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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Wild Leeches of Mansfield Park

Hmm, what to say about Sunday's "Mansfield Park" on PBS? Like the other week's presentation of "Persuasion," the story felt rather rushed and hectic, perhaps inevitable in a 90-minute production. But it also helped clear up a few plot points for me - this is an Austen book I haven't read, so my familiarity with the story comes entirely from the 1999 film with Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price. That version took significant liberties with the story, once again "sexing it up" (what's with that trend?), with a bi-curious Mary Crawford, among other raunchy bits, so I was interested to see which elements disappeared and which remained in this feature. I'm sure other important elements were also left out of this tele-film, so I guess I will eventually just have to do the honorable thing and read the book itself to get the definitive answers.

So, other than a more faithful storyline, I'm sorry to say that the things that stood out to me most about this "Mansfield Park" were probably not elements the producers of the program had in mind.

Firstly, there were some very lively leeches in a sickroom scene, curling and mugging for the camera in their pretty glass jar. They enjoyed a surprising amount of screentime. Also quite distracting: our mournfully handsome Edmund Bertram looked for all the world like Davy Jones in Beatle boots, preparing to serenade his lady with "Daydream Believer." And in every scene featuring heroine Fanny, played by actress Billie Piper, the screen was in danger of being entirely overtaken by her enormous choppers. Those things were blinding! I would not have been surprised had the rest of the cast been equipped with protective sunglasses.

A bright spot was Jemma Redgrave as a pug-obsessed Lady Bertram, plausibly evolving from chilly to doting in her attitude towards Fanny (not sure if that's true to the book, but I liked it here). I'd last seen Redgrave as the brisk Evie Wilcox in "Howards End," and it was intriguing to see her play this role so differently. It's such a joy to observe the work of actors who, unlike so many one-note Hollywood stars, are actually able to portray a variety of distinct individuals, instead of always being, oh, say, "the Julia Roberts" character, in a given movie.

Up next Sunday is "Miss Austen Regrets," something I will look forward to no matter how good or bad it turns out to be, solely because it stars my beloved Miss Cross. I only hope there's enough time to scurry home from our Sunday Super Bowl party to catch the opening moments. If we miss Gillian Anderson's droning introduction and bordello-red backdrop, that'll be okay.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Hair Diaries: The Unwanted Haircut

Katie and others may be embracing the Posh Spice bob, but when I went to the hairdresser's yesterday this was the last thing I wanted.

When I told my stylist I'd like something a little different, I was thinking a few more layers around my face, at most. I should have known we were going to have a poor communication day, however, when she made a suggestion prefaced with - "you're probably not going to want to do this." She then went on to describe a deeply angled, short-at-the back cut.

Never once did she utter the "p" word, but it had to have been her inspiration. Inside I was thinking, this is the best she can come up with? I mean, we're talking about a lady who has a daughter in high school and can still pull off a tartan micro-mini with black tights and motorcycle boots. You wouldn't think she'd go near a hairstyle trend launched by a perma-tan Spice Girl. It's part of the reason I like her.

Anyway, as gently yet firmly as possible, I let her know that while I appreciated her suggestion, I really, really didn't want that haircut. And speaking of this, why is it necessary to tread so carefully with hairdressers' feelings? Sure, it's their idea, but it's your head. Do they need to take it so personally if you don't want them to express themselves on it? I understand that it might get boring to do the same haircut time after time, but we do tend to go away for many weeks before we come back and ask for it again. Aren't there lots of other styles and colors to attend to in the interim? That's where the variety should come from, in my opinion. So I told her, let's keep the length (a little past the shoulders) and do some long layers. And yes, angle it a bit towards the front, since the back grows out so quickly.

I think that's where I made my mistake. "Angle it a bit towards the front" became "angle it dramatically," and somehow through free-association, "keep the length" became "chin length." I don't know about you, but I see the shoulders as a major line of demarcation when it comes to hair, a Mason-Dixon line of coiffure aesthetics. Both can look good, but once the hair clears the shoulders, the sum total of the effect is more than the matter of a few inches, because it means the difference between the hair resting on something and the hair hanging in space. If I know my hair will be hanging in space, I will make special requests regarding the way it is cut. It always bugs me when a stylist tries to shame me about minding that it's "too short," when the fact is, it makes a difference. It's all too easy for this miscommunication to occur because they usually start cutting at the back, so you can't really see how much they're taking off until they get around to the front, by which point it's too late.

Now, I don't have anything against the classic bob, or even the Posh bob (the "Pob," I guess we're calling it). I have even asked for such a look on many occasions. But for some reason it has also been foisted upon me against my will, more than once. Why, why? Can they not see from the back how much neck they are exposing with their carefree snip-snipping? Do they feel it is their stylist duty to give some sort of definition and shape to my pin-straight, baby-fine hair, even if the only style truly suited to it is the one I have forbidden theme to create? Is the bob simply my destiny, one that all of us are powerless to resist? I don't understand.

My first, and worst, bob assault happened when I was just out of college, working as a waitress in Cambridge. I was strolling down Newbury Street one afternoon when a young woman stopped me and asked if I'd like to get a $10 haircut at Vidal Sassoon as a hair model. Money was tight, so this offer appealed to me. She flattered me, telling me I had the perfect hair for it (baby fine and pin straight, that is), and promised I could have any style I wanted. "Great," I said. "Just as long as I don't have to get a bob."

"Oh," she responded, "I wouldn't give you a bob anyway. It wouldn't look good on you."

Well guess what happened - the day I went in for my discount haircut, the students were practicing a very special style at Vidal Sassoon, the one on which the whole baby-fine, pin-straight Sassoon look was built. The classic bob! When I expressed concern, my young stylist told me she would just do the cut longer. Unfortunately, each time her terrifying teacher swept by to check on her progress, she would screech at us, "Shorter! The classic bob is much, much shorter! Up, up, right at the nape!" I gathered my courage (this lady was really scary) and piped up, "But I told her I didn't want a bob." I might as well have been Oliver Twist asking for gruel, such was her outrage that I dared express an opinion. "You are the hair model! You are here for her to practice. You are here for her to learn THE CLASSIC BOB."

At this point I tried to just leave, hair half finished, but the student begged me to stay, hissing pitiably, "I'll get in trouble!" Grrr. I grudgingly let her snip at my shorn tresses a little longer, my fury welling uncontrollably. One thing I forgot to mention here is that I had just days before been in a bicycle accident and broken a bone in my hand. I had a big cast, the break was still throbbing, and it was my right hand so I struggled to accomplish the most basic tasks. This didn't do anything to enhance my patience, and made me feel even more powerless sitting under the nylon cape with sharp scissors pointed at my head. I told the student that unless she wanted me to lose it, I needed to leave, immediately. She quickly unsnapped the back of my cape.

I hurried off to the coat room, but that horrible teacher followed me, and actually had the gall to try to chew me out for shirking my sacred duty as a hair model, standing in the doorway of the closet, shouting. But I had reached my limit with the Sassoon fascists. It might have been the pain medication talking, or maybe it was just pure hair rage, but I found myself raising my cast like a club, then whacked it soundly against the door frame, right in front of her face. It got her attention -- she stopped yelling. "She promised me I wouldn't get a bob," I said. "I'm leaving now." And I made my way past her to the door.

But before I got there, the teacher caught up with me one final time, and without a word, she handed me my ten dollars.

You can see why I might have developed an aversion to this particular hair style. As for my experience yesterday, nobody bullied or berated me, no casts were thumped, and when I expressed dismay at the completed look, the stylist did attempt to make some adjustments, though she also tried to persuade me this was exactly what I'd asked for, was in fact the same haircut I always get, at which point I started to wonder if she'd gotten me confused with another client.

She also made one other gaffe, and colored my hair a shade darker than I'd wanted. The result is an overall look that bears a lot of similarity to none other than Katie Holmes.

And perhaps here I've found my answer. Maybe my stylist isn't distracted, bob-obsessed, or anything else. Maybe she's just following higher orders. Maybe she's ... a Scientologist!


Monday, January 21, 2008

Bonnet Fever

Last night's installment of PBS's "Sweet Jane" series (okay, not really called that, but they've been playing that promo so much it's seeped into my brain) was "Northanger Abbey," and while I was looking forward to it, my hopes weren't too high after last Sunday's disappointment. The book was never among my favorites, either, so I admit I sat down to watch primarily with an eye to the clothing and bonnets my friend Natalie so lovingly previewed in her blog the other day. (She also did a review of the movie for PBS, complete with a fantastic play-by-play "bonnet watch" countdown of her favorite "Northanger" headgear.) The one pictured above is my favorite, incidentally. Pretty simple in design, but I just can't resist the rich texture of that ribbon trim.

There's something to be said for setting one's expectations, because I was very pleasantly surprised. The story was well-paced and funny, with dashes of tension and even a rather shocking seduction that I certainly do not remember from the novel, and wonder if Austen could even have hinted at something so disgraceful. (Must have been an example of screenwriter Andrew Davies putting "burlesque into bonnets," much as he popped Colin Firth into a wet shirt to sex up "Pride and Prejudice.")

The film offered many pleasures, but I think my favorite moment was when the two little sisters of our heroine, Catherine, see her suitor approaching across the lawn - Henry Tilney, a man they have heard is quite dashing, but have not yet met - and grasp each other gleefully, chanting, "Mr. Tilney, Mr. Tilney!" It might as well be Christmas morning for them.

And let's be honest, isn't that how every costume drama addict feels when a new one of these things rolls around? "Jane Austen, Jane Austen!" At least when it's the kind of adaptation, however familiar we may already be with the story, that succeeds in charming us all over again.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not a Pretty Persuasion

Just a note to say Sunday's "Persuasion" adaptation on PBS was all kinds of let-down to me. Even though it was only about ten minutes shorter than the terrific 1995 version, it felt like they galloped through the story on fast-forward. The director also employed the annoying technique of having Anne Elliot gaze into the camera anytime something significant happened, and sometimes, apparently, just for the hell of it. If this trick had been used once or twice it may have carried some punch, but as it was, it kind of looked like the actress was forgetting her lines and looking desperately our way, hoping for a cue.

Poor Sally Hawkins was made even more unattractive than Anne Elliot needs to be, with her hair scraped into a little knob atop her head, the severity only broken by a few stringy ringlets. As for the supposedly redeeming quality of her excellent character, undervalued and suppressed by her overbearing family, she came across as not so much dominated by her inferiors as too feeble-minded to puzzle out what any alternatives to their demands might be.

The movie's worst moment was also the subject of the funniest observation I saw about it, from an SFGate review, describing the triumphant moment when, after running halfway across Bath and back, Anne leans in, open-mouthed and runny-nosed, to share a kiss with her beloved. "Her mouth twitches like a bass zeroing in on a tasty side order of plankton as her face moves slowly toward its target." So romantic!

It all left such a fishy taste in my mouth that, even though it was late, the only way to cleanse my palette was to dig out my old, staticky VHS recording of Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds doing the story justice, and watch the whole tale through again.


For an Excellent Bath ...

... try these enhancements:

  • if your home water heater cannot get that deep-water bath scalding enough, turn on the kettle while the bath is running, then add hot water as needed. (Be careful to keep the hot kettle away from bare skin though! This may seem obvious, but it's a mistake that is easy to make, and one you will never forget.)
  • once I had a dream that I took a bath in a tub full of pink grapefruit, and for that reason this pink grapefruit shower gel makes a nice bubble bath. Add it near the end of the bath to avoid excessive bubbling, unless you like that sort of thing. Lots of bubbles look pretty, but I think they get in the way.
  • if you can get a clawfoot tub, they sure are nice.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Jane Austen, Ahead of Her Time?

Eagerly anticipating tonight's new adaptation of "Persuasion" on PBS, I checked the listing online to see if they would show the whole story at once, or break it into several episodes.

Imagine my surprise, when clicking "more info," to read of this unexpected twist in the Elliott family's fortunes in Yahoo TV's brief synopsis:

"Martin's gay father moves in; with Kevin McCarthy, Paul Dooley."


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Best Breakfast, No. 2

If you can't have the best oatmeal granola in the world, this is a nice substitute: some crunchy cereal flakes, a few dollops of thick Greek yogurt, a sprinkling of sugar (the yogurt is unsweetened), and mango chunks, plus some milk. It helps if you have it in a bright blue latte bowl, on a sunny morning.

The yogurt reminds me of something I ate on my first trip to France, when I was about 20. I actually wasn't even in France yet, but my friend and I were on our way there, flying from London to Paris for New Year's Eve. The time we saved by flying seemed worth the expense, but we had to compensate for our extravagance by eating nothing but bread and cheese once we arrived.

On our way there, however, as short a flight as it was, they served us a beautiful little lunch, and the dessert was a container of this thick, creamy yogurty stuff with a paper straw full of sugar to sprinkle over it. I later learned from my housemate's French girlfriend that it was a kind of fresh cheese called fromage blanc. It was one of the best things I'd ever tasted, in a way only the things you experience in the midst of the exciting and new can be. When the French gentleman sitting in our row observed our ecstasy, he graciously offered us his untouched portion. "You two will clearly appreciate this more than I ever could," his eyes seemed to say.

The associations some foods carry matters almost as much as the way they taste; in this case, it's telling that I prefer to serve this concoction in a French latte bowl, n'est ce pas? The Greek yogurt I use (the brand is Fage, and seems to be cropping up in all our local markets now) isn't exactly the same as that original fromage blanc, but it comes close enough to conjure up the mood of a holiday adventure with my friend, the first sublime taste of a simple new food, and the kindness of a stranger. Which is not too shabby of an accomplishment, for breakfast.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Le Style du Scaphandre

Earlier this week we saw "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," such a beautiful film. It captures the flickering interplay of memory, imagination, and perception like nothing I've ever seen.

There's much in the movie by which to be dazzled, but in the spirit of its protagonist's onetime position as editor of French Elle, I found myself particularly charmed by the style of the female characters (the hospital therapists, various mistresses, etc.). Beautifully groomed brows, tissue-thin blouses in polka dots and plaid, fluttery cotton dresses, and simple crosses around their necks. All this against the backdrop of an austere French seaside or a Paris balcony.

Even the numerous hospital scenes have a dreamy beauty, with the filtered coastal light through the windows and seafoam and robin's egg-painted walls. It's like an Anthropologie catalog come to life, and with redeeming cultural value, too. So I'm already looking forward to spring, when my style of choice will be French institutional chic.

Seriously though, brilliant movie. I highly recommend.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Royal Tannenbaum

Oh, I know Christmas is over. Some of our neighbors have already thrown their dried-out trees out on the sidewalk with the trash. But in our household, some years we've kept our tree around until February. I just keep plugging in those lights and vacuuming up the needles.

We got this tree from Ricky's Flower Market over in Union Square. When we picked it out and the guy came over to trim the trunk, he paused to admire it, congratulating us for our selection as though we'd actually known what we were doing. "Aw, now that's a good tree. A nice little Nova Scotia balsam. Good job." I don't often have a piece of Nova Scotia in my living room, unless it's on a bagel. It's hard to let it go.

This sparkly little mushroom was new this year. I picked it out during a feverish Christmas shopping frenzy at Black Ink, a quirky little gift shop in Harvard Square. It spoke to my "enchanted woodland holiday" aesthetic.

Fat Baby was modeled many years ago by my mom, before I was born, when she and my dad were trying to fill the branches of one of their first Christmas trees. Fat Baby is surprisingly heavy, the way some babies are. I love the way he (she?) dangles from that slender thread like a yellow-haired little blimp. There's something ever so slightly menacing about that baby.

This charming composition was intended to be, believe it or not, the face of a beautiful ballerina. And it was rendered quite successfully, in the opinion of my three-year-old self. See the classic ballerina bun on top of her head? She used to have an entire body, too, but that snapped off and disappeared long ago. She was made out of homemade flour-and-water play dough, and baked and lovingly shellacked for me by my mom.

I begged to buy this pompon ice cream soda at one of the annual Holiday Bazaar fundraisers my grade school put on in the school gymnasium. The event was one of the highlights of the school year, with the locker room, usually a chamber of pre-gym-class dread, transformed into a cotton-swathed Winter Wonderland, and boys to be chased giddily amongst the craft tables. (The boys school was in a different part of the building, so on the rare occasions that we saw them, things got a little out of hand.) I also got an awesome crocheted Oreo cookie ornament from there one year.

There's no story behind this little teapot - I just love it. A family friend gave it to me one year. I love how it's almost a typical blown-glass ball ... except with a few extra flourishes, it became a teapot.

Help, I've been baked in a pie! Who says it's a merry Christmas??

Sexy Bambi lives on the mantle for the holidays. She is teal colored, and flocked with an appealing velvety texture. She has great legs.

Oh, and Happy New Year, too!