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.