About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, August 4, 2006
TT: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, R.I.P.
I wonder how kindly Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died yesterday at the age of ninety, will be treated by posterity. In her lifetime she was widely—if by no means universally—regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of her generation. Yet even at the height of Schwarzkopf’s career, there were plenty of critical naysayers who found her singing fussy and mannered to the point of archness, and since her retirement in 1975, it’s my impression that their point of view, which I share, has come to prevail.
Schwarzkopf was also a great beauty, which doubtless contributed to the effect she had on live audiences. Alas, I never saw her on stage or in recital, only on film, so I can’t say whether she made a stronger impression in person. I’ve heard most of her major recordings, though, and I find that I rarely return to any of them save to listen to her colleagues. For my money, Herbert von Karajan’s first recordings of Falstaff and Der Rosenkavalier are the best things she ever did in the studio, and her singing is by no means the most memorable aspect of those deservedly admired performances.
As for her private life, suffice it for now to say that she was a Nazi, that she lied about it for as long as she could get away with it, and that she admitted her youthful affiliation with the Nazi Party grudgingly, evasively, and only when confronted with incontrovertible documentary evidence. Sooner or later a frank, fully informed biography of Schwarzkopf will be written, and my guess is that it will prove devastating to her reputation. (Alan Jefferson’s 1996 book didn’t fill the bill, but it was a start.)
Such things may not matter to you, but they do to me, all the more so in light of the fact that Schwarzkopf was so gifted and admired an artist. As I wrote in Commentary a few years ago apropos of those French artists who collaborated with the Nazis:
One thinks, for instance, of Colette, who blithely published in anti-Semitic magazines during the German occupation, or of the great pianist Alfred Cortot, who went so far as to serve as Vichy’s High Commissioner of Fine Arts and to perform in Nazi Germany….Indeed, the most troubling thing about Colette, Cortot and their fellow collaborationists is that they were not second-tier figures but creative and recreative geniuses whose work remains to this day representative of the quintessence of French art.
On the other hand, none of that stops me from reading Colette’s novels or listening to Cortot’s recordings. We are all flawed creatures, and one of the impenetrable mysteries of beautiful art is that it can be made by ugly souls. So feel free to mourn the death of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and to speak admiringly of her artistry—but when you do so, remember that there was more to her than the music she made.
As Clement Greenberg told an interviewer in 1969:
There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.
UPDATE: Anthony Tommasini's New York Times obituary, which is both lengthy and candid, is here.
For a sympathetic but equally candid appreciation by Tim Page of the Washington Post, go here.
Here’s my first official report from last weekend’s voyage to the outskirts of hell, a review of Shakespeare & Company published in this morning's Wall Street Journal. As you can see, I didn’t let my manifold travails interfere with the pleasure I took in what I saw on stage:
Western Massachusetts has long been a center of classy summer theater. In the past two seasons I’ve seen Barrington Stage Company and the Berkshire and Williamstown Theatre Festivals, and last week I made it to Shakespeare & Company, where I saw back-to-back performances of “Hamlet” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” two Shakespeare plays that have about as much in common as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nor were the productions alike save for their excellence—a sign of the adventurousness of the 29-year-old Lenox-based company, which more than lived up to its reputation.
I admit to having had my doubts about Eleanor Holdridge’s staging of “Hamlet.” To begin with, Jason Asprey, who is playing the title role in Shakespeare & Company’s first-ever production of that most familiar and formidable of tragedies, just happens to be the son of Tina Packer, the company’s founder and artistic director, who in turn is playing Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. As if that weren’t suspicious enough, Ms. Packer’s husband, Dennis Krausnick, is playing Polonius. Having digested all this information, I opened my program and found a note explaining that the production “centers the play in the electrical synapse impulses of Hamlet’s dying brain.” This is a family newspaper, so I won’t tell you what I muttered to myself as I read those words, but it wasn’t optimistic.
All at once the theater went dark, followed by an explosion of chilly fluorescent light and a mega-decibel electric-chair zzzzap! Young Hamlet started reciting “To be or not to be.” Then the rest of the cast appeared, bedecked in stylized modern dress with mod touches ŕ la Austin Powers. “Oh, hell,” I said, this time out loud—but stayed to cheer….
“I have never thought that painting a picture has anything to do with self-expression. It is a communication about the world to someone else. After the world is convinced about this communication, it changes. The world was never the same after Picasso or Miró. Theirs was a view of the world which transformed our vision of things. All teaching about self-expression is erroneous in art; it has to do with therapy. Knowing yourself is valuable so that the self can be removed from the process.”
Tomorrow is the one hundred and fifth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong, so Michael J. Bandler of the U.S. State Department interviewed me about Satchmo’s life and work (and about Hotter Than That, my biography-in-progress) for U.S. Life and Culture, one of the many Web pages produced by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.
To read a transcript of our conversation, go here.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
"Andrew had never had any first-hand experience of the majestic frivolity of the law; and his attitude towards it was rather more that of the man in the street than might have been expected in a person of his intelligence. He believed that lawyers everywhere were a pack of rogues, but that once a cause was delivered into their hands, somehow or other the Right must inevitably triumph. At the same time, the mere thought of becoming involved in its processes filled him with horror. The sight of even the most innocent legal document would induce in him a melancholy frame of mind."
From Stephen Holden, my favorite New York Times critic:
A quintessential Tony Bennett moment comes at the end of “It’s a Wonderful World,” the tender duet he recorded with K. D. Lang for their 2002 Louis Armstrong tribute album, “A Wonderful World.” After they swap greeting-card doggerel celebrating “trees of green,” “skies of blue” and “clouds of white,” Mr. Bennett remarks with a boyish enthusiasm, “Don’t you think Satchmo was right?”
Ms. Lang responds by crooning a final, dreamy “what a wonderful world,” whereupon her partner, speaking in the quiet, choked-up voice of a man visiting the grave of a beloved father figure, declares, “You were right, Pops.”
This gentle burst of affirmation melts your heart and reminds you that sincerity, a mode of expression that has been twisted, trampled, co-opted and corrupted in countless ways by the false intimacy of television, still exists in American popular culture. It can even salvage “trees of green,” “skies of blue” and “clouds of white” from the junk heap of pop inanity….
It reminded me, by the way, of a paragraph I read earlier today in Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser:
How many people did she know who spoke or looked at anything with genuine feeling? Without being cynical, on stage, trying to entertain. Without puffing up or putting down. She wanted to know what he felt and, if possible, share the feeling.
That’s the way I’d like my writing to make people feel.
Courtesy of the increasingly invaluable Kate’s Book Blog, here's a “one-book meme” that tickled my fancy:
• One book that changed your life. W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. It showed me how to write a biography, and opened my eyes to the possibility that I might someday want to do such a thing.
• One book that you’ve read more than once. I read every book I really like more than once—usually several times. I suppose, though, that the book I’ve read most often, unlikely as it may sound, is Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being.
• One book you’d want on a desert island. Montaigne’s Essays, which by contrast I haven’t read nearly often enough.
• One book that made you laugh. Kingsley Amis’ Girl, 20.
• One book that made you cry. Books almost never make me cry, even those that move me deeply. I’m much more likely to cry in the theater or while listening to music. I’m sure there’s an exception, but I can’t recall one off the top of my head. (If I think of one, I'll let you know.)
• One book that you wish had been written. Paul Desmond’s How Many of You Are There in the Quartet? He claimed to be working on it for years and years, but all he ever published (except for a half-dozen liner notes) was a lone autobiographical essay for Punch about the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s worst gig ever. It’s reprinted in Doug Ramsey’s wonderful Desmond biography.
• One book that you wish had never been written. I was going to say Mein Kampf, but on further reflection I realized it was probably good for the world that Hitler set down his plans for world conquest in so unguarded a way. (Oh, that mine adversary had written a book!) This being the case, I’ll opt instead for sheer pissiness and pick Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, which I read in high school and found so time-consumingly awful that I swore I’d never read another word of Wolfe again. Nor have I.
I boarded a train for Connecticut at Penn Station last Friday afternoon to embark on a long weekend of playgoing. A half-hour later the engine failed, and we crawled back to the station to get a new one. I arrived in Hartford three hours late, having spent the preceding five hours sitting in a jam-packed Amtrak car without benefit of air conditioning.
From that moment on, things started going wrong, and kept going wrong. I presented myself at a rental-car counter in a suburban mall the following morning—and spent fifteen increasingly frustrating minutes waiting for a clerk to materialize. The overworked, well-meaning clerk considerately upgraded me to a convertible—and by the time I got where I was going, I had a nice rosy sunburn. I went looking for lunch in Lenox, Massachusetts, home of Shakespeare & Company—and discovered that there is nowhere to park within the city limits on Saturday afternoons. (No, I’m not exaggerating for a laugh. When I say nowhere, I mean nowhere.) I showed up for a matinee of The Merry Wives of Windsor that I’d mistakenly thought was supposed to start at two o’clock—and found out from the friendly young lady at the box office that it actually started at three.
When I awoke the next day and realized that I had begun the lengthy, exasperating process of passing a kidney stone, it occurred to me for the first time that I might possibly be in a Philadelphia. Anyone familiar with the one-act plays of David Ives will know what I’m talking about, and tremble with awestruck sympathy. In The Philadelphia Ives describes with sadistic relish the kind of day in which “no matter what you ask for, you can’t get it.” This unhappy circumstance, a character explains, is a metaphysical state of mind known as “being in a Philadelphia.” Had I fallen all unknowing into such a dire condition? I nervously swallowed a handful of Tylenol, drove north to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown—and saw as I approached the museum grounds that hundreds of children were playing on the front lawn. It was Family Day. Now I knew: I was in a Philadelphia.
Once I accepted my fate and prepared for the worst, I wondered if perhaps I might only be in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where you get half of what you ask for. Yes, the Clark was jammed—but admission is free on Family Day, and The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings, the show I’d come to see,
was every bit as eye-popping as its reviews had promised. Yes, I spent the evening sitting under the Hudson Valley Shakepeare Festival tent, watching the company perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in ninety-degree weather as I squirmed in discomfort—but I got a good dinner beforehand, and the kidney stone exited my person after the show without further incident. Yes, the air conditioner in my hotel room was on the blink—but the staff of the Hudson House Inn installed a new window unit while I was watching the play, and thereafter I slept deeply and well. Yes, I’d seen three Shakespeare plays in thirty hours—but seeing Merry Wives, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet back to back is its own reward.
I arose on Monday, breakfasted on a sunny porch overlooking the Hudson River, and drove back to Connecticut along green country roads, certain that I was on my way out of the suburbs of David Ives’ metaphysical city of frustration. Only time will tell, but as of Tuesday morning, I haven't experienced any further disasters or half-disasters. On the other hand, I've still got to write my review, the country home where I'm staying this week has yet to install a high-speed connection to the Internet, and it's going to be even hotter than it was last week....
"It is hard for a writer to call an editor great, because it is natural for him to think of the editor as a writer manqué. It is like asking a thief to approve a fence, or a fighter to speak highly of a manager. 'Fighters are sincere,' a fellow with the old pug's syndrome said to me at a bar once as his head wobbled and the hand that held his shot glass shook. 'Managers are pimps, they sell our blood.' In the newspaper trade, confirmed reporters think confirmed editors are mediocrities who took the easy way out. These attitudes mark an excess of vanity coupled with a lack of imagination; it never occurs to a writer that anybody could have wanted to be anything else."
Racing to get out of town last week, I neglected to leave word that I was going. Sorry about that. It was my fourth annual sojourn to the utterly involving, continually surprising, and most excellently populated National Puzzler's League convention, this year held in San Antonio, where the heat outside is smothering and the AC inside is headsplitting. Despite climatic challenges, I had a more than wonderful time.
Having arrived back home yesterday, I am faced with a back-breaking beginning of the work week, which was kicked off with a three-hour meeting today and more accumulated emails than I could count or, certainly, answer. After work I went to break the cat out of kitty jail, otherwise known as boarding at the veterinarian's. Anyone one who knows her will attest that this is one ridiculously gorgeous cat, a long-haired butterscotch tabby with golden eyes. Well, after five days at the vet's, being brought out in her kitty caddy, she looked every bit like Bill the Cat—grizzled, askew, and pretty much demented. By now she's close to normal again, and we both need some sleep in a comfortable place. More blogging later this week.
"Offhand one would expect that the mere possession of power would automatically result in a cocky attitude toward the world and a receptivity to change. But it is not always so. The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future. Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power—a slogan, a word, a button."
I'll be appearing on KRCU-FM, the public radio station of Southeast Missouri State University, this coming Sunday at three p.m. CDT (that's four p.m. EDT). The program is Going Public, on which I'll be discussing my work as a drama and film critic and the effects of the new media on American journalism.
If you live in or near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, tune to 90.9 FM.
To listen live on your computer via streaming audio, go here.
My mother's feeling much better, the heat wave has finally waved goodbye, and all that remains before I return to New York is to post the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. This time I report on my recent visit to St. Louis, where I saw the Muny Opera's outdoor production of Mame and St. Louis Shakespeare's air-conditioned Henry V:
It was my bad luck to arrive in the middle of a 12-alarm heat wave. The temperature rose to 102 degrees, and it was still foully hot and chokingly humid by the time I reached my seat, toting a soft-sided cooler full of prophylactic fluids. I wilted almost immediately, but the rest of the 9,000-strong crowd took the weather in its stride….
I found it fascinating to behold the near-scientific exactitude with which the Muny approaches the problem of producing musicals for extremely large audiences. The costumes are brightly colored, the sets big and bold (I especially liked Steve Gilliam's elaborate rendering of Mame's art-deco apartment). Paul Blake and Diana Baffa-Brill, the director and choreographer, kept the stage patterns eye-catchingly simple. The theater itself has flawless sight lines, and a state-of-the-art sound system projects the dialogue all the way to the very last row of the cheap seats (I checked)….
I was in town too early for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, whose season opens on Sept. 7 with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Fortunately, St. Louis Shakespeare, a classical company founded in 1984, was already up and running with an estimable “Henry V.” Robin Weatherall, the director, is better known as a composer (he had a 17-year run with the Royal Shakespeare Company), but you couldn't tell it from this vigorous, unmannered production, played in traditional costumes on the open stage of the Grandel Theatre, a midtown church that has been converted into an attractive performing space….
No link, of course, so to read the whole thing go out and buy a copy of today's Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal (by far the preferable alternative—great paper, great arts coverage, great deal).
“Saw your picture in the paper this morning,” said the driver of the shuttle that runs between the parking lot and the front door of the southeast Missouri hospital where my mother is recovering from surgery. Three more people told me the same thing in the lobby, elevator, and fourth-floor corridor. By the time I finally got to her room, I'd figured out that a reporter from one of our two local papers must have come to my Tuesday-night lecture at the Smalltown Depot, and a quick look at the carefully folded copy of the Southeast Missourian conspicuously placed on her bedside table confirmed it: I'd received what small-town newspaper readers universally refer to as “a write-up.” What's more, it was a good one, meaning that (A) I was quoted accurately and (B) my photo looked rather more like the fellow I see in the bathroom mirror than the one portrayed on my driver's license.
Not that I would have expected anything different. Small-town newspaper reporters rarely go out of their way to publish hatchet jobs, least of all about the Hometown Boy Made Good who comes back for a nostalgic visit. The rules of small-town journalism are very different from those prevailing in the big city. Reporters are not your friends, I've told any number of friends and colleagues preparing to be interviewed by a big-city journalist for the first time. Some of them take my word for it and act accordingly, but others march off to their doom sure that I'm a hardened old cynic and thus not to be trusted. “I just had an epiphany,” one of the latter told me after emerging, somewhat scathed, from the lion's den. “A reporter risks nothing by inappropriate revelations, whereas the subject risks everything.” I was kind enough not to say I told her so.
Be that as it may, I haven't any complaints with the way the Southeast Missourian and the Standard-Democrat wrote me up. Besides, it was fun to be recognized on the street, though I can see how it might get old. Alas, my fame will last only through Friday, when I fly back to Manhattan and resume the genteel obscurity of a middle-to-highbrow critic who can count his network TV appearances on some of the fingers of one hand. I realized long ago that in America, there's no such thing as a famous writer, only famous actors. My all-time favorite joke is about the, er, Polish starlet who, er, slept with the screenwriter. If I ever write a book about Hollywood, which isn't likely, that'll be the title: She Screwed the Writer. (Or something close to that, anyway.)
I returned from the hospital to find an e-mailbox full of increasingly urgent communications. Among other things, it seems that the producers of one of the shows I was supposed to review in next Friday's Wall Street Journal have postponed its opening night, a decision which forced me to spend a full hour rearranging my schedule for the next two weeks, with further juggling in the offing. In addition, I have three thousand words of deathless prose due in the e-mailbox of a Manhattan editor at some point in the next twenty-four hours, though the editor in question was kind enough to call on Wednesday morning and offer me an unsolicited deadline extension, an act of mercy for which he will store up much heavenly treasure. That doesn't mean I'm not going to try to get the piece in on time, but it does mean I can breathe a little easier tomorrow morning, especially since I'm supposed to tape a local radio interview at one o'clock, arrgh….
Sounds like I'm already back in New York, doesn't it? I got a call yesterday from Bass Player, my great friend, kindred spirit, and fellow workaholic, who is somewhere on the West Coast this week for reasons not dissimilar to the ones that brought me to Smalltown, U.S.A., last week. We traded notes on our respective situations, complained about the work we'd brought home with us, then swore up and down to one another that in spite of everything, we were still managing to set aside A Little Time for Ourselves.
“You know what we sound like?” I said. “A couple of drunks bragging about how many days we've been sober.”
She laughed so hard I thought my cell phone was going to explode.
Enough already. It's not too late for me to to get a good night's sleep, so I'll turn off the iBook and give it my best shot. You wouldn't hear from me again until Friday if I had any sense, but who says I have any sense?
“'You did a thing in a picture once,' he said. 'Can't remember the name of it, but you were in a room and you said a poem or something about fireflies. That was good.'
“I knew right away what he meant. That's all he said. He was talking about a scene in the picture Come Live with Me that had come out before the war in 1941. He couldn't remember the title, wasn't even sure I was the same guy, but that little thing—didn't even last a minute—he'd remembered all those years. And that's what's so great about the movies. If you're good and God helps you and you're lucky enough to have the kind of personality that comes across, you're giving people little, little tiny pieces of time that they never forget.”
James Stewart (quoted in Donald Dewey, James Stewart: A Biography)
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Attention, Yale University Press: I just sold a caseful of Teachout Readers. The occasion was the lecture I delivered on Tuesday at Smalltown's old train depot, which has been turned into a museum. I spoke about how the new information technology has changed my life as a journalist, and when I was done I spent a good half-hour selling and signing copies of A Terry Teachout Reader. Granted, half the people in the audience knew me when I was in kneepants, but that's still a whole bunch of books.
• This is the first time in my life that I've ever given a formal lecture without a script or written notes. I was too busy taking care of my mother last week to do my usual painstaking preparations, so I flew blind. It seems to have gone well, though I would have felt more comfortable reading from a prepared, rehearsed text.
• As always, I spoke for a half-hour and took questions for a half-hour, and I'm pleased to say that I've never been asked sharper or more pertinent questions by a lecture audience. Go, home team!
• In the audience was Dr. Joseph Blanton (known to Smalltownians of all ages as “Doctor Joe”), the kindly, all-knowing pediatrician who looked after me from infancy to high school and beyond. It is an awesome thing to gaze out into the upturned faces of a listening crowd and see for the first time in years a man who used to know you inside and out. I had to bite my tongue to keep from choking up.
• The Smalltown Depot is the place from which I caught my very first train. The year was 1962 and my kindergarten class was taking a field trip. We rode a passenger train thirty miles north to Cape Girardeau and were collected by our parents at the station. I vividly remember thinking to myself that riding a train was the most exciting thing I'd ever done in my life and that I wanted to do it again as soon as possible. Alas, passenger service to Smalltown was terminated a couple of years later, and it wasn't until I grew up and moved to New York that I rode another train, realizing at once that my six-year-old self had been right. I think of that maiden voyage every time I ride the Metroliner between New York and Washington, and I always smile at the memory.
I'm so tired now that I could tip over: I got three hours' worth of sleep last night and have dark circles all the way around both my eyes. (I wore one of my black outfits to the lecture so that I'd look dissipated rather than merely exhausted.) I have to wrench myself out of bed at seven this morning to get my mother's car inspected, after which I'll be putting in at least three hours' worth of hard slogging at the iBook. That spells bedtime to me. I may blog again twenty-four hours from now, or I may not….
I got back from St. Louis at two this morning, having spent the evening watching an outdoor performance of Mame. The temperature in the city climbed to 102 during the day, and it couldn't have been much cooler by the time I got to the theater. Now I have to hit a deadline, give a speech, visit my mother in the hospital, and—if possible—take a nap.
I have a feeling that I'm not going to be blogging again until Wednesday, don't you?
The weather in southeast Missouri is a constant topic of discussion around these parts, mainly because it tends to change so frequently and unexpectedly. Alas, it hasn't changed at all for the past few days, and we're getting sick of it, in some cases literally. On Sunday the bank thermometers touched 100 for the first time this year, and they weren't kidding, either. I drove up to St. Louis at midday to cover a production of Henry V for The Wall Street Journal, and the weather on the far side of my windshield put me in mind of this passage from Louis L'Amour's Hondo:
It was hot. A few lost, cotton-ball bunches of cloud drifted in a brassy sky, leaving rare islands of shadow upon the desert's face.
Nothing moved. It was a far, lost land, a land of beige-gray silences and distance where the eye reached out farther and farther to lose itself finally against the sky, and where the only movement was the lazy swing of a remote buzzard.
Fortunately, no buzzards pursued me to St. Louis, nor are they wheeling in the sky over the hospital where my mother is recovering from an operation on her spine. Be that as it may, she had a rocky time of it last week. At one point a misjudged combination of painkiller and muscle relaxant caused her to hallucinate off and on for the better part of two days, and even after what she saw started to tally more closely with what was really there, I had more than a little bit of trouble persuading her to stay in bed.
Never having been a parent or spent more than a day or two at a time nursing anyone, I didn't know how enervating it can be to take care of a loved one who is for all practical purposes helpless. Nor can I imagine what it would feel like to nurse someone with no hope of recovery (my mother has every expectation of returning to good health). The hospital is a forty-five-minute drive from the front door of my mother's house, and I come home each night so tired that it's all I can do to take my clothes off. In addition to giving a lecture on Tuesday, I'm supposed to write three pieces between now and Friday, when I fly back to New York, and though I'm sure I'll get them finished, I've only managed to come up with a single sentence so far. Blogging is easier, but not so easy that the prose comes spurting merrily out of my fingertips, polished and ready to upload. I generally have to sit in my late father's easy chair for at least an hour after coming home before I can think of anything much more coherent to say than My God, I'm tired!
Part of the problem is that I've been ripped out of my daily routine and plunged into a radically different one. I sleep in an unfamiliar bed to the accompaniment of unfamiliar sounds, surrounded by shelves full of unfamiliar books. My iBook rests on a creaky, ink-stained card table, plugged into a sluggish dialup connection that makes Web surfing a chore. My stereo, CDs, and DVDs are halfway across the country (though not my iPod and miniature speakers, glory be). So are my friends. The restaurants here close early, the stores even earlier. It's as if I'm experiencing the disagreeable parts of a vacation without any of the offsetting novelties.
Of course it's for the best of all possible causes, and no sooner do I catch myself complaining than I remember why I'm in Smalltown, U.S.A., and feel a pang of shame. For years my mother took care of me whenever I needed taking care of, wiping my brow and mending my scrapes, listening to me gripe about the slightest ache or pain (I was no better a patient as a boy than I am as a man). If she ever complained, it wasn't to me. Now it's my turn, and you'd think I'd be able to face the moderate rigors of two weeks' part-time nursing duty with more grace.
If I were a better person, I could at least assure myself that this is a spiritual exercise, a refiner's fire that will toughen my character and make me more considerate and forgiving upon my return to Manhattan. Would that it were so. I'm sure the sheer relief of shedding my cares will leave me dizzy with joy come Friday, but I'm no less sure I'll be my old impatient self within a week at most, wondering why the world isn't capable of ordering itself with a more comprehensive regard to my immediate needs. We singletons have a way of expecting such consideration, especially those of us who keep neat apartments in which everything is just so. Solitude makes finicky, self-regarding connoisseurs of us: it's our compensation for living alone.
Interestingly, I haven't thought much about the Teachout Museum since returning to Smalltown, perhaps in part because the drive from here to the hospital is so pretty. I steer clear of the interstate and take Highway 61, known to southeast Missourians as “the old highway,” through a couple of dozen miles of rolling farmland. The trees along Highway 61 are so green this week that Technicolor couldn't begin to capture their intensely saturated hue, while the fields really are the “amber waves of grain” New Yorkers sang about so ardently in the days and weeks after 9/11. Art, I'm sure, means more to city dwellers who live far from such natural pleasures, and when I return home to the city, mine will mean more to me. At present, though, I'm happy to revel in the world around me as I drive to and from my temporary job as a caregiver. That seems to be all the beauty I need.
Now that I have my tickets, I can safely advise you to go see Erin McKeown at Schuba's August 27th. A great place to see a show, and—I can attest from personal experience—a great place to discover Ms. McKeown.
It's a hundred degrees and I'm writing on deadline! This is what you might call bad planning. We've known for a week, almost, that today would be the hottest day in Chicago in six years. Things might have been arranged in a such a way that I'd be writing in a more leisurely fashion right now. But I didn't arrange them that way, and now I'm affixed to this chair and keyboard for the rest of the day.
And I'm way overdue to blog. There's not too big an opening for this, but I have been compiling a little list of things I learned in L.A., on my recent trip:
1. My hands are the same size as James Mason's—with slightly longer fingers.
2. My feet are the same size as Paul Newman's. Ergo, Newman must be of smaller stature than I realized.
3. Call me philistine, but I can't spend too long inside the Getty Center galleries without itching to get outside to the grounds and gardens again.
4. That said, my favorite room in the Getty is the one containing this still life and this portrait (so to speak). Cool details: the half-translucent lemon at the back of the bowl in the still life, and the tree stump that mirrors the rabbit in the, er, rabbit painting.
5. The staff at the Getty is about a hundred times more tolerant than the security crew at Hollywood and Highland of clusters of people loitering with clipboards in hand, solving puzzles. (I believe we might have been mistaken by the latter for Scientologists.)
6. The weather is perfect. But you knew that.
7. The traffic is intolerable. But you knew that.
What's this about clipboards and puzzles, you say? I'll tell you more about that later. For now, suffice it to say that it doesn't have nothing to do with the man about to be crowned Hottie of the Times (Brain division).
I’m not here—I’m on the way back from the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where I saw Design for Living last night—but Our Girl has kindly done me the favor of posting the weekly teaser for my Wall Street Journal theater column. This time around, I reviewed the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, an autobiographical play in which Marilyn Monroe figures prominently, and Lincoln Center Festival’s The Elephant Vanishes, a theater piece created by Simon McBurney of Complicite.
Not to put too fine a point on it, After the Fall is a major disaster:
Of the American playwrights who made it big in the ’40s and ’50s, Arthur Miller is the one whose star has dipped lowest. To be sure, he’s still big in Europe, mostly for the obvious reasons (European critics eat up talky plays about how the U.S. is a wasteland of vulgar, small-minded conformism). Yet only three new shows by Mr. Miller have been produced on Broadway in the past quarter-century—none of them successfully—and though several of his earlier plays have had solid runs in revival, the ever-ubiquitous "Death of a Salesman" is the only one that now seems a good bet to hold the stage permanently.
So what possessed the Roundabout Theatre Company to exhume "After the Fall," a lead-plated example of the horrors that result when a humorless playwright unfurls his midlife crisis for all the world to see? Don’t ask me—I’m a critic, not a producer. All I know is that this preeningly self-important play, written in 1964 and revived last night at the American Airlines Theatre, ranks right up there with "Bombay Dreams" on my list of Unendurable Clunkers of 2004….
The only time Mr. Miller manages to break free of his solipsism, however briefly, is in the first couple of scenes involving Maggie/Marilyn. Apparently she managed to get his attention, just as Carla Gugino gets ours. A TV starlet, this is her Broadway debut, and while she makes the mistake of imitating Monroe instead of suggesting her, she does it with powerfully seductive conviction. Once she extricates herself from this misbegotten production, my guess is that Ms. Gugino will soon go on to much better things.
Nobody else in "After the Fall" is memorable, least of all Peter Krause, another Broadway debutant who bears an uncanny resemblance to Greg Marmalard, the smooth-faced, toadying frat boy of "Animal House." Mr. Krause is best known for playing an undertaker in the trendy TV series "Six Feet Under," which seems appropriate enough, since he’s a hopeless stiff on stage. I’m not sure exactly how much secondary blame for the remainder of this mess should attach to Michael Mayer, the director, but there’s more than enough to go around.
The Elephant Vanishes, on the other hand, was almost perfectly wonderful:
No small part of the trouble with "After the Fall" is that Mr. Miller, who hasn’t a poetic bone in his body (though he thinks he does), tried in vain to write a lyrical memory play. True lyric theater is all about poetry—the poetry of the ear and eye alike—and "The Elephant Vanishes," directed by Simon McBurney and co-produced by the Setagaya Public Theatre of Tokyo and Complicite, Mr. McBurney’s London-based theatrical troupe, is one of the most bewitchingly poetic things I’ve been lucky enough to see on a stage.
Presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2004, "The Elephant Vanishes," performed in Japanese with English-language supertitles, was adapted by Mr. McBurney from the short stories of Haruki Murakami, whose surrealistic tales of Tokyo are hugely popular in Japan. Mr. McBurney has turned them into a fine-grained multi-media fantasy about the loneliness and mystery of postmodern Japanese urban life—an avant-garde "Lost in Translation," if you will. Though the New York State Theater was a bit too large for the production to register properly, the eerily discontinous vignettes spun by Mr. McBurney out of Mr. Murakami’s prose somehow managed to fill its cavernous interior to enthralling effect.
No link. Don’t just sit there—buy a copy of the Journal and read me. Or, better yet, subscribe.
"She was a diffused, Salon photograph; and yet she must have had in the depths of her wistful soul a Gift or Daemon that once or twice a year awoke, whispered to her a sentence she could repeat—to the world’s astonishment—and then turned back to sleep. Dr. Rosenbaum had first been aware of this Daemon when Miss Batterson retorted, to a colleague’s objection that all Benton students read that in high school: 'There is no book that all my students have read.' Dr. Rosenbaum knew that it is in sentences like this, and not in the pages of Spengler, that one has brought home to one the twilight of the West."
Sad to see you succumbing to the powers of the internet. I'm 34, which is on the cusp of the information age, but perhaps more aligned with the younger generation since my undergrad was at MIT and grad school in academia before the internet meant that I've been actively using email since age 17. You're experiencing the joys of the instant communication, but not seeing the loss. A not-very-shy guy asked me out via the web, once, while actually emailing me from another terminal in the same room. Maybe he thought it was cute, but it highlights the fact that our on-line personality matters more than our in-person personality now. When I hated grad school, I went and complained to my friends from college, far away. Good to have as a resource in a way, but a crutch in terms of forcing me to bond with the people I was in grad school with, forcing me to deal with the present.
I see that all the time. I remember one of the earliest times I saw a cell phone user - a mother, eating with her kids (in the college dining hall! must be visitors), talking to someone else about something inane. My brother, the techno-geek, couldn't understand my issues with that scene. You see it everywhere - kids using the library terminals to play games; bored people using it to look at porn sites. Back in the day, it seemed like we used our spare time better. I spend far too much time, myself, on reading blogs - responding like this one, to someone who won't remember me tomorrow. I'm not a new friend, or acquaintance, I'm a face in a crowd. I should be studying, reading - and I just decided NOT to go to a concert tonight because I haven't done the work I should have done today. I'm sure there are similar losses - people who don't write novels or compose poems because that spare time gets spent browsing the net.
But, more obviously, if blogging with me and other far-away-arts-lovers means you DON'T connect with that person next to you - on the bus, in the restaurant, on the plane - there's a real loss. You gain a community, but lose a more important, living breathing community with more diversity. Ya know?
Technology is an absolute good, you say. Maybe. It seems an irreversible good, meaning that if you aren't on the internet, then the community changes without you. I'm without cell-phone or notebook or palm, but the people around me are less open to chatting with strangers because they have them, so I may as well get them….
That's my advice - get out, get out, get out. Life is out there, live it. My advice to myself as well, but I've been hooked for longer than you have. Okay, back to work, or else I have to cancel tomorrow's concert as well.
I’m not quite sure I’m the most logical recipient of this advice. After all, I usually attend at least four performances (and often more) each week, and I almost always bring a friend or two with me. What’s more, I find e-mail an unmixed blessing, not least because it allows me to maintain face-to-face friendships more efficiently. Nor do I think I communicate with strangers at the expense of friends. If anything, I’ve made new face-to-face friends through blogging, including several of the people whose blogs can be found in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column. As for the matter of diversity, what could be more diverse than the worldwide "community" of people who read "About Last Night?
Sure, we’ve all seen the way some folks use postmodern information technology to avoid direct human contact, sometimes deliberately and sometimes thoughtlessly, as in the case of the Inconsiderate Cell-Phone Man caricatured in those movie-theater ads. (I almost sang that jingle the other day to a noisy idiot seated immediately in front of me on an airplane.) Everything under the sun—including great art—can be used in life-denying ways.
Still, I can’t go along with the notion that blogs are by definition a waste of everybody’s valuable spare time, which is more or less what my correspondent is implying. Jennicam, maybe, but she’s out of business, while Maud and Sarah and Chicha and all the smart, thoughtful art bloggers whom I read daily are thriving. And well they should be, for what they do, aside from being valuable in its own right, also has the potential to increase the number of people reading good books and going to concerts (and, presumably, chatting with one another at intermission).
Which returns us to the mission of "About Last Night": Our Girl and I write this blog in order to stimulate and diversify the art-related interests of our readers. To put it another way, "About Last Night" is a means, not an end—and I know from our e-mailbox that it is constantly leading people to try new things.
On which optimistic note I’m headed for bed. My cold is marginally better, but I’ve got to rent a car and drive to Massachusetts tomorrow afternoon to see a performance of Noël Coward’s Design for Living (see, I do so get out!), and if I don’t get a whole lot of sleep between now and then, I’m likely to end up in a ditch.
In the meantime, please excuse my intermittent absences from this space, which will continue until Monday. I miss you all—but I’ll be back.
While listening to Dana Gioia speak on the recent survey on fiction
reading (and his take on what that means), an equivocating thought came
to me. I've been a pastor and teacher for 20 some years, working with
congregations and talking to students in colleges or Elderhostel/Life-Long Learner participants.
As you probably know, survey data on church attendance is far above
what a simple, real world check will reveal (65+% say they go to church
4 times a month or more on surveys, but a worship census shows it
simply can't be above 40%, nearer 30%). Just in the last few years,
the annual Gallup surveys are noting a drop in those long standing
numbers, even as church attendance seems to be perking back up.
What we assume out here in Pastor-land, with a few sociologists of
religion riding shotgun, is that it used to be socially very important
to say you went to church…even if you didn't. As it has become
much more acceptable in general discourse to admit freely that you
don't go to church at all, let alone often, survey data is starting to
track closer to reality.
My suspicion -- which makes the problem no less, only different -- is
that it is now socially much more acceptable to admit that you haven't
read "War and Peace" or "To The Lighthouse" even among educated
company, while similarly there is less social value to claiming you
have…whether you've done so or not.
As a voracious reader of fiction, non-fiction, and lids of tea
packaging or stray receipts if that's all there is to hand, I can
recall many occasions in high school and college where I realized, to
my thrilled horror, that Teacher X or Professor Y had not actually read
the book they were manglingly alluding to. Similar events in dinner
party/backyard conversation over the years made me realize that the
total number of unread books everyone has read is…wait, as you've
pointed out recently, David Lodge has already trod this ground full
But in the last 5-10 years, folks from freshmen students in classes to
my wife's colleagues in academia are likely to say in response to
literary references "Haven't read it," in tones indicating they're not
gonna, you can't make 'em, and whatsittoya?
So my equivocating point is: has fiction reading really dropped off?
Can we correlate for some other variable (sales, library circulation)
to crossreference? And is it possible that the problem is that folks
don't feel the need to fake having read or be seen as a reader of
fiction as a social value -- and if so, I find it double intriguing
that such a loss of felt need to keep up such appearances fictionally
speaking correlated so well with worship attendance trends (or
classical music, fer that matter).
It seems an important distinction, and I don't hear that the survey
response is picking up on the possibility.
As regular readers of "About Last Night" know, I’ve been asked not to comment on the activities of the National Endowment for the Arts—including its recently released survey of changing American reading habits—while my nomination to the National Council on the Arts awaits consideration by the Senate. But the questions this reader poses are so interesting and provocative that I wanted to pass them on anyway.
The Wall Street Journal (subscription only) reports today that, without making a big fuss about it, Amazon.com has taken measures recently to encourage users to use their real names when posting reviews:
Earlier this month, the Web retailer quietly launched a new system, dubbed Real Names, that encourages users to append to their product reviews the name that appears on the credit card they have registered with Amazon. A logo saying "Real Name" appears beside such customer comments.
Amazon still allows reviewers to sign their comments with pen names, effectively concealing their identity from other Amazon users. But even these reviewers need to supply a credit card or purchase history. Previously, users could easily open multiple Amazon accounts from which they could post multiple reviews of the same product. The new system is intended to block that practice.
Many of you will remember the brouhaha on Amazon Canada a few months back, when the real names of anonymous and pseudonymous posters were inadvertently revealed, exposing all manner of fixing (authors reviewing their own books under fake names) and sabotage (folks going undercover to savage their enemies' books). Also revealed in the incident was the growing influence of these customer reviews, and the company's new policies only underline how seriously it takes them as part of the service it offers. "What we're trying to do with this is add to the credibility of the content on this site," says a spokeswoman. There's more to the plan:
Over time, reviewers who opt to use pen names could become less visible on the site. Under the system in which users rate the usefulness of reviews, the most highly rated reviews appear in higher, more prominent sections of Amazon's pages. If users believe that reviews with real names attached are more valuable, those will become the most visible on the site.
All of this makes me feel a bit prescient. Several years ago, when Amazon hadn't yet started selling colanders and flip-flops, and "blog" was what I might say when the milk turned, I wrote a little piece about the site's reader reviews for a publication that shall remain anonymous (and thus of dubious credibility). The article was sort of a lite version of the blog triumphalism you see all the time now (including from yours truly): Everyman now has a voice! Sometimes it speaks wisely; sometimes it's absurd! And it just may be revolutionary.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 28, 2004 | Permanent
"There ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't agoing to no more."
"The charm of getting home, as I see it, is the charm of getting back to what is inextricably my own—to things familiar and long loved, to things that belong to me alone and none other. I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years. It has changed in that time, as I have—but somehow it still remains the same. No conceivable decorator’s masterpiece could give me the same ease. It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I’d be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg."
I want you to know how much I enjoy and appreciate your blog, and now your book. A Terry Teachout Reader was waiting for me when I arrived home from work last night, courtesy of amazon.com. After dinner I read the introduction, the first three essays, and then skipped to the back to read your moving tribute to Nancy Lamott, whom I first heard of reading "About Last Night." At that point I had to put Come Rain or Come Shine on, and it occurred to me while listening that Nancy's music was not the only thing I had to thank you for. I saw Ghost World and The Last Days of Disco, movies I'd never heard of, due to you. I watched, and enjoyed, Out of the Past last week on TCM and I taped In a Lonely Place, which I'll watch this weekend. The last time we were in NYC, my wife and I saw Wonderful Town, based on your review. I'm right now on the web here at work ordering some of Dawn Powell's books because your essay about her intrigued me. I could go on and on but the point is, you are performing a real service for me and (I'm sure) countless others - pointing us towards great art and great performers that we may not have heard about otherwise, and identifying what makes them great in a clear, lucid writing style. Of course, it doesn't hurt that my opinions often match up with yours, evidenced by my TCCI of 65%. At any rate, I felt I must let you know how much you're appreciated. Keep up the good work - lots of people like myself depend on it. And thanks.
Thanks to you, sir. That was just what a sick blogger needed to find in his e-mailbox on a gray afternoon.
I got back to New York late last night from my family reunion in Smalltown, U.S.A., fell into bed, and arose first thing this morning with what appears to be a summer cold. Great. I'm writing for The Wall Street Journal this morning and the Washington Post tomorrow, after which I head for Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., to see a couple of plays, so a summer cold is just what I need at this juncture, don't you think?
Anyway, I may post a bit later today or some time tomorrow if my head clears, but don't be surprised if I opt for elective mutism instead. In any case, I'll be back for real on Sunday, and you'll hear from me then, assuming this cold, if it is a cold, doesn't prove fatal. (Hey, it could happen!)
See you sometime.
UPDATE: The cold's winning. So far, I've written two paragraphs of my Journal piece. All I seem to be able to do is read proofs and blow my nose. Would anyone care to bring me some chicken soup? Or perhaps a nice mug of cyanide?
The matched set of Fortune Cookies below, once I had posted them, set me to thinking. I yield to no one in my adoration of M.F.K. Fisher—not even to W. H. Auden, who said of her, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose"—but after I typed in and reread the longer of the two quotations, it struck me as haughty and unpleasant. I worried that it might give readers unfamiliar with her work the wrong impression of Fisher.
What I had in mind in putting together the post, of course, was the striking contrast between Fisher's description of herself at nineteen in the first quotation, and her self-assessment at thirty in the second. Only after posting did I recognize the second extract as uncharacteristically off-putting. In context, it serves as the set-up and counterpoint to a self-critical remembrance of one of those men Fisher angers with her independence, and it works very differently than it does in isolation.
In another meditation on the subject of eating alone, Fisher is more her usual self. This appears in An Alphabet for Gourmets, where "A is for Dining Alone."
And the kind people—they are the ones who have made me feel the loneliest. Wherever I have lived, they have indeed been kind—up to a certain point. They have poured cocktails for me, and praised me generously for things I have written to their liking, and showed me their children. And I have seen the discreetly drawn curtains to their family dining rooms, so different from the uncluttered, spinsterish emptiness of my own one room. Behind the far door to the kitchen I have sensed, with the mystic materialism of a hungry woman, the presence of honest-to-God fried chops, peas and carrots, a jello salad, and lemon meringue pie—none of which I like and all of which I admire in theory and would give my eyeteeth to be offered. But the kind people always murmur, "We'd love to have you stay to supper sometime. We wouldn't dare, of course, the simple way we eat and all."
As I leave, by myself, two nice plump kind neighbors come in. They say howdo, and then good-by with obvious relief, after a polite, respectful mention of culinary literature as represented, no matter how doubtfully, by me. They sniff the fine creeping straightforward smells in the hall and living room, with silent thanks that they are not condemned to my daily fare of quails financičre, pâté de Strasbourg truffé en brioche, sole Marguéry, bombe vanille au Cointreau. They close the door on me.
I drive home by way of the corner Thriftmart to pick up another box of Ry Krisp, which with a can of tomato soup and a glass of California sherry will make a good nourishing meal for me as I sit on my tuffet in a circle of proofs and pocket detective stories.
Even that, wonderful as it is, suffers some deformation in being yanked out of the full essay it belongs in. I continually encounter this problem with Fisher: she's very difficult to excerpt satisfyingly. It's one mark of a really masterful writer: search as you may, you just can't find the "money graf," or even two such grafs, or three. They're all necessary, and they all droop a bit in isolation. They aren't pearls strung together but a whole interdependent nervous system. You either throw up your hands and reproduce the whole thing—which seems to me neither practical nor ethical—or you compromise as I have done here, gritting your teeth and severing vital cords between the extract and the text around it, despite how violent it feels.
"I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me."
M.F.K. Fisher, "The Measure of My Powers" (1927)
* * *
"More often than not people who see me on trains and in ships, or in restaurants, feel a kind of resentment of me since I taught myself to enjoy being alone. Women are puzzled, which they hate to be, and jealous of the way I am served, with such agreeable courtesy, and of what I am eating and drinking, which is almost never the sort of thing they order for themselves. And men are puzzled too, in a more personal way. I anger them as males.
"I am sorry. I do not like to do that, or puzzle the women either. But if I must be alone, I refuse to be alone as if it were something weak and distasteful, like convalescence. Men see me eating in public, and I look as if I 'knew my way around'; and yet I make it plain that I know my way around without them, and that upsets them.
"I know what I want, and I usually get it because I am adaptable to locales. I order meals that are more typically masculine than feminine, if feminine means whipped-cream-and-cherries. I like good wines, or good drinkin'-likka, and beers and ales. I like waiters; I think the woman who said that waiters are much nicer than people was right, and quite often waitresses are too. So they are always nice to me, which is a sure way to annoy other diners whose soup, quite often, they would like to spit in.
"And all these reasons, and probably a thousand others, like the way I wear my hair and what shade my lipstick is, make people look strangely at me, resentfully, with a kind of hurt bafflement, when I dine alone."
Here's a more revealing version of yesterday's story:
Boulevard Diner, ele_en-forty.
I down a hot cup of java.
It's too quiet.
As a gun barrel whacks my noggin
I realize Dixie set me _p.
And here's another story belonging to the same rarefied genre:
"Jefe—a burro I view like a pet—
vs. a burrow I dig.
I can tell my ass from a hole in the ground!"
Don Qu_xote eyed Sanc_o Panza: "I get it."
Ninety-eight letters—the same ninety-eight letters—and two blanks. That's right, they're Scrabblegrams: they use all the letters and only the letters in Scrabble to tell a coherent if brief tale. Don Quixote was composed by Eric Chaikin, director of Word Wars, who must have felt smiled upon when it struck him that the names of the novel's two main characters took care of the Q, the X, and the Z in one fell swoop. Boulevard Diner was written by Eric's brother Andrew Chaikin, who maintains a website about all his many endeavors here.
Perhaps it's not quite A Void, but it delights and impresses the hell out of me.
It is my frequent practice to draft blog posts in bed late at night, email the drafts to my work address, and pass out with the ibook on my lap. In the morning I get to work, spruce up the drafts as time allows, and post them. So went last night, but I stumbled into the office this morning to find my work and personal email down and my drafts adrift in cyberspace. The techies say our email will be back up later this afternoon, which could mean tomorrow. Please do check back in—I'll have lots to post once email is back, and in the meantime I should be able to muster some bits and pieces. And if you sent me any email since last night? I have a better excuse than usual for being slow to write back [cue eye-rolling among my beleaguered correspondents].
All you Chicagoans, Word Wars is now playing up at Facets. It won't be there for long. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington loved it. Your faithful correspondent is somewhat partial, but loved it, too (scroll down).
Several styles are available for purchase: Laura Ashley having a screaming acid fit, Clown Pelt, creepy-crawly paisley, and one sage-hued item that I can only describe as "ribbed for her pleasure."
Clown Pelt. Heh.
• In Slate, Timothy Noah points out that the Kerry campaign's close-reading skills are in need of a tune-up.
Last month, Chatterbox urged John Kerry to drop the campaign slogan, "Let America be America again." Instead, Kerry has wrapped his arms more tightly around the slogan's regrettable source. As Chatterbox noted in the earlier column, "Let America be America again" comes from a poem published in 1938 by the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes. But Hughes intended the line ironically. A black man living in the pre-civil rights era would have had to be insane to look back to a golden age of freedom and equality in America, and Hughes was not insane. Hughes was, rather, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Soviet Union at the time he wrote "Let America Be America Again," which explains the poem's agitprop tone.
• In the Chicago Tribune book section, Scott McLemee looks askance at Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs and puts the Great Snark Debate in depressing perspective:
What is worrisome about contemporary book commentary is not that someone with Peck's habitual mean-spiritedness has carved out a name for himself--though it does suggest that criticism is now as much a part of the entertainment industry as gangster rap and extreme makeovers. People laugh at his jokes, or at the skinhead Paul Bunyan impersonation on the cover of his book, or both. Yet they overlook his efforts to be thoughtful, which are, if anything, just as funny. Adolescents often feel the need to philosophize, after a fashion. And I'm afraid that is precisely the impression left whenever Peck turns from strident denunciation of a particular novelist to sweeping generalizations about the culture. Still, the latter are a necessary element of criticism--part of the job of sorting and judging literature and of making sense of life itself. Peck may do it badly, but what makes the situation a crisis is that scarcely anyone cares.
Another week lurches to a close, and I find myself progressively less amazed that "About Last Night," the full-service arts blog, is still coming out every day—it’s getting to be a habit with me. But I did write four pieces this week in addition to what you’ve been reading here (real pieces, for money), and I’m feeling a little zonked as a result, so it’s more than time for the weekend hiatus.
Not, however, before we move to today’s topics, from flammable to inflammable: (1) Potty-mouthed puppets on Broadway. (2) Lilo and Stitch, modernists. (3) Confessions of a country-music fan with a crush on Allison Moorer. (4) A stack of items from my mailbag. (5) The latest almanac entry.
This concludes our broadcast week, but I’ll be back on Monday, which gives you 48 uninterrupted hours to tell everyone you know about www.terryteachout.com. Make someone happy.
Avenue Q, an X-rated musical satire of "Sesame Street" performed by a cast of singing puppeteers, opened last night on Broadway, and I reviewed it for this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
"Avenue Q," which opened last night at the Golden Theatre, is as raucously, cruelly, unsparingly funny as "Big River" is sweet and warm-hearted….The songs, written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, are wicked, often unprintable parodies of such smile-and-be-sensitive ditties as "Bein’ Green" and "The Rainbow Connection." One of them, "Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist," is so dead on target that I halfway expected the theater to be picketed during the last verse: "Everyone’s a little bit racist—it’s true/But everyone is just about as racist—as you!/If we all could just admit/That we are racist a little bit/And everyone stopped being so P.C.,/Maybe we could live in—harmony!"
To read the rest of the review, pick up a copy of the Journal and turn to "Weekend Journal," the Friday arts-and-lifestyle section. Then go right out and get a ticket, because I have a feeling that this show is going to ring the gong very loudly, in its own weird way.
I’ve seen Finding Nemo twice and liked it both times, yet something about it left me cold, the same way all Pixar animated features leave me cold. That something is the animation itself, which is, as you probably know, digitally created, and looks that way. I don’t mean that it’s rigidly mechanical—the character animation in Finding Nemo is actually quite deftly realized. What bothers me are the three-dimensional backgrounds, which are both fantastically elaborate and hyper-realistic. It’s an impressive achievement, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling a incongruity between the characters, which are obviously animated (meaning unreal), and their environment, which just as obviously aspires to a different set of visual objectives.
Am I being persnickety? Probably. I mean, I really likedFinding 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.
Dour thoughts for a Friday morning, especially when the subject is a ‘toon. But if art matters to you (and I assume it does, since you’re here), perhaps it’s worth stopping to reflect on the always uneasy relationship between beauty and technology. I remember when the synthesizer was being touted as the ultimate musical instrument. Useful it is, I’ll grant you that, but can you think of a single first-rate piece of classical music that makes use of synthesized sounds? (Speak not to me of Philip Glass.) Sure, lots of people tried to compose classical music intended to be performed on synthesizers, all of which quickly slipped between the cracks and is now forgotten. Among other things, no major composers were attracted to the medium—which might have been the problem, of course. If Aaron Copland or Benjamin Britten had given it a try…but they didn’t. Even now, classical composers stubbornly prefer their music to be performed by flesh-and-blood musicians, just as I prefer my animated cartoons to be drawn by flesh-and-blood artists.
Does that make me a Luddite? Considering that I’m writing these words on a laptop so that I can post them on a blog, I don’t think the charge will stick. I’m not afraid of technology. Hand-drawn animation is a technology. The paint brush is a technology. (So is the novel, metaphorically speaking.) But I also love the old lightbulb joke about bluegrass musicians, who have long been known for their distrust of electronic amplification:
Q. How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. Ten—one to change it and the other nine to complain that it’s electric.
I’m with them. Mostly. Sometimes.
P.S. Courtesy of my host, artsjournal.com, here's a fascinating story from the Los Angeles Times about the clash of generational cultures between digital and pen-and-ink animators.
Speaking of bluegrass, the Washington Post recently ran a great profile of Eddie Stubbs, the 41-year-old fiddler, disc jockey, and Grand Ole Opry announcer whose midnight-to-eight show on WSM is one of the last preserves of traditional country music and bluegrass in commercial radio.
Which reminds me to tell you—and no, this is not a confession, it’s a boast—that I love country music, though not the idiot kind you usually hear on the radio nowadays. I like the hard stuff, the high-stepping honky-tonk anthems and wrist-slitting laments about adulterers and adulterees that you used to hear on the radio back in the parallel universe that was my youth. On the other hand, country doesn’t have to be old to be good. An up-to-the-minute case in point is Allison Moorer, the warm-voiced, hard-rocking young Alabama balladeer whose new album, a two-for-one CD/DVD live set called Show, is absolutely as good as country gets.
I once gave serious thought to writing a book about the contemporary country scene (I wanted to call it Middle-Class Music, because country is so self-evidently by and for people who work for a living), and even went so far as to pitch it to my publisher. A funny thing happened on the way to the band bus, and I ended up writing The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken instead, but I still love country music. And Westerns. And cool jazz and abstract art and George Balanchine and Avenue Q. And Chuck Jones. So there.
Herewith, some snippets from my correspondence of the past three weeks:
Necessities...an ALN reader competition to come up with a neologism to replace "blog"—surely one of the least attractive terms to (dis)grace the language in quite a while. Sounds more like a condition related to flatulence than anything as consistently fascinating and engaging as this journal. (Where would MGM have gotten with BLOG GRATIA ARTIS, and would Hippocrates [and Goethe] have struck such a resonating chord with "Blog longa, vita brevis"? Now, really!)
saw "singing in the rain" the other night. is it me, or does o'connor outdance kelly in every number? in fact, doesn't everyone outdance him? i mean, kelly seems to work too hard and appears so flatfooted in there. cyd is breathtaking, of course. but donald o'connor is simply amazing. his ease and grace are a pure joy while kelly spends a lot of time watching his own feet. donald o'connor really should be re-appraised.
RE: your chuckle over the archaic practice of reporting celebrity-spotting at the theater. Terry—people LOVE that crap! just take a look at how many PEOPLE-type magazines are out there. celebrity talk and spotting seems to make people feel less lonely or somehow more connected.
I'm too young to remember Harold Schonberg's Times tenure, but have found him a great model (in Facing the Music). I'm a young music critic and trying to find work wherever it is (I'm in the Midwest, but write for websites in NYC and Montreal, but papers around Indiana), and Schonberg's take-no-prisoners approach was wonderful. I'm not convinced that his belief that Schoenberg's and Webern's progeny only alienated audiences, though. I've seen Pierre Boulez pack 'em in in Chicago and at the Ojai Festival to hear his work. And Boulez and Xenakis pieces get good receptions here in Bloomington, Ind. People seem much less scared of this music today than in the time covered by Harold Schonberg. Maybe I'm too young to know abt. the polarization that took place then, but the passage of time seem to have reversed Schonberg's assessment.
Apropos of absolutely nothing—here's one of those strange coincidences with which life is filled: two artists who shared the same birth date (April 5, 1908)—actress Bette Davis and conductor Herbert von Karajan (!). As it happens, they died the same year, also (in 1989, at the age of 81), about 3-1/2 months apart.
Orchestral programming today is a vexed problem. No matter what the music director or guest conductor chooses for a concert, someone will complain. If the conductor programs something difficult by say, Carter or Boulez, many subscribers will scream bloody murder. If an "accessible" work by a conservative contemporary composer is played, critics will complain of pandering to the audience with "easy listening." If a warhorse is played, critics complain of unimaginative programming. Conductors are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.
the website is very New York isn't it? i believe that we provincials can muster an interest in New York about once a week (Sunday New York Times?) and other than that, we're fairly content to live and work in obscurity. if i had anything at all that you might like to hear about the website, that would be it. i believe it’s intended most for New Yorkers.
I've been enjoying the blog a lot. I can only ask, as I am sure you have been asked by many—how do you do it? I think you must have scored a few bottles of those "go pills" that the fighter pilots use to stay alert. But for those of us outside The City, it is a great way to stay on top of what's going on.
See what cool readers I have? Alas, no controlled substances were used in the writing of this blog—only chocolate sorbet.
Keep on writing, please. And I invite your suggestions for a prettier neologism with which to replace "blog."
Welcome to the world of art, or mir iskusstva, as they say in Russian. It’s "About Last Night," the blog that brings you all art, all the time.
I begin by reporting a flat, unequivocal, and unconvincing denial. Remember last week’s posting about the party of drunken classical composers who were sitting around singing Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme? Well, the wife of one of the composers in question (herself a superlatively good opera singer) writes to assure me that "he was NOT drunk! He cannot speak for the others!"
I also want to pass along a piece of e-mail from one of my favorite jazz pianists in New York, whose message follows in its entirety:
Dude—you are SO bookmarked!
Go thou and do likewise.
Now on to today’s topics, from inverse to obverse: (1) The problem of the vicious critic. (2) A totally irrelevant but amusing exercise in anagramming. (3) Writers’ envy, as described by the envious one. (4) Get jiggy with Rapmaster Sylvia P. (5) How to speak fluent PoMo without really trying. (6) Art Tatum, on the cheap. (7) The latest almanac entry.
Tell a friend about www.terryteachout.com. It’ll add years to your life.
Obviously, a critic should be rigorous, honest, and forthright, but how far is not too far? When the critic likes the work, there's not much problem, but what if the work is deemed flawed or worse (an all too common situation in my experience)? Living artists, even those without significant talent, are still human and apt to be hurt. Furthermore, it's always possible for a critic to be wrong, however honestly. It's been said that Art is ruthless and only cares for its own goodness or quality. Should a critic simply serve Art, and artists be damned?
Whenever I think about that question—and any critic who doesn’t lose sleep over it from time to time is a boor and a cad—I think of this couplet by Alexander Pope: "Yes, I am proud! I must be proud to see/Men, not afraid of God, afraid of me."
Terrible words, aren't they? They say a great deal about Pope, and what they say, I don't like. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that they have the rank smell of pathology—that they speak of a man whose ego was badly twisted, and who took it out on the people about whom he wrote. But I'm not going to try to tell you that they don't hit the target: I know a lot of critics, and some of them are just like that. I also know a lot of critics who are incompetent, by which I mean they don't know enough about their chosen art form to responsibly pass judgment on the things they review. Such critics make artists miserable, confuse audiences, and generally add to the sum total of unhappiness on this earth.
It's not a popular view among my colleagues, but I think most of the best critics—not all, but most—have had at least some professional experience in at least one of the arts about which they write. I know I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of ballerinas and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his entire adult life immersed in the world of art, both as a critic and as a practitioner. I was also fortunate to have served my apprenticeship as a critic in a middle-sized city, because it taught me that criticism is not written in a vacuum. It touches real people, people of flesh and blood, and sometimes it hurts them. If you don't know that—and I mean really know it—you shouldn't be a critic. And you’re more likely to know it when you’ve lived and worked in a city small enough that there's a better-than-even chance of your meeting the people you write about at intermission.
Writing for the Kansas City Star taught me that lesson, and it also taught me that critical standards have to be appropriate. You don't review a college opera production the same way you review the Met. That's another reason why critics should ideally have hands-on experience in the areas about which they write: It teaches them proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls "the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night." It's hard to sing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, or to dance in Concerto Barocco. It's scary to go out in front of a thousand people in a dumb-looking costume and put your heart and soul on the line. Unless you have some personal experience of what that feels like—of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up—then you may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and your reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result.
None of this is to say that criticism should be bland and toothless. Sometimes it’s your duty—your responsibility—to drop the big one. But you shouldn’t enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can’t, even when you don’t think they do it very well.
You will find a contrary view in today’s almanac entry, written by Ernest Newman, one of the most distinguished music critics of the 20th century. I take his point—which doesn’t mean I agree with it.
Sooner or later, everybody with a computer discovers the Internet Anagram Server, a Web site that generates anagrams of any phrase you plug into it. What you mostly get are reams of garbage, but sift through it long enough and you can usually find some gems.
I got tired of writing the other day and decided to run my name through the Internet Anagram Server, and was surprised to receive in return a fairly large number of anagrams that could be related to my career as a drama critic: "Reroute thy act," "Teary tech tour," "Outcry at three" (how’s that for a play about a matinee murder?), and my favorite, "Hey, actor, utter!" I also got some vaguely naughty responses, such as "Etch your tater," and a few sinister ones, including "Treachery tout" and "Cutthroat eyer."
But all these are merest fluff compared to my Top Five Personal Anagrams. In ascending order of coolness, they are:5. That cuter yore
4. Ratty, cute hero
3. Arty, cute other
2. Retract ye thou!
1. The Tory Curate
O.K, back to art. But I bet you can’t wait to check out that Web site, can you?
If you still haven’t gotten around to reading the essay absolutely every author I know is buzzing about, Kathryn Chetkovich’ "Envy," go here. (For those totally out of the loop, Chetkovich is the girlfriend of Jonathan "The Corrections" Franzen.)
I’m not the envious type (at least I don’t think I am), so for me it was the approximate equivalent of reading a brilliantly written piece of pornography describing a taste I don’t share. But if the green monster has ever come calling on you, my guess is that you’ll hear an echo deep within your psyche:
When the subject of his success came up, often enough a friend would say, "The great thing is he really deserves it." Were they kidding? This was precisely what made it so hard. For once, the gods hadn't made the stupid mistake of smiling on another no-talent, well-connected charlatan.
Which somehow reminds me of the title of the first song in Avenue Q, opening tonight on Broadway: "It Sucks to Be Me."
For those of you who read Demolition Angel's review of Edge, the one-woman play about Sylvia Plath, I am pleased to direct you (courtesy of the very amusing Maud Newton, of whose blog I am a daily communicant) to a very naughty parody called Sylvia Plath's Gangsta Rap Legacy.
O.K., I am soooooo Nineties, but I only just found out about the Postmodern Generator (thank you, Artnotes!), an amazing piece of software that creates totally meaningless essays written in PoMo jargon. To try it out, go here. Don't do it while you're eating, though, or you'll make a mess....
Proper Records has just released a four-CD box set of recordings made between 1932 and 1951 by Art Tatum, the blind megavirtuoso who was the greatest of all jazz pianists (that’s a fact, not an opinion). It includes most of his important studio sides, plus a sprinkling of how’d-he-do-that live performances. Go here and you can buy it for twenty-five bucks, which is absolutely preposterous.
"In art the ideal critical ethic is ruthlessness. There the race is only to the fleet and the battle to the strong. There should be no thought of helping lame dogs—and still less sick or deformed dogs—over the stile; if the dog is going to be as helpless the other side of the stile as he is on this side, then let him stay on this side till he is strong enough to get over by himself. He is no worse off, while you have saved yourself a good deal of trouble (perhaps a biting also), and may have spared the people on the other side the infliction of a nuisance on them."
Aggressive deadline-related activity continues to take place in my shop, but there’ll always be an "About Last Night." Today’s topics, from possibly to probably: (1) A painter you don’t know—yet. (2) In praise of Joel McCrea. (3) How’s Robert Lowell doing on the Great Poetic Scoreboard? (4) Why dancers dance. (5) Your daily dose of snarkiness. (6) About Bob Hope. (7) The latest almanac entry.
Thanks for all your letters, many of which will be finding their way onto this page in due course. All the more reason to tell your friends about www.terryteachout.com. One fine morning they’ll click that bookmark—and there you’ll be!
A friend asked me the other night, "Do you think there are any really important artists who get completely overlooked? And do you think blogging might change that?"
This is an interesting question—more interesting than many critics might be willing to admit. In the long run, I think the answer is no, or at least probably not. Canons of excellence tend to sort themselves out over time (with a little nudging from critics), and I think it’s fairly safe to say that there are no truly great contemporaries of Shakespeare or Mozart about whom we have yet to hear.
In the short run, though, all bets are off. "Every morning a stock-market report on reputations comes out in New York," Norman Podhoretz wrote in Making It. "It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it." It also has an arts section, equally invisible but equally readable, and the numbers are quite volatile indeed. Most journalists are day traders—all they care about are today’s winners. Me, I try to buy low and hold. I’m old enough to trust my taste, and I don’t much care what anybody else thinks, though it’s always nice when smart people agree with you. I think, for example, that I’ll live long enough to see Fairfield Porter generally regarded as a major American painter and critic (his stock registered a healthy upward spike when Justin Spring’s excellent Porter biography was published three years ago), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens to Arnold Friedman one of these days, though that’s a longer shot.
I mention all this because I just paid a visit to the studio of a painter whom I believe to be absolutely first-class, even though it’s a safe bet that you’ve never heard of him. Albert Kresch has been around forever (he was born in 1922, back when Warren Harding was in the White House), and every once in a while he gets a bit of ink, but for some reason his work never seems to ring the bell of fame. Part of the reason—the biggest part, I suspect—is that he’s never been fashionable, not even for an afternoon. A pupil of Hans Hofmann, the great Abstract Expressionist teacher (and painter), Kresch embraced representation back in the Forties, at the exact moment when all the hip New York painters were going abstract with a vengeance. Yet he never completely abandoned abstraction, either, which made him even harder to pigeonhole. Instead, like Porter, Nell Blaine, and a number of other greatly gifted American painters, he bent it to his own subtle purposes.
Here’s how Kresch explains the seeming paradox:
We were using the abstract as an armature or a structure onto which to build a painting, and [the Abstract Expressionists] were using it as the be-all and end-all of the painting. And in a way, we felt that what we were doing was more difficult, because we were trying to interrogate reality, and what we saw, and the visual. They were in the first ecstasies of success and triumph and we just didn’t agree.
That’s what I call a recipe for unfashionability. But fashion be damned, for Kresch is still alive, well, and painting as wonderfully as ever. As a matter of fact, I wrote about a show of his last year in my Washington Postcolumn:
His paintings are full of sweeping horizontal movement and hot, high-keyed color contrasts. Kresch's work is rarely shown in New York, but I was dazzled by a solo exhibit last year at the Center for Figurative Painting, so I went straight to the opening of his current show, a roomful of small but compelling landscapes at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries. For me, the pick of the litter was "Yellow Landscape," scarcely bigger than a postcard but breathtaking in its focused intensity.
To look at some of the paintings from that show (including "Yellow Landscape"), and to read an equally enthusiastic New York Times review by Michael Kimmelman, go here.
I wish I could send you to an exhibit of Kresch’s work right now, but I can’t, because there isn’t one up at the moment. All I can do is tell you that I spent a couple of hours in his Brooklyn studio last Thursday looking at his latest paintings, after which we retired to a neighborhood café, where he told me amazing stories about hanging out with Charlie Parker in the Village a half-century ago. (He’s a jazz fan, too—one of his best paintings is of Lester Young, the great tenor saxophonist.) Then I rode the subway back to Manhattan, thinking for maybe the thousandth time this year that when you live in New York, there’s no place like home.
I promise to let you know the next time any of Albert Kresch’s paintings are on display in the New York area. And to the friend whose original question inspired this lengthy reply, here’s my short answer: That’s one of the reasons why I started this blog.
I love Westerns, a taste not widely shared within my sphere of acquaintance. Even the cinephiles with whom I hang are disinclined to saddle up. So I mention the release on DVD of Four Faces West knowing that it’ll be a tough sell. Too bad. It’s a lovely little movie, and if you’ve never seen a Western before, you could do a lot worse than to start here.
Joel McCrea, the star, is now best known for having shared a swimming pool with Veronica Lake in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, but what he really liked was making Westerns, and in the second half of his career he didn’t do anything else. He always played good guys in white hats, and he had the face and voice for it. I won’t say McCrea never made a better Western than Four Faces West—he’s just about perfect in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, a film sorely in need of transfer to DVD—but this one ranks right up there with his best work. Traditional Westerns are all about the myth of the frontier, and Four Faces West, released in 1948, takes that myth at face value. A bit romantic and more than a bit sentimental, it was written and shot with a sharp eye for authentic period detail. The result is a 90-minute-long holiday from cynicism.
Incidentally, Four Faces West isn’t your usual shoot-‘em-up. In fact, it’s the only Hollywood Western ever made in which no guns are fired. (Really.) But I bet you wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t told you.
J. Bottum’s astute revaluation of the poetry of Robert Lowell is in the current issue of the Weekly Standard:
The general reader of literature can now walk many of the poetic battlefields of the twentieth century with little more emotion than the tourist's usual wonder at how much blood was spilt to gain so little ground….William Carlos Williams has won, and Stephen Vincent Benét has lost. Hart Crane has surprisingly faded, and Wallace Stevens has unsurprisingly shone. Delmore Schwartz has been washed under by the great wave of the world, while Sylvia Plath has made it safe to shore. Amy Lowell is out, and Robert Lowell is…well, what is he these days? Time will revisit some of these judgments. Time ought to revisit some of these judgments. But what will time make of Lowell?
My fellow artsjournal.com blogger Tobi Tobias, who writes about dance, recently invited her readers to respond to this question: "Some would say that dancing is the cruelest profession, all but guaranteeing grueling work, physical pain, poverty, and heartbreak. Yet the field has always been rich in aspirants willing to dedicate their lives to the art. Why?" To read the answers she received—some of which are quite strikingly beautiful—go here.
I can’t imagine that the death of Bob Hope meant anything whatsoever to anyone under the age of 30, and for those much under the age of 50 it can only serve as a vague reminder of Seventies TV at its cheesiest (unless you happen to have served in the military, in which case your memories of him may be very different). Hope, after all, never quite succeeded in making the transition to the small screen. Though he made some pretty good movies, he was essentially a creature of network radio, and who remembers that? It was a wonderful medium, a generation of gifted artists poured their souls into it, and now their work is almost completely forgotten.
This, I suspect, is why some of us who aren’t quite old enough to remember Hope when he was funny (which he was, believe it or not) still felt queasy at the news of his passing. The world spins immeasurably faster today than it did when I was a boy, and the fixed stars I remember are mostly fallen now. Meanwhile, here I sit, writing about a hundred-year-old comedian for a journalistic medium that didn’t even exist five years ago. What will I be doing in another five years? In the words of my favorite refrigerator magnet, "Time passes quickly, whether you’re having fun or not." (I wonder what that sounds like in Latin.)
That’s what makes you cling to the landmarks of your youth, cherished or not. The older you get, the more you cherish everything that used to be, not so very long ago.
Greetings, salutations, all that stuff. I think today’s topics are nicely varied, if I do say so myself: (1) Reflections on a pair of bloody corpses. (2) Should conductors talk to their audiences—even if they don’t know how? Ask Alfred Hitchcock. (3) Another installment of "How to Buy Good Art Without Going Broke." (4) A review of a recent gig by one of New York’s most adventurous jazz singers, featuring the debut of our newest guest blogger, Hang Glider. (5) The latest almanac entry.
Incidentally, "About Last Night" is popping up all across the Web, for which much thanks to dozens of linkers. Once again, I’m equally eager to link to other blogs that regularly post commentary about the fine and medium-fine arts—please e-mail me if you know of a good one that isn’t already listed in the right-hand column.
Does your mother know about www.terryteachout.com? What about your best friend? Brighten their lives today!
If you wanted to, you’ve seen the pictures of the corpses of Saddam Hussein’s sons by now. They were broadcast on TV and scattered throughout cyberspace last week, usually labeled "warning—graphic photos," or words to that effect. And they were graphic, I guess…but I can’t say they shocked me. I’ve seen a lot worse (I used to work for the New York Daily News, after all). More to the point, the photos released by the Defense Department were tame compared to what you can see any day of the week by renting any reasonably violent Hollywood film released in the last 30 years or so, going all the way back to 1969 and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. For that matter, you can even view the "sealed" autopsy photos of John F. Kennedy at your leisure, 24/7—they’re scattered throughout cyberspace, too, easily accessible to anyone with a computer and a taste for the macabre, along with all sorts of other nightmare-inducing death-scene photos posted by peculiar folk. (And no, I’m not posting any links.)
It may also be relevant that I once witnessed a shootout in a big-city bank. Granted, I didn’t actually see guns blazing—I was around the corner, a few feet away—but I did stand over the robber seconds after he was shot dead by a security guard. Forgive the cliché, but the whole thing seemed less like real life than a scene from a movie. The sound of the guns going off was far more frightening than the sight of the corpse.
Is my experience commonplace? Have most of us become blind to the pathos of cooling corpses? Did Hollywood do that to us—or was it modernity? I can’t tell you. All I know is that I looked at the pictures of the Hussein boys and didn’t flinch, though I wish I had.
I can’t think of many things I loathe more than the hyper-aggressive snobbery whose effect—perhaps even its purpose—is to frighten away well-meaning people who want to dip their toe into the pool of beauty for the first time.
Question: Do you believe in pre-concert audience talks? I'm not talking about those pre-concert lectures which some concerts and operas offer (like my Houston Grand Opera), which take some time before the show, in a special room, to discuss the piece in detail. They might be great, but my wife and I are too busy grabbing a bite before the show.
I'm talking about when the conductor comes to the podium, turns to the audience, and says a few words about the piece just before playing it. Do you think this would be a good or bad thing to do?
My personal opinion is that it would double orchestra attendance overnight.
I couldn’t agree more—if the conductor in question can talk. Some can, some can’t. One who can is Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, who has an uncanny knack for getting his audiences on the side of difficult new music by chatting about it in a direct and engaging way from the podium. Needless to say, it helps that Thomas is also a great conductor who has turned the San Francisco Symphony into one of America’s top orchestras. And all things being equal, I’d rather hear a good performance by a mute conductor than a fair performance by a talkative conductor. But all things aren’t equal anymore, and it seems to me that conductors who can’t talk as well as Thomas would do well to learn how—or hire speechwriters. Sure, it’d be nice if they wrote their own speeches, but talent is not apportioned equally or logically, and the ability to write a good pre-concert talk probably isn’t found on the same chromosome as the ability to conduct Beethoven.
I just finished reading the galleys of a new biography of Alfred Hitchcock. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, whose episodes he used to introduce in the driest, drollest manner imaginable. Well, Hitchcock didn’t write those introductions. They were written for him by a witty playwright named James Allardice, the same fellow who knocked out his after-dinner speeches. Hitchcock just read them—brilliantly—and they helped make him a star in his own right.
Me, I think all musicians, classical and non-classical alike, should talk to their audiences. If I ran a conservatory, I’d require every student to take a class in public speaking. Failing that, though, I think a little discreet ghostwriting might prove to be a shrewd investment in the future of classical music in America.
By the way, my fellow artsjournal.com blogger Greg Sandow has some thoughts on the same subject. Go see.
If you long to purchase real art that won’t require you to take out a second mortgage, Lincoln Center’s List Art Poster & Print Program is worth a visit. Each year, the program commissions signed limited-edition screenprints from well-known artists, subsequently turning them into high-quality posters advertising a Lincoln Center constituent. Prints are limited to 108 copies, posters to 500. The batting average, artistically speaking, is impressively high, and several List screenprints, like Helen Frankenthaler’s Grey Fireworks, have sold out quickly and appreciated considerably in value since their publication. I own a List print, and look at it lovingly several dozen times each day. (I paid for it, too—this is not a commercial!)
"Celebrating 40 Years of List Posters," an exhibition drawn from the 160-plus prints commissioned to date, goes up August 11 at the Lincoln Center Gallery (across the hall from the downstairs entrance to the Metropolitan Opera House) and will remain on view through September 6. Artists in the show include Frankenthaler, Jennifer Bartlett, Wolf Kahn, Robert Motherwell, Jules Olitski, Gerhard Richter, and Jamie Wyeth. All works on display will also be available for sale. In addition, you can purchase List prints and posters on line any time by going here.
Most people who know me wouldn’t call me a risk-taker, yet I’m intensely drawn to taking chances in my on-stage life as a jazz musician. That’s why I tend to become restless during performances that mainly consist of things like safe melodies, predictable harmony, meters you can count without really trying, and The Blues. On the other hand, too much complexity—a solid hour of free improvisation by an avant-garde jazz quartet, say—can bore me to tears just as quickly. So I was delighted to run across something at the Cornelia Street Café that struck a 10 on my interest meter. That something was Kate McGarry.
If I had to compare McGarry to a snack-food item, she’d be a handful of chocolate-covered mini-pretzels—a perfect blend of cool, salty style with a decadently rich, sweet sound, satisfying your initial craving while leaving you hungry for more. Her material is just as flavorful, ranging from hard-swinging jazz standards to sensual bossa novas in 7/8 time, from a sexy, modern arrangement of a tune by the Kinks to a gorgeously pure Irish folksong. (You can hear some of these songs on her newly reissued debut CD, Show Me.) Best of all, she has the rare ability to improvise with a sophisticated ear, spinning out attractive, tastefully phrased melodic lines that snake effortlessly (and accurately) through every chord change.
McGarry’s biggest leap of faith may have been her quasi-apologetic announcement to the audience that most of what we’d be hearing was unrehearsed. (She got tied up in a traffic blockade resulting from last week’s shooting at City Hall, and missed her own dress rehearsal.) I almost wished she’d kept this fact a secret, though it did add to the thrill of watching the music spontaneously unravel and resolve. After hearing one exciting performance after another, a wise audience member leaned over to me and whispered, "This is why she shouldn’t make disclaimers like that!" But it also suggested that while she can sing from the heart with reckless abandon, she also cares deeply about the art she’s making. Maybe that’s what it means to be a true daredevil.
Happy Monday! Here we are again, ready to do art. I have three deadlines looming, so don’t expect miracles, but I promise a varied menu all week long (including the debut of a new guest blogger) or your money back.
Today’s topics, from now to never: (1) Why the estate of an oil heiress is suing the Metropolitan Opera. (2) A culture-related blunder at Ground Zero. (3) Nostalgia in Times Square, courtesy of a theatrical press agent. (4) Comics, cartoons, high art, and the theory of relativity. (5) Where to read about ballet and modern dance. (6) Another point of view on Adam Guettel. (7) The latest almanac entry.
Incidentally, I posted an obit yesterday morning, which you will find immediately following today's almanac. It's the first time I've done a weekend posting, and though I don't plan to make a habit of it, there's no telling what I might do next.
Are you awake yet? Have you told 10 friends about www.terryteachout.com? If you do, good fortune will be yours.
P.S. Mick Jagger turned 60 this weekend. Remember Mick Jagger? O.K., how about the Rolling Stones? Is anybody out there?
The New York Times ran a story last week about a now-deceased Texas oil heiress whose estate is suing the Metropolitan Opera. During her lifetime, Sybil Harrington, the lady in question, gave the Met $27 million, with the explicit (and obviously well-lawyered) proviso that the money be used in support of "at least one new production each Metropolitan Opera season by composers such as Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Wagner, Strauss and others whose works have been the core of the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera during its first century, with each such new production to be staged and performed in a traditional manner that is generally faithful to the intentions of the composer and the librettist." The Met obliged, going so far as to name its auditorium after her.
After Harrington died in 1998, her estate gave the company another $5 million to televise its productions, with a similar stipulation that the gift be used "exclusively for the televising of traditional/grand opera productions of the Metropolitan Opera…set in a place and time and staged as the composer placed it." The estate charges, among other complicated things, that the Met spent some of that money on a telecast of a non-traditional production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and wants her money returned.
Joe Volpe, who runs the Met, isn’t talking, except to say he’s "confident that, at the end of this affair, the name of the Metropolitan Opera will remain unsullied." Right. In fact, the Times story seems to leave little doubt that the Met did what the Harrington estate says it did, though if you’ve followed the eternalitigation in which Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection is entangled, you know nothing is simple when cultural institutions find themselves in legal hot water.
What interests me, though, is less the suit than the terms of the original gift. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Met agreed to let a Texas oil heiress dictate a good-sized chunk of its artistic policy, which strikes me as...well, where shall I begin? Provincial? Irresponsible? How about downright boneheaded? On the other hand, the whole thing starts to sound less surprising when you consider the past decade or so of new Met productions. Yes, I’ve seen some theatrically breathtaking things there (Mark Lamos’ Wozzeck comes immediately to mind), but in recent years, with only a few exceptions, the company’s productions have typically oscillated between rigidly hyper-traditional stagings of standard operas like Madama Butterfly and Eurotrashy anything-for-an-effect stagings of non-standard operas like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All of which makes me wonder: To what extent were Sybil Harrington and her oil money responsible for the fact that the Met has become so tired and unadventurous, theatrically speaking?
Granted, it isn’t easy for the Met to put on a theatrically serious show—the house is too large. Nor do I believe that neo-traditional stagings of standard operas are necessarily a bad thing (though I can’t remember the last time I saw a good one). In any case, I’m well aware that older operagoers as a group tend to hate adventurous operatic productions. They want trees with leaves. So maybe Harrington simply made it possible for the Met to do what it would have done anyway, only with more leaves.
All I’m saying is that when I go to the opera, I want to see something that’s worth seeing, not just hearing. Which may be why I now go to New York City Opera far more often than the Met. But that's another posting.
(Incidentally, the Times is also reporting that the powers-that-be have decided against including a new downtown house for New York City Opera in their Ground Zero redevelopment plans—a huge disappointment for those, myself included, who thought it a terrific idea. I suspect it won't be the last such disappointment as the plans start to take clearer shape.)
From time to time, one of New York’s theatrical publicists sends out an e-mail called "Who Was Seen at the Theatre Last Week?" Here are excerpts from the most recent edition (all spelling and punctuation guaranteed unaltered).
Last weekend in London Arnold Schwarzenegger, in town to promote with opening of Terminator 3 in Europe, was spotted at the West End
production of MAMMA MIA! along with wife Maria Shriver and their children.
Toni Braxton, dressed in an exquisite gown designed by special guest and dear friend, Marc Bouwer, was feted at Laura Belle last Thursday (July 17) by family, friends and Broadway luminaries celebrating the 6-time Grammy-winner's return to the Great White Way in AIDA.
"Friends" star David Schwimmer caught up with Broadway's long running URINETOWN at the Henry Miller.
The sensational Broadway show NINE was visited this week by a variety of sensational Broadway stars: Jon Secada, Rebecca Luker and Lou Diamond Phillips. Also seen was Broadway newcomer, and Antonio's wife, Melanie Griffith.
I never fail to be amused by this charming little relic of the stone age of press agentry, redolent as it is of the dear departed days when Walter Winchell ruled the earth. I mean, does anybody, anywhere, care how Lou Diamond Phillips spends his spare time? Then again, maybe it’s just me. Obviously somebody, somewhere, is paying attention, otherwise the publicist in question wouldn’t bother, right? Or is "Who Was Seen at the Theatre Last Week?" actually being knocked out on an Underwood manual (that’s a typewriter, Gen-Xers) by an 85-year-old guy who wears a fedora at his desk and doesn’t know that the only kind of gossip people want to hear these days involves the sex lives of the rich and famous? As Captain Renault might have said, that’s what I like to think—it’s the romantic in me.
A reader writes, apropos of my recent claim that younger New Yorkers don’t seem to be collecting affordable serious art:
When I go to people's houses, I routinely have to drool at the art on the walls, and if there's not real art, there's really nice posters and reproductions. See, baby boomers and Gen-Xers who are science fiction/fantasy or comics fans routinely have inexpensive high-quality art on their walls, as
well as sketches by the famous tucked away in various places. I'm not an especially huge art collector and I'm not making much, but I have the following in my collection: (1) A painted cover layout by Jack Gaughan. (2) Two sketches by Hannes Bok (I paid too much for these, frankly). (3) Six pages of sketches by Phil Foglio. (He gives out his old scratch paper for free at conventions. We like.) (4) A quick-sketched portrait by Mark Wallace ("William Blackfox"). (5) A drawing by Matt Roach. I've also got five paintings by lesser-known folks and a ton of laser prints. Oh, and I've been known to buy animation cels and
artwork as gifts for others.
I could easily pick up a really good cover painting for 500-1000 dollars if I attended the right science fiction conventions, but frankly, I don't have enough space on my wall and my apartment has this little thing called rent. But lots of fans make lots more
money than I do, and they buy. A lot. Most fans have more art stuck away somewhere in the house than on the walls, and there's plenty on the walls. But every convention features an art show, with work by the most revered professionals cheek-by-jowl with rank beginners. A lot of stuff is clumsy, and some of the stuff with good technique is too pretty-pretty or too dark or too interested in showing large expanses of female flesh. But there's a lot of good and interesting
stuff out there.
Shh! Don't tell anybody!
Pop quiz: What do you think my reaction to this letter was?
If your answer was (A) amused snobbery, you are sooooo wrong. One of my most prized pieces of art is an original cel setup (animation cel plus background painting) from The Cat Concerto, an Oscar-winning Tom & Jerry cartoon. It shows Jerry Mouse scampering up a piano keyboard, a vexed expression on his face. I love animated cartoons, and I think they’re art, too, the same way I think All About Eve is art—that much, and no more. That’s the reason why my Tom & Jerry cel setup is hung in my office, but my John Marin etching is hung in my living room.
To quote from the preface to A Terry Teachout Reader, out next spring from Yale University Press: "Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows—but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture."
The point being that it’s absolutely O.K. to like both John Marin and Tom & Jerry, so long as you know that there’s a big difference between them, and that one is better than the other. Which ought to be needless to say…but we all know it isn’t anymore, don’t we?
This link will take you to Robert Gottlieb’s dance reviews in the New York Observer, which in my opinion rank among the very best things currently being written about dance in New York, or anywhere else. Last week he wrote about Dance Theatre of Harlem and Pilobolus, and in both cases he was right on the money. Gottlieb came to criticism late, after editing books (which he still does) and The New Yorker, but he’s taken it up with a vengeance, and he’s a natural. It figures—he’s probably been to more New York City Ballet performances than anybody other than George Balanchine and Edward Gorey, and they’re both dead.
Click the link, then bookmark it. You won’t be sorry.
Greg Sandow (who blogs about classical music elsewhere on artsjournal.com) responds to my recent posting on Adam Guettel, the off-Broadway composer of musicals whom I think is writing operas and doesn't know it, or maybe won't admit it. Here's an excerpt:
Opera singers are good at operatic singing, and if that's what I want—along with the grand surge of an operatic orchestra—I'd better get my work produced in an opera house. But if what I want is good theater, maybe I'd be better off elsewhere. I used to write a lot of incidental music for plays and was delighted with how quickly actors got to the heart of any music they were involved in. They went straight for what the music meant, something that, in my experience, happens much more slowly in opera, and sometimes might not happen at all.
"The Thomas Crown Affair is pretty good trash, but we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy. If it was priggish for an older generation of reviewers to be ashamed of what they enjoyed and to feel they had to be contemptuous of popular entertainment, it’s even more priggish for a new movie generation to be so proud of what they enjoy that they use their education to try to place trash within the acceptable academic tradition."
I wonder how many readers of the New York Times remember Harold C. Schonberg, who died Saturday at the age of 87. He was the Times’ chief music critic from 1960 to 1980, during which time he published two very popular books about classical music, The Great Pianists (1963) and The Lives of the Great Composers (1970), and won a Pulitzer prize for criticism, the first ever awarded to a music critic. Yet he was regarded as increasingly irrelevant even during his tenure at the Times, and though his old paper gave him a proper sendoff, by now I suspect he is best remembered (if at all) for having taken memorably worded but ultimately philistine potshots at Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould, neither of which was quoted in his Times obituary. (It was Schonberg who wrote of an especially flamboyant Bernstein performance that "he rose vertically into the air, a la Nijinsky, and hovered there a good 15 seconds by the clock.")
A no-nonsense journalist who understood in his bones that a performance is also news—something many working critics never figure out—Schonberg was conservative to the point of reaction in his musical values, and this, I suspect, is what has caused his memory to fade. It wasn’t just that he rejected the avant-garde: The Lives of the Great Composers, otherwise a rather good book, is surprisingly unreceptive to 20th-century classical music in general. But he got one thing on the nose, as he recalled in his farewell column, from which the Timesdid quote:
I thought the serial-dominated music after the war was a hideously misbegotten creature sired by Caliban out of Hecate, and I had no hesitation in saying so. Nor has it been proved that I was all wrong. Certain it is that the decades of serialism did nothing but alienate the public, creating a chasm between composer and audience.
Schonberg lived long enough to see time prove him dead right about the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and their progeny—although a good many of his fellow critics have yet to figure out what he sensed at once. And as unfashionable as his rejection of 12-tone music was in the Sixties and Seventies, he never hesitated, then or at any other time, to say exactly what he thought.