Sunday, June 7, 2009

Balcony Bash

I’m not a big architecture buff, but much of the feel of a place has a lot to do with it. My favorite aspect of Austin’s architecture are the balconies.

Most of the ones you see around town are big, roomy and inviting, and make for a great porch on the ground floor as well. Some of them are just a projection extending over the front door. Others surround the whole building, New Orleans-style, like the one at
the Stephen Austin Hotel on Congress and 7th or the Starbucks on 24th and San Antonio.

Many UT buildings have small balconies, which are not really meant for extended hours outdoors, but mostly for decoration purposes. Those are common in Brazil, because of the influence from Portuguese architecture. But even the ones that are made for actual use are usually much smaller than what we see around here.

Typical Porto Alegre balcony

These ones are common in older Porto Alegre buildings

The Southern-style balconies we see around here are as stylish as they are convenient as shelter against the rain (and the scorching noon desert sun out here, too). Now that my time to go back home is approaching, they are one of the many simple things I've grown accustomed to around here that I'm beginning to miss, already.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Longhorn Territory

You can tell a lot from the picture above. The degree to which Austin embraces the Longhorns and UT is hardly matched anywhere else I’ve ever been.

If you think about it, that orange and white symbol is a trademark that belongs to a “product” – the UT football team. But the success of that team, and of the university as a whole, has made them so popular that they are a part of the city’s identity. Most t-shirts, caps and other products you can find around Austin bearing the symbol are not affiliated with the University at all.
It’s already striking that you find the Longhorn symbol on walls inside stores and restaurants, but to find it on the street signs is even more remarkable. In Brazil, that’s the kind of thing that would generate controversy, with many people complaining that the signs have been turned into advertising media. And that would probably happen here as well, if it was two golden arches or a white apple instead of a bull’s head next to the street name. It is no longer seen as just a sports thing: it’s part of Austin’s identity.

Of course, sports are a big part of it – Austin still stops to watch the big games, whether on TV or at the Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium. But people are pretty fanatical about sports in Brazil, too, and you don’t see that sort of identity correlation. I’d be tempted to say that the Longhorns are the official Austin team, but their only official affiliation is with the university. They are not even the only team in town, with A&M and Huston-Tillotson shaking up some serious dust in their games as well. Porto Alegre, for instance, is divided by the rivalry between the two local soccer teams, Grêmio and Internacional. But you don’t see their logos anywhere other than their stadiums, merchandise stores and fans t-shirts. The longhorns, on the other hand, seem to have long ceased to be a mere team, being now an institution in the city.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Austin Rain: Two-Month Anniversary

The last time it rained in the live music capital of the world was...precisely two months ago! Creepy!

How do I know? Because I blogged about it.

Today's rain was a bona fide Rio Grande do Sul shower: not only it was heavy, but windy -- i.e., the rain falls down at a 45-degree angle, and you have to adjust your umbrella accordingly. Not that it matters much, because that angle leaves your knees unprotected, meaning that your shins will be drenched for the day.

The Rio Grande do Sul anthem ends with a triumphant "Sirvam nossas faç
anhas de modelo a toda a Terra" ("May our feats serve as a model for the whole Earth"), but I wish this particular one went by unnoticed. The water pooling up by the curbs, the cars squirting water on your legs, the wind folding your umbrella upwards...if you've been rained upon in Austin, Porto Alegre wouldn't offer you many surprises, weatherwise. Except that it rains more often.

Plenty of lightning today, too. You might want to consider rubber soles, just in case.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Austin Newspapers: Thinking Outside the Box

The newspaper boxes are yet another quaint little image of Austin life that seems to come straight out of the movies for foreign eyes. Whether paid or free (and we don’t have as many of either), Brazilian non-subscribers still buy their newspapers in newsstands and convenience stores.

I’ve got this class called “Magazine Management”, where we study what’s involved in putting a magazine together and marketing it, and I had one of those moments when something obvious you hadn’t realized suddenly hits you in the face: there are no newsstands in Austin. The term “newsstand sales” is still the industry jargon to refer to non-subscription sales of a magazine or newspaper, but there are hardly any actual newsstands left out of New York, Boston and Chicago. In the Western part of the country (meaning West of the Mississippi and South of the Ohio River – i.e., more than three quarters of the continental US), people get their periodicals either at their door or seconds before checkout at grocery stores.

Newsstand in Porto Alegre, Brazil

There’s more than just nostalgia around the vanishing newsstands: the core implication in their extinction is that people walk less, doing most of their business out of the house by driving. A lot of human interaction is lost when shopping means parking, going through store aisles followed by the echoes of your footsteps, sliding your card at the checkout and getting back to your car.

I think the newspaper box is something to be treasured: it is the middle ground between East and West in the US.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Theater Fix

I'm still hyperventilating with the Cohen New Works Festival, the biennial theater festival held by UT's department of Theater and Dance to showcase new plays, many by the department's graduate students. This year, it was held between March 30th and April 4th.

The peak of the cultural calendar in my native city of Porto Alegre is with no doubt
Porto Alegre em Cena, our own annual theater festival that always presents some fifty or sixty plays, including local, national and international acts. The first performances to sell out are always the international ones, which over the years have included household names such as Peter Brook, Philip Glass, Pina Bausch, Stephen Berkoff, Laurie Anderson, Sascha Walts, La La La Human Steps, La Fura Dels Baus, Goran Bregovich, Sankai Juku and many others. It's a great opportunity to see bold, innovative works from around the globe. For a bargain, too: because the festival is funded by the City Hall and big corporate sponsors,
tickets for individual plays cost less than ten dollars.

I haven't missed a single edition of
Porto Alegre Em Cena since 1999 -- except for last year, because I was in Austin. It's really a shame I couldn't do both, but all is well that ends well: the Cohen New Works Festival filled that gap for me. While it did not include the impressive roster of worldwide artists and or as many plays (a total of 30), this year's NWF owed nothing to the degree of sophistication, innovation and variety that we are used to seeing during Em Cena. Many of the plays had a very ambitious experimental focus -- and I don't mean that in the sense of brainy, self-indulgent intellectual snoozefests for the sole enjoyment of the artists themselves: the plays I saw were fun. Exciting. Captivating. Just like the best theater always is.

Legendary Japanese dance-performance group Sankai Juku performed at Em Cena in 2007

(Ok, not all of them. But that's a good thing. Both festivals have had their share of hits and misses, but that's a good thing too: it shows that people are taking risks, instead of playing it safe with proven formulas. Personally, I don't mind bad plays, films, songs, fiction or any other work of art. They help you put the good ones in perspective.)

NWF highlights included The Psyche Project, a modern reading of the story of Eros and Psyche where Eros upgraded his bow and arrows into an automatic pistol and Hell is a shopping mall; Funky Snowman, a short play for children where a girl who cannot succed in her ballet classes learns the groove of pop mus
ic from a talking snowman; The Edge of Peace, a dramatic reading of Susan Zeder's last installment in her award-winning "Taste" trilogy; and, last but not least, the tongue-in-cheek examination of women's magazines in the collaborative, comically-titled 101 Ways To Get The Perfect Look, Have Hotter Sex, Love Your Body, Dress A Whole Lot Cooler, Make Your Boobs Pop, Be More Adventurous, Be More Cautious, Smell Better, Feel Less Guilty, Read His Mind, Make Him Notice You, Make Yourself Over, Spend Money Better, Get Smarter By Tomorrow, Connect With Your Kids, Be A Hipper Dancer, Have More Fun, Share Your Deepest Darkest Secrets, Recycle!, Find Your Inner Self And Do Anything Better.

Rounding up the roster of bold, intriguing performances was a selection of short films from UT's RTF students with a variety of styles, tones and even languages.

I'll eventually go back home and enjoy Porto Alegre Em Cena again. But now I'm gonna miss the Cohen New Works Festival, too. Perhaps I can get some discounted air tickets for non-profit drama events or something.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Stand-Up About Nothing

Only in Austin you can find out Jerry Seinfeld is performing later in the day and still get tickets to see it. That's just what I did.

His performance tonight at UT's Bass Hall was very much what you see him do in the opening vignettes from his homonymous sitcom: pointing a deadpan, sardonic finger at the irrational and the banal in the lives of Americans, targetting everything from marriage and children to iPhones and public restrooms. For what it's worth, it's as funny as. And if you've followed his series as long as I have, you get the extra fun of listening to people as they throng out of the theater and realizing where Seinfeld gets his inspiration for. For instance, you hear people saying things like "see you" and "take care," and remember that episode in Season 2 where his end joke went like this:

"Take care now." Did you ever say that to somebody? "Take care now. Take care, now. Because, I'm not going to be taking care of you. So, you should take care, now." "Take care. Take care." What does this mean? "Take off!" Isn't that what you really want to say?

Just for the record, I googled this quote. I'm not that nerdy (or I am, but have a bad memory).

Favorite joke from tonight's performance: "Now walkers have wheels, and even brakes in the handles. How fast are these people going? If you're going fast enough to need brakes, perhaps you've been misdiagnosed."

PS: Kind of a Hebrew week we're having here in Austin, aren't we? Mazeltov!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

“I didn’t come all the way down here to Austin just to fool ya”

So said Leonard Cohen in the middle of his timeless hit “Hallelujah” tonight at the Long Center. He’s touring the US for the first time in fifteen years, and I’ll tell you, it was worth the wait.

The whole gig lasted close to three hours – with six encores. Six piece band (including Austin-born Roscoe Beck, bassist and musical director of the tour), plus three backing vocals (including Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s composition partner for more than twenty years). It was lively, unpredictable and intense. A concert to remember.

Cohen’s voice sounds exactly like his records. Being a huge fan for a couple of years now, my first thought when I heard him thanking the audience and coming up with playful banter in between songs was “it speaks, too!” If you watch the Live in London DVD that was released just now, on March 31st, rest assured that that is the sound you hear live. No tricks.

Other than “Hallelujah,” the highlights of the show were “Who By Fire” and “The Partisan,” with much more complex and lively instrumentation than the studio versions; “Democracy,” fleshed out with verve and enthusiasm into a live anthem; and “First We Take Manhattan,” which prompted everyone to clap along and yell as Cohen adlibbed his famous chorus into a playful “then we take Beijing.” Two unexpected songs from his early years made their way into the setlist: “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” (this one a little over the top – the six-piece-band treatment overshadowed the intimist melancholy of the song).

Believe the hype. This concert is as good as the press is making it out to be.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SXSW - Juliette and the Kicks

Now this doesn't happen every day in Brazil: I got kicked by Juliette Lewis. If you remember that her biggest film roles were in Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers, you know the danger I was in.

This time I barely made out alive. My luck was that she was only stage-diving. That's right, stage-diving. You might hear other people commenting about her gig on the first night of SXSW, with her new act called Juliette and the New Romantiques (whatever happened to "Juliette and the Licks"?), and how, in the middle of the last song of their set, she dove into the crowd and was carried some two or three yards away from the stage, then back. I got to help carry the weight of Ms. Lewis. That was when she kicked me, the ungrateful shrew.

The gig was amazing. I've heard some people compare her to Iggy Pop, and the parallel is plain to see: she doesn't stop moving. Her energy onstage is unbelievable. She's also got a knack for banter, exacting laughter and shouts from the crowd with considerable ease. With that, plus the great songs (I've got to find out the name of a bluesier one, which owes nothing to Janis Joplin), it was a great gig.

I'm still suing, though.

Friday, March 13, 2009

There ain't no party like a Rebirth party

'Cause a Rebirth party don't stop. Or so sings the Rebirth Brass Band, a New Orleans ensemble that graced the indoors stage at Stubb's tonight. Haven't seen Americans dance like that since the White Ghost Shivers gig at the Continental Club last January.

If you don't know them, perhaps the line-up will tell you everything you need to know: bass drum, snare drum, three trumpets, tuba, sax and trombone. It's one of those gigs where you can't help dancing. Like much of modern New Orleans jazz, it has a strong Caribbean syncopated beat. Very groovy.

High point of the show: their meddley of Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." If that's not eclectic, then nothing is.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bilingual Austin

Shortly before arriving in Austin, I came across a book called Handbook of the World, published by Oxford University Press. It had entries for every country in the world, ranging from one to eight pages and giving objective information: government, currency, languages, main industries, recent history et cetera. I was surprised to find the USA listed as a bilingual country. I did know about the masses of people who speak Spanish at home and the whole history of cultural ghettos in America, but seeing it officially acknowledged like that felt a little exaggerated. I no longer feel like that.

It’s not just the bilingual signs and warnings on the buses, but also the countless stores with bilingual billboards – or even billboards just in Spanish – that multiply the further you get from downtown. Even in central areas like Congress Avenue you can find Spanish-language newspapers like Buena Suerte, ¡Ahora Sí! and El Mundo. But of course, the strongest evidence of US bilingualism is the number of actual people speaking Spanish on the streets. Not a day goes by when I don’t walk by someone speaking it on the phone or with a friend.

America has a remarkable history of different cultures pressed together in limited spaces, and Texas is especially significant in its Tejano constituency. The acknowledgement and indulgence of linguistic differences is a testimony of the respectful attitude Americans have developed throughout their (granted, turbulent) history. Perhaps because of the tension from all the wars, territorial disputes and immigration, cultural differences seem to be more obvious in the USA than in other countries.

By comparison, Brazil is much less articulate in its regard for different languages. We do have communities that don’t speak Portuguese – there are Polish and Ukrainian towns in the countryside of Santa Catarina, and many people throughout the South who speak Italian or German at home, in addition to bilingual communities along the borders with Argentina and Uruguay. But the country would never consider itself bilingual. There’s an attitude of adherence to official policy in cultural matters that seems to be absent from the US (and England, too, judging from what I saw there). Brazilian culture has a widespread discourse that Brazilians are all the same, which on one hand makes for a very friendly climate of integration, but also downplays strong and important cultural differences.

Living in Austin certainly gives you the opportunity to rethink your views on cultural differences. After a while, Canada’s bilingual laws and money bills don’t seem so exotic anymore.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Pretenders @ Stubb's

The Pretenders still got brass in pocket -- my brass, that is; $41.50 to be precise. But it was a great show. Not only the band was in great shape, but Chrissie Hynde was very talkative, joking all the time -- like this moment when she smelled...something funny from the stage and asked how far Willie Nelson's house was from there. My favorite banter moment from the gig, however, was when she said Austin might be the first vegetarian city in the US, and asked people to stop killing cows "because change is possible." I'm sure the owners of the venue, Stubb's B-B-Q, were among the people applauding her.
I didn't know they had so many fast songs. The last thing I'd expect from them was a show for jumping and pogoing, but a sizeable part of the gig was exactly that. They did a great job with classics like "Brass in Pocket", "Don't Get Me Wrong" and "Back on the Chain Gang", the best song on the set. Their new song, "Breaking the Concrete", was also very catchy (it's the name of their current tour, by the way). It's only a pitty they didn't play "I'll Stand By You". That's the single greatest, barest, most truthful love song ever written. If you ever felt love was too complex to be put into words, listen to the song and think again. (And by the way, pay attention to the photo: there's some sort of see-through shield in front of the drum kit. I wonder if it's bullet-proof or something. In Austin, that would be the height of paranoia.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Odeen, dva, tree, cheteeri!

Scott Kanoff’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot was very impressive, or should I say oppressive: the bare set, instead of making it more open, felt quite claustrophobic, and the main character’s epileptic fits were very believable. Not your average romantic comedy, but very intriguing and captivating. Whenever someone adapts one of those brick-sized Russian novels to the stage and the audience can follow the plot and the exotic names without getting lost, somebody must be doing something right.

It’s only a pity I couldn’t get in yesterday, when it was free. The most pathetic of all is that I spent two hours at the Winfield computer lab and tried to get in twenty minutes before the play. Guess what? No vacant seats at all. It’s a good thing to remember in Austin: when you see a line, get in first and ask questions later.

(Need a footnote for the title? Hint: it's from a Tom Waits song.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"And that is the longing/And this is the book"

Just came back from UT's Performing Arts Center, where I saw
The Book of Longing -- Philip Glass's song rendering of 22 poems by Leonard Cohen. To boot, Glass himself was playing keyboards, together with some eight or ten other musicians and lyric singers.

I must confess I expected a little bit more. Or less: Glass put the poems to very energetic, epic music, not unlike film scores (If you know Cohen's musical output, you know "epic" is hardly the word to describe him; "intimist" and "stripped" are more like it.). It was intriguing, but didn't quite work -- lyrics like "see what you have done to me/as if you give a shit" kind of lose their power when sung by a soprano over cellos and violins. I suppose there is some value in the irony, but that in itself is not enough to engage your interest for one hour and forty minutes.

Cohen's poetry, however, is always worth the ticket. Here is my favorite poem from the performance:

This morning I woke up again

This morning I woke up again
I thank my Lord for that
The world is such a pigpen
That I have to wear a hat

I love the Lord I praise the Lord
I do the Lord forgive
I hope I won't be sorry
For allowing Him to live

I know you like to get me drunk
And laugh at what I say
I'm very happy that you do
I'm thirsty every day

I'm angry with the angel
Who pinched me on the thigh
And made me fall in love
With every woman passing by

I know they are your sisters
Your daughters mothers wives
If I have left a woman out
Then I apologize

It's fun to run to heaven
When you're off the beaten track
The Lord is such a monkey when
You've got Him on your back

The Lord is such a monkey
He's such a woman too
Such a place of nothing
Such a face of you

May E crash into your temple
And look out thru' your eyes
And make you fall in love
With everybody you despise

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oh Captain, my Captain!

I saw Robin Williams live. I can die now. Seriously, as far as I'm concerned, he's the funniest man alive. In an age when you say "comedy" and people think Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller, Mr. Williams is the one guarantee of good laughs. He started with a "Good night everybody. It's great to be in a place that's weird!" -- and he's from San Francisco, mind you. Of course, that was his lightest take on Austin for the night (not to mention his jokes about Texas as a whole).

In case you missed it, here are some pearls from the show, also printed in the program:

"Global warming is Mother Nature having hot flashes."

"The Chinese make everything -- even the 'Free Tibet' stickers."

"Bill Clinton found the only Jewish girl who couldn't get a stain out."

"If you believe in Creationism, look at the platypus. There must've been an open bar in heaven."

My favorite joke from the show went more or less like this:

"Now in the Vatican, when the Cardinals choose the new Pope, they go inside their little house and smoke comes out of the chimney. You can't help but wonder, 'what are they doing in there?' [Robin Williams mimics pot smoking] 'Hey man, I got an idea, hear me out, it's really funny. The last Pope was Polish, right? Let's have a--'"

If you can guess how that ends, great. If not, it doesn't matter. But you should probably read more.

[Here's a small video preview for you]

With a big hug to Burkard, Kirsten, Richard, Anna, Goez and all my German friends.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

First rainy day in six months!

Rain in Austin, what do you know?

It did rain since I arrived here (and even snow), but I don't think we've had anything that would qualify as a "rainy day": most of the rain was really a light drizzle, and always after midnight. It was almost as if Austin rain was specially commissioned for environmental purposes, so regular and unobtrusive it was.

But today we've had the actual experience of needing an umbrella to go to class. Now this feels more like home to me.

In Rio Grande do Sul (South of Brazil), temperatures are quite similar to Austin (a bit colder, in fact), but the weather is pretty unpredictable. As far back as the 19th century we've had this saying that the Brazilian South had all four seasons in one day, and things haven't changed much since then, apparently. The most regular our weather gets is a crescendo of heat, with each day hotter than the previous one, until after five or six days it pours dramatically. That "heat cluster" happens pretty often, though it is not rare for it to be broken by a cloudy or even a cold, windy day.

But I had other reasons to appreciate the rain today: it made me feel like enjoying this cold weather a bit more, before Summer kicks in and we're boiling in our own sweat again.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Open air ATMs

This is the kind of thing Brazilians think only happens in the movies: open ATMs. In Brazil, ATMs are usually inside small kiosks with a glass door that opens when you slide your card through the lock. For safety reasons, you understand.

It’s really a matter of culture. Even the small towns in Brazil’s countryside, where years go by without any serious crimes, shelter their ATMs similarly. By the same token, dangerous places in the US like Detroit or New York keep their ATMs in the open, despite safety risks – see, for instance, the 1992 movie Night and the City, which begins with DeNiro being cornered at an ATM by two muggers. He found a very clever strategy to save his neck on that one, by the way (watch the movie to find it out, if you haven’t already). But I don’t think Austinites would need to resort to that.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Live Cinema Capital of The World

Let's skip the obvious tourist sales pitch about the city's live music scene (even though I'm utterly convinced it's not the least bit exaggerated) -- Austin has got to be the biggest movie industry city in the US after Los Angeles. Sure, we've got to think of New York and Shreveport, too, but you didn't come here for the statistics, did you? Good, because I have none. I prefer to support my claim with the following:

a) The Austin Film Festival
Possibly the only American film festival focused on screenwriting (certainly the biggest).

b) Austin Studios
Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Richarld Linklater are just a few of the heavyweights making regular use of Austin's 5-soundstage studio complex.

c) UT's RTF program
That's "Radio, Television and Film", FYI. One of the biggest in the country. Internship in LA mandatory.

d) The Alamo Drafthouse Theater
With frequent special screenings of older gems, often with directors and actors in attendance, the Alamo is arguably Austin's greatest asset to educate the public, expanding viewers' horizons beyond the latest blockbusters playing at the multiplexes. If that doesn't assure the emergence of new talents and an audience receptive to them, nothing will.

I could go on: SXSW has a movie component of its own, and Austin's independent video stores (Vulcan Video, I Luv Video) deserve kudos as well. But I think it's clear by now Austin has managed to build a thriving, consistent movie scene for professionals and public alike.

Don't take it for granted. It's a very unique scene. Compare it with Brazil: it's nearly impossible to produce and distribute a feature film without government grants or investments from Globo Networks, our controversial national media giant (roughly speaking, think Fox News with very little competition). By the same token, the Brazilian public is not as engaged: the national average viewer goes to the movies twice a year (Porto Alegre has the highest average in the country: four times a year). Of course, you've got to take statistics with a grain of salt. They are an average between people like me, who go to the movies at least six times a month, and people who'd rather stay home and watch TV, for whatever reason. But no matter how you look at it, what it all adds up to is that movie opportunities in Austin are unbelievably abundant when compare to other places (and I don't mean just developing countries: ask British or French filmmakers, it's no picnic in Europe either).

What makes a place movie-friendly is how much cinema has become a part of people's lives. If it feels too extraordinary, it hasn't been properly integrated into the city's reality. That's what makes Austin unique: it doesn't feel as big or special as it actually is. Austin makes it seem easy.

Hopefully this picture will illustrate how great it feels to be a part of it:

Celso with Chazz Palminteri after a screening of
The Usual Suspects
at the Alamo Ritz. August, 2008.

Welcome to my blog

It took me six months to put this blog together. That's how busy you can get in Austin. You've heard the cliché that there's always something going on in Austin, and that's certainly true (even though twelve hours of UT coursework, in my case, also have something to do with it). But now it's up and running. Long live Celso in Austin! (drumroll, please)

I'm Celso Lazaretti, an international exchange student at UT. I'm from Brazil (Yes, I know it's cool. And by the way, it's pronounced "sell-so"). Differences are to be expected whenever one moves abroad, for whatever period of time, and there are certainly many differences between my native Porto Alegre and Austin. This blog will feature the ones I find most intriguing, as well as general insights from my experience here in Austin.

Here's a little map to help you get your bearings:

When U2 released The Joshua Tree, bassist Adam Clayton said that up until that moment, they had been learning how to be U2, and that now they were ready to see what U2 could do. That's more or less how I feel about being in Austin. I've grown quite fond of the city since I arrived here last August. And now I've got a thing or two to say about it.

Welcome to my blog, and enjoy your stay.