Sunday, August 29, 2010

FringeNYC 14: Too Late, Too Late!

I've caught a couple of shows on their final performances, so unhappy readers, you missed out. But I still wanted to get my two cents in, so hence, this post.

It's really not of Trick Boxing's doing that the pre-show turned into an inadvertent reunion of friends from Fringes past (and present), but I must thank them for it all the same. It felt like 1999 all over again out there in the audience.

The show itself is both as sweet and ephemeral as spun sugar. The story is that ancient boxing chestnut: poor boy, smooth talking manager, wicked gambler, sweet girl. In other words, seen it a hundred times before, nothing special. What elevated the show a bit above the fray was the dancing, which was, in a word, glorious. Brian Sostek plays all the male characters and morphs between them seemingly effortlessly (note: it's pretty much a rule of thumb in theater, that whenever one says something is done "effortlessly", something like a hundred hours of rehearsal and countless more of experience has made it seem so). He also acts as puppeteer and ring announcer for all the bouts. But back to the dancing. Both Sostek and Megan McClellan (who plays the girl), dance beautifully, and with joy. He has that old fashioned, low to the ground grace that is more than rare in this selfish show boat-y age. What I mean is, they both let each other shine, and thus achieve something like grace. The story is really just an excuse for the performers to show off their skills. As considerable as those skills are, this particular reviewer cannot exist on a diet of ice cream sundaes, and would love to see these two marrying their talents to a piece with maybe a shade more originality.

Trick Boxing
Sossy Mechanics
Writer: Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek
Director: Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek
Choreographer: Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek

As I was leaving the theater after the final performance of Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill, Kill, Kill! last week, two women behind me were saying how they couldn't imagine "getting" the show without having first seen the film on which it was based. I've never seen Seijun Suzuki's 1967 film Branded To Kill (but now I really, really want to!), but I'm pretty conversant in all the other influences at play, so I feel pretty okay about reviewing it. Apparently, Suzuki was hired to make a typical Yakuza crime film, but steeped in Pop, incipient psychedelia, and nouvelle vague, he made a film the studio called incomprehensible.

I liked pretty much everything about Depth Charge's production, so I'm once again in danger of turning this into a listicle. Oh, hell. I have places to be and art to create, so a semi-listicle it will be:

1. It felt like old fashioned Fringe Festival Fun. I mean that in the best way possible. Finally, a show that is creative and smart and interestingly executed. I salute you, Depth Charge! You are a prime example of FringeNYC's raison d'etre.

2. Godard started deconstructing the gangster movie and film noir 50 years ago with Á Bout de Souffle (Breathless), but his most iconic (and for my money, brilliant) riff on the gangster motif was Band Á Part. I was happy to see the reenactment of the famous dance scene from that film on stage. I also riffed on it in my 2002 FringeNYC show, Die Like A Lady.

3. Having seen Kabuki in Tokyo, it was delightful to see those influences as well. The white face, the over the top presentational acting.

4. So creatively staged, from top to bottom. Deeply filmic in a way I haven't seen before. Which, considering the movie drenched influences of half the people I know making theater right now, is saying a lot. The violence, in particular, took film editing into consideration in a way that felt very very fresh. Whenever anybody was shot, the gun was never pointed at them. It was just like editing and looked great. They thought about everything and didn't fall into any boring defaults.

5. The music was live. I repeat the music was live. Well, most of it. Live stand up bass and drums and the rest was mixed live.

6. Some of the video elements were projected onto the backdrop by a woman with an 8mm home movie projector. I had nearly forgotten what a different feel movies have from digital. Just hearing the projector was cool and retro and evocative.

7. I'm not saying every moment worked, or was pristine, but really, how could it be and who wants it to be? It was messy and real and alive.

8. They stole from everybody and wore their influences proudly on their sleeves creating something that felt new, something I haven't seen in a while, as I've seen a freaking lot. Butterfly, Butterfly is overambitious and messy and super smart. Like Godard, the show isn't about it's plot, it's mostly about it's influences. Which, in our media steeped age is as valid a subject as anything else.

Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!
Depth Charge
Writer: Patrick Harrison, Music by Dave Harrington
Director: Patrick Harrison
Choreographer: Adam Scott Mazer & Ian Picco

Friday, August 27, 2010

Yes, Another Reason To Love Tim Gunn

A long discussion is in progress on my facebook page examining what is wrong with this season's Project Runway. Are the choices of who is being Auf'd and kept being unduly manipulated by Bunim/Murray? Are the contestants fundamentally uninteresting and unpleasant? Is the editing getting unbelievably lazy? has the despicable Gretchen poisoned the entire show? Are we all just getting tired of watching? All or none of the above?

I love that Tim Gunn doesn't yell, he admonishes. He is absolutely the epitome of that teacher you adore and respect. His disappointment in one would cut like a thousand knives.

Monkeys! More Monkeys!

I discovered this morning via facebook that there are new baby baboons in Brooklyn. In honor of this happy event, a picture I took of adorable baby baboons fighting, in Kruger Park, South Africa:

Which, on top of yesterday's exciting news story that a monkey in Bali had adopted a kitten makes this a thrilling week for monkey aficionados everywhere.

I think this man is particularly excited:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

FringeNYC 14: The Great Galvani

The Players Loft, perched two flights above MacDougal Street is neither large or glamorous. But there's something about the sight of a lovely, corseted, well-coiffed, Victorian bearded lady that makes one think of gaslight through a 19th century fog. Or is it just me? I want to draw her, but foolishly didn't dredge up my pad and pencil in time.

The Great Galvani begins with a brief prologue from the bearded-lady (all gaff, but looking terrific), before the main event. Which is a monologue delivered by actor H.B Ward full of shabby wonderment and real pathos. Ward is a terrific actor (he I did draw) who paints word pictures in one's head with far more skill than many theater artists and lord knows dime museums do with actual three dimensional supposed wonders. Feegee mermaids and electric experiments on the nervous systems of frogs and probably most importantly, fathers and sons. The payoff at the end is worthy of it's skilled prelude, indeed, even if one is less enchanted with clockwork marvels than this reviewer happens to be, I promise you.

The Great Galvani
The Magpies
Writer: Shawn Reddy
Director: Shawn Reddy
The Players Loft, 115 MacDougal Street
remaining performances: Sat 28 @ 7 & Sun 29 @ NOON

(Photo: Jeremy Sher)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hard Boiled: Megan Abbott

The two have been so conflated, one almost forgets that hard boiled detective fiction and film noir are different entities that inspired and influenced each other, but are different none the less. I feel pretty comfortable saying that pretty much anyone alive in America right now started with the movies. I know I did. German expressionism meets post-war nihilism. Crime, bad men, shady dames and unhappy endings, all shot in glorious black and white (it took Polanski to make it work in technicolor). I was raised seemingly from birth on a pretty steady diet of film noir. And then I started reading: Hammett, Cain, Thompson and Chandler. In later years with the internet and all the wonders it brings, I tracked down lots of short stories that were originally (and in some cases, only) published in magazines like True Detective and Black Mask.

And then James Ellroy came on the scene in the 80s and 90s with his operatic, Grand Guignol L.A. Quartet. He took us through shady, ugly, racist, movie steeped, post-war Los Angeles, intertwining true crime and and hard boiled detectives with his own obsessions with race, depravity, violence and redemption. His canvas is enormous: Mike Hammer meets Hieronymus Bosch meets Kenneth Anger.

But recently I've been thinking. I've never really paid much attention to Westerns - I'm a city girl, through and through, and an East Coast one at that. Europe seems closer to me than Wyoming. But, like I said, I've been doing some thinking. Inspired mostly by the fact that my inamorato has been doing lots of Western movie research for a possible project. Most hard boiled fiction and noir takes place out west (Cornell Woolrich, I know, and a few others were in New York and placed a lot of their work there. Vera Caspray, with Laura, too). As I said, I know this is a generalization, but just bear with me here. I'm starting to think these two most American of genres are somehow linked. That the optimism of Western expansion turned into the cynicism of Noir when things didn't turn out as hoped. The wide open freedom of the plains and the West Coast and the deserts was taken over by greed and crime and rootlessness, and in some cases, despair. Or, maybe it was all of America and I'm just projecting outwards to some Western other.

I first discovered Megan Abbott by reading her brilliant article on V.C. Andrews in The Believer (co-authored with Sara Gran) about a year ago. I saw she was a Film Noir scholar and had a few novels out and got very interested. I read her second novel, The Song is You, and enjoyed it, but wasn't over the moon. It is set in 1950s L.A. amongst the publicists, B-Girls, reporters, and criminals who circle the movie business. For good or ill, and these are probably my own prejudices talking, when dealing with this milieu, I can't help but think of it at this point as Ellroy's Los Angeles which I know isn't entirely fair. She glances against the kind of depravity that I think James Ellroy needs to write about, but in her book it felt a little tentative: Ellroy-lite. But she's a good writer and gets the period top to bottom. I have a little bit of a Barbara Peyton fascination, so it was fun to see her make a guest appearance.

Then, I read Bury Me Deep and it was a fucking revelation. Let me apologize, Miss Abbott, for not giving you your due as a writer of hard boiled detective fiction, because your most recent book blew a hole right through my skull. It's set in an unnamed Phoenix, Arizona around 1930. As seen here, it reminded me of Hammett's Poisonville or Chandler's Bay City: a mid-sized town out west that is rotten to its core, corrupting all its residents just by touching them. She wears her Depression-era period lightly and well, no info dumps, no explanations. The book just inhabits it. Her prose is sparse and tough and smart. In it, Marion, a previously naive mid-western preacher's daughter, is left alone by her morphine addicted doctor husband when he gets a job with a mining company down in Mexico. Abbott gets deep inside of Marion's head, and in some ways it's inverse noir. Hard boiled crime novels are all about the point of view as no one is ever really innocent. In a traditional hard boiled fiction or noir film, it is seen from the man's perspective. Marion starts off as an innocent, but as the book lives in a city and a world where all women alone are whores, she could, in another story, by a different writer, be painted as a shady noir dame.

This is taught thriller writing at its very, very best. Abbott based her story partly on infamous "Trunk Murderess" Winnie Judd, but giving her a fictional third act. I don't want to give too much away, but it was this book that really, oddly, made me start to think about the Noir/Western continuum, and the ways in which both these genres are somewhat relegated to the historical. I've written about this before, but to a large extent our right as Americans to live freely and reinvent ourselves has been completely shattered. I'm not going to argue here about the reasons for it, or whether it's a good or bad thing, the point is that one can no longer get on a train in Philadelphia, take it out to California, cut all ties and become somebody else. Not really. It's hard to be that shady for too long in the age of the internet and social security numbers. Abbott's wonderful, fictional third act would be an impossibility. Marion and her husband came out west, like so many of the characters in Ellroy and Cain and Chandler (hell, like Chandler himself) to make new lives where nobody knew them, and to a certain extent succeeded. What tripped them up, of course, was never a well thought out computer background check, but this wicked world and their own dark natures. Which is a different thing entirely.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

FringeNYC 14: The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival

My first year as a true FringeNYC civilian, my first year reviewing shows without it being a complete conflict of interest, has been a delightful experience. There's so much theater here: some of it has been beautiful or inspiring or funny, some has made me angry or bored, but, really, that's the nature of this particular many tentacled Kraken.

I saw The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival last Wednesday, then got distracted by some plumbing problems and an asthma attack and more show seeing and finally some quality boyfriend time, so I didn't get around to writing it up til now. Which is a little inexcusable, but whatever. The worst thing about this show is the title as it is terribly misleading. Both my delightful escort and I were under the impression that it might be some sort of stand up thing (possibly) with comedians from New Orleans. Which wouldn't much appeal to me. But I heard from some of my Mysterious Inside Sources that it was both very, very good, and poorly titled. Right on both counts.

What the show actually is, is a meticulously constructed oral history of the hurricane and the aftermath as told by five residents of New Orleans. The play is as simple as can be. Five actors sit on chairs. They each tell their own first person account of what happened to them during the storm, with the other actors occasionally stepping in to play other participants in that person's tale. That's it. The stories are true. The stories are riveting. The stories are funny. The stories are completely heartbreaking.

Back in 2004, when In the Shadow of No Towers came out, I saw Art Spiegelman speak at The New School. One of the things he talked about was how he never understood why as things in Europe got worse and worse people stayed. Why not flee? He said he finally understood it after 9/11, when he saw inklings of apocalypse in his own city. This was his home, and he didn't even think of leaving. You don't think it's going to get that bad. This is essentially the position of most of the five people whose stories we hear in this piece. This is their home. Why should they leave? Their homes had withstood hurricane after hurricane, even that really bad one.

One of the most ignored economic principles is that past performance is a bad way to gage future performance, and this applies to hurricanes as well. We all know what happened and saw it on TV. The levees broke and the city of New Orleans was flooded. The disaster response was abysmal. For that, and for hiding in a bunker or whatever after and during 9-11 may be the two things that make me say in regards to out wretched former president, "God damn him to hell, and why didn't Laura smother him with a pillow when she had a chance."

The five actors give extraordinary, mature performances. Any young actor who wants to see how it's done should see Hurricane Katrina for that alone. But the stories themselves are the real draw. There are two performances left, go just go. I haven't heard or seen much about this show in the press, but just go.

The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival
Batture Productions
Writer: Rob Florence
Director: Dann Fink
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street
remaining performances: Wed 25 @ 3 & Sun 29 @ 4:15

As an added bonus:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Monday, August 23, 2010

I'm Just Really Fucking Over It

I've been awfully happy recently, so maybe I've gone a little soft. And before that I was REALLY unhappy, and sort of convinced I was a horrible person, so maybe that made me go all domesticated, too. So I feel as if I've been letting things slide here and there in a way I really shouldn't. I'm talking specifically about my review of Ghost of Dracula last week. The show is pretty inconsequential, and not particularly skilled, so I was really soft on it. Which is fine. Making any theater is really difficult. But there's one thing that's been really nagging at me, so I felt I had to bring it up.

First of all, just to get it out of the way, I'm a bitch. Do you know how I know this? Because I'm informed of it, on average, two to seven times a week. I walk down the streets of Manhattan and I ride the subway and occasionally I get on buses. If there is even the tiniest ray of sunshine I will have my sunglasses on. If I am sitting, in public, I will most likely be reading a book. Most of the time I have earphones in my ears. I keep a stony cold look on my face. But it does no fucking good. I cannot go out in public without some creep intruding into my personal space bubble and talking to me and demanding that I talk to him. I never fucking do, so I am called a bitch. Like, all the time. I hardly even notice it. Occasionally, I am called a slut or a whore for refusing to talk to these assholes. Which, on top of being evil, makes no fucking sense. Even according to their warped thinking, how does refusing to talk to strange men make me a slut? But that's not the point, and that brings me to what I wanted to bring up about Ghost of Dracula.

Twice in the show Mina is called a stupid slut by her ex-boyfriend Van Helsing, which made me want to aim a flame thrower at the stage. There was no context to it, and Mina's only response was to look angry and embarrassed and shut up, just as Van Helsing wanted and the show continued. Now, look. The following are the only reasons anyone calls a woman a stupid slut:

  1. To shut her up.
  2. To discredit what she's saying or doing
  3. To humiliate her.

That's it. That's why the random assholes on the street call me a slut all the time. To discredit and humiliate me. And, to preclude this from popping up in the comments (in general, my commenters are lovely, but one never knows what under bridge dwellers will pop up), if anyone asks "Why do we have to be so politically correct all the time?" my answer will be: Are you fucking kidding me? What is your definition of "politically correct"? A world where the continuous harassment of 50% of the world's population isn't tacitly endorsed? Because, like, that's what we're talking about. Got it? Or should I use smaller words. Think for two seconds: why is calling a woman a "stupid slut" funny in and of itself? People in the theater laughed, not because it was funny, per se, but because at that moment Van Helsing was the biggest bully in the fucking schoolyard, and by laughing they were demonstrating allegiance with the center of power. It couldn't be surprise, because women get called horrible humiliating things all the time. On the street, in print, everywhere. It's not new or transgressive in any kind of interesting way if it's devoid of context and point. It's just ugly and backwards looking and uncreative and depressing. And if you think it's funny you are a total fucking asshole.

That's it.

I Never Realized The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Was Quite That Exciting

I hate writing blog posts that do nothing but tell you why there are no blog posts, so I hope it will suffice to say that a veritable barrage of posting is on its way.

Also - I don't have much to say about Mad Men last night, except that my obsession with Betty may be waning, and Peggy is still in ascendancy (because, you know, it's all about me). I watched Mad Men obsessively, catching up on three seasons after the break up with my ex last winter. I felt terribly sorry for Betty, and was sort of all invested in her story. But TPTB in Mad Man Land clearly hate her, and are turning her into a monster. But Peggy just gets more and more delightful. I will leave you with this lovely, dreamy, pop-y image:


And poor Sally. She really is going to be a mess, isn't she? Shooting smack in the bathroom at CBGB, maybe? If any kid needs "Free To Be, You And Me" it's Sally Draper. Although they did leave out the song about how it's okay being caught masturbating by your friend's mom at a sleepover while watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Friday, August 20, 2010

FringeNYC 14: Bagabones

I was sitting watching Bagabones last night with my delightful escort, and not hugely enjoying it. Jonathan Nosan is a contortionist by trade, and his piece needs a lot of shaping and structure. As some of you might be aware, I am a fiend for dramatic structure, and as I say over and over until I'm blue in the face (speaking of which, more on that later), structure has nothing to do with plot. Structure, if anything, frees one from narrative. It's more musical, about a feeling of shape. Instead of having arcs, the show pretty much existed, in terms of energy and content, along one straight line.

I love physical work. I love wordless work. Over the years, I've seen and enjoyed lots of experimental movement and dance. But I felt as if there was nothing here for me to latch onto. I found the sound design to be loud and headache inducing, but I may in fact be part puppy and do have a particularly hard time with the shrill and the loud and the sudden. I thought it looked nice at the beginning, with Nosan wearing a suit and fedora, with a harsh, directional white special. But the whole show was lit like this, and I found it tiring looking at a show that dark for an hour. There was a segment where he seemed to be some sort of yogi which ended in a really neat effect in which it looked like he was floating in the air in a lotus pose. But prior to this, I pretty much thought I was watching him do his yoga practice. Nosan is very, very strong and has great control of his body, but this alone does not make a compelling show.

At the end of the show, Nosan breaks a vase, releasing a dramatic looking puff of smoke. I smelled talc. Look - I'm asthmatic and really, really don't deal well with particulates. I considered running for the door, but it would have been really disruptive and the show was clearly over, so I waited out the curtain call. It triggered a minor attack which, honestly, sucked. Like a moron, I didn't have my inhaler with me. So, yeah. A warning of some sort would have been nice. That's all.

created by Jonathan Nosan
The First Floor Theatre@ LaMaMa, 74A East 4th Street
remaining performances: Sun 22 @ 6 & Thu 26 @ 6

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

FringeNYC 14: The Headscarf and the Angry Bitch and The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentleman

The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentleman is one of those unfortunate shows that is so rife with possibilities and missed opportunities one feels like shaking it. First a word about dada. This anti-art movement sprung from the death, ugliness and violence of World War I. It was abstract and anarchistic. Nothing, and I mean nothing in this particular production has anything to do with Dada. Nothing.

The Velvet Gentleman is a play within a play being presented by the titular Altoona Dada Society of Altoona, PA. Now, there are a lot of ways they could go with this. The Velvet Gentleman is a biography of Erik Satie, a composer strange enough that people are still unsure whether he was brilliant and ahead of his time, or simply mad. Scenes of Satie's life are interrupted by the members of the ADS (Altoona Dada Society) as they bicker amongst themselves, and explain to the audience all the internal conflicts surrounding the dismissal of their anti-artistic director. All is told in a pretty ordinary linear fashion. Which is not necessarily a terrible thing, but the play feels underwritten. The behind the scene story doesn't really go anywhere and feels repetitious. We don't get quite enough of Satie or his music. There are parts of the show that had great potential, but the execution was a little sloppy and poorly directed. The actors all spoke their lines as if they had quotation marks around them which got increasingly tiresome as the show went on.

Dada was meant to be a desecration in the face of an increasingly violent and meaningless world. There are a lot of things that could be done with the material they already have, but they would need a lot more spontaneity and chaos to do all their references any sort of justice.

The Altoona Dada Society Presents The Velvet Gentleman

Writer: Jon Steinhagen
Director: Kevin P. Hale
The Studio@Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street
remaining performances: Wed 25 @ 2 & Thu 26 @ 9:15

Zehra Fazal's Zed Headscarf is a completely delightful creation and Headscarf and the Angry Bitch is a smart entertaining show that is tailor made for the fringe festivals of the world. Zed Headscarf is a chirpy, young Pakistani-American (dubbed the "Muslim Weird Al") who is touring Islamic Community Centers, educating the American public on Islam. After seeing dozens of one person shows over the years, I've come to realize that pretty much only one thing counts, everything else is gravy: that the performer is the sort of person one would be happy to watch and listen to for an hour. Fazal has this quality in spades.

Her show is divided up into chapters in which she explains various aspects of Islam and Muslim culture to us. As the piece goes on, her self revelations about sex, dating, family and religion become deeper and more transgressive and funnier and funnier. She also sings funny song parodies about things like losing her virginity on Ramadan and about dating a blonde girls - just like her ex-boyfriend. The show is also a meditation on otherness within American culture which, it might be argued, is the whole story of American culture and something that some people seem to have forgotten. It's also about being first generation American born, about awkwardly straddling two cultures, about being made to feel uncomfortable with your body, about trying to reconcile opposing parts of oneself. And it's all very, very funny.

Note: it seems to be selling out like crazy so get your tix in advance.

Headscarf and the Angry Bitch

Writer: Zehra Fazal
The Studio@Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street
remaining performances: Wed 18 @ 8:15 & Fri 20 @ 3:45

I Love Television (But My Heart Belongs To Peggy Olson)

One of my least favorite bits of typical small talk is when someone (probably me) mentions something about a TV show and the person I'm speaking with is all "I have no idea what you're talking about [peasant. the "peasant" is usually silent.] I don't watch television." And then I really, really want to be like Jules in Pulp Fiction and reply, "But you are aware that there is an invention called television, and on this invention there are shows" and continue on with what I was talking about. Now, saying "I don't watch television" for the purposes of snootiness is no longer just obnoxious, it's also ignorant as hell. As anyone with half a brain has realized, we are in the midst of a Golden Age. Over the past decade television has finally come into its own as the brilliant novelistic story-telling device it has always had the potential of being. Novelistic being the operative word. In other words, the medium is no longer the message. What is currently being done in the maligned medium is nothing short of thrilling. Particularly in light of how dreadful most American movies are right now. The fact that I feel the need to still point this out is ridiculous.

Thus far, the 4th season of Mad Men has been a little slow to get moving. In semi-related news, my high school English teacher made a big point of telling us how most of the sixties were really just like the fifties, and it was only in the second part of the decade that things started to change. In Mad Men Land it is now February of 1965, and things are changing fast and the lines in the sand are being drawn. Those lines aren't yet impassable walls, and clearly one can still travel back and forth across them. It will be interesting to see who lands where, but it's becoming clearer and clearer each episode.

Peggy's role this season has been somewhat downplayed and disappointing. She has a new (creepy) boyfriend who manipulated her into having sex with him, and other than that, hasn't had a great deal to do. But the most telling scene in the first three episodes is when she was discussing the Ponds campaign with Freddie Rumsen and she grows increasingly frustrated with his ideas that she calls "old fashioned". In this week's episode, "The Rejected", she really comes into her own for the first time this season and it made for incredibly exciting viewing. Peggy meets Joyce, a young photo editor at Life Magazine on the elevator and they become friendly. Subsequently, Joyce invites her to a cool art party downtown. It's pretty clear that Joyce is a lesbian and one wonders if Peggy knows this. The party is lots of fun. They get high. Joyce tries to kiss Peggy, who laughs it off and this delightful exchange happens:
Peggy: I have a boyfriend.
Joyce: He doesn't own your vagina.
Peggy: No, but he's renting it.
They watch a friend's experimental film. They meet Cute Art Boy and Pretentious Photographer (who asks Peggy how she can take advertising seriously after Warhol). The cops bust up the party and Peggy hides in a closet with Cute Art Boy, who brags to her about how he was arrested at a sit in. She asks him if he went to jail, and he sheepishly admits, "No, my sister came and got me." Peggy and Joyce run down the street away from the warehouse, holding hands and laughing. It's a lovely little scene and one of the few in the entire series where you see just how young Peggy is and how capable and desperate for joy she is.

Peggy's story is contrasted to great effect with Pete's. He finds out his wife is pregnant and he is thrilled. Happiness aside, it seems to make him grow up right in front of us. He is clearly unhappy and embarrassed by how much his in-laws have done for him financially and career-wise. By the end of the episode he is playing hard ball with his father-in-law, more or less strong arming him into bringing Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce the whole Vicks line. He already looks five years older than Peggy. Her reaction to his wife's pregnancy is so emotionally spot on. At the end of Season 1, she gave birth to Pete's child and gave it up for adoption, and hurt and shock register on Peggy's face that was likely unexpected even to her when asked to sign an office "Congratulations!" card. I hate the phrase "closure", but it sure looks a little like that when she goes into his office and congratulates him herself.

And what about Don? He looms over this episode like a drunken éminence gris. Don Draper isn't a person. He's a fictional character created by Dick Whitman, and as the trappings of the Don Draper construct get stripped away, one can argue that "Don Draper" ceases to exist. He's all glamour and smarts, with a beautiful family and the money to support them and their beautiful life. Don Draper in a dingy furnished apartment downtown isn't really "Don Draper" at all, and Draper/Whitman knows it and is cracking up. He's spiraling badly, and the jokey, glamorous drinking and womanizing of the first couple of seasons is turning ugly. He's aging visibly, and drinking to blackout nightly, and making bad decisions and fucking up. Last night someone referred to him as "a drunk" for the first time. The slick, old style glamour of the post-war years has fallen into decadence and is out of fashion, and I don't know that "Don Draper" as a construct can survive the sea change. Peggy sees it happening, and this might be my favorite moment of the whole episode:


At the end of the episode, Pete stands in the lobby of Sterling Cooper with the suits from Vick. It could be a scene from any point in the previous 30 years. Peggy looks on from the other side of the glass office wall, surrounded by her new friends who couldn't exist in any time other than 1965.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lauren Henderson: Tart City Noir

As most regular readers of The Cabinet know, I grew up reading mysteries. Beginning with Peggy Parrish and Nancy Drew, then on to Ellen Raskin and Agatha Christie, subsequently reading a stack of P.D. James, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in my late teens. In my 20s, I read all of Dorothy L. Sayers (oh, what a genius she is!), and then I went all hard boiled, reading all of Hammett, Cain, Chandler and Ellroy. But Sayers aside, I read very few actual mysteries. Most of what I saw on the shelves looked dull and middle aged. The genre seemed tired.

Then, In the 90s, the best thing happened. Seemingly at once, a number of women began writing mysteries that were fresh, modern - young. Not only the books' content, but the covers and the artwork seemed new. More than any other genre, mysteries are rooted most firmly in the actual world and the nuts and bolts aspects of life, dealing as they do with money and the law and wills and poison and politics and greed and family. Because of this, many mysteries have also functioned as social comedies, so the milieu is awfully important.

So, at one point in the mid-late 90s, I was browsing in the mystery section of the bookstore when I came across Lauren Henderson's Black Rubber Dress. It's the third in her Sam Jones mystery series and the first to be published in the US. There are seven books in the series and they really do typify a new direction that mysteries began to take in the previous decade. That said, I think this trend in mysteries is impossible to talk about without also bringing up the much maligned chick lit. I'll save an in depth discussion of this for another day (Fuzzy Bastard and I had a long, long conversation about this in the comments section of one of my Twilight posts a while ago), but leaving all snarky mocking aside (which, for the record, makes me livid), I think these books were necessary. Pre-Bridget Jones's Diary, there were very few books being written in which ordinary, modern women could see themselves. What I don't think is talked about enough - and is often the failing of the movie adaptions of these books - is that they are as much about career as romance, and many, many women want to read about both (and vampires, apparently, but that too is a discussion for another day).

I adore Henderson's Sam Jones books. The last one, Pretty Boy, appeared almost ten years ago, and though it left us hanging in terms of the status of Sam's relationship with dandyish, class jumping actor, Hugo, it seems as if it will be the last. Sam Jones is a twenty-something metal sculptor who lives in a warehouse studio in a run down part of London (more South Bronx than Williamsburg). Early in the series she subsidized her art by working in a gym as a personal trainer, most of her friends are writers or actors or work in media. Henderson is a really sharp writer who, like most Brits, is very finely attuned to the niceties of class. She has also clearly read as many mysteries as I have. She references Wimsey and Harriet in Sam and Hugo's courtship, and makes several incredibly obscure Agatha Christie references. She also clearly delights in the old fashioned tradition of the amateur sleuth. It's an absurd device, and she knows it. I mean, no one wanders about their life stumbling into corpses at the pace of about one a year. In an interview she referred to Sam Jones once as "Miss Marple's decadent descendant".

Of particular interest to my readers, might be Freeze My Margarita (which follows Black Rubber Dress), which aside from it being a really well worked out mystery, and enormously entertaining, it is also set in the midst of a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sam is hired to make some set pieces for the show, and though the theater seems shockingly well-subsidized from the American point of view, the production itself, and her thoughts on the play are extremely smart. It's the only modern novel I've read that possesses a Slings and Arrows level of realism in portraying theater.

So, the Sam Jones series ends on a bittersweet note: the mystery is solved, but the villain isn't who we want it to be and Sam and Hugo are on the outs. I suppose that's where it will remain forever. But Lauren Henderson hasn't been idle. Since then she's come out with three chick lit books. I've read two (My Lurid Past and Exes Anonymous), and they were... okay, but I would have preferred some new mysteries, but that, of course, is my problem, not hers. I did find them to be pretty unputdownable. And all of her female heroines possess a hard edge that I find really appealing.

Then, in 2008, oh frabjous day, she began a new mystery series with Kiss Me Kill Me, this time for young adults. The protagonist is sixteen year old Scarlett Wakefield, a student at an extremely posh girls school in London. She, however, is not a part of the ulta-exclusive, fashionable group of girls who form the ruling clique of the school. She spends most of her time doing gymnastics and hanging out with her two best friends. At first, I thought the book would be a sort of London-based Gossip Girl with added mystery value, but that turns out to not be the case. Scarlett ditches her real friends after being invited to one of the cool girl's party. While there, she kisses the boy of her dreams, and he dies immediately in her arms, completely ruining her first kiss. The press dubs her "The Kiss of Death Girl" and she is thrown out of school because of all the unwelcome tabloid attention. It's around this time we discover that Scarlett, while not particularly popular at her school, is in fact extremely posh. She was orphaned at a very young age and has been shuffled around a bit between various relatives. Her father was a baron, and her grandmother, Lady Wakefield, has turned their family seat into an academically rigorous girl's school.

Scarlett spends the first two books, which really do need to be read in conjunction with each other, solving the mystery of the death of Dan McAndrews, the boy she kissed. I enjoyed the second book, Kisses and Lies, far more than the first. It felt tighter and better thought out and everything was resolved at the end. There was so much left hanging at the end of Kiss Me Kill me, I found it maddening. Kisses and Lies is divided into two parts, each one a take on a classic mystery genre. The first takes place at Wakefield Hall, where Scarlett is attending school under the chilly and watchful eye of her grandmother. Boarding school mysteries are classics of children's literature, Enid Blyton's series and the Dana Girls Mysteries being the most famous (the Harry Potter books being the most recent offerings). Scarlett's discoveries eventually lead her to a castle in Scotland, where the book morphs into a quasi-traditional country house mystery in the best Christie tradition. The dénouement is completely satisfying.

The third book, Kiss in the Dark, is the first of another pairing, Kiss Me Goodbye will complete the series (I hope. I was unable to find a release date). In this book, Henderson also puts a very young modern spin on common mystery tropes. Scarlett stumbles upon the murdered corpse of Wakefield Hall's groundsman - and the father of Scarlett's boyfriend. This murder is satisfactorily solved, and though the tone is light, larger issues loom. The twin specters of race and class are increasingly in the forefront. As Scarlett looks deeper into the current mystery, questions about her parent's death start to emerge. This will likely be the thread that continues on to the next book.

Years ago, Henderson used to run a website with Stella Duffy called Tart City which championed and promoted young, female detective fiction writers they dubbed Tart Noir. The site itself is no longer being updated, but the message boards happily still live. In 2002 the two co-edited a Tart Noir anthology. These days, most of the women associated with Tart Noir are no longer writing mysteries for adults. Maybe the market shifted, or perhaps they got tired of writing them. I'm hoping The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will revive interest and another wave of younger, edgy mysteries will come our way.

Monday, August 16, 2010

FringeNYC 14: PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story

I may not want to smooch this delightful (45 MINUTE!) show by PigPen Theatre, but I may want to adopt it. From the moment you enter The Club at LaMaMa you pretty much know you're going to have a nice time. The members of the cast are playing (something like) Ukrainian folk music on a guitar, accordion, fiddle, banjo and a drum made out of a wooden box. They joke around with each other, their door person and the audience in the most laid back and charming way possible. They are relaxed on stage in the way only the most confident of performers can manage. And they play very, very well. And there is table service in the venue, so you can have a drink.

The show itself is a made up Ukrainian folk tale told in song and puppets and story telling and theater. It weaves tales within tales and is incredibly funny and creepy and disturbing and true, like all the best fairy tales. A young boy's mother is dying from the dread Nightmare Disease and must travel to find the flower that will save her. The journey is full of monsters and death. And is hilarious and loose and genuine. The five young men who perform the piece seem to hardly break a sweat as they accomplish something that is so difficult to do, I've almost never seen it done right. Take a fairy tale, make it culturally specific (there were a couple of lines in Russian and my Russian speaking theater-going companion said they were funny, too), add songs, add several different kinds of puppetry, make it very, very funny, do it on a shoe-string, make it look beautiful.

PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story
Writer: Alex Falberg, Arya Shahi, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Daniel Weschler, Matt Nuernberger, Ryan Melia
The Club@LaMaMa, 74A East 4th Street
remaining performances: Wed 18 @ 9, Fri 20 @ 4:45, Sat 21 @ 7

FringeNYC 14: Picking Palin, Shine: A Burlesque Musical and The Ghost of Dracula

I tagged along to see Picking Palin as the date of my always charming constant escort as I was pretty sure it was Not My Thing, and thus it wasn't on my list of shows to see. Okay. I was right. It isn't My Thing, but the Thing They Do is very well done. Playwright Stephen Padilla's one act shows the behind the scenes machinations that led to the picking of Sarah Palin as the GOP vice-presidential candidate. Just typing that name makes my skin crawl as I've been participating in my own, personal Sarah Palin media blackout since the election ended. I don't post or comment on clips or articles about her on facebook. I don't mention her (until now) on my blog. It bugs me when people post about her, and then shout "Why won't she just go away?!", because I feel like responding, "Stop posting about her! THAT's why!". That outburst out of the way, back to my review. Picking Palin is well acted and well directed. It's nice to see grown up actors playing grown up characters on a FringeNYC stage. It's smartly written, with the more moderate Republican characters make useful points, which should be of no surprise to anyone who read Peggy Noonan or Kathleen Parker during the past election season, or who witnessed Christopher Buckley's volte face. For me, it did lack some stakes and suspense. I mean, we all know how it's going to end, and the final decision was made by someone off stage (McCain), so it felt a little inert to me. But, again, it is not My Thing (it was a little light on robots and talking animals).

Picking Palin
written and directed by Stephen Pedilla
The Connolly Theater, 220 East 4th Street
remaining performances: Wed 18 @ 1:30, Sat 21 @ 9:45, Wed 25 @ 9:30, Sat 28 @ NOON

Shine, which subtitles itself a "a burlesque musical" is the sort of FringeNYC offering that always gives me pause. It appears to be slick enough and expensive enough that I inevitably wonder, "Why here?". The piece was conceived by and around the talents of singer, Cass King, and her songwriter partner, John Woods, who have dubbed themselves "The Wet Spots". The songs are well-written, but their book is negligible. The burlesque musical has a proud tradition in American musical theater, as two of the greatest of all American theatrical works, Gypsy and Cabaret, are among their number. But I'm awfully confused by what I saw on the stage of the lovely Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMaMa the other night. The story is that hoariest of old chestnuts: Let's put on a show to raise the funds to save _____! In this case a burlesque house. As I stated above, the book is a mess. It introduces an ingenue couple and then does nearly nothing with them. The female ingenue is introduced as a gender studies major who is writing her thesis on burlesque, a point that is completely dropped after its initial introduction. There is also a subplot about a larger sized singer whom the money bags who is producing the theater-saving show doesn't want in the lead. This is (rightly) painted as narrow and wrong, but the thing is: she's not the lead of Shine either, so the protests felt a little hollow to me. There is also a lot of talk about the downtown versus uptown sensibility which was a little tough for me to swallow as the whole show seemed pure uptown to me from tip to tail. There were some very, very good dancers on that stage, and I would have liked to see them do a little more. It felt weirdly safe and staid and unsexy. The upshot is, they really need a lot of help with the book. Their note in the program is delightful, and their intentions are good: but the show they talk about is not apparent on stage.

SHINE: A Burlesque Musical
The Wet Spots
Writer: Cass King, John Woods (The Wet Spots) and Sam Dulmage
Director: Roger Benington
The Ellen Stewart Theatre @LaMaMa, 66-68 East 4th Street
remaining performances: Mon 23 @ 9:45, Thu 26 @ 2, Sat 28 @ 2

Oh, Ghost of Dracula. Everyone involved in it is so very, very obviously young. I feel like I'm an awful curmudgeon saying anything awful about them. Their show is shouty, underbaked and there is a series of slide projections of questionable taste. They indulge in the kind of racial humor that Dave Chappelle gets away with beautifully, but is much more problematic when being attempted by a bunch of white recent college grads. The cast, and the audience plants who are later revealed to be cast, look like they're having fun. Is it any good? Well, no. It's dreadful. But, as I said, they are so very, very young.

Ghost of Dracula
Colby Day Productions
Writer: Kenneth Molloy, based on characters created by Bram Stoker
Director: Daniel Johnsen
Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street
remaining performances: Wed 18 @ 10:45, Tue 24 @ 8:30, Sun 29 @ 2

(photo: pictured: Cass King Photographer: Frank Roberts)

FringeNYC 14: The Battle of Spanktown

The aforementioned Battle of Spanktown combines so many disparate elements, it shouldn't possibly work. It is a piece of Revolutionary War history, relating how a dispute betwixt a Mole and a Badger incites a series of events involving a young Hobbeldehoy who embarks on a classic Fool's journey encountering many Wonders and Adventures, including a dread Kobold and the freeing of the Winter Queen from the Nefarious Red Coats only to find himself assisting General George Washington himself in the Great War of Independence.

In other words, it is a delightful 18th century picaresque (a literary style which may be characterized as "one damn thing after another"). There are animals who are clearly important members of Spanktown society. There are fairy tale elements that are done extraordinarily well. In fool's stories, a younger son, usually poor, often considered stupid or foolish in some way, leaves home in search of a fortune and gets it after a series of adventures. Puss in Boots is the most famous of the genre. Here the Hobbeldehoy fills this function to a tee. The writer knows his tales.

Of course, the success of any theatrical enterprise is more in the how than the what. And the execution here is delightful. Jeffrey Pfeiffer's script is a wondrous thing. When one hears the word pastiche, one usually thinks of something derivative. But here, the odd disparate elements form a delightful and unique whole. Big kudos are due to Heidi Handelsman for her direction. The performances are all funny and distinct. The casting is marvelous, some of the actors looking as if they have stepped right out of the pages of Punch. The set pieces and costumes are simple and functional, look properly period without being too much. I don't think anything cost very much either, but clearly a great deal of thought went into all of it. Which is far more important than deep pockets in a fringe production.

Their website is worth a visit (or two). Included is a timeline of events in Spanktown's history. I was particularly glad to learn the about the (heretofore under-reported) importance of robots in the War of Independence. And I look forward to collecting my Animal Heroes of the Revolutionary War commemorative stamp series.

The Battle of Spanktown
Writer: Jeffrey Pfeiffer
Director: Heidi Handelsman
Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street
remaining performances: Mon 16 @2, Sun 22 @ 12, Wed 25 @ 10, Fri 27 @ 10:45

(Illustration: Jason Stefanik via

Sunday, August 15, 2010

FringeNYC 14: The First Weekend

So, it's late(ish) Sunday night and the first weekend of the festival is over and done. I saw seven shows over the first three days, so I will once again be bringing you a listical of festival related thoughts, because I am too very, very sleepy to write a proper posting. Actual write ups of shows will follow in subsequent posts.

1. As much as anything, FringeNYC is about variety. Seeing one show you don't like is statistically negligible. If you care about things such as theater and have the time, cash or access: see lots. It does interesting things to your head. I was less than ecstatic about one or two of the first shows I watched. Than saw one I adored. I want to take this show home with me and smooch it (sorry, Trav! This is metaphor smooching.). Then I saw some more. Some were wonderful. Some were less than wonderful. But the resulting commingled effect of watching all these various productions was in making me want to write. I want to say it's inspiring, and I guess that's what I mean, but the word doesn't feel exactly right. It's a more subtle affect. More like osmosis. Like just being near all this theater causes parthenogenesis to naturally occur. The thing being gestated being a play. Or something.

2. I have run into at least one person I know at every show I have attended so far, which is delightful.

3. The shows, over all, are far too long. An hour is the ideal length for a festival show (in fact, many festivals insist upon it). 90 minutes on the outside. Any longer, you better earn it. Case in point: most people I know will see anything if it is 45 minutes long. Something an hour forty will need some sort of vetting.

4. This is my tribute to [name redacted]: the temperatures inside all the theaters I have thus far attended have been perfectly comfortable (though maybe The New School was on the cold side. But I'm always freezing so I'm not to be trusted and won't hold it against either them or FringeNYC).

5. Running into the wondrous and magical Martin Denton at your very first show of the festival means you will have a lucky and enjoyable theater year. Look! I just invented a new superstition!

6. I prefer watching messy and over-reaching to safe and well made.

7. All undergraduate theater programs are not created equal.

8. I'm not sorry I saw any of the seven shows I saw.

9. Puppets and fairy tales and murder will always make me really happy. Likewise anthropomorphized animals. I am seven.

10. I've been swimming in these downtown theatrical waters for a very long time now, and have been involved in some way or another with this particular festival for 13 years. The New York International Fringe Festival is a behemoth. It is of massive scope. It is not a boutique industry. That's kind of its reason for being. There are a number of small, more narrowly focused festivals presented by other entities throughout the year. And don't get me wrong, many (actually, most) of them are absolutely wonderful. But FringeNYC is a monster with all the attendant pluses and minuses that go along with being monstrous. Really, if one finds oneself in the Kraken's wake, there's little one can do but go along and enjoy being entangled in its tentacles.

(Picture credits: I lifted the thoroughly delightful illustrations that bedeck this post from the informative and beautifully designed website of the smoochable show, The Battle of Spanktown (running through August 27 at Dixon Place). Metaphor smooches! Illustrations by Jason Stefanik)

Friday, August 13, 2010

FringeNYC 14 Begins

The 14th edition of my sometimes beloved, my sometimes maddening, FringeNYC begins today with its usual headspinning array of theatrical confections. I wrote a couple of years ago about the wonder of being just a simple audience member. Well. In the spirit of full disclosure, that was a little disingenuous. I sat on the adjudication panel (i.e. the panel of people who make the selection decisions) for seven years, from 2003 through 2009, so I wasn't precisely a civilian. This year, however, I will be (more or less).

Festival reportage will likely take up lots of space here throughout the next couple of weeks, as I intend to see and then subsequently think and write about lots and lots of theater. If there is something you think a person of my particular interests (visual arts/spectacle, fairy tales, dance, really fucking good writing, etc.) might enjoy, please contact me via facebook and let me know.

So, off I go into the fray. But, seriously? All this show seeing is easy-peasy. Running the festival is hard. So if you're out there, and come face to face with a box office person or somebody on staff: be nice. Shows start on time. Don't be late. Be polite, and if a show is sold out- so be it. Don't make a fuss. Just go see something else (there are nearly 200 offerings) or get a margarita or something. And if you're flat broke? Volunteer and get free tickets for working a shift. The Volunteer Coordinator is named Taty (pronounced Tatchie)and she's just lovely. Say "Hi" for me, and tell her I sent you. You won't regret it, I promise.

Now, tear your precious eyeballs away from your computers and go see some art!

P.S. My ever charming inamorato, Trav S.D., has some excellent advice for all the critics who are rubbing their hands in excitement as they prepare to review the temperature of the theater, and complain that a puppet show from Montreal* that arrived in the country, like, yesterday, lacks the technical precision of a show that has a week to tech. I endorse every word in his posting. For example: due to circumstances beyond our (or the festival's) control, when I directed Antarctica in the 2007 Fringe(NYC), we had no tech rehearsal whatsoever. So, yeah, read it and take it to heart.

The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
August 13-29
FringeCENTRAL (for tix, information, etc.) 1 8th Street Noon-8, Daily (for tix and everything else)

*This was a hypothetical example. If there actually is a puppet show from Montreal in the festival, I meant to cast no aspersions.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Abomination

As has been discussed here before, I am completely comfortable being referred to as a grilled cheese aficianado. If I was asked to name my One Favorite Food out of all the food in the world, my response would be "Sandwiches!".

But I do have some pride. This is an abomination unto the grilled cheese gods and should be cast asunder so that it no longer plagues, um, like, us.

Four fried mozzarella sticks inside of a Grilled Cheese sandwich. Obviously, some of my problems with this are pure snobbery, as I know a real chef with good cheese and bread could create a comparable sandwich that would taste really, really good, but be just as horrible for you. But, seriously? This sandwich is a terrible idea. Really.

Denny's clearly has no shame.

Pie Town is not Paris: The FSA Color Photograph Archive

In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes comics, Calvin's father tells him how the world was actually in black and white until the thirties, when grainy color started to emerge. What makes it so funny is that it almost feels as if it was true - that the world just suddenly burst into color after centuries of everything being in grayscale. Just trying to picture what the world must have really, actually looked like sixty, seventy, a hundred years ago is incredibly difficult. We have no frame of visual reference for seeing most of it in color.

Which is exactly what makes this posting from the Denver Post photo blog so compelling. They've posted seventy color photos that were taken between 1939 and 1943 by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration, and they are nothing short of a revelation. Many of us are familiar with the iconic black and white images of rural Americans during the Depression taken by greats such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and many others. They are strong and sad and tough and beautiful. And they are in black and white. So they don't look quite real.

Black and white photographs can be beautiful. They can be stark, glamorous or surreal. But the lack of color can also serve as a distancing device. The people in these photos look slightly otherworldly, apart. Our world is in full technicolor and surround sound, theirs is still, silent and gray. The color Farm Security Administration photos are a completely different story. For a long time color photography was denigrated. It wasn't thought of as art. Anyone after seeing these images with their blazing immediacy would know right away that that notion is total nonsense.

My friend who posted this on facebook got it exactly right: they're like a time machine. You feel as if you could step right into them and walk around the wide small town streets and talk to all the people. And then you look again, and wonder who all these people are, what their names are, what they're thinking, what happened to them after. And then you wonder if things ever got any easier for them and then you realize that most of them are probably dead.

A continent and an ocean away, other Americans were also revolutionizing photography. First, in the early 30s, Man Ray and Lee Miller experimented with surreal images and new techniques. Influenced by Art Deco and the Bauhaus, art and fashion photographers (most of whom worked for Vogue) made beautiful and intentionally artificial black and white photos. They were glamorous and completely otherworldly, with carefully composed, elegant images. The kinds of photos I've posted here bridge the gap between journalism and art, much the way Truman Capote's In Cold Blood did for the written word 30 years later. They make me wish Brassaï would have worked occasionally in color so that I could see Paris. These photos lack the stark perfection of those two carefully posed swimmers at the end of that diving board, but the swimmers are dream figures, while a very different boy and girl (above) living at the same time a world away are not.

The picture above was taken in a place called Pie Town, New Mexico. It still exists, and though the homesteaders don't live in dug outs anymore, they are still famous for their pies. Photography is a remarkable thing. It makes art out of capturing in light and paper the briefest of moments. They are time machines and a miracle.

(Photos: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection. They are not subject to copyright within the United States.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Miranda July and Why I Hate Her. The Negative Post Full of Hatred You've All Beeen Waiting For

There have been one or two minor criticisms of my blog saying that I only write about things I like. If you feel this way - this is the blog post you've been waiting for!

I hate Miranda July. So much praise has been flung her way, I'm sure she can handle my disdain. She's been doing art, video and music projects around Portland since the early 90s, working with among others, the awesome Kill Rock Stars. So far, so good. She's also had a bunch of bloggy, on line art stuff. In 2005 she wrote, directed and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know. Then, in 2007, she released the short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. See, all good stuff. Right.


It's not jealousy. I swear. Yes, in some ways Miranda July is living my dream life and yes, maybe I'm a little jealous. But, that's not it I promise. I hate all of her work. I hate it. I hate her twee little revelations. Her forced creepiness which wants so badly to be depth. I hate her stupid doe eyed face. Okay, that was mean. But - I HATE HER STUPID DOE EYED FACE! I hate her affectless underbaked short stories that seem to me like dated parodies of Raymond Carver and Mary Gaitskill. And not in a good way! I hate her annoyingly smug and self enchanted web projects. Okay. The movie wasn't terrible. I think I liked it when I saw it. But I remember none of it. I just read the plot summary on Wikipedia and it didn't even ring a bell. And I know I saw it. There it is in my Netflix archive. I know I sat on my couch and watched it. But it's all gone.

What is it about her that's like fingernails on a blackboard to me? I mean I loathe her. It feels personal. I mean why? She doesn't seem all that different than most of the people I know. Why?

I think it's simple. I don't like her work. I find it boring and empty. And it's being heaped with praise. I feel like shouting, "The emperor has no clothes, people! Helllo!". But I know it's futile. Her work is bathed in the kind of emptiness that enables people to pour their own meanings and personalities into it, there's no there there (to quote a far better artist). But does that make it good? Universal? Or just empty?

I don't know. I just can't stand her.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Black Thorn, White Rose

Ellen Datlow is one of those people whose elephantine output simply blows my mind. For twenty-one years she co-edited (for sixteen years with Terri Windling and for five with Kelly Link & Gavin Grant) the phone book sized and always great Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. Each year she has also edited numerous other anthologies and has won more World Fantasy Awards than anyone else (she's tied with frequent collaborator Terri Windling). In 2009 and the first half of 2010 alone she has edited eleven anthologies. It's mind boggling. Just sitting on the adjudication panel for one measly gigantic theater festival for seven years nearly sucked me dry (rewarding as it was in many, many ways).

So, needless to say, I'm a little behind in catching up with the tomes she's put together. Like, decades behind. Seriously. I will be happily reading her anthologies until the day I die without ever running out even if through the miracles of modern science my disembodied head in a jar is reading her books 300 years from now. Among the series she has co-edited with Terri Windling is one with modern authors doing their own take on fairy tales which began in 1993 with Snow White, Blood Red. I just got around to reading the second entry in the series, Black Thorn, White Rose which was originally released in 1995 (we are nothing if not up to date here at the cabinet).

As with every anthology I've read, it's mixed bag, but with no real clunkers and with numerous standouts. The following are the stories I found to be of particular interest for one reason or another.

"Somnus's Fair Maid" by Ann Downer: This Regency-era romance adaptation of Sleeping Beauty was the first in the collection that really popped. She makes no attempt to infuse the tale with a dreamy, fairy-tale tone, which I always think is a good way to go. Downer is really comfortable in the period. As Datlow and Windling say in their (excellent) introduction:
"The literary fairy tale, like the music of jazz, is an improvisation on a theme. It eschews our modern obsession with novelty, our insistence on plots that surprise on every page and ideas that have never been uttered before. Like jazz, it is best appreciated by those with an ear for the original melody on which it is based. The pleasure lies in savoring the writer's skill as she or he transforms a familiar story."
"Ogre" by Michael Kandel is just a really good time. Kandel is one of the few writers in the anthology I had never heard of before, likely because he mostly writes science fiction, which I very rarely read. He also, however, serves as Ursula K. LeGuin's editor at Harcourt. So, like, wow. Even Datlow in her introduction seems skeptical about its fairy tale origins, though. It's about an amateur theatrical production in which an ogre (named Dennis) is cast. It's pretty much charm personified. Dennis accidentally eats one of the actresses hands and no one knows their lines and the director is a nightmare. You know. The usual.

The Goose Girl is an excellent fairy tale that is less well known to modern readers. It's about a young princess who is on her way to marry a prince sight unseen, and on the journey there, her servant effects a switch. So, for a short time, the servant winds up married to the prince and the princess works as a humble goose girl. When the false bride is found out, she is put naked into a barrel lined with sharp nails that is drawn through the streets by horses until she is dead. Tim Wynn-Jones's version is told from the point of view of the prince who in his telling, mixes the tale as he remembers it, with the version commonly told by an old story telling crone. All the narration is unreliable. It's such an interesting take because the actual events are precisely as they were laid out by the Grimms. The difference is in what the characters are like, and it changes the story completely.

In terms of Fairy Tale retellings, Jane Yolen is one of the best and one of the people most responsible for the genre being taken seriously. Most famously, she's the author of the Mythopoetic Award winning (and Nebula short listed) Briar Rose, a loose retelling of Sleeping Beauty set during the Holocaust. "Granny Rumple", the story included here, is a version of Rumpelstiltskin set in a Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine. Yolen demonstrates her rare ability to tap into history and myth while telling an entertaining and heartbreaking story with deftly drawn characters. She says at the top that the story is true, but the Yolens are notorious liars. And as for it's marked similarity to the famous Grimm tale:
"If Granny Rumple's story sounds a bit like another you have heard, I am not surprised. My father's father used to entertain customers at his wife's inn with a rendition of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, passing it off as a story of his own invention. And what is folklore, after all, but the recounting of old tales. We Yolens have always borrowed from the best."
Jane Yolen is always, always worth reading. If you come across a story of hers in an anthology or a magazine, or find a book of hers just sitting around: read it.

I've been hearing about Storm Constantine for a long, long time, but I'd always found her name to be a little pretentious and contrived so I discounted her (honestly, I have no idea if it's her given name or not). Fie on me, I say! Her offering here, "Sweet Bruising Skin" is a revelation. I've always thought The Princess and the Pea was a stupid fairy tale. I mean, who wants to have someone that finicky around the house? That's a good thing? This version of the tale is told by a wicked, Machiavellian queen. The pea business is just part of the queen's efforts to grab and maintain power via alchemy, drugs, poison, the law, or by any means necessary. It's completely entertaining, chilling, beautifully written and deeply strange.

Peter Straub and Roger Zelazny also have wonderful stories included. Black Thorn came out the year Zelazny died, so it was likely one of the last things he wrote: "Godson", a nice take on meeting the Devil on the crossroads is both funny and suspenseful. Straub, of course, has that terrific horror writer's ability to gnaw his way into the same ugly realities that fairy tales also dwell on. His take on the Grimm's "Ashputtle" (the German Cinderella) is desperately sad. His obese and lonely Mrs. Asch is filled with rage partially engendered from a complicated relationship with her stepmother. It's chilling from top to bottom and full of smart insights about how we treat people who are broken or grotesque in some way and the assumptions we make about them. Mrs. Asch is both a downtrodden step-daughter (in her telling of it, which seems far from reliable) and fairy tale ogre in the guise of a kindergarten techer. If you have a small child in school, this story will give you nightmares.

Those are just the highlights. I briefly met Ellen Datlow at a Terri Windling reading she was hosting at KGB Bar a couple of years ago. I am way to shy to be any good at meeting people I am that impressed by, though I told her a bit about "Antarctica" as I would walk across glass to have something included in one of her books.

I've said this elsewhere, but people tell fairy tales over and over again because they're true. They're resilient monsters that can hold up to anything, be set in pretty much any milieu and thrive. They've been denigrated, relegated to the children's section of the library and cheapened and simplified. But they are real.

(photo: copyright Ellen Datlow)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Self Serving Self Promotion With the Reward of Pretty Pictures and a Sad Tale of Genius

Hey, Cabinet readers - if you're on Twitter, please follow me! I can be found here.

And, as so often here, a propos of absolutely nothing, a stunning Kay Nielsen illustration. He was a stone cold genius and my favorite, favorite illustrator. In addition to his gorgeous book illustrations, he also designed much of the "Ave Maria" and "Night on Bald Mountain" sequences in Fantasia. Disney fired him in 1940, when Fantasia tanked.

He also did some legendary, classic illustrations for a 1914 edition of East of the Sun, West of the Moon - an edition of Nordic fairy tales, the titular one being the inspiration for Antarctica. I've been saying for years, now, that if I ever strike it rich, this is the one thing I will certainly buy.

I've always found his story to be thoroughly heartbreaking. His main crime, from what I can make out, was working too slowly and being a perfectionist. Sigh. I've always related as one could argue that those are my artistic crimes as well. The other major contribution to his downfall was simple obsolescence. His specialty was designing and illustrating opulent gift books which were pretty much completely out of fashion by the mid-1920s (side note: if you ever wondered why so many cartoons from the 1930s had such exquisitely painted watercolor backgrounds, this is why. Crowds of unemployed and very skilled illustrators willing to work cheap). Disney gave him a posthumous design credit on The Little Mermaid as he did the earliest artwork for the project around 1940. He died in poverty in 1957, living at the end mostly on handouts from admirers.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Salad Days*

One or two people have asked me why I never write about food on this blog, as I am obsessed with all comestibles. My answer is usually something about how there are lots of great food blogs out there and it's a little outside of the brief I've set for myself here, etc.

Well. As I sit here on a traditionally non-blogging Saturday in a post salad bliss coma, I've decided to go with the broken-precedent set by the grilled cheese post of desperation, and write about my salad. Because it was incredibly delicious and it seemed unkind to hoard all this happiness for myself without sharing my invention of the Asparagus Blackberry Salad with the world.

Please note: I have no idea about amounts or recipe writing, so any measurements I've written are complete vague guesstimates. One might say this is in the spirit of my Albanian grandmother who, in the tradition of ethnic grandmothers everywhere, was an excellent home cook who couldn't be bothered with precise measurements either.

You will need:

Bibb lettuce
asparagus, 1/2 bunch
blackberries, 1/2 cup
chopped red onion, 1 Tbsp
lemon juice, 2 Tbsp
Olive oil, very litttle
Asiago cheese, grated 1/4 cup
salt & pepper to taste

Wash everything. If you don't have a salad spinner, you might think about investing in one, as they are awesome. Cut the asparagus up into inch long stalks. Steam it until green and tender. Chill.

Squeeze the lemons for the juice. Don't buy that disgusting presqueezed juice they sell in the store. It's such a waste. I mean, just squeeze a freaking lemon into a cup. It's not brain surgery. How wasteful and lazy have Americans gotten, anyway?

Chop the onions. As many as you would like. I really like onions, but I added too many. Hey, do any of you ever watch my favorite (okay, not really) show, Chopped? AKA Top Chef for Dummies? And there's that one judge who hates red onions with the white hot passion that people usually reserve for things like racial injustice and, say, Robin Williams. Whenever people put raw red onions in anything, he goes absolutely insane. It's hilarious.

Grate the cheese. There's really nothing to explain here. Just grate it.

Put all the ingredients into a big bowl along with a small amount of olive oil (I mean a tiny amount). Add salt and pepper to taste, and toss thoroughly.

Eat your salad.

Write navel gazing blog post about making a salad. Okay. You can skip that part.

Awesome picture of my grandmother, Mary Raship, in traditional Albanian garb.

*Hahaha! See what I did there? Get it?