Sunday, August 19, 2007

the cruise, part three: Venice

Among the weirdest cities in the World, Venice, Italy must rank among the top five. I don’t mean this in a BAD way actually, but the place is completely so unlike anyplace else in the world that it cannot be called anything else.

Other cities have canals. You’ve got Amsterdam and Stockholm, both of which are strewn with canals close to the water’s edge, but they have streets, and trams and other forms of mass transportation, which make those towns seem relatively normal. Also, while they have museums, they are not, of themselves museums. Venice, having lost its independence and its livelihood over two centuries ago, is.

The “serene republic” lasted a thousand years and a century before being actually invaded for the first time by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. The reason for this was because of its intense weirdness. It’s a bunch of islands in the middle of a lagoon, connected by a series of bridges. Here, it developed a unique culture and set for the to build an empire which ruled over the islands of what are now Croatia and Greece, trading with the Byzantine and later, various Moslem empires in the east to become the cultural portal of the western world during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Even as new trade routes made Venice less lucrative, the serene Republic continued to thrive, attracting artists and architects, poets and visionaries. But that’s all gone now…

When the French finally destroyed the old Republic, they destroyed its reason for being, stole it’s art, and chiseled out many of it’s ancient symbols from the walls. When the Napoleonic wars were over in 1815, it was decided to give the city to the Austrians, After a couple of decades of poverty and the revenge of it’s ancient enemies, the Venetians decided to make the place over into a tourist trap.

Which is what it has been ever since.

If you get off in either the Point de Roma, where there’s a bus station an a few cars, or the train station on the next island over, you will notice a change once you get to the Vaperetto, or waterbus, station. With a few exceptions, All the buildings are really old. Not that they actually all are, but the weirdness of the place much be preserved. The Medieval and Renaissance architectural designs are faithfully recreated on the facades of many a new Palazzo. Tourism is all that the city has left, and the glory of this ancient Disneyland must be preserved. When the great bell tower, which is right in the middle of St. Mark’s square mysteriously and suddenly disintegrated 998 years after it was built, it was replaced by an exact replica (well, not exactly exact, there’s an elevator now) and with a few exceptions like the train station, this dictum of architectural ultraconservatism has been scrupulously followed.

Which brings us to the Gardens of the Biennale, where the Biennial art fair has been taking place every other year since 1895 as a way, naturally, to attract tourists. As a park on the eastern edge of town, the various countries that have participated over the years have been allowed to set up permanent pavilions where hundred of temporary exhibitions take place. This goes for the off years as well, why waste valuable space, right? But the big show is in odd years.

The Gardens aren’t the only place for exhibits, there’s a place called the Arsenal, where they have some too, and finally, on the Lido, which is a large island nearby with some pretty nice beaches, is where the film festival takes place every August and September. More on that later…

The Biennale’s theme for this year is; “Think With Your Senses, Feel with Your Mind.” Which is another way of saying “This is all bullshit! Give us your eight euros and deal with it.” Granted, not all of the works shown this year’s suck. There are some excellent works to seen, particularly Austria’s Herbert Brandl, who’s an abstract expressionist, or Svetlana Ostopovici, who’s more realistic, then there’s lots of other stuff both interesting and “interesting.” Then there’s lots of what I like to call “con art” in which some talent-less jerks with sharp tongues con certain curators into putting the most godawful crap up, from anti-Semitic graffiti to give-away posters by California artist Felix Gonzalez Torrez, one of which symbolizes the end of art by having a black rectangular frame of nothing.

Much of the work shown is heavily influenced by advertising and comics, which is where, after all most of the money for creativity is coming for nowadays, but for the most part, there’s nothing really new here, just inarticulate recycling of concepts that have been floating around for the better part of half a century. Granted, I didn’t have the time to give everything more than a cursory look. The Biennale, like the city that surrounds it, requires far more than the day or two most people give it.

Due to the big show, the Biennale’s film department has been rather tardy with the printing of the posters and programs for their big film festival, which is supposed to start in only two weeks. The oldest of Europe’s many film festivals, Venice’s dates back to 1935, and, with the natural break for World War II, had been giving out it’s prestigious “Golden Lion” awards ever since. Taking place on the Lido, where there are fewer architectural restrictions and an actual beach for beautiful women to parade around in their bikinis. This year, as in most, there’s an eclectic selection of Hollywood, Independent, and European government sponsored films which are going to start generating buzz for various awards like the Oscars and the Golden Globes.

If you only have a day or two, just go to St. Mark’s square and hang out for a while, and go left towards the Rialto bridge in the direction of the train station. Then head west along the Grand canal, stopping at various churches to look at the art, which, as every good agnostic or atheist knows, is the only saving grace the Catholic church has ever had. You will also notice that there are no streets, just sidewalks and canals, and a very strange and beautiful landscape.

The Cruise, part two: Dubrovnick

Once upon a time there was a land called Yugoslavia. It was full of enchanted forests and beautiful scenery and was ruled by an enlightend despot named Joseph Broz Tito. It was nominally Communist, but they didn’t really care all that much about ideology, except, perhaps for keeping Tito in power for as long as he kept breathing. He kept the peace and the Soviets out, and sometime around 1950, his regime decided that tourism was something that should be encouraged for it’s own sake, and right there on the coast was a little walled town surrounded by beautiful hills and an azure sea. The place was Dubrovnick, and is as cute a resort town as you’ll find in these parts, and developed a reputation as the coolest place in the Eastern bloc.

Tito died in 1980, and Yugoslavia was kept together by fear of Soviet invasion. Then in 1989, the Soviets let it out that they weren’t going to do that sort of thing anymore and all of a sudden the Eastern bloc had fallen apart, and so had Yugoslavia. The central government tried to keep the country together by force, there’s a big sign on the walls of Dubrovnick showing exactly where Yugoslav bombs hit. (It wasn’t just Serbia then). The whole thing would get a whole lot uglier to the north in Bosnia, but the Serbs pretty much gave up on Croatia in general and Dubrovnick in particular, leaving a bizarre-but-delightful mixture of medieval Europe and the Caribbean on this small peninsula near the southeastern tip of the Croatian coast.

With Communism long gone, the locals have gotten into tourism big time. Outside the walled village, to call it a city would be a little much, there are dozens of resort hotels up and down the peninsula catering to anywhere from movie stars to backpackers, getting oneself into one of the ritzier resorts would be a challenge, but as I only had a few hours, I would have to concentrate on the old town, which after all is the main attraction.

Dubrovnick’s secondary attraction is its size. The whole town is tiny, with the possible exception of the main square, and with the streets on the northern side little more than sidewalks, or in some cases, stairways, there’s an intimate, claustrophobic feel to everything, there are churches everywhere, baroque things full of centuries-old paintings, and little room for more than a few dozen worshipers at a time. There’s also a synagogue, but mostly what there are, are museums, restaurants and internet cafes. I’ve never seen so many of those things in a single place before. Computers everywhere! Very strange indeed. The prices for food and drink aren’t all that bad either. There are lots of places which offer really good seafood, or so I’m told, and the place I did go to had excellent fried squid. The people working the multitudinous cafes are rather nice about letting one sit there for extened periods of time, assuming of course you buy a drink or two, and this is a wonderful town to practice the art of people watching. There is also an secret entrance in one of the seaward walls to a beach, this has an excellent view of the harbor.

I’m not really sure if you can stay in the old town, but there’s a really good, if always crowded mass transit system, so getting to a hotel is easy. Dubrovnick is undoubtedly just as nice a resort as you can find anywhere else in the Adriatic.

The Cruise, part one

“You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” so they say, and actually the opposite is true. Generally gift horses come with strings attached, like being forced to buy what it is that you’re supposed to be getting for free, or worse. That’s what happens 98 times out of a hundred and one lives for the other two.

I was supposed to go to Greenland, and had a bunch of actual venues line up and everything, but at the last minute they fired the PR guy and disavowed any knowledge of my existence. I was ticked off about it when I was checking my spam filter and found something that seemed to be legitimate, RSVP, the largest Gay travel agency, sent me an email inviting me to join their cruise of the Mediterranean, I told them I wasn’t Gay, in fact just the opposite, but if they were going to pay for the whole thing, I would put any biases I had aside and go along. It turns out that they weren’t. I knew it.

I would have to pay for the airfare myself, but that wasn’t all that bad. I was able to get a really cheap ticket. But in the meantime, there was what seemed to be long gaps in communication. There were eight rooms reserved for press, and I got one. Two weeks with a thousand gays, If they could take me, I could take them. No problem.

Now the people at RSVP had told a little fib when they sent me my free ticket. They said that for my connivance, they had a discount bus transfer from either the airport at or downtown Rome for eighty-four bucks. This is undoubtedly true about the cost of a ticket, but discount? No way in hell. The cost of a train to the cruise ship port of Civitaveccia is only FOUR euros, about five and a half bucks, per person, and there’s a free shuttle bus from just below the station to the docks half a mile away. I’m not sure if it was RSVP or Holland America who told the whopper, but it doesn’t help matters, as to Citivaveccia itself, this is a small town with an incredible beach. Apparently, it’s one of the very few places in the Mediterranean with decent surfing. I didn’t really see all that much of the town itself, but it had a slightly moldy look, which is typical for tropical climes. Once I got on the ship, and it IS a ship, things changed quite a bit.

The Westerdam is one of the bigger ships in the Holland America fleet, ten stories high, it is, as the cliché goes, a floating luxury hotel. I’ve never been actually been on it’s like before. Oh, sure, I’ve been on ships before, but usually in steerage or sleeping on deck.
Getting there is supposed to be half the fun on these things, and the people at RSVP have managed to get the standard entertainment for the crowd they’re catering to. Gay men looking to get laid, mostly, and the stops on land along the way are mostly extras. As one passenger described it: “It’s not as tacky some other cruises I’ve been on.”

I was invited to the media party the first night, and someone slammed me as soon as she heard my name. It seems that she had invited me to a free dinner at an extremely fancy schmancy restaurant in Manhattan on the dime of the Brazilian government, and I told our hostess that I was primarily there for the free meal. It seems that a person was nearly fired because I was honest and upfront with people I was doing business with. Next time I’ll say I’m the financial correspondent for Life Magazine. But the people at RSVP knew I was straight and they were okay with that. There are very few of us on board outside of the crew. After a few days aboard, I’m very comfortable with my sexual preference as none of the guys on board is the least bit sexy, in fact far uglier than I am, and most of the lesbians are pretty old. But the problem with cruising on a tub as big as the Westerdam is that there’s not actually enough time to see all that much unless you fork out a sixty to a hundred bucks on a tour. There are cheaper alternatives to be sure, but at 75¢ a minute, using the internet for anything except briefly checking for emergency emails.

What is being offered is basically summer camp for grownups, with an emphasis, in this case on “ethnic heritage and culture,” I.e. leather bar recreations and bad disco, with halfway decent singers and drag acts.

But the reason I came on this thing was to see the ports of call, most of which have changed a great deal since I last visited them, some of which was back in the ‘80s.

The cruise was for the most part a circumnavigation of Italy, one of those countries that has a little too much history for it’s own good. Three thousand years of food, art and architecture, where one can get some of the best meals in the world for under a hundred bucks. It used to be twenty, but I’ll get to that later.

The first stop on any major tour of Italy is Rome, the Eternal city. Rome has more art per square inch than any other place in the world. This was once the sole property of the Catholic church, and before that was the capitol of the Classical world for about five hundred years. It’s unbelievable what one can see there, this greatest of archeological sites in the world. Unfortunately is expensive as all hell.

Not necessarily for the Romans, for the Romans know where the supermarkets are. The street vendors selling water and juice and the like charge through the nose, up to four bucks for a coke, something you can get in a supermarket for a quarter of the price.

The eternal city is the tourist town to end all tourist towns, and it knows it. There’s too much too see and too much to do, and all that money to take from the unsuspecting. I heard someone tell of a thief throwing a baby at a guy and robbing him as he caught it. I myself have seen similar acts of villainy with my own eyes. But if one’s careful, one can take in some truly amazing sights, The Coliseum at night or St. Peter’s basilica at anytime are breathtaking.

But I had about a day and a half, I wasn’t here for Rome, but for a cruise, and it was off to Civitaveccia on that five-dollar train, free shuttle bus, and expensive drinks.

Our first stop is Naples, which was once the capitol of it’s very own kingdom, something the locals aren’t too thrilled remembering, as the graffiti on the bases of two equestrian statues of a couple of them, across the way from the Royal palace, will attest. In fact graffiti, most of which is of either the “Joanie Loves Chachi” or “Fuck the Government” variety, is on pretty much everything there, but here it’s more specific to the monuments. After a hundred and fifty years, people still hold a grudge.

But the reason that most of tourists go visit is for something else, something much older, the notorious Mt. Vesuvius and the two towns buried by it back when years had only two digits. Most of the best stuff from the excavations are supposed to be at the Archeological museum, some of the best frescoes left to us from the Roman era, but they’re all in storage in the museum’s basement. They claim they’ll be back up next spring.

I would like to go on about Naples, but unfortunately, I didn’t actually have enough time there, which is one of the major problems with the cruise. There isn’t enough time at any of the ports of call. On the one hand you don’t have to pack and unpack all the time, but getting into port at ten in the morning and having to be back at, say, FOUR in the afternoon just doesn’t leave for much time to see more than a couple of things before you go back. Sure, Places like Dubrovnick, Croatia CAN be seen in a day, or you can inspect St. Mark’s Square in Venice in the better part of the afternoon, but what about Malta or Corfu, which have some really nice beaches and incredible scenery? The fort, the archeological museum, which is unusually half closed because of needed repairs, an expensive lunch (Americans make better pizza than the Italians), and a brief hunt for cheesy souvenirs.

For the rest of the time you’re trapped on the boat. Between Venice and Valletta, Malta, there was a day at sea. The problem was that the entertainment was rather tacky, the pool overcrowded, several hundred gay men looking like a flock of walrus, (I know that sounds homophobic, but there were a few lesbians there too, who also looked like walrus, as did I) didn’t make going for a swim all that appetizing. The gym was overcrowded too and most of the immunities were NOT included in the price, and that included the spa, which cost over a hundred dollars, hell, it cost almost a hundred and fifty bucks to just check my email every day! It’s expensive and boring, especially if you drink, or gamble, which is where the cruise line makes a good deal of its income.

This is not to say that seeing Europe by boat isn’t a bad idea, Far from it. There are plenty of overnight ferries where you can see spectacular sunsets over the glistening Mediterranean, and smaller cruise lines actually dock for longer than a few hours in any one place, so you can actually get to see and do more. If one wants to stay on a ship, there are plenty of “cruises to nowhere,” and going all the way to Europe to be on one seems like a waste of time and money.

San Diego

It goes without saying that comicon isn a comic con. As in Comic Book Convention, It was never supposed to have become the monster it has become. Back in the old days, and that means Clinton’s first term as president and before, nobody thought about movies all that much. Oh, sure there was Trek and “Wars and all that stuff, but most of the people were geeking out on Superman, the Fantastic Four and Fritz the Cat, not to mention that goumet imported stuff from France and Japan. It was a convention, people would come to hang out and dress up in silly costumes, and oh, yeah, buy stuff.

I would say that it’s all changed, but for the most part it hasn’t. It’s just that the movie companies discovered that San Diego was the biggest one of these things close to Hollywood, and that meant that it didn’t cost that much money to promote their stuff as it might at the ones in Chicago or Atlanta. Plus, despite the fact that San Diego is generally run by conservative Republicans, they LIKE comic book fans. The Big Apple Anime festival was murdered by the Republicans for the 2004 Convention in New York, something the Republicans tried to do to the San Diego con eight years before. The Mayor refused to go along, and Comicon, now Comicon INTERNAIONAL, is now one of the biggest events of the year.

The evolution of sequential arts since it’s nadir in the early 1960s has, on the one hand, from a medium primarily for children or the partially illiterate to a major form of self-expression and storytelling has been rather phenomenal. The rise of the “graphic novel” i.e. a square-backed comic suitable for hoity-toity bookstores and the New York Times Book Review, is one of the major trends in popular culture, and is something that the US has been lagging behind in much of the World.

However, be that as it may, the reason that Comicon has been in the news recently is movies and TV. Paramount, Warner Bros, and all the major Hollywood studios except Fox, gave presentations showcasing the latest in expensive and fantastic entertainment. Mostly this stuff is either based on comic books or fantasy novels, Stuff like Indiana Jones and the long-awaited adaptation of “Watchmen” which came out in the middle ‘80s. (Yeah, I know that Indie wasn’t a comic book character until after the first movie came out, but so what?). Comicon is now the place to be.

So when they sent me a letter offering me free entry, I went. There was a probem, however. Most of the places were full up, and had been for the entire year. I had to book two youth hostels and a hotel, and that was before the big day for the con, that is Saturday, even took place. Which is just as well, The place is busting at the seems and they literally didn’t have enough room to fit in any more people in San Diego’s convention center that day.

As in most conventions, San Diego’s is divided into three parts: The parties, the panels and the huckster room. I’m not sure that I went to the first, but I’m completely sure that I went to the other two.

The reason why I’m not sure about the parties, after all one should remember at least part of that thing, is that the big party I attended wasn’t exactly part of the con. In fact it was over three thousand miles away in the Hamptons, where a rich dude named Ivan Wilzig was having a party in order to celebrate his being chosen to participate in the second season of the game show “Who Wants to be a Superhero?” The guy is the son of a big time banker and lives in a genuine faux castle, and he hired a small fleet of buses to ferry a bunch of us nonplussed writers and others to come see the first episode on a giant screen he set up in his back yard.

There was booze and nubile young ladies wandering aimlessly around the back yard, adding to the absolute beautiful scenery that one can only see in Eastern Long Island. “Come! We must save the Sun!” our host said as he led us to the roof. That was a hell of a sunset, which was just about over when we got to the top. Then we went back downstairs where we feasted on orderves. (You can have a nutritious and filling meal on those things) until the sky was dark enough to see the TV show, then the thing went on until midnight, when we went on the bus for home. There was a panel for the show at Comicon.

I heard that most of the major movie studios had receptions. I wasn’t invited to any this time out. I actually didn’t have the time even if I had, although because of the other two parts of the Con.

The main hall, or the “huckster room” is the grandest in the world. Everyone who’s anyone is going to be there, from some of the more venerable comic shops to a number of historically important illustrators. The main attraction are the freebies, which are given out with wild abandon in order publicize films coming out in the next year or two.

Finally, there are the panels, and while most are arcane, a few are making real news, like the return of “Michael” to the cast of “Lost” or the guy playing “Sklyer” from “Heroes” getting cast as the young Spock on the next “Star Trek” movie. The main hall can seat five thousand or more, and the place in generally filled. (you have to be careful with a crowd that big, the guy moderating the New Line panel was justly booed when he insulted the audience). They also had a whole bunch of screenings, mostly of small SF flicks but a few major films like “Stardust” and “Shoot’em’up”, which is one of the most gratuitous films of the year.

With the exception of the hotel hopping, which ended up in a lawsuit (it was settled out of court in my favor), the whole thing was a rather decent experience. Truth justice and the American way were definitely served.