The Golden Age of Hip Hop on the Silver Screen

Owen Clark

The Get Down’s Shaolin Fantastic learns the ropes from Grand Master Flash.

Hip hop is dead. I can’t exactly recall the point at which I first heard this phrase, but it seems to be etched in my earliest memories of acquainting myself with rap music, and all of its accompanying baggage. Undoubtedly, journalistic decries of the death of entire genres of music, sports, or really anything entertainment related, have become tiresome clichés. Jazz is dead; boxing is dead; this writer’s short-lived career is dead—frankly these assertions are as banal as they are dubious. However, the only upshot of such a declaration is that it often elicits a thoughtful discourse as to how we reached this supposed nadir, and the state of things to come.

Let me just say from the outset, if you’re looking for a detailed analysis on the current state of hip hop music, you can stop reading. I’m far from an expert on the subject, and in all honesty, I detest the critic culture that currently dominates internet journalism. However, like many others, I share an affinity for rap, and see it as having a fairly unique origin and evolution that will always fascinate me. If I may be so bold, I will say that my introduction to rap music probably occurred before the standard age of the nerdy, white, middle-class demographic that I belong to. I was nine or ten when I purchased my first rap album, It Was Written—Nas’s sophomore studio offering, and follow up to the highly acclaimed Illmatic. I’m possibly stretching the truth for the sake of my ‘rep’; I definitely possess several of Shaquille O’Neil’s critically-lauded singles in my old CD rack, so who can say which came first, but let’s just say I started listening around the time that those black and white ‘parental advisory’ stickers started appearing on CDs—great job Tipper Gore, you really deterred our interest. This isn’t some sort of brag; had my sister not attended Abbeydale Grange, Sheffield’s version of Dangerous Minds, I might have been listening to the same Spice Girls CDs as my peers, but I think it led me to buy into the idea that post-gangsta rap music just wasn’t worth my time.

Flash-forward to the present, rap is certainly alive and well. Summer sixteen (the summer, not the album) was about the time I realized that the genre is to some extent semi-unrecognizable from the rap I know and love. That August, my former roommate/current friend and I attended a Lil Dicky show in Manhattan. For those of you that don’t know, Lil Dicky is a technically flawless, comedy-focused rapper, whose ingenious parodies effectively spell out all of rap’s shortcomings. The venue reeked of weed and was populated almost exclusively by teenagers (the most frightening demographic). Lil Dicky preceded Lil Yachty (why are rappers always diminutive?), who at the time I hadn’t even heard of—but that man, with his braids so bright, managed to whip the crowd of vape-high/Bud Light-drunk teenyboppers into a frenzied state. I stood back, terrified, but also intrigued. The next day, I perused Lil Yachty’s tracks on Spotify, from the safety of my living room, and came to the realization that his particular style of drawling, atonal, syncopated rap-talking, in essence exemplified the current movement in hip hop that somehow emerged right under my nose.

Accepting that you’re no longer ‘down with the kids’ can be a tough pill to swallow. But for me it came at a time when I happened to notice an uptick in the appearance of documentaries/dramatic portrayals exploring the early origins and development of hip hop music. This might be a slightly tangential straw at which I’m grasping at, but this speaks to me as a collective acceptance, that rap has in a way, come full circle. Maybe not in the true sense of that phrase, but what I mean is we’ve reached the point where we can sit back (‘with a Buddha sack’) and wax lyrical about the earlier days of the music, with a sense of nostalgia that only comes with firm, mainstream, establishment; and some current, unfamiliar deviation from our perceived norm. So with that muddled sentiment in mind, I will end this long-winded introduction and briefly review some of these excellent offerings.

Hip Hop Evolution

Originally airing on HBO, and currently streaming on both HBO and Netflix, this four-part documentary follows Canadian rapper Shadrach Kabango (stage name Shad) on a musical pilgrimage to discover hip hop’s origins in the crime-stricken streets of 1970s South Bronx, and trace key developments throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, as the genre took new and exciting directions, and garnered mainstream success. Shad takes us on a fascinating journey, revealing remarkable insights that are accompanied by a plethora of interviews with key figures in the rap community, both past and present.

The show explores crucial innovations in hip hop, beginning with the founder himself, DJ Kool Herc, and his ‘merry-go-round’ idea of using side-by-side turntables playing the same (or similar) record, in order to elongate rhythmic drum beats in soul and funk tracks—known as break beats—at legendary parties in the recreation room of the Bronx project he called home. Herc would punctuate these breaks with rhyming slang phrases, normally delivered through an Echoplex delay, and thus hip hop was born. We see how some of the originating icons built on the methods of others to finesse early hip hop—Grand Master Flash’s ingenious technique for identifying the precise location of break beats; Melle Mel’s use of rap to bring awareness to the social strife experienced in the woefully deprived communities of inner city America, in the timeless classic The Message; Run-DMC’s at the time startling decision to drop the instrumental samples and rap purely over beats; Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s savvy entrepreneurial strategy that turned rap into a multi-million dollar business, and took hip hop center stage with acts like LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. The final episode explores the genres infiltration into West Coast circles, and how the crack epidemic, police brutality, and rising gang warfare on the streets of LA engendered the gangsta rap that came to dominate the 90s.

There’s a thought-provoking scene in the short-lived and divisive HBO drama Vinyl, in which we see a presumed DJ Cool Herc—honing his craft by spinning funk records side by side to create break loops—maligned by the elders and their calls to ‘let the record play man!’ This perfectly illustrates the salient message of Hip Hop Evolution, that these developments were not simply step-by-step progressions on a clear-cut path, but truly imaginative innovations that exceeded against all odds. There’s also a theme here that pervades throughout Vinyl, of betting on the wrong horse—whether it be record company execs or the general public. When Hip Hop Evolution details Run DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on Walk This Way, we’re reminded that throughout its early history, hip hop was often scoffed at as a passing fad that would never materialize into mainstream success. For a hip hop group to collaborate with a larger than life rock band was actually a huge deal at the time. What’s even more remarkable is that some twenty years on, it’s actually hip hop that is unquestionably the more dominant mainstream genre, and rock is unfortunately falling by the way side.

The Get Down

Although The Get Down was produced completely independently of Hip Hop Evolution, in many ways it serves as the perfect companion piece. This six-part Netflix-original drama, which takes its name from the slang term for those gold dust-like break beats, follows a group of teenagers as they navigate the burning Bronx of the late 1970s—struggling to steer clear of the street gangs, rising crime, and political corruption that blighted the city, while establishing a hip hop crew mighty enough to topple the throne of Grand Master Flash. Although co-creator Baz Luhrmann’s trademark style of production provides a brightly colored, comic book feel; the show weaves a captivating narrative—perfectly illuminating the key developments of the 70s hip hop scene described in Hip Hop Evolution, with a dramatic spin. We’re treated to scenes like Grandmaster Flash sending his protégé Shaolin Fantastic, on a dangerous race against The Savage Warlord street gang, to retrieve a rare copy of a record to sample (which was a huge part of gaining an edge for early DJs). We see the inside of one of DJ Cool Herc’s aforementioned parties (also depicted in Vinyl), in a hunt for a mystery bootlegger—a key feature of the dissemination of early hip hop tracks; and we get a glimpse of what life was like for kids whose playgrounds were the burnt down tenement buildings and abandoned lots around the South Bronx’s Charlotte Street.

The show does a great job of using fictional portrayals to educate viewers about key events that changed the course of hip hop, such as Grand Master Flash handing Shaolin Fantastic nothing more than a purple crayon to impart the lesson of creating break loops (see if you can figure it out). However, the standout highlight is the depiction of the 1977 New York blackout, when an electrical fault caused the entire city to lose power for an entire night and day, during a brutal July heat wave. While this event will forever be remembered as a shocking display of carnage—where mass looting and rioting saw some 1,600 stores damaged, with over 1,000 fires, leading to almost 4,000 arrests—it served as a crucial facilitator in the development of hip hop, where stolen DJ equipment tripled the number of functional hip hop crews overnight. The blackout was of course covered in Hip Hop Evolution, but gaining some perspective on what it was actually like to live through, gives the show a touch of magical realism, reminiscent of another Netflix original, Narcos, in which as a viewer you’re frequently brought to disbelief, questioning whether these seemingly bizarre events actually happened. The producers also do a great job of splicing in period footage to solidify pertinent scenes.

One of the reasons why I call New York home is its riveting history, particularly the 70s and 80s, where soaring crime rates and near-bankruptcy led parts of the city to resemble a dystopian war zone. I’ve read books on the subject, and watched myriad YouTube videos cataloging the widespread arson that leveled the Bronx in particular (where my mother grew up in the 40s and 50s), but until now I’ve had to make do with The Warriors as the closest thing to a historical portrayal of this captivating period. The Get Down fills an obvious void, and manages to tie multiple developments together such as graffiti artistry, disco music, breakdancing, and Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign, over six hour-long episodes, while maintaining a compelling story.

Time Is Illmatic

This was always going to be a winner for me. In my humblest of humble opinions, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that Nas’s 1994 debut album Illmatic is the greatest rap album of all time. This record is to hip hop, what Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is to jazz, somehow managing to effectively distill the beauty of all that preceded it, while blazing a new and exciting path. The intro on the albums first musical track, NY State of Mind, still gives me chills. With its triplet swing-style rhythm on drums; the crescendo of the blues scale-derived riff played on upright bass; and the piano, peppering the bass line with an offbeat altered chord—the track lays a groove deeply rooted in jazz, that sets the scene for Nas’s hilariously self-depreciating ‘I don’t even know how to start this,’ prior to dropping one of the greatest verses in the history of rap. Spoiler alert—Time Is Illmatic ends with Nas spitting this verse to headphone monitors in the studio, contextualizing its brilliance. While I haven’t always been so opinionated on the matter, I think the fact that twenty-five years after its debut, holding the title of the only rap album that I periodically come back to time and time again, without skipping a single track, is testament to its preeminence.

Time is Illmatic (which viewers can watch via streaming on Amazon Prime) expertly intertwines Nas’s early life growing up on the streets of Queensbridge (in America’s largest public housing project) with the production of Illmatic—weaving a complex story of personal strife that sowed the seeds for a precocious 21-year-old Nas to produce this iconic masterpiece. For me, what sets the album apart from other classics is the coupling of musicality—jazz-derived rhythmic grooves that permeate through every track; with deeply poetic storytelling—a tradition firmly rooted in the country blues music of the early 20th century, of which Nas has unquestionably mastered. With this in mind, it’s particularly interesting to explore Nas’s relationship with his father, a Mississippi-born jazz musician (who actually makes a cameo playing cornet on the outro of the album’s third track), and to see an in-depth examination of the production of these tracks. I kind of see myself as a slightly better looking version of Ryan Gosling’s Seb in the film La La Land—I genuinely hold the opinion that if you don’t at least somewhat appreciate jazz and blues music, then you don’t deserve to listen to rap or rock. Thus, I feel somewhat validated by this aspect of the documentary. It also really highlights how important instrumentation is to the album, with Nas sampling jazz legends like Ahmad Jamal, in contrast to others that rely heavily on samples from very well established famous songs (*cough* Kanye *cough*). Serving as a sort of internal control, It Aint Hard to Tell, which samples Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, is probably Illmatic’s corniest track.

Other highlights include an examination of another flawless track, One Love, with words from its producer Q-Tip. Here we delve into the tragedy of a generation of young black males lost to the mounting mass incarceration that pervaded the latter half of the 20th century, and continues to this day. One Love is definitely a stand out track on the album, in which Nas’s rap takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison, exploring both the horrors faced behind bars, and the void that’s left on the streets—exemplified by the line ‘plus, congratulations, you know you got a son//I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?’ This message is arguably even more relevant now than it was then, with the industrial prison complex at an all-time high, perfectly illuminated in the recent Netflix documentary 13TH. Again there’s an interesting precedent to this, wherein early blues music would often center around the hardships of the penitentiary and the forced labor that came with it—the trials and tribulations encountered in navigating a system that’s designed to keep you down.

I think this documentary and the album itself serves as an interesting follow up to Hip Hop Evolution and The Get Down, since you’ll notice Nas’s frequent nods to the old guard (also coincidentally, Nas introduces each episode of The Get Down with a tailor-made rap). Lines like ‘A smooth criminal on beat breaks’ or ’I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat’, as well as ‘back in 83 I was an MC sparkin, but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and, kick my little raps’—are all brought to life with the knowledge of how early hip hop took shape during Nas’s childhood. At times in the album the instruments will even drop out for a couple of lines, allowing Nas to rap solely over beat breaks, merging the old with the new—an audacious feat for a 21-year-old newcomer. You might be able to tell at this point that I’m struggling to resist the urge to digress into a song by song review of Illmatic, so I’ll cap this off with words from the man himself—‘Sip the Dom P, and watch this document-ary till you’re charged.’ Ok I rejigged it a little, but you get the message.

Culture Corner

Bernie Langs

“Truth” in Painting

 

Getting to a ‘core essence’ in a mystic or revelatory sense can be as elusive as tracing the path of an electron or photon, famously described as both particle and wave. The arts can be utilized as a conduit to higher states of consciousness. In music, the drone of an Indian sitar or a choral work by Mozart can carry the mind of the listener to abstract and blissful states. In the 19th century, Walter Pater redefined the approach to the study of art in history and art history itself in his book of essays, The Renaissance. When writing about the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione, he noted “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” and later asserts that the mind’s impressions are “in continual flux.” Pater states that a passion for the arts has “the greatest potential for staving off the sense of transience, because in the arts the perceptions of highly sensitive minds are already ordered.”

Bernard Berenson [uncredited picture on the Web site Art Fuse]

Bernard Berenson presents his theory of how and why painting grabs hold of the viewer, in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a compiled series of essays written from 1894 to 1907, and reissued in 1952. Berenson’s famous ideas on the ‘tactile’ process of how paintings bring the viewer to a heightened state starts with his observation of what form does in paintings: “It lends a higher coefficient of reality to the object represented, with the consequent of accelerated psychical processes, and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer.” He observes this as a retinal sensation and that the tactile sense stems from childhood revelations and joy in the discovery of the physical aspect of the sense of touch.

Alison Brown describes in her essay Bernard Berenson and ‘Tactile Values’ in Florence the evolution of Berenson’s theory, noting that Berenson saw his ideas more akin to psychology rather than philosophy, and that he had been heavily influenced at Harvard by his professor, William James, and his writings on psychological aesthetics.

What I took from reading Berenson’s book over two decades ago, was the idea of the shortcut offered by paintings to heightened states of the sublime, which leaves the door open to many kinds of revelation, including, yet far beyond, the psychological. In the mid-1990s, I purchased a book of collected essays by Meyer Schapiro, who at the time was Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia University. I’d read Schapiro’s book of selected papers on late Antiquity, early Christian and Medieval art that had impressed me in its scientific, sleuthing, and exhaustive examination of art, much along the lines of the awe-inspiring and groundbreaking approach of Princeton’s Erwin Panofsky. The 1990s collection includes the essay, Mr. Berenson’s Values from 1961, boasting cutting gems of prose such as his analysis of Berenson’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity.

Meyer Schapiro [Book jacket photo for “Theory and Philosophy of Art” photo by Richard Sandler]

Schapiro notes that Berenson failed to grow as a theorist and critic and chose to be a connoisseur rather than an art historian or philosopher of art, which indeed Berenson did regret. Schapiro describes the theory of ‘tactile values’ in painting as a “strange appeal to physiology” and that Berenson used these ideas “with no deepening sense, as personal clichés imposed on any sort of problem.”

Around the time I read Schapiro’s book, I was trying to incorporate the study of art history in cultural context using the methodical approach of Professors Schapiro and Panofsky, and others combined with the bullet train to higher states I’d created in my mind around Berenson’s ideas.

About ten years ago, I chanced to read The Truth in Painting by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s writings are uncommonly difficult and convoluted, and he is both praised and derided as the main force behind the philosophical school of Deconstruction. When reading Derrida, I’m always struck by his underlying humor, and when I really believe I’m catching the gist of his purposively obtuse arguments, it’s a source of sublime understanding.

Jaques Derrida [Photo: PhilWeb Bibliographic Archive]

Derrida’s approach is akin to a circling war party, each on his own horse surrounding one solitary covered wagon, where all riders have their own notion of what may be hidden in that wagon, and whatever it is may have an ‘ultimate’ end to it. But as we circle, it becomes clear that there’s a good chance that there is absolutely nothing inside the wagon (or perhaps Schrödinger’s cat!) and also that we’re never truly going to get a clear look at it. But by moving closer and closer and sharing all angles of viewing, we’ll perhaps find the ghost or essence of the core.

One of the essays in Truth in Painting is Derrida’s work Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]. Gianluca Spinato in his essay, Philosophy of Art: Martin Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro, argues that “Jacques Derrida’s well-known discussion of the conflict between the faculties in question locates Heidegger on the side of the ‘truth’ of art and finds Schapiro on the side of historical and dialectical, even materialist accuracy. The resulting ‘haul’, as Derrida names it at the end of his own evaluation of Schapiro’s original assessment, ‘is a meagre one for the picture police, for this discourse of order and propriety/property in painting’.”

Derrida examines, in his playfully maddening manner, approaches to understanding Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Old Shoes with Laces, as well as other paintings by the artist of peasant boots. Two significant quotes begin the exposition, the first by Cezanne that “I owe you the truth in painting, and I will tell it you” and Van Gogh’s own words, “But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed, I believe I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors.”

Chad Orzel’s YouTube for TED-ED

After a long discourse on shoes, peppered with doubts of whether they can even be called “a pair” and other unsubstantiated “givens” in discussing Van Gogh, Restitution continues on to jab at Professor Schapiro and his approach to studying art, including the questioning of one of his most famous essays in his book on late Antiquity and early Christian art. Restitution included an unexpected view of Schapiro that both Heidegger and Derrida bring down on him, seemingly implying that their philosophical query into the underlying truths in Van Gogh and in painting, are something akin to abstract notions defined by the ancient Greeks, and ignored and beyond the comprehension of an art historian. Schapiro’s criticism of Heidegger is made to look like an attempt at grabbing back the paintings to his field of study and away from the other school. Derrida writes of “A symbolic correspondence, an accord, a harmonic. In this communication between two illustrious professors who have both of them a communication to make on ‘a famous picture by Van Gogh’—one of the two is a specialist. Painting, and even Van Gogh, is, so to speak, his thing, he wants to keep it, he wants it returned…They owe the truth in painting, the truth of painting and even painting as truth, or even as the truth of truth.”

In complete contradiction to my circling wagon deconstructive metaphor, Derrida describes examining the problem from a stationary standpoint. It reminded me of a lecture I attended many years ago by then-Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. He discussed that to get the full power of a painting, one has to look at it for a very long time. He punctuated this point with a funny anecdote of how, while visiting the Frick Collection, he stared so long at a painting that the security staff grew concerned and a guard approached him demanding to know what he was doing. It reminds me to keep looking, keep looking long and hard.

 

New York City Dialect New York-ese, Lesson 5

Aileen Marshall

Yo! Welcome to lesson five in our series on the New York City dialect. I hope you’ve been practicing. By now you should be able to hold a light conversation in New York-ese, and order a bagel with a schmear.

To review last month’s lesson, a number of words in the city dialect have an elongated A sound, sounding like “aw.” Our vocabulary words were tawk, thawt and dawg.  Here are some more examples of them used in a sentence.

Don’t sit next to that guy tawkin’ to himself.

I thawt he was a tourist askin’ for directions, but he was a bum askin’ for change.

You can make money in your spare time as a dawg walker.

Other examples of the elongated A are walk, cough and taught. Here are some examples of these words used in a sentence.

If you want to get around in the city, don’t pay any attention to wawk signals.

Bus exhaust usually makes me cawf.

My mother tawt me never to touch the handrails in the subway.

This month’s lesson:

Native New Yorkers often drop the H in words that start with that letter. The two most common instances of this are huge and human.

Here are some examples of words using the dropped H words used in a sentence. Click on the links to hear the pronunciation.

Dat demonstration on 57th Street is really goin’ to be ‘uge.

It’s been good to see New Yorkers stand up for ‘uman rights.

Keep practicing by listening to locals conversing. Hang out at your neighborhood pizza joint. The two traditional establishments in this neighborhood are Sutton Pizza, on First Avenue and 63rd Street, and Pizza Park, also on First Avenue, at 66th Street. Tune in next month for a test of your newly acquired language skills.

Life on a Roll

Picture by Qiong Wang

Qiong Wang

Las ruinas y las piramides

This was my first visit to Mexico, and my first visit to the Yucatán peninsula, which must be a magical land. Despite a plan for every detail on the trip, things started to fall apart the moment I landed. However, all the adventures became so worthwhile when I finally saw the ancient Mayan civilization. Here is a peek at the great Chichén Itzá, the breezy Tulum ruins, and the magnificent Governor’s Palace at Uxmal.

Picture by Qiong Wang

Picture by Qiong Wang

The New Second Avenue Line. Is the Q the A to your Q?

Johannes Buheitel

First, there were horse-drawn wagons. Then, during the industrial revolution, the steam engine took over and ultimately helped to win the West. But all of these achievements seem to pale in comparison to what the venerable Metropolitan Transport Authority, MTA for short, has unveiled on New Year’s Day: The new Q train extension, which for the first time in thousands, nay, millions of years, connects the rural more eastern side of a part of the Upper East Side to downtown Manhattan.

But jokes aside, it might seem weird to outsiders, the very intimate relationship we New Yorkers have with our subway system. A big part of the reason being that most of us don’t have a car and heavily rely on the old underground railway system to get to work, to this new must-go restaurant in Bushwick, or that special Starbucks with just the right amount of distraction to musefully work on our screenplays. Of course, this dependence has its downsides, most dramatically felt when trains aren’t running properly, which, let’s face it, is all the time. In fact, the MTA has an actual smartphone app solely dedicated to informing us about service changes during the weekend (called “The Weekender”)! But wherever you are on the MTA love/hate spectrum (please don’t get me started on the F train!), you have to acknowledge the sheer size of the operation: 6407 subway cars distributed among 35 lines running on a total length of 380 km (236 mi), and transporting over 5 million people on a typical weekday (over 1.7 billion (with a B!) per year). Which by the way happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To the MTA’s credit, they are, at least for the most part, keeping this beast running. In addition, they are even trying to further expand the network and this is where the new Second Avenue line comes in.

This feat has been a long time coming. Originally proposed almost a century ago, the actual construction never got off the ground mainly due to the Great Depression kicking in. However, the plans were brought back on the table after the demolition of the Second and Third Avenue elevated tracks (1942-55) left the Lexington Avenue line (serviced by the 4,5 and 6 trains) as the only option for commuters on the Upper East Side. And everyone living and/or working there today knows that, particularly during the week, those trains are bursting at the seams. Construction of the first tunnels began in 1972, but had to be halted again in 1975 due to New York City’s fiscal issues at the time. Nonetheless, the city’s development never stopped, leading to an ever increasing number of subway commuters, further exacerbating the situation on the Lexington Avenue lines. Finally, in 2007, after thirteen years of (re-)planning (and, of course, many quarrels about costs and the actual route), the second attempt to build the Second Avenue Subway was undertaken. According to the MTA’s vision, the new line will be built in four construction phases that will take… actually, no one knows how long it will take; The MTA isn’t even trying to give an estimate. What we do know is that the fully completed line is supposed to run along Manhattan’s east side from the financial district (Hanover Square) all the way up to East Harlem (East 125th Street). And the other thing we know is that, as of last month, the first construction phase extending the Q line to the Upper East Side has been completed, baffling the natural skeptic/cynic that is alive and well in every New Yorker’s soul.

The daredevil that I am, I have already logged a sizable number of rides on the new Q, which connects the Lexington Avenue-63rd Street station with three brand new stations on the Upper East Side’s Second Avenue at 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets. So what’s the verdict? Is the new Q faster, better, stronger? For everyone at the Tri-Institutions and around, the answer is a resounding… it depends. It depends on where you live but even more, whether you do a lot of dining, shopping, etc. on the Upper East Side. Personally, I do like the new Subway. I’m saying this, not because the new stations are really gorgeous (which they are!), and also not because I get to work significantly faster (and when it’s raining, probably drier as the closest entry to the 72nd Street station is already on 2nd Avenue/69th Street). I’m saying this, because I do enjoy certain places on the Upper East Side, which were inconvenient to get to from work, because walking to Lex just to ride the subway for one stop and then walk back to 2nd Avenue doesn’t really make sense. But also areas that are further uptown (and would make a little more sense to take the 6 train) are now easier to reach, like the one around 86th Street, where you might find me shopping at Fairway (and by Fairway, I of course mean Shake Shack) or going to the East 86th Street Cinema (again, Shake Shack). So overall, even if the new subway might not revolutionize your way of living, it at least opens up some more possibilities to travel to this mystical northern territory. And whether or not you’ve already acquainted yourself with the Upper East Side yet, now is the perfect time to get to know some great new places around Second Ave, and I’m sure that soon we will see each other buying bread at Orwasher’s, slurping ramen at Mei Jin or inhaling a burger at… well, you know where.

New York State Of Mind

Guadalupe Astorga

This month Natural Selections interviews Johannes Buheitel, a postdoctoral scientist in the Jallepalli Lab at MSKCC, and a member of the Natural Selections Editorial Board.

 

How long have you been living in the New York area? 

As of this month, I’ve been living here for 1.5 years.

Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

I live on Roosevelt Island. There are so many great neighborhoods in NYC. I typically enjoy areas that are a bit under the radar but still have great places to go to. One of these areas would be Astoria, but I’ve also been hanging out in Bushwick lately.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

Overrated: Times Square. Big lights? Broadway glamour? More like suffocating in a sea of tourists, while getting your pockets picked.

Underrated: Home cooking. I know, it’s hard especially in NYC where you have these great options to dine out or order in. Also, cooking at home is often more expensive and then there’s the whole dish situation afterwards. But on the other hand, preparing a meal for your friends and loved ones can be a very rewarding experience.

What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

Definitely the food. You have authentic cuisine from just about all over the world right at your fingertips when you live here. When I’m back in Germany, especially during Christmas and it’s cold outside, I sometimes catch myself daydreaming about a hot bowl of spicy ramen (not the kind you buy at Gristedes of course!).

Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us “New Yorkers”?

I feel that I’ve become more impatient, something that I particularly notice when I’m out of town; Why is everyone moving SO slow?

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

That’s easy: the insane rents!

What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

My cop-out answer is: explore the city. This includes anything between walking around a new neighborhood, checking out a new restaurant or eating food I’ve never had before, going to see some weird exhibition, or going bar hopping in Soho.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had in NYC?  

That’s a tough question, because you can experience so many memorable things here. But I have to say, the moments that emotionally stick with me the most are very mundane ones. Like when I’m just taking a stroll with my fiancé through a nice neighborhood such as Greenpoint. It’s a weekend, the sun is out, and we’re just talking. It’s in these moments, where you get to feel a sense of calm, and counterintuitively, as if you were in sync with the city.

Bike, MTA or walk it?

In general, I love to walk the streets, which really allows me to feel the pulse of the particular neighborhood I’m in. But if I need to get somewhere, particularly when it’s far, I switch to my bike or the subway.

If you could live anywhere else, where would that be? 

So far at least, my plan is to go back to Germany after my postdoc. There, I’d really love to live in Munich, which for me has the right mix between modernity and traditionalism. But if I leave out Germany, then I could see myself living in Amsterdam, which is very beautiful, diverse, and just perfect to explore by bike.

 Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

According to some, you have to have been living here for at least ten years, while others say only if you’ve been mugged at knifepoint, you’re allowed to call yourself a New Yorker. When I think of a typical New Yorker, I think of a busy person, who may be very direct (this is what many outsiders mistake to be rudeness), but is ultimately very kind and helpful. I’d like to think of myself as that person, so I’m at least a New Yorker by heart.

Quotable Quote

 

Follow through on all your generous impulses. Do not question them, especially if a friend needs you; act on his or her behalf. Do not hesitate! Don’t sit around speculating about the possible problems or dangers. As long as you let your reason lead the way, you will be safe. It is our duty to stand by our friends in their hour of need.

(Epictetus, 55 – 135)

New York City Dialect New York-ese, Lesson 4

Aileen Marshall

Hey guys! This is another typical New York City greeting. Welcome to lesson four in our series on the New York City dialect.

To recap last month’s lesson, the R is often dropped in words and replaced with an “ah” or “aw” sound. Our vocabulary words were heah, rivah and mawnin.  Here are some more examples of them used in a sentence.

Don’t ya just love it heah?

His body washed up on the East Rivah last night.

You gotta get up early in the mawnin to get a seat on the subway.

Other examples of the dropped R are water, fear and father. Here are some examples of these words used in a sentence.

New York City used to have the best tap wada in the country.

If you live in the city long enough, you lose your feah of roaches.

My fadda has a long commute downtown to work every day.

This month’s lesson:

Some words in the city dialect have an elongated A sound, sounding like “aw.” The most famous example is the word talk. In the city, it is pronounced “tawk.”

Here are some examples of words using the elongated A used in a sentence. These words are: tawk, thawt, dawg, and cawffe. Click on the links to hear the pronunciation.

What’s wrong with da way I tawk?

Da thawt of leavin never crossed my mind.

Da law says you have to pick up after your dawg.

He gets his cawfee from da same street cart every mawnin.

Another way to absorb the culture and language of the city is to go on a walking tour. There are numerous companies in the city that provide either guided tours, or maps for self-tours. Probably the most famous one is Big Onion Walking Tours. They are often led by a history graduate student who has been certified by the city. They have tours focusing on history, culture, architecture, and food. I suggest trying either the Brooklyn Heights or the Fort Greene tour to get a good look at how typical New York City residents live. Another good source to try is Frommers. They have a lot of good information on all sorts of tours and attractions in the outer boroughs. They have information on a replica trolley tour in the Bronx, a pizza tour in Brooklyn, and a guide to the various neighborhoods along the 7 train in Queens.

Watch next month for a lesson in the dropped H. It’s going to be huge.

A New Encounter on Stage: SugaGold

Alice Marino

As soon as you arrive in New York City, you immediately learn that there is not much time to get bored. We are surrounded by tons of things to do, places to explore, museums to visit, new restaurants to try, street fairs, street art, street performances, and the list goes on. This city offers such a unique variety of activities that somehow allows it to feed the needs of its huge population.

For example, I have always been a live music addict, but while getting to know the potential of this city, at some point I became more selective with my choices. I began to be intrigued by concerts which took place in smaller venues, rather than giant locations. These spots became my favorite. First of all, they are friendlier, more welcoming, and they also have better and cheaper beers. Second, seeking out these locations gives you the chance to explore the city deeper, getting to better know its neighborhoods, and appreciate its many facets. Third, in these small venues, the atmosphere gets creative and the connection between the audience and the new emerging musicians becomes special; not to mention that you’ll often be extremely surprised by the quality and level of the music. Obviously, there are many ways (web, apps, friends, magazines, etc.) to find out when and where concerts are happening, but recently I found out that the best way is to be invited by a member of the band: Guadalupe Astorga, who is a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, and also a web designer and contributor for Natural Selections. Excited and full of curiosity for the new musical adventure, a few friends and I decided to get ready to face a chilly winter night out and head to Harlem to experience the sounds of SugaGold live.

But first, let’s shed some light on this band. SugaGold is an independent rock/funk band, formed at the beginning of 2016 by the interaction of five talented minds, not only with regards to music. In fact, three of them are neuroscientists at Rockefeller University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one is a language researcher, and another is a producer and musician. This collaboration started from a mutual passion for music and from the desire to create an original and innovative instrumental mix. The incredibly powerful voice of Natalia Sáez, who also contributes with the flute and indigenous instruments, harmonizes perfectly with the sound of the drums and electronic notes of Guadalupe Astorga, the drums and percussions played by Ben Deen, the lead guitar of Martin Luque, and the bass of Rodrigo Pavão. The result is an incredible new sound, born out of the creativity of each component, and by the mix of their personal influences and backgrounds. Apparently, “mishmash” is their key word. Did you know that even their band name comes from a mixture of their beloved pets’ names, Sugar and Goldie? The name was supposed to be temporary, but over the time, they liked it and never changed it. SugaGold started to perform around New York City quite fast, considering that the band was brand new. Not bad, guys!

Pictures by Alice Marino

The concert was hosted at Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem. This is a multimedia arts and culture venue founded in 2007 by musicians and music fans. Because it is primarily a location for bands who would like to promote themselves, you can always find passionate musicians ready to face a challenge, while having fun with the audience. Since we didn’t arrive late, for once, we rewarded ourselves with a drink, sitting at the table just in front of the stage, looking at the band preparing for their show. Stage fright? Panic? Tension? What are those? SugaGold were definitely comfortable on stage, and an energetic flow of funky notes came out from the speakers, as if it were the most natural thing on earth. This formed a perfect match with Natalia’s voice, who was also alternating between the flute and the guitar throughout the whole concert. On stage, the performance was very dynamic, as different members of the band would change roles depending on the song; for example, the drummer would change roles to a percussionist, and vice versa. They have a good repertoire of pieces, both in English and Spanish, with a strong South American influence. They all virtually owned the stage, as the audience enjoyed the interesting rhythms and vibes coming from their Djembe, guitar, drums, flute, synthesizer, and bass. The quality of the acoustic was very good, despite a brief incident involving a temporarily crackling microphone. Things that happen only in a live performance! As song after song played, their time on stage began to run out, but they managed to steal a few more minutes to play one last song. Oh yes, the crowd didn’t give them a break!

When I mentioned my passion for music I truly meant this: an amazing atmosphere created by enthusiastic people gathered together to enjoy music and have a blast! The overall impression of the concert was great, from the choice of the venue to the participation of the audience. I loved the pure energy that the live music released. Their concert was a success and SugaGold have, for sure, a bunch of new fans. I can’t wait to see them again on March 17th, at Silvana in New York.

For Your Consideration – And They’re Off! Edition

Jim Keller

As I’ve said many times one can liken the Oscar race to a horserace with each studio betting on its thoroughbreds hoping to place in the end. The studio is the owner, public relations is the jockey, and the horse is the actor or film in the analogy. Here I’ve included my rankings as they stood on Oscar nominations eve—the number in parentheses indicates my placement following nominations. I chose eight nominees for Best Picture out of a possible ten. All other categories reflect five nominees. The picks that appear in black text within the table were my nominee picks, those in red represent actual nominees that I had not selected.

It’s worth mentioning that from the moment I saw Nocturnal Animals, I knew that Michael Shannon would get a nomination, as evidenced in last month’s column. But as the race headed toward the finish line, Aaron Taylor-Johnson started appearing on the precursor circuit with a win at the Golden Globes and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination, so I went with him.

With that, I give you my predictions as they currently stand:

Winter’s Beauty

Elodie Pauwels

https://elodiepphoto.wordpress.com

Winter has come!

Winter is probably the best time of the year to take black and white pictures, especially when the sky is cloudy. Frost on a window in the utility room, frozen leaves in the garden or on the path of the north-facing slopes, and foggy fields are just a few examples of winter’s beauty. Enjoy it, until spring springs!



Pictures by Elodie Pauwels

An Embarrassment of Riches

Anonymous

This politically incorrect (some might even say “disgusting”) puzzle comes to you from an anonymous source, known only to Rockefeller alum (1977) George Barany, who is currently on the faculty of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For more about this specific puzzle, including a link to its answer, visit here and here. More Barany and Friends puzzles can be found .

Across

1. Sometimes, they’re not given

6. Burro, e.g.

9. Oscar’s U.K. equivalent

14. Straight: Prefix

15. Word after good or bad

16. Domains

17. “___ In” (Wings hit that begins with “Someone’s knockin’ at the door”)

18. Sugary drink, often

19. Carl ___, whose September 2015 endorsement of fellow billionaire 58-Across was a “no-brainer”

20. Adjective that does not begin to describe 58-Across

23. McCorvey in a landmark case

24. Pay back?

25. Paddle-wheel craft

27. 58-Across inveighing against the IRS?

32. Apprentice, like 58-Across at electoral politics

33. Woman who raised Cain

34. Universal soul, in Hinduism

36. Acts the rat

39. Lawless princess?

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Memories of the Golden State

Owen Clark

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A smokestack towers above Mono Lake. All Photos by OWEN CLARK/NATURAL SELECTIONS.

Armed with a DSLR camera, travel guitar, two Haight and Ashbury-acquired shawl-cardigans, and three of my oldest friends, I left the perpetual fog of the San Francisco Bay.

Having played out the scene a thousand times in my head, I had romanticized the drive down California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway to levels approaching cliché. But despite trading the flashy convertibles of Entourage’s Vincent Chase or Californication’s Hank Moody for a grey Hyundai Sonata rental car, it still failed to disappoint. Practically every bend on that winding road greeted me with a stunning scene of pure, rugged beauty. California’s jagged cliffs are lined with earthy hues of bright red and orange, while each inlet of the vast Pacific Ocean contains a perfectly balanced array of turquoise and green pastels that one might have found on Winslow Homer’s palette.

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The famous Bixby Bridge at Big Sur. All Photos by OWEN CLARK/NATURAL SELECTIONS.

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High Sierra ghost town Bodie.

Despite navigating hairpin turns surrounded by 300-foot drops under cover of total darkness, we made it safely to Big Sur. My friends liked to joke that being the obsessive ball of neuroses that I am, I had already lived out the entire trip through the lens of professional photographers on Instagram prior to leaving, and was only in for disappointment at the real sights. The reality was the opposite—I couldn’t shut up about how gorgeous it all was. Warming my hands with a dawn-break coffee on the porch of our log cabin surrounded by towering redwoods; driving up-and-down the coastline in search of that perfect photo; soaking up the previously elusive sun on the picturesque Pfeiffer Beach; capping off the day with fireside beers: everything just seemed to fall perfectly into place. Fitting on a day when one of my travel companions and I woke up to the bizarrely coincidental news that we had both become uncles overnight.

Though I had fallen in love with the California coast, we had to move on to the next stop on our long list. After stocking up on instant noodles and mac-and-cheese ahead of our first foray into camping, we headed out across the eerie plains of middle California’s desert to the iconic Yosemite National Park. Having spent several hours driving down deserted roads, where the only sites of interest were dust devils and “Another Farmer for Trump” billboards, the granite rock formations of the Yosemite Valley were a welcome treat. As with many experiences, a departure from the beaten path yields the most satisfaction. I had that feeling in mind when I raced up 200 feet of granite rock face to capture the stunning panorama of Upper Cathedral Lake and the peaks beyond, away from the day tourist Valley crowds, in the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park. After returning to my friends relaxing by the lake, we were instantly rewarded by the photo gods, with the arrival of an actual cowboy, actually leading his horses to water.

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A cowboy rides the dusty trail, Yosemite National Park.

Keeping with the Western theme, we left Yosemite the next morning in search of gold. Well aware that the California gold rush had ended a good century ago, we thought we would give it a try anyway. After a quick stop at the saline Mono Lake Tufta (as pretty as it was smelly), we navigated the three miles of bumpy dirt track leading to the historic High Sierra ghost town of Bodie. Blazing heat, dried-out long grass, corrugated iron shacks, a chapel, a school, a saloon; it was something straight out of a video game. Though saintly patience was required for the authentic ghost town shot (i.e., minus groups of dawdling tourists) it was quite the experience. Once again our departure yielded an instant photographic gift. There aren’t many days where you experience awe-inspiring natural phenomena while blasting Chris Brown’s “Forever” from your car stereo, but this was one of them. As a blues guitarist, I was familiar with Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Smokestack Lightnin,” but like many I had absolutely no idea what it meant. We had been monitoring a strange cloud throughout the day that was now towering above the distant Mono Lake and Yosemite, resembling the mushroom clouds of the early atomic bomb tests. As I proceeded to photograph/Snapchat away, a professional nature enthusiast informed me that a distant forest fire had generated enough smoke to form an entire cumulus cloud (smokestack) that then created enough thermal pressure to produce lightning! Touché nature, touché.

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Secret Cove, Lake Tahoe.

After a thrilling journey spent playing a profession guessing game through the twisty, scenic High Sierra roads and the strange casino-and-gun-shop lined small towns of Nevada, we arrived at our next major destination: Lake Tahoe. The relatively palatial luxuries of South Lake Tahoe were a welcome retreat from the cruel realities of nature that we had just experienced (camping), and we took advantage of the flowing booze and ubiquitous live music to try something that we hadn’t really done all trip—relaxing. Stock images of Lake Tahoe always show someone diving into its crystal blue waters and this was a real bucket list item for me. I managed to get a near perfect dive on video despite a throbbing gin and tonic-induced headache. Definitely worth it for those two likes on Facebook.

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Mountain biking the Flume Trail, Lake Tahoe.

 

 

That night I stayed off the booze in anticipation of what would be one of the biggest highlights of the trip: mountain biking the world famous Flume Trail. I had seen YouTube videos of this classic, but like many things on the trip nothing could truly prepare me for the extreme multisensory experience of engaging in an adrenaline-pumping ride coupled with stunning 360 degree views 8,000 feet above the banks of a 200-square mile lake.

Sad to leave, we departed Lake Tahoe the next morning, down a winding mountain pass that led to the golden hills of Napa Valley. Navigating hectic Highway 1 back to San Francisco was a stark reminder that we were back to civilization. With my friends headed back to my homeland of England, I sat alone at the airport gate, waiting for my delayed flight, looking back over my many images of stunning landscapes and wild animals, and dreaming of my next adventure in this vast land.

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Upper Cathedral Lake, Yosemite National Park.

Creating Unnecessary Addictions in our Kids

 

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Modified from Dr Case/ Kid Image CC

Guadalupe Astorga

When my younger brother was a child, he had a hard time following the teacher’s instructions at school. He was not intellectually incapable, but a restless and vivacious youngster. When the teachers found themselves unable to create any method to capture the interest and attention of this little creature, he was evaluated by a psychiatrist. The result was categorical—he was one of the unfortunate kids diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). My mother had to choose between dealing with a lively child or having to medicate him with psychostimulants such as amphetamines. The risk behind these drugs is not only that they do not improve learning abilities or memory, but essentially that they cause strong addiction, psychosis, heart attacks, dysfunction of heart tissue, and even sudden death.

While brain disorders affect as many as one out of every five people, over-diagnosis boosts these numbers due to the lack of specific biological markers in the field, resulting in millions of people over-medicated with antipsychotics, psychostimulants, pain relievers, and tranquilizers.

Particularly alarming is the dramatic increase in antipsychotic prescriptions in children under eighteen, including infants between one and two years old. Stimulants like amphetamines are chronically prescribed to adults, children, and toddlers diagnosed with ADHD in order to improve their concentration capabilities. But, why obsess over a toddler’s concentration? Do they need to be under the effect of one of the most addictive and destructive drugs to receive love and adequate boundaries as they grow up?

For a kid that is constantly bombarded with excessive information, duties and activities, focusing is not trivial. When I was a child (and that now feels like a long time ago), children had tons of free time to play and socialize with other kids, to struggle with their homework, to develop their creativity by building new toys from old pieces of wood or cardboard, and to think about the failures and victories in their hitherto short lives. Nowadays, modern society has brought technology deeply into our intimate spaces, even those of children. Surrounded by tons of electronic devices, video games, and TV shows, kids no longer struggle to create their own entertainment, they are constantly bombarded with more information than they can assimilate, and they don’t have time to get bored. If we also consider that couples are having babies at older ages, often helped by fertility treatments, the scene looks very scary, with kids being a precious trophy that must be protected at any price. This is a well-known psychosocial phenomenon known as “helicopter parents”, middle class couples that behave in an over-protective way, hovering above their kids at every moment, making them insecure, anxious, highly dependent and depressed.

We should ask ourselves as a society, as a health care and educational community, whether this form of parenting is responsible for the high levels of anxiety, depression and attention deficits shown by our children. How can we justify giving psychostimulant medication, such as Adderall or Ritalin, to toddlers? These drugs will not increase their learning capabilities, nor their memory capacities. Isn’t this a case where the remedy is worse than the disease?

Before prescribing a stimulant drug to a toddler or a child, we must be aware of their psychosocial environment and ask ourselves whether chronic medication is going to make their lives better.

Culture Corner

 Blood Diamond and the Epic Death of Danny Archer

Bernie Langs

Caution: spoilers ahead!

 

 

In the fabulous comedy Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth boldly sets a wager to her obsequious courtiers: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” I’ve been wondering about a similar notion: Can a contemporary film show us the essence of human tragedy in the epic sense of the word?

Sometimes in the evening, I roll through the cable stations on television and particular films grab my attention again and again. There are movies I’ve seen at least a dozen times and a great number I’ve viewed portions of 20 or 30 times. Recently, I’ve found myself transfixed with several films starring Leonardo DiCaprio, including The Aviator, The Departed, and Inception. DiCaprio also won an Oscar this year for The Revenant, a movie that in itself is a remarkable, stunning achievement.

But it is DiCaprio’s performance as Danny Archer in the 2006 film Blood Diamond that I find most fascinating. Blood Diamond is like no other movie I’ve ever seen and Archer is a unique, stand out character, with his strong Rhodesian accent, mannerisms, and mindset. Blood Diamond takes place in 1999 during the horrific unrest in Sierra Leone, and the title refers to the mined conflict diamonds illegally financing the combatants while enriching foreign companies that go on to sell the goods around the world. Jennifer Connelly portrays Maddy Bowen, a journalist set on exposing the trade in hopes of stemming it, and it is her efforts that show the modern audience how complicit we could be in the crime if anyone who innocently buys diamonds for a necklace, earrings, or engagement ring turns away blindly from knowing the terrible, often murderous source of the stones.

The movie’s plot centers on a poor fisherman, Solomon Vandy (played by Oscar-nominated Djimon Hounsou) whose young son is captured by the crazed Revolutionary United Front and forced to be a child soldier for their rampaging cause. Solomon is coerced to mine diamonds by the group and secretly, far out in a stream in the wilds, comes across an enormous, priceless stone which he conceals. In the meantime, Archer is a diamond smuggler working secretly with a large South African mining company and is a gunrunner for the fighting factions as well. He was formerly trained as a soldier by the Afrikaner Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo) and works with the Colonel’s smuggling efforts to get stones to Liberia and then, through a complex series of transactions, on to the European and American markets. Archer learns that Solomon, now freed from slavery, has hidden the diamond deep in the country’s interior, and they team together (and for a danger-filled time, with the journalist, Maddy Bowen) to retrieve both Solomon’s son and the stone.

Archer has witnessed a lifetime of the terrors of war and violence, including the brutal murder of his parents as a child. He and Colonel Coetzee are as hard and tough as any man can be, their emotional dictionaries long shut after participating in years of battles, but bent now only on making their personal profit and, for the Colonel, managing wars in Africa for power and gain. When the lives of Bowen and Archer intersect, she is able to slowly bring him to a state of empathy for the long trail of innocent victims of war and to fully comprehend the horrors in Sierra Leone. Archer especially learns to feel for what Solomon is seeking in regaining his son and how willing Solomon is to risk death in the slim hope of reuniting his family.

Colonel Coetzee, when meeting Archer on the Colonel’s massive South African property, tells Archer that he must find the huge diamond and hand it over to compensate him for a deal gone bad. Archer notes that he wants to take Solomon’s stone to make his way out of Africa, as his ticket “off of this God-forsaken continent.” In a moment of intense drama, the Colonel has Archer crouch down on his farmland and as he runs a reddish soil through his hands, explains to him that its crimson tint is said to come from the area’s long history of bloodshed. He tells Archer to face that he’ll never leave Africa. Archer squints in resignation, and feigns acquiescence, saying, “If you say so, Colonel, if you say so.”

After much soul-searching and bloodshed, Danny and Solomon locate the diamond amid the rebel stronghold and retrieve Solomon’s son. The Colonel, who with his mercenaries, attempted to take the stone by murdering Archer and Solomon, is killed when shot by Archer, but not before firing a bullet into Archer’s abdomen. This is where we begin to find the essence of a modern tragedy.

The many camera shots of Africa shown in Blood Diamond are stunning, leading one to wonder how such a place so different from America could exist on the same planet, just a plane ride away. As Solomon, his son and Archer flee the retaliating soldiers of the late Colonel in this lush landscape, Danny’s wound begins to incapacitate him. As they climb a steep plateau towards an airstrip atop which Archer’s partner in stealing the diamond will soon be landing a small aircraft, Solomon is tasked with carrying Archer on his back towards the summit.

At one point during their desperate ascent, Archer demands that Solomon put him down and explains that he’ll fend off the approaching soldiers as Solomon and his son race to the plane and to safety. The final exchange between Archer and the African tribesman, Solomon, is one that can move the viewer to tears, and includes a laugh between them on how they both knew that Archer might just as well have stolen the huge diamond. Solomon and his son make it to safety and Archer is left leaning against a large rock, bleeding out. He takes a moment to use his army communications phone to call Maddy Bowen, now in Europe, and charge her with writing the exposé of the blood diamond in Solomon’s possession, and to see to the release of the rest of Solomon’s family being held in a massive internment camp.

The love that had been growing between Danny and Maddy hits its peak as she realizes that he is doomed. Her final words to him: “I wish I could be with you,” to which he replies gazing out at the beautiful sight of Africa, “it’s alright, I’m exactly where I should be.”

Archer grabs some soil, the blood running off his hand to mix with the dirt, fulfilling the Colonel’s prophecy that Danny would never leave Africa and that very ground of the continent is mixed with the blood spilled over its riches, in the name of colonialism, and through tribal hatred. We last see Archer leaning against the rock, head tilted to the right, as the camera pulls away to expose the beautiful land with its one tragic son. Danny has come to know the love between a father and son, and the love of a woman who, although American, is very much akin to him. His heroic death is not in the vein of ancient tragedy, where a strong-headed king gets his comeuppance while the chorus weeps and wails, tearing their garments. Danny dies in the bright light of the lush African wild content from having learnt more about life and love than he could ever have believed was within himself and that his compatriots on the dangerous journey, are righteous, good, and set to change the world for the better.

For Your Consideration – Ones to Watch, Vol. 3 Edition

Jim Keller 

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Mahershala Ali in Moonlight (2016). Photo Courtesy of A24.

As laid out in last year’s column, the Best Supporting Actor and Actress races of the Academy Awards are extremely unpredictable. Just take a look at the outcomes below in comparison to what was discussed to see for yourself. It is for this reason that I have chosen to keep the format adopted last year for this edition instead of laying out each actor’s accomplishments and why I would, or would not, bet on them for a nomination. I have broken down the different circumstances these actors find themselves in and how that narrative may or may not ultimately influence Oscar voters. Various critics groups, including The New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), the National Board of Review (NBR), and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) have announced their respective winners and The Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) has announced its nominees.

These events help to form a consensus of Oscar nominees and make the acting categories all the more clearer as we approach nominations on January 24th. Together with nomination announcements from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes), these announcements signal the start of the Oscar race’s second leg.

 

~THE GENTS~

Last Year’s Best Supporting Actor Results:

Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton — Spotlight: Both were nominated, but the latter in lead (due to category fraud).

Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper — Joy: Neither were nominated because the film tanked with critics.

Mark Rylance — Bridge of Spies: Nominated and won.

Tom Hardy — The Revenant: Nominated

Idris Elba — Beasts of No Nation: Not nominated. Making their debut in the Oscar race, Hollywood proved just how scared it was of streaming services, such as Netflix, by snubbing the film entirely.

Last year’s fourth nominee was Sylvester Stallone for Creed, a film that saw its release after completion of this column. For many, Stallone became the frontrunner, and while the Hollywood Foreign Press, the BFCA, and the NBR dressed him up with their awards, Hollywood turned its back on him on Oscar night.

This leaves our last nominee, Christian Bale for The Big Short. Like Creed, the film wasn’t released until after the completion of this column. However, of the film’s sprawling ensemble, awards groups rallied around Bale and he completed the all white acting category.

The results show that by the same time last year, it was pretty easy to determine more than half of the actors in supporting roles that would go on to be nominated by the Academy.

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