Hilton Als on the Sui-Generis Films of Charles Atlas

Hilton Als
Staff writer

Charlie Atlas was the first director to ask me to write for film. This was a long time ago—the mid-nineteen-eighties—and he was trying to complete a movie called “Ex-Romance,” which featured two of his stars, the dancer-choreographers Karole Armitage and Michael Clark. The idea was that I would write some bits to help tie the film together. It was such a flattering thing, to be hired by Charlie—because by then he was already a legend. Raised in St. Louis, he landed in New York City when he was barely out of his teens; soon, he was working with Merce Cunningham, first on lighting, but in 1974 he became Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s filmmaker-in-residence, producing an incredible array of films that revolutionized the way dance was presented in cinema. And then there were his wonderful set designs and costumes, as well.

Leigh Bowery, in “Hail the New Puritan.”Photograph courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix

Charlie’s love of making was such a gift to me; it taught me that you didn’t need a fortune to make a movie, as long as you had interesting people to look at. And Charlie always knew the interesting people to film. In addition to Cunningham, Clark, and Armitage, he’s worked with genius figures like Leigh Bowery, Lady Bunny, Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton, of Dancenoise—the list goes on and on. There’s never been a period when I haven’t felt buoyed by Charlie’s various creations—and, as the best movies do, his work reflects the times when, for the most part, artists had more of a D.I.Y. aesthetic. In fact, looking back, I can see now that the performers Charlie seemed most drawn to were people who created themselves out of thin air—they followed no precedent.

In inventing a stellar performing self, each of Charlie’s stars fit perfectly into his vision: his sui-generis films hadn’t existed before, either. Sometimes, if you watch an Atlas short, you can hear the director laughing offscreen; so great is his delight in what a performer can do, the better to become themselves, that he can’t contain himself. “Just look at that,” his colorful, elegant vision says, time and again. “Isn’t that something?” I haven’t seen Charlie in a long time—just life, nothing more—but it’s amazing how many of his movies I can quote from memory. Many of them are part of the retrospective “Atlas Variations: The Moving-Image Work of Charles Atlas,” at Anthology Film Archives (May 8-June 27). When I watch pictures like “From an Island Summer” (1984) or “Hail the New Puritan” (1986), just two of his early masterpieces, I am back in that world, where the energy of the times gave one the feeling that all things, artistically speaking, were possible, and could be achieved through the beauty of collaboration with a generous director like Charlie, filled with joy, kindness, and a true vision.

About Town


“If there are any humans left on Earth in a hundred years,” the doctor Astrov (William Jackson Harper) tells the sad-sack Vanya (Steve Carell), “they’re going to hate us for having lived such stupid, selfish lives.” A hundred and twenty-five years since the première of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” we’re too absorbed in our own self-hatred and rivalries to spare much resentment for our great-grandparents’ life style. Conveniently, Lila Neugebauer’s staging and Heidi Schreck’s colloquial “translation/adaptation” modernize the original, emphasizing the themes of deforestation and species extinction, which parallel the wrongs that Vanya’s squabbling family perpetrate on one another. Surfacing the comedy and tragedy of daily life is the work of any Chekhov production; here, most of the star-studded cast—including Alfred Molina and Alison Pill—finds the comedy. Carell, aided by Schreck’s script, manages both.—Dan Stahl (Vivian Beaumont; through June 16.)


The “Seven New Dances” concert that Paul Taylor presented at the 92nd Street Y in 1957 is one of the most infamous events in modern-dance history. It was packed with avant-garde experiments—postures taken from people in the street, long expanses of stillness, sounds that only John Cage was classifying as music—and it received such responses as an exodus of audience members and a review composed of blank space. Paul Taylor Dance Company, to honor the Y’s hundred and fiftieth anniversary, returns to re-create part of the program, with the addition of Alan Cumming reciting droll recollections by Taylor about the incident and what it taught him. Taylor’s popular “Esplanade” serves as a hedge.—Brian Seibert (92NY; May 12.)

Classical Music

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall, in 2022.Photograph by Chris Lee

Throughout May, a parade of superstar pianists bring several lively programs to Carnegie Hall. The famously theatrical Yuja Wang leads off with a recital (May 10) that combines mid-century mysticism (Scriabin’s Sonata No. 8, two of Messiaen’s “Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus”) with the technicolor odysseys of Chopin’s four Ballades, throwing in Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse” for fun. A week later, Seong-Jin Cho pairs Haydn’s pearlescent Sonata in E Minor with two Ravel pieces (including “Le tombeau de Couperin”) that play on the Baroque. Evgeny Kissin’s program (May 24 and May 29) tours through Brahms’s own set of four Ballades, along with sonatas by Beethoven and Prokofiev. Finally, on May 31, Mitsuko Uchida joins the Philadelphia Orchestra as it performs Ravel’s G-major piano concerto, Debussy’s “La mer,” and a new piece by Valerie Coleman.—Fergus McIntosh (Carnegie Hall; May 10-31.)

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