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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)


Friday, July 14, 2006
    OGIC: My eleventh Altman

    Last week a friend took me to see Prairie Home Companion on a free pass. I went somewhat against my better judgment. Like anyone, I'm a fan of Robert Altman at his best. And like many, I'm a Garrison Keillor detractor. At the time we made the plan, I knew Keillor had written the script but wasn't clear about whether I'd actually have to look at him. My friend, who as far as I can tell is neutral on the subject of Keillor but does hail from Lake Wobegon country, confirmed that Mr. Lawsuit would appear onscreen. "Oh well," I wrote back, "we can bring tomatoes." In the blink of an eye he responded: "I don't throw tomatoes at Minnesotans." A principled position that I had to respect, though I'm not at all sure there aren't several Michiganders I would gladly pelt, given the opportunity, with whatever happened to be handy.

    At the outset, I disliked the movie. Michael Blowhard has written with infectious enthusiasm about its meandering charm:

    Weak on storyline and action, it's nonetheless focused and controlled -- more a "Tempest"-like poetic picture of life than a narrative: We live among spirits and archetypes; death and beauty are never more than a few steps away; gallantry, generosity, humor, and belief carry us through ... It's a jewelbox and a metaphysical romance, yet it's fully inhabited and embodied, and it never stops rolling along.

    This gets at the trademark naturalism of many Altman films, but in the early going of Prairie Home Companion that signal quality struck me as terribly staged. The scene backstage at the radio show (a fictional, small-time version of "Prairie Home Companion") as on-air time approaches is barely controlled chaos, a classic Altman occasion. As in more persuasive such scenes in Altman's oeuvre, we get overlapping conversations, a dozen subplots unfolding at once, and lots and lots to look at. In the midst of this cheerful frenzy, both the cheer and disorder seem centered on the singing sisters played by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, who clatter in like a squall at the last minute. Sweet and tart, blithe and barely holding things together, they more than any other characters encapsulate the reigning mood and aesthetic of the radio show and of the movie itself. What a drag, then, when they start uttering gobs of exposition while doing their makeup. The genius of Altman's naturalism, when it's on, is that it doesn't press explanations on you but lets you put things together gradually: who people are, what their relationships are to one another, what stories they trail behind him. When Tomlin and Streep launched on this character-establishing and backstory-telling torrent almost as soon as we'd met them, my heart sank. I thought the movie was going to be really badóand guessed the culprit would be the script. I reached for my tomato. But I hadn't brought one.

    Good thing too, because the film eventually won me overófor the most part. The on-stage musical performances loosened things up considerably: they themselves are pure pleasure, and by virtue of the balance they provide, they make the more contrived backstage action more interesting. But even as the film grew lovelier and more absorbing, the mote that I kept wanting to flick away was the weirdly flat performance by Virginia Madsen as an angel of death or something. I shouldn't blame Madsen; it was probably an unsalvageable role, though it is true that Kevin Kline spun another undercooked part into a little bit of incidental charm, at least, as Guy Noir.

    Now to help me understand why Madsen's angel was so objectionable, along comes Odienator at the group film and television blog The House Next Door with a great essay on angels of death in Prairie Home Companion and Bob Fosse's All that Jazz. To his mind, Altman is soft-pedaling death, he's not buying it, and it makes him miss the Altman of years past:

    Later in the film, Dangerous Ginny comments that "the death of an old man is not a tragedy," which led me to holler out, ďBullshit, Mr. Altman." When Lola asks if he is concerned that this is the last show, G.K. says "every show is your last show. That's my philosophy." "Thank you, Plato," Lolaís sister Yolanda (Lily Tomlin) sarcastically replies, saving grumps like me the trouble of talking back to the screen again.

    ÖI am closer to 52 than 80, and more attuned to Broadway than Lake Woebegone; I know more about sex and self-destruction than the wisdom of age and the sense of entitlement one feels for living a long life. Most importantly, though, I also know something about being a grouch, and from that vantage point, Prairieís subtle exhortations to go gentle into that good night seem a false comfort from Altman to his fansóa reassurance that displaces his usual blunt honesty. For a movie whose cast includes a sexy reaper, Prairie is too smug and passive about dying. The mortal coil is unraveling from the show and its participants, yet Altman chooses to deflect a universal fear by pretending that death is a mere nuisance.

    This is why Madsen is so terrible; her air-headed angel's platitudes ring hollow in the Altman universe we've come to know. Would the younger Altman have let a character get away with such bullshit? This artist has never felt the need to embrace and console his audiences in the past, so why start now? Nashvilleís final number, "It Don't Worry Me," was about willful denial; the whole of Prairie is about acceptance, yet it feels like a denial as well. The palpable fear that this is Altman's last movie is never honestly dealt with by the directorís stand-in, Keillor, nor the film itself. It seems almost as if Prairie thinks it holds the monopoly on dying, and that the show-within-a-movie is nobleóand its demise a tragedyósimply because it's been around for so long. Altman's onscreen representative G.K. keeps pooh-poohing the distress his colleagues feel throughout their last show, going so far as to state that he doesn't want to tell people how to feel about his legacy; but his relaxed attitude never feels true. Altman throws out a hopeful, interesting curve when dealing with the fate of Tommy Lee Jones' character (a fantasy of how to deal with one's enemies). Here is the mean Altman we know and love, lashing out at his critics, informing you of his perceived greatness and how much it'll be missed once he's gone. But the film treats it as a throwaway; as quickly as it arrives, it defers back to that transparent, dishonest lulling. If Prairie werenít so concerned with coddling us, we'd deduce that it's OK to acknowledge Deathójust donít go looking for it; wait until it shows up to pull your number.

    Yes. Read the whole thing, and bookmark that blog because they are always posting something good.

    Incidentally, my first ten Altman films, in (rough) order of preference: The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, California Split, MASH, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, Cookie's Fortune, The Player, Thieves Like Us, The Gingerbread Man. I've only seen half of Nashville, sad to say, and half a movie never sticks.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, July 14, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Which way is the airport?

    I spent much of Thursday driving around the highlands of Boise in my rented car, then made my way to the Boise Art Museum for a sneak peek at Frank Lloyd Wright and the House Beautiful, which opens Saturday. As I drove I listened to Twin Falls, the new Deidre Rodman-Steve Swallow CD, and I couldnít have made a better choice: Rodman comes from Boise, and Twin Falls is a sequence of lyrical duets for acoustic piano and electric bass in which she and Swallow evoke with great subtlety the stony landscapes among which I wandered all afternoon.

    Once I got back to the hotel, I turned on my iBook and plugged into the Web, where I ran across a New York Times story about Jack Larson and Noel Neill, who played Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane a half-century ago in the Superman TV series. Not only are they both alive and well, but it seems that Larson, who later wrote the libretti for operas by Virgil Thomson and Ned Rorem, lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Brentwood, California. Charmed by the coincidence, I did a bit of Googling and quickly found a photo of Larson's home, a gorgeous Usonian built in 1939. (Itís S. 272 in the Wright catalogue, if youíre interested.)

    Later on I dined at the Milky Way with Dana Oland, a smart young ex-dancer who covers the arts for the Idaho Statesman. Should you ever find yourself in Boise, I strongly suggest you make a point of eating there, too. After dinner I headed out Warm Springs Avenue to the Idaho Shakespeare Festival to see Loveís Labourís Lost, which ends with my favorite curtain line in all of Shakespeare: The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way.

    Now Iím packing my bag and regretting my imminent departure from Boise, with which I find myself much taken. Tomorrow morning I fly to Salt Lake City, change planes for Saint George, pick up another rental car at the airport, drive to Cedar City, and see three shows at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. I wish I could stick around for another day or two, but I canít. I never can. No sooner do I find my bearings in one town than Iím off to the next one, looking for another aisle seat and another tasty meal. You that way: I this way.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 14, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: All Synge, all the time

    This week my entire Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to DruidSynge:

    In Ireland John Millington Synge is considered a great playwright. In America, however, he has vanished into the pantheon of half-remembered mastersónone of his plays has been seen on Broadway since 1971óand even the Irish long preferred respecting him to performing him. It wasnít until the Druid Theatre Company of Galway City started reviving his work in the í70s that the author of ďThe Playboy of the Western World,Ē who died in 1909, once again became a hot ticket in the land of his birth.

    Now Americans are getting a fresh chance to grapple with Synge. ďDruidSynge,Ē a marathon presentation of his six major plays, just opened at the Lincoln Center Festival after a week-long run at Minneapolisí Guthrie Theater. The plays, which run for a total of eight and a half hours (including a 90-minute dinner break), are staged by Garry Hynes, founder of the Druid Theatre Company and the first woman director to win a Tony Award. All six are performed on a powerfully evocative set designed by Francis OíConnor, a fog-filled, dirt-floored hut whose dead gray walls stretch upward to infinity. The results are a mixed bag, but the best parts are so good that youíll forget the rest well before the long day closesÖ.

    No link. You know what to do: be cheap and buy todayís Journal, or be smart and subscribe to the online edition by going here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 14, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'I hate music.' His voice rises, and for the first time this evening he speaks with a hoarse intensity. 'I hate this incomprehensible, melodious language which select people can understand and use to say uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral. Watch their faces and see how strangely they change when they're listening to music. You and Krisztina never sought out musicóI do not remember you ever playing four-handed together, you never sat down at the piano in front of Krisztina, at least not in my presence. Evidently her sense of tact and shame restrained her from listening to music with you while I was there. And because music's power is inexpressible, it seems to carry a larger danger in that it has the power to arouse the deepest emotions in people who come together to listen to it and discover that it is their fate to belong to each other.'"

    SŠndor MŠrai, Embers (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 14, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, July 13, 2006
    TT: For the road

    Accompanists tend not to get the credit they deserve, especially in the field of pop music. Unless youíre in the business or on its fringes, for instance, you probably wonít recognize the name of Bill Miller, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91. As of this morning, the New York Times hadnít yet published an obituary of Miller. Nevertheless, youíve probably heard him play piano, because he spent nearly a half-century, from 1951 to 1995, backing up Frank Sinatra. It was a difficult task that he discharged with supreme tact and taste, steering clear of the spotlight, finding fulfillment in making his boss sound good.

    The best evidence of Millerís gifts is the 1958 performance of ďOne for My BabyĒ that closes Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. Most of it is a duet for voice and piano, with Nelson Riddle adding discreet touches of orchestral support here and there. It is Sinatraís greatest recordingóand it wouldnít have been the same without Bill Miller. Listen to it as you bid him farewell.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Evelina and me

    "I HAVE a vast deal to say, and shall give all this morning to my pen.

    "As to my plan of writing every evening the adventures of the day, I find it impracticable; for the diversions here are so very late, that if I begin my letters after them, I could not go to bed at all."

    That is the opening of one of Evelina's early letters to her guardian, the Rev. Mr. Villars, in Fanny Burney's 1778 novel Evelina, Or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World. I find myself much in the same situation trying to blog this week, forced to choose sleep over blogging in the interests of self-preservation. But I have a vast deal to say, and shall give all this evening to my keyboard. So look for updates then.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Long day's journey

    I arose at four-thirty Wednesday morning in New York City. Twelve hours later I checked into a hotel in Boise, Idaho, having first flown west to Phoenix, Arizona, where I changed planes and headed north. Five hours after that I was sitting down to see the Idaho Shakespeare Festivalís production of Major Barbara. Now, twenty-one hours after my alarm clock last went off, Iím back in my hotel room, getting ready for bed.

    I could complain about the length of my day, as well as certain disagreeable things that happened to me along the way, but I wonít, because Iíve been reading Notes of a Pianist, the newly reprinted travel diaries of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, in which Americaís first important concert pianist (and one of our most original composers) tells in excruciatingly frank and funny detail what it was like for a musician to go on the road in nineteenth-century America. No, Iím not fond of snatching a hasty breakfast in between flights, but once you learn what it was like to pay an overnight visit to Springfield, Illinois, in 1863, youíre likely to come away with a greatly enhanced appreciation of the Egg McMuffin:

    St. Nicholas Hotel (!!!!) Each one of these exclamation points, if it could speak, would tell you a story of tribulations, of all kinds of mortifications that should render the St. Nicholas Hotel, Springfield, forever celebrated! First, the legislature being in session, the house is full, which is the same as saying that the beefsteaks are leathery, the eggs too hardÖ.We are cooped up, six of us, in a little room hardly large enough to hold one bed comfortably. The water to wash with is as black as ink. The proprietor charges us for a supper that we have not eaten, and, upon a timid observation that we make respecting it, looks at us as if he wished to crush us and, addressing the porter, throws out this memorable phrase, which seems to me not to speak very highly in favor of the honesty of the travelers with whom he is in the habit of dealing: ďBilly, take care that the trunks are not taken away before the bills are paid!Ē

    In any case, the truth is that I love traveling, even the ordinary parts. I love being whisked through the streets of Manhattan before sunrise. I love gazing out the window of a plane at clouds and deserts and mesas and mountain ranges. Above all, I love to explore a city that's new to me, then spend the evening watching Shaw or Shakespeare or Lynn Nottage. What could be more fun?

    So yes, I had an excellent dayóbut enough is enough. I get to sleep in tomorrow, after which Iíll be paying a visit to the Boise Art Museum, dining with a local arts journalist, going to see Loveís Labourís Lost, then flying to Cedar City, Utah, to do the whole thing over again. That being the case, I think Iíll eat an Owyhee Idaho Spud (no, itís not a potato product) and hit the sack. Itís midnight in Boise, and even a drama critic deserves a good nightís sleep.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    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.

    BROADWAY:
    ē Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    ē Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Aug. 6)
    ē Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
    ē The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
    ē The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here)
    ē Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
    ē 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)
    ē The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)

    OFF BROADWAY:
    ē Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
    ē Pig Farm (comedy, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sept. 3)
    ē Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    CLOSING SOON:
    ē Faith Healer (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 30)
    ē Susan and God (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 30)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I am thinking that people find truth and collect experiences in vain, for they cannot change their fundamental natures. And perhaps the only thing in life one can do is take the givens of one's fundamental nature and tailor them to reality as cleverly and carefully as one can. That is the most we can accomplish. And it does not make us any the cleverer, or any the less vulnerable."

    SŠndor MŠrai, Embers (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 13, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    "Passion has no footing in reason. Passion is indifferent to reciprocal emotion, it needs to express itself to the full, live itself to the very end, no matter if all it receives in return is kind feelings, courtesy, friendship, or mere patience. Every great passion is hopeless, if not it would be no passion at all but some cleverly calculated arrangement, an exchange of lukewarm interests."

    SŠndor MŠrai, Embers (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, July 12, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
    TT: Away I go

    I depart very early on Wednesday morning for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, from which I'll be traveling directly to the Utah Shakespearean Festival. I plan to bring my trusty laptop with me and to blog as often as possible, but I'll be spending a great deal of time in transitóI'm flying home from Utah by way of Los Angeles, for exampleóso don't be surprised if my postings for the rest of the week are a trifle irregular.

    The good news, as you may have noticed last week, is that Our Girl is back on the blog and full of stuff to say. No doubt she'll be filling in some of the empty spaces.

    See you in the wild, wild West!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 11, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Brush up your Shakespeare

    A reader writes:

    Having come late in life to the wonders of Shakespeare myself, I read your post today with interest. I totally agree with you that the plays must be seen to be fully appreciated. Sadly, being neither a critic nor resident of a city, I lack opportunities to see as many as I would wish. You offered an interesting alternative, however: ďI've learned in the process that no matter how many times you may have read a Shakespeare play, you donít really know it until youíve seen it on stage (though the very best Shakespeare films, of which there are a dozen or so, can go a long way toward plugging the gap).Ē I wonder if you might list some of the ones you think qualify?

    Gladly. According to Wikipedia, 420 feature-length films have been made out of Shakespeareís plays. Of the ones that are actually full-fledged movies (as opposed to telecasts or film records of a stage production), these are a few of my personal favorites. Many of themóespecially the ones directed by Orson Wellesóare flawed in significant ways, but all are absolutely worth watching:

    ē Max Reinhardt, A Midsummer Nightís Dream (1935). With Jimmy Cagney as Bottom and a score adapted from Mendelssohnís incidental music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. A bit slow-moving and overblown, but still charming.

    ē Laurence Olivier, Henry V (1944). The quintessential Shakespeare film. William Waltonís score is worth the price of admission all by itself.

    ē Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948). Heavily cut but highly effective, not least because of Olivierís own performance.

    ē Orson Welles, Macbeth (1948). A fascinatingly eccentric low-budget take on the Scottish play.

    ē Joseph Mankiewicz, Julius Caesar (1953). Hollywood Shakespeare, produced by John Houseman and played straight down the center by Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud. The superlative score is by Miklůs Růzsa.

    ē Orson Welles, Chimes at Midnight (1965, adapted from Richard II, Henry IV, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Wellesí greatest and most personal Shakespeare film.

    ē Franco Zeffirelli, Romeo and Juliet (1968). Lush and lavish, ŗ la Zeffirelli. I saw it in junior high schoolóit was my very first Shakespeareóand was knocked flat. I now find it a bit goopy, but my guess is that modern-day youngsters will respond to it the same way I did.

    ē Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing (1993). After Olivierís Henry V, the best traditional Shakespeare movie ever made.

    ē Al Pacino, Looking for Richard (1996, based on Richard III). Part documentary, part performance, with striking performances by Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and Winona Ryder. Odd and wonderful.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 11, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One never forgets what is important. I learned that only later, when I was somewhat older. Nothing secondary remainsóit gets thrown away along with one's dreams."

    SŠndor MŠrai, Embers (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 11, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, July 10, 2006
    TT: YouTube's greatest hits

    In the past year YouTube has evolved from a curiosity into a major online resource. If youíre interested in seeing rare film and video clips by a fast-growing number of great performers of the past, youíll find them thereóbut only if you have the patience to sift through the innumerable postings of nitwits who think the world is waiting with bated breath to see their homemade music videos.

    From time to time I've passed on links to interesting videos that I've found on other blogs, but it never occurred to me to try making this blog a one-stop portal to the wonders of YouTubeóuntil now. Take a look at the ďSites to SeeĒ module of the right-hand column and youíll find that it ends with a brand-new roll of selected culture- and history-oriented video links, most (but not all) of them to YouTube. So far as I know, this is the first such list to appear anywhere on the Web.

    In addition to blogrolling the links Iíve already mentioned on ďAbout Last Night,Ē I recently spent several hours trolling through YouTube in search of still more buried treasure. The results are now available for your amusement and edification. Most of the videos to which Iíve linked are familiar to specialists, but my guess is that youíll find quite a few that are new to you.

    This is an experiment. Youíre invited to take part by sending me any choice culture-related links that you run across in the course of your own YouTube explorations. As you'll see, I've tried to be selective, so keep in mind that for the moment I'm more interested in increasing the total number of artists represented than in posting additional links to videos by those artists already included on the listóthough I'll be more than happy to make room for something that's really good. (In addition, please let me know if any of the existing links have gone dead since I posted them.)

    Have fun!

    UPDATE: I've also added a similar list of links to RealAudio and QuickTime files of spoken-word recordings by artists and other historical figures.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 10, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Democracy in action

    I was sitting on a rowing machine at the gym the other day when I looked up at the bank of television sets just above my head and saw Peri Gilpin (remember her?) chatting earnestly with Tony Danza (remember him?) about her latest venture, a Lifetime TV movie about child abuse. It was as if Iíd inadvertently glanced through an astral portal into a parallel universe inhabited exclusively by second-tier ex-celebrities. I thought of Andy Warholís oft-quoted vision of a future in which ďevery person will be world-famous for 15 minutes,Ē and I recalled the piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth in which I argued that ďWarhol did as much as anyone to shape the culture of pure, accomplishment-free celebrity in which we now live.Ē

    Looking back at that piece now, I realize that neither Warhol nor I gave any thought to the question of what happens to celebrities after their fifteen minutes are up. A.E. Housman, at a time when it was a good deal harder to become famous, wrote a poem about an athlete whose ďsolutionĒ was to die young:

    Now you will not swell the rout
    Of lads that wore their honours out,
    Runners whom renown outran
    And the name died before the man.

    And what happens to such a person these days? Now I know: he makes a TV movie about an Important Issue and goes on The Tony Danza Show to hawk it.

    Two sets to the left, CNN was hawking with identical fervor an upcoming appearance by President and Mrs. Bush on Larry King Live. That made me feel even older than remembering Tony Danza, for Iím just old enough to have seen the very first prime-time TV interview by a sitting president of the United States. The president in question was John Kennedy, and the interview, which took place in 1962, was broadcast by all three TV networks and conducted by their White House correspondents. (You can read a transcript here.) If memory servesóand Iím pretty sure it doesóKennedy required that the interview be videotaped, not aired live, and that the networks allow him to review the tape prior to broadcast so that he could edit out anything he wanted suppressed.

    Iím not one of those people who thinks everything was better when he was young, nor do I suffer from excessive respect for politicians, but I do have sharply mixed feelings about the process that brought us from Jack Paar and After Two Years: A Conversation With the President to Peri Gilpin on The Tony Danza Show and George and Laura on Larry King Live. I was tempted for a moment to say that TV did it to us, but of course we did it to ourselves: America is a democracy in the deepest and most far-reaching sense of the word, a truly popular culture whose citizens believe devoutly that theyíre as good as anyone else, and who for this reason prefer their celebrities and politicians to be just like everyone else.

    Thatís one aspect of the democratic experience. Hereís another. Last week I watched Kevin Costner's Open Range, which is set in 1882. In the scene immediately preceding the climactic gunfight, Robert Duvallís character goes into a general store and purchases two bars of Swiss chocolate and three Havana cigars. The total cost of these rare items, weíre told, is five dollars. Iíve no idea whether Craig Storper, who wrote the screenplay, made any attempt to get that figure right, but operating on the assumption that he did, I went to Inflation Calculator and learned that what cost Duvallís character five dollars in 1882 would cost $95.57 in 2005.

    It happened that I was reading Madame Bovary on the same day I watched Open Range, and I was no less struck by a scene early in the book in which Flaubert tells of how Emma Bovary liked to listen to the music of a hurdy-gurdy whose operator sometimes stood in the street below her parlor window and cranked his machine in the afternoon:

    The tunes it played were tunes that were being heard in other placesóin theatres, in drawing rooms, under the lighted chandeliers of ballrooms: echoes from the world that reached Emma this way. Sarabands ran on endlessly in her head; and her thoughts, like dancing girls on some flowery carpet, leapt with the notes from dream to dream, from sorrow to sorrow. Then, when the man had caught in his cap the coin she threw him, he would pull down an old blue wool cover, hoist his organ onto his back, and move heavily off. She always watched him till he disappeared.

    A little later on Emma has this exchange with a similarly frustrated clerk:

    Emma went on: ďWhat is your favorite kind of music?Ē

    ďOh, German music. Itís the most inspiring.Ē

    ďDo you know Italian opera?Ē

    ďNot yetóbut Iíll hear some next year when I go to Paris to finish law school.Ē

    Much of American literature portrays small-town folk like Madame Bovary and Monsieur LŤon, unhappy creatures with immortal longings in them who either moved to the city to chase their dreams or lived lives of fast-increasing frustration. But by the time my mother was born in the smallest of small midwestern towns in 1929, she no longer had to settle for the visits of an itinerant hurdy-gurdy player. The phonograph, the movies, and the radio had already started to open up the outside world to her generation. I was born twenty-seven years later in a town a few miles away from the one where my mother grew up, and TV gave me even more of what the other modern media had given my mother. As for todayís Emma Bovarys, if there are any, they have access to infinitely more powerful tools by which they can put themselves in touch with the world of art and culture. They can even buy imported chocolate bars on line for the tiniest fraction of what a cowboy with a sweet tooth would have paid in 1882.

    I draw no conclusion from these fugitive observations: I merely offer them for your consideration. To be sure, I wish the postmodern world were classier than it is, but I also know that it gives each of us the opportunity to be as classy as we care to be. On a recent visit to Storm King Art Center, I rode the tram in the company of a group of tourists who chatted loudly, incessantly, and knowledgeably about the sculptures with which the five-hundred-acre park is filled. One of them actually took a call on her cell phone as we drove past Mark di Suveroís Mozartís Birthday. Had I thought to bring a garrote with me, her conversation would have been terminated abruptly. Yet I couldnít deny that she knew more about modern art than most people, and she probably knew more about di Suvero than I did.

    Such is life under democracy. We can use our TV sets to watch Peri Gilpin and Larry King, or The Light in the Piazza. We can pay a visit to a sculpture park, and chat on our cell phones while doing so. We can use our computers to communicate with fellow aesthetes halfway around the world, or to download kiddie porn. To a greater extent than at any previous time in the history of the world, our lives are up to usóand weíre on our own.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 10, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Like the lover, the friend expects no reward for his feelings. He does not wish the performance of any duty in return, he does not view the person he has chosen as his friend with any illusion, he sees his faults and accepts him with all their consequences. Such is the ideal. And without such an ideal, would there be any point to life?"

    SŠndor MŠrai, Embers (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 10, 2006 | Permanent link
Sunday, July 9, 2006
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "There is this myth that I was formed on Henry James. I had hardly read anything of him when I started to write. It must be because I take more trouble, perhaps, with words than authors usually do these days. James is a consummate writer, but you do feel it's like the needle on the old gramophone, that it's got stuck and you want to move it on. Also, I have to say, I think I'm funnier than Henry James."

    Shirley Hazzard (thanks to Sarah for the link)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, July 9, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, July 8, 2005
    TT: I've been thinking about this poem today

    About suffering they were never wrong,
    The Old Masters: how well they understood
    Its human position; how it takes place
    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
    How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood:
    They never forgot
    That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
    Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturerís horse
    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
    In Brueghelís Icarus, for instance:†how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
    As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
    Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
    Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

    W.H. Auden, "Musťe des Beaux Arts"

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Remember this?

    The Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index is a year old this week, so I thought I'd repost it for the benefit of those who missed it the first time around.

    If you had to choose, would you pick:

    1. Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?
    2. The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises?
    3. Count Basie or Duke Ellington?
    4. Cats or dogs?
    5. Matisse or Picasso?
    6. Yeats or Eliot?
    7. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
    8. Flannery OíConnor or John Updike?
    9. To Have and Have Not or Casablanca?
    10. Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning?
    11. The Who or the Stones?
    12. Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath?
    13. Trollope or Dickens?
    14. Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald?
    15. Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy?
    16. The Moviegoer or The End of the Affair?
    17. George Balanchine or Martha Graham?
    18. Hot dogs or hamburgers?
    19. Letterman or Leno?
    20. Wilco or Cat Power?
    21. Verdi or Wagner?
    22. Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe?
    23. Bill Monroe or Johnny Cash?
    24. Kingsley or Martin Amis?
    25. Robert Mitchum or Marlon Brando?
    26. Mark Morris or Twyla Tharp?
    27. Vermeer or Rembrandt?
    28. Tchaikovsky or Chopin?
    29. Red wine or white?
    30. NoŽl Coward or Oscar Wilde?
    31. Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity?
    32. Shostakovich or Prokofiev?
    33. Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev?
    34. Constable or Turner?
    35. The Searchers or Rio Bravo?
    36. Comedy or tragedy?
    37. Fall or spring?
    38. Manet or Monet?
    39. The Sopranos or The Simpsons?
    40. Rodgers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin?
    41. Joseph Conrad or Henry James?
    42. Sunset or sunrise?
    43. Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter?
    44. Mac or PC?
    45. New York or Los Angeles?
    46. Partisan Review or Horizon?
    47. Stax or Motown?
    48. Van Gogh or Gauguin?
    49. Steely Dan or Elvis Costello?
    50. Reading a blog or reading a magazine?
    51. John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier?
    52. Only the Lonely or Songs for Swinginí Lovers?
    53. Chinatown or Bonnie and Clyde?
    54. Ghost World or Election?
    55. Minimalism or conceptual art?
    56. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny?
    57. Modernism or postmodernism?
    58. Batman or Spider-Man?
    59. Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams?
    60. Johnson or Boswell?
    61. Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf?
    62. The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show?
    63. An Eames chair or a Noguchi table?
    64. Out of the Past or Double Indemnity?
    65. The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni?
    66. Blue or green?
    67. A Midsummer Nightís Dream or As You Like It?
    68. Ballet or opera?
    69. Film or live theater?
    70. Acoustic or electric?
    71. North by Northwest or Vertigo?
    72. Sargent or Whistler?
    73. V.S. Naipaul or Milan Kundera?
    74. The Music Man or Oklahoma?
    75. Sushi, yes or no?
    76. The New Yorker under Ross or Shawn?
    77. Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee?
    78. The Portrait of a Lady or The Wings of the Dove?
    79. Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham?
    80. Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe?
    81. Diana Krall or Norah Jones?
    82. Watercolor or pastel?
    83. Bus or subway?
    84. Stravinsky or Schoenberg?
    85. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
    86. Willa Cather or Theodore Dreiser?
    87. Schubert or Mozart?
    88. The Fifties or the Twenties?
    89. Huckleberry Finn or Moby-Dick?
    90. Thomas Mann or James Joyce?
    91. Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins?
    92. Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman?
    93. Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill?
    94. Liz Phair or Aimee Mann?
    95. Italian or French cooking?
    96. Bach on piano or harpsichord?
    97. Anchovies, yes or no?
    98. Short novels or long ones?
    99. Swing or bebop?
    100. "The Last Judgment" or "The Last Supper"?

    Close readers of "About Last Night" may already have guessed that Iíd choose column A over column B in all casesóbut some calls would be much closer than others, while others remain subject to change without notice....

    How about you? Whatís your Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index? If you answered all 100 questions, your TCCI is the number of answers from column A. If you left some of the questions blank because you weren't familiar with one or both of the possible answers, your TCCI is the number of column-A answers divided by the total number of questions that you answered.

    (If you're taking the TCCI for the first time, go here when you're done to read last year's explanation of what it's all about.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Tempest on a hilltop

    It's Friday, and I'm back from the road and ready to post my Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I reviewed two out-of-town shows today, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival's production of The Tempest and Barrington Stage Company's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies:

    When playing Shakespeare out of doors, nothing is so dangerous as a beautiful view. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is currently performing ďThe TempestĒ in a tent pitched on the well-kept lawn of the Boscobel Restoration, an 1808 mansion on a high wooded bluff that overlooks the Hudson River. Even after you've spent a pleasant hour picnicking on the grass, the spectacle of the water below and the mountains beyond remains irresistibly seductive. Terrence O'Brien, founder and artistic director of the festival and director of this production, has wisely chosen not to fight the view but blend with it, and the result is a winsome ďTempestĒ that seems as much a part of its natural surroundings as the silver moon in the night sky overheadÖ.

    I've long wondered whether ďFolliesĒ might be a small show trapped inside a giant body, in which case it could profit from a bare-bones rethinking along the lines of Stafford Arima's Paper Mill Playhouse revival of ďRagtime.Ē Instead, Julianne Boyd, Barrington Stage Company's artistic director, has stuck as close to the look and feel of the original production of ďFolliesĒ as her limited resources will allow, and she's done an impressive job of making the most of the tools at hand, thanks in part to an outstanding cast (whose roster of showgirls includes Donna McKechnie and Marni Nixon!). If the results fail to tell us anything new about ďFollies,Ē they nonetheless succeed in bringing a flawed yet eloquent show to pulsing, passionate life.

    No link. To read the whole thing, buy this morning's Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Of all possible subjects, travel is the most difficult for an artist, as it is the easiest for a journalist."

    W.H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 8, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, July 7, 2005
    TT: Almanac

    "He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth; he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May."

    William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 7, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, July 6, 2005
    TT: Almanac

    "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."

    Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, July 6, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
    OGIC: Joss Whedon, McCarthyite?

    I was inspired to post the fortune cookie below after dining last night with friends whose non-Catholic daughter is about to start Catholic school and isn't quite sure what to expect. This reminded me of how passionately Mary McCarthy writes of the superior historical education she received at her convent school. That education was effective, she found, in direct proportion to its high-pitched subjectivity: the conviction with which the nuns cast historical actors as heroes and villains and the inculcation of a powerful rooting interest in the students. The cookie below is part of the chapter of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood that describes this education, "C'est le Premier Pas Qui CoŻte." What I wasn't expecting when I plucked this staple of the OGIC canon from its shelf tonight, however, was to find a reference there to a business with essentially the same name as a character in Buffy. No doubt a coincidenceÖor could it possibly be that Joss Whedon was reading McCarthy when he wrote the fourth season of BTVS, the season in which the Slayer's love interest Riley Finn is introduced? We know Whedon has paid homage to other aesthetic heroes in the Buffy saga, and I can personally vouch that a taste for Sondheim is highly compatible with a taste for McCarthy. Ah, I'm probably delusional. But that name sure jumped out at me like a neon sign.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "And, thanks to the standardization of an archaic rule, the past still vibrated in the convent, a high, sweet note. It was the France of the Restoration that was embalmed in the Sacred Heart atmosphere, like a period room in a museum with a silken cord drawn across it. The quarrels of the philosophes still echoed in the classrooms; the tumbrils had just ceased to creak, and Voltaire grinned in the background. Orthodoxy had been re-established, Louis XVIII ruled, but there was a hint of Orleanism in the air and a whisper of reduced circumstances in the pick-pick of our needles doing fine darning and turning buttonholes. Byron's great star had risen, and, across the sea, America beckoned in the romances of Chateaubriand and Fenimore Cooper and the adventures of the coureurs de bois. Protestantism did not trouble us; we had made our peace with the Huguenots. What we feared was skepticism, deism, and the dread spirit of atheismóFrance's Lucifer. Monthly, in the study hall, the Mother Superior, Madame MacIllvra, adjured us, daughters of dentists and lawyers, grocers and realtors, heiresses of the Chevrolet agency and of Riley & Finn, contractors, against the sin of doubt, that curse of fine intellects. Her blue eyes clouded and her fair white brow ruffled under her snowy coif as she considered, with true feminine sympathy, the awful fate of Shelley, a young man of good family who had contracted atheism at Oxford."

    Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Reverse commute

    While most of the rest of the world was thinking about what it'd be doing come the Fourth of July, I was on the road, seeing plays for The Wall Street Journal, sleeping in country inns, and rattling down back roads in the cutest little rental car imaginable (mine was purple).

    My theatrical odyssey began on Thursday when I picked up my car, escaped from the sickening heat of Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge, and made my unhurried way up Route 9 to the Boscobel Restoration in Garrison, where I ate a catered picnic supper and watched the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival perform The Tempest under a tent pitched on a lawn overlooking the Hudson River. (The ďbackdropĒ looked like this.) It was a humid but otherwise lovely night, and though thunder rumbled onomatopoeically in the distance, the rain was kind enough not to start falling until the show was over.

    I found my car in the soggy darkness, drove over Bear Mountain Bridge, and headed north for Storm King Lodge, a cozy B&B housed in a handsome converted barn built into the side of a hill that overlooks the Storm King Art Center. Hal, the genial innkeeper, plays trombone with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, so I got a tasty plateful of music-business gossip along with my Friday-morning omelet. Then I crossed the Hudson for the fourth time in 24 hours and set a course for the Berkshire Mountains, driving along the Housatonic River to Sheffield, Massachusetts, where I saw Barrington Stage Company's new revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.

    After the show, I checked into Race Brook Lodge, a brookside inn reminiscent of the set for a movie about a hijinks-fraught summer camp. The owner bills it as a ďchintz-free rustic alternativeĒ to the twee B&Bs of Sheffield and Great Barrington, and he's right on all counts: Race Brook Lodge is casual, slightly askew, the opposite of fancy, and wholly companionable. I awoke the next morning to the friendly smell of home cooking, came downstairs to breakfast, packed my bags, and went south. The heat wave had broken in the night, so I rolled down my windows and cranked up Erin McKeown on the CD player, in no doubt whatsoever that I have the best job in the world.

    As for the rest of the weekend, I spent it holed up in my adopted home town, which was balmy, breezy, and half-empty, the majority of New Yorkers having long since departed for points north, south, east, and west. Given good weather and nothing to do, the Upper West Side is wonderfully habitable on holiday weekends, and I took advantage of its tranquil delights, dining at an uncrowded Good Enough to Eat, hanging out with a couple of friends who, like me, had chosen to stay in town, and communing with the Teachout Museum.

    Today Manhattan is full of sunburned travelers, few of whom look as though they'd profited greatly from their travels. Believe me, I'm not feeling smug: I went for more than a decade without taking a vacation, and it's only been in the past year that I discovered the value of getting out of town. I know, too, how fortunate I am to be able to live perpendicular to the rest of the world, slipping away in the middle of the week and coming back on Friday to write and go to the theater. In fact, I'm just about to do it all over again: I'm taking Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off, and I'm not even going to see any plays while I'm gone. Instead, I plan to spend three computer-free nights reading Proust, listening to my iPod, and sleeping next to three different bodies of water, one of which will be an ocean. I think I deserve it, don't you?

    See you Friday. Or maybe Monday.

    P.S. If you're in urgent need of something to read, you'll find it in the next posting, not to mention the right-hand column, which is chock full of fresh stuff.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Elsewhere

    I thought I ought to leave some reading matter behind to tide you over until I get back, so here's a bunch:

    ē John Lahr is onto something here:

    Bannered across the poster for London's new hit musical ďBilly ElliotĒ (at the Victoria Palace)óa collaboration between two of the country's mightiest showmen, the director Stephen Daldry and the composer Sir Elton Johnóis an unbuttoned quotation from the usually buttoned-down British broadsheet the Daily Telegraph. ďThe greatest British musical I have ever seen,Ē it says. What, I wonder, are the other great British musicals? ďSalad DaysĒ? ďThe Boy FriendĒ? ďCatsĒ? The British love musicals; they just don't do them very well. The problem, it seems to me, is spiritual. The jazz of American optimism, which lends elation and energy to the form, is somehow alien to the ironic British spirit. At its buoyant core, the American musical is the expression of a land of plenty. England, on the other hand, is a land of scarcityóthe Land of No, as a friend of mine calls itÖ.

    ē On the other hand, this is one of the most vulgar pieces about theater (or anything else) that I've run across in ages:

    The true legacy of Shakespeare in the Park is not the education of the unlettered masses; nor did [Joseph] Papp create (or desire to create) a stateside equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Shakespeare in the Park is a benediction for intellectual daytrippersóan attempt to convince us that a few hours spent sweating in Central Park is culture earned the hard wayÖ.

    (The inspiration for this pissy little essay, by the way, was Mark Lamos' production of As You Like It. To be sure, I haven't seen it yet, and I've written some very sharp things about the past couple of years' worth of Shakespeare in the Park productions. On the other hand, Lamos is one of the best stage directors we have, which suggests to me that the author wrote his piece before he saw the showónot an unheard-of practice among journalists.)

    ē I've done thisóthough never on the way to a show! (If the reference doesn't ring a bell, go here for, er, enlightenment.)

    ē Mr. Modern Art Notes drew my attention to this painter, and now I'm soooo curious to see his stuff in the flesh. Take a look and see if you don't feel the same way.

    ē For those who wonder why I'm forever singing the praises of Bob Brookmeyer, go straight to this amazon.com list of his best CDs and buy one. You can pick at randomóthey're all terrific.

    ē Ms. Bookish Gardener has gone all warm and fuzzy over the great jazz pianist Hank JonesÖ.

    ē Öwhile Jonathan Yardley waxes appreciative of Wilfrid Sheed's half-forgotten comic novel Office Politics:

    Its singularly unheroic protagonist, George Wren, is "number-four editor" at a little magazine called the Outsider, based in shabby New York offices, that boasts "21,000 subscribers (it used to be 27,000), a small, nagging deficit, a reputation that shrank a little every time a subscriber died." It's "just another little magazine . . . staggering through life in an endless dribble of opinion," butóta-da!óit "had once been endorsed by Adlai Stevenson and Madame Pandit Nehru" and George believes in it passionately, so much so that three months ago he took a pay cut from $13,000 (at CBS) to $7,500 just for the privilege of becoming a part of it.

    Actually, put that in the past tense, because George is no longer sure there's much at the Outsider worth believing in. Its charismatic editor, a transplanted Brit named Gilbert Twining, has loads of facile charm and wields a keen editorial pen, but whether there's anything behind the charm is open to question. The rest of the magazine's tiny staff is a conglomeration of oddballs and misfits "hand-picked" by Twining, apparently "on some principle of interlocking incompatibility."Ö

    To which I would only add that Sheed's Max Jamison is at least as good.

    ē In case you haven't read The Skeptic, you may not know that H.L. Mencken translated Nietzsche's The Antichrist. I recently stumbled by chance across a Web-based e-text of his English-language version, complete with an utterly characteristic preface in which Mencken's good and bad sides are placed on simultaneous display. (Rarely has his weirdly idiosyncratic anti-Semitism, for example, been epitomized so concisely.) It's one of his least well-known essays, and shouldn't be.

    ē Finally, some thoughts from Lileks about the joys of staying off interstate highways:

    Ten connects Minneapolis to Fargo. And vice versa, of course. It always has. Before the Interstate, Ten was the road between here and there, two lanes of concrete slabs that bothered your shocks and made the wheel jump in your hands. But it kept your attention. Strung along Ten were all the towns set up in the early days of the trains, improbable hamlets with names like Motley and Dilworth. Each larger town was halved by a perpendicular artery, and each of those roads split off into endless capillaries. If you wanted to get lost, you started on Ten and kept going until the pavement turned to gravel and the gravel turned to dirt. If you wanted to, that is. We didn't; we were headed to Fargo.

    It's three and a half hours by Interstate, if you speed, and you get out of the city in good time. It's four and a half on the Highway. You spend part of that hour slowing to limp through towns great and mean, places that have a swinging yellow light and a bar and a gas station, places that creep up to the road like some old wounded beast, places that had the lucky to have Ten march right through the center of things so you could sample the signage: Kiwanis Lions Elks Guns Gas Food Camping Liquor Motel Bait Feed, and incidentally speed limits are strictly enforced. You don't doubt it. You slow. Everyone does. Then the sign says 65 and you do 75. Twenty miles later there's another. These are the towns you usually know only as a name on the Interstate signs. It's nice to finally meet themÖ.

    By the time you get around to reading these words, I'll be doing the same thing, only in a different place. I hope I enjoy it half as much. (I expect to.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Some are 'industrious,' and appear to love labor for its own sake, or perhaps because it keeps them out of worse mischief; to such I have at present nothing to say. Those who would not know what to do with more leisure than they now enjoy, I might advise to work twice as hard as they do,ówork till they pay for themselves, and get their free papers."

    Henry David Thoreau, Walden

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Blaming the equipment

    I'm on pins and needles over here. Every so often my lovely iBook starts to clickety-clack somewhere in its forward left innards, and functionality is temporarily suspended. This morning the phenomenon persisted for three hours, and I thought the computer was a goner. It came back to life, however, and I was able to back up the important files. No fits and starts since early afternoon now, though I've been laying off using it much for fear of inadvertently administering the coup de grace to what has been a much-loved machine. So far so good this evening, but I'm breathing in its direction as little as possible.

    The jury's out on whether I'll try to get this guy fixed or take the plunge and replace him. He's three and a half years old, which is twenty-four in dog years and some far more advanced age in computer years. The current version of the same machine has twice as fast a processor and costs $300 less than what I paid in 2002, so it's tempting and probably a smart way to go. In any case, I'll be leaving the computer with the Mac docs and thinking over my options while in Los Angeles this week for some gallivanting around the Getty, taking meetings with a fellow blogger or two, and generally taking a break from everyday things. What I won't be doing is blogging, but with any luck will be back next week with one or another properly functioning machine, a few LA stories, and a fresh head of steam. In the meantime, do visit all our fine feathered friends to the right, and enjoy the short week.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, July 5, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, July 4, 2005
    TT: Milestone

    Like many a middle-aged man with a taste for poetry and a preoccupation with lost possibilities, I caught myself thinking the other day of the first stanza of Dante's Divine Comedy. It can be translated in countless ways, but comes most fully to the point in the most literal of renderings: In the middle of the journey of our life/I found myself in a dark wood,/for the straight way was lost. One of my fellow bloggers has lately been reflecting on the meaning of the expression ďmidlife crisis,Ē but she and her readers are so preoccupied with the more florid symptoms of that often-absurd phenomenon that they seem to have lost sight of the thing itself, the terrible moment in the middle of the journey when you wander into a dark wood and suddenly notice that you can no longer see the signposts that led you there.

    That moment came for me when death first touched my life. I'd somehow managed to make it to the age of thirty-nine without losing anyone to whom I was close. Then one day the bolts of lightning started falling all around me. First my best friend, then my father, and in the twinkling of an eye I was picking up the paper each morning and turning to the obituary page. I'd joined the club, the society of those who no longer need reminding that we all die sooner or lateróand that some of us die too soon. Such knowledge changes a man permanently, and often the first outward sign of the change is the predictably embarrassing behavior popularly associated with midlife crises.

    Aside from these transient embarrassments, the trouble with middle age is that people keep dying on you, and the longer you live, the more often you lose the ones who mattered most when you were young. A few months ago I checked my e-mail and discovered that Richard Powell, my first music teacher, had died. On Friday I called my mother and learned with like abruptness of the death of Gordon Beaver, who taught me how to play piano and led the choirs in which I sang as a boy.

    A few quick clicks on my iBook brought me to his obituary:

    Born May 8, 1933, in St. Joseph, son of the late Leroy C. and Julia Waite Beaver, he had been a member of the Army National Guard and received a degree in music arts at Central Methodist University in Fayette in 1955 and a master's degree in music education from the University of Missouri in Columbia. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Sikeston where he directed the church choir for over 25 years. He directed and helped form the Sikeston High School Concert Choir, taught music at the Sikeston Junior and Senior High Schools for 30 years, and took high school choir students from Southeast Missouri to Europe during the summers for three years. He also gave piano lessons and directed the Sikeston Community Choir for 20 years and played for the Sikeston Little Theatre musical productions for many years.

    That's all the Web has to say about him, and it isn't enough. My own memories could easily fill a chapter of a book. We met 35 years ago, the summer before I entered high school. I'd decided that I needed to learn how to play piano in order to be a fully rounded musician; Beaver was generally thought to be the best piano teacher in town, and though it wasn't his custom to work with late starters, Richard Powell urged him to take me on. He proved to be a genial, slightly cynical fellow and no kind of disciplinarian whatsoever, and we soon found ourselves spending almost as much time talking as we did playing, though he did manage to nudge me through a handful of Bach inventions and Beethoven sonatinas, as well as a stack of the semi-popular piano solos that once were the stock in trade of small-town piano teachers throughout America. (Remember John W. Schaum?) I can still play one of them, ďSalt Water Boogie,Ē from memory.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn't much care for classical musicówe didn't sing it very often in the high-school choruses he ledóbut he was passionate about the making of music, and threw himself into it with unflagging abandon. His enthusiasm was what I took away from the hours I spent with him, along with a feeling that, like me, he didn't quite fit into the world into which he'd been born. I'm sure that's why he went out of his way to be so kind to me: he must have sensed that I, too, was something of a fish out of water, and that it might be a long time before I found the right pond in which to swim. So instead of insisting that I spend hour upon hour polishing my scales in contrary motion, he let me tell him of my hopes and dreams and puzzlements, gently encouraging me to chase after whatever distant stars seemed to me most interesting.

    I never became much of a piano player, and it wasn't until I got to college that I started working with teachers who bulldozed me into learning intermezzi by Brahms and preludes by Debussy. But by then I knew I wasn't destined to be much of a piano player, and that it didn't matter in the slightest. For me, playing the piano would always be a small part of something infinitely larger, and I think in retrospect I may have been fortunate to have fallen into the hands of a teacher who understood that.

    The day after my mother told me of Gordon Beaver's death, I got an e-mail from an old and beloved friend:

    I'm sure your mother called you for this one. I read in the paper that Mr. B. died this week. I believe the service is today, actually. I don't mean to sound so cut and dried about it, it's just that all these childhood icons are dying and I DON'T LIKE IT.

    Nor do I, Lee, not one little bit. In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood, and though I finally seem to have reached its far edge and started to make my way back into the light, one thing hasn't changed: the people that I love keep dying on me. I noticed to my surprise a few years ago that most of my closest friends were now a good deal younger than I am. This is one of the gifts middle age gives us to compensate for that which it takes away, and I'm as grateful for it as I can be. Still, no gift, however generous, can possibly make up for the empty feeling with which we say farewell to the kindly men and women who once upon a time helped to show us what we were.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 4, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "America has always been a country of amateurs where the professional, that is to say, the man who claims authority as a member of an ťlite which knows the law in some field or other, is an object of distrust and resentment."

    W.H. Auden, introduction to Faber Book of Modern American Verse

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 4, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, July 9, 2004
    TT: You heard it here first

    The White House announced this afternoon that President Bush will be nominating me to serve on the National Council on the Arts, the civilian panel that advises the National Endowment for the Arts and its chairman, Dana Gioia.

    (For those of you not familiar with the intricacies of the federal arts bureaucracy, go here to find out exactly what the Council does.)

    This is a volunteer post, meaning that I wonít be paid for my labors, but it does require Senate confirmation, meaning that I was recently investigated by the FBI (which is a story in itself) and have filled out a stack of papers not dissimilar in size to an unabridged dictionary. As close readers of this site may recall, I also had myself fingerprinted back in April, and now you know why.

    I had to give the White House my full legal name, which I never, ever use, and that explains why the official announcement refers to me as "Terence Alan Teachout." Maybe they'll change it, someday....

    Beyond that, thereís not much to tell. The NEA will be issuing a press release about my nomination, and Iíll post a link to it as soon as it goes up on their Web site. The Senate will either confirm me or not, and if it does, Iíll serve a six-year term. Yes, I'll continue to write about the arts, here and elsewhere, but Iíve been requested not to make any public statements about the NEA or its activities until my name comes before the Senate, so donít ask me.

    This much Iíll happily say: Iím grateful to the President for giving me the opportunity to serve on the Council. Itís an honor. I hope the Senate finds me worthy of confirmation.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Onward and upward with the TCCI

    "About Last Night" appears to be on the way to breaking its all-time record for single-day traffic, mainly because the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, in addition to having been mentioned in yesterdayís "Hip Clicks" column on the USA Today Web site, was linked early this morning by Political Animal, Kevin Drumís Washington Monthly blog. In the immortal Time-style words of Wolcott Gibbs, "Where it will all end, knows God!"

    In Our Girl's temporary absence, I'm trying to stay on top of the scores posted by the various bloggers listed in "Sites to See." Here's the complete roster to date:

    Banana Oil, 70%.
    Bookish Gardener, 57%.
    Brandywine Books, 67%.
    Collected Miscellany, 68%.
    Crescat Sententia, 40%.
    Elegant Variation, 47%.
    A Fool in the Forest, 64.38%.
    Futurballa, 47%.
    Gnostical Turpitude, 72%.
    Mixolydian Mode, 52%.
    Maud Newton, 54%.
    MoorishGirl, 44%.
    Rakeís Progress, 59%.
    The Reading Experience, 43%.
    The Rest Is Noise, 55%.
    Return of the Reluctant, 54%.
    Shaken & Stirred, 73%.
    Something Old, Nothing New, 45%.
    Ösomething slant, 58% "or thereabouts."
    Superfluities, 41%.
    James Tata, 49%.
    Tingle Alley, "60%ish."
    Sarah Weinman, 58%.

    To all those bloggers who've posted answers but no score: do your own math if you want to hang with the popular kids!

    As for reaction to the TCCI, Ed has converted the results into a USA Today-style graphic, while Gideon Strauss posted this funny response:

    I've decided not only to test how far my tastes differ from that of Mr. Teachout, but also how much less informed my tastes are. So I will give myself two scores: my TCCI score, and a score for the number of paired items out of a hundred on Teachout's list for which I had any idea what he is talking about (which I will call the Teachout Cultural Superiority Index or TCSI, so that my TCSI score will measure how close I am to his perfect 100)Ö.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Gnostical Turpitude actually went to the trouble of writing a longish essay about the TCCI. Among his astute observations:

    [T]he questions posed by Teachout reminded me of "Humiliations," a parlor game that appears in the David Lodge novel Changing Places. In that game, players confess the titles of books they've never read, receiving one point for every player who has read the book in question; hence, the winner is the competitor who has never read the books that are most familiar to his opponents.

    There's a certain odd thrill to announcing that I've never read anything by Thomas Mann, that I've never read either Huck Finn or Moby-Dick, and that I've never been to (or read) an Edward Albee play. (As the professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe might say, "What do they teach them in the schools these days?!") I'd imagine that the thrill I've just described is similar to the feeling one experiences after winning a round of Humiliations!Ö

    Read the whole thing here.

    This seems as good a time as any to confess that I once organized a game of Humiliation (I'm not positive, but I think it's in the singular) at a garden party of budding young New York intellectuals who were all friendly enough to play honestly. I thought Iíd die laughing, or at least throw up. No, I wonít tell you who was playing or what other sordid admissions were made, but I will admit that I stopped the show by acknowledging that I once reviewed a literary biography of an author with whose novels and short stories I was totally unfamiliar. It was a long, long time agoÖ.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Remnants

    Iíve always been oddly unsentimental about objects, and I donít know why. Perhaps itís simply a manifestation of a preference that I mentioned a few months ago apropos of the rise of pay-per-song Web sites and the resulting decline of the record as art object: "Iím old-fashionedóbut my attachment is to essences, not embodiments." Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that Iíve spent the past quarter-century moving from one small apartment to another (two in Kansas City, one in Illinois, four in the New York area), a practice that tends to inhibit the accumulation of superfluous stuff.

    Whatever the reason, I havenít kept many souvenirs of my past life. Nearly all those dating from my childhood and adolescenceómy old Roth violin, my high-school yearbooks, a scraggly pair of stuffed cats named Russell and Louiseóare at my motherís house in Smalltown, U.S.A, which is where I expect theyíll stay. Beyond that, next to nothing remains. Iíve never saved the manuscripts of my books, for instance, and I got rid of all my tattered old clippings after putting together A Terry Teachout Reader. I sold two-thirds of my library when I moved to my present apartment, mainly in order to have room to hang the art I was starting to collect. I donít keep programs from the performances I review, nor do I have any photograph albums (in fact, I donít even own a camera). The only pictures I have on display are the ones of my parents, Our Girl in Chicago, and my old friend Nancy LaMott that are on my desk, plus a snapshot taken in an old-time photo booth immediately after I completed my first roller-coaster ride. A mottled, surf-pocked stone from the shore of Isle au Haut, the Maine island to which I traveled last fall in search of the spot that Fairfield Porter portrayed in a lithograph I own, rests atop my incoming mail. One of my paintings was done by a friend. And outside of a few inscribed books and a bare handful of unsorted photos crammed randomly in a drawer, thatís pretty much it. Except for these few relics, I live almost entirely in the present, surrounded by books, CDs, and the art on my walls.

    If my uncluttered existence strikes you as austere, all I can say is that Iím not unsentimental about other things. Iím the easiest of weepers, always ready to turn on the taps while watching an old movie or listening to a piece of music with personal associations. Nor am I shy about quarrying my past life for literary purposes (one of my books is a memoir). Yet for whatever reason, I prefer to travel lightóas lightly, that is, as a man who owns twenty prints, two paintings, a pastel, a Max Beerbohm caricature, a small assemblage by Paul Taylor, a cel set-up of Jerry Mouse, several hundred books, and a couple of thousand CDs is capable of travelingóand I never think about the things I haven't saved.

    So it was with no small amount of surprise that I found myself confronted the other day with three grocery sacks full of miscellaneous papers retrieved from an old desk Iíd left behind in my previous apartment. Iíd completely forgotten the contents of that desk, and though I didnít expect them to include anything important, I thought I ought to give them a quick sifting just to be sure.

    I threw out most of what I found. I saw no reason, for instance, to hang onto a two-inch-thick stack of photocopied pieces Iíd written for the New York Daily News during my tenure as its classical music and dance critic, though I did shake my head at the thought of the hundreds of thousands of words Iíve published in the twenty-seven years since my very first concert review appeared in the Kansas City Star. Middle age has its cold consolations, one of which is the knowledge that youíre not nearly as important as you thought you were, or hoped someday to become. I used to save copies of everything I wrote, and for a few years I even kept an up-to-date bibliography of my magazine pieces! Now I marvel at the vanity that once led me to think my every printed utterance worthy of preservation.

    Only one of those pieces held my attention for more than the time it took me to pitch it in the nearest wastebasket: a copy of the first piece I wrote for Commentary, a review of James Baldwinís The Price of the Ticket published in December of 1985, six months after I moved to New York. I remember how hard I worked on it, and how proud I was to have "cracked" Commentary. Today it sounds hopelessly stiff and earnest, which is why I left it out of the Teachout Reader. What on earth could have possessed Norman Podhoretz to find a place for that immature effort in his book-review section? He told me the first draft was too "knowing," the best piece of advice any editor has ever given me, and I revised it nervously, hoping to pass muster, never imagining that I would write hundreds more pieces for Commentary, eventually becoming its music critic. Would it have pleased me to know these things back in 1985? Or might it have dulled the tang of my first sale?

    I didn't expect to find a Metropolitan Opera program among my forgotten papers, though no sooner did I look at it than I knew why Iíd saved it. I went to the Metropolitan Opera House on the evening of January 5, 1996, fully expecting to review the company premiere of Leos Janacek's The Makropulos Case for the Daily News. Instead, I ended up writing a front-page story about how one of the singers in the production died on stage, a minute and a half into the first act. The opening scene of The Makropulos Case is set in a law office where Vitek, a clerk, is looking up the files for a suit that has been dragging on for close to a century. To symbolize the tortuous snarl of Gregor v. Prus, designer Anthony Ward turned the entire back wall of the set into a forty-foot-high filing cabinet containing hundreds of drawers. Enter Vitek, played by a character tenor named Richard Versalle. As the curtain rose, he made his entrance, climbed up a tall ladder and pulled a file out of one of the drawers. "Too bad you can only live so long," he sang in Czech. Then he let go of the ladder and fell mutely to the stage, landing on his back with a terrible crash.

    Three thousand people gasped. David Robertson, the conductor, waved the orchestra to a halt and shouted, "Are you all right, Richard?" Versalle didn't speak or move, and the curtain was quickly lowered. I sat frozen in my aisle seat, stunned by what I had seen. Then I pulled myself together and ran to the press room to find out what had happened. A company spokesman told the rapidly growing band of critics and hangers-on what little he knew: Versalle had been rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital. We started firing questions at him. How old was Versalle? When did he make his Met debut? Did he have a wife and children? I scribbled the answers (63, 1978, yes) on my program and pushed through the crowd to the nearest pay phone, where I dropped a quarter in the slot, dialed the number of the Daily News city desk, and spoke three words that had never before crossed my lips other than in jest: "Get me rewrite." Eight years later, I leafed through the program of that unfinished performance, looking at my barely decipherable notes. As souvenirs go, it was a good one, and I decided to keep it.

    Almost as evocative was a sheaf of birthday cards given to me on my fortieth birthday, a month and a day after The Makropulos Caseís abortive opening night. It was a strange and somber event, for my friend Nancy had died only a few weeks before, and I was nowhere near getting over the shock of her loss. Still, you only turn forty once (if at all), and I didnít want to disappoint the friends whoíd planned a party to mark the occasion, so we went through with it and had a surprisingly good time, considering. Tucked inside the cards was a short stack of photographs, most of them of my parents, my niece, and the various cats Iíve owned over the years. I saved four of the best ones, along with a fading snapshot of Harry Jenks, a half-blind Kansas City jazz pianist with whom I used to sit in back in my college days (he could play just like Art Tatum, by which I donít mean sort of like Art Tatum), and a picture of Our Girl in Chicago standing in front of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, Illinois, dressed in white from head to toe and looking like a warm summer day come to life.

    I also found two wallet-sized photos of Libby Miller, an adored friend from Smalltown, U.S.A., with whom I ran a lemonade stand once upon a time. I had a crush on her but was too shy to do anything about it. Libby joined the Air Force after graduating from high school, and I played piano at her wedding. Then she vanished from sight, as the friends of our youth are all too prone to do, and I heard nothing more from her for a quarter-century. Not long ago she called me up from out of the blue, and I learned that sheíd divorced and remarried, retired from the Air Force, settled down in rural Washington, and taken up watercolor painting as a full-time hobby. I Googled her as we talked, found one of her watercolors on the Web, and saw with a start that my long-lost friend had somehow transformed herself into Elizabeth Michailoff, a bonafide artist. Now I held two of her fresh-faced high-school pictures in my hand, marveling at the myriad changes that thirty yearsí worth of living had wrought.

    I slipped the pictures and birthday cards into my Makropulos Case program, left everything else for the garbage collector, and headed back to my apartment, feeling wistful and unsettled, the way we so often feel after a brief immersion in the irretrievable past. Two packages awaited me on my return. I slit open the first one and was astonished to find a gorgeous, near-abstract marine watercolor by Libbyóor Elizabeth, as I suppose I ought to call her now. With it was a note: "I painted the tide flats in Februaryóand I have enjoyed how it turned out. When I started thinking of a painting to send to you, I kept returning to it. I don't know why. But I do know why I wanted to send you one. You were such a great friend to me at a time when I dearly needed someone I could go to and just be me. You gave me that gift and now in a very small wayóI wanted to return the kindness. So I hope you do enjoy it." I do, dear Libby, I do.

    The second package contained a handsomely carpentered wooden box with an elegant latch and a Georgian-blue lid on which was pasted a label reading as follows: "ĎTT Readerí Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle. 42 pieces, hand cut by Jack-in-the-Box Puzzles." Inside it was a jigsaw-puzzle version of the dust jacket of the Teachout Readeróbut no invoice or accompanying cover letter. Who could have sent me so ingenious a present? I racked my brain for an answer, and at last the light dawned: this was the belated birthday present that Our Girl in Chicago had been promising me ever since February. We usually give one another books or CDs, but my last present to her had been rather fancier than that, and she had evidently been inspired to respond in kind.

    Our Girl and I met fifteen years ago, back when she was the assistant to my then-editor at my then-publishing house, fresh out of college and wet behind the ears but already full of cleverness and life. Since then we've been the closest of friends, even though half a continent has separated us for the past decade. Not a day goes by that we donít exchange e-mail or talk on the phone. Yet her inescapable absence from my daily life still saddens me, and the presence of her picture on my desk can only do so much to make up for it. Now she had sent me the perfect present, wholly personal and characteristic in every possible way, and I knew I would keep it for as long as I lived and think of her every time I looked at it.

    "I sometimes feel the temptation to live in the past," I wrote in the introduction to the Teachout Reader, "but one can truly live only in the moment." I stand by that sentence, but surely the beginning of wisdom lies in knowing when to make an exception to even the soundest of rules. So I placed my summer snapshot of Our Girl inside the wooden puzzle box and put it on my bookshelf, right in front of my uniform edition of the complete works of Henry James, her favorite writer. I wrapped up Libbyís watercolor and took it to the neighborhood framer. Then I spent the rest of the day basking in the warmth that two unexpected presents had brought to the uncluttered, austerely beautiful home in which I live.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I'm no intellectual, you understand, but I like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Hemingway, John P. Marquand, Louis Auchincloss, and Simenon."

    Bing Crosby (quoted in Nat Hentoff, Listen to the Stories)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Consumables

    Though I didnít go to any plays last weekend or this week, I managed to keep busy. Hereís some of what Iíve been up to:

    ē On Thursday I went to Birdland to hear Roger Kellaway and Bill Charlap play two-piano jazz. Both of them have figured prominently on this blog in recent months, so I wonít sing their individual praises. What I will say is that the set I caught last night was the best live two-piano jazz performance Iíve heard in my lifeóincluding a concert that Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones gave together in Kansas City back when the world was young. Their version of "Blue in Green" suggested an off-the-cuff collaboration between Bill Evans and Maurice Ravel, while the ferociously competitive up-tempo "Strike Up the Band" with which they set the proceedings in motion sounded like two guys shooting Roman candles at each other in a locked room. ("Lotta black notes on that page," Charlap said to me afterward, grinning slyly.) As if all this hadn't been more than sufficiently awe-inspiring, the remarkable young classical violinist Yue, about whom more another day, sat in on "Nuages" and "In a Sentimental Mood" and made an equally strong impression.

    Words to the wise: Kellaway, Charlap, and Yue will be at Birdland through Saturday. Do not miss this gig.

    ē I spent Tuesday and Wednesday at the Metropolitan Opera House, watching the first two nights of Lincoln Center Festivalís Ashton Celebration, a two-week-long minifestival of the ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton, Englandís greatest choreographer. Both performances were mixed bills danced by the Joffrey Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and K-Ballet, a Japanese troupe. I plan to write at length about what I saw over the coming weekend. For now, take a look at Seeing Things, the artsjournal.com blog for which dance critic Tobi Tobias is covering the Ashton Celebration. I donít agree with everything Tobi says, but sheís damned smart and always to be taken very seriously.

    In addition, you might also be interested in reading "ScŤnes de Ballet," a review-essay about Julie Kavanaghís Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton that I wrote for the New York Times Book Review in 1997.

    ē Iím reading the bound galleys of Robert McCrumís Wodehouse: A Life, out in November from Norton, and rereading Anthony Powellís Dance to the Music of Time (which I do every couple of years) in preparation for reviewing Michael Barberís Anthony Powell: A Life, out in September from Duckworth Overlook.

    ē I spent the weekend catching up with movies, past and present. Among other things, I saw Before Sunset (Sleepless in Seattle for eggheads) and Napoleon Dynamite (see my concise rave on top of the Top Five module in the right-hand column) in the theater, as well as Louis Malleís Atlantic City (sentimental fluff, but Burt Lancaster is soooo good) at home.

    ē Now playing on iTunes: Donald Fagenís "Centuryís End," a little-known but way cool song from the soundtrack of the spectacularly misbegotten film version of Bright Lights, Big City. Even though itís a solo track by Fagen, itís currently available on CD as part of Steely Dan Gold.

    That ought to hold you for a while.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: AWOL

    In case you bought this morning's Wall Street Journal to read my drama column...it's not there. I took a week off, the first time I've skipped a Friday since January. I earned it.

    Not to worry: I'll be doing business at the same old stand next Friday. And you can still buy the paper, you know! It's got all the usual cool "Weekend Journal" stuff, only minus me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, July 9, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, July 8, 2004
    TT: Almanac

    "There can be no doubt that the dedicated Balzacian must accept a torrent of vulgarity, but, in matters of situation and behaviour, a great deal of improbability too. Never mind. Balzac's improbabilities do not prevent many of his least likely climaxes from being the best ones. Besidesósomething never to be forgottenówith all novelists one must put up with something."

    Anthony Powell, Messengers of Day

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 8, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Closing notices

    The Public Theaterís well-reviewed revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramerís 1984 AIDS play, closed abruptly last week after just sixty-three performances, none of which sold out. "I'll tell you one thing: I will never write another play again," Kramer told the New York Times. "I mean, when are we all going to realize that people don't want to go to the theater anymore?" That is, you might say, a trifle solipsistic. I remember the original production of The Normal Heart vividly, and also unfavorably, it having been little more than a noisy piece of sermonizing. Hence I didnít bother attending, much less reviewing, the revival. Once was enough.

    Conversely, I didnít catch the original run of Stephen Sondheimís Assassins a decade and a half ago, which was why I went out of my way to see and write about the Roundabout Theatre Companyís revival at Studio 54. While I thought the show itself had major problems, I was as impressed by the production as were my fellow critics. But ordinary theatergoers begged to differ, and so Assassins will close, barring a miracle, on July 18.

    To date, Sondheim has made no whiny public statements about the failure of Assassins to find an audience, that not being his style. He did, however, express concern prior to opening night that the show might give offense to those whom he considers politically benighted. "I live in a liberal community, which is happy to bring into question things about this country," he told a reporter for Time, a statement I foundówell, smug. I called him on it when I reviewed the show for The Wall Street Journal:

    Whenever Mr. Sondheim and John Weidman, his librettist, attend to the twisted souls of John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris), Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris), and their partners in ignominy, "Assassins" holds you in its grip like a demented strangleróbut no sooner do they seek to use these sad creatures to score debating points than it turns as jejune as a college revue.

    If you think Iím being harsh, you havenít seen "Assassins," which takes the form of a carnival sideshow whose brass-voiced barker (Marc Kudisch) invites unhappy passers-by to forget their troubles by stepping right up and taking a potshot at the man in the Oval Office: "No job? Cupboard bare?/One room, no one there?/Hey, pal, donít despairó/You wanna shoot a president?" Thatís the message of "Assassins," such as it is: if only there were ice cream for everyone, Camelot would still be with us! Instead, we preach the American dream, and some of those born losers who find it hollow seek to even the score with a gun: "And all you have to do/Is/Squeeze your little finger./Ease your little finger backó/You can change the world."

    Aside from being sophomoric, this rigidly reductive thesis clashes with the core of "Assassins," a series of nine sharply drawn sketches of successful and would-be presidential assassins. Not surprisingly, this is the part of the show where Mr. Sondheim finds his footing, since his other musicals are exclusively concerned not with ideas but feelings (or the inability to feel). Not even in "Sweeney Todd," which purports to locate its antiheroís murderous rage in the dehumanizing context of 19th-century British industrialism, does he betray any real interest in or understanding of politics. For Mr. Sondheim, the political is personal, and no matter how hard he and Mr. Weidman try to persuade us that their desperate characters are meaningful symbols of mass alienation, we persist in seeing them as individual objects of pity united only in their varied forms of despair: "Thereís another national anthem, folks,/For those who never win,/For the suckers,/For the pikers,/For the ones who might have been."

    Do the lives of these misfits have any larger meaning? Perhaps, but you canít prove it by "Assassins," which merely asserts their significance rather than demonstrating itóand thatís where the show runs off the road. To be effective, political theater must deal in fact, not fancy, and most of Americaís presidential assassins were in fact driven not by ideology but madness. "Assassins" leaves no doubt of that, especially in "The Ballad of Guiteau," in which Charles Guiteau (Denis OíHare), who shot and killed James Garfield, displays his megalomania to spectacular effect. And what do such delusions tell us about the validity of the American dream? Nothing, which is why "Assassins" makes no sense.

    I doubt it's altogether coincidental that the authors of Assassins and The Normal Heart presupposed the prior agreement of their audiences with the shows' underlying political premises. Tim Robbinsí Embedded was like that, too, as are (surprise) the plays of Tony Kushner. The trouble with this kind of playwriting, as with any other kind of highly politicized art, is that itís lazy. You might even go so far as to say that it arises from an entitlement mentalityóthe assumption that so long as you think all the right things, you need not make the extra effort to transform your ideas into a fully realized work of art.

    Two paragraphs buried deep in the Times story about The Normal Heart gave that game away with embarrassing clarity:

    Still, producers thought that its political subject and gay heroes might attract audiences, especially on a Gay Pride weekend in an election year.

    But sales for last weekendógay prideówere awful, Mr. Kramer said. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "If your own people aren't going to support you, that really hurts someone like me."

    Note the planted axiom: gay people should have supported The Normal Heart. Why? Because theyíre gay, thatís why. But they didnít, just as Sondheimís "liberal community" has declined to turn out in sufficient numbers to keep Assassins open. Now, no demographic group in America is as reliably liberalóor contains, I suspect, as many gaysóas the regular theatergoers of Manhattan and its environs. Does that make all those inconsiderate stay-at-homes insufficiently liberal? Or insufficiently gay? Somehow I doubt it.

    Larry Kramer did, however, say something sensible about the revival of The Normal Heart, though it may have been unintentional: "It speaks very ill of us, meaning all the people today involved in culture and entertainment, that we can produce this stuff and in no way market it to the world." Iím not suggesting that the failure of his play was a failure of marketing, though. Rather, I have in mind the characteristic failing of political art, which is that its makers fail to understand the need to effectively "market" their ideas by embodying them in works of art capable of commanding the attention of an audience consisting in partóperhaps even in large partóof people who donít already believe in them.

    I quoted David Denbyís review of Fahrenheit 9/11 the other day, but what he said is worth repeating:

    Michael Moore has become a sensational entertainer of the already converted, but his enduring problem as a political artist is that he has never known how to change anyoneís politics.

    Which begs a more difficult question: can art change anyoneís politics? I donít mean in the sense of persuading ninnies that the CIA killed John Kennedy, but in the deeper and more thoroughgoing sense of effecting a genuine transformation in oneís view of the world.

    W.H. Auden thought not:

    For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth.

    Clement Greenberg said much the same thing, less poetically but more transparently: "Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art." I incline that way as well, but my own view is more nuanced. The insurmountable problem of explicitly political art, it seems to me, is that it is, literally, exclusive. As a result, it fails in what I take to be one of the defining responsibilities of aesthetically serious art, which is to aspire to universality, speaking (at least potentially) to all men in all conditions.

    The only way art can do this is by reposing, in Dr. Johnsonís immortal words, on the stability of truth. By embodying and dramatizing truth, it brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition. And might such an enterprise be political? In a way, I suppose, though one must never forget that political opinions are epiphenomenal: they arise from experience rather than preceding it. (If they donít, those who hold them are by definition out of touch with reality.) As for me, I know that my experience of great art has shaped my philosophy of life, which in turn informs my political views. But has great art ever had a direct effect on those views? Not in my experience. Nor can I think offhand of even one truly great work of art that was created with the specific intention of changing anyoneís political views. If you want to do that with your art, you must accept going in that the results will be less than greatóand if that doesnít bother you, fine. Greenberg got that right, too: "There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what Iíve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness." This may mean choosing politics over art, especially if youíre not a good artist to begin with.

    Which brings us back to The Normal Heart and Assassins. Larry Kramer, alas, isnít a good artist. Stephen Sondheim is a very good artist, but one who in this case allowed his aesthetic priorities to be skewed by his political passions. And you know what? The results of both menís best efforts went belly-up at the box office. Maybe that means ordinary playgoers are simply too stupid, or craven, to know a good thing when they see one. Or maybe it means theyíre too smart to fall for bad art, even when they happen to agree with its political premises.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, July 8, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, July 7, 2004
    OGIC: Drawing the line

    Sarah's "Immutables" category drives a hard bargain. Immutables are "individual tastes that will never be swayed, never be altered no matter who tries to do so. And to take things to perhaps an extreme level, if you attempt to be friends with someone who doesn't agree with your Immutables, then the friendship is doomed." Gee, that does sound extreme. Do we all have second-degree Immutables? Do I? Just off the top of my head I'd say that, while you don't have to love Edward Gorey to be my friend, if you don't get him, we might not have a lot to talk about.

    It may well be, though, that I have good friends who don't get him and it just hasn't come up. I definitely have friends who don't like Buffy, Lucinda Williams, Henry James, or other keystones of my cultural life. I often find there's more to be gotten out of a robust disagreement with someone I like and respect than from mutual admiration of each other's impeccable taste. And the joy of converting someoneówell, that's the great potential reward for engaging in such debates.

    Nope, I'm racking my brain but I can only answer this question theoretically. A specific aesthetic disagreement has never thrown over any budding or actual friendship of mine. However, I once had a potential friend who didn't enjoy eating. That proved insurmountable. It was then, as the relationship sputtered, that I first understood how much my social life revolved around food (and still does): dinner parties, cooking together, pizza-and-television, expeditions to Afghani or Ethiopian restaurants, and so on. Eating something wonderful together, in my experience, can cement or deepen a friendship. This is one of M.F.K. Fisher's great subjects. It is memorably treated in what I think is the first essay in The Gastronomical Me, about a childhood picnic with her sister and father that marked the first time she became really aware of her father as an individual, rather than just one of her parents, and began to form a separate bond with him (a pie is implicated).

    I take full responsibility for the interruption of my nascent friendship with the poor, pitiable food-phobe and wish her wellómy own perhaps overdeveloped delight in good food didn't seem to bother her any, and I credit her toleranceóbut I just couldn't carry on. Her attitude toward food, which was part fearful, part resigned, tended to kill all my pleasure in it. Maybe, then, my true Immutable is M.F.K.óif you can't appreciate her appetite or her divine prose, a famous friendship might not be in our cards.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Naive but well-meaning

    Sarah, whose TCCI is 58%, now writes to say that I've "created a monster." I certainly didn't expect the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index to spread so cancerously throughout the blogosphere. I'm trying to keep up with the scores posted to date by those bloggers listed in "Sites to See," but it isn't easy (I can't even begin to keep up with the non-blogrolled responses). So far, here are the ones I've seen:

    Banana Oil, 70%.
    Bookish Gardener, 57%.
    Brandywine Books, 67%.
    Collected Miscellany, 68%.
    Crescat Sententia, 40%.
    Elegant Variation, 47%.
    A Fool in the Forest, 64.38%.
    Futurballa, 47%.
    Mixolydian Mode, 52%.
    Rakeís Progress, 59%.
    The Reading Experience, 43%.
    The Rest Is Noise, 55%.
    Return of the Reluctant, 54%. (Donít miss Edís parody!)
    Ösomething slant, 58% "or thereabouts."
    Superfluities, 41%.
    James Tata, 49%.
    Tingle Alley, "60%ish."

    (More than a few bloggers have posted answers but no score. If you want to make the roster, do your own math.)

    God of the Machine appears not to have taken the TCCI, but he does make an observation about it that had already occurred to me, which is that it would not only be possible but interesting to apply factor analysis to everybodyís answers:

    Interdisciplinary clusters will be best of all; if we find, for example, that nearly everyone who prefers Astaire to Kelly also prefers Matisse to Picasso and Keaton to Chaplin, then we might be on to something. We examine the clusters, looking for commonalities. Looking for rules, in other words. Although Terry's taste, or the taste of any educated person, cannot be explained by one principle or theory ó this is a reasonable working definition of "cultivated" ó I would wager that it can be explained pretty well by severalÖ

    Speaking of rules, a regular "About Last Night" reader writes:

    In general -- and with all exceptions duly noted -- I think your preferences reflect a taste for lightness over heaviness, for charm over depth (as conventionally understood). As I grow older, that is the direction in which my taste is headed. Do you agree that aging has something to do with it?

    Very perceptive. But while I think aging may have something to do with it, I think the effects in my case are limited. My taste has always run more or less in those directions: French over German, "comic" (broadly speaking) over tragic, short over long, color over line. In the best of all possible two-kinds-of-people divide, that formulated by Schiller, I tend to opt for "naive" over "sentimental." As Sir Isaiah Berlin explains, "naive" artists are those "who create naturally, who are not troubled by the burden of the tragic disorder of life, who do not seek salvation in art as some people seek personal salvation in religion or Socialism or nationalism." He cited Verdi as the quintessential example of the naive artist of genius. For me, it's Balanchine.

    And a close friend writes:

    The only thing on this list that surprised me is that you chose Daffy Duck over Bugs Bunny.

    Yeah, well....

    UPDATE: The indispensable Sarah now proposes a major new taste-measurement paradigm:

    I suppose I could add some of my own questions to draft my own CCI, but prior to Terry's post, I'd given some thought to what I call Immutables--those elements of individual tastes that will never be swayed, never be altered no matter who tries to do so. And to take things to perhaps an extreme level, if you attempt to be friends with someone who doesn't agree with your Immutables, then the friendship is doomedÖ.

    OGIC and I will get to work on this one right away!

    P.S. Rumor has it that Supermaud is about to make a TCCI-related announcement....

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Simply divine

    Caterina.net has posted a mesmerizing list of types of divination. Be honest: How many of these have you found occasion to use?

    I'll cop to aeromancy, anthroposcopy, bibliomancy, cartomancy, cledonomancy, horoscopy, oneiromancy, physiognomy, psychometry, and zoomancy.

    (Nobody said the divination had to be successful.)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Defending Roz

    As I noted here, David Thomson is a harsh judge of Rosalind Russell, giving all of the credit to Cary Grant for "goading [her] into being bearable" in His Girl Friday. A friend writes:

    "You can see where in an age of the slowly burning Hepburn and Bacall, the bright magnesium flash of Russell can be a bit blinding."

    Very apt and very gentlemanly, that.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Fortunate cookie

    A "fortunate cookie," I've just decided, is an on-topic fortune cookie. Terry's "Almanac" entries, as you already know if you've been paying attention, are very often related, more or less subtly, to something else that one of us has posted lately. My fortune cookies, in contrast, tend to be randomly seized upon.

    This weekend, however, I had my nose buried in one of Reginald Hill's beguiling Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries (my undying gratitude to the Weisses for putting me onto these), and I jotted down several nice bits. One of them popped straight to mind when I read this rather withering reader comment in Terry's post-Index Mailbox: "The Searchers or Rio Bravo? Neither. Trite male weepies the both of them."

    Here's the serendipitous cookie:

    "Her camera appeared to require as little reloading as one of those guns the good cowboys used to have in the pre-psychological westerns."

    Reginald Hill, An April Shroud

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Guest almanac

    "There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbandsí necks."

    Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind" (courtesy of Kenneth R. Shaw)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Did you ever have to make up your mind?

    A reader writes, apropos of my posting on Who Framed Roger Rabbit:

    I love Roger Rabbit, also, and think it is the real Chinatown II, as opposed to that train-wreck of a movie, The Two Jakes, a movie I so wanted to be better than it was.

    Well put.

    I might add that thereís an essay to be writtenóthough not todayóon the effects of wishful thinking on critics. I know Iíve been swayed by it many times, and up to a point I think itís forgivable, the point in question being the second time that a favored artist lets you down hard. Thatís when you need to sit up and start paying closer attention to what youíre actually seeing (as opposed to what you wish you were seeing).

    No critic should ever forget that initial disappointment in a work of art not infrequently gives way to deeper understanding on closer acquaintance. In the case of an artist I really respect, I always try to take it for granted that Iím the problem, not the work of artÖbut not indefinitely. You can only disappoint me so many times before I lose patienceóand interest.

    I quoted the ever-apropos G.K. Chesterton the other day, and Iíll do it again now: "Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."

    As for The Two Jakes, well, I simply couldnít fool myself: I knew it was awful.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, July 6, 2004
    TT: You go, Girl

    Our Girl in Chicago challenges me (see immediately below) to take what I suppose would have to be called the OGICCCI.

    I say, bring it on!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: What I chose

    1. Fred Astaire over Gene Kelly
    2. The Great Gatsby over The Sun Also Rises
    3. Duke Ellington over Count Basie, I guess.
    4. Cats over dogs
    5. Matisse over Picasso
    6. Yeats over Eliot
    7. Buster Keaton over Charlie Chaplin
    8. Flannery OíConnor over John Updike
    9. To Have and Have Not has been sitting on my tv for months, courtesy of Netflix, and I fully expect to prefer it to Casablanca. Terry and the Cinetrix can't be wrong.
    10. Jackson Pollock over Willem de Kooning
    11. The Stones over the Who
    12. Philip Larkin over Sylvia Plath
    13. Dickens over Trollope
    14. Billie Holiday over Ella Fitzgerald
    15. Tolstoy over Dostoyevsky
    16. The End of the Affair over The Moviegoer
    17. George Balanchine over Martha Graham
    18. Hamburgers over hot dogs
    19. Letterman over Leno in a landslide.
    20. Cat Power over Wilco
    21. Verdi over Wagner
    22. Grace Kelly over Marilyn Monroe
    23. Johnny Cash over Bill Monroe
    24. Martin over Kingsley Amis
    25. Robert Mitchum over Marlon Brando
    26. Mark Morris over Twyla Tharp
    27. Vermeer over Rembrandt
    28. Chopin over Tchaikovsky
    29. White wine over red, this being summertime.
    30. Oscar Wilde over NoŽl Coward
    31. Grosse Pointe Blank over High Fidelity
    32. Shostakovich or Prokofiev? Pass!
    33. Mikhail Baryshnikov over Rudolf Nureyev
    34. Constable over Turner
    35. Love Rio Bravo, have not seen The Searchers. Pass.
    36. Comedy over tragedy
    37. Fall over spring
    38. Manet over Monet
    39. The Sopranos over The Simpsons
    40. Rodgers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin? Pass!
    41. Henry James over Joseph Conrad
    42. Sunrise over sunset
    43. Johnny Mercer over Cole Porter (a relatively uninformed choice).
    44. Mac over PC forever, or as long as Apple stays in business.
    45. New York over Los Angeles
    46. Partisan Review over Horizon
    47. Motown over Stax, and always GM
    48. Van Gogh over Gauguin
    49. Elvis Costello over Steely Dan
    50. Reading a blog over reading a magazine
    51. Laurence Olivier over John Gielgud
    52. Only the Lonely over Songs for Swinginí Lovers
    53. Chinatown over Bonnie and Clyde
    54. Ghost World over Election, but a toughie.
    55. Minimalism over conceptual art
    56. Bugs Bunny over Daffy Duck
    57. Modernism over postmodernism
    58. Batman over Spider-Man
    59. Lucinda Williams over Emmylou Harris, but couldn't do without either.
    60. Johnson over Boswell
    61. Jane Austen over Virginia Woolf
    62. The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show? Before my time, so pass.
    63. An Eames chair over a Noguchi table. Pleases the eye, and you can nap in it.
    64. Out of the Past over Double Indemnity
    65. The Marriage of Figaro over Don Giovanni
    66. Blue over green
    67. As You Like It over A Midsummer Nightís Dream
    68. Ballet over opera
    69. Film over live theater
    70. Acoustic over electric
    71. North by Northwest over Vertigo
    72. Sargent over Whistler
    73. V.S. Naipaul over Milan Kundera
    74. Oklahoma over The Music Man
    75. Sushi, yes
    76. The New Yorker under Ross over Shawn
    77. Tennessee Williams over Edward Albee
    78. The Wings of the Dove over The Portrait of a Lady
    79. Paul Taylor over Merce Cunningham
    80. Mies van der Rohe over Frank Lloyd Wright
    81. Diana Krall over Norah Jones
    82. Watercolor over pastel
    83. Bus over subway
    84. Stravinsky over Schoenberg
    85. Crunchy over smooth peanut butter
    86. Theodore Dreiser over Willa Cather
    87. Mozart over Schubert
    88. The Twenties over the Fifties
    89. Huckleberry Finn over Moby-Dick
    90. James Joyce over Thomas Mann
    91. Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins? Pass.
    92. Emily Dickinson over Walt Whitman
    93. Winston Churchill over Abraham Lincoln
    94. Liz Phair over Aimee Mann, but just.
    95. Italian over French cooking
    96. Bach on piano over harpsichord
    97. Anchovies, not in any identifiable form, which I'll take as a no.
    98. Long novels over short novels
    99. Swing or bebop? Pass.
    100. "The Last Judgment" over "The Last Supper"

    This gives me a TCCI of 68%. To be honest, it's rather lower than I would have predicted. What about you, Terry? We've certainly influenced each other's taste a great deal over the years, and we started out with some considerable overlap, but it's interesting to see which of our predispositions have stubbornly resisted such influence. You surprise me sometimes here, but seldom and mildly: The Who, Conrad, Constable (my efforts not wasted!), The Searchers, Daffy Duck, Emily Dickinson.

    I would be really interested to see how you scored on a similar test designed by me. You know I'd make you squirm.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves."

    Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Either/or

    If you took yesterday off, you missed the unveiling of the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. Click on the link and take the test, or at least look at it, before reading the rest of this posting.

    * * *

    For those of you who had nothing better to do on Monday than visit "About Last Night," the TCCI was a jokeóbut a serious one.

    I spent the evening of July 4 at home, eating deep-dish pizza and watching An American in Paris with a friend who just got back from her first trip to Paris. She asked me to compare the dancing styles of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I did so, going on to explain that the Astaire-Kelly dichotomy was an example of the two-kinds-of-people heuristic at its most powerfully explanatory (I didnít put it like that, though!). If I tell you that I prefer Astaire to Kelly, youíve learned something about me that can help you make educated guesses about certain of my other aesthetic preferences, and the more such data you have in hand, the better youíll understand how my taste works.

    Two Kinds of People is, of course, a cool party game, and I improvised a few similar examples to prove my point: Balanchine/Graham, Verdi/Wagner, Matisse/Picasso. But itís just as easy to come up with examples that measure different aesthetic polaritiesóThe Great Gatsby versus The Sun Also Rises, for instance. Nor is my own taste always consistent (about which more later). I think Howard Hawks was a better director than John Ford, but I also think Ford's The Searchers is a greater film than Hawks' Rio Bravo, if not by much.

    Now it happens that I studied statistics and experimental design during my two-year stint as a psych major, back when I still thought I wanted to become a shrink. As a result, it occurred to me that if you collected enough data points about the taste of an individual, you could easily put together a test that would provide a fairly accurate measure of the extent to which the test-taker resembled the test-maker. It was this insight that inspired me to create the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, a battery of 100 questions that measures how closely your taste agrees with mine.

    Aside from making the test easier to score, the reason why the TCCI consists of 100 questions is to pull the results as far away as possible from any one axis of taste. To this end, I constructed the questions in a variety of ways:

    ē Some measure your preference for opposing but not mutually exclusive alternatives ("Matisse or Picasso?"), while others require you to make an either-or choice ("Sushi, yes or no?").

    ē Some, by contrast, ask you to choose between similar but not identical alternatives ("Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity?").

    ē A few ask you to choose what I consider to be the lesser of two evils ("Minimalism or conceptual art?").

    ē Some questions aren't about the arts ("Bus or subway?").

    ē A few questions were purposely framed to be difficult for particular friends of mine to answer: Maud, for instance, loves Walker Percyís The Moviegoer and Graham Greeneís The End of the Affair, while Our Girl in Chicago owns both an Eames chair and a Noguchi table. I did this partly for fun and partly to increase the testís subtlety.

    ē For the same reason, I made the TCCI a forced-choice test, meaning that each question compels you to choose between a pair of alternatives, both of which may seem at first glance to be equally attractive. If there were only ten questions, the results might end up being too arbitrary (especially if some of the questions asked you to choose between alternatives with which you werenít sufficiently familiar), but in a 100-question test, the flaws of each individual question become proportionately less significant and the results more accurate.

    So what does the TCCI do, accurately or otherwise? It measures the extent to which your taste resembles mineóbut thatís all. What's more, you probably noticed in taking the test that my taste canít be "explained" by any one principle or theory. Had I scrambled the order of the alternatives and asked you to guess my answers based on your prior knowledge of my work, I doubt many of you would have scored much higher than, oh, 70%, unless you also knew me personally and very well indeed. Yes, Iím a classicist, but I also prefer Schubert to Mozart, which tells you...what?

    This brings us to why I created the TCCI in the first place. A few weeks ago, Parabasis, one of my fellow arts bloggers, posted an item taking me to task for the review of "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" that I wrote for the Washington Post back in 1999, then posted here apropos of the London warehouse fire that destroyed some of the art included in that show. I didnít agree with him, but I thought his comments defensible and not at all rude.

    I was, however, taken aback by this prefatory remark:

    Terryís also a good deal more conservative than I am, at least in taste (Balanchine instead of Trisha Brown or Cunningham, Satchmo instead of íTrane, etc.).

    Well, guess what? The fourth essay in A Terry Teachout Reader, "Merce Cunningham: Pale Horse, Pale Rider," is a lengthy tribute to Cunningham. And while I do indeed prefer Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, regular visitors to "About Last Night" shouldn't need to be reminded that Iíve written enthusiastically about such indisputably contemporary jazz musicians as John Scofield, Maria Schneider, Luciana Souza, and the Bad Plus, none of whom makes music that is "conservative" in any obvious sense of the word. Whatever else I am, Iím not so predictable that my taste can be summed up that way.

    Are there other critics whose taste is as predictable as that? Sureóbad ones. And how can you tell theyíre bad? Precisely because they are that predictable. Taste is not an ideology. Itís a personal response to the immediate experience of art. If your responses to new or unfamiliar art are wholly predictable, it means that instead of allowing experience to reshape and refine your taste, youíre forcing your perceptions into the pigeonhole of your pre-existing opinions. Thatís the opposite of what a good critic does.

    I don't think my taste is incoherent. To me it makes perfect sense, and I know it well enough to be able to second-guess my responses to new art with modest confidence. But I'm always prepared to change my mind on the spot, and I do so all the time. I didnít expect to like William Forsytheís One Flat Thing, reproducedóbut I loved it, and said so. I expected to hate Edward Hallís Rose Rageóbut instead I ended up giving it an enthusiastic review.

    My point is that when it comes to art, Iím not an either/or thinker. Alas, such thinking holds powerful sway in America today, especially now that our political discourse has become so intensely oppositional. We live in an age when the dangerous implications of such sayings as Who says A must say B, The personal is political, and Pas díennemis ŗ gauche (or droit, for that matter) are no longer widely understood, much less acknowledged. Iím sure there are plenty of people, for instance, who take it for granted that Iím a homophobe simply because I donít like Tony Kushnerís plays (a "fact" that would doubtless come as a surprise to Mark Morris, or to the author and director of I Am My Own Wife). By the same logic, the fact that I love Aaron Coplandís music should make me a Stalinist. G.K. Chesterton said the last word about that poisonous style of thinking: "ĎMy country, right or wrong,í is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ĎMy mother, drunk or sober.í"

    Hence the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, a holiday jeu díesprit which, as promised, also turns out to be more than a little bit serious. It is also, I hope, a useful reminder to readers of "About Last Night" to steer clear of the Great Simplifiers who seek to stuff us all into cultural pigeonholes. The good news is that I donít stuff so easyóand my guess is that you donít, either, even if you do insist on preferring Cat Power to Wilco or white wine to red.

    UPDATE: Go here to see how other bloggers scored on the TCCI.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT and OGIC: New around here, stranger?

    If this is your first visit, welcome to "About Last Night," a 24/5 blog hosted by artsjournal.com on which Terry Teachout writes about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, assisted by the pseudonymous Our Girl in Chicago, who writes from...Chicago.

    (In case you're wondering, this blog has two URLs, the one you're seeing at the top of your screen right now and the easier-to-remember www.terryteachout.com. Either one will bring you here.)

    All our postings from the past seven days are visible in reverse chronological order on this page. Terry's start with "TT," Our Girl's with "OGIC." In addition, the entire contents of this site are archived chronologically and can be accessed by clicking "ALN Archives" at the top of the right-hand column.

    You can read more about us, and about "About Last Night," by going to the right-hand column and clicking in the appropriate places. You'll also find various other toothsome features there, including our regularly updated Top Five list of things to see, hear, read and otherwise do, links to Terry's most recent newspaper and magazine articles, and "Sites to See," a list of links to other blogs and Web sites with art-related content. If you're curious about the arty part of the blogosphere, you've come to the right site: "Sites to See" will point you in all sorts of interesting directions, and all roads lead back to "About Last Night."

    As if all that weren't enough, you can write to us by clicking either one of the "Write Us" buttons. We read our mail, and answer it, too, so long as you're minimally polite. (Be patient, though. We get a lot of it.)

    The only other thing you need to know is that "About Last Night" is about all the arts, high, medium, and low: film, drama, painting, dance, fiction, TV, music of all kinds, whatever. Our interests are wide-ranging, and we think there are plenty of other people like us out there in cyberspace, plus still more who long to wander off their beaten paths but aren't sure which way to turn.

    If you're one of the above, we're glad you came. Enjoy. Peruse. Tell all your friends about www.terryteachout.com. And come back tomorrow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Mailbox

    While we're on the subject, here's some reader mail about the TCCI:

    ē "The Searchers or Rio Bravo? Neither. Trite male weepies the both of them."

    ē "Yeats and Vermeer are at least close. Trollope should get your critic's license yanked. What's interesting is that you prefer Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky and Dickens are quite differentóDickens has no religion, Dostoyevsky has no affectionóbut they both offer heightened, slightly hallucinogenic versions of reality. Trollope may not be fit to do more than shine Tolstoy's shoes, but they both claim to offer The Thing Itself, in large swatches. This is what makes lists fun."

    ē "Bach on piano vs. harpsichordómaybe I told you this storyóif so, stop me hereóbut as a child doing the local music competition circuit, I came across that issue in what became my first example of biased judging. Picture the 10 year old me playing some 3 part invention as influenced by a Russian piano teacher. Then picture the same me with a stricken look when told by the judge that I had violated one of his tenets in not playing the piece Ďas if it were for the harpsichord.í The winner was a very nice, shy young Korean girl who did just as he askedóbecause she had no hand strength and could barely punch the piano keys. (And her teacher later apologized to my parents for what had happened!) After that I was never much of a fan of harpsichords..."

    ē "Donít make me choose between Elvis Costello and Steely Dan. That one is way too hard. Otherwise, my hunch is that we line up about 90 percent of the time."

    ē "13/20, or 65%. I deleted a few to make it an even 20, but they were all prejudicial: I think I would like T. Williams better than Albee, but I haven't read/seen the latter. Same with Simpsons over Sopranos. It had to be 20 instead of 100 since I'm not as familiar with as many kinds of culture as you are. In addition, the "barely-passing" score might be my youth (how many teenagers read you Terry? I'm one) and inexperience. I suspect I'd find myself agreeing with you a lot on musical theater and jazz as I start listening to more of itÖ"

    ē "Re the TCCI: agree with 45; disagree with 20 (most stridently with your preference for Tchaikovsky over Chopin and Daffy Duck over Bugs Bunny); DKI (in lawyer-speak, deny knowledge or information as to one or both) with 23; dislike both choices in 9 (most notably Pollock and De Kooning); unable to choose between comedy and tragedy, and do not understand the juxtaposition of Lincoln and Churchill (what exactly is being compared?). I think I am short one or two. It was fun. Thanks."

    ē "Like you I am an A type with the following exceptions: No. 75 is a Sushi-no and I am an old smoothie when it comes to No. 85 [peanut butter]. No. 14 is up for grabs as it would be hard for me to choose between Billie and Ella."

    ē "Ah, paralysis! Some of the choices are so obvious (and frequently the second, non-Terry choice), but so many of them brought me to a complete mental stasis that I was endangering my breakfast hour. I guess I have wimpy values, alas. Or more catholic taste."

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, July 5, 2004
    TT: Hostage to fortune

    People are always asking me if thereís some especially dumb movie, song, TV show, or book of which Iím fond for no obvious reason, and Iím never able to come up with an answer off the top of my head. Well, I was channel-surfing this afternoon and finally ran across a good solid all-purpose reply which I will henceforth trot out whenever asked: I love Uncle Buck.

    Now go away and stop bugging me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 5, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It was my definite conviction that the family had never behaved worse, that they had never been more obtuse and dull. I explained to Bill that Sunday lunch was always awful.

    "'It's like home,' Bill said, 'it's like home anywhere.'

    "'Is it that way where you live?' I asked.

    "'It's that way anywhere. God Almighty, it's sad.'

    "'Why is it sad?' I asked.

    "'It's sad,' Bill said, 'because they try so hard. It's sad because we don't like anything they do. We're thinking about one sort of thing, and they're thinking about something else.'

    "It was the first time I realized Bill was clever."

    John P. Marquand, H.M. Pulham, Esquire

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 5, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: If you had to choose

    1. Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?
    2. The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises?
    3. Count Basie or Duke Ellington?
    4. Cats or dogs?
    5. Matisse or Picasso?
    6. Yeats or Eliot?
    7. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
    8. Flannery OíConnor or John Updike?
    9. To Have and Have Not or Casablanca?
    10. Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning?
    11. The Who or the Stones?
    12. Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath?
    13. Trollope or Dickens?
    14. Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald?
    15. Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy?
    16. The Moviegoer or The End of the Affair?
    17. George Balanchine or Martha Graham?
    18. Hot dogs or hamburgers?
    19. Letterman or Leno?
    20. Wilco or Cat Power?
    21. Verdi or Wagner?
    22. Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe?
    23. Bill Monroe or Johnny Cash?
    24. Kingsley or Martin Amis?
    25. Robert Mitchum or Marlon Brando?
    26. Mark Morris or Twyla Tharp?
    27. Vermeer or Rembrandt?
    28. Tchaikovsky or Chopin?
    29. Red wine or white?
    30. NoŽl Coward or Oscar Wilde?
    31. Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity?
    32. Shostakovich or Prokofiev?
    33. Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev?
    34. Constable or Turner?
    35. The Searchers or Rio Bravo?
    36. Comedy or tragedy?
    37. Fall or spring?
    38. Manet or Monet?
    39. The Sopranos or The Simpsons?
    40. Rodgers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin?
    41. Joseph Conrad or Henry James?
    42. Sunset or sunrise?
    43. Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter?
    44. Mac or PC?
    45. New York or Los Angeles?
    46. Partisan Review or Horizon?
    47. Stax or Motown?
    48. Van Gogh or Gauguin?
    49. Steely Dan or Elvis Costello?
    50. Reading a blog or reading a magazine?
    51. John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier?
    52. Only the Lonely or Songs for Swinginí Lovers?
    53. Chinatown or Bonnie and Clyde?
    54. Ghost World or Election?
    55. Minimalism or conceptual art?
    56. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny?
    57. Modernism or postmodernism?
    58. Batman or Spider-Man?
    59. Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams?
    60. Johnson or Boswell?
    61. Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf?
    62. The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show?
    63. An Eames chair or a Noguchi table?
    64. Out of the Past or Double Indemnity?
    65. The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni?
    66. Blue or green?
    67. A Midsummer Nightís Dream or As You Like It?
    68. Ballet or opera?
    69. Film or live theater?
    70. Acoustic or electric?
    71. North by Northwest or Vertigo?
    72. Sargent or Whistler?
    73. V.S. Naipaul or Milan Kundera?
    74. The Music Man or Oklahoma?
    75. Sushi, yes or no?
    76. The New Yorker under Ross or Shawn?
    77. Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee?
    78. The Portrait of a Lady or The Wings of the Dove?
    79. Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham?
    80. Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe?
    81. Diana Krall or Norah Jones?
    82. Watercolor or pastel?
    83. Bus or subway?
    84. Stravinsky or Schoenberg?
    85. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
    86. Willa Cather or Theodore Dreiser?
    87. Schubert or Mozart?
    88. The Fifties or the Twenties?
    89. Huckleberry Finn or Moby-Dick?
    90. Thomas Mann or James Joyce?
    91. Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins?
    92. Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman?
    93. Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill?
    94. Liz Phair or Aimee Mann?
    95. Italian or French cooking?
    96. Bach on piano or harpsichord?
    97. Anchovies, yes or no?
    98. Short novels or long ones?
    99. Swing or bebop?
    100. "The Last Judgment" or "The Last Supper"?

    Close readers of "About Last Night" may already have guessed that Iíd choose column A over column B in all casesóbut some calls would be much closer than others, while others remain subject to change without notice....

    How about you? Whatís your Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index?

    (If you answered all 100 questions, your TCCI is the number of answers from column A. If you left some of the questions blank because you weren't familiar with one or both of the possible answers, your TCCI is the number of column-A answers divided by the total number of questions that you answered.)

    UPDATE: If you came directly to this posting via a link, go here to learn what the TCCI is all about.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, July 5, 2004 | Permanent link

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