Basil Twist’s Ballerina from Petrushka

I am a “festival person.”

Already I have to add an asterisk to that and exclude some festivals. Festivals that involve camping without showers in summer, war reënactments, and cute-baby contests. I’m not ruling them out, I’m just saying I’m not that kind of “festival person” to my knowledge.

I’ve worked for two major film festivals and a fantastic regional film festival, and I’ve attended many other festivals for film, music, books, art, photography, health, food, film about food, wine, beer, vegeterianism, BBQ, chili, chili peppers, apple butter, mountain heritage, Welsh heritage, the Salem witches, movies that inform Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre, motorcycles, classic cars, new cars, fishing, farming, and at least a dozen New York City streets. And still going.

When I learned the New Yorker had a festival, I knew it was something I wanted to do. Last year, living in Virginia, I had the work availability and resources to go, and I had an added sense of purpose.

The Wednesday following the festival would be my last day after two years in what was a good position, what could be a solid career, in higher education administration. The economy had collapsed the same week I submitted my letter of resignation to my boss, and I had not yet found my next job, nor would I for months. The money I was earning as a freelance restaurant critic for a local paper was too sporadic to depend on. I needed a place to go and something to do, which doesn’t sound so bad, except I needed a place to go and something to do with my life.

I took a Thursday train from Charlottesville, Virginia to New York and checked in to a cheap youth hostel. I attended programs with political writers Rik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza, and George Packer; cartoonist Robert Mankoff; critic David Denby with filmmaker Oliver Stone; smartypants Stephen Colbert; sleight of hand performers Matthew Holtzclaw, Charles Reynolds, Jami Ian Swiss, and Johnny Thompson; and Claudia Roden, who cooked her own recipes for us and told unsavory stories I just loved. I didn’t do much sight-seeing. I didn’t call old friends to get together. The experience was mine (and it’s here). And when I left, I had a new appreciation for New York, as a livable city. But I was still trying to decide if it was for me.

–Which is preposterous. New York is for everybody. By February I was eager for it, and I moved into a friend’s dirty Murray Hill apartment without a job lined up, ready to wait tables while I looked for something long-term in the worst job market in decades. It was one of my smarter life moves. Nine months later, I’m where I want to be: in a very clean Murray Hill apartment with steady work in TV production since June.

On Friday, walking from my office to my first New Yorker Festival event venue, I felt exhilarated, brisk. I secured a great seat at a program called “New Yorker Writers on the New Yorker,” presented by The Moth. A delightful single joined me at my table–she and I took turns going to the bar to get rounds of red wine for each other while the other held the table–and we were treated to five 10 to 20 minute stories about writing for the New Yorker.

Mark Singer recounted a hilarious story about profiling Donald Trump in the mid-1990s, one of his first assignments for the magazine. The Donald exacted revenge for what he deemed an unflattering piece, and I could never tell what happened with $37 and some change as well as Singer did.

Judith Thurman’s anecdotes about her relationship with her mother, and their relationship to the New Yorker, were beautiful. And she had memorized her story. Adam Gopnik also spoke on a more personal level about trying to find the secret to great writing in his professional relationship with Joseph Mitchell. What writing is, Gopnik concluded, is “sentence and circumstance.” It resonated for a lot of us, I think. And it was a treat to see Roger Angell up there, having a ball.

Ariel Levy, though. Wow. My kind of woman, my kind of writer. Last September, she went on the McCain campaign trail and wrote a profile of Cindy McCain that had made me feel intensely panicked about a Republican win, more so than I already was; I remember the piece well. Levy talked very candidly about what she went through to get the story, and I think she teared up a little at the end when she said she couldn’t believe she got it, much like she couldn’t believe she’d just gotten the job she’d always dreamed of. Hope for us all.

I thanked the woman I shared my table with for her company, took the subway home, ate lamb over rice from my corner Sabrett cart, and went to bed.

* * *

The director of the Virginia Film Festival for the three years I was involved with it was an incredible programmer. Every year, he would announce the festival’s theme, to which the film screenings, panels, and parties would be matched. And he liked to juxtapose interesting elements. Like people. In 2003, the theme was “money,” and the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon would be presented by its writer, Frank Pierson, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay and was then serving as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His was the first screenplay I read in my first film class in college. The festival director also invited John Wojtowicz, the bank robber the film was based on. I believe “Sir Dog,” as Wojtowicz liked to be called, had requested a drag queen companion during his stay in Charlottesville; I recall the queen looking so flustered, that she was supposed to be the higher-maintenance of the two.

Pierson and Wojtowicz infamously do not get along. But there they were, sharing a stage in front of several hundred movie buffs in Central Virginia. A brilliant festival moment.

Not all festival drama is so inconsequential, though. And I don’t want to start drama that didn’t exist. So if anyone who knows the story is reading this, please fill me in. Until then, this is what I think happened.

Saturday, early afternoon, I would see magician Ricky Jay interviewed by Mark Singer. I read Singer’s 1993 profile of Jay that morning, though I already knew about Jay–one of the best sleight of hand practitioners in the world. Also a collector of ephemera pertaining to the conjuring arts. I love sleight of hand, and as some are meant to perfect it I am meant to appreciate it. While the program was billed as a talk, last year’s “talk” with four sleight of hand performers each took their turn with a deck of cards. It seemed natural to assume this would happen. Magic shows are usually very pricy–Monday Night Magic is a steal at $35, but you don’t know who or what you’re getting until you show up–so it’s not something I treat myself to often. I was so looking forward to the event.

Great magic incorporates a story, though, and there’s always a catch.

Ricky Jay notoriously does not perform for other known magicians, for fear of having his unique tricks imitated by other performers, a legitimate concern. A young lawyer and amateur magician took the second seat at my table as had happened the previous night, and when I returned from a trip to the bar for a mimosa, he pointed to a nearby table and said, “Look over there–I think it’s David Blaine.” And when I looked back my watch was gone.

Just kidding. I don’t wear a watch and if I did I certainly wouldn’t wear it to that event.

No, the truth was much worse. It really was David Blaine. David Blaine the famous street magician who has a bit of a reputation for performing other magicians’ tricks. I was hoping he might do a disappearing act before the program began, but he did not.

Needless to say, Ricky Jay did not perform yesterday.

I texted this guy I like–extremely good sleight of hand–about it, and he jokingly asked if David Blaine made me levitate.

“It would be the least he could do,” I replied.

Of course, maybe there was no intention to perform at all. Maybe another magician, less recognizable, was the real source of Jay’s anxiety. The audience, of course, will be kept guessing.

* * *

Throughout the weekend, New York received a significant amount of rainfall, but it held off on Saturday afternoon. I was able to go on a long walk in Central Park, expecting to see fall foliage, and it’s just not ready yet. Next weekend. I hurried home to give myself ample time to get to Park Slope for my evening program, film critic Richard Brody interviewing Max Fischer Jason Schwartzman.

Prior to the event I was intent on my second meal at Buttermilk Channel, and I didn’t eat a real lunch so I was particularly intent. Almost nothing could stop me. Almost. As I hurried down Court Street, I glimpsed a sandwich board with a chalk message I rarely see on the island and never close to my work or home: happy hour until 8pm, wine $4. I stayed strong and walked past, then I turned right back around. It was 8:01, but they gave it to me. So I didn’t have time for an appetizer course.

Buttermilk Channel deserves its own post, and that will happen after I eat there a third time; this was my second. For now, I will say that I think it’s wonderful, I had the duck meatloaf with parsnip puree and fried onion.

Max Fischer Jason Schwartzman came off as a well-meaning human being and a tireless worker. Our audience certainly got bang for our buck–he talked and took Q&A for just over two hours. I learned a lot about Schwartzman, and I also learned a lot about Wes Anderson, which I appreciated because his movies were a huge inspiration to me when I decided to pursue a Media Studies major in college, and the guy is ridiculously elusive. Like, Malick-elusive. Apparently, he lives in Paris now.

You could say I’m a fan. People close to me know my anthropomorphized PowerBook story involving a Wes Anderson film, and it is much too embarrassing for me to put in writing. I’ll say this: I watched Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums repeatedly for a time in college and during my Austin stint, to the point that I could recite lines over the actors. The movies are still occasional go-tos on quiet nights in. And in college, I really looked into the French New Wave filmmakers, half because I was so taken (not a compliment) with how they wrote women, half because I really admired the vérité camera and editing techniques. So, young Schwartzman confirmed those films were influences on the Wes Anderson clique, right down to physical gestures. I knew it! Even as he talked he was doing the Jean-Paul Belmondo thumb-lip thing. The stories of how Schwartzman was cast for Max Fischer and Darjeeling Limited was written were hilarious.

Jason Schwartzman’s joie de vivre could be eclipsed only by that of puppeteer Basil Twist, whose studio I was welcomed into late this morning, and whose name I enjoy so much I am not shortening it to just his last name.

We were an intimate group of 25, and we were a diverse group in terms of age and familiarity with puppetry and performing arts in general. I had wanted to get into the program for the very reason that I don’t know about puppetry. From when I was old enough until I left my parents’ home, I had regular exposure to local musical theater, the Virginia Opera, Broadway tours in DC, even the Boston Symphony. But my only recollection of a puppet show was Peter and the Wolf, performed at Wolf Trap, when I was almost too young to remember it.

Basil Twist talked about and showed video clips of most of his shows before walking us through his small Greenwich Village studio. Symphonie Fantastique, an abstract show performed in a large water tank, which premiered in 1998 and enjoyed a two-year run, was what really brought Basil Twist his fame. I was moved even by the short clip we saw, which happened to be filmed so that the puppeteers were visible, and I was amazed with their physicality. What Twist produces is a really remarkable undertaking, especially so in a studio of four modest sized rooms with low ceilings. Which was so charming. I won’t say the location, as it was given to me prior to the event in secret (quel mystere!), but given that it’s very close to my office, and now that I know his team occasionally rehearses or assembles large set pieces outside, I might reroute my walks to and from the subway.

The highlight was when Basil Twist asked the puppeteers who worked the Ballerina from his 2001 commissioned interpretation of Petrushka to perform a short scene with the puppet–a private viewing! The puppeteers were women and happened to have been a trio of dancers and could uniquely translate their own movements into the doll. It was so, so, so beautiful. And to see it from five feet away–I could appreciate the physical closeness of the puppeteers as they moved around each other to manipulate the doll, never taking their eyes off what they were doing, and the Ballerina looked like she had graced many, many stages, as her slippers and tights showed wear. Basil Twist seemed almost starry-eyed talking about what the Ballerina exemplifies–how puppets can do what dancers cannot, so a new and different plane of artistic expression and interaction with music can be attained.

Poor Basil Twist at lunch, though. I had not had time to eat breakfast save a few bites of a cold deli wrap I bought from my corner bedoga on my way, which I could not eat en route because I was managing an umbrella in a steady drizzle, so by the time we moved on to a wonderful Greenwich Village restaurant for a casual social gathering, I was shaking. The gentleman seated next to me in the studio was very outgoing toward me and thought he would be generous, so unbeknownst to me he rushed into the private dining room and saved me a seat next to the guest of honor. Not to accept would be rude, accepting potentially equally so. I was actively engaging in the program, loving it, taking it in, without imprinting it with my own mark. Most of the audience had seen his work, and I haven’t, yet. So I felt rude–Basil Twist if you’re reading this I felt SO rude–for being so awkward and quiet at first. As displayed in this blog I’m rarely at a loss for words.

Joan Acocella, the New Yorker’s dance critic, hosted the event, and after 15 minutes she traded places with Basil Twist and sent him to her table, and this arrangement seemed to work. I learned our table included Robert Greskovic, the dance critic for the Wall Street Journal, and two of Joan’s cousins, who were lovely women. They started talking food–something I am definitely qualified to run my mouth about–and I was thrilled when Joan was so willing to take my notebook and pen and write down all the restaurants they were talking about–authentic Lower East Side Jewish and Chinese food. It happened at last year’s festival a couple of times, too. I love it. Same notebook too.

And then I saw all of my favorite Shouts and Murmurs writers at a sold-out event at the DGA Theatre, notably Paul Rudnick for being the only guaranteed exception to my rule of reading the New Yorker in order, and Woody Allen for being so famous, read comedy pieces they’d written for the New Yorker or had on hand. Also on the playbill: Ian Frazier, Noah Baumbach, Paul Simms, Patricia Marx, Yoni Brenner, Jenny Allen, David Owen, Amy Ozols, George Saunders, Simon Rich, and the distinguished Mr. Calvin Trillin.

* * *

As a “festival person,” I always experience a letdown while I’m still at the last concert or party or chili tasting table, and it happened today. About halfway through the readings, I became aware of it all ending. But there was a certain special thrill to walking home from West 57th, stopping at my grocery store to pick up ingredients, unlocking my apartment, making dinner in my kitchen, and sitting at the computer overlooking my street to talk about what I’d seen and heard, to make sure I don’t forget how lucky I am.


What’s wrong with this picture?


Paul Simms’ 4 Short Crushes. “Duration of crush: 37 seconds.”


Post-event buzz at the DGA Theatre.