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GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

As her run of great solo records continues with this month’s The Worse Things Get, it’s possible that Tacoma’s Neko Case will soon be able to remove the line about being “best known as a former member of the New Pornographers” from all her artist bios and encyclopedia entries. If Middle Cyclone was her masterpiece, The Worse is a worthy follow-up, a record where the lyrics are filled with self-doubt but the music couldn’t sound more confident. If you’re looking for a chance to play a little air guitar, check out the hard-rocking “Man,” and if you want to hear some a capella harmonies that will stop you in your tracks, go directly to “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” Oh, and don’t forget your lighter—there won’t be any hands-in-the-air anthems, but you’ll want to smoke a cigarette as soon as you leave the theater.

Thu., Sept. 26, 8 p.m., 2013

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ISLANDS IN THE SUN

Eskimos may have 40 words for snow, but Hawaiians have 272 documented styles of hula.Renowned Lahaina dance instructor Moana Beamer will give many of ‘em a go in Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar & Hula, aided by one top-flight accompanist: her husband, Keola Beamer, the bestselling slack key guitarist in the history of Hawaiian music (for the 1978 record Honolulu City Lights, one of his many deft contemporized melds of traditional strings and Hawaiian nose flute). The gregarious couple is just the latest branch of one of the islands’ most prolific performing dynasties; Keola’s great-grandmother, Helen Kapuailohia Desha Beamer, remains one of Hawaii’s most famous composers and dancers, and his mother, Winona Kapuailohia Desha Beamer, is a chanter and teacher. They’ll be joined by Grammy-nominated vocalist Raiatea Helm and chanter Charles Ka’upu—and, ostensibly, some very good vibrations.

Fri., April 17, 8 p.m., 2009

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Sunday 3:30

[THEATER]

BARGAIN SHOPPER

Free speech has a price

Peddling one’s wares on the Web isn’t such an odd idea, but how about selling the elements of a play? Taking dot-com business savvy to the next level, Annie Dorsen (who directed the current Broadway hit Passing Strange) started a website in November 2007, BuyDemocracy.com, where everything involved in a theatrical production—costumes, lighting cues, dances, songs, and even commercials and product placements—were available for purchase. One shopper bought the decision as to which actor would utter the first words of the show (Anthony Torn). Another bought one minute in which the production is lit by nothing more than the glow of the audience’s cell phones. When the store closed this February, the revenue was plowed into Democracy in America, the sum total of all those Web purchases, which begins previews tonight. At 7, through April 20, P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, 212-352-3101, ps122.org, $20 SHARYN JACKSON

[SPORTS]

EAST MEETS WEST

It’s the Sharks vs. the Jets for our lame millennium

If you’re a Manhattanite, you’ve most likely talked smack about the folks who live on the opposite side of your ‘hood (that is, beyond Fifth Avenue). Well, put your money and your Nikes where your mouth is and take part in The Battle for Manhattan, a sports competition between the East Side and the West Side. Each person will be assigned to an eight- to 10-member team (divided by gender and age) and can choose to play basketball, volleyball, soccer, or run a 5K race. Not only will you get a free T-shirt, but you’ll also be invited to parties with drink specials and the opening and closing ceremonies, and have the chance to raise some hard cash for Urban Dove, a nonprofit that supports local public education. (Make sure and sign up by the 28th!) Through April 15, check for full schedule, battleformanhattan.com, $30/sport EUDIE PAK

[THEATER]

AN INDIVIDUAL HIGH

Audience members become part of the show

The Honolulu-based production company Cruel Theatre goes interactive with Street Limbo Blues, a play about our manifest failure in the “war on drugs.” Prepare to speak up, and bring your walking shoes. The performance starts at the aptly named Café Pick Me Up, where each audience member receives a costume and name card and then is paired with a single actor. The two of you take an hour-long journey through Tompkins Square Park and neighboring bars, where you experience the world of the addicted; the way in which you interact (or don’t interact) determines the direction of the show. It’s a short, strange trip worth taking. At 7, Café Pick Me Up, 145 Avenue A, 212-352-3101, nytheatre.com, $40 EUDIE PAK

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AN INDIVIDUAL HIGH

The Honolulu-based production company Cruel Theatre goes interactive with Street Limbo Blues, a play about our manifest failure in the “war on drugs.” Prepare to speak up, and bring your walking shoes. The performance starts at the aptly named Café Pick Me Up, where each audience member receives a costume and name card and then is paired with a single actor. The two of you take an hour-long journey through Tompkins Square Park and neighboring bars, where you experience the world of the addicted; the way in which you interact (or don’t interact) determines the direction of the show. It’s a short, strange trip worth taking.

Sun., March 30, 7 p.m., 2008

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Trouble in Paradise

The Hawaiian writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka has a voice that erupts on the page. Stirring, haunting, soaring: She sets off sparks with every book, each one a new chapter from the life of the islands. There was the salty humor and in-your-face pidgin of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers; the teenage soul-ache of Blu’s Hanging and Heads by Harry; the lacerating despair of Father of the Four Passages, where abuse and abandonment, fetal alcohol syndrome and the ghosts of the unborn hound her characters and whittle her language down to a skeletal, skid row poetry of rage and terror. Is this really Hawaii?

In person, Yamanaka is as spirited as her books, a dynamo who throws herself headlong into each new project. “I kind of like to always put myself in harm’s way,” she says, “so I can get a good palpable sense of a story from the ground up.” The title of her new and most accomplished work to date, Behold the Many, perfectly reflects that deep connection to both the land and its myriad voices.

And while this book marks yet another stylistic departure, it is again told in chorus: the story of early 20th-century Hawaii and three sisters—Anah, Aki, and Leah Medeiros—who contract tuberculosis as children on the O’ahu Sugar Plantation. Torn from their extended family in Portuguese Camp Four, they are sent to live at a Catholic orphanage in the lush Kalihi Valley of Honolulu, a place overrun with the plaintive spirits of “the lonely and the lost, the frightened and aggrieved, the rueful and pitiful, the orphaned and abandoned.” Behold the Many is a tour de force for Yamanaka—a major work that recalls the crippling psychic pain of Toni Morrison’s Beloved without any of the airy magic realism, say, of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

“This book involved a lot of inspiration, from other than the normal kinds of ways I usually hear what I have to write,” Yamanaka says, in between Saturday afternoon sessions at her Honolulu writing workshop space, Na’au. Seeing her in this calming environment, one begins to grasp, too, her faith in the powers of writing to overcome trauma—in this case, the early deaths of the two younger sisters at the orphanage—and reclaim the past. “I think I just wanted to have these three little girls have their story told, in a way that would honor their lives,” she says. “The book started from the three of them and then kind of worked its way out into this larger story of the island and Catholicism on the island.”

The demands of writing a historical novel, spanning 1913 to 1939, presented her with its own difficulties. Yamanaka immersed herself in Honolulu archives, studying not just Catholicism (“I had to buy Catholicism for Dummies!” she laughs) but the minute details of Hawaiian immigration and plantation life. The book’s form also pushed her into new territory. Though there are flashes of eerie, hallucinatory first-person voices, for the most part the book is told in the third person, pulling back to offer wider glimpses of the streets and ports of old Honolulu, Chinatown opium dens, and the ranches of paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys. It was an ambitious—and daunting—undertaking for Yamanaka. “My editor said, If I’m willing to take on this kind of project, why aren’t I willing to take it on entirely, as a project that challenges my writing and challenges me?” she explains. “I wasn’t really comfortable writing in the third person, because I didn’t really know the rules. But I kind of learned as I went along.”

That’s not to say her language isn’t as exquisite as ever, particularly when describing the Kalihi Valley itself, “a woman,” she writes, “with woodland arms outstretched and vulnerable, a woman with shadowy breasts of ‘a’ali’i and hapu’u, lobelias and lichens.” Yamanaka, who lives in Kalihi Valley, wanted to ground the book in the sensual textures of its landscape. “Living there, I had a good idea of the motion of the valley,” she says, “the kind of weather patterns of the valley, what it looks like, what it smells like.” Rich, poetic descriptions of the land, in fact, both open and close the book, and the rustle of the wind animating its leaves, in the final pages, carries with it a whiff of closure and redemption.

Having completed this big, wrenching novel, Yamanaka finds herself at a momentary loss as to what to write next. “I finally had to say a prayer, and say whatever my next project should be—because there are many—please let it be known to me. So I’m waiting for the sign,” she says. “But nothing has kind of jumped out at me yet, the way this story did—you know, Tell me now, tell this story now.” For Yamanaka, a force of nature herself, the islands’ stories are just beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed.

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Bag of Tricks: The Year in Purses

Is it just our imagination, or is the status of carrying a Louis Vuitton (vuitton.com) bag going down, down, down? A lot of people probably think this has to do with the glut of fakes on the market—a phenomenon we applaud—but we believe it is also due to the generic ambiance of the LV shops themselves, and the fungus-like way they are spreading all over the world. What LV, and companies like it, fails to realize is that standardization and globalization equal unhipness: if you can lean over the identical counter and buy the exact same bag in Beijing or Avignon or Honolulu, then, really—how cool are you?

No such dorkiness afflicts the coveted Balenciaga bag, though God knows it’s sold all over the globe too. Lately available for the holiday season in garish metallic hues, this purse, with its slouchy shape and fringy strings, has a louche, Marianne Faithfull–quality that seems to say of its carrier, “I am a fun girl who likes to get high! I would never be the kind of arse who spends $1,000 on a handbag,” though of course the bag in reality costs just about that amount.

The fun thing about handbags, in addition to the fact that they don’t have to fit, is the way the field gives rise to cults and subcults. With the status of Fendi (fendi.com) definitely on the wane (they never really recovered form the demise of the baguette) and the élan of Gucci, after the resignation of Tom Ford, somewhat in question (though you’d never know it from the crowds in their Fifth Avenue boutique, not that they’re actually buying anything) there is currently a bit of room at the top.

Into this temporary void has stepped Goyard (goyard.fr), a brand so exclusive you can only buy it in the company’s Rue St. Honore flagship (Goyard being another 19th-century French luggage house, like LV) or in Barneys on Madison Avenue and Beverly Hills. Its discreet chevron pattern hasn’t made much of a dent in the general population, but it has certainly swept fashion editor–land, where every second person in the front row seems to be sporting a Goyard tote bag, usually in green. (“Why do they all buy the exact same one?” a friend of ours recently moaned in despair. But we know the answer, don’t we?)

If most people are still immune to the charms of Goyard, you’d be surprised how many working women scrimp and save to own one of those big-buckled Marc Jacobs bags (marcjacobs.com). Jacobs certainly has the Midas touch: Though his bags are ripped virtually unchanged from the pages of a 1970s Seventeen magazine, this has apparently only enhanced their appeal—they just go on selling and selling.

We sometimes think of the Jacobs sack as a counterpoint to another enormously popular purse of the season—the C-infected Coach bag (coach.com). While the MJ says, “I went to college, but I’m still kind of arty,” the Coach says, “I went to college too, and I have a really good job!”

Which doesn’t mean that everybody, employed or not, elects to spend a fortune on a bag. There are plenty of adult women who cannot resist the siren song wafting out of the Hello Kitty (sanrio.com) boutique in Times Square, where the purchase of a pastel pocketbook decorated with a cartoon cat promises to transform the most austere wearer into a large seven-year-old. (And, at under $50, there’s plenty to be giddy about.)

And then, of course, there are those who opt out of the status-handbag system all together, carrying their water bottles in a saggy cloth Channel 13 (shopthirteen.org) or Strand Books (strandbooks.com/nonbooks) tote. If these bags could talk they’d cry, “We want a recount! Ohio was stolen!” as their owners settle in for another four long years.

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The Players Club

American Pimp, the documentary by the twins Allen and Albert Hughes (Dead Presidents, Menace II Society), may not be the most garrulous exploitation film ever made, but—James Toback, eat your heart out—it surely sets the modern record for the use of the word bitch in an 86-minute film.

Alternately mind-expanding and brain-numbing, American Pimp splices together interviews with a dozen or more macks, players, and perpetually wired gentlemen of leisure who—smooth, persuasive, and hyper-verbal—seize every opportunity, and more, to run their riffs. The pimp who compares his mouth to an Uzi has it exactly right. These guys talk so damn much and with such relentless self-justification they might be trying to drill a hole in your head.

An opening montage of assorted honkies dissing pimp morality immediately establishes mackdom as a race thing. Offering some history lite, the Hugheses identify their subjects with the trickster figures of West African folklore and make a vague connection to the material conditions that followed slavery. Surely more could have been done with this, but then American Pimp is not an educational film. (The distinctions between “macks” and “players” or “real pimps” and “perpetrator pimps” are left hanging.) The mode is strictly subcultural show-and-tell.

American Pimp is most concerned with the spell cast by an image. As more than a few rap artists have been, the Hughes brothers were captivated by Iceberg Slim’s perennial best-seller Pimp, The Story of My Life and inspired by blaxploitation cult classics like The Mack and Willie Dynamite. The peacocks who strut through these movies so strongly resemble their real-life models that, given this rare example of Hollywood verisimilitude, one naturally wonders who was the model for whom. The Hughes brothers quote scenes from the movies while their pimps paraphrase the dialogue.

Moving from Honolulu to Vegas to San Francisco to New Orleans to Washington, D.C. (where a pimp posed in front of the Capitol laughs that he’s “making more money than the president”), American Pimp has a tawdry jet-set ambience. If prostitution is understood as a version of interactive showbiz, the pimps are a movie in themselves—and not a silent one. “The name is internationally known: Bishop Don Magic Juan,” says one by way of an introduction. Global reputation or not, the pimp in question has a collection of pictures in which, resplendently turned out in matching gator shoes, suit, and sombrero, he’s posed with such kindred hustlers as Ike Turner, Marion Barry, and Donald Trump. (Later, the good Bishop reveals that “one of the greatest pimps who ever lived is called . . . God.”)

As with all small entrepreneurs, the pimps’ commitment to the work ethic is total—so long as you’re working for them. They constantly return to the bottom line, and whether or not it’s true that, as one mack boasts, “anyone can be turned out,” they can recognize their prey getting off the bus in any big city. One mack is as proud as Rudy Giuliani to have taken some bitch off welfare. To a man, they disdain the idea of violence or abuse. Dripping with rings that could double as brass knuckles, they promote pimping as a head trip: “I don’t steal nothing but a bitch’s mind.” A successful pimp is the street-smart equivalent of a chess grandmaster; explaining “pimpology” to a square would be like “talking astrophysics to a muthafuckin’ wino.”

The plenitude of snapshots and group portraits of pimps’n’hos suggests a sort of perverse family structure. Human sentiment is not completely absent. “She was the first ‘ho to pay me,” one pimp recalls with a tenderness somewhat more convincing than his subsequent bid for sympathy in recounting the story of a hooker killed in action. This movie is the celluloid equivalent of a term at the Citadel. Could there possibly be a female point of view? (A paper could be written on the sociology of American Pimp as a dating flick.) The filmmakers interview only a handful of ‘hos, and the most articulate is a legal sex worker employed by a sanctimonious white businessman at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch. The few minutes that the Hugheses spent soaking up the circus maximus atmosphere of the Players Ball is virtually the only time in the movie we get to see the pimps together with their employees.

Not unlike the ‘hos, American Pimp feels more than a little cowed by its subjects. The pimps are as hungry for stardom as Andy Warhol’s drag queens, but the Hugheses are almost always outmanipulated. There’s no going beneath the surface with the pimps themselves—although several reveal ambitions going back to childhood. A more creative psychologist than the filmmakers, Iceberg Slim—briefly heard incanting a poem from his ’70s LP Reflections—posited an Orestes complex. Suggesting that pimps were taking vengeance on their rejecting mothers, he claimed to have personally known “several dozen” who were “dumped into trash bins” as infants. Of course, for some, the privilege of golfing with white business swells on the spectacular overlook of some Honolulu country club would be justification enough. Or, as another pimp snarls: “I’m not going to wipe your toilets. Fuck you.”

For all its gaga repetition, American Pimp manages a few suggestive narrative shards. The saga of Fillmore Slim and the L.A. track is a Tarantino flick waiting to be made. (And just how did Bishop Don Magic Juan get religion?) I appreciated as downbeat Americana the case of the retired pimp who turned blues singer so he could keep his wardrobe. And melancholy as a twilight western is the tale of the pimp called Rosebudd. Down to one last ‘ho, he married her and turned square, working to support his family as a telemarketer.



Having impersonated a nattering Woody Allen in the execrable Celebrity, Kenneth Branagh goes the master one better with a high-flown equivalent of Allen’s musical wannabe, Everyone Says I Love You. Branagh’s cloddish adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost recasts the play as a faux 1930s musical—albeit one that suffers mightily for the absence of a few pimps and ‘hos.

Branagh is not the first to imagine a musical version of LLL. The composer antihero of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus contemplated the play as the basis for an anti-Wagnerian opera. Branagh’s own deal with the devil dictates that he alternate Irving Berlin anthems with severely shortened Shakespearean speeches, and stage them both with fart jokes so insipid they would embarrass Benny Hill. The result is a double travesty—a triple one, actually, if you consider the quality of the singing and dancing.

Hamming shamelessly as Berowne, Branagh is overseasoned for his part; leading his colleagues in a swishy version of “I’d Rather Charleston” or declaiming “I Won’t Dance” (no such luck), he’s as desperate as a veteran social director at a Catskills hotel about to fold. Alicia Silverstone, concentrating to the max as the Princess of France, handles her tongue-twister dialogue better than her musical numbers. Although her valiant surplus of chin-action gives a poignantly confessional spin to the line “A heavy heart bears not a nimble tongue,” she’s upstaged by her lady-in-waiting Rosaline, willowy Natascha McElhone, who can actually put across a song. Branagh’s conception is so gratingly jolly that even a natural cutup like Nathan Lane is rendered tiresome—required to recite the first few choruses of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as a dirge before the bewigged chorus prances on.

Triple travesty? Why not a quadruple bypass? When the long-simmering war finally breaks out, Branagh orchestrates a tap dance in combat boots and pastiches the last scene of Casablanca, making a segue to actual World War II footage as his cast solemnly sings “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Ah, but they can. Remarkably tolerant to this point, the largely German audience with whom I saw LLL at the Berlin Film Festival seemed properly perplexed to find the destruction of their city (among other wartime horrors) accompanied by Branagh’s lachrymose invocation of “the way you sing off-key.”



Taking off from the Voice‘s year-decade-century’s-end critics’ poll (results still available online), BAMcinematek has scheduled a 16-film series, “The Village Voice: Best of the ’90s,” beginning this weekend with Todd Haynes’s 1995 Safe (which topped the poll) and Cannes laureate Lars von Trier’s 1996 Breaking the Waves. The series, which continues Saturdays and Sundays through July and features appearances by several Voice critics, also includes films by such reigning international masters as Jane Campion, Atom Egoyan, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jim Jarmusch, Abbas Kiarostami, Mike Leigh, Martin Scorsese, and Wong Kar-wai. Among the rarities: Béla Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour Sátántangó, Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (starring the young Virginie Ledoyen), and Werner Herzog’s post-Gulf War doc, Lessons of Darkness.