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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)


Friday, November 17, 2006
    TT: A spoonful of vinegar

    Time once again for the Friday Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. It’s another three-play week, and for the first time in a month, all three shows, Mary Poppins, the revival of Les Misérables, and The Little Dog Laughed, are on Broadway:

    Let’s cut to the chase: The special effects in “Mary Poppins,” Broadway’s new Disney musical, are wondrous to behold. Not only does P.L. Travers’ practically perfect nanny bring down the house by flying all the way from the stage to the balcony, umbrella clasped firmly in hand, but Bert, her jolly sidekick, strolls up one side of the proscenium arch and down the other, pausing at the top to do a feet-in-air tap dance. As for Mary’s bottomless carpetbag, from which she extracts, among many other improbable things, a full-length coat rack, all I can say is pretty much what the four- and seven-year-olds sitting next to me said: “Ooh! Aah!” I only wish I’d felt that way about the rest of the show. It’s spectacular, and not even slightly boring, but anyone familiar with Walt Disney’s 1964 film version of “Mary Poppins” is likely to come away asking what happened to the charm….

    What struck me most forcibly about “Les Miz” is that its appeal is essentially operatic. Not only does it contain no spoken dialogue—every word is sung—but Messrs. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the authors, have crammed it full of surefire devices shamelessly pilfered from 19th-century opera. High notes, rousing choruses, a coincidence-crowded Victor Hugo plot, even a drinking song: All are present in profusion. The only thing missing is music. In its place, Mr. Schönberg force-feeds us three hours’ worth of chattery non-melodies that sound as if they’d been written by a woodpecker on a xylophone….

    A friend of mine who saw a preview of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed,” which has moved to Broadway after a sold-out 10-week Off-Broadway run, described it as “a gay sitcom.” Yes and no. The plot, in which a deeply closeted movie star (Tom Everett Scott) gets caught in bed with a hustler (Johnny Galecki) by his brassy agent (Julie White), is more like bad Kaufman and Hart with full frontal nudity. On the other hand, one aspect of “The Little Dog Laughed” reminded me of “Sex and the City,” which is that Mr. Beane’s women talk like campy gay men….

    No free link. To read the whole thing, pick up a copy of today’s Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section. Better yet, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instantaneous access to my review, plus loads of other interesting stuff. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 17, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration."

    Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 17, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 16, 2006
    TT: Back to the airport

    By the time most of you read these words, I'll be in the general vicinity of Smalltown, U.S.A. I'm paying a long-overdue visit to my family, stopping off in St. Louis to visit yet another Frank Lloyd Wright house. I'll be returning to New York on Monday. Tomorrow's theater-related postings will appear on schedule, but I might take Monday off—there's no telling. In any case, there'll always be something for you to read at "About Last Night."

    Later.

    posted by mclennan @ Thursday, November 16, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    BROADWAY:
    A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
    Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
    Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 17)
    Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (one-ventriloquist show, G/PG-13, a bit of strong language but otherwise family-friendly, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
    The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)

    OFF BROADWAY:
    The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
    Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (drama, R, adult subject matter and nudity, reviewed here, closes Dec. 9)
    Slava’s Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 16, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don't we all anyway; might as well get paid for it."

    Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 16, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
    TT: Kid stuff

    Ms. Kate’s Book Blog has made up a meme and tagged the world. I’m game:

    1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you? I taught myself to read at the age of three. Somewhere in the family archives is a snapshot taken by my father that shows me lying on my stomach in the living room of the first house I can remember, reading the Daily Smalltown Standard.

    2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library? I “owned” dozens of books, some of them confiscated from my parents’ shelves and others bought with my allowance. A few can still be found on the shelves of my old bedroom, including a complete set of Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers, a long-forgotten series of volumes to which my parents wisely subscribed on my behalf. It was the Best Loved Books series that introduced me to Beat to Quarters, Call of the Wild, Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the Sherlock Holmes stories, among many other good things. They were, to be sure, abridged versions, but what did I know? In addition, I went through a brief but intense period of youthful interest in comic books. My favorites were Batman, The Flash, and The Green Lantern. (I didn’t discover Spider-Man until much later.) I also owned several Peanuts paperbacks.

    3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money? Alas, I can’t remember—I was buying books from early childhood onward, and they piled up fast. The first book I clearly remember owning, though, was The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which my Uncle Jim gave to me as a Christmas present forty years ago. It traveled with me all the way from Smalltown to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where it disintegrated at long last, having given me half a lifetime (I hope!) of loyal service.

    4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often? I re-read all my favorite books regularly, but I especially liked Little Men, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. I saw the 1935 film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel for the first time in January, and found it satisfyingly faithful to my fond memories of the Baroness Orczy’s book.

    5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it? I started dipping into my parents’ Reader’s Digest condensed books at an inappropriately early age—I can’t have been more than ten. Again, I read so many of them that I don’t recall which came first, but the one I remember most vividly is Advise and Consent, Allen Drury’s 1959 Washington novel, which I still revisit from time to time, always with pleasure. I was also hugely impressed by Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, and so it tickled me no end to be able to review the Broadway revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial a few months ago, even though the production wasn’t any good.

    6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones? Except for the Dr. Seuss books, I didn’t read any of the well-known modern children’s books as a boy. Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and several of the Little House books were read out loud to me in elementary school, though, and I loved them all. I read them for myself a few years ago and enjoyed them even more. I read and liked the first three or four Harry Potter books not long after they came out, but lost interest after the first Harry Potter film was released. Snobbery, I guess.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 15, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: The old-fashioned way

    The media, not surprisingly, took comparatively little note of the recent death of Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, who was 98. (The New York Times eked out a nice obit last Monday, but it’s now safely ensconced behind the paper’s pay-to-play firewall.) For those who don’t recognize her name, she was the co-author of Cheaper by the Dozen, the perennially popular memoir of life with Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the once-celebrated efficiency experts of the Twenties whose work is now mostly remembered by specialists. It was turned into a charming film in 1950, then “remade” to appalling effect a couple of years ago (nothing survived but the title).

    Has the story of the Gilbreth family lost its charm for latter-day youngsters? I wonder. I read Cheaper by the Dozen repeatedly as a boy, marveling each time at the utterly mysterious and romantic prospect of living in a giant-sized family (I have just one brother). Somehow I doubt it seems as romantic to today's children as it did back in the Sixties. I looked up Cheaper by the Dozen on amazon.com the other day and found, among other things, this “kid’s review” of the book:

    I did not like Cheaper by the Dozen because it did not grab my attention at all. I do not like reading about the life of a large family where the father ties to teach the kids everything, or showing off in front of a bunch of people. I also do not believe anything of this story is realistic. Do you think someone now of days can handle 12 kids? I do not think so. Now of days things are more expensive, so think how wealthy someone has to be to maintain a house, work, and still have time to spend with each child and buy things you need in the household. And do you think the dad has time, with work to teach each child all the different things. I think you would like this book if you are interested in stories about everyday life with a big family and the parents tutoring 12 kids and go on vacations. Or if you want to know what life was like back then and have 12 kids. Still how can they fit 14 people in a car, 9 kids in the back, 1 in the front, the mother in the passenger side with 2 babies in her lap, and the father driving the car? I was thinking how 2 adults keep 12 screaming kids under control. If you like the movie Cheaper by the Dozen with Steve Martin you might like this book even though they are really different, even the last names are different. I really did not like this book but if you want to read it go right a head.

    That made me smile, though it also made me sad. Above all, though, it made me want to reread both Cheaper by the Dozen and its equally touching sequel, Belles on Their Toes. Perhaps I’ll poke my nose into them again once I get my upcoming spasm of Thanksgiving-related travel (about which more later) out of the way.

    P.S. You can view several of the actual Gilbreth motion-study films whose making is described in Cheaper by the Dozen by going here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 15, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "In a way he was the most abstract person I've ever met. That sounds wrong, it sounds as if I meant he was a philosopher or absent-minded. 'Plastically sensual,' which sounds like God knows what, would be closer. What I mean is, when he went to see a film he was so busy looking at the chiaroscuro he never saw the actors, and when he went to my theatre, he came out talking about my elbows."

    Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 15, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
    TT: Enough already

    I did so much on my week off that now I need a day off!

    See you tomorrow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 14, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It's difficult to explain, but I just somehow feel that I never really have lived; that I never really will live—exist or whatever—in the sense that other people do. I was terribly aware of it all those nights waiting for you in the Ritz bar looking around at what seemed to be real grown-up lives. I just find everybody else's life surrounded by plate-glass. I mean I'd like to break through it just once and actually touch one."

    Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 14, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, November 13, 2006
    TT: Still alive and well

    Here’s what I saw, heard, read, and did during my week off from “About Last Night”:

    • I saw four shows: Mary Poppins, The Little Dog Laughed, and the revivals of Les Miz and Suddenly Last Summer.

    • I added a new piece to the Teachout Museum, a 1936 print by Louis Lozowick, a precisionist who specialized in lithography. A sharp-eyed art collector who shares my passion for prewar American modernism had suggested that I look into Lozowick, and I liked his style so much that I decided to bid on a copy of Storm Over Manhattan when it came up for auction last week. Now it hangs in my living room, directly beneath Alex Katz’s Late July II. They look beautiful together.

    • I decided to check out the ambient music of Aphex Twin, about which I’ve been hearing interesting things. Two of the cuts I downloaded from iTunes, “Alberto Balsalm” and “Windowlicker,” are now in heavy rotation on my iPod. (When I told my trainer that I was listening to Aphex Twin, he looked at me as if I'd suddenly grown a horn and said, “You’re listening to techno?”)

    • I read Gordon Forbes’ Goodbye to Some, a World War II novel suggested to me by a reader, and the galleys of Howard Pollack’s nine-hundred-page George Gershwin biography, which comes out next month. I also reread Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, one of Our Girl’s favorite novels.

    • I knocked off two Wall Street Journal columns, revised the first five chapters of Hotter than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and wrote the outline of an opera libretto. (Yes, that’s a teaser—I’ll tell you more later if it pans out.)

    • On Tuesday I took the train to Washington, D.C., where I spent three days in conference with the National Council on the Arts.

    • The NCA plays a part in the selection process for National Medal of Arts nominees, so on Wednesday I dined with this year’s medalists, among them William Bolcom, Cyd Charisse, the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Ralph Stanley. In addition, I met Mrs. William Bolcom, better known as Joan Morris, whose singing of American popular songs I’ve admired extravagantly for at least a quarter-century. Most of the two dozen albums she's recorded with her husband at the piano are now out of print, but you can still get this one without difficulty.

    I sat next to Cyd Charisse at dinner. She was wearing pants, so I can’t say whether her legs are as perfect now as they were a half-century ago, but I can assure you that she’s as nice as can be and that she remembers Fred Astaire with great fondness. She wanted to know if I’d seen any good musicals lately, so I told her about the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, and had the pleasure of reminding her that one of the characters in the show mentions her by name:

    From seeing all those movie musicals, I used to dance around on the street, and I'd get caught all the time. God, it was embarrassing. I was always being Cyd Charisse. Always.

    • On Thursday I had breakfast with a friend about whose wedding I blogged two years ago, then went to the White House to attend a reception for the recipients of the 2006 National Medals of Arts and Humanities, who met with President Bush in the Oval Office. The rest of us made do with the First Lady, who looked cool and composed in a simple greenish-beige suit. A sextet of military musicians played Debussy and Mozart (very prettily, too) as the crowd of gogglers jostled for position.

    The whole first floor of the White House was open, so I skipped the buffet and gave myself a fat-free art tour instead. The reception rooms are elegant, serene, and immaculately kept, and the windows are so thick that you can’t hear any sounds from outside. The walls are covered with paintings, most of them presidential portraits of widely varying distinction. Two are first-class, Rembrandt Peale’s Thomas Jefferson and a museum-quality 1903 portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent that hangs in a corner of the East Room. Another Sargent, The Mosquito Net, is in the Green Room. (Alas, Childe Hassam’s Avenue in the Rain, the best painting in the White House’s permanent collection, is not hung in a public area.)

    I was much taken with Aaron Shikler’s glamorously introspective paintings of John and Jackie Kennedy, by far the best of the postwar portraits. The booby prize, by contrast, goes to this cartoonish study of Lyndon Johnson by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who is best known for the fact that she was painting Franklin Roosevelt at Warm Springs one spring morning in 1945 when a cerebral hemorrhage struck him dead. Also in the room was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, FDR’s mistress. I bet the White House guards don’t tell that to visitors!

    A year ago I was dying. I like this better.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It's amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don't know; it's only the people you do know who confuse you."

    Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 13, 2006 | Permanent link
Saturday, November 12, 2005
    TT: You, too, can be a critic

    Today in “Sightings,” my Wall Street Journal column about the arts in America, I write about how blogging is affecting arts journalism:

    Sometimes the conventional wisdom turns out to be true—only with a twist. Most newspapers, for instance, really are devoting less space to the fine arts, but that's because newspapers themselves are growing smaller and smaller. Relatively speaking, says Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP), American newspapers allocate the same percentage of their space to the arts today that they did five years ago. The problem isn't the slice of the pie but the quality of the filling. Outside of a half-dozen or so major American cities, newspaper arts criticism has always been dismayingly uneven….

    How to break these viciously interlocking circles? Since 2004, the NAJP has been running a series of two-week "institutes" for critics and writers from regional newspapers and other publications. I've taught at two of these institutes (the most recent of which took place last month in New York City), and though my students have varied widely in experience, they've worked impressively hard to strengthen their grasp of the art forms they'd been assigned to cover. I expect all of them to go home and do good things.

    That's one approach. Another is to start a blog, a Web-based journal that can be read by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. A couple of hundred bloggers now write about the arts on a fairly regular basis. I've been following their work since I started my own "artblog," "About Last Night," in the summer of 2003, and I believe the same technological revolution that has already transformed political journalism is about to have a similarly galvanizing effect on regional arts journalism….

    Read the whole thing here. As was the case with Friday's drama column, the entire Online Journal is free all this week, the idea being that once you’ve tried it, you’ll want to subscribe (which I recommend).

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 12, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, November 11, 2005
    TT: Mission statement

    “I was reading your drama column,” somebody said to me today, “and I’ve got to know—who are you, anyway? Where are you coming from?”

    It was a serious question, asked seriously, and I thought about it for a moment before answering.

    “You know what I am?” I finally said. “I’m a regular-guy aesthete. I like fancy sets, but I like bare stages, too. I like Stephen Sondheim and pretty girls. In fact, there’s only two things I never, ever like: pretentiousness and being bored.”

    I think that sums me up fairly well, don’t you?

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: On Memorial Day

    "During my time as a soldier in the First World War I was a member of a string quartet which served our commanding officer as a means of escape from the miseries of war. He was a great music-lover and a connoisseur and admirer of French art. It was no wonder, then, that his dearest wish was to hear Debussy's String Quartet. We rehearsed the work and played it to him with much feeling at a private concert. Just after we had finished the slow movement the signals officer burst in and reported in great consternation that the news of Debussy's death had just come through on the radio. We did not continue our performance. It was as if the spirit had been removed from our playing. But now we felt for the first time how much more music is than just style, technique, and an expression of personal feeling. Here music transcended all political barriers, national hatred, and the horrors of war. Never before or since have I felt so clearly in which direction music must be made to go."

    Paul Hindemith (quoted in Geoffrey Skelton, Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Seasons' bleatings

    Time now for my Friday-morning Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, in which I post excerpts from my reviews of two newly opened Broadway shows, Jersey Boys and Souvenir, and a touring production of The Winter’s Tale that played Brooklyn last week:

    Yet another jukebox musical has come to town, and this time I don’t feel like arguing—much. For reasons not obvious to me, “Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons” is not only giving pleasure to paying theatergoers (that part I get) but has also passed muster with certain critics who should know better. Contrary to anything you’ve read elsewhere, it’s nothing more than 32 songs performed on a cheap-looking set by a high-priced lounge band, strung together like dimestore pearls on the most vapid of all-tell-no-show books….

    No doubt I’m the wrong person to review this show, seeing as how the hyped-up falsetto yelps of Mr. Valli (convincingly simulated here by John Lloyd Young) give me hi-yie-yives. All I can say is that it would be a lot simpler for everyone involved if they’d just move the whole thing to Newark....

    If you know who Florence Foster Jenkins was, you know entirely too much about opera and should enter a 12-step program. Everyone else will need an introduction to the woman about whom “Souvenir” was written, so here goes: Jenkins was a wealthy New Yorker who suffered from the gross delusion that she was a great soprano. In fact, she sounded like a tone-deaf donkey who’d snorted helium, but each year she put up the money to give a recital at the Ritz-Carlton whose tickets were snapped up by opera buffs suffering from the equally gross delusion that it was amusing to watch her act like an idiot in public….

    Now Stephen Temperley has turned Jenkins (Judy Kaye) into the butt of a two-person play narrated by Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren), her pianist and vocal coach….

    Needless to say, the Tony-winning Ms. Kaye really can sing, which is part of the joke, since it isn’t easy to deliberately sing that badly. In fact, Jenkins’ singing wasn’t nearly as funny as Ms. Kaye’s wicked impression of it—but of course you’ll have figured out by now that I thought most of “Souvenir” to be the opposite of funny. Call me a prig, but there seems to me something fundamentally nasty about such sadistic spectator sports….

    Edward Hall’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” has come and gone, having played its six scheduled performances at Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey Theater. Had it been around even a little longer, I would have tried to see it twice. Propeller, Mr. Hall’s all-male company, is my favorite touring theatrical troupe, a gaggle of magicians whose Shakespeare performances, played on the simplest of pack-it-up-and-hit-the-road sets, are briskly fanciful and endlessly imaginative….

    Propeller has two more U.S. stops left before it returns to England. “The Winter’s Tale” is now playing through Sunday at the Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley, Ca., after which it moves to Washington’s Kennedy Center, where it will be seen next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If you happen to be anywhere near either of those two cities and can possibly wangle a ticket, start wangling.

    To read the whole thing, go here. The Online Journal is free all this week, the idea being that once you’ve tried it, you’ll want to subscribe (which I recommend).

    P.S. "Sightings," my biweekly column about the arts in America, will be appearing in the "Pursuits" section of Saturday morning's Wall Street Journal. Take a look.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    November 2003:

    Ingmar Bergman has fallen from fashion, but I well remember when he was the very model of a Foreign Filmmaker, the man whose movies embodied everything that wasn’t Hollywood. Those, of course, were the days when Hollywood wasn’t cool: if you wanted to impress your date, you took her to a Bergman. (A little later on, it was O.K. to take her to one of Woody Allen’s ersatz-Bergman movies.) Now he belongs to the ages, and I know more than a few self-styled film buffs who’ve never seen any of his work….

    (If it’s new to you, read the whole thing here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Moss Hart’s share in 1930 of the average weekly box-office receipts for the original Broadway production of the Kaufman-Hart play Once in a Lifetime: $1,867

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $20,172.38

    (Source: Steven Bach, Dazzler)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It is not music's function to express rational necessities."

    Artur Schnabel, Music and the Line of Most Resistance

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 11, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 10, 2005
    TT: Finish line

    Deadline No. 4 is done, and so am I. Totally.

    Unless Our Girl decides to poke her head in, don't expect any more posting (outside of the usual routine weekly stuff) until Monday.

    See you later.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 10, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    BROADWAY:
    Absurd Person Singular (comedy, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
    Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (musical, R, extremely vulgar, reviewed here)
    Doubt* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
    The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes Mar. 26, reviewed here)
    Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)

    OFF BROADWAY:
    Orson's Shadow (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, very strong language, closes Dec. 31, reviewed here)
    See What I Wanna See (musical, R, adult subject matter, explicit sexual situations, strong language, closes Dec. 4, reviewed here)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 10, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Total royalties earned in 1934 from combined sales of all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books: $58.34

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $832.76

    (Source: Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 10, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    A police car and a screaming siren—
    A pneumatic drill and ripped-up concrete—
    A baby wailing and a stray dog howling—
    The screech of brakes and lamplights blinking—

    that's entertainment.

    A smash of glass and the rumble of boots—
    An electric train and a ripped-up phone booth—
    Paint-splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat—
    Lights going out and a kick in the balls—

    that's entertainment.

    Days of speed and slow time Mondays—
    Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday—
    Watching the news and not eating your tea—
    A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls—

    that's entertainment.

    Waking up at six a.m. on a cool warm morning—
    Opening the windows and breathing in petrol—
    An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard—
    Watching the telly and thinking about your holidays—

    that's entertainment.

    Paul Weller, “That’s Entertainment” (music by Weller)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 10, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
    TT: A guy who cain't say no

    “You lead a really interesting life,” Ms. Pratie Place told me on Sunday afternoon, sounding a bit wistful as I described my daily rounds. I didn’t disagree. Whatever else I am, I’m never bored, except on the rare occasions when I find myself watching a really dumb play or listening to the kind of music Igor Stravinsky dubbed “an exercise in pure duration.” (He had Bruckner in mind—I’m thinking Philip Glass.)

    The trouble with my life is not that it’s dull but that it sometimes becomes too interesting, at which point successive waves of beauty can start looking suspiciously like one damn thing after another. Experience has taught me the dangers of overscheduling myself, but though I’ve learned the lesson fairly well, it doesn’t always stop me from signing up for one event too many. Nor do I ever have total control over my schedule: press previews and deadlines fall where they will, not where I would, and every once in a while they become fused with the other parts of my life in such a way as to rob me of the ability to fall asleep. “Oh, God, I’m wired,” I find myself muttering grimly at three in the morning, knowing I’ll have to go on booming and zooming for several days past the last deadline before the adrenalin finally leaches out of my pores and I become my even-keeled self once more.

    I’m still in the booming-and-zooming phase of my most recent tumble off the wagon of schedule-related sobriety, the bare outline of which I shared with you on Tuesday, and—you guessed it—I’m wired. I awoke without benefit of alarm at six this morning, my head already half-full of the drama column I was to deliver at eleven-thirty, and I knew even before I was completely awake that there was no point in trying to go back to sleep. I came down from the loft, wrote the column, sent it in, then went back to bed for a couple of hours. Then I got up and wrote another piece. I used to do that kind of thing all the time back when I was young and full of beans, but with the half-century mark a mere three months away, I know such spurts are deceptive: they mean I’m running on fumes and ready to crash.

    I could probably knock off Deadline No. 4 tonight, or finish up that really long posting about my Manhattan-Washington-Brooklyn-North Carolina adventures. Instead, I’m going to switch off the iBook, go get dinner, return to the apartment, and watch some totally irrelevant TV. I have an old George Sanders movie tucked away on my DVR, which sounds like just what the doctor ordered. After that I’ll listen to some music and revel in the joys of the Teachout Museum, followed by (do I hear the earth moving?) an early bedtime. Such, dear readers, is the wild and crazy life of a Manhattan singleton-boulevardier.

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a hamburger….

    UPDATE: Birds of a feather blog together.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Greetings...

    ...to our far-flung readers in Australia, Austria, China, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Greece, Israel, the Ivory Coast, Japan, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Arab Emirates!

    (Translation: I arose early to write my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal and took a quick peek at our world map before settling down to work.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: In the pipeline

    The first installment of my ex post facto travel diary is well under way, but I got back from a Broadway preview too late to finish writing it, and Deadline No. 2 is already beckoning. Discretion being the better part of valor, I'm going to go to bed instead of staying up too late blogging.

    More as it happens....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Fee paid to Truman Capote by Paramount in 1958 for the film rights to Breakfast at Tiffany's: $65,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $426,394.11

    (Source: Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Let me love you,
    Let me say that I do,
    If you’ll lend me your ear,
    I’ll make it clear
    The way that I do.
    Let me whisper it,
    Let me sigh it,
    Let me sing it, my dear,
    Or I will cry it.
    Let me love you,
    Let me show that I do,
    Let me do a million impossible things
    So you’ll know that I do.
    I’ll buy you the dawn
    If you’ll let me love you today,
    And if that’s not enough,
    I’ll buy you the first of May,
    And tomorrow I'll send you
    Merrily on your way.

    Bart Howard, “Let Me Love You” (music by Howard)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 9, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
    TT: Where were we?

    Or, to be more exact, where was I yesterday? In an airport motel outside Greenboro, N.C., of course! Inclement weather prevented me from returning to New York on schedule, so I spent Sunday night dining in a sports bar and watching The Matrix on WTBS. Not having packed my iBook, I couldn't blog (which was probably a good thing).

    And where was I before that? Well, life has been the least little bit hectic of late. To be exact, here's what I've been up to since last Wednesday night:

    • I saw Jersey Boys on Broadway and Propeller's all-male version of The Winter's Tale at BAM Harvey (about which more in Friday's Wall Street Journal).

    • I attended a meeting of the National Council on the Arts in Washington, D.C.

    • I saw Carolina Ballet dance two performances of Robert Weiss' new version of Swan Lake in Winston-Salem.

    • I took a young friend to see her very first performance of George Balanchine's Serenade, danced by the Washington Ballet.

    • I brunched with an out-of-town blogger.

    Had I gotten home on Sunday night, I would have written all this up for your delectation, but since I got home on Monday afternoon in a severe state of sleep debt, I took a nap instead. This is a four-deadline week, meaning that work must take precedence over reminiscence, but I promise to share some of my adventures with you in the course of the next few days.

    For now, though, I think I ought to go back to bed….

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    November 2003:

    On the other hand, here’s a thought experiment: try to imagine a ballet like George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments ‘performed’ on a computer screen by a ‘company’ of articulated stick figures. All the movements, which are the essence of the dance, would be visible—but the viewer would experience them as a three-dimensional geometrical theorem, not an interaction between…well, souls. So long as we are on this earth, there can be no souls without bodies. That’s one of the reasons why I love ballet (it’s the ‘word’ made as flesh), and why synthesizers will never replace live orchestras….

    (If it’s new to you, read the whole thing here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Number, please

    • Commissioning fee paid to Igor Stravinsky by the Boston Symphony in 1930 for Symphony of Psalms: $6,000

    • The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $64,828.22

    (Source: Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: A Creative Spring)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The philosopher and the poet are 'unbourgeois' in so far as they preserve a deep and strong sense of wonder, and this fact naturally exposes them to the danger of losing their foot-hold in the everyday world. Indeed it might almost be said that 'to be a stranger in the world' is their occupational disease (though of course there could no more be a professional philosopher than there could be a professional poet—for as we said, man cannot live permanently at such heights). Wonder, however, does not make a man 'able'—it means, after all, to be profoundly moved and 'shaken.' And those who undertake to live under the sign and constellation 'wonder' (why is there such a thing as being?) must certainly be prepared to find themselves lost, at times, in the ordinary workaday world. The man to whom everything is an occasion of wonder will sometimes simply forget to use these things in a workaday way."

    Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 8, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, November 12, 2004
    TT: A little ahead of myself

    I thought I'd be in the pink today, but no such luck. This damned flu bug (for that's obviously what I've got) doesn't seem to want to let go.

    The bad news is that I have two shows to see, plus a speech to give, between now and Monday morning. The good news is that I don't have any urgent deadlines.

    All things considered, I think I'll hang it up until Monday. Have a nice weekend. (Sniffle.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Good enough for a laugh

    It’s Friday, meaning that I’m in The Wall Street Journal, this time with a triple-barreled review of two off-Broadway openings and a Broadway cast change.

    First is The Foreigner:

    It says in the program that Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner,” originally produced in 1983 and revived this week by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is “one of America’s most popular plays.” That was news to me—I’d never heard of it—so I did a little nosing around and found out that “The Foreigner,” which survived tepid reviews to run for two years Off Broadway, has since become a staple item at regional and community theaters around the country. It figures. Like “Charley’s Aunt” and “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “The Foreigner” is a pleasant, undemanding farce built around an inherently silly situation, the kind of play that’s as actor-proof as a comedy can be. So long as they learn their lines and follow the stage directions, even a bunch of raw amateurs can put it on and expect to get laughs.

    Why, then, is the Roundabout going to the trouble of reviving so provincial a show? Two words: Matthew Broderick. The erstwhile co-star of “The Producers” was born to play Charlie Baker, the mild-mannered, tightly wrapped Brit who pays a visit to a Georgia fishing lodge and is there induced (don’t ask how) to pose as a foreigner of unknown origin who can’t speak a word of English. Mr. Broderick gleefully hurls himself into the fray, tossing off meaningless mock-Slavic monologues (“Byottsky dottsky! Perch damasa baxa raxa”) and generally conducting himself like a lunatic on vacation from the asylum….

    Next, Five by Tenn:

    I was downright flabbergasted by “And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens,” the third part of “Five by Tenn,” the Manhattan Theatre Club’s too-cutely-named quintuple bill of previously unknown one-act plays that opened last night at City Center’s Stage II. Unlike the other plays on the program, this 1959 vignette about a flouncy New Orleans drag queen (Cameron Folmar) and the tough-guy sailor he picks up in a bar (Myk Watford) is concise, realistic, free of pseudo-poetry and wholly involving. Why does it work so well? Could it be because Williams, in a radical departure from his usual practice, chose for the first and only time to write a play whose characters and subject matter are explicitly gay? (That’s what the press release claims, anyway.) Whatever the reason, the results are memorable....

    Finally, I went back to Wonderful Town after a year’s absence to see a familiar new face:

    Brooke Shields, the latest celebrity non-singer to join the cast of a Broadway musical, has replaced Donna Murphy in “Wonderful Town.” I can’t think of a scarier act to follow: Ms. Murphy was stupendously fine as Ruth Sherwood, the wisecracking writer who knows a hundred easy ways to lose a man. The good news is that Ms. Shields is pretty damn fine herself, while her singing isn’t nearly as lame as I’d feared (though she crashed and burned in the two-part harmony of “Ohio”). A nifty physical comedienne, she mugs like a Marx Brother, and though she hasn’t enough vocal oomph to bounce her songs off the back wall of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, I was happily surprised to see how much she managed to make out of her comic numbers.

    Guess what? There’s a link! As OGIC mentioned a few days ago, this is the week when the Journal makes its online edition available for free in order to attract new subscribers. So if you want to read the whole thing, go here—then browse around at your leisure and see how you like the rest of the paper. I’m prejudiced, but I think the Journal Online is one of the best deals in journalism. See for yourself.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Barbara herself pretended to no illusions about Basil. Years of disappointment and betrayal had convinced her, in the reasoning part of her, that he was no good. They had played pirates together and the game was over. Basil played pirates alone. She apostatized from her faith in him almost with formality, and yet, as a cult will survive centuries after its myths have been exposed and its sources of faith tainted, there was still deep in her that early piety, scarcely discernable now in a little residue of superstition, so that this morning when her world seemed rocking about her, she turned back to Basil. Thus, when earthquake strikes a modern city and the pavements gape, the sewers buckle up and the great buildings tremble and topple, men in bowler hats and natty, ready-made suitings, born of generations of literates and rationalists, will suddenly revert to the magic of the forest and cross their fingers to avert the avalanche of concrete."

    Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 12, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 11, 2004
    OGIC: Whither crit crit?

    Did I get the same New York Times as everyone else today? I can't help feeling that some of my fellow book bloggers are waxing a bit Julavitian about Caryn James's group review of the National Book Award nominees (see next post down). James is pretty even-handed in her piece, offering persuasive praise for each book as well as critiques of what she seems to have soberly and reasonably—if, by other readers' lights, incorrectly—judged their limitations. Nothing in the piece seems to me remotely like an assault, like an attack, or angry (let alone angry, angry, angry). Sure, it had to have been a challenging piece, giving James such limited space to review five books as well as offer an overview. But despite the built-in limitations of the assignment, what she's written looks to me (and to CAAF) not like a declaration of war but like honest criticism.

    I do tend to view these matters more from the perspective of a book reviewer than that of a reader. As a reviewer, I find that the most difficult thing to resist is the impulse to be too nice and therefore, critically speaking, useless. So I react particularly strongly to what I consider phantom snark sightings. I may have still more personal reflections on all of this, but at the moment I have to hurl myself into the shower and try to make it to a dinner for a poet at 6:00. About which you'll hear more tomorrow.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Making a long story short

    In the Times today, critic Caryn James has strong views about this year's crop of National Book Award fiction nominees.

    When the fiction nominees were announced, there was much grumbling about their sameness—all women, all living in New York City, all little-known names. But the minor resemblances of sex and city are nothing next to what really makes this one of the least varied lists of nominees in recent years: a short-story aesthetic. Not one of these books is big and sprawling. And not one has much of a sense of humor.…

    …all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers' program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.

    That claustrophobic sameness doesn't help readers. Awards are inherently silly, but there's a method to their silliness. Whether it's the National Book Awards, the Tonys or the Oscars, contests become guides to what the public might want to catch up on, offering something-for-everyone choices. For the best-picture Oscar, there is an art house film and a popcorn movie, a "Lost in Translation" and a "Lord of the Rings." At last year's National Book Award ceremony, Shirley Hazzard's eloquent novel "The Great Fire," about memory and lost love in postwar Japan, won over T. C. Boyle's "Drop City," a raucous story of a 70's hippie commune. It was a mismatched contest, but a competition that suggested the breadth and vitality of the year's fiction.

    This year's list serves readers who like only a certain style—the style, say, of Rick Moody, the novelist and short-story writer who is chairman of the five-person fiction panel and who has been known to write some woozily poetic prose of his own. Whoever comes out ahead when the winner is announced on Wednesday, it defies logic to think that five such similar books just happen to be the best of the year—a year in which Philip Roth's chilling historical fantasy "The Plot Against America" and Chang-rae Lee's understated story of a suburban man's life, "Aloft," deserved their extravagant critical praise.

    In that infamous Believer essay by Heidi Julavits that is remembered principally, and ad nauseum, for decrying "snark" in book reviews, Julavits also advanced the corollary—to me more interesting and creditable—that critical snark is frequently deployed to punish just what should be encouraged: literary ambition. I note with interest the compatibility of this claim with James's misgivings about the set of novels nominated for the NBA. And it is as a set crowded into a narrow range that they give her pause. I found her essay honest, thoughtful, and especially informative if, like me, you haven't read any of these books. The only shred of knowledge I have of these writers is of a previous novel by Joan Silber, Lucky Us, which I reviewed some years ago. That novel also operated on a fairly small scale, but it impressed me utterly. Here's some of what I wrote then:

    Seldom does a title encapsulate a book's tensions and revelations as well as Joan Silber's snappy, deceptively simple "Lucky Us." As a scrap of arch commentary on the truly malignant misfortune that befalls this novel's protagonist couple, "lucky us" is a pithy epithet that could have fallen from the lips of either of these congenitally irreverent New Yorkers. But Silber, deservedly celebrated as a vivid chronicler of modern manners and the urban everyday, gently strips away the irony from the title statement as her plot unfolds. By the end of the book, one of the main characters finds himself amazed to realize, "You can have good luck as well as bad." This strikes him as "a complicated new truth, a beautiful and irrefutable fact."

    Ultimately, the apparently ironic "lucky us" proves just as true to the experience of this novel when read as a sincere statement of thanks for life and love. In Gabe and Elisa's Manhattan love story, most of the usual romantic conventions are overturned or at least tweaked. Romance is unchained from conventionality in their unlikely pairing. Ruminative, selfless, centered Gabe is 50-something, with the lightly checkered past of a year spent in jail for dealing drugs as a young man. Now content with the modest lifestyle of a camera salesman, he stands as the serene, solid center around which Elisa, half his age, flutters rakishly.

    Alive with "dizzy, selfish sweetness," Elisa styles herself a bright young pro at desire—at cultivating and satisfying longings of her own and at planting them in others and basking in the attention that results. "I thought of myself as a lavish bit of bounty I was gifting him with," she says of her initial courting of Gabe. She's just self-aware enough to make a virtue out of vanity. The world is her oyster, and she finds it very much an aphrodisiac.

    In he-said-she-said fashion, Elisa and Gabe narrate alternating chapters of their story. The first chapter is Elisa's, and she imbues it with all her sunny, lusty blitheness. So her diagnosis as HIV-positive near the end of the chapter, just as she and Gabe are planning their wedding, is a dark shock and the the first, most tremendous blow of bad luck that wallops the couple. It sets off a chain of reactions that threaten to sabotage her relationship with Gabe as Elisa struggles to see herself in the new light cast by the virus. Elisa is left picking up the pieces of a dismantled identity and inhabiting a body suddenly strange to her….

    Why Lucky Us was never reprinted in paperback is beyond me. Perhaps the NBA nomination of Ideas of Heaven will change that.

    UPDATE: I was curious whether googling a phrase from the above review would lead resourceful readers to my identity. A test run led instead to the delightful revelation that the review was lifted a short time after it ran, chopped in half, and was attributed to somebody named Lee Hall. Charming! OGIC, in case you are wondering, is not Lee Hall….

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Come see me!

    A boy must peddle his book, and I’ll be making two public appearances next week to flog All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, the first in New York City and the second in Connecticut.

    Here's the scoop:

    • I’ve mentioned this before and probably will again, but Robert Gottlieb and I will be appearing next Tuesday, Nov. 16, at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square (the address is 33 E. 17th St.) to discuss the life and work of George Balanchine with Robert Greskovic, the dance critic of The Wall Street Journal. Gottlieb, the dance critic of the New York Observer, is the author of George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, just out from HarperCollins. We’ll be conversing among ourselves, after which we’ll take questions from the audience and sign copies of our books. (If you’ve already bought All in the Dances, bring it along and I’ll be more than happy to do the honors.) All three of us are voluble and opinionated, which should make for a good time.

    The show starts at seven o’clock. For more information, go here.

    • On Friday, Nov. 19, I’ll be coming to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford to talk about Balanchine and his legacy with Francis Mason, dance critic of WQXR-FM and co-author of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.

    The show starts at six o’clock, but come early so that you can see “Ballets Russes to Balanchine: Dance at the Wadsworth Atheneum,” a major exhibition that documents a great museum’s involvement with dance in the Thirties—an extraordinary tale in and of itself. The galleries close at five p.m., which will give you plenty of time to grab dinner, come back, and watch us perform.

    For more information, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Be still, and know that they are shy

    I’ve been rereading John Canarina’s Pierre Monteux, Maître, a biography of a great and wise French conductor who never quite became a celebrity (I blogged about him last year), and ran across an anecdote I wanted to share with you. Monteux had just conducted Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Metropolitan Opera House, and was talking about the production with his fellow conductor Max Rudolf, who was then the company’s music administrator:

    When Max Rudolf expressed concern to Monteux over the fact that the Pelléas performances were not well attended, he replied, “That’s all right, it is the same in Paris.” When asked if he thought Pelléas would ever be a popular opera, he said, “It was not meant to be.”

    I think Monteux put his finger on something important, not to mention easily misunderstood. I once wrote an essay about Gabriel Fauré for Commentary in which I tried to explain why his music had never been popular and probably never would be. It’s called “The Shy Master”:

    Is it likely that Gabriel Fauré’s music will ever speak to a wider audience? Not really. For all its beauties, it lacks a quality normally present in the work of romantic artists: It is not forthcoming. To appreciate Fauré, you must come to him, in the same way that you might open yourself up to a painter like Edouard Vuillard. It is as though you were talking with a shy person whose voice is only audible in a quiet room. If the room is too noisy—or if you insist on doing all the talking—then you will hear nothing at all.

    George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer, an hour-long plotless ballet set to the music of Brahms, is another example of shy art. It’s intensely romantic, but if you’re not in a receptive frame of mind, it won't make much of an impression on you, which may explain why it’s never been especially popular with New York City Ballet audiences. And is there anything wrong with that? Balanchine didn’t think so. As I wrote in All in the Dances:

    More than a few members of the ballet’s earliest audiences, bored by its unending succession of “love-song waltzes,” would slip out of the theater during the pause between acts. In an oft-told anecdote that may or may not be true, Balanchine and [Lincoln] Kirstein were watching a performance together. “Look how many people are leaving, George,” Kirstein moaned, to which Balanchine replied, “Ah, but look how many are staying!” Today, though New York City Ballet now performs Liebeslieder Walzer only infrequently, it is loved by connoisseurs for what Arlene Croce has called its “persistent note of melancholy and tragic remorse,” and there are those, myself included, who regard it as their favorite Balanchine ballet of all.

    On the other hand, Balanchine’s retort to Kirstein suggested that he thought Liebeslieder Walzer would someday find a wider audience, which so far hasn’t happened. It is, indeed, beloved, but only by a comparatively modest number of people, just like the music of Fauré, the paintings and prints of Vuillard, John Twachtman, and Giorgio Morandi, the novels of Barbara Pym, and any number of other works of art that occupy a special place in my heart, perhaps because I myself am romantic in much the same way (though you probably wouldn't guess it unless you knew me very well).

    Max Beerbohm, himself one of the shyest of artists, liked to call himself a “Tory anarchist.” Similarly, I think of myself as a democratic elitist. I know shy art isn’t for everyone, but I also know there are more than a few people out there who’d love it if only they knew about it. That’s why I write about shy artists whenever I get the chance, knowing that each time I do, a handful of readers whose curiosity is piqued by my praise will make the kind of life-changing discovery I described in “The Shy Master”:

    And if you choose instead to listen, closely and carefully? Then you may find yourself responding with the fervor of a Copland or a Marcel Proust, who told Fauré that “I not only admire and venerate your music, I am in love with it” and went so far as to use him as one of the models for Vinteuil, the composer in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It was a remarkable tribute from one great artist to another—but, then, Fauré had a way of inspiring such tributes. John Singer Sargent painted him. Maurice Ravel studied with him. “I know of no other music which is more purely and uniquely music,” Arthur Honegger said, “except, perhaps, that of Mozart or Schubert.”

    As for Pélleas, it can take care of itself. Every major opera company in the world feels obliged to present it from time to time, as the Met will be doing in January and February, and it’s been recorded more than once (I especially like this version). No, it’s not for everyone. That’s why the Met is only giving four performances of Pélleas this season. It wasn’t meant to be popular. It doesn’t have to be. All it has to be is beautiful.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Personal

    Dear WML Fan: I got your package today. Wow! Alas, your e-mail address got swallowed up by my hard drive, and I don't yet have enough voice to carry on a comfortable telephone conversation.

    Write me, O.K.?

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Feelin' tomorrow like I feel today

    I woke up yesterday morning and realized that I’d finally gotten the better of the bug that bit me. Needless to say, that’s all the more reason for me to continue taking it easy for as long as I can, since I have a lifelong habit of jumping the fences. Still, I’m sure that I’ve turned the corner, and just in the nick of time, too: I went to see Brooke Shields in Wonderful Town on Tuesday night, and tonight I’ll be going to a press preview of ’Night, Mother, followed by The Good Body on Friday and Democracy on Saturday. Yikes!

    Anyway, thanks to everyone out there in cyberspace for your comforting e-mails (all of which I’ve answered). I’ll try not to let myself get run down between now and the day before Thanksgiving, at which time I’m heading for Smalltown, U.S.A., to (A) eat turkey with my mother and (B) do as little as possible. Film-noir buffs will of course recognize the second of these as the recipe for a long, happy life. No doubt I’ll hew to it about as closely as J.J. Gittes did—though I hope not with similar results!

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “‘You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,’ Linda said to me once in a moment of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, ‘though one must remember that it is bad, not good. But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to eat up all one’s life and energy. And the comrades are such Hons, but sometimes they make me awfully cross, just as Tony used to make one furious when he talked about the workers. I often feel rather the same when they talk about us—you see, just like Tony, they’ve got it all wrong. I’m all for them stringing up Sir Leicester, but if they started on Aunt Emily and Davey, or even on Fa, I don’t think I could stand by and watch. I suppose one is neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring, that’s the worst of it.’”

    Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 11, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
    OGIC: For big kids, too

    If you're looking for some cinematic holiday spirit, it should be abundantly clear by now that The Polar Express is not the answer. May I recommend, then, the unjustly obscure classic Olive, the Other Reindeer?

    Perhaps you are one of the lucky few who caught this hour-long animated Christmas special on Fox before they inexplicably stopped running it. If so, then you know it's savvy and goofy and sweet, the best in its genre since the Grinch. In fact, if you ask me, it's a good sight better; it's one of those blessed pieces of kiddie culture that aims to please the parents as well, not to mention random adults who don't have the face-saving cover of children to explain my, er, their deep familiarity with it.

    Michael Stipe crooning soulfully as Schnitzel, Blitzen's nonflying cousin; Joey Pants playing a penguin who hawks phony Rolexes out of a briefcase; Drew Barrymore as a dog who thinks she's a reindeer: what's not to like? Trust me. I realize "animated holiday special" are not words likely to strike hope in the hearts of the aesthetically discerning. But every skeptical soul that I've tied to a chair and forced to watch Olive has thanked me for it in the end.

    Bonus materials: the brilliant creators of Olive, J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, introduced her in this book. Seibold, who seems to have looked at a lot of Picasso, draws his penguins, dogs, and fleas on a Macintosh. Walsh and Seibold also wrote and illustrated the official children's guide to Going to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

    UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Delicious of Delicious Pundit rightly points out that I wrongly imply that Seibold and Walsh are the only brilliant parties involved here. While credit for creating Olive and her universe is theirs, the television special itself is the fabulous work of television comedy writer Steve Young. Far be it from me to deny credit to someone whose work has pleased me so, well, deliciously. I'm grateful for the correction.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, November 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Paranoia strikes deep

    This is likely to be a somewhat dicey week for me. On Tuesday night I started ramping up to my usual performance-going schedule, even though I’m still a bit shaky from the bug that bit me last week. (Alas, Broadway openings wait for no man!) So in lieu of a freshly written posting, I’ve pulled another vintage essay out of my electronic hat, a column I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio magazine, a few years ago. I hope you find it interesting.

    * * *

    The best thing written about classical music this past winter was, believe it or not, an essay by a music critic about another music critic. William Youngren's "Haggin," published in the winter issue of The American Scholar, is a remarkable memoir of the man most responsible for forming the tastes of postwar American record collectors. It is also a cautionary tale of how a great critic fell victim to the occupational disease of his profession—paranoia.

    I doubt B.H. Haggin is especially well known to Gen-X audiophiles, but for those who came of age between the '40s and the '70s, his name will trigger vivid memories. Haggin was as influential as any American music critic who has ever lived, and he exerted much of his influence, unusually, through a book written for novice music lovers. The Listener's Musical Companion, published in 1956, was acquired by school libraries across America, there to be read by innumerable teenagers who swallowed whole its sternly compelling myth of interpretative rectitude, in which Arturo Toscanini was God and Wilhelm Furtwängler the Antichrist. More than a few critics who now publish in Fi, myself included, cut their teeth on The Listener's Musical Companion, and its echoes can be heard to this day in everything we write.

    Haggin also shaped the face of American musical journalism in an even more unusual way: by answering his mail. Many of his readers wrote to him over the years, and he always wrote back—usually on a typed postcard—to defend or amplify his views. Those exchanges not infrequently led to face-to-face encounters, and sometimes to friendship. That was how I got to know Haggin, who later recommended me to Ted Libbey (then the editor of High Fidelity), the first editor ever to ask me to review classical recordings. If you don't like my stuff, you thus have B.H. Haggin to blame. And my experience was far from unique: indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if Haggin did more than anyone else of his generation to encourage young music critics.

    But Haggin had a dark side, one described candidly by William Youngren. Though he affected to believe that "criticism does not, as some people think it must, offer the one possible and correct opinion," he was in fact dogmatic to a fault, and his penchant for writing bluntly and insultingly about other critics with whom he disagreed got him in hot water time and again. Starting in the '60s, he also picked fights with most of the writers and musicians he had befriended over the years, and by the time of his death in 1987, the people with whom he was still on speaking terms could probably have been numbered in single digits.

    Haggin's violent contentiousness was no secret in the music business, and it led many to wonder if he was entirely right in the head. What was not generally known prior to the publication of Youngren's essay was that there was concrete reason to be concerned about his sanity: as early as the '50s, Haggin's psychiatrist put him on such major tranquilizers as Thorazine, a drug commonly used to treat schizophrenia.

    Once I learned this fact, the weirdly aggressive tone of Haggin's post-1960 writings suddenly began to make sense to me in a way it never had before. We use the word "paranoia" casually nowadays, but in the context of mental illness it has a precise meaning: It is the overwhelming feeling of persecution experienced by schizophrenics whose delusions have loosened their hold on reality. Surely there can be no doubt that this was Haggin's problem: His own sense of reality was threatened when people—especially people he respected—disagreed with him about musical matters. Hence the queer outbursts of near-frenzy that mar such later books as A Decade of Music (1973) and Music and Ballet, 1973-1983 (1984). They are expressions not of anger, but stark terror.

    Haggin's story is interesting both in its own right and as a reminder that all critics, great and small, are prone to paranoia. The reason is simple: we don't always agree. Especially in New York, where four daily newspapers cover the classical-music scene, it is an unsettling business to pick up the morning papers and read four different opinions about a concert—unsettling not just for readers, but also for the critics themselves. To be sure, I take some critics more seriously than others, but it always shakes me when a colleague loathes a performance I loved. (The converse is for some mysterious reason less disturbing.) If only for a moment, I feel what B.H. Haggin must have felt at all times: am I losing touch with reality?

    I should add that this feeling, while it can be unpleasant, isn't necessarily unhealthy (unless you happen to be schizophrenic). Critics need constant reminding that criticism is not an exact science—or, indeed, any kind of science at all. As for those frustrated performers who find themselves on the receiving end of contradictory reviews, I can do no better than to quote from No Minor Chords, Andre Previn's wonderful memoir: "It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well."

    UPDATE: Alex Ross has some thoughts on this post:

    As a critic, I'm obliged to describe musical reality precisely as I hear it; I can't sway in the breeze of intermission chatter. All the same, I want to write a review that will be of use even to a listener who had an entirely different experience. This entails writing with a certain humble awareness that my experience is not universal, that my account will never be carved in granite. Criticism is at its best where confidence meets generosity. It's a tricky business: the slide into fake omniscience is deliciously quick. But I'm working on it.

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Terror takes all forms, but the worst form is compassion. When you love someone and feel compassion for him as well, you can be driven to do the most brutal things.”

    Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shadows on the Hudson

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 10, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 9, 2004
    OGIC: License to browse

    What is it, sweeps week on the World Wide Web? For this week only, non-subscribers can roam freely through both the gardens of Merriam-Webster's premium website and the fields of The Wall Street Journal Online. The latter today includes this nifty story about an emerging star in the books-on-tape game. Knock yourselves out.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Who writes this stuff?

    And, more important, would somebody please pay me to write this stuff?

    Yesterday the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted its three newest Honoured Members: Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, and Larry Murphy. It's nice to have some feel-good hockey headlines for a change—or so I thought it would be, before I saw the likes of these:

    Murph a Hall of a Defender

    Bourque Has His Hall-iday

    Oh, for heaven's sake. Hall and hell? Hall and hol? Puns aren't much, but do these even qualify? If so, here's my humble contribution to the punfest:

    "Coffey Amounts to More than a Hall of Beans"

    Allow me to go now and prepare for the horde of sports page editors who are no doubt beating a path to my door as I type—and, more realistically, start bracing myself for when Brett Hull gets in.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that."

    John Stuart Mill, Autobiography

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The unbearable arbitrariness of the muse

    Journalists are deadline junkies. Even if they don’t start out that way, they soon find themselves needing the stimulus of a deadline in order to get anything done, and most of them find it all but impossible to write a piece before it’s due.

    I’m no better than the rest of my colleagues, but at least I take my own deadlines seriously. If you tell me a piece is due on Tuesday, that’s when you’ll get it, absent some hugely compelling reason to the contrary. Illness qualifies, and the upper-respiratory bug with which I’ve been doing battle for the past week caused me to blow the deadline for a piece I was supposed to write about Bright Young Things, the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Fortunately, I knew this particular deadline wasn’t set in stone, so I warned my editor via e-mail, who wrote back to tell me that I could turn it in as late as Monday, when the magazine would be going to press. I needed all the rest I could get, so I decided to put off writing the piece until first thing Monday morning, hoping that by then I’d feel decent enough to turn out something sufficiently readable.

    Even when I’m healthy, I often have trouble sleeping the night before an unwritten piece is due, and I felt perfectly frightful when I went to bed on Sunday. I tossed and turned throughout the night, sleeping for two hours at most, and awoke at six a.m., three hours ahead of the alarm clock. My head felt as though someone had pumped it full of budget-priced concrete, but there didn’t seem to be much point in trying to go back to sleep, so I crawled out of bed, turned on my computer, and went to work, grimly certain that I was in for a long day of pain and suffering. I was wrong. Two hours later the piece was finished, and even in my blurry state I knew it was good—perhaps one of my best.

    Every writer can tell you a dozen stories like that. Some pieces come easily and others don’t, and you can’t tell in advance which way the coin will fall. In my own case, the mystery is heightened by the fact that I rarely suffer from writer’s block. My first professional gig was as a music critic for the Kansas City Star, and in those days we still filed our reviews at 11:30 for the next day’s paper (an old-fashioned practice that the New York Times has just revived). I was terrified the first time I had to hit that unforgiving deadline, but within a few weeks the fear had worn off, and ever since then I’ve trusted in my facility. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for me to turn out three pieces in a single week, some as long as five thousand words, and I never doubt that they’ll be of professional quality. What I don’t know is whether they’ll be any better than that. It’s strictly up to the muse.

    Journalists aren’t exactly artists, but in this respect they resemble artists, who know that a professional can’t afford to wait for inspiration. Of the many George Balanchine quotes I tucked into All in the Dances, this one is my favorite:

    Choreography, finally, becomes a profession. In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse. Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time.

    Note that Mr. B said “inventive,” not “inspired.” He knew what all artists know, which is that the only way you can ever hope to experience inspiration is to seek it regularly, ideally every day. It’s like a bus that doesn’t run on a regular schedule: the more often you come to the bus stop, the better the chances that you’ll be there when it arrives.

    I’m used to this, as well I should be, but sometimes I get vexed at the muse when she pulls a fast one, the way she did yesterday morning. Of course I’m glad that particular piece came off so well—but why on earth did I have a good day when I was feeling so awful? It offends my sense of order. In a better-organized world, an artist would be able to earn inspiration. He'd get up bright and early after having gone to bed at a reasonable hour, eat a nutritious breakfast, sharpen his pencils, go out to walk the dog and help an old lady across the street, and return to his desk secure in the knowledge that the muse would descend at ten a.m. sharp. Fat chance. To be sure, regular habits are good for artists. They make it easier to be inventive on demand. But inspiration, unlike invention, won’t come when it’s called. It’s a cat, not a dog. If you can’t live with that knowledge, you’re better off pursuing some other line of work.

    Those of you who are religious will doubtless see the analogy here: inspiration is like grace. You can make yourself more (or less) worthy to receive it, but Somebody Else is in charge of pushing the button that causes it to descend. This suggests that instead of grumbling about the arbitrariness of the inspiration that came to me early yesterday morning, I should have offered up humble thanks to the Muse of Journalism for choosing to cut me some slack on a bad day. But did I? No. “Gratitude,” Lord Chesterfield told his son, “is a burden upon our imperfect nature.” Unwilling to assume that burden, I e-mailed my piece to Washington, crawled back into bed, and slept until noon.

    No doubt the muse will pay me back double one of these days. Or maybe not. Like I said, you never know.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "After this, Lady Montdore set out to win my heart, and, of course, succeeded. It was not very difficult. I was young and frightened, she was old and grand and frightening, and it only required a very little charm, an occasional hint of mutual understanding, a smile, a movement of sympathy to make me think I really loved her. The fact is that she had charm, and since charm allied to riches and position is almost irresistible, it so happened that her many haters were usually people who had never met her, or people she had purposely snubbed or ignored. Those whom she made efforts to please, while forced to admit that she was indefensible, were very much inclined to say '...but all the same she has been very nice to me and I can't help liking her.' She herself, of course, never doubted for one moment that she was worshipped, and by every section of society."

    Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 9, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, November 8, 2004
    OGIC: Pocket jackpot

    I just came back from the neighborhood used book store, where I was selling some books, thereby freeing up some much-needed bookshelf space and bringing in some not unwelcome cash. I was on my way out of the store with the cash in my hot little hand, on the verge of making a cleanly profitable getaway, when something caught my eye. It was a whole shelf packed with old Anchor and Vintage paperbacks illustrated by Edward Gorey. Ooh and ouch. Some were books I've long hoped to find. And there went twenty-five percent of my cash. Easy come, easy go.

    As long-time readers know, I collect Gorey books and have an especially soft spot for his early oeuvre. Looking again at the gallery maintained by the folks at Goreyography.com, I see that I still have a long way to go before my collection is complete. But the highlights of today's haul, some of which can be viewed over there, are:

    An Elizabethan Song Book, songs selected by W. H. Auden, bright green for the grass and yellow for the lute.

    François Villon, D. B. Wyndham Lewis's biography of the medieval poet. The wall is dense black cross-hatching on a gunmetal gray background, the lady's dress a dramatic red streak against the gloom.

    The Yellow Book: Quintessence of the Nineties, edited by Stanley Weintraub, a collection of stories and essays from the famous fin-de-siècle journal. The cover of this one features a strange little Max Beerbohm drawing framed by an ornamental design by Gorey, who also did the typography. An odd but successful marriage. Beerbohm must have been an influence on Gorey.

    Happy as I am to have stumbled on this cache, I can't help wondering what brought the like-minded soul who put it together to letting it go. An heir who didn't know what he had, probably, and better for the books they come live with me. I look over my own newly expanded collection, and the words "when you pry it from my cold, dead hands" come to mind.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 8, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: On the mend

    It's been slow going, but the upper-respiratory bug that assaulted me last week is starting to loosen its chokehold on my windpipe, and I'm finally feeling a bit more like myself (though I don't yet sound like myself, or anyone else human). I'm sure it helps that I canceled an out-of-town trip, took the whole weekend off, stayed home, didn't answer the phone, talked as little as possible, and did no work whatsoever. Mostly I just lay on the couch like a threadbare afghan, gulped down hot fluids, and watched TV.

    Alas, all of the above means I have to write a piece right this minute for a magazine that goes to press today. (I'm not completely sure I still remember how to write!) The good news is that I should be blogging again tonight. Our Girl advises me that she's still having web-browsing problems at her end, but she, too, will be back as soon as possible.

    Until then, cross over into the right-hand column, where you'll find a new "Second City" column for your delectation, plus links to lots of other fine blogs that are worth a visit.

    Thanks for your patience.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 8, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Bard of the electric ear

    I don’t want to leave you completely bereft of fresh reading matter, so I dipped into my electronic archive and pulled out a favorite essay that inadvertently got left out of the Teachout Reader. It’s one of my old “Front Row Center” columns from Civilization, a magazine for which I used to write long ago. Nobody I knew read Civilization, so the chances are better than even that you haven’t seen this particular piece, a profile of the radio playwright Norman Corwin. I’m a radio buff from way, way back, and meeting Corwin was one of the high points of my professional life.

    I hope you enjoy this souvenir of the afternoon we spent together back in 1996.

    * * *

    Once upon a time there was radio, and it was beloved. Nobody loves TV: we take it for granted, like air or water. Radio was different. America is a big country, so big that newspapers and express trains did little to shrink it, and for most of its long history it was intensely provincial, simply by virtue of its vastness. Unless you were rich enough to travel, you knew only your town and the places nearby; the rest you read about in books, or visited once in a blue moon. But then radio came along, and all at once Americans could hear each other, no matter where they lived. You twisted a knob on the Atwater Kent in the living room in Dubuque or Diehlstadt, and suddenly you could hear Fred Allen cracking bone-dry jokes in a studio in Manhattan—or Ed Murrow standing on a London rooftop, listening to the German bombers roar through the night sky. And all of it was live: it happened and you heard it, just like that.

    The hold of radio on the imagination of America in the '30s and '40s was so strong that even now, people too young to have experienced it at first hand can somehow feel its seductive tug. Though I was born in 1956, I always loved the idea of radio, so much so that I read shelves of books about it, collected crackly cassettes of ancient Jack Benny broadcasts, and in time even became a part-time disc jockey on a college station, though the duties weren't precisely what I'd had in mind. (Where were the glossy studio orchestras? Where were the sound-effects men, miraculously conjuring up galloping horses and collapsing buildings?) So when I heard Norman Corwin was writing and directing a brand-new series of plays for National Public Radio, I knew I had to meet him.

    Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of Corwin: it just means you're under the age of sixty. But in the long-gone days of network radio, he was one of the giants. "Anything I know about drama today comes more from Norman Corwin than anybody," Robert Altman has said. His scripts were so fresh and vivid that starting in 1941, CBS gave him his own series and put his name in the title, an unprecedented honor for a mere writer. Even now, a half-century after the fact, the names of Corwin's plays have a way of sticking in the minds of the people who heard them: The Plot to Overthrow Christmas. The Odyssey of Runyon Jones. Untitled. (That was the one about Hank Peters, the boy who died in combat.) There Will Be Time Later. The Undecided Molecule. (Groucho Marx and Robert Benchley starred in that one.)

    This is how important Norman Corwin was: nine months before World War II ended, CBS commissioned him to write an original radio play to be broadcast on V-E Day. It was called On a Note of Triumph, and it made so powerful an impact that more than a few of its first listeners still remember parts of it word for word. "I'm going to interview Norman Corwin this morning," I told an older friend of mine, who promptly rattled off its opening lines: Take a bow, G.I.,/Take a bow, little guy./The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.

    On a Note of Triumph is a compendium of Corwin: the loping half-verse whose long, striding cadences echoed the poetry of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, the uncanny use of sound effects to suggest what no movie camera could have filmed—and, above all, the serenely confident belief, born of a dozen years of life under FDR, that the world and the people in it could be made better (not just better off, but better) by liberal democracy. Liberalism was America's civic religion in 1945, and it colors every line of the prayer with which On a Note of Triumph concludes:

    Lord God of test tube and blueprint,
    Who joined molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
    Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
    Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
    Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father's color or the credo of his choice:
    Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend….

    There was room on commercial radio for things like that, just as there was room for Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, or Orson Welles directing Shakespeare. But it couldn't last, and it didn't. One day in 1948, Corwin ran into Bill Paley, the president of CBS, on a train from Pasadena to New York. "We've simply got to face up to the fact that we're a commercial business," Paley told his star playwright. "If we do not reach as many people as possible, then we're not making the best use of our talent, our time, and our equipment." At that moment, Corwin knew his own days at CBS were numbered. To make matters worse, 1948 was also the year network TV finally arrived, and it wasn't long before radio itself was on the ropes, laid low by Milton Berle. To be sure, Corwin didn't want for work after he left CBS—among other things, he wrote the script for Lust for Life, Vincente Minnelli's 1956 film version of the life of Vincent Van Gogh—but the thing he loved best was a thing of the past.

    Then, six years ago, Corwin met Mary Beth Kirchner, a young producer of public-radio documentaries who knew and admired his work. She talked NPR into rebroadcasting "On a Note of Triumph" fifty years after V-E Day; she put together 13 by Corwin, a broadcast anthology of Corwin's radio plays which aired on NPR last spring. Her latest venture, More by Corwin, is a series of six holiday specials newly written and directed by Corwin. When the word went out that the old master was back in the studio again, stars lined up to do his bidding: "No Love Lost," the first episode of More by Corwin, starred Jack Lemmon, Lloyd Bridges, William Shatner, and Martin Landau.

    If you've been counting on your fingers, you can stop now: Norman Corwin is eighty-six. Mark Twain died the year he was born, and William Howard Taft was president. But he's no museum piece, as I learned when I met him. He was in New York to promote More by Corwin and be feted by the Museum of Broadcasting, and had I not known better, I would have sworn he was in his early sixties.

    Corwin's memory is crystal-clear, and though he doesn't live in the past, he's perfectly happy to reminisce about the age of network radio. "There was something electric about live performance," he says wistfully, "where the work was done in real time. Of course you faced the hazard of mistakes and flaws and miscues, but it was a hazard worth taking because the company was charged with the knowledge that this was it, there was no recall: a mistake made in New York would be heard by the listener in Kansas City sooner than you heard it in the control room. And the beauty of a live production that has to be accomplished, start to finish, in a few hours, is that there is no time for intrigues, for the artistic shenanigans that too often occur when you have a production that runs over weeks or months. We had five to eight hours of rehearsal time for a half-hour radio broadcast." You can hear the pride in his voice as he remembers how it used to be.

    Wondering what the passage of time had done to the fervent idealism of his youth, I asked Corwin: do you still think brotherhood is not so wild a dream? He paused for what on radio would have been a very long time indeed. "Oh, boy. It pains me to answer," he finally said. "I think it's still a dream. I'm not so sure of the degree of fantasy involved. But it's still a hope. And now and then there are manifestations and outcroppings—local ones—which give you courage, and encouragement. My philosophy is not to be foolishly optimistic, but not to surrender, because when you surrender, you're handing it over to the enemy. As long as there's a spark left, and you keep it alive, there's a chance that it can be fanned into flame."

    As I left Norman Corwin, I thought of the last words he ever wrote for his old employers, a poem Walter Cronkite read on TV to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Columbia Broadcasting System. There is no better summing-up of what radio was all about:

    Years of the electric ear!
    The heavens crackling with report: far-flung, nearby, idle, consequential...
    Sofa-sitters taken by kilocycle to the ball park, the concert hall, the scene of the crime
    Dramas that let us dress the sets themselves
    Preachments and prizefights,
    The time at the tone, the weather will be, and now for a word,
    The coming of wars and freeways
    Outcroppings of fragmented peace
    Singing commercials and the Messiah.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 8, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Uncle George had personal appeal, but after all, what was appeal? Something that concealed inadequacy, and it was startling to think perhaps that was why he himself had it."

    John P. Marquand, Women and Thomas Harrow

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 8, 2004 | Permanent link
Saturday, November 15, 2003
    TT: Not exactly Heathers

    Jennifer Howard, a contributing editor of Washington Post Book World, has a piece in the Post’s "Outlook" section in which she complains about the chumminess of the blogosphere, citing by name a number of arts blogs and bloggers, present company included:

    Part of blogs' usefulness as a cultural barometer is that they don't automatically buy what the establishment says about Vida or Eggers or any other overhyped phenomenon, literary or otherwise. Bloggers know what they like and what they don't like, and they aren't afraid to tell you why. And they get to use bad words that will never see print inside a family newspaper. But to get to the good stuff, you have to wade through more and more self-congratulation and mutual admiration. Call it blogrolling….

    Maybe the back-scratching started as revolutionary solidarity. Now it's a popularity contest in which the value of information is confused with the cool quotient of the person spreading it. Late-night TV has Jay and Dave and Conan; the blogosphere has TMFTML and Old Hag and Choire, only unlike the gods of late night, the gods of the blogosphere really, really like each other—and say so every chance they get.

    They're not so nice to the less popular kids, often establishment-media types who get flogged out of all proportion to their op-ed offenses. The last few months, it's been all the rage to paste Laura Miller, a critic with regular gigs for Salon.com and the New York Times. One of the kinder comments, this one from Cup of Chicha: "From the way she writes about contemporary short stories, it feels obvious she doesn't read them." Even if you're not a fan of Miller's, the attacks can get so nasty it starts to feel like bloggers pick on her not because they think she's a lousy critic but because she gets to sound off every other week in the New York Times….

    If the ad hominem tactics made for a better read, I might not mind so much. Sure, it can be fun in a sick sort of way, like watching a bar fight while you nurse a beer in the corner. But more and more it gets in the way of what makes blogs useful to someone like me, and that's information. After making my daily e-rounds, I feel more plugged into what's going on—and ever more burned out on cronyism and negativity. Even if you rely on blogs for idiosyncratic takes on the news, even if you enjoy seeing sacred cows slaughtered, even if you believe, as I do, that the world needs the kind of Zorro-like cultural commentary they're so good at, you start to wonder: Is this getting a little too personal?

    Maybe that's the point. In the blogosphere, everybody gets to be a critic.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Actually, Our Girl and I don’t do a lot of ad hominem brawling, but we do like to plug what’s going on elsewhere in the blogosphere, mainly because it’s still a very new invention about which more and more people are learning every day. That’s why we mention TMFTML and Maud and Cup of Chicha and Old Hag and Bookslut and all the other interesting blogs that we read regularly—because we think they’re worth knowing about. "Coolness" and cronyism have nothing to do with it. We don’t party down nightly. I’ve met one of the aforementioned bloggers, once. Two of them I don’t even know by name.

    In any case, the great thing about the blogosphere is that it’s an unusually pure example of an information market. People read "About Last Night" because they want to read it. If they don’t, they won’t. The same is true of all the other blogs. The ease with which you can visit a blog is part of what makes the blogosphere so competitive—and it’s not a zero-sum game, either. Anyone can play. It’s cheap and easy to set up a blog. To be a "popular kid," all you have to do is jump in and be consistently interesting, and you’ll get noticed and mentioned and blogrolled very, very quickly. It doesn't matter who you know or where you are. (Look what happened to Cup of Chicha.)

    As for Laura Miller, I think maybe Ms. Howard is engaging in a teeny bit of snarkery herself when she suggests that "bloggers pick on her not because they think she's a lousy critic but because she gets to sound off every other week in the New York Times." I don’t have an opinion about Laura Miller—I don’t read her stuff—but if I felt the need to criticize her, it wouldn’t be because I resented the fact that she’s an "establishment-media type." After all, so am I. Nor do I blog to be hip or cool or to kick sand in the faces of the "less popular kids," whatever that means. I do it because I think blogging is an exciting and potentially significant development in arts journalism, and I want to be part of it. I'm excited by the immediacy and freshness and personal quality of blogs. I also like the bad words and knife fights, even if we don't do that kind of stuff around here. I don't own a shiv, and Our Girl is too sweet. (I don't even think she knows some of those words TMFTML uses.)

    Above all, blogging is fun. And that’s one thing I don’t get from Jennifer Howard’s eat-your-spinach account of life in the blogosphere: a sense of how much fun we’re all having out here. "We" meaning TMFTML and Maud and Cup of Chicha and Old Hag and Bookslut and the thousands of nice people who visit us every day. It’s not a private party. There’s no secret handshake. All you have to do is click on a link. Or not. But we hope you do.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 15, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: One way or the other

    I very much like what Our Girl wrote about not letting herself get freaked out in advance by the reviews of Master and Commander (though now that they’re out, I’d say she doesn’t have much to get freaked out about).

    In my own case, I’m trying to prepare myself not to get freaked out by the differences between the movie and the books. So far, I’ve only read one unfavorable review, by Christopher Hitchens, a reflexive contrarian who likes nothing better than to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, even when it's right and he's wrong. Yet it's obvious that Hitchens knows Patrick O’Brian’s books extremely well, for he unhesitatingly put his finger on a key aspect of the film about which the trailer left me extremely suspicious: the way it portrays Stephen Maturin.

    The summa of O'Brian's genius was the invention of Dr. Stephen Maturin. He is the ship's gifted surgeon, but he is also a scientist, an espionage agent for the Admiralty, a man of part Irish and part Catalan birth—and a revolutionary. He joins the British side, having earlier fought against it, because of his hatred for Bonaparte's betrayal of the principles of 1789—principles that are perfectly obscure to bluff Capt. Jack Aubrey. Any cinematic adaptation of O'Brian must stand or fall by its success in representing this figure.

    On this the film doesn't even fall, let alone stand. It skips the whole project. As played by the admittedly handsome and intriguing Paul Bettany, Maturin is no more than a good doctor with finer feelings and a passion for natural history. At one point he is made to say in an English accent that he is Irish—but that's the only hint we get. In the books, for example, he quarrels badly with Aubrey about Lord Nelson's support for slavery. But here a superficial buddy movie is born out of one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson.

    I regret to say that all this sounds dangerously plausible to me. I’ve read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series several times and admire it greatly (if not uncritically), but I also think its virtues, which I tried to describe when I reviewed The Yellow Admiral (one of the later volumes in the series) for the New York Times Book Review, are of a sort not easily transferred to the screen, in part because they are embodied as much in conversation as in action:

    Mr. O'Brian's present popularity is to some extent a fad, but it is also justified. To say that his books are a cut above the average historical novel is to miss the point: Aubrey and Maturin are to Capt. Horatio Hornblower what Philip Marlowe is to Perry Mason….In the end, what makes the Aubrey-Maturin novels memorable is their moral gravity: rarely does one encounter in nominally popular fiction so Trollopian an understanding—and acceptance—of the divided nature of men's souls. Mr. O'Brian does not deal in cardboard heroes, which is why the acts of heroism he describes make so powerful an impression. We read him for his plots; we reread him for his philosophy.

    I hasten to point out, however, that this is all the more reason to try and forget about the books when watching the film. A faithful film adaptation of a novel of any considerable literary complexity can never be more than a species of illustration—a commentary at best, a comic book at worst. To watch it inevitably becomes a kind of game in which the viewer scores the film according to how many surface details the director gets right. Do the actors look the way they "ought" to? Are the sets convincing? Does the dialogue sound familiar? It’s a good game, but it has nothing to do with art.

    The smarter approach, of course, is for the director to depart drastically from the source—to subject it to an imaginative transformation that gives the adaptation an independent life as a free-standing art object in its own right. (It’s easier to turn a great novel into a great opera than a great film.) But if you do that, you’re likely to lose a significant part of the pre-sold audience of loyal fans whose existence is the main reason why popular books get filmed in the first place. As far as they’re concerned, the more literal the adaptation, the better—and I, hardened aesthete though I am, can't keep myself from feeling the same way. As Dr. Johnson might have put it, I rejoice to concur with the common reader, even though I know I shouldn't.

    Hence I’m of two minds about Master and Commander. I'm well aware that it won’t convey more than a fractional part of the subtleties of O’Brian’s novels, but I’m going to see it anyway, checklist in hand, hoping against hope that the images on the screen will at least approximate the ones in my head. And that’s why I envy OGIC her blissful ignorance. Unlike me, she’ll see the film for what it is and nothing more—and if she likes it enough, she might even feel moved to buy a copy of Master and Commander, the first novel in the series, and find out what Patrick O’Brian is really about. (Nudge, nudge.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, November 15, 2003 | Permanent link
Friday, November 14, 2003
    TT: On a screen, darkly

    Our old friend Bruce Bawer e-mailed us from Europe this morning, weighing in on the great e-book-vs.-printed-book debate, about which you can read more by going here and here:

    Not to get too lofty about this, but this argument about physical books vs e-books is sort of a variation on the conflict between Hebrew and Greek notions of body and soul. Is the body an essential aspect of human identity or just a container for a soul? For most purposes, reading things on a screen is fine with me. But then I think of my very favorite novel. I used to read it every nine months. Each time I opened it up again, I expected that it wouldn't have as powerful an effect on me as last time. I was always wrong. I was transported. And when I got to the end, I was always in tears. I would close the paperback and just look at it, in awe that this object in my hand contained these people who were so real to me and whose lives moved me so deeply. It seemed a religious object. Reading that novel on an e-book, I know, would be a very different experience.

    That’s beautiful, and I hesitate to disagree, however tentatively…but even so, I do wonder whether a person who grew up with e-books might not be capable of broadly similar, comparably intense feelings. Of course they would assume a different aspect, if only by virtue of the fact that (as Bruce so acutely points out) an e-book has no "body." But would they be less powerful as a result?

    I don’t know, of course. But the thought occurs to me—and I don’t know why it took so long—that some of my own feelings about the body/soul problem may well arise from the fact that music was the first art form in which I became deeply involved as an executant. Sheet music, no matter how handsome the paper and typography, is not an art object in and of itself. Rather, it’s a set of instructions by which humans of flesh and blood may call into evanescent existence the non-corporeal "art object" that is a "piece" of music. Could it be that my early experience as a musician now conditions the way I think about all art? I’m sure, for example, that it made me more open to abstract art and plotless ballet (for what art is so abstract as music?). Perhaps it has also made it easier for me to accept the idea of the "bodiless" book.

    On the other hand, here’s a thought experiment: try to imagine a ballet like George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments "performed" on a computer screen by a "company" of articulated stick figures. All the movements, which are the essence of the dance, would be visible—but the viewer would experience them as a three-dimensional geometrical theorem, not an interaction between…well, souls. So long as we are on this earth, there can be no souls without bodies. That’s one of the reasons why I love ballet (it’s the "word" made as flesh), and why synthesizers will never replace live orchestras.

    And will any of this stop the e-book from replacing the printed book? Don't count on it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 14, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Good news, bad news

    I reviewed Taboo, the new Rosie O’Donnell-produced musical about Boy George, and The Caretaker, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

    Taboo was terrible:

    Rumors about the mind-boggling awfulness of "Taboo," which opened last night, have been circulating for weeks. I wish I could say I ignored them, but such whispers often turn out to be all too true, and once again, the whisperers were right on the money. Not since "Urban Cowboy" has Broadway been littered with so much smoldering wreckage. If Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom had produced "Taboo" instead of "Springtime for Hitler," they’d have stayed out of jail….

    The Caretaker was really good:

    Don’t be put off by Mr. Pinter’s reputation for inaccessibility (or the whiny anti-Americanism of his post-9/11 public statements). His school-of-Beckett style may have hardened into mannerism long ago, but "The Caretaker" is still fresh and fine, and this production, well acted by all three players and directed with deceptive clarity by David Jones, is a superior piece of work….

    No link (gnashing of teeth), so to read the whole thing, including shorter reviews of two new off-Broadway shows, Fame on 42nd Street and Bright Ideas, do the usual. Extract dollar (A) from wallet (B), proceed to the nearest newsstand, buy today’s Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section (on whose front page you’ll find me), and revel in the rest of our excellent arts coverage. Got that? Good.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 14, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: An eye for the ladies

    I’ll have much more to say about "Sargent’s Women" after I see it again, but in the meantime I urge you to go straight to this eye-popping exhibition of portaits by John Singer Sargent, which just went up at Adelson Galleries (Mark Hotel, 25 E. 77th St., through Dec. 23).

    Aside from being gorgeous to behold, "Sargent’s Women" sheds light on the inner life of an artist who is widely thought not to have had one. Next to nothing is known of Sargent’s romantic entanglements (if any), and as a result contemporary opinion seems to be divided between those who think him to have been asexual and those certain that he was homosexual. Be all that as it may, you can’t spend ten minutes walking through "Sargent’s Women" without feeling the fascination that women exerted on him—not just the darkly exotic ladies of Capri, but his own sisters as well.

    For reasons all too obvious, at least to me, Sargent continues to be dismissed by many critics as a lightweight virtuoso who specialized in portraits of the haut monde at the expense of serious work. He was, in fact, an extraordinarily gifted painter who did far more than merely capture the pretty-pretty surfaces of his well-heeled subjects, and even if he hadn’t devoted at least as much time and energy to the watercolor landscapes that may well prove in the end to have been his supreme achievement, Sargent’s portraits would still require no apologies. Take a look at "Rosina" and "Head of a Venetian Women" (both of which can be seen on the gallery’s Web site). The artist who painted those canvases may not have been a ladies’ man, but he definitely knew a thing or two about women, and I doubt he learned it just by looking at them.

    I want to say a quick word about Adelson Galleries, whose two floors are an eminently civilized place to look at turn-of-the-century American art, about which Warren Adelson knows as much as anybody in the world. He has a knack for putting together museum-quality shows, and "Sargent's Women," like "Maurice Prendergast: Painter of America" before it, definitely qualifies. Between this show and "Joseph Cornell: The 100th Birthday," currently on display at Richard L. Feigen, I'd say it's time you took a trip to the Upper East Side. Why not make it tomorrow afternoon? Or today, for that matter?

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, November 14, 2003 | Permanent link
Thursday, November 13, 2003
    OGIC: A quick one while I procrastinate

    I'm so full of breathless anticipation for Master and Commander, I keep forgetting I haven't actually read any Patrick O' Brian novels. It just feels like I have, since they're so boundlessly adored by people like ODID*, OEIT**, and, of course, OTAY***.

    Normally on the eve of the opening of such a movie event, I would be starting to dread the arrival of the reviews. I'm far too much a slave to bad reviews, and I hate it when I let a little faint praise burst my bubble before there's even a chance to go see for myself. I'm sure I've cheated myself out of a lot of enjoyable movies, if not great ones, this way. Also, there is something to be said for being disappointed first-hand. And I always wonder what sort of meaningful relation there is between my experience of a movie in the pursuit of pleasure, and the experience of someone who is at work when they're at the movies. Remember why Pauline Kael retired? She said she just couldn't watch all those movies anymore; she was sick of them, or at least the vast mediocre portion of them. If that's what years of reviewing can do to someone so susceptible to movie love—well, I'm not so sure I should be giving quite so much credence to people undergoing the same week-in, week-out cinematic force feeding that pounded the pleasure out of moviegoing for Kael.

    Not to question the whole critical enterprise, or anything. I wouldn't want to talk myself right out of an arts blogging gig! I just hope that in the future (starting tomorrow) I will not let myself be swayed too easily by a cranky critic or two. It's beyond my power to not read the reviews, but I hereby resolve to stand up to them. (It's a bit easier to talk a good game when the trusted Cinetrix has already weighed in positively on the O'Brian. Hooray for sneak previews in Boston that allow her to get the jump on the papers!)

    *Our Dad in Detroit
    **Our Ex in Texas
    ***Our Terry and Yours

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Speaking of Prince Thingummy

    Apropos of absolutely nothing, you know what I’d most like to see on Broadway right now? Or off Broadway, for that matter? A really good revival of What the Butler Saw, directed by John Rando or Moisés Kaufman. (I’d settle for Present Laughter, though.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Smile machine

    I haven’t done this for ages, so I should. Go here, scroll down to "Dinah," and click on the song title. If your computer is equipped with a RealAudio player, you will then be treated to three minutes’ worth of pure pleasure, courtesy of Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

    Which reminds me: I met a dog named Django the other day. Kinda yappy, but also kinda sweet. He belongs to yet another great jazz guitarist, about whom more next week….

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'I wonder if women brought their knitting when Oscar Wilde talked,' said Piers.

    "'I daresay not,' said Sybil calmly, 'but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have liked to.'"

    Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: She's alive!

    Our Girl checked in, finally. No, she didn't expire from an overdose of bad hockey logos, she's just temporarily overpressed with for-profit activity. (We do not blog to live, we live to blog.)

    I'll hold the fort while OGIC clears her desk, and in the meantime, she sends her love to you all....

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: En route

    A reader from Missouri writes, apropos of yesterday’s letter from the owner of a hand-held e-book reader:

    As a literature teacher in a tech-savvy junior high, I wanted to weigh in on the hand-held electronic book issue.

    In my literature classes we often discuss the aesthetics of reading a book. Many of my 14- and 15-year-old students are voracious readers who are willing to tackle classics as well as contemporary and young-adult authors. We've actually discoursed on the implications of reading a book via the web or electronically versus holding the actual book and flipping the page. Many have commented that they enjoy turning the page of a thriller, or that they sometimes linger over a page when something particularly sad or shocking has happened. I must admit that there are times when I will hold that page between two fingers and dread turning it because I know the character I'm so fond of dies there.

    That being said, I'm all for a hand-held electronic revolution if it will influence more of my students to actually read. While the introduction of the net, the web, and the dot-com world was originally touted as the demise of reading, it has actually become an impetus for improving reading skills and arousing interest in reading among my students. I can't count the number of times we've read a short story and students have gone home to research, on their own, an issue that was brought up by the study of the story. Imagine a world where all of my students didn't have to carry 10-pound literature anthologies and could whip out their e-book without worrying about fumbling to the right page. As well, the e-books would allow them to take notes as they read and to store them for future reference. Today, we have a "Thou Shalt Not Write in the Book" policy. E-books would end that policy and would allow the students to download their notes and comments later. I think many of my students would read more because they would feel less like they have to "read a book" and more like they’re reading a screen. There’s a difference, you know.

    Another vivid front-line dispatch, worth a close reading if you’re wondering what the future holds in store. And once again, I was struck by a small detail—what you might call "nostalgia for the page." I know exactly what my correspondent means when he talks about not wanting to turn a page.

    On the other hand, I’m sure that the readers and writers of the future will be conditioned by their experience with computers to respond to the "printed" word in similar ways, only in terms relevant to their new technological environment. No, I don’t find type on a screen to be sensuously appealing, and I don’t like the visual anonymity of e-mail, which comes in a very narrow range of typefaces—but, then, the same thing was true of typewriters, wasn’t it? Nobody in his right mind would type a love letter, but lots of people send love letters via e-mail (usually peppered with emoticons). A couple of years ago, I sent a friend a condolence e-mail, and she was surprised to hear from me via that channel. I doubt she’d be nearly as surprised today.

    I don’t believe in what intellectual historians call "the idea of progress," but I do accept the inevitability of change. We get used to it, and if we don’t, our children will—which doesn’t mean it’s always good, needless to say. As so often, Dostoevsky spoke the last word on this subject: "Man gets used to everything—the beast!"

    UPDATE: Brandywine Books is skeptical about my e-book-related speculations: "The weight of the pages, the smell of glue and paper, the look of the printed text, new or fading, these amount to a book’s atmosphere. You can cuddle up with it. You can sink back with it." Not so the e-book, he claims. (Read the whole thing here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Not in tandem

    Artsjournal.com blogger Greg Sandow and I looked at the same story and drew very different conclusions. We both took note of a Boston Globe editorial occasioned by Joan Kroc’s $200 million bequest to National Public Radio. Here’s what the Globe said NPR should do (among other things) with the money:

    Bring back music and culture programming. NPR's news reports are thoughtful and compelling. Its talk shows are topical and a nice way to bring listeners into conversations. And "Car Talk" is great entertainment. But occasionally all this talk is wearying. Balance could be provided by music shows and radio documentaries.

    Here’s what I said in response:

    If National Public Radio doesn’t seize this opportunity to restore and revive the cultural programming that once made it genuinely "public" in its appeal, it will prove beyond doubt that it’s no longer a "public" radio network, but the purely commercial, ratings-driven talk-radio shop that many listeners reasonably suspect it of having become—and I don’t see that such an enterprise deserves to be subsidized by public monies. A radio network that does nothing more than follow the ratings should be required to live and die by them.

    And here’s what Greg said:

    But as anyone who's actually studied this subject knows, public radio listeners overwhelmingly don't want music. They want talk. The Globe's editors are free to have their own desires, but it's just silly for them to lecture public radio, as if their own opinion had to be right. At least they should learn why public radio makes the choices that it does.

    Greg’s a smart guy. Are our views therefore somehow compatible? Not really—but I’m not so sure we’re talking about the same thing, either.

    Greg is writing about NPR from a cultural populist’s point of view. Recognizing that the network’s ratings for music programs have become microscopically small in recent years, he thinks NPR should acknowledge and accept that fact and go from there. If NPR’s listeners want talk, they should have it, and that’s that.

    The difference between us—as I understand it, and I may be misinterpreting Greg—is that I don’t start from the assumption that National Public Radio has an a priori obligation to exist, and thus should ensure its survival by any means necessary, even if that means scrapping musical and other cultural programming in favor of Car Talk. NPR is not a profit-making corporation. It is, or claims to be, a "public" entity, and it is subsidized in part by public monies and in-kind equivalents. Public entities exist to serve the public—but not in the same way as commercial corporations. The whole point of subsidizing a radio network is to ensure that it will do things that commercial broadcasters won’t do. In fact, there’s no other point to NPR.

    Sir John Reith, the man who for all intents and purposes started the BBC, used to say that its job was to give the public "something a bit better than what it thinks it wants." (I’m quoting from memory, but that’s fairly close to what he said.) In the case of the BBC—and, once upon a not-so-distant time, NPR and PBS—that meant a significant presence for the fine arts. Now it doesn’t. But in the absence of such programming, how can NPR and PBS justify their public subsidies? I like Car Talk, but in what possible way can it be said to constitute a kind of programming not otherwise available through non-subsidized broadcast outlets?

    Here’s where I agree with Greg: if NPR’s listeners won’t listen to the cultural programs it does broadcast, then NPR should change those programs, or create new and better ones. Nor do I think that public radio stations need necessarily broadcast hour upon hour of talk-free music. (I don’t listen to classical music on the radio. That’s why I have a stereo and a large collection of CDs.) But I take it absolutely for granted that a significant part of NPR’s air time—maybe even most of it—should be devoted to cultural programming. Specifically, I think NPR has a far greater responsibility to cover the arts than to cover the news. Other people do that, and do it well. Between them, Big Media and the new media provide 24/7 news coverage in every imaginable flavor. In what way does NPR's news department do something that isn’t already being done?

    Let me be clear about this. I don’t object to the existence of All Things Considered, or even Car Talk, so long as these shows are part of a larger, more varied package of programming that makes a concerted effort to do things the commercial media can’t or won’t do. If nobody listens to fine-arts programs, then of course there’s no point in broadcasting them. But that’s a false alternative, a straw man constructed by NPR to justify the gutting of its cultural programming. Do them creatively, do them imaginatively, do them with an ear toward appealing to more than a handful of listeners—but do them. Sure, some of those shows, maybe most of them, will draw far fewer listeners than All Things Considered and Car Talk. Repeat after me: That’s the point. Such programming is the only thing that justifies the continued existence of NPR as a subsidized public entity.

    UPDATE: Felix Salmon thinks I’m all wet. I think he’s being a little bit too cute—way too cute, actually—in claiming that my criticism of NPR has a hidden ideological agenda. Considering that I’ve done a few gazillion on-air commentaries for NPR’s Performance Today (and would be doing another one tomorrow if my schedule permitted), I think perhaps my motives are rather purer than Felix thinks. But he’s a smart guy, too, so you ought to go see what he says and make up your own mind….

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: A little slow on the uptake

    It just hit me that I’d promised to write about the program danced by the Mark Morris Dance Group last weekend at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Instead, I ended up writing—and writing and writing—about the center itself, and the program slipped through the cracks in my head. Since then, I’ve been preoccupied with such urgent matters as the press preview of Taboo, and thus haven’t been posting as much as I’d like. This is to remind myself (and you) that I really am going to blog about Mark’s new dance, not to mention various other stuff. More to come, shortly.

    About Our Girl I have no information as of this moment, though I think she’s been preoccupied with life-related activities. For the past few days we’ve been meeting almost exclusively in cyberspace! Are you there, OGIC? Come in, Chicago….

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, November 13, 2003 | Permanent link
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
    TT: Turning the page

    A reader writes, apropos of my recent suggestion (made in passing) that "the printed book [will give] way...to the hand-held electronic book-reading device":

    I have a Handspring Treo 90 handheld, and I use it in about equal measure for tweaking manuscripts in progress and for reading books in various electronic formats. With a little memory chip plugged in, it's got 128 Mb of capacity, which holds, well, a LOT of nearly-purely-text books. Literally hundreds of them, particularly since some of the "books" are short stories and essays rather than novels or non-fiction volumes.

    This is absolutely wonderful for taking with me when I leave the house. I've got all my lists of, for instance, books and music people like you recommend that I want to look into, and my notes about which volumes I have in series I want to complete, and the clothing sizes and color tastes of people I buy gifts for. And I've got all these great books: lightweight entertainment, scholarly works, references, public-domain classics, a bit of this and that. The handheld goes in a pocket, is rugged, and runs many, many hours on a battery charge. I can pull it out and read a few pages while waiting for the bus, while waiting in checkout lines, while in the bathroom, and so on. On nice spring and autumn days, I sometimes take the handheld and my iPod and go out for a walk to the local park, where I can kick back with good music and good reading and very little to keep track of.

    Some e-book formats, like those from iSilo, Palm Digital Media, and MobiPocket, allow for extensive annotation and bookmarking, all done with electronic attachments to the file for a book that leave the original undisturbed. This can be really handy when doing reference-intensive research on volumes that I wouldn't want to mark up physical copies of, and I can compactly save all my notes for later reference without clutter.

    I regard this not as competition for my printed books but as an additional alternative. No e-book format I'm aware of could do justice to something like Full Moon, the glorious collection of Apollo mission photographs of the Moon, or a good museum exhibit catalog, or for that matter natural history books like Walking With Dinosaurs and the Time-Life series. Whenever photographs and diagrams matter, print is the way to go. E-books operate effectively only in the realm of text. Nor do e-books offer a replacement for the satisfactions of a well-made old book, or a classy contemporary edition. For that matter, it's hard to autograph an e-book, unless it has Palm Digital Media's provision for that.

    So: e-books are handy when I'm concerned only with text, when I want to take a lot of text in a very compact way, and when I want to mark up heavily. The upshot for me of having a growing library of e-books is that I can take better care of my printed volumes and focus a bit more on buying print with an eye toward quality, since I've got this option for uses where aesthetics matter less.

    One reader's views, anyway.

    This is the most vivid account I’ve ever seen of the experience of using a hand-held e-book reader. The thing about it that I find most provocative, however, is my correspondent’s suggestion that e-books will not replace "the satisfactions of a well-made old book, or a classy contemporary edition."

    I’ve never collected books qua books, precisely because I feared acquiring an expensive addiction, but I do love a handsome volume, and I’ve always been fussy about the design of my own books. (I’m really excited about A Terry Teachout Reader, by the way—Yale has done a fantastic job on it, inside and out.)

    At the same time, I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t be perfectly content to ditch the text-only books in my library and replace them with e-books. Naturally we’re not talking about art books, and I imagine I’d also want to hang on to my uniform edition of Henry James…but maybe not. As I said in the posting to which my reader is referring, I’m interested in essences, not their embodiments, and even though I’m a hopeless typeface junkie, there’s never been any doubt in my mind that it’s the words that matter. (Besides, it’s my understanding that you can read an e-book in any typeface you want, so long as it’s loaded onto the reader. Think of the unlimited possibilities for aesthetic tinkering!)

    Perhaps the bottom line is that I’m open, at least in theory, to the possibility of abandoning the book-as-art-object, just as I’ve already taken the first step toward abandoning the album-as-art-object. Other people may not be so open to either possibility. I have a number of over-50 friends who say they don’t read "About Last Night" because they "can’t" read text on a screen—which means, of course, that they find it inconvenient. Not me. I don’t read books on my iBook, but I do read virtually all magazine and newspaper articles that way, as well as the blogs that now occupy a fast-growing part of my reading time. It would never occur to me to print out an article (or a blog entry) and read it in the bathtub. Bathtubs are for biographies.

    Which reminds me of the informal industry-wide test of the viability of e-book readers: when somebody makes a reader that you can hold in one hand easily and drop in the tub without incident, the major publishers will start getting interested. I think that’s just about right—and I think they're bound to get interested sooner or later, probably sooner, the same way the record companies have finally figured out that on-line music is here to stay.

    Yes, the printed book is a beautiful object, "elegant" in both the aesthetic and mathematical senses, and its invention was a pivotal moment in the history of Western culture. But it is also a technology—a means, not an end.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 12, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Thanks, I needed that

    Dear OGIC:

    Yes, that's a still from Next Stop Wonderland, the film that taught me to love Hope Davis (not that I needed more than about 10 seconds' worth of persuading). As my beloved Brazilian friends have since taught me, she is the very essence of saudade.

    (For the musical equivalent of same, click here and purchase the most beautiful CD imaginable. If Hope Davis could sing, this is how she'd sound.)

    And what is this...er, horse hockey about my not liking ice hockey? Art it ain't, but way cool all the same. Besides, you promised to take me to a game, remember?

    I'd spank you for your impertinence, but I'm too busy laughing at those awful logos. Besides, I just this second woke up, and must now turn instantly to the task of reviewing four different shows for this Friday's Journal. In reverse chronological order of my having seen them, they are: Taboo, the Boy George-Rosie O'Donnell spectacular (which I saw last night), Bright Ideas, Fame on 42nd Street, and the revival of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. All in one column, yikes. It's like the straight line of a bad Broadway joke: what do Taboo and The Caretaker have in common. I dunno, what do Taboo and The Caretaker have in common? (Insert punch line here.) Rimshot. Isolated titters.

    I'll be done circa noon, unless my head explodes, at which time I'll turn to the task of blogging in earnest. See you then.

    P.S. No show tonight! I may hang with a musician friend who claims never to have seen High Fidelity or Casablanca. That can be fixed....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 12, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Off-topic

    This is stretching the definition of "arts" pretty damn thin, but it polled well with the test audience. And so here, without further ado…hey, Terry, look over there!…are the worst hockey logos ever (thanks to Hockey Pundits for the link).

    Terry likes Hope a lot, hockey not so much. Alas.

    I think that picture of her is from Next Stop Wonderland, where she gives a delightfully hard performance. Sharp as some very sharp tacks. Those jokers who answer the ad don't even know what hits 'em.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, November 12, 2003 | Permanent link
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
    OGIC: Blogospheric conditions damp, salty

    Responding to Old Hag's open call for tearjerkers (and what won't the blogosphere do for the Old Hag, really?), Sarah Weinman brings up an old favorite, Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and gives an eloquent precis. I lent my copy of this book to a student years ago and haven't seen it since—Sarah's description explains why this says less about my student than about the book.

    These words of Smart's are scribbled into one of my journals, but I don't know where they come from. My friend Elaine, who was the first to bring it, and Smart (and so much else) to my attention, may know:

    What I'm making is a real place for language in my life since I must put up with it anyway. I want to be respected by those who are dead. I want to sing and make my soul occur.

    And here's one from By Grand Central Station:

    He kissed my forehead driving along the coast in evening, and now, wherever I go, like the sword of Damocles, that greater never-to-be-given kiss hangs above my doomed head. He took my hand between the two shabby front seats of the Ford, and it was dark, and I was looking the other way, but now that hand casts everywhere an octopus shadow from which I can never escape. The tremendous gentleness of that moment smothers me under; all through the night it is centaurs hoofed and galloping over my heart: the poison has got into my blood. I stand on the edge of the cliff, but the future is already done.

    And this one, which I like because, in a hothouse of a book, it is so overrun with vegetation. And so lyrical:

    I love, love, love—, but he is also all things: the night, the resilient mornings, the tall poinsettias and hydrangeas, the lemon trees, the residential palms, the fruit and vegetables in gorgeous rows, the birds in the pepper-trees, the sun on the swimming pool.

    You can still get a used copy of Rosemary Sullivan's fine but now out-of-print biography of Smart. Weep away, kids. And Sarah, thanks for thinking of this.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 11, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: The periodic table of the bloggers

    Don’t ask questions, just go here. Now.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 11, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: As others see us

    Apropos of my recent posting on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, I got this e-mail from Peggy McGlone, the arts news reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger:

    NJPAC has brought millions of people to the city since it opened, and while it may not have changed the streetscape as much as some would like, it has changed people's perceptions about Newark. And that's no little feat.

    The point you made about the small percentage of Manhattanites attending events at NJPAC speaks more to the parochial mindset of Manhattanites than it does to NJPAC's marketing muscle. New Yorkers are lazy cultural snobs—mostly because they can be. They have an abundance of wonderful art down the street or across town...so they don't have to get out and explore. I, on the other hand, regularly drive 75 miles from my Morris County home to see a play in Princeton or a concert or play in New Brunswick, etc. I agree that the Newark renaissance is slow—if it exists at all. That part of town, with the colleges and museums, should be far livelier than it is. But I also know the five-block walk from Penn station to the arts center, while depressing, is no worse than the stretch of 41st street from Port Authority to the NY Public Library.

    I think the central theory of arts-going in NY is "If it's not at Carnegie, it can't be good," followed by the corollary: "And if it is good, it will be at Carnegie soon." What can NJPAC or any of the many other arts organizations located in northern Jersey (the city's sixth boro) do about that?

    What struck me most forcibly about Ms. McGlone’s smart and funny note was her pointed comparison between the walk from Newark Penn Station to NJPAC and the walk from Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to…any place at all, to tell the truth. That is a grubby part of town—though the difference, of course, is that the Disney-driven rehabilitation of Times Square has been a tremendous success, at least in the limited sense of cleaning up much of the neighborhood surrounding the Port Authority and making it safer and livelier. (And come to think of it, what’s so limited about that? I’d rather live in a Disneyfied neighborhood than do daily battle with hookers and pimps, if those are my only alternatives.) Newark, on the other hand, appears as yet to have derived no significant urban-renewal benefits from NJPAC, and since that was one of the major selling points in the drive to get the center built, the failure is all the more relevant.

    I speak, by the way, as someone who recently had a modest stake in the future of Newark. I taught arts criticism for two years at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, and enjoyed it enormously. The students, most of whom came from New Jersey, were hard-working, determined, and fun (one of them wrote this), and not a one of them had been fitted out with silver spoon (A) in mouth (B). If they’re the future of Newark, there’s hope for the city.

    As for the unwillingness of Manhattanites to boldly go to NJPAC, I’m not so sure it can be explained by our "parochial mindset" (though I’m not denying that such a thing exists!). We do, after all, go to Brooklyn’s BAM Opera House in fairly large numbers. One difference—perhaps the biggest one—is that BAM consciously markets itself as a presenter of "cutting-edge" arts events, whereas NJPAC is targeting a frankly suburban audience, albeit more multicultural than that pale label might suggest. This is why we don’t perceive upper New Jersey as the "sixth borough," any more than we seek out cultural experiences in Staten Island. Sure, I’ve seen some cool things at NJPAC, but it’s not on my radar in the way that BAM is, and judging from its 2003-04 offerings, I wonder whether it needs to be.

    Besides, most cool things really do make their way to Manhattan sooner or later. That's why we live here (I sure as hell can't think of any other good reasons). Not all, though—our performance spaces are slowly pricing themselves out of the dance market, for example, and I find myself going more and more often to Washington, D.C., to see companies that are bypassing New York because it costs too much to dance here. If NJPAC were to book those companies more than sporadically, I’d go see them regularly, and I wouldn’t be alone.

    But, then, should NJPAC try to attract Manhattanites? Would it really be worth the trouble? That’s a different question, one that goes directly to the heart of the center’s mission, and one I can’t answer. All I know is that since NJPAC opened, I’ve seen fewer than half a dozen performances there, and given the incredibly high quality of the facility, that’s a puzzlement. I wish I felt the need to go there more often—but I don’t.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 11, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Testing, 1, 2, 3...

    You’ve no doubt read about Joan Kroc’s $200 million bequest to National Public Radio. Courtesy of artsjournal.com, our invaluable host, this Boston Globe editorial suggesting what NPR should do with the money, including the following suggestion:

    Bring back music and culture programming. NPR's news reports are thoughtful and compelling. Its talk shows are topical and a nice way to bring listeners into conversations. And "Car Talk" is great entertainment. But occasionally all this talk is wearying. Balance could be provided by music shows and radio documentaries.

    What's going on outside the often overwhelmingly adolescent world of popular music? Who are the up-and-comers in jazz and classical music? NPR should take more time and programming space to offer answers. And whether radio documentaries are made in-house or by independent producers, documentaries transport listeners around the country and the world or back into history. And their fascinating use of sound gives the mind's eye creative work to do.

    Read the whole thing here. It speaks for itself (albeit stodgily and obviously, as you'd expect from the editorial page of the Globe), but I want to make one additional point. If National Public Radio doesn’t seize this opportunity to restore and revive the cultural programming that once made it genuinely "public" in its appeal, it will prove beyond doubt that it’s no longer a "public" radio network, but the purely commercial, ratings-driven talk-radio shop that many listeners reasonably suspect it of having become—and I don’t see that such an enterprise deserves to be subsidized by public monies. A radio network that does nothing more than follow the ratings should be required to live and die by them.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, November 11, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Things to do in Chi-town

    If you are here in Chicago, and less beset by pesky deadlines than I am, you should definitely head up north to Evanston to see Chris Marker's haunting short film La Jetée Wednesday night. It's part of a double feature with Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I don't care if you see that. But La Jetée is too seldom shown, and it's a shame to miss any opportunity to see it. Michael Blowhard talked Marker up here recently, and gave some additional links. As he notes, La Jetée was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys, though you needn't like one to like the other; they're thoroughly different pieces of work.

    The Block Museum at Northwestern University, which is showing the film, has other good stuff on their schedule too, like Jules and Jim a week from Thursday. One series, "Professor's Pick," consists of films chosen by Northwestern faculty members, who introduce the screenings.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, November 11, 2003 | Permanent link
Monday, November 10, 2003
    TT: Sign from the Times

    Here’s John Rockwell, writing about New York City Opera in yesterday’s New York Times:

    The City Opera has been aggressively lobbying to be named the flagship institution in the new cultural presence at ground zero. To its evident surprise, it has encountered resistance. As of this writing, no decision has been announced, but the downtown powers seem to want a greater diversity of artistic expression….

    American culture has changed radically in the last 65 years. It is that change, rather than the virtues or failings of City Opera in its current condition, that is causing it problems downtown….

    By now, for all the lip service still paid to high culture and for all the genuine passion and pleasure that millions still derive from it, the revolution is complete. The current issue of Vanity Fair, for instance, has a foldout cover of celebrity photographs by Annie Leibovitz trumpeting "American Music" without one classical musician in the group. American music in the minds of most Americans today is popular music. We're a democracy, and the majority votes for what is most popular. Opera ain't it.

    To some extent, opera's current marginality is its own fault, in failing to sustain the blend of creativity and popularity that distinguished the operatic past. And to some extent, one might wish for a little more responsibility on the part of our politicians.

    But the fact remains that the new art that excites people these days is likely to come in the form of film or literature or popular music or visual installations, not from an art like opera, whose best days seem well behind it. If an artist today is to celebrate the common man or lament Sept. 11 effectively, it will most likely be – it has already been - Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. When it comes to art forms based on a blend of song and instrumental accompaniment, Mr. Springsteen's album "The Rising" has touched more people, and is better art besides, than a high-minded classical score like John Adams's "On the Transmigration of Souls."

    Maybe City Opera will wind up at ground zero after all, sharing the space with other arts institutions. Perhaps that would be good for all concerned….But no one, least of all those who run City Opera, should be shocked at resistance. We live, for better (say I) or worse, in a multicultural society in which a European-based consensus as to what constitutes "good music" is long gone. Few corporations and politicians feel obligated to improve the populace with high art anymore. The best that beleaguered partisans of opera can hope for is that they won't be ignored altogether.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Much of what Rockwell says is unexceptionable, at least in the narrow sense that it accurately describes American culture today…but oh, my, those planted axioms! Note, for instance, that his only musical alternatives are Bruce Springsteen or John Adams, as if classical music in the post-postmodern era had nothing better to offer than the sooooo-Eighties banalities of Official Minimalism. Note, too, how embarrassing it is to watch an aging baby boomer try to get down. I mean, really—Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, exemplars of edgy pop culture? What decade is it, Muffy? It’s almost as bad as watching presidential candidates do the yes-I-inhaled pander at a Rock the Vote "debate."

    All teasing aside, I think John Rockwell is a smart man. But what I miss in his analysis of the current situation is a more exact sense of the changing role played by Big Media in the erosion of the fine arts in America today. Yes, ours is a popular culture, and always was, even at the height of the middlebrow moment. But the difference between then and now is that the mass media once believed they had the power—and responsibility—to lead our democratic culture. Now they acknowledge no responsibility whatsoever. Instead, they merely seek to shore up their shrinking ratings and market shares by any means necessary, which means slavishly following the cultural election returns. Forget Vanity Fair (which in any case isn’t exactly an agenda-setting organ these days, is it?). Consider instead the cultural abdication of PBS and NPR, our allegedly "public" radio and TV networks, which are walking away from the fine arts as briskly as possible, making no bones about it as they head for the exit.

    So what do we do now? We blog. For as I’ve said in this space in contexts too varied and occasions too numerous to link, it’s the blogosphere that offers the most potentially powerful alternative to the cultural auto-lobotomizing of Big Media. I no longer feel like bitching about That Which Is. I’m more interested in shaping That Which Will Be—and that means above all helping to create and encourage a richly varied, fully interconnected on-line presence for the arts. As far as I’m concerned, the future of arts journalism is here, and on the other arts blogs listed and linked in "Sites to See." We’re not big, but we’re growing. We don’t convene focus groups in order to decide what to write about. And we're here to stay.

    UPDATE: For an interesting response from Tyler Green (who blogs at Modern Art Notes), go here. "Longer, more thoughtful, bigger-picture writing doesn't work so well on the web (unless you're writing about Cecily Brown and sex)," Green argues. "This, presumably, is why Slate focuses on small ideas and why publications such as Harper's, The New Yorker and The Atlantic focus on big ideas." Yes, no, maybe….

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Somebody else's bag

    "In the Bag" has been temporarily suspended due to excessive life-related activity, but Household Opera is playing a similar game today. If the storm troopers came marching into your town, which books would you stuff in your backpack? It’s a nice, practical game, which is what makes it interesting. No less interesting is her list—Ashbery, Austen, Barthes, Bishop, Borges, Herbert, Puttenham (?!), Stevens, Woolf—which you can peruse by clicking here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Great leads of our time

    From BuzzMachine:

    I'm in the middle of watching the Jessica Lynch movie and let me state the obvious: TV movies are crap. They weren't always, but they are now. They are an utterly discredited form of media. As a form, they are scripted in neon and shot through the wrong end of a periscope. They are insultingly obvious and shallow. They are artistically inept. They are unwatchable and unwatched….

    And there's more!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: A worm's-eye view

    A reader writes, apropos of yesterday's posting on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and its effects (or lack of same) on downtown Newark:

    I've walked through downtown Newark countless times now and the more I hear about Newark's Renaissance, the less I believe it's actually happening.

    That's not to say Newark is getting worse, but I definitely haven't seen NJPAC have any significant impact on the downtown area. It is bleak. There are a ton of "historic" (really old) buildings that you can tell were once beautiful and now are empty, dilapidated and depressing. No one is buying them or refurbishing them or using them. They just sit there with their broken windows and moldy brick getting more broken and moldier. The businesses that do exist fall into two categories: 1) big business commuter offices (notice I say "commuter" and those buildings really only include Prudential, IDT, Robert Treat Hotel, Hilton, Seton Hall Law, etc) and 2) low-end multi-purpose stores (the likes of Valu-Plus, Lot Less, Pay/Half--and I didn't make up any of those names; hell, our Rite Aid even closes at 6 pm most days).

    What's really sad is that, if there were just more investors, downtown could become beautiful and happening. But that takes big money. Newark, the city itself, and its small business owners--concentrated in Portugese district of the Ferry Street area--definitely don't have the capital it will take to help Newark reach its full potential--and there's a lot of potential to be met. But I'm glad Newark has NJPAC. I like going to performances there. Honestly, though, I'm always afraid one of these days the [Newark] Star-Ledger is going to have to report that it's in danger of closing due to lack of patronage if more people don't start going. I think part of it too is advertising. I don't think I've ever seen anything beyond a brochure's calendar of events in little piles around campus. Is there any advertising in New York for NJPAC? Doubtful--once again due to money. Anyway, that's my reaction.

    This comes from a smart and observant student at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, by the way.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Nothing cute about him

    It’s always fun—and interesting—to find someone in cyberspace who shares one of your private enthusiasms. OGIC and I, for instance, are great fans of the Parker novels, a hugely diverting series of sixty-minute eggs written by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake under the pen name of "Richard Stark," but I don’t have any other friends who read them, so I wrongly take it for granted that nobody else knows about them. Hence it was a surprise to skim through the blogroll this morning and discover that Forager 23 has been holding forth on the subject of what Hollywood actor might make a convincing Parker on screen.

    I’ve never written anything extended on the subject of Stark, but I did review Payback, an awful movie of a few years back in which Mel Gibson played Parker:

    "Payback" was adapted from Donald E. Westlake's tough-minded 1962 novel "The Hunter" (published under the pen name "Richard Stark") which was also the source of John Boorman's "Point Blank," one of the most impressive crime films of the '60s. "The Hunter" was the first in a series of novels featuring Parker (he has no first name), a no-nonsense career criminal who specializes in shrewdly planned heists. Largely forgotten save by connoisseurs of crime fiction, these novels are striking for the way in which the reader is made to sympathize with Parker, a thoroughly unappetizing near-psychopath whose only virtue is his professionalism. The plot of "Payback" is drawn directly from the first part of "The Hunter"—the film's advertising slogan is "Get ready to root for the bad guy"—and so it is surprising to see how completely [director Brian] Helgeland has failed to catch the tone of the book. In "The Hunter," Parker is a truly hard man, as amoral as a loaded shotgun; in "Payback," he is a coarsely drawn caricature who has a soft spot for pit bulls and prostitutes but blows away anybody else who crosses his path.

    Mel Gibson is a very good actor, but he's all wrong as Parker, and not just because he's too handsome. Lee Marvin, who played the same part in "Point Blank," was anvil-hard, with a bass-baritone voice that sounded like large rocks falling from a great height. Not so Gibson: you keep expecting him to say something amusing. One wonders, then, what could have possessed so talented a performer to waste his time on so witless a project. No doubt money is the answer—as I write these words, "Payback" is the most popular movie in America—but given the fact that Gibson is also said to be both a devoted father and a good Catholic, one further wonders what possessed him to make a film that is morally and aesthetically odious. Money, they say, has no smell, but I can't say the same for "Payback": it stinks of the cheapest kind of cynicism.

    (No link—sorry.)

    Now over to Forager 23:

    Parker is an affectless heavy, who's always a couple of steps ahead of the law and a couple of crosses ahead of his fellow crooks. He's a professional criminal, a mechanic—not a thug, but not Raffles, either. Both my friend and I thought that Mel Gibson, who played Parker in the relatively recent film version of the first novel, Payback, was completely wrong for the part. Gibson is all bug eyes, all acting, and, quite frankly, not very scary….

    Lee Marvin is, not surprisingly, just about perfect as Parker. Now here's the problem: actors like Lee Marvin just don't seem to exist anymore. Tough guy stars are a thing of the past: no more John Waynes, Charles Bronsons, or Clint Eastwoods. What happened to the heavy?

    1). Audiences today are younger than ever, while guys like Lee Marvin and John Wayne appealed to more mature moviegoers. They often played world-weary characters who resorted to violence only reluctantly. If Rio Bravo were made today, Ricky Nelson would've gotten top billing and John Wayne would've just had a supporting role.

    2). Action movies have become more about effects than about action. You only have to go back about ten years to find stuff like Steven Seagal's Hard to Kill and Under Siege, which were genuine action movies, that is, they focused on the actions the main character had to take to get revenge/get justice/save the day, etc. For better or for worse, these movies center on Seagal. Compare this with the Vin Diesel pictures The Fast and the Furious and XXX. Diesel's role in these movies is to act as if he is ironically amused by all the spectacular effects going on around him. I think he does a pretty good job, but I never get a sense of his characters accomplishing anything—doing anything—taking action.

    So what does that leave us when we try to cast our hypothetical hard-boiled action flick? Not too much. The straightforward, low-frills action feature—the kind that Don Siegel used to make—is a thing of the past. These movies are still made, but they're either direct-to-video or from Hong Kong. Big screen action movies have been emasculated. Casting Parker has become impossible.

    I agree, reluctantly. Read the whole thing here.

    If any of this piques your interest, the latest Parker novel is Breakout, published last year. (Go here to check on the current availability of other novels in the series.) The unofficial Parker Web site is here. And Donald Westlake talks about Parker (among other things) here.

    It's a puzzlement, by the way, that Westlake, a writer who is now best known for his charming comic crime novels, should also have dreamed up so comprehensively unfunny a character as Parker, which presumably tells us something interesting about human dualism, the subject matter of all film noir and noir fiction. See today's almanac entry for further details....

    P.S. Speaking of noir, everyone’s favorite hieratical sourpuss has posted a very knowing Raymond Chandler parody. (I’m jealous—I’d kill to be able to write parodies, which I regard as the most subtle form of literary criticism.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I do not believe that there is any man, who if the whole truth were known of him, would not seem a monster of depravity; and also I believe that there are very few who have not at the same time virtue, goodness and beauty."

    W. Somerset Maugham, Don Fernando

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Hole in the heart

    As noted by Terry below, I finally got around to my second viewing of the great Lost in Translation this weekend. Although this screening was marred by Loud Talkers all around us (for instance, after a shot that emphasized Scarlett Johansson's vanishingly modest belly: "She's pregnant!"), it was still amazing. In fact, this time around it made me cry (that's for you, Lizzie). And it certified my disappointment in 21 Grams.

    21 Grams is the kind of bad movie that gets good reviews. I'm sure it will get more of them when it opens nationally later this month. Why? It is wonderful to look at; its haunting soundtrack is used with dead-on precision; it gets fantastic performances from Benicio del Toro and Naomi Watts (the film's deliberately grainy look heightens the weathered beauty of Watts's features; half its emotional effect comes from just looking at her); and for a good hour or so, it holds your curiosity at highest attention. Also, it has one stock scene—in which bad news is delivered—that is one of the most affecting of its kind I've ever seen. So the people who made this film really know what they're doing. They've got the chops. But they're playing a feeble tune.

    The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, shows every sign of being a gifted filmmaker. Here, though, his skills serve a story that is maudlin and contrived. It takes a while for this to become apparent, thanks to a radically splintered timeline that is easily more disorienting than any of its obvious models—say, Reservoir Dogs or The Limey. About halfway through, a key piece of the puzzle emerges and allows you to make out the story—and it sank my heart to see the shards fit together into something ripped straight from the Lifetime channel.

    At its best, 21 Grams trains a microscope on three characters' interlocking varieties of grief springing from a single tragedy. But it doesn't seem satisfied to evoke and explore these strong feelings. Instead, the script is led astray by a quasi-mystical, dead-end fascination with the way disparate lives can briefly intersect and change forever. The film returns to one such intersection obsessively, scrutinizing the random events that lead there more and more minutely. But despite all this trawling for meaning, it doesn't find anything more than pure accident. Its fruitless fixation comes to reek of melodrama, undercutting the movie's best feature: the astringent realism of its visual style.

    That's the hell of it. Visually, the movie is so eloquent, bracing, and always new. Narratively, it can only repeat its threadbare mantra: "look at how this chance event changed the courses of all these lives." After enough of this I couldn't help but feel it mawkish, an effect that no number of ravishing shots could reverse.

    If 21 Grams finds nothing meaningful or foreshadowing in the paths that lead to the tragedy, it does even worse with the aftermath. The chain of consequences is hard to buy. The characters' motivations grow increasingly cryptic, like the title. If you've seen the preview you know what "21 grams" signifies. It's suggestive, but in the end just a fancy synonym for death—one more element of this movie that is more bark than bite.

    Iñárritu's interest in coincidence, chance, and unforeseen connections reminds me a bit of the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, especially his Three Colors Trilogy. But I like the Kieslowski films so much more. They are less naturalistic, staging coincidences that are improbable to the point of fantasy. Yet they seem to me somehow truer, more revealing of the way the world is and the ways we inhabit it.

    One more thing: when was the last time Sean Penn played a regular guy? Because it was kind of hilarious watching him try to do it here. The effort of his restraint really shows. He plays a math professor, and the one scene that requires him to talk about math is giggle-inducing. I like Penn, but his hothead performance in Mystic River was too showy for my tastes, and here he is plainly miscast. Maybe he just hasn't found the range yet for this latest stage of his career.

    Although I was disappointed by 21 Grams, I'm not sorry I saw it. And I can't deny that it has the aura of something serious and important. Yet I deeply suspect that if you took its narrative liberties away from it (I was going to call them "innovations," but by now this kind of jumping around in time is just one more cinematic convention) and watched the film in chronological order, it would look distinctly pedestrian. Like I suggested above, I'm not convinced that very much more than window dressing distinguishes 21 Grams from the stuff running on Lifetime.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 10, 2003 | Permanent link
Sunday, November 9, 2003
    TT: Well and truly said

    I just got an e-mail from OGIC, who went to see Lost in Translation a second time (something I mean to do next weekend). Her note contained the following sentence, which I am sneakily and unilaterally sharing with you all:

    That movie is a great example of what an artist knows that the rest of us don't.

    That's Sunday night's almanac, as far as I'm concerned.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 9, 2003 | Permanent link
    TT: Among the fortresses

    I wrote about the arts for Time magazine from 1997 to 2001—mostly about music, though I also published a number of articles about dance. The experience was fun and frustrating in like proportions, for those were the years when Time was slowly winding down its century-long commitment to full-scale coverage of the fine arts. I didn’t realize it, but Time's decision to outsource its coverage of classical music and dance to a freelance writer was itself an ominous sign of things to come. It grew harder and harder for me to get pieces into the magazine, and after 9/11 it became impossible. (Watching Time walk away from the fine arts, by the way, was part of what gave me the idea to start "About Last Night.")

    Even during the good years, writing for Time could be exasperating, especially when one of my stories got bumped for lack of space, then killed outright, usually because it had gone "stale" in the preceding week. I still hold it against Bill Clinton that my 50th-birthday profile of Mikhail Baryshnikov ran only in the Latin American edition of the magazine—the U.S. edition required a couple of extra pages that week to cover the first installment of Monicagate. And even though I’m a great fan of Robert Hughes, it irked me no end that his big piece about the opening of the Guggenheim’s Bilbao branch squeezed out my own one-pager about the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

    I hung onto that piece, hoping I’d be able to do something with it someday. I just returned from a Sunday matinee at NJPAC, and it struck me on the way home that today might be a good time to revisit what I wrote about the center when it opened its doors in 1997. It appears here for the first time:

    On paper, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center looks like a sure thing. The 250,000-square-foot facility, built at a cost of $180 million, contains two handsome theaters—a 2,750-seat multi-purpose auditorium and a 514-seat "performing space"— and a full-service restaurant….Easily accessible via four major highways, NJPAC has a potential audience of 4.6 million people living within 25 miles of its front door. There's just one catch: It's in Newark.

    Thirty years ago this July, two white policemen from Newark's Fourth Precinct arrested a black cabdriver. They said he resisted arrest; he said they beat him up. The people believed the cabby, and took to the streets. Five days later, 26 people were dead, and Newark had acquired a bad name it has yet to lose. White flight was already well under way by 1967, but no sooner had the smoke of the riots cleared than the diaspora to the suburbs became multi-ethnic, and between 1967 and 1994, the city's population shrank by more than a third, from 406,000 to 259,000. You don't need a demographer to know something is still terribly wrong with Newark: All you have to do is take the five-minute walk from the train station to NJPAC, noticing along the way that none of the newer, post-riot buildings has street-level windows. The architecture of Newark is a fever chart of middle-class fear.

    Can a stiff dose of the fine arts cure the malaise that has gripped New Jersey's largest city for three decades? To stay in business, NJPAC must coax hundreds of thousands of nervous suburbanites back to downtown Newark, and every aspect of its operation has been planned with that uphill battle in mind. Architect Barton Myers has created a building in which beauty and practicality are shrewdly combined in a style less dazzling than comfortable: The brightly lit brick-and-glass facade is warm and inviting, while the main auditorium, done in cherry wood and copper, is unexpectedly intimate. "It feels like being inside a cello," says NJPAC president Lawrence P. Goldman.

    Perfect sight lines (even in the cheap seats) make Prudential Hall a near-ideal venue for ballet and modern dance, and as the cost of performing in New York continues to soar, touring troupes are taking note of the center's close proximity to midtown Manhattan, a 15-minute train ride away….

    Unlike more traditionally minded arts centers, NJPAC is making a highly sophisticated effort to attract the widest possible audience, a must in so ethnically diverse a community. "It's not enough just to put artists on the stage," says programming vice-president Stephanie Hughley. "We've got to figure out ways to facilitate conversations between people who think they're different." The center's offerings are as inclusive as a stump speech by Bill Clinton—André Watts, the Israel Philharmonic, the Peking Opera, the Chieftains, even the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. From its "African-American Culture" subscription series (which includes Jessye Norman, black concert pianist Awadagin Pratt, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and Donald Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker") to the multicolored mosaics installed in each bathroom (modeled after African kente cloth), NJPAC is seeking to send an unambiguous message of welcome to potential attendees who, as Hughley points out, "are not necessarily familiar with going to performing arts centers."

    But none of this will matter if New Jerseyans, whatever their color, prove unwilling to drive into Newark after dark. The fear factor is the great unknown hanging over the center's inaugural season, and it is readily acknowledged at NJPAC, even in the center's newspaper ads, which unashamedly tout its "safe and secure" parking. Similar ventures have revived other near-dead urban areas—most famously New York's Lincoln Center, which turned the Upper West Side from a decaying slum into Seinfeld country—but few have sought to stem so high a tide at so late a date. As a result, far more than $180 million is riding on the outcome of this risky exercise in urban renewal through the arts. In the paranoid age of the gated community, every pane of glass in the glowing facade of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center is an act of faith in the future of America's cities.

    If this piece strikes you as tentative, it’s partly because I wrote it prior to having seen any performances at NJPAC. Time originally planned to publish it the week before the hall opened, a typical piece of weekly-magazine scheduling that put the cart a couple of miles before the horse.

    In addition, I was also skeptical about the power of performing arts centers, however well planned, to serve as engines of urban renewal (the renovation and revival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example, have yet to transform BAM's surrounding community in any substantial way). And I was concerned about the potential confusion of artistic aims that occurs when such a center is viewed as a means, not an end. Few of the performing arts centers of the Sixties have come close to fulfilling their initial artistic promise. Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center are the most glaring examples, partly but by no means entirely because of their notorious architectural inadequacies.

    Having spent countless hours attending performances in both centers and others like them, I’ve come to feel that it’s almost always a mistake to try to centralize so many different kinds of urban artistic activity in one overgrown complex. Aside from everything else, it’s way too risky to rely on a single architect or architectural concept, especially in the age of what David Sucher of City Comforts calls "starchitecture," in which the function of a building is ruthlessly subordinated to the desire of its designer to make a giant splash in the larger world of art. The catch is that a building isn’t a painting or a statue. It’s a space in which people of flesh and blood must live and work. Ideally, it should be both beautiful and convenient, but if you should happen to live or work in it, the second of these is by far the greater.

    If there’s a case to be made for building single-site performing arts centers, though, it might well be in medium-sized cities that have gone dead at the core, and Newark definitely fills the bill. By all accounts, NJPAC has overcome the "fear factor" to which I referred in my Time piece. The Mark Morris Dance Group appeared this weekend in the center’s smaller auditorium (Miss Saigon was playing in Prudential Hall), and most of the people who came to see the company today were quite clearly from elsewhere. Too clearly, truth be told: the gray-headed audience was visibly older than the hip-and-happening crowd Morris’ company normally draws when it dances in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Nor did these viewers strike me as especially receptive to what Morris had to offer. Yes, I went to a Sunday matinee, but even by the standards one normally applies to matinee audiences, this one seemed unresponsive. I’ll write about the program tomorrow. In the meantime, suffice it to say that while the three dances performed by the Morris group were somewhat demanding, they were far from inaccessible.

    The theater, like the rest of NJPAC, was as warm and inviting as I remembered from 1997 (though I noticed a number of minor but irritating design problems this time around—the entrances to the smaller auditorium aren't big enough, for instance). I felt six years ago that New York City couldn’t claim a single fine-arts performing space as attractive as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. I felt the same way this afternoon. If NJPAC were in Manhattan, I’d go as often as I could.

    Be that as it may, we New Yorkers seem content to stick to our own unsatisfactory halls. Contrary to what I thought possible back in 1997, NJPAC now draws a trivially small percentage of its audience members from Manhattan and its environs. I went this afternoon because the Morris group was giving the first performance in the New York area of "All Fours," an important new dance set to Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet. You’d have thought it would attract all the serious dancegoers in the region—and you’d have been wrong. Except for the company manager and the dancers, I didn’t see a soul I knew. This was especially puzzling in light of the fact that NJPAC is so easy to reach via public transportation. It takes less time to get there from midtown than it takes to get to the BAM Opera House in Brooklyn, where the Mark Morris Dance Group normally performs when it’s appearing in the New York area.

    I’ve no idea why New Yorkers won’t go to NJPAC, but I know why I don’t especially like to go there. The five-block walk from Penn Station is perfectly safe—and perfectly depressing. I’m told that NJPAC has started to have some visible urban-renewal effects on downtown Newark, but all I saw this afternoon were the same windowless, fortress-like office buildings that lined the streets six years ago. As I walked past them today, I asked myself, as I did in 1997, How can so bleak an urban environment possibly be "renewed" by anything short of sufficient dynamite to blow it up and start all over again? It’s one thing to persuade middle-aged suburbanites to drive to NJPAC, dine in the center’s excellent restaurant, watch a performance, then drive straight home again. It’s another thing altogether to make young suburbanites want to spend part of their spare time in downtown Newark, and so far as I can tell, NJPAC isn't bringing that about.

    Of course you can’t tell much from a single afternoon-long visit. Maybe it’s too soon to expect dramatic changes. But, then, I never did expect them. The most I ever supposed was that the New Jersey Performing Arts Center might become a cultural oasis in the middle of a blasted urban heath. That's what it is, and it’s no small thing to be. It’s better to have an oasis than no water at all—but it’s better still to have a spring that feeds a river that turns an inner city green with new life.

    Lincoln Center has its crippling flaws, God knows, but it did succeed in transforming New York’s Upper West Side almost beyond recognition. As of today, I’m still skeptical that NJPAC will do much more than make it possible for suburban New Jerseyites to see Miss Saigon without having to drive all the way into Manhattan. Somehow I doubt that’s what its founders had in mind.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, November 9, 2003 | Permanent link

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