Posts Tagged ‘lena dunham’

In this week’s New Yorker

August 28, 2014

The three long features are all worth reading, for very different reasons.

Rebecca Mead’s “The Troll Slayer,” a profile of British classics scholar Mary Beard, is the most entertaining because its subject is so self-accepting and outspoken and reasonable.

The subject of William Finnegan’s “The Man Without a Mask” — Mexican drag queen wrestler Saul Armendariz, aka Cassandro — sounds both tough and tortured, not unreasonably, given the amazing life he’s lived and the profession he has pursued. It’s a world I knew nothing about. Check out this amazing photo by Katie Olinsky:

cassandro by katie orlinsky

Connie Bruck’s “Friends of Israel” belongs to the category of Ugly Truths Department — one of the New Yorker’s political pieces that informs you about stuff you don’t really want to know but you really should, namely the negative impact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has had on American politics by pouring tons of campaign money into Congress and enforcing an ironclad Israel-can-do-no-wrong attitude. Ugh. In its own way, AIPAC is as troublesome as the Koch brothers.

I gobbled up Lena Dunham’s “Difficult Girl,” but something about the glib way she plays her lifelong OCD for trendy status bugs me.

And another great cover by Eric Drooker, titled “Ferguson, Missouri”

new yorker ferguson cover

Culture Vulture: February 2013

February 18, 2013


Books: during my week-long vacation in Vieques, I hunkered down with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a novel friends have been raving about for years. I wanted to read it before seeing the movie.
Because six different stories travel back and forth in time, it takes a certain amount of concentration, perfect for lounging poolside in the sun in February. I liked the book and appreciated Mitchell’s clever narrative structure and imagination, though afterwards it occurred to me that almost all the stories boil down to one chase scene after another. I do look forward to seeing how it translates into a film.

DVD: the week in Vieques also gave me a chance to catch up with a bunch of screeners I’d borrowed from a movie-critic friend:

Brief Reunion – a good small psychological thriller, with a key performance by the great downtown stage actor Scott Shepherd (his first major role, I believe, and an excellent film debut — below with the movie’s central character, played by Joel de la Fuente);

brief reunion

Fairhaven – another small John Sayles-like movie about a bunch of post-collegiate friends drifting through their twenties. Curiously, an actress new to me – Alexie Gilmore – played the lead in both this and Brief Reunion;

Barbara – really smart beautiful film set in East Germany before the wall came down, with an excellent performance in the title role by Nina Hoss, even though she looks quite a bit too glamorous to be playing a small-town doctor (you can’t help seeing her as a young Jeanne Moreau — see below);

BARBARA  Regie Christian Petzold
Marley – Kevin Macdonald’s documentary gives an impressive overview of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley’s short, eventful life, with a special emphasis on his extremely poor childhood. But there are lots of holes in the narratives, which is one disadvantage to the choice of relying exclusively on talking heads. There are important pieces of Marley’s story that certain people didn’t live to tell or are not willing to tell on camera;

Seven Psychopaths – I saw Martin McDonagh’s second film in the movie theater but it was interesting to watch it on DVD with a group of friends, one of whom bailed out after 15 minutes because he couldn’t handle the violence. Too bad, because the movie doubles back on itself, critiquing itself as it goes along. It’s McDonagh’s philosophical meditation on his simultaneous attraction to and revulsion against violent stories, with game comic performances by Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and the fearless Sam Rockwell;

Pitch Perfect – I ordered this from Netflix because Andy’s a capella singer friends recommended it, but after 15 minutes he insisted we take it off because its portrayal of college singing groups was so fake it was fingernails on the chalkboard;

Not Fade Away – David Chase’s debut as film director resonates as a highly autobiographical film about a kid who plays in a rock band in New Jersey just out of high school in the late ‘60s. That era was my childhood, too, and I loved it that all the musical references were spot-on. The movie is quirky and aggressively minor-key, with a key misstep having the main character’s younger sister provide a voiceover narration – we don’t know enough about her to trust her perspective, and it feels kinda tacked on to ward off criticism that the movie is too male-centered.


TV: Girls. After watching Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture a few weeks ago, I needed to satisfy my curiosity about her TV show. After two marathon evenings with the first season on DVD, I’m hooked. She’s really something – brave, quirky, real, and unafraid to expose herself, her neuroses, her imperfect body, and her generation’s peculiarly tortured dance around intimacy, romance, and casual sex. It’s a mistake to think of Girls only as the antithesis of Sex and the City just because there are four central female characters. Dunham clearly models herself on Woody Allen as writer/director/performer, with a big hit of Louis C.K. It helps to have Judd Apatow as fearless producer. The writing is pretty amazing, the dialogue is super-fast, I could barely keep up. I know we’re supposed to think that Hannah’s boyfriend Adam (played by Adam Driver, just out of Juillard

(he's on the phone with his sister)

(he’s on the phone with his sister)

with great big ears and a Marine’s washboard abs) is a dick because he pees on her in the shower and jerks off in front of her, but I think he’s an awesome boyfriend. I love any opportunity to watch Chris O’Dowd. And I love seeing David Mamet’s daughter Zosia play the super-young motormouth Shoshonah, especially the episode where she gets high at a party in Williamsburg. “I smoked crack?? Don’t tell my mother! Don’t even tell me!” One advantage to watching the show via Netflix is to gobble up the DVD extras — commentary on three different episodes and a hilarious and illuminating conversation between Dunham and Apatow. Oh, how I love hearing a successful Hollywood writer/director/producer say the word “butthole” aloud in casual conversation!

good person playbill2.16.13
Good Person of Szechwan is another triumphant production by Melanie Joseph’s Foundry Theatre in collaboration with La Mama ETC. It’s one of Brecht’s essential texts, in which he repeatedly sets up genuine moral dilemmas – good people making bad choices and then trying to manage the consequences – and never gives definitive solutions, throwing back on the audience the responsibility to “Change the world, it needs it!” Lear DeBessonet’s lively production is Brechtian in the best sense: fun, funky, sly, surprising, shot through with music (performed live by a local skiffle band called the Lisps) and excellent comic performances. The title character is a prostitute, Shen Te, who does a kind deed for a trio of Diogenes-like gods passing through town looking for one good person. Her reward is enough money to start a little shop, which brings everyone in town to her doorstep for a handout. She’s too kind-hearted to say no, but she has enough sense to invent a male cousin, Shui Ta, who comes in and establishes order. This role is usually played by a woman who eventually dons male attire. One driving force in this production was the casting of Taylor Mac in the title role, who brings a whole other beautifully theatrical element to the gender-bending. Mac plays Shen Te with his customary bald pate and glittery eye shadow, in a red dress with hairy chest poking through (shout out to Charles Ludlam’s Camille); as Shui Ta, he wears a pinstripe suit, bowler hat, and stick-on handlebar mustache, sometimes changing in front of our eyes. (Clint Ramos’s costumes rock, as does Matt Saunders’s set, a study in the magic of cardboard.) The cast is full of downtown luminaries — Mia Katigbak, Annie Golden, and Vinnie Burrows as the gods, Lisa Kron in two contrasting roles – surrounded by a bunch of excellent game team players (I was especially impressed with David Turner as the improv-ready MC/water-seller, Kate Benson as Mrs. Shin, and Brooke Ishibashi and Darryl Winslow as utility players).

good person prodshot

The show got a rave review from Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, so the short run sold out quickly. Luckily, the Foundry added two matinees, which is how I got in. It was nice to see a heavy-duty downtown theater crowd in the audience: Jennifer Miller, Jessica Hagedorn, Mary Louise Wilson, Mac Wellman, Marc Robinson and Erika Rundle. We were handed programs leaving the theater, and my appreciation for the production extended to reading the program notes later. In the spirit of Brecht’s frank matter-of-factness about economics, the program includes a detailed production budget – first time I’ve ever seen that! Melanie Joseph is an amazing producer. Also, this was one of the rare productions where I found myself wondering who the dramaturg was who wrangled this translation (by John Willett) and helped the director keep everything fresh — the answer is Anne Erbe. Good work, Anne!

good person budget


Film: I guess because I once wrote an admiring article about Christopher Shinn’s first produced play Four, I got multiple invitations to the screening of the film version at BAM’s Rose Cinema, as part of the 3rd Annual New Voices in Black Cinema Festival, from the first-time director Joshua Sanchez and the producer Allen Frame (an old friend and associate from Soho News days).  Four tells two parallel stories – on a steamy Fourth of July night, a middle-aged black man named Joe hooks up with June, a white teenaged boy he met online, and his daughter Abigayle slips out from taking care of her sickly mother for a tryst with Dexter, a jivey jock who wishes he were black. The play is a yearning young man’s tale about that time (those times) in your life when people keep asking “What do you want? Where do you want to go?” and the only honest answer is a desolate howl of “I don’t knoooooooooow!” The movie captures all that yearning and awkwardness, with an especially good understated performance by Wendell Pierce in the trickiest part of Joe, the father. The movie felt a little slower and more ponderous than it needed to be. And I have strong memories of the original stage production, in which Dexter was played by a skinny white redhead; E. J. Bonilla in the role doesn’t really read as white, so his wannabe status is muted. Those are small points, though. It’s a nervy little art film that has the courage to zero in on a couple of heated pockets of psycho-sexual ambivalence.



In this week’s New Yorker

August 11, 2012

By far the most compelling reading in this issue is Atul Gawande’s long fascinating study of how chain restaurants manage to produce tasty food — he uses the Cheesecake Factory as his case study — and the ways in which hospitals would benefit from reproducing such systems. If you’re like me, you probably think you don’t want to know too much about what happens in restaurant kitchens, fearing the worst. But Gawande’s account surprised and impressed me — of course, it makes sense for there to be strong accountability in restaurant management, otherwise they wouldn’t stay in business. And it’s accountability in several directions — to proper health standards; to the customer; to keeping costs affordable and waste to a minimum — that the author sees as key and makes a persuasive case for. As a physician employed by a hospital himself, he acknowledges the resistance that doctors have to systematizing procedures, but he also reports on several cases where hospitals have adopted these systems successfully. His article makes me realize that we, the public, have gotten accustomed to healthcare (the scheduling, the costs, the recommendations) running for the convenience of the doctors, when it should be the other way around.

Another healthcare-related high point in the issue: James Surowiecki’s Financial Page column, “Downsizing Supersize,” a very sensible analysis of Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to limit the size of sodas for sale. Some express outrage and consider this a form of governmental micro-managing, but I have to say I support the idea 100%, and Surowiecki lays out the case superbly.

What else? Having gotten caught up in various Olympics dramas, I found Ben McGrath’s report from London to be entertaining. I have a strange ambivalence about Lena Dunham — I can’t tell if she has real talent, or just a high tolerance for self-exposure — but I read her Personal History essay on “First Love” anyway. I’m intrigued with those writers who are managing to incorporate up-to-the-minute social media in their stories — Justin Taylor’s “After Ellen” is nominally fiction, and narrated by a man, but otherwise it’s in the same category as Dunham’s piece.

Steve Coll’s profile of Imran Khan, former cricket star now running for top office in Pakistan, gives me some hope that that country can avoid falling completely under the sway of Islamist fundamentalists. And Adam Gopnik’s book review/essay, “I, Nephi,” proves that no matter how intelligently you’re willing to discuss Mormonism, there’s no way that the religion doesn’t come off as absolutely crazy-pants.

And now that Mitt Romney has named his running partner, you may want to go back and read Ryan Lizza’s recent profile of Paul Ryan — yes, he’s handsome and well-spoken, but like Romney committed to economic policies that unavoidably benefit the 1% more than the rest of us folks.

In this week’s New Yorker

November 14, 2010

The best thing is this week’s issue is the very first thing: Hendrik Hertzberg’s editorial in Talk of the Town analyzing the results of this year’s midterm election.

As for “the American people” themselves, it seems clear enough that their rejection of the Democrats was, above all, an expression of angry anxiety about the ongoing economic firestorm. Though ignited and fanned by an out-of-control financial industry and its (mostly) conservative political and intellectual enablers, the fire has burned hottest since the 2008 Democratic sweep. By the time the flames reached their height, the arsonists had slunk off, and only the firemen were left for people to take out their ire on. The result is a kind of political cognitive dissonance. Frightened by joblessness, “the American people” rewarded the party that not only opposed the stimulus but also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits. Alarmed by a ballooning national debt, they rewarded the party that not only transformed budget surpluses into budget deficits but also proposes to inflate the debt by hundreds of billions with a permanent tax cut for the least needy two per cent. Frustrated by what they see as inaction, they rewarded the party that not only fought every effort to mitigate the crisis but also forced the watering down of whatever it couldn’t block.

Part of the Democrats’ political problem is that their defense, confusingly, depends on counterfactuals (without the actions they took in the face of fierce Republican opposition, the great slump would have metastasized into a Great Depression), deferred gratification (the health-care law’s benefits do not kick in fully until 2014), and counterintuitive propositions (the same hard times that force ordinary citizens to spend less money oblige the government—whose income, like theirs, is falling—to spend more). Another part of the problem, it must be said, is public ignorance. An illuminating Bloomberg poll, taken the week before the election, found that some two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program are gone, never to be recovered. One might add to that list the public’s apparent conviction that illegal immigration is skyrocketing and that the health-care law will drive the deficit higher. Reality tells a different story. For ninety-five per cent of us, taxes are actually lower, cut by around four hundred dollars a year for individuals and twice that for families. (The stimulus provided other tax cuts for people of modest means, including a break for college tuition.) The economy has been growing, however feebly, for five straight quarters. Most of the TARP loans have been repaid and the rest soon will be, plus a modest profit for the Treasury. And the number of illegal immigrants fell by close to a million last year, thanks in part to more energetic border enforcement. The health-care law, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says, will bring the deficit down.

But why don’t “the American people” know these things? Could it be because the President and his party did not try, or try hard enough, to tell them?

Hmmm…are “the American people” ignorant because the President hasn’t properly educated them? Isn’t it much more likely that they’ve been successfully fear-mongered by Fox News into believing falsehoods and overlooking truths they don’t want to see? Fear creates more biochemical reaction in the body than appeals to calm and rationality do — that’s just survival, and that’s how demagogues and screamers get their way over the steady-speakers. Depressing.

Alec Wilkinson writes terrific profiles of musicians for the New Yorker. This week we read his report on Bettye Lavette, a minor soul singer overlooked for decades who’s had a resurgence of critical acclaim in recent years. I’m not a big fan of her singing, and the article makes her sound quite unpleasant to be around. But I had to chuckle at the frankness of this particular self-assessment: “I really don’t have a lot of talents. I can cook, and I can fuck, and I can sing. And I’m proud of all of them.”

I doubt if I would like Lena Dunham’s feature film debut as writer/director/star, Tiny Furniture, but I enjoyed reading Rebecca Mead’s profile of Dunham and her description of the movie. “In its merciless investigation of its creator’s character flaws, Tiny Furniture resembles Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm mashed up with Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, or Manhattan if it had been directed by Mariel Hemingway rather than by Woody Allen.”

And then there’s this delightful cartoon by Karen Sneider:

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