Monday, February 29, 2016

Mavis Gallant – The Writer’s Writer

     I’ve always wanted to read Mavis Gallant since Fran Lebowitz opined on Charlie Rose that The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant was one of the books of the year.  She sounded fascinating because she was a Canadian who spent most of her adult life in France.  I read a couple of her really short stories from that collection after it went into paperback in Joseph Beth, but didn’t actually buy it.  (I only feel somewhat guilty about that since I’ve purchased a couple trees worth of books at JB).  She died last year at 91 after a lengthy career, though she wasn’t published in Canada until the ‘70s.  Her American reputation was made because over a hundred of her stories appeared in The New Yorker (only John Cheever saw more of his short fiction published there).

     I saw Paris Stories (2002) at this darling independent bookstore in Niagara-on-the-Lake so I bought it and started reading it almost immediately and it ended up taking me about two and a half months even though there’s only fifteen stories.  What happened?  They’re densely detailed and intricate works that were physically difficult to read because the font was so small.  Either Canadians have better eyes than me – quite possible – or they’re used to this font.  Maybe it’s cultural.  

Mavis Gallant in Paris
     In this collection, Gallant focuses mainly on Paris as well as other parts of France and Switzerland while presenting French natives, ex-patriots from North America, and refugees from Eastern Europe.  The stories cover over fifty years from the immediate aftermath of World War II through the 1990s.  An underlying theme is that Europe has never fully recovered from that war and the subsequent conflicts between democracy, communism, and fascism.  Having lived in Europe, it felt like a collective lived memory to me, but I don’t think most American readers would be as entranced.  

Mavis Gallant Writing in Postwar Paris
     In “Forain,” Gallant encapsulates her overarching theme in an image of an immigrant writer’s funeral:

Only a few of the mourners mounting the treacherous steps can have had a thought to spare for Tremski’s private affairs.  His wife’s flight from a brave and decent husband, dragging by the hand a child of three, belonged to the folklore, not the history of mid-century emigration.  The chronicle of two generations, displaced and dispossessed, had come to a stop.  The evaluation could begin, had already started.  Scholars who looked dismayingly youthful, speaking the same language, but with a new, jarring vocabulary, were trekking to Western capitals – taping reminiscences, copying old letters.  History turned out to be a plodding science.  What most émigrés settled for now was the haphazard accuracy of a memory like Tremski’s.  In the end it was always a poem that ran through the mind – no a string of dates.  

Like her compatriot Alice Munro, Gallant writes stories that are much bigger than the form.  Munro’s stories have the psychological detail and complex plot structures of novels whereas Gallant’s stories are the essence of entire cultures and histories.  The major difference between them is that Munro always has one character in a story with whom a reader can empathize; Gallant never identifies with any specific character, but regards them with, as Mary McCarthy termed it, “a cold eye.”   That may be the reason that Gallant didn’t have as broad a readership as Munro.

     However, this approach works brilliantly in the chilling “August.”  Here’s part of a letter that a young woman writes to her psychotherapist about what she sees as their failed professional relationship:

     “What help can you give me?” she wrote.  “I have often been disgusted by the smell of your dresses and your rotten teeth.  If in six months you have not been able to take your dresses to be cleaned, or yourself to a dentist, how can you help me?  Can you convince me that I’m not going to be hit by a car when I step off the curb?  Can you convince me that the sidewalk is a safe place to be?“  

Mavis Gallant at Le Dôme Restaurant in Paris*
     I’m glad I finally read Gallant.  She’s daunting and somewhat involved.  I took much longer with her book (about two months) and this review (about four weeks) than I initially expected.  Perhaps that’s the result of examining work that is classic rather than timely.  Or it could be a result of my lack of focus.  

*Photograph by Paul Cooper

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Awaiting the Oscars

The movies don’t thrill, 
but inclusion and diversity might

     The Oscars are around the corner and there probably won’t be a lot of surprises with the winners.  However, there should be some verbal fireworks from Chris Rock.  I hope so because there isn’t much diversity in movies or television except for white, able-bodied straight boys.  The recent Annenberg study confirms what we know:  Hollywood executives make obscenely expensive B-movies for boys (and the girls who want to date or stay married to them) to see and preferably more than once.  

Sidney Poitier's 1964 Oscar Win
     Historically, blacks have always led the charge for equality, followed by women, other ethnicities, LGBTQ, and the disabled.  When was the last time a disabled character was in a movie or TV show?  Although TV has done and does a better job of including female characters, the recent increase of action professionals’ shows (cops, hospitals, firefighters) and superhero shows and decline of family oriented dramas (except on Freeform, which was ABC Family) and both daytime and nighttime soap operas has resulted in more tokenism and greater inequality.

     So, Hollywood trots out its “Art” from late September to mid-December and has to rely heavily on the Independent studios, some of which are boutiques of the majors and that actually care about entertainment and edification.  The take-away from the Annenberg study is that a female director or series creator will result in more diversity in front of the camera.  Spike Lee thinks that more diversity in executives would lead to more diverse projects getting the green light.  I think black, Latino, and female stars need to singly or collectively become moguls.  It’s how Féla, On Your Feet, and Selma were recently produced.

     Rock will address this in some way, though he was almost as awkward in 2005 as David Letterman was in 1994 so here’s hoping the script is better this time.  The problem is that outside of the diversity issue, there isn’t much that will surprise.  However, in 2009, the Oscars changed up Best Movie from five nominees to up to ten. Couldn’t the acting nominees be variable based upon number of votes?

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn
Movie:  We loved Brooklyn, a wonderful romance, and The Martian, which was the smartest, most spectacular comedy of the year.  Neither has a chance because neither is nominated for Director.  The Revenant will win because it’s won all over.  Will we see it?  I don’t know.  Brenda described it in enthralling detail to me, but she thought it was violent and a bunch of hairy bears (animal and human) dragging through the mud for two and a half hours could be more of a slog than I can take.
Our take:  Couldn’t Steve Jobs have been nominated?  Couldn’t Straight Outta Compton have been nominated?

Director:  Alejandro Iñárritu for The Revenant is a lock because the movie and director are generally conjoined categories.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Actor:  Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant because he’s won everywhere else, this is his SIXTH nomination, and he’s made billions for Hollywood and, oh yes, he’s incredibly talented.
Our take:  We thought Michael Fassbender was pretty great as Steve Jobs.  Couldn’t Michael B. Jordan have been nominated for Creed?  Stallone and DeNiro were nominated for boxing roles.

Actress:  Brie Larson has won everything so far for Room, a movie we want to see, and she’ll take this too, though we loved Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
Our take:  Couldn’t Lily Tomlin have been recognized for Grandma?

Best Supporting Actor:  Sylvester Stallone in what will be a touching moment.
Our take:  A strange group this year because I thought Billy Crudup gave the best supporting performance in Spotlight and why couldn’t Idris Elba have been nominated for Beasts of No Nation?  I haven’t seen the movie, but he’s sensational in the clips and that’s all most viewers will see on the Oscars anyway.

Jennifer Jason Leigh
in The Hateful Eight
Best Supporting Actress:  A competitive category because female actors find more secondary than leading parts thanks to the overriding sexism of the movie industry.  It would be a lovely moment to see the great Jennifer Jason Leigh win on her first nomination for The Hateful Eight!  I can think of a number of times when she could/should have been nominated and she’s taken more risks than almost any other actress of her generation.  However, the movie didn’t take off in the way Tarantino’s most recent ones have.  Rachel McAdams is a joy in anything, but I think her nomination for Spotlight is about recognizing the ensemble, rather than her specific work.  However, Kate Winslet gives a quietly devastating turn in Steve Jobs, pulls off the tricky accent, and is practically unrecognizable.  She’ll win.

The tragic (and I use that term correctly) Amy and the simultaneously joyful and heartbreaking Inside Out were the best movies I saw this year so I hope they win their respective categories – documentary feature and animated feature.  

The Martian
I’d like to see The Martian win in its technical categories since hundreds (thousands?) worked on the movie and its production design is sumptuous.  Brooklyn should have been nominated and won for costumes.  Since it wasn’t, I don’t care.  Carol had the artiest – not necessarily the best – cinematography so it will probably win.  

For many people, the Grammys and the Oscars have become fashion shows.  Many do not see the movies that are nominated so they are more interested in the clothes. However, how many tube dresses are really that fascinating?

Anne Hathaway and James Franco at the 2011 Oscars

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Le Bar à Boeuf

This needs polish 

Le Bar à Boeuf Lounge Area
     The first restaurant we reviewed on this blog was Jean Robert’s Table.  For the most part, his restaurants have been ones we’ve returned to on numerous occasions.  I’m not so sure we’ll have the same relationship with Le Bar à Boeuf.  It’s located in The Edgecliff in Eden Park, which has been the black hole destination for a number of reputable restaurateurs over the past few years.  It was a curse I hoped would be broken, but…

Dining Room
     I’d made the reservation online and indicated that it was a birthday.  When we arrived, there was no maûtre d’ around so the bartender kindly came over and seated us.  The maître d’ bopped by quickly to say hello and nothing else after conducting what seemed like a twenty minute conversation with the next table (obviously the couple were regulars) that was all about being a mutual admiration society.  After he departed, this couple argued for about thirty minutes before leaving.  She was a sophisticated suburban shrew; he was passive aggressive.  I couldn’t tell if this was a primary form of communication for them or if it was a mating dance.  Unfortunately, it was more intriguing than anything else during the evening.

Medium Rare Bison Burger and French Fries
     The focus is on the burger, which was fun about eight years ago, but has become a little ridiculous when top chefs and restaurateurs want to charge $15+ for a big piece of meat.  However, I really liked the burger at Salazar because it was closest to my Mom’s.  Boeuf offers various types of meat (no bun, which was fine since the portion is very large), but the waiter didn’t point out that bison is best when cooked medium, but no more because it isn’t a juicy meat.  Mine was good at medium rare, but Neil wasn’t as pleased with his medium well.  There are various accompaniments; the Béarnaise sauce was excellent and since it’s difficult to pull off at home, it’s a great choice.  I also liked the onion compote.  

Bison Burger with Béarnaise Sauce and Mashed Potatoes
Creamed Spinach
     The mashed potatoes and the French fries were good, but not as terrific as they were at Jean Ro’s Bistro a decade ago.  On the other hand, we liked the creamed spinach side.  It featured the vegetable in a light, thin cream sauce.  It was also big enough to share.  

     I wish servers weren’t so desperate to clear plates at the drop of a fork by a specific diner instead of waiting until all in the party have finished.  Neil had to stop his plate from being taken because he hadn’t quite finished eating.

     We had to ask for a dessert menu, but there’s a good selection.  I overheard our server say that the host is more concerned about a server’s personality, rather than her or his ability to set a table.  That’s fine, but the host still needed to instruct our  server how to set for dessert.  Neil chose the
Jean Robert's Classic Chocolate Pot de Crème
chocolate pot de crème, which has been a Jean Robert staple for a while and still wins.  I selected the pineapple and rum pudding, which I naively thought would be either a creamy pudding or a variation on a pineapple upside down cake.
Pineapple and Rum Pudding
It’s actually bread pudding.  It’s good, though I don’t love bread pudding, but nowhere near as good as a version we shared at Bravo last year.  

     I make this sound like it was a downer of an experience, but it wasn’t because the food is good and isn’t obscenely priced.  However, I expect more from Jean Robert and Le bar à Boeuf wasn’t so special that we’d think about returning anytime soon.

    And the birthday celebration I had requested?  It was never mentioned.
Le Bar a Boeuf Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Native Gardens Wins at The Playhouse

     Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias moves swiftly in its world premiere at The Playhouse in the Park.  We decided to see it for a number of reasons, not the least being that award winning Broadway triple threat Karen Ziemba is in the cast.  Zacarias is hot right now, having five premieres at major venues around the country this year, but she has been writing and been produced for over two decades.  It’s the type of play and production where an audience may wish it last another ten minutes or even delve deeper into the issues it raises.

     The premise is classic:  a young, liberal Chilean-Hispanic American couple move into a fixer-upper next door to a middle-aged, conservative Caucasian American couple in a beautifully restored and landscaped (by the husband) Italianate in a Washington suburb.  The new couple find out that their property line actually extends two feet into the garden next door; the younger wife wants to plant a garden of native varieties whereas the older husband’s garden focuses on ornamentals.  The situation could take place, however, in Mt. Adams or Mt. Lookout or the Historic district of Newport.  The specifics in locale, personalities, and conflicts reverberate for anyone with neighbors.  

The Neighbors*
     The Playhouse administration was smart to commission this script after the success it experienced with the earlier The Book Club Play by Zacarias.  In this new work, Zacarias offers a master class in one act comedy structure:  current world, inciting incident, complications and reversals, crisis-climax, (very quick) denouement, new world.  The denouement felt slightly off-kilter because I’m thinking there was an early light cue call, which caught the actors before they were on their marks.  They reacted professionally, but the show felt like it was suddenly over.

Varela and Ziemba*
     The cast worked tightly and in concert.  Ziemba, who could pass for a decade younger than her and her character’s age, provides smooth professionalism and support in the least showy role.  She has a great bit with a chain saw and a contentious oak tree that looked incredibly realistic.  Gabriel Ruiz displays an elegance and intelligence that are attractive until they shade subtly into condescension.  The most intriguing roles are those of the gardeners:  the younger Hispanic woman and the older Caucasian man.  Sabina Zuniga Varela plays a very pregnant force of pragmatic Nature with a brightness that foreshadows a hopeful ending.  
Ruiz and Lescault*
However, it’s John Lescault whose portrait of an aging, unknowingly entitled yet clear-eyed husband that is most indelible.  Lescault moves with an exactness that borders on fastidiousness before exploding.  His background in opera lends itself to the vocal notes he hits for laughs.  These were debuts at The Playhouse.  Here’s hoping they’ll return in the future.

The Jaw-dropping Set*
     Blake Robison directs seamlessly and stages one terrific scene where both couples are simultaneously strategizing like middlebrow, suburban Macbeths and use the same gestures.  Joseph P. Tilford’s set and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting are gorgeous.  It’s a breath-taking moment walking into the Robert Marx auditorium.

*Photos from Playhouse in the Park Website
Native Gardens runs through Sunday, February 21, 2016.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Does TV get much better than WAR AND PEACE?

The Cast of War and Peace
     We decided to tape War and Peace because it was going to be long and we weren’t sure we’d like it.  We started watching the first episode and thought we’d give it ten minutes or so.  After half an hour, we decided to keep watching and finished the first hour, then watched the second hour the following evening.  It plays simultaneously on The History Channel and, surprisingly, Lifetime and A&E.  I thought A&E had given up on quality fictional programming.  Produced by The Weinstein Company, it’s playing here a couple of weeks after being on the BBC.  

The Sweeping Napoleonic War
     The format is two hours each Monday at 9 p.m., though Lifetime shows the previous week’s episode right beforehand.  Covering an over 1,200-page novel in eight hours with commercials requires some concision (the BBC’s 1972 version was fifteen hours), but it captures the sweep of Tolstoy’s epic of the Russian aristocracy during the Napoleonic Wars and details of the family relationships that defined the culture of that era.  Tolstoy presented an entire world through his characters without a trace of sentimentality or condescension.  

Natasha and Andrei
     Besides the thrilling battle scenes that cleverly suggested even more soldiers than they showed and the elegant, serpentine camera movement during the key ball scenes, there have also been suggestive dream sequences, a wild incestuous relationship between two of the most selfish characters in popular culture right now, a quickly glimpsed yet graphic childbirth scene, and richly delineated scenes of rural life.  Filmed in Lithuania, it strongly resembles St. Petersburg and Moscow and George Steel’s cinematography utilizes as much natural light as possible.  

Paul Dano
    The acting leads really bring it especially Paul Dano as Pierre, looking for a way to use his intellect and help his serfs; James Norton as Andrei, looking for a way to explore the depths of love after a near-death experience and a tragic first marriage; and Jack Lowden as Nikolai, always trying to reconcile his impetuousness with a stumbling strength. Are they the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion of 19th century Russian literature? It’s good to see Greta Scacchi 
Greta Scacchi's TV Family
after a long dry spell since Countess Rostova displays a sharpness that tempers her initial kindness, though as Neil said, “Gillian Anderson seems to be giving that Eleanor Parker performance” (Cate Blanchett seems to be resuscitating that acting style in Carol.  What’s with actresses lately moving into middle age and trading emotional grit for technical polish?)

    For those viewers that aren’t able to recap from the beginning, here’s hoping that War and Peace will be repeated in the near future.
Tuppence Middleton as Helene Kuragin