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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Betrayal, doomed lovers and art combine in Tulip Fever, a bestseller in Britain and a historical novel of great originality.

Judy Berlin, a loving look at the suburbs, deserved the prize it won at the Sundance festival.

Joni Mitchell's new album, Both Sides Now, comprises soulful standards and a surprise or two; Ordinary Words, a collection by Vermont poet Ruth Stone, is extraordinary. 


Flowering Deceit 

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
Random House; 281 pages; $21.95

Think of the New York, London and American stock exchanges, Nasdaq, day-trading and casino gambling as one giant speculative phenomenon and you'll get some idea of the mania that swept across Holland in the 17th century. The craze wasn't for stocks or bonds, gold, silver or pork-belly futures; strange though it may seem now, fortunes were squandered and entire families were ruined all for the sake of tulip bulbs. Prices rose to staggering heights, then dropped abruptly.  The Dutch had, of course, one other passion:  paintings and painters.  Artists, some of them great and some merely pedestrian, churned out the portraits commissioned by the well-to-do and produced the still-lifes and landscapes that filled respectable homes in The Netherlands. 
  Upon this historical ground, Deborah Moggach has built a tale of love and betrayal to marvel at.  A bestseller in Britain, Tulip Fever has just been published in the U.S., and it's a beautiful, haunting book.  Sophie, young and beautiful, but poor, has been married off to a rich, widowed merchant in Amsterdam, Cornelis Sandvoort. Cornelis adores his lovely wife; he could never have imagined such a surge of happiness.  Perhaps, he hopes, they will have a child.  Wanting to preserve for eternity his wedded happiness by hiring a young up-and-coming artist named Jan van Loos to paint their portrait.  At the first sitting, there's an instant erotic attraction between Jan and Sophie.  As he works, the painter frankly explores every curve of her body, the blush of her skin, the delicate smile, and as he paints, she can almost feel her skin being stroked by the brush in his hand. They begin an illicit affair, deceiving Cornelis and enlisting the help of the Sandvoort's maid Maria.  More and more helplessly entwined in their betrayal, a child is born, and the unlucky lovers devise a plan to leave Holland.  Jan foolishly seizes on the idea of purchasing the rarest of bulbs and re-selling it for an outlandish profit.
   Each chapter of the unfolding story is seen through the eyes of the different characters, a not unfamiliar technique because it keeps a yarn moving briskly along while revealing the interior life of varied and vivid personalities. Moggach excels at this, letting the reader see Sophie's exultation in love and her turmoil of guilt as she betrays and then seeks to escape from her husband. Ultimately, Sophie will find redemption through yet another choice. By a chance and tragically  absurd turn of the plot, Jan's dreams for a new life are doomed, but as if awakening from a nightmare, he discovers a deeper meaning and intention in his art. One of his still-lifes has a vase holding a single tulip: "White petals blushed with pink, like the flushed cheek of a woman who has just risen from her lover's bed.  On a petal there is a dewdrop. The woman's image is reflected there. You need a magnifying glass to see her; she appears to be a dewdrop, her time is short before she vanishes forever.'' It is a gifted writer who can evoke a long past time of careless rapture and feverish gambling and also look back at it from a distance through the spyglass of our own time. 
   Dutch painters of the 1600s produced grand portraits of the rich burghers of their day but they also represented the faces of ordinary people: ruddy-cheeked servants, honest tradespeople and scheming low-lifes. The author does the same thing by letting the reader see not only Cornelis, Jan and Sophie, but the maid Maria, her fishmonger lover Willem and Gerrit, Jan's loyal but slow-witted servant.  Moggach works like a draftsman, sketching each character with an exquisitely fine pen, adding the tiniest telling detail and faintest shading to make the figure emerge fully and lifelike upon the blank white paper. 


Split-Level Lives 

Judy Berlin  Written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn

Question: Do the Academy Award voters really think American Beauty pins down the true suburban existence? If the movie is right, suburbs are communities of strivers rooted in coldness and isolation, bleakness and frustration, not to mention living next door to creeped-out new-comers with peeping-Tom cameras and guns.  Judy Berlin, a modest movie that won its first-time director Eric Mendelsohn a 1999 Sundance Film Festival award has quite a different take on the 'burbs. It finds the odd humor, real affection and quiet despair in the lives of people going about their split-level lives in the town of Babylon, on Long Island a short train ride from New York City.  Where American Beauty's people are shallow and disconnected, Mendelsohn's are complicated, deeply human and enmeshed with others in the town. 
  The camera looks kindly on all the knickknacks of existence, on kitchens and schoolrooms and empty train platforms, but reserves its greatest warmth for people's faces. And such good faces they are. Madeline Kahn is sweetly daffy as the stay-at-home wife of the distracted school principal, trying to win a little attention from him and be a jolly pal to her 30-year-old son David, an erstwhile move director who has inexplicably returned home, morose and silent. 
   Director Mendelsohn shot his film in black and white, which gives it a cinema verité feel, and assembled a first-rate cast of veteran stage and film actors--Barbara Barrie, Novella Nelson, Bob Dishy and Betty Henritze, among them. Henritze is touching as a retired teacher who's gradually losing her memory, and at one point drives to the local school and tries to resume duties in her former third-grade class. Barrie is the teacher she barges in on, a woman with a undeniable gift for understanding her young pupils, though not her own grown daughter. Between Barrie and the married principal, an unresolved attraction hangs like an unbroken thread. All of the performances are so truthful that you feel you've been dropped down among people you've known for a long time. 
   The film takes place almost in ''real time,'' a  morning and afternoon during a solar eclipse. The strange and unnatural darkness in the middle of the day is magical, and the characters wander through their town as if in an enchanted forest. Kahn walks along shadowed streets, smiling and playful, pretending she's strolling on the moon, holding up her arms, and gently saying, "Whoooo - whoooo.'' The slightly spacey character, unaware of her charm and her endearing confusions, was Kahn's last role. It was perfect for her, and she's memorable in it. 
  Drifting aimlessly around Babylon, David runs into Judy Berlin, a woman he had known back in high school. As performed by Edie Falco of The Sopranos, Judy is still something of a gawky adolescent with all the spontaneity, spunk and sunny optimism that the introspective David lacks. An aspiring actress, she's leaving that day for California and is determined to have a dazzling career in the movies. David knows what she's up against, and recognizes the futility of her pursuit, but he's powerless to resist Judy Berlin's hopefulness and essential good nature, and so, in the end, are we. 
       (For a quick cyber-glance at the movie and its mood, director and performers, have a look at the artfully designed 

And Consider This

Both Sides Now
(WEA/Warner Bros; $17.97)
   A cigarette in a languid hand, smoke curling above her blond hair and a glass of red wine in front of her, Joni Mitchell broods on the front of her new CD. The painting catches the tone of the songs inside, muted and lonely and looking back on failed romance. The dozen songs--two of them by Mitchell--are familiar, and stand-bys like Stormy Weather, I Wish I Were In Love Again and At Last have all had other interpretations, some better than others. Mitchell's husky voice, smoky and smooth as whiskey, and her intelligence gives them a distinct and sustained story line. There's a nice subtle jazz influence and an infectious   swing quality to some arrangements, but occasionally there's a touch too much swelling strings and over-orchestration--remember those old music-to-love-by Sinatra albums? The simplest are best. You've Changed is a heart-breaking meditation on disappointment, ending with the last words of the title half-spoken, half-sung. In her interpretation of Both Sides Now, she pitches her voice low and the song is slow and somber, the words coming from her lips as if she had newly discovered them this morning. It's sure to become the standard by which all future versions will be compared. 


Ordinary Words by Ruth Stone
(Paris Press; 74 pages; $19.95) 

Ruth Stone lives in Vermont, and this year turns 85. It's important to know those two facts about her because a strong sense of place and the arc of age are elements woven through the poems in her latest collection, Ordinary Words. It won Stone the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award earlier this year, and it's a splendid way to be introduced to one of the country's best poets. Stone is not choosy about her subject, writing deceptively simple lines about mothers and daughters, McDonald's and doughnut shops, and about country people: "After she smashed the furniture, Mabel tried/to burn the house down. Years later when they let Mabel out of asylum, she was so light/you could lift her with one hand./Buddy took her in and she lay on the iron bed/under a pieced quilt. 'Quiet as a little bird,' he said.'' 
   There is little that escapes Stone's notice. Attuned to the tiniest, least important creatures, Stone sees microcosms of our human world in their life and death. There's a touching elegy to a small tomato caterpillar carrying under its skin the wasp eggs that  hatch and devour it. Oh, world, says the caterpillar, you were so beautiful. Now I am so tired. "...Nature/ smiled. Never mind, dear, she said. You are a lovely link/in the great chain of being. Think how lucky it is to be born.''  In seeking to retrieve the past, Stone finds the illusions of memory: "Returning to streets that had poured/heavy shopping malls/over the hay-sweet grass/where he and I lay whispering/the most important nonsense/of my desperate and embittered life.''  In Japan, Stone would have long since been declared a national treasure.

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