Such imperious syllables! Such indomitable ones! — at least when emanating from the throat of Flower Abraham Silliman as she hollers down the empty stairwell to the elevator operator in the lobby to come fetch her on the third floor. “Oh, he never listens. He can’t close his gate properly, or I don’t know what he does wrong but he always has a devil of a time fetching me. Never mind!” she says, deciding to forego the lift and use her walker to pound down the three flights of stairs herself. The apartment we’re leaving is a throwback to British Colonialism, an airy expanse of 3,000 square feet in the heart of downtown Calcutta which includes 16-foot ceilings and cannonball-proof walls for which Flower’s daughter Jael pays relatively few rupees each month, plus more for the two attendants who swab the place wet each day against the street dust and who eat their breakfast biscuits and bananas from seated positions on the tiled kitchen floor — their choice.
A palace for peanuts, basically, because it’s been rented by the family that long. Not that you’d have a hint of its grandeur from the outside. Like all the other soot-stained, crumbly-seeming castles tucked behind dusty high stucco walls throughout the city, the Halwasiya Mansion looks decayed on purpose — a ploy, perhaps, to fool the tax office. Or perhaps not: one can never be too sure. Inside, the heirs of the Jewish families who made their fortunes in Calcutta living lives of tasteful grandeur with racehorses, private clubs, and country palaces are dying out fast. Flower Abraham Silliman, navigating the wide wooden staircase past the faded but still flamboyant red paan juice stains expectorated by generations of visitors, is the last of a breed, the final flower of a once flourishing 5,000 strong. More… “Lotsa Matzo In Kolkata”
Howard Hughes was one of the most significant and impactful figures of 20th century. Tycoon, movie producer, and philanthropist, Hughes was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a romanticized epic about the Hughes’s ascent as rugged individualist willing to combat the film industry, risk his life experimenting with airplanes, and manhandle classic Hollywood’s greatest actresses. The film also represents his eventual move toward complete isolation, his obsessive compulsive disorder encouraging him to seclude himself into sanitary screening rooms while watching and re-watching films. The film presents Hughes as a complicated but passionate man. Scorsese is nothing if not a film fan and The Aviator does much to unpack the ways in which Hughes’s foray into filmmaking contributed to Hollywood. The movie celebrates Hughes as a visionary and rugged individualist. He is reiterated as a folk hero. Like a true femme fatale, walks in Karina Longworth’s new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, which serves to provide more depth into Howard Hughes, looking not only at his work, but using his personal relationships to help illustrate his significance as Hollywood magnate but also addressing aspects of his character. The book not only challenges this image of Hughes as hero, but uses Hughes as a Trojan horse to unpack Hollywood’s ethically murky legacy. More… “Subverting Seduction”
As a young man I had good vocal cords and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. Considering my teenage background in the church choir and in Gilbert and Sullivan high school productions, the drama teacher suggested that singing my way into the opera world seemed a possible choice. However, there was one problem. The music teacher told me that operatic heroes shouldn’t be shorter than the soprano they are wooing.
I stand 5’4” in my stocking feet.
True some opera singers, like renowned tenor Joseph Schmidt, coming in at just under five feet and considered too short for live performances in the opera house, reached fame doing recordings.
In the movies, makeovers are the answer to everything. Before, she is identifiable only by her big, bulky glasses and untamable, frizzy hair. She has no fashion sense, no boy sense, no social sense. No one notices her, no one pays attention. No one cares.
Then, something happens. It doesn’t really matter what or how — someone notices her, she becomes a princess, or a part of a bet — it just matters that now, things are different. Now, she must change. So, with the help of a friend or a makeup team, she goes from ugly and unknown to pretty and popular. Someone forces a flat iron to her hair, foundation to her face, heels on her feet. In an hour and a half, two tops, the grand transformation has occurred.
Suddenly, she’s wanted. The mean girls want to be her friend and the popular boy asks her to the dance. She stands taller, speaks louder, sounds smarter, her clear skin and cleavage making her more confident. More… “The Banal and the Beautiful”
Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.
Rafael Casal is a poet, rapper, producer, writer, and actor. Over the last ten years, he and his longtime friend and collaborator, Daveed Diggs, wrote, produced, and starred in their first film, Blindspotting. The story revolves around best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) during the last three days of Collin’s probation. As the days progress, their friendship is strained by Oakland’s gentrification and the community’s perception of Collin after his conviction for a violent crime. Throughout the film, heightened verse is infused to showcase Oakland, the city’s natural facility for language, and Casal and Digg’s background in poetry and music. I had the opportunity to speak with Casal about comedy as a vehicle to tell stories about trauma, toxic masculinity, unconscious bias, and the stories missing from Hollywood’s mainstream. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
From spearheads to skeletons, mummies to mastodons, caskets to ritual masks, the North’s soil has yielded thousands of clues to bygone lives. But only once have motile shadows returned from this underground realm. In 1978, during construction of a new rec center in the town of Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon, a backhoe unearthed 533 newsreels and feature films dating from 1903 to 1929, many of them thought to have been lost to time’s ravages, others previously unknown. Stored initially in the town library’s basement, they had been interred in an old gym pool that double-functioned as an ice rink. There they rested like Snow White in her crystal coffin. The pool site was part of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association’s building, which opened in 1902 and soon after began screening films. Some of the cache’s contents played again in the rebuilt Palace Grand Theatre 15 months after their discovery, almost 50 years after their disappearance. More… “Moving Pictures from the Permafrost”
It’s a bit specialized, admittedly. Nonetheless, Ben Davis’s Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960-1994 delivers exactly what the title promises. If you were ever dying to know what sort of programming choices distinguished the Carnegie Hall Cinema from the Bleecker Street Cinema in the 1970s, this is the book for you. But it might also be the book for you if you ever fell in love with movies and had a favorite theater or two, whether in New York or any small city or college town, to nourish that love. When I moved to New York in 1978, I fell so hard for movies that Davis’s book (hereafter RMTNYC) reads more like a lost diary from my youth than the erudite, exhaustively researched study that it is. Accordingly, what follows is less a review of the book than of my life. How can I talk about the Thalia without mentioning the movie-mad debates I had with the girl I loved and my best friend on our way to and from the screenings there? At the time, we were all grad students at Columbia, but the real education we got was in the theaters and the streets. More… “Singin’ in the Rain for the 68th Time”
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?
Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”
Paul X. Rutz is an artist and freelance writer. His exhibitions include solo shows at Ford Gallery, the Oregon Military Museum, and a forthcoming residency at Purdue University, as well as group shows at Mark Woolley Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution. A former reporter for the Pentagon’s Press Service, he has contributed to HuffPost, Modern Fiction Studies, and Cincinnati Review, among others, and he is a feature writer for Military History and Vietnam magazines.
Arguably America’s favorite film, as measured by various polls over the years, Casablanca turned 75 in November. Special screenings have been held across the country. Encomiums have appeared in periodicals. But perhaps it’s time to take stock of this fan favorite.
Its appeal is well earned. The plot is full of surprising twists and tense moments. The story is uplifting: a cynical, bitter American expatriate running a nightclub (called “Rick’s Café Americain”) in Vichy-controlled Casablanca is inspired by the reignited love of a woman to take incredibly brave steps, including renunciation of future bliss with his lover, to help a great resistance leader escape his Nazi pursuers. Its leads, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, have two of the most cinematic faces in the history of the medium. Claude Rains, perhaps a more skillful actor than both of them, has a strong secondary role. The cast includes the great character actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and lesser-known but excellent ones such as John Qualen and S.Z Sakall. The director, Michael Curtiz, knew how to use the camera to underscore emotions. There are some great laughs. The film’s setting is exotic, reeking with promise of intrigue and adventure. In essence, it is a film about moral redemption, regained love, courage, and personal sacrifice for the greater good. What’s not to like? More… “Taking a Hard Look at You, Kid”
John Ford’s The Searchers is a Western about party of white settlers pursuing a Comanche band that has slaughtered a homesteading family’s males and adults and kidnapped the family’s two daughters. The film presents a question that has puzzled me for years: How is it that a film so glaringly flawed can be so powerful, so great? And it is great. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the best Western ever made. The same year, Cahiers du Cinéma ranked the film the tenth best film ever made. In 2012, a Sight & Sound survey of international film critics ranked it the seventh best film of all time. Its influence has been noticed in and/or acknowledged by directors as different from one another as David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Jean-Luc Godard, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, and Paul Schrader. It has been an object of intense analysis by numerous scholars. (Anyone interested in reading in-depth work on the film would do well by starting with Edward Buscombe’s monograph in the excellent British Film Institute series of slim but comprehensive, well-researched, and annotated volumes on individual films.) More… “Flawed Greatness”