About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, July 7, 2006
OGIC: Roughed up
This week has been a little rough on me. I have a bum knee, infected corneas, and no captain. The knee is from ice-skating a bit too ambitiously when I was in Detroit last weekend. Until the crash, things were dreamy. It was a perfect, cloudless Saturday afternoon and so, other than the guard, my dad and I were the only people crazy enough to be spending it indoors on a sheet of ice. That translated into a lot of open ice for us—open ice for me to colossally screw up a forward-to-backward transition on. I've never had such a disorienting, catastrophic crash. I gathered my wits and kept skating, though; about a dozen skaters joined us over the course of the session—about the number that play in a hockey game—so we still had tremendously open ice, an opportunity not to be wasted. But at the end of it my knee was swollen up like a grapefruit. It was only later that I discovered that two of the knee's most basic functions were functioning painfully: bending and bearing weight. Whoops. I'll be seeing a doctor shortly.
Moving along to bad corneas, while I don't recommend them, they are pretty easy to come by. Simply wear the same pair of daily wear contact lenses for about eighteen months, marveling at all the money you are saving. A mere fourteen or fifteen months might even do the trick! Of course, you will then not be able to wear contacts for ten days or so while treating your eyes with $150 eye drops (I advise you to have a prescription drug plan), but think not of that—think of all the cash you saved over the previous year and a half, and savor the memory, for from here on out your optometrist will prescribe only disposable lenses for your sorry self. For added adventure, be sure the glasses you are resigned to wearing while your eyes heal are at least eight years old. Drive carefully.
As for the captain, it's a painful goodbye but one that's firmly in the better-to-have-loved-and-lost category. Steve Yzerman retired Monday as the longest-serving team captain in NHL history. He gave me hockey, essentially. What I felt watching him play for the Red Wings was as intense as many of my experiences of great art. If you aren't a sports fan that may sound absurd. It might sound absurd even if you are. I never felt it about another athlete before, and I don't expect to again. It was a unique experience. Thanks, Stevie Y.
Normally I walk to work, but this morning I had to take a train to a meeting downtown. During the ten-minute ride, I pulled out my current reading, the first volume of Anthony Powell's novel A Dance to the Music of Time, and ran headlong into this account of another railroad trip: Jenkins's train ride to Touraine.
The journey was being undertaken in fiery sunshine. Although not my first visit to France, this was the first time I had traveled alone there. As the day wore on, the nap on the covering of the seats of the French State Railways took on the texture of the coarse skin of an over-heated animal: writhing and undulating as if in an effort to find relief from the torturing glow. I lunched in the restaurant car, and drank some vin ordinaire that tasted unexpectedly sour. The carriage felt hotter than ever on my return: and the train more crowded. An elderly man with a straw hat, black gloves, and Assyrian beard had taken my seat. I decided that it would be less trouble, and perhaps cooler, to stand for a time in the corridor. I wedged myself in by the window between a girl of about fifteen with a look of intense concentration on her pale, angular features, who pressed her face against the glass, and a young soldier with a spectacled, thin countenance, who was angrily explaining some political matter to an enormously fat priest in charge of several small boys. After a while the corridor became fuller than might have been thought possible. I was gradually forced away from the door of the compartment, and found myself unstrategically placed with a leg on either side of a wicker trunk, secured by a strap, the buckle of which ran into my ankle, as the train jolted its way along the line. All around were an immense number of old women in black, one of whom was carrying a feather mattress as part of her luggage.
At first the wine had a stimulating effect; but this sense of exhilaration began to change after a time to one of heaviness and despair. My head buzzed. The soldier and the priest were definitely having words. The girl forced her nose against the window, making a small circle of steam in front of her face. At last the throbbings in my head became so intense that I made up my mind to eject the man with the beard. After a short preliminary argument in which I pointed out that the seat was a reserved one, and, in general, put my case as well as circumstances and my command of the language would allow, he said briefly: 'Monsieur, vous avez gagné,' and accepted dislodgment with resignation and some dignity. In the corridor, he moved skilfully past the priest and his boys; and, with uncommon agility for his age and size, climbed on to the wicker trunk, which he reduced almost immediately to a state of complete dissolution: squatting on its ruins reading Le Figaro. He seemed to know the girl, perhaps his daughter, because once he leaned across and pinched the back of her leg and made some remark to her; but she continued to gaze irritably out at the passing landscape, amongst the trees of which an occasional white château stood glittering like a huge birthday cake left out in the woods after a picnic. By the time I reached by destination there could be no doubt whatever that I was feeling more than a little sick.
Now that's a train ride, miserable but vivid. I especially appreciated this passage, with all its brilliant details and deft little sketches, because for as long as I can remember I've loved and romanticized train travel. In high school I write a poem, which you will not be subjected to, about riding a train and staring out through the window intently, hoping to catch sight of...what? I didn't know. Whatever it was, I never saw it. Here the narrator follows the girl's gaze to the moving landscape outside, but the birthday-cake chateaux seem to be his vision alone; if she saw them that way, it would surely snap her out of irritability.
Until this week, I'd owned the University of Chicago Press's gorgeous edition of Powell's masterpiece for a decade or more without once cracking it. If ever there was a book whose physical beauty was enough to make me buy it, this is it. In case you haven't seen it, each volume in the set pictures, on cover and spine, one of the dancing figures in Nicolas Poussin's painting for which the novel is named. Upright on a shelf, the spines of the four books make up a detail of the painting, a wonderful effect. When it was published I was working at the U of C Press as a student assistant. I remember filling in at the front desk one day during the receptionist's break and spotting the Powell in a display case, instantly infatuated. I ordered it the next day.
Now, thanks to the compelling testimonials of Terry and a few other Powell devotees of my acquaintance, I'm finally reading it. I immediately caught on that it isn't at all the dour and ponderous slog I was expecting, for some reason—perhaps simply because the sheer bulk of it is so cowing. Not at all. It's instead dry and witty and disarming, and somehow sly and innocent at the same time (I'm only a hundred pages in, and the characters are still very young). All this week I've been strolling through it with real pleasure. But it was when I reached the two wondrous paragraphs above that my feelings sharpened and I started to love it.
I’m in between theater-related trips today, giving me just enough time to post the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser before hitting the road again. Most of my column is devoted to a report on the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, followed by a capsule review of Pig Farm:
Unless you live in Georgia, you probably don’t think of Atlanta as a center of American regional theater. Yet it’s home to a dozen serious companies, enough to keep a good actor working year round—and to allow the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, the city’s best-known summer theater, to put together an ensemble of Atlanta-based artists instead of importing itinerant out-of-towners. In some cities that would be a guarantee of mediocrity, but there’s nothing provincial about Georgia Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” a blunt, bawdy romp directed by Karen Robinson that leaves just enough room for romance in between the slapstick.
No production of Shakespeare’s dizziest comedy of mistaken sexual identity can take wing without a Viola who looks smashing in pants, and Courtney Patterson, who spends the greater part of the evening decked out in riding togs, fills the bill. Gangly, big-eyed and touchingly eager, she serves as the play’s emotional center, and her affecting performance frees the rest of the cast to chase uninhibitedly after laughter….
“Pig Farm” is a crazy-quilt pastiche stitched together out of bits and pieces of “Tobacco Road,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and God only knows how many other half-remembered films and TV shows. It’s as subtle as a whoopee cushion—a really, really loud whoopee cushion—but it kept the audience laughing pretty much continuously, which is, after all, the point….
No link, of course, so be so kind as to buy a copy of Friday’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the paper’s online edition—an unbelievable bargain, if I do say so myself.
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I consider the case of Jay Greenberg, the fourteen-year-old classical composer featured two years ago on 60 Minutes whose Fifth Symphony has been recorded by Sony BMG Masterworks for release this fall. Not only has he has been signed to an exclusive contract by Sony BMG, but he’s now being represented by IMG Artists, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world. The publicity engine is starting to grind, and in a matter of months Greenberg will be famous. Is this the chance of a lifetime—or bad news for a gifted boy?
For the answer, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
“When a person stands ready to offer his life for another, he obviously knows what he’s doing. I wouldn’t have believed you capable of such a sacrifice, but you never know what a human being is capable of. Not that those who make the sacrifices are always saints. People sacrificed themselves for Stalin, for Petlura, for Machno, for every pogromist. Millions of fools will give their empty heads for Hitler. At times I think men go around with a candle looking for an opportunity to sacrifice themselves.”
The Georgia Shakespeare Festival is located in a dullish stretch of suburbia that is all but devoid of restaurants. I know this because I checked out of my hotel at noon on Sunday, went looking for brunch, and found nothing but a Piccadilly Cafeteria, three of the Waffle Houses that are ubiquitous as telephone poles in the Deep South, and a half-dozen fast-food joints. Opting for nostalgia over efficiency, I chose the cafeteria, though not without double-checking the time in order to make sure I got in ahead of the after-church crowd. Southern cafeterias start to fill up at a quarter past twelve on Sundays, and by 12:30 you can’t count on getting a table.
I don't know when I last ate at a southern-style cafeteria. When I was a boy in Smalltown, U.S.A., my family used to go straight from the Murray Lane Baptist Church to a restaurant called Two Tony’s, but that was an all-you-can-eat buffet, the kind of place where you served yourself from endless steam tables, pausing only to tell the white-hatted man at the end of the line whether you wanted roast beef or baked ham. At a cafeteria the cheerful ladies behind the counter fill your plate for you, and the only thing on which you get seconds is your soft drink.
Time was when such establishments were nearly as easy to find below the Mason-Dixon Line as Waffle Houses. They’re still far from uncommon, but you don’t see so many of them nowadays. Baby boomers prefer to be served by a waitress, or to pick up their food at a drive-through window. I’d guess there were a hundred people seated in the dining room of the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Peachtree Road on Sunday at twelve-thirty, all but a dozen of whom were either gray-haired or bald. (I was about to say that I was the youngest person there, but alas, I wasn't. I find it hard to remember that I’m fifty years old.)
Times change and so do tastes, but the Piccadilly chain has yet to acknowledge the evolution of the American palate. I can’t put it any better than does the company's Web site:
Walk into any Piccadilly and you'll swear it's your mother's kitchen. The first thing you'll notice are the friendly smiles, followed immediately by a huge selection of your favorite comfort foods. Delicious fried chicken, succulent roast beef, tasty fried shrimp, all ready to enjoy. Choose from our wide variety of garden fresh home-style vegetables like carrot soufflé, yams and green beans. And don't forget your favorite dessert just like mom used to make.
I’m usually pretty good about sticking to my diet, but I figured that as long as I was dining chez Piccadilly, I might as well go native, so I opted for the All-American Meal: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, deep-fried okra, cornbread, and Coca-Cola. The okra was mushy and tasteless, but the other dishes were pretty much as I remembered them. So, too, were the conversations on which I eavesdropped. Everyone was talking about the sermons they’d heard that morning, and except for the ripe Cajun patois of the very nice woman who collected my tray, all the accents were as thick and sweet as cold molasses. The only thing different was the color of the clientele. The table next to me, for instance, was occupied by a party of four women, two white and two black, who bowed their heads and said grace together before they dug in.
I’d brought a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with me, and I flipped through it as I ate my All-American Meal. The front-page feature in the Sunday Living section was all about fireflies, but the other stories were indistinguishable from those you’d find in any other big-city Sunday paper. I glanced at the “Literary Scene” column and saw that a fellow named Randall Balmer was speaking at the Jimmy Carter Library about his new book, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament—How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. (Here's a rule of thumb based on half a lifetime of book reviewing: any book with two subtitles is probably boring.) At that moment I overheard a man two tables away saying, “He’s a nice guy, but you know what? He’s living with a girl.” I smiled, wondering what the author of Thy Kingdom Come would make of the table talk at the Piccadilly Cafeteria.
My eye then fell on the following item:
Laura Lippman. Talks about her new Tess Monaghan mystery, No Good Deeds. 7:15 p.m. July 12. Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St. 404-370-3707.
Speak of the devil, I thought, having received an e-mail from Laura only that morning. The last time I saw her in person was a month before I fell ill, and if I’d come to Atlanta ten days later, I could have poked my head into the Decatur Library and said hello….
Like so many pleasant reveries, this one was cut short by the clock. It was time to go see Hamlet, so I finished off my Coca-Cola, paid the check, and headed back down Peachtree Lane to the Conant Performing Arts Center, reflecting as I drove on the smallness of the world. Today I’d eaten fried chicken in Atlanta, and tomorrow I’d be eating sushi in Manhattan. A week from now I’ll be visiting the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, and two days after that I’ll be at the Utah Shakespearean Festival.
As always, the Bard put it best:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moonč's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green:
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew-drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
When I feel like I’ve got nothing left, when every word I write is crap, utterly disconnected from the world, disengaged, flat, superfluous, the only way out for me is to write anyway. The muse isn’t a discrete entity, she’s mutable—sometimes a lover to be seduced, sometimes an animal to be stalked, sometimes a prisoner to be restrained, sometimes a parent who comes to you love in hand, and sometimes she’s nowhere to be found, and the only thing that can bring her back is to rip yourself open word by word, to offer sacrifice by the ferocious act of merely being there.
Ah yes, the things I should have known when I was wrinkle-free and still thought a pension was something one marries. Things like never trust a woman who wears too much eye make-up or who surrounds her workspace with photos of herself. Or a man who claims to love his wife.
We tolerate each other, is all. Anything else is fantasy.
Blogs are great, blah blah blah. Why, when there is an article about blogs, is it always about political blogs? Why is it that when the democratizing nature of blogs is mentioned it is always political blogs? Why does the press make it seem like there are political blogs and then everything else? And why is the everything else often implied to be drivel? Why is news about blogs that are not political confined to the book pages, the tech pages, etc? Why am I surprised?
• Are books too long? Mr. BuzzMachine thinks so, and points you to an eloquent concurrence by Susan Tomes:
Unlimited cyberspace will allow people to say as much as they need, or to publish a tiny poem which wings its way round the world in a moment without the need for 125 other poems to bulk up the volume.
The point is, surely, that the removal of “sizist” constraints should be liberating. In cyberspace, authors need not pad out, or cut down, what they want to say. It should be a welcome chance to use just the right number of words. Though whether we can find our readers without bookshops is another matter.
(Incidentally, Ms. Tomes also happens to be a wonderful pianist who can be heard to excellent effect on this CD.)
Is anything sadder than yesterday's bestsellers? Once they were shiny and unblemished, promising pleasure without risk, at once virginal and passionate, like the latest actress or new cars in the showroom. Now, ranked on dim shelves, they look faded not entirely resigned to being forgotten. New books are odorless. Old bestsellers seem shamed by the must they emit when you riffle their pages. They remind me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard….
• Mr. Something Old, Nothing New remembers Frank’s Place, a short-lived TV series recalled with affection by all who saw it, myself very much included. (Follow the links.)
• I’m normally no fan of Theodor Adorno, but Mr. Think Denk has posted a long, arrestingly intelligent excerpt from Adorno’s Late Style in Beethoven that is right on the money. Here’s how it starts:
The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation….
Read the whole thing, please.
• OGIC and I find ourselves in some decidedly odd company here (though it’s always fun to hang out with Maud).
• I ran into these guys on the street the other day and did a triple take. They’re way cool.
• Anyone who read Cheaper by the Dozen in childhood must have wondered ever since what the motion-study films made by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth actually looked like. Wonder no more: you can view excerpts from the Gilbreth films here.
• Feeling hungry? Go here and salivate. (I especially like the pithy discussion of the Ketchup Question.)
• Feeling blue? Take a look at this video of a live performance by Duke Ellington (thank you, Mr. House of Mirth). It’s the apotheosis of urbanity.
• Still got the blues? Go here and amuse yourself. I guarantee results.
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.
“They all believe that today or tomorrow Hitler will start the war, but I’m not so sure. What good would a war do him, since whatever he wants they bring him on a silver platter? The Americans and the whole democratic world have lost the most valuable possession—character. There’s a form of tolerance that’s worse than syphilis, worse than murder, worse than madness.”
Books have me cornered. I thought I had them cornered, in the sense that those for which there wasn't room in any of my six bookcases were relegated to steadily growing stacks in every available corner of the apartment. But when a new air conditioner arrived a couple of weeks ago, it robbed me of one of these corners, and what I have now is six stacks of books in the environs of the middle of my dining room. And I'm taking refuge in...a corner. So the tables have turned. I'm cool, but I'm cornered.
It's too much. Some books have to go. One hundred books will not make a ding, let alone a dent. Realizing this, I decided that I would make it my mission to excise a neat 200 and grab back some of the air in here. But if I can rid myself of 200, the train of thought chugged along, then surely 300 is within reach? Just imagine all the lovely unfilled space! I always have believed that books do decorate a room, but towering stacks of them, I now see, do something else entirely to it. I must be getting old: for the first time in my life, I'm actually feeling a little abashed about the number of books in here and the space they—frankly, not all that attractively—take up. When did I get like this?
No matter when the new aesthetic took root or what it says about me. It's here, and 300 books must go. I condemned 42 already today. So far it has been easy enough to say goodbye; what's slowing me down are the keepers. Books I haven't looked at, let alone looked into, in years. Books I forgot I owned. Books that not only aren't going anywhere but that I just have to read right away, dropping everything. A lot of these books are going to figure in my posting in the near future as I ease my way back into blogging regularly. Some of the discards will no doubt make appearances as well.
For now, a general observation. I was a graduate student in English for many years but have not been for a little more than a year now. When you're a graduate student—especially if you're me—you buy books very nearly indiscriminately from new and used bookstores. You pick up free books from the box outside Powell's or a box left outside a faculty office. You go to the annual library sale and go a little nuts. You must have books. Wanting to read a book is not a necessary condition for buying it; merely anticipating wanting to read it at some undesignated time in the future will do.
For one thing, having the right books gives you a sense of belonging and being in the know. More substantially, there's almost nothing you can't imagine possibly, somehow, at some point, helping you with your research, if you only have it at hand at the right time. (Actually, this outlook explains a lot about why my dissertation was doomed. There's never not something else you can and should read, there's always important stuff you don't know.) Buying books added hope and subtracted anxiety. I hadn't read a certain Raymond Williams book? That was bad. But merely buying the book, I discovered, made me feel halfway better. When my unfamiliarity with the material became a real roadblock, there it would be, readable on the spot. This, folks, is the way to amass a truly unmanageable and largely unread library.
It is also the way to amass a library that is eminently shrinkable. At this point I feel ready to part with many of the books I acquired as a striving graduate student, laughing rather than crying inside. There are many I'm keeping, as well: for instance, anything to do with Henry James, who was the subject of just one of my dissertation chapters—but the only one I was really interested in. Other schoolish volumes making the cut today were critical books on poetry and on the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and books by T. Jackson Lears, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael McKeon. Leading the rolls of the evictees were journal issues and edited volumes. Trust me, nothing says "throw me out the window quick" quite like an academic edited volume, especially one whose title involves the prefix "re-".
Today's keepable? A little book that is the antithesis of all the revisioning, remaking, and rethinking books. A model of economy, clarity, and immediacy. I only regret that I can't include the pictures as I leave you with a few highlights from this classic for all time.
C D B! D B S A B-Z B. O, S N-D!
K-T S X-M-N-N D N-6.
I M N D L-F-8-R
For random CDB! pages complete with Steig's wonderful drawings, go here and click on "Surprise Me!" on the left-hand side. You will be all delight.
Last Friday I lunched at the Fairway Café with a choreographer I know. Midway through our meal, he started to tell me about a ballet he’d seen last month, and suddenly he was on his feet, twisting himself into an arabesque, looking just like the ballerina whose pose he was describing. What made this so funny was that the choreographer in question is not only as unfeminine a creature as has ever set foot on the Upper West Side, but has a raspy tough-guy speaking voice produced by a lifetime of chain smoking. What made it funnier still was that no one in the restaurant gave him a second glance.
After we finished eating, we walked through Central Park to the Whitney Museum of American Art to look at "Full House," the Whitney's new five-floor permanent-collection retrospective. Most of it left us cold, so to cleanse our palates, we went across the street to Hollis Taggart Galleries, where “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint” was closing after what I’m told has been a spectacular run. Apparently the column
I wrote about the show had a lot to do with the unexpectedly large number of people who came to see it. That made me sinfully proud. I’ve been writing about Friedman for several years now, and it pleases me to think that my efforts might be bearing fruit at last. What could be more wonderful than to have played a small part in bringing long-overdue recognition to a chronically underappreciated artist?
I arose at four-thirty the next morning to start making my way to Atlanta. LaGuardia was jammed an hour later, it being the first day of a long holiday weekend, but the guards swept us through the security checkpoints with welcome efficiency. By ten-thirty I was looking for a parking place at the High Museum of Art, for which Renzo Piano designed three new buildings that put the museum in the news late last year. With 312,000 additional square feet of exhibition space, it’s now one of the largest museums in the south. Alas, the new buildings are more interesting than the collection they house, though the High does its best by the smallish number of first-rate pieces it owns. Right now, for instance, it’s putting on a very nice show of American works on paper to complement an excellent touring exhibit of American drawings and watercolors from the Princeton University Art Museum. As for Piano's new wing, it's gorgeous, but I couldn’t help feeling that the museum got a bit too big for its britches when it built itself so spectacular a home.
It’s worth mentioning that I was one of a mere handful of visitors to the High on Saturday morning, though I’m sure that had at least as much to do with the nearness of the Fourth of July. Apparently Atlanta empties out on holidays, no doubt because it’s so hot in the summertime. It took an hour or so to cool my hotel room to a habitable temperature, and the restaurant recommended to me by the folks who run the Georgia Shakespeare Festival turned out to be closed for the whole weekend, forcing me to find a last-minute pre-theater substitute. (Don’t ask.)
In due course I made my way to the suburban campus of Oglethorpe University, home to both Georgia Shakespeare and the International Time Capsule Society. A pleasing combination of shady trees and ye-olde architecture makes it a nice place to see Shakespeare on a hot summer evening, and as I settled into my seat to watch Twelfth Night, I thought of a conversation I had the other day with a friend of mine who is intelligent but not artsy. I mentioned to her that I’d be visiting seven Shakespeare festivals this summer, and she said, “I have to ask you something. I don’t mean to sound stupid, but I really want to know the answer. You see a lot of Shakespeare plays, right? And you see most of them more than once, in different productions. So tell me—what do you get out of it? What’s the point of seeing a whole bunch of Hamlets?”
I was nonplussed by her question, so much so that I couldn't give her a good answer on the spot. But as the familiar bait-and-switch plot of Twelfth Night unfolded yet again, the answer came to me: the point of seeing Shakespeare’s plays repeatedly is that they are plays. Of course they’re poetry, too, which means that much of their essence can be extracted from the private act of silent reading. Yet even the most imaginative and resourceful reader cannot envision the transformation that takes place each time a stageful of actors, be they good, fair, or indifferent, comes together to speak Shakespeare’s words out loud in the presence of an audience.
In the three years I’ve spent as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, I’ve seen more live performances of Shakespeare than I did in the forty-seven years that came before, and I've learned in the process that no matter how many times you may have read a Shakespeare play, you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it on stage (though the very best Shakespeare films, of which there are a dozen or so, can go a long way toward plugging the gap). Outside of the sonnets and a few other verses, every surviving word that Shakespeare wrote was intended for public performance, and because he was himself an actor, he understood in the fullest possible sense the effect those words would have—and still have—when spoken from a stage in real time.
Moreover, that effect changes from production to production and performance to performance, sometimes subtly, more often not. Each time you see Twelfth Night or Hamlet or King Lear, you see it differently, and with each new way of seeing, you see further into the soul of the greatest of all English-speaking writers, the one who better than any other knew how to show us ourselves, furious and joyous, petty and great-hearted, desperate and blissful.
I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say all this to my friend, but like most writers, I’m better at my desk than on my feet. Perhaps Shakespeare was like that, too. I like to think of him stammering his way through a dinnertime conversation, then going home and scribbling down a monologue in which Macbeth said everything his tongue-tied creator had been thinking a few hours before.
Now I’m sitting at my desk in New York with my head full of Shakespeare, reflecting for the umpteenth time on how lucky I am to make my living doing what I do. I think about it whenever I’m standing in line at an airport, toting my carry-on bag and wondering whether I can possibly get away without taking off my belt before passing through the metal detector. Even when I have to hold up my pants, it’s a small price to pay.
“I don’t recall who said it, that a corpse is all-powerful, afraid of no one. All the living want and ever hope to achieve the dead already have—complete peace, total independence. There were times when I was terrified of death. You couldn’t mention the word in my presence. When I bought a newspaper, I quickly skipped over the obituaries. The notion that I would one day stop eating, breathing, thinking, reading, seemed so horrible that nothing in life agreed with me any more. Then gradually I began to make peace with the concept of death, and more than that—death became the solution to all problems, actually my ideal. Today when I’m brought the newspapers I quickly turn to the obituaries. When I read that someone has died, I envy him. The reasons I don’t commit suicide are first, Haiml—I want to go together with him—and second, death is too important to absorb all at once. It is like a precious wine to be savored slowly. Those who commit suicide want to escape death once and for all. But those who aren’t cowards learn to enjoy its taste.”
If you didn’t get a chance to see the original Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza, which closed yesterday afternoon, fear not: Adam Guettel’s exquisite musical version of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella goes on tour starting August 1 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.
For a complete list of cities, theaters, and dates, go here.
Like many of you, the proprietors of "About Last Night" are taking Monday and Tuesday off (except for the daily almanac quote, without which life as we know it would grind to a halt). We’ll be back on Wednesday.
If you’re hungry for art-related content, take a look at the right-hand column, where you’ll find a number of new items in “The TT-OGIC Top Five,” “Out of the Past,” and “Teachout in Commentary,” plus several additions to “Sites to See” and a fresh link in “Teachout Elsewhere.”
Enjoy. And be careful with those fireworks! See you at mid-week.
“It had rained during the night and the sky hung overcast and dark as dusk; in the trolley the lights had been turned on. All the faces appeared grim and preoccupied. Everyone seemed to be taking account, wondering at the start of another day, what’s the sense of all this effort, and where does it lead to? I imagined that by some common sensitivity they all realized the same mistake and were asking, ‘How could we have missed something so obvious and why is it too late to correct it?’”
I'm in The Wall Street Journal this morning with a report on my visit to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which I found wholly satisfactory.
Some pertinent excerpts:
Rarely has anything so delightful as the Alabama Shakespeare Festival been situated in a more depressing location. To get there, you drive past downtown Montgomery, pull off the interstate and plunge into a tangle of six-lane suburban sprawl so congested as to make the hardiest of urban planners reach for a triple dose of Xanax. Strip malls, fast-food joints, megachurches the size of Wal-Marts…but then you take a sharp right turn and find yourself in the middle of a 250-acre park that looks as though it had been landscaped by Grant Wood and mowed daily by a thousand well-paid gardeners. Down one lane is the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; down the other, the Carolyn Blount Theatre, home of one of America's most ambitious and impressive theatrical enterprises. It is, if a weekend visitor to the Bible Belt dare say so, the damnedest thing imaginable….
No small part of the fun of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is the opportunity it gives you to see a smallish troupe of actors playing sharply varied roles in quick succession. Last Thursday and Friday, for instance, I watched Ruth Eglsaer whack it out of the park three times in a row. She was tough and sardonic as the rebellious daughter of Tom Stoppard's “The Real Thing,” properly despairing as the anguished fiancée of Arthur Miller's “All My Sons” and a delectable hoyden-in-drag as Rosalind in “As You Like It” (with Lauren Bloom providing charming support as Celia). Nor was she the only performer to catch my eye: Douglas Rees and Kathleen McCall made a big splash as the unabashedly bawdy Petruchio and Kate of Susan Willis' raucous “Taming of the Shrew,” while Ray Chambers's dark, incisive Coriolanus was masterly.
ASF's house style in Shakespeare is conservatively modern, flexible in setting (Geoffrey Sherman, the company's newly appointed artistic director, has relocated “Coriolanus” to Fascist Italy) but never heavy-handed or willfully arbitrary. Even in contemporary repertory, the productions I saw were direct and transparent, allowing the scripts to speak for themselves....
No link this week (sigh). To read the whole thing, of which there is much more, buy this morning's Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal in the twinkling of an eye and the clicking of a few keys. Yes, you'll have to give them money, too, but it's still a good deal....
Like some people who are taking a lot of heat of a rather ugly and blustery variety for saying so, I'm no fan of the writing workshop. I was in one good one once, though. That anomalously great fiction-writing workshop took place in the later 1980s and was taught by one Luis Alberto Urrea. The new novel by my old teacher, The Hummingbird's Daughter, is quick becoming this summer's literary sleeper: the much to be trusted Moorish Girl, who reviewed it for the Oregonian last weekend, provides links to other enthusiastic notices as well.
Although this is all happening because Urrea's a marvelous writer, and although my brush with him occurred awfully long ago, I feel compelled to add that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy or a more inspiring teacher. Bravo. (And yes, I'm certainly going to read the novel when I can work it in.)
The White Sox are playing the Tigers, so I'm watching baseball. The play-by-play guys for the Sox are driving me crazy, though. In what seems to me an insincere display of folksy familiarity, they call all the Chicago players by their first names, adding a "y" whenever plausible, never mind felicitous: Pauly (Konerko), Scotty (Podsednik), Hermy (I don't know who this refers to, but I'm sure I heard them say it). For one thing, "Konerko" is a great, spiky name that it's a shame to squander. That's bad enough. What's really objectionable, though, is the attempt to manufacture a chummy, affectionate bond between fans and players that should spring up organically or, if it doesn't, be left alone. Maybe that is the case here, but to me it sounds like they're pushing it.
Mind you, I grew up on the comparatively dry style of the great Ernie Harwell, whose relative formality didn't preclude a definite down-home appeal. Harwell, of course, had that gently cadenced southern purr going for him, making it sound like politesse and respect but not stiffness when, say, he called opposing players "Mr." Like anyone in his line of work, he had the trademark phrases that never fully escape becoming a bit of a schtick: the most theatrical and probably my least favorite was the home run call, "it's looooooong gone"—though, gosh, it was a pretty little tune—and the one I most delighted in was his standing strikeout call, "He stood there like the house by the side of the road and let that one go by," stresses in all the right places. But the best thing about Harwell's work was everything he didn't say, his modesty and his economy. You got from him crisp accounts of the action, frequent reminders of the score, and the occasional well-placed anecdote—but mostly you got what what you needed to know.
These guys I'm suffering now cloy in (admittedly unfair) comparison to Harwell—not to mention being some of the worst homers I've heard. The ones on the radio are, I think, more respected by the fans but share this tendency. I've seldom heard a Sox game in the car without them letting loose something along the lines of "if this Sox batter gets on and the player on deck hits a home run, we'll have a tie game." Or "if this guy hits a single in just the right location, the runner on first could score," rash speculation stated as if it's considered expert opinion. Sigh. Is it so hard to simply report what happens on the field? If that most unlikely circumstance occurs, does the Sox fan find it enhanced by having been predicted in about the same way a broken clock is right twice a day? Somehow I doubt it.
Also, this game is now going to the twelfth inning, tied 3-3. There's little doubt the White Sox are the better team on the field—they're the best team in baseball, comfortably—but the fact is that the Tigers have threatened in each of the last four innings while the White Sox have mostly been quiet. Do the play-by-play guys acknowledge this, the characterizing feature of the late going of the game? Hell, no. I don't think that's in their job description. They say this: "The White Sox have only had two hits since the 9th, so the Tigers bullpen has done its job—as has our bullpen. Neither side has given up a run" (emphasis added). No, but one has had six hits and stranded a bunch of runners in scoring position! Seriously, these guys are the Pravda of baseball announcing. One of the things that was awesome about Ernie Harwell, and made all of us who listened to him a little bit better too, was his unfailing generosity toward the opposition. He announced for the Tigers, and his pleasure was discernible when the Tigers did well, but at bottom what the man served was the game.
If you follow these things at all you'll remember that in 1992 the Tigers organization experienced a brain freeze that remains inexplicable and outrageous to this day, and let Ernie Harwell go. I was living in New York City at the time, and when the Tigers came back without the great man the following season, I was certain I could sense from my Bowery digs the difference in the timbre of a Michigan summer night. They brought him back, of course, and all was well in the world of Detroit baseball again, even with terrible teams and even after his proper retirement three years ago at the age of 84. As was only fitting, he was ultimately the one to choose the time and manner of his departure from the game. One misses him, though—some nights more than others.
(Postscript: Looks like the White Sox might take this one in the 13th inning. Even if they don't tell it this way in Chicago, they were lucky to get out of more than a couple scrapes along the way.)
Once more, dear friends, I hit the road, this time to see the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival's production of The Tempest and Barrington Stage Company's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Our Girl will post my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser and the almanac entry for Friday, but otherwise you'll hear no more from me until next week.
Have a glorious Fourth. If you live in a firecracker-friendly locale, shoot one off for me!
My distinguished colleague Deirdre Bair, the author of Jung: A Biography, has written to fill me in on a disturbing situation pertaining to the publication of the German-language edition of her book.
What follows is a statement by Bair which will appear in that edition:
This is a chilling moment in the annals of Jungian scholarship. The heirs of C.G. Jung, led by their spokesperson Ulrich Hoerni, have raised objections concerning the alleged invasion of their privacy that, due to German law, has forced Knaus Verlag [the publishers of the German edition of Jung: A Biography] to include their opinions of Jung's life and work within the pages of my book. These will appear as annotations to my extensive notes that follow the text. This unprecedented invasion of my book by the Jung heirs is an appalling act and is happening against my will.
Members of the Jung family who granted me interviews, conversations, and other meetings, were told from the beginning of my research that they would not be permitted to read my book before it was published. I explained to them as tactfully as I could that this was necessary because, whether true or not, their reputation within the scholarly community is that they are intent on slanting the “truth” to their own purposes. Through articles in the world-wide press, they were known to have been obstructive to scholars and writers whose work preceded mine, and therefore, I could not risk letting them take such action with my biography. Throughout the seven or so years that I met with them, it was my understanding that they honored this agreement and would not attempt to thwart it.
Now, with their forced intrusion into my book, the Jung heirs' intention is clearly to discredit the conclusions within my biography by implying that the book contains numerous inaccuracies. In fact, as my publishers and I have shown them repeatedly since it was first published in English in November, 2003, most of the Jung heirs' objections are not to the content of the book but rather, to differences of editorial opinion. This became evident when I supplied them with several point-by-point refutations to their detailed lists of objections. I then asked leading scholars in the Jungian community to read both the Jung heirs' objections and my rebuttals, and they confirmed that there was nothing whatsoever in the heirs list of alleged errors that undermined the overall conclusions of my book. All biographies will have some minor errors or fact and (unfortunately) many typographical errors therein; in common with the usual practice, I have already corrected all such errors that were called to my attention.
I regret that the Jung heirs have succeeded in intruding upon my book rather than writing their own, but my deepest regret is that through this unprecedented action they have dishonored their illustrious patriarch and brought opprobrium to his name. I must now leave it to history to decide whether my decade of serious research and objective writing about the life and work of C.G. Jung will withstand the test of time.
Speaking as a fellow biographer, I couldn't agree more: this is bad news indeed.
As Deirdre Bair said in her original letter to me, “That such an enormous and powerful publisher caved in to threat and intimidation will have far-reaching consequences, not only for anyone who tries to write objectively about Jung, but for all other writers as well. Anything you can do to help get this information before the public will be very much appreciated.”
For those of you who loathe New York City and everything in it, please know that my adopted home town is obscenely hot and humid today. I just returned from a visit to the National Academy Museum and am too limp to blog about it. I'm supposed to go hear an outdoor concert in Central Park tonight and am praying for a timely thunderstorm.
Gloat while you can. Your time will come.
UPDATE: Sure enough, the sky fell, but I went to the concert anyway, got soaked to the skin, and had a wonderful time. The breeze blew the humidity away and the rain drove the malcontents away, meaning that everybody who toughed it out was in a mood to be pleased when the music started. Pink Martini, whom I adore (I have such a crush on China Forbes),
opened the proceedings with a wonderfully polished set, while David Byrne, who is touring with a six-piece string section, filled all the aging scenesters in the crowd with delight. You haven't lived until you've heard several thousand happy concertgoers howling Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est? at the top of their lungs.
No sooner did Byrne hit the stage than fancy footwork broke out in our quadrant of the park—I was especially charmed by two somewhat youngish ladies who spent the entire evening performing what can only be called an interpretative dance—and by the time his set was over, the sun had finally set and the lights of Manhattan were bouncing off the low-lying thunderheads, tinting them a dark reddish-orange.
As I walked home, I asked myself if there were any other place in the world where I might possibly care to live. Answer came there none….
• Very few people who don't write for a living understand that writing is work, much less that a writer who is sitting in a chair, reading a book or staring absently into the distance, may be as “busy” as one who is clicking away at his computer. My mother, for one, has never quite grasped this basic fact of the writer's life, which is why I find it hard to get any work done when visiting Smalltown, U.S.A. I once yelled at her for coming into my bedroom three times in a row and attempting to strike up a conversation while I was doing my best to polish off a column and e-mail it to a waiting editor in New York. I think it's the only time I've ever raised my voice to her, and I felt terrible afterward. (It worked, though—she didn't come back again until I was finished, and then I apologized.)
I fear that I myself have soaked up some of her obliviousness. After returning to New York on Sunday afternoon from a four-day trip to Alabama, I found myself faced with back-to-back deadlines: I had to write my Wall Street Journal drama column on Monday and my Washington Post “Second City” column on Tuesday. I blithely took it for granted that both pieces would write themselves, but they didn't, and by the middle of Tuesday afternoon I was too tired to eke out another word. Fortunately, my Washington Post editor is an understanding soul, so I sent him a note of warning, took my phone off the hook, and went to bed for two hours. I got up at five-thirty, plugged the phone back in, finished the column, and went out for sushi, marveling at how middle age has undermined my stamina. Time was when I could have knocked off both pieces in a single day, then gone out to a nightclub and listened to two straight sets before bedtime.
Like the song says, I'm not half the man I used to be—but could it be that the man I am now is twice as good a writer?
• A friend of mine who's going into the hospital today for major surgery e-mailed me to ask if I could suggest an amusing book. I cast my eye around the shelves and spied a copy of In Black and White, Wil Haygood's biography of Sammy Davis, Jr., which I hadn't read since I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal a year or two ago. I remembered it as being hugely entertaining and suggested that she give it a spin. Then it occurred to me to look up my review. Here's the money quote:
Wil Haygood…labors mightily to exhume Davis from the mass grave of half-recalled celebrities, and despite a slapdash prose style and a certain amount of factual sloppiness, he gets the job done.
Having just reread the first couple of chapters, I'd stand by that judgment, but I wonder whether my own bias toward elegant prose might have caused me to undervalue In Black and White a notch or two. No, it's not beautifully written, but it tells a fascinating story in a very effective way, so much so that my memory of the book was more enthusiastic than my review.
Is beautiful prose an absolute value? Obviously not. Does it matter more to me than it should? Perhaps.
• I love film music and write about it fairly often, but that doesn't mean I think it's as good as Mozart or Stravinsky. Most of it is purely functional, and even the best of it is sometimes barely listenable when wrenched out of its cinematic context and performed in isolation. The other night, though, I rose wearily from my desk, turned on the TV to relax before bedtime, and found myself watching The Magnificent Seven. No sooner did Elmer Bernstein's score start to play under the credits than I said to myself, “You know what? This is a really, really good piece of music.” And so it is. If only Bernstein had shaped the main-title music into a freestanding seven- or eight-minute concert overture—and if only MGM hadn't greedily allowed it to be used in a famous series of cigarette commercials back in the Sixties—I bet it'd now be every bit as popular as Rodeo or Billy the Kid.
He didn't, but you can listen to the whole score on its own by ordering the soundtrack album. Try it, and see if you don't agree.
• I left my toothbrush behind in my hotel room in Montgomery, and the spare in my Manhattan medicine cabinet proved to be an unpleasant shade of purple. Alas, not only is my bathroom decorated in sunny yellow and cornflower blue, but a Bonnard color lithograph
hangs next to the door. Having gone to some trouble last year to track down a suitably blue toothbrush, I went back to the corner drugstore to look for something a bit more compatible with my décor. To my horror, all the brushes they now sell turn out to be vulgar, fat-handled implements that not only don't match my towels but won't even fit into my toothbrush holder.
I slunk home in disgust, then decided to fish through my hanging bag one more time. Sure enough, my old toothbrush had somehow worked its way into a zippered compartment, and I gratefully returned it to the toothbrush holder, laughing at my fussiness as I did so. Apparently this is what comes of living with art: not only do I feel guilty whenever I throw my dirty clothes on the floor, but I've just been reduced to a fit of abject metrosexuality by the prospect of using the wrong-colored toothbrush.
"I think 'taste' is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves."
I just got back from Montgomery, Alabama, where I spent three days at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. That wasn't all I did: I spent my mornings seeing such intriguing sights as Hank Williams' grave and Martin Luther King's church. I also paid a visit to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, whose holdings include Edward Hopper's New York Office and two paintings by Zelda Fitzgerald, and thanks to the timely intervention of a reader, I even managed to eat something approaching my fair share of really good barbecue. Nevertheless, I came to Montgomery to see plays, and I managed to work in five of them while I was in town, one on Thursday night (Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing) and two each on Friday (As You Like It and Arthur Miller's All My Sons) and Saturday (The Taming of the Shrew and Coriolanus). It was the first time I'd ever seen live performances of two Shakespeare plays in a single day.
Am I tired? Am I ever. You can't fly nonstop to Montgomery from New York, so I had to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, and take a puddlejumper the rest of the way. Thursday was a long, long day, and Sunday wasn't much shorter. The good news is that my flying phobia seems to have left me—I actually enjoyed it up there! I'm awfully glad to be home, though, and I think I've earned a good night's sleep, so I'll leave it at that for now.
I have three appointments and a deadline on Monday, but that doesn't mean I won't blog some more. (Nor does it mean that I will.)
Two feathered guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouched on her nest, silent, with bright
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Walt Whitman, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"
I'm spending this weekend in Detroit, where spirits seem to be pretty high, considering. Further blogging will have to wait until I get back to Chicago Monday, but in the meantime I want to urge everyone in Chicago and environs to tune in Sunday morning for a very special installment of Chicago Public Radio's weekly arts show "Hello Beautiful!"
This week's show was taped last Wednesday evening in front of a live audience that included yours truly. In it, host Edward Lifson and Chicago's Cultural Historian (and how great is it that Chicago even has such a post?) Tim Samuelson discuss the music of architecture, invoking a wide-ranging selection of great Chicago spaces and asking what one hears in their presence: the Goldberg Variations at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (my favorite buildings), for instance. The amazing modern-ragtime composer and pianist Reginald Robinson accompanies, and the conversation culminates in a tremendously moving story about the last works of two giants in their fields, Louis Sullivan and Scott Joplin, both of whom spent their final years in relative obscurity. Through this whole last segment of the show I had chills, and they weren't from the air conditioning (which was, however, memorably robust) and I wasn't alone. Tune in Sunday morning at 10 (or, if not in Chicago, keep an eye on the Hello Beautiful! web site for an archived version) and catch some of those chills yourself.
I know I'm not supposed to be here, but I did want to let you know that things are happening up and down the right-hand column: "Teachout in Commentary," "Second City," "Teachout's Top Five," and "Teachout Elsewhere" have all been updated with brand-new material. Sidle over and take a peek.
We return you now to our irregularly scheduled holiday.
Fans of Freaks and Geeks, say goodbye to Lindsay Weir. Linda Cardellini, who played the charmingly confused Michigan teenager, has remade herself and her distinctively expressive features right out of existence.
Here are some pix of Cardellini as Lindsay, circa 1999 and wholly adorable. (UPDATE: Having trouble linking to the photo I wanted, but you should be able to see it by going to this fine website and clicking on "Photo Gallery." It's the fourth photo in the second row.)
Here's Cardellini last December, looking a little blonder, a little sleeker, a little more like your run-of-the-mill starlet—but still pretty much herself. Same round face, apple cheeks, and heart-shaped mouth
And—brace yourself—here's Cardellini this March, looking like a bleached-out, botoxed forty-year-old. Nary a ghost of Lindsay, or character, in sight. She sure doesn't have to worry about being cast as a mathlete anymore.
Join a generic new show, get a generic new look, I guess. Yeah, I'm emotional. And I have big ol' case of the freaks, er, creeps.
Related: An oldie but goodie, Nathalie's definitive take on the loathsome The Swan and the creeping social acceptibility of plastic surgery as routine maintenance. And Terry's explanation of why Lindsay and F & G mattered.
Via Instapundit (who just linked to my Marlon Brando posting, glory be!), this e-mail from one Mark Miller:
I'm a researcher for People magazine and I'm trying to track down anyone who has had a blog entry backfire on him or her either professionally or personally. Any help you can be is totally appreciated.
That’s a great question, which is why I’m passing it on. You can e-mail Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second half of the first sentence of the New York Times’s obituary of Marlon Brando claims that his "erratic career, obstinate eccentricities and recurring tragedies prevented him from fully realizing the promise of his early genius, has died." For what it’s worth, I never cared for Brando, not even in A Streetcar Named Desire—I thought he was a self-indulgent, undisciplined ham—but it strikes me that his admirers, however fervent, ought to squirm at the use of the word "genius" to describe him.
For that matter, I doubt that any actor who doesn’t also write or direct can properly be described as a genius. (One film does not an oeuvre make, least of all One-Eyed Jacks.) I’m not normally fussy about usage, but one thing that does bother me is what I call Definitional Inflation, and if the word "genius" means anything at all, it means Definition 6 in the Shorter Oxford:
Inborn exalted intellectual power; instinctive and extraordinary imaginative, creative, or inventive capacity, freq. opp. to talent; a person having this.
I suppose you might say that certain interpretative artists have had that kind of power or capacity, but when you compare them to the truly creative artists whose works they interpret, you start to see how high the bar ought to be set. In an art form like jazz, where composition and performance are fused indissolubly, the difference between creator and interpreter is radically ambiguous. In acting, it isn’t: Shakespeare would be Shakespeare if John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier had never been born. In fact (and I’m smiling as I say this, though I’m more than halfway serious), it may be that actors have more in common with critics than with playwrights. They serve as intermediaries between the creative artist and his audience, helping to narrow the gap across which the divine spark of comprehension must fly.
A few film actors—Bogart, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, possibly Robert Mitchum, certainly John Wayne—have succeeded in constructing personas so magnetic as to float permanently free from their actual bodies of on-screen work. Brando wasn’t that kind of larger-than-life artist, though it's conceivable that he could have been if he’d worked harder at it. Instead, like lesser mortals, he will be remembered as much for the quality of the films in which he appeared as for the quality of the performances he gave. Judged by that standard, my guess is that his memory will fade quickly, since so few of his films are worth seeing today. As for the performances themselves, it’s David Thomson, as usual, who nails it:
Too often, he impersonated characters he had thought out, rather than discover them in himself. Today, for instance, it is hardly possible to be moved by him in On the Waterfront for noticing the vast technical trick he is performing….even allowing for his disillusion with movies, we have to feel a kind of laziness, or a decisive lack of ambition, compared, say, with Olivier.
Jeez...leave the office for a few hours and you're the one who breaks the
news (to me at least) about Marlon Brando's death. Anyway, I also think
that with time, people will scratch their heads about why he was worshipped
so much in certain circles, because so much of the body of work he left
behind ranged from disappointing to downright terrible.
But every time I think of Brando, I think of two things: one, James Dean,
who also had a similar "magnetism" on screen, but who didn't live long
enough for people's appreciation of such. And two, that Brando's ticks and
mannerisms always came across to me as a vestige of his early stage career,
where the "genius" notices started piling up in the first place. Qualities
that work to the back of a playhouse just end up being too caged or hemmed
in as applied to a theatrical screen.
Maybe the ultimate problem is that Brando outlived his usefulness in the
wrong medium. If James Dean had lived to be 80, would he have had the same
kind of momentous decline in fortune and in role choice? Would we even be
talking about him at all? I guess it's just that in recent years, any time
I saw Brando interviewed, he had this quizzical look as if he was surprised
to still be on this earth. He didn't age well, and I doubt his acting will,
either. Some people leave too early; others really do stay far too late.
At the consistently wonderful Tingle Alley, Carrie is aflutter about the paperback release of Shirley Hazzard's National Book Award winner The Great Fire. You usually have to wait a year for the paperback, but Picador jumped the gun by a few months. It is nice not to have to wait until fall for it, and I daresay they'll sell a few more copies by making it available for summer reading. I know I've handed over my fourteen bucks, and the book is in the queue.
Carrie talks about what it was like to read the novel when she took it out of the library last fall:
I borrowed The Great Fire from the library — and from the first page thought it was incredible. When I got to a particularly beautiful sentence I would stop and, because it was a library copy and couldn’t get marked up, write it down in my journal. At some point, I realized I was transcribing the entire novel by longhand. It was ridiculous.
Great minds read alike! This uncannily echoes my account of reading Hazzard's 1980 novel and Official OGIC Object of Veneration Transit of Venus last spring:
I find myself reading almost every sentence a second time successively. It's the first book I've ever read and reread simultaneously.
What's more, the revelation at the end of TOV (no relation) changes and deepens the meaning of everything that has preceded it, and will send you straight back to the beginning for yet another rereading. Will this book ever let go of me?
If you aren't reading Tingle Alley every day, you're missing out.
I wandered far afield for today’s Wall Street Journal drama column. For openers, I went to Millburn, N.J., to see the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of Guys and Dolls, starring Karen Ziemba as Miss Adelaide:
The Paper Mill Playhouse, which has been doing business for upwards of 60 years, is known for presenting solid musical-comedy revivals, among them a "Follies" so fine that it served as the basis for the first complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s score. The productions usually include a sprinkling of big-leaguers, often in roles with which they’re not identified (Betty Buckley, for instance, played Mama Rose in Paper Mill’s 1998 "Gypsy"). The 1,200-seat proscenium-stage theater is comfortable and well-appointed, with a leafy courtyard that makes for agreeable intermissions, and Millburn, the small New Jersey town where the Paper Mill Playhouse is located, is easy to reach by car or train.
So what’s the catch? Beats me. This "Guys and Dolls," which runs through July 18, is as surefire as a stacked deck. To begin with, Paper Mill is using the gaudy sets designed by Tony Walton for the 1992 Broadway revival and subsequently retooled for that production’s national tour. No sooner does the curtain rise than you find yourself grinning happily at Mr. Walton’s Day-Glo cartoons of Times Square in the long-gone days of snap-brim hats and evening papers. They instantaneously create a raffish mood that’s exactly right for a show described by its creators as "a musical fable of Broadway."
To say that Ms. Ziemba fits in is the grossest of understatements. With her endearingly funny face and comprehensively danceworthy legs, she was born to play Adelaide, and "Guys and Dolls" makes far better use of her great talents than did her most recent Broadway outing, the stale "Never Gonna Dance." I found Michael Mastro a notch too nebbishy as Nathan, but Robert Cuccioli and Kate Baldwin are pleasingly romantic as Sky, the dashing gambler in search of round-the-clock action, and Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army doll for whom he falls hard….
Meanwhile, back on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I took in the Jean Cocteau Repertory’s off-off-Broadway production of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera:
Unlike "Guys and Dolls," "The Threepenny Opera" was meant to be staged on the cheap, and this vest-pocket version is nothing if not frugal. The Bouwerie Lane Theatre—located, appropriately enough, on the Bowery, New York’s historic Skid Row—is approximately the size of a size-10 shoebox, with a stage somewhat larger than a postcard that Roman Tatarowicz, the designer, has filled with what looks suspiciously like junk from the next alley. On the other hand, what could be more suitable? "Threepenny," after all, is a tale of the lowest of low life, and director David Fuller has made the most of the resources at hand, drawing pungent acting out of a lively cast of unknowns (I was particularly impressed with Lorinda Lisitza as Jenny, Angus Hepburn as Peachum and Stephanie Lynge as Polly).
The Cocteau is performing "Threepenny" in Marc Blitzstein’s familiar English-language adaptation, which softens some of the hacksaw-hard edges of Bertolt Brecht’s book and lyrics but has the advantage of being thoroughly singable. Mr. Fuller’s straight-from-the-shoulder staging is unostentatiously Brechtian in its directness (many of the characters enter and exit through the theater’s emergency door), and though Kurt Weill’s now-acrid, now-oily score is banged out on an upright piano of the tin-pan type, there being no room or money for additional players, even that unfortunate deficiency seems almost appropriate to the occasion….
No link. You know what to do. It only costs a buck. Get with the program.
I went to the Blue Note last night to hear Gary Burton, who was playing a one-nighter to mark the release of his marvelous new album, Generations. After I booked a table for two, I learned that Madeleine Peyroux would be opening for him. Normally I flinch at the prospect of an opening act—I’ve heard some pretty grisly ones, especially at the Blue Note—but this time I perked right up.
Peyroux first caught my ear several years ago when Jonathan Schwartz played her version of Patsy Cline’s "Walkin’ After Midnight" on his radio show. It’s a lazy, loping performance, a half-notch slower than Cline’s original recording, with an exotic bayou flavor and a discreetly percolating organ in the background, half country and half soul. What really grabbed my attention, though, was the singing. Peyroux sounded just like Billie Holiday in the mid-Forties—the same salty rasp, the same squeezed-out upward spurts and languorous swoops. She didn't sound like an imitator, though, partly because the song (and arrangement) were radically different from anything Holiday would ever have dreamed of singing, save in some peculiar parallel universe.
Upon further investigation I discovered that "Walkin’ After Midnight" came from Dreamland, Peyroux’s 1996 debut album, which is uneven but full of interesting things. What really surprised me, though, was that it was her only record. Not only had she released nothing after Dreamland, but she appeared to have dropped off the scope altogether. Needless to say, these things happen, and a quick search of the Web hinted at some possible reasons: Peyroux was just 23 years old when she released Dreamland, and her weight had fluctuated drastically since then, suggesting that she'd been weathering some sort of personal crisis. So I filed her name away in my head and heard no more of her until four months ago, when I read that she’d signed with Rounder Records, the Massachusetts-based country-bluegrass-jazz label whose best-known artist is Alison Krauss. Then, earlier this week, Concord Jazz’s publicist sent me an e-mail telling me that Peyroux would be opening for Gary Burton, and I thought, Good—now I can find out what’s happened to her.
The answer is that she's lost a lot of weight, and now looks rather like Patricia Barber. She still sounds like Billie Holiday, and when you hear her talk you realize that it’s not an imitation, simply the voice that comes out of her throat. In addition, Peyroux plays acoustic guitar in a down-home finger-picking style reminiscent of Leon Redbone, and her choice of material is no less Redbone-ish, running to a pleasingly off-center combination of standards, contemporary ballads, and obscure old-timey tunes. She seems quite shy (though apparently not incapacitatingly so), but that doesn’t stop her from singing in a restrained yet emotionally direct way that I found powerfully appealing. Peyroux appeared with an instrumental trio that didn't sound as if it had done a whole lot of rehearsing, but the results were more than agreeable, and when she announced from the bandstand that her "sophomore" album, Careless Love, was coming out in September, I leaned over to my companion for the evening and whispered, "I want to write about her." I’d bet the rent that she has a story to tell—assuming she feels like telling it—but my main interest is in spreading the word about a fine artist who seems at last to be coming into her own.
Peyroux sang for a bit less than an hour, after which Gary Burton’s Generations, as his new quintet is billed, took the stand. As he launched into "First Impression," the Steely Dan-like opening track from Generations, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard any of his working groups in person for at least a quarter-century (though I've heard him live in various other settings). That surprised me, because Burton has been one of my favorite jazz musicians for much longer than that. After Red Norvo, he is the great vibraharpist, among the most innovative players in the history of jazz, not just technically but stylistically as well. For reasons I find inexplicable, he rarely gets credit for having been one of the very first fusion players, a well-known fact that nonetheless goes unmentioned in the jazz article in the revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that his influential early albums for RCA went out of print in the Seventies and remained unavailable until fairly recently, when they finally began to turn up on CD. In any case, I’ve been listening to him closely and attentively ever since I first saw the Burton Quartet on TV back in my high-school days, and rarely does a week go by without my tasting his cool, bright, unfailingly joyous blend of jazz, rock, and a pinch of classical music.
Generations also features a sixteen-year-old guitarist named Julian Lage who is touring with Burton this summer (I assume he’ll be going back to school in the fall). Burton, of course, is also one of jazz's great pedagogues—he’s retiring from the Berklee College of Music this year after a three-decade stint—and jazz fans with long memories will recall that one of the other guitar prodigies to pass through his band was a kid by the name of Pat Metheny. So even though Lage's highly competent playing on Generations lacked real individuality, I took it for granted that he'd be worth watching anyway, and I was right. The solo he played last night on "Test of Time," a slowish blues by longtime Burton pianist Makoto Ozone, was memorable—hot, focused, remarkably well-shaped—and as he tossed it off, Burton stood in the bend of the piano, grinning like a proud father whose son had just graduated at the head of the class.
Burton’s own playing was, as always, perfect, which I suspect is why he doesn't often get the kind of critical attention he deserves. He's one of the most consistent musicians in jazz, a virtuoso of Tatumesque command, and the shimmering, near-glossy surface of his solos has a way of deflecting careful scrutiny. You're forever tempted to relax and delight in the sensuous appeal of their glittering tintinnabulation, whereas you have to listen closely to break through to the subtle workings of the musical mind that shapes those cascades of notes.
On Generations, Burton and Lage collaborated with Ozone, James Genus, and Clarence Penn, but the band Burton brought into the Blue Note is a brand-new working group (this was, in fact, its first gig), with Vadim Neselovsky on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, and James Williams on drums. I'd say it still has some shaking down left to do—the ensembles occasionally sounded cluttered, especially on the up-tempo numbers, and Williams’ drumming struck me as rather too busy. Even so, I'm sure that a couple of months on the road will work wonders, and in any case you couldn’t help but be excited by the energy with which the players tore into the tunes, all of which were from Generations. Burton himself was plainly inspired by the new setting, and perhaps also by the knowledge that his teaching days are over. Whatever the reason, he played like a crateful of firecrackers going off.
I was sitting next to the bandstand, entranced as usual by the balletic spectacle of Burton manipulating his four mallets with two hands, and as I watched in happy amazement, I was reminded yet again of why I live in New York. Not only was I seeing Gary Burton’s new group from a distance of five feet, but I also had the unexpected pleasure of hearing a greatly gifted singer in the process of rediscovering herself—in the same club, on the same night. It struck me that what makes New York so special is the endless opportunities it provides for just such juxtapositions. I saw and heard any number of marvelous things (including Gary Burton) back when I lived in Kansas City, but they were almost always dished up separately, and there was no feeling of abundance about the city’s artistic fare, much less surprise. You knew at the beginning of the season who'd be coming to town that year—Count Basie in October, Twyla Tharp in November, a Monet retrospective in January—and you made your plans accordingly. New York, by contrast, is utterly resistant to such careful advance planning: I know in a general sort of way what I’ll be seeing in November or March, but I also know my plans must remain subject to radical revision at the last possible minute. As a result, I’m never, ever bored, least of all last night at the Blue Note.
Perhaps the day will come when I’ll feel the need to retreat to a smaller, quieter city, and if that happens I’m sure I’ll be content to scale back my kid-in-a-candy-store schedule accordingly. Such economy has its own advantages: as I’ve written elsewhere, the residents of medium-sized cities become vested in their artistic activities in a way that rarely happens here. Each individual event means more when you don’t have an unceasing superabundance of great events to choose from. But until that day comes, I plan to keep on hurling myself into the whirlpool, night after night and week after week, reveling in the chaos and surprise of life in New York.
* * *
Madeleine Peyroux will be playing at the Blue Note through Sunday. For information, go here.
"Until I actually faced it, I believed that it would not be difficult to write a short story, but now I recognized the complete loneliness of the trade as I stared at my blank paper. I was no longer dealing with facts. My mind was groping in the lamplight in an effort to draw the illusion of living people out of thin air. It had never occurred to me until that moment that the effort would be fatiguing or unpleasant; it had never occurred to me that it would be worse than manual labor. And when I sat down before the table on a creaking bedroom chair, I did not realize that I should be doing this sort of thing for years. I did not realize that writing would almost always be a disagreeable task, and that nothing which one sets down on paper ever wholly approximates the conception of the mind. As soon as I faced it, I did not want to write. Instead my intelligence presented a number of excuses for stopping before I started. The light was bad, the chair was uncomfortable; I felt tired; I wanted to read a book. I would always be seeking for excuses, ever after, not to write; and I have often wondered why I began at all."
I've been doing some long-needed repairs on "Sites to See" (knocking off dead blogs, updating links, etc.). I decided that a few sites were in the wrong sections, and moved them to the right ones. In the course of doing all this, it occurred to me that it might be time once again to explain how the blogs and sites listed in "Sites to See" are arranged:
• The first section of "Sites to See" contains blogs that are wholly or mostly about the arts (like "About Last Night").
• The second section contains non-blog Web sites that supply useful art-related information.
• The third section directs you to the arts-related pages of major newspaper and magazine Web sites (including the on-line archives of certain critics). It also contains a few Web sites maintained by individual writers which are not blogs but nonetheless are art-relevant.
• The fourth section contains blogs not about the arts that Our Girl and/or I visit regularly or semi-regularly.
In case you don't know, "About Last Night" is hosted by artsjournal.com, the daily digest of English-language news stories and commentary about the arts. To visit artsjournal.com (which you should do each morning without fail), click on the logo in the upper left-hand corner of this page. In addition to "About Last Night," artsjournal.com hosts several other art and culture blogs, all of which are listed separately in the bottom module of the right-hand column. They're worth visiting, too.
All of which reminds me: please drop us a line if there's a blog or Web site not listed in "Sites to See" that you think ought to be there. We promise to take a look, sooner or later.
"The scene in Mrs. Smythe Leigh's living room, Charles sometimes thought afterwards, was one which must have repeated itself continuously in other places. Mrs. Smythe Leigh's living room was an intellectual fortress and it stood for the larger world. As Mrs. Smythe Leigh told him later, there was no reason to get in a rut because one lived in Clyde. Clyde was a dear, poky place, full of dear people, but one could always open one's windows to the world. One could bring something new to Clyde, and this was what she always tried to do...a few reproductions of modern pictures, a bit of Chinese brocade, a few records of Kreisler and Caruso, and the American Mercury and the New Republic and of course Harper's and the Atlantic, and the New Statesman and L'Illustration. All one had to do was open one's windows to the outer world—and the surprising thing was the number of congenial spirits who gathered if you did it. Sometimes, frankly, she had thought of giving up the Clyde Players. There was always the inertia, but the old guard, Dr. Bush and Katie Rowell, always rallied around her and would not let her give up. Once you had the smell of grease paint in your nostrils, you could never get away from it, and there was always that joy of getting out of oneself by interpreting character on the stage. Charles was a newcomer, but someday he might be the old guard, too."
Roger Rabbit was the first movie to acknowledge the nostalgia element in cartoon fandom. What I mean by that is that cartoons had usually been thought of as "timeless"; the repackaging of Warner Brothers cartoons -- for television and in compilation films -- usually presented the cartoons as belonging to no particular time or place, endlessly recyclable entertainment aimed mostly at kids. Roger Rabbit, with its '40s setting, presented classic cartoon characters as belonging specifically to that period, part of a genre that had vanished just like the film noir genre to which Bob Hoskins' Eddie Valiant belongs. It acknowledged that cartoon fans weren't necessarily kids, and that what made the old cartoons great were the elements that had been sucked out of them by TV broadcasting (the violence, the political incorrectness)….
I’ve never seen this put better, which is probably another way of saying that it tallies precisely with my own experience.
Prior to the release in 1988 of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I no longer watched animated cartoons save on the rare occasions when I found myself in a hotel room on a Saturday morning with nothing to do. Seeing Roger Rabbit reminded me—forcibly, immediately—of how much I’d loved those old cartoons, and also got me thinking for the first time about why I loved them. Never before had it occurred to me that they might possibly be a serious form of cinematic art, stylistically continuous with the great live-action screen comedies of the classic period of American filmmaking. Until then I’d simply thought of them as charming commodities, even though my memories of One Froggy Evening or Bully for Bugs were at least as vivid and accessible as my memories of, say, His Girl Friday (more so, in fact, since they were a part of my youth in the way that live-action screwball comedy was not). What Roger Rabbit did was put a frame around those memories and make them available for critical reconsideration.
The next step was up to me, and I took it with a vengeance: I started reading such books about non-Disney animation as were then available, and seeking out the uncensored collections of Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons that had only just started to appear on videocassette. So did a lot of other people, which is one reason why the various all-animation cable networks now make a point of telecasting classic cartoons seven days a week. Sixteen years later, I know at least as much about animation as I do about any other branch of filmmaking, and take it every bit as seriously. I even own a cel set-up from The Cat Concerto,
which hangs on my kitchen wall right around the corner from my Neil Welliver woodcut.
As for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I recently watched it on DVD, and found it as smart and funny as I did when it was released. It’s more than just a staggeringly well-executed series of special-effects gimmicks driven by nostalgia: it’s aesthetically compelling in its own right. If it hadn’t been so good, I don’t think it would have rekindled my love of cartoons, or anyone else’s. And if you haven’t seen it recently, or at all, I suggest you do so. Of all the films released in 1988, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being the one that’s best remembered in 2038.
This is a writing day for me, and what I’m writing is "Second City," my Washington Post column on the arts in New York, which appears in the Post on the first Sunday of each month. I knocked off this Friday’s Wall Street Journal drama review yesterday morning. So I’ll simply tell you where I’ve been lately, since you’ll probably be reading about most of it, somewhere or other, shortly after the ink dries:
• No sooner did I get home from my secure, formerly undisclosed location
than I took myself to the Duplex
to hear cabaret singer Joanne Tatham.
• On Friday morning I went to the Metropolitan Museum
to look at "Childe Hassam, American Impressionist," about which I included brief remarks (plus a very interesting link) in the "Top Five" module of the right-hand column.
• On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the JVC Jazz Festival
concert by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, and Brian Blade.
• Over the weekend I took in Jean Cocteau Repertory’s production of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, playing through Aug. 15 at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre on the Lower East Side.
Now kindly excuse me while I go write up all these aesthetic experiences for hard cash money….
"The genuine music-lover may accept the
carnal husk of opera to get at the kernel of
actual music within, but that is no sign that
he approves the carnal husk or enjoys gnawing
through it. Most musicians, indeed, prefer to
hear operatic music outside the opera house;
that is why one so often hears such lowly
things, say, as 'The Ride of the Valkyrie' in
the concert hall. 'The Ride of the Valkyrie'
has a certain intrinsic value as pure music;
played by a competent orchestra it may give
civilized pleasure. But as it is commonly
performed in an opera house, with a posse of
fat beldames throwing themselves about the
stage, it can only produce the effect of a
dose of ipecacuanha. The sort of person who
actually delights in such spectacles is the
sort of person who delights in gas-pipe
furniture. Such half-wits are in a majority
in every opera house west of the Rhine. They
go to the opera, not to hear music, not even
to hear bad music, but merely to see a more
or less obscene circus. A few, perhaps, have
a further purpose; they desire to assist in
that circus, to show themselves in the
capacity of fashionables, to enchant the
yokelry with their splendor. But the majority
must be content with the more modest aim.
What they get for the outrageous prices they
pay for seats is a chance to feast their eyes
upon glittering members of the superior
demi-monde, and to abase their groveling souls before magnificoes on their own side of
the footlights. They esteem a performance,
not in proportion as true music is on tap,
but in proportion as the display of notorious
characters on the stage is copious, and the
exhibition of wealth in the boxes is lavish.
A soprano who can gargle her way up to F
sharp in alt is more to such simple souls
than a whole drove of Johann Sebastian Bachs;
her one real rival in the entire domain of
art is the contralto who has a pension from a
former grand duke and is reported to be
enceinte by several stockbrokers."
I’m listening to Bossa Nova these days, as if it will somehow bring back the summer we’ve lost so far. Most of what I’m listening to is ersatz Bossa Nova, I fear. The Americanized version. but a friend of my wife gave her some real Brazilian BN the other day, and it was some of the most narcoleptic music I’d ever heard. The singers all sounded as though they could barely keep their chins off their sternums, and they couldn’t sing very well, either. They sounded out of breath, like beautiful hungover waify fashion models propped up in front of a microphone after a night of dancing and smoking unfiltered cigarettes….
Next on the Marx Brothers:
"Airplane," a very funny movie, would have completely baffled people in 1917. it’s all so subjective that it’s hard to believe anything can be established empirically as FUNNY, in the sense that it’s amusing to most people in most places in most times. Some day, eventually, the Marx Brothers will be NOT FUNNY, just a strange manic artifact full of allusions to conventions we’ve lost and forgotten….
Groucho – well, even when the movie is bad and the lines are lame and the performance just more of the same, at least it’s the same Groucho. Venal, lazy, irascible, horny, prickly – he’s always living by his wits in situations that require anything but. He’s a series of contradictory characteristics – valor / cowardice, nobility / cravenness, promiscuity / uxoriousness, selfishness / camaraderie, and every one of them is genuine, as the situation demands. An utterly unique American comic archetype; remove him from the troupe and you have nothing….
[I]n the end I think he’ll be doomed by the way they paced his jokes. Couldn’t be helped – to the audiences of the day he was so hilarious that his routines brought guaranteed laughter, so they had to hold the scene for a few seconds to accommodate the laughter. Stage pacing translated to film - poorly. When you see the movies alone, at home, it seems peculiar to watch Groucho deliver a zinger then look up and hold the pose, waiting for the laughter to crest and fall. You were meant to experience these movies communally. They counted on it. They required it. In the theater, we laugh when others laugh. At home, we laugh to ourselves, which takes half a second. Disorganized group laughter takes a while to disband. Groucho is always waiting for the laughter to die down, and nowadays when these movies are seen in different circumstances, there’s no laughter to evaporate. Which makes them somehow seem less funny than they think they are.
He’s all wet and a yard wide about bossa nova, much less so about Groucho. But right or not, who cares? I still wish I could write like that.
Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, has written a thought-provoking piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Art History Can Trade Insights With the Sciences." No link, alas, but here are some excerpts:
psychologist previously trained in the humanities and in studio art, I
have spent my career applying the science of cognitive psychology (and
recently cognitive neuroscience) to studying the creation of and
response to art.
To be sure, we scientists who wander into the art museum have to guard
against many pitfalls: blind empiricism, testing hypotheses that are
not theoretically grounded; unconsciously finding data to fit our
theories; waiting for others to try to falsify our theories. We need
to avoid reductionism: A scientific explanation of an artistic
phenomenon -- say, why we are moved more by some paintings than others
-- is not superior to a humanistic one, nor does it replace an
explanation at the humanistic level….
To decide whether or not to accept a scientific
explanation of an artistic phenomenon, one must evaluate the evidence.
One has to determine whether the evidence supports the claim, and if
not, how the claim could be subjected to further, decisive test. One
has to think scientifically. And therein lies the problem. Humanists
are not trained to think in terms of propositions testable via
systematic empirical evidence. A scientific finding about the arts may
therefore be unfairly rejected without a careful evaluation of the
Today neuroscience is moving into the study of the arts. Brain imaging
allows us to track how the brain processes works of art, what parts of
the brain are involved as artists develop a work of art, and how
training in an art form stimulates brain growth. Scientists who do
that kind of work will need a deep understanding of the art form they
are studying. Humanists and cognitive scientists are, therefore, most
likely going to be teaming up more to study humanistic phenomena from
a scientific perspective.
It’s interesting that I ran across this essay the same day I posted a link to a piece of scientific research with powerfully humanistic implications. As a card-carrying aesthete, you’d think I’d be resistant to that kind of thinking, but it happens that I once spent two years preparing to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, in the course of which I studied statistics, cognitive psychology, and experimental design (as well as spending more than a few sleepless nights trying to talk crisis-line callers out of killing themselves). Hence I’m more open than most critics to the kind of research-driven scrutiny of the arts about which Dr. Winner writes in her essay. At its best, it can be both provocative and illuminating—so long as the practitioners never lose sight of the ultimate end of art, which is beauty.
No doubt it’s significant in this connection that I started out as a musician. Music is non-verbal and thus radically ambiguous, meaning that it doesn’t lend itself to what might be called content-oriented analysis. Yet it is possible to talk about what makes a piece of music beautiful—or, at the very least, what makes it beautiful to you. Since I’m both a musician and an intellectual, I’ve scrutinized my tastes closely and analytically enough to have isolated certain musical "tricks" that I find especially appealing. I know exactly what it is that I like about, say, Gabriel Fauré’s bass lines, or the harmonies in the songs of Jimmy Van Heusen. To be sure, I can’t tell you why these devices tickle my fancy. I can only apply Eddie Condon’s empirical test of musical quality: "As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?" (Philip Larkin, who when not writing great poetry was also a part-time jazz critic, swore by Condon's Law.) But at least I know what I like, and I have enough scientific knowledge to suspect that it will someday be possible to move in certain cases from what to why.
Still, Dr. Winner is quite right to warn of the dangers of reductionism, which is just another word for philistinism. You can teach a computer to play grandmaster-level chess, but you can’t teach it to write a great symphony, or even a summer movie. The logic of creation is too fuzzy to be reduced to recipes. Seeing as how "About Last Night" is fast approaching its first anniversary, I thought it might be useful in this connection to recycle an almanac entry from this blog's second week. The French composer Olivier Messiaen said it, and I concur wholeheartedly:
I admit that it would never occur to me to ask a question of an electronic brain, chiefly because I’d be incapable of it. The interrogated electronic brain very quickly generates thousands, if not millions, of responses, and among those thousands of millions of responses, only one is right. Rather than bother with an extremely burdensome apparatus and spend months formulating a question, isn’t it quicker to have a stroke of genius and find the right solution right away?
That’s why I’m not afraid (at least not in the long run) of the effects of technology on art. Yes, technology is a many-edged sword, one that must be wielded by humanists so as not to slice our souls into bits and pieces—but the good news is that there has to be a human being holding the sword. It won’t hold itself.
I’ve been piling up interesting links for the past month, but was too busy to spin them into a posting until now:
• As I expected, The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross’ Web site, has evolved with startling rapidity into a must-read blog. See, for example, this characteristically smart comment about the use of Anton Webern’s Piano Variations on the soundtrack of a Sopranos episode. To me, of course, Alex's posting merely offers further proof of my own unswerving conviction that atonal music, be it twelve-tone or freelance, requires the superimposition of some exterior form of logic in order to add up to something more than just a nonsensical succession of non-random sounds. (I’ve never forgotten the day that my old piano teacher David Kraehenbuehl, a Hindemith pupil, announced to me midway through a lesson that Webern wrote "cocktail music.")
I once went so far as to suggest in print that it would someday be proved scientifically that atonality contradicts the natural law of music—or, to put it another way, that the human brain is hard-wired to comprehend and appreciate tonal music—and sure enough, studies suggesting as much are now starting to turn up in the scientific literature. Courtesy of artsjournal.com, our invaluable host, here’s a summary of the latest evidence.
• Another of my favorite new blogs, Jaime Weinman’s Something Old, Nothing New, reports on the contents of the next Looney Tunes Golden Collection. Alas, it won’t be out until November, but at least you can start drooling. (By the way, Jaime is Sarah’s brother, which speaks well for their shared gene pool.)
• Erin O’Connor, who blogs at Critical Mass, recently posted a list of "history books, historical novels, and biographies that meet two essential criteria: they are well written, and one does not need to have a lot of prior background in order to enjoy them." I approve wholeheartedly, as that’s the kind of book I like to read and try to write. The list—together with comments by Erin's readers—is here. No less intriguing is another list of "words I sincerely dislike, in no particular order," which happens to include a half-dozen words that also figure prominently on my list.
• The unnervingly well-read Gwenda Bond thoughtfully responded to my pair of postings
about my new Max Beerbohm caricature by linking to a delicious 1997 Atlantic essay about Beerbohm, written by none other than Teller (of Penn &). Her post will steer you to the essay in question.
• I never knew that Ed was a John P. Marquand fan. I wrote an admiring critical essay about Marquand's novels for Commentary back in 1987, but wasn’t quite satisfied enough with the final product to include it in the Teachout Reader, though I did make brief mention of Marquand in "Seven Hundred Pretty Good Books," my essay on the Book-of-the-Month Club, calling him "a sharp-eyed observer of American manners…unquestionably ripe for revival." Maybe I’ll try again someday.
In the meantime, the Marquand novel I usually recommend to curious first-timers is Point of No Return, an elegiac study of suburban alienation whose opening chapters Walker Percy once compared in all seriousness to Kafka.
Incidentally, you’ll also find an unexpected reference to Marquand in this February posting about the jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond, to whose exquisitely melancholy music I’ve been listening ever since my reluctant return (nudge, nudge, Ed) from Cold Spring. Right now, for example, my iBook is playing "Audrey," the delicate minor-key blues dedicated to Audrey Hepburn that Desmond recorded in 1954 with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. (It’s on Brubeck Time.) Very Marquandian, that.
While I’m at it, I should also note that one of the best pieces in the Library of America’s endlessly rereadable Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944-1946 is Marquand’s "Iwo Jima Before H-Hour," a piece of on-scene reportage at least as good as anything that A.J. Liebling or Ernie Pyle ever filed (which is really saying something).
• Felix Salmon dined at La Caravelle a week before it closed, subsequently posting this thoughtful mini-essay about changing fashions in cuisine—and art:
The patrons of La Caravelle were definitely of a certain age: I'd say there were more facelifts than there were people under 40. And it's hard to see how the restaurant could attract a younger crowd without betraying all its finest principles of proper French haute cuisine. So it is destined to close, along with Lutčce and La Côte Basque, evidence of how the very best art can lose its cachet.
In France, at least, such cuisine lives on, and maybe La Tour D'Argent or some other restaurant in Paris will serve as a kind of culinary equivalent of Dia:Beacon – a place where you can always be sure to find the cleanest, purest expression of its own kind of art. Meanwhile, the crowds will flock to Spice Market or Tate Modern, picking and choosing whatever they desire that day. I just hope there's room for both approaches; in painting, food, or any other art form.
• After watching Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle for the first (and, I trust, last) time, it occurred to me that Dorothy Parker couldn’t possibly have sounded anything like Jennifer Jason Leigh's lockjawed, ill-conceived impersonation in that misbegotten film. Surely, I thought, the Web can clear this up definitively, so I went on a cyberspace chase for on-line audio files of Parker’s voice, and within a matter of seconds hit pay dirt. If you have RealAudio, click on "Resume" and you’ll hear the thing itself.
• The recently published volume of Sir John Gielgud’s letters made me similarly hungry for a taste of his dulcet voice, and once again the Web steered me straight. This page contains sound files of Gielgud reading several Shakespeare sonnets. (Why has no one ever reissued The Ages of Man, Gielgud’s celebrated one-man Shakespeare show? I know he recorded it on an LP, and I think he also telecast most or all of it.)
• I forget where I first stumbled across this one (sorry, whoever you are!), but here’s an amusing page
of interesting English language trivia, including such gems as "the two longest one-syllable words in English" and "the longest word with no repeated letters."
• The last sentence of "George & Me," David Denby’s New Yorkerreview
of Fahrenheit 9/11, seems to me worthy of wide dissemination:
Michael Moore has become a sensational entertainer of the already converted, but his enduring problem as a political artist is that he has never known how to change anyone’s politics.
Two words: Tony Kushner.
• Lastly, for those who took issue with my Wall Street Journalessay
about how and why The Producers has dated, I post without comment the last two paragraphs of Chip Crews’ very good profile
of Mel Brooks in Sunday’s Washington Post:
"A Broadway show is a much more profound and personal expression of a writer's soul than a movie is," he says. "There's no greater experience than being in a big theater, seeing your ideas portrayed onstage by people like Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, and having the audience whoop with delight -- what could be better?"
He smiles. "Broadway -- living Jews sitting in a big audience, screaming with laughter. It blows the dust off your soul."