Monday, February 24, 2014

City by the Bay

I was in San Francisco last week to attend the San Francisco Writers' Conference at the Mark Hopkins
Hotel on Nob Hill. It was my fourth visit to one of my favorite cities in the world.

During my week-long visit, I also had the opportunity to enjoy some of the sights of this city that I'd missed on my previous visits - I stayed with friends in Alameda, across the Bay, and found the old part of town charming, particularly the 1932 Alameda Theatre. We had a fantastic dinner at Burma Superstar, the best (and only) Burmese restaurant I've ever eaten at. Initially, I expected the cuisine to be a blend of Indian and Chinese cuisines and it was...kind of...but there was something else, too. My favorite dish was the Tea Leaf Salad, described as "a party in your mouth" and yes, that's accurate.

I took the Alameda Ferry several times, each time feeling dwarfed and not a little scared by the enormous container ships loading up in Oakland. After a handful of minutes sailing into the pea soup fog of the Bay, I would alight at Embarcadero. From there, I'd take a cable car up California Street through Chinatown to the top of Nob Hill.

Embarcadero Plaza was the scene of the largest pillow fight I'd ever seen on Valentine's Day (!), and I got a number of harmless hugs from strangers hanging out near the Ferry Terminal Building. I got caught on the wrong side of the Chinese New Year's Parade on February 15th, but I went against the direction of the parade to its source and then crossed to the other side where I needed to be. The crowds reminded me of negotiating the streets of Shanghai last year.

One gorgeous day, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed to Sonoma, the historic museum there, a wine tasting, and a savory lunch at The Girl and the Fig.

I met another friend at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to see the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition. I have seen a lot of her art in Santa Fe, New York, and Chicago, but had never seen this collection of paintings she did while at Lake George in upstate New York. Many of them were so different from what my artwork memory bank told me was typical O'Keefe and I was jarred into seeing her in another way. There were a number of her more well-known pastel flower paintings, which I learned were done at Lake George and not when she relocated to the Southwest. But the ones I liked most were those with lots of moody blues and browns, and autumn hues of scarlet, orange, and gold.

The Mission was fun to explore, though I didn't get to spend as much time as I wanted to there, and arrived too late to visit Mission Dolores. I stopped at Tartine (a half stick of butter in every croissant, or so I was told) and then walked along Valencia, inhaling alternating whiffs of taquerias and honeysuckle.

I am looking forward to my fifth visit to San Francisco. Maybe it will be more than just a visit this time.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bastille Day Films: Chronicle of a Summer (1960) and Tout ce qui brille (2010)

Over the Bastille Day weekend, I saw two French films. All That Glitters (Tout ce qui brille) (2010) was shown Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the Chicago International Film Festival Summer Screenings Program. Yesterday, I watched Chronicle of a Summer (1960) and all the supplements included on the excellent Criterion DVD compilation, released earlier this year. Both films are French, but they couldn't have been more different, at least on the surface. My initial reaction to All That Glitters was that it was insipid and irritating, but I have to admit that my negative feelings could have been exacerbated by the meat locker temperature in the theater, the rock-hard seats, and the weird loner sitting to my immediate left who laughed at inappropriate moments. In contrast, the pleasant, comfortable, and quiet screening environment of home no doubt enhanced my positive reaction to Chronicle of a Summer, a film I thought was intense and inspired. And much better than All That Glitters. But maybe it's not fair to compare them to each other - after all, they serve different purposes and their respective creators had opposite goals in mind. Or did they?

Both films are set in the context of either 1960 or 2010. In the case of Chronicle, a film borne of an anthropologist-sociologist collaborative effort, two of the principle "actors" are directed by the filmmakers (on screen) to ask people on the streets of Paris if they are happy and to record the responses. This in and of itself is fascinating to watch. But then things take a much more intimate, even uncomfortable turn as other "actors" in the film discuss their thoughts about the conflicts in Algeria and Congo, views on race, and the most poignant and haunting, the Holocaust. Middle-class students, workers, an African student studying in Paris, an Italian expat, and a Holocaust survivor interact with each other in what appears to be a non-scripted manner. But at the end of the film, all of these actors are shown deconstructing and critiquing their own and others' "authentic" performances. Marceline, the young Holocaust survivor (in what was for me one of the most extraordinary sequences) said she felt all the things she said while fully aware of being filmed, yet it seemed as if we were eavesdropping on her private thoughts as she walks slowly through a nearly empty Place de la Concorde and Les Halles. Another memorable scene is the young Italian expat who appears to have a breakdown on screen - it is rather frightening. Yet we learn later that all of this was real and at the same time, fake, which belies the description of Chronicle as the first instance of cinéma vérité. Regardless of whether what I saw was true or false, I can't get the film out of my head.

All That Glitters also captures the zeitgeist of Paris, but in 2010, not 1960. How 50 years changes things! The story is told from the perspective of two young Parisian women from the wrong side of the tracks who yearn to live "the good life," which they believe consists of designer shoes, rich boyfriends, huge apartments, and an endless parade of night clubs and parties. They eventually find what they are looking for - at least temporarily - but not without the requisite, predictable obstacles. I wanted to like this film. I kept my eyes, ears, and mind open. However, except for four characters - one of the two female leads (who interestingly, also happens to have co-written the film), the lead's father, a hilarious yoga teacher, and a young boy - the remaining characters/caricatures did not compel me to care about their cliched stories.  

Chronicle of a Summer had the polar opposite effect on me. If you get the Criterion DVD, don't miss the supplements - all of them - because in addition to some fascinating outtakes, you will see interviews with the surviving members of the "cast." Their lives were decidedly non-Glittery, but I cared a lot about what they had to say.

P.S. One year has gone by since I last posted. The web site was inert, but I was not. During that time, I experienced good and bad in Spain, Italy, and China. Perhaps more on that in future posts.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Gone Girl

Some books draw you in so quickly that you experience a thrill along with a sense of dismay - you know you'll struggle to pace yourself instead of devouring it in one sitting. A book that, despite its heft, you tote with you wherever you go just to sneak in a few more pages. One of those books that, you realize with sadness, you will never again experience for the first time.

Gone Girl is that kind of book. I lost the battle with myself to enjoy it over a week and was done in less than two days. I just learned that Reese Witherspoon's production company is going to do a film version with Witherspoon herself as Amy, the "gone girl" of the title. It takes the edge off, but only slightly, of reading that last page. I can't wait to see how the story translates to the screen.

Author Gillian Flynn has been compared to Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley series) and I think this is accurate. Gone Girl has psychological tension, very dark humor, and a sophisticated story line which provides serious food for thought for those who are married, have been married, have contemplated marriage, or have ever been in a relationship. So, pretty much everyone. Even if you think you know your partner better than you know yourself, surprises await. Just hope that they're not the "Nick and Amy" kind.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Recently, I re-watched both Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (2007). Both award-winning films feature conflicted professional eavesdroppers - Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in the former and the late Ulrich Muhe as Stasi Captain Gerd Weisler. Enemy of the State (1998) continued with this theme as does the more recent and rather good TV series Person of Interest.

It's a peculiar line of work to choose. Maybe human nature has instilled in us the belief that other people's lives are more interesting, and maybe more illicit, than our own lives. While it's true that we learn a lot by gleaning information from all sources, at what point does the impulse to eavesdrop become an obsession as it did in the lives of the protagonists above? What if the tables were to turn and the eavesdropper were to become the eavesdroppee?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

To Woody with Like

I saw the Chicago premiere of Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome with Love, this past weekend. I liked it enough, but not as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Paris, Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, or Match Point, his other European-set forays since 2005.

Still, To Rome with Love made me laugh. Especially the opera singer in the shower plot and Alec Baldwin as a romantic guide to Jesse Eisenberg, playing a young Allen type. Yes, I rolled my eyes occasionally, but overall, I continue to appreciate Allen's Greek theater-Shakespeare-modern angst melange. I usually leave the theater feeling that life will still be okay in its neurotic way, but I like that the catharsis is always tinged with unease.

I wonder which European city Woody will tackle next. I vote for Prague or Berlin, maybe Krakow. But in color, not a black-and-white Shadows and Fog treatment. Or maybe he should explore a new continent? South America (Buenos Aires)? Asia (Shanghai)?