Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ghost story

Wow: the new Britney Spears album is pretty good. I might actually go as far as saying that it's good, period. Each song is a self-contained nugget of inventivity, and almost each one has a sonic hook that makes me pay attention, like the bass vroom on "Piece of Me," which sounds like a Robyn song (no wonder: Robyn actually contributes backing—and perhaps more—vocals), or the intro to "Heaven on Earth," which is total Moroder.

Kelefa Sanneh's review in the NY Times strongly implies that Britney has pulled a Milli Vanilli and doesn't even sing on some tracks. Clues include the fact that she's always done all her own backing vox and she doesn't this time, and that each track has a "vocal production" credit. Indeed, the album sports some of the most processed vocals I've ever heard. Not that I mind, it's just an observation.

As my esteemed colleague Mike Wolf pointed out, following this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion, why do we even need Britney anymore? Why not just a triannual report from a selection of studio wizards? Seen like that, Blackout is a triumph of engineering, a missile directed straight at the heart of decades of rock & roll purity. Ka-BOOM!

And really, is it that much different from art superstars like Jeff Koons employing armies of assistants to do the actual work, or from jet-setting chefs like Alain Ducasse who don't often cook in the restaurants bearing their names? You might argue that at least Koons comes up with a sketch and Ducasse with a dish, whereas it's debatable whether Britney, despite a pair of songwriting cocredits, had much creative input on Blackout. But in a way she certainly helped define the template that's being implemented on the album, so sure, her artistic fingerprint is definitely there.

In all these cases it's the brand that matters most: You don't go eat at Ducasse's to feel the master's personal touch in a sauce. There, the sous-chef is good enough, just like Swedish producers Bloodshy & Avant, who are all over Blackout, are certainly good enough left to their own devices—and possibly even better without Britney. After all had she been involved in the album she might have requested saccharine ballads (there are none), insisted on different arrangements (the current ones are brilliant) or made some other bird-brained choice—it's not like the past three years have inspired a lot of confidence in her decision-making abilities.

So Ms. Spears was not as involved in her own album as she might have been? It's not a scandal, it's a relief!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mighty Joe Eszterhas

I'd not seen Flashdance since it first came out, but watching it on DVD this weekend was revelatory: It really is the yang to Showgirls' yin, both of them hatched by one of my favorite Hollywood animals—screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

The similarities between the two movies—which should be shown on double bills—are stunning:

• Both are about young dancers (Jennifer Beals' Alex and Elizabeth Berkley's Nomi) who are unschooled but have a raw, explosive talent that doubles up as an expression of exuberant sexuality.

• The two women are prone to fits of petulant rage that seem to come out of nowhere (Nomi's classic fast-food freakout is just one of many such instances in Showgirls, while a pissed-off Alex gets out of a car in the middle of a tunnel).

• Each woman has a best friend who turns out be unlucky in love or career (Sunny Johnson in Flashdance, Gina Ravera in Showgirls), only to be helped/comforted by the lead.

• Each woman is desperately trying to integrate her idea of the establishment: the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory for Alex, the Goddess show at the Stardust for Nomi.

• Both Alex and Nomi develop affairs with older men (Michael Nouri in Flashdance, Kyle McLachlan in Showgirls) who secretly give them breaks in their careers.

• Both have the support of much older women who represent exactly where they do not want to end up (a forgotten Follies/ballet dancer in Flashdance; bawdy comedian Henrietta Bazoom in Showgirls).

Eszterhas is also a lot more clever about class than most of his peers: This issue ties the movies together, and both offer telling scenes where the women betray their backgrounds in "uppity" environments—Nomi famously pronounces Versace so it rhymes with "face" while Alex pigs out on lobster in a fancy restaurant. Taken as a whole, Flashdance and Showgirls make up a study of art and ambition as thorough and uncompromising as any of the more "respectable" films Hollywood has cranked out over the years. For better or for worse, these movies embody their respective decades and are iconic signifiers of the threat of upwardly mobile "trashy" women against aging, stuck-in-their-ways establishments. Switch the gender, and you have the Joe Eszterhas story.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

How to navigate through the stars

Within a 24-hour period this weekend I saw on stage Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman, Elaine Stritch, Ellen Burstyn, Anita Ekberg, Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner. The latter two play the leads in Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway. I'll get back to that one, though I'll let you ponder the fact, dear readers, that Garner's character, Roxane, is described as "bookish" in the text. Jennifer Garner bookish: three words I never thought I'd ever see in the same sentence.

As for all the others, they were in Francesco Vezzoli's one-night-only happening at the Guggenheim on Saturday night, part of Performa07. You could describe it as a star-studded reading of Pirandello's 1917 play Right You Are (If You Say You Are), but it was both more and less than that. Less, because as a reading, it plain sucked; more because as a concept, it was inspired.

I tagged along with Time Out New York's dynamic duo, dance editor Gia Kourlas and theater writer Adam Feldman; I felt decidedly gray next to their sartorial flair—she in some deconstructed, Westwood-like kite frock, he in his now-trademark swest (a sweater and a vest). After a late start, which caused tempers to amusingly flare on the enormous line, we finally made it inside the Gugg, only to realize the only spots left were rather high up on the ramp; the VIPs, of course, were on the floor, where mikes and lecterns were positioned facing inwards on a round platform. On one side, Anita Ekberg (!) sat on a couch made to look like oversize lips. We peered down to the action, feeling frustration mount (by then it was way past 11pm)—and it got worse as soon as the actors began speaking, as we realized with dismay that the sound was so shittily amplified that it echoed into sheer unintelligibility. Within five minutes, we decided to bail on one of the hottest tickets of the season.

But as we started walking away from the museum, a publicist caught up with us and explained that we'd be better in the theater, "and that's where Cate Blanchett is too." As it turned out, the proceedings upstairs were videotaped and projected in the Gugg's basement theater—and those upstairs had no way of knowing this was happening downstairs. La Blanchett indeed was there, sitting with her back to the audience in some leathery Galliano get-up and a black veil, a vision of ghostly goth chic.

The split-screen action in the basement offered unsparing video closeups of the actors on the main floor, some of them waffling between awkward and downright clueless (most notably Natalie Portman in mustachioed male drag by Prada and Abigail "Little Miss Sunshine" Breslin). Unsurprisingly, the ones who were best at actually acting out their lines were the old pros: Dianne Wiest, Ellen Burstyn, David Strathairn. But it was clear that the feed was the event's real point: not live but on video, and with a focus not on acting (this was not theater) but on sheer presence. This could not have been done with stage actors, it worked only with movie stars. And with someone from the category above star: that of icon—Ekberg, looking bored on her lips, drinking a glass of wine, observed and pitied by a cannibalistic, self-satisfied crowd who would not be caught with a copy of Star yet attended only because there were names in the cast.

Another good moment: when one of the screens suddenly switched to a shot of some of the VIPs, unaware they were being filmed. A beefy man in a suit looked as bored as Ekberg, fidgeting, looking at his shoes.

It all culminated at the very end when Blanchett finally got up from her subterranean perch, walked right by us like a b&w hologram on the runway of the damned, went all the way to the top of the museum then majestically proceeded down the ramp, filmed and photographed by paparazzi-like handlers, to join the other actors and deliver her handful of lines. Ta-da!

Soundtrack for the post-Vezzoli come-down: Róisín Murphy "Movie Star" (from Overpowered, 2007).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fall has arrived

We've had a rather nice Indian summer here in New York, but the past few days have been gray and on the mournful side, and I can't say I find this displeasing, especially since my current soundtrack of choice is Jan Johansson's fittingly melancholy Jazz på Svenska.

I'd never heard of Johansson until a nice elf in Stockholm sent me the CD following an email exchange in which I'd mentioned my love for Benny Andersson's folk album, 1987's Klinga Mina Klockor. Turns out that in the ’60s Johansson recorded LPs in which he gave the jazz treatment to folk tunes from Sweden (Jazz på Svenska), Russia (Jazz på Ryska) and Hungary (Jazz på Ungerska). Johansson was—and, I gather, still is, despite his death in 1968 at age 37—considered one of Sweden's top jazz musicians. But he also had genuine mass appeal: He wrote the theme for Pippi Långstrump, better known here as Pippi Longstocking, and Jazz på Svenska has sold a total of 250,000 albums in Sweden—not bad considering there's only 9 million people in the entire country.

(Note to jazzheads: My colleague K. Leander Williams pointed out some similarities between Jazz på Svenska and John Lewis's Modern Jazz Quartet, particularly the Django and Fontessa albums. More stuff to check out.)

Jan Johansson "Visa från Utanmyra" and "Polska från Medelpad" (from Jazz på Svenska)

And of course I can't resist posting songs by Benny Andersson. Note that "Efter Regnet" was covered (as "After the Rain") by Anne-Sofie von Otter. And while I'm at it, let's go for maximum geek-out with excerpts from Benny and Björn's Kristina från Duvemåla, a musical based on Vilhelm Moberg's cycle The Emigrants, which tells the tale of Swedes leaving their country for the wilds of Minnesota in the 19th century. I've been waiting for it to come to the US for a good decade, but even I have to admit it's not the easiest sell here, as it is light years away from Mamma Mia and even Chess. Of course I had to get the cast album when it came out, despite the fact that it's a three-CD set in Swedish (except for a couple of tracks, one of which I'm posting) and with no translation.

Benny Andersson "Inledningsvisa" and "Efter Regnet" (from Klinga Mina Klockor)

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus "A Sunday in Battery Park" and "Missfall" (from Kristina från Duvemåla)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

So much to do

A couple of short ones in this week's Time Out New York. It would have been fun to review Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read without reading it; alas, a little thing called journalistic ethics got in the way. I know, I know: How old-fashioned, how old media of me. Didn't care much for the book, but it did provide a timely reminder that I should read Balzac's Lost Illusions, if only as a sort of bookend to Sentimental Education.

Also, a plug for the little Finnish monster band that could—yes, Lordi. I am not ashamed.

Finally, do check out the roundup preview of Performa07, the mammoth performance-art biennial that's starting on Saturday with Francesco Vezzoli's one-time-only staging of Pirandello at the Gugg. There's tons of really promising events, and most of them are under $25 and even free.

Andiamo!


A belated note on the matinee of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci I caught a few days ago at City Opera. It's brought on by both the fun I had and as a reaction to the self-congratulatory chest-thumping coming from across the plaza, which is starting to get on my nerves: Fine, we get it, the Met has big, luscious stars, and many of them have nicely proportioned chests, and many of them have shiny, lustrous manes. And then there's the women… But the new productions aren't half as cutting-edge as they think they are (Il Trittico = Zeffirelli in Broadway clothing) and the musical-chair policy of slotting big names as last-minute replacements could backfire severely when some of them start overworking their voices.

The Cav/Pag bill, on the other hand, embodied what City Opera has been doing well for years. (We'll see what the incoming administrator has in mind.) It's not chic to be seen there, it's not super-hyped, but it's pretty damn entertaining. The Cav/Pag singers were mostly fine and the staging was nimble and inventive—more of an achievement than you'd think, considering those pieces are almost part of the national subconscious after having been used and overused in TV and movies, and excerpted on a gazillion tenor recordings. We have to thanks director Stephen Lawless for that. I'd loved his Semele set in the days of JFK's Camelot last year, and Cav/Pag, borrowing from Italian postwar neorealist aesthetics, is another thumbs-up.

Lawless likes conceptual interpretations but he doesn't go as far as some of those kooky Germans (who are always used as strawmen when it comes to decrying going-too-far stagings, but never mind). Lawless works with the music, not against it. He doesn't force his ideas on the opera, but provides a framework that allows the piece to acquire new resonance, visually filling in the blanks without straining. For instance in Cavalleria he alludes to Alfio being in cahoots with the mafia, which adds a nice little frisson to the drama. I did watch with trepidation when Elizabeth Caballero as Nedda (in Pagliacci) climbed on top of her pink trailer in order to sing an aria, then gingerly made her way back down—talk about frisson! Had she missed a step, it would have been a lot more dramatic than Natalie Dessay's trip-and-tumble at opening night of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Standing in the way of control

New Yorkers still have time to catch Pierre Rigal and Aurélien Bory's érection, which is at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, on W. 37th St, until Saturday evening; it lasts 45 minutes, costs only $20 and is general admission, so there's no excuse.

I was lured by Bory's name: I loved his work on Cie. 111's Plan B a few years ago. That mix of dance, athletics and circus (presented at the New Victory) was tied together by a perpetual jostling of the viewers' visual perception. That overall theme is present as well in érection, which Bory directed and designed, and which Rigal choreographed and performs.

It was off to a slow start—Rigal alone on stage, within a square delimited by light. Okay, I can't deny that the first 15-20 minutes are on the uneventful side, as the crouched Rigal tries to stand up but cannot quite do it. He moves around, gets imprisoned within ever-evolving areas defined, again, solely by light. But gradually a purely visual kind of bliss emerges. As I watched Rigal attempt to "evolve" from a supine position to an erect one, my mind kept coming back to how this could be read as a poetic answer to creationists.

My colleague Gia Kourlas gleefully rained on my parade by telling me that a strobe-light effect I enjoyed (it's timed so that Rigal looks suspended in mid-air as he bounces up and down) was a rip-off of something David Parsons did a few years ago. Oh well…I still loved it, and it made me wish NYC theater and opera directors went to see more dance, which seems to be light-years ahead in its use of lighting and projections. Peter Gelb (who comes across as unbelievably smug in a recent New Yorker profile) should go out more; he'd realize the stuff he's so proud of is 20 years behind. (Granted, an improvement on the previous regime, which was 40 years behind.)

By the very end, Rigal is lit so that he looks like a 3-D hologram of himself. He was a few feet from me and yet I hesitated to trust my eyes; in the back of my mind was the feeling that I was being tricked, that the performer had rushed offstage and been replaced by something out of Tron.

There's nothing like being bamboozled live, in a small space, by mere lighting—it's a very different experience from being tricked by million-dollar CGI in a movie. One engages all your senses and makes you question reality itself; the other you just kinda look at.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The 24-second post

Check out Time Out New York's website for my report on last night's 24 Hr. Plays at the American Airlines Theatre. And I forgot to mention it, but I'd never seen so many people text during a show. Lame! Still, Bubbles and Omar in one night…I was happy.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Flaubert's parrot

I guess that'd be me, 'cause I just finished reading his novel Sentimental Education and can't resist quoting a couple of passages. (I read the book in French but am borrowing from the Penguin Classics translation—who has time to translate Flaubert for fun?)

The scene takes place at a party, with guests whipping themselves up in a frenzy of fun. Suddenly, Flaubert opens up to an abyss with suggestive economy:

"The Sphinx was drinking brandy, shouting at the top of her voice, and throwing herself around like a madwoman. Suddenly her cheeks puffed out, and, unable to hold back a mouthful of blood, she put her napkin to her lips, then threw it under the table.
Frédéric had noticed.
'It's nothing!'
And when he urged her to go home and take care of herself, she answered slowly:
'Oh, what's the use? It it wasn't this, it would be something else. Life isn't much fun.'
He shivered, in the grip of a glacial melancholy, as if he had just caught sight of whole worlds of misery and despair, a charcoal stove beside a trestle-bed, corpses in the morgue, in their leather wrappings, cold water from the tap running through their hair."

And here's a description of the blah-blah during the at-home day of a wealthy woman:

"The luxury of the setting underlined the triviality of the conversation; although the subject-matter was not as stupid as the manner of its delivery, which was aimless, lifeless, and inconsequential. Here were men with experience of the world—a former minister, the curé of a large parish, two or three high government officials—yet they confined themselves to the most threadbare commonplaces. Some looked like tired old dowagers, some like crafty horse-dealers; and old men displayed wives who might have been their granddaughters."

Plus ça change…

Friday, October 19, 2007

Phantom of the Nightwish


Yesterday evening, the Dilettante, her friend Tristan and a special representative from Night After Night trekked to Nokia, the serendipitously named—and located: half a block from the theater presenting Phantom of the Opera!—venue hosting Finnish band Nightwish.

The charms of Nightwish had eluded me for years. I just couldn't get into to the mix of power metal and operatic vocals. This all changed when the band unceremoniously kicked out singer Tarja Turunen, replaced her with a Swede with a pop background named Anette Olzon, and released the album Dark Passion Play. One listen and I was hooked. Actually I should specify: One listen to the first track, the 14-minute-long "The Poet and the Pendulum," and I was hooked. So many things I love are crammed into it: Abba and Metallica, Jim Steinman and Lord of the Rings, blastbeats and a ginormous orchestra. Also a singalong chorus, a Celtic gig interlude and a children's choir, because why not? ("Because why not?" is my favorite rationale for art.)

Nightwish "The Poet and the Pendulum" (from Dark Passion Play, 2007)

I'm sure Night After Night will comment on the musical side of the show so I'll just expand a bit on some side aspects. I can't remember, for instance, the last time I saw men sing along so lustily at a gig; I suppose the power riffage and brute drumming allow them to distance themselves from the fact that they're singing along to very pop choruses. Still, it was a sigh to behold to see all those dudes mouthing long stretches of verbose lyrics.

Another surprising thing was the band's amiable stage presence. Mastermind Tuomas Holopainen played the part of tortured artiste to the hilt behind his keyboards, but the rest looked very happy to be there, particularly guitarist Emppu Vuorinen. It was actually a bit jarring at times, considering the lyrical content ("I cannot die, I, a whore for the cold world," etc.). I'll quote Tristan's suggestions for Anette:
- Avoid smiling. We realize that given your genetic and ancestral makeup this may be impossible. In that case, perhaps a black veil could be considered, maybe one decorated with silver spiderwebs.
- Do not wave happily at audience members. Try instead to look malevolent and resigned.
- Please avoid making any gesture whose meaning is “I encourage you to applaud!” Instead, gestures in the category of prayer, anguish or ritual sacrifice could be substituted. We can provide helpful examples for you to emulate. You can also fold your arms Pharaoh-style.

You can tell Tristan regularly goes to the Met.

Say uh-oh!


No, this isn't the new home of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po: It's the design for the new Prague National Library, and boy are the Czechs angry! The project, designed by Jan Kaplicky, was selected by a jury headed by Zaha Hadid, reigning queen of jet-setting starchitects. It's hard to tell from the CGI model, but apparently the nine-story-high library will be topped by an eye-like design, as if the building was looking over the city.

I don't mind the design actually—especially living in New York, where we're assaulted by an avalanche of cookie-cutter "luxury condos" and where zero money goes to public buildings. But I'm a bit baffled as to why it's dumped in a middle of a field, when Prague is many things but not a field. According to Le Monde the library is slated to be built on a hill near downtown. Wouldn't it be better to see the building in its urban context? I don't mean to restrict an architect's imagination, but it's hard not to sense deliberate obfuscation there.

Through a glass pinkly

The vagaries of the calendar mean that I recently saw two plays set in the gay and lesbian past: the new Beebo Brinker Chronicles, based on Ann Bannon's 50s pulp novels, and a revival of Terrence McNally's 1975 bathhouse-set farce The Ritz.

First, let's point out that the lesbian-themed production is Off-Off, in a tiny theater with general admission, very basic sets and a cast of six. The gay-themed show is at the refurbished Studio 54 with Broadway-level ticket prices, an opulent multilevel set and a cast of 23; the rights for the songs they use alone must have been half the Beebo budget.

An interesting parallel between the shows is brought on by the difficulty to handle the pull between two conflicting directions. A big element in The Ritz is the appeal of a performer so bad, she's—maybe not good, but compulsively watchable; Rosie Perez plays her and she does work her butt off, but she lacks that ineffable spark that'd make her magnetic (plus her diction is so muddled that she's often hard to understand). The Beebo creative team, meanwhile, had to make a decision about going for camp or for earnest drama. The tension between the two actually makes for interesting theater because you can almost physically feel the effort of the creative team as it tried to inject humor while not falling into irony and distance. There, the actors, especially the stunning Marin Ireland and David Greenspan, walk that fine line with essential grace.

Finally, the issue of sexuality is very present in both shows. The Ritz, alas, feels completely neutered. Joe Mantello's direction is, er, flaccid—not good when the action relies on slammed doors, chases and mistaken identities, and not good when the background is a place dedicated to 24/7 sex. This bathhouse isn't a place where men go to have sex with each other: It looks and feels like a gym—though I'm sure there's worse happening in the steam room of the Chelsea branch of New York Sports Club than in Mantello's baths—and the gaze is narcissistically turned toward the self rather than toward others. Beebo feels more about desire than raw sexuality, which I enjoyed because it's a tricky thing to represent onstage. Once again, the cast pulls it off beautifully, and watching it in action more than made up in the oft-confused chronological structure of the show.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Achtung baby

My piece about German band Tokio Hotel is up at Slate. Haven't heard of them? Then you're not checking out this post from a computer in Europe, or you're not a Hot Topic shopper. Read on…

Special thanks to Andréa and JM for the TH tip!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Smell the glove

Actually, it wasn't only the glove you could smell at Bowery Ballroom: it was the entire main space. As I got in, two men were busy spritzing down the room from the balcony. This, you see, is because the "Sunday Party™ Lifestyle Concert" was "scented" with "an appropriately sexy amber-champagne" perfume. (No wonder the Sheila said "I thought you smelled boozy" when I got home—and the Dilettante is a confirmed teetotaler.)

We were told in a program distributed at the door that "guests will be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and even smell each and every part of the event's message, presenting a full-sensory immersion in glamour!" I'm not sure what the message was: it all just felt like any other party for fashiony types—everybody seemed to know everybody and there was a lot of excited air-kissing. But it was okay because the crowd shed any kind of blasé attitude and got down for the evening's main attraction.

Being completely un–au courant when it comes to lifestyle, I'd thought that the full-sensory immersion in glamour would be delivered solely by the music acts: Justin Bond and the magnificent Escort. I raved about Escort's PS1 show a few months ago, and this one was even better, largely because the sound was up to the Bowery's usual high standard. It took the group about a song and a half to gel (the equivalent of them clearing their throat) but then they were an unstoppable dance machine. The originals are so good that they more than stand up next to the covers of Geraldine Hunt's "Can't Fake the Feeling" and Gino Soccio's "Dancer." I'm stunned that they don't have a bigger buzz in town—they're only the best live band NYC has to offer right now.

I'm getting totally over the Pixie Harlots, who surrounded Justin Bond in a leggy cloud on the first couple of numbers; the troupe of lascivious dancers (and I use the term loosely) is fun the first time, but its range is so limited that the act grows dull with repeat viewings.

Bond himself was in fine form—nobody around offers between-song banter like "Bring on the rapture so we can get these Christians the fuck out of the way and we can have a good time." He also went on at some length about the welcome arrival of a "neo-pagan aristocracy." Not sure what it is, but count me in.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Loon against the moon

For the past several weeks I've been irrationally excited every time I saw Natalie Dessay's haggard mug on one of the Met ads plastered on bus shelters all over town—it may have something to do with misplaced French pride, which also got a boost from last week's rugby triumph. I was particularly excited to see the froggy star in Donizetti's over-the-top Lucia di Lammermoor, even if opera blogs were carrying alarming rumors about the cluelessness of director Mary Zimmerman (whose popular Metamorphoses I missed a few years back).

Alas, the evening was okay but not exciting. Supposedly Zimmerman researched the local flavor in Scotland, where the action takes place. Watching the results, I sometimes thought, The director went to Scotland and all I got is this lousy crag. Dessay did her best and proved you can act up a storm and still come across as restrained, and she sounded fine (but not great) to my untrained ears. My biggest beef is with the theatrical elements themselves, which felt weirdly tentative. The Met's current Madama Butterfly and Magic Flute productions are warhorses that will survive almost any cast; this Lucia lives or dies by whoever plays the title role—if she isn't up to snuff, it will all sink.

I actually preferred the Met's previous Lucia, which I saw a couple of years ago with Elizabeth Futral. To me it captured the opera's grand nuttiness, especially since Futral (not the most precise singer but a grand emoter) teetered very close to camp, in a Jennifer Jones kinda way. It was insanity in grand Technicolor. Zimmerman's Lucia, on the other hand, is insanity in muted beige. Wow, what a non-thrill!

One of my favorite writers around, Vilaine Fille (aka Marion Lignana Rosenberg, a contributor to TONY and other fine publications), eviscerated the production here. She sets her phaser to TOTAL DESTROY and…well, it's a sight to behold.

Across the plaza the same night, a friend—let's call him Tristan—was catching Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci at City Opera. He was unlucky enough to run into that dreaded subset of the NYC audience: the Boor.

"The two wealthy looking people behind me were amazingly drunk," Tristan reported in a postmortem email the following day. "Coming in late, spilling m&ms all over the floor, talking, falling asleep and snoring, and then mumbling incoherently during the entire last 5 minutes. As the woman staggered over her aislemates just as the applause started, I couldn't resist the urge to stand up, turn around, and tell my slowly moving captive audience what I thought about her. 'Go home and sleep it off! Next time drink at home!' I don't think she even understood what I was saying. I actually regret not physically knocking her over. Is that bad?"

I often fantasize about confronting the Boor; Tristan did it.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Who's laughing now?

The only news that matters today: France beat New Zealand in the rugby world cup. Yes!!!!! After a typically slow start in the tornament, Les Bleus are picking up irrepressible steam. We're playing England—another surprise winner (over Australia) today—in the next round and I'm confident we will overcome.

Oh, there's a rugby world cup going on? No wonder you don't know about it if you rely on American outlets for your sports news: None of them talks about the event. I suppose the provincial shenanigans of baseball or, even worse, college basketball are satisfying when you live blissfully sheltered from international competition.

Anyway, back to today's momentous win. One of the Kiwis' famous weapons in rugby is the haka, a Maori dance involving stomping and shouting that the national team performs right before a game starts. (A variant introduced a couple of years ago controversially included a throat-slitting movement.) Usually the opposing team looks on from a safe distance, but today the French got very very close to the All-Blacks, and even wore special red, white and blue shirts. A great moment captured here.

Notice the hirsute French player looking half-psychotic? That bearded mountain has become quite the star in France, and his name is Sébastien "the caveman" Chabal. There's quite a few tributes on YouTube and DailyMotion but my favorite is "Chabal Bazooka," a pastiche of a pastiche since it's based on a song by parodic band Fatal Bazooka (which I actually posted a few months ago).

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wish you were here

There's a lot of talk about old New York—as in, 1980s New York—these days, what with the unstoppable mushrooming of "luxury condos" and $2,500/month studios, the family-friendly Times Square, and brokers making multimillion bonuses (not salaries: bonuses).

Learning about the death of Dean Johnson was sad in many ways. He was a tireless advocate of out gays playing rock via his bands Dean and the Weenies then the Velvet Mafia, and his Rock & Roll Fag Bar and HomoCorps nights—this at a time when gay men were assumed to like only show tunes and disco. I can't say his own music ever did much for me, but I love that he represented a certain idea of queerness whose ideals were reflected in the aggro aesthetics of Bimbox zine rather than in getting same-sex vows published in the New York Times. For a look back at Johnson's days in New York, check out his brief diary.

And speaking of HomoCorps, Tom Jennings, coeditor of the historically significant zine Homocore, has painstakingly scanned and posted classic issues here.

Ink on your fingers

Two short pieces in the new Time Out New York.

First is a review of the latest Irène Némirovsky book to be published in the U.S. I'm a huge fan of Suite Française, but this one is…meh.

Then we have a paean to the new Caligula DVD. My fascination with this movie isn't new, but even I was stunned to see it come out as a three-disc set! Space constraints prevented me to mention some of the great stuff on offer, like Malcolm McDowell outing Florinda Bolkan in his commentary (her girlfriend introduced him to Gore Vidal, author of the original script), or the featurettes on John Steiner (Longinus) and Penthouse Pet of the Century Lori Wagner (an extra). Steiner had gained modest fame after appearing in Peter Brook's Marat/Sade, so what did he do with it? He moved to Italy where he made 120 movies ranging from B to Z grade in about 20 years. If names like Lucio Fulci, Antonio Margheriti and Ruggero Deodato mean anything to you, you've seen Steiner—who now says he hated Caligula and everybody involved with it. Wagner's story is more bittersweet. She had to fight to get decent screen time, and on that set it meant not being shy. "Tinto [Brass] needed somebody to urinate on this dead guy and I wanted my own spot in the movie…" At least she made out with some costumes, which she still owns.

But my absolute favorite extra is Helen Mirren's commentary. Dame Helen is acerbic, smart, funny—and considering her character appears only after a full hour, she's great at setting the scene while not on screen. Describing her first encounter with Maria Schneider (originally slated to play the key part of Caligula's sister, Drusilla), for instance, she recalls that "Maria was more terrifying than the whole of Caligula put together in many ways." She's frank about signing on for the money (it bought her first house) but has no regrets as the overall insanity made for a memorable experience. It's also fun to hear her cringe during the killing-machine sequence: She still can't bear to watch it and has to be told when it's over so she can resume watching.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Insterstellar overdrive

Space rock has never really been my cup of lysergic tea; it certainly has something to do with my abstaining from mind-altering substances (unless you count chocolate, but somehow I don't think you do), but also with the genre's hippie connotations. Too much noodling, too much babbling.

But I kept reading intriguing tidbits about a newish Brit outfit called Litmus that's said to play super-heavy space rock—so heavy, in fact, that the band's second and latest album, Planetfall, came out on Rise Above, the label run by Cathedral's Lee Dorrian and the home to Dilettante sludgy/doomy faves like Grand Magus, Witchcraft, Orange Goblin and Electric Wizard. Plus Litmus was being championed by Julian Cope, who has a pretty good ear for these things.

Well, Planetfall really is all that. It's heavy. It's fast. It's dense. Sure, like much of the Rise Above roster it's also unabashedly retro, and the mellotron whizzes are a bit conventional, but oh my god does it rock! It's got to be the headbanging-with-your-eyes-closed album of the year.

And in a super-rare occurrence, since I tend to believe 180 seconds is the ideal length for a song, my favorite tracks here are two of the longest ones: "Far Beyond," clocking in at eight minutes, and "Under the Sign," which goes on for 15 over-the-top minutes and just never lets up even as it piles on busy-busy-busy bass runs, atomic drum fills and endless guitar soloing—things start at full speed and just stay there.

Litmus "Under the Sign"
Litmus "Far Beyond"

Duking it out, sports-style

The Regular is a tiny place that makes the best espresso in Park Slope, where the competition is stiff. Another reason to go there is that they always have a few issues of the New York Review of Books on hand. Today, however, there also was a copy of the latest Columbia Journalism Review on the counter, so I read that while having coffee. (I'm the first to complain about Park Slope, but at the end of the day living in a neighborhood where you get these mags at the local coffee place ain't too bad.)

The most interesting thing in that CJR is a long article by Steve Wasserman, who used to be editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, about the state of book reviewing. He makes several interesting points, but one of them really caught my attention. He explains that when he got the job at the LA Times, he was inspired by the paper's sports section, and the way it covers the local teams thoroughly, in great arcane detail and with unflagging passion.

Yes! I often say that there's no reason we can't write and talk about culture with the same degree of involvement that sports fans bring to their turf. I cannot for the life of me fathom the point of dissecting the latest Giants or Knicks or Mets' collapse, but I'd love to find a forum where we could bring out similar focus and dedication to the discussion of, say, the baffling way the Roundabout programs its seasons. That company pretty much is the equivalent of the Yankees when it comes to New York theater: using its generous payroll to bring stars onboard, then trying to figure out what to do with them.

Back in the 1950s, then in the late 60s/early 70s, the monthly mags Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif represented two completely different ways to look at cinema and threw mud at each other constantly. You had to pick a camp and be ready to attack the theoretical and aesthetic positions of your adversary. What fun! It'd be great to inject a little dose of that type of zealous conviction to arts coverage.