by Arthur Wicks
Most travelers enter Amsterdam through Centraal Station, fresh off trains from Germany, Belgium, the North Sea ports that welcome the British and the Scandinavians…and of course Schiphol Airport. From the trains the city appears rather abruptly among broad fields, narrow waterways—sheep, horses, cattle share the landscape with football pitches and oases of old trees shielding gabled houses. The trains line into the Centrum over working canals and through neighborhoods of precise Dutch homes, streets crowded with shops and restaurants, all resembling the Old City but centuries more recent and still straight as stacking blocks.
Coming down from the trains, a right turn leads to the harbour and a minutes-long ferry ride to Amsterdam Noord; turning south the crowded underground walk is a mall of sandwich shops, news kiosks and stalls bursting with sweets, that exits onto a broad and traffic-clotted plein…but beyond it Amsterdam literally fans before the visitor stood open-eyed beneath the station’s clock tower.
Panning from the left is the massive Church of St. Nikolas, a statement of Catholic resurgence in the nineteenth century (performs a lively Spanish language Mass on Sundays)—to the right of it over roofs and treetops is the steeple of the Oude Kerk, the oldest building in Amsterdam…glorious, a cathedral in the Red Light District—panning still, the low-ceilinged city reveals itself:
Amsterdam is a city of about six storeys; there are buildings taller, but they’re aberrations, their only function to keep the sky up.
…above a moorage carved near the station is the Grasshopper, a complex of restaurants, bars & coffeeshop (the hash bar) in a prosperous 17th Century building
—and then the long view down the Damrak.
The Damrak was once the principal canal of the city, it connected the city’s harbor to a small moorage at the Royal Palace; it’s now a principal street—really, Main Street!...the river to the tributaries of High Streets!—of Amsterdam. Along its east side are granite and stately-banky buildings all on their row—across, restaurants & kiosks of all kinds (news vendors, money-changers, post cards & wooden shoes) & restaurants…
Where foreign ships of state once paused, and royal barges set out into the canals, before the Royal Palace is now Damplein… Dam Square, the real center of the Old City—Royalty, Hotel Kraznapolsky, War Monument, Madame Tussaud’s—a criss-cross of trams & traffic, visitors and citizens…where the persistent residents in the cobbled public space are mimes and performance artists, athletes on unicycles, and the occasional Inca pipe and drum performance. Passengers and tourists.
…panning still from the station…the view is the tilted, askew face of the old city—once warehouse next to warehouse, a palette of the city’s gables—now a hive of homes and studios, businesses and cyber-connections above hotels and restaurants, coffeeshops, the storefronts of meat and vegetables a community requires…& what makes shoppers stop..
The western view is a busy intersection over the head of the Singel Canal—in the mid-distance rises the steeple of the Posthoomkerk (a graceful late 18th Century entry in the religious revival of the period) and beyond to the park at the end of Haarlammerdijk.
The Singel is the main canal, it creates the fan of the city—beyond it are the Herrengracht, Keizersgracth, Prinzengracht, and they curl & arc about the Old City and a welter of cultures…bring the sea, canal and river waters around St. Nikolas and right back to the harbor.
Amsterdam within this rainbow limit is a system of neighborhoods with greengrocers in the Red Light District, women in cabinets along quiet residential streets, Hindu reading rooms adjacent wine shops, and book & record sellers on unexpected corners. Things overlay, interlock…it is a city in dissolve—flat, close, entirely walk able…each district with a hint of every other. Culture is everywhere embroidered, scattered between the slats of connecting canals and thoroughfares—small museums, galleries, ethnic villages…the movies.
The subject on view….
I try to stay at Hotel Brouwer, 83 Singel—a small hotel (eight rooms)—but if I can’t get a reservation, I will always stay in the neighborhood: Minutes from Centraal Station, the necessities and the amenities at hand…essentially central. There are no movie houses nearby (forgive me for not acknowledging the coin-cinemas on Spujstraat), but Amsterdam defines the idea of “local”, and if something’s playing anywhere it can be got to easily—and sometimes with adventure…such depending, of course, on circumstances.
In December 2007 I was at the Brouwer and in the mood for a film. An old friend was in the house, and a friend & colleague (living in Paris on a sabbatical from our college) was at the nearby Corner Hotel—he couldn’t get in at the Brouwer. I enlisted them; we settled on “Michael Clayton” at the Kriterion on Roetersstraat: The word on it was positive, and it looked like something Oscar was going to pay attention to. We all liked George Clooney…and I was particularly hot for Tilda Swinton. “4 Maanden, 3 Weken & 2 Dagen” was at the Cinecenter, but it was decided that Romanian with Dutch subtitles might be a bit much for this recreational evening.
We met in the Central’s bar, a traditional Amsterdam establishment of drink that served as the lobby of the hotel.
The room is pure Brown Café—(kroeg in the local parlance) a neighborhood place of dark wood, wainscoted and nicotine-stained walls & ceiling, and a clientele as comfortable in it as in their own living room. The Corner is all window panes on two sides, looking on Gravenstraat (a walking street behind the Nieuwe Kerk and the Dam) and Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal (a principal street carrying trams to the west city [it was a canal once as well], and to the south…the Leidseplein, Vondel Park, Muzeumplein and beyond). It’s small, six tables—though the front table is large & round enough to accommodate twenty or-so busy elbows—with a soundtrack varied as those who work the bar.
Tracy was at the Brouwer, she worked at our college (this was her first time in Europe); Dinshaw was at the Corner, he’s our college’s tenured Professor of Philosophy (widely traveled, this his second time in Amsterdam—we’d spent eleven days in the city in March).
At our table we acknowledged that it was an easy walk to Roetersstraat…and that it was Winter!... Albeit mild, there was a breeze on. Narrow streets and the last month of the year…
We ordered more beers and genevars and dawdeled towards showtime to some French cabaret songs and a bowl of mixed nuts. It was 16.30, the screening was 18.45. We’d take the tram.
The Number 17 leaves from Centraal Station; we caught it at the Dam.
Roetersstraat is just southeast of Centruum; the tram braces and sways through the Muntplein, Rembrandtplein, edges Waterlooplein (the Flea Market, principally), to the Artis (that’s the Zoo, and a lovely urban idiosyncracy) stop.
The street at the head of the island is Plantage Kerklaan—a right turn there, and follow over a canal bridge onto Roetersstraat. The west side of the street is a usual and quiet Amsterdam avenue—discrete homes above storefronts that offer books, groceries, meals from a world menu—the east side is an enormous, very modern, complex that is the business school of the University of Amsterdam (the institution ubiquitous across the city).
The theater opened with a single screen in November, 1945, as a student/theater cinema; at its heart it is an art house. A second screen was added in 1965. Today it’s a multiplex, small broad auditoriums with wide screens stacked one on top of another—high-rise cinema. On the ground floor is a very lively café/bar crowded with filmgoers and locals; above, six theaters that week screened eleven films ranging from Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie” and Alan Resnais”s “L’Anee Derniere a Marienbad” to Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome”. That shuffling playlist, and my rudimentary Dutch, were at the heart of our disappointment.
My guide was “Films/Amsterdam” (posted on the walls of most bars and cafes, a staple in the Thursday newspapers),---and at the Kriterion listing, among “Michael Clayton” and “Dagelijks…18.45” I ignored “(beh . Wo.)”…Daily except Wednesday!
We retraced our steps, alighting the #17 at Rembrandtplein. We went into the first restaurant we encountered that had escargots on the menu, and took a time out: We had until 20.15 and a showing of “American Gangster” at the Pathe de Munt.
Genevars and a beer, the snails and fresh rolls sopping the garlic butter…
Rembrandtplein is a central tourist spot, bars and shops and restaurants—and as with the city as a whole, ya gotta go outa yr way to find a bad meal. Until recently there was a multiplex (one of the city’s first), but it’s been replaced by a superstore of a high-tech nightclub. My son, Kilian, and I saw John Landis’s “Trading Places” there in 1985.
The Muntplein is reached from Rembrandtplein by way of the romantically named Regulierbreestraat. The block between the two is shorter than the street’s name—taken up at the center with tram tracks, edged by restaurants & tourist stuff & some porn (in 1985 there were “live girls” on the street, but things have toned down).
Along this brief way is the Pathe Tuchinski…the last great Art Deco movie palace in Europe.
The Muntplein is the terminus of the Singel, the Amsterdam floating flower market, and Nieuwendijk—the shopping mall that stretches from the head of the Singel through the Dam to the location of the first McDonald’s in Holland. Pathe de Munt is on this busy intersection, a Twenty-First Century edition of the Kriterion, thirteen screens piled among each other…and given the way buildings cluster in Amsterdam, it is almost literally joined at the hip to the corporate kin & relic Tuchinski.
We liked “American Gangster”. Top tier directors & actors have hits and misses, like everybody. Ridley Scott & Denzel Washington have always provided more pleasures than yawns…and they did so here, merging in a conclusion of atypical restraint with a villain as slimy in the last frame as he was horrid in the first.
We got back to the Corner & some ZZ Top.
Thursday, we were clear on “Michael Clayton””s screen time, arrived at the Kriterion at 16.30—made ouselves comfortable in an empty space. Three others made their way in by showtime. Ten minutes later there were nine of us and no movie.
We elected a Dutch-speaker to investigate. While we waited on I chatted with two local women, one was enraptured by George Clooney (by way of Rosemary), the other pursued Tilda Swinton in her every role
Well, another twenty minutes passed…and the house projectionist appeared. He’d somehow become confused…he explained that he’d begun “Michael Clayton” in the auditorium above us, when he should have shown Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. The documentary ran through most of a reel before the projectionist was located in a restroom and informed of the mix-up. Upstairs got its “Sicko”, but our screening was scrubbed…it would make the scheduled “The Assassination of Jesse James…” an impossibility….
This evening we returned to the Brouwer neighborhood, ate filets & burgers at the Spaanse Ruijter on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal at Lijnbaanssteeg…a small and never-fail bar halfway between the Corner and the Brouwer.
Another evening I saw “Michael Clayton” at the Kriterion. I attended early, had a couple of drinks in the bar—a high-tech establishment of the ‘70s persuasion, i.e., pipes & wires & ductwork displayed as décor rather than providing Wi-Fi as its own and only entertainment.
I liked the movie.
Glad I saw it. I like George Clooney (loved his aunt on TV in the ‘50s) and, already a Tilda Swinton groupie-at-heart (have you seen “Orlando”!?!), could easily become a member of a political party the two might helm…one that dealt with all things honestly.
Someone in the bar was smoking a Galousies…If “Last Days at Marienbad” had been playing that evening, I would’ve passed on “Michael Clayton”.
I revisit the Kriterion. Real movies, real filmgoers among the students and locals…and I’ll never forget Simone. We had a Calvados together—she was there to see Jesper Ganslandt’s “Falkenberg Farewell”—but I didn’t get a phone number. I see the movies, but I also hang out.
In the Spring of ’85 I was living at the Brouwer (83 Singel, five minutes from Centraal Station), had been since New Years Day…and it was the bitterest winter on record; I’d spent a lot of time in the cafes, the theaters & museums, and the hotel breakfast room with a book in my hands. Outside was simply an inconvenient passage from one warm room to another.
The world was frozen: Homemakers threw their leftover breads and grains out for the birds, who noisily clustered about the graceful measure.
The hotel at that time was a different place. There were twelve rooms available, each with a toilet and bath just down the hall…. The place wasn’t technically operating as a hotel at the time; the city had closed it as the Brouwer had fallen behind the increasingly stringent codes begun to be enacted in the ‘70s—plumbing, elevator, etc. Gerald Brouwer, the proprietor in these inter-years and son of the man who’d converted a 1652 warehouse into a hotel (he’d hand-made the hotel’s furniture as well, most of which is still in use), housed certain welfare cases the city directed to him and was allowed to accept a couple of “guests”. The locals in the house were a wonderful crew; the guests were mostly Americans who’d found the hotel when it was “open”. I was one of those…simply lucked-in…
New Years morning, after a night boat from Harwich, I and my traveling companion, Judy, arrived in the breakfast room. We’d been on the streets for an hour or so, unable to find lodging. On the Brouwer door was a sign in three languages saying “no room”. Outside was cold, inches of snow, not a kindly breeze; behind the hotel windows people were sitting in warm light drinking coffee and smoking—looked friendly, and we decided that there might be a line on a local room there.
The breakfast room has a large table down its center, two tables against the windows and two against one of the short walls (the other is faced by the coffee bar. Herr Brouwer was set at the head of the long table, cigarette in hand over a crossword puzzle. I judged him to be late ‘60s, slender and somber looking beneath a thick head of silver hair. He looked us up and down.
I began to ask if he could help us, but he interrupted me.
Of course…and he told us to put our backpacks behind a door, and return at 11.00.
We went walking for coffee, and happened into the Corner Hotel and Café for the first time.
That late March an attractive fellow of my age arrived. He looked very much like a friend of mine from years before, one who’d been grafted on to the frame and mannerisms of Dustin Hoffman. Over the long coffees those snowy mornings we struck up a conversation. His name was Richard—and American—expatriate—an attorney working in Munchen for a Deutsche bank; he’d stumbled into the Brouwer the first time in 1974, and to a reception much like mine. There was another coincidence: He was to be joined soon by his twelve year-old daughter (who lived with her mother in the States), and my son, Kilian (who was living with his mother while I was in Europe) was joining me at the same time. Kilian would turn twelve in a few weeks.
Among other things we talked film. One morning I remarked that I’d seen “Paris, Texas” the night before…that I thought it, without describing it in any way, stunning.
Richard’s daughter, Jenn, was delightful—and definitely favored her mother’s side of the family…already as tall as her father, willowy, fair. Over our first breakfast together (at the larger window table) Richard suggested we see a movie…maybe that stunning film. I was great for that (by now I’d seen it three times), and I knew Kilian would enjoy it (we were watching Jean Renoir and David Lynch in theatres by the time he was sever); I assumed Richard had the same relationship with Jenn.
“Paris, Texas” among other things is about finding where relationships go…oh, it’s about the landscape of longing, but it’s more about the Buddhist idea that questions after a flame when it’s gone out….
We caught an early screening, opting for dinner after…
De Uitkijk is a singular theater. We talk about American cineplexes as being assemblages of shoeboxes…and they are, but perjoratively: De Uitkijk is the real deal. Located at the Prinzengracht and Leidsestraat (the pedestrian street/tram line that begins at the flower market and culminates in the Leidseplein…all the world’s pleasures, and several theater & -plexes, at hand), it’s a long and narrow house, seats steeply inclined down the hollow of an old warehouse. The screen was at the top of the Prinzen-wall, and had all but the patrons in the choir-rows somewhat craning their necks…but cinema is where it’s found, and De Uitkijk provides consistently fine films on its single screen. The theater opened in 1913 as the City-Bioscop, a cinema refuge for the bourgeoisie that was free of exploitative rowdy-dowdy masses stuff; it was the first theater in the city to screen colored film. In 1929 it became “The Outlook”…avant garde, experimental, alternative, you name it….
I loved seeing the film again.
Richard was quiet as we regained the Prinzengracht. The children bounced against each other with no concern for the film—from the look of them they might have just viewed “Trading Places”…or “Blood Simple”.
Kilian and Jenn communicated well, chattingly led our way as we retraced onto Leidsestraat and back towards the Brouwer and dinner in a neighborhood restaurant.
As we walked Richard remarked, “That was a stunning film.” He was talking to me—but bowed and punching a little into the weather he seemed to be talking as much to himself.
The kids stopped at a shop for candy and a soda. I smoked while Richard and I waited.
He went on, “That film dealt with a lot…of well how her mother and I…got on. I wonder…”
He paused as our guides resumed lead, Chocomels in hands & bulk candy in bags.
“What is she going to think that I’m thinking…” he concluded.
Kilian’s mother and I had split when he was three, Richard’s separation was very recent. Jenn and Kilian seemed oblivious of us…
We had rib dinners at the Sing Café, only a few doors from the Brouwer. It’s now a very nice continental restaurant that goes by its address, 101 Singel.
In the winter of ’07 De Uitkijk closed for renovation. When it reopened the essential theater remained…cleaner, sharper…the long-time playlist sometimes second-run and always interesting.
Dinshaw and I spent eleven days in Amsterdam in March, ’07. Unable to garner rooms at the Brouwer, we bunked at the Hotel Ibis adjacent Centraal Station.
Ibis is a chain associated with such American hostelries as Motel Six…and it’s top-flight. Clean, modern rooms—a great breakfast (whether it’s an extra charge varies hotel to hotel).
It was Dinshaw’s first time in the city, but his travels have taken years—he knew what was worth seeing had to be looked for. We did a cultural thing or so early each day—Van Gogh Museum, Flea Market—then followed our inner maps. I prowled my particular cafes, coffeeshops, bookshops; he attended me for whiles at a time, struck out on his own walks…one that involved a train and Maastricht, where he’d an acquaintance from a long hike in Spain the previous summer…
On a Thursday I suggested a movie.
“La Vie en Rose”’d played at a New York film festival earlier in the year. As “La Mome” it’s the most popular French film to date (I could tell you about a French woman I met in Prague who adored the film)…period. Olivier Dahan’s biopic was appreciated in New York, though not particularly praised—the performance, however, of Marion Cotillard was reacted to on a spectrum from awe to disbelief…
I’ve loved Piaf since my first hearing of “Milord”—I was a young teenager…alone in a rural cabin in an early 1959 AM listening to the available to keep the darkness outside…. I didn’t understand a word of it, but felt every note she made.
The film was playing at Cinecenter, a few strides behind the outside-tables of the Leidseplein.
Dinshaw and I often talked film, but he seemed much more familiar with it from television and video than theaters. He spent a lot of time in Europe, but in hiking and conversation with friends of long standing—he didn’t talk a lot about going to the flix… He was charmed by the place of the movie-house—it’s a 1976 building built to house three theaters of 103-113 seats (a 52 seat auditorium was added in 1979)— between Lijnbaansgracht and Korte Leidsewarsstraat, the northern egresses from Leidseplein. The latter is a street of restaurants, Dutch and ethnic; from Lijnbaansgracht the view is over a tiny waterway to the Melky Weg, a venue of film and many things. My first visit to Cinccenter was to see John Huston’s (although, as in the best cases, it might also be Albert Finney’s) “Under the Volcano” in 1985.
Melkyweg is another story.
The Cinecenter faces on the streets with lit playcards behind glass. Inside the décor is tres moderne—wood and metal tables aligned for their angles along thought-out passages, soft light on patterned walls…an elegant bar. The Tuchinski and The Movies, De Uitkijk, have their grace and charms, but it’s hard not to call Cinecenter the finest cinema in the city.
Dinshaw studies French, I have my high-school grammar and a modest vocabulary owing to Phillipe Toutonghi & two years of studies inspired by that “Milord”. Toutonghi was from Algiers; he gave his students Camus as well…spiked only a bit by several transits of the country. Meals and traffic circles. Escargot at the first restaurant encountered in Calais, soufflé in Carcassonne. I remember ham & cheese sandwiches in Gare du Nord in December ’84 with my daughter Chloe. It was midnight and we were on our way to Barcelona.
Dinshaw was unfamiliar with Piaf, but he had no trouble recognizing the feverish woman in Marion Cotillard’s mind nor succumbing to the singer’s voice. It’s not in the bio-pic’s job description to be discrete…this film, bold as it is, is…
The next day we met at the Corner. I’d bought Dinshaw a best-of CD of Piaf’s; he’d bought the same disc for himself. I told him to give the extra to his sister.
Centraal Station faces on Prins Hendrikade; just west of the station it swerves towards Amsterdam West and the ring-road that connects the city to the highways of Europe—that swerve occurs over the point the harbor spills into the Singel Canal. Sixty metres down the canal is a largely pedestrian bridge that connects Nieuwendijk (the shopping street that curls across the Dam to the Muntplein) to Haarlemmerstraat—a long street that becomes Haarlemmerdijk as it crosses the Prinsengracht and continues its mile from Centraal Station to Haarlemmerplein and Westerpark (smaller than Vondelpark but as rich in its counterpoint to the roiling urbanity all about).
At the edge of the bridge to Haarlemmmerstraat is a long kiosk that serves fresh herring in rolls (my first time in the city, 1974, I tried one)…and two doors along the Singel two of the city’s most venerable coffeeshops do business (the Bulldog and the Doors). Each vendor is a destination of personal taste.
The whole of the Haarlammer-street continuum is a bazaar of kiosks & fancy shops; there’re trinkets and antiques (& simply a lot of interesting junque), coffeeshops, grocers, bars and restaurants (the side streets, only to the south, lead quickly to the parallel Brouwersgrach and feature many fine small restaurants)—the market in barrows & on blankets near the Posthoomketk…and shortly before Haarlammerplein, The Movies.
The Movies is the oldest cinema in Amsterdam, one of the longest running cinemas on the planet. It opened in 1912 with a two hundred forty-four seat auditorium; in 1971 adjacent property was acquired and three screens added.
There’s a very nice restaurant/bar/café (three course meal & flick for e29). The menu tends toward the Mediterranean; the risottos and lasagnas are very tasty…and many take their plates into the auditoriums.
The house is essentially unchanged from 1912—bare halls, bare walls, simply films.
I’ve seen many films there—most memorably the 1995 restoration of Jacques Tati’s (1947) “Jour de Fete” to a semblance of what Tati’d envisioned (colour!)! It’d bagged a Cannes award that spring for its presentation. And, in 1997 seeing David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (Lynch’s take on Buneuel’s bifurcation of personality ala “That Obscure Object of Desire”) with a young relative:
Sean & I were for the 21.00 show, an event we took two hours to approach. En route I bought an Elvis bootleg off a carpet on the street, and we nibbled & loitered in bars Indonesian and Dutch & with a distinctly Jamaican flavour. I’ll say nothing of Sean, nor myself at the time—nor Lynch & film…but I think for cousin & I, dealing with that movie, the road to it was entirely appropriate….
In August ’07 my 18 year-old son, Aeron, and I were in the city at the end of a trip that’d begun in Prague. We passed on seeing films in the Czech Republic and Germany; I probably could’ve gotten by with either German or Czech dubbing, but Aeron, who loves film, decided he could forego “Bruce Willis” no matter how detailed the dub.
I was pleased but equivocal.
I’d had a numbing experience in a small theater in Herzogenaurach, Germany, in 1969. “Doctor Zhivago” was playing, and my good friend Bruce had yet to see the film (I’d seen it several times, in Seattle & Washington, DC, & Denver & San Francisco [I still enjoy it, and no longer really critically…maybe it’s David Lean, or Tom Courtenay, or “Lara’s Theme”—or Lara!—but probably Julie Christie]). On a February night the breezy theater was cold, the print scratched miserably (it broke three times in the screening), and the dub so muddy as to be unintelligible. Bruce was more than fluent in German (he read philosophy at the University of Tubingen) and he was flummoxed by the electrically illegible renderings of speech—likened it to the loudspeaker gibberish at a rural train station.
On a Thursday evening Aeron and I caught an early “Death at a Funeral”, Frank Oz’s venture of an Ealing Studios comedy. Aeron was somewhat prepared. We’d seen the Coen’s “The Ladykillers” when visiting Shrewsbury in 2004…and in our hotel later that evening the Alexander Mackendrick original played on the telly. On our return to the states I’d reinforced the film’s lineage, and the experience, with “The Man in the White Suit”…then Charles Crichton’s “A Fish Called Wanda”. His mother and I saw that when she was pregnant with him…it was a natural.
We probably spent an hour on the fifteen-minute walk along the Haarlammerstraat…peeping through book and music stores, stopping into the Posthoomkerk—dawdling in the street market as the “straat” gave way to the “dijk”. Across the street from The Movies we sat at a sidewalk table and had a beer. I was fiddling with a sonnet; it looked like Aeron was sketching something of the elevation of a gable (from my upside-down perspective).
The film left us somewhat as bemused—maybe inside-out. Frank Oz the Brit’d brought his propers home. I, I’m sure, gleamed in the Ealing-sense of non-conformity grappling exploitation to the floor…
Improbably naked men—one memorable on a roof—were long overdue…,
Aeron was most amused by the man on drugs
When the movie let out we walked back to the Singel at the Brouwer—and down the Lijnbaanstraat pedestrian street to the Nieeuwzijds Voorburgwal and the Spaanse Ruijter. We got to the bar about 21.20.
The Spaanse Ruijter is a small Brown Café—a few tables, a bar, seven stools, and a limited menu—with one person who serves all the tables (including those umbrella’d outposts on the Nieuwszijds Voorburgwal in good weather), and does the cooking. Mike was our host, a tall and handsome young man of Dutch and Turkish parents; he lived near the Leidseplein now but was raised in Amsterdam Noord, a traditionally immigrant-populated part of the city.
We garnered a table on the street and I went inside to order.
I asked if dinner was still a possibility. Mike shook his head No, said he was “…sorry, I closed the kitchen”.
I smiled. We could get a doner later at the Ten Have take-out up the street towards the hotel. I ordered a genevar for myself and two beers.
When Mike brought the drinks he set down the pads and the glasses.
“I’m sorry, I’ll be happy to fix you dinner…”
He went on to explain that he’d had a birthday party of twenty at the back tables, and that they’d only just left when we arrived. He was tired.
Aeron had the burger—one of the tallest in the western world—and I had my usual, a filet with pepper-sauce…both come surrounded by frites and diverse salad with a quiet vinaigrette.
We ate and chatted…that movie and that space the backdrop to our evening—that Aeron kept breaking into chuckles over the guest (“Simon Smith” played by Alan Tudyk) at the funeral of the film’s title, who, after unknowingly ingesting a very strong hallucinogenic (touted as an LSD+) wandered about the rest of the film in an extreme state of psychedelic wonderment.
Aeron was eighteen; we’d spent times in the city over many years (I’ve a photo of him—wearing diapers—in the Brouwer breakfast room). He’s adventurous and with a cartographer’s eye—and preternaturally familiar with the place. I’m sure he’s more than wandered through one or a few coffeeshops…and I wondered what associations he was making.
Old Herr Brouwer (as I’ve only heard him referred to) opened his hotel in 1917; his grandson, Wim, is now the proprietor. Between them was Gerald…
Gerald Brouwer, the founder’s son, lived most of his life in the hotel or the nearby neighborhood—with the signal exception of some years in Berlin, where (tale told) he’d been removed in the 1940s by the Nazis as necessary labor. In later life he was a tall, very slender man with thick white hair; he had a sorrowed look to him—he could be captured in conversation but would seldom initiate one.
After he’d served his guests breakfast, Herr Brouwer would sit at the table in the breakfast room, smoke, and do crossword puzzles from the daily newspapers and an ever-changing stack of books nearby on the table. I once suggested sending him a book of English crosswords; he recoiled in horror.
In the spring of 1986 I was sitting at my window-table on a late morning; Gerald had his back to me—a Bastos in the ashtray, daily De Telegraaf open before him and pen in hand. I watched a young family come up the porch and into the room. The “no rooms” sign in all its languages was (perpetually) on the door, but they asked for lodging.
Over many months I had watched people come, ask if there might really be, and be denied with a shake of Herr Brouwer’s head and a quiet “Neen Zimmer…” There was no common denominator of those who were granted an available room: I think it all hinged on the way they looked in the doorway and the tone of their voice. Judy & I’d got in, after all…
This family was a young red-haired man, Nick (freckled, short, wiry), his wife Janet (short as well, dark, almost dainty), and two small children—Michael, 4, who took after his mother, and Phoebe, 3, the image of her father. They were from Edinburgh, pretty much out of money and of energy. Gerald told them to put their bags by the stairs and come back at 14.00. What was referred to as the “Rembrandt Room” was vacant: It’s a singular room over what had been the former warehouse office ( was a wine bar when the hotel first opened); tall windows over the Singel, small windows & their shutters above the Lijnbaanssteeg; a table, three beds—the master bed built-in, with a curtain that would separate it from the room. It is where Judy and I were lodged that New Year’s morning.
They spent several months in the house, finally securing a place of their own in Amsterdam Noord. How they financed it, I’m not sure; but Heer Brouwer had grown protectively fond of Janet and the children, and Janet could often be found in the hotel doing housekeeping work.
When I returned in 1992, things had not gone well for the family. Nick had gone to Sweden, involved in an amateurish attempt to smuggle heroin out of Amsterdam: He would remain in a Swedish jail until the late 1990s. When I spoke to Jan, she was upbeat but nonetheless worried…not so much about Nick (he was safe), but as to how she could keep herself and the kids afloat without returning to Scotland.
She was cleaning many more houses than the Brouwer—and she was tired.
I offered to take the children for part of a day. I’d become fond of them, and Phoebe reminded me of my own daughter, Chloe, whose own Scottish blood had brought her red hair, freckles and a round smile in a broad face.
We went down Lijnbaanssteeg, swung onto the Nieuwzijds Voorbugwal around De Spaanse Ruijter and to the Dam—where we watched some jugglers, one spectacular athlete on a series of ever-taller monocycles, a mime “running” step after slow step and never advancing…
Damstraat is the southern boundary of the Red Light District, a pedestrian street lined with bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, chocolatiers, souvenir shops and a mix of bookstores (another enclave of the University of Amsterdam is a few streets south). It runs from the Dam east, across three local canals (all “voorburgwals”, canals, as were the Damrak and Nieuwzijds…) to the Sint Antoniesbreestraat & the vicinity of Waterlooplein and the Flea Market. Along it we scored some nougats and Cokes.
The Flea Market is a broad and busy bazaar on the Zwanenburgwal, one of the small canals connecting the harbor to the Amstel. Altogether, a kilometer of narrow paths separate canvas-awninged barrows offering everything from wooden shoes, Indian scarves and saris, bootleg music & leatherware to hardware and power tools and the contents of many locals’ attics. The children were familiar with it, and we passed through quickly (they were patient as a couple of times I stopped to browse bins of CDs or DVDs), buying only a couple of baskets of frites.
Our destination was the Tuchinski, across the Amstel from Waterlooplein. It’s a short and charming walk from the market— two canals (and Amsterdam’s most distinctive small drawbridge)…a crossing of the Amstel and quick burrowing to the Rembrandtplein. Reguliersstraat connects Rembrandtplein and Muntplein…and is hovered over by the theater.
At the time there were several video arcades that Michael stared intently and longingly into—and vainly…18 and older only. My own children’d stumbled there as well.
The immigrant Abraham Icek Tuchinski opened his theater 1n 1921; it was then the grandest theater in Holland, and remains so. The façade soars from the street into two Art Deco towers that dominate the neighborhood…takes flight in stone and brick and whorls of an imagined orient in its design. It’s Art Deco, yes—and Dutch Amsterdam School—and Ali Baba…and the personal tastes and very precise whims of Tuchinski, himself.
…Who was a character. He kept an orchestra in his theater—provided Amsterdam with continental performers (Chevalier and Piaf sang there)…. And he and his family were murdered in Nazi camps: The theater, during the Occupation, was renamed “Tivoli” in revulsion at Tuchinski’s Jewishness.
The original name was restored after the War. A multiplex now, the main auditorium reduced in size from the 1920’s, the theater remains the red-carpet venue in the Netherlands…any principal premier will occur here, stretch limousines clogging the street with the trams.
The exterior of the theater is one of the most photographed edifices in the city; the interior, has since its installation, been a destination for architecture and design students—four-inch intricately designed wool carpets, glass spreading in chandeliers and sprouting in sconces, light seeping from every seam of the building’s rooms. Behind the large central auditorium—the spacious meeting of art and community—intimacy lurked…restaurants and small bars, dens lush with the mystery of the Orient and North Africa….
Today the remembrance of The Tuchinski’s early days lurks ironically in the presenbt, the sheer spectacle of the place—it’s now in that it’s been here all along. The main venue is reduced, but its essence persists; and the patron can still enjoy a small meal and wine in one of the private boxes of the showroom.
As I recall, “Terminator Two” was playing (among other items), and Michael was all for that.
(I sympathized: I’d seen the original at a Midnight Show on the Leidseplein in 1985.)
…but we were destined for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Janet had her say.
I think the children were impressed by the theater, coming as they were from a VHS culture (though they’d certainly been to more conventional multiplexes). A pleasant moment was when, after the film, we stood in the center of a relatively un-busy lobby and simply looked up and about…
Even the minimally trained eye can create a document of Art in the early 20th Century with a studied scan of the place….
Finally, it was the snack-bar the children dug.
And “Beauty and the Beast”.
I dig it, too. Groundbreaking and a little courageous—in Disney-real terms. But, as with Garbo, Cocteau’s is my beast…
When Kilian was six, I took him to a double-bill of “Orphee” and “La Belle et la Bete”. at the Ridgemont Theater, a legendary “art hourse” on Greenwood Avenue in north Seattle; I’d seen Bergman, Tati, Truffaut…and “Marat/Sade” there among many other films; especially Mary Ellen Bute’s adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake at a late ‘60s festival of Grove Press Films. The Ridgemont’s been a furniture store recently. Kilian was restless during the improvisation on the Orpheus myth (which he wasn’t familiar with as yet)—we went out for a snack. He sat on my lap during “Beauty…” and I whispered key words from the French as they appeared in the subtitles; we neither looked away from the screen. I often recall that, and wonder does he?
Michael & Phoebe & I made our way back up the Singel, dipping into Ten Have for one more raft of patats.
Later, Janet thanked me for the respite—and the irregular digestion she’d to deal with….
In October, 1994, the Brouwer closed for a three year renovation. Wim Boegem, Gerald’s nephew (and, but for the color of his hair, the image of his uncle), had assumed control of the house and decided to bring it up to code and restore it as a working hotel. The building itself was as solid, as sure, as the day it was completed in 1652—there were technicalities to be seen to, that’s all.
When it reopened in September, 1997, the dozen rooms had been reduced to eight (each en suite), and an elevator (big enough for two average-sized people, or one person with a bag,) was installed at the southeast corner of the building after the appropriation of a tiny bakery appropriated from the building next door. The small kitchen was expanded…but, otherwise, the environment was only refreshed: new paint—refinished floors—the paintings in the breakfast room (all Amsterdam scenes, one of the Brouwer) professionally cleaned of seven decades of intimate life in the room.
Regards this last detail: Some art restorations have (I’m thinking of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Leonardo’s “Last Supper”) been controversial, e.g., Those weren’t the artists colors, how could you know!?!...You’ve Hollywooded the Renaissance!!!... The hotel is now non-smoking; those images I was familiar with will never return, and I’m of an uneasy mind about it.
I was the last guest in the Brouwer before it closed. The housekeeping had stopped, the building was quiet—mostly dark—and Heer Brouwer rarely looked up from his crossword…when he did he seem startled, as if he were looking into an impossible world.
Many years before, the house across the Singel—on the corner of the small Blauburgwal that connects Singel to Herrengracht—was for sale, and I asked Gerald a few questions about real estate in the city. In the course of the conversation he remarked, about urban renewal, that he thought the cost of importing history into the present was unreasonable…he wondered whether the buildings captured from tumbling into a canal were more treasures for tourists than healthy for the city. He believed that Amsterdam itself was a museum, and that as such it must reinvigorate its integrity constantly…museums remove the perishable for new and surpassing works! It was unfortunate that failed buildings must disappear, but city’s have no cellars to remove them to….
“This house” he’d rapped on the table “is solid as a Rembrandt!”
I suppose Amsterdam is a museum…a topography of courage and engineering that is not afraid to replenish its integrity; e.g., on the eastern stretch of Damstraat there are some decidedly recent buildings that, for me, highlight the neighborhood’s lineage. I’ve always loved the description of architecture as frozen music. In Amsterdam, Dutch Baroque is quite tolerant of atonality…even dissonance. The buildings of the city jostle together as people in a crowd—the new buildings will come to lean with the centuries. Their incongruous angles and balconies cheekily public.
…and it is certain that museums are a principal artery of the city’s life: More than fifty…sex—torture—erotic—hash—houseboats—maritime—tulips…. And there are views of other history at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the Jewish Museum, and Anne Frank House.
The most visited of course are on the Museumplein (a brief walk from Leidseplein)—the Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt & the boys are ensconced—the Van Gogh Museum—the very amusing Municipal Art Museum.
That walk from the Leidseplein to Museumplein crosses the entrance to Vondelpark: This is the largest park in the city, and the Netherlands’ most famous—some would say notorious. Designed as an English landscape—hillocks, ponds, bridal trails—it opened on the edge of the city in 1865 and is now a vital element of the city’s center.
It’s notoriety stems from the late 1960s and 1970s when an invasion of young people, eager for the tolerance of the Dutch, made it their karmic center. Much of the gypsy-hippy life-scheme was on display. Drugs were used openly—and though eyebrows were raised, it was tolerated…which fed into Amsterdam’s tolerance of and licensing of the coffeeshops. I remember a t-shirt, it read something to the effect: Vondelpark, minus-14 meters below sea-level—highest place on earth!
And there at the head of Vondelpark is Filmmuseum.
Filmmuseum Amsterdam is a Dutch take on Forum Des Images in Paris—that is, quiet and very focused. Along Vondelstraat from the stately main building at the entrance to the park is the Fiilmmuseum Information Centre, the largest repository of film literature in the Netherlands—a center of professional research and open to the public. In the Museum itself , along with changing exhibits, two cinemas screen films from the 60,000,000 million metres of world cinema—much of it unique and part of the Museum’s restoration projects…all that it can fit in its cellar.
There are up to fourteen screenings a day, from the classics to modern cinema—the criteria merely historical or critical significance--and special programs of all stripe…on another day I might have taken Michael and Phoebe to a program that might mix Chuck Jones, Disney and “The Red Balloon”.
I’ve spent months on the Museumplein, literally. It’s an easy thing to pass a morning or afternoon at the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh—the book/print shops are a fun browse, the cafes are light, comfortable and unhurried (particularly at the Van Gogh with its view into a simple garden), and the galleries are accessible with comfortable way-stations. A tourist or a local can sit and study Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” to their heart’s content. When my time in the city is short, I’ll often attend the Van Gogh in the late afternoon—pay my admission and pass a quiet time with “The Potato Eaters”.
Filmmuseum Amsterdam can be one whole day after another.
On the Leidseplein one morning I took coffee before visting Filmmuseum. I doubt there is an Amsterdam film ever shown in the U.S. that hasn’t provided a glimpse of it—a field of umbrellas, tables on a cobbled square lorded over by gabled buildings and neon reminders of Heinekin & Amstel & Orangeboom biers… 10.00 is pretty much the civilized hour, and I was at a table there with coffee and sweet cookies. Down the hours I was going to see some Brakhage, “Nosferatu” and a Georg Melies. Leidsestraat crosses the Leidsekade (a particularly tourist-oriented canal) and beyond a bewilderment of tram tracks and traffic combinations becomes Vondelstraat.
I approach any museum with only a notebook and expectations…the cafes and couches required to assemble the most immediate impressions. Filmmuseum has its places of respite—with the Leidse a back porch and Vondelpark the front yard.
I’d satisfy my time, the city conspired with me.
In 1985 Stan Brakhage’d been a rumour for me almost twenty years—I’d read of him, knew people who’d seen his films, but we’d never made it to a nearby auditorium together. I was visiting the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, staying at 92 Cambrian, a B&B on a backstreet near the Station.
Across the narrow way was a late 19th century brick warehouse, carved up inside to provide a variety of spaces that comprised the Aberystwyth Arts Center. The first Saturday of March was a marathon of Brakhage creations in the film space. “Window Water Baby Moving” began the screenings.
Across the narrow way was a late 19th century brick warehouse, carved up inside to provide a variety of spaces that comprised the Aberystwyth Arts Center. The first Saturday of March was a marathon of Brakhage creations in the film space. “Window Water Baby Moving” began the screenings.
That had been a grey and chill Welsh morning, daffodils left from St. David’s Day bent hollering in the winds churning through town from the sea. This warm autumn Amsterdam morning I was familiar with the artist, but seasons and years and familiarity hadn’t dulled the anticipation. In Aberystwyth I’d stayed in my seat for a few of Brakhage’s scratched-film pieces, but “…Baby Moving” wouldn’t get out of my eye—I left the Center, battled my way around the corner to the Vale of Rheidol pub…a Scotch & pint.
Brackage’d found a sculpted window, the scripted surprise of a new arrival (his daughter) and a filmll…
In Filmmuseum it was as though I’d visited again an important experience, as I feel when I stand in front of “The Potato Eaters”…that astonished woman! The program continued…
I made my way to the Leidse, an outside table & genevar and beer—the combination Amsterdammers call a headbanger. Not far from my table an ensemble of Inca musicians performed.
I interspersed the Melies & Murnau with coffee in the Museum café—and a long stretch in the park, my back against a tree/notebook on my knee. There were no folksingers that day…inner-city quiet punctuated with the plash of birds on the nearby pond.
I sketched sonnices…
Georg Melies and I went waaay back…on my first visit to Brighton, before I’d seen any of the man’s films, I stayed in a B&B near the Promenade where Melies had lived while developing his film ideas. Until I bought a Melies DVD with a pure “Voyage dans le Lune”, the specimen available to me for display and public discussion was a scratched & tattered 16mm print of indecipherable date. Seeing the real film in a real theater freed its silly magic, something I’d only experienced flattened & cracked.
Who wouldn’t go out of their way to see a pristine “Nosferatu”?—and when it’s simply plopped in your lap!?!...
Walking back to the neighborhood the evening streets were warm in light and all their airs. I zig-zagged from Leidseplien across the major canals to the Blauburgwal: The irregular buildings and their acute shadows hid no monsters—none concocted by Bram Stoker, Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee!…(my favorite!!!—but then I was fourteen & had recently made the mistake of finishing Bram Stoker’s novel at three in the morning. The silences that can be found in such a busy night harboured nothing fearful…but I traveled with the film, the unease at our ability to define evil and our inability to discern it.
In Centrum there is no real film district—no acres of soundstages, clusters of bookstores & screen spaces, coffeehouses crowded with cineastes in turtlenecks & tobacco—but with theaters and bookstores and DVD/CD outlets in every neighborhood of the old city, film is a preoccupation… And pleasures spring untimed & sometimes delirious.
…there are thousands who’ve stumbled upon the efforts of a James Bond film—Don Siegel’s “The Black Windmill”—the local “Amsterdammed”—who’ve been captured on random lenses crossing a gracht or settled at a table in the proximity of a gable…
Easter 1986, Judy and I were in the city with my three kids: Kilian, 12; Chloe, 11; and Ezra, 5. With Ezra’s uncle, Tom, who’d lived at the Brouwer and now had an apartment near the Dam, we attended Mass at the Krijtberg—the Jesuit parish of St. Francis Xavier, a neo-gothic stone in the ordered face of Singel houses, near the canal’s end.
The 11.00 Mass is a Latin High Mass, chant and incense…a museum of its own (with the benefit that the sermon, delivered in Dutch, was largely unintelligible). After, we made to a café overlooking the Keizersgracht and just off the Leidsestraat bridge.
It wasn’t necessarily a dark and stormy day, but it was very grey and blowy, squalls of rain crawling over the canals and streets in Braille and clefts of wild water.
A paddleboat hovered in the canal’s mild current—a man at the pedals, a woman on the prow. They both wore trenchcoats, though he sported hat and scarf as well…and cameras. They waited patiently, expectantly—endured—and were regularly rewarded when the clouds relented and light collided with the shadows…
The woman stood from within the trenchcoat, a pale nude in the equivocal day who fluidly began and pursued a balletic line. The bridge railing clotted with people almost as if on cue…
Cameras fluttered and whirred from every advantage, including the tables of the cafe.
Our children cheered.
On a misty August afternoon—bright, almost rosy—I’d seen an early afternoon revival screening of Antonioni’s “The Passenger”. I made my way out of the Tuchinski, through a narrow way between buildings to the bridge over the Amstel. I’d in mind a genevar near Waterlooplein.
I was yet dumfounded and exhilarated by the film’s last shot, happy in my exasperation. I’ve resisted reading the explanations of its execution…its audacity never weakens nor palls…& images of Nicholson bored flounder necessarily.
And the film-mind wanders…
Location for some of the theaters referenced:
Amsterdam 1018 WE Netherlands
Amsterdam 1017 CN Netherlands
Lijnbaansgracht 234a, 1017 PH Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam 1017 PH Netherlands
Amsterdam 1013 KH Netherlands
1071 AA Amsterdam, Netherlands
1071 AA Amsterdam, Netherlands