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A long way from home: songs of exile

After more than a half century of friendship, what is left for us to talk about? Why music, of course. Nissam Abitol, an amateur musician and an aficionado of Arabic music, who, like me, left Morocco in the late 1960s, had a moment of bittersweet longing for his youth. And to book end the years of his sentimental yearning, he kept dwelling on two songs: the Algerian Enrico Macias’ ‘Adieu mon pays’ [1962] and Egyptian Om Kalsoum’s ‘Al Atlal[Ruins]’ [1967].

‘For me, these songs began my emotional rupture with the land of my birth’, he exhaled in a long breath. ‘Don’t you think that the fact that you went to French style schools, which had for mission to “civilize us”, first uprooted us from our elders and who, to our embarrassment, clung to the use of the Arab dialect at home and took pride in our history?’, I immediately asked.

‘Maybe’, he answered. Yet independence in 1956, Mohammed V’s appointment of a Jew to the key ministry of communications, was a signal that there was a place for Jews in decolonized Morocco, he added. I nodded in agreement. ‘Nonetheless, we were in a minority, and made more so as a clandestine hemorrhage of Jews sought a safer port in an approaching storm in France or Israel or Canada or the US’, I added.

Nissam left for Paris to study at the ‘Institut des sciences politiques’ in 1961. ‘At first, I was like a child lost in a sweets shop, but soon the novelty wore off’, he confessed. Paris is grey, cold for half a year; he missed the more clement Morocco; he often found he had to bear up against the racism toward North Africans. And so, ‘I fell into the trap of sentimentality and of cultivating a disdain of everything French, reinforced by long war in Algeria and reading Franz Fanon’, he confessed.

All that changed in 1962 with the independence of Algeria and the stampede of French and Jews toward shores of metropolitan France. At that moment, Macias’‘Adieu mon pays’ hit the top of the charts. It endowed North Africa with  a mysterious, if not mythical, quality for a people suddenly exiled in Europe through no fault of their own, by expelling the legacy of past colonial rule.

Macias is a trained in ‘maalouf’, Andaluse Arabic music. He suffused his music, as a crossover artist, with its themes, strains and rhythm. Melodically, ‘Adieu …’ is sentimental, reprising the maudlin feeling of loss, desolation, and destruction. Accompanied only by a guitar, Marcias strums its strings, thereby mimicking sounds of the music Jews and Muslim brought to the shores of North Africa after expulsion from reunited and Catholic Spain. He also uses his voice by stretching phrasing recalling Hispano Arabic singing.

‘Adieu …’ is a simple song. It evokes the heat of an African sun; the splendor of the blue Mediterranean by the way the sun reflects its sapphire sparkle; the pristine whiteness of houses suggesting the loss of geographical innocence; and the lingering memory of abandoning a lover [North Africa] whose teary blue eyes dissolve into the sea as she bids adieu as the ship carrying her lover into exile, and whom she may never see again. And then the cry of grief like a dagger in the heart: ‘What is to become of me?’

Call the song ‘sappy’, but at that moment, it fused that amorphous feeling of homesickness to the end of a way of life never to be repeated anew, and, in a way, left an emptiness that we away from our country felt never could be filled. It, for sure, was a romantic notion, but one keenly perceived physically and existentially.

Furthermore, Algeria’s independence made life untenable for its Jews, and immediately the music of Enrico Macias was formally banned. ‘A harbinger of things to come, it seemed’, according to Nissan, ‘even though our King Hassan II had Jewish advisors and personal physicians and looked up us as “his children”. Decolonization spelt ultimately displacement, he added.

‘But Paris left you open to slights, insults, and at times undisguised hostility bordering on the anti Semitic, so it was with a certain relief that I returned to Casablanca with a diploma in hand’ he continued. A proud family welcomed him, but the job market being what it was, offered no employment. And quickly slipping back into well worn habits, Morocco took on a tarnished look for Nissim, and at moments he really did pine for life on Parisian boulevards. In fact, at the Olympia, he went to a sellout concert of the great Egyptian singer Om Kalsoum, and that sparked an interest in Arab and Judeo Arab music which he mocked growing up.

In 1968, word had spread through the bazaars and by the Arab telephone that Om Kalsoum had accepted Hassan II’s invitation to appear at his palace and give concerts in Rabat. The news spurred great excitement. Rumor had it that this ‘feudal’ monarch had offered her millions to sing for him. [Cynical tongues could not refrain from noting that Moroccan Dirhams which would flow into the coffers of the ‘Socialist’ Nasser, who was in bad odor the Cherifian Kingdom.] The ‘star of the Orient’ [kawkab el-sharq] as she was called arrived in time for the ‘Aid el Adhah’ [عيد الأضحى] memorializing Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. Less than a year had passed since the Six Day War. Already it increased the exit of Jews for France, and although superficially relations between Muslim and Jew remained neutral, the feeling of trust on both sides suffered greatly.

And into the war’s aftermath of Israel’s rapid fire victory and occupation of Arab territory, Om Kalsum introduced ‘Al Atlal’.

‘Al Atlal’ [Ruins], a well known poem from the school of Egyptian romantic poetry, it, like Macias’ ‘Adiu …’, plays with the same conceits, but on a loftier and more sophisticated level. Sung in modern Arabic, a full orchestra of Oriental and Western instruments.

A woman sings of a love turned cold, a love that has become a ruin: ‘let us drink of our ruin and tell .. how lovers became past news … another story of passion’, but she hasn’t forgotten her lover. She cannot. She wails her lament by repeating the refrain which touched Nissim to the quik: ‘give me my freedom, release my bonds [hands]…you inflict harm like a powerful tyrant, give me my freedom, release me’, for I have given you yours’.

Imagine the majestic, noble bearing of a woman of 70 in the full command of a voice that had darkened over times, with Pharonic authority, her sweep of jet black hair amassed like a crown on her head, a handkerchief in her that she uses to puncture any thought of reconciliation. Not only that, Om Kalsum riffs on the lyrics, repeating them and improving them on her own, which heightens the pain of loss and collapse of hope. Ultimately, fate, the famous Arabic fate, prevails: we have to ‘learn to forget and to learn…everything is fated’. The idea of ‘Mktub’ [what is written is written], so central to popular Arabic tradition, gains ascendancy and the ardor of love is extinguished and  [smolders] in ruins’.

‘Al Atlal’ spoke to Nissim’s state of mind: it strengthened his feeling that the Six Day War destroyed any place for him in Morocco, and so his dreams of living his life in the land of his birth were also in ruins. In a span of less than six years, he went into exile, ending up in Montreal, yet the wounds of leaving North Africa remained unhealed.

Listening again to ‘Adieu mon pays’ does not stir his memory’s embers. On the other hand, hearing Om Kalsum complaint touches an exposed raw nerve. And his voice breaks as he sings that his abandoning Morocco wasn’t our will ‘but rather our fate’.

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High Anxiety @ the Metropolitan Opera

It doesn’t take much to push my buttons at the opera: adrenalin levels shoot up, the heart goes thump, thump and the palms grow sweaty. I don’t suffer gladly; my patience wears thin; and at such times, I gird myself for battle with singleness of purpose, the wiliness of a serpent, and the ferocity of a lion. My wife says that I am rude and wishes, at moments, she could dissolve into her seat out of embarrassment. Maybe she’s right, but timidity is not a virtue in my school of life.

Allow me to recite a quick rosary of what annoys me!

As the chandeliers rise and the house lights dim at the Metropolitan Opera House, idle chatter continues when the conductor’s wand calls on the orchestra to play the introduction, say, of Strauss’ ‘Salome’. And then, there are those melomanes who lean forward blocking my view. Or the elderly, usually a man, in the womb-like darkness of the house, will not only fall into a deep sleep but snore. Or think of the coughing and loudly clearing throats.

Another cause of vexation is the unwrapping and crinkling of candy in a cellophane wrapper in the middle of a performance. And what about those music lovers who hum, sing, or beat a tattoo on their programs to the music. At such times, you wish they would leave the hall, for if they did, they cannot come back until after intermission or not a all.

The Met has a production of ‘Salome’ that uses strobe lights, which drives me to distraction that I flee the hall. [Like Salome, I would want the designer’s  head on a silver platter!] Think, too, of that operagoer who often looks at the program: comes with a flashlight with a strong light, which, you think, would explode into the brightness of a fireworks display.

Although I like to say years of heavy smoking have dulled my sense of smell, heavy and strong perfume, with which women douse themselves, or cologne men overly use, turns my stomach.

Another irritation is sending messages or playing games on a cell phone, not to mention, forgetting to turn it off, during the performance.

Strangely enough, children do not annoy me at the opera. They may fidget or squirm, but they look as though the opera had cast a spell on them by opening on to a land of enchantment. I have seen them grow quiet and absorbed during Verdi’sAida’, especially during the triumphal scene, while adults exhibit infantile and boorish behavior by talking and shifting in their seats or whisper with a friend.

Let me not leave out those who arrive ‘fashionably’ late, and have seats in the middle of a row, thereby disturbing everyone to stand up or refuse to make room, so that they can get to their seats that have become a coat rack.

What about the enthusiastic amateur of music who, unable to restrain him- or herself, from shouting ‘bravo’ or ‘bravissimo’? And sure enough, there are those who cluck indignant  and with a loud note of correction scream ‘brava’ for a woman singer or ‘bravi for two men or a duet, or brave for two women. Enough of  pedant perfectionism!

You may wonder why I continue going to the opera. Well I don’t anymore for the plain and simple truth, I cannot afford it. So I see it telecast in a small picture house, where the Dolby sound drowns out many of the sources of the stresses and strains on my system. And if I cannot, as a ‘pis aller’, thank goodness for the PBS rebroadcasts of some operas on the television, which I can watch in the comfort of my sitting room.

Truth be told, watching opera at home or in a cinema has not the same ‘authenticity’ as seeing say Renee Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee singing Rossini’sArmida’ at the Met. Opera beggars, in these parlous economic times, cannot be too choosy.

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Une petite noce @ Cafe Mogodor

A telephone call from my grandson sent our household into a state of nervous excitement. Sion, who now calls himself Jean-Sebastien, was stopping over in New York for 18 hours, with his bride Marie-Ange on his way back to France from Mexico. He wanted to see his grandparents for a late lunch. Thoughtfully he gave me the number of his friend in New York’s East Village, to work out the details, saying ‘I do not want anything fancy’. Sultana, my wife, wanted to ‘se mettre en quatre’ [or pull out the stops] for JS, but once her initial enthusiasm took on a reasonable cast, we agreed on eating at Café Mogodor [101 St. Mark’s Place],

‘a pioneer of Moroccan restaurants in New York City’ since 1983. Owned by a family of Moroccan Jews, originally from Mogodor [now Essaouria],

once the most Jewish of Morocco’s cities, who has not broken ties with ‘le pays [بلاد]  ou elle a vu le jour’ [the country where they were born].

Café Mogodor occupies two store fronts, with large windows which the light of day lends a homey, cozy, and unpretentious ambiance. The décor is simple: tables, chairs, and a good well-stocked bar and a good Italian-made expresso machine. In the second, smaller room, are photos of the owner’s family in Mogodor of  days long forgotten from the last century, and on a shelf glazed ‘tagine’ pots, as a reminder to the café’s patrons that that they were eating in a real Moroccan restaurant. And if anyone had any doubts, on the wall of the larger room is a photo of  King Mohammed VI, and in the small room, a portrait of his grandfatherMohammed V much revered by the Jews of Morocco, sipping a glass of traditional mint tea. Seating accommodates a hundred and in warmer weather, a terrace holds another 10 to 20.

Everything in Café Mogodor serves one purpose: the enjoyment of food. I met Ariela, a Moroccan Israeli, who is the manager to settle on the menu.  Strikingly beautiful, in her mid-30s, she has finely chiseled features, dark, knowing and laughing eyes, and jet-black hair nestling gently on her shoulders; her voice has the quality of summer and smoke of a sultry mid-summer’s afternoon in the shade of Essaouira’s ramparts overlooking a lazy Atlantic Ocean,  and her smile parts sensual lips favoring pearly white teeth devoted to food. Regal in bearing, olive complected, her voice has the ring of silky plausibility. She is a true Jewish Arab beauty. Raised on a kibbutz not far from Haifa, her parents chose well her name: for the archangel Ariel, in Jewish mysticism, is known, among other things, for warmth and betrays a soupcon of unrestrained. And the warmth and joy she exudes is quite palpable and she embodies the spirit of the earth [הארץ].

She knows no Arab, but her French is good enough so that when she’s visiting Morocco she has no trouble finding her way. And, she does know her Moroccan cooking thanks to her mother’s influence. No doubt, the owners of Cafe Mogodor have found a gem in her.

Still, a doubt kept nagging me. I did not care if Café Mogodor was not kosher, but I did worry that the kitchen staff was not Moroccan. ‘Have no fear!’ Ariela chimed in. The owner and his family have trained them in the art of Moroccan cuisine. Still, my worry subsisted until I ate my first bite of food.

Mogodor is known for its Cous-CousMerguezBastilla, and Tagines.

For a setting of 10 for the ‘wedding party’, she suggested a combination Cous-Cous [$12 to $17,50] with lamb and merguez. I proposed a Bastilla [$15], a pie of layers of pastry with chicken, eggs, and almonds. ‘Wouldn’t that be heavy on the stomach?’ she asked. I demurred, and then wondered whether a lamb tagine [stew] [$16,50]would be preferable.

Planning a menu does not seem as simple as it sounds: picture us in ‘souk [bazaar]-like’ fashion, haggling not too finely over the dishes as though we were at an open public market, which made the exercise all the merrier, the more especially since in bartering you never give in easily. For more than 40 minutes, Ariela and I exercised seasoned habits to trump the other, more in play than ego thumping.

Finally there would be a more ample simple Merguez Cous-Cous, steamed semolina over a bouillon of highly seasoned beef sausages and vegetables and chickpeas and onions, two Bastilla, and a larger Lamb Tagine with apricots and prunes. We would skip appetizers and soup –for the plain and simple reason they were more Middle Eastern [$4.75] and it would take too long to prepare a ‘harerah’ soup — but wouldn’t scant on the salad [$6.50 to $9.50]. Since no Moroccan wine was available and Algerian wines do not travel well, a good Bordeaux would do, which Ariela would buy.

Sultana argued for an appetizer or two, to which I agreed. She thought there was too much food, and she was probably right. I, donning my best Philadelphia lawyer robes, and with the fire of a proselytizer, argued that Marie-Ange and Jean-Sebastien’s friends, were worthy of a variety of dishes, the better to appreciate Moroccan cooking.

The menu agreed on, Ariela suggested eating in the second room under the family photos and one picture of a Jew in traditional djellaba [robe] and babouches[slippers] and another in a black-dyed silhm [wool cape] and on his head a white turban, suggesting his Berber origin. She thought that it would be an appropriate touch in recalling our family’s origins. And a wedding meal binds family closer to one another, she added.

JS and MA and friends showed up for an early dinner. Ariela was on hand to welcome the newlyweds and, trouper that she is, described the dishes and had the wine opened.  After toasting them, we began eating ‘a la bonne franquette’, meaning simply and without much fuss. Ariela, in the best of Arab tradition, ‘regaled’ us with stories, as we ate, until she was called away to take care of other customers. We did learn that Woody Allen, Demi Moore, and Kofi Anan ate at Café Mogodor.  Once, the owners personally awaited the arrival of a visit of a Saudi princess, who, alas, cancelled at the very last minute.

No one complained of the food and ate heartedly and if she did not like the Bordeaux, he kept his or own counsel. JS seemed happy and MA is very blonde and buxom, but somewhat reserved. Generally the conversation was animated in the way only the French can do with a relaxed degree of formality. Sultana was in her element, but quietly confided to me, she should have prepared the food. Saying this, she did her best to taste all the dishes and still had room for dessert . Ariela had the kitchen prepare the traditional ‘the a la menthe’ [mint tea],

which was not very sugary at my request. Everyone sipped it, but instead preferred an expresso ‘bien tire’.

As JS and MA and friends took leave of us, JS thanked me for choosing a restaurant which brought back memories of growing up in Morocco and the warmth of family gathering. Unspoken was his feeling that with a French wife they would fade and would not be passed on. Sultana broke up a set of  her gold bracelets, giving two to MA who, my wife thought, was ‘unmoved’. However, I know my wife was already looking forward to the birth of her first great grandchild and the next generation. I was not as sanguine as she, since MA would bear JS children; they, however, would enter a world long denied us. Nonetheless, we are not so selfish as to deny our progeny their happiness.

In leaving the restaurant, we thanked Ariela very much for her kindness and help. And although it did not need saying, we would recommend Café Mogodor to friends and families and anyone else who wanted to eat good Moroccan like food at fair prices. We thanked the staff for efficient service.

Taking Ariela on the side, I slipped her an unmarked white envelope. Knowing it was a ‘tip’ for her, she at first refused it, but I pushed her hand away, quickly reciting in pray-bead fashion, time-honored formula of appreciation. Were it not for her tasteful and tactful suggestions, the wedding party might not have gone off as well as it did. To Sultana and me, time and distance have long separated us from Sion, but the food and the bonhomie of the moment brought us closer again. And, Ariela had no small hand in that!

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Pongal – a poor harvest

As you leave behind the bright noonday sun and enter Pongal, an Indian vegetarian restaurant at 110 Lexington Ave., in New York’s East 20s, a blue cow, signifying that food is the staff of life, greets you. Inside the calm of a temple reigns; the lightning is subdued; the walls’ bricks exposed; and the dark wine-colored carpets mute the sound of voices, which lend a feeling of a holy place of food. Tables are on either side of the walls, which have the barest of ornamentation, again evoking the savor of holiness. The two waiters tread lightly as though they were ethereal beings.

On the times I visited the restaurant, I found a young Indian couple sharing a goblet of ‘kheer‘, while at another table, two Talmudic students with a ‘kippa’ precariously held down with a hairpin, who in between mouthful of ‘thali‘, were arguing the finer points of Jewish law.

Pongal is kashrut or kosher. The restaurant fare is Tamil but the menu offers Gujarti, Madrasi, and Punjabi dishes as well. Food is served on steel round trays on which are artfully arranged small bowls of appetizers, freshly baked bread, hot and cold sauces, and two bowls of rice–one white and the other mixed with chopped spinach. For drinks, still water sufficed.Download DSCN0527.JPG (1179.8 KB)

The food for western taste has barely a hint of the spicy. [For Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi customers, the kitchen may make the dishes more piquant to the palette.] The dishes are moderately priced, ranging from $3,95 to $9.95. I chose the combination platter, the better to sample a variety of regional cooking.

My tongue discovered nothing worthy of  culinary veneration: the chickpeas bland, the cauliflower watery, chappathi cold and lumpy, the lentils without character, the eggplant oily, and the mixed vegetables indistinguishable. The basmathi rice was cooked right, and the rice with spinach had little character.

I was expecting something more, something tangy with a good bite, and was disappointed. Pongal is not exceptional in the fare it offers the public. As rabbinically certified, it has carved out a niche market for itself, but it is not ‘Shomer Shabbos‘, meaning that it open everyday of the week.

Waiters are attentive and discreet. The piped in music is a mix of traditional Indian and modern Western pop.

Let me mention the bill: it includes a 15 percent tip. Pongal accepts all major credit cards. The restaurant seats around 80.

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Adrian Nicole LeBlanc at the Harman Center

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Harman Writer-In-Residence,

spoke of her work in progress on comedy clubs and read from her excellent ‘Random Family‘, before a gathering of faculty and students at Baruch’s Harman Center on March 22, 2011.

She is a writer of intensity and passion, who depicts and transforms a small truth into a facet of simple and striking reality. Her writerly qualities are in evidence in ‘Random Family’, which spent 10 years writing.

Now LeBlanc’s keen eye is focused on comedy clubs, for she sees an existential link between the young standup comedian and the marginalized Bronx youth in her book. Hers is an interesting conceit, yet one questions its social value.

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Slings & Arrows at Purim Time

My wife and I accepted an invitation to a Purim party at the Willetts Street Jewish Center in Manhattan. Purim or the Feast of Lots is a time of joy for the minor holyday celebrates the thwarting of a plot to kill the Jews in Babylonian exile. It also is time to read the Megillah or Scroll of Esther, and calls for wearing of costumes, eating, ‘parfuming’ or drinking, merrymaking and eating  fruit filled triangular cookies called ‘hamantaschen’.

So it came as no surprise that my wife donned a gaily colored caftan with gold and silver threads and around her neck she wore a family heirloom, an amber oval inscribed with the Shema in Hebrew. Copper toned skin with high cheek bones and slightly slanted dark brown eyes, and her henna touched jet black hair artfully arranged, she looked as though she was Queen Esther or a Berber queen of the Anti Atlas Mountains, at least. Much to her annoyance, I was dressed in my usual ‘shabby chic’.

We did not expect much from the food, which is standard awful institutional dreadful. But we were very much looking forward to lively conversation and much conviviality. Our hopes were quickly dashed by Natasha and Nathan who shared our table. The two Ns, 24 years in America, came from the Soviet Union. Natasha looks like a ‘matryoshka’ doll, small, round and plump with rosy cheeks and alert Meissen blue and unknowing eyes, and wears a wig. Nathan is tall and heavy set; under a baseball cap sits dull brown eyes, and by his coloring he has traces of Kazakh ancestors. His hands, the most noticeable thing about him, are huge with fingers the size of sausages and discolored nails, a testimony to years of hard work.

Natasha did most of the talking, but occasionally Nathan would break into the conversation with his accented English if he were not whispering to her something in Russian.

During the meal of bland turkey meatloaf and soggy green beans and sad looking mashed potatoes, washed down with either Coca Cola or Seltzer or hot tea, Natasha and Nathan kept eyeing my wife Sultana and then me. Natasha was curious first about Sultana’s amber piece of jewelry. Surprised to learn, it was something handed down from generation to generation among my wife’s family who originally lived in the mountains of south Morocco for more than 2000 years. Nathan wanted to know if she adopted her husband’s religion, and what was her Hebrew name. And then he was a little taken aback that although born in North Africa she wasn’t black, since for him all Africans are black.

Nothing seemed to embarrass the couple in expressing their ignorance and prejudices. Nathan wanted to know if Sultana would perform belly dancing on the spot. At that moment, she gave me a weary look. Natasha wanted to know about the hovels she supposed that Sultana  had lived in the mountains or the goats or sheep she had tended as a child or the ‘exotic’ way of ‘primitive’ mountain folk . And, what’s more, she wondered how could my wife have lived among Arabs, for in her neighborhood in Brooklyn had more and more Muslims were moving in and they frightened her. She and Nathan, consequently, were thinking of shifting to another place but the rents being what they are these days, the two Ns are resigning themselves to stay where they are living.

Then Nathan questioned me about my ancestry. Am I of Russian stock? His face froze when he learnt that my family had always lived on either side of the Mediterranean for as far back as we could trace. Since I have light skin and grey eyes, he seemed puzzled. Not happy with that bit of news, he grilled me on my bona fides, my ancestry, my education, my work and my style of life, to which I took great exception.

For Sultana and me, this is a tale many time told. It is a wearing battle, if you think in those terms.

Any time someone hears, say, that Sultana is from Morocco, the high degree of misinformation she hears goes off the Richter scale of the belief. Consequently we inure our mental carapace to weather the storms and high waves of ignorance. Seeing that wild look in my eyes that signaled  I was about to have a sudden moment of madness, Sultana whispered soothing words in French, and my anger calmed. Natasha and Nathan, for us, had gone beyond the bounds of civilized behavior, and I, for one, was looking for way to shut them up.

Call it ‘divine intervention’, when the women Reformed rabbi began reading the Megillah, all conversation ended. Still Natasha and Nathan had to have the final word: they harrumphed that they ‘disapproved’ of women in the rabbinate, as Orthodox and practicing Jews. Nonetheless they stayed for the reading and the stomping and the twirling ‘graggers’ or noisemakers and hissing at the mention of  the name the villain of the story– Haman. They stayed, despite their censoriousness, because they were witnessing for their faith.

As the ceremony ended and the hamantashen — filled with prunes, poppy seeds, apricots, apples, or dates—distributed, the two Ns said they looked forwarded to seeing us again at another party. Sultana and I smiled and the same thought flashed through our long married minds, but I will keep it in the family.

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Une visite eclaire chez Cinema Village

Bold as brass I entered the small lobby of blue brick Cinema Village with its rhomboid-shaped marquee jutting out over Greenwich Village’s East 12 St. off of Fifth Avenue, without calling ahead for an appointment to speak to its manager. It felt, to me, as though I were coming home in a way. I’ve been going to Cinema Village for a quarter-century, at least. The picture house is an bare-boned affair with no frills. Like a fast-food restaurant: you go in, see a film; after it’s finished, you leave. To me, too, it has the feel of a favorite, well-worn sweater.

As luck would have it, Lee, the manager, was at his post by the concession stand. Polite, thoughtful, and soft spoken, he greeted me as though we were old friends, and he had all the time in the world to chat but not to ‘manage’ an art house. He struck me as a private person, but he began our conversation by immediately telling me something about himself and, of course, Cinema Village.

“I am as old as Cinema Village, 47. The house opened in 1963, the year of my birth”, began this slightly built man, youthful Nebraskan, with a shock of snow-white hair, hidden under a baseball hat, with wire-framed glasses. He himself is no stranger to film: in fact, he managed of the East VillagePioneer Theater’, an independent house, until it fell victim to rising real estate rents. “Cinema Village”, he proudly announces “is the oldest art house in New York”.

Physically, Cinema Village occupies an abandoned turn-of-the-century fire station. “Unfortunately, the original owner did not think of preserving the building’s original facade”, he thought. Certainly, retro is in today, and what a draw that would be, he added. In 2000, it was transformed from a single- to a three-screen picture house: the original auditorium has a 156 seats; the smallest seats 66, and the medium-sized hall downstairs has room for 73. Only the biggest hall is wheelchair accessible.

Its patrons come not only from the Village, but from all five boroughs. Lee couldn’t say how many tickets are sold a year; but it is profitable shoestring operation with a staff of nine (four managers are also non-union projectionists). Most films are on 35-mm, but Lee will also show films on Blu Ray or high-definition format, but not regular DVD because of its poor quality. Cinema Village shows vintage films, first-run, cult and contemporary favorites, documentaries, and ‘indies’. “Where else can see “Kimjongilila”, a documentary on a flower named after North Korea’s strongman?” he says as his face breaks out into a broad smile.

Lee quickly rattles off some stats: “the Cesar-awarded film ‘Tell No One‘ ran for a record 82 weeks; ‘The Piano Teacher‘ 28 weeks, ‘Yi Yi‘ 21 weeks and ‘Mulholland Drive’ 18 weeks. And the six-hour Grammy AwardCarlos‘ played nine weeks, which says something about the kind of film mavens who go to Cinema Village”.

On any week, this cinema will schedule three to six or seven films. On Friday, March 4, when I visited it, you could see Peter Weir’s “The Way Back”, Nicole Kidman’s “Rabbit Hole”, the ‘indie’ “Putty Hill”, and a documentary on the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, “The Wasteland”. Slated for the coming weeks are films from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet, France, Germany, and the US: quite a palette of cinematic color and variety. Distributors will send Cinema Village a rooster of films, which the staff will review, reject, or schedule.

Lee points modestly adds, “A serious film buff would spot Woody Allen’s use of our marquee in some of his films. Martin Scorcese rented the house for ‘The Departed’”.

As a business, Cinema Village has hosted film festivals: Greek, the Other Israel, Russian, Korean, and Irish. It doesn’t refuse “four-walling”, since it guarantee money upfront. The house has no budget for advertising, postcards, or posters, which is picked up by the distributor. It does show first-run films because distributors feel they can tease out an extra dollar or two by booking it there.

Admission is competitive: adults pay $10, students $7, and seniors $6. Consequently, it draws a steady stream of patrons.  “The house, however”, Lee adds “doesn’t show ‘kids movies’”. Nonetheless, Cinema Village will rent out space on mornings for children’s birthday parties.

Cinema Village is an institution on the New York scene. “The New York Times”, “Wall Street Journal”, “The Nation”, “Village Voice”, and “New York Press” regularly review the films it offers.

David Rothenberg, founder of Fortune Society and a host on WBAI and a retired Broadway agent, is a booster. Joseph Hurley, a veteran film reviewer, never misses a chance to “plug” a film at Cinema Village.

As for me, I usually go see French films there. I occasionally run into Rivka, a Paris-born Hassid from Brooklyn’s Borough Park. We usually exchange some thoughts on films with a Jewish theme we saw, say, a Franco-Israeli film “Va, vit, et deviens”. Adjusting her light-brown “sheitel”, she was very much moved by “Va…” “The plight of the Falasha or Ethiopian Jews in Israel”,  she thought, “was handled subtly with nuanced understanding”. To me, I found it equally remarkable for the willingness of the Franco-Moroccan actor Roschdy Zem to play in an Israeli film.

Where else can I  see “The Grocers’ Son” with the talented Nicolas Cazale?

Gwyn Sullivan next to whom I sat  at “Carlos” was a friend of Pauline Kael. “Pauline would’ve been at home in Cinema Village. And, “Carlos” is the kind of film, Pauline would have sunk her teeth in”, she wryly remarked.

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The Wasp

I just saw Andrea Arnold’s 25  ‘The Wasp’ got top honors at the 2010 Academy wards minute live action short category.

Arnold drops us in the midst of a town council estate (read, the equivalent of public housing in the US). Her protagonist is a young slip of (an unwed?) woman  with four children on public assistance. She’s a tigress who will defend her cubs or pull a neighbor’s hair to correct a wrong done to one of daughter.

Arnold brings us into the woman’s apartment with hand drawn flowers and butterflies, which her girls drew, on the wall to pretty up a drag existence. The cupboards are bare; the bread moldy, with hardly enough ‘junk food’ to feed our ‘heroine’s’ brood. A wasp hugs the kitchen’s window. She opens the it, thereby freeing from its unnatural setting. It struck me as a metaphor of  the woman’s claustrophobic existence.

She longs for a momentary release, it seems to me, and it comes with her meeting again with an old flame Dave who asks her out.

She lies to him about her children who she brings to the bar where she’s hooking up with Dave. She leaves them outside to play, while she goes inside to meet her date.

Zoom to the denouement, Dave brings her to his auto. The two go in for heavy petting after he expresses more than desire for her. In the meantime the wasp reappears and goes into her baby boy’s mouth. The children hiding in the parking lot scream for their mum. In sum, the game’s up, Dave discovers she has four children, but in the end doesn’t seem fazed by that since he will have a serious chat, meaning the two will end up together in her council flat. And so the wasp opens up a path to a new life for everyone.

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Wish 143 or ‘la mort dans l’art?’

Comparing the growth of a malignant tumor from a kiwi, then to a peach, and finally to a grapefruit subtly moves the narrative along  and hastens the urgency of action of 24 minute ‘Wish 143’: who would have ‘thought’? The story is all too familiar: Tim, an ill assured 15 year old, has terminal cancer, knows that he’s not going to live long let along play hard, and gets a chance, thanks to a charity, to make a ‘dying wish’ which raises eyebrows.

We’re in Leyland, England, a working class town, famous as the home of Leyland Motors. Tim is under treatment for cancer in a Catholic hospital. Bald as a cue ball from chemo, body ravaged by his disease, he dreams of ‘shagging’ his favorite girl, Amy, in the back seat of a motor car to the strains of classical music on the auto’s radio.

His journey to lose his virginity is the riff of the story as his cancer fatefully eats him up.

Ian Barnes’ film, ‘Wish 143’, with a script by Tom Bidwell, himself a cancer survivor, is among the five short listed, live action shorts for the 2011 Oscars. The red thread running through all these films is the loss of innocence and awareness of the whimsicality, if not the dark side, of the human condition. The distinct influence of the influence of a Catholic education on the story line, in most of nominated shorts, is difficult not to ignore.

Is it the surge of testosterone or the realization that it is now or never that is at the heart of Tim’s wish? Whichever it is, the impersonal forces of fate ridicule his heated up desires. Amy, the girl of his dreams, gently refuses to satisfy his lust. Then he manages to sneak out of the hospital at night, to buy the favors of a hooker. She treats him like the ‘innocent’ that he is, telling him to go quietly along back home. If this let down is not enough, her pimp threatens Tim, who, with his tail behind his legs, dejectedly returns to his hospital ward.

In the wings, however, lurks Tim’s guardian angel, the hospital’s Catholic padre. Quietly he finds Maggie a lady who will ‘entertain’ Tim for the night. With her, as can be expected, he’s timid and nervous if not anxious. To the strains of classical music, she enfolds in her arms as a mother would a child of hers crying in the night; for she realizes that at heart, Tim is looking for the human spark and touch that his medical care (and the absence of parents) lacks.

At the end, Tim remains the virgin he is, but Maggie’s tenderness has lanced the abscess of pent up emotions, and has restores a psychological balance the boy needs for his cancer’s treatment.

Everything about this film seems old hat. The cinema has never shied away from using cancer as a theme, for example, in ‘Promises in the Dark’, ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’, and ‘Brian’s Song’. And then the stock characters of the kind hearted  or good priest and the ‘whore with a gold heart’, see, Bing Crosby in‘The Bells of Saint Mary’ or Pat O’Brien in ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ or Mae West in ‘Klondike Annie’ or Nancy Kwan in ‘The World of Suzy Wong’.

Everything, too, about ‘Wish 143’ seems right and effortless, thanks to the performance of Oliver Arudale as Tim. He brings to the film’s protagonist the angst that testing his manhood requires without sacrificing his moral and emotional nature. Jodie Whittaker in her pivotal role as Maggie, through her kindness and knowledge of boys and men, lends a restorative hand to Tim’s sense of who he is: a man-child. And finally, the crag faced Jim Carter as the priest and the pastor of men’s souls, who recognizes the lost sheep that Tim is, and through his compassion, returns Tim to the fold of humanity by exemplifying  the meaning of the Beatitudes that the hungry [of the soul] will be comforted and the pure of heart will see God.

Comments:   “Pass the Kleenex!”

“Would losing his virginity brought more peace of mind to Tim since the object of his desire had spurned him?”

Reviewer’s comment: Of the five short listed live action shorts, four came from abroad. The winner, ‘God of Love‘, a black & white U.S. film took home the Oscar. It is not the first time nor the last the American jury favored one of its own. In this reviewer’s opinion, ‘God…’ was the runt of the litter: obvious and contrived in spite of the music which hid its cinematic faults.

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Media Decoder: Palin, Tell-All Books, Dirty Tricks & Joe McGuiness

Sarah Palin, a skilful self-promoter and consummate actress, is a savvy user of social networking–Twitter, Facebook–and also a highly marketable brand. Say ‘Palin!’, and presto the media and paparzzi appear, and in the background the kerching of cash registers.

Palin is self-advertising in motion. She has the looks of an angel but the tongue of a devil. And from her Etna-hot mouth spews a stream of lava to scorch and dry and wither her enemies. To her camp followers, it matters little that she lacks logic or that she displays her ignorance of general culture or the wider world or that in her private life she strays from her evangelical Christian beliefs; for them, she’s the ‘little woman‘ from a humble background, who has had to work hard in life for everything in this earthly life; for them, too, she’s a who knows how to stick it to the big, privileged rich kids, born with silver spoons in their mouths.

Palin’s a media star with the same tawdry appeal of a ‘Kooki‘ Her antics and hijinx resonate with the very people who relish putting the ‘rich’ into uncomfortable and awkward postures, while at the very same time that she is laughing all the way to bank and hobnobbing with the very people she socially despises. She’s, in other words, a parvenue and in a perverse way a grand entertainer of the masses. The country’s right-wing moneyed and political elite have made a place for her in their midst for the plain and simple reason they believe that the American people are too lazy or stupid to understand what the powers-that-be are talking about, even if they have an interest in politics. For them, it takes a great effort to approach things logically. To get them on your side, say the big guys, requires a shoot-gun effect. And, that packet of pellets of the right-wing is Sarah Palin.

Writers of two ‘tell-all’ book on Sarah Palin are engaged in a ‘battle royale‘ over whose book is going to cash in on the life of the woman who had the ears of the world stand up by proclaiming that she was like a ‘pitbull with lipstick‘ in 2008, thereby instantly becoming a recongizable, global household name.

Frank Bailey, Ken Morris and Jeanne Devon‘s ‘In Blind Allegiance‘, soon to be published by St. Martin’s press has been blindsided by Joe McGinniss who ‘leaked an early copy of their book’ on his blog, Mudflats. At the same, he was keeping his own book ‘The Rogue: searching for the real Sarah Palin‘, to be published by Broadway Books in September 2011, under wraps.

Bailey, Morris and Devon, through their lawyer, have accused McGinniss of behaving with malice of intent of wanting to destroy their book’s ‘marketability’. What’s more blame him of more than being a ‘jealous author sabotaging a competitor,’ but a man who would stoop to get his way ‘vai unlawful and unscrupulous means’.

McGinniss at the age of 26 burst on to the best seller list with The Selling of the President, describing the marketing of presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968. His book was a ‘tour de force‘ in the way it described the staging of political theater in getting the ‘new Nixon’ elected as president. His book became a classic in campaign reporting, as well as a key to the sleights of hand used by the old media in projecting a man who, after his defeat to JFK in 1960, famously announced to the press that ‘they won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.’ And there he was eight years later the 37 president, thanks, in part, to a favorable manipulation of the media.

McGinniss did play dirty pool. Leaking his competitor’s manuscript, he torpedoed any hope that ‘In Blind Allegiance’ would sell like a hot-ticket item. Unfortunately, Bailey, Morris, and Devon may not have taken the full measure of him, nor appreciated his telling how a man like Nixon could be turned into an ‘Abraham Lincoln‘. It was though a bully had come into the children’s sandbox and threw dirt in the kids’ eyes.

Yes, McGinniss by leaking his competition’s manuscript played dirty. He learnt his lessons well during the 1968 campaign, it seems. He was out for the big bucks his book will bring to his publishers and the royalties he will garner. Nonetheless, as he might have had Wikileaks in his sights, a leaked document has news value but hardly turns a profit but for the ones who leaked it.

McGinniss may not be Mr. Nice, but like the subject of his book, Sarah Palin, he knows where the beef, oops, the Greenbacks are.

Comments:   “Alas, unlike old generals who fade away, dirty tricks are here to stay.”

“The ooze of deceit percolates through them thar Mudflats.”

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