Say it again, Sam*

September 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm (read, watch)

One of my least favorite things about being a journalist in the era of 800 million news outlets is that you end up interviewing people who have been interviewed a dozen times before, asking them many of the same questions that all the other journalists asked them. I’ve had stories where I think I’ve gotten a good quote, and then I see the exact same one in another article.

But hey, it happens to the best. In the run-up to The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin-scripted, David Fincher-directed film about the fraught founding of Facebook, New York magazine and The New York Times are among the publications writing about the movie that “defines the decade” (or so says Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers).

Here’s David Fincher to Mark Harris, in New York magazine’s Sept. 27 cover story, “Inventing Facebook:”

“I know what it’s like to be 21 years old and trying to direct and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute but aren’t about to give you control of anything,” says Fincher. “I know the anger that comes from when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do…”

Fincher to David Carr, in The New York Times’ “A Zillion Friends, and a Few Enemies:”

“I know very subjectively what it’s like to be 21 years old and sitting in a room full of adults who are all taking about how cute your passion for your vision is and how angry that makes you,” he said.

At Jonathan Franzen’s City Arts & Lectures appearance in San Francisco last week, he took a long pause before answering one question about family in his writing. He said that he’d been answering so many questions that he’d found himself repeating answers, and wanted to avoid that, but there were only so many ways to respond.

You can’t fault the press for asking relevant questions, and you can’t fault interview subjects for these semi-canned answers, because they want the press, and there really aren’t that many ways to impart the same information. Most people won’t read multiple articles on the same subject, unless they have read everything by Franzen and/or think Jesse Eisenberg (who plays Mark Zuckerberg) is very cute. There’s just the nagging question, what’s the point of 100, or even 10, articles about the same movie? I defended (or rather, had Lydia Davis defend) multiple translations of classic novels last week. But when I go to, say, the press page of the movie Touching Home, and see the links to 52 articles (not counting TV and radio interviews), one of which is mine, it starts to feel a little pointless. What to do? A) Only write about really obscure things, or B) keep writing until you can write the best damn article out there.

(Here’s looking at you, kid.)

*yes, I know “Sam” has nothing to do with this, but “David” messes up my not-that-funny joke.


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The latest literary adaptation: “Baster” and “The Switch”

August 25, 2010 at 11:09 am (read, watch)

I have an essay on The Millions today about The Switch, the recent film adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides short story “Baster.” (Eugenides is best known for his novels Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, but “Baster” is a sharp, funny little story.) 

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In 1999, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides into her debut film. The movie was remarkably faithful—perhaps too faithful—to the book, preserving the languid mood, reverential but impersonal treatment of the doomed Lisbon girls, and unusual, first person plural narrative voice.

Last Friday a very different Eugenides adaptation, The Switch, hit the big screen. Based on a short story called “Baster,” which was originally published in 1996 in The New Yorker, the film stars Jennifer Aniston as Kassie, a 40-year-old single woman who decides to get pregnant using a handsome sperm donor. What she doesn’t know is that Wally, her neurotic best friend (and one-time boyfriend), played by Jason Bateman, has replaced the donor’s sample with his own during the drunken party to celebrate her insemination. 

Adapting a short story is a different animal from book-to-movie adaptations, and a challenge I’ve been thinking more about after spending the summer working at Zoetrope: All-Story. Francis Ford Coppola founded the magazine with the idea that short stories are more akin to film (and perhaps better source material) than are novels, as both stories and movies are meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each issue of Zoetrope includes a story that has been adapted to the screen: Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Illusionist, 2006), Alice Munroe’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Away from Her, 2006), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008’s movie of the same name), among many others.

“Baster” is a good opportunity for an adaptation. It’s funny, with a high-concept plot, and it’s not impressionistic or experimental. (Neil Burger, who wrote and directed The Illusionistcalled the Millhauser story that was his source “unfilmable.”) The story lays solid groundwork, but its length—only 6 pages—and unresolved ending gives the screenwriter freedom to make it his own. And individual short stories rarely have a large audience, so aside from, uh, people writing on literary websites, there aren’t fans of the original telling the writers/directors how they messed up or didn’t honor the source. …

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Read the rest over at The Millions!

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So You Think You Can Dance killed my lifelong love of gymnastics

May 27, 2010 at 8:39 am (watch)

The seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance premieres tonight, and man, that show makes me wish I could.

I was a gymnast when I was younger, though you’d never know from the fact that now I can barely touch my toes until after an hour of yoga. I spent only a few months in ballet class when I was four years old, until I discovered that cartwheels were way more fun than trying to crank my feet into fifth position.

Since then I’ve watched nearly every championship meet, every Olympic competition. I loved Shannon Miller and the Dominiques (Dawes and Moceanu) up through Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. My first job was as a gymnastics teacher. In college, I wrote a script about an elite gymnast. But dance? In my limited exposure, I found much of it prissy or self-seriously “about” something that I didn’t get. Thanks, but no thanks.

Then one day my new roommate turned on So You Think You Can Dance.

My rule is that I only watch reality shows where the stars actually have talent—cooking or fashion designing, yes; famewhores yelling at each other or making out in a hot tub, no. (I fell off the wagon recently with a binge of The Millionaire Matchmaker… but matchmaking is a talent, right? And I’m not the only one who has succumbed to Patti’s charms.) The dancers on SYTYCD blew me away with their skill, strength, beauty, unabashed love of and dedication to the art form, and willingness to attempt the foxtrot, paso doble or lyrical jazz despite being a krumper (see: last season’s winner, Russell). Dancing in pairs, the contestants must find chemistry with their partners, but they also must connect to the audience–after all, the fans call in to vote for “America’s favorite dancer.”

The biggest difference between the show and my previous experience was being welcomed into the world of dance. For the uninformed, dance can be alienating. Ballet is ruled by complicated, often rigid conventions and specific, French-named moves, and draws from a canon of works about which I know nothing. (Uh, Balanchine?) Modern dance can be plain weird, and use a vocabulary of movement so unfamiliar that viewers don’t know how to respond. One great advantage of SYTYCD is the behind-the-scenes footage. Seeing the choreographers talk about the inspiration for a dance—anything from addiction to a hummingbird pollinating a flower—and following the rehearsal process demystifies the art, helping a general audience feel engaged. Even Christopher Wheeldon, considered the most important contemporary ballet choreographer, presented short rehearsal films during the inaugural season of his company Morphoses (from which he resigned in February). As Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2007:

“The films… were very good: sexy, sweaty. But their purpose, I believe, was to give the audience a toehold on the ballet before the curtain went up, and also to give them the pleasure, as they watched the piece, of recognizing steps. (“Oh, that’s the passage they were working on in the film.”) No art, not even opera, is more clad in snobbery than ballet. These little movies were an attack on that, and God bless them.”

So then SYTYCD, a reality show—that crass, dumb genre—is a full-on assault on the rarified realm of dance. But the vibe isn’t violence—it’s openness. Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s executive producer, likes to pat himself on the back for bringing dance to the masses. Annoying self-congratulatory-ness aside, it’s true. Most people at home on the couch had probably never seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, let alone a strange contemporary piece about two crash test dummies falling in love, and now they’re being shown that dance can be for them, too. Last year I went to several dance performances, a direct result of enjoying the series.

Then a funny thing happened. In the fall, I watched the United States’ Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross take first and second place in the Gymnastics World Championships, and I felt nothing. Admittedly, we’re still in the post-Olympic slump, and there’s not a truly exciting talent on the scene, but where was the charisma? The emotion? Those young girls, inwardly focused, dutifully jumped and flipped, toes pointed, ticking off each routine’s required elements for the judges. But you’ll never see a gymnastics judge moved to tears by a performance, as happens surprisingly often on SYTYCD. The dancers are as passionate as they are technically accomplished, as Salon’s Heather Havrilesky summed up in this thoughtful examination of SYTYCD’s appeal:

“When you watch these kids learn a different style of dance each week, you’ll recognize how some of them struggle and fail to sell it, or they’re good little robots who lack a certain flair, while others creep and shimmy and leap and flail and sneer with the raw electricity of the possessed. These are the ones who’ll grab your eye, who’ll demand your attention and respect, these rabid little weirdoes, these odd little physical magicians, who can take a hip-hop or jazz routine and turn it into a transformative, emotional roller coaster.”

Watch season 5 winner Jeanine and Jason explore the tenderness and pain of longtime friends venturing into love, or the sinuous intensity of Jakob and Ellenore dancing a creepy, sensual Sonya Tayeh routine to Oona’s “Tore My Heart.” The karaoke schlock of American Idol doesn’t stand a chance.

My relationship with gymnastics had been physical: Look at the insane things that the body can do. Marvel at how someone can bend, flip, twist, contort, spin and somehow stick an upright landing, back arched, arms thrown skyward in triumph. But through, yes, reality television, I discovered the deeper pleasures of movement that is both physical and emotional. In the language of leaps and lifts, touches and glances, the dancers tell heartfelt stories, and I’m happy that I can watch and listen.

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Can I still admire Marion Jones?

May 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm (watch)

The WNBA season opens this weekend, and when the Tulsa Shock face off against the Minnesota Lynx on Saturday, a league that has long struggled to build a fan base will find a few more eyes cast its way—because Marion Jones is on the roster for the Shock.

Most people, of course, know Jones best as a fallen track superstar, who recently spent six months in prison for lying to federal investigators about taking performance-enhancing drugs before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She’s also a 34-year-old who just gave birth to her third child last year. But as an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine detailed, the former college basketball star (she won a national championship with the University of North Carolina in 1994) is staging a comeback via the WNBA.

Amid all the hoopla, I’ve been struggling with the question: Is it okay to still like, and even admire, Marion Jones?

During the golden-girl media storm leading up to her five medals at the Sydney Olympics, I thought she was fantastic. That crooked-toothed smile. Those specially-designed, clear plastic Nike spikes with no heel, the lightest ever made, that cast the soon-to-be Vogue cover model as a modern-day Cinderella. That teddy bear of a shot putter husband (who, like her second husband, sprinter Tim Montgomery, ended up busted for doping). That speed.

I started running track in high school, the year after Sydney. Breathless after a race, crumpled to the ground with burning thighs, I’d picture Jones zipping across the 200-meter finish line in 21.84 seconds. She would have been charming reporters before I reached the straightaway.

Now, a decade later and roundly disgraced, Jones is back. And even after the drugs and the lying and the check fraud scheme and the jail time and the struggle of her poor Olympic relay teammates, who to this very day are fighting to regain the medals that the IOC ordered stripped from them, I find myself rooting for her.

Did Jones lose my respect? Of course: I was angry and sad when the truth came out (and some people speculate she never told the whole truth, or revealed the extent of her drug use). She is an embodiment of the problems that plague high-level sports, and part of the reason why, when people watch an astonishing race from Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, their first instinct is to say, “He’s got to be taking something.” She deserved to crash and burn, and to suffer the harsh consequences—public, private, athletic, financial—of her lies.

But I thrill at her pure competitive fire. I’m in awe of her physical prowess–how many people can be among the best in the country, or world, in one sport, let alone two? And I think it takes no small amount of courage to get knocked down, hard, and get back up.

Jones could be accused of joining the WNBA for less-than-noble reasons: she’s trying to reclaim the spotlight and celebrity, to curry public favor, to recast her past through the filter of motivational-speaker rhetoric about lessons learned. Regardless, Jones is legitimately an athlete. An amazing athlete, who appears to be busting ass in training for a chance to get back in the game. And though she’s one of the oldest players in the WNBA and could probably use a little boost, you’ve got to think that she’s 100% clean this time around, or else she’s a damn fool.

“The word redemption is not in my vocabulary,” Jones said at a press conference in March. “This is an opportunity for me to realize a dream. This is an opportunity for me to share my message of hope, of second chances…but redemption doesn’t creep into the equation for me.”

But of course her story will be framed as a quest for redemption; it’s a narrative we all know and love. I hope she pulls it off.

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Zoolander Changed My Life

March 24, 2010 at 4:31 pm (watch)

When I was younger, I was kind of a brat. Not mean, not cruel, not a bully—just someone who thought she was usually smarter than the other kids around her, and sometimes smarter than her teachers.

I also loved movies, but I took pride in watching good movies. When my sister and I would go to Blockbuster, she would suggest a title and I’d say, “we can’t see that—it got a C- from Entertainment Weekly and one and a half stars from Ebert and Film Comment didn’t even write about it. How about this Oscar-nominated foreign film that never got a theatrical release in Sacramento?”

And then one day she said, “Shut up, Anne. We’re watching Zoolander.”

Roger Ebert gave it one star and found it offensive. I loved it. Its silly stupidity, faux-seriousness and caricatured characters make for a perfect blend of laughing-at and laughing-with. Even now, reading through memorable quotes on IMDB cracks me up. (“If there is anything that this horrible tragedy can teach us, it’s that a male model’s life is a precious, precious commodity. Just because we have chiseled abs and stunning features, it doesn’t mean that we too can’t not die in a freak gasoline fight accident,” Zoolander eulogizes—or, “eugoogoolizes”—after the death of his friends.) Luckily, last month, nearly nine years after the untimely just-after-9/11-release-date of the original, it was announced that a Zoolander sequel is in the works.

For me, Zoolander was the PG-13 gateway drug that opened the floodgates to Meet the Fockers and Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers and Along Came Polly and Talladega Nights and The 40 Year Old Virgin and Bad Santa and Superbad and Borat and Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Tropic Thunder and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all the other lowbrow raunchfests that were part of the mid 2000s renaissance of the R-rated comedy. (But I hate Old School, and Will Ferrell’s overgrown, often nude, man-child shtick in general. A former roommate and I had frequent Stiller vs. Ferrell face-offs, with her fighting in the corner of Elf and Anchorman and even Stepbrothers. Plans for Anchorman 2 seem sketchy—there are reports that it is “on hold”—so take that, Brittney!)

Stiller’s role in the new Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, which opens in wide release on Friday, has prompted a look back at his 30-year career. A recent New York Times piece, called Mortification Man, distilled Stiller’s career down to being a “perennial punching bag”:

“He anchors family movies and romantic comedies alike, and it says something about his charisma— and perhaps about the dark appetites of the moviegoing public — that he has done so with a screen presence that is often synonymous with anxiety, pain and humiliation.”

True enough, given that his big break, There’s Something About Mary, found him snared through the cheek with a fish hook (not to mention the famous hair gel scene). However, my favorite Stiller characters are the muscley preeners, those where he twists his neurotic persona into inflated, egotistical goons like gym owner White Goodman in Dodgeball (who literally inflates the groin area of his tight shorts), action star actor Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder and, of course, Derek “Blue Steel” Zoolander.

These characters also have their hang-ups—the gym owner is terrified of becoming fat again, the actor wants critical acclaim that eludes him when he goes “full retard,” the male model is afraid that his life has been meaningless—but they’re too self-unaware to be neurotic, too oblivious to be humiliated, too aggressive to be punching bags. It’s worth noting that Stiller co-wrote and directed both Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. When he takes charge, his lead roles serve as bulked-up and really, really, ridiculously good looking antidotes to his “mortification men.” They’re dumb as shit, though, so no one can accuse Stiller of taking himself too seriously.

I still watch Oscar-nominated foreign films, and I’m still guilty of occasional snobbery. But according to IMDB, Stiller has 17 movies in the works, so maybe he’ll knock it out of me yet, with the power of Zoolander’s unleashed Magnum.

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Forget Best Screenplay—Here are the Best F*!@ing Insults from In The Loop

February 26, 2010 at 11:36 am (hear, watch)

Warning: This will get lewd. But how can you talk about the dizzyingly funny and wildly vulgar political satire In the Loop, nominated for best adapted screenplay, without language that would make Howard Stern blush?

In the run-up to the March 7th Oscars, there has been much discussion about performances, direction, best picture chances, ex-husband-and-wife rivalries—and very little about screenplays. As the only adapted screenplay nominee that did not receive a Best Picture nomination as well, In the Loop has been overshadowed by films like Precious and Up in the Air, but it may be my favorite movie of the year, and is certainly the one that most delights in language.

Most of it is foul language, to be sure. But oh, what foul language! Insults are often dumb, easy and cheap—we’ll spew the first crude things that come to mind in the heat of anger or frustration. But four letter words and bro-speak like “douchebag” simply can’t express the wide range of ways in which a person can be contemptible, disappointing or idiotic. Hearing sublime wit and style applied to the art of the insult made me cackle with glee.

The act of insulting may be immature, but In the Loop brings grown-up flair to its “fuck-off”s. The insults (some too complex to be satisfying in out-of-context quotes) reveal an ear for rhythm, a stand-up’s mastery of the set-up and punchline, pop culture literacy, historical knowledge and, centrally, an understanding of political manipulations as fodder for screwball comedy. Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and the source of most of the verbal abuse, deploys his sharp tongue with a shrink’s incisive knowledge of others’ vulnerabilities.

Given that this is a British movie, the musicality and formality of British English, not to mention its cultural history, provide multiple jokes. In talking to a staffer for low-level cabinet minister Simon Foster, who is upset because she was not informed of a media appearance that falls within her purview, Tucker explodes: “Within your ‘purview’? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”

(For more Austen-bashing, admire Mark Twain’s verve: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.” This quote appears in last fall’s Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, a compilation of famous authors’ fighting words that similarly celebrates impressive smackdowns.)

As with “jaunty little bonnet,” In the Loop revels in creative descriptions. When Tucker complains about a War Committee meeting with a very young State Department aide, he rants, “His briefing notes were written in alphabetti spaghetti. When I left, I nearly tripped up over his fucking umbilical cord.” And “lubricated horse cock” is only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s animal imagery: Tucker is called a “poodlefucker,” an aide smells like “a pissed seaside donkey,” a staffer in hot water is “lobsterising,” a State Department official is “an excitable, yapping she-dog” and an American staffer is warned: “You get sarcastic with me again and I will stuff so much cotton wool down your fucking throat it’ll come out your arse like the tail on a Playboy bunny.”

From start to finish, bonnet to arse, In the Loop is a linguistic masterwork. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it now. And if you want to further admire the writers’ achievement, you can download the whole script.

So here’s hoping that the Oscar goes to Armando Iannucci, who also directed the film, and his three co-writers, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche. Just imagine the acceptance speech they’ll give.

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Lindsey Vonn vs. the Tragic Nymphs

February 17, 2010 at 11:03 pm (look, watch)

In an article that appeared Wednesday in Slate, Hanna Rosin examines the fraught world of sexuality for female athletes. Her central comparison is between skier Lindsey Vonn, who recently posed for Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and “pixie” figure skaters “whose notion of sexy involves sparkly outfits and blue eye shadow.” Among other conclusions, Rosin declares that, for women, the trope “assigned toskiers (female gladiator) is far preferable to the one assigned to skaters (tragic nymph).”

But throughout the article are a number of statements and arguments that left me wondering who ran over Rosin’s foot with a 1/8″ blade and left her with a grudge against skaters.

First, some thoughts about Vonn’s shoot. After looking through the pictures, my main reaction (besides that she kind of looks like Alicia Silverstone and that the high-waisted red flowered bikini was a questionable call) was that, despite the fact that Vonn fits the standard ideals of beauty, she looks noticeably–and nicely–different from most women you see in bikini shoots. She’s muscular, un-plastic-surgeried, and has the body that she does because she is an incredible athlete. Rosin says that “It’s appalling, really, that the poster girl for the U.S. Olympics team, a woman whose promise is compared to Michael Phelps’, should behave for all the world like a Playboy bunny.” But Phelps got a ton of attention for his body and willingly appeared shirtless on the cover of Sports IllustratedGQ, Men’s Journal and more, so it’s not right to say that Vonn is acting irresponsibly or getting sexist treatment compared to him. Also, athletes’ bodies are their instrument, so I don’t think we should be made to feel bad for wanting to see them in all their glory. Yes, we should care not because they’re hot but because they’re talented, but the side effect of all that training is often an amazing physique. And we’re only human.

But then begins the sexist treatment on Rosin’s part. After saying that at least Vonn’s sexuality is preferable to that of the figure skaters, she writes, “Watching pairs skating these last few nights has reminded me of what the figure skating narrative is all about: tender young fawns gliding to maudlin music, getting thrown around, and landing on frail ankles. The vibe is more Virgin Suicides than professional sports and is thus, from the teach-your-daughters point of view, problematic.”

I don’t have a daughter to teach, but here are a few lessons I think the young figure skaters could impart: grace under pressure, dedication to a goal (in an increasingly instant-gratification world), the power of dreaming big, and that beauty, femininity and physical strength aren’t mutually exclusive. Also, though Rosin is speaking to the narrative and not the facts, saying that the skaters are “getting thrown around” is downright offensive to these athletes, who have crazy muscle control and power, not to mention a risk-taking spirit. Plus, that description doesn’t hold up in individual skating, where the women are clearly their own driving force for those whiplash jumps.

Usually these glittering, whirling girls get attention galore. But part of the reason for all the hoopla surrounding Vonn is that “This year, for various reasons, the United States does not have a figure skating star who has captured the media’s heart.” Rosin does not expand on those reasons, but I think it’s an interesting question to consider. Why? Because there’s nothing tragic or nymph-like about Rachael Flatt, who won the 2010 US Championships and is the United States’ top medal contender. Her short program at the championships was bubbly and upbeat, and the New York Timesdescribes her as having “round, ruddy cheeks and uncontainable perkiness”—hardly Rosin’s “weepy heroine.”

In appearance, she is not nymph-like either. And here’s where things get complicated: Flatt didn’t do much for me when I watched the championships, partly because I found her lacking artistry–and I’d be lying if I denied that it relates to the fact that she seems larger than many skaters, and therefore doesn’t have the balletic lines of, say, tiny Sasha Cohen. So is Rosin arguing that Flatt hasn’t become a media darling because she’s too smiley and too solid? Because she’s not a nymph? I’m not sure, because Flatt isn’t mentioned in the piece.

In addressing a true media darling, Michelle Kwan, Rosin makes navigating the sexual trickiness of figure skating sound like a lose/lose situation. Girlish and weepy is no good, yet when Michelle Kwan, attempting to be more grown up, dressed as a sexy temptress to perform “Salome” for the 1996 world championships, Rosin says that “The resulting look is somewhere between little girls’ dress-up and Thai brothel. The photos look like they should be confiscated by the FBI.” So what should figure skaters do? They compete in a sport that highly favors young, small women. They may fit more naturally into a “pixie” image because they’re closer in size to Tinkerbell than to the 5’10” Vonn. But when they start to chafe against that image, it’s not fair to damn them for not looking young, sweet and girlish enough.

All of these questions are important because, Rosin argues, sex appeal is inherent in the sport: “One of the reasons skaters have enduring appeal is that they get to show their bodies.” Rosin takes them to task for their nude tights and short skirts. But skaters don’t show any more skin than track stars, swimmers or tennis players. And aside from skating in crazy shiny blue bodysuits, what are better options? The sport requires agility (i.e. non-restrictive clothing), and no male skater wants to get tangled in a long skirt as he twirls his partner into a complicated lift. Admittedly, they could cool it on the illusion netting. But be honest: unless you’re a die-hard fan, spangly, oddly cut-out costumes are half the fun of watching figure skating in the first place.

In defense of women like Picabo Street and Bonnie Blair, whom she feels are insufficiently honored, Rosin says that figure skaters “hog all the glory.” Is the ratio of prime-time figure skating coverage to coverage of most other sports off? Yes. But to give kudos to Vonn because she isn’t “an ice princess in a short skirt” is a slap in the face to women at the pinnacle of their difficult sport. I hope that Rosin plans to watch the women’s competition, which begins next Tuesday, with a more open mind and with more respect for the skaters.

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Sing It: An Interview With Nanci Zoppi

February 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm (hear, watch)

If you haven’t heard Nanci Zoppi, you ain’t heard nothing yet. In the last year, the singer-actress has made waves in the Sacramento theater scene through performances with the New Helvetia Theatre Company, B Street Theater and weekly cabaret series Graham-a-Rama. With an elastically expressive face and a jaw that seems to come unhinged as she unleashes high notes, she brings equal parts comedic talent and yearning sadness to her role as Susan, the girlfriend of an aspiring musical theater composer, in Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! Presented by New Helvetia, the show runs through February 13. Nanci took some time between two shows on Saturday to chat about the musical, her new band and what makes her cry.

How did you get into singing and acting? Tell me about the first performance that you can remember. My dad’s a singer around town, Bobby Zoppi—he had the band Zoppi. So he taught me how to sing when I was two, when I started talking. I hummed before I knew words. And at six my first grade play was The Littlest Christmas Tree and they cast me as the littlest elf and I loved it. From that point on I threw myself into acting, and I went to theater school when I was 19.

Where did you study? I went to this place called Circle in the Square in New York. All my favorite actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Benicio del Toro and Felicity Huffman went there.

You’re currently starring in Tick, Tick…Boom! How would you describe the show? Jonathan Larson really wanted to bring real rock music to the stage. It’s still musical theater, but it does have a different edge to it and even if you don’t like musical theater you’ll still like this. The show resonates with a lot of people, with the question of “what am I going to do with my life?”

Had you been a Larson fan previously? I liked Rent, but I was never diehard. I’m more of a Sondheim person—Sunday in the Park with George is maybe my favorite musical of all time. I had heard Tick, Tick…BOOM! and I didn’t like the music at all. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with these people again [after starring in New Helvetia’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch last summer], and it’s been a great experience because I love the music now.

What changed? I think when you start to do your groundwork as an actor for your characters, you grow an attachment to them. That automatically makes the songs more personal. Plus [co-stars] Connor [Mickiewicz] and Tristan [Rumery] bring so much to the characters and sound so beautiful doing it. I don’t know if you’ve heard the cast recording of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, but Raúl Esparza is the star. Terrific actor. Has one of the most annoying voices on the planet. So I think that had something to do with it.

There are some clever songs in the show, like “Therapy,” plus one, “Green Green Dress,” that’s all about how hot you are in a green velvet dress. Do you have a favorite? My favorite song in the show I don’t sing. It’s the one Jon [the main character, who has a day job at a restaurant] sings at the end—it goes “I’m going to spend my time this way.” [The song is “Why,” in which Jon reaffirms his decision to devote himself to music and theater.] When he sings it I’m always offstage, and I cry every time at this certain part, when he says “Five o’clock, diner calls, I’m on my way.”

What makes it so affecting? I always knew what I wanted to do, from six years old, maybe younger. And then I hit 24, 25 and everything changed. Like, “I have no idea if I want to do this anymore.”

What made you doubt? Theater school was a lot of it. When you do six days, seven days a week from 8 a.m. until sometimes midnight and you’re trapped with 50 really needy, passionate, sometimes horrible people—I was so tired, I took two years off. I went through that, “do I give up? Is this something I really want to do?” Even if you’re super talented, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to succeed.

But you got back in the game, and people love your performances. On at least three occasions, the arts editors of the Sacramento News and Review have written that they’re “obsessed” with you. What do you think it is about your performance that leads to those strong reactions? If I knew that, I would try to mass produce it. I’m a vocal teacher as well, and the thing I tell all my students is, if I wanted to just hear a pretty voice I would listen to a CD. You have to make it personal so that people want to get out of bed, get dressed, get in the car, spend the gas money, buy a ticket and then at the end, be willing to do it all over. Leading up to high school, everything was really on a gut feeling, and feeling the audience’s energy, and when I went to theater school everything became very technical. I think I finally reached a place where I’ve been able to marry those two concepts.

A lot of people think of musical theater as over-the-top, jazz hands, all that. But do you also sing rock or pop music? When I was growing up I was training in opera and musical theater and contemporary stuff. I grew up listening to the Pixies. My favorite to sing though is folk music. I started a band with Graham Sobelman [the brains behind Graham-a-Rama] called Nanogram. I’d call it piano-based folk, and we’re currently trying to record an EP. The last year has been great because I’ve been able to just work doing theater and singing lessons. This is a new experience for me, and I hope to continue it as long as people want to come see me.

See Nanci perform:

  • Tick, Tick…BOOM! Through Feb. 13
  • It’s Only Life, a revue of the music of John Bucchino (presented by New Helvetia), March 1 at the Crest
  • As “Nanogram” at Graham-a-Rama, March 14

Watch: Nanci at Graham-a-Rama, performing “It Goes Like It Goes,” from the movie Norma Rae

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Ping pong madness

November 24, 2008 at 9:40 pm (watch)

Though I haven’t played in more than a year, I love ping pong. (I also have two shirts from my high school days in ping pong club, two other items of clothing with ping pong references, and the nickname of “net whore,” thanks to my lovely sister and my skill at coaxing the ball to catch the net and drop right over.)

So, I would be remiss if I didn’t share this new ad for a limited edition Bruce Lee Nokia phone that has been viral video-ing itself all over the internet. General consensus seems to be that it’s an actor, not really old footage of Bruce Lee, and that it’s all digital and CGI and not really someone playing ping pong with nunchucks blah blah blah. Whatever. It’s awesome, so check it out.

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Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart

September 28, 2008 at 11:45 pm (hear, watch)

Rachael Yamagata is one of my favorite musicians, if that status can be earned with a single album (2004’s Happenstance ), and I’ve been waiting ages for a follow-up. Now, Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart (a two-disc CD) comes out on October 7!


Here is the video for her first single, “Elephants”. It seems like a bit of an odd choice to kick off the new album–it’s super mellow, and not really infectious. But it is pretty, and I’m jazzed to hear the other 14 tracks. 

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