Quote of the Day: FREEDOM

January 6, 2022

FREEDOM

Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

–Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Culture Vulture: The Best of 2021

December 30, 2021

YEAR IN REVIEW

My cultural round-up has usually centered on theater. This year theater finally did come back and hooray for that but late in a year otherwise unusually dominated by TV and movies (I logged 158 on my watchlist). It’s hard to know how to make any kind of ranked list – Best Things Of The Year – but my #1 discovery was AROOJ AFTAB, the queer Pakistani-born Brooklyn-based singer whose gorgeous album Vulture Prince nabbed her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and whose show at Pioneer Works was my first indoor concert since the Before Times.

LAURIE ANDERSON’s six Norton Lectures wandered deeply and widely over history, literature, science, politics, and personal reminiscence.

Television has never been my go-to but I felt deeply fed by watching all four seasons of the Australian series Please Like Me, and I have The New Yorker’s Alex Barasch to thank for making me curious and then a big fan of creator and star Josh Thomas (his second series, Everything’s Going To Be Okay not so much). I generally resist the big shows everyone loves and talks about (will I ever watch Succession? Doubtful) but I broke down and watched Ted Lasso, shocked by how good the writing and performances were; ditto The White Lotus and Hacks.

Documentaries I always have time for, and this year the music docs were stellar. Questlove’s Summer of Soul made going back to the movie theater rapturous. Also great: Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. In a category of its own was Peter Jackson’s revisiting The Beatles: Get Back, eight hours of bliss for this Beatlemaniac. I’m a latecomer to Frederick Wiseman’s long slow masterpieces but this year his City Hall blew me away with its portrait of Boston city government and charismatic mayor Marty Walsh (now running Biden’s Department of Transportation). Hulu’s Pride series impressed me by going above and beyond familiar (white) faces and names in front of and behind the camera.

Also in another category was Can You Bring It, the documentary about BILL T. JONES, the dance company he created with his late partner Arnie Zane, and recreating the AIDS-era piece D-Man in the Water. Jones also created one of the finest live performances I saw this year, deep blue sea at the Park Avenue Armory, a fierce mashup of Moby Dick and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a cast of 100 dancers and state-of-the-art visual design.

I saw lots of feature films, online and on the big screen, my favorites being Nomadland (with stunning performance by Frances McDormand, above), Zola, The French Dispatch, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Art-house streaming services turned me on several great unheralded foreign films: Aquarius, directed by the Brazilian master Kleber Mendonça Filho, with an astonishing lead performance by Sonia Braga, and Arab Blues, a French-Tunisian comedy by first-time director Manele Labidi.

SARAH SCHULMAN (above) figured heavily in my cultural year, first with Let the Record Show, her exceptionally thorough and well-written history of ACT UP, and then the Criterion Channel allowed me to catch up with Stephen Winter’s 2015 Jason and Shirley, in which Schulman and Jack Waters give mind-boggling performances as documentarian Shirley Clarke and Jason Holiday, the subject of Portrait of Jason. Another book that excited me this year was Paul B. Preciado’s essay collection An Apartment on Uranus, which also served the function of making me track down the powerful, legendarily transgressive film Baise-Moi by Preciado’s former partner Virginie Despentes.

Between the pandemic shutdown and the post-George Floyd racial reckoning, whose work gets shown and how we get access felt quite transformed this year. The best live theater I saw were two highly experimental pieces – Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., performed by the ever-great Deirdre O’Connell (above) directed by Les Waters, and Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room, with an unforgettable frail-tough performance by Emily Davis as government whistle-blower Reality Winner (below in white shirt) — that wound up playing in rep! on Broadway! Another live triumph: Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah at the Public Theater, sharply staged by Candis B. Jones on Adam Rigg’s spectacular set with five strong performances. Streaming allowed me to catch Kristin Wong’s excellent solo show Sweatshop Overlord after its run at New York Theater Workshop.

Almost always in a category of his own, WALLACE SHAWN distinguished himself playing Lucky in Scott Elliott’s remarkably effective Zoom version of Waiting for Godot and had the good fortune to have Lili Taylor perform his monologue The Fever at the Minetta Lane. But one of the absolute best Things of the Year was the release of two exquisitely produced theater-of-the-ear six-part podcasts (available online for free) of Shawn’s dark drama The Designated Mourner and his surrealist comedy Grasses of a Thousand Colors, performed by the original New York casts (including Shawn himself) directed by Andre Gregory with phenomenal sound design by Bruce Odland.


Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, Jasper Johns, Jennifer Packer, THE POWER OF THE DOG, and more

November 22, 2021

November 14 – Michael Longhurst’s revival of Caroline, or Change has had its delayed opening at Studio 54 under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company. Originally mounted in London, the show did nothing to erase my memories of the virtually impeccable original production that George C. Wolfe staged first at the Public Theater and then on Broadway. But Sharon D Clarke is indeed remarkable in the title role of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful, strong musical play.

November 15 – I’ve been on a Paul Bowles roll recently, happily making my way through a massive volume of his letters (In Touch, edited by Jeffrey Miller). Bowles occupied one of the more fascinating corners of 20th century art as a novelist, composer, musical anthropologist, and photographer. He married Jane Bowles — both of them deeply idiosyncratic fiction masters, both of them queer — and for a time they lived in the famous house in Brooklyn also occupied by the likes of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee. He had to be one of the most pretentious/precocious teenage artists who ever lived — his first day in Paris he hung out with Jean Cocteau AND Gertrude Stein (who took him under her wing for a while and called him “Freddy”). The letters include a long missive he wrote to Ned Rorem while having a not-very-enjoyable trip of mescaline.

Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Let It Come Down (available on DVD from Netflix) fed me plenty of tidbits. The filmmaker managed to get footage of a NYC hotel room meeting between Bowles (above), William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, the last time those literary lions all met. Burroughs pronounces The Sheltering Sky “an almost perfect novel” (I agree) while also referring to Without Stopping, Bowles’ memoir, as Without Telling, because he’s so maddeningly discreet about anything having to do with sex, romance, or actual people (in contrast to Gore Vidal’s memoirs, which Burroughs appreciates for dishy gossip on every page). Bowles has nothing good to say about Bertolucci’s film version of The Sheltering Sky. I was also intrigued to see footage of Cherifa, Jane Bowles’s mysterious partner, as an old woman (below) repeating without denying rumors that she was a witch who exerted strange powers over JB.

November 18 – I don’t have anything nice to say about Lynn Nottage’s new play Clyde’s, directed by Kate Whoriskey for the Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre, so I’m not going to say anything at all.

November 19 – I dutifully showed up at the Whitney Museum to check out Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (the other half of this retrospective is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which only confirmed the inability of Johns’ work to move me at all. His imagery (flags, numbers, maps, etc.) has always landed on me as extremely banal and ugly. The one piece that stood out for me in this show is Field Painting, probably because it looks a lot like the kind of multimedia “combine” that was the specialty of Robert Rauschenberg, his former partner and an artist whose lively, restless, generous creativity has always excited me.

The real reward of this expedition was encountering the splashy exhibition by a painter new to me: Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing. Her large multilayered canvases merge representation and abstraction in unusual and beautiful ways.

I’d also never heard of My Barbarian, the Los Angeles-based art collective, whose installation on the first floor is small but dense and fun and alive with film and animation.

November 20 – Today was National Trans Day of Remembrance. As I’ve done numerous times in the past, I gathered with Gays Against Guns – the activist organization formed after the Pulse massacre in Orland in 2016 – and manifested as one of the Human Beings, silent veiled figures dressed in white representing victims of gun violence. I held placards commemorating Tiara Banks and Dominique Lucious, two of the 34 trans Americans killed by guns this year alone (more have been murdered through other means).

We stood in front of the Washington Square Arch as passersby read and absorbed the stories of these lives lost to senseless violence, and then we processed across the park to Judson Memorial Church, where there was a ceremony and service honoring trans lives.

Among the other Human Beings were two artist friends who’d never met. I got to introduce Paul Wirhun (aka Rosie Delicious aka Egmananda), a radical faerie artist who specializes in psanky (eggshell painting), to Antonius Wiriadjaja (aka Oki), whose Instagram #foodmasku (“I make my meals into masks and then I eat them”) went from pandemic pastime to online sensation. Oki, whom I met playing with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, is also a victim of gun violence (innocent bystander to a drive-by shooting in Brooklyn) and tireless advocate for better gun control laws.

I also got to meet Camille Atkinson (below right), who’s from New Orleans and knows how to rock a memorial outfit.

I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film version of Jonathan Larson’s musical tick…tick…BOOM, mostly because I’m not a fan of Andrew Garfield (still haven’t forgiven him for his shallow performance in Angels in America on Broadway – minority opinion, I know, since he walked away with the Tony Award). Nor was I a big fan of Rent, of which TTB is kind of a rough draft. But it was Saturday night on Netflix, so we tuned in. The first 10-15 minutes were tough going, with all the selling-it-to-the-rafters Broadway-style singing we’ve been overdosing on lately. What kept us going were the cameos – I kept exclaiming with delight spotting New York theater treasures among the supporting cast and background players (see the complete list online here), and Andy had fun spotting familiar geographical landmarks and vicariously inhabiting cramped Village apartments recognizable from when he himself was a lad in the early ‘90s finding his way through NYC.

November 21 – MUBI is yet another curated streaming platform for arcane art cinema from all around the world. I’ve encountered some gems and a lot of quirky curiosities there, and just when I think “Is this really worth $10.99 a month?” they’ve sweetened the deal by offering subscribers a free ticket to a brand-new art film playing in theaters. I might not have gotten to Jane Campion’s new film The Power of The Dog so quickly if it hadn’t been playing two blocks from my house at the Paris Theater, FOR FREE. But wow, so glad I did! I’ve loved a lot of Campion’s work, and this one is right up there. I’m never drawn to any movie that falls in the category of “Western” – even one set in Montana but shot in the hills of New Zealand – but this one is exceptional. I had flashes of thinking about There Will Be Blood and Days of Heaven and Brokeback Mountain and even A Streetcar Named Desire but then the film (based on a novel by Thomas Savage) goes several places I would never have guessed. I say no more except to recommend it to anyone who has the patience for a slow-moving but intensely emotional drama. Among the strong performances is one you won’t quickly forget by this kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Opinions are not ideas. I wish I had more ideas than I do. But I do have positive opinions about three other shows playing right now, shows that would surely never be produced on Broadway if it weren’t for the ruptures we’ve seen in the last couple of years. I highly recommend the two downtown hits playing in rep at the Lyceum Theatre, Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room and Les Waters’ production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. (with quietly astonishing lead performances by Emily Davis and Deirdre O’Connell, respectively). Ditto Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind, a trenchant and still pertinent play about racial politics in New York theater finally having its Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre, elegantly staged by Charles Randolph-Wright for the Roundabout, with especially fine performance by LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, and Michael Zegen.


From the Deep Archives: performance diary 1979

November 6, 2021

1/31/79

saw carla bley tonight. she’s bizarre. she conducts like a witch casting a spell, with crooked fingers. very funny, too. nice stuff, melodic – both raucous & lyrical, swinging & abstract. weird. her husband michael mantler is a hunk. steve swallow*, d. sharpe** & don preston*** also played. she had 4 little boys announce the players’ names at the beginning of the show – she consulted with one 3 times before he stated into the mike, “the sousaphone player is seldom present.”

*one of the all-time great jazz bass players

**formerly the drummer for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and alter played on Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”

***formerly keyboard player with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention


Quote of the day: LAUGHTER

November 2, 2021

LAUGHTER

I like to make people laugh. It’s like giving someone a flower.

–Harry Kondoleon



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