Thursday, March 09, 2006

Childe Falstaff's Pilgrimage: Chicago-I

Several people have complained about my lack of active blogging in the last couple of days. This post is dedicated to those people. You asked for it.

Tuesday morning. The deceptive brilliance of a Chicago spring. The weather like some sadistic school teacher who tempts you out with the sunniness of her smile, only to grab you and make your ears hurt with the cold.

Riding the No. 36 bus downtown past Hemmingway House and Sandburg Terrace, crossing streets named Dickens, Schiller and Goethe (have I mentioned that I love Chicago?) I make my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art - the one museum I wasn't able to catch on my last trip here because it was closed at the time. I have been warned that people's reactions to the MCA are mixed at best, and I can see why. When these folks say contemporary they really mean contemporary, and the exhibits here range from the wildly innovative to the plain weird. You need to combine a fundamentally skewed view of the world with a fine-tuned instinct for the ridiculous and a love for breaking rules just for the heck of it in order to enjoy this museum - but fortunately, these are all qualities I possess in abundant measure. My favourite section of the museum was a special exhibit celebrating Beckett, which included a 12 minute film version of 'Not I' (not I regret to say, the 2000 Neil Jordan version starring Julianne Moore). There's really nothing like staring at a extreme close up of a talking mouth projected up on a big screen for twelve minutes - watching the movement of the tongue, the opening and closing of lips, the thin trickles of saliva running glistening between the teeth (you see what I mean by skewed world view). But there was other good stuff here as well - some glorious paintings, a stunning room wide exhibit [1] that consisted of a plastic model of some sort of structure in one corner, from which a matrix of wires radiated across the room, so that to pass through to the next gallery, you actually had to duck under the art and become, momentarily, a part of it. Some interesting experiments with light, including a ziggurat made entirely of reflected light and a circle suspended in mid-air, umbra and penumbra opening like petals on either side. Also, two kneeling Thai statues connected by a single white thread, praying for safety and an arrangement of five seated figures with one looking back at a mirror behind him, so that if you stand in front of the exhibit, you can see yourself reflected in the mirror, and it almost feels like he's turned away to look at the you who's entering from behind the exhibit you're really in front of (okay, I can't explain it, I give up).

The problem with the MCA is that it's really, really small. Half the galleries seem to still be shut, and the ones that are open have relatively sparse exhibits - an average of about 5-6 / gallery, which means that an hour and a half after I entered I'm done and need to find somewhere else to spend the rest of the day.

Signs on Michigan point me to something called the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA). I figure I might as well check it out. It takes me a while to find the place though, largely because it turns out to be on the floor above a Hershey Store, which is hardly the place you expect to find an art museum. My entry into the museum causes quite a stir. Apparently the idea that they might actually have visitors is a new one to them. The guard starts at the sight of me, tells me to wait, goes running off into the inner recesses to call the person who's supposed to be at reception. When she emerges I ask her for a map of the Museum. She looks embarassed. She explains that the museum currently consists of one large-ish gallery on the third floor, so they don't really have maps, but she hands me a brochure of the exhibit that's on to make me feel better. I am then escorted like an important dignitary to the third floor by the guard, who seems to be concerned that I, being clearly a mythic being, might suddenly vanish into thin air.

After the warning bells such disbelief at being visited has sparked, the gallery itself turns out to be unexpectedly interesting. The exhibit showcases the photography of Spanish director Carlos Saura and speaks to his life-long obsession with Flamenco. The pictures here have all the clean, nostalgic grace that black-and-white can lend to a photograph, and yet scene after scene captures (as Saura does so brilliantly in his films) the passion of flamenco, its aggression, its flaunting, half-tamed beauty. One section of the exhibit focusses on the making of Saura's Carmen, bringing back fond memories of catching the film as part of the film festival in Delhi in 1998 (99?), showing up at Regal first thing in the morning (at a time when the theatre usually shows third-rate skin flicks, a fact that caused my (female) friend and I much embarassment) and then sitting in an almost entirely empty theatre, hearing that glorious overture swell and crackle over the hall's stereo system and then, later, feeling the entire theatre vibrate to the clomping of the dancer's feet, in that glorious scene where the cigarette girls fight in flagrant flamenco, their firm gypsy breasts raised like the horns of a bull going into battle. All in all, an interesting exhibit, so that I couldn't help wondering, as I picked my one lone coat from the coat-check why more people didn't come to see it.

So much for art. That evening, M and I grab an early dinner consisting of some delicious crepes (a gloriously mediterranean main course, followed by belgian chocolate sprinkled with toasted almonds - who cares if the waitress's idea of service is to stand at the counter talking into her cell phone until you go give your order) and then head over to the CSO to catch the Boston Symphony in performance. The venerable (and I mean that in every sense of the term) James Levine is absent tonight, having sustained an injury [2], but David Robertson does a more than adequate job, making up in spry energy what he lacks in depth. The program itself is a mixed bag. The orchestra starts with Strauss's Till Eugenspiegel, an opening gambit I love them for because it's a piece I've always been extremely fond of, and have never had the opportunity to hear performed live. Next on the playbill is a setting of five Neruda Love Sonnets to music by Lieberson, which is pleasant enough, though it's a little disconcerting to hear Neruda sounding like Puccini, and after a while you can't help feeling that you'd rather just be sitting in a quiet room reading the great man. After the intermission, the orchestra opens with a nine-minute piece by Elliot Carter, who is one of those composers who I think are interesting, but have never quite managed to be enthusiastic about. M, it seems, is even less enthusiastic - she's sitting there trying to figure out what would be the most excruciatingly painful way to murder me (when I talked her into coming for this performance - mostly by calling her in the middle of the night and getting her to agree before she'd fully woken up - I may have, accidentally, neglected to mention that Carter was on the program, confining myself to mentioning Levine and Beethoven and Neruda). So it's almost a relief when the orchestra finally breaks into Beethoven's 7th, the familiar, humming rhythm of that most light-hearted of Beethoven symphonies sweeping us into its pleasant, undemanding happiness.

Wednesday morning I discover that the deadline of the Oxford e-Author contest (which I've vaguely been toying with the idea of entering for) is March 9th, India time. Panic. I spend the morning editing and re-editing and then rewriting and then re-editing and then re-editing again until I've finally managed to convert one week of random scribbles into something that bears enough of a family resemblance to a short story that I'm not ashamed to acknowledge its parentage. Short stories despatched, I decide I deserve to treat myself to some new books, so I make my way uptown to Powell's Book Store and spend a blissful three hours crawling under tables and up ladders in search of that elusive great deal. How can you not love a book store that has an entire section marked 'Marxism'? And one massive wall face of books on literary criticism? If I finally come away with only (yes, only) six books, that number alone should tell you the extent of heartbreak I suffered, leaving so many, many others behind. My original plan was to walk about in the city afterwards, possibly grabbing lunch (by this time it's 4 pm and I'm ravenous) at whatever cafe happens to catch my fancy, but six new books in my backpack means I'm going nowhere but home. I stop by the cleaners on my way back though, collecting some clothes for M who asked me [3] to pick them up if I could and neglected to mention that these included flimsy pink and green looking things that, carried in buses or borne high aloft and streaming in the wind as I walked, would firmly establish my status as a cross-dresser in the minds of the city's populace, earning me disapproving scowls and (more worryingly) smiles of open interest.

Back home again, Veena drops in for the evening, and a scrumptious dinner of melt-in-your-mouth seekh kebabs later [4] we head out for yet another musical evening. Our original destination is Green Mill, but through processes that I haven't quite figured out yet, we manage to make our way to Kingston Mines instead, stopping by some three coffee shops on the way to verify that yes, they actually are closed this late in the night (anonymous commenter: I tried. I really did. It's not my fault if M can't tell the difference between Jazz and the Blues [5]).

I can't say I cared for Kingston Mines much per se (stale cigarette smoke, the smell of too much beer, the static of people talking, dressed up 20 somethings dancing about, yeesh!) but the music was exquisite - even if I was one of the few people actually listening to it, my eyes tightly shut to block out everything around me. The performance featured some incredible music, silky-smooth guitar work on a soulful, blue-sy rendition of 'Stand by me' and a couple of electrifying vocal improvs that made me literally cry out in encouragement (you know that moment when the music surprises you by being so right - that 'yeah' moment when you throw your head back and just try to hold on).

All in all, it's been a good two days. This morning there's a thin drizzle in the air, and the Weather forecast promises a 50% probability of rain, so having had my fill of getting caught in the rain without an umbrella yesterday (oh, ya, that happened to - but no need to worry, the books were quite safe, thanks for asking), I'm staying put at home with my six new books (not to mention the three I carried with me from Philly, the four I bought and left with M the last time I was in Chicago, the three books she's managed to acquire since that I actually want to read). Who wouldn't, with a view like this out of the window:


[1] It would be great if I could actually name the artists and the work for you, but unfortunately, I don't have that kind of memory.

[2] And here I was thinking only sports persons suffered injuries. What did he do, pull a hamstring while trying to urge the orchestra to a particularly Wagnerian note? Or maybe he fell off a chair. So inconsiderate of him. I mean, a chap is going to be a conductor he should jolly well be a conductor and not go around practising to be a circus acrobat on the side. [6]

[3] Veena: note, ASKED me. Not ordered. Asked. (M: Is that okay? Is that how you wanted me to put it?)

[4] One thing I have to say about staying with M - you never, ever have to worry about getting good food (well, except if she decides to cook). The sort of uncompromising dedication she brings to this whole question of what's the best place to eat is truly exemplary. Was it Ted Hughes who called it this 'bullet and automatic purpose' with something about 'the shark's mouth that hungers down the blood-smell'?

[5] To be fair, I can't say it wasn't a substitution that I wouldn't have preferred anyway. Somehow I've always thought of Chicago as so much more a Blues town.

[6] If you think of yourself as a Wodehouse fan - see if you can spot where that reference comes from.

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Veena said...

You are going to hate me for this but what the hell? If you took bus number 36 to downtown from M's place(Wisconsin being the cross street), you definitely would have seen Sandburg Terrace, Hemingway House, Goethe and Schiller streets. But there is really no way you could have seen Dickens Ave. As Dickens is two blocks north of where M lives - it actually is the street where I happent to live. So there.

Veena said...

And hey, how come you are blogging et al? You done with the housewifey duties for the day?

Falstaff said...

Veena: Sigh. Yes, I know, I know. But what's a little factual inaccuracy between friends?

As for housewifely duties, of course. Done long ago. I'm an amazingly efficient housewife I am.

rumplestiltskin said...

i thought falstaff was infallible:-)
iam a compulsive reader of all your posts falstaff..kudos to are a great writer and my mornings begin with your blog and coffee.

meditativerose said...

Thanks for plugging the view from my place btw. For anonymous readers in the market for a condo in Chicago, it comes with granite countertops .. and I'll throw in my list of the best restaurants around.

Patient Portnoy said...

Wonderful post, you make it sound like a romantic old European city...

Looked too long, and I was wondering whether to start, but am glad I did :-)

Falstaff said...

Rumplestiltskin: Thank you, thank you. For such praise, you can actually have my firstborn.

MR: That's right, use my blog for property listings, why don't you. While you're about it, why not use it for personals ads as well? There have to be some desperately single men reading this.

patient portnoy: Thanks. As for it being long, well, you did say patient. Besides people who call themselves Portnoy really shouldn't complain. :-).

Anonymous said...

anonymous commenter: I tried. I really did. It's not my fault if M can't tell the difference between Jazz and the Blues

Nor can I, sometimes. Anyway, in case you haven't heard Elling before ... he's widely regarded as a hipster doofus, mainly on the strength of his recordings.

But as a live performer, he's pretty good. Besides, he always has some of the best jazzmen in Chi-town guest on his shows at Green Mill. Should watch him at that joint at least once.

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