AJ Logo

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

Friday, February 17, 2006
    TT: Kirk Douglas, master painter

    Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:

    Fifty years ago, a film director known for his fluffy musicals rolled up his sleeves and shot a movie about a great artist—and it was good. Not only that, it made money.

    Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” which was released on DVD last week, is that rarity of rarities, a high-culture Hollywood biopic that isn’t unintentionally funny. To be sure, the snobs of the day tittered at the thought of Kirk Douglas playing Vincent van Gogh, and even now the film doesn’t get much respect, though a few latter-day critics have gone out of their way to praise it. One of them is David Thomson, the much-admired author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” who calls “Lust for Life” “as moving as anything in the American cinema.” He’s right...

    As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.

    UPDATE: The Journal has posted a free link to this column. To read the whole thing, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 17, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Successful succession

    All together now: it’s Friday! I’m still out of town, so Our Girl has kindly posted the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, an all-Broadway edition in which I hold forth on the new cast of Doubt and the new revival of Barefoot in the Park:

    Few tasks are so ungrateful as replacing the star of a Broadway hit—unless you’re Eileen Atkins, who just took over Cherry Jones’s part in “Doubt.” One of the great stage actresses of our time, Ms. Atkins doesn’t appear in the U.S. very often, and her last stint on Broadway was in a shoddy piece of theatrical goods, “The Retreat From Moscow.” John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-winning play, by contrast, gives her plenty of elbow room to pass a miracle. As always, she delivers: Ms. Atkins’ stupendous performance is the best piece of acting in town….

    Was it Neil Simon who invented the kind of play in which ordinary people talk like stand-up comics? If so, then “Barefoot in the Park,” Mr. Simon’s first megahit, belongs in the Smithsonian, preferably under glass. I know I’d rather see it there than on Broadway, even in a production as effective as the revival that opened last night at the Cort Theatre. Indeed, this “Barefoot in the Park” is something of a triumph for Scott Elliott, the highbrow director whose whip-smart production of Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party” is still running Off Broadway. I wouldn’t have guessed Mr. Elliott to be the kind of director who’d be really, really good at staging slapstick, but most of the biggest laughs of the evening come from the crackling precision with which he puts Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson, Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts through their physical paces….

    No link, so proceed as follows: (1) Buy a copy of the Friday Journal. (2) Go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the full text of my review, along with lots more art-related coverage. (By the way, here's an unsolicited blogospheric tribute to the Journal’s arts coverage.)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 17, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Perfection, which is the passion of so many people, does not interest me. What is important in art is to vibrate oneself and make others vibrate.”

    George Enescu

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 17, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, February 16, 2006
    OGIC: Slow blogging ahead

    I hate to be idle when Terry's away, but I probably don't have much blogging in me this week. Up until last night, I had been working full-throttle against various deadlines with the full cooperation of my health. Within about 12 hours of my being clear and free, however, things broke down throatwise, and I spent today sick in bed. It wasn't the worst day I ever picked to get sick; in between bouts of that ultimate medicine sleep, I found distractions both on the ice and on the page. More to say about the latter soon, I'm sure. Just to remove the element of suspense, I like it, I really like it, though it's also the case that it has seemed heaven-sent for convalescence—the soothing literary equivalent of tea and honeyed toast on a tray.

    Planning to rally and report for duty tomorrow morning, so I'm for bed now. I'll at the very least check in tomorrow night. Meantime, check out our confrčres in the right-hand column.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 16, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG, some adult subject matter and strong language, reviewed here, closes Mar. 12)
    Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
    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 July 2, 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)

    Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
    The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)

    In the Continuum (drama, R, adult subject matter, closes Saturday, reviewed here)
    Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Sunday, reviewed here).
    The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, closes Sunday, reviewed here)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 16, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature. Progress makes purses out of human skin. When people were traveling in mail coaches, the world got ahead better than it does now that salesmen fly through the air. What good is speed if the brain has oozed out on the way? How will the heirs of this age be taught the most basic motions that are necessary to activate the most complicated machines? Nature can rely on progress; it will avenge it for the outrage it has perpetrated on it."

    Karl Kraus, “The Discovery of the North Pole,” (Die Fackel, Sept. 1909)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 16, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    "Why is it that we have enough memory to recollect the most minute circumstances of something that has happened to us, but not enough to remember how many times we have recounted them to the same person?"

    La Rochefoucauld, Moral Maxims and Reflections

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 15, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
    TT: Handing off

    Sorry to be so unforthcoming, but the joint is jumping. I wrote all day yesterday and I've got to write all day today, after which I'll go hear the Lascivious Biddies at Makor (you come, too!). On Wednesday morning I'll be heading out of town yet again, returning just in time for a Friday-night preview of the Broadway revival of The Pajama Game on Friday night. I'm not taking my computer with me, either. Instead, I'm leaving my routine postings for Our Girl to publish, and I expect she'll be putting up a few things of her own as well.

    See you next week. Happy Valentine's Day!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 14, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I’m a romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t."

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 14, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, February 13, 2006
    TT: Request time

    If anyone reading this blog knows an especially good restaurant in Cape May, New Jersey, kindly send me an e-mail containing mouthwatering details.

    Much obliged!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT and OGIC: Apologies

    Our server went down some time Sunday morning and returned to life a few minutes ago. We don't know what went wrong, but we're glad to be back!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Up to your knees out there

    I went down to Broadway on Saturday night to see a press preview of the new revival of Barefoot in the Park. It had only just started to snow when I left, and cabs were still easy to find. By the time the play was over, though, the night sky was full of swirling clouds of moist white flakes, and it was snowing furiously when I got up the next morning, having been awakened by the sounds of cheery children and crunching snow shovels. New York City had ground as close to a halt as it ever gets, which isn’t very close. The first thing I saw when I looked out my third-floor window was a bundled-up fellow walking his dog.

    It was still snowing when I headed back down to Broadway in the afternoon to see the new cast of Doubt. Broadway theaters don't shut down for anything short of a 9/11-magnitude disaster, and the biggest snowstorm ever to hit New York didn’t make the cut, so I wrapped myself up tight and hit the road, giving myself an extra twenty minutes just in case.

    Blizzards mean different things to different people at different times in their lives. To a fifty-year-old drama critic recovering from congestive heart failure who has to make his way to and from the theater district in two feet of blowing snow, a blizzard can be a fearful nuisance, depending on his schedule and his frame of mind. Fortunately, I live a block away from the subway and wasn’t in any great hurry. The streets and sidewalks were slippery but passable, and everyone I saw between my front door and the subway station was smiling. Most New Yorkers, however grumpy they may be on an ordinary day, respond festively to the short-lived chaos of a snowstorm. So did I, in part because I remembered the last time I’d been to a Broadway play in really cold weather, pausing every ten yards or so to catch my breath, wheezing and gasping and wondering whether I’d ever see the Great White Way again. Now I was strolling briskly down the street like everyone else.

    No sooner did I reach the subway platform than a Broadway-bound train pulled into the station and whisked me away. I got to the theater district a half-hour ahead of schedule and took temporary shelter in a pizza joint, where I read M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth as I sipped a ginger ale. I looked out at the half-empty streets of the theater district and pondered her wise words:

    An early evening meal—a long evening. A long evening—what to do with it? There is a fairly good play, a passable movie, a game of bridge—surely some way to kill a few hours.

    But an evening killed is murder of a kind, criminal like any disease, and like disease a thorough-going crime. If Time, so fleeting, must like humans die, let it be filled with good food and good talk, and then embalmed in the perfumes of conviviality.

    Though there were more than a few empty seats in the Walter Kerr Theatre, most of the ticketholders had chosen to brave the storm and were clearly in a mood to be wooed. After the last curtain call, Ron Eldred, who recently replaced Brían F. O’Byrne as Father Flynn, the priest suspected of molesting a child in his care, stepped forward to the rim of the stage. “We’re all really glad you came out today!” he told us, smiling broadly.

    On the way home I stopped at the corner deli to pick up some paper towels. I stood in line at the counter behind a young man and his son. “How can you not like snow on a day like this?” the man said to me. Then I went home to my nice warm apartment, stripped off my wet socks, heated up a plate of leftovers, and settled myself on the couch to watch a little early-evening TV, reveling in the simple pleasure of venturing forth into a blizzard and coming back alive.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Faces in the crowd

    I spent the second night of the Blizzard of ’06 watching two black-and-white movies. The first, On Dangerous Ground, is one of Nicholas Ray’s very best films, and the only film noir to have been scored by Bernard Herrmann (it has yet to turn up on DVD, alas, but the original soundtrack is available on CD). The second, Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, is a screwball comedy that contains more familiar faces per foot than any other film I know. Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett in their pre-Double Indemnity days, it stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, features the young Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea in supporting roles, and contains a nightclub scene in which Gene Krupa’s big band can be seen playing “Drum Boogie” with Roy Eldridge seated proudly in the trumpet section. As if that weren’t glory enough, the cast also includes such celebrated character actors as S.Z. “Cuddles” Zakall, the glutinous-voiced Richard Haydn, Leonid Kinskey (he’s the bartender in Casablanca), Charles Lane (who played Homer Bedloe in Petticoat Junction and recently turned 101), Henry Travers (now best remembered as Clarence, the wingless angel of It’s a Wonderful Life), and Mary Field, everybody’s favorite cinematic spinster, who made more movies than I can count.

    To top it all off in the highest possible style, the immortal Elisha Cook, Jr., has a walk-on as a waiter. You probably won’t know his name unless you have your film trivia down pat, but the chances are very, very good that you’ll recognize his face, for Cook, who died in 1995, made his first film in 1930 and his last TV episode in 1988, in between which he played small but splendidly vivid parts in such movies as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, One-Eyed Jacks, and Rosemary’s Baby.

    I was going to pay tribute to Cook's decidedly weird on-screen persona, but it seems that David Thomson beat me to it:

    There are big stars in the movies who pass by, leaving us uninterested. And there are supporting actors whose faces will stop you dead as you flip through an album history. Who really wants to know more about Robert Taylor, say? But who wouldn’t want to read a good biography of Elisha Cook Jr.? He was small, scrawny; he was losing his hair, and he had a high-pitched voice; he had eyes screwed into his head with all the desperate resolve of wanting to be taken seriously….Put him in a bad picture, and he made it watchable for ten minutes. Put him in something good and he was a metaphor for glue, or the medium itself. He could make you trust a film.

    You could do a whole lot worse than that, posterity-wise.

    I don’t much feel like arguing about whether old movies are better than new ones—it’s a meaningless exercise—but I do think that one of the best things about studio-system Hollywood movies was the omnipresence of such gloriously characterful supporting actors as the ones seen in Ball of Fire. A few journeymen of genius managed to make their mark in the Sixties—Strother Martin and John Vernon come immediately to mind—and the breed is not quite extinct today, as any paid-up member of the M. Emmet and J.T. Walsh fan clubs can tell you. But the old studios specialized in making resourceful use of these scene-stealing wizards, and it was their idiosyncratic presence that added a special richness of texture to the casts of the movies I’m most inclined to watch when there’s two feet of snow on the ground and I feel like staying home and keeping myself company.

    I bless their memory!

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 13, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “A fresh performance of a 'classic' is only like a new edition of an established masterpiece of literature. And the literary critics do not have to review new editions at any length; they merely publish a paragraph drawing attention to the blue buckram, the gilt-edges, and the bold lettering. They are not expected to sit up late on a chilly night writing a column about nothing new at all. It is a pleasant task sometimes to do this writing about nothing new; it is a challenge to ingenuity, a sort of Chardin problem of setting whites in the foreground against whites in a background that is not far back enough; but the task and the pleasure need not be carried too far—certainly not beyond the extent of a column, with the midnight hour at hand, and the temperature falling, and a distance to cover before the weary scribe gets to his pillow, resigned to the thought that whatever he has written will not be read, ever again, after twelve o'clock the next day, but will go down slowly and unobserved into the general dust."

    Neville Cardus, review of a concert by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Hallé Orchestra (Manchester Guardian, Oct. 20, 1938, courtesy of Richard Zuelch)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 13, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, February 11, 2005
    OGIC: Hungry ear

    Speaking of neologisms (which Terry was here) and of Lance Mannion (which I was here), I like Lance's neologism "Almodovarianally" in that same post, though to my ear something about that word wants to be stretched out even longer—to, say, "Almodovarianesqueishly."

    It's like we used to say in high school: "You can beat a dead gift horse against the current, but you can't make him drink spilt milk."

    And that, I think, is a sufficiently ridiculous note on which to close shop for the weekend. Have a good one.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: From the north

    When most people imagine an ideal vacation, they head toward the equator in their minds. I dream in the opposite direction, magnetically attracted toward the nearest pole, to places like the Scottish Highlands and Denali National Park. Perhaps this, in addition to hockey love and frequent youthful border crossings, explains my lifelong Canada crush. Or perhaps mutual adoration set in after my star turn in a 1970s television spot for the CBC kiddie show The Friendly Giant (I was discovered in a Toronto park, mastered my line "I like Jerome the Giraffe" like a pro, and received one pre-Loonie Canadian dollar for my trouble.) I don't know—as with most crushes, I'm less interested in understanding it than enjoying it. And I don't think it has a thing to do with my getting a lot of enjoyment lately out of the newish CBC arts site. A few highlights:

    • An appreciation/lamentation of Arrested Development—appreciating the show, lamenting the non-viewers who are dealing it a slow but certain death—here. Notable quote:

    Maybe Arrested Development is the last great sitcom we’ll get for free.

    • A snappy overview of recent movies about weddings, here. NQ:

    As the movie wedding approaches, the bride is destined to be relieved of that thing called "agency," and she’s grateful for it. At the end of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos, looking like a cloud vomited on her, thanks her family for their intolerance and intrusion. For a while pre-nuptially, she was actually in the process of toughening up and learning to stand up to her bossy family, but weddings demand the softening of women. Even the excellent The Philadelphia Story required Katherine Hepburn to slough off her haughty Hepburnness so Cary Grant could steal her away from the uptight idiot she only thought she liked. The transformation from calloused cellar sweeper to Cinderella princess is easy; just stick a toe into a glittery, loan-financed slipper. In modern wedding movies, love and marriage turns Type A career women—Roberts in Runaway Bride; Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner—into…what?

    • An anti-book-club rant, here. I've never been in a book club, so the author's pretty much singing to the choir here. In my experience, enough years of grad school tend to undermine the appeal. I myself am far more inclined to form a television club.

    This nuanced piece about the problems, aesthetic and ethical, inherent in making a film about genocide. This subject has been on my mind in a half-processed way lately, simply because I want to go see Hotel Rwanda but have failed to try to talk a friend into it. Nobody in my circle is apparently inclined to go. That doesn't mean they won't—but it does mean that to get them to, I have to do something akin to talking it up. Hmnh. Given the subject matter, I haven't found any way of doing this that won't surely sound bizarre or even ghoulish.


    Of course, such unimaginable moments have occurred, and are occurring, but do they lose their power when they become cinematic tropes, reducing horror to a plot point or a hero’s redemption? The danger of moviemaking is that it somehow levels genocide, and evil becomes as significant, or insignificant, as the predictable beats of a thriller or an epic weepie.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Brush with greatness

    My life is a congeries of implausibly cool things, some large and some small, and one of the coolest of them is the fact that I meet the most interesting people. On Thursday, for example, I got to share a studio at WNYC-FM with Dan Hicks, whose music I’ve loved for thirty years. I’m pleased to report that he is—as I expected and hoped—the very soul of unflappability.

    If you weren’t listening live to yesterday's Soundcheck, on which I talked about Pat Metheny, go here to download the archived version. It’s not that I said anything stupefyingly brilliant in the first half of the show (though I had great fun as usual batting the conversational ball back and forth with host John Schaefer). No, the news of the day was that Hicks had everybody in the control room rolling on the floor as he chatted amiably about his new Hot Licks album, Selected Shorts. I plan to buy a copy the next time I get within five blocks of a record store. (O.K., ten.)

    You’ll also hear Hicks trot out a brand-new word, equivalate:

    I was more acoustic…but I was able to play right along in rock contexts, and it was talked about in Rolling Stone right away, which I liked—which I equivalate to maybe pop.

    That's an excellent word. Don’t go looking for it in the dictionary—yet—but I certainly plan to work it into my pieces as often as possible from now on.

    How lucky am I? So way.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L

    I had a lovely week at the theater, and today’s drama column, in which I review The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the Storm Theatre’s revival of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, is proof thereof.

    Putnam County is soooo da bomb:

    Sometimes you can tell how good a show is going to be as soon as it starts. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was like that. The lights went down, the five-piece orchestra struck up, and an anxious-looking teenager walked on stage and sang, “At the 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee/My parents keep on telling me/Just being here is winning/Although/I know it isn’t so.” Pow! All at once Second Stage Theatre was filled with the warm, knowing laughter of a roomful of people who knew they were about to have their socks charmed off.

    Let me pause for a moment so you can go right out and buy tickets, because William Finn, the writer-composer of “Falsettos” and “A New Brain,” and Rachel Sheinkin, author of the funniest musical-comedy book to come along in years, have blown the bull’s-eye off the target. “Putnam County” (as I’ll call it for short) is that rarity of rarities, a super-smart show that is also a bonafide crowd-pleaser. Directed by James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim’s longtime collaborator, it’s the best new musical I’ve covered, “Avenue Q” included, since I started writing this column. In fact, it’s the best show in town, and if it doesn’t move to Broadway sooner rather than later (it runs off Broadway through March 6), I’ll cook and eat my unabridged dictionary….

    I had almost as much fun at The Shoemaker’s Holiday:

    Thomas Dekker's “The Shoemaker’s Holiday,” first performed in 1600, hasn’t received a major New York production since 1937, when Orson Welles staged it for his Mercury Theatre. Now it’s being presented by the Storm Theatre, a tiny troupe of which I’d never heard until its press release popped up in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago (the company performs in a black-box theater a block from Broadway). The only reason I bothered to go was because I’d never seen Dekker’s most popular play on stage.

    Well, guess what? It’s a peach. Peter Dobbins, artistic director of the Storm Theatre, strikes a perfect balance between bawdiness and deep feeling, something that Welles’ heavily cut, coarsely comic staging failed by all accounts to do. Dekker’s prithee-put-a-sock-in-it-old-codswallop dialogue is played to the hilt, especially by Hugh Brandon Kelly, the shoemaker-turned-sheriff (I’d kill for a big bass voice like that), and shameless scene-stealing is the order of the day (Amanda Cronk makes the funniest faces imaginable). Yet the serious parts are given full value, too….

    No link. Do the newsstand thing, or the online edition thing.

    P.S. Since my review went to press, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has extended its off-Broadway run to March 20. Don’t wait for it to move to Broadway—go now.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 11, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Deep in his heart he hankers to be an artist of some sort, but he is only an actor. To be an actor was his adolescent dream and has been his means of livelihood for fifty years or more; but although he has no complaints about that (indeed it would be ungrateful of him to make any) he knows that an actor is usually no more than an assortment of odds and ends which barely add up to a whole man. An actor is an interpreter of other men's words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child, and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerise a group of innocents."

    Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 11, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, February 10, 2005
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "First off, following your heart is a really bad idea. This is why we have civilization, so people don't do that.

    "Hearts are like pirate caves. They are reputedly full of hidden treasures but usually when you open one up a whole lot of bats, spiders, and angry bears come rushing out, and there's no gold."

    Lance Mannion, Lance Mannion

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 10, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: See you on the radio

    One last reminder: I’ll be on WNYC-FM’s Soundcheck this afternoon, talking about the Pat Metheny Group’s new CD, The Way Up, an hour-long jazz composition by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays that’s just been released by Nonesuch. I’ll also be talking about other attempts by jazz composers to grapple with the problem of large-scale form.

    In addition, Dan Hicks—yes, that Dan Hicks—will be stopping by the studio to talk about his new album, Selected Shorts. I’ve been a Hot Licks fan ever since high school (in fact, I’m listening to Where’s the Money? as I write these words), and I’m soooo looking forward to meeting His Coolness.

    Soundcheck airs live in New York at two p.m. on 93.9 FM. To find out more about today’s show, to tune in online via streaming audio, or to listen after the fact by accessing the Soundcheck archive, go here. I’ll be heard at the top of the hour.

    Give a listen.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 10, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Afterword

    When Nancy LaMott died in 1995, her friends and colleagues, myself among them, swore they’d never let her be forgotten. It was a promise more easily made than kept. I wrote a long essay about her for Commentary (the one collected in the Teachout Reader), and Jonathan Schwartz continued to play her records on his various radio shows, but once Nancy’s albums disappeared into limbo, there wasn’t a whole lot more we could do to keep her memory green. Though she was well known in the tight little world of New York cabaret, she had only just begun to make an impression outside it, and within a couple of years of her death it had faded almost beyond recognition. I tried on occasion to interest newspaper and magazine editors in a piece about her, but the answer was always the same: why would anyone care about a half-forgotten cabaret singer whose records were out of print?

    So when Midder Music announced that it would be releasing Live at Tavern on the Green, Nancy’s first live album, and reissuing her other recordings, I knew the time had come for me to try to keep my promise. I wasn’t optimistic. She'd been dead for nine years, and though the circumstances of her death were intrinsically interesting, even romantic, I had no reason to suppose that very many people would now be interested in reading about her. Still, I was determined to give it a shot, and Eric Gibson, my editor at The Wall Street Journal, agreed to give me enough space to tell the tale as best I could. I sat down first thing Monday morning, wrote “An Encore for Nancy LaMott,” sent it off to Eric, and held my breath.

    The piece ran in Wednesday's Journal, and no sooner did people start reading the paper than Live at Tavern on the Green started climbing up the amazon.com music chart. On Tuesday night it had been hovering around #300. Twenty-four hours later it had settled at #8, right behind Green Day’s American Idiot, Tina Turner’s All the Best, and U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and just ahead of Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. I’m amazed, and not a little humbled. Grateful, too, for it wouldn’t have happened had Eric not been willing to trust my judgment and lend me a prime chunk of real estate in the Journal so that I could write a few heartfelt words about an old friend who was also a great artist.

    I don’t know what the future holds in store for Live at Tavern on the Green. My hope, of course, is that the ripples from my piece will continue to spread. But even if this is as good as it gets, I’ll always have the satisfaction of knowing that hundreds of thousands of people read about Nancy LaMott yesterday, and that what I wrote moved some of them to buy one or more of her albums. That's good enough for me.

    If you didn’t see my piece in Wednesday’s Journal, here’s part of what I wrote:

    Everything was going Nancy LaMott’s way in 1995. She was appearing regularly at Manhattan’s fanciest nightspots, from the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on down. Her heartfelt, irresistibly appealing versions of such standards as “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” had started to catch the media’s ear. She made her Carnegie Hall debut and recorded her first album with an orchestra, “Listen to My Heart.” She even sang at the White House. Then the clock ran out. Nancy died of uterine cancer that December, leaving behind a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of bookings she didn’t live to fulfill, six records that quickly went out of print and a grieving husband whom she married in her hospital room, an hour and a half before she died. She was just 43 years old.

    It’s a tale almost too sad to tell—but now, at long last, it has something like a happy ending. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Midder Music, Nancy’s record label, has brought out “Live at Tavern on the Green,” her first CD to be released since 1997, and reissued her earlier albums, which became caught up in a legal dispute shortly after her death and have since been unavailable….

    I won’t pretend to be objective about Nancy—we were too close for that—but I was hardly the only critic to know her for what she was. John Simon, one of the toughest customers in New York, said that “she fully fathoms what a song is about, and then, rather than merely singing it, lives it.” Stephen Holden put it a different way in her New York Times obituary: “She brought to everything she sang a clean, clear sense of line, impeccable enunciation and a deep understanding of how a good song could convey a lifetime’s experience.” All this is on “Live at Tavern on the Green,” along with a special quality I tried to put in words when I wrote in the New York Daily News that she sounded “sincere and sensuous at the same time, as if the girl next door had snuck out at two a.m. to make a little whoopee with her steady boyfriend.”

    I’ve often tried to imagine what might have happened to Nancy had she lived even a little longer. A few months after her death, the listening public discovered Diana Krall’s equally appealing way with a standard, and she began her fast climb to well-deserved fame. Would Nancy have caught the same wave of nostalgia for the romantic ballads of yesteryear, and become a full-fledged star? I think so, and with the release of “Live at Tavern on the Green” and the reissue of her other albums (my favorite of which is “Come Rain or Come Shine: The Songs of Johnny Mercer”), she has a second, posthumous chance to reach all the people who might have fallen in love with her singing a decade ago if they’d only known about it.

    At the end of Nancy’s shows, she would leave the bandstand for a moment, then come straight back, grin at the audience and tell them, “Relax, this is cabaret—there’s always an encore.” She trots out that surefire line at the end of “Live at Tavern on the Green,” and it tugged at my heart to hear her speak those well-remembered words again. Now, nine years later, Nancy LaMott has finally come back for an encore. It’s about time.

    If you haven’t yet climbed aboard the bandwagon, go here, order one of Nancy’s CDs, and find out what those of us lucky enough to have known and loved her have been missing all these years.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 10, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Words with ‘k’ in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland...Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny.”

    Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 10, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
    OGIC: Fortune cookie

    "To be really good, you have to be willing to have everybody in the world hate you."

    Amy Sherman-Palladino, Gilmore Girls creator, interviewed in the New York Times

    (Thanks to the dashing Bondgirl for this and a trove of other GG links on the occasion of the show's 100th ep.)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: An encore for Nancy

    I’m in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal with a piece about my beloved friend Nancy LaMott, the nonpareil cabaret singer who died nine years ago, and her newly released CD, Live at Tavern on the Green:

    “Live at Tavern on the Green” is the only recording of any of Nancy’s live shows to have been released commercially. It was taped at her final public performance. She was wearing a wig, having lost her bottle-blonde hair to chemotherapy. Seven weeks later, she was dead. Yet her sweetly husky mezzo-soprano voice had somehow remained untouched by the terrible disease that would soon take her away from all the things for which she’d longed, and she sang as if she knew she’d never have another chance. When she was done, the Chestnut Room of New York’s Tavern on the Green exploded in rapturous applause. That’s how I remember it, anyway, and I was there….

    No link, so pick up a copy of today’s Journal if you're out and about today. This one means a lot to me.

    (To order Live at Tavern on the Green and Nancy’s other albums, go here.)

    UPDATE: Live at Tavern on the Green is shooting up the amazon.com sales charts today. It's the #17 music seller as of this hour, up from roughly #300 last night. I can't even begin to say how gratified I am, though of course it's mixed with bittersweetness....

    MORE: Now it's #7. It's been climbing steadily all day.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Turn your radio on

    I’m not sure whether I mentioned it, but I've just become a regular contributor to WNYC’s Soundcheck. Henceforth I’ll be dropping by the studio at least once a month to talk to John Schaefer, the show’s host, about matters musical. Yay! I soooo love radio....

    My next appearance on Soundcheck will be on Thursday, and the subject is The Way Up, the hour-long Pat Metheny-Lyle Mays composition for the Pat Metheny Group that’s just been released on CD by Nonesuch, Metheny’s new record label. I’ll also be talking about how other jazz composers from Duke Ellington to Maria Schneider have grappled—some successfully, some disastrously—with the challenge of large-scale musical form. I think it’ll be worth hearing, if only because (A) John is the perfect on-air conversational partner and (B) we’ll be playing excerpts from The Way Up and other works.

    Soundcheck airs in New York live each weekday at two p.m. on 93.9 FM. To find out more about the program, or to listen online via streaming audio, go here. I’ll be heard at the top of the hour. Give us a listen.

    (To read more about The Way Up, go here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 9, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
    Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.

    T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 9, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 8, 2005
    TT: Where have I been all these years?

    Duh, it only just hit me that I'd forgotten to update the "Second City" and "Teachout Elsewhere" modules of the right-hand column with my latest print-media stuff. Maybe I had too much fun this weekend!

    Anyway, it's done now. Feast your eyes.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Entries from an unkept diary

    Eve Tushnet has posted a list of her personal tics and clichés:

    I don't think I've written a story without using "pale" or (especially!) "blank" at least once. I blame Harold Bloom for the latter—go read his chapter on Emily Dickinson in The Western Canon, right now! I know one of the reasons I like "Grosse Pointe Blank" is that last word in the title….For some reason, I've twice written the "Sorry I'm late"/"You're not late—I'm early" exchange. And the early person is always the villain of the piece. This is one of those things that make me suspect I really don't understand how my own mind works.

    I wonder how many writers have a like degree of insight into their own idiosyncrasies? Probably not a very large number (i.e., next to none), which is why a really good parody like The Mote in the Middle Distance, Max Beerbohm’s brilliant spoof of Henry James (“It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it”), is not only the cruelest but the most creative form of criticism.

    I usually know most of my own clichés when I see them, and I think I could write a pretty good self-parody, but it probably wouldn’t be as good as these, for the simple reason that I’m not a masochist....

    • My trainer, a twentysomething stud who wants to be an actor (and is, somewhat to my surprise, a good one), recently shared with me his “three-point plan” for dating. It was, shall we say, alarmingly straightforward. Since most of my women friends are on the youngish side, I’m always on the qui vive for insight into their generational quirks, so I was more than happy to hear his point of view. Alas, I have a sneaking feeling that it’s not all that applicable to the special needs of an aesthete of a certain age. When did I get to be so old? As I confessed to a friend the other day, “I feel like a visitor from another planet, discreetly trying to figure out the local customs without catching the eye of the Men in Black.” So far I seem to be doing all right—or at least well enough—but I doubt the world is ready for me to start putting the Three-Point Plan into practice.

    If only I were Dave Frishberg, I could write a song about all the interesting things I’ve learned in the past couple of years. No, wait—he already did:

    I was ready
    Like a goose that’s cooked to perfection,
    But I was open
    For a left to the low midsection.
    I’d been through it
    Like a plumber who cleans the drains out,
    But I blew it
    When the good Lord passed all the brains out.
    I was ready
    Just like Oswald was ready for Ruby,
    Like Michael Dukakis was ready to star on TV.
    I was poised and well-prepared,
    But who knew—and, what’s more, who cared?
    I was ready for her,
    Nelson Eddy for her,
    I was ready for her,
    But she wasn’t ready for me.

    That’s my kind of romantic ballad.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: They say it's my birthday

    Things have been jumping here. Actually, I guess they’re always jumping in one way or another, but for the past few days I’ve been unusually busy, even for me, and happy to be.

    It all started last Friday when I went down to Washington, D.C., to watch American Ballet Theatre roll out a major dance-reclamation project, a full evening of one-act ballets by Michel Fokine, the once-mighty pre-Balanchine choreographer whose work has mostly disappeared from the international dance repertory in the course of the last half-century. Not that there were any great surprises on the bill (Les Sylphides, Petrushka, Spectre of the Rose, and a revival of Polovtsian Dances staged by Frederic Franklin), but it was still hugely interesting to see a whole evening’s worth of Fokine’s choreography in a single sitting, ABT danced it convincingly, and I got to see Ethan Stiefel and Amanda McKerrow in Petrushka. What’s not to like?

    It was also exciting to hear Stravinsky’s music for Petrushka used as an accompaniment to dancing rather than as a free-standing concert piece. I hadn’t seen the ballet in ages (not since the Joffrey Ballet last did it in New York, if memory serves), and though Petrushka is an enthralling musical experience in its own right, it acquires a whole new level of meaning and implication when you can see those matchlessly vital Stravinsky rhythms being brought to visual life on stage, the way the composer intended. I mentioned the other day that I’d taken a New York music critic to see his very first Balanchine ballets. It was an all-Stravinsky program—Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon—and when it was over he told me that he felt as though he’d never fully understood the music until now. Petrushka is the same way, and as much as I love Stravinsky’s pungent score, I love it best of all in the theater, where it belongs. Cheers to ABT for bringing it back after too long an absence.

    (ABT's Fokine program, by the way, will also be danced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House as part of the company's upcoming season, which runs May 26-July 16. Mark your calendar. As my colleague Tobi Tobias pointed out last October on “Seeing Things,” her artsjournal.com blog, “This brave, admirable venture, clearly not driven by the commercial concerns that dominate arts management nowadays, looks like the impulse of an institution trying to retrieve its soul.” You said it, Tobi.)

    Back in New York, I saw press previews of two plays. The first was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, William Finn’s new musical, which opened last night to reviews that appear so far to be uniformly raving, as well as the kind of press attention, including a New York Times Magazine story, that usually ensures long lines at the box office. I also saw an off-off-Broadway revival of an Elizabethan comedy, Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, that hasn’t received a major New York production, so far as I know, since Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre presented it on Broadway in 1937. I’m reviewing both shows in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, so I’ll save my own opinions until then. (Watch this space for a taste.)

    Sunday was my forty-ninth birthday, and a gaggle of my jazz friends took me to Café Luxembourg for dinner that evening and showered me with gifts. The Mutant, bless her, presented me with her latest painting, a Hofmannesque magenta-and-orange companion piece to the one she did for me last year. A good time was had by all.

    Needless to say, none of this frenzied activity stopped me from writing. On Saturday I had a working session with the woman who’s helping me research my biography of Louis Armstrong (she brought me buried treasure from the New York Philharmonic Archive!). On Sunday morning I knocked out a lecture that I’ll be delivering in Washington next month, and yesterday morning I wrote a piece that will be running on the Journal’s arts page later this week.

    And now what? Well, tonight I’m going to a concert by the String Orchestra of New York City, which is premiering Morph, a new composition by Paul Moravec. Tomorrow I write my Wall Street Journal drama column. On Thursday I head downtown to the studios of WNYC-FM for a guest spot on Soundcheck, where I’ll be talking with John Schaefer about The Way Up, Pat Metheny’s new CD. The entire album is devoted to a new hour-long composition created by the guitarist for the Pat Metheny Group, and I’ll also be discussing some earlier attempts by jazz musicians to create formally coherent large-scale compositions intended for performance by jazz ensembles.

    Whew, huh? Well, that’s my life, and the most recent installment of it has been pretty exciting. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, The world is so full of a number of things,/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings. I am, way.

    P.S. Yes, my blogmail is backed up. Forgive me! I'll get to it, but not right away.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “I chose my career deliberately at the age of twenty-one. I had a naturally ingenious and constructive mind and the taste for writing. I was youthfully zealous of good fame. There seemed few ways, of which a writer need not be ashamed, by which he could make a decent living. To produce something, saleable in large quantities to the public, which had absolutely nothing of myself in it; to sell something for which the kind of people I liked and respected, would have a use; that was what I sought, and detective stories fulfilled the purpose. They were an art which admitted of classical canons of technique and taste. Their writing was painful—though much less painful than any other form would have been—because I have the unhappy combination of being both lazy and fastidious. It was immune, anyway, from the obnoxious comment to which lighter work is exposed. ‘How you must revel in writing your delicious books, Mr. So-and-So.’ My friend Roger Simmonds, who was with me at the University and set up as a professional humorist at the same time as I wrote Vengeance at the Vatican, is constantly plagued by that kind of remark. Instead, women say to me, ‘How difficult it must be to think of all those complicated clues, Mr. Plant.’ I agree. ‘It is, intolerably difficult.’”

    Evelyn Waugh, Work Suspended

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, February 7, 2005
    TT: Entries from an unkept diary

    • Like every other critic in the world, I noticed long ago that it was easier to write bad reviews than good ones, and I could never think of a succinct explanation of why this should be so. Then, shortly after I filed my drama column for last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, it hit me like a flounder across the chops: good reviews aren’t funny. Only when a show is horrible does a critic have legitimate occasion to make jokes about it, and it’s the jokes that make bad reviews so readable. So long as you've got a halfway decent sense of humor, it's not hard to make fun of a piece of junk. (On the other hand, the shrewd critic saves his outrage for the rare occasions when somebody who should damned well know better does something absolutely unforgivable.)

    • An actress friend shared a delicious piece of theater argot with me yesterday. It seems that when you’re doing a comedy and no one in the audience is in the mood to laugh, the chances are good that somebody in the cast will sooner or later come storming offstage muttering, “That’s it—I’m dropping ’em.” (Meaning, of course, his or her pants.) Surely this is at least as good as any of my favorite jazz-related idioms, which tend in any case to be barely intelligible to outsiders.

    If you're curious as to what I'm talking about, here’s a famous story known to all jazz musicians of a certain age: Lester Young, who drank like a fish, was riding back to Manhattan from the airport in a cab, suffering from a seemingly terminal hangover. The cabby hit a pothole dead center and Young moaned in response, “Oh, man, just play vanilla.”

    • Sunday was my forty-ninth birthday, and I had a perfectly wonderful time the whole day long. In fact, I’ve been having a perfectly wonderful time ever since I posted my drama-column teaser on Friday morning and hit the road for Washington, so much so that I don’t yet feel like writing about any of it. For the moment, I’d rather keep on enjoying the echoes of recent pleasure that continue to bounce off me.

    Right now, all I want to say is this: nobody in the world has better friends.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 7, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “When I paint, I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful.”

    Fairfield Porter, Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 7, 2005 | Permanent link
Saturday, February 14, 2004
    TT: Not so wild a dream

    Says James Tata:

    In my dream, music pirating, by destroying the recording industry, and with it the concept of musicians getting paid for the recordings they have made, destroys the very concept of music recording. Instead of stars whose talent is primarily charisma rather than artistic substance, songwriters are the new stars, like they were when the music business consisted of sheet music publishers. Music then returns to its original state: if you want to listen, you have to be in the same room as the musicians. The ranks of paid performers swells--suddenly we all know several people who make a living singing or playing instruments. Musicians are as common as accountants. Better still, most of us spend a large part of our youth learning how to play instruments. The piano again furnishes every middle class home. And, because we are all so musically sophisticated, we never have to listen to disco during halftime at the Super Bowl again.

    Needless to say, James has bought himself a ticket to Fantasy Island. But of course (as he says) it is a dream that he's recounting, one in which he envisions an ideal state by whose imaginary coordinates we might steer a bit closer to something that might actually come to pass.

    Like, say, what? Well, I wrote a long essay for A Terry Teachout Reader called "Life Without Records" in which I speculated about the possible effects of the coming collapse of the classical recording industry (which I foresaw several years ago) on the culture of classical music. Here’s some of what I wrote:

    The collapse of the major classical labels and the rise of the Internet as a locus for decentralized recording activity will almost certainly prevent the re-emergence of anything remotely resembling the superstar system. What would classical music look like without superstars? A possible answer can be found by looking at classical ballet. Few ballet companies tour regularly, and some of the most important, like New York City Ballet, are rarely seen outside their home towns; videocassettes are a notoriously inadequate substitute for live performances, and thus sell poorly. For these reasons, the major media devote little space to ballet, meaning that there are never more than one or two international superstars at any given moment. Most balletgoers spend the bulk of their time attending performances by the resident companies of the cities in which they live, and the dances, not the dancers, are the draw. (It is The Nutcracker that fills seats, not the Sugar Plum Fairy.)

    In the United States, regional opera works in much the same way. Only a half-dozen major American companies can afford to import superstars; everyone else hires solid second-tier singers with little or no name recognition, often using local artists to fill out their casts. Audiences are attracted not by the stars, but by the show—that is, by dramatically compelling productions of musically interesting operas. If the larger culture of classical music were to be reorganized along similar lines, then concert presenters, instead of presenting a small roster of international celebrity virtuosos, might be forced to engage a wider range of lower-priced soloists, possibly including local artists and ensembles with a carefully cultivated base of loyal fans. Similarly, regional symphony orchestras would have to adopt more imaginative programming strategies in order to attract listeners who now buy tickets mainly to hear superstar soloists play popular concertos in person. It is possible, too, that with the breakup of the single worldwide market created by the superstar system, we might see a similar disintegration of the blandly eclectic "international" style of performance that came to dominate classical music in the Seventies. Performers who play for the moment, rather than for the microphones of an international record company primarily interested in its bottom line, are less likely to play it safe—and more likely to play interesting music.

    In the midst of these seemingly endless uncertainties, one aspect of life without records is not only possible but probable: henceforth, nobody in his right mind will look to classical music as a means of making very large sums of money. Of all the ways in which the invention of the phonograph changed the culture of classical music, perhaps the most fateful was that it turned a local craft into an international trade, thereby attracting the attention of entrepreneurs who were more interested in money than art. Needless to say, there can be no art without money, but the recording industry, by creating a mass market for music, sucked unprecedentedly large amounts of money into the classical-music culture, thereby insidiously and inexorably altering its artistic priorities….

    Read the whole thing here—when the book comes out, that is. (You can order it in advance by clicking on the link.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 14, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    AMANDA: Don’t laugh at me, I’m serious.

    ELYOT [seriously]: You mustn’t be serious, my dear one, it’s just what they want.

    AMANDA: Who’s they?

    ELYOT: All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.

    AMANDA: If I laugh at everything, I must laugh at us too.

    ELYOT: Certainly you must. We’re figures of fun all right.

    Noël Coward, Private Lives

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 14, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Just in case you were wondering

    I don't respond to people who write dumb stuff about me, nor do I link to them. But I do appreciate being defended by bloggers who know it's dumb. Thanks, guys—and gal.

    (Now, aren't you curious?)

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 14, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Unmasked

    The New York Times reports that a technical glitch at Amazon Canada last week caused the real user names of reviewers to be displayed instead of their chosen pseudonyms. Hilarity ensued:

    John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel "City of Night" and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.

    "That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd," said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," on Amazon under the signature "a reader from Chicago." "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."


    But even with reviewer privacy restored, many people say Amazon's pages have turned into what one writer called "a rhetorical war," where friends and family members are regularly corralled to write glowing reviews and each negative one is scrutinized for the digital fingerprints of known enemies.

    One well-known writer admitted privately—and gleefully—to anonymously criticizing a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years. She regularly posts responses, or at least he thinks it is her, but the elegant rebuttals of his reviews are also written from behind a pseudonym.

    Numbering 10 million and growing by tens of thousands each week, the reader reviews are the most popular feature of Amazon's sites, according to the company, which also culls reviews from more traditional critics like Publishers Weekly. Many authors applaud the democracy of allowing readers to voice their opinions, and rejoice when they see a new one posted—so long as it is positive.

    But some authors say it is ironic that while they can for the first time face their critics on equal footing, so many people on both sides choose to remain anonymous. And some charge that the same anonymity that encourages more people to discuss books also spurs them to write reviews that they would never otherwise attach their names to.

    Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," winner of the National Book Award, said that a first book by Tom Bissell last fall was "crudely and absurdly savaged" on Amazon in anonymous reviews he believed were posted by a group of writers whom Mr. Bissell had previously written about in the literary magazine The Believer.

    "With the really flamingly negative reviews, I think it's always worth asking yourself what kind of person has time to write them," Mr. Franzen said. "I know that the times when I've been tempted to write a nasty review online, I have never had attractive motives." Mr. Franzen declined to say whether he had ever given in to such temptation.

    The suspicion that the same group of writers, known as the Underground Literary Alliance, had anonymously attacked his friend Heidi Julavits prompted the novelist Dave Eggers to write a review last August calling Ms. Julavits's first novel "one of the best books of the year."

    Mr. Eggers, whose memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," made him a literary celebrity, chose to post his review as "a reader from St. Louis, MO." But the review appeared under the name "David K Eggers" on Amazon's Canadian site on Monday, and Mr. Eggers confirmed by e-mail that he had written it.

    Oh, that Dave Eggers, always so shy and retiring. Will he ever come out of his shell?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Saturday, February 14, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: No! Canada

    Terry and I have been following the Don Cherry story this week, and he suggested I blog about it. But I couldn't find the remotest arts angle to hang a post on. If you don't know who Don Cherry is (think Canadian hockey) or don't know about the events of the last week, Colby Cosh's site is the best place to go to catch up.

    Meanwhile, guess what? The Canadian government has handed me my arts angle on a silver platter. After the Conan O'Brien show taped in Toronto the last few days, with a Canadian government subsidy, Ottawa is scandalized by what they saw, and on the offensive:

    Canada's government on Friday condemned a show by U.S. late-night television host Conan O'Brien that insulted people in French-speaking Quebec and seemed to suggest everyone in the province was homosexual.

    Ottawa and the province of Ontario paid $760,000 to help O'Brien—who appears on the NBC television network—bring his show to Toronto for a week to boost the city's profile after a deadly SARS outbreak last year.

    But the federal government said O'Brien had gone too far with the show broadcast on Thursday in which he went to Quebec, a province which has had separatist governments for much of the last 20 years and is a delicate political topic in Canada.

    "We want to disassociate ourselves from the comments which were broadcast last night because we do not support them in any way," junior government minister Mauril Belanger told Parliament.

    At one point in the show, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog—a hand puppet that is a regular on the show—said to a Quebecer: "You're French, you're obnoxious and you no speekay English." It told another: "I can smell your crotch from here."

    O'Brien's team were also shown replacing street signs in the province with those that read "Quebecqueer Street" and "Rue des Pussies."

    Alexa McDonough, a legislator for the left-leaning New Democrats, described the program as "racist filth" and "utterly vile" and demanded the government seek the return of the C$1 million subsidy.

    This is pretty surreal. To someone who has a soft spot for most all things Canadian, it's also a glass of cold water in the face. Clearly a lot of the jokes that offended were allusions to the Cherry affair; as such, they seem at least as much aimed at Cherry as at the Québécois. If there's anything I know about Conan's humor, it's that it doles out "offense" indiscriminately.

    But somehow I don't think you're going to talk much reason to people fuming about how downright insulting that Insult Comic Dog was. Gee, who'da thunk?

    UPDATE: Slate rounds up the Canadian media coverage of this story.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Saturday, February 14, 2004 | Permanent link
Friday, February 13, 2004
    TT: We have lunched!

    V. fun. Nobody flashed anybody. They just now went off to go get drunk. Me, I came back home to write about Balanchine. It's tough being old and stodgy.

    Some parts of the above are true....

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Utterly cuckoo bananas

    Beatrice responds to the latest Book Babes column, pointing out that it is possible to write useful reviews of "airport books":

    My first retort is that just because your reviewers can't think of anything to say doesn't mean there's nothing to be said...

    Popular media can and does tell us a lot about ourselves as a culture. A good reviewer could easily find tropes of masculinity, or articulations of conservatism, in Tom Clancy, just as Anne Rice's oeuvre has a lot to say about shifting attitudes towards gender and eroticism. Mysteries and thrillers reflect social attitudes about crime and punishment; George Pelecanos uses the genre as an effective instrument to talk about race relations as well.

    I would only add that there is another, even more vital role to be played by smart reviews of dumb books: sending us into delirious fits of righteous laughter. Let me refer you to one of my all-time favorite reviews, which happens to fall into this category. It's Lorin Stein writing two summers ago on The Emperor of Ocean Park in The London Review of Books:

    Stephen L. Carter has written the kind of novel in which the bad guys say "very well" when they mean "OK"; in which the hero calls a visit from old friends "a delightfully rambunctious affair" and his rocky marriage a "tumultuous mutuality"; in which "homes" are "spacious," jealousy "flames afresh" and eminent legal scholars spend dinner parties debating the existence of God. It is also the kind of novel—I am about to spoil the ending—in which the hero uncovers a vast conspiracy at the highest levels of government, resists the advances of a slinky assassin, faces down a gun-toting Supreme Court judge, and ends up getting promoted. The Emperor of Ocean Park is, in other words, an "airplane book," as opposed to a "beach read": it's trash, but it's Business Class trash, relentlessly high-toned, tastefully furnished and driven by a Rube Goldberg-like love of complication, minus the suspense.

    American reviewers, partly out of deference to Carter's serious polemics on race, religion and American politics, have tended to treat The Emperor of Ocean Park as a serious novel, which it is not; or as a thriller, which is simply unfair. When an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court looms up out of a dark and stormy night, semi-automatic at the ready, and tells the hero, "don't play games with me . . . I know your father hid something in the teddy bear," you should be able to look back at what has already happened, slap your forehead, and think: "Of course! Why didn't I think of that? The judge has been after the teddy bear all along!" That's the thrill. But when anything remotely eventful takes place in The Emperor of Ocean Park, you will have either thought of it already or you could never have thought of it, because like that teddy bear, it's utterly cuckoo bananas.

    If this is what they call snark, who in their right mind would want to banish it?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Calling all stations

    Sam at Golden Rule Jones is writing of late about loving Iris Murdoch. He quotes her:

    Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness.

    This reminds me a provocative remark I once stumbled on in which Simone Weil claimed the opposite: that in art, evil is boring and good interesting. I have never been able to track down the source of the quotation, and at this point I've lost the quotation itself. Does anyone know it?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The real scandal of the day

    Old Hag and Cinetrix are standing on the street in front of my apartment, accompanied by a camera crew. "Hey, Big Spender" is playing on a boom box in the middle distance. Is this a Celebrity Bloglunch...or a sting?

    More as it happens. Assuming I open the front door.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The critic critiqued

    Two readers were not so taken with last week's account of a talk by James Wood, nor with the man himself. Wrote one, "I consider myself an intelligent fellow, with a fair amount of interest in ideas and literature, and I cannot stand James Wood. I don't think his chatter comes near what a real artist works on when he writes a novel or story." This reader was not impressed with Woods' ruminations on authorial voice and its necessary intrusions into first-person narration:

    Does Wood really imagine that a writer thinks, "how do I... also manage to have my own style?" Doesn't your "own style" take care of itself if you solve the narrative problems of your story? For example, in The Sun also Rises, does Wood believe that Hemingway had one way he could write the book if he was just "talking like Jake" and didn't have his "own style", which he then rejected in favor of a way he could do both? Doesn't Hemingway's "own style" come precisely from how he imagines his narrator talks?

    Yes and no. A writer like Hemingway achieves a greater degree of verisimilitude in his writing—his characters talking like "real" people—so it's easier to overlook the presence of the author's voice behind the narrator's. But in a book like Henry James's What Maisie Knew or, indeed, Vernon God Little, the author makes use of a larger vocabulary and more writerly expressions than his character could be expected to use. In Maisie the disjunction is so pronounced that it's hard not to take the novel as, in part, an exploration of the limits of verisimilitude. It's also a rebellion against the strict limits imposed on authorial voice by more naturalist strains of realism, and a blow for authorial liberty. It's hard to turn from such a novel to something even as comparatively seamless as Hemingway and not start looking for the seams.

    The difference between Hemingway and James (especially late James) is that for the former, character resides in voice—in the characters' own language—and is best expressed through it. For the latter, the exposition of character requires a self-consciously literary language above and beyond the character's own voice. You can see the author's lips move, and you're meant to. Wood, I think, is drawn to the latter type of writer—even bad examples of the type like D.B.C. Pierre. Last week I mildly called Wood's positive review of Vernon God Little "surprising." What I really meant was "unaccountable." In the light of the talk on Bellow, though, you can perhaps begin to account for it: it starts to look less like a genuine response to the novel, and more like a rehearsal of a line of thinking that has been occupying Wood in his work on better writers.

    This reader also questioned Wood's reference to characters' "confused consciousness," which was, well, confusing.

    Are we to presume that you can write a novel and include didacticism if the mouthpiece has a clear, "unconfused" consciousness? Or does Wood assume that the creation of a character automatically creates a "confused consciousness" if that character is used to communicate ideas? Here, as elsewhere, Wood veers away from the truly interesting issues involved and commits a cardinal literary sin: falling in love with his own phrases.

    It was in the Q&A, off the cuff, that Wood used this phrase, and he used it interchangeably with "average consciousness," which seemed closer to what he actually meant. It's the reporter's fault! This reader recommends Milan Kundera's Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed as books "that deal more pointedly with some of the same issues."

    Another reader makes a point about Wood that had never occurred to me before, but that I agree with: he's much better at detraction than applause.

    I thought you were a bit tame and lenient with James Wood; because he is so obviously better, and more severe and demanding, than almost anyone else, he does not receive some of the criticism he deserves. His negative writing is, to my mind, by far his best; he is much weaker in praise, too often allowing his own religious preferences to become his central subject, and equally often expounding on various elements of voice and narrative, in both cases with obscured judgment. So, for example, the obviously ridiculous recent Booker novel receives praise for its voice, or Bellow gets applause for his language and religious anguish that evoke Melville. In neither case is there an examination of the inwardness of character or the fidelity to human complication that Wood so often uses as yardsticks to cudgel, quite rightly in my view, the likes of DeLillo and Pynchon.

    Right, insightful, and well-said.

    UPDATE: Stephany Aulenback, filling in for Maud seamlessly as ever, posts a long excerpt from Dale Peck in defense of negative reviewing.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Persons hand on misery to persons

    Diane Ravitch updates The Language Police in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

    In my book "The Language Police," I gathered a list of more than 500 words that are routinely deleted from textbooks and tests by "bias review committees" employed by publishing companies, state education departments and the federal government. Among the forbidden words are "landlord," "cowboy," "brotherhood," "yacht," "cult" and "primitive." Such words are deleted because they are offensive to various groups—feminists, religious conservatives, multiculturalists and ethnic activists, to name a few.

    I invited readers of the book to send me examples of language policing, and they did, by the score. A bias review committee for the state test in New Jersey rejected a short story by Langston Hughes because he used the words "Negro" and "colored person." Michigan bans a long list of topics from its state tests, including terrorism, evolution, aliens and flying saucers (which might imply evolution).

    A textbook writer sent me the guidelines used by the Harcourt/Steck/Vaughn company to remove photographs that might give offense. Editors must delete, the guidelines said, pictures of women with big hair or sleeveless blouses and men with dreadlocks or medallions. Photographs must not portray the soles of shoes or anyone eating with the left hand (both in deference to Muslim culture). To avoid giving offense to those who cannot afford a home computer, no one may be shown owning a home computer. To avoid offending those with strong but differing religious views, decorations for religious holidays must never appear in the background.

    A college professor informed me that a new textbook in human development includes the following statement: "As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult." The professor was stupefied that someone had made the line gender-neutral and ungrammatical by rewriting Bob Dylan's folk song "Blowin' in the Wind," which had simply asked: "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?"…

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I was fourteen, a precocious child, sensitive as a burn."

    Isaac Rosenfeld, Passage from Home

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: A note from my editor

    Not really, but I did write 5,000 words worth of my Balanchine book yesterday (including what I think is a really good section on Apollo), then went to see Terrence McNally’s new play, The Stendhal Syndrome, at Primary Stages’ new 59th Street theater (about which more next Friday). As a result, I don’t have much to offer this morning, and probably won’t have much to offer for the rest of the day, either—I’m just about to wrap up a chapter, after which I’ll be having a late lunch with Old Hag and Cinetrix, followed by another theatrical preview in the evening. Arrgh. Yikes. Apologies.

    More tomorrow, probably, I hope….

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Greeks bearing gifts

    I reviewed the Aquila Theatre Company’s production of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which opened last night, in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. I had some serious problems with the guest stars, Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich, but for the most part I enjoyed myself:

    Still and all, the play’s the thing, and this show, for all its imperfections, begs to be seen. At a time when Broadway has been reduced to recycling the faded ditties of has-been rock stars, it is good to sit in a darkened room full of strangers, immersed in the words of a poet born before Shakespeare, before Giotto—even before Christ. How is it possible that a play written 25 centuries ago should still be capable of moving a New York audience to applause? To watch the Aquila Theatre Company’s "Agamemnon" is to be reminded of what a miraculous thing it is to be human.

    In addition, I praised a new book on drama, Notes on Directing, which is also one of my current Top Five picks:

    "Notes on Directing" is often dryly funny, as befits a book about the theater: "23. Assume that everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror. This will help you approach the impossible state of infinite patience and benevolence that actors and others expect from you." But while some of its plain-spoken maxims are stage-specific ("115. When a scene isn’t clicking, the entrance was probably wrong"), I suspect that readers of the Journal will be struck by the extent to which many of them are no less applicable to the world of business. Directing a play, it turns out, is best understood as a species of management ŕ la Peter Drucker: "Identify the story’s compelling question….Express the core of the play in as few words as possible….Directing is mostly casting….Treat difficult moments as discoveries….Watch for and value happy accidents…Never, NEVER bully."

    No link (the Journal's funny that way), so to read the whole thing, buy a copy of this morning’s paper, O.K.? It only costs a dollar, and you get the rest of the "Weekend Journal" section, too, not to mention our weekly Zagat Theater Poll, which is always great fun to read.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 13, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, February 12, 2004
    TT: Room at the top

    From this morning’s Times:

    George C. Wolfe will step down as producer of the Public Theater next season, he said yesterday. Mr. Wolfe has spent nearly a decade trying to build on the fierce commitment of the theater's founder, Joseph Papp, to new playwrights.

    With his charismatic presence and creative success, Mr. Wolfe has also established something of a cult of personality at the Public, in the tradition of the legendary Papp. And as the leading black stage director in the country and an openly gay man, he embodied the Public's determination to reach diverse artists and audiences.

    His is the third high-level cultural post to open in New York in the last two weeks. Robert J. Harth, artistic and executive director of Carnegie Hall, died Jan. 30 at 47, and Joseph Volpe announced his retirement as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera on Monday....

    Read the whole thing here. No response just yet—I’m still taking the whole thing in.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Unlimited limitations

    Just how limited are limited-edition art prints? Daniel Grant lays out the loopholes in a concise, interesting piece in this morning’s Wall Street Journal—and for once, there’s a free on-line link. (I should be so lucky on Fridays!)

    Take a look, especially if my piece about collecting prints caught your eye. I didn’t have much of anything to say about the Dark Side of the Force, but you should definitely know what's what.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Brick, mortar, and mp3s

    A reader writes:

    Brick and mortar record stores don’t strike me as an extinct species. Tower records, let it be known, is crap. They have a wide selection, but not deep: their buyers are uninformed even in independent pop music, which is extraordinarily popular (“underground” and “below the radar” would be misnomers). Not to mention their prices cannot even vaguely compete with Amazon, even with added shipping charges. However, on the west coast there are three Amoeba (two in SF, one in LA) independent record stores that have maybe ten or twenty times the selection of a typical Tower. Their prices are comparable, if not cheaper than Amazon, they sell used, new, import, vinyl, and a huge volume of ‘bargain’ CDs. The store is always mobbed with people; you typically see individuals buying five to ten CDs at once. Amoeba serves the music fanatic market, which pretty much includes every “hipster” in the known universe, because staying abreast of independent music is the bedrock of hipster cultural sophistication. Knowing the hip bands gets you laid. There are a lot of hipsters in the big cities and they have a lot of money. I don’t have access to Amoeba’s books but they cannot be doing too poorly considering they just opened a new store. Perhaps we should stop looking at Tower records, which looked like a Dinosaur to anyone with any concern about pop music well before the advent of MP3s. I speak with some authority on this issue as my freshman year of college is the year that MP3 trading first became widespread (about a year before Napster).

    Aye, there's the rub. Do small chains like Amoeba (which certainly sounds pretty fabulous to me) have a future? Or are they merely a "transitional technology," so to speak, destined to wither away as more and more artists begin marketing their music directly to the public via the Web? I think that's really the key question, and I think we'll all live to know the answer.

    If I had any money to bet, I'd put it on the Web, but I spent it all on modern art prints, sigh....

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Marvin goes home

    I sure hope this is true.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Post-workshop traumatic syndrome

    Says …something slant:

    Blogs for me are trial balloons, even the ones that pretend to be something else, and snark is part of the fun if also sometimes part of the trial. More selfishly, I’m attempting to gird myself for a writing workshop of the kind I’ve actively avoided for several years, and I am wondering, yet again, what compels me to sign up for these things. There’s submitting to the voluntary trauma of watching strangers pluck the veins from your writing or, worse, react not at all. And then there are the all too easily mocked bits that emerge when a group struggles to find something, anything to say about what you’re doing "on the page"….

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: I'm there

    Hilton Kramer on the Charles Demuth exhibition up through Mar. 6 at Zabriskie Gallery:

    The American painter Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was an artist who took a certain pride—aesthetic pride—in his carefully cultivated limitations. He didn’t hesitate to boast about them, as we know from the wonderful comparison he once made between his own talent and that of his more robust contemporary, John Marin. "John Marin and I drew our inspiration from the same source, French modernism," Demuth said. "He brought his up in buckets and spilt much along the way. I dipped mine out with a teaspoon but I never spilt a drop."

    The humor, the exactitude, the unembarrassed self-knowledge—everything about that remark reminds me of another self-confessed American aesthete, the poet Wallace Stevens. Artists and writers of this persuasion—Henry James and Marianne Moore belong in the same company—cannot be expected to command the attention of a large public. Their work tends to be a little too special for mainstream taste, and the acclaim they enjoy tends to be posthumous. Yet their achievements are among the finest in American art and literature.

    Demuth’s place in this constellation of talents would be more widely recognized if we saw his work more often, but exhibitions of his pictures have been a rarity lately—which is why the exhibition that Thomas S. Holman and Virginia Zabriskie have organized at the Zabriskie Gallery is an event to be cherished. Though it’s a long way from being the full-scale retrospective that’s needed, the show’s 31 items—mostly watercolors and drawings dating from 1907 to 1933—are more than sufficient to remind us of Demuth’s virtues….

    Read the whole thing here. Then go see the show, and look for me.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Bulletin! Some Nobel laureates could write!

    The Library of America, which will be publishing a three-volume collection of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer later this year, has launched an all-Singer, all-the-time Web site in honor of the centenary of his birth. Take a look.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "My grand philosophical conclusion at the end of the day is that humanity does not divide into the rich and the poor, the privileged and the unprivileged, the clever and the stupid, the lucky and the unlucky or even into the happy and the unhappy. It divides into the nasty and the nice. Nasty people are humourless, bitter, self-pitying, resentful and mean. They are also, of course, invariably miserable. Saints may worry about them and even try to turn their sour natures, but those who do not aspire to saintliness are best advised to avoid them whenever possible, and give their aggression a good run for its money whenever it becomes unavoidable."

    Auberon Waugh, Will This Do?

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: One foot out the door

    Joseph Volpe, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, is retiring in 2006. John Rockwell reflects on the implications of his departure in the New York Times:

    Ever the hard-nosed administrator, he can crack the whip at recalcitrant singers and settle with the unions and placate his board and terrorize his underlings and prevent the centrifugal force of a thousand egos from spinning the Met out of control. His pleasure in his position is always evident and endearing. But can he plan repertory and oversee casting and productions with the requisite, insightful sophistication and taste?

    For a long time such questions lurked half-whispered backstage. The Met was selling tickets, its huge endowment was swelled by the bubble of the late 1990's, and [James] Levine was more of a presence than he is now. But in recent years, like so many American opera companies, the Met has fallen on relatively hard times. Relative, because the endowment, currently at $285 million, provides a comfy cushion. Deficits have run $10 million each of the last two fiscal years (although Mr. Volpe is hoping to balance the budget this year). Attendance has been down sharply, as have annual donations (with the implosion of Alberto Vilar's pledges, to the Met and others, only part of the problem)….

    Mr. Volpe is a tough guy, even (say many) a bully. So logic might dictate a smoother, tonier, more soft-spoken manager, more in line with patrician Met tradition. And maybe one with greater sophistication about the musical and dramatic side of opera.

    What needs to be done? To figure out a way to fill the Met's vast, 3,900-seat theater with artistically respectable fare; even the most conservative audiences eventually grow tired of routinely cast Franco Zeffirelli productions of "La Bohčme" and "Turandot." To find new audiences without alienating the old ones. To sustain casting and conducting in an era when European artists seem increasingly loath to commit months of time in rehearsal and performances across the ocean. To develop and cultivate supportive yet progressive board members. And, one way or another, to corral those egos.

    Read the whole thing here.

    I think Rockwell has summed up the Met’s problems very neatly. And I think the answer to his first question, about Volpe’s ability to make smart artistic decisions (as opposed to shrewd ones), is an unequivocal no. Volpe is a manager, not an artist. When he and James Levine were working in counterpoise, it didn’t matter nearly as much. Now that Levine has withdrawn most of his attention from the Met and its doings, it matters hugely.

    For several seasons, the Volpe-led Met has basically been alternating between big, dumb, ultra-naturalistic new productions of standard-rep operas (some of which worked, most of which didn’t) and Eurotrashily "adventurous" new productions of less well-known works (most of which have been appalling). It was during that period that I first started going to New York City Opera more often than the Met, and with greater pleasure, in spite of City Opera's lower budgets, generally less impressive singers, and second-rate (but well-meaning) orchestra. Why? Because I believe that opera in the theater is drama, first and foremost. Under Paul Kellogg, City Opera agrees, and usually acts accordingly; under Volpe, the Met doesn’t. Volpe believes in spectacle, not drama. To some extent, the huge Metropolitan Opera House enforces his preference simply by virtue of its size, but it doesn’t have to, at least not all the time. I’ve seen great drama at the Met. Mark Lamos’ Wozzeck and Elijah Moshinsky’s Queen of Spades, for instance, were spellbindingly fine. But since then…what? It’s been a long time between drinks.

    So I’m glad that Volpe is going. It’s about time. I don’t know who can—or should—replace him. The chances are better than even that his replacement will fail dismally. I expect it’ll take at least two more general directors to turn that ocean liner around. But this is a start.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Early adopter

    In light of all the lukewarm things now being said in print about Norah Jones’ second album, I thought it might be worth revisiting what I wrote about her first album a year and a half ago in The Wall Street Journal.

    Not everybody in the jazz business agreed with me (I got an e-mail, for instance, from a very distinguished jazz guitarist who really liked her music and begged to differ with me). For the most part, though, I was struck by the positive reaction to this piece among musicians.

    Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth.

    * * *

    At 22, Norah Jones, a slender, fresh-faced singer-pianist with a raspy bedroom voice, is the talk of the music business. Her debut CD, "Come Away With Me," is a collection of soft-rock ballads sung in an intimate style that is a quirky mixture of country and blues. It’s selling hand over fist to thirtysomethings who are too old for hip-hop—nearly a million copies since January—at a time when record sales are in an industry-wide tailspin. But while reporters are losing their heads over Jones, I have yet to meet a jazz musician who speaks well of her album. I was chatting the other day with a jazz singer I know, a very nice woman who never has a nasty word to say about anybody, and I asked her about "Come Away With Me." She shook her head and cautiously replied, "Well, there’s nothing really wrong with it, I guess. But…it’s not jazz."

    What difference does that make? Jazz, after all, isn’t the only kind of good music in the world. To be sure, I’m not all that impressed by Jones, who strikes me as appealing but not quite grown up, sort of like what you’d get if a character on a teen-angst TV drama were to take up blues singing as a hobby. Still, the world is full of pretty young soft-rock balladeers, so why should anyone care that this one has struck pay dirt? Or, as a puzzled newspaper editor recently asked me, "What is it about Norah Jones that’s putting jazz people’s noses out of joint?"

    The answer is simple: She records for Blue Note.

    Blue Note is one of the last remaining big-time labels that is, or was, totally committed to jazz. Founded in 1939, it has recorded such legendary artists as Sidney Bechet, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver. If you were to make a list of the 100 most significant jazz albums of the 20th century, you’d find that at least 10 of them, if not more, were released on Blue Note. Moreover, the label’s current roster includes the eminently noteworthy likes of Patricia Barber, Bill Charlap, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, and Cassandra Wilson—heavy hitters all.

    So what’s Jones doing in such fast company? Making money, that’s what. As a rule, jazz albums don’t sell, but this rule has lately been broken by a string of good-looking female vocalists, including Wilson, Diana Krall and Jane Monheit. Every label wants one. Blue Note now has two—only one of them doesn’t sing jazz. Granted, Cassandra Wilson is by no means a standard-issue Ella Fitzgerald-type singer (her latest CD contains such pop songs as "The Weight" and "Wichita Lineman"), but I don’t know anybody who thinks she is anything other than a jazz musician. Not so Norah Jones. Her agreeable, innocuous music bears no resemblance whatsoever to any known form of jazz, however eclectic or cross-pollinated. She is a pop singer, period.

    Because of this, many jazz musicians see red when journalists describe her as a "jazz singer," just as it drives them crazy that the bland mewlings of soprano saxophonist Kenny G, the Thomas Kinkade of music, are known as "smooth jazz." To them, the word jazz stands for a musical idiom of the highest sophistication, arguably America’s foremost contribution to the modern movement in art, and they don’t want it devalued by misappropriation. Never mind that Jones doesn’t call herself a jazz singer, or that Blue Note isn’t promoting her as one. The fact remains that she records for a prestigious jazz label, and when bona fide jazz musicians open up the New York Times Magazine and find an article called "The New Old Thing: Norah Jones Takes Jazz Singing Back to Its Future," they see another door slamming in their faces.

    A well-connected record producer who has no use for Jones’ music recently assured me with a straight face that the profits from "Come Away With Me" will allow Blue Note to underwrite the development of more challenging artists. Indeed, such things have been known to happen—but all slopes are slippery, especially when they’re lined with cash. Yes, Blue Note is still a serious jazz label, but how long will it stay that way now that it’s getting a taste of serious money? Will Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note, start dropping less profitable artists from his roster and looking for more Norah Joneses instead? I hope not, but you’d be surprised how fast good taste can go out the window when big bucks come flooding in the front door.

    I’m not one of those snobby purists who turn up their fastidious noses at such user-friendly artists as Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli. I like it when smart musicians reach out to a popular audience, as long as they do so without pandering.

    Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between what Krall is doing when she sings Burt Bacharach’s "The Look of Love" and what Norah Jones is doing when she sings Hank Williams’ "Cold, Cold Heart." Both are popular, but the first is jazz and the second isn’t. To pretend otherwise is to run the risk of defining jazz down—and, eventually, out.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 12, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
    OGIC: The ish factor

    In reference to this, two out of three ain't bad.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Friends in high places

    The new issue of the online lit journal Bookslut includes an epistolary review of an epistolary novel (is this some kind of twisted homage ŕ Kakutani, Ed?) and a selling piece by Sarah about discovering midcentury crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes, who has just been put back into print:

    Hughes wasn’t aiming to write a conventional whodunit. Instead, she chose a much bolder task, crafting a psychological thriller from the point of view of someone who is morally ambiguous to say the least.…[Hughes] uses a similar device that popped up in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and many books by many authors since, but Hughes trumped Thompson on two counts: first, In A Lonely Place, published in 1947, predated Thompson’s book by five years. Second and more importantly, Hughes is far more subtle at revealing the level of [the character's] depravity.


    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: No cigar

    A reader writes:

    I picture OGIC as being 35-ish, blonde-ish, and tall-ish. Am I close-ish?


    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: This correspondence must now cease

    At the risk of attracting the attention of Mr. TMFTML yet again, I found the following e-mail in my box tonight:

    Deseja aumentar o tamanho do pęnis?

    It sounds so much prettier that way….

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: A little dab'll do ya

    This is a writing day (specifically, the Balanchine book and my theater column for this Friday's Wall Street Journal), so I won't be posting anything more until tomorrow, barring a sudden attack of imprudence. Our Girl may stir the pot still further, but if not, eat what's here, O.K.?

    See you Thursday.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Latest face, so effortless,
    Your great arrival at my eyes,
    No one standing near could guess
    Your beauty had no home till then;
    Precious vagrant, recognise
    My look, and do not turn again.

    Philip Larkin, "Latest Face"

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Poverty beckons

    The February issue of Commentary, which contains an essay called "Living with Art" in which I talk about buying and looking at modern art prints, is now being mailed out to subscribers, and I’ve started to get some interesting responses. One was from a Chicago art collector by the name of Philip J. Schiller, who sent me a copy of a book he wrote a couple of years ago called Buy What You Love: Confessions of an Art Addict. The book turned out to be a winner—engaging, straightforward, totally lacking in self-conscious art-world nonsense.

    I’ll pass along Mr. Schiller’s ten tips for the novice collector:

    1. Buy what you love—listen to your gut.

    2. Don’t buy art to make money; there are easier ways to do that.

    3. Learn about the artist—you don’t buy a car without being informed.

    4. The love affair should remain strong, like a good marriage.

    5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—it’s your money.

    6. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the price—again, it’s your money.

    7. Seek advice from a knowledgeable and honest consultant—we all need help.

    8. Display the work; see it every day.

    9. Loan the work—others should see it.

    10. Buy what you can afford—don’t miss any meals.

    All fairly obvious, I suppose, except that people who develop a brand-new interest have a way of forgetting the obvious, or failing to apply it to their changed circumstances. I’m lucky—I didn’t make any earth-shattering mistakes in my first year of art buying, so far as I know—but I still wish I’d read Buy What You Love before I started. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever read about collecting art that I didn’t find inhibiting, even though the author obviously has a whole lot more money than I do.

    Which brings me to the cover letter accompanying the book, in which Mr. Schiller wrote, "While you may not now be an addict, don’t be surprised if the addiction comes without your being prepared for it, but very happy nonetheless." Yikes! If he’s right, I may someday be writing this blog from debtors' prison—or a larger apartment. Buying art is a perilous hobby for a freelance arts journalist with a chronically slender bank account. But he's right: buying art is addicting, in the nicest and most gratifying way imaginable. Try it and see.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Through a glass, very darkly

    Tower Records has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. No surprise there, but here’s something from the New York Times’s story that caught my eye:

    "The future looks particularly grim for all land-based music retailers,'' said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a consulting firm that has worked with retailers and record companies. He said such stores "literally have a toe-tag on them and they're boxed up for the proverbial boneyard.''

    With the demise of once dominant stores like Tower that specialize in selling every category of music and do it with great depth and range, Mr. Flickinger predicted that "most consumers will move to a much narrower band of music - what they hear of the top 25 songs that are programmed in vicious rotation by the FM radio stations or top 20 almost preselected MTV songs.''

    Excuse me? I think the first half of Mr. Flickinger’s prediction is on the nose, but aliens from outer space must have taken over his brain thereafter. Those consumers who are content to listen exclusively to the Top 25 are already listening exclusively to the Top 25, and no record store, bankrupt or not, will widen their cramped horizons. Everybody else is looking to the Web to buy (and sell) their music, or soon will be.

    Apropos of the Tower Records announcement, a reader wrote yesterday to ask what I thought the best classical-music stores in New York were. I told him I almost never bought CDs of any kind in stores anymore—I buy on line. The next step, which is nigh, is for people like me to stop buying CDs altogether and instead switch to downloading. Once that happens, the economic basis for the recording industry as it’s presently constituted will disintegrate, and with it the industry.

    A number of smart musicians who've had it up to here with the music business are already starting to experiment with their own Web-based "labels." To get a sense of how that will work, look at Maria Schneider’s Web site, which makes use of new technology developed by a company called ArtistShare. That’s the future of recording—maybe not for Beyoncé, but for all those artists who make music too interesting to crack the Top 25.

    In the short run, we’re in for a hell of a rough ride. After that, the fun starts. In the meantime, start downloading, if you’re not doing it already. The bugs aren’t completely worked out yet (especially with regard to classical music), but they will be, soon.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 11, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
    OGIC: What confectioners talk about when they talk

    …about love, obvs. I've had some gratifying responses to my silly post about a pro-literacy conversation heart I stumbled on last week. A friend tried to put himself in the minds of the makers:

    I was much amused by your story of the candy valentine heart inscribed with LETS READ. I'm trying to imagine some corporate brainstorming session with marketing people sitting around throwing out suggestions for pithy romantic sayings: BE MINE, KISS ME, LOVE YOU, LETS READ, hunh? Do you suppose someone in the stenciling department at candyland is reading bodice rippers?

    And two readers delighted me by sending along their own personalized creations—




    —both generated at a splendid little webspot that you should know about this week.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The wrong box

    Has anybody noticed that I've been keeping up with my mail for the past couple of weeks? This in spite of the fact that the box is often crammed full of MyDoom-generated spam, Viagra ads, and letters from Liberia.

    Today, it was also crammed full of letters to Our Girl, which reminds me to remind you that we have two e-mailboxes, which we do not share. If you want to write to OGIC, go to the top module of the right-hand column and click on her mailbox link, not mine (mine is directly above hers).

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: St. Thomas Aquinas, call your office

    A reader writes:

    As a corollary to your lament about the inequity of people who excel in one art also having a gift for another, I offer the infuriating example of Kenny G, who was playing the AT&T Pro-am golf tournament on the Monterey Peninsula last weekend. As a golfer, Kenny G has a 1 handicap. He shot a 77 at Pebble Beach and a 73 at Spy Glass. These are remarkable scores for an amateur in competition on tough courses set up for pros - the equivalent of a weekend violinist playing a pretty damn good rendition of the Brahms concerto with an A-list orchestra. So it's not enough that us jazz lovers have to put up with his insipid instrumental pop music, the genre of "smooth jazz" and the tragedy of his making zillions while (fill in the blank) scuffles to pay the bills while trying to make art that honors the legacy of Bird, Sonny and Trane - but in addition to all of that, Kenny G also gets to play to a 1-handicap.

    There is no God.

    Actually, there is, but Our Girl tells me that He prefers hockey.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Who cares who screwed Roger Partridge?

    The Bloomsbury group bores me silly. Always has. All hat, no cattle—and that most definitely includes the only marginally readable Virginia Woolf. It’s the highbrow counterpart of the Algonquin Round Table, with better gossip and fewer one-liners. Now they’re all dead, and about time, too. The sooner they’re forgotten, the better for British literature.

    Whee! I feel better!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Those who can do

    I mentioned yesterday that you should go see The Artist’s Eye: Wolf Kahn as Curator, currently up at the National Academy of Design (one block north of the Guggenheim) through April 18. For those too lazy to scroll down to the Top Five listing in the right-hand column, here’s what I wrote:

    The poet of magenta and orange culls 50-odd personal favorites from the Academy’s permanent collection, mostly (but not entirely) representational, mostly (but not entirely) landscapes, mostly (but not entirely) celebrity-free. The last gallery contains 10 recent paintings by Kahn, including "Chaos and Hidden Order," a stunning natural abstract (my phrase, not Kahn’s) painted last year in Africa. Bright, fresh, engaging, and thought-provoking, especially if you think paint on canvas is soooo over. Definitely worth seeing, more than once.

    What I didn’t mention, that being a capsule review, was that Kahn not only picked the paintings but wrote the wall labels for the show. I’m sure that’s not without precedent, but it isn’t common, either (Jane Freilicher didn’t do it when she curated last year’s "Artist’s Eye" show at the Academy). The texts are fascinating—informal, unpretentious, written from the practical perspective of a practicing painter. Here, for example, is Kahn on Albert Pinkham Ryder’s "Marine":

    Ryder is one of the artists who continue to influence me in my own work, because he really loved the substance of paint. Also, he never acknowledged finishing a painting but kept adjusting and changing it for years. He had the gift of translating paint into passion, but his aim, it seems to me, was to paint unchanging nature as simply and straight-forwardly as he could. Notice the uneasy coming together of water and sky at the horizon: white against black, but nothing stops. A wonderful little picture.

    Wouldn’t you rather read a label like that than one by some anonymous museum staffer?

    Sarah Weinman and I have been exchanging e-mail apropos of my recent posting about Glenn Gould, and we’ve gotten into a conversation about what I call "practitioner criticism," by which I mean arts criticism written by working artists. This kind of criticism intrigues me precisely because it isn’t "objective," and rarely if ever pretends to be: instead, it’s all about the critic-artist and his personal priorities, and is all the more illuminating as a result. What George Bernard Shaw had to say about Shakespeare, or Hector Berlioz about Beethoven, is by definition more interesting than anything I could possibly say about either man, regardless of whether Shaw or Berlioz happened to be right or wrong.

    Here’s what Wolf Kahn has to say about curating "The Artist’s Eye," which I think could reasonably be described as an exercise in applied practitioner criticism:

    I have only cursory knowledge of American art from 1825 (the date the National Academy of Design was founded) until about 1930. It’s likely that I know a bit more from 1930 to the present. Still, how to choose from the ample racks in the storage area those pictures which it seems important to show at this time?…The best thing, it seems to me, is to put my faith on my "eye," and to cull fifty or so paintings from the collection which succeed to engage my personal "eye." Is a picture coloristically exciting? Are the elements dispersed on the canvas, or the panel, in a visually beautiful way? Is the picture the carrier of strong feeling? Is it eccentric? Extreme?…Let my eye, therefore, be the surrogate for yours—we may end up shaking hands in agreement—sometimes.

    I love that, syntactical slips and all. And I don’t see how anyone could resist going to see a museum exhibition curated on such a basis. So don’t resist—go. Now. The National Academy of Design is never crowded, even on weekends. And when you’re there, keep an eye out for me, because I’m planning to come back soon with a friend or two in tow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Bogart with a smile

    I see from Our Girl's last posting that she's on a Howard Hawks kick, of which I heartily approve. Oddly enough, I happened to watch To Have and Have Not day before yesterday, during my self-imposed two-day sabbatical from blogging, and it pleased me greatly, as it always does. I seem to recall that I described it as "Casablanca for grownups" when I posted the newly released DVD in the Top Five module of the right-hand column a couple of months ago. That's true enough, but it doesn't mean To Have and Have Not isn't entertaining, just that it doesn't take itself seriously, as Casablanca does. On the other hand, it isn't a nudge-and-wink self-parody, either, like John Huston's over-clever Beat the Devil, a Humphrey Bogart film for people who don't like Humphrey Bogart films. The very idea of Truman Capote writing dialogue for Bogart makes me giggle, and not in the right way, either.

    I wouldn't call To Have and Have Not Bogart's best film (that prize goes to Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place), nor is it Hawks' best (Rio Bravo is a bit better). But it nails the number-two spot on both lists, which is hard to beat. If you haven't seen it, do.

    Let us know what you thought of To Have and Have Not, OGIC. I think you'll find it a perfect hoot. In the right way.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "It was Dortmunder’s belief that in every trade with glamour attached to it—burglary, say, or politics, movies, piloting airplanes—there were the people who actually did the job and were professional about it, and then there were the people on the fringe who were too interested in the glamour and not enough interested in the job, and those were the people who loused it up for everybody else."

    Donald E. Westlake, Nobody’s Perfect

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Believe it or not

    A reader writes:

    I went to the local public library Saturday looking for Richard Pipes's recently published memoir (which was out), and I came home instead with a Richard Stark. I hadn't heard of Stark until your posting, though of course I know Westlake. The title of the novel is Comeback from the Parker series. The first half was excellent -- nicely plotted, credible, solid dialogue. But after the midway point, the story began to require a serious suspension of disbelief. In my experience, that is typical of crime and detective novels (and movies): great build-up followed by a (frequently precipitous) falling off. Nevertheless, I liked the novel enough to want to give Stark another try. Can you recommend one that won't give my credulity quite so difficult a workout?

    This note from a regular reader of "About Last Night" interests me for an unexpected reason. What mystery or suspense novel, if any, doesn’t require "a serious suspension of disbelief"? And why would that matter? I go to that kind of fiction in search of amusement, not plausibility, and so long as the imaginary world portrayed within is both internally consistent and involving on its own terms, I’m happy. Whoever thought Nero Wolfe or Philip Marlowe were plausible? In fact, I suspect it’s their very implausibility, even outrageousness, that makes them interesting to us. Wolfe is Dr. Johnson transplanted into a fancy Manhattan brownstone with a greenhouse on the roof, Marlowe is Raymond Chandler transplanted into a seedy detective’s office in Los Angeles, and the incongruity—the clash of sensibilities—engages the reader from the first sentence onward.

    The Parker novels (which are written by "Richard Stark," a pen name of Donald Westlake) aren’t interesting to me because of the comparative feasibility of the crimes portrayed by the author. I read them because I’m fascinated by Parker, a professional thief who is amoral to the point of sociopathy. The novels are told mainly from his point of view, which anyone not a sociopath will find totally unsympathetic. Yet the reader identifies with Parker, even cheers him on, as he does whatever he finds necessary to steal large sums of money and stay out of jail, up to and including cold-blooded murder. I’m not up for amateur psychologizing this morning, so I won’t speculate as to the appeal of a character like Parker, but appeal he does, and for me, at least, it doesn’t much matter whether his capers and scores pass the test of plausibility. They divert me.

    Having said all that, I’ll return to the problem posed by my reader. Westlake wrote the first sixteen Parker novels between 1962 and 1974, then put the series aside until 1997, when he resumed with Comeback. The later novels are somewhat different in tone from the earlier ones—a little less traditionally "hardboiled," a little more self-reflexive, even discursive (Westlake is a very funny man when not pretending to be a hardboiled mystery novelist). Those who find Comeback slightly unbelievable will prefer the earlier books, most of which are out of print, though they can usually be found in libraries or used book stores. Of them, the most conventionally "plausible" is The Rare Coin Score. Of the later Parker novels, the one I suspect my correspondent would find most acceptable is Flashfire. But as I say, don’t look to Parker for how-to-do-it guides to heisting. His interest lies elsewhere.

    A reminder: Westlake has written a parallel series of comic crime novels under his own name about a hapless heister named John Dortmunder, and these books are a deliberate, almost systematic inversion of the Parker novels. Readers familiar with both series will find the Dortmunder books (which not infrequently make reference to the Parker books) even funnier, but you don’t have to get the inside jokes to appreciate them. Unlike the Parker novels, all of the Dortmunder novels are currently available in paperback, and that series starts with The Hot Rock.

    Now, back to high culture!

    UPDATE: Sarah has major Dortmunder-related news....

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The Netflix files, no. 1

    As a Netflix newbie, I can report so far that watching the movies is only about half as fun as setting up the queue. (A warning: think twice before you go comparing the size of your queue with cinetrix's; trust me, you'll come up short.) Coming to the end of my trial period, I've received three movies and watched two. First was L'Auberge Espagnole, which made it into my queue on the strength of director Cédric Klapisch's previous U.S.-released feature, the trčs charmant Chacun cherche son chat [When the Cat's Away], a cute but not cloying portrait of a Parisian neighborhood, hung on the slender reed of a plot about a missing cat.

    Anyway, L'Auberge Espagnole was strained and disappointing, with nary a character you could warm up to, limp plotting, and cliché to spare. I was about to say, in a spirit of generosity, that it probably suffered from my having stepped out of character and viewed The Real World: Paris on MTV on a near-regular basis last year, and having that as a point of comparison. But this doesn't exactly look like generosity, does it? Regardless of the force of the comparison, the two were nearly indistinguishable.

    Next up was His Girl Friday, a vast improvement. My only complaint is that I could have traded half the screwball capers in it for one more serving of pure banter between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant's newsroom Beatrice and Benedick. They're both splendidly tart and unapologetically urbane—"Oh, well that will be nice, a home with mother. Yes, yes. In Albany, too"—and I was surprised to read David Thomson's stern view of Russell, whom I haven't seen in anything else. In the New Biographical Dictionary entry on Grant, Thomson praises him for "goading Rosalind Russell into being bearable" in this film.

    And hey, how can you not love all the nifty, avant la lettre self-referentiality? (For even more audio clips from the movie, look here.)

    Next up: Pirates of the Caribbean and To Have and Have Not, continuing my Howard Hawks self-schooling.

    UPDATE: Rick at Futurballa has good recommendations from his recent Netflix selections.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 10, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, February 9, 2004
    TT: All is made manifest

    Courtesy of Byzantium’s Shores, a complete guide to taking (and faking) the Rorschach Test, including line reproductions of the actual inkblots used in the test.

    What I want to know is how Mr. TMFTML interprets Plate VI.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Alas, not by me

    More Lileks envy, this time inspired by his description of the slow movement of the Gershwin Concerto in F:

    It’s the sort of music that used to say "New York" to people in Peoria. It has that "Chorine on the A train at 3 AM" feel - tired of being sophisticated, tired of the pose, tired of living up to its own dreams and expectations. But when the piano comes in it’s like Gershwin himself in a white suit entering an Automat painted by Edward Hopper - he pops the cigar out of his mouth and says why the long faces? This is New York, pal. Let’s go stand on the corner and watch it ramble past. Whaddya say? There's no other city in America that can inspire these aural evocations - it's not like anyone listens to Boston's debut album and thinks I am so walking around Nob Hill right now. San Francisco to me is tied to the "Vertigo" score, but that's a trick of fiction. Chicago has one song: one. It informs us that State Street is a Great Street, and we go along with the assertion because it rhymes. But all of Gershwin's work is saturated with New York, and you know it. It's the love that doesn't have to say its name….

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Celebrity bloglunch

    I’m having lunch with Cinetrix and Old Hag at a secure undisclosed location on the Upper West Side this Friday. We may sell tickets.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Alas, not for sure

    I heard from two readers apropos of last week’s posting about the "Alas, not by Johannes Brahms" anecdote that inspired my "Alas, not by me" running head. I feared the story was apocryphal. Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote to say not so:

    "Leider nicht von Johannes Brahms" is unquestionably by Brahms! He wrote the words on the autograph fan of Alice Meyszner-Strauss, the composer's stepdaughter, next to the first notes of the Blue Danube.

    I wrote back to ask for a source, but answer came there none (not yet, anyway). Shortly thereafter, though, I heard from Phil Wade, who blogs at Brandywine Books. Phil sent along an excerpt from the obituary of Brahms that ran in The Musical Times in 1897:

    Brahms was incapable of any mean or underhanded action. He never indulged in newspaper controversy, but kept his views to himself. . . . The catholicity of his taste is sufficiently shown by his immense admiration for the genius of Strauss—in which he shared the views of Wagner and Von Bülow—on whose wife’s fan he inscribed a few bars of the "Blue Danube" with the charming compliment "unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms."

    O.K., guys—wife or stepdaughter? Inquiring minds want to know.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Oh, the inequity of it

    A friend of mine who sings jazz for a living started painting for fun last month. Like most jazz singers who live in New York and its environs, she's as poor as an unemployed churchmouse, so she asked if I'd like one of her canvases for a birthday gift. She delivered it on Thursday, a semi-abstract study in black, white, red, and three shades of blue, done with a palette knife ŕ la Hans Hofmann and called "Winter Break." To my amazement and exasperation, it was really good—both striking and professional-looking, which wasn't at all what I'd expected.

    As I held her painting in my hands, the names of all sorts of musicians who have been highly talented amateur artists started popping into my head. George Gershwin, Arnold Schoenberg, Tony Bennett, the Dixieland drummer George Wettling (who actually studied with Stuart Davis), Pee Wee Russell—the list goes on and on. I saw a gouache by the jazz singer Meredith d'Ambrosio, "Elm Street Blizzard," hanging at a juried exhibition here in New York a couple of months ago. It was absolutely terrific, and in no possible way "amateurish."

    But, then, any number of talented artists have moonlighted to startlingly good effect in other media. Paul Taylor, the greatest living choreographer, makes assemblages reminiscent of Joseph Cornell (I have one hanging on my office wall), and also wrote a pungent, personal memoir, Private Domain, entirely without benefit of ghostwriter. Louis Armstrong did the same thing with his similarly vivid autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, and also turned out homemade collages that prefigure the work of Romare Bearden. Hector Berlioz's Memoirs is one of the greatest autobiographies of the nineteenth century, literary or otherwise....

    Enough already. Am I irritated? You bet. It's sufficiently hurtful, after all, that these people do one thing so well. Why, then, must they rub our noses still deeper in the muck of human inequality by letting their prodigious gifts slop over like that? I mean, it's all we full-time critics can do to churn out our pathetic little reviews. Someday I plan to write an extremely naughty essay about novels by famous critics (most of which—though not quite all—have been excruciatingly bad). Imagine the further humiliation if they were also expected to set up shop as painters or musicians!

    As for my singer friend, I don't even want to discuss the fact that she started painting one month ago. Maybe she's a mutant.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Reading habits of highly neurotic people

    I'm reading a new biography of Glenn Gould, Kevin Bazzana's Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, which will be published in the U.S. this April by Oxford (it's already out in Canada). Two passages caught my eye. The first is a list of Gould's favorite books and writers:

    He read classics of every denomination, from Plato to Thoreau, with a particular fondness for the Russians—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in particular, but also Gogol, Goncharov, Turgenev. He was widely read in modern literature. His professed favourites included T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry, and Franz Kafka, though he gave time to Borges, Camus, Capek, Gide, Hesse, Ionesco, Joyce, Malraux, Mishima, Santayana, Soseki, Strindberg, and much else....And at the head of the pack was Thomas Mann, especially Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, and the early story "Tonio Kröger," which he read around age eighteen and with whose title character, a passionate and excitable young aesthete described as "foreign and queer," he identified throughout his life. Just as his repertoire included no fluff, his concert tours no pops, Gould's reading included no murder mysteries or adventure stories. He liked books with a strong message, books that dealt with weighty ethical or theological or aesthetic ideas or espoused a philosophy of life with which he could engage intellectually. And he was disapproving of books in which ideas were sacrificed to aesthetics or ironic detachment. Among the Russians, for instance, he did not like Chekhov, or the dazzling Nabokov, whom he thought immoral. He read a little Truman Capote on the advice of friends, but could admire only his technique, not his ethics. He found Henry Miller's writings "ponderous," Jack Kerouac's "flaccid."

    Eeuuww. The man behind that reading list sounds a perfect bore to me, and humorless to boot—just the sort of person who'd dislike Chopin, all French music, and most Mozart, as Gould did. And yet his way with Bach, the only great composer whose music he played consistently well, was nothing if not light-fingered. To hear Gould play the Goldberg Variations (the 1955 recording, of course) or the A Major English Suite is to feel the cares of the world slipping from your shoulders.

    All of which leads me to ask: is the performance of classical music an intellectual activity? Did the breadth of Glenn Gould's culture make him a better interpreter of Bach? I wonder. I've known a lot of musicians in my time, some of whom were damned smart and some of whom were (ahem) less so, and I rarely noticed any clear-cut relationship between what went into their heads and what came out of their fingers or mouths. (In my more limited experience, the same is true of dancers and painters.) I'm not saying that a stupid person can become a successful musician, but I'm not so sure that having read T.S. Eliot equips you to play Beethoven's Op. 111 well. It certainly didn't help Gould, whose recording of that miraculous masterwork borders on the preposterous.

    Those of us who write about music, needless to say, would like it if there were a direct positive correlation between intelligence and musical talent. Intellectuals always take it for granted that theirs is the highest form of life. If they had a bumper-sticker slogan, it'd be "Intellectuals do everything better." In fact, there are all sorts of things they do spectacularly badly (though they're rather good at conniving at mass murder), and it's almost always hard for them to accept the fact that Big Ideas get in the way of the making of great art.

    I am, alas, a bonafide intellectual, but I'm pretty well inoculated against that particular strain of error, perhaps because I started out as a working musician. Early and intense exposure to a non-verbal art form gives you an abiding respect for the non-intellectual aspects of art. In my case, it also made me an equally bonafide aesthete: I like talking about ideas almost as much as I like reading about art, but I never need to be reminded that (as C.S. Lewis put it) if we have to choose, it's always better to re-read Chaucer than to read a new book about him.

    Oh, yes, I mentioned two passages, so here's the other one. It's something Gould told an interviewer in 1980:

    I can only say that I was brought up as a Presbyterian; I stopped being a church-goer at the age of about eighteen, but I have had all my life a tremendously strong sense that, indeed, there is a hereafter; and the transformation of the spirit is a phenomenon with which one must reckon, and in the light of which, indeed, one must attempt to live one's life. As a consequence, I find all here-and-now philosophies repellent. On the other hand, I don't have any objective images to build around my notion of a hereafter, and I recognize that it's a great temptation to formulate a comforting theory of eternal life, so as to reconcile one's self to the inevitability of death. But I'd like to think that's not what I'm doing; I'd like to think that I'm not employing it as a deliberate self-reassuring process. For me, it intuitively seems right; I've never had to work at convincing myself about the likelihood of a life hereafter. It is simply something that appears to me infinitely more plausible than its opposite, which would be oblivion.

    Surprised? I was. Maybe I shouldn't have been. It's hard to imagine anyone immersing himself so completely in Bach without acquiring a sense of the transcendent. And though the famously logorrheic Gould wasn't much given to pithy utterances, he made one on precisely that subject: "I believe in God—Bach's God."

    Six words. Not bad. Here's two more for the road: me, too.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "These hinterlands are frequently, even compulsively, crossed at one time or another by almost all who practise the arts, usually in the need to earn a living; but the arts themselves, so it appeared to me as I considered the matter, by their ultimately sensual essence, are, in the long run, inimical to those who pursue power for its own sake. Conversely, the artist who traffics in power does so, if not necessarily disastrously, at least at considerable risk."

    Anthony Powell, A Buyer’s Market

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Look to the right

    No, this isn't a political commentary: I just posted a new Top Five entry about "The Artist's Eye: Wolf Kahn as Curator," which went up at the National Academy of Design last Friday (my birthday!) for a two-month run. I'll sound off at greater length about this show at a later date, but for the moment, take a peek at the right-hand column, click the link for more information, then go. Soon.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Takeoff and climbout

    I made it through the whole weekend without posting anything (except for two almanac entries and a couple of links, which hardly counts). And yes, I definitely had a happy birthday. Among other things, three beautiful women sang "Happy Birthday" to me at Café Luxembourg...in Portuguese. It sounds much cooler that way.

    I got back into the swing of things a lot faster than I expected, so there's a sufficiency of new stuff to read today. Tomorrow may be different: Balanchine still beckons, and will continue to do so for the next five or six weeks. But I'll do my best, and when that isn't good enough, we'll always have Our Girl.

    Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the impending week as much as I enjoyed the receding weekend.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 9, 2004 | Permanent link
Sunday, February 8, 2004
    TT: Missing in action

    Sue Russell, biographer of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, writes about the inconvenient facts that got left out of Monster, the Wuornos biopic, in today’s Washington Post:

    With "Monster's" sympathetic take, Hollywood has put its boot print on a piece of history. And as Aileen's biographer, I find the movie's distortions disturbing. The filmmakers acknowledge upfront that "Monster" is fictionalized, that it is only "based upon" a true story. But will anyone notice this disclaimer, let alone pay attention to it? Already, most people seem not to. Reviewer upon reviewer has referred to Aileen's saga as depicted in the movie as true.

    To be sure, the hitchhiking prostitute who confessed to killing seven men in Florida in 1989-90 and was executed in 2002 was no JFK or Malcolm X, two other real-life figures whose stories were altered for the big screen. But by retooling her into a victim who began killing to fend off a rapist, "Monster" conveniently transforms her into something we can stomach far more easily than we can a woman who's a ruthless robber and murderer. It perpetuates the comforting yet erroneous belief that women only kill when provoked by abuse. But women kill for other reasons, too, as Aileen's real life amply demonstrated….

    She was severely damaged goods and mentally flawed. Yet many have endured far worse than she. Ultimately, she was irredeemably dangerous. She killed in cold blood, cutting down men who had lives and wives and families. That's a truth not even Hollywood should pretty up.

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 8, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Right between the eyes

    Joseph Epstein (who is not OGIC) on George Steiner:

    In the world of intellectual journalism, George Steiner has always been a figure of controversy. No one who reads him seems to be neutral about him, with opinion divided between those who think his range of learning and power of dramatizing ideas astonishingly brilliant, and those who think him a fake of astounding portentousness and pomposity. Judgments about him are made even more complicated by the fact that he has been the victim of English academic anti-Semitism, colder and more disdainful than which civilized Jew-hating does not get.

    Steiner is a writer who has always come on high, toweringly high. His first book, "Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky" (1959), set the tone for his unremitting highbrowism. For many years he moved the heavy mental lumber for the New Yorker, reviewing works on Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and Paul Célan, bringing his taste for the abyss to that otherwise lighthearted journal. "Men in Dark Times," the title of a collection of Hannah Arendt essays, is a phrase that provides a rubric for Steiner's own intellectual proclivities. If one is looking for a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, Steiner is your man. I once, in print, referred to Harold Bloom as George Steiner without the sense of humor, which was, as Senator Claghorn used to say, "A joke, I say, that's a joke, son," because more humorless than Steiner human beings do not come.

    I find myself unable to resist reading George Steiner, these days more often than not in the London Times Literary Supplement, where he is still doing his men-in-dark-times number. His is one of the tightest acts of our day. My friend Edward Shils once gave me a most useful clue to the best way to read Steiner. He claimed that many years ago he read a splendid parody of Steiner's of the way a Soviet apparatchik thought. Steiner, he felt, was a marvelous mimic. And so, I have come to see, he is. What George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world's most learned man....

    Read the whole thing here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 8, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "'To talk about music' is a miserable paradox, and contains in four words an admission of incongruity. I remember the embarrassed feeling I had when I read Kierkegaard’s somber theological speculations on Mozart and Don Giovanni. Is Don Giovanni not just a 'charming' opera which has a place on the repertoire somewhere with Carmen and The Barber of Seville? Or is it something entirely different, opening up the fathomless abyss of human existence? There is a hierarchy of values, the validity of which cannot be proved by what one calls ordinary means. In this respect, as in others, the Good and the Beautiful are intimately related. To me Mozart’s quartets and Bach’s Well-tempered Clavichord are in essence much more closely akin to Saint Thomas’ Summa than to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, although the latter is music and the Summa is not."

    Karl Stern, The Pillar of Fire

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 8, 2004 | Permanent link


ALN Home
ALN Archives
Page not found | About Last Night

Page not found | About Last Night

Page not found | About Last Night





Page not found | About Last Night
Page not found | About Last Night

Page not found | About Last Night

Page not found | About Last Night


Page not found | About Last Night



  Pixel Points
    Nancy Levinson on
  About Last Night
    Terry Teachout on the arts in
    New York City
  Artful Manager
    Andrew Taylor on the 
    business of Arts & Culture
  blog riley  
    rock culture approximately
  Straight Up |
    Jan Herman - Arts, Media &
    Culture News with 'tude
  Seeing Things
    Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
  Serious Popcorn
    Martha Bayles on Film...

    Drew McManus on orchestra


    Greg Sandow on the future of
    Classical Music
    Doug Ramsey on Jazz
    and other matters...
    Kyle Gann on music after the
Visual Arts
    John Perreault's 
    art diary
  Modern Art Notes
    Tyler Green's modern & 
    contemporary art blog

AJBlog Heaven
    A Book Review review
  Critical Conversation II
    Classical Music Critics
    on the future of music
  Tommy T
    Tommy Tompkins'
    extreme measures

  Midori in Asia
    Conversations from the road
    June 22-July 3, 2005

  A better case for the Arts?
    A public conversation
  Critical Conversation
    Classical Music Critics on the 
    Future of Music
  Sticks & Stones
    James S. Russell on
   In Media Res
    Bob Goldfarb on Media
    Sam Bergman on tour with 
   the Minnesota Orchestra

AJ BlogCentral

Home | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
Copyright ©
2002 ArtsJournal. All Rights Reserved