Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar 2011. We're Invited.

It’s that time again, Hollywood’s self-congratulating, door-prizes weekend. ABC’s take on the festivities is “Oscar. You’re Invited,” emphasizing the award (singular) above the show (the Oscars, plural), which will surely cause confusion on Twitter.

I don’t see that many new films a year. I caught The Social Network on the flight to Sydney, and saw The King’s Speech on Long Island. Both great stories about important points in the timeline of media.

In many ways, all we have are stories. The ones we tell ourselves resonant with the ones we see on the big screen. And I don’t mean “stories” as in “denial.” I mean on a physiological, cellular level of how the brain functions.

That’s the subject of Lance Mannion’s interaction with the documentary Marwencol, which itself is a story about Mark Hogancamp who spins out a story when his own life is literally shattered by thugs who break his skull. Which is his reality: the tatters of memories he has, or the complex World War II story he’s telling through Ken & Barbie–like dolls?

It was also the idea of the 5th season ender of the TV show House, when he hallucinates a night with Cuddy. On the simplest level, the story that his brain was spinning from the facts stored in his left brain simply wasn’t true.

So there is the importance of storytelling, for our very identity, and as a source of beauty (cf the iconic scene from The Bicycle Thief.) And then there’s Hollywood. It certainly knows how to capitalize on this important element of the human condition. (And the gowns are an art form unto themselves.)

Ian Falconer's New Yorker cover puts it all beautifully in perspective in light of the world stage. It's nice to award an idea of excellence, but real triumphs happen off screen. They often involve the human heart wanting to be free from tyranny, free to tell stories of ALL kinds. Hmm. Maybe there is some relevance to Hollywood's shiny night after all.

I’ll be tweeting from The Paley Center for Media’s Oscar Viewing Party. Use #PaleyLiveNY if you want to participate with the action in the room. #Oscars as well.

(I’m still a sucker for the classics. I just saw The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves, for you purists) last summer, in Italy while visiting Alaric and Mauritzio. It was very poignant to see it in Rome where it is set, with an Italian who had some understanding from family stories of just how hard it was there after the war.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sound Thinking

Dust of Snow
Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

There was no crow, but Frost’s poem popped into my head as I was trying to see some beauty and whimsy in this latest blanket of the white stuff.

The year is bringing many whirlwinds. Witnessing the sirocco of protest going through the Middle East is mind blowing. Of course for me it’s from the safety of Twitter.

The Avant and the Uber

On a direct cultural level, back-to-back concerts have recently blown my mind: one from the second annual Avant Music Festival, the other the Bach B Minor Mass. BOING!

The Avant Music Festival is curated by composer Randy Gibson and soprano Megan Schubert, down at the Wild Project. I got into it from a very special, longtime friend, Reiko Füting, who is a composer and performer. His music was featured along with the music of Nils Vigeland, one of his mentors.

AMF2011 Preview Video from Avant Media on Vimeo.

The evening was built around duets. It was an engaging programming device. Each piece was in duet with a piano, which connected the evening and was further connected by the same pianist playing each piece, Yegor Shevtson. The pieces were in duet with each other as the program alternated between the 2 composers.

It opened with Reiko’s Three American Folk Songs (2007) and closed with Vigland’s setting of Three Shaker Songs (2009). The other pieces featured individual violin, viola, cello, flute, and the great Carol McGonnell on clarinet.

The pieces were both rich and minimal, with a lightness of depth. That’s what I love about contemporary modern music: the oxymoron juxtapositions.

And then there’s the Bach B Minor Mass. The piece people say has inspired nonChristians to convert (probably apocryphal, but you know what they mean: it’s that inspiring). The piece some people believe is the closest thing we have on earth to knowing the mind of God. The great Latin Catholic mass from the great Lutheran composer.

I agree with Oestreich in the NY Times that the St. Thomas Boys & Men choir seemed a bit off for the Friday night performance, and the soloists weren’t the best. But the piece itself is so stupendous, and the performance so spirited that there was transcendence on the cold, February night.

Meanwhile, Back at the ranch . . .

Progress on the bath remodel is slow, but you can’t hurry an artiste. Carol Reed's The Agony and the Ecstasy is echoing in my apartment:

Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II/M.A.Peel: “When will you make an end?”

Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo/Contractor: “When I am finished!”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ms. Blandings Builds Her Dream Bath

One fine day last October I gave my bathtub a long hard look, after a long hard scrub, and came to the conclusion that no amount of industrial nor organic cleaner was going to help brighten the classic, basic, old New York bathtub. It was put in when the building was a gut rehab in 1984. Its slip resistant pattern has not weathered well at all nor has the grout.

The stars then aligned in a way that I could partake of that time-honored rite-of-passage of redoing a bathroom. Blessed to be able to make such a home improvement, it's not something for the faint of heart. I’m channeling Cary Grant’s Jim Blandings from the delightful 1948 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House on a daily basis to find the humour in the process, but more about that later.

I thought I would get off easy, because I’m ONLY replacing the bathtub and tile around it, plus a new vanity/sink and new, wider door. I’m not touching the other side of the room, or the floor.

My Amalfi Coast
Even though I believed that I narrowed the potential pain of the renovation by limiting the scope, even the basics will wreak havoc: e.g. ripping out tiles and a bathtub; having no place to shower for 16 working days; needing to find and deal with a contractor, etc. And so I decided I would only do this if the results were going to be really special. Otherwise, I’d live with the tarnished slip resistant spots and save the money and aggravation.

And then I saw a simple but beautiful Solistone tile and had a vision: I would capture the sensibility of the bathroom in my hotel on the Amalfi coast several years ago. It was all shades of luscious blue tile and had a window overlooking the even bluer water. I saw that I could evoke that sensibility by putting the Solistone on all three sides of the tub alcove and the ceiling.

I never felt more like a character from Edith Wharton, all those early Americans who went to Europe and saw something that they had to have, or replicate.

Numbers Rule the Universe. - Pythagoras

Never a truer notion than in the measuring of a small bathroom where there is literally no room for error. My brain strains to remember high-school geometry to determine the area of my tub alcove (height x length x depth?).

And the tub itself. I wanted a claw foot, acrylic, because the room is much too small for the weight of cast iron (in my next life I can put that in the farm house I’ll have).

Anyway, I was looking for a small tub, and I found one at Vintage Tube & Bath that is just 54”. I ordered the whole tub package, which includes lots of the unsexy things you need with a tub, and shower package.

Then, for convoluted reasons, I thought the tube would be too small, and decided a 57” would be better. When you're going through all this expense and trouble, you have to keep you eye on the end game. That's what lasts--all the aggravation will dissipate.

And so I started to arrange the great tub switch.

Here’s Where Cary Comes In
I’m channeling Cary Grant, hoping that the wrong 100 pounds of acrylic sitting in my apartment’s basement will feel like a funny, zany 1940s movie. (Maybe I need a sidekick like Betty Hutton to help.) His Jim Blandings is that perfect mixture of optimism and exasperation.

Surprisingly, dry, witty repartee in an English accent with the tub company isn’t really helping the process of telling them that I made this mistake. And trying to get the right size delivered . . . and get the wrong one picked up.

Then, after successfully arranging to purchase a new tub, and have the 54” one picked up, I realized that I can’t actually fit a 57” tub. A freestanding tub needs some space away from the wall to, well, stand free. I make decisions at work ALL DAY for fairly complex, creative projects: I have never been so rattled between 54" and 57" in my life.

So I had to call the good people at Vintage and say, please cancel the new order, I’m keeping the old. And here’s where the third martini of the evening comes in, now channeling Constance Bennett’s Marion Kerby from Topper. I'm seriously thinking of sending the sales people at Vintage a fruit basket.

The Room for Ablutions
Alongside the practical nature of life is the ritual, from the formal religious to the completely organic. Morning and evening ablutions--the ritual cleansing of the body after the haze of sleep and the harshness of city life—-for me is the later. In this jungle that we call New York City, connecting with water and soap is essential to well being. And beauty in this room of cleansing is the best therapy I know, might even be the cheapest.

Demolition started today. Blogging will be a light until some of my space emerges from utter chaos.


Many people love Mr. Blandings for the classic scene of Myrna Loy picking very specific colors. But I like this excerpt that shows off some great Cary lines: "This house has been standing since the second year of the Continental Congress. You take one look at it and the shingles start for fall off."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February: Tradition Soup

February is a month unique for its multiple holidays that virtually cascade into each other.

February 2 is Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, considered the end of Epiphany by C of E. (In ancient times, a woman who gave birth to a man child was considered unclean for 7 days, and was to remain for 33 days “in the blood of her purification.” After 40 days, Mary redeemed her first born from the temple, and was purified by the prayer of Simeon. Which lead to the great chorale tradition centuries later of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, which I have enjoyed singing immensely.)

The name Candlemas arose from the tradition of the priest blessing candles (which must be of beeswax) at the mass to use the rest of the year.

It’s also Groundhog Day. Wiki tells us:

“An early American reference to Groundhog Day can be found in a diary entry dated February 5, 1841, of Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

So the New World Germans are responsible for Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck, which begat the great Harold Ramis flick with Billy Murrary and Andie MacDowell. One of the landmark films of the 1990s, a look at the “what if” we had world enough and time to redo days until we got talents and love right. The friend I saw it with questioned if the Bill Murrary character had really changed. A unique interpretation.

Pagans had their own deal with Imbolc, an early Celtic feast demarking the midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, which was Christianized into the feast of St. Brigid. Neopagans and Wiccans continue the celebrations in their own ways today.

February 2 this year is also Chinese New Year’s Eve for the Year of the Rabbit that begins on February 3. The Rabbit year is traditionally seen as a year to catch your breath after the more volatile TIger year.

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp are all Rabbits. Now try saying there isn’t something behind this!

The stamp this year was designed by Kam Mark, who grew up in Chinatown. It features kumquats, which are given as gifts and eaten for good luck.

And this is all only in the first 72 hours, long before we get the heavy hitters of Valentine’s Day and President’s Day. Not sure how much these holidays mean any more as we tiptoe deeper into the 21st century. Someday maybe they’ll be the grandchild of a Wiki entry that says, “In a blog in 2011, M.A.Peel looked at some of quaint 20th century communal ideas that made their way into the very beginnings of the 21st century, in what was then The United States of America.”