Friday, June 29, 2007

To Lou Reed, with love

It's not so much that I enjoy Lou Reed's music these days: I enjoy reading about journalists trying to interview him. The latest in this long series comes from France, where Fabrice Pliskin detailed his own encounter in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Or rather, his non-encounter: The article is titled "How I Did Not Interview Lou Reed." (The maestro was hitting Paris with his live version of Berlin.) Pliskin received by email a screening questionnaire that included the following:

- Have you already interviewed Lou Reed? (Pliskin answers yes, and of course the experience wasn't altogether pleasant.)
- Do you own a copy of Berlin?
- How long will the article be? 1, 2 or 3 pages?
- Will we have total control over the photos?
- Will Lou Reed be on the cover?
- What kind of questions will you ask Lou?
- Are you a freelancer or a staff writer?

Cheer up, Fabrice: It could have been worse—you could have interviewed Lou Reed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My kind of dame

My interview with the awesome Harriet Harris is in the new TONY. I just love love love Harris, one of the funniest dames around. She truly belongs to the small circle of women (think Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard) who can turn a single, innocuous-seeming word into a lethal weapon—and like the best of them, she's equally expert at physical comedy. I hope that Julie White winning a Tony for a full-on comic performance means that awards aren't just for tragedy anymore, and that performances like the one Harris regularly delivers will get acknowledged more, but I won't hold my breath. And while I'm on the subject: Enough with all this karaoke grimacing, ie biopic acting! Okay, Marion Cotillard as Piaf is fine. But after her, that's it, no more!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

French Idol

Nouvelle Star pretty much is the French version of the Idol franchise: There are regional auditions, the remaining 15 candidates are progressively winnowed down, and there's a jury—made up of four, not three people, and including the divine Marianne James (with the big frizzy hair). But unlike American Idol, Nouvelle Star is more open to genuine oddballs, loves radically transformed covers, and offers addictive group sings with various combinations of contestants. On the other hand, the contestants are overall younger and less experienced than in the US; they tend to be less show-offy and less likely to have been formatted by years of kiddie performances, which also means they're more like real amateurs, in the original sense of the words.

The show recently selected its winner, Julien, who was my fave from the very beginning—I happened to be in France during the regional rounds and immediately noticed the scrawny dude playing the ukulele at the Marseille audition. Fortunately the Nouvelle Star site features plenty of excerpts, and I lovingly selected a handful for you, dear readers.

Among the highlights is this group cover of Indochine's brilliant 1985 single "3ème Sexe," which was made into a regular video and thus provides a good intro to the strongest candidates. That the overall mood is very pop need not be stressed, but note also that the sartorial style is much improved from American Idol. Winner Julien is the shaggy one who looks like he escaped from Williamsburg.

3ème sexe : le clip !

And now Gaétane, among of the last three standing, performs Britney Spears' "Toxic." Of all the candidates she had one of the best commands of English. English pronunciation usually is a disaster for us Frenchies, whereas candidates in the Scandinavian or Dutch Idol shows tend to be fluent.

Gaetane est-elle toxic ce soir ?

More Britney with winner Julien, a 25-year-old art-school grad from Arles who goes for yaourt (yogurt English, ie speaking as if your mouth is full of potatoes) on his Ani DiFranco–style reading of "Baby One More Time." Technically it's off the map, but I find this cover perversely addictive.

Julien se prend pour Britney ce soir !

Gaétane and Julie duet on Elli Medeiros' "Toi Mon Toit" while Julien and finalist Tigane play furniture. Does Gaétane look really annoyed by Tigane's antics?

Toi mon toi...

Julien and Tigane (a 19-year-old student from Versailles) look soulfully into each others' eyes while dueting on Tété's "A la faveur de l'automne." The song is from two years ago—Nouvelle Star, unlike Idol, embraces current hits.

A la faveur de ce duo !

Group effort on a faithful cover of "Cherchez le garçon," a 1980 cult hit by Taxi Girl, the Parisian new-wave band that spawned Daniel Darc and Mirwais (later to produce Madonna). Note that Julien is wearing his trademark barrette.

Chercher le garçon...à la Nouvelle Star !

And finally a great cover of a great song: Katerine's freak 2006 hit "Louxor j'adore," where Julien shines again.

Louxor j'adooooooooooore !

Friday, June 22, 2007

Now we are here

Actually we are almost here—here being Xanadu, of course, or at least its Broadway version. I was supposed to see it tonight but alas the fateful date is now July 6: Lead James Carpinello (the Michael Beck role) broke his ankle and replacement Cheyenne Jackson needs a few days to get his rollerskating footing.

In the meantime, I'm anxiously reading the tea leaves and a strong endorsement has come down the pike: James Wolcott is going bananas over the show!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Coe dependent

I'm only halfway through Jonathan Coe wonderful novel The Rotters' Club but I feel the urge to post about it. The book, which is set in 1970s Birmingham, is so funny that I find myself laughing out loud—one of the teenage characters writes a spot-on review of Tales of Topographic Ocean for instance, and a dinner party drenched in a horrific-sounding cheap wine called Blue Nun is described with deadly accuracy.

But like many English filmmakers, Coe is at his best on class and sexual politics, especially since he's fully aware of the inconsistencies of lefties when it comes to gender issues (the portrayal of a philandering union steward is particularly good). The way he can mix moods, going from comic to pained in a sentence, is downright masterful.

The use of musical references is also impressive in that unlike in too many American novels, they are not used as either decorative props or lazy shorthand to describe characters. Instead, they're only one among the many elements that help shade personalities. One boy enjoys bombastic Yes-style prog; another, who seems to be the Coe stand-in, discovers English eccentrics like Henry Cow and the Canterbury-affiliated Hatfield & the North, whose 1975 album was titled…The Rotters' Club (Coe actually wrote an affectionate article about that hairy scene last year.) A third embraces punk (his trip down to the London office of NME, where he gawks at the cubicle shared by Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, is a hoot). But Coe goes further—when that third boy, Doug, serendipitously attends an early Clash gig, the revelation isn't so much the feverish pogoing but his meeting with a posh girl who introduces him, a 16-year-old Brummie "prole," to the delights of upper-class life.

While I'm tearing through the book, I also don't want it to end. Fortunately there's more in store, since in 2004 Coe published a sequel, The Closed Circle, taking place in the Blair years.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mercer Mercer me

My review of Glenn Mercer's debut solo album, Wheels in Motion, is in Time Out New York. You may remember Mercer from his days in the Feelies, a glorious Jersey band that practically lived at Maxwell's in the 80s. Like early Talking Heads (for the cleanly spastic attitude) and years before Weezer (for the look), the Feelies refined VU-influenced nerd rock starting with their 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. The new CD is a lot quieter, picking up where the band left off when it split in 1991.

MP3 Glenn Mercer "Two Rights" from Wheels in Motion (Pravda, 2007)

Quiet actually seems to be the operative word right now. Not much to report on the going-out front, as I take a break between the Broadway season and the various summer festivals. Making the most of this unusual abundance of free evenings, I've finally dived into the addictive pleasures of both The Wire and Guitar Hero. I rocked 84% of Kiss' "Strutter" on my first attempt but had a total meltdown on Sabbath's "War Pigs." My only regret is that the PlayStation version comes with a Gibson SG and I would have preferred the Flying V. Whatev': It's not as if I can really play either of them.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

It's DeLaughable

It's a special kind of show-tune fan—the hardcore kind—who goes to the York Theater's Musicals in Mufti. The series debuted in 1994, the same year as Encores!, and has a similar goal: to revive forgotten musicals in concert versions and for very limited runs (usually a weekend each). But whereas Encores! takes place at the cavernous City Center and puts on increasingly lavish productions (some of which even transfer to Broadway) involving costumes, choreography and a large orchestra, Musicals in Mufti takes place in a church basement in front of a couple hundred people, and the singers, wearing street clothes, are backed by tiny ensembles.

And yet there's something undeniably fun about the Muftis. First of all, the shows tend to be obscure nuggets, often with stellar credits: Jule Styne and Yip Harburg's Darling of the Day (1968), Duke Ellington and John La Touche's Beggar's Holiday (1946) or Carolyn Leigh and Elmer Bernstein's How Now, Dow Jones (1967). Second, the casts are often quite good and you can test their mettle: When they can't fall back on amplification or intricate staging, you see what actors are really made of. I still remember a blisteringly funny performance by the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth in Comden and Green's Billion Dollar Baby in 1998 for instance.

This weekend's Mufti, playing until tomorrow evening, is a doozy from 1966: Charles Strouse and Lee Adams's It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman. The show's vibe is very much along the campy, self-parodic lines of the Batman TV series, and even with a band consisting only of piano and drums, you could tell some of the songs are quite catchy. The cast gave its all—special mentions to Cheyenne Jackson as Supes, Shoshana Bean (in a part created by Linda Lavin) and Max Mencken (very funny as a blowhard columnist)—but I will focus on the one truly awful performance: Lea DeLaria's, which was mannered, incompetent and obnoxious all at the same time. It's actually rare to see something so howlingly wrong on stage.

DeLaria was given the plum role of the villain, Dr. Abner Segwick. Except the character's sex was changed and so DeLaria played a female doctor named CZ Sedgwick (couldn't figure out what the initials stood for—Catherine Zeta?). This made very little sense, especially since it wasn't immediately apparent that DeLaria was playing a woman—I thought this was a bit of blind casting, similar to the time she played Eddie in The Rocky Horror Show. But no, Dr. Sedgwick was meant to be a woman—which ended up not making any difference since DeLaria hammed it up in ways that made no sense, no matter the character's gender. (She pulled a similar stunt playing one of the sisters in Cinderella at City Opera.)

While almost all the actors flubbed some lines (Muftis are rehearsed for only a week and are performed book in hand), she made more mistakes than the others put together. But the worst part is that everytime she screwed up, she turned toward the rest of the cast, searching for…what? Sympathy? Approval? Connection? DeLaria played to her fellow actors, not to the audience. Not only was she selfishly—and ineptly—trying to hog the spotlight, constantly mugging when someone else was speaking or singing, but she kept breaking out of character and behaving as if she wasn't in front of a paying audience but at rehearsal, goofing off with her buddies. (When Jackson and Bean got caught in a giggling fit, they gamely tried to hide it, which made the crowd love them even more.) DeLaria gave a master class in what not to do as an actor, and became unwittingly interesting—if you like car crashes, that is.

Friday, June 15, 2007

So not a cheap pen

Who doesn't like an unexpected discovery? All right, so discoveries usually are unexpected, but there's something particularly satisfying to suddenly becoming infatuated with someone you had previously dismissed. New Zealander Bic Runga has been around for over ten years now, and never had I paid her any attention, summarily dumping her in the Lilith Fair bag (yes, she appeared at that time, which now seems impossibly remote in our era of precocious celebutantes famous at 18 and in rehab at 20). Or maybe it was her first name, which just made me think of the cheap pens and lighters to common in France when I was growing up.

In an attempt to clean up the mess on my desk, I was listening to CDs I'd never gotten around to playing. And there it was: Bic Runga's third and latest album, Birds. Barely a minute in and I was hooked. Quick look at the credits: Neil Finn plays the piano but it's Runga's show—she wrote the songs and handled the production. What I like best is that she is sligthly aloof, unwilling to resort to cheap cooing and trilling to seduce to the listener. That approach won't help her win American Idol but that's just fine. The second track, "Say After Me," is a perfect illustration of the contrast between the plain, conversational vocals and the gorgeous arrangements (which sound lifted from a Dusty Springfield album).

For some reason the atmosphere on "Winning Arrow" reminds me of Suzanne Vega (for the reserved attitude) and the Carpenters, which I've been listening to a bit recently, inspired by Justin Bond's interpretation of their entire second album at the Zipper a few weeks ago. (Note to prospective Carpenters interpreters: Many of these songs are hard to sing!).

So is Bic Richard and Karen rolled into one? Judge for yourself:
MP3 Bic Runga "Say After Me" from Birds, 2005
MP3 Bic Runga "Winning Arrow" from Birds, 2005

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It's the context, stupid

Just finished reading two novels by Irène Némirovsky, written (obviously) before her posthumously published and megasuccessful Suite Française. "Reading" is a bit of an understatement, actually, as I tore through the books in a couple of days.

Quite a few Némirovsky books have been reprinted over the past two years, and not knowing which I should go for, I picked La Proie (1938) and Le Maître des Âmes (1940) solely based on their being affordable paperbacks. They turned out to have similar narrative arcs that describe the rise and fall of ambitious men. In La Proie, poor Jean-Luc Daguerne impregnates his girlfriend, the daughter of a rich banker; their marriage marks the beginning of his climb to a still-unsatisfying top. The portrayal of affairiste France in the 1930s is appropriately acidic, confirming Némirovsky's status as a clear-eyed social portraitist.

More problematic in light of the accusations of antisemitism that have plagued Némirovsky's oeuvre recently, Le Maître des Âmes is about a crook of a doctor, Dario Asfar, who happens to be a "métèque" (a common word in the 1930s for dark-skinned people) from some unspecified Eastern European country. While Némirovsky is entitled to the novelist's license to create morally ambiguous characters, she showed singular lack of judgment by publishing the novel in serial form in Gringoire, an antisemitic, anticommunist, pro-Franco, pro-Mussolini weekly magazine. She contributed pseudonymously to Gringoire through the 1930s and early ’40s, which strikes me as odd since after the success of her novel David Golder in 1929, she should not have had problems finding outlets, and the politics of Gringoire weren't a secret to anybody with two eyes and half a brain.

In their introduction, Némirovsky biographers Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt contort themselves to explain away her choices, both in terms of publishers and in terms of her depicting Dr. Asfar in ways that would feed French xenophobia and antisemitism—two unsavory traits that really did not need to be encouraged, particularly in the early 1940s. I mean, it's easy to say that Le Maître des Âmes isn't xenophobic compared to Céline's Bagatelles pour un massacre: What could possibly be? I do think Némirovsky's book works because it is uncompromising fiction, written by a masterful stylist (the descent into Asfar's tortured psyche is detailed with equal parts elegance and harshness). What trips me is the context in which it was published: Its first readers would have taken it not as a piece of art but as something reinforcing their worst prejudices.

To stay in the mood, here are a few French tunes from the late ’30–early ’40s. Suzy Solidor was a bodacious blonde, famous for her sailor/sea songs and (among those in the know) her sapphic conquests. Alas, her attitude during WWII wasn't beyond reproach, and she was said to be the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi officer. Perhaps she shared Arletty's attitude: When the actress was accused of bedding a German during the war, she is said to have replied "My heart is French but my ass is international!"

MP3 Suzy Solidor "Sous tes doigts" (1936, cowritten by regular Piaf collaborator Marguerite Monnot)

Though the Nazis thought jazz was a decadent art, it was never officially banned in occuppied France and so Irène de Trébert, aka Mademoiselle Swing, was able to have a thriving career singing in big bands, notably that of Raymond Legrand (who happened to be her lover). When the war ended she got a slap on the hand and was forbidden to perform for ten months; she tried to resume her career in 1946, but with little success. Legrand, who regularly played the collaborationist Radio-Paris and toured Germany in 1942 (bad idea!) was blacklisted; he's now mostly remembered, if at all, as the father of composer Michel Legrand.

MP3 Irène de Trébert "Je t'aime" (1942; written by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli). Backed by the Marius Coste Orchestra.
MP3 Irène de Trébert "Swing Reverie" (another Reinhardt tune, recorded in 1942). Backed by the Raymond Legrand Orchestra.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Full servile

Hooray for The Guardian, which a few days ago published one of the most entertainingly sycophantic pieces of music journalism I've ever seen!

I love the British paper but its obsessions with Lou Reed verges on the embarrassing. At regular intervals they attempt to interview Reed, and of course no matter the outcome, the article is hilarious. When it goes wrong, you read about a journalist's humiliation; when it goes right, the piece turns into a self-congratulatory orgy. Ed Pilkington probably thought it all went swimmingly, and his article is an inadvertent hoot. Come to think of it, even when it goes right, it ends up wrong.

First of all, Pilkington starts off with the lamest line possible: "I'm waiting for my man." Actually, it could have been worse, but then it would have been what The Guardian's Dave Simpson wrote in his Lou Reed interview, which ran exactly a year ago: "I'm Waiting for My Man, except I don't have $26 in my hand, this isn't Lexington, 125, nor do I feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive." My God, people, what are you lacking, shame or editors? At least Simon Hattenstone, going down in flames ("Reed makes me feel like an amoeba. I want to cry.") in his 2003 attempt to tame the beast, avoided the dreaded reference.

Anyway, back to Pilkington. As it slowly dawns on him that Reed is in a good mood, the writer can't help gloating: "I end up enjoying what has eluded countless past interviewers - a conversation with Lou Reed." The funny thing is that as anybody who goes out in New York knows—because he and Laurie Anderson can be seen at a lot of shows, from avant-theater at BAM to David Byrne's disco opera about Imelda Marcos at Carnegie Hall—Lou Reed is often in a good mood, looking like a cuddly grandpa in his Patagonia windbreakers. It's just that when faced with a slobbering idiot, he gets grumpy. Can you blame him?

Further on, Pilkington lets out another howler: "Feeling a little overconfident by now, I dare to suggest to Reed that there is one line in Berlin that dates it - the third line of the album: 'Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice.' When was the last time he drank, or even heard of, the spicy aperitif Dubonnet?" I suppose that using a city divided by a Wall as a metaphor for an entire album isn't dated then.

But this pales compared to the truly shameless ending. After Reed states that he doesn't think "Walk on the Wild Side" was such a big hit, Pilkington writes "This is getting too much. The world's most ungiving interviewee has just shared with me a poignant, almost mournful, insight into his thinking. I'm the one rendered speechless."

Is there a doctor on the plane? Ed Pilkington's tongue needs to be dislodged from Lou Reed's ass.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tony Toni Toné

Reviewing the Tonys for The Los Angeles Times, Robert Lloyd writes "Though the awards honor only a fraction of what makes up even New York theater, they nevertheless seem to stand for the art as a whole in a way that the Oscars, Grammys or Emmys don't — they represent a community rather than an industry."

As much as I can enjoy a Broadway show, it certainly doesn't "stand for the art." Many seem to forget that Broadway is not theater in New York, and theater in New York is not just Broadway. It would be a very depressing state of affairs if this was the case. Once in a while, Broadway delivers a unique jolt of electricity. But too often, it means art by committee, shrewd calculation, and obscene, naked greed—don't get me started on the subject of premium seats or the extra charges tacked on to ticket prices. And no, I don't pretend to know how to fix those problems. With the kind of large sums involved, producers play it safe—it's not surprising that the two big winners on Sunday evening were nurtured Off Broadway (Spring Awakening) and in England (The Coast of Utopia). Projects that initiate directly on Broadway tend to recoil from audacity like vampires facing the threat of garlic. If this stood for the art, American theater would be well and truly screwed.

Bad company

It's highly satisfying to see the Gossip meet a certain amount of success—at least in the UK, where "Standing in the Way of Control" was a bit of a club hit and frontwoman Beth Ditto was voted Coolest Person of the Year, or somesuch nonsense, by the NME. Only five years ago, around the time I interviewed them, Ditto reacted to the writers of that weekly mag calling Missy Elliott fat by stripping down to a thong during a show; of course she'd do that kind of stuff anyway, and I recall a show at the Knitting Factory where she mooned the audience.

The first time I saw the Gossip, they were opening for Sleater-Kinney at Irving Plaza. An important detail here is that the two bands were releasing or had released records on Kill Rock Stars. For many years, the Gossip's labelmates included the likes of Stereo Total, Erase Errata, Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith, Free Kitten, Comet Gain. KRS proved you could have radical politics and aesthetics, and succeed.

The Gossip left that glorious heritage to sign with Sony's new gay and lesbian imprint, Music with a Twist. This strikes me as a completely stupid step backward for two reasons. Artistically speaking, the trio shares space with a gaggle of mediocre acts that make me want to poke my eyes out on the label's introductory comp, Revolutions. According to the press release, "Revolutions gives adventurous music fans a chance to join the vanguard of some of the most exciting and expansive directions in pop culture today." To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every word in this sentence is a lie, including "and" and "the." But of course if jejune beats and self-esteem-building banality are your idea of exciting and expansive directions, go right ahead.

The growing success of out acts as diverse as the Gossip, Darren Hayes and Tegan and Sara, and even the Tony nomination of Kiki and Herb, shows that more and more you don't need identity niches to succeed. Even Morrissey is crawling out of the closet, and that doesn't stop him from playing Madison Square Garden—but you wouldn't see him touch Music with a Twist with a ten-foot pole. The very creation of the imprint strikes me as an absurd step back for artists and listeners alike, fostering a sense of self-congratulatory fake audacity.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Two great tastes

At last, I've secured a ticket for the event of the summer: Patti LuPone's Gypsy. And the show falls the day after another much-awaited gig, that of Norwegian black-metal legend Immortal. A better one-two punch I could not have dreamed of. (I don't think I need directionals for the photos, though I did choose one of the young Patti.)

For years, fans of both Gypsy and LuPone—and the singer herself, for that matter—have known she was born to play Mama Rose. Let's not get into details of interest mostly to show-tune freaks, and simply say that a long-running feud among some of the personalities involved led us to think the project would never happen. We got an inkling that things may be about to change when LuPone did a concert version at Ravinia last year, but there's still no way to describe the tremors that sent Chelsea seismographs into a seizure when it was announced that not only would LuPone perform Mama Rose at City Center for three weeks in July, but that the production would be directed by the book's author, the notoriously persnickety Arthur Laurents. So that's I'm-so-there show number one.

Show number two is the reunion of Immortal, which embodies classic, corpepainted Norwegian black metal. Never mind that it managed three entries (including a solo shot by guitarist-vocalist Abbath) in the Top Ten Most Ridiculous Black Metal Pics of All Time: The trio has released one of my favorite BM albums, the surprisingly catchy Sons of Northern Darkness. The band last played New York (at Wetlands!) back in 2002, when that album came out, then split. Fortunately it is now understood by everybody that splits are not permanent, so Immortal is back and playing NYC on July 13 at, of course, BB King's.

Now, my love for show tunes and black metal may seem strange at first, but think about it: Both genres celebrate alternate universes in which heightened emotions rule, and where theatricality is so integrated into the discourse as to become absolutely normal. It's indie rock, that paramount of individual expression (ha!) that turns into a stylistic straitjacket when compared to these two genres, ruled as it is by stultifying normalizing parameters that enforce prevailing social codes instead of undermining them, as common wisdom would have it (rock is supposed to be rebellious, right?).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

There's something extra about Mary

I realize it's really not cool to say so when Spring is Awakening, but my favorite new musical of the past season was the decidedly old-fashioned Mary Poppins. This sentiment was confirmed when I saw it again Wednesday evening: In concept and execution, it is flawless. But while this word may suggest a certain soullessness, the show is far from the mechanical concoction many associate with Disney-spawned products. (Granted, this reputation is often deserved: just look at the horrid Tarzan a few blocks away—or rather, don't.) Flesh and blood are what make this show, and actual human emotions ensure that there's something to sustain the bright surface.

Disney was very clever is calling upon the likes of Matthew Bourne and Richard Eyre to handle the choreography and the staging, respectively. Bourne thrives within such a seemingly rigid narrative structure, and Eyre, whose Notes on a Scandal was deliciously nasty, makes sure things never get saccharine. As for Ashley Brown, her Mary, chin decisively jutting forward, always has a naughty glint in her eyes; she's warm but also sternly efficient, and never seems to beg for the children's (or the audience's) affection. Brown's performance should really have gotten more notice. Well, she did get nominated for a Tony but even in a year without Christine Ebersole's Madwoman of the Hamptons, I don't think voters would ever give her a chance.

Once again, trust the Brits to make smart, elegant family entertainment that looks down neither on adults nor on children, with the much-missed Coram Boy another recent example. Alas, I'm not holding my breath to ever see the National's acclaimed production of His Dark Materials in the U.S.—the antireligion philosophy which is the very foundation of the plot might be too hard to swallow for American audiences. (I hear it's been toned down in the upcoming film version, directed by that well-known master of complex emotions and magus of dark souls, Chris "About a Boy" Weitz.)

The heat of the limelight

Two interviews in this week's Time Out New York, and coincidentally both are related to the way some performers come alive on stage.

First off is Marion Cotillard, who is stupendous as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (I much prefer the French title, La Môme). I usually have no patience for biopics—and have to admit that Piaf had never clicked for me—but I was completely moved by this one. Olivier Dahan cleverly plays around with chronology, introducing the dying Piaf very early on for instance. But his strength really lays with his mise en scène, which is most in evidence in the live scenes, like Piaf's big concert debut (shown sans sound) and the sequence in which she transcends her howling pain at Marcel Cerdan's death by going on stage, a transference process beautifully suggested by a long tracking shot.

Second is my current pop fave Darren Hayes, whom I'd already gushed about in these virtual pages. Hayes also illustrates the transformative power of a live show on audience and singer—I found it difficult to reconcile the emo-for-the-masses guy who once sang with Savage Garden with the sexy dervish doing Prince justice at Joe's Pub a few months ago.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Field research

In an article in New York magazine, Peter Carey talks about teaching creative writing in New York. Toward the end, he mentions what some of his students are up to:

"So that student over there, the one who arrived from San Francisco, is now working as a research assistant with Jonathan Franzen. (…) And there is A. working for Toni Morrison, and V. working with Salman Rushdie. And C. who went to work with Richard Price and found him a psychic and a haunted house on the Lower East Side. E. researched for Siri Hustvedt. G. worked with Patrick McGrath and collected information on spinal injuries for the book he is now just finishing. The list of mentors goes on and on."

What I wonder is: Why aren't these acclaimed writers doing their own research? What do they have to do other than research and write, write and research? They don't have day jobs to worry about. It's not like they have to pull lobster shifts proofreading at law firms. They may teach creative writing, but honestly, how much of their time can it possibly consume? Reaserching actually is part of the writing process, and getting Cliffs Notes from MFA students can't be the same as immersing yourself into a topic. As for the MFA students themselves, they should use the $60,000 in tuition to travel, live, read—above all, read—instead of learning how to craft innocuous prose in windowless college rooms.