peteg's blog

Irish Theatre of Chicago: The White Road at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $15.00 + $4.75 service fee = $19.75, bought 2015-05-18. 3pm, with my fellow oldies. This is a solid production with some good acting, but I can't imagine any Irishman (and I mean any) ever saying "For England!" in a non-ironic way.

Chloe Riley got into it. I went on Grace's recommendation.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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$13.97, Regal Webster 11, 3D, 2:20pm screening. Seat B10 was a bit too close to the screen for the chopped-up action spaghetti scenes to make much sense. I got a coffee at the Starbucks in the Barnes and Noble on the corner; I can't remember the last time I was in a bookshop. The bloke just sloshed some cold milk in an espresso, and the result was one of the best coffees I've had at a Starbucks. Props to him.

This is far more vacuous than I'd been lead to believe by the reviewers. Whatever mythology Miller is trying to mint, it's essentially a bunch of post-Fight Club space monkeys engaging in mid-70s bogan behaviour, a homage to the days of the V8 streetcars tearing up the suburban streets of wherever. Lock up your daughters, and maybe your old men, Summernats without the tattoo tent. Tom Hardy was the draw but here he's back to efficient mumbling mode; I far prefer it when he has lines to deliver (see the last time he drove a vehicle any distance) and not just heads to bust. Angus Sampson channels Kenny as the organic mechanic. Richard Carter, eternal copper, is his usual arch inflexible self-character. At least he gets blown up. John Howard was in there somewhere. iOTA is the metal god. And that, of course, was Megan Gale. I far prefer the one-armed Lena Olin of Romeo is Bleeding to Charlize Theron, if only because she has so much more fun.

I struggle with Dana Stevens review (or leader writer): just because women engage in violence does not mean they are empowered, at least in my mind. ... and ultimately it is Max's plan those gals are executing, so he's not entirely surplus to their requirements. A. O. Scott convinced me to do the 3D thing. Someone has hijacked Anthony Lane's column at the New Yorker.

Hal Hartley: Henry Fool

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Last seen about four-and-a-half years ago. Remains awesome.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: The Emerson Quartet.

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Goldstar ticket: $22.50 + $5.50 service fee = $28.00, bought 2015-05-18. As usual with these last-gasp ticket purchases, I should have stayed home. There's no doubt these guys are tight, but the tunes tonight were not to my taste: Liebermann: New Work for String Quartet (CMS Co-Commission, NY premiere), Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major, and Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence. Uncomfortably cold too, at least in just a tshirt. Pizza at Giordarno's with Christian beforehand.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

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All the early-80s tropes: the kid, the dog, the lack of dialogue, the pointlessness of it all. Certainly superior to the original. How many dreams died on that road to Broken Hill? Most of the getups look like they're straight out of Mardi Gras. Again the stunts are awesome, but go by too fast. Arkie Whiteley is in there somewhere.

Mad Max

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The original, from 1979. I've never been very persuaded by Mel Gibson. Here Steve Bisley tries to act him off the screen and ends up getting burned to a cinder. Maybe that was the point of the whole thing. Some of the stunts are pretty cool, but they go by so fast you have to be paying attention. Remaining rapt is not eased by the repetitive and sometimes kooky dialogue. Parts of Victoria have never looked this good, or this empty of weekenders.

First Floor Theatre: The Paranoid Style in American Politics at the Flat Iron Arts Building.

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$20 + $1.69 processing = $21.69, bought 2015-04-24, for closing night. Goldstar had a cheaper base price but the service fee was too high. I headed over around 6.30pm to grab some dinner at Pot Pan Thai (the same-old Banmee Delight) in some heavy fog and light rain, or condensate. Their ticket clearly indicated that we should use the street-level Collaboraction door, but in actuality one needed to proceed up the main stairway of the Flat Iron Arts Building and brave the comic book geeks on the third floor landing. Being closing night, it was packed.

This was an original by Emmett Rensin, inspired by an essay of the same name by Richard J. Hofstadter from 1963/4. The promotional materials of the robust-values candidate feature a mugshot of Mickle Maher, author of Song About Himself. While the dialogue is taut, and the timeline nicely spliced up, the plot is a bit hackneyed; it must be, as I picked the perp somewhere around halfway. I hoped there'd be a twist, with the limp-wristed intern Gary (excellently played to type by Luke Michael Grimes) stepping up and really telling us why he's a Republican.

Andrew Cutler played the Sourthern dirty-tricks maestro Pete Caldwell perfectly. Mitch Salm as east-coast greaser Will Ford had some very funny scenes, especially opposite Eric Gerard, a communications director who fears the black grandmas of the inner-city Chicago churches. These nicely offset the occasional violence, which when it came was plausibly explosive. Amanda Fink as the candidate's daughter and presumable chief-of-staff rushed her lines and pouted a little too much; the pearls don't totally make the blue-blood. Kate Cornelius-Schecter played a right-wing journalist who wanted to more directly participate in the political pantomine. While I enjoyed it, in that car-crash kinda way, its central weakness was that it failed to yield any insight into why anyone with principles could be a Republican.

I went pretty much on the recommendation of Jena Cutie at the Reader. According to Jerald Raymond Pierce, Rensin mined all the cable shows I don't watch. I concur that the scene transitions were first-rate.

The Black Dahlia

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Third time around. Hilary Swank has a blast, and I dearly wish she had more screen time. I like Aarow Eckhart but he's a bit railroaded here. I'm still a bit mystified how we're supposed to assemble the whole thing. The cinematography is occasionally excellent, as it always is with De Palma.

Hal Hartley: Simple Men

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Yeah. Weaker than his first two features, but followed up by his taut and fantastic Surviving Desire, so emphatically just a blip. I like Bill Sage's affected ineffectualness here, and Martin Donovan is always amusing in a Hartley. Karen Sillas is valliant. Damian Young, as the sheriff, is still somewhat compis mentis here.

Space Cowboys

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Eastwood stars and directs in 2000. He and Tommy Lee Jones enjoy their sparring, and Donald Sutherland chases skirt, in what adds up to a less than mediocre piece of grumpy-old-boomer triumphalism. Ironically it's the Russians who have all the space repair tech now...


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An Adrienne Shelley segue from the Hal Hartleys, second time around. I enjoyed it, with its nods to Twin Peaks. I realise now that, as a Southern Gothic manufactured by a New Yorker, it is a bit patronising, and as far as a story of self-betterment, well, all you need to do is treat that high-tipping old gent just right...

A Red Orchid Theatre: Red Handed Otter.

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$30.00 + $4.00 (Convenience Charge) = $34.00, bought 2015-04-11. This is the weakest of the four things I've seen there, but it did feature the strongest performance yet by Luce Metrius, who played a general, rounded sort of character for once. He was ably supported by Mierka Girten, she with a freehold on comedic clueful ditz, and Guy van Swearingen as the bloke who lost his cat. I went due to the review by Tony Adler at the Reader; he's right that the whole thing is a bit twee, somewhat fun but certainly not for people who don't have a thing for animals. The set is somewhat ornate and has a few hidden features, but is not used as broadly as e.g. Ecstasy. I sat right in the middle because the guys with the reserved seating were no-shows.

The Scrapes: discography to date at Bandcamp.

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I heard that these guys from Brisbane have a gig at an underground venue in Sydney in May, and as I won't be there the best I could do is buy their entire back catalogue. Their new album has slipped its promised deadline by at least a day. I like their mix of doom-drone, Dirty Three knockoffs and the odd atmospheric original so far. Kali Yuga Sunrise sounds like a mix of the Dirty Three's Indian Love Song with Valgeir Sigurðsson's World Without Ground from Architecture of Loss, and perhaps Lungs, for Merrilee off Ekvílibrium, with a dash of Ben Frost.

Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., but not really.

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$12.00 + $3.36 service fee + $2.50 delivery fee = $17.86, bought 2015-01-30. The thing with buying tickets with such lead times is that you never know how things are going to be when the gig rolls around. I was pretty tired, a little sick, and certainly not up for a superlate night listening to loud, repetitive psychedelic rock an hour's walk from home. But what the heck, I went anyway. This was my first time at the Empty Bottle, past the hospital on Division. I'm guessing it was at about a third of capacity. I had a couple of Left Hand Milk Stouts to ease the passing of time: arrived there at 8.45pm, somewhat enjoyed the support (ST 37, I think, from Austin, Texas; one guy had a "free shrugs" t-shirt) from 9.30pm, and tried to get into the Japanese guys around 10.30pm. I bailed at 11pm as the last 70 bus down division had gone and it was a school night.

The Unbelievable Truth

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Still awesome. I think Adrienne Shelley is superior here but overall Trust has the edge, probably due to Martin Donovan and its more abstract concerns.

Definition Theatre: A Doll's House at the Chopin Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 + $4.00 service fee = $16.50, bought 2015-04-18. That's three out of three for the Chopin Theatre. This one played in the fancy downstairs dungeon while The Hammer Trinity continued its run in the main space. The bar dude kindly rifled through his stash of quarters for me — I need just four more states! — after I purchased a coffee.

There being no threat of blood, I parked myself in the front row, and it ended up packed. My seat turned out to be right in front of where the actors sat for extended periods, but fortunately they cycled around the table so I got to study just about everyone's fronts and backs. This is (apparently) a classic play by the Norrman Ibsen which has been streamlined and directed by Michael Halberstam, and played by this diverse and young company of UIUC graduates. Some of the scenes are electric, such as when housewife Nora (a magnetic Miriam Lee) received her ultimatum from the agitated lawyer Krogstad (Christopher Sheard), and the tension-releasing horseplay between Nora and Dr Ranke (Yaw Agyeman). The cast synthesized comedy out of just about everything; Tyrone Phillips (as Torvald) graphically illustrated that embroidering is vastly more decorous than knitting. This did not rob the heavy bits of their gravitas. The material is somewhat dated, but I felt it had more to say than Three Sisters.

Zac Thompson at the Reader, and a longer article on Michael Halberstam's day job with the Writers Theatre by Deanna Isaacs. Also Jacob Davis.

Kimberly Kay Hoang: Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.

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I heard about this book via the VSG mailing list, and of course remain curious about the underbelly of Saigon in the twenty-first century and people's experiences of it. In other words, adopting the same sociology-as-long-form-journalism perspective that I took to Mathews's Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, and to Vũ Trọng Phụng's Lục Xì and The Industry of Marrying Europeans, I wanted to know about the economic prospects of the people in the South, and in particular from the Delta, and get some idea of the conditions and remuneration for working in vice relative to "honest" (non-stigmatized) labour (factories, housework, getting educated, etc.). It struck me that sex work for women from the Delta may be like finance for computer scientists: at this point in history you’d be a fool not to be in it, though the cost to the person and to karma is high; and can the money be washed clean? In any case there is a paucity of accounts of indigenous vice in Saigon, as Kimberly implicitly observes in her introduction [*].

Perhaps the first question that springs to mind is how Kimberly gained access to the four bars she studied: three had street addresses, two of which target Western men and the other Viet Kieus, while the anonymous Khong Sao Bar served the local elites. The link is the alcohol distributors, and the powerful men she befriends along the way, who see useful status in bringing her to business meetings due to her bilinguality and prestigious Western education. She discovered a culture of consent, and an absence of people trafficking, and specialized and savvy marketing to men of quite distinct backgrounds. Almost uniformly the work is considered socially beneficial as it enables a higher standard of living for more people than the alternatives (factory and domestic work are typical precursors). Unsurprisingly there is a selection bias at work (p114, p124) as it is probably difficult to interview people who desired but did not gain such employment, aged out of the scene, flouted protocols, and so forth. The work itself is uniformly hetero-normative: men buying women's consent for off-premises assignations. Interestingly the madams (mommies) mostly do not take a direct cut.

I struggle somewhat with the notion that Western men are contesting much of anything in Asia (e.g. p70), given that China already holds massive quantities of U.S. treasury bonds, and the mobility on offer (p75) is pretty much taken for granted in the West already; contrast it with the possibility of working wherever and whenever one wants, or even just residing in whatever (part of the) country you wish to. One technicality people from outside the city face is gaining a residency permit, or avoiding situations where one is required (p108). I had to wonder if the Johnny Walker Blue Label is authentic, and whether public shaming really does have the desired effect. Kimberly ably recounts much of the minutiae of drinking rituals and the somewhat subtle status indicators (p71): handshakes can be quite complex all by themselves.

For all that I couldn't imagine myself at any of these bars, which Kimberly tacitly acknowledges (p192) when she observes that many expats prefer talking to her as she can hold a far more interesting conversation than the bargirls. Perhaps that points to a gap in Saigon's bar scene. The flashiness of the cashed-up women returning to their villages (p166), laundering their wad, is a bit cringeworthy. But they've earnt it, I guess.

Things change rapidly in the developing world: since she concluded her fieldwork (~2006 to ~2010) the global economy has cratered and taken out the less resilient. China has slowed and Vietnam has gone through many corruption scandals, my favourites of which are the never-ending Securency scandal, entangling my favourite Australian powerbrokers, and the bankruptcy of Vinashin. Vietnam is far less tigerish now, as Kimberly observes in her Appendix. The high-end Khong Sao Bar is no more. Hopefully those ladies saved their cash and created something of durable value with it. The building on the far left of the cover is a bank that was under construction when I was last there in 2010.

I met Kimberly and her sociologist husband Robert briefly at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Chicago at 4pm on the Saturday March 28, 2015. I hoped to make it to her panel on the topic of her book but the AAS refused to allow non-registered people to attend, which seems crazy to me.

I close by observing that the Vietnamese mafia is almost certainly impenetrable by foreigners, so it seems improbable that anyone would achieve the blokey guerilla equivalent to Kimberly's work. Then again, the man from Freakonomics did cross perhaps comparable barriers of race and class.

[*] CHTN Nha Trang and W. L. Pensinger, The Moon of Hoa Binh (p461) suggest that Nguyễn Thị Thuỵ Vũ wrote a couple of books: Lao vào lửa (Embrace the fire?) and Mèo Đêm (Night cat) in the 1960s.

Ex Machina

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$9.50, 4.55pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark, newly refurbished. For Oscar Isaac, who was missing the cat so much that he retreated to a Garden of Eden, grew a mullah beard and created a woman. Or several women. As you do when you're the head of Google. Or a thinly veiled Google. Domhnall Gleeson here is similar to what he was in Frank: the uncool, uninteresting interloper around whom the story nevertheless revolves while more charismatic actors/characters wait on the sidelines. The movie proposes something of an extended Turing test, which is superficially shiny but really just shows the writers aren't as familiar with the idea of closure as Turing was. While I have absolutely nothing against the idea of Swede Alicia Vikander playing the robotic ingenue Ava, cold as an ex-girlfriend, I always thought GOFAI (now "strong" AI) would produce a disembodied mind that would build a body for itself, employing our primitive industrial robots to do so: closer to the Wintermute or Skynet model. I guess the imagined endgame is not so different; see also Bladerunner. Surely there's a thesis to be written comparing the robot rearing techniques of plutocrats and South Africans.

Tali for dinner after, at Taj Mahal on Halsted. Middling.

Manohla Dargis was entranced. Anthony Lane observes the positronic precursor to Isaac's gel.

The Hypocrites: Three Sisters at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $14.00 + $4.25 service fee = $18.25. Spring has disappeared for the now; I left my jacket at home, taking the Weather Underground at its word that the day would be temperate. So I went home to get it first, and took the 70 down Division. Dinner at Pot Pan Thai, the same-old Banmee Delight, and sat in the Den reading the closing parts of Kimberly's Dealing in Desire, about which, more soon. I think it was opening night, as half the chairs were reserved for the press and Jeff Committee.

I can't recall seeing a Checkhov play before. I've probably seen the odd movie based on his work, but the only thing that sticks in my memory is his principle about stage props. The Hypocrites turn this one into a sitcom, where the three sisters embody some social milieu out of time. It's been an age since I watched such things, so the anachronistic whatevers mostly came off as the actresses stepping out of character to me. The odd bit of histrionics didn't help either. Moscow is, of course, Godot, and this somewhat dovetails with their immediately-previous staging of Endgame in that the sisters don't seem to have gotten their timing right. (From the earlier Beckett: "Do you believe in the life to come?" "Mine was always that.") My seat was mostly OK, but the actors spent a little too long with their backs to our side of the room. (Best seats are probably alongside the cafe, on the right as you go in.)

Why this play, why now? — the eternal theatrical question. Kevin Green attempts some kind of answer. Tony Adler at the Reader.