About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, February 10, 2006
TT: Not their kind, dear
Yes, it’s Friday. Yes, I’m in The Wall Street Journal. No, I’m not in New York—OGIC is posting the weekly drama-column teaser in my absence, bless her! Two shows this week, one in New York (Charles Grodin’s The Right Kind of People) and one in Chicago (Chicago Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing). Here goes:
Reality-based theater—what I call theatrical journalism—comes in flavors ranging from the poetic (“Henry V”) to the pedestrian (“Guantánamo”). Sometimes a purely fictional play may be journalistic in the precision with which it embodies a historical moment (Wendy Wasserstein, who died last week, had a knack for writing plays like that). And every once in a while a show comes along whose journalistic appeal is so strong that you find it interesting even though it really isn’t very good. Such is the case with “The Right Kind of People,” Charles Grodin’s inside look at a Fifth Avenue co-op board, which had its New York premiere last night. Considered solely as a play, “The Right Kind of People” is creaky in the extreme, but if it’s dish you’re looking for, Mr. Grodin serves it up juicy….
I always make a point of visiting Chicago Shakespeare Theater whenever I’m anywhere near the Windy City. They’ve yet to let me down, and Marti Maraden maintains their winning streak with her production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” in which the play is reset in the mid-19th century to no disruptive effect—the costumes are the main new wrinkle. Ms. Maraden, a well-known Canadian stage director, has brought with her two Canadian actors, Kelli Fox (she’s Michael J. Fox’s sister) and Jim Mezon, who play Beatrice and Benedick, the quarreling lovers, with enormous charm…
No link. You know what to do to read the whole thing, right? (A) Buy a copy of the Friday Journal. (B) Go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instantaneous access to the complete text of my review, along with much, much more art-related coverage.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 10, 2006 | Permanent
Thursday, February 9, 2006
"If there should be no art it would be impossible that we should know what the other feels."
Moriz Rosenthal, speech at a gala concert in honor of his eightieth birthday (1942)
TT: Flowing once more
I'm writing from a secure, undisclosed location (though not my usual one) to announce that I resumed work on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong yesterday morning after a longish and eventful hiatus. The immediate stimulus was the recent arrival of the galleys of Thomas Brothers' Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, which comes out in March. I'll be writing about it at length in a future issue of Commentary, so suffice it for now to say that it's a very important book. No sooner did I put it down than I felt the irresistible urge to get cracking on Hotter Than That again—further proof, if it were needed, that I'm myself again.
Here's something I wrote earlier today:
The coming of modernity not only shrank America to a manageable size, but drained away much of its romance. In an age of airports and superhighways, the Mississippi River has long since lost the symbolic resonance that Abraham Lincoln evoked in 1863 when he paid tribute to General Grant’s victory in Vicksburg by proclaiming that “the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” The phrase, borrowed by Lincoln from James Fenimore Cooper, now has a quaint, almost fustian air. How can we who take the miracle of transoceanic flight for granted think of a mere river—even a 3,900-mile-long one that cleaves the country from top to bottom—as the Father of Waters? Those who live near the banks of the Mississippi need no reminding of the fearful extent of its dammed-up wrath, but for most of the rest of us, it is not a destination but a landmark, something to be flown over or driven across on the way from one megalopolis to another....
Now it's back into the barrel again. See you later!
P.S. I've been having such a good time that I forgot to post the Thursday almanac and theater guide before going to bed last night. Scroll down and you'll find them in their usual places.
OGIC: Reverse psych, we think
Apropos of my Patrick O'Brian dilemma (skip down a few posts), the inimitable Outer Life writes:
As for O'Brian, I strongly counsel against picking up the books. I
have no innate interest in naval stories, little interest in historical novels qua historical novels, a terror of allowing an author to snare me in a 10,000 page trap and, frankly, too many other authors to read in too little time, so you can imagine how I felt ten years ago as he sucked me into his world, forcing me to devour every one of his novels, together with a history of Nelson's navy and a nautical dictionary, and left me begging for more up to the day he died.
The first book, "Master and Commander," has nothing to do with the movie of the same title. Looking back, it is probably the weakest book of the lot. The second book, "Post Captain," containing O'Brian's extended homage to Austen, is, perhaps, the strongest book. It hooked me. Then there's the book in which nothing happens, they just drift aimlessly in the doldrums. For some reason, that was a great book too. And then....
So BEWARE! Learn from my mistake. Don't let this happen to you.
Yes, it sounds like an awful fate. Well, as I said, the leaning tower of Aubrey is in Michigan, where I won't be until March, and I have books to read for reviewing purposes in the immediate future. Have to say, though, the rapidly proliferating piles of unread books around here are starting to haunt me. Later in our conversation, OL reminded me of a post I wrote long ago about the seriously depressing business of calculating, based on age and reading speed and habits, how many more books one can reasonably expect to read in one's lifetime. I can't put my hands on the post just now, but that's fine because it's a sobering enough thought in hazy memory.
The interesting question we eventually wound our way to was this: what percentage of that terribly finite amount of reading do you feel should be earmarked for incontestably Great books, and what percentage of fluff—elegant, witty, and delightful fluff, needless to say—are you comfortable including? I'm thinking a full 50%. But I have another wrench to throw into the machinery: how many of your 200 or 500 or 1,000 books will be books you've already read? For most of us, I'm guessing, this will be a non-negligible number.
Which just makes me wonder: why don't I clear some space for myself in here already? If I'm honest with myself, many of these books are never going to transcend their present status as baubles. I think my psychology runs this way: at any given moment I may be struck by the urge to read a particular book or a particular kind of book, and I want to have all possible options at hand when that urge strikes. While most readers are constantly at work trying to whittle down their to-be-read piles, I think I am half-consciously but nonetheless deliberately trying to build mine up. And succeeding. The problem is that, in the face of such vast possibility, it's easy to buckle under the pressure of having to choose—to read a few pages here, a few pages there, and to be distracted by the presence of other possibilities even after settling in with something. This, I think, is known as promiscuity, and is why I could probably use a good series to temporarily remove the burden of choice.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 9, 2006 | Permanent
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG, some adult subject matter and strong language, reviewed here, closes Mar. 12)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)
• In the Continuum (drama, R, adult subject matter, extended to Feb. 18, reviewed here)
• Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Feb. 19, reviewed here).
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, closes Feb. 19, reviewed here)
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
"Those who love art and seek to understand it will always be anxious to see more, and if they are wise will look at certain objects they admire again and again. But they must avoid the sin of art greed, restrain the appetite to enjoy more than a digestible number of artistic sensations, and resist the temptation to engulf all the forms of art in their minds. In a world where beautiful and virtuous objects are numbered in the millions, the most judicious approach is to acquire a penetrative knowledge of one aspect of art, and on this basis develop a judgment which promotes a general capacity to evaluate quality. In art, a discerning if limited taste is preferable to enthusiastic voracity."
Paul Johnson, Art: A New History
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
"'I don't mind what anyone says about my work,' said Allen, 'as long as it's intelligent.'
"'It can't always be what you want to hear,' I said, 'or it wouldn't be intelligent.'"
John P. Marquand, Wickford Point
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 8, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Modern-day Maturin and cold feet
This story makes me really want to see Master and Commander all over again. Which will make my dad invoke the tall stack of O'Brian books he months ago placed so invitingly on the bureau in my room back in Michigan. Could this be the year I finally tackle O'Brian? But what if I fall for him? How will I ever read anything else ever again? That stack positively towers—a commitment must be made. I just don't know if I'm ready for something quite so long-term...
In any case, don't miss the slide show.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 7, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
(This cookie dedicated to Tyler Green)
"In an otherwise generous review of my most recent novel, Barney's Version, that appeared in the London Spectator, Francis King had one caveat. Noting the sharpness of protagonist Barney Panofsky's intelligence and the breadth of his culture, he doubted that he could also be a sports nut. 'Would such a man, obsessed with ice hockey, be able to pronounce with such authority on topics as diverse as the descriptive passages in the novels of P.D. James, Pygmalion as play, musical, and film, the pornography published by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press and Dr. Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes?—rather strains credulity.'"
Mordecai Richler, "Writers and Sports"
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 7, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Half a book
I was in the Baltimore Sun last weekend with a review of Paul Watkins's novel about English mountaineers in World War II, The Ice Soldier. I found it a starkly divided book, half of it spectacular and half of it pedestrian. All of the best parts took place in the Italian Alps; describing exigent circumstances and this particular landscape seems to bring out the best in Watkins's writing, and when it is good, it is very, very good:
[Watkins's] rendering of wartime and combat is moored to reality by a vivid array of tiny but enormously striking material details: the graininess of the chocolate that serves as emergency rations, for instance, or the "rotten-lung gasping" sound that a flare makes when it is exposing one's position to the enemy. I've seldom read a more precise and sensually anchored representation of deadly confusion than the gripping late scene in which Bromley and his men are surprised by an advance guard of the German army on their way to the glacier.
The same is true of Bromley's final journey to the Alps with his friend Stanley.... This time their quest is idiosyncratic and personal rather than patriotic, but it is no less harrowing. Watkins' writing is at its best when it is focused on the minutiae of human survival in inhospitable conditions and when it is steeped in the Alpine landscape's menacing beauty. The summit that Bromley and Stanley must attempt, Carton's Rock, memorably stands "by itself, and the first impression was of a ship with black sails, moving slowly through an ocean made of clouds. It was like a mirage, shimmering in the heat haze which rose off the ice."
On human strength and frailty in extreme circumstances, Watkins and The Ice Soldier are superb. While I was immersed in Bromley's Alpine adventures, you could not have pried this book from my hands with a crowbar. When it focuses elsewhere, however, the book is often only serviceable, leaning too heavily on bursts of exposition and straining to deliver symbols and metaphors that arrive overdressed or flat-footed. Its pat, happily-ever-after conclusion is especially unworthy of the churning darkness and daunting beauty of its best stretches.
And when it is bad, it is...not horrid exactly, but certainly no better than so-so. Still, on balance, I'd recommend this book if the mountaineering or war angles strike a chord for you.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 7, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Our inimitable referral logs
We got a hit yesterday afternoon from the results of the following Google search:
"Why didn't the snobbish potatoes want their daughter to marry a news broadcaster?"
And if anyone has a plausible answer to that question, I hope you'll share. I'm so curious, in fact, that there could even be a little something in it for you.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 7, 2006 | Permanent
Monday, February 6, 2006
“The trouble was that he had set out to write a masterpiece. He had tensed his intellectual muscles and had sweated in his earnestness in order to make each word a jewel, each sentence a concise gem of thought, and the whole a symphony of words; and what was worse, you could tell that he had been thinking of what the critics would say.”
John P. Marquand, Wickford Point
TT: What am I doing the rest of my life?
Today is my fiftieth birthday. So far I’m dealing with it surprisingly well, considering that I nearly died two months ago. It helps that an attractive woman d'un âge certain told me the other day that she thought my silver hair was sexy, though her choice of words struck me as something of a mixed blessing (she’s the first person ever to have used the word “silver” to describe the color of what used to be a mousy-brown mop once upon a time).
Here's how old I am:
• This is what my home town looked like fifty years ago.
• My maternal grandmother canned fruit and stored it in her root cellar.
• My mother was baptized in a river.
• My father witnessed a lynching.
• Milk used to be delivered to my family’s back door.
• We used to leave that door unlocked.
• When I was a boy, I read Li’l Abner
in the paper every Sunday.
• I caught a train from this depot in 1961. (Now it’s a museum, and I gave a lecture
there last summer.)
• This is the first movie I ever saw in a theater.
• I know who Clem Kadiddlehopper
• I know what CONELRAD was.
• I used to send telegrams.
• I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
• I learned how to type on a machine that looked like this.
• I watched the first moon landing on TV.
• I cast my first presidential ballot in 1976. (Don't ask.)
• I saw Star Wars and Animal House when they were new.
• I saw José Iturbi play the Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto with the Kansas City Philharmonic.
• I reviewed a concert by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians for the Kansas City Star.
• My last surviving grandparent died two decades ago.
• I bought my first VCR in 1984 and my first PC three years after that.
I wish I were ten years younger, but I wouldn’t want to give up what the past decade taught me, though I’m not quite ready to endorse the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Yes, I had a midlife crisis, and no, I didn’t buy a red sports car or have a fling with a woman half my age. I got out in one piece, more or less, greatly changed but still myself.
And now…what? The fourth decade of my life, after all, wasn’t exactly an unbroken string of disasters. In between driving into personal potholes, I published three books, in which I am (mostly) well pleased, and started work on a fourth, for which I have even higher hopes. I was appointed by the President to the National Council on the Arts, fingerprinted by the New York Police Department, investigated by the FBI, and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, all of which was occasionally irritating but basically pretty cool. I’ve spent the past three years as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, a job I never sought that has proved to be more fulfilling than I could possibly have imagined. More recently I began writing a new column for the Saturday Journal, and that, too, is giving me great pleasure. In addition, I taught a college course in criticism, gave a couple of dozen public lectures, and made a like number of radio broadcasts, discovering in the process that talking for money is fun. And—needless to say—I started this blog.
So what do I do next? Like many people, my life has been a series of goals, a things-to-do list, and at fifty I now find myself in the position, at once pleasing and disconcerting, of having accomplished most of them. As for the things I haven't yet done, nearly all of them are things I'm no longer likely to do, assuming I ever was: I doubt, for instance, that I'll learn a second language or write a novel or become a father. I could spend the rest of my life running in place, and I suppose that would be perfectly fine. Except that I know it wouldn’t. The time will come, if it hasn’t already, when I’ll want to try my hand at something new—and I haven't the slightest idea what it might be.
Perhaps the goals of my fifth decade will be purely interior and personal. To be sure, I can’t exactly see myself withdrawing from the world, like the politician-turned-mendicant of Rudyard Kipling's "The Miracle of Purun Bhagat":
Next month, when the city had returned to its sun-baked quiet, he did a thing no Englishman would have dreamed of doing; for, so far as the world’s affairs went, he died. The jewelled order of his knighthood went back to the Indian Government, and a new Prime Minister was appointed to the charge of affairs, and a great game of General Post began in all the subordinate appointments. The priests knew what had happened, and the people guessed; but India is the one place in the world where a man can do as he pleases and nobody asks why; and the fact that Dewan Sir Purun Dass, K.C.I.E., had resigned position, palace, and power, and taken up the begging-bowl and ochre-coloured dress of a Sunnyasi, or holy man, was considered nothing extraordinary. He had been, as the Old Law recommends, twenty years a youth, twenty years a fighter,—though he had never carried a weapon in his life,—and twenty years head of a household. He had used his wealth and his power for what he knew both to be worth; he had taken honour when it came his way; he had seen men and cities far and near, and men and cities had stood up and honoured him. Now he would let those things go, as a man drops the cloak he no longer needs….
Still, it could be that I’ve done all that I’m supposed to do out in the land of renown, the place where (as Philip Larkin put it) people pretend to be themselves. Or not: I’ve lived long enough to know that life is pandemonium and not to be second-guessed. If I hadn’t known that already, the events of the last few months would have taught it to me with a vengeance. The wise man is surprised by nothing—and everything.
This is something I wrote last April:
As for me, all I know is that nothing I imagined for myself when young has come to pass: everything is different, utterly so. I’m not a schoolteacher, not a jazz musician, not the chief music critic of a major metropolitan newspaper, not a syndicated columnist, not settled and secure. Nor am I the person I expected to be, calm and detached and philosophical: I still cry without warning, laugh too loud, lose my head and heart too easily, the same way I did a quarter-century ago. The person I was is the person I am, only older. Might that be wisdom of a sort?
I know one more thing now that I didn’t know then: I am blissfully, madly happy to be alive.
* * *
I’ll be out of town for the rest of the week. See you next Monday.
Friday, February 4, 2005
“A watery sunlight breaks through the smoke of the Chef and turns the sky yellow. Elysian Fields glistens like a vat of sulfur; the playground looks as if it alone had survived the end of the world. At last I spy Kate; her stiff little Plymouth comes nosing into my bus stop. There she sits like a bomber pilot, resting on her wheel and looking sideways at the children and not seeing, and she could be I myself, sooty eyed and nowhere.
“Is it possible that— For a long time I have secretly hoped for the end of the world and believed with Kate and my aunt and Sam Yerger and many other people that only after the end could the few who survive creep out of their holes and discover themselves to be themselves and live as merrily as children among the viny ruins. Is it possible that—it is not too late?
“Iii-oorrr goes the ocean wave, its struts twinkling in the golden light, its skirt swaying to and fro like a young dancing girl."
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
OGIC: What they saw
In this week's Chicago Reader (no link, boo hiss), Erin Hogan has a selling review of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's De Kooning: An American Master. She had a great time reading the book, though she notes that Stevens and Swan had some help from the painter in making it so readable: "De Kooning's life story is a biographer's dream, full of tragedy, triumph, and salacious, page-turning detail."
But I'm more interested in the built-in limitation she points to that afflicts many artists' biographers:
Writers apparently love to write about writing; they produce volumes about the creative process in general and their practice in particular, and there are countless books devoted to the topic of writers on their craft.…Painters, however, rarely talk about their process.
After de Kooning finished the magnificent Excavation (now housed at the Art Institute), it took him three years to complete another painting. That's not so surprising—all artists fall fallow or need time, after a major creative outburst, to recharge. What is surprising about de Kooning's three-year disapppearance is that he was working the whole time, with the same obsessive intensity as ever. And he was working, essentially, on one painting: Woman I, the first of the infamous "Woman" series.
For de Kooning, Woman I was an endless nightmare. He grew so angry with the work that, according to Stevens and Swan, at one point he "ripped [it] off the frame and left it in the hallway by his door, with a stack of old cardboard and odds and ends of wood." But while that might explain what happened to the physical object, bitterly rejected there at the end of the hall, we are no closer to understanding what would compel de Kooning to spend three years on one painting or why he would decide it was a hopeless failure….
Stevens and Swan heroically attempt to describe the creation of Woman I, but those three years remain elusive, as do much of the inner workings of de Kooning's mind. All of the contextual detail, description, lyrical interpretations, lectures, articles, and chronicles of conversations marshaled by the authors—none of it quite gets to the core. The fortress of fact protects the empty throne.
I haven't read enough artists' biographies to have realized this about them, but Hogan's observation especially interested me since I'm now about 80 pages into Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth, a novel that is narrated by a painter and that has me completely captivated. Half the book's spell over me is in its persuasive effort to represent the artist's eye. The narrator, Gulley Jimson, looks at the world—the curve of a woman's back, a coffee spill on a tablecloth—and reflexively sees possibilities for his painting. He sees so much this way—and misses so much. I've read novels about artists before, but never any that made this serious an attempt to minutely portray how a painter looks at the world, what he sees, and what he does with it. This is, I think, just what Hogan finds herself missing in art biographies, and it does seem more suited to the novelist's art than that of the biographer, who is indeed limited to "the fortress of fact."
More on the novel when I finish it someday. In the meantime, if you're in Chicago, pick up a free Reader and check out the rest of Hogan's review. (If you're not, keep an eye on this guy.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 4, 2005 | Permanent
I note with sadness the death of John Vernon. You won’t recognize his name unless you know a lot about movies, but it’s way better than even money that you’d know his face and voice in an instant. A Canadian character actor who came south to Hollywood, he specialized in playing a certain kind of villain—serious, deep-voiced, a bit prissy and creepy, almost visibly compromised—and did it with such vivid exactitude that he thereby found his way into a number of memorable films, among them Point Blank (his big-screen debut), Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. Then he landed a part that allowed him to play his “natural” type for laughs, Dean Vernon Wormer of Animal House, seizing the opportunity with such self-evident relish that my generation will always remember him as the hapless stiff who put Delta House on double secret probation.
Like Strother Martin and J.T. Walsh, Vernon was that most admirable of small-part actors, a professional with flair, and I hope he gets some nice obits this weekend. (He made it into Friday’s Washington Post, but the New York Times, as is its increasingly frequent wont, dropped the ball.) He deserved them.
TT: Beach blanket bungle
I didn’t enjoy myself at the theater last week, and my weekly drama column for The Wall Street Journal, in which two newly opened shows catch several kinds of hell, reflects that fact with alarming clarity.
First under the lash is Good Vibrations:
Harpo Marx described the famously awful, extremely popular “Abie’s Irish Rose” as “no worse than a bad cold.” Judged by that yardstick, “Good Vibrations,” the new Beach Boys musical that opened Wednesday at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, is more like a stroke—one that leaves you capable of movement but knocks 15 points off your IQ. By the time I finally staggered up the aisle, I found it hard to remember that there was once a time when even the most blatantly commercial musicals were put together with a modicum of intelligence and craftsmanship….
I’m not saying there’s nothing good about “Good Vibrations.” I liked the tall, cheery-looking blonde in the blue top, for instance. But outside of the dogged professionalism of the hard-working cast, there’s precious little else to admire outside of the undeniable fact that it never pretends to be anything other than a big dumb applause machine. Somehow I can’t see paying $100 a seat for a musical that’s unpretentiously horrible.
No less unpleasing was Brooklyn Boy:
Donald Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner With Friends,” has now written a play about a struggling young Brooklyn author who writes a best-seller about his unhappy youth and promptly discovers that all that glitters is not gold. Excuse the cliché, please: “Brooklyn Boy,” the Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest offering, is nothing but. It’s as if Mr. Margulies had spent a week poring over Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas before sitting down to write his latest opus…
I suppose it’s possible for a playwright to write a good play about a writer, but the temptation to sink into a nice warm bath of self-serving self-indulgence is apparently too great for ordinary mortals to overcome. Harold Ross knew this so well that he turned it into an iron rule for contributors to the New Yorker: “Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer.” Too bad nobody told Mr. Margulies.
No link, so to partake of the rest of the carnage, buy a copy of today’s Journal, or (even better) get modern and go here.
Thursday, February 3, 2005
“The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace, is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium, those changes of personal centre of energy, which I have analyzed so often; and the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down.”
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
TT: A non-announcement
Andrew Sullivan’s decision to put andrewsullivan.com on “hiatus” is the talk of the political sector of the blogosphere. Whatever you may think of Andrew’s politics, there’s no doubt that he’s been hugely influential in helping to put blogging on the map. After all, he’s been doing it every day for the past five years, well before most of us even knew what a blog was, and it was from him that a great many people—myself included—first got the idea to start blogs of their own. Well do I remember the morning I looked at andrewsullivan.com and said to myself, I’d like to do something just like this, only about the arts. A couple of years went by before I finally jumped in the pond, but that was how “About Last Night” came to be.
Andrew’s explanation of why he’s decided to give up regular posting is worth reading:
I want to take a breather, to write a long-overdue book, to read some more, travel to Europe and the Middle East, and work on some longer projects. Much as I would like to do everything, I've been unable to give the blog my full attention and make any progress on a book (and I'm two years behind). It's not so much the time as the mindset. The ability to keep on top of almost everything on a daily and hourly basis just isn't compatible with the time and space to mull over some difficult issues in a leisurely and deliberate manner. Others might be able to do it. But I've tried and failed….
I know whereof he speaks, though so far I’ve managed to keep all my journalistic balls in the air (that’ll be enough out of you, Mr. TMFTML). Even though I don’t post as often as Andrew does, “About Last Night” is still updated at least once each weekday, a schedule that has yet to stop me from also turning out a weekly drama column, three monthly essays, and a not-inconsiderable amount of miscellaneous writing. In addition, I’ve published two books since launching this blog, one of which I wrote from scratch (and whose progress I chronicled in this space).
On the other hand, All in the Dances was a brief life, whereas the biography of Louis Armstrong on which I just started work will be at least as long as The Skeptic. It’s going to be interesting, to put it mildly, to see whether working on the Armstrong book is compatible with writing as much as I do for newspapers and magazines. (I sure hope so—I need the money!)
And what about blogging? Believe it or not, I have few doubts about being able to keep that up. Paul Gigot, my boss at The Wall Street Journal, asked me not long ago where I found the energy to blog each day. I replied that writing “About Last Night” was so intellectually stimulating that the energy seemed to generate itself. As I’ve said before, I think of this blog as a kind of sketchbook, a public place in which I can think out loud in front of an audience, playing with ideas that in time may find their way into more elaborate print-media pieces. (H.L. Mencken did much the same thing with his weekly op-ed column in the Baltimore Sun, which is where I got the idea.) It’s a different kind of writing, of course, more immediate and less formal, which makes it easier to turn out. In addition, I’ve noticed that my contributions to “About Last Night” have grown considerably more personal in tone over the past year and a half, and I gather from your e-mail and our statistics that many of you have been pleased with the results.
Be that as it may, I know my compulsive tendencies are a part of what fuels “About Last Night,” which can’t be a good thing. One of the reasons why I asked Our Girl in Chicago to join me was that I thought her presence might free me to post less often. Instead, it’s encouraged me to post more often. About that I have mixed feelings (though definitely not about the contributions of my adored co-blogger). Those of you who’ve been reading “About Last Night” from the beginning are aware that I’ve been trying to teach myself how to take time off, not just from blogging but from work in general. Though it may not be immediately apparent, I’ve had a pretty fair amount of success at this, especially in the past four or five months, and I hope to have still more.
If you’re expecting me to segue deftly into an announcement to the effect that I won’t be posting as regularly in the future as I have in the past, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you. I love “About Last Night,” and I intend to keep on writing it pretty much the way I have all along. But one thing I am going to do (or at least try to do—we’ll see how it goes) is take an occasional impromptu day off without posting my usual I’m-up-to-my-ears-see-you-tomorrow notice. I think that’ll be good for me. Writing this blog is the furthest possible thing from a chore, and I want it to stay that way. So please don’t be alarmed when you come calling one day and find nothing new to read but the daily almanac. Instead, smile knowingly and say, Good boy, Terry! I hope you’re having fun today. And stay cool—I’ll be back.
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
All that I can hope to make you understand
Is only events: not what has happened.
And people to whom nothing has ever happened
Cannot understand the unimportance of events.
T.S. Eliot, The Family Reunion
OGIC: Thomson agonistes
I don't generally enjoy author readings. I love books, but I'd rather be alone with them, moving through them at my own pace, backing up at will and lingering where I want to. I never feel as though I absorb very much at live readings, and I remain stubbornly more interested in books than authors—I don't go in much for author interviews, either. In special cases, however—magnetic personalities, prodigious talents, odd ducks—I do find it worth twenty or thirty minutes of mild squirming just to find out what sort of creature could have produced a particular work, and what it's like to be in the same room with them. So on Monday night I went to see David Thomson talk about his new history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, at the corner bookstore.
For me, this counted as an Event with a capital E. Ever since Terry opened my eyes to Thomson's (New) Biographical Dictionary of Film several years ago, I've been fascinated with Thomson's mind, with the sheer encyclopedic ambition of the NBDF, and with its truly inexhaustible entertainment value. I use the book in two ways regularly: like a reference work, looking up people and movies that I've been thinking about or need to know something about; and, once a year or so, like a narrative, reading straight through from Abbott and Costello to Terry Zwigoff. One of the friends who accompanied me to Monday's talk bought the Dictionary, but not before raising the question "Why a dictionary and not an encyclopedia?" Without missing a beat, the clerk answered: because it's supposed to be definitive. Exactly right.
After being introduced, Thomson took a seat and spoke rather than reading, bless him, and I liked the talk even if I never did quite reconcile the genial and engaging raconteur he puts forth in person with the dervish of the NBDF, whirling his feelings about movies into definitions—things almost as solid as facts. And a leitmotif of his talk—which appeared at first to be an extemporaneous, offhand chat but eventually revealed itself to be quite deliberately structured—was not quite feeling vs. fact, but feeling vs. intellectualizing about the movies. His show of ambivalence about this opposition was the one part of the performance that was readily identifiable as performance. He kept playing devil's advocate with himself, floating the notion that perhaps we shouldn't analyze our enjoyment of movies any more than we analyze our enjoyment of sex or chocolate, but nobody, I think, was buying it. Not coming from this grand lexicographer, the man blurbed by Guillermo Cabrera Infante as "the Dr. Johnson of film." I think not.
Thomson began by describing a typical critics' screening. Reminding me of something Terry once wrote, he proposed that critics should be required to see the movies they review in the company of the general public at least once in a while. His reasons were different, however, from those behind Terry's similar prescription for art critics. He said that film critics are so concerned not to give away their feelings about a movie to their colleagues/competitors that nobody dares have an observable response at these screenings—no laughing, no gasping, no jumping, and under no circumstances anything bearing the least resemblance to producing tears (I believe his exact words were "I'd rather eat my face"). Sounds grim! And his point, that this constitutes a whole different realm of experience from what his readers are doing when they go to the movies, is a solid one.
But it's not about feeling vs. thinking, it's about the infectious unease and egotism of these critics when they get around each other. Though I do fully believe that strait-jacketing their own human responses must warp the critical judgments that get recorded in their reviews. Thomson went on from here to describe the first time he met Pauline Kael, which happened at a New York critics' screening. She was a small, rapt woman sitting next to him, never pausing in her copious note-taking and yet somehow never giving the screen less than her full attention. After the film he quizzed her about her method, ascertaining that a) she did this at every screening; b) she never watched a movie twice if she could avoid it; and c) this was because she felt the second time would be an imitation of experience (actual experience occurring only the first time one saw a film), and so somehow inimical to what seeing movies should be.
(Digression: years ago I went to Chicago's much-mourned McClurg Court Cinemas in Streeterville—containing the most colossal auditorium and screen in the area—to see, with guilty pleasure, John Carpenter's remake of Village of the Damned. Much to my and my companion's delight, Roger Ebert was in attendance. Our delight did not derive from mere celebrity-sighting, but from the fact that he had already reviewed the movie. And trust me, Citizen Kane it ain't.)
(Further digression: Ebert appeared to love the attention he got from other people in the audience, who sensed his approachability and took advantage of it. He was the chatty, beaming center of a ring of admirers that only dispersed when the lights went down. His presence gave the screening a social, almost festival atmosphere that I've seldom encountered at the movies.)
The opposition between approaching movies sensually and approaching them critically—to my mind a suspect if not simply false opposition—formed the backbone of Thomson's talk. In this context he spoke about the prehistory of film critics, when what critics there were (James Agee, Manny Farber) were writing for small-circulation journals and when everybody would go see everything, not needing the counsel of reviewers beforehand, not even needing to know the name of the movie. It was going to the movies that counted, not the movie itself. And although he didn't go so far as to endorse this as a healthier state of affairs, there was definitely a hint of nostalgia for a simpler or happier time. Which seemed odd coming from someone who work matters precisely because it is so finely attuned to the minutiae of individual careers, even performances—even pores, as here on Barbara Stanwyck, who is on my mind lately:
Her image of the hard-boiled girl of easy virtue was kept up in William Keighley's Ladies They Talk About (33) and in Baby Face (33, Alfred E. Green), in which she maneuvers her way up the length of the business ladder—by every seductive means at her command. It would be difficult to think of an actress so expressive of the early 1930s girl on the make—as intimate, shiny, and flimsy as a discarded slip, but with eyes ever sly and alert. So often with great movie actresses, we have a first thought of skin tone: with Stanwyck it is of tacky paint, too warm for glossy hardness.
It was disappointing when, to wrap things up, Thomson ultimately zagged away from nostalgia and movies-as-bonbons to endorse the critical approach. Disappointing not because he did so—you knew he would in the end, and if you bothered to come out and see him at all, you almost certainly wanted him to—but because of the reasons he gave. His young son, given a game system for Christmas, spent 37 hours of his first week of ownership playing it. Movies have made this and other dangerous forms of not-thinking possible. We must talk about them if we're to avoid being brainwashed or brain-deadened or sheepified by them.
Huh. And all my hours with the NBDF had persuaded me that it's good to talk about the movies because it enhances our pleasure at the art and the life in them, not because we need to protect ourselves from them. How very odd. But there has always seemed to be some fissure between the dour essayist in Thomson and the joyful lexicographer. It's much the same crack that appeared in his talk, separating the drably sociological-political closing remarks from wonderfully vivid details like how Kael, unexpectedly diminutive, wrote her notes in the dark in just the manner someone else might write letters. It's almost as if the freewheeling observer in Thomson—his best critical self—can only come out to play after doing his math homework or his civic duty.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 2, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• I recently saw a stage actress I know in an episode of a popular TV series. This was a new experience for me. I’ve watched any number of writer friends hold forth on talk shows, and I’ve even tuned into David Letterman to see a band whose members I know quite well. But all those people were being themselves, more or less, whereas my actress friend was pretending to be someone else. Of course she was in one sense wholly herself (I knew her smile in an instant/I knew the curve of her face), and the part she played drew deeply on her familiar energy. Nor was she made up in any deceptive way: she looked like the person I know. Yet some uncanny transformation had nonetheless taken place, and I found myself to be more than a little bit disoriented as I watched her on the screen.
Perhaps it’s the sheer realism of TV itself that disoriented me, the fact that we turn to it in search of information as often as for amusement. Live theater is far more mysterious, for the paradoxical reason that the actors are physically present, in but not of the same space. Watching a play is like looking at a painting in a museum: the painting itself is real, a corporeal object that you could reach out and touch if the guards would be kind enough to look the other way, but it’s not the “objectivity” of the canvas with which you’re concerned. A TV series, by contrast, isn’t mysterious at all. It seems as real as life itself—unless you happen to know one of the actors, in which case the boundaries quickly grow blurry.
By the way, I sent the actress in question an e-mail saying that I’d seen her and was impressed. She wrote back as follows:
There I was, all 15 or 20 seconds worth, in the most unflattering closeup. I wanted to put a paper bag over my head!! At least my acting, what little screen time I had, was truthful. And....I had a pimple right in the middle of my forehead!!!!!! AAAGH!!!!!
Remember that the next time you wish you were a TV actor: all you see are the pimples.
• It rarely fails to surprise people when I tell them that I almost always know how long it’ll take me to write a given piece. (In fact, I think it disillusions them.) The part I forget to mention, though, is that the clock doesn’t start running until I start writing. I rarely get blocked, but I sometimes find the prospect of writing so disagreeable to contemplate that I stall for as long as I possibly can.
I don’t know why I do this. It isn’t as though writing were physically painful, after all. Nor do I do it all the time, or even very often. Most of the time I face the blank page the way Marcus Aurelius might have faced the guillotine: I get up first thing in the morning, climb down from the loft, boot up the iBook, and go straight to work, knowing that there’s no point in forestalling the inevitable. Yesterday, though, my brain switched into Maximum Stall Mode as soon as I started thinking about my “Second City” column for this Sunday’s Washington Post. I haven’t the slightest idea why I kept putting it off. I knew what I was going to write about and I knew what I wanted to say. Yet not only did I wait until the last minute to start writing, but I actually went so far as to blog instead, having previously announced that I was taking the day off from "About Last Night" in order to write my column. Obviously I was in the clutches of Benchley’s Law: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it is not the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
Fortunately, my editor in Washington called at two o’clock and asked, very gently, what time I’d be filing, immediately followed by a friend who reminded me that we were planning to get together to choose a pair of frames for my new glasses, and when did I want to meet her? The combined effects of these calls brought me to my senses, and the column was finished and filed by 4:45. And yes, it took exactly as long to write as all my other “Second City” columns.
Go figure. Please. And after you do, tell me what you figured out.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 2, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
"A first-person account is, after all, a confession; and the one who has something to confess has something to conceal. And the one who has the word 'I' at his or her disposal has the quickest device for concealing himself."
Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 2, 2005 | Permanent
TT: First over the side
By way of Romenesko, this column by Laura Berman from the Detroit News:
The scene: A college classroom at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
The subject: Writing the newspaper column.
The question: "Can any of you name a columnist you read -- in a newspaper or magazine or online -- on a regular basis?"
In response: Dead silence.
Slowly, one hand rises. A sports columnist is mentioned.
Nobody else in the room hints at any recognition of the sports columnist's name: Anyone?
"My generation is very visually oriented," explains Ryan Schreiber, a U-M Dearborn junior from Dearborn who -- like most in the class -- is majoring in journalism but doesn't read much of it.
"My generation grew up watching MTV. We are used to short spurts of words, lots of images...We're used to immediate gratification."…
In another journalism class down the hall, the instructor annoyed his students. After asking how many read a newspaper regularly -- four or five out of 35 said they did -- he required them to bring a newspaper to class twice a week. "The students don't like it," says Laura Hipshire, one of the journalism students.
Read the whole thing here. Then notice what four-letter word is missing from the column: blog.
Why? Maybe because newspaper columnists and reporters (with a growing number of honorable exceptions) are either still largely unaware of blogs or loathe them so much that they prefer not to acknowledge their existence. Maybe because newspaper editors (with a lot fewer exceptions) are proving themselves to be deeply weird when it comes to blogging, which they apparently regard as a threat to their long-established ways of doing journalistic business.
But here’s another thought that occurred to me as I read this piece: could it be that the most immediate effect of the blogosphere on the mainstream media will be to make columnists obsolete?
While I don’t want to rev up the crystal ball too far this morning (I have to finish writing a column for a newspaper, as it happens), I've been wondering exactly what place the old-fashioned newspaper column still has in the new world of on-line opinion journalism, with its unprecedented blend of immediacy, interaction, and diversity of view. Reporting, yes: that continues to make sense, and it’s not going away any time soon, though its nature will doubtless be transformed as newspapers come to terms with the blogosphere. But who’s going to be reading twice-weekly op-ed essays on paper five years from now? For that matter, who’s going to be publishing them?
I don’t know. I’m just asking.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a deadline to hit….
TT: Overpressed with sail
Apologies, but I've got to steer clear of the blog for the rest of the day. I've stumbled into a fever swamp of appointments, deadlines (including a couple of new ones that only just got added to my calendar), a mad dash to Washington on Friday morning, and not quite enough time to get everything done before I head for the train. Something's got to give, and it's you.
For now, go read some other blog. You'll find a long list of good ones in the right-hand column. I'll be back tomorrow.
Monday, January 31, 2005
"I don't want anyone to feel I'm posing as a plaster saint. Like everyone I have my faults, but I always have believed in making an honest living. I was determined to play my horn against all odds, and I had to sacrifice a whole lot of pleasure to do so. Many a night the boys in my neighborhood would go uptown to Mrs. Cole's lawn, where Kid Ory used to hold sway. The other boys were sharp as tacks in their fine suits of clothes. I did not have the money they had and I could not dress as they did, so I put Kid Ory out of my mind. And Mayann, Mama Lucy and I would go to some nickel show and have a grand time."
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans
TT: In the beginning
One of the ways in which e-mail is transforming our culture is that it is has become the channel by which certain kinds of bad news are increasingly likely to arrive. This morning I opened my mailbox and found a note from an old high-school friend: “I apologize for the impersonal mass e-mail but it is a little quicker….” My heart sank even before I could jump to the next paragraph, which told me that Richard Powell, the man who taught me how to play the violin nearly 40 years ago, died last night. I hadn’t heard from him for a long time, but no sooner did I see his name on the screen of my iBook than my head was full of snapshot-clear memories.
So much of life is a matter of pure coincidence (if that's what you think it is). I happened to see a televised concert by the Russian violinist David Oistrakh one Sunday afternoon, and the warmth and passion with which he played the Brahms D Minor Sonata, a piece I’d never heard by a composer I knew only for having written a lullaby, made a fateful impression on me. Dick Powell came to Matthews Elementary School a few months later to administer a musical aptitude test to the fifth grade, and I got a perfect score. This, he informed me the following week, qualified me to play a stringed instrument. I went home and told my astonished parents that I wanted them to buy me a violin, and that was that.
Powell was a small-time jazz bassist turned small-town music teacher who ran the string program in the public schools
of my home town. (He told me that he’d played in strip joints once upon a time, which seemed to me unimaginably exotic.) He thought I was talented and went out of his way to encourage me, and within a few years I was playing Bach, Vivaldi, and Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre with the high-school orchestra. It soon became clear to both of us, though, that my musical interests extended well beyond the violin, so he was no less encouraging when I asked to borrow one of the school’s plywood basses for the summer. That was the year I taught myself jazz by plucking along with Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Goes to College in my bedroom every afternoon, and a year or two later I started playing country music and bluegrass with a band called Sour Mash. It wasn’t Bach, but that was all right by him. He had no musical prejudices, and it was in large part because of his openness that I acquired the infinite sense of musical possibility that I carry with me to this day.
I found other mentors as I grew older, but Powell was the first, and there would never be a time when he failed to say whatever encouraging words he thought I needed to hear. He watched me go off to college to major in music, looked on with amusement when I became a part-time music critic for the Kansas City Star, and cheered from the sidelines when I rolled the dice and headed for New York City. By then he’d moved away from Smalltown, U.S.A., but he kept up with my progress, and from time to time his daughter Melodie (a nice name for a musician's child) would let me know how he was doing.
Now Melodie writes to tell me of her father’s death, and I find myself filled to overflowing with that most beautiful and transfiguring of emotions, gratitude. No one person, not even me, made me what I am, but Dick Powell ranks very high on the short list of those who did the most along the way. He taught me to read music—and reassured me that it was all right to play by ear, too. He introduced me to the vast world of classical music—but never for a moment suggested that no other musical worlds were worth exploring. I suppose I would have found my way into music on my own sooner or later, but I might well have had a lot to unlearn down the line had I not been fortunate enough to fall into the hands of so open-minded and open-hearted a teacher. He pointed me in the right direction, then gave me a push. I can’t think of a better epitaph.
TT: Since we met
Remember me? I’m the one who was so absurdly happy last Friday afternoon, and I still am. It helped that I didn’t have a huge amount to do over the weekend, though I managed to keep quite sufficiently busy, thank you very much.
Among other things:
• On Saturday afternoon I went to a Broadway matinee, then took the night off (yes!).
• On Sunday morning I wrote the first draft of a 2,000-word essay called “Watching Westerns in Manhattan” for American Cowboy. Bet you didn’t know I wrote for them, did you?
• On Sunday evening I had an early dinner with the Mutant, my singer-painter friend, after which we retired to the Teachout Museum, a/k/a my living room, to watch Kind Hearts and Coronets, which both of us were seeing for the first time (O.K., Cinetrix, try not to look so shocked). No sooner did the Mutant head for home than I called my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., having previously sent a what’s-new e-mail to Our Girl, whose chatty reply awaited me when I hung up....
But I’m burying the lead. Here’s my stop-press bulletin:
• I kept my hand-on-heart oath to Bass Player, broke out my hitherto unopened watercolor set, and covered one whole sheet of cool-looking paper with homemade, gaily colored hieroglyphics. (I even have a witness—I showed the results to the Mutant earlier this evening.) It was, as I’d hoped, completely absorbing fun, and though I fear I have no obvious aptitude for the making of visual art, I still can’t wait to do it again.
What next? Today I get my eyes examined, pay bills, and do a little babysitting. Tomorrow I see my trainer, write my monthly Washington Post column about the arts in New York, and go to a preview of Good Vibrations, the new Beach Boys musical. On Wednesday I write my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Thursday is up for grabs. Come Friday I’ll be off to the nation’s capital to lunch with a blogger and watch American Ballet Theatre dance an all-Fokine program at Kennedy Center, followed by two previews back in New York and a birthday (mine).
As always, books will be read (most of them about New Orleans at the turn of the century) and CDs listened to (most of them by Louis Armstrong) in the interstices of all these occurrences.
Such are the ongoing adventures of a New York-based blogger-bon vivant. More as it happens.
Saturday, February 7, 2004
"I'm a backslider as a non-believer."
Penelope Fitzgerald (quoted in Dean Flower, "A Completely Determined Human Being," Hudson Review, Winter 2005)
Friday, February 6, 2004
"The question of capital punishment arising in connection with In Cold Blood, he says, 'At least in England they don’t keep them waiting about for five or ten years.' I point out that in the Christie case they should have and ask whether he thinks the death sentence is ever justifiable. 'Well, there have been people on whom I can picture it being carried out. Brecht, for one. In fact I can imagine doing it to him myself. It might even have been rather enjoyable, when the time came, to have been able to say to him, "Now let’s step outside." I’d have given him a good last meal, of course. Still, you must admire the logic of a man who lives in a Communist country, takes out Austrian citizenship, does his banking in Switzerland, and, like a gambler hedging his bets, sends for the pastor at the end in case there could be something in that, too.'"
W.H. Auden, in conversation with Robert Craft (quoted in Craft's Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship)
OGIC: Found and eaten
Last night: a conversation candy heart with a message to warm the real hearts of lit bloggers everywhere:
It failed to specify highbrow or popular.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 6, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Readers write, and an addendum
Another good comment has arrived in the mailbox on cultural centers and peripheries:
The New York state of mind gets in the way of a great many other viewpoints and cultural takes. Popular culture (pop music, television, genre fiction, graphics and arts that are out of favor among professional, mostly NY, critics) has long been ignored by the mavens of "high culture." But thousands of practitioners of those popular or folk arts have worked and lived and died outside of Manhattan's sphere. Not only that, but they have created wondrous and satisfying works. There are dozens of cultures in the country, the world, and trying to put them into an arbitrary hierarchy does all artists and thinkers a real disservice.…The Web and the Blog encourage the shattering of hegemonies, for better and for worse.
And this one on anonymous blogging:
Of course it's proper to blog anonymously. Computer network users have been posting and emailing under handles and nicknames since there've been computer networks. As in the then-current world of CB radio, people were doing something fun, with kindred spirits, which didn't require them to present affidavits and IDs.
Obviously these gloomy Gusses never would've had much fun on the BBS's of the 80's and 90's. *Annoyed look*
Now, I almost always post under my own name. For me, it's simpler. But I have always enjoyed the creativity manifested in handles. People who don't...they worry me. People are often more themselves when they're choosing their own names. People who see that only as an opportunity for dishonesty and juvenile behavior are obviously projecting.
Apropos of this, Terry pointed out that in my post on anonymity the other day, I neglected to say anything about why I'm undercover. My reasons are simple. Some of them are professional, but it's not as though I'd be in danger of losing my job or anything so dire if I revealed. More important than the potential negatives are the actual positives. A new persona has all the inviting open expanse of a fresh sheet of paper. It's interesting to engineer OGIC, endowing her with some of my interests and tics, but keeping others to myself. I also see this as a fun, educational experiment for myself as a writer. I don't expect to stay under wraps forever, but for the time being I enjoy both the liberation and the challenge of being someone sort of else. It frees me up to write on certain topics about which I'd be more circumspect writing under my name. But it requires more discipline, too: for instance, to leave certain things out of my posts and generally cultivate a strategic vagueness about my life. Sometimes it's hard to refrain from linking to or discussing the work I'm doing under my real name. I often feel as if I'm robbing myself of good blogging topics in these books and ideas that I've invested a lot of thought in, but that are already spoken for by her. Sometimes, of course, I steal her stuff anyway.
I don't keep this a secret from anyone I know, I readily tell new people I meet (not all of them), and there are potential leaks: friends of friends of other bloggers or media people. Like I said above, it's inevitable that I'll out or be outed. But my guess is that it will happen gradually, and in any case it will be very much a non-event (unless I become NYTBR editor or May Queen in the meantime). For now, I'm just having fun being mistaken for Mr. Epstein. Studs Terkel, anyone?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 6, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Lastly (not leastly)
My birthday present to myself (see below) is that I'm taking the weekend off. From blogging, that is: I do plan to hack away at the Balanchine book. But I shall post no more, forever, meaning until Monday, and if I do, don't read it.
No promises either way about Our Girl. She's severely preoccupied. She'll blog if she blogs, and if she does, it'll be worth waiting for. But don't bug her.
The earth hangs down
to the lake, full of yellow
pears and wild roses.
Lovely swans, drunk with
kisses you dip your heads
into the holy, sobering waters.
But when winter comes,
where will I find
the flowers, the sunshine,
the shadows of the earth?
The walls stand
speechless and cold,
rattle in the wind.
Friedrich Hölderlin, "The Middle of Life" (trans. James Mitchell)
TT: Today's my birthday!
I’m, like, 48. Don’t rub it in, though. Our Girl is being as tactful as possible, but I’m sure she must be embarrassed to be seen in cyberspace with the Oldest Known Arts Blogger in Captivity.
It’s interesting, by the way, to find myself using so radically new a medium as blogging to reflect on growing older. In the past, I sought creative renewal by immersing myself in unfamiliar art forms—ballet and modern dance in my thirties, the visual arts in my early forties. Now I’m finding it in a technology, which surprises me, especially given the fact that the technology in question seems to be used mainly by much younger people. Some of the best bloggers listed in "Sites to See" are roughly half my age.
Truth to tell, most of my best friends are younger than I am, a circumstance on which I recently had occasion to reflect in print:
I have a good many friends who are a good deal younger than I, and insofar as possible I try not to waste their time telling them what things were like when I was their age. I feel the temptation to live in the past, but one can truly live only in the moment, and the last thing I want to do is end up like the pathetic narrator of "Hey Nineteen," the Steely Dan song about a no-longer-young baby boomer who tries to tell his teenaged girlfriend about Aretha Franklin but discovers that "she don’t remember/The Queen of Soul," subsequently realizing that "we got nothing in common/No, we can’t talk at all." On the whole, I prefer to hear about the world they live in, though sometimes their stories make me shiver.
As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about the problem of striking a proper balance between present and past. I’m no great fan of my self-centered generation and its increasingly pitiful vanities (which is why I have become an enthusiastic reader of Boomer Deathwatch). Besides, it’s always been important to me to know what’s happening—the journalist’s reflex—and my younger friends do their best to keep me posted. It was Our Girl, for example, who first alerted me to such disparate phenomena as Conan O’Brian, Buffy, and Cat Power. (Daria I found on my own.) I’m happy to know what’s going on out in the world, and I hope I always am.
Or do I? Must there come a moment when it’s wiser to stick to the cards in your hand, to deepen your understanding of what you already know? My hair stood up when I stumbled on the following sentence in Jack Richardson’s Memoir of a Gambler: "As we moved along in the police wagon, I had the slightly unclean feeling of the man who keeps company with those much younger than himself." Might I have reached that terrible time without knowing it—the time when middle-aged people embarrass themselves by pretending to be that which they are not, forgetting that they shall never be again as they were? That’s a scary thought.
I don’t think I have. One of my much younger friends likes to tease me about my liking for Liz Phair, but there’s nothing malicious in her kidding (I hope). In any case, I pass most of my time in age-appropriate ways. What could be better suited to a dignified gent of 48 than writing a book about George Balanchine, or collecting modern art prints? Not that I can honestly claim to have sailed all the way through the Fearful Forties without scraping the shoals a time or two, but at least I didn’t buy a red sports car or start dressing in black, and with only two years to go, I’m probably in the clear (I hope).
Perhaps the abandon with which I’ve hurled myself into "About Last Night" is a form of age-inappropriate behavior—but once again, I don’t think so. Rather, I see this blog as a way of bridging the perilous gap between yesterday and today. No invention is inherently bad (or good), and surely it is a sign of grace when one can find a way to use the newest technologies to revive and refresh our appreciation of the permanent things. That’s the whole point of art blogging, and it’s awe-inspiring to see the innumerable ways in which amateurs and professionals alike are bending this medium to their myriad passions. For me, as I say, it's been a completely unexpected booster rocket. Like Hokusai, I long someday to be an old man mad about art. For the moment, blogging is fanning my middle-aged flames.
And so…happy birthday to me! If you’re a fan of this blog, don’t send me a present—send yourself one by clicking here to place an advance order for A Terry Teachout Reader, my greatest-hits collection of essays, articles, and reviews, out in May from Yale University Press. That’s what I’d really like. And if you’ve already obliged, well, tell ten of your friends about "About Last Night," the gift that keeps on giving.
(You knew I'd manage to work in another plug for the book, didn't you?)
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Something to remember, two years hence: 40 is the old age of youth. 50 is the youth of old age.
Happy birthday, protogeezer!
I feel better already.
Thursday, February 5, 2004
TT: Back in the saddle again
I was dark last week (as we theatrical types say), but pick up this morning’s Wall Street Journal and you’ll find my reviews of an off-Broadway show, Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla, and an off-off-Broadway show, Melissa James Gibson’s Suitcase, or, those that resemble flies from a distance.
I liked Valhalla, with some reservations:
As I watched the hijinks ensue, I tried to figure out whom Mr. Rudnick reminds me of, and Neil Simon came to mind. Mr. Rudnick is another one of those jokesmiths who keeps throwing punchlines against the wall to see if they stick, and his jokes, like Mr. Simon’s, all have the same one-two rhythm, only with a campy twist in the tail. ("What’s an orgy?" "It’s when vicious, depraved philistines have sex in a group." "Is it heavenly?" "Yes.") But Neil Simon in his heyday would never have put so ill-carpentered a play as "Valhalla" on stage, and before long I realized that Mr. Rudnick is more like a gay Mel Brooks, a Catskills comic who packs his scripts with good lines but doesn’t know how to tie them into a nice, neat plot-driven package. "Valhalla" goes off the rails in the same how-the-hell-do-I-end-this way as "Blazing Saddles," having built up just enough momentum to keep you chortling through the chaos….
Any playwright who pinches her subtitle from the collected works of Jorge Luis Borges (no capital letters, please!), or whose last play was called "[sic]," really needs to consider spending a few weeks in residence at the David Ives School of User-Friendly Smart Comedy, or possibly entering a 12-step program for recovering postmodernists.
Even so, this eggheady comedy about two neurotic graduate students (Christina Kirk and Colleen Werthmann) trapped in dissertation hell and the boyfriends (Thomas Jay Ryan and Jeremy Shamos) whom they hold at arm’s length is funny, clever, and worth a trip downtown to Soho Rep, where it has just been extended through Feb. 28. The closer you listen, the more clearly you grasp that the highbrow badinage in which Ms. Gibson’s characters indulge is not so much self-regarding as self-mocking….
Would that you could read the whole thing here, but the Journal rarely provides free links to its arts coverage, so if your interest is piqued, trundle on down to the nearest newsstand or honor box, insert one (1) dollar, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and regale yourself with all sorts of cool stuff, me (I hope) included.
TT: Not taken
I didn’t expect my throwaway item on Woody Allen to have caused quite so much of a hullabaloo
cyberspace. Around this town, Allen is generally thought to be soooo over. Go figure.
In all fairness, let me add this footnote: a few days after Jack Paar’s death last week, one of our local PBS affiliates reran a Paar clip show that included what I gather was Allen’s network TV debut as a standup comedian. I can just barely remember his standup days, and since then I hadn’t seen or heard any of his work from that period. I was struck by how fresh and engaging his style was—free, fantastic, not at all punchline-oriented. Judging by that clip, one could easily imagine him having evolved into an on-stage monologist à la Spalding Gray rather than a writer-director of films. In retrospect, I wonder if that might not have been a better way for him to go?
UPDATE: Cup of Chicha weighs in, smartly (as always).
OGIC: From the cheap seats
The 'Fesser, whose many felicitous observations and coinages are on regular offer at Pullquote*, has an expression he reserves for noting especially entertaining outbreaks of intellectual pugilism. He borrowed it from hockey. In homage to the blood-thirstiest fans in the first few rows who make it their business to egg on any actual or potential fisticuffs, he'll e-mail me when, say, Dale Peck and [insert novelist here] exchange blows to say he's "Pounding on the Plexiglass/Spilling My Popcorn." Of late this has been abbreviated to a simple "PTP/SMP."
Recent history suggests two PTP/SMP moments are possibly imminent. One may break out when The Elegant Variation gets a load of Michael Blowhard's counter-common-wisdom on the NYTBR shuffle, the other when Emma at The Fold Drop reads Caitlin Flanagan's cover story on feminists and nannies in the new Atlantic Monthly. (This issue is not yet on-line, and I have to say that as a subscriber, I rather appreciate the little lag time between when I get my hard copy and when the content goes up on the internet. By the time my New Yorker reaches me out here in the hinterlands every week, it's already half-useless.)
Just so you don't go to the snack bar at the wrong time.
*For a sterling example, see here.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 5, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Where credit is due
A reader inquired about "Alas, not by me," the running head I use to link to choice snippets by other people (usually bloggers) that I wish I’d written. It’s a reference to a celebrated anecdote about Johannes Brahms. Back in the nineteenth century, autograph seekers sometimes invited their quarry to inscribe fans—the kind you hold in your hand. Brahms, the story goes, was invited by the wife (or possibly the daughter) of Johann Strauss the Younger to sign a fan, and responded by sketching a musical staff, writing out the first couple of bars of "On the Beautiful Blue Danube," and signing it "Alas, not by—Johannes Brahms."
This is such a wonderful story that I fear it may not be true, especially since it could have been: Brahms was a witty gent capable of just such a spontaneous gesture, and his friendship with and admiration for Strauss were anything but apocryphal. (He told Hans von Bülow, for example, that Strauss was "one of the few colleagues I can hold in limitless respect.") I just checked, and two of the most reliable Brahms books on my shelves make no reference to the anecdote, so I plan to check no further. When the legend becomes true, print the legend (alas, not by me).
Incidentally, the word "alas" is one of my too-familiar, over-relied-upon fingerprints, along with "not surprisingly," "needless to say," "much less," "least of all," "I suspect," and (sigh) the use of hyphenated modifiers. Not surprisingly, I suspect that most far-too-prolific writers have, alas, a whole stack of these tics. Used in the strictest moderation, they’re part of what turns a voice into a full-fledged style, but I’m not always careful about using them moderately, least of all on this blog, which is frequently written on the fly. When I was editing The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, I determined to trim away all but one or two occurrences of each of my personal clichés. Don’t hold me to it, though, and please don’t keep score when you’re reading A Terry Teachout Reader. I guarantee you’ll find them there, in profusion.
"Driver, what stream is it?" I asked, well knowing
it was our lordly Hudson hardly flowing.
"It is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing,"
he said, "under the green-grown cliffs."
Be still, heart! No one needs
your passionate suffrage to select this glory—
this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs.
"Driver, has this a peer in Europe or the East?"
"No, no!" he said.
Home! Home! Be quiet, heart!
This is our lordly Hudson
and has no peer in Europe or the east;
this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs
and has no peer in Europe or the East;
be quiet, heart! Home! Home!
Paul Goodman, "The Lordly Hudson"
UPDATE: As Old Hag notes, this poem has been set to music—beautifully—by Ned Rorem (see yesterday’s almanac entry). She and I agree that the best recording currently available on CD is by Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau.
Wednesday, February 4, 2004
TT: A night in the life
Our Girl and I have been holding forth about the paradoxical provincialness of New York City, so I thought it might be worth posting some fugitive reflections on the subject of why I do live here and not in, say, Washington or San Francisco, or even my beloved Chicago.
Last night was a case in point. I met a writer friend for dinner in the East Village at one of the dozen-odd inexpensive Indian restaurants on Sixth Street, all on a single block and widely rumored to share a single kitchen as well. It's also said that there are no cats in that neighborhood, but we had a very good meal, after which we made our way through the wintry mix to an off-Broadway theater in the vicinity, the New York Theatre Workshop, where we saw the penultimate preview of Valhalla, Paul Rudnick’s new play, which opens Thursday. (Watch this space Friday to see what I wrote about it for my theater column in The Wall Street Journal.) That’s one kind of weeknight in Manhattan.
And tonight? Well, I stuck to my own neighborhood, the Upper West Side, but the evening ended up having a downtown flavor anyway: I took a singer friend to hear Dave’s True Story
and the Lascivious Biddies at Makor. Regular readers of this blog will recall admiring references to both groups, about whom I last wrote a couple of months ago in my Washington Post column:
I ventured down to the Village to hear two hip bands, Dave's True Story and the Lascivious Biddies, at Fez. DTS, previously praised in this space, is a volatile blend of two seemingly incompatible ingredients, the coolly kinky songs of David Cantor and the warmly engaging vocals of Kelly Flint. Hearing Flint sing about the wild side of downtown life in so comforting a voice is guaranteed to knock your dreams a bubble or two off plumb. As for the Biddies, they're a pop-jazz quartet of clever women who yoke two similarly dissimilar styles—girl-group vocals and King Cole Trio-style instrumentals—to charming effect.
Part of what makes DTS and the Biddies two of the most interesting bands in town is that they don’t lend themselves to ready categorization. Both make music that is rooted in jazz but open to all manner of sounds, and both sing smart self-composed songs—often witty, sometimes wry, occasionally rueful—that float free of the up-with-love trap. (The Biddies’ "Famous," for example, is a cruelly comic piece of celebrity mockery: "I wanna be famous/Tabloids will print what I eat/I wanna be famous/Who I do will be news on the street.") They fit no pigeonholes, not even the made-in-downtown-New-York label that accurately describes the clubs where they're usually to be found.
What, I asked myself, were two such exotic groups doing north of Noho, working a room one block from Lincoln Center and a few doors away from Café des Artistes, Peter Jennings' hangout? I mean, nobody plays the Upper West Side, right? So since I’d never even heard of Makor, much less been there, I decided I ought to check out an uptown spot adventurous enough to book DTS and the Biddies—and was I ever surprised.
Makor, it turns out, is a Jewish community center, a West Side outpost of the 92nd Street Y housed in what appears to have once been a fancy-schmancy townhouse on a very classy block. It still looks classy on the outside, enough so that I almost told the cabby to keep on driving. Instead, I got out, went in, had my shoulder bag searched, and headed downstairs to the least likely-looking nightclub I’ve ever seen. The Makor Café, I’m told, is one of the most popular Jewish singles bars in town (one patron dryly described it to me as "a kosher meat market"). What it looks like on the inside is the student union of a Midwestern land-grant university. The floors are clean, the air clear, the customers mostly fresh-faced except for a sprinkling of wannabe hipsters dressed in black berets, and all the tables are lined up in perfectly straight rows. If you were to ask a computer to generate a picture of the opposite of the Village Vanguard, this would be it. Yet the nice middle-class crowd clearly loved everything it heard, even such alarming cautionary tales of postmodern love as David Cantor’s "Spasm" ("So spare me the roses the wine and the song/It all boils down to the raw protoplasm/’Cause this ain’t the real thing/It’s just a spasm").
As I caught another cab for the short ride home, I marveled at the sheer incongruity of my evening. Right music, wrong place, wrong night, wrong neighborhood—and nobody seemed to care, or even notice. Tomorrow I’ll be returning to the immediate vicinity of Makor to watch New York City Ballet
dance George Balanchine’s Jewels. On Saturday I’ll be taking a crosstown bus through Central Park to the National Academy of Design to see "The Artist’s Eye: Wolf Kahn as Curator," a show put together by the man who made the monotype
that now hangs above my mantelpiece. "Spasm" and Jewels, Paul Rudnick and Wolf Kahn: out of such daily juxtapositions is my life in Manhattan made. And while I have no doubt that you could find comparable variety in plenty of other big cities, I doubt there’s anywhere else in America—perhaps in the whole world—where it’s so easy to find. In New York, it comes to your front door and knocks. Loudly.
OGIC: Upward and downward with the arts
I'm a sucker for stories of Arrival like this one (via Elegant Variation) about novelist Andrew Sean Greer getting the Updike/New Yorker stamp of approval for his new third book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli (the novel is also Antic-Muse-approved [see right column]). They're already chattering about his juvenilia:
His first novel, written at 16, was a "Wuthering Heights" knockoff that he entered in a young adult novel competition. He lost: "I had never heard of 'young adult novels,' which I guess are about teenage gangs and the new boy in town or something."
My old favorite story of this kind is the one about Jeff Maguire, who wrote the screenplay for the 1993 movie In the Line of Fire. Maguire was on the verge of moving his penniless family from Los Angeles back to New Hampshire when he got word that Clint Eastwood had bought his script. And I do mean penniless—just to be able to afford to go out to dinner and celebrate the sale, he and his wife had to take back to the store a blouse he had recently given her for her birthday.
But oh dear, it seems that Maguire's sum output since that shining moment consists of a bonus feature for the In the Line of Fire DVD (appearing "as himself") and the one movie whose trailer provided me with perhaps the most memorable pre-feature hilarity all last year, delivering such textbook Hollywood brain-drain as:
At a remote archaeological site in the French countryside…
"Your father wrote that…but he wrote it six hundred years ago!"
"…fax machine that would actually fax three-dimensional objects…"
"We found my father's documents and glasses—are you trying to tell me he faxed them back to the fourteenth century?"
"No. Your father is in the fourteenth century."
Glad that's cleared up! Textbook, I tell you.
To be fair, screenwriter Maguire had what I'm sure was the indispensable help of a Michael Crichton novel in coming up with this stuff. Still, let's hope Mr. Greer evades this sort of plunge (I'm not too worried).
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 4, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Guest almanac
Courtesy of artblog.net, a blog whose proprietor is also an excellent painter:
"From the age of six I was in the habit of drawing all kinds of things. Although I had produced numerous designs by my fiftieth year, none of my works done before my seventieth is really worth counting. At the age of seventy-three I have come to understand the true form of animals, insects and fish and the nature of plants and trees. Consequently, by the age of eighty-six I will have made more and more progress, and at ninety I will have got closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will have reached a magnificent level and at one hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive. I would like to ask those who outlive me to observe that I have not spoken without reason."
Hokusai, One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 4, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Much ado about X
When everyone's buzzing about blogger anonymity, it becomes an anonymous blogger to weigh in (thanks for the shout-out, Old Hag). Anonymity's detractors make their cases this week at Gothamist, which declares in an impressively thoroughgoing spirit of no-fun,
Gothamist does not approve of anonymous blogging: We believe all bloggers should stand behind their posts with their real names. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be blogging.
And at Salon, which runs a piece that's conveniently excerpted here by Lizzie so that you can bypass the premium-access rigmarole:
It takes a certain courage to shoot half-cocked into the media landscape like that. Or does it? [Atrios, TMFTML] and other bloggers have made names for themselves by having no names at all—and by using the safety and security of their secret identities to spread gossip, make accusations and levy the most vicious of insults with impunity.
My impulse is to respond to these charges as a reader first and blogger second. As a reader, my response is much like Maud's. I like the anonymously written blogs I read, and in many cases the anonymity of the blogger contributes to the effect. I appreciate the sheer variety of voices, styles, and approaches of the blogs I visit every day, and for those bloggers who are anonymous to identify themselves would be a step in the direction of flattening things out—perish the thought.
Many of the commenters at Gothamist rush valiantly to the defense of anonymous bloggers by pointing out the perils of blogging at work and the urgency of keeping oneself employed, in the current economy especially. All true enough. But this seems to me a secondary defense whose mobilization grants the basic premise that anonymous blogging would be wrong under ideal circumstances. As an addicted blog reader with several favorites who choose anonymity, I can't, won't, and don't grant that.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 4, 2004 | Permanent
"Anyway, I’ve never run with the pack, composing according to fashion; I’ve always been a lone wolf, composing according to need. The Red Queen said you’ve got to run fast to stay in one place. I stayed in one place. Now it’s clear I’ve run fast."
Ned Rorem, The Nantucket Diary
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 4, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, February 3, 2004
OGIC: Hit parade
At first I felt a little bad about using the James Wood post below to pile on Bill Keller yet some more, but listening to Ed's audio endorsement of blogger rage (at Return of the Reluctant) readily expiated my guilt. Terry may have to add a point to his blog manifesto.
My favorite take yet on Janet Jackson's halftime misadventures is Tyler Green's historically-minded one.
Finally, the spirit of self-sacrifice is alive and well on the internet today: Slate is reading Joe Eszterhas, the Cinetrix viewing Last Year at Marienbad, all so you don't have to. You can be thankful on both counts.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 3, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: A good critic knows when to shut up
Last week I was lucky enough to be tipped off about a very ill-publicized Chicago talk given by James Wood, literary critic for the New Republic, London Review of Books, and more. Sadly, I got the word too late to read the book he was discussing, Saul Bellow's 1956 novella Seize the Day. I'm a fan of Wood's, but who isn't? If there's much of a dissenting camp on his excellence, it's a quiet one. My tipster OFOB and I were genuinely excited.
Only about twenty-five people showed up, most of them armed with marked-up copies of the slim text. We listened to Wood deliver a talk that was an interpretation of the novella, an appreciation of Bellow, and a brief for the primacy of literary form, in ascending order of generality. Unlike some of us, Wood speaks exactly as fluently as he writes, but without any brittle veneer, by which I mean that his talking sounds like talking, not writing. Yet the man is a font of seamless quotations—words spilled from his mouth in tidy, dense aperçus, ripe for plucking and jotting down. Which I did compulsively.
Englishmen are really rallying around Bellow and the idea of the American Original lately, which is potentially an interesting phenomenon. First there was the Martin Amis piece in the Atlantic pitting Bellow against James for American Giant honors (no link available). That piece seemed to be as much about a crushlike attraction to the especially American qualities of a writer like Bellow as about discriminating among American writers. Now comes Wood gushing about "the Melvillean rush of Humboldt's Gift," Bellow's "lissome particularity" and "extraordinary rhythmic discontinuities" (unachievable by an English writer, he claimed), and his "at once deeply American and deeply antique" prose. It was a convincing bit of rhapsodizing about a writer I of course admire but have never quite loved.
Wood outlined a formalist reading of what he characterized as "a fanatically detailed, patterned, and controlled novella," and moved from this to a religious/metaphysical reading. The larger point was about ideas and form: for Wood, the novel form, "greedily borrowing" from every other discourse it can get its hands on, but forging a kind of expression all its own, "deals with ideas in a way only it can deal with them. It's all about the form."
In fiction written in free indirect style (where third-person narration implicitly reflects the point of view or emotional state of a character), Wood said, characters are "porous scouts" who absorb the details the author wants them to notice. "No ordinary character notates the world as delicately as Tommy in Seize the Day. We allow novelists this compromise or fudging. We engage in a compact with Bellow or Joyce: he must have his fancy phrase; we enjoy it; so we lend it to, for instance, Leopold Bloom's consciousness."
Wood defended the didacticism that tends to crop in a writer like Bellow. His defense of the presence of the writer's voice in his narration and characters reminded me of his positive review of Vernon God Little, which had surprised me a bit when it came out last November. In that review and in his talk, Wood is fascinated by the negotiations and compromises authors enter into when they undertake to represent a character's consciousness, and the question of what becomes of their own voice: is it behind the character's or narrator's voice? Beside it? The only certain thing is that it's never absent. This comes from the review:
First-person narrations are always delicate tricks, the delicacy being the balancing of the likely—"is this how this person would sound"?—with the literary: "how do I, the author, also manage to have my own style?"
"Balancing" is the key term here. Wood welcomes the author's direct voice into fictional narrative, and doesn't look for complete verisimilitude (a straw man, anyway). This is the talk again:
We have a choice when we read writers who are themselves didactic—which Bellow is. To what extent are they being wholly novelists, and to what extent are they using a confused consciousness to communicate their own ideas to us? Richard Poirier dismissed Herzog because he thought it was authorial philosophizing delivered through a character's confused consciousness.…Characters contaminate and modify ideas. Ideas are inextricable from the form. (This is what T.S. Eliot was getting at in his remark about James's mind being so fine no idea could violate it.)
He was very persuasive, but there's something faintly defensive about all of this, too, a bit of anxiety that novels might be left out of the realm of "ideas," à la Bill Keller. For all of the protestations of the unique importance of literary form, you can detect an ever-so-slight concession to a philistine attitude that, for the purposes of this post, is represented by a Bill Keller sock puppet—a utilitarian attitude that wants its ideas cleanly extractable and ready-to-use. This part of Wood's talk stood in tension with something very striking he said early on. He read to us a sentence from Seize the Day describing an old man's "big but light" elbow, and another noting "the long phrases of the birds." He called these virtuouso moments that are "finally not amenable to criticism, their effect unaccountable—and the kind of moment that makes literature." I just loved this moment in the talk, seeing one of the best and most fluent critics I know say, essentially, "this is beautiful, I can't tell you why, and anyone who says they can is faking it."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 3, 2004 | Permanent
TT: I have nothing whatsoever to say
Except about George Balanchine, of course. I just finished another chapter of my book, which for the moment (and subject to my publisher’s approval) is called All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. You heard it here first! Is that a good title, or what? As always, let me know your thoughts.
Otherwise, I’m in an acutely blogged state, so I don’t plan to post anything more until Wednesday. OGIC is taking care of business more than adequately in my stead. Isn’t it nice to have her back?
"We were, of course, of the left. We were socialist. We stood for the dignity of the working man. We stood for the dignity of distress. We stood for the dignity of our island, the dignity of our indignity. Borrowed phrases! Left-wing, right-wing: did it matter? Did we believe in the abolition of private property? Was it relevant to the violation which was our subject? We spoke as honest men. But we used borrowed phrases which were part of the escape from thought, from that reality we wanted people to see but could ourselves now scarcely face. We enthroned indignity and distress. We went no further.
"I am not sure that the wild men of our party did not speak more honestly than we did. They promised to abolish poverty in twelve months. They promised to abolish bicycle licences. They promised to discipline the police. They promised intermarriage. They promised farmers higher prices for sugar and copra and cocoa. They promised to renegotiate the bauxite royalties and to nationalize every foreign-owned estate. They promised to kick the whites into the sea and send the Asiatics back to Asia. They promised; they promised; and they generated the frenzy of the street-corner preacher who thrills his hearers with a vision of the unattainable rich world going up in a ball of fire. We disapproved, of course. But what could we do?"
V.S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men
TT: Program note
Another reader writes:
Oh fine. Just introduce me to even more interests - how dare you!
Translation: I bought a ticket to Pacific Northwest Ballet's Balanchine centenary production
on February 12th.
The only ballet I've enjoyed before (other than The Nutcracker when I was
12) was the PNB's production of Silver Lining - ballet set to the music of
Jerome Kern, coreographed by our boy Kent Stowell. It got rave reviews
here in Seattle, but was widely panned elsewhere.
But I am going with an open mind, so we'll see.
Anything I should know/read beforehand?
If it were November, I’d tell you to buy my Balanchine book, but it isn’t written yet, much less published. On the other hand, I see on the Web that you’ll be watching Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, Agon, and Divertimento No. 15, all of them major Balanchine ballets that Pacific Northwest dances beautifully, and so I’m tempted to suggest that you not read anything. Just go, look, and be open to surprise.
I’ll add only this caveat: all three of the ballets on your program are "plotless," meaning they don’t tell a story. But that doesn’t mean they’re abstract—not even Agon, which is set to a very knotty score by Stravinsky. I’ll cheat and give you a little taste from my unfinished book:
Balanchine was the first ballet choreographer to forge a distinctively contemporary movement vocabulary, and among the first to find a visual counterpart to the acerbities and angularities of such composers as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Webern, and Ives. Yet he was right to shun the reductive label of abstractionist, for his dances, however aggressively modern-looking they may be, are human dramas, peopled by recognizable creatures of flesh and blood who live and die—and love. "Put a man and a girl on the stage and there is already a story," he said. "A man and two girls, there’s already a plot."
Keep that in mind and you won’t go far wrong. Have fun—and please write back to tell me how you liked it!
TT: Psst! Don't talk about the war!
From The Scotsman:
"The Producers," Mel Brooks’s musical which sends up the Nazi regime and features the song "Springtime For Hitler," could be opening in a surprise new venue - Berlin. A theatre company has expressed a keen interest in staging the hit Broadway show in Germany, and theatregoers are being flown from the capital to New York next month to see if they find the musical entertaining or offensive.
If they do not walk out in disgust - or manage a laugh at a chorus line of goose-stepping Nazi stormtroopers - it will get the go-ahead to open in Berlin….
Read the whole thing here.
Monday, February 2, 2004
TT: Three from the mailbox
We got a lot of traffic yesterday, most of it drawn by my notes on blogging
and OGIC’s reflections on New York provincialism. All this without any scabrous hints from other bloggers! Such are the rewards of the pure of heart.
A lot of bloggers who linked to my notes on blogging took issue with Note No. 2: "I know very few people over fifty, and scarcely any over sixty, who ‘get’ blogging." Many of them hastened to point out that they were 50 or older, so there! All I can say is, good for you. That’s one point about which I’d love to be proven wrong—and maybe I am. To date, my own face-to-face experience, much of it based on encounters with big-city types who work in the worlds of art and journalism, suggests otherwise. Could I have fallen victim to an unexpected attack of New York provincialism? I sure hope so.
Now, on to some individual reader mail:
- The New York state of
mind gets in the way of a great many other viewpoints and cultural
takes. Popular culture (pop music, television, genre fiction, graphics
and arts that are out of favor among professional, mostly NY, critics)
has long been ignored by the mavens of "high culture." But thousands
of practitioners of those popular or folk arts have worked and lived
and died outside of Manhattan's sphere. Not only that, but they have
created wondrous and satisfying works. There are dozens of cultures in
the country, the world, and trying to put them into an arbitrary
hierarchy does all artists and thinkers a real disservice. But then, you two already recognize that at some level or you wouldn't
wrestle with the question the way you do. And I probably wouldn't
chime in with my views. The Web and the Blog encourage the shattering
of hegemonies, for better and for worse.
- I made up the term "reverse provincialism" a while back when I started thinking about how mass media have altered what a provincial knows. Anyone who owns a TV these days is very familiar with the world view, the concerns and the fads of New York and Los Angeles (or at least the elites thereof) whereas (I imagine) there are plenty of people who live in those cities who are deeply ignorant of the outside world. Just one of the many great inversions that modern life has brought about.
- To replace the little magazines of the 20th century [Note No. 2 in my "Notes on Blogging"] seems to me an ambitious project. And I’m skeptical because I don’t see, for example, how experimental prose (a concern of mine) could have any place in the blogworld. Sure, blogs can link to essays, etc., and they do, but I wonder how much serious reading AT ALL takes place over the internet…. Owing to their temporal (and serialized) nature, blogs more closely resemble journalism than anything else. One reads them like one reads the news. And the very fact that blogs seem to operate in dialog (take for example the NYTBR debacle, widely and ‘incestuously’ discussed on lit blogs), further contributes to their ‘timeliness’. How typical is it for a reader to delve into the historical archives of a blog? For how long are ‘discussions’ related to a post active? Not very long it seems to me. However, the ability to read archived posts in perpetuity is worth noting. How many times have I read the ‘reader’s respond’ section to a magazine and wish I had the original article in front of me?
Once again: "About Last Night" has the smartest readers in the blogosphere. Thanks to you all.
TT: Alas, not by me
Lileks just caught up with Master and Commander:
I must now reshuffle my top ten all-time favorites. There you have it; there you have the human mystery. Two men on a ship. One a man of adventure and war, the other a man of science and healing; they are sitting in a room several thousand miles from home, a room designed to remind them of the civilization that sent them to this remote locale, and they playing a stringed duet (cello, violin) before a battle where they will endeavor to cleave the skulls of Frenchmen with sharp axes. And there’s no contradiction implied. No 21st century sensibility barging in to make us all wonder how people who appreciated the muses could then stick a knife in a man’s throat "for England, for home, and for the prize." The story rambles, like any good voyage, and I never doubted a single minute of the film. It had absolute confidence in its characters and stories. I want ten more, please.
Read the whole thing here.
TT: Small town
Our Girl in Chicago is on to something when she recalls (see below) how moving to Chicago taught her that New York's cultural snobbishness is "precisely a form of provincialism, and one that was all the more invidious for being called sophistication." Amen to that.
As regular visitors to the right-hand column know, I write a monthly wrapup of the arts in New York City for the Sunday Washington Post. It's called "Second City." I gave it that name in order to tease my adopted town about its chronic self-centeredness. It's absolutely true that more artistic activity takes place here than in any other American city, but that doesn't mean New York has a monopoly on important art, much less interesting art. Tyler Green, one of our fellow artsjournal.com bloggers, was listening to OGIC and me on the radio last night, and e-mailed afterward to tell us that he'd been struck recently by the vitality of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene—not just in and of itself, but by comparison with the state of the visual arts in Manhattan. And I wrote a piece about George Balanchine last year for The Yale Review (it'll be in A Terry Teachout Reader) in which I made the following observation:
New York-based balletomanes who view with alarm the continuing decline of New York City Ballet need to start getting used to the notion that the city long known as "the dance capital of the world" may well be on the verge of becoming no more than primus inter pares in the increasingly decentralized world of post-Balanchine ballet.
Last year, the U.S. State Department asked me to write an essay for on-line distribution to other countries about the state of the arts in America. In that essay (on which I drew for the introduction to the Teachout Reader), one of the things I talked about was what I called "the 'deprovincialization' of America's regional performing-arts groups." I don't discuss that nearly often enough on this blog. It looks like Our Girl—and you—will be doing it for me this week. Good.
P.S. Welcome back, OGIC. You were much missed last week.
OGIC: Broadcast news
A bit nervous? A bit nervous?! Look, remember that student in your college classes who locked eyes on the text in front of her when there was any danger of being called on? Who visibly blanched when the teacher so much as leaned in her general direction? Who had four different outfits the color of the classroom walls, the better to camouflage herself? That student was me.
I couldn't speak in class in high school. I couldn't speak in class in college. I couldn't speak in class in graduate school. For a few years there, I taught some college courses and, lo and behold, I could speak in class. Necessity will make you do the damnedest things, and I daresay I spoke pretty well in the courses I taught. But for some moments in the studio at WBEZ tonight, that intervening experience fled, and I felt every bit the shy, quiet, scared mouse of old. I was surprised, to put it mildly, to find that some of that old resistance had stuck around.
Terry and our gracious, resourceful host Edward Lifson helped exorcise those ghosts and got me through the rough patches of this, my very first radio broadcast. I felt warmed up by the second half of the show, and was able to express some of the things I had wanted to say. By the time our time was up, it was much as each of them had promised beforehand—I was surprised and sorry to see the hour run out, and full of thoughts that would never get voiced. But the beauty of this medium is that what doesn't get voiced can always get blogged.
Over the next few days I'll post some further thoughts on the whole interesting question the WBEZ series Should I Stay or Should I Go? raised about the dilemma of artists in Chicago. One of the more startling moments tonight was hearing read back to me all the factoids I jotted down about myself a few months ago, when Terry first invited me to co-blog. One of these noted my attraction to what I called the "medium-hot centers" of the world, a category in which I implicitly included Chicago. When I uttered that phrase in October, I didn't think too much about it, but participating in WBEZ's good series this week made me do some of that thinking belatedly. In the makeshift case for Chicago I tried to put together tonight, the idea of medium hotness was central, if unstated.
So what does it mean to be medium-hot? What's the attraction of "medium"? Here's one way of describing what I find so liberating about the scene and atmosphere here, especially in comparison with the only other place I've ever lived, and the place every city compares itself to, New York. This departs from something John Updike says in his brief preface to the recently published collection of his early stories, pointed out to me by the perspicacious OFOB [Our Friend On the Block, a recurring character here who is encouraged to recur more!]. Updike talks about the difficulty he had writing fiction in New York City, and his inevitable "flight from Manhattan," where he found too little ordinary life going on for his purposes. Updike felt he couldn't thrive there as a writer, and speaks of wanting to be somewhere where he could immerse himself in the ordinary, and find the extraordinary therein. This was how he conceived of his particular task as a writer, and New York was the wrong setting for that project. Reading this got me thinking that what I love about this city, big and richly varied as you could wish it, but not superlative and not the default destination that New York is, is how from moment to moment it offers you a choice between the ordinary and extraordinary. You can move from one to the other kind of experience more or less at will. Sometimes in New York City, in my experience and Updike's, you could get stuck in the extraordinary, and get very tired.
To a great degree, of course, this comes down to questions of individual temperament, which brings us back to where this post started. Yet aside from such considerations, I can't help remembering that one thing I actively wanted to get away from when I left New York ten years ago was the casual assumption, not universally held but not in short supply either, that everything of import was of bicoastal, and mainly east-coast, origin. It felt suffocating. For all our back-and-forth tonight about just how immune Chicago is or isn't to accusations of provincialism, part of what I feel I escaped by coming here was precisely a form of provincialism, and one that was all the more invidious for being called sophistication.
And that's not all! Look for more on this topic in the coming days—and please e-mail me with your thoughts, whether you're in Chicago, New York, or a different place altogether. This conversation started by our new friends at WBEZ seems to me one worth carrying on.
P.S. It's nice to be back.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 2, 2004 | Permanent
"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."
Noël Coward, Private Lives
TT: Sound bite
To hear Philip Larkin read "Aubade," his last major poem, go here. (You'll need RealAudio to listen.)
Warning—don’t click this link if you’re feeling blue. "Aubade" definitely won’t help.
Sunday, February 1, 2004
TT: Our songs
I’ve been listening to an advance copy of Bill Charlap's Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein, out March 23 from Blue Note. I don’t want to comment on it because (A) it hasn’t been released and (B) I’ll probably review it somewhere, but listening to Charlap play such familiar Bernstein ballads as "Lucky to Be Me" and "Lonely Town" has put me, perhaps not surprisingly, in a reflective mood.
It’s funny (actually, it’s not even slightly funny, but you know what I mean) how certain pieces of music become tightly melded with personal memories. "Some Other Time," from On the Town, used to be my favorite song, in part because of the way Bill Evans used to play it. A singer friend of mine knew this, and liked to do it as an encore when I came to a nightclub to hear her perform. After she died, I thought of her every time I heard "Some Other Time," and before long I found it difficult to listen to the song. Eight years have gone by, and I still think of her whenever I hear it.
(1) Are songs more likely to become attached to personal memories than pieces of instrumental music? If they are, is it because they have lyrics? Or is it simply that they’re so much shorter than symphonies or sonatas, and thus more easily recalled?
(2) Does the fact that I still associate "Some Other Time" with the memory of my friend have anything at all to do with the fact that it’s a particularly good song? Would it have remained so evocative for so long if it were less musically memorable?
(3) I almost never associate paintings or movies or ballets or novels with intensely specific personal memories—just music. Is this an idiosyncrasy of mine, or is music uniquely effective as an associational trigger? And if it is, why?
(4) Will this particular association eventually fade with the passing of time? And if it does, will I be sorry?
Which reminds me to mention that I went into Rooster Flowers Sunday afternoon to buy a bouquet for the kitchen table, and an album by another singer friend of mine was playing on the store’s sound system. My friend is currently on tour, and I haven’t heard from her for a couple of weeks beyond an occasional I’m-fine-how-are-you e-mail from Seattle or San Francisco. The moment I heard her voice, I felt as though she were standing right behind me. I almost turned around to say hello. Music is so powerful that way, which is one reason why it’s nice to have musician friends who make records. When they’re gone—even if it’s for good—you can still listen to them.
TT: And you could have been listening to us
Here's the official statement by NFL Executive Vice President Joe Browne regarding the Super Bowl halftime show, at which Justin Timberlake bared Janet Jackson's breast on live TV:
We were extremely disappointed by elements of the MTV-produced Halftime show. They were totally inconsistent with assurances our office was given about the show. It's unlikely that MTV will produce another Super Bowl halftime.
And what, pray tell, were they expecting? Noël Coward and Mary Martin?
UPDATE: Who wrote this?
Viewers who tuned in expecting a big-time football game saw the Super Bowl of Sleaze instead. Sexy and violent commercials that included jokes about flatulence and bestiality mercilessly interrupted the CBS telecast of Super Bowl XXXVIII from Houston last night, making it a dubious choice for family viewing.
But it was the unexpected climax of the MTV-produced halftime show that shocked viewers and set the CBS switchboard ablaze….
Go here to find out. You might be surprised.
I just got back from the Upper West Side studio (on Central Park West, no less) where I conversed on the air with Our Girl in Chicago, who was speaking from (no points for guessing) Chicago. We chatted with Edward Lifson of WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public radio station, about the state of the arts in Chicago, taking a few calls from various art-loving types who had better things to do than watch the Super Bowl. We even managed to get in a plug for Chicago arts blogger Golden Rule Jones!
Needless to say, OGIC and I talk on the phone two or three times a week, but it felt very different to be talking to her from a radio studio halfway across the continent, hearing her voice over headphones. She confesses to having been a bit nervous, which hardly surprises me—I mean, I didn’t have to make my radio debut in front of a live microphone—but the whole thing ended up being great fun, and proved what I’ve always suspected, which is that my co-blogger has a radio voice as lovely as the rest of her.
I expect you’ll be hearing rather more from Our Girl and rather less from me this week—I’ve been blogging to excess and not writing nearly enough for money, aside from which I have to spend three or four nights in aisle seats between now and next Monday. I’ll poke my head in from time to time, but I’m sure she’ll keep you more than sufficiently amused.
TT: Take a gander
New stuff in the right-hand column:
(1) A link to my February "Second City" column, just out in today's Washington Post.
(2) Some fresh Top Fives.
Plus the previously announced remodeling of "Sites to See," which has already acquired a few additional entries since last we spoke.
Check it all out.
TT: Come in, world
One last reminder: Our Girl and I will be making our joint broadcast debut tonight (opposite the Super Bowl) on WBEZ-FM, Chicago's public radio station. If you don't live in Chicago, you can still hear us on line. For information on when, where, and how to tune us in, go here.
No more blogging from me until tomorrow. I overdid it yesterday and need to spend Sunday working on my Balanchine book (though I'll probably update some of the modules in the right-hand column before day is done). Besides, I think Our Girl is just about done with her blog-inhibiting for-profit labors and will be ready to rock this week, if not today.
See you on the radio!
UPDATE: If you need a reason to listen to us instead of watching the Super Bowl, go here.
Barry smashes Shirley’s dolly, Shirley’s eyes are crossed with hate,
Comrades plot a Comrade’s downfall "in the interests of the state."
Not my vegetarian dinner, not my lime-juice minus gin,
Quite can drown a faint conviction that we may be born in Sin.
Sir John Betjeman, "Huxley Hall"
TT: You heard it here first
The BBC has started to make available on its Web site material from its sound archives, which are—to put it mildly—voluminous. What’s there is fairly random, but there are some stunners, including excerpts from a famous 1960 TV interview with Evelyn Waugh. I’d read about this interview (which figures prominently in all of Waugh’s biographies), but never seen or heard it. If you have a RealAudio player, you can listen by going here.
From this page, you can easily find your way to other BBC recordings of such noted figures as Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Aaron Copland, Vladimir Nabokov, George Bernard Shaw, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Virginia Woolf, and W.B. Yeats (along with some rather more ephemeral types). I hope more such material will be posted on the BBC Web site in due course—most especially Max Beerbohm’s broadcasts from the Thirties and Forties, which I’ve never heard.
(I am, by the way, a great fan of spoken-word recordings by famous people whose voices you’d never guess were recorded, and will be glad to tell the readers of "About Last Night" about any especially choice Web-based tidbits whose URLs you care to pass on.)
TT: Notes on blogging
1. It’s almost impossible to explain what a blog is to someone who’s never seen one. That's the mark of a true innovation.
2. I know very few people over fifty, and scarcely any over sixty, who "get" blogging.
3. Blogs without links aren’t blogs. Blogs without blogrolls aren’t blogs. Blogs without mailboxes aren’t blogs.
4. The blogosphere is a pure market—but one in which no money changes hands. If you can afford the bandwidth and your ego is strong enough, it doesn’t matter whether anybody wants to read what you have to say. But the more you care about how many people are reading your blog, the more your blogging will be shaped by their approval, whether you get paid or not.
5. Politicians and celebrities rarely make good bloggers. They’re not interested enough in what other people are thinking.
6. Blogging puts professionals and amateurs on an even footing. That’s why so many professional writers dislike and distrust it.
7. The whole point of a blog is that its author controls its content. That’s why no major newspaper will ever be successful at running in-house blogs: the editors won’t allow it. The smart ones will encourage their best writers to blog on their own time—and at their own risk. The dumb ones will refuse to let any of their writers blog, on or off the job.
8. For now, blogs presuppose the existence of the print media. That will probably always be the case—but over time, the print media will become increasingly less important to the blogosphere.
9. Within a decade, blogs will replace op-ed pages.
10. Blogs will be to the 21st century what little magazines were to the 20th century. Their influence will be disproportionate to their circulation.
11. Blogs are what online magazines were supposed to be.
12. Art blogging will never be as popular as war blogging. More people care about politics than the arts.
13. Blogging is inherently undemocratic in one important way: it privileges literacy. Like e-mail, it is dividing the world into two unequal classes: people who feel comfortable expressing themselves through the written word and people who don’t.
14. If you want to be noticed, you have to blog every day.
15. An impersonal blog is a contradiction in terms.
ABOUT LAST NIGHT
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