Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Comics Reading

On Saturday night I was in the standing part of the standing room only crowd at Vince & Pete's Three Dollar Bill Cafe. Prism Comics was sponsoring an evening of comics readings by local cartoonists, coinciding with WonderCon. The event was well-attended by a supportive & knowledgeable crowd, & I had fun time.

A wall-mounted LCD showed images from the comics while each creator read, making it a multi-media event.

Justin Hall (True Travel Tales) read from his very silly Glamazonia series & from a made-up dysfunctional family history.

Mari Naomi (Estrus Comics) provided a humorous narration to a series of woodcut-style images that revealed what a bad date she can be.

In the truest moment of the evening, Brian Andersen (So Super Duper) was so proud to share with us his labor-of-love comic that he got choked up & nearly cried.

Paige Braddock (Jane's World) gave us a teaser of the new volume of her strip Jane's World. I'm tempted to read this one just to find out more about "The Vegan Menance". Braddock was sporting a very cool varsity jacket with Snoopy fighting the Red Baron on the back of it. I had no idea that she is in fact the creative director for Peanuts licensing. According to David Michaelis's recent biography, Charles Schulz had his stroke right outside her office, & she helped Schulz prepare the final Peanuts cartoon.

Andy Hartzell (Fox Bunny Funny) solved the challenge of "reading" from his wordless graphic novel by providing a sound track for it instead. Someone vamped on the guitar while Hartzell supplied sound-effects in the manner of a foley artist.

Tommy Roddy (Pride High) directed a multi-accented cast of 10 or so & made the experience of reading his super-hero comic like watching a Saturday morning cartoon.

This was billed as a "Queer Comics" event, but there was gratifyingly little else that the presenters seemed to have in common. Each cartoonist had a distinct artistic as well as personal style. Each also put obvious thought into his or her presentation, with the result that this came close to being an evening of performance art as well. Super Duper!

(If you look real hard, you can see me in the crowd at the Three Dollar Bill Cafe.)

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly

On Saturday afternoon I was at the Kabuki Theater to see Julien Schnabel's The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, the French movie based on Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir of locked-in syndrome. This is one of those movies that people seem a little reluctant to see, one of those I-have-to-be-in-the-right-mood kind of movies.

Before I read the book, I expected to feel mostly pity for the author. Yet instead I also felt like he was having a full & very human experience. The movie is faithful to the spirit of the book in this way.

The movie is very beautiful & very French. It starts out being entirely from the point of view of the main character, paralyzed but for his left eye. It has a nice way of continually transitioning to a 3rd person omniscient view point. For example, it isn't until towards the end of the film that see what Jean-Do's physical condition looks like. Along the way, we get a philosophical essay about just how much in human relations occurs just in the mind.

The movie also boasts an incredible cameo by Max von Sydow. He plays the frailty of old age so movingly that it is nearly unwatchable.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Blomstedt Conducts Mozart

Mozart Divertimento in D major
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22
Mozart Symphony No. 38, Prague

Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Jonathan Biss, piano

I wanted to hear Blomstedt during his 2 week visit with the SF Symphony, so last Wednesday I made it to his all-Mozart program. Sadly the hall looked only half full. I suppose it was because the line-up looked so square. However, Blomstedt rarely disappoints, & he led a stylistically impeccable performance with apparent ease.

The Divertimento was played by a very pared-down ensemble (5 1st violins, 4 2nd violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, 2 double basses, 2 horns, oboe) & featured William Bennett's mellifluous oboe sound. The result was deft & light. The audience embarrassed itself by not being able to count movements & applauding one movement early. However, it is an easy mistake to make, as that final march movement is certainly out of place. Blomstedt humorously cued the correct applause point when it was over.

Jonathan Biss is a new name to me. He's very young, only 27, & very self-assured. His playing was very even, rapid, tasteful & restrained. He's a good match for Blomstedt's highly controlled style. To me, Mozart's piano concertos are his most characteristic works, & the searching slow movement of this one is a truly profound thing. I also enjoyed the wonderful wind band sections that emerge from the orchestral accompaniment.

The performance of the Symphony displayed many of Blomstedt's well-known mannerisms: perfect balances between sections, an over-refined, almost thin, string sound, & a clear sense of the over-all structure of the piece. He did not feel the need to use a baton or to stand on a podium. & for each piece but the concerto the score on his music stand remained unopened.

This might not have been one of the more exciting or emotional concerts I've been too, but I left knowing that I'd heard Mozart played truly well.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Metropolitan Opera in HD Live

Manon Lescaut – Puccini
Conductor James Levine; Karita Mattila, Marcello Giordani, Dwayne Croft, Dale Travis

I'm used to sleeping in on weekends, so it was a bit of an effort to make it to the 10:00am Live from the Met HD broadcast on Saturday. This is too early for opera. I was surprised at how full the theater already was at 9:30am. I had to sit in the last row to be anywhere near the center. The audience was mostly middle-aged couples, so it doesn't look like these broadcasts are bringing in new audiences for opera.

I have to say that the show is very slickly produced. It's a different experience from seeing a live opera performance. It's amazing how close you get to the singers. Often their faces fill the entire screen. Viewers who get used to this style of presentation will probably be disappointed when they attend a live performance; they will feel very distant from the action.

In this cast Dale Travis as Geronte came across the best in this medium. He is a terrific actor & singer & commanded my attention whenever he was on-screen. Mattila is also a great actress, & the dramatic physicality of her performance came through especially strong in her protracted 4th act death scene.

& of course the Met orchestra led by Levine always sounds fantastic. Often I was listening to the orchestra more than to the singers.

The intermission features where Rene Fleming interviews harried performers just as they getting on or off stage are embarrassing. But I liked seeing the scene changes from backstage & hearing that control-desk guy cue James Levine. I also like the count-down clock to the end of the intermission. Now this would be a good feature to have at the actual opera house during intermission!

I will probably go to other broadcasts, but perhaps I'll be more likely to attend the repeat screenings that start at noon the next day. I'm interested in the Tristan, but even a Wagnerite like me isn't going to be up to it at 9 in the morning!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bang On a Can Marathon

I was very curious to check out the open house Saturday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts & especially the free performances by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. As things turned out, I didn't have the time for this I wanted that day. The only thing I know about Bang on a Can is that they look like the hip future of classical music music. All I can say from the two and a half pieces I heard is that they give technically proficient & no doubt stylistically correct performances of new music. There were a lot of wires & hardware strewn about the stage, & all the music I heard had electronic amplification, which I tired of quickly.

William Vollman at Stacey's

Friday I spent part of my lunch hour at Stacey's Bookstore to see William Vollmann read from his new book Riding Toward Everywhere. Riding the rails is something I associate with Depression Era hobos, so I had no idea that people still did it today. The excerpt he read displayed the somewhat contradictory elements of romanticism, intellectual detachment, & Saga-like dry humor. Vollmann comes across in person as straight-thinking & direct, as very American. Someone, perhaps indiscreetly, asked if he paid people in the book for their stories. Vollmann replied that he did, "5 to 20".

How Good People Turn Evil

Last Tuesday, February 5th, I was at the JCC SF to hear Philip Zimbardo lecture on "How Good People Turn Evil". He gave a 90 minute talk, to an audience of about 400, based on his book The Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo is responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, which demonstrated the extent to which situation, not personality, affected the expression of sadistic behavior. The parallel to Abu Ghraib is inescapable.

Zimbardo came to the podium wearing a black T-shirt with a devil design on it. His talk was part theology, part history, part psychology, & part inspirational message. He quoted Milton as readily as he cited academic studies. His belief in the importance of his topic was unquestionable, & he came across as a very compassionate person.

Zimbardo is an entertaining & humorous speaker, but there was plenty of rough stuff as well. He showed more Abu Ghraib photos beside the few well-circulated by the mass media. He drew comparisons to the trophy photos of lynchings, of which he had many chilling examples. We also saw pages from a Nazi children's comic book showing Jews being kicked out of town. The basic insight is that there exists in each of us the potential for evil behavior, & this potential can be realized by particular circumstances.

But after this hard lesson, he ended on a hopeful note. He gave examples of "everyday heroes" who stand as paradigms of the good side of our nature. We can all be everyday heroes as easily as we can be devils.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Partner For Life

On my recent trip through the Castro Muni Metro station, it was impossible not to notice that all the ad space was taken by posters for a Web site called partnerforlife.com. I suppose it's an upscale Internet dating service for gay men. It's a pretty slick campaign. Pictures of happy male couples with tag lines like "First dates are great. First anniversaries are better" & "Cruising is great. A copilot is better." They do a good job making determinedly single guys like me feel insecure.


I heard that the Castro neighborhood had been dressed to look like how it was in the late 70's, for the filming of a movie about Harvey Milk. Yesterday during my lunch I took the Muni Metro over there to check it out. It didn't look like they were filming anything at that time, so there wasn't much to see. The most obvious thing is the bright red & yellow paint job given to the Castro Theater signs. It looks like the facade of a carnival fun house. Was it really like that back in the 70's?

Repainted Castro Theater

Search flickr for Harvey Milk Movie to find lots of cool pictures of the filming.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Myung-Whun Chung's Mahler Mishap

I didn't witness this one myself, but Myung-Whun Chung actually had to have a do-over of the final bars of the 1st movement of Mahler 1 at his recent SF Symphony concert. Very surprising considering that this is a pretty standard part of the repertoire nowadays. Joshua Kosman's review describes an under-rehearsed performance. Civic Center blog, however, loved it, miscue included.