About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, October 27, 2006
TT: Don't go once, it's all bad
I review three shows in this morning’s Wall Street Journal drama column. Two are on Broadway—The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Butley—while the third, No Exit, is currently playing at Hartford Stage in Connecticut:
The buzz on “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” the new Twyla Tharp-Bob Dylan jukebox musical, was devastatingly negative. Such omens of impending doom are usually right, but I hoped for the best anyway. Mr. Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of the postwar era and Ms. Tharp one of its most admired choreographers, so how bad could it be? Now I know: “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is so bad that it makes you forget how good the songs are....
Alan Bates won a Tony for his performance in the original production of “Butley,” which was by all accounts spectacularly memorable. Now Nathan Lane is starring in the first Broadway revival of Simon Gray’s harrowing 1971 play about a seedy, self-loathing professor of a certain age whose life is falling apart. I never saw Mr. Bates in “Butley,” whether on stage or in Harold Pinter’s 1974 film version, thus making it possible for me to view Mr. Lane with an innocent eye. It’s a show he’s wanted to do for years, so I’m sorry to say that his interpretation of the title role is an honorable failure….
Have you heard the one about three unhappy people locked in a small room for all eternity? Most theatergoers know the premise of “No Exit,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1940 play about life in hell, and can probably even quote its best-remembered line, “Hell is other people.” But “No Exit” is more talked about than performed—it hasn’t been seen on Broadway since 1946, when John Huston directed the American premiere—so it’s worth paying a visit to Hartford to see Jerry Mouawad’s wonderfully imaginative production….
No free link. To read the whole thing, go out and buy a copy of today’s morning's Journal, then turn to the “Weekend Journal” section. Better yet, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you on-the-spot access to the complete text of my review, plus a plethora of other good pieces.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 27, 2006 | Permanent
TT: A challenge to Martin Scorsese
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I take a look at Martin Scorsese’s recent announcement that he wants to devote himself to directing small-scale, low-budget films: “I think I am finding that when there are very big budgets there is less risk that can be taken.” Is there any possibility that he means what he says—and if so, is there any chance that he’ll be any good at it?
To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 27, 2006 | Permanent
"You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something."
George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 27, 2006 | Permanent
Thursday, October 26, 2006
TT: In transit
I am now officially on the fly. If you're trying to get in touch with me, I probably won't be seeing my e-mail again until Saturday evening, so call my cell phone instead.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal or on “About Last Night” 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.
Tomorrow I fly to the West Coast to see plays in Portland and Seattle, and I'm frighteningly busy preparing for the trip. (If you've trying to get in touch with me, please don't be surprised by unexpected delays—it's been a long time since I was this swamped.)
In lieu of original thought, here are some fugitive gleanings from the blogosphere:
• Ms. twang twang twang summarizes the ups and downs of her life as a professional harpist:
I have asked a tramp to hold my harp at 2am outside a casino while I clamber into my car boot to unjam it from the inside. I have been dressed as a fairy, a mermaid, a 1920s burlesque dancing girl complete with red sequinned cigarette holder, been asked to play topless (no, I didn't), been asked to wear a sailor's outfit (no, I didn't—although that was more because the orchestra requesting it wasn't supplying the gear, and I don't have a sailor's outfit hanging next to my long black), and played behind a screen in case I gave the 100 dining Arab men wrongful thoughts. I have done countless youth concerts in a variety of silly hats, although fortunately not a WW2 gasmask, which was once given to the principal double bass. I've done pubs, clubs, casinos, cruises, discos, orgies, supermarkets and public lavatories. I've also played in private lavatories, when no ground floor warm-up rooms have been arranged. I have performed My Heart Will Go On 75 times accompanied by bagpipes, kit and a Wurlitzer Organ—together.
Jeepers, how come that kind of stuff never happened to me when I played music?
In general, things don’t happen in real life as they do in movies. That palpable difference is, after all, one of the reasons why we love cinema. Our lives do not finish in a neat narrative moment that resolves as it fades to black. We do not, in general, experience our lives as a grand unfolding of plot points that crescendo-culminate in some grandiose happening, whether dramatic or comedic or both.
Rarely do we have that succinct pointed epiphany. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a love story, a war story, a family story or a personal story; the real defies any narrative framework, perhaps because rarely is anything in real life just one story.
Which is why cinematic reproductions of therapeutic moments give me a huge pain in the ass….
In art, fortunately, one is not compelled to choose sides, one poet at the expense of another. Milosz and Larkin are not mutually exclusive loves. Aesthetic love is promiscuous without being unfaithful. I feel no compulsion to be rigorously consistent in matters of artistic taste. I can love Proust and Raymond Chandler, Schoenberg and Johnny Cash. Only in that sense, I think, is art democratic….
What he said (except for the part about Schoenberg).
• If you didn’t see this story in Publishers Weekly, read it right now. The subject is the decline of newspaper book reviewing:
With newspapers under increasing financial pressure, however, is it reasonable to expect them to give extensive coverage to an industry where they get relatively little support? Among the remaining Sunday review sections, only the New York Times Book Review receives a significant number of ads. The Washington Post Book World has seen very little publisher support throughout its history. "It's been a real problem," said Book World editor Marie Arana. The situation is much the same at the San Francisco Chronicle, where, said editor Phil Bronstein, the section gets few ads. "It gets harder and harder to justify something that has no ad support," said Bronstein….
That’s laying it on the line. Yikes.
• Meanwhile, Mr. Parabasis is concerned about the constricting cultural effects of copyright law:
I don't think an artist should have ownership of their work in the conventional sense of the term. I believe that art is a gift we give the world. Cheesy, I know, but think through the implications of the metaphor. When you give a gift, you don't own it anymore. The receiver of the gift owns it. So if art is a gift we give the world, the world owns that gift, not us.
Now I'm not saying people shouldn't be paid for their work. They should. They just perhaps shouldn't have as much control over what happens to it once it's out there in the world. Because as artists, the giving activity is the useful, helpful, growthful one. Having control over that gift once it's out there is selfish….
I know just what he’s talking about, and if I had time to weave it together with my recently published thoughts about YouTube, I would. Instead, I’ll let you connect the dots yourself.
• Mr. Lileks goes to a suburban party in Minneapolis and finds it reassuringly tame:
If this had been a Peter DeVries novel or Cheever story, someone—usually a failed but charming intellectual becalmed in the suburbs—would be canoodling with someone else’s wife in the kitchen, who responded to the classical allusions floating on the seducers winey breath with a sharp mocking retort that would end in a brisk cynical coupling seventy pages later. Sitting around the living room tonight I realized that the middle-aged overeducated vaguely alcoholic East-coast suburban adulterer is no longer the cultural archetype he used to be. Pour some Cutty on the curb for the dead homey. Or the dead homey-wrecker….
• Speaking of life in New Yorkerland, Ms. Emdashes has posted the latest edition of “Ask the Librarians,” her monthly Q-&-A with that magazine’s head librarians. As always, it’s a must.
• Finally, Ms. Tinkerty Tonk points to a site called How Many of Me that allows you to search the U.S. Census Bureau's database to find out how many people share your first and last names. It seems there are 586,439 Americans named Terry, 1,560 Teachouts, and three Terry Teachouts.
Where do my two namesakes live? Are we related? What do they do for a living? I wonder....
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 25, 2006 | Permanent
"Without music we shall surely perish of drink, morphia, and all sorts of artificial exaggerations of the cruder delights of the senses."
George Bernard Shaw, "The Religion of the Pianoforte"
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 25, 2006 | Permanent
Were “Americans in Paris” the only large-scale show currently on view at the Met, I have no doubt that it would be jammed with delighted viewers. But it happens that the museum is also playing host to From Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, a resplendent compendium of nearly two hundred paintings, works on paper, and sculptures by Bonnard, Cézanne, Degas, Derain, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Vlaminck, and Vuillard that passed at one time or another through the hands of the legendary French art dealer. After strolling through “Americans in Paris,” I slipped down the hall to take a peek at “From Cézanne to Picasso.” The Met is closed to the public on Mondays, so I had the show pretty much to myself. I found it absurdly excessive—no one can possibly take in that much great art—but staggering all the same.
Returning to “Americans in Paris” after spending a half-hour wandering through “From Cézanne to Picasso” is a sobering experience. I yield to no one in my admiration for American art, and the best paintings on display in “Americans in Paris” really are exceptional. Yet how many of the thirty-seven American artists represented in the show managed to say something truly individual? Sargent and Eakins, yes—they were definitely their own men—but Whistler now seems etiolated and Cassatt sentimental when compared to the Frenchmen from whom they drew their inspiration.
Look at “Back in the United States,” the last gallery in “Americans in Paris,” in which we see how some of the American painters who visited Paris dealt with native subjects after they returned to the United States. Three of their paintings, John Twachtman’s Brook in Winter, Childe Hassam’s Allies Day, May 1917, and Maurice Prendergast’s Central Park, seem to me to pass the test of individuality. The rest reminded me of a story that Oscar Levant, the pianist and raconteur, used to tell on himself. It seems that Levant spent a lot of time traveling with George Gershwin on passenger trains. One evening he griped to Gershwin that he always got stuck with the upper berth. According to Levant, who wasn’t above embroidering an anecdote, Gershwin supposedly replied, “Upper berth and lower berth—that’s the difference between talent and genius.”
* * *
Visitors to “From Cézanne to Picasso” can view a two-minute clip from a silent French newsreel that shows Ambroise Vollard chatting with his friend and client Auguste Renoir, after which Renoir is briefly seen at work on an unidentified painting. This was in 1919, by which time arthritis had turned Renoir’s hands into shrunken, twisted claws. It’s jolting to watch him slash his brush against the canvas brusquely, almost angrily, then glare at the camera with the fiery eyes of an exhausted master determined to work to the very end.
Why the Met hasn’t posted this astonishing peep into the past on its Web site is beyond me, but should it ever be made available in streaming video, I’ll hasten to add it to the blogroll.
A whole year has gone by since I last saw a film in a theater, and I can’t say I feel any great urge to break my fast—I’m simply too busy. But I do watch old movies on TV, and in the past week and a half I saw two that disappointed me, albeit for very different reasons.
I wouldn’t have bothered with The Seventh Seal had it not been for a houseguest who, like me, had never seen Bergman’s 1956 “breakthrough” film and longed to get her cultural card punched. I took a shot at Wild Strawberries three years ago and found it underwhelming for reasons that I set forth in this space:
When I was young, Wild Strawberries struck me as exactly what old age must be like. (Had it been a novel, I would have scribbled neatly in the margin of the last page, "This is true.") Now that I’m middle-aged—and eight years older than Bergman was when he made it—I know better. It’s far too benign, albeit gorgeously so. It reminds me of what an old music critic once said to me about Der Rosenkavalier: "It’s by a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth."
The Seventh Seal, by contrast, is utterly preposterous, an atheist parable stuffed full of symbols so transparent that the densest of viewers can see them coming a mile down the track. I found it so boring that I was forced to resort to amusing myself by trying to imagine how Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca might have spoofed it on Your Show of Shows back in the days when TV comedians were smart enough to do such things. I suppose it’s a matter of clashing sensibilities—or maybe not. Sibelius’ music, for instance, doesn’t make me giggle, but Bergman’s ever-so-Scandinavian films remind me of what Guy Davenport is supposed to have said about Goethe: "Sometimes, on reading Goethe, one has the paralyzing suspicion that he thinks he's being funny."
Richard Brooks’ 1967 film of In Cold Blood has an eerie verisimilitude arising from the fact that Brooks shot it on many of the actual locations where the horrific events described in Truman Capote’s book took place: the Clutter farmhouse, the courtroom where Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were tried, even the gallows on which they were hanged. The casting of Robert Blake as Smith gives the film an extra dollop of retrospective reality. Alas, Brooks’ painfully literal-minded script consists of half-digested, barely dramatized chunks of the book disgorged at enervating length by the actors, most of whom, Blake excepted, are no better than competent (though it's nice to see Charles McGraw, the tough guy with the buzzsaw voice, in a brief but memorable cameo).
As I've said before, the only way to successfully translate a first-class work of art from one medium to another is to subject it to a complete imaginative transformation. Otherwise the new version will be (A) tautological and (B) superfluous. (That's a joke, son.) Good example: George Balanchine's masterly ballet version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bad example: André Previn's pointless operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Bennett Miller's Capote covers much of the same ground as In Cold Blood, but it approaches the material from a different point of view—it's about Capote, not the Clutters—and so escapes the trap of tautology. Not so the film of In Cold Blood, an attempt to pictorialize the book as faithfully as possible, which foredooms it to artistic failure.
It doesn’t help, of course, that Quincy Jones’ score is trite, or that Brooks has turned the famously fey Capote into a dour, middle-aged reporter (played by Paul Stewart, the sinister butler of Citizen Kane) who beats you over the head with platitudes every time he opens his mouth. But it's the script that kills In Cold Blood stone dead. If I taught film, I’d use it as an example of how not to adapt a book for the screen—and The Seventh Seal as an example of how you can fool most of the critics most of the time.
Shirley Horn, the great jazz singer-pianist, died last night after a long illness. Here’s the first obit to hit the blogosphere—there’ll be more soon. In the meantime, celebrate her life by listening to the album that first brought her to the attention of the general public.
This is what I wrote for the Washington Post the last time I saw Horn live, at New York’s Iridium in 2003:
To Washingtonians, Horn is an old friend, but up here in Second City, she’s an Event. None of my friends can remember the last time she sang in a Manhattan nightclub. Her engagement was all the more eventful in light of the fact that it was something of a comeback. Insiders knew that chronic illness had put her in a wheelchair and stopped her from playing piano. It was impossible to imagine anyone else playing for the best self-accompanist in jazz, so when the word got out that she was coming to town, fans marked their calendars, not sure whether to be excited or nervous.
I felt both ways as I waited and waited for Horn to show up. She was a half-hour late, and I was close enough to the bandstand to overhear the members of her trio (including George Mesterhazy on piano, who carried out his unenviable task with skill and discretion) wondering out loud whether she’d go through with it. Finally, she materialized in the wings, and you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as she was wheeled into place, followed in half a heartbeat by a standing ovation. It was quite an opening—and quite a show. Horn sang in a near-whisper, the whole room leaning on every syllable. “I Got Lost in His Arms” was sly and lustful, “Here’s to Life” almost hurtfully poignant. As for “Yesterdays,” I can’t even begin to tell you what it was like to hear her utter the line “I’m not half the girl I used to be.” All I can say is that you could have heard a tear drop—and plenty did, mine included. I dined with three jazz singers a couple of weeks later, and it turned out that they’d all been to see Shirley Horn, and couldn’t talk about anything else. I don’t know when I’ve heard anything scarier or braver, or more beautiful….
I miss her already.
UPDATE: Go here for more from NPR, including sound bites and links.
Here's the bio posted by the National Endowment for the Arts after Horn won one of the 2005 Jazz Masters Fellowships.
The Washington Post beat the New York Times to the Web by a day with its staff-written obit. (Ben Ratliff's Times obit is here.) Also of interest is this appreciation by the Post's Richard Harrington.
Friday again, and even though I’m not here (I’m off at one of my celebrated undisclosed locations, soaking up silence), Our Girl has been good enough to post the weekly drama-column teaser, in which I gallop wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Alan Ayckbourn is far from unknown in this country—he’s had one solid Broadway hit and a couple of respectable runs—but the best of his 60-odd plays aren’t nearly as familiar to American audiences as they ought to be. Might that be about to change? Earlier this year, his own production of “Private Fears in Public Places” came to town as part of the “Brits Off Broadway” series at 59E59 and caused a stir, and now the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has long been enthusiastic about his work, has brought “Absurd Person Singular” back to Broadway three decades after its New York premiere, which ran for 591 performances. This revival, directed by John Tillinger, isn’t perfect, but it’s way more than good enough, and if Mr. Ayckbourn’s brand of darkly bittersweet comedy is new to you, it’ll make you wonder where he’s been all your life….
About a half-hour into “In My Life,” the retchingly whimsical story of J.T. (Christopher J. Hanke), a cute young singer-songwriter who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and a brain tumor, I turned to my seatmate and whispered, “‘Springtime for Hitler.’” If you’re not a musical-comedy buff or a Mel Brooks fan, that’s the horrible show-within-a-show in “The Producers” which turns out to be so unintentionally funny that it becomes a smash hit. If Joe Brooks, the author-lyricist-composer-director-producer of “In My Life,” had cut 15 minutes’ worth of balladry and told his excellent cast to play the rest for laughs, he, too, might have had a hit on his hands. Instead, he’s getting laughed out of town—on a rail….
No link. Do the usual: (A) Buy the damn paper, O.K.? (B) Go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, a totally great deal.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 21, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Number, please
• Fee paid in 1924 by Warner Bros. to Alfred A. Knopf for film rights to Willa Cather's A Lost Lady: $12,000
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 21, 2005 | Permanent
"Pointing to the briefcase I said: 'How do you know you are going to reject them?'
"'If they were any good, they wouldn't be dropped at my hotel by the writers in person. Some New York agent would have them.'
"'Then why take them at all?'
"'Partly not to hurt feelings. Partly the thousand-to-one chance all publishers live for. But mostly you're at a cocktail party and get introduced to all sorts of people, and some of them have novels written and you are just liquored up enough to be benevolent and full of love for the human race, so you say you'd love to see the script. It is then dropped at your hotel with such sickening speed that you are forced to go through the motions of reading it.'"
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 21, 2005 | Permanent
Thursday, October 20, 2005
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Dirty Rotten Scoundrels* (musical, R, extremely vulgar, reviewed here)
• Doubt* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, G, one scene of mild violence but otherwise family-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here)
• Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, lots of cutesy-pie sexual content, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY: • The Caterers (drama, R, violence, strong language, and explicit sexual situations, reviewed here, closes Oct. 30)
• Sides: The Fear Is Real… (sketch comedy, PG, some strong language, reviewed here, closes Oct. 30)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 20, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Number, please
• Amount paid in 1945 by Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner for a farmhouse, a barn, and five acres of land on Long Island: $5,000
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 20, 2005 | Permanent
"'There's so much that I want to tell you,' she said at last, 'and it's hard to explain. My life is full of jealousies and disappointments, you know. You get to hating people who do contemptible work and who get on just as well as you do. There are many disappointments in my profession, and bitter, bitter contempts!' Her face hardened, and looked much older. 'If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up for it, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate! A contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.'"
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 20, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
TT: Number, please
• Royalties earned by Willa Cather's My Ántonia in 1918, its first year of publication: $1,300
I'm badly bent from recent excesses of work, so I'll be taking the rest of the week off from blogging (except for the usual daily items, which Our Girl has obligingly agreed to post for me). My plan is to retreat to one of my top-secret undisclosed locations sans iBook and watch the river flow.
Your mission, should you decide to accept it:
• Be sure to visit several of the other fine blogs listed in the right-hand column.
I’ve been inexplicably slow to note the recent publication of Blog!: How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture (CDS, $24.95), a collection of essays and interviews by and with various prominent bloggers. Like most such efforts, it has next to nothing to say about artblogging, but what it does say is said by me: David Kline and Dan Burstein, who put the book together, interviewed me via e-mail last year and have included the results as a four-page Q-&-A.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
Are blogs empowering new voices? If so, who? Will they actually change power relationships in society?
They’re empowering amateur writers—thousands of them. And it’s already clear that blogging offers a platform to gifted amateur writers—and, just as important, it allows these budding young writers to sidestep the traditional media and win recognition on their own. This can’t help but change power relationships in the world of journalism. Specifically, it’s diminishing the power of traditional-media “gatekeepers” to shape the cultural conversation, which I think is mostly—but not entirely—a good thing….
For more of the same, plus contributions by (among others) Joe Trippi, Markos “Daily Kos” Zuniga, Roger L. Simon, Wonkette, Nick Denton, Adam Curry, Jay Rosen, Andrew Sullivan, and a whole lot of other relevant people, go here to buy the book.
Here are two pieces of e-mail I received apropos of my article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal about spending the night in two Frank Lloyd Wright houses:
• “For the past sixteen years, my wife and I (together with our five children) have resided in a 1901 Wright-designed house in Oak Park, Illinois. During this time, we have come to know quite a few Wright homeowners and many other fans of his. While we have known some to 'suffer in silence' (and some not so silently) when sitting through a long dinner on reproductions of his famous straight-backed chairs, I have never heard any of the homeowners express anything but praise and joy concerning the pleasure of living in their homes and the magic interplay of space and light that Wright managed to create in them. Many consider our home to be one of the early ‘masterpieces,’ but it is certainly no museum piece. Like your description of the Schwartz House, it has been occupied by children for much of its 104 years, and our own five have certainly ridden it hard. The spaces absorb and welcome them. As young parents in 1989, we purchased the house as much for its livability as for its beauty. The value of Wright's design is fundamentally in the spaces themselves, not in the famous art glass or other details that adorn them. Even our youngest children unconsciously appreciate that and have told us that we are not allowed to move to any other house!”
• “My grandparents bought a house outside of Milwaukee in the 1920s from a young architect they had met named Frank Wright and lived the rest of their lives in that home. The house was terrific, the furniture and sconces all designed by Mr. Wright (not the dishes). Several small fruit-bearing trees were in the front yard right next to the porch and the way the leaves hung down in the summer always reminded me of the roof of the house. There was a wonderful laundry chute we used to play with when we visited. When I was about eight (1960) we were having a wild pillow fight under the sleepy eye of a babysitter. I threw a triangular-shaped pillow at my sister and clipped one of the sconces right off the wall. When my grandmother died we had no relatives in Milwaukee and so my parents sold it. Unfortunately, when my grandparents bought the home they did not know how important the architect would become and so no official documentation was kept proving who had designed it. The house was sold for a song.
“Some time in the late 1980s I traveled to Milwaukee for my oral medical boards and took a cab out to the house. No one was home. I sat on the porch and ate some of the berries from the trees for ten minutes, keeping the cab waiting.
I told a friend of mine at lunch the other day that I thought the day would come when the producers of smart movies aimed at older viewers (i.e., anyone over 21) would bypass theatrical release altogether and market such films in more or less the same way novels are sold in bookstores. If that happens, I’ll be sorry to spend less time in theaters. The enveloping experience of watching a good film in a big, dark room—and in the company of a rapt audience—is unique and irreplaceable. Alas, it’s already been replaced, at least for most of us who love classic films. How many of the great movies of the past have you seen in a theater? Not many, I suspect, especially if you’re under 40 and don’t live in a film-friendly city like New York or Chicago...
"Already in 1958, Nell Blaine was worrying in a journal entry about the rise of 'the idea of novelty above all' as well as 'the love of cruelty and art brut of the Post-Atom 2nd string Dadaists.' All this, she wrote, 'has stuck in the craw of many serious artists who may go their own way quietly.' At least until the end of the 1950s, though, Duchamp's and [Ad] Reinhardt's dark, contrarian views were held in check by a gloriously optimistic sense, the sense that [Hans] Hofmann epitomized, that art was organically, dialectically related to the hurly-burly of life—and that art could transcend life. 'Those with a capacity for life, joie de vivre,' Blaine observed, 'will go on in the face of annihilation.'"
I'm about to leave the office to spruce myself up to see Luciana Souza and Regina Carter perform at Symphony Center tonight. As if that weren't enough, I'll be heading out to the suburbs Sunday for one of Paul Taylor's too infrequent Chicago stopovers. What can I say? Sometimes I lead the life of Terry. Full reports on Monday.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 22, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Brideshead Revisited revisited
Here’s something you probably don’t know: Evelyn Waugh revised several of his novels, some quite extensively, when preparing the uniform edition of his books that was published in England in the early Sixties. Don’t be embarrassed—many of Waugh’s most ardent American fans are unaware of these revisions. The reason for their ignorance is that the editions of Waugh’s novels that have circulated most widely in this country, the Little, Brown trade paperbacks, are straight reprints of the first American editions.
I mention this because I only just discovered that the Everyman’s Library edition of
Brideshead Revisited, the novel Waugh edited most ruthlessly, not only reprints the revised version but includes an introductory essay by Frank Kermode in which Waugh’s changes are discussed at length and in detail.
Also included is the preface in which Waugh explained why he trimmed Brideshead:
In December 1943 I had the good fortune when parachuting to incur a minor injury which afforded me a rest from military service. This was extended by a sympathetic commanding officer, who let me remain unemployed until June 1944 when the book was finished. I wrote with a zest that was quite strange to me and also with impatience to get back to the war. It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster—the period of soya beans and Basic English—and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book….
I knew about these changes but had never actually seen the revised version of Brideshead, so I picked up a copy of the Everyman’s Library edition and read it day before yesterday en route to Minnesota. As I read, I found myself agreeing with Kermode: “On the whole most readers, I think, would agree that the purgation of the first version—not over-rigorous, for reasons Waugh suggests in his Preface—makes for improvement: the final version of the novel is preferable.” My guess is that those who dislike the book intensely (as many readers do) won’t find the revised version all that much more persuasive, but swing voters might well be nudged into the pro-Brideshead column by Waugh’s shrewd pruning, while admirers will find it fascinating to see what he chose to cut.
On the other hand, I do admit to regretting the loss of certain delightfully ornate touches, especially in Waugh’s description of Anthony Blanche, the character based on Harold Acton. Here is Blanche in the original version of Brideshead:
This, I did not need telling, was Anthony Blanche, the “aesthete” par excellence, a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville, a young man who seemed to me, then, fresh from the sombre company of the College Essay Society, ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian. He had been pointed out to me often in the streets, as he moved with his own peculiar stateliness, as though he had not fully accustomed himself to coat and trousers and was more at his ease in heavy, embroidered robes; I had heard his voice in the George challenging the conventions; and now meeting him, under the spell of Sebastian, I found myself enjoying him voraciously, like the fine piece of cookery he was.
And here he is in the revised version:
This, I did not need telling, was Anthony Blanche, the “aesthete” par excellence, a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville. He had been pointed out to me often in the streets, as he pranced along with his high peacock tread; I had heard his voice in the George challenging the conventions; and now meeting him, under the spell of Sebastian, I found myself enjoying him voraciously.
I do think the second version is an improvement, but I miss those last eight words! It’s as though Henry James had started with the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady, then edited it down to the original version. Remember his celebrated description of Caspar Goodwood's kiss? In the original, it was just one crisp sentence: “His kiss was like a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.” By the time of the New York Edition, it had mushroomed into a full paragraph:
His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free.
I’d say James got it right the second time, wouldn’t you? Sometimes less is just…less. But not when it comes to the revised version of Brideshead Revisited, which I commend to your attention not only as a generally superior literary experience but also as a little-known chapter in the history of aesthetic second thoughts.
I was wondering if you could recommend a single Balanchine DVD to this scandalously ill-informed balletomoron.
You have two choices:
(1) Balanchine, on Kultur, is a first-rate, smartly written PBS documentary from the Eighties containing excerpts, some of them extended, from most of the major Balanchine ballets. Watching it on TV was what inspired me to go see New York City Ballet for the very first time.
(2) Nonesuch has just put out two DVDs called Choreography by Balanchine containing performances by New York City Ballet, overseen in the studio by Balanchine himself. Start with the one that contains The Four Temperaments and Stravinsky Violin Concerto. These performances, originally shown on PBS's Dance in America in the Seventies, introduced untold numbers of viewers to Balanchine. The visceral impact of theatrical dance can only be suggested on the small screen, but the Choreography by Balanchine telecasts were extremely well-directed and give a surprisingly good sense of what the ballets look like on stage. (The Balanchine documentary on Kultur contains snippets from most of these performances.)
Ideally, you should watch both DVDs, but my guess is that either one will at least pique your interest.
• A reader writes:
In thinking about your new book on George Balanchine, and your coverage of dance generally: could you display on the Web site, or provide a link to, a dance score? I'm sure most people have seen a music score, and know what music looks like written down. But I think few of us, me included, know what choreography looks like written down (at least I assume it's written down!). What does a dance look like on paper? I'm sure many of us would like to see what this looks like.
Gladly. To see an introductory example of dance notation, go to the Dance Notation Bureau’s Web site, then click on the "Notation Basics" button in the left-hand column. You'll see a brief explanation of Labanotation, the most widely used form of dance notation. You can find out more about dance notation by exploring the rest of the site.
I should add, however, that choreographers themselves rarely if ever use dance notation. Most of them don't even know how to read Labanotation, much less write it. Instead, they demonstrate the successive moves of a dance to the dancers in the studio, and the finished product is documented by videotaping a complete performance. Notation comes later, if at all. Similarly, older dances are usually revived not by way of notated scores but through a show-and-tell process, with archival videotape available as a backup in case of memory lapses. This is why so many ballets of the past are now "lost": they were neither videotaped nor notated, and once they ceased to be performed on a regular basis, the steps were gradually forgotten.
Unlikely as it may sound, certain dancers are capable of carrying all the steps of a ballet in their heads, Fahrenheit 451-style, and teaching them to the members of a company that has never before performed it. Sometimes they may remember a dance better than the choreographer himself: Balanchine, for example, forgot the steps to Le Tombeau de Couperin after he made it, and it was only because Rosemary Dunleavy remembered them that the ballet was later revived and documented for posterity. (In return for this feat, Balanchine left Dunleavy the rights to Tombeau in his will.)
I am on the final pages...and in love with Balanchine...and though I have seen so little of his work, I know so much more.
From a modern-dance choreographer:
Your masterful way of clarifying the slippery matter of imagery in dances—ones with or without a plot—is particularly impressive, and learning more about Mr. B’s life was fascinating.
From Library Journal:
A volume as sleek and elegant as the dancers in a Balanchine ballet. Intended as an introduction rather than a full-scale biography, this book goes right to the essence of the Balanchine aesthetic, offering artful observations and insightful commentaries on several of the master's pivotal works…
I'm back from Minnesota, and I even made it home in time to see Mary Foster Conklin's show. I have tales to tell, but I'm worn out from parachuting into the Twin Cities, giving two speeches, then turning right around and coming back, and I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night. (Besides, I have to go to the ballet tonight!)
If you'll give me a chance to unpack my bag, open my mail, regroup, and take an extended nap, I'll be back later this afternoon with additional postings, and still more to come on Monday.
Time once again for my Wall Street Journal drama column. Today I reviewed Brooklyn,
a new Broadway musical, and Trying, a new off-Broadway play.
Brooklyn was horrible:
Broadway has a new musical with that rarity of rarities, an original score. That’s cause for rejoicing, right? Er…no. The fact that its songs were custom-written by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson is the only “original” thing about “Brooklyn: The Musical,” which opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre. Otherwise, it’s 100% recycled—from pure garbage.
“Brooklyn” is one of those shows that is better summarized than reviewed. Ray Klausen’s set, a graffiti-encrusted street scene, contrives to be both rundown and adorably picturesque. The cast consists of five golden-voiced street singers similarly clad in ever-so-stylish rags and tatters. The leader of the pack (Cleavant Derricks) invites passers-by to pause for a moment and listen to the “sidewalk fairy tale” of Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa), a budding young pop singer from Paris who comes to America to search for her long-lost father (Kevin Anderson), a songwriter turned Vietnam vet turned smack-shooting vagrant. All she knows of him is an unfinished lullaby he wrote for his baby daughter, whose mother (Karen Olivo) taught it to her before committing suicide. This touching story sends her skyrocketing to the top of the charts, from which she dislodges Paradice (Ramona Keller), a you-go-girl ghetto diva who thereupon challenges Brooklyn to a winner-take-all singoff at Madison Square Garden, where—
Is that the sound of gagging I hear? Well, at least let me share with you some of “Brooklyn”’s lyrics, set to the kind of music I think of as Disney Soul: “There’s a story behind these empty eyes/That no one wants to know…I used to sing at Christmas/Now Christmas makes me cry…Now once upon a time/Has never felt more right…Life is like a shooting star/And here is where it’s falling.” The book is of identical quality: “Oh, no, no, don’tchu worry ’bout me none, noooo, I’m just like these here weeds, sprouting right up through this concrete. Yeah, that’s me alright…strong as a city weed.” (That comes straight from the script, in case you were wondering.)
In short, we’re talking “Rent” for the pre-school set, a molasses-coated piece of boob bait whose presence on Broadway, however temporary, is proof that musical-comedy standards never seem to hit rock-bottom—they just sink lower and lower….
(By the way, Ben Brantley of the New York Times is totally on the same page with me about Brooklyn. We even used a couple of closely similar metaphors! Take a look—it’s interesting to contrast our approaches.)
Trying wasn’t horrible, just trite, and was largely redeemed by a remarkable performance:
If you prefer your clichés spoken instead of sung, you can always go to the Promenade Theatre, where Fritz Weaver is starring in “Trying,” a two-person play about the extreme old age of Francis Biddle, an upper-crust WASP from Philadelphia who switched parties and became Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general, thereby earning the perpetual loathing of his fellow Main Liners, for whom rock-ribbed Republicanism was a religion. (Nowadays, they’d have nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.)
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass has worked long, hard and successfully to leach all traces of freshness out of “Trying,” which is the octillionth retread of The One About the Grumpy Old Geezer and His Spunky Young Secretary. Fortunately, Mr. Weaver, who made his Broadway debut before I was born, is in infallibly fine form, and his performance as Judge Biddle should be videotaped and played for acting students as a priceless example of how to make a whole lot out of not much.
He gently caresses each line with an old-gold baritone voice unscarred by years of hard use; he underlines each ominous sign of oncoming senility with the lightest of touches. Above all, he suggests with uncanny specificity what it must feel like to stand at the threshold of eternity. Peering through his glasses at his address book, he says, “All the Bs are dead” (a great line, by the way—I wonder if Biddle really said it), then lifts his head to gaze at the fast-receding horizon of his youth. If that moment doesn’t make you catch your breath, you must be watching some other show….
No link, and there’s plenty more where that came from. To read the whole thing, buy a copy of this morning’s Journal, or subscribe to the online edition (an even better idea) by going here.
"While I still stood on the boat deck we ran into another belt of mist. The engines changed to slow and then to dead slow, and the fog-horn began dolefully sounding the half-minutes.
"In twenty minutes we were clear again, and running under the stars at full speed.
"I woke up several times in the night to hear the horn again sounding through the wet night air. It was a very dismal sound, premonitory, perhaps, of coming trouble, for Fortune is the least capricious of deities, and arranges things on the just and rigid system that no one shall be very happy for very long."
• In The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation, editor Daniel Born makes a case for reading and teaching the not-quite-great books:
F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, the story of a psychiatrist who marries one of his patients, receives less attention than it should because The Great Gatsby shines so brightly in the firmament. Tender Is the Night does not have the hypnotic symbolic power or poetically distilled form of Gatsby. It is not quite so well made. It is an example of that kind of novel that Henry James characterized as a "loose and baggy monster." All the same, it conveys emotions of loss and the breakdown of relationships that make it in some ways more of a human chronicle than is the perfect aesthetic artifact that is Gatsby.
I always felt that Tender Is the Night made more trouble for me as a reader than the more or less perfect Gatsby, and that trouble—at least at a certain time in my reading life—made it more interesting. I wish Born had said a bit more, both on this and some of his other points, but despite feeling truncated the piece is well worth reading. Thanks to Dust from a Distant Sun for the link.
• Ms. Tingle Alley unearths Mark Twain's incensed reaction to a Victorian biography of Percy Shelley, Edward Dowden's 1886 Life of Shelley. Dowden was much in Shelley's thrall and seems to have raised more eyebrows than just Twain's in brazenly defending the poet's monstrous behavior toward his first wife Harriet, who ended a suicide. Interestingly, Matthew Arnold registered the same objection to Dowden's exculpatory treatment of Shelley, though not nearly so acidly or entertainingly as Twain:
On the 9th of November 1816 Harriet Shelley left the house in Brompton where she was living, and did not return. On the 10th of December her body was found in the Serpentine; she had drowned herself. In one respect Professor Dowden resembles Providence: his ways are inscrutable. His comment on Harriet’s death is: "There is no doubt, she wandered from the ways of upright living." But, he adds: "That no act of Shelley’s during the two years which immediately preceded her death, tended to cause the rash act which brought her life to its close, seems certain." Shelley had been living with Mary [Wollstonecraft Shelley] all the time; only that!
I can't go into detail about it just now, but I have a pet theory that the narrator of Henry James's 1888 novella The Aspern Papers was partly modeled on Dowden. I'm hoping Carrie's find may give me more ammo. Whether it does or no, it's still Twain, and fine reading.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 21, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Fits of giggles
Law prof blogger Ann Althouse has a keen eye for the absurd. She writes here about discovering that the DVD of the flesh-eating-zombie flick 28 Days Later (a movie I rather liked) includes:
Alternative theatrical ending with optional commentary
Alternative ending with optional commentary
Radical alternative ending with optional commentary
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 21, 2004 | Permanent
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
OGIC: Five sure signs of recovery from stomach flu
1. First cup of coffee in five days tastes wonderful
2. Notion of broth and/or toast repulsive
3. Eating small pizza for dinner takes 6.5 minutes
4. Miller or not, beer with dinner is best beer ever
5. Cupcake dessert, cupcakes!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Paperback crush
Go you now and feast your eyes on one of the most well-realized and gorgeous web sites I've seen in a long time, The Paperback Revolution. Why should you care? As the site says:
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the paperback upon the twentieth century. While paper-bound books have numerous historical antecedents — from chapbooks, penny dreadfuls and dime novels to pulp magazines to European paper-bound books such as the Everyman series, Tauchnitz Editions and Albatross — it was the twenty-five cent paperback and the hundreds of millions of books produced during the Paperback Revolution which transformed the reading of all kinds of literature into an undeniably mass phenomenon in the twentieth century.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, I've long been enamored of mass-market paperbacks from a certain vintage. Of course the Anchor editions with the Edward Gorey drawings, which I hoard like rubies, are special. But even items like my rather hideously illustrated 1950s paperback Liberal Imagination somehow touch me. Perhaps this paperback love is more than just the unbridled nostalgia I've always taken it for. Maybe it has to do too with the assumptions inherent in the very physical form these books take: that Trilling, Cleanth Brooks, Joseph Conrad, and Herman Melville were in mass demand by people of ordinary means and could be thought of as everyday reading. Today's Oxford and Penguin Classics, while offering writers like Conrad and Melville, don't convey quite the same invitation to reading, or the same faith in an enthusiastic reading public of some size. With their wearisome uniform designs and batteries of prefaces and documentation, they seem resigned to lives of course adoption and captive audiences. Not so much as picking up a little finger to sell themselves, they tend to limit their own audiences to the initiated and the coerced. To me this makes them, compared with their snazzier counterparts from the Revolutionary era, vaguely depressing.
In any case, the thing I love best about the amazing Paperback Revolution website is its loving attention to the look and feel of paperbacks produced from 1935 to 1960. Do not miss the Virtual Paperback Rack. That's the catnip for the sensualists among us, while you more analytical and historical types will be equally diverted by the Animated Paperback Timeline, launchable here.
This site is so cool, I feel like I've done my good deed for the day just linking to it. Enjoy, and don't thank me—thank the ever-indispensble Coudal Partners, who posted the link a whole week ago.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"I dutifully read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, with no sense whatsoever of the irony involved in dutifully reading a novel about the dangers of being thoughtlessly dutiful."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Points west
No more blogging from me today or tomorrow. I'm flying to Minneapolis at lunchtime to speak about the future of classical radio at a workshop for radio producers that's being hosted by Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Initiative. It should be fun, and I expect I'll post some of the speech on my return.
On Thursday night I'll be heading straight from the airport to Mama Rose's to hear Mary Foster Conklin sing "Under the Covers: A Tribute to Peggy Lee's Mirrors." That's something I don't normally do (to put it mildly!), but I'm a big fan of Conklin's and don't want to miss the gig, so I figure I can hump my garment bag for an extra hour or two before staggering home. You come, too.
See you bright and early Friday morning, unless I sleep late.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | Permanent
"Sol Hurok, who had assembled the Kabuki company, was the most exuberant and confident impresario of any I ever met. I hardly knew him then, but later, in New York, I met him with David [Webster] and found that his stories of the past—'Once, when I was in Paris with Ysaye, Busoni was going after dinner to accompany Melba and Chaliapin in some songs..."—however unlikely, were all true. Hurok had known everybody, and had represented half of them. He had become an institution in New York, and David told me he was once there when Hurok said, 'Can't you stay on a day? On Thursday I have my annual party for the critics—champagne and caviar and all that.' David asked him why he bothered; he could hardly expect them to give him a good notice rather than a bad one merely because he gave a party for them. 'Of course not,' said Hurok. 'But there are two ways of writing a bad notice.'"
The Tongs and the Bones: The Memoirs of Lord Harewood
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
OGIC: Flu's my daddy*
It smacked me down Saturday night, and I've been walking a monotonous circuit from bed to couch ever since. Thank goodness for OFOB, who has been on 24-hour call; Ned, who brought juice and The Hockey News (with Yzerman on the cover, no less!); and sweet, sweet television,* because I haven't even been up to reading a good thriller (though Terry has, from the looks of his latest Almanac).
Tomorrow morning I'll make every effort to get my achy, emptied self to work. Second thing on the agenda is blogging; I do have several posts in mind, but at the moment my head just feels too stuffed with buckshot to make much of them: I'm for bed. Look for me back around these parts in the late afternoon or evening, barring a total relapse.
*And you can guess what I've mostly been watching. Hey, these half-day-long baseball games are a real boon to the couch-bound and hockey-deprived. (A wee demographic, I grant you.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, October 19, 2004 | Permanent
"Depression was a sickness, they told him. The previous year he had been worried enough by symptoms of physical illness to visit his doctor and had come away with a series of warnings and prohibitions concerning diet, alcohol, tobacco—the usual nonsense. But paradoxically his efforts to comply had led him inexorably to ask himself why he was bothering; what was so bloody marvellous about this life he was trying to preserve. Such metaphysical speculations were entirely foreign to his make-up and their formulation now was light years from being precise and intellectual. It was just a feeling of hollowness at the centre, a reluctance to awaken from the safe blackness of sleep, a sense of life like a hair floating on dirty bath water, sinking imperceptibly, moment by moment, till a final, spinning gurgling rush carried it away."
Bedtime impends. I just listened via iTunes to “Gotta Dance,” a nifty little swing tune from The Jimmy Giuffre 3, and now I’m going to wind down with Couperin’s “Mysterious Barricades,” played by Göran Söllscher on his eleven-string guitar.
I have a lot of writing to do today and Tuesday, and Our Girl reports that she’s been knocked flat by the flu, so blogging may be spotty for a bit. In any case, I’m headed for Minneapolis on Wednesday to give a couple of speeches, so I can guarantee that you won’t hear from me on Wednesday and Thursday.
Within the tight little world of dance, of course, he is a titan….But what of the larger world of art and culture? New York City Ballet no longer gets written about much in the national press, nor does it appear on television. I know few art-conscious Manhattanites who go to its performances more than sporadically—or to any other dance performances, for that matter. Nowadays, there are no “hot tickets” in dance, no events that attract the attention of a truly general audience, and few at which artists from other fields are likely to be seen. For the most part, ballet and modern dance have retreated to the periphery of American cultural consciousness, just as dance criticism has all but vanished from the pages of American magazines; you don’t have to know who Balanchine was, or what he did, in order to be deemed culturally literate. Most of my acquaintances regard my love of dance as a harmless idiosyncrasy, and when I assure them that Balanchine was every bit as important as, say, Matisse, they look at me as though I’d tried to tell them that Raymond Chandler was as important as Proust….
Why is that? My correspondent offers several possible answers:
• Too feminine? Of course dance is widely perceived as feminine—not to mention effeminate. But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to George Balanchine, whose ballets are mostly about women as seen from a man’s decidedly partial point of view. (Nor, I might add, is there anything effeminate about the work of such modern-dance choreographers as Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham.)
I always tell straight men puzzled by my interest in ballet that it was made for them, consisting as it does of large numbers of gorgeous women dressed in skimpy outfits. So far, though, I have yet to make any converts….
• Too sensitive? Maybe. Dance is, after all, a form of lyric theater, one in which emotions are portrayed on stage with a subtle blend of directness and ambiguity. This makes some people squirm—the same ones, I suspect, who are thrown by the fact that in opera, the characters sing instead of talking. Alas, I doubt there’s anything to be done for such hopelessly hard-headed folk, but I also doubt that most potential dancegoers feel that way.
• Too demanding? Now we’re getting somewhere. Any number of the friends I now take to the ballet used to be afraid that even if they did get up the nerve to go, they wouldn’t understand what they were seeing. This is nonsense on stilts. You don’t have to know what a gargouillade is in order to enjoy Square Dance. You don’t have to know anything at all. The pleasure—at first glance, anyway—is entirely sensuous. You let the music and movement wash over you, and the more you look, the more you see. Of course experience deepens the pleasure. (In the words of R.P. Blackmur, “All knowledge is a descent from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation.”) But I took most of the dedicatees of All in the Dances to their first Balanchine ballets, and watched them “get it” right on the spot.
Intellectuals typically feel more comfortable about experiencing a new art form if they know a little something about it going in. One of the reasons why I wrote All in the Dances was to give them enough information to orient themselves—but it's strictly optional. As I’ve told a thousand nervous novices, “Point your head toward the stage and keep your eyes open. That’s all you need to know.”
• Too impossibly brilliant to absorb? Well, sometimes. Such Balanchine ballets as The Four Temperaments or Stravinsky Violin Concerto are so eventful, so tightly packed with complex movement, that they can overwhelm the first-time viewer. And you know what? They're supposed to. Nobody in the world could possibly see all there is to see in The Four Ts on a first viewing, any more than he could hear all there is to hear in The Rite of Spring on a first listening. You see it, you’re blown away, your head is so full of dazzling images that you can’t remember any of them clearly...and there’s something wrong with this?
Remember that dance, like music and painting, is not an essentially intellectual art form. Of course it can exert an intellectual appeal (especially on intellectuals), and the more you know about it, the more you’ll appreciate it, but enjoyment of the immediate experience doesn’t require the participation of the higher brain centers. As the saying goes, dance hits you where you live—and some people, oddly enough, don’t like to be hit there. Perhaps the prospect of surrendering control of their feelings makes them anxious. Me, I eat it up and yell for more. As Arlene Croce once said, “I never saw a good ballet that made me think.” Afterwards, yes: I do plenty of thinking, not infrequently followed by writing. But not in the theater, not in the moment, not when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. That’s when I want to be blown away—and that’s what a good dance does.
P.S. Our Girl in Chicago is one of the dedicatees of All in the Dances, as well as a full-fledged intellectual. What do you think of all this, OGIC? How does it tally with your own experience of dance?
I was going to write about New York City Opera’s new production of Dialogues of the Carmelites, Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece, but it seems that Bernard Holland, writing in the New York Times, already said much of what I wanted to say:
”Dialogues of the Carmelites" is a meditation on death by men on the far side of middle age, contemplating their own mortality. The story of 16 nuns guillotined by French revolutionaries in 1794 is true. Georges Bernanos, in his play 150 years later, used history to confront his own terminal cancer. Francis Poulenc, six years from his own death in 1963 and witness to the slow dying of his closest friend, took up the thread in this chaste and touching opera....
The paradox of composer and theme hardly needs to be restated: Poulenc, the dashing boulevardier and tasteful sentimentalist; these 18th-century women of the church confronting the fear and exultation of martyrdom. Poulenc succeeds by being himself. There are the floating, open textures of his lighthearted period, the same gentle mockery devoid of cynicism, the melodies colored by popular culture and the harmonic gestures closer to Nelson Riddle than to tragic Verdi.
Indeed, in its pursuit of disagreeable profundities, Poulenc's music resists heaviness. As it examines the dying and their various executioners, a certain innocence—a naďveté born of great sophistication—remains. Poulenc reminds us a little of the juggler of Christian lore plying his carnival skills as an offering at the altar.
On Tuesday Donald Eastman's set came as a welcome relief from the overstuffed beauties of the Metropolitan Opera's new "Magic Flute" a few days before. The quarters of the old Marquis (Jake Gardner) are draped in blood red. Elsewhere, there are a masonry wall, two long tables and a chair. There are no tricks. Virtually nothing moves.
"Dialogues" is an opera for women; men's voices are almost intrusions. Mr. Thompson must deal with a female ensemble trained first as singers, then as actors. Some are more convincing than others, but a lot of the visceral terrors and happinesses come through….George Manahan's pit orchestra had a particularly good night.
To which I would add only that the score of Poulenc’s harrowing parable of faith, fear, and grace is more than merely pretty. He also mixed in a gritty scoopful of Stravinsky (including a startling near-verbatim quotation from Symphonies of Wind Instruments), thereby sharpening the contrast between the world and the cloister and underlining the opera’s already fascinating duality of tone.
Those who recall the iconic monumentality of John Dexter’s 1977 Metropolitan Opera production (or its two subsequent revivals) will naturally wonder how New York City Opera’s version stands up to comparison. The answer is that it holds its own quite well. To be sure, Dexter’s Dialogues was one of the great theatrical experiences of my lifetime, while Tazewell Thompson’s straightforward, uncluttered staging is merely very effective. Still, it works, and the opera itself comes through with complete clarity—which is, after all, the point.
Dialogues plays in repertory at the New York State Theater through October 29. For more information, go here.
The Chicago Sun-Times ran a story about blurbs last month (the free link has gone dead, but Galley Cat posted the gist of the piece here) in which Scott Turow, who has long been known in the book business as something of a blurb whore, was quoted to devastating effect:
"Once you blurb one book," he says, "it's like giving to charity. No good deed goes unpunished. That is the first law of blurbing. As soon as you're kind enough to do this for somebody, then everybody in the world is there with their hand out or a manuscript."…
"You have to understand, this is an avalanche," Turow says of his onslaught, which he smilingly agrees is indeed "part of my junk mail." "It is no exaggeration," he adds, "to say that there are several requests every day."…
"There are certain relationships where, whether I like it or not, I feel like I've gotta say something," he admits. "Now, I think you can put Turow blurbs side by side and the discriminating reader can detect the enthusiasm level."
Turow’s confession slipped past me when it first rippled through the blogosphere, but now that I’ve seen it, I admit to feeling a certain amount of sympathy with his plight. Not that multiple requests for blurbs clutter my mailbox each morning, but I am asked to supply quotes fairly frequently, occasionally from friends and colleagues, more often from publicists and authors I don't know. Every time I open such a letter, I remember the wise words of an editor of mine who once assured me in a moment of candor that blurbs don’t sell books. “You know who they’re really for?” she added. “Our own salespeople. We use blurbs to convince them that our books are worth selling.”
A sobering thought, that.
I have, thank God, reached the point in my writing career when I’m no longer obliged to go snuffling for blurbs. (It’s almost as embarrassing as asking a friend to loan you money.) My publishers now solicit them without consulting me, and Ken Auletta was kind enough to supply a nice one for The Skeptic that Harcourt recycled for All in the Dances: “Terry Teachout is the kind of tour guide a first-rate biography requires—vivid storytelling by a guide who is both appreciative and independent.” I’m not aware that it’s sold a single copy to date of either book, but nobody ever said that publishing was a business—it’s more like a game of blindfold darts—so I expect that Ken’s blurb will follow me from dustjacket to dustjacket as long as we both shall live.
My own blurbing policies are straightforward:
• I don’t read manuscripts—they’re too bulky and clumsy to handle. Unsolicited ones I throw away automatically. It’s rude to send an unsolicited manuscript to an author you don’t know, and rudeness should never be rewarded.
• When strangers send me a set of bound galleys and ask for a quote, I almost always say no, explaining that I’m simply too busy. If the subject matter is of special relevance to me, though, I’ll take a furtive peek at the first few pages, after which I usually lose interest.
• With colleagues and acquaintances I open the bidding by raising my all-purpose deflector shield: “Remember that if I blurb your book now, there’s no possibility that I can review it later on.” Since I do a fair amount of book reviewing, this usually stops them cold, and also has the advantage of being true. If, on the other hand, I’m interested in the book but know I won’t be able to review it—usually because of a conflict of interest—I agree to look at the galleys.
• I always agree to blurb the books of friends, so long as they’re professional writers. Unlike Scott Turow, I’ve yet to be cornered into praising a bad book. (Sooner or later, every published author lets his guard down and agrees to read a manuscript by a friend who isn’t a professional. Hard experience has taught me that such manuscripts are never, ever any good.)
Bill Buckley used to have a wonderfully evasive form letter that I liked:
Mr. Buckley has asked me to interdict all requests for interviews, articles, reviews, etc., for the next period—probably about six months, as he is drastically in arrears on commitments he has already made. I hope you will understand that to take on any further commitments at this point simply means failing to keep those he has already made. Thank you for writing.
Edmund Wilson, who was one of God’s grumpier souls, opted instead for a postcard that read as follows:
Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to:
Write articles or books to order,
Write forewords or introductions,
Make statements for publicity purposes,
Do any kind of editorial work,
Judge literary contests,
Conduct educational courses,
Give talks or make speeches,
Broadcast or appear on television,
Take part in writers' congresses,
Contribute to or take part in symposiums or “panels” of any kind,
Contribute manuscripts for sales,
Donate copies of his books to libraries,
Autograph works for strangers,
Allow his name to be used on letterheads,
Supply personal information about himself,
Supply opinions on literary or other subjects.
Evelyn Waugh had a Wilsonesque postcard of his own (“Mr. Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed”), but he could occasionally be persuaded to supply blurbs, usually for friends and/or fellow Catholics. Strangers rarely fared as well.
In 1961, for instance, Waugh sent this characteristic letter to a Simon & Schuster publicist who was looking for blurbs in all the wrong places:
Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of “Milo” should be eliminated or greatly reduced.
You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitious—totally without structure.
Much of the dialogue is funny.
You may quote me as saying: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.”
Me, I’d have printed it, but Simon & Schuster thought otherwise.
My old friend Joan McCaffrey (whose e-mail address recently vanished from my address book, in case anybody who knows it wants to help me out) was cleaning out a closet the other day and came across an H.L. Mencken piece hitherto unknown to me. Vanity Fair (the old Vanity Fair, that is) asked Mencken to contribute to a 1923 symposium called “The Ten Dullest Authors.” I regret to say that I overlooked it when researching The Skeptic, so I’ve decided to post Mencken's contribution on “About Last Night” for the retrospective delectation of my readers.
* * *
It is hard for me to make up a list of books or authors that bore me insufferably, for the simple truth is that I can read almost anything. My trade requires me to read annually all the worst garbage that is issued in belles lettres; for recreation and instruction I read such things as the Congressional Record, religious tracts, Mr. Walter Lippmann’s endless discussions of the Simon-Binet tests, works on molecular physics and military strategy, and the monthly circulars of the great bond houses. It seems to me that nothing that gets into print can be wholly uninteresting; whatever its difficulties to the reader, it at least represents some earnest man’s efforts to express himself. But there are some authors, of course, who try me more than most, and if I must name ten of them then I name:
2. George Eliot
3. D.H. Lawrence
4. James Fenimore Cooper
5. Eden Phillpotts
6. Robert Browning
7. Selma Lagerlöf
8. Gertrude Stein
9. Björnstjerne Björnson
As a good German, I should, I suppose, wallow happily in Faust; I can only report that, when I read it, it is patriotically, not voluptuously. Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a taste against her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by school-masters who admired them. Phillpotts seems to me the worst novelist now in practice in England. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh. The two Scandinavians I need not explain.
I’m reading Wil Haygood’s In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr., and finding it engrossing. Perhaps you have to be older than 30—if not 40—to expect to find Davis interesting, but Haygood’s anecdotage is quite arrestingly good. Here’s an amazing story that comes from Keely Smith:
Sammy and Sinatra and singer Keely Smith were sitting around one evening. Just three singers, awash in the joy they were all having, talking about singing, songs, life. Sammy told Sinatra he’d have to leave early, couldn’t hang around. Sinatra couldn’t understand what might be more important than hanging around with him. So he wanted to know why Sammy had to leave, and those blue eyes pressed for an answer. It was Kim Novak; they had a date. A little smirk crawled across the Sinatra face. He told Sammy he could get Kim to break the date. Sammy thought Sinatra was kidding, but he wasn’t, the blue eyes steady and hard. Keely Smith sat listening, looking between both men. Sammy against Frank. She knew who would win. "I said, ‘Frank, don’t do that.’ He went into the room, called Kim [said he wanted to see her], and she broke the date with Sammy to go with Frank. It broke Sammy’s heart. And Frank never went to meet her."
That’s a story any biographer would have killed to unearth, and Haygood’s book is full of similar tales.
I have to add, though, that In Black and White is also full of similar journalistic clichés ("A little smirk crawled across the Sinatra face"), and more than a few passages are so throbbingly florid as to read almost like a parody of Tom Wolfe. O.K., it’s a celebrity biography, not the life of Samuel Johnson, but In Black and White is also riddled with errors of fact, chronology, and spelling (Jimmie Lunceford’s first name is spelled two different ways on the same page) that will be immediately obvious to anybody who knows a reasonable amount about American pop culture in the 20th century. I’m not talking anything so awful as to call into question the fundamental reliability of the book (as a friend of mine cracked, why would you expect an author who can't spell his own first name to be able to spell anything else?), but I just finished proofreading A Terry Teachout Reader, a job I took very seriously, and it’s plain to see, at least to me, that nobody went over this book with anything remotely approaching the same kind of care.
Again, I know times have changed…except that In Black and White was published by Alfred A. Knopf, which still has a reputation as a publisher of books that not only look good but read well. There was a not-so-distant time when any Knopf editor who allowed a book as sloppily edited as In Black and White to go into print would have committed ritual suicide in expiation of his sins.
I know this at first hand, incidentally, because Knopf was H.L. Mencken’s house, and in 1995 I published a Mencken anthology, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, that got the full Knopf treatment. It was edited with a kind of care I thought had gone out of style. And so it had at most publishing houses—but not at Knopf, at least not in 1995, and not for at least a few more years after that. But I guess those days are over now, at least when it comes to celebrity biographies.
All of which reminds me of a stanza from my second-favorite song in Chicago (which was inexplicably and inexcusably deleted from the movie, though you’ll find it on the DVD):
Whatever happened to old values?
And fine morals?
And good breeding?
Now, no one even says "oops" when they're
Passing their gas
Whatever happened to class?
OGIC and I tend to like the same movies. I can’t remember whether she was the one who first told me about Twilight, or vice versa.
I do feel I should point out, however, that we’ve been inadvertently drawing attention to the same actor, since Twilight and Support Your Local Sheriff, about which I recently posted, are both graced by the presence of James Garner, who belongs in the category of Famous but Underrated Artists. He’s been around forever, and everybody knows who he is from TV—my parents watched him in Maverick, I in The Rockford Files—but for reasons not entirely clear to me, he never quite had the film career he deserved. (One reason was that in Garner's day, it was taken for granted that you couldn't move from small screen to large. In fact, it's usually the other way around.) Yet I can’t think of a better romantic comedian, not least because he has the gift of doubleness, the ability to be charming and suspect at the same time.
Cary Grant was like that, too, which reminds me to yield the floor briefly to the ever-relevant David Thomson, who reminds us that Garner was on TV
an hour a week for twenty-six weeks a year for ten years. That is the equivalent of well over one hundred movies—and if any actor could claim one hundred movies made with the wit, narrative speed, and good-natured ease of Maverick and Rockford Files he would be…Cary Grant?
If you don’t know what to do with yourself this weekend, you could do a whole lot worse than renting Twilight, Support Your Local Sheriff, and maybe Hour of the Gun (in which Garner plays Wyatt Earp completely straight) or Marlowe (not the best Raymond Chandler movie, but Garner is marvelous as Philip Marlowe) or even the film version of Maverick. You won't be sorry.
I was going to point out the obvious flaw in amazon.com’s new book-searching feature, but Bookslut beat me to it:
Amazon.com has completed its newest sparkly addition. Now when you search for a keyword, it searches the text of 120,000 nonfiction books and offers them in your results. I'm sure this is handy in some way. I bet people all over are rejoicing. But all I know is that when I was searching for "curing pig" in an attempt to find the book "Curing the Pig" by Liza Granville, I got 6,454 results, none of the first page results being the book. When I searched for Liza Granville, I got 202 results, none of the first page results being the book. I had to type in the damn ISBN number to find it. I'm sure this is handy, but you can't turn it off. It just clutters up simple searches, hiding what you're really looking for. Wired, however, calls the move ingenious.
Amazon.com is also having a contest to see how their "Search Inside the Book" feature has changed your life. Do you think if I bitch and complain that the feature is not optional I'll win a Segway?
Granted, it really is fun to search your own name, as BuzzMachine seems to have been the first to point out (and yes, that’s the very first thing I did). But it’s only fun once. So I really do hope amazon.com figures out quickly that "Search Inside the Book" needs an on-off switch. Like, say, tomorrow.
If you picked up your copy of The Wall Street Journal today, containing Terry's stage review, then you can also read John Lippmann on the disappointing reception the adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain met with at the Toronto Film Festival last month, and the attendant nervous scurrying of its marketers at Miramax. By "disappointing," I mean "mixed," since Miramax sets the bar high for critical response to its movies--especially the ones it releases in Oscar-bait season.
If you don't have the paper, here's the gist of the piece:
But now, a week before the movie has opened, the buzz has pulled back from a surefire Best Picture Oscar nomination. The film's engine began to sputter at the Toronto Film Festival last month, which has become a major showcase for films with Academy Award aspirations.…the word out of Toronto for "Human Stain" was less than unqualified. While it won generally positive reviews from such critics as Roger Ebert, overall reaction fell short of a sure-fire awards contender. "Acting is fine, but never quite gels," concluded trade magazine the Hollywood Reporter. Some reviewers found fault with the unlikely casting of Nicole Kidman as a cleaning woman and even more of the selection of Mr. Hopkins to play Coleman; Variety called the choice of Mr. Hopkins "problematic."
Why do I find this not surprising? First, because there is something depressingly predictable, almost automatic, about the rush to film a high-buzz book like Roth's. It is inconceivable to Hollywood that there might be stories that have already found their most fitting form as books, and can be neither improved upon nor done justice to as movies. (I realize that the very idea that this, rather than profitability, is a guiding interest in Hollywood is absurdly naive.) Second, because I very recently read The Human Stain, guessing that I would probably end up seeing the movie and wishing to have an unadulterated experience of a book that came highly recommended from many quarters.
I finished the novel with mixed feelings, about which more in a later post. For now I'll just say that what strengths it has are not narrative, nor even really descriptive--to name two qualities that can make a novel genuinely ripe for screen adaptation. It is unfailingly smart and has at its core a fascinating and lifelike character study. But for all the extraordinary events in it, the novel struck me as more than a little inert. More than it narrates or describes, The Human Stain expounds and diagnoses; the less charitable verb, and the one that occurred to me repeatedly as I read it, would be "lectures." Not, alas, an eminently filmable mode.
On the other hand, not having cared for the book actually gives me half a hope that I will like the movie. After investing scarce and valuable pleasure-reading time in the venture, I'm almost sure to go see it. It doesn't hurt that the director, Robert Benton, brilliantly wrote and directed one of my favorites, Twilight, a modest little picture with an unbelievable cast. Since it is a trickier thing (though by no means an impossibility) for a movie to lecture than for a book to, it could just be that the process of dramatizing and illustrating this material will have breathed some life into it.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 24, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Part of the landscape
Jennifer Howard's Washington Postreview of Nell Freudenberger's Lucky Girls is written with more conviction than any reviews I've seen of a very attention-getting book. She's politely underwhelmed by it--I mean, if you consider this polite:
[Freudenberger] excels at evoking the wistfulness that's a poetic version of low-grade depression.
But what's most remarkable about this review is neither Howard's critical acumen nor the persuasive way she pegs the stories as New Yorker Lite. The real news is here:
Some publishing history: The story "Lucky Girls" first appeared in the New Yorker's Summer 2001 "Debut Fiction" issue. This splash earned Freudenberger some nice buzz and the envy of many other twentysomething writers, but that's another story. Check any of your favorite literary blogs for the details.
In the same week that found the New York Times tech section looking down skeptically at the blogosphere from on high, asking "more fizzle than sizzle?" Howard takes blogs' existence, and her readers' familiarity with them, completely for granted. This sounds to me like a new level of absorption into a mainstream cultural discourse whose center is gravitating away from the print media more quickly than many corners of the print media would like to admit.
When I read the above I had two instant reactions: Wow, she and her editors didn't even feel the need to explain that it's short for "web log"; and, more tellingly: Hey, nolinks? Which goes to show not just what my reading habits have become, but why blogs are gaining ground.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, October 24, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Two heads are better than one
In case you didn't notice, I've performed a bit of subtitle-augmentation surgery on this blog, and also added Our Girl in Chicago's bio to the top module of the right-hand column. All this is nothing more than official acknowledgment of the perfectly obvious fact that "About Last Night" is written by two people. (The headlines of posts written by me start with "TT," while Our Girl's posts start with "OGIC.")
I could tell you some stories about my adorable co-blogger, but I'll refrain, since she prefers to be shrouded in impenetrable mystery. Nevertheless, the fact that she introduced me to Exile in Guyvilleshould speak volumes to the cognoscenti....and she can cook, too!
Anyway, Our Girl is a peach, and way smart. And really good at this. And a welcome addition to "About Last Night."
I just received a boxful of author copies of the paperback edition of my latest book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. It goes on sale November 4, but you can pre-order a copy or three from amazon.com by clicking on the link.
Depending on the religious inclinations of the potential recipient, The Skepticmight make an excellent stocking stuffer for Christmas—and if you couldn’t afford the hardcover version, this one looks almost as nice on the shelf. So buy early and often. I mean, I blog for free, there isn’t even a tip jar on this page, so you really ought to do something to keep me solvent, right? If we sell enough copies, I do solemnly swear to give Our Girl in Chicago a stupendous dinner at a restaurant of her choice the next time I’m in the Windy City.
(Incidentally, A Terry Teachout Reader has just been listed on amazon.com for the first time. They seem to think it’s coming out in December, which it isn’t, but who’s complaining?)
William Nicholson’s The Retreat From Moscow, starring Eileen Atkins, John Lithgow, and Ben Chaplin, opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre, and I reviewed it in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s the money graf:
Can a great performance save a lousy show? It depends on the show. The post-opening buzz on "The Boy From Oz," for instance, is that Hugh Jackman is worth the price of the ticket, but I’d happily pay good cash money never to see that sugar-coated dud again, with or without the excellent Mr. Jackman. On the other hand, Eileen Atkins has definitely done the silk-purse trick at the Booth Theatre, albeit with a higher-quality sow’s ear. William Nicholson’s "The Retreat From Moscow," which opened last night, is your standard-issue British domestic drama, all dolled up to look like a serious play, but Ms. Atkins tears into it as if it were Chekhov (which is pretty much what Mr. Nicholson wants you to think it is), and even though I wasn’t fooled for a second, it didn’t matter….you won’t find better acting on Broadway, or anywhere else. She is totally present, totally convincing, totally right.
As usual, no link, so to read the whole thing (which also includes my thoughts on Primary Stages’ production of A.R. Gurney’s Strictly Academic), buy a copy of this morning’s Journal and turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, which is full of readable goodies.
Banana Oil (bless him) reports that the first season of A&E’s now-cancelled Nero Wolfe, very closely based on Rex Stout's much-loved detective stories, is now available on DVD. I wrote about the series in National Review shortly before it got the axe:
In addition to co-producing the series and directing several episodes, Timothy Hutton plays Archie Goodwin, and I can’t see how anyone could do a better job. Not only does he catch Archie’s snap-brim Thirties tone with sharp-eared precision, but he also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the dapper detective-narrator I’ve been envisioning all these years. No sooner did Hutton make his first entrance in The Golden Spiders than he melded completely with the Archie of my mind’s eye. I can no longer read a Stout novel without seeing him, or hearing his voice.
Still, Archie could have wandered out of any number of screwball comedies, whereas Nero Wolfe is a far more complicated proposition. Weighing in at a seventh of a ton, he is a tireless talker endowed with a touch of Johnsonian genius. (It is no small tribute to Stout’s own brainpower that he was capable of making that characterization plausible.) At the same time, he is chronically lazy and neurotic to the highest degree, so much so that he refuses to leave his home on business, preferring to sit at his desk or tend his orchids. Like Sherlock Holmes, the predecessor on whom he was obviously modeled, Wolfe is a misogynist who will have nothing to do with women socially—food, not sex, is his sensual outlet—though every once in a while he gives off a faint but perceptible flicker of interest in one of the pretty ladies who pass through his office.
Maury Chaykin has doubtless immersed himself in the Wolfe novels, for he brings to his interpretation of the part both a detailed knowledge of what Stout wrote and an unexpectedly personal touch of insight. He plays Wolfe as a fearful genius, an aesthete turned hermit who has withdrawn from the world (and from the opposite sex) in order to shield himself against…what? Stout never answers that question, giving Chaykin plenty of room to maneuver, which he uses with enviable skill. His Nero Wolfe is gluttonous, blustery, petulant, even a bit dandyish—but he peers out at his clients through the haunted eyes of a man who knows too much.
You can order it here. And should. And when you do, take a look at Kari Matchett and tell me if she's not the jolie-est jolie laide you ever did see.
In case you missed the news, one of my favorite character actors, Jack Elam, died the other day. He was 84 years old and hadn’t acted since 1995, but it isn’t hard to remember him in his prime, for he usually played one of two variations on the same part, that of a cockeyed, slightly screwy Western bum/drunk/loony. Sometimes he played it sinister (at which he was good), more often funny (at which he was even better), but either way he was always a pleasure to behold.
Elam’s best comic role was in Burt Kennedy’s Support Your Local Sheriff, a Western spoof from 1969 that featured James Garner at his slyest and most charming, plus a half-dozen other ultra-familiar faces (including Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Bruce Dern), all of them obviously having a ball. Blazing Saddles is the comedy Western everybody remembers, but Support Your Local Sheriff was smarter and funnier, and holds up much better after three decades. Rent it, and keep an eye out for the "town character." It’s Jack Elam, and you can’t miss him.
"I never meant to deny the moral impact of art which is certainly inherent in every genuine work of art. What I do deny and am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink is the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written."
Vladimir Nabokov, letter to Prof. George R. Noyes (1945)
This weekend a friend of mine told me that he was showing his work – prints, mostly – to another artist who said to him, "Yeah, I could do this. It would take longer and it might not come out as good. But my art is about ideas."
And from artnotes, the first installment of a new occasional series called "What Would (Clement) Greenberg Do?"
My two-year-old smeared finger paints on my brand new silk shantung slippers! But when I try to explain to him that this is a no-no, he doesn't understand. What should I do? - Mary H., Minnetonka, Minnesota
Greenberg responds: What it documents is a crisis not of art, but of its criticism: a crisis that is also by way of being a scandal. Scientific method alone asks, or might ask, that a situation be resolved in exactly the same terms as that in which it is presented. ...these mistakes were not so much mistakes as insights, expressed prematurely. There is nothing more to it than that.
We are very definitely amused. (Both of these art-related blogs are worth your time, by the way.)
If you've wondered how the Atlantic Monthly is recovering, seven months on, from the tragic death of its editor Michael Kelly in Iraq last spring, Dan Kennedy at the Boston Phoenix has a report you will want to read. It's an absorbing look at the magazine's past, present, and especially its future. According to Kennedy, although the Atlantic is now thriving under the interim editorial stewardship of former Managing Editor Cullen Murphy (whose surprising second job is revealed in the story), questions remain about personnel, direction, and even the magazine's continued residence in Boston:
The question now is, where does the Atlantic go from here? Under Kelly and Murphy, the magazine has carved out a handful of areas of expertise—politics, foreign affairs, explanatory journalism, and books. (Literary editor Benjamin Schwartz is highly respected, if intimidating in his judgment—such as his recent pronouncement regarding the King James Bible that "no one who hasn’t read it thoroughly should be considered well educated.") Indeed, one of the few differences Murphy admits to having with [former editor William] Whitworth is that he, like Kelly, believes the magazine should be more focused and less eclectic—although a long piece by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last January, arguing that his cousin Michael Skakel is innocent of murder, was as eclectic a piece as one can imagine.
The Atlantic is currently in the midst of an unusual project—downsizing its circulation by charging more and eliminating cut-rate subscriptions, a move that its executives hope will reduce costs and eventually allow the magazine to break even. According to an account in the New York Times, the magazine will guarantee advertisers a paid circulation of 325,000—down from the current guarantee of 450,000, and considerably below the actual circulation of more than 500,000. The magazine has also cut back over the past few years from 12 issues per year to 10.
Kennedy's well reported piece happens to come just when the future of The Paris Review after Plimpton is a front burner subject (link via Maud Newton). If all of the parties interviewed by Kennedy are not on exactly the same page about the magazine's future, they do seem to be well intentioned. Let's hope this is so, and hope these intentions continue to be realized.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, October 23, 2003 | Permanent
Hilton Kramer has a great piece in the New York Observer about the Romare Bearden retrospective which just opened
at Washington’s National Gallery, and which I can’t wait to see:
What’s new to me in this exhibition is some of the early work from the 1940’s, executed in the vernacular expressionistic style that was then a common pictorial idiom for painters attempting to align themselves with the politics of social protest. As an African-American, born in North Carolina and raised in Harlem in the Jim Crow era, it was all but inevitable that Bearden would ally himself with that imperative. As early as 1934, in an essay called "The Negro Artist and Modern Art," Bearden affirmed that alliance in declaring that "An intense, eager devotion to present-day life, to study it, to help relieve it, this is the calling of the Negro artist."
Yet even in this early period, Bearden’s art never conformed to the simplistic conventions of the 1930’s social-realist school. Picasso was a more potent influence on his work than, for instance, the likes of William Gropper, and when Bearden hit his stride in the 1960’s, it was in the medium of Cubist collage that he found a style in which he could triumphantly integrate the demands of his modernist aesthetic aspirations with those of his embattled social conscience.
Click here to read the whole thing. Yes, I know, Kramer is the Antichrist of art criticism in certain way-cool circles, but the man knows his stuff—and he writes about what he sees, not what he thinks he should have seen.
I’ve become an avid fan of the pseudonymous Cinetrix, who blogs at Pullquote, so I was pleased to get the following e-mail from her. It starts with a pullquote from my recent posting on Kind of Blue:
It’s the record Clint Eastwood (who knows a lot about jazz) puts on when he comes home from a hard day of assassin-hunting in In the Line of Fire. A whole book has been written about its history and cultural significance. Now it’s Muzak—yet it remains as vital and listenable as ever. By what strange alchemy was this transformation effected?
Somebody (me, I guess) ought to write an essay about how jazz has come to be used as a cultural signifier in films, TV shows, and ads, an infallible indicator of upper-middle-class hipness.
Yes, please. You could do worse than use Clint as a jumping-off point. Especially because he (and his son) composed the music for the extra-blue-collar "Mystic River," which some viewers have found distracting. Is his score perhaps supposed to signify (to the members of the Academy?) that this working-class tale is tasteful and well-done and designed to be
understood and appreciated by discerning, upper-middle-class hipsters like themselves? The credits cite the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, impeccable cultural signifiers indeed.
Alas, this isn’t the essay I sort of promised—I’ve got to write for money today, so I can’t be that discursive—but I, too, was intrigued by the fact that Clint Eastwood scored Mystic River himself. (Lennie Niehaus transcribed the music from Eastwood’s piano sketch and did the orchestrations, but the actual music is reportedly
all Eastwood, except for a couple of snippets by son Kyle.) This, mind you, in spite of the fact that he didn’t do a very good job of it. "Distracting" isn’t the word. Whatever made him think those slick, inflated symphonic sounds were even remotely appropriate to a film about working-class life in Boston?
On the other hand, I suspect Eastwood’s motives, insofar as he understood them, were pure. His interest in music, after all, is both long-standing and considerable (among many other things, he does his own cocktail piano playing—very competently, too—in In the Line of Fire). What’s more, it’s clear that he’s wanted to score one of his own films for some time now. You may not remember this, but Eastwood composed the main-title themes for several of his earlier films, most notably "Claudia’s Theme" from Unforgiven, which is actually quite a nice little tune.
I have no doubt that a lot of other directors would score their own films if they could, and some might even do a good job...if they could. Stanley Kubrick, lest we forget, dumped Alex North’s marvelous score
for 2001: A Space Odyssey and replaced it with his own "score"
made up of pre-existing pieces of classical music, some of which worked extremely well in context. His use of György Ligeti’s Atmosphčres, for example,
was unforgettably apposite. And as more than one bonafide film composer has observed, the rock-and-roll song score for GoodFellas
was hugely effective (and hugely influential to boot), even though Martin Scorsese didn’t write a note of it himself.
The exasperating paradox of film music is that it doesn’t have to be original, or even good music qua music, in order to fulfill its near-indispensible function, which was deftly summed up by the greatest of all film composers, Bernard Herrmann:
I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.
That "single experience," as has often been observed, aspires to the condition of the totally unified Gesamtkunstwerk of which Richard Wagner and Serge Diaghilev dreamed. Yet film is by definition a collaborative medium, an undeniable fact that nonetheless frustrates many filmmakers who would prefer to do the whole thing themselves, or at least control the whole process. Instead, they have to call in experts to do the specialized jobs they can’t do, foremost among which is almost always the writing of the score.
For this reason, I don’t blame Clint Eastwood a bit for having wanted to be one of the very few directors of importance to have scored one of his own films (has anyone else done it other than Charlie Chaplin?). Even if the results weren’t especially impressive, I admire him for trying. And I can’t imagine that he purposefully chose the idiom in which he worked—the glossy "symphonic score" beloved of film composers of the Thirties and Forties—in order to make Mystic River seem like an upper-middle-class cultural artifact. My guess is that he scored it that way simply because that’s the kind of film music with which he grew up, and with which he’s most comfortable.
That the results ended up being wholly inappropriate to the film in question is, of course, another matter, and ultimately a far more important one. I think Mystic River is a flawed but compelling film whose total effect is sharply diminished by an inadequate score. But, then, it wouldn’t be the first time a smart director did something dumb to a good movie, would it?
Pursuant to our deal, according to which I agreed to go see The School of Rock if you went to see Lost in Translation, I finally got around to holding up my end of the bargain last night. What you posted about the film seems to me exactly right—it’s "a funny wisp of a premise played out with wit, sweetness, and seeming spontaneity." In fact, The School of Rock charmed my socks off.
Since the critic in me is always on duty, I have to pass along a couple of observations:
(1) It’d be hard to conceive of a more derivative film than The School of Rock. Not only does it make seemingly unironic use of all the stock devices of the You-Can-Do-It inspirational flick, but it’s an unabashed ripoff of Revenge of the Nerds (has anybody else noticed this?), only with wonky 10-year-olds who go to a big-ticket prep school instead of wonky 18-year-olds in college. And as you rightly pointed out, Jack Black’s performance is essentially a replay of his role in High Fidelity, though I was surprised and pleased to see that he could carry an entire film playing that clever part.
(2) I felt cheated by the film’s minimalist use of Joan Cusack, the best of all possible supporting comediennes, who didn’t get nearly enough screen time. For one thing, we’re prompted to expect a big transformation scene in which she decisively sheds her priggishness…and it never happens. (The little scene in the bar isn’t nearly drastic enough.) On top of that, the script also sets us up to expect a romance between her and Jack Black that fails to occur—obvious, I know, but movies like The School of Rock thrive by doing the obvious in unexpected ways.
Enough with the quibbles. The School of Rock is a deliciously sweet nothing, just what I needed and wanted to see after a monstrous day’s work (I wrote a Wall Street Journal review from scratch in the morning, then interviewed Regina Carter in the afternoon for a New York Times profile). I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Incidentally, I went to see The School of Rock with one of my cool young musician friends, a singer with fluorescent hair who also took it upon herself to enhance my own coolness quotient by making me listen to selections from Radiohead’s Kid A and Coldplay’s Parachutes before we went to the theater. I liked them both, a lot. (She also left me a copy of Björk’s Vespertine
for homework.) I suppose this isn’t quite as cataclysmic as that long-ago weekend in Chicago when you introduced me to Exile in Guyville, but I certainly do feel hip and happening this morning.
We return you now to our usual high-culture musings.
Once upon a time I read the book proposal for The Last of the Duchess, and felt the frisson generated by Lady Caroline Blackwood's worldly, aggressive wit right down to my parochial midwestern bones. The book tells her story of trying to complete a newspaper assignment to interview the Duchess of Windsor but being blocked at every turn by Simpson's perversely, intrepidly protective 80-something lawyer—sort of ŕ la Michael Moore at General Motors, but with charm.
Blackwoood died a year after this, her last book, was published. Her work will live to see another day, however, as New York Review Books has reissued two of her novels, Corrigan and Great Granny Webster. Gary Indiana casts an appreciative eye over her career this month in Bookforum:
The prose inventions of Caroline Blackwood have the beguiling and ominous quality of fireside tales told at a very louche and drunken summer camp for morticians.
If this doesn't draw you in—but really, what's not to like?—the rest of what he has to say just might. Indiana doesn't dwell on Blackwood's famous husbands and lovers, a group that included Cary Grant, Lucien Freud, and Robert Lowell. Instead he focuses on her writing, and finds her "equally the artist to any of her paramours and husbands." His admiration is infectious.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 22, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Back in the mix
I love the tech guys. They fixed my iBook with the greatest of ease yesterday (which may just mean I'm a ninny) and sent me home with a lollipop. Okay, not really, but it does strike me that whenever they see me I'm in the state of elevated panic you'd expect from a hypochondriac in a doctor's office. The hushed tones, the urgent appeals, the excessive display of gratitude and relief when they make everything better… did I say "love"? I meant "worship the ground they tread."
I see Terry's been no slouch while I've been gone. In case you missed it and aren't feeling inclined to scroll, this post on the ubiquity of Kind of Blue was a highlight.
Thanks to those who have sent me email. It has been trickling in this week from Terry. I'll answer it over the next few days, whether in email or right here. And now for some blogging.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 22, 2003 | Permanent
Terry posted here yesterday about Kevin Pollak's silent impression of Robert DeNiro. I couldn't let the opportunity pass without mentioning another great wordless impersonation, the comedian-actor Richard Belzer's shambling full-body rendition of Ronald Reagan.
I only wish I had a link; but if you ever catch Belzer on a late-night talk show, he's likely to be pressed by the host into doing it. (His Mick Jagger employs the same m.o., but isn't half as uncanny.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 22, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Hit parades
A reader writes with further observations on the Observer 100:
I'm no expert on the contents but I would note the language barrier protecting this list: Of the 100 "greatest novels of all time," I believe that 15 were not written in English. There are but two in Russian—meaning that On the Road, which did make the list, is "greater" than all the other output of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the rest. Note also that there is apparently only one Spanish author as good as Kerouac (Cervantes), and none who's ever written in any Asian language. Point would be not that anyone should attempt a list of "the world's greatest," since that would be nearly impossible for a number of reasons. Rather, couldn't the editors of the Observer have come up with a slightly less grandiose header for their efforts?
Indeed. The Observer has now published reader reaction, including some comments from readers of note. They have also added the 50 books shaken in their faces must huffily by irate readers. This may be more interesting than the original list.
Meanwhile, Roger L. Simon's list of his 20 greatest movies—er, make that 23—is more satisfying. It sure is easy to tell the difference between a list compiled by committee and one put together by a single, discerning organizing intelligence. I also like the way his commenters goaded him into adding Jean Vigo's madly exuberant Zero for Conduct, which in an ideal world would be a hell of a lot easier to see. Maybe one of Chicago's many fineartmoviehouses could be persuaded to show it sometime soon.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, October 22, 2003 | Permanent
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
is on my case (in a very gentlemanly way) regarding my recent link
about applause between movements:
Audiences these days can't be trusted only to applaud the good stuff: give them half a chance and they'll cheer the downright mediocre as well. And there's no doubt that too much applause in the middle of a symphony, opera or concerto can definitely break up its drive and flow.
Besides, if people get the idea that it's fine to clap at the end of movements, they'll start clapping at every false ending as well, with disastrous consequences. I'm having visions here of people bursting out enthusiastically half a dozen times within ten minutes at the end of a Haydn symphony: something I'm sure no one thinks is a very good idea.
If asked, then, I'll continue to tell novices to classical music that, in general, one doesn't applaud until the end of the whole piece – and even then, one stays still until either everybody's applauding or the conductor lowers his arms. I won't get annoyed with them if they don't follow my advice, but the fewer people clapping, the more quickly the conductor can get on with playing the music, and the less disruptive the applause is.
Read the whole thing—it’s thoughtful and astute, as always with Felix. And he’s right not to think that I’m granting a license for totally indiscriminate applause. Years ago, I heard a Kansas City performance of the Goldberg Variations by Anthony Newman in which one person clapped and cheered between the brilliant end of the last variation and the quiet reprise of the theme. I could see from my seat that Newman was stricken with horror. So were the rest of us, myself included. The lone clapper, we supposed, had spoiled one of the most sublime moments in Western art, the breath-holding instant when you realize that the great musical world created by Bach has revolved all the way back to its starting point—all because one fellow couldn’t wait to pop his cork.
Ought one to applaud at that point? Of course not—nor is it likely, since live performances of the Goldbergs tend not to be attended by people who don’t know the piece. I can think of an exception, though: I’ve seen a half-dozen performances by New York City Ballet of Jerome Robbins’ ballet The Goldberg Variations, and there’s always a burst of applause at that exact moment, coinciding with one of Robbins’ very best showstoppers, the full-company tableau known among dance buffs as "the class photo." And what happens then? The pianist starts playing softly under the fading applause, the dancers slowly break up and drift off stage, Robbins brings back the couple who danced to the aria at the beginning of the piece…and the effect of the reprise is not diminished, but enhanced by the mood-breaking pause enforced by the audience’s reaction.
I hear a smart-ass in the back row saying, "Yeah, which just proves that Jerry wasn’t musical." No, it doesn’t. It proves that there’s more than one right way to "perform" the Goldbergs. And it also suggests to me that if you don’t want to hear applause in the wrong places, you can always try staying home.
Regarding your blog entry about Kind of Blue: Coincidentally, this morning at the coffeeshop I frequent—in the middle of western Pennsylvania, as small-town as small-town gets—Kind of Blue was playing. One fellow who stopped in commented on it. This gentleman was black, which is not-so-common in this particular, quite homogeneous small town. Anyway, he, the proprietor, and the girl working behind the counter talked for a while about how seminal the album was, the geniuses who played on it and the music they made afterwards.
I thought at the time that the interchange was a great example of the bonding force of music, demonstrating its ability to help people find enough common ground to begin friendships. Perhaps it's the music's essential simplicity, as you say, that is truly at the core of this bonding force.
For those of you wondering why in hell OGIC and I haven't answered your e-mail, the answer is that as of about ten minutes ago, the pile in the mailbox had shrunk to 47 unanswered items. This may not sound like much progress from yesterday, but bear in mind that I also replied to every piece of new mail that came in since then!
The point being, I both delight and regret to say, that "About Last Night" is now starting to get a whole lot of mail. We love it. We read all of it. We're trying to answer all of it (except for the dear-sir-you-cur letters and the spam from Liberia). We're a bit daunted by it.
The following tips may help us to get back to you sooner:
(1) If you're writing to Our Girl in Chicago, put "OGIC" in the subject header. Otherwise, I'll assume you're writing to TT (or both of us).
(2) If you know either of us personally, write to us directly, not through the blog. That slows everything down.
(3) Please don't put "About Last Night" on any routine mailing lists, not even yours. That also slows everything down.
(4) Please don't write only to say Thank you or Ditto or I'll do that. We know it's polite to acknowledge e-mail, but every piece of incoming mail we get, however brief, takes the same amount of time to open and scan. We'll take your thoughtful sentiments for granted.
(5) Be patient. I've turned off the autoresponder (the one that used to automatically send a Be patient response to everyone who wrote to the blog) because it stimulated the spammers. We promise to write you back as soon as we can.
Thanks for your thoughtfulness. Like I said, your mail means a lot to us, absolutely, no fooling, and we're doing our damnedest to chew through it. You're the best.
As I sat down to lunch today at Good Enough to Eat, my Upper West Side hangout, I heard a familiar sound floating over the purr of conversation. Buzzy, keening, coolly anguished…sure enough, it was Miles Davis playing "All Blues," the best-known cut from the most popular album in the history of jazz, Kind of Blue.
I smiled and shook my head at the thought of Miles’ being reduced to the status of background music, but I can’t say it bothered me. The waitstaff at Good Enough picks the tunes (which vary from perfectly all right to totally awesome), so it’s more than likely that someone as yet unborn when Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans strolled into a New York recording studio in 1959 decided to pop Kind of Blue into the CD player 44 years later. Jazz hasn’t existed quite long enough to have definitively passed the Test of Time, but I’d say that’s a pretty good sign.
I usually read when I’m dining alone, but today the music caused me to become lost in thought. It’s easy to forget that Kind of Blue was one of the most radically innovative jazz recordings of its time. For a generation of open-eared players, it was the passport to a new world of improvisation in which the meticulously interlocked tonal harmonies of the swing era were jettisoned in favor of spacious modal prairies around which the soloist wandered seemingly at will. So how is it that so Indisputably Important a recording has wormed its way into the pop-culture landscape of America? Kind of Blue, after all, is one of the very few jazz albums owned by people who know nothing else about jazz. (As I write these words, it ranks 132 in sales among pop-music CDs on amazon.com.) It’s the record Clint Eastwood (who knows a lot about jazz) puts on when he comes home from a hard day of assassin-hunting in In the Line of Fire. A whole book has been written about its history and cultural significance. Now it’s Muzak—yet it remains as vital and listenable as ever. By what strange alchemy was this transformation effected?
Somebody (me, I guess) ought to write an essay about how jazz has come to be used as a cultural signifier in films, TV shows, and ads, an infallible indicator of upper-middle-class hipness. That’s part of the reason why a pathbreaking musical statement has become so ubiquitous—but not the biggest part. Kind of Blue, lest we forget, was always popular. It was a hit in 1959, too. Why? Because for all its undeniable radicalism, Kind of Blue is also accessible and memorable. You don’t have to know what modal improvisation is to revel in its spare, lucid textures. You don’t even have to know who Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans were. Yes, they’re doing astounding things—but they don’t hit you over the head with their innovations, or try to tie your ears in knots. The results are simple, beautiful, and new, and the last of these is not the first.
I’m not saying that all good new art has to be simple, or that I only like simple art. Nor am I saying that all great art is destined in time to be swallowed up and spit out by Madison Avenue. But as I grow older, I find myself increasingly suspicious of the long-term viability of self-consciously "difficult" art. This is part of what I meant when I observed
a little earlier today that the first responsibility of art is to give pleasure. Of course it is our reciprocal responsibility to be open to the new. What seems strange now may soon come to seem beautiful—but I very much doubt that a lifetime’s puzzling over Finnegans Wake will cause it to seem anything other than pointlessly complex. There’s a reason why the greatest artists dissolve into simplicity as they grow older.
I wrote a piece about "fourth-period art" for the New York Times a couple of years ago. I wasn’t pleased with the results, so I left it out of the Teachout Reader, but I did like this part:
Yet once in a while the miracle happens, and an artist not only survives middle age, but also remains creatively vital. "Father Time is not always a hard parent," Charles Dickens wrote in "Barnaby Rudge," "and, though he tarries for none of his children, often lays his hand lightly on those who have used him well." To see such folk in the flesh is to be delighted and puzzled in equal measure. I heard the alto saxophonist Benny Carter at Iridium four years ago; he was then 89, but he played like a man of 60, and I could scarcely believe my ears.
Such apparent freedom from the devastation of old age seems to come less easily to those artists who work with words. "To write tolerably over the age of 65 is exceptional," Kenneth Clark rightly notes. That is when painters and orchestral conductors are just getting their second wind. As he embarked on his 19th novel, "The Fisher King," the 76-year-old Anthony Powell ruminated in his journal on the special problems facing the older novelist: "The sluggish imagination of old age makes giving of reality to characters difficult. The story must be seen from the point of view of a writer's own age group, later life being on the whole thin in action of the kind to give point to novels."
This makes sense, and it helps explain why most of the masterpieces of old age have been non-verbal. The best fourth-period art floats free of action and character. Instead, it is about essences, which are notoriously difficult to convey in words, though the Japanese painter Hokusai came close. "All that I have produced before the age of 70," he wrote at 75, "is not worth taking into account. At 73, I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am 80, I shall have made still more progress. At 90, I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at 100, I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am 110, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."
Miles Davis and his colleagues were young men when they recorded Kind of Blue, but the muse visited them that day and brought with her the gift of essential simplicity, causing every note and rest they played to pulse with life. That’s why we listen to them a half-century later—and why, if I live another half-century, I expect to be listening to them still.
"The question of capital punishment arising in connection with In Cold Blood, he says, 'At least in England they don’t keep them waiting about for five or ten years.' I point out that in the Christie case they should have and ask whether he thinks the death sentence is ever justifiable. 'Well, there have been people on whom I can picture it being carried out. [Bertolt] Brecht, for one. In fact I can imagine doing it to him myself. It might even have been rather enjoyable, when the time came, to have been able to say to him, "Now let’s step outside." I’d have given him a good last meal, of course. Still, you must admire the logic of a man who lives in a Communist country, takes out Austrian citizenship, does his banking in Switzerland, and, like a gambler hedging his bets, sends for the pastor at the end in case there could be something in that, too.'"
W.H. Auden, in conversation with Robert Craft (quoted in Craft's Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship)
I appreciated Monteux’s comments on audiences. Interestingly enough, my experience is almost always otherwise here in Houston. Audiences applaud when they feel like it, and are quite enthusiastic (if I were writing for the Eastern media, perhaps the obligatory comment about "cowboys" goes here...). Houston is quite friendly and rather friendly to the arts. Our symphony and ballet are in the black the last time I checked. Ditto theater. We're second tier in the arts world, but an honest second.
Some years ago my wife noted the transformation, over his tenure, of conductor Sergiu Comissiona as he slowly went from "tolerating" the not-at-the-end-of-the-piece applause ... to welcoming and appreciating it. We aren't boors, we just enjoy what we like and are here to have a good time.
Actually, I’ve always thought Houston was a terrific arts town—good orchestra, good ballet company, close enough to Fort Worth that you can zip over and see the Kimbell Art Museum, which ranks right up there with the Cleveland and the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City in my cool-museums-from-elsewhere book. So I’m more than pleased to hear that the citizenry of Houston is enlightened when it comes to having a good time in the concert hall.
Not to be obvious, but maybe it isn’t so obvious: The first responsibility of art is to give pleasure. If it doesn’t, I’m out of there, or wish I were. (Alas, being the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal means never getting to say, "Wow, this really blows, want to leave at intermission?")
I occasionally find in my blogmailbox a teasing note from a reader who feels the need to point out that this blog is supposed to be about the arts in New York City. And so it was, three months ago, and so it usually is today, but in my own mind I now render the subtitle of "About Last Night" as follows: "Terry Teachout in New York City on the arts (with additional dialogue by Our Girl in Chicago)." It’s true that New York is the arts capital of America, and maybe even the whole world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t important and interesting things constantly happening all over the place. Sometimes I note these IAITs from afar, and sometimes I get on a plane (shudder) and go see for myself. Earlier this month, for instance, I paid visits to Raleigh, N.C., and St. Louis, Mo., about which I’ve been meaning to tell you, so now I will.
As regular readers know, I take a serious interest in the activities of Carolina Ballet, America’s youngest ballet company, and since it won’t come to me, I go to it. On my last visit (which took place, you may recall, mere hours after the Great Hard-Drive Crash of 2003), I saw two different programs of new and recent ballets. Robert Weiss, the artistic director, did himself proud with a pair of dances accompanied by string quartet. The first, Grosse Fuge, seemed on paper like a terrible mistake, or at least a high-risk proposition. Why would anybody in his right mind dare to make a dance accompanied by Beethoven’s knottiest, most rebarbative string quartet, 16 minutes of ultra-fraught counterpoint? Well, Weiss did, and it’s something to see.
Though he’s a disciple of George Balanchine, Weiss rarely makes plotless pure-dance ballets in the manner of the master, and when he does, they tend to have a poetic overlay or subtext. Grosse Fuge, for instance, interweaves two corps of dancers, one dressed in white and the other in black, making simultaneous reference to the Black Swan/White Swan dichotomy of Swan Lake and to the famous M.C. Escher drawing in which a flock of birds seems to change color in mid-flight. The result is a complex, richly watchable ballet (I’ve seen it three times) that has the same kind of emotional resonance as Balanchine’s Serenade, another nominally "plotless" ballet which is actually full of mysterious events and encounters.
On the same bill was Des Images, choreographed by Weiss to the Ravel String Quartet (which is, by the way, an absolutely perfect piece of music—I can’t imagine why it hasn’t been previously used by a major choreographer). Here, the poetic content is explicit: Des Images is a ballet about the making of a ballet, with costumes and lighting by Jeff A.R. Jones and Ross Kolman inspired by the dance-themed paintings and pastels of Edgar Degas. If any of this sounds obvious to you, rest assured that the results are completely involving, a Robbins-like theatrical concept realized in Balanchine-like movement to wholly personal effect. No set, but the hot, high-keyed colors of Kolman’s lighting plunge you into the world of late Degas so effectively that you don’t feel the absence of a backdrop.
As for Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Lost and Found, I wrote about it in the Journal two weeks ago in connection with the 9/11 plays currently afflicting New York theatergoers. If you didn’t see that piece, here’s what I said:
I flew down to North Carolina in between "Omnium Gatherum" and "Recent Tragic Events," where I saw Carolina Ballet dance the premiere of Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s "Lost and Found," a remarkably poetic dance about—you guessed it—9/11. Ms. Taylor-Corbett has taken some of the postures and gestures of grief she saw in New York City two years ago and woven them into an abstract ballet (set to Schumann’s "Symphonic Etudes") that scrupulously shuns melodrama and portentousness and is all the more poignant for it. I mention "Lost and Found" because it reminded me of a remark made by the great dance critic Edwin Denby: "Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening—nobody on the stage at least. That’s why it becomes so popular in any civilized country during a war." Need I say more?
Here in New York, we occasionally use the word "provincial" to describe artistic events taking place in medium-sized cities—sometimes invidiously, sometimes not. I suppose you could call Raleigh a "provincial" city, but there was nothing even remotely provincial about these new dances, or about Carolina Ballet. The only problem is that you have to go to Raleigh to see the company (which I don’t consider a problem—I like Raleigh—but it does entail my getting on a plane). In a better-regulated universe, Carolina Ballet would dance for a week each season in New York and Washington, and the critics in those benighted cities would say, Gee, look what we’ve been missing! All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not missing it.
Time’s up, so I’ll write about the St. Louis Art Museum’s "German Art Now" exhibit tomorrow, or maybe the next day. Still, you get the idea, right? New York’s just fine, I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on anything worth having. Remember that the next time you wish you lived here.
Wesla Whitfield, the greatest cabaret singer in the world, is singing for one night only this Saturday at the Oak Room
of the Algonquin Hotel. Two shows, at nine and 11:30. If you’ve never seen her, call now and make a reservation. It isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely worth it.
If you need further persuading, here’s part of a piece I wrote a few years ago about Whitfield and the Oak Room:
Eighty well-dressed people sit silently in a darkened, oak-paneled room in the center of Manhattan. Some have plates of food in front of them, others have drinks at their elbows, but nobody is paying much attention to food or drink right now, not even the waiters. Instead, they're all listening to a woman seated on a high stool placed in the bend of a piano, her handsome face lit by a single baby spotlight. Her name is Wesla Whitfield, and she's singing a song everyone here knows by heart: Somewhere over the rainbow/Bluebirds fly/Birds fly over the rainbow/Why then oh why can't I? It takes a lot of nerve, and a lot of talent, to sing a song like that in a room like this. The woman has both, which is why the crowd is so quiet: you could hear a pin drop across the street…
[Whitfield] has been a West Coast cult figure for years; her full, fine-drawn mezzo voice, easy swing, and miraculously direct way with a lyric are in the great tradition of American popular singing, and more than a few admirers, myself included, consider her the best cabaret singer in the world. But it was only after she opened at the Oak Room that the rest of the world caught on. "It was a very big deal," she says of her first booking in the room where she now sings regularly to sold-out houses. "I had tried for five years to get a gig here. And when I finally got one, it was a do-or-die thing. The first night, Al Hirschfeld, Burton Lane, George Shearing, and Michael Feinstein were all sitting three feet from me. It was terrifying."
What makes the Oak Room so special? Obviously, the singers who perform there are the heart of the matter, though the room itself contributes significantly to the effect they make. Cabaret is an intimate art, and the 80-seat Oak Room, with its amber sconces and red velvet banquettes, is as up close and personal as a love seat at midnight: there is no finer place to listen to songs of passion and despair. "It's nice singing in a room this small," Whitfield says, "because I get feedback from the people. I know what works—and what doesn't work. When they're bored, you can hear them scrunching up their toes in their shoes. You can get that kind of response in a larger room, but it's very slow, and very limited."
At lunch with a couple of arts buddies, we found ourselves trying to come up with fairly-recent performance forms that you don't see (or see much) anymore. We came up with three that were very popular during our kid-hoods but that are all but invisible today:
* Ventriloquists—they were once a standard feature on variety shows.
* Impersonators—hard to remember, but people who did impressions of celebrities were once very popular: "Here's ... Jack Paar! [applause] And here's ... Dwight Eisenhower! [applause]" Remember buying LP's by impersonators? Who was that guy who did the whole Kennedy family, for instance?
* Comedy teams—Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, the Ritz Brothers, etc.
This caught my eye not only because I recently wrote about The Ed Sullivan Show, a veritable time capsule of such old-fashioned comedy, but because I happened to see Kevin Pollak, a standup comedian turned actor (he’s in A Few Good Men, among many other films) who’s doing standup again, at the Improv in Washington, D.C. not long ago. Pollak does impersonations (he’s modestly famous for his William Shatner), and he did a bunch of them at the Improv to brilliant effect. Not surprisingly, his Jack Nicholson is wildly funny, but it was his Robert De Niro that all but stopped the show—partly, I think, because he doesn’t say anything when he’s doing it. Usually, the best impersonations are three-layer cakes in which you duplicate the voice, simulate the face, and caricature the personality. Instead, Pollak just stood there and looked like De Niro (whom he doesn’t look a bit like), and my mouth fell open with amazement and delight.
I’m old enough, by the way, to remember the greatest of all impersonators, David Frye, who did Richard Nixon with such weird exactitude that it made you positively uncomfortable. And I should mention that one of my friends, a classical composer, does impersonations of other classical composers—a highly specialized niche, to be sure, but they’re really funny. (His Ned Rorem is almost too good to be true.)
(For the record, it was Vaughn Meader who did the Kennedys, and the album was called The First Family. And I like ventriloquists, too.)
I agree that the Mosaic Mulligan Concert Jazz Band collection is absolutely magnificent….Here's an idea for future research: Bob Brookmeyer is one of the unacknowledged giants of American 20th century music. I hadn't realized that he pretty much ran the CJB, and of course there were his innovative arrangements for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, and much great music since then.
And I in turn I couldn’t agree more. Brookmeyer isn’t quite unsung—I profiled him a few years ago in the New York Times—but he’s definitely undersung, and I was delighted that Bill Kirchner gave him full credit for his behind-the-scenes role with the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band in the liner notes for Mosaic's CJB set, a link to which you’ll find in the "Teachout's Top Five" box of the right-hand column. In addition to being a no-nonsense, utterly distinctive valve-trombone soloist (and a damned fine pianist, too, amazingly enough), Brookmeyer is gradually coming to be recognized as one of the most individual and significant of all jazz composers, as well as one of the very few to have grappled successfully with the challenge of large-scale form.
For those who don’t know Brookmeyer’s music, here are links to a few of his best albums:
New Works: Celebration (Challenge), recorded in 1997, features Brookmeyer’s Europe-based New Art Orchestra in a performance of his four-movement suite Celebration, a fully realized, highly impressive large-scale work for big band.
Holiday: Bob Brookmeyer Plays Piano (Challenge), recorded in 2000, is proof that all men are not created equal—some can play valve trombone and piano with equal skill and individuality. Life is unfair.
Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival (Challenge), recorded in 1979, is a wonderful collection of duets teaming Brookmeyer with Jim Hall, the best of all possible jazz guitarists.
Live at Sandy’s Jazz Revival, Vol. 1 (DCC Compact Classics), recorded in 1978, is the first half of a long-unavailable two-disc album in which Brookmeyer was teamed with Jack Wilkins on guitar, Michael Moore on bass, and Joe LaBarbera on drums—one of the finest small groups he ever led. (Whatever happened to Volume Two, by the way?)
Brookmeyer also recorded extensively as a sideman with Gerry Mulligan (start with the Mosaic set, then look for At Storyville, a live album by the Mulligan Quartet) and Stan Getz (I especially like Stan Getz-Bob Brookmeyer).
That’ll get you started, though you should also take a look at Brookmeyer’s Web site, which contains a wide-ranging selection of his famously outspoken comments on everything under the sun. I've never known a more candid man, or a more extravagantly gifted one. May he live to be at least a hundred.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 20, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Wrath of Jim Morrison
Jaime O'Neill, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, appreciatively reviews a new collection of Alfred Kazin's criticism. Right off the bat O'Neill coins a neat new term for that increasingly rare bird, the lucid literary critic (and a corresponding term for his opposite number):
When I was a kid, there was a smart-ass remark we used to make to people who were blocking our view: "You make a better door than a window." I kept thinking of that phrase as I read "Alfred Kazin's America." Far too many literary critics make a better door than a window. Not Alfred Kazin.
In case you were wondering what kind of aperture Harold Bloom is, he has a brief cameo in the review as a representative door.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 20, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: True confessions
To be perfectly honest with you, last week at this time I didn't know who Shirley Hazzard was. But on Monday a friend mentioned her new book, The Great Fire, and that opened the floodgates. On Wednesday came word of Hazzard's National Book Award nomination. (Did you know the NBA nominee pages list upcoming events for each author? Now you know.) Then Friday the Wall Street Journal Weekend section ran a review in which Jamie James said the novel "reads like the last masterpiece of a vanished age of civility, even of a certain understanding of civilization" and referred to the "Penelope-like vigil" of the many readers who loved Hazzard's last novel, published 22 years ago, Transit of Venus.
22 years? I felt much better knowing that her reputation was sealed when I was—well, let's just say when I was young enough to be excused for the oversight.
Over the weekend I read two more thunder-struck reviews by notable writers: one by the novelist Howard Norman in The Washington Post, and another by Thomas Mallon in The Atlantic.
I'm now more than sold on reading The Great Fire. But I want to start at the beginning, with Transit of Venus, which Mallon calls "a swirling asteroid belt of connected stories" and "a novel stuffed with description so intellectually active as to be sometimes exhausting, as if metaphysical verse were presenting itself to the reader as prose." The book is in hand, and the first lines do not disappoint:
By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 20, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Now you see her...
How nice for me that Terry has been back with such a vengeance. Various events here have been compromising my blogging ability, from my Microsoft Word program inexplicably going on strike, to my recent acquisition of a family of insomniac yetis as upstairs neighbors, to the usual trials inflicted by the cat who deigns to share with me this space that can only be called hers. You know how really bad parents use the tv as a handy device for hypnotizing their kids when they can't be bothered to pay attention, and end up raising vidiots? Well, through a similar process my cat is halfway to becoming a drug addict; I've been leaning a little too heavily on a cache of potent catnip given to me last week by a well-meaning friend. The cat's starting to remind me a little of the young Zonker Harris. He always seemed to be a pretty happy guy though, right?
Anyway, I'm surrendering my computer to the more technically adept Monday morning and having the system software reinstalled. I hope to have it back by evening, with only the slightest interruption in posting. It's possible it will take longer, though, in which case I'll try to squirrel things away for later in the week. By the way, I have discovered one useful thing thanks to the Word Processor That Would Prefer Not To: Mac Stickies are a perfectly adequate, maybe even ideal, blogging composition tool—basic and efficient.
With any luck, I'll catch you later.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, October 20, 2003 | Permanent
Sunday, October 19, 2003
TT: Words to the wise
Deidre Rodman, the pianist-composer about whom I’ve recently written on this blog and in the Washington Post, is appearing with her quintet on Monday at the Jazz Gallery. The gig is in celebration of the release of her second CD, Simple Stories, about which I had this to say in the Post:
If you liked the Bad Plus’ "These Are the Vistas," an all-acoustic piano-trio album with a strong pop flavor, your next stop should be Deidre Rodman’s "Simple Stories" (Sunnyside), the second CD by an up-and-coming young pianist-composer from New York City. Rodman has put a similarly fresh spin on the time-honored trumpet-sax quintet lineup, with results as crisp and sweet as a bite out of a Fuji apple.
Like so many other twentysomething players, Rodman has performed all sorts of music. She’s worked with Elvis Costello, played in a circus band and now doubles as a member of the Lascivious Biddies, a witty girl group. Not surprisingly, her idiosyncratic approach to jazz is colored by this wide-ranging experience. For one thing, her compositions are far more than just props for aimless blowing. Some are songs (Rodman is also a talented lyricist), others large-scale compositions notable for their high melodic profiles. The influence of rock on pieces like "Sleeping Ground" (sung to perfection by Luciana Souza, who sits in on three cuts) is unmistakable, yet you don’t doubt for a moment that you’re listening to jazz….
Two sets, at nine and 10:30. For more information, go here.
While you’re at the record store, check out Acoustic Romance (Sons of Sound), a gorgeous guitar-bass-drums CD by Gene Bertoncini originally recorded in 1992 for a Japanese label and now being released stateside for the first time. Bertoncini’s gently elegant finger-style acoustic jazz guitar and classically flavored arrangements of such blue-chip standards as "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "Two for the Road" have rarely been captured in such warm yet transparent recorded sound, and Akira Tana and Rufus Reid provide impeccable support.
You can order Acoustic Romance by going here, or you can take matters into your own hands by dining at Le Madeleine, the theater-district bistro (it’s on 43rd Street just east of Ninth Avenue) where Bertoncini plays solo guitar on Sunday and Monday nights whenever he’s in New York. It happens that he’s in town for the next few weeks, so I dropped in this evening to eat the excellent food and savor the music. Both were up to par (they always are), and copies of Acoustic Romance were available for purchase and signing (ditto). Nightclubs are all very well and good, but there’s nothing like listening to great jazz while eating a good meal in pleasant surroundings, and we all know that some of New York’s most admired jazz clubs aren’t exactly, ahem, comfy.
Anyway, go see Deidre Rodman at the Jazz Gallery on Monday and Gene Bertoncini at Le Madeleine next Sunday. Buy their albums—and tell ’em I sent you.
Seeing as how this site is officially big on the paintings, watercolors, and etchings of John Marin, I thought you might enjoy reading a very interesting newspaper story suggesting the possibility of a Marin revival:
John Marin is back in vogue.
Thanks to a new book, two new exhibitions and renewed attention stemming from the 50th anniversary of Marin's death, interest in the American-born modernist has peaked. His popularity is borne out not only among young art students who trace his path up and down the Maine coast, but also in art auction houses, where even routine Marin paintings fetch millions of dollars these days….
Much of the new fervor is because of the recently opened retrospective "John Marin's Maine" at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor. The small exhibition of fewer than two dozen pieces traces Marin's evolution as a painter from his first trip to Maine in 1914 to his death Oct. 1, 1953.
Colby College, which owns 55 Marin works and dedicates two galleries to their display, has published a long-overdue hardcover catalog of its holdings, "The John Marin Collection at the Colby College Museum of Art."
And on Nov. 9, the Richard York Gallery in New York City will open "John Marin & Paul Strand: Friends in New England," an exhibition that explores the dialogue between Marin and his photographer friend. It will be the first time their work has been exhibited together since 1925, when both were included in arts patron Alfred Stieglitz's "Seven Americans" exhibition.
The only thing lacking is a major-museum retrospective, the last of which the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., mounted in 1990. Marin's daughter-in-law, Norma Marin, hopes renewed interest will result in a thorough re-examination of the painter's career.
"I'm obviously a little biased, but I think it's time," says Norma Marin, who divides her time between a Manhattan apartment and her home at Cape Split....
And where, pray tell, did this story appear? In today’s Portland Press Herald. That’s Portland, Maine, not the New York Times, thank you very much. To read the whole thing, go here. To purchase a copy of Colby College’s gorgeous Marin catalogue, go here. And to find out why you had to go to a Maine newspaper by way of an arts blog to find out about all this Marin-related activity…well, go figure.
Fans of Allison Moorer, the wonderful young country singer about whom I’ve previously written in this space, should go here to read an excellent Washington Post profile by Eric Brace that supplies the inside skinny on her latest doings.
In brief, Moorer has finally given up on the major labels, signed with Sugar Hill Records (the nonpareil independent country-bluegrass label that brought you Nickel Creek), and now has a new album in the can set for release next spring:
In five short years, she's released four records (her most recent, "Show," a live affair with accompanying DVD) and has just signed with her third record label. She's been touted as the next great country singer and faulted for not playing the game by Nashville's rules. She's had an Academy Award nomination for one of her songs, and been virtually ignored by country radio….
But while Moorer puts on a bravely defiant face, she admits to doubts about her methods. "Oh, sure, I ask myself all the time, 'What am I doing wrong?' " she says, her corduroy cap pulled low over her face. She stares hard at her cappuccino for a second, regaining her bravura. "But I've been true to myself in everything I've done. I don't see anything wrong with that."
Of course I wish Moorer had made it big in Nashville, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that she’s hooked up with the best roots-music label in the business. They know a good thing when they hear it. (In the meantime, try her debut CD, Alabama Song, for a taste of Allison Moorer at her major-label best.)
In addition to the several miles' worth of new postings that materialized in this spot on Friday, I've just installed a brand-new, all-new set of Top Fives in the right-hand column. Take a look, click on a link, enhance your life.
Much more to come on Monday and Tuesday, including the return of "In the Bag," postings about Carolina Ballet, the Louis Armstrong House, "German Art Now" at the St. Louis Art Museum, and whatever else tickles my fancy. Stay tuned.