Thursday, July 24, 2008

Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (Hogarth Press, 1939) 317 pp.
The production of Cabaret we just saw at the Stratford Festival led me to this book of short stories of course. I like Isherwood's writing style epitomized by one of the opening phrases of the book: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed."

This is Berlin in the early 1930s ... down on its heels, slightly decadent, volatile, exciting, frightening.

"Christopher Ishwerwood", the name of the first person narrator, is described as a communist, or a socialist, by other characters but his observations in print do not seem to be coloured much by his political persuasion. He tries to present the scenarios dispassionately, rarely expressing outrage at some of the scenes he describes.

Berlin during the Weimar Republic still fascinates. Here you will find the origins of the Sally Bowles character (based in part on the real life Scottish actress Jean Ross) in the play "I am a camera" and the subsequent film Cabaret in the short story "Sally Bowles". According to the writer Paul Bowles (from whom Isherwood borrowed the last name for the Sally Bowles character), the two lived in the same rooming house on the Nollendorfstrasse in Berlin where a plaque marks the spot.

Sally - green nail polish, cherry lipstick, atrocious German and all - is fabulous, amoral, fun and, sometimes, not particularly bright or perceptive. But you see why she mesmerizes Christopher Isherwood (and us as well). They were rumored to have had an on again/off again romance for years.

The abortion, the affairs, the fickleness, the oblivious disregard for the political situation in Germany - all feature here in the "Sally Bowles" story. Isherwood, the narrator, seems to be more an interested bystander rather than a sexually confused lover as depicted by Michael York in the film.

"On Ruegen Island" is a frank tale of two contrary lovers: the German working class boy Otto Nowak and the Englishman Peter Wilkinson as told by "Christopher", a mutual friend who shares their holiday. Otto is young, fun loving, mischievous. Peter is older, autocratic, oppressed by neurosis and madly jealous of Otto's other "interests". Clearly there is a homo-erotic tension here although sex is neither depicted nor spoken of explicitly. Peter is the controlling sugar daddy and Otto the obstreperous, selfish boy withholding his presence (and possibly sexual pleasures) from Peter to control him emotionally as he flirts with men and women alike.

Christopher wryly observes and records the disintegration of the relationship and eventual flight of Otto back to Berlin. Amazing to think of the ease with which Isherwood writes of the relationship in the late 1930s.

In "The Nowaks", Christopher visits the immediate family of Otto Nowak: the harassed mother Frau Nowak; the cheerfully comic father Herr Nowak; the sullen brother Lothar who is a Hitler Youth; the lazy sister Grete, and, the irrepressible Otto. They seem an average, homely, if struggling, German family unaware of the deluge to follow. They happily disparage the Jews but when Christopher points out that Hitler may eliminate the Jews altogether from Germany they are appalled and shocked at the possibility.

Frau Nowak departs with relief for a sanatorium, clearly driven to ill health and manic, hysterical behavior by the pressures of the family's financial stresses, poor nutrition, the worsening economy. The last image of the story is Christopher and Otto leaving the sanatorium and being watched by Frau Nowak and the other sickly inhabitants wrapped in blankets - a metaphor for Isherwood's imminent departure from Germany perhaps?

"The Landauers" is more subtly sinister. It appears to be an affectionate and slightly comical portrait of a prosperous Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Christopher becomes particularly close to Berhnard, the heir apparent of Landauers, their retail chain empire. The relationship is enigmatic. Is Bernhard gay? Is his interest in Christopher sexual? It ends with Christopher drifting from Berhnard and inadvertently learning of his demise some months later when he overhears two businessmen talking on a train. Officially, it was said that Berhnard had died of a heart attack but in the context of the times this becomes a euphemism for a bullet in the head and the confiscation of his property by the Nazis.

This piece of information, right at the very end of the story, is like a punch in the solar plexus after the gently mocking tone of the long story. The end is particularly bitter as the the two men relaying the fate of Berhnard then swiftly go on to share a ribald joke as the story ends.

Jews and Communists are beaten in the streets of Berlin, Germans disparage the Jews with the usual vicious racial stereotypes, businesses are confiscated, Isherwood's pupils disappear or are imprisoned, but life goes on ... only in the final story does Ishwerwood blatantly comment on the oblivious disregard of the Germans who seem to accept the violence, the violation of civil rights, the disppearance of "undesirables". He sets the stage for understanding the mindset of the German populace, the ugly slide into the horrors of the Holocaust. But the tale is told gently, without provocation, and, a quiet sadness.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wild Nights!

Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2008) 235 pages

Perhaps it is true, as a critic once said, that we undervalue Oates as a writer because she is so prolific. Since 1966 she has published at least twenty collections of short stories such as this one and this does not account for the full length novels and other works of non-fiction. I know that I have not read her work in many years even though I heard her give a talk in New York a number of years ago and was greatly impressed with her.

Wild Nights!
(the title is from an Emily Dickinson poem) caught my eye because it was fiction about the last days of five writers/poets: Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, the last two I have a special interest in.

The power of her imagination intrigues me and makes me green with envy as a writer.

These stories are totally different for each writer. It’s not their last words before death, as I imagined, but engaging scenarios which are difficult to describe.

The reader generally fares better with the collection if you know a little of the writer's life. The least engaging is “Poe, Posthumous; or, The Lighthouse”. Edgar Allan Poe, the story not the writer, left me mystified.

The most original and engaging is the second one on the poet Emily Dickinson. Quietly subversive, “EDickinsonRepliLuxe”, is set in some vaguely futuristic scenario, where a middle aged, prosperous, suburban couple named the Krims shop for an automated robot-like figure of a famous artist that they may keep at home almost as a “pet”. The RepliLuxe is smaller than life size but exact in its representation and dress and is programmed to respond in a manner similar to the original artist.

The wife, an aspiring poet, seeks companionship and perhaps mentorship from an unresponsive Dickinson. The husband, resentful at first, wants something entirely different. Both are disappointed but their enterprise leads to a surprising conclusion for both forcing the wife to choose art over husband.

In “Grandpa Clemens and Angelfish, 1906”, Oates bravely tackles Mark Twain’s attraction to young girls whom he famously called his “Angelfish”. He had a reputation for cultivating young female admirers. Yet it is delicately and convincingly handled, eliminating the “ick” factor but presenting both the mindsets of Twain and his resentful, unhappy daughter convincingly. This is tricky territory for a woman and a writer.

But Oates is absolutely fearless. This is the woman who tackled a fictional narrative from the perspective of a Jeffrey Dahmer like murderer in the book Zombie not long after Dahmer was arrested.

“The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-16” is a fictional excursion into Henry James' volunteering during WWI at a hospital for wounded soldiers in England. I remember reading that he was devastated by the war and guilt-ridden that he was unable to do more. At this time he officially applied for British citizenship after decades of living in England. Oates handles his closeted homosexuality delicately - imagining his last days volunteering in the hospital as a way of channeling both his patriotic ardor and his attraction to men.

“Papa at Ketchum, 1961”: the most difficult to read, the most graphic in detail because Ernest Hemingway was a suicide and suffered from what is now referred to as bi-polar disorder. Real or fictitious in its representation, she seems to capture the enormous ego of the man, his misogyny, his great talent, his desperate attempt to maintain his "manliness" at whatever cost.

It always intrigues me to think that much of what a man may do too prove his masculinity rests upon proving that he has obliterated any "feminine" qualities. It seems to rest on the denigration of the female. Conquest and seduction of women demonstrates manliness.

The prose style is eloquent but repetitive in phrasing suggesting a talented mind in torment, an intelligent mind, disintegrating, unable to control its terror, its insecurities. Oates presents Hemingway as vain, harried, unnerved about his impotence, his loss of hair, the fact that he must use a cane, that he must be assisted sometimes due to poor health. The denigration of his fourth wife whom he merely refers to to as "the woman" or "that woman" or his "widow to be" is difficult to read but utterly convincing. He reduces her to a "cunt", a "harpy", a gaoler, a conspirator with the FBI set out to destroy him because of his political beliefs.

I bow to Oates' creative gifts ... they remain unabated these 40 odd years.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Cabaret at the Stratford Festival

The musical, as presented here at Stratford, is certainly much darker than the film. Originally based on the short stories of Christopher Isherwood drawing on his experiences in Weimar Germany in the early 1930s between the wars and published as Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

These books were the inspiration for John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera in 1951, the subsequent British musical Cabaret in 1966 and the Bob Fosse film of the same name in 1972.

The plot still resonates today ... In December 1929, a young, naive and closeted American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Sean Arbuckle), Christopher Isherwood in the original play, comes to post-WWI Berlin in search of adventure. He meets Sally Bowles (Trish Lindstrom), an English cabaret singer working at the Kit Kat club. A little sleuthing on the Internet reveals that Sally was based on the British actress Jean Ross (please see end of blog entry for more info).

Here, the nationalities as depicted in the film are reversed: Cliff is American, Sally is English. Perhaps it was necessary to emphasize the differences between the two but oh what an awful accent Lindstrom has ... harsh and inauthentic and uneven. Coupled with the histrionic arm gestures and mannerisms, she nearly capsizes the musical. All these manic gestures meant to convey vitality and spontaneity ... Sally was flamboyant, flaky, not crazy. Where is the director Amanda Dehnert here? It takes away from her lovely singing voice and competent dancing.

The emcee is played by Bruce Dow - lewdly, wonderfully, intelligently - how difficult it must have been to try and assume a role played so expertly by Joel Grey in the movie! Dow so totally made it his own here. He is alternately tantalizing and not a little sinister, many times silently surveying the carnage that ensues.

Arbuckle seems to have the right qualities: vulnerability, a strong voice, emotion, physical grace ... but there is a certain quality that continues to annoy me, particularly in the male actors in these musicals which I guess is why we (R and I) avoid them. Is it merely playing to the back seats - the expressions are so big, so unnatural at times, that it takes away from the performance.

True, film is not theatre and one should adjust one's acting style accordingly but if I could detect this from the last minute nosebleed seats in the balcony we purchased ...

All the great songs are here: "Two Ladies", "Cabaret", "Mein Herr", "Wilkommen", "If you could see her" and "Tomorrow belongs to me" echoing the themes of the play powerfully, beautifully. You can here snippets of the songs from the film here.

The costumes designed by David Boechler are gorgeous, bawdy and appealing for the Kit Kat Club crowd and appropriately modest for Cliff, Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz.

Clifford is swept up into the "decadent" night life of Berlin and by Sally Bowles. The music and dance sequences are wonderful, easily as captivating as the film which we both loved (when we got home I rushed out and rented the DVD of the film and we watched it again).

Sally becomes pregnant, unsure if it is Cliff's child, but Cliff makes a commitment to care for all three of them despite his conflicted sexuality.

Neither are interested in German politics but soon become embroiled in the ugly manifestations of anti-Semitic sentiment. This undercurrent of danger and the evils of Nazism is underscored by the relationship between Fraulein Schneider (Nora McLellan), the landlady of the boarding house where the two meet, and her boarder Herr Schultz (Frank Moore), the fruit merchant, who is Jewish. The two are wonderful, seasoned actors who play the roles with delicacy and emotion, especially Moore.

In the film, the dilemma of the couple is represented by the more photogenic Marisa Berenson as the Jewish heiress Natalia Landauer and Georg Hartmann as the importunate Willi who disguises his real identity as a Jew.

Cliff is befriended by cultured, suave Ernst, who unbeknownst to him, is an active member of the Nazi party. They meet on a train and Ernst had provided important connections for Cliff.

Cliff quickly ends his friendship with the affable Ernst when he discovers he works for the Nazis. Fraulein Schneider breaks off her engagement to Herr Schultz because he is Jewish. You could have heard a a pin drop when one of the characters casually states "After all the Jews have all the money".

"Tomorrow belongs to me", a sort of pro-Germany Nazi anthem, still sends a chill down my spine especially when actors, dressed in Nazi uniforms and planted in the audience, rise and join in the rousing final choruse.

The ending is appropriately disturbing. Cliff leaves Sally behind at her own insistence despite his desire to take her to America. Oblivious, Sally wants to remain in Berlin, to continue entertaining, unaware of how quickly Germany is changing. Homosexuals, Jews, prostitutes, foreigners, anyone who threatens the racist, xenophobic creed of the Nazis will be destroyed in the ensuing years.

This from on Sally Bowles:
"The character of Sally Bowles was modeled after nightclub singer Jean Ross, who starred in a stage production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. The play tells the tale of a Venetian courtesan, and Ross bragged that she not only simulated sex onstage, she actually carried out the acts in full view of the audience. Isherwood reportedly attended several shows with binoculars in tow to witness Ross' onstage escapades, but was never able to prove her claims. Ross and Isherwood were romantically linked for some time, but never married. Ross died in 1973."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Langdon Hall - Day 3

Today is our last day. We rose at 7.30 and had our breakfast. One of only two parties up at that time we were seated, unasked, at my favourite table, in the corner, north side of the restaurant ... Yogurt, fruit, cereal, muffins, juice and coffee ... just a wonderful buffet with a great mix of breakfast/brunch foods.

Off R went to his massage. I sat on the white veranda and then started sketching the exterior of the front of the main house, the southern side (to the right of the front of the house) where The Cloisters are situated and the back courtyard on the eastern side. I asked for coffee and kept writing.

Our time was winding down ... we packed our things, sorted out our account. I asked for a history of the house and got this pamphlet from which I freely quote below. I seemed to recall that some fancy pants or other owned the house and my memory did not fail me.

Here follows a "Slightly Skewed History of Langdon Hall" from various sources ...

Matthew Wilks (1816-1899) and Eliza Astor Langdon ((1818-1896), the granddaughter of John Jacob Astor, the old dinosaur who founded the Astor empire on fur trading and real estate in the U.S., were living in New York when Matthew Wilks came across an ad for a property named Cruickston Park in Galt, ON. He bought the estate with the intention that he would use it as a summer residence. Eventually the property grew to one thousand acres.

In 1892, the youngest of their seven children, Eugene Langdon Wilks ((1855-1934), returned to Canada, at 37, after attending school in England and working in Western Canada. He married a local girl, Pauline Kingsmill, the great-granddaughter of the founder of nearby Galt, ON.

Time magazine once described Eugene Langdon Wilks as a "New York socialite". At the turn of the century, he rented a house from George W. Vanderbilt III so you get a sense of the sort of crowd he moved in.

In 1898, Eugene Langdon Wilks purchased 29 acres at the NW corner of the Cruickston property and an adjoining 76 acres.

It was Eugene and Pauline who hired an architect to build a new residence. It was built in the Federal Revival style popular in the U.S. in the 1890s between 1898 and 1901. It was designed by New York architect Edward Lee Young and construction was supervised by Toronto architect Eden Smith. Originally, it held 32 rooms over 25,000 square feet and was meant to used as a summer residence. The house was finished by 1902.

Distinguishing features of Langdon Hall are "the semi-circular fanlight above the main entrance door and the full-height neo-classical portico with pediment supported by Ionic columns."

In 1914, Pauline fell ill with cancer and died in 1914. The couple had no children. She had been attended to by Marguerite Briquet, a Swiss nurse, whom Eugene subsequently married the next year. They had three daughters: Catherine Claude, Anne Marguerite and Marion Lucille. The family divided its time between a home in New York city, their chateau near Tours, France and Langdon Hall.

Eugene Wilks died in 1934 and the family remained at Tours. With WWII, the French army commandeered the Tours chateau so Marguerite and her three daughters took up permanent residence at Langdon Hall.

Catherine Langdon Wilks married Garth Thomson and she inherited Langdon Hall when her mother passed away in 1961. They continued to live there with their son Graham Thomson until 1980 and sold the estate as well as 30 acres in 1982 to Gabriele Kutz-Wenzel and her husband, veterinarian Dr. Rudolph Wenzel, sometimes referred to as a "German industrialist". They sold it to Dedi-Care Group Inc. in 1986.

My eagle-eyed husband R found a stone, resembling a headstone, near the spa entrance in The Cloisters bearing the name of both Catherine Langdon Wilks and Garth Thomson (Thomson died in 1997 according to the stone). I was unable to determine if Catherine is still living. In 2002, a reporter in the Cambridge Reporter who knew TGarth homson described said Thomson had described himself as the "only functioning coal yard millionaire in the world".

In 1987, William Bennett, a local Cambridge architect, and his wife Mary Beaton bought the estate. They made extensive renovations and opened the hotel in 1989. After acquiring the house with the help of a group of investors, Bennett and Beaton, searched antique shops and auction sales in the countryside and picked up silverware, pictures, antique furniture and Oriental rugs to furnish the house.

In a related news story ... Eugene's sister, Katherine Langdon Wilks (1854 - 1948), daughter of Matthew Wilks, upon Matthew's death in 1899, assumed ownership of Cruickston Park and bred prize-winning horses. After her death in 1948, Katherine's nephew Matthew Wilks Keefer modernized the farm operation and bred prize Hereford beef cattle. In 1968, Matthew Wilks Keefer gifted the estate to the University of Guelph, which took possession of it on his death in 1973. In 1996, the University disposed of the manor house and 53 acres. This was acquired by a young couple from Cambridge, Jan Chaplin and Mark Fretwurst, who later acquired the remaining 913 acres in the year 2000. Their stated desire is to preserve the estate for future generations.

(Source: The History of Langdon Hall brochure; Internet searching;; factiva)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Langdon Hall - Day 2

I don't sleep well in new environments even ones as luxurious as Langdon Hall. Last night was no exception despite the comfortable king size bed and the tomb like darkness which is my preferred mode of sleep!

Like my mother whom I am rapidly resembling, I was awake much too early, for no visible purpose, but was able to hold off and lay in bed until 8.00 a.m. I left R in bed and went with newspaper, books and journal in hand to the white veranda on the north side of the mansion. It has big white patio chairs that you can snuggle up on to. Everyone seemed asleep then, few guests running around. It felt wonderful, peaceful, warm but not humid. The weather was perfect. What more could a girl ask for? I worked on this blog entry and read my books.

When R woke we had breakfast in the courtyard besides a pool of small fish, bull frogs and water lilies. The food is great but so rich - we need to slow down and eat in moderation Ikeep saying ...

I rushed off for my spa treatment. The spa is located in the building known as The Cloisters which is also used for guest rooms. Afterwards we raced off to the Stratford Festival, which is 45 minutes away, to see a production of Cabaret. I knew this was one of the few musicals that R would consent to see and we were not disappointed (more on that anon in a future blog).

R saw Simon Callow traipsing down the street and I saw Brian Dennehy (both in productions at Stratford currently).

Once many years ago, I used to say to R that I wanted to retire in Stratford. It's a pretty town with its Victorian houses and the swans, the Thames, the proximity to the theatres. Now, I think, not so much. Outside the confines of the theatre venues, I find the people oddly unfriendly and closed off the way small town people can sometimes be. And I think ... do I want to be the only Italian girl is a sea of WASPs? And R, much wiser than me in many areas, had already vetoed the idea. He's right, I don't want us to be seen as the outsiders, the bi-racial couple from Toronto for the rest of my short life in a small town.

When we returned to Langdon Hall in the late afternoon there was a wedding shoot in progress in the courtyard. R overheard that the groom was from Stoney Creek, where my mother and brother live. Later, we saw them, a very photogenic couple - he, handsome, black haired, in a dark suit; she in a beautiful cream coloured summer dress with a lovely smile and gorgeous, dark hair - holding hands, smiling and sweetly walking the grounds of the estate.

Time for dinner, time for moderation, I caution R! I kept it simple. I ordered the Deerfield Greens as an appetizer with, and I quote: "Shaved Crudités, Late Harvest Vinaigrette, Smoked Cashews, Powdered Goats Cheese, Flowers" and then the Pacific Halibut with Confit Lemon Crust accompanied by small perfectly cooked raviolis in a delicate sauce (R's choice yesterday).

I am rarely in a position where I am tempted to skip dessert but here I wanted to because everything is so rich that my system has started to rebel somewhat. I only ate half of something called a "Hazelnut" with nougatine(?), praline cream and caramel ice cream. Delicious but overwhelming.

I am saturated with this food. It makes it easy to skip lunch which is not part of our package.

After dinner we strolled around the grounds, clip clopping in my black mules over the grass and the gravel, walking to the pool, through the vegetable garden, the croquet lawn. I wish we could stay longer.

We went back to our room and happily crashed. It was a great day!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Langdon Hall - Day 1

Langdon Hall Country Hotel & Spa, Friday July 4, 2008

"No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart." The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

With a big anniversary coming I wanted to treat R to something special. Years ago, possibly even in 1989 the year that it opened, we went to this luxurious country hotel called Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario. In 1989, the Deluxe rooms were $125-$150 per night; superior rooms, $175 ... needless to say this has escalated somewhat.

It’s nestled in this spectacular venue complete with a wonderful restaurant presided over by executive chef Jonathan Gushue, its own vegetable garden and greenhouse, a luxury spa, wonderful trails, tennis courts, an immaculate, if small, pool and a croquet lawn. Fancy, no? Yes, but beautiful.

We returned one other time in the 1990s but after that our fortunes shifted and it was no longer a viable alternative for a quick, fun weekend. Now it's stupid money to stay there (seriously stupid); however, we had always hoped to go to Paris on our anniversary this summer. It falls in August but we have planned to take la carusa to Disney World in Florida next month. I felt I could justify the expense for this special occasion. J is at camp for two weeks, so the parents shall frolick ...

This one time country home for the rich (one of the original owners was a descendant of John Jacob Astor's) definitely has a "wow" factor as you drive up the long driveway. The stateliness of the house hits you, only the seriously rich could have envisioned this as a country home. The photo above does not over-promise.

A decription from the Globe and Mail when Langdon Hall first opened in 1989: "The front door of the main house opens into an atrium gallery, whose upper level is encased in paned glass. The public rooms - a library, a conservatory, a downstairs billiards room, an upstairs reading room (furnished with antique chairs once owned by John Jacob Astor) - are warm and intimate in scale, and decorated with a collection of superb antique Irish mahogany furniture imported by [architect William] Bennett and [Mary] Beaton." Much has remained the same (the billiards room has been moved to the first level).

The staff is very young, unfailingly polite, vaguely Teutonic in aspect … I guess they are staffed largely from Kitchener-Waterloo residents. Tis a bit disconcerting, blondes everywhere you go! I’m so used to multi-cultural Toronto that it’s bit of shock to realize how different the rest of the province is.

I do have my moments when I think, “What the h*ll am I doing here?” and the adage “You can take the girl out of Hamilton but you can’t take the Hamilton out of the girl” do leap to mind. I have to keep reminding myself to knock that chip off my shoulder and just relax and enjoy it.

I think it’s no coincidence that this trip coincides with my summer ritual of re-reading The Great Gatsby. Ambitious, lonely Jay Gatsby ain’t got nothing on me. Fascinated by the wealthy but equally fearful of their power, he meets an unhappy end (hopefully I will be spared this!).

We walked the grounds re-familiarizing ourselves with the estate. We have a room in “The Cloisters” (our room was #35 and named "Twin Flowers"), a “L” shaped two storey building housing guest rooms and the spa on the lower levels.

Again from the Globe and Mail: "The accommodations in the main house tend to be framed with the mansion's original panelling and molding, beautifully restored, and hidden behind improbably thick, brass-appointed doors. The rooms in The Cloisters, a new wing constructed along the south side of the house, have a softer look, with floral curtains and pastel walls. Some open onto little terraces, shaded by arbors."

The windows of our room face south towards the vegetable garden (hidden by trees) and ythe other towards the courtyard of the back of the main house. The Cloisters sit between the mansion itself and in consecutive order: the croquet law, the vegetable gardens which provides the restaurant with its green staples, a greenhouse and the tiny perfect pool.

We arrived at 6 or so and dinner was at 7.30. Dinner is served in a many windowed addition to the main house on the east side or back half of the mansion and it is divided into a north and south side of the restaurant. Absolutely enchanting. Fresh crisp white linen, real polished silverware, fresh flowers on every table, candles, full place settings for every course, a pianist playing throughout the meal. Our package came with two three course meals for dinner.

For an appetizer I had the "Chaput Goat’s Cheese Tortellini with Grilled Fennel Hearts, Black Oil, Pine Nut Pistou Ossau-Iraty" (Ossau-Iraty being a French cheese I later learned) which was disappointing, too al dente for me, flavoured with fennel, in a busy array of dabs of sauces I couldn’t make out, artfully arranged on a plate. If the name of the dish is confusing and busy, imagine the taste.

R said, and it was exactly what I was thinking, that it was a sort of 80s style cuisine. It seemed very dated with more thought given to design than taste. And you only get four!

That reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke in Annie Hall where the two old ladies are complaining about the food in a particular restaurant in the Catskills. “The food is so terrible,” one moans and the other says “And the portions are so small!” If I didn’t like the tortellinis why am I complaining that I only got four?

We fared better with the main course: R had the Pacific Halibut with Confit Lemon Crust which he loved and I had the “Vegetarian Tasting” dish (somewhat fearfully I might add). My friends and loved ones know me to be a committed carnivore but I had had a heavy lunch. A good friend had taken me for a belated birthday lunch at Pangaea and I had had roast lamb and a rich dessert; hence, I opted for something lighter for dinner that night.

The “tasting” consisted of a large white square plate with a small bowl of a luridly green but refreshing cold pea soup, couscous with raisins, and, stewed apricots with a sort of fruit compote. Very simple. Very light.

Dessert was a mandarin sherbert wrapped in a tube like cookie wafer with a lemon cream and cookie base. It was delicious but with each course I felt that there was two much going on – too many ingredients, too many flavours … it wasn’t that the taste was unpleasant, just too busy, trying too hard to be different.

After the dinner we sat on the veranda and were soon joined by three pretty teenagers perhaps no older than sixteen. They were dropped off by a friend in an expensive car. Surprisingly, they were sweet, very polite. One had run up the stairs very prettily in her summer dress and asked politely if they might come in and have hot chocolate inside; they weren’t guests but had attended a function there the week before. Their voices were as Gatsby had said so famously of Daisy Buchanan - “full of money” - soon confirmed by the conversation which turned to trust funds. One self consciously turned to the others and said, “Listen to us! We sound like a bunch of brats!” But they weren’t, at least as far as we could see. The next morning R said to me good humoredly, “I guess not all rich kids are idiots.”

We returned to our room which had a king size bed (a luxury for us!) and a working fireplace, a walk-in shower. The thing I love about Langdon Hall is that it’s so old school as a hotel. Only 50 or so suites. Keys rather than cards to enter, no electronics, no WIFI in your room, just a small colour TV and an old fashioned alarm clock to wake you up. It’s elegant and small and exquisite.

I crashed at 10.30 thinking: I could get used to this!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

La Dolce Something

La Dolce Vita (Italy, 1960) by Federico Fellini

I have not seen this film for many years but my memory of it is so different ... In my memory I thought of Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), the tabloid journalist, as sophisticated, passionate, very cool ...

Rome is as beautiful as I remember (who can forget Anita Ekberg as the movie star Sylvia cavorting in the fountain of Trevi?); however, you see much that is not beautiful in the city and the people. The city sometimes appears ravaged by war but it is perhaps "only" progress; everywhere, there is new construction, debris, changes; perhaps this is best epitomized by the opening shot. It shows the removal by helicopter of a religious figure carried over the head of four bathing beauties to some new location. What is it meant to say: nothing is permanent? Everything is negotiable?

Upon viewing the film again I am surprised by how disturbing and cynical the Marcello Rubini character is. He is selfish, shallow, his face is so worn and anxious - pursuing Sylvia, the dream woman/sex goddess although he is also involved with the troubled Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) who alternately succumbs to him, harangues him, tortures him with her fierce needs.

Sylvia is childish, irresponsible, beautiful and Marcello is smitten, following her around like a lovesick puppy murmuring phrases in Italian that she doesn't understand. They are shadowed by the ever present paparazzi (note: here is the origin of the word - based on a photographer named Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) in the film).

Marcello's life is sad, not glamorous, as I mistakenly remembered it. He lives in some dreary newly constructed subdivision - a symbol of progress or a symbol of the new world destroying the old? - in Rome with his lover, portrayed here as an unhappy, suicidal harpie-like figure yet he continues to anxiously cavort with the wealthy Italian aristocracy, people like Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) who seems as unhappy and lost as he does, engaging in fruitless encounters, violent affairs and bizarre adventures in their beautiful but decaying palazzi.

Even Marcello's father, played by the charming Annibale Ninchi, who comes for a short visit to Rome appears to be almost overcome by all he sees, although initially he seems aroused and stimulated by the beautiful girls whom Marcello surrounds himself with. After an episode where he feels unwell late into a night of carousing he disappears quickly and leaves Rome for home as if to say he knows this is not the place for him.

Perhaps one of the first modern films to analyze celebrity, the desire for fame, with a critical eye ... Fellini's razor sharp eye for satire picks apart a scenario where two children, dressed to the hilt, pious heads bowed, claim to have seen the Madonna and lead the public and the press in a wild goose chase, running from one spot to another on a ravaged landscape shrieking "There she is! There she is!" until the frenzied crowd tears apart a tree, literally limb from limb, to get a "piece" of the miracle.

Sometimes the jaded Marcello seeks solace from Steiner (Alain Cuny), an older, very learned friend, who appears to have it all, including the answers to life's troublesome questions - a beautiful wife and two exquisite children, a palazzo of great beauty, wealth, intelligence, culture, exposure to interesting, intriguing, artistic people ... yet it is Steiner who commits a horrible act of rebellion against life at the end as if to say it all meant nothing to him.

This is a turning point for Marcello who degrades himself even further it appears, becoming a P.R. person for the people whom he used to chase around to write his tabloid stories and whom he overtly despised.

In the famous last scene on the beach (copied by many such as American director Woody Allen in Stardust Memories) he is beckoned by a beautiful young girl to cross over a short island of water and join her - is she real? Is he drunk and merely imagining this vision? But he can't, he is incapable - he recedes back into the clutches of a group of the spoiled, unpleasant, drunken mob that he has spent the night with, withdrawing with a great deal of self-loathing. He is incapable, or unwilling, to cross over and meet the girl who remains behind smiling at him sweetly.

Three extreme archetypes of women appear here: the childlike sex kitten incapable of a mature relationship (Sylvia), the overbearing spouse/mother figure (Emma) who seems to wish to devour the male, and the unapproachable virginal innocent who offers salvation in the last scene.

I wish I could say that things have changed ... but have they? Are we (women) still not often categorized into one of these three archetypes? I'd say we are for the most part.

Still, Fellini's tortured protagonist Rubini challenges and enthralls.