Hottie of the Month: JMW Turner Tuesday, Jul 31 2007 

Turner While PJ and I were in London earlier this month, we visited the Tate Britain, a museum dedicated to British art from 1500 to the present. I was especially keen on seeing the museum’s exhibition of watercolors by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). This is his 1798 self portrait to the right.

Part of the Turner exhibit was curated by David Hockney, himself a great watercolorist. The “Hockney on Turner Watercolours” exhibit features placards written by Hockney that express his opinions of Turner’s art, technique, etc. I first fell in love with Hockney’s work when I was a budding homosexual as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University. While in the same medium, Hockney’s work is so different from Turner’s that reading the former’s thoughts on the latter seemed like a very interesting prospect indeed. Here’s the kind of work Hockney does:

Hockney

Based on this example, I’m sure anyone can see why a burgeoning homosexual might find Hockney’s work enjoyable! But I will also point out that I moved beyond the overtly sexual paintings and found myself enjoying Hockney’s larger oeuvre as well. So, I was excited that an artist I really like was going to comment on an artist that I had seen billed as one of England’s great masters.

While Hockney’s commentary was interesting, it wasn’t the aspect of the Tate Britain’s Turner collection that most impressed me. I’ll discuss what I liked about the exhibit after the jump.

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An Agatha Christie Rant Monday, Jul 30 2007 

At some point in junior high or high school I spent a year reading Agatha Christie novels. Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence, Miss Marple, even the other ones. After I’d plowed through the Bryan Public Library’s Christie collection, I moved on to Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and other classic British detective writers, but Christie was always my favorite.

I was especially fond of Miss Marple. I had seen a few movie and t.v. adaptations of Miss Marple novels as a kid. My parents like older movies, so we watched a lot of pre-1970s movies. I remembered the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple:

She always struck me as too energetic. There was also Angela Lansbury:

She always seemed too Angela Lansbury (though I’ve always liked her and thought she should have won several Oscars). And there was Helen Hayes (generally forgettable, unfortunately).

But there has always really been just one Miss Marple, Joan Hickson:

She is incomparable in this role. Completely unparalleled. So, why in the world have “they” decided to remake the Miss Marple television series?

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Paris, Je T’aime: A Review Saturday, Jul 28 2007 

Yesterday, I saw Paris, Je T’aime, in which twenty filmmakers use Paris as a backdrop for short stories about various kinds of love and relationships. Here’s the trailer:

The movie is organized around eighteen five-minute arrondissements. Each episode is written and directed by a different person. It stars many well-known actors, including Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte, Gena Rowlands, Steve Buscemi, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and includes several famous directors, including Gus Van Sant, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuarón, Wes Craven, and Alexander Payne.

Some of the episodes are less successful than others, but on the whole I really liked this movie. I was a little worried going into it that I wouldn’t like the short format of the individual episodes. But I found the short form interesting, since it allows you to compare the different directors’ styles as well as the different stories’ plots and statements about love. There’s a little bit of everything here: whimsy, sentiment, violence, heartbreak, exuberance, humor, despair. It was also great to see many of the places that we had just visited included in the film. As an experiment in film making, it definitely succeeds.

Four of the arrondissements stood out as my favorites; I’ll briefly explain why I liked them in particular in the order they appear in the movie. Loin du 16e (XVIe arrondissement) was written and directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas and stars Catalina Sandino Moreno as woman who must leave her infant in (what appears to be) subpar daycare in order to commute across the city to her job as nanny for a wealthy family’s infant. It’s heartbreaking in its subtle simplicity as we see the sacrifice she makes to support herself and her baby. We also see the contrast between how she loves her own child and merely cares for her employer’s infant. It’s a great episode.

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La Vie en Rose: A Review Wednesday, Jul 25 2007 

Over the weekend, PJ and I saw the new bio-pic about the life and music of Edith Piaf, La vie en Rose. Here’s the trailer:

Piaf is, of course, the great French singer who rose to fame in the 1930s and became an international sensation after World War II. She lived an incredibly difficult and sometimes tortured life, but, like Judy Garland in America, she rose above her difficult childhood and tragic love affairs to become a great vocal artist. (Does that sound too prosaic?!)

Piaf's Grave While we were in Paris earlier this month, we visited her grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is also the resting place for Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas), Jim Morrison, Moliere, Maria Callas, Richard Wright, Abelard and Heloise, Marcel Proust, Colette, Balzac, Delacroix, Gericault, Louis David, among many others. (While it’s weird to me that a cemetery would be a tourist attraction, I highly recommend a visit to this one if you have the time while you’re in Paris. It’s certainly a good reminder of our own mortality.)

This picture of her grave is from Wikipedia, which claims that it is one of the most visited graves in the cemetery. It is certainly well tended and someone had left flowers on it when we were there.

When we left to go see the movie, PJ admitted that he was a little hesitant to suggest we see it, since he worried that I would almost certainly become an Edith Piaf queen afterwards. It turns out he was right. I loved the movie and immediately came home and bought a two-disk set of her music.

But before I write about her music, let’s get back to the movie. I have to admit that I found it hard going for the first 20 to 30 minutes. In this early section, the film cuts back and forth between her childhood and various points in her adult life. This cutting creates (for me, at least) a coherent view of her early life, but I couldn’t get a handle on the adult stuff — I couldn’t keep track of when each scene was happening in relation to the other scenes of her later life. I also couldn’t keep track of who the other characters were. Consequently, I got a little irritated.

But then I had an epiphany: the movie isn’t really concerned with the minute details of Piaf’s life — it’s not that kind of bio-pic. If you want the dates and chronology, etc. you can certainly go back and watch the movie a second (or third) time and probably get all of that, but on a first viewing this film is more of an impressionistic biography. It wants to recreate the spirit, energy, and artistry of Piaf’s life and music. By giving us these disjointed scenes of her life in a seemingly random order, the film forces us to experience that energy and artistry rather than pay attention to her age or where she is or who she’s talking to.

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Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: A Review Sunday, Jul 22 2007 

For each of the last few summers, I’ve read a Jane Austen novel. I usually take whichever one I’m reading with me on the plane to Europe: Emma to London, Pride and Prejudice to Spain. Later this summer, I’ll be teaching Persuasion, so I was going to read that, but I decided to vary the routine a bit this year and read one of the recent books that either continues or rewrites Pride and Prejudice instead.

Darcy Takes a WifeI chose Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, a continuation of Pride and Prejudice. It’s quite long, 465 pages, so I read it before we left for Paris rather than take it with me.

The novel begins the day after Mr. Darcy’s wedding to Elizabeth Bennett. As they ride in a carriage from London, where they spent their first night together, Elizabeth is in some discomfort but too embarrassed to accept her new husband’s offer of a pillow. We then enter Elizabeth’s memory as she recalls how she came by her discomfort.

This recollection points to what distinguishes this book: Berdoll more than peeks behind the Darcys’ bed curtains; she gives us graphic account (after graphic account) of their love making. It turns out that Darcy and Elizabeth are quite enthusiastic in their marital union. Anyone looking for a steamy rewriting of Austen need look no further: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife is very much a romance novel set in the social world created by the decidedly non-sexy Austen.

Berdoll’s world is populated by all of the characters that make Austen’s novel such a treat. Besides Darcy and Elizabeth, we see Bingley and Jane (their wedding night and subsequent sexual activities are less competent than D&E’s), Wickham and Lydia (who almost immediately tire of one another’s company), the other Bennets, Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and even Lady Catherine de Bourgh (we don’t get any part of her sex life, fortunately!).

Much of Berdoll’s continuation fits well with Austen. Bingley, for example, is sexually inexperienced and rather incompetent at first in making love to his wife. This fits well with my vision of the character from Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine remains a dour figure staunchly opposed to her nephew’s marriage to his social inferior. Mr. Collins is still a buffoon, and Lydia and Wickham’s scenes perfectly match Austen’s foreshadowing.

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My Life with Gazpacho Thursday, Jul 19 2007 

I just finished making gazpacho. PJ and I are having a small dinner party tomorrow night, and our first course will be the gazpacho, which of course needs to be thoroughly chilled. I generally love soups, and Gazpacho is my favorite kind of soup. While PJ isn’t as much of a soup fan as I am, we nevertheless agree on our love for gazpacho — one of the many commonalities that makes our relationship work as well as it does. (Never underestimate the power of a good soup to keep your man happy!)

Because of my deep fondness for chilled tomato soup, I often order it whenever I have the opportunity. As one website points out, “There are about as many gazpacho recipes as there are Spanish cooks.” One of the aspects of traveling that I enjoy is sampling as many of those recipes as I can.

The latest addition to my (metaphorical) gazpacho journal occurred while we were in Paris. On our first day there, we stopped for lunch in a little cafe called the Cafe-philo des Phares on the Place de la Bastille. I immediately noticed my favorite appetizer on their menu and ordered it. I should note that my gazpacho tasting has become a kind of hobby — kind of like people who are wine connoisseurs. I want to experience the different varieties available to me but I also want to evaluate and rank them.

The best gazpacho I’ve ever had was in Michigan while PJ lived there for a year. He took me to Kruse and Muer, and we quickly fell in love with their soup. (I also had a great shepherd’s pie at a different restaurant in Michigan, but that’s a different blog entry!) I prefer a balance between the tomato broth and the chunky vegetables. The Michigan gazpacho was perfectly balanced in its quotient of broth to tomatoes to cucumber. (The cucumber is key for me.) I also like a bit of tanginess, which I now know if achieved by using the right amount of lemon juice.

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The Drowsy Chaperone: A Review Wednesday, Jul 18 2007 

While we were in London last week, PJ and I saw two musicals and a play: The Drowsy Chaperone, Mary Poppins, and In Celebration. Last year, we saw three really great productions in London: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park, The Seagull at the National, and Billy Elliot the Musical. So we had high hopes for this year’s trip. Unfortunately, we were mostly disappointed.

Let’s start with the good: The Drowsy Chaperone was excellent. The musical centers on the Man in the Chair, a middle aged theater queen (yes, he’s a theater queen regardless of whether he’s gay or straight) who plays the cast album of his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a fictional musical that comes to life as he listens to the album.

The production stars one of its creators, Bob Martin, who won a Tony Award for its book. He fills the part perfectly. He imbues the Man in the Chair with both humor and pathos, a difficult task to pull off. As the production progresses, we learn more about the Man, who serves as both leading man and narrator. What distinguishes this musical is its postmodern crossovers between the Man in the Chair and the inner musical. He both narrates the action and, because it is taking place in his little apartment, takes part in it (to a degree). Rather than being gimmicky, this back and forth really works.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the musical and a discussion about it from London t.v.:

As this clip points out, the show is ironic and depicts the characteristics of 1920s musicals in both a loving and satiric way. We see their sexism, racism, and (to a degree) homophobia at the same time that we see why someone might love them. This is a musical that loves musicals even while it can point out some of their flaws.

The London star of the show is Elaine Paige, famous (in part) for originating such roles as Grisabella the Glamor Cat in Cats, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and Eva Peron in Evita on the London stage. She is a hoot in the title role, the chaperone who is tasked with keeping the bride away from the groom until their wedding ceremony, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that she gets drowsy when she drinks and she drinks like she’s Karen Walker‘s best drinking buddy.

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Skip, Skip, Skip through the Louvre Monday, Jul 16 2007 

It goes without saying that the Louvre is one of the great museums of the world. We therefore put it high on our list of sights to see while we were in Paris. Somewhat surprisingly to us, this was against the advice and comments made by some of our friends and acquaintances. One told us that the lines were too long and that we’d have to wait six hours to get in. Another told us that it was too big a collection to really see any of it and that we’d better use our time if we went to other museums. And our friend and traveling companion James informed us that he’d already seen the Louvre and therefore wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it this time. (He’d been in Paris before, of course, though he was a little confused about whether that had been in the mid-1980s or in 1912!)

Tossing all advice out the proverbial window, we insisted on going. I’m certainly glad we did.

The Louvre holds some 35,000 works of art, everything from “Oriental antiquities” to European paintings to sculptures and objets d’art. Originally a palace, the museum opened in 1793, just a year after the first Republic was established, and its exhibits were taken from the royal collections. Over time, the collections have expanded to take over the entire palace, and in 1989 it acquired the now distinctive glass pyramid designed by I. M. Pei. Here’s a picture of the museum that I took as we were leaving:

 

louvre

This isn’t a great view, but it’s the best of the ones I took. If you right click to view the image in its own window, it looks a little better. I took this picture with the outdoor light lens on, which allows you to see the buildings as more than just shadows against the bright sky. Even so, you can see how cloudy it was that day. It was actually starting to sprinkle as I took this picture, though the rain never lasted long.

Mona LisaThe Louvre houses many famous paintings, perhaps most famously the “Mona Lisa” (right). This painting is the star attraction and practically has its own room. Being the ignorant American that I am, I had no idea that “Mona Lisa” is not actually this painting’s name. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is actually titled Portrait of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. It is believed that this woman is the subject of the painting, though no one knows why or by whom the work was commissioned. Historians do know that Da Vinci brought the completed portrait to France rather than to the subject herself. If you click on the image, it will open a window to the Louvre’s discussion of the work.

This portrait is one of the works from the Louvre’s original collection. If you click here, you can learn more about this painting through the Louvre’s “closer look” feature. When you find the room in which the Mona Lisa hangs, you can stand in line to get a closer look at the painting. Or, like me, you can just stand to one side and get a fair enough view. It’s a beautiful painting, but my main reaction to it was that it’s much smaller than I had imagined it being.

Man with a GloveMy favorite painting that I saw in the Louvre was Titian’s Man with a Glove, painted sometime around 1520-1523 (left). If you click on the image, it will open a window to the Louvre’s discussion of the work.

I like this painting for four reasons. First, the subject is kind of cute. Second, it utilizes a similar color pallet to that used two centuries later by my favorite painter, Velazquez. I like the browns of this style of portraiture and its dark shadings. Third, I like the detail of the man’s gloves and that he has one glove on and one off. This gives the painting the feeling of a snapshot taken just after he’s removed one glove and just before he can remove the other. For me, this detail emphasizes both time — the momentary feeling — and the nonchalance of the sitter. Which leads me to my fourth item: the painting’s psychological quality. The subject of this painting seems simultaneously confident and casual. He appears to be a man of position but also a man of independence. I think it’s a fascinating portrait.

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Americans Home from Abroad Saturday, Jul 14 2007 

PJ and I got home from London and Paris early Friday morning. We had a great time during our trip, and I have lots to blog about. I’ll start with some general impressions and will write individual posts about my favorite parts of our trip over the next week or so.

We left on July 3rd and arrived in Paris on the 4th. I’m extremely proud of the fact that we were able to find and take the train into Gare du Nord and then take the Metro to our hotel. This seemed like quite an accomplishment for our first time in France (and considering the fact that we don’t really speak French!).

Our hotel was on the edge (actually just over the edge) of the Marais, a neighborhood that has a large gay population. Our hotel was fine, nothing fancy or especially nice but relatively cheap. We arrived around noon. After checking in, we showered and then went in search of lunch. We walked to the Place de la Bastille, where we ate in a cafe. We then went for a walk along the Seine. By the time we made it over to Notre Dame, it started to pour with rain. We hadn’t brought our umbrellas with us on our walk, so we both got soaked.

After ducking under some trees and large bushes, we made our way over to the Memorial de la Deportation, a monument to the French victims of German concentration camps during World War II. We had first learned about the memorial by watching the movie A Love to Hide, which ends at the memorial. Because of the rain, we didn’t stand in line to go into the memorial — they only allow a small number of people in at a time. Even so, just being there after seeing the movie was very moving.

We were supposed to be back at the hotel by 4 pm to meet our friend James. As we walked back through the Marais, it started to rain again, so we decided to visit the Musee National Picasso (just to stay dry, of course). If you’re into Picasso, it’s a great museum.

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Paris and London Tuesday, Jul 3 2007 

Eiffel TowerPJ and I are flying to Paris this evening. We’ll have about 4 days in Paris before taking the train to London, where I’ll be giving a paper at the conference on Antisemitism and English Culture.

This is my first time in France. While I’m always (more than) a little nervous about trying new things — especially in languages other than English — I’m looking forward to the trip.

Hopefully I’ll have lots to write about when we get back. Of course, everything in Paris will be new to me (Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Louvre, etc.), and I’m hoping to have time to do a few new things London too (Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Britain). I’m also planning on visiting Versailles.

Au revoir, mes amis!