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College Walk
 
 
High Art

In 1979, a monument in honor of William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan 1905CC, 1908LAW was unveiled on the plaza outside the Law School. The bronze sculpture, by the Dutch artist Kees Verkade, depicts a tightrope walker supporting another figure on his shoulders as he traverses a length of cable. Verkade wanted to convey the valor and “controlled daring” of Donovan, a much-decorated battalion leader in the Great War who was appointed in 1941 by his Columbia law classmate Franklin Delano Roosevelt to head what would become the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the modern Central Intelligence Agency.

Tightrope walkers had a certain currency in 1979. A year earlier, the most famous high-wire artist in the world, Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the daredevil circus troupe the Flying Wallendas, fell to his death during a walk between the towers of a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And in August 1974, a young French street performer named Philippe Petit shocked the world by staging the ultimate piece of guerrilla theater: he and his cohorts sneaked into the World Trade Center and ingeniously rigged, between the rooftops of the Twin Towers, a slender steel cable, 200 feet of it, upon which Petit frolicked and genuflected for 45 minutes, a quarter of a mile in the sky.

Bill Donovan would have found much to admire in Petit, whose own formidable acts of espionage, subterfuge, intelligence gathering, planning, and derring-do are portrayed in the documentary Man on Wire, directed by British filmmaker James Marsh and coproduced by Maureen Ryan ’92SOA. Praise for the movie, which is Marsh and Ryan’s fifth collaboration, has been unanimous — literally. The movie review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com reports that all 137 reviews for Man on Wire have been favorable, making it that Web site’s top-ranked film. After winning both the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary and the Audience Award at Sundance in 2008, Man on Wire snagged Best Documentary from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Boston Society of Film Critics, among others. This February, to no one’s surprise, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Ryan, who has been teaching production in the film department since 1999, first knew that she was involved in something special when the crew went to Petit’s home in Upstate New York to interview him. “Philippe is so energetic and full of life and has this vision of the world that is so invigorating,” Ryan says. “And to find that he was such an amazing, captivating storyteller — that was a telltale sign. So it was like, ‘Let’s not screw this up. Let’s build on that and move forward.’ Which we did.”

With each interview of Petit’s band of conspirators, Ryan’s sense of the thing grew, but what sealed it for her was the beautifully shot archival footage of the long-haired schemers, who looked as if they’d stepped out of an early Yes album, as they rehearsed for the soon-to-be-completed World Trade Center on a makeshift wire in a lush green field in France. “At that point I just thought, ‘OK. We’re operating on all cylinders here.’”

A measure of luck is integral to any work of art, and just as Petit managed to assemble a motley, erratic, but ultimately successful gang of adventurers to help him realize his dream of dancing between the towers, he also entrusted his incredible story — along with breathtaking footage of his earlier illegal wire-walking escapades in Paris and Sydney — to exactly the right team of filmmakers. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Man on Wire is that it is equal to its subject. The result is a movie of unusual emotional impact, in which awestruck audiences have been known to gasp and weep as they are confronted with nothing less than the beauty of art — but art on a scale that is superhuman: prodigious in its risks, sublime in its form, thrilling in its sheer defiance, radical in its implication. “Inspiring” is the word that Ryan most often hears from moviegoers.

It all starts with Petit, a merry provocateur possessed of all the charm, wit, poetry, confidence, cunning, and persuasiveness of a born cult leader. But Ryan knows as well as anyone that Petit’s accomplishment that August morning 35 years ago was hardly the work of a single, obsessed visionary.

“His accomplices are just as interesting,” she says. “They were a group of people coming together for one vision and making it happen: for me, as a producer, that’s what we do when we make a film. I really relate to that and what they were able to do. I think it was a miracle.”

The miracle is made all the more poignant, of course, by the eventual demise of the buildings; the grainy record of the towers’ construction — the giant pit, the cranes hoisting the familiar latticed steel panels, the shirtless hardhats swarming like worker ants over the skeleton of the colossus — brings us obscurely into the realm of myth, of Daedalus and Icarus, architecture and soaring ambition, creation and destruction. The movie makes no reference to September 11, an artistic choice that proves the axiom that what’s left out is as important as what’s put in. This absence gives the audience the psychic space to process, as Ryan says, “the need and desire to reclaim those towers for ourselves, to replace those images that we’ve seen so many times and to be able to take them back and remember the beginning.”

Watching Man on Wire, one gains an appreciation for the notion of “controlled daring” that the sculptor Verkade attributes to Bill Donovan. And though Philippe Petit may never have a statue of a wire walker built for him on the grounds of Columbia, the community still has the opportunity to see the real thing: Petit is artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which was rededicated this past December after a 2001 fire that had severely damaged the building. As part of the celebration, Petit walked across a rope that was tied to a pillar and held taut about five feet off the ground on the other end by several spectators. Death-defying? No. Life-affirming? Certainement.

And as for Maureen Ryan? Her statue needs have been fulfilled, at least for now.

“I was 12 years old and I saw the Academy Awards for the first time,” she says, “and I thought to myself, ‘Someday I want to be there.’ It really was my dream.”

— Paul Hond
 

 
 

Galactic Gossip

Just before seven on a midwinter’s night, about 200 people arrived at Pupin Hall for “Eavesdropping on Supermassive Black Holes,” a lecture that called to mind why listening to the universe is good advice but not so easy to achieve.

As a rule, humans favor sight over sound. That was made clear when the clouds parted high above Broadway and 120th Street and the waxing sliver of a moon made a curtain call. In the 30-degree cold, visitors lined up to look into the viewfinder of a portable six-inch-wide Orion SkyQuest telescope, which was set up just outside the doors of Pupin.

“That’s so cool!” said seventh grader Manolo Caba, paraphrasing Galileo 400 years earlier when he became the first astronomer to use a telescope.

Awesome, Caba’s classmates from the East Harlem School concurred.

Inside Pupin, the lights dimmed and a graduate astronomy student, Takamitsu Tanaka, made the case for how cool and awesome it would be if we could observe the universe not just with our eyes but with our ears, too.

“Imagine being in a jungle,” Tanaka said. “If all you do is sit in a treetop with binoculars, you’re not going to hear that waterfall around the corner.”

Tanaka’s presentation was part of the Columbia astronomy department’s ongoing celebration of the International Year of Astronomy, which is being marked by a series of lectures on the wonders of the universe that Galileo helped make accessible in 1609.

But there’s a catch, Tanaka said: “Black holes are very hard to hear.” And by hear, Tanaka was being metaphorical. There is no sound in space, since sound is created when things that vibrate — guitar strings, for example — disturb molecules in the atmosphere, a disturbance we perceive as sound. No atmosphere, no sound.

Light, however, can exist in a vacuum (which is why we can see stars), as can little-known gravitational waves — ripples in the space-time continuum — which, as Tanaka was keen to explain, are not so easy to detect.

Two astronomers, Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor Jr., detected gravitational waves indirectly, which won them the Nobel Prize in 1993. Scientists are working on ways to detect the waves directly, with such instruments as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a collection of three spacecraft positioned as points of an equilateral triangle plotted 3 million miles apart. But since LISA won’t be launched for another 10 years, Tanaka had to improvise, using several audio recordings that translated simulated gravitational wave data into sound. As the audience in Pupin fell silent in anticipation, Tanaka played the celestial tune from a file on his computer.

When objects like neutron stars, which have roughly twice the mass of the sun but are so dense as to be the size of Manhattan, orbit asymmetrically in space, they emit gravitational waves that spread outward, like ripples on the surface of a pond. Tanaka’s computer interpreted this phenomenon as a low, reverberating hum.

But the real symphonic climax of space occurs when two compact binary stars, feeding off the energy of their orbits, produce gravitational waves that result in what Tanaka called a “slow and spiraling dance.” Since the energy of the gravitational waves comes from the orbit, the orbit eventually shrinks, causing the stars to move closer to one another, spiraling faster and faster until….

What is the sound of this interstellar collision? According to Tanaka’s computer, it begins with a low rumbling that slowly rises in pitch and intensity, until it erupts into — a high-pitched squeal.

Which made the audience laugh.

The lecture ended and the lights came up. Inspired, Manolo Caba and his classmates rushed to get their hands on free posters of the sun. Then they ascended to the Rutherford Observatory on the roof of Pupin, abandoning sound for sight.

The observatory’s retractable roof was opened, revealing a night sky once again shrouded in clouds, making any stargazing impossible. “That’s weather for you,” one astronomy grad student explained.

Whatever the universe was saying, the students weren’t listening. One by one, they climbed onto a platform, and then onto a folding chair, to become tall enough to get a good look through the lens of the observatory’s small telescope, tilted a few degrees shy of skyward. What they saw left them quiet. That bright thing in the distance? It wasn’t a star or the moon. That? That’s Midtown.

If you listened closely, you could almost hear the universe laughing.

— Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN 

 
 

Tales from the Crypt

On a coffin-sized stage, Shawn Taylor, a husky folksinger wearing a dark blue Kangol cap and a Tom Waits goatee, sings Dylan’s “I Want You” in a raspy voice. A crowd of 30 students has filled the dank, vaultlike room. Ten small tables hold beer bottles, bowls of popcorn. Dress is mixed: nose rings and designer eyewear, ripped jeans and cotton Dockers. A string of white Christmas lights, wound around a horizontal pipe on the brick wall behind the stage, forms a moody backdrop for Taylor as he swings into a country-blues number of his own, “Granite Highs and Muddy Lows.” Welcome to Postcrypt Coffeehouse, the dark heart that has been giving Columbia its musical beat since 1964.

Hairstyles, clothes, and the subject matter of songs have changed multiple times in the past 45 years. Yet inside this intimate little club, located at the bottom of a winding marble staircase in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel, much has stayed the same. Admission remains free, as does the popcorn. The spot was, and is, student run. And the talent that has passed through here has often been extraordinary.

“We’ve had amazing singer-songwriters over the years,” says Nishant Batsha, a junior, who is the venue’s booking manager. “Everybody from David Bromberg, Suzanne Vega, Jerry Jeff Walker, to Jeff Buckley has played here when they were coming up. They were all but unknown when they did the Postcrypt. Of our recent performers, I think Anthony da Costa may be in their league. He’s just 17 and already is an incredible live performer. Anthony’s thinking of attending Columbia next year. If he does,” Batsha jokingly adds, “we’ll probably just give him the keys to the place.”

The name “Postcrypt,” for those wondering if this underground space was indeed once a burial chamber, actually has typically Columbian intellectual roots. In 1964, the University’s chaplain, Rev. John Cannon, dubbed the spot “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments,” the title of a text by Kierkegaard. Over the years, the name was shortened, then buffed into something hip and Gothic.

“I found the place by accident,” says one sophomore with a tiny yin and yang tattoo on his neck. “My taste usually tends toward ’80s hardcore, like The Minutemen. But the music here is just as uncompromising. There’s no hype and no pandering. Hey, there’s even no electricity for
the performers!”

How does one get to play the Postcrypt? “Certainly you can send us a demo and some information about what you do,” says Batsha, “but it’s more fun to come and play on an open mic night. You get about 10 minutes or two songs. Make an impressive showing and it can lead to a gig.”

Shawn Taylor now strums another original tune, “The Bottom Line,” a lament for a working-class fellow who’s another victim of the current economy. “Billy lost his job today / He walked on in and they walked him away / Nothing personal, sorry / Have a nice day.” Not exactly a pleasant message for a bunch of college students who will soon be entering the job market. Yet judging from the smiling faces, Billy’s hard luck is still a distant abstraction. Tonight, it’s all about the music; there will be time to worry tomorrow.

— Peter Gerstenzang ’82GS, ’85SOA


 
  Dance Party

Walking down Main Street in Park City, Utah, on Saturday, January 17, one might have questioned those rumors of how the economy had chilled out the Sundance party scene. Certainly a loud roar was coming from the restaurant 350 Main, one of the few spots on this frontier-style strip that isn’t a saloon. Didn’t the people inside know there was a recession going on?

They did, but they also had cause to celebrate. This was Columbia’s annual Sundance fete, sponsored by the Columbia Alumni Association in collaboration with the School of the Arts, and some 300 Columbians had gathered to toast their collective achievement: 2009 marked the most impressive showing yet of Columbia grads, faculty, and students at the Sundance Film Festival, now in its 25th year.

Of the festival’s 214 movies, selected from over 9000 submissions, 28 were created by CU artists. Four of the 16 films selected for the U.S. Dramatic Competition were written and directed by Columbia filmmakers. Among the auteurs were Cherien Dabis ’04SOA, who drew a standing ovation for her film Amreeka, a touching, funny portrait of a Palestinian woman’s immigration to the United States; Emily Abt ’04SOA, whose Toe to Toe depicted the racial tensions on a girls’ high-school lacrosse team; and Sophie Barthes ’03SIPA, the writer-director of the sci-fi black comedy Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti.

Inside 350 Main, revelers clinked glasses and munched pork loin and quesadillas. It was a nice respite from the L.A.-saturated scene out on Main Street, where producers in puffy coats and designer denim wielded iPhones, MacBooks, and Sundance ID placards, and seemed to justify founder Robert Redford’s recent public lament over the commercialization of his festival.

The Columbians had other concerns. Director Adam Salky ’08SOA and writer David Brind ’08SOA were discussing their feature, Dare, which portrays the sexual awakenings of three high school kids: the good girl, the outsider, and the rich kid. Was Brind trying to resurrect John Hughes? “No,” said Brind, as he sipped a glass of red wine. “My influences were more varied than The Breakfast Club. For me it was Rebel Without a Cause, Election, Heathers.”

Salky offered an alternate set of inspirations. “I was thinking more Cruel Intentions meets Y tu mamá también,” he said.

At five o’clock, Jamal Joseph, the School of the Arts film division chair, made an appeal to the group of directors, actors, editors, and writers and their guests. “Guys, please quiet down now,” he said. “This event is for the filmmakers, so let’s listen, OK?”

One by one, the filmmakers introduced themselves to the crowd. Writer and current SOA student Jon Haller and director Filippo Conz ’08SOA, who collaborated on Concerto, a 16-minute short about infidelity, made their film last year in Queens for $20,000. A shoestring, maybe, but don’t tell that to the filmmakers.

“It’s amazing,” said Haller, his voice still tinged with disbelief. “The money just disappears.”

“Honestly,” said Salky, “it’s so hard to get a film made these days. One never knows until the first day of shooting whether it’s actually going to happen.”

Later, Joseph noted that the shared toil of filmmaking is just one element that makes these annual Sundance gatherings relevant. “It’s about celebrating and networking between Columbia students and alums who are meeting for the first time,” he said. “The word is out: Columbia brings great films to the festival. And we throw a great party.”

— Stacey Wilson ’01JRN

 
 

Time Piece

My Munch watch screaming
every time I check the time
tells me I’m dreaming

to think I’ve reckoned
I can shut horror out by
counting each second.

Yet maybe his roar’s
a thunderclap, not a dirge.
Time flies! Time flies! More’s

the pressure to know
the sadness of its flight and
make each minute glow!

Rachel Wetzsteon ’99GSAS

Wetzsteon’s fourth collection of poems, Silver Roses, will be published by Persea in 2010.

 

 
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