Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lena and Agnes go boating

Lena Philipsson has been among my absolute favorite pop divas since 2004, when she represented Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest in Istanbul with "It Hurts." I actually prefer the original, "Det gör ont," which she performed during the Swedish elimination round before switching to English. I linked to both versions so you can compare. Visually she stuck to the formula that helped her win Melodifestivalen (fringes, boots and a mike stand) but somehow I like the song better in Swedish. In any case, the key change is killer in both versions.

Lena is a genuine pop queen: She doesn't need cockamamie choreography or huge video screens to hold a room in the palm of her hand—she's all about old-fashioned charisma. And she knows who her true fans are: she performed at Stockholm's Schlagerpride this summer (love the Swedes rapturously singing along to "Der gör ont"). And to think the Sheila and I missed that event by a mere week…

I just got my hands on Lena's new album, Dubbel, a schlagtastic collection of duets with longtime collaborator Orup. The first single was "Nu när du gått," which is pure retro heaven (which it kinda had to be considering it starts just like "This Old Heart of Mine," while "Hals Över Huvud" is a carbon copy of "Chain Reaction"), but the rest of the record is almost as good—and I love that Lena steadfastly sticks with Swedish.

In a different style, Agnes (Carlsson), a former winner of Swedish Idol, has also delivered a winner with Dance Love Pop. The first single, "On and On," is classic Scandi high-paced club pop: nothing revolutionary there, just sterling craftsmanship.

Catherine Opie and the Black Watch

It's busy, busy, busy over at the Sunday Arts blog: Here I go on about Black Watch (spoiler: I liked it but didn't love it) and there we have a bit about Catherine Opie waving her freak flag at the Gugg.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The gaying of Thanksgiving

A few days ago, I was hyperventilatingly anticipating the debut of Rosie O'Donnell's variety show. I ended up not being able to watch it live, but caught up with the finest moments the following day—it was part of our post-feast Thanksgiving TV entertainment, along with last year's Radio City Christmas Spectacular (the year the most excellent Linda Haberman started reshaping the Rockettes in particular and the show in general) and Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special from 1988. (Needless to say, this was a rather gay Thanksgiving. Thanks Brett and David!)

Anyway, Rosie's special was quite the cheesefest. How can she mean so well and do so wrong? It's all fixable though: She basically needs to refrain from putting herself in almost every number. I realize this is hard to fathom for someone like Rosie, endowed with both a prodigious ego and an unfettered enthusiasm for all things Broadway that, while endearing, gives her the misguided desire to be onstage with her idols. I do have to admit that "City Lights," the number I was gushing about before seeing the show, delivered because Rosie did it with Liza herself, and the sight of them desperately selling razzmatazz was chilling. At one point Liza did a bizarre high kick, which we replayed over and over, split between disbelief, hilarity and a certain joy at Liza's manic need to entertain. Still, if this is what we can expect from her upcoming show at the Palace, I'm a little scared.

Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite American holiday because it's just an opportunity to have good food and good times with friends. There's no god, no presents, no pressure. Not having family here, the Sheila and I usually end up with similar strays, who tend to be from foreign lands or gay or both. For us, it's a great time to enjoy our new life in our adoptive country.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stage frights

The night’s oddity was an ominous electronic remix of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” throbbing and tinkling as Ms. Brightman, dressed like Little Red Riding Hood, pedaled a (stationary) bicycle through darkness with holographic wolves looming nearby. She was rapping, “Even if you cry you won’t be heard,” and wailing, “It’s just in my mind!”
The review of Sarah Brightman's show at Madison Square Garden makes it sound right up my alley. Why wasn't I there? Why oh why oh why?!? This is the kind of nutso showbiz move I just adore.

At least I will be home tomorrow evening for the premiere of Rosie O'Donnell's new live variety show. I was already feeling warm and fuzzy toward it—I'll watch anything that involves "Broadway dancers, celebrity appearances, musical acts and comedy sketches"—but the news that the program will open with "City Lights" from the Kander & Ebb musical The Act (directed by Martin Scorsese!) makes it unmissable. Yes, they are going to do this:

Okay, now picture it with Rosie instead of Liza. It's going to be a moment for the ages, and it'll be witnessed by all the show-tunes freaks of America. How could this not do well in the ratings? Actually, don't answer that, especially if you work for NBC.

Le Flashdance

Julien Doré, who won Nouvelle Star (ie French Idol) last year is the kind of reality-TV winner we don't really see here in the US—let's just say he mentioned in a post-win interview that his entering the contest was an art project inspired by Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.

Doré wrote most of the material on his debut album, Ersatz, and he also covers Gainsbourg's "SS in Uruguay" (from Rock Around the Bunker). He walks a very fine line between self-conscious post-modernism and genuine sentiment, as evidenced on the song/video combo of "Figures Imposées": There's a cheesy atmosphere part Flashdance/Fame, part misty David Hamilton, along with a cameo by Catherine Deneuve (looking like she just stepped out from Madame Tussaud's), but the song itself is an appealingly heartfelt grower and I love the 80s synths, which really bring me back.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Puttin' on the Kritz

Are we living in a golden age of funny women? Oh yes we do. While the Apatow gang and the frat pack make what feels like a gazillion movies a year, the truly incisive fun comes from women. So why Tina Fey, Wanda Sykes, Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler don't overtake the movie screens the way Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell or the inexplicably ubiquitous Seth Rogen do is beyond me. (And let's not even broach the issue of Seth Rogen getting the cool chicks. AAARGGGHHHH!) As much as I love The 40 Year Old Virgin, everything else Judd Apatow has produced is dreck. The Sheila and tried to watch Step Brothers last night and gave up after less than half an hour: The sight of Ferrell and John C. Reilly as 40-year-old children involved in a deep bromance with each other was just too pathetic. I do have a teeny tiny bit of a thing for Ferrell—ah, Blades of Glory—but Step Brothers was just too much infantilization.

Okay, deep breath. And now back to the awesome chicks.

On Thursday, we saw the Encores! production of On the Town, which was a treat from beginning to end. I just can't get tired of hearing those classic scores performed by the large and in charge Encores! orchestra—which was even bigger than usual for this run, and really did justice to Bernstein's work. And I was once again reminded of how Betty Comden and Adolph Green really are among my very favorite Broadway artisans.

Playing horny cab driver Hildy Esterhazy was longtime Dilettante fave Leslie Kritzer. She did a great job with the swinging "I Can Cook Too" and narrowly avoided a total disaster when her dress got caught in the head of costar Justin Bohon during "Come Up to My Place" and she almost fell off the chair she was standing on. You kinda had to be there.

The only reason Kritzer wasn't the biggest scenery chewer that night is that Andrea Martin was also in the cast and laid waste to everything in sight. Martin managed to repeatedly crack up Jessica Lee Goldyn (who played Miss Turnstiles Ivy Smith), particularly when, explaining vocal techniques, she lunged at Goldyn's breasts, bellowing "The resonators!" Comedy gold!

Anyway, Kritzer seems to be branching out into straight-up laffs as opposed to pure musical theater, and she's set up a dedicated channel on YouTube that includes her audition video for Saturday Night Live (I'm not sure if she actually submitted it to the show or not). Now that Pushing Daisies seems to be cancelled, can we get Kritzer and Chenoweth in a show? I'm not sure Broadway could take the both of them together, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Getting Blasted at Soho Rep

After a month's delay, I finally saw Soho Rep's acclaimed production of Sarah Kane's Blasted tonight. I have no idea how the NY Times reviewer could state that "the play’s concluding moment makes clear that Ms. Kane can still see potential for goodness in people, that she hasn’t given up on life" because there is absolutely none, zero, zilch hope in Blasted.

The ending in question, coming on the heels of scenes of rape, enucleation and cannibalism (not just any cannibalism: someone chews into a dead baby) does not provide a sliver of relief. On the contrary, Kane takes Beckett's absurdism to its absolute nihilistic, inhuman limit—I found the vision of Reed Birney's character, Ian, swallowed up to his neck under his hotel room's floor strikingly reminiscent of Happy Days for instance. But accepting that this is a pitch-black vision also means accepting an absolute lack of the aforementioned goodness, and that is a prospect too unbearable for some. If you need solace, or the possibility of solace, to go on, you need to believe Kane hasn't "given up on life." (We know she had.)

She once said that the characters of Blasted are hopeful because they "continue to scrape a life out of the ruins." But that is precisely why the show is so bleak: The gun Ian tries to use to kill himself is empty. You can't escape from that hell, so you have to live in it. Kane did not try to scrape a life out of the ruins for herself: She committed suicide.

Kane also said that "to create something beautiful about despair, or out of a feeling of despair, is…the most hopeful, life-affirming thing a person can do." But this, to me, applies to what one can get out of a despairing play such as Blasted after seeing it. I did not find it depressing, for instance, unlike some of the spectacles on Broadway, with all their bloated, vulgar vanity, or the fact that the current President of the U.S. is a war criminal and most likely will get away with it.

No, Kane creates something not about despair but from despair. We answer after seeing the show, because Blasted pushes your face down into vomit and blood and pain and tears, and the only response possible is to then push your head back up and gasp for air. But this can work only if the play itself is an airless pit of bleakness. There is no exit.

Carla sings a new tune on American TV

There's many sentences I thought I'd never hear. Yet one of them rolled out—not so smoothly since it involved French words—of Matt Lauer's mouth today: "And here she is, the First Lady of France, with her new song…"

Lo and behold, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was on the Today Show this morning, playing two tracks from her latest album. And yes, the link includes video evidence! We are reaching new levels of surrealism here, people. (I typed "my friends" at first but then I remembered that 1. not all of you are my friends and 2. just yesterday the Sheila finished a sentence with "my friends" and I asked her if she was turning into John McCain.)

French readers should correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure Carla didn't perform in France to plug the album. Something or other about it not being dignified. Yeah, whatevs. Clearly the dignity rules are suspended on this side of the Atlantic. It's like eating sweets: It doesn't count when you do it on vacation.

For those about to rawk

Boss Hog has just announced it's playing Bowery Ballroom on December 17. I dashed out a little something on the Time Out New York blog about it, so I'll just add here that Cristina Martinez has got to be one of my absolute favorite rock singers ever. And I won't undermine her achievement by saying "one of my absolute favorite female rock singers ever."

The band hasn't played here in eight years, which kinda neatly coincides with the Bush administration. Yeah, I would have taken a leave of absence, too.

Shakespearean Borat

Now I certainly don't want to echo Stockhausen's remark about 9/11 being "the greatest work of art there has ever been," but a line in Ayman al- Zawahiri's latest communiqué did strike me as uncommonly poetic: "Be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them." Keep in mind I'm merely talking about style, not content.

Note, for instance, that the dogs have not found the flesh delicious: They have found it "to be delicious." There's a certain flow to it, like Borat writing a Shakespearean sonnet. The tone throughout is also oddly sexual in a subliminal manner—the mix of desire and violence is startling. Al Qaeda may have a future writing for HBO if, you know, they weren't such blood-thirsty fundies.

Going high-tech at the Met

What's the best chaser for the awesome experience that was the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway? A three-hour opera. No, really.

I can't say I was really looking forward to go out last night: I had had two hours of sleep in the previous 26 hours, a long day in the TONY trenches (thank you, accelerated Thanksgiving schedule!), and the prospect of parking my butt in a Met seat for an extended period of time was not all that alluring. I mean, normally it would be but what I really wanted was to go home, watch a couple of 30 Rock episodes on DVD and crash. But it was not to be, and I don't regret it for a second.

Robert Lepage's production of La Damnation de Faust was the first time Berlioz's piece had been fully staged at the Met since 1906. It was touted as a multimedia wonderland blah blah blah…but I was really afraid this was another case of the Met patting itself on the back for bravely going where theater has been for the past 30 years. But you know what? Lepage knocked my socks off.

This video preview gives a faint idea of the basic concept so I'll spare you the details. What I liked best is that this wasn't technical wizardry for its own sake: There was a real director with a real eye at the helm. The second half alone is one of the most striking things I've ever witnessed on stage. Of particular note: When the grid-like scaffold the action was taking place on morphed from something out of Tron into cast-iron into trees; when, a bit later, those trees shriveled up and died as Mephistophéles walked past them. And in Marguerite's big aria, Susan Graham was dwarfed by a gigantic video projection of herself (shot live), her head engulfed in flames and smoke. This all made Peter Sellars and Bill Viola's highly-touted Tristan Project —the last time a creative team really went full-on, large-scale multimedia on opera's ass here—look like an NYU student project.

Another highlight: Lepage's vision of Hell seamlessly blended the human (the Met's chorus, which had been superlative all evening, switched into an even higher gear then) and the oppressively mechanical. It may have been Hell, but I was in Heaven. (Oh, we saw that too, actually.)

As a funny sidenote, when the chorus of damned souls switched to Berlioz's "infernal language" to invoke the names of demons ("O mérikariu! O midara caraibo lakinda, merondor dinkorlitz, merondor! Satan! Belphégor! Astaroth! Méphisto!"), the man in front of me toggled through the various options offered by the Met titles, as if he thought his console had suddenly jumped from English to Ancient Sumerian.

The singers copped well with the demands placed on them by working on a multilevel scaffold. John Relyea's Mephistophélès pranced around in a red leather suit, preceded by his codpiece (which elicited titters from the audience upon its grand entrance) and Marcello Giordani's Faust was fine, though he didn't quite rouse me—unlike Susan Graham, a big reason the second half rocketed into the stratosphere. When she literally went up in smoke during "D'Amour, l'ardente flamme," the image was perhaps obvious since that's what she was singing about, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it was a theatrical vision for the ages and it'll remain seared in my retina.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The 24 Hour Plays

Since yesterday evening, I've been liveblogging the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway on the TONY blog. It's been a lot of fun so far, and surprisingly I don't seem to have been affected by sleeping only two hours last night. Or maybe I have been affected and I can't tell the difference. Judge for yourself. The whole she-bang ends tonight around 10pm and I'm glad to be able to bring my friend Tristan (the Sheila has another engagement), who I'm sure will have thoughts of his own.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Opera drama

New York City Opera may have a non-season kind of season, but that doesn't mean it's not providing backstage drama. Go visit the Sunday Arts blog for my take on that little hothouse of nuttiness.

I'm preparing to go and cover the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway event for the Time Out New York blog. Do drop by and visit that site tomorrow—really early: the first post of what I hope will be several posts should be up around midnight or 1am.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pins and needles

Gosh Dilettante, what an exciting life you lead: at the opera one night, some kooky avant-garde performance the next, a big Broadway hit after that…truly, do you ever rest?

The short answer is no. There is, however, more variety in my entertainment diet than I may let on. Do read Judy M's report on our latest exciting sporting endeavor. It's a fine read, though she does not mention that I led the entire second game, only to collapse ignominously in the last frame and lose by two measly points. Noooooooo!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Gaahl is out

Okay, we've just lost a lesbian character on TV, but we've also gained a badass, antisocial gay man! Gorgoroth's frontman Gaahl has come out in a German mag. Gorgoroth is one of my favorite classic-sounding Norwegian black-metal bands, so I find this news particularly exciting.

Gorgoroth—which has already been dubbed Gayrgoroth by hatas—is one of the most extreme bands in the BM scene. These guys don't go for fancy or proggy or folky: Just the old-school hate, m'am! Alas we'll probably never see them in the US because Gaahl has a police record and is unlikely to ever get a visa. Unless Obama's administration relaxes immigration restrictions for artists who have spent quality time in the clink.

Based on the interview, Gaahl's now happy—he had his first relationship last year at age 32, which may explain why he had been so crabby for the past, oh, 20 years—and has started designing clothes in addition to his musical career. I'm really curious to see what the next album is going to be like ’cause I'm just not sure Gaahl can sustain his previous levels of near-psychopathic intensity now that he's getting laid.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Where dinosaurs roam

I write about the upcoming Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival on the Sunday Arts blog. This fest, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, has got to be one of the coolest in town. Plus it's a great place to pick up…er, meet internationally minded people. Which you are if you read this blog. I'm just sayin'…

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Stormy weather in Shondaland

I know we're supposed to be all sunny and positive until at least the end of the week but life goes on—even if some TV characters clearly don't. So here I am, venting about the recent dismissal of my favorite Grey's Anatomy actor/character over on the Time Out New York blog. Oh well, at least I will gain an extra hour a week since that show is now officially retired from my viewing schedule.

American at last

I had been eligible for American citizenship for quite a while, but I only made up my mind when Bush was reelected in 2004: I wanted to vote the next time around. After a longish but uneventful naturalization process, I became an American citizen two years ago. Quite frankly, it felt mostly like a bureaucratic procedure and I still thought of myself as French. I started to feel some stirrings when I cast my vote in the Democratic primary in February. Readers of this blog know I was a Clinton supporter but I had zero qualms supporting Obama once he was the nominee, and yesterday I voted for him 110%. (Factoid: voting with one hand—especially when you're not experienced with the New York system—while trying to film with the other is hard!)

This morning, I can say that for the first time, I am an American. I feel American. There is no shame anymore in holding this passport. And in fact, it's the country holding my other passport, the French one, that suddenly looks archaic with its antiquated power structure and elite-grooming system.

In the meantime, the tears have got to stop! Cars honk in triumph: I well up. Strangers scream in joy: waterworks. I look at the newspapers' covers and it's sob time.

But the thing that really, really gets me is when I think of the point in Obama's acceptance speech when he said America is "young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled." I know this is par-for-the-course verbiage, but at the same time it means a lot that he included gay people. I didn't think it would matter so much to me, but it does. Especially since as I write, it looks like the loathsome Proposition 8 making same-sex marriage illegal has passed in California. Part of me hopes it's just the death throes of a certain kind of mean-spirited, exclusionary thinking, but at the same time I'm not blinded enough by last night's triumph to actually believe it. We may be energized, but so is the dark side.

So yeah, I'm euphoric right now. It won't last long because the country's in a right old mess, but we can savor victory for a bit. Our side had forgotten what it tastes like.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Miller time…again

More thoughts on Arthur Miller's All My Sons and stage directing in general over at the SundayArts blog.

This damn election is making me so antsy that even the Sheila is starting to lose her patience with me. Clearly this cannot be over soon enough. I will vote at P.S. 321 first thing tomorrow morning and get my infinitesimal share over with. This will be my second vote as a newly minted American citizen after the Democratic primary: yay!

Oh, and if you are in a country/city in the world that gets the francophone channel TV5 Monde, do tune in for its election-night coverage, as I helped put the New York portion together. I believe we'll be on from 5:30pm to 11:30pm EST.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Fassbinder is still dead

Because the Sheila is learning German, we've been watching a lot of German films over the past few months. Last night we polished off Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy with Veronika Voss. It's actually the second one, sandwiched between The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, but we watched it last.

The story of a morphine-addicted, washed-out movie star in 1955, Veronika Voss may well be the Fassbinder film in which his debt to Hollywood melodramas is the most obvious because it goes well beyond themes and structures: The aesthetic of those b&w Warner Brothers women's films of the 1940s is emulated to a degree that borders on the religious. Emulated and amplified, actually: Some scenes look so overexposed that they're literally blinding.

To achieve that effect, Fassbinder used Orwo, an East German film stock that provided extremely deep contrasts between black and white. (Kieslowski also purposefully used Orwo in the 1977 doc From a Night Porter's Point of View and apparently it was also used in the 1999 noir Night Train.) Indeed, VV has got to be one of the best deliberate uses of b&w I've ever seen. In the scenes in the apartment of the doctor who "takes care" of Veronika, the characters, dressed in black, glide across eye-searing white. The effect is both hypnotic and shocking, a visual device that calls attention to itself and yet doesn't come across as being ironic.

The Veronika Voss DVD includes a chat between lead actress Rosel Zech and Juliane Lorenz, who now more or less runs the Fassbinder Foundation—much to the dismay of many of the director's old friends and associates, such as actress Ingrid Caven and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who think Lorenz is self-servingly distorting Fassbinder's life and legacy. (Check out this fascinating interview with Caven, in which she lashes out at Lorenz.)

Next stop: Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Heartless Brooklyn

Where else would crowds boo a marathon runner but in Brooklyn? Those Park Slope homies are tough, man!

I just came back from watching about 40,000 people run the New York Marathon a few blocks from my apartment, and yes, amidst all the cheers, someone got heckled.

Okay, perhaps I should specify that not only was the guy wearing a McCain-Palin t-shirt, but he was also carrying a sign for them. The Park Slopers reacted right away, like bulls in front of a red flag. [Update: It was this guy. And once again, he's the only McCain supporter.]

That was the only McCain supporter I saw, however. He was vastly outnumbered by people running in Obama gear. The best part was the runners who had come from foreign countries showing their support as well: I saw several variations on "Italy for Obama," "Germany for Obama," etc.

As we near the election, I refuse to let myself think about November 5th. Every time I slide into daydreaming about an Obama victory, I need to superstitiously knock on wood immediately thereafter. Time cannot fly fast enough.