Tuesday, July 29, 2008

See to believe

I just read Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov, more than partly because Kenneth Branagh will be playing the title role at the Donmar Warehouse this fall (and then directing Jude Law as Hamlet later in the season; I can hear the critics sharpening their knives now, though they mostly respect Branagh's theatrical skills). I... couldn't get into it. Or out of it. A very odd play about a rather despicable central character with an ailing Jewish wife and failing estate he ignores, and an over-earnest doctor and other characters of varying degrees of virtue, trying to make him wake up again. At the end, after his wife dies and a year passes between acts 3 and 4, it's his wedding day as he is going to marry the neighbor's beautiful young daughter. And he apparently can't bring himself to wreck her life when his is so obviously a wreck already, so he shoots himself. Curtain.

I was driven to read the preface of the edition I was reading, and the author suggests the obvious, that Ivanov, for all his awfulness, is the hero, and the doctor, Lvov, the one whose steps to hell are paved with good intentions. Such an anti-hero is perfect for Branagh, who seems drawn to those lately; he had quite a triumph onstage a few years ago as Edmond in David Mamet's play of the same name. Rumor was that he was working up to Macbeth, but financing has fallen through (and given the level of success of As You Like It, I'm not surprised).

Chekhov is one of those 'great' playwrights who I just can't get into on the very talky page. I really need to see something of his staged sometime, or at least rent a video. Never had this problem with Shakespeare, but it does happen sometimes with plays. Pinter's not that easy to read. Some of Stoppard just looks insane--and it's not that it doesn't also sound insane when you see it, but that the staging can draw it together in interesting ways.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Love the '80s

YouTube has everything. I don't know if I could sit through all of Music & Lyrics again, but the hilarious faux-'80s video starring Hugh Grant as half of a group called Pop! (a not so subtle takeoff on Wham!) is available here and does not fail to please me.

Hugh Grant said on Leno that he was, in some ways, the proudest of this movie of out all his movies, and I think I can see why, because it must have taken a fair amount of work for him to do all the singing and choreography. Aside from that, it is an intermittently charming film about a forgotten pop star trying to put his life back together. I actually think it could have been quite good if it had focused on Grant's character and kept the female character supporting; it would have been another About a Boy. Unfortunately, Drew Barrymore's character was insipid and had a somewhat contrived self-loathing plotline about having had an affair with a professor who wrote it up in a bestselling novel. But the supporting character, a teenage pop star named Cora, was a great mishmash of Britney-Jessica-Christina, so it was really a fun musical parody film.

I was thinking about this recently because I also youtubed George Michael singing "Somebody to Love" with Queen at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, which I think is one of his best performances ever. I remember when it was on the Top 40 countdown with Kasey Kasem, and I recorded it off the radio onto a cassette tape and listened to it over and over, as preteens do.

Kasem, according to Wikipedia, refused to say "I Want Your Sex" when that particular hit of Michael's made the charts, and would only refer to it as "the new single by George Michael." I don't remember this, but I believe it. How nice for DJs that Nas solved that little problem by not giving the album the name he wanted to. The only way to refer to it IS as "the new album by Nas."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brass band fun

Been busy here, but last weekend took some time to watch the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar (Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra) close the Ethnic Arts Festival here. They also opened the Pitchfork festival earlier in the day. This might make you think that they're indie rock, but not even close -- it's a Serbian brass band that plays gypsy music. I don't know if they're assimilated Roma, or ethnic Serbians who play gypsy music, or some combo of the two, but a tremendously fun bunch. Boban and his son Marko both play the trumpet, and Boban also sings quite a lot, backed by four other brass players, a snare drummer, and another drummer who was obviously a local stand-in and had, as my friend put it, Keith Moon aspirations that did not chime with gypsy music so well. I wanted to take one of his cymbals away. The Reader had called the group "acrobatic," and maybe they'd have moved around more on a larger stage, but plenty of fun was provided by Serbian audience members who got up and started dancing. Good times.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Is that an island made of cantaloupe, or...

Listening to the Best of Herbie Hancock right now, and mildly bemused at how familiar some of these big hits are to me. So familiar that I never really thought about who must have originated them: Watermelon Man, Cantaloupe Island. Pretty mellow stuff, but I can see how he experimented and changed over the years. It was a big surprise, I remember, when he won the Grammy for Best Album last year. Now I'm kind of curious to listen to it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dom

Another blast from the trip: I went to Cologne after the seminar in Dortmund, and the most famous tourist attraction (justly) is Cologne's huge cathedral, the Dom. It was damaged in the WWII bombing, but the Allies supposedly avoided targeting it directly (the bridge leading to it was broken, however).

The Dom is immense, and with all its heavy carving and decoration around the base, as well as the tapered spires and the blackened surfaces, looks heavy and imposing. A totally different effect from Chartres, say, or Notre Dame, which is also because the Dom is not that easy to see except right from the plaza surrounding it. You just can't stand back and get a good look at it. Not that easy to get a good picture, either.

Of course, we climbed the 500+ steps to the top, or rather I did while my friend succumbed to vertigo when the tiny spiral staircase inside the tower widens out and changes to an openwork metal staircase for the last 100 steps. However, the view from the top, while good, isn't that enjoyable. You walk around inside the tower, peering out through narrow window after narrow window. Beautiful, but not like walking around a more or less open balcony, even if it's covered with a wire cage.

We also stopped to see the huge set of bells on the way down, which are suitably imposing. The descent was quick but you have to squeeze past other tourists on their panting way up the tower, which makes for some rather hazardous navigation.

Inside, the cathedral is rather plain, with very diverse stained glass and very ornate chapels all around. One woman was vacuuming a carved wooden triptych with a little paintbrush and the hose attachment. When I went back the next day, she was there again and had barely moved.
The cathedral also houses the golden reliquary of the Three Wise Men. What exactly is supposed to be in there, I don't know. Nothing I read specified (bones, clothing, possessions?
Probably bones). Down in the treasury are huge quantities of other treasures, medieval croziers and the like. All in all, you can spend a lot of time around the Dom, fueled by the nearest Doner Kebap.

Monday, July 14, 2008

View from the Bridge

It's not an unknown device to tell a history or story around an object, whether it be a chair, an old chipped pot that once held melted cheese, or the wall of a school (if you can get all those references, you must live inside my head). But Nobel laureate Ivo Andric's book Bridge on the Drina (1945) is probably the longest and most complex of them all. This beautifully built bridge is ostensibly the legacy of a Bosnian boy taken to become a janissary who became a vizier and ordered the bridge built to erase the memory of his kidnapping. Generations thrive on its sturdy platforms, and it acts as the stage for many a small drama during all the changes of regime that wash over the region from the 1500s to the 1900s. It's not exactly a novel, more like a series of short stories or vignettes (Andric liked to call these chronicles). If you manage to read this very long book, you will learn a lot about the history of this conflicted region and also gain an appreciation for the everyday small-town culture that Andric lovingly describes.

If you don't quite have the stamina for this one, try his novella The Vizier's Elephant, which is excellent.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The greatest two weeks in sport

I won't write about it separately, but you can read about my trip to Wimbledon as a mere groundling on the TennisWorld blog here and here. TennisWorld is Peter Bodo's blog on tennis.com, the website of Tennis Magazine (the USA's main tennis mag, I think it's safe to say). I read Pete's blog for a while before I started commenting, gradually commented some more, and then took on this once-a-week "social" post about a year ago. Quite a few of the posts have to do with art that features tennis in some way; I might link to some of those good old posts here on days when I don't have time to post.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Greatest song rant

I was recently discussing with my brother the question of the greatest rock song of all time. VH1, as you may know, named the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" #1, producing disgusted reactions from at least one big music lover, Craig Ferguson. I sadly didn't tune into his show that night in time to hear what he thought the top song was, but I know he loves his metal and the Sex Pistols. My brother instantly went for Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." I'm down with that, as I love Queen, revere the late Freddie Mercury and the skiffling astrophysicist Brian May, and pretty much think that "Rhapsody," in all its insanity, is one of the great songs of all time, never mind rock songs. I revisited VH1's list to see where they placed it, comfortably expecting it to be in, oh, the top 5 or so. Oh no. Number twenty-seven. Right above "You Really Got Me."

And on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time? Number one hundred sixty-three. Right below "Nothing Compares 2 U." That's right, below a text message.

I understand that opinions will always differ on this. Bob Dylan, he don't light my fire, baby, and neither do the Beatles. I understand votes for them, or for The Doors, or for Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," or the Stones... But man, it looks like Queen's legacy has been shuffled off into the ambiguous world of glam rock and left there for another generation to revive. Bowie wasn't exactly burning up these lists either. What do you think? Too cool for school? Are these editors all troublemakers? Or is "Like a Rolling Stone" really that monumental?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Les quartiers bruxellois

I started my two-day conquest of Brussels from the outskirts and worked my way in. The house of Rene Magritte is set up as a museum in the northern neighborhood of Jette, which I had outdated directions for. The helpful Metro official actually looked up the address on the computer, printed me a map, figured out my itinerary, wrote it out for me, and sent me on my merry way. What service.

The house is completely unassuming, and so is the museum, which is marked only by a tiny board out front. Inside, there's a tremendous collection of ephemera, photographs, and Magritte's works, all well explained in the cards they give you to carry around. You have to wear booties over your shoes upstairs, uniting you and the other two people in the museum in idiocy. Downstairs, as you see, the rooms are set up more or less as Magritte had them. He lived in this house with his wife for many productive years, though eventually they moved at her behest.

Magritte, by the way, is the surrealist painter famous for working against the meanings of words. In my first year of graduate school, if I had never had to hear the name Magritte again, I would have been delighted. His "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," written beneath a drawing of a pipe, was cited over and over and over again by people who like theory. Drove me insane.

From surrealism to humanism: I next headed out to the western neighborhood of Anderlecht, home of a famous football/soccer team. It's a traditionally working-class suburb, and you quickly get this idea from the disaffected-looking kids kicking a ball around and the pubs with Kriek (cherry beer) umbrellas that all have signs telling you to come cheer on the team. It has a beautiful church, though, and the Erasmushuis/Maison d'Erasme. Oh, did I mention that Brussels legally requires that everything be posted in Flemish and French? I don't know what the percentages are within Brussels itself, but let me just say that I didn't find anyone in two days who didn't speak French.

The Erasmushuis. Right. Erasmus, Renaissance man (literally), lived here for only a few months, but they've built up a wonderful museum around that theme, with some great paintings (including a really fine Quentin Metsys painting of St... Jerome, I think). Of course, they don't have the Holbein portrait of Erasmus, but they have copies, prints, first editions... also several prints/engravings of Thomas More, Erasmus's contemporary. The house itself is worth a look, being wonderfully preserved. I love those enormous ancient beams that look more like they're weighing down the roof than holding up the whole structure.

The garden is beautiful and peaceful, with leaf-shaped pools holding little metal letters spelling out Latin sayings like Festina Lente, trellises and structures designed by famous artists, and a Renaissance herbiary. I would have been glad to rest here, but it was onwards and upwards to see more of Brussels. Incidentally, Anderlecht is a fabulous place to get frites, real Brussels frites that are harder to come by in the shopping districts or even around the Grande Place. I saw shop after shop.

Chaucer who?

Head to Victoria Station in London, buy yourself a round-trip ticket on train or National Express bus, and you'll be in Canterbury in less than two hours. Canterbury is a cute little university and cathedral town, bustling with locals and tourists roaming the downtown shopping/eating district that abuts the huge cathedral.

In my England-is-a-theme-park mind, Canterbury has been good for one thing and one thing only: Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury. This mostly has to do with the blithely erroneous movie that I've written about before. Aside from that amazing drama, I have a thing for Becket. He's one of the most opaque figures in English history, I think. Why, after all, the sudden switch in loyalties from Crown to Church? What deep-seated problems of conscience was he wrestling with? It's fascinated countless authors, including of course T. S. Eliot.

So you can well imagine how insanely excited I was to see the very spot where Becket was murdered, a place marked by the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom or some such slightly odd name, as well as this piece of jarringly modern art above the word THOMAS cut into the floor in red letters. Nothing remains of Becket's shrine, which held place of honor in the cathedral for generations until Henry VIII had it taken out and the bones pulverized. An archbishop who rebelled against his king? It's a wonder Henry didn't raze the cathedral to the ground.

The cathedral itself is huge and imposing from the slightly battered-looking outside, which is undergoing considerable restoration (you can sponsor a stone for five pounds a month). On the inside, its scale is mind-boggling but somewhat cut down by the choir screen and other edifices that rise within the cathedral itself; unlike, say, Chartres, you can't stand at the nave and get a sense of the entire cathedral. Instead, you end up processing it in parts. But they're great parts, which include the tomb of Edward the Black Prince and a colorful chapel devoted to the local regiment, which was decimated in a battle in India. A monument to the price of imperialism.

I skipped out on the cheesy Canterbury Tales museum in favor of hitting some of the outliers, including Saint Augustine's Abbey, where the saint is buried. Let me tell you, this was not the greatest. It's a field of grass with a few scattered ruins, so we didn't splash out the few pounds to go in. However, getting lost in residential Canterbury, we found a much better ruin: the Roman-built pumping station that used to pump water towards the Abbey. How many tourists find this, huh?

After a refreshing and abundant cream tea at a Tudor-era tea shop, the day ended with William the Conqueror's castle. I kid you not. Also ruined, as you might expect after 1000 years, but in much better shape than my guidebook had led me to believe; the walls still stand, and you can see the herringbone stone pattern of the fireplace niches and the zig-zag holes where the stairways were. Poking around, I discovered one reconstructed stairway that you can climb for a bit of a view. I don't know what was a bigger trip: walking in the cloisters that Becket once walked, or looking out the same window William once looked out over his newly conquered lands.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Unexpected treasures

Back from another little jaunt to Europe, this time including two new countries for me, Germany and Belgium. Greatly enjoyed both, but I'll start with ye olde England and the wonderful museuming I did there.

A little off the beaten path, the Wallace Collection near Bond and Oxford Streets was a real treasure trove. Collected by four generations of the Marquises of Hereford (hope I've got that right), the collection, which now belongs to the nation, is still housed in the family's house. It's like the Frick or Morgan in the US, so it's a mix of furniture and walls just covered in paintings. Also many cabinets housing Sevres porcelain and various objets d'art. I thought that my guidebook was being ridiculous when it said not to miss the snuffboxes, but actually, those were the most elaborate and unbelievably crafted snuffboxes you could imagine.

Paintings include a lot of old masters, some giant Rubenses and nine Rembrandts, only one of which has an attribution which has withstood all challenges. But even if you're picky and would only want to look at that one, it would reward your patience; it's of his only son who lived to adulthood, and who died not long after his marriage. The melancholy-looking Titus stares out from a typically dark and smoky Rembrandt background, and it's quite unforgettable. I actually don't know why it isn't the centerpiece of their collection, rather than Franz Hals' Laughing Cavalier (which is great too, of course). For that matter, you can't miss the famous Sully portrait of Queen Victoria looking over her shoulder as she approaches her throne in her crown and robe. I can't believe it's there and not in the National Gallery or, for that matter, one of the palaces.

No British museum would be complete without arms and armor, including a lot of fine Eastern arms and armor like the sword of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore who caused the British so much trouble. I love Mughal stonework and inlay; it's the best there is.

You can also visit some fine examples of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum, including Shah Jehan's cup. Tipu Sultan's 'music box' is also there, which shows a full-size tiger atop a British soldier. The music box plays the tiger's growls, and the soldier's arm flaps up and down.

This time, I actually ventured out of the Indian room at the V&A to their other amazing Asian rooms, and even trotted up the stairs to find the Great Bed of Ware, just an enormous Elizabethan bed from an inn in Ware that was so famous that Shakespeare alluded to it in Twelfth Night. The Tudor collection was fantastic, and included the Drake Jewel, a famous jeweled cameo that Elizabeth gave Drake at some point, and a patent of nobility signed by Henry VIII. I get such a kick out of seeing these things. I mean, something that Elizabeth I actually held. Commissioned. Handed to Francis Drake. Can't beat it.

Oh, and the museums are both free, which to an American is a real kick.