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!