Leonard Quart: Making the cultural rounds


NEW YORK >> Autumn in New York, and as always there are a great many art exhibits, plays, and films to see.

I attended two exhibits of photographers whose work centers, from very different angles, on the city. One featuring the early work — 100 photographs, the majority never seen before — of Diane Arbus is being shown at the Met Breuer until Nov. 27. It focuses on the first seven years of her career, from 1956 to 1962.

The other exhibit, a much smaller one, is of the photos of Mel Rosenthal, a photographer who grew up in an area of the South Bronx not that distant from my own. His photos of a desolate South Bronx (1976-1982) runs at the Museum of the City New York until Oct. 16.

Arbus' early work both displays the approach and the subjects that she developed in a more penetrating, striking fashion later on. There are photos of female impersonators, circus performers, children, couples and wealthy matrons — the grotesque and the supposedly everyday. Most of the photos capture their subjects' isolation and melancholy, and in some the surreal elements that exist in the mundane, like the little boy in a hooded jacket who menacingly points a toy gun at the camera.

Arbus has no interest in generalizing about the city's essence, nor is she concerned in portraying its social problems. It's the city's inhabitants who are at the center of the work.

In Arthur Lubow's new biography of her, "Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer," he reveals that her fascination with her subjects was perfectly compatible with something verging on contempt. You don't have to look too closely at the photos on exhibit to see Arbus' profound ambivalence about her subjects.

Rosenthal's photographs are of a different nature. He's a documentarian with a social conscience. His New York is the devastated Bronx at its worst historical moment. It was one of rubble-filled lots, abandoned hulks of buildings, and a few stray bodegas, which remains still indelible in my mind after my return to those same streets many years later.

The strongest photos in the exhibit depict the people, mostly Puerto Rican, who have stayed behind, going about their lives rather than posing for the camera. One of his most powerful photos, framed by a ripped apart tenement window, captures a bicyclist riding through empty streets with the urban wilderness in the background.

Social statement

Rosenthal is a social activist as well as photographer. As a result, his totally empathetic photos, as he puts it, "give a public face and voice to those who had been left behind in the area's evolution." The photos are not overtly polemical, but implicitly they suggest something is profoundly wrong with a country and city that has allowed this extreme level of social breakdown and destruction to occur with almost no response.

I would also like to mention the musical "Fiorello" that moved from the Berkshire Festival's Unicorn Theater for a run until Oct. 7 at the CSC on E 13th St. in Manhattan. "Fiorello" originally opened in New York in 1959, winning a Pulitzer Prize for best play and a Tony for best musical in 1960. The musical centers on Fiorello LaGuardia, who set the standard for all of New York's post-World War II mayors, and whom most knowledgeable historians view as the greatest mayor in New York's history.

The new minimalist production has a youthful cast, with much energy and charm, and the play carries some satirical bite. There is a charismatic and aggressive good guy, the rising young reformer LaGuardia, a congressman and finally mayor, who is on the side of striking workers. "The people's hero," he is opposed to the bad guys — the infamously corrupt Tammany Hall.

There are sharply written songs that capture the crooked politics of the machine like "Little Tin Box," as well as romantic ones Like "When Did I Fall in Love?". The cantankerous, autocratic LaGuardia was a much more complicated figure than the musical suggests, but given the state of our politics, it's good to remember the good guys can sometimes win.

There is a small, perceptive film, "Little Men," directed by Ira Sachs ("Love is Strange"), which should be seen. It has no grand ambitions, but its focus on the deep, intimate friendship of two adolescents with very different temperaments and personalities amid the gentrification of working class Brooklyn is beautifully nuanced.

It's a film that neither raises its voice nor indulges in melodrama but in its quiet way gets at the core of the relationship between the boys, both of whom have artistic ambitions. One is an aspiring artist, the other wants to be an actor, and they encourage each other's dreams. The relationship ends because of their parents' irresolvable conflict over real estate, but one feels this is one friendship that will always be remembered.

I have been attending press screenings at the 54th New York Film Festival, and I have already seen some first-rate films. Two fine American films that may show up at the Triplex are "Moonlight," directed by Barry Jenkins, an emotionally stirring coming of age-drama taking place in a drug-ridden Miami, and Kenneth Lonergan's superbly written family drama "Manchester By the Sea." Both should be seen.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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