December 12, 2013
As anyone who has ever taken tap or ballet knows, timing is essential. You need to start on the right foot and step off when everyone else does. Rhythm counts, too.
The exhibition “Dancing the Dream” currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, explains how timing in a larger sense was crucial to the evolution of dance as America’s culture in motion. For the past century, the fleeting nature of dance has brilliantly reflected America’s life and times in captured “moments.” Examples include the work of Loie Fuller, who danced barefoot and nearly-naked as she interpreted the “New Woman” in the early 20th century, and Russian greats Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who sought artistic freedom here during the Cold War and electrified the American dance world.
Timing and media technology are inextricably linked in our constantly changing culture, and dance is a fascinating illumination of this connection. Iconic dancers from Josephine Baker to Beyoncé trace the cultural shift from live performance to viral videos, but choreographers have also shaped the cultural landscape.
Recently, my attention has been focused on the work of Bob Fosse. A new biography Fosse by film critic Sam Wasson narrates the choreographer’s creative journey from postwar Broadway through movies and television in post-Watergate America—decades that began with an optimistic sense of unity and ended with a drumbeat of cultural dissolve.
Wasson, author of the best-selling Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, depicts Fosse as a modern master of dance. Timing—gritty, intricate, and aggressive—was his choreographic signature.
Growing up in Chicago, Fosse had a tap dance act that he performed in burlesque houses. His mother thought that nothing untoward would affect him because he was a “good boy.” As it happened, the strippers proved not only fond companions but also stamped Fosse’s work with a lasting appreciation for sleaze. His choreography always reverberated with a cock-of-the-walk intensity and a style that radiated edginess: fingers snapped, shoulders rolled, hips swiveled and dancers strutted.
Fosse’s first Broadway hit was the 1954 Pajama Game, whose big number, “Steam Heat,” featured dancers jerking, bobbing and otherwise comporting like parts of a plumbing system. Over the next 20 years, he became a leading Broadway choreographer with such successes as Sweet Charity in 1955 and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying in 1961. Verging off into movies and television, he created the ground-breaking 1972 movie musical Cabaret, which won eight Academy Awards (including a Best Director Oscar for Fosse), and the 1972 NBC special “Liza with a Z,” which won him an Emmy.
Surprisingly, Fosse’s life-long hero was the elegant, gentlemanly Fred Astaire. Wasson tells the story about the first time Fosse met Astaire: it was 1952, and MGM had brought Fosse to Hollywood to work on the new movie Jumbo. Fosse was walking across the lot with director Stanley Donen one day when Fred Astaire came over to meet them; Fosse was so stunned that he couldn’t even talk—he could only stuff his hands into his pockets and look down. After Astaire floated away, Fosse whispered that the world’s greatest dancer “danced even as he stood still.”
Fosse’s most important partner was Gwen Verdon, his third wife and a strong influence on the evolution of his dance style. A renowned dancer herself, she was instrumental in persuading him to create the 1975 Chicago, a story originally derived from the actual trials of two Chicago women who were both acquitted of murder in 1924. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book, direction and choreography by Fosse, Chicago starred Verdon as one of the murderers, Roxie Hart and Chita Rivera as the other, Velma Kelly.
Wasson thinks it was the perfectly timed cultural moment for Chicago to become a smash hit: in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation, the show echoed the country’s cynicism. New York Times critic Walter Kerr called it “deliberately seedy” and filled with “wicked chorus girls” costumed in black netting and spiked heels. He decried its “aura of doomsday,” and regretted that it substituted raunchiness for heart. But people flocked to the box office, and the show ran for 936 performances.
Kander and Ebb’s score included “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “We Both Reached for the Gun,” “Razzle Dazzle,” and “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag.” Fosse brought their score to life with a choreography that was in-your-face sinister and brassy. He lived as hard as the dances he created, and he died of a heart attack in 1987. The lyrics for “All That Jazz” suited:
Come on, babe
Why don’t we paint the town?
And all that jazz….
Come on, babe
We’re gonna brush the sky
I betcha Lucky Lindy
Never flew so high
‘Cause in the stratosphere
How could he lend an ear
To all that jazz?
October 25, 2013
I am an unapologetic fan of show biz glitz. When organizing an exhibition, my approach is to dip scholarship in dazzle: I firmly believe that injecting an exhibition with spectacle and showmanship fuels the path to understanding. The idea is to inspire visitors rather than to intimidate, baffle or bore them. I’ve always wanted to roll out the red carpet and this time I did.
In the current exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” which recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery, the idea was to show how Broadway, Hollywood, modern, classical and contemporary dance have captured American culture in motion. In 1900, Loie Fuller unleashed her barefoot and uncorseted version of the “New Woman” on stages around the world; in the 1930s, Fred and Ginger danced an elegant escapism for Depression audiences; at the height of the Cold War, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov sought asylum and sparked a mania for ballet in America; from the 1980s to today, MTV and YouTube have showcased such dancers as Michael Jackson and Beyoncé and created audiences that are both more diverse and more individualized than ever before.
The dance exhibition’s basic ingredients—strong images of iconic personalities—were already present, as the Gallery has an extraordinary collection of key dance figures—Isadora Duncan, Irene Castle, Josephine Baker, Busby Berkeley Rita Moreno, Alvin Ailey, Shakira and Justin Timberlake, to name a few. The challenge for the museum’s design team was to create a lively showcase that conveyed dance’s dynamism. “I don’t like white walls,” I chirped. “Make it dazzle.”
And they did. One of the most exciting design elements is the red carpet that runs down the center hall connecting each of the six exhibition rooms. Yes, the National Portrait Gallery has a real red carpet. Designer Raymond Cunningham told me that he researched A-List red carpet events and discovered that the “red” used by the Golden Globes is a bluer red than the brighter hue used for the Academy Awards. The color used for “Dancing the Dream” is close to Oscar’s, but has been uniquely created for the Gallery.
Tibor Waldner, the museum’s chief of design, and his remarkable staff created a space that radiates with color—a drawing of Josephine Baker shimmies and shakes in a gallery with stunning teal walls; young ballet dancer Misty Copeland soars as a flaming Firebird in a gallery the color of her fires; Beyoncé hot-steps her “Single Ladies” number in a yellow-green gallery that I call “the riot of Spring.”
I was vastly intrigued by Raymond’s red carpet research, and have since discovered that the red carpet itself has an amazing history. The earliest reference to “walking a red carpet” is in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in 458 B.C., when the title character is greeted by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra, who invites him to walk a “crimson path” to his house. In Georgetown, South Carolina, a ceremonial red carpet was purportedly rolled out for President James Monroe when he disembarked from a riverboat in 1821. Mainly, though, it seems the red carpet was a railroad phenomenon: in 1902, the New York Central used plush crimson carpets to direct people boarding the 20th Century Limited. It was this usage that seems to mark the origin of the phrase “red carpet treatment.”
Today, we associate red carpets as fashion and celebrity runways at major entertainment events. I asked Linda Mehr, director of the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Margaret Herrick Library, when the Academy began using a red carpet, and she told me that it wasn’t until 1961. Television broadcasts of the Oscars had begun in 1953, and by 1966 when the awards were first broadcast in color, the red carpet had become a major factor in the Oscar experience. Turner Classic Movies primetime host Robert Osborne has said that “for most of us, even a walk down the red carpet is just a dream.” It has also has become the stage for one of the biggest fashion events of the year. At the 2013 Oscars, Jessica Chastain told a reporter that “as a little girl…I always dreamed about my Oscar dress. I love fashion that celebrates a woman’s body, and that maybe is a throwback to the glamour of Old Hollywood.” Amy Adams said of her Oscar de la Renta dress, “I’ve worn a lot of different dresses, but I’ve never worn a big ballgown, so I thought I wanna wear a dress you can’t wear anywhere but the Oscars.”
Many of the iconic figures in the dance exhibition have walked the red carpet: several have won Oscars—including Gene Kelly, James Cagney, Rita Moreno, and Liza Minnelli—and several have been awarded Grammys, including Lady Gaga, Justine Timberlake, and Beyoncé
Installing the red carpet was the exclamation point that finished the exhibition’s high impact design. But once it was unrolled, there was yet another surprise: the carpet’s red reflected off the walls and ceiling in a way that suffused the entire corridor with an unexpected glow.
Dancing the Dream will be open at the National Portrait Gallery until July 13, 2014.
September 26, 2013
An Associated Press story this week describes a remarkable and historic discovery: while tearing down a barn in Keene, New Hampshire in 2006, a carpenter recovered a canister with the only known copy of a 1911 Mary Pickford movie that marked a turning point in her career. The Library of Congress has now restored the film, and it will be screened next month at Keene State College.
The movie is historically a wow because it is the first movie to call Mary Pickford by name. In the earliest years of silent movies, all actors were anonymous. No stars were listed because producers were worried that if actors were identified, some would become famous—and demand more money.
The long-missing film, Their First Misunderstanding, is a ten-minute comedy/drama that co-starred Pickford and her then-husband, Owen Moore. The producers were right to be worried about unleashing star power, and “America’s Sweetheart” turned out to be a tough-minded businesswoman. By 1915 her salary had gone from $100 per week to half a million dollars a year, fueling her rise to become, as her best biography entitles her, “The Woman Who Made Hollywood.”
Earlier this month, the National Portrait Gallery screened a silent movie that graphically displayed the wonderful sophistication silent films had achieved during their heyday. The 1927 film, Wings was a Paramount Famous Lasky Pictures production with an A-List cast headed by their biggest star, Clara Bow, along with Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers—with a brief cameo by young Gary Cooper, whose riveting appearance launched him to fame. The film was directed by William Wellman and featured dazzling World War I flying scenes; Arlen and Wellman had been aviators during the war, and Rogers took flight training for the film.
Released three months after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic, Wings was a box office sensation. The public was infatuated with aviation derring-do, and this movie packed first-run theaters for over a year. The newly-created Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored Wings as “Best Picture” at the first Academy Awards ceremony. (Sunrise received the award for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” a category deleted after this first ceremony.”)
In Hollywoodland (as the original sign read), 1927 was a year of high irony, because just as silent movies reached a remarkable level of artistry, “talking pictures” burst onto the screen and transformed the entire industry into an “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” spectacle.
Like 80 percent—yes, eighty per cent!—of all silent movies, Wings was considered “lost” for decades until a print was found in the Cinimetheque Francaise archive in Paris. Then, although no original negatives exist, Paramount found a badly-decayed spare negative in its vaults. Thanks to modern technology, the studio was able to restore the film, and last year, on its centennial anniversary, Paramount released a beautifully-remastered high-definition version of this silent classic. It was this remarkable film that we were able to screen at the museum.
I was still enthralled by this movie’s soaring imagery when a new book, entitled Still, led me even more deeply into silent film’s ethereal universe. David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, has spent the past decade researching still photography in the silent era. Often, he has discovered, these photographs are the sole remaining evidence of a medium that was “one of the most significant popular art forms of the modern age.”
Shields and I share an interest in the intricate relationship between still photography and film stardom. I have written about how Hollywood still photographs during the 1930s and ‘40s created glamorous star images that were lasting and memorable, and about how the iconic image of a star is often that of the frozen photographic moment rather than the fleeting image projected on film.
In Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography, Shields surveys an earlier movie generation and argues that for silent stars, “the still image rivaled the moving image in revealing personality and that it proved a more durable medium for preserving action, character, and personality than the motion picture.”
Because so many silent films are lost, still images are often the only extant visual documents that chronicle the movie industry’s early years. Many of the “stars” who pioneered the feature film era are unknown to us today: a movie fan magazine in 1914 listed the most popular star as Earle Williams, followed by J. Warren Kerrigan, Arthur Johnson, and Carlyle Blackwell. None of these is recognizable today, but by 1918 the Hollywood movie industry had geared up considerably, and a fan magazine poll that year listed Mary Pickford as the most popular star, followed by Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Theda Bara.
In the next ten years, Hollywood’s publicity machine generated stars of such magnitude—including Pickford, Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin– that we remember them today. But as much as we imagine watching movies of Pickford’s bouncing ringlets, Fairbanks’ swashbuckling dash, and Chaplin’s pathetic Little Tramp, it is actually the iconic still photograph of each that has become the cultural touchstone. The photograph that captures their personality in a flash is how we remember them—still.
David S. Shields, Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2013)
Eileen Whitfield, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (Faber and Faber, Inc.: NY,1997)
Richard Koszarski, An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928 (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1990)
John Springer, All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! Citadel Press, 1969)
August 7, 2013
The Phillips Collection in Washington has a new exhibition celebrating the centennial of the ground-breaking Armory Show, and a photograph at the beginning of the exhibition caught my eye. The photo is an image of the Armory’s entrance, with a large banner announcing the “International Exhibition of Modern Art.” Cars proudly parked at curbside were quintessential symbols of Modernism in 1913. (Editor’s note: This paragraph originally stated the cars in the photo above were Model T’s. Apologies for the error.) Today, the juxtaposition of these now-antique cars and the banner trumpeting Modern Art is a jarring reminder about how obsolescence yaps at the heels of every dazzling invention.
In 1913, newness propelled America. Speed seemed to define what was new: cars, planes, and subways rushed passengers to destinations; “moving pictures” were the new rage, and Mary Pickford and
Charlie Chaplin Florence Lawrence were inventing the new vogue for “movie stars”; the popular dance team Irene and Vernon Castle sparked a fad for social dancing, and people flocked to dance halls to master the staccato tempos of the fox trot and tango.
Life rattled with the roar of the Machine Age as mass technology hurtled people into the maelstrom of modern times. New York embodied the cult for the new, from its entertainment center along Broadway’s electrified “Great White Way” to the exclamation point proclaimed by the opening of the Woolworth Building—a skyscraper that was then the tallest building in the world. (For further reading on New York City in these years, I recommend William Leach’s Land of Desire (Vintage Books: NY, 1993.)
In the new book 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, author Charles Emmerson quotes a French visitor’s amazed reaction at the electricity and elevated trains that made the city vibrate and crackle. Times Square was especially stunning: “Everywhere these multi-coloured lights, which sparkle and change. . . .sometimes, on top of an unlit skyscraper, the peak of which is invisible amongst the fog. . .a huge display lights up, as if suspended from the heavens, and hammers a name in electric red letters into your soul, only to dissolve as rapidly as it appeared.”
The emergence of New York City as the capital of Modernism fueled the drive to proclaim America’s arrival as a cultural force as well. Movie stars like Pickford and Chaplin and Broadway composers like Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan were giving American popular culture its first international success, but European artwork was still recognized as the High Culture benchmark.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art that opened in February 1913 at the Armory meant to change all that, focusing not on the staid styles of traditional European art but on a “modern” contemporary approach. The exhibition contained significant works by such European artists as Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp, with Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” causing the greatest controversy. This Cubist painting may have scandalized some viewers, but it also brilliantly epitomized the spirit of Modernism in its depiction of a body moving much as if it were being unspooled in a silent filmstrip.
Two-thirds of the 1,600 works were by American artists, including John Marin, Marsden Hartley, James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt, and the show did mark a watershed in the recognition of American art. Former President Theodore Roosevelt reviewed the exhibition for Outlook and, while dismayed by the Cubist and Futurist works (“a lunatic fringe”), reported that the American art on view was “of the most interest in this collection.” He particularly relished that “There was not a touch of simpering, self-satisfied conventionality,” and that new directions were not obliged “to measure up or down to stereotyped and fossilized standards.” Overall, he was grateful that the exhibition “contained so much of extraordinary merit.”
To recognize this year’s centennial of the Armory Show, James Panero recently wrote in The New Criterion that the exhibition was “the event that delivered American culture, kicking and screaming, to the world stage.” It became a proclamation of America’s place in modern life, and “its most radical feature was the show itself,” which became a defining moment in the history of American art.
Along with the riot caused by Diaghilev’s dancers and Stravinsky’s music in the 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring, the Armory Show signaled the start of the 20th century. Even with the chaos of the Great War that followed, the search for the new soldiered on. Our media landscape and aesthetics today—our Facebook blogs, Tweets and Instagrams—are largely products of the Modernist belief that technology improves everyday life by connecting us. It also assumes that a century from now, the iPhone will be as antiquated as the Model T.
In addition to the Phillips Collection’s exhibition “History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show” (August 1, 2013-January 5, 2014), The New-York Historical Society has organized a major exhibition called “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” (October 11, 2013-February 23, 2014); and the Portrait Gallery will be showcasing the Armory Show in its Early 20th Century gallery starting August 19th.
July 15, 2013
Sweltering in a movie ticket line on a hot, muggy day this summer, I asked myself, “Why are you doing this?” What is it that transplants so many of us out of our air-conditioned caves to sweat with strangers? Why does hot weather make us ravenous for zombies and apocalyptic machinations in 3-D?
Summer blockbusters mean munching popcorn while being entranced by surround-sound worlds of superheroes and epic explosions that rattle our sternums. In a recent review, New York Times critic A.O. Scott described Pacific Rim’s plot. “Dinosaurish creatures as big as skyscrapers do battle with equally gigantic robots on land and sea pulverizing familiar cities and churning up geysers of spume,” Scott wrote. The movie filled the screen with images “composed of bright tones and blocky shapes, like old comic-book panels.”
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas started this summer blockbuster hoopla three decades ago. Yes, there had been “blockbuster” movies in Hollywood’s past, but such box office bonanzas as Gone with the Wind premiered in December 1939 and The Sound of Music in March 1965. The vital connection to “summer fun” emerged only after Spielberg released Jaws on June 20, 1975.
Jaws was filmed near Martha’s Vineyard and starred Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, and a mechanical shark the crew named Bruce. Spielberg was 28 and had learned his craft not in film school, but working in television, where he made episodes for “Columbo” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.“ His first film in 1974, The Sugarland Express, received good reviews, but earned unimpressive box office results. Universal Studios, nevertheless, entrusted him with the film version of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel about a shark terrorizing the New Jersey shore. In production, the movie was so troubled that the shooting schedule ballooned from 55 to 159 days, and the budget doubled to $8 million.
But Spielberg ultimately worked his magic, and Jaws was a whopper of a success. In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby reported that the movie aimed for “maximum shock impact” with special effects that were so good “that even the mechanical sharks are as convincing as the people.” Number one at the box office for 14 consecutive weeks, Jaws was the first movie to gross over $100 million.
Meanwhile, George Lucas closely followed on Spielberg’s heels (or fins) in 1977 with Star Wars, and the summer blockbuster became a tradition. Like Jaws, Star Wars signaled a strong departure from the cynicism that had marked movies during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Lucas had already earned several Oscar nominations for the 1973 American Graffiti, when he began working on Star Wars. At first, he thought of it as something resembling a children’s Saturday morning serial like Flash Gordon. $11 million dollars later, the project reemerged as the blockbuster Star Wars. With awesome special effects and inspiring mythic illusions, the film took viewers “far, far away.” It ultimately earned over $1.4 billion worldwide.
Spielberg went on to make the 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then collaborated with Lucas for the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film that starred Harrison Ford and launched the popular Indiana Jones series. Major blockbusters flowed from both writer-directors over the next 30 years: Spielberg’s 1982 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial became the highest-grossing film of all time, but was overtaken in 1993, when his dinosaur thriller Jurassic Park displaced it. Lucas continued to produce new chapters in the Indiana Jones and the Star Wars series, and both remain in current production.
These two giants of film history recently participated in a televised symposium about “Hollywood’s Blockbuster Problem.” Spielberg warned that the blockbusters he had helped invent had become so expensive to produce that ticket prices could soar so high that the industry faced an “implosion where. . .these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground.” Lucas chimed in to say that “Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or. . .150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today. . . .”
This summer, studios released 13 movies with budgets exceeding $100 million between May 1 and July 4. Two of them, Superman: Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger, have been enormous flops at the U.S. box office. Yet there may be hope. In the past, Hollywood made 80 percent of its profits domestically and 20 percent internationally; this ratio has been reversed today as the movie market has been globalized. While The Lone Ranger may be a dud, Man of Steel has already become a mega-hit internationally, where it is number one at the box office and has brought in $400 million worldwide.
The best news is that the biggest hit of the summer is Despicable Me 2, in which the scariest weapons are a lipstick taser and an airgun that makes silly noises. Minions forever!