Posts Tagged ‘jeremy o. harris’

Culture Vulture: cinema summer

August 1, 2021

Streaming movies and TV have been a godsend during the pandemic. Talk about essential services! Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring two different avenues – this curious phenomenon called Going To a Movie Theater And Watching On The Big Screen, and in the opposite direction digging around among the kind online cinematic arcana Richard Brody likes to write about in the fine print of the New Yorker.

The first movie we saw in the theater was In the Heights, not a perfect movie but perfect for the moment, a feel-good New York City summertime romance with lots of dancing in the streets. The second theater movie, even more exciting, was Summer of Soul, a meticulous reconstruction and recontextualization of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place across six weekends in 1969. After enjoying the incredible line-up of performances – Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone – I gobbled up every interview I could find with Questlove, who created the film with the freewheeling precision of a genius mixtape. I loved learning that Aretha Franklin was originally supposed to perform the duet with Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord, Take My Heart” but cancelled at the last minute, leaving Mavis Staples to step in for a once-in-a-lifetime performance that is the highlight of the film. Also: Jimi Hendrix desperately wanted to be invited to play the festival; he was shut out but instead booked dates at a local blues club just to be in the vibe.

The third film I saw in the theater inhabits a whole other realm of cinema. Zola began life as a series of 148 Twitter posts by exotic dancer Aziah “Zola” King about a crazy road trip from Detroit to Tampa that turns into a much scarier ride than anticipated. David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” led to this wildly original film cooked up by director Janicza Bravo with playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Fast, wild, sexy, and nerve-wracking, Zola depends on the brave and hilarious performances of the central quartet – Taylour Paige as Zola, Riley Keough as Stefani (the faux-naif who lures Zola into an elaborate con), Nicholas Braun as her dweeby boyfriend Derrek, and Colman Domingo as Stefani’s pimp, known as X. I thought Keough looked a little familiar; only afterwards, I learned that she was not only the den-mother/gang-boss in American Honey but also the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley (which means her grandfather was Elvis and her stepfather was Michael Jackson). As we left the theater, my friend Ben and I agreed that the movie felt like a mash-up of Tarantino and Tangerine (Sean Baker’s dazzling iPhone-shot film about trans hookers in LA).

Meanwhile, some discoveries from off the beaten path:

BE PRETTY AND SHUT UP! – Succumbing to some promotional offer, I subscribed to MUBI, which specializes in art cinema and emerging filmmakers even more obscure than what you’ll find in the Criterion Collection. I’ve watched LOST LOST LOST, six reels from Jonas Mekas’s Bolex with stilted voiceover, crude titles, and un-annotated glimpses of NYC in the 1960s (Frank O’Hara and Leroi Jones – later known as Amiri Baraka – at a play reading! Julian Beck and Judith Malina at a street demonstration!), and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s nutty Psychomagic: A Healing Art. There’s currently a whole series called “Sex, Truth, and Videotape: French Feminist Activism.” Who knew that the great Delphine Seyrig had taken it upon herself to do make a simple, one-camera, black-and-white, no-frills talking-heads documentary of her conversations with other women about their experiences acting in films?

Yes, Jane Fonda was married to Roger Vadim and co-starred with Yves Montand in Tout Va Bien but how often have we gotten the chance to hear her speak fluent French in conversation? The crew of interviewees is amazing: Ellen Burstyn, Viva, Shirley MacLaine, Cindy Williams, Maria Schneider, Jill Clayburgh, Louise Fletcher, and more, no makeup, no fancy backdrops. Almost all of them are amazed and thrilled to be asked questions they’ve never addressed before: have you ever been asked to play a scene where two women express friendliness to each other?

CAN YOU BRING IT – Rosalynde Leblanc and Tom Hurwitz’s documentary beautifully conjures the original production of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s D-Man in the Water while observing Leblanc’s restaging Jones’ choreography on a group of young dancers at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. The Jones/Zane company figured heavily in the pop-dance explosion in NYC in the 1980s; like Twyla Tharp’s and Mark Morris’s, their company was like a favorite rock band. It’s thrilling to see this footage of gigantic Bill, tiny Arnie, chubby Larry Goldhuber, gorgeous Heidi Latsky, impy Sean Curran (below), athletic Arthur Aviles (I’ll never forget his gravity-defying performance in D-Man) – all of them dancing in vintage footage, the survivors speaking with wrenching eloquence.

Zane died of AIDS in 1988; he was 39. Demian Acquavella, the D-man of the title, died in 1990; he was 32. Jones’s status as long-term survivor is etched on his craggy face. The documentary is a tribute to the artists who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and responded to it in their work. The fresh-faced kids in LA know virtually nothing about AIDS, which makes their approach to the production both dewy with innocence and kind of clueless. Jones has done a beautiful job of stepping into the role of community elder, and it’s moving to observe the patience and presence he brings to speaking with the students. (His smooth, avuncular speaking voice uncannily recalls Barack Obama’s.) And even though I don’t think about it that much, he’s literally an icon in my everyday life – a signed print of Keith Haring’s drawing of him (based on a photo by Tseng Kwong-Chi, another shining downtown artist lost to AIDS, like Haring) hangs just inside my front door.

WATER MAKES US WET – Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ goofy yet informational documentary about the politics of water has made the rounds to festivals for a couple of years, and they’ve made the film available for free on Vimeo through the end of August. Modelling their spiritual practice as “ecosexuals,” they wander up and down the state of California in their RV, visiting wastewater treatment facilities, communing with philosopher Donna Haraway in her back yard (below), and chatting up sewage handlers who have cultivated tremendous tolerance for

the shit jokes that come their way. A program in San Francisco called “Adopt a Drain” enrolls local residents to keep drains swept clear of garbage and debris. Motto: “Your #2 Is Our #1.” Their irrepressible message is “Fight despair with joy!” I love getting access to smart, powerful lesbian couples and the wisdom they generate – see also the “On Being” podcast featuring author Glennon Doyle and world-champion soccer star Abby Wambach, two people I knew nothing about until listening to their funny and savvy chat with Krista Tippett.

PRIDE – “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is an old saying whose truth has played out in world-changing ways these last couple of years. The U.S. government has plenty of money in reserve to not only vaccinate everyone in the country but to pull American citizens out of poverty with direct payments. Something significant happens when white male supremacy gives way to leadership by women and people of color. The remarkable achievement of the Hulu series Pride is that it doesn’t have to stretch very far to tell the story of the gay liberation movement primarily through black, trans, and female voices. The series makes that look so simple, easy, and obvious, but in reality until the last two years no overview of the gay movement has foregrounded these voices. (Sarah Schulman accomplishes the same corrective in her recently published, invaluable history of ACT UP, Let the Record Show.) The sixth and final episode, for instance, “Y2Gay,” spotlights Margaret Cho, David Wilson, Brontez Purnell, Dean Spade, Chase Strangio, Cece McDonald, Dr. Lourdes Hunter, Raquel Willis (below), and Ceyenne Doroshow. And the decade of the ‘70s, a turning point in gay history, is given a very different and richer spin because of the voices that black lesbian feminist filmmaker Cheryl Dunye chooses to tell the story. The whole series is so beautifully scripted and shot that you (almost) don’t mind the maddening deluge of the same commercials over and over on Hulu.

Culture Vulture: Soho Rep, AKHNATEN, BLACK EXHIBITION, the new MOMA, and MARRIAGE STORY

November 19, 2019

Another Culture Vulture marathon! (click photos to enlarge)

Thursday night at Soho Rep with for all the women who thought they were   Mad by Zawe Ashton, the British actress and author currently on Broadway in Betrayal. The idea of the play was worthy: a young businesswoman juggling numbers and motherhood struggles to find her way up the corporate ladder while haunted by the voices of the women from her village life back in Africa. The protagonist (ironically named Joy and played by Bisserat Tseggai, below photographed by Julieta Cervantes) occupies a glass-walled cubicle that spins midstage, while her sister-relatives sit, sing, chant, and sprawl around her. I admired the costumes (by Andrew Jean) and the many amazing faces among the female cast (Gibson Frazier has the unenviable task of playing all the smug white men in Joy’s life) directed by Whitney White, but the play’s dry, pretentious language left me out.

Friday night: the Metropolitan Opera’s ravishing production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, staged by Phelim McDermott with production design by Tom Pye, costumes by Kevin Pollard, and knockout performances by Anthony Ross Costanzo in the title role of 14th century BCE Egyptian pharaoh and J’Nai Bridges as his wife Nefertiti, conducted by Karen Kamensek. I agreed with Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review in viewing the opera as ritualistic and mystical; I also agreed with Justin Davidson’s Vulture review referring to the show as the essence of capital-C camp. (To get a sense of what I mean, you only have to read the program’s synopsis of Act I, preferably aloud in the portentous, shouting-to-the-fifth-balcony voice of Zachary James playing the quasi-narrator.)

Unlike both reviewers, I never got tired of watching the team of jugglers (led by choreographer Sean Gandini) whose ball-tossing struck me as a witty and fun visual corollary to Glass’s looping repetitive score.

After a visually trippy-murky first scene of his predecessor being eviscerated and his heart being weighed in relation to a feather, Costanzo as Akhnaten makes his entrance stark naked (with a gold stripe on his forehead) and takes six minutes to descend 12 steps to the stage floor. He prostrates himself, and a troupe of courtiers picks up his rigid body and airlifts it into a pair of pantaloons before snapping him into a giant skirt-cage over which they arrange the most fluffy-gilt Bo Peep costume you can imagine (above, photo by Karen Almond). It’s another several minutes before you hear Costanzo’s amazing countertenor voice break into song (a lot of “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”).

His love duet with Nefertiti (above) and his “Hymn to the Sun” in Act II are gorgeous, slow, shimmering, staged against large bright symbolic geometric sets. In the course of the opera, Akhnaten’s gender seems to morph. He and Nefertiti both wear gauzy garments over smocks with drawn-on breasts and female genitals; I found myself thinking about punk artist Genesis P-Orridge and his mate Lady Jaye, who underwent a series of cosmetic surgeries in order to resemble one another. But when their six daughters appeared wearing indigo weaves, facelift bandages, and goth-girl makeup looking like refugees from a John Waters movie (see below), I couldn’t help audibly snickering.

I’m glad I saw it, though. Who knows what the regular Met audience made of it. The woman to my right gamely compared-and-contrasted it with Doctor Atomic, John Adams and Peter Sellars’ opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer. The man to my left turned to me afterwards and said, “Give me a one-liner.” I said, “I’m not good at one-liners.” He said, “Give me a two-liner then. I’m puzzled.”

Saturday afternoon: Black Exhibition at the Bushwick Starr, aka “for colored faggots who considered suicide/when feeling invisible in gay paradise.” Five queer black men representing five literary figures (Kathy Acker, Samuel Delaney, Yukio Mishima, Gary Fisher, and Tiger Mandingo – the last not a writer but the guy convicted of having sex without disclosing his HIV+ status) haunt the mind of @GaryXXXFisher (the non-secret pseudonym for Jeremy O. Harris, currently represented on Broadway with his edgy Slave Play) hanging out in Fire Island Pines. “I came here to write and all I did was look…all I did was fuck and cry…all I did was read.” Very incantatory, referencing Suzan-Lori Parks specifically and Ntozake Shange implicitly. Aggressively sexual, even hostile, extremely explicit. In three parts, the third of which takes place in Berlin, where he attends the Laboratory and likens playwriting to being face-down ass-up in a dark room waiting to see if anyone takes an interest.

In this last section Harris lolls about onstage in a jockstrap talking about how tight his hole is, at considerable length. Lots of repetitions of a favorite tweet: “Ooops! Fleet water too hot. I almost made chitlins.” The last literary figure to arrive is Mishima (Miles Greenberg), who seems ready to enact a bondage/flogging scene with Harris/Fisher (above, photo by Sara Krulwich) but suddenly says, “You’re too skinny, I want to see you eat!” Et voila, two tables arrive onstage with gigantic trays of take-out food, and the four other performers chow down – until Harris dashes offstage to the bathroom to purge. It’s a phenomenally raw and honest outpouring.  I appreciated that, except for Frank J. Oliva’s set design (a haunted house version of Pines boardwalks) and Christopher Darbassie’s deep-dub sound design, almost the entire crew are women of color, which is what happens when you have a smart, savvy woman of color director, Machel Ross.

Sunday: first walk through “the new MOMA.”

It was the end of the day, so I only had time to stroll through “Surrounds: 11 Installations” on the top floor, pausing to inspect Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s The Killing Machine (above) and Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (below).

Among the galleries devoted to new juxtapositions from the permanent collection, I admired Morris Hirshfield’s Inseparable Friends (1941).

David Siqueiros’s trippy textured Collective Suicide (1936) never fails to catch my eye and drag me ten feet.

Then there’s member: pope L., the generous retrospective of this tireless eccentric artist’s multimedia tricksterism.

Along with paintings, drawings, and objects, much of what’s shown documents his ephemeral performances, often nearly naked in public places, as artist-sannyasin. The walls and art works frequently have holes drilled into them, a witty placeholder for what’s holy and what’s missing/unknown/unknowable.

Sunday night: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. A rare peek into the exotic mating rituals of white cisgender heterosexuals. Excellent performances throughout, none more so than the amazing Adam Driver whose finest moment is such a surprise I don’t want to spoil it for you. Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda surpass themselves (a tribute to fine writing and directing) playing contrasting flavors of warrior divorce lawyers. The supporting cast brims with wonderful New York stage actors (Matt Maher! Merrit Wever! Becca Blackwell! Jasmine Cephas Jones! Julie Hagerty! Wally Shawn, perfectly capturing the veteran ensemble actor always boring other company members with his name-dropping tales of long-distant triumphs!). Lovely score by Randy Newman. It’ll be on Netflix any day now, but I was perfectly happy to watch it at the Paris Cinema, the last single-screen theater in Manhattan.

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