Billy Gray

Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

LES Artistes

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2008 at 8:31 pm

As the New York gallery scene slowly migrates from West Chelsea to the Lower East Side, Beautiful Losers arrives in theaters as a documentary portrait of Alleged Gallery, the groundbreaking exhibition space that opened on Ludlow Street in1992. With a graffiti-laden bodega exterior that telegraphed the roughhewn street art found inside, Alleged introduced a motley cru of young artists including Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Mike Mills, Harmony Korine and Spike Jonze to the mainstream. Director Aaron Rose, Alleged’s curator, offers incomparable insight, but his intimate ties to the gallery and its artists result in a hermetic and fawning appraisal.

Beautiful Losers assumes a familiarity with the subject that neglects the uninitiated. Watching it does not inspire the unmitigated terror that an in-law’s home movie would. But the film does leave the less savvy viewer like me with a feeling of being on the outside looking in. The losers in questions are a charismatic bunch; it’s a shame we don’t get to know them better. Part of the problem might be that while the artists did share a gallery, they did not cohere around a particular genre. Inspirations ran the gamut from skate culture to advertising to graffiti to comic books to punk rock. The documentary teaches you a little about all of these muses, but would be stronger if it taught you everything about one. Of course, a more myopic background would give many of the Alleged artists short thrift.
Another solution to the film’s scattershot feel would have been a closer examination of the gallery itself. Participants attest to the cult-like loyalty that Alleged inspired in its artists and audiences: painters slept beneath their portraits rather than in hotels; exhibitions and their showcased artists shuttled between New York. Los Angeles and Tokyo and Rose ran the space for years despite the enormous financial burden it imposed. But just as it falls short of illuminating the art itself, Beautiful Losers struggles to put the gallery in its context. I had hoped to hear more about the pre-gentrified Lower East Side- what attracted a pioneer like Rose to this frontier and how the bohemian charge that Alleged sparked paved the way for the stiletto-choked nightlife destination the LES has become.
Glossing over the Disneyfication of the neighborhood is one thing; giving a free pass to the artists regarding their own commercial embrace is a larger failure. Alleged alumni quickly graduated from the scruffy gallery scene to Pepsi and Apple contracts. And while their advertisements might have gone against the grain aesthetically, they still fattened the pockets of those grey flannel suits. The co-opting of such an anti-establishment crew deserved a more thorough if not critical analysis.
Beautiful Losers is like a reunion between exceptionally quirky and talented college friends. It is a pleasant and endearing celebration. But it only touches the surface, offering a perfunctory crash course on a formative time and place while looking past the occasional bald patch or spare tire.

Some American Broads

In Uncategorized on August 19, 2008 at 8:30 pm

Movie critics are in the midst of yet another frenaissance with New York icon and cinematic expatriate Woody Allen. After releasing seventeen Manhattan-centric movies each year for the past 62 years, Woody decamped for London with Match Point in 2005. The film won Allen his best reviews in years, with many declaring the hop across the pond just the breath of fresh air he needed. However the next two anglophiliac exercises, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream, fell short of Match Point’s promise. So now the director has gone in search of the exotic once again with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, set in the titular Spanish city.

The film follows the exploits of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (current Allen muse Scarlett Johannson), two young Americans whose summer abroad is disrupted by quintessentially suave Spaniard Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem sans mop top). A love triangle emerges and eventually expands into a square with the introduction of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s crazed ex-wife.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona excels as a meditation on Allen’s own wanderlust. Cristina bemoans the “puritanical and materialistic” America she’s left behind. Allen, no stranger to sordid tabloid speculation and perpetual Hollywood outlier, didn’t have to strain too hard to write such a character. Vicky’s bland fiancé Doug (Chris Messina) is the sole connection to New York in the film. If Doug-a corporate lawyer and a prude in pleated khakis- embodies contemporary New York for Allen, the city might be waiting a long while for the return of its prodigal son. For now though, Barcelona, or at least Allen’s version of it, provides the articulate bohemian café culture that millennial Manhattan lacks. But the bevy of tourist snapshots in Vicky Cristina suggest that Allen does not know the city all that intimately. And that hazy sense of place rubs off on the characters who inhabit it.

Stacked up against Allen’s ouevre, his latest lacks both the (arguably overcooked) pathos of tragedies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Interiors and Match Point and the belly laughs of Annie Hall or Bullets Over Broadway. The director is capable of a happy medium- Hannah and Her Sisters, my favorite Woody movie, incorporates elements of both genres- but Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels muddled, not confident of what it wants to be. This problem boils down to underwritten characters. Allen, via the film’s narrator, hammers us over the head with the philosophical schism between pragmatic Vicky and impetuous Cristina. (Voiceover narration is rarely a good sign in movies. Directors might as well send a telegraph describing their characters’ motivations.) Allen even provides glimpses of how the pair might turn out if they slavishly adhere to their divergent paths: conventionally successful but emotionally stilted Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and passionate but deranged Maria Elena.

But the friends are held at a curious distance from each other over the course of the film, denying any sort of synthesis or evolution of opinion. I wish Vicky and Cristina really went at it. Not in a darkroom, as Cristina and Marie Elena do, but over dinner or a drink. So many of Woody’s characters have engaged in emotional combat like this: the sisters in Hannah, Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack in Husband and Wives, Mariel Hemingway and Allen himself in Manhattan. Exhausted and furious and incorrigible as they may seem, their only salve is bitter, profane, intelligent conversation. It might be the languid Catalonian sun that makes Vicky and Cristina soft. Perhaps a sequel could find them in baggage at JFK, enjoying the kind of barbed confrontation Woody always provided at top form.

Radiohead

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2008 at 4:38 pm

The opening night of the All Points West Music and Arts Festival in Jersey City coincided with another set of opening ceremonies in Beijing. While music fans were deprived of that televised event, they nevertheless displayed Olympian endurance leading up to the performances. The thousands of concertgoers who bypassed the costly ferry service endured packed PATH trains from Manhattan to Jersey City followed by light rail service to the park itself. This might not sound so bad until you consider that once deposited at the park’s main entrance, another twenty or thirty minutes of hoofing it awaited you. All of this was a minor imposition on the way to the concert. But returning to the city with the full crush of dazed concertgoers fleeing at once- feet swollen and consciousness in various states of compromise- was another story.

Getting a drink was another significant hurdle. Upon having my ticket scanned and crotch massaged by security, I entered the grounds to find another line for 21+ wristbands. The grumbling increased as I approached the ID table and read the rules: Five Drinks per individual; Last Call 8:30. Huh? Wristband applied, I then discovered that drinking was only allowed in two designated holding pens on the periphery of the field. You heard it everywhere: “Fucking Jersey.” Where else were people to direct their anger than that timeworn punching bag?

Luckily, Radiohead was there to save the day. Attendees had already lightened up after the initial cattle calls. A mélange of hipsters, club kids and elderly dropouts swaying through dance acts Underworld and Girl Power quickly gave way to a determined crowd closing in on the main stage in anticipation of the already-iconic British rock quintet. Thom Yorke and company took the stage just a few minutes after their scheduled start time as the sea of people amassed and crowded closer to the front. The set that followed relied heavily on In Rainbows, their latest album and a mellower one. Despite the deliberate pace, the crowd was entranced. You could hear a pin drop during the down tempo tracks (“How to Disappear Completely”, “Reckoner”, “House of Cards”) while the more anthemic, older songs (“Just”, “Street Spirit”) got the crowd revved up but never too raucous.

Radiohead is not given to chatter; aside from a few quips from Yorke, they tore through their set with a cool efficiency. But who needs talk when you have that catalog to mine? Some fans are disappointed that the band has veered away from its traditional rock roots. Each of its albums shows Radiohead at a different step in its sonic evolution, from The Bends’ wailing guitars to Kid A’s moody electronic beeps to In Rainbows’ somber synthesis of sounds old and new. But over a two and a half hour set (five hours if you were lucky enough to catch both nights), the guys miraculously make it all coalesce. It’s the most richly textured concert performance I’ve ever seen, with the band- and audience- enjoying its more conventional early work just as much as its subsequent experimental forays.

As Radiohead played past their allotted timeslot and the tens of thousands who had come to see them faced a midnight journey back to New York, the band concluded its set with “Everything in Its Right Place” off of Kid A. It was a testament to the group that despite less than ideal conditions leading up to its show, the choice of closer was appropriate.

Shilling in the Name of…

In Uncategorized on August 12, 2008 at 7:12 pm

There is irony in the Republicans holding their upcoming convention at Minneapolis’ Xcel Energy Center. As Paris Hilton and gas pumps remind us, the energy crisis is one of this election’s most pressing issues. It’s certainly an issue that 90s political rockers Rage Against the Machine might howl about when they hit the Twin Cities on September 3, smack in the middle of the GOP’s confetti-clogged nominating process. The band will rage against the evils of war, oppression and greed ten miles from the convention itself at…the Target Center? Target- the rich man’s Wal-Mart- may not have the abysmal public relations record of that other retail behemoth. But Rage playing under the banner of a corporation that lacks a living wage contract and labor unions should still raise some brows. And in a move that budget-minded Target shoppers would reject, tickets to the concert will sell for $60.

It’s true that a dwindling number of stadiums in this country have escaped the corporate branding iron. And $60 is a paltry price to pay for a big name band in this day of extortionate ticket prices. But things have not changed that drastically from eight years ago when Rage Against the Machine put on a free show at a public site across the street from the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Granted, that event erupted into a skirmish between cops and attendees that involved rocks, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Then again, the average Rage Against the Machine fan likely isn’t looking for concerts to end with a Kumbaya medley.

There is risk involved in tying ostensibly counterculture events in a corporate bow. Who can forget Woodstock ’99? Thanks in part to $12 pizzas and $4 bottled waters being sold at the sponsor tents, that wan facsimile of the original Woodstock ended in arson, vandalism and rape. Rage guitarist Tom Morello- who played the event- later said the melee “suggested an affinity between the looters and rapists at the event and the corporate entities that sponsored it.” Rage Against the Machine is looking for a reaction by playing down the street from the Republican convention. But the reaction that such pronounced dissonance between artist and venue might provoke is questionable. Some Rage fans might look at being pepper sprayed as a badger of honor, a way of sticking it to the man. But what does it say when you pay the man for that privilege?

Go West

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Tonight Radiohead headlines the inaugural All Points West Music & Arts Festival in Jersey City. They will be preceded by British electronic duo Underworld on the stage set up at Liberty State Park. This is a lineup to celebrate, but might also inspire consternation among superstitious New York area music fans, at least those who recall that the same two bands were scheduled to open the ill-fated Field Day festival five years ago. Field Day will long be remembered as a calamitous disappointment: a stellar roster of performers was set to perform on Long Island’s North Fork before local law enforcement, government officials and environmentalists put the kibosh on the event. People who had purchased tickets could opt for a refund or a relocated “field day” revolving around the Meadowlands parking lot in New Jersey. (Torrential rain put a damper on that already-underwhelming substitute.)

New Yorkers want and deserve a solid festival in their own backyard. Austin holds two venerable festivals each year- Austin City Limits and South by Southwest- that practically engulf the city. This summer, Chicago hosted both Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival. And each summer music fans from across the country descend on Manchester, Tennessee and Indio, California for their respective Bonnaroo and Coachella festivals. Of course, New York does present organizers with a substantial roadblock: too many people and not enough land. But the city’s incalculable contributions to music over the years and its ceaseless creative energy should outweigh logistics.

Despite the ominous weather forecast for the weekend, All Points West has successfully avoided the metaphorical gathering clouds that doomed Field Day. Let’s hope the event is a success and becomes a mainstay. New Yorkers shouldn’t have to travel to points further west than Jersey to get their festival fill.