Posts Tagged ‘edmund white’

Quote of the day: REJECTION

June 30, 2016


What has being a writer taught you about rejection?

Well my first novel, Forgetting Elena wasn’t really my first novel. It was about my fifth novel, but I had submitted maybe three of them, they had all been rejected, and then this one, Forgetting Elena, which I thought was actually good was rejected by 22 publishers. In those days you couldn’t multiple submit, you had to wait until one person rejected it until you submitted it again. Anyway one of our best publishers Knopf was considering that book for maybe six months, and then they finally rejected it.

I was living in Rome, and I remember going to American Express and getting my mail, and reading the rejection letter, and I just sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed. I was walking along through the forum, and I was saying, “I can’t speak, I can’t speak, they won’t let me speak.” I was sobbing away, and then I decided although I’m in atheist, I always make bargains with God, and so I made bargain God that if he sent me a beautiful angel, or a man, that I would not commit suicide.

The next thing you know this really handsome blonde Venetian came up to me and said, “Oh why are you crying? Can I help you?” We went to bed, we had a little affair, I was 29, but what did I learn from it? I guess I learned from it that God exists although I’m an atheist.

–Edmund White

photo by Ethan Hill

                                       photo by Ethan Hill



Culture Vulture: Nina Simone, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Edmund White, and ROCKY, et al.

March 15, 2014

nina simone
Nina Simone Live at Montreux 1976 – by chance someone posted on Facebook a link to a YouTube clip from this concert, her rendition of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” with a long spoken introduction. It was so riveting I had to buy the DVD. The concert is simply astonishing. (You can watch the whole thing online here.) Her musicianship is breathtaking, yet at the same time it is patently obvious that she is out of her fucking mind. Only after she died did the biographies reveal that she suffered from bipolar disorder. This concert could be used in medical schools to teach psychiatrists what that looks like. She free-associates, begins diatribes, catches herself, disappears very deeply into her stony face and fathomless eyes. Very disturbing and painful to watch, and yet you walk away dazzled that someone so deeply wounded and ill could even be up walking around, let alone play music like this. She only does six numbers in the hour-long concert, none of them bearing any resemblance to anything she put out on records. There’s a twenty-minute version of “Little Girl Blue” and a vamp she picks up from her drummer and turns into its own song that she gets up and dances to. The bonus material includes six songs she performed at the jazz festival other years.

FILM: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson’s movies are the epitome of twee, but you will not hear any complaint from me about that. I have enjoyed most of his curious, fast, absurdist, huge-cast epic capers (especially The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and this one is no exception. One yummy brief performance after another (Harvey Keitel! Tilda Swinton! Edward Norton! Willem Dafoe! Bill Murray! Adrian Brody! Larry Pine! Casting by Doug Aibel, of course) but deeply appealing leading performances by Ralph Fiennes and his adorable Lobby Boy, Tony Revolori. It’s wildly whimsical yet inspired by the real-life absurdist tragedy of war-torn 20th century Europe, especially the work of Stefan Zweig.

inside a pearl

BOOKS: Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in ParisWhite’s latest memoir is a daredevil act of personal narrative, loosely organized as a portrait of his friendship with Marie-Claude (MC) de Brunhoff, a critic and translator, but branching out to reminisce and gossip about every fascinating character he encountered in the 15 years he lived in the French capital. It is gossipy, loving, self-revealing, shrewd, and beautifully written. A few choice tidbits:

  • one of his boyfriends, John Purcell, carried White’s novel A Boy’s Own Story around for a month but never got beyond page 10. “He said he was dyslexic, the vogue word of that decade for lack of literary curiosity, just as attention deficit disorder is the term now.”
  • “I guess I define intelligence as the power to make new, surprising, wide-ranging associations and never to rely on automatic, untested generalities.”
  • On the ultimate wisdom and generosity of polyamory: “Who were the members of Bernard [Minaret]’s salon? One was Jacques Fieschi, a successful writer of film scenarios who was also an amateur boxer (he had the smashed-in nose to prove it). Jacques had been Bernard’s lover for many years, then fell for Claude Arnaud. Rather than losing Jacques in a fit of jealousy, Bernard decided to ‘take the couple’ and so he moved Claude in. In that way he was like Cocteau, who, learning that his longtime lover – the much younger movie star Jean Marais – had fallen for a lifeguard, Paul Morihen, set his rival up in business as the proprietor of a bookstore downstairs from his apartment in the Palais-Royal, thereby extending his family by one member rather than diminishing it to zero.”
  • “In those days, sex dates in the gay world were made on telephone party lines. We taught [a female friend] to call out, ‘Bouffeur de cul cherche cul’ (‘Ass eater is looking for an ass’) over a gay party line and she said it in the voice of a raw teenage boy from the suburbs.”
  • “Outside I was as gushy as my Texas mother and inside cold and calculating.”
  • “I had been influenced by Nabokov’s observation that if he wanted to see whether a novel was a crappy best-seller, he’d just flip through it and if he saw too much dialogue, he knew it wasn’t for him. He reasoned that since dialogue always sounds alike, the writer couldn’t establish his own special tone if he handed the book over to his characters and their banal yammering.”
  • On the short-lived pre-internet/smartphone technology Minitel: “The cruising facility was the ligne rose (pink line), where users typed out their preferences for all to see. It took some doing to learn the abbreviations. JhCh TBM pour plan hard, pour SSR, look Santiag meant ‘Young man (Jeune homme) looks for (cherche) a very handsome guy (trés beau mec) – or, alternately, very well-hung (trés bien monté) – who wants rough sex (plan hard) and safe sex (sexe sans risqué) who wears Western-style cowboy (“Santiago”) boots.’”
  • “I now had a fatal Old World sense of conversation – that it should be exciting and frivolous and provocative and preferably scandalous. I’d mentally prepare two or three hot topics before every evening. But my style was withering to Americans, who like to graze peacefully in conversation, and my ‘sparkling’ style inhibited general conversation – which would revive, I would notice, whenever I went into the kitchen for the next course.”
  • “Until I became old and fat I was still going to saunas, but soon I discovered the whole paradise of cruising gerontophile chubby chasers on the Web.”
  • On life’s purpose: “I was alive in order to – well, to teach, to trick, to write, to memorialize, to be a faithful scribe, to record the loss of my dead.”

masters of sex

Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex – on vacation in Florida, I read this biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneering sex therapists. I haven’t watched any of the TV series based on this biography; I read the book as a colleague for inspiration. A noteworthy passage, describing a moment that took place in 1954 at Washington University in St. Louis: “Masters visited the medical school library, looking for any book, medical article, or dissertation [related to the medical study of human sexuality]. ‘I realized that there was really nothing that had been written or researched that was going to be of any help in working out the physiology of human sexual response,’ he later observed.

“At Washington University, Masters found just one title about sexual functioning to shed some light. The textbook had been written by a former University of Illinois department chairman of obstetrics and gynecology who, as Masters learned, waited until retirement to publish it. Washington University kept this book on the reserve shelf. When Masters asked to see it, the librarian refused.

“ ‘I’m sorry, Dr. Masters, I cannot do that,’ she told him.

“Puzzled, Masters thought she had misunderstood him. ‘I do not want to take it out,’ he explained. ‘I just want to look at it.’

“The librarian wouldn’t budge. The textbook contained sketches – thin line drawings – of male and female genitalia, which the library superiors worried might be pornographic. As an associate professor, Masters wasn’t eligible to see it. Only full professors, heads of departments, and librarians could remove this book from the reserve shelf, he was told. …This small incident, Masters later reflected, ‘represented all too well medicine’s fearful approach to the subject of sex.’”

Some of Masters’ first important consultants on sexual functioning were sex workers. “During his first twenty months of research, he interviewed 118 female and 27 male prostitutes, from St. Louis and other cities. “Their streetwise frankness was far different than the stiff anxiety of his upper-middle-class patients who visited his office for a pelvic exam. These prostitutes, conscripted with the vice squad’s help, knew exactly what aroused a flaccid penis and stimulated a dry vagina, and how the two might come together with maximum efficiency. ‘They described many methods for elevating and controlling sexual tensions and demonstrated innumerable variations in stimulative technique.’”

When Masters and Johnson started viewing people having sex in their laboratory, their subjects wore paper bags and pillowcases over their heads for anonymity. When Masters’ mother heard about this, she volunteered to design and create silk masks for the volunteers to wear for their couplings.

They were interviewed by Playboy magazine, who asked “Traditionalists complain that investigations such as yours destroy the mystery of sex. Do you think that’s true?” Johnson replied, “We happen to think that the realistic, honest aspects of sexuality are a lot more exciting than the so-called mystery. The mystery to which the traditionalists usually refer has to do with superstition and myth. A knowledge of sex doesn’t impair but enhances it.”

Masters: “The greatest form of sex education is Pop walking past Mom in the kitchen and patting her on the fanny, and Mom obviously liking it. The kids take a look at this action and think, ‘Boy, that’s for me.’” A good description of my household growing up!

THEATER: Caryl Churchill’s Love and InformationI’m a longtime fan of Caryl Churchill’s brainy, super-theatrical plays. The latest, produced by New York Theater Workshop at the Minetta Lane, consists of 57 tiny vignettes, some of them one-line blackout sketches, that take place in a brightly lit white cubicle with different suggestive set pieces for each one. It’s an exercise in composing elliptical scenes on a general theme. Not my favorite of Churchill’s work but I am amazed and impressed that she scrupulously refused to repeat herself – each one of her 45 plays takes a different form, plays with a different genre, exercises a different muscle in her Olympian writer’s body. What I would really love is to have infra-red glasses and watch how the stagehands scramble around between scenes changing the furniture…

love and information

Rocky The Musicalthe consensus is pretty much: lousy score, exciting and ingenious staging of the climactic fight, appealing performance by Andy Karl in the title role. I go along with all of that. I also had a special affection for my friend David Zinn’s witty costumes – someone had to figure out to dress those muscle hunks in period workout attire! I donated an old ripped up motorcycle jacket to the wardrobe – DZ painted the collar red and put it on the guy who delivers the big box TV set in Act 2.


Culture Vulture: Steve Kazee, THE NANCE, THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, Edmund White on Rimbaud, and more

July 10, 2013



7/4/13 – Since I’m not a big fan of flag-waving, fireworks, and/or hot dogs, I was happy to spend part of my Fourth of July evening at the Stone, the tiny storefront music venue founded by John Zorn deep in the heart of the East Village at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C. The place is very basic and stripped-down – it sells no refreshments and no merchandise, just music, with a very cheap door charge ($15 tonight). Different musicians curate a whole series of performances each week. This week’s honcho was Eyvind Kang (below center), who has played violin and viola with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell. He lives in Vashon, WA, with his wife Jessika Kenney, a spectacularly talented singer who often appears as a guest for concerts of Javanese gamelan given by the group I play with, Gamelan Kusuma Laras.

7-4 jessika eyvind hidayat honari
For this occasion, the two of them were joined by tar and setar player Hidayat Honari for a program called “Rokh-e Khåk (رخ خاک),” an hour of classical Persian music – new, old, and improvised tunes with texts taken from the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian mystic. I know Hafiz’s work mostly from the sly, ecstatic English versions by Robert Bly. It was utterly transporting to hear this trio perform this music and to experience Jessika’s amazing, soulful voice communing with ancient Arabic. Apparently, the three of them all study with the same Persian master. It was a sweltering night, so Eyvind thoughtfully created an intermission after half an hour to turn the air conditioning and fan on for a while before resuming.

54 Below Press Preview - Barbara Cook, Steve Kazee & Jonathan Tunick With Rebecca Faulkenberry

7.8.13 — Handsome and talented Steve Kazee’s warm, expressive voice made him a star on Broadway and won him the Tony Award for Once, so I was excited to see his cabaret act at 54 Below. He appeared onstage with his four-piece rock band, the Shiny Liars, two guys (on bass and drums) and two gals (Elizabeth Davis, his fellow Once cast member who’s married to the bass player, and singer-songwriter Lora-Faye Whelan) and performed a set of all original material, which was okay but not especially memorable. He made it a point to tell the audience right away he wouldn’t be singing any songs from Once, and later he mentioned that any women he encountered on OK Cupid who mentioned seeing him in the show would instantly be blocked – which I thought was weirdly hostile. There is something strangely uneasy about his personality – he seemed surprisingly insecure, couldn’t believe how quiet and attentive the audience was, kept apologizing for using swear words, fretted about not having enough material to fill an hour-long show, and floated several negative comments he imagined audience members might be thinking, which came off as defensive, paranoid, not very attractive. Except for a tune about his mother (who died shortly after Once opened on Broadway), much of his material consisted of romantic break-up numbers or “Fuck you” songs, and a picture of him started to form as a bitter, arrogant dick. I’d prefer to believe that he was just very very nervous, and when I went online to check out his website I noted that he had to leave Once prematurely because of an injury to his vocal cords, which would make any rising star pretty unhappy, I should think. 


Greenberg  — I’m fascinated by Noah Baumbach without feeling obliged to see every single one of his films. I caught up with Greenberg via Netflix mostly out of curiosity because it apparently brought about the end of his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh (whom I admire tremendously) and the beginning of his relationship with Greta Gerwig, about whom I have not formed a definitive opinion. She’s strange-looking, sort of pretty and sort of lumpy, a little like Lena Dunham, although more than anything else she reminds me of Aimee Mann. Gerwig is a brave soul, willing to throw herself into roles that require awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Actually, that might be a perfect description of the Noah Baumbach School of Cinema: awkward and unpleasant self-exposure. Greenberg certainly demands plenty of that from Ben Stiller, who plays the eponym, a disagreeable chap who’s younger and better-looking yet even more neurotic than any Woody Allen character ever. The running joke of the movie is that he incessantly writes complaint letters. Interesting, quirky film. I liked it, didn’t love it.

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's LE AMICHE (1955)

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, and Anna Maria Pancani (from left to right) in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s LE AMICHE (1955)

Le Amiche – Whatever qualities you might associate with Antonioni (long, slow, taciturn, full of dry and not especially sensual shots of women’s naked backs) do not characterize this early (1955) black-and-white film (whose title in English is “The Girlfriends”). It’s screwball-comedy fast with people talking nonstop with the kind of peculiar, fleetly observed comic behavior more familiar from early Fellini and the visual luxuriousness of Max Ophuls, dominated with remarkably strong female characters, many of them modern businesswomen whose romantic interactions with hunky but emotionally immature men don’t follow predictable narrative contours. Some of the acting stays soap-opera shallow but mostly I found the movie riveting and bracing.


the nance

7.5.13The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s newest play produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, honorably intends to convey two lessons about gay history to younger generations: 1) there was a time not so very long ago (the play is set in 1937) when the socially repressive policies we hear about in places like Uganda and Iraq pertained in New York City – gay guys could get arrested just for cruising other men in public; and 2) at the very same time, behavior that was deemed socially unacceptable and legally sanctioned played for laughs on burlesque stages, where the strippers, novelty acts, singers, and vaudevillean comics sometimes incorporated “queer doings,” skits and sketches featuring campy clownish depictions of effeminate men (fairies, pansies, or nances, in the parlance of the day). I’m familiar with the cinematic equivalents of these caricatures, played by the likes of Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, but I don’t know much about this stage history. Beane apparently extrapolated the germ of his play from some pages in the classic history book Gay New York by George Chauncey; as a tip of the hat, he named the title character (played by Nathan Lane) Chauncey Miller. The play that contains these history lessons unfortunately comes across as a clumsy mixture of musical comedy, romance, and social commentary, with a lot of contemporary political attitudinizing retroactively laden onto a period piece. The politically conservative Chauncey proudly proclaims himself a Republican – but the term had a very different political meaning in the ‘30s and didn’t invite the same sort of badge-wearing it does today. And the romance between Chauncey and Ned, a young guy from the sticks he picks up at the Automat (played by Jonny Orsini), never feels authentic – Beane shoves them around to dramatize the conflict between monogamy-minded nesters (Ned) and intimacy-averse promiscuous guys (Chauncey).

7.6.13Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner takes place in a world that looks similar to ours and yet scary and alien at the same time. The government and the military have started to merge, and intellectual life is coming under siege, at first with occasional and remote acts of repression that become more frequent, more brutal, and closer to home. Shawn himself plays Jack, the title character, the hapless narrator of this tale from his perspective – both intimate and envious — just outside a literary social circle that revolves around Howard (Larry Pine), a prominent poet and the father of Jack’s wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg). It’s one of the most impressive plays I’ve ever encountered – dense, deep, dark, disturbing, and yet in Andre Gregory’s production at the Public Theater it’s also amazingly entertaining, funny, and theatrical. The same cast and crew did this show at a disused gentleman’s club in the financial district in 2000 for an audience of 30 every night. The production at the Public looks and feels quite different and yet equally intimate and impressive. It’s so easy to think of Wally Shawn as an enjoyable character actor in lots and lots of movies – with this production, it’s impossible not to be bowled over by the mastery of his performance, all the more spectacular because it’s not especially showy or dramatic. Yet his energy and focus and how he manages to surf the play’s mind-boggling swerves from domestic chitchat to philosophical exploration to reporting of horrendous events to smug self-blindness is utterly remarkable. Pine and Eisenberg do equally impressive, haunted performances under difficult circumstances — they are onstage, often silent, always implicated.

designated mourner playbill
I think anyone who cares about theater of substance will want to see this play. I’ve already bought tickets to see the show again. If you don’t live in New York so can’t see the play live, you might be interested to know that there is a radio version of the play available online here: And there is a film version of the London premiere production, which is directed by the playwright David Hare and stars none other than Mike Nichols.

At the Public Theater, I was fascinated to observe how Wally makes himself available after the show. He’s just given a relentless and intense three-hour performance, and yet as the audience files out of the theater, there he stands, smiling and open to meeting and greeting anyone who cares to approach. I’ve known him for 30 years and was happy to chat and praise his performance, and he graciously introduced me to Andre Gregory, whom I’d never met and whose work I also cherish. But I also enjoyed observing the different ways that audience members interact with him – from the earnest young theater scholar who’s clearly composed an entire essay about the playwright’s work that he intently wants to share on the spot to the individual who stands 10 feet away and snaps a flash photo without asking. Andy was tickled to meet Wally and also a little weirded out that we’ve now seen three shows at the Public Theater that ended without curtain calls for the actors.


I tried once again to check out Random International’s popular environmental piece Rain Room at MOMA, but even at 9:00, half an hour before the museum opened for Member Early Hours, there were already 50 people in line, which meant standing in the queue for at least an hour, and frankly I just don’t have the stamina to wait that long. That’s how I missed Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, and I never even got in line to lock eyes with Marina Abramovic. I’m delighted for the success of these cutting-edge art spectacles, but this waiting in line things seems geared to…whom? People who grew up standing in line for rides at Disney World? Apparently the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim is also massively popular and you pretty much have to build in at least half an hour of waiting time.


Edmund White’s Rimbaud – I love the whole concept of Brief Lives, the series of short biographies of important people crafted by distinguished contemporary writers that editor/author James Atlas has shuttled around to various major publishers. They are really extended biographical essays rather than definitive histories with footnotes and index – which makes them compulsively readable. I very much enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum’s Andy Warhol and Edmund White’s Marcel Proust, which came out under Penguin’s imprint, and I just happily gobbled up White’s Rimbaud – The Double Life of a Rebel, another perfect pairing of biographer and subject. Certainly, Rimbaud’s short life lends itself to a succinct biography – he only wrote poetry for four years as a teenager, published in two slim volumes. White began his publishing career writing encyclopedia entries for Time-Life Books, a job that you could say developed and/or exploited his gift for synthesizing vast swatches of information into elegant, witty, erudite prose. Here he digests everything written by and about Rimbaud (doing all the French translations himself) in fewer than 200 small pages. Whether evaluating Rimbaud’s best poems, detailing his love affair with Paul Verlaine, or tracking his dizzyingly peripatetic post-poet life, White’s commentary is informed without being boringly academic or scholarly, and it frequently betrays his own personal touches and obsessions. He notes with amusement that, after his affair with Verlaine made him persona non grata among the culturati of Paris, Rimbaud befriended a diminutive poet named German Nouveau who in letters referred to Rimbaud not by name but simply as “Thing” (“Chose”), as in “Miss Thing.” And a discussion of Verlaine’s medical examination to determine whether he has had anal intercourse veers into this digression:

“If the reader imagines that such examinations belong to the era of pseudoscience in the nineteenth century, he or she should be reminded that in the English town of Cleveland, from January to June 1987, more than five hundred children were forcibly removed (sometimes during midnight raids) from their parents’ homes by social workers because two doctors had determined that they’d all been buggered by their fathers. The doctors were using the highly questionable ‘anal dilation test,’ a sort of inserted balloon. If the children couldn’t grip the balloon with enough force, the doctors determined that they’d been anally violated. Soon there were no more foster families or hospital rooms in the entire region for the ‘victims.’ Ultimately the tide of opinion shifted against the doctors and most of the cases were thrown out of court. The whole unsavory episode was seen as a modern instance of a Salem witch trial. Verlaine’s examination by ‘experts’ had no more validity and revealed the same sort of disgusting prurience. As a result of it, curiously enough, we know more about the condition of his penis and anus than we do about the intimate anatomy of any other major poet of the past.”

Culture Vulture: new movies, music, and books

September 6, 2012


AI WEIWEI: Never Sorry – Alison Klayman’s documentary is a must-see. The Chinese artist-activist may be equally well-known for designing the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and for being held under house arrest incommunicato by the Chinese government for eight months. The film tracks his courageous commitment to the subversion of oppression and his deep humanity. The film, and his artistic career, pivots on the Chinese government’s reprehensibly stonewalling response to an earthquake in Sichuan where badly built school buildings collapsed and killed hundreds of children. The artist not only made art work in several media documenting the names of those who died (more than the government did) – he also created a beautiful and heartbreaking art installation on the outside wall of a museum in Munich: brightly colored children’s backpacks spelling out, in Chinese, “She lived happily for seven years.”

I WANT YOUR LOVE Travis Mathews’s debut as writer-director mashes up gay mumblecore drama with explicit sex scenes shot not like porn but with all the fumbling, ambient lighting, imperfect bodies, and squirtation of real-life sex. The ambition somewhat outweighs the execution – your reaction will depend on how interesting you find the central character, a drifting thirtysomething performance artist on his last day in San Francisco before moving back in with his parents in Columbus, Ohio.

MARGARET – Playwright and filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan (best known for This Is Our Youth onstage and the screenplay of You Can Count on Me) had a lot of support and good intention behind his first feature as director, but after four years in the making it limped into movie theaters for a week and then went straight to DVD. It’s a fascinating film – not a triumph but not a failure, either, although it seems indulgently long and pokey at 2 hours 40 minutes, what could it possibly have looked like at its original four-hour length? The story grapples with a teenage girl’s struggle to place herself in a moral universe after witnessing a fatal bus accident that she was partly responsible for. The philosophical and emotional concerns are honest, and they’re played out with the recognizable detail of an Alice Munro story or one of Woody Allen’s more somber New York dramas (Interiors or Crimes and Misdemeanors). Many striking performances, most notably by J. Smith-Cameron (Lonergan’s spouse, below left), Jeannie Berlin, and Anna Paquin (below right) as the main character, whose name is not Margaret – you’ll have to watch the film to grasp the significance of the title, and I hope you will.

NEIGHBORING SOUNDS — Kleber Mendonça Filho’s first film is a knockout debut. Set in Recife (where I’ll be visiting next month!), the film tracks several overlapping stories with an unusual, supernaturally confident ability to court yet dodge genre expectations, boggling between comedy and menace, beautifully shot, full of large and small surprises. Very satisfying. Seeing it gave me an opportunity to check out the new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, which is spiffy and comfortable, with unusual tasty snacks for sale.

JACK SMITH AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ATLANTIS Mary Jordan’s ambitious documentary of the influential yet elusive queer-theater legend Jack Smith (forever associated with his then-racy, now rather tame first major film, Flaming Creatures) rounds up great talking heads and archival footage, putting it all together in a somewhat demanding collage format that suits its subject.


Dead Can Dance, Anastasis – wow, just when it seemed Lisa Gerrard had disappeared into the land of making eerie movie soundtracks forever, a new Dead Can Dance album. With lush orchestral arrangements, even, some of which suggest North African Arab orchestras. The plush sound really adds something. Often this group wears me out fast – a little bit of Gerrard’s keening vocals in her made-up language and Brendan Perry’s leaden earnestness can go a long way. But there are only two tracks that drag here (“Kiko” and “Opium”), otherwise it’s a welcome return to form.

Justin Vivian Bond, Silver Wells – I’m not always a fan of La Bond’s singing when it gets shrieky and histrionic, but damn, V has excellent taste in songs. Reclaiming Ronee Blakley’s “Dues,” the climactic ballad from Robert Altman’s Nashville, already wins my heart, but Bond’s second solo album also includes good choices by Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen (“Famous Blue Raincoat,” one of my all-time favorite songs, frequently performed, but rarely with the same attentiveness to the gender-slipperiness of the lyric’s love triangle). Aside from “Dues,” my favorite track is Joni’s “Let the Wind Carry Me,” in which the songwriter recalls her stormy teenage relationship with her parents. Bond’s deep personal engagement with the lyric justifies shifting a couple of key words. “She don’t like my kick pleat skirt/She don’t like my eyelids painted green /She don’t like me staying up late/In my high-heeled shoes/Living for that Rock’n’Roll dancing scene/Papa says “Leave the boy alone, Mother/he’s looking like a Movie Queen…”


Edmund White, SACRED MONSTERS – The great novelist’s anthology of essays about artists (most but not all of them gay) shows off all his best traits: staggering erudition (he happens to know that a close friend of Ford Madox Ford was Lewis Carroll’s cousin), generosity to other artists, relish of gossip, and disarming self-effacement. “In those  days I was a resentful young man,” he says in one essay, and he describes himself as “one of the duller bulbs” in the orbit of poet James Merrill, which I doubt. He writes about Martin Amis and Nabokov as well as he does big names like Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood and nearly forgotten folks like Glenway Wescott and Howard Sturgis. He expands my vocabulary (“mute” is the word for a falcon’s shit, and the French expression en secondes noces is marvelously precise and useful). And he tosses off great lines with satisfying regularity: “I learned from that experience that you can say someone is the best poet since Dante but if you mention in passing that he should stop dying his hair or lose ten pounds he will never ever forgive you.

Julie Salamon, WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS – I confess that I put off reading Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy Wasserstein for a long time because I assumed the title to be an insulting infantilization of the gay men who formed the center of the late playwright’s social circle. After starting and then happily, avidly consuming the book, I realize that the author meant something else completely. It’s not that playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, producer Andre Bishop, director Gerald Gutierrez, and designer William Ivey Long were aimless lads stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. It’s that however much time each of these guys spent being the love of Wendy’s life, they were lost to her by virtue of sexual preference. (In an earlier, more closeted era, she might have wed one of them and created a perfectly satisfying mariage blanc. That she and McNally did indeed conduct a clandestine sexual relationship is one of the book’s more gossipy tidbits.) There’s more to be written about the particulars of Wasserstein’s theatrical achievements, but this volume thoroughly documents Wasserstein’s extraordinary birth family and the ins and outs of her professional associations. Wendy was someone I knew slightly and liked very much — but then she was like Nora Ephron that way, a famous and accomplished woman who was such a down-to-earth New Yorker that it was easy to feel like the story of her life is also the story of yours.

My life as a Culture Vulture: week of February 19

February 25, 2012

Busy fun culture week.

SUNDAY: I got to see the penultimate performance at the Encores! series of Merrily We Roll Along at City Center. It’s always been one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, if not my very favorite. This is the adaptation of a Kaufman and Hart show-biz drama that moves backwards in time, starting from the present when the central character, Frank Shepard, is a super-successful Broadway composer who’s sold out to Hollywood and then moving back through the pivotal experiences and relationships that made him who he is.  I’m not even that much of a musical theater geek, but I saw the short-lived original Hal Prince production in 1981 and loved the show and the music and the emotional sweep of the show, despite the ridiculous costumes and production design. As with many Sondheim shows, it was impeccably recorded (by Thomas Z. Shepard for RCA Records), and it’s through the original cast recording that many, many people grew to love this show. It’s great theater for the ear and a fantastic score. To my taste, there’s never been a better Charley Kringas than Lonny Price (especially his version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), and I’m very partial to Ann Morrison’s performance as Mary (for me, she kinda owns “Like It Was” and “Now You Know”) — plus Jason Alexander’s finest moment, as Joe.

I’d go see any production of Merrily that comes down the pike. I did see the pretty mediocre York Theater production (directed by Susan H. Schulman, starring Malcolm Gets) but the gold standard has always been James Lapine’s staging at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 with John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Heather McRae. Encores! tapped Lapine to mount the concert version at City Center, and he did a great job — not quite obliterating my fondness for the La Jolla version, partly because the full staging made that production more forceful. But it was pretty damn good at City Center. The show is such a moving, intense, bittersweet, super-ambivalent slice of adult wisdom — rueful in suggesting that we inevitably lose significant shards of our integrity as we age, upsetting in its honesty about the light and shadow aspects of friendship,  and yet inspiring in the way it captures youthful idealism. It’s a deep show, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears by the kids at the end claiming “It’s our time!” At City Center, I couldn’t help thinking that today’s versions of the twentysomething Frank and Charlie and Mary would be Occupying Wall Street.

Lovely performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mary and Charley, but for me two other performances by non-hyphenated actors were revelations: Colin Donnell as Frank and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie (above). Donnell is so good I may have to go see Anything Goes, and Stanley is definitely star material — she got to do the new number that Sondheim cooked up for this production, the act-two opener that gives us an excerpt of Frank and Charlie’s hit show, Musical Husbands.

MONDAY: I’m a big fan of Edmund White and will read anything he writes. I enjoyed Jack Holmes and His Friend a lot while reading it, so I was surprised to feel a little letdown by the very ending. It seemed weightless and inconsequential. But the form of the novel, which centers on a gay man who is in love with a straight friend, is somewhat experimental, so it works on you after the fact. The four sections alternate between third-person omniscient narrative and first-person narrative by Will, the straight guy — I think this is White’s first attempt to write in the voice of a heterosexual male, and at times it seems strained and somewhat cliched, though I can’t be sure if that’s intentional on White’s part. Ultimately, it’s an intriguingly detailed, characteristically sexually explicit take on how the advent of AIDS affected the kind of straight people who were just starting to explore the sexual freedom gay men claimed for themselves in the 1960s and ’70s.

I was alarmed to read an interview with White in the Gay and Lesbian Review, where he mentioned that he recently had a stroke. Nevertheless, his writing here is strong, and many passages dazzled me and made me laugh, such as this description of two women working as personnel directors for a literary magazine: “They’d been sitting in the same small office, with its dust and snake plants, for thirty years. Every surface was covered with files. They wore hats perched incongruously above their wide, bloated faces, like flowers taped to livestock.” And: “He’d never thought of his grandmother as a woman before — more as a matron with a firm, molded mono-bosom and a diamond brooch and a low, Southern twang than as a woman with soft white breasts like warm dachshunds in constant motion, dogs with huge brown noses.”

TUESDAY: Anthology Film Archives in the East Village is running a fantastic and comprehensive film series devoted to the Wooster Group, including a 10-program retrospective of film and video documentation of their glorious stage productions. When I ran into Cynthia Hedstrom at St. Ann’s Warehouse last week, she urged me to show up for the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road, and I’m so glad I did. The middle piece of the group’s Three Places in Rhode Island, Rumstick Road was really the work that launched Spalding Gray’s career as a solo performer and storyteller. At the center of the piece is Spalding telling the story of his mother’s suicide, using tape-recorded recollections by his father, his grandmother, and a psychiatrist who’d treated his mother. And Elizabeth LeCompte was just beginning to hone the tools that have made her the legendary genius director she is: having the actors lip-synch the recordings and developing with her three outrageously talented and fearless performers (Gray, Ron Vawter, and Libby Howe) and kindred-spirit techies (Jim Clayburgh and Bruce Porter) a variety of physical actions and visual images to complement the verbal material.

The piece was first shown in 1977 and performed periodically through 1980 (I saw it, weirdly enough, when it had a brief uptown run at the American Place Theater), back when the Wooster Group was called The Performance Group and were virtually unknown and barely scraping by. Various bits and pieces of Rumstick Road were captured on video, film, and audiotape but never a complete documented performance. Recently, LeCompte and filmmaker Ken Kobland sat down with the hodgepodge of chunks and ingeniously reconstructed the entire performance. It’s very rough and sometimes crude, which is of course perfect for LeCompte’s aesthetic. And looking back at the piece now, it’s astonishing to see how original and strong a work of art it is. The reconstruction includes a number of close-up shots that enhance the viewing experience (I hadn’t retained a clear memory of the crazy moment when Ron Vawter, wearing a latex old-lady mask, examined Spalding’s mouth at length, pulling out and stroking his tongue with his fingers). It was thrilling to re-experience the show, but also sad recalling those wonderful young actors lost to AIDS (Vawter), suicide (Gray), and mental illness (Howe).

WEDNESDAY: Rehearsal with Gamelan Kusuma Laras. I’m excited that I’m slowly, slowly starting to learn how to play a new instrument, bonang panerus (below), with lots of help and coaching from more experienced players (thanks, Carla! thanks, Dylan! thanks, Oki!).

THURSDAY: I finally finished reading Electric Eden, British music critic Rob Young’s dense, ambitious, obsessive, and impressive history of a certain stripe of British pop-folk music. He originally set out to focus on a specific set of quirky, seminal bands and performers who bridged the gap between traditional English folk music, rock and roll, and post-Dylan singer-songwriters — the likes of Fairport Convention (whose members included Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny), the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Donovan, and Nick Drake. But his research led him to deep thinking about the British history and culture and geography that music emerged from, and he also found himself tracking the artists forward through the tributaries of psychedelia, art-rock, glam-rock, punk, and other sound experiments. It’s one of the most impressive, intelligent books about pop music I’ve ever encountered, extremely well-written, scrupulously factual, and free of cheap, stupid generalizations.

I learned lots about music that was near and dear to me as a precocious teenage listener, and he writes about tons of artists I’ve never heard of before who sound fascinating (Mighty Baby? Comus?). His discography alone provides a graduate-level study guide to some beautiful and curious musical byroads. I never knew, for instance, that the Beatles created a 15-minute sound collage called “Carnival of Light” around the time of Sgt. Pepper! Here’s his succinct description of the tipping point, when the hippie-dippy pastoral rootsiness of acts like the Incredible String Band began to be eclipsed by the dark urban edginess of David Bowie: “If folk, folk-rock and its tributaries were, however subconsciously, believed to spring from collective, stable racial memory, glam tipped music into a wilderness of masks and mirrors, divided selves refracted through a succession of grotesque invented facades.”

FRIDAY: I was asked to give a nine-minute talk introducing the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard film Paris, Texas at the Rubin Museum‘s Cabaret Cinema series, which prompted me to read this informative interview with Wenders and also gave me the delightful opportunity to watch the film again. I hadn’t seen it since it opened at the New York Film Festival in 1984. Man, Robby Muller’s cinematography is spectacular, starting from the opening shots of Harry Dean Stanton striding with absurd purposefulness through the lunar landscape of the Grand Canyon. And Ry Cooder’s music has never been more beautifully matached with a film. I will admit that I slipped out early, so as to avoid watching Nastassia Kinski, whose performance I recall as acutely embarrassing. The Rubin is a great museum, the people who work there are super-nice, the place was packed and buzzing on a Friday night, and I look forward to using my gift membership to view their always-engrossing exhibitions, starting with a show I know Andy will want to see: “Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics.”

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