Friday, August 31, 2007

The new ice age

A couple of nifty tracks to go with my review of Chungking's Stay Up Forever in Time Out New York. While the new album is an import, eMusic does carry it for American customers. So convenient.

The band's singer, Jessie Banks, has joined Alison Goldfrapp, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Deborah Evans (of Flying Lizards), 1982 Annie Lennox and Siouxsie Sioux in my pantheon of singing ice queens. (Note that I've seen Björk referred to as an ice queen but while she is from Iceland, she's no an ice queen. Oh no—an ice queen isn't half-woman, half-elf, and she certainly doesn't sing like a little girl.) I mean, just look at Banks on the left: the slightly downturned mouth, the dramatically made-up eyes, the waxy skin. And of course, the obligatory ice-queen accessory (a bearded muso in dark shades) lurks in the background, his head looking like it's half the size of hers. Fantastic, just fantastic.

MP3 Chungking "Baby"
MP3 Chungking "Slow It Down"

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Count Mee in

I cannot agree more with my colleague Adam Feldman's assessment of Charles Mee's latest play, Iphigenia 2.0, presented by the Signature Company. Mee's habitual Frankentechnique—grafting contemporary bits and bobs lifted from various sources onto a structure borrowed from classical theater—works wonders here. As usual, the text is up on Mee's website, but it acquires its full resonance onstage.

The production is off to a rocky start—I found Tom Nelis' delivery of Agamemnon's opening monologue stiff and lacking in power—but quickly recovers. Director Tina Landau totally gets the kinetic imperatives of a Mee play, and this one requires a no-holds-barred physicality that expresses itself both in violence and in dance/calisthenics numbers by the soldiers, echoing the actiony fun commercials suggest being in the army is all about.

Far from being a borderline-campy dragon lady, as a reviewer suggested, Kate Mulgrew is seethingly intense as Clytemnestra. The way she hisses the word insane is bone-chilling and her big warning/threat to Agamemnon may well go down as the scariest ten seconds of theater of the year: "If you kill your daughter, I will murder you. I will tear your hands from your arms and your arms from your shoulders. I will burn the flesh from your body, I will beat your bones to dust. What you have begun will not be finished until you are pounded back into the dirt." (I just don't think Victoria Clark, initially slated to play Clytemnestra, could have delivered this speech with the ferocity Mulgrew summons.)

It's also great to see Landau finally hit her stride. I deeply disliked the first shows by her I saw—Stonewall: Night Variations in 1994 and Floyd Collins in 1996—but her inventive, delicate staging of J.M. Barrie's Mary Rose at the Vineyard earlier this year and now this quick, light-on-its-feet Iphigenia 2.0 prove that she's in full control of the tools at her disposal. Few directors in this town can make that boast.

Mee fans rejoice: His Hotel Cassiopeia is at BAM in October, staged by Anne Bogart (I'd quite enjoyed their collaboration on bobrauschenbergamerica a few years back), and of course there are more installments coming in Mee's Signature series. Perhaps, at last, people will acknowledge Mee for what he is: Not just an avant-gardist hovering on the periphery, but one of the three best living American dramatists.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Knockout punchlines

While nobody was looking, at least in the US, Terry Castle has stealthily become one of the funniest contemporary American essayists. Yes, Terry Castle, the Stanford English professor and author of such rib-ticklers as The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny and Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson's Clarissa. Fortunately, while The New Yorker continues to host the tired likes of Bruce McCall, Steve Martin and David Sedaris, Castle has found a home away from home at the London Review of Books, which regularly publish her long essays and reviews.

My belated introduction to Castle's humor (I had read her academic book The Apparitional Lesbian eons ago) came with Desperately Seeking Susan, about her friendship with Susan Sontag. Of course part of the point was Castle boasting about her acquaintance with Sontag, but this was shellacked by such a glossy coat of self-deprecation ("Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer") that the piece became a goofy take on being a star intellectual's pet academic. And what set pieces! Sontag showing Castle how to evade sniper fire in the streets of Palo Alto. Sontag dragging Castle to a hilariously snotty dinner party hosted by Marina Abramovic ("As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I was so ‘not there’, it seemed – so cognitively unassimilable – I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter.").

Castle's latest piece, Travels with My Mom, takes a hoary, well-trod subject (Castle, her girlfriend Blakey and Castle's 81-year-old mother's New Mexico vacation) and turns it into a dissection of how a middle-aged professor comes to terms with her own aesthetic choices (the Agnes Martin vs Georgia O'Keeffe frame is inspired). Castle is brilliant at suggesting how taste is formed and informed, and the scope of her references is deliciously wide. Droll lines pop up with a rather scary frequency, and Castle is a master of set-up. For instance at one point "Blakey rolls her eyes, sits down, pulls Richard Rorty out of her bag and prepares to wait for several hours." This is funny enough in itself (Rorty as light vacation reading) but it's made funnier by the fact that the sentence is the punchline to a set-up in which the mother-daughter team enters a rubber-stamp store called Stampa Fe.

And unlike the dreaded David Sedaris (who only pretends to be self-mocking), Castle is as jaundiced about herself as she is about her mother, O'Keeffe fans or cheesy New Mexico tourism. At Stampe Fe, she explains, "I try to pretend that the stamps I’m grabbing up are ‘cool’ – that my choices express my highly evolved if not Firbankian sense of camp." But then a horrible though dawns on her: "When we finish our sweep and I’m swaying groggily at the cash register – my mother slumped in her chair behind me like a satisfied pythoness – I’m forced to confront a terrible possibility: that Mavis and I may actually be more alike than I prefer to believe. (…) Is a lurching sumo wrestler in a loincloth really any less vulgar, aesthetically speaking, than my mother’s mermaids or kitty cats? Than a frog wearing a top hat? A poodle playing a tuba? An abyss seems to open up for a moment: I see, as if in Pisgah-vision, the appalling triteness of my sensibility."

Why this woman doesn't have a regular column in an American publication is beyond me. Oh sorry: American editors prefer their female essayists to write about things like dating or motherhood—or politics, as long as they are foaming-at-the-mouth conservative ranters or give the guys in charge nicknames like "Rummy."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I love the 70s

Purely coincidentally, I recently watched James Toback's Fingers (1978) and William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) back to back. The latter is being reissued in a director's cut while the former finally reached the top of my Netflix queue (I booked it after seeing its French remake, The Beat That My Heart Skipped). Both movies are essentially about men facing—or not—their own nature. By the end of Cruising, Al Pacino seems to have reached a point of no return; Fingers' Harvey Keitel loses himself in violence and Bach (not violence and Beethoven, that's Clockwork Orange) in order to avoid dealing with himself.

Cruising was swirling in controversy even before it came out—its shoot was disrupted by activists who protested what they said was a homophobic view of the gay community. Almost 30 years later, I have to admit I found their objections baseless. The cops, for instance, are almost (almost!) never dismissive of the S&M milieu that serves as background to their investigation, and they genuinely try to solve the murders of gay men. Pacino's character never shows any disgust or revulsion, just an increasing fascination, with the hardcore clubs he explores. (Compare with Hollywood's current infatuation with man-child characters stuck in perpetual adolescence and reflexive homo-panic.) In his commentary for the Fingers DVD, Toback explains that Keitel's character has homosexual leanings, and a lot of his permanent unease results from his trying to repress them.

Both movies have a deadpan matter-of-factness that serves them very well, though they come at it from different angles: Cruising from the unique combo of genre and artiness that Friedkin embodied in the 70s and 80s (Michael Mann owes a lot to Friedkin's 1985 To Live and Die in L.A., for instance) while Fingers represents Toback's attempt to pull off the seeming contradiction of neo-New Wave baroque. Everybody in Fingers, except for the father of Keitel's character, is opaque—you know very little about them, and there is very little explanation of their actions or, god forbid, motivations (how I hate that word!).

Both movies were also shot on location in New York, and look completely bewitching now. At one point, Keitel goes into John's Pizzeria on Bleecker St to collect money on behalf of his father. Toback doesn't even bother to change the place's name, and there's even a bit of a joke about the fact that John's doesn't sell slices. There's also a superb shot in Battery Park City, with the base of the then-new Twin Towers in the background.

It's also striking to note how underpopulated the city looks. Now, I know these are movies, but Toback and Friedkin obviously were concerned with a certain realistic depiction of the milieus, and the density in both Fingers' Soho and Cruising's West Village is impressively low: Where is everybody?!? The city is simultaneously teeming with anarchic life and sparsely populated, giving the characters room to breathe. As a backdrop, it suggests freedom and possibilities, something our current hive of activity actually stifles.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Queens shenanigans

It's incredibly difficult to pull off classic disco live, but Escort was up to the task at PS 1's Warm Up yesterday afternoon. The Brooklyn band has an intricate sound that incorporates both strings and horns, and I was wondering how it'd come across in a concrete courtyard. Sure enough the mix was rather muddy, but Escort overcame it to deliver a set whose old-school convinction made me teary at times. How they pull it off is obvious: They don't skimp. Not only were there 15 of them onstage, but the music sounded like something it really does require take 15 people to pull off.

Compare and contrast with sprawling indie-rock outfits like Architecture in Helsinki or I'm from Barcelona, who may have band members in the double digits but still produce a thin sound. It's as if they needed a separate person to play the triangle on one song—and then they'd absolutely need to bring that person along on tour as well, of course. It's an utter waste of resources.

Back to Warm Up for a sec: The crowd yesterday was the most mixed—in racial, gender, orientation and even age terms—I've seen in a long time, and it looked as if everybody was actually having fun. I wasn't overly impressed by the DJ (whose name I didn't catch) who was spinning right before Escort, however. Playing a rather long mix of "Supernature" is excusable if obvious, but Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening" is a bore, no matter how much you tart it up with a dance remix. Playing Hair's "Age of Aquarius" was fine but there was no need to follow it up with "Let the Sun Shine." Similarly, one ESG song is cool; two in a row is lazy. Come on, if you have an hour, don't waste our time by repeating acts!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The humble diva

Thanks to my colleague Steve Smith for passing on the link to a fantastic self-portrait of opera superstar Anna Netrebko. In this rambling monologue, Trebs digs deep and reveals herself to be a complex, troubled…oh, who am I kidding? Among my favorite quotes:

“Breakfast I am eating a hot sandwich, like with the cheese, toasted.”

“I have lots of girl friends but I’m definitely straight.” (This comes out of the blue and seems to be in response to the sapphic rumors swirling around her.)

“In St Petersburg I am living with a girl friend, Katya. Now she has a little baby, who lives with us too.” (Ah, okay then…)

“Though my voice has doubled in the past few years. It started suddenly to be bigger, because I was using the microphone between my tits!”

“I am not a vicious diva.”

“I sleep naked. When it is cold I am wearing the flannel pyjamas.”

Dear Dilettante readers: Be warned that from now on, I will always refer to love scenes in opera as “erotical.”

Monday, August 20, 2007

The horror, the horror

The Sheila and I went to the Jersey Shore for a couple of days and being contrarians, we stayed in the least hoppin' town of all. One word is enough to suggest the anomaly that is Ocean Grove: dry. Yep, you won't find any booze in that quaint little hamlet. You can't buy it in stores and you can't buy it in restaurants. Finding it is easy, mind you: You only have to follow the boardwalk north to Asbury Park or south to Bradley Beach. But the folks of Ocean Grove get their kicks out the Methodist way—by praying, eating a lot of ice cream (only $2 for a small sundae!), and buying scented candles and wooden ducks. The big event on Saturday night was a double bill of Air Supply and Little River Band at the Great Auditorium (the size of a football field and usually hosting preachers). The GA is surrounded by Ocean Grove's biggest oddity: a tent city of over 100 permanent, trailer home–size tents, passed down from generation to generation.

We stayed at a small inn so quaint that people were giving us dark looks when we were watching High School Musical 2 in the common room (no TVs in the guest rooms) on Sunday evening. But I was pretty happy with our rugged accommodations because the inn had a bookshelf of beach readings left behind by previous vacationers. I don't mind sharing a bathroom if I can get my mitts on old paperbacks by John Saul, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, Sidney Sheldon and—prize of prizes!—Judith Krantz. I finished the book I'd brought, Scott Smith's The Ruins (and left it behind, in true inn spirit) and got through Saul's Guardian. Add to these Joe Schreiber's upcoming Eat the Dark, which I recently polished off over a couple of subway rides, and a few thoughts about horror fiction surfaced. Okay, one thought: It's in a pretty sorry state, relying on clichés and skimpy psychological insights, and tying it all up with plain bad writing.

As a dedicated genre writer, Saul is easy to dismiss by most critics. He's one step above Dean Koontz, but not a very high step. If I recall correctly the handful of his books that I've read, Guardian is no better or worse. Suffice it to say that it hinges on a revelation of lycanthropy and a government experiment gone wild—and I'm not spoiling anything, as any reader with a tenth of a brain will figure it all out early on. But I got through it fairly painlessly. Eat the Dark, on the other hand, is plain embarrassing, like something written by a ten-year-old weaned on Z-grade serial-killer books and movies.

Smith's novel is the most "literary" of the three and it even got a rave from Laura Miller in Salon. But a lot of her assessment seems based on misreading. Miller writes that "The de facto leader, Jeff, is a medical student who probably keeps a copy of 'The Worst-Case Survival Manual' on his bedside table." Except I seem to remember that Jeff is going to enter med school after his Mexico vacation—he's not a med student yet. Miller also writes that he "is the closest any character comes in 'The Ruins' to a traditional hero: He's fairly resourceful, he makes plans, and when he decides that something nasty has to be done, he's got the nerve to do it." Perhaps, but half of his decisions are also wrong: He's the one who gets the group on the path to destruction to begin with; because he's convinced he's always right, he always dimisses his girlfriend's warnings. It's hard to find a a better symbol for the gung-ho American male than Jeff. Furthermore, the book entirely relies on the Idiot's Principle, ie the characters need to behave like total morons and do counterintuitive things for things to move along.

On the other hand (and I'm not sure whether this is entirely on purpose), The Ruins turns out to be a pretty fascinating indictment of young Americans: spoiled, brattish, obsessed with instant gratification and completely unable to think more than two minutes ahead—actions don't have consequences for these cretins. I suppose that is the real horror of the book.

Could Stephen King's 1970s and 1980s novels have represented a high point of modern horror writing, and we didn't even know it?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ukraine stop the beat

Ouch, sorry for the painful pun but it's Friday. Just a quickie to say that my review of Marina Lewycka's novel Strawberry Fields is in this week's Time Out. Overall I really enjoyed the book and because I had limited space, I opted to focus on the positive. My main beef with Lewycka's rotating POVs is when she gets into a dog's head and writes from its perspective. Those passages are waaaay too cute, but fortunately they're also brief. I have very little patience for literary pets, and pretty much believe they shouldn't be either "authors" (I mean you, Rita Mae Brown, crediting a cat as coauthor) or even subjects (I mean you, Marley). Okay, maybe as subjects but only peripheral ones—not every writer is Jack London.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Polymorphous fun

My first trip to the Highline Ballroom (very nicely located next to a Western Beef emporium) yesterday evening was largely fun: excellent sightlines, excellent sound and two great party bands. It's hard to ask for more on a Monday night.

The albums of opener Gravy Train!!!! are as dispensable as the band's gigs are memorable. Basically dumbing down and amping up the early Peaches formula, the quartet launches a high-energy, potty-mouthed frontal attack on what makes up a show by a "normal" American rock band. Which means that during entire songs nobody on stage is playing any instrument (yay for backing tapes!) and the non-stop movement looks like the one juiced-up cheerleaders would stumble into. It's all sweaty, disheveled, frantic, horny. The highlight was when they invited a member of the audience to join them on stage during "Frat Party"—and what member! That huge bearded guy must have weighted 300 pounds and he wore only a skimpy red loincloth. He ended up making out with Gravy Trainer Hunx (the others are Chunx, Junx and Funx).

Junior Senior were like Yngwie Malmsteen by comparison, but their technical abilities didn't stand in the way of their good humor. They started off with their foot on the accelerator and left it there for the next hour. I'm not sure they needed two backup singers but hey, if it works for them…

What struck me most yesterday evening was the atmosphere of goofy, utopian polymorphousness: The crowd was mixed and happy and dancing, the bands embraced an all-accepting sexuality that felt not so much militant as matter of fact. It felt really far from the uptight masculinity of so many of the retro "punk-funk" bands. No wonder Junior Senior's most obvious influence is the B-52s, a band that created an alternative universe ruled by freaks and nerds, and that its new album features guest vocals from Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, along with all three Le Tigre members.

MP3 Gravy Train!!!! "Club Situation" (from All the Sweet Stuff, 2007)
MP3 Junior Senior "Dance, Chance, Romance" (from Hey Hey My My Yo Yo, 2007)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Amen to that

In the latest issue of The Believer, Nick Hornby interviews David Simon, cocreator of The Wire. I already loved that show, but now my admiration for Simon himself has grown even further. First of all, he points out that unlike The Sopranos and Deadwood, to which his show is usually compared, The Wire is not Shakespearean in inspiration but looks back to an older model: It's not about "the angst and machinations of the central characters" but about "doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. (…) The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. (…) In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed." The former member of the French Socialist Party in me cheered that one.

Another statement resonated with the current member of the media world in me: "Fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell." Simon then explains that he preferred "assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out." What? Effort? You mean the reader has to work at something? Anathema in our world of easily digestible factoids!

So come on, fork out $8 for The Believer. There's more wisdom from Simon, plus goodies like Elizabeth Isadora Gold's essay on 1970s feminist novels (it actually made me want to reread Marilyn French's The Women's Room) and Victor Brand's introduction to the world of Boris Vian.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Le It man

Few contemporary French writers get translated in the US, and even fewer have any kind of name recognition. Michel Houellebecq is one of them. For better or for worse, he's been the It man of modern French lit for more than a decade now: His novels are best-sellers, he gets sued for racist language (he once famously stated that Islam is a stupid religion), he asks a NY Times reporter if she'll take off her clothes, etc. Not only did he record an album on which he sang/spoke some of his own poems, set to music by (him again!) Bertrand Burgalat, but he toured it on French beach resorts one summer.

For his latest project, Houellebecq is directing the film adaptation of his last book, 2005's The Possibility of an Island (one I wasn't crazy about initially, but which had won me over by the time it hit its desperate post-apocalyptic ending). Shooting is about to wrap up in Spain, where Houellebecq resides. Benoît Magimel plays the lead, and Arielle Dombasle is also on board, but I'm more intrigued by some of the behind-the-scenes contributors: Rem Koolhas is slated to design the remnants of a futuristic city, while conceptual artist Rosemarie Tröckel and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist are working on made-to-measure dioramas—kinda like the ones at the Museum of Natural History, but, you know, arty. Also intriguing: Houellebecq claims that one of his visual influences is Kraftwerk circa Robots.

MP3 Michel Houellebecq "Paris-Dourdan" (from Présence Humaine, 2000)
Michel Houellebecq "Derniers Temps" (from Présence Humaine, 2000)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

La pop-itude

Barbara Carlotti's show on Friday was even better than I expected: Her voice was incredibly…poised is the first word that comes to mind. The Sheila is still struggling a bit with her French and wasn't familiar with the songs, yet she said she immediately "got" them. It didn't hurt that Carlotti's backing band was ace, easily reproducing live not so much the letter as the spirit of the record's arrangements. We chatted a bit after the show and got around to talking about producer/songwriter extraordinaire Bertrand Burgalat, who's best known in the US for his work with April March and who produced Carlotti's first EP. Burgalat's most recent credits are on the hit of the spring in France: the debut album by Christophe Willem, who won Nouvelle Star (= French Idol) in 2006.

You may recall my post about the 2007 edition of that reality-TV show, but the amazing weirdness really started last year, when Willem—who was nicknamed la Tortue (the turtle) by one of the judges—won. Based on YouTube clips of the contest, I wasn't entirely convinced, but the album, which came out this April, is really, really good. Zazie, Bertrand Burgalat and Katerine took turns writing and arranging the songs and the result is the kind of record you would never expect from an American Idol: idiosyncratic, playful and unabashedly pop. On American Idol, the men who don't necessarily fit traditional standards of masculinity end up either like the butt of jokes (Sanjaya) or emasculated, unthreatening puppets (Clay Aiken—the new Johnny Mathis or Barry Manilow, without the talent). Willem's voice is very androgynous but he doesn't hide behind it and comes across as sexy in a likable, dorky way. I find that combination particularly interesting on his duet with comedian/director Valérie Lemercier because their voices sound so similar; the song doesn't differentiate their identities but melds them—it's the Persona of pop music. Whoa!

Here are two of the tracks Burgalat worked his magic on: the duet with Lemercier (who unfortunately doesn't sing enough—I think her only musical venture since her brilliant 1996 album, Chante, is last year's duet with ex-Mikado Pascale Borel, "J'ai un mari") and a song cowritten by Benoît de Villeneuve, who released a rather good album with ex–Nouvelle Vague siren Mélanie Pain a couple of years ago.

MP3 Christophe Willem and Valérie Lemercier "Pourquoi tu t'en vas?" (from Inventaire, 2007)
MP3 Christophe Willem "Demain" (from Inventaire, 2007)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Still reading

My review of Ana Castillo's novel, The Guardians, in the Los Angeles Times is up. Quite a good yarn that book is, too. Actually it's been slowish on the arts front lately so I've been doing quite a bit of reading, and I'll post an update on that as soon as possible. Scoop: None of that reading involves anything by Khaled Hosseini.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Island girl

I'm really looking forward to Barbara Carlotti's show at Joe's Pub tonight, which I previewed in TONY. To recap: Carlotti is a French singer-songwriter who sings with an amazing cleanness of tone; she's been compared to another Barbara (the one who goes without a last name) and while the two share a certain vocal color, Carlotti's referencing of 60s pop makes her a lot more accessible to non-French speakers.

Carlotti's debut album, Les lys brisés, has been a staple on my CD player lately. I particularly love its very French production style, in which the vocals are mixed way up and very crisply. No wonder her first EP was made with Bertrand Burgalat, who's a genius at taking 60s recording techniques and bringing them into the 00s without sounding gratuitously nostalgic; a remnant from those sessions, "Cannes," appears on the album. Tonight, Carlotti's backed by the band she'd brought to Montreal's Francofolies, where she just played, so we should get a nicely full sound.

And this is a double shout out since Carlotti is part Corsican, with family living about half an hour from mine on the island. Yay for the homegirl!

MP3 Barbara Carlotti "Les lys brisés" (from Les lys brisés, 2006)
MP3 Barbara Carlotti "Peu importe" (from Les lys brisés, 2006)