John Rockwell: April 2008 Archives
The critic Shirley Apthorp is surely right (in Bloomberg News, relayed by Musical America) that the Bayreuth Festival succession saga is more thrilling to most Germans than any soap opera, maybe even than Wagner's mere operas. Whether Wolfgang Wagner's proposal that Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63 (his daughter from his first marriage) share power with Katharina Wagner, 29 (his daughter from his second marriage) is his "last joke" is more open to question. (The proposal leaves Nike Wagner, Wolfgang's brother Wieland's daughter, out in the cold, but there seems precious little likelihood she could ever work with Katharina.)
Apthorp quotes the Bayreuth press spokesman as saying that Eva and Katharina are getting along better now, and Eva has apparently made renewed contact wiht her long-estranged father. From what I hear, that's true. What I hear is not, by the way, from Eva, who's a terrific person. We had drinks a few weeks ago in New York and I had the forebearance (farewell, reportorial instincts) and she had the discretion not to mention one word about Bayreuth for the entire hour.
The real question, assuming everyone including the controlling foundation signs off on this deal, is how it will work. Will Eva or Katharina actually or titularly be above the other in the pecking order? How will they get along with Christian Thielemann (the imperious conductor) and Peter Ruzicka (the composer and ex head of the Salzburg Festival) in the day-to-day operation? It's hard to imagine all these egos (not Eva's so much, or maybe even Katharina's) as working together without a clear hierarchy in place. It's even harder to imagine that this rapprochement would have had a chance before the sudden death of Gudrun, Wolfgang's second wife and hence Katharina's mom. Does everyone have their scorecards handy?
For those of us who love Wagner and Bayreuth, anything would be better than the previous entropy and stasis. So let us fervently hope that Eva and Katharina get along in sisterly harmony and that the two men can help them facilitate their ideas without getting in the way.
People, usually from the rightward end of the poltical specturm, love to blast the New York times for having transformed its supposedly objective news reports into left-wing opinion pieces. It's true that the Times runs more "news analyses" than it used to, and allows reporters to interpret their facts more freely. But such rightish ranting smudges the sometimes subtle distinctions between supposedly objective reporting and supposedly subjective commentary (or criticism). Facts have to be chosen to fit into any "objective" story, and that's a subjective act. To be credible, any opinion has to rest on some sort of fact. Yet however difficult to achieve, truth and accuracy remain admirable goals for any writer, all the more honorably if sought amidst the clatter and din of polarized politics.
All of this floated into my brain as I was thinking about more mundane facts, and how the Internet, more dramatically than archival reserach, multiplies the impact of any seemingly innocent error. I can think of three errors of fact relating directly to me, meaning I was their subject, not their agent.
One is the habit of the New York Times, and hence most everyone who relies on the
Times for its facts, to refer to Chen Shi-Zheng's epic six part, three-day production of the Chinese kunju opera masterpiece "The Peony Pavilion" as lasting 19, or sometimes 20, hours. I conceived and produced that production for the Lincoln Center Festival and saw it many times. I can assure you it lasted 18 hours, each of the six parts being more or less three hours on the nose, with no intermissions (except long ones between the matinee and evening parts on a given day). But someone decided it was 19 (or 20) hours, and that's what comes up if anyone checks the Times data base, so 19 (or 20) it shall be forevermore.
Easier to fix was a Wikipedia biographical entry on me, wherein it was falsely stated that I was part of the family that founded and owns Rockwell International, the California weapons manufacturer. My family has never had anything to do with Rockwell International. Being even more technologically inept then than I am now, I got my friend Tim Page to delete that offending sentence. The assertion will crop again, somewhere, but at least the last time I looked it was not in Wikipedia.
More stubborn was the entry on me by my friend Patrick J. Smith in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Smith asserted that I had come to classical music after 1980 and after I had established myself as a rock critic. The reverse is true; I got into rock after I had come to the NY Times in 1972 as a classical critic, and I remained one throughout the 70's. This was a sensitive issue for me in the 80's because I didn't want people to think that I was some untrained pop bozo who had stumbled into the classics. I'm more relaxed about all that now.
The larger issues behind these rather self-referential tales involve the need for everyone -- writers, editors, fact-checkers -- to exercise care. The Times at least corrects its more obvious errors (though not about the length of "The Peony Pavilion"!) in print and appends the corrections to the electronic versions. The New Yorker, the most fact-checked magazine we have, recently referred to Chen Shi-Zheng as if Shi-Zheng were his last name. The Chinese (and Hungarian and others') practice of placing last names first confuses most of us, but to my knowledge the magazine never formally acknowledged the error. Which means it may crop again, in the New Yorker and beyond.
Oi: if we were all just old-fashioned, fair-and-balanced ranters, we wouldn't have to fret about facts, or truth, at all.
When you're a critic in a town (all right, a city; all right, a metropolis), you often know other critics, especially those you admire. That said, I have never met V. A. Musetto. I don't know anything about him except that I read somewhere that he's the film editor of the New York Post. I have no clue as to what "V." stands for, let alone "A."
But I like his writintg, and more to the point his quirky sensibility, by itself and within the incongruous context in which he works. Every few days (maybe it's weekly, but I haven't checked) he's given a little column called Cine File in which he waxes enthusiastic about movies he likes. They are almost always obscure.
The latest column is about Romanian films, pegged to a Film Society of Lincoln Center festival of same. Actually, this is as close to mainstream as Musetto gets, since a lot of people have taken note of late about good films from that country, most notably "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."
Usually Musetto is waxing on about the outer fringes of American indie films or Korean films or South American films or Alaskan dog-sled films (I made that up, but there are certainly some of them and Musetto surely knows them all). There are other critics in New York alone who because of their tastes or because they've been marginalized by their publications dwell in the twilight zone of film. One thinks of Dave Kehr and his always richly informed, passionate column about DVD's in the Times, or J Hoberman about anything in the Village Voice (amazing that he hasn't been fired, yet).
What's so pleasing about Musetto is that he plies his obscurantist trade in the pages of the Post, which normally deals on a -- how to put this? -- more earthily populist level. Maybe he has the goods on Rupert Murdoch's sexual quirks, and can write what he writes with the threat of blackmail forever hanging on high. Maybe the Post doesn't much care about "wasting" a tiny amount of space on a film nut's favorites. Whatever: He's fun to read, and he's the kind of critic who keeps the shaky institution of the newspaper movie critic still very much alive.
A brief word about her. As dance lovers already know, she was fired from her staff position as senior dance critic of the Village Voice, which seems to take a special glee in leading the feral pack of magazines and newspapers trying to save a pittance by decimating their arts staffs. Bob Christgau was the first big name critic to go (he may now see himself as having been liberated), and now Jowitt. Both were the leaders of their particular packs, Bob of rock criticism, Deborah of dance criticism.
But dance criticism of a certain type, and here's where it gets more fraught. We live in a time in which the century-long tension between ballet and modern dance is being redefined in terms of ballet, with modern dance ("contemporary dance") relegated to ignored irrelevance or to a source for ballet choreography, usually dismissed when it happens. Jowitt knows ballet; she knows all of dance. But partly perhaps because that was her mandate at the Voice, she was the champion of the downtown New York modern-dance world, its spokesman and its conscience. Some people complained that she was too kind, falling back on description when she feared her judgments might seem too harsh. Yet her descriptions were so tactile, so apt, that they constituted a form of judgment all by themselves.
Apparently the Voice has offered her her old spot, but on a freelance basis. I haven't talked with her, but it will be interesting to see what she does. Will she turn elsewhere, her pride preventing her from doing the same job for less, and thus maybe shift her attention a little more uptown? Or will she feel an obligation to the community she has served so long and so well? There is no "right" choice here, and her voice will be heard wherever she writes, in print or on line. The pity is that the Voice put her -- and dance itself -- in this position in the first place.