At the Archive: The David Maysles Collection at HGARC

Grey Gardens publicity brochure

Grey Gardens publicity brochure

Nearly 40 years on, Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens remains a stunning achievement. After a decade of successes, including Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysles turned their camera toward another fascinating subject. The film chronicles the lives of Edith and Little Edie Beale in their crumbling Gold Coast mansion, while they sing and dance about the years gone by and their status as outsiders from a once wonderful socialite existence.

The film still raises the same questions about the methods of documentary filmmaking and the possibility of exploitation, which is a good thing. Certain documentaries should make us aware not only of the subject, but of the filmmakers as well. We should question the motives of the men and women holding the cameras, and a good documentary should start a conversation rather than finish it. Both David and Albert always contended that their film was a truthful portrait of the women. Although the Beale’s behavior is troubling at times, it is also exuberant and powerful. That they were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave the story some initial tabloid appeal, but when you strip away this back-story to focus solely on the women, we instead see them as fascinating subjects, and human beings, not just tabloid fodder. That their personalities are a little eccentric is certain, that the Maysles took advantage is less so. One object that is not in the gallery below is a letter of condolence from Little Edie to Judith Maysles after David’s untimely death. Years later, she still remembered him as a kind man, and if you listen closely to their interactions throughout the film, you can see that this was a loving portrait of two beautiful, if odd, women. Read More »

Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South, By a Black Woman from the South

Voice from the SouthAnna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South, By a Black Woman from the South

Deconstruction of the White Aesthetic Gaze

Historically, African Americans have viewed the literary canon as a space for resistance, and for the expression of political thoughts on racial uplift.  Within the contours of language, black writers and intellectuals have established a foundation of social influence. Although traditionally silenced and obscured in academia and the literary sphere, the voices of black women, and particularly 19th century women writers, signify the locus of this African American literary tradition. One of the monumental writers of the era was Anna Julia Cooper, a “self-made woman born into slavery,” devoted educator, spokesperson and the fourth black woman to earn a PhD. [1] Cooper published a number of commendable works; however, the most laudable is A Voice from the South, By a Black Woman from the South.[2] Published in 1892, this collection of essays and speeches is revered as an “unparalleled articulation of black feminist thought.”[3] Cooper cultivates a language that interrogates pressing issues of the 19th century such as racial uplift and womanhood.  In the text, Cooper emphasizes that, “Only if the black woman can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”[4] In this illuminating declaration, she asserts that the progress of African Americans is impossible without black women. Cooper also advances in A Voice from the South, that black women are not only the gatekeepers of not only the black community, but modern American civilization. Read More »

Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945

Living the RevolutionGuglielmo, Jennifer.  Living the Revolution:Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945.  Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Jennifer Guglielmo subverts the stereotype of the domestic Italian immigrant woman with her study of multiple generations of feminine political activism for the working class in Living the Revolution:  Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. [1]  In her book, she gives voice to the thousands of women who immigrated from Italy to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly those who engaged in anarchist movements and labor organization. Guglielmo demonstrates how the mass exodus of Italian men forced Italian women to learn strategies of community and political involvement far beyond the domestic sphere, and that these women brought those skills with them to the United States and passed them on to their daughters and coworkers. Using oral histories, state and federal legal documents, and public and private archives, Guglielmo offers compelling biographical histories of some of the women involved in radical politics at the turn of the twentieth century.  Guglielmo illustrates how the identity of Italian-American women was influenced by constant tension between the family and the community, the racialization of Italians and the quest for American assimilation. Read More »

A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.

A Word from our SponsorA Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio. By Cynthia B. Meyers, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014, 391 pages.

We all know advertising pays for much of our popular media.  Anyone in danger of forgetting this crucial fact is sure to be reminded by the television industry’s increasingly desperate efforts to make sure people are watching – and paying attention to – commercials.  Expanding video on demand services attempt to protect advertising revenues by allowing audiences to timeshift their viewing as they would with a DVR, while inserting up-to-date advertisements into commercial breaks and preventing fast-forwarding.  YouTube, once the great hope for alternative user-generated content, features increasingly intrusive ads that bookend and overlay videos.  Other supposedly new and innovative techniques, such as product placement and sponsored programs built around a specific product, hearken back to older advertising methods like those described in Cynthia Meyers’ fascinating new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.  Meyers draws on extensive archival research to fill a hole in recent scholarship, outlining the intimate and complicated relationships between broadcasters and commercial interests from the point of view of the admen who were responsible for much of the program that constitutes radio’s golden age.  Throughout, Meyers demonstrates that commercialism was not “an outside force silencing the voice of the people but…a set of beliefs, practices, and economic incentives that not only created dominant institutions but also helped build authentic popular cultural forms” (5). Read More »

Our Nixon: An Interview with Director Penny Lane

Our Nixon PosterOur Nixon, the latest film from director Penny Lane, attempts to shed light on a story that we all think we know, that of the Richard Nixon presidency, and the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation. The “our” in this case, is not the American public, as President Nixon’s legacy and public image is still a complicated one, to say the least. Rather, here, the “our” is comprised of chief of staff Bob Haldeman, special assistant Dwight Chapin, and domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman. These men faced intense scrutiny during the Watergate scandal and trial, and spent time in federal prison for their involvement and perjury. But they also had a great time before that fateful event, as they traveled the world with President Nixon, taking hours of Super 8 footage that was summarily gathered by investigators as evidence and locked away for decades.

Lane rescues this footage and puts it to good use. Pairing it with the audio of the White House tapes and other interviews, she paints a picture of three men who would do anything for their president, and whose loyalty ultimately cost them their jobs and tarnished our image of the office. It is fascinating to think of these issues as we watch them make their way around the world, spend time lounging in the sun, or witness president Nixon’s conversation with Neil Armstrong after he sets foot on the moon. But add to this a healthy dose of Nixon’s famous paranoia and diatribes against those against him, and you have an interesting story to tell. While it does not necessarily transform our understanding of those years, it does help to expand our collective memory, by using the filmed memories of those closest to the president himself.

Our Nixon recently arrived on DVD, and I interviewed director Penny Lane about obtaining the original footage, the process of creating a dialogue with the men without being able to actually interview them, and how her perspective on Nixon changed with the project.

-Rob Ribera Read More »

There is Nothing to Forgive: An Interview with John Ridley

12 Years Poster12 Years a Slave is a beautiful, horrifying, and challenging film. It is the story of the capture and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York, after he is duped into taking his violin performances dangerously close to the border and slave states on a promising concert tour. He quickly finds himself in chains, and then in Louisiana, no longer his own master.  For the next twelve years, he is passed from plantation to plantation, finding ways to survive amongst unspeakable suffering. Forced to keep his past unspoken, his ability to read and write hidden, and his passions in check, Northup is nevertheless determined to make the best of his situation, biding his time while he keeps the hope alive that he will one day return to his family.

I spoke with the screenwriter John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s memoir on spec, hoping that his project with director Steve McQueen would be produced if he could make it good enough. When I first got on the phone with Ridley, I told him that while I did not enjoy the film, per se, he had certainly accomplished that goal. Northup’s journey is a tear inducing, harrowing experience to watch. Over a century of American film has not been able to produce such a powerful depiction of the peculiar institution. Our conversation touched on everything from the religious lives of slaves to Hollywood’s failure to provide us with sufficient images of the era. Read More »

Shooting from the Hip Book Review

Shooting from the Hip

Vettel-Becker, Patricia. Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America by Patricia Vettel-Becker looks at the discourse surrounding photography from the 1930s to the early 1960s.[1] She theorizes that as photography became an industry and an art, it also became a frontier for masculinity. Her goal is to show that photography and the discourse around critics and photographers created several postwar gender norms. Specifically, she examines how constructions of the lone male archetypes in the soldier, the cowboy, and the juvenile delinquent permeated into the idea of the male photographer. Throughout the book, Vettel-Becker creates a history based on expanding photography beyond a consumer product to an art form created within the male sphere. She also looks at the larger scope of commercial photography and photojournalism. For each chapter, Vettel-Becker employs the discourse of two to three photographers to construct the philosophy of the business of photography. This construction leads to a firm basis for exploring broader themes in postwar photography. Read More »

Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 Book Review

Nature and CultureNovak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Art historian Barbara Novak boldly brings her field into a fruitful dialogue with intellectual history in Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875.  Pushing back against formalist strictures that had long governed art historical discourse, Novak originally published the book in 1980; since then, it has become a foundational work on the topic.  With an interest in the history of ideas and in “cultural art history,”[1] she seeks “a more ‘ecumenical’ art history” (xxvi) that engages a broader range of concerns than previously. Read More »

Woody Guthrie the Commonist: An Interview with Bill Nowlin

American_Radical_Patriot_Cover_Art_Product_ShotWoody Guthrie: American, Radical, Patriot, gathers together the complete Library of Congress recordings in one place for the very first time, including the interviews done by Alan Lomax, the VD demos, and the BPA songs written to help celebrate the power of the Bonneville Power Administration as it powered up the Pacific Northwest. In the 1940s, Guthrie sang songs about Hitler for the war effort and donned a soldier’s uniform. He was a man of the people, singing for them and their causes. He was a “commonist”, celebrating the power of the individual, and, in these recordings, the government as well.  All of this makes for a complex character, and a wonderful new set of music, courtesy of Rounder Records.

I spoke with Bill Nowlin, co-founder of Rounder Records and producer of the new set. We talked about Guthrie’s position here as he worked for the government, his lasting influence, and what may still remain in the vaults for our future enjoyment. Read More »

American Curiosity Book Review

American CuriosityParrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, 2006.

 In the introduction to her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York University Language and Literature professor Mary Louise Pratt defines the term “contact zone” as an “encounter,” a place of “co-presence, interaction, and interlocking understandings and practices” between an imperial nation and a colony.[1] This idea of the contact zone as a space of colonial contention and interaction resonates throughout Susan Scott Parish’s book, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. A professor of English at the University of Michigan, Parrish challenges the belief that the British metropole imposed knowledge and culture directly onto its American colonies. Instead, Parrish argues that the colonial British transatlantic world was a polycentric space, a contact zone in which both Europeans and colonials made and exchanged knowledge.  Parrish examines in particular the exchange of knowledge between European naturalists and American collectors through letters and biotic specimens. American Curiosity is a thorough examination of the ways in which understandings of America’s natural environment reflect issues of identity and knowledge in colonial Anglo-America. Read More »