Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sunburnt noir

I had a lovely chat with noir author Peter Temple a couple of weeks ago, and parts of our conversation have surfaced in this week's Time Out New York. It's really hard to make procedurals feel fresh, but Temple does just that in his latest, The Broken Shore. I did not have the space to elaborate on that point in my piece, but one of the things I like best about Temple is his ability to write good dialogue—something that too often takes a backseat to plot convolutions in genre fiction. Whether it's blokes discussing footie in a pub or the sexually charged banter that precedes a kiss, Temple's lines crackle and pop like they're out of a Ben Hecht screenplay.

Stephen Booth's The Dead Place, on the other hand, is a striking example of how not to do it. I find it impossible not to finish a crime novel once I've started it so I had to get to the end of that book, getting increasingly annoyed by my own stubborness. A few pages in, I realized I had actually read another Booth novel, One Last Breath, and managed to completely purge it from my memory. No wonder: His leads, Detective Constable Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry, are wafer-thin creations with no distinguishable characteristics whatsoever, save for the fact that Cooper is detail-oriented and Fry is both closed-minded and aggressive about it. This does not take us very far.

The Dead Place revolves around the type of killer who leaves pretentiously cryptic messages about the horrors he's up to. If we haven't seen his sad kind a thousand times… Watching Cooper and Fry (a name better suited to a comedian team from the ’50s) bumble their way around, deal with potential suspects, a profiler and other assorted archetypes of contemporary procedurals, you just want to scream at the suffocating mediocrity of it all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Storytelling and scheduling

My review of Rebecca Barry's "novel in stories," Later, at the Bar, is now in The Los Angeles Times.

Completely unrelated: In today's New York Times, Sharon Waxman writes about how Disney cannily scheduled the international release of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. "Disney took care to open the film on Wednesday in France, when children are out of school, and on Thursday in Germany, when films traditionally open in that country."

Fine, except that films traditionally open on Wednesdays in France, so Disney taking care to open its new barrel o' bilge on that day wasn't exactly out of the ordinary. In both countries, the movie came out on regular opening days. So what's the point, exactly?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Civilization and its discotheques

All signs point to this summer being a disco one. Of course every summer is a disco one for me—and every fall, winter and spring. But it's not often there's a new album by my current favorite disco chanteuse, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, plus a double-barrel compilation attack: Disco Deutchsland Disco and Dimitri from Paris' Cocktail Disco. Where Dimitri found the tunes on his double CD, I cannot fathom, but they are absolutely extraordinary samples of the super-orchestrated subgenre of disco that was produced in the mid- to late 1970s. Best of all, the tracks are not mixed together or edited down; many are 12" versions, which of course are always preferable when it comes to disco. I've been listening to these songs obsessively since getting them, but two really stick out right now.

The first is Jonelle Allen's 1978 "Baby, I Just Wanna Love You," which actually concludes Cocktail Disco—it's the comp's post-coital cigarette. It starts off with chimes, which usually are a sure sign that a song will
remain a simmering, panting stew of anticipation. This impression is confirmed by funky but subdued organ riffage at 0:11. At 0:21, a piano comes in to deliver the hook that'll form the song's melodic spine, immediately followed by backup singers cooing "Aaaaa, I wanna love you." They repeat. And again. More sighing. Yep, this is fireside/white tiger rug disco. Not my favorite but I can live with that piano.

But whoah! At 1:08, the anonymous backup singers take it up a notch in intensity, while the string section (a trademark of arranger Charles Veal) makes its entrance. Things are beginning to cook, and Jonelle's vocals gradually gain overtones of bunny-in-the-oven instability while the strings add a dramatic counterpoint. By 2:46, she's whipped herself into a full-fledged frenzy, roaring, squealing; it sounds like she's losing both the plot and the pitch, but who cares? At 3:37, the guitar comes back in to calm things down as abruptly as they heated up. Ah, a guitar-bass-drums break: we're in disco territory all right. And then Jonelle starts peaking all over again. But forget about her: I'm spent!

MP3 Jonelle Allen
"Baby, I Just Wanna Love You" from Dimitri from Paris' Cocktail Disco

Next we have Marti Lynn's "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)," which has also been performed by the likes of Tony Bennett and Dusty Springfield (I can't resist posting her version for comparison purposes). The 1979 track starts off very show-tuney, and for a reason: It's from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd. Yet it goes on to overcome a sax solo and ends up working for three reasons: 1. well-written, complementary charts for strings (dreamy) and horns (aggressive); 2. Marti Lynn's belting, very Love Boat vocals; 3. a pair of diabolically funky breaks, for which we can probably thank producer Wardell Quezergue (who I believe hailed from New Orleans).

The first of these breaks completely interrupts the by-then-familiar flow at 2:40—it's as if we were listening to the clumsiest mashup of all time, with two completely different songs grafted not together but one after the other. The track almost stops dead, then the instrumental voices are reintroduced one by one: drums, then guitar, then bass, then strings, then horns. It's straight out of the Chic playbook, and more transporting than the purest hallucinogenic drugs. The first time I heard it, I was at the gym and almost fell off the treadmill.

More stuff happens—Marti comes back, there's a second break, Marti starts hiccupping lyrics ("Tell me who/Tell me who who who?")—as the song spirals up and out into the 11th hour number in the glitterball disco musical that never was. Bliss doesn't come any purer than this.

MP3 Marti Lynn "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" from Dimitri from Paris' Cocktail Disco
MP3 Dusty Springfield "Who Can I Turn To" from Ev'rything's Coming up Dusty (1965)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Pink is the new black

The upcoming New York Times Book Review includes Marilyn Stasio's regular roundup of crime and noir fiction. I don't always agree with Ms. Stasio's taste but whatever, that's par for the course. But what really stopped me in my tracks is a sentence in her review of Kjell Eriksson's The Cruel Stars of the Night (which, incidentally, is sitting in my "to read" pile). The novel seems to be rather grim: Stasio talks about "the autumnal melancholy that pervades the story," while a detective acknowledges "a nauseating feeling of indifference." No surprise here: We're talking not only about a crime novel, but about a Swedish crime novel.

But then Stasio muses, "Why genre readers are tickled by such morbid views of suffering humanity is anyone's guess."

Come again? Stasio wasn't describing, say, gratuitous scenes of torture by that Thomas Harris hack but a cop who doesn't just have a blues day, but an entire blues month. Ms. Stasio, the title of your column, which you have been writing for years, is "Crime." We indeed may be talking about genre here, but it's not romance or science fiction—it's not called noir for nothing. Suffering humanity is the name of the game, and acting all prim about it strikes me as either hypocritical or deluded. Should crime books have more happy endings? Should they be either about cats or cowritten by them? Would the inclusion of recipes help? What about even more cutesy bios for the lead characters, like a nun-turned-investigative mechanic, a snooping golf pro or a sleuthing chiropractor? And should these characters be put on a solid diet of antidepressants, lest they give the readers a bummer of a ride?

And what about that use of "tickled," as if readers of noir fiction found its often-pitch-black worldview sexy? Of course readers get tickled, but Stasio gets the source of that tickling wrong. Or should we assume that someone who's been reviewing genre lit for the Times for years isn't, on some level, tickled—not by violence but by clever plotting and well-drawn characters? I, for one, certainly hope she is.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Check your dial

Tune in to WNYC on Friday, May 18, and hear your humble Dilettante discuss the new cabaret scene with the lovely Amy Eddings on "All Things Considered"; not sure about the exact time but the show airs from 4 to 6:30pm.

Completely unrelated: leaving the manipulative Frost/Nixon (turns out the disgraced prez was an endearing old coot!) yesterday evening, we saw Tom Wolfe, or at least an amazing Tom Wolfe lookalike. The white suit was exactly as I imagined it'd be, but my favorite sartorial touch is that he was wearing spats. Upon hearing this, a colleague joked that Wolfe would probably be buried in jeans and a T-shirt.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Same wavelength

I belatedly noticed that Slate's Jody Rosen commented on Avril Lavigne's Heather turn last week. A dead-on analysis from this habitually clever and informed critic.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Uneasy on the ear

I realized that I've been talking about a lot of expansive and expensive spectacles lately, but one of the most rewarding shows of the past few months is playing in a small downtown venue, the East 13th Street Theater, and you can get tickets for $25 (and Mondays is pay-what-you-will at the door.)

David Cote really nailed the language in Jenny Schwartz's new God's Ear when he described it as "a cross between Gertrude Stein and Hallmark cards." The play doesn't make it easy for the audience and is bound to leave people very divided: I was mesmerized by it while the Sheila loathed it—she kept digging her nails into my arm in frustration during the show. But I think that if you have an interested in language and if you are willing to give in to the words' rhythm, God's Ear (presented by the New Georges company) is a keen choice. Anne Kauffman's staging is taut and inventive, making the most of a clever set that physically suggests the subterranean currents and eddies roiling the characters' lives beneath the surface banality of their verbiage. It helps that Schwartz and Kauffman get the likes of Christina Kirk (whose virtuosic delivery of a real aria of a monolog does not get in the way of its heartwrenching impact) and Annie McNamara (who displays real comic chops in a supporting role) to deliver those words, of course.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Heather Lavigne

You can't really go wrong with a rip-off of Toni Basil's "Mickey" produced by Dr. Luke and bolstered by Bow Wow Wow–style drumming, so it's not a surprise that I quite like Avril Lavigne's current single, "Girlfriend." Its video, on the other hand, is messed-up.

As we all know, Avril started her career as a mall punkette, a wholesome rebel girl you could introduce to mom and dad. She sang about crushes on skaters and seemed to side with the underdog and the put-upon.

In the video for "Girlfriend", Avril plays the two main parts: the snotty über-insider in a pink sweater and the put-upon geek in black. At least that's what it looks like on the surface, because this time around, it's the former (ie, the Heather) who gets mocked throughout, until the final humiliation, while it's the latter (the Veronica) who does the taunting. The bespectacled, pretty-in-pink dork is on a date, only to get constantly harrassed by a Hot Topic harridan.

When did the punk character turn into the bullying enforcer of social codes?!? Did I miss an episode?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Supersize meals

It's not that I mind ginormous sets at the theater or opera, but they can really backfire. Too often, the director feels that merely plopping the cast in the middle of a Cecil B. DeMille or D.W. Griffith extravaganza is enough: That's it, my job is done! No need to think any further! But it's part of a director's job to offer some kind of take on what he or she is staging. You may not agree with Peter Sellars saying that Marke was Tristan's lover in the Tristan Project's synopsis, but at least it's a point of view.

Case of a big set that works because it makes a point integral to a director's reading of the work: Thomas Ostermeier's rotating apartment for Nora (A Doll's House), seen at BAM in 2004.

Case of a big set with no clear purpose other than épater le bourgeois: Il Trittico at the Met, seen on Monday. For the first act of Puccini's trilogy, "Il Tabarro," there's an almost-lifesize barge on stage, and even that is dwarfed by the very high bridge it sits under. Other than it being shorthand for Paris (it's very Hôtel du Nord), I'm just not sure what purpose it serves. The monastery in "Suor Angelica" looks frighteningly authentic—or at least like an American dream of a Tuscan monastery—and includes a gurgling fountain; the 1950s apartment in "Gianni Schicci" is perfect down to the overstuffed furniture and the boar's head mounted on the wall.

The people sitting behind us loved it all, ooh'ing and aah'ing every time the curtain went up and revealed yet another set designer's wet dream. As for me, when it comes to Met productions I much preferred the boulders in Jenufa a few months back. And they were big, too!

Speaking of bigness, I cannot recommend Coram Boy enough. It's getting a rough deal from the critics (except for ours: Yay, David Cote!) but it's one of the best things on Broadway, and certainly among the few shows there to be worth the ticket price—or more, since I hear discount tickets are easy to find. This London import is pure theater magic (emphasis on theater) since its effects belong to the stage and nowhere else. I may have been positively biased because I'm a big fan of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but the show doesn't just pile on the plot twists, it also delivers genuine pathos along with breathtaking staging ideas courtesy of director Melly Still.

No wonder that adaptation of a YA novel came from London's National Theatre, which also presented the stage version of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. The Brits know how to put on children's shows that not only don't underestimate children's intelligence, but also dare to show them that the world is not necessarily a nice place, testing their moral compass in the process. In the US, on the other hand, children's entertainment is sanitized beyond belief. Sure, parents have to prepare their little ones before going to Coram Boy, but that's part of the job, and the experience should benefit both generations.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Five years

I got a little emotional dropping my ballot in the urn at the French Consulate Saturday afternoon. "A voté!" was called out. I selected the ballot bearing Ségolène Royal's name, though I voted more for the Socialist Party than for her, and knowing full well that Sarkozy was going to win. How not to get a little verklempt when doing one's citizen duty, especially for an election that may well be considered historic a few years (months?) hence? Perversely, I welcome Sarkozy's win. It's going to make things very interesting for France, a country that's often welcome an authoritarian figure at the helm in the past. We fear it and want it at the same time, seemingly unable to figure out how to deal with modernity without a manly man telling us what to do.

After leaving the Consulate, I crossed Central Park westward to attend The Tristan Project. I can't say I was as bowled over as most audience members. While often beautiful, Bill Viola's images also were a little obvious: fire and water to symbolize purification? What next, white means good and black is evil? I was also frustrated by the relative disconnect between the impassive behavior of the singers onstage (except for Anne Sofie von Otter, who looked and sounded stupendous) and the video unfurling above them. Yes yes yes, I understand what the point was, but to me it felt like empty illustration instead of two art forms enriching and illuminating each other. Even worse, the visuals looked a bit…passé at times, especially during the shakycam, Blair Witch moments. Technically, the use of video and screens felt more sophisticated—and better integrated in the overall concept—at the Justin Timberlake show. It's nice to see opera enter the 20th century; it'd be even nicer for it to enter the 21st.

This topic is obviously tricky because I really don't want to come across like one of those stereotypical NYC operagoers who screech that it's all about the music and no directors with ideas should apply. So yes, I love it that Lincoln Center put up some big $$$ bringing over The Tristan Project, and I much prefer this kind of failure to the Led Zeppirelli extravaganzas—you know, the huge ones that laboriously lift off the ground before going down in flames. And I'm eagerly awaiting Gérard Mortier's arrival, ’cause you can already tell he has Peter Gelb's number. But no, Tristan is not beyond criticism. But then, debate is good. Doesn't arguing over the artistic merits of a production beat arguing over, say, boring NYC obsessions like real estate or the latest foodie emporium? Right, thought so.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Blonde ambition

So, Legally Blonde

First of all, it plays at the Palace, where I saw Liza Minnelli do her creepy but enthralling tribute to her father, Minnelli on Minnelli, in 1999. My pal Moe had gotten us balcony seats but we were able to sneak down to a better section as the show was pathetically undersold. This was in the pre–David Gest days, when Liza was physically and psychologically struggling, and she even did a number in a wheelchair—as a bit of a lark, but not really.

For my return to the Palace, girls (and their moms) had replaced middle-aged men (and their moms) in the audience. And many of them had or were about to raid the merch tables: stuffed dogs (there’s two live ones in the show), pink T-shirts, sweat pants (sorry, yoga pants) with OMIGOD printed on the butt, hoodies, etc. Drinks and snacks were also allowed at the seats, so quite a bit munching was going on inside, albeit not close enough to where I was to really bug me (I turn into a complete fascist when it comes to eating at the theater and even movies). In other words: It was the Broadway equivalent to a trip to the multiplex—at ten times the price, of course.

Overall, the show achieves exactly what it aims for, and a little more. There's quite a few positive elements in it: lots of fun, energetic dance scenes courtesy of choreographer/director Jerry Mitchell; a good cast (with Dilettante fave Leslie Kritzer predictably strong as sorority girl Serena), a strong second act (a rarity in musicals, as we know) and a score that’s not great but definitely above average (it's way better than Wicked, and opening number “Omigod You Guys” is lodged in my head). Laura Bell Bundy delivers as Elle Woods, though I will for once agree with Ben Brantley in that she lacks that elusive spark that makes a musical-theater star. In other words, she's no Kristin Chenoweth or even Sutton Foster.

I've seen and heard comments about the overwhelmingly female appeal of the show. And why not? Most pro sports have an overwhelmingly male appeal but that doesn't seem to be a problem to anybody. Why is a woman in a Legally Blonde hoodie cast as a victim of merchandizing run amok but a guy in a Red Sox one isn't? All I can say is, I hope The Tristan Project has decent merch. Like maybe an Isolde baby T, or branded power drinks.

Last-ditch effort

I just noticed that director Ariane Mnouchkine has been writing a campaign blog hosted by the daily newspaper Libération (which has thrown all pretense of journalistic neutrality to the wind and openly supports Ségolène Royal's candidacy). Her latest post, dated from yesterday, is a plea for people to vote Ségolène Royal. It is impassioned and poetic, and those lucky enough to have seen Mnouchkine's stage work will recognize the tone. It ends with these words: "Will you stand it on Sunday night to learn that we missed by a vote? A single one. Yours. I implore you." The comments are a doozy, and seem to nicely encapsulate the apprehension and mixed feelings shared by French voters.

I myself will vote tomorrow—French citizens living abroad vote a day earlier—at the consulate then cross over to the west side for five hours of the Tristan Project at Avery Fisher Hall. It will be my first live Wagner opera; in other words, tomorrow I'm finally losing my Wagner cherry. Esa-Pekka, Bill and Peter: please, be gentle!

As a side note, that production, which has been received with near-universal raves, was seen at Gérard Mortier's Opéra de Paris a couple of years ago, which makes Peter Gelb's recent catty comment sound even more myopic and stupid: "You won't be attending any performances like this [the Met's 40th-anniversary gala] at the City Opera of the future, or the Paris Opera of the present." He then proceeded to describe Met darlings Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón as "the future glory and hope for opera." In a flash, Gelb undermined all the good will he amassed over the course of a pretty positive first season at the Met. Dumb dumb dumb.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Pre-postap hoopla

It's raining postapocalyptic novels! Cormac McCarthy's The Road has pulled off a neat little trifecta—Pulitzer, Oprah and film deal. Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown and Jim Crace's The Pesthouse are getting reviewed everywhere Crace got Francine Prose in the Times and Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker—double whammy! Personally I found the latter book a flimsy little read, with too many plotholes (I'm willing to buy that America has reverted to feudal times while Europe seems to do relatively better, but why hasn't anybody ever returned from across the pond to report, if it's so great over there?)

Readers of this blog know that I love postap fiction, so I'm pretty psyched—if not exactly reassured, in the grand scheme of things—by this onslaught. And let's add to the list. Of course I'm going to be fascinated by someone who describes American cities as being surrounded by rings of "necrotic suburbs,"somone who paints a future in which "aviation will become an increasingly expensive, elite activity as the oil age dribbles to a close, and then it will not exist at all," while "the circumstances we face with energy and climate change will require us to live much more locally, probably profoundly and intensely so. We have to grow more of our food locally, on a smaller scale than we do now, with fewer artificial 'inputs,' and probably with more human and animal labor."

Except these visions aren't from any of the aforementioned novels but courtesy of James Howard Kunstler via his 2005 book-length essay The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century and his blog Clusterfuck Nation. Yes, Kunstler is among my favorite pre-postap (are you following?) doomsayers. That I essentially agree with many aspects of his pessimistic predictions (while being frustrated by his occasional embarrassing social conservatism) makes him even more compelling.

Kunstler's theory is simple: The American way of life is built on the abuse of unsustainable energy sources and is bound to crash, leading to changes that will be beyond radical. He exposed this basic idea in the book and has been expanding on it ever since, most recently in an article for Orion, which I quoted above. And no, switching to ethanol or french-fry oil or whatever the hell is pushed as an alternative energy source this week won't change a thing: "The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America, or even a substantial fraction of it, the way we have been."

Among the many consequences is that our age of global economy would disintegrate as communities would need to become more self-reliant, as they did before the industrial revolution facilitated the transportation of goods and people. Say goodbye to that cheap T-shirt from China, American teenager! Most U.S. cities would be in real trouble (enter the necrotic suburbs, a memorable expression worthy of the best postap fiction), relying as they do on the ferrying in of food and of pretty much every consumers' product they need. This change will also have repercussions on large and/or national bureaucracies such as the education system and government itself, which will be as unable to function as the cities.

If this isn't postap in its rawest state, I don't know what is.

What to do about it? Everybody from politicians to Times columnist/flatearther Thomas Friedman (one of Kunstler's favorite whipping boys) is accused of delusional myopia that leads them to a single-minded emphasis on finding new sources of energy while we should instead focus on, among other things, "walkable communities and public transit." Europe, with its well-developed public-transportation network, smaller cars and inferior energy waste (there's a lot less air-co in summer over there for instance—I grew up in the Mediterranean but never encountered large-scale systematic air-conditioning until I moved to the US in 1987) is way ahead of the US on this count, though by no means perfect.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Ditch the Hitch?

My short review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is out in the new TONY. How I wish I had liked this book more. I agree with almost everything in it, and yet found it to be a tiresome slog; by the end, I felt as if I was stuck on the subway next to a self-righteous stranger screaming in my ear. Of course it's kinda moot to say that a reasonable tone would be more successful in luring believers—if believers were susceptible to reason, they wouldn't believe to begin with. But there has to be a middleground between giving a free pass to superstition and obscurantism and Hitchens' brand of condescending aggro.

Cheap little mistakes don't help his case either. The French right's saying in the 1930s wasn't "Meilleur Hitler que Blum" but "Mieux vaut Hitler que Blum," for instance, and the Vichy slogan wasn't "Famille, Travail, Patrie" but "Travail, Famille, Patrie." But God is in the details after all, so it makes sense Hitchens would be cavalier about them.