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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, January 27, 2006
    TT: Rolling over

    I just spent a pleasant hour doing some long-overdue maintenance on "Sites to See," our blogroll. Here's what I did:

    • I added a number of interesting-looking new blogs and sites (new to us, anyway) on various subjects, all of which are marked with asterisks. We'll leave them on the roll for a month or so to see whether they're full-fledged keepers or mere flashes in the pan.

    • I revisited and reconsidered the last batch of starred blogs and sites. Some made the cut, and are no longer starred. Some didn't, and are no longer there.

    • I knocked off a half-dozen other blogs that had become inactive, insufficiently active, or irrelevant to the interests of our regular readers.

    • I moved a couple of blogs to more suitable categories.

    Take a look at the new starred blogs in the right-hand column and see what you think. As always, please let us know about any other high-quality art-related blogs that you'd like us to add to "Sites to See."

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Two women on Mozart...

    “We all drew on the comfort which is given out by the major works of Mozart, which is as real and material as the warmth given up by a glass of brandy."

    Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

    “The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”

    Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: ...and one more for good measure

    "There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper."

    Camille Paglia, interview, International Herald Tribune (April 26, 1991)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Just in case you were wondering

    I kept all my promises to myself (and to you), and had a delightful day.

    Ha!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Birthday boy

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born 250 years ago today, and everybody’s writing about him. Arts & Letters Daily has a roundup of links at the top of today’s page (including a link to my own essay in last month’s issue of Commentary, which will be available for free on line through the end of January). I especially like Tim Page, who quotes the ever-quotable Ferruccio Busoni:

    He disposes of light and shadow, but his light does not pain and his darkness still shows clear outlines. Even in the most tragic situations he still has a witticism ready; in the most cheerful, he is able to draw a thoughtful furrow in his brow. He is young as a boy and wise as an old man—never old-fashioned and never modern, carried to the grave and always alive.

    If you’re in the mood to listen to something beautiful, my Commentary essay ends with a list of ten of my favorite recordings of works by Mozart in minor keys. This is the one to buy if you’re only buying one.

    UPDATE: Thanks to Modern Kicks, I found this link to a wonderful W.H. Auden poem about The Magic Flute that (horrors!) I didn’t know. It’s on PostClassic, Kyle Gann’s artsjournal.com music blog. (In addition to the complete text, Gann's posting also contains a link to an audio file of Auden reading the poem.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Minority report

    Just to keep you on your toes amid all the Mozart-related hoopla, here's the first paragraph of an essay on Haydn I wrote for Commentary:

    In 1945, Arturo Toscanini told the music critic B.H. Haggin that he preferred Haydn to Mozart. “I will tell you frankly: sometimes I find Mozart boring,” he said to his astonished interviewer. “Not G-minor [the G Minor Symphony, K. 550]: that is great tragedy; and not concerti; but other music. Is always beautiful—but is always the same.”

    I don't agree, but I do know what he meant.

    (If you’re curious, this CD contains Toscanini’s recordings of the Mozart G Minor and Haydn “Surprise” symphonies.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Mixed doubles

    In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on my recent playgoing in New Haven, Connecticut, where I saw the Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Private Lives and the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of The People Next Door:

    Is there a more perfect comedy than “Private Lives”? It’s not my favorite Noël Coward play (I prefer “Present Laughter”), but for sheer elegance of craft it can’t be beat, and it’s madly funny to boot. Written in a mere four days, it contains more of Coward’s best-known lines than any other play, from “Very flat, Norfolk” to “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs,” and it never fails to make its effect, even when performed by amateurs. I have yet to see a hopelessly bad “Private Lives,” and Long Wharf Theatre’s new production is splendid….

    Of the making of tendentious plays about 9/11 and its aftermath there is, apparently, no end. I have yet to see a watchable one, and Henry Adam’s “The People Next Door,” now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is no exception. Mr. Adam is a Brit, and like virtually all British playwrights a Man of the Left, which tells you most of what you need to know about this ostensibly black comedy about Nigel (Manu Narayan, lately of “Bombay Dreams”), a wimpy, heroin-sniffing slacker of “mixed, indeterminate race” (so says the script) who falls afoul of Phil (Christopher Innvar), a fascist-type Scotland Yard detective in search of a likely-looking pigeon to spy on the neighborhood mosque. What ensues is utterly, agonizingly predictable…

    No link, and that’s only a sample of this morning’s column. To read the rest, go to the nearest newsstand and plunk down a dollar for a copy of the Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the full text of my review, together with many other worthy art-related stories.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Words to the wise

    This just in from the Duplex Cabaret Theatre:

    We're continuing our CINEMA DUPLEX series this Monday, January 30th at 8 p.m. with a free screening of Broadway: The Golden Age. I'm thrilled to say that the film's director, Rick McKay, will drop by before we see the film to chat and answer questions.

    If you haven't seen this acclaimed and enormously important documentary, or even if you have, I urge you to come. It's an essential recollection of the history of the Great White Way, told by the people who were there. There are dozens of interviews from the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Barbara Cook, Bea Arthur, Elaine Stritch, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and the list goes on and on...

    So come—Monday, the 30th, 8 p.m. Free with a two-drink minimum. These intimate screenings in our 70-seat theatre have been such fun, and the 30th will be no exception, seeing this film with a room full of theatre fans. I can't wait to chat with Mr. McKay about putting this enormous undertaking together.

    I couldn’t agree more. Not only have I raved about the film, both here and in The Wall Street Journal, but I met Rick McKay for the first time in December and can personally vouch for his capacities as a raconteur.

    To make reservations, call 212-255-5438.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Contentment is the drug of fools. I prefer truth. And the truth is that we are animals scratching and rutting under an empty sky. Here in this theatre we can pretend that our lives have meaning. But the pretence only holds if we are given the truth. That is why I wish to see you shine on this stage, that is why, selfishly, I wish to train you. The theatre is my soothing drug, and my cynic's illness is so far advanced that my physic must be of the highest quality.”

    Stephen Jeffreys, The Libertine (courtesy of twang twang twang)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 27, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, January 26, 2006
    TT: Call me Bartleby

    Three weeks ago I resumed a more temperate version of my regular schedule. Since then I’ve seen plays in Washington, D.C., New Haven, and Chicago, from the last of which I returned two days ago. My trusty old iBook blew up and I bought a replacement. It wasn’t ready for me until yesterday afternoon, so I went downtown yesterday morning to write my Friday drama column for The Wall Street Journal on an unoccupied terminal, then picked up my new computer on the way back home and spent the afternoon breaking it in. Last night I went to a Broadway show, my first since the night before I went into the hospital. I had dinner with a friend after the show, then came home, answered my e-mail, and read a few pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop before falling asleep.

    I woke up this morning at nine-thirty, an hour later than my normal get-up-and-go time. As I descended from the loft in which I spend my nights, it struck me that I had nothing whatsoever to do today: no deadlines, no shows to see, no meals with friends, no plans of any kind. For a moment I felt myself revving up, trying to think of culture-related activities with which to fill all those empty hours. Then a new, unfamiliar reflex kicked in. Why not do nothing? I asked myself, and a smile flickered across my face.

    The New Me has one important thing in common with the Old Me, which is that we’re both having trouble getting used to the Concept of the Weekend. The problem is that while most people take Saturday and Sunday off, I don’t: I usually go to the theater, and for me that’s work, not pleasure (not necessarily pleasure, to be exact). I write my Journal columns every Tuesday and every other Wednesday, which means that my “weekends” fall some time between Tuesday afternoon and Friday evening. The habits of a lifetime tell me I ought to be working during that time, but the realities of my new life as a middle-aged drama critic with acute workaholic tendencies and a recent history of congestive heart failure demand a change of schedule. This morning—for the first time—I got the message, loud and clear.

    So what am I going to do with myself today? Well, I think I’ll start by popping a Bocaburger in the microwave and a whole-grain English muffin in the toaster and taking a Fuji apple out of the crisper. After lunch I’ll put my clothes on (yes, I'm writing these words in the unclothed state) and stroll over to the Central Park reservoir for a nice long walk. When I’m done with that, I might go to the Metropolitan Museum, which I haven’t visited since well before my illness. Or not: I might come straight home. Either way I’ll pick up my laundry on the way back to the apartment, then take a nap, followed by an early, solitary dinner at Good Enough to Eat. I might spend part of the evening pruning my CD collection or cleaning out the living-room closet. Or not: I might watch a movie on TV instead. Whatever I end up doing, though, I’ll definitely round out the evening by calling up my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., and finding out what she did all day. Then I’ll put on the new Chris Thile-Mike Marshall album, post Friday’s blog entries, check my e-mail, spend a few minutes gazing happily at the Teachout Museum, and climb back into the loft to read a bit more of Scoop before falling asleep.

    Not very exciting, is it? I mean, here I am, a compulsive aesthete in Manhattan, swimming in a sea of cultural possibilities. How dare I fritter away a whole day and night when I could be hitting the boulevards in search of illumination? But I prefer not to. Instead, I'm going to spend Thursday doing what I want to do when I want to do it, not including anything remotely resembling work. What’s more, I expect to have a perfectly lovely time. How about that?

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for lunch. See you tomorrow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 26, 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 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:
    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)
    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 July 2, 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)
    The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)

    OFF BROADWAY:
    Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
    Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Feb. 19, reviewed here)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
    The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, extended through Mar. 11)

    CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
    In the Continuum (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Saturday)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 26, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The truth is that we mediocre men cannot even imagine what it is to be a great man like Mozart and Shakespeare and thus to be free from the domination of the contemporary prejudices, beliefs, morals, artistic rules, scruples (call them what you will) with which even the most enlightened of us are—often unconsciously—obsessed."

    W.J. Turner, Mozart: The Man and His Works (courtesy of Bill Kristol)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 26, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
    TT: Free at last

    I'm computing again. Yes, I have a mess to clean up, but I expect to resume normal blogging in the next day or two.

    Whew.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "Ask him to make a film about happiness and he'd have gone fishing, or got drunk. But give him a story about more murders than anyone can keep up with, or explain, and somehow he made a paradise. Maybe he needed a cover, some way of seeming tough, cool and superior, if he was ever going to do happiness."

    David Thomson on Howard Hawks, The Big Sleep

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I am constitutionally a martyr to boredom, but never in Europe have I been so desperately and degradingly bored as I was during the next four days; they were as black and timeless as Damnation; a handful of fine ashes thrown into the eyes, a blanket over the face, a mass of soft clay knee deep. My diary reminds me of my suffering in those very words, but the emotion which prompted them seems remote. I know a woman who is always having babies; every time she resolves that that one shall be the last. But, every time, she forgets her resolution, and it is only when her labour begins that she cries to midwife and husband, 'Stop, stop; I've just remembered what it is like. I refuse to have another.' But it is then too late. So the human race goes on. Just in this way, it seems to me, the activity of our ant-hill is preserved by a merciful process of oblivion. 'Never again,' I say on the steps of the house, 'never again will I lunch with that woman.' 'Never again,' I say in the railway carriage, 'will I go and stay with those people.' And yet a week or two later the next invitation finds me eagerly accepting. 'Stop,' I cry inwardly, as I take my hostess's claw-like hand. 'Stop, stop,' I cry in my tepid bath; 'I have just remembered what it is like. I refuse to have another.' But it is too late."

    Evelyn Waugh, Remote People

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Man minus machine

    Cheerio, cheerios! (This is a pretty considerable term of endearment in my book, but you'll know you're really in good when I call you my little rice chex.) Terry wanted me to tell you he's back in New York but without benefit of a working computer, which, logistically speaking, is making meeting his deadlines highly challenging and blogging highly improbable. He hopes to be back later this week, the less late the better.

    A wonderful time was had by all during Terry's visit to Chicago. We spent Saturday and Sunday running around and taking things in before kicking back Monday and doing whatever we felt like. This amounted to very little. We ran some of my errands, watched a video, planted ourselves in the living room to read our books, went out to dinner, and read some more. This to me is the lap of luxury: sitting around with a friend reading books, making as much or as little conversation as you like because you've been friends long enough and well enough to enjoy shared silence as much as chatter. I once planned an entire vacation in Maine around this very activity, with another friend, and ended up discovering the glorious Dalziel and Pascoe in the process. This weekend was, of course, the first time I'd seen Terry since before he was sick, and it seemed especially right to spend some time simply sitting in a room together, laughing at the cat's delicate snoring and reading each other the occasional highlight from our books. Normally during these trips, we barely pause to tie our shoes.

    But the high-gear part of the weekend was excellent too. It began with a blistering, Bach-graced double-mandolin concert at Chicago's comfy, intimate Old Town School of Folk Music—where I'd see damn near anything—and included as well two utterly absorbing plays at two favorite Chicago theaters. First it was Much Ado About Nothing at Chicago Shakespeare, airy and wry with an endearingly clownish Benedick and an imperturbable Beatrice. We then traveled south to the Court Theatre, in my own backyard, for a production of August Wilson's "Fences" that served as my introduction to the play. And an auspicious meeting it was—a meticulously crafted yet rawly powerful production that's especially distinguished by electrifying performances from each and every cast member. I can't speak for Terry (he'll say his piece on both plays in an upcoming WSJ column), but here's a great American play I took my sweet time getting around to seeing, and this was a production to make me glad I waited.

    Thanks for being patient with us earlier this week. One or both of us will be back soon with more blogging. And I still owe a bunch of you email, which I promise soon.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    "I don't really like Shakespeare on the screen at all—the shot is too big for the cannon. The later plays, like Lear, are too big even for the theatre."

    Laurence Olivier, interview, London Observer (1937)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, January 24, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, January 23, 2006
    TT: Freebie

    The Wall Street Journal has posted a free link to my latest "Sightings" column (it's about the return of the e-book). To read it, go here.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Checking in from the road

    I came back from New Haven long enough to take my ailing computer to the shop, then hit the road again for Chicago. Since then Our Girl and I have been tearing around town for the past couple of days, seeing shows of various kinds—I'll let her tell you all about it the first chance she gets. I'll be back in New York some time on Tuesday, and I hope I'll be plugging back into the 'sphere fairly shortly thereafter, equipment permitting. Meanwhile, go visit some of those other cool blogs listed in "Sites to See."

    Not much later.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'I know most men go in for love affairs,' he said. 'Some of them can't help it. They can't get on at all without women, but there are plenty of others—I daresay you haven't come across them much—who don't really care about that sort of thing, but they don't know any reason why they shouldn't, so they spend half their lives going after women they don't really want. I can tell you something you probably don't know. There are men who have been great womanizers in their time and when they get to my age and don't want it any more and in fact can't do it, instead of being glad of a rest, what do they do but take all kinds of medicines to make them want to go on? I've heard fellows in my club talking about it.'"

    Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 23, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, January 21, 2005
    TT: Youth will be (dis)served

    It’s Friday, and I’m in The Wall Street Journal with a review of Harold and Maude: The Musical, plus a report on Harvey Fierstein’s debut as Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

    The former was, eh, not so hot:

    For years now, Tom Jones, whose list of credits includes the book and lyrics for “The Fantasticks,” has had his eye on “Harold and Maude,” the 1971 cult movie about a 20-year-old suicidal misfit who falls hard for a fey 80-year-old widow. When Harvey Schmidt, his longtime collaborator, declined the challenge of writing music for so quirky a project, the undaunted Mr. Jones teamed up with a younger composer, Joseph Thalken. They brought the finished product to New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where “Harold and Maude: The Musical” is running through Feb. 6, with Estelle Parsons playing the part created in the film by Ruth Gordon.

    Would that the fruits of Mr. Jones’ protracted labors were more satisfying. Alas, “Harold and Maude” doesn’t fly, in part because the redeeming peculiarities of the film, an all-you-need-is-love-love-love period piece, have been carefully watered down by Mr. Jones to accommodate easily ruffled suburban sensibilities. What’s left is a decorously brief fling between Harold and Maude that still fails to pass the eeuuww test, portrayed with a starry-eyed tweeness that made my teeth itch….

    The latter was, somewhat to my surprise, really fine, if a bit odd in spots:

    Mr. Fierstein, last seen on Broadway in “Hairspray,” isn’t an obvious candidate for the part of Tevye. Aside from not getting to wear a dress, he has to sing several demanding songs, and his voice, which sounds like a bullfrog stuck in a double bass, makes a decidedly odd impression in “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Sabbath Prayer.” (Believe it or not, he croaks some of his numbers in keys so low that the orchestra has to transpose them up to meet him in the middle.) Still, he more than makes up in comic prowess for what he lacks in vocal luster, and though he hasn’t combed all the “Hairspray” out of his intermittently flouncy mugging, Mr. Fierstein rises effortlessly—as well as believably—to “Fiddler”’s not-infrequent moments of high drama….

    No link, and there’s much, much more, including a review of a third show, Washington’s Arena Stage revival of Hallelujah, Baby! To see what you’re missing, buy a copy of today’s Journal (duh), or click here and get with the program.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 21, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisian's life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human (Look at us, Binx—my vagabond friends as good as cried out to me—we're sinning! We're succeeding! We're human after all!)."

    Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 21, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: AWOL

    Pardon me for not having done the usual this morning. I was prepping last night in order to conduct the very first interview for my Louis Armstrong biography, and today I spent six amazingly absorbing hours talking to George Avakian, who knew Armstrong from 1940 on and was his record producer in the mid-Fifties. Avakian, who was born in 1919, appears to remember everything that ever happened to him, and revels in sharing his memories with serious-minded interviewers who've done their homework. I had, and I filled up four cassettes with his detailed recollections of Armstrong, on and off the job. We're not quite done yet, but I covered a lot of ground, and I expect to start writing the first draft of the prologue some time next week.

    It isn't easy to write a biography of a man you never met, even someone like Armstrong who left behind a substantial body of correspondence and reminiscence. By the time I started writing about H.L. Mencken, who died in 1956, everyone who had known him at all well was long gone, and I had to work from written source material alone. Though Armstrong died in 1971, there aren't many people left who knew him well enough to speak with confidence about his character and personality, much less who collaborated with him closely enough to describe his working methods. Oral-history transcripts are precious, sometimes priceless, but the one thing you can't do with them is ask the interviewees your own questions. When I turned on my tape recorder this morning, I felt as if magic casements were about to open, and when I turned it off late in the afternoon, I knew they had.

    Anyway, my apologies for not posting my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, which will go up shortly, along with today's almanac entry. Now you know why, and I bet you don't blame me one bit....

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 21, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Thingamajigs we love

    Last night the ipod played Lucinda Williams's "Jackson" and the Breeders' "Drivin' on 9" practically back-to-back, which I thought was awfully clever of it. These are my two favorite songs about driving—songs while driving, really—dating back to well before I was a driver myself. Driving can be an opiate, and the narrators of both songs seem under its influence. They treat the names of their destinations like talismans, hopefully investing them with emotional significance the places haven't actually yet taken on. Musically, both songs have simple, even naďve structures, though I hasten to add that I don't really know what I'm talking about.

    But speaking of ipods, mine slips smoothly into the dock of this sleek little donut, otherwise known as the Harman JBL On Stage speaker system. It's fabulous. I found mine under a tree but you can locate one at Amazon or here, where I imagine they will let you listen to or fondle it before you plunk down your hard-earned cash. The speaker is highly portable, holds its own against the pod in terms of style, and sounds great, both to mine and more exacting ears. Doing dishes? Newly tolerable this year.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 21, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, January 20, 2005
    OGIC: In which WebCrimson defeats me

    I accidentally (or, more accurately, in wretched impatience) posted my last item twice. As soon as I saw that this had happened, our blog service provider slowed down to more or less a full stop (please note that I am the last known blogger still using a dial-up connection, although these medieval days are numbered).

    Fifteen minutes of tearing my hair out ensued, but I was at last able to delete one of the doubles. An hour later, they were both still appearing here. Now I've gone in and deleted the second copy, with no apparent effect on the appearance of this page. Presumably at some point they will both vanish; as soon as possible after that, I'll marshal as much forbearance as I can and post the errant post—precisely once.

    Long story short: I do know I appear to be repeating myself, thanks. Thanks.

    UPDATE: All fixed!

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: In which WebCrimson defeats me

    I accidentally (or, more accurately, in wretched impatience) posted my last item twice. As soon as I saw that this had happened, our blog service provider slowed down to more or less a full stop (please note that I am the last known blogger still using a dial-up connection, although these medieval days are numbered).

    Fifteen minutes of tearing my hair out ensued, but I was at last able to delete one of the doubles. An hour later, they were both still appearing here. Now I've gone in and deleted the second copy, with no apparent effect on the appearance of this page. Presumably at some point they will both vanish; as soon as possible after that, I'll marshal as much forbearance as I can and post the errant post—precisely once.

    Long story short: I do know I appear to be repeating myself, thanks. Thanks.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "One needs only to be old enough in order to be as young as one will."

    Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Reading around

    Erin O'Connor has discovered the wonder that is Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus. She gets further than I ever did in explaining what makes the novel so palpably different from other books one reads, what gives it its unmistakable aura:

    The novel cannot be read quickly and still be read well. Its nuance demands a dipping method of reading, in which the reader stops reading frequently to consider what she has just read, and in which the reader routinely disrupts her forward progress to reread a passage whose precision cannot fully be grasped at once. It's a rare and exquisite pleasure to read this way and to be rewarded for it, a reminder that nothing is ever bland, and that the closer one attends to the details of life, the more there is to see, to know, and to feel.

    I received for Christmas the Hazzard novel you never hear about, The Bay of Noon. I've read just a few pages and won't be able to return to it anytime very soon. My brief initial foray revealed the fine writing and keen eye I would have expected—but not that, you know, that thing (snaps fingers). That thing is a rare thing. Truth be told, it would be a little disappointing to find out it's replicable.

    • Mr. Elegant Variation is multi-talented. I very much enjoyed his super-short story at Pindeldyboz. "The Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band™" may be a diminutive thing, but it has some teeth on it.

    • Finally, Colby Cosh writes fascinatingly here on the relative homogeneity of journalists' class backgrounds and the difference of his own from the norm. Here's a swatch:

    If you compared the average working physicist to the average working journalist, I believe you'd find that the latter had parents whose income was much higher. And I believe this is so even though it's the physicist who is ostensibly in greater need of early-life educational advantages, an encouraging household milieu, and (to stick one toe into Larry Summers territory) inheritable cognitive endowments. This happens not because journalism is a cliquish, incestuous business, or just because it is; it's also because a child of intellectuals or businessmen just has a much easier time imagining getting paid for doing mental work and nothing else.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: It came from Outer space

    After careful consideration, and having duly consulted with my co-blogger, I've come to the conclusion that the mysterious proprietor of Outer Life is the Charles Lamb of our time, or the Charles Lamb of our medium—I'm not sure which, but he's the Charles Lamb of something. His recent posting "Birthday at Buddy's"—as observant, dry, and economical as his usual fare but somehow even more hilarious—is what pushed me over the fence from simply enjoying his essays to reaching for superlatives. If you aren't already reading him, what are you doing with your life?

    "Brithday at Buddy's" begins:

    The invitation arrived on Tuesday for a birthday party on Sunday. At 10:00 am. Bowling at Buddy's Bowl-O-Rama. For a four year old. Bouncy and lunch to follow at the house.

    Late invitation -- strike one. Bowling for four year olds -- strike two. 10:00 am on a Sunday morning -- strike three. So I threw the invitation out.

    You'll want to read the rest.

    Outer Life appears to have been around for about ten months. I've been reading it regularly for about two, which means there's a nice plump archive for me to plunder greedily over the next little while. Some posts I've especially liked so far (both culled from a greatest hits list in OL's right-hand column called "Some Old Posts"—what, did he pick them by throwing darts?): "Mr. Tiki and the Boogie Boys" and "A Farewell to Golf," which will no doubt strike some as an inconceivable sentiment (hi Dad!).

    Good deed for the day: check.

    UPDATE: Outer Life promises he'll "keep a sharp eye on my sister."

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

    I'm staying out of sight until Friday: deadlines, appointments, interviews, paperwork, performances. Our Girl will keep you fed until I return.

    Have fun, and don't make a mess while I'm gone.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    The sleepless nights,
    The daily fights,
    The quick toboggan when you reach the heights—
    I miss the kisses and I miss the bites.
    I wish I were in love again!
    The broken dates,
    The endless waits,
    The lovely loving and the hateful hates.
    The conversation with the flying plates—
    I wish I were in love again!

    Lorenz Hart, “I Wish I Were in Love Again” (music by Richard Rodgers)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 20, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
    OGIC: Truer confessions

    Responses to last week's post on demonstrative reading have been all over the map. Most people I heard from seemed to take for granted the attention-seeking dimension of reading in public and wondered what all my fuss was about. I suppose it's become a banal observation what with the boom in Starbuck's-sitting and, of course, the invasion of the bookstore-cafes. More to the point, though, I shied away in my post from admitting just how painfully self-conscious this variety of reading could be when I was younger. Sometimes there was very little turning of pages at all but very much furtive looking up to see whether I'd been noticed. I must have looked ridiculous. Also, on rare occasions I managed to stick myself with a book I really, really didn't want to read. I drew the line at books in other languages, but New Directions translations could be irresistible. These days I'm unlikely to be seen reading anything very impressive at all, since it's the Westlakes (but not the Starks, mind you, which are trade paperbacks), John D. MacDonalds, and Reginald Hills that fit best in my purse.

    Over at Tingle Alley, Carrie has come up with a few delicious anecdotes about demonstrative reading gone wrong. Herein you'll find the memorable lament "Oh no, you’re one of those girls who walk around reading Cortázar."

    Meanwhile, one correspondent prefers to keep his reading choices to himself, thank you very much:

    I've never been comfortable reading in public. This is probably a relic of growing up around kids who'd beat up any poindexter seen with a book. It probably also has something to do with my insecurity, worrying that some hoity-toity type will spy my reading material and reveal my inferior taste for everyone to see.

    Another reader brings up a point that never occurred to me: perhaps that weathered Celine edition I thought so becoming at 17 was actually screaming "Unapproachable!" and even looked, to some blinkered eyes, downright unfeminine:

    I used to engage in much demonstrative reading in Ann Arbor coffee shops, though often because I was actually reading what I wanted (not because I picked up The American Scholar or Far Eastern Economic Review just to seem cool). Finally (though this didn't stop me) a female classmate told me that I'd never get a date because I looked too smart and scared guys away. Well, I didn't get many dates then with or without the books so I just kept on reading and married an equally nerdy reader.

    This all sounds so healthy and reasonable, I'm starting to think the category of demonstrative reading needs to be subdivided into the innocent and the guilty. A friend here in Chicago is sharp and shameless in dissecting the latter:

    I'm a total repeat offender. I think it's one of those fantasies that is kind of irresistible to the bookish— so seductive because we can fool ourselves into thinking that our act of preening is instead the result of a kind of self-absorption that we (and, I think we imagine, the person who discovers or recognizes or understands us) would see as noble, as opposed to all the vulgar acts of self-absorptive display that the intellectually unwashed engage in at the gym, the lake front, or some wretched nightclub. I remember during my second year of grad school looking for a book at Barnes & Noble, and they had set up this mini Starbuxian coffee-shop next to the philosophy section, and I remember being genuinely offended (!) when seeing this yuppie guy sitting at a table in horn-rims and a black turtleneck (heh—this was still the early 90s) thumbing through some Barthes while sipping his latte-cappuccino. The nerve! Co-opting the pose I was suffering through graduate school to earn. Of course I was feeling these things totally unironically and with an embarrassing lack of self awareness.

    Read three John Grishams and a Da Vinci Code on the steps of the AIC and your sins will be forgiven, darling.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Unseparated at birth

    When you have an unusual last name—in my case, extremely unusual—it's always startling to stumble across it in print and realize that the party in question isn't you. This has been happening quite a bit in recent days, so I thought perhaps I should explain that I am not Zephyr Teachout, nor have I had anything to say, in print or out, regarding Daily Kos’ relationship with the Howard Dean campaign, in which Zephyr played a prominent and widely reported role. Nor will I. Ever. You can count on it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit Zephyr’s blog for details.)

    To be sure, I’ve always wanted to meet Zephyr, with whom I exchanged friendly e-mails around the time that her name first started popping up in news reports about the Dean campaign. She's obviously very smart and very nice, and we concluded that we must be related—I mean, how could two Teachouts not be related? I hope our paths cross someday.

    Nevertheless, she’s not me, nor am I her.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Magic is directed almost entirely to men, you know. And it's a return for them to boyhood, childhood. It has nothing to do with women, who hate it—it irritates them. They don't like to be fooled. And men do."

    Orson Welles (quoted in David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 19, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
    TT: New face of 2005

    I just got back from the Algonquin Hotel, where Jessica Molaskey made her Oak Room debut earlier this evening. She tore the joint up. It was the best debut I’ve seen there since Diana Krall first played the Algonquin eight years ago, and one of the strongest and most polished cabaret sets I’ve ever seen.

    Molaskey is a Broadway baby (Crazy for You, Dream) who read the writing on the wall when good parts for old-fashioned musical-comedy actors started drying up in the late Nineties. Instead of cursing the looming darkness, she retrofitted herself as a cabaret singer with the help of her husband, the jazz singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli. She started off by making guest appearances on his New York gigs, and they began to collaborate in the recording studio (they were already writing excellent songs together—she has an enviable knack for witty wordplay). At first she had trouble accustoming herself to the intimate scale of cabaret, a problem she shared with most Broadway performers who’ve tried to make the switch. My guess is that she found it intimidating. But somewhere along the line she figured out how to play to a small, attentive crowd, and the payoff came tonight.

    Molaskey's soft-edged bass-flute voice would be easy on the ears even if she didn’t have such a deft way with words. In fact, she sings like the smart actor she is, making the most of a lyric without ever succumbing to the temptation to make a meal of it. Instead, all is subtlety: a wry smile here, an arched eyebrow there, just enough between-song patter to grease the audience’s wheels, and everywhere an enveloping, inviting warmth that lights up her fetching jolie-laide features and makes them shimmer. As of now, I’d say she’s got the sexy-girl-next-door market sewed up tight. Being the fine songwriter she is, it stands to reason that she really knows how to pick songs, and tonight’s set was a savvy blend of the time-tested (“Make Believe”) and the unexpected (“Stepsisters’ Lament”). Not surprisingly, she likes a good medley: I loved the way she dropped a pinch of “Big Spender” into “Hey, Look Me Over." As for the duet version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today” and Jon Hendricks’ “Cloudburst” that she sang with husband John, all I can say is…wow. Octuple wow.

    For the most part, Pizzarelli stuck to the role of loyal sideman, teaming up with his brother Martin on bass and the superlative Larry Goldings on piano to provide the kind of smooth, swinging, utterly assured support of which most cabaret singers can only dream in vain. A show-stopping entertainer in his own right, he scrupulously refrained from scene-stealing, and it was wonderful to see the pride on his face as he watched his wife sashay through the show without dropping a stitch.

    If I sound excited, it’s because the buzz of Molaskey’s debut hasn’t yet worn off. I'm still flying. The good news is that you don’t have to take my word for it, since most of the songs she sang are on her latest CD, Make Believe. Give it a spin. If listening to Make Believe doesn’t make you want to come down to the Oak Room and behold the birth of a new cabaret star, maybe you need to get your batteries charged. Or changed.

    * * *

    Jessica Molaskey is at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel through Saturday, Jan. 29. The music starts at nine o’clock, with an 11:30 show added on Fridays and Saturdays.

    For more information, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Just in case

    I was here yesterday, even if you weren't. Keep going after you hit today's almanac entry and you'll find something very personal and (I hope) worth reading.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Inquiring minds

    I recently noticed in our referral log that somebody had been sent to “About Last Night” as a result of searching Google for “terry + teachout + gay.” Curious as to what else this anonymous investigator succeeded in turning up, I clicked through to the search results and saw…well, not much. Outside of my review of Mystic River (in which I mentioned Marcia Gay Harden) and a passing reference to Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce, I found only coincidental juxtapositions of those three words that happened to pop up on the same URL. If someone out there in cyberspace was longing for the lowdown on my private life, I fear the party in question came up empty-handed.

    I can’t help but wonder what prompted this mysterious electronic inquiry. Might it have been an uncomfortable reader who, puzzled by my consistent failure to conform to his firmly settled politico-aesthetic preconceptions, longed to stuff me into a more reassuring pigeonhole? Or was he merely looking to add an item or two to a file somewhere or other? In either case, my suggestion is simple: ask Our Girl. She knows all my secrets. (So do the FBI and the White House, but they're not telling.)

    Alas, anyone who knows me more than casually would be likely to dissolve into helpless giggles if asked such a question. My sexual preferences are laughably self-evident, not to mention single-minded, though I doubt you could figure them out by administering a cultural questionnaire via e-mail. I mean, what kind of weirdo likes Rio Bravo and Pacific Overtures? Or Mark Morris and the Louvin Brothers? (Well, Mark does, but then he's really weird.)

    The point being, of course, that it simply doesn’t matter, nor should it (unless you’re going out on a date with me, in which case it’s highly relevant). I don’t put all of myself on this blog, or into my published writings, but the part I exhibit in public is absolutely, unequivocally the real right thing. I am, in short, what I seem to be, and if you don’t think it adds up, let that be a lesson to you: the only way to stuff a human being into a pigeonhole is to cut off pieces until he fits.

    UPDATE: I came back from lunch to find a new search in the referral log: "terry + teachout + claims + he + isn't + gay." Oh, puh-leeze.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Snapshot

    Overheard:

    HE: I want somebody to love me.

    SHE: I want somebody to pay me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Elsewhere

    • Mr. Alicublog goes to the movies:

    Also revisited Kubrick's Lolita. Like Wilder in Kiss Me, Stupid, Kubrick was doggedly exploring the terrain of 60s sex comedy; unlike Wilder, he has no skill at sex comedy of any sort -- the best male sex-comedians dance at the edge of misogyny, whereas Kubrick had long since progressed from misogyny to misanthropy. I can see why he was attracted to Humbert's obsession, but having to deal with the female half of the equation appears to have baffled him: The moments of sympathy for Charlotte Haze seem tacked on like guilty afterthoughts and Sue Lyon is practically exterminated as Lolita -- only her body and brash tone survive….

    Yes, totally. (I don’t like Stanley Kubrick at all, by the way. I, too, watched Lolita on cable the other night, but only to wallow in James Mason's dark-brown, Yorkshire-tinged accent. I can't think of a Hollywood voice I like better, male or female.)

    • The ever-satisfying Ms. Household Opera goes to the annual Modern Language Association convention and breathes a sigh of relief at having resumed her civilian status:

    But well before the end of it, I was thanking multiple deities that I will never again have to write in the machete mode of criticism. By this I mean the kind of literature scholarship that frames all its main points as a demolition of everyone else's main points, like mowing down those around you by swinging a machete around. In graduate school it didn't take me long to tire of academic writing in which the argument was preceded by hatchet-jobs on the prior work of Professors X, Y, and Z; I hated writing like that even more. Hearing it again from the lips of senior scholars, some of whom posed their entire talks as point-by-point refutations of someone else's article, reminded me of everything that put me off the idea of writing the sorts of things one gets tenure for. At one point, I had the odd feeling that I was watching a large group of people standing on a tiny patch of ground, elbowing and jostling each other for more space, all trying to outshout each other.

    No wonder I so often used to feel like no matter how hard I worked, I could never be good enough. Blargh. I don't miss it one little bit….

    Blargh. Is that better or worse than arrgh?

    • Comes now The Little Professor, that mysterious but nonetheless self-evidently cool non-civilian Victorianist, with a link to an almanac-worthy remark by Colin Burrow, followed by reflections thereon. The quote:

    “Shakespeare may or may not have been Catholic, but generally if a document that sounds too good to be true is found exactly where you’d hope to find it and then goes missing in mysterious circumstances it is indeed too good to be true.”

    Sad but true, as any halfway decent biographer (or journalist! or journalist!) can tell you.

    • An unknown visitor to the new MoMA recently damaged Anne Truitt’s “Catawba,” which is no longer on display. Tyler has the scoop, plus links. (Scroll up and down for more.)

    • Mr. Decline and Fall, an American living in Iraq, keeps his ears open:

    What do they listen to? Let's just say that there's very little sense of "cool" or "trendy" in their listening habits. One can't expect people who have spent their lives living under Saddam's thumb to have any real sense of hipster do's and don't's, but even those who have lived in America for a while and have come back here to work as linguists can almost be relied upon to be fans of Celine Dion. It's actually gotten to the point where as soon as a discussion of music begins, I say to the nearest Arab, "You like Celine Dion, don't you?" They always reply in the affirmative.

    On some level this completely un-self-conscious appreciation of melody and the human voice is refreshing in a world where you are sometimes identified by your music preference. When someone says they like Billy Ray Cyrus or DMX or Franz Ferdinand or Marilyn Manson, we assume that tells us something about them. Unaware of the pitfalls of music-as-identity, these folks just listen to what they enjoy. On the other hand, I can't shake the thought that Western Music consists in their eyes of nothing but insipid crap….

    Yesterday I was getting an Arabic lesson from a local national friend when he looked across my desk and saw the new Nirvana box set. I explained, through words and gestures, about Nirvana's music and Kurt Cobain's untimely demise and concluded very quickly that he would not be able to appreciate what an earth-shattering event "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was, so I showed him my iPod. I dialed up Ella Fitgerald singing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," but he didn't like the fact that he couldn't understand the words. So I let him listed to Edith Piaf singing "La Vie en Rose" with the thought that if neither of us knew what was going on lyrically we'd be on the same page. No dice: "Too old," he said.

    Then I decided to try an instrumental selection: one of J.S. Bach's Violin Concertos, played by Hilary Hahn. He had never heard anything like it before. For a moment I pondered the stark implications of a culture that had heard Yanni but not Mozart, Celine Dion but not Ella Fitgerald, Country but not Blues. "This is a much bigger clash of cultures than I had ever imagined," I heard myself say. But the look on his face as he struggled to turn the volume up on that exquisite music made it all better….

    I sure hope somebody out there tells Hilary Hahn about this posting. (You may need to scroll down a bit to find it, by the way.)

    • Speaking of great moments in Western culture, Mr. From the Floor recently paid a visit to the “Mona Lisa”:

    The point of seeing the piece, for almost all visitors, is to say that they have seen it. Tourists don’t really go to the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa. They go so that when they return home they can tell friends that they saw the painting.

    Those of us who spend time looking at and writing about art tend to be condescending toward the masses that gather in front of da Vinci’s painting—looking, as they do, to the work to provide validation for their trip to Paris.

    Unfortunately, though, many of us do the same. Reading through top ten list after top ten list this month in both the print media and around the blogosphere has made me realize that too many art writers neglect seeing exhibitions in their haste to prepare for saying that they have seen them….

    Oh, yes. Yes-and-a-half.

    • Lastly, Lileks reflects on some non-political aspects of the great red-blue divide:

    I love some bustle. I prefer to commute to the bustle, however, not be embustled 24-7. Myriad options are nice, but I suspect that 84% of these options consist of “ethnic food, readily available,” and the other 12% are made up of museums and concerts most urban dwellers rarely have time to attend.

    But at least they’re there if you want them! In any case, it’s somehow flattering to know you live in a place where someone, right now, is setting up an art installation that forces us to rethink the way we think about something. Anything. Except the historical failure of art installations to make anyone rethink about anything, ever….

    Or you get exhilarated, depending on your mood and temperament, or depending on something as simple and unique as turning a corner in Manhattan during the blue hour, looking through a store window into a salon, heading up the sidewalk with the traffic streaming the other way, forty stories of lights rising up on either side, and thinking: nowhere else but here, and here I am. Having lived on the East Coast, I can see why some people love it. And I understand why I didn’t, in the end. At some point in your life you may think I'd prefer a little less public urination, if I might. The fact that some prefer the Big City strikes me as utterly unremarkable, and I’d bet that most people in Red states don’t think much about why Blue staters like to live in concentrated urban centers. Why? Because they don’t care. They know that the big cities have advantages the rural areas lack, but they’re not that important to them, and they don’t worry about what they’re missing. If they do, then they move….

    Speaking as one who did—but continues to retain his home ties—I’d say this is exactly right.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'The so-called conscientiousness of the great majority of painters is nothing but perfection in the art of boring. If it were possible, these fellows would labor with equal care over the backs of their pictures."

    Eugčne Delacroix, journal entry (July 18, 1850)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, January 17, 2005
    TT: A voice from the past

    I don’t mind admitting that it shook me to receive an e-mail the other day whose return address was NancyLaMott@aol.com. Even though it didn't really come from beyond the grave, it had something of the same disorienting impact, if only for a moment.

    Here’s what it said:

    Midder Music Records is thrilled to announce the release of a brand-new Nancy LaMott CD, “Nancy LaMott: Live at Tavern on the Green,” the first new Nancy LaMott release in eight years.

    Recorded live at Nancy’s last engagement at Tavern on the Green, just seven weeks before her untimely death, this CD is filled with radiant, joyful, gorgeously sung performances, as well as charming, funny, often touching patter.

    Featuring some of your favorite Nancy LaMott standards plus many songs you’ve never heard her sing on CD before, this CD captures, for all time, the magic that was Nancy live.

    SPECIAL OFFER!

    CD’s don’t hit the stores until February 1, but you can order them online right now at a special price, by going to nancylamott.com.

    Order "Nancy LaMott: Live at Tavern on the Green,” or any of Nancy’s other six CD’s (they’re all being re-released) before February 1, and pay only $13.98 plus shipping and handling (a $3.00 discount).

    Offer good until February 1 only.

    Nancy’s back at last! SPREAD THE WORD!

    Midder Music sent me an advance copy of Live at Tavern on the Green last week. At first I was reluctant to listen to it—afraid, really. I was in the audience when it was taped, in October of 1995, shortly after Nancy told me that the cancer for which she was being treated had spread to her liver. I knew as I watched her perform that she might not live much longer, though I was doing my best not to think about it any more than I could help. She knew, too, and the songs she chose to sing that night would have given her secret away to anyone who was paying attention: “The People That You Never Get to Love.” “Sailin’ On.” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” “The Promise (I’ll Never Say Goodbye).” Not that you would have guessed it from the open-hearted, uninhibited way she sang them, the same way she sang everything, as if there wouldn’t be any more tomorrows. Only this time there really weren't: I had Thanksgiving dinner with Nancy and her fiancé three weeks later, and the next time I saw her was on her deathbed.

    Six years went by before I could bear to listen to any of her records again. (How she would have hated that!) Even now I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to hear how her singing voice sounded on the last night I heard it in person. But I finally got up the nerve to put on Live at Tavern on the Green, and like so many of the things we dread most, it turned out to be not nearly so hurtful as I’d feared.

    Of course I cried—a lot—but I smiled, too, both at the songs and at her unpretentious between-song patter. She told jokes. She talked about having finally met "the someone" (it was Pete Zapp, the man she married on the night she died). She behaved as though everyone in the Chestnut Room were an intimate friend. That was her way: it was part of her charm, on stage and off. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten how sweet and funny she was, but so many years had slipped away that I’d forgotten exactly how it felt to sit across a restaurant table from her after the ballet, chattering happily about nothing in particular, or to pick up the phone and hear her say “Hi, it’s LaMottski!” Those memories had faded, as all memories must, yet all at once they became shiny new.

    She sang beautifully on that crisp October night—you would have had to know her very, very well to realize that her strength was fading fast, or that she was wearing a wig to hide her baldness—and every song she sang brings back a separate memory. I listened to “Waters of March” and remembered what fits the complicated lyrics used to give her. (I’d seen her drop the ball completely at the Algonquin a few months earlier, not long before she went into the hospital for chemotherapy. Our Girl was there, too, and I'm sure she remembers how I all but fell on the floor laughing as poor Nancy fumbled helplessly, and hopelessly, for the right words.) I listened to “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and remembered the long, blissful day we spent together in a recording studio in Astoria as she laid down the vocal tracks for her final album. I listened to her introduce the encore, James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life,” with the same line she always used, always to the same infallible effect: “Relax, this is cabaret—there’s always an encore!” As that last song spun to a close, I thought, Oh, God, I guess I’ll always miss her, each and every day, all the days of my life.

    I’m not very objective when it comes to Nancy—I loved her too much for that—but I can tell you that Live at Tavern on the Green is a good and representative example of her live shows. If you were lucky enough to hear her in a club, it’ll remind you of what she sounded like, and if you weren't, it’ll show you what you missed. And if you’ve never heard her at all, you’ll hear what I had in mind when I wrote these words about her, nine long years ago:

    What I heard…was a warm, husky mezzo-soprano voice that seemed twice as big as the woman in whom it was housed; a vivid yet unaffected way with lyrics; and a quality at once sensuous and achingly idealistic. Later, after I had met Nancy, I would write that her singing sounded "as if the girl next door had snuck out at two a.m. to make a little whoopee with her steady boyfriend," a description that delighted her no end.

    How glad I am to hear my friend's voice once more.

    * * *

    To place an advance order for Live at Tavern on the Green, or any of Nancy LaMott’s other CDs, go here.

    Tell your friends—all of them. Spread the word.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, January 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Fresh

    Note that the Top Fives are all new this morning! Look, ponder, click through, investigate....

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, January 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Hence the despotic and all-absorbing power of art, as also its astonishing power of soothing: it frees from every human care, it establishes the artifex, artist or artisan, in a world apart, cloistered, defined and absolute, in which to devote all the strength and intelligence of his manhood to the service of the thing which he is making. This is true of every art; the ennui of living and willing ceases on the threshold of every studio or workshop."

    Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, January 17, 2005 | Permanent link
Saturday, January 24, 2004
    TT: Blogged out

    I've written too much this week, here and elsewhere, and I'm not done yet, alas: I'll be going to New York City Ballet this afternoon to see Double Feature, Susan Stroman's new full-evening pop-music ballet, after which I intend to finish another chapter of my Balanchine book, or cry trying. So no more posts until Sunday, if then.

    Later.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, January 24, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Off duty

    A reader writes:

    You have indicated that you delight in the works of Patrick O'Brian. Are you also a fan of P.G. Wodehouse? E.F. Benson? Saki? R. F. Delderfield?

    When the world is getting you down, and you want total comfort reading, who or what do you turn to?

    I asked this question at a gathering of friends this weekend and half the people there said "Winnie The Pooh". For me, it's either Arthur Ransome (of "Swallows & Amazons" fame - a must read, must must read! "Grab a chance and you won't be sorry for a might have been!") or children's books I remember fondly.

    This is a wonderful question, one nobody has ever asked me, so I’m answering it fresh, straight off the top of my head. I like Saki well enough but have never been able to connect with Benson, and I’ve never read anything by Delderfield. When I feel the need for "total comfort reading" (a nice phrase), I typically turn to

    (1) O’Brian, whose Aubrey/Maturin novels I just finished rereading in their entirety

    (2) Wodehouse, usually the Jeeves novels (I don’t like the short stories nearly as much)

    (3) Anthony Trollope

    (4) Raymond Chandler

    (5) Rex Stout

    (6) Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder and Parker crime novels (the latter are written under the pseudonym "Richard Stark")

    (7) William Haggard’s Colonel Russell political thrillers—virtually unknown in this country, alas, but I own them all

    (8) Barbara Pym

    (9) Jon Hassler

    (10) Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time

    In addition, I find it relaxing to revisit familiar books about music—preferably biographies. I’ve no idea why.

    This is not to say, by the way, that I necessarily view these writers as somehow unserious. Stout and Westlake, yes—they’re pure entertainers, albeit of a high class—but Haggard’s cold-eyed view of the world is anything but frivolous, while the others (including Chandler and Wodehouse) can certainly stand up to close critical scrutiny.

    What about you, OGIC? Which books reset your overheated brain to a nice mild simmer?

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, January 24, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Never have men had so many reasons to cease killing one another. Never have they had so many reasons to feel they are joined together in one great enterprise. I do not conclude that the age of universal history will be peaceful. We know that man is a reasonable being. But men?"

    Raymond Aron, "The Dawn of Universal History"

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, January 24, 2004 | Permanent link
Friday, January 23, 2004
    TT: Alas, not by me

    If you haven’t yet seen Our Girl in Chicago’s posting about current goings-on at the New York Times Book Review, click here to skip down and read it. In my humble opinion, she hits nail (A) on head (B).

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 23, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Waltzing in the Windy City

    In this morning’s Wall Street Journal I write about Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music:

    In Gary Griffin’s production, "A Little Night Music" is sung by actors, played on an all-but-bare thrust stage in a smallish house, and accompanied by a 14-piece orchestra. Lush it isn’t, but the gain in intimacy almost completely offsets the musical losses. Though some of the cast members have unappealing voices, they can all act, and Kevin Gudahl, who plays Fredrik Egerman (the role created on Broadway by Len Cariou), wears both hats with apparently effortless flair. Jenny Powers is every bit as good as Petra, the sexy maid—I loved the way she sang "The Miller’s Son," the best song in the show—and Michael Cerveris struts about quite nicely as Count Carl-Magnus, who expects absolute fidelity from his long-suffering wife Charlotte (Samantha Spiro) despite his absolute unwillingness to reciprocate….

    I wrote enthusastically in this space two weeks ago about Chicago Shakespeare’s recent production of "Rose Rage," Edward Hall’s single-evening version of Shakespeare’s "Henry VI." That one company should have been simultaneously presenting so fine a staging of "A Little Night Music" seems to me just about miraculous. I’d always heard that the Windy City was a class-A theater town, but I didn’t know it was home to so versatile a resident troupe. I hope Stephen Sondheim makes a point of coming to see this "Night Music," which runs through February 15. I moved to Manhattan a decade after the original Broadway production, but I can’t imagine it having been more effective than this one. Like "Rose Rage," it’s good enough to play New York without a tweak.

    I have equally enthusiastic things to say about the songs and singing of Amanda Green:

    Amanda Green has yet to bring a show to Broadway, but it isn’t for lack of trying—or talent. She sang a batch of her songs last Friday at the Ars Nova Theater, assisted by a flying squadron of musical-comedy and cabaret colleagues, and I laughed so hard I thought I’d split a rib.

    Ms. Green, who wrote the lyrics for "For the Love of Tiffany," one of the high points of last summer’s New York International Fringe Festival, specializes in murderously witty songs that crackle with Sondheim-style wordplay, transposed into a postmodern key. (Can you imagine the composer of "Passion" turning out a Bruce Springsteen parody?) Nor is she afraid to stick a red-hot poker into her own heart: "If You Leave Me, Can I Come, Too?" is "funny" like a Dorothy Parker suicide note….

    No link, so run—don’t walk—to the nearest newsstand, pony up $1 for a copy of this morning’s Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and read the rest of what I wrote, plus other good things written by my fellow Journal-ists.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 23, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition."

    Pascal, Pensées

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 23, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Centennial

    Last night I went to the New York State Theater to watch New York City Ballet dance Apollo, Prodigal Son, and Serenade on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Balanchine. It was bitterly cold in Manhattan, but the house was still full of familiar faces: balletomanes and critics, aging ballerinas and budding bunheads, old friends of Balanchine and young choreographers looking for inspiration. Though I’d seen all three ballets danced the week before, I couldn’t imagine staying home. I've witnessed most of the great occasions of state since Balanchine’s death—the company’s 50th-anniversary celebration, Suzanne Farrell’s last Vienna Waltzes and Jerome Robbins’ last bow, the memorial services for Robbins and Tanaquil Le Clercq, Balanchine's fourth wife—and so I thought it right to be on hand to celebrate the birthday of the man who opened my eyes to ballet 17 years ago.

    On paper, it was just another repertory program, the kind that rarely inspires anything remotely approaching a sense of occasion nowadays, but no sooner did the lights go down than I knew something was different. The orchestra launched into the fanfare-like introduction to Apollo, the curtain flew up to reveal Nikolaj Hübbe standing at center stage in front of a Balanchine-blue cyclorama, and all at once I felt my skin prickle. As Hübbe strummed the fake lyre he held in his hands, I thought of all the times Balanchine told his dancers that he’d been talking to Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky the night before. Such fanciful tales had always made me smile, but for the first time I had an inkling of what he meant. The evening was full of uncanny encounters and events: the unseen message that Calliope scribbles in her hand and shows to Apollo, the ominous flapping of the Dark Angel’s wings at the end of Serenade, the terrible moment when a mob of bald-headed goons strips the Prodigal Son naked, their hands skittering over his limp body like the paws of greedy mice. All had sprung from the mind of the genius we were there to honor.

    It was one of those nights when past and present are hooked together like the cars of a speeding train. The company Balanchine had founded was performing his three oldest surviving ballets in the house he built. Apollo was danced in the cruelly abridged revised version of 1980, shorn of its prelude, décor, birth scene, and secondary characters, but Prodigal Son looked much the same way it did on the stage of the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in 1929, right down to Georges Rouault’s thickly brushed backdrops. The dancers on stage included Darci Kistler, Balanchine’s last protégée, now married to Peter Martins, NYCB's ballet master in chief, and Kyra Nichols, who in the hard years since Balanchine’s death has come to embody the poised, transparent purity of which he dreamed his whole life long. An old man sitting next to me reminisced out loud about seeing Edward Villella dance the Prodigal Son, and I in turn remembered my first Serenade, performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem at City Center, where I sat in the cheapest seats in the highest balcony, wondering if there could possibly be anything in the world half so beautiful.

    Miniature bottles of Russian vodka were handed out in the second intermission, and after the final bow was taken, Martins and Barbara Horgan, the head of the Balanchine Trust, came on stage to lead us in a birthday toast to the man of the hour. "What he gave us," Martins said, "is all about love. There are young dancers on this stage who were not born when Mr. B died, and they love him." We raised our plastic glasses, the orchestra thundered out a fanfare, and balloons dropped from the fifth ring. As we filed out, the old man who remembered Villella shook a finger in my face. "Your grandchildren will see these ballets," he said.

    And will they? If precedent is any indication, the odds are discouraging. Only a handful of pre-modern ballets continue to be danced in their original form, and fewer still can be taken seriously as major works of art. By and large, 19th-century ballet is remembered more for its music than its steps, just as one inevitably wonders about the extent to which choreography per se was responsible for Serge Diaghilev’s triumphs. Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska: all made dances for Diaghilev that set the tongues of the world to wagging, most of which are now half remembered or wholly forgotten. We know more about the Ballets Russes’ costumes than its choreography.

    Why, then, should Balanchine be different? He himself affected to believe that his ballets would not long outlive him, at least not in any recognizable form. "When I die," he told Rudolf Nureyev at the end of his life, "everything should vanish. A new person should come and impose his own things." But he also founded New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, which exist to preserve authentic versions of his ballets and teach the techniques necessary to dance them idiomatically. And though Balanchine was not the first choreographer to start a company or a school, what sets him apart is the existence of a worldwide network of other institutions and individuals whose purpose is to disseminate his ballets as widely as possible, and to give them a permanent life in repertory. No other choreographer has attracted so many followers, and no other choreographic oeuvre has been the subject of so thoroughgoing and committed an attempt at long-term preservation.

    The many "Balanchine companies" led by alumni of New York City Ballet are not the only important dance companies in America, but their common emphasis on Balanchine, and the consistently high quality with which they stage his ballets, is a development of near-unprecedented significance, a sign that the Balanchine style may be evolving into a lingua franca for ballet in the 21st century, just as the Franco-Russian style of classic ballet provided a firm foundation on which the tradition-steeped Balanchine was able to build his neoclassical idiom. It helps, of course, that most of his dances are well suited to the restrictive circumstances under which repertory ballet is presented in this country. A piece like Concerto Barocco, for example, has no set and no costumes—it is danced in simple practice clothes—making it relatively cheap to produce. Nor does the plotless Barocco require elaborate direction to make its effect: it contains no significant glances, no labyrinthine subtexts, just music and steps. And unlike the myriad dialects of modern dance, the steps of classical ballet are for all intents a universal language. Thus Balanchine’s ballets, radically innovative though they are, can be executed by any reasonably proficient classical company. "You know, these are my ballets," he told Rosemary Dunleavy, New York City Ballet’s ballet mistress. "In the years to come they will be rehearsed by other people. They will be danced by other people. But no matter what, they are still my ballets."

    I wish I could speak with absolute certainty about the future of his ballets, but the jury of posterity is still out. That they ought to live and flourish, however, seems to me beyond question. After spending countless hours looking at dozens of them, I have come to believe that George Balanchine was not merely the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century, but the only one to have created a body of work that deserves to be remembered in the same way we remember the work of Stravinsky or Matisse. And while I’m sure the balletomanes of 1929 felt the same way about the repertory of the Ballets Russes, Balanchine’s lean, stripped-down dances, unlike Diaghilev’s evanescent spectacles, were built to last. This is not to say they can thrive in a vacuum, but the world of ballet is full of talented men and women determined to make sure that Apollo, Serenade, and Prodigal Son last at least as long as The Rite of Spring or The Red Studio. Which is why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my grandchildren see them—and their grandchildren, too.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, January 23, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, January 22, 2004
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a 'make-believe' (for what else is a 'story'?) shall be in some degree apologetic—shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to represent life. This, of course, any sensible, wide-awake story declines to do, for it quickly perceives that the tolerance granted to it on such a condition is only an attempt to stifle it disguised in the form of generosity."

    Henry James, "The Art of Fiction"

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Unfit to print

    Now that I have a bit of a breather, a few more words on the Poynter piece I linked to in haste this morning. To be truthful, while I didn't like the news that the NYTBR will be moving away from fiction, I couldn't muster a lot of outrage about it either. For a while now, I've found myself more interested in noting which books they assign than in reading the reviews themselves. The reviews are sometimes as dull as reputed (with notable exceptions, of course). In addition to all the usual suspects listed to the right, I've been gravitating toward the Washington Post and Atlantic Monthly for reviews that I actually read. (Check out Michael Dirda's fun, hyper take on the new Elmore Leonard this week.)

    So it's not as though my reading habits are going to take a big hit even if the NYTBR banishes fiction reviews from their pages altogether. Yet the blinkered reasoning proffered by Bill Keller rankles. First there's his general blithe condescension toward novels, apparently based on an assumption that while nonfiction is serious, fiction is just playing around. Even if Bill Keller really thinks this, it astonishes me that he'd say it, let alone that the Times would base editorial policy on it. Keller may not get it, but a man in his position should be smart enough to at least suspect that his disinterest in a particular form for expressing ideas is a personal blind spot.

    Here are the statements that really give Keller away: "The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world," and "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction." If Keller wants to make the Book Review simply an arm of the newsroom, then I suppose that's his perogative. But he doesn't say that. He speaks on two assumptions that are far from universally accepted: 1) that fiction is never a serious representation of the world, and 2) that only "hard" news is news. If all news is hard news, though, why maintain the separate sphere of a book review at all? Or an arts section? If the NYT's television ads are any indication, the paper's "soft" content is integral to attracting its national readership.

    It's ironic that these statements would emerge from the paper of record only a few days after Terry made this observation:

    I was watching an old episode of What’s My Line?, my all-time favorite game show, earlier this evening.…This particular program must have originally aired in 1961 or 1962, because in introducing panelist Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, Arlene Francis mentioned in passing that two of Cerf’s authors, William Faulkner and John O’Hara, had gotten good reviews in that morning’s papers.

    On Tuesday it seemed quaint that a television talk show would acknowledge newspaper reviews of novels. By Friday it starts to seem quaint that newspapers would review them. You are excused for feeling a little bit dizzy.

    When Keller assures readers that the Times will still cover major novelists like Updike and Roth, he leaves open the question of who will determine who is major. Of course this will happen elsewhere, and there's a case to be made that it's not happening at the Times now, but for a Times editor to wholly beg off of the mission of even participating in the public discussion that will adjudicate who is considered tomorrow's major talents—well, that's breathtaking.

    A couple of weeks ago I discussed a mission statement of sorts that appears in the Atlantic's back of the book this month. This is part of that statement:

    Although in some ways constraining, discrimination also liberates us. We assume that our readers look to this section as a critical organ rather than a news source—which means that unlike, say, The New York Times Book Review, we don't have to cover the waterfront.

    Suddenly everyone in the print media seems to be running headlong from what you might think would be the enviable task of shaping cultural taste. Lit bloggers, carry on.

    UPDATE: Nathalie at Cup of Chicha is excellent on this story:

    Good thinking. Also: stop covering narrative films. Only review documentaries. And dance or theatre? Why discuss performances when you could devote more space to politics?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Enough already

    I just finished writing my second book review of the day. Time for a nap, or maybe two naps.

    See you tomorrow, unless something staggering happens tonight at the New York State Theatre. You're in good hands with Our Girl.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Guest shot

    I just finished writing my first book review of the day, and decided to take a few minutes off and pay you a visit, if only to make note of this posting from Return of the Reluctant, who’s covering a film noir festival in San Francisco:

    I am now madly in love with Liz Scott. Whatever her thespic limitations, whatever the silly motivations of her character, I don't care. Liz Scott now haunts my dreams and distracts me from my writing. All Liz Scott need do is turn her head and I will happily swoon. If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent Liz Scott. Liz Scott is still alive. I will happily give blood for her. I will take a bullet for her. It is time for a cold shower. Film noir is dangerous.

    I’m with you, buddy. For those who’ve never seen a Lizabeth Scott movie, take a look at Pitfall and you’ll see what we mean. Was there anyone who summed up the film-noir nightmare vision of women-as-predators more completely and alluringly? I mean, I really like women—nearly all my friends are women—but if Liz Scott ever crooked a finger my way, I’d be one dead blogger before the sun came up. (Not that she ever would have, thank God—she worked the other side of the street.)

    Don’t ask me what that says about my subconscious. I could tell you, but then I’d have to rat you out.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The bad news in brief

    Poynter has the scoop on the direction the New York Times Book Review is likely to take under Chip McGrath's yet-to-be-named successor, and it ain't pretty for fiction readers.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: That's all, folks (for the m-m-moment)

    Absolutely no more stuff from me today. I've got to write, dawn to dusk (a review of Thomas Mallon's Bandbox and another chunk of my George Balanchine book), then it's off to Lincoln Center to watch New York City Ballet dance an all-Balanchine program on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the master.

    For now, I leave you in the tender hands of Our Girl in Chicago, who may or may not have something on her mind. And even if she doesn't, there's plenty of stuff to read. I'll be back tomorrow with my weekly Wall Street Journal theater teaser, plus whatever else the spirit moves me to post.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "That's all any of us are—amateurs. We don't live long enough to be anything else."

    Charlie Chaplin, screenplay for Limelight

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The butler did it (not)

    Says God of the Machine:

    Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn't worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. Dickens wrote three endings for Great Expectations; Hollywood tests movies with alternate endings all the time. What happens in the last two pages or the last thirty seconds just cannot make that great a difference. The chick in The Crying Game is really a dude, and Kevin Spacey's Keyser Soze, OK? If you're watching a movie or reading a book to find out what's going to happen, I suggest, with all due respect, a more productive use of time, like filing your corns or catching up on the details of Britney's annulment.

    Read the whole thing here.

    With all due respect to a smart blogger, this is only half right. As I once wrote (in a radically different context) in a New York Times piece about series TV:

    The term "classic" is commonly used to describe fondly remembered TV shows of the past. (I searched for the phrase "classic TV" on Google the other day, and came up with 86,300 hits.) To call a work of art "classic," however, implies that it is something to which we return time and again, making new discoveries with each successive encounter. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked at George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, but though I suppose the day may come when it no longer has anything new to say to me, I still find it a source of apparently inexhaustible interest, and try to see it at least once a year. Every art form has produced innumerable masterpieces which, like The Four Temperaments, demand to be experienced repeatedly—every art form, that is, except for series television….

    Hill Street Blues was the first TV drama I ever went out of my way to see, and were there world enough and time, I might even consider watching the first few dozen episodes again. But while I still remember how much I liked Hill Street Blues, I can’t recall much else about it—only a few isolated moments from two or three episodes—whereas I could easily rattle off fairly complete synopses of, say, Citizen Kane or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or whistle the exposition to the first movement of Mozart’s G Minor Symphony. To qualify as a classic, a work of art must first of all be good enough to make you want to get to know it at least that well.

    On the other hand, our first experience of a work of art is qualitatively different from all successive experiences, precisely because we don’t know what’s going to happen. The lure of cumulative revelation is not trivial, but significant: it helps to build the tension that is ultimately discharged in catharsis. Forget the precisely balanced phrases, the delicate half-tones and perfect edits. If you’re not watching a movie or reading a book to find out what's going to happen—or listening to a symphony, or watching a ballet—then you’re missing the point, at least on the first go-round. Every truly great work of art is coarse at first sight. That’s part of its greatness.

    As for me, I’d never want to know how a masterpiece ends prior to experiencing it for the first time. To be told what happens is to be cheated of the opportunity to sprint breathlessly from beginning to end, propelled by the overwhelming desire to know—and what happens in the last two pages, or the last thirty seconds, can make all the difference in the world. Think of the finale of The Four Temperaments, with its spectacular, gravity-dissolving lifts that sum up all that has gone before. Or the explosive stutter of the final chords of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. Or the very last sentence of "The Turn of the Screw," which slams like an oak door in the face of the stunned reader. No one should be deprived of the opportunity to come completely fresh to those climactic moments, any more than a child should be deprived of its childhood. The more refined pleasures that come with repeated exposure can wait—and will.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, January 22, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
    TT: Popular kids

    I had lunch with Maud today. We dined at Le Cirque, and over our second bottle of wine, we shook our heads in dismay at the blackout Mr. TMFTML claimed to have had after our last Cool Bloggers’ Orgy, held at the 15-room pied-a-terre of Old Hag. He says he Can't Remember a Thing, but I have my doubts….

    Actually, I really did have lunch with Maud today. We met for sandwiches at the Grange Hall. She drank coffee, I iced tea, and I regret to admit that we never got around to discussing our total coolness, nor did we make cruel fun of the proles seated at the inferior tables, gaping and pointing at the Harmonic Convergence of the Titans of the Blogosphere taking place before their astonished eyes. The embarrassing truth is that we talked, among other things, about how friendly and generous-spirited our fellow arts bloggers are. (Well, maybe not Mr. TMFTML, but somebody has to be the heavy, right?) As it happens, Maud is one of the nicest people I know—and not even slightly dull, either. She even used That Word in one of today’s postings!

    Sorry, Jennifer. We’ll try to be snarkier next time.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Yesterday's diapers

    Artsjournal.com blogger Greg Sandow has posted—brilliantly, in my opinion—about James Levine’s programs for his upcoming first season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The composers represented include Dutilleux, Ligeti, Carter, Lutoslawski, Babbitt, Harbison, Wuorinen, Birtwistle…you get the idea, right? Late eat-your-spinach modernism, an idiom so over that it can’t even be said to be in extremis anymore.

    I would have trampled all over this appalling announcement, but Greg did it for me:

    I'm not saying I don't like these pieces. Some of them might be to my taste (or yours), and some might not. It's what they represent as a group that bothers me. They're all examples of a modernist style of composition that hasn't been current for decades. To suddenly jump in a time machine, and present them all as important, presumably cutting-edge contemporary programming -- God, it's so out of date, so retro, so 20th century! By announcing these programs, the BSO turns its back on the current state of new music….

    And then there's the problem of accessibility. I'm not -- absolutely not -- saying that orchestras should play only easy pieces. But this modernist style has absolutely no audience. It doesn't appeal to mainstream classical concertgoers. They don't have modernist taste….

    And worst of all, this modernist stuff never even appealed to the one audience it conceivably might have had, which is artists in other fields, and intellectuals. If this audience for Carter et al existed, the BSO could proudly say it was doing something for music that, admittedly, few people appreciated -- but those few people were some of the most important artists and thinkers alive. But this isn't the case. In fact, as it happened, when the minimalists came along in the late '60s and early '70s, they had this audience, or anyway a part of it; so did John Cage, in the '50s and '60s. Stockhausen, a modernist who's now out of fashion even among other modernists, and isn't on the BSO's programs, once inspired musicians out on the edges of rock and jazz. But the BSO's modernists never, as far as I know, inspired anyone….

    Read the whole thing here. Then scroll upward and read Greg’s further postings on this subject. Though I don’t share his high opinion of some of the composers he prefers, I endorse virtually everything else he has to say, and I couldn’t have put it better. His attack on Levine’s ostrichian programming seems to me devastating—and definitive.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Elsewhere

    Bookslut links to this fine piece by the novelist Claire Messud, but seemingly misreads it. Messud returned to Henry James's Portrait of a Lady twenty years after first reading it. Less prone to idealization than her younger self, she recognizes complexities ("ragged truths") in the characters that she missed the first time around, finds some of her sympathies relocated, and deems the novel even greater than she thought:

    [Isabel] reveals her essential self, and it is less clear-sighted, less natural, less shining a vision than she, or the youthful reader I was, would have wished. But she is all the more human for her failings, just as The Portrait of a Lady is all the more magnificent for its novelistic imperfections. What is true is beautiful, more surely than the inverse; and therein lay my joy in rereading this masterpiece.

    The nice thing about this essay is how, aside from offering a clear-eyed appreciation of the novel, it tracks Messud's changing values as a reader. And though she's glad to have moved on to this fuller appreciation, she's not at all dismissive of the easier novel she used to love.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: That tears it

    As I was posting that last item, yet another question popped into my head: what snippet of old-movie dialogue would I most like to have written? While I adore the Bogart-Rains scene in Casablanca to which I made reference, there's no doubt in my mind about the one I'd pick:

    There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.

    How fast was I going, Officer?

    I'd say around 90.

    Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

    Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

    Suppose it doesn't take.

    Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

    Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

    Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.

    Excuse the hell out of me for being a philistine, but I'd rather have written that than anything by Shirley Hazzard. Or Martin Amis, for that matter. Or just about any novel written after approximately 1975, to be perfectly honest (there are exceptions). I guess I've got a film-noir soul, which is pretty funny considering how hopelessly bourgeois I am.

    What about you, OGIC? What scene would you pick?

    UPDATE: Futurballa didn’t recognize the scene. Yikes! Unhelpful hint: the complete script of this film can be found in a Library of America volume, believe it or not….

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Someday they may be scarce

    I was channel-surfing the other day and stumbled across Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam, which opens with the last scene from Casablanca. The camera pulls back to reveal Allen watching the film in a small art house—the kind of theater of which Manhattan once had many, but now has only a few.

    As I watched, I thought, I wonder how many people under the age of 45 saw Casablanca for the first time in a theater? I'm 47, and I first saw it in a Kansas City revival house a quarter-century ago, just prior to the introduction of home video recorders. Back then, seeing Casablanca anywhere was still a big deal: it didn't get shown all that often on local TV stations, and there weren't yet any cable networks devoted exclusively to old movies. Come to think of it, there weren't any cable networks, period.

    All of which led me to ask myself yet another unnerving question: how many people under the age of 45 have seen Casablanca at all?

    When I was in college, Casablanca was one of the few pre-1960 movies of which everyone I knew was at least aware, whether they'd actually seen it or not. Old movies had yet to be made ubiquitous by the invention of the videocassette, making it a lot harder for any film to attain "iconic" status. I worshipped Bogart—everybody did—but I hadn't seen many of his films, and while I still like Casablanca very much, it's no longer the one I'd choose in order to introduce him to a young filmgoer. (Nowadays, I'd opt for In a Lonely Place or To Have and Have Not.) Nor would I be entirely surprised to learn that it no longer holds a privileged place in the hearts of Gen-X film buffs up to their ears in DVDs.

    Still, I'd hate to think that my younger friends wouldn't smile in recognition were I to drop a line from Casablanca into a casual conversation. No, it's not a great film, not by a long shot, but it's one of the most purely entertaining movies ever made, and its heart is in the right place. I know, I know, times change and tastes with them, but I'd like to think all my friends had seen Casablanca at least once. It's the romantic in me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    DOC HOLLIDAY: What do you want, Wyatt?

    WYATT EARP: Just to live a normal life.

    DOC: There is no normal life, there's just life.

    Kevin Jarre, screenplay for Tombstone

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Randy rides alone

    Courtesy of a kind and generous reader, I’ve been alerted to the existence of Comet Video, a firm in North Carolina that sells good-quality VHS copies of hard-to-find B westerns—including, to my amazement, all of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott films. In lieu of reprinting my essay in the forthcoming Terry Teachout Reader, here’s what David Thomson said about them in his indispensable New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

    They have a consistent and bleak preoccupation with life and death, sun and shade, and encompass treachery, cruelty, courage, and bluff with barely a trace of sentimentality or portentousness. The series added the austere image of a veteran Randolph Scott to the essential iconography of the Western and provbed that Boetticher was a masterly observer of primitive man. His style remained without any flourish or easy touch and the series brought him some critical attention. Two films at least—The Tall T and Ride Lonesome—must be in contention for the most impressive and least handicapped B films ever made….Throughout this series, one feels that Scott’s middle-aged Westerner is as unsentimental and self-sufficient as the cinema has achieved. The man’s integrity never looks less than hard-earned and desperately sustained.

    I agree with every word.

    The print of Seven Men From Now released by Comet Video is faded and blurry, but it’s still a must. Lee Marvin is the villain, and he never played a more flamboyantly vicious one, not even in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat or John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Decision at Sundown, and Buchanan Rides Alone, on the other hand, are all clean and clear—my guess is that they derive from digital cable telecasts.

    Until the Criterion Collection gets around to releasing the Boetticher-Scott Westerns on DVD, these white-label videocassettes will do just fine. If you want to sample before springing for the whole series, start with Ride Lonesome. It’s the best, if only by a nose. The Tall T is almost as good, though, and features a wonderfully complex performance by Richard Boone as a not-quite-redeemable villain who has grown to loathe his thuggish companions.

    To order, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "Many of these books feature cats or recipes. If they have both, I want to burn that book unless the recipe features a cat."

    Otto Penzler, quoted in today's Wall Street Journal (on the mild-mannered subgenre of murder mysteries known as "cozies")

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Truth or consequences

    I do so love a nice ripe grassy-knoll theory.

    Once Cinetrix catches a whiff of her smelling salts, she’ll be pleased to hear the latest DVD release info, courtesy of DVD Journal. Out today, as regular readers of this blog already know, is The Rules of the Game, the greatest movie ever made, on DVD at last. I’ll be writing about it as soon as my copy arrives.

    In the nonce, here’s a snippet of news guaranteed to give Our Girl fits de joie:

    Finally, the cult favorite TV series Freaks and Geeks is about to go digital, thanks to new DVD vendor Shout! Factory and DreamWorks Television. The six-disc set of the first (and only) season will include all 18 episodes, including three that never aired, and we are assured that some complicated music-licensing issues have been smoothed out (congrats to fans, by the way, who compiled nearly 40,000 online signatures to make this release a reality). Expect a "director's cut" of the pilot episode, deleted scenes, outtakes, and — get this — 28 commentary tracks from practically everybody ever associated with the series. Geek out on April 6.

    As it happens, I wrote about Freaks and Geeks for the New York Times a few years ago. Here’s the piece.

    * * *

    Old sitcoms never die—they just move to cable, where they surface at odd intervals forevermore. The nice thing about this two-tiered system of programming is that it occasionally allows those of us who don’t live on the cutting edge of popular culture to catch up with how the hipper half lives. So I paid attention when my friend Laura, a graduate student who specializes in Victorian literature but also keeps close tabs on the doings of people like P.J. Harvey and Conan O’Brian, called to tell me that the Fox Family Channel was rerunning two episodes of "Freaks and Geeks" back to back every Tuesday night at eight and nine, and that I absolutely had to tune in.

    "Freaks and Geeks" is an hour-long comedy about life among the less popular students of a Michigan high school circa 1980. Created by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, it debuted on NBC in the fall of 1999. The critics loved it, the public ignored it, and the show was scuttled midway through its first season, with three episodes still waiting to be broadcast (they have since aired on Fox, and Feig and Apatow have gone on to create "Undeclared," a new college comedy scheduled to debut on the main Fox network this fall). I never saw it, but Laura assured me that not only was it a great show, it was also eerily true to life. "That was exactly what it was like for me back then," she said.

    I tuned in, fell in love, told all my other friends how good it was, and promptly discovered that just about everyone I know who was going to high school in 1980 loved "Freaks and Geeks," too, and that their lives had also been exactly like that. Fortunately, you don’t have to be under 40 to appreciate the show’s sharp-eyed social humor. Most of the character types will be perfectly recognizable to viewers who, like me, attended high school in the ‘70s. I even had a social-studies teacher who, just like Mr. Rosso, the show’s long-haired, herpes-infected guidance counselor, discreetly introduced his students to the Grateful Dead.

    At the center of "Freaks and Geeks" is Lindsay Weir, an overachieving 16-year-old (played exquisitely well by Linda Cardellini) who one day crashes into the wall of adolescent alienation, dons her father’s old Army jacket, and takes up with Daniel, Kim, Nick, and Ken, a quartet of slightly older underachievers who have banded together to smoke dope and sneer at the popular kids of McKinley High School. Once we get to know the freaks better, we realize that the rejection is mutual: Daniel, their leader, is a working-class troublemaker who gets bad grades not because he doesn’t care but because he isn’t quite bright enough to do better. Were he a little less daring and a little less cute, he might even find himself consigned to the same circle of high-school hell as Lindsay’s younger brother Sam and his geeky friends Neal and Bill, who play "Dungeons and Dragons" and always get picked last in gym class.

    The most believable thing about this utterly believable show is that virtually every episode is made to pivot on an experience intrinsic to teenage life: embarrassment. Things rarely go right for Lindsay, Sam, and their friends, at least not for long, and the things that go wrong are often as pathetic as they are amusing. Nick, a hamfisted garage-band drummer who idolizes Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, auditions for a local rock group and proves to be not nearly good enough to pass muster; Neal longs to be a stand-up comedian, but can’t make anyone laugh; Bill’s mother starts dating the gym teacher who torments him daily. Moreover, the story lines on "Freaks and Geeks" are rarely wrapped up in neat, reassuring packages, and even when everybody manages to get through an episode with a modicum of pride intact, it’s a safe bet that further embarrassment is on the way….

    "Freaks and Geeks" is agonizingly true to life, far more so than those overcooked programs known in the industry as "reality TV." (Humankind cannot bear very much real reality.) I have no doubt that this is why it failed in its original network run. Most Americans don’t watch TV to see life as it is. They get enough of that at home. Nowadays, the most popular shows are about pretty people who have lots of great sex. For these fortunate folk, failure is that which immediately precedes success, a temporary condition existing solely to "humanize" them, thus permitting the rest of us poor slobs to identify more easily with their on-screen adventures. That’s why Hollywood stars get paid the big bucks: we can’t look like them, but they can act like us.

    Ours is a soft-mouthed culture, for which reason we also don’t much care for European-style farce, the cruel comedy that arises from the systematic and relentless humiliation of ordinary people. "Fawlty Towers," John Cleese’s classic sitcom about the henpecked owner of a rundown English hotel, could never have been shown on American network TV because Basil Fawlty never, ever comes out on top: no matter how outrageously he behaves, his wife and guests invariably contrive to reduce him to cringing servility. (The phrase most frequently uttered by Basil is "Thank you so very much.") The screwball comedies of the ‘30s were farce-like, but contrary to popular belief, they weren’t all that commercially successful, nor was the genre long-lived. For Americans, discomfort must have its limits, and today’s "gross-out" movies are about as close as our pop culture comes to pure, unadulterated farce, which isn’t very close at all. Take away the I-can’t-believe-they-did-that slapstick of "There’s Something About Mary" and what you’re left with is yet another squashy-centered romantic comedy: the obstacle course through which the hapless hero must travel may be longer and more degrading, but Cameron Diaz still waits with open arms at the end.

    McKinley High, by contrast, is a place where some problems don’t get solved, some parents don’t care enough, and some kids are unattractive, unhappy, and likely to remain so. To be sure, Lindsay will probably do all right as an adult—she is, after all, both smart and pretty, in a Janeane Garofalo-ish sort of way—but Daniel and the rest of the freaks probably won’t. They know it, and so do we. It is thus wholly admirable, as well as wholly unexpected, that Fox Family Channel, of all places, should be giving a second chance to "Freaks and Geeks," a comedy from which teenagers can learn a valuable lesson about real life: it isn’t always funny.

    * * *

    P.S. My birthday is February 6. Belated gifts are acceptable, though.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Regarding TMFTML

    Cinetrix has a theory. Evidence, too.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Reader advisory

    I’ve been blogging so much that I inadvertently buried the second installment of Our Girl’s two-part posting on Word Wars, so if you missed it, scroll down or click here.

    No more from me today: I’ve got to write my review of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of A Little Night Music for Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Radio silence officially begins now. Over to you, OGIC.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Imperishable

    A blogger who published a good book not long ago wrote to ask me how he could get it reviewed in the print media. Sighing, I hit the appropriate key in my head and spewed out Version 2.59 of a short paragraph I’ve sent to God only knows how many authors of six-month-old books: "Books are only reviewed on date of publication in major magazines/newspapers. I know, it's a pain in the ass, but that's the way it works, basically without exception. Your only hope is to get people to write pieces about your blog that mention the book."

    His reply:

    Now there is a subject worthy of a post. Please do. I guess that periodicals are devoted to what is "new."

    So thank god for the blogosphere where someone can "review" a book which was published ten years ago.

    Well said, and I do have a feeling that blogs are becoming—slowly but, I hope, surely—an increasingly significant force driving the sale of midlist and backlist books. On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that this phenomenon is made possible by two other phenomena. The first is linkage. The reason why people buy books after reading about them on blogs is because they can—i.e., all they have to do is click on the link. And the reason why they can is because of the emergence of on-line bookstores.

    Could it be that the interaction of book-oriented blogs and on-line bookstores is starting to have an unforeseen effect on literary criticism? Might the dynamics of what we now think of as "book reviewing" be in the process of evolving away from the books-as-news paradigm that drives the book-review sections of most magazines and newspapers? Ideally, a blog can make an old book news. So can a magazine or newspaper, but do they? Not often. In any case, a blog, at least in theory, is the ideal medium for promoting a book, be it old or new, precisely because linkage facilitates true impulse buying.

    Have I mentioned recently, by the way, that you can place an advance order for A Terry Teachout Reader, out in May from Yale University Press, by clicking here? Yes, I just plugged myself—and why not? What’s a blog for? I couldn’t be happier that Yale is publishing my book, but I don’t have any illusions about their ability to promote it. And if by some weird caprice of fate the Teachout Reader had instead been signed by a trade publisher, I wouldn’t have any illusions about their willingness to promote it. It’s a collection of essays, and (repeat after me) Essay Collections Don’t Sell. And while I certainly can’t predict the future of book publishing, I’ll fall down dead if the total amount of space devoted to book reviews in American magazines and newspapers increases in 2004.

    Bottom line: when it comes to serious books, the action is here, not there. So let’s make the most of it.

    UPDATE: Andy Kessler has a very interesting and relevant piece in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about how he self-published a book:

    I put together dozens of bound galleys and sent them to reviewers, the usual places--Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. I sat back and waited for the glowing reviews to roll in, but was met with the sounds of silence. I checked through back channels and, sure enough, I got stiffed. They just don't review self-published books. I was on my own.

    So like Bill Clinton in his '92 campaign, I went around the traditional gatekeepers. I sent out copies to friends and old contacts at newspapers, business magazines and TV, like CNBC. I didn't get any classic book reviews, but probably something better--mentions in articles, short little "hey, I liked this new book" mentions.

    I also hit the Web. Nice pieces showed up in a bunch of daily e-mails sent to financial types. Author Michael Lewis said some nice things in a Bloomberg.com column, and the book shot up to No. 26 on Amazon. I did get one real review on Slashdot, whose moniker is "News for Nerds. Stuff That Matters," and that morning my server got flooded with hits.

    And a funny thing happened--the book sold well….

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Tic of the week

    Courtesy of Supermaud (scroll down), a piece by a Brit who rips up the books he’s reading—for convenience:

    I started by buying cheap books, like those Wordsworth editions, when I was off on holiday. To tear the pages out as I read them reduced my baggage burden. After all, these books cost Ł1 - less than a Sunday paper. And you wouldn't take even The Sunday Telegraph all round the Alpujarras and bring it back neatly folded to Luton a fortnight later. Then I weighed a Wordsworth Woman in White against an old World's Classic. The World's Classic won by ounces. It did even better without its cover. And it only cost Ł2….

    Most books are hard to fit in a pocket without making you look like a trainee drug smuggler. But you can easily tear out 64 or even 128 pages and bend them into a back pocket. It makes the hands gloriously free on a walk.

    Never in a million years could I do such a thing. Just to read about it makes my skin prickle. I can’t even underline or highlight passages in the books I own—even though I approve in theory of underlining, and I love reading other people’s marginalia in used books and library copies. Yet I’m not a book collector, nor have I ever been attached to the Book as Object (as readers of this posting will recall).

    What, then, stops me from ripping up the paperbacks I own, much less writing in them? In what deeply buried layer of my psyche is this inhibition rooted? And why, given all this, am I a compulsive dogearer? (Sad but true.) Amusing speculations will be published in this space, so long as they stop short of outright obscenity.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Alas, not by me

    Again, from Lileks:

    I want a DVD compilation of 100 opening credits for forgotten 1960s movies. Is that too much to ask? The other night I found something I’d Tivo’d: "After the Fox," a caper comedy with Peter Sellers. The credits were just what you’d expect: Maurice Bender animation, a crafty animal to make you hope this would be as good as the Pink Panther, the pop-stars of the moment (the Hollies) singing a Burt Bacharach song with a hook and instrumentation you could only find in the 60s. I couldn’t get the hook out of my mind all day. And it’s played on a harpsichord. Someone should do a study of the role the harpsichord played in the 60s – it stood for Sophisticated European Intrigue, Rosemary’s Baby-style evil, light physical humor. Your all-purpose instrument. Perhaps in 200 years there will be a sudden & brief spasm of love for the Mellotron, or the Tonette.

    I have no interest in seeing the movie, but I love the title sequence. I TiVo lots of 60s movies just for the titles. Nowadays we see the 60s through the prism of the counterculture, and think that helps us understand the era best – well, ahem, the important syllables in "counterculture" are "counter." You can’t understand the 60s without spending an equal amount of time in the stuff the counterculture countered. On any given weekend moviegoing Americans went not to a Dead concert but to "After the Fox" or some such trifle. Having the Hollies sing the title tune might have been as close as they got to the scary world of ROCK, with its long hair and folk singers and dope smoking and free love, etc.

    Two words: Saul Bass.

    Actually, one of the things about Sixties and Seventies films that has dated most completely, at least for me, is the use of jazz in the underscoring—or, rather, the use of Hollywood-style big-band pseudo-jazz, sometimes lightly dusted with rock. It’s funny how that should make me wince in an oh-God-how-totally-unhip way, seeing as how I’m a recovering jazz musician myself. Why is it that the use of so rich and evocative a musical idiom should root a film in its time and place to the point of outright paralysis, whereas the best symphonic scores of the Thirties and Forties float free of their periods? I can’t explain it, but think about what I just said the next time you see an ur-Sixties film like, say, The Hustler, or almost anything scored by Lalo Schifrin. No matter how involving the film itself may be, it invariably ends up sounding like a TV show.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Gervas Leat shook his head. 'I don’t disapprove of avant garde. I can’t, for I know nothing about it. But I confess I’m inclined to resent it.'

    "'Resent it?'

    "'Yes. I suspect it of trying to teach me something—to convert me. And I don’t want to be converted. I listen for relaxation, you know. Perhaps I’m not really a musical man. But I don’t want struggle or significance or purpose. I want to be pleased.'

    "Richard Wakeley, looking about the room, could agree. It was a good deal earlier than the Adams and the architect had known better than to debauch it with a spurious blue. The walls were the palest of apple greens, the pilasters’ capitals discreetly gilded. It was a lovely room, calm and assured, a room for leisure and for formal good manners. Outside it men wrestled with eternal problems: evil and beauty, sin and solipsism. Sometimes the greater the problem the smaller the man. Enormous, insoluble problems. And quite possibly meaningless. Yes, in this lovely room almost certainly without meaning."

    William Haggard, Venetian Blind

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Night thoughts

    I was watching an old episode of What’s My Line?, my all-time favorite game show, earlier this evening. (To read an essay about What’s My Line? that I wrote not long after 9/11, go here.) This particular program must have originally aired in 1961 or 1962, because in introducing panelist Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, Arlene Francis mentioned in passing that two of Cerf’s authors, William Faulkner and John O’Hara, had gotten good reviews in that morning’s papers.

    This offhand comment took me by surprise. Bear in mind that What’s My Line? was no ordinary game show: it was so popular that CBS broadcast it in prime time every Sunday night for a quarter-century. This being the case, does it strike you as at all surprising that the president of a publishing house was sufficiently famous in 1961 to have been a regular panelist on a high-rated network series? Or that Arlene Francis took it for granted that the viewers of What’s My Line? might be interested in knowing that two major American novelists had just published new books, much less that they’d been favorably reviewed in the New York papers that day?

    I hit the pause button and tried without success to envision some latter-day equivalent of this phenomenon. Can you imagine Paul Shaffer casually mentioning to David Letterman that he’d just been reading about Martin Amis’s latest novel on Maud Newton’s blog? For that matter, can you imagine Letterman or Leno interviewing any novelist at all? (O.K., maybe Stephen King, but that proves my point.) Or mentioning a piece they’d just read in The New Yorker? Or inviting Donna Murphy on the show to sing a song from Wonderful Town?

    I could parse this cultural sea change in a dozen different ways, but it’s past my bedtime, so I’ll simply settle for reporting it.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, January 20, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, January 19, 2004
    TT: You may fire when ready, Gridley

    I just emptied my e-mailbox, which contained (drumroll) 170 items. Quite a few, to be sure, were urgent requests to send money to Africans who can't spell, ads for prescription drugs and penis enlargers (do these people know something I don't?), and press releases from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (enough already, Bernadette!), but most were actual communications from actual readers, and all are now answered, save for a half-dozen or so that required somewhat more consideration and have been filed for later reply, by which I mean sooner rather than later.

    Once again, thanks so much for writing to "About Last Night." Your letters are a significant part of what makes blogging worthwhile. OGIC and I have the smartest readers imaginable, and we love hearing from you, even if it does occasionally take a month for us to reply.

    So...if you've been holding back, let the e-mail recommence. I'm ready to rock again!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, January 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Words on film, part two

    This continues Friday’s posting about the documentary film Word Wars, which trains a camera on competitive Scrabble at its highest levels. The movie premiered at Sundance Saturday. When the first installment ended, we were discussing the surprisingly wide reach of last year’s documentary on the National Spelling Bee, Spellbound, and how that success might affect the fortunes of Word Wars as filmmakers Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo seek distribution for their two-and-a-half-year labor of love.

    “We heard about Spellbound when we had just finished shooting, in August 2002,” says Eric. “First I worried that it would steal our thunder, but soon I realized that the success of the movie could help Word Wars. The issue was whether we would be too close to it, but when I saw it I knew we weren’t. Spellbound is about kids. The exploding child syndrome is a very visually compelling act, with the children grimacing and disappearing and so forth.” Julian concurs: “Spellbound has a different structure, starting out as a character study and then zeroing in on competition. We wanted to see the characters interact with each other, and as a result our subject matter is more layered and dense, and harder to explain. But it was a fine thing that a word-oriented documentary blazed the trail and proved that it could be done successfully.”

    One thing Spellbound had going for it was the wide variety of settings in its first movement, from a Texas cowtown to inner-city D.C (it’s no picnic not using “hardscrabble” here, but I'm exercising restraint). How bound was Word Wars to the small interior spaces where the game is played? “Intruding with the camera on so many high-strung personalities in such little spaces—hotel rooms and an apartment in Alphabet City, for example—was a particular challenge,” Eric concedes. But there are some Scrabble settings that might surprise you, too.

    Washington Square Park is the home base for street Scrabble in New York City. “Gutsy, gritty Scrabble gets played everyday in Washington Square,” says Eric. “A b-story in the film is about a main character coming back to the Park. I was playing in the Park for a while, and that’s where I met some of the most interesting people who inspired me to make a movie. People are familiar with the chess players on the south side of the park, but a smaller, equally ragtag group plays Scrabble on the northwest side, with beaten-up, battered old dictionaries. They know their words as well as the tournament people.”

    Julian adds, “The park was a vivid setting, visually and aurally, with a protest against the war going on in the background and scraggly codgers playing each other for a dollar a game, penny a point, in the foreground.” Two of the Park regulars, who don’t appear in the final cut, are "African-American intellectuals from the 1970s who look like they’ve been wandering around the streets of New York ever since." One of them, friendly with everyone in the neighborhood, once studied comparative linguistics at MIT and knows 13 languages. He’s given to tossing off inscrutable pronouncements like “Cornel West took the wrong fork,” or “Cornel West is highly medicated” (hmm, pattern?). He has a reputation as the only notable defensive player—he has no offensive game, so his strategy is to jam up the board. He used to be a good player, Eric says, until he got into this defensive, paranoid mode. “That defines his stance toward the world,” says Julian, “not just Scrabble.”

    I asked Eric and Julian about influences, and Errol Morris's name came up early and often. "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control takes its own path, leaving a lot up to the viewer," Eric said. Julian chimed in, "Morris takes subjects that aren't intrinsically visual, and finds visual interest in them." Hoop Dreams and Best in Show were also mentioned. I raised my eyebrows at the latter, which is of course fiction, a mockumentary (n.b., since I first drafted this, Word Wars itself has been described by one lucky soul who has actually seen it as—coming full circle—a nonfictional mockumentary). "We're not out to mock anyone," Eric clarifies, "but we did count on everyone to have a healthy sense of humor about themselves. The obsessiveness with which these guys digest the dictionary is absurd. I spend my share of time looking through the dictionary too, and I try to channel it productively. But it's absurd. There's an absurd, funny, intense camaraderie that I wanted to capture."

    So will those of us not imminently jetting off to Utah get to see it? I didn’t know it Friday, but the answer seems to be yes. Word Wars distributor Seventh Art Releasing has struck a deal with the Discovery Times channel. As far as I know, there’s no air date yet; when there is, you’ll hear it here. Seventh Art, meanwhile, is also still looking for a general theatrical distributor. The film's warm reception at Sundance won't hurt. Eric had set this festival as a specific goal for the film, but he admits that the prizes there tend to go to issue-oriented documentaries (this year, though, much attention seems to have gone to a surfing film that became the first documentary to open the festival). “But people may be looking for the next slice-of-life film this year, the next Spellbound.” It doesn’t hurt their cause that Julian brought to the project his experience of having worked on three films that have won the Sundance Audience Award in the past.

    Both Eric and Julian are optimistic about the prospects for more documentaries getting commercially released following a year that saw the mainstream success of not only Spellbound but also Capturing the Friedmans. They have a standard “documentary diatribe,” but there have been so many good signs lately that the version I hear is pretty watered down with optimism. “It’s still a hard market to break into, financially speaking. Michael Moore’s success is unique. This was starting to change when we were filming; every year it seems there’s another documentary that breaks into the ranks of general-release films. People’s perceptions are changing. Everyone says, ‘I love documentaries.’”

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Interim report

    Part two of my report on the making of the Sundance documentary Word Wars (read part one here) will be posted this evening. In the meantime, please enjoy these early reports from the movie's press screening in Park City. Sounds like a hit to me!

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'Whenever things sound easy,' Dortmunder said, 'it turns out there’s one part you didn’t hear.'"

    Donald E. Westlake, Drowned Hopes

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, January 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Ubiquity

    As I write these words, about 50 percent of our readers are in the eastern time zone of the United States. The rest are distributed across nine other time zones here and abroad. Hello out there!

    I'm not sure how much we'll be blogging in the course of the next 24 hours (Our Girl and I are both wrestling with prose-for-money deadlines), but I put up a lot of fresh stuff on Saturday and Sunday that you may not have seen, and I'll also try to post something worth reading between now and the end of the day. In the meantime, thanks for your forbearance.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, January 19, 2004 | Permanent link
Sunday, January 18, 2004
    TT: Stop me before I blog again

    Do I blog when I ought to be writing for money? Sometimes. I was going to spend Sunday morning writing another chapter of my George Balanchine book, but did I? Nooooo. I had a leisurely brunch at the Fairway Café with a couple of musician friends, then came straight back here and posted a whole bunch of stuff. Shame on me.

    On the other hand, I'm leaving in an hour to go see New York City Ballet dance Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream, after which I expect to be sufficiently inspired to come home and write that chapter...unless, of course, I decide instead to write my piece for The Wall Street Journal on Amtrak sleepers. (Benchley's Law: Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.)

    Either way, if I blog again today, don't read it. That'll teach me a lesson.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, January 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Elsewhere

    Felix Salmon is very smart on the current condition of long-form reporting in The New Yorker:

    I've worried, recently, about the front of the book; now I'm worried about the features. The New Yorker under David Remnick is certainly very good at timeliness, and covers foreign affairs magnificently. Newsier subjects in general are excellently done. But the kind of thing the New Yorker is famous for – long articles about people and subjects you didn't know you might ever be interested in – have been very weak for a long while. No one cares about John McPhee's fish, and, as TMFTML so eloquently put it, "enough with the f------ bags already" when it comes to picaresque tales of picking up litter.

    Two things:

    (1) No, we still don’t print That Word here at "About Last Night," though we strongly encourage Mr. TMFTML and Old Hag to continue doing so. (Go ahead, call us a couple of prigs. We double-dog dare you.)

    (2) I think Felix is right, but I also know that people have been complaining that The New Yorker isn’t what it used to be ever since, oh, 1942 (and no, I didn’t pick that number out of a hat). Question: when did the magazine last publish an unusually long piece of reportage that set Absolutely Everybody to talking? I mean something that kicked up at least as much dust as, say, Hiroshima or In Cold Blood. How long has it been? Just wondering.

    Speaking of magazines, I can’t remember the last time a weekly newsmagazine published an art-related story that was worth reading, but Newsweek just hit the jackpot with an excellent where-are-they-now feature about the makers of The Blair Witch Project. The film, formerly the biggest-grossing indie flick of all time—it has since been surpassed by My Big Fat Greek Wedding—brought in $248.3 million worldwide. The five producing partners of Blair Witch netted $5 million each, the actors $1 million. To you, that’s serious money, but in Hollywood, it’s chump change. Is that depressing, or what? (Read the whole thing here, if you dare.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, January 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: But we got the numbers

    From a story in the New York Times about the box-office success of several recent movies starring middle-aged women:

    In 1995, the percentage of women 18 or older who went to the movies at least once a month peaked at 27 percent, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. But in the late 1990's, that percentage declined as Hollywood delivered a string of female-oriented box-office disasters with predictable plots. Studios then began making more action films for teenage boys who see them in groups over and over.

    Teenagers remain the largest segment of the audience, primarily because they are repeat customers. But in the past 15 years, the older set has gained ground. Tickets bought by men and women older than 40 grew to 32 percent of overall ticket purchases in 2002, from 20 percent in 1987, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.

    By contrast, the percentage of tickets purchased by filmgoers from 12 to 39 years old dropped from 80 percent in 1987 to 67 percent in 2002. Much of that decline, studio executives say, is a result of new distractions, like video games and the Internet.

    So could it be that I was wrong to predict, as I did in this space last month, that "the adventurous indie flicks of the not-so-distant future will find their audiences not in theatrical release, but via such new-media distribution routes as direct-to-DVD and on-demand digital cable"? Possibly. Nevertheless, I still think it more likely that we’re headed for a two-track system of distribution: dumb movies will be released in theaters, while smart movies will be marketed like books. The only difference is that the preferences of older boomers, who are presumably less open to new media, might well be interacting with the more media-savvy preferences of teenagers and twentysomethings to create a temporary demographic skew. We’ll see.

    All of which reminds me to plug a new blog I find morbidly fascinating, Boomer Deathwatch (motto: "Because one day, they’ll all be dead"), which links to news stories and commentaries about boomer/Gen-X intergenerational strife. Very smart, very funny, very unnerving, at least for those of us born prior to 1960. Yikes!

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, January 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Alas, not by me

    Says Laura Lippman, "About Last Night"’s favorite living mystery writer:

    No tour of Baltimore is complete without driving past something that used to be there.

    For the context of this impeccably quotable remark (plus a nifty photo), go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, January 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: A little late to the party

    Just because I live in Manhattan doesn’t mean I always see cool things weeks ahead of the rest of the world. For example, I only just saw The Triplets of Belleville (the new French-Canadian-Belgian animated feature) last night, ten humiliatingly long days after Cinetrix ordered her readers to go and do likewise. If you haven’t done so, read her post now, then go see Triplets at once, preferably this afternoon, or tomorrow if absolutely necessary. If you've already seen Triplets, read her post anyway, because it’s really smart.

    I do have a few small things to add:

  • Cinetrix thinks the opening sequence of Triplets is "reminiscent of 1930s Warner Brothers’ cartoons." Yes, a bit, though I was also put in mind of the less technically adroit fare produced by the Fleischer brothers around the same time. But the strongest influence on the rest of The Triplets of Belleville, visually speaking, is late Chuck Jones. Keep The Grinch Who Stole Christmas in mind and you’ll see what I mean.

  • The big difference between Jones and Sylvain Chomet, the director of Triplets, is that Chomet is more inclined to grotesquerie (occasionally bordering on outright grossness) than sentimentality. This gives Triplets an astringent flavor that serves as a counterpoise to its oh-so-French touches of whimsy.

  • Triplets strikes me as not at all suitable for children, at least not small ones. (My guess is that the film’s mixture of grotesquerie and surrealism would give them nightmares.) This sets it well apart from such recent American animated features such as Lilo and Stitch, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc. Even though they’re adult-friendly, those films were all made specifically for children, whereas The Triplets of Belleville is definitely for grownups.

  • The caricatures Cinetrix mentions in her post—of Django Reinhardt, Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, even Glenn Gould—are amazingly sharp-eyed and knowing, but they don’t get much screen time. Neither does anything else: Triplets is crammed full of more witty detail than you can possibly absorb in a single viewing. You’ll want to see it twice.

  • Back in August, I posted about what I then took to be the dilemma of digital animation:

    I really liked Finding Nemo. But every time I see a Pixar movie, I think of the dead end down which the Disney animators of the Thirties and Forties charged so heedlessly. Artist for artist, the Disney team packed a greater technical punch than any animation shop in history, but its product got duller and duller, while the Warner and MGM cartoons of the same period became more vivid and witty with every passing year. What made the difference? Disney’s creative team was fixated on the chimerical goal of realism, whereas Chuck Jones and Tex Avery knew that no matter how well you drew it, an animated cartoon was going to look like drawings of a talking animal.

    This sounds like a debate over modernism, doesn’t it? Well, that’s just what it is. You can’t watch a cartoon like Jones’ "Duck Amuck" or Avery’s "King-Size Canary" without understanding that what you’re looking at is a cartoon. Both men accepted the inherent limitations of their chosen medium, thereby freeing their imaginations to run rampant within those limitations. Not so Walt Disney, whose goal was to make his studio’s cartoons look as real as possible, meaning that the imagination of the artists got tied up in knots. (Unlimited virtuosity can be a trap.)

    I know there’s more to animation than animation, so to speak. Pixar’s features are good not just because of the way they look but also because of the way they’re written and voiced and scored. In those departments, Pixar stands head and shoulders over just about everybody else’s stuff. But the best animated feature of the past decade, Lilo and Stitch, is just as imaginatively written and voiced and scored—but also makes generous use of hand-drawn characters and hand-painted backgrounds that don’t aspire to Pixar-like hyper-realism. I can’t help but think that this is part of the reason why Lilo and Stitch touched me, whereas Finding Nemo mostly only charmed me.

    I quote that posting at length because Triplets is an eye-opening example of how highly sophisticated digital techniques can be employed in a non-naturalistic way that makes full use of the medium’s potential without falling into the trap of hyper-realism. It completely changed my feelings about digital animation—though not about the expressive limitations of the Pixar house style.

    All of which, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, adds up to a hats-off rave. The Triplets of Belleville is wonderfully funny, miraculously well-made, and unoppressively clever. Thank you, Cinetrix, for being so insistent in your praise. I owe you one.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, January 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'And yet,' demanded Councillor Barlow, 'what’s he done? Has he ever done a day’s work in his life? What great cause is he identified with?'

    "'He’s identified,' said the speaker, 'with the great cause of cheering us all up.'"

    Arnold Bennett, The Card

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, January 18, 2004 | Permanent link

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