Posts Tagged ‘summer of soul’

Culture Vulture: The Best of 2021

December 30, 2021


My cultural round-up has usually centered on theater. This year theater finally did come back and hooray for that but late in a year otherwise unusually dominated by TV and movies (I logged 158 on my watchlist). It’s hard to know how to make any kind of ranked list – Best Things Of The Year – but my #1 discovery was AROOJ AFTAB, the queer Pakistani-born Brooklyn-based singer whose gorgeous album Vulture Prince nabbed her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and whose show at Pioneer Works was my first indoor concert since the Before Times.

LAURIE ANDERSON’s six Norton Lectures wandered deeply and widely over history, literature, science, politics, and personal reminiscence.

Television has never been my go-to but I felt deeply fed by watching all four seasons of the Australian series Please Like Me, and I have The New Yorker’s Alex Barasch to thank for making me curious and then a big fan of creator and star Josh Thomas (his second series, Everything’s Going To Be Okay not so much). I generally resist the big shows everyone loves and talks about (will I ever watch Succession? Doubtful) but I broke down and watched Ted Lasso, shocked by how good the writing and performances were; ditto The White Lotus and Hacks.

Documentaries I always have time for, and this year the music docs were stellar. Questlove’s Summer of Soul made going back to the movie theater rapturous. Also great: Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. In a category of its own was Peter Jackson’s revisiting The Beatles: Get Back, eight hours of bliss for this Beatlemaniac. I’m a latecomer to Frederick Wiseman’s long slow masterpieces but this year his City Hall blew me away with its portrait of Boston city government and charismatic mayor Marty Walsh (now running Biden’s Department of Transportation). Hulu’s Pride series impressed me by going above and beyond familiar (white) faces and names in front of and behind the camera.

Also in another category was Can You Bring It, the documentary about BILL T. JONES, the dance company he created with his late partner Arnie Zane, and recreating the AIDS-era piece D-Man in the Water. Jones also created one of the finest live performances I saw this year, deep blue sea at the Park Avenue Armory, a fierce mashup of Moby Dick and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a cast of 100 dancers and state-of-the-art visual design.

I saw lots of feature films, online and on the big screen, my favorites being Nomadland (with stunning performance by Frances McDormand, above), Zola, The French Dispatch, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Art-house streaming services turned me on several great unheralded foreign films: Aquarius, directed by the Brazilian master Kleber Mendonça Filho, with an astonishing lead performance by Sonia Braga, and Arab Blues, a French-Tunisian comedy by first-time director Manele Labidi.

SARAH SCHULMAN (above) figured heavily in my cultural year, first with Let the Record Show, her exceptionally thorough and well-written history of ACT UP, and then the Criterion Channel allowed me to catch up with Stephen Winter’s 2015 Jason and Shirley, in which Schulman and Jack Waters give mind-boggling performances as documentarian Shirley Clarke and Jason Holiday, the subject of Portrait of Jason. Another book that excited me this year was Paul B. Preciado’s essay collection An Apartment on Uranus, which also served the function of making me track down the powerful, legendarily transgressive film Baise-Moi by Preciado’s former partner Virginie Despentes.

Between the pandemic shutdown and the post-George Floyd racial reckoning, whose work gets shown and how we get access felt quite transformed this year. The best live theater I saw were two highly experimental pieces – Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., performed by the ever-great Deirdre O’Connell (above) directed by Les Waters, and Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Is This a Room, with an unforgettable frail-tough performance by Emily Davis as government whistle-blower Reality Winner (below in white shirt) — that wound up playing in rep! on Broadway! Another live triumph: Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah at the Public Theater, sharply staged by Candis B. Jones on Adam Rigg’s spectacular set with five strong performances. Streaming allowed me to catch Kristin Wong’s excellent solo show Sweatshop Overlord after its run at New York Theater Workshop.

Almost always in a category of his own, WALLACE SHAWN distinguished himself playing Lucky in Scott Elliott’s remarkably effective Zoom version of Waiting for Godot and had the good fortune to have Lili Taylor perform his monologue The Fever at the Minetta Lane. But one of the absolute best Things of the Year was the release of two exquisitely produced theater-of-the-ear six-part podcasts (available online for free) of Shawn’s dark drama The Designated Mourner and his surrealist comedy Grasses of a Thousand Colors, performed by the original New York casts (including Shawn himself) directed by Andre Gregory with phenomenal sound design by Bruce Odland.

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.

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