Monday, November 14, 2005

Home again...

left: our ridge, twilight

BUT NOT WITHOUT FIRST seeing three more plays, eating one more fabulous meal, getting lost once or twice. All that in two days!

Okay, dinner first: That was at Campanile, an old favorite unvisited too many years — unless you count an occasional breakfast. Mark Peel, who was an assistant of Lindsey’s years ago at Chez Panisse, opened this fine restaurant in Charlie Chaplin’s old house, half a block off Wilshire Blvd. on La Brea Avenue, more years ago than I like to think. At one time it was fabulous; for a while it seemed to me to have slipped a bit; now it’s right back where it began, with Mark at the helm and a menu that’s engaging, enterprising, excellent.

We began with squab on risotto, white truffles shaved over it, the rice cooked just so, the squab tender but meaty. A Bibb lettuce salad refocussed things, with the snap of lemon juice lifting the cool crisp leaves out of the ordinary. And then, for me, duck breast, grilled, served with a sort of compote of winter vegetables including chestnuts. With this a St. Amour 2003, direct and mature and fruity, and then a glass of Sean Thackeray’s Pleiades, to complement the duck’s complexity.

The drive from Glendale, where we stay on these semiannual theater outings south, to places like Campanile or the LA County Museum (where we’d been the day before), is easy and enjoyable. Down to Los Feliz, across on that avenue past the strangely dumpy Mulholland fountain to Western, down Western to Third or Fifth, down La Brea or whatever. The drive back, after that dinner, was less direct, for Hollywood likes to post two street-names on the same post. So we turned east a block too soon, discovered the mistake, and turned north to explore a narrow street, cluttered with unnecessarily large cars parked wherever they could find a place, and winding through what must have been a relatively upscale neighborhood, since all we could see were high board fences, automatic yard lights, and an occasional Beware the Dog. No matter: it took us right to Los Feliz.

That afternoon we had seen William Inge’s Picnic, beautifully detailed and lovingly portrayed by A Noise Within. I hadn’t seen it before, oddly enough, and was struck by its resonances — Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as Gaye pointed out, but, more personally than that, my own childhood, or at least one year of it, spent in a small town in northeastern Oklahoma. I wasn’t old enough to share Madge’s problems, or even Millie’s — adolescence was still a few years away — but the yearning, the perplexities, the awareness of all kinds of isolation, even the apparent war between physicality and intelligence — all that was indeed resonant.

Yesterday, Sunday afternoon, we saw the third play currently in repertory at A Noise Within: Ibsen’s The Master Builder. What a play! You can read it in so many ways: the tragic birth of Modernism out of Romanticism; Ego as the enemy of Community; Ambition as the tragically flawed child of Success...

And the production, and the performance, completed a cycle of three plays very satisfactorily, for the problem with Thursday’s Othello — an overly detailed and therefore distracting Iago — was a great virtue in this Builder: a brittle, complex, riveting Halvard Solness: both roles were taken by Geoff Elliott, who was also, with his wife Julia Roderiguez-Elliott, co-director of both plays.

A footnote to the comments, below, on Dwight Baquie’s performance of the role of Othello: what we saw was in fact only his fourth performance in the role, and the first had been the previous day. He stepped into the part in a student matinee, played it again Wednesday night, and then repeated it Thursday in another matinee before the performance we saw. It’s odd he’d never played it before, because he was born for the role; when he has it in hand it will be memorable for only good reasons — and perhaps Elliott’s Iago will be in better balance.

Yesterday after the Master Builder matinee we drove down to Los Angeles for dinner with friends: Dan the painter, Tony the actor. Dan made a delicious bolognese to put on pasta, and we had a bottle of four-dollar Hungarian cabernet, and then we walked over to Evidence Room, a sort of storefront theater club, to see David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy, postmodernly, neo-cubistly taking on Pirandello with half an eye trained also on Restoration comedy, cutting back and forth between narrative and commentary, and generally making great fun out of confusions of gender, role-playing, Art and Life, as they develop out of the six characters — one of them Tony — in search of a play. I’d see it again given half a chance.

And what else. Glendale’s cute little Spanish-Mission train station, where we left John and Gaye to Amtrak. Dan and Tony’s magnificent dining room, crafted, table, floor, walls, ceiling and all, out of an ash-tree that came down in their front yard. Urartu Coffee, as nice a little community coffeehouse as you could want, a block off Glendale’s troubled Brand Avenue, now in the throes of yet another redevelopment.

And a long walk, having lost my bearings in spite of Lindsey’s correct directional instinct, in the dark night, cluttered with rejected furniture and distressed cars on the lawns and boulevard strips, peopled with the unemployed and the dubiously employed, lit by the occasional sweeps of a hovering helicopter’s searchlight, warm with spent passions and delayed hopes — yet oddly intimate, friendly, and nostalgic: or perhaps I was still basking in William Inge’s Picnic.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Once More to L.A.

left: LACMA at twilight

Glendale, November 12—

A LITTLE ODD to say of Shakespeare’s Othello that all’s well that ends well, but that’s how it went Thursday night. Until the intermission we thought we were seeing something else, a play called Iago, interesting, abrupt, a little rough, thrown out of whack by an apparently minor character, a Moorish admiral, unfortunately played by an understudy who was still carrying his lines with him.

After intermission, though, things turned around. Othello stayed on the book, even consulting it while strangling his poor wife, but his voice and demeanor brought the role back to center where it belongs. Iago was more convincing when on the defensive than he’d been earlier in the play, and the ladies were fine: Desdemona small, vulnerable, wronged, uncomprehending; Emilia angry, violent, believable. I found myself wishing they’d all lived, so there could be another play, telling us what might come next. But of course by the end of the play nearly all the interesting folks were dead as a doornail, and we felt like Shakespeare had hit us in the stomach once again, and we shuffled back to our motel in a rather bleak mood.

The only hilarity of the day had been inadvertent, at dinner, in a restaurant we’ve tried before: Fresco, whose Venetian decor has housed a Sicilian-Neopolitan menu a couple of blocks from this theater company — A Noise Within — on Glendale’s Brand Street. The food was good enough: my canneloni were rich and tasty, and Lindsey liked her mushroom ravioli very much. But soon after we sat down we were surprised to see a small Italian-looking fellow walk in with a cello case. Before long he’d unpacked the thing, set up a pre-programmed synthesizer, and begun playing the most god-awful versions of soft rock, Strauss waltzes, and easy listening — though he made any kind of listening difficult in the extreme.

I’ve only once before heard such blatantly bad playing, from an amplified violinist on a street in Rome. Like that fiddler, our cellist was ultimately ushered away by a waiter, but not before he’d labored through the entire prelude of Bach’s C-major Suite. On his way out he bowed to Gaye, who was watching him astonishedly. Live amateur cellists might best be banned from restaurants.

Yesterday was better, a fine day: two restaurants, two museums, three engaging one-act plays; all shared with two friends. Lunch was at Tre Venezie, a real Veneto restaurant in Pasadena, where the cooking expresses the rich, earthy complexity of a culture that triangulates northern Italian, Austrian, and Slavic sources, and the result is served in a comfortable, quiet, intelligently furnished room (paintings, books, bottles) that has likely never heard an amateur at the cello. We had Savoy cabbage and house-prepared guanciale, pork jaw; and after that I had the best fegato Veneziano I’ve had outside Venice herself: calf’s liver, sliced consistently thin, sauteed in white wine, oil, and perhaps a little bit of butter, served with perfectly sweated sliced onion and beautifully grilled polenta, with an interesting Merlot from the Collio hills on the Slovenian border.

Afterward a tour through the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see landscapes, mostly, with a few portraits, by an American impressionist, Allston Something, whose early work, at about 1900, showed great promise, but whose later work, on extensive travels but chiefly in Southern California, seemed to me to settle into too-quickly executed illustration.

They weren’t improved by their contrast with the Pissarros and Cezannes we saw next, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — a fine show from New York’s MOMA, focussing on the work those two friends did, nearly side by side, in the significant years around 1870 when Modernism was emerging from landscape painting in the vicinity of Pontoise. Short conclusion: Pissarro was about light as it it is expressed by surfaces; Cezanne was after the substance and weight behind those surfaces, and the physical presence, almost the substance, of the light and air that makes them visible and distinct. This is quickly said, but it took these disciplined, gifted painters years to reveal the concept, which underlies everything the Impressionists and their followers achieved in the years following.

The Actors’ Gang, an engaging and very physical theater company whose artistic director is Tim Robbins, has moved into a fine, newly recycled historic building on the edge of Culver City, a former electrical plant facing a small, pleasant park on Venice Blvd. Here we had a quick meal of fish and chips and Martinis at Pacifico, a fast, simple marisco restaurant, and then continued our globetrotting with three one-act plays from Japan: a melodramatic portrait of smoldering small-town resentment; a commedia dell’arte-cum-Kabuki flavored account of a family’s despair at the apparent idiocy of a poetic son; an Albee-esque view of three ghosts, former actress-prompters eternally reviewing the competing small successes of their former lives.

It was an impressive evening of theater, stylish, exotic, constantly fascinating. I wish these guys would bring us a play of Michael McClure’s.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Groningen street, September 2005

FOR SOME TIME NOW, since the middle of September in fact, I’ve been meaning to show you this photo. Seems to me it says all you need to say about what routine automobile use has done to community life. This was taken on a fairly busy street in Groningen, a street leading from the market square at the heart of that provincial capital in The Netherlands out toward the edge of town where the university campus and its great medical center are situated.

We were there with a couple of friends, having transferred our intention to walk the shorline of the old Zuider Zee to the less rainy and windy route Lindsey and I already knew from a long walk taken five years ago. We had just arrived in Groningen, and were walking down the street toward our hotel, when I was struck by the sight of these two old guys having a palaver in the middle of the street.

This is by no means an uncommon sight, but our two friends, new to Holland, remarked delightedly on it, so I pulled out the camera for a quick shot.

I doubt that had these two guys would have stopped for conversation had they been driving cars. In Groningen, as in so many other Dutch villages, towns, and even cities, residence, shopping, and offices are frequently mixed. You can walk from one end of Groningen to the other in twenty minutes. We spent nearly a week there, using it as a base for walks in the countryside, and we never once even thought of using any means of transportation within the city but shank’s mare, our two good trusty feet. There’d be no point in it, not even when it gently rained.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Movies and community

AND WHAT DO I THINK about the closing of our town movie theater, the Raven Film Center? It’s a very sad event, another step in the erosion of a town in real danger of dissolving into a theme park. Well, that’s put a bit extremely, I suppose: but a real disconnect is developing between two Healdsburgs, one of them a nice cozy town of 10,000 or so, where residents rub elbows at the library, the shopping centers, the cafés, the bakeries; the other a destination for tourists who stop in at tasting rooms, boutiques, and white-tablecloth restaurants.

Healdsburgers used to manage this negotiation by ceding the town square to tourists on the weekends, but the weekends have stretched; tourism is now close to a seven-day-a-week activity. There’s still a feeling of community on certain warm evenings, or at least there was last summer; but the town’s in danger of losing the very facilities that give a physical context for community.

There are two Ravens in town, not to be confused with the dining Raven-spinoffs, Ravenous and Ravenette. It’s an interesting history, I think: a local movie theater was built in remote antiquity, the 1930s or ’40s I think, called the Aven. (No, not a misspelling of “Avon,” as in Bard Of: it was named for a member of the founding family.)

In the 1970s, I think it was, the languishing Aven, then a victim of television, was bought by a film buff and community idealist who turned it around, chiefly by booking interesting films. It became so successful that when the big retail space formerly housing the J.C. Penney Company became available — Penney’s having lost its customers to sexier retail rivals in Santa Rosa, our local metropolis, and to the cheaper big-box stores that becan to emerge fifteen or twenty years ago — the lease was taken over by the Raven folks, who installed a four-theater complex, hoping thereby to be able to bring more niche-market films to town.

Then, a few years ago, two huge new multi-screen movie theaters opened nearby, the Rio in Santa Rosa and the Airport Cinema a few miles south of Healdsburg. The Raven lost much of its audiences to these competitors. The film-booking business is arcane and baroque and I won’t go into it here, not that I really understand it: suffice it to say a small local exhibitor of commercial entertainment film can’t seem to prevail in this competitive context.

WHAT’S TO BE DONE about this state of affairs? A couple of Sundays ago the town turned out to discuss the question. The largest of the four theaters seats 243, and it was overflowing. A good many very knowledgeable people filled us in on the history of the Raven’s decline, and then there was a brainstorming session.

I suppose you could say there were two big kinds of ideas, structural ideas and programming ideas. It’s clear the community wants a movie theater, but it’s not clear a conventional movie theater can survive — the current owners say it takes about 2,500 customers a week to keep the place open, and they’ve only been drawing 1500 or so at best. Twenty-five hundred customers: that’s a quarter of the town population, every week! Even if you could get the films, programming the place to draw niche audiences would be real sleight-of-hand: youngsters want noise, and go to the Airport; aging intellectuals want foreign movies, and watch DVDs; liberals want documentaries, and find them at the Rio (or on PBS); and the sizable latino population — some say forty percent of Healdsburg’s population — don’t seem to have the habit of going out to the movies.

The structuralist ideas tended to group around establishing some kind of non-profit organization to subsidize the Raven. I myself said I’d give a hundred bucks a year over the next ten years if it would help; if all of us in that room did that it would amount to $25,000 a year, surely enough to begin to find some solution. That idea didn’t fly far, but others suggested an organizing committee to look into some kind of community management of the facilities — assuming, apparently, that the place will soon be up for sale.

I HAVE ANOTHER IDEA, perhaps too complex to work, but complex enough I think to float. One of the things a community needs is a place to sit, to stroll, to talk. This has to be a place big enough for really lots of people on some occasions, but cluttered enough with visual and architectural features, and comfortable places to sit and stroll, that it doesn’t seem bleak when less heavily populated.

The Raven Film Center is on the edge of the Mitchell Shopping Plaza, a typical small-town strip mall with a big parking lot, a big retail store anchoring one end (currently a Long’s Drugs). The other spaces are leased to quite a variety of operations, from a specialty cheese shop (and a very good one at that) to a money-order office for the latino laborer; from a former photography shop now converting to an art-supply and framing shop to a resale merchant with everything from electronics to clothing; from a doughnut shop to a Mexican restaurant.

All these shops are drive-ups; there’s very little pedestrian traffic from the heart of town, only a block away — the parking lot effectively walls these shops off, announcing who’s really wanted here: people who drive in hastily, grab whatever it is they’re after, and take off again.

Needless to say, this isn’t the kind of “Third Place” — the alternative to Work and Home — a community needs. If I were king, I’d convert the south end of the mall to another village square, with a café-bar-restaurant with outdoor seating, and convert one of the Raven screening rooms to an indoor café constantly projecting films onto at least two walls — travelogues, documentaries, art films, old features. Sound off, of course; and if possible DVDs for sale on the premises.

Another of the four screening rooms should be used more fully for live performance, sincee it’s fitted out with a stage, overhead lighting, and a green room. There’s a fledgeling chamber-music society a few storefronts away: why shouldn’t it have access to this room?

I’d use the remaining theaters, seating 54 and 167 apiece, for quickly changing film repertory, Spanish and English, in a mix of programming frequently punctuated by special thematic series: food movies, or dance movies, or movies catering to other special-interest niche audiences willing, perhaps, to drive to Healdsburg from San Francisco or the East Bay, willing to have dinner in a local restaurant and stay in a local motel. We’re only taling about fifty people in that small theater!

What would this require? A person or group to buy up the current lease. A willingness on the part of the owners of the shopping center to re-think the use and purpose of their real estate. A commitment by the townspeople to support their own community.

Is any of this likely to happen? Frankly, I’m quite pessimistic about that. There are complexities here — economic, legal, insurance-related — that I know nothing about. Clearly the town council needs to spend a week or two traveling to places where these things happen better, either because there’s more vision there, or social conventions friendlier to the evolution of Places for People (not necessarily Profit).

I’ve put here a photo of the market-place/parking lot in Barjols, a very ordinary bluecollar town in the Var, in southern France. It’s a special day: there’s a boules competition going on; it’s drawn people from far and wide — from communities as much as a dozen miles away. No one’s getting rich from this, but the three or four bar-cafés at the edge of the place are doing good business. No reason part of the Mitchell Shopping Center couldn’t look like this.