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The mask and the dinosaur

By Frédéric VITOUX Sofitel New York

Paying no attention to one another, a man and a woman approached a display case in which a wooden mask from the Kwakiutl Indian tribe, decorated with geometric motifs in ocher, black and white and resembling a bird of prey with a hooked, beak-like nose and two horns perched atop its head, was gathering dust. For eyes, it had two wooden cylinders that seemed to pop out of its face, painted with concentric circles. There weighed upon the mask a sadness like that of a magician who, having lost his powers, now garners nothing but the indifference of a disbelieving public. Yet in the American Museum of Natural History’s room devoted to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, where few visitors ventured these days given that it was partially closed and largely occupied by scaffolding and tarps, the mask had succeeded in attracting these two people and, even better, it had cast a spell on them. When they leaned in to admire the mask, they nearly bumped into each another.
– Pardon, the man said.
– Ce n’est rien, the woman replied, without thinking.
They stepped back in unison and realized that they had both spoken in French. The woman smiled.
– Don’t you think it’s funny that two French people should be looking at this mask at exactly the same moment, in New York? she asked him.
– Funny, no, why? I wasn’t thinking that. The Kwakiult mask kept watching them with its cylindrical eyes, summoning its powers for their benefit, as if in thanks for their attention, grateful to them for having rescued it from oblivion.
– What were you thinking about?
– About the fact that in 1943, in the middle of a world war, in the throes of one of history’s worst nightmares, a man like Claude Lévi-Strauss should have been in this very room, enthralled by these masks and totem poles, here in a place that’s as magical as a child’s dream and that would go on to inspire so much of his work, his research, his books. Don’t you find that incredible?
– Maybe, he replied a bit skeptically, for he was not too familiar with the work or books of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

They left the room to the electric drills and soldering irons of the workers who were renovating it and ended up in the museum’s entry hall, across which a dinosaur skeleton stretched. The man stopped and contemplated it for a moment, then smiled.
– There’s something funny about this dinosaur? she asked.
– Absolutely!
– Explain!
– It’s simple! In 1949, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen made a musical comedy for MGM: It’s the story of three sailors on leave for a day in New York, each looking for their soul mate.
– And one of the sailors falls in love with the dinosaur?
– Almost! He falls in love with a paleontology student and he’s fawning so much over her that he accidentally bumps the skeleton and a little bone falls…
– …and the whole thing collapses.
– Exactly, he said, somewhat crest-fallen at having his thunder stolen.
– And that’s funny?
– Well, a bit funnier than Claude Lévi-Strauss and his structural anthropology, isn’t it?
– Really?
He made a strange face.
– It’ll be difficult for us to agree.
– Or to find a subject we can agree on. This time they smiled together, and descended the steps outside the museum, perfectly happy.

The mask was happier than they were – it was a ceremonial mask that could be worn only by a high priest, during weddings, in order to bring happiness, love and fertility to the Kwakiutl couples on the eastern end of Vancouver Island, where the tribe had still survived in the late 19th century. A wet snow was coming down, discouraging a walk through Central Park.
– I know a fish restaurant behind the museum, she said. It seemed quite natural for them to stay together.
– New York has no secrets for you?
– I worked here for three years.
– As a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum?
– No, simply as a lecturer at New York University, nobody’s perfect. And you? On leave for a day before returning to the ship?
Before a platter of shellfish and slices of raw fish, they introduced themselves. Her name was Claire Huddesen, and she worked for a public relations firm. She was in New York for five days accompanying 50 hairdressers from a leading French company who had been invited by an American cosmetics brand hoping to sell them its latest line of shampoo and hair dye. His name was Eric Riley, and he directed advertising films. He was supposed to be in New York scouting locations for a commercial for the new Peugeot… but really…
– But really?
– I suppose it goes without saying that you’ve also never seen another Gene Kelly musical comedy, “It’s Always Fair Weather”?
– Alas, no!
– It’s 1945, three soldiers are being discharged from the service this time, and in a bar in New York they promise to meet again in the same place 10 years later.
– And so they meet again?
– Yes, they meet again, but they’ve changed, they now have nothing to say to each other, they’ve wasted their lives, but they don’t admit it.
– You call that a musical comedy?
– Of course, but it doesn’t matter! When we finished the FEMIS cinema school in Paris 10 years ago, we wanted to try something like that.
– Who is “we”?
– Well, me and a friend, Franca Grossi, a woman from Argentina whom everyone was more or less in love with.
– Especially you, admit it!
– She left for Buenos Aires, she wanted to break all ties, coolly and quietly. We would then meet up again 10 years later.
– In a bar in New York?
Claire Huddesen, with her clear hazel eyes, delicate lips and long, slender face, had finished her plate of shellfish and was studying the odd young fellow across from her. He must have
been about her age, in his 30s, and he had the slightly jagged awkwardness of a perennial student, wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and corduroy trousers. She didn’t seem to be taking too seriously his outlandish stories.
– What bar? No, there was no bar. We thought of the dinosaur from the other movie for our meeting, he replied.
– That’s logical.
– And it’s tomorrow, April 2, at 3 p.m. Claire looked at her watch and stood up.
– Well, good luck!
– Wait, no! I haven’t decided whether tomorrow…
– But of course you’ll go!
– Say, would you like to come with me tonight to the Metropolitan Opera? Renée Fleming is the countess in Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio”. It’s her greatest role.
– Do you think she sings as well as Gene Kelly?
– That’s kind of a silly question, isn’t it?
– I’m sorry, she said, a bit embarrassed by her clumsy comment, but tonight I have to accompany my little group of hairdressers to a Broadway musical, “Memphis”… and now I’m supposed to be taking them to Ellis Island and I’m terribly late. Goodbye! By the time he caught up with her, she had hopped in a cab and was heading toward Columbus Circle. Such is the downside of New York. It only takes a raised hand. A taxi stops, pulls away and you never meet again.

A few hours later, Eric returned to his hotel, the Sofitel, after wandering around in the marble concourse at Grand Central Station, under its famous star-studded ceiling, a place that seemed so romantic to him, even desperately romantic, where innumerable strangers would cross paths, meet, avoid and ignore each other, look and not look at each other and then never, ever see each other again, and he asked the hotel concierge where “Memphis” was playing and at what time the show would be over. When he came out of “Capriccio” that night, alone, and turned toward the Lincoln Center Esplanade, toward the Met’s vaulting arches so white and luminous in the night, he realized that he loved New York not only for its energy, its vitality, its excess, but also because it was a city with a past, a city of high culture that was in fact not the gateway to America but rather the prodigious outpost of a fading Europe that had projected there the final great sparks of its materialistic values in a superb last-gasp effort like that of a dying man. The opera he had just seen no doubt had something to do with his euphoric melancholy.
Half an hour later, he stood outside the Shubert Theatre, with its Italian Renaissance façade that certainly dated from the mythical era of the first Ziegfeld Follies before the Great War. The crowd finally began pouring out into 44th Street. Where was Claire hiding? And her group of hairdressers?

Buses were lined up two by two. Spectators were streaming from several exits. He ran from one to the other, but he recognized no one. He began to panic. A bit further away, near 8th Avenue, a full bus was preparing to pull away. He ran to it. He heard the laughter and loud talk of French people. He managed to jump inside just before the doors slammed shut.
He was looking at the back of Claire, who was standing near the driver.
– So “Memphis”? he asked her.
As if she was expecting him, she replied without missing a beat, even before turning around:
– Perfect, and “Capriccio”? He thought about what she had said to him that morning.
– Don’t you think it’s incredible that in the middle of a world war, in the very eye of the hurricane, of the absolute horror of Nazism, in Munich in 1942, a Strauss, not Lévi but Richard, Richard Strauss, could have composed an opera completely out of synch with his epoch, a love song for the 18th century and the crucial question of whether music takes precedence over poetry or poetry over music?
– Yes, it is, she replied tenderly.
They passed the Sofitel, which Eric pointed out to Claire, and then the bus turned right to head down 5th Avenue. The passengers, at first surprised by the intrusion of this stranger, watched as he spoke with their guide — so elegant, so erudite and so blond — vehemently as if pleading his cause, until she appeared either to have approved or to have renounced her objections and then let herself be delicately embraced with just a hint of a kiss. They could almost have applauded like at the end of a musical comedy. At the corner of 26th Street, Eric asked the driver to let him out.

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