For those of you who’ve been wondering what the orange “XML” button in the top module of the right-hand column is for, go here to read an AP wire story in which all is made manifest.
Archives for February 2004
“Promise is the capacity for letting people down.”
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
I’m not going to be watching the Oscars tonight. I rarely do–awards ceremonies bore me stiff, though I’m sometimes interested in the results–and in any case I expect to resume work on my Balanchine book as soon as I get home from an off-Broadway matinee. No doubt various actors will say and do stupid things, and no doubt I’ll read about them tomorrow.
I expect to be working on the Balanchine book very intensely for most of this week and next (as well as entertaining Our Girl this coming weekend, about which you will read in this space). Please don’t be vexed if I don’t blog as much as usual, or am slow in answering your mail. Which reminds me to tell you that we got a lot of e-mail in response to our “Reading Habits” survey, and I’m looking forward to going through it as soon as I get a couple more chapters wrapped up.
Apropos of the Oscars, I watched a movie yesterday that I hadn’t seen for years, Annie Hall, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies (which is broadcasting all of the best-picture Oscar winners) and my trusty digital video recorder. I saw Annie Hall in the theater in 1977, back when I was in college, and found it fresh and disarming. I saw it again on TV in 1985 or so, by which time I’d already started to have second thoughts about Woody Allen (Stardust Memories brought me to my senses), and was startled by how poorly it had aged. In light of the fuss that my recent throwaway posting about Allen kicked up, I thought it might be worth revisiting a film I once loved, in order to see whether and how two decades’ worth of additional hindsight had changed my mind.
Alas, I found even less to like about Annie Hall this time around. Such innovations as the subtextual subtitles, the animated sequence, even the cameo by Marshall McLuhan now strike me as cutesy. Far more exasperating, though, is Allen’s both-sides-of-the-street portrayal of his neuroses, which he pretends to mock while actually reveling in them, proving as they do that he is not as other men. On the surface, Annie Hall purports to tell the tale of how his peculiarities alienate the woman he loves, but its true subject matter is how their relationship actually makes Diane Keaton a better person. I suppose this must have been the first on-screen manifestation of Allen’s Pygmalion complex, which in Manhattan would explicitly reveal itself as an obsession with malleable young women. The trouble with such fixations, of course, is that even though the obsessed one grows inexorably older, the objects of his affection stay the same age–and we all know where that leads.
David Thomson is usually so insightful that I was surprised to see that he excepted Annie Hall from the scathing criticism of Allen’s work found in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film:
In his films he seems so averse to acting yet so skittish about real confession that he risks dealing in self-glorification by neurosis…. Allen’s development in the eighties, his rate of work, and the sophistication of narrative were all seemingly devoted to ideas and attitudes against the gain of that decade. Yet Allen’s audience relied on urban yuppies, and his films only fostered that group’s self-satisfaction….He has been a Chaplin hero for the chattering classes, yet he is trapped by something like Chaplin’s neurotic vanity. No director works so hard to appear at a loss.
That’s Woody Allen in a nutshell–and it’s all foreshadowed in Annie Hall.
Infinitely more to my liking was the hair-raisingly sociopathic Ripley’s Game, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. I saw it because of Anthony Lane’s review
in a recent issue of The New Yorker, and I agree with every word:
“Ripley’s Game,” directed by Liliana Cavani, sees the welcome return of Tom Ripley. On his previous visit to our screen, he was played by Matt Damon, but that milky substitute can now be put behind us. Ladies and gentlemen, the award for Best Ripley–the deathless bringer of death, a man with a mine shaft where his moral sense should be, and a hero so beloved of Highsmith that she gave him five books to himself–goes to Mr. John Malkovich. The moment that he appears onscreen, you think, Of course: that is Ripley. Highsmith groupies might find him too old, but I see Ripley as being of any age–no less devilish at eighty than he was at twenty-one, and as comfortable in the eighteenth century, perhaps, as he is in the twenty-first. I have no family tree to hand, but, were Malkovich’s Ripley proved to be a direct descendant of his Vicomte de Valmont, in “Dangerous Liaisons,” I would not be remotely surprised. The blood of both characters is rich in the patient scorn of the cultivated; consider our first sight of Malkovich, in Cavani’s film, as he stands perfectly still in a Berlin square and gives the impression, as he has done throughout his movie career, of posing for an invisible sculptor.
Ripley is in Germany to sell some Old Master drawings. He is not a dealer but a persuasive go-between, and his outfit–long dark coat and beret–is the uniform of a modern centaur, with the body of an entrepreneur and the head of an artist. The sale does not go well, and Ripley interrupts his courteous discussion of Guercino to pick up a poker from the fireplace and beat a man to death. This is the only shocking, as opposed to gruelling or mock-glamorous, act of violence that I have witnessed onscreen in the past year, because it flashes out of nowhere, like lightning across a clear sky. Ripley has the same frustrations as you and I, but deals with them quite differently, and in so doing rebukes our inhibitions. Where you or I would say, “God, I could have killed him,” because some guy cut in and took our parking space, Ripley really would kill him, and call it a job well done. But that is not the strangest thing about him. The oddity of Ripley is that he likes to see others do harm as well. He leads them into temptation and, in a parody of human companionship, lends them a helping hand. Although he would never admit as much, he is bored and even lonely, and that is why “Ripley’s Game,” which could have been a freak show, seems more like a portrait of evil making friends….
Alas, this superb film will not be released theatrically in the United States, but it’s coming out on DVD next month, and it also pops up from time to time on the Independent Film Channel, which is where I saw it the other day. One way or another, catch it as soon as you can.
Gotta go. Have a nice week. I’ll poke my head in as often as possible.
“Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination. Parties engaged in them would then perceive, either that in substance they agreed together, or that their difference was one of first principles.”
John Henry Newman, “Faith and Reason,
Contrasted as Habits of Mind”
I just finished writing an essay for Commentary
about the American violinist Louis Kaufman, whose autobiography, A Fiddler’s Tale, was one of my Top Fives last year. It comes with a bonus CD that includes a performance of Darius Milhaud’s Concertino de Printemps conducted by the composer. As I listened to that adorable little piece, I suddenly realized that it’d been far too long since I’d heard any of Milhaud’s music. Except for the jazz-influenced La Cr
If you weren’t careful, a day like today could persuade you that spring is here. It’s temperate, bright, and intoxicating. Two days ago I was one impulsive mouse click away from booking a flight to Las Vegas that would have departed O’Hare in an hour. The impulse dissolved, click I did not, and instead of milling about an airport gate in heels and sunglasses, I’m at my desk watching the motes in the sunlight and listening to the birds dotting the tree branches outside my window. They’re as pleased with the day as I am.
W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, which I am lately rediscovering, has one entry each under “Sparrows” and “Swallows.” The sparrows are John Clare’s:
3 sorts The common house Sparrow The Hedge Sparrow & Reed Sparrow often calld the fen sparrow The common sparrow is well known but not so much in a domesticated state as few people think it worth while bringing up a sparrow When I was a boy I kept a tamed cock sparrow 3 years it was so tame that it would come when calld & flew where it pleasd when I first had the sparrow I was fearful of the cat killing it so I usd to hold the bird in my hand toward her & when she attempted to smell of it I beat her she at last woud take no notice of it & I ventured to let it loose in the house they were both very shy at each other at first & when the sparrow venturd to chirp the cat woud brighten up as if she intended to seize it but she went no further than a look or smell at length she had kittens & when they were taken away she grew so fond of the sparrow as to attempt to caress it the sparrow was startld at first but came to by degrees & ventured so far at last as to perch upon her back puss would call for it when out of sight like a kitten & woud lay mice before it the same as she woud for her own young & they always livd in harmony so much the sparrow woud often take away bits of bread from under the cat’s nose & even put itself in a posture of resistence when offended as if it reckoned her no more than one of its kind. In winter when we coud not bear the door open to let the sparrow come out & in I was allowd to take a pane out of the window but in the spring of the third year my poor tom Sparrow for that was the name he was calld by went out & never returnd I went day after day calling out for tom & eagerly eying every sparrow on the house but none answerd the name for he woud come down in a moment to the call & perch upon my hand to be fed I gave it out that some cat which it mistook for its old favourite betrayed its confidence & destroyed it.
As the publication of Jonathan Bate’s biography last year made better-known, Clare was a Romantic-era English peasant-poet who found some fame in his lifetime but lived in poverty and eventually went mad, deteriorating and dying in obscurity in an asylum. The facts of Clare’s biography magnify the pathos of the remembrance above, with its discovery of the danger of mistaking the familiar social operations of one’s native locale for the less forgiving, sometimes inscrutable laws of the wider world. In the light of Clare’s unhappy life, it’s a sobering little brief for staying at home, letting natural enmities be, and trusting no one.
Doug Ramsey, who is writing an eagerly awaited biography of Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist who was (and is) my favorite jazz musician, saw my posting
about Walker Percy and sent me this paragraph from his 1977 obituary of Desmond:
And there was always talk about books. He rarely left on a trip of more than 30 minutes without at least one paperback. He was a rapid and consuming reader. Long ago, in ’55, he had alerted me to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and I was gratified in the sixties to turn him on to Walker Percy. Paul said he found a lot of himself in The Moviegoer, that beautiful Percy book about loneliness and grace.
That’s a wonderful thing to find out about Desmond, a man whose wry, soft-spoken playing was by all accounts a mirror of his personality. I wish I’d met him, though I’ve listened to his recordings and read his witty liner notes often enough to feel that we might almost have have known one another. He famously remarked that “I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini,” and on another occasion described himself as “the John P. Marquand of the alto,” a brilliantly apposite observation that no other musician in the history of jazz (except perhaps the well-read Bing Crosby, another Marquand fan) would have thought to make. As a longtime admirer of Marquand’s elegiac novel Point of No Return, I know just what he meant.
If you’ve never heard Desmond’s playing, either on his own or with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, you couldn’t do much better than to start with The Paul Desmond Quartet Live, a perfectly lovely solo album from 1975. Should that ring the bell, your next stop should be The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, a splendid five-CD box set that also features the great guitarist Jim Hall. Once you’ve gotten that far, I won’t need to tell you what to do next–you’ll be hooked.
As for The Moviegoer, I hope you’re already on the case….
I’m in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, reviewing the new revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by David Leveaux, and A.R. Gurney’s Big Bill, a play about Bill Tilden, the legendary tennis player who was arrested twice in his declining years for molesting teenage boys.
Fiddler I liked very much, and also found unexpectedly timely:
This isn’t one of those self-consciously “dark” revivals of a famous musical: Mr. Leveaux’s unfussy, trickery-free staging lets the show speak for itself. But at a time when the world is blighted by a sickening recrudescence of anti-Semitism, “Fiddler”‘s tough-minded departures from musical-comedy orthodoxy cannot but be seen in the lurid light of current events. The first act ends with a brutal pogrom, the second with the forced emigration of the villagers of Anatevka. The Minskoff Theatre is a big house, but when the Russian constable called Tevye a “Jewish dog,” the audience grew so still that you could have heard an hourglass run out….
I also liked most things about Big Bill, especially Mark Lamos’ staging and John Michael Higgins’ performance in the title role, though I had some nagging doubts about the play itself:
As Tilden steers closer and closer to the brink of disaster, “Big Bill” shrugs off its deceptive patness and acquires a sharp, even ragged edge. Why, then, did I go home dissatisfied? Because the pitiful realities of Tilden’s life have been subtly but unmistakably sanitized by Mr. Gurney. We never hear directly from any of the boys he seduced, for instance, though we are treated to a brief speech of self-justification at play’s end: “You could say that if only I had lived in a more accommodating society, I might have met someone…someone I could have loved…someone with whom I could have shared my life, without fear or shame.”
I don’t need to have everything spelled out, but I wonder whether Mr. Gurney meant for the audience to recall that for Bill Tilden, that “someone” would presumably have been a teenager. If he didn’t, he should have, because that puts a different spin on the ball.
No link, so do yourself (and me) a favor and go buy a copy of this morning’s Journal, where you’ll find my drama column nestled in the “Weekend Journal” section among plenty of other good stuff.
Paul Johnson, who wrote the introduction to the newly published Norman Podhoretz Reader, contrasts the intellectual and political styles of England and America. Apropos of Ex-Friends, the memoir in which Podhoretz tells how he and such folk as Allen Ginsberg, Lillian Hellman, and Norman Mailer parted company over political matters, Johnson writes:
We do things differently in England. We try not to let ideological disagreements disturb our social life or the ecumenical serenity of our clubs. Politics, let alone ideas, are not that important….We think people should come before ideas: it is our strength, as well (some would say) as our weakness.
I don’t know whether English intellectuals are really like that nowadays, but it certainly seems as if they were once upon a time, and I think Johnson is right to declare this tendency (however ambiguously) to be at once a strength and a possible weakness. For my own part, I’ve never broken with a friend over his personal beliefs, so long as he doesn’t become a monomaniac about them–but as any good statistician would immediately point out, that may say more about my friend-making practices than my friend-keeping practices. I don’t enjoy the company of humorless people, and the absence of a sense of humor tends to go hand in hand with belief-related monomania. Hence I don’t tend to seek out the kinds of people with whom I later might find myself inclined, even obliged, to break.
Not long after 9/11, I wrote an essay about overly earnest artists:
Alas, they have always been with us, especially in wartime and most especially in America, far too many of whose well-meaning citizens are allergic to the exhilarating fizz of high art with a light touch. It seems not to occur to them that life is such an indissoluble mixture of heartbreak and absurdity that it might be more truly portrayed through the refracting lens of comedy. Instead, they prefer what Lord Byron, who knew a thing or two about both life and art, would have crisply dismissed as “sermons and soda-water.”…
Of course there is a parallel case to be made for earnestness: surely it is people like Isadora Duncan who make the world go round. But who would want to go along for the ride if they also made all the art? Henry James, that wittiest of serious men, underlined the point in an 1893 letter to his friend Edmund Gosse. The occasion was the publication of “A Problem in Modern Ethics,” John Addington Symonds’ agonizingly earnest pamphlet calling for a change in public attitudes toward homosexuality. “I think,” said James, “one ought to wish him more humour–it is really the saving salt. But the great reformers never have it.” No, they don’t, but the greatest artists do, and never more than when falling skyscrapers threaten to make us lose sight of the crooked shape of man, absurd and preposterous and–yes–beautiful.
I still stand by those words, but I invite you to note that James–and I–were careful to distinguish between artists and reformers. Reformers, like saints, can be awfully awkward people. Their singlemindedness is no small part of what makes them effective, as well as uncomfortable to be with. I’ve known a few, but I’ve never tried to get close to them. No matter how friendly they may seem, I always get the feeling that they’d be perfectly happy to have me guillotined if they thought it necessary.
But, then, artists also incline to ruthlessness, don’t they? As William Faulkner once observed, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” This is not, thank God, a universal rule. Most of my friends are artists, and most of them seem disinclined to rob their mothers. But most of the great artists I’ve known–and it’s a short list–have done things in the service of their art at one time or another (though never to me) that were so selfish as to make my hair stand up.
Again, the statistician in me speaks up: how big is my sample? And the answer is: not very. I’ve read enough biographies to know that some great artists are nice, others nasty. I haven’t known many great reformers, or any saints at all. And as for what Paul Johnson calls “ecumenical serenity,” I like getting along with people–though I wouldn’t pay any price for it. But the truth is that my inclination to companionability has never been put to anything like a severe test. I have good friends whose views I think silly, but none who seem to me downright evil (and I believe in the existence of evil). I sometimes wonder what I’d do if I were to learn that a friend of mine had committed a cold-blooded murder. I like to think that I wouldn’t have befriended such a person in the first place, and that’s probably true–but human nature is complicated enough that I can’t say so with certainty.
All I can say for sure is that I’ve never been intimate with anyone lacking a sense of humor, or truly loved a work of art by a humorless artist. That might just be the most revealing thing about me.
“His account of the Communists shows in the most extreme form what I came to loathe in the abolitionists–the conviction that anyone who did not agree with them was a knave or a fool. You see the same in some Catholics and some of the ‘Drys’ apropos of the 18th amendment. I detest a man who knows that he knows.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Harold Laski, October 30, 1930