Friday, September 29, 2006

Gutenberg! The Musical!

A good comedy is hard to find, so thank the (atheistic) heavens for this offering at the New York Musical Theater Festival. I actually first saw it last year at UCB, where it was performed by its two authors, Anthony King and Scott Brown, and I had such an unexpectedly good time (unexpected because I'm usually suspicious of shows with exclamation points in their titles) that I went back for seconds. It also helped that the NYMF production stars two superb actors I was keen to see—Jeremy Shamos (most recently of Trouble in Paradise) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Wicked, Saturday Night).

Gutenberg! The Musical! isn't so much a proper musical as a play with songs. Since it's set up as a backers' audition, in which Bud Davenport and Doug Simon, the authors of the show within the show, try to lure Broadway producers, the bargain-basement production values are integrated in the premise: This is a show that must be done on the cheap. There's only a pianist, no sets, no costumes (baseball caps with characters' names written on them are as close as it gets) and almost no props (the press is a cardboard box).

So yeah, Gutenberg! is about putting on a show about Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press; his love affair with a wench named Helvetica; and his run-ins with an antagonistic monk ("Monk"), an antisemitic flower girl and various town drunks. There's not much to it, but the songs are dead-on in their mimickry of a certain bleating pop-Broadway style and the actors switch between characters with deadly comic precision.

There are two more performances on Saturday. Go and see it for $20, before someone turns it into the next [title of show] and starts charging $60.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Signé Chanel

Loïc Prigent's extraordinary serial (i.e., five half-hour episodes) doc is now showing on the Sundance Channel and is not to be missed. (Click here for schedule details, but if you read French, click there for better info on the series.)

Originally produced for the French-German channel Arte, Signé Chanel follows the famous house in the weeks leading up to the showing of its Fall/Winter 2004-2005 collection. You see a bit of Karl Lagerfeld in action, of course, but Prigent concentrates on the dressmaking studio at the top of the rue Cambon building occuppied by Mademoiselle Chanel's house.

The show isn't about the creepy German dude who dreams up the clothes, or the rich and powerful who buy them, or the parasites who gravitate around fashion (though there are a few highly satisfying shots of the preposterous Andre Leon Talley, gushing like only a fawning courtier can). No, what makes Signé Chanel stand out is Prigent's affection for the people who turn Lagerfeld's sketches into actual clothes. It's about the likes of Madame Martine, Madame Cécile and Madame Laurence, who cut and sew and literally bloody their hands for the sake of a dress, and about 75-year-old Madame Pouzieux who, in-between bringing in bales of hay, makes unique braids on an antique loom in her farm house. The show also covers the superstitions and customs of a highly artisanal industry—dropping scissors is an augury of death, for instance, and the significance of pricking your finger with a needle depends on the finger and whether it's on the left or right hand.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the series is a pleasure. Prigent has a great eye—not only for human interaction, but also for elegant visual compositions. Several of the shots in the series made me gasp in wonder, and I don't even care that much about fashion. He's also a master at parallel editing, building tension, capturing expressions and offhand comments.

A good deal of the humor is as aural as it is visual. Monsieur Lagerfeld, for instance, is associated with a vaguely sinister, faintly Darth Vaderish musical theme; Prigent also makes great use of the way Lagerfeld (wearing high collars to hide his chicken neck, perhaps?) constantly clinks the numerous rings he wears. When the worker bees' load increases and their schedule becomes frantic, the director uses music that sounds as if it was lifted from a 1960s peplum, suggesting galley slaves sweating away on their oars.

As it all culminates in the final episode's défilé, it's hard not to feel proud of the white-coated workers. High fashion serves the mighty, the ones who can afford dropping tens of thousand of dollars on a garment. It'd be easy to have a moral problem with squandering that much money on a suit, but as a lover of the arts it's also hard to take issue—art needs patrons, after all. Besides as the series makes clear, not one of the women seating at the défilé has a tenth of the talent and dignity of those who make their clothes.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Of singing nuns and Freudian slippers

The New York Musical Theatre Festival is in full swing and I caught two shows over the weekend, with a (non-NYMF) performance by Justin Bond and the Freudian Slippers in the middle.

The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun, appropriately presented at the Theater at St. Clements, is a musicalization of Blair Fell's play of the same name, which I actually saw in 1996, back when downtown was alive with campy little plays. Fell (also responsible for the live soap Burning Habits) wrote the book along with "additional lyrics" to Andy Monroe's songs. While in too many new musicals the songs are, sadly, the problem, Monroe has come up with a number of ’60s-influenced gems. The production also benefited from a nimble cast, notably Laura Daniel in the title role; Tracey Gilbert's as the Singing Nun's enduring love, Annie Nevermind; and Kristine Zbornik as Mother Helen Lawson. Yep, Helen Lawson: Fell's driving idea is to superimpose the life of the real Singing Nun with elements from Valley of the Dolls, like an Ethel Merman–esque Mother Superior and a hunky love interest called Lyon. Some of it works, especially "Superior," a fab number belted in great style by Zbornik, but at times the camp factor feels dated. Most glaring in that respect is the use of a drag nun, Coco Callmeishmael (Stephen Michael Rondel), as a narrative device. I'm not actually sure that character—who drags (ba-dum-bump!) down the action more than anything else—is needed at all. Opting for camp also means that Fell, who has a real talent for quickly switching from zany humor to heartfelt emotion, paints himself into a corner when the second act, following the Singing Nun's real life, turns to tragedy: There's no good way for him to handle the drastic change of tone that follows the intermission.

I also trekked to the Sage Theater for Oedipus for Kids!, a disaster I'd describe as being of Titanic proportions if the show's ambitions weren't so tiny. The premise is simple: A troupe putting on adaptations of classics for kids decides to do a musical version of the Oedipus story. Kimberly Patterson (book), Robert J. Saferstein (music) and Gil Varod (lyrics) managed to stretch that kernel of an idea to two mindnumbingly dull hours, during which we endured such lyrics as "Whatever Oedipus touches, Oedipus wrecks." There were references to baklava and spinach pies as well. The experience reminded me of the Fringe in that the show was based on a single, juvenile idea that should have been cast off after everybody had sobered up. Of note: cast member Laura Jordan had broken her ankle a few days before and performed seated on a rolling office chair. She was the best one, too.

Oh, and one last peeve: The actors were miked even though the Sage is tiny. Come on, people, work a little! Being miked in such a small space is completely preposterous. If you can't project, get off the stage.

I almost hesitate to mention Justin Bond in the same breath, but this post is dedicated to the weekend's revelries and technically he performed on Saturday morning. Bond, known by many as the illustrious Kiki, of Kiki and Herb, lit up the Spiegeltent, backed by a merry band of youthful mercenaries who seemed on loan from Juilliard and looked on the proceedings with a mix of bemusement and astonishment. (And sometimes they didn't look on at all: Around 2:30am, I noticed the flutist had fallen asleep on her chair and had to be discreetly nudged awake by the cellist.) The set was mostly mellow—meaning none of the rockier numbers Bond has been known to do, such as Pulp's "I Spy." We did get a cover of Kate Bush's latest, "King of the Mountain," and even when he floundered through forgotten lyrics (an attempt to do Marianne Faitfull's "Times Square" had to be aborted, despite Kenny "Herb" Mellman coming to the rescue on the piano), Bond remained magnetic.

And though the music stuck to chronicling the down and out and outcast in a torchy mode, Bond, one of the quickest-witted performers you could dream of seeing, balanced it with banter that had enough acid to wipe out entire swaths of forest, as if he was the bastard child of John Rechy and Margo Channing. You could picture him throwing Margo's lines ("I'll admit I may have seen better days, but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut") and infuse them with a hundred new seedy meanings; come to think of it, some clever director should cast Bond in a stage version of All About Eve. A girl can dream.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Theophilus North

Let's hope Keen Company's production of Theophilus North doesn't fall by the wayside, brushed aside by the wind tunnel created by its faster, louder neighbors in the nascent fall season.

Matthew Burnett's play is based on Thornton Wilder's 1973 novel of the same name. (The book was turned into a movie in 1988, the impressively cast Mr. North.) By modern standards, Wilder's quaintly whimsical tale of the titular New Jersey teacher getting bogged down in Newport, Rhose Island, on his way to see the world isn't "edgy." But it's this very lack of anything resembling hipsterism that feels almost revolutionary at this point. Keen artistic director Carl Forsman and actor Giorgio Litt, in the title role, do a great job of suggesting that Theophilus' intrusions in the lives of his new neighbors often come burdened with an unspoken sense of superiority, but the character remains likeable because he always means well—and this is the kind of motivation you hardly ever seem to encounter in art these days. The creative team also never takes away from the sense of awakening to the world that permeates the work.

Theophilus North plays until October 14 at the Clurman on Theater Row.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Armchair travels

Two ways to experience non-American culture this weekend: The culturally correct one…and the other one.

On Saturday, I trekked to the Japan Society to see Yubiwa Hotel's Candies: Girlish Hardcore. It's hard to define—a bit of performance, a bit of dance, a bit of theater—but it also didn't really add up to the sum of its parts. Considering that the Japanese have pushed the boundaries of both hardcore (in its sexual, visual and musical expressions) and girlishness (through kawaii imagery and its constant evolution, for instance), the show, created and directed by Shirotama Hitsujiya, was oddly flaccid. I don't mind a lack of narrative backbone at all, but you have to compensate with arresting visuals. A couple of them did rise to the top: A crouching, naked woman, her back to the audience, excretes batter onto a hot plate; it cooks into a pancake, which is messily eaten by two other women. And in the finale, the five performers slowly stripped to their underwear while smoking and executing a line dance; the scene was made slightly spooky by the repetitiveness of the movements.

Sunday evening was a completely different experience with stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh making his NYC debut at the Beacon Theater. Elmaleh, who was born in Morocco, is hugely popular in France, and the Beacon was packed to the rafters with a red-hot crowd on the verge of hysteria. The show went on for almost two and a half hours and Elmaleh was feted like a rock star, complete with requests for skits, people shouting out lines the way some sing along at rock shows, and cries of "You're the man of my life!" The highlights for me were his take on French R&B singing and French musical theater, but really you can never go wrong with physical comedy (Elmaleh is incredibly agile) and Twingo jokes. Bummed he didn't do the ski skit but fortunately Youtube has it, along with Elmaleh and Jamel Debbouze's fab parody of raï superstars Faudel and Chem Mami.

Much of the non-English-speaking art we see in NYC comes to us through semi-official channels—the French Alliance, say, or Scandinavia House or the Goethe Institute or the Japan Society. Or we get our high-brow offerings from BAM or Lincoln Center, whose producers scout international festivals around the world. All good stuff, sure, and the audiences usually bring together Americans and citizens of whatever country is represented; everybody is on their best behavior—Americans because they don't want to look culturally xenophobic, and "the others" because they feel the piece they're watching somehow turns into an ambassador of their home culture.

But there's something to be said for being at a show with your peeps (as you can tell from the success of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour), especially when you live abroad and a mainstream star from back home is visiting. To start with, the crowd coheres in a completely different manner. This happened when I went to see Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's Love in a Fallen City a few months ago. The play was really entertaining, but I can't possibly have enjoyed it as much as the Chinese audience—and that's okay, not everything has to please everybody. This kind of show also plays out as a benign version of homesickness-curing nationalism, the kind it's easy to get behind because nobody gets hurt. At the Beacon it was totally satisfying to laugh at a Twingo joke and not have to explain what a Twingo is, and I felt super-French in a way I hadn't experience since, I don't know, that weasel cover of the New York Post.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Two red aunts on the loose

Despite being bone-tired on Friday night, I dragged myself to Magnetic Field, on Atlantic Avenue, to see Two Tears, a band that had come to my attention only last week. I had noticed the name on the Magnetic Field website as I was looking up their band schedule for the Atlantic Antic fair on Sunday (MagField is a great rock bar, staffed by the nicest people on earth, or at least in Brooklyn; please drop by for a drink and a song). For some reason the name Two Tears caught my eye and I looked it up, only to discover it involved Kerri Davis, who used to play guitar and sing in the Red Aunts. Suddenly it became imperative I see them.

I wrote fairly regularly about L.A.'s Red Aunts in the ’90s (these pieces aren't online, except for this old Time Out review), and nearly a decade after they split, they remain one of my favorite bands from that time. Unlike quite a few faves from back then that now make me cringe (most of the K stuff), the Red Aunts' albums endure as masterpieces of anarchic scuzz . They barely made it to the 30-minute mark (the back of my favorite, 1995's #1 Chicken, boasts "14 songs 23 minutes") and the accompanying live shows were incendiary. A lot of dude-type critics derided the Red Aunts for the fact they couldn't play—which is true, they were barely adequate instrumentalists—but technique was never the point with them, and even as they improved, they still showed no interest in writing complete songs. They didn't seem to capture the girl imagination the way the riot grrl bands did, either, perhaps because the Red Aunts didn't have a message, they were more like nihilistic juvenile delinquents screaming themselves hoarse about how they could kick your ass and not even give two shits about it.

The MP3s on the Two Tears website are more in a garage vein and less screechy, though Davis's tunes continue to be under two minutes with no discernable structure. Live, I was delighted to see that…could it be? YESSSS! The bassist was another Aunt, Debi Martini—aka EZ Wider, aka Connie Champagne, aka Debi Dip—now with longer hair but the same stance, impossibly cool with her back half to the audience. She and Davis even still wrote the set list on their forearms in black Sharpie, the way they did in the Red Aunts. The set was short and rocking, it could not have been a finer Friday-evening show. Alas, it looks as if it's going to be the last Two Tears gig for a while, as EZ Wider informed me afterwards that Davis is moving to Dubai.

The other two bands on the bill were a lot of fun as well, even if I didn't have the same sentimental connection. Locals Imaginary Icons and Michigan's MHz share a member and a taste for arty, sharp garage-punkitude, similar to early Pere Ubu. MHz's guitarist-singer Andy Claydon also runs Flying Bomb Records and was kind enough to hand me a label comp CD and a single by old Michigan faves Bantam Rooster. Loot!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Thursday-night brutality: Celtic Frost & 1349

It was an awesome one-two punch of an evening at B.B. King's yesterday. I had just swallowed the last bite of my pretzel and stepped into the club when the second opening act, 1349 (pictured) got on stage, at the unmetallic hour of 8pm and with all the house lights blazing. (I can't even fathom when first opener Sahg went on. Tea time?) What a sight: They were all in corpsepaint and half of them wore huge spikes on their wristbands. And what a great show! It's not a diss to say that 1349—named after the year the black plague hit Norway—plays textbook black metal. The Norwegian band takes the genre's basic elements (speed, growls, buzzy guitars), throws them into a caldron of bile and spits them out in three-minutes orbs of blackened hatred. No keyboards, no epic suites about Azazel or the distant moons of Pluto—just savage focus and grim, charismatic grandeur (1349 superbly ignored an audience member who taunted them in a parodic high-pitched screech).

The best part is that because the gear of headliner Celtic Frost was already on stage, 1349's drummer was sitting upfront and we could all watch in awe as he carpetbombed the club with double-bass action while his hands flew so fast that his sticks were a blur. While the legendary Frost is 1349's regular drummer, this dude didn't look like him—which I could tell not because I recognized his corpsepaint pattern let alone his face, but because his hair was suspiciously American-curly, not Scandi-straight. (This kind of detail is extremely important in metal, in which men keep their hair long and silky, perhaps in order to better execute hair windmills.) That human beatkeeping machine turned out to be one Tony Laureano, who's spent some time in Nile and Dimmu Borgir—I had in fact seen him play with Dimmu at Ozzfest a few years ago, but he hadn't made quite the same vivid impression as he did yesterday.

After Emperor back in July, Celtic Frost confirmed that 2006 will be remember as a very good year for live extreme metal. The quartet came on a little after 9pm. As vocalist Tom Gabriel Fischer (a.k.a. Tom G Warrior, and one of the best rock vocalists around) put it when he introduced the beginning of the band's US tour in his blog, "Finally we will be able again to convey the dusk of our musical processions to the masses that have been deprived of sufficient morbidity for so long. They shall never forget."

That is an understatement. Boris et al. can just go back to their training wheels: The Swiss vets know heavy. Steve Smith put it best (by way of Strapping Young Lad), describing the band's incredible reunion album, Monotheist, as heavy as a really fucking heavy thing. And live, it really was super-duper double-skull-penetration heavy.

They started on the dirgey side with "Procreation (Of the Wicked)," from Morbid Tales, but then picked up the pace and delivered a half hour that was as perfect a balance of doomy and thrashy as anything I've ever heard. They then returned to the slower mode, and never were less than majestic. When Fischer roared "Oh God, why have you forsaken me?" during the mammoth "Ground," my mind flashed with visions of Hannibal crossing the Alps, hammers of the gods pounding away—a whole array of visuals that seems to have been conjured up from my role-playing days. (It was in college and we played the arcane Chivalry and Sorcery, not the mundane D&D, thank you very much.) The set ended with Monotheist's "Synagoga Satanae," a track which had not particularly caught my ear on record but was a filthy slow burn live. No encore, and they left to the tune of Frank Zappa's "The Torture Never Stops" on the PA. Nice touch.

In non-metal news, the six finalists of the Man Booker Prize have been announced, and I realized I've actually read two of them. The Night Watch isn't Sarah Waters' best novel by far; its backward structure (from 1947 to 1944 to 1941) means that Waters has to contort herself in order to avoid revealing in the first part things that need to be surprises in the last. But the description of London during and right after WWII is very compelling, and the period details anchor the story without ever drawing attention to the painstaking research that no doubt went into gathering them. The second finalist I read is Kate Grenville's The Secret River, which follows a Thames bargeman and his family as they are forcibly moved to Australia in 1806, and they settle by the Hawkesbury River—where they dislodge the local aborigines. The consequences are dramatic, as you might expect, but Grenville's lush prose makes the book both realistic (the early bits about the life of a bargeman are pretty great) and magical. And just when you think it's all going to end in tears, Grenville pulls back slighly in a bittersweet way.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Nathalie Baye, Bruce Wagner, Miranda July

Two more short pieces in Time Out New York:

• an interview with Nathalie Baye, an actress I like a lot more now than in her ’80s prime. She currently stars in Xavier Beauvois' excellent Le Petit lieutenant, and proved to be a smart, articulate interview subject.

• a quick review of Bruce Wagner's Memorial. I'm a bit surprised by the rash of reviews that say that Wagner has mellowed out, that he likes his characters more and that his tone isn't as misanthropic as it used to be. This misreading is based on the fact that Memorial isn't a Hollywood-industry novel. Most Hollywood novels are assumed to be cynical, even though they usually aren't; since Wagner directed his spotlight somewhere else, critics interpreted the change of focus as corresponding to some sort of renewed faith in humanity. Wrong! Most of the characters aren't obnoxious, true—they are weak, deceiving, pathetic. Wagner puts the elderly Marjorie through a 2006 SoCal version of the stations of the cross, which escalates until the old woman loses everything (including, most humiliatingly, control over her bowels). Marjorie's son is a location scout who develops an addiction to painkillers after being punked by a so-called friend. Her daughter is an architect who can't seem to get anything built and ends up getting impregnated by the tycoon whose memorial job she'd been courting. Through it all, Wagner's command of language sends me in an envy-fueled funk. What I wouldn't give to be able to be able to come up with his chapter on Zaha Hadid!

In other reading news, I was actually able to finish a short story in The New Yorker. After music, video, performance art and film, Miranda July has turned to fiction. Set in—where else?—Portland, Oregon, her effort, "Something That Needs Nothing," reads like an anomie-laden version of something from an early-’90s riot grrrl zine crossed with an Adrian Tomine comic; it's greatly effective because July knows teenage girls' hearts.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ave Caesar

For some unfathomable reason (sinking Empire? Class-divided society in which the rich lose themselves in McVillas and futile pursuits?), I rented Caligula, the 1979 epic attributed to spaghettisploitation master Tinto Brass (based on a script by Gore Vidal) and re-edited by Penthouse overlord Bob Guccione. Uncoincidentally perhaps, a Caligula voiceover claims "I am all men as I am no man and so…I am a God" while at the exact same time the name "Bob Guccione" appears in the credits and Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights," from Romeo and Juliet, swells in the background. Since this follows an opening scene of Caligula frolicking incestuously with his sister, Drusilla, the overall effect actually is awe-inducing in its baroque nuttiness and sense of an ego run amok.

And it's hard to get nuttier or run more amok than this artifact of the late 1970s, a time when you could do a movie loaded with sexual and moral perversity on a big budget and with actors such as John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren (pictured above, but in another Caligula project; read on). We'll never know what the film would be like had Brass made it the way he wanted, but after Guccione took control of the editing room, the result was a sometimes fascinating, sometimes revolting, sometimes boring mix of narrative confusion, visual looniness, jumbled political message and hardcore-sex inserts. Aesthetically, Caligula is equal parts Fellini bacchanalia (art director Danilo Donati seems to have recycled quite a few frocks and wigs from his own work on that director's Satyricon), Studio 54 disco and Harkonnen planet Giedi Prime as shown in David Lynch's Dune.

Some of the best scenes are at the beginning, when Peter O'Toole's Tiberius—his too-small black wig half-covering his head, open sores festering on his ravaged face—shows McDowell's Caligula how to entertain himself and spits out lines such as "Serve the state, Caligula, although the people in it are wicked beasts," while in the background conjoined twins have sex with drugged-looking courtesans. Shortly thereafter, John Gielgud's character kills himself, no doubt because by then Gielgud had realized what he'd signed up for.

It would be great to be able to say that Caligula is a violent political masterpiece that now offers us a distorted mirror of the Bush administration's down spiral into ineffectual decadence and fraught Empire-building, but alas that is not the case. Rather, it is a fascinating bit of film history, testifying to a time when it felt as if the graphic representation of realistic sex was becoming an option in the mainstream. With the recent release of similarly frank—in their depiction of sex, not their cruelty—flicks by the likes of Catherine Breillat (Romance, Anatomy of Sex), Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs), Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny) and, soon, John Cameron Mitchell (Short Bus), maybe we're trying to catch up to the ’70s.

In any case, I'm not the only one with Caligula on her mind: Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli had a short titled "Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula" (featuring Helen Mirren, back for seconds and pictured in this post's photo, along with Vidal and, er, Karen Black) in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

A worthy addition to the roll

A quick post to welcome my esteemed colleague David Cote, Time Out New York's theater editor, to the wonderful world of blogging. He can be found at Histriomastix. Check out what he has to say about the NYC stage—which is in great need of the kind of non-sycophantic observations David is sure to supply.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Studio 60 vs. 30 Rock

I've been intrigued by two upcoming NBC series, the Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Tina Fey's sitcom 30 Rock, both of which start with an identical premise: the backstage shenanigans at a Saturday Night Live–like show. So I managed to get my mitts on screeners of the pilots and proceeded to spend some quality time in front of the tube.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Tina Fey is one of the most overrated people in television. During her reign as head writer on SNL, she brought the show right back to the dark days of the 1980s. She's not half as sharp as she thinks she is, as illustrated by the half-baked Mean Girls (Heathers is vastly superior on all counts). Now it looks as if 30 Rock (which starts in October) will bring the day of reckoning. Granted, what I saw is not what's going to air, since it was reshot with Jane Krakowski replacing Rachel Dratch as the star of The Girlie Show, the show within 30 Rock.You can howl til you're blue in the face about how the network traded idiosyncratic indie-type Dratch for a more beautiful woman, but Dratch was woefully out of her depth and Krakowski actually is a versatile comedienne. Fey is another matter: She gave herself a prominent role in the series, in addition to writing it, and her limitations are already showing. It's highly unlikely she has what it takes to write a satire of the kind of show she herself used to do, so 30 Rock is probably going to turn into a benign workplace comedy similar to Newsradio. We're two months away from Thanksgiving but the turkey's already landed.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip also suffers from dead weight at the middle, namely the wooden Matthew Perry and the wet blanket known as Amanda Peet. The latter is meant to play a wunderkind network prez but alas she emits all the steely charisma of frozen haddock, and in some weirdly lit scenes her prominent, blindingly white central incisors kept reminding me of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu.

That said, the episode I saw is well written and oddly gripping, especially Judd Hirsch's impassioned hijacking of a live broadcast—followed by reviews calling it a Network-like incident, a comparison you should expect to see in every actual write-up of the show as Sorkin cleverly feeds critics the image of himself as a modern-day Paddy Chayefsky. Sarah Paulson, aka Mrs Cherry Jones, is promiding in the part—apparently inspired by Kristin Chenoweth—of a Christian with decent social views. I don't have any pre-conceived opinion about Sorkin, having successfully managed to never see more than two minutes of The West Wing, but Studio 60 (starting mid-September) shows a bit of promise, especially if it explores base compromises in network television and the inanity of live sketch comedy. But considering that abortion still isn't an option on American television, I doubt Studio 60 will have genuine fangs (unlike Amanda Peet), limiting itself to the usual biteless bark about the media blah blah blah.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A quick one while she's away

Since I've been too busy—oh all right, I was driving around upstate New York, looking for the finest donuts in the lake region—to post, here are links to a few bits and bobs I wrote for Time Out New York: reviews of Louise Welsh's Scottish noir Bullet Trick and Girl Talk's mash-up CD Night Ripper, as well as a profile of the lovely Nina Hellman, one of the brightest lights of downtown theater.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The calm before the storm

Visiting non-English-speaking family and, frankly, not that much going on have combined to ensure limited outings in the past few days. Things will pick up soon though: I've just realized with no little trepidation that the two weeks following September 9 are booked solid already. I guess that's what Emergen-C was invented for.

I'll use my last shreds of free time to finish James Lee Burke's latest Dave Robicheaux novel, Pegasus Descending. I discovered Burke on a trip to Louisiana about three years ago, and was immediately taken with his Cajun spin in American noir. Burke's plots are better than usual (and he doesn't glamorize Robicheaux, an alcoholic cop with a penchant for bursts of destructive rage) but I especially love his relentless attacks on Louisiana's corruption and its crushing poverty. The latter is what I remember most from driving through the state's backwood parishes. America can flex its muscles all it wants, but cruise half a day on roads littered with abandoned rusty appliances and punctuated by pitiful casinos and drive-by daiquiri shacks, and I guarantee you'll drop into a funk rather different from the one advertised in the va-va-voom French Quarter (which I actually found rather depressing, full as it was of fratboys drinking vats of beer at 11am).

Burke is to Louisiana what Carl Hiaasen is to Florida. Both use the crime-lit framework to ram into their respective state's foibles, though Hiaasen opts for a lighter, farcical approach, while Burke is downright Greek in his perception of Louisiana. The state he describes is mired in the 19th century, paralyzed by antediluvian class and race structures. Forget about Jay McInerney: If Burke wrote "literary" novels about New York society, he'd be ranked as one of our era's most biting, clear-eyed chroniclers. But he writes about a middle-aged cop in Iberia Parish, so he doesn't get full-page reviews in opinion-defining newspapers. That's okay: Readers with an inquisitive mind know where to find him.