Sunday, February 28, 2010
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Back in my New York days of jumping from this to that in the several years between high school and university, I enjoyed a period of working as an assistant to a scenic designer. This designer was enjoying a fertile period of work, at times juggling two productions at once. He was very busy, I was at loose ends, and as luck would have it, we hit it off, became fast friends and worked together on two or three plays. I consider it a blessing that Peter has remained a good friend over the years.
He retired some years back, and began dividing his time between New York and his house in Green Hill, Rhode Island. These days his time is spent mostly painting, and on occasion curating an exhibition in the several New York galleries he is affiliated with. He has also published portions of his diary detailing his work with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet.
Not too long ago, I spent a couple of days with Peter in his Rhode Island country house, a house that looks very much like the setting for a play. Really quite impressive. I was there a couple of times long ago, but the house of those days burned to the ground, hastening Peter to erect what now looks like the main stage set for the old 1995 Christopher Hampton film, Carrington.
Enter stage right…The house is shrouded in green, which filters the sunlight and brings it flickering through the leaves, casting patches of gold on floors and walls. Clocks are stopped and have little meaning during my days there. Breakfast is at 11:00, lunch at 4:00 and dinner at 10:00. We talk on and on, telling each other the bigger stories that have colored the days and years since our last meeting. Peter has just had an exhibition of his work in a small gallery in New York and a few of the paintings from that show now hang on the walls around us. One canvas I particularly like is an oil and silkscreen painting titled, Holy Fool. It includes a large figure of Oscar Wilde in the center, with an excerpt from his poem, “The Ballad of Reading Goal” silkscreened onto the canvas.
One late afternoon we wander down to the beach, no more than 500 meters from the house. This is not a southern beach of clean white sand catching blue green surf; it is cold and too dark for my tastes, with great ugly clumps of seaweed slime strewn here and there across a patchwork of brownish sand and debris. This is the north Atlantic. Peter insists on snapping off a few photographs in the failing light and I stand on a scum coated section of what looks like the remnant of a broken and washed up barge. He worries his camera, finding my dark shape against a darkening sea, measuring me up for the pages of a photo album.
The telephone rings and Peter talks while I piddle around in the kitchen rinsing glasses. Extending the phone, he says it’s for me. But who could be calling me in Rhode Island? It is a voice I don’t recognize but one which assumes a familiarity from the moment I say hello. A few words and the curtain is lifted. I am speaking to a friend out of reach for years. I had tried several times getting in touch, but got no further than an answering machine. Now, speaking at last I learn that Matthew has become a successful puppet designer with his own studio. This news pleases me, because when we last spoke he was a bit rudderless, bobbing about in New York without direction. He had gotten my message with the number in Rhode Island, and thus the surprise call.
On my way back to New York, sated and full with the enjoyment of these past few days, I try to sleep for some of the three Amtrac hours but have little luck there. A very civilized, very cultured English woman sitting across from me cannot close her mouth for as much as a moment. She talks about a Bach violin concerto almost breathlessly into the ear of her young companion, as well as into the ears of us all. She isn’t loud, but she is unstoppable, until halted by a sound wave of three teenagers shagging down the aisle with a big boom box bursting with rap and The Notorious B.I.G. For a moment the English woman is frozen silent with her mouth agape. I smile and sink closer to that elusive doze.
Friday, February 26, 2010
Shelby is an actress, and one who has done very well at it without becoming ‘famous’ or the stuff of paparazzi. She is one of those people who plugged away at her craft year after year, eventually building a reputation and making the connections necessary to support herself comfortably through film and television work. Over the years, she has done a lot of film and television work, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that her face, if not her name, is very likely familiar to countless television viewers. In a few words, it’s because she is good at what she does.
Once upon a time when we were young and full of dreams and the excitement of living in New York, Shelby was asked by a graduate student in film at NYU to do a short film with him, something that was a part of his graduate school requirements. It wasn’t a time when any of us turned down work, and so Shelby happily agreed to do the film. It was the central role, and if it turned out well, would be an invaluable piece of film for a young actress to show around. Well, it did turn out well, especially as a showcase for the artists involved, and though I cannot cite specifics, I believe it led to other opportunities for the star performer, Shelby Leverington.
There are rights involved and I am not allowed to embed a copy of the sixteen minute film in this blog post, but there is no constraint on my including a link to this short film. I can’t encourage you strongly enough to find the time to see this film. It has the distinction of being one of the films accepted into the U.S. National Archive of Film. The press release that went out with that announcement described it like this:
Done in faux cinéma vérité style, Mitchell Block’s 16-minute New York University student film begins on a note of insouciant amateurism and then convincingly moves into darker, deeper waters. Opening with a scene of a girl getting ready for a date, the camera-wielding protagonist adroitly orchestrates a mood shift from goofiness to raw pain as an interviewer tears down the girl’s emotional defenses after being raped. One of the first films to deal with the way rape victims are treated when they seek professional help for sexual assault, No Lies still possesses a searing resonance and has been widely viewed by nurses, therapists and police officers.
I first saw the film shortly after it was completed many years ago, and I had forgotten just how powerful it is. The link includes a very good history and commentary on the film. I hope you will watch it. The film is called No Lies.
The first photo on this page is a shot during filming of No Lies, and the second one of Shelby in Japan when she came here to spend a couple of weeks with me a few years back.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Two years ago I ordered a book from Classic Fountain Pens in Los Angeles, the place where nibster John Mottishaw does his fine work. I ordered the book only because it looked like an interesting read, and because I am a great fan of Pelikan fountain pens. The book is one called Pelikan Schreibgeräte by Jürgen Dittmer and Martin Lehmann, published in 2004 by H.F. Dunkmann GmbH & Co. As it turns out, it was a smart purchase, because not only is the book a ‘must have’ for any Pelikan fountain pen buff, but it has suddenly turned into a rare item. The idea was to add the link to Classic Fountain pens above for those readers interested in buying a copy of the book, but I found out there are none in stock, the German publisher is out of stock, and the book is out of print. So, if this short post and the included photos stir your interest… Well, keep your eyes out for a copy on the shelves of your nearby secondhand bookstore.
This is a large book of 188 pages which offer up almost anything you want to know about the Pelikan company, its history and development, and a complete illustrated guide to every pen made by the company from 1929 up to 2004. There is a full section on all limited edition pens, as well as special edition pens. Pages 138-181 are a comprehensive table showing the complete line of pens from 1929 to 1977, with pertinent facts about each, including the value of all vintage Pelikans. Also included is a very interesting chapter on the development of the fountain pen. The whole thing is chock full of tidbits about the company, the pens, and their advertising; a favorite part of the book for me is the abundance of old illustrations, posters and advertisements.
For those able to read German, the book will prove even more valuable, as it includes both the original German text on the left side, with English translation on the right. It is a strong and sturdy hardback publication, printed on good quality paper, and as mentioned above, full of very good illustrations. It measures 12 inches in height and 9.5 inches wide, which calls for some tall shelf space.
Hopefully, the publisher will bring out a new edition of the book before too much longer. A first edition came out in 1997, and it was seven years later that this second edition was published. Hopefully, we can look forward to a third edition in 2011.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
In two previous posts here, I have introduced short letters expressing personal feelings toward friends or friendship, and feelings about one’s hometown. This time I want to introduce five short letters written on the theme of ‘Dad.’ I mentioned previously that these books of short letters are part of a series which include thoughts about home, family, friends and humanity that are common to everyone everywhere. In the introduction to Japan’s Best “Short Letters to Dad” I learned that the publishers were not expecting a large number of submissions for this volume, thinking that in Japan the father figure might be ‘only a flimsy creature.’ What could they mean by that? In the traditional sense, the father figure in Japan is seen as someone who is away from home most of the time, leaving early, returning late at night, spending his time as a ‘company man’ toiling on behalf of the family at home. It is true that this image is changing (has changed to some extent already) and that in many Japanese families Papa is a vital presence. But let’s see what five different people had to say in a letter to their father.
The beer that Dad left in his glass
was like a little of his life left behind,
making me feel lonesome.
Noboru Okubo (M. 29)
Maybe, though we don’t seem to have a
lot in common,
we have a lot in common.
Yukari Morinaga (F. 15)
The only conversation we have
Is over baseball on television.
So, “Go Dragons!”
Hiroki Yada (M. 14)
To my jokester father
Who is always trying to make me laugh:
I don’t get it.
Chikako Tanaka (F. 16)
The carpentry tools you left as
My son is now using.
Just wanted you to know.
Kiyoko Matsuda (F. 43)
Once again, credit to Patricia J. Wetzel for the English translations. As is apparent in these five brief letters, very often a ‘non-writer’ is able to hit a note, or express a feeling in the most effortless way, and that feeling rings poignantly true.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Red. A color associated perhaps more than any other with with an unusually wide rage of implications, suggestions, symbolisms and beliefs. Anger, lust, passion, fire, blood, pain and bravery. We also connect the color to socialist and revolutionary movements, to conservatism, guilt, sin. It has more personal associations than any other color. Red is a color common to literary symbolism in writing, from ancient to modern; think of the Bible, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, Mao's Little Red Book and Holden Caulfield’s red hat in Catcher in the Rye.
In Japan, red is the color traditionally seen in heroic figures. A Japanese folk belief tells us that red is the color for expelling demons and illness. At one time it was believed that children with smallpox should be dressed in red, and that those caring for the sick should wear red.
Life, vitality, heat…the connotations are impressive in their diversity, if nothing else.
In the case of ink, do we see or imagine such a rich and layered resonance when we use a fountain pen filled with red ink? Answering for myself alone, it is indeed true that I apply certain suggestion and hints when writing in a red ink. However, I can’t be sure that any of my ink colored mood or hints carry as far as the reader.
I am not the biggest fan of Noodler inks, and have only two of their inks among an otherwise extensive collection. That said, I am nonetheless a big fan of Noodler’s American Eel Red Rattler. I can’t answer for its improving lubrication, which is what the Eel inks are said to do, because this is an area where my knowledge and experience is lacking. It is the color alone which draws me to Red Rattler. There is something about it that sets it off from all other red inks I have used. I like Private Reserve’s Dakota Red, but it doesn’t match Red Rattler; love the De Atramentis Dornfelder red, but put it behind Red Rattler. There are half a dozen red inks which come and go in my fountain pens, but none of them please me quite the same as the Noodler red.
No idea how they came up with the name, ‘Red Rattler’ and I sometimes wonder how it came about. I have what is probably an odd notion about the name and color. Rattlesnakes are common in the western states; many American Indian tribes also once made their home in that area. In my imagination, I see the Red Rattler color as a red that we often see in the blankets and rugs made by these American natives. In that sense, for me the color has a feeling of the Indians and their home in the American west.
I’m a little chagrined that the photo on the right is not quite true in its reflection of the Red Rattler. The paper appears gray, when it is really a very light cream. The red almost has a hint of orange, which is not present in the original sample. A better match to the color can be seen here.
I won’t go into a lot of review type detail here, but in basic qualities I have no complaint at all with this ink. It has a good saturation, slight shading, and it flows well in the Sailor Professional Gear pen I usually use for this ink. If you are already a Noodler fan and do not have this color, then I have to recommend it strongly. For those of you unfamiliar with both this color and other inks from Noodler, then here is a good one to start with.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Woodblock print handbills from the Edo period (1600-1868) are the earliest form of poster art in Japan. Styles and motifs were borrowed from the ukiyo-e prints, and like those prints, the handbills enjoyed broad appeal among the masses. Then in 1860, following the opening of Japan by the American Commodore Matthew Perry, lithography first came to Japan from the West, bringing new influences in the way of foreign engraving, and novel concepts of design. (Example with baby, ball and top)
At first, the Japanese held to their standards, typified by portraits of traditional, beautiful women, remaining faithful to the format popularized by Japanese painting. However, by the 20th century, modern western styles began seeping into Japanese poster designs. This was especially true with art nouveau and art deco styles. In the 1920s social awareness began to shape the newer designs as well, some posters having a distinct proletarian style. (Example below, in red with the large numeral 4)
Following World War II the production of graphic art and design became more organized with artists forming strong associations, and posters and other printed media began to have profound effect on popular culture. In 1960 Tokyo hosted the World Design Conference and thereafter Japanese graphic designed extended its reach overseas, discovering a worldwide audience.
Today Japanese design continues to embrace its traditional roots, but with a global perspective. Who would doubt that the work of this country’s graphic artists now represents the cutting edge of both concept and digital design technology, respected as never before. (bottom examples: whale and menu)
Sunday, February 21, 2010
As I’m sure is the case with many people, on cold days I sometimes get the desire to make a pot of soup. But hold on; don’t mistake me. Cooking—and that includes soup—is not a particular skill I enjoy, which has been mentioned in earlier postings on the subject of cookery. In the words of one famous Florentine, “I am still learning.” (Michelangelo at age 87) In spite of that limitation, I won’t go as far as calling myself helpless in the kitchen, and from time to time the results of my mixing and stirring turn out to be pretty good, at least.
Never having been to Florence, Italy, I can’t say with any certainty what kind of soup the people of that city prefer, or if one of them might be the recipe I myself call Florentine. But it is a pretty name and a soup worthy of that city’s history and reputation.
Try as I might, how the recipe for Tomato Florentine Soup came to me is lost from memory. It could be one that my sister sent on to me. A good part of what I know about cooking came from her, and this soup impresses me as something she could have concocted. It isn’t one of those soups that needs hours and hours of simmering to meld and concentrate the flavors. Neither is the list of ingredients exotic or elaborate. It is an easy pot to make, and will surprise you with its rich, bisque-like flavor.
Tomato Florentine Soup
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup of diced onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/3 cup of white wine
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons of celery salt
2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons of dried basil (fresh basil is better)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of pepper
2 tablespoons of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
1 tablespoon of granulated chicken bouillon
3 tablespoons of flour
3 cups of V-8 juice
2 28 ounce cans (4 400 gram cans) of diced tomatoes with juice
6 cups of whole milk
1 cup of heavy cream (light cream is my preference)
10 ounces of fresh spinach, chopped (about 1 bundle)
2 tablespoons of fresh basil, chopped
In a large soup pot heat the oil and saute the onions and garlic until they turn golden. Add the wine, bay leaf, celery salt, basil, Italian seasoning, and salt & pepper. Bring this mix to a boil, allowing it to reduce for ten minutes. Next, add the sugar, nutmeg and chicken base and stir well. Stir in the flour to thicken the mixture. Slowly add the V-8 juice, stirring over medium heat, until this ‘sauce’ is smooth. Add the chopped tomatoes and the milk. Let the soup simmer for thirty minutes. Add the heavy (or light) cream, the chopped spinach and the basil. Simmer another ten to fifteen minutes and it is ready to serve.
This makes a large amount of soup, and since it is a rich soup, small servings are probably sufficient. I have it with a green salad, some warm French bread and a glass of red wine. It makes a delicious and filling dinner on a cold night.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Charles Bukowski has for many years been at the heart of my bookshelves. An introduction to his work came via the salty X-rated articles he wrote in 1969 for the underground newspaper, Open City. A little later I bought a copy of his first novel, Post Office and laughed all the way through it. I discovered his poetry next in a collection called, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. By then Bukowski was in my blood. Sixteen years after his death I am still the devoted reader, always looking for that next posthumous collection of poems.
From his earliest work Charles Bukowski was the voice of America’s disaffected common man, a voice of such startling honesty that ‘telling it like it is’ took on new shape and dimension in his hands. In his stories and poems there was from the beginning never a single word or line of type that rang false, pretended at, or posed. Out of this diamond-sharp honesty came stories (his poems are all stories) that stir in the reader’s heart a mix of envy, admiration, laughter, sympathy, and even on occasion revulsion. I doubt that I have ever read a more honest writer than Charles Bukowski.
In 2009, the poet’s wife, Linda Lee Bukowski released through Harper Collins the next posthumous collection, selected from a virtual mountain of poems left in boxes at the time of Bukowski’s death in 1994. The collection is called, The Continual Condition, and includes sixty-three never-before-collected poems edited by the poet’s longtime publisher, John Martin.
The interesting thing about this poet’s work is that no matter what book or collection, or single poem you choose to look at, without textual hints you will find it difficult to date the writing. Bukowski was not a writer that academics could analyze and date according to style development, maturity, or any of the other measures used by literary critics. There is no doubt that Bukowski learned over his many years of disciplined writing how to use his words more effectively, how to always and always strip away the false word, or bloated line. The fact is, he wrote powerful and effective poetry from the very beginning, without the long and painful growing pains many writers require. (Bukowski’s growing pains were elsewhere.) In this sense, the new collection, The Continual Condition offers no startling new insights or revelations about the writer's body of work. It is simply a new addition to a long line of outstanding work.
Halfway through the book is a poem titled, “down the hatch.”
the god-damned ants have come marching here
and are climbing into my wine.
I drink them down.
the photos of my girlfriend’s god are
in the bathroom
in the front room
his face fills the walls.
he never spoke about or touched money.
he died 7 or 8 years ago.
today she went to a religious retreat
to worship him.
I went to the racetrack and won
tonight she went to a concert by
some kind of rock or punk group
or new wave music.
I sit here drinking wine and ants.
and I keep thinking, shit, all the women
I meet are simply crazy
one after the other
they are simple and crazy:
legs, mouths, brains, buttocks,
even the ants know more.
I drink them and with
this is what is called a
Friday, February 19, 2010
Weighted with the obligatory gifts of two or three Tokyo delicacies, a well-stuffed travel bag and a sack full of sandwiches and bottled tea, I am crowded into a train headed for the countryside in Yamanashi Prefecture. It has been some years since I last visited my very good friends who live there among fields and mountains in a beautifully restored old farmhouse. The season is just right for a visit to this area, about 100 miles west of Tokyo and not far from Mount Fuji. Spring has sprung and flowers, birds and bees are buzzing with the freshness of a burgeoning spring.
We leave the train at Kobuchizawa Station, where Jiro meets us in the car and drives us to the house, a drive of about thirty minutes. Much of what I see from the car is familiar, but there is as well a lot that has changed over the years, either through development or rebuilding. My first time to see this part of Japan was summer of 1980, and in those days the dominant landscape was a green checkerboard of rice fields and vineyards, laid out between scattered farmhouses and backed by mountains. Now there is the sporadic convenience store, or mini-mall and a great many rustic guesthouses built to support the increase in tourism. Fortunately, most of these guest houses were designed and built by people with a concern for the natural, green look of the area, and apart from the occasional vulgar facade of a pachinko (pinball) parlor or bowling alley, everything in this part of Yamanashi is still a treat to the eyes.
Back in the days when I first visited this area, Jiro’s house was an old, well-preserved traditional farmhouse, where his mother cooked on a wood burning stove, and where Papa was usually found working in one of the surrounding rice paddies. The area in back of the house was a jumble of farm equipment and clucking chickens, and off in one corner stood the old table that now refurbished, stands in my Tokyo kitchen. The sky was cornflower blue and the mountains cast sweeping shadows across the fields. It wouldn’t be far off to say that the scene was something I had almost imagined before I ever arrived in Japan.
Today the house is an example of Japanese architects at their traditional best. A dozen or more years ago, Jiro’s family rebuilt the house under the guidance of an architect who specializes in Japanese architecture. Most of the original structural beams were preserved for use in the rebuilding, and the lay out of rooms remained fairly close to the original. Naturally, improvement in comfort and convenience required the overall to become slighter larger, with the addition of a second floor. The kitchen was enlarged and modernized, and two indoor toilets were added. The result was so pleasing that soon after the rebuilding, photographers turned up asking to photograph the house for a magazine spread on traditional farmhouses in Japan.
For three days I enjoy the unequalled warmth and hospitality of my friends, while spending hours each day roaming the country roads and trails of their village, seeing afresh the woods and rivers that I once explored on younger legs. I discover two previously untouched forest settings that have in recent years been turned into a holiday campground and a vacation retreat, and in all truth, neither spot has been badly used. A long walk to the mountain Shinto shrine fills my head with a patchwork of memories, of sounds and smells. I remember the bad asthma attack I once had while on this same walk, and being driven back to the farmhouse by kind strangers alarmed at my symptoms.
In the evenings, Jiro’s wife fills the table with a lavish spread of all the flavors I remember. I worry that if I stay any longer in Yamanashi I will need hard workouts and dieting to repair the damage. No question, my favorite is the kenchin udon, the noodles homemade and served in a rich broth of chicken and vegetables. The vegetables are from the backyard garden, while the chicken not too long ago was pecking among the rows of those vegetables. I suspect too that when I return to Tokyo, my bag will be weighted with packages from this country kitchen.
Before leaving, I walk down the road to visit for a while with the mother of another friend, a hale and hearty woman of almost 80 who still potters in the fields around her house. It amazes me how spry and robust Ito-san is, and I have to think it all has something to do with a lifetime of healthy work, fresh food and clean air. Still the rosy cheeks of a young girl, what is called on young children of the country an “apple face.”
The holidays have passed and now with family members waving goodbye, we board an evening train for Tokyo. I feel totally refreshed after the days of Yamanashi country air, and re-energized for the maelstrom that is Tokyo, only two hours back down the track.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
All day long I’ve been feeling pin pricks and nudges from the pen and ink side of my blog-brain, reminding me that it’s been over a week since writing anything about fountain pens, and that I might be disappointing those who come to this page hoping for something about this or that fountain pen, or ink. With that thought uppermost, and with the reminder that the last pen-related post was about the very modern and stylish Lamy Safari, it came to me that maybe it was time to look in another direction in German pen manufacture.
To my mind the label ‘antique’ can be applied to something once it has reached the century mark. Of course, the word 'vintage' has a very different meaning. Originally, it referred to wines in both its Latin and Old French forms, but along about 1883 ‘vintage’ began to take on a general sense of “being of an earlier time.” So, when we speak of vintage fountain pens, that description seems to be right on the mark. Let me tell you about a vintage Pelikan 400NN, manufactured in Germany between 1956 and 1965.
The one shown in the photos here cannot be dated any more specifically than the span of years above. No doubt a Pelikan expert could tell something more about it, but I’m not sure it matters. The 400NN model came out in 1956 as a further development of the 400N, which was first advertised as a model with “an improved shape.” It isn’t a large pen, and is very close in length to the newer Souverän M400 at thirteen centimeters (5.1 inches). The interesting bit I learned about this pen is that the 14k M nib was not machine-pressed, but hand hammered.
Writing with this pen is always smooth, and it lays downs a fluid and satisfying line of ink. I like a good bit of flex in a nib, and this one meets my expectations completely on that point. Once in a while, though not enough to call regular, it will skip on a downstroke, but the problem is so small and random, I really don’t let it worry me. Hardly what I would describe as a consistent problem with the nib. The line, as it flows off the nib is beautiful and when there is that tiny break in a downstroke, a quick touch repairs it.
My favorite thing about the 400NN is the beautiful and so very elegant barrel, with its brown tortoise stripes. It is the very look that to my eye rings so true to the ‘vintage’ label. Much about the pen’s appearance is familiar, with its typical beak-shaped/gold plated pocket clip and ring at the bottom of the cap. Overall, it is recognizable right off as a Pelikan fountain pen.
No doubt I often repeat the same thing, but for anyone who has yet to enjoy the Pelikan experience, do give some thought to trying a Pelikan the next time you’re considering a new (or vintage) fountain pen.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Seems the normal thing these days to get home with the dark fast falling. At this season I’m used to it, and almost don’t even think about it. Common to see the day shading into night just about the time I reach home. Twilight usually sees me stopped in front of Ishii Yakitori waiting for the barrier to rise at the train tracks. Yesterday I stopped not just to wait for the train to pass, but also to buy two small baked potatoes. I enjoy teasing the lady there, asking her crazy things like, “Were these potatoes baked sometime this month?” She’s used to me however, and answers with something like, “No, I think it was the last week in January.” The pink cherry blossoms in the photo are in front of the shop, and from an early blooming tree in Yamagata Prefecture.
But, on to the movies. Last night after the baked potato, mushroom and onion jumble I made for dinner, I got interested in an old Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant movie on cable, a 1999 romantic comedy called, Notting Hill. I’m sure I had seen the movie once before, but didn’t recall the details of the story and was happy enough to watch it again.
Obsession with celebrity is these days a societal twist we see almost everywhere. People in most countries seem eager to know as much as possible about movie stars, star athletes, and just about anyone with the title ‘famous.’ Hardly an exaggeration to say that too many of us worship celebrity. Notting Hill is basically a pretty, fluffy romantic comedy, and to many movie fans an okay kind of picture, but not one to get excited about. A step deeper though, the story has an undercurrent hinting that the rich and famous have a hard battle in their search for the simple, unadorned happiness of ordinary people. Simply put, it addresses the double edge of life as a celebrity. Adding another layer, I believe the picture examines not only the nature of fame and romance, but friendship as well.
Here is the basic story: William Thacker (Grant) is a bookstore owner working and living in the Notting Hill area of London, and is barely making ends meet. His personal life is pretty much on the downslide, since his wife left him and there is zero romance in his humdrum life. He has a small group of good friends much like himself, not very successful professionally, a little offbeat, and slightly sad. William’s life changes when American movie star Anna Scott, the most famous, most beautiful movie star in the world walks into his bookstore. This is a romantic comedy, so we aren’t surprised that Anna and William become friends with romance in the offing. But they live in two different worlds and the odds of their relationship ending ‘happily ever after’ are against them.
Hugh Grant is once again the stumbling, clumsy English gentleman with an overflow of charm that is hard to miss. Julia Roberts is basically playing herself as a famous movie star, and she does a pretty good job. As anyone would guess, the match up of these two is near perfect. The producers never considered any other actors for the leads, with a Grant-Roberts matchup envisioned from the start of the project. And for those with a penchant for romantic comedy, with these two stars there is no shortage of charm in the movie’s 124 minutes. Writer Richard Curtis, and producer Duncan Kenworthy were involved in the earlier Hugh Grant film, Four Weddings and a Funeral (Grant falling for another American, Andie MacDowell).
The story is predictable and little is a surprise, except for the wonderful scenes with Thacker’s group of friends. These are the best scenes. The dinner party where guests vie for a last brownie by telling personal hard-luck stories is one of the highlights. You get the feeling that everyone, including the movie star (especially) are aware that somewhere, sometime life is going to drop you on your bum. The idea is poignant in the Roberts character, who admits that fame and beauty are fleeting, that one day people will be asking about her, “Whatever happened to…?” I liked best these scenes with Thacker’s friends, all of them as loyal as anyone could hope for. They also provide a salt of the earth opposite to the movie star world.
There is one very good long tracking shot in the movie that follows Thacker down Portobello Road, and as he walks the seasons change around him. Obviously it was a way of showing Thacker in his lovelorn solitude during the time he and Anna are apart. Another element of the movie I enjoyed was the soundtrack. Elvis Costello singing the Charles Aznavour song, “She” is outstanding, as is the Al Green cover of the Bee Gees hit, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” On the negative side, one could say that the songs in this movie too obviously telegraph the movement of the story. Despite that, it’s my recommendation for a good soundtrack CD.