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Saturday, Feb 2, 2008


They say that comedy isn’t pretty. Whoever coined that phrase (it may have been Steve Martin) never saw a Giuseppe Andrews’ film. If they did, they’d modify the phrase to state comedy shouldn’t be pretty. In a world long past the clipped and clever wit of a British drawing room farce, or beyond a manic Marx Brothers satire, humor has found a need to be dirty. Where once it was calm and collected, it now hankers to be down and disgusting. While it shouldn’t venture totally into the gangrenous gross out trap that so many filmmakers fall into, it should know when to skim the cesspool and pick out the chunks, so to speak. In his latest RV based magnum opus, Andrews employs such a sound strategy. Half the time, Orzo finds its funny business in its personalities. The rest of the time it’s pure raunch.


Toggle Switch is a little person living in a world of her own design. Deadly with pets, and equally unhinged with her family, she spends her days watching exercise videos and her nights in pursuit of various bizarre extracurricular activities. Her daughter is married to an ex-con, a sex toy bandit with an insatiable urge to steal dildos and bury them in the back yard. He has a hard time balancing a life of freedom. He is constantly reminded of the cellmate who showed him a better way of being. Along the way, we meet a bearded 12 year old, a closet junkie, and the skinniest fitness guru in the entire self-help universe, all getting by on chutzpah, camaraderie, and a healthy dose of vagina-based show tunes.



Orzo is by far the funniest thing Giuseppe Andrews has ever done. It’s a comedy plain and simple, a character-based humoresque that proves the actor’s mantle as both a writer and a wit. Equaling the high school toilet trappings of Judd Apatow while never venturing too far from his masterful mobile home roots, this amazing mini-epic may just top everything he’s done in the past. While other efforts in the Andrews canon have relied on occasional gimmickry and mannered moviemaking to get by (not that there is anything wrong with such a stylized approach - especially in his hands), Orzo is the first time that pure individual idiosyncrasy rules the narrative. There’s no big picture pontification (as in Garbanzo Gas) or straight ahead scatology (Period Piece). Instead, this is a day in the life dowsed in demented, frequently scatological, satisfaction.


Like Tyree and Bill Nolan before, Andrews seems to have found a new muse in undersized actress Karen Bo Baron. As Toggle Switch, her line readings and emotional cues are printed on the page performance oriented. There are even moments when her lack of skill is showcased to dazzling (if difficult) effect. But that’s the beauty of a film like Orzo. Andrews lets people be themselves, whether it’s old and rickety, young and dumb, or skilled and streetwise. It’s clear that he finds something mesmerizing in Baron’s demeanor, and we find ourselves falling under her spell as well. Other regulars, including Ed, Walter Patterson, and Marybeth Spychalski, provide ample support for this novice’s rising stardom. As in all of Andrews’ work, they stand as the backbone for the big gun’s fire power. 



Even our whisper thin hero gets into the act, playing the lamest personal trainer since Richard Simmons discovered short shorts. Decked out in a well-enhanced banana sling, and gyrating for his female clients, Andrews delivers some of the biggest laughs in the film during a gangly, gyrating strip show. Similarly, the brilliant Vietnam Ron plays the prisoner who left a big impression on Toggle Switch’s son-in-law. As he does with every acting turn, he takes very little and magically transforms it into a work of living art. Indeed, the best way to describe Orzo and any other Andrews’ film is as a breathing, writhing work of aesthetic genius. Very few filmmakers, no matter their Tinsel Town categorization, can claim that.


Yet perhaps the most intriguing part of this film is the undeniable growth Andrews continues to show. Where before, his efforts seemed tied to a true outsider idea of cinema, a desire to rewrite the language of the medium to fit his own idea of expression, now, he is incorporating more mainstream fundamentals, moving away from the reading-only strategies of something like Trailer Town and into more character based interaction. The scenes between Toggle Switch and her family crackle with a kind of interconnectivity that we haven’t really experiences before in an Andrews work. Where previously the players on screen seemed to be talking AT each other, there is a newfound sense of them talking to each other - and saying some very significant things.



In addition, Andrews is using the camera more, avoiding the point and shoot scenarios that have many complaining about his lack of craft. There is still a great deal of POV perspective being used, a way of getting the audience directly involved in the action. One of the many joys a viewer has when watching a film like Orzo is the notion of being one of the party, a person actually participating in the adventures playing out. Along with the new desire to incorporate delightfully dumb F/X into the narrative - we get a raven attack complete with light saber, and a BMX bike jump, all done via hilarious optical processes – Andrews is clearly changing.


When all is said and done, it’s the laughs that linger long after Orzo draws to a close. Rib tickling doesn’t get more ridiculous than this, a combination of factors guaranteed to get you giggling. By using various made-up words, clear interpersonal dynamics, and an attention to the way human beings interact that underscores Andrews’ understanding of people. Even if someone failed to see the specialness present in what this amazing filmmaker creates as part of the artform’s elements, his ability to turn the regular into something regal, to find the inherent grace and beauty in the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, and the different remains this director’s undeniable gift. While it’s true that very little of the physical world exists in Andrews’ unusual universe, he does reflect the kind of fringe dwelling dominion were magic happens. And Orzo is enchanted indeed.


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Saturday, Feb 2, 2008

I’m a poor judge, perhaps, but Sarah Boxer’s chin-scratching piece about blogs for the New York Review of Books seems a few years behind the curve. Are people really only discovering now that writing in these so-called “blogs” is more spontaneous and unedited than finished, reported pieces? That it relies on a currency of “links” that take you from one “website” to another on what bloggers playfully call the “internets”? That people who write blogs like attention, which is often their only form of compensation? That blogging is performative?


Boxer was apparently commissioned to compile blog excerpts for a book, and she rightly notes that the idea is somewhat futile; the act of editing (as opposed to linking) blog material would tend to denature it and remove it from the base upon which it relies, the immediate access to the rest of the internet, even if its just to fact check some outrageous claim that’s been made. There may be nothing outside the text, to paraphrase Barthes, but books still seek to create that illusion, while blogs are fully comfortable with intertextuality and their discourse is entirely enriched by it. I would personally find it inconceivable to be reading one blog in isolation—reading blogs means diving into the blogosphere, as part of your routine, in small bites between other bursts of computer-assisted productivity. And it requires the RSS feed aggregator (like Google Reader, for example), which is the blog-equivalent of a book, only it is always growing and requires constant grooming and tending. It makes the idea of someone else compiling seem redundant and limited—a book about blogs would only satsify someone who didn’t really get them, thus all the books about blogs tend to condemn them and their offenses against language and “ethics,” as if journalists would hold themselves to any standard without the threat of libel.


Boxer hails blogging as a realm of viturperative underdogs—a version of the notion n+1 floated about Gawker:


Bloggers are golden when they’re at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn’t the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that’s no way to blog.


Perhaps I am biased by the corner of the blogosphere that I tend to visit (I don’t read gossip blogs, for example), but blogging is starting to be professionalized, with able bloggers being taken up by traditional publications seeking to develop an online presence—Megan McArdle, Matt Yglesias, and Ross Douthat at the Atlantic, for instance. A career path will take shape for those who want to blog professionally, who want to be public thinkers responding in real time to events in a given field of expertise. And the unaffiliated and unpaid will sink to a backdrop, on social network pages, perhaps, and be read mainly by friends and acquaintances. And blog haters will be curled up with their Strunk and White somewhere, fighting the dumb fight against the evolution of living languages.


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Saturday, Feb 2, 2008

High tales of low life in New York City.

Joseph Mitchell photographed by the Village Voice

Joseph Mitchell photographed by the Village Voice


Luc Sante comments on Joseph Mitchell in an interview with Believer Mag.


BLVR: One guy who really had that huge capacity for human behavior was former New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, about whom you’ve written lovingly as a chronicler of the flotsam, riffraff, and Low Life of the New York. He’s a member of a lost breed of anthropological investigators of the city. Have those societies, tribes, castes, and languages of the Low Life of New York disappeared under the heel of gentrification, or are writers just not working hard enough these days as chroniclers?


LS: The sorts of subjects Liebling and Joseph Mitchell wrote about have indeed disappeared, and the number of suspects in the case are almost too many to enumerate—not just gentrification, but also population growth, the rise of electronic media, the disappearance of whole categories of occupation and trade, etc. At the same time, though, there are many tribes, castes, and languages out there. There are societies of Chinese fishmongers, Jamaican croupiers, Romany auto-body repairmen, Filipina nurses, and so on, that are every bit as complex as those of Mitchell’s oystermen and fortune-tellers, and there are criminal strata of all sorts and all backgrounds in the five boroughs of New York City alone, and who knows what their lore may consist of or what their slang means? For all I know there are just as many eccentric public characters on the street as there were in the 1930s, only they are little-known outside their own neighborhood or ethnic group. But it is so much more difficult now to live reasonably well on little money, so eccentrics either lose their color under the pressure of trying to stay alive, or bug out completely and wind up in the bin


.


Believer Mag.


ATTEMPTED SCAM IN HELL’S KITCHEN


The New York Times carried the story of a man whose corpse had been wheeled in an office chair to a check cashing place.


So on Tuesday afternoon, the police say, they dressed Mr. Cintron’s corpse, carried him down a flight of stairs and heaved his body into a computer chair with wheels. Outside, they rolled him over the uneven sidewalk, pulling the chair toward Pay-O-Matic, a check-cashing shop on Ninth Avenue.


But as the men turned the corner, trying to steady the floppy corpse, they ran into the law. At Empanada Mama, a restaurant next door to the Pay-O-Matic, Travis L. Rapp, a detective, had sat down to lunch.


Detective Rapp looked out the window and saw the unwieldy trio. Something about the way they struggled to balance the man in the chair caught his eye.


“At this point, when they approached closer, I saw the body and I said, ‘Well, this is a dead guy,’ ” Detective Rapp said on Wednesday in a phone briefing.


PIGEONS IN NEW YORK


From the New Yorker. December 3, 2007. Ben McGrath.


Pity the New York City pigeon. He finds a place where natural predators are few, and where bread crumbs—note that stooped woman clutching a plastic bag—are bountiful, and yet his life expectancy is just three to four years, compared with fifteen for his cousins in captivity. So life is short: he stuffs himself before he mistakes an office window for open sky. Or maybe he has the misfortune of needing to relieve himself—perhaps more than once—near a subway stop in the district of the Honorable Simcha Felder, councilman from Brooklyn. Felder steps in the guano—he calls it a “puddle” of excrement—and becomes enraged, commissioning a report from his staff: “Curbing the Pigeon Conundrum.” Soon after, Christine Quinn, the City Council Speaker, refers to pigeons as “flying rats.” Now there’s talk of implementing the report’s Recommendation No. 5: “Create Pigeon Czar.” The czar’s responsibilities would include reducing the food supply, promoting birth control (via oral contraceptives disguised as crumbs), and supervising a pilot program called “dovecoting,” which involves confiscating pigeon eggs and replacing them with decoys.


Image from a blog called Nature’s Revenge.


 


 


 


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Friday, Feb 1, 2008


It’s the lost ones that always seem to find each other, star crossed or not, planned or accidental. To them, life is an exploration made more manageable by like associations, similar philosophies, and a belief in liberation as both a blessing and a curse. Sex is also a catalyst, binding indifference to affection and making both as addictive as smack. And when reality comes calling, when the truth of the 9 to 5, dollars and cents social structure demands some ritualistic sacrifice, these inseparables manage to dodge the bullets and keep on running. Baby Shoes and Alex are such a couple. She sells her underwear to perverts on the Internet. He plays protector, and when the time is right, green-eyed zelophile. Together they form a union more perfect than that of classical paramours. It’s also clear that they’re barely hanging on.


In his absolutely stunning and undeniably brilliant short film Alex and Her Arse Truck, UK filmmaker Sean Conway creates the kind of character sketch that has you sitting back, slack jawed, in satisfied contemplation. It’s a movie that sticks with you long after the final image has faded away. Similar in style to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, but far more fierce in its unconventional flair, this is a book come bounding to life, a novel’s worth of detail and depth in 15 far too brief minutes. The main narrative is easy to understand - Alex is planning on taking a bath, and her man plans on watching. Along the way we meet a geek burglar, a well-endowed swimmer, two larded drug dealing lesbians, and a pub filled with reprobate raffling off our heroine’s soiled knickers. While there are hints of other stories in all these recognizable references Conway’s work has the overall effect of being wholly original and wildly inventive.



Like his American counterpart, trailer park Pasolini Giuseppe Andrews (the indie genius contributed two songs to the soundtrack here), Conway is interested in life the way it’s really lived - not the sugar coated, candy colored version of existence fed to us via television and advertising. There is a razor sharp authenticity here, an eccentricity meshed with the undeniable truth that easily takes one’s breath away. His actors really help sell the situation. As Baby Shoes, Danny Young is dynamic, looking like a slightly less smug Colin Farrell. He brings a real warmth to his jealousy-torn role, and his voice over narration is loaded with story enhancing emotion. Similarly, Gina Blondell’s Alex is the flawless personification of everything Conway wants to convey. She’s sexy, stupid, alluring, ambiguous, and ever so slightly out of reach. Even her walk screams something significant. In a setup that mandates a ying to a partner’s yan, Young and Blondell make a wonderful - and better yet, believable - pair.


Conway is also a true star here, a future filmmaking giant just waiting to have his rock solid aesthetic appreciated by the masses. Thanks to the lovely photography by Lol Crowley and the director’s attention to detail, we find ourselves lost in this carnival like collection of fringe dwellers. Conway also has a satisfying habit of being overly aggressive with his cues. At any given moment, the movie feels like it’s getting away from us, ready to rush forward faster than we are willing to accept. Many times, a scooter riding Young will simply take off out of frame, leaving us behind to contemplate what the emergency is. Clearly, like everything else in this manchild’s frame of reference, the day’s too short to simply sit back and appreciate the details. If you don’t hurry, conservatives and conformity will catch up with you.



There are other layers to Alex and her Arse Truck that help make this 15 minute masterwork feel far more fleshed out and realized. Race becomes a subversive sexual subject, as does overweight lesbian congress. We get surreal, enigmatic images of a swimming man covered in Band-Aids and a cheerleading group practicing in a darkened parking lot. The musical score does a great job of supplementing the circumstances, amplifying the out of control atmosphere and accenting the characters. As unheralded auteurs go, Sean Conway will definitely be a name to watch in the future. If there is any justice in an artform landscape littered with lame journeyman hacks, his will be a creative spark recognized and revered. Alex and her Arse Truck is all the proof anyone needs.


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Friday, Feb 1, 2008

An ad in today’s Los Angeles Times proclaims:


Go from no travel

to know travel


Which caught my attention, since it is a major premise behind this blog.


But, for those who know, it isn’t enough to “know” (you know?). Because, as in all things in life, what



makes



a thing live, what brings it to life, is the



how



. As in: how the travel is described. How the trek is rendered into words is what makes that place, or event, the people, their practices and beliefs, their paintings and songs and sports and abodes and pets and sartorial styling and favored slang, breathe. Only then does an object of our attention take on dimension, assume texture, radiate color. So, when it comes to travel writing, there is the travel, sure. And the travel is comprised of the sightings and the happenstances and the cadence of the spaces. But there is also that small matter of the writing that brings it all into focus. The words make the places palpable. One without the other and neither can be. Not complete, at least. Not a perfect sum; a satisfactory set; a finished whole.


Imagine that.


Which, when I do, often freezes me fast in my tracks. As in: “Yikes!” What is it that I must do? To explain this place. And how could I ever possibly make it so? And is this really going to be enough? So that you would possibly, truly know.


Which brings us to this reality. As sad as it is true:


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