The irresistable id

Comedian, family man, pervert.

Comedian, family man, pervert — these dimensions of Gilbert Gottfried, as well as a few others, are all on display in Gilbert, a documentary about the controversial and highly-esteemed funnyman, released in theaters earlier this month and now available on a number of streaming platforms. Director Neil Berkeley follows Gottfried as he putters around his apartment, endures the ennui of unending road trips, and visits the Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth. Among the cognoscenti, he’s known as a “comedian’s comedian,” but his current home life surprises even them — in an enduring, tender relationship with his wife of ten years and his two children, Gottfried also displays a vulnerability that’s never far from the surface; it’s especially evident at the end of the film, when he performs at a benefit for a hospital for pediatric cancer patients and works his way through a personal family tragedy.

Apart from the quite affecting personal revelations, Gilbert reveals the professional Gottfried as well: the absurdities and tedium of life on the road (at one point Gottfried manages to find himself at a convention of military uniform enthusiasts); the difficulty in keeping interested in identical material performed over and over again; and, most delightfully, Gottfried’s generosity with his fans and admirers. Although Gottfried is a virtuoso in his chosen field, Gilbert also reveals the hard work required to generate that seemingly effortless performance night after night. Gottfried’s own Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast! also frequently delves into the mechanics of his art.

If you’re looking for something a little different to watch as grandma snoozes on the sofa after the heavy Thanksgiving meal, give Gilbert a try. If you want something a lot different (and you want to wake grandma up), try it on a double bill with The Aristocrats, which features Gottfried’s lengthier version of the classic comedy routine than the Hefner roast version excerpted on the documentary portrait. I’m hoping it becomes a tradition at our own house — not least because Gottfried reminded me of the great artist that was Fritz Feld. Below is the trailer for Gilbert.


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.

The Circus

Merna Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Bergman in The Circus.

Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street on New York’s Lower East Side offers the rare opportunity to see Charlie Chaplin‘s 1928 The Circus on November 11 and 12 at 11.00am as part of its “Playtime” series. It’s a difficult film to find these days, but it holds an important place in the Chaplin canon, between the two masterpieces The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). I saw it for the first and only time about 35 years ago so my memories of The Circus are a little rusty; “The Little Tramp at the circus,” though, tells you just about all you need to know.

Chaplin biographer David Robinson writes that the film “contains some of [Chaplin’s] best comic inventions, subtly balanced with sentiment that is kept tightly in control,” though Chaplin disdained to write about it in his autobiography, the difficulties surrounding its production in mind, perhaps — not least his concurrent divorce from Lita Grey and a fire that nearly destroyed the Chaplin studio midway in its production. It was his final film of the silent era, though not his final silent film (that would be City Lights three years later), and some of its melancholy lay in its explicit farewell to the silent years of the art form in which Chaplin came to his maturity.

Robinson’s essay about the production of The Circus can be found here, and you can purchase tickets for the Metrograph showings of The Circus here. Also tentatively on the Metrograph schedule is the fine Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary The Unknown Chaplin, dates and times to be announced; more on that when it gets here.

Below a few notes I wrote on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Chaplin’s Tramp character, originally published here in 2014.

If he were alive today, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp would just have turned 100. He made his first public appearance in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice, a year before the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation; Chaplin directed his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, 53 years later, a year before the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was, though, mere coincidence that I took a short break from heavier reading to enjoy Chaplin’s My Autobiography recently,  originally published in 1964 and republished a few years ago in an elegant new edition by Melville House’s Neversink Library. For a comedian, Chaplin enjoyed a stunning measure of fame in his time, and after an affecting evocation of a childhood experienced in poverty, much of the memoir consists of namedropping — stories of when he met Winston Churchill, Kruschchev, and Gandhi; his talks about music with Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler; about philosophy with Sartre and H.G. Wells; about evenings spent with the likes of Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Pablo Picasso. But through all this Chaplin maintains in the book a balance between pride and humility, and his tone — born, like the world of his films, in late Victorian and early Edwardian London — while somewhat archaic remains charming for all that. (There’s not much about the films, surprisingly enough, but for that there’s David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin: His Life and Art, highly recommended.)

The audience for entertainment is far too fragmented any more for the likes of a Little Tramp to attract the kind of popularity and fame that he did — Chaplin’s mime-plays appealed to a universal audience, regardless of the language; he had a gift for marrying crude physical humor to a just-short-of-lugubrious sentimentality; and movie houses have shrunk and become far less common than they were in the 1920s and 1930s. What may be most remarkable, though, is that the films still hold up — nearly all of them, really, from the Keystone comedies up through A King in New York.

A Blackhawk Films catalog from 1973 (I ordered “The Adventurer,” featured at center; click to enlarge.)

I was first exposed to Chaplin as a teenager. As a kid I enjoyed collecting and screening old silent movies for myself thanks to the likes of companies like Blackhawk Films, and in my collection were Super 8mm reduction prints of Easy Street and The Adventurer; Chaplin re-released some of his United Artists films like Modern Times in the mid-1970s, when I saw them in the theatre; and at college I was lucky enough to take a class in Chaplin’s work, in which we saw almost everything from The Kid through Limelight in pristine 16mm reduction prints. Though this class also screened a lot of Buster Keaton’s films, on the Chaplin/Keaton divide (as fraught with peril as arguing the Rolling Stones/Beatles divide) I fell on the side of the Tramp. The monumental realism of Keaton’s The General was a little too monumental for me to appreciate Keaton’s humor, and the Tramp character (as well as Chaplin’s performances in The Great Dictator, the remarkable and controversial Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight) was far more complex than Keaton’s stone face, however Keaton might appeal to a more rarefied audience than myself.

The Criterion Collection is in the midst of restoring and releasing Chaplin’s work from 1916 on [NB: Since this was written, Flicker Alley has released Chaplin’s work from the pre-1916 Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual years], so I treated myself a few weeks ago to watching The Gold Rush again — the first time, I think, in 30 years, and I was rather astonished to find just how much the film, among Chaplin’s best silents and maybe my own sentimental favorite, held up. Set during the Klondike gold rush and based in part on the tragedy of the Donner Party, The Gold Rush takes place within a harsh, bitterly cold landscape in which elemental food, warmth, and shelter become matters of life and death for the prospecting Little Tramp. There’s an onscreen murder or two; one character falls to his death in an avalanche; the Tramp finds himself a toy in the hands of a sexy dance hall girl; and disaster is always around the corner. But what is delightful, what is buoyant, in the film is the sense of melancholy hope and grace that the Tramp carries around with him. It emerges in unexpected ways: in the famous Dance of the Rolls, a long take shot in closeup which is a wonder of pantomime comedy; in the Tramp’s delicacy in eating his own shoe, and his proper etiquette in the midst of suffering in offering the same to a friend of his; in the delight he takes in setting up a New Year’s Eve party for a few of his friends (who don’t, in the end, show up). There emerges from all this a sense of wonder; only those with a heart of ice wouldn’t be affected by it.

Now that I have two daughters of my own, five and four years old, I wonder if such a film — black-and-white, silent, more subtle than the Spongebob Squarepants and Lego Ninjago cartoons they’re enjoying now — would offer anything to them. But recently I had the occasion to get my hopes up. Last month in The Huffington Post, Guillermo Rodríguez offered “The Day Charlie Chaplin Won Over Disney Channel,” in which he describes his own young children’s reaction to their first exposure to Chaplin’s films:

I turned off the show they were watching and put on Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. As I recall, that evening I had been listening to a radio show celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of Chaplin, without any doubt one of film history’s great geniuses.

I must admit that when the movie started, I was convinced that my experiment was going to end up shipwrecked in a sea of mistakes. The movie was in black and white, silent, starring a mustachioed man in a bowling [sic — obviously, a bowler] hat. It did not exactly feature the stuff that based on what I’ve seen, seem to interest kids these days.

Despite that, I triumphed. Few times have I seen my kids laugh so hard as that night. They asked me to replay the scene in which the kid flees from the police running as fast as he can at least five times.

And, with tears in their eyes, they turned away when the same kid was separated forcefully from his vagabond father. During the 52 minutes that the movie lasts, I explained everything that they didn’t understand, jumped ahead a few scenes to pique their interest (“Just wait and see what happens next!”), and overacted, laughing in big guffaws at scenes that I already knew by heart.

Five days later, they’d seen The Kid many more times.

This gives me hope — perhaps a Chaplinesque hope, doomed to disappointment, but hope nonetheless. My daughters are still a bit young, but I think before a few more years go by, I’ll watch The Gold Rush once more, with Goldie and Billie by my side.

So Happy 100th Birthday, Little Tramp, and many more.

NOTE: More about Chaplin in Simon Callow’s May 8, 2014, Guardian review of Peter Ayckroyd’s new biography of the comedian.

The Hunkas of Fairmount Avenue

Home sweet home for a while: 451 Fairmount Avenue.

Today is the ninth anniversary of my father’s death. He was born on January 4, 1931, in his parents’ bedroom at 451 Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. (That’s the second-floor front in the photograph at right.) He would have died there, too, most likely, if he hadn’t required hospice care at the end of his life in 2008. The house had been in the family since my grandfather Max purchased it for his small but growing family back in the 1920s, and by the time my brother and I sold the place not long ago, it had been in the family for about 80 years.

If I’ve been writing about Philadelphia more in the past few months — here and here, for example — it might be because of the nostalgia you feel for the places of your childhood as you grow older. I spent a lot of the time in that house, in that neighborhood, too. Though by the time I came along in 1962 my parents were living in Feasterville, a suburb of Philadelphia, we came into town almost every weekend to visit my father’s parents in Northern Liberties; my brother and I played in the small garden and cobblestone-paved alley in back of the house, much as my father, his stepbrother, and their friends must have done when they were children. I was baptized in the St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral just around the corner. My godmother and a close family friend, Anna Shopa, lived next door to the cathedral. (And it has something more of a history, too; see Harry Kyriakodis’ 2012 book about the neighborhood, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward.)

By 1981 I was living in the house myself (my room is the top floor in the above photograph) with my father, my grandfather having died in 1972 and my grandmother eight years later. Both of them had jobs in the neighborhood, my grandfather having operated his business as an electrician on the first floor and my grandmother as a charwoman in a local elementary school. They took in boarders in the 1950s and 1960s to help pay the bills. I still remember the mess of electronic and electric material in the shop, wires and lightbulbs and other detritus, that my brother and I played with on our frequent visits in the 1960s. (My grandfather had installed the electric wiring in the nearby St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Seventh Street, just a few blocks away, in the 1920s.)

By then, Northern Liberties had changed from the years in which my father played in those streets as a child. When my grandparents arrived in the neighborhood, it was a heterogenous community of recent poor and working-class immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, Jewish and gentile, African-Americans as well; my father’s playmates were from a variety of backgrounds including his own Ukrainian heritage; for years he picked up a nickel or two on Saturday afternoons as a neighborhood shabbos goy. In the 1960s, when I first saw Northern Liberties, it had fallen into some decrepitude. There were empty buildings everywhere, boarded up; five blocks to the east, fronting the Delaware River, Front Street was an avenue of mysteriously dark storefronts, single bare lightbulbs glaring out of a window here and there; poorly maintained public housing had sprung up just west of the neighborhood, poverty-stricken ghettos to the north, and abandoned warehouses and factories to the south. It was a dangerous place. My grandmother continued to scrub the marble stoop in front of the house every other weekend, as others in the neighborhood used to do before Northern Liberties fell into a period of decline. The low rowhouses that lined the empty streets, lit at night by dim yellow streetlamps, weren’t inviting.

When I lived in Northern Liberties in the 1980s, things had improved somewhat with the onset of gentrification. A few bars opened up; artists and young professionals were buying houses at rock-bottom prices with an eye to renovation. Ortlieb’s brewery at Third and Poplar had opened a bar where jazz musicians used to congregate after their gigs in the tonier joints of other parts of town.

In the 1990s I moved to New York, followed not long after by my brother, and when my father died nine years ago we thought about gut-renovating the place (it would have been unliveable without that renovation). But we had lives away from Philadelphia now, the renovation would have been exorbitantly expensive, and neither of us wanted to oversee it from a hundred miles away. So we sold it, and indeed, it was gut-renovated soon after, the entire interior torn down for redesign. You can see what it looks like here, and it looks like most contemporary rowhouse gut renovations. “They did an excellent job gutting the building of all of its character,” my brother grumbled when he saw the video, and he’s right.

But all things pass, including building interiors. Northern Liberties — now yclept “NoLibs” by the real estate mavens, who apparently don’t have time for more than two syllables — still retains a place in my heart, like the city itself. And if there are such things as ghosts, a few Hunkas are among those who haunt the neighborhood around Fifth and Fairmount. A lifted glass, then, to my father.

George W. Hunka (1931-2008).

Philadelphia: A Brief History

Earlier this month a thonkingly huge history of New York in the early twentieth century, Greater Gotham (Oxford University Press, 4.6 pounds), landed in bookstores. Suitable for pressing leaves or dropping upon large cockroaches from a great height, the book is the long-awaited sequel to the 1998 Gotham (Oxford University Press, 5.8 pounds), the history of New York from its founding to 1898. These are, obviously, substantial works about the history of the city, and regardless of its quality the new one is destined to end up, like its predecessor, imposingly displayed on bookshelves in apartments around the city, spine unbroken, unread because, given its length in these distracted times, unreadable. If you’re not keen on a multi-year commitment to 1,000+ page narratives about New York, you can turn to the less daunting The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (Basic Books, 1.2 pounds).

Philadelphia had one of these too, though unlike the New York books it’s now out of print. Back in 1981, W.W. Norton released the 2.9-pound Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. The City of Brotherly Love has, for all its historical interest, taken a back seat in recent years to other metropolitan histories from major publishers. Slimmer journeys through the history of Philadelphia, from its founding to the twenty-first century in which we find ourselves, can be hard to locate.

I raise a hosanna, then, for Roger D. Simon‘s revised and updated Philadelphia: A Brief History, the first edition of which was published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association in 2003 and the second edition of which was released a few months ago (Temple University Press, 9.9 ounces). A history professor at Lehigh University, Simon cites the Norton volume a great deal in the 15 pages of notes attached to his slim, 123 pages of text; this is very much a “just the high points” survey, but it fills a profound need for a Philadelphia history of this kind, and it’s likely to be the go-to brief history for this generation.

As the editors write in their foreword, “The book’s central premise [is] that Philadelphia’s story is about residents’ attempts to sustain economic prosperity while fulfilling community needs” — and so it’s a case study, really, in what every city attempts to balance. Through his chapter subtitles, Simon makes explicit his approach: “Establishing a Community/Building an Economy” (Beginnings to 1800), “Industry Triumphant/Civic Failure” (1865-1920), “Economic Decline/Community Turmoil” (1930-1980) all point to the quite American dilemma of civic ideals running dead up against business interests. And he is especially attentive to the racial and socioeconomic tensions that this dilemma produced.

Alas, the inner conflict continues. Over this past weekend, Philadelphia magazine posted “A Challenge to Our Most Influential Philadelphians,” an essay by Tom McGrath urging that Philadelphia’s business community take a harder look at its civic responsibilities to the city. With a sigh, I note that McGrath’s remedy seems to be, like that for other cities, a greater emphasis on “innovative entrepreneurism” or “entrepreneurial innovation” — meaningless marketspeak that seems to refer to a new emphasis on technology and the service industry — which promises no clear solution to Philadelphia’s problems with public education and infrastructure. This new emphasis may attract new business to the city (for example, the establishment of Amazon’s second national headquarters there), but that attraction will be founded on things like tax abatements and other gifts to business and corporations. Good for the upper-middle and middle classes of course; not so good, though, for most of the rest of the population, which will continue to be economically squeezed until those tax abatements expire. It would be better for Philadelphia if Amazon established new distribution warehouses in the city instead of a shiny glass corporate tower; at least then the company would create hundreds if not thousands of jobs for unskilled labor, jobs profoundly necessary for the health of urban neighborhoods and the marginalized formerly working-class workforce. There is enough warning in Simon’s book that such band-aids as McGrath proposes will create less, rather than more, affluence in the Philadelphia communities and neighborhoods that desperately need it.

The history of Philadelphia uniquely reflects the nation’s. Neither arose organically like the cities and nation-states of Europe; both were deliberately founded in the contexts of rebellion and escape from religious prejudice, and no other country in the world defines as one of its primary concerns in its founding documents the “pursuit of happiness” — a happiness that, perhaps inevitably, remains frustratingly out-of-reach for most of its citizens. For this reason alone, as well as for many others, the city’s history retains its relevance for the rest of us.

Simon’s writing is pellucidly clear, and the text is graced by several well-chosen illustrations and photographs, as well as a few instructive population tables at the end of the book. That said, Simon concludes with an ambivalent envoi:

[In 2016] more than four hundred thousand people survived on incomes below the poverty line. While the city became more diverse in the aggregate, it remained as segregated as ever at the neighborhood level. … The city had limited options to address community needs, particularly for its large impoverished population. … Business leadership seems preoccupied with Center City and reducing the taxes on business, but Philadelphia will be a successful community in the twenty-first century only if public and private capital invest in education, social welfare, and housing needs beyond the glamour of Center City.

From Simon’s book to the ears of Tom McGrath’s “Influentials,” one hopes. Not investment in technological innovation, but investment in innovative urban and community planning, will provide for a renaissance in Philadelphia, as Simon’s history suggests. In the meantime, lovers of Philadelphia can trace the historical possibilities of this renaissance — as well as more than a few cautionary tales — in Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History. It’s available now from Amazon.

And for more about the history of Philadelphia, I must recommend Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of video documentaries about the city scheduled to be completed some time next year; many episodes are online now.