About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, December 8, 2006
TT: Hootie hits the road
Anyone who played jazz in Kansas City in the Seventies ran into Jay McShann
from time to time, and was invariably the better for it. A great, genial presence on the bandstand, he played no-nonsense piano and sang the blues in a slyly insinuating manner that never failed to give pleasure.
History mainly remembers McShann as the man who led the big band with which Charlie Parker made his first studio recordings back in 1941, but he and his group were far more than just a footnote to bebop. Their Decca recordings of “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Bounce,” and “Swingmatism” (reissued a couple of years ago as part of Jumpin’ the Blues, a budget-priced two-CD set from Proper Records)
are as ear-catching now as they were six and a half decades ago—and not just because of Parker’s solos, either.
After dropping out of sight for a long, dry spell, McShann resurfaced in 1969, subsequently recording an all-star comeback album called Last of the Blue Devils whose well-deserved success made him a fixture on the festival circuit. It was around then that I first heard him in person, marveling at the fact that he was still around, and still swinging. Those were the days when I’d just started playing bass professionally, and though I never got the chance to work with McShann, I was sinfully proud to be able to say that I was, like him, a Kansas City jazzman.
McShann died in a Kansas City hospital yesterday. He was ninety years old. The Kansas City Star’s obituary is here, along with a package of related stories and video clips. It leaves out a few things, including the fact that Alvin Ailey made a dance in 1988, Opus McShann, set to several of McShann’s recordings, but it gets the important stuff right, and it also includes a characteristic quote from the man himself, courtesy of the Associated Press obit:
You'd just have some people sitting around, and you'd hear some cat play, and somebody would say, “This cat, he sounds like he's from Kansas City.” It was the Kansas City style. They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south.
They still do.
UPDATE: The New York Times obituary is here. It’s serviceable, though short. Nothing from the Washington Post, which surprises me—they tend to be quick on the uptake, but this time they dropped the ball. (The Post finally got in the game on Sunday.)
TT: Gospel truth
I reviewed two shows this week, one terrific (Two Trains Running) and one so-so (High Fidelity). Here’s the scoop, straight from this morning’s Wall Street Journal:
Not long after launching this column, I coined the Drama Critic’s Prayer: Dear God, if it can’t be good, let it be short. In fact, today’s playwrights are well aware of the shrunken attention spans of TV-conditioned playgoers, and so their plays are growing shorter by the season. I don’t have a problem with that—I like artists who stick to the point, assuming they have one—but the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of “Two Trains Running,” August Wilson’s 1990 play, is anything but boring even though it runs for three hours and ten minutes. If I hadn’t checked, I would have taken for granted that it clocked in at two hours and change.
What makes “Two Trains Running” so engrossing? It’s not the plot, because there isn’t one. All Wilson does is put his characters in a rundown Pittsburgh diner and set them to mulling over past misfortunes and present frustrations, swapping stories in the time-honored manner of working-class people who can afford no amusement but conversation. The time is 1969, and political implications are scattered throughout this snapshot of a ghetto neighborhood gone to seed, but Wilson never forces them on you. Like all great artists, he trusts you to connect the dots….
Stephen Frears’s film version of “High Fidelity” is on my Top Five list of good movies based on good books, in between “Strangers on a Train” and “Out of Sight.” (I actually prefer it to Nick Hornby’s novel.) The script is smart, the cast impeccable. What’s not to like? Nothing—so why turn it into a musical? Alas, the producers of “High Fidelity” came to a different conclusion, and now seem likely to lose their shirts….
The unfamiliar faces taking up space on the stage of the Imperial Theatre are bland TV-type actors who mostly do their best to remind you of John Cusack, Jack Black, Tim Robbins, Todd Louiso and Lisa Bonet. And that’s what’s wrong with “High Fidelity”: It’s good enough to make you want to go home and watch the movie again—but no better.
As usual, no free link, so buy the paper and read the rest of my review, O.K.? Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you abracadabra-type access to my review, among innumerable other good things, including Joe Morgenstern’s super-smart film reviews. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)
TT: The artist next door
The occasion for my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, is a new program recently announced by Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School that will send young musical professionals into New York City’s public schools to teach—and, hopefully, to inspire by example.
Aside from the intrinsic merits of the program, what interests me about it is the fact that it is designed to inject artists into the community, thus helping to break down the wall that separates them from the people they serve. How many practicing professional artists do you know? If you read “About Last Night,” your answer is likely to be different from that of the average concertgoer. And why does that matter? To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
Thursday, December 7, 2006
Q. You speak of your early plays as being poetic. What caused the change?
A. When I first started writing plays I couldn’t write good dialogue because I didn’t respect how black people talked. I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them. I let them start talking. The important thing is not to censor them. What they are talking about may not seem to have anything to do with what you as a writer are writing about but it does. Let them talk and it will connect, because you as a writer will make it connect. The more my characters talk, the more I find out about them. So I encourage them. I tell them, "Tell me more." I just write it down and it starts to make connections.
August Wilson, interview, Paris Review (Winter 1999)
TT: Ears on the prize
This year’s Grammy nominations
are even duller than usual, but there are some highlights among the dross. I was amazed and delighted, for instance, to see that Karrin Allyson’s Footprints, Nancy King’s Live at Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch, and Diana Krall’s From This Moment On were all nominated as Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Here are some other noteworthy nominations:
• BEST COUNTRY INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMANCE: Chris Thile, “The Eleventh Reel,” from How to Grow a Woman From the Ground (Sugar Hill)
• BEST JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield, Trio Beyond—Saudades (ECM)
• BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE ALBUM: Bob Brookmeyer and the New Art Orchestra, Spirit Music (ArtistShare)
• BEST SOUTHERN, COUNTRY, OR BLUEGRASS GOSPEL ALBUM: Del McCoury Band, The Promised Land (McCoury Music)
• BEST CONTEMPORARY FOLK/AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)
• BEST MUSICAL SHOW ALBUM: The original-cast albums of The Drowsy Chaperone (Ghostlight) and the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd (Nonesuch)
• BEST ALBUM NOTES: Fats Waller, If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It! (Bluebird/Legacy, notes by Dan Morgenstern)
• BEST CLASSICAL VOCAL PERFORMANCE: Ian Bostridge, Britten Orchestral Song Cycles (EMI Classics)
Somehow I doubt that any of these folks will be seen on the Grammy telecast!
Speaking of niche marketing, I was fascinated to learn that in addition to such hair-splitting categories as Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Surround Sound Album, there are now Grammies for the best albums in the following categories: Tropical Latin, Mexican/Mexican-American, Tejano, Norteño, Banda, Native American, Hawaiian, and Polka.
OGIC: Chilling with Caroline Blackwood
New York Review Books, which is doing some of the most interesting publishing today, has launched a blog that should be worth keeping an eye on: A Different Stripe. As it happens, the last book I finished was an NYRB Classic and a curious specimen. Here's a review/reflection.
Caroline Blackwood's taut, efficient Great Granny Webster (1977) is a novel with a void and a chill at the center. Autobiographical to an unknown degree, it is narrated by the great-granddaughter of the title character. About the narrator's great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt, we learn a great deal, none of it favorable. About the orphaned narrator herself we know little more than her appalled apprehension of her female forebears. The book is in some ways reminiscent of Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood—notably in the perspective it adopts of the preternaturally observant orphan imprisoned in a a secondhand family of unsympathetic relative strangers—but substitutes a vague air of disaffection for the young Mary's sense of persecution and injustice. Unlike McCarthy's book, it purports to be a novel, but reportedly lost the Booker Prize by the tiebreaking vote of Philip Larkin, who admired it but bestowed his favor elsewhere because he suspected Blackwood of having written nonfiction.
The novel doesn't so much unfold as unfurl, swish, swish, swish, in three rather static character studies followed by a brief coda that brings us graveside to descend into the vertiginous pitch-dark slapstick on which this odd reading experience ends. The first and dominant portrait is of Great Granny Webster herself, with whom the fourteen-year-old narrator is deposited to convalesce following an illness. In a great, grim house in a suburb of Brighton with a single servant, Great Granny Webster lives as a kind of carefully preserved monument to thrift and propriety, the embodied inverse of plenty and pleasure—"fiercely joyless," the narrator calls her.
And yet—is Great Granny really altogether without her charms, however unintentional?
...sometimes after meals had been served she would wait for the crippled figure of Richards to go limping out of the room, and she would suddenly start to make a few bleak and deadpan statements without appearing to expect any answer. I had the feeling that if I had not been with her, she would still have made the same remarks aloud to herself.
"Now-a-days," she would suddenly say, "people have been spoiled. They don't want to be servants any more. It's all the fault of the war. It's this last beastly war that has given them all such a taste for working in munitions."
She would take some saccharine from her silver sugar-bowl and drop it carefully into her tiny china coffee-cup and stir it slowly until it dissolved. She never took more than one frugal little tablet. She often told me she could not abide waste."
"I know exactly how to answer them, when now-a-days they ask me how I would like to be their servant!"
She would pause dramatically, like an actress who expects to be clapped for her line. Her pursed little discontented mouth would give a twitch, the only movement it seemed able to make that faintly resembled a smile.
"Poor silly things! I know exactly how to answer that! If I ever had to be their servant—I would only be the most excellent servant!"
Something in this, and in other details about the matriarch Webster, I found oddly disarming. And at the end of the narrator's eight-week stay at Hove, she startles the narrator at the train station by recalling her grandson, the narrator's father, dead in the war, with real emotion. The narrator's response: "Goodbye." She's fourteen, so this is understandable. What's less so is how untouched by this show of feeling her mature, retrospective account of her great-grandmother is—so invested is it in the picturesque extremity of the bleakness it paints.
In their own distinct ways, the portraits that follow—of the narrator's suicidal, fast-living aunt Lavinia and her unpicturesquely insane grandmother—are also sad descriptive tours de force. The sketch of the grandmother comes secondhand from the tales of an old school chum of the narrator's father. While we hear almost nothing of her mother, her father is the painfully missing piece whose absence exacerbates all of the characters' worst tendencies and miseries. He's doubly a cipher, not only absent but mysterious to the narrator—specifically in the attachment he demonstrated to Great Granny Webster, who, in the explanatory narrative the narrator would like us to believe, is the ultimate agent of all the dysfunction besetting the family.
She doesn't quite fit into that narrative, however, just as in the queasily comical horror of the final scene, she exceeds the space—in the ground and in the ceremony—allotted for her:
And then there seemed to be too much of Great Granny Webster to be emptied into the ground. There was something almost obscene in the sheer quantities in which she was emerging. I had expected that the clergyman would just take one handful of her ashes and throw them into the grave as a symbol. But instead he kept impatiently tipping the urn and his frozen face looked exasperated at the way that her white powdery substance would not stop flowing out.
Blackwood was a talent, no doubt, and Great Granny Webster is a bracing read in its chilly way: remorseless, fiendishly precise, generously larded with memorable scenes and characters, and frequently funny in an awful way (see especially the Lavinia chapter). The funeral scene on which it ends introduces into the mix lasting, intertwined notes of comedy and despair. By emphasizing the narrator's undying dread of the woman being put to rest it raises the possibility that what seems the book's cold climate belongs more precisely to the narrator.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 7, 2006 | Permanent
Time Out New York has just published a multi-part feature called “Critiquing the Critics”
in which New York-based arts professionals (including publicists) were invited to grade the critics who cover them. The participants in the survey are identified by name, but their comments about specific critics are anonymous—with good reason, too, in more than a few cases.
This is, in theory, a nifty idea. I was going to comment on the methodology of the survey, which is (to put it mildly) problematic, but it seems that fellow blogger Apollinaire Scherr, the dance critic of Newsday, has already done it for me. As for the actual results, they’re both interesting and on occasion highly suggestive. If you’re curious, you can read what the panelists had to say about New York’s drama critics, myself included, by going here.
I should add, by the way, that I don’t quarrel with any of the specific comments that were made about me, which is—I suppose—a pleasant surprise.
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 gave these shows favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• A Chorus Line* (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Company (musical, PG-13/R, adult subject matter and situations, reviewed here)
• The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Vertical Hour* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Apr. 1)
• Voyage (The Coast of Utopia, part 1)* (drama, G, too intellectually complex to be suitable for children of any age, reviewed here, closes Mar. 6)
• The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Dec. 31)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children old enough to enjoy a love story, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• Slava’s Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here, closes Jan. 14)
• The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (drama, R, adult subject matter and nudity, reviewed here)
CLOSING NEXT WEEK:
• Heartbreak House* (drama, G/PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Dec. 17)
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
"There is, indeed, an art to being an aware and responsive audience. In recent years, we have fallen into a simple-minded equation of 'participation' with overt activity. But one participates more meaningfully in really seeing one great work than in turning out a hundred mediocrities."
Thomas Albright, On Art and Artists
OGIC: Breakfast links
More blogging to come this evening, but for now here are some links to go with your cup of joe:
• I agree with Dan Green of the Reading Experience probably half the time, but I always read him. He can be counted on, for one thing, to seethe eloquently about what's wrong with academic literary studies, as in his post today:
What now passes for literary criticism in the learned journals does less than nothing to encourage active reading, much less rereading. It wades around in the shallow waters of ideology and second-hand social analysis, leaving serious readers of literature to swim for themselves.
• I know, I know--some of you don't want to hear about hockey! But far more estimable arts bloggers than your present interlocutor occasionally must need blog on such lesser matters. A new entry in the wide world of hockey blogs is A Theory of Ice. It's turned my head with consistently elegant writing, and is particularly good on the culture of the game and its followers, as here on physicality as a two-sided coin and here on fandom and love.
• Mr. Quiet Bubble wasn't bowled over by Borat. Can't say I was either, though I giggled plenty. The Saunders link is well worth following. Part of the reason it's been hard to blog lately is that so many of my recent literary and cinematic excursions have proven so blah. I crave a transformative art experience, but it turns out this doesn't happen on demand. I do have a new lead or two, though, about which more soon.
See you tonight!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 6, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Sorry about that
Yes, I'm in Connecticut, but something came up that I thought was worth sharing. The critics of the Chicago Tribune recently published a series of columns called “Critical Reversals” in which they confessed—sort of—to having changed their minds about pieces they’d written in the past. (For links to the individual columns, go here.)
Not surprisingly, these columns have provoked a certain amount of comment in the blogosphere, much of it skeptical. As for me, I have a personal interest in “Critical Reversals,” for in 2002 I published a column in The Wall Street Journal called “The Contrite Critic” in which I discussed one of my own blunders:
The big news for balletomanes is the coming of the Mark Morris Dance Group to Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. Tonight, the company will be giving the first of four performances of "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," Mr. Morris's evening-long stage version of the Handel oratorio. "L'Allegro" is one of the most important dances of the past quarter-century, so this week's performances are by definition a great occasion.
They will also be an occasion for me to eat crow, since I am, so far as I know, the only critic ever to have given "L'Allegro" a bad review. Seven years ago, I covered the Lincoln Center premiere for the New York Daily News, and I just didn't get it. I called "L'Allegro" "impressive in its seriousness, stunning in its inventiveness--and, ultimately, disappointing in its emotional flatness." I've written my share of wrongheaded reviews, but that's the one I regret most, because I was too dense to know a masterpiece when I saw it….
I mention this because it is a good thing for critics to abase themselves in public, even though we do it so rarely. I've changed my mind about art more than once, and I've learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always—sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn't as good as I'd thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal….
The Journal posted a free link to this column, and you can still read the whole thing here. More recently, I revisited the subject here.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 6, 2006 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
“The great man who can only be succeeded by a ‘lieutenant of Marines,’ a chief clerk, or a tired servile hack, is not a necessity. But the leader who himself has strength and leaves behind strength—the truly ‘great man’ and genuine ‘leader’—looks completely different and acts completely differently from the ‘great man’ of popular myth. He does not lead by ‘charisma’—an abomination and phony, even when it is not a press agent’s invention. The truly strong man leads by hard work and dedication. He does not centralize everything in his hands but builds a team. He dominates through integrity, not through manipulation. He is not clever, but simple and honest.”
Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 6, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Empty holes
Like most prolific authors of a certain age (i.e., middle), I've written dozens of uncollected essays, articles, and reviews that vanished into the Black Hole of Forgotten Journalism shortly after they saw print. The posting that follows is cobbled together from a couple of pieces I wrote back in the Nineties, neither of which made it into A Terry Teachout Reader. In the unlikely event that any of you read either one of them when they were originally published, pardon my redundancy. Otherwise, I hope you find this recycled version interesting.
* * *
The surprising thing about American movies is not that most of them are stupid, but that any of them are smart. This blinding flash of insight came to me a few years ago as I sat in my neighborhood movie house and watched a more than usually boneheaded reel of trailers advertising the summer’s coming attractions. I wouldn’t have willingly paid a quarter to see a single one of them, even with free popcorn thrown in. Of course they were dumb. They’re supposed to be dumb, so as to attract the largest possible audience of paying dummies.
Just because I’m not a cynic doesn’t make me an optimist, though. I know I’m betting against the house every time I walk into a theater. For this reason, I sometimes find myself temporarily disarmed by a movie that is smart on the surface; less often, a film may simulate smartness so effectively that I go home thinking it was good, and only later realize that I’ve been hornswoggled. Joel and Ethan Coen fall between these two stools. I’ve seen most all of the Coen brothers’ movies, and in nearly every case I had the same sequence of mixed feelings, not after the fact but on the spot. First came a rush of something like relief, usually within the first minute or two: whatever else Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo were, they weren’t stupid. Thus reassured, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself—but then second thoughts started to creep in, not about how smart the Coens were, but about the ends to which their smartness was being put.
The movie that finally caused me to make up my mind about the Coen brothers was The Big Lebowski, in which they explicitly satirized the film noir conventions with which they played in Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing. In case you've forgotten, The Big Lebowski is the story of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, a former SDS member who spent his undergraduate days occupying administration buildings and smoking dope by the kilo (his sole achievement in life is to have helped write "the original Port Huron Statement—not the compromised second draft"), has renounced his dreams of revolution and retired to Los Angeles, the paradise of sloth and disillusion, where he draws unemployment, slurps down White Russians more or less continuously and hangs out at the neighborhood bowling alley with his foul-mouthed friends. But someone has been telling lies about the Dude, for one fine day a pair of hired thugs, mistaking him for a self-made millionaire of the same name, smash up his apartment and urinate on his rug. He thereupon seeks out "the big Lebowski" for a chat and promptly finds himself swept up in a kidnapping.
What follows is straight out of Raymond Chandler—the wheelchair-bound client, the blonde trophy wife, the sex-crazed daughter, the rich pornographer, the impossibly complex plot whose various elements never quite mesh—except that Philip Marlowe, the sardonic knight errant of The Big Sleep, has been replaced by the Dude, an unfailingly amiable slacker who reacts to the chaos swirling around him with a combination of befuddlement and good humor, pushing his remaining brain cells to the limit as he endeavors to puzzle out who did what to whom.
Like all of the Coens' movies, The Big Lebowski crackles with disdain for the irredeemable banality of American mass culture. Even Fargo, the first of their films to appeal to a popular audience—and the only one to suggest a certain grudging respect for the traditional values it portrays—took a decidedly dim view of life in small-town Minnesota. It's surely no coincidence that the Dude, who is alienated to the point of paralysis, is also the only person in The Big Lebowski for whom we are meant to feel anything more than amused scorn. Far more representative of the Coens' now-familiar stock company of blithering idiots is Walter Sobchak, the Dude's bowling partner, a pistol-packing Vietnam vet whose impenetrable stupidity is matched only by his unshakable conviction that he knows the one best way to do everything. Leave it to the Coens to make a joke out of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scorn is the gunpowder of satire, and The Big Lebowski is so keenly observed that it's tempting to treat it as a serious critique of the moral emptiness of American life. It helps that there's so much to satirize in the apathetic lifestyles of such hapless members of the contemporary lumpenproletariat as Walter and the Dude, not to mention the latter-day cult of noir: both phenomena, after all, are expressions of the homegrown quasi-nihilism that is fully as intrinsic to the American national character as the Puritan work ethic which is its inversion.
But noir, for all its tiresome affectations, really does pose a challenging ethical question: how can a man conduct himself with honor in a radically corrupted society? This, needless to say, is the whole point of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep very much included. Philip Marlowe may talk in wisecracks, but there is nothing frivolous about the way he struggles to preserve his integrity in the face of temptation. Nor are the unhappy children of the Sixties who inhabit The Big Lebowski wholly deserving of our contempt. Though they made desperate messes of their lives, their foolishness arose from genuine idealism, however misbegotten, and if they failed to appreciate the values of the society they proposed to dismantle in the name of peace, love, and understanding, it was in no small part because their parents, worn down by the Great Depression and World War II, proved unwilling to defend those values when push came once again to shove.
As for Joel and Ethan Coen, it turns out that they, too, are nihilists, albeit in the postmodern manner: believing in nothing, they find everything funny. This is why their movies so rarely engage the emotions, and thus lack the dangerous edge of real satire. Satire occurs when scorn is ignited by passion, a commodity rarely found in the work of the Coens, who prefer Gen-X cool to baby-boom angst. The last thing they'd want is to be caught feeling something intensely.
"He's a nihilist," Maude Lebowski says of one of the heavies in The Big Lebowski, to which the Dude cheerfully replies, "Oh, that must be exhausting." Indeed it is, and the Coens, like the Dude, are too tired to do anything but poke clever but ultimately pointless fun at the morally null world in which they live. True postmodernists, they look into the abyss and laugh.
Monday, December 4, 2006
"Nihilism as a symptom that the losers have no more consolation: that they destroy in order to be destroyed, that without morality they no longer have any reason to 'resign themselves': that they put themselves on the level of the opposite principle and for their part also want power in that they compel the mighty to be their hangmen. This is the European form of Buddhism, renunciation, once all existence has lost its 'meaning.'"
Friedrich Nietzsche, unpublished note (June 10, 1887)
New York City can be a vexing and unnerving place to live. Helicopters woke me at six-fifteen this morning, a bit earlier than my usual rise-shine-and-write time, and yesterday afternoon I shared a subway with a fellow who kept shouting "Kill 'em all! Kill 'em all!" as he walked briskly from one end of the car to the other and back again.
Be all this as it may, I'm in a thoroughly benign mood, for I just returned from a visit to my cardiologist, one year to the week after my busy life was interrupted by an unexpected ambulance ride to Lenox Hill Hospital. He tells me that my heart is now completely normal, with no irregularities of any kind. So long as I keep taking my medicine, eating right, and going to the gym, it'll stay that way.
It was snowing when I arrived at the doctor's office—but by the time I got back home, the sun was out. No fooling.
TT: Not guilty
A reader writes, apropos of this posting:
Your iPod list and brief commentary brought to mind an interesting question. I notice you list “S.O.S.” as a “guilty pleasure.” It seems that whenever I encounter this phrase regarding a piece of music, it is always applied to rock and roll (by which I mean rock and roll in its broadest definition—the momentum-based forms of music that have dominated pop culture since 1955). My question is this: as far as you know, is there such a thing as a "guilty pleasure" in any other essentially populist musical genre? I've never once heard a jazz, country or blues record described thus. Same for show tunes or traditional Tin Pan Alley pop or any brand of folk or gospel. I'm interested because quite often when I see something described as a guilty pleasure, it's a record I like a lot (“S.O.S.” included) and if there are some of them lying around in other forms I'd certainly like to get to know them!
This is a wonderful question, one that makes a point that had never previously occurred to me. The phrase “guilty pleasure,” of course, is itself inherently problematic, because it implies that we ought to be hypocrites when it comes to our artistic responses. Kingsley Amis said the last word about this deeply wrongheaded attitude: "All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt." The inverse is also true. I really do like “S.O.S.,” which I believe to be a beautifully crafted pop single, so why should I feel guilty about it?
Generally speaking, though, I don’t fall victim to either error, partly because I don’t give a damn about received opinion and partly because it’s unusual for me to like fundamentally dishonest art. It occurs to me that this might point in the direction of a working definition of bonafide “guilty pleasures” and our responses to them: guilty pleasures let us off too easy by pandering to our innate longing for unearned simplicity. They are the Krispy Kreme donuts of art.
Most commercial movies, for instance, are made on the assumption that audiences want to see moral struggle—but not too much of it. Much more often than not, we know as soon as the credits roll exactly what we're supposed to think the star ought to do (kiss the girl! give back the money!), and we spend the next hour and a half waiting for him to finally get around to doing it. When he does, we go home happy; if he doesn't, we go home feeling cheated, and tell all our friends to pick a different movie next weekend.
Smooth jazz, like minimalist music, works in something of the same way, but I don’t know that I’d call either genre a guilty pleasure because I don’t find either one pleasurable, any more than I find reality TV pleasurable. As for the pop and country music of my youth—the kind that used to be played on AM radio—I didn’t like most of it back then and don’t like it now, but I always made an exception for simple, well-crafted songs like "S.O.S." whose “catchiness” was a function of their musical integrity.
And are there guilty pleasures to be found in other musical genres? I’ll end by handing out hostages to fortune: here are fifteen stylistically wide-ranging records of variously dubious artistic merits from which I nonetheless derive wholly guilt-free pleasure. Brace yourselves:
• George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
• Henry Mancini, “Baby Elephant Walk”
• Kim Carnes, “Bette Davis Eyes”
• A Taste of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie”
• The Carpenters, “Close to You”
• Rupert Holmes, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”
• Hal Kemp, “Got a Date With an Angel”
• Melissa Manchester, “Nice Girls”
• Al Dexter, “Pistol Packin’ Mama”
• Hall & Oates, “Private Eyes”
• Young-Holt Unlimited, “Soulful Strut”
• Carmen Miranda, “South American Way”
• Vladimir Horowitz, “The Stars and Stripes Forever”
• Classics IV, “Stormy”
• Bing Crosby, “Sweet Leilani”
Make of that list what you will.
TT: They've got a great big list
Speaking of lists, the cover story in the December issue of the Atlantic is a feature called “They Made America” for which ten “eminent historians” were invited to draw up lists of “the most influential figures in American history,” which were then combined into a giant-sized über-list
of America’s Top One Hundred Influentials. Such lists are scarcely more than an intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) party game, but it’s always fun to play, and if you go here you can see who made the cut.
Here are the artists:
16. Mark Twain
22. Walt Whitman
26. Walt Disney
33. Ralph Waldo Emerson
41. Harriet Beecher Stowe
49. Frederick Law Olmsted (he designed Central Park)
59. Louis Sullivan (he invented the skyscraper)
60. William Faulkner
65. Henry David Thoreau
66. Elvis Presley
76. Frank Lloyd Wright
79. Louis Armstrong
83. James Fenimore Cooper
85. Ernest Hemingway
92. John Steinbeck
95. Sam Goldwyn (I suppose you could call him an artist)
97. Stephen Foster
100. Herman Melville
Eighteen people, ten of them writers, including three bad novelists. No playwrights. No film or stage directors. No painters (unless you count Samuel F.B. Morse, No. 45 on the list). No sculptors. No choreographers. Only one songwriter, and no other composers of any kind. Do I detect the least little whiff of philistinism on the part of those eminent historians? At least Satchmo made the cut!
In addition to the main list, the magazine published five secondary rosters of influential architects, filmmakers, musicians, poets, and critics. David Thomson chose the filmmakers, and his picks, as always, were illuminating: D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and (here’s the ringer) Andy Warhol.I chose the musicians, and after a good deal of preliminary thought, I opted to play it down the ringerless center: Armstrong, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.
This, incidentally, is the second such collective venture in which I have participated. Back in 1998 and 1999, Time ran a series of tributes to what it claimed were the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century, including twenty “artists and entertainers”: Armstrong, Dylan, Lucille Ball, the Beatles, Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Le Corbusier, T.S. Eliot, Aretha Franklin, Martha Graham, Jim Henson, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bart Simpson, Frank Sinatra, Steven Spielberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Oprah Winfrey. I wrote the article on Graham, but not before begging the editors to choose George Balanchine instead. Alas, I couldn’t change their minds, so I bit my tongue and did my duty.
Fortunately, I was allowed to make the final calls on three of the items included in the “Best of the Century” list that Time published on the last day of 1999. For what it’s worth, I chose Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments as best dance of the century (with Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas as runners-up), Britten’s Peter Grimes as best opera (with Berg’s Wozzeck and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as runners-up), and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as best classical composition (with the Ravel String Quartet and Copland’s Appalachian Spring as runners-up). I’d stand by those choices today, though I can easily imagine other, equally satisfactory rosters.
Like I said, it’s only a game—but a good one.
Friday, December 2, 2005
"Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama—with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations, and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.
"In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That’s because hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout.
"Don't mistake me: I said 'shout': I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get all those things said that you never thought you'd be able to say—or never even knew you had it in you to say."
Jean Anouilh, Antigone (trans. Lewis Galantiere)
I haven't been absolutely forthcoming with you about my current state of mind and body, so here goes: I have a little problem called "reactive airways syndrome," which is a kind of respiratory alarm that goes off whenever I let myself get run down and underslept. It started clanging loudly two weeks ago. As a result, I spent the past few days slumped on my couch in a slack-jawed semi-stupor, watching undemanding movies, doing as little as possible, and letting my batteries recharge themselves.
The good news is that I'm finally starting to bounce back, but I'm not quite there yet. In order to ensure a more perfect recovery, I've decided not to blog at all between now and next Friday, December 9, when I'll return to the 'sphere with the weekly drama-column teaser. I'll miss you, but I know you'll understand.
Have fun while I'm gone. Visit some of the other blogs listed in the "Sites to See" module. Come goggle at Maud and me on Tuesday night. And fear not: I shall return next Friday!
UPDATE: In addition to all those other cool blogs, you'll find lots and lots of new stuff in the right-hand column to keep you busy in my absence. Enjoy.
TT: The color green
Time again for my weekly drama-column teaser, in which I post titillating snippets of today’s Wall Street Journal reviews of The Color Purple and Abigail’s Party:
Today’s musicals usually feature actors who can sing instead of singers who can act. LaChanze, like Kristin Chenoweth, does both with awe-inspiring conviction. I’d believe anything that came out of her mouth—anything, that is, except “The Color Purple,” which is best described as two hours and 45 minutes’ worth of high-priced phoniness….
I can’t say enough nasty things about the music, which consists of generic gospel, scrubbed-up blues and fake-fur jazz, all somewhat less memorable than the score to a made-for-TV movie….
It’s hard to believe that Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party,” originally written in 1977, is only now receiving its New York premiere. In England it’s considered something of a modern classic, a ferociously funny skewering of middle-class manners, but over here Mr. Leigh is mostly known—if at all—for “Topsy-Turvy,” his extraordinary 1999 biopic about the private lives of Gilbert and Sullivan. Fortunately, the New Group has produced several of his plays Off Broadway, all of them staged by Scott Elliott, the company’s artistic director, and this one belongs on your short list of shows that mustn’t be missed….
No link, so stick a dollar in your pocket and head for the nearest newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review (along with all sorts of other cool art-related stuff).
UPDATE: The Journal has posted a free link to this review. You can read the whole thing here.
TT: Message in a bottle
Television can make you famous, but it can’t keep you famous. It’s more like an opiate—as soon as you stop taking your daily fix, you get all pale and clammy, and before long you vanish in a puff of near-transparent smoke. So far as I know, there’s never been a TV star, no matter how big, who stayed famous for very long once he or she went off the air. (Remember Daniel J. Travanti? I sure hope he had a good financial adviser.) If you’re in it for the long haul, you’ve got to make films or records. Otherwise, you’ll end your days as the answer to a trivia question, remembered only by a soft core of fast-graying fans who knew you when.
I had occasion yesterday afternoon to recall the name of Harry Reasoner, who at one time was quite famous indeed and now is almost entirely forgotten. Not only was he one of the smartest people ever to sit in an anchorman’s chair, but he was also a damned good writer, albeit in a genre that no longer exists: he used to wrap up his TV newscasts with a brief, pithy commentary on some aspect of the day’s news. A few of them made it into Before the Colors Fade: A Look Back, his graceful 1983 memoir, which is out of print but still worth reading. He died in 1991, and now he’s remembered, if at all, for having been one of the original co-anchors of 60 Minutes, together with a much better-known fellow by the name of Mike Wallace.
That’s the trivia question, and if you know that much about Harry Reasoner, you know a lot more than most people. For all his considerable gifts, his fame was almost entirely a function of the fact that he appeared on TV, and once the appearances came to an end, so did the fame. Such is the fate of everyone who chooses to spend his adult life talking into a TV camera. Time was when I admired Reasoner greatly, as I did his colleague Charles Kuralt—but how often do I think of them now that they’re gone?
At any rate, I thought of Harry Reasoner yesterday, and automatically did what all of us Web-dependent creatures do whenever a half-forgotten name floats into our stream of consciousness: I Googled him. The pickings, not surprisingly, were pitifully slim, but I did run across two things he said that made me smile:
Journalism is a kind of profession, or craft, or racket, for people who never wanted to grow up and go out into the real world.
If you're a good journalist, what you do is live a lot of things vicariously, and report them for other people who want to live vicariously.
Nicely said—and anyone capable of speaking with such wry detachment about my line of work probably had a similarly realistic view of his own modest place in the grand scheme of things. So I’ll try not to let it bother me too much that Harry Reasoner has taken his place in the memory hole alongside so many of the celebrities of my youth. After all, I remember him, and the next time someone has occasion to Google his name, they’ll see these words. I wonder when that will be?
TT: I hate to keep reminding you
Actually, I don't, so here we go again: I’ll be teaming up next Tuesday night with litblogger Maud Newton and Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker for a joint performance at Makor, the Upper West Side outpost of the 92nd Street Y. Our subject is “The Art of Online Criticism.”
Says the press release:
Cultural critics find themselves in the same predicament as other members of the traditional media who now must play a new game. Hear three influential critics who write both online and for print discuss how the cultural conversation is evolving and what the future holds when everyone's a critic.
Bryan Keefer is the moderator. The show starts at seven p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
For more information, or to buy tickets online, go here.
TT: Number, please
• Price paid by Chick Austin of the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1938 for Soap Bubble Set, the first work by Joseph Cornell to be purchased by a museum: $60
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $772.29
(Source: Eugene R. Gaddis, Magician of the Modern)
Thursday, December 1, 2005
"What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten and replaced by a new dish."
W.H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Dirty Rotten Scoundrels* (musical, R, extremely vulgar, reviewed here)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes Mar. 26, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Orson's Shadow (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, very strong language, closes Dec. 31, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
• See What I Wanna See (musical, R, adult subject matter, explicit sexual situations, strong language, closes Dec. 4, reviewed here)
• Absurd Person Singular (comedy, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
• Bach in Leipzig (comedy, G, too complicated for any but the brightest children to follow, closes Dec. 18, reviewed here)
• Hamlet (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Dec. 11, reviewed here)
TT: Deal of the decade
Everybody’s talking about new ways to present classical music, but now the Manhattan-based Thalia Music Series is, er, putting its music where your mouth is. Here’s the scoop, straight from the press release:
In December and January, if you try a new dish at a participating restaurant and attend one of the composer=performer: plugged & unplugged concerts (Thalia Music Series, Thursday evenings, December 15, 2005 and January 19, 2006, at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway), you are entitled to a free CD. Just present your receipt from one of the participating restaurants along with your ticket stub to receive the disc at the end of the performance.
Expand your musical palette and hear composers talk about and share their own works in an evening of chamber music. Clarinetist Derek Bermel, flutist Valerie Coleman, and pianist Beata Moon will perform their compositions on December 15, 2005.
• Ouest: 2315 Broadway (at 84th St., 212-580-8700)
• Regional: 2607 Broadway (at 98th St., 212-666-1915)
• Saigon Grill: 620 Amsterdam (at 90th St., 212-875-9072)
• Mill Korean Restaurant: 2895 Broadway (at 113th St., 212-666-7653)
• Turkuaz: 2637 Broadway (at 100th St., 212-665-9541)
January's concert features electric guitarist John King, vocalist Joan La Barbera, and electro-violinist Todd Reynolds. Tickets are $21, or $30 for a pass to both performances. For more information about the programs, go to the Symphony Space Web site.
I should add that I recently heard Beata Moon’s Dinner Is West, a new piano trio that will be performed on December 15, and liked it enormously. I’ve also eaten at Ouest and the Saigon Grill, and can endorse both places no less enthusiastically.
This is a great idea. Give it a try, won't you?
TT: You'd do it for Randolph Scott
Mr. Rifftides has Randolph Scott on his mind. Me, too, so mark your calendar for December 21 at eight p.m. EST, when Turner Classic Movies will be airing the premiere of Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a documentary about the great Hollywood director who made a series of Westerns starring Scott that rank high on the list of insufficiently known classic American films. A Man Can Do That will be followed at 9:30 EST by Seven Men From Now, the first of the Boetticher-Scott collaborations, digitally restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and soon to be released for the first time on DVD. (I've seen a screener of the documentary, by the way, and it's a solid piece of work.)
To commemorate these twin events, American Cowboy has made the text of my essay “What Randolph Scott Knew” available on its Web site:
Scott was secure enough to let his colleagues do the talking, knowing that his gritty, hard-faced on-screen presence would speak for itself. The dashing young leading man of the Thirties now looked as though he’d been carved from a stump, and every word he spoke reeked of disillusion. Yet he continually found himself forced to make moral choices that were always clear but rarely easy. What Scott should do at any given moment is never in doubt, but we also understand that doing it will never make him “happy” in any conventional sense of the word: he must do the right thing for its own sake, not in the hope of any immediate reward….
If you don’t own a copy of A Terry Teachout Reader (and if not, why not?), you can read the complete essay by going here.
TT: Number, please
• Top ticket price for a performance of New York City Ballet at City Center in 1948: $2.50
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $20.68
(Source: Lynn Garafola with Eric Foner, Dance for a City)
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
"Celebrity: the advantage of being known by those who do not know you."
Chamfort, Products of the Perfected Civilization (trans. W.S. Merwin)
OGIC: The sea inside
What's that you say? You could really stand to read just one more review of John Banville's Booker-winning novel The Sea? Well, you're in luck. I threw my two cents into that crowded field in last Sunday's Baltimore Sun.
I found the book lovely and absorbing, but its denouement deflating:
It takes a sure hand and an absolutely arresting style to make this sort of highly interior, small-scale fiction compelling. Banville, his sentences strikingly visual and perfectly tuned, is more than equal to the challenge. Moreover, the character in whose mind we spend the whole of this short novel is neither remarkable nor likable. Having made the climb to the middle class, Max is a bit of a snob. He is comically self-absorbed, squeamish and habitually condescending to women. The book doesn't invite us to identify with him, so when his interior monologue hits a nerve, it has to do with the truly universal aspects of human experience - vanity, ambivalence about mortality, awe of the natural world, romantic and sexual infatuation.
In a sense, despite its narrow point of view and mundane subject matter, burrowing psychological fiction like this is more ambitious than fiction with a wider lens. For most of The Sea, Banville succeeds brilliantly at making quite gripping reading out of the dwindling, ordinary life of an ordinary man. The drabness of Max's present existence is offset by the heady, luminous quality of his memories. The day he kissed Chloe Grace "had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds when we were going into the picture-house in what had still been afternoon and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon's already dusk-blue distances."
Of course, everyone's memories seem splendid and suggestive to them, and for most of the novel it doesn't appear that Banville is making any special claims for the extraordinariness of Max's past, however much the character may be rapt at the ongoing slide show in his head.
At the end of the book, however, we learn that the memories Max has immersed himself in are part of an extraordinary story indeed. Secrets are revealed, and The Sea snaps into focus as a very different book than it had appeared to be, a book with a twist and a scandal at its core. To my mind, it becomes a lesser one: no less intelligent and skillful, but less moving and ambitious than when it was apparently scrutinizing mundane experience.
But still well worth reading. This line, quoted earlier in my review, was one that particularly interested me: "Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still." Although this seems to be intended in part as a reflection of the protagonist's vocation as an art historian—of Bonnard specifically, with his sensual stolen domestic moments—it's close to my experience, too, of very intense memories. They're snapshots, frozen motion. I loved the rich texture of the ordinary in this novel, and wished that Banville had been content to convey that. The mystery unveiled at the end felt distinctly superfluous.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, November 30, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Number, please
• Tennessee Williams' weekly share in 1945 of the box-office receipts from The Glass Menagerie: $1,000
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $10,504.82
(Source: Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 30, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
"It makes me very aware of my wasted life as an artist; I should have chucked security and settled for Bohemianism in which my talents might have flowered more originally. Perhaps wife and child and the desire for roots have been a mistake. I should have given an adventurous Lear by now and invented a clown. Ah well. What I have is a dear good wife, a dear good son and a house with views of rolling downs, trees, grass, and open skies. And a pretty good collection of books."
Alec Guinness (diary entry, Jan. 1, 1981)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, November 30, 2005 | Permanent
TT: I'd rather be right
Joseph Epstein has published a sharply negative reconsideration of the criticism of Edmund Wilson (whom he once admired) in the December issue of Commentary. The essay isn’t yet posted on the Web, but it doesn’t matter, because I don’t want to talk about Wilson. Instead, I’m interested in the following passage:
One of the advantages artists have over critics is that they can be nearly complete damn fools and still produce interesting and important, even lasting, art. Critics are not permitted such large margins of stupidity. It matters that they get things right; their opinions, which is all they chiefly have, are crucial.
These three sentences need a certain amount of unpacking. For starters, they contain a planted axiom—critics aren't artists—which some readers will find controversial. Not me, though I think criticism can be artful, and should be. Nothing is more tiresome than a badly written review of a well-written book. In general, though, it seems to me self-evident that criticism normally derives its meaning and significance from the works of art about which the critic writes. It doesn't stand alone. Great art, by contrast, always stands alone, in the sense that it contains within itself all the information necessary for it to be meaningfully experienced. You’ll get more out of All the King’s Men if you know who Huey Long was, but you don’t have to know anything about him—or Robert Penn Warren—to grasp the point of the novel, or be moved by it, just as you don’t have to know anything about Mozart to appreciate the G Minor Symphony.
Having said this, I’m not entirely sure I agree with Epstein when he suggests that the most important thing about criticism is that it “get things right.” Of course it’s desirable to be right, and I don’t see how it’s possible to take seriously a critic who’s wrong about most things. Nevertheless, I’m uneasy with the notion that “getting things right” is the ultimate test of a critic’s worth, just as I’m not entirely willing to go along with the notion that criticism isn’t art. George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, the two greatest music critics of modern times, got all sorts of things wrong, but even at their most willful they never failed to be both interesting and artful. I’d rather read Thomson on, say, Paul Hindemith (whom he completely misunderstood) than Olin Downes on anything, even though Downes was more likely than Thomson to be “right” on any given subject. The trouble with Thomson is that he was violently prejudiced and thus unreliable. The trouble with Downes is that he was boring. Whom would you rather read?
Of course Thomson wasn’t just a critic, he was also a composer, and I think that makes a difference, though I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what it is. It’s easier to explain in the case of Shaw, who was, like him or not (and I don’t), an imaginative writer of high style and memorable personality. These things cannot be separated: a memorable personality is the enabling condition of a great style. We read Shaw’s music criticism for what it tells us about music, but it’s no less worth reading for what it tells us about Shaw.
This is part of what I was getting at in the last chapter of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken:
He was, of course, something more than a memorable stylist, if something less than a truly wise man. Daniel Aaron speaks of “the great comic writer who as time passes will be remembered less for what he said than how he said it,” but the fact remains that his charm is inseparable from his habits of thought. However perverse or excessive his underlying ideas may be, they retain much of their impelling force. One cannot help being impressed by the stubborn way in which Mencken the self-made philosopher grapples, in his unpretentious, take-no-prisoners way, with the permanent things: the limits of art, the rule of law, the meaning of life. The simplicity, one comes to realize, is inseparable from the message. In Mencken, style and content are one, and the resulting alloy is more than merely individual: it is a matchlessly exact expression of the American temper.
That’s where the art comes in. If you can write like Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, and if you have a personality as interesting as theirs, you don’t have to be "right" in order to be taken seriously as a critic. You are, in fact, an artist—a personal essayist whose subject matter is art.
But what about the rest of us? I can turn a pretty phrase, but I’m not nearly as stylish a writer as Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, or as interesting a personality. Hence I’m obliged to attend more closely to the pedestrian virtues, the first of which is being right. Maybe that’s what Epstein meant. Anybody who thinks he’s as good as Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, after all, is probably delusional. Of course you might be that good—but you’d better not count on it. I sure don’t.
I doubt that many people under the age of forty remember Victor Borge, the comedian-pianist who died in 2000 at the miraculous age of ninety-one. He was a star for a very long time, first on radio, then TV, and Comedy in Music, his 1953 one-man show, ran for 849 consecutive performances on Broadway, a record which so far as I know remains unbroken. From there he went on the road and stayed there, giving sixty-odd concerts in the season before his death. Borge spent his old age basically doing Comedy in Music over and over again, which never seemed to bother anybody. I reviewed it twice for the Kansas City Star in the Seventies, and loved it both times. His Danish-accented delivery was so droll and his timing so devastatingly exact that even the most familiar of his charming classical-music spoofs somehow remained fresh, as you can see by watching any of the various videos of his act.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when so popular a comedian started out as a serious musician, much less one who became popular by making witty fun of the classics. Such a thing could only have happened in the days when America’s middlebrow culture was still intact and at the height of its influence. Back then the mass media, especially TV, went out of their way to introduce ordinary people to classical music and encouraged them to take it seriously—which didn’t mean they couldn’t laugh at it, too, as Borge proved whenever he sat down to play.
Borge’s act resembled a straight piano recital gone wrong. He’d start to play a familiar piece like Clair de lune or the "Moonlight" Sonata, then swerve off in some improbable-sounding direction, never getting around to finishing what he started. Yet he was clearly an accomplished pianist, though few of his latter-day fans had any idea how good he'd been (he studied with Egon Petri, Busoni’s greatest pupil). He usually made a point of playing a piece from start to finish toward the end of every concert, and I remember how delighted I was each time I heard him ripple through one of Ignaz Friedman’s bittersweet Viennese-waltz arrangements, which he played with a deceptively nonchalant old-world panache that never failed to leave me longing for an encore. Alas, he never obliged, and in later years I found myself wondering whether he’d really been quite so fine as my memory told me.
This story has a happy ending. I saw Borge on an old What’s My Line? episode the other day, which inspired me to look him up on the Web. Within a few clicks I’d made my way to a Danish Web site that contained a page of sound clips, the first being an unpublished live recording in which Borge can be heard playing (surprise) a Friedman waltz. Now I know a whole lot more about golden-age piano playing now than I did back in the Seventies. Among other things, I’ve gotten to know Friedman’s own recordings, including his marvelously mercurial performances of three of the same waltz arrangements that Borge liked to play. Could he possibly have been up to the standard set by Friedman? I clicked on the link with some trepidation, only to discover that my youthful ear hadn’t played me false: Borge, it turns out, could play with the utmost stylishness and sensitivity whenever it suited him to do so. You'll never hear a more elegant piece of piano playing—not even from Ignaz Friedman himself.
I can’t tell you how glad I am to know that. It would have been too sad to find out long after the fact that Victor Borge’s playing had been no better than adequate. Life is hard enough without having to suffer purely gratuitous disillusionments. What joy, then, to discover that some things in this world really are as good as they're cracked up to be.
TT: Number, please
• Commissioning fee paid to Martha Graham by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University in 1946 for choreographing Cave of the Heart: $500
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $5,134.32
(Source: Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber)
Monday, November 28, 2005
"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic."
Oscar Wilde, letter to the editor of the Scots Observer (1890)
As you may recall, I took the last few days off, during which I tinkered extensively with the right-hand column (result: four fresh Top Five picks and several new blogs in the "Sites to See" module) and rummaged through my overflowing basketful of accumulated links. Here's a snootful of what a bunch of other interesting people have been writing in recent weeks.
I really should do this more often….
• Ms. Critical Mass takes a cold-eyed look at the effects of the spread of adjunct teaching on academic freedom:
Almost half of all college teachers are entirely unprotected by the vaunted "academic freedom" that is so often touted as the philosophical mainstay of academic life. Add to the number of adjuncts the number of grad students and non-tenured assistant professors who are also teaching college courses in the absence of job security, and you get a picture of an academic world where very, very few people actually have the freedom to speak, write, research, and teach as they see fit (by "see fit" I don't mean to defend those teachers who abuse their positions to proselytize, or who are incompetent in some way; I mean to defend those who might have legitimate reasons for pursuing unorthodox pedagogical methods and scholarly topics, as well as those whose politics might endanger their professional positions, if known). The picture is one of an academic world in which "academic freedom" is the privilege of the tenured few; it is thus not a "freedom" at all, but the special privilege of an increasingly small group of academic elites….
Read and ponder.
• Says Eric Berlin:
I'm no music critic. So I can't write 500 words on why Fiona Apple's song Extraordinary Machine is so wonderful. All I know is, it's unlike anything else I've ever heard—certainly unlike any pop song—and you should go find a way to listen to it right now. That is all.
I could probably write those 500 words, but I won’t. I’ll just say that I must have listened to “Extraordinary Machine” (the song, not the album) at least a couple of dozen times since Ms. in the wings first drew it to my attention, bless her. It’s that different—and that cool.
• Mr. American Scene is in a true-confession mode when it comes to important books he’s never read. (Henry IV? Yikes!)
• Are drama critics getting dumber? Is that even possible? Michael Coveney thinks so:
Instead, too many theatre reviews do little more than describe something as "great" or "awful." Even when the writing is stylish, reviews will often lack the knowledge that was taken for granted a generation ago. And increasingly, editors are sending in the critical clowns in the true joke spirit of contemporary journalism….
• Mr. Modern Kicks disagrees with me about Jed Perl’s New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century. I loved it, he didn’t. While he failed to change my mind, he made me think—without raising his voice. Smart, civilized disagreement…what a concept.
• Anna L. Conti waxes amusing on art gallery postcards:
The image on the postcard always sells. In my experience, this is not an absolute law but it happens more often than not. In the past, I've sometimes poked fun at the people who come in, give the entire show a 30-second glance and then say, "Where's the one on the card?" And boy, are they upset if it's sold already. At some of my shows, I've had people call as soon as they receive the card (before they've seen anything in person) and want to put a hold on the painting they saw on the card. Once, at an opening, I saw two people get into a fight over who was going buy a particular painting (naturally, it was the one on the card.)…
Which reminds me of one of my own corollary propositions to Murphy’s Law: Don’t even bother looking for a postcard of your favorite painting in a museum.
• The Museum of Modern Art is deaccessioning (i.e., selling off) an important late oil painting by Milton Avery. In case you’ve been wondering what MoMA doesn’t think worth hanging onto, much less hanging, this is what it looks like.
• You like Top Ten lists, big boy? Mr. Modern Art Notes obliges with an annotated list of his ten favorite American cities in which to see art.
• Incidentally, did you know that the FBI’s Art Theft Program has a Web site...
• ...or that you can take an online test to see whether you know enough about the United States to become a naturalized U.S. citizen?
• And have you ever wondered why The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine is so damn cumbersome to use, lovely and amazing though it is to have all of The New Yorker on DVD? Go here for the answer.
• Speaking of lawyers (which we were), allow me to remind you yet again bloggers get sued, for all sorts of reasons. Mr. BuzzMachine has a hair-raising list of recent anti-blog litigation. Read it and take cover.
• Finally, here’s the scoop on that $100 student laptop you’ve been reading about. (No, you can’t buy one. Sorry.)
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• I just added a new piece to the Teachout Museum, an 1892 etching by Edgar Degas called “Dancer Putting on Her Shoe.” Degas is one of my favorite artists, and I’ve long wanted to own a work of art that had something to do with dancing. This particular work isn’t rare—the copy I bought is a posthumous impression from the cancelled plate—but the cancellation marks are unobtrusive and the image extraordinarily beautiful, as you can see by going here.
It’s also extraordinarily simple, especially by comparison with the increasingly complex pastels
of dancers that Degas was producing around the same time. That’s one of the things I love about etching as a medium: it encourages the artist to concentrate on essentials. Color is still what I love best about painting, but looking at etchings taught me to understand and appreciate the importance of pure line—and, eventually, to love it as well. Whenever I look at “Dancer Putting on Her Shoe,” or my copy of Milton Avery’s March at a Table, it makes me want to write more simply, to strip away everything superfluous and be content with what remains.
• In case you were wondering, I very much enjoyed my Thanksgiving dinner at Good Enough to Eat. I’d never eaten out by myself for Thanksgiving, and I feared the prospect of being part of a salon des refusés, but the atmosphere turned out to be cheery and companionable, and the food was delicious. It was fascinating to see who else showed up. I counted more or less the same number of all-male parties and extended families with children, which tells you something about my neighborhood. (I only spotted one other singleton at the two o’clock sitting, though, and I’m not sure what that says.)
Incidentally, the background music consisted of tangos by Astor Piazzolla, which went surprisingly well with cornbread stuffing and roasted Brussels sprouts.
In a perfect world, everybody would experience art without first having it explained: no program notes, no wall labels, no interviews with the author, and—above all—no reviews. You’d go simply because you were interested, because you made a habit of going to see new things. Then, after the immediate experience, you’d seek out further information to help you put that experience in perspective (or, as my correspondent remarks, simply for fun). I think it’s hugely important to make a serious and sustained effort to come to new works of art this way. But in order to do so, especially when you’re talking about Broadway shows, you’ve got to have (A) a lot of spare time and (B) a lot of spare money. Otherwise, it’s essential to call your shots, if only to avoid bankruptcy, and good reviewers can help….
(If it’s new to you, read the whole thing here.)
TT: Number, please
• Advance paid to Flannery O'Connor by Harcourt, Brace in 1955 for The Violent Bear It Away: $1,250
• The same amount in today's dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $8,588.02
(Source: Library of America, Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works)
Friday, December 3, 2004
"The Gods are dead, poetry alone is left to us, the last star in the night of chaos."
Edgar Degas (quoted in Jeanne Fevre, Mon oncle Degas)
TT: Words to the wise
“Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings 1950-1964” closes Saturday at Lucas Schoormans Gallery. It’s the first Morandi exhibition in New York since 1981. God only knows when there’ll be another one. Please don’t miss it.
(To read what I wrote about this remarkable show last month in the Washington Post, go here.)
The gallery, which is at 508 W. 26th St., has just published an exquisite little catalogue. To order a copy, e-mail email@example.com, or call 212-243-3159. I suspect that supplies are limited, so don’t dally.
TT: The West did it (but Japan helped)
Friday again, and I’ve reviewed two shows in today’s Wall Street Journal, the Roundabout Theatre Company's Pacific Overtures and Playwrights Horizons' Rodney’s Wife.
Pacific Overtures is a triumph:
This is one of the most entrancingly beautiful shows ever to come to Broadway. Even if you don’t like it, you won’t be sorry to have seen it.
Originally produced in 1976, “Pacific Overtures” tells the once-familiar story of the naval expedition led by Commodore Perry that opened Japan to the West in 1853—but tells it from the Japanese point of view. The characters are played by Asian-Americans (Perry is a giant monster in a mask). John Weidman’s book makes use of narrative techniques derived from Noh theater, while Mr. Sondheim’s iridescent score melds the spare, percussive textures of Japanese music with his own Ravel-perfumed harmonies.
What makes this production still more individual is that it has been staged and choreographed by a Japanese director, Amon Miyamoto. When I first saw it a few years ago at the Lincoln Center Festival, it was even sung in Japanese (with English supertitles). That deliciously distancing touch is gone from this English-language version, but Mr. Miyamoto and his designers have otherwise been careful to present “Pacific Overtures” in an idiomatically Japanese style, with simple décor that implies as much as it states. The staging is a synthesis of dance and naturalistic movement so thoroughgoing as to recall the similar approach of Jerome Robbins in “West Side Story.” It is masterly in every way….
Mr. Miyamoto was wise not to italicize any of the parts of “Pacific Overtures” that can be read as anti-American, especially since I’m sure there wasn’t a soul in Studio 54 who didn’t get the point. (The capacity of New York playgoers for liberal guilt is infinite.) In any case, the show mostly steers clear of cheap ugly-Americanism. It is, rather, a subtle meditation on the myriad ways in which two cultures can misunderstand one another—the Japanese themselves are portrayed no less frankly than their “barbarian” visitors—and its true subject is the inescapable tragedy of the coming of modernity, which takes as much as it gives….
The second isn’t, but you should think about seeing it anyway:
I didn’t like all of Richard Nelson’s “Rodney’s Wife,” which opened Wednesday at Playwrights Horizons, but it didn’t bore me for a second, either, and the good parts, of which there are many, are most impressive.
It’s hard to write about “Rodney’s Wife” because the plot turns on a showstopping surprise that I mustn’t give away (though I figured it out at least a half-hour before Mr. Nelson officially tipped his hand). Suffice it to say that the play is about an over-the-hill movie star (David Strathairn), his bitchy second wife (Haviland Morris), his recently widowed sister (Maryann Plunkett), his visibly upset daughter (Jessica Chastain) and the daughter’s fiancé (Jesse Pennington), all of whom are thrown together in Rome circa 1962 for a dinner party that soon degenerates into a near-orgy of passive-aggressive sniping. Two of the characters, we learn, are keeping an explosive secret from the others, and all hell breaks loose when it finally comes out (get the hint?).
The bad parts include a gratuitous prologue and epilogue and a pat, unconvincing denouement. The good parts include lots of sharp-eared dialogue, directed with a sure hand by Mr. Nelson himself and performed by a cast that never lets you down….
No link. Get yourself a Journal, or go here and do it the easy way.
Thursday, December 2, 2004
A sampling from the recent cultural menu chez OGIC:
LISTENING: Erin McKeown, Distillation. I went on and on recently about her more recent album, Grand, and stand by my enthused prattling then. Distillation took me longer to warm up to, but its hold may be the stronger for that. If Grand charms your socks off, this album haunts you barefoot.
NETFLICKING: Richard Loncraine's 1995 Richard III, starring Ian McKellen and Jim Broadbent and set lavishly in 1930s England. This was okay. McKellen is hammy, which seems to be by directorial design. (And by the way, check out Sir Ian's home page, which—disturbingly or touchingly, I can't decide—really looks homemade.) Broadbent makes a great, quietly calculating Buckingham, blending in with the background like a less loyal, more lizardy Tom Hagen. I also liked Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., as Queen Elizabeth and her brother the earl of Rivers. They're both wonderfully game at playing merry, mutually infatuated callowness in the carefree scenes before Richard really gets down to work. But I never could make out what was gained by the historical displacement of the story, other than the opportunities for visual sumptuousness offered by thirties style. Moving the action forward several centuries, though, should also work to highlight what's universal in the play's substance, enlarging its scope. This film somehow manages to shrink a giant—even if it does look great doing it.
ALSO NETFLICKING: The Secret Lives of Dentists. Thumbs way up. Sort of an American Beauty with recognizable human beings.
To be continued...
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 2, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"As a food and travel writer, what I do for a living may seem trivial, but whenever I think of it as ephemeral to the great issues of the day, I am reminded of a scene in the play 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' Isolated for months in an attic but still believing they will soon escape, the family fantasizes about the first thing each member will do when they return to the world outside. Anne says she yearns to go to a dance. The teenage boy wants to go to a movie, a western movie! And the adults all start remembering and dreaming of a wonderful pastry shop, a good stew, a romantic restaurant with thick linen and fine wines. None, not one, declares that the first thing he wants to do is to change the political structure of Europe."
John Mariani, "Gluttony, Reconsidered" (with thanks to Felix Salmon for the Topic Magazine link)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 2, 2004 | Permanent
"It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously."
Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide
OGIC: Christmas with the cranks
Blogger John Scalzi remembers the 10 Least Successful Christmas Specials. Who among you lit types could forget "An Algonquin Round Table Christmas" (1927)?
Alexander Woolcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, George Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were the stars of this 1927 NBC Red radio network special, one of the earliest Christmas specials ever performed. Unfortunately the principals, lured to the table for an unusual evening gathering by the promise of free drinks and pirogies, appeared unaware they were live and on the air, avoiding witty seasonal banter to concentrate on trashing absent Round Tabler Edna Ferber's latest novel, Mother Knows Best, and complaining, in progressively drunken fashion, about their lack of sex lives. Seasonal material of a sort finally appears in the 23rd minute when Dorothy Parker, already on her fifth drink, can be heard to remark, "one more of these and I'll be sliding down Santa's chimney." The feed was cut shortly thereafter. NBC Red's 1928 holiday special "Christmas with the Fitzgeralds" was similarly unsuccessful.
And if you like that, how could you possibly resist "Ayn Rand's A Selfish Christmas" (1951), "A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski" (1978), or "Noam Chomsky: Deconstructing Christmas" (1998)? You'd have to have a heart of stone. Link via Colby, with whom I have to agree when he says he'd really like to see a bunch of these. Round up the cast of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle posthaste!
Uhh…on second thought, let's round up the cast of Best in Show instead.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 2, 2004 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 1, 2004
OGIC: Sob story
Today marked the second time I have locked myself out of my car. It's a lousy enough situation by itself, but I seem to have a disposition to pile on exacerbating factors. The first time, I was driving from Chicago to Detroit on a hot June day with the cat in the back seat. I had stopped for some of the cheap gas they sell in West Michigan. My cell phone, newly acquired expressly for the purpose of aiding in any emergencies that might crop up while I was driving a newly acquired car, was of course in the car. But the moment when I realized my mistake wasn't even the scariest of this episode. That came a few minutes later when I asked the cashier if she had any advice and she replied, in utter earnest and rather eagerly, "You got a hammer?"
If I'd had a hammer, I'm reasonably sure it would have been locked in the car. Damn good thing, too.
I was bailed out that time. While I got on the pay phone to AAA and settled in for a wait while poor Daffy melted away in the car, a local mechanic, name of Papa Bear, happened to pull in to fill up his wrecker. With striking facility he slim-jimmed his way into the car and I was back on the road east, away from this world where smashing a car window with a hammer seems like a viable solution to anything.
Today was different: not hot but cold, no trapped animal but a running car. No Papa Bear. No bailing out. The car and I were idling, waiting for the defroster to melt away a little obstructive ice on the rear window, when somebody started lobbying hard to have my parking space. Much too much the obliging type for my own good, I got out to quickly scrape away what ice remained. Mysteriously to me (gremlins?), the door ended up locked. Inside the car: car keys, house keys, purse, spare car keys, wallet, cell phone. Outside the car: me, scraper, gloves. Those scrapers are extremely useful when there's ice on your car. Other times? Not so much. It wasn't even my nifty-keen Red Wings scraper, humph.
The would-be parker rolled down her window, asked whether I'd locked myself out of the car, and registered regret that it was indeed so—regret for my distress or her inconvenience, I could not say. In any case, she found another spot within spitting distance, and seemed to be considering whether to offer any help to me, when out of the blue my friend Katie appeared with her devastatingly adorable child Siobhan and—more important, just this once—a cell phone she could spare for a little while. Ms. Not-Just-Any-Spot scurried into her nearby building, clearly relieved. As bad as the afternoon was, I must admit that Katie happening along was such a stunning little miracle that I almost feel churlish complaining about everything else. Almost.
Long story short: after trying a few local parties (University police, unmanned repair shop), I got in touch with good old AAA and joined on the spot. I even managed to dredge my American Express card number and expiration date from the recesses of my memory, digit by digit, to pay the fee. (Of this I am quite proud, even though all it probably means is that I shop too much on the internet.) They dispatched a locksmith who arrived after about 90 minutes, three times as long as billed. In fairness, Precise-Parking Lady let me into the warm vestibule of her building when she rediscovered me ten minutes before the locksmith showed. By that time, I was cutting quite a pathetic figure (and may have milked it a bit).
All told: Two hours. Thirty degrees. Maximum misery. All my dreams of being a sherpa died today.
I'm warm now. I cranked all the radiators in the apartment, closed what storm windows were still open, put on three layers of clothes and rolled myself up in a blanket until the temperature in here reached 83. After cracking a few windows and closing a couple radiators, I've attained a comfy 72—a fine atmosphere, don't you think, in which to recreate the (actual arts-related) posts lost in the ether this afternoon when a suddenly disconnected modem cable made the ibook seize up, initiating this whole sorry series of events. I'll reconstruct those for you as soon as I've had a little sleep. Tomorrow: much blogging, no excuses.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 2, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: Veddy high-tech
Surprise, it's the technologically challenged half of ALN! As Terry reported earlier, I've been having modem troubles; for a goodly portion of Tuesday I was not able to hold an internet connection for more than a minute or two at a time. I guessed I would need a new USB cable, or a new modem, or even (shudder) a new computer. Well, glory be: for the time being, anyway, a little ingenuity and—I kid you not—Magic Tape seem to have done the trick. Scotch tape always has been one of my favorite office supplies. But I've never fixed a computer with it before; Magic, indeed.
So that's the good news. The bad? The clocks are scowling 3:00 at me. I'm off to bed—further posting will have to wait until midday tomorrow, 3M willing. In the meantime, good night, good morning, and happy December.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, December 1, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Absolutely no show today (I swear!)
I am soooo overpressed with sail (see yesterday's blog for details) that I have definitely decided not to post anymore today. Instead I'll write a piece, visit a couple of galleries, get my hair cut, see Pacific Overtures, and go to bed at a reasonably reasonable hour. But no blogging. None.
If I post anything, don't read it.
See you tomorrow.
P.S. Our Girl just called from Chicago to say that her modem is temporarily (she hopes) fried. We suggest you make use of the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column and visit some other cool blog today.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 1, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
“Laughton belonged to that generation of Englishmen to whom the nature of English social existence in the twenties and thirties was essentially false—pompous and restrictive. Sex had something to do with it—but language, customs, rubric were even more oppressive. ‘I was the guest of the Savage Club in London, and Sir Austin Chamberlain made a speech. I was sitting next to Nelson Doubleday the publisher. Sir Austin was polite and imperturbable. At the end of the speech Nelson Doubleday said to me, “Charlie, however thin you cut it, it’s still baloney,” and I suddenly wanted to get on a boat and go back to New York so bad I could taste it.’
”Auden or Isherwood might have said the very same thing.”
Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 1, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Bobbing for e-mail
It remains the policy of this blog to answer all correspondence that does not recommend anatomical impossibilities. (Sometimes an occasional e-mail does slip through the cracks, but that's strictly accidental.) If you haven't heard from me lately, though, please be patient. I'm chipping away at the accumulated contents of my e-mailbag, more or less randomly, but I doubt I'll get everything answered for another couple of weeks. Keep reading and you'll see why.
In the meantime, thanks as always for writing. It's very much appreciated, and that goes for Our Girl, too.
TT: Parochial-school duel
Seeing as how I didn’t bring my iBook to Smalltown, U.S.A. (and good for me!), I wasn’t able to post the usual Friday-morning teaser for my Wall Street Journal column. This one was a doozy: I wrote about four different shows, two good and two bad.
Topping the list was Doubt:
The best new play of the season is about a Roman Catholic priest suspected of molesting a young boy. Don't roll your eyes: I couldn't believe it, either. Not only does the priestly sex scandal offer endless opportunities for tendentious pontification of one sort or another, but John Patrick Shanley, best known for his screenplay for "Moonstruck," is a gifted but uneven playwright whose previous work has never rung my bell. Nevertheless, "Doubt," which opened Tuesday at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, is that rarity of rarities, an issue-driven play that is unpreachy, thought-provoking, and so full of high drama that the audience with which I saw it gasped out loud a half-dozen times at its startling twists and turns. It's this year's "Frozen," minus the plagiarism.
Actually, it's not quite right to say that "Doubt" is unpreachy, since it starts with a sermon in which Father Flynn (Brían F. O'Byrne), a working-class priest with the thickest of dese-dem-dose accents, assures his flock that "doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty." It's a peculiar sentiment to hear from a Catholic pulpit circa 1964, and it triggers the suspicions of Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the principal of the school across the courtyard from Father Flynn's church. A hard-nosed pre-Vatican II nun, Sister Aloysius is realistic to the point of cynicism, and when the painfully naive Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh) reports that one of her students had a private audience with Father Flynn and returned to class with alcohol on his breath, all of her alarm bells start clanging at top volume.
I don't want to give away any of what happens next, save to say that Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius quickly find themselves drawn into a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game. What I can say is that one reason why "Doubt" is so suspenseful is that Mr. Shanley has skillfully obeyed the time-honored commandments of the well-made play. Terence Rattigan, an old pro who once advised playwrights in search of inspiration to "take a hackneyed situation and reverse it," would have applauded the shrewdness with which "Doubt" follows his advice. The bluff, regular-guy Father Flynn looks like anything but a child molester—yet the circumstantial evidence against him keeps piling up. Sister Aloysius, by contrast, is a battle-ax with a dark streak of paranoia—yet it appears increasingly clear that her twitchy nose for scandal is leading her in the right direction….
I also loved Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance:
I strongly suggest that anyone going to "Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance" who holds a ticket in the first six rows of the Music Box Theatre makes a point of arriving on time, since Dame Edna (known in real life as Australian drag comedian Barry Humphries) likes nothing better than to single out latecomers for public humiliation. When not working over those hapless folk who dallied over dessert, the Dame passes among her fans with the verbal equivalent of a baseball bat, clobbering innocent bystanders who make the fatal mistake of catching her heavily shadowed eye. Fortunately, the outrageous insults are all in good fun, and Dame Edna's falsetto shrieks and wackily glammed-up outfits never fail to ease the sting….
Not so Woody Allen’s A Second Hand Memory:
Speaking of embarrassments, Woody Allen has returned to the Atlantic Theater with a real stinker, a kitchen-sink drama called "A Second Hand Memory" that runs through Jan. 23. Despite Mr. Allen's best directorial efforts and a stageful of such familiar faces as Dominic Chianese ("The Sopranos") and Michael McKean ("A Mighty Wind"), this wan little piece of pilfered goods reminded me of nothing so much as the kind of script a college sophomore obsessed with Clifford Odets might have written in 1950. (Worst line: "Get out of my dreams.") In fact, I wouldn't be altogether surprised if Mr. Allen had dragged it out of his trunk of unperformed plays….
Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell has already closed, so I won’t keep on beating a dead dog, unless it twitches.
If you really, truly want to know what I thought of The God of Hell, or read the rest of what I said about the three other shows I reviewed on Friday, your only recourse (short of going to a library) is to do what you should have done months ago: subscribe to the online edition of The Wall Street Journal, one of the best bargains in mainstream media.
If you’re interested, go here.
TT: Eat or be eaten
I forgot to mention that in addition to eating a lot of turkey (make that a whole lot of turkey), I consumed a pretty fair-sized chunk of art over the extra-long holiday weekend.
For openers, I read three new books, Meredith Daneman’s Margot Fonteyn: A Life, Ada Louise Huxtable’s Frank Lloyd Wright, and “Richard Stark”’s Nobody Runs Forever, all of which I commend to your attention (and about all of which I’ll try to post at greater length next week). I also listened to Jim Hall’s brand-new CD, Magic Meeting, which I was lucky enough to hear recorded live at the Village Vanguard earlier this year. And not only did I take my mother to Ray, but I also rented two older movies that were new to her, Spellbound (the documentary, not the thriller) and Lilo & Stitch.
Now that I’m back in New York, I have some really serious consuming (and producing) just ahead of me. Here’s my week:
TODAY: First up is my Washington Post column, of which I have yet to write a word (it’s due this afternoon). Once I stuff that one in the bag, I'll meet Galley Cat at Playwrights Horizons to see a preview of Rodney’s Wife, about which the only thing I know is that it stars David Strathairn, which may well be reason enough to go. We’ll see what the Cat thinks, though.
WEDNESDAY: To Studio 54 for Amon Miyamoto’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, accompanied by a young friend who's never seen a Sondheim show before. Boy, is she in for a surprise, no matter what she’s expecting….
THURSDAY: I’ll be spending the whole morning wrestling with my Wall Street Journal column for Friday, followed (I hope) by a nap. Then it’s off to The Triad to hear Julia Dollison, one of my very favorite young jazz singers. This particular one-nighter is a shakedown cruise for Dollison’s upcoming appearance at the International Association for Jazz Education’s annual conference, which will be held Jan. 5-8 in Long Beach, Ca. If you can’t go, come to the Triad instead. The music starts at 9:30, and I can’t think of a single good reason to be anywhere else. Look for me as close to the bandstand as possible.
FRIDAY: I’ll be seeing Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays with a Friend to Be Named Later.
SATURDAY: Another preview, this one of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.
SUNDAY: Yet another preview, La Cage aux Folles, preceded by brunch with the notorious Maccers, at the prospect of which I tremble nervously. Will I be cool enough to pass muster? Or will she stalk haughtily out of the restaurant, leaving me to quiver in the gutter? Eeeeeeee….
MONDAY: One more preview, Caryl Churchill’s A Number, starring Sam Shepard (I hope he hasn't forgotten how to act, too).
TUESDAY: Collapse of middle-aged party. Memorial service to be announced later.
TT: A snootful of hons
I haven’t even begun to sort out my accumulated snail mail, but I did make a point of opening an envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts, which turned out to contain a copy of the official press release announcing that the Senate has confirmed my appointment
to the National Council on the Arts.
(Incidentally, I neglected to mention in the general welter of Thanksgiving-related confusion that two other arty types, James K. Ballinger of the Phoenix Art Museum and Gerard Schwarz of the Seattle Symphony, were confirmed along with me. I’ve never met either fellow, and greatly look forward to doing so at my first NCA meeting in March.)
Tucked into the same envelope was a form letter from Dana Gioia, my new boss, warning me that I still have “several important forms to complete and return.” Seeing as how I've already chewed through a dictionary-sized stack of paperwork…but let’s not go there. I’m pleased, I’m proud, and I’m resigned to spending the next six years filling out forms of one kind or another at regular intervals. Such, I hear, is bureaucratic life.
Monday, November 29, 2004
“But the rising sun swallowed up the wind, and by half-past seven the next morning all that was left of the storm was the swell and a line of clouds low over the distant Gulf of Lions in the north-west; the sky was of an unbelievable purity and the air was washed so clean that Stephen could see the colour of the petrel’s dangling feet as it pattered across the Sophie’s wake some twenty yards behind. ‘I remember the fact of extreme, prostrating terror,’ he said, keeping his eye on the tiny bird, ‘but the inward nature of the emotion now escapes me.’”
Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
TT: Back in the saddle again
I'm literally just back from Smalltown, U.S.A., and still a bit shaky from the horrendous circumstances surrounding my trip there (I wrote all night Tuesday, went straight from my desk to LaGuardia on Wednesday morning, endured one of the most terrifying flights of my life, then rented a car and spent two grueling hours slithering through bad weather and exterminate-all-the-brutes traffic). The visit itself was wonderful, except that I ate to excess on Thursday and repented at leisure over the weekend. I also saw Ray, about which more later.
While we're on the subject of later, I'm about to start sifting through several hundred e-mails and a tableful of snail mail, in addition to which I have six shows to review between now and Monday, plus a couple of other pieces to write. I do promise to post as soon as I can, though not necessarily tomorrow! In the meantime, watch this space for further details. I haven't forgotten about you....
Saturday, December 6, 2003
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"He said, 'Careful you don't read your brain into train oil, like my old man always used to say.'
"She didn't look up but said, 'Mine says I'll read my life away. I say, why not?'
"'There's no answer to that,' said Dalziel as he left."
Reginald Hill, Bones and Silence
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, November 29, 2004 | Permanent
Here's just a quick Saturday evening post while my weekend guests—you know them as Cinetrix and the 'Fesser—have popped out to see some other friends in the 'hood. I expect them back in a little while with some Ribs 'n' Bibs; a good, greasy time will be had by all.
I know I've been scarce around these parts since before Thanksgiving. This was in large part because I was consumed with worry on behalf of the resident cat, Daffy, who had tentatively been diagnosed with a serious heart problem. She had an ultrasound yesterday, though, that revealed a normal, healthy heart. Relief all around.
Next week should be better. I have plans, including an interview with a young filmmaker (and friend of About Last Night) who just had his first film selected for the Sundance Film Festival, in the documentary category. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, all good wishes to poor Terry with his headcold and blizzard. Terr, we'll call you tomorrow! Hang in there with the Theraflu and DVDs! (Hm, this could be the perfect opportunity for you to watch L'Atalante! I promise you'll adore it!)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Saturday, December 6, 2003 | Permanent
TT: More shameless self-promotion
I just received in the mail the Spring 2004 catalogue of Yale University Press. I opened it to page 35, where I found (drumroll) A Terry Teachout Reader, complete with a thumbnail photo of the dust jacket, whose centerpiece is a reproduction of Fairfield Porter's lithograph Broadway.
I can already see one problem with the Reader, which is that Yale has placed it under the category "Music/Essays," which is right and not right at the same time. Yes, music figures prominently in it, but so do lots and lots of other things.
Here's the flap copy, which I didn't write:
Terry Teachout, one of our most acute cultural commentators, here turns his sharp eye to every corner of the arts world—music, dance, literature, theater, film, TV, and the visual arts. This collection gathers the best of Teachout's writings from the past fifteen years. In each essay he offers lucid and balanced judgments that invariably illuminate, sometimes infuriate, and always spark a response—the mark of a critic whose thoughts, however controversial, cannot be ignored.
In a thoughtful introduction to the book, Teachout considers how American culture of the twenty-first century differs from that of the last century and how the information age has altered popular culture. His selected essays chronicle America's cultural journeyover the past decade and a half,a nd they show us what has been lost—and gained—along the way. With highly informed opinions, an inimitable wit and style, and a genuine devotion to all things cultural, Teachout offers his readers much to delight in and much to ponder.
Anyone who comes from a small Midwestern town is genetically programmed to squirm at the prospect of seeing such effusive words emblazoned on his own dust jacket, but publishing is a business, and a boy, as Truman Capote once said, must peddle his book. At any rate, I'm proud of the Teachout Reader, and to see it in the Yale catalogue is a comfort on a cold, snowy day.
The Teachout Reader will be published in May—posthumously, if I become the first author ever to succumb to the common cold. Otherwise, I'll be reminding you of its insidious approach, and as of today, you can pre-order it from amazon.com by clicking here.
Friday, December 5, 2003
TT: Time is short
I rise from my bed of discomfort (my cold is worse, it's snowing again, and I have a preview tonight) to remind you of what you should already know, which is that my most recent book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, is now out in trade paperback—and still available in hardcover.
If you like this blog, you'll like The Skeptic, and so will your friends. So did the critics: the reviews were spectacularly warm, as you can see for yourself by going here.
I blog for pleasure but write to pay the rent. If you’d like to support both causes, think about giving The Skeptic for Christmas, or buying a copy for yourself if you don’t already own one.
To purchase the paperback, click here.
To purchase the hardcover edition, click here.
Now I need to go blow my nose.
TT: De profundis
I have a COLD, and I feel CRAPPY. And I don't have a play or concert or screening to go to tonight, praise be, since New York is in the process of receiving fifteen inches of snow. Did I say arrgh?
Take it away, OGIC! I'm headed for bed....
TT: A shift in time
I belong to the last generation to have grown up without VCRs. Born in 1956, I was raised in a small town that had one movie theater. The only "arty" films I saw in high school were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The nearest public TV station was in St. Louis, just beyond the range of our rooftop antenna—this was before the invention of cable TV—so it wasn’t until I left home to go to college that I saw any old movies other than an occasional Saturday-afternoon John Wayne.
I went to a small school near Kansas City, and lived near there for several years after graduating. As a student, I had a tiny TV set in my room but was too busy to watch it more than occasionally, though I did catch three or four foreign films (among them M and Grand Illusion). My campus had no film series. At that time, Kansas City was home to a grand total of two "art houses," one of which showed first-run foreign films and the other domestic revivals. All told, I probably saw no more than a couple of dozen old movies in Kansas City, including Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Duck Soup, and Casablanca, none of them more than once.
If you grew up in New York or Chicago, my experience will doubtless sound alien to you, but I suspect that most Americans of my generation could tell similar stories. For us, seeing a classic film was an occasion—one not likely to be repeated anytime soon—and for that reason, we never quite absorbed the abstract notion of Film as Art. To be sure, I "knew" that film was an art form, but this "knowledge" had little or no basis in experience, and so it had no real meaning.
In 1983, I moved to a big-campus college town, Urbana, Illinois, where I got my first VCR, hooked up to a decent cable system, and started haunting the local art house and the various campus film series. That was when I started taking movies seriously. Prior to that time, they’d been little more than casual entertainment, made to be experienced once and then put aside. Thereafter, I started thinking of great films as art objects that could be revisited and restudied as often as I wanted. They soon became as important to me as books or music, and stayed that way.
Nowadays, of course, pretty much everybody takes movies seriously. It’s taken for granted, for instance, that an educated person will have seen Citizen Kane at least once. (If you doubt it, ask yourself this: how many people of your acquaintance would know what you were talking about if you mentioned "Rosebud" in a casual conversation?) Film is now a central part of the middle-class cultural landscape—but that wouldn’t have happened without the invention of cable TV and the VCR.
This is why I have no trouble imagining life without movie theaters. Having spent nearly two decades living in New York City, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch classic films in a theater, but there are still any number of important films I’ve only seen on TV. I know it’s not the same thing—I well remember how stunned I was the first time I saw Kane on a large screen—but the fact remains that most people see most movies at home, which is infinitely better than not seeing them at all.
Nor do I expect this situation to change much. For better and worse, film has become a species of home entertainment. Of all the seismic shifts in American art and culture that have taken place since my childhood, that one may ultimately come to be seen as the most fateful of all.
"Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy it themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes, as you propose to do."
Kingsley Amis, The Russian Girl
Thursday, December 4, 2003
TT: Safety first
I’m in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, reporting on this week’s major musical openings:
Uptown at the Broadhurst Theatre, "Never Gonna Dance,"
a fizzy, friendly stage version of the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie "Swing Time," is pleasing crowds. Downtown at the Public Theater, Tony Kushner’s "Caroline, or Change,"
a pop opera about race relations in the Sixties, is pleasing critics. You wouldn’t think such different shows could have anything at all in common, but they do: They both play it safe….
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about "Never Gonna Dance," because I really did enjoy it. The problem is that I don’t enjoy the Astaire-Rogers films—I adore them. Next to that solid-gold emotion, anything else (and anyone else) is bound to come off looking like a pale imitation of the real right thing.
At least "Never Gonna Dance" is entertaining, whereas "Caroline, or Change" is a great big self-righteous bore. Had anyone but Tony Kushner written the libretto, everyone in town would be snorting at this eye-rollingly earnest fable of an angry black Louisiana maid (Tonya Pinkins) and Noah, the shy, effeminate little Jewish boy (Harrison Chad) to whom she teaches a Lesson in Love. Or maybe not, since Mr. Kushner, the Arthur Miller of our time, is not so much a playwright as a cultural politician who has an uncanny knack for telling New York theatergoers exactly what they want to hear—and no more....
Also included are words to the wise about Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, which transferred to Broadway this week after a successful off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons. Here’s the money quote: "This show deserves every prize there is."
No link, as usual, so to read the whole thing, extract a dollar from your wallet, take yourself to the nearest newsstand, buy this morning’s Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and there I am, along with lots of other interesting stuff.
TT: Bringing home the bacon
I just got back from the 36th annual ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards, presented at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for excellence in writing about music. No, I didn’t win one, but I accepted a citation for special recognition on behalf of Doug McLennan, the creator of artsjournal.com, the invaluable Web site that hosts this blog. Here’s what I said:
Sometimes the greatest ideas are simple ideas that no one else has thought of. Doug McLennan had one: start a Web site that carries daily digests of, and links to, news stories and commentaries about the arts, drawn from newspapers and magazines all across the English-speaking world. Not only did he have that idea, he made it happen—and now artsjournal.com is an indispensable part of the morning routine of artists, administrators, and journalists everywhere.
This summer, Doug had another idea: invite arts writers, myself among them, to keep daily Web logs on Artsjournal. And that, too, has been a smashing success. Last week, my Artsjournal blog, "About Last Night," received its one hundred thousandth page view.
I believe the future of arts journalism is on the Web. If I'm right, then Doug McLennan was present at the creation. I'm proud to be a part of his creation, and on his behalf I accept this award with gratitude—and hope.
We were in fast company. Other prizewinners included the authors of several books about which I have written enthusiastically here and elsewhere, among them Alfred Appel, Jr.’s Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce, Charles M. Joseph’s Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention,
Allen Shawn’s Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, and Richard Sudhalter’s Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael.
At a time when serious writing about music is getting harder and harder to find in the major media, it’s heartening that ASCAP should pay tribute to books and writers like these—and, of course, to artsjournal.com, without which there would be no "About Last Night." Bless them, and Doug, too.
TT: You go, girl!
The Grammy nominations were just announced, and I rejoice to inform you that Luciana Souza, the subject of "About Last Night"’s very first posting, received her second nomination in a row for Best Jazz Vocal Album, this time for North and South.
If you haven’t bought North and South, get on the stick!
UPDATE: For a complete list of Grammy nominations, go here.
OGIC: Real plums, fake cake
What Dale Peck has to say in this interview—which is as engaging and compulsively readable as all of Robert Birnbaum's author chats—reminded me of a book that I have been obsessed with off and on the last ten years, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood: Mary McCarthy's classic, heartbreaking account of her embattled childhood. Peck's latest book, What We Lost, is a memoir of his father's childhood, an essentially uncategorizable work that its publisher calls a work of fiction "based on a true story":
I always got confused in English classes and such where you would be reading Colette and then they would tell you it was based on such-and-such love affair and they would tell you the name of the real person and all this kind of thing. And I’d think, ‘Why did she write the novel and all that?’ And at the end of the day I would think that it was not terrifically important to me when you choose not to indulge in or claim that particular weightiness that attaches to the claim of truth. Which is part of the reason I considered publishing this book as a novel. I didn’t want to make too great a claim to the truth here. These are things that actually happened to my father. His reaction to them is something I can only base on my own observations of what he said. And to some degree, as in any act of writing like this, part of what I am trying to do is give voice to feelings that I feel like he has never been able to fully express. Or else the story would not be as resonant as it is in our family history.
In its different way, Peck's book (which I own but have not yet read) seems to be as interested as McCarthy's in the borderland between fiction and nonfiction, the pitfalls of memory, and the tricky, haunting work of fitting together and gaining perspective on one's own family's history.
Mary McCarthy's parents died when she was six years old, victims of the terrible flu epidemic of 1918 (as good a reminder as any, Our Dad will say, to get my flu shot) that perversely struck down young, healthy adults like them in huge numbers. She and her brothers were thrown on the questionable mercy of their relations.
Whenever we children came to stay at my grandmother's house, we were put to sleep in the sewing room, a bleak, shabby, utilitarian rectangle, more office than bedroom, more attic than office, that played to the hierarchy of chambers the role of a poor relation.…Thin white spreads, of the kind used in hospitals and charity institutions, and naked blinds at the windows reminded us of our orphaned condition and of the ephemeral character of our visit; there was nothing here to encourage us to consider this our home.
Poor Roy's children, as commiseration damply styled us, could not afford illusions, in the family opinion. Our father had put us beyond the pale by dying suddenly of influenza and taking our young mother with him, a defection that was remarked on with horror and grief commingled, as though our mother had been a pretty secretary with whom he had wantonly absconded into the irresponsible paradise of the hereafter. Our reputation was clouded by this misfortune.
McCarthy's book has a curious form and genesis. It began as individual essays about her childhood, many of them first published in The New Yorker. When she collected these together as chapters of her memoir, she discovered errors of memory: memories recorded in the essays that, while vivid to her mind, turned out to be dubious or disprovable.
As much out of fascination with this problem as for conscience's sake, she added short critical interchapters to discuss these inconsistencies, half-truths, and outright fictions. The beauty of this tactic is that it not only preserves the fictions that, for aesthetic or practical or no discernible reasons at all, had insinuated themselves into McCarthy's self-presentation, but recognizes these fictions as a vital part of the truth. Throughout the book, she muses on the distinction:
Luckily, I am writing a memoir and not a work of fiction, and therefore I do not have to account for my grandmother's unpleasing character and look for the Oedipal fixation or the traumatic experience which would give her that clinical authenticity that is nowadays so desirable in portraiture. I do not know how my grandmother got the way she was; I assume, from family photographs and from the inflexibility of her habits, that she was always the same, and it seems as idle to inquire into her childhood as to ask what was ailing Iago or look for the error in toilet-training that was responsible for Lady Macbeth.
Some of the most poignant moments of McCarthy's book come when she struggles to know who her lost parents were, having only very limited resources at her disposal: her own shallow well of memories, and the unreliable sources that are the grandparents, uncles and aunts who make her young life such a trial. The book explores the especially close connections between family, myth-making, and misremembering, and persuades you that autobiography is inescapably the most fictional of nonfictional genres.
I won't know until I read Peck's book whether it backs up or bucks against McCarthy's implicit assertion that when it comes to family, what counts is less the historical record than the ways that history is remembered, recounted, and felt. But Peck's project of writing his father's autobiography must be founded on the same kind of search for self-origins, and he appears to share both her healthy skepticism of received family history and her writer's faith in the value of family fiction.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 4, 2003 | Permanent
TT: On duty
Another one of those days: I'm writing a piece for money this morning (tomorrow's Wall Street Journal theater column, to be exact), then standing in for Doug McLennan, the genius behind artsjournal.com, at the ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards ceremony here in New York. Doug is getting a special award for having invented artsjournal.com, but he's stuck in Seattle and can't collect it himself, so I'm doing the honors.
Anyway, I won't be posting again until much later in the day, if then, but OGIC promises that she has something in the works. One way or another, we'll be back.
Fellow blogger Felix Salmon writes, apropos of Monday’s posting claiming that the failure of Master and Commander to achive full-fledged hit status represents "the sound of doom for big-budget adult movies, which were already sick unto death and have now officially straight-lined":
You say they're officially dead, but I wonder when, exactly, they were alive. I've just been looking down the list of the top-grossing films of all time, after adjusting for inflation, and I really can't find anything you might call a big-budget adult movie from the past 20 years. The Sixth Sense probably comes closest, as you surely don't have stuff like Forrest Gump or Lord of the Rings in mind. Oh, here we go: at the bottom of the list they start appearing. At #92 there's Saving Private Ryan, and at #106 is Dances With Wolves.
I guess my point is that if you're bemoaning the death of adult-oriented movies with nine-figure budgets, I'd simply say that they never existed in the first place. Even Saving Private Ryan cost "only" $70 million: pretty much half of Master & Commander's budget.
In other words, the Hollywood Blockbuster with the nine-figure budget is, and always has been, a mass-market affair. Let's look at Oscar winners: Chicago had a $45m budget, A Beautiful Mind was $60m, American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love were tiny, English Patient was $27m, Braveheart was $72m, and so on.
So what does that leave us with? Titanic, of course, which I'm sure is not what you consider an adult movie, and the one exception -- Gladiator, with a $103m budget, and which was clearly the success that Master & Commander was trying to replicate.
What's expensive is big special effects, bangs and crashes, all the sort of things which you really don't need in an adult film. So do I mind that directors making adult films can't get nine-figure budgets? Not really, since I don't think there's any need for a nine-figure budget when making an adult film. And if we adults want bangs and crashes, we're more than capable of enjoying Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a wonderful movie for people of all ages.
The lesson which I draw from Master & Commander's box-office (which, as you say, is perfectly respectable, and much more in three weeks than, say, Mystic River or Lost In Translation can hope to gross in their entire runs, assuming they don't win Best Picture) is basically that water-based films (Titanic, Waterworld) are always incredibly expensive, and in this case clearly the budget got out of hand. Criticise the producers for spending too much, don't write off ambitious adult films.
Cute, and interesting, too. But while I take Felix’s point about actual numbers (facts do have a way of messing up a terrific generalization!), I think maybe it’s just to the side of the point. Of the other movies he mentions, The Sixth Sense is an adult film, in the same sense that Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers were at the same time popular and serious. So, in their different ways, were Chicago (which I thought quite good) and American Beauty (about which I had sharply mixed feelings). The others are for the most part pseudo-adult movies, a genre at which Hollywood excels. Conversely, Master and Commander is an adventure film, but its premises and methods seem to me genuinely adult, which is why it isn’t working with the mass audience so expensive a film must command in order to succeed.
The real point of my original post, of course, was the claim with which it ended: "Movies as novels, bought on the Web and consumed at home: that's the future of grownup filmmaking in America." About this I feel absolutely certain. What was hitherto missing was the technology necessary to make such a transformation feasible, and now it is rapidly falling into place. I don’t say that I necessarily look forward to the contraction of cinematic possibilities that will come from the loss of the theatrical experience (as several other readers wrote to point out, the cinematography of films like Lost in Translation really does benefit from being seen on a large screen), but it will have its reciprocal advantages, too, mostly having to do with convenience. In any case, under-50 filmgoers are universally habituated to the experience of watching movies, even well-known ones, on TV, and in a death match between the enveloping aesthetic experience of a large-screen theatrical film and the comfort and intimacy of home viewing, comfort will win every time.
Wednesday, December 3, 2003
"Schiller distinguishes the naive—and the sentimentalisch: sentimentalisch doesn’t mean sentimental. He distinguished between artists 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. Verdi in that sense is simply a craftsman of genius with the simple strong moral ideas of his time and place—no tragic self-torment. He was a marvellous composer, a divine genius who created in a natural way as Homer and Shakespeare and perhaps Goethe did."
Sir Isaiah Berlin, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin
TT and OGIC: Two boxes, no waiting
As of now, Our Girl in Chicago has a separate "About Last Night" mailbox. Look in the top module of the right-hand column under WRITE US and you'll see it.
Click on firstname.lastname@example.org to write directly to Terry. Click on email@example.com to write directly to Our Girl.
We know we promised this a couple of weeks ago, so thanks for being patient.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 3, 2003 | Permanent
Fellow blogger Sarah Weinman writes:
Don't know why it took me so long to read your piece about The Producers, but I agree wholeheartedly, and I enjoyed it immensely when I saw the original cast
back in June of 2001, I think, or at least 2 months after opening night, when Lane/Broderick et al were still relatively fresh in the roles.
I love musicals, and have ever since I was a child. I grew up on the stuff. But I'm decidedly uninterested in those made after about, oh, 1970 or so (and that includes most of Sondheim's works), because so much
has been sacrificed in the name of glitzy production values, "Broadway voices" that aren't even based on the style of old, and good, solid songwriting instead of this over-the-top stuff that Lloyd Webber and his
followers seem to specialize in. And that's not bringing up the Disney adaptations or the rock-opera productions.
So I'm a complete reactionary and I'm proud of it, which was why I enjoyed THE PRODUCERS--it's a throwback to those earlier days, when the jokes were broad, the sensibility all over the place, and the pace
absolutely madcap. Would it hold up if it had opened, say, in the 1950s? I doubt it. Compared to the way things are now, it's wonderful. Compared to even some of the failures and flops of decades past, it probably would have been killed by the critics. Context is everything.
I always thought THE PRODUCERS was an anomaly. Was very glad it was a hit, but I didn't see it inspiring a return to old-fashioned type musicals. It's just too expensive to put such things on. So I'll be sorry to see the show go, but I'm glad I saw it near the beginning, when there was much enthusiasm in the air.
Thanks, Sarah. Well said.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 3, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Put out more flags
I spent yesterday afternoon hanging out in a recording studio in midtown Manhattan, watching a friend of mine, a jazz singer from Brazil, record her next album. She was in the vocal booth when I arrived, so I slipped discreetly into the control room and took a seat in front of the board. As soon as she was finished, she burst out of the booth, ran into the control room, gave me a hug and said, "Guess what? I took my citizenship test this morning. I passed!"
A little background: my friend is as Brazilian as it's possible to be, but she's lived here for many years and decided some time ago to become an American citizen. It touched me to the heart when she told me of her plans. Not only do I have a special love for American art (the pieces collected in A Terry Teachout Reader are all about American art and artists, and except for a lone Bonnard, my collection of works on paper is all-American), but jazz has always seemed to me uniquely emblematic of the American national character. Somehow this made my friend's decision all the more moving.
I knew she was taking the test that day, and I had every reason to assume she'd pass it with flying colors, so I was ready for her news. I opened my shoulder bag and took out a neatly wrapped present (neatly wrapped by somebody else, needless to say!). The card was a reproduction of a John Marin watercolor, and the gift was three albums of music by Aaron Copland: Quiet City, the Third Symphony, Old American Songs, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, and a two-CD set of the complete piano music. I couldn't think of a better way to welcome my beloved friend to my beloved country. Neither could she.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 3, 2003 | Permanent
"The price of purity is purists."
Calvin Trillin, American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 3, 2003 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 2, 2003
TT: A confession of utter stupidity
I got up this morning, turned on the computer, tried to check my e-mail, and nothing happened. Neither was I able to get on the Web. I figured it was a transient problem with my high-speed connection, so I spent a pleasant morning not doing e-mail, surfing the Web, or posting to the blog. Come lunchtime, though, I began to suspect a problem. A call to a neighbor established that her high-speed service was just fine, so I called up the cable company, negotiated the thicket of automated possibilities, made contact with a live human being, and told him what was wrong. He suggested I make sure the power cord on the modem was plugged in securely. It wasn't. Apparently I'd knocked it part way out of the wall. And did I feel dumb? You bet.
Anyway, that's why I didn't post anything this morning. (I did, however, enjoy watching some of the hitherto-unviewed TV shows I recorded on my Magic Digital Cable Box in recent days.) And now I have to get ready for a Mencken-related radio phoner to Chicago, so it may be a while before I write anything substantial.
Two things, briefly: (1) Welcome back, OGIC! (2) I just saw a dummy of the dust jacket for A Terry Teachout Reader, complete with Fairfield Porter lithograph. It looks way cool.
Now I'll see if anything else is unplugged, arrgh....
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 3, 2003 | Permanent
OGIC: Still life with links
I apologize for my recent absence from this space while I've been on the road, spending time with family, and under the weather, in various combinations. I'm back in Chicago now, easing back into things slowly, and catching up on my reading. To wit:
Is it just me, or does it seem as though you can't blink these days for fear of missing something new and fascinating at 2 Blowhards? Today it is a guest posting by Michael's friend Maureen, who describes her friendship with a blind man who is acutely sensitive to visual beauty of all kinds. Here's a taste:
One of the things that I liked best about our friendship was that it seemed to transcend the superficial. At least, or so it seemed at first, we were free from the appearance game.
Aha! Not quite. I soon began to learn that this accomplished man also had a serious eye, so to speak, for beauty—female pulchritude, to be exact. I learned that Jacek had been making numerous inquiries about my appearance. He wanted to know every detail about me, although he already knew quite a few—body type is easy to determine when you walk with a blind person, and he had gotten to know my personality extremely well. Yet he wanted more. The "aesthetics" of Maureen were important to him. Mind you, this was someone who had never seen a human face.
As they say, read the whole thing.
I've also been having some fun exploring John & Belle Have a Blog. John has been fisking defenders of Bad Academic Writing, talking up the unfairly neglected Robert Louis Stevenson, and examining his affinity for Stephen King:
I have so much affection for Stephen King on account of countless pleasant hours spent reading his first, second, third, fourth and fifth rate fat novels. He's a novelist I feel was my friend in junior high. I feel his influence seep through other writers—Neil Gaiman, for example. Whose first, second, third, fourth and fifth rate products I greatly enjoy. It makes me smile to feel King's influence spread. When I hear he won a prize I feel like I heard a friend won a prize. It hardly occurs to me to ask whether he deserves it.
My own impulse to defend King from the recent attacks directed at him on the occasion of his National Book Award does, I'll admit, stem from the same sort of youthful affection. But it is helped along immeasurably by the smug certainty in some quarters that King's popularity or genre proves his literary unworthiness. And I simply think that he is a good writer (far better, ironically, than any of the other popular novelists he endorsed at the NBA dinner).
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 2, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Oh, all right, one more thing
Here’s Cup of Chicha (welcome back to the blogosphere, ma’am) on Sylvia:
Films are very likely to fail if they are about any one of these three subjects: a writer, depression, a real person.
Read the whole thing here. And now I've really got to go write a piece for money....
TT: One of those days
I'm triple-booked today (a deadline, a recording session, a press preview), so this is the last you'll be hearing from me until Wednesday. Our Girl is also enmeshed in life-related activities, though I'm hoping she'll poke her head in at some point in the next couple of days.
Fortunately, I posted a really alarmingly large amount of stuff on Sunday and Monday, in addition to a couple of first-thing-in-the-morning items today, and I suspect in any case that most of you were elsewhere (turkey sandwiches, hangovers) while I was busily blogging away. As I used to say to a now-deceased cat who liked fresh food in the middle of the night, "Eat what's there."
"'Of course,' he said, 'you are at the stage when you think Swinburne is the greatest poet who ever lived. But you won’t think that for ever. He is a damned good poet at his best. For the moment at a certain epoch of one’s life he’s like Wagner’s music, he annihilates everything else. Have you ever heard Wagner’s music?'
"C. shook his head.
"'Well, you’ll have to some day, I suppose. You must get through it like measles. Don’t go to it here; they can’t do it. It’s poisonous, neurotic stuff, and it’s all wrong; but you’ll have to experience the disease. Don’t think I’m saying you’re wrong to like what you like. You’re young, that’s the great thing, and I’m not, and the young are often right in admiring what they do admire. It’s a great thing they should admire anything. When people get older they see nothing in Shelley or Swinburne; the colours seem to have faded out of these things, but they haven’t really. The colours are there, only they are too dry and too crusted to see them.'"
Maurice Baring, C
Monday, December 1, 2003
TT: Prime directive
A reader writes, apropos of yesterday’s exchange about American orchestras:
Regarding your comments (and your correspondent's) about the opening of minds to symphonic music, I think you might have overlooked a crucial element: instrument lessons. Or rather, the lack of them in American schooling. Take a survey of a group of symphony-goers, and you'll find that one had some violin in school. Another still plays amateur piano. Another might have had a clarinet thrust upon her in junior high. While they never became professional musicians themselves, the instruction they received helped them unlock the secrets of music. Knowing something of what it takes to play a viola part, they can appreciate and admire those who do it brilliantly.
It's a sad fact that music appreciation—that very optimistic style of teaching which consists in playing recordings of works and telling students why they're great—doesn't stick. It takes more than one hearing and a definition of sonata form, and even sympathetic
and awe-struck description of Beethoven's deafness, to overcome the forbidding nature of a 45-minute work, especially in this era of ambient music and 3-minute songs. A mind can't merely be open to music; it needs to be shaped to the music, through the rigors of practice and performance.
Where has the instrumental instruction gone? It's a victim of budget cuts, at least in the public schools. It's gone from the cultural landscape, too. A piano is no longer an essential item in a cultured household, and the very idea of aspiring to a cultured household is embarrassingly affected to some.
Not every member of a concert audience is an ex-trumpeter or fiddler, to be sure. But a good number are, and they bring their spouses and infect their
friends with their enthusiasm.
In short, it's hopeless trying to get people into concert halls by telling them why they need to attend concerts. Love of complex, demanding music has to be engendered from an early age, and that takes the kind of involvement that music lessons entail.
Well…yes and no. Mostly yes, at least up to a point, and I speak as one who actually learned how to play violin in the public schools of a very small Missouri town—but, then, I was the one who wanted to learn. To be sure, the larger culture was encouraging me: I grew up in the middlebrow age of aspiration, at a time when the ideal of the "cultured household" was still taken with the highest possible seriousness. I saw classical music performed on network TV as a boy, which made me want to learn an instrument, and my public school system made that possible. Many of the links have been removed from that cultural chain in the past quarter-century, with dire results. Still, the initial impulse came from within me, in substantial part because of those selfsame music-appreciation classes about whose efficacy my correspondent is so skeptical. Mere exposure rang the bell, and my own budding interest did the rest.
The good news is that people can develop a serious interest in classical music, or any other "complex, demanding" art form, no matter how old they are. I’ve seen it happen time and again. For this reason, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as my correspondent, who seems to think that if you don’t get inoculated with classical music in childhood, you can’t learn to love it as an adult. On the other hand, I strongly agree that learning a musical instrument as a child puts you way ahead of the game, and the decline of our public-school music programs has made an uphill battle steeper than ever.
I also agree that "it's hopeless trying to get people into concert halls by telling them why they need to attend concerts." Would that it were more widely understood that high art is good for you—not in the fallacious "Mozart-effect" sense, but in the far more profound sense of soulcraft. Alas, that uplifting notion has largely vanished from American culture. In matters of high art, we must start from zero: we actually have to make the case that listening to operas by Mozart and Verdi and looking at ballets by Balanchine and Tudor are pleasurable experiences.
Fortunately, the strongest card in our hands is that we’re telling the truth, an amazing and miraculous fact that it’s never too late to discover, even if you’ve never held a clarinet or stood at a barre or wielded a paintbrush. High art is many things, but above all—before anything else—it’s fun. And I think it’s possible to make that clear without distorting the experience of art out of all recognition. That’s what I try to do in writing about the arts, here and elsewhere: I try to communicate the overflowing enthusiasm and excitement I feel every time I come into the presence of good art. Any arts journalist who doesn’t do that is part of the problem.
TT: Book 'em
I see that Master and Commander has tanked. Not in absolute terms: a $67.5 million gross in the first three weeks of release would be perfectly respectable under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, Master and Commander cost $135 million, stars Russell Crowe, and got hysterically enthusiastic reviews. So why isn't it doing better? A whole lot better? The answer is to be found in The Wall Street Journal's post-Thanksgiving report on this year's holiday films, which declared with blunt finality that "the adult-skewing audience it is pitched toward hasn't responded strongly enough."
That rumble you hear in the middle distance is the sound of doom for big-budget adult movies, which were already sick unto death and have now officially straight-lined. If a film with all the advantages of Master and Commander can't do any better than $67.5 million after three weeks, don't expect any remotely similar project to get the green light. Expensive movies, like Trix, are for kids.
Is there still room for smart movies made on the cheap? Absolutely, and plenty of it. But I expect that the adventurous indie flicks of the not-so-distant future will find their audiences not in theatrical release, but via such new-media distribution routes as direct-to-DVD and on-demand digital cable. As I predicted four years ago in "Tolstoy's Contraption," an essay published in the Journal and collected in A Terry Teachout Reader,
it is only a matter of time before [independent] films are routinely released directly to videocassette and marketed like books (or made available in downloadable form over the Internet), thus circumventing the current blockbuster-driven system of film distribution. Once that happens, my guess is that the independent movie will replace the novel as the principal vehicle for serious storytelling in the twenty-first century.
I got the technology wrong, but everything else right. Especially now that large-screen TVs are making it easier to watch films at home under more visually advantageous circumstances, I doubt that over-30 moviegoers will continue to subject themselves to the unpleasantries of trips to the local gigaplex. Intimate films like Lost in Translation and The Station Agent gain little or nothing when you view them in a theater, surrounded by cell-phone addicts and other freaks and morons. (Yes, I recently watched Kissing Jessica Stein for the first time, and have now added that invaluable phrase to my personal repertoire.) I'd just as soon see such films in the comfort of my living room, the same way I'd read a good book.
Movies as novels, bought on the Web and consumed at home: that's the future of grownup filmmaking in America. See if it doesn't happen, soon.
TT: A visit to Fallingwater
Regular visitors to this site will recall a major dustup in the blogosphere back in September over the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in particular over Fallingwater, the 1937 mountain home whose vast terraces are cantilevered over a small waterfall. (Go here to trace the thread.)
Here’s part of what I wrote:
Much of the recent wrangling has centered on Fallingwater, the Wright-designed Pennsylvania home... whose unusual design required substantial ex post facto structural work in order to keep it from fallingdown. Of course I don’t know what it would feel like to live there, but Fallingwater—as well as many of the other Wright houses I’ve seen and in some cases toured—seems to me both remarkably and self-evidently beautiful. This says nothing about the no less self-evident structural unsoundness of the house’s design and original construction, but I don’t really think that’s relevant to the issue of its beauty....I dare say my opinion of Fallingwater is far more widely shared than that of Wright’s detractors, and not just by art critics, either.
What struck me about this imbroglio was that none of the participants (so far as I can recall) had ever seen Fallingwater, myself included. That’s understandable—it's in the middle of nowhere—but the fact remains that we were all holding forth solely on the basis of photographs, of which there are many, Fallingwater being Wright’s best-known building after the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Still, the inevitable inadequacies of our discussion were underlined when a reader who had actually spent a week living in a Wright house sent me an e-mail describing the experience (she called the house "exquisite" but "damnably uncomfortable").
As soon as I got her e-mail, I made up my mind to go to Fallingwater and see for myself, a visit from which I returned yesterday. It isn’t easy to get there, but it’s absolutely worth the trouble, especially if you take the two-hour guided tour of the house, which costs forty well-spent dollars. The guides are comprehensively informed and impressively thorough (thank you, Sue Celaschi!), and the tour is leisurely enough that you get every opportunity to see the house from top to bottom. (Go here for information or to make a reservation, which I strongly recommend.)
I don’t want to waste your time telling you what Fallingwater looks like, not only because it’s so famous but also because written descriptions can’t begin to convey the effect of actually seeing the house, whether in person or in photographs. If you don’t know what it looks like, go here for a fine assortment of on-line photos. Beyond that, all I can say is that everything you’ve read about the house is true. It's a Cubist painting in ochre, sandstone, and Cherokee red, and it seems to melt into the surrounding landscape as if it had somehow grown out of the stream and rocks.
The problem is that when you’re looking at Fallingwater in person, it’s hard not to be so overwhelmed by its beauty that you forget to reflect on its function. The house was a weekend retreat for E.J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department-store magnate, and his wife and son, and the Kaufmanns didn’t hang Fallingwater on their wall—they lived in it. So as I walked through the house, I kept asking myself, What must it have felt like to live here?
That may seem like an obvious question, but believe me, it isn’t. I just finished reading Franklin Toker’s Fallingwater Rising, a formidably smart, engagingly written new book that discusses the house from every conceivable angle, not merely as a piece of architecture but as a cultural event. Yet the one thing the author failed to do was convey a clear sense of the experience of living in Fallingwater. Was it comfortable? Awkward? Awe-inspiring? Frustrating?
Like all geniuses, Frank Lloyd Wright attracts aggressive partisans who refuse to consider the possibility that any of his work might have been less than perfect. I’m no Wright partisan, merely a passionate admirer of his work, and my admiration, while considerable, is not blind. So here are some of the things, good and bad, that occurred to me as I walked through Fallingwater:
- Fallingwater still looks modern, though not ostentatiously or forbiddingly so. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it looks fresh. Unlike many other "modern" homes of the same period, it looks as if it could have been built yesterday, or 20 years ago, or 20 years from now. It hasn't dated at all.
- The complex floor plan, including the labyrinthine staircases that link the different floors of the house, adds a note of mystery and unpredictability to Fallingwater. My guess is that children would love it for that reason—as did I. (Think of all the places to hide!) On the other hand, it would be unmanageably difficult for anyone who had the slightest difficulty climbing steps. It’s not a house for old people.
- The servants’ quarters are as beautiful as the rest of the house—a lovely and generous touch.
- Everyone who writes about Fallingwater talks about the noise of the waterfall. Robert Hughes, who considers Fallingwater to be "one of the most astonishing tours de force in all modern architecture," goes on to speak of "the perversity of Wright’s idea of building a house over a waterfall that can’t be seen from inside it, but only heard: a dull, continuous roar that, in spring-melt time, must have rendered life in Fallingwater nearly insufferable." I can’t tell you how loud it is in the spring, but in late November the sound of the waterfall inside the house is nothing more than a soothingly musical background rush of white noise.
- Part of what keeps the house manageably quiet is the flagstone floor of the main living area, which extends directly over the water (one of the most striking features of the house is a glass-enclosed staircase that leads straight down to Bear Run). Those big flat stones are great to look at but less pleasant to walk on, and their surface unevenness makes it impossible to put down any kind of rug.
- Every guide in every Frank Lloyd Wright house I’ve visited goes out of his or her way to assure you that Wright’s small stature (he lied about his height and wore lifts in his shoes) had no effect on his architecture. Nonsense. The "human scale" to which Wright designed his houses was all too obviously calculated to suit the ego of a self-consciously short man. Sometimes the effect can be wonderfully cozy, as in the low-cost, small-scale "Usonian houses" Wright began to design for middle-class homeowners immediately after finishing Fallingwater (about which more later), but at other times it can be oppressive. I’m five foot eight, Wright’s "official" height, and I found the ceilings in many parts of the house—including much of the vast first-floor living area—to be about six inches too low. For the same reason, many other features, including the bathroom fixtures and Wright-designed built-in furniture, looked equally uncomfortable to me.
- The defining structural feature of Fallingwater is the huge amount of space allotted to the terraces (they occupy 2,445 square feet, versus a 2,885-square-foot interior). They’re as spectacular to stand on as they are to behold. But the fact that they extend outward from the main building with no visible means of support can be disorienting, especially since they now sag vertically by about seven inches, a long-term consequence of Wright’s faulty grasp of the load-bearing properties of the cantilever. The sag is evident to the naked eye, no matter where you’re standing, and even though the terraces were recently stabilized and are structurally sound, it remains more than a little bit vertigo-inducing. It also detracts from the beauty of the house, much of whose effect arises from the endlessly repeated horizontal lines of the terraces and the sandstone walls.
- The giant-sized terrace outside the master bedroom makes no sense whatsoever, especially in a house ostensibly designed on a "human scale." It’s big enough to hold a cocktail party or a game of touch football, but accessible only to the occupants of the bedroom. As Franklin Toker readily admits, Wright must have built it that way purely to make a splash. He succeeded—it’s the first thing you notice when approaching the house—but I wonder what Mrs. Kaufmann thought of it, or whether she used it more than occasionally.
- Like so many of Wright’s buildings, including the Guggenheim, Fallingwater is designed in such a way as to make it all but impossible to hang paintings effectively. (This is no accident—Wright was a monster of vanity who disapproved of his clients’ displaying art in their homes, believing that his buildings were all the art they needed.) The only things that really look good on the walls are unobtrusive knick-knacks, which can be placed on the built-in horizontal shelves.
- Perhaps coincidentally—and perhaps not—Fallingwater also has comparatively few bookshelves, and most of those it does have are awkwardly situated.
All these cavils notwithstanding, I think it would be a profoundly soul-satisfying experience to live in Fallingwater—if you were rich enough to afford a staff of servants and young enough to negotiate the stairs. But two days after visiting Fallingwater, I visited Wright’s 1,200-square-foot Pope-Leighey House in Mount Vernon, Va., a prime example of his "Usonian" style, built for a Washington newspaperman who made $50 a week in 1939. It’s infinitely more modest than Fallingwater, but no less pleasing to behold, and in many ways a good deal more obviously comfortable. Here, Wright’s "human scale" takes a far more intelligible and convincing shape, without any reciprocal sacrifice of exterior beauty. The Pope-Leighey House isn’t perfect, either, not by any means, but I don’t have any trouble imagining living there, and I suspect it would be at least as soul-satisfying, even without the waterfall. (The best short book about the Usonian houses is Carla Lind’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses. For an online photo gallery of the Pope-Leighey House, go here. For
information about tours, go here.)
Yes, Fallingwater is one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world, fully deserving of its singular reputation. I've never seen a more beautiful house in my life. But I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if in the very long run, Wright’s Usonian houses prove to have been a more significant contribution to Western culture—which is the surprising conclusion I drew from my visit to Fallingwater.
TT: It's dark in here, damn it
A reader writes, apropos of my recent posting about the Elements Quartet's "Snapshots" concert and the persistent inability of American symphony orchestras to attract younger listeners:
If a person's mind is not open, you cannot make him or her like anything. Unfortunately, there is a myth that classical music in general is stuffy, boring, and elitist, and too many people, not just young ones, blindly accept this canard. Many young people just assume that it's "uncool" to like orchestral music, and that only rock music is "relevant." I do not agree with everything in the late Allan Bloom's book "The Closing of the American Mind," but his observations about American popular culture closing young people's minds to the possibility of enjoying classical music are right on target. One thing is certain: it is not that our orchestras have failed to make concertgoing worthwhile. They have never offered more diversified and interesting repertoire. It is minds that need to be opened.
For my part, I don't disagree with all that much of what my correspondent has to say. Alas, it’s totally irrelevant to the current crisis.
To begin with, rarely have I heard a question begged so loudly. Of course classical music is not stuffy or boring (though it most certainly is elitist, like all great art, and thank God it is). Of course classical music has an image problem among younger listeners. Of course their minds need to be opened. But note my correspondent's unintentionally revealing use of the passive voice, always a sure sign that something important is being swept under the rug. It is minds that need to be opened. Fine...but by whom? Or—to put it another way—if symphony orchestras aren’t responsible for making people want to come hear them, then who is?
I don’t mean to be snarky or frivolous. I’m being practical. Like it or not, orchestras must compete for attention in the cultural marketplace. If they don’t, they will die. Alas, they can no longer take for granted any institutional encouragement from the larger culture, and there’s no button you can push that will change that situation. After all, we no longer have a cultural consensus that classical music is a good thing, much less that it’s better than rock or rap. In the absence of such a consensus, you can’t reasonably expect the public schools or the mass media to encourage young people (or anyone else) to listen to classical music. Why should they? What’s in it for them?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe devoutly and passionately in the permanent significance of classical music. What’s more, I believe truly great music is being written right this minute. But pop culture isn’t going away, and that means symphony orchestras have to build their own audiences. If they don’t, nobody else will. And if their audiences are shrinking, it means they’re doing a bad job—period. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing well. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing good music. If nobody’s listening, something’s wrong. You can spend all day assigning blame, or you can try to figure out what to do to change things. There is no third way. Minds won’t open themselves.
"There are some things too dreadful to be revealed, and it is even more dreadful how, in spite of our better instincts, we long to know about them."
Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
Sunday, November 30, 2003
TT: Two kinds of people
Our Girl and I have been batting the great-art-we-don't-get ball back and forth, and in my most recent return service I took a couple of shots that stirred up the natives. In seeking to explain my own lukewarmness about Picasso, I quoted these lines from my Wall Street Journal review of MoMA’s "Matisse Picasso" show:
In the visual arts, the race has always been between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Picasso has always been the front-runner. Certainly Americans, with their puritan distrust of beauty, have typically favored his relentless experimentation to Matisse’s less obviously innovative stylistic pilgrimage.
Then I signed off with this bit of wholesale nose-thumbing:
I wouldn't lose a bit of sleep if all the German paintings in the world vanished first thing tomorrow morning. Poof.
Second things first. A persnickety reader writes:
What do you include under the rubric of "German paintings"? Is it too pedantic to remind you that Germany dates from 1871? Do you exempt German engravers who also painted (Dürer, Schongauer, Pencz and many others, down to Kollwitz)? Do you include Giovanni d'Alemagna, Hans von Aachen, Elsheimer and Johann Liss? Adolf Menzel? What about German speakers who were from Switzerland or the Habsburg lands (Josef Heintz, Maulpertsch, Mengs, Klimt, Schiele, Kubin)? Just curious. I respect your opinion and wonder whether this is a considered or a wanton bit of judgment.
Actually, it’s both (though perhaps I should have said "German-speaking painting," if I may mix a metaphor). Note, for instance, that I didn’t say I wanted all the German paintings in the world to vanish first thing tomorrow morning, much less that I hate all German painting. All I said was that if such a catastrophe were to occur, I myself wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, and I’ll stand on that. As a general rule, with lots and lots of exceptions, I’m not notably fond of German-speaking art of any kind.
Why not? Well, it so happens that I've been thinking about writing a piece about Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider, up through Feb. 12 at the Jewish Museum in New York, and to that end I recently read Allen Shawn’s Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, a superb little book about my least favorite composer. (If only Schoenberg’s music were one quarter as good as Shawn makes it sound!) In it, I ran across the following paragraph:
While Schoenberg was trying to continue the Germanic tradition of thematic development, which valued internal qualities of coherence, substance, and human expression over external charm, Stravinsky’s work sprang from Russian and French roots, music of a less obviously "emotional" cast in which beauty seemed to issue more directly from sound itself than from the working out of its ideas, the tradition behind impressionism and the world of ballet: a tradition in which the composer was more inspired artisan than musical philosopher or intense visionary, a music in which, ideally, the composer practically disappeared….In this music the strivings and mystical yearnings of the individual creator were subsumed in the object that was the work itself.
I never expected to find in an apologia for Schoenberg so beautiful (and so fair) a summary of the reasons why I prefer Franco-Russian art to Austro-German art—as a general rule, with lots and lots of exceptions. I couldn't have put it any better myself. Thank you, Mr. Shawn, for doing my work for me.
Moving right along to the Matisse-Picasso problem, Tyler Green, who blogs at Modern Art Notes, my favorite visual-arts blog, posted this crisp response:
I don't agree that Picasso was better received here than Matisse. While most of the Euro-moderns received, shall we say, delayed appreciation in the U.S., Matisse caught on first….At the very least, they were received equally in the first half of the century.
(Read the whole thing here.)
In fact, I don’t disagree with Tyler in the slightest. What I meant to say, and should have said, was that Picasso is now the front-runner, and has been for a long time, even though the two painters started out more or less even. Furthermore, I believe this is the case for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the relative merits of their work as art qua art. As I suggested in my Journal review, I think Picasso has gone over bigger in this country because he seems more serious than Matisse. Most Americans prefer sermons and spinach-eating to high art with a light touch, and Picasso, unlike Matisse, rarely lets you forget that he means serious business. All of which goes a long way (though not all the way) toward explaining why I prefer Matisse to Picasso—and Stravinsky to Schoenberg.
P.S. Apropos of nothing other than our shared liking for the greatest Italian painter of the 20th century, allow me to mention that Tyler recently posted this link
to an online catalogue of a gorgeous Giorgio Morandi show on display through Dec. 20 in San Francisco. The only problem is that it’s at a gallery, not a museum. Grumble, grumble, grumble. When will I get to see the comprehensive Morandi museum retrospective for which I long? And when will some rich reader of "About Last Night" get around to buying me a Morandi etching out of gratitude for the sheer brilliance of this site? I’d even let Our Girl borrow it from time to time, maybe….
TT: Words to the wise
I got an e-mail from Fred Hersch reminding me to remind you that he’s taking over the Jazz Standard Dec. 9-14 for a whole week of duets. Here’s the order of service:
December 9: Lee Konitz, alto sax
December 10: John Hollenbeck, percussion
December 11: Jane Ira Bloom, soprano sax
December 12: Joe Lovano, tenor sax
December 13: Kate McGarry, voice
December 14: Kurt Elling, voice
Talk about an embarrassment of riches! I doubt if I can catch more than one or two nights, though I’d much prefer to hear them all. Aside from his astonishing roster of collaborators, Hersch happens to be one of the jazz pianists whose music I love best. Here’s part of what I wrote about him a couple of years ago in the New York Times:
Mr. Hersch is frequently compared to Bill Evans—both pianists are greatly admired for their lyricism—but his approach to solo playing is far different. Though Evans made two well-received solo albums, he strongly preferred working with a trio, and his unaccompanied playing tended to be loosely improvisational and sketchy in texture. Mr. Hersch, on the other hand, improvises with the sharp conceptual clarity of a classical composer; instead of merely skimming atop the familiar chord changes of standard songs, he forges them into rigorously structured, wholly personal re-creations. "I like to play orchestrally—juggling several balls, having lots of layers of stuff going on," he says. Yet even at its most complex, his playing never sounds premeditated: it is as though each song is being spontaneously composed, on the spot and in the moment.
To which I need only add that there will be two shows each night, at 7:30 and 9:30, with an additional 11:30 show on Friday (Lovano) and Saturday (McGarry). Call 212-576-2232 for reservations, or to inquire about buying a three-night pass at a special discount.
Be there. I will.
TT: But somebody has to do it
2 Blowhards has a wonderful first-person account of what it’s like to work part-time as a nude model for an art class:
I would soon find that modeling wasn't simply a nude and high-paid sprawl on the chaise lounge (for that you have to turn to its illegal sister profession). It's hard work, akin to being a dancer. Twenty minutes stretch to infinity when you stand still. Add ten more -- and only discipline prevents you from falling like wet laundry from a line. Effortless poses of grace aren't so effortless. While everyone from icy Degas to libidinous Rodin bent necks and crushed spinal disks searching for the perfect position, history doesn't record the groans of their models. Then there's boredom -- to which I credit the glazed look in Mona Lisa's eye. Behind every thoughtful face at the Art Student's League is a woman asking, "When will it be over?"
Read the whole thing here. Please.
"The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them."
Karl Kraus, Beim Wort genommen
TT: Like they used to
I just got back from…well, I’ll tell you on Monday. I promise you’ll be interested. At least I think you’ll be interested. (And no, it wasn’t Baghdad.)
In my absence, The Wall Street Journal ran my review of the new Broadway revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, which opened last Sunday. Since there’s no link, and I expect most of you were elsewhere on Friday and thus didn’t get a chance to see what I wrote, here it is:
Let’s cut right to the chase: "Wonderful Town" is now the go-to show on Broadway. Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt are the best of all possible stars. Kathleen Marshall’s dance-filled direction is picture-perfect. As for the songs, they’re by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—need I say more? If a visit to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre doesn’t make you feel sunny all over, you need to consider switching to an industrial-strength anti-depressant.
The only thing I can’t figure is why it took a half-century for "Wonderful Town," which opened this week, to receive its first full-scale Broadway revival. The legend of New York City, after all, is as potent today as it was in 1953. This is still the place where gifted folk from every small town on earth come to find their futures, and "Wonderful Town" is the quintessential expression of their quest. Based on "My Sister Eileen," the Jerome Chodorov-Joseph Fields play loosely adapted from the autobiographical short stories of Ruth McKenney, "Wonderful Town" tells the tale of Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, two adventurous sisters from Ohio who burn their bridges, find a basement apartment in Greenwich Village and find out that Manhattan really is all it’s cracked up to be.
Simplicity is the keynote of this wonderful "Wonderful Town": John Lee Beatty’s set is a see-through skein of skyscrapers and fire escapes, with an occasional backdrop flown in to orient the viewer. If you think a Broadway musical absolutely has to be financed by tapping the Federal Reserve, you may find the effect sparse, but for me it was just right. In reviewing the gazillion-dollar "Wicked" (which I liked), I suggested that it was really "a mini-musical à la ‘Godspell’ trapped inside the body of a Brobdingnagian Broadway spectacular, signaling wildly to be let out." This is what I had in mind, a spare, uncluttered production that puts the show and its stars in the spotlight.
The plot, to be sure, is paper-thin, and in a less zesty staging, "Wonderful Town," with its period references and fresh-faced optimism, might seem more quaint than anything else. Not to worry: Kathleen Marshall, who did the dances for "Little Shop of Horrors," shows why choreographers make the best musical-comedy directors. Faced with the challenge of cramming the action into a comparatively shallow downstage space (this is a concert-style production in which the orchestra is placed on stage), Ms. Marshall weaves the actors in and out of one another’s way with frisky precision. Imagine a frieze-like painting of New York street life, wound up and set in motion, and you’ll get the idea.
The playing space may be smaller than usual, but it leaves plenty of room for good acting, and Donna Murphy knows what to do with it. The role of Ruth, the sharp-tongued older sister who’s afraid she’s too smart to get a man, was created in 1953 by Rosalind Russell, Hollywood’s favorite dame-in-a-suit, and Murphy has that precedent clearly in mind. She pops off her wisecracks as if she’d eaten a bag of lemons, peel and all, and growls out her songs with just enough self-lacerating rue to make you want to hug her. I’m not old enough to have seen Russell, but she couldn’t have been better than this. No one could.
Ms. Murphy can carry this show all by her leggy self. The good news is that, unlike Hugh Jackman in "The Boy From Oz," she doesn’t have to. Instead, she’s supported by Jennifer Westfeldt, a Broadway debutante best known as the co-star and co-author of the indie movie "Kissing Jessica Stein." Ms. Westfeldt plays Eileen, the good-hearted, slightly ditsy man magnet of "Wonderful Town," as a Lisa Kudrow-like variant of Jessica Stein—less neurotic, more adorable—and succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of not getting upstaged by Donna Murphy. You won’t have the slightest trouble understanding why all the men in the cast follow her around like lovesick cocker spaniels, tongues unrolled.
What else? A discreetly trimmed book by David Ives, who has sharpened the punch lines without adding sore-thumb anachronisms. A 100% live, synthesizer-free 24-piece orchestra led to resplendent effect by Rob Fisher. Which brings us to those good old Bernstein-Comden-Green songs. Interestingly, none has become a standard, though cabaret singers trot out Ruth’s "One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose a Man)" from time to time. The reason is simple: "Wonderful Town" is a book show with musical numbers, not a quasi-opera like "West Side Story," and its best songs are funny, not touching. By the same token, it isn’t the subplottish courtship of Ruth and Robert Baker (Gregg Edelman), the magazine editor for whom she flips, that drives the show, but the romance between the Sherwood sisters and the city with which they fall hopelessly in love.
I wondered whether so youthfully idealistic a musical would speak to a new generation of émigré New Yorkers suckled on cynicism, so I brought along a 20-year-old friend who, like Ruth and Eileen, came here full of hope and looking for glory. Guess what? She ate it up—and so will you. At a time when even the most case-hardened of Manhattanites toss and turn at night, "Wonderful Town" is a tonic reminder of why New York remains the capital of the land of dreams.
In other words, go. Soon. Now.
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