Artist at work

When I last saw it many years ago, I was enthralled with the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983), a three-part examination of the career and working methods of the great Charlie Chaplin. Using never-before-seen outtakes, Brownlow and Gill produced perhaps the most insightful overview of Chaplin’s accomplishment ever released.

It’s been hard to find, but Metrograph will come to the rescue with a screening of all three parts of the documentary on Wednesday, November 29, at 7.00pm. Reserve your seats here. I previously wrote about Chaplin some time ago and republished that short essay here in conjunction with Metrograph’s recent screening of The Circus (1928). In 1986, John J. O’Connor reviewed Unknown Chaplin in the New York Times. See you at the movies.

November list

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum: “Applebaum’s account will surely become the standard treatment of one of history’s great political atrocities … She re-creates a pastoral world so we can view its destruction. And she rightly insists that the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian peasants was part of a larger [Soviet] policy against the Ukrainian nation …  To be sure, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Russians of today can decide whether they wish to accept a Stalinist version of the past. But to have that choice, they need a sense of the history. This is one more reason to be grateful for this remarkable book.” Timothy Snyder, Washington Post

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy: “[An] exemplary account of Europe’s least-known large country … one of the joys of reading The Gates of Europe is that what might seem a dense account of distant events involving unfamiliar places and people is leavened by aphorism and anecdote.” Wall Street Journal

The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax: “No one has come close to Alan Lomax in illuminating the intersecting musical roots of an extraordinary range of cultures, including our own.” Nat Hentoff

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin: “A masterful demonstration of the scholar’s art, revealing previously unknown aspects of Joplin as ragtime musician, teacher, composer, and student … Enlightens as it challenges, traversing the worlds of music, culture and politics in describing Joplin’s publishing arena and the cultures of prostitution, the church, the social club, and family life. The thorough discussion of Joplin’s famous ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ of his opera Treemonisha, of the tour schedule for his first opera A Guest of Honor, and of his relationship to his second wife, are significant and alone are worth the reading of this book. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era is a major contribution to American musical scholarship.” Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., author of The Power of Black Music

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington


Hey, that guy’s in my place!

This week Robert Mueller made me chuckle and a recent event made me wonder just how quickly the social fabric of the country was unravelling.

After such a week I could use my Cafe Katja, but paternal responsibilities make that impossible today. But you should go — and raise a glass to the tenth birthday of my local watering hole. Most Friday afternoons you can find me exactly where this interloper was. Our local online rag published this appreciation of Andrew and Erwin’s little joint (though it’s bigger than it was when it opened a decade back) a few days ago, and I wrote about it in 2014 (that essay is below). Until next week …

On those rare occasions when Marilyn and I find ourselves free of the children on a weekday evening, we’re lucky enough to have a wide choice of restaurants on the Lower East Side, but most of the time we end up at Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street. Katja is not quite an Austria-style cafe; in his review of the restaurant for The New York Times in 2007, Peter Meehan described it as a buschenschank: “Traditional buschenschanks spring up toward the end of the year in the south of Austria. (Nearer to Vienna they’re called heurigers.) They are places of simple eating and drinking, where farmers can sell as much of anything they’ve grown, raised, fermented, preserved or otherwise wrangled from their land before the government assesses taxes on it.”

Cafe Katja is certainly in the tradition: a neighborhood joint without pretension, with many items on the menu possessed of local origins, and the Austrian-ness of the restaurant is more in its intimacy and conviviality than in any attempt to replicate the setting of a Vienna cafe. It is one of the few bars in the neighborhood that lacks television or a jukebox, and I don’t think it can comfortably seat more than 25, at the bar and at the tables, at any one time. But it is warm, and pleasant, and (unfortunately for those who must stand in line to wait for tables) invites a long alcoholic, conversational stay.

The food is “Austrian-style” rather than an assertive imitation of the cuisine as well. There’s a fine selection of wurst, honestly the best selection I’ve come across outside of any German specialty restaurant, and I am often drawn to the fine cheese-stuffed krainer sausages and the delightful spätzle — neither too chewy or mushy — though on a splurge there are excellent Austrian meatballs as well. On our most recent visit Marilyn and I shared the aufschnitt-teller — cured meats served with crisp toast, with a dollop of liverwurst on the side — and a red cabbage salad large enough for two. The serving sizes and the character of the food were perfect for a warmish late-spring evening.

I am convinced that Central European red wines give Western European reds more than a run for their money, and the Cafe Katja’s wine list offers a magnificent selection of Austrian zweigelts and blaufrankisches and a long, tempting array of liqueurs and schnapps. On occasion there are also excellent Hungarian reds — very hard to come by, and when they appear on the menu, I am tempted to order up the whole case to drag the remainder home.

But the primary reason Marilyn and I keep returning is that it is very much a neighborhood watering hole, and unusually welcoming. The wait staff is, to a person, attentive and good-natured; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase (who himself lives on the Lower East Side) can often be found in convivial conversation with patrons. This is what happens when a local business springs up in a local community and remains dedicated to serving it well.

There is more about Cafe Katja in a recent issue of the print edition of another fine Lower East Side tradition, The Lo-Down (more about the expansion can be found in this 2011 post). Prost to the restaurant’s continued good health.

Tonight: Nonken and Kubera interpret Byron at Roulette

Tonight at 8:00pm, Marilyn Nonken and Joe Kubera will join forces to premiere Michael Byron‘s new, monumental two-piano work The Ultra Violet of Many Parallel Paths at Brooklyn’s Roulette. “Byron’s music tends to be restrained, avoiding both drama and extravagance. It is also harmonically rich, rhythmically detailed, and exclusively virtuosic,” says the web page for the event; also on the program is A Manifesto of Sounding for solo cello by composer and performance artist Juho Laitinen. More information is available here, and you can purchase your tickets here. I’ll see you there.

A little while ago pianist Marilyn Nonken and composer Michael Byron camped out on a familiar Lower East Side terrace to record the below interview, in which they discuss the work, its complexities, and its challenges and opportunities for its interpreters. Enjoy.

Pulling the thread

My wife and daughters were just a block and a half away from West and Chambers Streets yesterday when the shooting started — far enough away but not far enough; they most danger they were in, ironically, was when they were nearly run down by first responders speeding down Chambers Street at 60 miles per. The “story was developing,” as the media would have it, as they made their way home, so they were unaware of what was really happening, and besides it was Halloween. They had trick-or-treating on their minds, and mercifully they didn’t think about it much. I imagine that the grief counsellors that the district hired to populate the hallways at their school, also just around the corner from West and Chambers, will traumatize them enough today. We’re keeping an eye on them.

As you now know, most of the eight victims of yesterday’s attack weren’t American: five were Argentine tourists, and one was Belgian. For all of Trump’s desire to keep America safe, his travel ban wouldn’t have prevented Sayfullo Saipov from getting into the country; Uzbekistan was not on the list. Only the guns that the police carried could fire any bullets, one of them into Saipov’s abdomen. And like recent events in England and France, it appears that Saipov was “inspired” to his vicious act by the Islamic State rather than driven by any international conspiracy. ISIS hasn’t claimed responsibility yet, though I imagine they will before the day is through; like some other people I can think of, they have a tendency to take credit for things they had no direct responsibility for.

Saipov had a screw loose. A paranoiac sense of oppression married to violent religious propaganda is obviously a dangerous thing, but the Muslim religion can’t be blamed for it; extremists of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist stripes have all conducted similar campaigns of terror throughout our long history on this planet. Theology may provide a tipping point, but it’s the sociopathic hostility that kills, and sociopathy doesn’t exclusively belong to any faith. It’s the sociopathy that has me worried. Cultures that valorize violence and polarized cultural and religious thinking tend to encourage the insane to legitimize and act upon their violent impulses; add to this an overheated, sensationalistic news, media, and celebrity machine that we can carry around with us in our pockets all day long and — well, they do make for long days.

If this is the New Normal — if we must learn to live with it somehow — it’s been a long time coming, but its main characteristic seems to be the arbitrariness of violence. I was assaulted myself not long ago in broad daylight, and not to get into the details, but it came out of the blue, and my attacker was as white as myself: much taller and heavier and younger (and drunker). The assault was sudden, it was violent, but fortunately it left me with nothing but a bloody lip. I was discussing this the other day with a friend of mine at Cafe Katja. “And as a Christian, of course, I was forgiving and didn’t press charges,” I said; “As a Jew, I’d have pressed charges,” my friend said. And we both laughed, recognizing that both of us were right and wrong at the same time.

I’ve seen In Cold Blood and read about Sandy Hook, so I know that leaving New York (or any city) doesn’t get you out of the line of fire. Obviously, yesterday’s event leaves us all with more of a sense of dread than we had before, and it was already pretty significant. You can be as defiant and proud as you want, but if some workman accidentally drops a hammer on your head from twenty floors above you, that won’t help, and that’s just as arbitrary as a rented Home Depot truck coming at your back or getting into Stephen Paddock’s sights.

These incidents are becoming less rare than they used to be. I’m a pessimist, really, so I’m of the belief that “things” generally tend to get worse over time; optimists tell me that they’re not worse, only different. I think this is unnecessarily narrow-minded. Things can be both worse and different at the same time. Guys like Charles Whitman used to come along once every decade; now they come along every few months. The fabric of society may be unravelling, but I hope I never accommodate myself to the New Normal. Now that, my friends, would be giving in.