October 2009 Archives

It's true the Museum of Modern Art's new film retrospective, Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years, opened on Thursday night, so I'm a little late getting to it. But don't mistake my tardiness for a lack of enthusiasm for either its subject or the event itself. (Really, it's a result of the American Theatre Critics Association's busy NYMF schedule, fodder for another even later post.)

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Jonze is a personal favorite, though by the time I was introduced to him via the Beastie Boys' brilliantly appointed Sabotage video (Moustaches all around!), he was already a camera-strapped, guerilla skate-video-directing, gen X anti-hero. However, Jonze's mild demeanor and minimalist responses during curator Joshua Siegel's between-screening discussions reveal him to be less irony-soaked iconoclast than pensive and understated messenger of joy. Which sounds corny, I know, but seriously it's true.

The retrospective kicked off with an evening devoted to Jonze's and Maurice Sendak's close friendship, featuring three short films: a documentary about Sendak; a comic short-short Jonze and actor Catherine Keener made as a gift for Sendak's 80th birthday (they reenact an incident during which Sendak's sister ditched him at the New York World's Fair to sneak off with her boyfriend, and which served as the inspiration for In the Night Kitchen); and a scene from Jonze's upcoming full-length adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are

The most remarkable thing about the films is that watching Jonze's shorts is much like watching his excerpted Wild Things, except with Sendak cast as Max (Sendak disagreed with Jonze about Max's age anyway, saying "Who cares how old he is?") and Jonze as the monster. In a way, the whole enterprise seems geared to force Sendak into acknowledging that perhaps his life isn't quite the torment he'd like to believe. When Jonze asks Sendak to name just a few of the people and circumstances that have thus far made his stay here less of a burden, his list is long, lovely and sad: Eugene Glynn, his late partner of 50 years; his sister, who helped raise him; his brother, who helped him craft tiny toys out of wood. 

It's too bad the Sendak doc isn't being shown in multiplexes before its companion feature; they'd obviously make a great pairing. But it sounds like the main event will stand on its own just fine, traditional narrative or not. Chicago Tribune film critic and At the Movies host Michael Phillips says it's the best film he's seen all year (but don't tell, because he hasn't reviewed it yet), and he's already been to Sundance and Cannes. 

However, the real strength of the MoMA's retrospective isn't that it's an effective publicity machine for Jonze's newest film, although it is. Its strength is that it pays tribute to a director whose eclectic work is finally becoming a clear vision. Look no farther than the Torrance Community Dance Group's unaffected street theater and Christopher Walken's unexpected bouyancy for proof. Jonze's work is greater than the great Sendak, and the MoMA's collection serves to show that he's been singing an ode to joy all along. 
October 12, 2009 4:01 PM | | Comments (1)
Last night marked our li'l version of the Tony Awards, the 15th annual Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Philadelphia Theatre. I've attended a whole bunch of those ceremonies and watched them grow in scale alongside Philly's theater community. However, it's been a while, maybe a decade even, since I last sat through the awards. Because at $150 a ticket, for a couple who want to leave their kids with a babysitter and have dinner beforehand, well, that's a big Monday night out.

This year, I couldn't take it anymore. Still flushed from the theater love-fest that was this year's Live Arts/Fringe and emboldened by the season's running start, I gave in, ponied up and worked myself into a tight little LBD picked just for the occasion. 

As it turns out, I really only needed 75 cents.

So rushed was the event, so destitute of color or excitement--a means to an end (the after-party) whose end hardly justified the means--I would have been better off waiting to read Howie Shapiro's summary in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Imagine, if you will, several hundred of the city's finest talents assembled in one house. Imagine next, this collection of epic attention whores (I mean that in the fondest sense) forced to rush through a list of names without description or context and a perfunctory series of 45-second thank-yous, no dance numbers, no dramatic scenes. What shows did the F. Otto Haas Emerging Artist nominees work on last season? What exactly did the Delaware Theatre Company do with the Ferris School for Boys (whatever that is) to win their Ted and Stevie Wolf Award for New Approaches to Collaboration? Just read about it in your program, dammit! There's no time for discussion! We've got to get to the pasta bar!

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Imagine now, you're at the pasta bar. Imagine this ballroom after-party with no dj, no band, not even a stinking microphone to enable a round of show tunes karaoke. Pasta and a couple of carving stations are fine, especially with an open wine bar, but then what? I mean, it's not like anyone would want to show off or anything, like they just won an award for THEATER or whatever. I've been to better bar mitzvahs, and I'm including the part where you sit in synagogue and listen to haftorah cantillated by a seventh grader.

Apparently, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia's Barrymores mantra was "90 minutes." Well guess what? If they kept the bar open or held an intermission, no one would care about the event's length, or if they did, well, at least they'd be getting their money's worth. People might complain that the big song and dance numbers and dramatic scenes are out of context, but without them the whole event is out of context. 

From what I understand, this year marks the first Barrymores without an onstage sampler of  nominated shows. It's also the Theatre Alliance's first year using a grumbled-about new voting system that, among other changes, narrows the field of voters and ranks a show's elements on a scale of 1 to 100. That's a whole other issue, and really, I don't much care about it except that I think critics ought to comprise some part of the voting system. And also that I totally called Ian Merrill Peakes' win for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play way back when I first reviewed the world premiere of Bruce Graham's Something Intangible. (Yesss!) 

I do, however, care that the Barrymore Awards are lagging behind Philadelphia's theater community at the very moment it's sprinting for the win. Sure, I appreciated Martha Graham Cracker's brief appearance, but I could see her at her cabaret every month for a lot longer, while spending a lot less. The Barrymores are supposed to be the culminating, galvanizing event of the season; here's hoping next year's ceremony makes an effort to match the talent it purports to honor.
October 6, 2009 12:31 PM | | Comments (2)

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