Leonard Quart: Transcending winter through city's culture



We are living through a truly miserable winter. It’s been below freezing most of the time, and then those frequent heavy snowstorms, with more than a foot of snow pouring down. Other times we are besieged by a treacherous mixture of rain, snow and ice, making walking sluggish and slippery, and leaving traffic reduced to a crawl. Crossing streets has meant broad jumping across small ponds or clambering over icy sooty garbage-laden snow banks that never seem to be cleared.

Adding to the gloom, we have experienced major water-main breaks, shutting water to residents and businesses, and forcing traffic to be redirected. And when the snow has been removed, the streets are left pocked with crater-like potholes. Many people who are physically fragile or wary of falling, face too many days where they remain housebound, trapped in their apartments, feeling isolated, especially if they live alone.

However, I have vowed, that unless there is a blizzard, hurricane or earthquake, I won’t allow everyday difficult weather (despite a stumble or two on black ice) to prevent me from going on with my life. There’s just so much time left before the body begins to break down. I feel driven to make the most of these years, continuing to write and teach, and to take pleasure in a variety of urban experiences. Consequently, I keep on attending the wealth of cultural offerings the city provides all year long.

My wife and I drop into the Metropolitan Museum one evening to take a long look at Piero della Francesca’s four devotional panel paintings, and on another frozen night get out to the acclaimed all-male Shakespeare’s Globe Broadway production of "Twelfth Night." And I walk one snowy morning to a press screening of a naturalistic, rivetingly acted, psychologically and socially penetrating Romanian film, "Child’s Pose" (shown at the cinematically audacious Film Forum) that I doubt will ever be screened in the multiplexes.

Beyond these offerings there are annual film festivals, and expansive museum exhibits. In January I attend the 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum, a showcase for world cinema exploring varied aspects of the Jewish experience. The festival always screens a variety of international films ranging from the Israeli "Bethlehem," depicting the shaky bond between an Israeli secret service officer and a teenage Palestinian informant, to an Austrian film about the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, and to documentaries about Israeli feminist pioneers who emigrated to Palestine a hundred years ago.

Not every film screened is first rate, but there are always gems, such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish-made "Ida," an elegantly austere, and relatively silent film. The film’s perspective is conveyed more through images than dialogue, and through subtle suggestion rather that explicit statement, successfully evoking the atmosphere of early 1960s Poland; the painful residues of the Holocaust; and the nature of the relationship between two very different people, a young, taciturn, convent raised Jewish woman, who is a novitiate nun, and her hedonistic, despairing Stalinist aunt.

We also attended "The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution" at the New-York Historical Society (Central Park West & 77th St.), the striking renovation of which has brought a feeling of lightness and openness to its once dark halls. It has also meant the museum has begun to mount more aesthetically adventurous exhibits (like the Armory show).

The show, which closed on Feb. 23, displayed 100 paintings, sculptures and prints from the seminal exhibit of 1,400 works at New York’s Lexington Avenue Armory in 1913. The Armory Show had shocked the New York press and the public at the time because it included paintings like Duchamp’s Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which broke from traditional aesthetics. Many American painters also felt threatened by the Show’s European modernism, but it was a battle they could not win. The Duchamp and work by greats like Cezanne, Braque, and Matisse, as well as American realist paintings by Bellows, Sloan, and Robert Henri are included in the striking NYHS exhibit.

Finally, we stopped at the Met another snowy evening to see the exhibit, "Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris" (running until May 4). Marville was one of the most talented of 19th century French photographers, and in 1862 was made Paris’ official photographer. Most of the photographs on exhibit documented aspects of the city’s modernization that made Paris the city we know and love today.

Marville’s photographs go beyond documentation and are handsomely composed, capturing intricate details of the old narrow cobblestone Parisian streets. Medieval Paris emanates charm and beauty. Its chief planner Haussmann’s boulevards, which we see under construction, replaced the cramped streets with wide, rationally structured avenues, unvarying architecture, and open public spaces. Like the best of piecemeal gentrification today, there were gains -- healthier, more comfortable, and more elegant neighborhoods -- but also a profound loss of urban character and affordability.

The weather will change, but it will just make it easier for me to keep on going, and embrace what the city offers.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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