Category Archives: Television

In defense of change

Change is good.

Or so the old saying goes. I must have heard that one a thousand times, but the instance that sticks out most in my head is when an old colleague used it on me. I had just announced my plans to leave Teen People to take a job at Us Weekly, and I was feeling nervous about my decision. This particular colleague dropped by my office to wish me well, and I ended up unloading my misgivings on him.

He wasn’t a big fan of mine, and I knew he was glad to see me go. For him, any old cliché probably would have done if it ended our conversation as quickly and painlessly as possible. I’m pretty sure he pulled that one out of his ass. He probably had no idea what an impression he made.

He was right…sort of. Change can be good, and in this professional instance it was not only good — it was essential. But change can also be not-so-good. There’s a lot to be said for stability, predictability and the dreaded routine. Change for the sake of change only is often just a waste of time.

When I was younger, one of my relatives came to live with us for a while. One of my most vivid memories about him (among many vivid, unpleasant memories) was that he used to change undershirts several times a day. Every time I think of him, I also think of his white V-neck t-shirts flapping in the wind on the clothesline in the backyard like blank flags at half-mast.

As I can’t recall him ever doing anything more strenuous than thumping his Holy Bible, I had no idea why he needed to change his t-shirts so often. Maybe it was because my mother did all of the laundry, so why not? Change for the sake of change may have been good for him, but it was a burden for my mom. Though I’ve fully embraced change in my recent adulthood, I’ve remained suspicious and maybe even a little afraid of it too.

But now I’m beginning to see change in an entirely different light. Even when it’s not-so-good, or just for its own sake, it can end up having a net positive effect. Hannah Horvath on Girls would probably agree.

The fourth season of Girls won me over after a kind of hum-drum third season, and I think it was all because of change. There was so much of it. The biggest one: Hannah moved to Iowa (albeit briefly) to attend grad school, which set off a chain of unfortunate events for Hannah but fortunate ones for this viewer.

As a result of the stint in Iowa, she lost Adam, and upon her return, even more change was in store. She took a job as a substitute high-school teacher and her friends became a less prominent presence in her life. Hannah spent more time with Adam’s new girlfriend Mimi-Rose in episode 7 than she did with Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa the entire season! If that wasn’t enough life upheaval, her father also came out as gay. That’s a lot of change for a 10-episode season.

(As an aside, I love the juxtaposition of her dad announcing he’s gay to her mother getting tenure, which, in academia, is the antithesis of change, as Loreen “I never have to move again” Horvath clearly realizes.)

The move to Iowa was one of the best developments that the series writer and star Lena Dunham has come up with yet. It took Hannah out of the orbit of her annoying New York circle, none of whom, with the exception of Adam and Shoshanna, I could possibly care less about. The Iowa episodes were some of my favorite ones of the season, partly because her New York crowd were barely in them. But most of all, I loved them because the change of scenery and Hannah’s ultimate failure in Iowa were the catalysts for the first signs of true emotional growth we’ve seen in her yet.

I don’t think she would have been able to be so supportive of her father and not make his coming out all about her without the Iowa experience. And look at how she remained in the background during the water-childbirth scenes, not grabbing center stage as old Hannah surely would have done. Had she not let go of so many illusions about herself, about her life, about life in general after Iowa, she probably would have taken Adam back in the season finale rather than seeing that they simply didn’t work anymore…if they ever actually did.

I’m thrilled that Hannah is starting to evolve, but I’m glad that she hasn’t completely changed her irritating ways. Her interaction with her student Cleo offered much-needed assurance that old-school Hannah is alive and well. Some might find her insufferable, but I love her despite her flaws…because of her flaws.

I get Hannah. Maybe it’s the writer in us. We’re a strange, complicated, contradictory breed. I hope friends and strangers don’t feel about me the way people do about Hannah, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that some of them do. It’s not like I’ve never picked up and left everyone I cared about behind for far less clear-cut reasons than Hannah’s motivation for moving to Iowa.

I’m sure more big changes (some just for the sake of it) are in store for both Hannah and me. Maybe they’ll bring about continued evolution and make us more palatable to the people around us. Perhaps, as it did with Hannah, change will finally put me in the orbit of a guy who might actually be good for me and not just provide more fodder for my writing.

I like Mr. Parker. He’s cute and he totally nailed Hannah in just a couple of episodes. I’m curious to see where they go in season five. I love that he called her on her thirst for drama, but I hope she doesn’t bend like Carrie Bradshaw did with Aiden when she tried to give up smoking for him on Sex and the City. Hannah’s dramatic tendencies are a large part of what makes her and Girls interesting.

The last thing she (or I, a once-again thoroughly entertained viewer) needs is change in the form of a sexy new guy swooping in and altering Hannah or her maddening ways. I love them just the way they are.

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Can Spotless Minds Really Bring Eternal Sunshine?

Yesterday I had a Channing Tatum night. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I spent it with someone who looked like Tatum, or as good as Tatum, or — better yet! — the real thing. Instead, I passed a portion of my Sunday evening marveling at Tatum’s specimen of physical perfection on display in two of his three 2012 hits, The Vow and Magic Mike, which were playing simultaneously on two different South African DStv channels, while being underwhelmed by his acting range, or rather, lack thereof.

I’m no expert on his oeuvre, having now seen exactly four films starring or costarring Tatum — She’s the Man,Magic MikeSide Effectsand, as of last night, The Vow— but judging from my personal viewing evidence, he seems to excel at playing hunky nice guys in bad-boy packaging because muscles and taut washboard abs scream bad to the bone. (Well, I suppose his white-collar criminal in this year’sSide Effects was no pillar of society, but we caught up with him after he’d done his crime and his time, which, unfortunately for him, wasn’t his final price to pay. Ouch!)
Although I missed the first 15 minutes or so of The Vow last night, having read the reviews last year when it was out in theaters (and on the way to becoming the sixth highest-grossing romantic drama in history, according to Wikipedia), I knew the back story. So I understood why there was so much quiet tension in the first scene I saw, the one in which Tatum’s character, Leo, was about to take home his amnesiac wife (Paige, played by Rachel McAdams, who is a far more effective and exciting actress in brittle, bitch mode — see Mean Girls and Midnight in Paris). If I remembered what I had read in those negative reviews correctly, the couple had been in a terrible car accident that left Paige without several years worth of memories after she regained consciousness. (Hey, what was Jessica Lange doing in this picture?! She’s always welcome on my TV or big screen.)
Watching Paige stare blankly at Leo, I asked myself, “Where’s the drama?” Was I supposed to feel sorry for a sleeping beauty who awakens from her slumber with no memory of a guy who looks like Channing Tatum standing over her, love and concern gushing forth from his eyes? There should be only one thing left to say: “Take me… home!” That lucky girl.
Of course, for the sake of drama, the movie pretended that Leo wasn’t being played by one of the sexiest men alive, so Paige was torn. She didn’t remember her beautiful, devoted husband, and her memory was being extremely selective when it came to her family (and how thrilled her parents, played by Lange and Sam Neill, appeared to be about that little twist), from whom she apparently had been estranged before the accident.
Was she better off without all of the bitter memories of her terrible falling out with her folks and all of the pain it had caused, even if it meant that she didn’t remember her own hot husband? At least she had her other selectively positive memories, the ones of her former love Jeremy (played by Scott Speedman), who was ready to pounce again despite now being spoken for. Channing Tatum or Scott Speedman? That lucky girl. Again, where was the drama?
I suppose the drama would be in losing huge chunks of your life and having people you don’t remember telling you how important you are too each other. It must be like those mornings when you wake up momentarily not knowing who you are or where you are. Imagine if that confusion lasted all day, every day, indefinitely. Or waking up from a blackout night out, and having your friends tell you about all of the embarrassing things you did the night before, none of which you can recall. That must have been how Paige felt.
The Vow played as torture what had been the main goal for Jim Carrey’s and Kate Winslet’s characters, ex-lovers reunited in reverse, in the 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the later movie, we were meant to identify with the trials and tribulations of waking up with a blank slate, and in the earlier one, we were sold the benefits. Both had a similar effect on me. After watching them, I found myself dwelling on the pros of pressing delete on some of the sordid, but unforgettable aspects of my past. If I happened to have Channing Tatum hovering over me, vowing to get me through, all the better.
But now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, I realize the folly of my desire to edit my own history. As much as I’d like to file away some of those low points in a place where I can no longer access them, I couldn’t imagine the person I would be without them. Would I be as bland and cranky as Paige in The Vow? What would I talk about? What would I write about? What would I think about? It’s as much my pursuit of happiness as my memories of sadness that drives me every day, makes me the person I am. Without one, would the other have any meaning?
I’d rather go on spending way too much time focusing on lost loves and hard times, if it means that I’ll appreciate the good times ahead even more, if it guarantees that despite the occasional bout of writer’s block, I’ll always eventually have something to write about. Without your memories what is there to talk about, to laugh about, to cry about, to think about?
The way I react to so many things in the present — like my recent trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — depends on the personal history that I bring to my experiences. It might not always be pleasant, but as I learned yesterday, after a rainy, blustery Friday and Saturday gave way to a sunny Sunday, stormy weather makes clear skies appear even more blue.
I wouldn’t want to forget the dreariness of the first half of the weekend because I’ll need it for future reference, when the storm clouds roll in again. Then I’ll remember that with weather, as with life, every time the rain starts to fall, a rainbow is right behind it. Sunshine always eventually follows.

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Burning Questions: The Cape Town Edition

1. Is there such a thing as comfortable underwear? Don’t the steep inclines of Cape Town make walking around the city challenging enough? Ironically, I typed that first question as a commercial for the SZone South African television premiere ofMagic Mike was playing in the background.

Unfortunately, going commando hasn’t been an option for months, ever since I read an online article about Mad Men star John Hamm’s manhood (so much M-M-M alliteration —mmm!). The story went to great lengths to prove that Hamm is one of Hollywood’s, er, biggest stars, offering photographic evidence featuring Hamm, with all that God bestowed upon him flapping freely behind the cotton curtain of his trousers.

Now that’s investigative journalism at its most probing and scintillating!

Had it not been for the headline, I probably would have missed Hamm’s battle with the bulge completely. My eyes never instinctively go for that area when I zero in on male passersby on the street, or when I look at photos of male celebrities, which is pretty ironic, because I don’t believe I ever miss a woman’s heaving bosom when it’s peaking up and out over a too-low-cut top. Upon my arrival at Saffron Guest House in Johannesburg and Poyser Guest Suites in Cape Town, I was actually distracted from the gorgeous scenery around me because the women who checked me into both were attired in such a way that my eyes kept popping back to the grand canyons slightly down below.

I wondered if they feel that same way about bras that I do about tighty whities, boxers shorts and boxer briefs, none of which offer me much comfort while providing support. If they’re not clumping up under my trousers, disrupting my clean lines, they’re riding up into nether regions where the sun doesn’t shine. Bras have always looked similarly uncomfortable and confining to me. Alas, after that John Hamm article, going au natural is out of the question, except for when I’m home alone. I’d always thought of underwear as being a strictly hygienic measure, but I now realize that it’s about hiding a multitude (if you’re lucky) of sins, too. My skin color already, um, raises enough burning questions. (Is it true what they say about black men?) Do I really need to arouse more?

2. Have I lost the will to party? Last night my friend Adriaan took me out on the town not only for the first time since I arrived in Cape Town but for the first time since about two weeks into my stint in Tel Aviv. I’d almost forgotten how brutal nightlife can be the morning after, which surely wasn’t the case for at least one of our party companions, a 41-year-old recent arrival in Cape Town from Kentucky who told me he’d never had a hangover in his life. At first I was jealous, until I realized that hangovers were probably the one thing preventing me from falling into full-on alcoholism during my terrible twenties and thirties. It takes me too long to recover from a weekend of drinking to ever turn it into a nightly, much less, daily, habit.

But even if it weren’t for hangovers, I’d rather stay in. It’s not like I’d be missing anything new. Judging from the evidence I saw last night, the gay scene in Cape Town isn’t much different from the gay scene in any of the other cities I’ve gone out in these past few months, only the drinks are cheaper (25 ZAR, or about $2.50 for an Amstel Light), and the bars seem to be more segregated. Blacks in one corner (Zer021), whites in the other (Crew). Unlike the two separate-but-equal main stories of DJ Station in Bangkok (locals and the foreigners who love them on the ground floor, foreigners and the locals who want them above), going back and forth between Zer021 and Crew, only a few blocks apart, wasn’t an option in last night’s pouring rain.

It was interesting to see how both sides party, separately. At Zer021, under way too-harsh lighting (or maybe the sparser crowd just made it appear to be brighter inside), they were selling communion over sex. At Crew, hunky under-clad bartenders, all white, most of them blond, smiled and strutted in slow motion behind the bar. At both, the same tired dance-pop provided the soundtrack.

Despite the laughter and the excellent company, I didn’t love either place. When I woke up, I was thankful that a rainy Saturday (and a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of continued rain) would give me the perfect excuse to stay in later, which never would have been the case years ago, when the most violent nor’easter wouldn’t have kept me out of Starlight on a Friday or Saturday night. Even if tonight were to bring clear skies and perfect going-out weather, I’d have no desire to return to either Zer021 or Crew. That king-size bed with all of the pillows on top is looking too comfortable. I’d rather be under its covers tonight and every other night of the week.

3. Is Cape Town really Melbourne with mountains? I’ve been saying it since my arrival, and last night, after I told a local where I live part-time, he said it, too. An African performance artist who was about to begin a two-week gig in Paris, he was well-traveled enough to immediately peg my American accent as Caribbean, and he had the pop savvy to recognize Rihanna as the most influential woman on the charts right now.

I’d add Cape Town’s considerably lower cost of living to the shortlist of differences, but Cape Town is so Melbourne, which might be part of the reason why I immediately took to it. There’s the quaint, colonial toy-story architecture style of Tamboerskloof and Garden, which reminds me so much of South Yarra (Long Street is Toorak Road with black people), the Atlantic Ocean view at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront, which screams St. Kilda Beach, the excellent dining options, and the Woolworths supermarkets, but there’s something more intangible, too, that I can’t quite pinpoint.

Then there’s my apartment here. The thick walls produce a springtime chill that tempts me to turn on the thermostat, much as the ones in my South Yarra place on the slope of Darling Street did last summer. I may be borderline freezing on the slopes of Signal Hill, miles away from anything I’d previously known, but it sure feels like home.

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Destination: Anywhere (But How Did I End Up in Soweto?)

My second day in Johannesburg underscored my still-developing theory that you get what you’re not looking for. After breakfast and a brief exploration of Melville that included stumbling onto the perfect view of the downtown Joburg skyline, I boarded Rea Vaga, the rapid-transit bus system connecting Johannesburg’s central business district with what was then still the great unknown to the south.

“Which side do I take to Boomtown?” I asked, after buying my Rea Vaga card and immediately topping it up with 50 ZAR ($4.87). None of the other stops listed on the route map had meant anything to me. Neither did Boomtown, but it reminded me of The Boomtown Rats and David + David’s 1986 Top 40 hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Bob Geldof’s former band was Irish, and David + David were referring to Los Angeles in their song, but who knew what I’d find in Johannesburg’s version of Boomtown?

I boarded the next bus headed in the direction away from the CBD. It was nearly full, and I took one of the last remaining empty seats beside a woman who kept nodding off. I looked around me. Everyone on the bus was black. I wondered about all of the political allusions I’d been temporarily brushing aside until I was rested enough to process them? Johannesburg’s story — its tortured, tortuous history — was beginning to unfold before me. I know evidence of continued segregation when I see it.

And where were all of these people — a mix of working-class men and women and fresh-faced kids wearing school uniforms, speaking English and various languages I didn’t understand — all going? As the chatter grew louder, the scenery outside was changing dramatically. Previously relatively flat, well-manicured and distinctly suburban, it was becoming more rugged, more mountainous, more green, more beautiful (in that tattered way I’ve grown to love ever since my first trip to Buenos Aires). Rows of colorful modest-looking houses peppered the landscape. We passed by a number of stops whose names meant nothing to me before arriving at one called Orlando — as in Orlando, Florida, the big city next to my hometown (Kissimmee). Could it be?

Boomtown, too, came and went. By then it was raining, and the place looked like nothing special. I figured I’d stay dry inside the bus until it reached the end of the line. Maybe by then it would have stopped raining, and I’d be able to explore a little before returning to my starting point. Several stops and a few twists and turns later, we arrived at Thokoza Park. Everyone departed the bus. This must be the place.

I looked at the beautiful greenery on both sides of the platform (see the photos above). It was quietly breathtaking — so peaceful, so rich, so wet. The only thing stopping me from descending the platform and running to greet it was the torrential downpour that was raining down with varying levels of intensity. It looked like I would be heading back earlier than expected. But how?

As I looked at the numerous bus routes listed above the platform, I searched for one that might be the one where I had started. Though I’d forgotten the full name, I remembered it was “Sophia”-something, as in Hagia Sophia (in Istanbul) or Sophia Petrillo (on The Golden Girls). But where was Sophia?

That’s when I was stopped by the woman whom I’d been sitting next to on the bus. She hadn’t said a word to me the entire trip, but now she couldn’t stop talking. She explained in minute detail how I should get back. Her accented English was perfect, but she was giving me so much information that all I was able to process was “C3.” That was the bus I needed to take to find my way back to Sophia.

I thanked her for her kindness and proceeded to walk about 300 meters or so to the other end of the platform. There was a C1 bus already waiting. I stood there staring at it, wondering when it would pull out of the station and make way for the C3 that hopefully was right behind it. I was disappointed by my truncated journey. Boomtown had been a bust, the sky was pouring, and I had no idea how to get to Soweto.

Nobody came to Johannesburg without going to Soweto. Along with the Apartheid Museum and my Argentine friend Dolores, it was the only thing I had on my must-see-in-Joburg list. (In another one of those coincidental twists that has been a regular occurrence in my life since Berlin, Dolores, whom I met years ago in Buenos Aires, and who left BA for Cape Town around the time that I left it for Melbourne, happens to be in Johannesburg renewing her Argentine passport on the exact same days that I’m here.)

I didn’t know very much about Soweto other than what I’d heard about it in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s when Apartheid had replaced feeding the world as pop music’s cause du jour. I knew that during the Apartheid era it had been more or less South Africa’s version of the U.S. Indian reservations of the 19th century, a place where the country’s natives had been forced into after being displaced from their own land by the white ruling class.

Just as I was wondering how difficult it would be to get there from where I was, I looked over and saw the woman who’d helped me before. She was approaching me, as if she had something urgent to share. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t get on the C1. “You have to take the C3,” she said, smiling. “This is the C1. It goes somewhere else. The C3 is right behind it.” I thanked her again and watched as she walked away, wondering what I’d done to deserve her kindness and concern.

A few minutes later, I was back on the bus, heading in the direction from whence I’d come. This time, instead of studying the scenery, I focused on the signs. I should at least know roughly where I was. I saw one that said “Soweto” with an arrow pointing to the left. Could it be? Several “Soweto” signs later, I knew exactly where I was. I’d boarded a bus headed to Boomtown and ended up in Thokoza Park, in Soweto.

I was kind of crushed that I wouldn’t get a chance to see more of Soweto until another less-rainy day, but now I knew exactly how to get there. And I didn’t even have to look for it.

“Soweto” Jeffrey Osborne

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5 Things I Loved About “Blue Jasmine” That Weren’t Cate Blanchett

Say what you will about Woody Allen (and pretty much everyone has beaten you to it, from his ex Mia Farrow to Rosie O’Donnell, who, at the height of the Soon-Yi scandal, went off on his character while I was in the audience of her daytime talk show), but the director writes great roles for women.

Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino and Penelope Cruz all have benefited from his artistry come Oscar night (Wiest twice, while Judy Davis and Jennifer Tilly both scored Oscar nods under his directorial tutelage), and I’m convinced that he could help reboot the stalled film careers of Sarah Jessica Parker and Lisa Kudrow with just one great character apiece.

But first, Cate Blanchett is next in line to ride a Woody Allen creation to Oscar glory. I hate to jump on any bandwagon, but Blanchett’s is the safest one on the Oscar trail right now. I wouldn’t say hers is the performance of the year (if only because I despise hyperbole custom-built for movie posters), but she’s more than earned her Best Actress Oscar buzz, turning one of the most unlikable film heroines in recent memory — she’s likeThe Real Housewives of New York City‘s LuAnn de Lesseps, without the Miss Manners complex — into a woman capable of eliciting a surprising modicum of sympathy.

I wasn’t really rooting for Jasmine, as much as I was rooting for her evolvement. The bravery of the movie and of Blanchett’s performance is that neither lets her off the hook. Jasmine might be even more despicable at the end of the film than she is at the beginning. And Blanchett allows herself to look unpretty, figuratively and literally, without making that the entire point of her performance. But despite the Oscar buzz, this is no one-woman show. Allow me to spread some love to Blue Jasmine‘s other MVPs.

1. Sally Hawkins I loved her Golden Globe-winning performance in the 2008 comedyHappy-Go-Lucky, the one that shamefully didn’t net her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and I blinked and nearly missed her in An Education. I doubt that Blue Jasmine will change her status in Hollywood or with the Academy, the film being the Cate Blanchett show and all, but to overlook Hawkins’ Ginger is to miss so much about Jasmine.

In all of Blanchett and Hawkins’ scenes together, we see Jasmine through Ginger’s eyes, and I love that the film doesn’t go the predictable route by making them warring siblings stuck in the rut of rivalry. Ginger cheerfully concedes early on that Jasmine is better than she is, the one with the “good genes,” so Hawkins is free to create a character who isn’t defined onscreen by her resentment of her sister (see the big sisters in Rachel Getting MarriedMelancholiaMartha Marcy May Marlene and Silver Lining’s Playbook, and both inGeorgia), but is a fully-functioning separate individual. She even gets some scenes of her own. If Woody Allen ever decides to write and direct a Hawkins showcase called Red Ginger that tells the sister’s story, I’m so there.

2. Bobby Cannavale I loved him as Will’s butch but out cop beau on Will & Grace and as the flamboyant but in dancing queen in Shall We Dance, so why shouldn’t I fall in love with Cannavale once again, in Blue Jasmine as Ginger’s latest flame? Jasmine would object, of course, his being an underachieving grease monkey and all, but despite the incident with the telephone and the lamp, Cannavale brings a sweet macho vulnerability to Chili.

Jasmine calls him another Augie (Ginger’s allegedly abusive ex-husband and the father of her two sons), but I couldn’t disagree more. He calls Jasmine on her self-involvement early on (not that she ever tries to hide it), while attempting to be cordial to her. He’s a lug, but he’s a likable one. That’s all on Cannavale and his charm.

3. Andrew Dice Clay I never cared for him when he was a loudmouth comic in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and his character here is not necessarily someone with whom I’d want to have a few beers — not that Clay plays him as a guy who cares whether he’s lovable. In some ways, though, despite Blanchett’s red-rimmed eyes, Clay’s Augie is the saddest, most sympathetic character in Blue Jasmine. He loses a literal fortune ($200,000 is a lot of money, even if you won it playing the lottery and didn’t technically have to work for it), gets shipped off the Siberia (actually, Alaska), and everyone, including his ex-wife, expects him to just get over it.

The confrontation scene between him and Jasmine is one of the film’s brightest and darkest spots. Clay holds back Augie’s anger just enough to illuminate Jasmine as the monster that she is, not because she was implicit in her husband’s shady business dealings. (The films suggests that she wasn’t, but wouldn’t she have had to knowsomething to exact the revenge that she set in motion?) Her monsterdom is magnified during their verbal showdown because she doesn’t appear to have any remorse. Her only regret is that she has been inconvenienced by the fallout from her own scheme.

4. Alec Baldwin My friend recently ran into Alec Baldwin in New York City, and her review was scathing: “Holy crap. The man is a decaying jackal,” she wrote to me in an email afterward. “He walked like a stooped over man of 80, and the grey hair that covered not only his head but his arms, neck and apparently his back was just so unbelievably skeevy. And he had a belly to match his [pregnant] wife’s. Ick. His head was also so unusually large for his body.”

Yet he still gets cast as the smooth con man who’s irresistible to women. And somehow, miraculously, Baldwin still pulls it off.

5. San Francisco We don’t get to see as much of my second-favorite U.S. city — nestled snuggly between New York City and Chicago in my Top 3 — as I’d like to, and when we do, we don’t necessarily see it from its best angles, such as the vantage point at the top of one of its inclines, watching a row of buildings descend downward toward the bay.

Early on, when Jasmine applauds San Francisco as being so European, she actually sounds kind of underwhelmed, or maybe it’s sarcasm (as opposed to her more genuine awe when she sees the view from the back of Dwight’s home). Her assessment, though, is so on-point. San Francisco is one of the most European of American cities, and the biggest revelation of Blue Jasmine (despite what all the critics are saying about Blanchett’s performance) is that despite my three lifetime trips to SF, it’s a connection I never made until Jasmine, in her blue, martini haze, made it for me.

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Haifa, Israel: The Best Seat in the House of the Holy Land?

There’s an episode of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother (“Hooked,” the one with Carrie Underwood) in which Barney offers an interesting throwaway theory: Average girls turn gorgeous and beautiful ones are even hotter when they travel in packs.

He uses the examples of nurses, flight attendants and pharmaceutical reps, all former or current “hot chick” professions in Barney’s lustful estimation. I haven’t seen enough herds of pharmaceutical reps to draw any conclusions about them, but I’ve spent enough time in airport terminals and BNH Hospital in Bangkok to wholly agree with Barney about flight attendants and nurses.

Though it’s not exactly a profession (unless we’re talking surfers, who are even sexier by the dozen), I’d add shirtless guys on the beach to the hotter-in-groups list. During the hours I spent running along the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv, I lost my breath so many times over one torso-baring guy after another, many of whom I might not have noticed had I jogged by them individually in a part of town where they weren’t surrounded by similarly built and under-attired men.

I should say here that I’m speaking from a purely aesthetic angle. In a bar or in a club, I’m generally more likely to be drawn to someone who’s dancing on his own, and looking slightly out of place while he’s at it, than I would be to the life of the party, the one who’s encircled by other hotties. They may all look even better than they would solo, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to meet any of them. The beautiful stranger or jukebox hero off to the side, away from the action, holding his own on his own, might not have the safety of numbers to prop up his strictly aesthetic appeal, but his positioning (alone, off to the side) would likely make him all the more desirable (to me).

It’s the human angle to location, location, location, an everything-looks-better-in-the-right-setting sister theory to Barney’s (which is all about location — in a group) that has long been applied to hotels and homes and the cities they’re in. Haifa, Israel’s third-largest metropolitan area and its unofficial northern capital, might very well be the perfect application of the latter. When you fall smack dab between a mountain (in Haifa’s case, Carmel) and the Mediterranean Sea, you really can’t lose. It’s like snagging the best seat in first class.

If Haifa were in a fully reclining position at the front of an aircraft, it would be dressed way down in a t-shirt and jeans and wearing no make-up. From an architectural/visual standpoint, compared to the far more polished Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel’s first and second cities, respectively, Haifa is a fixer upper that, at the very least, could use a fresh coat of paint.

Litter-strewn sidewalks give it the look of being in recovery from last night’s party, which is ironic, given Haifa’s reputation as the major Israeli city with the strong worth ethic. Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, Haifa works, they say.

No, Haifa isn’t exactly a looker. But look away from the somewhat shabby buildings before you while walking east on, say, Haziyyonut Avenue toward the Hadar district, and turn to the right, toward the communities dotting Mount Carmel above, or turn to the left, toward the Mediterranean below, and you’ll be looking at two of the country’s most spectacular views.

Haifa is not without its remarkable architecture (any medium-sized city would kill to have structures as spectacular as the Shrine of the Bab in the Baha’i Gardens and the futuristic government office building in Qiryat HaMemshala Park as part of its skyline), but Haifa’s most stunning aspect is the nature surrounding it, and the nature that it’s built upon, not the city itself. It’s a natural beauty who wears an off-the-rack dress, flats and a casual ponytail to the ball.

If Haifa were relocated to the flat interior of a country — say, where St. Louis is now — I wouldn’t even be writing about it. It probably wouldn’t turn anyone’s head. But in its prime location location location, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean, I can stop looking at it.

Five Great Views in Haifa’s Baha’i Gardens (aka the Hanging Gardens of Haifa)

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My First Six Impressions of Jerusalem

1. Just as Sydney vs. Melbourne in Australia, North of the Yarra vs. South of the Yarra in Melbourne, East Coast vs. West Coast in the U.S.A., and Red States vs. Blue States on Election Day there, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are embroiled in their own brand of one-on-one unarmed combat, a geographically and culturally defined competition.

I started to suspect this much the afternoon before my departure from Tel Aviv when I was at the home of the woman from whom I was renting my apartment there, and her husband emphatically announced his hatred of Jerusalem without offering a single coherent reason why. I knew it for sure shortly after I checked into Hillel 11 in Jerusalem the following morning.

Even if the guy at reception hadn’t mentioned the rivalry himself, I would have gotten it from the way he dismissed TLV’s Ben Yehuda Street (“Everybody stays there,” he sniffed, after guessing that I did, too) while raving about Jerusalem’s, touting its bustling shopping/nightlife scene. He then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes selling his city, pointing out all of the exciting things I can do in Jerusalem, handing me various maps and explaining how I can get to know the city and see all of the attractions around it (Bethlehem, the Dead Sea) without being at the mercy of any tour guides.

His sales pitch didn’t include a word about the hotel he was checking me into, not even when he showed me to my room, a four-star “economy studio” which, frankly, could have used the build-up more than the city it’s in.

2. Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays, the old saying goes (or maybe it’s the other way around). But even if you didn’t see the cities in action, doing what they do best, you’d have no trouble telling them apart. On a visual level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem couldn’t be more dissimilar. Jerusalem is the massive inland metropolis in Israel’s tale of two cities (think Madrid and Sao Paolo in Spain’s and Brazil’s, respectively, only in the mountains, therefore considerably curvier), a proper urban experience. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, is far less congested (from a traffic, if not pedestrian, standpoint), quainter, with the waterfront picture-postcard feel of Barcelona and Rio.

If I prefer Tel Aviv ever so slightly, despite my obsession with cities that offer mountain views, it’s only because it’s warmer there. Still, even after less than 24 hours in Jerusalem, I think I’d be more than happy lingering indefinitely in either one.

Guys to the left, ladies to the right.

3. Apparently, women in Jerusalem are more comfortable with public displays of holiness than men are. The latter get more than twice as much prayer space along the Western Wall, but considering the number of praying people on the men’s side vs. the number on the women’s side, a switch might be in order. At first, I tried to enter the women’s domain, because I wasn’t paying attention, and I just assumed that the side with the line was where I needed to be. I’ve done that before when going to the restroom, and I don’t need to tell you where I almost ended up!

4. Maybe the ladies in Jerusalem are making up for childhoods spent largely out of sight. During my first afternoon walking through the old city, I saw multiple groups of boys under the age of 10 who were playing and hanging out with their friends as well as solo ones who were helping adults mind the stores. But I saw very few girls under military age who weren’t tourists anywhere in the old city, which made me wonder where they were all hidden away.

5. Want to get your money for nothing in Jerusalem’s old city? Don’t approach tourists at the various gates or at key spots asking, “What are you looking for?” (I got that one so many times during my first afternoon in the old city, I thought I was on Grindr!), and put away the red string.

Pick a spot slightly removed from one of the major attractions, and greet a random passerby with an even more random question (“Did you enjoy the Jewish Quarter?”, for instance, right outside the Moslem Quarter). Don’t ask if they need any help because that will give away your agenda as quickly as pouncing on them at one of the entrances to the Western Wall. Once you’ve gotten their attention, offer a little information about yourself, then ask something about them. Keep the small talk going, and once they’ve let down their guard, apologetically make a small request: “Do you have any shekel that you can spare?”

Only the coldest-hearted tourist will be able to turn down the friendly local they’ve just spent several minutes talking to. I certainly wasn’t going to deny the older gentleman who tried this ploy on me. He was rewarded with 10 shekel (roughly $2.80) for his efforts. But as Roger Daltrey once sang on the 1971 classic by The Who, I won’t get fooled again.

6. If you can judge a city by the coincidences it offers, then I was completely sold on Jerusalem by the end of my first night here. While exploring the areas that the Hillel 11 receptionist recommended, I came across a walkway off Agrippas in the Mahane Yehuda district that reminded me of those covered outdoor food courts in Bangkok and took a stool at the bar with a kitchen set up along the walkway, Bangkok-style.

That’s when I noticed the joint’s business card. Where had I seen that card before? Oh my God! It was the 6th of May — only the 5th of May, the sister bar and, as everyone there was quick to tell me, the original version of my favorite place in Tel Aviv. The 6th of May bartender had told me all about it, but I had forgotten that I wanted to try to find it. Now, in one of those magic-moment twists, here I was.

Rani, the cute 20-year-old waiter with near-flawless English and perfect teeth who spent his night off drinking with me, raving about Jerusalem (repeating the Hillel 11 receptionist’s point about all of its distinctive barrios), and introducing me to his friends (most of whom were also there on their night off) was even more impressed by my twist of fate than I was was. (Incidentally, Rani scored major cool cred by incorrectly guessing my age as 32. His response when I told him that I’m as old as Jennifer Aniston: “What? You’re not 50!” Sorry, Jen!)

Despite another adorable bartender peddling free booze, 5th of May was as different from 6th of May as the cities they’re in are from each other. If I liked 5th of May even better than my first love, it was because of the alternative crowd (ridiculously friendly and huge for a Sunday night) and the music, an engaging mix of ’90s house, ’80s new wave, Pixies, Janis Joplin, Jamiroquai, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, and assorted weird shit (like the coolest remix of Barbara Mason’s 1965 classic “Yes, I’m Ready”) from the personal playlists of 5th of May’s various employees, none of whom had a clue what the names of any of the songs were. I haven’t procured a single souvenir since I stepped foot into Israel, but I’m not leaving Jerusalem without that soundtrack.

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