To Die For: Nicole Kidman, Too Many Cocktails and The Greatest Exit Line In The World.


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Note: For those who have been paying attention, this article will seem familiar as it originally ran in May 2011, not long after I started this blog. Over time, it’s slipped so far down the listings that it’s virtually inaccessible but I thought it worth resurrecting as a good example of how a sense of place can be evoked just as much by a person as anything else.

Of the twenty to thirty times I’ve visited New York (I’ve lost track of exactly how many), it’s this incident that I most associate with the city. It brings back so many ancillary memories. While I’d never want to live there, New York remains in my Top Five favourite places.

It was in the late 1990s and I was in New York researching an article on the newest and trendiest martini bars. In reality, this turned into something of a continuing quest and, several visits later, I was still hard at work. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it. I owed it to my readers to be as thorough as possible and damn the consequences to my liver and other vital organs.

On this particular trip, I planned to cover four martini bars a night for the duration of my stay. That evening, I’d started out at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, went on to the historic Algonquin Hotel, then to Pravda, a very fashionable bar just south of Houston Street, virtually next door to the building where Grace Adler works with Karen Walker in television’s Will & Grace.

Pravda was below street level with vaulted ceilings and a run-down quality that lent it, at least to New York bar-hoppers, an authentic Russian appearance. By this time, dangerously, I was on my third martini and feeling no pain. To those whose sole experience with cocktails is with the stunted Australian variety, carefully measured out with laborious precision, it’s worth pointing out that an American cocktail is much, much bigger. Alcohol is cheaper and the size of the drink is often governed by the tip you left for the last one.

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At Pravda, I had my fourth martini of the evening in a plush private booth, washing down caviar and blinis. Just as I was considering calling for the bill, the hostess rushed up explain that a VIP group was imminent and would I mind terribly vacating the booth? If I’d be happy to move to a table in the middle of the room (in reality, about 20 feet away), she’d send a round of drinks on the house.

Who was I to turn down such a kind invitation?

Within minutes, in walked Nicole Kidman, the Academy Award-winning actress of The Hours (2002), The Others (2001), To Die For (1995) and, one of my all-time favourite movies, Moulin Rouge! (2001). She was accompanied by her sister, Antonia, and another woman I took for a minder. I was aware that Nicole and husband Tom Cruise were then filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick in London; it appeared she was in New York briefly for an awards ceremony.

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Our Nicole, as she is known in Australia (born in Hawaii of Australian parents, there’s long been a national pride in her achievements and we even went so far as to consider Tom Cruise, during their marriage, as a sort of Australian-in-law) looked radiant that evening, every inch the movie star, in a body-skimming strapless black evening dress that highlighted her pale flawless skin. She was the embodiment of a movie star. Although not generally the type to intrude on celebrities, I’d certainly consumed enough rocket fuel to think Nicole would be happy, even eager, to greet a fellow Australian.

I held back for a while, aware that the true measure of a celebrity encounter is in the exit line, something witty and sophisticated and memorable. After a suitable period of reflection, it came upon me in a hot rush of originality and creativity. I knew without a doubt that she would be impressed; one Aussie chatting without artifice to another. The skillfully-rendered exit line would be the perfect way to sign off. My sharp but self-deprecating humour, delivered with typical Australian panache, would, I felt sure, be well appreciated after the endless parade of phoneys and sycophants she endured in her professional life.

In hindsight, I recognize that the tingle I felt was not really anticipation but more likely a premonition of rapidly approaching disaster, a train wreck of truly momentous proportions. The engine was tearing down the track, the throttle on full. The bridge was down and the river high. I was in the driver’s seat, Casey Jones cap at a jaunty angle, martini glass in hand, and a maniacal cackle issuing from my frothy lips. The inevitable was rapidly approaching and there was nothing I could do about it, even if I wanted to.

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Standing a little too unsteadily, I pointed myself towards Nicole’s table. Three anxious faces turned at my approach but, once Nicole heard my accent, she seemed to relax. As far as I can remember, she was enchanting and attentive but I have no memory whatsoever of the conversation.

Suddenly, the time seemed right. I deftly maneuvered the conversation towards the exit line and then, just as I was about to permanently impress the Greatest Living Actress of Our Generation………my mind went blank. I stood there uncertainly, my mouth moving but nothing coming out, a sense of helplessness and growing hysteria compounding by the second. If Travis Bickle had suddenly pressed a handgun to my forehead, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember the line.

The combination of my apparent consternation, my mouth motioning silently like a goldfish and my swaying from side to side may have led them to believe I was about to be ill. They shrank back in the booth. I was desperate to flee so, after what seemed an eternity, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.

“You’ve come a long way since BMX Bandits.” I then turned for the door and stumbled inelegantly into the night.

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Not long after, Nicole and Tom split up. Was it one of those wild coincidences, I wondered, or had our encounter coloured her decision? Had Our Nicole realised that what was missing from her life was the meat and three veg of a down-to-earth Aussie guy just like she’d met that fateful evening in New York, like the ones she’d left behind when stardom, and Tom Cruise, came calling?

Later, of course, she married Keith Urban, the singing country superstar from Caboolture, Queensland, and her fairytale was complete. Coincidentally, I’d met Keith a few times in the early 1990s when I was working on a book on Australian country music and always found him delightful and entirely uncomplicated. I’m sure he’s still so.

That niggling sense of guilt continues to this day. I can’t help but think that, in some miniscule way, I was responsible for Nicole and Tom’s divorce. Had a nameless Aussie guy with an easy repartee and far too much vodka brought a Hollywood marriage undone? Only Tom’s eventual autobiography will tell.

Words © David Latta

Stills from the wonderful Moulin Rouge (2001) courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Baz Luhrman.

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Nuts and Cream: Bircher Muesli and Nineteenth Century Dietary Radicalism


For more than 20 years, I travelled extensively around the world and one of the things I looked forward to was staying at hotels I’d normally never be able to afford. There’s something wonderfully indulgent about five-star hotels, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong or Paris, and my first mornings would always follow the same path – trooping off to the hotel dining room with that day’s copy of the Herald Tribune and the heady anticipation of what the breakfast buffet would hold. I’d first check that bircher muesli was available; I considered then, and still do, that a hotel could best be judged by the quality of that one dish – moist, creamy, sweet and welcoming, the perfect introduction to a new destination.

This was especially so in Asian hotels during the 1990s, when the international five-star brands were more often than not staffed by European food and beverage executives, trained in classic traditions by the finest Swiss hotel schools. Even if the eggs were incinerated at blisteringly high temperatures and the “bacon” was beef or turkey, I could generally count on the bircher muesli as authentic.

In recent times, my travel has tailed off but my love of bircher muesli has not. In my local neighbourhood, I’ve found only one café that serves it and, while it’s a fair approximation, it’s not exactly my ideal.

Maximilian Bircher-Benner With A Few Of His Favourite Things

With this in mind, I started fiddling with the numerous recipes available on the Internet. Most create the muesli from scratch, with oats and nuts, then adding grated apple, yoghurt and milk, at which point they often spin wildly off into a galactic black hole of improvisation. It’s not unusual to find such oddities as agave nectar, sunflower seeds and apple slices pan-fried in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I wanted something simpler. I figured there’s no reason I couldn’t start with readily-available pre-mixed supermarket muesli. Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve devised one that comes pretty close to those wonderful concoctions I remember from my travels. Just how wicked it becomes, calorie-wise, depends on whether you use cream or milk or a combination of both. You can even substitute low-fat or skim milk and the taste will not suffer that much.

Firstly, though, a little background. Hats off to Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, a late 19th century Swiss doctor and early advocate of healthy eating. The basis of his teachings was to avoid meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables and nuts. Around 1900, at his clinic in Zurich, with the Alps resonating in the background, he mixed together a few of his favourite things and came up with museli.

John Harvey Kellogg Says Nuts To Healthy Living

Interestingly, across the Atlantic, this philosophy was mirrored by John Harvey Kellogg. At his Battle Creek Sanitorium in rural Michigan, Kellogg pushed the boundaries of healthy living way beyond his Seventh-day Adventist adherence (which already renounced alcohol and tobacco) and embraced vegetarianism. A firm believer in the benefits of nuts and whole grains, in the late 1890s he started a company with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. No prizes for guessing where this is going, right? Along the way, Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and no suburban breakfast would ever be the same again.

And while I have Max to thank for my favourite breakfast, I have to admit that Kellogg was a much more interesting individual. He took weird and perfected it in ways that defy definition. As evidence, seek out the 1994 bio-pic, The Road To Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg and Dana Carvey as his brother and a supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.

Kellogg’s overall philosophy was one of moderation and abstinence from all vices, sex included. Self-determination, if I may employ a euphemism, was especially abhorrent; Kellogg considered that such practices led to urinary disease, impotence, epilepsy, cancer, insanity and, eventually, death. These days, he’d probably throw in global warning and Republicanism.

So, keeping in mind the matter of full cream over low fat, what better time to segue to my bircher muesli recipe?

DL’s Bircher Muesli Recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups supermarket muesli (raw, not toasted)

250 mL milk (any type, even low fat or skim, or full cream)

125 mL apple juice

175 mL tub of yoghurt

1 tablespoon honey

½ medium apple, peeled and grated

Method

1/ Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2/ Before serving, the mixture may need a little extra milk. It should be moist but not wet, with a consistency a little on the porridge side.

Words  © David Latta

How To Survive The World’s Great Cities


There are a few destinations in this world that it’s no use rolling up to and expecting them to conform to your expectations. They’re just too sprawling, ambitious, multi-faceted and, ultimately, exhausting.

On this list, I’d include New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. Maybe even Los Angeles, although there’s really only parts I visit and I already know them very well indeed.

The world’s great cities can never be fully explored in one visit. Not even several, maybe not ever. They are constantly evolving, changing from visit to visit, always presenting differing tangential aspects like a slowly shifting kaleidoscope. They forever intrigue and spellbind, confound and delight. Visitors can never expect to completely understand them. They are spectres glimpsed fleetingly in your peripheral vision, slipping off into infinity and lost forever.

The first time I visited New York, I had a list of things I wanted to see and do. At the end of a week, I hadn’t explored beyond mid-town. To this day, much of the list remains. There is just too much and too little time. I still haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty although I’ve glimpsed it from all angles with my favourite being from Battery Park. I haven’t explored the boroughs and I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building.

Whenever I’m there, I often revisited the Metropolitan Museum for the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room from Wayzata, Minnesota; The Paley Center For Media (if I have a spare day) to settle in and watch those obscure television programs I can’t find anywhere else; a martini in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to relive a North By Northwest moment (overlooking the point that the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage); shopping at Bloomingdale’s (although I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything there; I have more luck at Macy’s), and testing the limits of my baggage allowance at the Strand Book Store.

I’ve moved beyond the disappointment of not ticking off the entire New York list and that’s probably the key component to surviving the world’s great cities. Don’t get too ambitious. It’ll always end in tears before bedtime.

Harry's New York Bar, Paris

I was just as ambitious when I first visited Paris. Again, I had The List; I spent more time on the Metro, criss-crossing the city, than actually experiencing what I wanted. On subsequent trips, it occurred to me that a far more logical way of dealing with Paris was to stay in a different area each time and just explore within that arrondissement.

In the 2nd arrondissement, I’d stay at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, preferably in a room overlooking the Opéra Garnier, which is always worthy of a few idle hours to marvel at the understated decor. It’s a short stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra to Harry’s New York Bar for le hot dog and a Bloody Mary, which more than a few of those in the know claim was invented right there. Sitting within the cosy wood-panelled rooms, where Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation congregated, it becomes a literary pilgrimage on par with Shakespeare & Co.

In the 6th district, around Saint-Germain, there are so many small hotels with similar charm and pricing, it’s difficult to choose just one. And there’s much to do in the area. An outdoor table at Le Deux Magots, pointedly ignoring the tourists, or a short walk down the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the jazz clubs or a movie (preferably Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis, in VO). Or the small restaurants that seem to proliferate like lapin between the Boulevard and the Seine, where the mixed-priced menus are very reasonable, if you feel like French onion soup, duck and crème brûlée, as good a meal as any if the fancy takes you. And, afterwards, a browse through the Taschen store on the Rue de Buci.

So the key to survival is simple: don’t even think of compiling The List. Just take your time and enjoy what’s happening around you.

Le Deux Magots

Words and photos © David Latta

Tim Burton’s Shock Corridors At LACMA


The recently-opened career retrospective accorded film director Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has drawn mixed reviews but the adoration of his fans is just as dangerously entrapping as the goo that snared dinosaurs millions of years ago in the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.

From the opening day, Burton’s legions of admirers have flocked to LACMA clothed in the off-kilter aesthetics of his characters. Burton has always had a thirst for the visually spellbinding, from Beetlejuice (1988) and his revolutionary re-imagining of the Batman mythos to the culturally merciless, almost Andrew Lang-like fairy stories of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Big Fish (2003), and the electroconvulsive short-circuiting of traditional Hollywood fodder in Planet Of The Apes (2001) and Alice In Wonderland (2010).

I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of Burton but will religiously line up on opening day for each new film. Burton is all technicolourful style and movement, bright and shiny and just as long lasting as one of Willy Wonka’s confections. What he brings to the screen, a reawakening of expressionism and the gothic sensibility, he neglects in his characters; I haven’t been emotionally connected to a Tim Burton character since Edward Scissorhands. Like Edward, crack the chest of Burton’s films and all you find is a mechanical heart.

It’s all blue screen and CGI and motion capture. Burton’s is a closed universe with little room for an aesthetic to wander around unhindered. Compare this with a director such as Tarantino where, the more you watch, the more minor details emerge from the busy canvas and take on a life of their own.

That’s not to say his films are entirely unsatisfying. I’m a rabid supporter of movies that almost just not-quite realise their full potential, the coulda been, shoulda been masterpieces.

The Gotham City of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) was a dystopian wonderland, hemorrhaging from the ravaged heart of its own citizenry; it was a cityscape that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t improve upon. The main problem was Michael Keaton’s Batman, whose pursed lips were his only semaphore for emotional agony.

Alice In Wonderland was gorgeous to look at and packed with great actors but the sum of their talent was wasted by a script that allowed them little more than the opportunity to turn up in flamboyant costumes.

The simian Statue of Liberty in the original Planet Of The Apes made more sense and had significantly more shock value than Burton’s Ape-raham Lincoln twist ending.

Far more interesting are his early films. Ed Wood (1994) was the one instance where Burton didn’t scatter his expressionistic bag of tricks across the screen like a cinematic Jackson Pollock and hope for the best. In this affectionate tribute to the 1950s schlock director, he was understated, even muted. Shot in black and white, it had the effect of reigning in a visual delinquency that would become a regurgitated motif in later years.

The Tim Burton retrospective was originally curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009 and travelled to Melbourne’s Australian Centre For The Moving Image the following year. It runs at LACMA until 31 October 2011.

Words © David Latta

Lost In Transliteration


The first time it happened to me, it was quite amusing. But it continued, in varying ways, and years down the track it was sadly apparent that many Americans don’t have a clue about the outside world. And as much as we Australians think we’re internationally renowned, the sad truth is we’re often mistaken for other nations.

On the first night of my very first visit to the United States, I was staying at the Hyatt at Los Angeles Airport (now the Four Points by Sheraton). In the coffee shop, a waitress remarked on my “cute” accent and asked where I was from. When I replied “Australia”, she immediately became excited. “That’s such a coincidence”, she replied in awe. “My favourite movie is the Sound of Music.”

By the time I’d fashioned a reply about kangaroos being in short supply as they continually fell to their deaths from the Alps, she was long gone.

Years later, in New Orleans, my wife and I were browsing a department store when, in the perfume department, we were served by a well-dressed and presumably well-educated young man who remarked on our accents and asked where we were from. When we said “Australia”, he started telling us how much he enjoyed our country on a recent visit, how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were.

We asked which city he enjoyed the most. He hesitated for a moment, staring into the middle distance to summon his thoughts while adjusting the impeccably-arranged double Windsor knot of his tie. Then he looked me straight in the eye and without, I surmised, any hint of irony, said, “Salzburg”. Not wanting to be rude, I wandered off to an adjoining department before I started choking from laughter.

In a mid-town deli in New York, we were seated next to an elderly local couple who, it seemed, had been avidly listening to our conversation. As our desserts arrived, the woman leaned across to us and asked whether we were enjoying our stay. So ensued a long chat. After several minutes, she remarked to her companion, sotto voce, so that barely half the room could hear, “They speak very good English, don’t they?”

We played it as straight as we could without spilling our beverages. As we were preparing to leave, there was one more question that our friend was obviously burning to ask. “When you’re at home in your own country,” she asked, wide-eyed and completely innocent, “do you wear clothes like we do?”

Later, of course, far too late to make any difference, I came up with the perfect rejoinder. If I had been more quick-witted, I would have replied, “If I’m going somewhere special, I’ll wear an Armani jacket over my lap-lap.”

A regular visitor to the United States will know that, despite their vast news-gathering ambitions, most Americans only know other countries from wars and natural disasters. There’s so much happening within their own borders, even 24-hour news channels like CNN have difficulty keeping up.

Instead, it seems, Americans gather their world-view from the movies. This wasn’t a bad thing when Crocodile Dundee was current. Australians, they might have surmised, were sturdy outdoor types who wrestled crocodiles for entertainment. Later, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert confused things entirely: did Australian men dress crocodiles in women’s clothes before wrestling them or did they themselves don frocks before wading into the nearest billabong in search of reptilian adventure?

As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that the Australia-Austria confusion is something of a two-way strasse. In the old town district of Salzburg, I once came across a souvenir stand that sold T-shirts emblazoned with the outline of a kangaroo, much like the old Qantas logo, within a circle with a diagonal slash across it. Austria, the T-shirt warned, We Don’t Have Kangaroos.

I can only wonder whether the occasional American tourist passes up the Sound of Music tour and instead spends his time searching for Steve Irwin.

Words and photos © David Latta

It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish


Welcome to my world.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been a professional traveller for more than 20 years. By professional, I mean I’ve been paid (poorly, as is the way with the Australian travel media) to travel (widely and often).

They have been the best of times and, occasionally, the worst of times. Lots of adventures and even more surprises. The point of this blog is to showcase some of the things that never make it into my articles. It could be said I have wide-ranging interests: film (new and old); books (mainly old); music (don’t get me started); classic cars, particularly Cadillacs; architecture and design of most periods, although I have a fondness for mid-20th century; and the stylish and beautiful in all things.

Quirky and wonderful things catch my eye and make me linger. We all travel for different reasons. I can be in Paris a dozen times and never see the same thing twice, although I always end up scouring the massive antique markets at the end of the Porte de Clignancourt metro line. I’ve never been inside the Louvre but I love the sewer museum at the Quai d’Orsay. One man’s meat, as it were.

I love big cities, whether they be New York, Los Angeles, Cape Town or Shanghai. Scenery tends to drive me spare. I was once in Yellowstone National Park in a freezing drizzle, attempting to spot bear in the far distance. I think I said at the time, only half jokingly, that all the place needed was a Wal-Mart and I’d be happy although I would have settled for a 7-Eleven. Not long after, I was in Spotted Horse. On a good day, it has a population of two although there was no-one around when I arrived so the roadhouse is a place I must return to someday.

Hope you enjoy my blog.

Oh, and by the way, as so many people seem to Google this, if the term It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish seems familiar, it’s certainly not because of the real reason. It’s a song. A show tune, actually. From a musical not many people paid attention to at the time and certainly, outside of Broadway tragics, nobody remembers anymore. It came from Seesaw, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Cy Coleman and book by Michael Bennett. It opened on Broadway in 1973, after a torturous out-of-town try-out that saw the original book thrown out, along with the director and star, Coleman and Fields reworking the musical numbers and Bennett creating a new book with the help of Neil Simon. It was at this rebirth that It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish was added. Interestingly, it was a song that Coleman and Fields had in their bottom drawer from some years, originally intended for an unproduced musical on Eleanor Roosevelt.

Back in the 1970s, I worked at a fashionable nightclub in Sydney that had the most elaborate drag shows. One of the shows concluded with this song and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Words and photos © David Latta