School’s In Forever

Mr. SBP

All the world’s a screen anymore, and in everyday life, as used to be the case just in celebrity and politics, we never stop acting. At best that is a type of considered, even examined, life that supposedly-isolating technology has facilitated; at worst, it’s Mr. Student Body President, the most hilarious pilot I’ve seen since the age of print.

This concept, in which The West Wing is repeated as Doogie Howser, is a savage satire of the logical conclusion of youth culture, competitive hipness, and first-world problems consuming our civic bandwidth. Hollywood used to worry about that scary younger generation taking over the government (Wild in the Streets, 1968); now, it frets about young people each collapsing into a country of one (Men, Women & Children, 2014); in Mr. Student Body President the titular popularity-contest winner strides through the highschool hallways with a team of advisors in tow, spouting Sorkin-cadanced solemnities about pep-rally plans and defaming rival schools’ sports teams as in a democracy/terrorist clash of civilizations.

The triviality of the concerns and the soberness of delivery hilariously burlesque the misplaced priorities that people under 70 would see real-life leaders sputtering if any of those people watched the news, and the trappings of poise and seriousness are a little-remarked consequence of a media-saturated culture; people have not been dumbed down by TV and movies and gaming and wifi, they’ve been given a mynah-bird sophistication, and the comedy and tragedy of Mr. Student Body President is that the senior-year executive doesn’t know how funny he sounds OR what his misspent talents could actually accomplish.

Nicholas Barasch is a prodigy of suave self-importance as the title character, Tyler Prendergast; Jenn Lyon a pillar of appalled, receding civilization as Principal Helfrick; Maggie Ross a bundle of existential anxiety as Mrs. Mayer, the embattled media advisor; and Dolores McDougal and Bill Weeden paragons of flummoxed lifetime-functionary earnestness as student council advisor Mrs. Honeychurch and Assistant Principal Leslie Klemmer, respectively. At one point Honeychurch nods up to helplessly look for a google reference for something unrelated to what the kids have queried; at several points Klemmer is reporting his hapless-Hoover surveillance of students’ tweets to the principal.

Sorkin of course banged out a Facebook movie, and Mr. Student Body President more accurately maps how quick these buzz-thoughts pass us by; Tyler gazes with the weight of the world at the empty space on a wall gallery of pep-rally skits past — Wayne and Garth, “Gangnam Style” — and hopes that his planned (and banned) “Turn Down for What” variation will take its place among the relics. This pilot is the wittiest skewer and scalpel of such self-delusion since Conan O’Brien and Adam West’s Lookwell, which is on no one’s wall, and I hope the greenlight gods will not make the same mistake with Mr. Student Body President — the future of comedy actually does depend on it.

A Show About Everything

Absence is not emptiness. When others aren’t looking, we aren’t looking either, but we’re still here just as much. Filmmaker Ashish Pant has a mind for absence in Byron Jones, a nonverbal oral history of the space between what “happens.”Byron 4

The film navigates the dark matter of our everyday; sleeping, meals, the getting dressed but not the going anywhere. Improvising stasis is a monumental task that the movie’s main focus, Bill Weeden, achieves in the title role; his nothing is always a supremely active state, of gestures and tics and unselfconscious mannerisms and unpredictable reactions and inner life floating in the sea of recollection behind his eyes.

In the moments we’re looking in the mirror, showering, defecating, arranging our clothes, we don’t “know” anything more than that about ourselves but completely understand who we are, and in this entirely wordless film we learn who Byron Jones is by sensing his mood and anticipating his reactions. Weeden himself was given no advance knowledge of the film’s narrative, shooting in sequence and being handed a part of the script (consisting of incident and activity, no conventional story) shortly before enacting each scene.

Byron 8 He grew to know this personality just as we do over the course of about an hour and three quarters. Time is measured precisely like that, while cycling into one grand composition in which the space from bedroom to sitting room to kitchen is more important than the duration between moments.

Jones is solitary in a literal sense; we don’t see him ever speak to his occasionally glimpsed home health aide though they take meals together, and otherwise we see no soul but him; presumably retired, apparently widowed or never attached, though we know nothing of what choices he has made. All of us are as solitary, figuratively, in our conception of ourselves, we just don’t feel that that solitude is worth watching — we seldom look into it rather than out from it, but in Byron Jones, it is worthy of note.

Pant packs and thickens time into the movie’s scenes, for an animate still-life painting of how we push our way through daily existence. We see Jones, seemingly well in control of his faculties and destiny, dress up; for nobody, as far as we can tell, but not for nothing; attending to himself, he is the opposite of invisible.

We are as aware of time passing slowly as we are absorbed in its particulars, but Byron Jones is not a Warholian endurance test, daring you not to laugh; it is only funny when it means to be, as in an extended struggle between Jones and the vacuum-sealed contents of a SPAM can, or with a rogue home corn-popper. Later on, with lifeforce, with vigorous anger, one day when the aide is late, Jones dancingly attacks a paisley rug with a vacuum cleaner in an act that looks like the wiping clean of a mandala.Byron 1

The mystic, existential referent applies; Byron Jones is like a Koyaanisqatsi inverted, in which the title character’s simple, crucial existence is at the hub of the wheel of the world. We are animals; we rest, eat, take in air and warmth and water; we sustain ourselves, and the moments in which we do these things are flowing into us, not “moving on.” We see scenes of Byron going out, and scenes of him returning, but nothing of the in-between. But he doesn’t go in circles; he completes them.

Common Valor

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In heroic fiction, there’s always another twist on the way to a final victory; in reality there’s always something new to endure in the course of just staying alive. Compromised, complicated heroes are a commonplace of comics since the mid-1980s, but writer Gail Simone is unparalleled in facing the consequences of conflict from the point of view of those without power.

Leaving Megalopolis is a post-apocalyptic narrative of the type we’ve become used to from zombie and vampire flicks and the daily feeds from Ferguson and Katrina-era New Orleans. But less like Walking Dead and more like Missouri, Megalopolis is about a menace not from those we consider “other” than or “under” us, but above — a glittering city’s superhero population has gone rogue, hunting down civilians in a blasted, now almost-dead urban wasteland.

In the trials of the classic band of survivors, attempting escape and encountering brutality and betrayal in the present while just as slowly marching away from guilt or abuses in their past, we see how both the highest heroism and the worst monstrosity can be the work of everyday humans.

The abandonment of Detroit and the shooting of refugees fleeing flooded New Orleans are each explicitly referenced, and Leaving Megalopolis is a grim parable of having no authority to count on and the logical conclusion of dismantling government. But also of the necessity of individuals truly relying on their own resources and moral authority, not to be “left alone” but to find connections with each other; I can’t think of a braver mainstream comics writer than Simone, and I can’t remember when I was as emotionally invested in an end-times drama as I am in this one.

Artist Jim Calafiore does a horrifying, heartbreaking job of portraying the city’s ghostly greatness and the inhumanity of its inhabitants both super and human. Great attention and understanding has gone into the archetypal references in his design of legends gone wrong and his conception of unnoticed and unsung ordinary souls at their best, their worst and their lost, precious everyday.

I won’t reveal what “turns” the superheroes evil, but it coincidentally reminded me of what seems to have happened to Nix Uotan at the end of The Multiversity #1, and the moral of Megalopolis is that the worst that can befall us happens not from “going bad,” but from giving up. Simone is a definitive storyteller and compassionate witness who puts you in the center of the action and herself at the side of your struggles, and will not turn away.

A Night at the Avant-Garde

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I’ll Say She Is (The Lost Marx Brothers Musical)
New York International Fringe Festival, Aug. 10, 15, 18, 20, 22

http://www.marxfest.com/illsaysheis/

They say I’ll Say She Is was plotless, ephemeral; that’s easy for them to say, since the show has not been performed in some 90 years. I say it’s a delightful confection of thoughtful abandon, and you can say that again.

The show (originally by Will B., Tom and Alexander Johnstone), as many know by now, is the only stage production of the Marx Brothers that did not later live on as a well-known movie. Documentation was thus harder to come by, and writer, artist and performer Noah Diamond has reincarnated it from existing drafts, contemporary accounts, consultation with a descendant of the original scenarist and his own well-informed imagination. He was born to revive this show from long before most of us were born, and leading re-historian and neo-dime-entertainment impresario Trav S.D. was born to direct it.

The show is in the old-school revue format, which means a minimal plotline and blocks of banter as an excuse to launch into songs and set pieces, and Diamond understands well this form’s fine, fall-over-able line between structural expediency and flat-out surrealism. The bored heiress of the title is wandering a movie-set New York City in search of something to interest her, and show-stopping interludes on an allegorical Wall Street (written five years before that other depression), a trip to (and in) a downtown opium den, and a seedy, blaring Times Square that owes as much to the grungy ’70s heyday of American cinema as to the Hollywood golden age are immortally absurd.

A talented cast is free not to re-enact the Marx Brothers’ shtick so much as create it for the first time all over again. Diamond himself as Groucho is miraculous, tapping the source of that comedian’s anarchic essence rather than reconstructing his mannerisms. Groucho’s persona was a weird, prescient dissent to American masculinity, announcing his helplessness at the same time he is enacting absolute (unfit) rule, as we see here in a prolonged and hilarious segment in which he plays a cuckolded Napoleon.

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Seth Shelden is charming yet quietly troubling as Harpo, who was perhaps the only clown who every really knew how scary he could be, a queasy balance struck en-pointe by Shelden’s meta, masterly performance. The Marx character who of course has worn least well is the Italian-immigrant caricature Chico, but Robert Pinnock, long a virtuoso of luckless everymen, plays him with foibles and dignity that ring very true and drily uproarious. I was always intrigued yet seldom satisfied by Zeppo in the old movies; I found the real him to be played too bland and leading-mannish, when the point is that, in this misfit troupe, good-looking, well-adjusted Zeppo is the freak; Aristotle Stamat’s subtly grandstanding and euphorically-self-impressed take makes the play my favorite story of this character.

An expert ensemble of burlesque singer/dancers serve as the show’s Greek Chorus Girls; few have any spoken lines or vocal solos so this is almost a silent-movie role amidst the even more antique form of vaudeville, and two standouts are Melissa Roth, who shows a genius for pantomime (no small claim in a play starring Harpo) by projecting whole life stories of everyone from a flower-peddler to a courtroom bailiff through sheer posture and attitude, and Alexis Thomason, whose shenanigans radiate remarkable fearless joy yet focused presence, no uncommon, um, feet.

Trav S.D. himself gives a miniature master class as one of his trademark stentorian, flummoxed authority figures, and his direction is razor sharp and graciously tumultuous; the minimal set’s absence is never noticed, as the cast’s lavish costumes (by Juliann Kroboth), and lavish-er expressiveness, amidst painterly lighting (Tom Bibla) and precise musical scoring (Bibla; Sabrina Chap) put us in the movie Hollywood should’ve made 90 years ago but couldn’t have achieved ’til now.

The show at this point surely has a bountiful future, and it pays to look back to a past where anything was worth a try, and the enduring philosophy that reality can be improved on and creative possibility is what you say it is.

Off the Chart

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New EP, LIJE, iTunes, CDBaby, eMusic.com

If Fellini had made beach movies, Supermajor would have been their elegiac, enchanted house band. “Cemetery Eyes” is an anthem pouring out from and then somehow all around the dashboard of some convertible that went off a too-sharp curve on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1966 and never returned to Earth, picking up alien angel doo-wops and Eno buzzes from the ether and the future along with its irresistible elysian guitar jingle and synth fizz while it was in the air with no interference. “Your Drift Is a Drug” has that motorcycle-kickstart rhythm, recoiling on itself as it chews up distance, wrapped up in sensations torn away from the disappearing landscape. Happier yet still wiser, Supermajor are pop prophets and sibyls who haunt a collective hit parade without ever having had to die, as rock and roll never does, because they know that youth only passes from soul to soul. There is no more radio but there’s still ritual, and Adam Swiderski’s headlining songs are testaments of movie-star confidence and morality-play caution while Brooke Tarnoff’s and Sarah Engelke’s are séances of ’70s arena-diva sorrow and transcendence, “I See You Clearing” a prayer for hearts put back together from each others’ pieces and “Shotgun” the proto-punk hall of fame B-side. Everything converges for “A Little Piece of the Sun,” the kind of half-album-length epic that whole societies of counterculture would collect around. Supermajor makes the music of the flattened spheres, orbiting eternally on black tracks and then shooting you into the day each time the needle has to lift off.

Primeval

Fish weed

The Lives of Hamilton Fish
New York premiere, May 30, 2104

In 1928, a serial killer named Hamilton “Albert” Fish took a little girl named Grace Budd into the woods of upstate New York and she was never heard from again — and this sick destroyer’s own anguish was perhaps never heard the first time. Today few people would recognize his name upon hearing it — but multi-artform practitioner Rachel Mason was there a century later to note the strange counterpoint between that name and that of statesman Hamilton Fish II, whose obituary appeared on the same front page of a New York newspaper as the notice of the other Hamilton’s execution in 1936. Mason’s mission, over eight years, became to unearth their stories, and those of the people around them; to pay attention to what was untold and spin a story or her own from the pulp of ancient chronicles and the forgotten girl who fell in the woods.

The result is The Lives of Hamilton Fish, a film that stages the surreal reflections on these faded strands of history as a popular opera, playing out onscreen with mouthed vocals while Mason takes the bardic role of singer and musician live onstage in front of it. Actors portray the two Fishes, the statesman’s wife (a suicide), the little girl and her mother, a prisoner, and a psychic, while Mason plays a reporter obsessed with the coincidence — yet another bardic figure.

All actors seem to sing in her voice, which is fitting; the historic figures’ own sounds have been silenced, and the reporter is determining their narrative, though trying to breath some life back in.

Events and characters intersect in ways that elaborate on reality, but also illuminate it. Elegant, eerie use is made of the two main characters’ shared last name; of the killer, it is sung, “The wild fish is out of water and he’s roaming around your town/The wild fish is out of water and he leaves no mark on the ground” — an image of accursed evolution, of edenic expulsion, and a profaned early-Christian symbol, evoking not the savior the sign represented but the kind of predator the world was left to (as echoed by Fish the statesman, who abandons his position of authority in Washington, DC, retreats to his New York mansion and sings of his disillusionment about a universe of order or fairness after his wife’s death).

The killer Fish is sung about as a “werewolf” (one of his real-life media nicknames) and stands like some time-travelling Jack the Ripper figure at a nexus of folkloric horrors; when he eventually is put to death, it is in the grip of electric-chair lightning like Frankenstein’s monster; upon his capture we see him spun up in linen like a mummy, and of course his recurrent theme-song conjures the fairytale Big Bad Wolf — an unhappy story told to him about himself and lived out while others do not. His own abused childhood is hinted at, and in one subtly horrifying scene he staggers slowly between lifeless dolls set up in a quaint old bedroom, effigies of his prey. In this role, Bill Weeden is an unforgettable tragic monstrosity, dead-eyed yet conveying volcanoes of turmoil even further back than that, darting and furtive like a calculating cornered beast when confronted, locked slackly on some horrors he’s lurching away from experiencing and speeding toward causing, railing at the cosmos or stonily certain.

Fish II

As the favored Fish, Theodore Bouloukos is earnest and supremely focused in his portrayal of numb trauma and existential drift. We assume this turn-of-the-last century assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary to be a not particularly reflective man, but his misfortune stirs depths in him which I would like to have seen Bouloukos convey with a bit more tragic weight. This Fish’s storyline is fascinating — self-interment in his mansion, a weird chorus-girl voudon ritual that he invites a spirit medium to perform in his house to contact his wife’s soul — but it is carried more by Mason’s libretto whereas Weeden holds his up equally. Still, it is the curse of decent men that the predators will be more vividly remembered, and Bouloukos’ sepulchral calm is well-taken, yet another counterpoint between him and the charismatic demon who shares his name and seems to prowl beyond death while the good Hamilton turns out his lights ahead of it.

Mason herself, as a character, is an everyperson imbued with great nervous vigilance and downplayed dread. As a performer, she shows remarkable expressive discipline yet conceptual adventurousness, a pillar of storytelling steadiness who can incarnate every furious, despairing, ethereal and doggedly cerebral character. Her musical palette both on and offscreen is impressive, from propulsive rock songs to unsettling ghostly ballads, from howling flute to chilling gusts of metal guitar to a great reality-bending use of auto-tune as instrument.

Her choice of settings is transporting, a collection of interiors and elysian grounds that convey the luxurious mausoleums of the Hudson Valley (though some of them are actually situated as far from that, both geographically and culturally, as Jersey City). As well as the dungeon walls of Sing Sing Prison and the primal woods of the New York wilderness.

Fish pavillion

Sarah Baskin is heartbreaking and invincible as Emily Mann, good Hamilton’s lost wife; dressed like some gilded-age goddess effigy she dances and soliloquizes in a classic pavilion that’s like some alabaster phallic cage. At one point her ghost encounters a florally-dressed version of Grace Budd, a lovely primavera fantasia, and the true memorial of this work is to these two tragic sisters, the woman who took herself out of the world for reasons we may never know, and the one who was taken before she’d ever have a life to record.

These spirits, like the two Hamiltons and others here, only meet in memory, in the retold story of a later observer trying to make sense of what happened to them. In Mason’s lyrics the theme of “lines” recurs — spaces of text on a newspaper page, lineages of both privileged and lowly families. Strapped in the electric chair, bad Hamilton sings that this device “gives you no future and takes away your past,” and we’d like to think that some of the lines of our life are so easily unwritten, or that the marks on us are only made by others. But artists like Mason and her collaborators fill in the picture, with more than the surface we know how to present, and the portrait performs the miraculous feat of speaking, truthfully, to the living.

http://www.livesofhamiltonfish.com/

Pro-Creative

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There were giants in the earth — or at least “Marvel Earth,” and Earth 2 — when Dean Haspiel was growing up reading comics. It was his book of myths, with heroes from the apex of American self-assurance who bestrode the pop imagination like direct descendants of the brand-name gods, and Haspiel’s own characters — and his own persona — attempt to follow that line and take the world those gods left onto new shoulders.

His signature characters Billy Dogma and Jane Legit define a new day from the market mastery of previous pop, colliding the universes of 1940s-‘50s romance comics and 1960s-‘70as action ones by being lovers, not fighters — a power-couple whose barely-costumed encounters shake their city like the brightly costumed battles of old. They speak like mod deities reciting scrambled psalms, the secret of the universe one cry away and their eyebeams and forceblasts the transcendence we feel when chemistry ignites.

In this lovely volume, half of which (“Immortal”) longtime admirers will recognize from Haspiel and Michel Fiffe’s Image anthology Brawl and the other half (the title tale) from activatecomix.com (all of it remastered revelatorily for the holy technology of handheld tomes), Billy and Jane learn a thing or two about the reality they come from — a creation myth that helps us all look back to how we can be new people. Haspiel tells it in a masterful maelstrom of animated imagery that dances on solid air from the cliffside of cartoons past into the mix-and-mash of digital visions yet to be.

In his introduction, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge author Josh Neufeld can’t help quoting Billy’s bizarre catchphrases at length and I don’t blame him; eschewing the commonplaces of a less-complicated era, Billy’s exclamations are more like shaggy-dog free-association (“Give a crippled crab a crutch”); Billy will not come up with the next “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, but no one will ever be able to duplicate what’s his.

Comics, like sex, is a language, but to only speak it is missing more than half the point. Haspiel operates at the event horizon of understanding, chiseling prophetic malapropisms that are like the first translation of some lost utopia, dead alien race or basic equation of existence. In one particular masterstroke of the literally unseen but deeply understood, an epic, transcendent lay between Billy and Jane is described from outside the scene Haspiel is actually depicting; a survival struggle between a colossal squid and the giant whale the couple are biblically traveling in (and I meant to day “stroke” and “deeply,” at least once I’d written it).

Haspiel remembers back to when our gods were not so solitary or circumspect, and would engage in creative acts of attraction between world and sky when there was barely yet an Earth to move. Long before a “Word” started existence, we read of it springing from giants’ loins (something we see metaphorically enacted in one scene toward the end of “Immortal,” though I won’t spoil and probably couldn’t describe it).

Mother Earth and Father Sky were the golden-age deities, and word and image are the divine parents of comics’ unnamable combined sense, its third-eye candy; the avatars of those facing pages, the impulsive, muscular Billy and the strategic, light-footed Jane, are like action and thought, meeting in the physical as one perfect being, which is to say far from a finished one, but one who is whole.