, poses with one of her pets, a Russian wolfhound or Borzoi.

Originally used to hunt wolves, Borzois were popular with Russian nobility before being introduced in America around the turn of the last century. By the 1920s, they were commonly found depicted in Art Deco works. A known dog lover (she also had a Pekingese named Ioha and a Chow named Zigi), Olive would have been very stylish owning one. Besides, don't they look darling together?

03 January 2014

The Dutch Visit the Frick

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" Johannes Vermeer (ca. 1665)

Last week I made a second visit to the Frick Collection to see my favourite exhibit of 2013. “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis” is a small collection of 15 works from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Netherlands. It’s a fantastic exhibit that proved to be just as enthralling on a second viewing.

The show offers some of the best examples of the Dutch Golden Age of painting including two Frans Hals portraits; four Rembrandts, one of which, the biblical “Susanna” (1636), captures the terrifying moment when she realizes she’s being watched; Pieter Claesz’ “Vanitas Still Life” (1630) complete with human skull; and Gerard ter Borch’s delightful “Woman Writing a Letter” (ca. 1655).

The star of the show though hangs alone in her own room at the Frick—“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer (ca. 1665). Sometimes paintings that are so familiar from prints and reproductions disappoint when finally seen in person but this is not the case with the Girl. Her gaze draws you in and like the Mona Lisa, her eyes appear to follow you around the room. From the yellow and blue of her robe and turban to that symbolic large pearl, she is absolutely lovely and utterly unforgettable.

"The Goldfinch" Carl Fabritius (1654)

While I loved seeing the Girl, my favourite painting in the exhibit was Carl Fabritius’ exquisite “The Goldfinch” (1654). The tiny work that shows a beautiful little bird tied to his feed box with a slight chain was done as a trompe-l'oeil, made to trick viewers into thinking they were looking at a live bird. The little goldfinch’s soft down combined with the play of light and shadows on the canvas do indeed give him a lifelike appearance. It’s a thoroughly delightful painting, one that I could look at everyday.

The exhibit is at the Frick through January 19, 2014. I plan on seeing it one last time before it leaves and suggests everyone else do the same. For more info, go here.

01 January 2014

A New Year

It's a new year. Time to start moving and make some changes. On my large list of resolutions/things I would like to accomplish this year is to bring you more tales of a madcap heiress and continue to improve this blog. I hope you'll keep stopping by and will let me know what you think. In the meantime, I wish all of you dear readers a wonderful 2014.

Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) gif from here.


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