This sign for Roku, which data-streaming device Shine Box regularly uses to view motion picture, is down the block from the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which 1941 building was built in the shape of an open book.

Jujube Manifesto

Jared Diamond, the biogeographer and psychologist of evolution, wrote in The New York Review of Books about a new book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.

In his review, Diamond discusses the different psychic effects of colonized societies.  Countries with rich resources were "extractive economic institutions," where European forces could get away with exploitative abuses to "drain wealth" of the local people, like the diamond trade in Zimbabwe or former banana republic Guatemala.  Otherwise:
"... in formerly poor countries with sparse native populations, such as Costa Rica and Australia, European settlers had to work themselves and developed institutional incentives rewarding work. When the former colonies achieved independence, they variously inherited either the extractive institutions that coerced the masses to produce wealth for dictators and the elite, or else institutions by which the government shared power and gave people incentives to pursue. The extractive institutions retarded economic development, but incentivizing institutions promoted it."

In Bambi v. Godzilla (2007) a book about Hollywood moviemaking, the playwright and belle lettres punchliner David Mamet applies a similar idea of "extractive" versus "incentivizing" to the moviegoing audience.  Mamet says that people keep going to bad movies the way that Diamond suggests oppressed populations fell victim to the pillage of Western mercantilism:

"The very vacuousness of these films is reassuring, for they ratify for the viewer the presence of a repressive mechanism and offer momentary reprieve from anxiety with this thought: 'Enough money spent can cure anything.  You are a member of a country, a part of a system capable of wasting two hundred million dollars on an hour and a half of garbage.  You must be somebody."

This might seem to evidence a habit of "retarded economic development."  But instead, the "hour and a half of garbage" becomes the extractivist's incentivizer for moviegoers' to pay $13 to pursue the next Twilight movie, or new Johnny Depp vehicle, in which advanced critics say Depp delivers.

Our food ration is the $15 pulled from our wages for soda and popcorn. 


(2011) Giorgos Lanthimos. Cinema Village.

The Shine Box went to see Alps the weekend that audiences flocked to The Dark Knight Rises, which smash opening was blighted by the Aurora mass killing spree. Alps might provide a corollary to the gruesome events.

In the movie, a group of disparate citizens form a secret group who impersonates dead strangers, in the effort of providing solace to the surviving family members who are not yet ready to accept the loss. The group is not made up of professional actors, but paramedics, gym teachers, and truck drivers. These amateurs reenact key episodes in the life of the deceased, with the participation of the mournful mothers and fathers and boyfriends. It may give a healing feel of eternity.  The families pays for the charitable service after an initial four free sessions.

Monte Rosa dances for father. Alps (2011).

The premise of Alps seems to mimic the news coverage of the events in Colorado. Profiles of the innocents, the grieving reports of family and friends, the assemblage media narrative of biting and bittersweet memory. It is an imperfect reenactment which serves to dramatize the mystery behind the vicious happenstance of life. 

The macabre acting troup calls themselves, “Alps,” after the Swiss mountain range.  According to the head of the group, who goes by the codename “Mont Blanc,” the Alps are a symbol of nature too monumental to be replaced, but powerful enough to replace nature.

Don’t the movies act the same way?

Colorado and Camden

Among other civic horror shows, Camden, NJ was once the site of an unprecedented mass murder akin to the shootings in Aurora, CO last weekend.

In 1949, a gun freak and loser shut-in open fired on a series of innocent people whom he believed were persecuting him.  Read about the details here.

Like the Colorado sicko, the Camden shooter did not off himself at the end of his spree and was taken into custody.  He lived into his eighties and died in an insane asylum, though continually insisted he was not an irrational actor.

This weekend's headline killings involve the pop situationalism of the movies.  According to the 2009 obituary of the Camden killer, "he later told police that he had spent the previous evening sitting through three showings of a double feature and had thought that actress Barbara Stanwyck was one of his hated neighbors."

None of this proves any influence of the movies on madness, but might demonstrate a singular disgusting aberration in the impressionability of the mass mind.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

(2012) Timur Bekmambetov, Regal Battery Park.

A gimmicky concept played for no laughs and too much CGI action, with in-jokes lost in the algorithmic mess like the one about Stephen Douglas courting a young Mary Todd before Lincoln would both steal Mary away and historically debate the Illinois Senator over sundry issues like the economy of slaves.  

Abe Lincoln is a blur of impulse and his team of freedman, store clerk and good dracula are given little expressive huddle.  Mary Todd Winstead provides an actorly highlight, as does as the aging makeup for Benjamin Walker as he transforms into fiftysomething President Lincoln, if only because the makeup is much much better than that applied to Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, an American historical figure who also hunted rebel vampires.

The movie bleaches out the historiological premise that seems might be a crux in the book, but focus-grouped out of the adaptation, that the antebellum South is a vampire haven and the slave trade exists to provide the undead a source of food. The Civil War is thus fought to destroy this bloodsucking empire.

The premise, like the action sequences, is glossed over without much gloss, other than a thin matricide-revenge plot we have all seen before.  As a result, it is probable that the movie has alienated many movie audiences, including Southerners, blacks, history buffs, and teenagers seeking cool special effects.

Hollywood has become effectual at providing movies that are everything but.  Looks like a movie, sounds like a movie, but by the time you have eaten all your popcorn and slurped your soda, doesn’t taste like a movie.

In the mid-1960s, Allan Katzman, founder of The East Village Other, a radical biweekly newspaper, described mainstream news as a similar fake:

“The papers of pseudo events, news leaks and press releases, offend no one; they take no moral stand. They are just... neutral. They furnish our boring and repetitive lives with boring and repetitive 'news.’"

Substitute “news” for “movies” and the predicament of the Hollywood multiplex is answered.

Playwright and moviemaker David Mamet, in his book Bambi v. Godzilla, uses the metaphor of politics to explicate the con game of Hollywood movies.  The government makes “periodic declarations” which “assuage fully half of the populace absent any correspondence between that verbiage and the government’s actions or, indeed, between them and the plausible.  The administration, like the sitcom of old, has discovered that, given an immobilized audience, a presentation of the form is sufficient entertainment.”

Mamet argues that “big and bad films, summer films, blockbusters have similarly become the laugh track to our national experiment... we are reassured by their presence rather than their content or operations.”

As a result, the moviegoer buys a ticket, and then might as well go home to watch TV.


(1985) Mark L. Lester. Tribeca Y, June 22, 2012.

The Shine Box likes to veer from use of the superlative statement. But Commando may be the best action movie ever made. The acting, writing and directing never flinch. A soundtrack of 80s steel drum and horns, lots of bare muscle Arnold, setpieces of supremely staged ass-kicking, and skanky macho dialogue by highly individuated scumbag psycho bad guys.

Shine Box saw the movie at a recent screening in the Basic Cable Classics series at Tribeca Y. Director Mark L. Lester appeared after the screening for an interview and Q&A.

L. Lester said the movie was rushed into release after the shoot and cobbled together in just four days by a crackerjack team of editors. These proved to be perfect working conditions. The final showdown between former black-ops buddies Matrix and Bennett was supposed to take place after a boat chase, but because of the budget, they improv’d the engine room and pipe impalement. “Let off some steam, Bennett.”

John Matrix demonstrates the one-man army which the American military has made of him, and is later pulled out of retirement to take care of the blowback. Matrix is from East Germany, where the Family was the State, and rock and roll was subversive. Matrix reads Creem magazine. “Maybe they were right.”

When Bennett steals his daughter, Jenny, Matrix disregards all loyalty to law and order to get her back. He uses a bulldozer to break into a weapons supply store, beats up cops, and kidnaps a woman, Rae Dawn Chong, who is tough and pretty with spry comic timing.

The fight scenes are sugared with taunting between the trained killers – “I eat Green Berets for breakfast, and right now I am very hungry...” All scenes in Commando end with a punchline, whether a quip, a maiming of multiple assailants, or Arnold’s hulking bicep as he carries a giant log and chainsaw down the mountain. “You think I could smell them coming?” asks the wounded soldier. Says Matrix, “I did.”

Terror in A Texas Town

(1958) Joseph E. Lewis.

A Swedish immigrant defends the Texas territory that is rightly his from a Long Horn Boss Tweed.  It may seem unlikely territory for a Scandinavian whaler, but America is both welcoming and prejudiced to everybody.  The paradox is clear at the final showdown, where justice is served by the thrust of a harpoon over the draw of a sixshooter.

With no gun and no attitude, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) is first introduced as a bit of a simp.  George's father Sven Hansen has retired from the high seas to the deserts of Texas, where he has been murdered and robbed of his land.

Actor Sterling Hayden wrote a late-career sailor adventure novel called Voyager (1976), and the salt and madness of the sea inform the character of young Hansen, who is the sort of troubled big man which Sterling Hayden has played in movies with such ironic brawn, like the the impotent General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1968), the bigot NYC cop executed by the mob in a Bronx pasta joint in The Godfather (1972), and the whiny tankard-swigging beach house writer Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye (1974).

In this Texas town, the saloon is empty and without bluster. The exchange of dialogue is slow and pauses are like winds in the arroyo. The town sheriff is a flunky and argues that the town is civilized and upholds the law, yet disregards George Hansen’s proof of probate records and urges him to get a lawyer to defend his claims.  “You’re not in some foreign country now where a man has no rights at all…. You’ve got a right to justice.”  But justice slings guns in the court room.  It is the sort of gringo jingo not so long ago jabbered by a migrant Texan in the Oval Office.  Founding fathers argued likewise at their both best and worst to manipulate concepts in favor of greed and power.

Yet rancho ward boss Ed McNeil is not so powerful. He is obese, smarmy, corrupt, rapacious, and disregards the sacred unwritten law of the South against burning a man's barn and killing his livestock.  

Like a WPA photo, farmers look on as their property is burned up by badmen.
His victims are honest farmers who do not want to disobey the law when baited to by the brigandage of McNeil, but who also do not want to give up without a fight.  McNeil ties up the idea of justice like the tails of a rat king.  He hires an aging gunfighter to do the dirty work of clearing people off his stolen property.  The assassin, who wears all black from hat to boots, is eager to stay in the game.  Johnny Crale has lost the use of his shooting hand but has since relearned to blast with accuracy using his left, and can draw on five chandelier candles with exact precision.  But his marksmanship is naught because he is only a killer of unarmed men.  Johnny preys on the weak so is drawn to the life of the freebooter.  There is money to be made for a hopeless cripple with a good trigger finger and cold conscience.

The true advance of civilization is upon the frontier, and a new era makes way where the law of the gun loses to the law of the speculator. New immigrant settlements, “popping up like jackrabbits,” must be taught eradication.  The Swede George Hansen befriends Mexican sharecropper Jose Mirada, whose family is expecting a third child and victimized by Boss McNeil.  Terror is played out as the political act of violence against innocent civilians in the interest of acquiring property.  It is no surprise that the script is credited on IMDB as written by blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo.  The man in black, a villainous icon of dime westerns, is a terrorist.  George Hansen shoulders the brutality of civil liberties as he does his father’s harpoon, with the whole town in tow eager for the spectacle of blood.


(1990) Martin Scorsese.

The Shine Box spent some hours Memorial Day weekend working at the Museum of the American Gangster, in the East Village, where the collection includes items donated by Henry Hill, whose life story is told in Goodfellas, the greatest movie about the mob.

Henry Hill, sportjacket & shirt, worn during 1978 Lufthansa heist.
Henry Hill, original painting.
Henry Hill senior yearbook, voted "Most Talkative."

AB and BC of NYC

Bill Cunningham New York (2010) dir. Richard Press. 
Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain.

In New York City, it is a tradition to want to eat good and look good. Food and fashion are big business and big myth. Even King Kong wanted to look good and eat good. They chained Kong to a Broadway stage on an empty stomach. It was Kong’s big debut in showbiz and they made him look bad. The great ape broke free and snacked on a few people. Like all visitors to NYC, he sought its tallest building, in Kong’s day the tallest in the world.

King Kong food truck.
Tourists want to know the places to shop and eat. New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing the best places to do both and none two are the same.

Midtown storefront (2012).
Old sign on East 23rd St.
Anthony Bourdain, the chef, has become a paragon of NYC food, and Bill Cunningham, the photographer, an legend of NYC fashion. Bourdain is a media figure who made his bones with Kitchen Confidential (2000), a memoir of Tony’s “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” Bill Cunningham, at 82 years old, is self-effacing, picaresque, and the subject of Bill Cunningham New York (2011) a feature documentary that sold-out weekly premiere screenings at Film Forum in Greenwich Village.

The business of eating in New York City has long garnered a ripsnort and street-glam.  In the early decades before the Civil War, the food scene emerging in the buggy-paths of harbor wards splashed squibby headlines.  "Restaurants and their owners - and sometimes even their waiters - received the kind of coverage accorded to politicians in other cities" (Appetite City, William Grimes, 2009).  Anthony Bourdain, as a blustery and vulgar chain-smoking chronicler of dimebag attitude and torn-jeans work ethic, plugs fitly into the trends.  A gourmand executive of high-end restaurants, Tony describes in unsavory terms the culture of chefdom, the wholehearted betrayal, the manic ass-kissing, the self-involved cruelty of staff, douchebag moneymen, and fellow cooks:

“Generally speaking, American cooks are a lazy, undisciplined and, worst of all, high-maintenance lot, annoyingly opinionated, possessed of egos requiring constant stroking and tune-ups and, as members of a privileged and wealthy population, unused to the kind of ‘disrespect’ a busy chef is inclined to dish out.”

Yet Tony’s restaurant is on Park Avenue, Brasserie Les Halles, which harks to the French roots of New York food and ego, back when all things urbane were Parisian, from the 1920s Village cafĂ© to the Broadway lobster palace to the bonbon boxes at Guerin’s pastry shop on Lower Broadway a hundred years before World War I. And plenty of junkies in the Depression hustled change from the Fancy Dans outside the franco-fried Knickerbocker Hotel on Forty Deuce.

Hotel Knickerbocker (NYPL).
Bourdain is a successful luxy chef, but writes books about his kitchen grunt work in the dirtybird Fear City 1970s and 80s, and hosts a TV show to demonstrate he can bullshoot with beleaguered Hudson Valley fisherman and hitch rides from Romanian pig farmers. Tony has eaten porcupine needles in Vietnam and wild squirrel in Arkansas, but does not serve these dishes at his restaurant.

Bourdain in Staten Island.
Bourdain in Beirut.
Bourdain survives a rite of passage in the kitchen of the Rainbow Room, when young Tony is preparing a crespelle toscanna with mushrooms, tongue, ham, spinach, turkey and bechamel, and chef de garde-manger Luis tries again to shove his fist up Tony’s ass. Tony swivels and jams a meat fork deep in the hand of Luis. This gains Tony respect in the kitchen.

In assembling new kitchen staff, Tony poaches from restaurants around town, comparing himself to Lee Marvin mining the stockade in The Dirty Dozen. He needs trust, skill and experience, and exploits the rampant desperation and lack of loyalty in the industry. Bourdain’s run on city-wide staff is akin to the sundry cajolings effected by Rockefeller Center to acquire tenants in the 1930s, taking over leases and offering buyouts and sweetheart deals. Rock Center needed to fill its 8 million square feet of office space and exploited the anxiety of the Depression, when Central Park was a shanty town and foxy golddiggers worked the Boom Boom Room. It is the merciless, indulgent, rampaging way to start a business in New York, and it pays off. Tony is hired by Tuscan chef warlord Pino Luongo, and an anonymous caller tips off Pino that watch out, Bourdain is a lowlife scumbag. But Pino knows that important people invite wrath as a sign of character. The rat has done Tony a favor.

Like any object subject to the mass mind, the industry of eating and of clothes has spawned a culture of desperation, nonsense and snobbery. At the far reaches of fraught times, dances of death occur. They are bright in their electricity and many millions want to see it happen, or pretend to participate, often from the cold nervous surface of the tour bus and television. They go to New York, where to be successful one must often harbor a low regard for those who sign one’s paychecks – like real estate lawyers and art world artists. The city offers money the way the river offered peace to the weekend camper rape-victims in the movie Deliverance. But it is easy to generalize about types of people when home is a population of almost 8.4 million (or 8.1 according to the 2010 Census, which analysts say Brooklyn hipsters are to blame).

Bill Cunningham is paid to follow the nightlife of tastemakers he would seem to disavow. Bill is a man mortified by elite treatment, and wears a blue janitor’s smock which he buys routinely and cheaply at the hardware store, and his meager workaholic diet favors sausage and egg sandwiches at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street. His $5.99 poncho rips and Bill repairs it with duct tape. Bill lives like a spartan civil rights activist from the 1960s, when he gained renowned for shooting pictures of the Central Park “Be-In.” His apartment is one of the last above Carnegie Hall, where the rent control is equal to a sublet in East New York, Brooklyn. Down the hall lives 96 year-old Edith Sherman, the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall.” Bill and the Duchess are from a time when West 57th Street was true New York boho territory.   For a 1978 photo book, Bill shot the Duchess in period clothing at sites around town.

The Duchess at Alwyn Court, W. 58th Street & 7th Ave.
Facades (1978), Bill & The Duchess.
The Duchess at the Chrysler Building.
Bill sleeps on a cot surrounded by metal file cabinets where his photo negatives are archived, and where he hangs his shirts. “He’s got a tiny little place,” says the Duchess, “it’s nothing.” Carnegie Hall has since evicted its flash residents, and the salon where the Duchess once held court is an office of telemarketers.

Carnegie Hall, 2011.
J. Edgar Hoover might have investigated Bill as a communist. Working at Details magazine Bill insists he never got paid, and he refused to cash checks from Conde Nast. “I don’t touch money.” But Bill is infatuated by the beauty industry of Paris and New York. Two blocks from Carnegie Hall, the highest retail rents in the world are currently paid by the purveyors of raiment and jewels who pay Bill’s rent to take pictures. The irony is c’est la vie on Fifth Avenue, or laissez-faire on Beaver Street. Bill remembers the City of Lights in the 1960s at the Yves St. Laurent show, when it was only one, two, three photographers, and not the carnivorous melee of image-hounds out to snap any celebrity in heels.

Bill has a New York accent with a twinge of haughty New England Wasp. It is the voice of the 1920s rung by fifty years of life conducted on the streets of New York City, raised Catholic in Massachusetts and spending each Sunday in a midtown church, thinking about ladies’ hats. Bill once ran a column on hatmaking for a West Village mag, but quit after the editors slighted his pictures as campy and jesting rather than Bill’s intention of raw sharp captures of people on the street. Soon the fashion industry took over Soho and needed credibility so invited MTV to shoot the first Real World.

Bill with hats (NY Times)
Bill is a New York eye, the way the city loves to look at itself. But in typical NYC style, Bill limits his canvas to certain blocks that stand in for the whole world. 57th & Fifth Avenue, Central Park, Soho and Times Square, named for the newspaper that employs Bill and built the 4th tallest building in town as new headquarters. New York has a habit of using small parts of itself as a stunt double for the universe, as if to speak to all, insecure, glorious, hateful, and irresistible. This New York clings to life, soon vanquished in believing that 10 blocks are 10 miles, and needs photos of it, traces of the city that only make a neighborhood by Bill’s camera and bike. Bill enjoys mega cross-sections of traffic, despite the perils of cycling down Broadway. It’s a big city but a small town.

Bill and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Bill cites his colleague, Japanese stylist Rei Kawakubo, as foreseeing that women's fashion of the 1980s was inspired by the look of “the bag lady in New York,” that areas in the city "is close to Medieval Europe."  There were plenty of ladies under Mayor Ed Koch scraping cheap livelihood and keeping up new spins on their styles from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, pushing carts, smoking Pall Malls, and wearing enviably fabulous sunglasses.

Bill seems to have had slight sex life, possibly celibate, and when asked about the intimate relationships in his life, Bill pauses to let pass the urge to sob. Bill is surrounded by hot people, a venue where sex is a grave stake in the game. Yet Bill is not a man who is unstimulated. He habitually attends church “to repent,” as if he has acted in sin, and will again. Churches are abundant in New York, and allow those who enter to exist in a highly-crafted space of mystical purpose and the music of organ players. The New York crime writer Lawrence Block portrays the city church as a similar haven for Hell’s Kitchen alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder:

“I like churches. I like to sit in them when I have things to think about…. I sat near the front and watched people go in and out of the confessional. They didn’t look any different coming out than they had going in.” (The Sins of the Father, Block, 1976)

Anthony Bourdain reminisces of a New York “underbelly,” and relishes not just the food but the hidden spaces of the city. Working the kitchen of the Rainbow Room, Tony tracks a storage closet window nook in the GE Building to smoke weed between shifts and trip the skyline. At the Paramount Hotel, Tony ventures into the basement to find “a truly awe-inspiring sight: the long-forgotten Diamond Horseshoe,” a nightclub run by Broadway impresario Billy Rose. Billy was known as "a fast and true runner of the canyons, at home with brick, steel and the fast buck.” Tony cuts into the juicy beefsteak archaeology of tabloid showbiz, describing “the original rhinestone-aproned stage where Billy Rose’s famously zaftig chorus line once kicked,” and “the whole Old Broadway demimonde of the Winchell era” would “get up to all sorts of glamorous debauchery.”

In Bill Cunningham New York, author Tom Wolfe admits that New York is unpleasant and only concerned with “status.” Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) gives a tour from the South Bronx to the Silk Stocking District, though Tom Wolfe cannot be cited as the originator of the all-white three-piece suit. The writer William Gaddis, whose epic New York novel The Recognitions is unequaled in narrating the psychic plasm of the city, was known to dandy about in an all-white suit in the 1950s.

Status or not, Bill loves the clothes of people on the street. Clothes are fashion and fashion is people.  The irony, however, is that Bill captures individuality less than he does conformity.  His Times column "On the Street" depicts trends, not idiosyncrasies, and can be used an example of how people copy each other in New York rather than individuate. Still, one never knows, and people-watching is never boring.  As Theodore Dreiser writes of his experience witnessing the New York morning commute in “the meaner side streets or avenues” in 1925: 

“… typewriter girls in almost stage or society costumes entering shabby offices; boys and men made up to look like actors and millionaires turning into the humblest institutions, where they are clerks or managers.… These might be called the machinery of the city… the implements by which things are made to go” (The Color of the City, Dreiser, 1925).

Tony and Bill are men who make good entertainment of food and fashion in New York, where the public enjoys to devour itself in style.