Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed's Red Shirley

You've probably all heard by now that legendary poet/musician/downtown icon Lou Reed has passed away. 

Others will be praising and remembering Lou Reed the musician in the days to come. What a lot of people don't know is that in the last few years Reed had branched out into filmmaking. In 2010 he made a short, experimental documentary about his elderly cousin, Shirley Novick. Novick was the widow of Paul (Peysakh) Novick, the long-time editor of the Morgn Frayhayt (the Yiddish language, American Communist newspaper.) Not that you'd learn that from the film. While I have enormous love and respect for Lou Reed, (and the Novicks), the film was a disappointing mess. (You can watch the whole movie here)...

Lou Reed's Red Shirley  

(January 2011) 

On January 15, the audience at the New York Jewish Film Festival caught a glimpse of a different side of rock legend Lou Reed. He was not there as the eminence grise of punk provocation, but as an utterly respectable director and documentarian, there to show his new short film, Red Shirley.

The subject of Red Shirley is his 101 year old cousin (his grandfather was her uncle), Shirley Novick, but the aesthetic is pure Reed. Shot in beautiful hi-def video, the film flows easily from black and white to color, from still to motion. The soundtrack is Reed’s project, Metal Machine Trio, a hauntingly spare piece of industrial chamber music. Reed’s aesthetic is definitely anti-nostalgic. No sad violins or weepy clarinets straining to approximate some kind of ersatz  Lower East Side authenticity. As a filmmaker, Reed is confident enough to know not to try to bring the audience to a place its subject wouldn’t even recognize.

The  trajectories of the two cousins, Shirley Novick and Lou Reed, couldn’t be more different. Novick was born in 1909 in a largely Jewish town in Poland. She spoke Yiddish at home, but attended a Tarbut Ivrit school where students learned Hebrew and were encouraged to move to Palestine. Two of Novick’s siblings, Rachel and Rosa, did emigrate to Palestine, but she took another path. First to Montreal,  in 1928, and six months later, mandolin in hand and longing for the ‘hustle and bustle of the city’, she made her way to New York and five decades of tireless union agitating in the workshops of the garment industry. After 80 odd years in New York, Shirley still speaks English with a heavy Yiddish accent.

Aside from the whole junkie/poet/rock god thing, Lou Reed's trajectory as an American Jew -- born in Brooklyn and  raised on Long Island-- is far more banal.  He grew up in a middle class, conservative Jewish environment where English was the language of both American and Jewish life. 

Like Shirley, though, Lou was also bound for the ‘hustle and bustle’ of New York City. As most people know, Reed formed the Velvet Underground, was discovered by Andy Warhol and the rest is rock and roll legend.

At 68, he’s done it all- been a rock star, a published photographer, written music for the theater, and just possibly changed the course of world politics (Vaclav Havel calls him when he’s in town). And though he shows no signs of mellowing, it's tempting to read Red Shirley as Lou Reed’s Jewish roots project. 

John Zorn has his Masada, so why shouldn’t Reed find a way to  redeem his own Jewishness from the waste of suburban mediocrity? After all, Shirley Novick, Reed’s onetime babysitter, is everything his parents weren't: urban, working class, a genuine radical. She’s the exotic alien (Novick was smuggled illegally into the country and never took American citizenship on principle) who defiantly continued to live her life in Yiddish, a 'fuck you' to mainstream American and Jewish culture that a contrarian like Reed has to appreciate.

Despite the cutting edge cinematography and music, Red Shirley is, at the end of the day, not unlike a movie that might be made by many American Jews  about a favorite relative from the ‘old country’. As Reed told the Wall Street Journal, “This was an act of love, I realized that if I didn’t do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever.” 

Recording device at the ready, Reed was finally ready to record the colorful stories and native wisdom of a vanishing generation. Novick’s career as union activist, of course, is at the heart of the film. But Reed’s lack of interest in details and gee whiz incredulity keeps Novick’s story from ever really coming into focus. As the on-screen interlocutor,  he can’t seem to think of much of a response beyond ‘Get out of here’ or ‘You can’t be serious.’  

Novick tells us that despite being a young, immigrant girl, she quickly became a leader among her fellow rank and file union members. But why exactly was she in conflict with her union leadership? Why was she attacked in the press? What kind of beliefs kept her fighting for her fellow workers for 47 years? In short it's beyond puzzling that, given the title of the film, we never really learn what made Red Shirley red

What we don't learn in the film is that Shirley was married for decades to Paul Novick, the longtime editor of the Yiddish communist daily the Morgn Frayhayt. Though there’s a brief shot of a photo of marchers with an IWO banner, it's never explained that the IWO, a fraternal organization established as the Communist analog to the social democratic Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, was at one time the largest left-wing membership organization in American history. The IWO and the Morgn Frayhayt were just two parts of a vibrant network of radical, Yiddish oriented institutions, all of which negotiated the complicated territory between Jewish nationalism and internationalism. 

Those institutions, and that network, are essentially gone now, whether the victim of state sponsored anti-Communist frenzy (as with the demise of the IWO) or they died with their elderly leaders (as with the Morgn Frayhayt which finally ceased publication in 1988.) In Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, the popular (and purportedly comprehensive) standard work on the Jewish labor movement, Paul Novick and the Morgn Frayhayt are essentially written out of history. The triumph of anti-Communism was so thorough that even in a movie like Red Shirley, the word Communist is never uttered.

Novick arrived in North America at 19, alone, with an already developed sense of class consciousness. She spent the next 80 years resisting the mainstream Jewish-American narrative of upward mobility and assimilation. Even at the Q&A after the movie, she wanted to talk about conditions for garment workers today. 

At 101 and living in the Chelsea Garment Workers Project in Chelsea, Shirley isn’t just a survivor. She is Zorn’s radical Jewish culture incarnate in a huggable elderly Jewish lady. It’s unfortunate that Red Shirley in complicit in silencing an important part of her story. 


  1. tablet isn't a "quality outfit" tho

  2. Bezrodnyi kosmopolitDecember 19, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    As the on-screen interlocutor, he can’t seem to think of much of a response beyond ‘Get out of here’ or ‘You can’t be serious.’
    I agree.
    And even when he actually tries to be a bit more inquisitive the effect is not convincing. He asks twice for the name of Shirley's hometown and I'm still not sure what it was... Is Brestovitz maybe Vyalikaya Byerastavitsa? Or Brest as some internet sources state?
    I know it’s just a detail but an interesting one…

  3. It is ironic that a multi-talented man supposed by many to have a sensitive nature should have been in the presence of a woman who had more than a touch of true greatness, only to reveal his self-absorption and the attention span of a flea. He had an opportunity to draw out a woman who, with others of her ilk, strongly influenced history but he obviously did not know how to interview anyone, and seemed to have only a superficial interest in his amazing cousin. . . . only because she was his cousin (?). I wish Red Shirley could have been interviewed by a pro, or written her autobiography.