Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lost Bohemia (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Lost Bohemia

In Josef Birdman Astor's "Lost Bohemia,"  a new documentary, we once again visit the wonderful bestiary of artists who took their rightful roost atop Gotham City's Carnegie Hall. These grand Divas, marvelous maestros and picaresque painters lived in harmonious discontent and became denizens of our culture, guardians of a sort---and even curmudgeonly gargoyles---perched atop apartments. Together these eccentric tenants perform an invaluable service in transmitting a history rich in imagination to New York and beyond. 

In this film we see a couple of Carnegie residents that appeared in an earlier Bill Cunningham documentary: Bill himself, as feckless as ever wearing his trademark blue ensemble ( a sweater this time) as he gives updates on fellow tenants to the film's director. "Okay kid!" Cunningham shouts as he walks away. The exclamation may well be a cheer for himself as much as it is a sign of parting for Astor.

In addition to Cunningham there is also the iconic resident Editta Sherman, photographer and friend of Andy Warhol. She is here in all her bedraggled beauty with her trademark lopsided wig, thankfully as zany and free as when she was first seen in "Bill Cunningham: New York"

In contrast to that film, however, the events that follow here are conspiratorial and menacing. We learn of an invisible poet who never ventures out of his apartment and records messages on his neighbor's answering machine. His raspy voice, thick with loss, soon grows suspicious. He warns of an administration takeover but no one on camera has been known to see him.

The thirty tenants shown on film are individualized fauna complete with their own skill and theatricality. At home in their skylight apartments they are unique flowering engines that rev up and bloom. Not since Warhol's Factory has there seemed such a camaraderie of spirit and mind.  These artists are working with their hands, a rare thing in this automatic age. Indeed these people seem to carry a blaze of the Exotic within them.

The apartments themselves are spectacularly appointed deep within an earth of clutter and a lifetime of memories. They rise in dreamy puffs to take shape in Oriental fans that both illustrate and contain each artists engine of mind. Invariably hemmed in with satins and silks from the ornate to  the profane, the studio apartments are Faberge eggs encapsulating a remembered time and place when artists and dancers sat, talked and ate together and dancing meant mixing with people, going out or seeing art in motion.

But all is not well in Bohemia. The tenants are under siege. One by one, like marked birds they receive evictions. Rather then put the screws on them all at once The Carnegie Board chooses to apply a bureaucratic pressure thru red tape and forms if the aged tenants petition to stay.  

The tenants get actor John Turturro on their side but to no avail. Eccentric dancer Star Szarek, accomplished in her own right, is forced to dance covertly on the stairwell. The charter set forth by Andrew Carnegie to protect the artists' dwellings is ruled to be invalid.

This film is painful to watch as each aged resident, some living there for over fifty years witnesses their studio become destroyed into a faceless cubicle.   Worse yet, not one resident is given a credible reason for these sudden and abrupt renovations.

Editta Sherman according to the film was the last to vacate. She had vowed to stay along with the pianist Don Shirley.

I see the two of them on opposite ends of the hall, blinking their own optical and auditory music together--- two satellites of love, tinkling and snapping.
Mayor Bloomberg is silent in collusion and one wishes in vain for Batman.

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