Sunday, July 31, 2005

So far a lovely weekend in NYC. It's not too terribly hot, and I get to enjoy the beautiful Upper West Side apartment of my cousin and his partner while they're on Fire Island. Friday was dinner with my dad, who came in from Jersey; yesterday I went up the Cloisters for the first time. It's a bizarre pastiche of medieval art and architecture; I guess any museum practices pastiche, but the monumental nature of the friezes and portals and tapestries and so forth just make the construction of a quasi-medieval church on the northern tip of Manhattan Island seem much more bizarre than, say, the Met. I love the 15th-century Merode Altarpiece by the Dutch artist Robert Campin, an oil on wood triptych with fantastically vivid colors that the web image doesn't nearly capture. To me it seems an uneasy attempt to synthesize religious devotion with the trappings of the rising bourgeois; what are we to make of the grumpy husband figure practicing his craft of cabinetry in the right panel while his wife is visited by an angel in the center? And the extraordinary detail through the windows of city streets (though the wife's window looks out just on blue sky in a way that makes her panel seem on a higher elevation than the others). You probably can't quite make out the little crucifix flying at an angle above the angel's head like a thrown dagger. Angels are such a literal way in which to represent the idea of the divine; I love to see the later medieval pieces that enflesh them into men with wings. There's a wooden statue of St. Michael in there which, the tag informs us, is "missing his wings," so that he's just a man in armor with suspiciously red lips. The most famous pieces in the Cloisters are of course the Unicorn Tapestries; as it happens the previous evening I'd wandered into the Barnes & Noble near my cousin's apartment and glanced through the new Chicago Review, which includes an interview with my old Vassar classmate Camille Guthrie, author of a remarkable book called The Master Thief and who's written another largely inspired by said tapestries. I was amused to see her describe herself in the interview as a "D&D poet." Anyway, the tapestries are quite striking though their narrative is dismal: a group of hunters set out, they find the unicorn, pursue it, it counterattacks, and they kill it and drag it to their castle. The odd man out is the famous tapestry of "The Unicorn in Captivity"—when would they have captured it if they've killed it? Did it escape and have to be killed? Or is there some alternate reality or second unicorn being depicted? Unicorns are cornier than angels, of course, and perilous subjects for poetry; I'll be curious to see what Camille does with them. One of my favorite books as a kid, which I still have powerful affection for, was Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which manages to capture the wonder of myth while also presenting us with a cast of characters who have been entirely let down by myth in the past and only unwillingly allow it to recapture them. Wonderful characters: Molly Grue, Schmendrick the Magician (with whom I unabashedly identified), King Haggard, his son Leir, and of course the unicorn herself, forced to embark on the adventure of humanity by Schmendrick's rogue spell. The movie's not bad but I do recommend the book; great Scott, there appears to be a live-action remake in the works. Makes sense given the current fantasy resurgence (Christopher Lee as Haggard! Perfect!) but will the movie be able to capture the book's wry and melancholy tone? It is to be doubted.

So after the Cloisters I met my old friend Chris F. at her hotel (she's in town to do some work for the Department of Justice at the UN) and we hung out, visited St. Marks Bookshop (where I resolved to order books by Jeff Derksen and Linh Dinh for the Bookery posthaste), had dinner, and discussed how life out to be lived, as usual. Today I'll see her again and my dad and stepmother; we might make it to MoMA to see the Lee Friedlander exhibition. And tonight I'll see all you New York peeps (that word hasn't seen the light of day for a while, for good reason probably) at my reading with Peter Markus.

1 comment:

Josh Hanson said...

I loved, and love, the Last Unicorn too. Don't try to watch the movie again though. It's painful (mostly the music).

I'm curious about the cast for the upcoming movie because Christopher Lee, Mia Farrow, and Angela Landsbury were alll playing those characters in the animated film. ANd, I'm Sorry, Alan Arkin is Schmendrick.

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