Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Springer in my step

I saw Jerry Springer: The Opera at Carnegie Hall and was somewhat impressed—by the show itself rather than the production—even if I can't say I reached the gushing heights of Ben Brantley, going all Edmund Hillary on us in the NY Times. In brief: the score is absolutely superb, the lyrics are uneven, the libretto even more so.

Two particular elements that Brantley singled out for praise were glaringly faulty to me: The orchestra sounded tinny and sometimes cheaply undersized (cost-cutting measure?), and Harvey Keitel was a problem in the title role—as in, he had zero stage presence. This proved to be disastrous in the second act, in which Jerry Springer really comes to the fore and has to carry a lot more of the action than in the first act, where the parade of trailer-trash guests provides all the entertainment we need (but even there, the book could have been tightened up). Unfortunately, Keitel was a blank, robotically walking through the evening. Good thing the rest of the cast was superb, with a particular shout-out to Max von Essen, who made a brilliant entrance in a mini-skirt and pumps.

That was only one of the many bright moments that night. I'm no fan of profanity in shows, for instance, finding it usually a weak, cheap crutch, but there the avalanche of raunchy language and situations became completely surreal and turned into a kind of touching and often very funny poetry. (I'm waiting to see if Mamet is able to pull off a similar feat in his new play.)

There's basically two ways to get me at the theater: come up with a completely new device, something completely crazy I've never seen before; or find the extraordinary in the ordinary, sucking art out of the most mundane, the crassest spectacle. Normally I cannot bear the Jerry Springer Show—even at the gym with the sound off I can't look at it. But in that context, it became utterly captivating.

Jerry Springer: The Opera looks at its subjects with both and a refreshing lack of condescension. In that it resembles Mike White's Year of the Dog, possibly the most underrated movie of 2007. I've been told that the trailer makes the movie look like a romcom focusing on the relationship between Molly Shannon and Peter Sarsgaard, played against a cute-pet background. This could not be more misleading, as the film actually looks at a woman taking a drastic turn in her life and at how a certain kind of (benign) extremism can take hold in someone. (There are quite a few incensed posts on IMDB from viewers lured to the movie by the trailer and bitterly complaining about being cheated.) White never patronizes Shannon's character, even when she sinks to a unhinged low at some point; he's also very clear-eyed about the manipulative aspect of Sarsgaard's animal-loving character. And from a purely filmic point of view, White proves to be a more than adept director, coming up with beautiful compositions that really play up the eerie flatness (as in, lack of depth) of the SoCal location.

Bringing up the vote

My interview with Swedish pop star Robyn is in this week's TONY. The one bummer: I won't be around to see her NYC show at Highline Ballroom on February 5.

I'll also miss voting in the New York Democratic primary that same day as I'll be in Colorado. But lo and behold, that state is also holding a primary on February 5 and I've volunteered to help out the locals in Avon! Stay tuned as I encounter American democracy up close and personal.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Entering the 20th century

I just received a mailing from my alma mater, the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (aka Sciences Po), asking for money. They even trumpeted a new logo and included a pin! Now this is routine for alums of American universities, but in France it's pretty racy stuff. The mailing's related to a new law from summer ’07 making a chunk of donations tax-deductible. Again, routine here but groundbreaking in France, where a lot of university-level education is very very cheap (tuition for my years at Sciences Po in the mid-’80s was under $1,000 total). Believe me, escaping from college without debt makes a huge difference on your outlook on life.

But at the same time the French university system is in crisis, crying out for money and losing competitive edge. I can't say that I'm fully aware of all the issues at play, but it's hard to argue with the fact that French universities don't have much money. I feel many American ones have reached a ridiculous level of obscene luxury, absurdly sheltering their clients—sorry, students—inside privileged cocoons, and I certainly think education needs to be either free or cheap (again, getting out of college debt-free is huge), but there's got to be a middle ground somewhere.

Anyway, Sciences Po's president, Richard Descoings, is very proactive (some say in a rather self-serving way; just check out his blog) in modernizing Sciences Po. Part of me likes this aggressive attitude, which I find refreshingly rare in French academia but—and I kinda but kinda not apologize for being so crass here—dude's got to do something about the slicked-back hair; it really only works if you're a flamenco guitarist.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

That warm, fuzzy feeling

I've been having a feisty ongoing debate with a couple of colleagues who are pro-Obama while I'm pro-Clinton. Now, we all agree that no matter who the Democratic nominee is, we will all gladly vote for him/her in November. In the meantime, however, the arguments have been flying left and right like monkeys in the starry Oz night.

One of said colleagues mentioned a recent New Yorker article by George Packer as having convinced him even more of the two candidates' respective (de)merits. I read it this morning on the subway and it made me so angry that I had to put it down for a minute. Most of the article is devoted to Clinton's character and it sets her against her main rival thus: "Clinton as executive, Obama as visionary." Problem is, Obama's speeches maybe visionary but visionary does not pay the bills. His speeches are winning because they are just feel-good hogwash. They are maddeningly evasive, and most of the people who are for him can't get specific about his politics. Obama and his followers assume that once Americans wake up, they will get right back to fulfilling their destiny as naturally generous, enlightened people ready to turn the other cheek, help the downtrodden, clamor for higher taxes for the public good and drive small cars—or even better, use public transportation. Right, the same people who voted for Bush not once but twice (and there was no excuse the second time)—these people just need inspiration to trickle down from above to do the right thing. Same thing for the military and pharmaceutical corporations: They too want change and they'll go along with Obama's "can't we all get along?" plans.

The scary thing is, Obama fans like him for the same reason a lot of people liked Bush: He seems like such a nice fellow. Packer: "In the New Hampshire cafeteria, Clinton couldn’t quite make an individual connection, even when listening sympathetically to a woman in the crowd who said that she held down two jobs and still had trouble paying for her asthma medicine." But I don't want a president to connect with me, Elisabeth Vincentelli—I want the president to connect with the country.

Packer goes on to describe an Obama meeting: "Obama spoke for only twenty-five minutes and took no questions; he had figured out how to leave an audience at the peak of its emotion, craving more. As he was ending, I walked outside and found five hundred people standing on the sidewalk and the front steps of the opera house, listening to his last words in silence, as if news of victory in the Pacific were coming over the loudspeakers. Within minutes, I couldn’t recall a single thing that he had said, and the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days."

What is this, Pollyanna at the megachurch??

I personally would like to have some hard-ass competence in the White House and I don't see Obama as being able to deliver it. If he thinks the Republicans are suddenly going to be swayed by his charm and share in his bipartisan efforts, he's in for a rude awakening—and we may be in for another Carter-type presidency.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The villainy within

So the new Bond movie is going to be called Quantum of Solace, which sounds like something that'd be playing at Manhattan Theater Club. The designated villain this time around is played by Mathieu Amalric, who confides that he's going to play the part prop- and tic-less (ie, forget about slavic accents and fluffy cats). For you see, this guy's villainy comes from within. AP quotes Amalric as saying, 'That's maybe what is horrible about today. We can't guess who the villains are. The villains are invisible.'' The actor also explained that he's modeling his character on Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy. ''I've been taking details, the smile of Tony Blair, the craziness of Sarkozy, he's the worst villain we've ever had."

Note that unlike in most Bond movies, however, it's villainous Sarkozy who's getting the babe right now.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In the mix

The year-end mix I fashioned for Idolator is up here. My TONY colleague K. Leander Williams also made one, which you can check out here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Osterreich & roll

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Der Blutharsch's When Did Wonderland End? for TONY. It was a fairly positive review—at least about the music itself, since it's hard not to have qualms about the band's politics. I'm sure the band doesn't get much mainstream attention that actually focuse on its sound, as it plays martial folk and is prone to military uniforms and listing its song titles in Gothic font. In other words, Der Blutharsch causes me real problems because I quite like many of its albums but the reality of what bandleader Albin Julius is about makes me squeamish, to put it mildly.

Anyway out of the blue—or rather out of Austria—landed on my desk a package containing Der Blutharsch's latest album, The Philosopher's Stone. At first I was mildly freaked out because if there's one mailing list I'm not convinced I want to be on, it's that type. But the rock critic in me quickly took over and I listened to the album.

Judging by the one-sheet that came with it, the CD seems to be Der Blutharsch's last: The self-described "inventors of military pop" are "leaving the arena and heading towards new territories, the promised land on the search for the tower of song." (Huh?) The band's current motto further confuses matters: "Uniforms are always changing — Rock ’n’ roll will stay forever!" Yeah, whatever you say. At least we won't read this in Pitchfork anytime soon.

Once again divided in numbered segments, the CD isn't as diverse and compelling as When Did Wonderland End? (and the production sounds a bit muddy to my ears) but it has its moments, like the weird doomy-psych vibe on track 5. Not to mention that when it comes to a certain kind of grandeur, I'd love to see an oil-wrestling match between Der Blutarsch and the grad students in Arcade Fire.

Der Blutarsch "The Philosopher's Stone II" (from The Philosopher's Stone, 2008)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Educating Rita

Busy Friday evening: The Sheila and I went to see Conor McPherson's The Seafarer on Broadway (blah; how many plays involving endearing drunks can the Irish crank out?) then we rushed downtown to see April March open for Au Revoir Simone at Bowery Ballroom. The show was pretty fun, and once again Bowery's excellent sound system well served the bands.

But the most memorable thing for me may be what happened during the changeover. The Sheila was asking me if I'd ever taken photos at shows and I said no, but during a short period of time in the late ’80s and early ’90s I used a small cassette recorder to tape bands like Pylon, Scrawl and the Go-Betweens. A young gentleman next to us overheard me and very excitedly (and very politely) asked me how I knew the Go-Betweens, because they're such an obscure old band and he had just discovered them himself. I gently told him that the Go-Betweens aren't all that obscure, and that they were still putting out records and playing shows until last year, when one of them died. He looked dumbstruck. I told him that they have a dozen albums out so he has a lot of pleasure in store.

When we left during Au Revoir Simone's set (a little too nice after a while), I gave him a piece of paper where I'd written: "This is where Au Revoir Simone got their inspiration: Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants (1980)." (Yes, I did include the release date; once a rock critic, always a rock critic.) Anyway, I hope he'll look up that band.

Young Marble Giants "N.I.T.A." (from Live at the Hurrah, recorded in 1980)
Young Marble Giants "Colossal Youth" (from Live at the Hurrah, recorded in 1980)
Young Marble Giants "Radio Silents" (from Live at the Hurrah, recorded in 1980)

Lit crit

My review of Walter Mosley's new novel, Diablerie, is in the L.A. Times today. Easy Rawlins fans are dispensed from running to the bookstore: their hero is, alas, nowhere to be seen.

Things have been quiet on the lit front. I'm reading Balzac's A Woman of Thirty but once that's done, I have to immerse myself in research on the early-’90s American music scene for a project due in March. Any suggestions on what I should read?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The year that was

The results of the Idolator music poll are up here and my own ballot is there.

No big surprise: For albums, the top three is made up of LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A. and Radiohead. The music world may have splintered into a million shards, but consensual artists still exist. Of course, they are consensual among a very certain type of music lovers. One of the actual consensual albums of the year in terms of sheer sales shows up at no. 578: I seem to be the only one to vote for the High School Musical 2 soundtrack. Looks like HSM isn't even a perverse hipster pick—yet, as I'm ready to bet some of the songs will be karaoke staples in Williamsburg five years from now. On the other hand, Daughtry, the biggest-selling album of the year, did not get one single lousy vote.

Popular singles seem to be easier to love, with Rihanna's predictable triumph. As much as I adore a good hit, I can't stand this song for one simple reason: the way she sings the word umbrella. Rarely has a single word so irritated me.

Museum piece

Paris' Museum of Music, part of the Cité de la Musique, is putting together a huge exhibition about Serge Gainsbourg, to run from October 2008 to February 2009. A blog dedicated to the show has been set up. There are only two entries so far, but one of them is a doozy: It juxtaposes excerpts showing how both Duke Ellington and Gainsbourg adapted Grieg's "Solveig's Song" from Peer Gynt. Brilliant.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When worlds collide

Two fascinating articles in the New York Times arts section today: an interview with Stephin Merritt (who talks, among other things, about why he dresses all in brown) and a report on rappers suspected of taking human growth hormone and steroids (in hip-hop, "Your body is your brand and you’ve got to maintain that image").

Of course both articles are about the way an artist's visual aesthetics and style make up a personal brand. Still, how fun if there had been an edit mix up: Stephin Merritt is mentioned in steroid scandal, vitamin-water endorsement in danger! Timbaland dresses in khakis and brings Henry James book to parties!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hitting the sawdust

Caught an evening of "new circus" Friday night at the French Alliance. The terms refers to a hybrid of circus, dance, theater and performance art (completely devoid of animals) that's quite popular in France but not really practiced here, where circus means either Ringling Brothers or Cirque du Soleil. The most famous practitioner may be James Thiérrée, who gets gigs at BAM, but otherwise we don't see much new circus in New York, save for the occasional short run at the New Victory Theater on 42nd St.

The French Alliance program introduced four companies, each performing a 20-minute excerpt from its regular evening-length show. The overall tone was elliptical and arty, with varying degrees of success. My favorite was Compagnie XY, whose series of balancing acts used suitcases of various sizes as props; the program explained that "the production examines the outward physical mobility of travel and the interior stagnate life of each traveler," but I mostly saw, well, a balancing act, albeit one with very nice dry humor. A shoe-in for the New Vic.

My other fave was Compagnie Bal's "Éloge du poil" (pictured), in which Jeanne Mordoj, sporting a fake beard, starts off with a contortionist bit, performs ventriloquism with two animal skulls and slides an egg yolk around her neck and along her arms. It's fairly opaque and vaguely creepy, and quite memorable. This one could do well at PS 122.

Jean-Baptiste André used a video camera to add another visual element to his balancing routine. It would have impressed me more if Compagnie 111 hadn't done something very similar in its amazing Plan B at the New Vic a few years ago. Still, André's bit elicited delighted oooh's and aaah's from the audience.

As for Compagnie Chant de Balles, there's only so much juggling I can take, even backed by a live lute player. Especially backed by a live lute player.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Time is money

Apparently President Sarkozy is trying to expand the way a country's economic health is measured by expanding the defining parameters.

According to the Associated Press, "Once the preserve of philosophers, measuring happiness has now become a hot topic in economics.

A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development considers taking into account leisure time and income distribution when calculating a nation's well-being. And the European Commission is working on a new indicator that moves 'beyond GDP' to account for factors such as environmental progress.

Richard Layard, a professor at the London School of Economics and author of the 2005 book 'Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,' said Sarkozy may be seeking recognition for policies, popular in Europe, that promote well-being but don't show up in the GDP statistics.

Governments are rated on economic performance, and this influences policy in favor of boosting GDP, the value of goods and services produced over a calendar year, he said.

'But people don't want to think they live in a world of ruthless competition where everyone is against everyone,' Layard said. 'Valuable things are being lost, such as community values, solidarity.' "

Of course one may suggest that Sarkozy is pushing for this change because on paper France could do better in terms of unemployment or inflation, whereas most French people are not hurting for days off. But really, is using leasure time to measure a country's level of success such a bad idea? Americans are often said to be obsessed with money—it's certainly the image they have in Europe—but is it really so true? I'm pretty sure more than we'd expect would choose a balanced, happy life over the mere accumulation of money. (Or I may just be terminally deluded.) Income distribution also is a huge problem in the US, and I for one would be happy to see a country go down the ranks when the disparity between high and low salaries is too high.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Aussie imports

There are two reasons, both Australian, I started watching Cashmere Mafia: Miranda Otto and Frances O'Connor. Otto (right) is best-known here for playing Éowyn in the Lord of the Rings franchise, but she was a lot more interesting in the small flicks she made in Oz, like The Last Days of Chez Nous, Love Serenade and The Well. O'Connor (left) was really appealing in Love and Other Catastrophes, an otherwise mediocre film.

As for the series itself, it begs the question: Is Darren Star shameless or washed-out or both? Centered around a quartet of women (each representing a different hair demographic; see photo), Cashmere Mafia is a total rip-off of his previous show, Sex and the City. Beyond the core idea of four female friends supporting each other through love and career troubles, the aesthetics are identical: The fifth main character is New York itself, with a profusion of brand-name locations (Cielo and Payard in yesterday's episode), and there's even time-lapse footage of clouds in the sky.

The main difference so far actually reflects an evolution in NYC itself: Samantha & Co. hardly had checkbook problems, but the new characters are seriously loaded. They are career women (they met in business school) who live gilded existences—in short, they're the type of people who can afford places in those "luxury condos" we see going up all over town, and they're the type of people who are sucking the life out of real New York by turning it into a playground for the rich. Not that the series is about that, of course, since it gears up to be your usual relationship porn—just like my other fave, The L Word. Still, the first couple of episodes have me semi-hooked because of the aforementioned actresses (particularly Otto, hottt in the ice-queen way that always works wonders with me).

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Horseman of the apocalypse

I just love tales of artists gone wild and wow, did Bartabas go wild! Or just plain nuts.

New Yorkers may know the monomonickered Bartabas as the leader of the equestrian troupe Zingaro, whose shows Chimere and Eclipse were seen here (under a bigtop) a few years ago. In addition to Zingaro, he runs an equestrian academy in Versailles. Bartabas is all about the poetry of the horse, the unique relationship between man and animal, etc. It's like a highbrow version of Steve Irwin set to world music, an approach that doesn't particularly touch me but whatev'—he's popular.

Back in December, our whisperer du cheval was supposed to meet with a representative from the regional cultural-affairs office to discuss public subsidies to the academy. When told that 4% of the 2008 state contribution was going to be put on hold, Bartabas flipped out, threw a chair at his interlocutor and smashed his desk, stormed out of the office and wrecked xerox machines and a radiator on his way out. He spent the night at the police station.

As if this wasn't embarrassing enough, the latest news is that Bartabas has just sent a letter to the French minister of culture asking her to apologize for preventing him to perform the night of the incident. It's this kind arrogant sense of entitlement that gives cultural subsidies (which I unequivocally support) a bad name. On the other hand, it's small potatoes compared to the current cultural, er, forays made by President Sarkozy.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Two great tastes

What I learned this week: Don't go to the Met doped up on cold medicine. It makes it really really hard to stay awake, especially when the opera is Prokofiev's War and Peace, which goes on for over four hours. I hear it's one of the Met's most lavish productions, which is easy to believe since Prokofiev wrote something like 60ish roles and at times it feels as if there's hundreds of choir members and extras (plus the occasional horse and dog) onstage.

What I had not realized going in was that it was staged by Andrei Konchalovsky, who must have one of the most bizarre trajectories in modern cinema, going from cowriting Andrei Rublev for Tarkovsky to directing the superb epic Siberiade to…Tango & Cash? Hard to believe the same man who could convincingly fit both war and peace (plus the occasional horse and dog) on an uptown stage once handled both Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell for the screen. I do have a fond memory of his Hollywood debut, Runaway Train, a nifty action movie (based on a screenplay idea by Akira Kurosawa!) that starred Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay—the latter two back when above-the-title careers still felt like a serious possibility. Runaway Train was a far sight from Siberiade, but even then, going from it to Tango & Cash must have been a rude awakening as to the inner workings of commercial American cinema—which would find a way to turn the horse and the dog into cute anthropomorphic sidekicks, what with that war and peace business being a bummer and all.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The ones that got away

Like last year I've contributed lists of my favorite albums and songs of 2007 to the polls run by Idolator and The Village Voice. I'm not entirely sure when they're going to come out, but in the meantime here are some songs from 2007 that I discovered after the deadline. I'm pretty sure Emmon's The Art and the Evil would have made the album list had I heard it on time.

Emmon "High Horses" and "Friends" (from The Art and the Evil)
Can't you picture Swedish popstress Emmon, aka Emma Nylén, listening to early Depeche Mode? She's around 13, holed up in her room while it's snowing outside, and suddenly it hits her: Speak & Spell is genius!!!

Nylén (pictured) had a busy year: She's also is in the band Paris, whose own ’07 release ain't too shabby either.
Paris "Mountains" (from The Landlord Is Kind Enough to Let Us Have Our Little Sessions)

Staying in northern Europe, Denmark gave us Private, the new project from former Superheroes mainman Thomas Troelsen. "My Secret Lover," the album's title track, betrays a fixation with early Michael Jackson and Prince. The lyrics are worthy of Miranda Cooper ("I met you at the club, no further comment/I said, Baby, let's go back to your apartment") and the song features two of my favorite pop ingredients: a phone call and meta lines ("Man, I'm a man machine/Check out my style cause I'm going real wild/I'm plugging in keyboards one at the time/And then I gotta song, gotta a song in no time") uttered in cartoonish voices. Added bonus: out of the blue someone threateningly bleats "I'm coming after you" in a chipmunk squeak. I almost never say this about a song, but "My Secret Lover" ends too quickly.
Private "My Secret Lover" (from My Secret Lover)

Crossing the Atlantic we end up in Argentina, where the techno-poppy Miranda! delivered its excellent fourth album, El Disco de tu Corazón. I picked a track featuring a guest, the Spanish band Fangoria, whose leads used to be in Alaska y su Dinarama, one of the prime groups of Madrid's early-’80s movida.
Miranda! "Vete De Aquí" (from El Disco de tu Corazón)