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Monday, July 20, 2009

Finish him!


Episode 4 of the BBC's
I, Claudius miniseries shows Livia making an appearance backstage at the Coliseum to give the gladiators a little pep talk. She paid good money for these games and she expects a real fight, no more faking it with pig bladders filled with blood, etc. Then, in the royal box, just as Claudius faints at the sight of Livia getting what she paid for, we hear her cry out to one of the gladiators, "Finish him!"

I had two Livia moments this week, one courtesy of Frank Rich and the other from Anthony Lane. Rich's column in the Times, shredding Sonia Sotomayor's Republicans critics, can't really be excerpted, because like most of his stuff it derives its effect from the piling on of example after example of right-wing idiocy. By the end, you find it hard to believe there are even 40 Republicans in the Senate, or that these will last more than another election cycle or two - but then you remember Karl Rove crowing about the permanent Republican majority he was creating and you are inspired to reflect on the perils of overconfidence.

Anthony Lane's evisceration of Brüno in the July 20th New Yorker ("Mein Camp") is similarly difficult to quote, and just as devastating. The closing graf could stand alone:
“Brüno” ends appallingly, with a musical montage of Sting, Bono, Elton John, and other well-meaners assisting mein Host in a sing-along. Here’s the deal, apparently: if celebrities aren’t famous enough for your liking (Ron Paul, Paula Abdul), or seem insufficiently schooled in irony, you make vicious sport of them, but if they’re A-listers, insanely keen to be in on the joke, they can join your congregation. Would Baron Cohen dare to adopt a fresh disguise and trap Sting in some outlandish folly, or is he now too close a friend? To scour the world for little people you can taunt, and then pal up with the hip and rich: that is not an advisable path for any comic to pursue, let alone one as sharp and mercurial as Baron Cohen. All his genius, at present, is going into publicity, and, in the buildup to this film’s release, he has not put a foot wrong—or, in the case of Eminem, a buttock. But the work itself turns out to be flat and foolish, bereft of Borat’s good cheer: wholly unsuitable for children, yet propelled by a nagging puerility that will appeal only to those in the vortex of puberty, or to adults who have failed to progress beyond it. Call it, at best, a gaudy celebration of free speech, though be advised: before my screening, I had to sign a form requiring me “not to blog, Twitter or Facebook thoughts about the film before 6th July 2009.” A guy pulls down his pants and bares his soul, and we are forbidden to have thoughts? What is this, the Anschluss?
Both these columns put me into fits of schadenfreude, which is by definition mixed with some pity: how can the viruses responsible for these lesions on our culture and politics show their faces after press like this? As someone who intends to make his own share of marks on the world, and hopes they will be reviewed, I search for lessons: never to be that terrible is one, and two, if I am, and I get called on it, to take solace in the knowledge that somebody somewhere is really enjoying my bad reviews.

***CORRECTION***
Fodder for the critics - in one paragraph I got two things wrong: it's Episode 3 of I, Claudius, and it's Livilla - played by Patricia Quinn (Magenta to you Rocky Horror fans) - who cries "Finish him!"

This fact-check brought to you by YouTube, where I verified that Livia's speech to the gladiators is the bitchiest thing that's ever been on TV. Check it out - the whole episode (not to mention series) is worth watching but the speech itself is from 2:56 to 5:04 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2YgoZQugjU

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Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”The New Yorker; “Stunning”Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des Récollets.

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