Stunners on Phase
["I Know It's Only Reich 'n' All, But I Like It"]


I may be a lover, but I ain't no dancer.  Leastwise, I am no dancer when it comes to formalized/organized movement any more complex than a box step, and even that has been known to test my limits from time to time.  Other members of my household are happily not so terpsichoreally challenged as I.  The best I can claim for myself is that in the non-formalized, wriggle and jiggle school of dancing, I can hold my own with St. Vitus -- "rapid, irregular, and aimless involuntary movements of the arms and legs, trunk, and facial muscles".  And even I can manage quite well as a spectator of other people dancing.

Which brings us to Fox's So You Think You Can Dance , Season 5 of which ended just last week.  My lady wife began watching the show enthusiastically a couple of years ago and ultimately turned me into a fan as well.  Ordinarily, it is not the sort of thing I would mention here, but this season's final round of competition included an unexpected dollop of one of my favorite things: Minimalism!

Below, the final two women in the competition, Kayla Radomski (blond) and eventual champion Jeanine Mason (not blond), perform a piece choreographed by Emmy winner Mia Michaels set to an excerpt from the fourth and final section of The Four Sections, a 1987 composition by minimalist eminence and 2009 Pulitzer winner Steve Reich:

A higher quality, non-embeddable version of this performance is (currently) viewable here.  

I have to say that neither of these very fine dancers shows at her respective best in this number -- the synchronization seems a bit off and there is some obvious non-cooperation by Jeanine's costume at the conclusion -- but it was nonetheless nifty to hear a Seriously Serious Composer such as Reich being used in a context in which pop 'n' hip-hop (or Carmina Burana) are far more common.


For additional listening

Reich's best known work is probably Music For 18 Musicians.  His website features a free MP3 recording of a longish excerpt from the world premiere performance in 1976.  (Click on the "multimedia" link to reach it.)

Continuing the "minimalism in unexpected places" theme, Reich's influence is inescapable in the arrangement of "Island, IS," a track prereleased this week from the forthcoming album by Bon Iver side project Volcano Choir. Plink plink plink, pulse pulse pulse, repeat.


Illustration: from the score of Steve Reich's seminal Piano Phase (1967), via ESTWeb.  Last year at this time, I highlighted a tour de force performance of that same work.



And now, a happy lapse in to Low (but delicious!) Culture.  Andy Denhart at reality blurred has given America its marching orders:

It is now your mission to vote every Monday night (and tonight) for Cloris Leachman, because she absolutely must remain on Dancing With The Stars 7 until the very last episode.  She was potty mouthed, rule-breaking, host-insulting highlight in the most outrageous episode yet.

Performing with her professional dance partner, Corky Balas --
"'Cloris and Corky,'" I said.  "Sounds like the names of a pair of hamsters."
-- Ms. Leachman is pure Life Force in all its coarse, unstoppable messiness.  Live TV at its most wickedly spontaneous:

At 82, she is much much older than the part is written, but wouldn't Cloris Leachman even now be a tremendous Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  "You're all flops.  I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops."

I heard on the radio this morning that today is the birthday of Mickey Rooney.  Mickey is 88, which makes him only six years older than Cloris.  They were giants in those days.  Even the short ones were giants.

Across/Down Traffic

Dana Barrett:  You know, you don't act like a scientist . . .
Dr. Peter Venkman
:    Well, they're usually pretty stiff --
Dana Barrett:    . . .  more like a game show host.

Ghostbusters (1984) [Sigourney Weaver & Bill Murray]

Friends, are you looking for an alternative to television coverage of the Iowa Caucuses?  Do you enjoy game shows more than you enjoy gladiator movies?  Better yet, do you have a streak of misplaced curiosity about The Man Behind This Blog?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, and if you live in an appropriate television market, it's time to set the TIVO because tomorrow, January 3, 2008, a substantial portion of the country will have the opportunity to watch -- or to avoid watching, or to avoid even the knowledge that they could be watching -- as I appear as a contestant on Merv Griffin’s Crosswords.


As we were reminded when he passed away in 2007, Merv Griffin's contributions to popular culture included the creation of two of the most successful game shows ever: Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!  Crosswords was his final television venture, and one of his last acts was to syndicate the program in to all of the largest broadcast markets for this season.  My youngest sister applied to the show -- being in the performing arts, she does what she can to supplement her income -- and passed the information along to me.  For a lark, I gave it a whirl as well and the results will go out into the ether tomorrow.

Whether "my" episode will actually be viewable tomorrow depends on where you are.  In markets in which the program airs twice daily, the episode should run as the second of the day.  In markets in which the program airs only once, this episode will not run until -- what could be more appropriate? -- April 1.  In the 2-show-per-day markets, the episode will also rerun on April 1.  Got that?  You can check your local times and stations here.

I am not at liberty to disclose how it all ends, but I will reveal this much: at one point I demonstrate a valuable advocacy skill by spelling with the Utmost Persuasiveness and Conviction a word that was not only not a correct answer, it was not even an actual English word.  But there is a colorable argument that it should be.


Photo: Ty Treadway hosting Merv Griffin's Crosswords; © 2007 Crosswords, Inc.

Muppet Confidential:
"Frogs and Pigs Living Together! Mass Hysteria!"

Kermit the Frog, in custody on disorderly conduct charges after hitting the eggnog too hard and too early at the Macy's post-parade reception, learns that being green is rather easier than he had once thought.

Two further, Muppetocentric proofs that, as they say, the past is a foreign country:

Children's Television Workshop has released Sesame Street - Old School, two DVD volumes of selections from Sesame Street's first ten years, 1969 to 1979.  Atlantic Monthly's Ross Douthat points to a Virginia Heffernan report in the New York Times Magazine on the collections and the parental cautions attached thereto:

Just don’t bring the children.  According to an earnest warning on Volumes 1 and 2, 'Sesame Street: Old School' is adults-only: 'These early "Sesame Street" episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.'

* * *

Nothing in the children’s entertainment of today, candy- colored animation hopped up on computer tricks, can prepare young or old for this frightening glimpse of simpler times.  Back then — as on the very first episode, which aired on PBS Nov. 10, 1969 — a pretty, lonely girl like Sally might find herself befriended by an older male stranger who held her hand and took her home.  Granted, Gordon just wanted Sally to meet his wife and have some milk and cookies, but . . . well, he could have wanted anything.  As it was, he fed her milk and cookies.  The milk looks dangerously whole.

Freed from the constraints of pretending to be educational, the Muppets of yore posed even greater dangers to unformed young minds.  The UK weblog of Lawrence Miles catalogs "Nine Things Which Appeared on The Muppet Show, But Wouldn’t Make It Onto Family Television These Days. "  Two examples of many:

[W]hat we forget is that the issue of cross-species fertility is raised even in the original series, specifically in Miss Piggy’s performance of 'Waiting at the Church', a song about a bride being deserted by her bigamous husband on the day of her shotgun wedding.  Piggy performs the song in a wedding dress that’s been bulked out to make her look eight months pregnant.  This image is so distressing that it’s been erased from our collective childhood memory, yet there she is on the screen, reciting the opening lines ‘I’m in a nice bit of trouble, I confess / somebody with me has had a game’ in the finest music-hall tradition.  Four-year-olds in the audience must surely have asked their parents why she looked so fat that week, and it’s doubtful that the phrase 'big with spawn' would have satisfied them.

* * *

7. Bombs.  Oh yes.  Bombs in large quantities.  Let’s not pretend that the absence of high explosives in modern family programming has anything to do with recent terrorist attacks: a lot more suspicious packages were going off in ‘70s Britain than today, and yet nobody seems to have connected Gonzo’s 'Defusing a Bomb While Reciting Percy Bysshe Shelley' routine with the IRA, and no episode of The Muppet Show was ever Postponed Due to Current Events.  We really are cripplingly over-sensitive these days, aren’t we?

Reason's Rough Cut Video Blog, which pointed the way to Miles' post, provides further support by linking Kenny Rogers' Muppet Show performance of "The Gambler," in which Rogers

plies an aged poker player with scotch and fags until he dies happy in his sleep.  Performed by humans, it’s unpleasantly cloying.  Performed by Muppets, it’s just scary.

(Miles announced the closure of his weblog in August, advising those who might want to preserve any of it to "copy the best bits [and] paste them into a Word file".  Just in case it has actually disappeared by the time you want to read it, I have taken the liberty of doing just that.)


PHOTO CREDIT:  Kermit the Frog experiences inflationary pressures, Nov. 21, 2007, by key lime_ pie, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

"Eye'll Get You, My Pretty . . . and Your Andalusian Dog, Too!"

Yes!  It's Salvador Dali -- il est complètement fou! -- hawking choccies.  And here he is again, with thanks to Megan McArdle, as the mystery guest on What's My Line?

Discussion Questions:  Has there been a visual artist, at least since Warhol, who would have the sort of immediate recognizability that Dali possessed?   And when was the last time the panelists on a game show were so obviously a collection of grownups?

Dali seems never to go out of style, and today marks the opening at London's Tate Modern of "Dalí & Film," an exhibition focusing on Dali's work in film in collaboration with Bunuel, Hitchcock, and Disney, among others, and on the influence of film on Dali's painting.  Dali & Film will (oh joy!) be traveling to Los Angeles in October.

For the occasion, the Guardian calls on JG Ballard to say a few words.  Here, Ballard takes up Dali's famed limp watches, which the Museum of Modern Art (oh joy yet again!) has lent out as part of the show:

Dalí's masterpiece and, I believe, the greatest painting of the 20th century is The Persistence of Memory, a tiny painting not much larger than the postcard version, containing the age of Freud, Kafka and Einstein in its image of soft watches, an embryo and a beach of fused sand.  The ghost of Freud presides over the uterine fantasies that set the stage for the adult traumas to come, while insects incarnate the self-loathing of Kafka's Metamorphosis and its hero turned into a beetle.  The soft watches belong to a realm where clock time is no longer valid and relativity rules in Einstein's self-warping continuum.

What monster would grow from this sleeping embryo?  It may be the long eyelashes, but there is something feminine and almost coquettish about this little figure, and I see the painting as the 20th century's Mona Lisa, a psychoanalytic take on the mysterious Gioconda smile.  If the Mona Lisa, as someone said, looks as if she has just dined on her husband, then Dalí's embryo looks as if she dreams of feasting on her mother.

(Link via 3quarksdaily.)  Meanwhile, on the Guardian Arts blog, Jonathan Jones puts in a good word for both parties to Dalí's collaborations with Disney:

Far from the final corruption of the renegade surrealist the movement's leader André Breton nicknamed 'Avida Dollars', Dalí's attempt to bring surrealist radicalism to a Disney cartoon has a striking quality of innocence and integrity - he really was trying to popularise modern art.

Disney, too, comes out of this story well, and let's face it, with intellectuals it's his image that needs the boost.  Disney was not, as an artist, anything like the conservative all-American propagandist invented by hostile biographers.  Whatever he was in his life, in his imagination he was sublimely audacious. His attempt to collaborate with Dalí was an avant-garde follow up to the Wagnerian ambition of Fantasia.  Disney's films are full of surrealist moments: he even shared Dalí's obsession with bottoms.  Forests of thorns, skull islands, dancing skeletons and clock-swallowing crocodiles abound in Disney's cinema which goes further than the surrealists ever could in unlocking the dream life of children and adults.

Is it October yet?  To tide us over, here is an obscure and appropriate musical selection drawn from Ellen Foley's 1981 album, Spirit of St. Louis:

Ms. Foley's gentleman companion at the time was Mick Jones of the Clash.  Spirit of St. Louis features numerous contributions from Jones and fellow Clashster Joe Strummer as players, producers and songwriters.  "Salvador Dali" is one of six Strummer/Jones tunes on the record and with its self-consciously surreal lyrics -- "Priests married themselves using Bibles and mirrors" -- is certainly the oddest of the bunch. 

For her part, Ellen Foley contributed vocals to "Hitsville UK" on the Clash's own Sandinista! album, and the Mick Jones-penned hit "Should I Stay or Should I Go" is reputed to have been inspired by his relationship with Foley.  A deliciously eclectic concoction and worth hunting down if one could do so affordably, Spirit of St. Louis is sadly out of print.   A bit more information on the recording can be found at Lost Bands Of The New Wave Era.

LaChapelle Perilous

So then, when last we spoke before I slipped inadvertently into weblogging silence, we were on the topic of Elton John and his Vegas extravaganza, The Red Piano.  Some three weeks on, you might well ask: "So, How Was The Show?"  And I might well reply: "Oh, what a decadent spectacle!" and then hasten to assure you that, fond though I am of the ocasional decadent spectacle, the description is not, I fear, meant in this case as a compliment.

What you get for your 'spensive ticket to The Red Piano is Elton John and band (Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson from EJ's 1970s stadium-packing glory days, assisted by a new bass player and second percussionist) in a comparatively intimate state of the art auditorium -- the Colosseum at Caesar's Palace, which was constructed for the purpose of housing the soon-to-end extended performing residency of Celine Dion -- roaring with great enthusiasm and at top volume (it's a rawk show, for sure!) through most of the expected hits.  Yes of course he opens with "Benny and the Jets" and yes of course he ends with "Your Song."  No problem there: Elton has recorded a slew of good tunes over the years and he remains a performer who really wants his audience to know that he's there to please them, so he sings and plays his crimson instrument with vigor.  The troubles with The Red Piano are not musical, but lie in its theme and design.

The best known technical feature of the Colosseum is a Colossal high resolution video screen, which its creators at Mitsubishi proudly declare to be the largest interior video display in North America.  Through most of the peformance, this 110' -by-34' technical marvel is filled to bursting with imagery concocted by photographer/director/designer David LaChapelle, whose MySpace page features the motto:

"Good taste is the death of art."

And how.

Although Sir Elton Hercules John would appear to be on top of the world these days -- wealthy, comfortable, busy, with a knighthood and a happy marriage to the man he loves -- LaChapelle, presumably with the full endorsement of his star, has chosen to emphasize the most bleak aspects of Sir Elton's personal history: drug abuse, depression, suicide attempts, fawning hangers-on, the barren emptiness of fame as exemplified by lookalikes for the younger Elton and Marilyn Monroe, and so forth.  Also naked breasts.  Loads and loads of naked breasts, mostly on the video screen but also including an enormous inflatable pair that descends from the ceiling as the performance barrels toward its conclusion.  And a good deal of dancing in the "hurl yourself/your partner round about the floor and walls" school.

The curious can find much-reduced versions of several of the Red Piano videos via YouTube and Google Video.  In fact, I have found a number of them for you:

  • "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- a scantily clad couple has a bit of a knockdown dragout in a motel room as the sun, yes, goes down and comes up again and goes down again.  In performance at Caesar's, a live feed of Sir Elton singing the song is digitally inserted into the television set at lower right.
  • "Candle in the Wind" -- Featuring that Marilyn Monroe lookalike, obviously.  Actually a pretty convincing recreation of late period Marilyn, about which I for one cannot bring myself to care.  Your mileage may vary.
  • "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" -- [Unequivocally Not Safe For Work]  The true nadir of the evening: Elton's youthful doppelgänger sticks his head in the oven.  His soul emerges in the guise of an angel-winged boy toy, who is then beset in various ways by a grotesque topless allegorical succubus figure -- with a dayglo albino afro wig, a kilo or two of eye makeup, and scientifically enhanced breasts roughly the size and consistency of bowling balls.  She may represent cocaine or she may represent deep-seated misogyny or she may just be there to make the rubes' eyes bug out, who can say?  Eventually angel/soul triumphs, our hero does not kill himself, and a fairly good if frequently overrated pop song lies forever ruined.  I'd say this must be seen to be believed, but really there's no particular reason that it must be seen at all. 

[And they said Bill Viola's Tristan videos were "irredeemably tacky. . . ."  Ha!]


MORE, BETTER:  While researching the video links for this post, I discovered that David LaChapelle was hired on a year or two back to prepare a set of promos for ABCTV's Lost when that series premiered in the UK.  I remain a fan of that show, and the LaChapelle adverts are appropriately off-kilter.  Here is an omnibus edition of those Channel 4 spots, accompanied by a musical selection from Portishead.  Grab your eyeliner, everybody, and let's dance!

An alternate version with dialogue from the cast -- which serves to show how much remains unanswered by the series, three seasons on -- can be viewed here.  "All of us are Lost," indeed.


[UPDATE 060207 1008 PDT]:  P.S., perhaps as a palliative for the damage done by LaChapelle (he doesn't say specifically), A.C. Douglas has posted a right and proper Elton John video -- for a song that is perhaps the most glaring omission from the set list of The Red Piano --  at Sounds & Fury.

It's Not Over Until They Identify the Opera Singer

A personal/familial note for all you television watchers and TIVOistas

Each night this week, NBC is running Identity, a game show hosted by Cato Institute Mencken Fellow Penn Jilette, the larger, louder half of Penn & Teller.  The premise of the show is that the contestant must match twelve persons to their descriptions (their "identities" don'cha know) just by looking at them.  Successfully identifying all twelve earns the contestant a prize of half a million dollars or more.

Thursday night's episode will feature, ever so briefly in its first third or so, my very own youngest sister as one of those to be Identified.  She is the Opera Singer.  In real life, she does indeed sing in the chorus of the Los Angeles Opera.  The more interesting challenge would have been to identify her as an "Opera Administrator," as that is the role she has recently taken on with the less well-heeled but much more adventurous Long Beach Opera.

So warm up the vacuum tubes, adjust the ol' rabbit ears and pull up a chair.  There's entertainment to be had.

Eyeful of Gazza, or, The Magpie Redeemed

Such is the poisonous brilliance of the use of music in Stanley Kubrick's film version of A Clockwork Orange that it is often difficult after seeing the film even once to separate those musical selections from "a bit of the old ultraviolence."  Beethoven's Ninth Symphony suffers in this regard on screen as it does in the novel, and "Singin' in the Rain" has never been quite the same since accompanying the late night "surprise visit" of Alex and his droogies.  But perhaps no composer takes more of a beating, so to speak, than poor ol' Gioacchino Rossini, whose opera overtures are twice used by Kubrick to accompany deplorable antisocial behavior: The overture to Guillaume Tell, already shackled for all time to The Lone Ranger, accompanies the absurd high-speed multi-participant sex scene that singlehandedly earns the film its original MPAA rating of "X", while the lovely, crinkly frontispiece to La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) accompanies a full-on brawl in an abandoned casino, with yet another unclad young woman as the point of contention.

Now, the good citizens at the Sony corporation have provided an antidote for the last of these examples, using the Magpie overture as accompaniment to the latest advertisement for their Bravia flat screen television.  Bravia ads tend to go happily viral once unleashed on the internet: this new one follows on the heels of the Jose Gonzalez/Bouncing Balls ad to which I pointed late last year, and features the high intensity paint bombardment of a Glaswegian housing block.  A clown is also implicated.  Here is a YouTube version:

While it makes videos of this sort easy to embed, YouTube's low fidelity does not begin to do the thing justice.  Fortunately for those with the time and the bandwidth, Sony has made high, higher and highest quality Quicktime versions available for streaming or download here, accompanied by a behind-the-scenes short, a game, and sundry other gewgaws and gimcracks including, yes, a link to the aforementioned Bouncing Balls.

These Bravia spots are the latest in a long line of advertisements for color televisions -- Texas Instruments' peculiar ads with the little girl and the elephant work similarly -- that use stunning sights to impress the viewer with the capabilities of the advertiser's set.  (Am I showing my age?  Does anyone call it a "television set" any more?)  Media eons ago, when television was making the transition from black and white to color, it made sense to emphasize that mucky muddy black and white visuals looked bad because they were actually meant to be viewed in color, so that one could take it on faith that the upgrade to a color set would produce a vast improvement.  That logic no longer holds: the technical skills that are brought to bear in these commercials assure that the sights will look Really Good on the set (or computer monitor) on which the viewer is already watching them, so they don't really serve to persuade the viewer that those same sights would look So Much Better if only one were watching them on a Sony Bravia or a Texas Instruments DLP or whatever.  Whether these spots actually sell televisions is a mystery to me.  They do make for a nice distraction, though, and this one may wash memories of A Clockwork Orange right out of your Rossini-drenched and paint-bespattered head.

S'maddam, I'm Addams


Daytrotter, taking time away from its usual musical orientation, checks in on the earthly avatar of Gomez Addams, John Astin:

'Aristotle said, "Know thyself."  The Addams’ knew who they were.  We were weird on the outside and we were strange, but when you looked closer, you saw that this was really a very healthy family.  There wasn’t a lot of conflict in the family.  We were never telling anyone else how to live.  Moralizing was absent,' [Astin] said.  'They were all about the joy and wonder of life.  It was a creation of magic and wonder that’s rare even today in motion pictures.'

Of Related Interest:

  • The first season (1964-1965) of The Addams Family is now available on DVD.  Coincidence?  I think not.

[TV Guide cover via The Unofficial Addams Family Web Site.]

I'll Take "Bad Luck Streak in Journalism School" for $1000, Alex

Thanks to Ken Layne and Sploid, I now know why there has been a sudden resurgence of traffic to my old, old item on mighty Jeopardy! mega-champion Ken Jennings: Ken J is in the news again, on account of certain Professional Newswriters who can't actually recognize news, or a joke.  Per the deadly serious Mr. Layne:

Quiz-show hero Ken Jennings is in hot water for writing a humorous blog post that confused and angered the idiots who work for the New York Post, Associated Press, USA Today and other media.

Jennings, who won more than $3 million on "Jeopardy," posted the satirical "Dear Jeopardy" essay on his website.

In the easy-to-understand fake letter, Jennings claims host Alex Trebek died in a car crash and was replaced by a robot.

Ken Jennings' joke is not for everybody -- it will be most amusing to longtime Jeopardy! fans -- but it is Very Obviously a Joke.  Very Obviously, that is, unless you work for the New York Post or the Associated Press.

The lesson is: don't believe anything you read anywhere, anytime, unless it is written by someone named Ken.


Given Ken Layne's yeoman service in keeping the record straight on this and many another earth-shattering story, I am hoping that some sympathetic buyer will be found now that overlord Nick Denton has gone and put Sploid up for sale

Attention domain name shoppers!  Past Jeopardy! Champions agree:

The inimitable voice of Ken Layne must not be stifled.  The Internet will be meaningless, without form, void, and really really dull if he is silenced. 

And no, I'm not just saying that in the vain hope of scoring one of those precious review copies of the new Ken Layne & the Corvids album.   Howard Owens has one.  (I liked the first one a whole lot, including the reference to a certain affordable but Potent Potable.)


P.S., Vaguely Topical Musical UPDATE [072606]:

A constellation of weblogging luminaries including the aforementioned Ken Layne, Colby Cosh and tony pierce (who is editing LAist these days) are hanging about in the comments to this post from Matt Welch about the life-altering effect of seeing Prince & the Revolution perform "Purple Rain" on the American Music Awards lo some many years ago.  Matt has the YouTubean evidence.  In the course of the colloquy, Mr. Layne and mr. pierce generously provide links to some extremely fine live performances by The Clash from around 1980.  Jeopardy! is not mentioned.