Friday, February 26, 2010

My ten best Star Trek episodes (TOS)

Mirror, Mirror (takes place almost entirely on board the Enterprise)
Terrific, evil twin fantasy. And Kirk gets a "Captain's woman," whose role in this universe is very frankly displayed.

Journey to Babel (ditto)
Kirk was never more heroic than when piloting the Enterprise through an alien suicide attack while nursing a stab wound in the lung.

The Corbomite Maneuver (ditto)
Bluffing our way out of disaster; in the depths of the crisis Mr. Spock almost says "I'm sorry," but manages to restrain himself.

Wink of an Eye (ditto)
Another sheer fun fantasy -- imagine if you lived at another speed than everybody else. And this time Kirk's woman gets to tell a jealous rival, "Allow me the dignity of liking the man I select." A rare gem from the otherwise notorious third season.

Balance of Terror (ditto)
We meet the Romulans, and see the Enterprise and crew functioning in a purely military situation. Refreshing.

Charlie X (ditto)
Kirk as father to a telekinetic teen spaceman. Only he could pull off (so to speak) the red tights.

The Galileo Seven
Spock gets most of the camera time, Kirk comes close to crying -- don't miss it.

City on the Edge of Forever
Great story, but Spock actually has the more interesting role.

Amok Time
The friendship of the three main characters is shown at its best. And you get to meet T'pau, the grand old lady we all want to be. Heck, T'pring is the grand young lady we all want to be.

Court Martial
Another great story -- how on earth are they going to disprove the evidence of the damning tape? -- in which Spock's role, again, is the most interesting.

Errand of Mercy (okay, let's make it eleven)
Kirk ends up embarrassed at his eagerness for a good war with the Klingons, though of course he is in the right -- and you have the fun of spotting the actor who played the valet to Maurice Chevalier's Uncle Honore in Gigi.

The Menagerie (it'll have to be an even twelve)
For sheer ingenuity, this one is hard to beat. Once more, Spock's role -- his total loyalty to two captains -- is the crux of the story.

Honorable mention: Plato's Stepchildren. Though painful to watch, nevertheless it does make you marvel. For one thing, maybe leisured life in ancient Greece was pretty grotesque in some ways. For another, these guys, as actors, had guts and they earned their pay. For this one they pretended to be puppets on strings -- they danced jigs -- Shatner had to crawl on all fours and whinny like a horse. And the script writers, to give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps were thinking it was high time the heroes of the Enterprise acted heroic in some other way than the physical. There is a heroism, after all, in submitting to humiliation and remaining human, disciplined, and civilized in spite of it. The only flaw in the rendering of the characters' reactions lies in Spock's devastation at what he is put through. To be logical would have been to accept that the treatment meted out him to is not his doing and is therefore not to be agonized over.


Image from Memory Alpha

Monday, February 22, 2010

The ballet

Catherine and Grace attended the ballet for the first time on a January night at the local university, to see a Russian dance company perform Swan Lake. It was Catherine’s idea. The university’s theater guild had sent out advertising brochures about it to the local libraries as well as to their own subscribers, and Catherine had seen a copy on the circulation desk as she checked out books. The brochure claimed the Russians were much renowned, and it included quotes from reputable big-city newspapers' rave reviews. And this was the only ballet, Catherine frankly reasoned, she was ever likely to bother to go see.

So she bought a ticket for herself and her mother, and they wound their way to Matteson, past the neat small suburban houses amid their stiff, bristle-brush, brown winter trees, along the acutely angled darkening winter streets whose layout probably reflected haphazard pioneer trails of a century and a half before. They wound their way around that new supermarket with its parking lot and the nearby, newer houses plunked just in the middle of the old trail-streets but otherwise nowhere in particular, and then they drove up and over small rises and hollows in the old farmlands until they reached the big, open, prairie campus. Once on the school's premises, the road turned broad and beautifully paved. They passed the obligatory large, ugly public art sculptures, giant copper two-by-fours assembled any which way and left standing -- after the honor of their being chosen, when, twenty, thirty years before? -- in pointless anonymity. When they pulled into the parking lot the night was fully black, and cold. The school buildings stood all around them, large, floodlit brown brick boxes. Inside them was the hush of scholarship perhaps, but also the hush of emptiness and money.

The theater was small, and so Catherine and Grace and everyone else had excellent seats. Catherine looked carefully at the stage. There was no orchestra pit. Where was the music to come from? She looked around at the audience, and remarked in a whisper to Grace at all the well dressed Oriental people taking their seats. She was accustomed to a most “diverse” world filled with blacks, whites, Mexicans, a new influx of Poles and Lithuanians, the occasional Arab, but not to soignee, suddenly mysteriously abundant Chinese or Japanese. She settled back, glad she had worn her lime green silk sweater, and her brightest green sparkling earrings.

The lights dimmed and the audience listened to a tedious speech given at center stage by the director of the theater’s board, an excited lady who wanted to acknowledge the family whose generous donation had made this performance possible. Everyone applauded. Then a hissing spurted from two large black speakers embedded in the walls high up at either side of the stage. So the music was to be canned, and the dancers would have to dance to that. Did they suffer this as amateurish, needlessly difficult, un-Russian? The curtains parted, and the ballet began.

As Catherine watched she had the new experience of understanding an artwork slowly, grasping a story slowly, without words. Words came to her sometimes, but when they did they surprised her by their presence and their aptness. It was as if someone else really was speaking inside her head. The main male dancer was lost in one scene, for example, amid the women’s tutus dipping and fluttering, amid a running flurry of white swans. Catherine thought, or the observing voice spoke: she’s there somewhere, but he can’t find her. At other scenes she thought: she’s lost, or he’s tired. She thought, I must love ballet.

About halfway through the production, during a long crowd scene with many dancers onstage, one particular ballerina came to the front and danced. She began to turn about on one pointed foot over and over again. Catherine concentrated on this, and as the ballerina turned, and turned, and seemed never to stop turning but finally stopped, she thought: that must have been over thirty turns. She said as much, in a tiny whisper, to Grace, who agreed.

Later she would do some hunting at the library and find out, in books on ballet, that these were the famous fouettes en tournant which all ballerinas dancing Odile must do, because Pierina Legnani did them at the 1895 premiere choreographed by Petipa, where they caused such a sensation. Indeed there are thirty-two of them.

For the moment, she relaxed in her seat while the applause died down. She watched the rest of the ballet. More words came to her head. The nation happened to be at war. And there had been a documentary on television the week before, full of horrible film clips of old suffering, in fact of Russian suffering. Imprisoned men fighting over bread. She watched the silent dance, watched its fluttering costumes and colors on the golden-lit stage, remembered the ballerina turning. And she thought, or the observant voice spoke: this is why God permits the world to go on existing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"...and clear ice grew dense..."

"The northwind dropped, and night came black and wintry. A fine sleet descending whitened the cane like hoarfrost, and clear ice grew dense upon our shields."

Homer, The Odyssey, Book XIV

Monday, February 8, 2010


Spelled Ysatis. Pronounced ee-sah-teest. The magazine ad looked like this, in 1984:

The scent was so divine I pulled the sniffy-card, or whatever they call them, out of the magazine and kept it in a drawer for, I do believe, years. In those days I was a firm virtuous person who would never dream of spending money on the actual perfume. Besides, I was a product of the Seventies. Everybody was natural then, or scoffed at engineered feminine capitalist self-definition, or both.

Then a couple of years ago I began subscribing to Bazaar, and then to Vogue. Once again I met the perfume industry's sniffy-cards. I try them all. Last year, for my birthday, I gave myself a treat, and bought a bottle of Miss Dior. It's heavy on the orange, but delicious.

And then what with one thing and another, today I decided to buy myself an early birthday present. Why not try -- could it be possible they still make -- Ysatis?

In fact, Givenchy (jzhee-vahn-shee) still makes it. In a delightful blog maintained for three years, from October 2005 to October 2008, Scentzilla says of it:

Nothing better exemplifies the balls out, over the top glamor of the 80s than Ysatis. Ysatis was introduced by Givenchy in 1984. Ystais [sic] was created by Dominique Ropion, who went on to make a number of other perfumes for Givenchy, as well as some other rather infamously bold fragrances like Carnal Flower (F. Malle) and Angel (T. Mugler.)

This fragrance heaves thick floral notes of mandarine, orange blossom, iris, carnation, and narcissus over a fantastically fecund base. And for me, that base is the key to its charm. The combination of vetiver, oakmoss, patchouli, civet and (likely) castoreum in Ysatis is both terrible and wonderful to behold. The whole thing is smoothed over by a heady rush of vanilla and amber, creating a smokey sultry perfume overall.

"Very strong and not for everyone," she concludes. Heaven knows I can't detect all those wonderful things on my wrist, but I do find clove, possibly, and something like a memory of church incense there.

The universe of perfume is absolutely extraordinary, and that alone is a trite thing to say. Better, perhaps, to note that it's absolutely extraordinary there should even be a universe of perfume. It seems so un-Seventies, so un-earnest, when the world has such problems. But there it is. Scentzilla was not, and is not, the only one recording her passions and her knowledge. "Why would anyone collect perfumes?" she asks in her FAQs. And she answers, "Why would anyone collect CDs, movies, or those suspiciously adorable Hummel figurines? We all have different interests, and what catches the fancy of one person may not appeal to someone else." So true. When you finish learning all you can from her archives, you may go on to 1001 Fragrances, written by Paris based fragrance historian yes-there-is-such-a-thing Octavian Coifan. And then to Anya's Garden, Perfume Critic, to a makeup site brilliantly named Eyeshadow Government (complete with blunt motto, "Everyone needs makeup, especially you"), and then don't forget to stop off at Basenotes, where you'll learn -- alas, too late! -- about the Sniffapalooza fragrance, wine, and chocolate event held in New York City this past Saturday, February 6th.

These people, as a man in my house often comments when something is happening, are having way too much fun. May I, too, be a "balls out" perfume critic, just for tonight? Because you see, I have never much liked that most famous fragrance, Chanel No. 5. It strikes me as resembling Johnson's Baby Powder. Could a century of brilliant marketing account for its reputation? The current ad for it is divinely beautiful.