Monthly Archives: September 2011

Somebody Had to Shoot Liberty Valance

Well, I get up this morning, flip to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and, *##*!!!, Maureen Dowd mentions the plot of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in “Eggheads and Blockheads?,” her discussion of the Republican Party’s embrace of stupidity, in the persons of Texas Governor Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, et al as their potential candidates for President. Why *##*!!!? Because I’ve been thinking on and working on this piece all summer and almost posted it before President Obama’s September 8th speech to a joint session of Congress. But, at the end of the day, I mean, literally, at the end of a long day, I didn’t hit the “publish” button because I didn’t feel it was quite ready. But, hey…let’s just agree that, while great minds may think alike, I don’t think at the speed and with the purpose of a professional columnist. I hope this gives a more in-depth view  about Liberty Valance as a movie that speaks to this particular political moment.

Note: this piece does not endorse gun violence but the use of rhetoric in support of an idea, the idea of government as something that can and should help the people.

My mother used to say that, whenever George Herbert Walker Bush, Senior, “41,” would try to act tough and fight dirty, he looked to her like a sniveling wimpy little milquetoast mama’s boy whose mother says to him, “now you go back and you punch that bully in the nose.” Since the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, a lot of people who think of themselves as intellectuals and pacifists are turning into that violent by proxy mother, increasingly inclined towards a kind of machismo, though sadly an impotent one, looking helplessly on as our country drives closer to the edge of the cliff (one of my actual recurring dreams is that I suddenly have to drive a car from the back seat because it turns out there’s no one at the wheel). The recent stirrings of dissent, despair and even some contempt for Obama, coming from his supporters (cf. recent columns by Michael Tomasky, Cornell West, Maureen Dowd, Judith Levine, and Frank Rich) have a tragic undercurrent, which is that the alternatives to Obama are so awful that even if we ever get past the dark political period that seems to await us, there may be no more of what was good about the American ideal left to salvage. As my mother also and presciently said to me one day, in about her 94th year, turning to me from watching the network news, “So, in America, soon it will be the corporations and the slaves.” (and, mind you, that was before “Citizens United” granted human being status to corporations). Meanwhile, we say “Man up” and “grow a pair.” Like bystanders in a classic movie fight scene, liberals and progressives have been hopping up and down helplessly punching the air and yelling out to the protagonist, “hit ’em with your left, kid.”

In any classic movie fight scene, you wait with increasing anticipation for the good guy to stop turning the other cheek, rise up, and sock that bully. The final fight scene in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Western film Red River is as good as any model for this classic wish-fulfillment fantasy. Montgomery Clift has rebelled against his tyrannical and wrong-headed adoptive father, John Wayne, by choosing an untested though ultimately successful path to get their cattle from their ranch in Texas to Abilene, Kansas, where the railroad to Eastern markets is and they can sell their stock for a good price. Once Clift has mutinied, taking the cattle and most of the crew with him on his pioneer journey, Wayne’s character pursues him relentlessly, vowing to kill him when he catches up with him. The movie is so entertaining that the underlying flaw in the basic plot doesn’t reveal itself until just after Clift finally strikes back, after taking a beating as Wayne matches verbal insult to punch by punch, “you’re soft, won’t anything make a man out of you.”

But, as the infuriated heroine realizes, Wayne never meant to kill Clift, because as anyone can see, they “love each other.” The Republicans don’t love President Obama, but that is not our problem. Our problem is that they don’t just hate him, they hate us, they hate children, women, sick people, old people, they have stated clearly that it is their goal that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall perish from this earth.

We’d like to see Obama get that “OK I’ve had it” glint in his eye and come out swinging, but Hawks, in effect, has pulled his punches, and the softness of this ending to what had seemed like a powerful Oedipal match, makes Red River less relevant to our current political dilemma than another Western movie: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, (1962) John Ford‘s late, starkly simple, cinematically almost archaic yet profound meditation on the role of violence in creating the American democracy and on the nature of history itself.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, the action of the movie takes place in an extended flashback bracketed by scenes taking place in the “present,” (around 1910) and with the most crucial scene in the movie replayed as yet another flashback within the central flashback. The protagonists of the film are Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (played by James Stewart), who, when we first encounter him is the most distinguished politician in his state returning unexpectedly and mysteriously, with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), apparently after many years, to Shinbone, the small town in the West where his legendary political career began. The central part of the plot takes place in the past, about thirty or forty years before, and centers around a few characters: Stoddard, a young lawyer come from the East to set up a law practice who, before his stagecoach even gets to town, is robbed and beaten, and his law books ripped up by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). In Shinbone, Stoddard is befriended by Hallie, then an illiterate waitress working for a kindly immigrant couple running the restaurant, by the local newspaper editor-publisher and town drunk Dutton Peabody, and, in an uneasy alliance, by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local rancher and rival for Hallie’s affections. Doniphon is always accompanied by his black farmhand, Pompey (Woody Strode) in a kind of dignified adult version of the “Come on back to the raft ag’in, Huck Honey” classic former master/former slave homosocial partnership (I’m being snarky, but Strode gives a wonderful performance, and the sparely choreographed working and affective part of this relationship gives the movie a compelling sub-texture, as is so often the case in American mythologies).

The town is terrorized by Liberty Valance, a sociopathic, brutally clever, almost ironically self-aware robber, thug, and murderer operating as a tool for the unseen cattle barons who want to prevent statehood for this Western frontier territory so that they can retain free rein over the land and its resources. He has no respect for the written law although, significantly, he recognizes that the Eastern “dude” with the law books represents the most significant threat to his power. Valance lives by “the law of the West,” the gun. He stands between Shinbone and civilization. Something has to be done about Liberty Valance.

At first glance, and as has been noted by everyone who has written about it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a strange movie in its formal qualities and its casting. It was shot in black and white long after even Ford himself, a master of black and white cinematography in his earlier great movies, including such black and white film masterpieces as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and The Grapes of Wrath, had turned to color in films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. And even the black and white, except for a few night scenes, is much less rich and velvety than in Ford’s earlier films. To the contrary, it’s bleached out and anti-aesthetic, like a dried-out scrap of bone in the desert. The movie was shot on the cheap, using the back lot set of a television Western program, so the West as a physical space whose empty vastness was once one of the principle protagonists of many Ford movies, notably in his spectacular usages of Monument Valley, is barely present as subject and the action takes place almost as a play on sets reduced to the bare minimum of what each signifies: the saloon, the newspaper office, the restaurant. The sets and props are both extremely accurate to the simplicity of the time–the dishwashing and cooking implements in the restaurant’s kitchen for example–but at the same time they harken back to the flimsy movie sets of the earliest silent Westerns, when the West already being mythified was only a decade or two in the past. Yet this reductiveness is a strength, as the simplicity of the sets has a strangely convincing verisimilitude, and the theatrical structure–scene, scene, scene–keeps you focused on the story.

Ford knowingly relies on every trope and cliché of Western movies and of movies themselves, many of which he had helped create, from the stock cast of characters including stereotypes of major immigrant groups, from the Irish to the Scandinavian, to the classic flashback introduced by a puff of cigarette smoke.  He relishes using our familiarity with these tropes to further his morality play, stripped to its essence by the deliberate plainness of the sets, the reduction in visual pleasure, the simplicity of the narrative. (One way of looking at this film is that it’s a good example the “old age style,” a phenomenon used to distinguish formal characteristic of late works by Titian, Rembrandt, or Cézanne, where the artist just wants to get to the heart of the matter and sloughs off all the fine finish he had needed to impress his audience in earlier years).

The quality of a morality play is exemplified and emphasized by the patent discordance between the ages of the two male stars and that of the characters they play. Characters in their early 20s are here played by actors in their 50s, and it shows. Their age cannot be masked by makeup. Whatever efforts made to do so only draw attention to the actors’ actual age. Yet this strange casting choice is extremely important to the greatness of the film.

First, because you can’t get swept up in their beauty or sexuality, you cannot be seduced and enter into a sutured Hollywood fantasy, so you are constantly returned to the meaning of the story.

Second, and most importantly, it’s precisely because each actor is who he is and brings to his part his own history as a representation of American character that they give the movie its unique gravitas. In fact in writing this I have been debating a formal question: do I refer to each character by his name in the movie, or by his name as actor. The idealism and incorruptibility of “Ransom Stoddard” is embedded in Stewart’s iconic role as the idealistic young Senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and other movies like You Can’t Take It With You, from his pre-WWII career, particularly his Frank Capra movies, yet also inflected with the toughness and desperation he brought to his own post-war Westerns such as The Naked Spur. In those movies his character becomes much more similar to many of Wayne’s characters: in Wayne’s many roles as the man of the West, he is the good guy but also often with an edge, some kind of an outlaw, beginning with the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a charming and good fellow but bent on revenge of his murdered brother or Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, another vengeful figure whose dogged pursuit of a kind of brutal justice is effective but founded on a bitter racism. And even though at the end of The Searchers he does not carry out the ultimate act of racial “cleansing” he has threatened throughout, he still cannot be contained in civil society. His character in Valance is named Tom Doniphon, but he is all of the characters Wayne had played to that moment, thus he is the construct “John Wayne,” a complex collaborative artwork created by Ford and Wayne himself over nearly 25 years. So these men, their faces and histories, are part of the meaning of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The history of John Ford’s movies is also part of the meaning. For instance, Valance’s first appearance is a fascinating contrast to Wayne’s legendary first appearance, almost a materialization, in Stagecoach: in that earlier Ford movie, the stagecoach, whose occupants the audience has been introduced to so that we are already  invested in their voyage, speeds across the desert in daylight until it is brought to a sudden stop as, simultaneously, the camera suddenly swoops in to the indescribably open and surprised expression of John Wayne. I’ve watched this scene dozens of times, but the speed and complexity of camera shots defies my ability to describe technically what Ford is doing. I do know that my parents saw Stagecoach in Paris just at the beginning of the Second World War, and they thought it was marvelous, the whole sweep of it and I think too the basic good and open nature of Wayne’s character represented America to them, a place they would soon set out to reach, over a year and a half exodus across occupied France where they became the endangered travelers in the stagecoach, trying to get to Lordsburg.

In Valance,  on the other hand, the stagecoach unceremoniously careens recklessly out of nowhere down a narrow road at night until it is brought to halt by a gang of masked men. “Stand and Deliver,” declares the gang’s leader, Valance. Everything that was thrilling, open, bright, optimistic in Ford’s earlier version of the west is dark, cramped, pessimistic in the later version, though I think the movies are necessary companions for a full understanding of the dream of America.

The movie’s anchor scenes are of the killing of Liberty Valance, seen twice, first as Stoddard experienced it, and later as it is replayed from the point of view of Wayne. This is not a Rashomon situation, this is not about the basic fungibility of truth. Here there is the first mise en scène (the “legend”) which you as the viewer experience essentially as it is experienced by Stewart, that  is as reality from the point of view of a protagonist you trust. You are definitely the spectator watching something unfold on a stage before you, carefully and excruciatingly choreographed, to emphasize Stewart’s terror and his bravery as, already shot in the right arm, he reaches trembling for his gun with his left hand.

Then, later, there is the second mise en scène, (the truth), where the same exact events are re-shot from a greater distance, and a different angle, as experienced by Wayne. Just as there is ultimately no doubt of which version is true, this dual iteration of staging is precise, concise, it is even didactic, like a textbook of basic film staging, reverse shots, reverse angles, reshooting the same staging from a different place in the proscenium theater that we occupy. What in the first iteration was lived by Stewart, in the second becomes a spectacle in which Wayne and “Pompey,” as unseen spectators in the dark affect the outcome without being seen before they vanish into the night, having played their parts with physical economy and precision.

So what does The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have to tell us about our current predicament? You have the skinny young lawyer from the “East”–Obama the law professor and community activist from Chicago up against John McCain, the rich guy from the West and the many thuggish representatives of the unseen cattle-barons (The Koch brothers, FOX News, et al). The nitty gritty of politics take up a big portion of the movie. There is a great scene in which the townsmen assemble in the saloon to chose a delegate to the statehood convention. The cattle barons who are against statehood are represented by Liberty Valance, who nominates himself as delegate to the convention even though he is not a resident of the town–Marvin’s line reading of Valance’s retort–“I live where I hang my hat”–is particularly wonderful. The cattle barons’ interests are also promoted by a Major Cassius Starbuckle, a grandstanding politician who with florid oratory vilifies Stoddard as a killer and puts up for nomination a fellow in a fancy white suit who gallops onto the stage on a white horse (Texas Governor Rick Perry, anyone?). The Starbuckle character is every political snake oil salesman, shill for the Man, and was already so familiar a type that at the time the movie was made this type had been already been satirized for years in Looney Tunes cartoons as “Foghorn Leghorn,” always getting lost in vain and aimless oratory. We know these clowns, we’re still surrounded by them, the Glenn Becks and all the others.

The crux and the complexity of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” actually didn’t shoot Liberty Valance but his distinguished political career is built on the public perception that he did. At first glance this seems like a perfect example of the political mendacity and inauthencity we’ve become all too cynical about and most critical analyses of the film focus on the line spoke by the journalist who having heard the whole story of what really happened, destroys his notes, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That has become the take-away quote from the movie.

Another common view is that “The hero doesn’t win; the winner isn’t heroic,” except for one thing: the movie’s crystal clear demonstration that, though his career is built on a “lie” or a “legend,” Ransom Stoddard is a courageous man, maybe even more courageous than the man who actually did do the shooting (or, more accurately, the effective shooting). It is the question of courage and the dilemma of how best to achieve justice that are more interesting to consider given the current political moment.

The man of words, the figure Dowd refers to as the “egghead,” (a misnomer for Stoddard–the definition of the egghead, a term used to describe Adlai Stevenson, the thinking man’s Democrat in the early 1950s, is the intellectual as pathologically indecisive–but Stoddard does decide), the representative of the law does give in to the need for the gun, even though the gun is old, he can’t shoot straight, he is alone, and he’s wearing an apron to the gun fight–indeed, significantly through much of the movie, we’ve seen him in this humiliatingly feminized (dis)guise: literally he is wearing an apron because he’s taken a job washing dishes at the restaurant. But he does stand up for his beliefs, he does risk his life, or is prepared to sacrifice it,  because of his belief in the law.

There is a very important scene in the movie which shows us what Ransom Stoddard truly offers the country: in a shabby one-room schoolhouse he has welcomed a significantly diverse student body, Mexican children, girls, adults, even the black man Pompey is allowed to attend. Here, significantly, Stoddard wears a suit, the mantle of his future authority. And the subject beyond the a b c s, is democracy. “We’ve begun the school by studying about our country and how it is governed.” The Scandinavian restaurant owner continues, “It’s a Republic which is a state in which the people are the boss, that means us, and if the big shots in Washington don’t do what we want, by golly we don’t vote for them no more–anymore, anymore.”

Later, there are two key instances where Stoddard is also shown to be willing to walk away from a political career, first because he is disgusted that it would come to him because of a violent act, second when he discovers it would be based on a lie, and, third, when he tells the whole story to a journalist.

The man who did Shoot Liberty Valance may also be courageous but his motivation is basically apolitical, he did it because the woman he loves asked him to help, and his act is cold blooded, the recognition of a necessity, the solution, the radical social remedy to evil, as he himself acknowledges, it was “cold-blooded murder but I can live with it.” Yet he loses everything: by letting Stewart get the credit, he loses his girl to Stewart, and by helping create a civilized country based on law, he loses his individualistic identity. We know what happened to Stewart, his resume is repeated by various characters, Governor, Senator, Ambassador to Britain, Senator again, possible Vice-Presidential candidate. Wayne’s life in the years that passed between the central flashback and the “present” are blank. He lived out his life until he died. That’s it. And the country has becomes the United States of America, for better or worse–the film’s conclusion is pretty ambivalent about that.

Of course the polished politician we see at the beginning of the movie, in the frame taking place in the “present,” may well have made many compromises of these noble ideals of democracy  in his noted career, no doubt smoothly negotiating in favor of the forces of “civilization,” symbolized by churches, schools, and the well-functioning industrial development symbolized by the railroad.

Stoddard does state that he wants to accomplish change without violence, he hates the violence everyone else espouses. But in the end he stand up with a gun. And in the end someone does shoot Liberty Valance. The movie doesn’t seriously question the fact that Valance must be eliminated for civilization to thrive. But one thing is for sure, it took two men to kill Liberty Valance, the man of law, “the egghead,” and the man of the West, the individualist who is basically good but is willing to use a gun if necessary because he doesn’t care about the consequences, he has no ambition to protect. But the point is, again, the man of law in the end is willing to sacrifice ambition to what he feels is the greater good, the elimination of evil and the success of a “good” government. It’s a stark moral, the ends did justify the means. It’s also an American story, revolutions including the Civil Rights movement succeeding through the actions and words of men of law and men of extreme speech and action, working together if sometimes oppositionally to achieve a goal that may be as tempered as the settling of the West but better than the alternative. While saying that the end does justify the means, the film acknowledges how much this is intellectually a contradictory and morally a deeply troubling position, and that the history of America is based on such demonic bargains.

Meanwhile we’re surrounded by Liberty Valances and the cattle barons they stand in for. For whatever the reasons armchair psychoanalysts can come up with, Obama just has not seemed to adapt to the territory he finds himself in, he’s a man always dressed for yesterday’s weather. His compulsive policy of conciliation with a vengeful and single-minded enemy have been a tragically unsuccessful strategy.

Or, he won’t fight back, and one can only conclude that he won’t fight back because he doesn’t believe in what the people who elected him want him to fight for. In his September 8th speech, he appeared to get tough, to man up. The next week it was announced that his plan for economic relief would be paid for by cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. It is hard at this late date to take the “manned-up” rhetoric as anything but just words. We aren’t convinced he actually believes in the New Deal principles that made the American Century great and livable for a wide proportion of America. Meanwhile wealth disparity and the poverty rate in America increase shamefully while Americans, not given much of an alternative, turn to the quasi-fascist, anti-government, pro-super capitalism rhetoricians of the extreme right. They are our Liberty Valances. They are working for our cattle barons. Someone has to “kill them,” but with belief in ideas, not guns.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in one scene instead of a whole movie like High Noon, Ford economically telegraphs that Ransom Stoddard is alone against Liberty Valance, as two fellows just walk away from him, leaving him standing, in his apron. But yesterday a bunch of people tried to occupy Wall Street. Maybe that is what the people can and must do, not just stand behind Obama, but push him from behind and go ahead of him, until, if only for political advantage, he won’t just “man up,” but belief up. Stand and deliver. Somebody has to shoot Liberty Valance.


Days in New York City, September 11, 2001-May, 2002, a photo essay

I have often wondered how many people in the metropolitan area saw some part of the events of September 11 in New York City with their own eyes, from streets and buildings in Manhattan, from Brooklyn, from New Jersey. Was it a million of us? Was it more? I have never seen speculation on the numbers in the press. The number of people who, living and working in the city in the following weeks, experienced the ruins, the smells, the air quality, the police and army, the frozen zones, the rerouted slow subways, was much greater. But for many others, the less you saw with your own eyes and the farther you lived from the immediate neighborhood, the more abstract the events became, the more September 11 became a spectacular media event which could eventually blend into others.

I was one of that indeterminate number of people who witnessed some of what happened that day “with my own eyes” and lived in the city and near Ground Zero in the weeks after. At the time, I lived in Lower Manhattan. I heard the first plane fly over and hit the North Tower. I saw the explosion from the impact of the second. I lived in the “frozen zone.” My loft would fill with the indescribably sickening smell wafting northward from the site on late night currents of air. In the weeks after September 11 I worked on an email about the events of day and life downtown in the days and later the months following. In those early days, writing it was my principal occupation and I wrote to preserve the details of each day. This text began its life as an email to friends that circulated around the world and returned by email to my downstairs neighbor, stripped of my name. That anonymity was fitting because mine was just one of many such accounts,many much more dramatic than my own, and they all begin the same way, “On September 11, I was… .” I published it as “Weather Conditions in Lower Manhattan–September 11, 2001, to October 2, 2001” in A Decade of Negative Thinking, a book written in the aftermath of that event, many essays in it marked by the way it (as the first in the chain of a series of events) affected my perceptions of contemporary art in the months and years to come. I also have published excerpts of this chapter as a Facebook Note.

Much has happened in the years that separate then and now that has become more important than the event itself, most notably the criminal and ruinous wars that the Bush administration launched within days and months, but also the subsequent transformation of the country into a polarized and ideologically damaged state, while the site of the World Trade Center has mutated from an awesome and infernal mountain of burning steel and toxic ashes to a battleground of real-estate interests and compromised architectural and design programs. The New York Times has just published an excellent summary, The Reckoning: American and The World A Decade After 9/11, as a supplement in the Sunday edition of September 11, 2011 (get the actual newspaper, it makes more sense to hold it in your hands).

As I had suspected would happen when I wrote that email in September and October 2001, the details of everyday life in New York City that day and in the days after do gradually fade from memory for many. Many horrible things have happened since, both public and private traumas that layer over and even replace that one. But for some including the confederacy of witnesses the memories remain intense though inevitably altered by time and history.

Here are photos I took day by day, with excerpts from my initial writing and some annotations from today. These aren’t great photographs,  I had a point and shoot film camera that I carried around because I needed to document what I saw. My experiences were neither unusual or dramatic, but I hope they allow a glimpse of the texture of daily experience in an unusual time in this city. I have placed some of the text in captions, some in the body of this post. These are in italics and comments written today are in plain text.


In 2001 I lived in Lower Manhattan, on Lispenard Street, which is one block South of Canal Street, 14 blocks north of the World Trade Center. At about 8:45 AM on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, I was still in bed and had just turned the radio on to WNYC, the NPR affiliate in New York City.

I heard two sounds, some kind of muffled roar and then a thudding crash. This neighborhood is incredibly noisy so it could have been a truck crashing into something on Canal but the noise was notable enough that it crossed my mind that it might be a building collapse in the area. After the interval of time it took for that image to cross my mind, within less than a minute of the sound, an announcer on WNYC yelled that there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center. I rushed into my clothes, grabbed my keys and my camera, ran out the door and got to the corner of Lispenard and Church by about 8:57 AM. This is the corner from which the video, which I would call the “money shot”, of the first plane crashing into the building was filmed.

Approximately 9:03.30AM-In the sequence of pictures I took from the moment I reached the corner, between the 6th and the 7th picture there is a gap which represents perhaps twenty seconds, during which an enormous explosion on the left side of the South Tower expanded and engulfed the entire top half of the building in a giant ball of flame before subsiding into flames and smoke. During this time I forgot I had a camera.

c. 9:20AM

c. 1:30PM-About 40 minutes after the collapses, knowing the city was being closed down, I decided to go out to get food and cash. It was a beautiful day in New York City, clear, mild and dry, the kind of day when the postcard pictures are taken and when the air is most pleasantly compatible to the inner temperature of the human body. Where the Towers had stood the sky was a gorgeous blue with just a low movement of the ochre/gray dust toward Brooklyn. Completely surreal, unreal, nuclear.

At the corner of Spring and Broadway, the streets already emptied of all traffic, a guy had pulled over his SUV and turned his radio up. A crowd of about thirty people listened. In the midst of all the confusion, a lady took the time to warn me that my bag was open.

...a tall large man stands apart, looking back downtown. His suit is covered with ash. I realize that no one spoke to him.

Television news bulletin September 11, mid-afternoon

I went out again at dusk: at the corner of Church and White the temperature suddenly rose about ten degrees.

September 12: for the next few days they started dumping wrecked vehicles on avenues north of the site, to begin to clear out whatever could be moved easily. Here's a guy rummaging through the toxic dust of a destroyed car, placed on Church street, near Apex Art.

September 12, nighttime. Church and Canal Street and also Lispenard STreet, just South of Canal became a NYC and State police and National Guard incident center. The last National Guardsmen were pulled from my corner one night in late January. As a woman living alone in New York City I probably never felt as safe (nor yet as creeped out).

In 1950s movies, the aftermath of WWIII might be indicated by a vacant Wall Street filmed at 5 AM on a Sunday morning. That’s what the streets of Soho looked like. You could have shot a canon down Grand Street and lain down to sleep in the middle of Broadway. This desolation was one of the most memorable aspects of the few days after September 11–strange and disturbing and yet in a way extremely beautiful, almost pleasurable, something like the dream of being all alone in a great museum, able to wander at will.

September 13, 2011: Looking West down Grand Street from Broadway

September 13, Grand Street looking East from Broadway

September 13, 2001: Looking south towards the WTC site from Grand Street and Broadway

September 13, 2001. Looking north from Grand Street and Broadway to where the sky was clear and blue


Looking back downtown from near the Public Theater south of Astor Place. The line of demarcation of the "frozen zone' still was at 14th Street. It was hot and the air became increasingly hard to breathe as one got further downtown, closer to the site.

September 13, 2001: I stopped at Dean and Deluca on the way and enjoyed an ice coffee and the beauty of a row of some kind of red bottled liquid arrayed in a row on an upper shelf illuminated by the bright lighting in the store. I asked workers there to wet a paper napkin to cover my face so that I could breathe as I walked the final blocks home.

September 14, 2001: Impromptu memorial at Washington Square, detail

September 14, 2001: Impromptu memorial at Washington Square, detail

September 14, 2001: to the South, only a great gap where the Towers once had been my beacons homeward.

For comparison, and because the minute the towers fell it became impossible to accurately remember where they had been, here is a picture I found on the web about a year ago, taken from a half block south of the previous picture, West Broadway, just below Houston, looking South. [See also Jonas Mekas’s beautiful visual tribute to the Towers which continuously re-situates them in that gap of memory.]

View taken sometime in what appears to be the late 70s or early 80s, looking south on West Broadway, just below Houston. Only the bottom third of the Towers are visible in the icy mist.

September 16, 2001: crowd on the north side of Canal Street above Church Street, assembled as close as non-residents were allowed, straining to see the site.

During this particular period, networks and cable news reporters filmed from that corner, including one CNN reporter on the roof of one of these buildings, so I would see them “live” and go home and turn on the TV to see them “live.” My relation to media coverage was unique to my previous experience in that my neighborhood was the news, and yet at times I experienced some of what happened exactly as if I had not been living there (for example, I watched the towers fall on TV because I had returned home to make phone calls to family) and sometimes in this amusing co-presence with the reporters.

September 17, 2001: view South from the roof of my mother's apartment building on West 79th Street.

MONDAY the 17th I went uptown to see my mother. It was the first time I had strayed north of 14th street, first time on the subway. I thought I was calm, “normal” but her neighborhood was “normal” enough to make me realize how crazed I really was. The crowds at Zabar’s shopping for the holidays made me scream with impatience. The subway ride up had been quick and simple but the ride back down was terribly tense, the old A train was very crowded but when we slowed down every few minutes in some tunnel or other the car was silent except for the babbling of toddlers. At West 4th Street it was announced that the train was going to be diverted so I had to walk home from the village with my groceries. The conditions in my neighborhood were intense, police barricades, the rescue effort vehicles, the epic scaled recovery and repair work, the smoke. God knows what we were breathing, but I found the Upper West Side’s relative normality disturbing.

Now I live on the Upper West Side. This will be the first September 11 where I do not live downtown and the sense of separation from the site and the neighborhood is a continuous lack. But when I looked at the picture of the skyline looking south that I had taken on September 17, 2001 from the roof of my mother’s building, it occurred to me that I had no idea if the towers had ever been visible from that spot. Now I live in the same building and I asked my neighbor today, and not only could she affirm that they had been visible but she found a picture she had taken from her apartment on September 11, before the towers fell.

September 11, 2001, view in the distance of the burning North Tower, possibly before the South tower was hit, from West 79th street, taken with a telephoto lens. Photo: Karen Cornelius

September 22, 2001, Ad for "24", corner 28th street and 6th Avenue

This ad for 24 seemed to me like a big nasty insulting joke when I first saw it on September 22. “This fall, prepare yourself for one unforgettable day.” That horse had left the barn, we had had our unforgettable day, thank you. Only today does it occur to me that the show, which premiered November 6, 2001, had been planned and begun filming long before September 11, 2001. It seemed to spring from the events of September 11 and after, and it seemed emblematic of a type of paranoia, violence, and forensic gruesomeness that has permeated television drama in the past decade. The first CSI series had begun a year before but it held a particular fascination afterward, providing a scientific and technical frame for absorbing the details of DNA identification of the shreds of remains found at Ground Zero. I’ve sometimes thought of this past decade as the decade of Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of CSI, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, and CSI: New York. These dramas all present a similar vision, of a world darkly lit, filled with menace, even though the stories are related through the seemingly reassuring point of view of agents of law enforcement engaged in scientific analysis of forensic evidence. Without a Trace and CSI: New York in particular rely on a vertiginous aerial approach from high above the skyscrapers as an introductory shot, a framing, and a interstitial narrative device: the camera is an all-seeing eye which swoops down into the city, particularly notable and potentially menacing to anyone who lived in New York City during September 11 and in the surveillance environment of post 9/11 America and the Patriot Act. Yet the absolute density of events and emotions of the actual unforgettable day, September 11, the pictures, the voices, the millions of individual stories against the transformative view of a previously neglected geopolitical background, have not been matched by these popular fictions.

September 28, 2001, Barbara Siegel, Elise Siegel, Susanna Heller, Nancy Bowen in front of work by Nancy Davidson

September 28, 2001. Chelsea, from l. to r, Susan Bee, Barbara Siegel, Elise Siegel, Susanna Heller, Charles Bernstein, Nancy Bowen.

Susanna, Nancy and I met at Nancy Davidson’s opening on the 28th, where we would have all met on September 11. Everyone there was very happy to see each other. As for many of us, it was the first time I was out in the city after dark, other than standing at Lispenard and Church. We had a nice dinner, although all we talked about was it, from every angle of conversation possible. At about 10 PM as we crossed Ninth Avenue at 23rd we heard sirens. A motorcade approached as if for a visiting dignitary: an unmarked black police car with red light flashing on its roof stopped downtown traffic in mid-intersection. Three motorcycle cops, then at least six more passed preceding an ambulance, which was followed by a state police car and a NYPD police car. When they find the body of a policeman or fireman, they give the ambulance trip to the morgue an honor guard of three motorcycles so this seemed even bigger and yet it wasn’t even anything that would ever be on the news. Thinking about that day in Chelsea, I’m reminded of  “Quack, Quack! Stick to My Back!” an Italian Folktale retold by Italo Calvino: a good witch gives a young man a magic goose and a formula to win the hand of a princess who has decided, “I won’t laugh even if my life depended on it.” One fool after another is glued to the goose and to the person before him until a chain of fools causes the princess to roar with laughter. I’m not saying my friends and I were fools exactly though we do look almost incongruously happy: we were happy to get out, to do something, to see each other again, and we were in a state of elation fueled by shock. But as the day progressed we formed a growing chain, as a group of 3 became 5, a group of 5 became 7, and then 8, and we all stayed together as we went along. But at the same time, already that day there was a sense of aesthetic rupture: the galleries were filled with art that had been made before it, much of it relying on  trite tropes and recipes that now felt intolerable.

Fall 2001, seen from Liberty Street: the great standing ruin of the South Tower, a magnificent trace of modernism, Mondrian's Boogie Woogie meets Smithson's "Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, " the grid undone. After looking for awhile a friend said, "It's something else." And that is exactly it, you see something, but what you see bears no relationship to what was. You think, if I get closer, if I get on top of it, maybe then I will understand and yet even what I did see I couldn't understand.

May 29, 2002, there was a motorcade on Canal Street escorting the last steel beam from the World Trade Center out of Manhattan. Canal Street, normally an interstate highway, was cleared completely in both directions between the Holland Tunnel and West Street and the Manhattan Bridge

The last beam was covered with a flag and flowers, laid over a black cloth, like the casket of Princess Diana. After it passed, traffic returned and city life resumed.


To this day I carry in my bag these two scraps of images stuffed into a small plastic ID sleeve:

Twin Towers, September 11, seen from just below 8th street and Sixth Avenue

Newspaper article with reproduction of the still from the documentary being filmed on the morning of September 11, 2001 by George and Jules Naudet, taken from the corner of Lispenard and Church Streets


This year may mark the last year of The Tribute in Light. I wrote about this great art work here last September 11. It would a great loss if this brilliantly effective memorial was dismantled for want of money.

*Finally, my own memorial would have been really cheap. If I may be allowed a bit of fantasy, here is what for me remains a vivid image, as if it actually existed: at the very center of where the old complex had been, with the ground and the slurry wall left bare, would be a small replica of the towers made of precious metals and jewels, a Fabergé egg of the World Trade Center, as it were.



September 5, 1981: prehistory of a history

After I had completed my first major read-through of the diaries and papers of the painter Jack Tworkov in preparation for editing them into a book of collected writings, Jack’s daughter Helen Tworkov asked me if I had discovered anything that had surprised me. I could answer with frankness, no. That is, Helen and her sister Hermine Ford had given me the privilege of access not only to Jack’s writings about art, texts that he had either published in his lifetime or had saved because he must have known that they were of some art historical interest and, most importantly, because they were of personal use to himself in his studio work, but also to his most private thoughts, or at least those he had put to paper and preserved over a nearly 50 year time period. I was infused with the complexity of intimacy that comes from being immersed in the full drama of studio and career struggles and of the private details even of his married life in ways neither he nor I could never have imagined, but, overall, I knew the stories, the struggles, the aesthetics, and the sensibility deeply, for I had observed Jack and his work with admiration and love for all my life.

Indeed, my work as the editor of The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, published in 2009, had a deep back-story. I could not remember a time that I did not know Jack and his family, since my parents and the Tworkovs became friends when I was, as far as anyone remembers, still a toddler. The Tworkovs were incredibly dear to my family during my childhood and all the more so after my father Ilya Schor died in 1961 and Wally and Jack Tworkov took my mother and me into their Provincetown home for a month of that summer and the next. Though Jack would have been very surprised that the little girl to whom he had taught the dog paddle, or the teenager he had found so rough and recalcitrant, and the young artist about whose work he had continued doubts, ended up being the one to finally shepherd his writings into print and to create in effect the autobiography he had never written as such. But it seemed to me finally that it made the most perfect sense, though I sometimes in those six years rued the day I had ever taken on such a massive task and such a  daunting responsibility. I cursed him for writing so much of interest that I found hard to cut!

I set out to structure the many different types of texts so that the complexity and totality of the life of an artist and a particular man would be as transparent as I could make it. I did not make what I knew would have been the more conventional choice, to edit down to what history already thought was important, which in Tworkov’s case would have been exclusively his writings from the New York School period. I wanted to address his role within that history, but I thought his writings on the death of his mother were as beautifully written and as important to the meaning of his work as his long description of a conversation with John Cage, I knew his remembrances of the painful experience of immigration deepened one’s understanding of his landmark 1950 essay, “The Wandering Soutine.”

With in my mind a reader who would perhaps also be a painter, or perhaps a young artist confronting the huge challenges of how to continue to make art and have a personal life, or perhaps an older artist continuing to work seriously in the studio despite the frequent disappointments careers bring, I used the richness of levels and types of writing Tworkov had produced to situate him and the reader in a vast human field and historical period of art making. I tried to give the reader a sense of what it means to engage in a lifetime struggle to be an artist and a man.

As I went through his diaries and letters, I occasionally found references to my family and to me…not always flattering, much to my dismay. I also found reference to events in which I had been a participant, particularly in later years, which I not only remembered clearly but which, being every bit as inveterate a self-documenter as Jack, I had also noted in my diary.

For example, Jack wrote in his journal on September 5, Saturday (1981): “I picked up Resia and Mira and drove them to Hermine’s place on Highhead. We walked to the beach with Hermine, Bob  and Erik. We watched the huge waves sweeping the shore. The park rangers put up signs to keep cars and people off the beach. We came back and had tea. I got in a talking mood and reminisced about my childhood, about school and college, about Janice and Ford. We saw Bob’s drawings and drove home. […]”

My diary entry for the same day, Saturday, September 5, 1981: “windy day. Jack took us out to Bob & Hermine’s–walk to ocean, very nice visit, Jack very talkative.”

I had not forgotten that day, our being together. I remember also quite clearly that we looked at Hermine’s drawings too! And that we all enjoyed the way his son-in-law the painter Bob Moskowitz had prepared eggplant!!! But if you had quizzed me about what Jack had talked about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But I listened and I heard, probably not for the first time, and the stories were embedded so that when I rediscovered the details in his writings, I already knew.

[References above are to my mother Resia Schor , to Jack’s eldest daughter Hermine Ford, his grandson Erik Moskowitz, and to Robert Moskowitz, Janice Biala, and Ford Madox Ford]

That summer Jack was in remission from cancer. He was preparing for Jack Tworkov: Fifteen Years of Painting, a major exhibition of his paintings at the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in early 1982. Earlier that summer he wrote a letter to Andrew Forge, then dean of the School of Art and Architecture at Yale, where Jack had been chairman of the Department of Art through the late 60s, as part of a dialogue to help Forge write a catalogue essay for the exhibition. Here are some excerpts of his letter to Forge:

So for me geometrics, however simple and elementary, is a connection with something that exists besides, outside, myself. It is a small comfort, perhaps, indeed; but it is less hypocritical at the moment than the apparent ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for. Geometrics or any systemic order gives me a space for meditation, adumbrates my alienation.

There was a period when I felt connected. It was in the late forties and early fifties, the time of the club. It coincided with that short period after World War II when I really believed that, after the sacrifices and horror the world went through, we were embarked on a better world. There were a few years of euphoria. America emerged as a world-saver in spite of the shadow the bomb on Hiroshima had cast on that image. The abstract-expressionist movement, although negative in its rejection of all tradition and especially of the French art of the first half of the century, did reflect this positive element, the postwar euphoria, the sudden feeling of strength both physically and spiritually. As we know, that spirit did not last long. Pop came along with two tongues in its cheek. On the one hand, it took, as the living symbols of American culture, the hot dog and the hamburger–it was hard to know whether in praise or disgust. On the other hand, it revived a form of Dada revolt against art as the dress-up culture of the fathers. Only by then, the middle class, more than ever, was beyond shock or outrage and was led by the art market, which dealt primarily in names rather than esthetics. And name-making absorbed a good deal of the energies of the artists.

I have sometimes dreamt of painting my hatreds. If I didn’t, it was because of the fear that I would end up hating my painting. I’ve hated films that had the excuse that they were a true reflection of society but which I thought were themselves a contribution to the disease they were trying to depict.

The spectator who in front of my paintings will ask, “What does it mean?” has foregone the chance of seeing it. For the only meaning in the painting is in the seeing of it. But that is true in looking at any painting. If you only see the landscape, you are not seeing the painting. If you only see the portrait, you miss the painting.

There is an element in painting which I have often referred to as true, by which I mean not truth in a moral sense but the concern similar to that of a good carpenter who supports his eye with the try square and level, on which all other qualities base themselves. The spiritual essence we draw from art is the absence of falseness; it teaches us not only about art but how to judge anything in life, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, from what the preacher says to what the politician says and does. Art can become the true square and level of all things–provided it is itself not askew.

It is not beauty that is the first concern of art and certainly not entertainment–but justness.

Where justness exists in a work, the artist’s personality disappears because the painting is the presence and not the painter.

There is another quality in a painting that cannot be described: it is the residue reflected in the painting of the artist’s pleasure in the making of it, especially the pleasure, the joy the artist experiences in the stages when the painting uncovers itself to his eyes. This is an internal experience of the artist which the attentive spectator can extract. It is something precious I get from a Cézanne, knowing very well he did not make it for me but it is there for me to have.

Trueness and pleasure add up to the most fundamental quality in a painting. If the artist cannot paint himself out of the picture, if he is caught up in attention-getting devices, if he becomes concerned with his effects on the audience, he cannot achieve justness. You can admire his devices but you cannot live with them. You cannot draw joy from them. At their worst such artists exploit the same world as the advertising fabricators: clever, ingenious, eye grabbing, but false.

Am I stressing an esthetic morality? I am. It’s what I get from Bach, Velázquez, Blake, Cézanne, Mondrian–and is rare in our present.[…] from The Extreme of the Middle, 8.47

Selections from this letter and other of Jack’s writings were later reprinted in Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982, the excellent catalogue of his 1987 retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts that first made me aware of his writings, as I had by then just begun to write about art also and that ultimately led to my taking on the pleasure, the task, and the great responsibility of editing his writings. These are all included in The Extreme of the Middle.


Today, September 5, 2011, exactly thirty years have passed since that afternoon by the ocean. Jack died almost exactly a year later to the day, on September 4, 1982.

I thought today to look back to what he had been thinking thirty years before September 5, 1981, to bracket my brief reflections here. The closest entry is from October 24, 1951:

Did it ever occur to Sophocles to write a play about himself? Had the thought occurred to him he would have banished it as sacrilegious. He wrote about Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus, and Electra.

Could Ajax have written about Sophocles? Could Ajax have been an artist and still been a Hero? Ajax could have written about himself without becoming less of a hero only if what he wrote was not art. It was in the nature of Ajax that he could not contrive anything. He therefore lost to life but won his immortality. Only Odysseus of the heroes was different. He did tell of his own life only to make a work of art out of it. Ajax was noble. His nobility lay in the disdain of life on any terms except his own to a degree that was a challenge to the immortal gods. Odysseus was enamored of life and was not beneath embellishing its excitement with fine details from the imagination. He was a compromiser. He took life just as he found it. In order to cut a fine figure he used art to embellish it. He used art but he was no artist. He could not create anyone except himself. He was beloved of the gods because he resembled them enormously–since they were the creations of ordinary men.

Some artists, too, are the creations of the ordinary man.

Sophocles writing about Sophocles would have been lost in a maze of echoing mirrors.[…]

Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero. When the artist conceives himself a hero, he ceases to be an artist and proceeds to destroy himself. Sophocles was a great artist because he endured. The artist to become an artist suppresses the hero in him. [from The Extreme of the Middle, 3.13]


Despite the many years I knew Jack, I thought there was not a single picture of him and me together. But I recently found a group of slides I took that day, September 5, 1981. And among them was a picture Hermine must have taken with my camera of Jack and me standing together looking at the big waves from a distant storm.