Monday, June 30, 2008

Comedy is hard

It ain't easy to make people laugh, as Mike Myers just figured out. And it ain't easy being taken seriously even when you actually succeed in making people laugh. Follow that thought to my latest post on the SundayArts blog.

More fun: Spain winning the Euro yesterday. It wasn't the greatest match, but it was also far from the worst. Spain scored fairly early but instead of retreating and trying to preserve its edge, it kept on attacking. Meanwhile, Germany looked completely listless. A well deserved win for the Reds, and a fitting ending to a topnotch tournament.

Not fun at all: The performance of Macbeth I was scheduled to attend yesterday evening across from St. Ann's Warehouse was rained out. And since it was the last one of the run, I've missed the show altogether.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I won't make a habit of this

I overflow with enthusiasm in the new Time Out New York.

First, I hail the new DVD of Anthony Mann's The Furies, a wonderfully nutty 1950 Western starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston.

Then I go gaga over Joey Arias and Basil Twist's new show, Arias with a Twist. Even if the mere thought of puppets sends shivers down your spine—and not good ones—the show resuscitates the gonzo thrills of the downtown of yesteryear. And it's not like there's that many great offerings this summer anyway.

Finally, if you are in New York, free tonight and have a soft spot for pop music, please drop by Solas Bar at 7:30pm for the latest in St Mark's Bookstore's reading series. I will read from my book on Abba Gold, while LD Beghtol will read from his 69 Love Songs and Franklin Bruno from his Armed Forces. I may venture that we all share an appreciation for "Dancing Queen." Solas is at 232 E 9th St between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, in the East Village.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Why should the Times bother with European theater?

There's an expression in French that literally translates as "to call a cat a cat," meaning to not be afraid to call things by their name. I thought of it reading the end of Charles Isherwood's review of Macbeth in today's Times:

"It will surely thrill audiences who get a charge from flashy innovation for its own sake. Others will probably view it as the quintessence of — well, I was hoping to get through this review without using the glib derogatory term for Continental experimentation. You probably know the epithet in question. Begins with a capital E and rhymes with succotash."

You know, if that's what you think of Grzegorz Jarzyna's production, you should have the guts to use the full wording: Eurotrash. The coy phrasing only brings even more attention to the wishy-washy use of a condescending cliché.

I don't dispute Isherwood's critical take on the production, which I haven't seen yet. It's just hard not to get frustrated once again by the desultory tone that creeps in every time a non-naturalistic European import lands in New York. It would help if the Times' two main theater critics didn't come across as so uninterested in what's going on across the Atlantic—and I don't mean in the UK. Why trot out Jerzy Grotowski's 40-year-old "poor theater" when Jarzyna should be talked about in conjunction with his contemporary, Krzysztof Warlikowski? (TONY's own Helen Shaw did just that in her preview of Macbeth.)

I know I sound like a broken record, but at this point I'm actually beyond anger and into disillusion; it just saddens me to see critics with such a huge influence being so disproportionately disinterested in the art form they're supposed to cover. Just like last year, for instance, the newspaper's chief critic, Ben Brantley, is off to a month in London. (I'm sure local producers will read his dispatches with baited breath to see what they can safely import.)

But the Avignon festival is at roughtly the same time, and personally I'd kill to go. To mention just some of the names familiar to New York audiences, in the coming month you could see Romeo Castellucci's trilogy based on Dante's Divine Comedy, Thomas Ostermeier's Hamlet, Ivo van Hove's "Roman Tragedies" (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra), Jan Fabre's Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day (a solo for dancer Ivana Jovic, with the title taken from a line in Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe"!), Heiner Goebbels' Stifters Dinge, the Brothers Quay's film installation Night Nursery, plus new pieces by Philippe Quesne and Superamas, who've both been to NY as part of Under the Radar. And then there's the ones familiar mostly to French audiences, like directors Stanislas Nordey and Arthur Nauzyciel, actress Valérie Dreville, choreographer Mathilde Monnier… What an incredible feast! In my spare time, I'd go to panels such as "The spectator's place: What's his responsibility" or "Which return to spirituality?" (Talk amongst yourself…) Ah well, maybe next year.

Karl Lagerfeld saves lives

In France, a new law, effective in October, makes it mandatory for drivers to carry a glow-in-the-dark vest and a reflective safety triangle in their cars at all time. If you break down and have to get out of the car, you're meant to put on the vest and position the triangle 30 meters from the vehicle. The fine if you don't is 135 euros (just over $200).

The best part is that the new campaign hangs around fashion maven Karl Lagerfeld sporting a spiffy vest, and still managing to look like a butler. The slogan: "It's yellow, it's ugly, it doesn't go with anything, but it can save your life."

Lagerfeld, who's also in the new Grand Theft Auto, doesn't have a license and is ferried around by a driver.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

North is hot

Some musings about the coolness of Nordicness over at SundayArts: Between Finnish art at P.S.1, Icelandic art at Scandinavia House and Olafur Eliasson's waterfalls about to open for business, the flavor of the summer is decidedly Scandi here in New York.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Many shades of crankiness

At least the misery was brief: France lost to Italy yesterday, and packed its bag to return home, tail between the legs. What a crap Euro we had. In hindsight, not pushing more against Romania was a huge mistake, but one the French squad makes over and over again: underestimating a seemindly modest opponent. Fine, we're out and we deserve it, no question. Now let's fire inane coach Raymond Domenech and hire a guy who can stand up to the overpaid prima donnas who make up half the French team.

And speaking of failure, I talk about the deliciousness of Broadway flops in a new post over on the SundayArts blog. It's pegged to a new book by Bye Bye Birdie and Annie composer Charles Strouse, Put on a Happy Face. One anecdote Strouse related and that I couldn't fit in the other post is his first meeting with Arthur Laurents, the book writer for Gypsy and West Side Story. Now Laurents has been showered with a lot of love lately for directing the current Gypsy revival, but before that, and for several decades, he was known as a legendary crank. Strouse writes that he showed up at Laurents' house in Greenwich Village and was greeted with mirth. Laurents was "barely able to suppress his laughter, as though he'd just heard the funniest joke in the world. 'What's so funny?' I asked. Once he was able to stop chuckling, he said, 'Tony Perkins has AIDS.' (…) I never imagined he was capable of actual cruelty, and I thought little of it at the time."

Strouse, of course, would go on to realize he should have taken that little episode more seriously: "I imagined killing him and being brought to trial," he later writes as their collaboration on the ill-fated musical Nick & Nora unravels. "I could picture the judge peering down at me. 'Are you the one who killed Arthur Laurents?' he'd ask. 'Yes, sir,' I would say, 'I couldn't control myself.' And the judge would smile and say, 'I want the mayor to meet you and shake your hand.'"

Friday, June 13, 2008

The second coming of Teenage Jesus

My review of No Wave, the new history by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore, is out. Moore is playing bass in the reunited Teenage Jesus and the Jerks tonight at the Knitting Factory, though of course the main attraction is Lydia Lunch, flying in from her current home of Barcelona for the gig.

If you have any interest whatsoever in radical hostility, there's no excuse for missing that show. I'm going to the 9pm set myself; see you there. (Of course as with all shows at the Knit, a trip to the Pakistani Tea House is mandatory beforehand. Forget about the actual main dishes, good as they are: That place has my favorite rice pudding in New York—and sad to say, I've tried a lot.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Patti LuPone slips into something comfortable

I went back to Gypsy yesterday, in the most excellent company of my friend Tristan. Before the curtain came up, the usual announcement about turning off cellphones and unwrapping candy segued into something more ominous: "Ms. Patti LuPone has injured her foot—" (cries of disappointment in the audience) "—so she will do this evening's performance in Isotoners. Her voice, however, is unaffected." (Cries of relief.)

Once I got used to seeing LuPone traipse around in gray slippers, the evening proceeded just fine. But the slippers actually made "Rose's Turn" even better than usual: Wearing a ratty painter's smock, then taking it off as she launched into her final aria, Rose in Isotoners looked like a bag lady in the throes of early dementia. Plus by that point LuPone had whipped herself up in a frenzy, sweaty and disheveled. It was a glorious sight, the kind of reason we go to live theater.

Seeing the show for the third time also confirmed my total stage crush on Laura Benanti, both as the mousey Louise and as the sultry Gypsy Rose Lee. Benanti is a smooth, slinky marvel in her strip montage toward the end; when she winks at the audience, it is both her and Gypsy who are in complete command.

Germany tests would-be citizens

This September, Germany is introducing a test for would-be citizens. This is part of the naturalization process in the US, and I myself prepped by memorizing the questions and answers (pulled from a list you can download from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services) and being quizzed by the Sheila; a new set of questions is going to be introduced in October ’08.

But back to Germany: the test is being implemented for the first time in the fall; applicants will be asked 33 questions and must answer 17 of them correctly to pass. Samples: What's the job of the opposition in the German parliament? When was the Federal Republic of Germany founded? Earlier on, however, the German state of Hesse had come up with its own set of questions, some of which would be unimaginable in the US (and were in Germany too, as it turned out, since they didn't make the final cut). For instance:

- A woman should not be allowed to move freely in public or travel unless escorted by a close male relative. What is your standpoint on this?

- Parents do not always agree with the way their children behave. Which educational methods are permitted and which are not?

- What possibilities do parents have to influence their sons' or daughters' choice of partner? Which practices are forbidden?

- Name two economic or business lobbies.

- The law forbids individual retribution. The victim of a crime may not take revenge on the aggressor. Who decides in matters of punishment?

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller are considered Germany's most famous poetic artists. Name one work by each.

- One of the most famous works by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich shows a landscape on the Baltic island of Rügen. What is the painting's central motif?

- Every five years, the city of Kassel is home to one of the most important exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. What is the name of this exhibition?

- Which German physicist made a discovery in 1895 that has revolutionised medical diagnosis ever since?

These questions would also not pass muster in the US, because they of course are extremely leading in terms of social, political and, last but not least, religious background, but also assume a level of cultural knowledge that would be thought elitist here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Britain should support Sweden

This title is referring to Euro 2008, of course. (Yes, that is all I can think about at the moment.) Thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones's blog for directing me to this Guardian article, in which Robyn explains why English fans should support Sweden in the tornament, since England itself didn't make it. I pretty much agree with everything she says and in fact Sweden is my no. 2 sentimental pick, after France of course.

Actually there is one little thing…she writes "I've never known a country to like Abba as much as Britain. You like them more than we do!" Actually, the country that adores Abba the most has got to be Australia. The band was huge there before it really conquered Sweden, and Oz's passion for Abba has still not abetted.

In any case, Sweden is off to a roaring start, defeating the returning Greek champs today.

At least Italy is down

In Euro 2008 news, France got mired in a craptacular match against Romania yesterday; it was so awful that even the score of 0-0 doesn't reflect the utter pointlessness of those 90 minutes. (And yet I had a better time than watching a good baseball game. That's how it goes.) Our midfield lacked creativity and couldn't create any opportunities. And even when it did, Anelka and Benzema at the front didn't show any flair. Benzema's best occasion was a limp shot straight into the Romania keeper's arms. He's going to have to do a lot better than that.

But the day was redeemed by the utter humiliation of the Italians by the Dutch. I can't stand the Azzuri's playing style and rejoice every time they lose, but this was even better than a mere defeat: they were told a lesson. See the magnificent Dutch goals for yourself. Of course this doesn't bode well for France's own match against the Dutch on Friday; I'm not entirely sure the French defense is up to it (the Romanian attackers didn't pose that big a threat). I feel a first-round exit for les Bleus.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

My first baseball game

Yesterday afternoon, I attended my first live baseball game; I guess you could say it was a big step in the Americanization of this freshly naturalized Frenchie. A friend got tickets for the Yankees vs the Kansas City Royals, so we all travelled up to the Bronx in scorching heat. According to the excited people in my party, it was a great game with plenty of action, real suspense and lots of hits (the NYT described it as a "slugfest").

I have to say, I'm still not convinced. And if I'm not convinced after a good game, then baseball's just not for me. But that's okay, to each their own—I'd still rather watch the lamest soccer game over the most exciting baseball slugfest, and with Euro 2008 starting, there's no doubt as to what's going to hold my attention.

What I'd like to comment on, however, is the ambience at the game itself. First of all, Yankee Stadium is an eyesore. You get out of the subway and it's like you've been teleported to some developing nation (though the prices certainly are first rate: it's Gouge City out there) and the directions are vague. Your visual sense is assaulted nonstop. There may be a new stadium next year, but its design is really conservative, especially compared to new stadiums (mostly for soccer) like the Olympique Marseille new Stade Vélodrome, the Lazio's new Stade delle Aquile in Rome, Valencia FC's new home in Spain, the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, or the Spartak Moscow's new home.

But what really struck me is that apathy of the fans; that seems to be an American thing because I got the same feeling at the soccer games I've seen in the US. The crowd was pretty quiet, and started yelling mostly when told to, like when the screens went MAKE SOME NOISE! Granted, people got out of their seats and screamed and clapped on good runs, but even that felt restrained. No songs, no taunting of the Royals, no spirit. The only chants were along the lines of "Joh-nny Da-mon!" which is just plain sad. I mean, is that the best you can do, Yankee fans??? Compared to the action in the stands of a soccer game, it was a bit of a letdown. My hometown club of Bastia, in Corsica, was dreaded all through the ’70s and ’80s for its rabid fans, and even though its humble Stade Armand-Césari holds only about 10,000 people (and even less when I used to go), they make more of ruckus than 55,000 Yankee fans.

Want to see how it's done? Check out the action even before a soccer game starts, as Liverpool fans sing their anthem in a match against Chelsea. Or see how fans of Lens sing "La Lensoise" and manage to do a conga line in the stands. The Sheila pointed out that America doesn't know how to do political protest and get in the streets anymore, so it's no surprise it sucks at cheering at games as well.

You may say: Yeah, but in the US we don't have violent hooligans! Of course there's got to be a middle ground between complete apathy and complete mayhem. But here people are so afraid of lawsuits that nothing happens at all. Or at least that's one of the reasons, I think.

Also: What's up with the nonstop eating and drinking? I have to admit that I ate a ginormous amount of peanuts and popcorn but I honestly don't believe I would have consumed as much if I had been more into the game. But I've seen people at soccer games leave to go to the concession stands during play, which is completely insane since a goal can come at any moment in soccer, and for all you know it's going to be the only one of the match. Do you really want to be at the trough when that happens?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Michael Clark is back in New York

What a simple statement: Michael Clark is back in New York. It's been about ten years since we've had the pleasure of seeing the Scottish choreographer here, and based on tonight's show at the Rose Theater, it's a real shame. (For some background on Clark, check out Gia Kourlas's preview in Time Out New York.)

The first piece of the evening, OO, was set to songs by Iggy Pop (the ploddingly grandiose "Mass Production"—I'd forgotten how great it is), Wire, Barbra Streisand and the Sex Pistols; the second, O, was set to Stravinsky's Apollo (the evening and tomorrow's program are collectively billed as "The Stravinsky Project"). I haven't seen Balanchine's iconic take of the latter work so I was free of baggage there (okay, ignorant!) and so I was completely hypnotized by the minimalist purity—having seen some Clark pieces way back in the 1980s, I guess I was expecting a rock & roll take, which is more ovious in OO. This, after all, is a guy so fearless that he's worked with the Fall.

The New York Times' reviewer, Claudia La Rocco, seemed put off what she referred to (repeatedly, and not in a good way) as the "wall of sound" in OO. The volume wasn't that high tonight, so either it's been lowered since the Wednesday performance she attended, or she doesn't appreciate the singular importance of volume in rock. Clark does, which is why it is an integral part of the piece, and is intricately linked to the elegant vibrancy of the choreography. In particular, I was stunned by how well he understood the clean precision of Wire's music, which he echoed in the movement he devised (and the costumes he co-designed, for that matter). On the other hand, I also heard that tonight's performance was more energetic than the one from Wednesday, so something to keep in mind.

One last thing: I love Clark's humor too, so, so punk. The last segment was introduced by an excerpt from Julian Temple's The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, in which a hilariously posh voice coach praises Malcolm McLaren's singing ability; this segued into the Sex Pistols' "Submission," in which Clark himself wandered among his dancers, dressed in a black suit. To me he was the McLaren figure, both part and apart of the action. This isn't surprising from an acolyte of Leigh Bowery; just check out Clark and Bowery primping for a night out.

If you're in NYC and free Saturday night—and even if you're not free, for that matter, just make the time—head up to the Rose to see Clark's troupe in action; the evening includes Mmm…, set to The Rite of Spring, and I Do, to Les Noces. So no loudness there, but I'd wager plenty of intensity matched with sheer visual beauty. Lord knows we can always use some of that. With luck, we won't have to wait another ten years to see him again here.

In the meantime, enjoy Iggy Pop's "Mass Production" (from his 1977 album The Idiot). And make sure you play it loud.

Jeanette Winterson likes French disco-house

Jeez I'm a lazy bum. A week without posts. And it's not like there's nothing going on but, er, I got this new HD television set, you see, and I wasted way too much time not watching it, no, but trying to figure out how to hook up the DVD player and cleaning up the sudden abundance of extra channels—all over the air since we don't have cable (this HD business is going to be bad news for cable companies, weeding out at least the customers who subscribe mostly for the improved reception). Pathetic, I know.

I did manage to go back to Passing Strange, and was struck again by how smart, how moving that show is, and how good Stew's songs are. If you insist on spending some of your dollars on Broadway, go see it. Well, that and Gypsy for old-school pizzazz.

Elsewhere, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, AM Homes and Jackie Kay illustrate the Musketeers' motto (at least according to Dumas) of "one for all, all for one"by collaborating on a 52, a novel in installments for the Guardian. This is scheduled to go on for a year, as the title suggests, with the four authors taking turns writing chapters—but not revealing who wrote what. A paragraph like "Merrie England in the month of May: Cuckoo, cowslips, the sun early and shallow-rimmed as it rises, the deep dew at dawn, as though the planet were still damp from its making." reads very Wintersonesque to me. Or like one of the other three poking fun at the style of Winterson, who initiated the idea. (In any case, do read Winterson's monthly column on her website, it's a hoot.)

And finally, my current musical obsession, and a perfect illustration of how the right remix can turn lead into gold. Actually the Whitest Boy Alive's "Golden Cage" isn't quite lead because its frontman is Erland Øye, whom I actually like. But that song's just blah limp funk, an indie version of Liquid Liquid. It ambles along with an utter lack of a point as Øye sings his prettily wistful and fairly unremarkable lyrics.

But a few weeks ago—and a couple of years after "Golden Cage" was released—Fred Falke (often working with Alan Braxe but here operating on his own) released a remix that turns the track into a fantabulous disco-house summer hit. First of all, the overall vibe feels springier and more energetic without losing a certain melancholy undertow. Second, Falke's treated Øye's vocals, adding a faint echo that makes them feel more distant (and provides the aforementioned melancholy). Third, he's added at least a trio of distinct killer synth hooks; I mean, most songs would be happy to have just one, but Falke's thrown them all into the pot. Fourth, the occasional vocoder effect is not so much electroclash as weirdly 70s proggy, as if suddenly a bit from Alan Parsons Project or late ELO had been imported in.

Compare and contrast:
The Whitest Boy Alive: "Golden Cage"
The Whitest Boy Alive: "Golden Cage (Fred Falke Remix)"