Friday, February 29, 2008

Girls on page

The new book by Jonathan Coe, The Rain Before It Falls, will surprise fans of previous efforts such as The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle. First of all, this satirical specialist of blokes has written a "women's novel" he says was inspired by Rosamond Lehmann; second, the narrator is an elderly lesbian. Not being a fan of the "write about what you know" school (a novel is fiction, after all), I enjoy it when writers step out of their comfort zone—in this particular case, when a straight man writes a good lesbian character. And Rosamond (yes, she is named Rosamond) is a good character, in both senses of the word: She is a good soul and a good person to have around in a book.

In The Rain Before It Falls, bad things happening to good people (and bad things happen to bad people, too), but one of the book's central conceits is the senselessness of not letting go. Rosamond never recovers from her two-year affair with Rebecca, and she never gets over her childhood friendship with Beatrix either—even when it becomes clear Beatrix is manipulative, selfish and uncommonly mean. The self-defeating trajectory of Rosamond's life is what makes the book so deeply melancholy.

I've also polished off Marie-Dominique Lelièvre's fascinating new biography of Françoise Sagan (pictured), Sagan à toute allure. It's actually elegantly written and far from your standard American or English bio loaded with meaningless details such as "Monday, March 15, 1973, was a rainy day, the stock exchange was down, he was wearing green socks, etc." Instead, Lelièvre trims the fat and captures what Sagan meant in her times and how she operated—this should be what all bios are about, but they rarely are, drowning those insights under an avalanche of "I did my homework" minutiae.

And the author has a quirky way with background detail. For instance, Sagan was in a terrible, life-changing (it led to her being hooked to drugs) car accident when she was 22 or so, but instead of getting into mindnumblingly boring medical details, Lelièvre talks to J.G. Ballard about the meaning of car crashes! Another fun one: Sagan's writing was often described by reviewers are being light, casual, transparent; Lelièvre takes some of her books to Jean-Louis de Boissieu, a Sorbonne grammarian, so he can analyze the vocabulary and sentence construction. He finds them a lot more sophisticated and complex than Sagan was ever given credit for, pointing out that when they wrote about her books, reviewers actually described Sagan's life rather than her literary worth.

American readers may find Lelièvre's often-elliptical approach frustrating but I find it challenginly cool. And there's plenty of great goss, like the fact that Sagan had an affair with Ava Gardner, or her love story with Peggy Roche, fashion editor at French Elle, or the story that her dog Banco OD'ed after sniffing one of her coke-saturated handkerchiefs. Oddly, no mention whatsoever of Annick Geille, editor in chief at French Playboy in the 1970s, who recently published Un amour de Sagan, a memoir about her lengthy affair with the novelist.

Dance, girl, dance!

There's a long tradition of French actresses branching out into singing: Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Kiberlain, Agnès Jaoui, among others, have all recorded albums. Jeanne Balibar (currently on NYC screens in Rivette's Duchess of Langeais) joined the music fray not so long ago and has made two records. I just read that this fall she'll be adding to her extra-curricular résumé when she appears in a dance by Boris Charmatz. Here we've seen Claire Danes dip her toes in the modern-dance waters at PS 122, but Balibar seems to be pushing the envelope a little further.

As if this weren't enough, another prominent French actress is due to make her dance debut this fall: Juliette Binoche is going to be in a show choreographed by Akram Khan, who himself will dance in the duo; this will be done first in London then in Paris. A bit more info here. (Binoche bugged me for a long time but I'm digging her more and more as she ages; she was surprisingly likable in Dan in Real Life for instance.)

I wouldn't be surprised if BAM wasn't already sniffing around these shows, especially the Khan/Binoche one. After all, they offer everything that institution loves: high-brow veneer and brand-name appeal.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Boogie on down

My preview of the upcoming Kelley Polar show is up. New and improved: Be sure to scroll down to the end to hear streams of three songs from Polar's somptuous new album, I Need You to Hold On While the Sky Is Falling (Environ).

Note that this weekend the stars will be in perfect disco alignment over Brooklyn. Escort plays Southpaw in Park Slope Friday night for the meager price of $10 ($12 at the door), which amounts to less than a dollar per Escort member! Here's a short clip from the ensemble's PS1 gig last year. The sound is crappy but you can still tell they're playing Gino Soccio's "Dancer." You can even see me, wearing a red T-shirt and striking a rock-critic pose (ie, observing instead of dancing) when the camera pans left around 0:47.

The following day, Saturday March 1, the aforementioned Polar plays as part of the big Environ bash at Studio B in Greenpoint.

I'll be at both shows. See you there, New Yorkers!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Lady Oscar

I had placed my chips on There Will Be Blood so I had a late collapse in our Oscar pool yesterday, after leading most of the evening. Things like getting both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress did help, however. Weirdly Tilda Swinton seemed to be considered the dark horse and her win an upset, even though she's far from an unknown quantity and has been remarkable in pretty much everything she's ever done. And not that I wanted Juno to get anything (it is a trifle at best) but its getting Best Script particularly rankled me as the script is precisely the worst thing about the movie.

My favorite acting trend last night: Every single Oscar went to a non-American. Tilda Swinton is British; Daniel Day-Lewis is Irish; Javier Bardem is Spanish; Marion Cotillard is French. I'd like to say this is a seachange in prevailing acting styles, though it's probably just a coincidence. But what if it means a swing of the pendulum away from the Method and toward, you know, just making things up and pretending? (Though some may argue that DDL is pretty Method.)

Psyched to see Cotillard win, as I did like both her and La vie en rose, plus, you know, it's great to see a French actress up there 48 years after Simone Signoret, but at the same time I'm seriously bummed by this kneejerk rewarding of 1) the transformation of a beautiful actress into an ugly duckling through the magic of latex, 2) showy acting and 3) and biopic acting. Cotillard's performance, of course, covers all three bases. Again I enjoyed her a lot but it's frustrating to see understated or comedic performances always get the shaft. Over the past several years, way too many Oscars have gone to actors embodying real people (as far as one can say that Ray Charles, Idi Amin Dada, Truman Capote or Edith Piaf are "real" but let's not get too meta-meta here) and biopic-ing has become a surefire ticket. Pathetic.

Speaking of rocking chicks: Tina Fey came out for Hillary and pretty much nailed it on SNL's Weekend Update. Check out the video here. Her killer wrap-up: "bitch is the new black."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Epic and monumental

Saw the Diana Vishneva-travaganza, Beauty in Motion, this weekend at City Center. For those of you who don't keep up with the bunhead world, Vishneva is a prima ballerina at the Mariinsky Theater as well as a principal with American Ballet Theatre. In terms of ballet, she's a supernova—the kind who can draw crowds (City Center ain't small) based on her name alone. Not being a ballet expert, I won't say much about the evening, except that yes, she is that hot, and two of the three short pieces by Moses Pendleton (of Momix fame) not only pushed cutesiness as far as it could go, but they also felt like a total waste of Vishneva's time and effort as they could have been performed by just about any dancer with a modicum of training. (Unfortunately the Sheila wasn't feeling well and we had to leave at the second intermission, thus preventing us from witnessing a piece of which the Times said "when we get to hell, it will be full of ballets like this"—which of course made me really regret to have missed it!)

But let's just focus for a second on what is now my favorite program bio ever: that of Tatiana Chernova, designer for the Pierrot Lunaire ballet. Some choice excerpts:

"Her distinctive vision of the world and style make her a unique and vivid phenomenon in the motley flow of artistic trends. Both literalness in the standard realist manner and absorption in quotidian detail are profoundly alien to the very nature of her creativity."

"Chernova's style is epic and monumental. Large-format panels, like mysterious mirages, combine the read and the conditional. The precisely calibrated correlation between the abstract and the concrete, dreams and reality, is always present in the work of Tatiana Chernova. Her works can be regarded infinitetely. At first our eyes capture the image as a whole, then they begin to travel, stopping at various details. Without noticing it, we are drawn inside the painting, into its spatial medium. And that is yet another magical characteristic of her art."

"Everything in her paintings is voluminous yet weightless. A strong 'sculptural' sense of form and pleasure in drawing difficult angles and dizzying compositions define her optical paintings in the manner of Michelangelo's ceilings and the academy of the Carracci brothers (17th century)."

If only all bios could be as wonderfully unselfconscious… Alas, Playbill is full of to-the-point awards recaps, mentions of Law & Order, and grateful thanks to god and agents. I don't see Tatiana Chernova thanking deities or agents—she obviously doesn't need either.

French laurels

Once again, the French film awards aka the Césars have showered praise on an "auteur" movie by giving best film, best director and best script to Abdellatif Kechiche and his La graine et le mulet. (Remember that Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley had won last year.) I'd loved Kechiche's previous movie, L'Esquive (Games of Love and Chance in English), which displayed one of the most dazzling uses of the French language I'd ever seen; startingly, it had also won the top prizes at the Césars, launching the ongoing trend of crowning decidedly arty movies.

Unsurprisingly, Marion Cotillard won best actress for La vie en rose, a feat she may repeat at the Oscars Sunday night as the current common "wisdom," if you can call it that, holds that Julie Christie is too old to win. It's an insane reasoning and now I'm torn because I'd like Christie to win just to shut up the hatas and of course I'd love my homegirl to get rewarded as well. In the meantime, you can see Marion accepting her César from Alain Delon here. Unfortunately the video gets cut off at 2:25 but we get the gist.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Welcome back

Looks like Your Flesh, a zine I used to read with great interest back in the late 80s and early 90s, is back in action as an online publication. Okay, it's not really new news, but I'm happy enough to give them a belated shout-out. One of the reasons I so enjoyed the mag back then is that it plugged a lot of so-called pigfuck bands, which overall I much preferred to the concurrently happening—and much more successful—grunge acts.

Even better, Amphetamine Reptile, one of my favorite labels ever, is back in action. Cows, God Bullies, King Snake Roost, early Boss Hog: AmRep classics. (It's not a coincidence that the word "noise" was pretty much part of AmRep's logo.) Not only that, but flagship band Halo of Flies, led by label boss Tom Hazelmyer, is back as well! Watch out for a forthcoming three-song 7" by Lydia Lunch backed by…Halo of Flies! Oooh mama!!! I was lucky enough to hear a burn and it oozes bile. Just fantastic stuff—I listened to it five times in a row this afternoon, then went on and ordered the vinyl from AmRep mail order. You should as well.

I'll never forget that time in the early 90s when I went to the Park Slope food co-op (just visiting!) wearing a T-shirt bearing AmRep's signature slogan "Dope, Guns and Fucking in the Street." A woman stared at me and said, sotto voce, "You know you have a bad word on your shirt, right?"

Fortunately some brave souls are keeping the flame alive. There's Clockcleaner in Philly, for instance, and White Drugs, a quartet of mad Texans I know nothing about except their album Harlem is messed up in all the right ways:

White Drugs: "I Hate Yr Face" (note the righteous spelling of "your")
White Drugs: "Surrounded by Studs"

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ballroom blitz, part zwei

I did make it back from the Tokio Hotel show in one piece, though I'm not entirely sure my eardrums have not been perforated. We shall see.

Entering the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza (the venue formerly known as Irving Plaza), the Sheila and I were surprised by the sparseness of the audience, considering the show was sold out, and by the gray hair. But you see, one enters IP from the back of the main floor, and it turns out the entire crowd (90% female) was pressed at the front, near the stage, thus taking up only about two thirds of the available space, and it was the parents who were at the back.

When the boys took the stage, pandemonium ensued: the shrieks were absolutely overwhelming, along with the crowd's massive swirls, the human mass swaying from side to side like a ginormous single entity; it's a miracle nobody got crushed.

As for the show, I have to say the band isn't quite there (yet?). It plays decent pop-rock tunes, but live it'd be pretty banal without the crucial addition of the crowd participation. Most of the fun for me was gawking down from the balcony and watching hundreds of girls sing along and emulate singer Bill Kaulitz's every move: When he punched the air, they punched their air; when he jumped up and down, they jumped up and down (as much as you can while being one hair away from having your lungs crushed by the throng). I just love this kind of stuff and could watch it for hours.

A big minus: the Kaulitz twins, on vox and guitar, bizarrely play exclusively for each other, superbly ignoring the rhythm-section dudes—the Kaulitzes seem to telepathically emit "Stand back, porkies!" toward their plainer bandmates, which gives off awkward vibes, to say the least, and makes the group appear more mercenary than I think it actually is.

Still, it's pretty great to see American teens get off their asses for a German band. Okay, Tokio Hotel sings mostly in English now, but I never thought I'd ever see a hand-written placard at a NY show saying "ICH LIEBE DICH."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bleating time

There are many stars of French variété I grew up disliking, like Michel Sardou and Serge Lama, and usually I remained steady in my dismissal of them: If I couldn't stand them when I was 13, chances are I still can't stand them. A major exception is Véronique Sanson. For years her bleaty vibrato drove me crazy, but for some reason hearing her 1972 song "Besoin de personne" on the radio a few months ago led to a conversion. It was as if I heard Sanson with a new pair of ears, discovering an uncanny melodic talent and great arrangements. I still have problems with her vocal mannerisms (something she shares with another singer of the same generation, Julien Clerc) but now I can overlook them and focus on the songwriting.

After releasing a pair of singles with her sister Violaine and François Bernheim under the name Les Roche Martin, Sanson put out her solo debut, Amoureuse, in 1972; in retrospect, it stands along Carole King's Tapestry as an album by an introspective female singer-songwriter backing herself on the piano in the early 1970s. (I started writing that it was ahead of its time but in actuality it is very much of its time.) The record and its followup were produced by Michel Berger, who'd go on to reinvent France Gall's career. In 1973, Sanson left for the US where she married Stephen Stills (yes, of Crosby, Stills etc.) and stayed for a while. Like many first-rank variété singers, she's still active and popular—the French public tends to remain more loyal than the American one.

From the variety show Cadet Rousselle, here's Sanson performing her first hit "Besoin de personne," sporting a sensational crochet vest:

Kiki Dee did an English version of the title track, "Amoureuse," in 1973:

Here are three MP3s from Sanson's 1972 solo debut, Amoureuse: "Tout est cassé tout est mort" "Pour qui" and, of course, "Besoin de personne."

Ballroom blitz

German pop phenom Tokio Hotel is coming to New York! My preview in Time Out is here. I will be attending the Monday gig, and I sure hope to be deafened by the screams of a thousand hysterical girls—with a smattering of hysterical boys, to be sure.

My main regret: that the Teutonic heartthrobs are singing in English now, as I would have loved loved loved to see them stick to their native language. It worked in Europe after all, with millions of non-German-speaking fans mouthing along to songs like "Der Letzte Tag" or "Übers Ende der Welt." Ah well, we still have a ways to go in America. If even Shakira had to switch to English to make it past the Latino population, what hope is there for guys singing in the tongue of Goethe?

Wrong priorities

The thing I regret missing most while I was away on vacation is Romeo Castellucci's Hey Girl!, which has a short run at Montclair State's Kasser Theatre. I literally had been looking forward to it for months, having been shaken to the core by his Tragedia Endogonidia: L.#09 London Portrait back in October 2005 and wanting more.

Whether you like him or not, Castellucci is one of Europe's most important theater directors right now. The New York Times even did a piece on him in Arts & Leisure. But then who did they send to review the show? Neil Genzlinger, a third or fourth stringer. This to me is a stunning move: One of the two lead reviewers, Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood, should have reviewed the show. When the Coen brothers or Steven Spielberg or Mike Leigh releases something new, the film is reviewed by one of the Times' two chief critics, not a freelancer. It's as if the daily's theater section was unaware of what's going on in the field it's meant to cover. This is in equal parts befuddling and offensive. An equivalent would be the film section not covering the career of Abbas Kiarostami or the explosion of Korean cinema for the simple reason that they're a little too foreign, not in English or not following the aesthetic codes determined by Hollywood. In theaterspeak, this means the section is not interested in things not done in a naturalistic style and/or on Broadway.

But then, of course, too often the main theater critics display so many hang-ups that their reviewing the show does not mean we would have been spared gasp-inducing statements like "The main shortcoming of 'Hey Girl!,' though, is its unrelenting grimness." What, theater is not always feel-good? You're kidding! This kind of sentence creates knots of frustration in my stomach.

Great white yonder

Yikes, a week without posting: I'm a bad, bad blogger. My excuse is that I had the opportunity to ski in Colorado at a bargain-basement price, so I took it. My first time going down the Rockies' trails—and it was quite an experience, on and off the slopes.

Now, my American readers need to understand that when you grow up in Europe, skiing is not the richy-rich sport it is here. Prices are considerably lower and in France, for instance, there's a long-standing tradition of classes de neige (snow classes), when (sub)urban kids are shipped off to the mountains for a week mixing classes and skiing.

It's not quite the same here. I was able to afford the trip only because of a cousin working at the Beaver Creek resort for the season: I crashed in her room and benefited from her huge discount on lift tickets. Our idea of entertainment was trivia night at the local coffee shop/bar ($1 for a Coke). The other skiers' experience was quite different: nearly $700 for private ski lessons for instance, multimillion-dollar houses on the slopes, and an easy $25,000 for a week at the Ritz-Carlton (where ski valets take off your ski boots at the end of the day so you don't have to put in the effort yourself—something I find utterly ridiculous).

Even though I live in New York, where enormous wealth is far from rare, I somehow manage to avoid being directly confronted to it in my daily life. I mean, I know full well that some people on our own Park Slope street live in million-dollar homes while we're lowly renters but they all wear the Slope winter uniform of fleece anyway, and they all get the same $3 breakfast sandwich at the local diner, and they all get the same pizzas delivered. (Well, there was that one time when the Sheila picked up an ATM receipt left by the previous customer and the balance for that checking account read $980,000!)

But being in Beaver Creek and Vail was quite different: The smell of money was pervasive everywhere I turned. It may have had to do with my own guilt in partaking in what is, in the US, an elite sport, like doing polo in the Hamptons or something. The thing is, customers in those resorts are so pampered that lift tickets are hiked to offensively high levels ($92/day is the regular price) to keep the amenities going and, possibly, the number of people (riff-raff?) on the slopes down. It's a reasoning I find absurd in my daily life, and yet I love skiing and so am willing to swallow my class-war guilt and forge ahead.

Interesting detail: My cousin told me that among the countries well represented at the Beaver Creek Ritz are Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. I guess Chavez's socialist policies still allow some people to do well for themselves…

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Hogwash Island

The current issue of The New Yorker has a small portfolio on Coney Island in winter, with an intro by Mark Singer. As so often happens in that magazine, the text looks perfectly fine at first, until you let it sink in and realize it's just suburban and sentimental.

Let's take for instance, the following innocuous-looking sentence: "If you're in a the mood for a trifecta, you can still buy lunch at Nathan's and lose it, in installments, aboard the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone."


First of all, Singer leaves no cliché unturned: mentioning hot-dog emporium Nathan's is utterly expected, especially when you can get better material from the Russian places in nearby Brighton Beach or the new taco stands, or Totonno's on Neptune Avenue if you really want another long-running institution.

But even worse is that neither Singer nor his editor seems to have spent any actual time at Coney Island in winter: Both the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone close during the cold months, reopening only mid-March. Guys, this is a basic fact of NYC life!

Nathan's, the Cyclone, Weegee…can we at least get less moldy banalities? Something about Stephon Marbury growing in the Coney projects, for instance, or the yellow submarine marooned offshore.

Coincidentally, the Sheila and I went to Coney last Sunday and yep, the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone were boarded up. We also strolled on the boardwalk; it looks empty and ghostly in The New Yorker pics, whereas we saw a hopping place, packed with families (the vast majority of them Russian-speaking) getting some fresh air. And I've been to Coney enough times in winter to know this was not a freak occurrence. The back alleys of the amusement park itself are, indeed, deserted, but the boardwalk is jumping even in February.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sisters o sisters

Tip of the hat to James Wolcott for directing me to Susan Faludi's review of the anthology Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers in the Observer. Faludi starts by zeroing in on the fact that Clinton's actual politics and proposals are rarely discussed (one of my pet peeves in the Clinton/Obama duel—not talking about specific policy points plays to his strengths) then goes on to dismantle the contributors' self-absorbed takes (it would have been nice to get more specific examples, though the Susannah Moore quote is priceless) and look at the mother syndrome in American politics. I can't say that I always agree with Faludi but she seems to hit the nail on the head there. Thomas Hobbes may have written that man is wolf to man, but damn!—woman can be bitch to woman.

More is Moor

Oops, forgot to mention another piece in the current issue of Time Out New York: a review of the new DVD of Anthony Mann's El Cid. in which Charlton Heston battles Moors in 11th-century Spain.

While Mann is one of my favorite film directors, this particular movie is a snooze. Lack of space prevented me from going at length about the lack of chemistry between Heston and Sophia Loren, and from pointing out that the screenplay largely borrows from Corneille's classic 17th-century play Le Cid, though it's not credited anywhere. The play is still a must in French schools and it's packed with lines that have burrowed deep in the national consciousness, like "Ô rage ! Ô désespoir ! Ô vieillesse ennemie !" ("O rage! O despair! O inimical old age!" in the translation offered by Project Gutenberg) or "À vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire" ("In conquering without danger we triumph without glory").

And let's not forget "Je suis jeune, il est vrai, mais aux âmes bien nées,/La valeur n'attend point le nombre des années," which translates as "I am young, it is true, but in souls nobly born valor does not depend upon age" and might as well be Obama's self-assigned motto. Speaking of which, I'm going to be in town tomorrow after all so I'll cast my very first vote in an American election. Terribly, terribly exciting!