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Friday, October 31, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2008 at 8:28 AM

As usual with August Wilson, his Radio Golf offers more than can be adequately digested in a formal review, let alone a humble blog entry. The play, the 1990s piece of Wilson's monumental 20th Century Cycle, depicts ambitious Harmond Wilks' attempt to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. (The show runs through Sat., Nov. 2.)

The fine production, directed by Ron OJ Parson, includes obvious coincidental foreshadowings of current presidential campaign. ("They don't mind us playing their game," one character warns Wilks. "They just don't want you outplaying them.") But Wilson's poetic flow and earthy humor notwithstanding, what interests me most is his argument -- perhaps the cycle's key theme -- about community.

Wilks, following in his father's real-estate footsteps, is a child of privilege. (Indeed, I think this is Wilson's lone depiction of yupwardly mobile blacks.) The titular sport is Wilson's dubious symbol of African-American social striving. And Wilks is faced with a stark choice: Proceed with the redevelopment plan that could secure him the mayoralty, or save the mythic house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, the playwright's very symbol of black heritage? Listen to his business partner and wife/campaign-manager on one side -- or to the street voices on the other? Harm or Harmony?

The multifaceted discussion of community is fascinating. Handyman Sterling Johnson argues that Wilks can't "bring back" the Hill, because it's dead; he can only replace it. Wilks and his money-hungry partner, Roosevelt Hicks, meanwhile, eagerly await the "blighted" designation of "their" neighborhood that will earn their project federal funding. ("I told you blight would come through," says Harmon, and they celebrate giddily.) And Johnson and Wilson's octogenarian voice of the past, Elder Joseph Barlow, insist on the building's innate value. (It was the home of the Cycle's iconic Aunt Esther.)

Wilson offers no easy answers. But as I watched the play, Wilks' repeated insistence on following the rule of law tickled something in my mind. Then Johnson decided to fight money, power and progress. When Wilks ultimately did, too -- to abandon the rules -- I couldn't help recalling Gem of the Ocean, the second-to-last play Wilson wrote. (Golf was the last.) Gem, too, made a case for rebellion, even anarchy (there, sabotaging a steel mill; here, defying bulldozers). Wilson died in 2005; his final messages about community sound pretty radical.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Oct 30, 2008 at 5:57 PM

I have made a thousand promises that I will not do that tedious thing of comparing ABC's Americanized version of Life on Mars to its earlier British counterpart that ran last year on BBC America. Let's see how well I do.

Life on Mars is one of those new hybrid shows that trades on a number of genres simultaneously: cop-shop actioner; fish-out-of-water comedy; slow-boil romance; and sci-fi/metaphysical/time-travel brain-buster.

It's got -- I think -- a great premise: New York City cop Sam Tyler has an accident, wakes up as his 2008 self but in 1973. He reports to the 125th Precinct without much incident -- they're awaiting a new transfer. But other than keeping his job, Tyler is very much at sea. (He's not even old enough to have processed 1973 the first time.)

Obviously, there's much material to be mined form how different life -- and policing -- was 35 years ago, though this can quickly become the weakest crutch the show uses. (As Tyler gets used to 1973, so should we.)

But just what the beejeesus happened to Tyler; why does he seem to still be in semi-communication with 2008; and do the events of his new "now" in 1973 hold any meaning to his other "present" in 2008? Already, Tyler has had strange intersections of places, events and people -- even perhaps, catching sight of himself, as a small child. (Even weirder, the kid looked right at the grown-up version of himself.)

These overlapping mysteries will be enough to float this show over some of its rougher patches, which include an inauthentic cop-shop (it feels very TV-show-ish); too much gilding of 1970s wackiness; terribly written roles for the ladies (a "novelty" of policewoman, and a silly hippie-chick neighbor); and the miscasting of New York City.

OK, I gotta get this in. One of the reasons the British show worked well was that it was set not in big-city London with all its cosmopolitan, up-to-the-minute-ness but in Manchester, then a fading industrial provincial city, where if it was 1973, it might as well have been 1963. (We forget in today's world shrunk so effectively by technology, that sleepy cities out in the sticks really did operate differently, separated as they were from major centers.)  That distance, both geographic and psychic, made the English Sam Tyler's experience feel even more disconnected and surreal. It also made the modern-day policing techniques he brought to his 1973 colleague all the more strange to them; there was a two-way track of wonderment.

New York of 1973 is still too up-to-date, too throbbing with new life and variety to be that mystifying to a visitor from the future. Plus, the narrative relies a certain amount of coincidence, which is a contrivance harder to accept in such a huge sprawling place (already in three episodes we've hit a couple boroughs).

(Though using New York let the producers give the newly-arrived-in-1973 Tyler one definite sign that something was seriously off: He looks up and there are the Twin Towers.)

The British show worked itself out over two seasons of about 18 episodes or so. There was a definitive conclusion, which I found, if not the one I really wanted -- the show flirted with a number of explanations -- was at least still acceptable. 

The U.S. version could easily take a different tack. Already, some clues to the future-past interconnectivenes suggest there might a different resolution.

Life on Mars is by no means as intriguing as, say, the first season of Lost which piled puzzle upon puzzle. The cop-shop aspect means viewers get a neatly wrapped-up crime story every week which I find a bit retro. But, I'm happy to see any show that asks the viewer to pay attention over the course of a season toward a conclusion that may or may not pan out -- or pay off.

Of course, success means that this show will get dragged out well past its expiration date and get bogged down in meaninglessness (see also: Lost, Twin Peaks). On the other hand, an early cancellation could leave viewers hanging in mid-season, no closer to knowing what happened to Tyler or why.

Though that would be the perfect excuse to rent the DVDs of the British version.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Oct 29, 2008 at 1:48 PM

There's an old saying that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between.

That may be giving Pittsburgh too much credit.

Increasingly, Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side ... and then everything else. So if you feel like everyone on your street has reverted to some political cro-magnon state, it's not just you: western Pennsylvania really does appear to be getting dumber. But Barack Obama stands a pretty good chance of winning the state anyway. In fact, he arguably stands a better chance than some of his predecessors.

Some friends of mine are getting a little panicky at the sheer amount of right-wing derangement that they encounter in bars, in grocery-store parking lots, and so on. Since this is the only part of Pennsylvania most of us see often -- and since people assume that the rural portions of the state are filled with nutjobs -- they're getting worried the whole state might be like that. (Polls like this won't help anyone's digestion either. H/t to our friends at the P-G's Early Returns blog.) 

Far be it from me to counsel complacence. Even when I've been known to practice it. The Dear Leader -- as we media types call Obama when we're not suppressing his ties to William Ayers -- is urging the troops not to get cocky. But we shouldn't panic either. Even if everyone in your family or on your block HAS gone off the deep end. 

One ego-deflating truth of statewide political contests is this: the Pittsburgh region matters less and less with every election cycle ... which is one reason Democrats do better and better. 

The Brookings Institute has broken down the "political geography" of Pennsylvania: You'll find a road map here, with a link to a full report.  The bottom line, though, is that the state serves as a bridge between East Coast and Rust Belt -- and the East Coast portions are getting stronger as the Rust Belt wanes. 

Brookings argues that since 1988, "the growing eastern part of the state [has swung] toward the Democrats, producing four straight presidential victories. ... Countering this swing, the declining western part of the state has been moving toward the GOP." But on balance, the math favors the Dems.

Analyst Tom Ferrick here also suggests that Philadelphia -- and the surrounding counties -- are really all that matters on Nov. 4:

There simply aren’t enough McCain votes left in the rest of the state to overcome the 550,000-vote mega-margin Obama will get in the southeast on Election Day.

The bottom line: Obama wins Pennsylvania with ease.

Of course, it's not fun to realize we're being eclipsed by Philadelphia. The upside, though, is realizing that mouth-breathing Jim Quinn fan in the next cubicle is becoming less and less relevant right alongside you. 

Another thought to calm yourself with. If you've been encountering any racial animus, console yourself with the possibility that bigotry in Pennsylvania may be less widespread than you may think. There were rural counties of the state that were quite comfortable giving their votes to Lynn Swann back when he ran for governor in 2006. In some heavily Republican counties -- like Crawford, where I lived for a few years -- Swann actually got more votes than the notoriously white Rick Santorum, who was also running for re-election.

Again: I'm not suggesting anyone take victory for granted. McCain has tried to come up with an "October Surprise" almost every day this October. None of them have stuck, but had Ashley Todd's story broken the night before the election, who knows what effect it might have had? 

But if complacency saps our energy, so does despair. When you're out door-knocking, or arguing with relatives, or gouging a letter "B" into someone's face, you may think you're all alone. You may feel like your efforts have no meaning ... or that they might not even show up on surveillance cameras. At those times, remember that you've got a friend in Pennsylvania -- even if it's on the other side of the state. 


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Oct 28, 2008 at 11:56 AM

For those ready to rock with Ted Leo + the Pharmacists at Diesel next week, some bad news: the Nov. 5 show has been postponed due to a family emergency. A new date is promised, and Nov. 5 tickets will be honored when that show comes around. We'll holler when that new date is announced. Thank you for shopping with CP.


Posted By on Tue, Oct 28, 2008 at 8:36 AM

The festival's acts over the years have often been political, and, pretty unsurprisingly, that politics is reliably left. While the approach is sometimes heavy-handed (especially when you're preaching to the converted -- I mean, we're talking puppetry fans here), it's cool that the fest gives artists free rein.

This year's most explicitly political act at the good old Brew House theater was famed Vermont-based puppeteer Amy Trompetter's Wobby Bucket Brigade, here a collaboration with Chatham U students in a performance class taught by Tavia LaFollette. Four skits adapted chapters of Howard Zinn's iconic People's History of the United States, with pro-labor, anti-imperialist takes on Joe Hill, Columbus and our need for national heroes. It was energetic, with some nice woodcut-style artwork, but too old-school agitprop for me.

More inventive was Black Sheep regular Beth Nixon's "Disaster Muffin," a riotous take on our current catastrophe psychology in which the Philadelphian's principal puppet was herself, outfitted with a prosthetic womb. Quieter was Philly's Shoddy Puppet Company, a three-person troupe whose ingenious TV-sized stage and easygoing humor were good vehicles for its blend of whimsy, Hans Christian Andersen and real-life narrative; visually, a single shadow-puppet sequence about a tin soldier's picaresque journey surrendered new meanings with each story, with subtle insights into social class and exploitation.

Fare Feather Family's gypsy-troupe staging aided "The Old Man and His Peanut Tree," a winning parable about a grouch. Major Arcana's "Project Majo Shojo" took potshots at Catholicism, but was mostly a talky, well-performed depiction of the creative process behind a comic book inspired by the Japanese "magic girl" genre. (Think Sailor Moon.) Marionette incarnations of two schoolgirls were especially sharp. Meanwhile, locals Things That Stick offered joyfully unclassifiable weirdness with "Shoe," in which 20-foot-tall bunnies (made from post-consumer materials, with humans inside) danced, fought and humped.

My favorites, though, were Laura Heit's "The Matchbox Show" and Claire Dolan's "Line and Colour." On sets shorter than her index finger -- projected big onto a video screen -- Los Angeleno Heit stages macabre and wry black-out skits, some with puppets made of matches; she brought down the house with "27 Pictures of Myself Naked." Dolan's "Line and Colour" was a beautifully atmospheric, wonderfully theatrical adaptation of "The Road to Brodie," an Isaac Babel story about war in the Russian countryside. The stick puppets roamed gorgeously lit little sets, to live musical accompaniment and ruminations on bees, Cossacks and the crucified Christ.

Pre-show, Vermont's Dolan had also scored with a performance in the lobby. It was a salty spoken-sung narrative (illustrated with big comics-style drawings) about a go-go-dancer/nurse and the health-care system titled "Where's My Fucking Bailout?" In her two performances, Dolan showed how to be pointed, and subtle, and both at once.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2008 at 11:54 AM

I caught Friday night's installment of the Dean & Britta "13 Most Beautiful ..." performance, which I previewed a couple weeks ago in the pages of this esteemed weekly; for those of you who missed the boat, it was a two-night stand in which Dean & Britta (they of Luna, he of Galaxie 500) performed 13 songs (most originals, two covers) along with 13 of Andy Warhol's "screen test" short films.

I expected it to be a good performance, but of course I was slightly skeptical -- there are enough things that could go wrong in a situation like this. The songs could distract from the films, the films could distract from the songs, the whole thing could be a snoozefest. I was pleasantly surprised, though: the whole thing worked, and it worked well.

I take some issue with the venerable Barry Paris's review of the event over in P-G land; most of the background he gives is regurgitated press material, some of which he seemingly either doesn't understand himself or doesn't contextualize sufficiently (yes, the folks from the Warhol did slow down the films, but only because that's how Warhol himself chose to view and show them). And his position that the music "could have been a bit edgier for the occasion" but "the audio is frankly secondary" is completely off the mark -- the music was the point of this performance, and if you simply wanted to watch Warhol screen tests you could saunter down to the Warhol any day of the week; his Factory Diaries are on an interminable loop there. But, he's a film critic, and they sent him to review the event, so what can we expect?

Dean & Britta's pieces were, in nearly every case, executed exceedingly well, and explored aspects of the films as presented -- they didn't write stories so much as create and maintain moods, and expand upon impressions made by the films. There were parts of the guitar solos that clearly responded to the characters in the films, giving them a voice. There were blips in the films that reverberated through the music. In only one case did the music appear slightly off from the visuals -- at the end of one screen test, when the song ended early and there were five seconds or so of awkward silence.

If you missed the performance this weekend (and judging from the relatively meager Friday night turnout it's very possible you did), you missed your chance in Pittsburgh. They take it on the road later, the closest performance being at the Wexner Center in Columbus.


Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2008 at 10:07 AM

This live stage show demonstrated how an artwork can be undeniably entertaining, probably more than the sum of its apparent influences, and yet still feel not quite essential.

The show, which I saw at the New Hazlett on Oct. 23, was making its U.S. debut as part of the Cultural Trust's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. It's hugely funny and beautifully performed by a cast of four men, playing cogs in some fictional totalitarian bureacracy. Their uniform dress -- like the set, it's all olive-drab and gray -- and the Space Age props (manual typewriter, flashing incandescent lightbulbs), holler "Eastern Bloc," and the men have been stuck in this seemingly underground office long enough to run out of cigarettes. They've also essentially created their own culture: When not responding to messages (delivered by pneumatic tube) instructing them to create radio programs, they enact a series of manic rituals to allay crushing boredom. Their jobs and pastimes are both hilarious, from the old-school radio productions to a spitting contest, a puppet show and even a couple of surreal group modern-dance routines.

Oh, and while there's a lot of dialogue, none of it is in English, or any other real language, but rather a kind of formally eloquent gibberish. (Think Chaplin's speeches as Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator.)

It all recalled, variously, the Marx Brothers, Kafka via Looney Tunes and, finally, circus clowns sans whiteface. And then the overtones grew darker -- hopeless attempts to decipher ruined text, sounds of distant bombfall. As the existence of a parallel outside world was suggested, expressionistically existential elements overtook the narrative, and it started most resembling circus clowns dosed on Beckett (who himself of course dosed on clowns).

I was engaged throughout, and laughed as hard as I had at anything since Borat. At the post-show Q&A, the four affable members of this Norwegian troupe proved charming. One of them was born in Poland (whose native tongue inspired the invented, largely improvised dialogue). Their explanation of the show's origins made it sound like an uneasily nostalgic take on Norway's uneasy proximity to Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Hence, too, the apocalyptic tint, and a nod (they said) to Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's classic existential science-fiction film Stalker, forebear to The Department's theme of ambiguously desirable escape to terra incognita.

I left feeling that while the company had created something formally fresh, the familiarity of its themes portended only a little more than a gleaming, if madcap, entertainment.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2008 at 1:35 PM

The cover of this week's City Paper features an illustration that purports to depict the "mind of the McCain voter." The graphic suggested that there was little inside the heads of GOP supporters except Hank William's Jr. lyrics, the helicoper scene from Apocalypse Now, and -- near the medulla oblongata -- a nerve center that responds to the phrase "my friends."

Some McCain supporters were angered by the image. And it has become obvious to me that I have underestimated them. For that I apologize.

Because apparently, in at least some cases, their brains also contain a large capacity for fabrication and delusion.

At least in the case of Ashley Todd.


I'm not going to spend much time denouncing Todd. For one thing, I have a feeling she's got some issues. For another, plenty of other people will be doing that in the news cycle ahead, including many Republicans.

Besides, it's not fair to blame the GOP, or the McCain camp, for this transparent stunt. Anymore than it would have been fair to blame Obama supporters, or black males, if her laughable story had actually been true.

Besides, the problem isn't that kooks and charlatans crop up from time to time. The problem is that in this election cycle, they become cause celebres overnight. There is an entire media apparatus out there willing to give credence to the kooks, no matter how delusional their assertion. 

Predictably, Todd's story immediately became a cause celebre on sites like the Drudge Report, and right-wing talk radio. The gold standard for ludicrousness, though, may have been set by the executive VP of Fox News, Pittsburgh native John Moody. In a blog post whose stupidity is notable even on the Internet, Moody opined : 

If Ms. Todd's allegations are proven accurate, some voters may revisit their support for Senator Obama, not because they are racists ... but because they suddenly feel they do not know enough about the Democratic nominee. 

So let's see: They'd rethink suporting Obama because of what another black guy might have done ... but that's not the same as racism.

On the bright side, Moody also suggested that 

If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain's quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting. 

God knows there are plenty of reasons to vote against Senator McCain. But this isn't one of them. Moody has actually pulled off the rare trifecta of doing a hack job on everyone involved -- Obama, McCain and most of all his audience. 

Ordinarily, this would be the place where we shake our fingers at the media -- mainstream and right-wing alike -- for seizing on a story whose basic outlines seemed suspicious from right off the bat. Even the Post-Gazette put this thing on the front page, above the fold. (The Trib did too, but what did you expect?) 

But what's the point? This story has already served its purpose: It gave poor Ashley Todd the attention she apparently craves. It gave reputable outlets a hot story for a couple days, and it gave the right-wingers something else to go completely ape-shit about. When Limbaugh comes back on Monday, he'll have moved on to something else. 

Hell, John McCain is still talking about Joe the Plumber, despite the fact that almost nothing about that guy seems to be legit either. We've entered this sort of post-modern phase of politics in which everything signifies something that it's not. Hockey-mom VPs with $150,000 wardrobes I can understand. (Criticisms that the McCain camp should have done a better job of HIDING the wardrobe costs, however, are harder for me to wrap my head around.) We all know how much of politics is just stagecraft and shadowplay.

But what's happening now is this thing where a "Joe the Plumber" can be unmasked -- and get celebrated anyway. The assumption, I guess, is we're too dumb to know the difference, or too amped-up on identity politics to care. Joe the Plumber represents the regular man ... even if he falsely represented himself.

Like I said in this space before, the press, the politicians, and the people have all joined in a sort of endless spectacle, each of them using the others, and trying to appeal to the others in turn. I'm just surprised more 20-year-olds don't go nuts. 

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Oct 23, 2008 at 8:21 AM

I started writing about film for CP in 1997, but it took me a while to warm to experimental work. For someone raised (like everyone else) on linear narrative and photographic realism, appreciating nonnarrative, conceptual and abstract stuff demanded study.

But now I can dig films like those of Bruce Conner, who pioneered the use of found and appropriated footage cut to his own ends, collage style. A free program at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on Oct. 16 and 17 included some of his best films, drawn from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. (Conner, whose photography is in the Carnegie International, used to visit the Carnegie's late, lamented film department back in the day; he died in July, at 74.)

"Cosmic Ray," for instance, is a wild montage of nude female dancers, stock artillery footage and Mickey Mouse cartoons, cut to live Ray Charles ("What I Say?"). Its MTV-rapid cutting must have seemed insane in 1962. (It was Conner's second film.) "A Movie" (inspired by the "war" montage in Duck Soup!), soundtracks anomalously ponderous music over such silly imagery as people riding tiny bicycles, and includes the famed comment on cinematic voyeurism in which a submarine periscope operator seems to be gawking at cheesecake footage of Marilyn Monroe. "Crossroads" (1976) is a contemplative 36-minute montage of the first underwater atomic tests, in 1946, on the Bikini Atoll.

But two instances really made clear to me Conner's skill and importance. One was a fascinating sequence in the 12-minute "A Movie" (1958): a platypus swimming underwater, shot from below; the Hindenburg collapsing in flames; a scuba diver; a school of fish; the scuba diver approaching a sunken ship and dissapearing headfirst into the dark hold; a sunburst as seen from underwater. Dreamlike, hypnotic, pregnant with meaning.

The pièce de résistance was the classic "Report" (1963-67). It's cut from footage of JFK's final motorcade, followed by images of his and Jackie's arrival in Dallas and a brilliantly edited sequence of shots from contemporary television ads and a bullfight. The soundtrack is just as good: a continuous chain of radio-news commentary full of bitter, wrenching irony, from the "every possible precaution has been taken" that's spoken as the first couple debark Air Force One to the account of the triumphal Dallas motorcade married to footage of Kennedy's funeral procession. It's wildly smart and inexpressibly poignant; I'd rank "A Report" among my favorite films.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 2008 at 12:15 PM

Lapham, the social critic and editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, spoke Oct. 16 at Point Park University. It was a wide-ranging talk about politics, the media and the financial crisis, but the most interesting thing he said was in response to a question about the presidential race. Someone in the crowd of a couple hundred (mostly students) asked his preference; Lapham said Obama, principally because he's "a student" with the ability to learn what he needs to know in office, while McCain thinks he already knows all the answers.

Then Lapham added this: Obama was peculiarly "constrained" as a campaigner because he could never be seen to show anger. To do so, Lapham said, would be to cast himself as "the angry black man," the electoral kiss of death.

I'll cop to being a partisan here (I'm an Obama volunteer), but it's surely true that while McCain is practically expected to be crotchety and bumptious, Obama's almost preternatural cool and calm is as necessary to his chances as it is seemingly genuine. Lapham's comment reminded me of another, young (and white) social critic, Tim Wise, and his explorations of "white privilege," which is the social and economic advantage held even by whites who aren't themselves racist. The idea is beautifully expressed elsewhere by the poet Tim Seibles, whose "The Case" begins:


White people don't know they're     white


and continues: "Sometimes, though, if you're not white / and a lot of other people are -- / but they don't know it: // Well, it can make you feel like you need to be somewhere / very far away."

Lapham, a bit stooped but still patrician at 73, spoke slowly and deliberately, but his wit rewarded one's patience. On the financial bailout: "You can look at this as, 'We've pulled one off on the world'" because the Chinese and Saudis hold so many of our devalued dollars. The only thing our financial overlords seem to know, the founder of Lapham's Quarterly noted, is that "money is good for rich people, because it ennobles them, and it's bad for poor people, because it makes them lazy and shiftless." Oligarchies are like cheese, he quipped, and America's has gone rancid.

But the near-aside about Obama and anger was what stuck with me. We congratulate ourselves, perhaps deservingly, about a major party nominating a black man for president. But it's clear we haven't come as far as we'd like to think.

[For more on Lapham, see CP editor Chris Potter's recent interview with him in the Book section of this Web site.]