Toni Schlesinger's New York Obsession (2008)

The greatness of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals (1936) always brings to mind Louis Jourdan. I'll tell you why in a minute. But first, look—the giant eland has been staring at the same tree for 64 years! The okapi has been chewing on the same leaf! And that gorilla has been off in the same daydream, sitting on his mountainside with the cusso tree, the lichen, a smoky volcano in the distance.

What a place, this black-and-green marble hall, with its 28 dioramas, so dark and cool, not like that hot, yellow, gossipy world outside. The animals here look so noble. The Mountain Nyalas have such small hooves, far more attractive than humans who wear white rubber running shoes as big as their heads. And the lions so blond, lounging on the grass, disinterested, looking at their paws, looking off as the powerful do.

No animal here is alone! A big party is going on at the water hole, one gazelle is nipping another, a few pin-tailed sand grouses are looking this way and that, frozen in the middle of a hop. Nearby, all five gemsboks are standing proud, like a singing group, the Harmony Brothers. So many mysteries! Two bongos eye a giant hog in the forest. Do the bongos not trust the hog? Why does the buffalo in the next scene look concerned?

This place is so much better than the zoo. Who wants to watch a dusty elephant swing its trunk back and forth, all day long, left and right, left and right, and then finally reach for a peanut on the ground? Here there's action! The greater koodoo sees trouble in the distance. The ostriches are in a screaming fight with the wart hog. A pack of hunting dogs, identically lean, fix on one zebra. God help that zebra. But thankfully time has stopped before anything terrible can happen. No crying at the train station here.

How perfect that these dioramas are set in the wall—the viewer is on one side of the window, the animals are on the other. That way we get to be the audience, and the animals are on-stage—handsome actors, with their wax-and-paper stage sets, pink and peachy backdrops, and lighting plots—a wash on the porcupine, a special on the cheetah. So much more preferable than some dinosaur vertebrae exhibit where one circles around clear boxes, seeing every pale gray angle of the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus or a Edmontosaurus or whatever, which is like wandering at a cocktail party in a postmodern apartment full of strangers, or that new planetarium, where instead of getting to look at images of black mysterious space from an earthly brick building with wooden chairs, the architecture forces one into outer space entirely—a cold, white place where one is practically nose-to-nose with the moon rocks.

Back to Louis Jourdan. He is in the movie A Letter From an Unknown Woman. He is in an amusement park, sitting in a make-believe train car with Joan Fontaine. As they look out the window at the painted sets of Venice and Switzerland moving past—a cyclorama device operated by a man on a bicycle—Louis Jourdan is smiling as Joan Fontaine tells him how she used to travel with her father in their home and how they "went nearly everywhere" and "had wonderful times" and her father would bring home travel folders, put on his "travel coat," and say, "Where would you like to go this evening?" And she would say, "Vera Cruz, because it's a beautiful name," and then her father would say, "Mmm, it's summer there, you don't want to roast like a coffee bean do you?" Then Louis Jourdan asks, "So, you never did get there?" And she says, "No, it was just like our trip to the land of the midnight sun." Louis says, "What stopped you this time?" She says, "I thought of India but then my father said it was the rainy season."

American Museum of Natural History, Open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.


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