About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Saturday, December 17, 2005
TT: This one I had to share
A reader writes:
I find it odd what a presence you've become in my life; I didn't think it was possible to care so much, to be so saddened by, to fear the loss of a person whom I've never met.
Take care of your health.
Nor could I have possibly imagined how comforted I would be by the kind words of hundreds of people whom I've never met. My love to you all.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 17, 2005 | Permanent
TT: So very elsewhere
Bad weather and the threat of a transit strike notwithstanding, I spent most of Friday successfully relocating to Smalltown, U.S.A., where I now plan to spend the next two weeks doing next to nothing. Today, for instance, I have just two items on my truncated itinerary: (1) Shopping for heart-healthy food. (2) Answering my accumulated e-mail.
Regarding the e-mail, I want all of you to know how much your warm words have buoyed me up. I only hope that frequent blushing isn't bad for the heart! I expect it'll take the better part of the coming week for me to get back in touch with everyone, so please be patient. I don't want to do this—or anything else—in a hurry.
I miss the blog very much, and I intend to post on occasion from Smalltown, though not obsessively. OGIC has been laboring mightily (and very successfully) to keep the content flowing in my absence, so I think I'll let her do that for a little while longer, poking my head in at odd moments whenever I feel so moved.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go see whether there's a grocery in Smalltown that sells Ry-Krisp....
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 17, 2005 | Permanent
Friday, December 16, 2005
Be careful, it's my heart,
It's not my watch you're holding, it's my heart.
It's not the note I sent you that you quickly burned,
It's not the book I lent you that you never returned.
Remember, it's my heart,
The heart with which so willingly I part.
It's yours to take, to keep or break,
But please, before you start,
Be careful, it's my heart.
Irving Berlin, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” (music by Berlin, courtesy of Marc Myers)
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 17, 2005 | Permanent
Thursday, December 15, 2005
"All technical refinements discourage me. Perfect photography, larger screens, hi-fi sound, all make it possible for mediocrities slavishly to reproduce nature; and this reproduction bores me. What interests me is the interpretation of life by an artist. The personality of the film maker interests me more than the copy of an object."
Jean Renoir (quoted in Robert Hughes, Film: Book I)
TT: Time off for good behavior
My friend Nancy LaMott, the cabaret singer about whom I’ve written in this space and elsewhere, died ten years ago Tuesday. It wasn’t an anniversary I'd intended to spend in a hospital room, two months shy of my fiftieth birthday, waiting as patiently as I could to find out just how sick I was—but, then, life has a way of pitching curve balls at your head.
As I thought back over the past couple of months and remembered some of the things I'd been posting, it hit me for the first time that I must have decided somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind that I was dying, and that I’d been spending the preceding days and weeks trying as best I could to come to terms with the seeming arrival of what Henry James called “the distinguished thing.” Why had I been so shy about calling a doctor? What made me respond so immediately and intensely to the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd? Why did I quit listening to music for pleasure after hours? All at once I knew.
The long slide toward the blank wall started in earnest two weeks ago. I continued to do the things I absolutely had to do—hitting my deadlines, going to the theater, sharing a platform with Maud and Sasha—but when they were finished I would retreat to my couch, pull a comforter over my fast-weakening frame, and alternate between watching old movies and dozing fitfully. By then I was pretty sure it wasn’t asthma that had laid me low, but I was afraid to face the possibility that my heart was implicated, and the fact that I still had occasional good days made it possible for me to pretend that all I really needed was a couple of good nights’ sleep. That’s what I told my friends, and myself, too. The difference was that I didn’t believe it.
Time finally ran out on me last Thursday night. I took a cab to Broadway to see a press preview of Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, and no sooner did I arrive at the theater than I knew something was very, very wrong. After the show was over, my companion for the evening (bless her!) helped me up the aisle and a press agent (bless him!) hailed a cab. It took me ten minutes to climb the two flights of stairs to my apartment. I collapsed on the couch and spent the small hours deciding what to do. I packed a bag and straightened up the apartment—very, very slowly. My plan was to descend carefully to the street in the morning and hail a cab on Columbus Avenue, but when the sun came up and I saw that it was snowing, I came at last to my senses, called 911, and unlocked my door. Two minutes later a two-man team of paramedics was slapping an oxygen mask on my face and slipping an IV into my right arm.
“So you’re a drama critic, huh?” one of them asked as they carried me down the stairs. “My grandma is coming to town for Christmas—I want to take her to a show. What do you suggest?”
“Oh, definitely The Trip to Bountiful,” I said, my voice muffled by the mask. “I guarantee she’ll like it.”
Soon I was stretched out on a gurney in the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital, where I’d been brought five years before when an undiagnosed case of work-exacerbated pneumonia had reduced me to a similar state of disrepair. By then I knew that what I feared most had come to pass: I’d been stricken with congestive heart failure. My body was full of excess fluid—lungs, legs, the whole shooting match—and had I waited much longer to seek help, I would have drowned in it. Instead, the doctors stuck a nitroglycerine patch on my shoulder, pumped me full of a fluid-expelling diuretic, and handed me a phone on which I made a half-dozen necessary calls: my brother in Missouri, my co-blogger in Chicago, my editor at The Wall Street Journal, the woman with whom I’d planned to have dinner and see Waiting for Godot the following night. To all of them I made my regrets, thinking wryly of a favorite saying: If you want to hear God laugh, make a plan. Then the diuretic kicked in and I hung up the phone abruptly. “If you’ll just point me toward the men’s room,” I said to the nurse, “I’ll be perfectly glad to go there myself.” She laughed, not unkindly, and handed me a plastic bottle.
Three hours later I was tucked into a hospital bed, listening to a friendly but firm doctor read me the riot act. Before long I was strolling up and down the corridor, feeling better than I had in two months, staggered by how far I’d let myself slide.
On Saturday morning I inhaled a trayful of hospital food (cream of wheat, yogurt, a bagel, and a banana). I propped myself up on the edge of the bed, twisted a pair of earbuds into my ears, plugged them into my iPod, and hit the shuffle-play key. The slow movement of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a set of darkly luminous variations on the folk song “Ca’ the yowes,” came pouring into my head, and I burst into tears. I’m not ready, I told myself, not the least little bit.
No sooner did those words form in my mind’s ear than a passage from a novel I love, Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, snapped into my memory as plainly as if I were reading it off the page. The speaker is a middle-aged Boston priest:
I believe with all my heart in the mercy and providence of God, and I believe in a future unimaginably brighter and better than anything I have known here—and yet of course the whole difficulty is that I have known and have loved “here.” Very much. So that when the time comes for me to go, I know that I will go with full confidence in God—but I also know that I will go with sadness. And I think for no reason other than that…well, I have been alive. An old priest who was dying, one of the saintliest men I have ever known, one of those who had greatest reason to expect God’s favor, many years ago surprised me by telling me, with a little smile, that now that he was going, he wanted desperately to stay.
“A single memory can do it,” he said.
And I suppose he was right. The memory of an instant—of a smile, of leaf smoke on a sharp fall day, of a golden streak across a rain-washed morning, of a small boy seated alone on the seashore, solemnly building his medieval moated castles—just this one, single, final flash of memory can be enough to make us want to stay forever….
For the rest of the day I listened to music, lapping it up as if I were a starving man gulping a bowl of broth. I devoted most of Sunday to answering the phone and receiving visitors, marveling that so many people seemed to care so passionately about whether I lived or died. On Monday I underwent a six-hour-long stress test designed to determine whether my heart had been permanently damaged, then spent the rest of the evening and a bit of the night wondering what I'd learn the next day.
I already knew one thing that was at least as important: whatever the verdict, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light. In the last few days alone countless things have happened, small and large, that make me want to cling as fiercely as possible to whatever time remains on the ticking clock whose face I cannot see. I have felt this way once before in my life, in the months immediately following 9/11. It took nothing less than a congested heart to make me feel the same way again.
Ten years to the day after the distinguished thing came calling for my friend Nancy, I learned the results of the stress test. It was normal. My heart muscle is weakened but undamaged. If I do as I’m told—exactly—I have a very good chance of being around for a very long time to come. I even get to go home for Christmas tomorrow morning.
A few hours later I was walking gingerly up the same stairs down which I’d been carried four days before. I pushed open the front door of my apartment and beheld once more the welcoming glories of the Teachout Museum. I glanced down at the floor and saw that it was strewn with strange debris: a plastic syringe cover, a box that once had held some life-saving drug, a rubber glove.
“You know what?" I said to the friend who had brought me home. "I think the e-mail can wait." Then I picked up the trash from the floor, opened the blinds, sat down on the couch, and started gazing at the walls.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 15, 2005 | Permanent
“There are those who can reconcile themselves to death and those who can't. Increasingly, I've come to think that it is one of the most important ways the world divides up. Anecdotally, after all those hours I spent in doctors' outer offices and in hospital lobbies, cafeterias and family rooms, my sense is that the loved ones of desperately ill people divide the same way.”
David Rieff, “Illness as More than Metaphor” (New York Times Magazine, Dec. 4, 2005)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 15, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Workshops redux
Readers write in with two different points of view on the MFA and its rather blunt instrument, the writing workshop. First, a quarrel with my cynicism:
As a veteran of a famed MFA program in theatre directing and several playwriting workshops, I must take issue with your complaint against MFA programs. Granted, some of the craft “rules” taught there are arbitrary, based on the instructor’s whim (for example, one of my favorite playwriting teachers hated all plays set at Thanksgiving). But such “rules” are made to be broken when the artist does so for an effective artistic reason. The point is, master the form first, then learn how to bend it to your own ends.
I can’t tell you the number of scripts I’ve read in which the writer can’t begin to tell a cohesive story, or plants obvious and sloppy exposition (often having people who have known each other all their lives suddenly rehash background information they both know), or fills the script with clichéd acting directives (e.g., angrily, despairingly, sadly, laughingly, etc.), and so on. The point is, learn how to write a coherent play, then decide you’re a revolutionary and write the new Waiting for Godot.
I often tell people considering MFA programs: try to find one in which the teachers are successful professionals. The point is something approximating the master/apprentice relationship, where you learn from someone who daily deals—and deals successfully—with the problems of actually writing. Unlike, say, literature, which can be well taught by an academic who studies it for his or her livelihood, writing is a craft discipline. Those who do it well often have craft knowledge that you can’t learn in purely academic study.
I'm sorry that this is all to the point of taking issue with me, because it sounds so really sound and persuasive. But I'm not at all certain this reader and I are in any too-great disagreement. He is describing what should ideally happen and in fact sometimes does happen in MFA coursework—more times than I am apt to credit, I'm sure. I was lamenting what too often actually does happen when a teacher is insufficiently attentive or not a talented teacher or simply not the right teacher for a particular student, which it seems to me more the rule than the exception for the simple reason that mentoring cannot be effectively accomplished en masse.
This also makes a good case for teaching the rules. Indeed, if the "rules" are taught with some nuance and flexibility, and as a foundation rather than an ultimatum, they should do more good than harm. Sam Sacks's case, however, was that, in his own experience as well as on the evidence of Best New American Voices 2006, the rules are more often taught lazily and rigidly. I think the great hope embodied by MFA programs is that the right student will encounter the right teacher, and the apprenticeship my correspondent describes will spring forth, throwing sparks. The problem is that this doesn't happen very often, nobody has thought up a good way to raise the success rate, and I don't think they can. So a lot of pallid if technically unimpeachable writing results, and some varieties of genuine talent are probably strangled outright.
Another reader writes in agreement with Sacks and with me:
Followed your link to the Sam Sacks article and found it really interesting - what you have to say about it too. I couldn't agree more about great writers not necessarily being great teachers, and vice versa. I haven't done a formal writing course (there's not many of them around for poetry, which is all I write) but I've been to various short classes and workshops over the years, some of them headed by biggish names, and the one which was (and still is) most useful to me was an evening-class run by a woman who had never written a poem in her life: she'd published some short fiction, but most of her experience was as a schoolteacher (English literature) and a journalist on regional papers and magazines.
What she did for us was to act as an intelligent common reader: her constant questions were "who is this for?" and "this is what I get from the piece: is that what you're trying to get across?" When she made suggestions they were focused on the piece itself and how to get it to work for its intended audience, rather than on The Rules. She wasn't remotely snobbish about market, having written for women's magazines herself for many years: she was happy with memoir, genre fiction, romance, comedy, experimental writing, anything, as long as it worked. And she was widely-read enough to be able to give you examples you could look at by writers who did make it (whatever it was) work.
But where her teaching skills really came in was that by shrewd (and sometimes tough) moderation of the group, she made us act as intelligent readers for one another too. She wouldn't let us score points or talk nonsense, but she wouldn't let us off with not saying anything either (it's particularly annoying for poets in mixed groups that prose writers expect us to critique their work but, when ours comes round, go "oh, I don't know anything about poetry" and sit and doodle on their notepad until it's all over. Shocking bad manners if you ask me. Nobody got away with that on Esther's watch). This is what I've found most lacking in other workshops—the inability of the leader to moderate discussion well. Suggesting revisions to others' work is extra practice for revising your own, and it's at the revising stage that I most go back to what I learned in that class. None of what she taught came from her being a great writer: it came from her being a great reader, and a skillful teacher.
And as far as Show Don't Tell goes, the poet Don Paterson was laying into that one in a recent interview in Magma (sadly, not available in their online content), saying that it was a useful corrective to a particular tendency in poetry in its day, but as a general maxim it's too limiting and long overdue for a rest (likewise "No Ideas But In Things"). He reckons you can refute it in two words: John Donne.
Excellent lesson in how to run a writing workshop if run one you must, and nice tip on the poetry journal. Just to be clear, I think MFA programs neither can nor should be abolished. I would just think twice or ten times before recommending a young writer to enroll in one. If they can get a felowship and thus dedicated time to write, that's all to the good—but again, in some cases not. And if they can make the right connection with the perfect mentor, fabulous. On the other hand, the pipeline from places like Iowa to the desks of New York editors is swift and direct, so you can't responsibly nudge a talented writer in a different direction if you care at all about their professional prospects. So, if you're like me, you just end up sort of loathing the whole enterprise.
Do check out some other bloggers' reactions to the Sacks piece: Dan Green, and The Mumpsimus, and Miss Snark.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 15, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
"My most concise, and memorable, lesson on editing came one day in 1958 when Groucho took me with him to visit George S. Kaufman in his New York apartment. For me, it had the aura of a visit to a tall, thin guru. I remember his being seated in a chair with his long legs seeming to be entwined at least twice around each other.
"'Here's a young director,' Groucho said. 'Tell him how to direct.'
"'Well,' Mr. Kaufman said, 'if you have a script, and it says, "Sit down, I want to talk to you," cut that out.'"
"End of instruction."
Robert Dwan, As Long as They're Laughing!: Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 15, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
OGIC: The nanny who landed softly
Caitlin Flanagan, who started out writing about modern motherhood for the Atlantic Monthly before landing a coveted staff position at the New Yorker, is about as non grata as a persona gets among many, many bloggers I admire and personal friends I, well, adore. I've found many of her pieces bracing, even—or especially—when I've disagreed with her premises or conclusions. And I've always found the level of invective she draws to be a little astonishing.
Flanagan's latest piece approaches her usual territory, the conflicts and contradictions faced by working moms, comparatively obliquely: through a look at the author of Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, and her losing battle against the Disneyfication of her most famous book. Even Flanagan's detractors might like this one. Travers, it turns out, was a fascinating woman:
"Mary Poppins" advocates the kind of family life that Walt Disney had spent his career both chronicling and helping to foster on a national level: father at work, mother at home, children flourishing. It is tempting to imagine that in Travers he found a like-minded person, someone who embodied the virtues of conformity and traditionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Travers was a woman who never married, wore trousers when she felt like it, had a transformative and emotionally charged relationship with an older married man, and entered into a long-term live-in relationship with another woman. As she approached forty, she decided that she wanted a child. After a bizarre incident in which she attempted to adopt the seventeen-year-old girl who cleaned her house, she travelled to Ireland and adopted an infant, one of a pair of twins, and raised him as a single mother. Her reverence for the delights of family life was perhaps as intense as Disney's, but her opinion about the shape such a life might assume was far more nuanced.
Her mother, Margaret, who was pretty and feckless, soldiered on for a few years [after Travers's father's death], and then, when Helen was ten, she did what a mother is never supposed to do. She gave up.
One night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, Margaret left Helen in charge of the two younger children, telling her that she was going to drown herself in a nearby creek. As an old woman, Travers wrote about the terrifying experience: "Large-eyed, the little ones looked at me—she and I called them the little ones, both of us aware that an eldest child, no matter how young, can never experience the heart's ease that little ones enjoy." Helen stirred the fire and then they all lay down on the hearth rug and she told them a story about a magical flying horse, with the small ones asking excited questions ("Could he carry us to the shiny land, all three on his back?"). As she tried to distract her siblings, she worried about the future. She later wrote, "What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s Homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?"
I highly recommend Flanagan's affectionate and colorful portrait. This woman went head to head with Walt Disney and never flinched, but ultimately rued the way her book was finally adopted for the screen. She did, however, quite enjoy the proceeds of her contractual 5% share of the movie's gross. I must admit I've never thought twice about who P. L. Travers might be, even whether she was a man or a woman. I suppose that now I am going to have to read Mary Poppins, too.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 13, 2005 | Permanent
Monday, December 12, 2005
OGIC: Against interpretation again
In a pugnacious essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters calls for literary critics in the academy to back out of the blind alley of interpretation and return to an emphasis on aesthetics:
[Stanley] Fish's subsequent writings have gone in many directions, but he has never wavered in his inclination to resist the physical and aesthetic pleasures of the text and to prefer its doctrine. And he has never ceased to practice a method of allegorical interpretation that makes the text conform to interpreters' ideas. The interpreters who have followed in his wake continue to shuck text of its form, reducing it to a proposition to be either affirmed or denied, the way a farmer shucks an ear of corn. When they're done interpreting a poem, what is left of the poetry?
This kind of literary criticism has nothing to do with aesthetic responses to art, only with conscious acts of will. Nothing is to be left up to the senses, to the emotions. We have only to make a decision about the goodness or badness of the actions revealed in the work. Interpretation is the revenge of moralism upon art, and that is what makes it so politically dangerous: It narrows what literary critics do — and opens them to attack and co-optation from all the ideologues out there.
A couple of months ago I picked up Waters's Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, a winningly compact little book with an impressively gloomy title. But it's so compact, alas, that I've lost it completely.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 13, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Number, please
• Fee paid to Elvis Presley by Ed Sullivan in 1956 for three TV appearances: $50,000
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $344,900.36
(Source: Bob Spitz, The Beatles)
Friday, December 17, 2004
TT: That'll have to hold you (revised version)
That's soooo it for me. And yes, I know I said that earlier today, but this time I really mean it. I'm hitting the road first thing Saturday morning, not to resettle in Smalltown, U.S.A., until some time on Sunday (I'm going straight from the St. Louis airport to a wedding in the middle of Missouri, then turning around and heading for points southeast). I won't be blogging again until Monday at the earliest.
I do, however, plan to report from Smalltown with reasonable if not excessive regularity, just like I did last year. Even when I'm not posting, I'll be thinking of you. And I'll also be updating the right-hand column from time to time, starting with the three brand-new Top Fives I just posted. "About Last Night" never sleeps!
Which reminds me: did I tell you that Our Girl in Chicago will be coming to New York shortly after Christmas? I'm planning to show her off to all my blogfriends on New Year's Eve, and certain selected luminaries may even be allowed to see her without the mask. She'll be posting from here, so keep your eyes peeled for staggering revelations.
So long for now. Happy happy joy joy.
P.S. Oh, yes, one more thing: don’t forget to buy copies of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine and A Terry Teachout Reader for the as-yet-ungifted on your Christmas list!
Now I’m done. Finally. Really.
TT: Up to a point, Lord Copper
I don't think most bloggers are blogging away in the expectation of getting rich. Some will, and some larger (but still small) number will be comfortably well off, or at least make enough money to pay the hosting fees. But people blog so that they can express themselves—to be producers, not consumers—and we see this impulse across the world of new and alternative media. But it's not really new. Lots of musicians play music in spite of the fact that most of them won't get rich….They do it because they like to play, and they want their music heard. I think the same kind of thing drives most bloggers, too. It's certainly what's driven me. And while some people will drop out after a while (heck, most people will drop out after a while) the blogosphere will remain.
All absolutely true, as far as it goes, and I'd even venture to say that "citizen journalism" in its countless varieties will prove over time to be the most significant part of blogging. But one of the reasons why I started blogging was in the long-range expectation that to do so would ultimately provide me with an additional source of income, one that might someday compensate for the mainstream media’s steadily declining interest in the arts. Note the multiple temporal qualifiers with which that sentence is studded! I’ve discovered (not to my surprise) that I love blogging for its own sake, and I expect to go on doing it for some time to come, regardless of whether or not it ever becomes profitable. Nevertheless, my oft-repeated prophecy about the blogosphere—that it is the place to which serious commentary about the arts is destined to migrate—will not come true until and unless it becomes possible for serious, committed artbloggers to make a reasonable amount of money from their blogs.
One thing that compensates to some degree for the continuing unprofitability of artblogging is the fact that the blogosphere is now “hot,” meaning that some of the best bloggers are starting to attract mainstream media attention simply by virtue of the fact that they’re working in a brand-new medium. This allows them to leverage their small-scale celebrity into print-media gigs of various kinds. I couldn’t be happier about this development, since it means that the blogosphere is now providing talented unknowns with a new and better way to become known. (Not coincidentally, all my blogger friends are writers of whom I’d never heard until they started blogging.)
My own situation is, of course, different, and I think this difference may explain why so comparatively few established professional writers have embraced blogging: they can’t see what’s in it for them. Having done it for a year and a half, I know what’s in it for me. Not only do I relish the direct contact with readers that it makes possible, but my imagination is stimulated by blogging, which lets me try out ideas in public that very often find their way into my print-media pieces. Even when I don’t end up doing anything with these ideas, they quite often set me to thinking in unforeseen ways that lead me in more productive directions. I can already see that this speculative, experimental aspect of blogging, coupled with the immediacy and lack of editorial interference, is what makes the medium so addictive. (It also gives me another way to flog my books.) But be that as it may, I am a professional writer, meaning that I earn my living by selling my words, and I sincerely hope the day comes when I can earn some part of that living by blogging—especially since it’s so much fun.
Don’t worry: Our Girl and I aren’t planning to ask you to subscribe, at least not any time soon! We would, however, be greatly obliged if you’d tell your friends about “About Last Night.” Our readership has been growing, slowly but steadily, ever since we went live in the summer of 2003. The steady part we like, but we wouldn’t mind seeing our numbers grow a bit faster. So if you like what you see here, spread the word.
TT: The bard of discomfort
It’s drama-column time! I reviewed three plays in today’s Wall Street Journal: Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz.
To my absolute amazement, I really liked Fat Pig:
I’m sure I’m not the only theatergoer who’s had trouble making up his mind about Neil LaBute, whose powerful new play, “Fat Pig,” opened Wednesday at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. No one is better than Mr. LaBute at sketching the outlines of a relationship: A few quick strokes of casual-sounding dialogue and it’s right there in front of you. Nor has he any rivals at the dark art of making an audience anxious: Time and again his characters say and do things so disturbing, and so unexpected, that you all but break out in a sweat of discomfort as you watch them warily circling one another, looking for a chance to shove in the blade. Yet his work is also blighted by a coarse didacticism that too often manifests itself in here’s-what-it-all-means speeches as blatant as an episode of “Dragnet,” and I’ve never felt inclined to write in unmixed praise of anything he’s done—until now.
Why is “Fat Pig” different? Partly, I think, because the point of this hard-edged little fable, produced by MCC Theater and running through Jan. 15, is so self-evident that Mr. LaBute feels no need to harp on it. As the lights go up, we see Helen (Ashlie Atkinson), a bright, funny, seriously overweight young woman, eating to excess in a cafeteria. Tom (Jeremy Piven), a somewhat less bright, reasonably good-looking white-collar gent, sits down at her table. They strike up a conversation, and Tom discovers, to his obvious surprise, that he finds her appealing. No sooner does she give him her phone number (a typically LaButeian touch) than we meet Tom’s friend Carter (Andrew McCarthy), a viciously callous yuppie who regards his interest in Helen with contemptuous pity, and Jeannie (Keri Russell, formerly of TV’s “Felicity”), Tom’s alarmingly thin semi-girlfriend, who is reduced to a frenzy of self-loathing at the thought that he might prefer a “fat bitch” to her. With that, the game’s afoot, and you know somebody’s going to get hurt—badly.
Can love really conquer all? It’s to Mr. LaBute’s credit that he stares down this tough question without blinking, seconded by the performances of his four-person cast and the taut staging of Jo Bonney (“Living Out”). In Ms. Bonney’s knowing hands, each scene is screwed up to the highest possible degree ot tension without slopping over into sadistic excess, and none of the characters is ever permitted to overplay his or her hand….
Not so The Rivals, which I loved and expected to:
It’s been a long time between drinks for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” written in 1775 and last seen on Broadway in 1942. Now Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater is putting on a sumptuous new production of Sheridan’s classic comedy that isn’t even slightly musty.
Directed at a brisk canter by Mark Lamos (“Big Bill”), this delightfully noisy tale of two young couples and their discontents offers its good-sized cast of scene-stealers plenty of prime opportunities to strut their stuff. Who comes out on top? That’s an impossible call, though Dana Ivey has more than her share of the best lines as the linguistically challenged Mrs. Malaprop (“Female punctuation forbids me to say more!”). You’ll revel in the lewd, gravelly basso of Brian Murray as Sir Lucius O’Trigger; you’ll be touched by the unforced warmth and sincerity of Carrie Preston as Julia Melville; you’ll be thrilled by the infallible comic authority of Richard Easton as Sir Anthony Absolute. As for John Lee Beatty’s too-good-to-be-true set, which depicts a block of townhouses in Bath, it’ll knock you out even before you’ve gotten settled in your seat….
Nor was I much surprised by my strong negative response to The Baltimore Waltz, since Paula Vogel’s been disappointing me for quite some time now:
Paula Vogel’s “The Baltimore Waltz,” playing through Jan. 9 at the Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space, is a nauseatingly coy black comedy about AIDS. Written in 1989, it’s being revived as part of the Signature’s season-long series of productions of Ms. Vogel’s plays. Her brother died of AIDS not long before she started writing the play, and I trust that it helped ease her sorrow, but that doesn’t make the results any more artful.
The only good thing about “The Baltimore Waltz” is the ever-wondrous Kristen Johnston, cast in what I take to be the semi-autobiographical role of a woman who, upon learning that her brother (David Marshall Grant) is dying of AIDS, dreams that she has been infected by a deadly virus caught from unclean toilet seats and known as Acquired Toilet Disease, or ATD (“It seems to be an affliction, so far, of single schoolteachers”). This, I fear, is Ms. Vogel’s sensible-shoes version of Swiftian irony, and it is a tribute to Ms. Johnston’s powers as a comedienne that she actually contrives to squash a few laughs out of it….
No link. To read the whole thing, buy today’s Journal, or go here and follow orders.
TT: Rainbow connections
I mentioned the other day that Dvorak’s String Sextet was written in “A major, that most divinely innocent of keys." Now a reader writes to ask:
Is there something intrinsic to the key of A major that makes it more innocent than any other? Is it innocent only when strings are playing in it? What about a piano? If it's a brass sextet playing, is A major more or less innocent than B-flat major? Does the emotion a key conveys depend partly, mainly or entirely on what instrument(s) is (are) playing? Were you being whimsical?
I heard Billy Joel say once (1985) that he hated E major. I couldn't imagine having a feeling about a particular key. I still can't.
Any help in assuaging this bafflement would be welcome.
Wonderful questions all, and fearsomely difficult to answer—impossible, really, though I’ll do what I can.
To begin with, I was being perfectly serious about the key of A major. I think most musicians feel that certain keys have “characters” or “personalities,” though I suspect they feel this way because they have come to associate those keys with specific pieces of music. For instance, I associate A major with a cluster of celebrated compositions whose expressive content I would describe as somehow suggestive of innocence. In addition to the Dvorak Sextet and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and A Major Rondo for piano duet, Mozart wrote a great many such pieces, most famously the the A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488, and the Clarinet Quintet. D minor, by contrast, is widely thought to be a “demonic” key, threatening and unstable, whereas G major strikes most musicians as warm, friendly, and down to earth. (I once told Nancy LaMott that she was “a real G-major kind of girl,” and I didn’t have to explain to her what I meant.)
All this, of course, begs my reader’s question: are there intrinsic, non-arbitrary reasons why so many composers have tended to choose specific keys in which to make certain kinds of music? Donald Tovey, the great English musicologist, believed that all such key-related associations had to do with the relative “distance” of a given key from C major. (The larger the number of sharps or flats in the key signature, the greater the distance, and the farther the key is removed from the fundamental stability and repose of C major, the “home key” of Western music.) In addition, most musical instruments have perceptibly different tonal qualities when played in particular keys or key families.
Alas, none of this really explains what makes A major sound innocent, so in an attempt to shed more light on the matter, I looked up “key” in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and found this paragraph:
Keys are often said to possess characteristics associated with various extra-musical emotional states. While there has never been a consensus on these associations, the material basis for these attributions was at one time quite real: because of inequalities in actual temperament, each mode acquired a unique intonation and thus its own distinctive “tone,” and the sense that each mode had its own musical characteristics was strong enough to persist even in circumstances in which equal temperament was abstractly assumed. Though highly specific with respect to different repertories and listeners, these expressive qualties fall into two basic categories, which conform to the basic difference—often asserted as an opposition—between major and minor: major is heard to be brighter and more cheerful than minor, which in comparison is darker and sadder.
You have to know quite a bit about music to make sense of the middle part of this “explanation,” but it’s worth noting that according to the author, the “expressive qualities” of given keys are often “highly specific” with respect to individual listeners. Since I experience the expressive qualities of keys as something like a cross between a color and an emotion, “hating” the key of E minor would be like hating, say, dark blue-green, a notion that strikes me as alien but not altogether absurd (one might well speak of "hating" fear, just as you might hate the taste of cauliflower). In any case, other musicians have had prejudices similar to that of Billy Joel: Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, mentioned more than once in his diary that he disliked the key of F minor.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I had perfect pitch when I was a working musician, but that I lost it when I stopped playing an instrument regularly and fell out of touch with the physical materials of music-making. I still have perfect relative pitch, but my mental key center has sagged a half-step. Ask me to sing an A and I’ll sing an A-flat (unless I stop to think about it, in which case I’ll remember to transpose the note I hear in my head up a half-step to compensate). Nevertheless, the Dvorak String Sextet still sounds innocent to me.
I sometimes wonder whether lay listeners who lack this kind of perceptual sensitivity might possibly experience music in more or less the same way that an achromatically color-blind person (that is, someone who sees the world in black and white) experiences visual stimuli, at least when compared to someone like me. To be sure, I’m not a synaesthete: I don’t see specific colors when I hear specific sounds. I do, however, experience key signatures and harmonies in a way I take to be analogous to the perception of color, and because I have perfect relative pitch, this also means that I always “know where I am” when listening to a piece of tonal music.
Let me try to explain myself a bit more impressionistically, though I don’t know whether it'll help. When I listen to a piece of tonal music, be it a symphonic movement or a three-minute song, I feel as though I’m listening to a short story or novel being read aloud rather than looking at a painting. On the other hand, I experience this musical “story” as a kind of perceptual space through which I move at a rate of speed determined by the composer, in rather the same way that one might envision the “world” of a novel in pictorial terms. And though this space is abstract—I don’t “see” anything when I listen—I’m definitely in a “place” where significant events are unfolding in a meaningful order, even though their meaning cannot be expressed in words or represented by colors and shapes.
That makes sense, doesn’t it? No? Well, I’ll try one last comparison: if you’ve ever seen a plotless ballet by George Balanchine, that will give you a very rough idea of what I’m experiencing when I listen to music.
UPDATE: Sarah writes to remind me of those wonderful lines from Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”: “There’s no love song finer/But how strange the change from major to minor/Ev’ry time we say goodbye.” (Here’s the best recording of that perfect song.) She also passes on this great one-liner:
My favorite quote about keys was attributed to the klezmer clarinetist Sid Beckerman, though he probably stole it from someone else: "D minor: it's not just a key, it's a living!"
That’s a musician’s joke.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
“Stephen admired his learning, his skill in diagnosis, and his wonderful handing of his lunatics; Choate could often bring comfort to those who seemed so deeply sunk in their own private hell as to be beyond all communication, and although he had some dangerous patients he had never been attacked. Choate’s ideas on war, slavery, and the exploitation of the Indians were eminently sound; his way of spending his considerable private means on others was wholly admirable; and sometimes, when Stephen was talking to Choate he would consider that earnest face with its unusually large, dark, kindly eyes and wonder whether he was not looking at a saint: at other times a spirit of contradiction would rise, and although he could not really defend poverty, war, or injustice he would feel inclined to find excuses for slavery. He would feel that there was too much indignation mingled with the benevolence, even though the indignation was undeniably righteous; that Dr. Choate indulged in goodness as some indulged in evil; and that he was so enamoured of his role that he would make any sacrifice to sustain it. Choate had no humour, or he would never have linked drink and tobacco to issues so very much more important—Stephen liked his glass of wine and his cigar—and he was certainly guilty of deliberate meekness on occasion. Perhaps there was some silliness there: might it be that silliness and love of one’s fellow men were inseparable?”
Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War
TT: Work in progress
Here's a sentence I just wrote:
Rare is the male artist capable of withstanding the blandishments of a determined woman who is intelligent, humorless, sufficiently fawning, and sexually available.
Now guess which woman I had in mind....
UPDATE: We have a winner! Alas, the reader who guessed Alma Mahler signs his/her e-mail only with an address, so I can't give credit where it's due, but you know who you are.
Other early guesses included Simone de Beauvoir, Gala Dali, Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louis' second wife), Lillian Hellman, Bianca Jagger, Mary McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe (but was she really humorless?), Yoko Ono, Judith Regan (whom I hope doesn't read this blog!), George Sand (extra points for that one), and Elizabeth Taylor.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 16, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Guilt me not
So little energy, so much on my mind! I want to post a dozen things, but I can't get the car to start. Aside from the writing-for-money I have to wrap up and send off so that I can go west to Smalltown, U.S.A., with a clear conscience, I seem to be feeling the accumulated effects of weeks of overwork, exacerbated by the flu I finally shook off this past weekend. In short, I need a rest, and my hope (no doubt futile) is that I'll get one in Smalltown, the continuous hum and buzz of family life notwithstanding. I'm bringing my iBook with me for the holidays, in the hope that I'll spring back to life, but for the moment I think I need to lie fallow.
Incidentally, I got some nice e-mail from those of you who heard me on Soundcheck
the other day, to which I can only say that I enjoyed myself as much as you enjoyed me. (I don't mean that quite the way it sounds.) John Schaefer and I have always had excellent chemistry, and whenever I chat with him on the air without notes or prior preparation, I catch myself wondering whether it might be more fun to talk on the radio for a living than to sit at my desk for hours on end, putting premeditated words into precise order…but no! That way lies the fate of Desmond MacCarthy, Robert Benchley, and all those other writers who lost their appetite for Getting It Down on Paper. I’ll flirt with radio—indeed, I might even engage in heavy petting on a semi-regular basis, assuming she were to make me a sufficiently enticing offer—but that’s where it stops. Honest.
I’ve also received several different versions of the following letter, which was inspired by a passing remark I posted
the other day:
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.
To which an old friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long replied:
So liberating to read your admission of an allergy to “important” 50's-burgeoned Major American Novelists Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Updike, all of whom I have tried to “appreciate” and detest...mainly because I couldn't respect them due to their awful lack of ability to create memorable, fully realized female characters...do you suppose that a possible reason for your allergy is that you are, like your beloved Balanchine, a Man who Loves Women?
As you can see, the author of this particular e-mail knows me very well. For as long as I can remember, all but a handful of my closest friends have been women, and it thus stands to reason that I'd tend to find women-unfriendly writers tedious. What’s more, I can think of several less-than-important novelists (Elmore Leonard comes to mind) whom I enjoy in part because their women characters are both “fully realized” and extremely likable. On the other hand, none of this explains why I’m also so powerfully drawn to noir tale-telling, both on paper and on screen, which is about as misogynistic as it gets (though the noir writers, Raymond Chandler above all, seem as a rule to be more afraid of women than disgusted by them). Any ideas?
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I know exactly what I’m up to: even as I earnestly explain why I’m not going to post today, I’m succumbing to the stealthy undertow of blogging. Yes, I’ve been watching the referral log, and I have a few pithy comments to make about…but they’ll have to wait. Instead, I’m shutting the shop down and leaving the rest of my inchoate thoughts unrecorded, at least for the moment. They’ll keep. I’ll keep. And I'll keep better for having taken another day off.
See you Friday.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 16, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Another pair of ears
I just burned the following mix for a friend:
• Aaron Copland, "Down a Country Lane" (original version for piano)
• Bill Frisell, "My Man's Gone Now"
• Claire Lynch, "Jealousy"
• Erin McKeown, "A Better Wife"
• Jonatha Brooke, "Is This All"
• Steely Dan, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You"
• Selim Palmgren, "West Finnish Dance" (played by Benno Moiseiwitsch)
• Luciana Souza, "Doce de Coco"
• Pat Metheny, "Midwestern Night's Dream"
• Emmanuel Chabrier, "Idyll" (orchestral version, from Suite pastorale)
• Tony Rice Unit, "Neon Tetra"
• Percy Grainger, "Brigg Fair" (sung by Peter Pears and the Linden Singers)
• Nickel Creek, "Seven Wonders"
• Ned Rorem, "The Lordly Hudson" (sung by Susan Graham)
• Mary Foster Conklin, "Mad About You"
• Bill Charlap, "A Quiet Girl"
• Gabriel Fauré, "Epithalame" (from Shylock)
• Aimee Mann, "Save Me"
• Skip James, "Devil Got My Woman"
• Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown (final cue)
• Bill Evans, "The Bad and the Beautiful"
• Mabel Mercer, "The World Today"
• Nancy LaMott, "Surrey with the Fringe on Top"
• François Couperin, "The Mysterious Barricades" (arranged for eleven-string guitar by Göran Söllscher)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 16, 2004 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
"So maybe movies are always about the faces on the screen, as opposed to the minds that constructed them?"
David Thomson, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 16, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Speaking of the Bad Sex Award...
You know whose sex scenes always advance the plot and deepen our knowledge of the characters? John Sayles.
UPDATE: A reader writes: "Who else's sex scenes always advance the plot—Jane Austen."
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 15, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Status report
This is another writing-for-money day, so I don't expect to do any posting, though I might break that promise later in the afternoon should things go unusually well.
If you haven't poked your head in lately, OGIC and I were quite busy on Monday and Tuesday, so take a look.
Otherwise, I'll see you tomorrow. In the meantime, why not visit one of the many blogs listed in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column? They're full of good stuff, too....
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 15, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
“Every immigrant is broken, sometimes beautifully.”
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 15, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Turn your radio on
I’ll be on WNYC’s Soundcheck this afternoon, talking about George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker, which figures prominently (big surprise) in All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine.
If you live in the New York City area and expect to be near a radio at two p.m. EST, tune in 93.9 FM and give a listen.
If not, go to the Soundcheck Web page, where you can listen to the program from anywhere in the world on your computer, either via live streaming audio or by accessing the Soundcheck online archive.
See you on the radio, as Charles Osgood says. (At least I think it's him.)
UPDATE: It's all done, and it was great fun. (I always love doing Soundcheck.) If you didn't hear me live, check out the archived broadcast.
TT: Extra-special bonus quote
It can’t be a full-fledged almanac entry unless I can source it precisely (please keep this in mind when sending in quotations), but Patrick Wahl e-mailed me an undated excerpt from a USA Today story about the new U2 album, and I liked it so much that I had to pass it along anyway:
Dismantling [How to Dismantle an Atomic] Bomb’s origins, Bono recalls an early
version of "Vertigo" that was massaged, hammered,
tweaked and lubed before it sailed through two mixes
and got U2's unanimous stamp of "very good," which
meant not good enough.
"Very good," Bono says, "is the enemy of great. You
think great is right next door. It's not. It's in
Well said, Mr. Bono, sir.
TT: A little list
Last month I asked you
you to recommend a book or two for me to read, specifying that it be “short, intelligent, amusing, reasonably easy to find, and no more than modestly demanding.” Here are the recommendations I received in return:
• The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald
• Berlin Noir, a trilogy by Phillip Kerr
• Billie Dyer, by William Maxwell
• The Birth of the Modern, by Paul Johnson
• The Book Against God, by James Wood
• A Chance Meeting, by Rachel Cohen
• The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor
• The Dalkey Archive, by Flann O'Brien
• The Diary of Helena Morley (translated by Elizabeth Bishop)
• Dwarf Rapes Nun; Flees in UFO, by Arnold Sawislak
• Evenings with the Orchestra, by Hector Berlioz
• The Feud, by Thomas Berger
• Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig
• Hooking Up, by Tom Wolfe
• Journey to the Land of the Flies, by Aldo Buzzi
• Love and War in the Appenines, by Eric Newby
• Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels
• A New Life, by Bernard Malamud
• O, My America!, by Johanna Kaplan
• The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing, by William Maxwell
• An Old Man’s Love, by Anthony Trollope
• An Open Book, by Michael Dirda
• The Provincial Lady in Soviet Russia, by E.M. Delafield
• The Pushcart War, by Jean Merrill
• Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, by William Gass
• The Rebbetzin, by Chaim Grade
• The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart
• A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
• Tempest Tost, by Robertson Davies
• Thursday Next, a series of novels by Jasper Fforde
• The Total View of Taftly, by Scott Morris
• The Tunnel, by William H. Gass
• Wakefield, by Andrei Codrescu
• What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool
For the record, one of the books on this list is an all-time personal favorite, and I’m mentioned at length (not favorably, either!) in another one. The really great thing about the list, though, is that I’ve only read six of the books on it, if you count the dozen-odd Maigret novels I’ve read over the years as one superbook. I’m amazed and delighted (if not surprised) by the wide-ranging taste of the readers of “About Last Night,” and I plan to take advantage of it in the coming weeks and months. Thanks to you all.
P.S. To the comedian who recommended The Birth of the Modern, I ask, what’s your idea of a long book?
Monday, December 13, 2004
“Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool—good luck.”
George Sanders, suicide note (1972)
TT: In memory of...
As the days go by,
I keep thinking, “When does it end?
Where’s the day I’ll have started forgetting?”
But I just go on
Thinking and sweating
And cursing and crying
And turning and reaching
And waking and dying
Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day
But you’re still somewhere part of my life
And you won’t go away.
Stephen Sondheim, “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along)
TT: Backward glance
I was just thinking...what a wonderful year it’s been. In addition to publishing two books, being appointed to the National Council on the Arts, and buying a few more lithographs than I could afford, I’ve experienced every imaginable kind of aesthetic pleasure, from the music of Jonatha Brooke and Erin McKeown to such terrific new plays as Doubt, Intimate Apparel, Charlie Victor Romeo, and Private Jokes, Public Places. I heard Hilary Hahn play the Elgar Violin Concerto. I haunted the nightclubs of New York, where I heard more great jazz than I can possibly list here. I saw Sideways and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I threw myself head first into Lucas Schoormans' Giorgio Morandi show. I reread the complete works of Evelyn Waugh. I saw Kristin Chenoweth sing Cunegonde. And those are just the things that come immediately to mind! Were I to look back over my blog entries and “Second City” columns for 2004, I’m sure I’d blush to recall some of the good things that are temporarily slipping my middle-aged mind.
I’ve also made some wonderful friends, not a few of them such fellow bloggers as Maud, Sarah, Chicha
(a/k/a Galley Cat), and Maccers,
whose postings first brought them to my attention, but who have since become a part of my corporeal life as well.
How lucky am I? Words can’t even begin to say. Thanks to you all, hither and yon, for taking part in the fun—and thanks above all to Our Girl in Chicago, my adored co-blogger, who has been improving my life for more than a decade.
TT: Prize packages
Nobody in the business takes the classical-music Grammies seriously, even when deserving albums are nominated (which happens more often than you might think). The jazz Grammies are different, even when undeserving albums are nominated (which also happens more often than you might think), for a timely nomination can give a significant boost to an artist’s career. Thus it’s with the greatest of pleasure that I take note of the fact that several “About Last Night” faves got the nod last week:
• For best large jazz ensemble album, Bob Brookmeyer’s Get Well Soon and Maria Schneider’s Concert in the Garden.
• For best instrumental composition, Schneider’s “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” (included on Concert in the Garden) and Schneider’s “Three Romances,” recorded by the University of Miami Concert Jazz Band on Romances.
• For best jazz instrumental album, individual or group, the Bill Charlap Trio’s Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein.
• For best jazz instrumental solo, Donny McCaslin on Schneider’s
“Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” and John Scofield on “Wee” (included on EnRoute).
• For best historical reissue and best album notes (by Loren Schoenberg), Woody Herman's The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Woody Herman And His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947), available only by mail order from Mosaic Records.
I think these more than make up for Queen Latifah’s nomination for best jazz vocal album, don’t you? (We simply won’t talk about the scandalous omission of Luciana Souza’s exquisite Neruda.)
I might add—because it’s hugely significant—that Concert in the Garden is only available on line from Maria Schneider’s Web site, which uses ArtistShare’s radical new Web-based technology to market Schneider’s music directly to listeners. In effect, Schneider is now her own record label. That’s the future, folks.
I am, needless to say, torn in twain by the fact that Schneider and Brookmeyer, both of whom I admire extravagantly and without reserve, were both nominated for best big-band CD, especially since their albums are both sensationally good. (Isn’t it a wonderful coincidence, by the way, that Schneider studied composition with Brookmeyer? He's so proud of her that he could explode.)
I e-mailed congratulations to them last week, adding, “But who am I going to root for?” To which Brookmeyer instantly replied, “The Red Sox, of course.”
That's a good answer.
I'm totally with OGIC on M.F.K. Fisher (see immediately below). I think she's the American Colette, another wonderful writer whom some dried-up anhedonic types Just Don't Get. I've introduced a dozen close friends to her work over the years, and not one has failed to warm to her. This isn't to say that you absolutely have to like Fisher (or Colette) if you want to be my friend, but apparently it doesn't hurt.
As for critics who poke holes just to hear the pop, that's awfully undergraduate, don't you think?
When I was an undergraduate, studying music criticism with the late John Haskins, who was then the music critic of the Kansas City Star, I brought in a paper for his perusal in which I declared that I didn't like Schumann. He said, mildly, "You know, Terry, that says more about you than it does about Schumann." As I pulled the arrow out of my forehead, I realized that I'd just learned a priceless lesson: if you're going to express a personal prejudice in a review, one that causes you to dissent decisively from a long-standing verdict of posterity, do it ruefully, in full awareness that your inability to appreciate an obviously great artist is a failure of taste that separates you from the communion of truth.
(And no, Wagner doesn't count.)
OGIC: Next time, bring a sharper pin
Do you get the feeling that Laura Shapiro, reviewing the new M. F. K. Fisher biography for the New York Times Book Review, is not so entranced with the book's subject?
Though her subject was food, it needn't have been: she could have been writing about clocks or Christmas trees, and they would have sent her prose wafting dizzily into the realms of love, death and desire, just as tangerines and oysters did….
Readers tumbled blissfully into the concoctions of sensuality and fantasy that swirled across her pages, and to many aspiring authors her style was irresistible. A heady narcissism, feverishly laced with romantic innuendo, became the new mode in evocative food writing. [all emphasis added]
I recognize myself in there—the reader who has read Fisher blissfully again and again—but Fisher herself, as far as I'm concerned, doesn't answer to Shapiro's snarky descriptions. In the third paragraph of the review, Shapiro as much as admits that she's the opposite of a fan:
But who was she? Who was that mysterious woman sitting alone in a restaurant, relishing a meal she had chosen so astutely that the other diners, even the waiters, were stunned? Who was that narrator so elusive we can only picture her veiled? Anyone who has ever asked this question, either in pleasure or in mounting irritation, will pounce….
You can guess which way Shapiro asked that question. Irritation is the keynote of this dismissive and bored review. It ultimately ends up "pouncing," indeed, on some of the less pleasant of biographer Joan Reardon's revelations about Fisher. Shapiro seems to have been only too glad to hear them. If I sound irritated myself, it's not because I require other readers to share my near-veneration (yeah, I'll cop to it) of Fisher's prose but because Shapiro doesn't bother to actually make any sort of real case against it. She instead lazily slings around some snide innuendo that conjures up, weirdly, a flighty Fisher whose aesthetic has a lot in common with a perfume commercial. Which is ridiculous, as I'll explain below. As a bonus, the review manages to condescend mightily to Fisher's admirers, who "tumble" into the books rather than reading them, and the most dedicated of whom are suspected of being "aspiring authors" (the horror!) or trend-surfing foodies. If you ask me, she seems awfully suspicious—suspiciously suspicious—of pleasure, in eating or reading. And so, perhaps, not the ideal reviewer of Poet of the Appetites.
Far more fair, balanced, and credible in his description of Fisher's work is Brian Thomas Gallagher, who reviews the same biography for Bookforum this month (kisses hereby blown to Cinetrix for the link-up):
M.F.K. Fisher is, more than anything else, a literary seductress. Her writing, always sensual but never decadent, draws the reader near her. Whether she is at the dinner table, on a transatlantic cruise, on a country walk in Dijon, or somewhere else more private, one wishes to join her in her pleasures.
This focus on the proximity of the experiences Fisher describes in her best essays is just right. Most of the pleasures she evokes are modest, small, tactile. Even if she does make great claims for their metaphysical significance, the pleasures themselves remain lodged in the sensual world with all its contingencies.
Gallagher also gives Fisher's readers a little credit for being sophisticated enough to know that her writings did not record the gospel truth:
There was already little doubt that M.F.K. Fisher the protagonist differed significantly from M.F.K. Fisher the person. It would be hard for any reader of Fisher to believe that she was at once as naive and as worldly as she comes across in her writing. Moreover, such conceits are part of autobiography, and in fact, the writer herself acknowledged this. In a letter to her psychiatrist in 1950, she wondered, "Do I marry M.F.K. Fisher and retire with him-her-it to an ivory tower and turn out yearly masterpieces of unimportant prose?" So while belaboring the fact that there are two Fishers, what Poet of the Appetites does not do well is explore the meaning of the relationship between them.
For this sober paragraph I'm grateful, especially after the gotcha tone of Shapiro's review, and her overreaching for an original response to Fisher's work—to the point of ceasing to see that work clearly. Her detractions reminded me of a small aside in a (fascinating) essay (that you should read) in the New Republic last week (do read it). Here Rochelle Gurstein writes about the painter Raphael's present-day detractors, specifically Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times: "When Kimmelman says he doesn't 'get' Raphael, there is hardly a ripple (except for the irritation felt by those who are tired of critics who try to say shocking things)." I wouldn't mind entertaining such detractions if they were critically persuasive. Shapiro isn't out to persuade, or even shock (that would require more energy than she brings)—just to puncture.
The best news here is reported in Gallagher's review:
Fortunately, to coincide with the biography, North Point press has just reissued five of her best works. An Alphabet for Gourmets, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, Serve It Forth, and, Fisher's loveliest book, The Gastronomical Me, have all recently become available in paperback (though one is still probably better off with the single-volume collection The Art of Eating, which contains them all).
And here is the only particular in Gallagher's review I must take issue with. Spring for the five individual volumes; they're lovely objects, especially the photographs of Fisher that grace their covers, which Bookforum has smartly reproduced alongside the review.
As for me, I may well return to those fab five in the near future. But I'll skip the biography, thanks anyway.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 13, 2004 | Permanent
• Reflections in D Minor, one of the art-and-life blogs I read regularly, distributed its First Annual Me Too Weblog Awards the other day. I won one: “The Professional Journalist Who Actually Gets Blogging Award.” This pleased me no end, in part because I remember the fuss I kicked up by posting my notes on blogging several months ago (and yes, it was presumptuous of me!).
A steadily growing number of professional journalists have waded into the blogosphere since Our Girl and I set up shop in this space, some of whom clearly get it and some of whom just as clearly don’t. It’s not for me to say to which category I belong, but one thing I do know is that I’ve tried to get it—that is, to approach blogging on its own distinctive terms. I'm glad to see that Reflections in D Minor agrees.
If I were handing out my own set of awards, by the way, I’d give a similar one to Alex Ross, whose page started out as a boring old links-to-my-print-media-stuff billboard but evolved with impressive and gratifying speed into a bonafide blog. Alex gets it, too.
• A great conductor died the other day, but hardly anybody noticed, and I doubt that many readers of this blog would have known his name. Yet Frederick Fennell was one of the most gifted and individual conductors of the century just past. The reason why he failed to make a significant impression on the listening public-at-large was that he spent virtually the whole of his career conducting concert bands. What John Philip Sousa started, Fennell finished by founding the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952. Together with that peerless group, he made a long series of band recordings for Mercury whose vigor, precision, and technical finesse have never been equaled, much less surpassed. One of them, Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, is in my opinion one of the greatest recordings of the 20th century—and note that I didn’t say “greatest band recordings,” either.
The New York Times published a too-short obituary of Fennell that ends with this anecdote, circulated via e-mail by Cathy Martensen, Fennell’s daughter:
Ms. Martensen recounted that on his deathbed Mr. Fennell said, "I cannot die without a drummer." She added that his last words were: "I hear him. I'm O.K. now."
I hope I have the presence of mind to say something half so appropriate when the Distinguished Thing pays me a call.
• A reader wrote to ask if I’d post a list of my favorite Christmas albums and/or songs. Truth to tell, I’m not fond of very many pop-music Christmas albums, most of which run to the cheesy (this one being an obvious exception). I do, however, have a favorite Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s a simple, graceful ballad that just happens to be about Christmas, and it rarely fails to move me to tears. Though it’s been recorded hundreds of times, I still think Judy Garland's first version is the best. (That's how you can tell I'm straight, all superficial cultural indications to the contrary: I prefer Garland's early recordings.)
As for classical-style albums, I have two particular favorites, Robert Shaw’s elegantly sung Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols and the King’s College Choir’s recording of Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, a modern masterpiece that, like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” just happens to be about Christmas.
• Speaking of A Ceremony of Carols, which is one of every self-respecting harpist’s top five bread-and-butter pieces (it’s scored for boys’ choir and harp), I’ve been meaning for weeks now to plug one of the smartest blogs in the 'sphere, Helen Radice’s twang twang twang. Radice is a professional harpist who lives in England and blogs about her everyday life as a working musician, not infrequently pausing to make amplifying remarks that have a way of sticking in my mind:
It is hard to play classical music if you bottle up what you feel. Traditionally it is not concerned with spectacle and focuses instead on the emotional, the spiritual, and so on. But when you go on stage you put on a show, acting confident when you don’t feel confident. And despite the adage that courage is acting bravely no matter how scared you really are, because in music you cannot lie, it is not the same. I love show business, but it is not the same.
I don’t know a thing about Radice other than what she posts on her blog, but I sure wish she'd move to Manhattan and start hanging with all the other New York-based bloggers. I bet she’d fit right in.
• A lot of music on the blog this morning, huh? (Even the almanac entry is about an imaginary composer.) Don't ask me how I got so preoccupied, though it could have something to do with the fact that I just made a megacool new friend who is, like Helen Radice, a working musician. That might explain why my mind has been running in musical circles for the past few days. No doubt a better balance will reassert itself as the week wears on...
• ...or not. I have three or four print-media pieces to write this week before heading for Smalltown, U.S.A, on Saturday morning (I'm thinking of trying to wheedle a week's grace out of one of my more susceptible editors), so I don’t expect to post with my usual demoralizing regularity. I’ll do my best to at least keep my hand in, though, and I’ll also be bringing my iBook home for the holidays, so don’t worry about going cold turkey. I'll be around.
Now excuse the hell out of me while I go make some money….
Saturday, December 20, 2003
"He began to laugh uncontrollably, quite in the old manner. Then, with an effort, he stopped. He was almost breathless, coughing hard. At the end of this near paroxysm he looked less ill, more exhausted. The information had greatly cheered him.
"'No, really, that's too much. Am I to be suffocated by nostalgia? Will that be my end? I should not be at all surprised. I can see the headline:
MUSICIAN DIES OF NOSTALGIA
"'They'd put someone like Gossage on to the obit. "Mr. Hugh Moreland—probably just Hugh Moreland these days—(writes our Music Critic), at a fashionable gathering last night—I'm sure Gossage still talks about fashionable gatherings—succumbed to an acute attack of nostalgia, a malady to which he had been a martyr for years. His best-known works, etc., etc...."'"
Anthony Powell, Temporary Kings
TT: Truth and consequences
Michael Kinsley, who has his moments (but oh, those quarter-hours!), recently put his finger on something that’s always irritated me. We all know that politicians never tell the truth, but I don’t mind flat-out lies—that goes with the territory. What drives me wild is their inability to say anything without spinning it. Whatever else you may think of him, Howard Dean occasionally does otherwise, as Kinsley points out:
After calling Saddam's capture "a great day" for the military, for Iraqis, and for Americans generally, he added that it was "frankly, a great day for the administration." This is a rare example of a politician saying "frankly" and then saying something actually frank. It comes close to admitting the obvious: that this development helps Bush's chance of winning next year's election and therefore hurts Dean's.
It's a real mystery why politicians find it so hard to admit the obvious about the horse-race aspects of politics. No doubt it requires a dose of blind optimism to be a politician in the first place. Even Dennis Kucinich must think he has a 1-in-10,000 chance of becoming president, when his chance is actually much smaller. But there is also an annoying convention that you must pretend to a confidence you don't feel. Anyone who doesn't realize that this week's news has been a big boost for Bush's re-election is too stupid or blinded to be elected president. Yet the press will punish any candidate who says so, possibly because if the candidates take up stating the obvious, they're stealing our material. The pols need to be coy and evasive so that we can tell it to you straight.
Once again, this is not—repeat, not—a political blog. My reason for drawing your attention to Kinsley’s column has to do with the impeccably cultural topic of what used to be called "manners," by which I don’t mean choosing the right fork. It is an aspect of American manners that our politicians emulate our advertisers by engaging in the 24-hour robotic spin that determines their every public utterance: "So, Senator, how do you explain the presence of that cheap hooker in your hotel room?" "When I am elected president, the failed economic policies of the current administration will be reversed, thus reducing the burden on the middle class!" (No doubt this phenomenon is in large part a function of the takeover of the political process by lawyers.) In the process, they debase the culture as well, precisely because they’re not fooling anybody. When the men and women who lead us, or wish to lead us, engage in such shameless and transparent verbal trickery, they are going far beyond the necessary quotient of euphemism that lubricates everyday human transactions. They are proving themselves consistently untrustworthy in small things. Why, then, should we trust them in large ones?
I doubt I’m the only person in America who’s noticed this phenomenon, and who finds it more than merely disagreeable. I’ve posted this description of contemporary politicians before, but it’s worth repeating:
A walking, talking person-shaped but otherwise not very human amalgam of "positions," that familiar, tirelessly striving figure interviewed on the evening news who resoundingly tells you what he is thinking—and you keep wondering whether you should believe a word of it. These are people who don’t seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.
It’s from Meg Greenfield’s Washington, a book written in secret by the woman who ran the editorial page of the Washington Post for years—and who made sure her truth-telling wouldn’t see print until after her death. It’s brilliantly put, but what does it say about Washington (or about Greenfield, for that matter) that she considered it too hot to publish while she was still alive?
Back in World War II, shortly before the greasy cloud of spin had seettled on the land, Gen. Joseph Stilwell, whose nickname was "Vinegar Joe," met the press after having been forced to retreat from Burma by the Japanese. He said, "I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and re-take it."
The day any politician of either party makes so blunt a remark within earshot of microphones—and declines to retract, moderate, or invert it before the day is out—you’ll know the barometer of cultural health in America is moving in the right direction. But don't hang by your thumbs waiting for it.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 20, 2003 | Permanent
"One of the things I learned very early is that students always recognize a good teacher. They may be overimpressed by second-raters who only talk a good game, who are witty and entertaining, or who have reputations as scholars, without being particularly good teachers. But I have not come across a single first-rate teacher who was not recognized as such by the students. The first-rate teacher is often not 'popular'; in fact, popularity has little to do with impact as a teacher. But when students say about a teacher, 'We are learning a great deal,' they can be trusted. They know."
Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 20, 2003 | Permanent
Friday, December 19, 2003
TT: The last shall be first
I wonder how many classical music lovers under the age of 40 know who Walter Legge was. Not many, I suspect. Older record collectors, of course, know exactly who Legge was: from the end of World War II to 1964, he was one of the half-dozen most powerful people in the classical music business. He founded and ran London's Philharmonia Orchestra, which in the days of Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer was the best orchestra in Great Britain; he was the husband of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose career as an opera singer and recitalist he supervised painstakingly and obsessively. Most important of all, he was EMI's chief classical producer, the man to whom we owe, among countless other irreplaceable treasures, such complete opera sets as the Callas-Gobbi-de Sabata Tosca,
the Schwarzkopf-Karajan Rosenkavalier,
and the Flagstad-Furtwängler Tristan und Isolde.
Remove from your shelves every record originally produced by Legge, and you'll have more holes than a film-noir corpse.
Legge was more than just a powerful businessman: he was also a powerful personality, shrewd and witty and arrogant, the last of these virtually without limit. He made enemies easily and happily, and so when he finally needed friends in power, he didn't have any. Legge left EMI in 1964, assuming that every other classical label in the world would bid for his services—but none of them did. He walked away from the Philharmonia that same year, assuming it would fold—but it immediately reorganized and went on without him. He spent the rest of his life in embittered exile from the music business, pouring his thwarted energies into his personal correspondence and his wife's dwindling career, hoping that somebody, anybody, would hire him to run a record company, an opera house, even a music festival—but hoping in vain.
A candid biography of Legge would be a feast of gossip, as well as a matchless cautionary tale. Alas, no such book exists, though Legge drafted a short memoir that saw print in 1982 as part of On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge, a book nominally credited to Schwarzkopf but consisting in the main of her husband's own pungent comments on music and musicians; in addition, Legge’s own Walter Legge: Words and Music
contains a straightforward biographical chapter by Marie Tobin, Legge's younger sister, that tells the story of his life up to the end of World War II. Between them, these two books also reprint most of Legge's published writings about music—including a generous selection of the concert and opera reviews he wrote for the Manchester Guardian between 1934 and 1938—as well as a good-sized chunk of his correspondence.
Needless to say, not all of this material can be taken at face value, for Legge was much given to retrospective self-justification, especially in his later years. But there are also unauthorized versions of various bits and pieces of his story, most notably the second volume of Peter Heyworth's biography of Otto Klemperer, in which the story of Klemperer's uneasy association with Legge is told from the conductor's jaundiced point of view. I hope somebody will eventually finally get around to writing a full-scale biography (though probably not until after Schwarzkopf dies), but these varied sources have already told us quite a bit about the life, work, and character of the greatest record producer of the LP era, much of it in his own vivid words.
One thing that startled me was just how uncautious Legge was. His spectacularly tactless interoffice memos, for instance, were manifestly the work of a bullying egomaniac who thought himself incapable of error and had nothing but contempt for anyone benighted enough to disagree with him. This included musicians as well as fellow employees, for Legge was one of the few record producers who habitually told performers how to do their jobs. Rarely have I read anything so odiously smug as this excerpt from a letter he sent to a friend in Israel: "My wife is going to the U.S.A. on Sunday and I follow 12 days later to try to extract from an American accompanist some of the sensitivity I squeezed out of Gerald Moore and more recently Geoffrey Parsons. Accompanists are made, not born."
Why did musicians swallow this kind of talk? Fear had a lot to do with it, of course, though some of them genuinely believed that Legge's aggressive coaching brought out the best in them. But Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would have none of it. In Reverberations, his 1987 autobiography, he recalls the first time the two men worked together in the studio: "Walter Legge, as supervisor of the recording, wanted to follow his usual habit of involving himself in shaping my understanding (of some Hugo Wolf lieder and Schubert's 'Schone Müllerin'). Estimating the situation subjectively, I thought I should stick with my own ideas, and he soon fell silent. He never forgave me." And Klemperer's final verdict on Legge, quoted by Peter Heyworth, is franker still: "He likes to think of himself as an incomparable musician...He is a very gifted connoisseur and a very good record producer—c'est tout."
But if that was all, it was also—up to a point—more than enough. For Legge really was a connoisseur of the highest order, consistently capable of spotting and appreciating the very best; the deeply admiring obituaries he wrote for such close colleagues as Dennis Brain, David Oistrakh, and Dinu Lipatti, all reprinted in Words and Music, leave no doubt of that. Moreover, he insisted on the best at his recording sessions, and settled for nothing less. This is part of what he meant when he spoke of himself as "the first of what are called 'producers' of records":
Before I established myself and my ideas, the attitude of recording managers of all companies was, "We are in the studio to record as well as we can on wax what the artists habitually do in the opera house or on the concert platform." My predecessor, Fred Gaisberg, told me: "We are out to make sound photographs of as many sides as we can get during each session." My ideas were different. It was my aim to make records that would set the standards by which public performances and the artists of the future would be judged—to leave behind a large series of examples of the best performances of my epoch.
Implicit in this characteristic statement of purpose was the notion that recordings could be superior to live performances—indeed, that they could exist as wholly independent art objects (a very Glenn Gouldian notion, that). And when Legge joined forces with similarly inclined artists of compatible temperament, the results were often extraordinary. On and Off the Record ends with a 45-page discography of recordings produced by Legge, among which you will find many of the most memorable performances of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, a great many of which have since been transferred to CD and continue to set standards to this day.
Legge left another mark on the classical recording business: it was in large part because of his example that the major labels came to concentrate on recording celebrity performances of the standard repertoire. Though he claimed to like the tonal modernists, he had little time for them in the studio (the only two living composers whose music he recorded at all extensively were Walton and Hindemith), preferring to devote his energies to setting down flawless recordings by star performers of popular operas and the safest of Austro-German classics. His concert reviews make it all too clear that he had no feel for the Franco-Russian style, or for modern music in general.
Legge's conservative tastes served his masters well, and continue to do two decades after his death: the records he made are still selling. But his consistent lack of adventurousness, even in the areas of modern music he affected to find interesting, would have dire results in the long run. Of all the major classical labels, EMI has probably had the least success at transforming itself into a repertoire-driven operation, and in recent years it has also had little luck at finding younger artists capable of performing the standard repertoire in a way that captures the attention of younger listeners, save by the worst sort of pandering. How ironic that the label of Walter Legge and Fred Gaisberg has become the home of Thomas Adés and the Eroica Trio.
But, then, maybe it isn't as ironic as all that, for Legge was never a man to take chances. Under John Culshaw, Decca/London poured vast resources into recording the music of Benjamin Britten; Columbia's Goddard Lieberson did the same thing with Stravinsky and Schoenberg, simultaneously letting Leonard Bernstein record a generous helping of then-obscure American music. Not Walter Legge. "I do not believe in spending money to play to empty seats," he wrote. "Ever!" Instead, he preferred to play it safe, and the classical recording industry eventually followed his lead—right over a cliff.
The moral? Never forget to keep one eye on the future. Sooner or later, it turns into the present.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 20, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: It's oh-gic with a guh
Sorry, Terry! But that's not how I say it (see the post directly below). I'm not sure why, but I've always been oh-gic (with a hard "G") to me. I'm just not fond of that chewy "odge" sound, and I definitely prefer the long "O," like the letter. I think this makes my pronunication sound more like the acronym it is, which I like. I've never been known by an acronym before, and I'm finding it rather enchanting. Makes me feel kind of official. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to go over your head here and declare mine the official pronunciation.
Funny, isn't it, that we never discovered we were saying this differently?
And yes, I did make a Liza Minnelli reference up there. Weird, huh?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, December 19, 2003 | Permanent
TT: In case you were wondering
A blogger out there refers to me as "Terry 'Unpronounceable' Teachout." In fact, my last name is pronounced exactly like the two words of which it is constructed: TEACH-out.
OGIC, by the way, is pronounced like "logic" without the "l."
Aren't you glad we cleared that up?
TT: Not quite a torrent, almost a deluge
I've gotten a lot of terrific mail in recent days, and haven't had time to do anything with it. My plan is to devote most of next week's blogging to the best of your letters, with occasional interspersed comments.
If you haven't heard from me, that's why...and watch this space!
TT: Gray and grayer
Eric Felten has a very interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about advertisers who pitch to the 18-to-34 cohort, and why they’re foolish to do so. This paragraph is particularly relevant:
A few years ago the Chicago Symphony commissioned a survey that found the average age of its concert-goers to be 55. But the orchestra's president, Henry Fogel, didn't fall for the actuarial fallacy. Instead he checked similar research done 30 years earlier and found that the average age at that time was also 55. "There is simply a time in one's life when subscribing to a symphony orchestra becomes both desirable and possible," says Mr. Fogel, now president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Acting on this insight, the Chicago Symphony is wooing boomers who, though they may still enjoy their old Beatles records, long for a new musical experience. The orchestra has targeted new subscribers by advertising on, of all places, a local "classic rock" station.
Read the whole thing here. I think Felton is dead right, but as one who has blogged aggressively about the need for arts organizations to target and capture a younger audience, I should point out that in the context of symphony orchestras and opera companies, "younger" means "younger than 70," not "18 to 34." And when it comes to creating a younger audience, don’t forget that arts education in the public schools is in decline. The question everybody is asking, or ought to be asking, is this: how hard is it to persuade people of a certain age (i.e., mine) to make a serious commitment to an art form about which they know little or nothing going in?
I just wrote a piece for Commentary (I’ll link to it when it’s available on line) about how I became interested in the visual arts. I am an adult convert—I didn’t start looking at painting and sculpture until I was 40 years old. So it can happen. But I was an aesthete going in: I was already habituated to the notion of seeking pleasure through high art. If the Chicago Symphony is counting on there being enough people like me in Chicagoland to pay its bills in the coming decade, I have a feeling that they’re whistling Schoenberg.
TT: Where his mouth is
I’m reading the revised edition of City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village, a book by David Sucher, who blogs, logically enough, at City Comforts. Sucher has popped up on this site before, usually in connection with modern architecture. He can be quite thought-provokingly testy, in the very best tradition of bloggers. Take a look at his blog—and definitely buy his book. It’s a manual of dos and don’ts about urban planning on a human scale, and it is immensely readable (not to mention beautifully designed).
You may not think this topic interests you, but if you live in or near a city, it does whether you know it or not, and Sucher has an uncanny knack for simplifying complicated issues by reducing them to practical essentials. I’ve never read anything so illuminating about what he calls "the sociable city."
To order the book, go here. I strongly recommend it.
TT: Far removed
Cinetrix writes about obsessive filmgoers:
You’ve seen them, too. Perhaps even dodged them. Unlike film students, they don’t go to the movies because they’re supposed to, they go to the movies because they have to. The darkness is asylum and escape from a world that’s never just like it is on the silver screen.
(Read the whole thing here.)
No doubt I have these tendencies, too, though I never noticed them until the afternoon a few years ago when I attended a matinee devoted exclusively to Warner Bros. cartoons. Granted, this was in New York, but as I stood in the lobby and looked around me at the visibly peculiar souls drawn by the prospect of spending an hour and a half with Bugs, Daffy, and Wile E. Coyote, I thought to myself, What must I look like to them?
I had this thoroughly unsettling experience in mind when I wrote the first paragraph of "What Randolph Scott Knew," an essay about the Westerns of Budd Boetticher included in A Terry Teachout Reader (preorder your copy today!).
If you long to meet odd people, it’s hard to top Manhattanites who go to movies on weekdays. To be sure, I am among their number, but at least I have an excuse: I write about movies. The viewers I have in mind are the pure-hearted obsessives, overwhelmingly male and uniformly unattractive, who flock to revival houses on sunny spring afternoons to take in the latest week-long tribute to Alexander Dovzhenko, Ida Lupino, or maybe Edgar G. Ulmer—it scarcely matters, since the same folks show up every time, no matter what’s showing….
It isn’t just filmheads, of course. Danceheads and operaheads are the same way, and since I partake of all of the above obsessions, plus a few others, what does that make me? But at least in New York you know you’re not alone. I can’t think of another city where it’s possible to satisfy so many different obsessions so thoroughly, or to be a member of so many different social groups whose membership doesn’t overlap at all. I first noticed this at my fortiety birthday party (one of the very few parties, incidentally, that I've ever thrown, or had thrown for me). I didn’t know a room could have so many different corners, much less that each could be inhabited with its very own gaggle of recognizably similar people.
Perhaps all my obsessions cancel one another out and leave in their wake the residue of an approximately normal human being. But I wouldn’t count on it.
TT: On paper
Erin O’Connor, who blogs at Critical Mass, writes this morning about The Human Stain—the novel, not the movie—from the point of view of "the human cost of the culture of campus speech codes." In light of my unenthusiastic earlier posting on the film, it’s hugely interesting to read what she has to say, and even more interesting to read this striking quote from the book:
There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because there is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.
Read O’Connor’s own trenchant posting here. And if you haven’t bookmarked Critical Mass, do so. It’s indispensable.
"I know of nothing more beautiful than the Appassionata, I could hear it every day. It is marvellous, unearthly music. Every time I hear these notes, I think with pride and perhaps childlike naivete, that it is wonderful what man can accomplish. But I cannot listen to music often, it affects my nerves. I want to say amiable stupidities and stroke the heads of the people who can create such beauty in a filthy hell. But today is not the time to stroke people’s heads; today hands descend to split skulls open, split them open ruthlessly, although opposition to all violence is our ultimate ideal—it is a hellishly hard task."
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, quoted in Maxim Gorky, Days with Lenin
Thursday, December 18, 2003
TT: Funny and otherwise
I reviewed the openings of two off-Broadway shows, Neil Simon’s Rose’s Dilemma
and Bill Irwin’s The Regard Evening, in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
About the first I was tepid:
"Rose’s Dilemma" is worth seeing, albeit for a sad reason: Mr. Simon is 76 and in fragile health, and my guess is that he intended it as his farewell to the theater. The self-pitying tone of the play, which tells the story of Rose Steiner (Patricia Hodges), an aging, hopelessly blocked playwright who is haunted by the imagined ghost of Walsh McLaren, her old lover (John Cullum), leaves little doubt of that. "You sound like a caricature of yourself that fell off the wall at Sardi’s," Rose tells Walsh at one point. I winced, suspecting that Mr. Simon’s satirical gun was aimed at his own forehead.
Unlike Rose, Mr. Simon is still in there pitching, but he’s lost his curveball. "With Neil Simon," the playwright David Ives once told me, "you can sort of walk out of the theater and hum the jokes, like humming the tunes from a musical." Alas, the jokes in the first act of "Rose’s Dilemma" are tuneless, though their metronomic rhythm—setup, payoff, setup, payoff—keeps clacking away relentlessly. That’s the problem: The first act feels like a comedy, only it isn’t funny….
About the second I wasn’t:
[T]his revival of "The Regard of Flight," Mr. Irwin’s 1982 spoof of postmodern theater and its malcontents, runs through Jan. 25. That gives you plenty of time to see it at least once, and preferably twice. Not only is it a hoot and a half, but Mr. Irwin has tacked on a brief afterpiece in which the three characters of "The Regard of Flight" grapple ineptly with life in the age of e-mail and cell phones. It’s superfluous—the original show is perfect—but it does give you 20 extra minutes in the company of Mr. Irwin and his droll colleagues, and that’s good enough for me…
No link, so to read the whole thing, buy this morning’s Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and regale yourself with a wide variety of arts and culture coverage, all for a dollar. It’s the best deal in town.
TT: Worm watch
I’m thinking of a famous 20th-century author who used to be immensely popular for his comedies, which made him the most successful commercial playwright of his generation. For a brief time he was even taken seriously by the critics, who saw in his work a reflection of the spirit of the age, and who also thought that at least some of his plays might have a permanent life in revival. Then he hit a bad patch, turning out a string of ineffective scripts at the very moment that a new generation of theatergoers was looking for something new. Tastes changed, and he woke up one day to find himself unfashionable.
If you thought I was talking about Neil Simon, whose Rose’s Dilemma opens tonight at the Manhattan Theatre Club (and which I will be reviewing in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal), you were right. But with one small addition, the same things could be said of Noël Coward. The difference is that Coward lived long enough to see the worm turn a second time. Producers and critics sorted through his prolific output and came to the conclusion that five of his plays—Private Lives, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit, probably Hay Fever, and possibly Design for Living—were classics of their kind. They began to be revived with increasing regularity, and Coward himself contrived to write and star in one last semi-autobiographical play, A Song at Twlight, that solidified his reputation as something more than a mere commercial playwright. Since then, the worm has remained more or less stationary, and Coward continues to be regarded as an important figure in 20th-century theater.
Will anything like that happen to Neil Simon? Certainly a few of his plays, in particular The Odd Couple (which had the advantage of having been made into a very successful movie), are still performed, and it may well be that time will sift through the rest and find another three or four that remain viable. That’s all it takes. On the other hand, I recently spoke to a friend of mine who has staged and acted in several Simon plays and who finds them terribly dated. That makes sense to me, for Simon has always struck me as essentially a writer of live-action situation comedy—a genre whose rules he helped to codify back in the Fifties—and outside of The Honeymooners and Cheers, precious few sitcoms have remained watchable over the long haul.
Still, I could be wrong. A lot of smart people, after all, were wrong about Noël Coward. And whatever the reception of Rose’s Dilemma, it will be interesting to see what happens to Neil Simon’s oeuvre in the course of the next few years. I don’t expect him to turn out to be the American Coward—but stranger things have happened in the theater. Did anyone expect Tennessee Williams’ work to date as completely and irrevocably as it did?
Moral: if you want to hear God laugh, make a plan. If you want to hear Him howl, try to second-guess posterity.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 18, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cooooookie
"The little maid came into the silent room. I looked at her stocky young body, and her butter-colored hair, and noticed her odd pale voluptuous mouth before I said, 'Mademoiselle, I shall drink an apéritif. Have you by any chance—'
'Let me suggest,' she interrupted firmly, 'our special dry sherry. It is chosen in Spain for Monsieur Paul.'
And before I could agree she was gone, discreet and smooth.
She's a funny one, I thought, and waited in a pleasant warm tiredness for the wine.
It was good. I smiled approval at her, and she lowered her eyes, and then looked searchingly at me again. I realized suddenly that in the land of trained nonchalant waiters I was to be served by a small waitress who took her duties seriously. I felt much amused, and matched her solemn searching gaze.
'Today, Madame, you may eat shoulder of lamb in the English style, with baked potatoes, green beans, and a sweet.'
My heart sank. I felt dismal, and hot and weary, and still grateful for the sherry.
But she was almost grinning at me, her lips curved triumphantly, and her eyes less palely blue.
'Oh, in that case a trout, of course—a truite au bleu as only Monsieur Paul can prepare it!'
She glanced hurriedly at my face, and hastened on. 'With the trout, one or two young potatoes—oh, very delicately boiled,' she added before I could protest, 'very light.'
I felt better. I agreed. 'Perhaps a leaf or two of salad after the fish,' I suggested. She almost snapped at me. 'Of course, of course! And naturally our hors d'oeuvres to commence.' She started away.
'No!' I called, feeling that I must assert myself now or be forever lost. 'No!'
She turned back, and spoke to me very gently. 'But Madame has never tasted our hors d'oeuvres. I am sure that Madame will be pleased. They are our specialty, made by Monsieur Paul himself. I am sure,' and she looked reproachfully at me, her mouth tender and sad, 'I am sure that Madame would be very much pleased.'
I smiled weakly at her, and she left. A little cloud of hurt gentleness seemed to hang in the air where she has last stood.
I comforted myself with sherry, feeling increasing irritation with my own feeble self. Hell! I loathed hors d'oeuvres! I conjured disgusting visions of square glass plates of oily fish, of soggy vegetables glued together with cheap mayonnaise, of rank radishes and tasteless butter. No, Monsieur Paul or not, sad young pale-faced waitress or not, I hated hors d'oeuvres.
I glanced victoriously across the room at the cat, whose eyes seemed closed."
From M.F.K. Fisher, "Define This Word" (1936), in The Gastronomical Me
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 18, 2003 | Permanent
"My philosophy of dance? I make it up, and you watch it. End of philosophy."
Mark Morris, quoted in Joan Acocella, Mark Morris
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 18, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Faster and faster
The tempo of pre-holiday life is accelerating rapidly, leaving OGIC and me with less time for blogging, just as you probably have less time for reading.
We promise something new every day—beyond that, all bets are off. But we won’t forget about you!
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 18, 2003 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
TT: Back to Zankel
I returned last night to Zankel Hall, the brand-new 650-seat concert hall located underneath Carnegie Hall, to hear a double bill by two of my favorite jazz singers, Luciana Souza and Karrin Allyson. The show was terrific—I would have fallen down dead with surprise had it been anything else. But what about Zankel Hall itself?
If you were reading this blog in September, you’ll probably remember my long posting about Zankel’s press preview concert. (If you didn’t see it, or want to refresh your memory, go here.) I promised to report in due course on the impression the hall made upon closer acquaintance, and this seems like a perfect occasion, so here goes.
Design. Back in September, I called Zankel "attractive enough but somewhat sterile-looking, a typical exercise in safe concert-hall modernism." That’s more or less what I thought last night, though I should add that the stage picture is quite handsome, thanks to skillful lighting and three vertical black hangings placed behind the performers for acoustical reasons (about which more later). The ceiling, an exposed black lighting grid which I compared to "a giant assemblage by Louise Nevelson," still looks terrific. What remains oppressive-looking are the slabby walls on either side of the audience, which made me feel as though I were penned in.
Comfort. The lobby seemed more inviting this time, possibly because of better lighting and more elaborate decoration (it had previously struck me as "cramped and claustrophobic"). This time, though, I noticed with displeasure the street-level entrance and vestibule to Zankel Hall, which has no box office of its own (you have to go to the main box office at Carnegie Hall to pick up your tickets). It’s functional and ugly, a discouraging-looking transition from Eighth Avenue to the escalator, and does nothing whatsoever to put you in the festive mood appropriate to concertgoing.
Acoustics. Souza, Allyson, and their bands were amplified, so I can’t tell you anything new about the hall’s natural acoustic. I can say, however, that last night’s concert sounded infinitely better than the performance I heard in September by the Kenny Barron Quintet. The on-stage hangings, which I’m told are intended for use at amplified performances, seemed to have improved things, and I also suspect the hall’s managers now have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, electronically speaking. Whatever the reason, the drums weren’t nearly as boomy last night as they were in September (though I also suspect both drummers were under orders not to play too loudly), and the amplified bass sound was clearer and more concentrated. It still lacked the kind of low-end punch for which I’d hoped: this is definitely a bass-shy hall. Generally speaking, I thought the amplified sound of both bands was a bit tubby—too much midrange, not enough treble and low bass. It’s tolerable, and certainly better than what one too often hears in New York nightclubs, but it’s not there yet.
The subway. Zankel Hall is only a few feet from a subway tunnel. At the press preview concert, subway noise was audible—and obtrusive. I couldn’t hear it at all last night, though the performers could (Allyson mentioned it midway through her set). I can’t tell you how much of a problem it will continue to be at classical concerts, but it appears that it won’t be a problem at performances that make use of amplified instruments.
Again, these are purely preliminary reactions. Zankel Hall isn’t going anywhere, nor am I. We’ll have a lot of time to get used to one another. Still, I thought you’d like to know what I thought of the place now that some of the newness has rubbed off, and my feelings, though not uncontrollably enthusiastic, are nonetheless more favorable than they were three months ago. That’s good news.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 18, 2003 | Permanent
TT: All filling, no crust
Here’s Bob Gottlieb in the New York Observer:
Because it’s December, it’s also Alvin Ailey time—five weeks at the City Center. What is there left to say? The dancers are fabulous, the repertory isn’t. As usual, there are 20-odd performances of Revelations—it’s a ritual, the audience lapping it up from first to last. You feel they might not mind if it were done backwards. There was live music at the performance I saw, and it was so over-miked that it coarsened the whole experience.
(Read the whole thing here, including more on Ailey, New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, and Never Gonna Dance.)
Devastating but true, and it goes a long way toward explaining why I’m not doing Ailey this year, and didn’t last year, either. I already know what good dancing looks like, and it’s not enough to get me into a theater unless it’s enlisted in the service of good choreography. Revelations is a good dance, perhaps even a great one, but the Ailey company does it so often that it’s lost its effect—I never see anything new in it anymore. Ailey’s other dances are terribly inconsistent in quality, and Judith Jamison has so far failed to give the company the kind of wide-ranging, high-quality repertory that would make its programs worth seeing on more than isolated occasions. Every once in a while Jamison manages to come up with something good (the company is doing a new dance by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, for instance, and I have no doubt that it's worth seeing). But her batting average is far too low.
This is a fundamental problem of dance, by the way. How many modern-dance choreographers—or ballet choreographers, for that matter—have created a body of work sufficiently large and varied enough that it constitutes a working repertory all by itself? George Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, and maybe Merce Cunningham (and even Balanchine was smart enough to add Jerome Robbins to the mix, though he didn’t really need to). Period. As for all the others, well, you tell me: how many times can you see an all-Ailey, all-Robbins, all-Antony Tudor or all-Martha Graham program without glazing over? And why should you, for that matter? There's no such thing as a symphony orchestra that plays nothing but Beethoven (though God knows there are times when it seems that way), an opera company that performs nothing but Puccini (ditto), or a theater company that produces nothing but Noël Coward. Shakespeare, yes, but are there any choreographers other than Balanchine who can be compared to Shakespeare without causing giggles?
I’ll give Judith Jamison this much credit: she apparently realized that Ailey didn’t make enough first-rate dances to maintain a sufficiently high level of public interest. By now, though, it’s painfully obvious that she doesn’t have the taste necessary to build a repertory. (Kevin McKenzie of American Ballet Theatre has exactly the same problem—judging by the company’s programs, he doesn’t know the difference between a good ballet and a trashy one.) The result is a dance company that has no compelling reason to exist, unless you’re the modern-dance equivalent of a "canary fancier," meaning somebody who’s more interested in singing than operas.
I hate to say such a thing about "the Ailey," as it’s known in the dance world, but Bob Gottlieb said it for me, and in any case it’s hardly a secret. If the Paul Taylor Dance Company or the Mark Morris Dance Group were to stop performing, it would be a tragedy, not merely for modern dance but for the world of art as a whole. If the Ailey were to close its doors, a lot of really good dancers would be out of work—and that’s pretty much it.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 17, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Good reads
Ed Page at Danger Blog! has excavated an old New Yorker piece in which James Thurber imagines how Hemingway would rewrite a Chirstmas classic. Here's a small taste:
The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.
“Father,” the children said.
There was no answer. He’s there, all right, they thought.
“Father,” they said, and banged on their beds.
The Wall Street Journal's column 4 has a terrific story today about Brooklyn's last remaining seltzer truck. You know the mantra: no link, but this piece alone is well worth the buck for the paper:
Spritzed by Flatbush Avenue traffic on a wet morning, the last known seltzer truck in New York City was a double-parked apparition, its tiers of lopsided racks holding a cock-eyed pile of siphon bottles in cracked, wooden crates.
Arnold Brenner, a psychoanalyst walking to work, spotted the truck just as Ronny Beberman, the seltzerman, was wheeling a delivery toward an apartment-house door. Dr. Brenner yelled, "How much is a…." But Mr. Beberman was already inside.
Dr. Brenner stood unactualized on the sidewalk. "I was thinking I could get a case," he said. "It's the spritz that does it—that fizz—so soothing, so strong. Reminiscent of something, something romantic."
Ronny Beberman has his own analysis of the spritz mystique: Because nobody wants it anymore, seltzer has become desirable.
"People, they don't know what seltzer is," he says. "They moved from Iowa. They ask me, 'What's in those bottles?' I have people, they chase me in their cars. They're disenchanted. They're drinking out of plastic."
Mr. Beberman emerges from this wonderful piece a genuinely romantic figure, the unbowed last relic of a business you'll be amazed (and grateful) to find has not quite died out yet. Buy the paper, read the whole piece. You'll get a Count Basie review and a profile of a fashion photographer into the bargain.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 17, 2003 | Permanent
TT: What if?
A reader writes:
Isn't expecting the New York Philharmonic to be adventurous a bit like expecting a major retail chain to begin its life in Manhattan?
In other words, the stakes are so high these days in NYC that one
can't help but be conservative with one's choices. You go to NYC
to announce that you have arrived, not to start your ascent to
greatness. For all of its glitter and glitz, NYC isn't terribly
interesting from some angles. Its commercial radio is mindnumbingly
conformist. Its politics are very narrow. Its major opera companies
are fairly staid. Now its flagship orchestra is becoming fusty.
No surprise, I guess. Is it a mistake? Sure, but that's not going to
change anyone's mind in the near term. If you want innovation you're
going to have to hope that the smaller, second-tier orchestras come
up with something interesting. The majors can't afford to alienate
their core constituency.
Nicely put, and quite possibly right...and it it is, then there are dark days ahead for the New York Philharmonic, and every other big-city performing-arts group of which the same thing can be said.
No names, but I went to a Wednesday matinee of a play last week, and every male head I saw was either gray or bald. I know, I know, Wednesday matinees are highly uncharacteristic, but I just got back from a Tuesday-night performance whose audience looked almost the same. Contrary to the apparent belief of a great many people in the arts world, dead people don't buy tickets.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 17, 2003 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
"All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead."
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 17, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Giving spinach a bad name
You and I both are under the gun this week. I just finished writing a review of Doris Lessing's The Grandmothers, due out in January, and it was a book that almost finished me. Going into the assignment, I didn't have anything against Lessing particularly. I duly read The Golden Notebook as a college senior, and if my memories of it are now vague, my fat little Bantam edition bears the cracked spine and dog-ears that are reliable marks of absorption. But this new book was a tremendous slog. Several times I thought I was within an hour or two of finishing it, but an hour to two later found myself maybe 20 pages along.
I found Lessing's writing here very mannered and schematic, and I find myself wondering about her reputation. I can't think of any of my contemporaries who count themselves as her fans, and I know a few who don't like her at all. Talking to the well-read, discriminating OFOB (Our Friend on the Block, from whom we'll be hearing more in the nearish future) about the book earlier today, I said "she's like spinach." OFOB protested: "But I like spinach!" Is Lessing one of those writers who speaks strongly to their own generation but then does a slow fade into obscurity?
In the course of writing the review, I consulted a few references to help me get a fuller sense of Lessing's reception. I looked at my dog-eared old Golden Notebook, the Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, and a fun, bossy, out-of-print reference book I picked up some years ago used, Martin Seymour-Smith's Who's Who in Twentieth-Century Literature. The Seymour-Smith is very like your and my perennial favorite, David Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film, in approach, if not execution: it's fiercely opinionated, seldom wavers, and is bracingly unapologetic about its judgments. It's fun to disagree with.
None of these sources (of course not the paperback cover) betrays any discontentment with or doubt about Lessing at all. Seymour-Smith and the Salon reviewer, Laura Morgan Green, treat her with a rather grave and unwavering respect. But both they and folks like Irving Howe who give blurbs on the paperback tend to describe the value of her work in terms of truth-telling. Very little is said about how she tells the truth in her fiction: about, say, her style or voice. What matters, according to these accounts, is simply that she is truthful. The conspicuous silence on aesthetic questions makes me a bit suspicious of all this praise, and it definitely resonates with my experience of The Grandmothers, in which the writing was very unbeautiful (I tripped over one sentence that turned out to have eleven commas) and pleasure seemed not only out of the question, but beside the point. If important truths were told in the book, I'm afraid I was too distracted by aesthetic undernourishment to catch them.
Who knows, maybe there are some fervent Lessing fans out there who will rush to her defense, but at the moment I'm having a hard time imagining it. Even the advocates I've cited sound more dutiful than passionate.
Looking ahead, I have two more days in Chicago before heading off to Detroit, from which fair city (don't believe me? see Out of Sight!) blogging will continue. It's the meantime I'm a little worried about, since I really am going to have to move heaven and earth to get everything done that needs doing at my day job. But I'll try to poke my head in now and again, and hope to see yours too.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 16, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Sure enough
I stayed up all night writing a piece (to be exact, I went to bed at 5:30 this morning), and I have to go to a play tonight, so you probably won't hear further from me today.
I think OGIC has posting plans. Otherwise, read what's there, and I'll see you tomorrow.
Monday, December 15, 2003
OGIC: Chilling tales
October 1938: Orson Welles strikes fear in the hearts of radio listeners everywhere with his fiendishly lifelike report of highly improbable events.
December 2003: Maud Newton strikes fear in the hearts of blog readers everywhere with her fiendishly lifelike report of highly improbable events.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 16, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Just wondering
Has there ever been a better-cast Hollywood movie than Twilight,
Robert Benton’s 1998 neo-noir thriller? I’d never even heard of it until OGIC drew it to my attention, but now it’s a special favorite that I screen at least once a year, as I did last night. From the top down, here’s the star billing: Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, James Garner, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale (she’s currently doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway), and M. Emmet Walsh, and every one of them is memorably good, especially Garner and Channing. Yet Twilight wasn’t a hit and isn’t all that well remembered, presumably because its real subject matter is advancing age, a topic that doesn't make for hits. Likewise Dick Richards’ 1975 film version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, in which the nonpareil Robert Mitchum plays Philip Marlowe as much older than did Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell—and makes you buy it.
Maybe it’s just my gray hairs talking, but I think noir and middle age go together like gin and vermouth. Disillusion, diminishing horizons, a shattered sense of the possible: that’s noir in a nutshell. Kinda goes well with the holidays, don't you think?
TT: Fair warning
This is a big writing week for me: I have to finish four pieces (and two letters of reference) before I hit the road next Monday. I promise to keep blogging all the while, aided and abetted by OGIC and our wonderful correspondents (see below for yet another case in point), but don't be surprised if the flow of soul around here isn't quite as profuse as usual, O.K.? It's merely a temporary pre-holiday aberration.
Incidentally, there's a chance that Our Girl and I will both be blogging from Chicago for a few days early in January. Should that happen, we'll go out of our way to cook up some exotic stunts for your amusement!
"The way to get the best out of instruction is to put oneself entirely in the hands of one’s instructor, and try to find out all about his method regardless of one’s own personality, keeping of course a secret 'eppur si muove' up one’s sleeve. Young students are much too obsessed with the idea of expressing their personalities. In the merest harmony exercises they insist on keeping all their clumsy progressions because that is what they 'felt,' forgetting that the art cannot mature unless the craft matures alongside with it."
Ralph Vaughan Williams, "A Musical Autobiography"
Sunday, December 14, 2003
TT: Not forgotten
A reader writes:
I’ve been mulling over your extensive posts about the cinematic experience.
Two things struck me in recent days: your post of someone’s memories of the
spectacle of live musical performance, and the post of someone’s complaints
about how Hollywood success is measured, in which he/she comments that
"movies are not communal experience."
I’ve been a bit distressed about your opinions, not because I think you are
wrong, but because I think you’re forgetting something. Yes, it is wasted
energy crying about the shifts in technology and the marketplace. Yes, we
should get over our nostalgia. Yes, it is possible to have great home
experiences of films.
But #1, the nature of films is changing as they are made for the home market
- and this includes the blockbusters. Without captive audiences in a
darkened theater, they are paced differently. Without giant screens,
overly-filtered light begins to pass for cinematography, subtle camerawork
and editing become less apparent and thus less likely to occur. Acting
evolves in different directions to take account of the more intimate
relationship between screen and audience. The advent of improved video (DVD
for the moment) means that increasingly films are preserved digitally for
the marketplace, not on film (more expensive). In other words, the
character of the films themselves is different on television sets than they
are in theaters, and this changes the very nature of how they are produced -
which is one reason why you don’t remember a lot of tv movies as classics.
#2, going to cinema IS a communal experience. I don’t know what is wrong
with your other correspondent, but if he/she missed all the people sitting
around the theater, I1d assume blindness is the problem. Films made for the
movie theater are made for collective audiences. They are screen tested
with full audiences to understand how they will be received. Comedies in
particular, but tear-jerkers too, have depended for their evolution not just
on mass taste, but the presence of multiple tastes during viewing. Watching
movies on tv is very different, and the venue absolutely affects the
character of the productions, particularly over time. While many more
people may watch, there is no sense to the maker of the film that he is
creating an overwhelming experience for a discrete group of people.
#3, old movies on tv are reproductions. They were shot on film, not video
or digital, and the translation is most often inadequate and always simply
different. No flicker, no reflection of pure light into the retina, but an
entirely different form of visual experience with completely different
physiological and psychological implications. As Norma Desmond, said, the
pictures ARE getting smaller. Recordings are not the same as live
performance in music, and video copies are not the same thing as original
three-strip Technicolor. Period. It does make a difference, or you
wouldn’t go to museums to see the posters in the shop. The reason why your
correspondent who remembered his 3rd-tier orchestra in Belarus had such an
extraordinary experience was because it was possible. He was listening to
To sum up, movies are different on tv. Not worse, necessarily, but
different. And something is absolutely lost in the transition, and to
pretend otherwise is a crime against culture as surely as being a Luddite
is. There is something tragic about the slow decline of an extraordinary
cultural experience, cinema-going, which resulted (at its best) in art from
the dross of commercialism. Would IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and CASABLANCA and
CITIZEN KANE be what they are without the filmmakers’ sense of the shared
aspirations and values of their collective audience? Would Hitchcock’s
films be as frightening as they are without his careful consideration of how
he could drive people crazy with tension in a crowded room, without his
certainty that multiple shrieks would amplify fear? For god’s sake, what
about the feeling you get when an entire room full of people laughs with you
at a joke that one and all get?
Cinema is our great accidental art form. It is both private and collective,
both interior and public, and yet its contexts have always been driven by
the marketplace, wherever we live. We will all have to get used to the
changes, yes. But I can’t accept that all disappearing sensations,
particularly those that come from art, should simply be let go with a brisk
wave and tip of the hat.
I don’t disagree with a word of this letter—which, perhaps not surprisingly, came from a museum curator. And I’m especially struck by the beauty of the last paragraph, which is very much the sort of thing that would occur to a museum curator. I will miss all those things. I don’t want them to go away. I want to be able to see the great movies of the past in theaters, surrounded by enthralled audiences…and I expect the day is coming when I’ll have to go to museums to do that. In which case we should all be grateful to museums for preserving the "disappearing sensation" of watching movies in the dark, surrounded by a roomful of people who came to partake of that miraculous communal experience.
What I also appreciate about this letter is that it completely disentangles my expectations from my desires. One of the things I try to do on this blog is predict some of the ways in which art will be affected by technological changes—but those predictions aren’t necessarily endorsements. They are attempts at understanding.
I’ve quoted it before, but I want to mention again a remark made by Marshall McLuhan in 1966: "I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening, because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me." I’m not quite that much of a neophobe, but I think I know how McLuhan felt, and what he meant. Much of the time, I wish the world could be exactly the way it was when I was young. Alas, it can’t even be the way it was this morning. I suppose the day will come when I decide to give up on the present and live in the past. Until then, I, too, am determined to understand what’s happening—and maybe even try to help shape it.
TT: In our hands
This is absolutely, positively not a political blog and never will be, but the most art-relevant story I read this weekend appeared in the Washington Post’s "Outlook" section. It’s a piece by Everett Ehrlich, Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs, on the economic reasons why the Internet is bringing about the decline of the two major political parties:
To an economist, the "trick" of the
Internet is that it drives the cost of information down to virtually
zero. So…smaller information-gathering
costs mean smaller organizations. And that's why the Internet has made
it easier for small folks, whether small firms or dark-horse
candidates such as Howard Dean, to take on the big ones….
Say you want to buy an appliance, or a vacation. You know
there are bargains out there, but it takes time and energy to find
them. That's what economists call the "transaction cost" of a
purchase. This cost of acquiring information is everywhere: the time
it takes to call a friend or to learn something in a newspaper. Or the
time and resources it takes a company to find out where to find parts
and to make sure they show up at an assembly line on time.
Back when it cost a great deal to learn and know things -- when
transaction costs were very high -- big corporations had to solve the
problem of coordinating information, such as what customers wanted to
buy, what parts were being produced and shipped, how to make sure
prices covered costs, and so on. The advent of mass production and
similar "process" technologies let firms produce and sell things --
cars, steel, oil, chemicals, food -- on a much larger scale, so there
was suddenly much more information to coordinate.
Companies solved this problem by creating massive bureaucratic
pyramids… Now, however, with internal communications networks and the speed of
the Internet, you don't need a horde of people in a big pyramid to
handle all that information. Firms have become "flatter" and "faster,"
and the "networked" or "virtual" company has come into being -- groups
of firms that use shared networks to behave as if they were part of
the same company….
Now anyone with a Web site and a server, a satellite
transponder and about $100 million can have -- in a matter of months
-- much of what the political parties have taken generations to build.
Technology, of course, has changed politics before. Television changed
the two parties, for example, but it didn't make the parties obsolete.
In fact, in the day of Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy,
television strengthened the two-party duopoly (the economist's term
for a shared monopoly), as only those two parties had the resources to
use it competitively.
But the Internet doesn't reinforce the parties -- instead, it
questions their very rationale. You don't need a political party to
keep the ball rolling -- you can have a virtual party do it just as
Read the whole thing here. Then think about how it applies to the myriad ways in which the Internet has already transformed the world of art, from the decline of the classical recording industry to eBay’s inadvertent creation of a worldwide "single market" for art auctions to the inauguration of artsjournal.com and its associated blogs.
I can’t say it often enough: The Web changes everything. Any artist who doesn’t understand that, and isn’t acting on the knowledge, is going to get left behind. Likewise any arts journalist. Even if economicspeak makes your eyes glaze over, read Everett Ehrlich’s piece (which is written in plain English, not jargon) and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Believe me, your time will be well spent.
TT: Sooner or (much) later
Fred Kaplan has a great story in this morning’s New York Times on why so many classic films have yet to show up on DVD:
Sometimes films are not on DVD for less Byzantine reasons. Older films especially are often in poor condition. The negative has deteriorated, if not vanished; existing prints are scratched or worse. Repairing the damage, and finding the best film and archival materials for bonus extras take much time and money.
A few years ago, only specialty houses like the boutique Criterion Collection bothered with the effort. Now many big studios are following its example.
In a recent industry survey by the Consumer Electronics Association, asking people what they liked best about DVD's, "picture quality" was the highest-scoring reply, cited by 81 percent of respondents. Studios that may once have rushed a disc to market are now taking greater care, even at some expense. "The marketing people have told us that picture quality is a premium," said MGM's Mr. Grossman.
Paramount knows there's demand for a DVD of "The African Queen," but the studio is in no rush, letting its archivists search for better film materials.
Then again, the ascending power of the marketing departments works both ways. To boost profits, they encourage better-looking DVD's. Yet for the same reason, they prevent many films from becoming DVD's at all.
"A lot of old films, including some well-known old films, don't sell in large volume," Mr. Grossman said. "If you're going to have to spend big money for restoration, and then you've got the costs of packaging and advertising, it's a barely break-even proposition."
Another video-distribution executive agreed: "Unless it's `Casablanca' or `Citizen Kane,' the studios will sell 100 times more copies of a bad action film made three years ago than they'll sell of a great film that they've dug out of the archive."
(Read the whole thing here.)
Sigh. Of course we all knew that, but it’s still discouraging to hear, especially given the fact that none of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott Westerns have made it to DVD yet—and only one of them, Comanche Station, was transferred to videocassette. (Copies now sell for $90 and up.) These films are universally admired by critics, yet they never even turn up on TV. Would somebody at the Criterion Collection please get with the program? I guarantee that DVDs of Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station would get plenty of ink, from me and plenty of other cinephiles.
P.S. My essay on the Boetticher-Scott films will appear in A Terry Teachout Reader—yet another reason to order your copy in advance!
"A further reason for my hatred of National Socialism and other ideologies is quite a primitive one. I have an aversion to killing people for the fun of it. What the fun is, I did not quite understand at the time, but in the intervening years the ample exploration of revolutionary consciousness has cast some light on this matter. The fun consists in gaining a pseudo-identity through asserting one’s power, optimally by killing somebody—a pseudo-identity that serves as a substitute for the human self that has been lost."
Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections