Sunday, October 19, 2014

Birdman Doesn’t Fly

 I had high hopes for Birdman, coming as it does with a well-known director (Alejandro Iñárritu, of 21 Grams and Babel), a first-rate cast (Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone, among others) and a premise that really interests me: a formerly successful, aging movie star questioning the career and life choices he’s made.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays the former star of an action movie franchise featuring the titular character, who tries to stage a career comeback by starring in, directing and producing a play based on the book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by the well-known writer Raymond Carver. During previews, one of the actors in the play’s cast is injured by a stage light and is replaced by Edward Norton’s character, a somewhat pompous, overly serious theater actor. The play appears headed for disaster when a theater critic for a New York Times-like newspaper threatens to “kill” the play. But then there’s a last-minute plot twist involving social media that turns the play into an unexpected hit.
The acting here is good (particularly a low-key, slimmed-down Zach Galafinakis as Michael Keaton’s lawyer), but I was distracted by such things as the camera work and the actor’s appearances (“Why is the skin around Michael Keaton’s ears so pulled back? Did he have a face lift?” “Edward Norton has a hot ass!” “Emma Stone has a beautiful face and her eyes are really green!”). The film appears to have been shot in one continuous take. I realize this is a major technical achievement, but it distances the audience from the movie, and even people who aren’t film school graduates might sense that there’s something “wrong.” Also, weird events happen throughout the movie for no apparent reason. (Keaton has the ability to move objects just by pointing at them, a drummer mysteriously appears in various places playing the movie’s percussive soundtrack, a homeless-looking man appears on the street reciting Shakespeare). I don’t know if Iñárritu is trying to create an atmosphere of “magical realism,” but this is distracting, too. We’re led to believe the film is taking place in the “real world,” not the world of superheroes, where we’re used to people flying around. Although Keaton’s Birdman character is referenced throughout the film, he’s not really a part of the main action. He mainly appears as a voiceover, narrating Keaton’s inner doubts.
The screenplay is also a weird mixture of high-brow and low-brow, dropping names like Roland Barthes while at the same time indulging in adolescent sexual humor.
Birdman comes with a critic-proof device: the character of the aforementioned theater critic about whom several digs are made of the “those who can’t do criticize” variety. That’s a bit disingenuous. Who goes to a movie (or in the case of this movie, a play) not wanting to like it?
Perhaps what the makers of this movie didn’t consider is that some people love the art form they’re critiquing so much that they’re truly disappointed when something doesn’t live up to their expectations.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Sad Demise of Dojo, the Deplorable Rise of Brunch, and the Death of Mom-and-Pop Stores in Manhattan

 This afternoon I was supposed to have lunch with a friend of mine and his husband at Veselka, the last Ukrainian restaurant standing (and, therefore, also the last affordable restaurant standing) in the East Village. This being 2pm on a Sunday, the restaurant was full and the line was out the door. Having just read David Shaftel’s brilliant op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Brunch Is for Jerks,”1 I turned to my friend Ivan and said, “I am not contributing to this madness known as 'Sunday brunch in Manhattan,' ” and suggested we go to Dojo, another vestige of the affordable East Village we both knew and loved. (The remaining Dojo is actually on West Fourth and Mercer Streets, but the original location—now closed—was on Saint Mark’s Place.)
Those of you of a certain age may remember Dojo as a ridiculously cheap restaurant with a Japanese flavor, famous for their carrot ginger dressing and their status as a de facto cafeteria for nearby NYU students. A few months ago, the owners of Dojo, in their infinite wisdom, decided to “renovate” and those of us who remembered the old Dojo held our collective breaths, fearing that either they would never reopen again or, if they did reopen, they would raise their prices to accommodate their higher aspirations (and renovation costs).
I’m sorry to report that my last two visits to Dojo since they reopened have been disappointing in the extreme. Gone are the wide-open spaces that made the place feel like a cafeteria physically as well as price-wise, replaced by wooden dividers that make you feel like a caged veal. While the prices have not risen substantially, something is seriously amiss in the kitchen. The last time I had breakfast there (I had suggested it to my friend Owen as a nicer alternative to the Washington Square Diner), the food was barely adequate and Owen vowed never to return for breakfast. This time, returning for lunch, was a horror show. My friend Ivan ordered a steak sandwich which, in both of our estimations, resembled Steak-umms more than actual steak, and I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with French fries, which are still repeating on me several hours later.
Now, to be fair, Dojo never claimed to be a four-star restaurant and the service was always leisurely, at best. But this food was barely edible. I took one look at Ivan’s steak sandwich, which I had planned on sharing with him, and said, “I’m not touching that!”
It seems to me that Dojo spent all their money on renovations and then actually lowered the quality of their food to make up the cost!
I feel sorry for the (constantly rotating) wait staff that has to put up with these conditions (as well as the owners), but it seems like a catch-22 situation. The owners of such restaurants are struggling to stay in business, so they either have to renovate and (usually) raise their prices and/or cut their costs (which often means cutting their quality, as well). Then, when they cut their quality, they get even fewer customers, so it becomes a vicious cycle, until they eventually close for good.
Basically, if you’re not either very expensive or part of a chain, you can’t afford to do business in Manhattan anymore. In fact, there are some chains (and I would include high-end luxury retailers in this category) whose stores function solely as 3-D advertisements for their brand. Is anyone really buying $10,000 dresses at the Chanel store in Soho (or any of their other stores, for that matter, considering the only people who can afford them get them for free)? It doesn’t matter, because they make most of their money on perfume. This is why so many designers go out of business, unless they’re also in the business of selling underwear (hello, Calvin Klein!).
Right now there’s an entire chain of stores called Organic Avenue that sprang up literally overnight, with locations in every neighborhood in Manhattan. Yet every time I pass one of their stores, it’s completely empty!
I’m afraid that restaurants like Dojo—not fancy, but affordable—are not long for this city and will soon join the dustbin of retail history, along with all the other mom-and-pop drugstores, coffee shops and diners that have already gone out of business.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bedbug and the Angry Itch

 The most imaginative piece of theater in New York right now is happening in a church basement on West 71st Street. I’m speaking of the musical Bedbugs, and you must run like a commuter fleeing from a bedbug-infested N train to see it.
I’d forgotten how much fun camp done well can be and this show hits the nail on the head on several counts.
The plot, such as it is, involves the recent infestation of New York City by bedbugs and one scientist’s quest to wipe them out and simultaneously avenge the death-by-bedbug of her mother. Somehow, a character based on the self-parodying singer Celine Dion (here called Dionne Salon) also figures into the plot, to hilarious effect.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but there are some standouts in my mind. Barry Shafrin as a protypical hipster has every mannerism down pat, from the constant scowl on his face to his non-stop staring at his iPhone to such utterances as “I’m allergic to sincerity!” and “I don’t even ironically like Dionne Salon!”
That brings us to Brian Charles Rooney as the aforementioned Dionne Salon. I didn’t even realize that a man was playing this role until I looked at the program during intermission. It was only then that I noticed his uncharacteristically (for a woman) large hands, but then I wondered, “How does he sing so high?” His impersonation is spot-on, from her annoying habit of pronouncing the word “love” as “lurve” to her diaphanous gown waving in a fake breeze.
Chris Hall as lead bedbug Cimex bring a Rocky Horror-like swagger to his role. (It’s no surprise to learn that he played Rocky and is also in an 80’s tribute band.)
Grace McLean as the scientist Carly has an admirable set of pipes and makes a wonderful transition from nerdy scientist to sex-bomb leading lady.
I don’t know how large the budget for this off-Broadway show is, but you certainly see every penny onstage. The four-piece band does a pitch-perfect rendition of the show’s 80’s-sounding score by Paul Leschen and Fred Sauter. The costumes (particularly for the bedbugs) are way over the top and match anything Disney could pull off. The staging makes the most of this unusually shaped space, including a chirpy morning news reporter who sticks her head through a TV set to simulate a live broadcast.
If I wanted to quibble, I’d say the first act seemed a little long (even though it was only an hour). But you’ll be having so much fun, you won’t care.
Just bring insecticide. (I kid!)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

How to Survive Being a Middle-Aged Gay Man in New York

 Yesterday I found out on Facebook that a man I know who was about my age and was a fixture at a certain gay bar I frequent passed away. While the cause of his death is still unknown, it was suggested to me that he may have taken his own life because he was very unhappy. (He had recently broken up with a boyfriend and was also unemployed.) I did not know this man very well (he was more of an acquaintance than a friend), but it got me thinking.
Middle-aged gay men in New York face a unique set of pressures.
First of all, there’s the economic pressure faced by everyone who lives in New York City, the most expensive city in America and one of the most expensive cities in the world. Add to that the difficulty of finding a job in this economy, which still has not recovered from the recession that started six years ago. I would also argue that there is rampant age discrimination going on in the workplace that’s not being prosecuted because it’s almost impossible to prove. (But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.)
Secondly, there’s the ageism in our society in general which, I would argue, is even worse in the gay community. This is compounded by the gay community’s emphasis on looks, which borders on body fascism. Granted, our entire culture is now consumed with appearances, but the gay community may have started this trend (a fact which does not make me proud to be a gay man).
Third, there’s the rampant promiscuity in the gay community. (Yes, I know some gays are in committed relationships or even married, but they’re the minority). Again, this is not unique to the gay community, but we practically invented “hooking up.”
I don’t want to sound anti-sex, but try finding a boyfriend in this environment!
And all of this is happening in an atmosphere of total silence. Sure, the recent suicide of Robin Williams cast the media’s attention on depression for about a week, but then they moved on to the next crisis. (War? Ebola? Take your pick!)
And this situation is further exacerbated by social media, which not only has had the ironic effect of making us more isolated, but serves to magnify the highs and lows of the human condition: everyone’s life is either perfect or they’re dying. What you don’t see is the mundane reality that constitutes 95% of most people’s lives: going to work, cooking, doing the laundry, watching TV, etc.
It’s no wonder that the suicide rate is highest among white men in my age group.1 And it’s also no wonder that the rate of substance abuse is higher among gay men.2
Also, let’s not forget that my generation saw dozens of their friends and lovers die during the peak years of the AIDS crisis. We weren’t even supposed to live this long!
I’m not a psychiatrist. This is just my opinion based on my feelings and what I’ve observed in other middle-aged gay men in New York. It’s a tragedy when anyone dies before his time, but suicide represents a level of depression that’s incomprehensible to me.
I’ve joked a lot about the alienation I feel as a gay man in my act, but when someone kills himself because of that alienation, it’s no joke.
A few years ago, there was a gay psychiatrist who wrote a book about how to survive middle age as a gay man and he killed himself!3 That would be funny if it wasn’t true.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it has something to do with paying more attention to our relationships in real life (as in, not on the Internet), not isolating ourselves and not being afraid to talk about our feelings.
I wish I had the opportunity to ask my acquaintance how he was feeling and that he had the courage to tell me the truth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My Late (Almost) Conversion to Beyoncé and Jay-Z Fan

 There’s one thing to be said for HBO’s 24/7 marathon presentation of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run concert, which I have now seen almost in its entirety (two-and-a-half hours is a lot of ask of a fan, let alone a non-fan): it’s (almost) made a Beyoncé and Jay-Z fan out of this middle-aged half-Jewish gay white man from Long Island. Almost.
The first thing that needs to be said about this concert is that the production values are spectacular. Beyoncé and Jay-Z obviously spared no expense in mounting this tour, from video and lighting to dancers, backup singers and band. But those things are available to any artist who has achieved a certain level of success. (An instructive documentary on this subject is Who the F**k is Arthur Fogel, about the concert promoter of such artists as the Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Police, and Guns 'N Roses.)
But then you have to look past the production values to the actual musical talent (or lack thereof) of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And that’s where I run into some problems.
I’ve always admired the virtuosity of Beyoncé’s voice, but some of her songs sound like she’s performing vocal scales: either they don’t have any hooks or it’s just one long chorus (i.e., “Love on Top”). She’s just trying to impress you with her octave range.
I think a lot of Beyoncé’s appeal has to do what I call The Cult of the Diva: the fascination among gay men for powerful women who behave in a dramatic fashion and/or seem larger than life.
For me the high point of the show was a song called “Resentment,” about a lover’s (Jay-Z’s?) infidelity. Again, this is not exactly the kind of song whose melody you’ll be whistling after you leave the show, it’s more like a dramatic monologue. And it’s here that Beyoncé goes into full diva mode, as she literally brushes her female competition off her shoulder like so much dandruff and delivers such lines as “She ain’t even half of me/That bitch will never be.”
This is the kind of stuff that typically drives gay men wild. It’s like watching a woman doing an impersonation of a drag queen (which, of course, is a man doing an impersonation of a woman).
Then there’s Jay-Z. This is the part of the show where I would normally go to the bathroom and/or get a drink.
The problem I have is not so much with Jay-Z, per se, as it is with rap “music” as an art form. (I hesitate to even call it “music” because music is inherently melodic and rap is more about rhythm, or saying words rhythmically to be precise.)
The most successful rap songs usually sample a melodic “hook” from a song such as Chic’s “Good Times” (Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) or Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”). Occasionally, there may be an original melodic line underneath (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”). Or, sometimes, the rhythm itself is catchy in a call-and-response way (Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”).
Similarly, Jay-Z’s best “songs” sample the work of songwriters like Alicia Keys (“New York State of Mind”) or Alphaville (“Forever Young”). And I’m sure no one was more surprised (or more happy to count their royalties) than Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin when Jay-Z decided to sample one of their songs from the Broadway musical Annie, “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”
OK, so the fact that my rap references are at least 30 years old may mean that I’m not exactly a rap connoisseur, but at least it gives you some idea of where I’m coming from. Hip-hop may have become the dominant force in pop culture, but when I hear lyrics like “H to the izz-O. V to the izz-A” (which even I have to admit is kind of catchy on a strictly rhythmic basis), my reaction is “Whaaaaat?”
But that explains why Jay-Z and Beyoncé can fill a stadium in Paris. Because minorities are the majority. And that’s why middle-aged white guys like me feel left out (unless we pretend we’re from the “’hood”).
It’s interesting, too, to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z appropriating aspects of “white” culture such as Bonnie and Clyde and punk rock. But I guess that means the culture has come full circle.
So when Beyoncé makes her last appearance in a fabulous dress that looks like the American flag (except its colors are black and white instead of red, white, and blue), it makes perfect sense.