Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Studio 54: 'The Best Party of Your Life'

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service, 26 April 2012

It's 35 years since Studio 54 opened in New York. It quickly became the best known nightclub in America, riding the wave of 1970s dance music and newly found personal freedom. It made vast amounts of money for its two young owners. But after three years the party came crashing to a halt.

"On a good night Studio 54 was the best party of your life," says Anthony Haden-Guest, who reported on the club as a journalist throughout its short existence. He says Studio 54 was the right club in the right city at the right time.

Women were thriving in terms of their sexuality and it was also a great time to be gay. There was no stigma inside Studio 54. "Everything was happening at the same moment: there was the woman's movement, the gay movement, ethnic movements of all kinds. The whole place was combustible with energy."

Studio 54 opened just off Broadway in April 1977. The building had originally been a theatre and later a CBS studio.

Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager already had a club in Queens called Enchanted Garden. But 1977 was the year of Saturday Night Fever and disco reigned supreme. The young men were certain that what worked in an outer borough of New York could work in central Manhattan too.

Celebrities by the dozen flocked to Studio 54 and long lines of would-be clubbers queued outside hoping to be admitted. Most would-be clubbers never got past the doormen at Studio 54 who were looking for the right mix of people - especially those with high energy.

"There was always a ton of people outside waiting to get in - people from all walks of life," says Myra Scheer, an early fan who later became Rubell's assistant. "Most never got in, but if you caught the eye of Steve or of (doorman) Marc Benecke suddenly a path opened up. "Beyond the velvet rope was what I used to call the Corridor of Joy. It had ornate chandeliers and everybody there was screaming with joy that they got in. You could hear the pulsating music as you walked through and then you turned left and there was this dance floor. Everybody on that floor had the energy of being a radiant star."

Benecke can still recall how desperate people were to enter the club. "At one point you could buy maps which claimed to show how to get in through tunnels up from the subway system. It was crazy. Naturally people tried good old-fashioned bribery but that didn't work. Then I'd say to them they should go and buy the exact same jacket I was wearing - forgive me but I was only a teen at the time. And they'd go to Bloomingdale's and buy it and still they wouldn't get in."

"But if you were just dressing up in costume to get through the door, it showed you probably weren't the right person. We were looking for people with high energy," he says.
Looking great did not guarantee entry. "What we really wanted was the mix."

Haden-Guest says owner Steve Rubell had a sense for who ought to be on the dance floor on a specific night. "Every time was different. It was like a salad bowl - they might let in some straight-looking kids from Harvard, but then they'd also want a bunch of drag queens or whatever. Often it was surprisingly relaxed."

Celebrities from every walk of life could be found at Studio 54, including the former first lady of Canada Margaret Trudeau.

He said it would be impossible to run the club's VIP room today when a photo taken on phone can be spread around the world in an instant. But the VIPs were photographed and often. The list is long and included Calvin Klein, Truman Capote, Liza Minnelli, Robert Mapplethorpe, Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. Other regulars are perhaps more surprising: Benecke recalls the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz turning up regularly with his wife Wanda. "He always wore ear-plugs. He hated the music but he loved watching the people."

Scheer recalls Andy Warhol saying the club was a dictatorship at the door but a democracy inside. "There was no A-List or B-List or C-List. We came after the pill arrived and before Aids had a name. Women were thriving in terms of their sexuality and it was also a great time to be gay. There was no stigma inside Studio 54."

The club soon had a reputation as a place where physical intimacy needn't be limited to the dance floor. Benecke insists the sexual free-for-all has been exaggerated.
"They had a place called the Rubber Room upstairs. You would go up there and sure there might be couples having sex - but only one or two."

Haden-Guest was a regular visitor to what some assumed was a non-stop Bacchanalia of sex and drugs. But he thinks the amount of drugs taken has been overstated. "I had a wonderful time in disco culture but drugs played an extremely minor part. I think most people were just there to dance and have a good time."

The club's sudden end had less to do with public morality than with the fact that huge amounts of cash had gone undeclared for tax purposes. In 1980 Rubell and Schrager were sentenced to jail.

Attempts were made to revive the Studio 54 brand but the party was over. Steve Rubell died in 1989 and today, at 65, Ian Schrager is a successful hotel owner.

Looking back, Benecke wonders if the club's heyday had already passed when it closed. "The tax problems certainly speeded up the demise. But as a society we were changing into Punk and New Wave right after that. So Studio 54 would have had to change a lot to carry on at the same level of success."

Last year Studio 54 Radio launched on satellite in the US. It plays the hits of the disco era and Benecke and Scheer have a show discussing the old days. "It's like we have Class of 54 Reunions," says Scheer. "Because we went to the coolest high school. Modern kids spend so much time texting or tweeting or getting on YouTube. But we were in the moment. We were really there."

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Young Pope_series

The Young Pope review – stunning, thoughtful and visually arresting

Jude Law as the young pontiff
 Jude Law as the young pontiff wrestling with his belief in God. Photograph: ©Gianni Fiorito
Jude Law is excellent as Pius XIII, oscillating between vindictive authoritarian and wounded man-child with surprising charm. A TV review by REBECCA NICHOLSON, The Guardian, December 16, 2016
What a gorgeous and gripping series The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic H) has been. It is not surprising, coming from the director of such visually arresting films as Youth and The Great Beauty, but Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino’s first adventure on the small screen has been far more than just a pretty picture. It could have been overwhelmed by its splashy premise: Jude Law is Lenny Belardo, now Pius XIII, an ultra-conservative, manipulative new American pontiff. He has serious doubts about whether he believes in God, drinks Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and smokes more than the cast of Mad Men combined. But The Young Pope was stunning, thoughtful and dreamlike, and even though key players have been strategically shifted to dioceses around the globe, its well-earned second series can’t come soon enough.
Lenny, or Pius to his Vatican pals, has spent much of the first season establishing just what kind of Holy Father he intends to be. He was anointed on the misguided promise that he would be a pliable looker who might boost the church’s coffers by allowing his handsome image to appear on a few plates in the gift shop. But Lenny is no patsy; his idea of reforming Catholicism has been to crack down on moral transgressions and to channel Daft PunkBanksy and JD Salinger – his own points of reference – by hiding his face from public view, so that everyone can get back to the business of learning how to be Godly again. It is as effective a marketing technique as it is a point of principle.
There was a thriller-like tautness to Gutiérrez’s eventual capture of brazen paedophile Archbishop Kurtwell – and how wonderful that The Young Pope did not shy away from covering child abuse in the church – in New York. Kurtwell tried to destroy Pius’s reputation by releasing his old love letters to the press, but their publication in the New Yorker served to boost his popularity by showing his human side, even if it was against a backdrop of global protests over his stance on abortion. (The image of the naked women, each daubed in blood with a letter from the word BASTARD, is one of many unforgettable scenes, dropped in confidently and casually.) But, eventually, Kurtwell was reeled in and banished to Alaska – a poetic fall from grace for a man once so powerful, if not perhaps the most effective punishment for a habitual paedophile.
Sorrentino has said that it is no coincidence that Pius begins as an ultra-hardline pope in an era where the real pontiff is pursuing a more liberal papacy than his predecessors. What has been fascinating about this series is how well it has demonstrated the subtleties of change and growth. Early on, Pius boots out a cardinal for admitting his homosexuality, and insists it is incompatible with the teachings of the church. But, by the season finale, his greatest ally is Gutiérrez (Javier Cámara, conveying both compassion and pain with just a flicker of his eyes), who tells him his alignment of paedophilia and homosexuality is wrong. Pius admits he may be revising his views. Besides, he has a lot of mummy (and daddy) issues to deal with before he gets on to working out whether he believes in God.
Law has been excellent as Pius, oscillating between vindictive authoritarian and wounded man-child with surprising charm. And so, after his substitute parents leave him – James Cromwell’s Spencer finally dies, and he sends Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary off to work with children in Africa – we end with a road trip to Venice, where Pius hopes he might find those hippy parents who abandoned him and don’t seem to be particularly interested that their son is now the global head of the Catholic church.
In St Mark’s Square, he finally reveals his identity to the assembled crowd. Imagine wondering what the Pope looked like for months, and then finding out he has the face of Law. Sorrentino goes all out for the final scenes, which are as intricate as the Pope’s finest robes. Pius delivers a barnstorming address, then looks at the smiling faces in the crowd through a telescope Gutiérrez picked up at the service station on the way. He sees his parents, older, disappointed, leaving. I was left unsure if it was real or a vision; there is something Sopranos-like in The Young Pope’s ease with a dream sequence. As Pius collapses, we pull back to a wide shot, of the crowd, then of the city, then of the world. It’s so assured, so sumptuous, so well done, that it can absolutely get away with a gesture as grand as this.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Soccer and Doping? Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The New York Times, June 25, 2018

Like the consumers of fast-food chicken nuggets, football fans may be less than comfortable knowing how our fun is made.

The World Cup continues to thrill, with exhilarating wins by England, Germany, Belgium and Colombia, and an equally exciting draw between Japan and Senegal. Away from the field, though, an old controversy has once again rumbled into view: doping.

The Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, reported over the weekend that a Russian player, Ruslan Kambolov, who was excluded from his country’s World Cup squad because of injury, had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs 18 months ago. And according to the paper, it gets worse: Both the Russian authorities and FIFA kept this information quiet.

FIFA has swiftly rejected this version of events, stating that “insufficient evidence was found to assert an antidoping rule violation by any footballer.” But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Even before FIFA’s denial, the story attracted little scandal. Among football fans these days, reports of doping are generally met with a shrug.

Why? Well, for one thing, drug use isn’t new to football. In a 2013 interview, Johnny Rep, who starred for Ajax and Holland in the 1970s, said that it was common to take amphetamines before matches. More recently, there were allegations that Spanish players had enhanced their performance by receiving artificially oxygenated blood. FIFA itself has expelled players from the World Cup for drug use: Willie Johnston of Scotland in 1978 and most infamously Argentina’s Diego Maradona in 1994.

Given all of that, and the steady stream of doping stories across professional sports in recent years, many fans may at this point have anger fatigue. On some level, maybe we’ve just accepted that drug use is an inevitable part of elite sports.
It’s not hard to reach this conclusion. Football, for one, is astonishingly competitive, and it’s getting faster all the time. The margins for success are getting smaller and smaller. As Amit Katwala has noted, “In 2006, when Germany finished third in the World Cup, their players spent an average of 2.9 seconds on the ball each time they had it. By 2014, when they won, that had fallen to just 0.9 seconds.” In other words, footballers at the highest level now have much less time to pass the ball before they are tackled.

What’s more, the sheer number of games that teams must play means that there is an extraordinary toll taken on players’ endurance. Each infinitesimal advantage counts, and unfathomable amounts of money and prestige are at stake. It’s hardly surprising that the pressure to seek illegal advantage, through artificially increasing stamina, may at times feel overwhelming.

And yet it sometimes seems that football and its fans have a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place when it comes to doping. Like the consumers of delicious fast-food chicken nuggets, we may be less than comfortable knowing how our meal has been produced.

There may come a time when authorities take a more pragmatic view, assume that doping has become an inescapable part of the game, and seek not to outlaw it but to regulate it. Until then, though, it looks as if we may have to maintain the veil of innocence around the beautiful game, even as it continues to unravel.

Mr. Okwonga is a writer, poet and football fanatic. He has published two books on the sport.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Portrait of two men with their son

A samesex couple posing with their son in Bristol, UK. Photo: MARTIN PARR / MAGNUM

Why the humanities are as important as engineering

 Vivek Wadhwa By Vivek Wadhwa 12 June 2018

Earlier in my academic career, I used to advise students to focus on science and engineering, believing that they were a prerequisite for success in business. I had largely agreed with Bill Gates’s assertions that America needed to spend its limited education budgets on these disciplines, because they produced the most jobs, rather than the liberal arts and humanities.

This was in a different era of technology and well before I learned what makes the technology industry tick.

In 2008, my research teams at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executives and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated, 92 percent holding bachelor’s degrees and 47 percent holding higher degrees. Hardly 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just 2 percent did in mathematics. The rest had degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, health care, and arts and the humanities.

We learned that though a degree made a big difference in the success of an entrepreneur, the field it was in and the school that it was from were not significant factors. YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki, for instance, majored in history and literature; Slack founder Stewart Butterfield in English; Airbnb founder Brian Chesky in the fine arts. And, in China, Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma has a bachelor’s in English.

Steve Jobs touted the importance of liberal arts and humanities at the unveiling of the iPad 2: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.” With this focus, he built the most valuable company in the world and set new standards for the technology industry.

Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell, who majored in English, also emphasized this. I recently asked him how he turned his company around and caused its stock price to increase by an astonishing 450 percent over five years. He said that it was through relentlessly focusing on design in every product the company built; that engineering is important but what makes a technology product most successful is its design.

The key to good design is a combination of empathy and knowledge of the arts and humanities. Musicians and artists inherently have the greatest sense of creativity. You can teach artists how to use software and graphics tools; turning engineers into artists is hard.

And now, a technological shift is in progress that will change the rules of innovation. A broad range of technologies, such as computing, artificial intelligence, digital medicine, robotics and synthetic biology, are advancing exponentially and converging, making amazing things possible.

With the convergence of medicine, artificial intelligence and sensors, we can create digital doctors that monitor our health and help us prevent disease; with the advances in genomics and gene editing, we have the ability to create plants that are drought resistant and that feed the planet; with robots powered by artificial intelligence, we can build digital companions for the elderly. Nanomaterial advances are enabling a new generation of solar and storage technologies that will make energy affordable and available to all.

Creating solutions such as these requires a knowledge of fields such as biology, education, health sciences and human behavior. Tackling today’s biggest social and technological challenges requires the ability to think critically about their human context, which is something that humanities graduates happen to be best trained to do.

An engineering degree is very valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature and psychology provides a big advantage in design. A history major who has studied the Enlightenment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire gains an insight into the human elements of technology and the importance of its usability. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people and to understand what users want than is an engineer who has only worked in the technology trenches. A musician or artist is king in a world in which you can 3D-print anything that you can imagine.

When parents ask me now what careers their children should pursue and whether it is best to steer them into science, engineering, and technology fields, I tell them that it is best to let them make their own choices. They shouldn’t, I tell them, do what our parents did, telling us what to study and causing us to treat education as a chore; instead, they should encourage their children to pursue their passions and to love learning.

To create the amazing future that technology is enabling, we need our musicians and artists working hand in hand with our engineers. It isn’t either one or the other; we need both the humanities and engineering.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School.