Thursday, March 27, 2008

"I don't believe you, you're a liar."

We saw Kaki King in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall on Wednesday night. My fandom, while fervid, is pretty half-baked--I have only one of her albums, 2004's incredible Legs to Make Us Longer--but I was nevertheless excited to finally see her perform. I wanted to see her hands dance like their own animals up and down the neck of her guitar; I wanted to be fooled by her magic to confirm that it wasn't the studio's; I wanted to believe, as I had after seeing Crooked Fingers and Iron & Wine, that I could be as good as that. And for the first three minutes or so, they did; and I was; and I did. Then the band started up.

Kaki King is beautiful. Her hair is cut short now and her physique is slight. Like a lot of instrumental musicians, when she starts to play she seems simultaneously larger and smaller. (It's like watching anyone enjoy the promise of a serious relationship, in which certain behaviors are occluded but others are given ample room for exercise.) If she seems happy enough to be performing, she also seems indifferent to performative clichés. Her body is nearly completely still; her face is turned down and shadowed. The effect of this stillness and concavity is vespertine: in the darkness she creates we follow her fluttering hands to wherever we're supposed to go. While her right hand establishes the tempo of our journey, her left imagines and describes a world around us.

I can't help thinking that if Kaki King's band comprised three women instead of three--there's no better word here than "dudes"--the strange mystery of her music would remain intact. Women might better understand the spirit seething in the quietude she creates. Her band discovers this spirit but misunderstands its essential, numinal quality; for them it's a brain, not a soul, and thus can be transplanted to any clumsy, lumbering body. The drummer beats 4/4 time; the guy on keyboards hits a button and the arena synth from "Welcome to the Machine" swirls inconsequentially into the ether; the guitarist riffs dully but loudly above the fray--all of which is to say, "It's alive!" As if it were moribund, rather than simply nocturnal, to begin with. The guys have come over to the party with flashlights and liquor not to share a sacrament but to amplify and distort it. It's funny that electrification only tames this music: Kaki King is much more feral and frightening on her own. In the harsh glare of amps and drums, it turns out that the ritual of fire in the night is just another boozy party in the backyard; and the unsettling darkness beyond the reach of music and reason, well, that's just the far wall of the room you're in.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I realize I sound like a Dylan fan when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival, or blasted the audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall Concert. (His response to the accusation, "Judas!", provides the title for this post.) I know that all those guys who felt betrayed then look petty and recidivist now. I've laughed at them in documentaries. I'm excited about Kaki King's new album, which sounds great on her MySpace page. And I'm excited by artistic experiment. But that doesn't mean that I can't mourn the loss (or the transformation) of something I thought was wonderful and unique. Or that there really isn't something sinister about these three dudes crashing the party.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rubby Tuesday

I don't even know what that means.

Buddy at Brown tonight, perhaps for a discussion of one of Providence's native arts: corruption.

In Bruges at Cable Car.

The Band's Visit at the Avon. See Janusonis's tepid review here. He thinks it's too whimsical; Dr. Seuss's whimsy, however, is an asset in the hyperventilating Horton Hears a Who. Caramel comes next week; it looks like it'll taste good but make you feel bad a little later. Yeah, kinda like some sort of gooey, saccharine candy, I don't know which. Then, finally, the much-anticipated Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-Winning Film in a Foreign Language The Counterfeiters. I think.

AS220's flirtation with banjos ended last week. Tonight, after life-drawing, there's some free jazz. It sounds, in the best sense, like two instruments entangled in each other's half-nelson.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Brother from Another Mother

Villa Borghese is a Montreal-based '80s-influenced indie-pop band.
Give 'em a chance; their number one friend on MySpace is Henry Miller. (Yes, that Henry Miller. I didn't know he was on MySpace, either.) Plus, they write the kind of spry, hooky pop that makes you think on the second listen that you've known their stuff for years. It's a little Ben Gibbard-meets-Joe Jackson-meets-Cheap Trick, but there have surely been more horrible unions.

Molly and I are heading up to Montreal this spring so perhaps we'll see them while we're there.

Wednesday Art Notes

Brown University alum and Trinity Rep-certified playwright Sarah Ruhl is profiled in this week's New Yorker:
The turning point for Ruhl came in 1997, at a production of “Passion Play,” her first full-length work, which [Brown professor and playwright Paula] Vogel had arranged at Trinity Repertory Company, in Providence, Rhode Island. Kathleen [Ruhl, Sarah Ruhl's mother] drove herself and Sarah to the event. They had an accident, and Sarah was briefly knocked unconscious. Nonetheless, she managed to see her play. “At a visceral level, watching the play, I thought, This is it,” she said. “Some people stood. What whorish playwright wouldn’t be excited about that? It was momentous and strange.”
It's not like Alex Ross's profile of the Community MusicWorks (abstract here) but it's still pretty neat.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

As a condemnation of the meanness of everyday life in Romania under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, Cristian Mungui’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an extraordinary document. The film is certainly political—Gabriela, a timid college student in Bucharest, is pregnant and elects to have an abortion, even though the procedure is illegal and punishable by years in prison—but it is, even more, intensely personal, and it is as a personal record that the film will register with most viewers. The movie isn’t about Gabriela’s decision to have an abortion, and it isn’t even about the procedure itself; rather, it is about her roommate and friend, Otilia, who attends to Gabriela’s basic needs and absorbs, herself, the emotional blow of the process. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days doesn't describe the corruption of political life, but the elemental nature of our personal lives. Heated in the crucible of crisis, friendship is reduced to something hard, inarticulate, and ultimately inscrutable.

We first see Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu), known as Gabita, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in their college dormitory, where they are packing their bags as if for a weekend away. Gabita has the face and the initiative of a porcelain doll; she relies on Otilia to take care of even the simplest elements of their excursion. Otilia manages the cash that they plan on taking, discourages Gabita from bringing school notes for studying, makes last-second purchases from the dorm’s black markets, and feeds powdered milk to sibling kittens found in the boiler room. If Gabita is the ideal victim of the Communist state’s vitiating enterprise, Otilia is its nemesis. She has maintained the autonomy and humanity that have been indoctrinated right out of Gabita—though, to be fair, it’s easy to imagine surrendering one’s identity in a world as dyspeptic as that described by Oleg Mutu’s cinematography: all Spartan rooms and long dark corridors and flickering neon lights. When Otilia leaves the dorm to finalize the arrangements for their weekend, Gabita is back on the edge of her bed, wondering still if she should take her notes.

Gabita’s indifference to her life and plight extends even to the moment of the abortion, which takes place in a tawdry hotel room and is performed by the ironically named Mr. Bebe. Bebe explains that he needs to know how long she’s been pregnant, but Gabita is unable to give him a precise answer. She’s not just listless—she’s lifeless. Still, through her obfuscatory ignorance and naïveté, some cunning shines: her denial is so elliptical that we wonder if she really subscribes to her own deceptions, or if her only hope for survival is to play dead.

Bebe is one of the great characters of this year’s films: we sense that beneath his measured exterior is an animal aggression, but we don’t anticipate its sudden, violent release or its quiet withdrawal. (He calls to mind Daniel Plainview rather than Vera Drake.) Vlad Ivanov’s performance, like Vasiliu’s, is an exercise in ambiguity. Is Bebe Evil dressed in a cable sweater? Or is he, possibly, a corrupted, dissipated product of the totalitarian machine? If his etiolated disposition suggests the latter, his mercenary brutality confirms the former. There’s no excusing or rationalizing the payment he demands from Gabriela and Otilia, but there’s also no denying the care—it lacks the erotic charge of fetish—with which he prepares for and performs the abortion.

The rest of the movie charts Otilia’s exploration of unfamiliar emotional, and urban, terrain. Otilia leaves Gabita at the hotel room—she had told her boyfriend that she would attend his mother’s birthday party—and promises to come back as soon as she can. In a long, painful scene at the party, Otilia endures the frivolous chatter of professional doctors and housewives; the camera, trained on her face from a mid-distance, captures her impatience and anxiety as the conversation drifts from Easter eggs to the younger generation’s impertinence. The power of this scene is that, though it is about nothing, it tells us everything. Otilia is seated in the middle of all the guests, but her mind is still in the hotel room with Gabita. It’s as though her instinctive commitment to Gabita has nullified her contractual agreement with the rest of society. She has changed fundamentally; she returns to the hotel and Gabita through Bucharest’s dark streets not as the poised college student we saw earlier in the film but as something feral, or pre-lingual. Fittingly, the movie ends in silence. Otilia has discarded the fetus, and the Romanian night rages on. If Otilia is unsure of what the future holds, she knows that what Bebe told her when they first met is true: it’s too late to start over.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Janusonis On My Mind...

Here's Michael Janusonis on 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days, playing this week at the Avon.

Although 4 Months won the Cannes Festival’s highest award and is sometimes dramatically riveting, there also are too many moments when the film rambles. It’s very European. It takes a long time to get started. It’s well into the middle of the film before 4 Months begins to take hold. Director Cristian Mungiu often just sets up his widescreen camera and lets it run. No cutting between actors in a scene. Just long takes which sometimes seem to go on forever as the characters jabber back and forth. It’s like watching a play.

What's funny is that the very lines that Mr. Janusonis means most critically (snap!) are the ones that make me most excited to see the movie tonight. I love very European movies, especially if they're made in Europe where, let's be honest, all the very best European movies seem to come from these days. They just have a knack over there.

And I love scenes that just seem to go on forever and ever, and where the characters just jabber, jabber, jabber about almost nothing except that you're supposed to feel like something really important is being discussed, like the sort of thing that might be discussed in a play or maybe even in someone else's real life, and it looks like nothing is going to blow up and no one's crotch is going to be "accidentally" kicked by Queen Latifah the whole movie.

That was for you, Mr. Janusonis.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Saturday's Goings-On

If it's raining and miserable in Providence, it must be Saturday. Hang in there.

The Avon has Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (Saturday matinée at 12:30 and 5:00; evening shows at 7:15 and 9:35) and No Country for Old Men (this afternoon at 2:40 and again tonight at midnight).

AS220's indoor farmers' market is still kickin' it in the afternoons. Let the good times, rural and rough-edged, keep on going with a show of fiddlers, pluckers, and tremulous crooners at 9:pm.

It's your last chance to see the Trinity Consortium's Figaro. It's so good you should see it twice: at 2:pm and again at 8:.

Cable Car's website hasn't been updated recently, but the Phoenix has them showing The Trials of Henry Kissinger at 7:15 and The Pianist at 9:35 tonight and tomorrow.

The Black Rep is in its final weekend of The Bluest Eye.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Take a look at my review of Persepolis at; and while you're there, explore the rest of the site. There's some great stuff up right now.

Also, I'm embarrassed as hell. Chris Monti is on tonight at White Electric. You see, my wristwatch skipped right over February 29th so it's been a day ahead all week. Things like this happen, right? Well, they do when we lose or gain an hour in the fall and spring; losing a whole day and not adjusting until an entire week has passed is just ridiculous. Sorry to all.

Tonight at AS220: Callers. They really are terrific and their newish stuff on myspace sounds great.

Makaela Pollock's Figaro? Totally awesome. The review has been tough to write so it's not done yet but do yourself a favor, accept this crappy truncated review ("The show was fun and I had fun.") and go, Go, GO!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

More Relevance

I can't believe it. Days after I wrote about relevance on this site, the NYT has an article on Esquire's attempt to energize fiction by commissioning hybrid fiction/non-fiction pieces. The latest? An "account" of Heath Ledger's last days--as imagined, and written as if by Ledger in his diary, by Lisa Taddeo.

“It’s an earnest effort,” [chief editor David Granger] said, adding that the magazine has tried to tackle fiction using a nonfiction playbook before. “We’ve been trying to assign fiction,” he said, “to make it topical, relevant. To go to writers with a headline or an idea.”

The first project in this vein was published in October 2006 during the baseball playoffs and called “The Death of Derek Jeter,” an extended meditation on sports, celebrity and mortality written from the perspective of Mr. Jeter, the Yankees shortstop.

“We’ve been doing these things to try to make fiction as current and lively as we can,” Mr. Granger said, “to make it as urgent as nonfiction.”

In an early draft of my entry from Sunday, March 2nd, I had written about the American obsession with nonfiction. It seemed pompous to me, so I erased it and went with a shorter piece; now, of course, it seems prescient.

Fiction is, or can be, as "urgent as nonfiction." It doesn't need steroidal injections of "Reportage" to compete with books by Mark Bowden or Carl Woodward. Rather, nonfiction has to compete with the ideal narrative tropes of fiction. "Raj, Bohemian," Hari Kunru's short story in the March 10 New Yorker, is brilliant and suggestive: it hints at the re-saleability of our private lives (see Nue Propriété and Some Things Are Private) but is not a polemic against the menace of super-capitalism. (It reminds me of T. Coraghessan Boyle before he forgot plot and character; also of Paul Auster's existentialism, with hipster accoutrements replacing books as the buffer between us and the void.) It feels at once trenchant and utterly, wonderfully trivial; familiar and yet strangely foreign. David Granger wants to pasteurize the strange right out of fiction. It's as though very simple people, overpowered by Michael Chabon's or Ian Mcewan's or Kazuo Ishiguro's or Don DeLillo's gestures towards timeliness, determined that what makes these authors great is not their characters and their poetry but their relevance. Granger forgets, or doesn't care, that fiction commissioned as a mere genetic recapitulation of its time rarely outlives it.

For an example of competent imaginative reporting--reporting that acknowledges the lure and limits of imagination in the engineering of a piece of nonfiction--see New York's Heath Ledger article.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Wednesday's what-to-do


My next full post will be a review of the Brown/Trinity Consortium's Figaro, which I'm seeing tomorrow evening, so check back Friday afternoon. In the meantime:

Here's Channing Grey's vaporous recollection of the show. And here's a summary: "The show was fun and I had fun." There's nothing wrong with having fun with art, but there is something fundamentally dishonorable about such intellectual flaccidity. Critics honor the works they review with their rigor; they excite possible audiences by sounding a show's (or album's, or movie's, or book's) depths and suggesting ways to explore them. I would hate to see the world of art the way Channing Gray does: all hard surface, frozen and impenetrable.

Tonight at AS220: pop.

Chris Monti at White Electric tomorrow evening, 7:thirty. I've been stopping by much less frequently since Seven Stars opened up, but shows like this remind me that WE is involved with its neighborhood in a way that few other places are and it deserves its reputation and our support. Visit Monti's MySpace page: the music is dusty and transportive.

Monday, March 3, 2008

"41" at Cable Car

41, a documentary about Nicholas O'Neill, an 18-year-old who died in the Station nightclub fire on February 20, 2003, will be showing tonight at the Cable Car at 9:30. It's the beginning of an open engagement and the first step of a national release process.

Believe it or not, Michael Janusonis's preview isn't dumb.

The YouTube trailer looks incredible but I don't think I have the toughness to watch the whole movie. Best of luck to co-directors Christian de Rezendes and Christian O'Neill (Nicholas's older brother).

Hollywood, RI

A great article in the ProJo on the state's tax credits for film, tv, and commercial productions.

The issue at stake is whether tax credits extended to film and TV production companies really are good for RI. The article challenges the assumption that these credits encourage enough spending within the state to justify them. (The article also takes some shots at the quality of the films being made here: the Wesley Snipes/Cybill Shepherd vehicle Hard Luck went straight to video, Katherine Gregg writes, and Hard Luck Productions has since dissolved.) The problem is that much of the production cost of the films, TV shows, and commercials filmed in RI has been spent outside of RI.

New England states are so small--Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have a combined population of about 14.5 million people and just one city with over half a million people--that one wonders if each state alone has the resources to fulfill a major production company's needs. Perhaps a NE revenue-sharing agreement would be a good idea.

All this talk really makes me want to see Underdog.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

On Relevance

Wow. Here's Lou Diamond Phillips on Camelot, now playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC).

“People say King Arthur, how does that apply to anything that’s happening today?” said Phillips. “But we are on the verge of an election. We are going to pick a new leader. And Arthur created the Round Table to bring peace to the land and bring about a better society.

“There is so much in the play that speaks to that. Audiences have heard it and responded. We stop the show on occasion with applause based on some of the things Arthur has to say.”

Measuring relevance must be about the least interesting or useful way to consider a work of art--especially in terms as bizarre and incongruous as [Diamond] Phillips's, or as glabrous as the estimable Channing Gray's.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Trinity Consortium's Figaro on Thursday. I hope it's utterly irrelevant.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That

Another low-skied Saturday. How will you spend it?


Okay, then:

Trinity Rep's Richard III is closing tomorrow;

Trinity's Some Things Are Private continues this weekend;

The Black Rep's The Bluest Eye is on through next weekend, but is sold out tonight;

Makaela Pollock's Queen-infused Figaro at the Pell Chafee Theater has gotten great word-of-mouth--it's on every day through March 8th;

a great-looking pre-War folk-country show at AS220--so gitchyer greens and beans in the afternoon, and stick round w/ six sweaty 1's in yer hand for the show at 9:0'clock;

The Avon is showing In Bruges and has brought back Once;

and the Cable Car is still hosting the French Film Festival. It's the last weekend. Go!