All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

31 January 2017

PHILOSOPHER'S DANCE



At first, they were nothing. It was only later that they became something. In fact, they were created by the seemingly random movements of one tall Frenchman. He was producing these movements to the sound of American music that was so popular in Paris at that time. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was dancing in the middle of the room. It was not the dance of his life - more of a dance, really, one of many. Maurice Merleau-Ponty was dancing between two groups of people - on the left, there were people who knew something. On the right, there were ignorant people. Those who knew nothing (there are always those who know nothing, God bless them).

The man was French. He was dressed French, too, wearing the sort of white suit you associate with tasteless people or those who know everything about taste. It did not take long to realise that Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a man of style. He wore that white suit like he meant it. 

As for the other people in that room, they looked random. Those who knew something were sitting at the tables staring into their cups and talking (to each other? to themselves? to God?) in quiet, semi-whispering voices. Those who knew very little (nothing, if we are being entirely honest) were busy drinking from half-empty glasses some kind of liquid that had neither taste nor smell. 

Initially, nobody seemed to notice Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The way he danced across the room as if trying to recreate some sort of quiet jazzy tune. As of now, the tune was inaudible and the audience was not engaged. In fact, the whole situation had been looking hopeless right until the sound of saxophone was first heard inside the room and something changed. Two groups of people on opposite sides of the room started to dance two different and entirely pointless dances. 

But the change was irrelevant. Clearly this was not what Maurice Merleau-Ponty wanted. Which was why the French philosopher did his great trick. He stopped altogether. The flame died, and two dozen heads looked towards the center of the room trying to figure out what had gone wrong. They did not even realise what drove them, those two groups of restless people recently conceived, as they ran towards each other in the hope of falling into someone else's outstretched arms.

In the hope of dancing, much to the happiness and discomfort of the Frenchman lying dead in the middle of the room.


26 January 2017

MOVIES AND BLACK TEA



I spied on Pauline Kael. All through my brief tenure as a film writer, I spied on her. Each time she went to Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd, it offered a chance to see her. Or, to use a metaphor suggested by an American film critic, it offered a promise of great sex. Like a great night at the movies.

Back in mid-70s I was working on my first film, and the only times I wasn't at home writing, I was in Musso & Frank Grill drinking black tea. Black tea was the cheapest item on the menu, and the only thing I could afford at the time. The waiters made no secret of being annoyed, but they let me be. Pauline Kael? She was having whatever she looked at first.


I don't know. I enjoyed sitting there for an hour or two, observing her from a distance. The way she talked to her companion (she always had one), the way she looked through the waiters, the way she chewed her food, the way she drank red wine she could never say no to. The way she sometimes almost looked at me...


All these years later, Musso & Frank Grill is still there. And all these years later, I still come to that place for a good conversation and a glass of red wine. Anything, really, anything that catches my eye.


And, occasionally, a cup of black tea whose price has gone way up since then. I guess it's for people not to waste their time. Not to annoy the busy waiters. Well, and also maybe to give more attention to the great line from Owen Gleiberman's classic autobiography: cinema is there to "hide from the world and spy on it at the same time". 



25 January 2017

MANHATTAN VIA LISBON



The idea was first expressed by John K. Bronson, and the idea was that once in a lifetime we get to meet ourselves at a later stage. At a time when we are much older and going somewhere on a bus or else stuck in a barber's chair getting a haircut. We only get a fleeting glimpse, and then it's all over. To me, well, to me it happened in a small bar in Lisbon where I was saying goodbye to Europe's most underrated capital.

He was drinking Manhattan at the counter, three or four seats away from me, in a depressed manner reminiscent of Judi Dench from Chocolat. Straight away I knew it was him. Or, rather, me. Fifty or maybe sixty years later. I knew it was him the way a wife knows about her cheating husband. I felt it.

The man was drinking Manhattan, and I hated Manhattan with a passion.

He was not talking to anyone and only occasionally peered through his glass as if trying to magnify something written on the bar counter. A word of warning? A message? In spite of Art Blakey's Moanin' as well as drunk, thirsty conversations buzzing through my ears, I was feeling uncomfortable and tried to engage a reluctant barman into a conversation about Westworld. His English was poor and I was guessing he hadn't seen the show.

My unease was mostly caused by the fact that I knew I had to do something and yet had no idea what. Deep down I was quite happy about my plane leaving Lisbon in a few hours. Which paralysed me, happily, the way indecision often does. Besides, I was dumbed down by alcohol and almost missed the way he left his seat four people away from me.

In fact, I did miss that moment entirely, and only woke up when the barman shook me alive and said that a Portuguese gentleman had just left a message for me. At which point I saw the stylish glass filled with one of this world's most recognizable cocktails. "But I don't like Manhattan", I offered, meekly. And the barman said to me (his English impeccable) that the old gentleman had instructed him to ignore my protests.

For a vague second I wanted to run outside and catch the man, make him explain or even talk, but then I remembered that John K. Bronson strongly advised against all contact with our future selves. Besides, I did not want to miss the plane. Besides, my own glass was already empty.


24 January 2017

LITTLE GIRL WAITRESS



War could start in weeks, maybe days.

I'm sitting in the French cafe wondering what I'm supposed to do with my life. Greta wants me to stay and have a long drink with her. She wants me to listen to Edith Piaf singing "La Petite Boutique", again and again. She wants me to eat the almond croissant she doesn't feel like finishing. She doesn't want me to go.

And neither do I. But equally I don't feel like drinking this coffee which is too black and too cold anyway. I don't feel like listening to any more of those French songs. I don't feel like eating. I don't feel like killing Germans.

Greta and I, we both know about the future. Earlier today this little girl waitress approached us and introduced herself. In the touching blue apron and with short hair dyed sand, she told us that the war would start later tonight. She was new to the French cafe, this girl, and it was her first day at work.

There was no way of proving or disproving what she said, but Greta covered her face in her hands and began to weep as we heard the voice of Edith Piaf singing "La Petite Boutique", again and again. It was only now that we realised the song had been playing for hours, and the invisible little waitress kept pushing the needle back, and the war may have already started.


21 January 2017

RED HAIR (Portrait One)



'The art of life lies in getting things done'. Words on a brief note. 

Red-eyed, red-haired and sleepy, she was sitting by the window, about to order her first cup of coffee. It was early morning and it had to be this poky little cafe that she hated so much. The place smelled of people. Millions of people that may or may not have been here at any given moment in history. Aristocrats. White collars. Working class. Millions. This was what she once said to him in a jazz bar when he pushed his glass towards her: 'It tastes like my grandmother's village'. Scotch whisky: brutal, punishing sort.

And now this place smelled of people. Thick smell of pavements, villages, boiled eggs and cigarettes. She ordered a medium-sized cappuccino and tried to imagine this was somewhere else. Somewhere in Italy, when they first met on a beach in Tuscany and he tried to bury her legs in the sand. She screamed and turned around and he was standing over her with a toothpick in his mouth. He looked huge, like a basketball player. He smelled huge, too, but that was not the smell of a basketball player. Rather, it was that strong odor of seduction she had long associated with James Stewart. She had seen him in Shop Around The Corner two Christmases ago. 

'I want to sculpt you', he said, and then she followed him to his hotel room. 

The sculpting went well (as far as sculpting goes), and he almost had the time to finish it off. His James Stewart voice never broke the silence, except once, when he reprimanded her for dyeing her hair red. She found this remark offensive and somewhat strange as it would not matter on a sculpture, but she never said anything. It now hit her, by the draughty window of a cheap Tuscan cafe, that this had happened only yesterday. And three hours ago she had woken up in his empty hotel room to a brief note saying something about the art of life. She was trying hard to remember, but the words escaped her. 

The girl who was serving her looked in horror, the second cup of coffee dropped on the floor, as the striking woman by the window did not move and had a stone face that, if you did not pay too much attention, rather became her. 


MY HEART STOOD STILL (Portrait Two)



Jazz is dead. Jazzmen are now roaming through this town the way ghosts do because nobody wants to hear jazz anymore. 

This Italian guy with a small child and a violin. What's his name? Giuseppe? Giuseppe something? I think I know him, I recognise his face from an old poster that was featured on every wall of this town. Giuseppe used to play in a swing band that was once part of an Oscar Peterson ensemble. That was seventeen years ago.

Giuseppe's eyes look tragic, and so does the long face of his violin. It's lying stretched on the coffee table and the child has put his banana milkshake on top of the brown case. I think I know how this will end. It will end the way it always does: Giuseppe will drink his double espresso, put on his coat and leave.

However, this time I'm willing to walk up to Giuseppe and ask him to play. Because I like jazz and I can still remember those balmy, moonlit performances which he gave years ago. 

'Giuseppe?' I ask as I approach him.

To which he nods, spilling his double espresso all over his pants, and I take the violin out of the case and start playing "My Heart Stood Still" to the half-empty cafe. And to my son, whose face is smeared with banana milkshake and who is looking at me in quiet disbelief.


COFFEE AND DATES (Portrait Three)



She was the sort of girl who spoke loudly on the first date. It means she was either full of confidence or else just willing to impress. High on coffee, Coleman's sax buzzing through my ears, I was still trying to figure out which it was. We were separated by three tables crackling under the weight of cups and voices and still I could hear every word she said. The girl was eating something from a tiny bowl of glass brought to her by one of the girls working here. 

'Then, later, I got into Arctic Monkeys. Strokes. Libertines.'


I could not concentrate on my writing as this was way too loud to weave my thoughts into anything readable. Never mind good. So I had to listen, as did the possible boyfriend staring at her from the other side of the table. His tea had gone cold from all the listening. His face had gone red from sexual intensity that was not too sexual after all.


'That whole genre. What's its name'.


Which was when her face grew puzzled and she stopped. A momentary blip. She picked another piece out of the glass bowl. She didn't mean 'indie rock', did she?


'Oh my God, I can't remember the genre'.


'It's okay', said the guy, offering some relief. It was also the only thing he would say the whole evening. 


'And then I got into the club of 27. Well, you know. Jim. Janis. Jimi.' Intensely, she sipped her latte. 'Amy. That film was truly amazing, in fact. No, God, I can't go on. I have to remember the genre'.


She picked up her phone and began to browse through those endless playlists she had compiled two or three years back. A little later, she gave up.


'Then lots of things in my life changed. I left a boyfriend of two years. I got into post-punk. Joy Division. I remember watching Control late in a lonesome cinema and thinking I wanted to commit suicide. No, give me a few more minutes'.


He was willing to give her a year. He wanted her to be silent for a while so as to maybe kiss her later that evening. At which point she screamed 'indie rock!' and I knew it was all over. 


In the meantime, she took a date out of the glass bowl, chewed it, swallowed it, and went on talking. 



DEPRESSION (Portrait Four)



The girl was crouched in the corner writing a poem. There was a certain kind of inspiration outside the window as the winter was starting to look endless. Inside, the young couple to the right of her was deep in their mobile phones exchanging racy pictures as well as verbal innuendos and she was starting to sense that her poem was getting erotic undertones.

She liked this cafe as it took her places. Like the first time that she found herself behind the Christmas lights of the entrance - she was bored and confused and she wrote her most romantic piece ever. All due to the sounds of Glenn Miller's orchestra playing some of this world's most beautiful serenades. That piece alone made Paul fall in love with her. Then there were times when she picked a book from the shelf and drew her inspiration from a random line of poetry and prose. Like the time when a collection of Nikolai Gogol's writings led her to a mystical poem that everyone in their secret society loved so much. Or the time when a cup fell down on the floor and cracked to pieces, leading her to break up with Paul following that biting four-line piece.

Now she wanted something depressing to maybe lead her to the end of the existential crisis and accept the world as it was (cruel, bizarre, absurd), but the couple to the right was relentless. 'What would you do if I came to you in a pornographic outfit like that?' She looked expectantly, hoping he would not disappoint. 'I do not know', said the man, slightly taken aback. At which point the girl in the corner sighed, turned her head to the window and her thoughts drifted to the endless winter outside. 


APPROXIMATIONS (Portrait Five)



Following a yoga class that made him stretch beyond his physical powers, he was drinking herbal tea and discussing electromagnetic fields with a group of young fellow scientists. Suddenly, he mentioned the word 'approximations', which could not even keep a visibly jazzed-up Tom Waits from singing "Summertime" on the TV screen attached to the far end of the cafe. The word 'approximations' did not amount to much, except that somewhere in a different part of the world, a million miles away and at that precise second, Donald Trump was starting to deliver his inauguration speech.