Archive for September, 2013


September 29, 2013


9-28 milk of sorrow

I’m headed to Peru for a three-week trip to Lima, Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and the Amazonian jungle. To prepare, I thought I’d see what Netflix might have to offer me. It coughed up The Milk of Sorrow, a beautiful film directed by Claudia Llosa (niece of the famed writer Mario Vargas Llosa). The main character (played by Magaly Solier, above) was “born during terrorism” and so inherited the fears and traumas her mother experienced at the hands of extremists. In other words, she imbibed “the milk of sorrow” (the English translation of La teta asustada, “The Frightened Breast”). The film tracks her from her mother’s death, the watchful nurturing of her uncle, who lives nearby and whose family business is planning weddings, and her employment by a rich neurotic concert pianist who lives in The Big House in a very poor neighborhood in Lima. It’s no Chamber of Commerce piece — it’s like getting to know Portland by watching a Gus Van Sant film — but it’s gorgeous, poetic, elliptical, beautifully shot. Llosa is one of a growing batch of phenomenal female filmmakers in Latin America, definitely someone to watch. Speaking of translation, I was amused that whenever quinoa was mentioned, the subtitles would call it “quinine.”


9-28 in the future

In the New York Times magazine Robert del Naja, a member of Massive Attack, describes the band’s collaboration with video artist Adam Curtis as a “drive-in movie on acid that’s completely mental.” Not a bad description of this unusual performance event at the Park Avenue Armory. Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis marks the first time Massive Attack has played in NYC for many years, and it’s fitting for such a smart, cool band that it’s not your typical concert. They’re on a stage behind three of eleven giant screens onto which Curtis does his thing, which is splicing together unused found footage discarded from news broadcasts. The narrative is all over the place, starting with audio from the first rock concert in Afghanistan, bouncing back and forth from the U.S. to Russia, developing a kind of multimedia essay about the difficulties of revolutionary action, how the desire to change the world has morphed into managing data, and the political forces that want the masses to fall in step so that things happening “According to The Plan.” Curtis’s heart is in the right place, but his absorption with the visuals wreaks chaos with any sort of narrative. He throws in every possible calamity that’s happened in the last 50 years, and some of his points seem obvious and others have a spark of brilliance. One sequence shows frightened people looking up at the sky and running while a series of buildings explode, crumble, and burn — all scenes from Hollywood action films released before 2001. It’s easy in hindsight to see how the architects of the 9/11 attacks got some ideas about the damage they could cause.

9-28 how shitty i feel

Meanwhile, Massive Attack provides an almost constant musical score. They cover a wacky assortment of American pop oldies (“Baby, It’s You,” “The Twist”) and a few ’80s chestnuts (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” “The Sultans of Swing,” Nirvana’s arrangement of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines”) with snatches of their own songs and a few by little-known Russian punk bands. An ethereal-voiced female shows up to sing several songs, including “The Look of Love” and a sweet sad ballad in Russian whose chorus went “You don’t know how fucking shitty I feel all day long.” In the audience we were all buzzing — could that be Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins? It wasn’t but it was fun to imagine her on the premises. The sound was incredible, the band was amazing to hear live, the visuals were dazzling but the message was murky. I am curious to know more about Adam Curtis’s work and see more after reading the article about him in last week’s New York magazine.

9-28 horse shadow

Media: “James Broughton Gave Me a Pearl Necklace” in RFD

September 29, 2013

The latest issue of RFD, the reader-written journal of the Radical Faerie community, is devoted to the late great poet and filmmaker James Broughton, the subject of recent documentary film by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade called BIG JOY. When I was younger and had a lot more hair, I had the pleasure of meeting Broughton in 1991 at the Gay Spirit Visions conference in North Carolina, and my brief remembrance of that occasion appears in RFD and below:

Joel Silver, James Broughton, and Don Shewey

Joel Singer, James Broughton, and Don Shewey


I met James Broughton in September, 1991, when he graced the second annual Gay Spirit Visions conference in North Carolina as keynote speaker. Before that event, I knew he was a poet – his pithy, often humorous, often lightweight verses led some to consider him the contemporary gay incarnation of Rumi – and somehow I had absorbed the information that he had been married once upon a time to the legendary film critic Pauline Kael, of all people. But only in person did the full force of Broughton emerge.

He was elderly then, 77 and snowy-haired, a little frail but in pretty good health and attended by his loving companion Joel Singer. He was friendly and approachable, though of course he was also a showman. He knew how to attract and hold an audience, not so much by being loud and ostentatious but by radiating an amused intimacy and the elfin twinkle of someone who has marinated his epiphanies in joy rather than solemnity. He wore the mask of an airy-fairy gentle sprite, but when he opened his mouth to speak the hardcore metaphysical prankster revealed himself. Joseph Kramer, the visionary founder of the Body Electric School, also attended the conference as a guest speaker, and I vividly recall his rapturous attention as Broughton held forth on what he called “The Holy Trinity” – the phallus, the anus, and the perineum. Raven Wolfdancer, a beloved Atlanta faerie (later murdered on his doorstep by an unknown intruder, but that’s another story), introduced Broughton to the conference as “my bliss mentor, my ecstasy mentor. He taught me to parade my peculiar.”

For his keynote address, Broughton delivered a talk he had apparently given more than once, alternately titled “The Sexual Holiness of Men” and “The Sexuality of Spirit.” It was a kind of sermon, a dharma talk, a benediction dense with the distilled wisdom of a lifetime. You can find the verbatim text online, but in my diary I took notes, and looking at them now they contain one jewel after another. I realize that in the hour he was speaking I became a disciple, because the sentences that leapt out at me have stuck with me ever since.

Since this is a spiritual conference, I begin with a blessing: Hail Mary, quite contrary…

I’m a poet – do not expect reasoned argument.

I take my text from Novalis: “There is only one temple in the world, and that is the human body.” And the only proper activity in a temple is worship.

Churches exist to make you feel miserable.

Buddha is down on desire. Broughton is very up on desire.

Your brains have been washed with the detergent of guilt too long.

The penis is the exposed tip of the heart, the wand of the soul.

I was born to love my own kind, not compete with or acquire them.

Most communication is made of sneers and complaints. One of my mottoes is “Reach, touch, connect.”

At the baths, each cock was a bead in my rosary. Sexual loving is the true practice of religion. Put lovemaking before moneymaking and troublemaking. Teach it in schools. Holding hands, okay. Hug, yes, but with your whole body. I would add kissing. Practice this lifesaving on your neighbors. Love the living as much as the dying.

Stop thinking of yourselves as outcasts. You are meridians, raising consciousness, not babies. You can be and not beget. You may be outside of society’s mainstream but in the mainstream of wisdom.

I’d rather be kissed than stamped with approval.

In this week’s New Yorker

September 26, 2013

new yorker sept 30 cover
It took me a while to understand Barry Blitt’s cover (“Bad Chemistry”), but I guess I’m one of the last halfway sentient people in New York who has never watched an episode of Breaking Bad.

I found all four of the feature stories absorbing:

* Xan Rice’s “Now Serving,” about a brave Somali who opened a string of restaurants and hotels in Mogadishu and continues to operate despite being attacked by the Shabab, the same band of crazed thugs who shot up the shopping mall in Nairobi this week;

* Josh Eells’s “Night Club Royale,” about the dance nightclub industry in Las Vegas, where certain clubs pull in half a million dollars a night from drinks alone and star DJs get paid astronomical fees;

* I kept telling myself, ugh, I don’t want to read any more details about the distressing/hopeless situation in Syria, and yet the great reporter Dexter Filkins’s piece “The Shadow Commander” tells us about a figure it’s important to know about, Qassem Suleimani, an Iranian operative who has been calling the shots in Iraq and Syria for the last fifteen years;

edie windsor
* Ariel Levy’s “The Perfect Wife,” about how marriage equality activists and lawyers selected Edie Windsor as the case to take to the Supreme Court — and what a wild gal she is, even today.

I read with interest Emily Nussbaum’s essay about “Key and Peele,” a TV comedy show by a team of biracial comedians I’ve never heard of — I definitely plan to check them out. I also liked Cora Frazier’s hilarious Shouts & Murmurs piece, “To The N.S.A.: Some Explanations.”

Still not loving the newly designed Goings On Around Town, though I did admire this illustration accompanying Joan Acocella’s Critic’s Choice about two dance pieces based on Othello:

OTHELLo illo
But the best thing in the entire issue is Ian Frazier’s Talk of the Town piece about Shaina Harrison, a young community activist working hard to educate kids about guns in Red Hook. I liked the piece so much I reproduced it in full here.

Quote of the day: GUNS

September 26, 2013


SHAINA HARRISONA New Jersey driver who had previously seen the Red Hook housing projects only while passing by on an elevated span of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway got off the highway the other day, parked, walked into the projects, and met up with Shaina Harrison, a young woman whose job is helping to prevent gun violence among kids in New York City. Harrison is twenty-six years old and has lived in the Red Hook projects all her life. Watching her approach, the Jersey driver wondered if that could really be she. She wore a necklace of big gold-colored links, a pumpkin-orange top, striped drawstring trousers, and cream-colored pumps with gold tips. She is five feet eleven inches tall. Her long, wavy hair, black streaked with cinnamon highlights, fell to below her shoulders.

“Don’t ask me about my hair,” she said, joining the Jersey driver on a playground bench. “My hair is this way today, and it will be completely different tomorrow. You’ve never been to Red Hook before? I love it here. For the rest of my life, I am never going to leave. The apartment I live in used to be my grandmother’s. Her name was Myrtee Harrison and she came up from North Carolina in 1942, when she was thirteen, and started cleaning offices and apartments. When I was ten, she got temporary custody of me and my younger sister, Ashley. My grandmother was part Blackfoot Indian and never let you forget it. When she had to fill out a form, she would put ‘Native American,’ or ‘Other.’ I would joke, ‘Gramma, we’re black! Why can’t we just be black? I don’t want to be more minority than I am already!’

“Gramma died in this apartment, with just me and my sister there,” Harrison went on. “I was eighteen and Ashley was fourteen. After the funeral, we didn’t know what to do, so we just stayed. I had a full scholarship to go to Bowling Green University, in Ohio. But I decided I had to stay here and raise my little sister. I went to John Jay College of Criminal Justice instead.”

Harrison led the Jersey driver on a stroll around the neighborhood. Almost everybody—kids, old ladies pushing walkers, guys drinking beer on benches—said hello to her. “People don’t shoot here as much as they used to,” she said. “I remember when it was so bad you’d hear gunshots and not even run. It was, like, ‘Oh, who is that shooting now?’ Like the bullets belonged to individual people and had names. Everybody knew what a gunshot sounded like and what a firecracker sounded like. Kids of seven and eight years old could tell you the difference right away—and that’s crazy. But Red Hook has gotten better. We even have our own IKEAnow! I haven’t heard a gunshot around here in nine or ten months.”

She and the Jersey driver came to the corner of Mill and Henry Streets, at the projects’ northern border. “This is where Ronald D. was shot,” Harrison said. “There was a corner store here, and one night a guy in front of it started shooting at someone else, and Ronald D.—Ronald D. Williams was his name—happened to be in between, and he was shot and killed. Ronald D. was a funny, chubby kid who was not the type of person you might think would probably get shot. That was the saddest shooting.”

On another day, Harrison wore business attire—paisley blouse, brown pleated skirt—as she sat at a conference table in the offices of her employer, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, in Chinatown. This time, her hairdo consisted of extra-large Chaka Khan-style curls, extending horizontally on either side of her face.

She held up her nails, polished in a peach-pink shade. “See my nails? The person who does my nails has to have a license to do nails. You have to have a license to cut hair, a license to be a plumber. I went to buy a goldfish and the pet-store person wanted proof that I owned a fish tank before he would sell me a goldfish. Many people do not know how easy it can be to purchase a gun without a license. I teach after-school classes in high schools and middle schools, and sometimes I show the kids pictures of gun shows and I ask them, ‘Who do you see in this picture that looks like you? The guns are coming to your community from places where almost nobody looks like you, and you are using these guns to kill each other.’

“If I ask a room of kids at a high school in Crown Heights if they could get a gun if they wanted to, every hand goes up. These kids can get a gun more easily than a MetroCard. There are guns nobody owns, guns you can borrow—community guns.

“The reason kids pick up guns is that they are powerless. I try to let them understand how they can have power. We draw maps of their neighborhoods and figure out who their representatives are. The first time I ask who represents them in the government, they always shout, ‘Obama!’ I try to show them there are dozens and dozens of other people between them and him.

“People sometimes ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Don’t ask that! Ask what they want to be right now! I want to help them find that out—how they can have some direction and some power, without it coming from a gun.”

— Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, Talk of the Town, September 30, 2013

Performance diary: THE BLUE DRAGON and MR. BURNS

September 24, 2013

9.20.13 – The Blue Dragon at the BAM Next Wave Festival is a spinoff from The Dragons’ Trilogy, the two-part six-hour epic that I saw at the Los Angeles Festival in 1990, my first exposure to the work of Quebecois director Robert Lepage. Set in Quebec, Toronto, and Vancouver, the trilogy told a sprawling story about the influence of Chinese immigrants on Canadian culture in the 20th century. The Blue Dragon concerns two Canadian characters from the trilogy 25 years later in Shanghai, art dealer Pierre and vacationing ad executive Marie, where they interact with a young Chinese artist named Xiao Ling, Pierre’s protégée and lover. Pierre and Marie married for a lark as kids and never bothered to divorce; now Marie wants a child and has come to adopt – or, more accurately, buy one on the black market.

The Blue Dragon
contains all the things I admire about Lepage’s work – the visual splendor, where the sets and images are constantly transforming from one thing to another; the narrative ambition to connect vastly disparate worlds; the low-key humanity at the heart of the performances. I’d never seen Lepage perform onstage until now, only on film, and he has a compelling intimacy and beautiful speaking voice. The works he creates with his company (first Theatre Repere, now Ex Machina) always contain little nuggets of research on topics that seem offhand but wind up pertinent to the plot (Chinese calligraphy is a big one here). The play is co-written with Marie Michaud, who plays Marie, and Xiao Ling is played by Tai Wei Foo, a Singaporean dancer who does two gorgeous dances that show off the mesmerizing and original lighting design by Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun. My only quarrel with the play is dramaturgical – the set-up of the story is compelling and rich, but at a certain point the authors realized that they’ve set up an easy plot resolution (Xiao Ling becomes pregnant, Marie wants a child, so…) and then contort the story to avoid landing at what seems like a perfectly obvious and reasonable conclusion, and the contortions don’t make sense. I love that the script is published as a graphic novel (below), which I bought at the BAM bookstall.


9.21.13 – Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of interviewing Lepage live in front of an audience as part of BAM’s Iconic Artist Talk series at the Hillman Studio in the new Fisher Building. He talked a little bit about his early training with Alain Knapp and the influence of artists like Lawrence and Anna Halprin, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Pina Bausch on his aesthetic taste in composing theater. A period of time he spent working in Japan directing opera made a life-changing impression on him. And he talked a little about the tetralogy he is at work on now called Playing Cards, which concerns the impact of the Arab world on global culture.

9-21 lepage et moi
9.22.13 – Something told me I had to see Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns – a post-electric play at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Steve Cosson (of The Civilians) with music by Michael Friedman. It’s a smart, unusual variant on the much-used theme of “what if X-and-such cultural artifact was the only thing left after the apocalypse and creatures from other planets relied on it to make sense of life on Earth?” After nuclear plant explosions have wiped out the electrical grid, survivors form community around recalling episodes of The Simpsons (which are themselves repositories of a dense assortment of cultural references). The first two acts are intriguing and surprising; the third goes on about three times longer than is needed to make its point. The cast is one of those high-powered ensembles of Off-Broadway heavyweights: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer Morris, Colleen Werthmann, and Sam Breslin Wright (the characters are named after them). This is one of those brave Playwrights Horizons productions that divides its core audience – some people who get the cultural references love it, some people hate it, not much in between. As usual, the theater has made available a bunch of cool background material for people who want to know more about the show — online you can listen to separate podcasts with the author and composer, and at the theater after the show you can pick up a copy of a long illuminating interview with Washburn by artistic director Tim Sanford.

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