About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, June 23, 2006
TT: The (bad) luck of the Irish
It’s Friday, and time once again for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. This time around I comment on three shows, one out of town (Paper Mill Playhouse’s revival of Hello, Dolly!, starring Tovah Feldshuh), one local (Second Stage’s The Water's Edge), and one
from out of town (Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of King Lear, now playing at the Annex at La MaMa). The verdicts? Mixed, mostly unfavorable, and wildly enthusiastic:
If you warm to the notion of a no-nonsense Dolly whose singing is efficient and uningratiating, Mrs. Feldshuh will no doubt delight you, but I found her over-earnest performance to be painfully charmless.
Paper Mill’s production, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, is in most other respects quite agreeable, and Mia Michaels’ choreography is especially pleasing. For me, the real problem is not Ms. Feldshuh but the show itself, which is dated in all the wrong ways….
Is it ever a good idea for contemporary playwrights to emulate the Greeks? I have my doubts after seeing “The Water’s Edge,” in which Theresa Rebeck, the author of “Bad Dates,” takes an up-to-the-minute plot about divorce and its discontents and gives it a tragic (and bloody) second-act twist. Up to that point things hum along pretty nicely, but no sooner does Ms. Rebeck start to confuse herself with Aeschylus than her not-uninteresting play explodes in mid-air, disintegrating into a thick black cloud of inadvertent comedy….
Sometimes lightning does strike twice. Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Project has brought its tremendous production of “King Lear,” which I saw last October, to New York, where it looks just as good—better, even….
No link, so please feel free to read the whole thing by purchasing a copy of Friday’s Journal at your local newsstand. Alternatively, you can always go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you immediate access to the full text of my review, plus other reviews and art-related stories.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
TT: Out and about
Once again I’m writing to you from Connecticut, the land of stone walls and forgotten cemeteries. Today I picnicked on top of a dam, bought a jar of Marmite at the local health-food store, ate the best hamburger I’ve ever had in my life, put in several hours’ worth of work on Hotter Than That, and checked my phone messages before driving back into the woods for the night.
That’s all I’ve got to tell you. The rest I’ll leave to Our Girl. See you on Friday.
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter 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 Aug. 6)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
• Faith Healer* (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 30)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, 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 Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
• Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Sunday)
CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here, closes July 2)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here, closes July 2)
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
TT: Into the woods
I wrote my “Sightings” column with the windows wide open, accompanied by the sound of chirping birds. When I was finished, I drove over to Hosmer Mountain Bottling Company to pick up a case of soda, then returned to my country retreat to eat dinner and watch TV with the friend at whose farmhouse I’m spending the week. Among other things, we watched Grand Illusion and Patton (which make a perfectly complementary pair, unlikely as that may sound).
We also looked at the episode of Legends of Jazz in which Jim Hall and Pat Metheny chat with Ramsey Lewis and play three tunes, one solo apiece and a duet version of “All the Things You Are” accompanied by Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez. It was my first viewing of PBS’s only regular jazz program, about which a fellow blogger recently expressed mixed feelings. I saw what he meant: the camera work was slickly, obtrusively busy, the interview segments superficial. On the other hand, my friend listened closely and attentively to Hall's performance of “My Funny Valentine,” at the end of which she said, “Oh, wow! He’s fantastic!” Any show that allows a great jazzman to play long enough to evoke that kind of response from a non-musician must be doing something right.
If you’ve never heard Jim Hall & Pat Metheny, by the way, I suggest you stop reading, click on the link, and order one of the most beautiful jazz guitar recordings ever made. I wrote about it five years ago in a profile of Metheny published in Time:
"Jim Hall & Pat Metheny" (Telarc), released last year, teamed the two friends for a bewitching program of unaccompanied duets. "It encapsulates the love and respect I have for Jim," Metheny says. Best of all is a magically spare version of "Farmer's Trust," a tender waltz originally recorded by the Metheny Group in 1982, which leaves no doubt that despite his love of ear-popping electronic effects, he is above all a wonderfully fluent spinner of simple yet indelible melodies.
On the way to the Hosmer Mountain Bottling Company, I drove past a sign that read as follows: FIRE DEP’T WATER HOLE. My cell phone doesn’t work out here and I’m using a dialup connection to post these words. All this will give you some idea of how far off the beaten path I am.
I plan to spend Wednesday working on Hotter Than That, with time out for an early-afternoon picnic. In case you were wondering, I like it here—a lot.
See you later, maybe.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
OGIC: Separate intensities
I reviewed Monica Ali's sophomore novel, Alentejo Blue, in the Baltimore Sun last weekend. While more sweeping and ambitious than her first book, Brick Lane, this novel proved less satisfying in the end. Ali is a deft and sometimes flat-out dazzling writer, and I was rooting for the book to succeed. But the form she chooses is a difficult one to make work: she strings together several short stories about different characters residing in the same small Portuguese town. Taken individually, the stories are compelling and wonderfully written. But she seems not to know how to finish the book as a whole.
The final story, encompassing all of the characters' points of view and pushing uncertainly toward meaningful closure, just doesn't make much of an impression. As a formal choice, this late move from limited to omniscient narration is an interesting failure—I appreciated the risk Ali took, but at the point it should have been peaking, my engagement with the book crashed and burned. As I said in the Sun:
Each of the first eight stories belongs utterly to a single character, steeped in that individual's consciousness, sensibility and ethos. But Ali's reversion to third-person omniscient narration in the last story is the real innovation and surprise - one that, alas, doesn't have whatever effect was intended. Instead, it ends the reader's journey on a flat tire, dispersing the separate intensities that had mounted in each boldly imagined, pristinely written story that came before.
Still, I found large swaths of the book pretty impressive and involving, and will continue reading the talented Ali.
TT: Still life with hot dogs
On Monday I filed my Wall Street Journal drama column, filled a suitcase full of books about Louis Armstrong, picked up a Zipcar, and headed for Connecticut, stopping along the way to grab a bite at Super Duper Weenie (which really is as good as its reviews, in case you were wondering). Where I am now is nobody’s business, though I’ll admit to hearing frogs and crickets outside my open window. I plan to spend the next three days working on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, writing my “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Journal, and taking it easy when not otherwise occupied.
I’ll be back in New York on Friday afternoon. I don’t expect to post much between now and then, save for the daily almanac entry and the usual theater-related postings. Have a nice week!
Monday, June 19, 2006
TT: Take the money and run
I see in the Washington Post that Neil Simon, author of The Odd Couple, has won the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an award of whose existence I was hitherto unaware. No doubt there are many such awards, since there seems to be nothing more popular than the handing out of prizes, a phenomenon first remarked by Lewis Carroll:
However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, “EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.”
So it seems, and most especially when it comes to the arts, be they high or low. Of the giving of prizes there is no end, and it’s hard to think of a single one, however ostensibly prestigious, that hasn’t been devalued by the promiscuity and/or lack of discrimination with which it is handed out.
I’m not here to beat up on Neil Simon—I’ve done that enough in my Wall Street Journal drama column in the past couple of years. Instead, I want to ask a question that seems to me obvious but turns out not to be: has there ever been a prize in the arts that was worth having? Is it possible for any institution to give an award for artistic achievement that has real significance?
Looking back over the long history of such prizes, it strikes me that even the best-laid and most idealistic institutional plans are inevitably subverted over time by non-artistic considerations. Sooner or later the temptation to inflate the currency in one way or another becomes irresistible, and before you know it you're either out of business (the Leventritt Competition) or no longer taken seriously (the Kennedy Center Honors).
More to the point, I have a feeling that the reason why awards in the arts tend irresistibly toward irrelevance is that they contradict the essential nature of art. The fact is that there are only two “prizes” worth having, short-term success and long-term acclaim, neither of which can be conveyed by any means other than the uncoerced consensus of the relevant public.
Yet as self-evident as that might seem, there is some irresistible impulse built into the human psyche that makes us keep handing out awards anyway. Indeed, I myself am connected with the giving of three fairly well-known ones, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the NEA’s Jazz Masters Fellowships, and I like to think that all three are worth getting.
Am I kidding myself? Or is my continuing involvement in the prize-giving process simply an expression of my idealistic belief that it is somehow possible to second-guess the mysterious workings of posterity? Beats me. All I know is that most artists like to get awards, especially when they’re accompanied by a check. The trouble with the verdict of posterity, after all, is that you’re never around to hear it, any more than you get to read your own obituaries. (Go here to read my past reflections on this grim subject.)
Few of us, it seems, are sufficiently self-confident not to long for the reassurance of immediate appreciation, meretricious though it may be, and we long for it all the more as we grow older. As Orson Welles once observed to Peter Bogdanovich, “A bad word from a colleague can darken a whole day. We need encouragement a lot more than we admit, even to ourselves.” I need it, too, and I’ve never won any prizes worth mentioning.
So, I’m sure, does Neil Simon, who has lived long enough to see his style of comedy go out of fashion. That’s why I don’t begrudge his having received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which was previously awarded to Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Lorne Michaels, and Steve Martin. A motley crew, to put it mildly, and I doubt that any of them has done or will ever do anything that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the writing of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but so be it. That’s what posterity is for. Today can take care of itself. That’s what prizes are for.
Friday, June 17, 2005
OGIC: Bloomsday etc.
A few stray notes and observations from last night's Bloomsday reading, which I blogged about in a more official capacity at the site linked below:
• I freely admitted to everyone I spoke to that I've never read the damn thing. This made for some fun—in a room full of devotees and proselytizers, I was a cause! But the best argument on the book's behalf were the readings themselves, some of them rip-roaringly funny.
• Because of my background and interests, I tend to think of Ulysses first as a monument of literary modernism and second as one of Irish literature. Last night went some way toward changing this habit, especially hearing the wonderful performances of Charles Sheehan and Rory Childers.
• My favorite sort of enthusiast is an enthusiast with a cocktail.
• What a view! Not only in the obvious ways—the 22-story birds-eye on Millennium Park, the Art Institute, Buckingham Fountain et al.—but also the cool sights at eye-level. To the south was the sign on D.H. Burnham's Santa Fe Building, the letters large as life. The sculpted lion heads decorating whatever building sits to the north seemed close enough to pat, and more ferocious than you could know from any other perspective.
TT: Maugham goes Wilde
Friday again, and time for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I'm out of town and blissfully computer-free, but Our Girl has been kind enough to post it for me by remote control. I reviewed two shows today, one in New York (Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife) and one in New Jersey (Paper Mill Playhouse's revival of Ragtime).
Here's the scoop:
What makes “The Constant Wife” so peculiar is that it starts out as one kind of period piece, then turns unexpectedly into another. Everyone wears oh-so-'20s outfits, and a poker-faced butler (Denis Holmes) announces the arrival of each character in turn. Then, midway through the second act, Constance starts delivering stilted orations that might have been lifted from a very different sort of play: “So long as John provides me with all the necessities of existence I wouldn't be unfaithful. It all comes down to the economic situation. He has bought my fidelity and I should be worse than a harlot if I took the price he paid and did not deliver the goods.” Imagine Henrik Ibsen rewritten by Oscar Wilde and you'll get some idea of what “The Constant Wife” sounds like….
I loved Paper Mill Playhouse's revival of “Ragtime,” the stage version of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, in which Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens got right everything they got wrong earlier this season at Lincoln Center with “Dessa Rose.” Directed by Stafford Arima along the lines of his 2003 London production, Paper Mill's “Ragtime” is a small-scale rethinking of a large-scale pageant, one that strips away all visual superfluities to concentrate on Mr. Flaherty's magnificent score. The result is little short of revelatory….
No link. Have you bought a Friday Journal lately? You can read all of me there, plus lots of other great stuff—or you can go here and subscribe to the Online Journal, which is ever so much hipper.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
“So things are all right after all, and I shall wind up my defense of criticism by observing that excessively kind notices, coming from all sides and lasting a career, can sterilize an artist more effectively than the cold shower that wakes one up to real life. That must have been what Jean Paulhan had in mind when he wrote, 'Bad reviews preserve an author better than alcohol preserves a piece of fruit.'”
François Truffaut, "What Do Critics Dream About?" (courtesy of Cinetrix)
TT: Projection booth
I've been tagged with the film meme by such stuff:
1. Total number of films I own on DVD and video: About 200.
2. Last film I bought: The Red Shoes. (I know, you can't believe I didn't already own it, but I only just saw it for the first time
3. Last film I watched: Henry Bromell's Panic, with William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, and Neve Campbell, a beautiful and alarming neonoir film about a midlife crisis. It sank without trace on its theatrical release five years ago, and shouldn't have.
4. Five films that I watch a lot or that mean a lot to me (in no particular order):
• Brad Anderson's Next Stop Wonderland
• Roman Polanski's Chinatown
• Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game
• Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me
• Steve Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys
5. If you could be any character portrayed in a movie, who would it be? Dr. Ben Stone, the title character in Doc Hollywood, a sweet little film that is one of my not-so-guilty pleasures.
You're it, Girl.
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
“He'd been thinking about late middle age, the years which a generous God and good health now offered. They could be fruitful years before death knocked, or a sterile barren delay before the cold. It all depended on how you handled them. It was absurd, no doubt, to pretend to be young: after thirty years of desk work it would be ludicrous to start waving guns. Charles Russell didn't intend to. What he intended was a calculated avoidance, the avoidance of too much discipline and of over-rigid habits. At sixty one wasn't elastic still, one had one's little drills for things and was fully entitled to do so. They made life simpler, they spun out leisure, but what was very dangerous was when the drill became its own reward, not the muddle avoided, the moment saved, but the deadly satisfaction of having completed some trifle efficiently. If that was the trap of old age, its threshold, then Russell had seen it and wouldn't step over.”
William Haggard, The Hardliners
TT: Welcome wagon
Today marks the launch of artsjournal.com's first jazz blog, Rifftides, written by veteran jazz journalist Doug Ramsey. In lieu of a recommendation, allow me to quote from what I wrote in The Wall Street Journal in April about Doug's latest book, Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond:
It's a serious, thoughtful book, as lucidly written as a first-class literary biography….While “Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond” contains plenty of show-stopping gossip, it is in no way a pathography. Scrupulously researched and written with an attractive combination of affection and candor, it casts a bright light on Desmond's troubled psyche without devaluing his considerable achievements as an artist. “Any of the great composers of melodies—Mozart, Schubert, Gershwin—would have been gratified to have written what Desmond created spontaneously,” Mr. Ramsey says. Strong words, but “Take Five” makes them stick.
Welcome to the blogosphere, Doug. It's a pleasure to have you aboard.
TT: Musical madeleines
Like everybody else in the world, I've become a compulsive shuffle-player. To date I've loaded 2,849 “songs” onto my iBook and iPod, and while I occasionally pick and choose from them at will, I usually let myself be surprised. One evening last week, iTunes unexpectedly served up a string of selections fraught with personal associations. Listening to them put me in mind of the scene in High Fidelity (I can't remember whether it's in the novel as well) in which John Cusack explains how he arranged his LP collection in “autobiographical order”:
If I want to play, say, Blue by Joni Mitchell, I have to remember that I bought it for somebody in the autumn of 1983, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons.
Me, I'm a chronological kind of guy, so much so that the upper left-hand corner of the first CD shelf in my office-bedroom is actually occupied by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Nevertheless, I very much appreciate the theory of autobiographical order, and I thought it might amuse you to hear some of the long-lost memories summoned up by my iBook:
• The Classics IV, Stormy. This must have been the first 45 I bought with my own money. I know the year was 1969, and the other singles I remember buying around that time were Bobbie Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe” and Sergio Mendes' “Mais Que Nada” (good choices both). I liked Dennis Yost's soft, furry voice much more than well enough, but it was the song's minor-key, modally tinted harmonies that caught and held my ear. They still do.
• George Strait, I've Come to Expect It From You. New Yorkers are almost always surprised to learn that I like country music. In fact, I grew up with it—I played in a country band in high school—and my appreciation for its clear-eyed view of romance and its discontents deepens as the years go by. I heard this tight-lipped, no-nonsense lament (I guess that I should thank my unlucky stars/That I'm alive/And you're the way you are/But that's what I get/I've come to expect it from you) on a car radio as I skidded over ice-covered highways after a performance of Turandot in Buffalo, and I picked up a copy of the CD as soon as I returned to Manhattan in one piece.
• Neil Young, The Loner.
This is from Young's first solo album, which I bought after reading about it in The Rolling Stone Record Review, a paperback anthology published in 1971. Some of those reviews were so vividly written that I can recall them to this day, and I thumbed through my heavily dogeared copy until it disintegrated. (Too bad I didn't hang onto the loose pages. According to Alibris,
used copies now sell for as much as $199 apiece.) I lost my youthful taste for the inside jokes and insipidities of Crosby, Stills & Nash a quarter-century ago, but Neil Young's best songs still speak to me, and this was one of the first tracks I downloaded from iMusic last year.
• Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock. My family used to vacation at the Howard Johnson next door to Graceland (it's long gone) back when Elvis Presley was thin. Alas, I already thought Elvis was irredeemably square, and it wasn't until I saw Jailhouse Rock on TV as an adult that I caught on to what I'd been missing. Lilo
was soooo right: the man rocked.
• Lou Reed, White Light/White Heat. This is from Rock 'n' Roll Animal, one of the fieriest and most furious live albums ever recorded. I heard it at a 1974 kegger where everybody but me was getting drunk, high, or laid. I, on the other hand, stuck close to the living-room record player, marveling at the slashing interplay between Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, Reed's guitarists. I was such a geekazoid avant la lettre, but at least I knew a good thing when I heard it.
• Cole Porter, Anything Goes. Porter recorded several of his own songs for Victor in 1934, accompanied only by his own clumpy piano and sounding rather like a dapper, effete gnome with slicked-back hair, which is pretty much what he was. I first heard this scratchy old 78 being played over the opening credits of The Boys in the Band, a film which then struck me as the acme of sophistication. I had a lot to learn, including the fact that Porter was singing the original, uncensored lyrics to “Anything Goes”: If old hymns you like/Or bare limbs you like/If Mae West you like/Or me undressed you like/Why, nobody will oppose. Nobody ever penned a craftier rhyme.
• Spike Jones, Cocktails for Two. Spike Jones is one of my earliest memories: he had a Sunday-night TV show in the late '50s and early '60s that my parents watched from time to time. Decades later, my friend Tim Page introduced me to this wildly funny record, and though I must have played it a hundred times since then, its lunatic incongruities still make me laugh out loud. (Just yesterday I noticed that one of the characters in I.Q. uses “Cocktails for Two” as a demonstration record for his sound system.)
• Dwight Yoakam, Honky Tonk Man. I fell out of touch with the country-music scene in college and for a long time afterward, thus missing out on the rise of the New Traditionalists, of whom Yoakam was one of the most significant and influential. Unlikely as it may sound, I discovered this wonderful song on a Smithsonian Institution box set of country records. I went right out and bought Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., subsequently becoming a lifelong fan.
• Sidney Bechet/Rex Stewart/Earl Hines/Baby Dodds, Save It, Pretty Mama. I found out about jazz from my father's big-band 78s, but my high-school record library also had a surprisingly varied selection of jazz LPs, among them a Sidney Bechet anthology on RCA Vintage that contained this strutting, suavely self-assured 1941 performance. Bechet has occupied a prominent place in my pantheon of great jazz soloists ever since the day I checked out Bechet of New Orleans (thank you, Fred Huff!). The best thing about “Save It, Pretty Mama,” though, is Baby Dodds' immaculately swinging drumming. Press rolls are way cool.
• The Grateful Dead, Casey Jones. I was never, ever a Deadhead (eeuuww!), but I made an exception for Workingman's Dead, whose clean, spare, mostly unamplified songs were praised to the skies in a review published in the late, lamented Stereo Review, the first music magazine to which I ever subscribed. (It was in Stereo Review that I also learned about Bobby Short.) I bought the LP on the strength of that piece, and I bought the CD version a quarter-century later on the strength of my fond memories. Some of the songs haven't aged well, but I like “Dire Wolf” and “Casey Jones” as much as I ever did.
• Brahms, Wie bist du, meine Königin, performed by Hans Hotter and Gerald Moore. Another album I bought on the strength of a Stereo Review recommendation was a budget-priced box set called The Seraphim Guide to German Lieder that contained a well-chosen selection of songs by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Loewe, Wolf, and Richard Strauss, all of them sung by such celebrated recitalists as Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda, Christa Ludwig, Victoria de los Angeles, and Janet Baker. I played my copy white, as we used to say in the days of black discs and blunt needles, and I learned much of what I know about lieder from such deeply comprehending interpretations as this one. If only Seraphim had followed it up with a companion volume devoted to French art song!
• Harry Nilsson, Daybreak. Nilsson was part of the soundtrack of my AM-radio adolescence, but I later turned up my snobby nose at his clever pop tunes, and it wasn't until Paul Taylor made A Field of Grass, a joltingly apocalyptic modern-dance portrait of the '60s set to a half-dozen of his best records, that I realized how wrong I'd been to dismiss him as a lightweight. (Another of his hits, “Jump Into the Fire,” contributes no less greatly to the effect of GoodFellas.)
• Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World. I've never seen Good Morning, Vietnam, nor did I hear this record when it was new. It didn't become a hit until long after Louis Armstrong died, and even then I probably would have written it off as commercial fluff. Now that I'm writing a biography of Armstrong, I know better: it's the masterpiece of his old age, an unguarded, utterly sincere expression of his lifelong belief in man's essential goodness. If you don't dig it, you don't dig Pops.
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
“The memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish. Any lasting grief is reproof to their forgetfulness.”
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
TT: Words to the wise
The Washington Post recently asked its arts writers to recommend “favorite books about favorite subjects.” Our recommendations appeared in Sunday's paper, and you'll find them here. (Each one is separately linked.)
Alec Wilder, who died in 1980, was one of the least classifiable human beings who ever lived. A sort-of-classical composer who doubled as a sort-of-popular songwriter, he wrote a few hits ("I'll Be Around," "While We're Young") and a medium-size stack of not-quite-standard ballads ("I See It Now," "South to a Warmer Place," "Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden's?") sung and adored by such stellar vocalists as Frank Sinatra and Mabel Mercer. Late in life, Wilder was persuaded to set down his thoughts on the great popular songwriters of the 20th century, and despite his well-deserved reputation as a chronic procrastinator, he finally managed to produce a full-length book (written in collaboration with the popular-music scholar James Maher, who served as his patient amanuensis).
Though published by an academic press, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (Oxford University, 1990 reissue, $45) is about as scholarly as a late-afternoon chat in a dark, oak-paneled bar. Holding forth in an informal, unabashedly opinionated style, Wilder offers a guided tour of the collected works of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and a sprinkling of lesser but still important lights, writing both as a connoisseur and as an important songwriter in his own right. The results border at times on thinly disguised autobiography….
Read the whole thing here.
OGIC: Diary of a lost evening
I had grand plans for this evening. Yesterday I wrote half of a post responding to Chip McGrath's New York Times piece on class in American fiction, but I couldn't finish it before bedtime arrived. Tonight was the night I was going to unearth my copy of "In the Cage" and wrap that up. Also, it's developed over just the last week that I am going to be moving in six weeks, and I need to make my apartment showable ASAP. So I was going to drag the laptop into the bedroom, where both the window unit and the critical mass of clutter are, bask in the coolth, and alternately write my post and put things away. Two birds with one air conditioner. Now here it is 10:07 and I've neither written a word nor stashed a sock. I'm also in the hot and sticky living room for some reason, feeling like I'm going to drop off two hours ahead of schedule. So something, perhaps both things, are going to give.
My mistake? Taking to the bike path as soon as I got home from work, out of my modified pantsuit, and into some workout clothes. After a year of inexplicably neglecting my bike and the glorious lakefront bike path just steps from my door, I got around to having the poor creaky thing tuned up last week. (South Siders: patronize this establishment. Yuvie's your man.) I've now had three outings, tonight being the longest and possibly the most breathtaking, in more ways than one. Nowhere else I've ever lived has brought exercise in such close and easy proximity with gorgeousness. Chicago has pretty much spoiled me for working out in gyms, other than lifting weights, an activity that seems to be actually enhanced by an ugly, grubby, smelly setting.
Anyway. Despite the many possible moods of Lake Michigan, which I have been known to find inspiring, some days it's not moody or interesting or sublime but perfectly, insipidly pretty, torn straight from a travel brochure. That was the deal tonight, the water merrily rippling and vacationland-blue—and what's more, the path was amazingly free of jackasses. Somebody actually apologized for getting in my way at one point, an unheard-of nicety that practically made me fall off my bike and crack my skull.
I rode from 57th Street to the boat launch just north of the museum campus. They keep improving the bike path, and one of the best developments, dating back maybe five or six years, was to route it around the back of the Shedd Aquarium in a half-circle. Biking this stretch, you've got the oceanarium on one side of you—though you can't, alas, see the belugas—and the lake on the other. You have to slow way down, though—it's as narrow as possible, and a popular stretch of the path for pedestrians of the sightseeing variety: leisurely, benignly clueless, disinclined to stay on their side of the yellow line. That in itself doesn't bother me, except that the racer boys—and yes, they're nearly always boys—don't believe in slowing down even in the interest of life and limb, their own or anyone else's. So they bully their way through, frightening small children and benefiting from the forbearance of those around them; in the event of a crash, their speed and height make them odds-on favorites to scramble their brains on the pavement, helmets or no. But they survive by the good graces of those they weave around perilously, and they don't entirely manage to spoil a good thing.
The whole ride long I was thinking how sad it was that I don't have a camera in my phone and that we don't have images on the blog, and so I couldn't share the glories of the lakefront with all of you. But I knew, too, that this was a kind of beauty that wouldn't translate well, being so bland. You've seen a thousand pretty pictures of a sparkling body of water on a brilliantly sunny day—even one dotted with white sails, I daresay—and another one would have made your eyes glaze over, or roll. There wasn't anything all that remarkable about it. In fact, had I not been sweating and thirsting and fighting the wind, I may not even have found it so beautiful. I did, and it was, but it didn't matter or last. In 24 hours or less, I'll have forgotten all about it. Sometimes, though, it strikes me as completely insane that I can forget with impunity, that there's essentially an endless supply of this. I like the lake best when it surprises me, which it does, often. But even when it doesn't—or especially when it doesn't—it's pretty reliably stunning. Less beautiful, more interesting. Less interesting, more beautiful. You never lose with this lake.
To stop making a short story tremendously long, I'll fast-forward and say that I got home and gave in to watching the premiere of TNT's The Closer, which the network has been hyping for what seems like six months and I think actually is. It wasn't bad. I liked how Kyra Sedgwick was constantly eating doughnuts and such. One scene had her deliberating carefully among ice-cream confections, a tad too easy a way of investing a tough-as-nails character with girlish vulnerability, but still and all, one that winningly features ice-cream confections. Although the obvious precursor for the show is Prime Suspect, to which it will never live up, the opening scene was ripped straight out of Silence of the Lambs (and then tweaked). I'll probably watch again, but then, my TV standards are not "high."
Aside from the couch potato routine, I spent the evening downing a lot of my own personal summertime nectar and eating a crudely constructed, you might say jerry-rigged, dinner, then sat down to excuse myself from blogging, and here we are. I probably won't get to the McGrath thing until Wednesday now, and I'll have to live with the mortification of imagining strangers tracking through here tomorrow getting an eyeful of clothes out of drawers and books off of shelves as far as the eye can see. But hey, I posted!
TT: With thirty-four you get eggroll
On Sunday I hung the newest addition to the Teachout Museum, Kenneth Noland's Circle I (II-3). Published in 1978 by Tyler Graphics as part of Noland's Handmade Paper Project, it consists of three layers of colored, pressed paper pulp with three lithographic monoprint impressions, floated on a white, cloth-covered board and sealed in a plexiglass box. Go here and here to see four pieces from the Handmade Paper Project. Mine is the one in the center of the bottom row of the first page. The photo isn't very good, but it'll give you a rough idea of what Circle I (II-3) looks like.
Noland, who was born in 1924, had been painting concentric circles for two decades when he made Circle I (II-3). These “Circle” paintings, the ones for which he's best known today, are widely regarded as studies in pure color, but his own view is more nuanced: “People talk about color in the 'Circles,' but they are also about scales and juxtapositions. Making them taught me everything about scale.” In addition, the “Circle” prints in the Handmade Paper Series are also “about” the rough, unpredictably complex surfaces and textures of the paper out of which they are made. My print actually has something of the effect of a sculpture: it exists in space, not merely as a flattened-out image.
The experience of making the “Circle” prints left its mark on Noland's later work, as Karen Wilkin explains in an invaluable 1990 monograph on the artist:
For all their declarative, legible structure, his [pre-1980] pictures were as disembodied as “something that you heard.” Their astonishing color appeared to have magically fallen into place; as though in order to appeal directly to the sense of sight, Noland had banished all sense of touch. Yet early in the 1980s, he began to explore media that depended utterly on touch...Cast paper proved especially fascinating to him. Working with colored paper pulp forced him literally to move color around as a tactile substance, instead of applying it as a skin on a flat surface. (He once described the process as “making a picture out of colored cottage cheese.”) It was a stimulating sensation. When he began to paint again soon after this experience, he found that he wanted the physicality of the cast paper works in his canvases. “I wanted to get expressive possibilities back into picture through the use of my hands or touch,” Noland says.
Though Noland and his fellow color-field painter Jules Olitski have been out of fashion for a long time now, I continue to admire their work, which speaks to me in much the same way as do music and plotless dance. I've been looking for an affordable Noland handmade-paper monoprint for the better part of two years, and I tracked one down last week (this is where I found it). Circle I (II-3) now hangs below the second most recent addition to the Teachout Museum, Olitski's Forward Edge. The two pieces share the northwest corner of my living room with Grey Fireworks, a screenprint by Helen Frankenthaler, whose poured paintings of the Fifties were a major influence on Noland, Olitski, and their colleague Morris Louis (who called Frankenthaler “a bridge between [Jackson] Pollock and what was possible”).
That's the good news. The bad news is that with the arrival of Circle I (II-3), I've finally run out of wall space. I spent a half-hour rehanging five other prints in order to make a place for it. Even with three pieces relocated to my loft, I no longer have room for anything much larger than a small etching. To be sure, the piece of art I most covet is a small etching, but I let it get away from me at an auction a year and a half ago, and it's likely to be a long, long time (i.e., a cold day in hell) before I track down another copy at a price I can even pretend to afford. The other pieces for which I'm looking, a color lithograph by Hans Hofmann and a pastel by Arnold Friedman, are both larger than any of the remaining gaps on my walls.
What to do? I know a connoisseur in Chicago who bought a second apartment to house his collection, but he's rich and I'm not. Nor would I consider moving to a larger place, even if I could afford to do so: I love my cozy little home, and I've fussed over it too long to let it go now. Several friends have suggested that I start rotating my collection, and one or two have even offered to serve as the recipients of long-term loans. I'm not entirely averse to the idea—in fact, I rather like it—but I'm not sure I could bring myself to go through with it, at least for the moment. (Sorry, Ali!) Part of the pleasure of owning art, after all, is being able to see it whenever you want. As of this morning, 34 pieces hang on the walls of my apartment, each one beautiful in its own right and all of them additionally beautiful as part of the larger totality that is the Teachout Museum. How could I possibly give one away, even temporarily? It'd be like shipping one of your kids off to a foster home.
Be that as it may, something's got to give, so I probably won't be buying anything else anytime soon—unless, of course, I change my mind, which I probably will. I guess I might as well face it: my name is Terry, and I'm a small-time art junkie. It's not the worst addiction in the world.
UPDATE: A fellow New Yorker writes:
André Emmerich used to say that a true collector was
someone who kept acquiring art even after running out of wall space. We
don't actually collect, but art happens to us—we have very generous
artist friends and we are lucky enough to be able to buy at a deep discount on
occasion—so the walls are filled. Some things rotate. Other things are
in portfolios stuck behind chests of drawers and the back of the closet.
And when we finally redid the kitchen after 17 years in this loft, my husband made an ingenious storage
space for small works behind a large painting. Underneath is much needed
bookcase space to help accommodate the other unstoppable accumulation.
I'm not sure whether I find this encouraging or enabling....
Monday, June 13, 2005
“Until Abstract Expressionism, you had to have something to paint about, some kind of subject matter. Even though Kandinsky and Arthur Dove were improvising earlier, it didn't take. They had to have symbols, suggested natural images or geometry, which was something real structurally. That gave them something to paint about. What was new was the idea that something you looked at could be like something you heard.”
Kenneth Noland (quoted in Karen Wilkin, Kenneth Noland)
TT: Accounts unreceivable
Memo to anyone who was thinking of calling me: my telephone is out of order. You can leave a message for me on my voice mail and I can collect it after the fact, but I won't hear the phone ring when you do.
The good guys are coming on Tuesday morning. Until then and/or until further notice, send me an e-mail if you need to get in touch with me.
TT: Despite and still
First, an announcement: Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza, which was originally set to close on June 12, then September 4, will now run through January 1, 2006, thanks to the fact that it received six Tony Awards, not to mention a whole lot of passionate plugging from well-placed enthusiasts like me. Ha!
Go, if you haven't. If you have, go again. And if you can't go, listen to the CD. I can't tell you how many friends of mine have fallen in love with this show. (To read excerpts from my Wall Street Journal review, go here.)
For those who asked, I haven't quite shaken off the bug that bit me last week, but I'm mending nicely, thanks. So as to increase the chances of my getting well sooner and staying well longer, I spent a good-sized chunk of the weekend staying indoors and working on the blog. Look in the right-hand column, for instance, and you'll find a fresh set of Top Fives. In addition, “Sites to See” has been updated with a hatful of new or newly discovered blogs and Web sites (each of which is marked with an asterisk), all worth a visit.
That's it for now. Enjoy.
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• I write fast. It takes me, for example, two and a half hours to knock out a thousand-word Wall Street Journal drama column (except when I'm sick). This isn't exactly freakish, but it's quick enough to stagger many of my friends and colleagues. I can't explain my facility, so I joke about it, but the fact is that I, too, find it mystifying, though it's not the speed that puzzles me—it's that I don't really know where all those words come from in the first place. On occasion I may spend a few minutes tinkering with a punch line until I hear it go click, and of course I edit and polish the surfaces of my pieces as painstakingly as time permits, but beyond that I have next to no insight into the thought processes that cause them to pour out of my fingers.
It occurs to me that this seeming incomprehension may have something to do with the fact that I am (or was) as much a musician as a writer. Music, after all, is a non-verbal art form, and the only descriptions of the creative experience that ring true to my ear are those of composers. “I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed,” Igor Stravinsky said of the writing of The Rite of Spring. When I first ran across that remark I thought, That's exactly how it feels when I write a piece—it passes through me.
I also felt a responding echo when I read Harold Shapero's account of his studies with Paul Hindemith, who was notorious for his facility and was capable of writing finished pieces of music on the spot in class. One day Shapero told Hindemith how impressive he found this ability. “Well, you know," Hindemith replied, "it's taken me a long time to come to the point where there's no time lost between my head, elbow, and arm.” I know how that feels, too.
Nothing in my writing life puzzles me more than what happens when I go to a performance that I'll be reviewing the next morning. As the lights go down, I empty my mind of received ideas and become entirely receptive to the events on stage. Sooner or later, though, the review starts taking shape in my head involuntarily, and by the time the curtain comes down, I don't have to think through what I want to say: it's all there, waiting to be cloaked in words.
After nearly three decades as a professional writer, I still find this process uncanny. It's as if my reviews happen to me, in the same way that a performance happens to me. I am the vessel through which my opinions pass.
• I watched a good friend of mine fall asleep the other day. We'd spent the morning together at a museum in Brooklyn, then made our slow way back to Manhattan by subway. She had a couple of hours to kill before her next appointment, so she asked if she could spend them at my place. When we arrived, I put on a piece of music she didn't know, Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, and she curled up on the couch to listen. I could see that the sound of Debussy's fragile traceries was relaxing her, almost against her will. Suspecting that she hadn't gotten enough sleep the night before, I then put on Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal, after John Dowland, a set of variations for solo guitar that depict the sensations of sleep. “Let go,” I said. “Don't worry. I'll get you up on time.”
I sat quietly as the music unfolded. Without warning, my friend's body jerked once, then relaxed. A few minutes later, the fingers of her cupped hand twitched, and I knew she was dreaming. She looked tranquil and beautiful.
When Nocturnal was over, I tiptoed to the CD player and put on Samuel Barber's Summer Music. Midway through the piece, just before she had asked me to wake her, her eyes opened.
“I saw you fall asleep,” I said. "You were dreaming."
“How could you tell?”
“Your body jerked, and then your fingers started twitching. Cats do that when they're dreaming.”
“Oh, God, that's embarrassing!” she said. “You really watched me all that time? You must have been totally bored.” She paused. “You know what I've always wanted to do? Set up a camera and shoot a video of myself sleeping. I'd love to know what it looks like.”
She blushed. Then we laughed, and I sent her on her way.
TT: Two more kinds of people
A biographer-friend writes to suggest a parlor game:
What great artists (or famous people) could, and couldn't, say the sentence “I am ridiculous”? Washington no, Lincoln yes. Milton no, Shakespeare yes.
I am going to venture into your territory, based on little knowledge, but why not? Stuart Davis, yes. Jackson Pollack, no. Eakins, no. Picasso, to his credit, yes. Bonnard, much as I dislike him, probably yes. Edward Hopper, no.
You know my methods, Watson. Apply them.
I like this game very much, in part because it doesn't always sort along obvious lines of personal taste (at least not if you play it honestly). To wit:
Sherlock Holmes no, Nero Wolfe yes (sorry, Watson)
Jerome Robbins no, George Balanchine yes
Stravinsky no, Auden yes
Miles Davis no, Louis Armstrong yes
Sinatra no, Nat Cole yes
Tolstoy no, Dostoevsky yes
John Marin no, Milton Avery yes
Arthur Miller no, Tennessee Williams yes
Willa Cather no, Flannery O'Connor yes
FDR no, Churchill yes
Beethoven no, Haydn yes
Hemingway no, Fitzgerald yes
Vuillard no, Bonnard yes (my friend is half right)
Richard Rodgers no, Cole Porter yes
Henry James no, Dr. Johnson yes
Here's some of what I've been reading on line of late:
• Supermaud (who gives good lunch) has taken an interest in Peter De Vries, several of whose novels, including the exquisite and haunting The Blood of the Lamb, are back in print. About damn time.
• The Little Professor on Trollope:
Of the major Victorian novelists, Anthony Trollope is by far the most deliberative. He usually isn't interested in the questions of perception, representation, and subjectivity that tend to plague George Eliot, but prefers instead to devote his energies to decision-making. Many of Trollope's novels fixate on some difficult decision to be made, whether involving a marriage, a will, or a question of honor; the "action" often consists of the characters worrying this decision one way and another. While Trollope can certainly write a good action scene—the hunt in The Eustace Diamonds, for example—he prefers to locate his most important upheavals in the recesses of a character's consciousness….
• DevraDoWrite, new to the blogosphere, confesses to an obsessive compulsion:
Do you finish reading every book you start? I have trouble giving up on a book, especially if I spent money to buy it. Sometimes, if I “can't get into it,” I put it aside for awhile and try again later. Sometimes it's just my mood, or level of concentration that makes reading difficult.
Sometimes, however, a book is simply not very good, or not meant for my tastes, and I should just give up. But all too often, a combination of guilt and the fear that I will miss something keeps me going….
This compulsion has a highly distinguished pedigree. Justice Holmes shared it, as Edmund Wilson reminds us in Patriotic Gore:
His reading is dominated by a sense of duty and a Puritanical fear of idleness. He feels that he must grapple with certain works, quite apart from any pleasure they give him, and, once having begun a book, no matter how dull or verbose it is, he must read every word to the end. He is always imagining—this is humorous, of course, but it shows a habit of mind—that God, at the Judgment Day, will ask him to report on the books which he ought to have read but hasn't.
• Also new to the blogroll is Mr. Quiet Bubble, who reports that the common culture isn't quite dead yet:
It turns out that the great racial equalizer of the South is barbecue. Everyone eats it here. Few people don't take it seriously. Vigorous debates can be instigated just by asking “Do you like your sandwich wet or dry?” or by requesting a pulled pork sandwich (standard in Mississippi) at a Texas barbecue joint, where beef reigns supreme. It doesn't matter if you're black, white, or otherwise—chances are, if you're from the South, you've enjoyed smoky, slow-cooked meat and steaming, grease-slathered vegetables on at least one occasion. Even if you're vegan.
I myself can't get enough of the stuff, about which I first got serious when I lived in Kansas City, where I patronized Arthur Bryant's BBQ as often as humanly possible. Wet or dry, beef or pork (and what about ham, buddy?), I'm for it. Living in New York has been a cruel disappointment to me in only one major respect, which is that you can't get any honest-to-God barbecue here—open pits are illegal. (The 'cue at Blue Smoke is surprisingly serviceable, though, especially when consumed downstairs at the Jazz Standard while listening to great music.)
Incidentally, I wouldn't want anyone to think that I travel so frequently to Raleigh, North Carolina, for any reason other than to see Carolina Ballet, but I won't deny that I do seek out the local barbecue whenever I'm in town.
• Speaking of dance, Ms. Killin' Time Being Lazy pays a visit to the ballet and casts a sidelong glance at certain all-too-recognizable types in the audience:
2. Proud Parent/Grandparent. At last, the years of watching their darling suffer for their craft will be rewarded. If the child hasn't received a contract from a Good Ballet Company by now, clearly people just don't understand how good The Artiste is. Conversely, this is a way to wind up Their Darling's ballet career, as The Dancer morphs into The College Student (with luck, on their way to a good, paying career)….
• Mr. Parabasis, who isn't fond of most drama critics (I'm with him!), bellies up to the bar:
I promised sometime last week that I would attempt to put my money where my mouth was and write a review of a show that I strongly disliked while still keeping to the recommendations I made for theater reviewers. And maybe, just maybe, it would also be interesting to read. What you are about to read (if you click on the jump) represents my attempt to do so, reviewing Drama of Works' Warhol at PS122 ….
• A performer-blogger recalls that which the likes of me should never be allowed to forget:
Good reviews elate me for a day or two, and then I forget about them. Bad reviews (which, I hasten to add, are thankfully outnumbered by the good ones), linger in my consciousness for years. Even if I quickly scan the article once and then throw the paper away, they are nevertheless immediately and involuntarily burned verbatim into my memory banks, where they fester and inevitably resurface on days when my confidence is at its lowest ebb.
I aspire to someday not give a crap about reviews, good or bad. (To that end, I generally ask those around me not to tell me about reviews, and a few years ago I gave up the pointlessly narcissistic habit of self-Googling). Most of the artists I know who are much further along in their careers than me claim to have achieved this transcendent state….
(My own approach to this problem, by the way, is never to read any bad reviews of my books.)
• Ms. twang twang twang reflects on T.S. Eliot, Benjamin Britten, and life itself:
Each time you take up a piece again, your interpretation shifts: it is the same score, but always different, and as you come to new ideas, you necessarily kill off old ones. Thus "every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,/Every poem an epitaph."
As in life, it is also in music that you cannot force real understanding; you have to be ready. Perhaps I have a younger musician friend, still learning what I have learnt: that we never stop working, practicing, altering; what is today's perfect performance is not tomorrow's; and to be depressed by the continual labour misunderstands the work, because as musicians that is part of who we are. I have learnt that by studying for longer than my friend….
• Alex Ross asked a hard question the other day in The New Yorker:
For music to remain vital, recordings have to exist in balance with live performance, and, these days, live performance is by far the smaller part of the equation. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we listen to CDs in order to get to know the music better, or to supplement what we get from concerts and shows. But, honestly, a lot of us don't go to hear live music that often. Work leaves us depleted. Tickets are too expensive. Concert halls are stultifying. Rock clubs are full of kids who make us feel ancient. It's just so much easier to curl up in the comfy chair with a Beethoven quartet or Billie Holiday. But would Beethoven or Billie ever have existed if people had always listened to music the way we listen now?...
As it happens, I also wrote about this same subject several years ago in Fi, the now-defunct audio magazine, and posted the column here last year. You might want to revisit my more modest effort in conjunction with Alex's very good and (I think) important essay.
• For those of you who still go to concerts, Mr. Sandow offers this reality check:
I went to an orchestra concert. The Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie Hall. My first reaction? "My God, why are they dressed like that?" Now of course this isn't a criticism of the Baltimore Symphony. Any orchestra on that stage would have been dressed the same way. And this wasn't a considered reaction. It came right from my gut, and took me by surprise….
• Speaking of recordings, here's a great list…
• …and here's Thelonious Monk, of all people, playing the Chopin “Military” Polonaise (scroll down to find the link). Believe me, you don't want to miss this.
• More on pianists: Think Denk, himself no mean tickler of the ivories, pays tribute to one of my all-time favorite classical pianists, Ignaz Friedman. As usual, he gets it just right:
A very famous pianist (and irreproachable artist) of my acquaintance disparaged Friedman for being too crass. I know he is wrong. Or, maybe, I think he is right but I don't care; when he says it it passes into one ear, one lobe of my brain, and I smile an empty smile; the other lobe recalls all my favorite Friedman moments and adores them internally while I pretend to agree. Am I a hypocrite?...
I know what it is: Friedman's playing is not limited by a Beethovenian "es muss sein" (it must be)...it has a place for the arbitrary and the accidental. Sometimes he seems motivated by rhythmic/musical forces from another planet, and there is no way to know what he is thinking, and why he is thinking it. This makes me happy; I puzzle over his rhythms with pleasure.
• Warner Home Video is censoring Tom and Jerry, and lying about it, sort of. Mr. Something Old, Nothing New, on whom nothing is missed, is on the case.
• This is really funny—especially if you've ever killed any time leafing through the Catalogues of Miscellaneous Stuff stashed in the pockets on the backs of airplane seats.
• Finally, I don't quite agree with Lileks, but I know whereof he speaks:
There's something false and seductive about being a modern-day Sinatra fan, and by “fan” I mean someone who thinks they can get a few photons of reflected coolness by conspicuously immersing himself in the Capitol oeuvre, with all its world-wearing romantic rue and barroom charm. It's close to Tony Soprano Syndrome, where middle-aged guys think that if the opportunity arose, Tone might give them a casual how-ya-doin' or nod brisk approval across a restaurant. The same old Mafia Chic. And I say this as a big Sopranos fan who loves the show and has substantial investment in the characters...
The Rat Pack Myth works best from a distance, preferably 1500 miles and 30 years; you don't see them feel up the hat check girl, kick the waiter (or have him kicked), or stare with vacant eyes from the bottom of whatever well of drunkenness they toppled into that night. We cut them slack because they wore cool suits and had short hair and smoked a lot and one of them spoke ever-so-cultured, and because they either slept with a Kennedy or pimped for one. Mafia Chic requires the same removal from the scene. The Sopranos is better than most depictions of that thing of theirs, but we're still required to care about Carmela's moral quandaries, which occupy the same moral plane as Eva Braun's bunions.
I wonder if this might possibly explain why I gave up on The Sopranos three seasons ago. I still love Sinatra, though….
Sunday, June 12, 2005
"Gervas Leat rose, turning on a light. 'Bonnard,' he said reflectively: 'the last Frenchman who gives me pleasure.'"
"'Who gives me pleasure,' Richard thought—that was simple, that was final, that was enough. Enough, certainly, for Gervas Leat. Nothing of theory here, nothing of judgement. Great painters, lesser painters, painters of significance. Moral and social values and the inner eye. Critical aesthetics....Whoof! But Gervas Leat liked Bonnards and could afford to own one."
William Haggard, Venetian Blind
Friday, June 18, 2004
OGIC: The review you helped write
My review of Kevin Canty's splendid novel Winslow in Love appears in today's Chicago Tribune. You may remember that when I was working on the review in the Spring, I enlisted ALN readers' help in thinking of books within books, with highly edifying and fun results. For the purposes of the review, this merely helped me gird a point made in passing, but the exercise took on a life of its own—I heard from dozens of you, and the topic was taken up fruitfully at other blogs.
Like I said, none of this had to do with Canty's novel in a direct way. His title character Winslow is a poet, but none of his poetry appears in the book. It's through other, more subtle means that Canty makes the reader think of Winslow as, in all probability, a good poet—for instance, though his perceptions of the natural world:
In the last half of the book, for instance, there is a criminally good chapter detailing a single Sunday when spring makes its first appearance in Montana. Winslow, cheered, drives out into the mountains to fish. The loss of his wife, the arrival of Jones, his writer's block, the cancerous skin lesion he has just had removed—all of these troubles dissolve in the soft spring air until, at the apex of this very good day, he reels in a sizable trout:
"He was about to throw him back in the water but decided at the last moment to kill him and keep him. He assumed this was legal. There was nobody around, anyway. He dashed the head of the big trout against a big rock on the bank and the silver body, the beautiful thing, shuddered and died.
"He felt it immediately: his luck was leaving him."
Winslow's luck will take a few more zigs and zags before this day ends, and with it this perfect chapter. There is nothing particularly fancy here—except for some mountains shining "like advertisements for themselves, sharp-toothed and glamorous" and some "[e]mpty storefronts" that line a street "like a mouthful of broken teeth."
But the generally modest language and staid narration somehow amount to a fantastically eloquent portrait of an interesting and troubled mind confronted with beauty, grasping at it for hope and forgetfulness while basking in the glorious present. Winslow finds the natural beauty of mountains and water, fish and elk, light and warmth, both ordinary and outrageous. "How many different kinds of fool would he feel like before this day was over?" he wonders in self-reproach and exultation.
Despite one pretty big problem with the novel, I count it as one of the best I've read so far this year.
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"It took me years to figure out that most film directors are not systematic thinkers but artistic opportunists. Maybe thanks to Coppola, Cimino & Company, we have reached a more realistic expectation of directors today; we are more used to the combination of great visual style with intellectual incoherence. But at the time we looked to filmmakers to be our novelists, our sages."
Phillip Lopate, "Anticipation of La Notte: The 'Heroic' Age of Moviegoing"
Thursday, June 17, 2004
TT: When bad trips make good theater
It's Friday, but I'm in Washington (and in a blessedly iBook-free state), so Our Girl in Chicago has been kind enough to post my weekly Wall Street Journal theater teaser for me, bless her.
Anyway, I reviewed two plays this morning, Lynn Nottage's Fabulation, a new play by the author of Intimate Apparel, and Charlie Victor Romeo, an off-off-Broadway performance piece based on transcripts of the black-box recordings of six airplane crashes.
Fabulation is terrific:
Unlike the simple, poignant "Intimate Apparel," "Fabulation" is a sardonic look at the complicated life of Undine Barnes Calles (Charlayne Woodard), a credit-card-carrying member of the black bourgeoisie whose husband empties out her bank account and blows town, leaving her broke and pregnant. Undine, we discover, is a hoity-toity Dartmouth grad who changed her name from Tameka Jo Greene, disowned her working-class Brooklyn family and started "my very own fierce boutique PR firm catering to the vanity and confusion of the African American nouveau riche." Now she makes the long journey home to Brooklyn, scared to death and fumbling to figure out her next move.
The sassily appealing Ms. Woodard leads a spot-on ensemble cast, and Kate Whoriskey, the director, puts them through their paces like a team of thoroughbreds. What lifts "Fabulation" well above the level of a don't-get-above-your-raising soap opera, though, is the shiv-sharp wit with which Ms. Nottage hacks away at the clichés of the genre. Despite some inconsistencies of tone, "Fabulation" mostly manages to keep its satirical balance, and the results are so smart and funny that you don't really mind a too-predictable last-minute plunge into sincerity….
If possible, Charlie Victor Romeo is even better:
It's a low-budget, unabashedly unglamorous affair. You stroll into a grubby black-box theater (talk about ironic!) in which a nondescript mock cockpit is placed at center stage. The house goes dark and a slide flashes on a screen overhead, telling you the flight number and date and how many people were on board, followed by a stark description of what went wrong: ICING. EXPLODING ENGINE. MULTIPLE BIRD STRIKES. Then the lights come up and all hell breaks loose.
Not always at once, though. Instead, you might find a pilot and co-pilot chatting away agreeably, flirting with a flight attendant, griping about this or that minor nuisance. But sooner or later-always without warning-something terrible happens, and in an instant the theater becomes a sweatbox. You watch in horror as the crew scrambles to save the ship while alarms beep and buzz, the radio crackles urgently and passengers scream on the far side of the cockpit door. Sometimes the crisis is protracted, sometimes shockingly brief (one flight lasts for just a minute and a half). Then the theater is filled with the clamor of a crash landing, abruptly cut off by a sharp click as the house goes black. After a seemingly endless pause, the slide shown at the beginning of the flight is flashed on the screen again, this time with an additional line at the bottom: NO SURVIVORS. NO SURVIVORS. 4 SURVIVORS. NO SURVIVORS….
No link, either, so to read the whole thing, buy today's Journal, where you'll find me in the "Weekend Journal" section, cheek by jowl with all manner of good things.
OGIC: Brilliant debuts
These bloggers are new:
• A female Blowhard! Vanessa B., a pseudonymous Chicagoan (where have I heard that before?), is keeping Michael B. company for the next month in the wake of Friedrich's sad retirement. A recent transplant from NYC, she has a City vs. City post here. Perhaps she will get hooked. A month is short.
• Carrie A. A. Frye launches Tingle Alley today. She was previously an occasional guest blogger at Maud's. See what can happen, Vanessa? In for a dime….
And this blog is new to me:
• Daily Gusto, a group blog featuring smart art essays, movie reviews, and whatnot. I can never resist the good whatnot.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
OGIC: Lit lit, and everything else
Via Rake's Progress I found this oldish but greatish Michael Chabon essay introducing an issue of McSweeney's that was devoted to plot-driven short stories—"thrilling tales" (no, I don't pay as much attention to McSweeney's as I probably should). Chabon writes:
As late as about 1950, if I referred to "short fiction," I might have been talking about any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story. Stories, in other words, with plots. A glance at any dusty paperback anthology of classic tales proves the truth of this assertion, but more startling will be the names of the authors of these ripping yarns: Poe, Balzac, Wharton, James, Conrad, Graves, Maugham, Faulkner, Twain, Cheever, Coppard. Heavyweights all, some considered among the giants of Modernism, source of the moment-of-truth story that, like homo sapiens, appeared relatively late on the scene but has worked very quickly to wipe out all its rivals.
Chabon even has a good word to say about Stephen King! His weariness of literary lit meshes with some recent link-rich postings by Michael Blowhard about books and the book biz, here and here. I always find Michael's cheerful pragmatism about book publishing smart and refreshing, his omnivorous reading habits emulation-inspiring. I thought of him, actually, when I read Terry's great Orson Welles almanac the other day—words I am going to tape to my brain.
In semi-related news, Sean Rocha over at Slate tells why 23 different books could claim to be top-ten best-sellers last week, and why no one can say for sure whose claims are legit:
The reason for all this secrecy is itself the worst-kept secret in the literary world: Hardly anyone buys books. Hyping a book as a "national best seller" creates an illusion of momentum and critical consensus that the phrase "over 25,000 copies sold"—which would actually be a pretty good figure for literary fiction sales in hardcover—does not. Thus, the industry's modesty is protected by the fig leaf of relative sales: The current No. 1 on every fiction list is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, but there's no way to tell from the ranking whether it is selling 1,000 copies a week or 1 million.
OGIC: We get letters
One of ALN's correspondents writes to expand on my thoughts about 1999 all-star cinema (it's practically the seedlet of a theory now—we may need to call for reinforcements) and to defend Sexy Beast:
I remember there was a moment—probably when Marky Mark calls his wife on his satellite phone from the Iraqi bunker [in Three Kings], or maybe it was in The Limey or The Insider or Fight Club—when I felt like movies had changed, that the artists had figured out the new machines & everything would be different from then on. Turns out that's not really the case, but it was a great year. The one on that list that keeps getting better for me is Topsy-Turvy, which has climbed into the all-time pantheon.
What is about '9 years and the movies? '89 was similarly remarkable, or at least felt so at the time (Do the Right Thing, sex, lies, and videotape, Drugstore Cowboy, Heathers...), and then there's the legendary '39. No time to do the research on the others right now...
I did think Sexy Beast was the best movie of whatever year it came out (it was a slow year) but I think that's 90% based on the good will generated by the opening scene—it didn't so much lead to disappointment in the rest of the movie as an undercurrent of strangeness that, along with Kingsley, kept the rest of the movie afloat (at least the first time around—I've not been back yet).
Yep, Topsy-Turvy is the cream of that crop. Surprisingly, I haven't seen it but for the one time, when it slew me. Terry, too—I was there to see. But Bridget Jones's Diary was on cable the other day, reminding me that I always mean to rout around more thoroughly in the ouevre of Shirley Henderson (has anyone seen Wonderland?) and to watch Mark Darcy's better half in action about a few hundred more times before I die.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, June 16, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Useless and futile, but jaw-dropping
Everybody and their brother has linked today to Ron Rosenbaum's giddy preview of Philip Roth's new novel, to be published in the fall (first seen by me at Ed's joint). The Plot Against America is an "alternative-future novel in which Charles Lindbergh, in real life the figurehead for the isolationist and (in part) pro-fascist America First movement, runs for President in 1940, beats F.D.R. and—soon after his inauguration—makes a pact with Hitler."
So how's the book? Nice but ultimately meaningless, if we're to trust Rosenbaum's analogy:
It was the night of that Lakers-Pistons overtime game. I mention this because as soon as I got home with the Roth galley, I proceeded to read all 390 pages straight through the night, with only one interruption: watching that amazing last-quarter Lakers comeback, capped by Kobe Bryant’s stunning game-tying, buzzer-beating three-point shot. It’s not like Roth has to make a comeback or Kobe has something to prove (wait, that’s not completely true), but there’s at least a surface analogy there: Both the game and the reading experience were, in some primal way, unbearably suspenseful.…
What is the "Plot Against America"? I ain’t tellin’, but it gets freaky toward the end and scary throughout: There was just no way I was going to get to sleep without finishing the book. I hope the serious-minded literati among you will forgive me for dwelling on the confluence of the Kobe Bryant shot and the Roth novel, but the Kobe shot had something of a similar quality, a jaw-dropping last-quarter gamble that pays off and leaves you astonished. A long rainbow arc. Nothing but net.
Lead time's a bitch.
UPDATE: Rosenbaum's piece prompts Sarah, who must have been an English teacher's dream—or a bad English teacher's nightmare—to reminisce about her checkered history with Roth's work and to consider giving him a second chance. Go read her tale of precociousness!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, June 16, 2004 | Permanent
TT: En route
I'll be leaving for Washington later today, and I'm looking forward to the train ride. Too much time spent at my desk or in theater seats, too much concentration, too much art, not enough unscheduled drifting. I shall take no computer, no work, nothing but my eyes and ears and a drowsy, slightly worn-out disposition, all in the hopes of being freshened up by the time I reach my seat at the Kennedy Center tonight.
You'll hear from me again on Friday. In the meantime, OGIC will tend your blog-related needs.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
"Try not to regret the past too much. Most often, the past drops away from you because it’s ripe."
Colette, letter to Germaine Patat (undated)
"If there’s no pleasure for me in it, I feel no obligation to a work of art. I cherish certain paintings, books, and films for the pleasure of their company. When I get no pleasure from an author, I feel no duty to consult him. My interests are pretty wide; and I do keep trying to stretch them wider. But no strain."
Orson Welles (quoted in Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles)
TT: Culture by committee
I’m in The Wall Street Journal today—a special unscheduled appearance on the Leisure & Arts page.
Last week, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is in charge of rebuilding the World Trade Center site, announced the names of the four cultural organizations it has offered space at Ground Zero: the Joyce Theater, the Signature Theater Company, the Drawing Center, and an as-yet-nonexistent "Freedom Center" that will present "exhibitions centered on humankind’s enduring quest for freedom."
I wasn’t exactly impressed, least of all with the Freedom Center:
The Freedom Center is one of those self-evidently silly ideas that only an underemployed committee could have conceived, a portentous-sounding Museum of Nothing in Particular destined to present blandly institutional, scrupulously noncontroversial exhibitions. No doubt the center will draw plenty of squirming grade-school kids sentenced to compulsory field trips, but I'd bet next month's rent that tourists will steer clear.
The three other groups to be offered space are serious and respectable, but they simply don't add up to anything remotely approaching a world-class center for the arts. "The vibrant mixture of dance, theatre and fine arts in one cultural complex will serve as a powerful cultural and economic engine for Lower Manhattan," Gov. George Pataki proclaimed last week. Who's he kidding? Like the Freedom Center, this particular choice of institutions stinks of committeethink. It's modest and safe—the inverse of the magnificent cultural opportunity afforded by the coming reconstruction of Ground Zero….
I was especially disappointed in the fact that New York City Opera, which had proposed to build a three-theater complex at Ground Zero, got the brush-off. I wrote in the Journal last year wholeheartedly endorsing City Opera’s proposal as the kind of large-scale project worthy of the site and the occasion. Alas, the LMDC apparently thought it too major—and, I’m disturbed to say, too highbrow:
"By building a New York City Opera House on the ashes of the World Trade Center," I wrote, "New Yorkers would be making the boldest possible declaration of faith in the power and glory of Western culture. A year and a half ago, 3,000 innocent men, women and children were murdered by sworn enemies of that culture. I can't imagine a more inspiring way to honor their memory." Instead, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. chose to think small—very, very small….
Read the whole thing here.
OGIC: Movie notes; or, Still life with spoilers
I was gratified to see that Terry has revised and downgraded his opinion of the clownish mob film Sexy Beast. I caught this on dvd a year or so after everybody else swooned over it at the theater. Neither I nor my friend could understand what the fuss was about, or even stay awake, really. Sexy Beast is notable, though, for containing perhaps the most precipitous drop from brilliance to banality in recent cinema history. This thanks to its opening scene, a monster of a set-up and a visual joke for the ages. All by itself this scene is almost worth the long slog that follows. The rest of the first half of the movie is then diverting enough, but only thanks to an outstanding Ben Kingsley, as Terry notes. The second half, following his character's departure, I just can't recall. Sexy Beast ranks up there with Memento as one of the movies whose enthusiastic following among the apparently like-minded most baffles me.
More recently I watched the haunted house flick and Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others on cable. (If you don't want to know how it ends, now is the time for you to stop reading and turn back.) I liked this movie much better when it was called The Sixth Sense. Also when it was a book called "The Turn of the Screw." And that pretty much covers its sources. My disappointment at the derivative ending was closely followed by the even more deflating realization that this movie will probably be only the first of many inferior permutations/rip-offs of M. Night Shyamalan's movie, which will then be blamed for what it spawned, like Mies van der Rohe. Sigh.
Speaking of The Sixth Sense, it's still amazing to remember what a great year for U.S. films 1999 was. I can rattle off a top ten that shames any year since:
The Sixth Sense
The Winslow Boy
Being John Malkovich
Okay, so maybe a couple of these haven't worn so spectacularly well. I'm thinking mainly of Being John Malkovich, but even that I'd still watch for Catherine Keener's acute angles and cutting edges.
OGIC: The real hardware
As you may have gleaned if you've been reading us for a while, I may be in Chicago but I'm from Detroit, which is where my heart and, most important, my sports loyalties remain. So you might well guess that today I am fairly excited about an imminent event.
You'd be right: I am moderately excited. But it must be added that the somebody-or-other trophy ain't no Stanley Cup.
Monday, June 14, 2004
OGIC: Inventing Henry James
Two new articles, one in the Independent and one in the New York Times, puzzle over the coming swarm of Henry James-based fiction, beginning with Colm Toibin's The Master and soon to continue with forthcoming novels by Alan Hollinghurst and David Lodge. I feel about this trend the ambivalence you might expect of someone greatly invested in James: plenty intrigued, a little possessive, and a little bit wary of the media's easy conversion of interest into fad.
Mel Gussow's piece in today's Times is reportorial and unadventurous. It's more or less a melange of quotations plucked from interviews with the authors in question and some James biographers, framed with little anecdotes about everyone tripping over each other while doing their research at James's Lamb House. But one item in this article stopped me in my tracks:
Each novelist approaches James from a different vantage. Mr. Toibin's initial response was to the book "Epistemology of the Closet" in which Eva Kosofsky Sedgwick suggested that James's entire work was written in code. Mr. Toibin took the opposite view. As he said: "You can't make a blanket assumption about James's sexuality or his fiction or his life. This was not a game between concealment and disclosure."
Huh? I'm still scratching my head over this. First, it's not Eva but Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. More important, charging her with the crazy-sounding proposition that "James's entire work was written in code" is just plain strange. It sent me back to Sedgwick's book, in case I was massively misremembering it. But no. She suggests nothing remotely of the sort.
Eve Sedgwick is that rare thing, a contemporary literary theorist whose theory is firmly grounded in aesthetically sensitive close reading. James makes his appearance in Epistemology of the Closet in "The Beast in the Closet," a long chapter on "The Beast in the Jungle" and male homosexual panic in the age of the Oscar Wilde trials. Even if you don't want to buy Sedgwick's overall argument about the making of the closet in nineteenth-century culture, her chapter offers many shrewd and illuminating local readings of James. She may marshal James's works to help her fry some bigger fish, but she never reduces them to mere theory fodder. She's a wonderful reader who on more than one occasion has made me shake my head in appreciation. Elsewhere Sedgwick has written perceptively about James and shame.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Heawood's think piece on the same James trend in the Independent gives a hint that the New York Times reporter may have scrambled Toibin's meaning in referring to Sedgwick. What Toibin says about James's sexuality here is not opposite Sedgwick but a reasonable, if necessarily shorthand, approximation of her thinking:
But as Toibin acknowledges, James's own life was largely lived, "before the Wilde case consolidated a certain kind of identity." In other words, the fact that James was attracted to men and found women sexually confusing doesn't necessarily mean he defined himself as gay, nor that he lived his life with a constant eye on the closet door. There are other reasons for fear than repression, and it is not only closet homosexuals who are afraid. James always cautioned against putting a definitive label on anyone: "Never say you know the last word about any human heart."
Heawood's piece, in which he asks why James is appearing in multiple new novels at this particular moment, is deeply informed, provocative, and well written. It's especially good at sketching James's historical contexts. Everyone should read it. That said, his James is not precisely mine. In Heawood's version, James's major unifying theme and emotional keynote is fear. He argues the point eloquently:
Fear stalks James's pages like grotesquerie in Dickens, like testosterone in Hemingway, like magic in Angela Carter. Most of his characters are afraid, most of the time, and most of their actions are motivated by fear. They spend much of their time avoiding blows which are slow in coming, which make a noiseless impact, yet which are potentially lethal. Fear is the unspoken force which knits his books together. Without fear, there would be no Henry James.
This talks a good game, for sure. But it's just not how James's writing feels to me, except perhaps in some cases—usually in shorter works—like "In the Cage" or "The Pupil." If I were to replace "fear" in the last sentence of this passage (a sentence that slyly blurs what seemed, at the beginning of the paragraph, a clear line between James's characters and the author himself), I would be inclined toward something in the neighborhood of "desire" or "wonder." I agree with Heawood that James's characters tend fear their very desires. In my reading, though, desire is the dominant animating force. For every fearful character there is another with a frightening will to power. To chalk up the latter to a deeper-seated fear seems overly pop-psych and overly flattening.
Heawood concludes that something about James speaks to something in our present cultural moment:
Just as the Nineties fascination with Victorian Sensation literature indicated a hunger for blood-and-guts storytelling, so this new vogue for Henry James indicates a move beyond sensation, and a heightened interest in the processes of information. In a period where the media is consumed by stories about newsgathering, James's convoluted narratives—grounded in speculation, half-truths and distorted perceptions—make for surprisingly familiar reading.
Readers in the 21st century are used to debating every last flick of Rachel's hair on Friends, familiar with Carrie Bradshaw's hermeneutic labours in Sex and the City, accustomed to spending each summer discussing in minute detail the movements of a group of individuals closeted in a house where all they can do is talk, whose least misdemeanour makes front-page news. Who said anything about short attention spans? We, the psychobabble society with the tabloid morality and infinite patience for the minutiae of celebrity gossip—we are more than ready for Henry James.
It's awfully ingenious to connect the dots of James and reality shows, I have to say. Instead of the now-dead rituals and codes of propriety that used to structure social interactions from above (and that both appalled James and impressed him), you have the interventions of television producers in the form of challenges or artificial plot twists. In both cases, the interest (such as it is!) comes from observing characters as they negotiate given situations, or what James might call données. Beyond your faithful correspondent, however, do the audience for reality television and the audience for these novels overlap at all? Let alone the audience for reality television and the authors of these novels? Not a whole hell of a lot, I'm guessing. Which leaves the question, Why James now?, unanswered. My own best guess is that, what with the reams of James scholarship being churned out both inside and outside of the academy for the last several decades, we may have reached one of those moments when critical inroads to James temporarily seem exhausted, and some other approach is wanted. In any case, I'm really looking forward to reading the Toibin, which has been reviewed glowingly everywhere.
(Heawood link thanks to The Literary Saloon.)
TT: Consumables (and the weekly grind)
Like most baby boomers, I’ve never quite managed to get over the feeling that I’m entitled to be less busy in the summer, not more. In fact, I’m barely keeping ahead of the next deadline, and though it’s true that my recent illness threw me off my stride, I’d be up well past my ears even if I hadn’t been sick.
I saw two shows on Saturday, for instance, and yesterday I put in eight straight hours cleaning up the copyedited manuscript of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which I have to return to Harcourt today so that they can publish it in November. In addition, I’m writing two newspaper pieces, one for Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal and another for the Washington Post, and tomorrow I write my drama column for the Journal. I’ll be in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday to see Ballett Frankfurt and Mark Lamos’ new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (both at the Kennedy Center), after which I rush back to New York on Friday to hear Joao Gilberto at Carnegie Hall that evening. The whole cycle starts up again on Saturday, when…
But enough about me. You get the idea—I’m busy as hell—and while I’ll do my best to blog whenever I’m in town, I expect that the hitherto semi-invisible Our Girl in Chicago will be more or less in charge of "About Last Night" for the better part of the next couple of weeks. I’ve missed her genial presence in this space of late (as have many of our fellow bloggers), so be sure to send her lots of encouraging e-mail!
And now, a concise rundown of recently consumed art:
• I saw two plays over the weekend. The first was Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, the latest from the author of Intimate Apparel. The second was Charlie Victor Romeo, a performance piece based on transcripts of the black-box recordings of six flights—five commercial, one military—that crashed. Both will likely figure in my Wall Street Journal drama column this Friday, so read all about ’em then.
• I also went to the Triad on Saturday night to hear Mary Foster Conklin and Mark Winkler sing the songs of Matt Dennis ("Angel Eyes," "Everything Happens to Me") and Bobby Troup ("Route 66," "Meaning of the Blues"). Conklin, one of New York’s top cabaret singers, presented a one-woman Dennis show earlier this year at Danny’s Skylight Room, while Winkler, a Los Angeles-based performer best known on this side of the continent as one of the writers of Naked Boys Singing!, recently released a CD called, logically enough, Mark Winkler Sings Bobby Troup. The two hadn’t shared a stage prior to last Saturday night, and I’m delighted to say that their shows fit together with tongue-in-groove exactitude. "Songs of Matt Dennis & Bobby Troup" was, I’m told an experiment. If so, it’s one that begs to be repeated—frequently. Watch this space for details.
• Now playing on iTunes: not a damn thing, thank you very much. I need some silence so that I can concentrate on getting Piece Number One written and shipped off to the Journal so that I can get out of here in time to meet Maud downtown for a quickish lunch, followed by a doctor's appointment, followed by more writing, followed by a nervous breakdown. (Just kidding.) Cross your fingers, please.
"The world is full of restaurants that were excellent a year ago."
Woody Herman (quoted in Gene Lees, Leader of the Band)