The Transom

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At 5:19 on this week’s warm Monday night, the Charles Street home of Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe was deserted. A few sad Christmas wreaths still hung from the doorways of neighboring West Village townhouses. The shittiest car on the street was an old white Acura, weirdly guarded by the Club. The second shittiest car was an ancient station wagon with wood paneling, the back seat and trunk full of junk. Someone may very well have been living in it.

It was just a few hours after The Insider’s Marc Malkin had reported that Ms. Swank and Mr. Lowe had been separated.

A woman who bore a striking resemblance to Ms. Swank, with long dark brown hair and a slim figure, darted from her house and headed into her silvery blue Lexus SUV, parked right outside.

At 5:30 p.m. a few Villagers walked their gerbil-like dogs down the street. One man’s brown cocker spaniel took a long piss against the wall of 29 Charles Street. A very old man, bent with age, strolled slowly down the street and stooped further over, ostensibly to look at the dog, but from a distance it appeared as if he was looking at the pee as it glistened under the orange street light.

A man named Daniel, who wore a leather jacket and ported a skinny black Pomeranian in a red sweater named BeeBop, said that high-profile Hollywood breakups seem so 2005. He hadn’t yet heard about the Swank-Lowe schism, but said, “They were so boring anyway. Maybe Hilary will date someone exciting and we’ll never hear of Chad Lowe again.”

Daniel’s favorite breakup of last year was Brad and Jen. “It’s cliché,” he said, “but their breakup was so tawdry. But I’m most looking forward to the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes debacle. I can’t wait for the tell-all she’s going to write about him.”

A pair of beige pug puppies bounced around the corner to West Fourth Street. They seemed happy and young and full of life. It wasn’t so long ago that Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe seemed just like these little young things. And now, on this quiet—and expensive—Manhattan lane, their love had evaporated like so much dog urine seeping into a crack in the sidewalk, all the while being ogled by an old man.

—Raegan Johnson

The Life of Leisure

Janet Maslin described the actor Viggo Mortensen as “a poet, a musician, a photographer and a painter,” in addition to his role as a “performer,” at last weekend’s New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend.

Ms. Maslin, The Times’ former film critic and now a reviewer of books, was perched high on a stage, in a pleated miniskirt and spiky tall boots. Mr. Mortensen was seated beside her, channeling Brokeback Mountain—very Jake Gyllenhaal circa 1970—in a cowboy outfit and twitchy mustache. It was one of the kickoff events of The Times’ three-day arts festival, in which the high culture of the city was packaged and sold, mostly to those from out of town, as a sort of drop-in tourist experience, or perhaps a reverse Outward Bound trip—in any event, a weekend rife with questions about the nature of the roles of consumer, participant, performer and critic.

Many of the featured guests were movie stars, but one could feel the organizers’ strain in trying to locate bona fide celebrities who could project enough substance to qualify for a culture event hosted by the newspaper of the cultural capital of the world. The “smart” actors like Mr. Mortensen, as well as Robert Redford, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Larry David, were all to make appearances.

The crowd that had gathered to hear Mr. Mortensen was made up of very enthusiastic women, rows and rows of them in all ages and sizes, and most had digital cameras up their sleeves. As the former husband of rock goddess Exene Cervenka bantered with Ms. Maslin—“I was very happy to be directed by David Cronenberg, because he is a subtle artist,” said Mr. Mortensen, and “Many interviews you’ve done are with lady journalists, who seem to like you a lot,” from Ms. Maslin, etc.—arms shot up above the crowd like periscopes to take pictures. In fact, the entire conversation—during which Mr. Mortensen was leaning forward and speaking in a breathy soft voice—was peppered with the little bleeping sounds of dozens of cameras image-capturing.

Mr. Mortensen made it clear that he was not just all fluff and cheekbones and referred to himself throughout as an “artist.” Ms. Maslin displayed some of his books of paintings and poetry. He showed off one of his “No More Blood for Oil” T-shirts.

Some of the women in the audience asked questions of Mr. Mortensen. “How does your spirituality shape your work?” asked one in a Texas accent, her gold crushed-velvet top shimmering.

“I think that artists, to a large degree … they’ve taken potentially the place of priests,” said Mr. Mortensen. “Certainly of government leaders.”

“I would like to thank you, because you’ve inspired me to explore my artistic side,” said another woman.

“I love your poem ‘The Oceans,’” said another.

“Would you ever consider running for office?” asked yet another.

“Nah, I think I’d rather direct a movie. We have a democracy of the inane now; we have a failed state,” Mr. Mortensen said, now a sort of lefty Vincent Gallo. “No industrialized country in the world has the degree of fundamentalism right at the center of it that we have.”

Then they made him read one of his poems, called “Done,” during which some of the ladies closed their eyes or read along.

As the discussion ended, it became clear that most, if not all, of the women in the audience were members of, a fan Web site that had alerted them to his Times festival appearance.

Two sweet young things in the crowd—Megan Shoemate, 14, and Nicole Johnson, 15, both of Norwood, N.J.—had learned of the event through, and they seemed a little shy.

“We both love Viggo,” Ms. Johnson said in a near-whisper. “He’s one of the best actors out there, and his art is just touching.”

In the lobby, a group of women had gathered. “Are you from Chronicles?” said one, who was dressed all in black, with wavy brown hair down to her bum. “It’s a wonderful site.”

“Well, it’s over, isn’t it!” sighed another, also in black, but with shiny sliver appliqués on her cardigan. “I drove all the way from Virginia just to see him.”

The monolithic CUNY building on Fifth Avenue at 34th Street had been well appointed for the occasion. Little piles of food had been scattered thoughtfully about, as if the attendees were wayward mice who might slow down for a nibble. In most of the rooms, there were flat-screen televisions looping sponsor advertisements. In the basement, where the books and CD’s were sold—there was a reminder of the stuff to buy before every presentation—there were slivers of sandwiches of Brie and jam, and bites of chocolate brownie. Upstairs, in the evenings, the makeshift “Level Lounge” opened its doors, offering sticky vodka cocktails and trays of cheese and figs. At any given moment, couples were standing or huddling together on the pleather couches, looking slightly stunned.

The froth of the Friday-evening program was counterbalanced by a more somber Saturday afternoon. There was a respectful interview between fragile author Joan Didion and The Times’ Joseph Lelyveld, followed by a discussion with two precocious chefs and one restaurateur.

The chefs, Bobby Flay and Kurt Gutenbrunner—who is Austrian and flamboyant and was dressed much like a pirate—talked to Karen Waltuck of Chanterelle and Times food writer Kim Severson. The men in particular seemed to bristle over the theme of the conversation, “To Grow or Not to Grow,” about whether restaurant expansion was a good thing.

In fact, they seemed resentful of the now-common implication that the food isn’t as good once a chef opens more than one venue and can no longer be everywhere at once.

“As chefs now, we feel like we have to apologize to the media,” Mr. Flay said, insisting that he spends “90 percent of his time” rotating between his three locations in the city.

Then all three of them confessed that there is rampant theft of the salt and pepper shakers in their restaurants.

Mr. Flay also said that he had prepared bananas foster crêpes, buttermilk flapjacks with apricots and nuts, and the biscuits and gravy at his brasserie, Bar Americain, that morning.

It was by far a more jovial atmosphere than the one that permeated a later gathering, called “Feminisms.”

It is perhaps inevitable that by staging an event with such a title, and inviting four women of differing communities and generations—in this case, the artists Joan Snyder, Barbara Kruger, Collier Schorr and Tamy Ben-Tor—to discuss the subject, a fight of some sort will ensue. In this case, it came when the youngest of the women, Ms. Ben-Tor, disrespected her elders by saying that feminism is a waste of time.

“I don’t think that my work is feminist,” Ms. Ben-Tor declared at one point in her thick Israeli accent, after a discussion about the lack of prominent women artists and art teachers. “I think that feminism is an ideology. It is O.K. if feminism serves the weak. But I don’t think I am weak.”

Ms. Ben-Tor had her white-blond hair piled dramatically atop her head, and she wore maroon culottes and an electric red sweater—a strong contrast to the basic-black look sported by everyone else.

“I think it’s kind of awkward, this situation, because I don’t believe in it at all,” she said as she crossed her arms in front of her chest and smirked.

The other women were a bit horrified. The moderator, art critic Roberta Smith—one of the few critics seemingly willing to interview people working in her field, and who had announced early on that she didn’t “think of herself as a feminist”—became visibly agitated, and tried to prompt Ms. Ben-Tor to acknowledge that she had benefited in some way from the advancement of women’s rights. But Ms. Ben-Tor wouldn’t budge.

At one point, Ms. Schorr said that, as an artist, she didn’t appreciate being relegated to appearing in “gay shows,” for example, prompting some women in the audience to jump up and take the microphone.

“I just want you to know how it feels, as a lesbian filmmaker, to hear that,” began one, a compact woman with spiky silver hair.

“It has become a dirty word, feminist,” said Ms. Snyder. “It’s a dirty thing to be called a feminist; that’s why young women don’t want to be called feminists.”

Over time, what happened is that the people attending particular panels came to resemble the speakers more and more. When the film director Jim Jarmusch was up, the line into the auditorium was filled with gangly dudes with vertical gray hair and trench coats. When it was the writer Patricia Cornwell, it meant that the audience was packed with women who looked as if they might be well-dressed suburban lesbians. Many of them had hearty builds, short hair and sensible sweaters.

At that panel, those women were interspersed with the keen young law students who had come to see Scott Turow, who was sharing the stage with Ms. Cornwell.

Ms. Cornwell confessed that she owns two Harley Davidson’s—a V-Rod and a Deuce, both “tricked out as they should be”—and said that one of her strategies for learning to write dialogue was to eavesdrop on people in restaurants.

“We really enjoy The Times, and we thought that this would be quality,” said one of the women in attendance, Pam Reed of Suffern, N.Y.

“It’s a Sunday—getting into the city is nice,” said Anne Burns, also of Suffern.

“Anne is a voracious reader,” said Ms. Reed.

“Sometimes we listen on audio,” said Ms. Burns.

“I think that’s a bit of a cheat,” said Ms. Reed.

“It makes sense if you’re going on a long trip some place!” said Ms. Burns.

—Sheelah Kolhatkar

The Transom