Monday, April 07, 2014

Wanting More Muppets

I had wanted to get this written earlier, but now I'm glad I waited (forgot) because I want to argue with nearly every other review of it I've read and heard.

I was a little giddy after seeing Muppets Most Wanted, not just because I enjoyed it, but because I enjoyed it for all the right reasons. Unlike The Muppets, MMW is an actual movie, not a nostalgia machine carefully crafted in a lab. While it picks up where it left off (literally), with the gang newly reunited and enjoying their renewed popularity (a relative term in the Muppets' world, as they perform their show in the fleabaggiest of venues -- which is totally believable for a vaudeville show in 2014), there is an actual plot that doesn't simply revolve around meta-commentary and "Hey, look! The Muppets are back!" There are elements of The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan but its not a retread of either of those movies. The story felt wholly original to me (within the confines of heist and prison movies), and it was encouraging to see that the Muppets could do something sort of new. Like The Muppets, a great deal of attention is paid to a new character, but this time that character isn't Walter (he's still around but he's just part of the group now, unspecial). Constantine is a delight. He's a great, goofy, not-as-bright-as-he-thinks-he-is villain firmly rooted in the Muppet tradition, and he also manages to acknowledge, send up, and almost even solve the Jim Henson problem by making a bad Kermit impression a central plot point.

I hate to say it, because I generally like his work and he seems like an all around good guy, but I think the main problem with The Muppets was Jason Segel. With his fanboy sensibilities gone, the rest of the creative team was left to come up with new ideas and tell a real story. And with no need to reintroduce the Muppets, they could get right to it.

There was one early joke that told me I would love this movie, and I'm going to spoil it because it's in the first five minutes. In the opening number, the gang suggests various types of movies they could make for their sequel. As they cut between quick gags parodying different genres, there's a black and white shot of the Swedish Chef playing chess with Death, singing a subtitled lyric. I was in. Later there's a not exactly obscure but not exactly obvious either musical theater reference that seems like it's going to be a throwaway gag but winds up being an entire number, complete with what I'm pretty sure is the original choreography. These are buttons I'd much rather have pushed than the obvious nostalgia ones, and this movie felt made for me.

As with The Muppets, I like how this is just a world in which Muppets and humans coexist. It's well-populated, not just with our heroes but with extras in the background, even outside of the theater. And they were recognizable (notably the dancers in suits with Muppet feet, hands and heads who I've always found creepy and who I always associate with Liza Minnelli's "Copacabana") who sparked nostalgia in me but not in a heavy handed way. They were just there, because why wouldn't they be? Those guys have to go home after the show, right? 

Reading reviews of this movie (and listening to Slate's great (if 100% wrong) Spoiler Special), I was struck over and over again by how critics kept saying how great the last movie had been, and how this one paled in comparison. I had to go back and read my own review again to see if I'd soured on the film over time. Nope. My memory of my impressions is completely accurate. 

The fairest criticisms are that there's too much attention paid to the humans and that Kermit is on his own in a totally different movie. I get that, but I don't agree. The three main humans (Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell) are almost never seen without Muppet scene partners (Constantine, Kermit and Sam), and it's not really any different from Segel and Amy Adams' primary roles in the first movie. It's true that The Muppet Movie was an almost all-Muppet world, with humans mostly serving as cameos, but humans played major parts in The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan and always on The Muppet Show. Here, the lead humans got the tone exactly right, and felt like they belonged in this world. I even enjoyed Ricky Gervais' performance, which I had assumed was impossible. The cameos were, as many critics have pointed out, mostly superfluous (some stars literally showed up on screen for just one line, which is fine if you're Madeline Kahn ("Yeth?") but seems pretty pointless if you're a) not that famous and b) don't even get to interact with any Muppets), but the human leads have such great chemistry with the Muppet counterparts that they just seemed to fit. That's also why I didn't mind Kermit's exile, because he and Fey were so delightful together, and so much about the gulag is so funny and flat-out ridiculous (Danny Trejo for everything) that I never even thought about the fact that there were no other Muppets there. Still, many of the Muppets themselves felt relegated to cameos, and I wouldn't have minded spending more time with Fozzie and Animal and less with, say, Jon Hamm.

MMW isn't without its larger missteps too, notably the fantasy sequence in which Piggy and Kermit grow old together (they've never aged before but I guess that's no weirder than the original Muppet Babies fantasy sequence) and we see their absolutely horrifying offspring. The implications of a frog-pig romance have always been troubling, and it's something we should never be asked to think this much, let alone see its product. The movie generally drags a bit in the middle, and like I said too many of the original main characters are relegated to the sidelines. And come on, Miss Piggy wouldn't realize that Constantine isn't Kermit? But I quibble. I had so much fun that even the criticisms I agree with I mostly didn't notice until others pointed them out later (horrifying baby figs aside).

Maybe our responses are all about expectations. Critics who loved The Muppets found MMW inferior. I went in excited but very skeptical and was pleasantly surprised. For whatever it's worth, everyone in the audience I saw MMW with at the New York International Children's Film Festival, including adults older and younger than me and, of course, kids, seemed to be totally into it too. 

One thing I did wonder, amid the success of Constantine and the not-going-away-ness of Walter (and the perfectly valid criticisms of the sadness of hearing other people play these characters -- although I thought most of the voices were nearly perfect this time out): What would it be like if the new crop of undeniably talented Muppet performers were allowed to create their own characters? If Gonzo and Rizzo and other original Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire characters stuck around but new ones joined them, and when their performers were ready to retire their characters did too? Basically, what if the Muppets were like SNL? Sesame Street does this successfully all the time. I don't even know when/where Pepe was introduced but he's become a Muppet star. The Muppets clearly work, and as I've said before their charm comes from their realness. Puppets work for adults and kids, and I think they always will. Why not have the courage to evolve the franchise? I'd miss Kermit and Fozzie, but I miss Jim Henson and Frank Oz more. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dancing A Paradox

Reality: That was the bullshit. But show business—singing and dancing and all that jazz—held the absolute truth.

Sam Wasson's new biography of Bob Fosse (titled, simply, Fosse) came out a few weeks ago and got some incredible buzz (mostly among the people I follow on Twitter who would buzz about this sort of thing) so I decided to check it out even though I already know a lot about Fosse and have already read one excellent biography of him (Martin Gottfried's All His Jazz).

I imagine biographies of artists -- especially performing artists -- are hard to write. You have to describe the art and somehow get inside the creative process, which the subject may or may not be on record talking about, and if he is it may or may not be bullshit. A general assumption that anyone reading the book already has some knowledge about its subject is probably fair. And necessary. You can't describe in detail every show Bob Fosse ever worked on. Well, you could, but it would be endless. It's about a man's life, not cast album liner notes.

That said, I'm not sure who this book is for, exactly. I consistently found there either wasn't enough detail or there was too much. More accurately I suppose there wasn't detail about what I wanted detail about. But in a book about an artist, the art is arguably the most important part. Theater and film are intensely collaborative, and as controlling as Fosse was, he couldn't have achieved his vision without the help of others. We get glimpses of process, but not enough for me. In pages and pages about the creation of Sweet Charity, for example, with attempts by multiple writers to crack the script, there's one tossed off sentence about the score. I assume that's because writing it went smoothly but a) I don't actually know that and b) Fosse's style is as wrapped up in the music he didn't write as it is anything, with rhythms and orchestrations that were built just for his choreography (a Fosse show sounds like a Fosse show even when someone else is directing a revival, which is a pretty remarkable feat for someone who didn't write any music). Orchestrator Ralph Burns, who I know from elsewhere to be an essential part of creating the sound that went with Fosse's visuals, is mentioned and even quoted a couple of times, but there's nothing about his work or his relationship to Fosse.

Even Fosse's breakup with Gwen Verdon, a relationship Wasson puts forward as the most important in his life (I mean, I think it was, that's not some crackpot theory) is glossed over. True, she doesn't leave his life or the story, but that seems like a major turning point, no? If it wasn't, then Wasson fails by setting it up as if it should be.

Even acknowledging the challenges, the book assumes both too much and too little from its reader. Despite my knowledge about musical theater -- or maybe because of it -- I found myself wanting more details about shows and also the world around Fosse. What else was going on in musical theatre while he was working? Names go by in a blur (the Kindle's X-Ray feature is really handy in a book like this), and sometimes I want to know more about them before they're gone.

When the book really delved deeply into the work is when it was the most compelling for me. I loved learning, for example, that the musical numbers in Cabaret were first cut together traditionally, using more or less straightforward wide shots to show all the dancing, and then Fosse and his editor would go back and find places to cut in odd angles and closeups. The more good tidbits like this were shared, the more annoyed I was when they weren't. Fosse was famously controlling while shooting Sweet Charity -- his first film as a director -- but there's no mention of, say, the set designer. At 700+ pages I get why we're not spending a ton of time on that, but I want to know how something as perfect -- for the story, and for Fosse's choreography and camera work -- as the rooftop set for "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" came about. It's too collaborative an art form for those people to be tossed aside if you're telling the story of the work. There's a reference to "The Manson Trio" at one point, with no explanation of what it is. It's a dance in Pippin, well known to theater geeks but not the name of a song or anything. And yet we learn a lot about what people ate for lunch. It just brings me back to the question of who the book is for.

It's also, frankly, not very well written. At times, almost randomly, Wasson seems to think he's writing a hard boiled detective novel. Take for example this quote from Ann Reinking
"The thing you love can also be the death of you," Reinking said. "Dancers are aware of that much more than the average artist."
and compare it with one on the same subject from Wasson
These bodies were the corrugated maps of old Forty-Second Street, preserved in hurt’s formaldehyde.
Reinking, the dancer/actor/choreographer nails it, and so simply. Wasson, the writer, not so much. (Not to imply that a dancer shouldn't, wouldn't or couldn't be well-spoken, just that she's not the one who got paid to write a book.)

A couple more “favorite” similes just for fun:

Their task was to find and refine visual rhythms and layer them on the eye like phyllo dough.

They buffered him from the neon sting of Broadway, ten blocks below, where dreams were torn like tickets and forgotten innocents reached out to him from the dark.

I could forgive the occasional dramatic flourish (especially given the subject matter) if the narrative were stronger, but the whole thing is kind of a mess. Particularly as the book enters the 70s, any sense of structure sort of goes out the window. I assume this is deliberate, and in some ways I liked it very much. Life doesn't happen in neat little chunks, a show and then a relationship and then a movie. But as a reader I found it muddled. What's he working on now? What happened to that girlfriend? Is Cabaret finished? Two paragraphs ago he was still editing it. Again, I know a lot of this stuff already, so there were plenty of interesting tidbits to be had and I was able to fill in some of the blanks myself, but that seems less than ideal.

I don't read a lot of biography so maybe this is standard practice, but I was frequently put off by the quoting of conversations for which the author -- and possibly nobody living -- was obviously not present. I realize it's helpful to dramatize this way, but I found it odd. There were hundreds of end notes which in the Kindle edition link back to the original references, but no notes within the text. (This might just be a Kindle thing. It also had the effect of making the book seem endless, as my page counter showed over 100 pages left even as I neared the end, with no way to stick a thumb in the actual end of the book.) I guess I needed to suspend my disbelief better but in dramatically too tidy moments I found myself thinking "how do you know that?" or "that doesn't sound right," which a simple attribution or taking slightly less liberty would have cleared up.

The structure of the book (literally a countdown to Fosse's death) leaves no room for Fosse's legacy. As overlong as the book felt, this left me unsatisfied. And life is, as Fosse himself would happily tell you. But I'd become strangely defensive and fond of the man over those hundreds of pages, and even if he'll never know how others would preserve and continue his work, or what happened to Gwen or Nicole or Ann, I felt the readers should. After all, when he staged his own death in All That Jazz ("a 100 percent accurate rendering of about 70 percent of Bob Fosse"), he did it with a musical number.

Fosse is a fascinating, complicated, often unlikable man, who left behind a body of work that's still being performed and aped, even in a medium known for its impermanence. If you’re interested in musical theater or tortured artists or even just pop culture of the 60s, 70s and early 80s at all, you should read about him. For as much as I’m criticizing the book and as much as I thought I already knew, I did read all 592 pages (as it turned out to be without the notes and acknowledgments) of Fosse and I learned a lot. But I think I'd recommend All His Jazz over Fosse. Granted I read it many years ago, when I knew much less about the man and the business, but it's certainly shorter and as I recall it flows a little more smoothly and clearly.

One huge difference between the two books has nothing to do with them but with when I read them. It was great to read this book in the age of YouTube and Netflix. I loved being able to watch numbers as I read about them, and even watched a couple of whole films I hadn't been familiar with before. Here are some favorites.

The aforementioned rooftop set. I don’t actually love this show or this film, but this is perfection.

This whole thing is amazing but jump to 6:54 (if I did this right it’ll do it itself) and watch the solo (and imagine Ann Reinking doing it).

Fosse dancing his own choreography in My Sister Eileen. (not embeddable)

Maybe my favorite one minute and twenty seconds of film ever.

I didn’t really “get” Liza, who was already a …complicated figure by the time I knew who she was, for years. Then I saw this and I understood:

I’m still not a huge Liza fan but I think you should just watch all of this anyway. Try to overlook the ensemble’s costumes (everything about it is just sooooo early 70s).

(My favorite number starts at 29:15.)

Speaking of Liza, I love this description of her from the book:
At twenty-three, Liza Minnelli was already a strange, spastic showbiz animal, a volcano of nerdy confidence. She wasn’t beautiful and she moved a little crazy, like a drunken elfin girl kept up past her bedtime to sing for her parents’ guests. "Hi, everyone!"—Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby. "It’s a long, hard battle," the Times wrote of her Empire act, "but she finally comes out ahead." Every night was a massacre she didn’t always survive.

And one last quote, from Reinking again, the source of the title of this post:
"When you’re dancing in one of Bob's shows, you’re always dancing a paradox," Ann Reinking said. "In 'Big Spender,' you really want to get that guy to come to you, so from the waist up you're glamorous, you're wonderful. But from the waist down, you're tired and your legs are busted and your feet are hurt. 'Please God let me go home and get to sleep' and 'But I have to get the money' at once."

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Lemon Ginger Chicken

I made this deceptively simple recipe tonight and it instantly became one of my favorites.

The chicken was incredibly moist, and extremely lemony. It takes a while, but very little of that time is active. I don't have a fryer, so I just used a frying pan and turned the chicken pieces halfway through. Go make this.

To drink with dinner I made a Fernet My Heart in San Francisco from Nick at Chill the Glass. I've had a bunch of cocktail recipes piling up because I lacked ingredients, so the last time I was near the big fancy liquor store I bought some weird stuff. Like Fernet. A whole big bottle of Fernet, for a drink that calls for half an ounce. And made five spice syrup so I could have 1 1/2 tsp (I did halve that recipe). And: worth it. I'll definitely be using the rest of the Fernet and the syrup. And it paired perfectly with the chicken. 


I wrote some more stuff...just not here

Well, one week in and I've already failed at my "blog every week" don't-call-it-a-resolution. I could say that I started some things, and it would be true, but starting things and not finishing them is really the whole problem.

Anyway, I did write a couple of things elsewhere again, so here are those:

At I wrote about my totally rational irritation with easily avoidable recognizably modern location shots on the otherwise delightful The Carrie Diaries. I am a crackpot and I'm not ashamed.

And I have another recipe up at Chill the Glass, the refreshing (and good for a cold? let's just say it's good for a cold) Ginger Sidecar. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Critical Drinking

I’ve been thinking for months about how I want to get back to writing here. I set myself a goal of posting once a week, which really shouldn’t be hard. An hour on the weekend, a photo or two posted straight from my phone...but I don’t. I think maybe the traditional at this point in the history of blogging “why I haven’t been writing” post is a stumbling block, so I’ll skip it (no ominous reason, just the usual too many things). Lest this idea seem like a New Year’s resolution, note that January’s almost over, and take my word for it that I’ve been thinking about this since at least October. (It's worth noting, I think, that I've had this blog for over ten years, which is...weird.)

I have done some writing elsewhere, though (also weeks ago at this point, so make of that what you will), in both unexpected and expected places. First, a Twitter conversation/argument with my friends at The Craptacular turned into a blog post (theirs) which turned into a series of comments that were basically more blog posts (mine). It was an interesting conversation in which we were ultimately largely saying the same thing in different ways. In case your personal “don’t read the comments” policy is so strict you won’t even click over (and I can’t blame you for that), here’s a shorter version:

I took issue with the schadenfreude surrounding Spider-Man's Broadway closing after seeing many tweets, etc. basically saying "good riddance." This is how theater works, of course -- shows close, new ones open -- but I think there's something tacky about rejoicing that a couple hundred people are losing their jobs. (Why I keep finding myself in the position of defending that show I don’t quite know.) This somehow turned into a conversation about critics and negativity, which isn't what I'd been talking about but was interesting anyway. We all agreed that everyone -- professional critic or not -- was entitled (obligated) to share her opinion and that "in my opinion" was implied. It's not necessary to consider who the show might be for if it’s not for you, since you're writing from your perspective. BUT (and this is where we did not agree but that's okay) I argued that the show wasn't a complete failure if it ran for three years (though it clearly wasn't a success either) and there's a difference between saying something is objectively bad and saying, however harshly, that you hated it. Or saying it doesn't work but here's what's interesting and saying because it doesn't work there's nothing interesting (we do agree that "interesting parts" doesn't mean you should pay $150 for a ticket, which again is where a nuanced (not the opposite of negative) review can come in). Or saying "I'm not sorry that show is closing" and "Suck it, that show and everyone who works there." Nearly everything is for someone, or it wouldn't exist. And I say this as someone who hates a lot of things. If some little kid saw Spider-Man and that's his gateway drug to Sweeney Todd, that works for me, if not for the investors. 

There’s a much larger conversation going on in theater circles lately about the role of critics, especially as traditional media’s coverage of the arts shrinks and “regular” audience members’ access to publishing platforms grows. So I guess we were on the pulse or something. I’m pro-critic, generally. I mean, I’m clearly pro-opinion. I’m also pro-civility and constructiveness. Unfortunately that can be confused with a desire for no one ever saying anything bad at all, which, clearly, is nonsense. Especially, perhaps, when the subject is Spider-Man.

Aaaaaaaanyway. In a probably unrelated development, that same night i invented a cocktail (the Apple Pie Manhattan) and posted the recipe over at Chill the Glass, which my friend Nick was kind enough to invited me to contribute to. 

Last but definitely not least, my friends at were kind enough to indulge me and let me write about both Smash and the Muppets, which was deeply silly and great fun. More of that coming soon.

So, see you next week? Maybe?