by Roberto Friedman
The new arts season approaches, and this week you'll find brief surveys of highlights from our arts writers who cover film and DVD/Blu-rays, TV, the symphony hall and the opera house. Next week, stay tuned for a look at the fall season in theatre, book releases, and fine arts – museum shows, then galleries.
To recharge our batteries before the fall onslaught, Out There took a little sojourn up in the wine country last week. The River Terrace Inn in Napa invited us to stay for a few nights in luxe accommodations with a balcony overlooking the bucolic Napa River. A tidal river with constant current, it's muddy and green, but sparkles in the late summer light. At sundown, the waters and banks disappear into inky black, framed by sparse lights on a ridge that forms the horizon.
(Photo: Courtesy Cuvee)
We dined on "high country cuisine" at the adjoining Restaurant Cuvee. Both eatery and inn recently underwent a $2.7 million renovation, and its indoor/outdoor dining rooms provided ambiance both relaxing and sophisticated-feeling. Cuvee's executive chef Jordan Mackey served up trout and snapper, we greatly enjoyed the fruit of various grapes, and feeling flushed but not rushed, OT and plus-one nonpareil Pepi lingered over an elegant dessert of fresh berry cobbler. An open fire-pit on the restaurant patio mesmerized. We returned to our room, the terrace, the river and a nice buzz-on.
Next day it was an easy walk from the RTI over the 1st St. bridge to downtown Napa, where we investigated the Napa Valley Opera House and the Jarvis Conservatory , two arts institutions that have been sending us press releases for years, and that we had never visited. In the Oxbow district, we toured the Oxbow Public Market, a bustling, lively venue for fresh produce, local wine, seafood, cheese, and other culinary delights. Its offerings put us in mind of its kissing cousin, the Ferry Building in SF. We had grilled oysters, seafood stew and clam chowder at the counter of Hog Island Oyster Co., washed down by a crisp sauvignon blanc.
To our Napa getaway we brought an advance copy of English Graphic, a book of essays about illustrations written by [UK] Independent art critic Tom Lubbock, to be released this fall from Frances Lincoln Ltd. The graphics Lubbock discusses include ancient maps and stained glass windows, miniatures and frontispieces; Robert Hooke 's 1665 engraving of a flea; William Hogarth's wicked caricatures; pen-and-ink and watercolor landscapes; and Harry Beck's iconic graphic for the London Underground map. Lubbock considers the high point of English graphic art to have been in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and accordingly his essays on Henry Fuseli, Samuel Palmer and William Blake are his most developed. There's a wonderful piece on John Tenniel's illustration Alice Overgrowing the Room from Lewis Carroll 's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). But we chose Blake's Albion Rose to illustrate this column, Albion being a well-proportioned personification of England. "Even in its own day, it was highly optimistic," writes Lubbock, finding Albion "can only feel like a cruel irony or a bitter protest or an impossibly remote ideal." Sort of like 0% body fat.
There's also a great print by gay and astonishingly short-lived (1872-98) Art Nouveau artist Aubrey Beardsley , Portrait of Himself in Bed (1894). As Lubbock points out, "Hardly anyone is ever portrayed in bed, let alone self-portrayed. The convention is mainly used for corpses: the death-bed portrait. What's more, the artist depicts himself as a tiny figure. It's a self-portrait where you have to spot the subject, half-hidden, turbaned, drowned in the bedclothes of an enormous curtained bed." The French inscription in the drawing's corner is self-deprecatory. Translated, it reads, "By the twin gods, not all the monsters are in Africa." Lubbock wonders: "What's he up to, under the sheets?"
The literary world was abuzz last week about reviewer William Giraldi's takedown of two books by author Alix Ohlin in the NYT Book Review. Giraldi generated a lot of piquant commentary: "Ohlin's language betrays an appalling lack of register – language that limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor." "But too many of Ohlin's stories suffer hyperglycemic shock because she's incapable of mustering the requisite insulin." But perhaps the knockout punch references a veritable San Francisco icon: "For a writer so invested in the bland earnestness of realism, Ohlin forces her characters to speak and behave like few humans from reality: her dialogue, by turns stenographic and saccharine, sounds transplanted from the desiccated pages of Danielle Steel ." Ooo, that's really hitting below the (smartly accessorized) belt!
But just one week previously in the august pages of the NYTBR, reviewer Ron Powers gutted the latest effort from gay author Dale Peck, and no-one so much as batted an eyelash! Perhaps this is because Peck is well-known for his own savage literary criticism, collected in the aptly titled Hatchet Jobs. Here's Powers: "The problem is not that Dale Peck can't write. Far from it. The problem is that Dale Peck can't stop writing." "Peck, who has set legitimately high standards as a critic, seems here to have committed one of the most amateurish of authorial sins: rather than invite the reader into a story, he demands unconditional surrender to his solipsism and his rhetorical strut. It doesn't work. Um, duh." Um, ouch!
But to go with the review of the There's No Business Like Show Business DVD release in this week's issue, let's wind up with an anecdote that's worthy of a few Out There column inches. When B.A.R. arts writer Tavo Amador interviewed actress Mitzi Gaynor a couple of years back, she told him that she and Ethel Merman got along superbly on the set of Show Business. Amador asked how Merman felt about fellow star Marilyn Monroe . Gaynor said, "Marilyn was often late. We'd all be waiting for her and after awhile, Ethel would get impatient and ask, in her inimitable manner, 'All right! Where's the blonde?'" She pretended not to remember her name. Oh, Ethel!