Friday, June 30, 2006


The question of the objectivity of art has been asked for centuries, and never really answered. I used to be very careful to say "I didn't like it" instead of "It was bad" to make sure not to offend people who liked "it" (whatever "it" is - you can find it on ebay). But then, I also used to seat during credits at the end of movies.

Let's face it, nobody really wants to seat during those credits, and all we really want to yell is "I hated it, it was bad". Tonight, I finally saw Rent (the musical on Broadway), and yes, I thought it was really, really bad (I just heard my friend Karen scream all the way from Avenue I). Of course, people will argue "no, you really can't say that. If people liked it, it can't be bad". Well, can't people like bad things?
Tell me, have you never seen a big blue square, hanging in a museum in the painting section? And when you cross someone walking in the street wearing yellow pants and a white t-shirt with purple vertical stripes, do you say "I don't like it" or "Oh-my-god-how-could-she-do-that-it's-so-fucking-ugly?" I thought so. (Also, how often do you tell people "You can't say it was good, you have to say you liked it. You're offending people who didn't".)
To be really clear, I'm just arguing about the fact that I have every right to say so. Whether I'm right or wrong is another matter.

The truth is, writing (whether music or words) is a skill, it has to be mastered, and you can fail at it.

But let's get to our subject, and let's put aside a few things first. I thought the music was ok, if you like that sort of cheesy, a-thousand-times reused pop music. So if you're a huge fan of the music, listening to the CD all the time, I understand, you're probably not the only one. The performers were neither good or bad, certainly not of Broadway-caliber; but then, it didn't stop hundreds of spectators to yell and applause at the end of each song like they've just witnessed a reunion of the Beatles. So to the people who will tell me Rent is only as good as the actors in it, I say "I guess this time, Rent-fans thought it was a good one." I didn't. Overlapping dialogue is great in a Robert Altman movie, not in a musical. In fact, if I hadn't read the plot before, I probably wouldn't have gotten it. The 50-year old choir director from Michigan seated next to me agreed, and so does the management of the theatre, apparently, since the whole story is explained in the "Playbill" - which is a first.
A short word about the set and the dancing: I found both pretty simple but powerful. All in all, the strong side of the musical.

But beside the acting, beside the music and the dancing there's a play. And so we get to the plot and to the lyrics and dialogue, which are really at the heart of my argument. My guess (once again, as a disappointed spectator to a cult-musical, I can only guess what appeals to the fan) is that rent-followers admire that it deals with never-before dealt-with issues. AIDS, being poor in a big city, being a lost soul in the 80s/90s. In three words: "la vie boheme". Great. Chapeau bas. That doesn't make the play good.

The characters are extremely simplistic, the already mentioned impossible-to-understandable plot, once you get it, is in fact inexistent (which wouldn't be a problem if the musical numbers were entertaining), the dialogues of the kind that wouldn't grant you admission to a high-school creative-writing class ("I missed you so much! - Me too!"). As a matter of fact, the writing is so poor that the main character, Mark, has to come forward and explain to us what we're looking at. Obviously, Jonathan Larson had never heard of exposure. Mark, by the way, is a would-be filmmaker. He owns a camera that's supposed to look cheap, but is in fact so expensive it could pay last year's, this year's, and next year's rent (yes, I happen to know this camera, and you can also find it on ebay). His credo, and everyone else's, is art and creativity, but the way he uses his tool, shooting asses and buildings, he looks more like a Dawson or that guy from American Beauty with his plastic bags, than the Spike Lee he so fondly refers to.
Another interesting character is Maureen. You hear about her for most of the first act before she actually appears. She's supposed to be an incredibly intense girl, attracting every eye, sending shivers to every spine. But when she finally shows up, she's boring, empty and shallow. Actually, I'm sure I've seen her profile on a dating site the other night.
Talking about Maureen, I don't know what to make of Rent's crudeness. Yes, sex references are mandatory with this kind of subject, but did they really need to go as far as showing us her bare ass?

Let's take another example! Oh, how do we love examples, they're so great and easy to use when you want to make a point. (But be careful, I will divulge important points of the plot, so if you haven't seen it, skip this paragraph).
My example tonight will be Angel, a tall black guy who arrives in Alphabet City - the New York neighborhood where Rent takes place - at the beginning of the musical. Now, if you know anything about narration, you know that such a character is supposed to be our friend. Just like him (and just like Dorothy in Oz), we know nothing about the world he enters and the people that inhabit it. That's why in theory, he's the most important character. But apparently, Larson hadn't heard of that either, since Angel doesn't serve here as a narrator (Mark does), and is in fact nothing like the average spectator. He has AIDS (as do others) and likes to dress as a woman. In the second act, he dies and all the characters mourn him. This is supposed to be a very emotional moment. There's just one problem: that guy we were supposed to love and side with, we know nothing about him: therefore, we don't care. In fact, we learn more about his personality when others talk about him after his death. Mark tells us how Angel used to go talk to people in the street, and they'd be stunned cause they've never talked to a drag-queen. Such a fun story... Wait, no, actually it sounds exactly like one I overheard in the subway the other day.
Oh, and while we're at it, being a drag-queen is a complex art that involves performance and entertainment. When you cross-dress, you're simply a transvestite. Honestly, for a play that sees itself as the symbol of "La vie boheme", they could at least have gotten that right.

Some people say Rent is not what his creator, Jonathan Larson, intended it to be, because he died, age 36, before opening night. This strangely reminds me of Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut. Except that Kubrick had a few masterpieces behind, and I still think Eyes Wide Shut was genius.
Larson had just written a few off-Broadway plays before Rent, and cited "Jesus Christ Superstar" as a reference.

I'd like to advance my own reference: the movie "Les nuits fauves" by Cyril Collard, who died of AIDS before his movie was released. It deals with the same issues, but you'll have a good example of smart writing, emotional scenes, and depth of story.

In a way, it's very sad. If you care about an issue, wouldn't you like its most popular vehicle, the one that gets the most exposure, to be good? Truthful? Witty and smart? It looks to me like the masses, instead of asking for better and denouncing a cheap representation of their values, settled for what was there. It is, really, a pity.

In the meantime, in this beginning of millennium, I find Rent to be cheap, and Broadway tickets expensive.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A 2-minute review of Crash

So, after 6 months of delaying it, I finally saw Crash (by Paul Haggis). I already wrote about why it got best picture (in a few words, it takes place in LA), now I know it didn't deserve it.

This is the perfect example of a mediocre movie, of a wasted good idea. It should be shown to movie students, to illustrate how you can use lots of good actors, writing, not to mention money, to go absolutely nowhere, and create a movie that doesn't advance anything. Not ideas, not art, and certainly not the state of racism in LA.

Cause as you might now, that's what Crash is about: racism in LA. Oh sure, you see plenty of it. Anti-black cops, anti-white black men, anti-latino Persian shop-owners, anything you want: it's here.
During the course of the movie, most characters change, whether they go from racist to tolerant, or from tolerant to racist. And you see lots of reasons. Some of them obviously stupid (because a latino has a tattoo, he's a gang-member), some of them that make you think twice about it (a white men employing 20 black employees loses his company because of some affirmative action law).
But it never tells you who's right and who's not. The characters never speak about their racism, never apologize or even defend their ideas. The movie doesn't judge them: it is no more than a reality-check.

I don't like reality checks, not in American cinema. Give me the state of poverty or AIDS in Africa, show me minors working in mines in South America. I'll take it. But if you're an American filmmaker dealing with an LA issue, you'd better do something about it: because you can. Tell me: "yes, he lost his company because of affirmative action, but it doesn't prove anything. You can not generalize." Or: "Maybe he's a gang member, then why don't you show him how to get out of there". You Paul Harris, say something for god's sake!

A woman get successively molested, then saved from certain death by the same man the next day. Then walks away crying, obviously confused. What does she think? What process of thought goes through her mind? We'd like to know, but the movie says nothing. It barely states, shows, and walks away. Pity.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Cell

Earlier today, as I was writing (typing? pushing? dialing?) a text message, I pushed 1 three times, hoping my cell's smart system would recognize :-) Instead, :-( appeared on my screen.

It's official, Either T-Mobile or Motorola wants its user to feel depressed. Why? Maybe cause depressed people talk more, calling all their friends to tell them about what's gone wrong. Or don't go out, therefore interact more with a phone than anything else.
T-Mobile, also the smart carrier that ends every ad with their jingle, which is also most of its users' ring. How many of us check our cell every time the ad airs on the TV we left open in the background? Thank God for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Anyway, with Jan Ullrich once again the center of the T-Mobile Tour de France team, depression will be once again on the menu in July. Along with drugs, amphetamines and all kinds of doping products.

That's it for today. My mood, therefore my frequency of writing in the next few days, entirely depends on France winning its game against Togo tomorrow. Write me down for 3-0.

PS: Interestingly enough, the spell checker recognizes words like Motorola and Zeta-Jones, but not Ullrich.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Battle of the motherlands

I know, it's a lot of soccer for a blog dedicated to Pop Culture. But after all, the World Cup is the biggest event of them all. Is that not pop culture?
For info, the NBA Finals are watched by an average of 20 millions people. The Superbowl, 90 millions.
Wow, good job americans! Now listen to this.

The final of the World Cup will be watched by approximately 1.3 billions people. Thats 1300 millions. Almost 15 superbowls at the same time. And the total of the competition will be watched by 20 (non cumulative) billion viewers. Oh, you do the maths!

Anyway, right now, Germany is battling Poland. For me, it's like Dad against Mom, because yes, even though I'm a frenchie, I'm really germano-polish.

Another way to look at it, is, who to root for? The murderers or those who watched and didn't say a word?
Damned, I almost want to call this game "The Anschluss, the return". We could make t-shirts and stuff, you know?
OK, back to work.

(Yes, I am kidding. I love Germans. If they're under 60. And have black hair. And green eyes. And have proof of their parents' whereabout during the war.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

National Shame

The terrible loss the US Soccer team suffered today in the hand of the Czech Republic was the best thing that could happen to the future of American soccer.

Two weeks ago, as the US played Jamaica in North Carolina, ESPN aired a short "behind the scene" clip, showing players and staff members talking in the locker room. The lack of organization was obvious everywhere, from the coach saying "let's forget about our last loss, it was a stupid game", to the way the players talked to the press, with no professionalism whatsoever (the relation between players and media is almost as important as training, for mental and supporting reasons).
And the anchor signing off, with a big smile flashing his ignorance.

But since then, the world cup frenzy started. People believed the 5th place of their team in the official and incredibly stupid FIFA ranking meant something (in reality, this ranking depends on which region a team plays in, and does not consider the quality of the opposing team when counting a win, which means that a victory of USA over Jamaica has the same impact that a victory of Germany over Italy!).

So, expectations flew high. On every Sport Center, in every magazine, every website, Americans started talking about their great team and the fantastic road it would take in this world cup.

And then, the US got a beating. 3-0 against the Czechs, the first goal coming in the 4th minute. And now, for the first time, the reaction seems a professional one. The coach is talking about players not stepping up, the media are performing "reality czechs", reminding everyone of the true nature of US Soccer: just beginning.

There's one thing the united states care about more than anything else, it's pride. And today, the US are ashamed. So at last this country starts taking the sport seriously, because with the loss came the realization that America sent an ambassador to the world it could not be proud of.

I suggest you read today's New York Times article. If you're American, it hurts. If you're from anywhere else in the world, you'll recognize a typical media reaction to its national soccer team losing a world cup game. At last.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

World Stages

OK, I promised to myself that the re-beginning of my blog would not suffer from the world cup. It's gonna be tough.
Living the world cup in the US is kind of weird. Everyone acknowledges and informs its neighbor that this is the greatest sporting event in the world, yet no-one really cares.

What's missing from the experience is not the broadcasts (each game airs live, either on ESPN or ABC), but the surrounding media frenzy, in magazines, tv shows, and every other part of the entertainment for mass audience world. Here's for my take on this. It won't stop me from watching tons of game, and supporting France (yes, when it comes to soccer, I stand behind my native country).

So, here are a few very short notes on other noticeable events this week.
Tonight on CBS, the TONY awards are given to the best of Broadway. I should probably write much longer sometime about Broadway, this centennial New York institution that regroups the biggest and most expensive stage productions in Manhattan, whether it's a play or a musical, about the thrill of a live act, the relation between money and quality, and about the power of legends like "Les Miserables" or "Cats" which might have no equivalent in film or literature.

Cars, the new Pixar (or Disney-Pixar) opened in theatre. It was their 3rd best opening after The Invicibles and Finding Nemo, but the first time a new Pixar doesn't top a previous one. I'm puzzled as to the marketing campaign John Lasseter and his boys led for Cars, with a very poor preview, which was very little played anyway. Instead, ads for auto-insurer State Farm and Hertz seemed to be leading the charge, which is never a good sign. But it seems that the audience, just like me, would trust Pixar with their - cinematic - life. And for good reasons, when you look at the masterpieces they've created. Toy Story 2 is high, high in my top 30 (or is it 35 now?).

That's all for now. Check back later.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Special 6/6/6: My brother is the AntiChrist!

As you all know, today is a big day. Today is the day Satan is supposed to rule the Earth, daemons come out of darkness, and the work of the devil will be complete.
Today is June 6th, 2006, today is 6/6/6.

Today is also the day "The Omen", the remake of the great horror movie from the 70s, is released. The Omen feature Julia Stiles, Liev Shreiber , and Pete Postlethwaite, the greatest character actor ever.
He was Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects, he was the father in Romeo+Juliet, he was the hunter in Jurassic Park 2, he was one of the prisonner in Alien3. I noticed him for the first time when I happened to watch Alien3, Jurassic Park 2 and the Usual Suspects on the same, quiet day - what a coincidence, will you tell me.

Back to the Omen. The film is the story of Damien, played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, a young kid who is thought to be the reincarnation of Satan himself, the Antichrist. You can believe my surprise when I saw for the first time the picture of the actor playing Damien, and who is... the clone of my brother, David. But a picture tells more than a thousand words, so take a look here:

Scary right? Now I got to figure out why a Germano-polish Jew looks so much like an Irish-american.
No explanation? It must be the work of the Devil...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Return of the Blog

Yes, I know, you can't believe it. Benzona is back. After a false start, this blog is definitely under way.
I don't promise super long posts every time, or insanely smart comments. But, at least a few times a week, a note, a thought, maybe not much, but something.

To start with, some amazing pictures I've taken in the Brooklyn neighborhood I work in, DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Friday under the rain...