Down on the Bowery: A Fairytale of New York

Down on the Bowery: A Fairytale of New York

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairy Tale of New York

Some people feel that The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York is the best Christmas song ever, and not just one of the best, but a gorgeous song no matter why or how you observe Christmas. Fairytale of New York isn’t exactly the epitome of restraint, with Shane MacGowan and the sadly departed Kirsty MacColl singing all over each other, slurring words and tossing all kinds of insults at each other.

The song starts out tenderly, with MacGowan recounting Christmas Eve spent in a Bowery drunk tank, but also his recent gambling win and dreams for the future. MacColl lets us know, as the tempo picks up, that they met on a Christmas Eve, and after some light banter they really get into it, blaming each other for anything they can get their hands on, MacColl ending with “Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last.

But then they sing the chorus again, and a string section that actually sounds like it belongs in a Christmas song begins to take over. And it all feels, in spite of itself, grand and sweeping and even a little touching. They squabble a little more, the same as every Christmas, but they’re losing steam; finally MacColl accuses MacGowan of stealing her dreams when they met. This is a terribly poetic way to depict the deadening of expectations in terrible lives. But MacGowan’s voice turns gentle, even though it’s still rough, and he responds: “I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own, Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.”

It’s a tough old life, and Fairytale of New York practically oozes with the gritty spirit of urban decay, poverty, alcoholism and general dysfunction. But as the sounds of those strings float off and out of sight, it doesn’t seem to matter. Not to them and not to us, because it’s the day to sigh and give in to our better inclinations and hold each other and admit there’s still something there. Christmas is the arbitrary day of the year that purely through willpower and tradition we’ve turned into the day where we all try just a little bit harder at being better than we thought we could be.

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairy Tale of New York

Slide Show: Down on the Bowery

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Case History: Behold the Anonymous Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

Photography by: Boris Mikhailov

Case History: Behold the Anonymous Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

Ukrainian-born Boris Mikhailov is one of the leading photographers from the former Soviet Union. For over 30 years, he has explored the place of the individual within the historical mechanisms of public ideology, touching on such subjects as the Ukraine under Soviet rule, the living conditions in post-communist Eastern Europe and the fallen ideals of the Soviet Union. Although deeply rooted in a historical context, Mikhailov’s work also presents profoundly engaging and personal narratives of humor, lust, vulnerability, aging and death.

Case History is a study of the homeless, a collection of photographs by Mikhailov of homeless people in the Ukraine. His raw images of the homeless are sometimes intensely painful and not for the squeamish; they are hard to look at, but also hard to look away from and hard to forget. The photographs from Case History are currently on exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the first in-depth presentation of Mikhailov’s seminal series (1997-98) at an American museum. The photographs portray people who are far from conventionally attractive in grungy rooms or in wintry outdoor sites, naked or pulling aside their clothes to expose parts of their bodies ordinarily hidden from view.

Mr. Mikhailov began making photographs in the 1960s, but he was arrested and interrogated twice by the K.G.B. In 1996, five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he began making portraits of people who had been disenfranchised and left homeless by the rise of a new capitalist oligarchy in his hometown of Kharkov, Ukraine, where he was born in 1938. He published 400 of them in his book Case History, from which the photographs here were selected.

What does it mean to present images like these as art in a museum? In one respect, they carry on the tradition of picturing the downtrodden exemplified in photographs by countless artists from Walker Evans to Andres Serrano. Works like those tell us that, whatever their outward appearances and circumstances, the poor have souls that are worthy of respect. However, Mr. Mikhailov’s photographs are not so ennobling. They render their subjects as exotic and even demonic. Like specimens in a freak show, they elicit sympathy, revulsion or amazement, but not admiration or empathy. Because there are no titles or captions, you don’t know who the people are or anything about their lives. Maybe some were research scientists, or university professors fired for not toeing party lines or for crossing paths with a ruthless plutocrat at the wrong place and time; maybe they were all rounded up from an insane asylum, or from detox center for alcoholics.

All of his subjects seem to belong to a tribe or extended family of outcasts. But “the homeless,” one might object, is not composed of a homogeneous population. The homeless include alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes, con artists, people with mental illnesses and hard-working citizens going through rough times. But Mr. Mikhailov is not concerned with personal particulars. In his enterprise, the subjects are, above all, actors who function mainly as allegorical symbols. They stand as expressions for the underbelly of society, and their challenging revelations of their own usually hidden body parts is a metaphor for the whole project of exposing what polite society would prefer to keep under wraps. To the extent that they appear everywhere around the world, including in New York City, they are universal signs of capitalism’s failure to care for the less fortunate.

Viewers can read more about Mr. Mikhailov’s work in The New York Times here

Boris Mikhailov: Photographs from “Case History” (1999)

Slide Show: Case History/Behold the Homeless, Downtrodden, Insulted and Injured

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Sermon on the Mound: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Sermon on the Mound: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Sermon on the Mound is an inspirational three-minute documentary short film directed by Eliot Rausch. The deeply personal documentary was shot over a period of 36 hours in Los Angeles and is  stunningly filmed and edited. The documentary short expresses a tone of unconditional love and support for the poor in spirit, the impoverished, the homeless and the persecuted. Previously, Rausch was the director of Last Minutes with Oden, which was named the Best Documentary and Overall Best Video at the 2010 Vimeo Awards in New York City.

Sermon on the Mound: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

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The Maestro: An Off-Key Derelict Creates an Urban Symphony

The Maestro: An Off-Key Derelict Creates an Urban Symphony

The Maestro is an inspiring short film directed by Adam Anthony in collaboration with Third Generation Films, which was one of the winning films at 2011 Tropfest Australia. On unkind city streets an off-key homeless derelict liberates a window-washing squeegee, which empowers him to create a symphony out of the urban world around him. But when the orchestra becomes as big as the city itself, will The Maestro still be able to control his world of sound?

The Maestro: An Off-Key Derelict Creates an Urban Symphony

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On the Bowery: A Fairytale of New York

On the Bowery: A Fairytale of New York

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairy Tale of New York

Some people feel that The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York is the best Christmas song ever, and not just one of the best, but a gorgeous song no matter why or how you observe Christmas. Fairytale of New York isn’t exactly the epitome of restraint, with Shane MacGowan and the sadly departed Kirsty MacColl singing all over each other, slurring words and tossing all kinds of insults at each other.

The song starts out tenderly, with MacGowan recounting Christmas Eve spent in a Bowery drunk tank, but also his recent gambling win and dreams for the future.  MacColl lets us know, as the tempo picks up, that they met on a Christmas Eve, and after some light banter they really get into it, blaming each other for anything they can get their hands on, MacColl ending with “Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last.

But then they sing the chorus again, and a string section that actually sounds like it belongs in a Christmas song begins to take over.  And it all feels, in spite of itself, grand and sweeping and even a little touching.  They squabble a little more, the same as every Christmas, but they’re losing steam; finally MacColl accuses MacGowan of stealing her dreams when they met.  This is a terribly poetic way to depict the deadening of expectations in terrible lives.  But MacGowan’s voice turns gentle, even though it’s still rough, and he responds:  “I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own, Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.”

It’s a tough old life, and Fairytale of New York practically oozes with the gritty spirit of urban decay, poverty, alcoholism and general dysfunction.  But as the sounds of those strings float off and out of sight, it doesn’t seem to matter.  Not to them and not to us, because it’s the day to sigh and give in to our better inclinations and hold each other and admit there’s still something there.   Christmas is the arbitrary day of the year that purely through willpower and tradition we’ve turned into the day where we all try just a little bit harder at being better than we thought we could be.

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairy Tale of New York

Slide Show: On the Bowery

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The Children’s Defense Fund: Wilson Beat the Odds

The Children’s Defense Fund: Wilson Beat the Odds

Wilson Beat the Odds is an inspiring, thoughtfully compassionate documentary short film written and directed by the award-winning filmmaker Mark Jacobs.  Over the course of Jacobs’ career as both a journalist and film director, he’s produced numerous documentaries centered on adolescent obstacles that affect both the educational and developmental aspects of becoming a responsible adult in today’s society.  Targeted issues have included drug and alcohol abuse, racism and stress.

This documentary arose from a request to make a film about the Children’s Defense Fund’s “Beat The Odds” scholarship program, specifically about a young high school student named Wilson Khuav.  Wilson’s family members were immigrants from Cambodia, survivors of the brutally murderous Khmer Rouge regime.  Not too long after settling in southern California, Wilson’s family found themselves unexpectedly homeless.

Nevertheless, Wilson was determined to graduate from high school and take full advantage of everything that school has to offer.  Despite having to live in a motel and being forced to deal with the daily challenge of overcoming hunger, Wilson managed to maintain a 3.7 GPA and also received numerous scholastic awards.  In recognition of those remarkable achievements, Wilson was nominated for the Children’s Defense Fund’s “Beat The Odds” scholarship and was one of five young adults presented with a $10,000 scholarship award.

The Children’s Defense Fund: Wilson Beat the Odds

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Bliss and Color: On the Pursuit of Happiness

Bliss and Color: On the Pursuit of Happiness

Bliss and Color is a thoughtful, very touching short film/music video directed by the young Canadian filmmaker Kyle Bowman, which was an Official Selection at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY) 2010.  The film provides a compassionate meditation on the pursuit of happiness; it tells the story of a homeless man who seeks refuge from the city’s cold winter streets in an attempt to recreate the joy and spirit of Christmastime, which he had long ago lost due to the ongoing hardships of his impoverished world.  The film is accompanied by the music of Exogenesis: Symphony, Part 3 (Redemption) by Muse.

Bliss and Color: On the Pursuit of Happiness

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