The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith


Watching the world go by - and photographing it as it does.

Watching the world go by – and photographing it as it does.

(2016) Documentary (Lumiere) Carla Bley, Steve Reich, Sy Johnson, Dan Morgenstern, Bill Crow, David Amram, Phil Woods, Harry Colomby, Steve Swallow, Freddy Red, Ben Ratliff, Sam Stephenson, Charles Harbutt, John Morris, Harold Feinstein, Robert Northern, Chuck Israels, David Rothman, John Cohen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Carman Moore, Vicki Goldberg. Directed by Sara Fishko

Florida Film Festival 2016

From the 50s into the 60s, New York City was legitimately the center of the universe. It almost glowed with a creative vibe, with poets, writers, photographers, musicians…everything was happening in New York. It was an exciting time to be alive.

That era is gone, although New York continues to throb with artistic activity. However, nobody can deny that the era I referred to was something of a golden age. In a small loft on Sixth Avenue, jazz musicians would come and jam and hang out in the apartment of Hall Overton, a Julliard instructor and composer of classical music who was discovering jazz. Folks like Zoot Sims and Thelonious Monk were regular visitors and painter Salvador Dali would drop in from time to time. Young musicians like Carla Bley and Steve Reich (ho would eventually become a noted composer) also were regulars.Next door, acclaimed Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith documented everything, not only in photographs but also on audio tapes.

Smith was already a former war correspondent and currently a successful photographer for Life with his photo essays winning awards and acclaim. However, his obsessive and compulsive tendencies led him to leave his suburban home and family for a dilapidated building in the Flower District not zoned for residential use. There, jazz musicians would gather for all night jams without fear of waking the neighbors.

The footage here is not just of Smith’s incredible photos, although they are the centerpiece, but there is also film footage from the era as well. While the extraordinary talents that were making music in the loft made for subjects that span time, for me part of the fascination is Smith’s use of his window as a kind of peephole into the lives of those on the streets below as he documented people going about their business, unaware that their image was being preserved forever. People simply going about their day doing mundane things…I don’t know why, but that kind of thing creates a connection for me that spans across the decades and makes the era relatable. Maybe there are pictures of you and I somewhere that we don’t know about, in an era even more obsessed with documenting everything than Smith was.

But mostly, the attraction are the musicians. Smith went to great lengths to make sure he captured everything, installing microphones everywhere, even drilling through the floor into the loft above to capture rehearsals and jams. When discovered, there were more than 40,000 negatives and 4,000 hours of audio tape recordings ranging from the banal to the sublime. Monk spent two weeks in Overton’s apartment arranging the music that would eventually become The Thelonious Monk Orchestra Live at Town Hall, one of the most iconic works of the jazz legend’s career.

Produced initially as a ten part series on WNYC radio, the producer of that series made the transition to documentary and wisely lets most of the material speak for itself. However, there are some fairly dry passages that feel more like an academic lecture than a film. But all in all, this is a fascinating look at a bygone era and at the luminaries who provided an entire city – and the world – with its energy and creative vibe.

My mom and dad met in New York City during that era and lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side briefly in the late 50s, moving to the suburbs shortly after I was born in 1960. My dad is gone, but my mom still speaks very fondly of that place and that time. Judging from what I saw here, I can see why.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful archival footage of a glorious era. There’s a temptation to close your eyes and just listen to the music.
REASONS TO STAY: More of a seminar than a film.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Smith’s material from this period currently resides at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Road
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mad

The Age of Adaline


Blake Lively is lovely.

Blake Lively is lovely.

(2015) Romantic Fantasy (Lionsgate) Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Lynda Boyd, Hugh Ross (voice), Richard Harmon, Fulvio Cecere, Anjali Jay, Hiro Kanagawa, Peter J. Gray, Izabel Peace, Cate Richardson, Jane Craven, Noel Johansen, Aaron Craven, Primo Allon, Darren Dolynski, Alison Wandzura. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, you get to watch all your friends and family grow old and die as you remain young and vibrant. You also get to worry about secret government agents kidnapping you and turning you into a lab rat. After all, when you have eternal life everybody’s going to want what you’ve got. I would imagine that eternal life would be exceedingly lonely.

Adaline Bowman (Lively) doesn’t have to imagine; she knows. Born at the turn of the century in the San Francisco area. Widowed at 29 (in the early 1930s) with a daughter Flemming (Pearce – Age 5/Richardson – Age 20/Burstyn) to raise on her own, she is involved in a freak car accident during a freak snowfall in Northern California in which a freak lightning bolt hits her freakin’ car after she skids into a stream and dies of hypothermia or drowning, take your pick. All this freakishness serves to stop her from aging and she remains eternally 29.

At first this is just a cause of amusement; how is it possible that Adaline looks young enough to be her daughter’s sister? Then as her contemporaries grow into middle age and she doesn’t, the wrong word is whispered into the wrong ear. This being the McCarthy era, some firm men in dark suits come calling. Adaline manages to escape but realizes that she has to stay on the run for the rest of the life. Move constantly, then change identities once a decade or so.

Still, she can’t stay away from her beloved San Francisco, working as an archivist at the San Francisco Public Library at the tail end of her current incarnation as Jenny Larson. She has only one friend – a blind pianist (Boyd) who doesn’t realize the woman she believes to be middle aged is actually still in the full flower of her youth. Only her daughter Flemming, now in her 80s and considering a move to a retirement home, knows Adaline’s secret. Other than those two and a series of dogs, Adaline has formed no attachments to anyone; any attempt at love is eventually rebuffed although she came close during the 1960s.

However, on New Year’s Eve she meets Ellis (Huisman), a hunky dot com millionaire who loves books and is really, really into Adaline. At first she repulses all his attempts to flirt and to ask her out. When he plays a little dirty, threatening to revoke a donation to the library, she relents. Soon the two of them are sleeping together although she knows that in a short time she’ll be leaving but she is drawn to him like a moth to the flame. When he takes her up to Sonoma to meet his parents, he discovers that his dad (Ford) is 1960s jilted guy, who is now celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary to Ellis’ mom (Baker). Awk-ward.  Especially since he recognizes her.

So Adaline is ready to run again, but she is beginning to tire of the chase. All she wants to do is stay in one place, with one guy and Ellis looks to be that guy. But how can she stay with someone she is going to outlive…by a LOT? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all when you’re immortal?

The premise here is an interesting one but by and large it is wasted. Being an ageless immortal must have an upside as well as a downside but all we really see here is the down, and perhaps to appeal to a certain kind of audience, the movie centers on Adaline’s romantic history. We see none of what other things she does, what careers she undertakes, the things she witnesses. It is as if the filmmakers figure that the only thing that matters in a woman’s life is for her to fall in love. Kind of myopic and maybe borderline misogynistic when you think about it.

For that reason Adaline is written as a cold and distant woman, rarely speaking in a tone that isn’t devoid of warmth or possessed of any humanity whatsoever. Therefore the brunt of why this movie doesn’t work falls squarely on Blake Lively’s shoulders and the sad part is that it really isn’t her fault. She is given direction to be icy and unreachable – so she is that to the audience as well. Lively is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she has shown that she is capable of being a charismatic onscreen presence in other roles but because of the coldness that she is made to possess here, rather than generating audience sympathy for her plight she actually repels it.

There are other problems besides Lively, most of which I’ve already mentioned. There are a couple of plot lapses; for example, Adaline theoretically changes her identity every ten years and yet Ellis’ dad recognizes her and calls her Adaline. So she used her own name one decade just for kicks? Doesn’t seem to be in her character.

Fortunately, Ford is here to give a sympathetic performance that will remind you why he has been for 35 years one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Burstyn and Baker, both getting on in age, are both dependable actresses and they don’t disappoint here. Maybe the biggest star of the movie is San Francisco and Northern California. The beauty of the City and its environs takes center stage.

Still, this is merely marginally entertaining, a rote romantic fantasy that could have been so much better. We really don’t get any insight to who Adaline is and how her immortality affects her as a person, other than to put her on the perpetual lam. With longevity must come at least some sort of insight into the world but we get none here. There are a lot of reasons why immortality would suck, but hopefully one of them won’t be that we remain as shallow as a saucer. If I knew I was going to be eternally young but would neither grow nor learn well, I think I might turn down that particular gift. Yes, I think that I definitely would.

REASONS TO GO: Ford, Burstyn and Baker are solid. San Francisco utilized nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Lively is beautiful but ultimately empty here. Wasted opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and a suggestive comment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burstyn also played a daughter older than her parent in last year’s Interstellar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Gemma Bovery