Friday, August 31, 2007

You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

If you thought you were hot on this heat wave weekend, watch this video and turn the heat up higher. Witness Ronnie Spector (60s pop star and former wife of crazy Phil Spector) seriously rocking out and feeling it, hard, on this superb cover of a Thunders song. This performance is from 1997 at Coney Island High. That's Joey Ramone on the right, belting it in the chorus. Something about the piercing, drowsy, vibrato in Ronnie's voice crushes me. She owns this song.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ian McKellen Shat Self on Stage

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Okay, not be too sensationalist, it was in 1979 during his performance in the play "Bent" wherein Ian McKellen allegedly shat himself, but I'm getting ahead of myself. McKellen was the subject of a John Lahr profile in the New Yorker last week (Aug. 27 issue). The article isn't online, unfortunately. And to be honest, it's not the best of Lahr's profiles, or rather, it doesn't demonstrate what he does best with these profiles which is to eventually reveal something unprotected, unexpected, unmediated and human about his subject. He nailed it with Cate Blanchett. I loved her by the time that profile was through because she was given real dimension. She was funny. McKellen, it seems, was more impermeable. The meaty and interesting sections of the profile were offered by quotes from friends and colleagues. Most notably, writer Martin Sherman said of McKellen's performance in "Bent" (1979), a play about interned and humiliated gays in Germany during Hitler's reign:
He was sitting there, and he defecated. It was very subtle—but you saw in his body the spasm, which is what a person does in a period of such shock [referring here to the character having to kill his bf and then hump a dead girl]. It was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen.
Heavy. That's an actor for you. And this isn't even some sort of conceptual, confrontational theatre piece. The man, according to Sherman, simply shat himself (maybe that isn't so simple), to sell the scene, be true to the character. And that's all very interesting, but poor Lahr is ambling around England with McKellen who's working out the kinks in his performance of "King Lear," and Lahr can't seem to break through to what McKellen is really all about. By the end Lahr is exhausted seeming (on the page). He concedes, which is noble, in the second to last paragraph, "In all this legend of McKellen's brilliance, however, where was the shadow?" In comes McKellen's friend and profile cameo man (from a bit earlier on in the piece) Armistead Maupin, who offered the closing anecdote of the article. Maupin told Lahr this story about McKellen's grandmother believing he was only visiting her in her waning months because he wanted to sleep with the cleaning lady. When he explains that he's gay, she blows it off with, "So they say." The point of the anecdote is that, well, he had no other ulterior motive in seeing her, ostensibly, but even his beloved grandmother couldn't quite get what was going on inside of Ian. I'll be damned if Lahr could have done it. And if anyone could have, it would have been Lahr. He's one of the masters of the long form profile. But he didn't. Though, the Maupin anecdote at the end was a good save.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Jonathan Ames Pens Decadent, Self-Indugent Book Review and That's Okay

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Anything Jonathan Ames does is news around here. The strapping man of letters, stage, Fionna Apple's heart, and most recently the boxing ring (pictured above) is a refreshing, singular, old-school New York cultural figure that you really don't see the likes of these days. Ames conflates artistic mediums like it's nobody's business. His whole oeuvre might well turn out to be some sort of insane mixed media autobiographical collage. Or maybe it's all an act: his drinking and drug problems, his queer obsessions. It doesn't really matter. Ames wrote a review for this weekend's NYT Book Review on Matt Ruff's book, Bad Monkeys. The review as review is negligible, but then, most book reviews (short form, weekend paper style) are a waste of time. Ames spends 2 of 6 paragraphs on his major issue with the novel, the acknowledgments being placed, distractingly, at the very end of the novel:
I can see nonfiction writers who have done a lot of research thanking numerous people, but novelists should put brief acknowledgments at the front of a book. I was savoring my last moments with “Bad Monkeys,” the reading equivalent of post-coital happiness, and then was yanked out of the book’s spell, which I would have liked to stay under for a little while longer, like a dream — or an illusion — I didn’t want to be woken from.
Firstly, Ames is right. As a reader you've just invested a big chunk of time and emotion into this work. When you're finished, you want to sit with it. If Cormac McCarthy would have rattled off thank yous at the end of his most recent novel The Road, I might not have had that 30-minute pure anguish weepfest that I did have when finishing that lovely terrible (in a really good way) book. On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem muddled the breezy, good read that was his last novel, You Don't Love Me Yet, by tossing in the thank yous in the end. I was trying to figure out what I just read, about to determine why I should care, when suddenly I'm looking at names outside the cosmology of the text, though they obviously informed the text (I should confess that I know one of the names so the placement was even more distracting). Point being, acknowledge, briefly, before your novel, okay? I can only really handle a note on the text's typeface (which is stupid but at least innocuous) once the book is through.

Secondly, notice how in the Ames quote up above he manages to throw a sexual analogy, his "post-coital happiness," into the book review, and how that analogy has nothing to do with the substance of the book, only how it made him feel. Classic, self-indulgent, solipsistic Ames. Not many writers can pull off the self-reflexive me me me narrative bent as well as he can. And he's dating Fiona Apple. And he boxes. So. Yay Ames!!

P.S. Photograph by Laurel Ptak purloined from Gawker's series of pics from Ames' boxing match against writer Craig Davisdon at Gleason's Boxing Gym in New York on July 24th of this year.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

de Young, and the Rest(less)

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John Singer Sargent's A Dinner Table at Night, on display as part of the permanent collection of the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

Last week I had the pleasure of revisiting the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. A year later, the museum itself is blending more and more into the park's greenery as the metal oxidizes on the stunning structure's exterior.

Just through with the featured exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs (I'll get to those in just a moment), I came across the above painting on display as part of the museum's permanent collection of American paintings. John Singer Sargent's, A Dinner Table at Night, 1884. I knew nothing of the painter or the work, but was drawn to it beyond all others in the room. Something about the red permeating everything, then a closer look reveals the woman's face to be kid of blurry. Then the silvery touches on the lamps and the glint on the decanter. And we can't ignore the smoking man cropped off the right edge. And see her hand gripping her glass? Is this the first glass of the evening? There's something tender and strange about this painting. It's either conjuring the mild glow of romance, but better yet, maybe it's the warm feeling of a good glass of wine kicking in, or a sense of isolation or longing or nostalgia. Not sure. But the painting is incredible.

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Hiroshi Sugimoto retrospective show at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

The Sugimoto retrospective was interesting, masterful, if not a little sterile in its detached and methodical experimentation. The above seascapes were mounted on a long, dark wall. Each shot a different sea, calibrated to align on the horizon. Each sea is different and alike in ways. The work is meditative and compelling taken all of a piece.

On the other side of this long wall/corridor was my favorite of his pieces, Sea of Buddha, 1995 (below). The 48 photographs of 1001 sculptures were taken in a 12th-century temple in Kyoto Japan. Each sculpture is different with each head adorned with a mini cosmology of smaller heads and shrines. The effect of all the photographs displayed in a row was thrilling. These sculptures, over 900 years old, remind me of the female automaton in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. I was stunned by the ornate art deco feeling I was getting from this. But looking close removed that sense somewhat, revealing these faces and posing questions. Who made these statues? Are these faces based on real people? Why must I analogize this work to a 20th century movement? Is this sense intentional? Does is matter?

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The presentation of the statues, and all the photographs in the exhibit, was flawless. My major complaint was that the wall-text accompanying each section consisted of Sugimoto's words on the pieces. He came off as obtuse and heavy-handed. I would have preferred a more objective curatorial voice, but that's me.

Other notable works were Sugimoto's blurry shots of famous works of architecture (Chrysler Tower, World Trade Center, etc...), as well as shots of movie theaters for which he held open the camera shutter for the entire length of the film, revealing pure white on the screen and a glow subtly lighting the environment from the screen giving the environments a silken texture. And all the theaters were empty creating an overall beautiful yet cold effect, like the entire retrospective, really. But the show and the visit to the museum provided what museums should do best: musings.

P.S. Seargent and Henry James were friends, soul mates even!
Here is a NY Times article by Deborah Weisgall from 1997 chronicling Sargent's relationship with novelist Henry James. Both were American artists flourishing abroad. I like this line, "Like James, Sargent tells us everything about his subjects, only to compound their essential mystery."

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Movements, Rapid Eye

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"E-Bow the Letter," by R.E.M. From the Album New Adventures in Hi Fi released September 10, 1996

R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi Fi marked a smooth, assured tonal shift for the band. And "E-Bow the Letter" is both a remarkable song and video. The lyrics are impressionistic Michael Stipe at his best, delivering his trademark word spillages, images, mixed metaphors. "Aluminum, tastes like fear / Adrenaline pulls us near..." sung by Stipe in the chorus while Patti Smith drawls gravelly, consolingly, longingly in the background, "I'll take you over, Baby." Her voice is either the song's neurotic-emotional love object, or the narrator's other, stronger, more wicked self. Taken that way, the song becomes a conflation of the tremulous masculine with the snarling feminine. This is no quaint love duet. The interplays here transcend normal romance. And the video shows cityscapes, parking lots, the band practicing before walls of little white lights, Stipe writing lyrics left-handedly, Smith on a train, Smith at the station.

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It's almost as if she's traveling to Stipe, but you sense she'll never get there. And if she does there will be no embrace, maybe something like an awkward handshake. Or maybe she'll just curl up in a chair while he keeps on writing, only to realize that he is writing about her in the chair and when he looks up she (part of himself, in a sense) isn't there and never was, she's still at the train station, standing, waiting while people walk past, singing, "I'll take you over, Baby.... I'll take you over, Baby..."

Watch it:

P.S. Here is a great 2004 interview with Michael Stipe, conducted by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans for BUTT. Stipe discusses his ambiguous sexuality, among other things. Also, Stipe has a site for his photographs. Check out this one of him called "frightening experiment in north carolina."

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Grunge Binge: "Girlfriend" by Eric's Trip

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Because everything looks better in Super 8, or at least it did in the grunge era, ah the 1990s, ah if only I had better music taste back then I would have been into the Canadian indie-alterna-grunge-lo-fi rockers Eric's Trip. I did catch on a few years later, but am only truly ingratiated now more then 10 years after their breakup. Though it should be noted that singer/bassist Julie Doiron's latest solo album is a kind of reunion for the band, so, well. This video for "Girlfriend"(1994) exudes some quality grunge aesthetic, particularly the shot (above, top left) of a skeleton driving a 1980s era Honda Civic. How great is that image?! Or the somber pale girl smoking in the forest (above, bottom right),obscured by branches and the shadows of the branches. The band, named after a Sonic Youth song, taps the indie rock vein cut wide open by Pavement and Sebadoh. Melody calms their static crunch and Julie Doiron—oh my dear Julie Doiron still working and performing and breaking my heart to this day—her ethereal yet dissonant vocals soften the corners. Or maybe her vocals smudge the corners, with pink? Whatever, the video rocks. Grunge children of the 90s, shake your sleepy heads, your comeuppance is here.

Watch this:

PS. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what the label "Grunge" actually connotes, but I'm thinking: alternative, slackers, indie rockers... you know. Right? Why not throw out a few more labels define the label. But I'm thinking it's a blanket term for white, non-mainstream rock-aligned music listeners of the 1990s. For now, let's say it's a running definition.

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Fragments from a South Facing Shore

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Long Beach now. But recounting yesterday, early evening, the sun remitting, setting in the West but it feels like North because Long Beach's shore faces South, which is still strange. My whole orientation is off. I needed some air so I went for a walk along the Bluff Park, this is the park that runs parallel to the shore, a bit above it. Passed Bixby Park on the way. Lots of people out, playing soccer, reclining under trees, kids playing. All kinds of ethnicities at play. Then a piercing, brassy musical sound cut the air just ahead at the North end of the Bluff. It sounded like it could have been coming from the speakers on an ice cream truck. As I got closer to the bluff, it became clear that it was a big band performing. Crowds were gathered, arrayed on portable chairs and on the grass to see music performed on a stage set up in front of a white tractor trailer container with a large sign hanging askew that read, "Long Beach Municipal Band." While the prospect of some musical entertainment seemed promising for a fleeting minute, I made a left, heading South along the bluff, for some exercise and people watching while in motion.

Some images:

+ Two Latino boys with a puppy pit bull. One was dressed more street urban with baggy pants, big black shirt, shaved head. His companion was more wassup rocker skaterish, wearing tight black jeans, black shirt and long hair growing out strangely, like it was layered once, but outgrew that becoming a kind of bulbous shape that jutted straight down at the shoulder, down to just below the shoulder blades. They were wresting with the puppy. The baggy pants boy was more rough. The skater boy, at one point got down on the grass and took a picture of the puppy while his friend was holding it. For a second it seemed like the skater was secretly trying to take a picture of his friend and in that same instant it looked as if the friend was posing while not trying to pose, but looking off in such a way that he was striking a pose with this feigned disaffected countenance. The baggy pants boy had a handsome face. The skater had more abrupt, clunky facial features.

+ The bluff itself is gangly and parched a littered. Further South I noticed some kittens on a ledge a few yards below street level. I stopped to snap a picture. A little gray and white kitten took notice of me. It pricked its head up, staring. It was adorable. It worked its way up the bluff a little closer. I felt a connection to this kitten. I wanted to take it with me, for some reason. It was gorgeous. It seemed like it needed protection. It seemed like it liked me. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the pretty kitten, the light little smudge peeking at you in the center of the frame.

Anyways, it was a nice walk and all this had me feeling calm and chill for the first time in a while. The feeling reminds me of this song called "Conquering Kids" by a band from Seattle called Throw Me The Statue. I've been listening to it a lot lately. Something about the song's tonality and melodic progression makes it mildly revelatory. "New York screamed believe in me, we drove out west instead," a melancholic downturn at the end of the phrase. Again later, with the same somber turn, "I was young once but not today. I was making ground and then things changed." Listen to it if you get a chance.

"Conquering Kids"[MP3] by Throw Me The Statue