Delicious Foods — James Hannaham’s novel is an amazing accomplishment. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I bought it as soon as it came out, the title lulled me into imagining it would be a smart and entertaining story maybe about some folks opening a farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn, a perfect book to accompany a long plane ride or a short hospital stay. What was I thinking?!?!? In the tradition of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Delicious Foods is a deep, dark fable about African-American lives, set mostly in Louisiana and Texas in the not-too-distant past just pre-Internet. It vividly depicts two insidious forms of slavery that thrived during this era: economic exploitation and crack cocaine. The title
actually refers to a company that sweeps poor black drunks and junkies off the streets of Houston and puts them to work on a remote plantation. Most ingenious is the way the author personifies crack as an awareness named Scotty who narrates large swathes of the book, which allows him to explore a subject – the damage done to a generation of black Americans by the development of a cheap accessible highly addictive street drug — that usually flies under the radar of political discourse about race, economic injustice, and the prison system in America. There are richly developed characters, smartly digested political commentary delivered on the fly, and yes, there is redemption. But it’s a tough literary novel, not a beach read. After reading Hannaham’s harrowing details of how these captives are housed and fed and worked (Oz meets 12 Years a Slave), you may have trouble eating watermelon ever again.
Shirtlifter — Steve MacIsaac’s graphic novel-in-progress (hard to call it a “comic book”) has been in my peripheral vision for a while, and as so often is the case when you’re Facebook friends with an artist, sooner or later the Kickstarter campaign comes along. I didn’t mind throwing in $25, and in return I got one of the first copies of Shirtlifer #5. Once I sat down and started reading it, I couldn’t stop, and on the last page I unexpectedly burst into tears. His artwork is elegant and original, and his gritty stories of a gay man’s struggles with sex and intimacy are all-too-recognizable. He’s like a gay Harvey Pekar. I went back and bought the e-book versions of all four previous volumes. I highly recommend that you do the same.
Love and Mercy – Bill Pohland’s feature film about the real-life story of Brian Wilson is fantastic. It made me realize how closely I’ve tracked the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys story all my life, parallel with the Beatles or any other major pop music phenomenon. Not a single event in the film was unknown to me, but it’s superbly dramatized, nerve-wracking, moving, factually accurate, and musically thrilling. I burst into tears several times, from joy and sorrow and mysterious resonance. I’ve never been a huge Paul Dano fan, but he gives a spectacular, vanity-free performance as the young Brian Wilson. John Cusack as the older Brian and Elizabeth Banks as his second wife (and savior) Melinda are superb, and Paul Giamatti and Bill Camp get to play the flaming villains of the piece. Among the subtle things the film establishes is how someone gets imprinted early to tolerate abusive relationships. Great American film. The screenplay is credited to Oren Moverman (who wrote Todd Haynes’ strange Dylan movie I’m Not There) and Michael A. Lerner (best-known for, ahem, Dumb and Dumber). Good script but the auteur is clearly director Bill Pohlad.
I have no way of knowing what someone would make of the film who didn’t have a long deep love of the Beach Boys’ music. I went by myself because I knew that Andy, even though he grew up in California and spent many years happily singing close harmonies with collegiate a cappella groups, has pretty much always hated the Beach Boys. Trying to warm him up to the genius of Brian Wilson, I showed him Don Was’s 1995 documentary but that backfired – Brian’s voice is raggedy (cf. Chet Baker in Bruce Weber’s beautiful sad documentary about him, Let’s Get Lost) and his damaged demeanor is a little painful to observe. (When I played him Linda Ronstadt singing “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” Andy marveled at how different it sounds when sung by someone with a “good voice.” Brian’s falsetto just sounds whiny to him.) That documentary (Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times) is available on a DVD that also includes The Beach Boys: An American Band, a more conventional and corny documentary that nevertheless includes a lot of the insanely dated pre-MTV videos the Beach Boys made plus an interview with Brian filmed during the three and a half years he stayed in bed.
Inside Out – a Pixar film is much more Andy’s cup of tea and we happily consumed Pete Docter’s animated feature the weekend that it opened. Not surprisingly, it displays Pixar’s spectacular state-of-the-art animation technology but it’s also a phenomenal bit of mass-market psycho-education. Because most of it takes place inside the astutely and hilariously imagined emotional life of a 12-year-old girl, the starring roles played, say, by fish in Finding Nemo get assigned to the primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. As far as I’m concerned, everybody can learn something about themselves by contemplating how those emotions interact and run our lives.
Heart of a Dog — I saw one of the first screenings of Laurie Anderson’s new film (her first since the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave). It is a beautifully cinematic version of her live performances, an arty stream of video and stills, abstract and figurative, non-narrative visuals and text propelled by her warm intimate voiceover. (Aficionados will recognize passages from her recent shows Delusion and Landfall.) The film is ostensibly an hommage to Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, who despite going blind in her old age learned to paint and play piano (sort of). But it is really a beautiful, sad, wise piece about death, dying, dreams, meditation, Tibetan Buddhism, storytelling, love, loss, her mother, Lou Reed and…well, really, it’s about everything.
Shamir, Rachet – the video of his 2014 semi-hit “On the Regular” blew my mind to little pieces, and I also enjoyed the video for “Call It Off,” which was enough to get me to buy the CD, but nothing else on the album excited me nearly as much.
James Taylor, Before This World – a new James Taylor album is theoretically welcome and overdue, but this one is pretty tepid. And I could live my whole life without hearing him sing about “poontang.”
Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, girl — thanks to the New Yorker’s Anwen Crawford for turning me on to this fascinating Norwegian singer-songwriter. Her third album mixes smart, edgy songwriting, spoken word, and quirky sonics in a way that pleasurably extends a line that starts with Laurie Anderson and passes through Jane Siberry on the way to Hval. There’s a bit of PJ Harvey in the mix, too, less interesting to me but also less prominent on this album than on her previous work.
Gloria – Another smart, funny, unnerving play from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), this one centered on the snarky relationships among junior editors in an up-to-the-minute magazine office. (Jacobs-Jenkins worked for a while as an underling at The New Yorker.) The production at the Vineyard Theater has a fantastic cast, some of them making their Off-Broadway debuts: Ryan Spahn, Kyle Beltran, Catherine Combs, Michael Crane, Jennifer Kim, and Jeanine Serralles, staged by Evan Cabnet, who’s now on my list of Directors to Watch Out For.
Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity — The Tony Awards just anointed a bunch of extraordinary performances worth seeing, by current and future theatrical superstars. But if you’ve never seen (or heard of) David Greenspan, you owe it to yourself to discover a guy whom downtown theater folks revere as a living treasure — a performer of astonishing skill, intelligence, and sheer performing genius. He’s the centerpiece of Target Margin Theater’s Gertrude Stein festival, doing a show in which he delivers Stein’s lectures “Composition” and “What Are Master-Pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” and her play “Identity A Poem.” It’s a master class in Stein and in economical theatrical acting.
10 Out of 12 – Anne Washburn’s latest at Soho Rep, directed by Les Waters, is a crazy irritating pretentious play about crazy irritating pretentious theater people. Brave unpleasant truthtelling? Or bogus bullshit? A little of each, I would say. Some very good actors work very hard, pretty thanklessly. Quincy Tyler Bernstine is scandalously underused; Thomas Jay Ryan is over-the-top and perfect if hard to like. I admired performances by Nina Hellman, David Ross, and Gibson Frazier, and David Zinn’s set is purposely insane and funny.