To those who inquired about my damaged digit, it is improving, slowly but surely. The dressing gets smaller every day, sort of like the bandage on Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown. Too bad I don’t have Faye Dunaway to kiss it and make it better. (Well, maybe not–she is pretty weird in that movie.)
Archives for October 2003
Don’t get your hopes up. I just finished writing a book review for the Los Angeles Times, and now I’m about to dress and depart for Sotheby’s, where I will be bidding on an etching by an artist-to-be-named-later. After that, I’m going to see The Human Stain with one of my musician friends. After that, I’m coming home and crashing, but good.
Yes, some blogging may take place in the interstices, but not necessarily. I mean, we posted ourselves silly yesterday. What do you want, blood? (You got that earlier this week, anyway.)
P.S. Henceforth Maud (who was really good on the Evelyn Waugh centenary) will be known around these parts as the Pint-Sized Polemicist. Indeed, she is a bonny wee thing, not unlike Kristin Chenoweth, who stole my heart at the Gershwin Theatre the other night. And can she sing? Who cares?
Charles Johnson has a cure for what ails our schools’ creative writing programs, and it’s not for the faint of heart (link via Bookslut). His epigraph from John Gardner gives you an idea of what he’s about: “If our furniture was as poorly made as our fiction, we would always be falling onto the floor.”
Shirley Hazzard’s Great Fire, about which I am officially excited, gets a nuanced review from Judith Shulevitz at Slate: “The Great Fire is a lyrical rather than social novel, its richest writing reserved for landscapes as seen in the fresh, full light of day.”
My personal plan to whip through Transit of Venus en route to The Great Fire has been slowed up by the arrival of some books I’m reviewing, as well as my compulsion to read most of Hazzard’s wondrous sentences two or three times each. In this regard, and surely no other, she reminds me a little of Barry Hannah. His haywire Southern Gothic plots tend to baffle me, but his sentences are stunning enough to propel me through his novels all by themselves. (I’m at work now, but I’ll give you some examples next time I blog from home.)
I reviewed Wicked, a new Broadway musical based on Gregory Maguire’s postmodern version of the “Wizard of Oz” story, in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s the gist:
Broadway’s got itself a great big expensive new musical, complete with smoke, mirrors and (no fooling) flying monkeys. Kristin Chenoweth finally has a full-fledged star part that’s worthy of her. Stephen Schwartz has written a ballad with legs. And Joel Grey, God bless him, is back on stage. So what’s not to like? Not much, really. “Wicked,” which opened last night at the Gershwin Theatre, isn’t perfect, but it’s more than good enough to run for a decade or two. If it doesn’t please you, you’re too tough to please….
Critics aren’t supposed to get crushes, but I’ve got it bad for Kristin Chenoweth, a teeny blond bombshell who makes perkiness palatable. Ever since she first blew into town with the 1999 revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” Broadway buffs have been waiting for Ms. Chenoweth to land a bona fide star part in a successful show. Well, this is it. She sings like a cherub on uppers and acts like a damned good actress, and Mr. Schwartz has written her a show-stopping comic turn, “Popular,” which will doubtless be heard on the next Tony telecast.
No link (gnashing of teeth), but you can read the whole thing, including my short, scathing remarks on Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, by picking up a copy of Friday’s Journal and turning to the “Weekend Journal” section. Do, please–the Journal covers the arts really well.
(1) Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Ravel Piano Concerto in G (slow movement)
(2) Frank Sinatra, Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry (1958 version, from Only the Lonely)
(3) Steely Dan, Monkey in Your Soul
(4) Gerry Mulligan, Lonely Town
(5) Stan Getz, Blood Count (dedicated to my damaged digit)
(6) Julian Bream, Britten Nocturnal
And so…good night.
I waded through a sea of very peculiar-looking people this evening (though I quite liked the brunette cat on 70th and Broadway, not to mention my black-clad companion for the evening, who claims to have been disguised as J-Lo) en route to
The Human Stain.
I’m full of strong opinions, but seeing as how you’ve read the book but not yet seen the film, I’m not sure how much I should disclose, given the fact that I’m now in the inverse condition. I’ll disgorge my thoughts at your command.
I just got back from Sotheby’s, where I failed to bring home the bacon—an exquisite 1931 etching by Giorgio Morandi on which I bid unsuccessfully this afternoon—but had an exhilarating, educational, and slightly scary time anyway.
Sotheby’s New York is near the eastern end of 72nd Street. As soon as I got there, I went straight to the seventh floor, where I registered and was given a numbered paddle, which you need in order to place bids. (No, you can’t accidentally buy a million-dollar painting by scratching your nose at the wrong moment, unless you’re dumb enough to scratch it with the paddle.) Much to my surprise, all I had to do was show a photo ID. I wasn’t asked to furnish proof of solvency. Had I wanted, I could have bankrupted myself several times over, and no one would have been the wiser until it came time to settle the tab.
Paddle in hand, I strolled into the salesroom, a cavernous chamber on two of whose walls hung large lithographs by the likes of Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Chuck Close (this was a print auction, not a big-bucks painting auction). Placed in front of the third wall was what looked like a telethon phone bank, which turned out to be more or less what it was: Sotheby’s employees sit there with phones to ears, passing along bids from bidders who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) show up in person.
The folding chairs filled up, and at two o’clock sharp, a gawky, cheerful-looking WASP in a suit stepped behind the podium, clipped on a lapel microphone, and called the crowd to order. On his right was a ponderous turntable which spun the “lots” into view, one item at a time. On his left was a large video screen on which the items and top bids were flashed, plus a few extra telephone operators and one woman who passed along the on-line bids (Internet bidding is fast becoming a big deal at the lower end of the auction business). The whole thing looked not unlike the set for a low-budget game show.
Once we got started, things moved quickly–really, really quickly. My idea of art auctions had come straight from the scene in North by Northwest in which Cary Grant slips through the fingers of James Mason and Martin Landau by misbehaving in a fancy Chicago auction house and getting himself carted away by the cops. It wasn’t like that at all. The auctioneer wasted not a single word describing any of the various prints on sale, much less engaging in small talk. All he did was announce each lot number and (occasionally) the artist, and for the most part he was the only person in the room who said anything at all. Nearly everybody bid in silence, raising their paddles, a finger, or a pen.
The bids came fast and furious, and once the top offer had been made, the auctioneer would say, “Fair warning and down it goes,” rap the podium once with his hammer, and move on. It generally took about 30 seconds to dispose of each item, be it a Kandinsky, Feininger, Braque, Matisse, or Miro (of which there were what seemed like at least two dozen for sale). The prices ranged from $1,500 to $30,000, and it was unnerving to watch the numbers soar. The person operating the tote board frequently had trouble keeping up with the bids.
At first I was shocked by the whizzing pace of the bidding, but the etching I wanted was Lot 342, which gave me plenty of time to get used to it, and within half an hour I was swept up in the discreet excitement that rippled through the room. Most of the bidders in the house appeared to be art dealers, but I spotted a few obvious-looking civilians who were clearly delighted to go head to head with the pros, 30 seconds’ worth of single combat at a time. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that when my time came to bid, I’d need to keep as cool as possible if I didn’t want to spend a lot more than I could afford. So I watched in silence, listened, and learned.
Two hours into the auction, Lot 342 finally spun into view. I raised my paddle to place the first bid, and within five seconds I knew the odds were against me. At Sotheby’s, the auctioneer places absentee bids on behalf of customers who have authorized him to bid up to a certain amount. Each time I bid, he raised me, at first in hundred-dollar increments, then five hundred at a time. We reached the high end of the pre-auction estimate, then rolled right over it. At that point, a dealer got into the act, and all at once I was bidding above my not-a-dollar-more point—not too far over it, but far enough for me to come to my senses, kick myself, and realize that I was teetering on the verge of doing something extremely stupid. I placed one last ill-advised bid, and the dealer topped it immediately. The auctioneer looked back at me. I shook my head, just like the Sotheby’s Web site says to do, and abjectly laid my paddle on the seat next to me. A couple of heartbeats later, the hammer came banging down, and “Vari oggetti su un tavolo” went home with somebody else.
As I left the salesroom, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I knew it would have been incredibly easy for me to have spent more money than I could afford on that etching (which is, of course, precisely what auction houses count on). But I jammed on the brakes at the next-to-last second—and instead of slinking home with my paddle between my legs, I felt like the king of the cats. As Winston Churchill once said of combat, there is no sensation so exhilarating as being shot at without effect. I’m sure he’s right, but there’s also something to be said about nearly spending way the hell too much money in public.
The only bad part, of course, is that I came home empty-handed. I’d let myself get my hopes up, and those of you who’ve been following this blog from the outset will recall how much I love Morandi’s work. The thought of owning a piece of it, however small and imperfect (for this particular etching was in less than ideal shape) had filled me with anticipatory joy. On the other hand, I got my first taste of auction-house blood today—and it wasn’t my blood, either.
Will I be back? You better believe it.
The Gender Genie is quite insistent: I write like a man. No matter what I feed it. I believe this will surprise you.
As for your critical andogyny, I can only surmise that the theater brings out your feminine side while music cues the testosterone. Nineteenth-century detractors of the novel routinely labeled narrative literature as feminine (and thus decadent) while lauding lyric poetry as a properly manly form. Without endorsing such dusty dichotomies, I wonder whether the Gender Genie–if we even trust it as far as we can throw it–is picking up on some difference in the way you respond to and describe narrative and non-narrative art? This seems like a stretch, but it’s all I’ve got!
Of course, I was disappointed to find that the Genie’s methods are not, at a glance, much more sophisticated than counting words. A self-respecting genie should work in more mysterious ways.
I’ve been enjoying OGIC’s posts on Henry James. (I wonder if she remembers that we saw The Wings of the Dove together?) And while I have nothing much to add to what she has so beautifully said, I do want to mention another “theatrical” version of James whose Jamesianness seems to me altogether exemplary, Benjamin Britten’s opera of The Turn of the Screw. Like all good adaptations, it is fairly free in its approach to the original, and it is precisely because of that freedom that Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, were able to create a fully independent art object. You don’t go see The Turn of the Screw to be reminded of James’ story–you see it for its own sake. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only way to successfully translate a classic from one medium to another. Otherwise, why bother?
I mentioned yesterday that I just saw the press preview of Wicked (about which more tomorrow), a new Broadway musical based on the novel of the same name
by Gregory Maguire. I brought with me a friend who is a huge Maguire fan, and who bristled visibly at every departure from the original. Not having read the novel, I wasn’t bothered by the differences, even after my friend told me how extensively the authors of the show had altered what Maguire wrote. But I knew how she felt. If you’re going to make a stage or screen adaptation of a familiar work of art, you really only have two viable alternatives: try to reproduce the original as closely as possible, or go your own way. Anything in between is doomed to failure.
I’ll be grappling with the same dilemma when Master and Commander, the new Patrick O’Brian film, is released in a few weeks. I know the O’Brian novels extremely well, and I have my own very strong ideas about what Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin sound and look like. If the film fails to match up with my preconceptions, I’ll be jolted. The good news is that I’ve seen the trailer, and Russell Crowe meshes quite nicely with the Aubrey of my imagination. Still, I’m sure I won’t be any easier to please than my friend was by Wicked.
A moment ago I asked: why bother adapting the classics? Of course we all know the real answer. Producers and directors adapt movies from well-known originals in order to piggyback on their success. The Harry Potter movies (which I didn’t much like) had a huge pre-sold audience going in. Which reminds me of what Edwin Denby, the greatest dance critic of the 20th century, wrote about Seventh Symphony, a ballet choreographed by Leonide Massine to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one of several well-known classics that Massine staged, by most accounts unsuccessfully:
[Massine] can get away with murder. If one took him seriously, he would be guilty of murdering the Beethoven Seventh…There is of course no reason for taking Massine seriously; he doesn’t mean to be, he doesn’t mean to murder. Like a cigarette company, he is using famous names to advertise his wares. But I cannot help resenting it, because they are names of famous things I have loved. It is hardest to bear in the case of his Seventh, where the orchestra is constantly reminding me of the Beethoven original.
Does that perhaps sum up some of your distress with the Wings of the Dove film, dear OGIC?