Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sundance music

Over the past few days, I've taxed my brain cells with an onslaught of movies on TV and DVD and in theaters. I'll single out Little Miss Sunshine, Juno and Dan in Real Life not because they're my favorites but because they're thematically and aesthetically similar (even if Juno thinks of itself as a little hipper—it's not really), and because their soundtracks are pretty much interchangeable. Those scores say as much as the films themselves about a certain type of Hollywood aesthetics circa now. All three movies attempt to evoke a certain type of quirkiness (one that glorifies a palatable idea of individualism without actually offering any serious critique of the American social order), and in all three the music is a very specific type of indie rock/pop that translates that quirkiness into naiveté—a word meant as a compliment for many, but not necessarily a good thing in my mind.

This is most flagrant in Juno, which prominently features several songs by Kimya Dawson and in which a Moldy Peaches tune plays a rather big part. When you know that Jason Bateman plays an artiste manqué whose old band once opened for Melvins and who now writes music for commercials, you know you're in for indie-rock references as shortcuts for actual character development.

DeVotchKa did the music for Little Miss Sunshine and Dan in Real Life sports an extensive score plus a few songs by Sondre Lerche. In both, another type of indie sound is called up to help out potential deficiencies in screenwriting—this time, bouncy horns and jaunty melodies suggest that we are not in James Newton Howard or Hans Zimmer territory. Every time something meant to be unconventional, fanciful or touching happens, we get a bleating trumpet or a serious tuba instead of the 1,001 strings of the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra. That'll stick it to the man!

As an alternative to all these tubas, here's the nouveau-retro collaboration between Nouvelle Vague and director-screenwriter-actor Julie Delpy that plays over the end credits of Delpy's 2 Days in Paris (a movie with a successful first half about French-American cultural differences and a frustrating ending about Delpy and Adam Goldberg's couple trouble).

Nouvelle Vague featuring Julie Delpy "LaLaLa" (from 2 Days in Paris soundtrack, 2007)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Hurricane Carla

France is so awesome! First, its freshly divorced president is going out with a supermodel-turned-singer and the first photos of them together were taken during a trip to Eurodisney. The news of Sarkozy's affair with singer Carla Bruni came out just before my arrival in Paris and were the talk of the town. Sarkozy could not have found a better mate than Bruni, a bona fide "caviar left" bourgie known for ruthless maneating tendencies (that she was caught at Eurodisney is the icing on the cake). Indeed a few years ago Justine Levy, daughter of "public intellectual" Bernard-Henry Levy, wrote a roman à clef titled Nothing Serious about a love triangle revolving around a destructive supermodel-turned-singer named Paula. In real life, Bruni was dating editor Jean-Paul Enthoven then left him for his own son, philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, at the time with Levy.

I find this soap opera completely enthralling—after all, there aren't many heads of state out there dating someone with a MySpace page. Or, for that matter, someone who's also consorted with both Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, come out in favor of polyandry and set Yeats to music—check out Carla's version of "Those Dancing Days Are Gone" (from No Promises, 2007).

Another thing that struck me during the trip is that while café owners are putting all their resources in finding ways to get around the smoking ban that's effective January 1, TV commercials for candy, cheese or snacks now come with health advice at the bottom of the screen, such as "For your health, avoid snacking between meals" and "For your health, avoid eating too fatty, too sweet or too salty," along with the address of a state-sponsored nutrition/health site. Somehow the contradiction between the two embodies a certain aspect of French society to me: the state puts a lot of effort into health campaigns but at the same time it's non-smokers who are perceived as being pests.

Monday, December 17, 2007

France-bound again

Jeez, this poor blog has been awfully neglected in December—blame the Broadway strike and, um, my infatuation with Guitar Hero.

And it's not going to get any better for a little while, as I am about to depart for a blissfully unplugged trip to the land of my youth and its amazing food specialties (has anybody reading this ever heard of pulenda?) So please, dear readers, hang tight until the Dilettante gets her act back together!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mamma Meryl!

My love for Abba is no secret but I can't say that I'm a fan of the Mamma Mia! musical: Yes, there is such a thing as too much cheese, even for me, and having an artificial context and a fixed meaning forced upon these songs is disconcerting.

That said, I'm kinda psyched about the movie version (out summer 2008) because it stars Meryl Streep, with whom I'm in love all over again these days. If you're familiar with La Streep's career, you know she can sing—she started in musicals at the Public Theater in the 70s and has sung in some movies, most notably Postcards from the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion; and of course she sang in Mother Courage in Central Park a couple of summers ago.

There are two trailers for the Mamma Mia! movie online right now. Typically, the American trailer shows a lot less Meryl than the English one, as if the movie was all about the pretty young thing. It also does not show Meryl dancing or singing, while the British one does. It's as if they were afraid of letting Americans know that the older woman has a pretty sizeable part, and that it's not all about the young blondie.

The British trailer also includes Meryl's follow-up to her line "You sound like you're having fun already" (a muttered "I used to have fun"), while oddly the American one doesn't; it's really a one-two punch, so leaving the second part makes no sense. It's not like we needed more evidence than American trailers are terrible but, well, there it is.

Friday, December 14, 2007

In print

My review of Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast is in this week's Time Out New York. The book, a Norwegian thriller, provided a bit of relief just when I was getting a little sick of Scandi noir—which is a shame since I do tend to prefer crime in a cold climate. It's just that as with all trends, Scandi noir has been mined to death and the latest books to come out here in the US have been by decidedly lesser lights. Critical attention seems to have switched to the likes of John Burdett's Thailand-set series (Bangkok 8, Bagkok Tattoo) but I find his plots and characters preposterous. Bit of a problem for a book…

Anyway, The Redbreast's certainly a good page-turner and I'm looking forward to more Nesbø. Now if I could also get my hands on Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy… Best-sellers in Europe, these Swedish novels are still not available in the US, though Amazon seems to indicate a British edition of the first volume is due in January.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bull's eye

It's rare to see a show that so perfectly hits the target that I'd change nothing to it. Usually it's half an hour too long or too short, or the cast is uneven, or the writing is awkward, or the director's got no sense of pacing. I don't have a single quibble with August: Osage County: if you're going to pay full price for a Broadway show this year, make it this one—and I say this unequivocally and enthusiastically.

An import from Chicago, this Steppenwolf production does not reinvent the wheel: We've seen the basic premise (a family reunites and implodes as dirty laundry gets aired and old wounds bleed again) a gazillion times, with only attending details or the reunion's occasion (here it's a funeral) changing. But Tracy Letts—whose Bug was quite good but didn't let on he had something of this scope in him—has put together what amounts to a new American classic, ambitious in scope and ruthless in execution. The play lasts three hours and each of the three acts ratchets up the tension another notch (or two, or five), until you find yourself both spent and exhilarated. You also laugh a lot at the domestic travails of this Oklahoma family, and the best part is that you often laugh just as you are shocked and horrified. The depiction of middle American familial dynamics often reminded me of The Corrections, though Letts has a penchant for the gothic and a noir fascination for the abyss that Jonathan Franzen lacks.

It's also extraordinarily exciting to see such a batch of superlative actors, especially since they're relatively new to us in New York. I particularly loved Deanna Dunagan as the pill-popping gorgon of a matriarch and Amy Morton (whose dry intelligence reminded me of Allison Jeanney in her stage days) as daughter Barbara (both pictured). Morton hits several virtuosic peaks, but her expression when Barbara realizes she's her mother's daughter, all right, is particularly memorable.

And since this is Broadway, there are T-shirts for sale in the theater's lobby. A couple of them sport lines from the play, like "The world is round. Get used to it." I would have preferred the more pungent "Eat your fish, bitch!" It brings out a laugh in context, and so do my two favorite lines from Is He Dead? (a Mark Twain play recently unearthed and now on Broadway in an adaptation by David Ives): "And you thought you could hide the dachshund" and "Even for a Frenchman, this is excessive."

Monday, December 10, 2007

New York noir

Reading Lydia Lunch book Paradoxia a few weeks ago reminded me of a rather obscure movie called Vortex, by Scott and Beth B, in which Ms. Lunch starred. It's from 1982 and I saw it just once, around '83 or '84, as part of a film series about indie NY movies. I only remember glimpses from the movie—an indie noir made on a tiny budget and sporting a striking look—but the soundtrack made quite an impression and I bought the LP shortly thereafter.

As far as I know,Vortex isn't on video or DVD, and the soundtrack isn't on CD either, which is a shame because it features a Who's Who of No New Yorkers: Lunch of course, Adele Bertei, Pat Place, Kristian Hoffman, Richard Edson, John Lurie… It certainly fits in with the sidewalk-queen aura Lunch worked at the time, when she also released her excellent album Queen of Siam.

From the Vortex soundtrack, here's the still-awesome "Black Box Disco."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Quadruple gay axel

This will be a brief post but I'll try to gay-ify it as much as possible.

One: I went to the opera yesterday. The new Met's production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride starts off with a human sacrifice and some flying, and that's before the first note of music. I enjoyed it all as much as one physically can when burdened with a possible ear infection.

Two: hovering in the Met's lobby was…the cowboy from Village People! And he even wore his trademark Stetson hat!

Three: my current YouTube obsession is a clip from Applause, the 1970 musical adaptation of All About Eve starring Lauren Bacall. Watch Lauren as Margo Channing go to a very special bar, and weep with joy.

Four: The new Kylie Minogue album is disappointing, especially compared to the year's girl-pop masterpieces (Girls Aloud's Tangled Up and Róisin Murphy's Overpowered). BUT this bonus iTunes track is mighty fine.

Kylie Minogue "Magnetic Electric"

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Out of Pandora's box

At last, mind-expanding, nerve-rattling theater at BAM! I caught Michael Thalheimer's staging of Lulu (imported from Berlin's Thalia Theater) on its last night yesterday and it was everything the stage can be: a visceral, punch-in-the-gut experience that depended not on sets (there were none) or gimmicks but on directorial inventivity and actors willing to go the distance—some of them actually looked a bit frazzled during the curtain call. The show combined both of Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays in under two hours. The action took place in front of a large white screen that started at the back of the stage and progressively moved closer to the audience, so that by the end the actors only had a relatively small space right in front of us to move in. This created a sense of fate closing in on the characters, particularly the doomed Lulu, and was only one of the smart ways Thalheimer created a sense of organized chaos out of very little.

In the title role, Fritzi Haberlandt was a revelation, a broken doll all gawky limbs and gamine sexuality, revealing widening crevices of despair as Lulu's hurled toward her demise. The rest of the cast was equally great, with special kudos to Norman Hacker, who was a ball of pent-up frustration, lust and energy as Dr. Schöning; he threw himself into a particularly frenzied sex scene with Haberlandt, shouting like a damned man with his pants and underwear down on his ankles. It was so virtuosic that someone in the audience burst into spontaneous applause, as if honoring a great solo during a concert.

This is precisely the kind of theater BAM is best at showing. Why the Brooklyn institution wastes its time on star vehicles like Ian McKellen's King Lear or, I fear, the upcoming Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, is beyond me. Actually it isn't: It's clear that these shows are financially successful so it's no mystery why they get imported from London. From an artistic standpoint, however, they are far from satisfying. They are like glasses of warm milk compared to the bracing electroshocks delivered by Thalheim or Thomas Ostermeier, the two Germans who seem to alternate seasons at BAM's Harvey Theater. Now if only BAM could add Christoph Marthaler to the rotation, I'd be willing to shut up about the boring Shakespeares. More Germans, less Brits, please!

And now for some self-promotion: I will fill in for John Schaefer tomorrow, December 3, and host Soundcheck, starting at 2pm. You can listen at 93.9FM if you're in New York, or on the web. We have some great guests in store, so please tune in!

Friday, November 30, 2007

From the deathbed

A bit of brouhaha around Time magazine's article "The Death of French Culture." What, again? Though I believe the piece originated in the European edition of Time (it's hard to tell from the online version), I think it's fair to say that the American media sends out a smug, Schadenfreude-laden dispatch about the death of French culture every three or four years, so one more feels a little blah at this point.

What's new in this latest postmortem? Not much. In short, France pours money into the arts but has little to show for it, especially as its homegrown artists don't sell outside of the country. But this doesn't address two important facts.

First, culture means more to a country than what sells abroad. There's tons of successful French movies and singers, but they express themselves in French and don't export well. They themselves seem fine with that—why is bigger necessarily better? Besides, is it so weird for people to enjoy culture in their own language and not English?

Second, judging a country's culture by what makes it to the US is completely misleading since self-obsessed America is closed off to anything it doesn't generate. Perhaps it would be worth wondering why America has so little interest in anything other than itself—a problem that has tons of obvious geopolitical repercussions.

And frankly, the US isn't really in a position to be contemptuous of other countries' efforts and interests these days, considering America is awash in corruption, fraud, obscene consumerism, voyeuristic celeb frenzy and the constant trampling of the small, poor and weak by the big, rich and powerful. Perhaps Time should look into "The Death of American Culture" next?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Paris review

"Did you see any riots?" asked my colleagues upon learning I was just back from an unplugged (hence the lack of blog updates) break in Paris. Since I stayed in the Marais area, a posh neighborhood whose idea of a clash involves uncoordinating your socks and scarf, I had to admit that no, I hadn't seen anything. I did catch the end of the public-transportation strike, which meant walking everywhere—lacking a helmet and being conditioned by NYC laws to wear one while biking, I felt too daunted to get on one of the ubiquitous vélibs. Still, it was hard not to be impressed by their success: easy access to public bikes is precisely what a civilized city must set up. I'm not holding up my breath for a similar venture in New York, however.

My lone theater outing was a production of Eugène Labiche's Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (1851) at the Théâtre National de Chaillot. Alas, director Jean-Baptiste Sastre was rather clueless, refusing to trust either the play's infernally precise farcical mechanism or his cast, led by the gifted comic actor Denis Podalydès. Instead of building up to a frenzy, as the plot required, Podalydès remained on the exact same tepid pace throughout, depriving the play from the required momentum.

Better theater was indirectly gleaned from the exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of Sacha Guitry's death at the Cinémathèque Française (now located in a Frank Gehry–designed building originally meant for the American Cultural Center). Born in 1885, Guitry was a dandy with a ginormous ego who made his name as a playwright and actor, but also quickly grasped the impact of film and made over 30 of them. For a stage monster of his generation, he handled the transition to the screen with surprising ease and bite; too bad he's so unknown in the US. It was particularly fun to see again the likes of plain-faced but sharp-witted Pauline Carton, who always played maids for Guitry but also turned out to be an unsung collaborator, giving suggestions throughout the creative process, helping with research, etc. Guitry's wives, on the other hand, were upfront and glamorous, from operetta star Yvonne Printemps to the gorgeous Jacqueline Delubac. I couldn't find much Guitry on the web, and what's there is completely opaque if you don't understand French, but here's an excerpt from one of his 1950s historical epics, in which Edith Piaf plays an anonymous revolutionary singing out against Louis XVI. (Completely unrelated but found while looking for Guitry are these mesmerizing clips from the 1935 movie La Garçonne, in which blond Suzy Solidor—a seducer of all possible genders in real life—sings to a roomful of inverts then leads Marie Bell into opium and sapphism.)

Another good surprise in Paris: multiplexes often scramble cell-phone reception. Yesssss! Add this to the fact that unlike Americans, most of the French are able to spend a couple of hours without eating, and you get a much quieter filmgoing experience than here—where the constant, regressive munching drives me up the wall.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Girls gone wild

What a sad state of affairs that now tales of girls going wild tend to be about drunk college juniors baring their perma-tanned flesh during spring break. Let's go back instead to the darker times of the 1980s and 90s…

Coincidentally I just read back to back books by Lydia Lunch (Paradoxia—A Predator's Diary) and Lisa Crystal Carver (Drugs Are Nice—A Post-Punk Memoir), in which they describe what it really means to go wild when you're a creative girl who's had a pretty screwed-up childhood. Lunch's book is mostly about her sexual adventures, which disappointed me a bit because I wanted more about her musical adventures. But the writing is extraordinary, sucking you up in a churning vortex of sex and violence, limned with New York nights in abandoned Tribeca buildings, pick-ups of horny Puerto Rican teenagers on the 6 train, tricks with frustrated men and morning shifts in titty bars.

Carver's book does deal with the music she recorded as Suckdog and her creating the influential zine Rollerderby, along with her misadventures with the two pretty unstable guys she had long relationships with—which shouldn't come as a surprise from someone who had a teenage crush on GG Allin. First, there was French performance artist (for lack of a better word) Jean-Louis Costes; then, all-American extremist and 60s pop revisionist Boyd Rice—also, as it turns out, a kinda pathetic, alcoholic mama's boy, which puts a bit of a damper on his carefully constructed image as a natty provocateur and author of such albums as Music Martinis and Misanthropy.

Both Lunch and Carver come across as completely idiosyncratic and remarkably strong-willed. It's really hard not to think that if they had been guys, their rollercoaster adventures would be legendary and they'd be invited to do readings and happenings at the Guggenheim. As it is, Lunch has earned some respect but remains a relatively marginal artist, and Carver is seen as a bit of a joke, even though her influence on a certain white-trash-aesthetic revivalism, the birth of confessional zine-writing and no-limit rock & roll performance is, for better or for worse, beyond question.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Let the funky music do the talking now

Some songs are so viscerally thrilling that they make everything around them just…perfect—it's like an aural contact high. "Fling," from Girls Aloud's new album Tangled Up, is one of those songs: It is pop 2007, from its magnificently fuzzed-up bass bridge to its cheeky lyrics: "It's just a fling, baby, fling, baby, nothing more than a fling, just a bit of ding-a-ling, baby, bling, don't want relationships so swing, baby, swing."

Walking around listening to "Fling" is like when The Wizard of Oz turns to Technicolor. Suddenly everything is sharp, vibrant, and you are the coolest person in the universe

Here it is. Now the weekend can begin. Actually, make that the rest of our lives.

Girls Aloud "Fling"

Safely pinned

I happened to be near St Marks Books last weekend so I dropped by to pick up my favorite magazine, Butt. They also had a new issue of GLU, obviously trying to be the girls' answer to Butt but which had never really compelled me to drop some cash. Except this one I had to have: Edwige Belmore was on the cover and there was a long interview with her inside. And boy is it great!

With peroxyded butch hair and safety pins, Edwige, as she was simply known back in the late ’70s, was an icon of the French punk scene—even though she didn't actually make music in punk's heyday, and her own stuff is more new wave. She ruled the Palace (Paris' sort of answer to Studio 54) and hobnobbed with everybody who was somebody. How cool was she? Andy Warhol used to be seen with a button of Edwige's face on his lapel. (I just love this whole scene, by the way. Recommended if you read French: Alain Pacadis' Nightclubbing: Articles 1973–1986 and François Jonquet's Jenny Bel'Air: Une créature.)

In 1980-81 Edwige found time to record a fantastic techno-pop album with Claude Arto under the name Mathématiques Modernes. It sounds as odd now as it did then, its cool, slightly dinky synths sometimes backed up by almost dissonent horns.

Edwige moved to New York in the early 80s. She quickly found the local hipsters, and hung out with designer Maripol (who produced the just-reissued movie Downtown 81), among others. Many night owls remember her 90s parties such as Beige. Edwige now lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with her girlfriend. Check out her blog and MySpace page.

Despite the interviewer's haplessness (which Edwige actually remarks on at some point!), the GLU article is a fab read because the subject is an excellent raconteur with tons of great stories. Her mother, for instance, ran the famous lesbian cabaret Chez Moune, in Pigalle since 1936. And the revelation of an affair with a high-profile singer is particularly intriguing.

Mathématique Modernes "Paris Tokyo" (from Les Visiteurs du soir, 1981)
Mathématiques Modernes "a + b = c" (12" version, 1981)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Exchange students

It's no secret that I love both High School Musical movies. I even went to see High School Musical: The Ice Tour at Madison Square Garden a few weeks ago, and I screamed in excitment at the fake Sharpay et al. out there on their skates.

So imagine my joy when I found out that there are tons of international versions of songs from HSM floating around! The most common are covers of HSM2's "You Are the Music in Me" in the Troy/Gabriella version, though as usual Bollywood went one step further by adapting almost everything from HSM2 (including Sharpay's version of "You Are the Music in Me"—yay!!!) and adding three songs "inspired by" the movie and written by the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy team, such as "Aaja Nachle."

Below are two of the Hindi tunes, followed by covers in Swedish, French and Cantonese.

Arijit Singh, Tarannum Malik, Earl Edgar D, Raja Hasan, Shilpa Rao "All for One (Aaja Nachle)"
Sunidhi Chauhan "Dhun Teri Hain Saason Mein" ("You Are the Music in Me," Sharpay version)
Molly Sendén and Ola Svensson "Du är musiken i mig" ("You Are the Music in Me")
Willy Denzey "Bet on It (Double Mise)"
Justin Lo and Kary Ng "飛就飛" ("Everyday")

Friday, November 09, 2007

Words and guitar and words

Former Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein has been busy in interestingly non-musical ways since her band split up. There was the comedy videos with Fred Armisen, and now she blogs on the NPR site. The current entry, about preciousness in music, is particularly on target:

"When a band or singer makes me go 'awwww,' as I would at the sight of a newborn child, then that is a band that needs a pacifier not an amplifier. Other indicators of preciousness include, but are not limited to: matching old-timey outfits; mumbling, soft-spoken stage banter that trails off and is quickly followed by a cutesy smile, which for some reason garners huge cheers from the audience; being so nervous on stage that someone in the crowd has to yell 'you can do it!' or 'we love you' (exception made here for child performers); asking people to lie down on the floor for the next song; and any audience sing-along or participation so complicated that it needs to be explained BEFORE the song starts."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Blindingly obvious

I'm really interested in issues of transportation, and my position is fairly simple: Governments all over the world need to push public transportation, especially trains. Banking on cars is a losing proposition. Not only is there the obvious problem of oil, but even if someone invents engines fueled by other means (electricity, ethanol, fumes from Republicans' brains), we will have to deal with 1) how to actually pump out these new sources of energy and 2) the enormous gridlock that will come out of millions of additional vehicles on the roads.

Reading "Running on Fumes," Elizabeth Kolbert's review of two new books about the automobile industry and a potential "car of the future," I was struck by the fact that she never brought up public transportation. Actually, it kinda blows me away. Of all people, the ecologically minded Kolbert should at least mention the fact that the car cannot possibly be considered the be-all and end-all when it comes to going from point A to point B; the very terms of the discourse are impossibly narrow in America. When I read about new super-cheap cars, it makes me tremble. Our short-sighted elected officials should focus on figuring out how to efficiently replace cars whenever possible, not on how to make them cheaper. Kolbert says that "There are nine personal vehicles per thousand eligible drivers in China and eleven for every thousand Indians, compared with 1,148 for every thousand Americans." Okay, so China and India will have cheap cars, but perhaps their governments should look into bullet trains as well? (It goes without saying that the U.S. should look into them too; it just won't happen with the current administration.)

Leaving issues of pollution aside, I've been living in New York for 17 years and in that time I've witnessed the metastasizing of auto traffic in the city. Unless you drive at 3am, it's a given you'll get stuck, no matter where you are or where you go. It's blindingly obvious that physical space isn't infinitely expandable: Where, pray tell, are all these extra cars going to go?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Conveying electricity

Pylon's show at Mercury Lounge tonight is sold out so you have two options if you don't have a ticket: go anyway see if you can somehow get in, or try to catch the band at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (né Northsix) tomorrow. I previewed the gigs in TONY so this is a just an extra reminder.

According to my logs, I've seen the Athens quartet only once, at Maxwells on May 14, 1989. I was convinced I'd seen these guys more but it's unlikely. I did listen to my crappy bootleg recording of that show a lot, though. They pretty much hibernated throughout the 90s and two thirds of the 00s, so this is a rare chance to catch this fine, fine American band.

Pylon's debut, 1980's Gyrate, has just been reissued by DFA so here are two tracks from its follow-up, 1983's Chomp (the one that came in a die-cut sleeve).

Pylon "M-Train" (a live favorite, where the crowd bellows "whoo-hoo!")
Pylon "Yo-Yo" (methinks some people listened to ESG)

What the other half buys

The new stats are out: last year, 65% of the people who bought Broadway tickets were tourists. This percentage has been on a steady rise over the past few years, and I'm not sure how far it can go: 90%? 99%, with the remaining holdovers the local critics who show up on press nights? Speaking of critics, these numbers seem to make them increasingly irrelevant: alas, I don't think Ben Brantley or TONY's own crack team (David Cote, Adam Feldman and Helen Shaw) are morning-commute reads in Des Moines, Tokyo or Paris.

I was a Broadway-going tourist myself once, so I have mixed feelings about it all. I think I saw Cats on a visit in 1986 or 87, and I sure was happy there was a show I could enjoy with my shaky English. Visiting New York and going to a musical go hand in hand. There are more and more tourists in New York, so naturally there are more and more tickets sold to tourists. But does it mean New Yorkers don't go to Broadway anymore? I can't say I blame them, with the prices and shows on offer. Does it mean the locals go to more Off or Off-Off shows to satiate their theater cravings? Questions, questions…

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Stop Stoppard!

I can't say that Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia thrilled me but I made it through all nine hours, and even enjoyed parts here and there. His Rock ’n’ Roll, on the other hand, is an utter wash. Its combination of smug and irremediable blandness actually made me angry.

Stoppard charts the parallel lives of an established British communist (Brian Cox, blowhardy) and a Czech diffident dissident (Rufus Sewell, transparent). As usual he throws heady intellectual material into a blender but nothing of substance emerges. It's just not enough to have your characters spout impassioned speeches about ideas: You need to turn them into drama. As it is, watching the play is like watching old ideas congeal into an unappetizing slop—chicken soup for the complacent.

Trevor Nunn's direction does not help in the least—it's a bland tapioca pudding not unlike his King Lear at BAM. Apparently Stoppard's stage directions include "smash cuts" between scenes, i.e. rapid transitions. Nunn handles them by projecting basic information about whatever song is being played on a large screen. This has the opposite result of what I assume Stoppard intended and only breaks the flow, such as it is; it's hard for any scene to get jump-started after that.

And rarely has a show's title been so woefully misleading: There's no pulse on this stage, let alone a beat, let alone any sense of antiestablishment rage. Quite the opposite: Rock ’n’ Roll only flatters the so-called-intellectual establishment and caters to its aesthetic prejudices. It ends with the Rolling Stones, but not the Rolling Stones of 1969—the Rolling Stones of 1990. This is a statement in and of itself.

For another take on this turgid piece of synapse masturbation, please check out this piece in Encore, a British online theater magazine I'm adding to my blog roll posthaste. (Thanks to David Cote for the tip.)

Finally, need I point out that judging by the photo above, Prague's Museum of Communism is next to a casino?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Where credits are due

My recent post about Jan Johansson prompted a further email exchange with the friend who'd sent me the CD. This involved an in-depth analysis of the translation issues raised by Johansson's theme song to Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking), as heard here.

This, in turn, prompted some thoughts about classic French theme songs and credit sequences from TV series. There's a long tradition of slapping French lyrics onto imported themes, or to write new songs altogether. Haïm Saban's French theme to Starsky & Hutch, for instance, was really cheesy but oddly memorable.

Here are some other favorites, a few harking back to the glory days of the ORTF—French public television and radio, modeled on the BBC by De Gaulle, and for many, many years the only game in town.

Les Globe-trotters This ingenious three-season series in which a couple of buddies go on a round-the-world trip started in 1966, with a theme by Paul Bonneau.

La séquence du spectateur A weekly ritual for me, this show presented a ten-minute excerpt (not a trailer: an uncut excerpt) from various movies.

The puzzle train The word “interlude” refers to something that fills time. They’d run this short—where you had to put together a sentence based on the illustrations on the train—whenever they were running ahead of schedule and had a few minutes to kill.

La vie des animaux This animal show was resurrected several times but the old credit sequence is the best.

Les chevaliers du ciel This series about fighter pilots, which started in 1967, was turned into a movie a couple of years ago. Cool beginning credits here, but most people in France remember the end-credit version sung by none other than Johnny Halliday. Music by the great François de Roubaix, whom I wrote about a little while ago.

And now a couple of more recent theme songs. Visually the credits aren't really inspiring but the music still had an impact: I have no idea who did the French version of Santa Barbara but it embodies the 80s for me. As for the French them to Prison Break, it's by the Marseille rapper Faf Larage. The song was a best-selling single in France in 2006.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

What's in a name

My piece about trends in French first names for the New York Times' Week in Review is up.

"Elisabeth," by the way, peaked in the mid-60s and is considered old-fashioned now. says it's widespread (in France), but not really given out anymore: in 2004, it was ranked 357th among first names; since 1940 it's 47th overall.

Alas, my namesake saint is a boring one: Saint Elisabeth was a Hungarian princess (1207–1231) who became a Franciscan nun after her husband's death. No crazy stigmata, no particularly nutty catholic endeavors: She just went out and looked after the poor.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Scottish opera

Taking a break from the Britney Spears album, I dropped by the Met yesterday to catch Verdi's Macbeth. It was a fitting choice for Halloween, even if the tensest moment came from watching Maria Ghouleghina…sorry, Guleghina roll down the raked stage in a nightgown, raising the fear that her ample bosom might pop out. Adrian Noble's production was a little short on the spooky stuff—okay, so maybe he didn't want to stoop to cheap thrills—but also on the overall drama. The ginormous columns that delimited the set moved more than the leads: I was surprised to see so much of the "park and bark" approach that the Met's Peter Gelb mocked in his recent New Yorker profile, especially from a guy known from his theater work.

Speaking of that article: The thing I found most telling is that at no point did Gelb suggest any particular love for the art form. No mention of favorite performers or operas. No quirky memories of hearing an obscure singer in a weird setting. Nothing that remotely involved actually enjoying opera. Most of Gelb's talk was of brokering deals, flying all over the world to wine and dine potential stars; he only seemed to come alive when describing his visit to Zeffirelli's estate.

This business-minded approach may have little impact on the Met's artistic future—there are certainly plenty of encouraging signs when it comes to the hiring of interesting directors. It just felt a little sad to me.

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.


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 impressive to watch 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.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Look back in wonder, part 3

I realize I said this would be an occasional series and I just wrote about seeing Saint Etienne a few days ago, but I could not let this particularly anniversary go by: On September 29, 1989, I saw the Jesus Lizard for the first time. Oh mama!

Back then I was in grad school at Rutgers in New Brunswick, so I saw a lot of shows at the Court Tavern, a local dingy, super-low-ceilinged basement venue. Of all the good gigs I caught there (Mudhoney, Laughing Hyenas, Tiny Lights, the A-Bones, Beme Seed), none made as much of an impact.

According to the Touch & Go site, the Jesus Lizard played its first-ever show on July 1, 1989, in Chicago, so the band must have been on its first tour when I saw it. And maybe a band can only have that sense of unhinged mania on its first tour; later, you learn that it's probably a good idea not to get wasted—in every sense of the word—every night. The Lizard mixed a sense of threatening, quasi-psychopathic rage with a surprisingly disciplined reptilian crawl forward (the band wasn't big on BPMs). The explosive rhythm section of Mac McNeilly and David Sims plus the economical Duane Denison on guitar plus one of the best frontmen ever in David Yow: These guys were the perfect rock unit.

It's too bad that Yow is now remembered, if at all, as that guy who used to drop his pants during shows. And yes he did expose himself during "Tight ’n Shiny" at the Court, but it's not like he was just letting it all hang out, as it were: Like everything else the Lizard did, he went further by pulling and stretching and choking himself in a way that would have been painful if he hadn't seemed to be in some kind of trance. Some people speak in tongue, others become rock singers.

Another thing about Yow: He was a man, not an overgrown boy indulging in rock because it's a cool thing to do. He was around 29 in 1989 (he'd already been in Scratch Acid in Texas), and he had a kind of beat-up gravitas. When he got in your face at a show, it was scary because you felt that he was old enough to know better—he just didn't care to know better.

The next time I saw the Jesus Lizard was on April 28, 1990, at Maxwells, where it was opening for some new Seattle band called Nirvana. Nirvana didn't stand a chance following up the Lizard; I left after maybe four or five songs by Cobain & Co. In retrospect of course I regret not staying longer for Nirvana, a band I never saw again, but that night in 1990, nobody could play after the Jesus Lizard.

That particular bill illustrated a dichotomy very much of its time: grunge vs pigfuck. I preferred pigfuck, especially in its midwestern incarnation, which included the Lizard, Killdozer and pretty much the entire Amphetamine Reptile roster. I just loved that amorphous genre's violent misanthropy and its strong strain of elaborate artiness, for lack of a better word (best example: Killdozer); the music was a lot more fucked-up, aggressive, and complex—and a lot less predictable—than grunge, which relied way too much on tension-and-release dynamics that quickly became generic. Plus pigfuck didn't wallow in self-obsessed misery: Pigfuck was all about taking it out on others!

The Jesus Lizard released the Pure EP in 1989 but I'm going to forego historical purity and post tracks from its 1991 album Goat, the studio album that to me best captures the mix of genius precision and batshit abandon that characterized the band live, and one of the best albums of the 90s. Here's a sensational three-track consecutive sequence from it.

Jesus Lizard "Karpis"
Jesus Lizard "South Mouth"
Jesus Lizard "Lady Shoes"