Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Nationalism, Politics and Frivolity

The Oscars just blew into town, leaving nothing but despair and destruction in their wake. Apparently, Mexico and Kenya almost went to war over the nationality of Oscar winner and classiest new star since Audrey Hepburn, Lupita Nyong'o, a daughter of Kenyan diplomats who was born in Mexico and left at the age of one. Lupita gamely averted an international crisis by saying that she is Mexican-Kenyan or Kenyan-Mexican and she loves carne asada tacos and both countries equally.

Poor Alfonso Cuarón is first lambasted for not making films in Mexico, then treated like a national hero for winning a bunch of Oscars. National pride surges to an all time high, since his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, is also Mexican. Some Mexicans consider the Poncho-Chivo-Lupita a Mexican axis of world domination. The last time this happened was when the Three Amigos (Del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu) all had nominated films.

Venezuelans bent on overthrowing their abject, incompetent, irrational, yet democratically elected government, organized a campaign asking Hollywood people to mention Venezuela's plight in their Oscar speeches. Apparently, Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto got the memo and mentioned, among other things, Venezuela, Ukraine, his mom, AIDS, etc. A lot of people liked his speech. I was not that impressed.
People who win Oscars are suddenly foisted upon a soapbox in front of a billion people, but they are still in a circus called Hollywood, not in the circus called the United Nations. Increasingly, I think they should stick to thanking their agents and costars and directors and moms. If they want to do something for world peace, they should do as Angelina Jolie and actually work it.
I know many Venezuelan friends will disagree with me on this one, but asking people who have nothing to do with that country to give it a political shout out at an entertainment ceremony is absurd. Why Venezuela and not Syria, where things are far more dire? Why not some war torn country in Africa? What makes Venezuela so special? The request is both disproportionate and inappropriate, as was the Venezuelan government's response delusional in the way that only ideologically perverse regimes can muster: they banned the Oscars. Reductio ad absurdum on both sides of the divide.
People have been trying to call the world's attention to sundry plights at the Oscars since Vanessa Redgrave lashed out against Zionism and Marlon Brando sent a Native American to retrieve his award. Except in very few instances when the issues are relevant to the films, broadcasting them from the winners' perch is misguided and frequently embarrassing.
And even when relevant, as in the case of 12 Years A Slave, it was rather jarring for Steve McQueen to mention that almost 30 million people are still slaves today, then jump around the stage like an overgrown schoolboy with his coveted Oscar. There is a tonal conflict at work. The possibility for gravitas is almost nil.
Bringing serious issues to the most frivolous event in the universe belittles and cheapens those issues. Unless the winners happen to be intelligent, articulate and self-possessed enough for impromptu eloquence, they all look like pompous asses trying to be something they're not when using their thirty seconds for some cause or another. Lupita Nyong'o did more against racism and for women with her poise and her refreshing lack of ego than any bombastic speechifying ever has.

Monday, January 27, 2014

La noche que conocí a José Emilio Pacheco

La noche que lo conocí, hace ya varios años, una noche rara en la que José Emilio Pacheco aceptó salir a tomarse un trago al Bar Nuevo León con algunos amigos literarios, le comenté que una de mis tesinas universitarias fue sobre los Cuatro Cuartetos de T.S. Eliot. Me dijo que llevaba unos catorce años de su vida traduciéndolos y generosamente ofreció regalarme los que ya había terminado, algo que cumplió unos días más tarde, y que yo atesoro, en su versión de copia engargolada, hasta el día de hoy.
Al parecer, José Emilio Pacheco no solía salir mucho de su casa. Esa noche, estábamos cenando y conversando tranquilamente. La cantina estaba casi vacía. De repente, en una mesa del fondo donde bebían dos señores con pinta, quizás, de burócratas, uno de ellos tomó el servilletero, de esos de metal que parecen cajas fuertes, y se lo estampó a su amigo en la cabeza.
Creo que nos percatamos porque solamente oímos un crack y al voltear, vimos a un hombre de cuya frente chorreaban borbotones de sangre; una cantidad de sangre exagerada. El atacado permaneció sentadito, calladito en su silla y su amigo también. Si se quejó, no lo oímos. Si no mal recuerdo, el amigo hasta le pidió perdón. No hubo gritos, ni una vulgar pelea. Un mesero impasible acudió al socorro del agredido y un garrotero se dispuso a limpiar el charco y la pared estrellada de sangre con un trapo.
Lo insólito, además de que fue la noche insólita en la que Jose Emilio finalmente aceptó salir de su casa, es que fue como ver una película muda, de violencia tristemente cómica y trágicamente sangrienta, algo que solamente México es capaz de producir.
José Emilio estaba bastante impactado, me imagino pensando que estos despliegues bizarros de machismo alcoholizado eran de rutina en este lugar. Creo que le juramos y perjuramos que no era así. Fue una escena totalmente surrealista, y yo pensé, qué extraña suerte tenemos todos, incluyendo a José Emilio: peleas en cantinas hay de sobra, pero estas cosas sólo pasan en presencia de un poeta. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's It All About?

What could have possibly stir up the long dormant ranting of the Grande Enchilada? Governor Christie's Bridgegate? That spawn of Satan, Assad, massacring his own people in Syria? Vladimir Putin (every day)?
All of the above, of course, but what got my goat yesterday was something infuriating enough, but far less tragic.
First, some background. I have seen a couple of those Broadway musicals (yes, this is today's incendiary topic) that are supposed to be about young, hip people being bohemians, all rebellious rock & roll. Apparently, nobody involved ever notices that the words "young and hip" and the words "Broadway musical" are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. If you are truly hip, then you are nowhere near a Broadway musical. And to judge from the audiences, the same goes for "young".
With the exception of Hair in its day, which has some pretty nice music and some disturbing war stuff going on, I hold this to be truth to be self-evident.
The first one of these youth-centered musicals I saw was Rent, which is supposed to be La Boheme transposed to the now defunct starving artists of the East Village (currently to be found gentrifying the far edges of Bushwick, or getting free housing in Detroit). Every single thing about that show was neither hip nor authentic, nor really bohemian, and the music was a saccharine travesty of rock. Then I saw Spring Awakening, of which I remember nothing but a bunch of intolerable young people, choreographed to act rebellious, climbing on walls.
I must alert you, I hate young people. In particular in America, they are fed on a steady pablum of personal reinforcement and cheerful, if delusional empowerment that leads them to believe they can actually do anything they set their minds to. This is not always bad (think Lena Dunham, or Mark Zuckerberg, or your precocious genius du jour), but it seems to breed an overconfidence in their own talent that we are supposed to forgive in lieu of its youthful exuberance.
Which brings me to the case in point.
Kyle Riabko, an enterprising young talent, decided to bestow the genius of Burt Bacharach on the people of his generation. This, on paper, is an awesome idea. God knows his generation needs to learn a thing or two about crafting spectacularly melodic, original, unforgettable songs. His show, called What's It All About. Bacharach: Reimagined, is where the concept went south.
I grew up with Burt Bacharach (he was huge in Mexico). Just reading the titles of the songs in the playbill brought their melodies instantly to my mind. "I Say A Little Prayer", "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", "Walk On By", "I'll Never Fall In Love Again", "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"... etc. I was intrigued by several glowing reviews that claimed that the sparse arrangements (no Dionne Warwick, no amazing brass section) brought a fresh light to Bacharach's iconic music. Sure enough, the show sheds a new light on the songs, but not always for the right reasons.
If an opera singer sang "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", and eluded most of the quickfire notes that cascade in the second phrase (na na na na nana, nana nana nana nana), they would be torn apart by the audience. If they had to cheat and lower their pitch one register as they sang "Walk on By", I shudder to think. As I listened to the young, not particularly spellbinding performers, I did get an epiphany about Bacharach's music. The songs bloom with notes, resembling baroque arias or complex jazz melodies. But that is because of what's missing in Riabko's arrangements: they avoid many of the notes that make the songs a challenge to sing and a beauty to listen to. Some of the arrangements sound like U2, or Coldplay, some like those ubiquitous TV commercials that think they can sell you anything with a ukulele and a xylophone. Some of them were perfectly nice. The most fortunate was a quiet group rendition of "(They Long To Be) Close To You", a song so richly gorgeous that it's pretty impossible to screw up. But with any of the more challenging melodies, my sense is that the arrangements took the easy way out, leaving the audience to mentally hum the missing music. Which is not totally criminal, if done the right way. Burt Bacharach's best songs (he wrote some treacle here and there) are so intricate, the melodies so unpredictable, that even in the hands of unseasoned, if well meaning artists, they still soar.
Alas, as I watched the very young performers mug for the audience like an overgrown troupe of Mousketeers, I was reminded of the essential Noel Coward theatrical dictum: "Don't just do something, stand there". Unless you are at the opera, or a traditional Broadway musical with a dramatic libretto, you don't need to act the songs. Sing the glorious music with those crazy cool lyrics by Hal David and call it a day. The music does 75% of the work. But the cast was mimicking reading love notes, then tearing them apart, smiling maniacally, dancing halfheartedly at some stupid choreography intended to evoke youth, or in the case of the promising singer who tried her hand at a bluesy adaptation of "Don't Make Me Over", actually forcing herself to cry while looking at the floor the entire song. Honey, the tears are already in the music and the lyrics. The direction and the conception are both sophomoric and hokey.
Then, as the Magnificent Arepa cannily pointed out, how can this be a show for Riabko's "generation" if the median age of the audience is 65? Or, in my case, if it feels like watching Up With People? Arepa was reminded of the Catholic spiritual retreats of her youth, which tried, with guitars and bonfires, to seem cool and hip.
If you want to be cool and hip, you either have to be Patti Smith, or you have to play in cool and hip places, like the Mercury Lounge or the Bowery Ballroom or any cavernous hall in the boonies of Greenpoint or Gowanus. You are not hip and cool if you put on something that works too hard to be likable; that wants to behave like a Broadway show.
Which is a pity, because Burt Bacharach is the coolest and the hippest, as Elvis Costello, who was in attendance, can attest to, since he has collaborated with Bacharach. Also in attendance, and sitting right next to Costello was Mike Myers, Austin Powers to you, which was bizarre and thrilling, and ultimately mortifying. I doubt that they went for the painfully fake, utterly unhip, youthful exuberance shtick.
This show could have promise if it were stripped entirely of its annoying theatrical pretense, and packaged as an intimate recital of a bunch of amazing songs.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Now Showing At a Theater Near You

It's awards season, so if you live in a densely populated urban area, you probably still have a chance to check out many of the remarkable movies that came out in 2013 and perhaps some notorious clunkers, included, for your reading pleasure in the link above.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

• Check out many reviews of the most talked about movies this year right here.

• If you speak Spanish, you may also enjoy my take on human atrocities on film, a subject dear to my heart.

• And coming soon in I've Had It With Hollywood, my annual list of the best and worst movies of 2013. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Mexican Coke Is It

Art by Andy Warhol, who should be rolling in his grave.

Only a threat of this magnitude could rouse me from my long hibernation in the world of film reviews, dear readers. I am concerned about an extremely frightening scenario I stumbled upon here.
The headline screams "Could This Be The End of Mexican Coke?"
It is not the stuff the nightmares of cocaine fiends are made of. Just imagine: no more mountains of deeply adulterated, cheap and plentiful cocaine, a byproduct of the spilled blood of tens of thousands of Mexicans and of the voracious appetite for blow north of the Mexican border. That coke we don't care about. If that ends, goodbye and good riddance.
We are talking about Coke with a capital C. We are talking about the end of Mexican Coca-Cola, which is the only Coca-Cola worth drinking, in my estimation. It is made with cane sugar, as opposed to high fructose corn syrup, and while it will still make you fat, diabetic, and will rot your teeth just like the other one, the difference in the experience of drinking it is enormous. Plus, as poisons go, it is the less bad of the two.
As you all know, there is a difference between Coke that comes in a can (bad), a plastic bottle (worse), a two liter bottle (the pits), or the very best Coke, which comes in the classic curvaceous glass bottle, either small or medium. So it stands to reason that there is a difference if Coke is made with cane sugar or with corn syrup. You can taste it right away. Mexican Coke is less syrupy. It is less cloying. Less sweet. It is lighter, easier to drink, more refreshing. The very best Coke comes, ice cold, in a medium (probably 12 oz) glass bottle. Pour that cold Coke over a glass full of ice. Open happiness, indeed.
So now that the Mexican government is following the Bloomberg approach and wants to tax soft drinks (Mexico has the greatest consumption of soft drinks in the world and alarming rates of rising obesity and diabetes), Coca-Cola Mexico is threatening to switch to high fructose corn syrup, which supposedly is cheaper than cane sugar.
This is malevolent.  If I were the Mexican government, I would tax them double for making it with corn syrup. If people are already going to pay an extra tax for their coke, why would they want a worse Coke? Coca Cola will win this battle, like it wins all battles, because it is all mighty. But since it claims to be a nice company about happiness, that spends so much money trying to pretend their bottled water is not destroying the Earth and that Putin is a nice guy, they should have a public relations fiasco with this bullying threat.
Unfortunately, the majority of Mexicans won't give a damn if their Coke is made one way or the other. They may revolt at having to pay more for a drink they consume like water. But it is up to fineschmecking foodies like me and my indignant Facebook friends to man the barricades against this blatant attack on taste (and less bad health).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mi Tía Dora

My beloved aunt Dora died last night. She was only 84 and full of life, so the news came as a very sad shock. I imagine she was still teaching yoga. I know she was still interested in movies and books, politics and culture. I got an email from her just a couple of weeks ago, responding to my wishes for a happy new year. 
I am going to miss her generous appetite for life and laughter.
She was my mother's sister. They were very close. When my sisters and I were kids, every time we had an argument, which was often, my mom used to boast that she never ever argued with aunt Dora. I found this impossible to believe (how can anybody not fight?), but indeed, I never saw them argue. I now suspect Mom wasn't bluffing. She could not fathom why we were at each other's throats, while she and Dora were always the best of friends.
Dora was warm, charming, funny, and delightful company. You could talk to her about any subject under the sun. Mom and her fed off each others' robust sense of humor.  They invented a non-existent millionaire uncle from Australia, Uncle Wilbur, who never met us, but was going to leave us his enormous inheritance nonetheless. They made up endless puns in Yiddish, Spanish, English and French. They lovingly nicknamed their podiatrist, "Buster", in honor of Buster Keaton, since he never smiled either. They called Gregory Peck "Peckory Greg", and Tyrone Power something to do with the word for fart in Spanish. And so it went on.
They were always ready to make good-natured fun of things, but they did not have a mean streak. Anita and Dora were sophisticated and salt of the earth. And Dora was always fun. She had a sunny nature.
She made it a family tradition to close the Passover seder by channeling her inner mezzo-soprano at the very end refrain of Chad Gadia, the very last melody of a very long evening. She brought down the house every year. It is safe to say that her wisecracks contributed to make all our family occasions much more fun than average. And in adversity, she rallied, and let that bright sunshine of hers peep out even when she was sad.
She traveled the world and was welcome everywhere. She got along with everybody. I will miss her enveloping warmth, which I think is what best describes her, a radiant, cozy, comfy, warmth. I will miss her big heart, her sonorous laughter, and the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Gung Ho!

I saw the martial arts film The Grandmaster yesterday and the sage philosophical musings of some of the different schools of Chinese fighting led me to ponder how is it that every time the American government wants to start a war with someone, they waste no time shouting it to the winds. What about the stealth, the element of surprise, the strategy? What about knowing your enemy? (If they did, they would think twice about it).
I do tai chi, which is not, as you may think, a gentle stretch for little old Chinese ladies, but a martial art. My teacher is always saying things like, you gotta have strong legs so the first thing you do when confronted by a possible attack is, run the hell out of there. The first rule of Chinese martial arts seems to be to avoid, deflect, defuse, and discourage confrontation. If that is not possible, however, then that swift, out-of-the-blue, lethal kick will come in handy. But if you let your enemy, (and the enemy of your enemy, which in the case of Syria is also your enemy) know two weeks in advance that you intend to kick his ass, it may not work out as well.
I just came back from France, where the national pastime seems to be to sit in cafés and talk. The French are obsessed with thought and discussion, and having as much paid vacation as possible. The Magnificent Arepa had an epiphany that the reason why there are so many French philosophers is that the French like to sit at cafés, smoke, drink coffee, and think. Like Sartre and Beauvoir at Les Deux Magots.
Americans however, are obsessed with action. No sitting at cafés in the middle of the day for us. We do shit without thinking.
This is the only way I can explain the surreal moment we are having right now about going to war with Syria. First, we don't do anything when it's the time to do it, if ever; we wait until the guy has killed 100,000 people and then, when he steps over "the red line" (which, as Jon Stewart points out, is a dick measuring tape), we bluster and threaten and announce our intentions to attack. Obama whips his dick out, and not to be outdone, many of the putrid vermin that populate Congress follow suit. This is the one issue in which Republicans all of a sudden stand behind a President they have stonewalled every step of the way. They strangle health, education, immigration, economic issues, but war? BRING IT!
Has there been a thoughtful conversation, analysis or debate about this latest hankering for infernal action? Can this President, who promised to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan now say with a straight face that we are going into Syria as well?
The problem with Americans is that ours is a lethal combination of "gotta get things done, but first we need to brag about them". We neither do them when it is advisable, if ever, nor talk or think about them enough, which should be always. So by the time we take action, we do it thoughtlessly, unleashing even bigger messes, more enmity, and more chaos.
There must be an alternate way, a way of reason and brilliance. This takes true brains, and is therefore rarely used, but this constitutes the ideal scenario: people with great strategic thinking come up with smart, complex, unfolding solutions; not gung-ho, easy as a fart, morally abject posturing that is going to get us into a whole world of trouble. Again.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Extra Step

A woman once said that the French think they are like Germans, but they are actually like Italians. Some stuff they do spectacularly well: The wine, the cheese, the bread. The trains work, the roads are pristine and clearly signalized. The bathrooms are spotless clean.
But when it comes to service or process, it's not that they are chaotic, it's that they love bureaucracy. They love steps. If you can do something in thirty steps, as opposed to one or two, pourquoi pas?
If you need a part of a stove replaced because its glass cover exploded in the kitchen (don't ask) and you call the numero de service of the appliance store, the monsieur you are speaking to, who displays an admirable balance of hostility, impatience and propriety, insists on talking of Electrolux when you clearly said Airlux. Twenty minutes later, he throws in the towel and advises you to take a picture of the serial number label to the store, so they can deal with you there. C'est tout he can do for you.
The trip to the store becomes three separate trips to three different stores, because in each one, the person in charge disavows himself from the responsibility of helping you: it's not their department, their phone doesn't work, Madame de Pompadour called in sick. But when you finally make it to the third store, the one they should have told you to go to in the first place, the lady behind the counter knows exactly what you need, and where to get it, and your suffering is over in five minutes. It is uncanny, as if she knew your sad story with the exploding cover all this time and was just patiently waiting, like Proust in search of lost time, for you to show up.

Try doing something on a French website. I tried to reserve a taxi, because I'll have you know that cabs in Paris are always mysteriously absent or have arcane, incomprehensible rules of where they pick up and where they drop off passengers. Why can't it be in the same place? Je ne sais pas. There are empty taxis parked at the TAXI sign. Some of them have drivers in them, but they cannot take you. There is even a hopeful-looking button you press that goes, like something out of Camus, unanswered.
But at home, there is an internet taxi reservation site. They even have an English version! I fill out all the info: name, time, place, and give a final, relieved click, only to run into the little extra step: they want a cellphone number to send me a code to confirm and verify that I, and not the Marquis De Sade, ordered the cab. But then the site won't accept a foreign number, so after a good 15 minutes of filling out forms and trying Kabbalistic number permutations, there is no cab to be had.
I should have called, but what if the guy sent me to the other guy, the one that works for Cardinal Richelieu? Plus, when I dial, a prerecorded female voice tells me something about the nature of the call I am attempting and she scares me off the phone.
Here in the US, you can go on a kafkaesque limbo of customer service hell, sans doute, but it usually takes one interminable step. Over there, it's a waltz. 

Bonjour Tristesse

I was recently in France, where pretty much everyday, like every French person, I put a golden, fragrant, crunchy, chewy baguette under my arm; and unlike every French person, waited to get home before tearing into it in the middle of the street.
Last Sunday, I went into a boulangerie and purchased a ficelle, which is a smaller, thinner baguette (so as not to appear like the grosse cochonne I am).
I ate this glorious thing sans anything. No butter, no jam, no jambon, no fromage. It was so spectacularly good, it did not need anything else. I ate it in the park and could have eaten five more, but I have my dignity.
New York may have pretty much everything the heart desires, but there is no good baguette to be found. Those of you who think there is, are deluding yourselves and should stop immediately.
We have found a very decent croissant and pain au chocolat, and French pastries a block away, but a simple, wholesome, perfect pleasure like a baguette, which is flour, salt, water and yeast, New York cannot muster. This makes me extremely sad.
Some say it's the water. Pourquoi?
I just feel like crying.