Monday, April 28, 2008

Northern lights

Oops, one more: My piece on the phenomenon that is Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis came out in the New York Times' Week in Review yesterday.

The movie is about to overcome Titanic as the biggest-grossing film ever in France, and it's launched an unparalleled wave of affection for the titular Ch'tis (the nickname of both the inhabitants of the Nord–Pas de Calais region and their patois). As far as I'm concerned, any region where the local delicacies—that would be french fries and sausages—are sold out of a van and consumed standing up is A-OK.

Read elsewhere

My review of Billy Mernit's novel Imagine Me and You is out in today's LA Times. Elsewhere—that is, on the SundayArts blog—you can check out, if so inclined, some of my thoughts on Manon Lescaut and other women who kick butt (or not).

I'm bummed to have been leaving the Dilettante a bit unattended lately, but my schedule has been on the hectic side. I did manage to see Paul Rudnick's The New Century and the revival of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Laura Linney over the weekend. More on the latter in a few days, after TONY's review has run; as for The New Century, it's very sweet and often very funny, even if it doesn't amount to very much in the end. The best thing was finally being able to see Linda Lavin on stage. No contest: Few have her sense of timing and delivery when it comes to zingers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Grossed out

In my post about Satyagraha, I forgot to mention the most entertaining thing to happen at the show: At the second intermission, a woman asked me if I was Terry Gross. Now this is what Terry Gross looks like, and above is what I look like. Fine, so I was wearing my red glasses that day, but still…

In retrospect, I should have answered that indeed, I was Terry Gross. Oh, the French accent? That's my regular voice, but put me in front of a mike and it's as if I become someone else—that's the magic of radio! Then I should have said that I'd autograph her program in exchange for a pledge, which I would happily hand-deliver to NPR. Just make it out to "cash."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gateway drugs

Another of my posts is up on Thirteen's SundayArts blog; check it out here. This time around, I go on about "gateway art," ie the kind of stuff you start with if you want to dip your toes into unchartered waters.

I'm not sure if Philip Glass' Satyagraha—a 1980 opera about Gandhi's early years—qualifies, though I did see a couple of children at yesterday's performance at the Met. I admit I'd picked a matinee because the work is around four hours and frankly I was afraid I might struggle to stay awake toward the end. I'm not proud, but there it is.

Lo and behold, the last half-hour was indeed a trial. Which maybe was just the point, I don't know. (Gandhi endured so much more than four hours in a velvet seat, right? Oh jeez, what a stupid argument this is.) By then, even director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch—who for the previous three hours had covered up the score's paucity with fantastic visuals—seemed to have given up. Everything ground to a stand still on stage, except for Glass's maddening music, which kept going on and on and on and round and round and round. The kids looked remarkably sprightly by the end. Dickens was right: children are incredibly resilient!

Anyway, I find Glass rather overrated, prone as he is to dimestore spirituality and wishy-washy sentimentality, and Satyagraha did nothing to change my mind. But the production is worth seeing for the visual component alone—though of course you're not meant to say that about an opera.

It's not a surprise—but is still depressing—that the most imaginative new stagings at the Met have been British imports (Satyagraha and Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly). The three big American directors (Bartlett Sher, Mary Zimmerman and Jack O'Brien) to make the transition from theater to the Met have ranged from merely inoffensive to duds. Not to say that the Brits are beyond reproach: John Doyle's lame Peter Grimes + his current A Catered Affair on Broadway—girl, don't get me started on that one!—indicate that his genius Sweeney Todd was a fluke. But American directors cannot seem to come up with any conceptually inventive stagings. It's like these doofuses (doofi?) have just discovered projections. People here may mock the extreme Regietheater experiments found in continental Europe, but at this point I'd kill for anything resembling some kind of directorial viewpoint on New York stages.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Getting in touch with middle America

New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and David Brooks can be counted on to bang out something superficial and self-satisfied on a regular basis, but they've outdone themselves this week, both on the topic of Obama's supposed elitism. (I've been clear about my preferring Hillary but this is getting too much even for me.)

First, having NYT columnists bray about elitism is always a bit rich—like Brooks and Dowd are in touch with working-class America, whose opinion about Obama they pretend to channel. They may want to move to Dubuque and file their stories from there; until then, they should stop putting words in the mouths of people they know nothing about and shut their trap about elitism.

Brooks, for instance, wrote "When Obama goes to a church infused with James Cone-style liberation theology, when he makes ill-informed comments about working-class voters, when he bowls a 37 for crying out loud, voters are going to wonder if he’s one of them."

WTF? I'd venture to say that Brooks knows no more, and likely less, than Obama about working-class voters, and bringing up Obama's bowling score is downright insane. America is plunging into a recession, it is embroiled in the Iraqi quagmire—it has legalized torture, for god's sake!—and Brooks tut-tuts about Obama's bowling score?!? I for one am glad Obama has better things to do than worry about gutter balls. There's a good chance Bush is better at bowling, and look where it got us.

As for Dowd, she just dropped a few doozies in her latest column. Referring to Obama: "There’s no doubt the cat is cool. [Jeezus, Maureen, this is an election, not Saturday night at Blue Note] It’s easy to imagine the wild reception many parts of the world would give a President Obama as he loped down the stairs of Air Force One in his aviator glasses, the chic and chiseled Michelle on his arm."

Because that's what we girls care about: a president who looks cool, and that Hillary is a sad old bag anyway.

Oh, and how about this: "Obama has to prove to Americans that, despite his exotic background and multicultural looks, he shares or at least respects their values."

Isn't there an editor at the Times with the guts to tell Dowd that she sounds completely ridiculous and she may consider re-reading her own prose out loud before letting it go to press? She might have a flash of sanity and realize how utterly dumb and downright provincial she sounds. His exotic background and multicultural looks—where is Dowd living? One of those Mormon compounds? We're in America, where half the population is somehow "exotic" and "multicultural," and the way her sentence is phrased, it looks as if true Americans aren't multiculti.

And besides, isn't Bush a good ol' boy with a down-home background and white-bread looks? Yeah, let's order another one of those!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Cup o' George

I'm surprised Ian Parker's fawning profile of George Clooney in The New Yorker makes only a passing mention to the Cloon' best roles in ages—in European commercials for Nespresso. They're so popular in France that a friend once asked me if I wanted a "Clooney coffee."

The first one ("What else?") is from 2006 and perfectly shows off Clooney's jokey self-deprecation, while "George Who?", from 2007, costars Camilla Belle.

And there's so much more! Check out Clooney in this pair of early ’00s Spanish ads for Emidio Tucci, or shilling for Martini Bianco, or hawking Toyotas. After all that, I don't want to hear anybody questioning his range!

While I actually do love Clooney—one of the very few exemplars of adult masculinity among American movie stars—it would have been nice to see Parker analyze that lucrative and most image-sensitive sideline. He writes about "Clooney’s assured trade in the commodity of fame," but it's hard not to wonder about the actor's trade in the fame of commodities as well.

Pop implosion

There's something about a specific kind of pop song that aggressively leaps out of your speakers: sometimes, more is more. It's hard to beat the exuberance of the ’60s in that respect, but the Xenomania producing team more than hold up its own. Here are two tracks that illustrate both approaches.

Orchester Günter Gollasch "Es Steht ein Haus in New Orleans" (from Achtung! German Grooves, 2007) This explosive 1969 cover of "House of Rising Sun" comes from an East German bandleader and conductor of the Berlin Radio Dance Orchestra. I think it's the propulsive drumming I like best, particularly at 1:57, when the song picks up after the bridge and reintroduces ultra-agressive horns and mixes them up with oddly haunting strings. (For another similarly themed comp, see also Amiga A Go-Go Vol.1—Deutsch-Demokratische Rare Grooves, a collection of funk and soul tracks from East Germany.)

Gabriella Cilmi "Don't Want to Go to Bed Now" (from Lessons to Be Learned, 2008) Cilmi's a 16-year-old Australian girl who's among the hordes of singers now getting tagged "the new Amy Winehouse." Please ignore that. She had the good fortune to get her debut album produced by Xenomania, the genius team behind Girls Aloud and countless hits. Two memorable things about "Don't Want to Go to Bed Now": the galloping acoustic-guitar riff that propels the song into the pop stratosphere (that's one of the best things about Xenomania arrangements: these guys just don't believe in understatement) and the way Cilmi's shouted "Tonight!" makes me think of Blondie's "Call Me."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

South Pacific overture

Another of my posts is up on the Thirteen/SundayArts site; you can read it here. I kinda lost my hear for a sec and went all theater geeky—it's about the greatness of the orchestrations you can hear in the current revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center. Mamma mia, I am a gay man!

Monday, April 07, 2008

Monday night lights

I'm not obsessed with Dancing With the Stars. Nooooo. I just stay home, glued to ABC on Monday nights, that's all. That Tivo thingamajig? Please: I must be one of 274 people in New York without cable TV.

Tonight's installment was pretty exciting despite the fact that it featured two of my least favorite dances, the paso doble and the Viennese waltz. My main qualm is that there seemed to be a case of gradeinflationitis going around, with 10s being doled out like Goobers at a multiplex. The judges should keep a few things in mind, like (1) Mark Ballas keeps coming up with really conservative choreographies for Kristi Yamaguchi; I realize he's playing to her technical strength but it blandifies their routines. (2) Adam Carolla can only coast so long on gimmicks, even if the unicycle was amazingly over the top; he may drive partner Julianne to homicide before they get voted off though. (3) Marissa Jaret Winokur played a dancing queen on Broadway, fully deserving a Tony for make-believe illusion; alas, DTWS is nominally about dancing.

My favorite aspect of the show outside of Shannon Elizabeth's gams is musical director Harold Wheeler. It's just fantastic to hear a decent-size orchestra play dance music, and his contribution to DTWS is way underrated. My dream: to have Wheeler lead the DTWS band at Lincoln Center's Midnight Summer Swing. I don't think it's too much to ask.

Wheeler kick-started his career by working on Burt Bacharach's one and only musical, Promises, Promises, and has been an MD and/or orchestrator on such shows as Dreamgirls, Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. (And Marlena Shaw's "Touch Me in the Morning"—now that's one song he should use on DWTS.) Not too shabby, uh? Tonight's Wheeler peak was his turning New Order's "Blue Monday" into a paso for the Ballaguchi. It worked surprisingly well once you got over the shock of hearing the song in this context.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ranking pages

I'm almost done with the new Jeanette Winterson novel, The Stone Gods, and much to my surprise I've really enjoyed it—actually the mere fact that I've read so much of my own volition is telling. I usually find Winterson's overheated rococo stylings tiresome but this time around she's harnessed them in the service of an absorbing science-fiction tale. The sci-fi angle has more holes than a moth-eaten sweater and feels like a mere excuse for meditations on the power of language and what it means to be human, but then that's what sci fi is often for and I'm not enough of a purist to begrudge Winterson's cavalier attitude towards plot mechanics.

I'm particularly happy to enjoy Winterson because I'd been on a frustrating roll lately—except for Richard Price's new Lush Life, which is a good ol' read, particularly if you're familiar with the New York locale. But it was downhill after that. For instance I got my mitts on a handful of reissues of early-20th-century adventure classics such as H. Rider Haggard's She and Conan Doyle's The Lost World, all in a rather nice collection of $10 undersize pocket books that actually fit in a pocket (thank you, Penguin). That's the good news. Since I read them all as a kid, I started off with G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908); despite the book's good rep, I was bored stiff by its allegorical rampage—elegantly written but please deliver me from Christian authors. Still, I can see how this could make for a good movie. (Weird how this can be a disparaging assessment for a book.)

I was also let down by two Scandi noirs: K.O. Dahl's The Fourth Man tries to update the typical femme-fatale-leading-to-cop's-fall premise but is so dull that it almost tumbled off my hands, while Håkan Nesser's The Return is a middling procedural that does not stand out from the pack. I'm such a sucker for Scandi noir that I keep falling for it—I'd been disappointed by Nesser's Borkmann's Point, for instance, and yet I inexplicably went back for more.

Disappointing yet again, but this time because of poor editing: Angie David's Dominique Aury. I actually bought that book quite a while ago but never got around to actually reading it from beginning to end, contenting myself with grazing some chapters. Whoever was supposed to help David shape her manuscript was asleep at the wheel: redundancies and repetitions abound, along with unfortunate contradictions. This was hard to avoid because David structured her bio not chronologically but thematically, so some things are bound to pop up more than once, but a better editor would have made her cut the book by at least a third. Still, those interested in the politics and inner workings of the post-WWII French literary scene will find plenty to discover in there.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The shape of things to come

All right, it may be hard to tell but this is a photo from a Paris Opera production (staged at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre) of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Look on the right of this pic: Could this be the butchest Cherubino, like, ever? Click and scroll down for a video excerpt in which Christine Schäfer—for this is she—seriously toughs it up. I'd venture to say the hottt Ms. Schäfer could even convert attendees of the Michigan Womyn's Festival to opera. (I have to admit that I hadn't recognized her at first, even though I saw her in the flesh two months ago in Hansel & Gretel—and she didn't play the boy.)

Incidentally, the production is staged by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, a frequent acolyte of Paris Opera director Gérard Mortier. Mortier is moving to New York next season: Does it mean we can expect some Marthaler action in town? Expect some squeaking from both the peanut gallery and our local critics.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Solid gold-plated

After ignoring it for several seasons, I've somehow become hooked to the current installment of Dancing with the Stars. It's not that I've suddenly developed a love for ballroom dancing, but rather I find the casting compelling. As both a tennis player and a member of the rhythmless nation, for instance, I wanted to see how athletic Monica Seles would do; as a fan of Jodi on The L Word and, okay, out of sheer curiosity (how would she pull it off?), I couldn't wait to see Marlee Matlin on the parquet floor.

Another incentive to watch yesterday was the prospect of live performances by the Alvin Ailey company and Kylie Minogue—not together, unfortunately. It was pretty great to see Ailey do an excerpt from Revelations, though in the New York area the number was maimed by the local news, which repeatedly barged in with a tornado warning. "If you have friends at Yankee Stadium, call to warn them." Who cares?!? If you're at Yankee Stadium, you shouldn't be afraid of a little water. In fact, I'd say you deserve it.

But the real tropical depression was Kylie. Now my love for the singing budgie, as she used to be called, is no secret (I once scheduled a vacation in London just so I could see her live at Wembley Arena). But I have to admit the returns have been diminishing in the past few years, and her latest album, X, shows her struggling to compete in the pop arena she once dominated so effortlessly. The DWTS gig was obviously prompted by the release of X in America, and just as obviously it ain't going to make any difference.

First of all, I may not even have recognized her if I didn't expect her: She barely looks like herself anymore—going down the Priscilla Presley/Steve Guttenberg road? Second, her outfits literally made me recoil on the couch, and I am not one to fear tacky pop fashion—not to mention that you need a strong stomach if you watch DWTS to begin with. She first did her latest single, "All I See," a song characterized by an utter lack of character; the perky Goldfrapp ripoff "2 Hearts" would have been a better choice. The performance felt listless and tepid. She fared better with "Can't Get You Out of My Head," in an arrangement that bumped up the synths, but still, where was the spirit? Combined with a eye-gouging fluo-clad dance by pros Mark and Julianne, it all felt like a vintage episode of Solid Gold.

At least the horribly perky Steve Guttenberg was voted off, which made me very happy. Now if the horribly perky Marissa Jaret Winokur could follow in his footsteps next week…