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On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School

2013

Glistening
A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux

Archive

Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
Cafeterias
Back-to-the-Land
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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An Ennui Free City

One would have to be insensate to be bored with New York. The city may evoke at times, even in a New York-lover like myself, all sorts of negative emotions - irritation, despair, rage, and revulsion - but not ennui. Besides its spontaneous and continuous street dramas, on any given day and night the city provides a wide range of cultural offerings - some merely time-consuming and forgettable, but a great many aesthetically and intellectually exhilarating. Still, although attending cultural events has never become the be-all of my existence (I never feel I must run out to see everything that whets my interest), exciting cultural offerings do play a significant role in my New York life.
Recently, my wife and I attended a preview of Tony Kushner's prolixly titled new play The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. The play is a family drama about a left-wing longshoreman and union leader, Gus Marcantonio, and his three grown children, two of whom are lesbian or gay. It's a profoundly ambitious play that Kushner sees as dealing with - among other things - “unionism, communism, Marxism and socialism, and despair, death and sex.” It's also a sprawling, intellectually and emotionally intense drama. I hesitate discussing its flaws here, since Kushner continues to tinker with the play's shape before it opens in May.
But what always excites me about watching a play by Kushner - arguably our best living dramatist - is his political intelligence and passion, and his capacity to capture the intricacy of all varieties of familial, sexual and romantic relationships. As always, Kushner avoids reducing his major characters to one or two predictable qualities - never turning them into mere representatives of a political position, or into a one-dimensional portrait. 
In this clamorous naturalistic play, Gus, its bigger-than-life patriarch, who lives in his family's house in Brooklyn, wants to commit suicide, and asks his children and his sister (a former nun and ex-Maoist) to affirm his decision. Kushner's vision is a dialectical one. For every point of view offered, a contradictory one is expressed in turn. Kushner, a man of the left, has always expressed uncertainty about what it means to be a radical in "a world like this." Here he conveys Gus's despairing sense that a life given over to radical political commitments has lost its meaning, because his dream of working class revolution is no longer viable. He is countered by his labor-lawyer daughter MT (Linda Emond), who is wholeheartedly engaged in working for change through the system. And though Kushner expresses no explicit judgment on their respective positions, and is clearly enamored with Gus's political fervor and volatile life force - it's MT's incremental politics that he extends more sympathy for.
Right before seeing the Kushner play, I attended Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Stoppard's brilliant work is playful, scintillating, exquisitely choreographed. It deals, on one level, with arcane ideas like chaos theory, and is much more controlled and buoyant than Kushner's. But the latter carries a sexual and political vision that feels viscerally torn from his inner being. I prefer Kushner's much less perfect work to Stoppard's elegantly calibrated one, though grateful that both have been staged.
     A number of excellent documentaries are also now being screened around the city. Three recent documentaries (all at the IFC Center) that I have seen are: Armadillo, which follows a platoon of Danish soldiers on a six-month tour of Afghanistan, where they may have murdered wounded Taliban; My Perestroika, dealing with the lives of five Muscovites reflecting on their sheltered Soviet totalitarian childhood and the more prosperous authoritarianism of Putin's post-Soviet Russia; and Bill Cunningham New York, a depiction of an 80 year old Sunday Times photographer, who is New York City's chronicler of both everyday and high fashion. The film's fascination (especially for someone like myself who has no interest in fashion) lies in director Richard Press's capturing of Cunningham's uniqueness - as he pedals around the city snapping photos that appear in the Style section in the On the Street page, featuring shots of average citizens out in Manhattan dressed in ways that catch his eye; and his Evening Hours section, focusing on the moneyed, the celebrated, and the narcissistically fashionable, attending the city's countless gala charity events. A product of a Catholic working-class family, he is an original - at once an ascetic (his own taste in clothing, food, and shelter is minimalist) and an aesthete.  We see his perfectionism, integrity, and fidelity to his own vision. He is utterly egalitarian about fashion-couture clothes are of no more interest to him than the outrageous get-ups of ordinary people.
 Many people seem to like Bill, including the powerful, imperious fashion doyenne Anna Wintour and the late Brooke Astor, but few appear to know him. In fact, the film treads lightly on the personal - Bill recoils from publicly dealing with his private life. He sees everything else as superfluous except his artistic obsession. He's an idiosyncratic subject, and the film is a joy to watch. 
 I also attended for the first time a writers' workshop on de-gentrifying New York at the PEN World Voices of International Literature - April 25 to May 1. PEN invited more than 100 writers from forty nations to celebrate the writer's voice in public discourse in panel discussions, one-on-one conversations, readings, and performances at varied venues around the city from the High Line to the Morgan Library. It's one event among the city's infinite offerings that I won't miss next year.