New York

John Margolies

The Kitchen

Leisure is said to be “the basis of culture.” Cut off from the demands of practicality and livelihood, man is assumed to engage himself in finding a higher level of existence. The early 1900s saw the rush for land in the Catskills and its ensuing cultivation as a vacation haven for many growing middle-class communities seeking a communal retreat. John Margolies narrated slide show and video presentation titled Resorts of the Catskills deals with the present decline of these structures and institutions. Margolies’ live narrative accompanying the endless series of slides recounts the history, development, architectural evolution and mutation of such landmarks as lake Minnewaska Mountain Houses, Grossinger Hotel and Country Club, and lake Mohonk Mountain House, along with a view of their present owners, activities and financial difficulties.

Although specific groups frequent particular hotels, the resort experience is seen as culturally interchangeable. Architectural ethnicity exists only on the most superficial level. Apart from a Virgin by the pool, Mooney’s Glen House is no different from Antonio’s Twin Mountain Houses. To be converted a Jewish hotel, the St. Regis in Fleishmann’s, N.Y. had to be circumcized to the “Regis.” Although a resort catering to one specific group has a slightly different flavor from another, the Catskill Mountain resort area served as the great American middle-class melting pot, a place where every human being could be in a context again, as in a school or a ghetto where all factors are predictable and planned.

We cannot help but chuckle at the man, a veteran of Menges’ Lakeside Manor, who describes the primarily senior citizen hotel and its grounds as “the forest primeval . . . where men are men and women are women.” His image recalling A Midsummer’s Night Dream stands in humorous bordering on maudlin contrast to the undistorted tone of Margolies’ approach and his narrative.

The attitude to the photography of the architecture and scenery is purely Italian neo-realistic—blunt, nonabstract, unfragmented, basically seen as a recording device, and inevitably an almost boring one at that. Margolies, who has chosen not to be flagrantly haphazard in his presentation or his construction of the film, has managed to retain the relaxation of the home-movie and slide show.

The “purpose” of the slides and the film is to establish connections and make conclusions with Margolies’ almost non-stop, amusingly spoken commentary. A product and packager of a television generation, John Margolies is involved in the imposition of words and facts against the backdrop of what he calls the “super-real image” (and what Vito Acconci calls the “punch” of video).

It is interesting that Resorts of the Catskills consists of both a still-photographic survey and a video presentation. Seeing them together made me realize the narrowness of the frame’s proscenium in both the moving and the still shots. Margolies’ sporadic appearance in his film is not as disturbing as I would have imagined because of this narrowness, this very closeness which he has cultivated with the people in the Catskill area and in his live audience. There is no sense of vistas or romantic detail in this form of travelogue; there is no sweeping scan of time, and although we are often shown stills of the first owners and the first buildings, all remains still while it changes. In a segment about Lake Minnewaska, a brush is seen crunchingly painting the wooden slat sides of an old building. The voice of the old painter says: “All you do is paint, paint, paint,” commenting on the continual process of face-lifting old façades.

Resort hotel lobbies, $54-a-night rooms, enclosed hallways connecting pavilions making the institutions “year round” are compulsively shown us along with countless slides of every variation on the Jewish resort herring-breakfast theme (kippered, in wine sauce, matjes, in cream sauce . . . ). Margolies astutely points out architectural paradoxes in terms of modernism, renewal and retention of the old and wasteful. My only contention with the presentation is that it could have provided a bit more architectural information than it did.

Judith Lopes Cardozo