The President of Russia Dmitri Medvedev fired the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov a few hours ago.

In the political and business life of Russia, this is a truly major event, and one the consequences of which will be playing out for many years to come.

Russia is a very centralized country, and the significance of Moscow is almost impossible to overestimate. It is more important than Beijing is to China (after all, there are Shanghai and Hong Kong) and probably even more than Paris is to France, although the example of Paris probably comes the closest to capturing the dominance of Moscow in the national scheme of things.

In the US context, Moscow is, at the very least, Washington, DC (as the center of federal political power), New York (as the center of business and media), and Los Angeles (as the center of entertainment and factory of celebrity), all rolled into one. Yet that is at best an imperfect analogy.

The weight of Moscow in the economy is extraordinary; today Moscow probably accounts for about 20-25% of Russia’s GDP, and that does not reflect how much of the national economic activity institutions and individuals resident in Moscow control; that would be most of it. Not all of big US corporations are headquartered in New York; almost all Russian ones are domiciled in Moscow, and those that are not need to go there to manage their business. The same level of concentration is true in politics, entertainment and media, social life of the elite—светская жизнь , and much else. Officially, the population of the city is above 10 million people, but it is probably well over 15 million. The Moscow region, formally a separate constituent state of the Russian Federation, is increasingly an immense suburban zone serving Moscow, filled with summer dachas, residences of the government officials, estates of the super-rich, and new types of suburban development.

Presiding over this incredible, complicated, huge, and I suspect in essence ungovernable mess was Mr. Yuri Luzhkov, a chieftain and a warlord, first among Russia’s many powerful regional politicians. Luzhkov’s longevity at the top of Russia’s political life is remarkable. He was appointed mayor in June 1992—six months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, less than a year after the attempted coup d’état of August 1991. Boris Yeltsin was entering the second year of his presidency. Luzhkov is leaving now, in late September 2010, when the presidency of Dmitri Medvedev is past its half way mark.

Of other more or less major Russian politicians, only Vladimir Zhirinovsky can boast of same longevity; but Zhirinovsky, for all his celebrity and notoriety, never ran Russia’s boisterous capital, never controlled budgets and financial flows reaching into tens of billions of dollars and more, and could never rival Luzhkov in real influence and raw power.

Luzhkov is a regional leader of the Yeltsin era, when powerful regional barons established themselves in several regions. These men became leaders of vast networks of influence and patronage; they had bases of support among local elites and people; and they handily won local elections. Luzhkov is in many ways the symbol of this generation of Russian leadership. Resembling in some ways an old Soviet functionary—a glorified kolkhoz director of sorts—he at the same time became one of the most ruthless operators of new Russian capitalism, in the process transforming Moscow into a city of new buildings, many in the so-called Luzhkov Baroque style (ghastly!), and clogged highways. His emphasis on development led to blithe destruction of much was left of Moscow’s patrimony after Stalin’s grandiose designs and Brezhnev’s imperial drabness bulldozed the patriarchal pre-revolutionary Moscow. His vision of new Russian urbanism and his model of paternalistic machine administration serve as an inspiration and a blueprint for leaders in many a Russian city and region.

The position of the mayor of a nation’s capital is often a difficult—tensions with the country’s government are often unavoidable. Who is the real boss of Moscow—the boss of Moscow or the boss of All the Russias? Mayors of DC labor under direct supervision of US Congress; mayors of Paris are automatically considered significant presidential contenders. Mayor Luzhkov fought with three presidents for almost two decades, and generally was—the boss of Moscow.

It was said that President Vladimir Putin wanted to replace Luzhkov when he ascended to the top of Russia’s “administrative pyramid” and started to build his “vertical of power.” Prime Minister-President-Prime Minister again Putin trusts primarily people from Saint Petersburg, the people he knows from before his vertiginously fast Moscow career. His rapid rise brought to power in Russia the now-entrenched Saint Petersburg group of senior officials and businessmen. Luzhkov is about as far from the St Pete group in background, style, temperament and appeal as they come, and he has been caustic on the subject several times. St Pete dry technocrats and Moscow folksy bosses do not get along very well; more importantly, they compete with each other for money, power and resources.

Putin got the tools to remove regional leaders when after the unconscionable Beslan massacre he abolished direct elections of Russia’s governors and introduced the current somewhat convoluted appointive system. (Naturally, these tools were bequeathed to Putin’s successor Medvedev.) Many regional leaders, Luzhkov included, supported that move back in 2004. Governors and presidents of constituent republics thought that conducting quid pro quo negotiations with a group of men in the Kremlin—the symbolic center of Russia’s central federal power—is easier than haggling and playing nice with millions of often unhappy people in the territories under their care. Many of regional leaders were term-limited; and Russia’s incomplete experience with democracy was still enough to educate them on one key issue: democracy is cyclical, and in principle they could be voted out. (Their strategic horizons usually did not extend one step further—to realization that then they would be voted back in, and conceivably sooner rather than later, and in a stronger position.)

The scenario of kicking out Luzhkov would raise then, as it will raise now, at least three vital questions. The first is: How to run Moscow? Any global city is an organism of mind-boggling complexity. Luzhkov and his people—who will have to go if he goes—ran the place for two decades; they built it, they know it, they can handle it. Who else can? Putting a member of the Saint Petersburg group in the mayoralty of Moscow could be disastrous—no matter how illusory the rivalry between “the Northern capital” and Moscow is, the two cities at least pretend to be not very fond of each other. But even if a good candidate can be chosen from home-grown bureaucrats, or even from some other region but with proper Moscow experience, and there is no doubt that it can be done, the problem remains. If it is a new person to the building on Tverskaya, the issue of familiarity with the system would be crucial. If the person does not know it, how can he (and it is unlikely that it could be a she, but who knows) run the city? If he does, and can manage it, he is bound to have been a part of Luzhkov’s machine—and nobody in the president’s office would want Luzhkov redux. Granted, the opportunism of most functionaries and bureaucrats and politicians should not be underestimated; some person closest to Luzhkov might well be happy to discard his boss’s tutelage and ways; but questions would be posed and could linger.

The second vital question is how much dirt Luzhkov has on those in power, and how willing he is to use it to avenge himself and to protect his, his family’s and his associates fortunes. He must have a lot of dirt. And he has a lot to lose. 1990s and 2000s, with blood and money flowing freely, were not a time for the faint-hearted. Luzhkov knew everyone, had control over the streets where they lived, knew what and where they drove, had dealings with banks that channeled their money. Luzhkov can make things uncomfortable for many people, and for the “system” at large. But that in itself is dangerous to him. It is a fine balance he needs to find—self-preservation is a tough game in Moscow.

The third vital question in the federal center’s negotiations with regional leaders, and with Luzhkov in particular, has always been, Who can deliver the votes? Unlike governors, the president is still elected by popular vote. Moscow represents a very large segment of the country’s electorate. Muscovites are among the most educated and probably the most plugged-in and politically savvy citizens of Russia. They have money, they have opinions and they have the ability and to some extent the will to articulate their political wishes to a much greater extent than people anywhere else in Russia. Muscovites have also generally liked Luzhkov. When there were elections, he was voted in by large majorities; even as Muscovites complain about the city’s myriad problems, they still recognize that it could have been much worse—and in other cities it is. Luzhkov has been kind to some groups of the population and he himself has charisma. He is a benign paternalistic presence to many, and the rising tide lifted many, many ships in Moscow. Will his replacement, thrust upon the city in a less than ceremonious manner, be able to marshal the city’s resources to deliver the votes in the next presidential elections? Good question.

No discussion of Luzhkov can satisfy without paying homage to his wife, Yelena Baturina. Luzhkov has always maintained that he is a simple functionary, a civil servant, who has nothing and lives to serve. At the same time, his wife is now the richest woman in Russia, an oligarch and a billionaire several times over. Fortunes in Russia are really impossible to estimate correctly, and it is my general assumption that they are usually underestimated. Before the crisis, Baturina’s fortune was reported to be more than $4 billion; after the crisis, it has gone down some, but she is not likely to be suffering incredible hardship. Naturally, it is a happy coincidence that the long-serving mayor of Russia’s richest city during the heady times of redistribution of property and a construction boom is married to a woman of remarkable business talents whose vast fortune—independent of her husband’s—is based, to a significant extent, on construction in Moscow. There are many other assets as well, we are all happy to learn. The word “corruption” has never been very far from descriptions of the arrangements governing much of Moscow’s development.

And so today, while in Shanghai, President Medvedev fired Mayor Luzhkov.

All three questions mentioned—governability of the capital, possible release of compromising information on some members of the political elite, and impact of the firing on future voting in Moscow—are on the table. Luzhkov’s replacement is of pivotal significance, and Medvedev is likely to have selected a person already. Ex-President and Prime Minister Putin’s reaction is also extremely important. Will he use the situation to change the dynamic of his relationship with Medvedev? Or is he comfortable with the decision, as he acquiesced in Medvedev’s removal of a number of other senior regional leaders over the past couple of years? Putin believes in a very strong presidency, and, if nothing else, Medvedev’s action today is probably one of the most decisive and “presidential” of his career so far.

The firing proceeded along familiar lines. There have been scandals. Complaints about Luzhkov’s performance, often fair, have been mounting. His handling of some of the biggest problems Moscow faces—be it its traffic woes or the handling of the fires in August of this year—was seen as incompetent or negligent or ineffective or all of the above. Luzhkov was on vacation in Austria when fires started and did not come back for several days; the decision was justified in many ways by various proxies and by the mayor himself, with superb irritation and condescension. One observation offered was that he could not have done anything in any event. Fair and honest, but not exactly encouraging. Another one was that he works very hard and should not be begrudged a rest—which wasn’t a rest at all, but required medical treatment of a sports injury. The good news was that the mayor’s bee plantations were saved and relocated even while many villages were not. It may well be his private passion and private expense, but the “optics” was not in Luzhkov’s favor.

Tensions with President Medvedev have been growing steadily; Luzhkov allowed himself to be less deferential to the president and his entourage than is usually seen as acceptable in Russia’s quasi-feudal system of power relationships. Never play fast and loose with the president. Lately a major media campaign started against the mayor. The mayor went on another vacation and allowed himself some more brash remarks. Today in Shanghai Medvedev signed the removal order, based on “loss of confidence”—a damning and ominous reason for getting rid of a regional leader. Luzhkov then resigned from United Russia’s governing bodies, abandoning his key place in Putin’s (and Medvedev’s) support structure in the regions and in parliament.

There may be some corruption trials, and one of the big oligarch fortunes of Russia—Baturina’s—might come under attack. Moscow city government, i.e. (ex)Mayor Luzhkov, controls the Bank of Moscow, one of the largest banks in the country, and numerous other assets, not formally connected to Baturina. Much of this can be on the table. A major clan in Russian politics and business is under attack, and consequences can be extensive.

As for Moscow, it will continue to flourish. The source of its wealth and influence is not Luzhkov and his team but the structure of power and economy of Russia, and for that to change even the fall of one of its oldest, most entrenched and influential regional barons is not enough.

The weather has been pleasant in New York lately, and I’ve been walking around a lot. Yesterday I took an evening stroll, with half a mind to find a new place to eat. It is, on the one hand, never a problem, but on the other it is the challenge of the new — how do you choose? what do you really want?

Shamefully, in all my years of living in Astoria, I have never been to the area called Little Egypt. Some of my friends, especially those who have lived in Egypt or Sudan, have talked to me about it, praising its many hookah bars and its atmosphere — which, like so many other ethnic areas of the city, manage for a couple of blocks to transport you to a different place, and occasionally time, while remaining firmly in and of New York.

It was a warm and slightly humid evening, with autumn in the air. It took about 25 minutes to walk over to Steinway Street and 30th Avenue; Egyptian and other Middle Eastern and Arab businesess start from there, increasing in concentration toward Astoria Boulevard (and the highway below it). The stretch between 28th Avenue and Astoria is apparently what is called Little Egypt. Maybe I felt particularly disposed to feeling romantic last evening, but for a few minutes I felt as if I was traveling — it felt different, and looked different as well, with groups of men sitting on plastic chairs smoking and talking and gawking, with people exiting the Al-Iman Mosque, with sounds and smells being unlike those only a couple of blocks away on the busy 30th Avenue. I’ve been to Egypt once; I did not have much time to walk around and see how it really was, but from my superficial impressions this was at least half-way there. It was marvelous.

The cuisine I wanted to try, though, was Moroccan, and I heard or read somewhere that the same area has several Moroccan eateries. There is a neighborhood cafe called Little Morocco, which looked busy and popular, but also a bit too bright and functional for my mood. On another corner of the same intersection I noticed a place advertising itself, in halogen letters, as Jour et Nuit. Moroccan, clearly. The space, from the entrance, looked dark, elaborate if tattered, and completely empty. Extremely loud music blasted from a couple of speakers. It was slightly unnerving, but for some reason I was immediately intrigued, and wanted to try it. A couple of guys at the counter/bar/kitchen area approached, and after greetings offered a table; the music was turned down and became welcome North African background music. The gentleman in charge of the evening was, as I discovered on the restaurant’s website, Chef Najib. His address was warm as he, not too modestly, proclaimed himself to be one of the finest chefs of New York City.

It felt very well. The place had elaborate tiles, some lovely low Moroccan tables, and large pillows on couches along the walls. There was no one else in the entire large place, and the feeling was intimate and homey, of the sort that one sometimes feels when traveling and finding a small cafe or eatery nowhere in particular. The place is empty, but the proprietor or the cook are milling about, going about their day. You come in and ask, tentatively, for something to eat. And then the place suddenly is there just for you — what you asked for is made in the kitchen — and then everything returns to its own pace.

While not knowing whether Jour et Nuit usually operates like this, yesterday Sunday night that’s how it felt. (At the end of the meal Chef Najib did mention that he does not cook that much anymore, as most people do not come for food but for hookahs and such.)  After a conversation, lamb tagine and chicken couscous were ordered. When I asked for a glass of wine, one of the guys went out of the restaurant, brought and opened a bottle, and served a glass of what was perfectly nice wine. Tagine especially was delicious, tender and flavourful, with a lot of prunes that I love — but Chef Najib probably knows that not everybody does, so he asked me beforehand if I wanted them. Couscous was tasty too. I am not a specialist on Moroccan cuisine, but it struck me as somewhat unusual; there were more vegetables than I’ve usually had before. If there is a such a dish as “autumn couscous,” that is what it was to my palate — cabbage and zucchini and a few other steamed or boiled vegetables, over very buttery couscous, and a lot of extremely tender chicken, falling off the bones. It was almost comfort food. Portions were exactly right, the atmosphere was sustained until the end of the meal, and when I was leaving the place was even no longer completely empty — a couple came for drinks and a hookah.

Enjoying a meal or a place is so often dependent on a mood or a set of circumstances of the moment, and I by no means intend to write “food and restaurant criticism” in self-consciously serious manner. In the simplest of ways, yesterday’s evening in Little Egypt and at Jour et Nuit was pleasant and fun; it made me want to be on the road, reminded me of tastiness of Moroccan cuisine, reinforced my wish to go to Morocco, one of my “top 5 new countries I would like to visit,” and left me with a pleasant memory of lamb tagine and red wine in a dark empty restaurant on Steinway Street.


One of the old storefronts on Broadway in Astoria may be on its way out. This store — Astoria Meat Products — has been around for many decades, apparently, but I discovered it only in early 2009. It is a very old-fashioned place, dark and brown on the inside, quaint and anachronistic on the outside, and selling, mainly, various cold meats  — most importantly a nice but not excessive range of home-made hams and sausages.  It does not look or feel like a regular NYC deli; more like a small simple charcuterie, without any glamour that French words seem to evoke when applied to food.   The quality of hams in particular has always been exceptional, and I have never had such good, “real” and flavourful cold cuts in New York at such prices.  

(I am sure they can be found, as anything can be in this town, but I would have to travel far far away.)

It was sadly apparent that the place is behind the times.  Most customers stopping by when I was doing my shopping for bacon and home-made Italian sausages have always been elderly East European ladies and gentlemen.  The neighbourhood is diverse and changing, and a place packaged in mid-century hues most likely would not appeal either to most new residents bringing gentrification or to some of the other ethnic communities around here. 

The place was like its name.  Surely “Astoria Meat Products Inc.” is not the most appealing, interesting, or catchy name one can imagine?  Retro appeal is grand, but appeal has to be more aggressive.  A young woman, who has since stopped working there, told me when I first started to shop there that they were struggling.

This year, the place closed for a summer break in early August, promising to open in mid-August. Then the re-opening date changed to September 7.  (“How very Parisian, to take all of August off,” I thought.)   The sign promising to come back after Labor Day still hangs on the door, which is still shut.

This does not look good.

I am suffering from ham withdrawal.

I hope those guys pull through.  Fingers crossed.

The storefront on April 19, 2010



The opening scene of “Manhattan” is the most exuberant and effortless tribute to NYC I’ve seen on film. Even though I have not watched “Manhattan” in full in a while, I’ve indulged in the pleasure of giggling through that opening regularly, cheering my own affection for this city. Rhapsody in Blue helps. “Chapter 1. He adored New York City … ” and then tongue-in-cheek intellectualizing, awkward sweetness, romantic bombast, all familiar, still typical of so many reactions the city can provoke in perfectly normal people I know. Myself included. Too romantic; and too much of a metaphor, possibly a metaphor for itself.

Though whatever happened to obligatory complaints about decay of contemporary culture?

Re-watching “Manhattan” on Thursday was marvelously nostalgic. I have not watched the film in more than a decade. In the late nineties, I watched probably about fifteen Woody Allen films over a few weeks, and enjoyed them. But since then I have not watched many. The newer ones did not look as appealing, and I forgot the pleasures of his work. Despite their harsh misanthropy and occasionally grating cadence, they are infused with a glow often reserved for favourite books or films from childhood. Not that my childhood was spent watching “Hannah and Her Sister.” I think.

“Manhattan” is from 1979, and my surprised reaction — and more importantly the reaction of a fellow watcher who has never seen the film and who has not lived in New York for that long — was that NYC still looks the same. Constancy of NYC’s physical character is amazing. In that opening sequence, and in many of the scenes thereafter, neighbourhoods and landmarks are recognizable, and mostly still there. So are some of the types and characters and routines. Diane Keaton’s stridency seems to have receded into a less “networked” era, just as Diane Keaton now often seems to play women who are rather too rich and rather too well put together, residing in rather too magnificent houses, though still occasionally with an edge.

And they were going to Shakespeare in the Park back then too!

An event with Bella Abzug — what a celebrity cameo — at MOMA — the old MOMA, of course — did serve as a reminder that political and social landscapes and characters have changed. Somewhat.

In the scene where Woody Allen/Isaac Davis is running through the streets, one registers the biggest change: storefronts. In the film they are just different from what we have today; too heterogeneous, with no chains, but with a lot of names of proprietors and trades, rare in most of Manhattan. That said, I’ve seen stretches of such storefronts surviving in pockets of Queens and Brooklyn, and maybe on some messier blocks of Manhattan, like those around that garment district area of Midtown West or even upper Broadway.

The movie was in some way more harsh than I remembered — it manages to pack a couple of betrayals and a couple of broken hearts. No character is sympathetic, with the possible exception of Tracy, a 17-year old student at Dalton, who to me is not so much sympathetic as almost excessively winsome and wounded. But the film is also much funnier than I remembered. It reminded me just how much I like Woody Allen (‘s films), and I have a suspicion that it may be the beginning of another excursion into his work.

Next on the list: “Annie Hall.” I think I never watched “Love and Death.” I have no recollection of “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” And I am curious about “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” which came out this weekend.

It was a really nice Friday afternoon yesterday.

Yes, it was a bit too hot for my taste, but this summer I got used to this sad state of affairs. Probably it was good training for summers to come.

But without much advance planning I went Downtown and tried a couple of places that have been on my list to visit.

New York is either great or frustrating, or both, in this way.  No matter how many interesting places you eat at, drink in, see, try, visit, there are so many more to check out, no matter what category of a place you prefer or frequent.  And new places keep opening.  Crisis or no crisis, recession or no recession, places worth visiting pop up everywhere, and constantly.  Fortunately, after a few — many — years of living here, the urge to be constantly abreast and up-to-date has abated, at least in me.  Yet, still, there is a particular pleasure to going and seeing places that you’ve heard about, but have not yet experienced for yourself.  And then sharing your first impressions.

Freemans is a really lovely spot. I try to avoid “the scene,” whatever that is — I think I am not built to enjoy it — so I have never been there late at night or waited for hours to get and have its brunch. But at some point I discovered that it was a great place to stumble into in the middle of an afternoon for a drink; it was also a terrific place for a delicious and, always, strangely restful and civilized lunch on a week day. I have stopped by spontaneously a few times and always left in improved spirits. I am by no means a regular, but I like it.

So yesterday I went to an offshoot of Freemans, called Peels, for lunch. I think it opened very recently, within the past couple of months. It’s on the Bowery, where development is reaching the frenzied pace of Meatpacking a bunch of years back. It’s that stage of development and gentrification when a neighbourhood’s old charms (and problems) disappear and something completely new arises — conceivably great, conceivably better, undoubtedly of the moment and fashionable, but unlike what was there before that made the area appealing in the first place. So goes the Bowery.

Peels is a pleasant place, but it did not leave the same glow as Freemans usually does. It reminded me vaguely of a Le Pain Quotidien, not at all a bad chain, but also not something that the Freemans team, I suspect, would want to emulate.  All very wooden and kind of bright; a communal wooden table or two. Everything carefully put together, and shiny, but I was not sure for what purpose.  Sandwiches were fine, but not excellent or memorable; for what they were, I think they were also overpriced. Caveats: I’ve been only once, and only at lunch, and did not look upstairs, which is supposed to be a nicer setting for dinner. Yet as far as first impressions go, I am not impatient to go back.

Another first time: my first visit to The Ukrainian Museum, on East 6th Street. (I wonder whether the Ukrainian Museum and the church will soon be the only reminders of what a large Ukrainian neighbourhood it once was. Most of the old Ukrainian stores and eateries I remember seem to have gone.) I’ve been meaning to go for years, literally, but there have always been other interesting things to do in the neighbourhood and other museums to visit in the city. This time I was drawn to the place by an exhibition dedicated to Crimean Tatars returning to the Crimea.  My interest was fueled by some family history; also, an acquaintance created the sound installation. The exhibition turned out to be a series of large photographic portraits of several Crimean Tatars of different generation who went back to their ancestral villages and towns from Central Asia, and the sound installation consisted of some interviws, some music, and some readings to which one listened through old phones placed below the portraits. It was an interactuve installation art piece, and I suppose it was fine, but a compelling narrative did not emerge in my head from seeing it (even though I could probably come up with a narrative without seeing the exhibit).

The big exhibition on show at the museum is about Swedish-Ukrainian relations in the early 18th century, much of it about Mazepa et al. Every country needs to create a national story of its distinct origins, history and statehood, and this exhibition is a study in how Ukraine attempts it. The exhibition was in my opinion quite impressive: a nice collection of documents and maps, paintings and decorative objects, from quite a number of museums and collections in Ukraine and the US.

Some of it was also amusing: the Varangians going through Novgorod to found Kiev — the establishment of the old trade routes “from Varyags to the Greeks,” “из варяг в греки” — is cited in the introduction to the exhibition as an early instance of flourishing Swedish-Ukrainian relations; and not too surprisingly, Russia does not seem to have played a major part in the interaction between Sweden and Ukraine back in the times of Peter the Great either. But that is fine, and probably as it should be. What was more interesting to me is that it was dfficult, somehow, to care about the topic, and the documents, and the fine icon frames, and sceptre that could have belonged to Mazepa himself. I think to me seeing this exhibition in Kiev or St. Petersburg or Stockholm would have been natural and fascinating. On East 6th Street, it did not make much sense; it was trying to make points that, although relevant and interesting in Kiev or St. Petersburg or Stockholm, seemed to me to be very distant from a hot early autumn afternoon in New York. Like seeing an exhibition that would be interesting at the Museum of the City of New York, let’s say about the voyages of Henry Hudson or trials of Mayor Lindsey, in Paris or Shanghai: a subject possibly curious, but too local and parochial for a global audience. (It has to be said that there were maybe two other people at the museum while I was there, so “a global audience” may be an overstatement.)

After glancing at some paintings on the third floor and considering whether 200 dollars is too much for an embroidered Ukrainian shirt (yes, I reckon), I went out and had a nice chai latte at Think Coffee.

The final “first time” of the day, and by far the most satisfying one was a bar: Madam Geneva. Also on the Bowery, at Bleecker. I admit, I am very fond of a good cocktail. And I love the culture of fine cocktail bars in New York. I have heard of Madam Geneva before, but although I’ve eaten at Double Crown a couple of times I have not been to the bar. In the old Bowery days, I’ve been to the space — when what is now Double Crown smelled mustily, looked cavernous, and was always empty, while the bar was friendly and crowded and red (at least in my memory?). I do not remember the name, naturally.  I lived a couple of blocks away.

Now one reaches the bar through the restaurant; the small space is quite elegant, with all the requisite touches of the speakeasy style. Dark hues, an elaborate bar, nice chairs and banquettes, and a sense of comfortable and timeless, eternal tipsiness. For me, these are soothing spaces. Peculiar to Madam Geneva, there were some small Indian touches as well, which was appealing.

The bartender(s) were friendly, expert and not averse to some conversation, explaing, in particular, that the name “Madam Geneva” comes from old slang for gin, that “geneva” here is a stand-in for “jenever,” Dutch for juniper, and that “gin” itself is a shortening of that. Alas, no Swiss connection of any kind. I had no idea, and enjoyed and appreciated the lesson. All the drinks on a short menu are gin-based, and were marvelously made. A classic gimlet was smooth and delicious (and I am a fan of gimlets), and a drink called Freedonia was a further exploration of uses of grapefruit in drink. I’ve had a lot of grapefruit in my drinks this summer. And it was satisfying, both in August and yesterday.

All in all, an excellent Friday.

Although my Netflix queue is a good reminder to me of what movies I have watched, I periodically wish that I’d have a more detailed record of the films and shows I’ve seen and reactions I had to them at the time. This journal might help me with creating such a record.

It is often the case that I build a theme for selecting films, for there are hundreds of them I would like to watch, and it helps to have a subject or an actor or a period to explore. Usually, there are several themes developing in my head (and on my screen) at the same time, and I can become almost giddy with self-referential delight, if only for a couple of seconds, when several themes intersect.

I’ve been watching films with Ingrid Bergman. The exploration started with revisiting “Casablanca,” and then went through “Gaslight” and “Anastasia.” The most recent film — which I watched yesterday and today, re-watching some of the scenes — is “Joan of Arc,” from 1948.

My strongest association with Jeanne d’Arc is the statue, which to me always looked diminutive, with peeling gilt, on Rue de Rivoli.

The subject is endlessly fascinating, as most European history tends to be for me. The film was fine. Bergman as Jeanne d’Arc emotes touchingly, while those around her either scheme or worship. Characters are types, and the film moves relatively quickly, retelling the story dutifully if without any particular brilliance. The director of the film is Victor Fleming, who directed both “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” (both of which I also watched over the past few months, but more on that later). Colors from the period often seem garish to me, and sets often look theatrical and strangely unconvincing, no matter how sumptuous. They reminded me strongly of Olivier’s Shakespeare films, with which I could never fall in love.

Joan of Arc’s story is on the one hand all about blind belief and strong emotions — hers and her supporters'; and patriotic action — the war. On the other, it is also a story of politics, and hence of words. Of power, of authority and of charisma, and of scheming and of corruption. The trial — attempted manipulation, and abuse of dogma, and betrayal, and (unwitting) cleverness (can such a thing exist?) — is to me the most compelling part of the tale. I remember watching “Saint Joan,” a play by George Bernard Shaw, in Boston a couple of years ago, and coming away from it with a memory of, essentially, a well-wrought courtroom drama, not a great epic story of a patron saint of France.

And yet. Last year, the film that I found most memorable and powerful was the 1928 silent treatment of Joan’s trial, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” (It was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.) It’s been more than a year since I watched it, but it still evokes strong feelings, though I do not remember many of the details. What remains is a succession of most amazing faces; in my mind’s eye, the film is a long and draining series of human expressions and types, in close-up. There must have been some scenes to propel the action, such as it is, but it is those faces that stay with me. They reminded me of wood carvings of the Northern Renaissance, or maybe of some paintings, sometimes van der Weyden, sometimes, at frightening moments, Bosch, sometimes something else, more modern, and modernist, which, after all, would make sense.

Joan’s fear, befuddlement, resignation, naivete, belief, stubbornness and suffering are all seen in close-up too. It is remarkable.

The scene of her death — her dark profile, billowing smoke, the crowd — is haunting; it tells of pain more convincingly than gory scenes of death in the movies through the decades.

Silent film is a tall order these days. There are not that many silent films that I have seen, and fewer that I’ve truly enjoyed. But “Passion” became for me one of the purest expressions of what film can do.

The Fleming/Bergman film was not devastating. But it was a good story that is worth telling nicely told.

There is no particular reason why I decided to start a blog. Or to start my blog today.

Yet reasons can always be found. For instance, tonight autumn arrives in New York. As days become shorter and weather worsens, why not spend too many hours on exercising (exorcising?) the demon of graphomania?

I am curious about blogs, and what purpose they can serve. I never wanted to have a diary, yet I am often struck by a wish to record an observation or a reaction, mostly for my own benefit. So I do not know whether this will be my own private journal, or a way to keep some friends abreast of what I am doing, or something altogether different. We shall see.

Be it as it may, it is a new beginning at a time of transitions and new beginnings in my life, and that, ultimately, might be its purpose. To be something new.


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