Clean and Sober 

And heading straight to Dubai

Wednesday, May 22 2002

IN THE MIDST OF A PARTICULARLY FUTILE WRITING session -- the kind that proceeds at the rate of about three words an hour, usually misspelled -- I decided to do something useful and clean the bathroom. It was beginning to reek and appeared to be covered in a mysterious gray fuzz that I blamed on the cat because the color matched and I needed a culprit. In fact, the evil little fur ball had nothing to do with it. Although a small litter box is forever at his disposal, he prefers to perform his toilet outdoors. By the time I'd finished the cleaning job -- an hour and a half later, pouring with sweat, horrified at the amount of dirt that could accumulate in a small tiled room -- I could see that the cat's approach had a lot to recommend it.

Perhaps my task would have been easier if, before starting, I'd sat down to watch The Queen of Clean, the daily program on the DIY network dedicated to the cruder household arts. The host, an unashamedly rotund woman named Linda Cobb, goes in for eccentric recipes (Tang for the toilet bowl, tea for cleaning wood surfaces, and white vinegar for practically everything else) that suggest an ecologically correct world-view. Cobb comes across like a proletarian Martha Stewart -- her voice grates and she dresses like a respectable 1960s housewife in a working-class housing project in Queens -- but, in the end, the woman was too damn fancy for me. When I think about cleaning a bathroom, I don't think baking soda, borax, lemon juice and a micro-fiber cloth; I think Ajax, rock 'n' roll and any old rag or sponge I can get my hands on. As far as I'm concerned, cleaning is a form of therapy: It's not just the floor I'm scrubbing, it's my soul. What goes through my mind isn't "God, the bathroom's filthy, how disgraceful." It's "Well, if I can't write a decent article, I can at least prove that I'm a moderately useful human being by washing the floor."

IT TOOK LAST CALL, THE FORTHCOMING MOVIE ON Showtime (May 25, 8 p.m.) about the last 20 months of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, to teach me the error of my ways. What was I thinking? You don't deal with the horrors of the blank page by acting like the help. You deal with them by getting drunk -- smashed, blotto, pulverized. And if a fleeting moment of success should happen to come your way, you head straight for the drinks cabinet then as well.

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Last Call is based on the memoirs of Frances Kroll Ring (Neve Campbell), a young woman who took a job as Fitzgerald's secretary in 1939, when the by-then forgotten chronicler of the Jazz Age (a term he coined), flappers and bathtub booze was preparing to start work on The Last Tycoon, an unfinished novel about Hollywood that was later turned into a pretty decent movie by Elia Kazan. Like Celeste, Percy Adlon's 1981 film about Marcel Proust and his peasant housekeeper, Last Call dramatizes the relationship between a great novelist and a sturdily loyal woman who helps to keep him grounded. If loyalty and unrequited love move you, then you will be moved.

Fitzgerald is played by Jeremy Irons, who, when we first encounter him stumbling around his house in an alcoholic delirium, looks dissipated even by the daunting standard set by the actor in some of his previous roles. The dark circles are in place, but the accent seems alarmingly wobbly -- sometimes sliding back and forth across the Atlantic within a single sentence -- and Irons seems altogether too physical a presence to embody such an ethereal spirit as Fitzgerald's. But before long you forget about all that and start to enjoy the performance. After all, how often do you get to see such a good actor on TV?

There isn't much of a story to Last Call -- it's really an "almost" story. Down-on-his-luck novelist hires secretary, goes on wagon, starts new novel, comes close to falling for secretary and almost, but not quite, makes it back to a sober and productive life. Too pragmatic to be Fitzgerald's muse, too green to become his lover or keep him on the wagon long enough for him to finish his novel, Ring receives an early lesson in futility. And yet, if her account is to be believed, their relationship must have been of great comfort to the author of The Great Gatsby as he struggled vainly to extricate himself from the self-made wreckage of his life. What you wonder about is the effect this encounter with fading, self-destructive genius must have had on Ring. Campbell is superb in the role, alternating perfectly between selfless devotion and frustrated love for a doomed man. Parts of the film are undoubtedly hokey, and the scenes in which Fitzgerald communes with the hallucinated presence of institutionalized wife Zelda (Sissy Spacek) are like something out of an alcoholic sci-fi pic, but overall this is a touching and engaging movie.

IT'S SPRING, THE TIME OF YEAR WHEN YOU CLEAN the house (see above) and then immediately start making plans to leave it. With that in mind, I checked out a documentary on airports (World Tour, History Channel). Apparently, 1.5 billion passengers fly on airplanes each year, with 700,000 aircraft moving in and out of LAX alone. A sobering statistic -- proof not just of human ingenuity (for which the documentary provided compelling evidence) but of what looks increasingly like human madness as well. It brought to mind a lapidary passage on crowds by the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset: "Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travellers, cafés full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting rooms of famous doctors full of patients, theaters full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers. What previously was, in general, no problem, now begins to be an everyday one, namely, to find room." And that was written in 1928!

Not to be deterred, I turned on the Travel Channel in the hope of getting some vacation ideas. Hmmm. Bermuda Triangle: Lost at Sea opened with a montage of pyramids and skulls and implied that not only might I die before ever reaching Bermuda, but that I would probably vanish as well. Jordan: The Royal Tour, hosted by the youthful King Abdullah II, was an extended P.R. job for a country with the misfortune of being a stone's throw -- and people do throw stones around there -- from Sharon and Arafat, suicide bombers and tanks -- not quite what the missus and I had in mind for a summer break.

But these were as nothing compared with the trio of brand-new documentaries the Travel Channel unleashed on an unsuspecting public last Thursday evening: Rage at 30,000 Feet, Danger in the Sky and Concorde Crash. Perhaps the Travel Channel should rename itself the You Really Ought To Stay at Home Channel. Due to a foul-up with my recording system, I only got to see the second of the three programs, but it was enough to get the general idea. From pilot suicides -- that's on the plane, not back at the hotel -- to "clear-air turbulence," from deep-vein thrombosis to TB germs circulating in the cabin and old faithfuls like mechanical failure -- whoops, the wings just fell off -- the filmmakers gleefully itemize everything they could think of to make you think twice about getting on a plane.

Most Luxurious Hotel, about the Burj al Arab, an architectural fantasia that soars like a giant sail from a small man-made island just off the coast of Dubai, was more soothing, though given the cost of the rooms -- $800 to $9,000 a night -- thoroughly off-limits. "Downtown Dubai has more than a hint of Miami," the narrator stated at the beginning of the program, but he was probably just being polite: Ordering a Peach Fuzz in a thong bikini wouldn't go down too well in the kingdom. In any case, the whole point of a hotel like Burj al Arab is to serve as a self-contained resort whose geographical location is essentially meaningless.

Still, as a demonstration of what money can buy, this documentary proved oddly fascinating. I particularly liked the part where they showed how falcons were trained to fly sorties around the hotel to scare away pigeons, and then rewarded with pieces of quail. Also the bit about the underwater-themed restaurant with the 61,000-gallon aquarium filled with 5,000 fish. Not only do the fish have a round-the-clock team of marine biologists to take care of their needs, they also have what amounts to their own sushi restaurant, and feast regularly on prawns, mussels, squid, mackerel and even lobster tail. All fish are equal, but the fish at the world's most luxurious hotel are more equal than most humans. Where do they go on vacation?

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