Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Not much of a sleep last night. The seafood repeated and the room was stifling. Whenever I opened the window I got the night noises and the narrow bed saw me close to the edge. Nevertheless I got up around nine or ten.

I wandered down to the beach. It's pretty horrendous as beaches go, composed of huge pebbles with the only sand there being on the beachball court (and I suspect that was imported). Nevertheless there is a huge hill on which an old fortified chateau once stood. From below you can see a waterfall cascading down from the top. I took the climb and worthwhile it is too. A lovely park lies on top and the views of the city are phenomenal. Naturally in the hot sun, I got a red neck, even though I tried to keep to the shade. I even braved the shine to wander around a wonderful cemetery(!). They have and had money to bury in this place. Going on, and with only a pain au chocolat in my stomach, I found a restaurant and sampled a large plate of starters (mushrooms in oil, fried peppers, battered courgette etc.) with the obligatory quarter litre of red. Good stuff. That then, Ned, was when I conversed with your good self.

Well, I complained about my room and got it swapped for one only marginally better, though I might be able to sleep in this one. Unfortunately wireless is gone, and the fridge, so unless I do sleep not much of a swap. However, I did doze earlier on which was a good sign.

Paddy's Pub
I went looking for an Irish bar to see if I could meet up with anyone. The first bar I came to was actually the one I was originally looking for (recommended in the Rough Guide), though I came to it by accident. As usual it was the ones that worked there that were propping up the bar. Not too keen on talking, but once most of them left and a girl from Kildare went behind the bar, I got talking with her. Studying in Trinity and heading home October 3rd though she doesn't want to (the French boyfriend, you see). She gave me a map of all the night spots in the area (exactly what I was looking for), so I headed on to Ma Nolan's. In contrast to the last one (Paddy's Pub) this place was rocking, even though the French don't drink much. Of course the first girl I managed to talk to was Polish (well, I know the language, don't I), but unfortunately she was waiting for her friend (female) to come back from the toilet before they both left. And her friend came back. She said she might be back, but that was always unlikely. Not much luck after that, but then I really wasn't on for a late one tonight. I wanted to judge the environment, see what it's like getting home and then do a proper session tomorrow.

Needless to say I got home all right, but the absence of wireless really hurts. I'd probably swap back to the grottier room given the opportunity just for that. Uh, oh, I think the French upstairs may have had a full pint; they're getting rowdy!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Again the restaurant on the doorstep does it again! I asked the receptionist (a new slightly Addams Family-ish guy) could he recommend a restaurant. He directed me to La Petite Biche (a doe, a female deer, not what you're thinking) around the corner. Unfortunately the little Biche was closed, so I wandered back towards my hotel and saw a place that rang a bell. 'L'Odyssey' cropped up in one of the Tripadvisor reviews, but I dismissed it a little as the reviewer seemed a little stoned. Now, however, given that I hadn't eaten properly since 2.00 and the place was full, I decided to give it a shot.

One of the filthiest waiters I have seen yet avoided me for a while. It seems to be a family run concern, with the male members of the family not too keen on the old hygiene. Not a good sign, but the tables full of Nice(?) people seemed happy enough. I chanced the spaghetti ai frutti di mare and some house red. The red was good, no vinegar here, but the meal, huge and riddled with clams, mussels, calamari, prawn and shrimp was stupendous. I left just a little (and still felt guilty), but I am a full camper now. I hope I'm well in the morning.

Grotty the hotel may be, but there is an Internet Cafe on one side (which I won't need because of wireless leakage from some unsecured network) and a supermarket on the other (I got my bottle of water!).

By the by, my shower room light (separate to the toilet) went out before I went out. It came back on when I returned. Apparently it overheats. Oh, hell, someone just flushed the chain upstairs and I thought we'd have an avalanche. It's like rain in a drainpipe or a puking girl. There goes sleep. Strange place.

Well, I ain't in the Ritz, that's for sure!

Just arrived in Nice. They wouldn't sell me a ticket for the 13.50 train, so I had to wait around another two hours for the next one. A little bit of panic when they didn't show the platform number until the last minute, but I made it. There were very few in my car, so I wonder how busy the earlier train really was. Anyhow I was able to move around and get a window seat, the idea occurring to me that I could use the video camera to get a kind of high speed dolly shot like Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately every time, and I mean every time, I saw something to shoot and got the cam working a wall or hill or something would get in the way. I would turn off the camera in disgust and then almost invariably the view or one as good would appear again. This game of hide and seek annoyed the hell out of me. However, I remember feeling a little shock of happiness when I saw mountains in the distance, not the Alps, but real mountains nonetheless.
Then as we neared the South we passed pink apartment buildings, dilapidated and uninviting, but shining in the sun nevertheless. And then I got a glimpse of the sea, on the other side of the train, but glorious to me. It was dark by the time we started to go through San Tropez, Cannes, etc.. What was really nice was getting off the train into very perceptibly warm air and a station filled with palm trees. Nice.
Told you I'd get to Cannes!
The hotel, which is very near the station, a bad sign usually, but the write-ups were good is staffed by a jovial old guy. He told me to go up and get comfortable before coming down to pay him. I think I am in the "old wing". Grotty is not quite the word. Funnily enough though, it's as big as my Paris hotel and it has everything including the kitchen sink (and a microwave oven, fridge, etc.). Even a bit of a balcony. Hell, it's only for three days and it's pretty cheap, and I'm in Nice!

Monday, August 28, 2006

There is some stinky cheese fermenting by the open window. I am going to eat said stinky cheese. If I am alive in the morning I will be a happy man.

I went up to the English bar, The Bombardier, near Rue Clovis, for a pint or two. I could not decide my next destination. My father, and maybe my brother, will be in Stuttgart for the Ireland vs. Germany soccer match on Saturday. If I was in the vicinity I'd give them a shout, but I'm not too sure where I'll be. Madrid and Nice were both calling to me and though I really would prefer Madrid, that would leave me a good deal distant from any other location, Stuttgart or not. It would also require a hefty train journey overnight, not a bad thing (saves on hotel), but a long trek nevertheless. Anyhow The Bombadier gave me some head space. It's a nice spot, but quiet.

The Ghost of ParisNow I still am left without destination. I am tempted to just go on the spur of the moment anywhere that appears on the train schedule, though then I must trust to luck with regard to accommodation. I'll see in the morning. Cheese awaits (yes, Gromit, it's nice cheese).

Isn't it true though, you never see what's on your own doorstep, or in this case, just a few doors away from the hotel? There was I griping about food and this very local (4 doors away), very good restaurant was right under my nose all along. I had always presumed it was a little expensive and truth be told it is a little, but they had a lunch deal on that looked appetising. My starter was mussels in a cream and fennel sauce with celery and onions, then cod, courgettes and tomato (the latter chopped very fine) wrapped and fried lightly in very thin filo pastry. (I would have taken some pictures, but, regardless of the food, I don't think that would have gone down too well.) The tiramisu with strawberries was more like a trifle, but beautiful nonetheless (real creamy). Unfortunately I ordered the dessert without realising it wasn't part of the lunch, so things added up unexpectedly. What was meant to be my lunch became my dinner. But it was really good food.

I headed off to La Defense; interesting buildings, but I was only briefly tempted to go up in the clear glass elevators for a view of the city. Besides it was raining. I stopped off at the Louvre while travelling back on the Number One line. My trusty Rough Guide (which admittedly is an old edition) claimed the Richelieu Wing was open until 9.45, but all the signs seem to indicate the museum was closed at 6. I asked a guide at the ticket machine. She confirmed that closing time was 6, but the machine "takes credit cards". It can take cocaine for all I care, I wasn't going into the Louvre for and hour and a half and I hope my face said as much.

On my way back I noticed another gem near my hotel. Just off La Republique there was a shop that would probably be similar to our Spar. The difference of course is that what is a luxury for us is commonplace for the French. I picked up my tea, a baguette, parma ham, a round of blue cheese and orange juice all for around a fiver. C'est magnifique!

All in all, and for all that it can get up one's nose sometimes (or maybe because of that), I think Paris is one place I could live in. A very wonderful city.

It is tempting to compare Paris to Amsterdam as each a flipside of the other; one had rain, the other has sun (but Amsterdam had sun as well and this morning in Paris it rains); one had good food (Amsterdam), the other, despite a reputation, hasn't (not so simple); one has museums that are closed, the other has ones that are open (but Pompidou had its fifth floor largely closed for renovations). There's no one to one comparison really so I'll give it as it's been.

The first night I checked the Rough Guide for a place to eat. Have you ever sought something online, found it, stared at it and believed you then knew it (mainly because it was found)? Well, I have, and particularly on this occasion. I discovered a restaurant on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir (online) and headed out to find it in reality without taking note of exact address or even name(!); I deserved everything I got and what I got was a similar, but incorrect restaurant and a deeply disappointing meal. It's just as well I like vinegar, because that was the variety of Rosé I was served. Still I drank a half litre of the stuff. I went to bed vaguely dissatisfied.

The next day things would be better. I picked up a coffee and three pastries firstly. The thing about using French is that my opener is usually good; I know what I want and I ask appropriately. Unfortunately those darn French come back at me looking for details or explaining some problem and I just stand there staring blankly. Do they really have to answer back? On this occasion there were only two pains aux raisins, not three and would I like something else instead; but it might have been "You horrible Paddy, stop murdering our language". And there is a contrast with Amsterdam. In Amsterdam they thank you for coming, in Paris they correct your pronunciation.

The Musée Picasso is excellent. I've been to the one in Barcelona, which emphasises his early years; this covers a lot of his mature work, particularly his sculptures. I wandered very happily for a couple of hours before heading off for Pompidou.

I came out and felt I owed it to my body to get some vitamins and so bought and drank a loathsome fruit drink. Don't do this to yourself, just buy orange.

There was a bulldog swimming around the fountain at the George Pompidou Centre when I arrived. It would jump out and then back in again, paddling around like a clumsy, brown shark. Dogs, you see are everywhere, as is the dirt that goes with them. Altman tried to make a joke of this in his "Pret-a-porter", but there's nothing funny about stepping in crap. My observation for what it's worth is the ubiquity of burst water mains. Everywhere water's running along the gutters. Water is precious afterall, and Paris likes to show off its wealth.

Immediately outside the Center, some Mongolian musicians were fighting with a Hungarian harpist for change. The place was buzzing.

Last time I was in Paris the Pompidou Centre was closed for renovations. Although it was open today, renovations are still going on on the fifth floor, the home of the main collection. At least, they had a wonderful, non-commercial aircraft exhibition on, and one right down my alley; film in art. Everything from Man Ray to Len Lye to Stan Brakhage. It was excellent. A word of advice though for the museum goer. Never, never go into a large museum, no matter how full you feel without having had lunch. I had one last pain aux raisins in my pocket and kept tearing off little mouthfuls and trying to eat them without being noticed. There were a number of sofas with rugs draped over them for visitors use, each one blocking the view of the one behind, so I sat on the back seat and tried to eat for a while.

When I left I thought I'd give the Rough Guide recommendation another go. Before I had had trouble finding the Boulevard in question, despite the fact it is 70 feet away from my hotel. That's the thing about Paris maps etc., they leave out streets and mislead you on distances. And then a street will suddenly branch off at a 45 degree angle and you find yourself on some other road you never wanted. This time around, number 3 Boulevard Richard Lenoir was at the other end from which I started and it took me 20 minutes to get by 50 buildings (each one a block in itself). The restaurant at the end looked okay, but was closed for another half an hour. I waited.

Was it worth the wait? It looked impressive internally. I felt a little out of place in my t-shirt and jeans. The wine too, the house Bordeaux, was lovely. Then the starter of sardines was delicious. They brought out the aubergine stuffed with lamb mince. Delightful to look at, but the mince was cold. Aubergine hot on the outside, mince cold on the inside; microwaved. I was going to send it back, but just couldn't be bothered. And I had been enjoying it so much. I didn't have as much yen for the chocolate and orange gateau, though it was lovely. The contrast with the night before (for a meal of the same price) was as black to white, but they still had to ruin it.

According to the Rough Guide the Museum of Cinema near the Trocadero showed old classics all the time. I headed up there and was greeted with a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower. As the gathered crowd watched the Tower suddenly erupted in flashing lights, like camera flashes. As well I was there then, though there Museum of Cinema was closed and there were no screenings going on. I wandered back to my room, disappointed. In a city of cinemas, I couldn't find one.

For that matter the movie I wanted to see Michel Gondry's,"The Science of Dreams", was in English and French which meant the French bits would stay that way while the only the English bits would be subtitled (normally an English language movie is shown in English with French subtitles). My second choice, "Paris, je t'aime", an anthology piece with directors such as the Coens and Wes Craven, also suffered from this split language problem. When I got back to my room, I did some more research online. Gilliam's new film, "Tideland", which some were calling his best since "Brazil" while others were ridiculing, and which had been passed over for distribution in Ireland, was on in the 6th arondissement (city zone) and so was near an Irish bar, Coolin's I felt like visiting. I made my plans to go there Sunday night.

Another disappointment was caused by a poster for a rock festival on the subway wall. Apparently that very day, probably at that very hour, Radiohead and Beck were headlining a gig in the city, "Rock en Seine". There I was in the right city, on the right day, missing two of my favourite acts.

I got up late on Sunday, but determined to go to the Musée D'Orsay. First though I had some wonderful Moules a la Mariniere in a Belgian family restaurant. The fish soup starter was bland, but those mussels in wine were wonderful.

I got a metro to Chatelet and began walking across the Ile de la Cité. There are some occasions that make you question the nature of the universe and this was one of them. Seven years back I met a South African friend of mine on the Greek island of Paros. I hadn't seen her in those seven years, but the day before I happened to wonder if she was still going to Greece (it was a tradition with her) and would she be there this year. This morning, however, she wasn't in Greece, because she was on a bridge in Paris taking pictures with friends. How does that happen? Unfortunately she was flying out the next day and was occupied that day, but we swapped addresses etc. and wondered at it all.

At 3.20 there was a large queue for the Musée D'Orsay outside, inside and everywhere. I still managed to get in in 15 minutes. Seeing as it was closed on Monday, this was my only chance to get in, even though I'd only have around two hours. It's a bit all over the place and Monet bores me a little, but it is a marvellous collection. There was a special series of exhibitions too, one on Rodin and Carriere (who gets repetitive with all his misty, out of focus paintings), another on a Danish artist called Willumsen. Despite some pretentiousness, the Willumsen was pretty spectacular. "After the Storm 1 and 2" were really powerful (one of which was on a cd I had of music by Nielsen, coincidentally his friend), and a painting of kids playing on a beach is fantastic. Anyhow, I ran around trying to get as much in as I could, but they were closing halls at 5.30 and try as I might they wouldn't let me loiter.

I hunted down the Irish bar, Coolin's. They had a stack of "Irish Independents" (strange, but reading Ronan Farren's review of Updike's latest reminded me of how much I hate that paper and the Ireland it represents) by the door and all the staff were Irish students. One guy, Ronan, was studying Journalism in DIT and was heading home the next day. He came in bearing bad news, Dublin had just been beaten by a point by Mayo. I am not Gaelic fan, but my heart dropped a little at the news. In contrast, a girl from Laois was fairly ecstatic. I hung around chatting, drinking, doing the crossword until I had to set off for my movie. Some of the staff were going to a new bar set up by some guy who had worked in Coolin's, a Corcoran, called The Lollipop. I got directions and determined to go there after the movie.

There's none of the problem of heads in the way at the French cinema I was at. The screen is up too high, everyone has to crane their neck. French democracy, I suppose. As it was there were only 5 others in the cinema, a man in his late forties with a girl in her early twenties, a woman in her mid forties with a guy in his mid twenties, and a woman in her mid forties who I should have hooked up with to make it all rosy.

The movie itself, though better than "The Brothers Grimm", is a strange one. I had wanted to attend a script workshop in Edinburgh hosted by Tony Grisoni the scriptwriter of this, but it had been booked out. I'm still unsure what to make of "Tideland", but it is too long and I think too monotonous in its style. Gilliam uses the familiar skewed camera a little too frequently and right from the outset. I believe he should have started more realistically, almost clinical and then let the madness build as Jeliza Rose's perspective builds (probably just before Jeff Bridges takes his 'trip to the ocean'). It's hard to really care when you're being bludgeoned with strangeness from the start. Memorable though.

At midnight I walked to The Lollipop and then past The Lollipop. There was no one there except a few of the staff from Coolin's, obviously well on. Tired as I was, I wasn't going to intrude and so I just got the last metro.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Just a little taster.

Ou est le...? Ah, forget it, I've found it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

All has changed since Amsterdam. This morning it rained. It really, really rained. My, how it rained. The 100 degree woman's ark would have come in handy. The trams were like barges on the flooded streets; even the canals were drier. And the wet kept falling like heavy electricity on our heads. I was drenched just crossing the road from the tram to the station (unfortunately Mac in a Sac couldn't take the rucksack). But I got there with an hour to spare.

The rain accompanied me to Brussels. Behind me a girl began throwing up soon out of Amsterdam and continued to do so for quite a while. It sounded like rain spilling from a drainpipe interspersed with coughing.Goodness knows where it went. I presume it went into the bin beside the seat. If so the lid kept it contained for the most part, though occasionally the glorious stench wafted forward. Not really conducive to consuming orange juice and waffle (a waffle filled with sugar like hailstones). I began sympathising with her, but ended up loathing her.

The train from Brussels to Paris was a bit more stylish, but with less room. I dozed most of the journey. When I arrived I walked the 2km or so to the hotel in very hot weather (no rain here!), so I may be able to manage the monster after all.

I have begun reading Thomas Pynchon's, "Gravity's Rainbow". It starts off seeming like some Third World War account of nuclear armageddon, but it's actually set at the end of the Second World War. Curiouser and curiouser.

Another day's work for Mac in a Sac, I fear. I awoke to the sound of thunder and it's raining fairly heavily out there.

Had another fabulous meal in that Chinese last night; fried crab with ginger and onions in oyster sauce. Foolishly with my Western bias, I half thought the crab would come in batter or something. No such sacrilege! Crab pieces in the shell cooked by frying. Delicious, big portions and easy on the wallet. The name of the place is New King, if you're looking for it. It's always packed, so I got put initially at a table with a Dutch couple. It was their favourite too.

A few drinks in Leidseplein, but I was on my own so back to pack a little. I'll finish that after breakfast. Then off to Paris.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

It began with rain, but ended up something of a scorcher, though I wish I could say the same for my museum visits.

Firstly I got my accommodation settled. My only remaining problem was to get there. As the Modern Art Museum (Stedelijk Museum) is now located near Central Station, I thought I'd drop in first to check up on trains to Paris. There's no open information booth at all for international journeys, instead you have to collect a numbered ticket and await your turn in a USIT like office. Thankfully I didn't have long to wait and the upshot was that there were no direct trains, I'd have to stop in Brussels, I could book there and then without my Interrail ticket and it would cost 14 euro for a reservation fee. Sweet. At first I thought Mr Information Man said 40 euro (I still think he did), but he wrote 14 and that was fine by me. I'm off tomorrow at 11.20.

I came out to more rain, though luckily this time I had MAC IN A SAC! Saved! Lucky too, because the new museum is not immediately obvious. From the map it appears to be right beside the station, but it's hidden a little. It's camouflaged still more by it's "Office Block" disguise. I'm surprised anyone finds it. I'm surprised anyone would want to. The exhibits are only on the 3rd and 2nd floors and after going all that way to see the Chagalls and Klees etc., it turned out this was a restricted selection showing nothing earlier than 1968. What's more the bulk of the exhibition (the third floor being half empty) was taken up with a show on commerical aircraft! Now I did find one or two things of interest (drawings of a proposed mid-Atlantic airport/island for transatlantic crossings in the 30's, for instance), but by and large this was a big disappointment. There were a series of very interesting "movies" by Saskia Olde Wolbers that looked like computer generated works, but were actually done using models in an aquarium. It's strange, but despite being pieces by a Dutch artist, being shown in a Dutch gallery, the narrations were all in English. (By the way, Sean, I missed your call while watching these.)

Anyhow when I got out the sun was splitting the gables and I got a crowded tram back to the hotel.

Had a fantastic meal last night; octopus and squid in oyster sauce and plenty of it. None of your Scottish portions! Then "Brazil" was on. Great movie, especially De Niro as a plumber terrorist.

Looks like it's raining today. I haven't sorted out my next destination yet, so I have to get down to that now. Probably Paris, but accommodation will be a problem, I'd imagine.

The whole of Amsterdam seems to be under renovation. First the Rijksmuseum, then yesterday the top floor of the Van Gogh Museum and now I learn that the Modern Art Gallery, that should be just round the corner from me, has been moved to Central Station due to renovations. Yeesh!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I have just been to the Van Gogh Museum and a far more satisfying experience it was too. Starting with the ground floor and those artists that had an influence on Van Gogh, you can see at a glance you are dealing with a very high standard of art. Corbet, Cezanne, Breton, Millet etc., are all very well represented; even the Monet pieces aren't the usual set of flower pictures. At the moment though the museum is also hosting an exhibition of Japanese art (Van Gogh was greatly interested in it, had a big collection and indeed copied a lot of works). I viewed this before getting on the the main Van Gogh pieces, though it had it's fair share of his works too, the ones very much influenced by the East. Fabulous stuff, though I have to confess to having been more struck by his work than the Japanese, at least initially. I'm not big into my Japanese ceramics, but even I had to admit some of the vases on display, Meiji work (from 1868 to 1912), were stunning.

A few new names cropped up that intrigued me, such as Maurice Denis and the Prophets (sounds like a 60's band). Denis's work was simple, but effective; drawing on Japanese drawing and created in the early 1890's, it was very refreshing stuff. Really shocking though was to see the whole beginnings of comic book art unfolding before me. At first one piece being exhibited, "Moulin Rouge - La Goulue" by Toulouse-Lautrec got me thinking, but then I saw a collection of prints from 1833(!) by the Japanese artist, Hiroshige; "Famous Views on the 53 Stations along the Tokaido". To my eyes it was all there, the comic book art of the 30's, Tintin, and even more recent stuff. They even had panels for the descriptive text. I'm probably over-stating the case, but cool stuff.

Then on to Van Gogh. I'm not going to repeat what everyone else has said, though I was surprised a few times by his messed up sense of perspective. Deliberate or not, it sometimes detracted from some of the pictures. However, I loved "The Potato Eaters", even with the mistakes. The later the work the better he got, a collection of Millais copies standing out for me. I have seen a few "Sunflowers" around the world and wondered what the story was. Apparently he painted them for Gaugin and there are five works left, three with a yellow background, two with a blue. One was there, of course, but I preferred the self-portraits, the orchards, the fields etc..

Of course, I went too late and only had 2 hours before they kicked me out.

My laundry just came back so the odour alert is over. This hotel is pretty good, and, despite being in an expensive neighbourhood, is pretty cheap. Queing for galleries can be pretty crazy here (though nothing so horrible as my 6 hour wait for the Uffizi, I'll wager), so I was pretty happy when the hotel offered to sell me a ticket for the Rijksmuseum here rather than queue up. It got me right in without any hassle.

The Rijksmuseum is Amsterdam's main gallery and, of necessity, is a disappointment. The problem is not what's in it, but what's not; everything! The museum is being renovated and when completed will be huge, rivalling the Louvre. Unfortunately that won't be until 2008. In the meantime a selection of masterpieces (Hals, Vermeer and Rembrandt mostly) is being displayed in the Philips Wing, a much smaller venue. Don't get me wrong, it's worth seeing, but it's more like an appetiser than anything substantial and you just know you're missing the main course.

So yeah, yeah, Rembrandt's a genius, but funnily enough, he is. He seems to have mastered everything (a selection of his drawings is excellent) and at times he reminded me of Tintoretto with the broad brushstrokes etc.. In general though what struck me about the whole exhibition was the modernity of some of the pieces, principally those of Vermeer. He was a real genius! One piece, Vermeer's only street scene looks like it could have been done by Edward Hopper, while "Girl reading a Letter at an Open Window" is so delicately lit as to be sublime. His most celebrated picture on display, kind of like his "The Night Watch" (the Rembrandt everyone seemed to want to see; I preferred his other work, especially "The Jewish Bride" with the paint so thick it's almost 3-D), was "The Milk Maid". Now that was worthy of celebration. Vermeer rules (and there's one in the National Gallery of Ireland).

For lunch I had a croque madame, that is a croque monsieur with a fried egg on top. Not bad.

After lunch I went for a walk in the Vondel Park (ah, the old walk in the park after lunch). Really nice place and on my ramble I came across the Film Museum. They're running a De Niro retrospective and "Taxi Driver" is on tonight. There was an exhibition showing posters from all his movies which I browsed around. Funnily enough another of his movies, one that they didn't have a poster for and that they are not showing, but which is one of my favourites, "Brazil", is also on at the same time as "Taxi Driver" in another cinema. Might try to get along to that. De Niro really has gone downhill. Despite one or two exceptions, I think it all started with "Guilty by Suspicion".

I'm going to try the Van Gogh Museum in a little while.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

First thing to do when you arrive anywhere is get your bearings. So it was out with the Rough Guide then a trip to the local ticket office at Stadschouwburg. Unfortunately all the free English guides were gone so I bought a "Day to Day" and began to wander. Right next door though was a fantastic little film bookstore. If the monster weren't so heavy I'm telling you there were one or two nice big volumes there I'd have bought.

Amsterdam is very much the tourist town and like the Mediterranean, everything is printed in several languages, usually Dutch, German, French and English. The city itself is picturesque enough, with the canals and all those pedestrian walkways. Having said that between the trams and the bicycles coming at you from all directions (and the occasional car on the pavement), it's a wonder many are not killed. They're worse than the Italian moped kids in Rome. And then there are all those tall, slim blonde women with long flowing hair bicycling everywhere. It's very disconcerting.

It had been suggested that a good way to get one's bearings in Amsterdam is to get on the canal, or rather a barge and travel around the canals. This is what I did though truthfully once you've seen one step gable, you've seen them all. The tour basically comprised of a number of descriptions in multiple languages along the following lines, "On your left, houses 712 to 718 were owned by rich merchants in the Seventeenth Century" or "On your right, houses 840 to 846 were owned by rich merchants in the Seventeenth Century". I think quite a lot of houses were owned by rich merchants in the Seventeenth Century. Curiously the English translation came last and usually ended up being in sync with our passing the building in question.

Dinner time. I was attracted to an Argentinian steak house and went in hoping for the best. I have a strange suspicion though that they thought that I was English and that they still held a grudge over the Falklands. I wasn't exactly served quickly. Although the onion soup was nice, the steak was a little on the small side (though nice and rare). I really only enjoyed the ice cream and coffee. An hour and a half (or more) later I escaped.

Now I am sorry to the offended, but when in Amsterdam there is one place that well, you really have to see. So I took an after dinner stroll to the funnily lit district to do a little window shopping. Real window shopping; I did not sample any wares. HONEST. As it was, the place was crowded with grannies, students and (what embarrassed me a little) families; momma, poppa and the two kids type families. Quite a lot of those ooh-ing and ah-ing over the dildoes. Other conspicuous personages were the African guys who came up whispering each a different line(!); coke, charlie, exstacy. And as to the ladies, I have never been so popular! They all wanted me; isn't that strange? Though none of your tall, slim blonde cyclists here! It seemed to me they were either African or East European and I felt just a twinge of sadness about the whole thing. It was so like some carnival sideshow with everyone pushed on to the outside of the pavement, keeping a bit of distance, but always with an eye on what was on show. Then every so often as you walked by there would be a click of a door closing and a curtain would swish closed. And then there were those other rooms where the curtain wasn't shut, but there was no red light, rooms with half eaten meals and ashtrays on the table, linoleum on the floor, flourescent light beaming from a hall. Presumably the common areas before going to work. I suppose there is any element of hypocrisy here on my part, but I did say "just a twinge of sadness". Sad or not, I confess to gawking with the rest of them.

One thing I seem to always mess up is getting a bottle of water for the room. I hate bathroom tap water and like to have a drink of a non-alcoholic variety handy. Unfortunately I get my bus, tram, whatever and then fail to find a shop that sells it. Same story this time. My hotel is in a well-to-do area very near the Van Gogh Museum and though there are plenty of closed shops with Gucci in the window (still window shopping), there are no newsagents with bottles of water. Just have to settle for a cup of bathroom water tea.

I have a tonne of laundry the hotel said they would do, but they haven't taken it yet. Things are going to get smelly!

Just got in to Amsterdam. The monster tried to kill me, but I managed to get it to the hotel without serious injury. The room's nice (ensuite unlike the Edinburgh shared facilities) and the Internet's free so blogging will continue apace.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Today has been biblical. I went through a flood, encountered a man memorising Ecclesiasticus and then met God! And the day wasn't even over!

One thing I have regretted over the last few days has been the lack of theatre I have attended. i tried to redress the balance today by going to "The Unsinkable Clerk". Dreadful title, but in the "Skinnyfest", a free review guide, it was highly recommended. Rightfully so. Mr Plumbly wakes up one morning to find his orderly existence thrown out of kilter by an unexpected flood. He encounters Poseidon, then Jonah (who sticks around), is 'saved' by a ghost ship, escapes sirens before finding his Paradise island. The cast of hundreds is actually comprised of only two and in a very pantomimic way, they do an excellent job. you have to feel for poor old Plumbly who really does like the mundane life (or thinks he does). The play ends on as strange a note as the play demands. Strange, but very entertaining.

Looking through the daily guide published by The Guardian, I saw that I could make "Fahrenheit 451", an adaptation by Ray Bradbury of his own novel. I loved the film, and the play had been reviewed favourably, so I gave it a shot. Unfortunately there was much shouting masquerading as emotion and given the simplicity of Truffaut's film version, I found this a little cluttered. For those of you unfamiliar with this great story, it tells of a (near) future time where books are banned and Firemen, rather than put out fires, set books alight. One fireman gets curious.... It is a great story, but I wasn't jumping up and down about the performance. Anyhow without giving too much away (except the ending), he takes a bit of a shine to the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Interesting.

Now we come to the event of the whole festival, well almost. First I managed to get a ticket for "Dr Ledbetter's Experiment". One left. As it happens I already had a film ticket for the same time slot, but I wasn't looking forward to the film ('The Treatment') and as a horror buff, I was curious about the play and the venue (the location of all those body autopsies that kept Burke and Hare in business). So sorry, but that took priority. Nevertheless I still had to go to the cinema to attend a discussion by two game developers (Velvetelvis) about digital convergence, particularly with respect to movies and games. I was running a little late, but managed to get out there with ten minutes to spare. As i walked to the entrance a woman got out of a black taxi saying, "We're rushing for a film". She was followed by a tall, balding man with a moustache and white hair. I guess I was in a dream world, because I managed to stand on my feet as I realised it was Sean Connery.

Now let me give you a little history. A long, long time ago I attended a script writing summer school whose patron was Gregory Peck. Gregory Peck, very old, but upright and still with that voice, came to visit us and give us a "conversation". He showed us clips from "Moby Dick" etc. and related anecdotes form Hollywood. Afterwards many got up and shook his hand. I was too shy. I felt he didn't deserve to be bothered by us, that it was enough to have been in his presence. Nevertheless it has bothered me ever since that I never got to shake the hand of the star of "The Omen" and "Spellbound".

That's Sean Connery, honest!
Now I felt thoroughly ashamed of bothering Mr Connery, but the memory of Gregory Peck haunted me. Naturally my phone wouldn't switch to camera quick enough to catch a proper shot of him; he was storming through the foyer. He was obviously trying to get into the cinema before anyone noticed who he was. Nevertheless, I ran up and got right beside him as he strode (me running still). He looked very stressed, well okay, annoyed and he is very intimidating (I am short, but he is TALL). Nevertheless I had to say the corniest, stupidest thing I could honestly say; "Mr Connery, I just wanted to thank you for all those films over the years". He gave me a slight side glance. I didn't know if he was going to ignore me or flatten me. He gave a gruff, under the breath, "Thank you" and strode on. I didn't have the heart to bother the man any more, but I found myself shaking like a leaf. I have met celebrities in the past and really they don't faze me one bit; they're just people. Some of them (like Terry Gilliam) I knew I'd like to chat to some more, but as a comrade in arms. Meeting Connery was like meeting God, and not the New Testament version either. No, he was definitely of the Old Testament variety, the smiting Sodom and Gomorrah and deadly plagues and stuff variety. Yet that was definitely a moment I will never forget. I thank God (the other One) that all my ticket buying etc. conspired to get me there at just the right moment.

After that of course everything was a let down. The Digital discussion, full of references to "The Matrix" etc., was interesting without being mindblowing. Only one of the two expected turned up, but Rosanna Sun was more than equal to the task. Her big bit of news was that she had just had a meeting with Steven Spielberg. I wanted to shout out, "So what! I just met Connery!" I didn't. I got my head back together. They raised the topic of 'machinemas', films made within game environments by game players, the most famous being ones using "Halo" and "Blues against Reds". A guy in work had told me about these months ago. You're on the ball, Niall! (That Niall, not me.)

Then I went to "Dr Ledbetter", and, yes, he could have done better! Everyone must wear a set of headphones as they are led around the Medical Faculty of Edinburgh University. The actor's words and thoughts comes straight to your ears. The venue is good (particularly the lecture hall), the acting is fine, but the story is very basic and the ending very tame. I kept on being put in mind of an old unscary, but interesting horror with Robert Stephens called "The Asphyx". That had a similar ending and was far more intelligent. Despite everything I found myself agreeing with The Guardian's review of the piece, a play without much point with only value as a ghost tour (and not too creepy at that). A shame.

All things considered though this festival city has been a real revelation and I'll miss it when I leave tomorrow.

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Getting into Filmhouse Screen 1 for "Scarecrow" was a challenge. Although nearly first in, choosing your seat is a very delicate matter, particularly when the slope of the seats is not steep enough (as here) to prevent heads getting in the way. I am very particular about my seat, middle middle and no tall people in front of me. So tragedy threatened when a big guy appeared at the end of the row in front. He made his way down and sat, thankfully, in the seat to the right side of the one in front of me. This was very good as few people will sit deliberately right next to another if they can help it. Sure enough two short guys appeared in that row too and sat a space away from him, to my left. The seat in front was empty and short guys inhabited one side; as good as I could have hoped for. Unfortunately because the film was sold out everyone was asked to budge up. Would I get tall (disaster!) or short (damage limitation)? My stars were shining and the little guy kept my view reasonable. Luckily.

For all the build up, "Scarecrow" really didn't disappoint. An authentic neglected masterpiece and Pacino's "Midnight Cowboy". It should be said though that this is very much a buddy movie, and Hackman is every bit as good. My one reservation is actually with the cinematography although that may have been just the print (a little washed out). There again though the opening shot is stunning and the shots on the road are beautiful. Why it hasn't been resurrected before now is a complete mystery. Easily as good as most of the more well known classics of the seventies.

The big word with the festival is "ticket". If you don't have one, you're out. A lot of what I want to see tomorrow is booked out, such as the Irish "Dr Ledbetter's Experiment" in the Medical Faculty, recommended mostly for the venue. In the case of such events, you just have to turn up at the venue on the night or earlier and try. That brought me to the Assembly Rooms enquiring about a play tomorrow. While at the box office I saw a notice up for "Best of the Fest" hosted by Ed Byrne at midnight. Surprisingly there were some tickets left so I gave it a shot.

Next up though was the Australian comedian, Wil Anderson. He was voted best newcomer last year, but is apparently well established and regarded in Oz. I got there early and got a nod from him as he came out of the venue. He was more than willing to engage with his audience and when the act before him ran over, he came out to entertain the queue. He seems like a genuinely nice bloke. He's definitely talented, and next to David Kay, the show was the funniest single act I've seen yet. And the night wasn't over.

I went back to the Assembly Rooms and joined the queue which was already long half an hour before the show. Again I was near the front and got a seat right in front of the mike, in the second row. I only realised the stupidity of my choice after there was no hope of an alternative. Luckily the front row took most of the flack.

Ed Byrne was very professional and funny. The other four acts varied, Adam Hills, yet another Aussie, being probably the best. Hills was very well up on Ireland, particularly the child rape law fiasco and we came out a little badly. Still in that case we deserve it.

The Swedish Chef, making chocolate "moose"Causing tensions!Here's one for the Book of Coincidences; both Aussies brought up the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. Spooky! Well, both being Australian, one or the other probably went to the other's show and got a good idea on the other's theme. They had different spins, Anderson wanted the world to wage war on Sweden, Hills was disappointed the Swedish national anthem wasn't the Hurdy Gurdy song.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

I stayed in this morning, deciding to read, rest and write this. I apologise in advance (and retrospectively) for all my reviewing etc.. I was going to try to separate it out from everything else, probably with headings, but on second thoughts, everything is too bound up together. Sorry.

Just finished "Franny and Zooey". Salinger is a master of his craft and particularly in the first 80 pages creates, truly CREATES, a family. Their eccentricity no doubt helps, but he does a very difficult job apparently effortlessly. However, when he deals with the meat and potatoes of the whole thing, the "religion" bit, I must confess to drifting a little. Sure, he's taking a spiritual approach to a very basic human problem, the need for meaning in our lives, but it's just too narrow for me. This is ironic given the breadth of reference he makes - he knows his topic inside and out - but like Franny, I end up feeling a little preached to by Zooey. To his credit, he never makes either Franny or Zooey seem pretentious, they are honest in their angst. Anyhow it's a masterclass for writers, but a little disappointing for readers.

The comedy night was a lot less funny than "The Best of Scotland" one the other night. There were some drunken hecklers and rather than use comedy (you know, like comedians do) to diffuse the situation, one of the comperes got aggressive and kept the aggression going. Some of the other comedians behaved the same way, particularly an American, Sean Collins, who was particularly nasty. I cringed a little. Eventually the bouncers kicked the guys out, but way to late in the day (I mean night). Still some comedians were actually funny and one, Phil Kay, born an Aussie, had a strong line in political humour I for one appreciated. Besides all that I bumped into a cute female London animation producer with aspirations to comic writing. Well, we chatted. C'est la vie.

I forced myself out of bed at 9.40 to benefit from some breakfast. I'm ashamed to say I'm proud of that.

At 12.30 I took a visit to the Cameo cinema for another Korean movie, this time, "The Red Shoes". On the negative side it draws heavily on Hideo Nakata's "Dark Water", with all the same tricks as almost every other Asian horror flick at this stage; the long haired female ghosts, the sudden noises, the elevator scene, the image on the video screen and the child with her back turned (which was of course taken from "Don't Look Now" in the first place). The story too is a little muddled. However, for all that you
know exactly what's coming it still scares the life out of you. There's even an Argento style killing with a broken sheet of glass. (Red shoes, Argento, Elaine are you listening!) Worth seeing for all that it's cliched.

Chiara had recommended the Ron Mueck exhibition, and there's also a lot of buzz about it here in the press, so I wandered along. Mueck makes intensely lifelike figures, realistic in every way save one; their size. They might be tiny (as in one infant figure) or huge (as in another, a baby measuring maybe 20 feet long). It's all very impressive and everyone was oohing and ahhing. Apparently Mueck puts each strand of body hair (they're usually nude figures) in by hand. Anyhow I suddenly realised I'd already seen one of his pieces ("Pregnant Woman") in Canberra (he's Australian). Whatever his effect on everyone else, I have my doubts about it all. The choice of subject and their stance (a wild man gripping a chair, for instance) is for me the main artistic aspect of these pieces. The extreme realism is for me a bit of a gimmick, especially when you learn he's coming from a special effects background. I'd much rather they were more obviously not flesh and blood and their size too is just off-putting. A bronze by Degas presents itself as an aesthetic object by it's very artificiality. Size is not enough to distance the viewer from the object in order to appreciate it as a presented artifact.

That's Gabriel Byrne, honest, it is!

There is more than one Dubliner in Edinburgh. At 5.30 I had my next screening, "Jindabyne", an adaptation of a story by Raymond Carver by the Australian director of "Lantana", Ray Lawrence. The star, Gabriel Byrne, put in an appearance to introduce the film. I felt like asking if he wanted to go for a pint; us Dubliners should stick together, you know.. As it happens the movie features one of his best ever performances; very understated, very real. The film is very powerful too. I think I've read the story (I certainly recognised it), but it expands it in a very broad, rich way.

I hadn't eaten much, but no time for such trivialities, there was a jazz quartet to see! The Antonio Forcione Quartet are comprised of a drummer, double bassist/flautist, cellist and Antonio, a pretty accomplished quitarist (apparently "probably the best acoustic guitar player in the world" according to Wikipedia). I am not a great jazz buff, but it was an excellent performance and I, getting there late, still managed to get a front row seat, granted right at the end, but fine by me.

By the way, Phil, Belle and Sebastian play here next week. According to the programme it's a four and a half hour set. Yeesh!

Anyhow thought I'd go home early tonight. The problem with all this is finding the time to plan what to do and then get the tickets etc.. I'm under no illusions, tomorrow will be the same, but for now I'll pretend I'm having an early night in preparation.

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