About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, March 17, 2006
TT: Gold mine
Broadway: The Golden Age, Rick McKay’s wonderful documentary about the greatest days of the Great White Way, has suddenly become a super-hot public-TV pledge-week item. New York’s WNET showed it last Sunday opposite the season premiere of The Sopranos, and their phone bank went wild. Now they’re planning to show it three more times, on Saturday at ten p.m. and midnight and next Monday at two a.m. (plus two additional showings in April). Other stations have been making the same discovery, and so there’ll be showings of Broadway: The Golden Age all across the country this weekend.
Here’s part of what I wrote about Broadway: The Golden Age in The Wall Street Journal last year:
Mr. McKay knows when to ease back on the throttle and simply let his subjects talk. And talk they do, often amusingly and always movingly, about what it was like to work alongside such near-forgotten giants as Laurette Taylor (who is seen in her Hollywood screen test, the only sound film she ever made) and Kim Stanley (where on earth did Mr. McKay dredge up what looks like a kinescope of a live performance of "Bus Stop"?). You’ll weep—I did—to hear them share their fond memories of crummy apartments, Automat meals and big breaks….
For a complete listing of upcoming TV showings of Broadway: The Golden Age, go here.
And you thought “Lennon” was lousy! Rarely have I been so comprehensively irked by a Broadway show as I was by the latest entry in the jukebox-musical sweepstakes, “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show.” Anyone who loves Cash’s music should stay as far away as possible from this 38-song, two-and-a-half-hour tinselthon, which fills the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with the sour smell of bogusness....
Joe Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” is a black comedy of sexual manners that has lost nothing of its ruthless immediacy in the four decades since its premiere. If anything, Orton’s kinky subject matter is more accessible now than it was in 1965, when the first Broadway production closed after just 13 performances. Like most comedies, all “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” needs to make its effect is to be played absolutely straight. Instead, Scott Ellis, the director, has chosen to play it for laughs, encouraging his cast to give the kind of exaggerated, self-conscious performances against which Orton warned. “Unless it’s real,” he said, “it won’t be funny.” It isn’t—and it’s not....
No link, so kindly shell out your weekly dollar at your neighborhood newsstand to read the whole thing. Alternatively, get ambitious and go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the full text of my review, along with plenty of additional art-related coverage (including the Pulitzer-winning film reviews of my eminent colleague Joe Morgenstern, which I recommend wholeheartedly).
Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
Where and when did you last hear the New York Philharmonic? If you don’t live in New York City, the answer is most likely, “On an old record.” Like most American orchestras, the Philharmonic, aided and abetted by the American Federation of Musicians, priced itself out of the major-label recording business in the ’70s, and since then has made only occasional appearances on CD. And what about radio? The Philharmonic’s broadcasts used to bring it to every corner of the country. (It was while listening to a Sunday matinee on CBS that many Americans first learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.) But traditional classical radio is well on the way to becoming obsolete. In Kentucky, for instance, only one station airs “The New York Philharmonic This Week,” the orchestra’s long-running series.
Does this mean that the orchestra of Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini is doomed to become a regional ensemble, known primarily to those who attend its Lincoln Center concerts? Not necessarily. You can also hear the Philharmonic on the Web by going to nyphil.org, where the orchestra’s most recent broadcasts are available in streaming audio—but you can only listen to the last program, and you can’t download it to your computer to hear at your leisure....
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
"If you feel like asking me anything about my 'works' please do—the less great are probably far more explicit than the great, so it wouldn't be like asking Mary McCarthy. On the other hand it is often better not to know things. I liked a poem of yours in the Listener some weeks ago—one rather puzzling line, but poets are not to be asked to explain why and how."
Barbara Pym, letter to Philip Larkin (February 25, 1962)
My beautiful new iBook has been suffering from a mysterious complaint, so I called the wonder-working women of Ms Mac, who took it away for a night and brought it back it at noon today, better than new. As a result, though, a whole day went by during which I was unable to blog, read my e-mail, surf the Web, or do any of the things to which I normally devote so much of my waking life. Instead, I curled up on the couch with a short stack of Barbara Pym novels and spent Wednesday afternoon reading for pleasure. When not reading, I looked at the art on the walls. I didn't even listen to music! In the evening I took a cab up to Harlem and dined on pulled pork and smoked sausage at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Then I returned home, called my mother, watched a little TV, and went to bed early, content with the world.
I had a perfectly lovely time, but by the time Thursday rolled around I was starting to get a little itchy, and I confess to having been slightly relieved when Ms Mac returned my computer and I plugged myself back into the world. It's one thing to take a day off by prior arrangement, another to have it thrust upon you. At any rate, I'm now back in business, chipping away at my accumulated e-mail and already feeling slightly wistful as my impromptu holiday recedes in the rear-view mirror. It was nice whle it lasted....
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.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel* (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and 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 subject matter, 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 way one betrays one's old loves—getting the new one to read Trivia or Matthew Arnold, going to the same churchyard. When we are older there seems no new approach left. The disillusionment of finding out that something (say Trivia) has been his thing with someone else."
It seems I stirred up a considerable fuss with the recent Wall Street Journalcolumn in which I explained why I'd never been crazy about the singing of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. You may be surprised to hear, incidentally, that the fuss came from both directions—I even received an e-mail from a very prominent cabaret singer thanking me for “telling the truth” about Ella and Sarah.
Among the other people from whom I heard was a reader in search of enlightenment:
Very interesting column! I'm not sure I agree about Sarah Vaughan, but I can see right away where you are coming from. I'm sure you are getting a lot of comments about putting Fred Astaire in a list of favorites in an article where you take two legends to task. But again, I take the point. I've always sort of ignored him as someone who "sang like an actor," but your spin makes me see that in a different light.
Astaire is well represented on iTunes. Any recommendations?
This e-mail surprised me, since most of us middle-aged pop-song connnoisseurs take Astaire’s vocal excellence so completely for granted that it would never occur to us how anyone could have overlooked his singing. To be sure, he was modest to a fault, and never admitted to having been anything more than a dancer who sang on the side. "He had put together, at his home, a film library of all his dance numbers," André Previn recalls, "but all of them had been shorn of the vocal that precedes the dances. He seemed to be oblivious of the fact that he was many musicians' favorite singer, or if he knew it, he was embarrassed by that fact." To name two, he was the preferred interpreter of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, a distinction so mind-boggling that mere mortals should bow down humbly before it.
What was it that made Astaire’s singing so memorable? His voice was small and reedy, his expressive range seemingly narrow—yet he was equal to the widely varied demands of such passionate songs as “Night and Day” and “One for My Baby,” both of which he introduced (the first on Broadway, the second in a film). Perhaps the best way to put it is that he had an uncanny knack for knowing what not to do. If you’ll pardon my saying so, Astaire never put a foot wrong: he sang a tune the way it was written, he “read” a lyric with elegant simplicity, and he brought to every song in his huge repertoire the same rhythmic lightness and lift with which he sailed across a dance floor. Though never a jazz singer, he swung with the best of them, and was wholly comfortable in the company of such heavy hitters as Count Basie and Oscar Peterson.
Don’t take my word for it, though. In addition to recording dozens of now-standard songs for the soundtracks of his films and TV specials, many of which have been collected on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO (Rhino, two CDs), Astaire also made a considerable number of commercial recordings, nearly all of which show him off to splendid effect. Top Hat, White Tie and Tails (ASV Living Era, two CDs) contains decent-sounding transfers of most of the best of his 78s, while Fred Astaire’s Finest Hour (Verve) offers a nice selection of the recordings he made with jazz musicians in the Fifties.
iTunes carries Fred Astaire’s Finest Hour and some of his other recordings, early and late. If you’ve only heard the soundtracks of his films, I suggest you start by downloading the nonchalant 1952 performance of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” included on Fred Astaire's Finest Hour, which is accompanied by Oscar Peterson, Charlie Shavers, Flip Phillips, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and Alvin Stoller. (Whew!) I won’t tell you what it is, but there’s a neat little surprise at the end of the record that’ll put the biggest possible smile on your face.
I loved the scene you mentioned in which Lee refuses to read aloud in class her essay revealing that her father runs a mattress store. And I think it is in scenes like this that Sittenfeld's novel is discernible as a bona fide adult novel, despite its surface similarities to many a YA book, and as a novel depicting a social reality rather than the sort of idealized world in which simply "being yourself" is a sure road to rewards--the sort of world endemic, but far from limited, to YA. The reader, I submit, knows in her heart of hearts that Lee has sized up her peers' class prejudices acutely and that on some crucial level she is right to suppress the knowledge of her father's occupation. Not because it is shameful, obviously, but because in the setting in which she needs to survive, it will only make things harder. In a lesser novel, Lee's choice would feel like a disappointment and defeat; in this bracingly disillusioned one, it made me feel relieved. Which is not to say it wasn't heartbreaking, too.
As fascinated and moved as I was by Lee's travails, I wouldn't exactly call this a case of identification. It's true—since you have egged me on to get personal—that I switched from public to private school for tenth to twelfth grades and that there was some associated culture shock and loneliness. But my school wasn't Ault (though quite fancy, it was far from the east coast and mostly a day school) and I wasn't Lee. What I identified with in the book had more to do with form than with content—it wasn't the content of Lee's experience that catapulted me back to those good/bad old days, but Sittenfeld's formal approach of accreting an overwhelming multitude of mundane and ephemeral details to represent a way of taking in the world when one is unsure where one belongs in it (doubly for Lee, both by virtue of being a teenager and by virtue of being a fish out of water socially): observing and trying to properly interpret everything in one's path, looking for clues that might chip away at the incomprehensibility of one's surroundings. I think it's pretty amazing that Sittenfeld was able to approximate that perceptual mode so uncannily while not boring us to tears with the details themselves—quite the contrary.
My parting question to you, should you choose to accept it, is this: what did you think of the ready-made structure of the book, which turns each season of Lee's career at Ault into a chapter? Too facile or true to the way teenagers emplot their lives?
What do artists do all day? Many of them spend their working hours alone, sitting at a desk or standing at an easel and wrestling with their imaginations. But others don’t have that luxury. If you run a ballet company, for instance, you do your creating in a crowded studio—and you spend most of the day acting more like a CEO than a creative artist.
I went down to Raleigh two weeks ago to pay a visit to Carolina Ballet (and hang out with Ms. Pratie Place). I was there to see Tempest Fantasy, a new ballet by Robert Weiss, the company's artistic director set to Paul Moravec's Pulitzer-winning composition of the same name. In between performances, I spent a day following Weiss around. I’d expected to spend most of it watching the company rehearse. Instead, I got my nose rubbed in the exhausting realities of a choreographer’s life.
Weiss is both artistic director and chief executive officer of Carolina Ballet. Though he choreographs roughly half of the ballets danced by the company, the bulk of his time is given over to far less elevated tasks. Here’s some of what I saw him do that day:
• He paid a visit to company class, where he watched as two out-of-town dancers looking for work were put through their pliés by Debra Austin and Marin Boieru, the resident ballet masters.
• He huddled with the company’s production staff, watching a fuzzy videotape of one of his old ballets to see whether part of the scenery could be cannibalized and recycled for an upcoming production of Cinderella. (Like most dance companies, Carolina Ballet has to pinch pennies, and a big part of Weiss’ job is to do so as invisibly as possible.)
• He listened to a recording of a piece of music called Endymion's Sleep that he was thinking of using as the score for a pas de deux to be premiered next month. (It got thumbs up.)
• He inspected a preliminary version of a costume designed for the ballerina who will dance in that pas de deux.
• He took a couple of dozen phone calls, most of them variously urgent (the dancers’ contracts were coming up for renewal) and requiring on-the-spot decision-making.
In between calls, Weiss said to me, “Hey, want to watch me make a ballet?” Then he charged out of his office and went barreling down the hall to the main rehearsal studio, where a dozen dancers and a pianist were waiting for him. Without even bothering to change his shoes, he plunged into the finale to a dance version of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria
that will be premiered on April 6. “It’s kind of tense,” he told me later. “I mean, there you are in the middle of a roomful of dancers, tapping their feet and waiting for you. You can’t just stand there and wring your hands. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do next, you have to do something, right or wrong.” So instead of waiting prayerfully for inspiration to descend from above, he simply demonstrated the steps he wanted, phrase by phrase, and the dancers in turn repeated his movements. Demonstrate, repeat, correct, polish, repeat, go on to the next phrase: That’s how ballets are made. An hour later, another minute and 30 seconds’ worth of Gloria was finished.
All this left no time for lunch, so we drove to Weiss’ house at day’s end to grab a sandwich before going to the A.J. Fletcher Opera House in downtown Raleigh, where Tempest Fantasy was being performed that evening as part of a bill of Shakespeare-themed ballets. “Now you know what it’s really like around here,” he said as we sat down to eat. “I spend 80% of my time doing the things that make it possible for me to spend the other 20% making new dances. I wish it were the other way around, or even 50-50. But that’s the way it is.” Then his cell phone rang. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’ve got to take this.”
“If you like hot dogs,” the saying goes, “stay out of the sausage factory.” As Weiss and his stage manager discussed the ramifications of a ballerina’s freshly broken finger, I thought of a remark made by George Balanchine, who spent the second half of his life running New York City Ballet, making immortal masterpieces in between solving unglamorous crises. “Choreography, finally, becomes a profession,” he said. “In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse. Union time hardly allows it, anyhow.”
I didn’t fully understand what Balanchine meant until I spent a day in Robert Weiss’ ballet factory. Yes, “Tempest Fantasy” was gorgeous, a magical piece of storytelling accompanied by one of the finest new pieces of chamber music I’ve heard in years. But as I watched Shakespeare’s tale unfolding with such seeming effortlessness, I kept thinking of the drudgery it took to get those dancers on stage and set them in motion.
Whatever you do for a living, trust me—it’s easier.
"Then let us love one another and laugh. Time passes, and we shall soon laugh no longer—and meanwhile common living is a burden, and earnest men are at siege upon us all around. Let us suffer absurdities, for that is only to suffer one another."
Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (courtesy of Michael C. Magree)
Whew, huh? Sounds like the Bad Old Me, right? Well, it was, sort of, except that last week’s whirlwhind of art-related activity was (A) the first time I’ve been anywhere near that busy since I got out of the hospital in December and (B) a one-time deviation from my new, saner lifestyle. I slammed on the brakes as soon as I got home from the theater last night, and I intend to take it nice and slow for the rest of the month.
Having done all those cool things last week, I’ll be spending this week and next blogging about them. No rush—I have plenty of stories to tell. For the moment, I’ll start by making a major announcement: I painted my very first painting two weeks ago! Here it is, courtesy of Ms. Pratie Place, who talked me into it. (The photo posted on her site is wrong side up, by the way: the left-hand edge of the painting should be on top.) A homely thing, but mine own, and I had great fun doing it....
And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got a drama column to write. See you tomorrow.
Friday again. The Wall Street Journal again. Theater again. Two shows this week, Harold Prince's opera-house production of Candide and Woman Before a Glass, a one-woman play about Peggy Guggenheim.
The first I liked very much, with some inescapable but forgivable reservations:
Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” is back on Broadway—almost. New York City Opera, whose Lincoln Center headquarters is a block from Broadway and slightly north of the theater district, has revived its 1982 production of Bernstein’s 1956 operetta. Like the show itself, this “Candide” is flawed, but it definitely works, and unlike the semi-staged concert version presented last spring by the New York Philharmonic, which ran for just four performances, it plays through next Saturday, long enough for the word to get out….
Mr. Prince’s staging (reproduced by Arthur Masella) is full of good, dirty fun. The cast is generally fine, though Mr. Cullum isn’t quite right as Voltaire/Pangloss—he’s broad and bluff, not sharp and sardonic—and Ms. Christy, a very good Cunegonde in her own right, inevitably labors in the shadow of Kristin Chenoweth’s billion-volt performance with the New York Philharmonic. Nor is the New York State Theater well suited to Richard Wilbur’s quick-witted lyrics, which are best heard in a smaller house, ideally on Broadway.
Still, any “Candide” is infinitely better than none at all, and this one is performed with zesty, infectious relish….
The second I thought less successful as a show, but the acting redeems all:
Mercedes Ruehl has taken up residence at the Promenade Theatre, where she is starring in “Woman Before a Glass,” a one-woman play by Lanie Robertson about the life and loves of the late Peggy Guggenheim, an American heiress turned art dealer who bought a Venetian palazzo and filled it with her 260-piece collection of avant-garde paintings and sculpture….
Ms. Ruehl is in splendid, even spectacular form. Never having met Guggenheim, I can’t tell you whether her performance is true to life, but it’s full of life, outrageous and uproarious and, in the end, pitiful….
No link, needless to say. To read the whole thing, buy today’s Journal at your favorite newsstand, or go here and subscribe to the online edition. (I recommend the latter.)
I returned from Washington this afternoon to find in my e-mailbox this note from a friend who’s been worrying about my reputation:
Remember when I said you shouldn't hit every deadline so reliably, because it will make some dunderhead think you're not an artist? In the same spirit, I want you to slow down a little. I want you to start spreading stories of your suffering—up at night, anguished at the burden of capturing such a great man's art, honored by the opportunity to find and focus on Satchmo, listening over and over to his early recordings, hitting the crystal meth a little too hard. (We'll think about that last one.) I just think many people are surprisingly primitive, even intellectuals, sometimes especially intellectuals, and are inclined to see truth in clichés—art is agony, etc. Which of course sometimes it is. But Van Gogh would have been great even if he'd kept all his ears. It appears I'm veering off course. Anyway let's blur your reputation for happy productivity a little….
Once I stopped laughing—which took a minute or two—I gave brief consideration to posting in more or less that vein about my back-to-back voyages to the nation’s capital. Alas, the only suffering I underwent was outside the White House Tuesday morning, where I spent fifteen shivering minutes waiting for a cab in a cold, windy rainstorm. Beyond that, the only thing I can honestly tell you is that I’m bone-tired, for which reason the thought of spending the coming weekend writing, even about Louis Armstrong, is somewhat less than attractive. Nevertheless, I had great fun, and I came back with a gorgeous copy of Fairfield Porter’s "Ocean II" to add to the Teachout Museum. If this be suffering, I’ll have another helping, please.
On that ambiguously sunny note, here are some highlights of my recent travels:
• My Bradley Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute on “The Problem of Political Art” was well attended (by two different bloggers, among others). It was the first speech I'd given while wearing my new bifocals, and I thought my rhythm was a bubble off plumb as a result, but everybody was nice enough to tell me that I sounded just fine, so maybe I did. You can see for yourself on C-SPAN, which will be airing the lecture some time in the next few weeks. (If they tell me, I’ll tell you.) In addition, a longer essay on the same subject will appear in the May issue of In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues, a new magazine published by the John Templeton Foundation. I’ll post a link when one is available.
I dined chez AEI, whose in-house kitchen dished up a sit-down meal for twenty-odd invited guests. I got to eat some of the very good food (mmm, fresh asparagus) before the guests started pelting me with very good questions, some of which I apparently managed to answer to their satisfaction, since they let me have dessert.
• I spent the night in a boutique hotel around the corner from AEI. It shall remain nameless, but I do want to share a few details of my stay there, most of them culled from the promotional literature of what I'll call the Hotel Nirvana. The hotel's slogan is “Om Away From Home.” The staff wears Indian-style attire, and the rooms are decorated accordingly. According to a brochure handily placed next to a complimentary copy of Yoga Journal:
From the opulent lobby to the fanciful guestroom, enlightenment pervades every aspect of the guest experience….As the door to the guestroom opens, visitors are drawn into their own pesonal sanctuary. This is their grounded center, their root of awakening. Like a belly laugh of Buddha, the room is both a temple to tranquility and a shrine to amusement….Here, employee of the month is the one who ensures the euphoric bliss of every guest. The concierge is a Sensei, the bellhop is a swami, even the valet is a guru whose every word or action is inspirational and divine.
As if all this weren’t enough, three polished stones were placed on my turned-down bedspread in lieu of chocolates, accompanied by a printed card explaining that guests were invited to “use these stones for inspiration and to connect with the richness and magic of their imagination.” I’m not sure exactly what they were supposed to do for me (other than break my teeth if I'd tried to eat one before reading the card), but the bed was perfectly fine, and when I finally stopped giggling, I got a halfway decent night’s sleep.
• I awoke early the next morning to the sound of rain and the knowledge that my raincoat was hanging serenely in my closet in New York (the weather having been unseasonably springlike on Monday). I checked out of the Hotel Nirvana, caused a cab to materialize, and levitated over to what is now known as the Eisenhower Office Building, where I met a member of the Bush administration who escorted me across the alley to breakfast at (in?) the White House Mess. The gentleman in question, it seems, had read All in the Dances (you're surprised already, right?) and wanted to meet me.
The mess, which is tucked into a corner of the White House basement, is a small paneled room with a low ceiling and eight or nine tables, one or two of which are likely to be occupied at any given moment by people with familiar faces. I sat two tables away from Karl Rove (too far to eavesdrop), and President Bush’s father strolled in midway through our meal (he didn’t stay for breakfast, though). I ordered corned beef hash, which was served to me on a china plate bearing the presidential seal. I'm pretty sure it came out of a can (which suited me just fine—I love canned corned beef hash).
As for the conversation, I swear I’m not making any of it up. My host led off by telling me he was sorry he’d been unable to attend my Bradley Lecture, to which I replied that he was more than welcome to come hear my Phillips Lecture on Wednesday.
HE: What are you talking about this time?
ME: Well, it’s part of the Phillips Collection’s lecture series, so I’m going to talk about my own art collection, and how my taste was influenced by looking at the Phillips.
HE: And what do you collect?
ME: Mostly prints by American modernists.
HE (looking interested): Really? Do you happen by any chance to own anything by Fairfield Porter?
I managed to stammer out that I owned five color lithographs by Porter and was picking up a sixth one on Thursday, and that Porter himself would figure prominently in my lecture, but if a thought balloon had appeared over my head at that moment, it would have read, That’s the last thing I ever expected to be asked over corned beef hash in (at?) the White House Mess. (Oh, yes, we also talked about Helen Frankenthaler.)
• From there I went to Union Station, climbed aboard the next train for New York, and watched the rain turn to snow as I rumbled north to catch the press opening of New York City Opera’s revival of Candide, to which I took an overjoyed young composer friend who couldn't have liked it better.
• I got up unnaturally early the next morning to write my drama column for Friday's Wall Street Journal. Then I removed five prints from the walls (four disappeared into a garment bag, the fifth went under my arm), returned to Penn Station, and caught yet another train for Washington. It was a half-hour late, so instead of stopping at the hotel to freshen up, I went straight to the Phillips Collection and met my handler, who escorted me across Dupont Circle to the Women’s National Democratic Club, in whose banquet room the two of us supervised the hanging directly behind the podium of John Marin’s “Downtown, the El,” Milton Avery’s “March at a Table,” Fairfield Porter’s “The Table,” Jane Freilicher’s “Late Afternoon, Southampton,” and Neil Welliver’s “Night Scene.” They looked just great, if I do say so myself.
Following a hasty drink at the hotel, we hiked back to the banquet room, where I delivered my lecture, “Multiple Modernisms: What a Novice Collector Learned from Duncan Phillips,” before an audience whose post-lecture questions kept me hopping. Nearly everybody came up to the platform afterward to say hello and inspect the prints, after which I dined with Jay Gates, the director of the Phillips, and four well-chosen guests (one of whom I chose). I then retired gratefully to the Embassy Row Hilton, which does not promise its tenants enlightenment, merely a nice soft bed.
• I breakfasted in the hotel restaurant this morning, then went to the lobby to meet an “About Last Night” reader who had sent me an e-mail last month asking whether I was still looking for “Ocean II.” He turned out to be a serious art collector who had run out of wall space and decided to dispose of a few superflous pieces. (Here’s how serious he is: the cardboard box in which he delivered "Ocean II" was labeled Bonnard lithographs and watercolors. Note the strategic deployment of the plural.) I inspected the print, burbled with delight, took irrevocable possession, and headed one last time for Union Station, where an amused redcap helped me cart my six prints onto the quiet car of the Metroliner. Three and a half hours later, I was back in my Upper West Side apartment, looking for a place to hang “Ocean II” and wondering if it was too early to take a nap. It wasn’t.
Tomorrow it’s business as usual—I’ve got a chapter of Hotter Than That to write and yet another show to see—but I thought before I got going in earnest that you might like to read about four somewhat untypical days in my not uninteresting life. Now I'm going to borrow a ladder from my neighbor and see if “Ocean II” will fit over the door to my office….
P.S. It didn't. I hung it over my desk instead. I am now officially out of space.
I have to be somewhere else this morning, but fling a fistful of cookies behind me as I head out the door…
"What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end." (All About Eve)
"What are you a wizard?! A genius?!" (Best in Show)
"Two dollars!" (Better Off Dead)
"I'll meet you at the place where we did that thing that time." (Broadcast News)
"You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff." (Duck Soup)
"What are you lookin' at?" "I'm lookin' at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it." (El Dorado)
"I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me." (In a Lonely Place)
"It’s the stuff dreams are made of." (The Maltese Falcon)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 10, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, March 9, 2005
TT: Formerly secret identities
Hot out of the box with a brand-new cinematic meme is Cinetrix, who asks:
What movie character do you identify with the most?
Me, I alternate between the guy who speaks the lines quoted immediately below
and Jack Baker, the jazzier of The Fabulous Baker Boys. I guess that’s a pretty dire thing to admit about yourself, but it’s late, I’m tired, you know how it is….
(By the way, I have lots of funny stories to tell about my trips to and from Washington, but they’ll have to wait until I get back for good and in one piece. Be patient—all will be made manifest.)
I have in my possession two hundred-odd movie quotes that popped into people's heads over the last several days. When they started to roll in last Thursday, I discovered that it was very interesting to keep a running tally of all the quotes I could find (in my email and on other blogs) and the movies they came from. I became, truth be told, somewhat obsessive about this, and started to compile them in a Word file alphabetically by film. This dubious diversion continued through the weekend until, at some point Sunday night, I couldn't take it anymore. Still, in just a few days of open enrollment I managed to compile a decent sample, big enough to suggest a few general observations on what people—bloggers and blog readers, anyway—remember most from the movies. Or at least most immediately.
Little surprise that the most frequently cited film, with seven mentions, was Casablanca. What is surprising—and a little suspicious, frankly!—is that it was represented by seven different quotations:
I was misinformed.
And I was well paid for it.
You despise me, don't you?
All the gin joints in all the world and she had to walk in to mine.
Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Louis, are you pro-Vichy or Free French?
I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on here.
So, what do y'all think was second? Well, there are two movies that were cited five times each, each of them represented by five different lines. Can you name one of those tunes in…one note?
No, you probably can't, and I can't verify the spelling here in any case. I'll fill in the rest—if you still can't identify it, I daresay Google can help you out:
Ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?
All right. But you'll have to answer to the Coca-Cola corporation.
Mr. President, I'm not saying we won't get our hair mussed, but twenty million killed, tops, with the breaks.
Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.
The other five-timer? The Big Lebowski, which almost also won the Special Jury Prize for Most Appearances of a Certain Obscenity That I Am Far Too Ladylike to Repeat. (Those who know me can stop laughing now. Really, stop.) This item appeared three times in five quotations from The Big L: in noun, verb, and adjective forms. Again I say: fishy!
A special mention goes to Star Wars with four cites, but let it be noted that three of them were "These aren't the droids you're looking for." (The orphan was "Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.") Three times was the most a single quotation appeared in the sample; beside the droids line, there was "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" (you go, Howie), the only thing anyone remembers about Network, apparently. Lines cited two times were:
I want you to hold it between your knees. (Five Easy Pieces)
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. (The Godfather, Part 3)
You're gonna need a bigger boat. (Jaws)
This one goes to eleven. (This Is Spinal Tap)
Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges! (Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
You just put your lips together and blow. (To Have and Have Not)
Top of the world, Ma! (White Heat)
A few movies were mentioned three times: Animal House, Patton, The Blues Brothers, Withnail and I, Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather, Part 2. A bunch were quoted twice—some surprisingly to me: Ghostbusters (geez, the eighties really are back), The Adventures of Buckaroo blah blah blah, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. In general, Clint Eastwood was well represented; the post-Oscar timing worked for him. Both entries from Raiders of the Lost Ark had to do with snakes.
The longest quotation submitted was easily one from Blue Velvet. It won the aforementioned Special Jury Prize, too, with twice as many, er, points as the runner-up, Lebowski.
There was a six-way tie for shortest quote:
Stella! (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Plastics. (The Graduate)
Willoughby!!!! (Sense and Sensibility)
Sincerely. (Stand By Me)
Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!! (Star Trek II)
I love the extra-expressive orthography in that last one. A couple of others also emphasized articulation, to hilarious effect:
"Doolittle Lynn, you're growling like a big ol' ba-i-air." (Coal Miner's Daughter, in which Spacek makes "bear" into a three-syllable word)
"Awww, ya remembered! Ya made me fried green tomatoes!" (Fried Green Tomatoes)
Finally, if you had to boil down the plot of The Godfather 2 to the barest possible sketch, you might well come up with the following two lines that were provided by two different readers. Spoken by Fredo and Michael Corleone, respectively, they pretty much tell the most sad and revealing of all the stories that make up the Godfather epic:
Johnny Ola knows these places like the back of his hand.
I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.
Ow. Look for one last post on this subject later in the week, listing personal favorites. And thanks to everyone who played.
An unusually busy week stretches before me. Oh, I'm always "busy," but this week it means actually having to be places other than my living room. So look for prime time blogging for the next few days—new posts after seven.
I'll be hitting the road at noon, followed by four days' worth of constant movement: a lecture in Washington on Monday night, a press preview in New York on Tuesday night, a deadline on Wednesday morning, another lecture in Washington on Wednesday night, then back here again on Thursday. (Thank God I'm a hopeless train buff.) It's conceivable that I might post at some point along the way...but probably not.
I hope to see some of you at my lectures! Even if you can't make it, have a good week anyway.
Discussion has been going in and out on your blog about your or OGIC's or whoever's five favorite things—books, movies, records, etc. I believe you sort of answered the movie question but haven't yet addressed any other categories. Here's another party question that I kind of like: What is your quirkiest favorite? Something you love that (seemingly) no one else gets.
That’s a great question, and I wish I had a great answer, but the sad fact is that the rest of the world always seems to catch up with my aesthetic idiosyncrasies sooner or later, usually sooner. I guess I’m just not cool enough, or maybe too centric.
The only thing that comes to mind off the top of my head (something went wrong halfway through that last clause, but you know what I mean) is W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, a long-forgotten 1975 movie about a small-time country band. The stars are Burt Reynolds, Art Carney, and Ned Beatty. It was written by Tom Rickman, a hack whose other films include Tuesdays with Morrie and The Reagans (as well as one very good Walter Matthau picture, The Laughing Policeman), and directed by John G. Avildsen, a hack whose other films include The Karate Kid and Rocky V. W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings used to turn up on TV every once in a while, but I haven’t seen it in years, and it isn’t even available on videocassette, much less DVD. I absolutely adore it, at least in retrospect, in part because it reminds me of my own idyllic days as the bass player in a small-time country band. Reynolds is fabulously charming, Carney and Beatty (and everybody else in the cast, for that matter) dead solid perfect. As if all that weren't enough, there's even a scene shot in the back room of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville, right across the street from the stage door of the Ryman Auditorium, where I sat and watched the Grand Ole Opry on a hot summer night 31 years ago. Et in Arcadia ego!
I suppose I can’t recommend W.W. in good faith to cinephiles who haven’t eaten a whole lot of truck-stop chicken-fried steak washed down with Dr. Pepper, but any reader of "About Last Night" who can send me a pirated copy will nonetheless earn my undying gratitude.
What about you, OGIC? Got any quirky faves you’d care to acknowledge?
• Joseph Epstein waxes grumpy
(but interestingly so) on youth culture and its discontents:
If one wants to dress like a kid, spin around the office on a scooter, not make up one's mind about what work one wants to do until one is 40, be noncommittal in one's relationships--what, really, are the consequences? I happen to think that the consequences are genuine, and fairly serious.
"Obviously it is normal to think of oneself as younger than one is," W.H. Auden, a younger son, told Robert Craft, "but fatal to want to be younger." I'm not sure about fatal, but it is at a minimum degrading for a culture at large to want to be younger. The tone of national life is lowered, made less rich. The first thing lowered is expectations, intellectual and otherwise. To begin with education, one wonders if the dumbing down of culture one used to hear so much about and which continues isn't connected to the rise of the perpetual adolescent.
Consider contemporary journalism, which tends to play everything to lower and lower common denominators. Why does the New York Times, with its pretensions to being our national newspaper, choose to put on its front pages stories about Gennifer Flowers's career as a chanteuse in New Orleans, the firing of NFL coaches, the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent, the canceling of the singer Mariah Carey's recording contract? Slow-news days is a charitable guess; a lowered standard of the significant is a more realistic one. Since the advent of its new publisher, a man of the baby boomer generation, an aura of juvenilia clings to the paper. Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, two of the paper's most-read columnists, seem not so much the type of the bright college student but of the sassy high-school student--the clever, provocative editor of the school paper out to shock the principal--even though both are in their early fifties….
• While we’re on the subject, here’s a new angle on The Passion of the Christ, courtesy of Variety:
Young males who flock to slasher pics seem to be taking an interest in "The Passion," which has been widely characterized as gory by reviewers.
Fangoria editor Anthony Timpone said, "It's sparked an interest in my readership because of the extreme nature of the it as well as the controversy." The magazine hasn't covered "The Passion," but Timpone said horror helmer David Cronenberg recently suggested he should. And at least one horror fan site, E-Splatter.com, has given "The Passion" the thumb's up: "As a horror fan, I was more than satisfied. This is not some kiddie Christ film. This is the real deal."
"But consider the case of a man sitting down to write something genuinely original—to pump an orderly flow of ideas out of the turbid pool of his impressions, feelings, vague thoughts, dimly sensed instincts. He works in a room alone. Every jangle of the telephone cuts him like a knife; every entrance of a visitor blows him up. Solitary, lonely, tired of himself, wrought up to an abnormal sensitiveness, he wrestles abominably with intolerable complexities—shoadowy notions that refuse to reveal themselves clearly, doubts that torture, hesitations that damn. His every physical sensation is enormously magnified. A cold in the head rides him like a witch. A split fingernail hurts worse than a paparotomy. The smart of a too-close shave burns like a prairie-fire. A typewriter that bucks is worse than a band of music. The far-away wail of a child is the howling of a fiend. A rattling radiator is a battery of artillery.
"Nothing could be worse than this agony. A few hours of it and even the strongest man is thoroughly tired out. Days upon days of it, and he is ready for the doctor. The layman whose writing is confined to a few dozen letters a day can have no conceptions of the hard work done by such a writer. Worse, he must plod his way through many days when writing is impossible altogether—days of doldrums, of dead centers, of utter mental collapse. These days have a happy habit of coming precisely when they are most inconvenient—when a book has been promised and the publisher is snorting for it. They are days of unmitigated horror. The writer labors like a galley-slave, and accomplishes absolutely nothing. A week of such effort and he is a wreck. It is in the last ghastly hours of such weeks that writers throw their children out of sixth-story windows and cut off the heads of their wives."
I was just about to praise Household Opera for a major breakthrough in phonetic orthography—Rrrowr!—but then I googled it and came up with 450 hits. Next thing you know, somebody will be writing to tell me it’s actually from Finnegans Wake….
While we’re on the subject, more or less, I have settled on Eeuuww! as my preferred spelling of that now-essential expletive. Any questions?
(I also prefer Fuhgedaboudit, as rendered by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but no standard rendering has yet been universally accepted, alas. These things matter!)
Publishers Weekly has a story about the Sam Tanenhaus appointment, based on interviews with Bill Keller and Bob Loomis (Tanenhaus' editor at Random House). No link, alas, but here are some quotes:
Tanenhaus, said Keller, displayed particular proficiency at matching reviewer to book--one of the tests apparently had interviewers holding up a work of fiction and asking how the candidate would handle it--and other skills which further "reassured us that this guy was quite impressive and could hold his own against anyone." He added that Tanenhaus "has a tremendous amount of energy, which in a small operation is a lot of the battle. You have to be able to inspire, and he's an inspirational presence."...
Keller also continued to emphasize timeliness and relevance, in both fiction and non-fiction, for TBR. Tanenhaus' background lies in history, biography and, perhaps most critically, current affairs, expertise the Times thinks could apply to unexpected areas. "I think he can bring a bit of a news sensibility to the reviewing of fiction," said Keller. "By that I don't just mean that he'll get excited by a book that is a new discovery but that the Review will write about fiction in a way that ties into the modern world. People who write fiction don't live in seclusion from the world." Tanenhaus himself has a somewhat unexpected background in fiction; in 1984 he wrote Literature Unbound, an incisive survey of Western Lit, despite being just seven years out of college.
Tanenhaus, of course, still has work cut out for him; besides staff, there's the perennial hobgoblin of space and the pressure to keep the section literary while revamping its dusty reputation. Indeed, if the twin, sometimes incompatible, concerns for the Times in the selection were snap and seriousness, the newspaper seems to feel like it has achieved both with its choice, who has literary cred and magazine buzz, Robert Caro by way of Graydon Carter.
"So far as I know ours is the only language in which it has been found necessary to give a name to the piece of prose which is described as the purple patch; it would not have been necessary to do so unless it were characteristic."
I’m back from giving that speech in Michigan, and too tired to do much more than give you the inside skinny on my drama column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, in which I reviewed Craig Lucas’ Small Tragedy, a backstage play about a production of Oedipus Rex, and Charles Mee’s Wintertime, about which the less said, the better.
I loved the Lucas play, though I didn’t expect to:
The good news is that Craig Lucas’ characters never act like puppets on a better writer’s string, nor is "Small Tragedy" a parasitical "commentary" on Sophocles. It is a play with a life of its own about a group of interestingly complicated people with lives of their own, one in which the process of staging a show is simultaneously satirized and illuminated, an exceedingly neat trick. Mr. Lucas likes to teeter on the edge of political correctness and agonizing predictability—one character is HIV-positive, another is a Good European who spends most of the first act condescending to his naďve American colleagues—but he invariably pulls the rug out from under your expectations, here and elsewhere. He even contrives to crack an Obligatory Republican Joke that’s funny!
Not so Wintertime, which stinks on ice:
The embarrassee-in-chief is Marsha Mason, who for reasons known only to herself and Mr. Mee has been coaxed into playing the part of Marie, a blowsy Italian babe well past her sell-by date who is sleeping with François (Michael Cerveris), an overripe hunk of Eurotrash who wants to sleep with Ariel (Brienin Bryant), a starry-eyed little twerp who is sleeping with Jonathan (Christopher Denham), the son of Marie and her husband Frank (Nicholas Hormann). As for Frank, he’s sleeping with Edmund (T. Scott Cunningham). I think that covers all the bases, except that the halfwits in question have converged on a summer house in mid-winter. (Did I mention that it’s snowing inside the house?)
No link. Repeat, no link. Go buy the paper and make me proud of you. More later. Bed now.
Several times a day—oh hell, a dozen times a day—I click my way to Gawker and Wonkette for a couple of minutes of reading that usually elicit more guilt than pleasure. If you've yet to visit these blogs, imagine them as the twin offspring of a date-rape incident between Drudge Report and the original Spy magazine. (I'll leave it to your imagination who jumped whom.) Gawker collects links to the day's news and gossip about publishing, New York celebrity culture, advertising, the Paris Hilton video, the art world, public sightings of movie stars and rockers, and adds a signature cutting remark to tie things up. Wonkette performs a similar service for the news and gossip from Washington, although sexing up news from think tanks and politics, and reporting sightings of Mark Shields in blog form is by far the harder assignment.
…But after several weeks of consuming every cartoon obscenity, bludgeoning wisecrack, and meta-knowing, callow riposte served on these two blogs, I've been asking myself: Are these blogs a part of the better world we hope to leave to our sons and daughters?
Well, yes, if we intend for our children to grow strong from sucking bile instead of milk.
Well, no. For one thing, they're a snappier, funnier version of what many of us are dishing around the coffee maker anyway. For another, who's bringing the children into it? Which makes me wonder, is anyone writing blogs for kids yet? It's gotta be in the cards.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 11, 2004 | Permanent
When tastemakers grab onto something, it's not enough for them merely to champion it or talk about why they like it or explain why it's worth seeing-reading-listening to-exploring-etc. In order to justify their own existence, tastemakers have to convince an audience that said work is of vital importance to anyone who considers themselves culturally literate.
The Sopranos becomes a legitimate target for backlash not so much because it's overvalued as a TV show (it's not—it remains one of the best TV shows ever), but because tastemakers started talking about the show in terms that made it seem far more important than a TV show could ever be. (Exemplified by the slogan "It's not TV. It's HBO." Actually, it is TV, i.e. just as important and significant as Friends and The Apprentice)…
And Household Opera sketches a rough map of an ideal intellectual community (IIC):
1. The IIC would consist of people who aren't competing with each other for funds, status, recognition, or employment. Intellectual work would not be a zero-sum game to determine who can publish the most, or the fastest, or with the most prestigious publisher.
2. In fact, now that I think about it, publication wouldn't be all-important. Exchange of intellectual work, yes; but that wouldn't be limited to the traditional options of journal article and monograph. Blogging would count. So would conversation over dinner. In point of fact, I've always preferred the less formal ways academics have of sharing their work. At conferences, it's not the panels I really go for, though there's usually a paper or two I'm glad to have heard (sometimes more, depending on the conference); it's the opportunity to meet someone who happens to know a lot about something really interesting, and to end up talking in the hotel bar until after midnight.
3. My IIC, like Susan's, would not be limited to academics. This is probably the corollary to point 1. More specifically: I want to see creative types there as well as the trained literary critics and historians and anthropologists and whatnot. I want to be able to talk to poets and musicians and artists. I want to be able to pick the brains of both musicologists and opera singers. I also want to be able to talk to people who've taken their academic training and put it to interesting uses…
You know what they say: read the whole things.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 11, 2004 | Permanent
For a while now I've been meaning to post here about whichever too-smart-for-their-own-good schedule makers at Fox and HBO are responsible for placing the two most gleefully misanthropic sitcoms on television directly opposite each other (Sunday nights, 8:30 CST): "Arrested Development" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I missed the boat, though, and now that "The Sopranos" has returned in the same slot, my dilemma is intensified, but lacking the neat symmetry of Larry David v. David Cross.
When the Sunday night showdown was "Curb" versus "Arrested," it was closely contested but the latter always won out. Dana Stevens' Slate appreciation nicely invokes the set-up and some of the charm of "Arrested," in case you haven't watched it. The only thing I would add is my impression that, despite their epic character flaws, there is something weirdly lovable about the characters in "Arrested Development," a deer-in-the-headlights helplessness that makes my heart swell even as I snicker and sigh at them. They wear their dysfunctions on their sleeves and have all the vulnerability—not just the brattiness—of children.
Colby Cosh's smart reflections on Larry David this week set me to thinking more about the two shows together. At a glance it would seem that they are perfect negative images of one another. Larry David is an impossible jerk plunked down amid people like you and me to wreak social havoc; Michael Bluth is a person like you or me plunked down amid a bunch of jerks and crazies to try to impose some order. But Colby plays devil's advocate on "Curb":
In the world of Curb Your Enthusiasm you can't shake the suspicion that perhaps Larry David, whatever his self-deprecating protestations, regards "Larry David" as the hero of the show, a quasi-intellectual, creative-professional Christ figure adrift amidst a sea of grasping, pleading, whining nutballs. And, in fact, if you're inclined to view the show that way, the logic holds up remarkably well. Normally "Larry" is either being terrorized quite randomly, thanks to some farcical explosion of circumstances, or is getting into trouble by pursuing some item of his private and arbitrary social credo too far. I don't know if the term "comedy of manners" has ever been applied here, but that's what Curb Your Enthusiasm is; a humorous meditation about the unwritten codes governing the roadway, the dinner party, the driving range, the memorial service. I'd hate to come off as one of those prats who tries to co-opt everything for conservatism, and David's electoral politics seem to lie left of the Clintonian, but the unstated theme of everyCYE episode is the longing for a world—by implication, a lost world—of clear social expectations. Perhaps without knowing it, David has crammed some of the concerns of the 19th-century novel into the small screen.
This is compelling, and I wholeheartedly buy the comparison with 19th-century novels, but I still find it hard to squint just the right way so that Larry David appears as the hero of the show. If one could, though, he would look a lot like Michael Bluth, the one normal guy in a family tree of nitwits and screw-ups. Since I find said nitwits and screw-ups so appealing, though, maybe I have been looking at each of the show's heroes precisely wrong, and need to own my sneaking affection for the bad Bluths. Then Michael Bluth would look like the Larry David of "Arrested Development" and Larry David like the Michael Bluth of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Hmm…any other "Arrested" fans out there? Do you love these creeps too, or is it just me?
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 11, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"In the previous year Christian Thrale, who was then in his twenties, unexpectedly had an evening free from weekend work at a government office. In retrospect it seemed to have been an evening free, also, of himself. He did not often go alone to a concert or anything else of the cultural kind. On your own, you were at the mercy of your responses. Accompanied, on the other hand, you remained in control, made assertive sighs and imposed hypothetical requirements. You could also deliver your opinion, seldom quite favourable, while walking home.
"As to pleasure, he was suspicious of anything that relieved his feelings."
Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 11, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Annals of incommensurability
An art historian friend sends ranging reflections on last week's unlikely art appreciation moment on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" (a show I've never seen, though I will cop to "Average Joe 2." Hey, it can't be all Henry James all the time, people):
Since the ludicrous finale of "Average Joe 2: Hawaii," "The Apprentice" is now the only reality show that has me on the couch at the appointed time. I enjoy seeing all these wooden people turn against each other in the service of completing ridiculous tasks that bring to my mind the humiliation of selling band candy door-to-door when I was in junior high. The episode last week, with the competitors selling art at a gallery, managed to make room in my soul for both despair and a weird sort of elation. Despair first, of course. The assorted MBAs and "project managers" were assigned the project of selecting an artist to represent and then attempting to sell his or her work at a gallery opening. Each team chose one of two artists, and the team that made the most money in the one-night gallery hustle was the winner. Seeing these gladiators using their MBA tools to understand what they were doing was a debilitating experience. They showed up at the studios, they asked questions, they took notes. They stared blankly at the artists explaining their respective works and then came up with such insightful questions as "What would a typical price point for a work like this be?" I don't blame them for this, of course, because it's what they're trained to do, but they were all so utterly adrift in the sea of genuine responsiveness that I feared for the state of cultural production as a whole. Trump put them on the wrong foot at the outset by standing on the steps of the Met telling them, in his introduction to the assignment, that all art was "subjective," a view that they all parroted when it became clear that they were failing. Hatchet-faced Heidi misidentified a work as being constructed from a toilet seat when it was really a fireplace screen. Troy blatantly displayed his lack of knowledge as a sales pitch, as if buying, say, a car from a salesman who didn't know anything about cars would be a good thing. Omarosa laid back and did "what people at galleries do—let the patrons experience the works on their own." That was the smartest approach, even though it has an empirical edge to it that chills me. And she was fired at the end of the show to boot.
In the end, tonight was all sense and zero sensibility. In an era in which the reality dating shows consist of the same cliches—"I've never felt this way before"; "I feel you can really look inside me"; "I'm looking for The One"—I am starting to wonder if what constitutes being human now is just having a ready repertoire of stock phrases trotted out at the appropriate time. For these Apprentices, working out of the box is like speaking a click language, but I guess they don't teach you much about sensibility in Who Moved My Cheese? Trump's declaration of art as "subjective" gave these contestants the license to dismiss what they were selling as bottled water—last week's assignment, by the way—only less comprehensible. So intent on proving their ambition and business-worthiness are these contestants that you wonder if there's a genuine response out there anywhere among those who don't hit the galleries and the museums. Or read novels or whatever. This sounds superior, and I don't mean it to, but in the same week that Barenboim resigned from the CSO because he was tired of his "development" duties, I wonder what capacity our population has for anything that can't be quantified.
The reason I found this cause for despair is also a reason for elation, because the works selected by the producers (or whoever) were actually worthy of a response. The artists were articulate and their works were—I'm going out on a limb here—good. Even the artists I didn't have a particular taste for—the painter who embedded his own DNA in his bright, energetic works in the form of hairs and toenail clippings and god knows what else—had their positive qualities and they all had a thoughtful exuberance that I never thought I'd see on network tv. While one of the gallery owners fronting this scam was exhorting the Apprentices to "communicate" better with the artists, I found myself staring at the works hanging behind her in the background. The artists eventually selected were a woman doing, in a kind of John Currin idiom, a series of technically highly proficient and interesting allegories about womanhood (not usually my gig, but she won me over, and I laughed out loud when one of the Apprentices described her work as "medieval") and a man whose abstract works—abstracted, he said, from landscapes—were gentle and spare and rich; the showcasing of these two articulate painters on primetime NBC made me believe, if only for a moment, that finally the specter of the horrendous "Contemporary Art on 60 Minutes" episode of the 1990s (or was it the 80s? God, I'm getting old) had finally disintegrated, rightfully, into dust.
To their credit, the Apprentices made the right choices for the work they were going to promote. But their utter inability to talk about the work, even if only to sell it, and their bemused indifference ("OK, I'll try to speak a click language for an evening") about what they were doing only consolidated the idea for me that visual art is a flummoxing agent of the highest order. And it deserves better. These works tonight deserved better, and with my enthusiasm for what I was seeing I could have outsold the Apprentices with my mouth taped shut. It wouldn't have been hard, given the quality of the "product." Why is enthusiasm so elusive these days?
Thanks to Our Friend on the Block (who previously opined for About Last Nighthere) for letting me share.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, March 11, 2004 | Permanent
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
TT: Alger Hiss is spinning in his grave
I'm headed out the door to give a speech, but I did want to add my two cents' worth about Sam Tanenhaus, the newly appointed editor of the New York Times Book Review, whom I've known for years (and whose Whittaker Chambers biography I reviewed in an essay reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader). He's absolutely first-rate, smart as a whip and as generous a colleague as you could hope to find. The Times couldn't have made a better or more serious choice.
Said Bill Keller in the official announcement: "To anyone who might have fallen for the notion that we were looking to dumb down this precious franchise: take that!" I think he's earned the right to crow a bit, and maybe even a bit more.
That whoosh you just felt was the collective exhalation of litbloggers everywhere, who will now need some new cause for speculation. By way of Maud, we've learned that Sam Tanenhaus has been named editor of the New York Times Book Review. Here's just one recent testament to his literary bona fides, a sharp review of John Updike. Good luck to Tanenhaus in the most difficult job of its kind.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 10, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Professor and the Dunce
In a terrible week for the game, hockey finds a bit of unlikely good press. Well, decent press, anyway. The New Yorker runs three short pieces on the game in Talk of the Town: a loopy one on Rangers icon Mark Messier and the state of the game generally (this one the subject of some mystification at TMFTML yesterday); one on John Kerry's rink days; and my favorite: a look at the movie Miracle from the perspective of a great Russian player who was on the rise in the Soviet system in 1980, but just green enough to have missed being part of the defeated Olympic team. That man is now the oldest player in the NHL and one of my personal all-stars, a crafty strategist with unreal vision and a feather touch.
A few weeks ago, Igor Larionov, the New Jersey Devil and former Soviet star, who has been called the Russian Gretzky, decided that he needed to see the film. He went to a multiplex near his house, in Short Hills, with his wife and his young son, but they wanted to see something else. “So I went by myself,” Larionov said the other day, in the Devils’ locker room after practice. “I think I was the last guy to come into the theatre. The place was full. It was already dark.” Nobody in the theatre seemed to recognize him, in part because he is just a hockey player, and also because he hardly looks like a professional athlete: he is short and compact, with a thoughtful, boyish expression that, along with a proficiency at chess and an occasional quoting of Pushkin and the wire-rimmed glasses that he wears away from the rink, has earned him another nickname—the Professor.
Following the brutality in Vancouver this week, this reminder of some of the game's better elements is a small but welcome palliative.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 10, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"Caro, who usually came that way, showed the inscriptions. Here lieth all that could die of Oliver Wade. The earthly enchantments of Tryphena Cope are here subdued. On later stones, merely the name, and the years—of birth and death—connected by a little etched hyphen representing life. Eroded tablets tilted like torn kites. On the oldest the lettering was indecipherable: inaudible last words."
Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 10, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Vanishing act
I'm out of here for a couple of days. Aside from All the Usual Crap, I've got to write a speech, then go give it. I have just about enough time (and energy) to do both.
For now, I leave you in the beautiful and capable hands of Our Girl in Chicago. See you Friday.
In lieu of new stuff from me, here’s another of the forgotten columns I published in 1998 in Fi, the now-defunct record magazine. It's still relevant—for the most part, anyway—though there isn't much left of the classical recording industry to complain about these days....
* * *
One hundred and twenty-one years ago, Thomas Edison yelled "Mary had a little lamb" into a strange little hand-cranked machine, which promptly yelled his own words back at him. Twelve years later, Johannes Brahms yelled "I am Dr. Brahms, Johannes Brahms" into the tiny horn of a slightly improved version of Edison's little machine, then sat down at a piano and banged out the last part of his G Minor Hungarian Dance. The present whereabouts of the wax cylinder Brahms recorded in 1889 are unknown, but its low-fi contents were subsequently dubbed onto a scratchy acetate disc, and can now be heard on a CD called About a Hundred Years: A History of Sound Recording.
About a Hundred Years contains 38 selections, ranging in time from the Brahms cylinder to a 1943 V-Disc by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. Unlike most currently available anthologies of early sound recordings, it is fairly evenly divided between classical and popular music—Scott Joplin and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band are heard side by side with Adelina Patti and Jascha Heifetz—and also includes an assortment of spoken-word recordings, including commercially issued 78s that preserve for posterity the speaking voices of Tolstoy, Lenin, Churchill, Gandhi, Sarah Bernhardt, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Anthologies are easy targets for the know-it-all with an axe to grind, and I can think of at least a couple of dozen other items that would have fit quite neatly into this family album of snapshots from the dawn of sound recording. It would have been nice, for example, to hear once again the 1888 cylinder on which Sir Arthur Sullivan can be heard confessing that the invention of the phonograph has left him "terrified at the thought that so much bad music may be put on record forever" (a prescient thought indeed), but no recordings by important composers other than Brahms have been included on About a Hundred Years. Folk music has been similarly ignored—I expect to go to my grave without hearing any of the seven ultra-rare 78 sides recorded for the Gramophone Company in 1908 by Joseph Taylor, the Lincolnshire singer from whom Percy Grainger collected "Brigg Fair"—as have the many distinguished poets who made commercial records.
Scarcely less frustrating is the failure of the producers of About a Hundred Years to draw on the large body of spoken-word recordings made in the United States during the acoustic era. In the days before network radio, many American politicians used the phonograph as a means of "broadcasting" their speeches: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all made commercial 78s as part of their 1912 presidential campaigns, and William Jennings Bryan recorded in 1923 the famous "Cross of Gold" speech that he originally delivered at the Democratic presidential convention of 1896. (It is one of history's more amusing coincidences that Bryan cut this record in the same Indiana studio where Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke made their first recordings.)
But enough complaining. Though About a Hundred Years may not be perfect, it is still a richly evocative piece of work, and the spoken-word selections are in certain ways the most evocative of all. Especially haunting is the field recording made in France on October 9, 1918, one month before the end of World War I, in which the Royal Garrison Artillery can be heard firing poison gas shells at German troops. This joltingly vivid recording (you can actually hear the shells whizzing off to their targets) was made so that the sounds of war could be heard by generations yet unborn, it then being widely believed that "the Great War" would be the last one ever fought. I wonder how many of those who purchased HMV 09308 were blown up two decades later in the Battle of Britain, or how many of the Bolsheviks who heard Lenin preach the gospel of Soviet power on their hand-cranked phonographs were slaughtered in Stalin's prison camps.
Most of the musical selections included on About a Hundred Years will be familiar to experienced collectors of historical reissues, but no amount of familiarity can breed contempt for them. Here is Francesco Tamagno singing the "Esultate" from Verdi's Otello in 1903, just sixteen years after he created the role on stage at La Scala; here is Joseph Joachim, the man who premiered the Brahms Violin Concerto, scraping soberly away at a movement of Bach's B Minor Partita; here is Sousa's Band playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" in 1902, just five years after it was composed. To hear these ancient records, flawed though they are, is an intensely moving experience. The battered shellac sputters and crackles angrily, and you wonder for a moment what all the fuss could possibly be about—but then the curtain parts and the nineteenth century comes into view for a minute or two, sometimes through a glass darkly, sometimes with the near-hallucinatory sharpness of a Mathew Brady photograph.
Whenever I listen to performances such as these, I'm struck by the palpable idealism of the men and women who recorded them. Yes, the pioneers of the phonograph were in it for the money, but they never lost sight of the larger goal of bringing great music to the masses, and while one can gnash one's teeth at the mistakes they made, it is surely more useful to reflect on how many things they did right. Though we cannot hear Sergei Rachmaninoff playing Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata (Charles O'Connell passed up the opportunity to record it, a decision that I like to think he is discussing at this very moment with a committee of devils equipped with sharp pitchforks), we can hear him in the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata, Schumann's Carnaval, and dozens of other characteristic performances, thanks solely and only to the money-hungry executives of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Nor is Rachmaninoff's sizable catalogue of 78s unique. Right from the start, the major record labels all made plenty of room for seriousness, which is why we can also hear Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Strauss, Elgar, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Grainger, Bartók, Falla, Milhaud, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Copland, Walton and Britten performing their own music.
No doubt you see where I'm headed. For it's now official: the classical recording industry as we know it is dead. How do I know? Peter Gelb says so. Gelb, the president of Sony Classical, took part in "Crisis? What Crisis?," a symposium published in the 75th-anniversary issue of Gramophone, the English record-review magazine, in which he made the following remark: "An excellent recording is only excellent if it not only sounds good but has a public as well....I am interested in creating musical projects that will have the largest possible impact." He wasn't kidding, either. Judged by Gelb's yardstick of excellence, Sony Classical's two best releases of the year have been the Titanic soundtrack and Michael Bolton's My Secret Passion: The Arias, both of which are totally unserious from any possible point of view other than that of maximizing Sony's cash flow. Yet My Secret Passion shot straight to the top of the Billboard classical chart, and Titanic, incredibly enough, did the same thing on the pop chart. It seems Abraham Lincoln was wrong: you can fool most of the people all of the time.
Such "successes" as these will not long escape the attention of executives charged with tending to the bottom line. To be sure, Sony Classical continues to put out occasional high-quality CDs: Murray Perahia's new album of Bach English Suites and John Williams' The Black Decameron, a collection of guitar music by Leo Brouwer, could just as easily have been released a quarter-century ago, back when the major labels had yet to lose their self-respect. But how long will such rarefied ventures continue to pass muster at a company whose boss says it isn't good if it doesn't sell?
As long as we're asking hard questions, here's another: what would Walter Legge have said had his superiors at EMI ordered him to record the '50s equivalent of Michael Bolton singing "Che gelida manina," or David Helfgott playing the Rachmaninoff Third? I think it's safe to say that the first part of his reply would have been unprintable (back then, anyway), but that the climax would have been two eminently printable words: I quit. Try and imagine those words being spoken by a present-day recording executive over a matter of taste, and once you stop laughing, you'll be reminded of the vast distance the world has traveled in the 109 years since Johannes Brahms sat down at the piano and sent his message to the future.
I received this piece of e-mail apropos of my various postings on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game:
I took your word, paid $30 for the film, and was utterly disgusted. What a boring piece of offal. This is your inspiration? I'll bet you like Last Year At Marienbad.
I've sworn off critics for life.
To which I made the following reply, which I thought worth sharing:
As a matter of fact, I don't like Last Year at Marienbad at all. And I really think you ought to at least consider the possibility that you might be wrong. I can think of a lot of things one might call The Rules of the Game, but "boring piece of offal" is not on my list, or anyone else's save, I suspect, yours.
When I was a college student, I told a teacher that I didn't like the music of Schumann, and he replied, very politely, "That may say more about you than it does about Schumann." Most people who take film seriously consider The Rules of the Game to be a very great work of art. Of course we could all be wrong, but why not give us, and Jean Renoir, a chance? You might just surprise yourself.
As Hans Keller once said in an almanac posting I should probably reprint monthly, "As soon as I detest something I ask myself why I like it."
"Yet, if we except this serious criticism for the moment, and measure Scott in the light of the full noon of life, we see that he belongs to that very small group of our novelists—Fielding and Jane Austen are the chief of them—who face life squarely. They are grown up. They do not cry for the moon. I do not mean that to be grown up is the first requirement of genius. To be grown up may be fatal to it. But short of the great illuminating madness, there is a power to sustain, assure and enlarge us in those novelists who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restriction. Such writers accept. They think that acceptance is the duty of a man."
"To them, singing is just something that you buy, for whatever you have to pay, and so is acting, and so is writing, and so is music, and anything else they use. That it might be good for its own sake is something that hasn’t occurred to them yet. The only thing they think is good for its own sake is a producer that couldn’t tell Brahms from Irving Berlin on a bet, that wouldn’t know a singer from a crooner until he heard twenty thousand people yelling for him one night, that can’t read a book until the scenario department has had a synopsis made, that can’t even speak English, but that is a self-elected expert on music, singing, literature, dialogue, and photography, and generally has a hit because somebody lent him Clark Gable to play in it."
A regular reader was stimulated by my recent list
of favorite movies to reflect on her own picks:
I think you're absolutely right about top 5 vs. top 50 film lists. It's
a funny thing. Over the years I've compiled many a top 10 film list, and
over the years the list has changed many times over. "Rules of the Game" is
certainly one of the greatest movies ever made, and has been on my top 10
list a lot. There are many films that I need to see again to decide whether
they still warrant a spot on the list or even a spot on the top 50. There is
only one film; however, that has been on every top 10 list I have ever made.
It has never, ever been number 1, but it has always been somewhere on the
list. I have seen the film countless times over the years, and I saw it
again a couple of summers ago at the Film Forum, and it stays on the list.
The film is "The Seven Samurai." I love that movie. It is not the greatest
movie ever made, but it is always, always, always on my top 10 list. I love
that movie every time I see it.
"Chinatown" often makes the list. "The Searchers" has been on the list.
"Vertigo" - as much as I love it - nah! "North by Northwest" - yes. "The
General" is one of the greatest films ever made. I only remember to include
it after I've seen it, but every time I see it, I rewrite my list! "His Girl
Friday" is nearly perfect. It used to make the list a lot. I'm not so sure
any more about "Citizen Kane." It's been a very long time since I've seen
it. It was on the list for years, but I'm not so sure any more. Like I said,
there are a lot of films that I haven't seen in 20 years. I don't know what
I'd think of them now.
I watched "Singing in the Rain" at my parents
recently and decided it belonged on the list. I don't think I ever thought
to put it there before. In college "Dr. Strangelove" or "A Clockwork Orange"
always made the list, as did "The Seventh Seal" and "Persona." What would I
think of "Persona" now? I suspect it wouldn't get anywhere near the list,
but "Fanny and Alexander" might. During acting school, at least one of the
following always made the list: "The Awful Truth," "My Favorite Wife," "The
Philadelphia Story," and the aforementioned "His Girl Friday." I remember
puting Coppola's "The Conversation" on the list, but I haven't seen that
film in almost 30 years. Is it as great as I remember it? I loved "8-1/2"
and "La Dolce Vita," but would I put any film by Fellini on my list now? I
wonder. Same goes for Antonioni.
I probably can't put "The Shawshank
Redemption" on a list of top 10 greatest films ever made, but it's one of my
favorites. I love Martin Scorcese as a filmmaker, but which of his movies
would make my top 10 now - "Taxi Driver"? "Goodfellows"? At one time, I put
"New York, New York" on the list. I wonder if I'd still put it there. And
then there's David Lean. "Lawrence of Arabia" is an awesome movie. It's been
on my list from time to time. But the sentimental favorite is "Bridge on the
River Kwai." "Les Enfants du Paradis" is a great film, but it's never made
my top 10. "Jules and Jim" used to make the list a lot. I love French film,
in general, but how many French movies actually warrant top 10 placement?
I think Robert Altman is a great, great filmmaker. "Nashville" was almost
always on the list, but does it hold up? "Three Women" certainly doesn't. I
saw that one again recently - boy did it suck! But I saw "M.A.S.H."
recently, too, and thought it was hysterical. What about "Ugetsu" by
Mitzoguchi? I love that movie. Do you know it? And something by Satyajit Ray
should go on the list, but what? Does "Some Like it Hot" or "The Apartment"
warrant mention? What about a little known Barbara Stanwyk/Fred MacMurray
feature called "Remember the Night"? "Point Blank" is a great movie. John
Boorman is a terrific filmmaker. Someone could convince me that
"Deliverance" belongs on a top 50 list. And these are just the movies that
popped into my head this evening. I've probably forgotten at least 50 of my
favorites. Aren't movies amazing?!
They sure are, and the nice thing about this e-mail is the way in which it points out the dynamic quality of taste. Clement Greenberg once observed that all canons of excellence are provisional. That goes double—maybe triple—for lists of personal favorites of art, be they movies or paintings or symphonies or jazz albums.
Which reminds me that I also got an e-mail from somebody else who didn’t much care for the first sentence of my original post, "My recent Wall Street Journal piece about Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which I declared to be the greatest movie ever made, has drawn quite a bit of reader mail." This person said it was "one of the most arrogant" statements he’d ever read. I replied, briefly and perhaps the least little bit testily, "Goodness! Maybe you should get out more." If I may unpack that retort a bit further, I don’t see that there’s anything remotely arrogant about what I wrote—save to those egalitarians who think it immoral to make value judgments about art. To them I say: this blog is soooo not for you.
Our Girl is back in Chicago (sigh) and I’m back at work on the Balanchine book. I’m also plumb tuckered—we had a busy weekend, without a whole lot of down time, in addition to which I’ve got two pieces and a speech to knock off between now and Friday. For all these reasons, I doubt I’ll have much to offer for the rest of the week, though I’ll poke my head in whenever possible.
In the meantime, here are some interesting links that merit your attention:
• The New York Sun’s Knickerbocker column visited last week’s artsjournal.com get-together and filed a report:
At the bar at Landmark Tavern in Midtown, Doug McLennan this week greeted a crowd of about 75 who avidly follow his Web site, Artsjournal.com, a weekday digest of arts and cultural journalism. The Seattle resident was in town with plans to meet some of the Web loggers for his site — James Russell, Tobi Tobias, Kyle Gann, Jan Herman, Greg Sandow, and Terry Teachout — and decided to invite general readers as well. An invitation on the home page read,"Wonder what your favorite ArtsJournal blogger looks like on the other side of that computer screen?"
"It’s like a blind date," said one attendee who was standing at the mahogany bar, originally built in 1839 and cut from a single tree….
• My December posting about the plight of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts kicked up a royal fuss. The fuss has died down, but the company is still on the spot, as
Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times reports:
The Metropolitan Opera plans to ask the public to help save its venerable Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts after losing the support of its longtime sponsor, ChevronTexaco, and being rebuffed by other corporations that had been asked to pick up the slack.
Beverly Sills, chairwoman of the Met, is going on the air today during the intermission of a broadcast of "La Traviata" to, asking listeners worldwide to help the Met raise $150 million over the next five years….
ChevronTexaco announced in May that it would withdraw its $7 million annual support of the broadcasts after the 2003-4 season, ending the longest continuous commercial sponsorship in broadcast history. The company has been the sole sponsor of the program since 1940, presenting operas without commercials except for references to the company in the commentary. (Chevron bought Texaco for $36 billion in 2000.)
Ms. Sills said she was not optimistic about finding another company to replace ChevronTexaco, which had footed the program's entire bill. "I think in these times it's unrealistic," she said.
Joseph Volpe, general manager of the Met, who recently announced that he would retire in two years, said the search for another corporate sponsor had been difficult. "The corporate community looks at the radio broadcasts and doesn't believe it's a good media buy, that we don't reach enough listeners," Mr. Volpe said yesterday. "They are better off having commercials on big sporting events."…
• Speaking of the Met, Luciano Pavarotti is singing his farewell performances there, and the Times’ Anthony Tommasini caught the first one. He minces few words:
Physically he has never seemed heavier. Bad knees and bad hips have made him almost immobile. As he lumbered about the stage, sometimes propped up by his Tosca, the soprano Carol Vaness, you wondered why he was subjecting himself to the ordeal of a staged performance.
When Cavaradossi is shot by a firing squad at the end of the opera, poor Mr. Pavarotti had to sink slowly into a pile of beanbags, bracing his fall with his arms outstretched.
Vocally, once in a while there was a flash of that incomparable Pavarotti sound, a supplely shaped legato phrase, a honeyed pianissimo. He roused himself for a couple of ringing cries of "Vittoria! Vittoria!" in Act II. But after sending the sustained high note into the balconies, his voice essentially gave out for the rest of Cavaradossi's outburst against the villainous Scarpia, the bass Samuel Ramey….
Mr. Pavarotti had already been having vocal troubles when he rallied in 1998 for a gala performance at the Met to celebrate his 30th anniversary. He had lost nearly 70 pounds and had worked hard to get in vocal shape. Though his voice that night was a little underpowered, he essentially sounded great and performed with joy. It would have been an ideal time to take his leave from opera.
No fooling. I spent the last few years of my tenure as the classical music and dance critic of the New York Daily News covering what I thought of as the Pavarotti Deathwatch, attending his increasingly insecure performances just in case something catastrophic went wrong. It didn’t—not quite—but once I left the News, I vowed never again to see Pavarotti in person. My memories of his great days had already been blotted beyond repair. Nothing becomes an artist quite like knowing when to quit.
Mostly unkown today, Mortimer Brewster was a widely read drama critic on the New York scene in the 1920s and 1930s, somewhat analogous to Terry Teachout today: smart, sharp-tongued, with a grander vision of what was possible than most of the producers of his day….
You'll excuse me, I hope, for not posting extensively, or nearly at all, during my vacation. But I did want to take a few of my last moments here to blow New York kisses to all. What a long, strange trip it's been—except for the long and the strange parts. It's been maddeningly brief, and wonderfully familiar despite the two-and-a-half-year gap since the last time I was in town.
To get here Friday I braved high winds and heavy rain in the fragile carapace of a mini-jet from which four souls had been evicted due to weight concerns. Even more distressing, the book I had intended to read was very, very bad. Excruciating. I can't be more specific just now, as I'm going to be reviewing it. Suffice it to say that after 25 pages I put the offending volume away—oh so far away, into the very depths of my carry-on—and submitted myself with relief to the potent charms of Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus, which I've been reading very intermittently for a few months now.
I don't believe it has ever taken me so long to read a book that I find so pleasurable. Weeks may have passed, but every time I pick it up again, everything snaps back into place and I'm instantly absorbed, the picture of a happy reader. In January, when I was on page 75, I suggested to a friend that he pick up a copy and we read it together. He also loved it, but he zipped right through, and six weeks later I'm still in the middle. We had a drink before dinner tonight and talked about how much we both adored it. But the embarrassing fact remains that I can't seem to finish it. (See also Cup of Chicha's inventory of the unfinished books on her floors.) Which leads me to scare up alternatives to the unsettling theory that I am just a hopeless slacker.
Alternative theory #1 cites the quality of Hazzard's prose. You could never call it dense; there's nothing the least bit tangled about it, and the sentences in particular are crystalline things. But every second or third sentence seems to contain some startlingly astringent perception about no less sweeping a subject than human nature, or love, or women, or men. I find myself reading almost every sentence a second time successively. It's the first book I've ever read and reread simultaneously. Is it possible to compare something to quicksand and mean it as praise?
Alternative theory #2 is simply that I don't want to reach the end of the novel.
But I may get a lot closer to that point during the flight home tomorrow (depending, perhaps, on how soon I wrap this up and get to bed). And later this week, beginning late Monday or Tuesday, I'll be posting a series of Transit of Venus fortune cookies. Also more on the delightful events of this weekend.
Felix Salmon, writing at MemeFirst, had an interesting reaction to a recent posting in which, among other things, I discussed the difficulties inherent in drawing up Top Five lists:
Terry Teachout, today, says that "it’s usually not that hard to pick a One Best—absolute excellence is by definition self-evident". He goes on to give examples: "The greatest opera ever written," he says, "is The Marriage of Figaro". To which my immediate reaction is "That's not the greatest opera ever written – it's not even the greatest opera ever written by Mozart!"
Upon reflection, however, I think that Terry might have stumbled across yet another instance of the age-old Apollonian/Dionysian distinction. Most people think of this as the Beatles vs the Stones, but there are definitely advantages to using a single artist rather than two very different ones in order to force people into one camp rather than the other. Here's my theory, then: if you prefer Figaro to Don Giovanni, you're Apollonian; if you prefer Don Giovanni to Figaro, you're Dionysian.
Well, maybe. In fact, probably—but only up to a point, Lord Copper. Don Giovanni is definitely more Dionysian than Figaro, but surely all of Mozart’s music, Don Giovanni included, is Apollonian by comparison with, say, Rigoletto or La Bohčme or Yevgeny Onegin, not to mention the Beatles and the Stones.
Nevertheless, Felix's distinction is a reasonable one. The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy of reconciliation, one in which the natural order of the world is first threatened, then restored. It has the wholeness and perfection of Shakespearean comedy, as does (logically enough) Verdi’s Falstaff, which is my other candidate for Best of All Possible Operas. So does George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. So does all classical art—and comedy and classicism go hand in hand.
Alas, we live in a hopelessly Dionysian age, and thus are inclined to underrate classicism, just as too many of us too often take it for granted that "seriousness" demands unhappy endings, or misunderstand what Matisse meant when he said that he wanted his work to serve as "a kind of cerebral sedative as relaxing in its ways as a comfortable armchair," a remark as subtle and misleading as T.S. Eliot’s observation that Henry James had "a mind so fine no idea could violate it." You have to think hard about both remarks to understand how profound they are, just as you have to look hard at Matisse’s paintings to see how radically original they are.
As for the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, I was writing about it just the other day in the chapter of my Balanchine book that describes (surprise) Apollo, Balanchine's first collaboration with Stravinsky and his first great ballet:
Apollo can also be seen as an "argument" for the superiority of Apollonian neoclassicism over Dionysian expressionism, a prime example of what the art critic Clement Greenberg had in mind when he advocated "the development of a bland, large, balanced, Apollonian art in which passion does not fill in the gaps left by the faulty or omitted application of theory but takes off from where the most advanced theory stops, and in which an intense detachment informs all."
Not surprisingly, I love that quote. But if you don’t—if, indeed, it strikes you as an apt summing-up of the kind of modern art you like least—then you’re sooooo Dionysian.
At lunch with Supermaud on Sunday, the talk turned to editors and publishers, and I mentioned a letter Flannery O’Connor sent in 1949 to an editor at Rinehart who wanted her to rewrite Wise Blood. Neither Maud nor Our Girl knew about this letter, so I promised to post it. Here it is:
Thank you for your letter of the 16th. I plan to come down next week and I have asked Elizabeth McKee to make an appointment with you for me on Thursday. I think, however, that before I talk to you my position on the novel and on your criticism in the letter should be made plain.
I can only hope that in the finished novel the direction will be clearer, but I can tell you that I would not like at all to work with you as do other writers on your list. I feel that whatever virtues the novel may have are very much connected with the limitations you mention. I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I writer will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from. I do not think there is any lack of objectivity in the writing, however, if this is what your criticism implies; and also I do not feel that rewriting has obscured the direction. I feel it has given whatever direction is now present.
In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise. The finished book, though I hope less angular, will be just as odd if not odder than the nine chapters you have now. The question is: is Rinehart interested in publishing this kind of novel?
Rinehart wasn’t, and Wise Blood was published by Harcourt, Brace three years later. Ignored by most critics, it has long since been recognized as a modern American classic, one of the comparatively few American novels of permanent interest to be written in the Fifties...but who knew? Imagine the self-assurance it must have taken for an unknown, unpublished author to have sent a letter like that to an editor at a major house.
Me, I can’t imagine it—but, then, I didn’t write Wise Blood, either.
I wrote enthusiastically
a couple of weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal about the new Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which I found both convincing and moving. My critical brethren, however, varied widely in their views of the show, and not a few of them found the tone of the production to be insufficiently Jewish. This struck me as wrongheaded—especially since some of the critics in question were about as Jewish as pastrami on white with mayo—and I resolved to write something about it. Then I saw that Blake Eskin of Nextbook, an online magazine about "Jewish literature, culture and ideas," had beaten me to the counterpunch:
Peter Marks of the Washington Post, whose critique of the ensemble's pronunciation of mazel tov places him firmly in the chorus of authenticity-seekers, suggests a deeper reason for their fierce disapproval. "In the secular Jewish home of my childhood, about the closest we ever came to spiritual sustenance was Fiddler on the Roof," he writes. The original cast album was in heavy rotation on the Marks family hi-fi; his father sang "If I Were a Rich Man" in the car; his brother played Tevye at summer camp. "Anyone expecting an experience that reenergizes a connection stretching back four decades will be sorely disappointed," he says.
For Marks, I suspect, and for his contemporaries weaned on Fiddler, the real problem with this production is not its thin Yiddish flavor, but its failure as ritual, its inability to trigger warm memories of childhood. It's as if he's returned to his old bedroom, found a new blanket on the bed, and decided that the mattress isn't as cozy as it once was. The problem is, it will never be as comfortable as the one you remember….
Read the whole thing here, please. I couldn't have put it better. Now I needn't try.
Our Girl and I had a quadruple-header yesterday. Not only did we go see "Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts" and Sweeney Todd and have a pre-dinner drink with Beatrice, but we came home so full of energy that we decided to watch a movie, too. She'd never seen The Fabulous Baker Boys, to my astonishment (it's only one of my all-time favorite films), so that was our choice. I'll leave it to her to describe all these events, but later: Supermaud is en route to the Teachout Museum, and we expect to hear her knock on the door at any moment.
In the meantime, please note that the diminutive Ms. Newton isn't the only blogger to be publishing in the Washington Post this morning: this is also the appointed day for "Second City," my monthly Post column about the arts in New York City. You can read it on line by going to the "Second City" module in the right-hand column and clicking on the appropriate link.
Oops, there she is. Time for OGIC to remove her silken mask....
We've now looked at all the e-mail sent in response to our recent request that the readers of "About Last Night" write to tell us how often and when they read this blog.
Most of you, it turns out, read us daily, and most of our daily readers visit "About Last Night" more than once a day. No particular time of day stood out in your responses, though our Site Meter says that our peak hours coincide roughly with lunchtime. We can see the wave of fresh hits rolling across the U.S. time zones between noon and three p.m. each weekday.
Most bloggers don’t post on weekends, but we started doing it several months ago and have kept it up. Comparatively few of you, however, read us on Saturdays and Sundays, a fact we already knew from the Site Meter. Even so, we still draw roughly 1,500 page views each weekend, which is unexpectedly high. (All told, "About Last Night" received about 44,000 page views in February.)
Though neither one of us uses an RSS feed, we decided to make our postings available via XML syndication, but so far it seems that very few of you read "About Last Night" via RSS, and three or four readers wrote to say that they didn't know what it was. (To find out, go here.)
One of the reasons we asked you to write was to find out whether it makes sense for us to continue posting every day. It isn’t easy, but judging by your e-mail, it’s definitely worth the trouble. Frankly, we were astonished by the number of daily communicants. So we’ll keep our noses to the grindstone (though we might slack off a bit on weekends, if you don't mind).
Finally, we want to share these snippets from the mail you sent us:
• "I'm a regular reader, usually during my lunch hour. Your cultural
conversations with the cerebral pin-up OGIC makes each work day go easier."
• "first thing in the west coast morning I check for email, then jump to
the browser and read your blog
later in the day, sometimes several times, and especially when i'm
procrastinating, i check to see if anything new has been posted
daily? yes -- even on weekends, and even when you say you won't be
posting cuz you're writing for $ or sleeping or..."
• "I think I first found my way there via TMFTML, but as a
Chicagoan it may have been through something about Our Girl--I can't quite
(We shudder to think which of Mr. TMFTML's postings brought you from there to here!)
• "Here's my online routine every morning: First, check my
e-mail, even though I don't need a penis enlarger, either. Then, look
at the day's Dilbert column, see what's being reviewed at Classics
Today, scope out the new stuff at ArtsJournal, and from there see
what you and Our Girl have posted in the past 24 hours….I scroll through other blogs only very rarely, because I just don't
have that kind of time. I do occasionally follow one of your links,
but frankly I'd rather settle in for five or six or ten of your solid
paragraphs than devote a few precious seconds of my time to the
shorter and generally less substantial posts that typify much of what
I've seen of blogdom. In other words, what I prefer to read on the
screen more closely resembles what I'd find in a magazine or
newspaper than a blurb on a book's dust jacket."
• "I try to read artsjournal.com everyday that I’m in my office (three days a week) – but sometimes I forget (I have a small infant – she has rendered my brain into mush). Thanks for requesting this information – it was a kick in the pants to me to drop you a note – I love your blog (and I love artsjournal.com)."
• "Within weeks of having discovered it, I'd read through the entire archive. (Certainly, I'm a natural-born completist, but the stimulating and witty entries kept me clicking happily and recommending the latest entries to my friends.)"
• "I read every day, usually late afternoon to early evening. I was coming only Monday through Friday until I realized that you both were submitting on weekends as well."
• "Last week I was in Japan on business, and the hotel had high speed access. Jet lag being what it is, I found myself reading ALN and other blogs at all different times of the day checking in way too many times. The internet became a touchstone."
• "I read AJ here in Rome, Italy ca. 8:15 A.M. local, daily, for ca. 30 mins. Have gotten hooked; big letdown when there's nothing to read or, alternatively, too much for the half-hour. Also appreciate the links."
• "I read daily M-F, directly, and more or less first thing upon arrival in the
office (I check big headline news, read the blog, check one or two other
things and then start work - as a lawyer I work when I have to, nights and
weekends included, so a few minutes at the start of the day doesn't take time
away from a client). If I don't have an early Friday breakfast meeting I
read the WSJ Weekend Journal (your reviews included) at home over breakfast
and then skim the blog at work. Sometimes I read what I want or all of it
immediately, often I'll come back at lunch or during an afternoon break to
read something that looked good but too long to read in the am. I have once
or twice copied particularly good quotes and put them in my Palm memopad for
later laughter or to remind myself that there is more to life than [whatever
else I'm doing at the moment]."
• "Daily. In the morning. Before starting the painting for day, while slurping a bowl of cheerios. With an occasional afternoon or evening peek, if I need to get away from the canvas for a bit."
• "Old Manhattanite far from home. Thanks for being there and talking to
us out here."
• "This started out so simply: ‘why sure, i check in every Tuesday and
Friday am, scrolling back to check what i've missed’ was what i started
out to say. Then i started candidly reflecting back on how often i bopped into
aboutlastnight two or three times a day -- when a subject seemed of
interest and the thread continued on a theme. Or when you've gone back
to Missouri, and i've gotten ‘sucked in’ to the narrative that
reflected a swath of my east central Ohio rural ambiance, checking
daily if not more frequently. So the true answer is: twice a week, except when i don't, and then
it's more often."
• "I read you guys's blog every work day (Tuesday thru Saturday), one of nine sites I visit daily. I go through them in a regular order, so yes, I'm reading it the same time every day (10ish, Eastern), and I have been since ALN Day One. Keep up the good work!"
• "Under normal circumstances, I visit your excellent blog every morning.
When I am avoiding my own work, I visit it later in the day, as well."
• "First thing each day, usually…Sometimes I
check later in the day to see if there's anything new. If I have to go a
day or two I get withdrawal symptoms."
• "I tend to log on once a day, directly; generally in the morning, when I've finished gathering and responding to e-mail, but sometimes if I'm checking mail late in the day I'll check ALN too. Just to see if there are any thoughts in the blogosphere that would augment dinner-table conversation.... There almost always are."
• "I read you every morning while slurping coffee at my desk. Not Starbucks, which is scorched and trendy, but home ground good stuff. The closest Starbucks is 35 miles away, which means that we are so far from the caffeine renaissance that we've reached the enlightenment."
• "I read About Last Night whenever I can think of it, which comes close to almost daily. (Yes, we have the RSS-feed technology, but somehow I prefer the serendipity of coming to ALN via a link in another blog, or seeing ALN in a recently updated weblogs list, or just plain surfing.) If I miss a day, all the better...it means a bigger chunk of good stuff to sit down and enjoy."
• "I follow About Last Night through your RSS feed. I find it very annoying, however, that your feed provides only the headline. Since Arts Journal doesn’t seem to carry advertising, is there any reason why you can’t provide full text, or at least the first paragraph, in your feed as most other sites do?"
(We’ll pass this on to the Gearhead-in-Chief at artsjournal.com.)
• "So sad when you guys take a day off...."
• "It is a phenomenon of blogging that you begin to think you are on personal terms with bloggers you read every day. For example, I find myself remarking often to my wife something like, ‘Terry has the flu so he's in bed watching old movies instead of posting.’ I'm wondering if other readers have the same feeling that they know their favorite bloggers. At any rate, I am glad to have you as a daily internet friend."
Needless to say, we feel exactly the same way about all of you.