This Week I just finished watching Steven Soderbergh's documentary (collage?) of Spauding Gray's life called And Everything Is Going Fine. Spaulding Gray, actor and monologuist from the 70s-00s, is perhaps most famous for a piece called “Swimming To Cambodia”. As an artist he has always lurked on the edges of my consciousness; I understood that his was performance art as much as anything. I also knew that this was a performer working out his history through his neurotic tendencies and as such I avoided him. For some reason the time felt right to look back.
Soderbergh's film is just Gray – snippets of interviews and video recordings of his performances in skip time. I loved the opening scene – obviously a lo-fi vhs tape- with Spaulding in his classic set-up: a lone table, a mic, a spiral-bound notebook, and a glass of water. The image flutters from acid color to b&w and back again quite beautifully (so like Soderbergh to open with tape) as Gray begins to unwind his stories for us. I didn't find him funny; dry and amusing is more like it. But his accounts of life as a New England Wasp are entrancing. He is completely transparent in his need to perform, as if the only way to understand his life was to tell it back to an audience. What was surprising was how unneurotic it actually all was. These pieces have a beautiful calm. It did become art, and of the best kind: pieces easy to absorb because the artist has done all of the work. It also occurred to me how prevalent this kind of work has become, undoubtedly influencing ironists like the writer David Sedaris and the NPR series “This American Life”. It is also possible that Gray is a link between the confessional but high-toned writer of the past and reality television today. What preserves Spaulding Gray as unique is an 80s East Village vibe (it is no mistake that Jonathan Demme directed his only film). This stuff is redolent of the New Wavers and the 80s art scene in New York. He was a part of that time and space.
Another artist has reached me obliquely this week as well – Justin Timberlake's new album “The 20/20 Experience” has just been released to boffo sales (no surprise). To be honest while some of his songs are quite good I have never warmed to his voice. I was oblivious to 'Nsync and tepid at best to “Future Sex / Love Sounds”; the latter sounded new in one way – stripped and robotic – and glaringly derivative in another – one in a long line of Michael Jackson wannabes. However hearing the first single “Suit & Tie” I was surprised at how much I liked it – warm, fizzy and charming. I was surprised again to read some very lukewarm reviews of the new album. Even after “Suit & Tie” debuted to explosive sales I read critic Sash Frere-Jones describe it as a “widely regarded misstep”. Huh? Of course I had to download the album, and it is really beautiful. A little bumpy in the “funk” parts, it is delicious in its shimmery production and unabashed love for 80s RnB – the kind I love. I think what the critics smell here is the dread m.o.r.: middle of the road / soft rock / dance music. The kind they play on the radio, or used to, a lot. The kind of fusion “Off The Wall” perfected. And yes, he is no Michael Jackson but for once Timberlake does not seem to be pushing so hard to replicate this soul style or that vocal chop. Instead he is channeling the past just like he should, not as some kind of facsimile soul hitched to a brutal beat, but as sweet, impeccably produced rhythm and blues. Will it last? Who knows. For now it is a lovely distraction.
Speaking of the middle (the road, the brow, popular taste) I recently watched Judd Apatow's last film “This is 40”. Apatow produced the wonderful “Freaks & Geeks” for NBC in the late 90s but really cashed in with crude teen-styled film comedies in the 2000s: he directed “The 40 Year Old Virgin” (2005) and “Knocked Up” (2010), extending his brand as a producer with “Superbad” (2007) and the wildly successful “Bridesmaids” (2011). What all of these films share beyond an adolescent male sensibility is a soft humanism, good dialogue, and dead-on jokes. Apatow makes films everyone seems to agree on – smart, silly and fun. Yet again I was intrigued as one tepid review after another appeared for “This is 40”, all to suggest that 'we love you Judd...but don't get old'. A good looking film with a deluxe budget, a lovely cast (including the always dependable Paul Rudd and a wicked Albert Brooks) as predicted the film goes nowhere. A family with money problems drives their BMWs to palatial homes with their swimming pools twinkling in the California sun. No one looks middle aged, and the jokes don't land. It would seem that even acting like an adult takes the fun out an Apatow movie. While not exactly humorous it is, like its director, extremely good humored and fun to watch. OK it's Life-Lite, dressed up impossibly fancy, and with nowhere to go dramatically. But like his doppelganger James L. Brooks even when it is all too much like a sitcom one never comes away exactly empty handed. Everyday people and all of their foibles are lovingly filmed, and that accounts for something.
And as a parting thought, what is HBOs “Girls” actually all about? We are two seasons in and no wiser. Is this Apatow produced series one long Lena Dunham journal entry? Is it a style piece? A pop tart? Why can't those girls cry convincingly? If their parents don't support them who pays for those one bedroom apartments in Williamsburg or Bushwick? Is this retrograde or future feminist? Is it teeny bop or current slice-of-life? The tone jumps around like crazy and while I enjoy Lena Dunham as a writer and enjoy these characters let's face it – none of these girls can act. It's appalling, actually. Where's Stella Adler when you need her? Ok she is dead but can't they cut an onion at cry time or something? Because if I remember correctly 20somethings, even in hip Brooklyn, do have feelings – lots in fact. And as a New Yorker I am here to tell you that in reality these cute white girls would actually be living in The Bronx. Because bad actresses without an income don't make it in New York, baby. Not without some tears.