Friday, October 21, 2011

Britney’s Got a Gun

Bloody ’ell! Britney Spears’s brand-new video for “Criminal,” co-starring boyfriend Jason Trawick, has gotten politicians’ knickers in a twist across the pond. Seems that Spears did not reveal that she’d be packing heat in the mini-movie when she asked permission to, um, shoot in the working-class borough of Hackney, where not so long ago shops were being looted and cars going up in flames.

Spears says the song’s “cool concept”—I’m in love with a criminal, Mama! It’s physical, not rational!—was developed way before the London riots, though that doesn’t explain the choice of location, where council members have objected to her “rudeness” in glamorizing gangs and violence, sending youth the wrong message. Amid the literally steamy (in-the-shower) sex scenes, the armed robberies, and the oddly attractive loft-lair (new design idea: criminal chic—this neo–Bonnie and Clyde duo even have shelves of books, which get shot up too!), I didn’t notice any gang members, though a lot of tattoos (visual clue?) are on display. The gunplay is cartoonish, the real (-looking) violence occurring when Spears’s initially posh character and Trawick’s outlaw character kick and punch her abusive boyfriend with abandon, which is actually where the wrong message goes out. It’s kind of a Hollywood staple that it’s okay to hurt bad guys, but unless you’re defending yourself, no, it’s not.

Still, it would have been fun to see a skinhead Britney (miss her!), pierced tongue gleaming, tagging Britannia with red spray paint—“Fuck da police! I’m toxic!”—and maybe a Princess-of-Pop takedown of the Duchess of Cambridge. Or am I the one being rude now?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Cheyenne Jackson and Jason Butler Harner.

The Green
Directed by Steven Williford
Written by Paul Marcarelli
Starring Jason Butler Harner, Cheyenne Jackson, Julia Ormond, and Illeana Douglas

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

The story of a gay couple living in a leafy Connecticut harbor town (having left New York City a few years before), The Green, though an original story, has the somewhat stilted, somewhat static feel that films based on plays (see Spinning into Butter) often do. The script was written by Paul Marcarelli, best known as the Verizon spokesman constantly asking, “Can you hear me now?” in TV ads. Despite the tone of the movie (it’s as though it needs more air, eponymous greenery notwithstanding) we can hear, loud and clear, the themes of Marcarelli’s script: prejudice, judgment, and small-mindedness.

At the beginning of the movie, the men’s only real problem seems to be the extensive renovations they’re making on their house. But when Michael (Jason Butler Harner), a teacher in a private school, is mistakenly accused of molesting a student from a troubled home, the town begins to turn on the couple—their contractor begs off finishing the work; Daniel (Cheyenne Jackson), who owns a café, loses a big catering job. Worse, their own relationship and their friendships (how nice to see Illeana Douglas again, here in the role of Michael’s cancer-stricken colleague) threaten to explode under the pressure.

The film has a rather melodramatic—though surprising—climax, and the eerie music that pops up every time things get particularly bad seems to belong to a different genre. But the movie has much to offer, especially in its cast, which includes the Broadway favorite Jackson as well as the lovely Julia Ormond, as a lesbian lawyer who knows that green can hide some very ugly colors.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Distinguishing Characteristics

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Below, Part I, is an unfinished piece I wrote shortly after 9/11. 

Part I 

Dental implants. Old burn scar covering entire right knee. Gold tooth.

My idea at first was to write a poem about the distinguishing marks, which were at once lyrical and heartbreaking and overwhelming. To this end I carried a spiral notebook up to the armory. People gathered there to register their missing, and the walls outside were plastered with hundreds of flyers showing pictures, giving descriptions of their relatives and their clothing, telling where they were last seen. This is when we were calling them missing.

I also carried a cheap automatic camera that my credit-card company had given me as a gift (I found out why when I developed the pictures, which were hardly worth keeping). I took only a few pictures. The first was of a bride (at first I wrote “a bridge”; this seems significant) and groom in Madison Square Park. I’d always been leery of the whole institution of marriage, but something about the delicacy of the short tulle veil—lifting as the bride ran a little, smiling, her new husband right behind her, both of them of a dark-skinned extraction that would not help them in the coming days—tugged at something inside me, made me want to cry as so many things did.

I also took a couple of pictures of the flyers, which were ubiquitous, well before I got to the armory; they were on lampposts, on windows, on fences. I stopped so many times to read about this person, that person, to take notes, to stare at their faces, that by the time I got to the armory the light was getting very dim. One of the posters that stopped me cold—it was scotch-taped to a store wall—showed a photo of a thirtyish man with his family. That family now begged him, “Please come home!” This made me—inexplicably, guiltily—furious. Of course he would come home if he could! As though it were up to him whether he was dead or alive. And of course he was dead—didn’t they know?

Birthmark on hand in the shape of Puerto Rico.

In the shape of Puerto Rico? What shape was that? I had to look at an atlas. It’s not like Texas or Florida, not a really distinctive shape. Kind of an oblong island with a curl or a twist here or there. But this island danced every day on the man’s hand, or anyway his loved ones wanted to think so, even while he negotiated the mind-boggling island of Manhattan.
That morning I’d gotten an e-mail, among the flurry of e-mails sent in those days, that asked the receiver to add an item to a list of things about Manhattan to love. The woman who’d sent it to me—an old friend who’d moved to Colorado—had written something about bagels. I thought about writing in the Chrysler Building or the sunset from Hudson River Park but never did. It was odd in a way to remind ourselves; could we possibly have forgotten? It came to me, though, that everyone in New York who loves New York (and of course there are those who don’t) thinks secretly that no one loves the city the way they do. If I’m thinking that—even with the occasional fantasy of escaping to a less target-rich, as the military might say, place, some remote corner of Vermont maybe—then so are millions of other people. Which is fine, because otherwise how would we survive here?

Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins surrounded by starfish. Butterfly tattoo on lower back.

There were many, many tattoos. Imagine someone sitting in a tattoo parlor enduring the pain of that big needle for their own whale, their own dolphin, their own unique butterfly or rose or heart (one of these in the webbed area between the thumb and index finger). They are not thinking, here’s a good way to identify my body when I am crushed or burned to death. There were scars too, which are rather like tattoos that nobody asked for—an appendectomy scar, facial chicken-pox marks, a “bite mark on the chest.”
On the way home I passed by the Gramercy Park Hotel. My husband (domestic partner then) was staying in New Jersey, visiting relatives. It occurred to me to check into the hotel, even though my apartment was only a twenty-minute walk away. I wanted to forget everything, even who I was. To be somewhere clean and stark. I thought of the woman in the novel The Hours who checks into a hotel just so she can read. I didn’t have to be anywhere the next day because my office, like my home, was in the “frozen zone” below 14th Street. That meant no cars, no people who weren’t residents, and very little business going on. I had to show my ID twice to get home, at 14th Street and at Houston Street.

At 14th, I passed through Union Square Park. Amid the flowers, candles, and taped-up signs—“Osama bin Laden, look out” but also “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” …

Part II

I thought then that my idea for a poem—or, rather, a compilation in poem form—had not worked out, but when I recently looked back at what I had, I decided to finish it.

A birthmark in the shape of Puerto Rico
on his hand.
Scar between eyebrows.
A heart tattoo on her right hand,
between the thumb and the index finger.
Gold necklace with jade pig.
Mole at jawbone near right ear.
(Young man:) tattoo of tiger on right shoulder;
(his sister:) gold chain with key charm.
A circular beauty mark
on his right wrist.
Tattoos: dolphin on foot,
turkey on hip.
Right-hand ring finger severely bent;
gold neck chain with cross.
Yellow rose tattoo on right ankle;
orange-and-white sneakers;
two earrings in each ear.
Bite mark on his chest
just below left shoulder.
Appendectomy scar,
birthmark on one of his shoulders,
and a small dark mole in the center
of his back.
Black mole on each cheek,
black spots on his neck.
Has a Florida tan.
Chews tobacco, so first fingers
on his right hand may be stained.
Wearing a gold rope chain on his neck,
with a rectangular charm that says
“Jesus Is Lord.”
Faint birthmark on back of neck
under his hair
(may need to look real hard for it
since very faint).
Has thick hair on his chest,
a very hairy man.
A scar which extends from the
upper right side of forehead to the eyebrow,
which appears to be an upside-down V;
scar on left arm has a black tattoo
one-inch in width
that bands around left bicep.
Two gold bangles and one gold bracelet.
Wearing a wood cross.
Tattoos lower back tribal (dark green),
upper right heart and rose with initials LER.
Has on a silver fossil watch.
Has a French manicure on both her hands
and her feet.
No scars or tattoos.
Brown spot, right shin;
scar from hip surgery;
hammer toes.
Chicken pox scars on cheek.
Gold tooth.
Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins
surrounded by starfish.
Butterfly tattoo on lower back.
Skin tag on neck;
small scar on chin;
cast on right hand.
Tattoo of Puerto Rican flag
on right arm.
Dental implants.
Old burn scar covering entire right knee.
White gold ring with the letter C
in diamonds.

McDreamy Dancing with Nellie McKay

Originally posted July 10, 2008
Nellie McKay pounds the piano at a “Midsummer Night Swing.”

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

An elderly man in a straw hat was getting his mojo on with a flushed, swivel-hipped blonde—I’m talking swing dance—as Nellie McKay (rhymes with McPie) channeled Ella Fitzgerald to sing “A-Tisket A-Tasket” last night at Damrosch Park, in Lincoln Center. McKay—she of the acerbic lyrics, feminist stance, and vegan-activist politics—might seem an unlikely choice to kick off the “Midsummer Night Swing” series (starting with, naturally, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”). But really, you never know where the 26-year-old might turn up: recently it’s been Broadway—with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in The Threepenny Opera and as the composer for the forthcoming show Election.

The girl loves music, and it’s clear from her CDs—her latest is Obligatory Villagers—that she’s steeped in all things Tin Pan Alley. Looking demure in a black velvet and red satin dress that seemed an homage to the 40s (big red bow in the back), she appeared delighted to be sharing the stage with the Aristocrats Swing Band, lending her impressive piano skills to such standards as “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” (on which she also scatted) and picking up a ukelele for “Route 66.”

“It’s like a regular dance hall,” commented my husband as he surveyed the large dance floor between the press box and the outdoor stage, with its purple-curtain backdrop. We were watching pogo-ing punks and smooth-stepping preppies, saddle-shoed boppers and suspendered hoppers, all ignoring the heat and grooving to “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Some of them had doubtless just learned their moves and/or just met their partners; the event began with swing-dance lessons.

Of course a Nellie McKay concert would not be complete without those unique McKay songs (by all appearances, eminently danceable). Nellie performed “The Dog Song,” with its attendant woofs (a little help there from the Hawaiian-shirted band) and “Happy Flower” (“Me and you / We misbehave / We trample fecklessly upon the bladder of our hearts”—see what I mean?).

The series runs through July 26.

Putting the Art in Arthur and Party: Joseph Arthur’s Gallery Closes

Originally posted September 27, 2008
Musician and gallery owner Joseph Arthur

“MOMAR is finite. It is not an ongoing concern. Its building and its organization will disappear.” Along with other tenets (“MOMAR answers the eternal question ‘What Is Art?’ with another question: ‘what isn’t?’”), this was part of the mission statement of the Museum of Modern Arthur, founded by Joseph Arthur, a painter and poet but best known as a singer/songwriter. His new CD, Temporary People, with his band the Lonely Astronauts, comes out September 30th.

Because of a dispute with the landlord involving an art installation that includes a mattress, a mannequin head, and shower plumbing, MOMAR is indeed about to disappear. But not without a party, held last Thursday night in the gallery’s space at the end of the earth—Brooklyn’s earth, Dumbo’s earth, Jay Street’s earth. Walk down another half-block and you can put your face against a metal fence marked “The End” and watch the ships glide by, with Manhattan twinkling across the East River’s brown choppy waters.

Or you can just watch from the industrial-metal steps of MOMAR—as I did, with fellow blogger Bob Rosen, letting the wind whip my summer-dressed self into autumn on this rainy, chilly night.

But inside it was warm, T. Rex was playing on the boom box, and impossibly chic-in-that-Williamsburg-way young people were drinking wine, beer, and instant margaritas amid Arthur’s Rorschach-y, amoeba-y, spidery, E.T.-y paintings. (Perhaps his mentor Peter Gabriel describes them better: “They seem to connect to Expressionism, Art Brut, Basquiat and the Graffiti movement.”) Studying my favorite of the works—a set of nine (one piece unceremoniously fell off the wall, prompting a woman in very high sandals to scale a ladder and tape it back up)—was the dancer Michelle Mola, to whom I was drawn by her DKNY-but-looks-like-vintage coat (my first glimpse of her was when the very tall Arthur lifted the very small Mola way off her feet in greeting). Mola, she told me, sometimes performs with Arthur but was delicately kicked off the stage when, dressed as Cupid (it was Valentine’s Day), she attempted to dance along when Arthur made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman: “They kept saying, ‘Would the dancer move downstage,’ ‘Would the dancer move further downstage,’ and then, ‘Would the dancer exit the stage.’”

 Dancer Michelle Mola with Bob Rosen

The question of the night was whether Arthur, whom I wrote about for Vanity Fair’s blog last May, was going to perform (with or without Mola)—and whether he’d do so on the aforementioned mattress, since there was no stage to be seen. Wandering around in a black felt hat and black jacket, he seemed, perhaps taking a cue from his paintings, to be more into just hanging. (For someone who comes across as very laid-back, Jo, as his friends call him, is remarkably productive—check out his website. That’s what he was doing—sitting on the steps outside with a friend, hat still perched on his long, Romantic-poet hair—when Bob and I left the party, still going strong.

Up the street, we stopped to look at a homemade shrine, featuring a photo of a Chihuahua, attached to the wall of a converted factory. “Are you interested in Chicken?” asked a woman in a black trench coat who suddenly appeared out of the darkness. She explained that she’d rescued the dog, named Chicken, and that he’d been beloved in the neighborhood, but that he’d been hit by a car crossing the street to their building. (Without meaning to, I had the sad thought, Why did the Chicken cross the road?) She stopped to fix a few of the shrine’s tchotchkes—a tiny Ganesh statue, a tiny blue bowl, a tiny duck—before going inside.

This made Dumbo seem like a small, sweet town but also somehow like Oz, with not a yellow-brick road but a cobblestone one, and with a wizardly glowing place of art at the end of the line, about to disappear.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Still on the Bus

The Magic Bus

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place
Directed by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood
Starring: Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters, Neal Cassady, The Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, and Stanley Tucci

Watching Magic Trip, a film shot in 1964 and finally put together in a coherent form some 47 years later, is like watching a home movie of a family vacation. Except the family in question is The Merry Pranksters, a band of psychedelic pioneers led by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey. And the vacation in question is a cross-country road trip, from Kesey’s Oregon farm to the New York World’s Fair, in a customized, wildly painted, 1939 school bus called Further (or Furthur), driven by Neal Cassady, who served as the model for Dean Moriarty, the main character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And everybody on this bus was stoned on LSD most of the time. And pot. And speed. And a couple of other things.

Ken Kesey

Historically, it was quite a time. JFK had recently been murdered in Dallas. The Beatles had arrived. Vietnam was heating up. LSD was still legal. The Beat Generation, as Kerouac called it, was over. And hippies didn’t yet exist.

I might have been only 11 when The Pranksters were making their momentous journey, (and I hadn’t even heard of LSD), but I still feel a personal connection to this film. Because, in a manner of speaking, I was on the bus—though I didn’t know it yet. There’s an expression in Tom Wolfe’s comprehensive study of The Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test: “You’re either on the bus…or off the bus.” Which I’ve always taken to mean, you’re either a Prankster at heart or you’re not.

Neal Cassady drives the bus.

And if there was ever any doubt as to where I stood with The Merry Pranksters, it was laid to rest in 1986, when I met a Prankster.

I was working in New York as a men’s magazine editor at the time, and I’d been buying stories from a writer in Oregon whose outrageous and hilarious erotic fiction had leaped out of the slush pile. Just before Thanksgiving that year, this mysterious author came to New York to visit me at the magazine office. That’s when I found out he was John Babbs aka Sometimes Missing—all the Pranksters had nicknames—younger brother of Ken Babbs aka Intrepid Traveler.

John Babbs, circa 1964.

John and I became friends, and I’d occasionally visit him in Springfield, Oregon, where a colorful cardboard cutout of Further stood on his fireplace mantle. We went camping, fished for trout—he was a passionate fisherman and wrote a novel about it, Yellow Leaves—tooled around town in his big old Mercury convertible, played full-court basketball at the YMCA, smoked a bit of weed, and drank a bit of beer. Such was the idyllic life of a Prankster in the late ’80s. Once when he visited me in New York, I hired John to help me out at the office. He spent a few days organizing into the proper pornographic categories photos for some of the magazines I was editing—good work for a Prankster if you can get it.

Robert Rosen (left) and John Babbs, 1987, New York City.

Watching Magic Trip reminded me that I hadn’t heard from John in a few years, so I got back in touch with him. He told me that he hadn’t seen the movie yet, which somehow wasn’t surprising. John seems to live outside time, outside money, outside fashion, outside most things that might demand the attention of a 21st century New Yorker.

John Babbs self-portrait: Trout Fishing in Oregon.

Magic Trip also reminded me how quickly time passes, how strange it must be for The Pranksters, many now in their 70s, to sit in a theatre and watch their youthful selves of 1964 “tootling the multitudes,” as they called it.

So, this is not a review of this time capsule of a film. It’s merely an acknowledgement that Magic Trip exists, and that I’m delighted to have finally seen this long-lost footage of the late Ken Kesey, a writer I’ve always admired and would have liked to have met; of Ken Babbs, whom I did meet, and who recently published a novel, Who Shot the Water Buffalo? based on his experiences as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; of the Grateful Dead, when they were still The Warlocks and their job was to provide the soundtrack to the “Acid Tests,” those massive Kesey-organized gatherings where everybody drank the “electric” Kool Aid, and were probably better for it.

Before they were The Dead.

And, of course, I’m glad Magic Trip motivated me to get back in touch with John Babbs, whom I’m proud to call my friend, and who has allowed me to feel an intimate connection to a home movie that I wish I could have been part of.

Festival’s End: One Last Film, One Last Party

Originally posted May 8, 2008.
Keith Haring’s “The Last Rainforest” © The Estate of Keith Haring. 
Director Christina Clausen at Soho House.
The Universe of Keith Haring
Directed by Christina Clausen
90 minutes

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Last Saturday evening, I attended a screening of Christina Clausen’s film The Universe of Keith Haring at the Soho House in NYC’s Meatpacking District, along with fellow bloggers Robert Rosen and Julio Malone, who’d met Clausen at a recent Tribeca Film Festival event.

I had happened to overhear about a week ago, right before a T.F.F. screening of Squeezebox!, the novelist Jay McInerney talking about the ubiquity of Haring’s work in New York in the 80s, how you could hardly walk out of your building without seeing some freshly painted Haring figures on a wall, on somebody’s jacket, on a subway platform. I remember that too, especially, for some reason, his Christmas-greeting Madonna (the Jewish one, though Haring was friends with the other) and Child. I recall walking into the Christopher Street subway station and suddenly coming upon the deceptively simple curving lines that suggested a veil, a woman’s face, and the baby she was holding, all surrounded by Haring’s signature little lines, a bit like rays but more about kinetic energy—nearly every one of his creations, no matter how bizarre, seemed to be jumping for joy.

And there’s a lot of joy in Clausen’s film. Many people loved the wiry, bespectacled Haring, including his supportive family—he had grown up in the Norman Rockwell-esque Kutztown, Pennsylvania, but came into his own in New York—and close friends such as DJ Junior Vasquez and fellow artists Kenny Scharf and Yoko Ono. Haring was very much of his time, diving into the early-80s swirling underground scene of sex (the Baths), clubs (Paradise Garage and Club 57), and rock ’n’ roll (the B-52s). Through interviews, film footage—when Haring spray-paints a mural on a wall in record time, you can almost see those kinetic lines shooting out from his own body—and narration by Haring himself (courtesy of his biographer, John Gruen), Clausen does indeed capture his universe, even as it changed with the advent of AIDS. AIDS, of course, claimed Haring in 1990; he would have been 50 on May 4.

Over champagne at the cocktail reception that followed the screening, in a little bar area next to the theater, Clausen confided to a few of us her concern that the reaction to the screening seemed “cold.” But we assured her that instead the audience appeared to be stunned by Haring’s death (Scharf nearly breaks down when speaking of it)—no matter that we knew the fact of it—after getting to know him in this way. I asked Clausen, who is Danish but lives in Rome, if she’d ever met Haring. She said she hadn’t thought so when she decided to do the film, but while going through photographs for it she realized that as a high-school student she had once seen him. At a Copenhagen museum, where he’d come to do a mural, she locked eyes with him, in a way that she now feels was meaningful.

Who knows if that encounter planted the seed for Clausen’s film? I’m just glad to have had the opportunity to wander into Keith Haring’s poly-wondrous universe, even though I feel I’ve been there before.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sex Slaves: We Deliver (Esclavas Sexuales: Servicio a Domicilio)

Originally posted September 27, 2007.
Adriana (Paulina Gaitán) and Jorge (César Ramos) in their Mexico City home, in Trade, before the Russian mob snatches Adriana off the street.

Adriana (Paulina Gaitán) y Jorge (César Ramos) en su casa en Ciudad de México, en Trade, antes de que la mafia rusa secuestrara a Adriana en las calles del barrio.

On occasion, when the situation warrants, Maiscott & Rosen will run articles in Spanish as well as English. The review of Trade, below, is the first article to run in both languages.

En ocasiones, cuando la situación lo amerite, Maiscott & Rosen publicará artículos en inglés y español. La crítica de la película Trade, abajo, es el primer artículo publicado en ambos idiomas.

Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner
Screenplay by Jose Rivera
Story by Peter Landesman and Jose Rivera
Starring: Kevin Kline, César Ramos, Alicja Bachleda, Paulina Gaitán, Marco Pérez, Linda Emond, Zack Ward, Kate Del Castillo, Tim Reid, and Pasha D. Lynchinkoff
In English and Spanish with subtitles

By J.C. Malone

Children who disobey their parents will suffer serious consequences, but love of family and religious faith will always prevail over impossible odds. These are among the central themes of Trade, a well-crafted and highly emotional blend of fiction and docudrama, based on a New York Times Magazine article, “The Girls Next Door” by Peter Landesman.

The film focuses on the brutality of the Russian mob, which operates out of Eastern Europe and Mexico City. Their business: kidnapping young women, girls, and boys, beating them, drugging them, and smuggling them from Mexico into the United States for a life of forced prostitution.

One of their victims is the virginal 13-year-old Adriana (Paulina Gaitán). Living like Eve in a Mexico City-slum version of Paradise, her original sin is to disobey her widowed mother. Suspecting that the bike Adriana’s brother, Jorge (César Ramos), gave her for her birthday was stolen, and believing that the neighborhood is too dangerous anyway, the mother forbids her daughter from riding it.

As Adriana takes her first bike ride through the barrio, the vicious Russians promptly kidnap her. Brother Jorge, like Don Quixote, then begins an improbable quest to find and rescue his sister. Along the way, in Juárez, Mexico, he meets Ray Sheridan (Kevin Kline), an American cop specializing in insurance fraud, who, for mysterious reasons, freelances in tracking down kidnapped children.

Offering perhaps the most panoramic view to date into the black holes where forced prostitution operates, Trade straddles the difficult-to-distinguish border between art and reality. Though director Marco Kreuzpaintner did his best to overcome the technical and conceptual problems of this delicate balancing act, sometimes his best wasn’t good enough.

Jorge, for example, performing a feat that would make a Toyota hybrid jealous, drives a hotrod 1,200 miles, from Mexico City to Juárez, without refueling. Then Jorge and Ray blast across the U.S.A, covering almost 2,000 miles, from Laredo, Texas, to New Jersey in 24 hours—which might be possible with Neal Cassidy behind the wheel, popping amphetamines. And Mexico City, as compelling and diverse a megalopolis as you’ll find anywhere, is portrayed as a one-dimensional crime-ridden hell-hole, where desperately poor and marginalized Mexican kids, like Jorge (who are in the business of ripping off gringo tourists with a prostitution scam), have learned to speak perfect English. “I’ve got many brains,” he tells his mother when she asks about his language skills.

’s worst sin, however, is to inflame the current anti-immigrant bias, and reinforce the stereotype of Americans and the United States as the helplessly innocent victims of evil, heartless foreigners who run their forced prostitution rings as ruthlessly as any drug cartel.

Mexicans and Russians team up with lowlife Americans to smuggle their human cargo across the border and “store” them in the suburban New Jersey home of Laura (Kate Del Castillo), a Latino woman who runs an online global auction which offers wealthy pedophiles the opportunity to buy the flesh of their choosing. It’s through such an auction that Jorge, using Ray Sheridan’s life savings, is able to buy Adriana, bidding against a South African man who drives the price to over $30,000, because the girl is a virgin.

A middle-aged man who flies from Malaysia to Laredo to pick up an Asian boy he bought at auction and Mickey Mouse American cops who transform themselves into heroes and show up just in time to save the day are among the other stereotypes parading through the film.

Not surprisingly, Trade also delivers a strong message of Roman Catholic propaganda, establishing the theme early, with children singing the traditional Mexican religious birthday song, “Las Mañanitas,” and carrying it through to the end. In one scene, one of the kidnappers, Manuelo (Marco Pérez, who played Ramiro in the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros) stops to pray before a giant cross; in another, Adriana saves herself and Ray by spiritually blackmailing Manuelo; and—SPOILER ALERT—finally (and miraculously) Adriana’s mother, a faithful church-goer, prays in a cathedral as the lord delivers her kidnapped daughter, as if by Federal Express, directly to her pew.

Though the photography is outstanding and features a striking high-energy opening montage of Mexico City, Trade, above all, may well be remembered as the movie in which César Ramos, who’s good-looking in a Tom Cruise kind of way, burnt himself into our consciousness with a brilliant and unforgettable performance.


J.C. Malone, author of
Sammy Sosa in 9 Innings, is a columnist for El Listin Diario in the Dominican Republic.

Esclavos Sexuales: Servicio a Domicilio

Dirección: Marco Kreuzpaintner
Guión: José Rivera
Basada en una historia de Peter Landesman y José Rivera
Protagonizan: Kevin Kline, César Ramos, Alicja Bachleda, Paulina Gaitán, Marco Pérez, Linda Emond, Zack Ward, Kate Del Castillo, Tim Reid, y Pasha D. Lynchinkoff
En inglés y español con subtítulos.

Por J.C. Malone

Los niños desobedientes sufrirán serias consecuencias, pero el amor familiar y la fe religiosa siempre triunfan sobre lo más insalvables obstáculos. Estos estan entre los temas centrales de Trade, una bien armada mezcla de ducodrama y ficción con una alta carga emocional, basada en un artículo publicado por The New York Times Magazine “The Girls Next Door” (La Muchacha de Al Lado) de Peter Landesman.

La historia muestra la brutalidad de la Mafia Rusa que opera desde Europa Oriental y Ciudad México. Su negocio: Secuestrar mujeres jóvenes, niñas y niños, someterlas a base de golpes y endrogamientos, para cruzarlas a Estados Unidos para a una vida de prostitución forzada.

Una de sus víctimas es la virginal Adriana, de 13 años, (Paulina Gaitán). Viviendo como Eva, en su versión del paraíso terrenal en un barrio pobre de Ciudad México, su pecado original fue desobedecerle a su madre viuda. Ella sospecha que una biscicleta que su hijo Jorge (César Ramos), le reagalo a su hermana Adriana para su cumpleaños, fue robada. Y creyendo que el vecindario es peligoso, ella prohibe que la niña monte la biscicleta.

Cuando Adriana salió a dar su primera vuelta en biscicleta, los rusos la secuestran. Su hermano Jorge emprende la quijotesca labor de encontrarla y liberarla. En el proceso, en Juárez, México, el encuentra a Ray Sheridan (Kevin Kline), un policía texano especialista en fraudes contra compañías de seguros, quien, por razones misteriosas, trata de localizar niños secuestrados.

Ofreciendo quizá la perspectiva más panorámica hasta el momento, del agujero negro donde funciona la prostitución forzada, Trade cabalga sobre algunas dificultades para establecer la frontera entre el arte y la realidad. Aunque el director Marco Kreuzpaintner hizo lo mejor que pudo para resolver esas dificultades técnicas y conceptuale, manteniendo ese delicado balance, por momentos su mejor esfuerzo no fue lo suficientemente bueno.

Jorge, por ejemplo, conduciendo un auto que haría sentir envidioso a cualquier Toyota híbrido, conduce 1.200 millas, de Ciudad Mexico a Juárez, sin detenerse a echar gasolina. Entonces Jorge y Ray atraviesan Estados Unidos, cubriendo unas 2.000 millas entre Laredo Texas y New Jersey en 24 horas. –Eso quizá sea posible con Neal Cassidy al volante metiendo anfetaminas. Y Ciudad México como una gran megalópolis, es presentada de manera unidimensional, como un agujero infernal corroído por el crimen, llena de paradojas. En Trade los marginados niños pobres mexicanos, como Jorge (quien estafa turistas con ofertas de prostitución), hablan perfecto inglés. “Yo tengo varios cerebros” le dice a su madre cuando ella le pregunta sobre sus destrezas en el idioma inglés.

El peor pecado de Trade, sin embargo, es añadir más combustible al sentimiento y prejuicio anti-inmigrante del presente, reforzando stereotipos de que Estados Unidos y los Estadosunidenses son víctimas impotentes e inocentes de diabólicos desalmados extranjeros, que corren su netgocio de prostitución forzada; igual como con los carteles de drogas.

Mexicanos y rusos trabajan para introducir a su carga humana por la frontera y “almacenarla” en una residencia de un suburbio de New Jersey donde Laura (Kate del Castillo) una mujer latina, dirige las subastas globales. En ellas acaudalados pedófilos extranjeros compran carne fresca extranjera a un a venderoes extranjeros. En una de esas subastas Jorge, con el dinero de Ray Sheridan, compra a su hermana, compitiendo contra un rico sudafricano que elevó el precio pasado los $30.000 porque la niña era virgen.

Hay un hombre de edad mediana que viaja de Malasya a Laredo para recoger a un niño que compró en la subasta. Los policías americanos, como Mickey Mouse, llegan justo a tiempo para salvar a los protagonistas; esa es otra forma de propagar estereotipos en la película.

Trade también incluye una fuerte dósis de propaganda Católica Romana desde el inicio. La película abre con unas niñas cantándo “Las Mañanitas” y el tema sigue hasta el final. Uno de los secuestradores, Manuelo (Marcos Pérez, que hizo de Ramiro en Amores Perros) reza ante una cruz gigante; después Adriana salva su vida y la de Ray montándole a Manuelo un chantaje religioso. Y (CUIDADO, VIENE EL DESENLACE), vaya coincidencia, al final, como un milagro, la madre de Adriana, una asidua visitante a la iglesia, reza en la catedral y el señor escucha sus oraciones, enviándole su hija secuestrada (como si fuera un currier de Fedex) diercto al banco de la iglesia donde esta de rodillas elevando sus plegarias.

Aunque tiene excelente fotografia y comienza con un montaje de alta energia musical, gráfica y artistica sobre Ciudad México, Trade, por encima de todo, puede ser recordada como la pelicula en la que César Ramos, un jóven talentoso y aparente, tipo Tom Cruise, ingresó a nuestra consciencia con su inolvidable actuacion.

J.C. Malone, autor de Sammy Sosa en 9 Innings, es un columnista sindicato de periodicos en español de Estados Unidos y de El Listin Diario en República Dominicana.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Invisible Man

Originally posted March 26, 2008.
Aware that diamonds are a lot more than a girl’s best friend, Hobbs (Michael Caine) and Laura Quinn (Demi Moore) plot a heist in a seedy pub in 1960s London, in Flawless.

Directed by Michael Radford
Written by Edward A. Anderson
Starring: Demi Moore, Michael Caine, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, David Barrass, and Joss Ackland
By Robert Rosen

Just like the nameless “negro” narrator of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of 1940s Harlem, Invisible Man, Hobbs (Michael Caine) is an invisible man in early-1960s, not-yet-swinging London. The aging nighttime janitor, a widower who labors for a multinational diamond corporation, moves unseen through the world he despises.

But Hobbs, highly overqualified for his job, is no fool, and he makes the most of his invisibility: He overhears confidential corporate conversations; he digs damning documents out of the garbage; and he knows more about what’s going on at London Diamond than chain-smoking, married-to-her-job Laura Quinn (an almost unrecognizable Demi Moore), the company’s sole woman executive.

Suggesting that the company’s being less than generous with his retirement package, Hobbs, using executive-caliber powers of persuasion, slickly manipulates Quinn to help him bring karmic justice to their filthy-rich and soullessly exploitative employer. Quinn, convinced that London Diamond has put an impenetrable glass ceiling between her and the promotion she craves, is more than susceptible to Hobbs’s wily influence and low-key charm.

The iconic sound of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” sets the mood and rhythm, and the stylish direction of Michael Radford (The Merchant of Venice, Il Postino) sustains them throughout, so that Flawless, a thriller unmarred by gaping plot holes, proves to be that rarest of all gems—an intelligent and thoroughly entertaining heist flick with heart.

It isn’t quite flawless, but it comes close.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Identity Theft

Originally posted April 25, 2008.
Diega Luna and Samantha Morton play obsessive Michael Jackson and
Marilyn Monroe impersonators who meet in Paris.

Mister Lonely
Directed by Harmony Korine
Screenplay by Harmony Korine and Avi Korine
Starring Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, James Fox, Anita Pallenberg, Denis Lavant, and Werner Herzog

Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe—two tragic figures (well, in Michael’s case, perhaps the jury is, so to speak, still out). Who would want to exchange identities with them? In Harmony Korine’s new film, Mister Lonely (and how great to hear uninterrupted that emotional Bobby Vinton song), we soon learn the answer: a young man and a young woman so unhappy with themselves that they choose to live full-time as their impersonations—along with a group of similar misfit/lookalikes that include the Three Stooges, Abe Lincoln, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II (played by Stones muse Anita Pallenberg) and, natch, Madonna, all living in a castle commune in the Scottish Highlands with a flock of beloved sheep. Not unexpectedly from the director of Gummo, this bizarre setup begets many bizarre sights, such as the Three Stooges armed with rifles to fulfill a sad mission and a tiara’d Queen in bed with the Pope. The movie also has a parallel story involving an alcoholic priest pilot (Werner Herzog) and miraculously sky-diving nuns, which, though it has its charms and allows for exhilarating visuals, I found ultimately puzzling. But no matter: Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) and Samantha Morton (fittingly zoftig here) are lovely and affecting as Michael and Marilyn, two peas in an odd pod who discover you can’t get away from yourself or life’s problems (in Marilyn’s case caused mainly by a sadistic “Charlie Chaplin”)—but find very different ways of dealing with that fact. And then there’s the egg song…

Sunday, July 31, 2011

If Kerouac Were an Illiterate Argentine Sculptor

Originally posted April 30, 2007.
Tati (Ignacio Benítez), left, with his root sculpture, and Waguinho
(Carlos Wagner La Bella) on the road to Buenos Aires.

The Road to St. Diego 
(El Camino de San Diego)
Directed and Written by Carlos Sorin
Starring: Ignacio Benitez, Carlos Wagner La Bella, Paola Rotela, Silvina Fontelles, and Miguel González Colman


Who is this Diego Maradona? As far as I can tell, he’s a retired soccer player, the Argentinean Pelé, a permanent fixture in the gossip columns, a cross between Che Guevara, John Lennon, Elvis, and Babe Ruth, a man loved and worshipped in his homeland but despised in every other soccer-playing country, particularly in Latin America. When I was in Chile a few years ago, people were still talking with mucho gusto about Maradona’s cocaine addiction, his rehab, his weight gain, and his heart attack, which is the real-life incident that puts the plot of this poignant comedy into motion.

In the idiot-parlance of Hollywood pitchspeak, The Road to St. Diego is Heart Beat (the 1980 film about Jack Kerouac) meets The Motorcycle Diaries meets the Virgin of Guadalupe, which, as far as I know, is Jesus’ mother, not a movie.

Tati Benítez, played to perfection by Ignacio Benítez, is the man who goes on the road in Argentina. Who is he? Let me put it this way: If he were an American, he wouldn’t be Jack Kerouac; he’d be Mark David Chapman—an obsessive fan stalking his idol, determined to murder him in cold blood (with a legally purchased handgun, no doubt) and steal his fame.

Happily, Tati is not American; he’s an illiterate Argentine from the backwoods whose inherent sweetness shines through in the charming way he’s always saying gracias to everybody. Tati has lost his job as a lumberjack, and has taken to carving sculptures out of tree roots and selling them to tourists to support his wife (Paola Rotela) and three kids. He’s also Maradona’s #1 fan: he has Maradona’s number 10 tattooed on his back; he’s taught his pet parrots to call Maradona’s name; he spends 50 pesos of his very limited funds on an autographed picture of Maradona; and he wants to name one of his girls Diego, but the authorities won’t let him because it’s not a girl’s name.

The film begins as a mockumentary—everybody in town tells their stories about Tati, mocking his passion for Maradona. They tell him that his autographed photo is a fake. “You probably bought it from a Brazilian,” someone says.

One day as he’s walking in the woods, Tati sees a tree root that looks like Maradona raising his arms in triumph after scoring a goal. He cuts it off, takes it home, polishes it, and carves number 10 on its back. He considers it miraculous, like finding the face of Jesus. Did he find it just “because,” he wonders? Or is it a sign from God? He decides to donate his sculpture to a soccer museum. But when he hears that Maradona has had a heart attack and is in the intensive care unit of a Buenos Aires hospital, he changes his mind. Despite the very reasonable objections of his put-upon wife—We don’t have enough money, she tells him—he says that he’s going to Buenos Aires to give the statue to Maradona himself. It is his destiny.

Encouraged by a psychic reading, Tati, his statue wrapped in plastic, hits the road. He takes busses. He hitchhikes. He meets people. They ask to see the statue and he shows it to them. Some ridicule it. Others think it’s a great likeness.

But only when he gets a ride from Waguinho (Carlos Wagner La Bella), a garrulous Brazilian truck driver carrying a load of live chickens, does it begin to appear that the statue may, indeed, have miraculous powers. The first miracle: Waguinho—who’s known as “The Bear” to the numerous prostitutes he frequents—initially isn’t going to take Tati with him because, like all Brazilian soccer fans, he hates Maradona. But then he decides he likes Tati and takes him anyway, despite the statue—and he’s going all the way to Buenos Aires.

It’s after Tati turns down a shopkeeper’s offer to buy the statue for 300 pesos and a couple of salamis because Maradona brings him good luck (he settles for a picture of himself with Tati and the statue) that Waguinho begins to believe in the statue’s powers. A spiritual man—he’s deeply impressed by his aunt’s ability to talk to the dead—Waguinho kisses the statue as if it’s a religious icon.

But it’s miracle #2, the saving of the cargo of 50,000 chickens, that makes Waguinho a true believer. A crowd of striking workers have closed a bridge and won’t let him pass. “But my chickens will die and I’ll lose my job,” he tells them. He then negotiates with the strike leader, telling him of the statue. The strike leader says that only the workers can vote on whether or not to open the bridge. Tati shows his statue to the mob of workers, Argentineans and soccer fans all. They cheer wildly and agree to open the bridge. The chickens are saved.

Greater miracles, encounters with whores and blind men, as well as a happy ending are still to come, of course. Ultimately, though, The Road to St. Diego serves as yet another reminder—and the Tribeca Film Festival is full of them—that some of the best movies being made today are coming from outside the U.S.A., especially Latin America.

There’s a scene towards the end that may give Americans pause, though that’s clearly not the intention of director and screenwriter Carlos Sorin. Maradona has left the hospital, and hundreds of fans have gathered outside his Buenos Aires estate to get a look at him and to give him gifts. The scene, however, is eerily reminiscent of the way fans used to gather at the Dakota when John Lennon was alive. And when Tati asks the guard at the gate if he can give his statue to Maradona, it may make you think of a scene in another film making its U.S. debut at Tribeca—The Killing of John Lennon.

But, happily, it’s not America, it’s Argentina, and fans there, no matter how obsessive, are not in the habit of carrying handguns.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Originally posted October 1, 2007.
Transplanted New Yorkers Karen (Natascha McElhone) and her ex-partner Hank (David Duchovny) contemplate their new life in Los Angeles, with shades required.


By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I like the new Showtime series Californication, but I’m not sure why. At the beginning, Hank Moody (subtle!), played by former X-Filer David Duchovny, was so pricky that one wondered what the creators were up to. Anti-hero: sure, but it seemed clear that we were supposed to like him (and that women, including his ex, for all her protestations, couldn’t resist him). And then there were all those breasts jiggling above him in medias coitus. Was this just an intellectual soft-porn show for pricky men? Hank delighted in insulting his sex partners, saying weird, almost old-fashioned things like “Consider yourself defiled” (or was it “violated”?). And then he blindsided a blind date, a friend of his agent’s wife, by derogatorily sizing up her background, based on nothing but a pleasantry or two from her (and you got the feeling that he was supposed to be, somehow, spot-on).

Which brings me to another problem with the show: it keeps stealing from movies. Hank’s instant character assassination of that unfortunate date has to derive directly from the scene in Annie Hall in which Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), nervous before his stand-up act at Columbia University, takes a look at Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) and does the same kind of synopsis, only without the snideness and with an admission that he’s acting imbecilic. (“No, that was wonderful,” she replies. “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”) Also, unless it’s common in L.A. for women to stand naked in front of men and ask for a sober appraisal of their body—in Californication this happens twice—the writers have borrowed from Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing as well. Moving along, in the third episode, Hank’s agent (played by the ever reliable Evan Handler, Charlotte’s Jewish love on Sex and the City) gets an S&M thing going with his assistant—or should I say Secretary?

The show’s rogue protagonist also gets away with some ridiculous antics, such as stealing an extremely valuable painting—hello, Hank? Does the word larceny ring any bells?

All that aside, there’s something very engaging about the show. For one thing, it holds good writing in esteem. We’re constantly told what a genius Hank (currently suffering from that famous disorder writer’s block) is, and though the passages we hear—from a blog he reluctantly agrees to do for an L.A. magazine, as though blogs had not become an accepted form of expression for writers from James Wolcott to Jane Smiley (and, hey, me!)—aren’t exactly brilliant, they’re occasionally evocative and even moving.

Also, lately Hank has become more of a good guy (focus groups unhappy with the anti-Christ?). I was glad when the maligned blind date reappeared, in that TV way where people always run into people, and Hank offered a true apology and started seeing her (with nary a breast in sight for what Nancy Franklin, in The New Yorker, called the ta-ta cam). In addition, despite his own transgressive ways (his ex tells him he’s drowning “in a sea of pointless pussy,” a phrase deemed so good Hank resurrects it for us in voice-over), Hank attempts to save his agent/friend’s marriage—in the only way he knows, by suggesting maybe his wife is as much a “dirty girl” as his assistant (and within another episode or two, she is). As perhaps a safety catch, Hank has an adolescent daughter, an aspiring rocker with gothic bangs, that he is crazy about and always tries to do right by; and his ex’s pompous fiancé appears to have no redeeming value other than making Hank seem great in contrast, even to the man’s teenage daughter (whom, oops!, Hank has slept with before learning of her age and paternity). Also, Hank is played by Duchovny, whose slightly off good looks (the lower lip and short chin somehow bespeak both poutiness and detachment) and innate intelligence and in-on-the-joke-ness prevent him from being truly villainous.

So this is the balancing act the show now seems to be trying to perform: How far can this contemporary Ginger Man—an allusion Hank would need to explain to most of his young conquests—go while still remaining lovable as well as edible?

And how long will it take for Hank and the series itself to find a unique voice?

Friday, July 29, 2011


Originally posted on April 26, 2008.
Philippe Petit dances between the Twin Towers.

Man On Wire
Directed By James Marsh

By Robert Rosen

Man on Wire
, a compelling and very funny documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, on August 7, 1974, never mentions what happened to those skyscrapers 27 years, one month, and four days later. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just a peculiarity—because it’s impossible in 2008 to watch this movie and not think about September 11, 2001, especially if you’re seeing it at the Tribeca Film Festival, an event that rose from the ashes of 9/11; especially if you live about a mile from Ground Zero and heard the first plane fly over your house and collide with the North Tower; and especially if for the next three months not a day passed when you didn’t smell the toxic fumes that wafted from wreckage.

And it’s impossible to watch Man on Wire through the perspective of nearly 34 years and not think that if somebody were foolhardy enough today to try the equivalent (if there is an equivalent) of what Petit did in that innocent and long-ago summer, the result would be a very different movie, something more akin to Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay—but without the comedy.

Petit and his crew of merry pranksters were French, for God’s sake, and after casing and photographing the joint, they, with help from a compatriot on the inside, posed at various times as workmen and journalists, and using counterfeit IDs and uniforms, smuggled into the WTC a thousand-pound metal cable, a bow and arrow, and other assorted goodies to commit an act that the Department of Homeland Security would now classify as conspiracy to commit terrorism.

In 2008 the perpetrators wouldn’t have made it to the elevator—forget the roof. How naïve the “tight” security of 1974 looks in this age of perpetual war.

And how amazing that in an age when everybody who owns a cell phone is an amateur videographer, there’s no video or film of Philippe Petit dancing in the clouds, suspended on a wire strung between the tallest buildings in the world. There are only still photographs.

But none of this really matters because Man on Wire is spellbinding from beginning to end. A combination of home movies shot in France in the 1970s, contemporary interviews with the now middle-aged conspirators, newsreel footage, stills, and re-creations (including a seemingly gratuitous scene where Petit, upon achieving instant celebrity, makes love to a groupie in her loft and then feels guilty that he betrayed his girlfriend), Man on Wire seems more like a flick about planning an impossible bank heist—the participants call it a “coup”—which gives the film a dramatic tension rarely found in documentaries.

The perpetually entertaining Petit, who’s also an expert pickpocket, had dreamed of walking across a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers since he was 17 and saw a drawing of the yet-to-be-built WTC in a magazine in his dentist’s office—a moment amusingly dramatized in one of those numerous re-creations. As he waits for the construction to be completed, he warms up for the great feat by performing two other “clandestine” walks—between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the towers of Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia.

The film then details the planning and training for the WTC walk, most of which takes place in Petit’s backyard in France—a military-style operation that looks as if it’s being conducted by the Marx Brothers (and Sisters). Some of Petit’s more memorable accomplices include his girlfriend, Annie Allix, whom he broke up with immediately after the walk; Barry Greenhouse, the mustachioed “inside man” who loaned Petit his ID so he could forge a few copies; David (aka Donald) Foreman, a New York musician whom Petit didn’t completely trust because, as Foreman says of the day he met the wire walker, “I smoked pot every day for 35 years; no reason to think I didn’t smoke it that day”; and Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s oldest friend, who conceived of using a bow and arrow to string the cable between the two towers, and explains how he fooled the WTC security guards: “I put a lot of pens in my pocket. Americans carry a lot of pens, don’t they?”

My only regret about this film: the Petit Gang didn’t recruit me. I was most definitely available that summer. And I’d have joined them in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Soundtrack to the Tribeca Film Festival

Originally posted May 6, 2007.

Donovan: “Mellow Yellow” on a green guitar. 
(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
 By Mary Lyn Maiscott

“Music loves film, and film loves music.” I know, this doesn’t quite make sense, but what if I tell you Donovan said it? Then it kind of works, doesn’t it?

The musicians playing the wonderful Tribeca/ASCAP Music Lounge, held at the Canal Room May 1-4, sometimes felt the need to muster up a direct tie between the two art forms, but they really didn’t need to. People—often between movies—were just there for the songs, and many of the songs were great, especially as delivered in such an intimate setting (and with an open bar nearby). Nevertheless, Jon Auer, of the Posies and Big Star, introduced one song as “an audio version of a Douglas Sirk film”; Adam Schlesinger and Mike Viola performed Schlesinger’s über-catchy “That Thing You Do!” from the eponymous 1996 movie; and Donovan—elfin as always in striped pants and a black waistcoat—revealed that his friend David Lynch loves “Season of the Witch” (as did we, the audience).

Mary Gauthier: Hardscrabble lives set to music. 
(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Another recurring theme was the sad song, with which many of the artists identified: Folk singer Mary Gauthier, declaring herself the “anti-Donovan”—the ’60s icon was on the same Wednesday bill—said at one point that she should be playing a happy song for a change but that she hadn’t yet written one. Similarly, as a kind of disclaimer for a love song he’d written for his wife (“Angelita”), Jon Auer, whose new album is entitled Songs from the Year of Our Demise, asked rhetorically, “Who am I, fuckin’ Paul McCartney? Fuckin’ Ben Lee?” This was another inside joke of sorts: Lee had played only two sets before, and had wowed the crowd with his self-possessed charm (the David Lee Roth scissor kicks went over big), slightly askew tunes, and peace-and-love vibe (especially with “We’re All in This Together,” sung standing on the bar). John Doe and Exene Cervenka, founding members of the punk band X, reminded us of our current political situation with “Lonesome War” and “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands?”

John Doe and Exene Cervenka: X marks the spot. 
(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Which brings me back to Mary Gauthier. Her songs are indeed filled with gravitas, as befits a middle-aged woman who has seen some hard times. And now we’re all seeing hard times as a nation; I think that’s one reason that her eloquent “Mercy” struck a nerve. The wonder of art is that even when it’s evoking the terrible, if it’s good it lifts us up, and Gauthier’s music was truly transporting.

Another thing about art: even within one form, it comes in many varieties. For the Music Lounge, Loretta Muñoz and her crew at ASCAP put together an eclectic lineup. Besides the artists already mentioned, it included such diverse talents as songwriter legend Jimmy Webb, bluesy chanteuse Alice Smith, and, in a rousing finish to the four-day event, rock ’n’ roll idol John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. To quote Donovan again (quoting Pink Floyd), “Shine on, you crazy diamonds.”