Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bring the Supersizers to America!

The Dilettante's London spies have reported that they're quite keen on a new series called The Supersizers Go…, in which food critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins follow the diet of a specific British era for a week, then check in with a doctor.

Here's an excerpt from their Regency jaunt:

And something from the 1970s:

Now at a time when some claim to see a resemblance between Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, it's clear that the real Tina Fey lookalike is Sue Perkins. Perkins is pretty unknown on our side of the Atlantic, though she's built quite a rep in the UK, and she even made the tabloids when her ex Rhona Cameron outed her on a reality-TV show. This will only give more ammo to my colleague Adam Feldman, who has a theory that all the funny women now are gay. Except for Tina Fey, alas.

Here's Sue again, participating in the reality show Maestro, in which celebs have to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra. The choice of music is particularly inspired.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

France in the 1970s

France Culture, part of the French public-radio network, has been running great summer series. I mentioned the one about François Truffaut, but I've also been hooked to Les Années 70, which has been devoting two-hour shows of audio archives to each year of the 1970s. What's particularly inspired is that while the shows do mention big events, they also broadcast rather long, uninterrupted excerpts of less obvious but very 70s documents, like several minutes of Marguerite Duras explaining why it's okay to steal books (even if she herself doesn't have the guts to do it); Solzhenitsyn's appearance on the hit literary TV show Apostrophes; a report on Bertolucci filming Last Tango in Paris; the French Communist Party's head, Georges Marchais, interviewed about a strike; the mayor of a small town complaining about gay cruising; a news report a month after abortion was legalized; and so on.

And while I can't remember lyrics of the songs I hear now, even the ones I get obsessed with, lyrics from songs I heard when I was 10 or 12 are still crystal-clear in my memory, particularly Franco-Frenchy-French hits like Joe Dassin's hideous "L'été indien" (Joe was the son of director Jules Dassin), Johnny Halliday and Sylvie Vartan's "J'ai un problême" (I love the addition of vrooming sounds for the video) or Alain Souchon's "Bidon" (sensitive Alain was one of my mom's favorites and we listened to him a lot in the family Peugeot). Needless to say, none of these songs ever made it outside of France.

I was listening to the show about 1976 this morning, and they were playing excerpts from the very first Césars ceremony (France's answer to the Oscars). For Best Actress, the nominees were Isabelle Adjani in Truffaut's The Story of Adèle H, Delphine Seyrig in Duras' India Song, Catherine Deneuve in Rappeneau's Le Sauvage and Romy Schneider in Zulawski's L'Important c'est d'aimer. Schneider won and gave a speech magnificent in its economy and elegance. Here it is in its entirety: "Thank you very much. I'm very happy and very proud. And I'd like to tell you that tonight I'm especially thinking about one man who taught me my job, who was my master and my great friend. He'll be happy for me. It's Luchino Visconti."

A film that had a huge impact in 1976 France was Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos. Partly it was because of the stupendous acting by young Ana Torrent, but also because the film's song, Jeanette's "Porque te Vas," was a hit. It remains a personal favorite to this day.

MP3 Jeanette "Porque te Vas"

The Saadiq factor

All right, not to toot my own magazine's horn here, but the Time Out–sponsored show at the South Street Seaport yesterday evening was a blast. The three acts were all completely different and yet to me it completely worked, even if I have to admit the crowds changed pretty drastically for each set, showing that my utopia of a single audience being able to enjoy Endless Boogie, Raphael Saadiq and Oneida is just that—a utopia. (I always find it funny when people tell me they have really diverse music tastes because their iPod has everything from Dylan to the Ting Tings. Give me a break.)

Of the three, my favorite was Saadiq, whose set put a goofy grin on my face. I wasn't really into his first band, Tony! Toni! Tone! but I absolutely loved his second one, Lucy Pearl—a trio with Dawn Robins (from En Vogue) and Ali Shaheed Muhammed (from A Tribe Called Quest)—and his solo output since Lucy Pearl's demise has been reliably sleek and inventive. On his upcoming album, The Way I See It, he looks back at old-school R&B (Smokey, Stevie) in typically smart and classy manner. Live he was the consumate showman, natty in a perfectly cut suit and working the crowd with ease and no cheese. And hearing the Lucy Pearl hit "Dance Tonight" live was a total treat (Saadiq did it with his female backup singer).

MP3 Lucy Pearl "Dance Tonight" (from Lucy Pearl, 2000)

There was an exodus of white hipsters during Saadiq's first song; I told a friend that maybe they would have stayed if that exact same music was played by a junkie instead. Never mind: their loss.

As I said, the crowd completely turned over from Saadiq to Oneida—basically all the black people left and the white ones came back/arrived. While I like Oneida, I'm not sure starting their gig with long, instrumental VU-type grooves was a great idea. It's the kind of stuff you build toward in a set; starting with it kinda defeats the purpose. Sequencing a live set is an art, and one that's quite different from sequencing an album (one of the reasons I don't enjoy the trend of bands playing an album in sequence live).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cream of the Fringe

Not enough blogging because of too much life, including a vastly entertaining trip to the US Open earlier this week.

But life also involved checking out the Fringe Festival, with a review making it to the pages of Time Out New York this week. As I point out in it, Peter Barr Nickowitz’s The Alice Complex is the second play to be inspired by something that actually happened to Germaine Greer in 2000 (she was held hostage in her own house by a deranged female student). This summer, Joanna Murray-Smith’s take on the episode, The Female of the Species, played in the West End to mixed reviews, with Eileen Atkins in the role of the older woman.

From penning The Female Eunuch (retitled The Cerebral Vagina by Murray-Smith, The Alice Complex by Nickowitz) in 1970 to being a contestant on the 2005 edition of Celebrity Big Brother alongside the likes of Jackie Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen and the Happy Mondays' dancer/mascot Bez (she lasted five days), it's hard to find a better subject for a drama than Germaine Greer. Seriously: forget about the hostage business—her entire life could, should be a movie.

Weirdly enough, The Female of the Species was scheduled to open on Broadway early this year, starring Annette Bening in the Germaine Greer part, but Bening ended up withdrawing and the show never made it to New York. The Fringe play, though rather more modest than what you'd see on Broadway, did boast two excellent actors: Lisa Banes, displaying a sharp elegance that reminded me of Fiona Shaw at times (though like Shaw, Banes had a tendency to ACT) and Xanthe Elbrick, who had already impressed me in Coram Boy; why we don't see her more onstage in NYC is puzzling.

Pop for the masses

Being a pop geek, I was psyched to speak to some of my favorite songwriters for Time Out New York's special Fall Preview issue: Antonina Armato, Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil. (Unfortunately Nevil's quotes didn't make it because of a space crunch.)

What, you haven't heard of Armato and Gerrard? Maybe not, but you sure have heard their work: To mention just recent stuff, Armato cowrote-coproduced the totally genius "See You Again" for Miley Cyrus and "Potential Breakup Song" for Aly & AJ. Gerrard cowrote "I Don't Dance" for High School Musical 2, and they have six tracks on HSM3. Get with the program, people!

Noir whiteout

Because it's been lovely and sunny here in New York for the past couple of weeks, I sought a bit of a cold draft by tearing through four novels from Scandinavia.

First up was Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, translated from the Swedish. I previewed it in the new issue of Time Out New York, so check that out for more info. Basically Larsson has fitted together financial muckracking + serial killers + a locked-room disapperance, three plots that may or may not be linked, making the book the lit equivalent of Russian doll. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first volume in a trilogy but unfortunately Knopf isn't putting out the next one until summer ’09. I may have to buy the French version, which has been out (and on the best-seller lists) for a couple of years now, as I'm not sure I can wait a whole year to find out what happens next. Yes, Larsson's that good.

Second was Per Petterson's marvelous To Siberia (which my colleague Drew Toal covered in the aforementioned issue of TONY). I hadn't read Pettersson's critically lauded Out Stealing Horses, so this literary novel (which actually predates Horses) was a discovery. Pettersson crams a lot in a small number of pages, and I guess my surprise at it says something about the bloat that's crept into fiction over the past few years, making short novels a rarity.

Third was Henning Mankell's Depths. This stand-alone novel (so no Kurt Wallander) takes place in 1914 and has got to be one of the bleakest things I've read in a while. In fact, it's like a parade of all the clichés people associate with northern Europe: relentless gloom, miserable characters, frozen landscapes, and depression, alcoholism and death at every corner. And yet I made it all the way through, slogging through the tale of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, an officer reading depths for the Swedish Navy. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the methodical Tobiasson-Svartman is ill-prepared to measure, let alone deal with the depths lurking within himself (I bet you didn't see this one coming), and all's bad that ends badly.

Mankell provided a blurb for fellow Swede Kjell Eriksson's The Demon from Dakar, ie book no. 4 and a return to genre. Nothing special about this one, a by-the-number procedural. I have no idea why I even finished it, considering I had thought the exact same thing about Eriksson's The Cruel Stars of the Night. Recommanded only to hardcore Scandi-noir fanatics.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Applause, applause

I was watching the Denver convention after work today—at the gym, natch. I started with CNN but couldn't bear all those smug pundits, so I switched to PBS, which was showing the state-by-state roll call. Very interesting to a newly minted American like me, about to cast her first vote in a national election in November!

When I tuned in, Governor Jon Corzine was just casting the New Jersey's delegation votes for Obama. Next in the alphabetical order was New Mexico, which announced it was yielding its delegates to Illinois. "What a fascinating process," I thought, unaware states could even do that, and wondering what exactly the point of doing it was. But then Illinois yielded its delegates to New York. I was flummoxed but okay, if that's the way it works. Hillary got on the floor, surrounded by Chuck Schumer and David Paterson, and she announced a motion to stop the roll call and nominate Obama by acclamation. Which is what happened.

At first I thought it was so exciting and historic and all that. But after about ten seconds my mood turned. What is this, decisions by applause meter?

One of the biggest problems created by the Bush administration over the past eight years is an increasingly ingrained disregard for due process: Let's just dispense with all those petty rules and regulations, which only get in the way, and let's do what we want to do when we want to do it.

Which is why cheering Obama as the Democratic nominee was a bad, bad idea. There are ways to do things to ensure everybody's participation in the democratic process, even if these things are purely symbolic. Of course Obama's nomination was certain, but doing a roll call of the states at the convention, one by one, feels important to me: Democracy is a process, not just a word. The roll call allowed states like New Jersey, which had gone to Clinton during the primaries, to show solidarity by announcing their unanimous support for Obama (which is exactly what it did). Depriving the states, particularly the ones that sided with Clinton in the winter and spring, from openly, decisively, verbally embracing Obama sends the wrong message. The biggest ovation can't make up for it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

You can't stop the Alphabeat

The hand of Blogger fell on the following post, which was taken away from the blog! Here it is again, minus the offending MP3 (I figure that's what happened…), as I quite like Pete Hammond's remarks about songwriting and didn't want them to get lost.

The remix of "Boyfriend" by Danish group Alphabeat is a time machine: board it and you're beamed back to Top of the Pops, some time between 1988 and 1993, when Stock Aitken and Waterman ruled the airwaves with their ultra-synthetic productions. SAW released their stuff on their own label, PWL, which counted as a most potent weapon (re)mixer Pete Hammond—responsible for the new Alphabeat remix.

In the first first two minutes, before the vocals come in, he throws in every retro trick he can think of: syndrums, keyboard bass, hand claps, crisp guitar riff, synth hook. Then there's the song, sort of intact, then there's another break about two thirds of the way in. Oh my god this is so awesome, I just want to cry!!! I can already tell that "Boyfriend" will stand as a highlight of 2008 along with Die Soldaten.

Clearly the extended mix is the best, but the video, using a more compact version, is fun too:

Below is one of my favorite classic SAW nuggets, "That's What Love Can Do" by an American girl group called Boy Krazy.

My favorite aspect of the song is that it starts with the chorus but then the verse is actually catchier, and catchier still is the second part of the verse, which segues into the chorus. Absolutely masterful songwriting there. In regard to the importance of the bridge in a pop song, Hammond once said "A lot of people don't understand what a bridge is, but for me it's the most important part of a song next to the chorus. If you go straight from verse to chorus it throws your timing out because then either the verse has to be too long and becomes boring, or the chorus comes in too early. To me the ideally paced song is one which has a chorus-type intro for about eight bars, which at 120bpm lasts for about 16 seconds, then an eight-bar verse and an eight-bar bridge, which means you're up to about a minute for your first chorus. If the chorus happens any later than that the radio stations will take if off because they're fed up, but if you've got a good bridge leading up to something, they feel drawn to it."

Philosophical musings

My review of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog is in the new Time Out New York.

That a novel in which an entire chapter is focused on dismissing phenomenology would be a best-seller in France isn't surprising: This is a country where every spring, the announcement of the philosophy questions at the baccalaureate exam makes the news. Samples from this year's crop:

- Can art transform our awareness of the real?
- analysis of an excerpt from Schopenhauer's The world as Will and Representation
- Is scientific knowledge of the living possible?
- Is it easier to know the other than yourself?
- Can one desire without suffering?

Talk amongst yourselves…

Monday, August 18, 2008

Damn the heavens

So the eagerly anticipated Rhys Chatham show with 200 electric guitars was cancelled at the last minute on Friday: The piece was outdoors, it was raining, and electricity doesn't mix well with water. People were mad and they weren't going to take it. Or were they? Over at SundayArts, you'll find my reaction on the reaction: In short, get over yourself.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

La failure de Simone

Boredom made way to disgust today, as my friend Tristan and I endured La Passion de Simone, a 75-minute oratorio by composer Kaija Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf, and part of the Mostly Mozart festival.

Boredom because this "musical journey in 15 stations" was so short on musical ideas that I could not figure out on what basis Saariaho is hailed as an important contempory composer. To stay in the piece's spirit of portentous self-aggrandizement, I'll say it was us going through the stations of the cross.

Inappropriate? We're talking about a piece that, under the pretext of looking at the tragic struggle of Simone Weil—who starved herself to death when she was 34, in 1943, refusing to eat in empathy with those lacking food in the camps—tries to elevate to the sublime a tale that's much more down to earth: that of a selfish, childish woman endowed with a monstrous egotism. A stupider, more futile gesture is hard to find: She accomplished nothing, her death creating all the ripples of a tree falling where no one can hear it.

"She was trying so hard to solve some of the problems of our existence," Saariaho has said. Not at all: Weil was trying to solve her own problems, that's all. That inner struggle can be more than enough for an oratorio or an opera or a movie—characters wrestling with their faith was Bergman's crisp bread and butter. Perhaps Saariaho should have watched Winter Light to see how it's done. Art about someone wrestling with the idea of god is quite different from art glorifying useless martyrdom, especially when said martyrdom is couched in a pompous, vacant mysticism—here, the ultimate refuge-slash-excuse for an anorexic egomaniac.

Tristan nailed it when he said Weil was nihilistic and narcissistic. I can't remember now precisely if it was Weil herself (in one of the voiceover readings from her writings) or Maloof who drew a parallel between her factory-worker idea and the number tattooed on the arms of concentration-camp prisoner, but there's quite a difference between the two. But then, you're talking about a woman who mused that Alexander and Jesus were also close to 34 when they died. No wonder the Resistance didn't want her.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

McCain endorses social democracy

For some reason it took me two weeks to see the lists of favorite songs Obama and McCain submitted to Blender magazine. It seriously makes me ill to see that Abba shows up not once but twice on McCain's list, with "Dancing Queen" at No. 1.

On the one hand, it may reinforce the prejudices of those who think of Abba as safe, old people's music. Dilettante readers know better, of course! On the other, you could argue that McCain has picked a band hailing from a social-democratic paradise and that it shows that…never mind, it doesn't show anything.

Obama has two non-American picks (U2 and the Rolling Stones) to McCain's one, and he has more female artists. No surprises there. Thank god Malia Obama is a fan of Miley Cyrus. I was starting to think nobody in that family ever has any fun.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mary, quite contrary

I usually don't mind Mary Carillo. When it comes to American sports commentators, she's right at the top, and if you're going to listen to Olympics-related chatter, it might as well be from her. But I just happened to catch a rather embarrassing segment between events (ie, filler).

Bob Costas, he of the preternaturally smooth brow, had somehow heard that golly, they eat weird things in China, so he sent out Mary to try out some of the local specialties. "I can't believe they eat this stuff!"-type hilarity ensued. At one point, she mused something along the lines of "they'll fry anything around here," right before ordering scorpion on a stick.

If you've set foot in an American county fair, you'll know that they'll fry anything around the US as well, including Spam, avocado, Oreos and frog legs (are these really any better than scorpion?). And at least scorpions can be found in nature, unlike Spam.

This type of hoo-hah provincialism is really tiresome, but it's kinda par for the course when it comes to American coverage of sports, particularly sports taking place in other countries. The New York Times is doing better in Beijing, but it's really dry—it really lacks the kind of humor and gimlet eye covering such a preposterous event requires. (I mean, Phelpsmania is just ridiculous at this point.)

For my money, the best, most irreverent Olympics coverage can be found in the pages of The Guardian, particularly its daily missive "The Beijinger." Subscribe and it'll land in your mail box every day. Of course I also read the French press, so I can follow the travails of swimming star (or should it be ex-star at this point?) Laure Manaudou and the sports we tend to excel in, like judo, fencing, canoeing, whitewater kayaking, etc.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Calling all bunheads

I'm taking a break from devouring Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (seriously, I've been plowing through it—it's highly addictive) to point to my latest post on the SundayArts blog. This one's about the fascinating world of ballet schools. You don't need to be a bunhead—and I'm far from one—to think it's a mesmerizing universe of its own. And there's video clips, too!

Friday, August 08, 2008

In praise of French film noir

My short overview of Film Forum's series on French noir is now online (props to film editor Melissa Anderson for the most excellent title). Lots of nuggets are scheduled to hit Houston Street in the coming weeks, including one of my top five favorite films of all time, Quai des Orfèvres.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

If you like François Truffaut

If you speak French (or want some serious practice) and like François Truffaut, French public radio has just completed a weeklong tribute to the director that adds up to a whopping 16 hours of programming. And for a while at least, you can listen to it all spread out on several podcasts. Just go to the France Culture site and scroll down to F to download the shows to iTunes. "Archives" consists of Truffaut himself talking about his work; "Documentaire" has a documentary approach with film excerpts, archival audio clips of people talking about Truffaut, etc.; "Débat" is made up of roundtables with some of the director's collaborators and film scholars discussing his career.

I've only listened to about four hours so far and I'm completely addicted, especially since the series is about a lot more than just one director—it covers the birth of both modern cinephilia and film criticism, French cinema in the postwar years, the relationship between French and American cinemas, etc.

A memorable moment among many, many others. On April 29, 1974, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting a tribute to Hitchcock at Avery Fisher Hall; Ingrid Bergman introduces Truffaut, who delivers a short speech in his strongly accented English, familiar to viewers of Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

"Bonsoir mesdames et messieurs. I beg your pardon in advance because my English is terrible. You just saw the dubbing version—the dubbed version, not the French version. In America, you call this man 'Hitch'; In France, we call him 'Monsieur Hitchcock.' [audience laughs] You respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder; we respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love [laughter, applause]. Anyway, it is the same man we are talking about, the same man and the same artist. When I began to direct films, I thought Monsieur Hitchcock was fantastique, maybe because he weighed more than 200 pounds. Therefore I tried to eat more and more. I gained 20 pounds but it obviously didn't work. I knew I had to find another way to understand the proportions of his genius. So I asked Monsieur Hitchcock to give me an interview of 50 hours and to reveal all his secrets. The result was a book. Actually it was like a cookbook, full of recipes for making films. But the great secret of Monsieur Hitchcock is a secret of cinema itself. People used to say, 'A film is good when it gives fear or pleasure to the audience watching it.' But I don't believe that. A film is really good when you can read between the images the director's fears when he made this film, or his pleasure making this film [chuckles]. I see it must be pleasure that Monsieur Hitchcock felt when he put his camera on the summit of Mount Rushmore."

The doc podcasts conclude with excerpts from Truffaut's aforementioned interviews with Hitchcock, which were recorded and saved. There was simultaneous translation by Helen Scott since Truffaut's English wasn't good and Hitchcock didn't speak French, so it's very easy to follow. And if you want to focus exclusively on the Truffaut/Hitchcock tapes, the blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… has posted huge chunks of them. Craziness!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I am not unhappy

A colleague who had been reading the travelogue I was writing while on vacation remarked "Boy, you really seem to dislike America." It's actually not the case: I'm reasonably happy living in the US, and I even acquired dual French-American citizenship not so long ago. I also realize that it's precisely that utter fuckedupness of the US that's fostered so much great art over the years—no wonder the chaotic genius that is pigfuck was born in the Midwest, for instance.

What does drive me crazy, however, is how Americans always think they have it better than anyone else and other countries should emulate their model. I won't even get into pesky details like, you know, torture, Iraq, the lack of universal healthcare or the absolute inequality of the social structure here; but travelling abroad, particularly to Europe, you realize that America has really fallen behind in terms of quality of life.

Now this is a topic that hasn't surfaced in the campaign so far, but it touches on something really essential: Do we live comfortable lives with good public transportation, low pollution levels, a widespread adhesion to basic tenets of civility and the social contract? Are we happy? I don't believe the American-style rat race, in which people feel they have to always work more to keep up with the Joneses (ie, buy ever bigger houses, ever bigger cars—that is, before the advent of $5/gallon gas) actually fulfills said people. And one look at the crumbling New York City subway, in which water pours down onto the rails whenever it rains and the stations are filthy and decaying, should be enough to sober up the biggest booster. "Capital of the world?" Hah! Does Mayor Bloomberg really ride the train??

So yes, I do admire the Scandinavian Social-Democrat model. And there's no mystery as to how it's achieved (or at least one of the ways it's achieved): high taxes. Personally, I have no objection to paying more of them if they go to public transportation, better healthcare for everybody, better public infrastructure (ie, more rail and ferries, less roads).

Oh, and while we're on the subject of northern European countries: I've posted on matters pertaining to Scandinavia's approach to music on the SundayArts blog.