Monday, February 26, 2007

The Calder Quartet at Zipper Hall

When I heard that The Calder Quartet was playing Zipper Hall on Friday night for ten bucks, I jumped at the chance to get tickets for JW and me. We had a nice experience of hearing them as part of the UCLALive series a year or two ago, and we've always intended to go to the Zipper (part of the Colburn School, which is downtown, across from Disney Hall), and JW's enthusiasm about the concert (quote from his email regarding the event: "We have to get tickets to that - I love the Shostakovich No. 15!") proved that this was the right time to check it out.

The hall's lovely, as I imagined it would be, and at 10 bucks a seat (5 for students), the evening was so college. It was delightful. Music students are especially entertaining, whether they're the thrift-store hounds rocking out on the second row to the Ades po-mo dabblings, or the 90-pound weakling sitting next to us and reading a J.M. Coetzee novel during the intermission. That guy was so thin there was room for us to get past both his legs AND his viola case. Bless him.

In short, the concert was varied, with a great mix of intense and dark (Shostakovich, naturally), young, adventurous and egg-heady (Ades' Arcadiana, naturally), and Beethoven. He needs no adjectives, does he? I loved the first two pieces, but I walked out humming the last one (Quartet Op. 59, No. 2 -- I swear I've heard it before, but I have no idea where). It was a great way to finish a lovely, affordable, classy night of music!

Suzan-Lori Parks at Skylight Books in Los Feliz

In case anyone's interested, SLP will be in conversation with Jessica Kubzanski, Co-Artistic Director of the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, at 7:30 on Thursday, March 15. Unfortunately I can't be there, as I have my writer's group that day, but if anybody wants to take my copy of 365 Days/365 Plays to get signed, I'll give you a dollar.

Kidding. I'm sure it will be interesting, though. Skylight's a great independent bookstore, too. Check it out. Details are here.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Kele Okereke is (almost) my hero

Bloc Party just released A Weekend in the City, its follow-up to its strong and successful debut, Silent Alarm. The new album is the 2nd album I've been looking for...a deeper, more mature punky album from an "it" band who released a promising debut in a decade of pop music full of promising debuts and disappointing sophomore output. Their lead singer, Kele Okereke, seems to have progressed as a lyricist on this album too, with a sometimes-wounded, sometimes-outraged, sometimes-giddy candor that is loose, unpredictable, and often inspired.

I've been waiting for interest in a band to pay off, and I'm thrilled that it's happened with Bloc Party, although I'm not terribly surprised, either. Silent Alarm has stayed on regular rotation in my car since I first bought it, unlike most of the other next-big-things that have passed through my CD collection. This is true in part because of the wild energy of the music, of course, but there's also an earnestness about the songwriting that seems to distinguish Bloc Party from their peers. Bands like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand, all style and clever pandering, or Interpol, with their willful obtuseness, start to feel empty after a while, but Bloc Party has that young, impassioned urgency that lingers a lot longer.

Weekend in the City is more varied in sound and tone and more direct than Silent Alarm. Its directness is not just in its discontent with modern, apathetic, commercial culture [see Vinyl Edition's review here (welcome back VE!)], but in its depiction of gay heartbreak and the often cruel superficiality of "youth" (read gay) culture as well. I have to say I had a sneaking suspicion about Okereke ever since he quoted a lyric from West Side Story in the final refrain of Silent Alarm's "Positive Tension" ("Play it cool boy!" -- you have to admit, for a young rock band, it's not the butchest reference), but for the band to release an album like this as its 2nd CD, especially after a hit album that might've dabbled in seriousness but only just enough to tap into a baseline teen angst...it shows impressive confidence.

Just take these lyrics from A Weekend in the City:

From "Uniform:" (a good song with a terrible first/last line -- "There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall." We'll forgive him for that one.)

Because we are so handsome and we are so bored
So entertain us, tell me a joke
Make it long, make it last forever
Make it cruel just make me laugh
We can't be hurt
From "Kreuzberg:"

After sex the bitter taste
Been fooled again, the search continues
Concerned mothers of the west
Teach your sons, how to truly love
The songs on this album remind me of another sophomore album...Rufus Wainwright's Poses, about which Rolling Stone critic Ben Ratliff said the following:

Great pop albums are successful evocations of a type of life; it must be a life lived by more than one person, but it doesn't matter if it's a small handful (the circle of trannies and drug connections described by Lou Reed's Transformer) or thousands (the post-hippie women who understood Joni Mitchell's Blue on the deepest frequencies). Poses achieves this for the life of the Chelsea Boy: the young, gay, narcissistic achiever in New York. But the Chelsea Boy is only a magnified version of practically every kid new to a big city who's got a job and an apartment and worries about weekend plans: The Chelsea Boy just has sharper clothes, higher standards of beauty and a better tradition of mordant humor to console himself with.
Weekend in the City has that kind of prescience and specificity, and in fact every intention of being evocative in just that way; as Craig McLean notes while interviewing Okereke in The Guardian:
A Weekend in the City is [Okereke's] unflinchingly honest depiction of a world of drugs, racism, religion, suicide, gay sex, violence, youth in hoodies and white vigilantes. This is London, it says, and this is now. The record doesn't presume to have all the answers; it is as confused and confusing as life is for young people.
It also has a lot of brooding and an exasperated moralism that give it a weightiness our tweaked-out young Rufus the aesthete might not have felt the need to bother with.

Let's face it, though, listening to a 25-year-old major recording artist complain about mindless consumerism can be a bit tiresome, even if there's unapologetic homo-heartbreak to provide a counterpoint. This is why the euphoric refrains that pepper the album are so welcome. Here we feel the highs of young London and young people (drug-addled or no), as in Okereke's soaring vocals in "On" (You make my tongue loose / I am hopeful and stutter-free) and the simple, repeated refrain of "Waiting for the 7.18" ("Let's drive to Brighton on the weekend").

Why is Okereke only "almost" my hero, you may ask? Here's why: you might have read all the music blogs and magazines that have talked about Okereke "coming out." But he doesn't. Read the Guardian article. He kinda comes out...kinda...as a bisexual. Kinda. Just before ducking out of the interview to answer his cell phone. Oh well....

And accordingly, for all his claims of honesty on Weekend in the City, he's still holding back. You can feel it, especially in the heartsick songs. Just like he finally holds back in that Guardian interview, even after all his talk about not hiding behind abstraction. Maybe he's wise to be protective, and I know we all have our own journeys and whatnot, but even if he's got more politics than our tweaked-out aesthete Rufus, don't expect him to be brave enough to sing a "One Man Guy*" anytime soon...much less a "Gay Messiah."

Then again, who knows? Maybe they'll turn up on Bloc Party's 3rd album. Or Kele's solo debut. In the meantime, I'm not anticipating taking Weekend in the City out of my car stereo in the immediate future.



*And yes, I know "One Man Guy" is Loudon's song and it's about being a loner, but the double-meaning when Rufus sings is impossible to ignore. Be quiet, Brandy.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

One of my favorite playwrights

has moved to New York and is trying out his stand-up material at open mic nights all over the city. Check out Matt Brown's blog here!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Breach and the impossibility of knowing

How pretentious is that post title? Love it.

I saw a screening of Breach a week or two ago with my friend Glenn. It manages to do a tricky thing, which is to convince me that the focus of the script, double-agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), is brilliant and a master at reading people, and also convince me that Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe) a young FBI guy, could pull one over on him.

All of this is rooted in a rather smart treatment of Hanssen's many paradoxes. We know he's a "sexual deviant" and he sells secrets to the Russians, all while being an almost creepily devout Catholic. And yet, even with explanations of his overbearing father, we don't get easy answers to his psychology. I had a fun time with the movie because I found myself asking the question, "Why is this guy doing this?" long before I realized that a)they definitely expected me to ask that question, and b) they had no intention of answering it.

Eventually I appreciated the fact that the movie didn't have an answer either, and that they were investigating the "why" as much as I was. It's an impressive feat of characterization, in that there's a clear organization of how Hanssen operates, what his weaknesses are, and how he's able to be manipulated by one who's younger and less experienced than he is, but there is no attempt to supply a simplistic excuse for his misbehavior. We may learn certain triggers, we may learn certain internal conflicts, but we don't get an explanation.

Well, we almost get an explanation, in a closing scene that almost disappointed me, but I'll let you discover all that for yourselves.

I'm usually far more intrigued by movies that have the confidence to present a character with a fair amount of mystery around his or her actions. One of my favorite examples of this is The Piano Teacher, which is also a great example of the whole "film as voyeurism" idea. Don't get me wrong; Breach is nothing like that disturbing French character study -- it is, at it's heart a conventional studio spy-thriller, albeit a muted one -- but its own character study is not too far removed in my mind from The Piano Teacher's greatest pleasure: it's depiction of a character as a collection of actions to which we as an audience must supply connection, meaning, contradiction, characterization.

Not long after I saw The Piano Teacher, I also saw Secretary, which is a conventional love story pretending to be an edgy indie movie (a quality about that film that I both love and find somewhat boring), and I remember wondering how the movie would've worked if the filmmakers had skipped all that psychological set-up in the beginning of the movie with Maggie Gyllenhall having daddy issues and cutting herself. Would it have been a more challenging film? Is the Freudianism of the opening scene really an adequate explanation? She's into S&M and she's found a man who is too. Happily ever after. End of story. What does it really matter that she has daddy issues and cuts herself?

Which brings me back to Breach, a film that seems finally to be as much about our need to understand, as dramatized through its characterization of O'Neill. He's our P.O.V. character, and although the audience never fully becomes seduced by Hanssen in the way O'Neill initially does (it's an impossibility, really, considering the historical context and the opening of the film with the press conference announcing his capture), we appreciate why he might. The near incomprehensibility of this man's contradictions could easily make his character want to hope for the best.

Just to digress, it's one of the things that baffles me so about Ted Haggard, honestly. People are so quick to dismiss him as some kind of closeted baffoon, either completely and ridiculously hopeless and pathetic, or a career hypocrite desperate to save face. He may be both of those things, or neither. I don't get him at all, I have to say. Maybe I just have sympathy for those with heavy religious baggage; maybe I just find it more comforting to accept impossibly conflicted than horribly conniving. The only thing I can finally determine is that he's a sad, sad man.

Just like Robert Hanssen. David Denby writes the following in his mostly negative review of Breach:
“[T]he unexciting look and feel of the movie wouldn’t have bothered me if the filmmakers had penetrated Hanssen’s skull a little.... Hanssen must have relished the sheer pleasure of violation and control. But how does this temperamental quirk link up with his religious obsessions? In the movie, we see him confessing to his priest again and again. But what, exactly, did he confess?
He seems to have missed the point entirely. I'll admit that I've seen tenser thrillers -- go see Children of Men if you want smart, edge-of-your-seat action -- but Breach is compelling precisely because it refuses to pretend it could crawl into the head of an enigma, and in doing so, it ends up telling us more about the complexity of the human animal.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

John Rechy defends Los Angeles theater

Last week Kathleen Turner was interviewed in the LATimes about her role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which has just opened at the Ahmanson here in town. She said some less than thoughtful things about L.A. theater in general, and who comes to the rescue but pioneering novelist John Rechy, who has a letter in today's Calendar section:

KATHLEEN TURNER claims she's "never really seen an extraordinary piece of theater" in Los Angeles and hopes that L.A. audiences will finally be able to "see the quality of what theater can be" when she, incidentally, appears in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Ahmanson Theatre ["No Fear in the Face of 'Woolf' " Feb. 4]. She isn't satisfied with the site of the production either, describing the celebrated theater as being "like an airplane hangar or something."

Dear Ms. Turner, I and many others in Los Angeles know "what theater can be" from experiencing extraordinary manifestations of it year after year in our city (productions that have gone on to become long-running Broadway hits). I, for one, shall decline your grandiose — and insulting — invitation to see what you fatuously claim is your contribution to "quality" in our city.
Rechy's one of my favorite letter-writers -- he even has a link to some of his letters on his website (check the hyperlink above).

For example, a couple of years ago I got steamed because Terrance McNally contributed to a LATimes Calendar piece from playwrights commenting on the legacy of Tennessee Williams and McNally called Williams' plays "too girly" for him. There is a play in the western canon that is "too girly" for TERRANCE MCNALLY? Who pointed out the absurdity of such a claim in the following week's Calendar section? You guessed it. I cut Rechy's letter out and have it tacked up in my cubicle at work.

Take that Kathleen!

Oh, and see you March 10! I'll be in the first row of the mezzanine!

Friday, February 09, 2007

UMA

One of my favorite bloggers has asked me to vandalize for his friend Uma, who's in the hospital. Check his site for details. I'm vandalizing my blog for her.

UMA umauma

UMA!

Get well soon!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Just saw Volver

and it's so satisfying to be surprised by a movie. And to fall madly in love with its lead actress, whom you've seen in several films before and whom you've always thought was merely servicible, a pretty face, and whom you are absolutely thrilled has proved you wrong with her striking, strong presence and undeniable self-possession, not to mention her great windblown hair and heavy eye make-up. And to feel comfortable in the hands of a master filmmaker, one whose eccentricities and rough edges you've either adored or found trying in the past, but who can turn a Hitchcockian thriller into a women's picture with neither a hint of effort nor maudlin in the melodrama. And to engage in an intelligent script, one that, aside from its occasional clumsy bit of exposition or unfortunate-yet-forgivable Chinatown parallel, is literate, moving, and rich with contemplation about aging, death, and forgiveness.

Viva Pedro! Viva Penelope! Viva Volver!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I just updated my MySpace profile

with the following:

Initially on my MySpace profile, I found the question about sexual orientation a bit forward and didn't respond. Then I felt closety, which made me feel a need to declare. Then I declared via their little question field and almost immediately I began to get pictures of scrawny naked guys all over my homepage everytime I logged on, making me think that field must be linked to some ad generator or other such geekery I'm not computer savvy enough to understand.

So just so you know...I'm gay. And I will NOT be reduced to a marketing demographic!
Of course, the very fact that I have a MySpace profile might contradict that last statement, but hey, we gotta keep up with the times somehow, right?

Interesting article about lesbian playwrights

I found this article from After Ellen on one of my many theater listservs. Here's a thoughtful excerpt:

Theater is one of the few places that continues to honor the oral tradition of storytelling, [Carolyn] Gage [author of The Second Coming of Joan of Arc] pointed out, and that power should not be relinquished to corporate interests. Ownership is important when it comes to the narratives and stories of a community or culture.

In fact, said Kathleen Warnock (Grieving for Genevieve), theater is largely concerned with representation: “It's the art that speaks to people who frequently don't find realistic depictions of themselves or their interests in the mainstream entertainment industry.”