Saturday, March 29, 2008

Twain down; 999 to go

On the way to the Hartford airport yesterday, I managed to get out to the Mark Twain house and take a tour. It is one hell of a fancy Gilded Age house, let me tell you. The outside is impressive enough, as you can see, with its painted brickwork, whimsical gables, and considerable balconies (as well as a gorgeous porch that bows in and out rather than just putting a six-foot rim on the house). Just about everyone on the tour with me gasped when they stepped inside, though. The restoration has been long, expensive, and entirely successful; the walls and ceilings are all hand-stenciled. In the entryway, it's done with a silver paint meant to look like mother-of-pearl inlay in the gaslight.

The rest of the house is equally ornate, with tons of heavily carved wooden furniture, tiled fireplaces, and the various Victorian knickknacks that a connoisseur might expect (stuffed birds, always charming). But there are definitely Twainian touches, including a billiards room with billiards sticks and balls, as well as cigars and pipes, stenciled on the ceiling. It was in the corner of that room that he wrote his most famous novels.

The living room was a very fancy, well-designed Victorian room, formerly with a view of a small river now buried underground, but the tour guide told us that the pieces on the mantel were part of a storytelling game Twain played with his daughters. He would have to tell a story using all the pieces, from a picture of a cat in a ruff to a painting of an unknown girl who they named Emmeline (like the dead Grangerford daughter and bad poetess in Huck Finn) . If he left anything out, he had to begin again.

At the far end of the living room was a small greenhouse, which you can see in this photo of the back of the house. I can only imagine how expensive such a feature was back then, but it added a lot of light to the otherwise typically dark house.

The museum, in a separate building, featured several memorabilia from Twain's life, including two printing presses that he used/bought, a couple of pipes, steamer trunks, spears from South Africa, etc. There was also an exhibit of Tiffany glass. Louis Comfort Tiffany's firm, Associated Artists, did the interior design of the house, and so the museum used to get a lot of gifts of glass; unfortunately, the glassware was made at a slightly later period, so they couldn't faithfully use any of it in the restoration. But it's all still gorgeous. I remember seeing a quote from Brad Pitt in a book about Tiffany, saying that he didn't care much for fancy cars, but if he could get a Tiffany window for $50,000, he'd snap it up.

We were informed at the end of the tour that the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (or something equally cheerful) included the Twain House. I have to go look at what the other 999 are now. I mean, I've been to a lot of authors' houses (so many that I decided to add a new label for this post and others to come), and most are fantastic; the Balzac and Dickens houses were highlights. I think the few that make your 1,000 depend on your reading taste. But I do strenuously recommend this to anyone in the Hartford area, especially if you have even a passing interest in Twain and his work. It's also right next door to the Stowe house, about which more another day.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


On Main Street in Middletown, one of the many unassuming storefronts merely says Main Street Market. If you venture into Main Street Market, you are assaulted first by a natural foods market and then by store after store of vaguely new agey stuff, imported clothes, purses, weird stuffed animals, and scarves. If you dare to pass all these, looking neither to the right or the left, all the way in the back is the Fusion Bakery. And they make teeny-tiny ricotta-filled cannoli. I haven't had one since the last time I visited Boston; every cannolo I can find in Chicago is filled with that heavy cream. I nearly wept. It was heavily lemon-flavored, which I'm unaccustomed to, but nonetheless I must say that my opinion of Middletown shot right up. According to a heritage trail street sign that I passed, Middletown had an influx of Italian immigrants all from the village of Melilli in Sicily. I guess I have them to thank.

Which view, madam?

Wesleyan is set slightly up on a hill, and the back of the campus in particular drops off quite sharply. So much so that the dorms look down on the street below with a kind of sheepish superiority (they're not much to look at, except one circular building entirely glassed around, probably a canteen of some kind). Some are above the decrepit tennis courts, some above an old cemetery, which is really right up against the campus. Across the road is a quite beautiful modern one, the Indian Hill Cemetery, with a tiny chapel.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Where no Starbucks has gone before

Middletown is one of those quaint New England towns (pop. according to a local: 43,000) in which you have to press the button to get a walk light at an intersection. Then it proceeds to hold up traffic in all four directions rather than giving you a walk first across one street then the other. Exasperating, slow, leads to jaywalking and general irritation.

Quaintness includes independent businesses of all kinds, a historical house or two, their own heritage trail, and the Inn at Middletown, in which I currently reside. NO STARBUCKS. Can you beat it? Have no fear, Javapalooza provides all the flavored mochas you can suck down, with walls papered in reproductions of concert posters ranging from NIN to the announcement of John Lennon's death (not really a poster, I know) to the Moody Blues. The most recent thing I saw on there was No Doubt, and the funniest was a Cher concert "featuring Palm Springs mayor Sonny Bono!" For those who didn't know who he was.

Food's not bad so far. I was thwarted in my attempt tonight to eat at the really authentic-looking diner, O'Rourke's, with its flimsy metal walls. We shall see what another day brings. I had an ice cream at a CT chain, Praline's, where the friendly server, charmed by my seeming friendliness, suddenly started spouting hatred and class warfare against the Wesleyan students. Quote: "At least I'm doing something I LIKE, not going to school to do something I'm probably going to hate. I don't think anybody actually LIKES doing... Better Business." She may have a point, but seeing as the only students I met today were studying film, well...

The Wesleyan campus is very nice, with a strange mix of old and new architecture. Lots of brown stone, lots of red brick, and plenty of small wooden houses. The student worker at the archives informed me that Wesleyan owns plenty of houses and lets seniors, grad students, and professors live in them -- appropriately segregated, he hastened to assure me. But I have never seen a campus that took its old houses so seriously that they actually grew their new buildings out of them:

This is part of the massive quantity of film buildings. My archives are in the house section. Reminds me a little of the Princeton student center, but for that they grew a new brick building out of... an old one.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Impressionists in CT

Up at 5:15am this morning and off to Hartford, where I took a bus downtown and stopped at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford's main art museum. I saw an article in the NY Times on a special exhibit they're having called Impressionists by the Sea, so I decided it was worth a look before I hopped yet another bus to Middletown.

A very well-chosen exhibit, quite large for such a small museum. I particularly enjoyed a pair of early Monets of the Trouville beach, showing couples strolling at high tide and then again (typical) at low tide, when the boardwalk had been laid out and the light was a little hazier and more golden. That and another one of fishing boats at the water's edge show the Monet I like the best, with vivid colors and some outlines still left before his hazy pastel days take over completely.

I also loved a large Gustave Courbet painting, just rocks at the seashore, but such unbelievably shiny, wet-looking rocks put on with a palette knife. Lots of fun.

The rest of the museum is especially strong in Americana, with a huge furniture collection that I just can't appreciate (one Chippendale looks much like another to me). They also have a huge quantity of porcelain figurines donated by Morgan. What a collector that guy was. Enough to donate to tons of museums and start his own. They also have a few nice Impressionist paintings in the main collection, including a little Van Gogh self-portrait and a Renoir painting of Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil. Impressionists hanging out together, gotta love it.

Early to bed tonight. Will be blogging on the ground from Middletown for the rest of the week.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bums on seats

Check out this marvelous five-minute live sketch on YouTube. Features Hugh Laurie as "Bill" Shakespeare and Rowan Atkinson as the dour theatre manager who wants to cut Hamlet down from its five-hour running time. Absolutely hilarious: "They love... the crazy chick in the see-through dress." Which is the dodgy soliloquy Atkinson wants to cut? No prizes for guessing that one.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Little Children

I watched this movie on DVD a few months ago and didn't blog about it, though I wanted to. If you don't remember it, it was a somewhat acclaimed but not widely popular film starring Kate Winslet (who needs no introduction) and Patrick Wilson (Phantom of the Opera, GAP commercial, Broadway star), with Jennifer Connelly in a supporting role. It's a dystopic all-white suburbia tale, the dark and quietly incisive take rather than the Desperate Housewives take.

I actually don't know what possessed me to rent it at this late date -- or actually I do; I decided I should read and watch a few more things with 'modern' settings, since I like period work so much for fun. Those pieces, of course, reflect our concerns just as much, but it's interesting to see a straight take on ourselves. Stay-at-home mums, neighborhood watch, prom kings gone to seed -- it's all here. Wilson and Winslet play stay-at-home parents, bored and desperately self-loathing for giving up on their careers, who fall into an affair that gives them some semblance of hope and excitement. Little do they know that everyone else in the town is just as desperate as they are, just not so superior about it.

It just drew me in more and more as the plot unfolded (can't bear to spoil it here; you know I always avoid that if I can). I do recommend it, but be warned that it is, as I said, dark. Beautifully shot; interesting score, light and melancholy. Great acting from all, though Connelly was a bit bland (you could argue that that was a deliberate choice). Winslet got her fifth Oscar nomination for this role. She'll win someday, no doubt. You would think that her courage in being so resolutely homely in this movie would have scored her some points, but she ran into the unstoppable force that was Helen Mirren.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Man for all Seasons

Just a quick break from work to pay tribute to the great actor Paul Scofield, who died yesterday. The first thing I think I saw him in was Franco Zeffirelli's (better known as Mel Gibson's) Hamlet, in which he played a very touching but rather fast-spoken Ghost. But it was his performance as the father in Robert Redford's overlooked masterpiece Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes, that made me sit up and take notice. He was absolutely devastating as the proud, loving, and ultimately anguished father who makes his grown son realize the extent of his, well, old-fashioned dishonoring of the family name.

No greater a performance but certainly a more iconic one is his famous Oscar-winning turn as Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, a better movie than play (I think). That craggy face and hollow voice were ideal for the intellectual, principled More as a contrast for live-out-loud Henry VIII. The line that sticks with me is when More, on trial, sees that his protege has turned on him for the sake of promotion. He stops him and says, "It profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose his soul thereby. But Richard -- for Wales?" Written down, it looks like a punchline of one of those UK Wales-bashing jokes, but in the film it was nothing but melancholy.

A great, great actor.

I should also pay quick tribute to director Anthony Minghella, who sadly and unexpectedly died this week as well. If he had just one more scene in him like the "creepy" one in The Talented Mr. Ripley or the church-by-candlelight-and-swing one in English Patient... well, the loss is great in any case.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Dubber's Curse

This is a very belated Oscar thought, but it just occurred to me that Marion Cotillard's win for Best Actress ended the long curse of actresses whose singing is dubbed in their films. Deborah Kerr in The King and I, for example, though I seem to recall hearing that the singer who dubbed her was practically threatened with blacklisting if she told anyone. That was because Audrey Hepburn was similarly disappointed for My Fair Lady. Funnily enough, both were dubbed by the same woman, Marni Nixon, who played one of the nuns in The Sound of Music.

Also funnily enough, a reporter asked Cotillard to sing a few bars of an Edith Piaf song in her post-Oscar press conference. Why? Just to see whether she could sing or not? Or because he was spilling over with that much love for her?

If you know of anyone else who's won in spite of dubbing, leave a comment. Wins for musical actors have died off, of course, but Catherine Zeta-Jones certainly did her own singing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Karma's a stitch

That's right. Not for Eliot Spitzer (though that too), but for all those snooty New Yorkers who have always enjoyed laughing at NJ, and never more than when our ex-straight ex-governor stepped down. Yes. Stepped down. Promptly, no beating around the bush. And yes, wife by his side. Honestly, what a ridiculous, sad situation. Big picture: possibly -1 superdelegate for Hillary.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lindbergh against Winchell

More treadmill reading to report: I finally finished Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which was a big hit when it came out a few years ago. In short, the novel envisions what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero, had defeated FDR and put an insidious set of anti-Semitic politics to work. It's told from the point of view of a little boy named... Philip Roth, which I can only assume was meant to punch up the novel with a realistic urgency but doesn't do much.

I actually liked the novel reasonably well. It's not very tightly written, but the premise itself keeps you intrigued. Roth does a great job of depicting real diversity among even a tightly knit Jewish family and community, with completely conflicting politics and attitudes towards Lucky Lindy. He drags a bit when trying to describe political machinations, which I think is the function of the narrator's restricted p.o.v. And I think that the ending was a bit of a cop-out, but I won't spoil it.

It almost makes me want to go reread Portnoy's Complaint, which I tried to read when I was far too young, probably. I remember thinking it was a pile of filth. (Which is something, because I read D.H. Lawrence without batting an eyelash.)

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Well, it's not a terribly newsworthy endorsement as they go, but did anyone else catch Robert Reich on Stephen Colbert last night? Colbert kept pressing Reich (former Labor secretary for Bill Clinton) for an endorsement, and he kept saying how great they both were, and how he had decided not to endorse. Colbert, in typical mock-overbearing fashion, kept pressing him: would he choose ebony or ivory? Ladyfingers or black forest cake? You get the idea. I thought they would just keep up the ridiculous banter right until the last exchange:

Colbert: What would you want in your Easter basket, chocolate bunny or marshmallow chick?
Reich: Just between us?
Colbert: Yeah?
Reich: Chocolate bunny.
Crowd: [GASP! Scattered applause.]

I may have gasped just a tiny bit too, mostly in surprise that he gave any answer at all. Rather cagey, but a bit of an endorsement for Obama. At least an amusing one this time!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

This movie begged for all kinds of awful punning blog post titles, like Elizabeth: The Stone Age or Elizabeth: What Golden Age? There's nothing I love better than a good costume drama. Even a bad costume drama--and this definitely was, with its melodramatic plot, lighting, sets, and editing--offers some weird enjoyment. Gorgeous costumes. Awful film.

Here is a vague rundown of my thought processes during the watching of the film:

15 min. in: Hey, this movie isn't that bad. What were people talking about?

+5 min: Oh no.

Wow, Clive Owen is yummy. Hey, where's he been lately? He was the It Guy for a while.

Poor Cate Blanchett. She's doing her best.

Maybe she's doing too much.

Now I can't even remember what I thought was good about the original Elizabeth.

What is the point in cutting back to Spain for thirty seconds at a time? Did Shekhar Kapur decide he didn't like character development any more?

Yes, I too surround myself with a hundred candles in a circle when I decide to stare at myself naked in a mirror while the guy I'm crushing on is gettin' it on with my lady-in-waiting. Good god. Restraint, people.

This beacon scene reminds me of Return of the King.

This ship scene reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean.

What a sad waste of potential.