04 December 2002

My big fat night

I'm at a theater behind the American consulate, paying my six euro to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In Greece.

Outside, anarchists organize a protest.

About a hundred hold black flags and A-symbols on Tsimiskis Street in front of the same complex. "Front or back?" the middle-aged ticket seller asks in Greek. "Back," I say. I want to see how this crowd greets this Chicago-set phenomenon shot in Toronto, about the Greek-American diaspora, written by a woman from Winnipeg.

It's the sixth week of its run, the night before the International Thessaloniki Film Festival opens. The seats are reserved, and like with most movies in this movie-mad city, it's sold out. I return to the street, the city's Michigan Avenue. Shoppers file out of Benetton and Marks & Spencer. The protest is over the arrest of an alleged terrorist; the issues go back to the 1970s and the era of American-supported military junta. In English, I ask one of the cops, who's wearing black head-to-toe motorcycle leather, what's up, and he shrugs and answers in my language, "Another regularly-scheduled spontaneous demonstration."

At the concession stand, I buy a Heineken before taking my seat. As in every language, subtitles simplify. The occasional words in Greek get more laughter than the flatly translated jokes. But the room is with the movie. My local friends call it "My Big Fat Wedding," taking "Greek" for granted. The biggest buzz is whenever Michael Constantine is on the screen, the blustering, ineffectual father, a stereotype beloved of American sitcoms, but even more so among these Greeks from 15 to 50. This is laughter, loving: this man whose life is good only because of the women who surround him seems a tremendously familiar figure.

Back in modern Greece, outside the prefab gags about Greek-American life, I turn off Aristotle Square behind the shopping mall. A stocky policeman in full riot regalia leans against a gray marble wall like a shadow left by a nuclear flash. He listens to the crackling radio. A line of black extends up the block, the back entrance of the complex covered, two dozen cops cracking jokes. Cigarette smoke coils. I catch the eye of a woman with red hair. She stares at me from beneath her uplifted Lexan visor. I smile. She blows cigarette smoke toward me. Figures filter between the police, leaving another movie. There's an internet cafe one door past. Inside are ranks of boys of ten and eleven and twelve all locked into their first-person shooter games. "Malacca!" one yells, and then another twerpy voice squeaks out the same familiar swear. A gorgeous night, the real world: a big fat Greek tapestry.

[Published in a different form in Newcity, 4 December 2002.]

26 November 2002

Turn into the slide

A few years back, I'd been seeing someone for a while. We weren't getting along. I needed to leave Chicago, even if it meant going with her. We packed the car and after the afternoon rush hour passed, started to drive out of the city to the South. Can two passive-aggressives volleying funks be described as fighting? We were disagreeing. I wanted to keep on the fast and bright and narrow, the rocketing impatience of the interstate, but she wanted to take side roads, see small-town decorations twinkling in the quiet sleepy dark, gangs of tiny Jesuses swaddling on corners near and far. The first mundane town off the highway was as charming as a movie set: bright and unmemorable and unpopulated. Ice crystaled the branches, bushes sank from weight. Every sound in the crisp night bit and crackled like we were listening with dogs' ears.

She insisted on driving. I was still going too fast. We drove out of the town and down a ridge. Black and ice shone in the basin below. Snow crunched under the tires. The car started to slide.

"Turn into the slide," I griped. She tried, but the Toyota hatchback shimmied and then sank into the six or seven inches of slush under the ice that surfaced the pavement. She stopped. We glared. I saw the thin lit line of freeway in the near distance, traffic silent, zooming past, not sluicing and slaloming like us. We exchanged glares again. She gunned it. We sank deeper.

There's very little drinking on either side of my family. She and I had stocked red wine in the back to make it through the three, four days I'd be home. I got a flash of when I was small, of how at holidays we'd all gather at the house of my Daddy Frank, who was my father's father, and my father's seven brothers and their wives and the cousins and second cousins. This was the couple of years before my Granny Jewell died too young. Daddy Frank and Granny Jewell would make boiled custard.

Boiled custard makes eggnog seem like mineral water. Eggs and milk in profusion, this thick, silken emulsion of liquescent super-butterfat ice cream rushing down your throat. A slightly burnt taste to start. For an almost-dry family in a dry county, I also remember an awful lot of half-pint flasks of Old Crow fetching up from hip pockets. A few hours into the afternoon, even the kids came up smelling like rye. Then Uncle Laddie would take out his upper plate and wag his tongue at us, already an old man at 25.

We leave Illinois. Across the border, hello and hugs to my mother, my father, my brother, his girlfriend. I parked my companion, who I dearly did not love at that moment, next to my mother and the photo albums and scrapbooks, which had not yet been fully annotated, footnoted and contextualized on the last visit. She shot me that... look.

Kentucky is not as cold as it once was. The sky was gorgeous that night, that moment, the air bracing. I got only a chill without a shiver, wearing just a sweatshirt. I foraged in the luggage in the trunk for the corkscrew. I walked to the back of the property. I drank from the bottle. The sky was blacker, the stars brighter. A dog bayed. Another answered. I drank. I sat under the apple tree I planted when I was 7 and cried.

01 August 2002

Reviewing Maelström

Denis Villeneuve's Quebecois Maelström is delicious, playful, emotionally scatty yet physically precise, a dazzling, intent portrayal of a 25-year-old woman's life as she falls into unlikely chaos. There is death, love, death, love, and on and on in this post-Kieslowski anecdote of making one's luck in the face of fate while striving for redemption. (And let us not overlook that it is narrated by a series of sarcastic, Serge Gainsbourg-voiced fish on a butcher's table.) Maelström is mannered and elliptical and intellectual, yet it is, in its command of mood and detail, as accessible as the intense serenity of a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the smoldering, crackerjack Kar-Wai-wardness of In the Mood for Love. Villeneuve's style is idiosyncratic to a generous extreme, a mellifluous jumble of all sorts of imagery, such as a meeting of the paintings of the anachro-fabulist freak-face-loving Odd Nerdrum and a few daylight-striated issues of Elle Décor—but what we are asked to sup upon is immaculately cinematic, the most profound sort of rebuke against the compromises we are all being asked to make, as viewers, critics and filmmakers, in the embrace of generally subpar digital video as an exhibition medium.

02 May 2002

Sympathy and Tea Leoni: Hollywood Ending

TEA LEONI WAS BORN FIFTY YEARS TOO LATE.

Imagine that husky-voiced New York brass, tomboy assertiveness and intent beauty in movie roles that Jean Arthur, or even Rosalind Russell, would have played. Instead, her latest role is as the seemingly put-together female lead in Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending," a parable of aging, persnickety, perfectionist director Val Waxman (Allen) who gets one last chance at making a hit through the efforts of ex-wife and studio executive Leoni. Val berates his agent, Mark Rydell (terrific as a timeless schmoozer) and makes a mess of things with Leoni's fiancé, studio head Treat Williams. What could go wrong? How about a director who contracts psychosomatic blindness and has to shoot an entire film without letting anyone know? It's the stuff of one of his four or five page New Yorker short stories, and it flies on screen, mostly through the consistently strong casting--George Hamilton, of the deep tan and hilarious timing, doesn't have enough to do as a studio lackey whose job is never made clear. Cinematographer Wedigo Schutzendorff contributes a papery, golden glow, and actually gets Allen to move the camera a time or two.

Leoni, on the other hand, just wants to sit. At the sight of her massively swollen belly, you can only inquire, How are you? "I'm eight months," she says, leaning back in her chair. "Any time. I'm very sensitive, y'know. I'm very pregnant. We take things very personally."

Okay. Let's start here: Leoni says there was one rumor about working with him that turned out not to be false. "It's true. The man can kiss."

How many takes? "Yeah, right. 'Let's do one more. Five? Let's do one more.'"

But screen kisses aren't real kisses. "Who told you that? I don't know who those actors are. They're missing a whole lot of fun. I think it's a wonderful little legal cheat that you get."

What about the thirty year age difference? He's 65, you're 36. "Oh, I applaud the man. I think if he can do that, that's great. I didn't feel that I was on the wrong end of that equation. He's older. He's very sexy."

At what point, though, does it become otherworldly, this bagging of babes, a turnoff to an audience? "Well, we actors have such a hard time! Jeez! I don't know. I certainly didn't feel like it was sci-fi with him at all. Maybe I'm just getting older, I dunno."

Story goes that as one of the few actors in the cast who had read the entire script, Leoni spread daily disinformation. "Well, I mean, honestly, without a rehearsal, what the hell else am I going to do with a script? It just lays there. Literally. Unless I want to pick it up and go into the closet and make funny with myself. So I had some information that other people didn't have. I didn't realize it was such a coup until the day I came into the makeup trailer and I said, 'I've misplaced my script, has anyone seen it?' and five actors shot out of their chairs, looking around frantically. I got an idea from that." A well-honed beat, and she continues, "At different times, in private, I believe I told each character that they had a foot fetish mentioned in the script at some point. Just a silly little thing."

Did Allen hew to the page? "Oh not twenty percent. He's very concerned that you own every line. He'll ask you, 'Would you say that?' and if you say no, he's more than happy for you to sub whatever line you feel more comfortable saying. That's just sort of the fluff, the ad-libs on a line basis. We had whole scenes that were irrelevant. That to me is hysterical. There was a seven-page scene, I was up all weekend sweating it, I say, 'It won't work in this room.' He says, 'Yeah, I wrote it a year ago.' Well, anyway, let's just put that down. At that point, you just wanna faint!"

And that's what a few actresses have said of the chance to play the sort of role once held by Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. "The role is a bit straighter than some of the prior gal-friends, by design. I didn't feel there was any, 'this is your shot, kid,' in those shoes. I would've loved to have read and screen-tested for this part. You know that nightmare, you show up at school without your underwear on? It's so much worse than that. Because you have no idea what you're up to. We hadn't even spoken! As I read it, it seemed I wouldn't be able to help him out much. I had no idea. Still have no idea. But it was really fun."

Actors always claim that about Allen. Why? "It's very easy to get so fascinated with him that you do--what's that weird compulsion that people can have, that if somebody itches their ear, you itch your ear, kind of thing? You're all flirting with that when you're around him. Men and women. He has a great magnetic pull. Something about him. Maybe it's because he's a genius and he's so funny and charming and he's got that whole musician thing going and he's very prolific and he has a great self-effacing humor; add all that up, you know how it is." Her hand rests on her huge belly. "He's a dynamic, I mean, I'm talking about Woody Allen, iconic, if that's a word. I think that's a column in architecture. Ionic? I learned that in seventh grade. See, this is what happens. You should never do press pregnant. Not because it's uncomfortable, but because you're a little bit more stupid."

[Newcity, 2 May 2002]

14 February 2002

Drama planet

Mapping the dating landscape of Wicker Park

MUSICIAN WALKS INTO A BAR. Bar's in Wicker Park. Another musician, end of the bar rail, says, "If you can't get laid in Wicker Park, you're either not trying or not in a band."

"That's so 1999," second musician tells the first.

"That's when you stopped dating!"

"So it goes," he laughs. Wicker Park. Every miserable cliché is true.

"Everyone seems only to be concerned how others see them," a friend says. "I don't like going out. I like to go to music, I like to drink, I like to watch girls," he says, "but I'm stranded on Drama Planet every time I go out."

Drama Planet. Sounds better than "Empty Bottle High." Pick your passion poison: the Bottle, Rainbo, Danny's Tavern, Fireside Bowl, Double Door, Flying Saucer, Leo's Lunchroom, Jinx, Atomix, Lava Lounge, Reckless Records. What is it like to date in Wicker Park? No one dates. Everyone dates. Any night of the week, a rip-roaring ratfuck awaits. See the exes mess with pretty boys, visit with the genre of petite art school brunettes. Visit damage or have it visited upon you.

In a crowded, overheated, surging Saturday Empty Bottle show with an all-local bill, a woman with an angry ponytail jokes, "It's not there's no ventilation, it's that you can't vent. Mention someone you're pissed at? They're sure to walk into the club before you finish your sob story, let alone your drink." (Feydeau's definition of farce: A to B: "I hate C." Knock-knock. Enter? C.)

Connect the dots, connect the lost loves, connect desire to love and sex. Listen to a description of any given circle of twentysomething liaisons in this neighborhood. Any dating history with its internecine intrigues sounds like it should end in "in the house that Jack built." What's it like to flirt in a fishbowl? To watch conspiracies of sex and love played out relentlessly, represented, misrepresented in public space? Are you there to love or be loved? To see or be seen? Love comes to those who look in the mirror, or as another friend joked about a band with notable hair, "How large do you think the mirror is in their rehearsal space?"

Just public places, rest stations between moments on the street. Like endless fashion week and Milwaukee Avenue an unending runway.

"I'm very like defensive about myself and I'm very like protective about myself, you know what I mean," a woman says to a man with glazed eyes. When I wonder aloud about why some people pose so, someone says, "We are surrounded by women who can't trust anyone who believes they're good or beautiful or smart. I mean, if you're available, you are so not desirable."

And what about the men? "We tell each other stories about them, not knowing whether to pursue them or to run," a woman observes. Who's she/he dated? Each potential lover's name is accompanied by the band he/she's been in, a tuneful history. The rockerfuckers and the boys and girls who love them. It's the lizard brain. It's primal. It's dark, the music is hot, the booze is cold.

Wicker Park was a post-Fire suburb. A working-class neighborhood, Polish, then Puerto Rican. Then a place where artists could live for cheap. Where the admirers of the artistic life could linger. And finally, a place where a Concrete Masonry Unit condo could go up along with the price of coffee at the cafe on the corner. It happens. It's the essential transformation of traditional bohemia into a simulacrum rife with pose, pretense and sweet little boutiques. A cross between Carbondale and Chelsea, a prairie dream of a life interrupted only by booze and longing, kisses and consummations. On the way to somewhere else. On the way to another life. On the way to life and love and see you later, babee.

[Newcity, 14 February 2002]

31 January 2002

A Thousand Words

"here is new york: a democracy of photographs" showcases the continuing power of images

THE YOUNG WOMAN is tiny. She would not stand out among the surge of figures in the close space were it not for her orange pants, a blast of fire matching the combustible images covering every inch above eye level the eye can take in. December in SoHo: two storefronts, a former agnes b. for women store, are no longer neat with fashion, but swollen with sorrow and torrents of imagery, hanging from walls and wires, with clusters of New Yorkers comparing their own memories (or evidence) of those moments on September 11 and afterward. My eye skitters over the visual documentation of that day but sudden as photos, I see the woman recoil and my eye is drawn to what she has seen. Tucked into the other frozen instants, the image seems at first gulls from the Hudson against the burning towers, but they're death swans, frozen dives, figures alive, soon gone from the frame. Her head snaps toward mine: two strangers, we're both crying. We're both tiny in the face of the horrifying proof and of this moment.

Presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, "here is new york: a democracy of photographs," images by professional and amateur photographers, makes its first major appearance—outside those two crowded rooms—in Chicago. The show of more than 1,500 images opens Friday at 72 East Randolph, a 2,500-square-foot storefront across from the Chicago Cultural Center. Will the emotional wallop be different? While Chicago viewers will not be seeking corroboration of having been geographically in that moment, emotions can't help but well. This was a shared apocalypse.

The Chicago space is airier than New York's provisional setting, well able to handle their 3,000 visitors-a-day level of traffic. There is one added oddity: Many of the photos in Chicago are suspended above eye level. While not totally crick-inducing, it bears the symbolic weight of the posture taken by so many New Yorkers visiting Ground Zero: looking upward at absence, as if the human gaze could sketch the fallen figures back into place.

Looking over the photos without a crowd on Monday as art installers were two-thirds through their task, fully into their gallows humor, I was struck by how the iconography is commonplace three months on, but also capable of fresh shock. The eye races, the brain denies, then suddenly a concrete image shocks, alarms, terrifies, dismays. There's one image of the towers in flame in the distance, as if taken on a Brooklyn rooftop, conical black smoke cycloning into the sky. As if the photo of someone's girlfriend, a young woman looks toward the camera, squinting from the sun, smiling at her beholder. It's like a souvenir of a day at the beach: remember that, honey?

The panoply of photos is not wholly at random; verticals are mingled with horizontals, similarly themed images are spread apart. There is a certain subversive power to the truly great photos being shuffled amid the great ones, as surprising as the swelling white flocks of memos fluttering down on Brooklyn and Queens that day. Patrol cars, enflamed. Flattened fire pumpers. A sign: "KEEP YOUR MASK ON AT ALL TIMES." In business garb, ash-dusted faces retreat. In firefighting apparel, sweat-sleek faces advance. "Good Morning America" on a Times Square Jumbotron, sending images across the nation. And this horror: on Church Street below the site, a stunning shot, as much Brueghel as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, as a dozen or so figures run from the clouds of onrushing debris, faces in postures of frozen panic, each purchase of adrenaline creating a different organic reaction. But always human.

Witness is not always art. But photography offers us the gift of the offhand, the seen but not understood. Look over the photos. We know what happened, but we still do not know what has been done.

New York State of Mind

Moving about in post-aftermath New York

THE PLANE BANKS to the right, toward Brooklyn.

The last time I flew into New York, the 767 rode low over the lights of Manhattan, as if tugged gently along the beaded arterial glow of Broadway. It's a sooty dusk this December day, not from smoke, but from fog and shattered light. It is as if this spectacle were composed of albumen and platinum and memory, like a Stieglitz print on a clean, well-lighted gallery's wall.

Of course I look for the absence. I know New York. But not so well that my eye intuitively knows how to sketch in the missing towers. I cannot see coils of smoke, only sprigs of rain and approaching night.

The weather is unseasonable, warm, then hot, the renewal of spring in blizzard season. I am staying further uptown, where flowers are confused, in early bloom, their enthusiasm sentencing them to certain death. The next day, the light on the streets is as clear and bright as a new lover's smile. And it smells of spring. I go downtown to a friend's, nearer the site, and I expect the unspeakable buzzsaw of smells to assault my senses. The burning Coke cans, as some said, the bristle of burning wire, copy toner, frizz. But no. The night's damp still lingers in sidewalk crevices, along the facades of bodegas and bars and boutiques. At Houston and Bowery, I know I will go no closer. I have read, seen, talked, e-mailed, considered: I do not wish to know the literal void. The spiritual void is being filled. Colleagues and friends talk of renewal, not thematically, not dogmatically, but through simple enthusiasm, mere hope. The next day will mark two months since September 11. We don't talk around the subject, but no one really wants to talk about it. It is not a dance around the 220-story elephant in the room, but a dance of celebration, to the gift of inappropriate, untimely atmospheric conditions, a shred of global warming caressing the hearts, bodies, faces of the recently battered.

At Gitanes, the smell of brioche, café au lait, and that glorious attitude: I deign to serve you, how dare you look at me, enjoy your small parcel of land on this little sidewalk in so-large Soho. The sun beams down. We talk of many things, and all are good. The light of beautiful eyes, obscured first by sunglasses, but then by smiles that beam almost like phosphorus. We are alive; Manhattan is happy; we persist, we will grow stronger; soon, we will even be surly again. One of the waitstaff stands on the lip of the doorway, looks toward the sun. "It smells like France," she says.

"What part," I ask, "Are you from there?

"I'm from Morocco," she says, "I just imagine it smells like France."

"What does Morocco smell like?"

"The sun." She squints, then cuts me a smile like fresh creamery butter.

I'm invited to a dinner party that night. A documentary is premiering on the Sundance Channel. The filmmaker has invited friends and peers to share her debut, her public mortification, but first, to pour wine and rumor upon the waters. The owner of the apartment has just moved from Los Angeles to New York for work. It's further downtown, along the tributary of Broadway that feeds nearer the former World Trade Center. The wind is picking up. Night falls. The smell of the Hudson, the waft of the East River. Insurgent water, silent, somewhere near. A sour note of flowers somewhere, a pile of romantic gestures not made, left to founder and rot.

My nose is as nervous as a terrier. I will smell death, soon, I fear, jack-legging my way to this unfamiliar address. But no. Only the smell of spring and damp in the midst of encroaching winter. The room is warm. Bread is broken. The space is nice, but still not fully moved into. The hostess charms, a non-Angeleno returned to New York, concerned but not jumpy about the future. The back windows look downtown. There, from only a couple of blocks, you can see the dome of 2 World Financial Center, which was the most visible of squat survivors in the WTC aftermath. It glows. Too, the work lights, into the evening, and into the night after we will sleep, a glow of blinding, angelic transformation heightening the sky. I don't want to steal glances. The hostess pours more wine.

A few minutes before the program begins, there's trouble with the volume. As someone works to make sense of all the cables and jacks, a moment's silence falls. Of the dozen or so guests, I notice, all but one of us stares off, curious, wary, quiet, through the back window toward the weightless light.

"Aha!" the technician announces, the sound pouring out, a burst of sound and music promoting the show that starts in seconds. The personal expression, the entertainment, commences. We look gratefully toward art, toast our friend, our lives, alive.

[Newcity, 31 January 2002]

10 January 2002

Film Life

ONE OF THE BEST LESSER-KNOWN European writers in translation, Cees Nooteboom excels at conveying a thoughtful, urbane European sensibility. The 68-year-old Dutchman's 1998 "All Souls Day," newly translated by Susan Massotty, boasts an even cleaner version of his plaintive prose than in earlier novels like "Rituals" and "The Following Story."

In "All Souls Day," Daane is a Dutch documentary maker who has lived in Berlin since the death of his wife and child in an airplane crash a decade earlier. Nooteboom demonstrates his usual alacrity in divining interior states, in a fashion similar to Peter Handke in books like "The Afternoon of a Writer," but Nooteboom is less self-serious. While Handke would pause to fashion falling light in language, Nooteboom's thinkers continue their forward progress, even when they find it absurd.

Novels about filmmakers' processes rarely convince. They're more about externals than internals. (Even Don DeLillo in "The Names" gets precious instead of precise, seeking metaphor more than capturing thought.) Daane sees himself as "a man with machines, free but tied down... a traveler without a suitcase." He is a consummate contemporary cosmopolitan, thoughtful yet unmoored. In tender yet astringent prose, Nooteboom chronicles the workings of Daane's mind as "he wondered how much of his real self was visible to others." It may be my favorite of his eight novels that have been translated, a book that feels like the world instead of a construct of it. Daane considers making a new film from the fragments of life he encounters on his walks through the newly unified Berlin. Can these fragments cohere? Nooteboom cites another writer on "the immense aphasia of life," and it is a state at which he excels at depicting. Daane meets a young Dutch-Spanish woman and things take shape: abstraction recedes and the power of the chance encounter sweeps his old life away.

Poetic yet philosophical in the best possible way, "All Souls Day" is a heartening consideration of the fate of the reflective intellectual in any century. It is as lovely, as offhand as photos.

"All Souls Day" by Cees Nooteboom Harcourt, $25, 340 pages
[Newcity, 10 January 2002]