Posts Tagged ‘park avenue armory’

Culture Vulture: Laurie Anderson’s HABEAS CORPUS at Park Avenue Armory and John Singer Sargent at the Met Museum

October 6, 2015

(click photos to enlarge)

10.3.15 — The size and scale of the Park Avenue Armory makes it unlike any other venue in New York City, and artistic director Alex Poots has mounted one fascinating unconventional production after another there. He commissioned Laurie Anderson to make a piece this season, and the result – Habeas Corpus, which ran October 2-4 – was unlike anything Anderson’s ever done before. There was a performance each evening, at which she told stories and sang songs and introduced guest musicians Merrill Garbus (aka tUnEyArDs), Stewart Hurwood (Lou Reed’s tech guy, who marshals a fleet of guitars feeding back through amps), and Syrian pop singer Omar Souleyman.

10-3 HC performance
But the performance was a minor part of the event. The centerpiece of Habeas Corpus was Anderson’s collaboration with Mohammed El Gharani, a 28-year-old Chadian who was kidnapped from a mosque in Pakistan after 9/11, tortured and interrogated, then flown to Guantanamo where he remained captive for six years until he was finally freed and sent back to Africa. Anderson has been working for many years on multimedia art works about prisons and prisoners, specifically the idea of broadcasting live video of incarcerated prisoners  onto oversized plaster casts of their bodies in museum settings. She hasn’t managed to do this in the United States for political reasons, but through the human rights organization Reprieve she made contact with Mohammed el Gharani and devised this remarkable art installation.

10-3 habeas corpus statue
In the vast Drill Hall of the Armory stands a huge white chair statue (almost the size of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and constructed by some of the same artisans who worked with Kara Walker on her giant sculpture A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Factory last year), onto which is projected live video of el Gharani sitting in a studio in West Africa. He sits silently, although when he takes breaks, prerecorded video is shown of him telling stories about his experiences in Guantanamo.

10-3 HC full room10-3 HC back wall with disco ball10-3 HC wandering musician
Anderson has activated the space through lighting (the room is completely dark, lit only by the artwork and a giant disco ball slowly revolving) and sound (an eerie immersive sound piece by her late husband Lou Reed sends droning guitar feedback throughout the space, mixed together with a soundscape of surveillance audio, and a handful of musicians wander through serenading audience members with violin and cello improvisations).

It’s a spectacular and haunting meditation on solitary confinement, literal and figurative. In a smaller room at the Armory interviews of el Gharani talking about his experience played all day. As usual, the Armory created a large-format elaborate program with extensive notes on the piece, and Anderson wrote a long essay about making it that was published on The New Yorker’s website. I encourage you to check them out. Habeas Corpus is an eloquent and maddening argument for holding President Obama to his promise to shut down Guantanamo and repatriate detainees who’ve never been charged with any crimes.

10.4.15 – Word of mouth insisted that the show of John Singer Sargent’s portraits of artists and friends at the Metropolitan Museum was a must-see, but I dilly-dallied about checking it out until the very last day. So glad I didn’t miss it! I don’t have a huge file on Sargent, but this show was a powerhouse introduction that included some of his most famous works, including Madame X, a full-length portrait of a beautiful American expatriate socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in a low-cut gown with bare shoulders that so scandalized Paris when it appeared that Sargent had to move to London afterwards. The exhibition also showcases the painter’s many portraits of now-famous artists, many of whom were his close friends, including Henry James (like Sargent a discreet homosexual).

I was intrigued by this gender-queer writer of whom I’d never heard before:

10-4 vernon lee portrait10-4 Vernon Lee plaque
I also loved that Sargent got to see a gamelan performance, which inspired this painting of a Javanese dancer:

10-4 javanese dancer portrait10-4 javanese plaque
His portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is justly considered one of his masterpieces, thrilling to see in person:

10-4 ellen terry as lady macbeth10-4 ellen terry plaque
I love his drawing of the young handsome William Butler Years and also his fascinating, strangely off-centered cartoon-like portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his exotically dressed wife:

10-4 yeats10-4 rl stevenson et ux10-4 stevenson plaque
Speaking of queer, Sargent did quite a lot of homoerotic artwork, much of which the Met Museum owns, but very little of it showed up in this show, an exception being this watercolor:

10-4 tommies bathing10-4 tommies bathing plaque
Sargent was very handsome himself (he and many of his distinguished artist friends would fit right in with the bearded gentlemen of Williamsburg/Brooklyn these days), as you can see in this, my favorite of his three self-portraits:

10-4 sargent self-potrait10-4 self-portrait plaque

Performance diary: ST. MATTHEW’S PASSION at Park Avenue Armory

October 5, 2014

10.4.14 – The two performances (October 7 and 8) that Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival scheduled of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with staging by Peter Sellars at the Park Avenue Armory, apparently sold out almost instantly. (Or almost – there are a few seats left.) I hadn’t really thought about going, but when I got an email saying that they’d added a couple of open rehearsals, I decided to buy a ticket. I can almost never pass up an opportunity to see anything Peter Sellars does. I’ve been following him since he was a freshman at Harvard, and of course there he was at the Armory. We shared a nice hug, and I told him I’ve been trying to count how many productions of his I’ve seen in 35 years. Could it be almost 100? Definitely over 50, in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, La Jolla, and Amsterdam.


This staging of St. Matthew’s Passion originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2010 and played in Berlin the same year. Peter said they’ve been trying to bring it to NYC ever since. And the Armory provided a perfect opportunity to create an unusual intimacy between the audience and the orchestra. I was lucky to get a seat (in section 107) that was the equivalent of sitting onstage, behind the musicians (two sections of orchestra) and next to one of the two sections of chorus. The brilliant conductor Simon Rattle was spitting distance away. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, but this performance could not have been more exquisite. They had rehearsed part 1 in the morning, and in the afternoon we saw part 2.


This piece is almost always performed as an oratorio, but Sellars staged it as a ritual and had not only the featured singers moving around the stage reenacting the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ but also brought musicians with key solos forward. So at times John the Baptist (here called Evangelist and sung by Mark Padmore with what one review aptly called “heartbreaking eloquence”) would be addressing the cellist, or the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (playing Mary Magdalene) would be standing in a circle with two violinists. Asking chorus members to emote in unison could sometimes verge on corny but mostly Sellars’ staging had the intended effect of making an already sublime piece of music extra-dynamic. When it was over there was a silent pause of deep satisfaction for at least a minute before the applause began, morphing into a (justified, for once) standing ovation.

Big props to Park Avenue Armory for adventurous programming and the extra care involved in creating a beautiful, thorough, free program with the text and translation and essay material about the event.


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


June 30, 2013


I’ve been a fan of prize-winning British novelist Alan Hollinghurst since I read his debut volume, The Swimming Pool Library, and admired its beautifully crafted sentences, its confident multiple narratives, and its homoerotic frankness. The Line of Beauty had all that and more – a remarkably intimate depiction of Thatcher’s England from inside the Iron Lady’s social circle. Hollinghurst’s latest, The Stranger’s Child, is exponentially more ambitious even, with all of the writer’s qualities burnished with an impressive Henry James-like mastery. Divided into five parts that unravel over the course of the entire 20th century, it revolves around an invented cast of literary characters: a young Wilfrid Owen-like poet whose death in World War I transforms him into a national legend, a Bloomsbury-like circle of aristocratic and self-mythologizing artists, and the industry of academic archivists, scholars, and biographers who feed on their remains.
From the very beginning, Hollinghurst sets up a skein of sexual secrets that the characters play cat-and-mouse with the full length of the novel, some of which never make the surface again. It’s dense, fiendishly clever, and emotionally absorbing. I am apparently not the only reader who recognized it as a fictional corollary to a non-fiction volume that came out the same year (2011), A Book of Secrets by the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd, who is wittily name-checked or rather mis-name-checked in The Stranger’s Child – one of many delicious tidbits the author drops along the way. Not exactly light summer reading, but it kept me absorbed on two train trips across Italy and a long plane ride home.


It’s impossible to watch 5 Broken Cameras, the Oscar-nominated documentary by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, and not feel a mounting outrage at the situation it depicts. Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank village of Bil’in, acquired a camera to film the birth of the youngest of his four songs, which coincided with the beginning of weekly protests against Israeli forces that seized land, bulldozed olive groves, and built a barricade to make room for a new Israeli settlement. Drawn to start filming everything that happened in the village, Burnat became an activist documenting the increasingly brutal and unjust behavior of the Israeli army, who attack the ragtag protestors (armed with nothing more than stones, drums, and pride) with tanks, gas grenades, and lethal bullets. It’s a crude but effective microcosmic portrait of the heart-sickening ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can stream the whole film on YouTube here.


Paul McCarthy WS at the Park Avenue Armory is a big, expensive, puerile, idiotic conceptual art piece that I guess makes the case that most Hollywood movies are big, expensive, puerile, idiotic fairy tales. WS consists of eight hours of film in which McCarthy plays Walt Disney shooting a live action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with most of the characters sporting prosthetic noses, eating junky food, and cavorting orgiastically with toy-balloon genitals and cake-frosting jizz. The main film sequences are projected onto two banks of screens at either end of the Armory’s cavernous space. In the middle of the space stands a reconstruction of the sets used for the film – a plywood simulation of a suburban tract house and a plastic jungle for the forest sequences. Additional film sequences screen in a series of galleries off to the side.
All the advertising and signs all over the place warn “This exhibition contains explicit imagery and mature content. Admission is restricted to audiences over 17 years of age.” So of course viewers can’t wait to find the naughty bits – I stumbled across one of the side galleries where a naked pomaded porn star was alternately stroking his hard cock and poking it into a mannequin lying on the fake-forest floor. McCarthy seems to be one of those artists whose work is more interesting to talk about and read about than actually to experience – see Holland Cotter’s thoughtful review in Friday’s New York Times.


It’s a big week for remembering Kate McGarrigle – two memorial concerts at BAM coincided with the opening at the Film Forum of the documentary film Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You, directed by Lian Lunson (who made the excellent concert film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man). And Nonesuch Records put out the 2-CD set Sing Me the Songs featuring a stellar crew singing songs by and associated with her: Kate’s kids, of course, Rufus and Martha Wainwright; her sisters Anna and Jane; the extended McGarrigle family (Anna’s partner Dane Lanken, their daughter Lily, old friend Chaim Tannenbaum); and a passel of guest stars including Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Richard, Linda, and Teddy Thompson, Justin Vivian Bond, Antony, and Broken Social Scene. The songs that Kate and Anna recorded together can’t really be topped by anyone else, so for my money the treasures of the album are the many previously unrecorded or unreleased songs. Best among them: “I Am a Diamond,” sung by Martha and Rufus.



Richard Greenberg has written many plays, but The Assembled Parties (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre) is a rare convergence for him: it’s a thoughtful, dramatically ambitious script that receives a perceptively detailed staging by director Lynne Meadow with the help of an excellent cast, all the artists involved doing things that are more difficult than they look. What looks like a pretty standard New York Jewish family play – the secrets! the matchmaking! the lovable alter kockers! the wayward children! the worried mothers! – turns out to be much more of an impressively novelistic enterprise that’s less about the story and more about creating intricate character studies. Many of the Henry Jamesian qualities I admired about Alan Hollinghurst’s novel show up here, including the willingness not to announce what it is about but to let the audience put some pieces together itself. Also the narrative confidence – the two acts take place in the same apartment 20 years apart, but the sets look entirely different for each act, two actors in major roles don’t return for act two, and Jake Silbermann plays one character in act one and his younger brother in act two.
assembled parties
Judith Light (above right) won lots of awards playing the loud and lovable Aunt Faye (a variation on the role she played last season in Other Desert Cities – both performances more than a little redolent of the great Linda Lavin), and Jessica Hecht (above left) deservedly drew critical praise for authentically inhabiting the complicated, deceptively cheerful former actress around whom the play’s activity revolves. But really I admired all the actors equally – Lauren Blumenfeld as the self-admittedly dim bulb Shelley, Jeremy Shamos as the outsider who works overtime to ingratiate himself with the family by serving as unofficial spy, Silbermann as elusive Scotty and socially awkward Tim, and Jonathan Walker and Mark Blum as the husbands who are sociable in company and adversaries in private.


As a film 20 Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about rock and roll’s backup singers, is somewhat shapeless, repetitive, and meandering. But for diehard music fans like me who spent formative years studying the credits in fine print on record albums, it’s an enjoyable opportunity for face time with the people who, as someone in the film points out, sang the parts of hit songs that most listeners love singing along to. The movie showcases a selection of legendary backup singers – most notably Darlene Love (whose leather lungs sang the hell out of early ‘60s Phil Spector hits that came out with other artists’ names on them, like the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”) and Merry Clayton, who earned a spontaneous round of applause in the movie theater after we heard the track of her climactic performance in the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter” without the band. Almost worth the price of admission alone! Other singers featured include Claudia Lennear, Gloria Jones, the Waters Family, David Lasley, and two singers new to me, Judith Hill and the truly amazing Lisa Fischer. Aside from rummaging around inside rock ‘n’ roll nostalgic trivia, the movie does ponder the somewhat melancholy question: how come some incredibly talented singers never make it as solo performers, while many mediocrities become rich and famous?

Culture Vulture: Stockhausen, two Marys, Andre Gregory, and more

April 30, 2013

Several weeks’ worth of cultural events backed up….


3.23.13 I love the new role that Park Avenue Armory has taken on as a venue for large-scale avant-garde performance art. On the heels of Ann Hamilton’s fun installation The anatomy of a thread, artistic director Alex Poots has planned an extraordinary diverse calendar of events between now and the end of the year. Oktophonie is typical of the programming. This Karlheinz Stockhausen piece is a bombastic, bracingly modern (i.e., unmelodic, unbeautiful) electronic composition that exists on tape, never played live. The score is as much sound design as notes for musicians to play.

oktophonie score oktophonie sound design

Concerts usually involve audiences sitting in a dark auditorium watching a projection of a full moon. For this event, the Armory invited Thailand-born visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to design a special environment, and he wittily put the moon on the floor in the form of a round platform.

OKTOPHONIE pic by stephanie berger
All white — the carpeting, the backjacks, and the audience members, who were encouraged to wear white clothing and were also handed a white smock upon arrival.

3-23 oktophonie finale
The show was a little bit of a light show, a little bit of sensuround sound demonstration, a little bit like being on a simulated spaceship at a planetarium show. Also, since we were sitting on the floor looking toward the center of the circle where a blissed-out-looking woman sat operating two consoles (Stockhausen’s longtime colleague Kathink Pasveer, below), there was an odd feeling of being at an ashram or a cult meeting.

3-23 oktaphonie after
Although ultimately not much about the concert stuck with me, it was a beautifully produced event — the Armory gives out a deluxe program booklet (including the score, which is as much sound design as notes for musicians) and maintains an active online presence, both of which provide great educational materials for kids, students, and adults alike.


3.27.13 The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’ oratorio depicting the death of Christ from Mary Magdalene’s point of view, is a companion piece to El Nino, his composition about the birth of Christ as witnessed by women. Both feature texts, compiled by director and longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, taken partly from the Bible, partly from an array of interesting poets (Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos). Mary Magdalene seems to be a butch lesbian political activist whose girlfriend is a former drug addict she met in jail; when Mary M washes Jesus’s feet, it’s the girlfriend who dries them with her long hair. Jesus is played alternately by three countertenor Narrators (theirs is the most haunting music and presence in the semi-staged show) and the guy who also plays Lazarus. Not Adams’ most beautiful score ever but I’m glad to have witnessed the performance at Avery Fisher Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Respectful reception. Composer and director took bows. The conductor was the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, who did a fine job.


4.6.13 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion got a beautiful intimate staging at Classic Stage Company by John Doyle. The intense intermissionless musical is the closest thing to a through-composed opera Sondheim’s ever done – no pause for applause anywhere, which I liked very much. I saw the opening night performance of the original 1994 Broadway production, with its fantastic performances by Donna Murphy as the melancholic un-beauty Fosca, Jere Shea (whatever happened to him?) as Giorgio, the handsome soldier she becomes fixated on, and Marin Mazzie as Clara, the beautiful young married woman he has been attached to. (That show is available on DVD – an excellent live broadcast for Great Performances, much of which you can find on YouTube.)

This smaller production was musically and theatrically very sound, although having both pair of lovers cavort on a hard cold marble floor sacrificed some sensuality (I’ll never forget the lushness of topless Mazzie in the show’s opening number, “Happiness.”) Judy Kuhn made a compelling Fosca, and Ryan Silverman was a fine Giorgio. Melissa Errico, the production’s Clara, was out – her understudy, Amy Justman, sang beautifully but her acting didn’t register much. Many people (including Andy, who came with me) have a hard time buying the plot, believing that Giorgio would ultimately choose to love the woman who’s been stalking him, but I’ve always been able to go along with it. Although Fosca’s obsession seems crazy, she doesn’t demand more of Giorgio than he offers, and it makes sense to me when the purity of her love breaks through to his heart, especially in contrast to the limited conditions of his affair with Clara, who is steadfastly married and not really available.

4.13.13 Bunty Berman Presents… – we took a gamble checking out an early preview of the musical at the New Group, a Bollywood spoof by Ayub Khan Din and Paul Bogaev, directed by Scott Elliott. We loved the New Group’s musical of Dan Savage’s The Kid, and I thought Elliott did a terrific job with Khan Din’s play East Is East years ago. But this was a pathetically lame show in every way, and we left at intermission. Since then, the lead actor, who was clearly floundering, has been replaced by the author, which can only be an improvement.

testament of mary handout
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary gives us the mother’s account of a martyr’s death, which is somewhat at odds with the narrative constructed by historians, advocates, and media types. There are, shall we say, discrepancies. (I guess we could say this phenomenon is timeless – cf. the press conference given by the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers.)

4-21 mary from the balcony

The best part of Deborah Warner’s theatrical adaptation of Toibin’s monologue is the pre-show interactive art installation. The audience is invited onstage to inspect props and artifacts from the life of Mary, played by Fiona Shaw, who sits inside a Plexiglas cubicle surrounded by votive candles, while a few feet away a live vulture is chained to a tree stump.

4-21 testament vulture
A window in the floor reveals a crypt underneath the stage, as you see in many Italian churches housing relics of saints. The audience is invited, nay encouraged to snap photos with their smartphones, locating the theater piece in our world of nonstop citizen documentation of everything. I enjoyed touring the exhibition, taking pictures, and then standing in the aisle making Mary jokes with Ben Cameron.

4-21 mary crypt
At showtime, audience members take their seats, some of the props get whisked away (the cubicle, the vulture), and Shaw goes into her act. She is a fine actress, I have respect for her, but this performance is so busy and fussy that it becomes bothersome and … I was doing to say distracting from the storytelling, but I have to assume that it’s a choice on the part of Shaw and her director (and longtime collaborator and former love partner) to tell the story this way, as if Mary is traumatized and manic, can’t sit still, has to move and create some active moment on Every Single Line. She’s always moving furniture around, picking up a ladder, putting it down, bringing out a raw fish and cleaning it then throwing it away, getting naked and disappearing into an onstage pool for a minute, for no ostensible reason except to be showy (“I’ll show you, Mark Rylance!”). We walked away pretty nonplussed. Some reviewers loved it; Ben Brantley’s review in the Times echoed my feelings pretty much, though I have to say I didn’t disagree with Michael Feingold’s unremittingly negative commentary in the Village Voice.


4.6.13  I didn’t get around to seeing the blockbuster Jean-Michel Basquiat show at Gagosian Gallery until the very last day. It was great.
basquiat in italian 1983
I so admire the freedom Basquiat took for himself and how he used absolutely everything in his environment, in his mind, in his heart, in his eyes, in his ears to make work.

basquiat la hara 1981
There were constructions I’d never seen before – a fence he’d painted, two six-panel paintings hinged together, collages.

basquiat frogmen 6-panel 1983
Although smaller than the retrospective at Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, this was an impressive representation of Basquiat’s work.

basquiat installation 2 basquiat installation 1
These images make me crazy with joy.

basquiat untitled two heads on gold 1982

I’m delighted that Uniqlo has suddenly embraced Basquiat and Keith Haring as stars of the season, selling some very cool T-shirts based on their work and turning some kids onto these fertile creators who died way too young.

4-29 basquiat label


Spirit Matters by Matt Pallamary is a riveting memoir. Pallamary grew up among criminals and bad boys in Dorchester, a rough white working-class suburb of Boston, and spent his adolescence and early adulthood crashing through all kinds of self-destructive behavior before finding a life for himself as a writer. The prose is clean, clear, spare, honest, and astonishingly free of bullshit. He writes with extraordinary articulateness about subjects that are difficult to address cogently. His digest of Terrence McKenna’s teachings on indigenous North and South American plant medicine is something I’ve been craving for years, and his description of his first ayahuasca retreat in Peru is just fantastic — moved me to tears, cracked me up, and at times had me squirming in my seat with intense identification.


Enlightened – favorable opinions from people I trust led to sample the first five episodes of this HBO series created by Mike White and Laura Dern but I didn’t care for it. Dern’s character is just too fucked-up to be believable – we watch it and can only feel superior to her, which I think is unfair and separates bad/lazy TV from good stuff (in which category I place Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham).


RenoirGilles Bourdos’ new film portrays the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the end of his life welcoming into his harem a beautiful young model who eventually falls in love with the painter’s son, a soldier who returns wounded from the front lines of World War I (and later goes on to become the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. So sensual and beautiful and colorful, and without any of the stale cliches from such biopics (in which artists are repeatedly told how great they are). Superb performances by Michel Bouquet as the old man (who’s so arthritic that his paintbrushes have to be tied to his hands every day), Vincent Rottiers as Renoir fils, and Christa Theret as the mesmerizing Andree.

4-13 renoir still
Preparing to watch the new documentary about Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner, made by Gregory’s wife Cindy Kleine – I went back and watched My Dinner with Andre with Andy, who’d never seen it before. I hadn’t seen it since it was made 30 (?!?) years ago, and there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t remembered. I loved the movie all over again. I find Andre Gregory to be a compelling figure, even with all his craziness and grandiosity, the shots of New York City in the early 1980s (especially the filthy subway cars) are fantastic, and the conversation that he and Wally Shawn have over dinner is an extraordinarily deep, fast-paced, far-ranging one. Of course the characters are constructions. I’ve gotten to know Wally over the years – I spent several months just after My Dinner with Andre interviewing him for a profile in Esquire magazine, and I’ve followed his work as a playwright closely with much admiration. In every way, he is an enigmatic figure himself, seemingly open and extremely available and yet quite mysterious.

my dinner with andre jpeg

It’s great to view the bonus disc of additional material that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD package. There are lengthy separate interviews with Wally and Andre conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that contain lots of little revelations. The restaurant in which the film takes place, ostensibly somewhere in Soho, turns out to be in Richmond, West Virginia. Andre and Wally each tell their own version of how they met, via Renata Adler. Andre: “Men tend to hide. In the movie, Wally is hiding behind silence, and I’m hiding behind words.” Wally: “I’ve always been a fearful person. I was afraid of practically everything. [In My Dinner with Andre] I wanted to destroy that guy in myself who is totally motivated by fear.” Wally also talks about how stubborn and intransigent he was with director Louis Malle when they were trying to whittle the script down to two hours from three hours. “I was very difficult, quite pedantic,” Wally says. “He never said to me, Look, you’re luck that a guy like me is even talking to you. Don’t you get it?

The new documentary about Andre is a mixed bag. I love that Cindy Kleine wanted to make a film highlighting the amazing and influential theater work her husband has done, so he’s not just seen as a kooky character actor. To my taste, though, she inserts herself into the movie too much. She barely mentions Gregory’s first wife and the mother of his two grown children. And judging from the film, she and Wally Shawn can’t stand one another. Nevertheless, she captures some beautiful passages of Andre and Wally’s theater company rehearsing their living-room production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and there are any number of fascinating stories that emerge about Andre’s family life and his career in film and theater.

Later this year, the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience will present “The Wallace Shawn-Andre Gregory Project,” full-scale productions of two of Wally’s plays directed by Andre: The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colours.

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