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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bring The 'Pagne

As predicted, I had to battle through a vicious hangover at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. Sort of surprisingly, my four friends also managed to do it. The allure of Champagne region and the French countryside was calling. We picked up our rental car, a kind of European version of a Toyota Corolla, and it was brand new. We were definitely the first people to drive it. It had about 15 km on it. Considering our physical states, we were in extraordinarily high spirits. We cranked up The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and hit the A4, the main highway east out of Paris.

As soon as we got off the A4 at exit 21 toward Epernay, we were at the mercy of the road signs and the directions culled from mapquest.fr. The streets were poorly marked, not to mention narrow, especially when we would pass through the small towns scattered throughout the Marne valley. The views, however, were breathtaking. Twice we pulled over to get out of the car and just take in the sights. Or maybe we pulled over because the combination of a hangover and twisting, hilly roads made us sick. I’m a little fuzzy on that point.

After an accidental detour through a scenic rural town, where we stopped to get some delicious pastry and directions, we finally found Epernay. All of the Champagne houses were closed for their lunch break when we got there, so we had to kill time until 2:30. We kind of staggered around town, trying to find a convenience store where we could buy Powerade (they don’t have Gatorade in France, as far as I can tell). It didn’t take long to realize that the amenities in Paris aren’t quite as plentiful in the countryside. We settled for a place that sold bottled water.

A side note about France: Every freaking store and restaurant sells the same selection of about four beverages (other than wine). Coca-Cola, Fanta, Orangina, water. If you want something else, good luck.

After a meal eaten in a scenic park near a pond that smelled really funky, it was time to visit the cellars. Our first visit was to Moet & Chandon, which is probably the best-known Champagne house. In front of the entrance, they have a statue of Dom Perignon, the monk who invented the Champagne method and who lent his name to the high-quality, expensive bubbly that rappers eschew in favor of the cooler-sounding Cristal.

We went inside to get our tickets for the tour for a very reasonable eight Euros. One of my friends, looking at the sign for tours, asked whether we should take the tour of the caves or the cellars, upon which the woman behind the counter kindly informed us that “caves” is French for “cellars.” We waited in a bourgeois drawing room decorated with portraits for a few minutes, then proceeded to watch a short (and extremely snooty) film about Moet and the making of Champagne. Then it was on to the “caves.”

France is in the middle of a brutal heat wave, so we eagerly welcomed the chill of the cellars. For some reason, we decided we wanted to look good while we visited Champagne houses, so we wore dress shirts and pants. That was really stupid of us. We ended up feeling far worse than we looked. Although we were told that the cellars would be cold and we should bring a sweater, we thought that they were the perfect temperature.

Unfortunately, we had to stay with our tour group inside the cellars, because beneath the stately Moet mansion, there are about 27 km (18 miles) of cellars. These cellars must house close to 20 million bottles of Champagne in various stages of aging. There are dozens of rooms off the main corridors that house upwards of 20,000 bottles each.

Our tour guide led us from stack of bottles to stack of bottles, telling us about the Champagne process. She didn’t talk too much about Moet specifically, and I got the impression that it was supposed to be clear to us that Moet is the Cadillac of Champagne houses. Mission accomplished there. I was blown away by their cellars.

Following the cellar tour, we went to their tasting room, where they poured us each a glass of Moet. Try to get one of those in the States for 10 bucks, even without the tour. Among my group, there was much toasting and high-fiving as we enjoyed our hard-earned Champagne (believe me, by getting up that morning, we earned it). Then it was on to the gift shop, where you could buy all kind of Moet and Dom paraphernalia, not to mention bottles of the stuff, the prices of which began to approach over 700 Euros. I bought a bottle of Dom. When am I ever going to have a chance to do it at the source again? It only set me back, um, 110 Euros. At least I get some of that back when I leave France via their tax rebate (and thanks to my International Economic Law class, I can tell you why).

It was pouring rain when we left Moet & Chandon (probably to the growers’ delight), but we had to hustle to the car so we could drive further down Avenue de Champagne to our other destination: Mercier.

My unsophisticated self had never heard of Mercier, but it quickly became apparent that if Moet & Chandon is the Bellagio of Champagne houses, then Mercier is New York New York. While Moet had you wait in a posh room that felt like a millionaire’s private gallery for their tour, Mercier had you wait in an atrium that housed the world’s largest barrel of wine (213,000 bottles worth, 20 tons empty, 16 years to build, FYI). Moet showed its introductory film in another luxurious room with a nice plasma TV; Mercier showed its film in a custom-built, three-screen theater. To get to Moet’s cellars, you walked down some stairs. To get to Mercier’s cellars, you rode down an elevator with a window that looked onto a model of a lush vineyard, then a small winemaker’s shop, and then a carved relief of cherubs holding bunches of grapes. Basically, Moet knows it’s the bomb and assumes you do too; Mercier wants desperately for you to think it’s the bomb.

The piece de resistance of the Mercier tour, though, was the tram that rode through the cellars. Instead of walking (as we did at Moet), we all piled into a tram that was guided by – get this – a laser reflected by a track on the ceiling. In fact, we were even warned by the tour guide not to take flash photographs toward the front of the tram because the flash might disrupt the laser. We, of course, completely ignored him, and it made no difference in the ride. I was secretly hoping the laser would suddenly go haywire and cause the tram to veer sharply into a rack of Champagne. We also made the obligatory references to Dr. Evil. “All I want is a tram through a Champagne cellar with a frickin’ laser beam; is that too much to ask?”

Mercier’s tour talked more about the company’s history than Moet’s did, and we learned that Eugene Mercier founded the place at the tender age of 20 and immediately began the Mercier tradition of gimmicks. He commissioned the giant wine barrel in the atrium for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris; it came in second place to the Eiffel Tower. He also hosted wine tastings for the Parisian elite – in a hot air balloon bearing the Mercier name high above the city. And his son arranged for the final stage of a car race to be held in Epernay – in the subterranean Mercier cellars, which are several kilometers long. Our tour guide, very proudly, asked us how many bottles we thought were broken during the race, and all five of us answered correctly: zero. Fool should have known better than to ask a bunch of law students a transparent trick question like that.

After the tasting (good, but no Moet, naturally), we went into Mercier’s gift shop, where I picked up a bottle for a mere 16.50 Euros. If I can find a sword anywhere, I’m going to give sabrage a shot – it’s an old French tradition of opening Champagne bottles with a saber. I looked up how to do it online, so I think I can handle it now. Besides, I don’t care so much about spilling a bottle of Mercier. The Dom, on the other hand, is going to stay as far away from swordplay as possible.

By that point, it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, in Europe, there are no restaurants open between lunchtime and dinnertime, and it was still only 5:00. Our options were to wait until 6 for a few places to open, drive back to Paris and eat there, or go to the Epernay McDonald’s. Since this was the only time I’ll ever be in Epernay (although I’d love to come back – it’s beautiful there and would be a sweet spot for a romantic vacation), I talked the group into waiting it out to get a true Epernay dinner, which ended up being at a very mediocre restaurant anyway, but it still beat McDonald’s.

Feeling much better after a couple meals and a couple glasses of Champagne, we piled back in the Corolla and drove (very, very fast) back to Paris. We rolled down the windows, threw on Guns N’ Roses’ greatest hits CD, and blasted “Paradise City.” And then we got back to the hotel and I slept for 12 hours.

Like Ice Cube said, I gotta say it was a good day.

After the 12-hour recovery period, we ventured out the next night to see The Faint and Bright Eyes in concert. I saw the Faint once before, at Cornell, when they opened for No Doubt, and they were pretty good. All I knew about Bright Eyes was that Conor Oberst is “critically acclaimed.” I’d never heard one of their songs, though. So basically, I was looking forward to seeing The Faint.

The venue, Le Trabendo, was a 700-person joint that was pretty cool – the stage was actually on the same level as most of the floor, except for a lowered pit area right in front of the stage. Plus, the beers there were only four Euros. Unfortunately, like most of Paris, it was not air conditioned.

The Faint got on stage and absolutely rocked the place. They had a great stage presence and their songs had really likeable grooves – extremely up tempo. The crowd, which politely applauded when they took the stage, really got into them, yelling and cheering and jumping around in front. I’ve rarely seen an opening act get such a reception. Most impressively, though, was the video screen projected behind the band as it played. The images on screen were synced perfectly with the music.

At one point, the singer said, “Do you want to hear a political song?” While we were half worried that as Americans, we were about to get our asses kicked, the crowd cheered for the song. The band then launched into a song whose words I couldn’t understand. What was very clear, though, were the pictures on the screen – shots of various CNN and Fox News anchors with their mouths altered so that they were singing the lyrics along with the singer. Occasionally their names would be shown on screen – upside down. And the ticker scrolled news items that basically portrayed America as an imperialist bully. Then, suddenly, they got to the only word of the song that I understood – “paranoia.” They repeated it over and over as it flashed on the screen in front of the news personality. The crowd loved it.

After an awesome set like the one The Faint played, it was going to be hard for Bright Eyes to top it. And they didn’t. They were alright, but really, I just couldn’t get into the mood – it was the musical equivalent of chugging a case of Red Bull and following it with NyQuil. It didn’t matter, though. I felt like I got my money’s worth from just The Faint. I’d go see them again in a second. And I think I’m going to get their album.

Oh, and eventually, I’ll get around to seeing things like The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

An American Randy Wolf Fan In Paris

I see, from abroad, that the Phillies’ resurgence, as usual, was a mere illusion, as they again tumble away from first place. I haven’t been following too closely – basically, I’m sticking with scores and standings – but since the same thing happens every year, I feel like I’m back in Philly anyway.

Today I have an exam on international economic law, which pretty much killed yesterday as a sightseeing day. We’ve been extremely busy since arriving in Paris, so I haven’t had a chance to see as much as a typical tourist might.

On Tuesday, we took a day trip to Brussels where we visited the European Union. More importantly, I had the Belgian trifecta – waffles, fries, and beer. All three: delicious. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to head over to their museum to see a favorite painting of mine (Rene Magritte’s The Surprise Answer). The museum closed at 5 (what kind of museum closes at 5?), so we were still tied up with edumacational stuff.

I have had the chance to visit the Champs Elysses, the Arc de Triomphe (twice), and the Eiffel Tower (although I didn’t go up it yet). We also saw a Monet museum (don’t remember the exact name of the place), which was near the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where we heard Ambassador Connie Morella speak. We also visited the International Chamber of Commerce’s Court of Arbitration.

Basically, it’s been class, visits to international institutions, and a little bit of sightseeing. There’s been a little bit of Paris nightlife, too – last night we visited the Bastille neighborhood, where we found a restaurant with a huge beer list down the street from the karaoke bar.

The karaoke bar was the scene of one of the funnier moments of the trip. One of my friends (after leading the entire bar in a rendition of “I Love Rock And Roll”) began talking to an attractive Frenchwoman. After an extended conversation, she signed the two of them up to sing “Barbie Girl,” by Aqua. She insisted on Europop, I suppose. Suddenly, my friend tells me, “There’s a ring on her finger. Does that mean she’s engaged?”

To find out, I asked her friend, as casually as I could, “In France, do you have the custom with the ring on the fourth finger?” To which she responded, “Oh, her? She’s engaged.”

After a minute of consultation with each other, my friend and I decided, without any adieux, to turn around and literally run out of the bar. And we did. Hey, the metro was about to shut down for the night. Plus, he didn’t want to sing “Barbie Girl.”

Anyway, the weekend should be quite interesting. Following the exam today, there is an elegant dinner cruise on the Seine, followed by a night of clubbing. Then, we’ll be dragging our hungover selves out of bed at 9 a.m. tomorrow, when we’ll pick up a rental Peugeot from Hertz and drive it 140 km to Epernay – home of Moet & Chandon and a number of other Champagne houses. It could be the day trip of a lifetime.

For a good omen, I’m going to wear my Jim Thome jersey while I take my test today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Paris Hilton, It Ain't

The hotel, that is.

Here in Paris, our gang of law students is staying at the Citadines Apart'hotel at Place d'Italie. We stayed at a Citadines in London (it's a European chain), so we were familiar with the setup - small rooms, no maid service, but an apartment-style joint for a week (kitchen, cooking tools, etc.). The Citadines at Trafalgar Square was a pretty good setup, though - despite the cramped quarters, nobody really complained much.

In Paris, it's a whole new (worse) story. We arrived via bus from the train station after our ride through the Chunnel. With 60 people rolling up to check in, there was one person staffing the desk (it was a Sunday, true, but come on, we had reservations - they knew we were coming). It was a complete zoo checking in - people calling out names, handing out room keys, and fighting through crowds of angry students and luggage. Worst of all was the elevator - one of the two elevators in the joint is broken, and elevators in Europe are small to begin with. This meant that only four people could ride up at a time with their bags, and with each ride taking a few minutes, the wait for the elevator ended up being nearly an hour for people like me at the back of the crowd (I had strolled across the street to get a soda rather than fight through the crowd). Finally I decided to carry my bags, which weighed a total of about 100 pounds, up five flights of stairs to my room. I don't think I'm qualified to be a fireman.

We quickly found out that the trouble with the hotel didn't end there. The room was even smaller than that in London (although with some clever furniture rearranging, we made some space). My bed is slightly U-shaped, so I roll into the center no matter where I lay. And worst of all, you can't make outgoing international calls from the rooms, leading to a line nearly a dozen deep for the pay phones in the lobby. There's also no breakfast served at this hotel like there was in London. At least on the plus side, there are a few TV stations here that show, shall we say, liberated programming.

Paris itself, at least based on my first walk through, seemed much dirtier than London, and I was quickly starting to question how this place became seen as such a romantic city. (The answer to the question, of course, is to travel like a high roller - don't take the Metro, stay in the medieval castle that's been converted into a sweet hotel, and eat at the 40-euros-an-entree places.) We went over to the Latin Quarter and saw Notre Dame, which was pretty impressive. Then we walked around to find dinner. We settled on a pizzeria because we figured 10 euro for a pizza was reasonable, but when we looked at the menu and saw 4.50 Cokes (that's over $5 US), we couldn't justify paying that (and they don't do tap water here). We instead found a sandwich shop and picked up baguettes and sodas for about five euros. Then we just wandered around the Latin Quarter eating them. That's the way to roll.

Today we did some classwork, including reports on EU countries. (We were Sweden. I passed on the wisdom that we had a general value added tax of 25%, but that for food it was 12%, and for books and other cultural items it was 6%, because "we want to promote eating and reading.") It got to be pretty tedious at the end when we had to listen to the lesser countries like Cyprus present, but I guess that's how the real EU is, too. After that, I waited in line for about an hour and 45 minutes to change my train ticket to Brussels so I could be on the right train. (While I waited, I had a Royal with Cheese from McDonald's to pay homage to Pulp Fiction.) I had to get new tickets because mine weren't exchangeable or refundable. The new train tickets ended up costing me (sorry, Dad - I'm trying to be frugal) 107.50 euros. The French rail system has unquestionably had its way with me.

Feeling abused by France at this point, I figured I'd go get some wine. Instead, I came across a couple classmates who were heading over to the Eiffel Tower. We checked it out, and it. Is. Freaking. Huge. It was the tallest building in the world for about 50 years until the Empire State Building was built in the '30s (take that, France!). The replica in Las Vegas probably is about as high as the second tier of the real deal. We didn't go up to the top - we figured we'd save that for nighttime.

Instead, we headed over to the Arc de Triomphe. As we came up the escalator from the Metro stop, suddenly the Arc appeared right before us. It was a pretty cool experience, so we went back down the escalator and rode up again, this time with cameras rolling. Then we stood in the middle of the Champs Elysees and took pictures while dodging traffic. Tickets to the top of the Arc were five euros for students, so we went for it.

It was so worth it.

First we found a museum, which we didn't expect, inside the Arc of Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Everything was in French, though, so we were kind of guessing at what we were looking at. Then we got to the top of the Arc. From there you can see straight down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre, and to the south was the Eiffel Tower. Then we turned around and saw the sun setting over Paris past the Grande Arche (the sun sets really late in Paris, especially this week, when the days are the longest of the year - sunset tomorrow is around 10 p.m.).

As the clock struck 10 - and I happened to be recording the view of the Eiffel Tower at this time - suddenly the Tower started sparkling with light. It was absolutely incredible. I filmed for a little bit, and then I just stood back and watched the tower. Then and there, 160 feet above the Champs Elysees, above the dirt and bustle of the city, for the first time since I've been in Paris, I finally relaxed and took it all in.

I suppose I could get to like this place after all.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Final Days In London

Some quick thoughts and impressions of my last few days in London:

Yesterday, I checked out Westminster Abbey and the British Museum. Westminster Abbey is a massive cathedral with beautiful architecture and stained-glass windows. Going there, I was most interested in seeing the famous burial sites of British royalty and other famous Brits. Shakespeare, I was told, was buried there.

Well, that's not quite true. Aside from past kings and queens and many other people of whom I had never heard, not many famous people are actually buried there. They're merely memorialized. Shakespeare, for instance, is buried in Stratford-on-Avon, which I sort of thought would be the case, although I was expecting to be mistaken. Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, and many others are also only memorialized there, but not buried. Charles Darwin is memorialized there, which is interesting, considering it's a church. Geoffrey Chaucer is probably the best-known non-king-or-other-British-leader actually buried there. So that was a little bit of a disappointment.

I should have spent more time admiring the architecture than I did looking for famous tombs, really. Had I known going in what I knew when I left, I would have done just that. The vaulted ceilings in some of the chapels are magnificent, and so are the stained-glass windows. I'd recommend focusing on that as you walk through the church instead of looking for Shakespeare's tomb. It would make the visit much more rewarding.

From Westminster Abbey, we went to the British Museum, which was absolutely massive. You could spend a week just looking at everything they have there. It's kind of like the Smithsonian of London. It became very clear that it was a collection acquired through centuries of world domination. At one point, you can stand at the end of a hallway and see rooms full of statues taken from ancient Egypt and Assyria. The Rosetta stone is there (it's much bigger than I thought it would be). All of the artifacts from foreign lands got me thinking about how maybe they should be displayed in their native countries.

Then I came across a room that displayed the entire frieze from the Parthenon. It was displayed very nicely, ringing a huge stone-walled room. But the Parthenon is still standing. It seemed really wrong to have the frieze in London, while the rest of the building is in Athens. Why not restore the frieze to the Parthenon? It was a little upsetting. So much of the museum's collection seems like it was obtained through glorified looting. It's a prime example of the old aphorism, "To the victors go the spoils."

I don't want to seem too down on the British Museum, though. It is still an amazing museum. The room with all the antique clocks is very impressive. There's also a big room about the history of money (sponsored by HSBC, of course). I had hoped to see the Magna Carta, but apparently it's no longer housed at the museum.

Today, I took the tube out to Wimbledon to see the All England Club. It's in a more suburban area of London, so I was glad to get a chance to see what that was like. As I walked to the Club, I was able to sneak a peek at the practice courts, where some players were hitting. Unfortunately, I didn't spot Maria Sharapova. The grounds themselves were closed off, so no tours were available (the week before Wimbledon is the worst time to visit - you can't see any matches, and they don't conduct tours). I checked out the Wimbledon museum, which had a very interesting display of tennis (lawn tennis, specifically) history. Then I went to the Centre Court Cafe, where I had the traditional strawberries and cream. Deee-licious. And really, really sweet - you're supposed to put sugar on it.

As I was walking back to the tube stop, I started hearing music coming from a nearby park. Curious, I went over to check it out. I stumbled across South Wimbledon Park, a huge neighborhood park filled with pickup soccer and volleyball games, frisbee players, sunbathers, and so on. Walking a little further, I found a large lake at the end of the park where people were canoeing. Then I found the source of the music - an athletic field, ringed by a track, with some stands. In the infield was some kind of field day/party. I'm not going to be able to fully explain it, but I'll try.

There were several teams, all decked out in matching t-shirts with team names that I think were supposed to be funny (one was "Charlotte's Secret"). These teams were competing in what I think were relay races, but instead of running around the track, they were climbing over and through various inflatable objects, kind of like those you might see at a kids' carnival. One, which the announcer called "the slippery slope," was a ramp that was covered with foam, and the contestants would run up one side and then bounce/slide down the other. Another was a pair inflatable tunnel-like things, through which the contestants crawled while carrying a four-foot long bowling pin. There was also plenty of drinking going on - the big hurdle normally used for steeplechase races was instead covered with empty beer bottles. It looked like a good time, even though I have no idea what it was. I didn't ask anyone, either - I prefer to not know and just enjoy the bizarre spectacle.

Well, now I'm off to pack up. Tomorrow we leave London for Paris via the Chunnel. The high in Paris tomorrow is 91 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course). It should be nice weather for our two-week stay there, although I'm hoping it doesn't stay that hot. I'm also hoping Paris won't be as expensive as London. Anyway, updates from France will be forthcoming.

Friday, June 17, 2005

On Art (An Uneducated Flow Of Thought)

What is art?

Going to the Tate Modern gallery today, I ended up in that time-honored debate with several of my new friends on this trip to Europe. It became clear, very quickly, that I was the member of the group who was extremely skeptical about modern art and its value as artwork.

Now, I am not qualified to judge art by any convention other than that of myself as the beholder. I don’t suppose that makes me any more or less qualified than you, or my friends with whom I went to the museum. Even the opinion of an art critic, who is paid to judge art because somebody has decided that he has the necessary body of knowledge to make such judgments carry more value, is ultimately no more valid than mine – only more influential.

Having said that, the claim I made as I entered Tate Modern was that art must be a representation of reality. As examples, I offered Renaissance art and impressionism. To the contrary, I said that painting a few black lines on a white canvas is not art. Of course, the counterargument quickly raised was that those black lines might be a representation of a roadway, and that the distinction I was making was merely between something I could not create – art – and something I could – the black lines, which I claimed was not art.

I tried to make some sort of distinction that would clarify what I meant. Surrealism, for example, is a distorted reality, but it is still comprised of elements of reality. (I’m thinking, for example, of Magritte’s nudes that are meant to be seen as faces. Again, forgive me for my inability to think of titles of the works.) Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, even, is a representation of reality, difficult as it may be to see through all the geometry. But his “ready-mades” – a urinal, for example – is not art to me (or at least to my stated theory of art). It is reality itself, not a representation of it.

Tate was featuring an exhibit of the work of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who was the subject of a recent biopic. We visited this exhibit first. Kahlo’s work is very interesting, drawing on some surrealist tendencies, and also using the elongated curves for which Modigliani is known (okay, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on that last one on my own, but I recognized it as soon as it was pointed out). The exhibit was very impressive, spanning her life’s work, from her early sketches when she first began to draw and paint, to her later days.

Here’s the thing: Frida Kahlo is most certainly an artist, and an extremely talented one at that. Her self-portraits make great use of shading and detail – one characteristic that struck me was how detailed her hair was represented, almost as though she had labored intensely on each strand. On the other hand, some of her early sketches, to me, were entirely unimpressive. They use symbols to represent reality, rather than trying to reproduce reality itself. For example, a bus in one of the sketches was shown as a rectangular object with rectangular windows and circular wheels, and not much more. It was akin to a symbol for a bus you might find on a street sign, but it didn’t look like an actual bus. And I thought, well, I could come up with something of comparable quality if you gave me a couple of hours. So here, I was confronted with a representation of reality that I could have created. Art? Well, it’s obviously by an artist. So I’m going to say it is. Does that mean I can create art? Logically, it does, although nobody would ever call me an artist. So is it the talent of the creator that makes something art, regardless of the creation itself?

On Tuesday, bored in class, I used MS Paint to draw a sketch of two of the professors on this trip. Is it art? You decide.



Now pretend that sketch is done on paper with grease pens, framed nicely but modestly, and hanging in a gallery? Now is it art? Is it more “art” than it was when you saw it on your screen?

Another piece of art that we saw at Tate Modern was a room in which seven images were projected around the walls of a room. Each image was a recorded loop of something like a corner of a basement, or a dirty patio, or something like that. Every now and then, something would move in one of the images – a cat walking through, a leaf blowing across, etc. The images were filmed in infrared and tinted various colors. Some were flipped so they were upside down. In the room played a steady stream of white noise. It was interesting, but was it art?

Before you say yes (if you were going to), consider this story. Later in the day, we went to take the Underground to Westminster. In the station, there was an incessant mechanical buzzing. One of my friends remarked on how annoying the noise was. I pointed out that it was just like the noise from the room with the projected images. Then I argued that here, in the Underground, the noise is considered irritating, but if I could have that noise played in an empty white room at Tate Modern, scores of people would sit in the room for minutes at a time and comment on the feelings it evoked. His response was that if that were the case – that an art gallery would feature such an exhibit – then I should go ahead and make it happen, then. To which I said that if I was already considered an “artist,” and claimed the noise was supposed to evoke something, I probably could make it happen.

Really, that wouldn’t be a bad way to earn a living – record the sound of some broken machinery, convince a wealthy patron that playing the sound in an empty room is a representation of the “broken machinery of government” or some other B.S., and have him buy my “art” for some exhibit. On the other hand, perhaps I’d feel guilty for fleecing the patron and wasting an entire room that could be devoted to Caravaggios and Magrittes.

Outside another room in Tate Modern, there was a sign describing the exhibit inside – a film that was supposed to be some sort of commentary on the fashion industry and the public’s obsession with it. The film was on a 16mm reel. I walked inside, expecting to find another image projected on a wall with people watching intently. Instead, I saw two museum employees around a 16mm projector, trying to get it to work. I thought it would have been brilliant had the artist intended the exhibit to appear like that – people would be constantly walking into the room expecting to see art – and they get two guys fumbling with a projector. To me, it was modern art, actively represented as a SNAFU. I don’t know if that’s art, but it provides a great commentary on modern art – probably better than whatever commentary the piece was supposed to make on fashion.

My friend, at one point, argued that by defining art as a representation of reality, I was limiting the scope of art. That’s quite possible. I responded, though, that if the scope of the definition of art is too broad, it lessens the value of calling something “art.” The Persistence Of Memory is art. Doesn’t it marginalize Dali’s talents to use the same term to describe a series of concentric circles drawn on a piece of cardboard hung on a wall? (By the way, I didn’t see any such piece of “art” today. But you probably believed that I had.)

My friend also made the point that what I was really doing was making a distinction not between “art” and “not art,” but rather “good art” and “bad art.” And I did agree with that, if only because my own definition fails me from time to time. Dale Chihuly’s beautiful works in glass, for instance, don’t always represent reality (although they often are recreations of flowers). I still would consider them art, though. At the same time, however, I would be extremely hesitant to consider my MS Paint sketches art, even though they are a representation of reality. Would my friend consider my sketches “bad art?”

Thomas Hirschhorn said that the greatest thing artwork can do is to make people think. Most of what I saw today at Tate Modern succeeded in that end. Simply making people think, though, doesn’t define artwork. A math problem makes you think. I have to conclude that I will probably never find a satisfactory definition of “art.” Perhaps, like Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, I just know it when I see it. (It isn’t a urinal.)

London Calling

Some more observations and thoughts from the other side of the pond...

One of the things that I find amusing about England is the labeling on some products. For example, I bought some shampoo here. On the back of my bottle of Head & Shoulders is a graph. On the X axis is the number of washes, running from 0-6. On the Y axis is “amount of dandruff,” which, as it approaches the X axis, is labeled as “less.”

So as I understand it, after six times using Head & Shoulders, I will have “less” dandruff. However, I can’t get any less than that. The line hits the X axis – it never goes below “less.” But, say someone else started with the amount of dandruff that I have after six washes. He can get “less” dandruff by using it six times.

It’s all too scientific for me. I need to see the raw data behind this graph. Are there people in a lab somewhere in Britain shampooing vigorously while guys in white lab coats look on?

***

I had the chance to visit the National Gallery, right across Trafalgar Square from our hotel. It’s a pretty impressive collection of art – all European – from the 13th to 20th century. Plenty of famous painters and styles are represented there – Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Raphael, Monet, Rubens, and so on. There were a few Caravaggios there, also. I’m always impressed by the realism in his work, ever since I saw his Medusa’s head painted on a shield in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (I’m getting the names of the paintings wrong, so bear with me. I just don’t remember them.) Anyway, there were several different paintings in the gallery depicting Salome being presented with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, but Caravaggio’s is the most vivid of them all. There was also a painting – I forget the title or the artist – which made amazing use of light in its depiction of a pretty bizarre and sick science experiment. A scientist was demonstrating what would happen to a cockatoo placed in a glass vessel connected to an air pump (the painting was called something like “Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”). Presumably, the painting captured the moment just before the vacuum created in the vessel led to the explosion of the cockatoo. Kind of sick, but the lighting is incredible.

***

One of the things I was most looking forward to when I visited London was seeing Weezer in concert. It wasn’t a disappointment.

The venue itself was incredible. Carling Brixton Academy, judging by its looks, is an old converted playhouse. There are detailed patterns and reliefs on the walls, and a big, wide stage and seating area. There’s a balcony upstairs, which I only saw from below. The seats have all been removed, so the downstairs area is entirely general admission, with a sloping floor that allows for a clear view from just about anywhere. The place probably holds about 4,000, although Weezer (surprisingly) didn’t sell it out. It was a nice touch that despite the building’s sponsorship by a British beer company, there weren’t ads all over the place. One sign that was entertaining was a “no crowd surfing” sign, which showed one stick figure being held up by three other stick figures, covered by the universal “no” symbol.

Weezer themselves played an excellent show – their setlist encompassed about half of the Blue Album, several songs off their new CD, and their hits from their albums in between. They finished the main set with “Undone – The Sweater Song,” and then returned for an encore of “Haunt You Every Day” from the new disc and “Hash Pipe.”

Rivers Cuomo, the eccentric lead singer, was strangely (well, this was actually expected) the least energetic person in the place. He’s taking his whole anti-social persona to a new level. No matter how fast the beat to a given song was, or how rocking a guitar riff was, Rivers stood there and played it with very little emotion. If you closed your eyes and listened to the power with which he sang, you’d imagine he’d be up there rocking out, but he was just standing there with an apparent indifference. The only time he did anything was at the very end of the show, when he held his guitar over his head and shook it to create a reverb effect. For a second I thought he would even throw it into the crowd, but that didn’t happen. It would have been sweet, though.

Despite the fact that Rivers didn’t show much energy, the crowd was very much into it, jumping up and down in front and even crowd surfing in spite of the signs warning against it. They also chanted for the band in a British accent, which was entertaining. “Wee-zeh! Wee-zeh!”

Another problem I had with the concert was that none of the t-shirts had tour dates on them, so I couldn't get one with "London, June 15" on it. I had to settle for one that says, "Weezer - rocking the bitches since 1994." Oh well.

Monday, June 13, 2005

From Cali To Philly To The Circus Of Piccadilly

Some quick initial impressions of London and my voyage here before I go to my first class session here.

The Toronto airport sucks. It took me an hour to get from one gate to another during my layover from Philly to London. I had to go through customs even though I wasn't leaving the airport, then I had to take a bus from terminal 3 to terminal 1, go through security again, then take another bus to a satellite terminal because the new international terminal is under construction.

Probably due to the airport sucking, Air Canada lost my bags. They should arrive today (it's already been over 24 hours since I arrived), but in the meantime I had to buy some essentials.

London is really frickin' expensive. Prices here are approximately equivalent for most things - i.e., a hamburger will cost you eight pounds, just like a hamburger in the States at a nice restaurant will cost eight dollars. The only thing is that a pound is equal to about 60 cents.

"Armitage Shanks," which is the name of a Green Day song, is apparently a British urinal manufacturer. I learned this in a bathroom at Heathrow. Just wanted to note that for the record.

Bars close at 11 p.m. here. That's pretty harsh. I guess I'll have to start my boozing sooner. The positive side is that I'll at least be able to wake up for the morning classes a little easier.

People driving on the left side of the road is freaking me out. One of my goals is not to get hit by a bus when I look the wrong way crossing a street here.

Note to international travelers: Please wear deodorant for the sake of the person who has to sit next to you for seven hours.

More updates to come in the future...

Friday, June 10, 2005

The 24 CDs I'm Bringing To Europe

It's finally upon me - my month of studying law in Europe. Part Eurotrip, part The Paper Chase, I'll be spending a week in London, two weeks in Paris, and a week in Geneva learning about international economic and human rights law while I navigate foreign public transportation, try to meet European girls who still like America, and look for pubs that show baseball on satellite TV.

What music will be accompanying me on my journey? Glad you asked! Since I'm living in the past and don't have an iPod with the capacity of the Library of Congress, I'm bringing CDs - the 8-tracks of the future. Twenty-four of them, to be exact.

1. Gin Blossoms - 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
Remember "Not Where It's At," "Low," or "All For You?" Well, those songs were not by the Gin Blossoms - they were by Del Amitri, Cracker, and Sister Hazel, respectively. Get your mid-'90s pop-rock right. The Gin Blossoms, who in a short period of time cranked out some of the most likeable songs of their era, apparently broke up for several years and are now back together. I just saw them play a concert last weekend...at a park in the Valley, for free, in front of a bunch of picnicking families and their dogs. Somehow, they actually rocked the place.

2. Weezer - Make Believe
I last saw Weezer in concert when I was in eighth grade and they had just released the Blue Album. Now I have tickets to see them in London, and I need to brush up on their latest material.

3. Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz - Get Crunk/Lovers & Friends
This was a sampler CD I got when I bought Ludacris's new album. It's not particularly good, but there are two instrumental tracks, and I'm kind of hoping there will be someone on this trip who knows how to rap. The odds are stacked mightily against me. But the world needs a rapper who references important legal issues other than his own. "Try to strictly scrutinize me, I got the sick flow/Your rhymes are unconstitutional like Yick Wo." Or something like that. Perhaps in keeping with the theme of international economic law, someone can talk about busting the GATT.

4. Fat Joe - Selections From Joe's New Album "All Or Nothing"
Another sampler CD. "Safe To Say (Da Incredible)" has an awesome beat. The three other tracks on this disc are all snippets and not worthy of mention. It's a lot like a rap concert - only one verse and a couple of choruses per song.

5. Ludacris - The Red Light District
Luda said of the title of his latest album, "When people hear it, they'll automatically think of that place in Germany." Interesting. However, my course packet for the Geneva portion of the trip cautions, "The hotel is located in an area of Geneva where some sex work goes on." So this album could be more appropriate than you think.

6. Guns N' Roses - Greatest Hits
If I could pick any band in history to see in concert, it would probably be Guns N' Roses, circa 1991. This album is simply awesome, especially the cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil," which originally appeared on the Interview With The Vampire soundtrack. Too bad there wasn't room for other GN'R classics like "Get In The Ring," "Estranged," and "Used To Love Her," but regardless, this album freakin' rocks.

7. Dave Matthews Band - A Limited Edition Companion To Stand Up - Warehouse Edition
This eight-track CD came with DMB's new album when I preordered it through the fan club. It's got the studio version of "Joyride," which is a great song and should have been on Stand Up. It also has a great live version of "Hello Again."

8. Dave Matthews Band - Stand Up
DMB's newest album has almost an R&B feel to some of the tracks thanks to producer Mark Batson, and it's an excellent listen throughout. The best tracks are "Hello Again" and "Louisiana Bayou," along with the first single, "American Baby." I'll be seeing DMB three times this summer when I return from Europe, so I'll have to listen to this over and over to learn the words. I'm only half kidding about that.

9. The Roots - The Tipping Point
The Roots played a live show at UCLA recently where I was the only guy in the audience wearing a suit (thanks to a prior engagement). They were great live, since they are an actual band and can therefore do things musically that can't be done with a record. For example, they broke into a medley of covers ranging from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to The Game's "How We Do," interspersed throughout with shout-outs to Philly. Their studio album doesn't bring the energy and flavor of the live show, but it's still pretty good.

10-12. Dave Matthews Band - 9.12.2004 - Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
This three-disc show was one of DMB's "Live Trax" releases. It's the final show of their summer 2004 tour, and it's a good one, all the way to the final song, "Too Much, " where Dave (I really hate calling him by his first name; it seems so pretentious) breaks into an imitation of Dave Chappelle's Lil Jon impersonation, calling out "What?" and "Okay!" as the band jams to close out the show.

13. Live - The Distance To Here
I haven't listened to this CD in a while - I just like Live, and since I don't have Throwing Copper, I figured I'd go with this one. "The Dolphin's Cry" is a good song, but "Run To The Water" is inspiring.

14. OK Go - OK Go
Every time I listen to this CD, I like it more and more. "Don't Ask Me" is the song you know from this CD (if you know any songs from it); "Get Over It" is a good song; "Bye Bye Baby" is quickly becoming my favorite off this disc. And "C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips" is a fun, silly song, featuring lyrics like, "Does it rain where you are? Does it snow?/And, if so, remind me not to go there, the weather affects my knee." You have to hear it to fully appreciate it.

15. Top Songs XXVIII
Just a mix I made a few months ago. There are some good, upbeat tracks on here like Lola Ray's "Automatic Girl" and Burning Brides' "Heart Full Of Black," both from the soundtrack of NHL 2005 (an oxymoronic name, isn't it?). There's "How We Do," which I'm a little sick of, but I liked a lot when I made this mix. The mix concludes with the mellow "Nightswimming," by R.E.M.

16. The Darkness - Permission To Land
This CD kicks ass. If I were a major league baseball player, the guitar riff from the end of "I Believe In A Thing Called Love" would be my intro music when I came to bat.

17. Damn Brandy - Live At The Wetlands - 6-15-01
Damn Brandy was a band that one of my frat brothers was in back in college. I don't think they ever actually recorded an album, and I don't know the names of a lot of their songs, but this live show is pretty fun to listen to. "Rules" is a good song, and there's an amusing cover of Outkast's "B.O.B." Plus, "Run Away" has the line, "She's the queen, and I'm her pawn/I'm a wookiee, she's the Jedi master," which I like, and I've never even seen Star Wars.

18-19. Phantom Planet - Phantom Planet/The Guest
I include these albums together because I bought them as a double album, although really, The Guest was released first. You might know it because it has the theme song from The OC on it, but it's got other good songs like "Always On My Mind," plus some good live and demo versions of those two songs. The self-titled album, which is much heavier on the distortion, isn't quite as good, but still has some solid songs like "Big Brat."

20. Everything - Everything
Remember that song from about 10 years ago that went, "Who got the hooch?" That was off this album. If you consider that song a hit - a big if - then Everything is a one-hit wonder. But really, this album, which has a unique sound that combines jam rock with zydeco, is very good. Other good songs include the upbeat "Good Thing (St. Luicia)" and "Be Gone," which has a line that bothered me for a while: "Bring back the innocence, be gone/Away with the jealousness, be gone." Finally I figured out what bugged me about that line. "Jealousness" is rarely used in English. It should be "jealousy." But that wouldn't rhyme.

21. Ben Folds Five - The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
Reinhold Messner is a legendary Austrian mountaineer. However, the album's name supposedly comes from the name coincidentally used on one of the band members' fake ID. The best song on the CD, "Army," begins, "Well, I thought about the army/Dad said, 'Son, you're f------ high." It took me a while to realize that the line was not "Well, I thought about the army/Desert sun, you're f------ hot."

22. Yellowcard - Ocean Avenue
I kind of dig the fiddle that's on a lot of the tracks on this CD - it kind of reminds me of good Irish folk music. And the drums on the song "Twentythree" are working in double time, which seems kind of cool to me. The last track, "Back Home," was one I listened to a lot over the winter, when I started missing the East Coast.

23. Green Day - American Idiot
There's nothing I can say about this album that hasn't been said already. Top to bottom, this could end up being the best album of the decade.

24. Big & Rich - Horse Of A Different Color
Nothing says, "Je suis un Americain arrogant" like a guy wearing a baseball cap while "Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)" plays loudly from his headphones. Pass the freedom fries!