In a studio on the edge of the East Village, cinematographer Haskell Wexler was seated on the lip of a window at a cocktail party thrown to honor film director John Sayles and his producer and partner, Maggie Renzi.
“I can tell you know I’m hard of hearing,” the octogenarian told The Transom, “because you speak so loudly and clearly.”
It was the evening of Friday, May 20, and fashionable V.I.P.’s swirled about the room, creating a deafening din. The room was also blindingly white-white floor, white ceiling, white walls, white tulips.
Mr. Wexler went on to explain that while many filmmakers “figure out who to take advantage of as quickly as possible and then say, ‘Adios, Mother,’” Mr. Sayles and Ms. Renzi are different. The couple, who received the Frederick Douglass Award that evening from the North Star Fund, a foundation which supports New York–based grassroots activists, knows that the “doing of art is as important as the art itself.”
And Mr. Wexler ought to know, after collaborating on four films with the couple: Matewan, Limbo, The Secret of Roan Inish and their most recent (and least successful) film, the Bush-bashing Silver City.
Mr. Sayles, an aging Marlboro Man, was asked if after all these years, his collaborator, Mr. Wexler, still “had it.”
“Of course!” responded Mr. Sayles. Distractingly, a thick shock of salt-and-pepper chest hair burst forth from the unbuttoned collar of his blue shirt.
Mr. Sayles, who is 6-foot-4, assumed a wide balletic second position to converse with The Transom eye to eye.
“He doesn’t hear very well-but he’s not a sound man, he’s a cinematographer!” Mr. Sayles said. He started writing when he was 14 years old, on a typewriter he purchased with money earned shoveling snow in Schenectady, N.Y. He said that he chose to write fiction in his pubescent years in the upstate factory town because “you can write without any money.”
Today, Mr. Sayles makes money writing the scripts for blockbusters like his current project, the pending multiplex feature Jurassic IV (although production is on hold at the moment).
Mr. Sayles told The Transom that an early version of the script was intercepted online by an audacious hacker, who also offered his opinion of it.
“It amazes me that people are that obsessed with reading Steven Spielberg’s mail,” he said. (The online review describes the script as the “single most bugfuck crazy franchise sequel” the reviewer had ever read.)
After the cocktail hour, a mini-documentary on the filmmaking team, Mr. Sayles and Ms. Renzi, was followed by a tearful testimonial from the mini-actress Vanessa Martinez.
She is best known from her role in Mr. Sayles’ Casa de los Babys, for which the towering Mr. Sayles must have dropped to a split to direct the petite actress. Wild-eyed actor Chris Cooper, his wife, Marianne Leone (Christopher Moltisanti’s Mama from The Sopranos), and character actor David Strathairn also voiced in enough niceties to prompt Ms. Renzi, a former Catholic, to thank everyone for turning this evening into “the bat mitzvah she never had.”
Although Ms. Renzi was delighted to receive the Frederick Douglass Award with her husband-who has also received the Ian McKellan Hunter Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the John Steinbeck Award on his own-she made it clear that she was still sore that no one saw their most recent film, Silver City.
Undaunted by their first flop in political moviemaking, the indefatigable Mr. Wexler proceeded to give a rousing, rambling political speech.
As he became more impassioned, fuming about the Newsweek scandal and the “nuclear option,” he looked like an aging, angry Christopher Walken.
“If I am an artist, I am going to do something about this turn to fascism!” he said, and brought the house down.
Toys of Summer
Toss a hibachi on the fire escape: Barbecue season is nigh. As Memorial Day draws closer, the siren song of charcoal has already seduced the folks over at H&M and Cosmopolitan, who invited assorted fashionistas to the Hotel Gansevoort last Thursday for a colossal rooftop cookout.
This was a cookout in the most literal sense: The cooks were out, grilling on the deck, while the guests stayed in. Sheltered from the cool night air, they helped themselves to hamburgers and hot dogs from indoor buffet tables and plucked morsels of skewered swordfish from circulating trays.
“I’m not cold; I had three glasses of wine,” laughed 21-year-old Kelly Briter, a bikini-clad H&M model who stood by the buffet. She chatted enthusiastically with her male-model brethren, who also wore swimwear, and twisted a wide scarf in her hands flirtatiously. Yes, we’re all in H&M, down to our flip-flops, they concurred. And isn’t the Gansevoort great?
“When you look at the Soho House roof from here,” Ms. Briter said breathlessly, “it looks really pitiful.”
Easy to spot in the crowd was the shaven, sunglass-crowned head of stylist Robert Verdi, the top brass on E!’s Fashion Police. Fully dressed in a dapper, somewhat daffy floral blazer, the tall Mr. Verdi had a good vantage point from which to soak up the clothes-and lack thereof-around him. “I like to see other people in bathing suits, because I look so bad in them,” Mr. Verdi said pointedly. “I don’t do nude or bathing suits. I’m rich, so I don’t have to be naked anymore.”
Though he was eager to heap praise on H&M, Mr. Verdi had one bone to pick: boys in board shorts. “I always think board shorts look particularly abnormal in an urban environment,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Why are you wearing board shorts?” he demanded to no one in particular. “There’s no wave to be seen on Seventh Avenue. Catch the fashion wave!” He waved his own hand in a fluid example.
Keen-eyed culture vultures spotted a few other television transients nosing through the crowd. Siberia Federico, who played Tony’s mistress on The Sopranos before the role was passed on to Oksana Babiy, was around, and so was Willie Hernandez from MTV’s The Real World: Philadelphia.
Though the party was a kickoff for H&Mpire’s newest territory, a “poolside” line for summer, no one was quite prepared to test the waters-or the swimsuits-with a few laps in the Gansevoort’s heated pool. A bunch of plastic mannequins, scantily dressed in their beachy best, was arranged “poolside.” From a distance, it was possible to mistake their stiffness for hypothermia. Or maybe just ennui. Either way, they sat, stood and gawked frozenly at one of their colleagues, a long-haired Lothario who drifted around the pool on an equally plastic raft, sporting board shorts and a blind stare.
For the most part, the only live people near the pool were drunken couples. “No, Hamish, don’t!” squealed one woman, as her boyfriend lifted her toward the edge. A guy dropped his cocktail glass into the water and grinned. As he walked away, another fellow took a digital picture of the floating vessel with mischievous glee.
Also enjoying the pool deck were a pair of goody-bag pilferers who-one per person!-came to compress their spoils of war. The two women, toting three bags each, struggled fruitlessly to cram them all into a giant black tote. “You’ve got to consolidate!” one of them advised.
Leaning over the railing, we could see a projector sending a beam through the night, aimed at a blank brick façade across the street. A hazy sequence of catalog images played across the distant wall: models having fun, bright summer sun, board shorts. Below and to the right, we could also spot the roof of Soho House, where the pool deck glowed like an empty oasis, surrounded with shrubbery and all but deserted. We clicked our heels together three times-four, even!-but our luck had run out. However “pitiful,” paradise felt far away, and summer further still.
“I think she looks tired. She needs a little R and R,” said the voice of Cheryl Stoever, a senior at Marymount Manhattan College, during an alternate audio tour that her class developed for MoMA.
Ms. Stoever was discussing Cindy Sherman’s Film Still 92.
“But, I mean, nobody even discussed … we haven’t even discussed, like, her hair being … I mean, is it wet because she just got out of the shower? I mean, she’s in clothes. Is she, like … did she just go for a run? Is it sweaty?”
Finally, she and her co-commentators reached agreement: In this particular self-portrait, Ms. Sherman looked like she’d just returned from field-hockey practice.
Ms. Stoever, her professor, Dr. David Gilbert, and two other students descended on MoMA Tuesday morning to field-test their handiwork. Wrapping up a semester in Organizational Communication, they’d developed audio commentaries for nine different pieces in MoMA’s collection and posted their work as a podcast on the Internet. Visitors to their Web site (http://mod.blogs.com/art_mobs) are invited to download the unofficial guide, which includes commentary-”more sardonic than saccharine” and strangely kinky, to boot-original music and a dramatic reinterpretation of Max Pechstein’s Pair of Dancers, which stars a professor in the role of an absinthe-addled accountant.
“We don’t have to be passive consumers of art,” explained Dr. Gilbert, extolling the virtues of digital democracy. “We’re inviting anybody on the Web who can do it-and there are a lot of people that can now-to produce their own guide to some little corner of MoMA and to send it to us, e-mail it to us.”
In the fall, he noted, a group of students from Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey would be signing on to help “remix” MoMA, adding their own alternatives to the list of unauthorized tours.
“Most of the walking tours that you get-you know, with the headsets-are pretty informational and don’t really tell you a lot about the art,” explained Ms. Stoever. “I was really inspired by The Daily Show, when they spoke about The Gates. It was kind of a parody on an art historian discussing them and making fun of the simplicity of them and, you know, the minimalist aspects and whatever. And meanwhile, while they’re making fun of them, they were still making complete, like, art-historical sense. Everything they said was true and factual.”
As they roamed the museum, Dr. Gilbert and his entourage scouted potential prey, seeking someone ripe for an audio fix. Just around the corner from Jackson Pollock’s Echo Number 25, they found Bernard Rubin, a 61-year-old dentist who was visiting from Toronto. As his wife-”second wife, of 10 and a half years,” he clarified-looked on, Mr. Rubin donned a pair of iPod headphones and settled, shifting from foot to foot, in front of the Pollock.
Had Mr. Rubin been listening to the official tour, this is what he would have heard:
“Perhaps the painting captures the nervous intensity of the modern city; or perhaps it recalls the primal rhythms of nature.”
This is what he heard instead: “I think that you could even go so far as to say Pollock was acting as the libido for 1950′s Americana as a whole. He was a big, drunken phallus, and he was good at it … and his paintings are big.”
The audio track concluded with an aside about horses, which morphed into the banged-together coconut hoofbeats from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
When Dr. Rubin removed the headphones 10 minutes later, he looked a bit bewildered. “There’s an expression in Yiddish that’s called Oylem goylem: ‘The world is a fool.’ So he laughs all the way to the bank,” said Dr. Rubin of Jackson Pollock. But did the audio guide broaden his vision? “Well, you have to stretch ‘Oh, this is erotic-maybe I see a bunch of lines over there,’” he said derisively. “My 4-year-old granddaughter could do that.”
Perhaps the iPodders should have picked another painter?
“I think,” Dr. Gilbert concluded, “that he would have been better with the Chagall.”