About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Friday, December 9, 2005
OGIC: Stuck with me
Recently Terry posted about some vexing health problems he has been contending with. As you know, he recused himself from blogging for much of the last week in order to get some vital rest. For a few days this seemed to be working. Yesterday, however, he had a setback and is spending the weekend, or perhaps a bit longer, in the hospital. He assures me that he is in superb hands, is well on the road to a full recovery, and does not wish for anyone to worry. But he will be away from this space again for a while. He's computer-free, in fact, and not receiving email—so if you're thinking of sending any, why not wait until he's back in action, just so his unmonitored inbox doesn't explode? If it's really pressing, you are welcome to email me. I'll be in frequent touch with Terry.
While we all await Terry's return, I'll keep the posts coming. I'll also respond to all of the great and greatly appreciated email I received this week and, most important, pass along further word on Terry's recovery.
From both of us, have a safe and wonderful weekend.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Saturday, December 10, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"I don't mind his gift (his genius, really) for sugarcoating. The problem is that he keeps forgetting to put the pill inside."
James Marcus on Paul McCartney
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, December 9, 2005 | Permanent
TT: A modest little classic
As promised, here I am again, just in time for the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. Today I review Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful and Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, one of which I liked much more than the other:
Mr. Foote’s play is an American classic, albeit one not generally recognized as such (it hasn’t been performed in New York in 45 years). Yet “The Trip to Bountiful” is fully as worthy of regular revival as “Our Town” or “The Glass Menagerie,” and this Off Broadway production, directed by Harris Yulin and acted with quiet skill by the best ensemble cast in town, leaves no doubt of its special quality….
The Peter Norton Space is small enough that the rest of the run, which ends Feb. 19, is likely to sell out very quickly, and while I have yet to hear any buzz about a transfer, this production clearly belongs on Broadway. My guess is that it has the potential to become a sleeper hit, just like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Doubt.”…
Eugene O’Neill is one of those Great American Authors whose work leaves me cold. It doesn’t help that the difference in quality between his best and worst plays is vast, but even at his occasional best, I usually find him exhaustingly long-winded. As for his worst, well, there’s “A Touch of the Poet,” a 19th-century costume piece written between 1935 and 1942 as part of an unfinished 11-play cycle and newly revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 as a vehicle for Gabriel Byrne…
Mr. Byrne plays Con Melody, a Byron-spouting soldier turned drunken innkeeper who has squandered the whole of his life pretending to a gentility he doesn’t possess by birth, sacrificing the happiness of his stage-Irish wife (Dearbhla Molloy) and hatchet-tongued daughter (Emily Bergl) to his pitiable pretensions. It’s a promising situation, but O’Neill smothers it in superfluous exposition—you could cut the whole first act and scarcely notice it was gone…
Two footnotes on The Trip to Bountiful:
(1) Here’s how moved I was by the play and production: Horton Foote was sitting three rows behind me. I wanted to say something to him after the show, but was so choked up that I didn’t trust myself to speak.
(2) This is the Signature Theatre Company’s fifteenth-anniversary season, and thanks to a generous subsidy from Time Warner, all tickets for all performances of all anniversary-season productions cost just $15 each. In this case, that’s an amazing deal.
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing, pick up a copy of today’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review (along with lots of other art-related stories).
TT: In other news
Regarding the Great Bloggers' Convocation that had Our Girl in a tizzy, all I can tell you is that we talked a lot, enjoyed ourselves, and saw many familiar faces in the audience, one of whom posted briefly about the event after the fact. I don't have a lot more to tell you, truthfully: I didn't say anything there I haven't already said here. The audience seemed interested, though, and asked lots of good questions. I was too tired to linger and went straight home when it was over, so if you want to know more, go here. (I'm still giggling at the thought of being compared to Jon Landau!)
Now, here’s a sneak preview of my next "Sightings" column, “Making Ideas Beautiful,” which will be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:
Sometimes a heartfelt compliment can blow up in the recipient’s face, as when T.S. Eliot said of Henry James that he had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” thus making him sound like a plot-spinning idiot savant. What Eliot really meant was that James understood how an artist who dabbles in ideas can lose sight of the true purpose of art, which is (as Renoir said) to “make everything more beautiful.” You can’t paint a picture of E = mc2, or compose a symphony about the law of supply and demand. Nevertheless, art is so effective at swaying men’s minds that there have always been cultural commissars prepared to enlist it in the service of ideas by any means necessary—including brute force....
Needless to say, there's plenty more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
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.
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes Mar. 26, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 1)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, extended through Feb. 19)
CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
• Hamlet (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Sunday, reviewed here)
• Absurd Person Singular (comedy, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
• Bach in Leipzig (comedy, G, too complicated for any but the brightest children to follow, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
• Orson's Shadow (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, very strong language, closes Dec. 31, reviewed here)
TT: Number, please
• Robert Frost's fee in 1921 for a reading: $100
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $924.38
(Source: Library of America, Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays)
Thursday, December 8, 2005
"Higher forms of leisure are no longer leisure but act come to completion."
Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America
OGIC: Made to be broken
Claws-bared swipes at MFA writing programs are hardly scarce commodities, but this one by Sam Sacks in the New York Press (thanks to Elegant Mark for the link) has a few original insights about the dispensation of rotten chestnuts that passes for writing instruction in too many such programs. To wit:
If the term Show Don't Tell were one tool out of many that a perspicuous teacher used to aid a specific student in a particular situation, then it would be all to the good. But recall that except in exceptional cases professors need a common denominator with which to teach a group of students of all degrees of talent and taste. Consequently, Show Don't Tell becomes one of the rules in a standardized how-to checklist.
Rules of this sort, I think, come to resemble the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which is used to boil down matters of deep complexity for easy consumption by the masses of the laity. A few objections to the rules may have already crossed the reader's mind: books such as War and Peace, Moby Dick and Ulysses shatter all notion of common law rules of fiction; what is great about the stories of Chekhov, Isaac Babel, and Eudora Welty can't remotely be explained in the way they embody a structural law. Every story in Best New American Voices 2006 is infallibly faithful to workshop formula, and none are noticeably good. All of these objections should be immediately fatal to the premise of teaching Craft, yet they are all routinely shrugged off as caveats (Moby-Dick as a caveat!), explained away by the one all-obliterating fallback rule that I've heard in every workshop I've ever attended: You Can Do It If You Can Get Away With It. Tolstoy, Melville and Joyce "Got Away With It," but you probably can't, and shouldn't try.
These are some of the rules for graduate students. The rules for undergraduates are even more invasive. Here the discrepancy between class size and professorial involvement is stretched even further—workshops are taught by graduate students, and the only whiff a young aspiring writer will get of a writing instructor is in a packed lecture hall. The class I taught was assigned a course packet and there, on the first page, were more rules: Never begin a story with a character waking up in bed. Never write a scene where a character looks at himself in a mirror. Never use the word "stuff."
These rules aren't exactly arbitrary. Having a character gaze into a mirror is evidently an involuntary reflex for amateurs and writers without talent. But the rule makes no allowances for the possibilities of a mirror scene in the hands of a writer with talent. (See Katherine Manfield's "Prelude.") This gets to the crux of the danger of the workshop: Doctrine is imposed with the working assumption that everyone is a mediocrity. If obeyed, it grades down the spiky brilliance of the talented and leads to the limited elevation and refinement of apprentice hacks.
I've always had it in for writing workshops, personally. I was in a really great one once, and I've always thought the one where Olivia d'Abo and Josh Hamilton meet cute in Kicking and Screaming must have been redeemed to a great degree by d'Abo's character's presence. But the three of four others I've known were pretty much soul-killing. I think Sacks's insight that the stuff being taught is tailored for the talentless is dead-on, and rather shattering.
I also think it's a mistake for MFA programs and their hopeful applicants to put quite so much emphasis on big-name writers. This is a trap that Sacks himself falls into in the course of his piece. No doubt name recognition is an alluring thing for everyone concerned here: editors and publishers, students, other faculty. administrators, even potential donors to the institution. It is—obviously, right?—no guarantee of good teaching. To be only this cynical is to sound naive; of the many reasons brand-name writers are in demand for these faculty positions, teaching writing has to be pretty far down the list, well below the promise of professional connections for graduated students and the luster their names confer on not only the department but the institution writ large. There is no particular reason to believe that great writing and great, or even good, teaching will come bundled together in one lovely package, and so I'm unmoved when Sacks says of faculty members in the University of Houston and Johns Hopkins MFA programs, "These men and women may in fact be exceptionally devoted teachers and fine writers to boot. But as a sample cross-section, they are certainly not names that cry out 'literary mastery.'" The assumption that "literary mastery" translates into good pedagogy goes surprisingly unexamined in an otherwise sharp piece.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 8, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
OGIC: Passing interests
Writers who can take a subject in which you are studiously uninterested, put a stranglehold on your attention while you are reading them on said subject, and, when they are finished, release you undisturbed to your previous stance of disinterest. That's what my world needs more of. Twice now, Michael Lewis has proven himself, in my book, such a writer. His prolific 1998 reporting on the Microsoft antitrust case for Slate had this effect on me, and now his New York Times Magazine piece about an eccentric, successful college football coach has cast a similar spell. If I had spent the entire following morning poring over BCS rankings, what we'd have had is a previously undiscovered interest brought to the surface, with some credit due to Lewis. But I didn't care about college football before I read this article, and I don't care about college football now. The fact that I had such a splendid, indeed ecstatic, time reading an article about college football in the interim is proof positive that, in this case, the writing is the thing. At the moment, I feel Lewis could put forth a treatise on botany, tax law, aluminum siding, or goddamn Paris Hilton, and I'd be slavering for a copy. (Although, that said, he's not infallible. I couldn't get through The New New Thing, purchased in cloth on the strength of my addiction to the Microsoft Dispatches, nor would the local used book interest take it off my hands. Here it still sits, oldly.)
There are a precious few other writers I can say this of (and one or two of them are bloggers). How about you? Who would you read on any subject at all?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 8, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: If some bloggers talk in New York...
And nobody blogs it…well, does it?
I'm supposed to be somewhere five minutes ago and will return to this desk later for more blogging. In the meantime, I can't help but wonder...where, oh where, can I read about last night's bloggy panel featuring my illustrious colleague and his equally fascinating cohorts? Surely some blogging fools out there were in attendance, right? From what I hear, we as a group like nothing better than to give breathless reports of each other's exploits. Anyone want to gift the hinterland-bound among us with a little report, breathless or otherwise? Send word of any sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be forever endeared to me.
UPDATE: James Marcus, whose excellent and excellently named criticism blog endeared him to me long ago, comes through at House of Mirth.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 7, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"She had always been a looker-on at life, and her mind resembled one of those little mirrors which her Dutch ancestors were accustomed to affix to their upper windows, so that from the depths of an impenetrable domesticity they might see what was happening in the street."
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 7, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"I have said about that night that it was a night like all the rest, a night beginning so usually I wasn't even looking when it happened. But going back over it now I can see in how many ways this was not in the slightest true. For one important exception, a heavy fog had folded us up into its cold grey blanket. For three days we'd groped and gasped our way through a London from which streets, pavements, cars, even buildings and people had been quietly erased. A London no longer a city but a great cold, glowing field where the refraction of the street lamps, unable to pierce the fog's opaqueness, none the less lit up the vast loneliness with an eerie yellow glow."
Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 6, 2005 | Permanent
Monday, December 5, 2005
OGIC: That's a wrap
Arts & Letters Daily says this lovely, generous essay about the last lines of novels is by Philip Hensher, and I'm glad they say so, because the page itself gives no indication of authorship. I call the piece "generous" in the sense, simply, of "long," because you know this same piece assigned by the NYTBR or most other American papers would never be permitted to run more than half this version's nearly 2,000 words and would, accordingly, be much impoverished.
Hensher has a great and true premise: as much as we literary types love to recite and dwell on and argue about great first lines, the way a novel ends is a more interesting and revealing matter. There's far more at stake. Especially after modernism, it's hard to see the question of how to end as anything other than a great problem for novelists. How they tend to solve it may tell us something about the philosophical temperament of their time and place. Writes Hensher:
But there are two questions at stake here, in what Frank Kermode called "the sense of an ending." One is how far a novelist believes in the end of a story, either through perfect happiness or complete catastrophe. The other is just the sense of a cadence; the sort of thing that sounds final, even if the novel's concerns are provisional, incomplete. A novel with an unimpeachably happy ending may finish on an incomplete cadence, like Bleak House's "even supposing -". Conversely, a novel where all the questions remain unanswered at the end can, more rarely, have a resoundingly firm cadence, just like [Henry] Green's Loving.
(The Green novel ends, ironically, "Over in England they were married and lived happily ever after.")
I don't have a whole lot to add to what Hensher writes. He covers the topic admirably and, whew, comes up with a wholly satisfying last graf. Read the whole thing. But his piece did send me scurrying to various bookcases to see precisely how some beloved books left matters. And yet the problem with endings, one that doesn't vex beginnings, is that in many cases you can't share them without perhaps compromising a new reader's experience of the book. The final line of The Turn of the Screw, for instance, is remarkable for its ambiguity and yet all too revealing. Here's one that gives nothing away, is pretty bracing, and, I skirts all of the categories Hensher delineates:
Poor all of us, when you come to think of it.
It's from Graham Greene, The Third Man, and it's a long sight down a one-way road from "God bless us, every one!"
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 6, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Black Ice, continued
Regarding the incongruities of The Ice Harvest, which I took a stab at diagnosing below, Erasmus at Praise of Folly says it better than I could and clarifies why I felt this movie was a queasy shade of noir:
The problem with this film is that it fundamentally mischaracterizes the question at the heart of film noir, which is "what does the decent man do in an immoral milieu?" Look at Sam Spade, Orson Welles's Michael O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai, or Glenn Ford's Johnny Farrell in Gilda. All these men are terribly flawed, but try and stick to some essential core of decency despite the crew of vultures, con men, maniacs, and femmes fatales who surround them. Spade ends up sending a woman he loves up the river, O'Hara staggers away from a pile of corpses, and Farrell (unconvincing happy ending aside) tries to keep his loyalties in order, often perversely so.
Modern screenwriters and directors seem to fundamentally miss this moral point, being beglamoured by the bad guys and missing the core drama of the good-ish guy trying to escape the maelstrom of connivance, malice, and murder. John Dahl, whom Erasmus loves, gets this. His Red Rock West is the perfect modern noir. Nick Cage's ex-Marine Mike Williams drifts into Red Rock, Wyoming, looking for a job. He tells a white lie, letting a bartender think he's "Lyle from Texas," for whom he's got a job. This fib plunges him into a web of murderous hatred from which he keeps trying to escape but keeps getting pulled back in because of his essential decency. It's a terrific film.
Dahl also made The Last Seduction in which he created Wendy Kroy, the most fatale of the femmes who've graced the silver screen. Dahl's brilliance in this film is exposing Kroy as the most evil of manipulative sociopaths—she literally has no use for people other than as a means to money or other objects of desire. She kills, steals, and frames others for her crimes. And then, in the end, in a gut-punch of an ending which leaves you gasping, she gets away with it. Dahl plays with the complicity of the viewer in the anti-heroine's misdeeds, then pulls the rug out from under you in that she, a real villain, doesn't get any comeuppance. Dahl doesn't do a wink and let you think, "Oh, that scamp!" He gives you a genuine look at the triumph of evil. The Last Seduction is another work of profound moral mediations in an utterly compelling dramatic form.
This brings us to The Ice Harvest which shares the central problem of most "neo-noir" films. It's all bad guys, without any moral quandary, and hence no real drama or plot, only incident in the game of last-man-standing among a bunch of low-lifes. The audience is apparently supposed to have some dramatic sympathy for Charlie Arglist because...well, principally because he's played by John Cusack, whose winning hang-dog manner is likeable. As La Demanska notes, however, the character is an empty vessel. There's no there there. He's simply the least vile of the individuals on offer.
The second major problem is the ending, in which Charlie's the last man standing, ending up with 2.147 million dollars, if I remember correctly, with which he basically heads out of Wichita, "rescuing" his drunken friend Pete (entertainingly played by Oliver Platt) from his horrible marriage to Charlie's ex-wife. This is not an act of virtue, not least because their leaving town leaves Charlie's two children (already scarred by his no longer living with them) without either their father or their stand-in father. The larger problem is that Charlie is rewarded for his coming out on top of the deadly game of Who's Got the Duffel Bag?
…So, in the end, The Ice Harvest fails to glean anything from its characters' experience. Still, the movie is very, very well made, well-acted by a talented cast, and set in an environment that rarely sees on the big screen: winter on the Great Plains. It intrigued Erasmus enough that he went out and bought the novel from which it's adopted. Erasmus suspects (or perhaps merely hopes) that the novelist has a better sense of what's really at stake in great crime novels—not money, but souls.
That's what I meant to say! There's more, so be sure to hop over and read the whole thing.
P.S. This entire post written, cut, pasted, and coded with a twelve-pound cat lying on top of my right arm. Some animals, that is, may have been overindulged in the making of this post.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 5, 2005 | Permanent
Friday, December 10, 2004
OGIC: A Tale of Four Movies
The Ice Harvest may be the most misleadingly marketed film ever. It snuck up on me—the very first I heard of it was from Dave Kehr’s fairly new blog in November (thanks to Cinetrix for first word of DaveKehr.com). He wrote:
After all the failed attempts to capture the flavor of the great noir novelists like Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Charles Willeford, here is the film that finally does it, and without betraying the slightest sign of self-consciousness. This is no stuffed-and-mounted “homage” but a living, breathing film with a black heart and a sense of humor. Ramis demonstrates again how closely related comedy and suspense timing are, introducing his twists and reversals with the same dual sense of surprise and inevitability that sets up a great punch line. His control is perfect but his presence is imperceptible–one definition of high classical style.
Color me excited! But then the television ads started coming on, and they told a different story. How to reconcile Kehr’s anointment of the film as neonoir par excellence with the advertising campaign’s invocation of the hilariously crude Bad Santa? My confusion only grew when the movie’s marketing campaign turned up at a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game I attended in the middle of November. Ice hockey, ice harvest—very high-concept, that! At the time, friend EH (formerly Our Friend on the Block, before she hightailed it to a different, sadly distant block) wondered aloud whether the bleak Ice Storm had been similarly touted at NHL rinks, and we laughed. But now, having seen the not at all merry Harvest, I can’t say I think that would have been so much less fitting.
This is a deeply misanthropic, even cruel movie, as Tim Hulsey has discussed in terms that are stronger than I would use but not, I think, unfair. His review appears here, and he has more general thoughts springing from his reaction to the movie here. Reading Tim's review influenced my thinking about the movie, which I thought I liked at first. There were some factors that clouded my judgment. The Ice Harvest was cowritten by a favorite writer-director tandem of mine (and of Terry's), Robert Benton and Richard Russo, and is a little bit like what you might get from crossing Nobody's Fool with The Last Seduction. If that seems hard to imagine, there's good reason. Those films are inhabited by what are practically different species of human beings and proceed from wholly different notions of human motivation. In The Ice Harvest you have a town full of Wendy Kroys, driven by the basest desires, thinly disguised as the sorts of complex, simple-deep characters that live in a Richard Russo novel. They banter half-affably, half-abusively, like typical Russo oddballs, but their bites are far worse than their bark. John Cusack's antihero Charlie doesn't bite except in self-defense, but, for that, he is surprisingly empty. While viewing the movie I felt grateful that the character wasn't sweetened or sentimentalized, but in retrospect he's not any way redeemable or interesting, apart from being a guy lucky enough to be played by John Cusack.
In the end, I'm also not sure whether this movie would have seemed so painfully dark if it hadn't been for the willfully misleading marketing campaign. There's that, and there's a long sequence, before things get seriously ugly, that could almost have been borrowed from Nobody's Fool, with Cusack and Oliver Platt, playing a drunken ne'er-do-well, comically making their rounds on Christmas Eve like two sad clowns. Then all of a sudden it's Blood Simple, and you might feel a little blind-sided. Also, I'll never listen to that Alvin and the Chipmunks song quite the same way again.... (Such lumberingly ironic use of the chirpy cartoon rodents is emerging as a bit of a theme this year. The same song, I noticed, appears prominently in an ad for a TNT holiday movie about gangsters. Aw, leave the little guys alone! Sure, they're annoying, but they mind their own business eleven months a year!))
I've said it before, but this is as good an occasion as I'll get to say it again: rent Benton and Russo's previous project, Twilight. Besides its cast of geniuses, it exemplifies what The Ice Harvest seems to be trying, haplessly, to be.
And speaking of movies that you can't pin down, how about Pride and Prejudice? The trailer made me cower behind my popcorn. The reviews, most of them splendid, made me wrinkle my brow and reconsider. Now Ross Douthat comes along confirming precisely my initial suspicions and blasting the undiscriminating reviewers who made me doubt. Still on tap is Quiet Bubble, who read the novel in preparation. I'll be curious to hear QB's verdict. And yours—let me know what you thought of the movie, especially if you feel protective of the book. Should I see it? Skip it? Picket? I used to read the novel every Christmas vacation, and perhaps this year would be a good time to return to that personal tradition, in the spirit of silent protest.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 5, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Much more Mr. Nice Guy
I reviewed four plays in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, and Caryl Churchill’s A Number.
Rather to my surprise, 700 Sundays was the best of the lot, despite its predictable weaknesses:
Go figure: Billy Crystal, who got his big break playing the first openly gay character on a network TV series, has ended up as a sort of 21st-century Bob Hope, the safe-as-milk middle-aged establishment comic who hosts the Oscars and is now making his Broadway debut with a one-man "play" at the Broadhurst Theatre about his charmed life as a loyal son, husband and father. Small wonder that "700 Sundays," with advance sales of $8 million plus, is on the inside track to be Broadway's uranium-plated smash of the season. And here's the biggest surprise of all: It's actually a pretty good show. Who says nice guys finish last?
I put "play" in quotes because "700 Sundays," like so many one-person shows, occupies an uncertain middle ground between standup routine and full-fledged play. Simply to tell the story of your life in monologue form may or may not be interesting, but it's rarely dramatic in the ordinary understanding of the word, and Mr. Crystal's luck has been too good to give his long string of essentially benign anecdotes the ruthless forward movement one demands from a play....
Mr. Crystal seems to be aware of the need to ratchet up the tension in his tale-telling, and when he recalls such potentially radioactive events as the death of his father, you can all but see him struggling to drag "700 Sundays" onto a higher plane of expressivity. Alas, he is barely capable of talking for more than 30 seconds without slipping in a punchline—a compulsion that is especially jolting whenever he tries to be serious….
La Cage aux Folles, on the other hand, was…well, read for yourself:
Once upon a time, "La Cage aux Folles" was a sweet little French film about a couple of graying gents, one of them a flouncy-to-the-max drag queen, who run a nightclub in St. Tropez. Stripped of the louche details, it turned out to be an unexpectedly touching study of the surmountable absurdities of middle-aged love and became the sleeper hit of 1978. Five years later, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman got their hot little hands on this hot little property, pumped in several thousand tons of hot air, and thereby turned it into a monstrously inflated tourist trap of a musical that ran for 1,761 performances. Now "La Cage aux Folles" has returned to Broadway's Marquis Theatre, there to titillate a new generation of taste-challenged ticketholders.
Or maybe not. Times, after all, have changed greatly since 1983, and what once seemed ooh-so-risqué to Broadway audiences may well strike their children as dated beyond recall. For one thing, homosexuality has long since become a commonplace of American popular culture, not least on the New York stage, and you no longer get automatic PC points for merely showing two guys holding hands, even if one of them is a drag queen. In addition, the caravan of musical taste has also moved on, and I can't imagine that Mr. Herman's cynically cornball ditties (complete with banjo accompaniment) will have much to offer viewers suckled on "Avenue Q." As for Mr. Fierstein's book, it covers up Jean Poiret's original script with a plywood veneer of applause-sign jokes so thick as to completely obscure the wryness and warmth that made it so winning.
I didn't see the 1983 production, which was directed by Arthur Laurents, a man who knows his theatrical onions, but it must have been better than this glitzmobile. Daniel Davis and Gary Beach make no impression at all in the lead roles; Jerry Zaks's staging and Jerry Mitchell's dance numbers are similarly unmemorable; Scott Pask's sets are week-old cheddar. Even the chorus line gives transvestism a bad name….
Gem of the Ocean just wasn’t my thing:
Everybody else in the world seems to think that August Wilson is the Great American Playwright, but I've found his cycle of history plays about the black experience in America to be far too self-consciously poetic, and "Gem of the Ocean," the latest installment, is no exception.
Those who beg to differ will need no urging to see this one, though, and even if you don't much care for Mr. Wilson's style, you'll be thrilled by Phylicia Rashad's queen-size performance as Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old clairvoyant who makes her first onstage appearance in "Gem of the Ocean" after having been talked about in eight previous plays. I didn't know Ms. Rashad could really act until I saw her in "A Raisin in the Sun" last year—I just figured she was the best of all possible Clair Huxtables—but now I'd go see her in anything, no questions asked….
And A Number was plain old disappointing:
Don't believe a word of the ballyhoo about Caryl Churchill's "A Number," running through Jan. 16 at the New York Theatre Workshop. For all Ms. Churchill's deckle-edged standing among the ranks of contemporary English playwrights, her latest effort is nothing more than a bagatelle, a one-act, 65-minute play whose clever premise (a father confronts three of his cloned sons) cannot conceal its slightness. Considered purely as a conversation piece, it starts off strongly, sags in the middle, then picks up speed at the end, not quite in time to save the day….
No link, alas, since there’s plenty more where that came from. To read the whole thing, get off your behind and go buy a Journal. (For the lazy man’s alternative, click here.)
Thursday, December 9, 2004
"The theatre is an attack on mankind carried out by magic: to victimize
an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and miss their
trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived,
drugged, incarcerated, stupefied. This is partly because the audience is
also a court against which there is no appeal. Art's relation with its
client is here at its closest and most immediate. In other arts, we can
blame the client: he is stupid, unsophisticated, inattentive, dull. But
the theatre must, if need be, stoop—and stoop—until it attains the
direct, the universal communication which other artists can afford to
seek more deviously and at their ease."
Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea (courtesy of Mindy Alter)
TT: Another country
I just got back from Lincoln Center, where I heard Hilary Hahn play the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Colin Davis and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. I rarely go to orchestral concerts nowadays—it’s been months since I last heard the Philharmonic live, and I only went this time at the urging of a friend—and I was struck anew by how alienated I am from the increasingly tedious experience of traditional classical concertgoing, at least as it's practiced in Manhattan. The ugly hall, the gray acoustics, the snidely knowing intermission chat, the coughing and ill-timed applause and near-complete lack of young faces in the audience: all these depress me so much that I find it hard to push them aside and attend to the music. The first half of the program, Janacek’s Taras Bulba and Sibelius’ En Saga, was well played, but I simply wasn’t there: I pulled my head into my shell and sat it out.
Not so the second half. For one thing, Hilary Hahn is an extraordinary artist, far more so than is generally understood, her fast-rising fame notwithstanding. I wrote about her four years ago in Time, whose editors had just dubbed her “America’s best young classical musician,” a fatuous mass-media plaudit that I did my best to put into some kind of sane perspective:
Yes, classical-music whiz kids are as common as laid-off dot.com executives, but Hilary Hahn is no robotic virtuoso. Her tone is lean and sweet, her interpretations smart and unshowy; even the hardest-boiled prodigy-hating critics in the business go all mushy when she plays Bach, Beethoven, Barber and Bernstein....
Hahn began studying violin at the age of four, entered Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music at 10 and signed an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical at 16. But she doesn’t think of herself as a prodigy. “A prodigy, in my mind, is someone who practices eight hours a day and has a big concert career at 13,” she once told a reporter. “That’s not my style. I practice maybe half that much, and I’ve had a pretty normal life.”
“Normal” may not be a totally accurate way to describe the life of someone who made her debut with a major orchestra when she was 12 years old. Still, Hahn has a point. The hot glare of big-media publicity can affect prodigies like a sun lamp: first you blossom, then you blister. But this wunderkind has paced her career sensibly, steering clear of the pitfalls that await unformed artists who push themselves (or are pushed) too hard. Now, at 21, she is a fully mature musician with a style all her own….
Listening to Hahn’s glowing recording
of Samuel Barber’s gently poetic Violin Concerto, one has the same feeling of intimacy as if the two of you were having dinner together. Only a very real person—a whole self—can make music that way. Far too many prodigies crash, burn and vanish, but this remarkable young woman seems here to stay.
All this was true enough when I wrote it, but it doesn't come anywhere near describing what I heard a couple of hours ago. Hahn is now a profoundly gifted woman who has somehow retained much of the child prodigy’s mystery. Her playing is simple and wholly unaffected, though in no way naïve. Perhaps the right word is transparent: “I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed,” Igor Stravinsky once remarked, and that's more or less how Hahn played Elgar this evening. The only thing I can compare it to is the similarly transparent artistry of Dinu Lipatti, the great Rumanian pianist who died absurdly young a half-century ago, leaving behind a dozen-odd recordings whose purity and directness will never be surpassed. To hear such artists is to wonder in vain where their inspiration comes from. Especially when they're young, one feels they might almost be angels, carrying a message they themselves cannot yet fully comprehend.
To hear the Elgar Violin Concerto played in such a way is overwhelming, in part because Sir Edward Elgar was himself a formidably complicated child of the Victorian era whose music reflects the extremes of his scarred psyche. As I wrote earlier this year in Commentary:
He was an artist who longed to be a gentleman, two things that would never be less compatible than at the time and in the place where he lived….
Elgar was born into England’s lower middle class, the son of a provincial piano tuner and shopkeeper. Though his exceptional gifts became evident in early childhood, his father could not afford to give the boy a proper musical education. Instead, he became that rarity of rarities, a self-taught classical composer. It was taken for granted that he would become a music teacher and instrumentalist, so he studied violin on a catch-as-catch-can basis, but he did not go to college or attend a conservatory.
Modern-day readers unaware of the peculiarities of Victorian England’s classical-music culture are unlikely to appreciate Elgar’s situation. Then as now, it was impossible for a classical musician to earn a living solely by composing. Instead, the English musical establishment was dominated by “gentleman composers” with university degrees who taught on the conservatory level. Full-time professional performers, by contrast, were comparable in status to tradesmen, essential but not respectable. The result was an amateur culture that had produced no world-class composers (the last one, Henry Purcell, had died in 1695) and no native-born soloists or conductors of the first rank.
Had Elgar been a different sort of man, he might have responded to these obstacles in a different sort of way—as, for instance, did George Bernard Shaw, an admirer with whom he became friendly in later life. But unlike Shaw, who cared nothing for respectability, Elgar believed that the world owed him both a living and a social position consistent with his talent, and he conducted himself accordingly….
Worldly success had come too late and after too hard a struggle for him to feel secure in his own skin, and though he eventually transformed himself into the very model of a perfect English gentleman, those who knew him best knew better. As late as 1897 he brusquely declined an invitation to an upper-class luncheon party, sending a note informing the hostess that she “would not wish your board to be disgraced by the presence of a piano-tuner’s son and his wife.”
I wonder what kind of music Elgar would have written had he succeeded in freeing himself from the gentlemanly fetters of his upbringing. I never cease to be delighted by the way a certain kind of English emigrant responds to the expansive tone and temper of American life. Time and again I’ve heard such folk express their relief in words not greatly different from the ones John Cleese wrote for himself to speak in A Fish Called Wanda:
Wanda, do you have any idea what it's like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone "Are you married?" and hearing "My wife left me this morning," or saying "Do you have children?" and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we're all terrified of embarrassment. That's why we're so…dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner. But you're alive, God bless you, and I want to be, I'm so fed up with all this!
Might Elgar have been a different composer had he turned his back on the class whose ranks he sought to penetrate? It’s impossible to know, for he chose instead to play up and play the game, though the mask of rectitude he wore barely fit and was constantly slipping. To quote again from my Commentary essay: "Elgar was a man in the grip of his own ever-churning emotions. 'English music is white and evades everything,' he wrote. Not so his own music, which mirrored the manic-depressive swings of his temperament as precisely as a fever chart. Within the span of a single piece—even a single movement—he darts from exultation to despair and back again." From one pole to the other: such was his fate. He knew ecstasy, but only for fleeting moments, and the essential quality of a work like the B Minor Violin Concerto is a passionate yet strangely innocent longing that speaks of ultimate unfulfillment. It is in no way surprising to discover that Elgar intended it as a musical portrait of a woman friend with whom he had what appears to have been an intense but unconsummated romance—an amitié amoureuse carried to characteristic extremes.
Such a piece might have been made for an ex-prodigy to play, and just as the sixteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin recorded it so beautifully that his performance, conducted by the composer, has remained continuously in print ever since 1932, so did Hilary Hahn give a performance tonight so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live. I wept to hear Elgar’s unfulfilled yearnings confided from the stage of Avery Fisher Hall with such heartfelt simplicity, and as I walked home in the rain after the concert, I realized with a start that I’d forgotten all about the coughers and chatterers. They might have been a million miles away. Or maybe I was.
* * *
Tonight’s program will be repeated on Saturday at eight. For more information, go here.
TT: Dear Diary
7:05 A.M.: I wake up an hour and a half ahead of the alarm clock, notice with disgust that sentences are already starting to take shape in my head, sigh deeply, and crawl down from the loft to face the inevitable and start writing my Friday column for The Wall Street Journal, an extra-long four-play special.
9:00 A.M.: Laura Lippman arrives on my doorstep for a tour of the Teachout Museum, after which we stroll over to Good Enough to Eat. (Mmmm, bacon waffles!) Laura and I are old friends who rarely see one another nowadays, since she lives in Baltimore and spends half the year writing mysteries and the other half flying around the country on author tours, so we always try to have breakfast together whenever she’s in Manhattan for more than a day. She brings greetings from Lizzie and Sarah, and I in turn tell her to go see Doubt as soon as she can. We then exchange the latest high-octane media gossip, furtively glancing around the room every few minutes to make sure nobody is eavesdropping.
11 A.M. Back to the office to finish my column, spurred on by an e-mail from my editor asking when the hell I'll be filing. (Actually, she was perfectly nice about it, but I like feeling put upon.)
12:35 P.M. All done! I ship the column off to the Journal, then check my e-mail. Maccers says I should bring Apple Blossoms II with me to the Phillips for my lecture. At the moment I’m inclined to agree, but I'm fickle when it comes to my favorites....
12:45 P.M.: Tidings of great joy: Our Girl in Chicago calls to say she can come to New York on December 29 to spend a few days as my houseguest. Midway through our chat I fire off a round-robin e-mail to all our blogfriends, advising them to make appointments now to meet the mysterious OGIC in person.
1:15 P.M.: My copy editor at the Journal returns my column with four easy-to-fix queries. I knock them off, then pause briefly to catch my breath and look out the window. Is that sunshine I see out there?
1:20 P.M.: Karen Wilkin reviewed the new Museum of Modern Art for the Leisure & Arts page of yesterday's Journal. I bookmarked her piece for later perusal, and now I read the last paragraph with approval:
But one glaring omission goes beyond such differences to become a serious distortion of art history. American modernism before Abstract Expressionism is virtually absent at the new MoMA. Only token representation is accorded pivotal figures like Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove; other influential pioneers, such as Marsden Hartley, are ignored. Davis is relegated to a corridor, hardly an appropriate place for an American master accorded a retrospective at MoMA in 1945. Clearly some things haven't changed for the better at the new museum. Let's hope it's a temporary aberration.
This gives me an idea. I call the Mutant on her cell phone and schedule a last-minute rendezvous.
2:00 P.M.: As if I didn't have enough to do today, I head down to MoMA and meet the Mutant, who teaches voice at the New School on Wednesdays and has three hours off between classes. We spend an hour and half looking at art, then grab a bite in the second-floor café. This is my first trip to the new MoMA since it opened to the public, and the galleries, as I'd suspected, don’t look nearly so cavernous when they’re full of gawkers. It's the Mutant’s first MoMA visit ever (she came to New York after the old museum had closed), and the permanent collection blows her away, especially the Matisses, the Klees, and a gallery of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis. “I think I’m just beginning to figure out that these guys were having fun,” she says, grinning.
4:45 P.M.: Back home to collect today’s snail mail (not too much, thank God) and check my e-mail.
5:30 P.M.: To bed for a pre-theater nap (an absolute must on days when I'm double- or triple-booked—otherwise I'm likely to nod off in my aisle seat).
6:40 P.M.: I revive myself with a scaldingly hot shower, tug a black sweater over my red, swollen flesh, and hail a cab for the theater district, calling my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., from the back seat. (I almost always give my mother a call on the way to the theater, an idea I got from a rich friend who places all his calls from his limousine in order to save time. I may not have a limousine, but at least I've got a cell phone, not to mention a mother.)
7:45 P.M.: To the Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space to meet the Chichalicious Galley Cat and see Kristen Johnston (yum!) in Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, which I’ll be reviewing next week. Galley Cat claims to have seen only three plays in her life prior to our first meeting, but in fact she's a preternaturally shrewd theatergoer whose brain I always pick with care whenever we see a show together, stealing all the good lines I can carry off with me.
9:25 P.M.: To the Chimichurri Grill
for a post-theater supper with the Cat. We discuss the play, our fellow bloggers, mood disorders, crushes past and present, and various other topics.
11:45 P.M.: Home for the night. The floor under my desk is ankle-deep in scripts, discarded press releases, crumpled envelopes, and the rest of the detritus of a writing day. If I had a lick of sense, I’d straighten up the office and fall into bed. Instead, I look at my schedule and note with relief that I have no morning or afternoon appointments on Thursday. (I’m meeting one of my Brazilian friends in the evening to hear Hilary Hahn with the New York Philharmonic.) Who needs sleep? I ask myself, kick aside the mess, check my e-mail, crank up Booker T. and the MGs on iTunes, and start blogging….
Wednesday, December 8, 2004
“The life of the spirit, like that of the body, is inevitably the source of ‘unease.’ The dead alone are in complete repose.”
Henri de Lubac, Theology in History (courtesy of Michael Magree, S.J.)
OGIC: Making a list
What do you get for the 'tween who has everything? How about Hello Kitty exposed? It's scientific and artistic.
(Nod and a wink to Encyclopedia Hanasiana.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Mea culpa
Email is owed. Oh, is it owed. I'm getting right on this. I do worry that my chronic tardiness in responding may give people the wrong, wrong, wrong impression that I feel anything less than delirious when you email me. Seriously, it makes my day. More, please.
However, production of all kinds has slowed for the moment as the housecat has temporarily taken the upper hand over the ibook in the Three Years' Lap War. I'm stretching to type this. (And so many uncontested surfaces available—but who wants those? Not cats, that's for damn sure.) But as soon as the tide turns, I'm yours. The email will flow.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Annals of discovery
Sansho dayu (Sansho the Bailiff) is Kenji Mizoguchi's 1954 film about a family torn brutally asunder by politics in medieval Japan. Not having seen very much classic Japanese cinema at all before, I'm unequipped to say anything very informed about it. The movie is about a strange and distant past; it was made in an era that's obviously less distant but, in terms of film history at least, something of a middle age. Furthermore, it takes place in what is for me a faraway, unknown country. So my sense of distance from what I was seeing was doubled or tripled, and it was sometimes hard to sort through the several varieties of foreignness at work. Like reading one of Walter Scott's historical novels, watching the movie sometimes felt like looking through two pairs of glasses. Aesthetically speaking, this amounted to something of a gift: watching most historical films, I find it hard to let go of my awareness of the filmmakers' efforts at verisimilitude, but with Sansho the Bailiff I had to remind myself periodically that what I was seeing was not recorded six hundred years ago.
The family in the story is doomed by the egalitarian ideas of the husband and father, a provincial governor sent into exile in the film's opening scenes. Without knowing something about Japanese history (i.e., more than I know), it's hard to say whether the enlightened views on human rights and human dignity the main character inherits from his exiled father are historically plausible, or are more likely Mizoguchi's own twentieth-century values projected on his characters. But although these historical questions remained alive for me throughout, the real heart of the film is the smaller-scale family drama—which, perhaps paradoxically, is animated by values that look far more ancient from our perspective—and the serenely beautiful photography. According to David Thomson, the director's trademark and major contribution to the art is his way of telling intimate stories through visual means:
Thomson goes on to quote Jacques Rivette, director of perhaps the film with the most vise-like grip on my imagination, on Mizoguchi's supremacy over other Japanese masters:
The use of the camera to convey emotional ideas or intelligent feelings is the definition of cinema derived from Mizoguchi's films. He is supreme in the realization of internal states in external views.
Thomson also uses a particularly nice metaphor to explain why one should jump at any chance to see Mizoguchi's work on the big screen, as I was fortunate enough to see Sansho:
You can compare only what is comparable and that which aims high enough. Mizoguchi, alone, imposes a feeling of a unique world and language, is answerable only to himself. If Mizoguchi captivates us, it is because he never sets out deliberately to do so and never takes sides with the spectator.
Despite all its advantages for research and preservation, video is unkind to any movie and cruel to any great movie. Mizoguchi worked with scale, space, and movement, and movement on a TV set is like a fish moving across a tank, whereas movement on a real screen is that of a great fish passing us in the water.
Wait, did I say that was a "nice" metaphor? It's fabulous.
Eager to soak up informed perspectives on Mizoguchi after seeing Sansho, I also looked at an essay by Donald Richie, who offered excellent biographical information and quotations from the director himself. Two of these strike me as especially noteworthy. The first will sound familiar to U.S. filmgoers, and collapses some of the distance between movie-making in Japan in the 1950s and in Hollywood today:
I made my first film in 1921 [sic; actually 1922] and have been working at my craft for thirty years now. If I reflect on what I've done I see a long series of arguments and compromises with capitalists (they are called producers today) in an effort to make films which I myself might like. I've often been forced to accept work that I knew I wouldn't be successful with…This has happened over and over again. I'm not telling you all this to excuse myself—the same thing happens to filmmakers all over the world.
You want me to speak about my art? That's impossible. A filmmaker has nothing to say which is worth saying.
I don't think that's false modesty. I think that's a nice way of saying "Just watch my damn films." And we all should watch his, whenever possible.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Sursum corda
It rained all day, so I didn't take a walk, and I dined on sushi (a block closer to here) instead of going to Good Enough to Eat (and thus getting even wetter). Otherwise, I stuck pretty closely to the published plan for My Day Off. I spent rather too much time at the computer, but at least I didn't post anything. In fact, I did no work of any kind, save for taking out the garbage. I spent big chunks of the afternoon and evening curled up on the couch with a couple of books, listening to music, alternately gazing at a candle and the art on the walls, and letting my mind wander wherever it pleased.
Yes, I checked my e-mail from time to time—too often, I’m sure, though I’m happy to have opened a message from the Phillips Collection in Washington. As I think I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ll be going to Washington, D.C., on March 9 to deliver a Duncan Phillips Lecture, and I’ve decided to talk about how my taste in modern art was shaped by that of Duncan Phillips, and the corollary effect that looking at the Phillips Collection over the years has had on the formation of the Teachout Museum. Well, somebody at the Phillips wrote today to suggest that I might want to bring along a half-dozen of the pieces in my collection and hang them in the room where I’ll be speaking. Now I’ve got to figure out which ones! Naturally, I’m inclined to pack my most recent acquisition, Fairfield Porter’s “Apple Blossoms II” (to see it, go here and scroll down), but I’ve got three months to make up my mind, so I expect to do plenty of dithering between now and then. At any rate, I spent much of the evening looking at the art on the walls, mulling over the possibilities….
I doubt you'll be entirely surprised to hear that my day off left me feeling both happy and a bit blue (saudade, as my Brazilian friends say). It didn't help that one of the pieces of music to which I listened, Constant Lambert’s Tiresias, is intensely melancholy, nor did the weather brighten my spirits. Nevertheless, I know full well that the main reason for my cafard (as Lambert liked to call it) was that I allowed a whole day to go by without distracting myself with work or companionship, as we workaholics are inclined to do. Instead, I let myself be alone with my thoughts, not all of which were comforting. Fortunately, I had the good sense to lift up my heart at day’s end with Dvorak’s String Sextet, which is in A major, that most divinely innocent of keys, and went to bed with its open strings ringing joyously in my inner ear.
Life is good, whether it feels that way or not.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Field trip
Surprise! I’m in today’s Wall Street Journal with a special bonus piece, a review of a museum exhibition that will be of particular interest to dance buffs:
George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, famously compared ballets to butterflies: “A breath, a memory, then gone.” Thanks to the timely invention of the video recorder, Balanchine saw most of his own masterpieces preserved for posterity, but things were different when he was getting his start. Of the dozen-odd major dances he made for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes between 1925 and 1929, only two, “Apollo” and “Prodigal Son,” have survived. In fact, no more than a half-dozen works from the entire repertory of the Ballets Russes, perhaps the single most influential company in the history of ballet, continue to be danced in anything remotely resembling their original state. The others died with the men and women who staged and performed them, and though some of those birds of paradise were amazingly hardy—the ballerina Alicia Markova, for example, died only last week, having just attained the great age of 94—few systematic efforts were made to tap their memories and reconstruct the lost ballets they recalled.
Once a ballet is lost, though, there are often more than imperfect memories by which to envision it. Costumes and set designs, still photographs, even printed programs: All these can help tell us why we had to be there. Alas, well-curated museum shows of such material are usually few and far between, but the centenary of Balanchine’s birth has brought some indisputable doozies, the most recent of which is “Ballets Russes to Balanchine: Dance at the Wadsworth Atheneum,” on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford through Jan. 2.
As well as being a museum of the highest quality, the Atheneum has two unique ties to the world of ballet. In 1933, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, the flamboyantly imaginative director who dragged his recalcitrant trustees into the modern era by their heels, bought the collection of Ballets Russes designs amassed by Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s last premier danseur. In a single stroke the museum acquired a priceless cache of works by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Derain, de Chirico and Rouault for the knocked-down Depression-era sum of $10,000 (a mere $130,000 in today’s dollars). Earlier that same year, Austin offered to let Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein use the Atheneum as the home of the ballet company they longed to start. Though its small stage would prove inadequate to Balanchine’s needs, it was Austin and his wealthy friends who put up the money to bring the choreographer from Europe to America, where he and Kirstein later launched New York City Ballet, successor to the Ballets Russes as the focal point of creativity in 20th-century ballet.
These twin achievements are documented and celebrated in “Ballets Russes to Balanchine.” Organized by Eric M. Zafran, Carol Dean Krute and Susan Hood, it’s crammed full of so many treasures that merely to mention a half-dozen of them is to indicate its splendor. You can see Léon Bakst’s 1912 costume design for Vaslav Nijinsky in “Afternoon of a Faun,” a supple medley of pencil, tempera and gold paint that is almost shockingly evocative of the once-notorious dancing of Diaghilev’s best-known lover. You can see the actual costumes for such epochal dance collaborations as the Stravinsky-Nijinsky “Rite of Spring” (1913, décor by Nikolai Roerich). You can see original set designs for two of the Ballets Russes’ surviving dances, Bronislava Nijinska’s “Les Noces” (1923, décor by Nathalie Gontcharova) and Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” (1929, décor by Georges Rouault), both executed with such breath-catching immediacy that they can be viewed not merely as suggestive souvenirs but as fully viable works of art in their own right. You can even see—and marvel at—three Ballets Russes costumes hand-painted by Henri Matisse himself….
No link, as usual. If you want to read the whole thing, you have the usual options: (1) Buy a Journal. (2) Go here and follow orders.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
TT and OGIC: Calling all polyglots
Would someone out there be so kind as to translate this link for us, please? It’s been bringing in a lot of traffic:
Bela citação de Alec Guinness no About Last Night (um dos melhores blogs de todos, methinks).
Thanks in advance.
UPDATE: Courtesy of Bill Walsh, this translation from the Portuguese: "Beautiful Alec Guinness quotation from About Last Night (one of the best blogs of all, methinks)."
We preen, happily.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 7, 2004
You're browsing through a second-hand bookstore
And you see her in non-fiction, V through Y.
She looks up from World War II
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye,
And you quickly turn away your wishful stare
And take a sudden interest in your shoes.
If you only had the courage—but you don't.
She turns and leaves, and you both lose.
Rupert Holmes, “The People That You Never Get to Love”
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 8, 2004 | Permanent
TT: You have your orders
I have the whole day off, starting now and ending Wednesday morning when the alarm clock detonates. No plays, no deadlines, no appointments, no performances, no dates, no nothing.
I was discussing my upcoming day off with the Bass Player, my fellow workaholic, and we agreed that whatever the phrase "a day off" may mean, it definitely does not mean thinking of useful stuff to do today that I could in point of fact do tomorrow.
Instead, it means:
• Sleeping late.
• Sitting in my small but elegantly appointed living room, listening to CDs I'm never going to review and/or reading a book purely for my pleasure.
• Not writing anything.
• Taking an unscheduled stroll to nowhere (but only if I feel like it).
• Looking at and meditating on the Teachout Museum, asking myself which piece I like best right this minute.
• Not writing anything.
• Dining at Good Enough to Eat and hoping my favorite waitress is on duty.
In light of all these caveats, allow me to repeat my recent set of instructions to the readers of "About Last Night": if I post anything more today, don't read it.
You may, however, send me a testy e-mail telling me to log off at once (or words to that effect).
Later. I've got a rendezvous with the sandman.
P.S. Did I mention not writing anything?
TT: Words into pictures
Here’s a paragraph I wrote last year, apropos of Robert Benton’s film version
of The Human Stain:
I’ve seen any number of first-rate movies made out of novels I’ve never read. To Have and Have Not, In a Lonely Place, The Night of the Hunter, Vertigo, True Grit: all are important to me in their varied ways, and I’m sure the books on which they were based are worth reading, too. (Well, maybe not To Have and Have Not.) So why haven’t I checked out the originals? Because the films are so satisfying in their own right that I feel no need to know their sources. From time to time I’ve made a point of doing so, and usually been disappointed—James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, for instance, aren’t nearly as effective on the page as on the screen.
I recalled these words the other day as I read a posting on Lance Mannion’s blog. Mannion is a fan of Charles Portis’ True Grit, the novel on which the 1969 movie is based, and he posted this scene from the book, an encounter between Rooster Cogburn, a federal marshal, and Lucky Ned Pepper, the bandit he’s been chasing:
Lucky Ned Pepper said, "Well, Rooster, will you give us the road? We have business elsewhere!"
Rooster said, "Harold, I want you and your brother to stand clear! I have no interest in you today! Stand clear and you will not be hurt!"
Harold Permalee's answer was to crow like a rooster, and the "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" brought a hearty laugh from his brother Farrell.
Lucky Ned Pepper said, "What is your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?"
Rooster said, "I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience! Which will you have?"
Lucky Ned Pepper laughed. He said, "I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"
Rooster said, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits. It was a sight to see. He held the revolvers wide on either side of the head of his plunging steed. The four bandits accepted the challenge and they likewise pulled their arms and charged their ponies ahead.
It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshall whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!
This is the big scene in the film of True Grit—the one everybody remembers—and if you've seen it, you'll realize that Marguerite Roberts, who wrote the screenplay, lifted the dialogue straight from the novel. I’m not saying it's more effective on paper. Once you’ve seen it on the screen, with John Wayne and Robert Duvall staring one another down across a clearing, you can’t imagine it any other way. But it’s not the pictures you remember: it's the words. And while Wayne and Duvall speak them with exquisite appropriateness, they wouldn’t have had anything to say had Portis not written those exact words in the first place.
Now, I’m not out to start the gazillionth argument so far this week on the auteur theory of filmmaking. That’s soooo Sixties (and Seventies and Eighties and Nineties). Instead, I have a different question to ask: ought a critic to be responsible for examining the source material of the films he reviews?
In one sense, of course, it doesn’t matter who wrote the words spoken by Wayne and Duvall in True Grit: the important thing is that they’re the right words. What I’m wondering is whether a critic can do his job properly without having direct knowledge of the extent to which a film adaptation of a pre-existing novel draws on its source.
I'm of two minds about this matter. In my review of The Human Stain, I went on to say:
Conversely, I almost always recoil with anticipated horror from movies based on great novels that I know and love, for the perfectly good reason that they aren’t necessary. I don’t need to see what the characters in The Portrait of a Lady or The Age of Innocence look like: I already know. As I’ve said before in this space, a great work of art is complete in and of itself, and can only be effectively translated into a different medium by being subjected to a radical imaginative transformation, the ultimate object of which is the creation of a new art work that can be fully experienced and appreciated without reference to its source. Anything short of that is a waste of time.
That much I’ll stand by. But then I added:
Somewhere in between these extremes lie those films based on “important” novels that aren’t any good. I suspect Philip Roth’s The Human Stain belongs in this category, but I don’t know because I haven’t read it, and don’t plan to. I’m one of those unfortunate folk who is allergic to most of the Major American Novelists who came of age in the Fifties. Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Updike: all leave me cold as last month’s fish. My guess, however, is that Robert Benton and Nicholas Meyer, the director and screenwriter of The Human Stain, have made a good-faith effort to preserve the essence of Philip Roth’s novel—and that this is why the movie doesn’t work….
Looking back on this passage, it now strikes me as more than a little bit irresponsible for me to have made such a wild guess instead of reading the book. On the other hand, full-time film reviewers (of which I'm not one) rarely have sufficient time to do the research that would allow them to intelligently compare film adaptations to their sources. The classics, yes—we all at least pretend to have read them—and it’s also taken for granted that film-to-source comparisons will be made in the case of Gone With the Wind-type blockbusters, if only because the first thing everybody wants to know about such films is how faithful the screen version is to the original book. But when it comes to old movies adapted from obscure novels, who bothers? I think I remember Sarah mentioning somewhere that she’d read In a Lonely Place, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s read all of The Night of the Hunter.
Again, though, does it really matter? Film, after all, is a radically collaborative process in which creative responsibility can only be assigned tentatively and on a case-by-case basis. This is something that all but the most rabid auteuristes accept as a given—but it’s also one of the reasons why most of us prose-oriented types have a sneaking suspicion that film is by definition a lesser art form than the novel. We like the idea that every word of a novel is personally written by the person who signs it (even though we also know that an anonymous editor may well have played a more or less substantial part in its creation), just as the billionaires among us will happily pay more for a Rembrandt than a studio-of-Rembrandt, even though the collaboratively produced painting might be better in aesthetic quality (or physical condition) than the bonafide solo effort.
In short, most of us stubbornly persist in believing in aesthetic heroes, a belief which I think goes a long way toward explaining why the auteur theory caught on. It goes against human nature to accept the attributional ambiguity inherent in the process of making films, in the same way that you’d think less of, say, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony were some musicologist to discover that it had been orchestrated by a student of the composer. Is that logical? Not really. It’s the work that matters, not the attribution—yet there’s a difference between knowing that to be true and feeling it in your bones. It takes a special kind of confidence to buy an unsigned painting without a provenance, based solely on the evidence of your eye. Most of us aren't nearly so sure of ourselves. We like to see that signature in the lower right-hand corner.
As for me, I’m delighted to find out that Charles Portis wrote the words that John Wayne and Robert Duvall spoke in the climactic scene of True Grit, and I’m more inclined as a result to read his novel than I was last week. Even so, I reluctantly confess that I’m even more inclined to pull the DVD off the shelf and watch the movie yet again, and maybe even show it to one of my women friends who’s never before seen a Western and insists they can’t possibly be any good. Were there world enough and time....
UPDATE: Lance Mannion responds, interestingly.
Monday, December 6, 2004
TT: Special double almanac
The sun's gone dim, and
The moon's turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn't love back.
Dorothy Parker, “Two-Volume Novel”
“Avoid any girl who you think looks even hotter when she is miserable. You will destroy each other.”
Manhattan Transfer, “The Emotionally Unavailable Alcoholic’s Guide to Holiday Romance”
TT: This is my life
In addition to sleeping for ten hours on Friday, doing the same on Saturday, seeing two plays, unwrapping the latest addition to the Teachout Museum (about which more later), and dining with Maccers (who is, as I'd been told, the last word in peachy), I spent the weekend updating the "Teachout in Commentary," "Second City," "Teachout Elsewhere" and "TT-OGIC Top Five" modules of the right-hand column. Take a look and see what's new.
I've got a piece-for-money to write this morning and yet another play to review tonight, but that doesn't mean you won't be hearing more from me as the day wears on. (Nor does it mean that you will.)
TT: Hostages to fortune
I was talking with a bass-playing friend of mine about how much classical music meant to us, and it occurred to me after we parted to draw up a purely personal list of favorite works about which I have especially strong feelings. Here it is, with the caveat that I make no overarching claims for the significance of this list. I don’t think these are necessarily the greatest or most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but they are—right now—the pieces I love best and can’t imagine living without. Each one is linked to a CD version that I especially like:
• Bach Chorale Prelude “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele,” BWV 654
• Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, Op. 58
• Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31
• Chopin Barcarolle, Op. 60
• Copland Piano Sonata
• Elgar Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47
• Debussy Violin Sonata in G Minor
• Fauré “Clair de lune,” Op. 46/2
• Hindemith Harp Sonata
• Mendelssohn Octet for Strings, Op. 20
• Mozart Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488
• Ravel String Quartet in F Major
• Schubert A Major Rondo, D. 951
• Shostakovich Symphony No. 14
• Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version)
• Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Op. 35
• Verdi Falstaff
• Walton Variations on a Theme of Paul Hindemith
Saturday, December 13, 2003
"In the dress circle, Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes enjoyed themselves as true Shakespeareans always enjoy themselves, arguing between each act about the reading of the parts, and the way the lines were said. Fortunately, they found plenty to disapprove of, or they would not have enjoyed themselves at all."
Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes (courtesy of Laura Lippman)
"Mens sana in corpore sano is a contradiction in terms, the fantasy of a Mr. Have-your-cake-and-eat-it. No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted."
A.J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 13, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Steps in the right direction
A reader writes:
I find the older I get, the less critical I become. As a young man, I held every new work up against the greats and naturally found it wanting. If asked, I would give the thing a thumbs-down. My stance was essentially dishonest, since some of the stuff I blew off gave me pleasure. Today, I'm far more willing to credit even a seriously flawed work for whatever satisfactions it has to offer. Along with that has come a greater willingness to judge a work on its own terms rather than my own. Perhaps my standards have declined. But I prefer to think that I've achieved a mature recognition that a thing doesn't have to be great in order to be good (or at least to give pleasure). That proposition seems perfectly obvious, but it took me a while to apprehend it.
Anyway, I suspect from some of the things you've written that a similar process has been at work in you over the years. (I've definitely noticed it in certain other critics I've followed for a lot longer than you've been on the scene, such as John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann). Am I right? Do you think this critical mellowing comes naturally with age or is there some other explanation? I'd be very interested in your views.
My correspondent is quite right, and it surprises me to admit it—or at least it used to. I was going to hold forth at length on this theme, and then I remembered that I already had. What follows is an essay called "First Time’s a Charm" that I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio magazine, back in 1999. It wasn’t widely read at the time and I forgot to include it in A Terry Teachout Reader, so I’ll reprint it here in lieu of a reply….
* * *
"I don’t understand acquired tastes," a friend told me the other day. "Why would I want to learn to like something that tastes bad?" Though we were talking about sushi (I love it, she hates it), the conversation soon worked its way around to opera, an art form to which she believes herself hopelessly allergic. Granted, she is only 24 and has heard a grand total of three operas to date — Macbeth, The Rake’s Progress, and Orfeo et Euridice, none of them exactly mainstream — but she’s still certain that opera is not for her, and though I hope she changes her mind someday, I admire her certainty.
My first encounter with the slippery concept of acquired taste came during my undergraduate days, when it was widely taken for granted by the intelligentsia that Elliott Carter was a great composer and Tchaikovsky a lousy one. To be sure, everybody loved Tchaikovsky and nobody loved Carter, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it proved that everybody was wrong. The theory was that anything you liked at first hearing was too simple to be good — or, to put it another way, that there was an inverse relationship between quality and accessibility.
I bought into this theory at first, but then I had a revelation. It was a revelation on the installment plan, actually, for it occurred in stages, the first of which took place when I bought a copy of Peter Pears’ recording of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. This was in 1975, at which time I hadn’t yet heard a note of Britten’s music, not even The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I don’t remember what moved me to buy that particular LP, since Britten was still in bad critical odor back then (though the worm was already starting to turn). Whatever the reason, I bought the record, took it back to my dorm room, put it on...and was overwhelmed. Suddenly I realized that I was listening to a masterpiece, and that was that: the intelligentsia didn’t matter anymore, at least when it came to Britten.
The second installment came a few years later, when the Juilliard Quartet came to Kansas City and performed the Schoenberg String Trio, which they were about to record for Columbia. By then, I was the program annotator for the concert society that brought the quartet to town, and I knocked myself out over that particular set of notes; I saw it as my mission in life to awaken the benighted music lovers of Kansas City to the delights of late Schoenberg. Though I no longer have a copy of the program, it isn’t hard to imagine what I wrote about the String Trio — it must have sounded exactly like Paul Griffiths raving about Milton Babbitt in the New York Times — but when I went to the concert, I didn’t hear what I expected to hear. Instead of music, I heard…nonsense. Suddenly I realized that I had talked myself into believing that Schoenberg was a great composer, ignoring the evidence of my ears, which had been telling me all along that serialism had as much to do with music as "Jabberwocky" has to with poetry. The spell was broken, and never again did I take serial music seriously.
The third and last installment came when I heard Eugene Ormandy’s 1960 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. If Schoenberg was the household god of my undergraduate years, then Sergei Rachmaninoff was the antichrist, a composer played only by those poor grinds who slaved away in the downstairs practice rooms while the rest of us musical eggheads went about our more elevated business. Empty virtuosity! Notes without content! Syrupy sentimentalism! Or so I thought…only this time, I listened with my ears instead of my intellect, and suddenly I realized that this was a real piece of music, tough-minded and sardonic, and I was enthralled.
The lesson I learned from these three experiences was not quite as simple as you may think. Around the same time as my first encounter with the Britten Serenade, I had an instructive conversation with a wise old music critic to whom I blithely announced, apropos of nothing in particular, that I’d never much cared for Schumann. "That says more about you than it does about Schumann," he replied mildly. By the time I’d picked myself up off the floor and pulled the arrow out of my forehead, I’d formulated a credo from which I have never deviated in the past two decades: trust your first impressions — but don’t be afraid to change your mind.
One of the most surprising things that has happened to me in recent years is that I now like far more music, as well as a wider range of interpretative styles, than I did as a young man. This is not at all what I expected to happen as I grew older. "I have devoted myself too much, I think, to Bach, to Mozart and to Liszt," Ferruccio Busoni wrote to a colleague in 1922, when he was 56 years old. "I wish now that I could emancipate myself from them. Schumann is no use to me any more, Beethoven only with an effort and strict selection. Chopin has attracted and repelled me all my life; and I have heard his music too often —prostituted, profaned, vulgarized....I do not know what to choose for a new repertory!" When I first ran across this fascinating letter (Harold C. Schonberg quotes from it in The Great Pianists), I felt as if I were gazing into a crystal ball. I was certain that I, too, would become more and more intensely involved with less and less music, until the day came when I was left with a half-dozen supreme masterpieces to which I would return constantly in search of enlightenment.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. Now that I stand on the brink of middle age, I find that I am more open as a listener than ever before, so much so that I even find myself enjoying pieces and performers that don’t naturally suit my taste or temperament. I used to dislike Ella Fitzgerald, for instance, but today I listen to her records with great pleasure, even though my reasons for disliking her haven’t changed. I still don’t think she had any feel for a lyric; I still don’t like the sound of her voice, which always struck me as pinched; I still think she skimmed lightly over the emotional content of the songs she sang. Yet none of that matters to me any more. Is she my favorite singer? No, not even close — but now I can appreciate the virtues of her singing, and that’s what matters.
Does this mean that I have somehow "acquired" a taste for Ella Fitzgerald’s singing? You could say so, but I prefer to think of it not as a conscious act of will but as a natural process of growth. It isn’t as if I sat around my apartment listening to Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! with furrowed brow, waiting for the sun to rise; it never bothered me that I didn’t like Ella, just as it didn’t embarrass me when I changed my mind about her. I simply accepted my taste for what it was — a matter of personal preference — and when it changed, I accepted that, too.
At the same time, I believe devoutly that criticism is not merely a matter of taste, that it is rooted in objective perceptions of fact; I also think that some critics are more perceptive than others, just as some pieces of music are better than others. I suppose it would be more stylish to put the word "better" in quotes, but the awful truth is that I unhesitatingly accept the existence of a meaningful standard of excellence in the arts. The art critic Clement Greenberg once shrewdly observed that all canons of excellence are provisional — but in saying so, he never meant to suggest that there is no such thing as excellence. This is part of what that wise old music critic was getting at when he told me in so many words that it didn’t much matter what I thought about Schumann: it is the responsibility of the listener to rise to the level of the great masterpieces. If you don’t like "Mondnacht," it’s your fault, not Schumann’s.
How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory points of view? The answer lies in a subtle remark made by Kingsley Amis, who was both a great comic novelist and a passionate music lover: "All amateurs must he philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt." I wish those two sentences could be carved in stone and set in the middle of Lincoln Center Plaza. In matters of taste, the most important thing is not to pretend. To go through the motions of "acquiring" a taste is very often to engage in an elaborate and protracted pretense, one that may well be not merely insincere but sometimes just plain wrong. I now know that I was wrong when I pretended to like the Schoenberg String Trio, and even more wrong when I pretended not to like Tchaikovsky.
As for my young friend who thinks she doesn’t like opera, that’s just fine with me. I plan to keep inviting her to the Met from time to time (La Traviata is next on the list), and I doubt she’ll turn me down, so long as I don’t insist that she pretend to enjoy herself. But should the day finally come that she decides to give up completely on opera, that’lI be fine, too. For who knows what might happen once she turns 40? She might just hear Der Rosenkavalier on the radio, and suddenly realize what she’d been missing all those years. That’s the wonderful thing about taste: it’s never too late to change your mind. I might even start liking Schoenberg again—after all, deafness runs in my family.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 13, 2003 | Permanent
Friday, December 12, 2003
I want to talk about sex scenes again after you've seen The Cooler.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 13, 2003 | Permanent
Middle age has slowed me down. I only just learned what DTR means—it’s Gen-Y-speak for Define The Relationship—and this morning I stumbled across an invaluable addition to my vocabulary: WTF. Thank you, Cup of Chicha.
(For the context of this staggering development, go here. You won’t be sorry.)
TT: Opera in the bedroom
As you may have heard, ChevronTexaco, which has been sponsoring the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts for the past 64 years, is pulling the plug at the end of the current season. (They now have other corporate priorities.) The broadcasts cost $7 million a year, and the Met doesn’t have that kind of cash to spare.
Tony Tommasini has a story in this morning’s New York Times about the situation as of this moment. The broadcasts, he writes,
have been a cultural lifeline for generations of
listeners, both those who live in places far removed from
any opera company and those who may live just a subway ride
from Lincoln Center but can't afford to attend. They are
carried by some 365 stations in the United States, as well
as in Canada, Mexico, South America, 27 European countries,
China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, reaching,
according to the opera company's most recent survey, an
estimated total of more than 11 million.
The Met has been unable to obtain a new sponsor to pick up
the annual $7 million cost of the broadcasts, which covers
a range of expenses including compensation to commercial
radio stations; extra fees to singers, musicians and
technical crews; salaries for the radio production staff,
engineers and announcers; transmission fees; royalties; and
publicity. Ideally the Met is looking for a single sponsor
that will pledge financing for a minimum of five years.
A partial reprieve for next season came recently with the
announcement that the Annenberg Foundation had awarded $3.5 million to keep the broadcasts on the air. That still
leaves a sizable sum to raise. The only reassurances that
the broadcasts will continue have been the personal pledges
of Joseph Volpe, the Met's general manager, and Beverly
Sills, its chairwoman.
Ms. Sills's determination to find a new sponsor is strongly
personal. "Being a child in Brooklyn from a modest home,
the opportunities for me to go to the Met were nil," she
said in an interview. "The radio broadcasts were an
essential part of our lives. My mother cut out that time
every week. She arranged for my singing lessons and piano
lessons in Manhattan to be on Saturday mornings, so that
there was time for me to get back to Brooklyn for
sandwiches and the opera."
(Read the whole thing here.)
Susan Graham told Tommasini a similar story. And I sympathize—up to a point. But I’d also like to know how many of the Met’s 11 million listeners live in the United States. I’m interested in knowing more about the extent of those "extra fees" to singers and musicians. And I’d especially like to know exactly how much of that $7 million budget goes toward "compensation to commercial radio stations." NPR, as we all know, no longer wants to broadcast live music—its member stations are rushing to adopt the talk-oriented formats that today's listeners seem to prefer. Does this mean that the Met has to pay commercial classical stations to carry its broadcasts?
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m furious with NPR and PBS for abdicating their responsibility to high culture. At the same time, I don’t believe in sinking money into obsolete cultural ventures that have largely outlived their utility, and it occurs to me that the Met’s radio broadcasts—at least as presently constituted—may well fall into that category.
Another quote from Tommasini:
I, too, was formed musically and even emotionally by the
Met broadcasts. Coming from a family on Long Island with no
musical background, I discovered these broadcasts on my
own. Sometimes I would listen on the crackly radio in the
kitchen, where, in something of a role reversal, I tried to
engage my mother, who was intrigued but not that
interested. Eventually my parents gave me a high-quality
radio, and I would listen in my room alone. I remember
having only a scant idea of what Verdi's "Aida" was about,
yet being enthralled with Leontyne Price's singing.
That’s a nice story, just like the others in the piece. On the other hand, I love opera at least as much at Tony, yet I’ve never listened to the Met’s radio broadcasts, not as a kid (we didn’t get them in southeast Missouri) and not now. And in any case, all the people he quotes are talking about listening experiences that took place at least a quarter-century ago. I wonder how many budding young singers and critics circa 2003—if any—would paint a picture remotely similar to that of Tony and Beverly Sills.
I’ve thought for some time that the future of classical radio lies not in what has come to be called "terrestrial radio" (i.e., conventional radio broadcasting) but in satellite and Web-based radio, which make it possible to "narrowcast" a wider variety of programs aimed at smaller audiences. I suspect that’s where the Met really belongs—not on terrestrial radio. And if I had to guess, I’d say that the Tony Tommasinis and Susan Grahams of today would be more likely to listen to the Met on their computers than on "high-quality radios" bought by their parents.
As I’ve said more than once on this blog, I’m as nostalgic as the next guy, but I’m mainly interested in essences, not their embodiments. The real miracle of modern technology is that it offers radically new means of bringing about profoundly traditional ends. You can use your iBook to download Dostoyevsky, or listen to vintage radio shows from the Thirties and Forties—or read a blog like this. The Metropolitan Opera needs to keep that in mind as it figures out how to stay on the air.
OGIC: Ignore the man behind the curtain
This week's New York Observer reveals almost more than I wanted to know about Mr. Personality:
We can help ID him only partly: Although Mr. TMFTML was gallant enough to speak to The Observer by phone, he would not disclose his name. This much can be ascertained: His nom de guerre is taken from the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah." He is 31. He lives in Manhattan. He is married. His occupation--which he refers to only as "corporate"--remains cloaked in mystery. He was born in New York City, and has lived here ever since. He does not travel in "media circles," a phrase he would no doubt gag over, but he admits to having once met Dale Peck, who "made fun of" his clothing.
Sounds like a lot of disinformation to me. Except for maybe the Dale Peck part.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, December 12, 2003 | Permanent
"The first night we went to hear Parsifal. I still see my paralyzed mother there, looking and listening. In the Prinzregententheater the orchestra pit is invisible, especially designed by Wagner himself. On the stage there moved some high-bosomed women and obese men, enacting some sort of unreal slow-motion tragedy. From the bowels of the theater came the wailing sounds of a music whose humid sensuousness and subjectivism is intended to indicate 'religion,' or something which the artist believed to be religion. It was a strenuous and embarrassing experience. The only bright spot was the interval with sandwich rolls and beer."
Karl Stern, The Pillar of Fire
TT: A really big show
My mailbox continues to silt up with good stuff, which I’ll dole out drib by drab. First is a reader's response to my posting on the growing irrelevance of regional orchestras:
To me, the chief benefit of having a third-tier regional orchestra (aside
from the employment it provides to classical musicians, which, admittedly,
is a poor reason for anything) lies in the children. True, an adult
familiar with the classical repertoire would be better off listening to a
Beethoven symphony on a CD or DVD rather than spending an evening at some
small-town auditorium, but children are a different story.
I spent my first 11 years in a small town in Belarus, and my very first
concert was hearing the Soviet equivalent of a third-tier orchestra. I
don't remember what was played and I certainly was in no position to gauge
the quality of the playing. But the experience was permanently etched in my
memory. This was my first introduction not to the music so much, but to the
concert experience. It was the grandness, the pomposity of the occasion
that I found so fascinating. The music was almost beside the point. It was
that evening when my love for concerts (which later evolved into the love of
music itself) began.
Later, we moved to New York and I attended various music schools, including
the old High School of Performing Arts. Three of my four children now study
music at one of the schools I attended. When I though it was time to take
my oldest to a symphony concert, it didn't matter to me so much whether it
was the Chicago Symphony playing at Carnegie or some Bergen County orchestra
playing in Englewood. I wanted him to develop a love for the spectacle of a
My concern is that if regional orchestras disappear, the already shrinking
audience base for classical music would, within a generation, disappear with
I’ve gotten a lot of smart letters defending regional orchestras (more of which will turn up here in days to come), but this is the first one that seemed to me to move the argument in a significantly different direction. I really did underestimate the power of sheer spectacle, didn’t I?
As I read this letter, I recalled the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra in person. It was the St. Louis Symphony (a second-tier ensemble of high quality, to be sure), performing Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony with a local university choir. I can’t remember a thing about the music or the way it was performed, but I can still close my eyes and see all those musicians up on stage. Granted, I was already in high school when I saw that concert, by which time I was already well on the way to becoming a performing musician. Looking back, I’d say the most important orchestral "experience" I had during my formative years was watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on TV. Still, I’m inclined to go along with what my correspondent says about how seeing a symphony orchestra in person—be it good or fair or merely adequate—might well help set a young listener on the right path.
TT: Time now for a word from our sponsor
That's me! Please don't forget that my most recent book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, is now out in trade paperback—and still available in hardcover. If you like "About Last Night," you'll like The Skeptic, and so will your friends. Don't take my word for it, though: instead, take a look at some of the reviews.
I blog for the joy of it but write to pay the rent (as well as to buy the occasional lithograph). You can support both causes by giving The Skeptic for Christmas, or buying a copy for yourself if you don’t already own one.
To purchase the paperback, click here.
To purchase the hardcover edition, click here.
Forgive me for being a nuisance, but a boy must peddle his book. We return you now to our regularly scheduled blog.
Thursday, December 11, 2003
TT: Black, white—and gray
I reviewed John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth
and the Builders Association’s Alladeen in today’s Wall Street Journal. About the first I had mixed feelings:
For playgoers who prefer politics to art, apartheid was a godsend. It inspired countless scripts that were black and white in every sense—you never had to ask who the bad guys were—and whose authors always threw in a last-act sermon to clear up any lingering doubts. Now that the good guys have won, though, it stands to reason that South Africa’s playwrights should finally have started working in shades of gray, and Lincoln Center Theater has proved the point by importing the Johannesburg production of John Kani’s "Nothing but the Truth," an uneven but interesting new play that runs through Jan. 18 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater….
"Nothing but the Truth" is a kitchen-sink drama (literally—Sarah Roberts made sure to include one in her ultra-naturalistic set) whose characters are all citizens of Clichéland: the blustering father, the half-clinging, half-resentful daughter, the outsider who puts dangerous new ideas in the daughter’s head. The ambiguities of life after apartheid that Mr. Kani has faced so squarely deserve a fresher framework.
About Alladeen, on the other hand, I had nothing but praise:
You may not know it, but when you dial an 800 number to order a fruitcake or gripe about your Internet service provider, your call is often answered by an Indian operator who has been given an American-sounding pseudonym, painstakingly (though not always successfully) taught to shed his native accent, and assigned to help you as best he can for the lowest possible per-call price. Half performance art, half documentary, "Alladeen" tells the story of these deracinated residents of Nowhere, U.S.A., who take calls from halfway around the world without ever having seen the distant land they pretend to inhabit.
Such a premise could easily have degenerated into a didacticism as rigid as that of "Nothing but the Truth," and sure enough, Marianne Weems, the director and tutelary spirit of "Alladeen," claims the show is all about "the social imagination in an age of corporate colonialism." Not to worry, though: Ms. Weems and her collaborators have turned this PC-speak high concept into a poetic extravaganza that effortlessly blends words, music, film, video art, and the vivid performances of five versatile onstage actors who waft you into the mysterious world of a Bangalore call center….
No link, so to read the whole thing, head for the nearest newsstand, buy this morning’s Journal, and turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, where you’ll find me on theater, Joe Morgenstern on film, and lots of other interesting stuff.
Colby has some justifiably grinchy words about Christmas muzak and commerce:
as I am prepared to admit that an unusually good fruitcake might offer some gustatory happiness to a person emerging from a prolonged hunger strike, I am prepared to admit that there may be elements of genuine musical worth concealed in the Yuletide canon.
But what enjoyment remains after you pass these nuggets of quality through some antiquated synthesizer, exsanguinate them of any remaining trace of swing or lively tempo, and broadcast them through a vaporous, trebly PA into a environment clotted with reverb? If you really liked Christmas music passionately, you'd regard malls as churches of Satan. You'd take up arson as a hobby.
Christmas music in stores and malls is clearly not meant to be an active pleasure, consciously savoured by the discriminating shopper. It is one of those cases in which capitalism behaves much as its dumbest critics always argue: as a conspiracy against the public.
Read the whole thing here.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Promises, promises
Last weekend I promised to post an interview with a young filmmaker who is on his way to Sundance with his first film. This is still in the works, but will have to wait until next week due to his understandably busy schedule. He and I have an appointment to speak on Saturday.
I'm anxious to find out more about the progress of the documentary, which I saw a few minutes of many months ago. At that time, the film promised to be a mindbending descent into a secret world of—depending on how you look at it—delight or madness. (Two words: competitive Scrabble.) But I'm especially eager to hear about the whole heady experience of being chosen for such a prestigious festival as a relative novice, and excited about the remote possibility that this man may need some arm candy in Park City.
Bear with us—you should find this one worth the wait.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Out of sight
Your temperature-reading of sex in the movies the other day seems to me right on the money: "I’m not prudish about on-screen sex: I just don’t think it tends to be especially memorable or persuasive." This is just what I was trying to say when I wrote here about my problems with the film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove. Here's part of what I wrote about that movie's sex scene (a scene not depicted in the novel, only suggested):
But if the sex scene comes off as just another ho-hum sex scene…you risk making Densher seem like just some pathetic bounder, altogether unworthy of Milly, and tipping the delicate balance of imperatives that gives James's moral drama its life. And this is what happens. Densher sacrifices Milly for the promise of a night with Kate, that night turns out to consist of bland movie sex, and the whole story becomes hard to take seriously, the dénouement easy to misunderstand. It wasn't just the censors that held James back from depicting the sex in his novel; it was solid professional know-how.
In the novel, this off-stage encounter changes something between the characters. The reader can't be sure just how or why it does so, in a typical example of strategic Jamesian ambiguity. But once the filmmaker decides to depict the sex scene, he damn well needs to have an idea about how and why it changes things, and a means of communicating this to the viewer. My distinct impression when I saw Wings (and it has been a while, I'll admit) was that the director was more interested in hottening up Henry James than in linking what happens behind Merton's bedroom door to the film's dénouement. All we learn from the scene as rendered, though, is that he and Kate have sex (and that it is generically steamy). This being the case, one of Renoir's closed doors would have been far more economical, and probably more affecting.
I like your list of movies that do it right (The Big Easy is what I always think of first), though I am woefully underexposed to John Sayles. I would add to the list Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, where the sex is intercut with clips from the hotel-bar seduction that precedes it. The characters laugh as they undress, and feel a little bit bad in the morning. These details manage to be familiar, yet anything but generic.
And speaking of undressing, did you notice the hit we got yesterday from somebody's Google search for "jennifer+aniston+fully+naked"? I'm shocked, shocked, that we would have come up in such a search: when did either of us ever mention Jennifer Aniston?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Unhappy camper
It seems that Tony Kushner, whose Caroline, or Change I panned in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, thinks I’m a "right-wing nut." Serves me right for daring to dislike his show. I’m surprised he didn’t call me a McCarthyite while he was at it. No doubt it slipped his mind.
P.S. For a gay dissent on Kushner, go here.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
"Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistant irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food."
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
TT: The zero option
A reader sent me a link to "Bridging the Gap: Innovations to Save Our Orchestras," a study by the Knight Foundation that preaches the virtues of "nontraditional and enhanced concert experiences" that "seek to reach new and younger audiences by integrating programmatic themes, other art forms and other modes of communication to present classical music in alternative formats." You can—and should—read the whole thing here.
I’m interested in the attempts of various regional orchestras mentioned in the study to find new ways to attract younger listeners—and even more interested in the data showing that these techniques seem to be working. At the same time, I also noted with a different sort of interest these observations:
To date, there is mixed evidence about whether these concerts would lead their ticket buyers to more standard orchestral fare, including classics or pops concerts….The findings are consistent with evidence from the Audience Insight study, which suggest that "increasing attendance—or at least staving off a decline in attendance—may require a loosening of the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’" and that "some orchestras, especially those in smaller cities, might re-examine how they define their constituencies and how they select, package and deliver their musical products."
Reading that paragraph inspired me to ask a question that nobody in the music business ever asks, at least not out loud: what, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra? Most readers of this blog, were they to be asked that question, would sputter out some variation of "Well…just because!" And I know what they mean. Even now, it’s still widely taken for granted that a symphony orchestra is an indispensable part of that which makes a city civilized. But is that true?
Let’s start by considering some superficially similar cases. What justifies the existence of a regional museum? In the case of an institution like, say, Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose permanent collection is exceptionally fine, the answer really is self-evident: the quality of the art is its own justification.
What about performing ensembles? Again, let’s take a best-case example. Carolina Ballet, based in Raleigh, N.C., operates on a smallish budget and is in constant danger of going under. Yet it still manages to present a repertory ranging from modern classics by Balanchine and Tudor to brand-new works of high quality by such distinguished choreographers as Robert Weiss (the artistic director), Christopher Wheeldon, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett, all of it danced exceptionally well. Once again, the justification for Carolina Ballet's existence is self-evident: all you have to do is take a look.
Is it possible to make a prima facie case of the same kind for regional orchestras? The Knight Foundation studied the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Charlotte Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, the Kansas City Symphony, the Long Beach Symphony, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the New World Symphony (Michael Tilson Thomas’ Miami-based training orchestra), the Oregon Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the San Antonio Symphony, and the Wichita Symphony. One of these orchestras is a world-class ensemble, and three or four others are known and admired outside their regions. The rest are third-tier orchestras—in other words, they don’t record or broadcast, and you probably wouldn’t know their conductors’ names.
As it happens, I haven’t heard any of the latter groups in concert, but I have heard quite a few similarly situated orchestras, most of which offer their subscribers an ultra-safe mixture of standard classics and souffle-light pops concerts, performed adequately but not memorably. They rarely play new music, and when they do, it usually isn’t very good. None of them is having much luck at attracting younger listeners.
If I lived in a city that was home to such an orchestra, would I subscribe to its concerts? A hundred years ago, I would have said yes, because live performances were the only way to hear music you didn’t make yourself. But the invention of sound recording has made it possible to hear great performances of the classics whenever you want. Is there any point in going to hear a merely adequate live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? For me, and for a fast-growing number of other Americans, the answer appears to be no. As a result, the only way such orchestras can stay alive, according to the Knight Foundation, is by "loosening the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’," which I take to be a euphemism for playing fewer classics and more pop-style fare—and I don't want to hear that, either.
This brings us full circle. What justifies the existence of a third-tier regional symphony orchestra, other than the employment it provides to classical musicians? Does civic pride count for anything? Not in our egalitarian age. Today, no community gets points for simply having an orchestra, irrespective of its quality.
I speak as one who believes with all his heart in the power and permanence of Western classical music. Nevertheless, if I were the head of the Podunk Foundation for the Arts and I had to choose between funding the Podunk Philharmonic and a non-musical organization similar in artistic quality to, say, Carolina Ballet or the Nelson-Atkins Museum, I'd dump the orchestra without thinking twice. Why? Because the best regional ballet companies provide a unique aesthetic experience that cannot be duplicated by any other means. Likewise the best regional museums: there is no substitute for actually seeing a great painting. Not so third-tier symphony orchestras. Their primary function, which is to give live performances of great music, has been rendered obsolete by technology. If the only way for them to stay alive is by switching to slickly packaged schlock—and I'm not saying it is—they’d be better off dead.
I repeat: I'm not saying that schlock is the only alternative. Nor am I calling for the defunding of all regional orchestras. This has been a "thought experiment," an attempt to see an old problem in a new light by changing the terms of the discussion. But a growing number of American orchestras are finding themselves in lose-lose situations not dissimilar to the one I've just described. It's their job to come up with a better alternative. If they don't, nobody will mourn their passing.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
TT: What's the rush?
A reader writes, apropos of my posting on the box-office "failure" of Master and Commander:
The thing that always occurs to me when I read about the "failure" of
some ambitious new film is this - how much of the cycle of fast consumption
and a very narrow definition of success sets up failure as an inevitability?
I'm not phrasing this correctly. Modern movie "success" is predicated on
getting butts in the seats right away - and that's not how adults see
movies, for the most part.
Who has time? You've got to work, and clean the house, rake the leaves, fix
the toilet, make time for your spouse and children, or friends and family,
find a babysitter - or wait for your married friends to find one - go to the
gym, feed your mind and spirit in whatever fashion pleases you - arts, news,
theater, athletics, cooking, sex, all of the above. Going to the movies is
terrific, but not really a communal act and as such falls a little further
down in my list of priorities - and I suspect I'm not alone here. Does
Hollywood know this?
Maybe it is different in the city, where there is a more logical flow from
theater to restaurant to conversation, but out here in the hinterlands, you
go, and then you stand in the parking lot dragging out the moment before you
go to your separate cars and depart. Maybe you go to dinner after, but by
the time you figure out where, get into your separate vehicles and drive
there, the immediacy of the experience has changed. Everyone lives 20 or 30
minutes away from each other, so it is not that easy to travel together -
and the babysitter dollar factor can not be discounted. I also think there
is a 9/11 aspect to movie going, just in terms of where people prioritize
their time these days.
When the success or failure of a movie is measured in weeks and instant
gratification dollars, most films (adult or otherwise) disappear from the
multiplex before I can see them. The perfect exception is My Big Fat Greek
Wedding - which, I know, had a tiny budget - a terrific, funny film.
Because it was slow building it got to hang around for a while, giving adult
people with complex scheduling challenges a chance to find the time to see
it, recommend it and sometimes see it again. I probably don't understand the
economics of cinemas well enough, but it just seems to me that the "failure"
of a film is, in many cases, less about its ultimate audience, its ultimate
financial and critical achievements, and more about who's willing to rush
out and see it right away. And since that definition of success is skewed
towards exploding things and the people who rush out to see them explode, a
catch-22 emerges. What's wrong with a slow building success? Is it somehow
un-American? Or something to be less proud of? I really don't get it - the
elevation of immediacy over the celebration of quality. And the lesson
seems to have been lost on the movie business, particularly when it comes to
so-called adult oriented movies.
This summer I had hoped to see the documentary Spellbound - it played in the
next town over for a week. I barely knew it was there before it was gone -
and I just don't understand how that's good marketing, or marketing that has
any understanding of the demands of daily life. Movie advertising focuses
on the opening week and then peters away to make room for the next
thing....Over half the space in the multiplex is devoted to only one or two
films, with everything else crammed into the leftover spaces, with more
limited show schedules....bragging rights dependent on opening grosses, not
total grosses. It encourages the production of shoddy, cheap and exciting
movies, endless sequels and safe bets, which will make a lot of money right
away and then disappear without leaving any kind of lasting impression and
sets up a cycle of expectation where there is no room for any other style or
Gosh, I'm cranky today. Reading about the film industry definition of
success always pushes my buttons, particularly after having sat through
Matrix Reloaded (I refuse to see Revolutions on the "fool me once"
principal). Master & Commander was very expensive, true, but I don't doubt
it will make money - ultimately. Foreign rights, DVD, and the audience that
will read the reviews, hear their friends say good things and go see it as
long as its in the theater. I don't know if that will qualify as success
by current standards, but I think its pretty OK. Let's check again in a
To all of which I have just two things to say:
(1) This explains why I look forward to the day when (as I argued in my original posting) "the adventurous indie flicks of the not-so-distant future...find their audiences not in theatrical release, but via such new-media distribution routes as direct-to-DVD and on-demand digital cable."
(2) Thanks for writing. I couldn't have put it better if I'd stayed up all night.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
TT: Battlefield dispatch
A reader writes:
I thought I might as well add my comments about the
opening of minds to symphonic music and your reader's
about instrumental lessons being a crucial
but missing element in American schooling.
As a former full-time piano teacher and a present
part-time piano teacher, I can vouch for the fact that
many parents provide private piano lessons for their
sometimes unwilling children. Most study for a year
or two until they nag their parents to let them quit.
Sometimes I wonder if they find the lessons
uninteresting, not fun, or not informative. A large
majority of parents tell me that they have to fight
with their children to get them to practice and they
soon tire of the frustration.
Who or what is to blame for this sorry state of
affairs--teachers, parents, television, computers,
technology games, too much homework, too much
participation in sports? I certainly do not have the
answer for you. But I can tell you that achievement
at the keyboard by beginning students varies from
dreadful to excellent. If I can produce one
proficient student, why can't I reach all of them? Am
I competing with too many other distractions for the
attention of the very young? Somehow the Twinkle
Variations for beginners seem quite quaint in this age
of technology. Few are willing to invest time and
effort in learning to play the piano, and it grieves
me that I may be causing some students to actually
"dislike" music by asking them to "think."
This is the piano teacher's dilemma. Should I
actually expect my students to advance satisfactorily
as in regular school, or do I just let them fool
around until they convince their parents to let them
quit? I know that the students who get the most out
of piano lessons are the ones who stay the course.
There are various reasons why parents want their
children to study piano--some for the discipline
required, some for the therapy music may provide, and
some for the joy of being able to play.
I still remember one young student who told his mother
that I didn't care whether or not he practiced his
assigned pieces or how many mistakes he made. I was
shocked to hear this, because nothing could be further
from the truth. My hope is that each student will
take "something" away from the lessons whatever the
length of time studied. Finding a way to reach each
child is a spectacular challenge, but I'll never stop
trying as long as I am still breathing.
But are these piano lessons actually leading any of my
students to become candidates for concert attendance
or love of classical music? I don't know the answer
to that question either. It seems to me that the
students who reach excellence at the keyboard are the
ones who were genuinely interested in music and the
piano and who had the idea of piano lessons germinate
in their consciousness with or without encouragement
by their parents. I assume that these students would
become lovers of music even if they had never taken
Music does not give up its secrets easily, but that is
part of the magic! Those of us who are in love with
symphonic and instrumental music will never stop
trying to inspire that love in others. But apparently
your reader thinks we have already failed.
I, too, wonder whether anyone who is forced to study piano (or any other instrument) gets anything out of it beyond grief and exasperation. I’ve always wondered whether there’s a better way to nudge children in the direction of dabbling in music. My own case is so uncharacteristic as to shed no light on the larger question: I started taking piano lessons in high school, after I’d already spent three or four years studying violin and teaching myself how to play bass and guitar. I did it because I wanted to, not at my parents’ behest. The drive came from within.
Presumably I would have developed a serious interest in music even if I hadn’t studied it as a boy. Or maybe not. Either way, I have no doubt whatsoever that I owe much of my aesthetic life—first as a performer, now as a writer—to Richard Powell and Gordon Beaver, the men who taught me how to play (respectively) violin and piano. Yes, I found the door, but they held it open it for me, and I bless them for having done so. What’s more, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that my correspondent has done the same thing for dozens, perhaps hundreds of children. I hope I succeed in doing even one thing in my life that matters half as much.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 11, 2003 | Permanent
TT: The mixture as before
Take a look at the story in this morning New York Times about who—if anybody—will replace Lorin Maazel as music director of the New York Philharmonic:
When he was selected in 2001, Mr. Maazel was assumed to be a one-term appointment. He was 70, and concerns about an aging audience prompted calls for a less traditional leader. But his appointment also represented the new power of the orchestra's musicians, who had pushed for Mr. Maazel, having played under him as a visiting conductor. Many orchestra members continue to say they are content under his baton.
The quotes are revealing. The orchestra’s board invited several Philharmonic players to give their opinions of Maazel. One compared him to Kurt Masur, the orchestra’s previous music director:
"He's such a welcome relief after the tremendous abuse we took before," said Eric Bartlett, a cellist. He said Mr. Masur had operated on "the assumption that every musician was trying not to play well and had to be terrorized into doing their best." He added, "That assumption wore everybody down."
Another, concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, said, "If we have no one to replace Maazel, we just can't let him go. I just don't think we're in a rush to replace someone as brilliant as Mr. Maazel….He's respectful and thorough, and he doesn't waste time." And to critics in the media who claim that Maazel’s programming is "too conservative," Dicterow replies, "New York audiences like to hear their Beethoven. If we played only contemporary music, we'd only have a quarter of an audience, and pretty soon we wouldn't have an orchestra."
This story virtually speaks for itself, but I should add one footnote for readers with short memories: Kurt Masur took a demoralized, undisciplined orchestra and turned it into the virtuoso ensemble it had been in years past. He didn’t do that by being respectful and efficient—he did it by tyrannizing a bunch of temperamental players notorious for their bad behavior. (It’s no accident that the Philharmonic long ago acquired the nickname "Murder, Inc." for its treatment of weak and incompetent conductors.)
As for the rest, I’ll simply direct you to my earlier post on the future of the classical concert (see below). For my part, I don’t think Lorin Maazel is a very interesting or significant conductor, but in a way that’s the least important thing about him. What really matters is that the Philharmonic itself clearly believes it can continue to do business as usual, indefinitely. Perhaps it can. The Philharmonic is, after all, America’s flagship orchestra, located in a city big and rich enough to keep it afloat no matter what it does or doesn’t do. But how many other American orchestras can say the same thing? Damned few—which is why so many are either floundering or folding.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Possibly not belaboring the obvious
I guess I should have said so earlier, but...the quotations appearing in my "Almanac" posts may or may not reflect the opinions of OGIC and/or myself. Sometimes.
Is that sufficiently unclear?
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Home alone
I'm still getting mail about "A Shift in Time," the posting in which I discussed the decline of the movie theater.
Here are three more letters that caught my eye:
- "Movies will still be made if the only way to see them is on DVDs, but classical music is different. Chamber music groups (and big symphony orchestras, too) need audiences. Many groups make their living by touring; some record, others don't. Their live repertoire is always greater than their recorded repertoire. Long-lived quartets or trios get their particular sound by playing together again and again, and you wouldn't have that kind of signature sound from ad hoc quartets gathered together just to record the late Beethoven cycle….I think that watching movies alone is a loss, too. I love Netflix and tinker endlessly with my queue, and it's great to snuggle up with your beloved or kids and watch a movie on a rainy night. But I can still remember going to see particular movies at the Orson Welles Theater and the Brattle Street Cinema in Cambridge thirty years ago with a bunch of friends. One doesn't remember viewing DVDs in the same way—one remembers the movie itself and the fact that one has seen it, but not much else about the circumstances. There's a communal aspect to art that you're not accounting for. Reading has always been solitary, and the meditative, lost-in-an-armchair quality is part of the reading life. Blogging and emails and cyperspace are sort of in between—you're both alone and connected though in a phantom way. But music is different. I wouldn't imagine saying this to the author of ‘About Last Night,’ but—you need to get out more!"
- "Expect cinemas to be around for a few more years. If theater owners catch on to the trend, even longer. How so? By marketing a package. Dinner and a movie. You and your SO [significant other, I assume] have a bite at a favorite eatery, then take the bill to the theater where you get a discount. The restaurant benefits, the cinema benefits, and the two of you have a good time. Depending on your finances it could become a monthly or even a weekly thing."
- "I think there's another great shift that's coming about aside from the one you talked about, how now everybody takes movies seriously. That one was brought on by the arrival of the VCR, and the ability of people to watch movies in their own homes. This other one, you could describe as ‘we're all becoming film students.’ It was, or is being, brought on by the arrival of the DVD, and all the extra space it provides for things like director and cast and crew and composer and film critic commentaries, featurettes, documentaries, storyboards, scripts, art galleries, text info slides, DVD-ROM extras like script-to-film and storyboard-to-film comparison, and so on. Not everyone will care to explore these extras, of course, but now those who would like to be able to learn more about how films are made have an unparallelled access to everything they need to do just that….In years to come, I suspect we may see a much larger crop of independent filmmakers as folks who learn the craft mostly or entirely from a DVD-based education, grab some cheap digital cameras and start experimenting. It's not going to be as necessary to go to film school or get a massive budget to learn to make movies anymore."
Correspondent No. 1 is a trustee of a chamber-music concert series in a Midwestern city, and I used to feel the way he did. Now I don’t. Mind you, I readily admit that the decline of live performance will have dire and unpredictable effects on the culture of classical music and the ability of performers to earn a living—but I don’t think the trend can be reversed, at least not very easily, and I’m no longer so sure it should be. This is a complicated problem about which I wrote at length in "Death of the Concert," an essay collected in A Terry Teachout Reader, out in May from Yale University Press (plug, plug). I don’t want to reprise the whole thing here, but this paragraph is especially relevant:
To what extent is it reasonable to expect that Alfred Brendel has something so dramatically new to say about the Schubert A Major Sonata, D. 959, that it is worth paying $60 to hear him play it in person? For the veteran concertgoer, the answer is obvious: recordings are at best a pale substitute for the immediate experience of live performance. But for the younger person who can sit in his living room and listen to the same sonata being performed by Maurizio Pollini, Andras Schiff, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, or Artur Schnabel—not to mention Brendel himself—this argument is unlikely to withstand close scrutiny.
My point was that a piece of classical music is infinitely more important than any possible interpretation of it, and once a half-dozen first-class versions are available on CD, the marginal utility of hearing an additional one, whether on record or in person, becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. Therein lies the problem of the classical concert. Believe me, I treasure the "communal aspect" of art, so much so that I go out of my way (and my apartment) to experience it four or five nights a week. I couldn’t get out much more than that! But I no longer feel any compelling need to regularly experience it in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than I feel the need to own another recording of Beethoven's late quartets, no matter how good it may be.
Is my attitude widely shared? Absolutely. Is it bad for classical music? Probably. Can anything be done about it? Maybe. Go here to read about what might be done to save the classical concert from extinction.
Moving on to Correspondent No. 2, I have some nagging doubts about his suspiciously plausible-sounding plan. It happens that New York once had a perfectly wonderful little combination theater-restaurant called the Screening Room. (That’s where I saw Croupier.) You went there to eat a tasty, well-served dinner, then strolled down the hall at the appointed hour to watch a foreign or independent film, all for one reasonable prix fixe. Alas, not enough people appreciated the one-stop convenience, and so the Screening Room was forced to close its doors. My guess is that in our choice-intensive society, fewer and fewer of us care to commit ourselves to package deals of that sort. For much the same reason, it’s also becoming difficult to persuade people to subscribe to any kind of advance-purchase ticket series, be it for opera, ballet, concerts, theater, or whatever. Like the song says, we want what we want when we want it—and we don’t care whether that makes it impossible for the local ballet company to pay its bills on time, either.
Correspondent No. 3 has answered a question aboout which I’d been wondering. Who watches all those special features? I don’t, at least not very often—but I’m not a budding young filmmaker. And I love the idea of young people learning how to make movies "mostly or entirely from a DVD-based education" rather than by going to school. If film-studies majors are anything like creative-writing majors, the result will probably be better independent films. Talk about unforeseen consequences!
Thanks to you all, and to all my readers and writers out there in the blogosphere. Sifting through the mailbox is one of the best parts of blogging.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | Permanent
"Men who are accustomed over a long series of years to supposing that whatever can somehow be squared with the law is right—or if not right then allowable—are not useful members of society; and when they reach positions of power in the state they are noxious. They are people for whom ethics can be summed up by the collected statutes."
Patrick O’Brian, The Reverse of the Medal
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 9, 2003
TT: Marching orders
I haven't mentioned this for ages, so I will: please tell your friends about "About Last Night." We don't advertise. We don't send out mass e-mailings. We rely on links, and on you. Each and every time you send our URL to a potential reader, the law of unforeseen consequences has a fresh chance to kick in.
If you read this site, tell somebody about it. If you have a blog of your own, mention us. The easy-to-remember address is www.terryteachout.com. Spread the word...often.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Eating people is passé
As end-of-the-year journalism starts rearing its predictable head, do you ever notice how "what's in, what's out" lists (yes, the fish I am shooting today do inhabit a barrel) tend to mix three elements in roughly equal parts: observable trends; embedded advertising; and attempts to instill good behavior in the gauze-thin guise of arbitrating coolness? I have last Sunday's Chicago Tribune Magazine in front of me, with its six pages of Hots and Nots.
In the first category, the pairings more or less report what's out there: "fitted little jackets" and Jake Gyllenhall are HOT, "oversized boyfriend jackets" and Josh Hartnett are NOT. This boils down to the media reporting on media-generated buzz, but it's the kind of stuff one reads these lists for, and is fair enough.
In the second category, you can pretty much see the fashion industry's lips moving as the features writers pronounce, "HOT: The fitted trench with a twist (like a grape purple Burberry); NOT: Plain beige."
But it's the third category—more Goofus and Gallant than Out and In—that kills me. It's so priggish and Miss Manners, except that Miss Manners is doing her job, while hot lists are pretending to be something quite different. Much as I can't argue with a lot of the implicit social and moral instruction dispensed in this category, it's hard not to snicker at the attempt to soft-sell it as good taste, or all the rage. I have lots of examples from the Tribune, both because they are so plentiful and because they are so risible:
HOT: Making out at the bar
NOT: Going home with someone from the bar
Yep, don't not go home with that stranger because it wouldn't be prudent; don't do it because it wouldn't be hot.
HOT: Introducing friends to one another (www.friendster.com)
NOT: Keeping friends to yourself
Selfishness: so last year!
HOT: Docs who incorporate alternative medicine
NOT: Docs who have no clue
This one doesn't really have the courage of its convictions, since if you're just incorporating your alternative medicine into your conventional medicine, it's not really an alternative, is it? But you have to be impressed by the bold stand against clueless doctors (if less so by the implication that conventional methods make them so). Maybe 2005 will be their year.
But here's my favorite:
HOT: Judging for yourself
NOT: Critics' reviews of films, books
This appears to be the silliest reverberation to date of the manufactured discontentment that is the Believer magazine's police blotter, Snarkwatch, where you can write in to pillory critics you disagree with. What started as a (in my opinion, dubious and thin-skinned) manifesto against dismissively clever book reviewing has now devolved into the soundbite "critics not hot." I think it's safe to say that the hunt for snark has jumped the shark.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 9, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Opened and answered
I let the mail pile up while I was sick. I'm still sick, but I decided I ought to empty the bag to enhance my peace of mind, and found therein about a hundred e-mails, all of which are now answered except for the ones I'm going to post on the site in the course of the next few days (of which there are several). Once again, I marvel at the sheer smartness of the readers of this blog....
While I'm at it, a long-overdue announcement: it is the overwhelming desire of the readers of "About Last Night" that we not change our default settings. Now as before, any link on which you click will continue to open in a new window. Nearly everybody seems to find this arrangement more convenient. Needless to say, thanks to all correspondents for expressing an opinion, whether pro or con.
One last thing. I got an e-mail from a fellow who says he finds my postings about the Great Cold of 2003 so amusing that he hopes I hang onto it for a bit longer. To this gentleman I say...uh, er...SNEEZE!!
"If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it."
Flannery O’Connor, letter to an unnamed teacher (1961)
OGIC: The dream that nagged
The King-Hazzard debates that began at the National Book Awards dinner and rippled through blogland a couple of weeks ago are anticipated in this 1999 piece by Ray Sawhill on what publishing professionals wish they had time to read—and what they would like to never have to read again.
It was when I asked my interviewees to specify what they'd be happiest not reading that the surprises began. (The wittiest answers: Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review.) John Grisham, perhaps predictably, topped the list. But after him came writers from among today's most respected literary figures. Salman Rushdie ("boring and pretentious") and Toni Morrison shared top honors. Don DeLillo ("he's homework"), Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis trailed close behind. (To be fair, each of these writers also had a fan or two.) In fact, of the dozen publishing people I polled, only three would still be devotees of what passes today for literary writing if it weren't part of their jobs.
The list of living writers my subjects would willingly continue to read was much more varied…
Click through to find out who. Sawhill's essay originally appeared in Salon. His reflections on the results of his informal poll cut to the heart of the discussion about the relative merits of popular and "literary" fiction (a distinction that has proven hard to hold in place) that followed the awards dinner:
What would our reading lives be like if they weren't preoccupied with, or nagged at by, the dream of literature? My poll suggests that in such a world the reader who finds Toni Morrison a hectoring drag and Salman Rushdie a radical-chic blowhard wouldn't hesitate to say so. We would give serious thought to the argument that, for example, Elmore Leonard is more likely to be read 50 years from now than Martin Amis. Preferring Rikki Ducornet and Dennis Cooper would be fine, too. In any case, it turns out that, even if your reading stash looks like a disorderly heap of magazines, mysteries, celebrity bios, a classic or two, fiction by a couple of literary figures you've grown attached to and books about your personal interests—whether it's birdbaths or the nature of consciousness—there's no reason to feel shame or guilt. Nobody can read everything. And, besides, you're already reading like the pros wish they could, if only they had the chance.
Very nicely said.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 9, 2003 | Permanent
Here’s a sign of the times: JenniCam, the site on which you can view real-time video of life inside Jenni Ringley’s bedroom, is shutting down on December 31 after more than seven years "on the air" (or whatever the properly postmodern term for Webcasting is).
I hadn’t heard anything about Jenni and her so-called life for ages, but there was a time when her Web site was all the rage, so much so that she attracted quite a few subscribers willing to pay for premium content, not to mention half-witted academic theory-spinners like the professor of psychology
who penned the following paragraph, for which he doubtless received tenure:
The JenniCam phenomenon is a unique example of how cyberspace addresses such needs for belonging and the social affirmation of self. There was an overwhelming response to Jennifer Ringley when she set up a live, continuous video broadcast of her dorm room, and then later her apartment. People who idealized, even worshipped, Jenni banded together in groups to talk about her, speculate about her, share screen captured pictures of her. She became the focal point of their camaraderie. Their collective admiration of her—a kind of idealizing transference—served to bolster their sense of self.
Jenni herself was a bit of a theory-spinner, in her fashion. Asked by an interviewer to explain the appeal of her site, she replied:
I think people are getting tired of seeing airbrushed models in magazines and unrealistic actors and actresses living unrealistic lives. The real lives of real people are even more special and interesting and "perfect" than what you find on TV. I try to impress the idea that I do the JenniCam with the belief that EVERYONE is so special, and I hope that's what people come away with.
JenniCam was, of course, nothing more than a hula-hoop-type fad, but seven years ago the Web itself was still something of a giant-sized hula hoop, in much the same way as was television circa 1948. Back then, pretty much anything could draw a crowd—championship wrestling, roller derbies, B-movie matinees—simply because TV itself was so new that people would watch whatever was on, fascinated not by the message but by the medium. The Internet was like that in 1996. Now it’s part of the air we breathe, so much so that I rarely stop to reflect on what life was like before e-mail, amazon.com, Google, and blogs.
To be sure, most blogs are the verbal equivalent of JenniCam, but the silly ones neither get nor deserve much attention. Instead, the blog has evolved with astonishing speed into something far removed from mere faddishness. It is now a full-fledged journalistic medium, the first truly new one since the dawn of network TV. JenniCam was a curiosity, but blogs—or something like them—are here to stay.
Nevertheless, Jenni Ringley has earned herself a footnote in the history of the information age: she will be remembered as the Milton Berle of the Web. She was present at the creation of a radically innovative form of interpersonal communication, and used it to show the world her underwear. What’s more, the world turned out to be interested in her underwear—briefly. Then something more interesting came along, and Jenni’s underwear turned out not to be soooooo special after all.
Monday, December 8, 2003
TT: A code id by dose
In case you're wondering, I'm still sneezing. One of my editors read of my plight on the blog (my voice is out of order, so I'm not returning calls) and e-mailed me the following piece of advice: "Drink heavily. It's your only hope."
I'll try that tomorrow. Tonight, I think I'll stick to TheraFlu. See you Tuesday.
TT: Worth getting sick for (not)
Somebody asked me what movies I'd seen since I retreated to my couch to tough out the Great Cold of 2003. I've mentioned a few, but here's a more or less complete list: Yellow Sky, The Cincinnati Kid, Johnny Guitar, The Lady Eve, The Shop Around the Corner, The Gunfighter, Bringing Up Baby, The Tin Star, Passion Fish, and Holiday Affair.
All, incidentally, were plucked from cable TV by my trusty digital video recorder, for which I give much thanks.
"There is a passage in the autobiography (more or less true) of Alonso de Contreras, who began life as a scullion and ended it as a Knight of Malta, that has always seemed to me a masterpiece of narrative and an example of perfect style. Having at one period of his picturesque career married the well-to-do widow of a judge his suspicions were aroused that she was deceiving him with his most intimate friend. One morning he discovered them in one another’s arms. 'Murieron,' he writes. 'They died.' With that one grim word he dismisses the matter and passes on to other things. That is proper writing."
W. Somerset Maugham, Don Fernando
TT: Things not seen
The Criterion Collection’s DVD of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, all scrubbed up and fitted out with gazillions of special features, is now available for pre-ordering at amazon.com by clicking here. Do so. Even if you don’t share my passionate belief that it’s the greatest movie ever made, surely you’ll agree that it comes damned close—and if you’ve never seen The Rules of the Game, now’s the time. The street date is Jan. 20.
For some reason, mention of The Rules of the Game put me in mind of the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, whose unfortunate winner, Aniruddha Bahal, was announced last week. Or maybe it was vice versa. The Rules of the Game, after all, is a film about sex (among other things) in which you don’t see anything but people talking and (occasionally) kissing. Yet there’s never any question in your mind about what’s going on behind all those closed doors.
I’m not prudish about on-screen sex: I just don’t think it tends to be especially memorable or persuasive. More often than not, as in the case of Kissing Jessica Stein, it’s far more effective—not to mention sexy—when the details of the act itself are left to the viewer’s imagination. But I readily make an exception for those rare sex scenes that are used to deepen our understanding of the characters. John Sayles is particularly good at this, especially in Baby It’s You
and Lone Star, where the sex scenes tell us important things about the participants. Another film in which an on-screen portrayal of sexual intercourse is used to brilliant (and joltingly unsexy) effect is The Dreamlife of Angels. And I hasten to add that I can also think of a few fairly explicit on-screen sex scenes that are just plain arousing, foremost among them the ones in The Big Easy.
Any thoughts on this topic, OGIC?
TT: Words to the wise
To jazz buffs outside New York City, Frank Kimbrough is probably best known as the pianist for Maria Schneider's big band. If you live around here, you'll have heard him in any number of other contexts, both on his own and as an indispensable sideman. Either way, he's one of my favorite jazz pianists, but I've never heard him play a solo recital, so it's great news that he's planning to do just that.
The date is this Sunday, Dec. 14. The place is the Blah Blah Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I've never been there, but Frank, who has high standards when it comes to clubs and their pianos, describes it as "a rarity, an intimate space with a good piano, minimal listening distractions (the bar is in another room), and a friendly staff. CDs will be available if you wish to purchase them. This concert is not widely advertised, so please forward this message to any friends who may be interested. Thanks for supporting the music, and I look forward to seeing you."
For information about and directions to the Blah Blah Lounge (which sounds quite cozy), click here. To learn more about Frank Kimbrough, click here.
Two sets, at 8:30 and 10, with a $7 music charge and a $5 minimum. Tell Frank I sent you.
TT: Go figure
(1) Since I fell ill on Friday night, I haven't listened to a note of music. All I feel like doing is reading, watching TV, and looking at the art on my walls. Would anyone care to speculate on why music hath temporarily lost its charms for this sick blogger?
(2) The incoming mail is going unanswered. Sorry. I'll catch up when I feel a little better.
(3) I managed to rise from my sickbed over the weekend and post a bit, so please take a look.
(4) Have you tried the new search engine yet?
Sunday, December 7, 2003
I’m still sneezing and wheezing. I cancelled all my weekend performances (I can’t believe I was too sick to go hear Chanticleer’s annual Christmas concert at the Metropolitan Museum!), and I haven’t set foot out of the apartment since Friday night other than to buy food and drugs. All I’ve done is sleep, watch TV, and read.
The last of these has proved to be an unexpected delight, though, for my six-month stint as a judge for the National Book Awards left me next to no time to read purely for my pleasure, and it’s been fun to chew through a stack of books simply because they looked good to me.
No pleasure should remain unshared, so here are three books I read this weekend that I strongly recommend:
- Notes on Directing, by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich (RCR Creative Press). Exactly what does the director of a play do? This book wasn’t written to answer that question, but it does so anyway. Notes on Directing is a 126-page Strunk-and-White-type list of 130 annotated dos and don’ts for theatrical directors, some as bluntly practical as a slap in the face ("1. Read the play"), others subtle and suggestive ("67. Never express actions in terms of feelings"). I’ve never read anything that taught me more about the theater in so short a space.
- Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, by Jennifer Fisher (Yale University Press). Just a couple of months ago, a friend asked me if anyone had ever written a book that compared all the different versions of The Nutcracker. Nutcracker Nation isn’t quite that, but it’s even better: a lucidly written, thoroughly informed cultural history of the reception, spread, and significance of The Nutcracker in the United States. Like Notes on Directing, it’s concise (230 pages), full of fascinating things I didn’t know, and a perfect stocking-stuffer for the balletomane on your Christmas list.
- Aaron Copland: A Reader, Selected Writings 1923-1972, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Routledge). America’s greatest classical composer was also a first-rate critic and essayist. This anthology, the first to be drawn from the complete body of Copland’s prose writings, offers a representative cross-section of his views on matters musical, cultural, and autobiographical. Some pieces, like Copland’s 1949 address to the Waldorf Peace Conference, have never been collected, and a brief but evocative selection of previously unpublished letters and diary entries serves as a useful reminder that he was also a fine letter-writer whose complete correspondence is sorely in need of publication. Essential reading for anyone who cares about American music.
Oh, yes—while you’re at it, don’t forget to buy The Skeptic!
"With her brightest students Miss Batterson was always on terms of uneasy, disappointed admiration; their work never seemed to be helping their development as much as the work of the stupider students was helping theirs. Every year there was a little war—an eighteenth century one, though—about whether the school magazine was printing only the work of a clique. Miss Batterson was perfectly good-hearted in this: if you cannot discriminate between good and bad yourself, it cannot help seeming somewhat poor-spirited and arbitrary of other people to do so. Aesthetic discrimination is no pleasanter, seems no more just and rational to those discriminated against, than racial discrimination; the popular novelist would be satisfied with his income from serials and scenarios and pocket books if people would only see that he is a better writer than Thomas Mann."
Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution
TT: I should be so lucky
Joseph Epstein, my favorite essayist, has a witty and thoughtful essay in the current Weekly Standard:
Funny, but I do look Jewish, at least to myself, and more and more so as the years go by. I'm fairly sure I didn't always look Jewish, not when I was a boy, or possibly even when a young man, though I have always carried around my undeniably Jewish name, which was certainly clue enough. But today, gazing at my face in the mirror, I say to myself, yes, no question about it, this is a very Jewish-looking gent….
I have always wondered what it might be like not to be Jewish but to have a Jewish-sounding name—Sarah Jacobson, Norman Davis, Mark Steyn—and often be taken for Jewish. First, there would be the worry that someone might hold your being Jewish (when you're not) against you; and, second, there is the discomfort entailed in getting special treatment from another Jew or philo-Semite because that he or she thinks you are someone you are not. I once saw a man who was a dead ringer for the old actor Cesar Romero wearing a bright red T-shirt with bold white lettering that read "I Am Not Cesar Romero." Perhaps people with Jewish-sounding names ought to wear T-shirts, or at least carry business cards, that read, "I'm Sidney Ross, But Not Really Jewish." Glenn Gould, whose name and face and manner all falsely suggest Jewishness, could have used such a T-shirt.
Read the whole thing here.
So far as I know, I’ve never been "taken for Jewish," nor do I expect to be. I doubt if anyone in the United States looks more goyische than me, and "Terry Teachout" is roughly as Jewish-sounding as "Thurston Howell III." I do, however, have highly cultivated tastes for lox and bagels, the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Jewish jokes of the way-too-close-to-the-knuckle sort, and it also happens that I’m the music critic for a magazine Jewish enough to have been mentioned by name in Annie Hall. I keep hoping that some raving anti-Semite who only knows me on paper will jump to the wrong conclusion, thus allowing me to reply, "No, but I wish I were." Alas, it hasn't happened yet....
I know a very WASPy-looking WASP musician, by the way, who used to play a lot of recitals at synagogues, where she would invariably be approached at the post-concert reception by at least one old lady who told her, "You don’t look Jewish, darling." Eventually she came up with the perfect response: "I know, that's what everybody says!"
UPDATE: Cup of Chicha links to this posting, and (as always) adds some intriguing comments of her own. Take a look.
TT: Alone in a crowd
A reader writes, apropos of my recent posting
on the postmodern decline of the movie theater:
I decided to brave the storm and go to Times Square to see the latest version of Fellowship of the Rings. Made me think of your latest blog about the demise of the movie theatre. Sorry, this may date me, but for me there's nothing that will replace sitting in the dark watching a world unfold before me larger than life. I must get it from my mom, who was a teenager in the forties and like most of her friends lived in the movies. She was not content to keep it to herself either - I first saw 'Gone With the Wind' on the big screen when I was 9. You forget that for the young, going to a movie theatre is a social thing of getting out of the damn house and even if the whole concept of the dinner -n- movie gets tiring after the third decade, it still gives a couple of strangers something to discuss before they really know each other.
Point taken, and it explains why the movie theater remains a popular destination among the young—why, in fact, they are the only demographic group that still matters to Hollywood. For teenagers, theaters are affordable meeting places whose appeal has little or nothing to do with the aesthetic appeal of Film as Art. This suggests that as the median age of Americans continues to soar (driven by the graying of the baby boomers), the trend away from theatergoing will increase.
Needless to say—or perhaps not—I, too, will miss the uniquely enveloping experience my correspondent so beautifully describes. I think that was part and parcel of the original appeal of movies: the fact that we saw them on a large screen, sitting in the dark. And maybe that helps explain why the appeal of theatergoing has diminished for me, since the theaters of my high school and college days were smallish-screen multiplexes. The transition from a small multiplex screen to home viewing is pretty easily made. I’ve mostly made it, though I feel the tug of the old ways on the rarer-than-rare occasions when I get a chance to see a widescreen Technicolor western in a large theater. Such films were not made to be seen at home—and that’s the only place we get to see them nowadays.
I’ve been watching a lot of movies on TV in the past couple of days, by the way (that’s what catching a bad cold does to you), and it’s been interesting to see which ones work and which ones don’t. Black-and-white films shot in pre-widescreen aspect ratios almost always translate well to the small screen—even William Wellman’s Yellow Sky, a Gregory Peck Western whose early scenes are conspicuously landscape-driven. Widescreen color films tend not to work unless their subject matter is intimate, as in the case of The Cincinnati Kid, the Norman Jewison-Steve McQueen film about big-time poker players. And indie-type flicks, significantly but not surprisingly, always work: Amy’s Orgasm and Kissing Jessica Stein could have been made for TV.
Which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to draw your attention to Cinetrix’s recent posting about the use of music in Magnolia, and why it’s smarter and more essentially cinematic than the fruits of "the so-called renaissance of the movie musical." V. smart, v. much worth reading.