Friday, February 23, 2007

Scary Movie

Some years ago, Berlin had the first of its Biennales. I went, looked, and wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal Europe, because that was my job at the time. A few weeks later, an art critic I knew from Philadelphia came through to check it out. I caught her leaving the Postführamt, where the show was, and asked her what she'd thought. "Aaah," she sneered. "A lot of one-liners." An apt description, I thought. "Except...well, there was this piece by this Portugese guy..."

Oh, yes. It was called Kitsune, and it made me confront a lot of my ideas about art at that time. Basically, it was what's called a video installation, although, unlike most video installations, which can be seen for as long or short as you feel like in order to get the idea, this one was linked to a narrative, which meant you really had to sit through the whole thing. It was worth it. The visual was fairly static: Japanese mountains, over which fog was coming and going. The text was read by two Japanese radio actors, in Japanese, and there were English subtitles. The story was simple: two old men are waiting out the rain in a teahouse, and, although both are rather shy, eventually they begin to talk, and wind up telling each other ghost stories. I loved it.

And because I'd loved it and said so in print, and was apparently one of the few people who reviewed that exhibition who didn't zero in on the super-trendy but empty stuff there, the artist, a guy named João Penalva, contacted me about getting a copy of the review. He lives in London most of the time, and one of his dealers, Volker Diehl, is in Berlin, so he's here from time to time. That's where I met him almost exactly three years ago, at the opening of another video work, Bahnai. He's short and round and has a great sense of humor, as I discovered when we had lunch at the Vietnamese place down the street.

So when I got an invitation to the DAAD Galerie for the opening of his latest piece, The Roar of Lions, on Feb. 2, I made a note to go see it. I was extremely busy at the moment getting some book proposals ready, so I didn't make the opening, and although I used the invitation as a bookmark for what I was reading at the time, I'm ashamed to say it took an e-mail from him asking if I'd seen it, and, if so, what I thought, to get me off my butt to go see it. I used to have several friends here who were always up for gallery-hopping but they've all moved, so I don't keep up as much as I'd like. But I found time to walk down to Zimmerstr. yesterday to take a look.

It's another amazing piece. It starts with a couple of flashlights moving around in the dark, and then cuts to a scene of a frozen-over lake, the Grunewaldsee here in Berlin. The text this time is in Mandarin Chinese, which, as with Kitsune, means you have to pay attention to the subtitles. This time the story isn't so easily described, nor do I want to give any spoilers, but at the start the narrator has just witnessed a bloody car accident involving a woman and a girl, and is talking to the policeman at the scene about what he saw. The policeman thanks him, tells him there were other witnesses, and checks his papers, perhaps a little closely. At this point, a note of dread enters the story, although you don't quite know why. It gets worse when he gets home: unlocking the door, he finds the same policeman and a guy in civilian clothes inside his apartment, although how they got in he can't figure. The dread gets a lot thicker at that point, in part because of what happens, but in part, also, because we can't tell where this story is taking place or what the stakes are.

Meanwhile, we are watching the scene on the ice, as ordinary folks are walking on the ice, some (but only a few) skating, and a lot of them are out with their dogs, who are not at their best slipping around. Imperceptably, the sort of brownish-green of the video acquires more and more color, to the point where someone in a red jacket really stands out. But as the story being told gets odder and more infused with fear, the colors start bleaching out again, something Penalva also did with Bahnai. But the story has gotten so gripping by this part that you're likely not to notice this right away, and it also undergoes a complete metamorphosis in its last few lines so that by the time the credits roll, you're even more unsure of what you've just sat through than you could have imagined.

Suffice it to say that the walk home was completely different than the walk to the gallery. It was the same street (Friedrichstr.), but the experience I'd just been through had changed it utterly. The Roar of Lions was done while Penalva was here in Berlin with a DAAD grant, and if it reflects his experience here, then that might well explain my reaction. There's also the disconnect between the images of the people out walking and playing on the ice and the narrative overlaying it, much of which occurs in the narrator's small room. I'd really have to see it again to say anything more intelligent about it, but there's one thing I can say:

If you get the chance, go see this. The gallery is open from 11 until 6 every day except Sunday, the piece is 37 minutes long, and screenings are every 45 minutes. The show closes on Mar. 10, so you've got two weeks. I'll probably go again, so if anyone wants to join me, let me know. Just don't expect any light-hearted banter afterwards.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Crumbiest Month

Just a couple of random things for those who aren't at the Berlinale...


A friend who works with a company here in Berlin that produces trade magazines, several of them for the food industry, was over the other day. "That bread you get in the bakeries here," he was saying, "you know they don't bake that on the premises, right?" Well, that hardly takes a genius; most bakeries don't have the room to mix, form, proof, and bake bread. No, of course it's brought in from somewhere else in what readers of a certain age might recognize as Brown N Serve condition and finished in the tiny ovens in the bakery. "Yeah, right," he contined, "but here's the really weird part. Do you know where that bread starts out?" In some factory somewhere, I suppose. "You're right -- but the factory is in China. They fly the bread in, frozen, and it gets distributed to an intermediate point, and then it gets thawed and delivered to the bakeries."

I'm not passing this along as gospel, although I suspect it might be true for some of the chains. I've often known I was approaching Berlin on the train, for instance, because of a huge Thobens Bakeries facility just outside of Potsdam, but I don't know what they actually do there. Anyone else have info on this? It'd help explain why the bread here is so bad -- the independent bakery in Berlin is virtually extinct -- but it would also open up a new market for German bakers: it would be just as easy to re-heat this stuff in ovens in America or Japan as it is to do it here. And you could market it as "authentic German bread."


Speaking of magazines, a friend passed this article along. Ho-hum, another magazine startup. But...Vanity Fair isn't just any magazine. It's hard to say if the Spiegel article is tongue-in-cheek -- although, like the country it's published in, it's not known for a sense of humor -- but there are some rather astounding things in it. Like this quote: "And rumors abound that Gruner + Jahr is already working on a magazine in case Vanity Fair is successful. The working title sounds like something Poschardt would come up with: Neues Deutschland or New Germany." Ummm, I know Germans are expert at forgetting their history, but did no one notice that this was the name of the house organ of the East German government? I mean, I can go to the DDR Museum and buy a replica copy of the first issue for €1.50.

Not to mention the folly of doing this as a weekly, doing it as a weekly with a tiny staff, and running a picture of Till Schweiger with a goat on the cover of the first issue. Till Schweiger with his shirt off, sure, but...a goat??

Read it and weep.


Which is pretty much what I did this afternoon while trying to figure out if I have enough in the bank for a round-trip train ticket to Paris. I probably do, but when you go to the Deutsche Bahn travel information page and try to book the ticket, you're met with a link that says "Unknown Tariff Abroad." Click it, and you get this message:

"For the most important foreign cities (e.g. Vienna, Amsterdam, Zurich) fares are available.

"For your requested connection fares are unfortunately not available."

So Deutsche Bahn is still fighting the Franco-Prussian War and we, the customers, get the benefit.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Even Smaller Crumbs

All I seem to have to do is to save up a few tiny items for one of these collections of trivia and the very next day I find a bunch more. Almost immediately after pushing the "publish" button on the last batch, I was walking around the 'hood and found a new Nike painting. But that'll have to wait...


Meanwhile, it's that time again, and for the first year in recent memory the Potsdamer Platz public transportation is open for the Berlinale, Berlin's once-mighty film festival. Two things I never do is go to the Berlinale and read the pitiful excuse for an English-language magazine here, the Ex-Berliner, but I do get a kick out of their sadsack music editor, David Strauss, and he's gotten the no doubt unpaid job of blogging the Berlinale for them. It could be fun to read, and so if you're interested, I suggest you click here.


Last year, out of nowhere, I got a two-Euro coin that looked like this:

The building is the Holstentor in Lübeck, pretty much the symbol of that city, and seeing it on the back of these special coins was, in fact, the only way to see it during much of last year, because the real thing was covered by scaffolding. Just why Germany would choose to change its coinage design only a few years into introducing it I had no idea, but last night I was in some seedy dive or another, and got this in change:

It took me a bit of surfing around to find out that this is Schwerin Castle, representing the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and to find an explanation, rendered in the stiffest possible English translation. Basically, the various Federal states of Germany take over the annual presidency of the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, and get their own coins as a perk. Germany's the only country doing this, which is further proof that a lot of the Euro system was designed by them. Why else would we have a 20-cent, instead of a 25-cent, coin, not to mention the tiny, confusing 2-centers?

Of course, what they're really really good for, these special €2 coins, is making cashiers -- especially outside of Germany -- hand you your change back and tell you it's not good.


Has anyone else noticed the proliferation of "French" cafes around town? There must be a dozen of them which've sprung up in the past six months, particularly around trendy areas like Weinbergsweg, Kollwitzplatz, and so on. What's really weird, though, is that there's nothing particularly French about anything but the wine they offer (and that's usually not so hot), and the ones that pretend to have a little deli section don't seem to have a clue what French food is. One I've got my eye on, though, is just down the street from me on Torstr. In the former Döner Kebap joint that had the weird poem about children being the future of the world on its wall, someone's opening something called Bandol, and they've been installing vintage meat lockers and a blackboard wall for writing the menu, plus diner-y chrome stools -- and two huge TV monitors above the door. Or that's what it looks like from the street. We'll see (if "we" can afford it, that is) what it turns out to be. Meanwhile, though, to date it looks like "French" is the new "Mexican."


Places We Won't Be Dining: Spotted on Marienburger Str.: Pizza Pimp.

Monday, February 05, 2007

February Crumbs

First off, the reaction to my last post was very interesting: I got an e-mail from David Kamp, the author of The United States of Arugula, thanking me for the "review," and noting that, as he mentions in the book's introduction, there were threads of the story which he just couldn't wedge in to the narrative as he was telling it. As an example -- also mentioned in the introduction -- he cites the history of Chinese cooking in America, which isn't mentioned at all.

He's right: once you start a story, it goes where it wants to go, and if it's going to be readable, you have to make sure there aren't too many digressions. And, as Kamp said in his note, both Edna Lewis and John Thorne lie outside the narrative he was writing. (He also noted that he'd eaten at Gage & Tollner under Lewis' regime, but, unlike me, his table had gotten a visit from the grand lady herself, checking up on things. I am officially jealous.) As for Raymond Sokolov, he tried to get an interview with him, but they kept missing each other. This kind of thing happens, too.

As for me, I told him that this piece, like pretty much every post on this blog, was written and edited in an hour or less, which is a discipline I maintain in case I ever wind up with a serious writing career again. And in my case, I left out one of the threads of my argument, which was why I'd mentioned Bill Bruford's book Heat at the top of the post: that besides the Food Network honky-tonk I mentioned, the other current trend seems to be towards a kind of connoisseurship that takes the ability to make good food out of the hands of ordinary people, be it through the kind of perfectionism Mario Battali practices, or the sous-vide fad or the weirdo-cuisine trend of El Bulli and so on.

Finally, Kamp mentioned that he was familiar with my writing, because of what he called "a morbid affliction of mine".


Not as morbid, of course, as this news about a German Chinese restaurant. It's pretty obvious -- well, pretty obvious to those of us who grew up around organized crime, anyway -- that some of the "Asia" restaurant phenomenon here is about more than the bad food they serve. One guy I knew said it was an immigration scam: since Germans can't tell one Asian from another, successive waves of workers pass through the restaurants using the same set of ID cards.

It's obvious that something's going on a lot of the time: people who remember the original White Trash Fast Food club on the corner by my house probably wondered why the Chinese motif, but that was because it was the Kaiser des Chinas restaurant before that, ornately decorated, with room after empty room. You never saw anyone in there, and the one person I knew who'd eaten there asked me if I had. When I told him no, he just said "Don't." (And he was German).

And then, one day, it just closed. It sat there, empty, for over a year. When Wally and his crew took it over, he showed me the kitchen. "These people left so quickly that they left the spices still measured out," he said, pointing at a row of porcelain bowls with various powders and shriveled remnants in them. That was when I remembered having found a bunch of waiter's wallets in the trash outside my house and wondering how in the world they'd gotten there. Still, nothing like this has happened here yet.


Following up on the last set of crumbs, it should be noted that the good voters of Berlin actually went for the renaming of a stretch of Kochstr. as Rudi-Dutschke-Str. a couple of weeks ago. Sometimes the good guys do win, even if it's just a bit of harmless symbolism.


And following up on another crumb, I want to report that the Yum Mee bánh mi sandwich joint up at the top of Friedrichstr. is doing a pretty good job. I think the baguettes could be crisper, and they use some kind of margarine instead of the homemade mayo the place I was introduced to them in Honolulu used, and of course they don't use shredded green chiles because they're scared of frightening the Germans. Turned out the guy who actually puts your sandwich together speaks pretty accent-less American English, although he's apparently never been there, and he interrogated me pretty thoroughly last time I was in there about my opinions on his product and my experiences with bánh mi in America. I told him he should add Vietnamese paté to the menu, but he wasn't sure Germans would go for it -- and he may be right. He is, however, about to add tiger prawns to the bánh mi side of the menu, which should be good. And, as lagniappe, as they say in Louisiana, his co-worker taught me how to say pho correctly. I'd been saying something like "phaw," but it turns out to be more like "pheu." Now if someone here would learn how to make that right...


I recently discovered that there are so many refugees from Brooklyn's hipster enclave, Williamsburg, here in Friedrichshain that they're calling it Friedrichsburg, but that is not why Deutsche Post issued this stamp this year. Really.