Monday, July 28, 2008

Theatorium In Memorium*

I just found out via Scrappy Jack's blog that there is a new building going up on the site where the Theatorium used to be. A converted garage (auto body shop? Shit, how could I not know this?) at 198 Stanton Street, between Attorney and Ridge, it was, from 1998 til 2003, a lot of people's artistic home and now it's gone gone gone for good.

I'm full of all kinds of mixed feelings about this turn of events, compounded and confused by my not very mixed feelings about what is happening to my old East Village/LES neighborhood. The Present Company gave up the Theatorium in early 2003, understandably really, as it was a huge drain, both financially and in other ways. I try not to wax nostalgic what with my punk rock upbringing and all. The building has stood empty for five years. But still.

Buildings have memories, what goes on inside of them seeps into the walls. That building absorbed so much sweat and hilarity and frustration and blood and here and there, genius, pure genius.

The early years of FringeNYC (for which the Theatorium was Command Central) changed my life. I spent hours and hours and hours working for the festival while simultaneously and unwittingly creating what would become the rest of my life from the people I met and the theater I saw. Nothing I would subsequently do would ever be more difficult, maddening, frustrating or completely and utterly magical. I was going to tell a funny, funny anecdote about filing a stack of cash under M for Money, but figured Elena would not be pleased. I'll tell this instead:

A friend and I had this longstanding theatrical goal, that we would one day be involved in a performance where audience members would would be so shocked and horrified, they would jump out of their seats and run for the door. In the Theatorium, on a deathly cold night in (I think) 1999 our wish came true! We were involved in a performance/art/music extravaganza called Safety Can. It began at midnight and went until 3 or 4am and was hosted by Bill Talen. One piece involved this pagan offering-up of salad ingredients which were thrown by us into a huge, rubber vat. Then someone (I can't for the life of me remember who) came out with a weed-whacker and made salad, which we subsequently served to the audience (yes, the salad was precisely as disgusting as you might think). We had packed the Theatorium to the rafters with extra folding chairs in front. As the weed-whacker roughly pureed our ingredients (including dressing), salad was flung toward the (now much closer due to the added rows of seats) front row. Several people leaped to their feet and ran to the exit. We managed to stagger off stage before literally collapsing with laughter. Goal attained!

I have mentioned LIT in previous posts, and one thing being discussed is a sort of LIT seal of approval for venues and rehearsal spaces. So that audience members and theater-folk would know that the spaces are clean, air-conditioned, etc. Needless to say, the Theatorium would have failed on every single point. Un-airconditioned, largely unheated, leaky-ceilinged and oh, yeah, rats. But the alchemy of spaces put to artistic uses is strange indeed, and the old Theatorium for all its faults and assorted horrors (rats, sewage explosions- I'm looking at you!) was possessed of certain grubby magic that will be fondly remembered, maybe best remembered rather than re-experienced, by me and I'm sure lots of others. I lift a glass to all the lost sacred spaces that live only in our thoughts, dreams and art! Let the myth-making begin apace!

Me, in front of the Theatorium, 2002

*I am fully aware that the correct Latin is "memoriam". Memorium looks better, so no need to comment. God, I'm such a fucking pedant.

Drinking Hard, Alienating Your Friends, Fucking Up

Dorothy Parker was a mess. She was so much of a mess that being totally fucked up was kind of her professional schtick.  I was thinking about this because last weekend I saw a bio-play about her, Those Whistling Lads (Yeah. Worst title ever.), that had Parker expositing about her life, and dramatized some of her short stories and poems. 

Her life is more interesting to me then her writing,  so in the spirit of positive thinking, I will focus on her life.  One word about the work:  her patented combination of cynicism and sentimentality is most effective I think in her screenplay for (probably one the most influential screenplays ever) the original 1937 A Star is Born.  Frederick March's Norman Maine might seem a little clichéd to modern audiences, but his washed up, alcoholic, self-destructive movie star is also, well, really modern.  With his trial by tabloid, followed by rehab, followed by relapse, Dorothy Parker's Norman Maine created the cinematic blueprint for every subsequent fictional or real life Hollywood disaster.  It probably feels so real because she lived it, drinking hard, alienating her friends, fucking up.  

The thing that is so remarkable to me about her is that she stayed employed for such an incredible length of time.  I said in a previous blog post that women can't afford to fuck up.  Dottie did, and got away with it for a really  long time.   It wasn't her drinking and fucking that brought down her career (as that extraordinary flapper icon Louise Brooks put it), but her politics.  As McCarthyism swept Hollywood, she was put on the infamous Blacklist.  In her last years, she worked, intermittently, as a book reviewer for Esquire where she gave Harlan Ellison a great review (possibly his first) for his collection Gentleman Junkie (a book I loved when I was growing up. I haven't read it since I was a teenager, and I'm a little afraid to now. Um, I think I still have the paperback I stole from my brother's room 20 years ago.).  Like so many others, she died broke.  But- and this may be completely apocryphal - after her death, a check for twenty thousand dollars was found, tossed nonchalantly in a desk drawer, uncashed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Even If You Look Like a Disney Princess, There Are No Guarantees of Happily Ever After

I spend lots of time writing about teen girls and watch lots and lots of movies and TV shows about them. I would like to see more theater about (and for) girls, but there's not a whole lot of it. Please, please comment with titles. I am not talking about stories that are really about boys in which girls appear.

This brings me to the Miley Cyrus brou ha ha of a couple of months ago. The legendary celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz took the following photo of the fifteen year old Disney superstar for Vanity Fair:

Personally, I think it's lovely and no more revealing than anything any girl her age would wear to the beach. My opinions aside, cries of "child pornography!" were soon shouted from all corners of the nation (as the French, once again, pointed and laughed).

I know this is really old news. I know that most likely no one who is reading this is a fan of the (now) sixteen year old Cyrus or thinks this pretty picture of a pretty girl is pornography. It just leads me to a little experiment I conducted. The website has a constantly updated list of the top 50 models currently working. Many of these women are below the age of eighteen and few of their names would be recognizable to anyone who did not follow fashion very, very closely. The following photos all appeared in magazines either in the US or Europe. The girls modeling are all about the same age as Cyrus, but there was no outcry of any sort. I want to be clear that I don't particularly think there should be, but, consistency, people! More on this after the AV presentation:

Or this:

And most of all, this (NSFW).

Since few people seem to be talking about children being presented as women in fashion, I would like to do so. There has been a lot of really unfortunate news surrounding models recently, much of it weight related, some of it involving murders and suicide, and really there is a collective sarcastic "boo hoo" from everyone whenever somebody mentions there might be a problem within the industry. The glamor! The money! The shallowness! Who cares?!

In the wake of 20 year old Kazakhstanis falling from the sky in Lower Manhattan, maybe we should begin talking about what is going on with pretty, pretty girl children who are being dressed up as grown ups and maybe think about who is looking out for their interests. There has been talk on the interwebs about the possibility of starting a modeling union. This Jezebel thread is particularly interesting. It seems to me that this is a question of perception and a question of international child labor law.

The only difference between Miley Cyrus and the girls whose images you can see above, is one of marketing, branding and perception. Ms. Cyrus is under contract to a giant multi-national corporation who have a vested financial interest in keeping her image squeaky clean and youthful. She has a team of handlers, lawyers, parents, publicists and agents looking out for her (and their own) interests. She is also a member of a union, namely SAG. She also lives in California where the Coogan Act dictates how much of her finances are to be handled. Only time will tell how this all works out for her in the long term. These young working models are in a very different situation. Many of them are from brutally poor countries, mostly former Soviet states. Many of them don't speak the language of the country in which they are working particularly well. Most, I am sure, are grateful and thrilled with the opportunities they have been given. They are dressed up and treated as working adults. But they are still kids. I'm sure some of them have savvy parents who are looking after their daughters. I wonder if some modeling agencies shy away from girls with caring, involved families, and prefer signing up fifteen year olds from Poland or Latvia, whose families are far away and more likely to be desperate for the work.

New York has pretty clear child labor laws, but I don't think anyone is paying attention to them when the girls are from Estonia and dressed up like goddesses. Women are being treated more and more like commodities, and are treating themselves as commodities, too. (If I read of one more woman in the NY Times referring to herself as needing an "upgrade" I will go postal) I think that is why this issue bugs me so much. That if the facade is good enough, pretty enough, perfect enough, no one cares what is crawling around underneath. I'm as complicit as anyone else. I'm a bigger fashion junkie than most. It seems everything is about that facade, one picture of one fifteen year old girl tastefully draped inspires cries of "where are her parents?" and magazines full of pictures of other teenaged girls cause no concern at all. Only the labels are different, and the market in which they are being sold. One has the courts looking to see if her money is being banked appropriately, the others do not. It just kind of sticks in my craw that if a girl is beautiful and works in what is perceived as a frivolous industry, it is kind of assumed that whatever bad things may happen to her are sort of her own fault, and don't count because the shoes are so terribly, terribly expensive.

No one can argue that there are children who are treated much more appallingly then these mostly fortunate girls with modeling contracts. Many less fortunate girls from Latvia, Ukraine, Moldova and most of the former Soviet States are being trafficked to the UAE, Scandinavia and the United States to work as prostitutes where they are treated as slaves. Children work in factories and sweatshops all over the world in deplorable conditions. I do wonder how many hopeful (or desperate) young girls have had the promise of a modeling contract lure them into deadly circumstances they could not escape from. Maybe if the fairy tale lovely model from Kazakhstan is treated fairly, maybe the girls in the sweatshops one day will too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Surrealists Are So Pretty But Then So Many Artists Are Forgotten

A couple of weekends ago I watched a Netflix triple feature: The Triumph of Love, Romper Stomper, and Once. It was lots of fun as none of these films had anything to do with each other and I'm the kind of person who only listens to her ipod on shuffle.

Romper Stomper is really disturbing and really well done, but judging by a quick google search it has been embraced by every stripe of wannabe violent asshole, which is a pity. It's a show boaty, high energy Clockwork Orange-influenced tragedy about Australian Nazi skinheads. It was Russell Crowe's second major film role and he is really, really good in it. His performance as this really menacing, tightly wound skinhead is so completely different from the likable character he was in Proof (directed by Jocelyn Morehouse, PJ Hogan's wife), a movie I really adore. Once, as basically every other person on the internet has already said, is a complete joy. Triumph of Love was sort of a mess, a filmed version of a Marivaux play, starring a sort of incompetent Mira Sorvino. It had a lot of ideas, such as seeing flashes here and there of a modern day audience sitting on folding chairs watching the action. It was directed by Tasmanian Clare Peploe, who got her start as the writer of Anonioni's hippie epic, Zabriskie Point. Which brings me back to The List I started a couple of posts ago.

Lois Weber is someone I had never heard of until I began researching female directors for this blog project. According to IMDb, she directed 132 films (although according to Film Reference the number could be well over 300) and was the first woman to direct a feature. There is a clip from her film Hypocrites on YouTube and it really makes me want to watch the whole thing. It's beautifully shot, and I'm not entirely sure what is going on but it features a priest and a naked ghost girl and it's super ethereal and lovely (Note: the music used, however, is super annoying. I suggest you mute it). Lois Weber was a rabidly successful silent actor, director & producer. She was the highest paid director at Warner Bros. and from what I can gather (up to 90% of all silents are lost, few of her films survive), she explored moral hypocrisy and society's ills from a kind of early 20th century religious/progressive/feminist perspective. Her films looked at abortion, birth control, capital punishment and drug addiction and made lots and lots of money. Like many successes of the silent era, the combination of a messy personal life and the coming of sound killed her career. She found some work as a script doctor and then died penniless in 1939. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6518 Hollywood Blvd.), and is all but completely forgotten.

Maya Deren. Why are all the lady surrealists all so, so lovely? Maya Deren was an experimental film-maker who although she rejected being classified as a surrealist, made a number of films which share many qualities with the films of Cocteau, Buñuel and Duchamp (who she at one time collaborated with). Her most famous film Meshes of the Afternoon, is like a dream. I do not mean what is usually meant when people describe things as being "dream-like". It is just like a dream, in its constant repetition of events with slight variations, confusion of identity, its use of the subconscious and of ritual. It was playing on a loop at the Tate Modern when I was there, and I just sat and watched it two or three times in a row. I love At Land, which somehow manages to build an unimaginable tension through its imagery and silence. In 1947 she received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation to travel to Haiti and study Voodoo. She died young in 1961 from a brain hemorrhage brought on by malnutrition and amphetamine addiction. Or possibly from a voodoo curse. One never knows.

On Writing Novels

If anyone reading this is writing a novel, or is thinking of writing one, Zadie Smith has a really wonderful piece in the June issue of The Believer.

Most of the people reading this know that I am at work on a novel and that I am posting a chapter a week online.  Posting a chapter a week has not been at all difficult as I have a considerable backlog.  We'll see towards the end of the summer as the pre-written chapters run out if I will be able to keep up the pace.

One thing I have not decided on, is whether I should go back and quietly edit the chapters I have already posted, or to change my own drafts and leave the published chapters as they are. If anyone is reading this, or if you have any opinions on the matter please let me know.  One of the things I already find sort of interesting is that problems that never occurred to me, now seem glaringly obvious now that five chapters have been posted.

Back to Zadie Smith.  I loved her first novel, White Teeth, and haven't read the next two.  This article (which was originally a lecture given to Columbia Grad students) made me want to hug her.  Lots of it would be useful to playwrights, too.  I almost shouted out loud on the subway when she wrote about scaffolding.  What she means by scaffolding is when you decide each chapter will be based on a book of the old testament or Shakespeare's plays, or it has to be written in six chapters, each one taking place in a different decade.  Essentially constructs that keep us from killing ourselves while writing, and about how maybe, probably, whatever we are working on would probably be better if the scaffolding was removed at some point before turning the book over the the publisher.  She also writes about how the worst person on earth to edit a book is the person who wrote it because they can't even see it at the point they are expected to give it a final edit.  I do have a burning desire to find my own Maxwell Perkins.

I began blogging my novel to give myself a kick in the ass.  So that I had all kinds of deadlines.  But these deadlines are meaningless if no one is reading.  So please read.  And tell me what you think.  But please be kind.

Monday, July 14, 2008

There Are Things Better Than Celebreality In Our Dying Culture

Someone (ahem) has blogged about the lack of female or more specifically American female film directors working now.   The upshot is mainstream American films suck, big time, and this really great tradition has been drowned out and murdered very effectively by Wall Street types who want an immediate return on their large investment.  I like superheroes as much as any Buffy-fixated person, but it's all just gotten SO BORING.  

I work in theater where I can be as badass as I like and don't have to appease anyone really.   But it feels sometimes a little like exile from the larger culture.  There was a meeting last Saturday called by the wondrous and magical Martin Denton about a newly formed advocacy group called the League of Independent Theaters to be spearheaded by Mr. John Clancy.  It's a was a very hopeful and inspiring thing to see The Barrow Street Theater full of theater people, most of whom I don't know, which was weirdly exciting.

I hate to sound hopelessly corporate in my speech, but the most important thing (once we can fucking videotape our shows thank you AEA) is rebranding.  To make going to cheap theater something that people do, you know, for fun.  I rented out my brain (AKA freelanced) to pharmaceutical PR for a while and I saw whoever owned the language, set the agenda.  Name what something is, and you have control over it.  Instead of fighting with Isherwood or whatever, we theater folk need to learn to use the incredible array of media we have at our disposal.  And having an organization whose agenda includes putting what we do on the map is truly, truly wonderful.  From where I stand it almost seems to be picking up a dropped torch that seemed to sputter out around the time the larger public really started going to FringeNYC.   Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and I feel there was a missed opportunity there for bringing our downtown affordable live entertainment to the masses.  I don't know if we got cocky, or if we were too insular (i.e. EVERYONE loves what we do, meaning actually, everyone I know), but it's a big, big world and most of them have no idea who any of us are.

People like movies.  People like TV.  People like music.  People like art.  People like the internet.  Why can't people like affordable theater?  Affordable is a good thing, and so is theater, and maybe we all have to do what the indie bands did before us and tour, or maybe think about touring in a different way.  Not just on the Canadian circuit, and not just like Les Miz.  If Les Miz is the Rolling Stones, maybe we could be Minor Threat or The Replacements or The Pixies or (oh my god I'm dating myself) Pussy Galore?  I'm sure this is all unspeakably difficult, and I'm just throwing out ideas here.

Thank you Martin and Rochelle and John and everyone else.  More to follow I'm sure

PS  I have no idea why I never once referred to what is being done as "Indie Theater"  which was sort of like decided upon, rather than the sad sack "affordable theater" I used above.   And after all that Naming It/Owning It jazz.  Ye Gads!

And here:

Directing Movies Without The Benefit of a Penis

Why are there so few female movie directors and why do their careers seem to have so little momentum?

Last night a friend and I stood in the 7th Avenue subway station in front of the token booth discussing this. I hate the conclusions we came up with which were about the really disgusting Hollywood boy's club, about how most movies are geared towards little boys, about how one box office disappointment (I mean disappointment, not disaster) will kill a female director's career flat*, about the Sofia Coppola exception (more to follow on this below), and on and on. It's all very dispiriting.

Far fewer women go into directing film than men. It's a much more complicated prospect. Whose career to emulate? Who would I like to be? There are so few women, and almost no American woman to look to to see how it was done before. I mean who wants to be a pioneer? It totally sucks having to justify your very existence within an industry that clearly doesn't want you there. Maybe I'm wrong, and please post comments if you think so. Through this and subsequent posts I will create a list of female directors, with some discussion of their careers. One more sweeping generalization before I begin listing: no female director has ever, or could ever in the current climate weather the various non-performing movies, egotastic lunacies, creepy scandals and drug fueled shenanigans of some of our most respected male film directors. For example. Women simply cannot afford to fuck up.

The List, Part 1: Oscar Nominees

Sofia Coppola: The only American woman EVER to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing a film, and is only the third woman to be nominated. Look. I love her movies. From her short "Lick the Star" through the problematic but still worthwhile Marie Antoinette, she is making truly interesting films. But, she is also the great exception as she has the weight of the film establishment behind her in a way that cannot be matched by any other woman working in US filmmaking today or possibly ever. The executive producer credit on each of her three features is her father, Francis Ford Coppola. I want to be really clear. The happy circumstance of her birth did not make her movies good. I particularly want to give a shout out to her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, a nearly unfilmable tone poem of a book, which is absolutely pitch perfect. The fact of who her father is, and the power he wields within the industry got her movies made, which of course is step one to becoming a legend.

Jane Campion: Full disclosure- I HATED The Piano for which she was the second woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Direction. Moving on. She's had a really great career that seems to have faltered recently. Angel at My Table is fantastic (based on Janet Frame's three autobiographies, which knocked my brain out of the back of my head when I read them), Sweetie is a great suburban gothic, lot's of people liked The Piano although it did not work for me, Holy Smoke I have not yet seen, and In The Cut was a disaster. To me, this is a really solid career. She has a film about Keats in the pipeline, which is kind of worrisome.

Lina Wertmuller: I'm in really dicey territory here, as I (embarrassingly enough) have never seen one of her films. She got her start as Fellini's assistant director on 8 1/2. She directed the original version of Swept Away (i.e. not the Madonna one). Was a communist and a feminist. She directed her latest film in 2004 when she was 78 years old. She sounds super awesome, actually, and I'm sure she benefitted from never having to work in Hollywood where lefty feminists have traditionally not fared very well (the Streisand exception will be in a later post).

To be continued!

* After Waterworld, that douchebag Costner was allowed to make The Postman, possibly the worst movie ever made.