where we've been and where we're going

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Literary Movement

Coming to London to hang out with L gave me a very pared-down agenda. I had been there twice before and therefore had already been to most of the tourist highlights. I also was missing my art-loving husband, and so I did not want to spend time visiting art museums to which I would surely return. I had only a few things I wanted to accomplish in London: the Portobello Road market (a bit of a disappointment), delicious Indian food, a play, and the British Library.

The Library had only come to my attention via the Frugal Traveler…and I love to travel frugally. The Library is free entrance and is home to a large collection of original prints of Britain's great literary works. Even more impressive, many works are written in the author's own hand. So I was excited. We saw an original print of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 13th century, heard James Joyce reading from Finnegan's Wake, and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary.

As we moved through the collection, I began to have moments of emotion. We came across a text written in John Milton's own hand in the 17th century. I was amazed and began to tell L the story of Milton's role in my life, of senior year advanced English, of how much I was moved by Paradise Lost and what great prose could be in my life. I began to cry, staring at the handwriting of a person who had so moved me by his writing centuries before I could ever read it. We saw the original copy of Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Bronte's pen; Persuasion written in Jane Austen's perfect handwriting; the very first copy of Alice in Wonderland that "Lewis Carroll" wrote and illustrated and gave to the girl who was the inspiration for Alice; and Sylvia Plath's erratic penmanship in an early draft of a poem, Insomnia.

And then came Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which was of course inspired by Mrs. Dalloway and featured Virginia Woolf, is my favorite novel. After reading The Hours, I read Mrs. Dalloway and came to love Woolf. As we moved along the row of originals, we came upon the original hand-written draft of Mrs. Dalloway, open to the first page. At the top of the page was written the original title of the work, The Hours. My breath caught in my throat and tears came to my eyes again. Remembering how much this book meant to me when I read it made me feel all the depth of that wonder all over again.

I turned a corner to be in the section of original music. Henry Purcell kept an anthology of his own works in his pen. Mozart's Horn Concerto in E flat, dedicated to his friend, the horn player for whom it was written. The original performance score for Handel's Messiah, open to The Trumpet Shall Sound. Ravel's Bolero. Schubert's An Die Musik, which fit on a single page. A work by Beethoven, with half of it scribbled out in edits. Mendelssohn's Wedding March. To be in the presence of the original scores of these great works was momentous. They also had lyrics by the Beatles, written on the backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, and the back of a birthday card to Julian Lennon!

There were other incredible highlights as well. The Library houses the oldest known complete Bible, and Psalms 1 through 3 written in Greek on Papyrus in the 3rd century. It has centuries-old religious texts from every religion, with the most beautiful illustrations. There's a Gutenberg Bible, of which there are only four. The diaries of great British explorers, like Captain RF Scott and Captain James Cook, and the earliest known written star chart. The Library is also the home of the Magna Carta, or the earliest known copies of the Magna Carta, which was the first instance of written and legally binding human rights. (There is no evidence of a single official Magna Carta, ceremonially signed by all negotiators, like there is for the Geneva Conventions or the Declaration of Independence, for instance.)

There's a page believed to be the only example of William Shakespeare's actual writing in existence, though it's not one of his plays---none of those exist. All we have to go on are the printings of his works that were done during his lifetime, of which a few were on display there. There are also pages from Leonardo DaVinci's journals, in which he famously wrote backwards in Italian. Somehow, being in the presence of the writings of these geniuses awed me in a way their works have not. Of course, to look upon a DaVinci painting or to read or watch a Shakespearean play (see earlier post) is one of the great treasures experienced in life. But to look upon their scrawling words made their genius more real to me, somehow. Beethoven, too, with his scribbled edits, and Milton with his stilted handwriting. These geniuses---who have influenced me in indescribable ways, moved audiences, onlookers, and readers for centuries, and will be known to the world for all future generations as those who make our civilization what it is---had a beginning. They had greatness pour out of them onto a page as their thoughts were bigger than their minds could contain. They made mistakes and scribbled them out. They wrote on scraps of paper as ideas came to them in odd places. They had messy handwriting and disjointed thoughts. They failed. They were frustrated. They were real people with all of the difficulties of all real people and yet they strived for better achievement in all things that they did. They failed and continued on. They had glorious successes. They painted the Mona Lisa and wrote Macbeth and Paradise Lost and the 9th symphony. Seeing their works in their hand helped me to understand the glory of human achievement and that greatness is the reward not of genius (though that helps) but endeavor.

The experience put my dissertation frustrations in true perspective. I can do this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Bridge Project

While in London, I was morally obliged to take in some theatre. After a bit of research as to what was available and immediately crossing off anything I’d be able to see on tour in the states (Spring Awakening or Avenue Q) or anything I believed Kander and Ebb would scoff at (Sister Act, the Musical or We Will Rock You), I settled on and convinced L to join me for The Cherry Orchard.

Some of you might know that it is very difficult for me to choose a favorite movie, but I can list favorite directors. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) is in the top five, and his first love is theatre. He won a Tony for his direction of the revival of Cabaret with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming. Anyway, he’s currently directing a very special three-season project called the Bridge Project, which is an attempt to connect London and New York with a talented British and American cast and shows in both cities.

The company is doing two plays, with the same director and cast, alternating nights and occasionally doing both the same day. They are The Cherry Orchard, written by Anton Chekhov and interpreted by the witty Tom Stoppard, and The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean romance (?). The cast includes the brilliant British stage actor Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona and the Prestige), Josh Hamilton (Away We Go, Diggers, Kicking and Screaming), Richard Easton (Revolutionary Road), Sinead Cusack (Eastern Promises, V for Vendetta), and Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Gattaca, Reality Bites).

The project did a run in NYC a while back and is now in London at the Old Victoria Theatre (the Old Vic), where L and I went to see the Cherry Orchard. The performance was hilarious and so superbly acted. The plot revolves around a family who is in the process of losing everything to the combination of financial ruin and proletariat revolution. Stoppard’s interpretation emphasizes the comedy of their situation while the subtlety of the performances emphasizes confusion, fear, naïveté, and inevitability of it. Beale, Hall, and Cusack were absolutely stunning in their roles. Hawke was distracting and overwrought. I was so very pleased, and reminded how thrilling excellent theatre could be. I missed St. Louis and the days when I went to two or three plays a month.

In fact, I enjoyed the Cherry Orchard so much that I convinced a student, K, to join me for the other play in the double-bill, The Winter’s Tale. It’s not a “great work” in the scheme of all things Shakespeare, but it was so very perfectly Shakespeare in that no one could have written the same tale as wrenchingly or marvelously. It’s considered by some to be a romance, as it contains the elements of comedy and tragedy so fluidly in the same piece as to make neither category apply appropriately.

According to a review I read afterward, directors and actors have always had great difficulty interpreting this text, and the motives of King Leontes in particular, who Simon Russell Beale played with incredible ambiguity and nuance. Rebecca Hall was stunning and glorious as Queen Hermione, and Sinead Cusack was once again wonderful in this, though I felt like her talents were underused in a role that felt too small. The scenes without one of these three players felt lesser, somehow, and like filler until we were able to return to the scenes in Sicily, though of course Bill Shakes would have never written filler. Ethan Hawke was better in this play than in the Chekhov, playing the rogue in a way that lent itself to being a bit overdone more appropriately than the other role of the tutor. In fact, he was hilarious.

The staging of the Winter’s Tale was also gorgeous. The lighting was outstanding and set a terrifying and glorious mood. The transitions between scenes were very fluid and felt like a dance signifying the passage of time rather than just the movement of props. Oh. I love the theatre. For as many performances of as many kinds of plays I have seen in my life, there are only a few moments that I can recall as magical and true insights into humanity: Blue/Orange, The Last Five Years, Doubt, A Little Night Music, Porgy and Bess. I want to add both the Cherry Orchard and the Winter’s Tale to that list.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Fox news on LSD"

We visited the Parliament building for a tour and a meeting with a member of Parliament (MP). The building itself is, of course, lovely. The main chapel area is the oldest part, having survived the London fires, at something like 1200 years old. Here is where kings and queens lie in state after they die but before they are buried, and Winston Churchill was the only non-royal to do so (apparently they break a lot of rules for the old war horse). It was also the place of famous trials, including kings and William Wallace (Braveheart).

We were able to meet with an MP of the ruling Labor party, though he's not a member of government. For those who don't know (or haven't previously cared to know), the British govt is not known for its separation of powers, and this, in fact, does not exist. The people vote for parties, who then choose the representatives. The majority party (or a coalition to create the majority) choose the members of government, including the Prime Minister. This means the executive branch IS the legislative branch, and the legislative branch has no ability to oppose the executive except, essentially, in debate. Additionally, there is no written Constitution in Britain, so the courts have no ability to declare a law unconstitutional or sanction executive action. Absolutely no separation of powers.
This works for some Britons, but not others. In particular, the MP to which we spoke spent a long time praising the American system of checks and balances and expressing his wish that the citizens of Britain be better able to control and have a hand in their own governance. He was very outspoken in his criticisms of the system (though not specifically the current govt led by PM Gordon Brown). He also blamed the media, saying it was like "Fox news on LSD" and hindered the ability of the citizens to focus on important political debates rather than distracting scandals. It was a very cool meeting, and the students really fed off of his energy.

Finally, we were able to sit in on a session of the House of Commons, which, though sparsely attended by MPs, was like I'd always imagined/seen in films. MPs grilled the minister of energy (or something like that) on the newest plan for climate control, sometimes being quite aggressive and rude to one another. Yes, some people wore wigs. I love what I do.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fashionable Marketing

L lived in London for a few months while studying fashion in undergrad, so it was particularly fun to explore fashionable London with her. On Thursday we spent the afternoon in Soho, stopping in fabric and trims stores, as well as RD Franks, a fashion bookstore. Of course, we also browsed boutiques and clothing shops that were out of our price range to dream the day away. And I bought tea, for a person must drink and purchase tea in Britain, no?

On Friday we visited the Spitalfields Market, a market for handmade goods and designers with a different theme each day. Fridays are Fashion and Art. Quite a few booths were disappointingly mass-market goods, but there were quite a few booths in which you were able to speak to the artists about their work. I bought a perfectly marvelous purse handmade from lovely vintage fabric, as well as a dress and a cute top. With a willingness to wade through the mass-produced goods, there were some really nice finds. Of course, it’s not as diverse as Etsy

Saturday morning is the time to go to the Portobello Road market, made famous in my mind by my childhood experiences with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie I recently rewatched and enjoyed much less than I did as a child. Unfortunately, I think we ended up on the less interesting end of the market, which mostly consisted of goods that seemed to fall off the back of a truck and fewer curiosities. By the time we arrived at the interesting end of the market, it was noon, my arches were falling, and the market was stressfully packed with people. I’d do it differently next time, but I did enjoy wandering and watching.

Monday, July 20, 2009

St. Vincent, Rockin' Out

Leaving Paris, we headed to London for the beginning of a week-long tour of Western European political institutions. I’ve always enjoyed London, but never loved it, which is okay. It makes other places better when not everything is amazing, right? A friend of mine, L, lives in Cork, Ireland, and she decided to meet me in London for the four days I was there, and I’m so grateful! She is a great travel partner, and I really had such a great time exploring with her. Having been there twice before, I had already done the touristy stuff, so I just wanted to wander, explore, and discover the city as someone might who lives there, and I left with a much better impression of London than I had previously had. Verdict: I’d be happy to live there, even with the rain, especially to trade visits with L in Cork.

I arrived with the group at St. Pancras Station, which is right next to King’s Cross Station, but whose façade was used as King’s Cross Station in the Harry Potter movies, since it is much prettier. I met L at the dorms in which we stayed and we headed to the Institute of Contemporary Art to see St. Vincent in concert. It was an intimate concert with maybe 100-150 people in the audience (correct me if I’m wrong, L), but she rocked it like there were a thousand. It was so incredible. What a great show.

She’s a really inventive artist, distorting traditional sounds to find the sounds she wants, with a really guttural feel. I’ve liked her albums a lot, but seeing her live was totally different and enthralling. Her guitars are dirty, her drums and intense, and her musicians look super nerdy but can each play at least three instruments. I’m so glad we did that. Here’s a video of one of her songs:


and L's post on the show:


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Moments in Paris

This is my last post about Paris for this trip, as we left and traversed Western Europe for the last week and a half of the trip. In honor of this, here's a slideshow of moments in Paris. I tried to capture a bit of the feel of Paris by taking photos of moments around the city (a few of these photos are from one of our students, KW).

During the last week or so in Paris, it was outrageously hot. Not outrageously hot comparatively to either St. Louis or Atlanta, mind you, because it never got hotter than, say, ninety degrees Fahrenheit. However, the French don’t believe in air conditioning. In the states, when it’s hot, you just try to avoid going outside and sit around inside where it’s cooler. You might be hot in the transition to your car, but you have an alternative. In Paris, if it’s ninety outside, it’s ninety in your room. And if you live on the sixth floor, as I do, it might even be hotter. And it’s ninety in the restaurant. And like a thousand on the packed metro. So you cold shower three times a day, you go to museums, which might have AC, “You sit in your room in your bikini,” as my friend F says, and you spend as much time outside as possible, since it might be hot, but at least the air moves in the out of doors.

On a lazy day after an adventurous trip to a better grocery store than the one by my residence and standing in the freezer section for ten minutes longer than necessary, I took a long walk for the afternoon. With the intention of checking the Canal St. Martin off of my list of things to do, I began at the Parc la Villette, a park that is almost outside of Paris proper. (All of these photos are in the last post, by the way.) This area of Paris is not touristed, which was lovely and felt like being a part of the city. Lots of kids played in the fountains to keep cool and kicked “footballs” around. There’s a science museum and a museum of music (with a café and ice cream), though I didn’t visit either. There’s a very overdesigned but cute garden.

It’s also at the outside edge of the Canal St. Martin. From here, you can jump on a boat that will cruise all the way down the canals to the center of Paris, leaving you at the Musee d’Orsay. Unfortunately, I missed this boat, so I just walked for a while. I probably walked three miles down the canals, observing people, listening to music, and watching the locks change the level of the water for boats to move through. There are lots of parks and people along the canals and restaurants and cafes where a person can sit and watch people. It was lovely, though I think if I were to do it again, I would either be sure to catch the boat or start closer into the city and walk out, or something like that.

The last day before leaving Paris was the premiere of a very special performance at l’Opera Bastille. The Opera commissioned the great modern artist Anselm Kiefer to do an installation/performance in honor of its 20th anniversary. Those of you in St. Louis will know Kiefer’s huge work in the art museum that has been both in the modern section and in the main hall: it looks like bookshelves with shards of glass throughout the papers and scattered all over the floor. I really love his work, and was really excited to see what he would do for the opera.

It was a work entitled Am Anfang, or the Beginning, and it emphasized that the beginning of things arises from the end of the previous, focusing on the trials of the Jewish people. It began with an enormous painting and moved to have slaves building a wall very slowly and a dancer moving slowly throughout. It was narrated entirely in French, which made it difficult to follow, but I certainly got the point. It was so beautifully staged, in very stark contrasts, and with gorgeous lighting. It was done in conjunction with a very dissident and disturbing work performed by the Orchestre de l’Opera de Paris.

At curtain call, Anselm Kiefer himself was there! I adore having moments like this, in which I’m able to be part of something special. I felt super cool, like I was rubbing elbows with the elite, even though I didn’t get any closer to him than 30 yards. I was still moved, both by the work and the experience itself.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Parisian Cinema

During my last week in residence in Paris I was able to take in a few films as part of the Parisian experience. First I saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Whatever Works (not Parisian), at La Pagode (very Parisian). La Pagode is a movie theatre that was built by the owner of La Bon Marche for his wife over a hundred years ago. It resembles, surprise!, a pagoda, with Japanese style roofing and a lovely outdoor terrace, where movie-goers can have tea before showtime (we would have, if they had served us). The window detailing looks art nouveau to me, but it certainly fits the theme. The theatre itself is also lovely, with gold detailing and a celebratory atmosphere.

The movie was in the original English with French subtitles, of course, though it seemed that most of the audience didn’t need the subtitles. There were little cracks at the expense of the French, at which they laughed louder than we did. It was an okay movie, better than I expected, but still way down on my list of Woody Allen films, but the experience was worth the show. At the end, not a single person rose to leave the theatre until the credits were almost entirely through. It was a very respectful engagement of the entertainment and appreciation of the art. I love seeing films in this manner.

I was also able to attend a show that was part of the Paris Film Festival, called Sell Out! that was introduced by the director himself. It’s a Malaysian comedy about the choice between making high art versus commercial art. And a musical! It was extremely witty and well written, and the director’s choices were very elegant and insightful. It was very poorly acted, but highly enjoyable despite this. Here’s the trailer, which is very representative of the movie. It also has my favorite song, Money.

Not only did the director introduce the film, but he also stayed to answer questions we might have after the movie. It didn’t seem like the audience was full of critics asking incisive questions, but no one there seemed to be a movie novice, either. It was really interesting to hear about his thought process and choices, pointing me to things I hadn’t noticed while watching it. Cinema feels more cultural here. Like it did when I lived in St. Louis, and like I miss desperately in Atlanta.
Photos of the theatres and the festival, as well as the Canal St. Martin, Amelie’s canal that I wandered along on a lazy Friday: