Culture Vulture: OF MONTREAL, VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, AMOUR, FOOTNOTES IN GAZA, and SINISTER POP

December 26, 2012

MUSIC: I’m a relatively newbie among fans of the wacky art-rock outfit who call themselves Of Montreal (yet hail not from Canada but from Athens, GA)(of course). Themselves is actually Kevin Barnes, the lead singer and songwriter, although he has a hardy crew of regular musicians, and their stage shows include four dancer-mime-acrobats who run around changing costumes for every number, often appearing inside big pieces of stretchy fabric. (Check out their zesty website here.)
12-11 of montreal bestThey first entered my world when they were peaking in popularity, playing Radio City Music Hall (with Janelle Monae as opening act). After a couple of medium albums, they’re back to playing places like Webster Hall, where I happily caught up with them December 11. They pleased the crowd with some of the most popular tunes from their dozen albums, including “Gronlandic Edit,” “Oslo in the Summertime,” “Suffer for Fashion,” and “Wraiths Pinned to the Mist and Other Games.” As these titles suggest, Barnes’ lyrics mix the language of everyday romance with erudite literary references – not tossed about glibly but seriously digested, if delivered with insouciance. His androgynous persona and falsetto singing conjure Prince and David Bowie, although the combination of propulsive dance rhythms, blue-eyed soul singing, and nonstop psychedelic theatrics suggest Hall and Oates meet Mummenschanz on mushrooms. Me like.

THEATER: Christopher Durang’s new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Lincoln Center Theater sold out quickly (undoubtedly because the cast includes Durang’s longtime partner-in-comedy Sigourney Weaver) so I had to pull strings to get tickets. I’m such a fan of Durang’s deranged plays, wickedly fun yet deeply melancholic and unnervingly close to the bone at times. A subset of his plays parody famous playwrights – most of them are brief, jokey sketches, but this one is a full two-act and very satisfying free-standing play that simultaneously tweaks Chekhov and absorbs elements of Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and his adopted sister Sonia (the divine Kristine Nielsen) live in the house left to them by their late parents in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, although the mortgage and upkeep have been maintained by their famous-actress sister Masha (Weaver, who plays shallow with more wit and depth than anyone else I can think of), who breezes in for a visit with her hunka-hunka wannabe-actor boyfriend Spike (Billy Magnusen, good and game for stripping down to his briefs for much of the show), who excites the heartstrings of Vanya’s young neighbor Nina (Genevieve Angelson) and the suspicion of his voodoo-psychic house-cleaner Cassandra (Shalita Grant).
VanyaSonia06These actors turn in pitch-perfect performances thanks to the guidance of Nicholas Martin, the director most adept at managing Durang’s wild swings from pathos to outrageous farce to naturalistic drama to meta-vaudeville. The scene in which spinster Sonia talks on the phone to Joe, a widower she’s just met at a neighbor’s party, is a bravura one-act play in itself, all the more miraculous because Nielsen’s mad mugging nevertheless stays within range of the scene’s delicate emotion. (It reminded me of the Gentleman Caller scene in The Glass Menagerie, although it’s a monologue, so more like the letter scene in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, as I remember it performed by the great Brian O’Byrne.) My least favorite thing about the play was Vanya’s second-act rant against modern technology and social media – I suppose it’s a reasonable contemporary depiction of Chekhov’s Vanya to have him sentimentalize “the good old days” of licking stamps, but it veers a little too close to easy pandering to stodgy Twitter-hating change-resisters (“You kids get off my lawn!”). Since The Seagull is pretty much my favorite play in the world, I loved the weird experimental play that Vanya has written and (like Treplev) gets Nina and Cassandra to perform. There’s a moment where Nina, given a gentle acting suggestion by Vanya, wonders out loud about which kind of actress she should be, that pretty much sums up what The Seagull is about in 90 seconds. Great fun. You can read the issue of the Lincoln Center Theater Review devoted to this how online here.

MOVIES: The end of the year gets to a movie-watching frenzy, especially because my social circle includes several people with access to “For Your Consideration” DVDs of the big Oscar hopeful movies. I haven’t seen everything, and there are certain blockbusters and critic’s favorites I’m actively avoiding (Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook), but I did get to see Amour, Michael Haneke’s intense, elliptical portrait of an aging couple’s dance with mortality, performed with incredible depth and courage by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. On Christmas Day at Stephen Holden’s house, we watched Leos Carax’s crazy Holy Motors, a very interesting existential-futuristic meditation on life as performance, reminiscent I suppose of Lars von Trier’s films but much more interesting to me, because visually rich and surprising (David Lynch-y), with a great central performance by Denis Lavant. Fascinating conceit: he leaves home in the morning and gets into a stretch limo whose driver, Celine, takes him around to nine different appointments, for each of which he undergoes a costume-and-makeup transformation. Is he a commercial actor hired for these fleet gigs, or is this an allegory about the journey of life, or compartmentalized contemporary existences?
pasolini arabian nights
Alongside the holiday movie glut, the Museum of Modern Art has been conducting a retrospective of the complete films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, including some short films you’re not going to find on Netflix. I was fascinated by the form and content of Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana (Notes for an African Oresteia), even as Pasolini’s interactions with African scholars, actors, and reg’lar people veered from naïve to condescending to earnestly ideological – until we got to the section where he has Gato Barbieri in a recording studio trying out an excruciating free-jazz score for two singers and saxophone. Le Mura di Sana’a (The Walls of Sana’a) is a brief, beautiful anthropological document preserving on film an ancient town in Yemen that probably by now has been completely overtaken by crappy new apartment buildings. This town becomes one of several stunning locations for Il Fiore delle Mille e Una Notte (Arabian Nights), my favorite of the films I’ve seen in this series – sexy, beautiful, and extremely weird, in that sense faithful, I suppose, to the erotic fairy tales from the original. (You can, if you’re so inclined, watch the whole thing on YouTube here.) I could barely believe my eyes during the sequence when a demon picks up our main protagonist in Yemen and flies through the air with him to Nepal, where he turns him into a monkey. O, Pasolini! His ideas and his visual sweep are rich and compelling, and I love his taste for the amazing faces of ordinary people, but he’s perfectly content with untrained actors who aren’t very good. Case in point: his Oedipus Rex, in which the title role is played by Franco Citti, a rough hyper-masculine molto-Italiano guy Pasolini cast in many of his films but whose performance just becomes tedious shouting after a while. I’m looking forward to seeing Pasolini’s Medea, starring Maria Callas, and (if I can stomach sitting through it again) his provocative, upsetting Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.angelhead

ART: Speaking of museums, I made a special trip to the Whitney Museum to check out the new show called “Sinister Pop,” the latest show built from rummaging around in the museum’s permanent collection. I liked the sound of it, but it’s quite small and unimpressive – not nearly as sinister or dark as we’re led to believe. I came across only one painting that intrigued me, Ching Ho Cheng’s “Angelhead” (above) and I was mildly interested to overhear an official tour guide in front of the Andy Warhol canvas Before and After mention that Warhol got a nose job when he was 21. Otherwise, I would say the show is skippable. While I was there, on a snowy afternoon, I spun through the floor devoted to Richard Artschwager, whose work does nothing for me, and also the show by Wade Guyton, whose work isn’t especially beautiful but I found it to be conceptually inspiring and made me want to go home and spend some time making my own work by printing over pages ripped out of books and magazines.

sacco-footnotes-in-gaza

BOOKS: What do we call Joe Sacco? He’s not exactly a graphic novelist but a journalist who works in graphic-novel format, although his publisher goes ahead and calls him a cartoonist on the jacket copy for his latest book, Footnotes in Gaza, which was published in 2009. He works somewhere at the crossroads of Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, and Harvey Pekar, cartoonists whose stories have humor but aren’t exactly “comic books.”  I intensely admired Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, which was based on the four months he spent in Bosnia is 1995-96. In that book (you can download a PDF excerpt here), he did an amazing job of untangling and explaining to readers the complex history, unfolding enmities, and chaotic everyday life in the Muslim enclave of Gorazde during the time when Bosnian Serbs made the world acutely aware of the activity we now call “ethnic cleansing.” Sacco brings the same dogged attachment to first-hand reporting, multi-source fact-checking, willingness to probe beyond official sources, and exquisite attunement to the complicated emotions of a population under siege to Footnotes in Gaza. The new book centers its gaze on one particularly horrendous chapter of Israeli-Palestinian history in 1956, when Israeli soldiers conducted raids of two towns in the Gaza strip looking for guerrilla fighters (fedayeen), along the way murdering hundreds of Palestinian refugees living there. Reporting this story today (little-known by most people but vividly remembered by the survivors who still live in Rafah and Khan Younis) gives Sacco the ability to place that history in the context of the ongoing brutalizing of Palestinian citizens by the Israeli military, which many people (including Israelis) consider shameful. It’s a spectacular piece of storytelling in the Ugly Truths Department. You can see a ten-minute presentation about the book by the author on YouTube here.

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