Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rambo Solo

I have seen the theater future and its name is Rambo – or more accurately, one fearless thespian named Zachary Oberzan who’s got the right combination of mesmerizing lunacy and sheer cojones to guide an audience through the entire plot of “First Blood” in his Manhattan studio apartment then transport the journey to the live stage of Soho Rep. “Rambo Solo” comes courtesy of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, whose co-directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper conceived the piece out of Oberzan’s passion (which began not with the Stallone franchise, but with David Morrell’s book about a decorated and disturbed Vietnam vet whose clash with a small town sheriff leads to a cat-and-mouse chase with the law).

To read the rest of my review visit Theater Online.

Friday, March 27, 2009

American Swing interview

Originally published at SpoutBlog


As someone who has been to an untold number of swing parties in NYC, and often had a hilarious time, I’ve never found them the least bit sexy. Truth be told, average Joes engaging in group sex is rather boring to me. So I was hoping that through interviewing Jon Hart and Mathew Kaufman, co-directors of the Plato’s Retreat doc “American Swing,” they’d upend my POV, get to the essence of why the notorious 70s sex club was so alluring. I spoke with the filmmakers during their opening night screening at the Museum of Sex.

Lauren Wissot: Jon, since you’d already exhaustively researched Plato’s Retreat and written about its founder Larry Levenson for “The NY Times” and “The Village Voice,” what drove you to want to tell the story through film?

Jon Hart: He was a larger than life character. He just had a great story. It was moving and funny. And Larry was an actor, he was a ham – there were just so many elements. I always knew it was a film.

LW: And Mathew, what was your attraction to the subject?

Mathew Kaufman: Well, I produce documentaries so I’m always looking for a good story.

LW: Oh, I didn’t know that. What documentaries have you produced?

MK: I did a two-show special for “Nightline” in 2004, I worked on something with evangelical Christians – I like weird subject matter.

LW: You and Alexandra Pelosi have something in common. (laughs)

MK: A friend of mine introduced me to Jon. But I’d read his articles before we even met. It was such a fascinating story. No one had done a documentary on Plato’s Retreat. It would be a first so that excited me.

LW: And could you talk a little bit about the audience you hope to reach with your film?

JH: I don’t really think about that. It’s just such a great story, even without all the salacious elements.

MK: I just felt like “If you build it they will come,” the “Field of Dreams” bullshit – no, seriously. It’s just such a great story.

LW: I’m also wondering where did you get your “never-before-seen” archival materials? I mean, who was allowed to film at Plato’s Retreat?

MK: The archival footage was absolutely necessary, because without it it’s just a bunch of talking heads.

JH: On very special occasions they did allow cameras on the premises. On those nights people were informed that filming would occur.

MK: We also got the rights to a documentary that was made in the 80s called “Coupling,” and then some other TV shows. We just dug with absolute determination, trying to get every scrap of footage we could find.

LW: Getting back to the talking heads, in the film they range from Buck Henry to Melvin Van Peebles to Helen Gurley Brown, yet hardly any of the well-known names interviewed were famous at the time of Plato’s Retreat; they only became famous later on. This strikes me as quite different from Studio 54, which operated at the same time as Plato’s and also ran into trouble with the IRS, where all the celebrities wanted to be seen. Was this the case or were you just unable to interview any stars that frequented the club?

MK: (laughing) We tried. I must have called Richard Dreyfuss’ office at least every two weeks!

JH: He even wrote about Plato’s in an “Esquire” article at the time. Look, if you were at Plato’s you’re admitting that you enjoy a certain aspect of human sexuality, and people are a bit squeamish about that. Even so it was really the atmosphere that was the star more than any celebrity personalities.

LW: I also noticed you have Annie Sprinkle, who talks about Plato’s Retreat dying a “natural death.” In other words, even without the tax evasion charges that sent Levenson to prison, even without the AIDS epidemic that caused Mayor Koch to padlock Plato’s Retreat’s doors for good, the club had run its course, much like disco and Studio 54. Wasn’t Levenson’s biggest mistake in not realizing the 70s were over a decade before?

JH: Larry had no plan B. He didn’t even have a plan A. A clock exists for not just Plato’s, but for any club in NYC. They all eventually become passé.

MK: But if you equate that with Larry’s character, it kind of makes sense, you see the egotism and the hubris –

LW: Which is what allowed him to take a chance on a sex club in the first place.

MK: But New York is such a fast-moving city, and he refused to see that.

JH: Larry wasn’t a businessman. He liked the attention and the media hype, but after Plato’s had been open for a couple years it became a job.

LW: He also wasn’t an artist, but an entrepreneur who craved being around kinky creative types, which is usually the case with people in charge of sex businesses. I felt that this social connection to people beyond his suburban milieu might have superseded the actual screwing for him. I know Al Goldstein chides Levenson in the film for not realizing that sex is just “friction,” but I think Levenson’s optimistic hope for connection is what drove him to create Plato’s Retreat in the first place. Do you have any thoughts on this?

JH: Larry was a small businessman who didn’t look at Plato’s as a business.

MK: In the beginning maybe.

JH: But he did love the connection. He never stopped enjoying meeting with people. He became a cab driver after Plato’s closed.

LW: Which makes total sense.

JH: He loved being “he host” above all. That’s what he was meant to be.

LW: Which is kind of the opposite of what Al Goldstein was saying, that Larry was only there for the sex.

JH: Al Goldstein was on the dark side. He’s a very intelligent guy. But Larry believed in what he was doing. He drank the Kool-Aid. He truly believed.

MK: Look, I didn’t know Larry like Jon did but I have a different viewpoint. I really think that Larry had to have known at some point that the Kool-Aid he was drinking wasn’t working. We tried to show in the documentary that he had to have known.

JH: Had to have known what?

MK: That it was doomed to failure, that it was just commerce after a certain point.

JH: Sure, it became a job at some point – but this is all he knew. There was no plan B. I don’t know what he knew or what he didn’t know. Larry lived completely in the moment, not looking ahead.

LW: When I was watching the film I felt that Levenson wanted to bring the middle class swinging lifestyle to the masses, but the problem with doing this is he’s simultaneously trying to play it both ways – promoting the wholesomeness of the people involved while hyping the unwholesome titillating excitement. Levenson seemed pretty uncomfortable with what his dream in the end had become, evidenced by his ludicrous denial that prostitutes were working the club.

MK: He played a character. He played a role.

JH: Yes, that’s true, that’s true. But Plato’s was contrived to begin with. Swinging is an activity that’s supposed to be organic and Plato’s was forcing people, in a sense that people in that setting are pushed into the activity. Larry knew Plato’s was a business from the get-go. It blew his innocence from the moment the financial portion became involved.

LW: Which is the case with everything. (laughs)

JH: Yeah, it’s like a rock band. You start playing music in the garage and the next thing you know you’ve got silent partners to answer to.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Glory Hole Days: American Swing

Though I've been to many underground sex parties in NYC I can't say I find them all that sexy. Hilarious—quite often; sexy—not so much. Maybe this is because I come from the BDSM world, which means I'm usually the biggest perv in the room. A lot of the swingers at the parties I've attended tend to get wide-eyed at the mention of something as ho-hum to me as caning, and mere screwing ain't enough to turn me on. Or maybe it's because I'm just a shallow genderqueer chick who won't touch any body that doesn't have muscles attached to a big dick. Or maybe it's because I was swinging on the playground when the original deal, NYC's notorious swing club Plato's Retreat, was in full swing.

But after watching “American Swing,” Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman's doc about the infamous '70s sex club, I can safely rule out that last possibility. Nope, I still don't get why average people having group sex is hot.

To read the rest visit my column at Carnal Nation.

Monday, March 23, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009: We Live In Public

Ondi Timoner's Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning doc “We Live in Public,” about the rise and fall (and rise and fall…) of visionary Josh Harris—billed as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of" and the "Warhol of the Web" in the film's press notes—surprisingly lives up to its Barnum-esque hype. The film, a quintessential New York story, begins with a YouTube clip called "Goodbye Mom"—Harris's cyber farewell to his dying mother in lieu of visiting her bedside—and ends in a third-world country. In between, Timoner, who previously took home a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for “Dig!”, pieces together a thought-provoking portrait of society's future through the technology of the recent past.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant.

New Directors/New Films 2009: Paper Soldier

Russian director Alexey German Jr. announces his intentions right from the start of “Paper Soldier,” which takes its title from a song about a brave soldier unaware that he's really just a toy made of paper—and who meets his demise by voluntarily stepping into a fire. The period film, set in 1961, harkens back to Russian cinema of the '60s. In addition to winning the Silver Lion and Best Cinematography at last year's Venice International Film Festival, the film also stars the mesmerizing Georgian actor Merab Ninidze as a doctor whose conscience insidiously catches up with him as he works with the young cosmonauts at the Soviet Cosmodrome Baikonur. With exquisite imagery and a script co-written by German Jr. (the son of German Sr., a legendary director from the Leningrad film school) that manages to transform a poetic and philosophical meditation into a tightly paced drama, and a cast that includes the radiant Chulpan Khamatova as doctor Danya's doctor wife, “Paper Soldier” deftly visualizes those dual elements of terrifying uncertainty and thrilling history that were the essence of the Soviet liberal experiment era, crystallized in the space program itself.

To read the rest of my review visit Slant.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Un Piede di Roman Polanski" on YouTube

CineKink Film Festival 2009’s Best Experimental Short.

Watch it before we get sued!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Screengrab's Favorite Movies About Music: Non-Fiction Edition (Part Three): Lauren Wissot's Favorite: JOY DIVISION (2007)

My first boyfriend when I came to NYC, the lead singer of a local goth band, introduced me to Joy Division – not the band itself, and not the music, since I was already a goth and well-aware of their songs – but the phenomenon. I was a big sound Sisters of Mercy chick who didn’t quite get it, a fan of over-the-top goth like Bauhaus, and the catchy dance beat of the band Joy Division evolved into, New Order. Joy Division itself was more like those minimalist 4AD bands – goth lite. The boyfriend was long out of my life by the time I realized my mistake. You can’t just listen to Joy Division – you have to absorb their aura. Now thanks to Grant Gee’s documentary “Joy Division” (written by punk rock’s tireless chronicler Jon Savage), which Surround Sounds the story of the band with the feel of Manchester through a collage of images, I understand why this is. The British director, by placing himself in the environment that birthed Joy Division, soaks in the band’s essence. This is something that Anton Corbijn, a Dutch photographer and cinematographer who shot the infamous video for “Atmosphere” (and appears in Gee’s doc), and tread the same material in his biopic “Control,” completely lost amidst his lush, gorgeous and painfully stark imagery. Corbijn’s certainly got more artistic talent than Gee, but less of an understanding of the band he knew as a young photojournalist. There’s just less substance in “Control.”

To read the rest of my review visit Nerve’s Screengrab.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Stay alive for as long as you have to stay lost": This Beautiful City

As someone who grew up in the hardcore/new wave/goth scene in Colorado Springs in the late 80s, and who recently reviewed Alexandra Pelosi’s “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and penned a column entitled "In Defense of Ted Haggard," I was anxious to wrap up my trip through Pastor Ted-land with This Beautiful City, the latest production from The Civilians, the acclaimed “documentary theatre company” that this time around has immersed itself in the mega-church movement (and its opposition) in Colorado Springs. It’s now playing at the Vineyard Theater through March 15th—so you still have time to catch it before it wins a well-deserved Obie and transfers to Broadway.

To read my review visit The House Next Door.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Looking Back at The Notorious Bettie Page

On the surface it would seem that cerebral Mary Harron would be the perfect director to craft a biopic from the many dueling facets of the mother-of-all-fetish-models’ life. Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, brainy Harron also has a terrific knack for choosing the most interesting, sexy subjects and just draining the life out of them. Watching both “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “The Notorious Bettie Page,” I found myself thinking, "the book would have been better" – if only there were a book. It’s the same feeling I get sitting through French "provocateur" Catherine Breillat’s films. Having intellectually astute women at a flick’s helm is a grand idea in theory, but often all this thinking just gets in the way of an entertaining story.

To read the rest visit my Sex Beat column at Carnal Nation.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tokyo! Review

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

TOKYO! Review

The producers of “Tokyo!,” three short films by two Frenchmen and a South Korean, aim to do for Japan’s metropolis what “New York Stories” did for the Big Apple or “Paris Je T’Aime” for the City of Lights. That the two Frenchmen are indie darling Michel Gondry and former film critic/”Pola X” director Leos Carax, and the South Korean Bong Joon-Ho, who made an international splash with “The Host,” would seem to lend these three very different takes on a single subject some serious cache. Unfortunately, only two directors rise to the occasion, leaving a gaping hole in an otherwise thoughtful trilogy.

Not surprisingly, of the three directors it’s the warped Gondry, whose specialty is visualizing that fine (often nonexistent) line between life and art, who most throws himself into the task of translating the pulse of the city to the screen, via his newly-arrived protagonists Akira and Hiroko in “Interior Design.” Overstaying their welcome couch surfing at a friend’s cramped studio, they look for dead-end jobs and at cheap apartments (one of which contains a dead cat), the camera moving at typical Gondry speed, from fast motion overhead shots to slow pans, like a fractured subconscious. In the process the self-involved Akira (who pitches concepts to his girlfriend in lieu of engaging in conversation) watches his film career take off after he screens his “Metropolis”-like feature at a porn house, while the unsure Hiroko (played by Ayako Fujitani who happens to be the daughter of Steven Seagal) struggles to find her own identity.

It’s like listening inside the director’s own head as the pair roam the bustling streets, arguing about Hiroko’s “hobbies” not being dreams or ambitions. “What’s the difference?” she wonders, to which Akira replies, “You have to be able to define who you are in the world by what you do.” But when the purposeless Hiroko acquires the ability to physically transform like a character straight out of a Cronenberg flick, becoming both metaphorically “invisible” and useful, Gondry’s press notes claims of Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” as influences, eerie string and woodwind score aside, loses any legitimacy. Gondry is just too warmhearted a filmmaker to pull it off – he doesn’t have the ruthlessness required to delve into such psychological terror. Yet for capturing the essence of this Tokyo, that very warmth feels oh-so-right.

Unfortunately, French provocateur Leos Carax plows through his version of Tokyo with a ruthless arrogance akin to his bogeyman protagonist, named “Merde” (a title as clichéd as his Japanese sewer monster, played by Denis Lavant of “Lovers On The Bridge,” that also goes by the French word for “shit”). After opening with a slow pan of the city’s buildings set to ominous music, an overhead shot takes in a manhole, up from which pops Lavant looking like Larry Fessenden on the very worst of days. A shaky handheld camera captures the half man-half beast’s acts of gratuitous mayhem on the streets as he rips food from people’s hands, licks innocent passersby (the footage captured on cell phones makes the evening news, of course). Merde’s relatively harmless afternoon acts escalate to nighttime Molotov cocktail-throwing – with the monster skipping over the bloodied carnage like a playful kid – but despite the wondrously composed shots, Carax’s story is as empty as the tunnels in the beast’s underground lair. And once the creature is captured and forced to stand trial, leading the media to go on a feeding frenzy of its own, a mysterious lawyer from France who speaks Merde’s language (including body unfortunately) arrives in Tokyo to defend him – and, it would seem, to drive the audience mad.

Luckily for the pompous lawyer, Carax’s Tokyo is really just another version of France. As the hand-held camera that sways with the sewer man and his barrister becomes more and more grating, and the insane conversations between the two reach the realm of experimental theater workshop, Carax just keeps on obliviously rolling along (often showily using three frames onscreen simultaneously). Without any specific cultural touchstone the Tokyo courtroom – like the film itself – could be set anywhere. Indeed, the fact that Carax chose to import a French lawyer (played by Jean-Francois Balmer) to defend a creature embodied by a French actor makes “Merde” more of a French film than any exploration of Tokyo. Even the street protest by Japanese ultranationalists (Japanese ultranationalists?) to call for Merde’s hanging is downright Parisian, the pitiful creature not an international bogeyman, as Carax suggests, but rather an accidental stand-in for western imperialism. The end title card even reads that, “The Adventures of Merde in New York” is coming soon. Undoubtedly via Air France – “Merde” says a shit-load more about its enfant terrible director than it does about Japan.

The final part of “Tokyo!,” Joon-ho’s ”Shaking Tokyo,” is the least earthshaking and the most quietly profound. In voiceover the male protagonist, a “hikikomori” (shut-in) describes life inside his apartment as the camera drifts about the tiny yet organized flat, exquisite lighting tapping into the pathos of shadows. “The first eye contact in eleven years,” the nameless man says upon the arrival of a cute pizza girl, but as the middle-aged recluse pays for the delivery an earthquake rattles the room and the young woman collapses in his doorway. After running around in a panic he discovers a circle tattoo on her arm that reads “coma” below it, and literally pushes her button to wake her. Once she’s revived and gone the modern urban fairytale escalates as the hermit is forced to venture into the blinding sunlight of the big bad world to find his mysterious princess.

But unlike Gondry’s rushing Tokyo, Joon-ho’s claustrophobic quarters give way to spacious empty streets (though unlike Carax’s “Merde” the sense of space and place is apparent and palpable in both their films). After running through the streets accompanied by a lovely, light guitar score – peeking in the windows of other recluses – he finally finds the pizza girl (now hikikomori!) of his dreams, begs her to come out through the bars of her window. As self-imprisonment gives way to another earthquake, as the man pushes her “button” for love, which leads to yet another earthquake, this visualization of emotion allows the film to transcend a city and a specific cultural phenomenon to become as universal as the “dissolution of love” story at the heart of Gondry’s “Interior Design.” Now if only immature Carax hadn’t rudely interrupted the deep dialogue between these two companion pieces “Tokyo!” would shine like the city’s brightest neon sign.