On the Culture Front: Food Film Fest, Next Wave Fest Begins, and more

I’ve been attending the Food Film Festival for the better part of the last decade. While it’s always been one of my favorite events in the city, it got even better this year with a screening of the cult foodie film “Tampopo.” This joyously absurd love letter both to the worlds of cinema and food follows the loose narrative of a woman striving to become a ramen master and open her own shop. Over the course its two-hour running time, an array of dishes are served on screen and in our seats as is the magic of the Food Film Festival. The most enjoyable of these was Night Kitchen Brooklyn’s spaghetti with clams as it was timed perfectly so we could eat while the characters do, but there were many highlights. I could eat a barrel of the crab fried rice from Brooklyn Ramen who also served an addictive shrimp gyoza at the pre-screening reception.

Delicious gin cocktails by Taiwanese-American restaurant Win Son flowed freely thorough the evening and the other event I attended, Hometown Heros. This screening of short films on neighborhood specialties was an ecstatically fun culinary trip that included a spinach knish from Queens’ beloved Knish Knosh, which the accompanying film notes has such a devoted following that regulars have requested orders for their deathbed meals. Other tastes included dry aged steak from Jersey City’s DeBragga (supplies some of the city’s finest restaurants) and a mini chopped cheese sandwich (a New York bodega spin on the Philly cheesesteak) from Haggi’s in Harlem, which is credited with creating the sandwich.

Another unusual film fest is Dan Savage’s Hump! I’ve heard about this amateur porn festival for many years - originally from Lynn Shelton’s excellent indie “Hump Day” - but had yet to experience it for myself. After having attended a recent screening at Roulette in Brooklyn, calling it a porn festival feels too reductionist and fails to capture the depth of emotions that flow through the 90-minute collection of short films. While there is hardcore sex in many (not all) of the offerings, they feel more like glimpses into private corners of peoples’ lives than masturbation material. Because of its inclusion across genders, sexual orientations and myriad of kinks, there inevitably are going to moments that fall outside your personal zone of attraction. Some of them are opportunities to discover a new attraction while others reinforce hard boundaries, but all of them solidify the idea that regardless of who we choose to sleep with and how we choose to do it (within the boundaries of consent) that we are bonded together by our basic humanity. This should be required viewing for the current white house.

Just a few blocks away, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is off to a stellar start of their consistently strong Next Wave Festival. I saw three shows there recently including Thomas Ostermeier’s terrifying and visceral take on “Richard III” adapted by Marius von Mayenburg. The production premiered in 2015 at the director’s Schaubühne theater in Berlin but feels made for the Trump presidency. In an opening scene (filled with blaring music and strobe lights) depicting the celebration of Richard’s brother’s coronation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to inauguration night. Lars Eidinger plays the bloodthirsty titular character with menace but without the evil incarnate grandiosity that many actors fall into – making the character feel less historic and more likely to walk among us.

James Thierrée’s physical theater blends elements of circus, comedy, and existential woe that echo his grandfather Charlie Chaplin but also his great-grandfather Eugene O’Neill. His latest work, “La Grenouille avait raison (The Toad Knew),” is set in a steampunk subterranean lair and exudes a restless energy of people caged in by a sense of futile inertia. A piano plays on its own as acrobats tumble through the space. Thierrée mines the playful resistance of physical comedy tropes to make a deeper comment on our existence. If it doesn’t quite reach the ecstatic heights of his 2010 show “Raoul,” it’s a small quibble for a peerless artist who has carved a unique place for himself in the pantheon of live theater.

Bang on a Can is as legendary as any contemporary classical collective, which is to say if you don’t follow the genre you’ve probably never heard of them. “Road Trip” marks 30 years of collaboration for composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe and this latest work is a tuneful mix of textural explorations. While the guitar-heavy pieces tend to blend together, the wash of momentous sound they create makes for an engaging listen. Better though are the string-based compositions, especially the playful “Triple A” which shows off the depth of talent of the seven “All-Stars” on stage.

Another pioneer of contemporary classical music, Laurie Anderson, gave an engaging talk at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The event included listening to several of her favorite pieces ranging from Arvo Pärt’s rapturously frenetic “Frates II” to Leonard Cohen’s achingly redemptive “Bird on a Wire.” It felt like we were in her living room listening to music and talking about existential questions large and small. She admitted early on to feeling lost both in the political landscape and also in a personal way. One of the songs included was her late husband Lou Reed’s “Ecstasy.” Another was The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” performed as a sing-a-long with the audience. Musically we never got fully into the song’s meter and neither did Anderson, but failing at it together felt like an honest moment of bonding between artist and audience.

The National is quite possibly the greatest contemporary rock band, combining moody layers of guitars, pianos and Matt Berninger’s melancholic baritone to create a sonically rich texture that is as nuanced and complex as the human condition itself. The set from their recent show at Forest Hills Stadium drew heavily from their latest album, “Sleep Well Beast.” Highlights include “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” which blends indelible melodies with measured guitar flourishes by Aaron Dessner and even a rare solo. Even live the band doesn’t launch into jams and covers are quite spare. That made their version of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” even more memorable. Berninger introduced it by saying that Donald Trump stole Joey Ramone’s girlfriend, inspiring the song. While I couldn’t verify this from other sources, they did both grow up in Queens not too far from the Stadium.

I also went to a tribute to Woodie Guthrie at the Greene Space. The star guest was Billy Bragg whose collaborations with Wilco on previously unrecorded Guthrie songs are some of the greatest contributions to modern folk music. Bragg sang a few songs but the one that still haunts me is “Hangknot, Slipknot” which uses repetitive simple lyrics to question the justice of lynchings, which were ever present in Guthrie’s childhood. In his intro to the song, Bragg explains that Guthrie’s father was rumored to have participated in at least one. The song begins with the technical details of the knot, then its unforgiving hold, and then Guthrie cuts to real point: “tell me who makes the laws for that slipknot?” Later on in the event Guthrie’s granddaughter read compelling passages from his diary about equality for women, and the overarching theme of the evening was his prescient progressivism. It made me think of a line in Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” in which he pleads, “Come back Woody Guthrie to us now.”

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