Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I first saw the film TAXI DRIVER when it came out in 1976. I walked out of the theater in a daze. At the time it was shocking for its graphic depiction of violence and its up close look at prostitution and a world most of us never experience. I was 20 years old, and until that time, I basically looked at movies as entertainment, but TAXI DRIVER made me see cinema as a medium that could be artistic and reflect and make strong statements about our culture.

TAXI DRIVER was directed by Martin Scorsese who was from New York and had already captured the city's texture in his film Mean Streets. The film opens with a shot of and old checker cab emerging through smoke to the ominous soundtrack of Bernard Herrmann. The night cinematography by Michael Chapman uses the cab's window and rear view mirror as a frame for the ever shifting city. In the opening few minutes, the film renders the streets of New York in a dark and beautiful way. There are shots from the point of view of the cab moving through the city. The crowds move at different speeds and the colors and forms are constantly moving in and out of focus. I was studying painting at the time, and the shots in the film seemed like moving paintings. There are intense and vibrant documentary shots of the streets inserted into the narrative. There is one scene where an angry man is walking down the street venting his frustrations, screaming that he is going to kill someone. These scenes create a frightening and threatening atmosphere of the city as the cab moves through the streets.

TAXI DRIVER was written by Paul Schrader and is about loneliness and alienation and how feeling totally apart from society can lead to psychosis. Schrader was in a dark period in his own life when he wrote the script. He saw the man in the taxi as a metaphor - the isolated man floating through the world he cannot connect with. Robert DeNiro does an incredible acting job portraying the downward spiral of Travis Bickle. DeNiro drove a cab at night in the city to get into the character. Told in a first person narration inspired by Dostoevsky's Notes From The Underground, Travis views the city as a sewer, and the more he drives and the less he sleeps, his vision is reinforced. A former Marine and Vietnam Veteran, he keeps a journal and writes letters to his folks telling them that he is working for the government. He is full of contradictions. He has this strange moral code. He hates pimps and pushers yet he hangs out in porno theaters. He starts a transformation with exercise, yet he eats crap and pops pills to get through his 12 hour shifts. While we can identify with some of his disgust for the negatives of the world, he is part of that same world himself. He is a racist and has many menacing glances with black characters, yet he will work any part of the city. He hangs out with the other cab drivers at times, but still seems apart from them. At one point he seeks advice from Wizard, another cabby played by Peter Boyle that is funny but awkward, and doesn't help Travis deal with his demons. There are shots that are held for longer than usual, such as the camera moving into the glass of alka seltzer that seems like a metaphor for his simmering mindset - a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.

The sequence where he meets and dates Cybill Shepherd represents his fantasy of hope. He sees her as an angel, but quickly he kills all hopes for a relationship with her by taking her to a porn film. This reinforces his belief in his own doomed condition. Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks represent the "normal" society and they work for the presidential candidate Charles Palantine.

After this rejection, Travis descends into total psychosis. He starts to stalk Palantine, and through a series of improvised scenes we see Travis go through a dark transition both mentally and physically. We see him buy guns and create ways of concealing them, leading to the famous scene in the mirror where he talks to himself "You talkin' to me?, I don't see anyone else standing here." He watches soap operas and American Bandstand showing people dancing to Late For The Sky by Jackson Browne. These scenes reinforce Travis' alienation from the world.

While he is an abhorrent character in many ways, we identify with him when he moves to help Iris the12 year old hooker played by Jodie Foster. There is another improvised scene with Travis and Iris at breakfast that is amazing and could never be totally scripted. Her pimp is played by Harvey Keitel and Travis sees him as the scum of the earth and becomes committed to freeing Iris from him. 

The film builds to an explosion of violence. After Travis aborts his attempt to assassinate Palantine, he heads to the lower east side where Iris lives to complete his desire to rescue her from the life of prostitution. This leads to one of cinema's landmark scenes of violence - a slow methodical stylized bloodbath with Travis in his mohawk, complete with a full overhead tracking shot going back over the carnage.

The film ends with A letter being read by Iris’ father thanking Travis for saving their little girl. Since he ended up killing a pimp he was made into a hero, but if he had killed the politician as he planned, he would have been viewed as a crazed killer. At the end of the film it seems as if he has cleansed himself and is now back to “normal”. He picks up the Cybil Shepard character and her face is like a floating angel in the rearview mirror surrounded by the swirling colorful images of the street. The soundtrack is now smooth and mellow, but after he drops her off , the moving paintings return and we catch glimpses of Travis’ eyes in the rearview mirror. As the credits roll the Bernard Hermann soundtrack swells into ominous tones as Travis plunges back into the traffic and flows down the avenue into a sea of headlights.

In 1985, I became a New York City cab driver and still do it part-time today. It is a stressful and crazy job and I have seen some amazing things. I once saw a driver fire a gun at another car in the middle of a road rage incident, but overall nothing quite as extreme and psychotic as TAXI DRIVER.

There is one scene that captures what driving a cab is like. When Travis tells the politician how the city should be flushed down the toilet, he pauses and his mindset changes for only a moment to honk at another driver who has cut him off. One moment your just cruising along feeling fine, and the next moment somebody cuts you off, and the anger explodes out of you without control. This happens to me all night long.

TAXI DRIVER is a powerful cinematic experience that expresses the problem of the individual trying to find his place in society, and how alienation and loneliness can lead us into dark places. It may not be Scorsese's best film as Raging Bull and Goodfellas are accepted masterpieces, but because of the time I saw it in my life it made a huge and lasting impression that I will never forget.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Early in life, I studied painting, printmaking, and film. After I moved to New York in 1984, I started learning computer graphics and became proficient at Adobe Photoshop. I had always taken photographs as reference for my paintings and prints, but in the mid-1990s, I decided to concentrate on photography. With Photoshop, I manipulated photographic images that gave them a more printmaking quality, but over time I decided I just wanted to make simple straightforward photographs. On 911, I took a photograph near Ground Zero, soon after the Twin Towers had collapsed. Eventually, it was published in the book Here Is New York that documented the tragic event and its aftermath. After this, I became interested, even obsessed with photojournalism. I looked at many books and websites and became familiar with the major photographers. I started to see it in a different light. The images documented war and its consequences and historical events, but I also started to see these images as art. An art of beautiful, disturbing, and powerful images that are executed with incredible technique, and make powerful statements about  the world in which we live. During this time I discovered MAGNUM PHOTOS.

MAGNUM PHOTOS is an international photographic cooperative that was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, David Seymour, Henry Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and William Vandivert. It is owned and administered entirely by its members. It includes photojournalists from all over the world. They have offices located in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo. The photographers have a curiosity and respect for what is going on in the world and a desire to transcribe it visually. Magnum's archive includes photographs that cover war, poverty, famine, crime, drugs, religion, government, celebriities, and family life. I would encourage anyone to check out their website and books. Here are some of my favorite photographers and their images.

HENRY CARTIER-BRESSON is considered the father of modern photojournalism. He shot with a 35mm Leica and developed the street or real life reportage style that influenced many photographers to come. He came up with the term "the decisive moment." The photographer is creative when he notices that perfect moment that will only last a split second and must have the intuition to click the camera before the moment slips away.

ROBERT CAPA photographed 5 different wars,  including The Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the First Indochina War, where he was killed by a land mine in 1954. He died with a camera in his hand. Here are two of his most famous images, The Falling Soldier from the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day Landing during the invasion of Normandy during WWII. 

BRUCE DAVIDSON created bodies of work that documented different aspects of America and New York. He created a book called Brooklyn Gang and covered the Civil Rights Movement. My favorite book by him is East 100th Street, where he photographed a block in East Harlem and the people that lived on it over a period of two years. He also produced a photographic essay in color of the New York Subway and a black and white book on Central Park.

BRUNO BARBEY was born in Morocco and has produced an amazing body of color work from there. Early on he produced a book called The Italians. Over four decades he journeyed across five continents and covered conflicts in Nigeria, Vietnam, the Middle East, Cambodia, Ireland, and Iraq.

GILLES PERESS photographed Iran during the Revolution in 1979. From these images he produced the book Telex Iran: In The Name of Revolution which had a huge impact on me when I first came across it many years ago. He also produced a book called The Silence which is about the genocide in Rwanda. He sees his work more as document and preserving history, than about "good photography." Still, it is great photography.

STEVE MCCURRY produces amazing color work mostly in Asia. His books South Southeast and The Unguarded Moment are beautiful works of art. He also took the famous "Afghan Girl" photo and is a great portrait photographer.

SUSAN MEISELAS is best known for her coverage of human rights issues in Central America. Her book Nicaragua is a masterpiece of coverage of the insurrection and revolution in that country in 1978-1979. The cover image of the revolutionaries is one of my favorite photos ever. When I first saw it many years ago I was astounded by the color and the irony of one of the men sporting a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap.

ALEX WEBB also produces incredible color photo essays. He has an amazing compositional sense that captures images at that perfect moment. He has produced work and books about Haiti, the Amazon, the US-Mexican Border, and Istanbul.

Peress, McCurry, Meiselas, and Webb were all present in New York on 911, and their images from that day can be seen in the Magnum Photos book Septermber 11.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My two most vivid memories of childhood were the Kennedy Assassination in November 1963 and the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. I was 7 years old and both events had a huge and lasting impact. The JFK Assassination was my loss of innocence. The Beatles emergence, at the time, seemed exciting and rebellious, and presented an alternative way of being compared to the mainstream conservative American values that were prevalent.

Recently, Rolling Stone ranked the 100 best Beatle songs and A Day In The LIfe was number one. It is the ultimate Lennon-McCartney collaboration. The final song on Sgt. Pepper's, it sounds as if the world is falling apart. Lennon's lyrics come from a newspaper report about a car wreck, and also alludes to things in his own life as he had recently been in the film How I Won The War. Lennon wrote the basic song, but thought it needed something else. McCartney had a song fragment that was inserted into the middle (Woke up, got out of bed) with orchestral elements including a cacophonous interlude between their two parts that seamlessly connect, what are almost two completely different songs. The whole thing ends with another orchestral buildup and a 53 second piano crash and a weird vocal fragment. Its a strange, unique, intense, experimental song that also has a sweeping emotional impact. The first five Beatle albums were basically rock and roll love songs done extremely well. Rubber Soul and Revolver is where the song structure experiments started, coming to full expression on Sgt. Pepper's, the most influential rock album ever. It is a great album among many great ones by the Beatles, but my favorite, and the one I find the most interesting is the WHITE ALBUM.

THE WHITE ALBUM came out in 1968, when there was reportedly turmoil within the group. It is a collage-like album that combines parody, traditional rock and roll, intimate ballads, jazzy music-hall sounds, avant-garde experimentation, political statements, and dada-like nonsense, spread across a double album.

It starts with a bang with Back In The USSR, written by Paul McCartney. The song opens and closes with a sound of a jet landing and refers to a flight from Miami to the USSR. The title is a tribute to Chuck Berry's Back In The USA and the background vocals pay homage to the Beach Boys. There is a pun on the song Georgia on My Mind, but here McCartney is talking about the Soviet Republic of Georgia. An odd combination of different elements it is a killer rock song, propelled by McCartney's high energy piano and lead guitar riffs. Back In The USSR segues into Dear Prudence, a beautiful John Lennon ballad that he wrote in India when the Beatles were staying with the Maharishi. Prudence Farrow was also there and wouldn't come out of her room because she was constantly meditating. Next comes Glass Onion, also written by Lennon. It references several other Beatle songs Including Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus, and Lady Madonna. One lyric "Well, here's another clue for you all, the walrus is Paul." This contributed to the Urban Legend that Paul had died during the recording of Sgt. Pepper's and had been replaced by a double who looked and sounded like him. Glass Onion is followed by 3 childlike tunes. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is upbeat but quite strange. Things get creepier with the one minute Wild Honey Pie. Next comes The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, written by Lennon about a man named Richard Cooke an American, who was staying at the Ashram in India at the same time the Beatles were. He went on a hunting expedition and shot a tiger, for which at first he was quite proud, but Lennon challenged him on it and wrote the song mocking what he saw as Cooke's unenlightened and life-destructive attitude. Next comes While My Guitar Gently Weeps, written by George Harrison, one of the most beautiful and emotional Beatle songs ever, that includes a lovely guitar solo by Eric Clapton. The first side ends with Happiness Is A Warm Gun. A brilliant song written by Lennon, it also packs an emotional punch but with a much darker quality. Musically, it frequently shifts time signatures and tempos and has some interesting distorted guitar work. The song came about when George Martin showed Lennon a gun magazine with the title on the cover. Lennon tied this to shooting up heroin and created the opening surreal imagery. It ends with a doo-wop vocal refrain of the title, with a sarcastic back-up vocal - bang, bang, shoot, shoot. 

Side 2 opens with Martha My Dear by McCartney and he is the only Beatle to appear on the track. It features a music-hall style piano that recurs throughout and a brass band. It is inspired by his Old English Sheepdog named Martha and an ex-love interest Jane Asher. This is followed by Lennon's I'm So Tired which was written at the ashram when he couldn't sleep because he was missing Yoko Ono. Blackbird is Paul on acoustic guitar and was inspired by racial tensions escalating in the United States in the spring of 1968. Musically, it is inspired by Bach's Bourree in E Minor, a well-known classical guitar piece. Piggies written by Harrison is a social commentary on class and greed, and is deceptively simple even though it includes a harpsichord and a string quartet that at one point plays an unexpected blues riff. Rocky Raccoon is McCartney's spoof of the folk singer centered around the story of a love triangle with an western-style honky tonk piano part played by George Martin. Don't Pass Me By was Ringo's first solo composition and his sung by him. The song employs a  three-chord blues structure with a violin being played throughout by Jack Fallon. One lyric "you were in a car crash and lost your hair" also contributed to the urban legend of Paul's death. Why Don't We Do It In The Road by McCartney is a short and simple 12-bar blues featuring Paul's increasingly raucous vocal. I Will by Paul is a light love ballad for his future wife Linda. The second side closes with Julia, written and totally performed by John Lennon. The song is about his mother who was killed by a drunk off-duty police officer when John was 17 years old.

Birthday opens up side 3, and was written by Paul, but the lead vocals are shared by him and John. It has a more traditional rock and roll feel. The song has one of McCartney's most intense vocal performances with John carrying the lower harmony. Yer Blues written by Lennon is an intense dirty blues with suicidal lyrics. It references Dylan's Ballad of Thin Man and Lennon's own psychological demons. Mother Nature's Son was written and performed by Paul and was inspired by a lecture the Maharishi made while The Beatles were in India. It also includes a brass arrangement by George Martin. Everybody Has Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey was written by John about the paranoia that surrounded him and Yoko who were in the glow of love. Sexy Sadie was written by Lennon about the Maharishi after John witnessed him make a sexual advance on one of the women at the ashram. Helter Skelter was written by Paul and was a deliberate attempt to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible and is known for its proto-metal roar an unique textures. Helter Skelter means - in a disorderly haste of confusion. Paul was reacting to the charge that he only wrote ballads. It ends with Ringo screaming "I got blisters on my fingers." The song also came up when Charles Manson and his followers were arrested for a series of brutal murders in LA in 1969. Manson claimed Helter Skelter was the coming race war between whites and blacks, but of course this was his own twisted interpretation. The final song on side 3 is Long, Long, Long by George. It is an ambiguous love song where he could be singing to his lady or his Lord. It is an odd mixture of jazz waltz, folk, and psychedelia.

The final side of the album opens with Revolution 1, Lennon's comment about the political protests of 1968, and some of his doubt about certain tactics. At one point he sings "if you are talking about destruction, you can count me out." but a moment later says "in" as he wasn't sure where you draw the line. He wanted to see the plan of those who were calling for social upheavel. The version on the White Album is slower than the more chaotic and faster version that was the B-side to the Hey Jude single that was also recorded during these sessions. Honey Pie written by Paul is a direct homage to the British music hall style. Savoy Truffle by George is about his good friend Eric Clapton's addiction to chocolate. Cry Baby Cry is a Lennon song where some of the lyrics are taken from advertisements and George Martin plays a harmonium. It ends with the Paul vocal Can You Take Me Back. This leads into Revolution 9, the experimental sound collage that includes tape loops, sound clips, reverse sounds, and sound effects. Lennon was mainly behind this track and George and Ringo participated. It is influenced by the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Yoko Ono was probably the main influence as she was heavily involved in the avant-garde art world. Some people find it unlistenable, but I find it quite fascinating and scary. In high school my friends and I used to hand turn the record backwards where "Number 9" became "Turn Me On Dead Man". Another reference to the Paul is dead rumor. The album ends with Good Night a lullaby Lennon wrote for his son Julian. George Martin arranged and conducted the lush orchestration that is reminiscent of a Hollywood produciton ending. It ends with Ringo whispering "good night...good night everybody....everybody, everywhere....good night."

THE WHITE ALBUM depicts a world that is strange and schizophrenic, moving from child-like wonder to creepy paranoia. It is open ended and ripe for interpretation. It is unlike anything else to emerge from the rock era. Take this brother, may it serve you well.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I moved to New York in 1984 and lived in a room at the Washington-Jefferson Hotel on 51st Street near 8th Avenue. I spent a lot of time at the Coliseum Bookstore on 57th and Broadway. This is where I discovered the books of Charles Bukowski.

His work is mostly set in Los Angeles where he grew up and lived most of his life. Bukowski's writing covers the ordinary lives of the poor, the working class, the down and out, and the oppression and drudgery of work. He inserted his alter-ego and anti-hero Henry Chinaski into his autobiographical fiction and documented his struggle to be a writer through conflicted relationships with women, heavy drinking, gambling on horses, and the constant struggle for money. He writes in a clear, paired down style and was influenced by Hemingway and John Fante.

My favorite novel by Bukowski is Ham On Rye. It tells the coming-of-age story of Henry Chinaski in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Bukowski does not idealize LA., but instead reveals the mundane unglamorous underbelly of living in Hollywood. The novel covers childhood to young adulthood and ends with a major American historical event. 

Bukowski was an outsider since youth as he was socially inept, withdrawn, and had a severe case of acne. He also had a bad and violent relationship with his father. Ham on Rye covers this and his struggles with the forces around him that try to make him conform. Chinaski is nasty at times, but the world around him is even more repulsive. He becomes a sarcastic loner and resorts to cultivating a tough guy image and using alcohol to deal with the world. It all sounds grim, but there is an element of humor that exists in all of Bukowski's work.

Bukowski's first writings were short stories and some were published in literary journals in the 1940s when he was in his 20s. He went through a period where he travelled around, working dead end jobs, and living in cheap rooming houses. In the early 50s after returning to LA, he started working with the post office which he would continue to do until 1969.

In 1955, he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer that was nearly fatal and when he was released he started writing poetry and made more of a commitment to his writing even though he still had to work a regular job.

In 1967, he started writing a column called Notes of A Dirty Old Man for the underground newspaper Open City and eventually it was picked up by the LA Free Press. He also published poetry chapbooks with The Outsider a literary magazine, that was run by Jon and Louise Webb who are acknowledged as giants of the post-war small-press movement. He was starting to get noticed and develop a following.

In 1969, John Martin the publisher of Black Sparrow Press got Bukowski to quit his job at the post office by offering him $100 a month for life. Bukowski accepted and almost all of his subsequent work was published by Black Sparrow.

The first book of poetry published by Black Sparrow was The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills. There would be many volumes to come including Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame ( which is where the name of this blog comes from) which collected earlier poetry from the 60s into a single volume. Other titles included Love Is A Dog From Hell and the final volume of poetry published before his death that some consider his best, The Last Night On Earth Poems. After his death, Black Sparrow continued to publish several volumes including What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through Fire. 

South of No North was a short story collection that included his earlier stories Confessions of A Man Insane Enough To Live With Beasts and All the Assholes In The World and Mine. Hot Water Music is a collection of later stories.

Bukowski wrote six novels. Post Office chronicled the trials and tribulations of working as a mail carrier and clerk and was written in about a month soon after his Black Sparrow deal. Factotum documented the period when he travelled around doing shit jobs and living in rooming houses. Women was written after he had some success and documents the many relationships that occur for the now famous writer. Ham and Rye covers his childhood until early adulthood. The other two also written after he has become known are Hollywood which is based on the making of the movie Barfly and Pulp his final work is a comic approach to his coming death.

He also collaborated with the artist Robert Crumb on a few books including Bring Me Your Love and The Captain Is Out To Lunch and The Sailors Have Taken Over The Ship. Bukowksi also produced his own paintings of a outsider childlike quality.

City LIghts also published some of his work including Notes of A Dirty Old Man, and Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, and Shakespeare Never Did This. Recently, they put out a couple of volumes of unpublished stories, reviews, and essays titled Portions From A Wine-Stained Notebook and Absence of the Hero.

There were also films made based on his work inlcuding Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Factotum with Matt Dillon. My favorite was Tales of Ordinary Madness starring Ben Gazzara.

There is also an excellent documentary called Born Into This that documents the life of Bukowski. It covers his whole life , his evolution as a writer, the main women in his life, and it does not idolize him, but shows he could be more sensitve than thought, but could be a bastard as well. 

The text on the Hostage CD sums it up best. Bukowski became the prophet of the underemployed, those students of the 70s who didn't take MBAs but became educated factory workers and technicians. The security guard who works out chess problems in his spare time, the computer programmer who can whistle Beethoven, the assembly-line worker who writes poetry nightly - all are fans who adapt Bukowski's pose of low-brow sophistication as one defense against the meaningless of mindless labor.