Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Parlez vous crime?

I love Scandi noir as much as anybody out there but that doesn't mean I have to lower my standards. I'm surprised, for instance, by the good will that's greeted Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead, considering it's completely by-the-numbers. "Another in a seemingly bottomless pool of sophisticated and effective Scandinavian crime writers"? Hardly.

The best part about the novel is its atmospheric description of an island community off the coast of Sweden, but this isn't enough to make up for the fact that the plot hinges on a contrivance: It works only because the main characters wilfully avoid sharing crucial information (which they all know the others have) as they try to solve the mystery surrounding the 20-year-old disappearance of a child. Of course if they did the normal thing and talked to each other, the book would be only about a hundred pages long.

Much better is Jo Nesbø's Nemesis. I had quite liked Nesbø's The Redbreast, which I had reviewed for Time Out New York when it came out here last year. Nemesis picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, and once again Nesbø somehow manages to make an alcoholic inspector with unorthodox crime-solving methods feel like a fresh character.

And speaking of classic Scandi cops: Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander has gotten another TV series, after the Swedish one in which he was played by Krister Henriksson. Oddly it's from the BBC and Wallander is played by Kenneth Branagh—which at least means we have a better chance of seeing it here than the other version.

Too bad American channels are as protectionist as American publishers when it comes to international crime, and open up only to English series. I've been catching up with a really fun French drama called Engrenages (on DVDs sent from the homeland) and while it doesn't hold up to The Wire—but then, nothing does—it's good watchin'. Following the British model, there's only ten episodes in a season, so one can watch the 20 Engrenages eps has so far in a relatively short amount of time.

When used to the American system, it's intriguing to see one where judges are very involved in inquiries—they drop by crime scenes for example—thus altering the triangular dynamic of cops, DAs and defense lawyers that drives most procedurals here. Another difference: The French cops are a lot more hands-on (as in, rough) with suspects than they are in American shows that aren't The Shield. But the biggest selling point of Engrenages as far as I'm concerned is the presence of two particularly compelling female characters: inspector Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and crooked lawyer Joséphine Carlsson (Audrey Fleurot).

The first season of Engrenages was shown on BBC4 under the title Spiral and it's now on British DVD; the second season is scheduled to air over there this winter. Check both out.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Just the facts, m'am

Siouxsie is an influence whose time has come, so it's not really a surprise that London's Ipso Facto sounds like Ms. Sioux on downers. Black & white aesthetics, stern haircuts, a "Louise Brooks goes to architecture school" look—hmmm, I think I'm in love. Signed to newish Mute imprint Mute Irregulars (of course), the quartet only has some singles out for now. Hopefully they also have a Google alert on themselves and will see this post pleading for a gig in New York sometime soon. Meanwhile, we'll have to do with this video for "Six and Three Quarters."

Women beware ballerinas

Now that's my kind of holiday fare: cheating, lying, conniving, and a final orgy of violence in which half the characters annihilate each other. The Red Bull Theater's production of Women Beware Women is an absolute delight, down to the death by crucifix at the end, though I think this is one of director Jesse Berger's liberties; regardless, it feels very much in the spirit of Thomas Middleton's play.

The cast is topnotch, and as the duplicitous Livia, Kathryn Meisle shows she could have been a much better Marquise de Merteuil than the woefully miscast Laura Linney in the Roundabout's revival of Dangerous Liaisons earlier this year.

Happily, it also looks as if Berger blew two thirds of his budget on the costumes, a parade of Technicolor beauties that seem pulled from the pages of a Jacobean edition of Vogue dreamed up by Edith Head. It's the kind of extravagance one does not see enough Off Broadway.

(Another positive claim for the evening: The subway trek from Brooklyn to Hell's Kitchen, where the show is appropriately staged, gave me enough time to read Carlo Lucarelli's The Damned Season in its entirety. Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy takes place in the chaos that was Italy at the end of WWII; it's hard to find a better setting for noir books, when nobody quite knew who was in power and alliances shifted daily.)

Speaking of over-the-top visual pleasures, the Sheila and I caught The Nutcracker last night. We joked beforehand that we could expect a lot of crushed velvet, polished patent leather shoes, tulle and snazzy overcoats, and we were right: The children in the audience looked incredible.

It was a repeat visit for the Sheila but, I admit somewhat reluctantly, my first New York City Ballet Nutcracker. I saw Mark Morris's The Hard Nut a few years ago, which is like seeing Airplane! before Airport 1975. Anyway I was appropriately enchanted, and even teared up a few times—most notably at the entrance of the Snowflakes—overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best stage moments of 2008

After the best singles and before the best albums (we'll have to wait for the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll for that), here are my favorite theater/opera moments of the year, in alphabetical order.

1. Adding Machine. This Expressionistic Chicago import proved that there is still life in the American musical at the end of the ’00s.

2. All My Sons. Simon McBurney's non-naturalistic approach threw off a few people, but I found it mesmerizing. This is what happens when the powers that be on Broadway entrust a play to a director who's capable of reading the material, then of translating it into a specifically theatrical language.

3. Arias with a Twist. This collaboration between Joey Arias and Basil Twist was permeated by the spirit of downtown—and by that I mean the old East Village, before it turned into New York's answer to the French Quarter. Like Adding Machine, albeit with a completely different aesthetic, this show illustrated how much you can achieve with a small budget and a large imagination.

4. Billy Elliot. The best three seconds of the year: When a miner yells out "We're on strike!" to his companions and they all happily shout back "Yay!!!" No wonder Terry Teachout's review in The Wall Street Journal was titled "Karl Marx in a tutu"—and he didn't mean that in a good way. "Feel-good socialist kitsch," Teachout huffed. Ah yes, and that's exactly what Broadway—and the nation at large, I'd venture—wants right now.

5. Blasted. Frankly, the play itself isn't all that (Sarah Kane's youthful nihilism can be overly self-conscious and deliberate) but Sarah Benson's production was as good as it could be, while I can't even fathom how Marin Ireland and Reed Birney did what they did on the stage every night for weeks on end. Incidentally, Ireland has turned into a downtown treasure over the past few years (Far Away and Beebo Brinker come to mind). The EW reviewer listed the show among the year's worst, blaming its lack of humanity. There was plenty of humanity in Blasted, except it was defiled every step of the way; guess that's not what some want at the theater.

6. Gypsy. Saw that one three times. No need to go on about Patti LuPone's performance again, so I'll just say that Laura Benanti's transformation from ugly vaudeville duckling to glamorous burlesque swan remains an erotic highlight.

7. Hair. Oh, how I hate audience participation! Especially when it involves going onstage and haplessly prancing about with the cast. And yet when that happened at the end of this thrilling production at the Delacorte, it could not have felt more à propos.

8. Opening Night. I found myself thinking about Ivo van Hove's adaptation of the Cassavetes movie a lot after seeing it, wondering in particular about some of the staging choices. With its heavy use of a simultaneous videocast, the production rewards multiple viewings, from as many different angles as possible. Alas, it didn't play BAM long enough to allow for a return visit. I hear van Hove directed a stage adaptation of Cries and Whispers in Europe this year. This is a call to BAM, Lincoln Center and St. Ann's Warehouse: please bring it here!

9. Passing Strange. Stew and Heidi Rodewald's little-musical-that-could adapted surprisingly well to the Broadway stage. A much better translation of the rock idiom to musical theater than Spring Awakening.

10. Die Soldaten. If I had to pick a single event this year, it would be this electroshock of a modernist opera, mounted by Lincoln Center Festival at the Armory. Now that we are engulfed in a recession, this divisive, outlandish production—in which the audience sat on huge moving platforms, flanked on the sides by a ginormous 110-member orchestra imported from Germany—feels like the last gasp of the freespending days. (Someone told me it would have cost the same to fly everybody who saw the show in New York to Germany!)

Special mentions…

Boeing-Boeing, for understanding that farce needs to be staged with Swiss-clock precision… Come Back, Little Sheba, for S. Epatha Merkerson's heartwrenching portrayal of a woman stuck not only in a thankless marriage, but in the thankless decade known as the 1950s… Michael Clark Company's OO and O, for their elegant embrace of the punk and classical realms… The Cripple of Inishmaan, for making me get over a longstanding distrust of Irish plays… La Damnation de Faust, for the sight of video trees wilting as the Devil walked in front of them… The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower, for its enchanting first act and its wonderful projections, which easily bested the ones in the more high-profile Sunday in the Park with George.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Denis Lavant dances

Denis Lavant has one of the best senses of movement of any contemporary actor I can think of.

From 1986's Mauvais Sang, we have a fantastic travelling shot set to David Bowie's "Modern Love" (starts around 1:30). The film is Lavant's second collaboration with his longtime acolyte, the director maudit Leos Carax.

Here is Lavant at the end of Claire Denis's Beau Travail, her somptuous 1999 adaptation of Billy Budd:

This third sample was shot just a few months ago. It's a kind of postscript to Carax's latest, a short film included in an omnibus titled Tokyo! (The other two segments are by Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong.) Lavant plays a cryptic enigma simply called Merde, who talks in an invented language called Merdogon, which sounds a bit like Magma's Kobaïan. I read somewhere the video below was shot in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Underground Paris

Paris in the 1970s is an object of endless fascination for me, particularly the punk, gay and clubbing factions: Le Palace, Bazooka, Mathématiques Modernes, Alain Pacadis, Jenny Bel Air—all names that set off a thousand fantasies for the provincial girl I was. That scene was in its death throes when I landed in the capital in 1982 to attend college, but the agony was still glamorous enough to project a mystical aura. A number of books by and about luminaries of that time have been published in France in the past half-decade, including a collection of Alain Pacadis's writing (he roughly was the Gallic version of Michael Musto), François Jonquet's lovely biography of Jenny Bel Air, and the reissue of NovöVision, Yves Adrien's new-wave cult classic. Music-wise, the compilation Des Jeunes Gens Modernes is absolutely essential.

For a thorough overview, however, check out a site created by a man named Bernard Bacos, who lived in that city—or perhaps I should say he lived that city—and celebrates it at Paris dans les années 70. If you don't read French, I suggest going randomly, as Bacos has unearthed a treasure trove of great photos and provides sound samples of several of the bands. And if you do read French, I guarantee hours of fascinated clicking.

Bacos starts off with the late ’60s and early ’70s, covering the "baba cool" (ie hippie) bands; check out, for instance, the page about the 30 ans d'agitation musical en France box set, complete with streams. (Here, Gilles Deleuze reads a Nietzsche poem, backed by a band called Schizo. An entire era is summoned…) But his coverage of is extensive, each section shooting out into numerous nooks and crannies. The page about Fabrice Emaer's Palace (Paris' answer to Studio 54, and newly reopened) is delicious, for instance, linking out to other classic clubs such as cold-wave temple Les Bains Douches, and the one about the punk art collective Bazooka reminded me of how brutally prescient they were. (Watch this TV doc on Bazooka.)

Bacos is straight so the gay underground doesn't get as much in-depth coverage as the hippie one, but he still has fascinating stuff about the likes of Les Gazolines, a gender-queer group that ran parallel to the radical-leftist FHAR, ie Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire. (See Le Rose et le noir, Frédéric Martel's page-turner about the history of contemporary homosexuality in France.) It would have been hard for Bacos not to deal with Les Gazolines anyway, since its members popped up at Le Palace, wrote for Libération, etc.

One for the road: Taxi Girl's stone-cold classic single "Cherchez le garçon," from 1980. The band released only one album, 1981's sepulchral Seppuku, produced by Stranglers bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel. The lanky guitarist on the right in the video is Mirwais, who would go on to produce Madonna's Music. As for singer Daniel Darc, he of the bee-stung lips, his career was derailed by drugs but he resurfaced in 2004 with the rare superb album that also happens to be a commercial hit, Crève-coeur.

Monday, December 22, 2008

I'm not old, I'm just drawn that way

Last week I briefly mentioned the Roundabout's revival of Pal Joey, and an issue I had with a particular acting choice. I should qualify the statement by saying my qualm involves more than just Stockard's Channing decisions: It starts with Richard Greenberg's tweaking of the book and Joe Mantello's direction, and spreads to Stocks's interpretation of her role.

The main plot line involves the affair between the young, caddish Joey Evans and the older, much wealthier Mrs. Vera Simpson. She picks him up in the nightclub where he sings, has her way with him in her luxury pad, buys him his own boîte in exchange for delicious sexual favors (the show makes it clear that Joey has what it takes to make a woman of the world very happy indeed). This angle was played to the hilt in the Encores! revival of 1995: Patti LuPone's Vera pretty much bought herself a living, breathing sex toy. And when her unseen husband made it known she wasn't quite discreet enough, Vera dumped Joey in a carefree manner that implied that far from heartbroken, she'd soon move on to another stud.

In the current production, Vera clearly has feelings for Joey; when she ends things up, it is with a sadness that suggests this was her last hurrah—not only as a sexual woman, but as a woman, period. Of course the creative team may have thought this made more sense, considering Channing is 64 to LuPone's 46 at the time. But this strikes me as retrograde: There is something liberating—and liberated—about a musical in which a woman's main relationship is purely hedonistic. In other words, she is allowed to have sex with just the right amount of feeling, which in this particular case is very little. Alas now Vera Simpson ends up a sad sack, not a triumphant conqueror.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Total Hollywood crap

Every word, every shot, every sound in Rachel Getting Married—in which Anne Hathaway's Kym gets out of rehab long enough to almost screw up her sister Rachel's wedding—is a fraud. It's hard to think of a more dishonestly manipulative movie this year. Nothing the characters say or do makes sense, because everything they say or do only serves one purpose: to lead to a confrontation or a crisis. Jenny Lumet's hack script throws consistency and psychological realism to the wind just so the actors can get their Oscar moments, while Jonathan Demme still thinks a handheld shakycam is shorthand for raw naturalism, ie authenticity in Hollywoodspeak.

Here's a typical example of the shams the film continually sets up. At one point, several characters including Kym and her dad (Bill Irwin) are gathered around a table, figuring out the sitting arrangements for the wedding. The discussion gets tenser, as it tends to do when Kym is involved; she asks her dad to continue it in private in the kitchen, away from the others. Next thing you know, the entire brood crashes their talk. And next next thing you know, Dad gets challenged by Sidney, his future son-in-law, into a preposterous contest to see who can most efficiently fill the dishwasher. And next next next thing you know, Kym haplessly passes on to Dad a plastic plate belonging to her now-dead little brother, provoking a sorrowful reaction.

Why is the family going to the kitchen after it's been made very clear that Kym and Dad want to have a private conversation? Why is the meek Sidney suddenly Mr. Macho, taunting his father-in-law? Why is the kid's plate still mixed in with the regular plates if it's going to upset the father so much? There's only one reason: to artificially provoke the kind of volatile show-offy situation modern Hollywood mistakes for drama. Rinse, repeat ad nauseam, as Rachel Getting Married staggers from one contrivance to the next.

Perhaps the biggest fraud of all is the reason behind Kym's self-destructiveness: high on percocets when she was 16, she was responsible for the death of the aforementioned younger brother. The death of a child is the kind of unimpeachable backstory Hollywood hacks love because it creates viewer empathy for a character out of thin air. In this case, it's even cheaper than cheap because it isn't even the reason for Kym being the way she is now: the film doesn't address why she was high on percocets to begin with.

As for the wedding itself, you just want to slap everybody involved. So many trite irritants, like, Why does it have an Indian theme when neither of the families seems to have a connection to India? Watching the endless parade of musical guests felt like sitting through an entire year of Joe's Pub programming in 30 minutes. (The one moment that rings true in the movie is when the idiots constantly playing the lute and the violin are asked if they could just stop for a fricking minute.) The film would have been at least bearable if Jonathan Demme had mocked earnestly multi-culti upper-middle-class celebrations. But no.

The end of irony

Two show recommendations for the holidays: Druid Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic and Keen Company's production of Beasley's Christmas Party, based on a Booth Tarkington story, at the Acorn.

About Inishmaan, the TONY review isn't out yet so I'll only say that McDonagh's storytelling sense is absolutely crackling, director Garry Hynes continues to impress, and the ensemble on the Atlantic stage (mostly imported from the Galway production) is one of the finest you can see in New York right now. Special mention to Kerry Conlon, whose rambunctious Helen is often hilarious, but also quite poignant in her final scenes.

I tend to enjoy Keen shows for the same reason I enjoy Mint shows: While the big nonprofits are perfectly happy doing Hedda Gabler or The Seagull for the umpteenth time, these two scrappy companies excavate long-forgotten plays and put them up in productions ranging from honorable to topnotch. Beasley's Christmas Party fits the end of the company's mission statement, which reads "Keen Company seeks to create a culture of artists, technicians, administrators and audiences who share a desire to invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart and hope." Beasley's has all three elements in spades. It's a small (three actors), compact (70 minutes) show, yet it wonderfully upholds the old tradition of theater as storytelling. The cynic among us would call it quaint; I'd rather call it timeless.

By the way, if you only pay attention to the byline of the Times' chief drama critic, Ben Brantley, you won't know companies such as Mint and Keen are working here, or that the downtown stage is alive and well. His top ten continues to make a preposterous amalgam between New York theater and Broadway, as if one was synonymous with the other. There are only two non-Broadway shows on his list, Blasted and Hair, and the latter is actually scheduled to transfer to Broadway in 2009.

Broadway babes

I'm getting a little excited about Sutton Foster in Shrek the Musical over at the Sunday Arts blog.

And speaking of Broadway dames, the Sheila perfectly executed one of her typically ambitious home-decorating ideas yesterday: She decided to honor two of our favorite belters on our Christmas tree, so she found various photos of Patti LuPone and Leslie Kritzer on the internet, cut them out in medallion shapes and affixed them to our silver baubles. Now our tree is adorned with several of them, in between ornaments of the Rockettes kicking their heels. We are not ashamed of our love for the musical theater here in Park Slope.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Pop Club returns

Did you miss us? The Pop Club is back for another chat about current singles on the Time Out New York site. This time around, we scrutinize new songs by M.I.A. and A.R. Rahman, Eve and Lady GaGa.

We're at the tail end of a lovely snow storm here in New York. I have the luxury to find it lovely because I'm not stuck in an airport and only have to travel a few blocks south to see The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic Theater tonight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A little sucking action

A couple of nights ago, I went down to Sunset Park to attend the NY premiere of G.B. Jones's 13-year-in-the-making epic, The Lollipop Generation, at Light Industry. In more ways than one, it was like watching a home movie made up of vacation footage pieced together: Most of it was shot in Super 8mm and because filming was done over several years, the appearance of some of the actors changes rather visibly. But it also fulfilled the memory-triggering role of a home movie, transporting me back to the heady days of homocore, the queer-punk movement that briefly lit up the fringes in the early to mid-’90s.

I still have my Fifth Column albums, and when the time came to part with my zine collection (there's only so much space in a New York apartment), I couldn't bring myself to part with two masterpieces Jones and her star Jena von Brucker were closely involved with, J.D.s and Double Bill. I still love the way they obsessed over pop culture and rock with self-knowing rage (Double Bill was about how William Conrad is cool and William Burroughs is evil!) and the way they spat out venom at the assimilationist mainstream gay movement. Now that the gays are all rallying behind marriage (to be clear: I want all those rights but I'm perfectly fine if they're gathered under the secular umbrella of "domestic partnership" or something), this feels so…refreshing.

Track listing

Time Out New York has just published its year-end lists and I contributed my top ten favorite songs of 2008. Scroll down the link for my tunes, which you can stream as well. When I have some time (ie, over the weekend), I'll post additional tracks here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Let down by Liza Minnelli

Liza Minnelli's show at the Palace has been hailed with a storm of overheated praise but two voices have dared to say it's not all that. One is my colleague Adam Feldman in TONY ("Most of the show is not like watching a car crash, as some have feared; it is more like watching traffic") and the other is John Lahr at The New Yorker. Lahr had more wordage at his disposal than Adam and he was able to zero in on some of the aspects that bugged me the most about the evening: Minnelli's egotistical manipulations.
"She is all chutzpah and calculation. Although she has vast amounts of energy and an overwhelming desire to please, she has, strange to say, very little sense of fun. Instead of taking you on a journey with her renditions, she continually brings you back to her, to the legend of her collapse—the divorces, the drinking, the depressions—and to her theatrical pedigree, which includes her godparents, Ira Gershwin and Kay Thompson, who more or less take care of the second act. (…) In one song, written especially for the show, Minnelli promises her audience, “I would never leave you”—a truly terrifying piece of show-biz flimflammery. In fact, what she means to say is the opposite: Please, don’t leave me."
I felt like a Grinch at the Palace considering the Sheila, sitting next to me, was enjoying herself. But there it is: I was bored out of my skull by Liza's frantic neediness, her attempts at being coy (playing her breathlessness and need to rest for a joke when in fact she was breathless and needed to rest) and her often misguided choices—you don't attempt a song as fast and loaded with rhyming puns as Comden & Green's "If You Hadn't (But You Did)" ("If I had not seen you pen sexy letters to Gwen in your own hieroglyph/If you had not left me home when you had two seats for South Pacif") when your diction and breathing aren't up to snuff.

The Sheila remarked that I'm uneasy with older women on stage, which isn't true at all—I'd gladly pay to see Marian Seldes or Angela Lansbury read the phone book. What I'm uneasy with is the misguidedness of Minnelli's show (it's way too big for her current vocal abilities), her constant reminders of where she came from (few outside of the Kennedy family have so shamelessly milked their bloodlines) and the morbid sycophancy of her fans, for whom the fact that Liza isn't keeling over on stage is enough to warrant a standing o. Fine then, I am a Grinch!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cristina forever

How could I forget? My interview with Boss Hog's Cristina Martinez is in the current issue of Time Out New York. The show itself is on Wednesday and you have tickets, right? Right?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wild-cat watch

Poor Sheila: She's been hit by a nasty lung infection and this weekend had to miss a pair of shows starring some favorite stage dames—Shrek the Musical with Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona and Pal Joey with Stockard Channing as Vera Simpson.

I won't give my take on them until the Time Out New York reviews hit the stand, but here's one thing: How many critics will use the word "cougar" in their review of Pal Joey? Stockard is 64 and her love interest in the show is played by Matthew Risch, 27. (Risch replaced Christian Hoff, 40, in previews.) One of the reasons I love the theater is that it's a lot more hospitable to women, particularly older women, than film or television, and you frequently see couples in which the woman is older than the man even if it's not in the script; in the case of Pal Joey, however, the age difference is an integral part of the story.

I was lucky to catch the Encores! production of the show in 1995. Vera Simpson was played by Patti LuPone (then 46) and Joey Evans was played by Peter Gallagher (then 39). Clearly the dynamic between Joey and Mrs. Simpson was very different from the one in the current revival—partly because the age gap was lesser, but because of specific acting choices as well. For now I'll just say that the new take on the relationship feels less daring than the 1995 one to me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sweet on Hugh

Hugh Jackman is hosting the Oscars! Yay! I hope this means the producers will finally bring back the musical numbers that have been sorely missed in recent years. What better way to celebrate the infamous Snow White Debacle of 1989 than have Hugh let loose in a huge floor show? It would be the 20th anniversary, too. You cannot call yourself a lover of Tinseltown flakery if you haven't seen this magnificent disaster, which I believe was choreographed by Debbie Allen.

Hugh did a fantastic job hosting the Tonys, but then Tony is a lot looser than Oscar when it comes to swishing. "Dancing makes studio executives really, really nervous…" Omigod, I just adore him!!!

Taking it to the web

Staff, artists and fans of a particularly embattled NYC institution have launched a new website, I Am City Opera. Check it out: It's a wonderful grassroots effort tocounter all the bad karma that's been swirling around the place in the past few months—and I freely admit I got a little choked up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rating the rating

The best part of A.O. Scott's review of Wendy and Lucy in today's Times isn't technically part of the review. It's the note about the rating tagged at the end, and it reads like this:

“Wendy and Lucy” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has some swearing, a little drug use and a brief implication of violence, but no nudity, sex or murder. The rating seems to reflect, above all, an impulse to protect children from learning that people are lonely and that life can be hard.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Their Hit Parade

Sunday night I caught a show that reminded me of why I live in New York. Oh I know, there are many good reasons to live here, but once in a while you see something that's so demented, so unpredictable, so plain fun that it just nails you to your seat. And on Sunday, it was the beta-testing of Our Hit Parade, a new revue orchestrated by the brain trust of Kenny Mellman, Bridget Everett and Neal Medlyn at the Zipper, with the goal of making it a monthly event in ’09.

The concept is deadly simple and deadly great: A bunch of downtown performers go through the Top Ten hits of the moment. Actually, they took some liberties because Amy Winehouse's "Valerie" and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" are a little old by now, and I'm pretty sure Riskay's "Smell Yo Dick" didn't make it to the Top 1,000. But whatevs: the general idea is sound, and the execution was nothing short of awesome.

Let's get the dud—yes, there was only one, which is a pretty amazing batting average by any standard—out of the way first. Jonny "the Gay Pimp" McGovern's rewrite of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" bombed. Changing the lyrics is cheating, and if you're going to do it anyway, you'd better be funny—and the Gay Pimp just wasn't. Next!

It's hard to beat Everett for sheer audacity. Everytime I think "Oh no she won't," she just does. Is there anything this woman is afraid to do to a song and to an audience? Off went the clothes, because it's so much more comfortable to sing in a bra and thong, especially when you're going on and on about coming home at 5am and sniffing something funky (see ref. to Riskay above). And especially when you're doing it while thrusting your crotch in the face of a guy sitting in the front row. At another point, Everett orchestrated a giveaway in which audience members won CDs by eating candy up from her tongue and then from her self-described cooch.

It's worth mentioning that a few minutes earlier, said candy had been strung together to form a jolly penis pouch for Neal Medlyn, his stage attire for his performance of Miley Cyrus's "Wake Up America." I guess that's what the fearless candy-eaters were smelling, as Riskay would say. Medlyn is so comfortable being nude—or just wearing candy—on stage that he looks weird in a suit.

My shortcomings in the dancing department (even, sadly, chair-dancing) were glaringly obvious during the Varsity Interpretive Dance Squad's genius take on Estelle's "American Boy." They drilled the entire crowd through the interpretive routine we would do during the chorus and while it was pretty basic, I have no muscle memory and could not remember the sequence—being distracted by the VIDS' own moves on stage didn't help either. With my pathetic exception, however, the entire audience rose to the challenge.

Another highlight was Molly Pope's saucy cover of "I Kissed a Girl." The deceivingly demure-looking Pope has real pipes (check out the videos on her site) but she also knows how to interpret a song. She completely reinvented the meaning behind Katy Perry's words without changing them (note to Gay Pimp: that's how it's done), turning an exploitative ditty into a carefree, sexy awakening.

It may have been freezing cold outside, but at the Zipper, we were all basking in the warmth of entertainment magic.

Welcome to the Pop Club

I'd been waiting to do a singles panel for a long time and the time has finally come.

Head over to the TONY blog for the debut of the Pop Club, in which I discuss new tunes with fellow scribes Jimmy Draper and Kurt B. Reighley. That Google Talk thingie sure is fun…

Friday, December 05, 2008

Opening Night at BAM

There's only two performances left of Opening Night at the BAM Harvey, so get rolling: This is a must-see if you like smart theater.

I went because Ivo van Hove is one of my two or three favorite directors at this point, not because I'm a particularly big fan of the source material, John Cassavetes's 1977 movie of the same name. I'd rented it a couple of years ago when going through a Gena Rowlands phase and was bored out of my mind—quite an achievement because on paper the film is right up my alley, ie, it's about a theater actress and a struggling show. I'm starting to think Cassavetes's tic-laden oeuvre may be one of the most overrated in the history of film; he's certainly a director who's created a thousand monsters (his influence on the worst aspects of modern French cinema cannot be understated), though admittedly he can hardly be blamed for that.

Anyway, not having liked the movie, I quite enjoyed this Dutch-language stage version, particularly the ending, which I found incredibly affecting.

Van Hove's main conceptual device is the use of a live video feed, so you watch some of the action on a large screen. When there was a scene between two characters, for instance, you could watch it in HD closeup (and those shots were often formally superb) or you could watch the live actors on stage. Following the advice of my colleague Helen Shaw, I deliberately focused on the stage rather than the screen, though I have to admit it was hard not to lapse—clearly part of a taunting game Van Hove played with the audience. (References to the Wooster Group have been bandied around but they're off-base to me. Just because someone uses video on stage doesn't mean they can be compared to the Wooster Group; the means and intents are very different here.) Opening Night is so formally and conceptually rich that I don't have the time to go into details here; for what it's worth, I highly recommend experiencing it for yourself.

Other than Van Hove's command of the theatrical space, you need to go to BAM to see his troupe. As we know from his collaborations with our own Elizabeth Marvel, the man gets unbelievable performances out of his actors. He makes them go from zero to 60 in a single scene, and in a hybrid style that's halfway between naturalistic and stylized. Special mention to Elsie de Brauw in the Rowlands part. It's always incredibly exciting to discover a true stage animal, an actor with such a vibrant presence that your eyes are on her even when she's not doing or saying anything. Of course it's a discovery for us here since De Brauw is well known in the Netherlands. To think of all the extraordinary stage actors we never get to see in New York…

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Lena Philipsson again and again

I realize that not only have I been slacking on the posting front, but I'm doing two (almost) in a row about Lena Philipsson. Deal with it: we're lucky to live in Lena's world.

The news this time is that yesterday the Dilettante's Special Stockholm Correspondent actually saw Lena + Orup (as it is billed), and he even snapped some photos. I'm putting up my favorite: Lena sang "Det gör ont" in a nurse's uniform that somehow involved a micro-skirt (hot pants on the backup singers). Oh I just love her so much!

Apparently there were several costume changes, a karaoke segment involving two Japanese men (genius!), and Lena and Orup even signed CDs afterwards. According to the DSSC, the evening was "a curious mix of power pop, rockabilly, state-of-the-art schlager, acoustic ballads and karaoke. But it worked!"

And where was I while all this fabulousness was unfolding? At a little cutting-edge pageant called White Christmas—or rather Irving Berlin's White Christmas on Broadway. It actually was a pleasant surprise, which sometimes happens when you go in with very low expectations. As far as seasonal shows go, this one is pretty fun. First, you always have Irving Berlin tunes to fall back on. Second, the cast is made up of amiable pros who may lack that extra little something that sets the star apart from the journeyman, but they seemed to have fun—and that goes a long way with me. Third: Susan Mansur, the kind of scenery-chewing comic second banana I adore. Fourth: lots of tapping. Randy Skinner isn't the most creative choreographer, but he sure loves those ensemble numbers with hoofers going at it full force, and I happily respond to them in a Pavlovian manner.

Proposition 8, the Musical

It had to happen: Marc Shaiman, of Hairspray's fame, has put together a three-minute musical about Proposition 8. It's got a starry cast, references to sodomy and shrimp cocktails, and jaunty tunes. I don't ask for much more from musicals.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lena and Agnes go boating

Lena Philipsson has been among my absolute favorite pop divas since 2004, when she represented Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest in Istanbul with "It Hurts." I actually prefer the original, "Det gör ont," which she performed during the Swedish elimination round before switching to English. I linked to both versions so you can compare. Visually she stuck to the formula that helped her win Melodifestivalen (fringes, boots and a mike stand) but somehow I like the song better in Swedish. In any case, the key change is killer in both versions.

Lena is a genuine pop queen: She doesn't need cockamamie choreography or huge video screens to hold a room in the palm of her hand—she's all about old-fashioned charisma. And she knows who her true fans are: she performed at Stockholm's Schlagerpride this summer (love the Swedes rapturously singing along to "Der gör ont"). And to think the Sheila and I missed that event by a mere week…

I just got my hands on Lena's new album, Dubbel, a schlagtastic collection of duets with longtime collaborator Orup. The first single was "Nu när du gått," which is pure retro heaven (which it kinda had to be considering it starts just like "This Old Heart of Mine," while "Hals Över Huvud" is a carbon copy of "Chain Reaction"), but the rest of the record is almost as good—and I love that Lena steadfastly sticks with Swedish.

In a different style, Agnes (Carlsson), a former winner of Swedish Idol, has also delivered a winner with Dance Love Pop. The first single, "On and On," is classic Scandi high-paced club pop: nothing revolutionary there, just sterling craftsmanship.

Catherine Opie and the Black Watch

It's busy, busy, busy over at the Sunday Arts blog: Here I go on about Black Watch (spoiler: I liked it but didn't love it) and there we have a bit about Catherine Opie waving her freak flag at the Gugg.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The gaying of Thanksgiving

A few days ago, I was hyperventilatingly anticipating the debut of Rosie O'Donnell's variety show. I ended up not being able to watch it live, but caught up with the finest moments the following day—it was part of our post-feast Thanksgiving TV entertainment, along with last year's Radio City Christmas Spectacular (the year the most excellent Linda Haberman started reshaping the Rockettes in particular and the show in general) and Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special from 1988. (Needless to say, this was a rather gay Thanksgiving. Thanks Brett and David!)

Anyway, Rosie's special was quite the cheesefest. How can she mean so well and do so wrong? It's all fixable though: She basically needs to refrain from putting herself in almost every number. I realize this is hard to fathom for someone like Rosie, endowed with both a prodigious ego and an unfettered enthusiasm for all things Broadway that, while endearing, gives her the misguided desire to be onstage with her idols. I do have to admit that "City Lights," the number I was gushing about before seeing the show, delivered because Rosie did it with Liza herself, and the sight of them desperately selling razzmatazz was chilling. At one point Liza did a bizarre high kick, which we replayed over and over, split between disbelief, hilarity and a certain joy at Liza's manic need to entertain. Still, if this is what we can expect from her upcoming show at the Palace, I'm a little scared.

Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite American holiday because it's just an opportunity to have good food and good times with friends. There's no god, no presents, no pressure. Not having family here, the Sheila and I usually end up with similar strays, who tend to be from foreign lands or gay or both. For us, it's a great time to enjoy our new life in our adoptive country.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stage frights

The night’s oddity was an ominous electronic remix of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” throbbing and tinkling as Ms. Brightman, dressed like Little Red Riding Hood, pedaled a (stationary) bicycle through darkness with holographic wolves looming nearby. She was rapping, “Even if you cry you won’t be heard,” and wailing, “It’s just in my mind!”
The review of Sarah Brightman's show at Madison Square Garden makes it sound right up my alley. Why wasn't I there? Why oh why oh why?!? This is the kind of nutso showbiz move I just adore.

At least I will be home tomorrow evening for the premiere of Rosie O'Donnell's new live variety show. I was already feeling warm and fuzzy toward it—I'll watch anything that involves "Broadway dancers, celebrity appearances, musical acts and comedy sketches"—but the news that the program will open with "City Lights" from the Kander & Ebb musical The Act (directed by Martin Scorsese!) makes it unmissable. Yes, they are going to do this:

Okay, now picture it with Rosie instead of Liza. It's going to be a moment for the ages, and it'll be witnessed by all the show-tunes freaks of America. How could this not do well in the ratings? Actually, don't answer that, especially if you work for NBC.

Le Flashdance

Julien Doré, who won Nouvelle Star (ie French Idol) last year is the kind of reality-TV winner we don't really see here in the US—let's just say he mentioned in a post-win interview that his entering the contest was an art project inspired by Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.

Doré wrote most of the material on his debut album, Ersatz, and he also covers Gainsbourg's "SS in Uruguay" (from Rock Around the Bunker). He walks a very fine line between self-conscious post-modernism and genuine sentiment, as evidenced on the song/video combo of "Figures Imposées": There's a cheesy atmosphere part Flashdance/Fame, part misty David Hamilton, along with a cameo by Catherine Deneuve (looking like she just stepped out from Madame Tussaud's), but the song itself is an appealingly heartfelt grower and I love the 80s synths, which really bring me back.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Puttin' on the Kritz

Are we living in a golden age of funny women? Oh yes we do. While the Apatow gang and the frat pack make what feels like a gazillion movies a year, the truly incisive fun comes from women. So why Tina Fey, Wanda Sykes, Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler don't overtake the movie screens the way Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell or the inexplicably ubiquitous Seth Rogen do is beyond me. (And let's not even broach the issue of Seth Rogen getting the cool chicks. AAARGGGHHHH!) As much as I love The 40 Year Old Virgin, everything else Judd Apatow has produced is dreck. The Sheila and tried to watch Step Brothers last night and gave up after less than half an hour: The sight of Ferrell and John C. Reilly as 40-year-old children involved in a deep bromance with each other was just too pathetic. I do have a teeny tiny bit of a thing for Ferrell—ah, Blades of Glory—but Step Brothers was just too much infantilization.

Okay, deep breath. And now back to the awesome chicks.

On Thursday, we saw the Encores! production of On the Town, which was a treat from beginning to end. I just can't get tired of hearing those classic scores performed by the large and in charge Encores! orchestra—which was even bigger than usual for this run, and really did justice to Bernstein's work. And I was once again reminded of how Betty Comden and Adolph Green really are among my very favorite Broadway artisans.

Playing horny cab driver Hildy Esterhazy was longtime Dilettante fave Leslie Kritzer. She did a great job with the swinging "I Can Cook Too" and narrowly avoided a total disaster when her dress got caught in the head of costar Justin Bohon during "Come Up to My Place" and she almost fell off the chair she was standing on. You kinda had to be there.

The only reason Kritzer wasn't the biggest scenery chewer that night is that Andrea Martin was also in the cast and laid waste to everything in sight. Martin managed to repeatedly crack up Jessica Lee Goldyn (who played Miss Turnstiles Ivy Smith), particularly when, explaining vocal techniques, she lunged at Goldyn's breasts, bellowing "The resonators!" Comedy gold!

Anyway, Kritzer seems to be branching out into straight-up laffs as opposed to pure musical theater, and she's set up a dedicated channel on YouTube that includes her audition video for Saturday Night Live (I'm not sure if she actually submitted it to the show or not). Now that Pushing Daisies seems to be cancelled, can we get Kritzer and Chenoweth in a show? I'm not sure Broadway could take the both of them together, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Getting Blasted at Soho Rep

After a month's delay, I finally saw Soho Rep's acclaimed production of Sarah Kane's Blasted tonight. I have no idea how the NY Times reviewer could state that "the play’s concluding moment makes clear that Ms. Kane can still see potential for goodness in people, that she hasn’t given up on life" because there is absolutely none, zero, zilch hope in Blasted.

The ending in question, coming on the heels of scenes of rape, enucleation and cannibalism (not just any cannibalism: someone chews into a dead baby) does not provide a sliver of relief. On the contrary, Kane takes Beckett's absurdism to its absolute nihilistic, inhuman limit—I found the vision of Reed Birney's character, Ian, swallowed up to his neck under his hotel room's floor strikingly reminiscent of Happy Days for instance. But accepting that this is a pitch-black vision also means accepting an absolute lack of the aforementioned goodness, and that is a prospect too unbearable for some. If you need solace, or the possibility of solace, to go on, you need to believe Kane hasn't "given up on life." (We know she had.)

She once said that the characters of Blasted are hopeful because they "continue to scrape a life out of the ruins." But that is precisely why the show is so bleak: The gun Ian tries to use to kill himself is empty. You can't escape from that hell, so you have to live in it. Kane did not try to scrape a life out of the ruins for herself: She committed suicide.

Kane also said that "to create something beautiful about despair, or out of a feeling of despair, is…the most hopeful, life-affirming thing a person can do." But this, to me, applies to what one can get out of a despairing play such as Blasted after seeing it. I did not find it depressing, for instance, unlike some of the spectacles on Broadway, with all their bloated, vulgar vanity, or the fact that the current President of the U.S. is a war criminal and most likely will get away with it.

No, Kane creates something not about despair but from despair. We answer after seeing the show, because Blasted pushes your face down into vomit and blood and pain and tears, and the only response possible is to then push your head back up and gasp for air. But this can work only if the play itself is an airless pit of bleakness. There is no exit.

Carla sings a new tune on American TV

There's many sentences I thought I'd never hear. Yet one of them rolled out—not so smoothly since it involved French words—of Matt Lauer's mouth today: "And here she is, the First Lady of France, with her new song…"

Lo and behold, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was on the Today Show this morning, playing two tracks from her latest album. And yes, the link includes video evidence! We are reaching new levels of surrealism here, people. (I typed "my friends" at first but then I remembered that 1. not all of you are my friends and 2. just yesterday the Sheila finished a sentence with "my friends" and I asked her if she was turning into John McCain.)

French readers should correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure Carla didn't perform in France to plug the album. Something or other about it not being dignified. Yeah, whatevs. Clearly the dignity rules are suspended on this side of the Atlantic. It's like eating sweets: It doesn't count when you do it on vacation.

For those about to rawk

Boss Hog has just announced it's playing Bowery Ballroom on December 17. I dashed out a little something on the Time Out New York blog about it, so I'll just add here that Cristina Martinez has got to be one of my absolute favorite rock singers ever. And I won't undermine her achievement by saying "one of my absolute favorite female rock singers ever."

The band hasn't played here in eight years, which kinda neatly coincides with the Bush administration. Yeah, I would have taken a leave of absence, too.

Shakespearean Borat

Now I certainly don't want to echo Stockhausen's remark about 9/11 being "the greatest work of art there has ever been," but a line in Ayman al- Zawahiri's latest communiqué did strike me as uncommonly poetic: "Be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them." Keep in mind I'm merely talking about style, not content.

Note, for instance, that the dogs have not found the flesh delicious: They have found it "to be delicious." There's a certain flow to it, like Borat writing a Shakespearean sonnet. The tone throughout is also oddly sexual in a subliminal manner—the mix of desire and violence is startling. Al Qaeda may have a future writing for HBO if, you know, they weren't such blood-thirsty fundies.

Going high-tech at the Met

What's the best chaser for the awesome experience that was the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway? A three-hour opera. No, really.

I can't say I was really looking forward to go out last night: I had had two hours of sleep in the previous 26 hours, a long day in the TONY trenches (thank you, accelerated Thanksgiving schedule!), and the prospect of parking my butt in a Met seat for an extended period of time was not all that alluring. I mean, normally it would be but what I really wanted was to go home, watch a couple of 30 Rock episodes on DVD and crash. But it was not to be, and I don't regret it for a second.

Robert Lepage's production of La Damnation de Faust was the first time Berlioz's piece had been fully staged at the Met since 1906. It was touted as a multimedia wonderland blah blah blah…but I was really afraid this was another case of the Met patting itself on the back for bravely going where theater has been for the past 30 years. But you know what? Lepage knocked my socks off.

This video preview gives a faint idea of the basic concept so I'll spare you the details. What I liked best is that this wasn't technical wizardry for its own sake: There was a real director with a real eye at the helm. The second half alone is one of the most striking things I've ever witnessed on stage. Of particular note: When the grid-like scaffold the action was taking place on morphed from something out of Tron into cast-iron into trees; when, a bit later, those trees shriveled up and died as Mephistophéles walked past them. And in Marguerite's big aria, Susan Graham was dwarfed by a gigantic video projection of herself (shot live), her head engulfed in flames and smoke. This all made Peter Sellars and Bill Viola's highly-touted Tristan Project —the last time a creative team really went full-on, large-scale multimedia on opera's ass here—look like an NYU student project.

Another highlight: Lepage's vision of Hell seamlessly blended the human (the Met's chorus, which had been superlative all evening, switched into an even higher gear then) and the oppressively mechanical. It may have been Hell, but I was in Heaven. (Oh, we saw that too, actually.)

As a funny sidenote, when the chorus of damned souls switched to Berlioz's "infernal language" to invoke the names of demons ("O mérikariu! O midara caraibo lakinda, merondor dinkorlitz, merondor! Satan! Belphégor! Astaroth! Méphisto!"), the man in front of me toggled through the various options offered by the Met titles, as if he thought his console had suddenly jumped from English to Ancient Sumerian.

The singers copped well with the demands placed on them by working on a multilevel scaffold. John Relyea's Mephistophélès pranced around in a red leather suit, preceded by his codpiece (which elicited titters from the audience upon its grand entrance) and Marcello Giordani's Faust was fine, though he didn't quite rouse me—unlike Susan Graham, a big reason the second half rocketed into the stratosphere. When she literally went up in smoke during "D'Amour, l'ardente flamme," the image was perhaps obvious since that's what she was singing about, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it was a theatrical vision for the ages and it'll remain seared in my retina.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The 24 Hour Plays

Since yesterday evening, I've been liveblogging the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway on the TONY blog. It's been a lot of fun so far, and surprisingly I don't seem to have been affected by sleeping only two hours last night. Or maybe I have been affected and I can't tell the difference. Judge for yourself. The whole she-bang ends tonight around 10pm and I'm glad to be able to bring my friend Tristan (the Sheila has another engagement), who I'm sure will have thoughts of his own.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Opera drama

New York City Opera may have a non-season kind of season, but that doesn't mean it's not providing backstage drama. Go visit the Sunday Arts blog for my take on that little hothouse of nuttiness.

I'm preparing to go and cover the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway event for the Time Out New York blog. Do drop by and visit that site tomorrow—really early: the first post of what I hope will be several posts should be up around midnight or 1am.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pins and needles

Gosh Dilettante, what an exciting life you lead: at the opera one night, some kooky avant-garde performance the next, a big Broadway hit after that…truly, do you ever rest?

The short answer is no. There is, however, more variety in my entertainment diet than I may let on. Do read Judy M's report on our latest exciting sporting endeavor. It's a fine read, though she does not mention that I led the entire second game, only to collapse ignominously in the last frame and lose by two measly points. Noooooooo!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Gaahl is out

Okay, we've just lost a lesbian character on TV, but we've also gained a badass, antisocial gay man! Gorgoroth's frontman Gaahl has come out in a German mag. Gorgoroth is one of my favorite classic-sounding Norwegian black-metal bands, so I find this news particularly exciting.

Gorgoroth—which has already been dubbed Gayrgoroth by hatas—is one of the most extreme bands in the BM scene. These guys don't go for fancy or proggy or folky: Just the old-school hate, m'am! Alas we'll probably never see them in the US because Gaahl has a police record and is unlikely to ever get a visa. Unless Obama's administration relaxes immigration restrictions for artists who have spent quality time in the clink.

Based on the interview, Gaahl's now happy—he had his first relationship last year at age 32, which may explain why he had been so crabby for the past, oh, 20 years—and has started designing clothes in addition to his musical career. I'm really curious to see what the next album is going to be like ’cause I'm just not sure Gaahl can sustain his previous levels of near-psychopathic intensity now that he's getting laid.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Where dinosaurs roam

I write about the upcoming Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival on the Sunday Arts blog. This fest, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History, has got to be one of the coolest in town. Plus it's a great place to pick up…er, meet internationally minded people. Which you are if you read this blog. I'm just sayin'…

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Stormy weather in Shondaland

I know we're supposed to be all sunny and positive until at least the end of the week but life goes on—even if some TV characters clearly don't. So here I am, venting about the recent dismissal of my favorite Grey's Anatomy actor/character over on the Time Out New York blog. Oh well, at least I will gain an extra hour a week since that show is now officially retired from my viewing schedule.

American at last

I had been eligible for American citizenship for quite a while, but I only made up my mind when Bush was reelected in 2004: I wanted to vote the next time around. After a longish but uneventful naturalization process, I became an American citizen two years ago. Quite frankly, it felt mostly like a bureaucratic procedure and I still thought of myself as French. I started to feel some stirrings when I cast my vote in the Democratic primary in February. Readers of this blog know I was a Clinton supporter but I had zero qualms supporting Obama once he was the nominee, and yesterday I voted for him 110%. (Factoid: voting with one hand—especially when you're not experienced with the New York system—while trying to film with the other is hard!)

This morning, I can say that for the first time, I am an American. I feel American. There is no shame anymore in holding this passport. And in fact, it's the country holding my other passport, the French one, that suddenly looks archaic with its antiquated power structure and elite-grooming system.

In the meantime, the tears have got to stop! Cars honk in triumph: I well up. Strangers scream in joy: waterworks. I look at the newspapers' covers and it's sob time.

But the thing that really, really gets me is when I think of the point in Obama's acceptance speech when he said America is "young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled." I know this is par-for-the-course verbiage, but at the same time it means a lot that he included gay people. I didn't think it would matter so much to me, but it does. Especially since as I write, it looks like the loathsome Proposition 8 making same-sex marriage illegal has passed in California. Part of me hopes it's just the death throes of a certain kind of mean-spirited, exclusionary thinking, but at the same time I'm not blinded enough by last night's triumph to actually believe it. We may be energized, but so is the dark side.

So yeah, I'm euphoric right now. It won't last long because the country's in a right old mess, but we can savor victory for a bit. Our side had forgotten what it tastes like.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Miller time…again

More thoughts on Arthur Miller's All My Sons and stage directing in general over at the SundayArts blog.

This damn election is making me so antsy that even the Sheila is starting to lose her patience with me. Clearly this cannot be over soon enough. I will vote at P.S. 321 first thing tomorrow morning and get my infinitesimal share over with. This will be my second vote as a newly minted American citizen after the Democratic primary: yay!

Oh, and if you are in a country/city in the world that gets the francophone channel TV5 Monde, do tune in for its election-night coverage, as I helped put the New York portion together. I believe we'll be on from 5:30pm to 11:30pm EST.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Fassbinder is still dead

Because the Sheila is learning German, we've been watching a lot of German films over the past few months. Last night we polished off Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy with Veronika Voss. It's actually the second one, sandwiched between The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, but we watched it last.

The story of a morphine-addicted, washed-out movie star in 1955, Veronika Voss may well be the Fassbinder film in which his debt to Hollywood melodramas is the most obvious because it goes well beyond themes and structures: The aesthetic of those b&w Warner Brothers women's films of the 1940s is emulated to a degree that borders on the religious. Emulated and amplified, actually: Some scenes look so overexposed that they're literally blinding.

To achieve that effect, Fassbinder used Orwo, an East German film stock that provided extremely deep contrasts between black and white. (Kieslowski also purposefully used Orwo in the 1977 doc From a Night Porter's Point of View and apparently it was also used in the 1999 noir Night Train.) Indeed, VV has got to be one of the best deliberate uses of b&w I've ever seen. In the scenes in the apartment of the doctor who "takes care" of Veronika, the characters, dressed in black, glide across eye-searing white. The effect is both hypnotic and shocking, a visual device that calls attention to itself and yet doesn't come across as being ironic.

The Veronika Voss DVD includes a chat between lead actress Rosel Zech and Juliane Lorenz, who now more or less runs the Fassbinder Foundation—much to the dismay of many of the director's old friends and associates, such as actress Ingrid Caven and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who think Lorenz is self-servingly distorting Fassbinder's life and legacy. (Check out this fascinating interview with Caven, in which she lashes out at Lorenz.)

Next stop: Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Heartless Brooklyn

Where else would crowds boo a marathon runner but in Brooklyn? Those Park Slope homies are tough, man!

I just came back from watching about 40,000 people run the New York Marathon a few blocks from my apartment, and yes, amidst all the cheers, someone got heckled.

Okay, perhaps I should specify that not only was the guy wearing a McCain-Palin t-shirt, but he was also carrying a sign for them. The Park Slopers reacted right away, like bulls in front of a red flag. [Update: It was this guy. And once again, he's the only McCain supporter.]

That was the only McCain supporter I saw, however. He was vastly outnumbered by people running in Obama gear. The best part was the runners who had come from foreign countries showing their support as well: I saw several variations on "Italy for Obama," "Germany for Obama," etc.

As we near the election, I refuse to let myself think about November 5th. Every time I slide into daydreaming about an Obama victory, I need to superstitiously knock on wood immediately thereafter. Time cannot fly fast enough.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Full Benny action

Benny Andersson has always been my favorite member of Abba. There's many things I love about him so I'll pick just one: the way he beams in many of the group's videos and in live footage. There he is, banging on his piano, bobbing his head, looking happy as a Swedish clam. But it's not self-satisfaction you can read on his face: He looks as if he can't believe his luck of having the other three to help him create such brilliant pop.

Conversely, I recently learned that his "Tröstevisa" is the piece of music that's played the most at Swedish funerals.

About a month ago Benny was given a honorary doctorate by Stockholm University, and he recently participated in a one-on-one chat there. Of course the Dilettante's Special Stockholm Correspondent was in attendance, camera in hand, and he emailed the following.

"Today, I attended Benny Andersson's lecture at Stockholm University. Or, rather, his conversation with the head of musicology, professor Holger Larsen. Visibly nervous, but quickly warming up to the encouragement—in the form of smiles, laughter and gentle applause—of the audience (there were about 200-250 of us), he talked about his career and played a few songs on the grand piano, including one from Chess and two or three from BAO [a.k.a. Benny Anderssons Orkester]. One he played that I hadn't heard before was "Cirkus Finemang" (an almost untranslatable title; 'Finemang' is something my grandparents might have said, meaning 'top stuff', 'smashing'). Actually, an orchestral studio version was played in the big speakers, and then Benny played the solo bit in the middle live. I was quite touched by the haunting melody.

And he had brought a CD with a medley of favourites, seven or eight tracks, though sadly I don't know what all of them were. Well, one was a traditional Swedish folk song (performed on fiddles) and one was Maria Callas, and another one I'm pretty sure was Le mystère des voix bulgares, and then there was 'Good Vibrations' by the Beach Boys.

No great surprises perhaps, but he really comes across as a very nice person. He said making music is making choices. You choose what you want to do and where you want to go (if you have that particular gift). He told us he drew on a slightly different set favourites from British and American composers of popular music: Caterina Valente, Hugo Montenegro, Mantovani, 50's and 60's Schlager—as well as the expected Beach Boys.

They were going to broadcast the conversation live, but opted against it at the last minute. They were supposed to talk for an hour and then have some questions from the floor, but Benny didn't seem to want to stop, so the whole thing went on for an hour and a half. And he signed autographs afterwards! My impression is Benny's a music man, through and through. He loves music, making it and, I think, listening to it.

When asked what he thought about the present (conservative) government's plans to drastically cut funding for music, drama and dance in Swedish schools, he said he didn't know that this was more than a proposal, but if it were, we would need a new government. And he added, I think we need a new government anyway! Considering the amount of times he's been accused of being a greedy capitalist, this, I thought, was quite a strong statement. Curiously enough, there was no great round of applause. (This is a government that has abolished free museum entry and has talked about introducing charges in libraries…)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burning up the French screens

Burning up the French television screens, that is—and it's philosophy we're talking about. If you live in France, this fall you can watch a new show that explores all kinds of topics in a philosophical light. This isn't new for the country: In my last year of high school there, I had eight hours of philosophy a week (I was in the so-called literary section, but still), and the popular monthly Philosophie Magazine has features like Manu Chao chatting with his old philosophy teacher.

Anyway, the format of the new TV show is really intriguing: In each installment, host Raphaël Enthoven discusses a single topic with a guest. The hook: It's all shot in a 26-minute-long single take! It doesn't hurt that Enthoven is a hottie who not only writes books about Kant and Montaigne, and contributes to the aforementioned mag, among other publications, but used to be married to Bernard-Henry Levy's daughter Justine, whom he left for…Carla Bruni. This collision of celeb-watching and matters of the mind makes me incredibly giddy for some reason.

Monday, October 27, 2008

All about Godard

The September issue of Harper's (yes, I'm way behind) is a particularly good vintage. The centerpiece is Paul Reyes's matter-of-factly depressing "Bleak Houses," about cleaning up foreclosed homes in Florida.

J. Hoberman also has "Godard the Obscure," the kind of essay that makes the death spiral of the Village Voice, where he is a film critic, even more painful; where are people like him going to write as more and more publications go down the drain? Hoberman knows his stuff: You have to in order to write something like "Rimbaud abandoned poetry to run guns. So, too, Godard, although in his case it was as though he had abandoned poetry for the idea of running the idea of guns." In a short sentence, Hoberman encapsulates Godard's immediate post-Weekend work.

That said, it bothers me a bit that the essay is announced as discussing Richard Brody's Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, because Hoberman doesn't actually engage with the book. He mentions it a few times but that's it. This approach bugs me about the New Yorker's book reviews too: The vast majority of them just use a recent publication as a convenient peg from which to hang a coat one had been wanting to trot out for a while. Hoberman's piece is a smart take on Godard's evolution as a filmmaker, but after finishing it, I have no idea what Hoberman thought of Brody's own take.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Róisín and the amazing technicolor overcoats

There's concerts, and then there's events. Róisín Murphy at Mansion tonight was definitely in the latter category. I've seen lots of pop extravaganzas over the years, but this one made me feel as if my brain had imploded. In a good way, of course.

Róisín is the Tilda Swinton of pop: Beyond their blonde palor, the two women share a sense of eccentric style and quirky tastes, as well as a gift to incorporate the experimental into the mainstream and an earthy sense of humor that sets them well aside from the safe discourse of most performers. Even when they venture into the commercial realm—Tilda Swinton in The Chronicles of Narnia, say, or Róisín recording a disco anthem—there's something completely sui generis about the way they go about it. The video for "Movie Star," for instance, pays tribute to both Leigh Bowery and John Waters's Multiple Maniacs, with Róisín getting molested by a lobster.

But back to last night.

The sense that something special was brewing was clear as soon as the Sheila and I rounded the corner of W 28th St: the entire block was taken up by the biggest line I've seen for a show in years, if not ever; inside Mansion, a sprawling deluxe establishment with plenty of nooks and crannies, chandeliers and disco balls, the bilevel main floor was already packed to the gills (the crowd was 80% male, perhaps because the show was presented by the Saint at Large).

Things started off with a pounding 4/4 beat, which turned out into "Cry Baby," the most Moroderish track on the singer's last album, Overpowered. She showed up wearing a shiny gold jacket over black leggings, a long-sleeved, skintight white top, vertiginous heels, black leather gloves and shades (which, of course, she took off on the line "Tired of wiping the tears from your eyes"). On the next song Róisín traded the jacket for a fringed leather one.

The jacket and accessories switches went on until about halfway through, when she stepped it up: She attached a fake hump to her back, then covered it with an enormous fluffy Big Bird–like cape, topped off with a large dinner-plate hat. There was also a large white angel-wing-shaped fur overcoat matched with a black fetish cap. And a deep pink/red hat with a face on it. And ballooning gold overalls with corset lacing at the back. And a dress that looked like it had been built by Frank Gehry. And more hats and gloves and shoes. There was a change for every song, and the best part is the music never stopped—it was like the concert version of a mix-CD.

The craziest outfit may well have been for "Overpowered": a tartan deer cape (with an actual deer-like animal precariously perched on top of the shoulders like some kind of Surrealistic stole) topped with an antler hat, like an even more demented version of Björk's swan dress. At the end of the song, Róisín collapsed to the floor, taking out the garment as she did and cradling the animal. It was completely bizarre and completely riveting.

And yet she came back and topped it! On the finale, an explosive version of "Rama Lama (Bang Bang)," she wore a foofy coat made of real chicken feathers, then at the end started a brawl with her backup singers, the three women tumbling to the floor (again!) and exchanging fisticuffs.

Through 90 minutes, Róisín never let up: This woman knows how to work a stage. Yet far from the over-rehearsed aerobicized vulgarity all too common among American pop and R&B stars, she danced like a club girl: There were just enough poses and coordinated moves with her backup singers to indicate that careful thought had gone into it all, but her goofy energy was that of someone who's logged miles on a real dance-floor. Plus she indulged in energetic headbanging a few times, blonde hair flying all over.

Someone's already posted some videos from last night, which should give you a vague idea of the fever-pitch excitment of it all: "Cry Baby", "Dear Miami," "Overpowered" (with the deer!), "Forever More" and "Movie Star." I'm sure more will be posted once the revelers wake up.

Finally, I've talked a lot about the visuals, but Róisín has got to be one of the most underrated singers around, with a sexy, smokey tone that's all her own. Check out this live rendition of Moloko's "The Time Is Now" on a British TV show: just gorgeous. "Let Me Know" (which was disco heaven last night) ain't too shabby either.

Friday, October 24, 2008

All the young skanks

You gotta have a gimmick, especially on Broadway, so the musical 13 has one: there isn't a single adult in the cast. (The title refers to the lead character's turning that age, and the plot hinges on his bar mitzvah.) But this isn't my main problem with the show, and as much as he set himself up as a target for ridicule in his recent New York Times profile, Jason Robert Brown's score isn't either. My colleague Adam Feldman shot down 13 with his usual deadly accuracy in his Time Out New York review, but he didn't really explore the one aspect that bugged me most: 13's bizarrely musty mysogyny.

The show opens with a scene in which the kids dance up a storm in what's supposed to be a New York street. One of the girls is leaning against a lamppost, striking a come-hither pose. "Is she supposed to be a hooker?" I whispered to my friend, only half-joking. She wasn't, but she sure looked like one. And it was all downhill from there: The love interest is a bland hippy chick, the best friend is a sexually aggressive manipulator, the popular girl has zero personality. None of them registers at all, and all of them are stuck in thankless parts with thankless songs. There's just something seriously wrong about a show that depicts a young girl in such a light that the Times critic feels at liberty to describe her as "skanky." (To be clear: there's something icky about both the show and the critic so casually calling a 13-year-old girl skanky.)

Finally, and unrelated to the girl issue, these guys have the gumption to poke fun at Disney. Sure, Disney's done its share of dreck, but it's also brought to Broadway the likes of Julie Taymor, Matthew Bourne and Francesca Zambello. Guys doing conventional pap like 13 don't have a leg to stand on.