Friday, August 27, 2004

Funny! Danger! Funny! Danger! 

I just learned that Sarah Silverman is coming back to town. I also learned that she's in production on a film version of her unbelievable show, "Jesus is Magic". Zoinks! This is a movie that will never been be shown in Peoria.

Sarah Silverman is probably the most dangerous comedian I have ever seen. People talk about "edgy comedy" and then discuss Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Now don't get me wrong. I like Robert Smigel's work a lot. I think Triumph is pretty funny. I also think "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" is great. And I think his "Fun with Real Audio" is creative. BUT if it's on network or non-pay cable TV, how edgy can it really be?

Case in point: Sascha Baron Cohen is probably one of the most subversive comedians around at this point and his outlet is HBO. I think what's dangerous about SBC is how he can sometimes get people to agree so easily with his offensive views. And also, how the presence of a camera and the promise of being on TV can make people either proffer or support completely silly views.

But Sarah Silverman is in a completely different class. She's something like a combination of Lenny Bruce, Steven Wright and Sascha Baron Cohen. Did I mention that she works blue? Not boring, uncreative, "shock jock", Andrew Dice Clay blue. Silverman's in her own class of deeply peculiar blue. I found her last show to be an emotional roller coaster of laughing and being so shocked I forgot to breathe for whole minutes at a time.

I don't want to give away too much about her work though. I'll just say that she's at Ars Nova for three nights coming up in September. I dare you to go!
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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Peculiar Practice of Grading Cities 

Recently, when people have asked me about the raison d'etre of this blog, I've explained that it serves three important functions (for me).

  1. I wanted to have a motivation to begin writing something outside of my corporate writing duties.
  2. I have a compulsive habit of categorizing related items (look around) and I wanted to find a home for those lists.
  3. And finally, I'm a relentless evangelizer and promoter of the things that I enjoy and as a result people often ask me for recommendations about a range of needs, e.g., restaurants, films, plays, art, books, shopping resources, etc. This site serves as an archive of those highly personal preferences (see subtitle above).

Over dinner last week, the topic turned to my enjoyment of the city of London and the question of whether or not I had ever considered living there. I stated my belief that London is an "A" city and said that I'd very much like the opportunity to live in other A cities. Which lead naturally to the question of what are the grades and which cities qualify as what grades?Here is the basic framework of my system for all who wish to quarrel about it:

What is not included in my framework:

With that framework as a caveat...here we go:

A Cities
A cities are inexhaustable. You can never have "seen it all" or done it all. You may have hit some major sites and wiped yourself out. But there's more, more, more to do and it's growing and changing all the time.

A- Cities
These are so close to being an A, but they are smaller in some crucial element of scale. Fewer great cultural institutions, not quite the same vibrancy in culinary offerings, and/or perhaps terribly inclement weather.

B+ Cities
These are cities that often earn lots of kudos for "livability" and raising a family. But with the distraction of a family or a university life, you may not be noticing that fewer globally important movements are likely to emanate from this location on a regular basis.

B Cities
Smaller and smaller we go. These are the cities with a single solid performing institution in any one category (e.g., the Guthrie, Trinity Rep), and a single solid museum (e.g., The Walker). They're a lovely visit. A great place for a few years if you're single. But if your inner life is focused on using your environment to grow yourself, there are limitations here.

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Monday, August 23, 2004

Go See Lee! 

K and I had a fabulous weekend. One of the highlights was a trip out to MOMA QNS to see the Lee Bontecou and Tall Buildings exhibits.

There was a terrific New Yorker article about Lee Bontecou a few months ago by Calvin Tomkins called "Missing in Action" which told the story of how Bontecou made a splash in the 60's with work that blended sculpture and painting in astonishing ways and sometimes frightening ways, she then "disappeared" from the art scene. Of course, disappearing from the perspective of the art world meant that she stopped showing and didn't do interviews. But Bontecou continued to teach at Brooklyn College (how hard to find could she have been?) and to create at her homestead in Pennsylvania.

An illness made her realize that she didn't want to burden her family with 30 years of undisplayed work. Her health combined with the persistence of an LA curator pushed Bontecou to agree to a retrospective. And thank goodness she did.

The early work reminded me in some ways of H.R. Giger and Moebius, although much more organic and far less literal. Bontecou's 60's pieces enter you and affect you in a wordless, visceral way. Some of them she refers to in interviews as "old enemies" and you can feel in your bones why she might say that. Some of them feel like altar pieces for ancient, bloodthirsty gods. Again, this is not a literal image. You're looking at painted canvas and wire and occasionally a zipper or a snap on the canvas.

As the years go by, Bontecou plays with different media. There are lots of sketches in between that give a sense of what she's working towards in each era. I don't want to give away the whole show, so I'll simply skip to the end and say that by the end, she's working in sculptural mobiles and the mood has turned to hope and an an awareness of the fragility of beauty and of grace. K was so moved by a simple drawing from this era that she cried on the spot. (Listen to another stunned person in this Studio360 clip.)

None of these images do the creativity of Lee Bontecou justice. The work must be experienced. Go.
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Monday, August 16, 2004

5 Questions from The Squipper 

The Squipper, know to me as CindyC (Prince's The Black Album reference, anyone?) emailed me 5 Questions to respond to on my site. On the one hand, I never really intended this site to be overly revealing in terms of my offline life. On the other hand, I do like a challenge.

Here ya go, Squipper!

1. Name the one thing that aggravates you most about other people.

A wiser person than I told me that the thing that aggravates you most about someone else is the thing you most dislike in yourself.

I think that what aggravates me most about other people is probably three things, which are sometimes expressed in concert: a) not being honest, b) not being sensitive to other's feelings and c) wielding power arbitrarily.

What this says about me I'm certainly open to hearing.

2. You've got a free, roundtrip plane ticket to visit anyplace in the world. Where would you go?

I've been obsessing about Australia/New Zealand for a few years now. I can't explain why. It's just been on my mind. There are a lot of other places that I'd like to go as well, but there's not doubt that the antipodes have been singing me a siren song for quite some time.

3. Tell us about the best day in your life (so far, that is.)

I have a pretty plebian answer: my wedding day was awesome. We ripped the ceremony format off from a gay wedding we attended. It included speeches from all of our parents and siblings, performances from talented friends, candle lighting, ceremonial eating of cherry tomatoes, and readings from the dictionary (the definitions of love, family and commitment). Our Turkish folkdancer brother-in-law choreographed a line dance as our first dance so that everyone could join in and the band played jazz and klezmer as the guests circulated to fantastic food stations featuring Vietnamese, Italian and other ethnic foods. Really, what more could you ask for?

4. What country music song would best describe you?

"Miss Chatelaine"

5. Fill in the blank: In a perfect world, I'd be _______________________.

....the owner of an art gallery and a part-time Alexander Technique teacher.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Midtown Vietnamese Find: Bôi 

Last week, I noticed a yellow flag waving at me from 44th Street as I walked up Second Avenue. I said to my companion, "Hmm. I never noticed that there's a Vietnamese restaurant in our neighborhood." (Meaning my work neighborhood.)

I quickly resolved to return there and try it out. And I'm very glad I did. I started my meal with the bô cha gio: crispy packets stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, pork, Shiitake mushroom and jicama, with a carrot-lime dipping sauce. Yum. It was full of wonderfully subtle flavors. I have since learned that clear, crisp and subtle flavors seem to be the hallmark of the Bôi experience.

For a main course, I had the five-spiced pork chop. This is normally pretty standard fare for a Vietnamese menu, but here it is extraordinarily well executed. First of all, they divide the greens, the pork and the sauce. In many places, they pork is dropped on the greens and the sauce is indiscriminately poured about. Separating the elements allows the diner to experience each individually and then combine them in pleasing proportions at will. The pork was nice, juicy and firm without being tough. The greens were spring-water fresh and bright. The sauce was sweet without being cloying nor, as occasionaly happens, too vinegary.

I was unable to make it to the dessert course on this first visit.

My second (birthday!) visit, I began with a soup with jumbo shrimp in tamarind broth, with tomatoes, okra, and lotus. Every individual flavor was able to be tasted in this concoction. So wonderfully distinct. You could tell that the vegetables hadn't been soaking in the broth forever, but rather added at exactly the right moment - just so.

The main course this time was the banh chay: a half-moon vegetable pancake with tofu, Enoki mushrooms, jicama, bean sprouts, napa, with a sesame-peanut dipping sauce. I've had this dish before at the wonderful SF dive Tu Lan on 6th Street off of Market. Where the Tu Lan version is runny egg-y and the elements are all cooked into a single item in the half-moon pancake, the Bôi version once again has separated the elements. The pancakes are folded around the elements as with a soft taco. Once again the flavors are lovely. Although this was a bit too large a dish, even for me.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on to the dessert course. And boy (no pun intended) am I glad I did. Sweet basil seed tapioca with pomegranate molasses, mango chutney and garnished with a touch of toasted coconut. OMFG.

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Monday, August 09, 2004

Unsung Children's Film Festival (for Adults) 

There are so many children's movies that serve that audience well, such as The Lion King, et. al. There are also children's movies that please an adult audience at the same time such as the Pixar hegemony of Toy Story I & II, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, etc.

There is another category of children's film, however, which serves both audiences extremely well but does not necessarily find mainstream success. These films are "unsung", if you will and I am going to sing them here.

The Iron Giant
This was based on one of the most unlikely sources ever, a children's book by Ted Hughes, aka Mr. Sylvia Plath. Now given their famously stormy relationship and Sylvia's gas-tly end, one might not naturally associate the name "Hughes" and "children's books". Nonetheless, Ted Hughes crafted a terrific Cold War cautionary tale - relevant once again - about a boy who finds a giant robot from outer space which is suffering from amnesia. It does not remember that it is a weapon.

The animation in this film is terrific, not at all the CGI glitz-fest of recent memory and it admirably suits the tone of the storytelling. Lots of unexpected voice actors including Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., John Mahoney. Not to mention that it also contains by far the best performance EVER given by Vin Diesel. I know that doesn't give us much to go on, but trust me as a giant amnesiac robot, Vin Diesel acquits himself brilliantly.

[Tangent: OK. So after you see it, go buy yourself one of these Iron Giants on eBay. I did. And, although she didn't mean it, it's kind of Meg's fault. She doesn't even know me, nor what happened because of her, but now I'm coming clean. So years ago, Charles Warren told me to read an article about Pyra and Blogger in The New Yorker. He knew this chick Meg and she'd started it all. So I went and started reading Meg's site. She had a webcam in those days. And in the back of a bunch of pix was this Ultimate Iron Giant toy.

This image unleashed something locked away in me since childhood. My first love (as far as I can recall) was a cartoon called Gigantor. I now know that this was a Japanese import, although at the time all I knew was that this boy had a relationship with a giant robot which served the general good and was in all ways heroic. Seeing the Ultimate Iron Giant let loose my first eBay-abetted obsession. I used a technique called "coverage" in the commercial industry. When you're propping the set of a commercial and you need say an umbrella, you buy every single umbrella that looks remotely right and then bring them to the director. S/he chooses one and you run off to return the rest. So I went on a "coverage" shopping spree on eBay. Only I didn't return any of them. And so began a rather peculiar collection that has ballooned to include a bunch of rekindled childhood obsessions, including a Gigantor and the rocket from Destination Moon.]

James and the Giant Peach
Henry Selick directed this pitch perfect Roald Dahl adaptation. It features a terrific cast of actors and voice actors. While I'm touting this as a children's film that's great for adults, I might have to own up to the fact that the film makes the unusual choice of moving between live action and stop motion animation, which requires something special of the audience in order to stay with the film. And perhaps children can make that transition more easily than adults. Nonetheless, if you can stay with the film, it's as quirky as only (unexpurgated) Dahl can be.

Lilo & Stitch
How the heck did this film ever get released by Disney? It's got hardly any songs, it's got a completely dysfunctional broken-home family, a kid obsessed with Elvis, and the most bizarre "adorable alien" character ever.

Apparently the inspiration for the film was the question, "What if ET was destructive?". As a result, it has similar plot elements to The Iron Giant in that Stitch was created as the ultimate weapon and during his time on earth finds a more peaceful identity. Beyond that, it's one freakin' oddball movie! It's packed with offbeat Star Wars, Star Trek, and ET references that its target audience won't get - and which only the *geekiest* of mainstream parents would get.

Somehow, this melange of components ends up delivering an hilarious and touching movie. I defy you not to come unhinged when Stitch learns to play records with his fingernail.

A Little Princess
Long before he made the best Harry Potter film, Alfonso Cuaron's first English language film was based on another children's classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett and featured a terrific script by Richard LaGravenese. Somehow this film seems to have escaped the attention of both critics and audiences, and what a shame that is. A tale of a father and daughter separated by war, it is by turns heartbreaking, funny and moving.

(Tangent: When will child actor Liesl Matthews re-emerge as the new Anna Paquin? She more or less disappeared after making this film and is reportedly at Columbia (where Paquin matriculated as well. I wonder if they're friends?)

A lost Danny DeVito film, very much in the same twisted sensibility of "Throw Mama from the Train" and "The War of the Roses" and hence, a very odd children's film. People get regularly defenestrated by the mean teacher and the nice teacher is continually abused until the final plot reversal that makes the world right again. But given the Dahl source material, how surprising is that? Dahl was a very dark writer indeed. And this film reflects that sensibility quite well.

I must also confess to having a horrible crush on Embeth Davidtz.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2004

KLH Pushes Airwaves Through My Soul 

So somehow, JM's comment on the Plato's cave post made me think about something quite divergent. I went from thinking about the power of education to transformative experiences where one doesn't expect them. And from there I went to the remarkable experiences I've had listening to radio over the last few years. And from there I went to, "Why do I listen to the radio at all?" And that brings us to the story of the KLH.

Growing up, my parents had a KLH Model Twenty One table radio in the kitchen. As my mother cooked dinner, she would listen to our local NPR station, usually All Things Considered. I didn't know what she was listening to at the time, I just knew the theme song; and that only in the deep recesses of my unconscious mind. For years, that Model Twenty One and a Model Eight which I got for my bedroom when my brother went to college, were my internal references for the word "radio". Radio meant a KLH, either a Model Eight or a Model Twenty One. It was, to return to an earlier theme, the platonic ideal of the word radio for me.

Years later, I began to spend time with a woman with whom I'd been friends for a year or so and a number of coincidences brought me to Rhode Island, where her parents live. We had a running joke about how similar we were and how often we said the same thing at the same time, as if we were twins. When I went to her parents house for the first time, I entered the house via the kitchen door and suddenly blurted out, "Hey! Your parents have the radio!" There, on their kitchen counter was a Model Twenty One. More or less in the same position which our KLH occupied in my parent's kitchen. This was clearly a sign.

Now we are married. We have our own home. An apartment. And on our kitchen counter sits my mother's Model Twenty One. As we cook dinner, we listen to NPR. Over the years, we have discovered the other NPR programming. A lot of it is stuff that didn't exist when our parents listened - and cooked. And some of what we have heard is astonishing, educating, and potentially, if you're in a receptive mood (pun intended), transformative work. Below are some great shows we've enjoyed over the years on our KLH.

The Age of Enchantment
The remarkable story of a father, Laurence Weschler (who happens to have written one of my favorite books) and his daughter. It details the lengths a parent may go to entertain a child in their world of imagination. and how that can go horribly awry. Weschler decided to humor his daughter by writing letters from "The Borrowers" and it just went too far. Father and daughter are unbelievably poised as they share the story of their folie au deux. A strange and strangely moving tale.

Hamletin Prison
A reporter goes to a prison in the Midwest where real murderers and rapists perform Act V of Hamlet. Wonderful developments occur as they explore the play. The actor playing Hamlet's ghost feels the ghost of the man he killed present as he speaks his lines. The actor playing Horatio develops a fascinating view of the play and explains cogently why "Hamlet is a chump". And the actor playing Laertes discovers that he is, in fact, an actor.

The Langley School Music Project
It's the 70's and a creative music teacher in Canada taps into the tangled souls of his students as he teaches them. The recording of their work survives today as what might be called outsider art. It is awful, beautiful, peculiar and heartfelt. Don't miss the version of The Eagles' "Desperado" and the haunting interview with the woman who sang it solo as a very young girl.

Santa Claus vs. the Easter Bunny
The incomparable David Sedaris shares his experiences mangling French along with other students while living in France. It all goes wrong as they try to explain Easter to a Morrocan woman in class with the defenseless French language as their only weapon. You will never view the word "morsel" in the same way again.

Squirrel Cop
In a fabulous episode of TAL devoted to first jobs, a cop regales us with the story of how trying to impress a young wife by capturing the squirrel in her house only led to despair, destruction and embarassment beyond belief. Hysterical and absolutely not to be missed!

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