Thursday, May 14, 2015

Monks, Dandies and Quaintrelles

I recently saw Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland, a documentary about a man born to privilege, and immersed in fashion and photography from a young age as a grandson of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland. Nicky, as he was called, was known as a dandy who dressed well and appreciated the finer things in life. He gradually turned away from this life and became a Tibetan Buddhist monk with an abbey of his own and close friendships with The 14th Dalai Lama and Richard Gere.

Before meeting a friend for lunch the other day, I visited Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography to see Dandy Lion: (Re) Articulating Black Masculine Identity. It was a well-done, thought-provoking group show. It made me ask if there was such a thing as a female dandy and the answer is yes. According to a recent New York article, female dandies, also known as quaintrelles, are "...wom[e]n who emphasize a life of passion expressed through personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, and cultivation of life's pleasures." Some notable quaintrelles of the past include Coco Chanel and Marlene Dietrich. I would include Audrey and Katherine Hepburn.

Over lunch, my friend and I identified more contemporary examples. We came up with the following: Lady Gaga, Kate Middleton, Kate Moss, Diane Kruger, Diana Spencer, Ines de La Fressange, and Chloe Sevigny. Some of these women do the cross-dressing thing and others stay feminine, chic. Both groups have a keen eye for detail and express themselves with style.

Monday, May 4, 2015


I don't often see films in theaters; for a number of reasons, I prefer to watch them on DVD. Here's why:

First of all, the extras (e.g. interviews with the director and cast, behind-the-scenes stuff, B-roll footage, etc.), which alone are worth waiting the several weeks or months to see the film. Another benefit is that I get to see thousands (about 10,000 at this point) of films for free, courtesy of local libraries. Thank you. There's also the option of pausing and backtracking if I missed a critical piece of dialogue or action. Let's not forget the total immersion into the film, the silence, and the transporting possibilities often absent when surrounded by others who may or may not be there with the same level of commitment as you.

So, Lucy. I didn't once check the timer on my remote to see how much longer there was to go in this 89-minute Luc Besson film from last year. You might laugh, but that's pretty great thing in my book. In contrast, The Immigrant, The Rewrite, and The Horseman had me pushing that button numerous times. The problems were a terribly-cliched story, weak or repellent characters with no redeeming facets, and/or an over-dependence on bad music to prod emotional reactions from the audience. I find it insulting and I always wonder why the directors feel they must resort to these Pavlovian efforts instead of trusting the power of the story. [Some striking, effective uses of music in film, I recommend The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the Czech composer Leos Janacek), Wings of Desire (Jurgen Knieper, German composer), and nearly all of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films (the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner).]

Back to Lucy. This is a wild story that draws on Tree of Life, The Matrix, Her, and Under the Skin, the latter two of which, like Lucy, feature Scarlett Johannson (or her voice) in the starring role. Someone (I don't know who first did it - maybe Jonathan Glazer? Spike Jones?) had the clever idea to tap into Johannson's inability to act by making use of an innate robotic quality. Scarlett is perfectly suited for these three roles.

Luc Besson's best-known films include The Professional, La Femme Nikita, and The Fifth Element. In all three, beautiful, young, initially-naive, often scantily-clad women are in peril at the beginning, but not for long, as they eventually reveal themselves to be steely fortresses of calm and strength, albeit usually with the aid of a man. The violence is brutal, sometimes gratuitous, but often righteous.

Besson likes interesting music and in Lucy, two standouts are "Sister Rust" by Damon Albarn and the final number, "God's Whisper," by Raury. (Don't watch the YouTube video of the Raury song, though, as it is execrable. The song is much more powerful if you listen to it, as I did, at the culmination of the film. Its odd, powerful eeriness could have fit in easily with the soundtrack to In the Name of the Father.) 

Last but not least, Lucy is also worth seeing because of the impressive special effects, cinematography, and sharp editing. So even/especially if you're not a fan of Scarlett Johannson, you may like her after this film. If not, see Her and Under the Skin for good measure. You'll see what I mean.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Great Books + Films (2015)

"The part of art which is art, and not device, unshackles us from usefulness almost entirely. It emplaces us far into those impractical conditions that nonetheless feel to us somehow essential: laughter, contemplation, wonder, tears."

-Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

The following books and films - some new, some older - have fulfilled the above "impractical conditions" for me this year.


Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Art on Fire
Suspended Sentences
The End of Days
O. Henry Prize Stories (2014) 
Do Not Deny Me
An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips from 35 Great Writers
101 Places Not to See Before You Die
Paul Bowles' Travels: Collected Writings
The Accidental
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent
The Sheltering Sky
The Time of the Assassins
The Ten Thousand Things
H is for Hawk
Elegy on Kinderklavier
The Dream of a Common Language
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Harlequin’s Millions
Happy Are the Happy
The Seventh Day
Without You There is No Us
Belfast Noir
All Days are Night
How We Are
The Interpreter
Refund: Stories
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays
The Charterhouse of Parma
Traveling in Place: Armchair Travel
City Beasts: 14 Stories
A Bad Character
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Girl in a Band
Mozart in the Jungle
A Season in Hell
Blue Angel
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Wolf Hall + Bring Up the Bodies
The Girl Next Door
The Scapegoat
Irma Voth
Lost Illusions
Giving Up the Ghost
Beyond the Chestnut Trees
Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World
Munich Airport


The Vanishing (original Danish version)
The Cold Lands
Foreign Letters
The Duel
Donkey Skin
Naked Lunch
Bay of Angels  
Sophie Scholl: Final Days
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
An Unreasonable Man
The Heiress 
Level Five
Abuse of Weakness
For a Woman
I Am Yours
Mon Oncle 
The Silence
Now, Voyager
Oranges and Sunshine
A Man Escaped
Pan’s Labyrinth   
Polanski’s Macbeth
Get On Up                                                              
Nine Lives                                                              
A Night to Remember
My Own Private Idaho
Force Majeure
Bird People
Fugitive Pieces
Silent Light
The Strange Little Cat
Olive Kitteridge
The Little Bedroom
Place of Execution
Art and Craft
If You Don't, I Will

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Leaving Berlin

I've just started reading Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin and it occurred to me that five years ago yesterday, I left New York City for Berlin, where I spent six months (in Schoneberg and in Prenzlauer Berg), connecting with artists, learning German, writing about art and culture, and traveling throughout the country. (Please see Leipzig, Unter den Linden, Potsdam, In East Berlin, Biking the Berlin Wall, and History Lessons for some of my observations.) Six months isn't that long in the grand scheme of things; I have spent much longer periods of time in other cities/countries, but somehow, Berlin takes up more space on my brain's hard drive. At the risk of sounding too eerie, I think it's because of the ghosts you encounter in unexpected places in every corner of the city. It is this juxtaposition of the past with the present that I experienced in 2010 that Alex, the protagonist of Kanon's novel, experiences when he revisits the city of his birth in 1949.

Thank you to the lovely guys at St. George's New & Second-Hand English Bookstore in Prenzlauer Berg, for all the book recommendations. I read about 50 in all during my stay, many of them set in Berlin - Fatherland, Alone in Berlin, Stasiland, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Berlin Stories, Berlin Diaries, The Weimar Culture, and Berlin - The City and the Court. Being physically and historically immersed in the past and present of a place makes for a lasting imprint no matter where, and is undoubtedly why Berlin continues to haunt me. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Travels in 2014 - Poland, London, Copenhagen

It's been over a year since my last post. I spent significant portions of 2014 reading, writing, and traveling. I revisited two places (Poland and London) which I hoped would recall old memories and form new ones for the book I'm writing. Success!

Poland in Spring. Most places seem lovelier in the spring and Poland was no exception. Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, and Opole. People I knew from my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago, like the Dean of the University of Opole. Deja vu and jamais vu. I changed and the country changed. Former residences and places of work looked smaller because the greenery got bigger in the intervening 20 years. Superficial signs of "The West" like Zara, Sephora, Starbuck's. Comforting signs of the past like my favorite Bar Mleczny (many pierogi were consumed here), "nie ma" (though not as often), concrete, squeaky trams, long train rides with residual Polish cigarette smells (I like this!), gray buildings, beautiful flowers, friendly people. Wonderful art in every city I visited. Strych, a Slow Food restaurant in Opole's Rynek (Town Square). [May 2015 update: sadly, Strych has closed.] New friends like the photographer Piotr Klosek. Walks around Wola and the Uprising Museum. Praga. Krakow's Schindler's Factory and MOCAK. A Woody Allen film at Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science and the Jim Jarmusch vampire film in Wroclaw. Successfully locating a number of Kieskowski's Decalogue filming locations. Castles, gardens, churches.

London in the Fall. Every visit here presents things that puzzle, dazzle, and excite. Fallen golden leaves in the parks, but flowers still in bloom. More great art here: Turner at Tate Britain and Malevich at Tate Modern; The Serpentine and Whitechapel Galleries; Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields. Gordon Ramsey's restaurant on Bread Street. Bermondsey and Brick Lane. A tart fruit tart at Pretty Cuppa. I relished seeing five friends again from various chapters of my past - but now in a new setting -  and viewing the city through their eyes. Indian food with friends in Croydon. A visit to an old friend in Acton. A stay with a friend in the villagey Putney, birthplace of Thomas Cromwell, home of the Putney Canteen, and the site of a theater that hosted one of the premieres of Gone Girl. Notting Hill's Portobello Road, where I fervently wished I could have had a pound or three every time I was asked where the blue door was. I didn't know then and I still don't know now, though I think I walked by the place used as the bookshop in the film. On my last night in London, a friend and I saw the Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth at the ICA. A sad, reluctant departure back to the States the next morning.

Copenhagen in the Fall. First time here to visit a NYC/Berlin friend. A rainy boat tour. The Little Mermaid statue - much-abused, but always restored to daintiness and larger than you think. Midnight fireworks at the frivolous Tivoli Gardens. Grungy Christiania. No Noma for me, but a tuna melt at Cafe Holberg No. 19 in  Nyhaven did the trick. Sleek denizens in gray and black, elegant, tall, blond. The Meatpacking District, where meat is still packed and art is now shown. Avant-garde architecture at DAC. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a highlight of the trip for its serene setting alone. Getting lost among the sculptures at the Glyptotek.

I travel to shake up my snow globe, to prevent complacence, and to reshape my view of the world and my place within it.