My name is Jonathan Hess. I am a Film and Television Production major at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I like to make movies--but really I like to tell stories. I like to make people laugh and, somehow, I'd like to combine both of those things (movies and comedy) into a career someday. I'm currently studying Improvisation and Sketch Comedy Writing at the UCB Theatre to help myself achieve this dream.
I also studied at the BBC Academy in White City, London, UK and interned at the BBC's Comedy Department in London. That was a lot of fun.
I was just on the phone with my dad, talking to him about a recent compliment I’d gotten from my editing professor. It gave me a moment of reflection on what I now deem a really great semester.
This semester has been an incredible confidence booster for me—something that I’ve really needed.
Through all of the encouragement, advice, and notes that I’ve gotten from my writing professor and from my classmates, I am slowly becoming more confident and more comfortable in my own skin as a screenwriter—this is totally new for me.
The same holds true for me, as an editor. I’ve always been fairly confident in my skills as a film editor but this semester has allowed me to branch off as a more marketable editor. I have begun to take on a LOT more independent projects, with the possibility of one or more features, and that feels really good! The best part is that a lot of these projects have sought ME out and not vice versa! So, not only do I believe in myself as an editor, but others do as well!
As a director, I’ve always been confident that because it’s what I want to do for a living, I can use that passion and determination to communicate my artistic vision to a cast and crew. However, just because I feel that way doesn’t mean that everything I make will be good. Believe it or not, Sight and Sound: Studio has made me feel more confident as a director (and as a comedy writer…sort of). I know that what I made in that class is good and that it is funny and knowing that I directed it, that I translated my artistic and comedic visions from my head (and from the head of my writing partner) to the page and then to a cast and crew is so exciting. I can happily say that I am now a much more confident director.
Comedy! This has nothing to do with NYU but since January, I’ve been taking improv classes at the UCB Theatre. I’m almost finished with my 201 class and I absolutely love it. Seriously, improv (and comedy as a whole) is a drug and I am a proud addict. I’ve always liked to think of myself as funny but until 2012, I’ve spent a lot of time second guessing myself. I’ve still got way more to learn in the ways of becoming a comedian but I can say that, if nothing else, I am much more confident in my abilities to make people laugh and to improvise a series of scenes.
None of these things are meant with any tone of arrogance. I know that there’s way more for me to learn as a writer, editor, director and improviser (one day comedian, I hope). I still need to work on honing my comedic AND dramatic voices, I need to get more experience cutting more high-profile/feature length material, I need to get out there and just make more movies, and I need to keep practicing and keep LEARNING comedy if I’m ever going to make my comedic dreams come true!
I need to keep practicing and learning about all of these things if I’m ever going to make any of my dreams come true. That said, I’m feeling really good and really confident about my progress this year. I’m glad I had that reflection.
Sorry, I know that was long…if you read all the way, thank you and congratulations.
"When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’"
The twisted, angry, vengeful face of Donny Donowitz glares down at his prey. The camera looks up at him as he fires his machine gun, relishing every round leaving the barrel. Cut to over the Basterd’s (Donny’s) shoulder. Donowitz’s bullets tear into the flesh of Adolf Hitler, mutilating his face. Flames engulf the cinema where the most prominent figures of Nazi Germany are being slaughtered. Only Quentin Tarantino can change history this way. Everybody knows that that’s not how the “story” goes, and we enjoy what we see. This creativity gives Tarantino a reputation that draws audiences in with certain expectations—they expect to see the eccentric, the violent and the surreal; they expect to be entertained, confused, and yet pleased by the time the credits roll.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds came out in August of 2009. My grandparents were visiting us in Woodbridge, CT, a few weeks later and the six of us (my parents and brother included) were bored and I wanted to go to the movies. It was time for my first foray into Tarantino’s world. I remember sitting in my seat, staring in awe at the screen, both because of the masterpiece I was witnessing and because I couldn’t believe I had actually brought my grandparents to see a film as bloody as this one. Encountering the art of Quentin Tarantino for the first time most certainly changed my outlook on film and filmmaking. His unique, pander to nobody, way of telling a story became an immediate source of attention and inspiration for me.
What, though, does “pander to nobody” mean? Tarantino’s stories are far from simple and he makes no apologies for that, either you follow it or you don’t. Films of his, such as Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill saga, and Inglourious Basterds are done in chapter format. Tarantino will write his story, make the movie, and then edit it into a series of chaptered vignettes that don’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the movie until the very end—maybe. Many chapters in the Kill Bill saga have very little to do with one another—or so it would seem. In the end, they all lead up to what the audience expects from the title: the killing of Bill.
Budd, Bill’s brother, drives the final nail into the coffin, and lowers our anonymous heroine, The Bride from Kill Bill: vol. 1, into the abandoned grave of “Paula Schultz.” The frame goes dark as the light is sucked from the coffin. The screen is totally black. The audience does not see the coffin being lowered into the ground; we only hear it. Earth crumbles and falls onto the wooden box, as The Bride’s chances of escaping grow thinner. She begins to hyperventilate as the gravity of the situation quite literally falls upon her. Fear, panic and desperation consume her—she begins to hopelessly scream and cry and bang on the coffin in a pathetic attempt to break out.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 wouldn’t be very much of a movie if The Bride never got out, yet Tarantino takes us to a new scene before she gets the chance. In the next chapter, “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,” The Bride endures the grueling training of the legendary kung fu master, Pai Mei. In a sparring match to test her abilities, Pai Mei takes ownership of The Bride’s arm. From what we are shown, many of Pai Mei’s lessons are devoted to making “his” arm stronger. The Bride is put to the challenge of putting her fist through a thick wall of wood, three inches in front of her. We do not see her succeed until the next chapter of the movie.
Cut back to The Bride in the coffin. She has managed to free her hands, and with a newfound determination in her eyes utters the words, “Ok, Pai Mei, here I come.” She puts her hand up to the top of the coffin and begins to strike it with all her might. Fist meets wood and skin breaks—but so does the top of the coffin. With just her right arm, she punches her way from certain death, up through the ground to freedom. This climax, though, isn’t climactic in the way it would be in the hands of a director such as Steven Spielberg, or anybody else for that matter. If Kill Bill: Vol. 2 had been directed by somebody other than Tarantino, The Bride may have been miraculously found by a gravedigger or somebody, and would have been rescued that way. Instead, The Bride relies on no one except herself and her previous training to get out of a deadly situation. Few modern Hollywood directors would have come up with that kind of resolution for a life and death problem like that.
In his article “The New Disorder,” David Denby notes that “the current cycle of disordered narratives—in movies at any rate—began with ‘Pulp Fiction’” (Denby). Denby proceeds to explain that this disjointed storytelling perpetuates the present. He argues that, “Time is out of joint in “Pulp Fiction.” It doesn’t really advance, which means that planning for future action is meaningless” (Denby). Denby’s argument is partially true and partially untrue. He is right to talk about how nonlinearity creates a sort of perpetual present. Yet, at the same time, though each of Tarantino’s vignettes are entirely in the moment, like any narrative, linear or otherwise, they generally wrap around (like in Pulp Fiction) or resolve some overlying problem (like in the Kill Bill saga) in the end. With this pioneering tactic of discontinuity, audiences are left completely on the edge of their seats before The Bride escapes, not knowing what will happen to her—then we find out how she will escape, and then it actually happens. It is this type of suspense, and this type of storytelling, that make audiences fall in love with Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking: with Quentin Tarantino’s art. Yet, it seems almost a mystery when one ponders over where the art of a filmmaker such as Tarantino comes from. Where does one get the inspiration to tell these types of stories?
Quentin Tarantino may be the king of cinephiles. At the age of fifteen, the future director dropped out of school (with his mother’s blessing) to pursue acting. Tarantino soon realized, however, that his admiration for directors far exceeded his admiration for actors. From that age, Tarantino was surrounded by film as he worked in a local video store. He has said that he gained inspiration for his directorial career from customer rental trends while working at the video store. This exposure gave him an eclectic collection of genres, motifs, styles and techniques on which to capitalize in his own films.
In each of his movies, Tarantino creates surreal situations in a very real world in ways that have become signature to his films. Most people are familiar with Greater Los Angeles, or are at least aware of its existence, but rarely does one hear, on the evening news, that events similar to those in Pulp Fiction have transpired. One does not often see a car driving down a city street, soaked with blood because a gangster shot somebody in the head. Though his originality is at the forefront of every film, the styles of his influences manage to seep through as well. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot praises artistic originality, but also exclaims that, “The best…most individual parts of [his] work may be those in which the dead poets…assert their immortality most vigorously” (Eliot 270). While Tarantino is obviously an original filmmaker, his influences are clear and unhidden. The Japanese-Western hybrid style used in the Kill Bill saga is a clear homage to Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa.
Kurosawa is, perhaps, the most well known Japanese filmmaker, and is most certainly the most influential upon western filmmaking. His highly stylized and visually appealing films usually tell very long, but clear stories that, generally, leave nothing out. In his 1954 masterpiece, The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa combines the action and excitement of samurai warfare with the tranquil, yet rigid, customs of ancient Japanese culture. The film emphasizes the latter far more, and is filled with paradoxes regarding the social culture in 17th Century Japan. The villagers who hire the samurai are of lower social status and would never be allowed to mix with the samurai under normal circumstances. However, the samurai, by code, are morally obligated to come to the villagers’ assistance—even if their pay is a handful of rice per day. Though the battle scenes are exciting, well shot and crucial to the story, they are not emphasized, nor are they extravagantly produced.
In a beautiful display of swordplay, choreography, fury and absolute vitriol that is so typical of Tarantino, The Bride cuts down an entire legion of Yakuza assassins called The Crazy 88’s. She is now one step closer to achieving her revenge against her former lover (and employer), Bill, and his squadron of assassins who massacred her, her unborn child, and her wedding party four years prior. A battle with former assassin-colleague O-Ren Ishii follows shortly after, leaving The Bride with a long gash across her back, and O-Ren Ishii with a slice across the top of her head. One of the five people whom The Bride has set out to kill—one of the five people who destroyed her new life four years earlier—perishes at her hand, and at the blade of a legendary Hattori Hanzo sword.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Kurosawa and Tarantino is that Kurosawa is creating a commentary of, or window into, 16th Century Japanese culture, while Tarantino uses the beauty of samurai battles to add excitement and aesthetic violence to his scenes. As a Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa’s motives make sense—it is his culture that he is depicting in his movies. Tarantino, the worldly yet, still American, filmmaker has a fascination with this style of filmmaking and therefore uses it—with his own particular flavor—in his films. It seems to be a combination of Tarantino’s fascination with Japanese culture and the typical, somewhat outlandish Tarantino style that gives films such as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2 their form. This is exemplified quite obviously throughout both films, but a more subtle instance of this is at the very beginning of Vol. 1, where Tarantino uses a title card from an old Chinese or Japanese (one would have to know either the film or the language to determine where it came from) movie. Where a director such as Quentin Tarantino will include katana battles in which limbs are severed and blood literally sprays everywhere, Kurosawa’s battle sequences are more refined and dignified, far less gory and, at least in a manner of thinking, less ridiculous. Though Kurosawa clearly influences Tarantino, and though Tarantino obviously pays homage to the styles of Japanese directors, his execution of this tribute is very different from the original Japanese masterpieces.
Influences aside, another aspect of Tarantino’s signature is the passionate fervor with which he writes. This has lead to disputes over his excessive use of the “n-word” in his movies with director Spike Lee. Lee, at one point, said of Tarantino, “I’m not against the word… and I use it, but Quentin is infatuated with the word. What does he want? To be made an honorary black man?” (Lee). Tarantino publicly responded, “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write… And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white, but the Hughes brothers can do that because they’re black, that is racist. That is the heart of racism… I do not accept that. […] I have the right to tell the truth. I do not have the right to lie” (Tarantino). Tarantino’s stories are his own—and he is passionate about telling them the way he wants to tell them. For Tarantino, nothing is off limits—ever. He wants the world in his movies and he wants to be able to say whatever he wants. Perhaps he finds criticism trivial. Perhaps he makes his movies for himself, and only after he is satisfied, does he share them with the world.
When thinking about, or watching, the films of Spike Lee, it is typical to think about some grand cultural message underneath the surface. Netflix synopsizes Lee’s film Do the Right Thing as, “…a number of minor misunderstandings — and an effort to boycott the local pizza parlor — a young man (Bill Nunn) lies dead, the pizzeria lies in ashes, and the racial schism is wider than ever” (Netflix). Stories such as these are signature to a director like Spike Lee. His films make a point; they send a message. Could it be that Tarantino makes his movies primarily because he just wants to tell a story? Perhaps his love of filmmaking—for creating art and for telling a story—inspire him to push the boundaries of visual storytelling in each and every film.
Mia Wallace, newlywed wife of Los Angeles crime lord, Marcellus Wallace, welcomes Vincent into her home—but it isn’t she doing the welcoming—it is a note left by her, then her voice over the intercom system. Vincent walks slowly and somewhat suspiciously around the foyer, looking for the source of his boss’s wife’s voice. Vincent finds the intercom and puts his lips up to it, communicating with the still undefined Mia. The first we see of Mia is an extreme close up of her lips, speaking delicately into the intercom. Intercoms and walls aside, their lips are close enough to be kissing. This is the first of many examples of passionate, but subtle sexual tension between the two characters. Their interaction at the 50s nostalgia restaurant—from their conversation to their silent gazes, to their winning of the dance contest—exemplify Vincent’s suppressed attraction to his boss’s new wife, and Mia’s seductive, devil-may-care personality.
Does Quentin Tarantino make movies for cinema’s sake? Are his films about style? No. Style is the fuel that gives his stories life—it is not the substance of the film itself. Tarantino’s defiance of the norms and standards of Hollywood narrative have given him a voice where many filmmakers who attempt to emulate his style would not be able to find one. Though his films have a certain “indie” sense to them, he is still commercially successful in Hollywood. Tarantino’s passion for filmmaking and for storytelling is both recorded and reflected in his art. Each of his films involves some sort of passion that is typically conveyed through crime or lust—or both. The sexual tension and brutal murders in Pulp Fiction, the bloody, vengeful quest of The Bride in Kill Bill, and the butchering of Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are all examples of passion at work in Tarantino’s films.
Every element that comes together to create a signature style that audiences expect from Tarantino’s work contributes to his appeal. This is not without its opposite though. The engaging nonlinearity of Tarantino’s stories is what keeps audiences guessing and it is part of what makes his films so exciting. Paradoxically, the fact that these movies do not always move in a coherent, sequential order makes them more confusing, which makes them harder to watch. Unlike other filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, Tarantino’s films do not always have an obvious underlying social message to convey. Tarantino’s movies are driven by style. This is another aspect of the filmmaker’s signature, however, this has also been a point of criticism, as some people will allege that Tarantino lacks substance. Tarantino’s signature is heavily laced with paradox. What some audience members will love, others will hate. Such is the case with many filmmakers, but Tarantino is different. With him, the question is not, “will the audience love it, or will they hate it?” It is more likely, “who is this film made for? The audience or the director?”
Denby, David. “The New Disorder.” The New Yorker 2007 йил 5-March.
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay: Art in the World/The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, n.d. 269-274.
Lee, Spike. Interview. Variety Magazine.
Netflix. Netflix: Do the Right Thing. <http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Do_the_Right_Thing/448860?trkid=2361637#height2573>.
Tarantino, Quentin. Interview. Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose.
Taking a walk in New York City is like embarking on an exciting adventure. Walking down 5th Avenue is an experience of opulence and encounters with posh storefronts that have tantalizing, out of reach products. Lavishly decorated windows at Christmas time sport gifts that few can afford but that anyone can admire. Times Square yields a bright, exciting and fast-paced affair with the Theatre District. Hell’s Kitchen, once a depressed Irish enclave has been reborn as a thriving, upbeat region full of actors. New York City has a reputation as a melting pot for a reason. A walk through each neighborhood or district will make that evident. So too can a walk through a neighborhood change one’s view or preconception of that area. In a fragment of the concluding sentence in Rebecca Solnit’s essay “The Shape of a Walk,” she claims, “walking reshapes the world by mapping it, treading paths into it, encountering it; the way each act reflects and reinvents the culture in which it takes place” (Solnit). Not only does a walk map and reshape the world, it maps and reshapes who we are as people and the way we interact with the places we visit—with the places we walk through. Such was my experience with Alphabet City.
Many New Yorkers and tourists alike think of Alphabet City as sort of an “East Village Underground.” To me, it is an enclave of starving artists, a modern day Bohemia and, of course, the almost iconic setting of the musical, RENT. This is a place that has seen riots, protests, extreme poverty and gentrification. But the artistic spirit of Alphabet City lives on anyway. The Life Café has become not only a restaurant, but also a near shrine to Jonathan Larson and the musical he wrote. At night, one can still see the neighborhood’s young, hip residents embracing life in a way that would make the dramatis personae of RENT proud: smoking outside of bars, dancing on light poles and smiling as their friends make fools of themselves.
This sketchy, yet lively Bohemia is home to Tompkins Square Park, a park similarly as beautiful as Washington Square Park or Union Square Park; yet subtle differences remain that cause fewer people to actually venture and make a visit. Washington Square Park is an ornate, grand, almost European commons in the middle of Greenwich Village. It is a place where college students come to relax and where drug dealers come to sell their product. Union Square Park is similar. It too, is very centralized, very open and very accessible. Tompkins Square Park, by contrast lies on the threshold of Alphabet City and has far fewer ornaments to beautify its space.
Central Park probably shares the most similarities with Tompkins Square Park. It is closed off from the rest of the neighborhood. High rock walls line the borders of the park, making it a secluded sanctuary for all who wish to escape the busy pace of New York City. Tompkins Square Park ties together the East Village and Alphabet City, but is also outlined on many sides with fences and gates that make entrance to the park all the more difficult. A series of gated playgrounds and basketball courts on the outer edges of the park prohibit immediate admission into the park as well. Central Park brings together east and west and is broken up into several different sections. As was the vision of Central Park’s architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, Central Park combines the “pastoral and the picturesque” (Olmstead). Tompkins Square Park is split up into sections of playgrounds, basketball courts, and open spaces with benches. It combines the stereotypically urban—the unkempt basketball courts with graffiti and trash—and the more posh, newly renovated and secure playgrounds. Tompkins Square Park—where dogs and children play by day, and where the homeless sleep and muggers creep by night—truly serves as a mixture of the East Village and Alphabet City.
In 1863, just a few days after the Union won the Battle of Gettysburg, New York City erupted with the largest civil rebellion in American history—aside from the Civil War, of course. Able-bodied men, who could not afford the 300-dollar Commutation Fee to escape the draft, rose up against the establishment to protest the injustice of the system. This bloody conflict left over 200 civilians dead. Tompkins Square Park served as a main stage for this particular riot, which seems to mark only the beginning of a long history of tensions between the establishment and the residents of the Tompkins Square Area. Robert Moses redesigned and renovated the park in 1936. It is said that the intention behind the new layout was to divide and manage crowds protesting in the park. People could not stand together in one big open space and were literally separated from joining in public protest, simply because of the park’s design. This was not, however, the last of Robert Moses’ designs to disrupt the public.
In 1939, Moses took a public dumping ground in Queens, flattened it out, and created the behemoth that is Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Originally created and designed for the 1939/1940 World’s Fair, this park is the second largest in New York City. In her essay, “Design and Discipline: the Legend of an Urban Park,” Blagovesta Momchedjikova discusses her own experiences and observations when visiting the park. She describes the contrast between what would have been a bustling area during the World’s Fair and the present-day park—a vacant lonely space. Momchedjikova observes that, despite the vast public space that the residents of this area have been “given,” they do not use it. Instead, they relax and play in the “no-man’s land” on the outskirts of the park. The residents explained to Momchedjikova that the “official” park was not what they wanted. She states that, “what they were all longing for was a neighborhood park for daily use: small, located in the midst of their communities, easily accessible on foot, equipped with benches, picnic tables, a children’s playground, and a small, multi-purpose field” (Momchedjikova). The periphery of the park provided those exact things for each individual community in the park’s constituency. The juxtaposition between the public and the design of an urban park is as pertinent with Flushing Meadows Corona Park as it is with Tompkins Square Park.
When examining the history of both of Robert Moses’s parks, his designs seem to leave the community—the public—out. This is a stark difference from Olmstead’s intention behind Central Park, which was designed as an escape for the people of New York City that they did not have before. Flushing Meadows Corona Park was designed for the World’s Fair and only the World’s Fair. Moses did not take the public’s wants or needs into consideration. If he had, the World’s Fair grounds would have been more temporary and a series of smaller, more accessible parks would have taken their place. In “Design and Discipline,” Momchedjikova exclaims, “In his miniaturized metropolis—testimony to his sweepingly destructive, ‘flattening’ gestures through numerous vibrant city communities, where the Park is one of many public places—we see Moses’ ultimate solution for an ideal city: the one devoid of any public” (Momchedjikova). Perhaps this was his solution for Alphabet City as well: separate the people and take away their collective voice, and what is left is a complacent, silent space devoid of life.
The people to whom Tompkins Square Park was beloved fought back, however, and defied the design of Moses’ partitioned park. Vietnam War protests became ever present as the war itself became less popular. The 1980s brought yet another change in the protestant nature of Tompkins Square Park. As times got tougher for New York City’s downtrodden, the park became an emblem of the social problems plaguing the Big Apple: rampant drug usage and dealing as well as widespread homelessness. Riots and crimes took place all too often, leading to increasing gentrification in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. The New Yorker’s experience in and with Tompkins Square Park has changed drastically over the nearly two centuries since the park’s dedication.
The human experience when encountering art is a changing one—with time, with people as a whole, and with a person as an individual—just as a person’s experience with a public place can change him or her. In his essay “How Does a Work Work Where?” Matthew Goulish poses three questions (named in the title) and attempts to give art a definition based on its surroundings and how it interacts with those surroundings. His primary concern is to change the reader’s perspective of art.
He describes his experience viewing The Conversion of St. Paul as a “series of events” rather than as looking at a painting. He suggests that art is a transcendent entity or experience. Goulish goes on to claim, in his fourth question, that works of art are dependent upon human beings. He says that, “work is an event in which the human participates,” (Goulish, How Does a Work Work Where?) He notes that human interaction is necessary for art and for work to work—for it to connect with people.
Human interaction, with each other, with art and with the world around us is based on ourselves as individuals and nothing else. It is up to us as human beings to relate with the world, and with art, with humility. It is our duty to trust that beauty can be found anywhere—it is up to us to allow it to enter our minds and our hearts. Another essay by Goulish, “Criticism” discusses the critic’s or just the regular person’s interaction with art. Goulish argues that, “We may then look to each work of art not for its faults and shortcomings, but for its moments of exhilaration, in an effort to bring our own imperfections into sympathetic vibration with these moments, and thus effect a creative change in ourselves.” (Goulish, Criticism). He claims that a piece of art is finite when we view it and that there is nothing we can do to change it, no matter how much we may dislike it. Instead of chastising art then, according to Goulish, it may behoove us as viewers to allow the art to pour over us as a wave of beauty and influence. In both of these essays, Goulish implies that art is an experience—one that is contingent upon human interaction with the piece itself.
Goulish’s notions about art and the human experience with art are applicable to Tompkins Square Park, both in history and today. Visiting this place is all about the experience—not the statues or the beautiful gardening that have been put there to make the park look less threatening, but the events that occur there—from the riots to the children playing. One can go to the park at night expecting to visit a shady area with no redeeming qualities, but may soon change his or her opinion, as might someone going into the park with the opposite preconception.
The Tompkins Square Park basketball court on 10th St and Avenue A is empty—almost dead—in the middle of the night. I feel fenced in, like I’m in a cage, which sort of befits the setting. Two trashcans are situated in the middle of the court. One is empty and overturned while the other stands tall, overflowing with garbage. It seems to be an odd metaphor. The overflowing, upright trashcan is suggestive of the stuffed, wealthy people that one wouldn’t normally find in Alphabet City. The empty one on its side however, is eerily appropriate.
Two Israelis, speaking Hebrew, walk into the park with their dogs. I strain to listen and to see if I can decipher some of their conversation but my skills are no match for their rapid Hebraic tongues. Their dogs are big. One, probably a mastiff, is black, has an intimidating stare and is—lazy. While the other, leaner dog jumps around chasing after tennis balls, the maybe-mastiff just sits there, keeping a watchful, protective eye over the park—and on me.
A giant stone statue resembling an altar looms above the center of the park. A lady, unrecognizable to me, sits atop the pillars. She looks angelic and watchful. The words “faith”, “hope”, “charity”, and “temperance” adorn the top of the altar—it looks as if Glenn Beck had commissioned this statue, but the year reads 1891. Perhaps she is meant to be a guardian of the park: watching over the children at play or the people braving the park at night.
Two rats scurry by. One comes way too close for comfort. This isn’t exactly the type of place I want to be in at night.
The park is expectedly busier in the morning. Mothers and nannies play with their children in the playgrounds closed off to unaccompanied adults. A chorus of mothers warning, “be careful,” is drowned out by their children’s squeals of joy. Joggers hurry through the park, speeding past the lackadaisical maintenance workers who “try” to keep litter off of the pathways and pavement. A man who appears to be just above homelessness sits on a bench reading a paper with pictures too big and too colorful to be from the New York Times. A shock of bright yellow hair adorns his head, complemented further by his facial complexion, which resembles a tomato. In contrast to the night, everything about the people in this park today seems normal and in place. People sit and relax, and others amble through, taking in the sights on their way to class or work.
Wind and a brisk cold grip the morning. People, bundled in jackets entirely out of place for April, do not let the temperature dampen their spirits. The sky is painted blue and beyond the intrusive noise coming from the cars and trucks on the surrounding streets, one can hear the flapping of bird’s wings, the rustle of squirrels in the bushes, and the red-faced man sneezing. It’s a loud sneeze and it sounds painful. He wipes off his face and bites into something crunchy. Everything he does can be heard from across the park.
The man munches on his cracker and peers past the statue where a young father plays with his toddler daughter. She looks just old enough to have learned to run, but just young enough to not quite be an expert. She holds her arms out at her sides for balance, nearly tipping over as her turns get sharper and as her speed increases. She makes a bubbling sort of engine sound with her lips. If she knows what an airplane is; she probably thinks she is one. Such is the imagination of a child. Her father jumps in front of her and makes a face—his eyes open wide and his tongue pops out abruptly as he puts his hands up to his ears. She giggles and he hugs her. Maybe this is her first flight alone. Maybe Daddy usually holds her in his arms before bed and swings her in the air like she’s really flying.
One could spend an entire morning in this park looking for art and, aside from a few statues, see nothing out of the ordinary. Even the statues are fairly typical of New York City Parks—a mythological figure here, an obscure American historical figure there. Could that then be the art? No, not the statue, but the park’s ordinary nature: the contrast of it all. By night, a sketchy mugger/rapist hideaway—empty, silent and desolate. By morning a calm, quietly loud public space where people hum, smoke, walk their dog, try to lure squirrels over for a picture, chat and play with their kids: perfectly normal; perfectly beautiful.
New York City is, in and of itself, a work of art. It is a sculpture of skyscrapers that cut a beautiful, jagged horizon into the sky. It is a mural and a collage of colors with a population more diverse than any other in the nation. It is a symphony of music, from the street drummers to the New York Philharmonic. And, it is a living entity adorned with nearly two thousand parks and recreational facilities, from the massive and the iconic, to the small and less familiar. It is literally impossible to come to this city and not be approached by art.
And thus, the person strolling through Tompkins Square Park should not do so looking for art. Instead, he or she need only observe the park in the spirit of New York City and in the spirit of Goulish and, “approach it with childhood” (Goulish, Criticism). Going anywhere with the purpose of looking for art will never produce results. Instead, we must approach a public space and let the art come to us. We must walk in the spirit of Solnit and let our surroundings change us and we must embrace our public spaces. Our public spaces are part of what define the places we live. If the residents of Alphabet City had not done these things in regards to Tompkins Square Park, it would be exactly like the basketball court at night—dead and voiceless—twenty-four hours a day.
Goulish, Matthew. “Criticism.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay - Art in the World - The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010-2011. 109-112.
—. How Does a Work Work Where? 2000.
Momchedjikova, Blagovesta. “Design and Discipline: The Legend of an Urban Park.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay - Art in the World - The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010-2011. 223-230.
Olmstead & America’s Urban Parks. Dir. PBS. Perf. Olmstead. PBS. n.d.
Solnit, Rebecca. “The Shape of a Walk.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay - Art in the World - The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010-2011. 261-267.