About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Saturday, February 4, 2006
TT and OGIC: Just wondering
Do you find "Sites to See," our blogroll, too long to be manageable? Or is it useful to you at its present length? We've been contemplating a drastic pruning, but before we do anything so dire, we'd like to know what you think.
Write to either one of us at the mailboxes in the top module of the right-hand column. Thanks in advance.
I know I said I was starting my weekend from blogging about 43 posts ago, but Lifson has issued the bloggy equivalent of a call for papers that you all should attend to. He also says nice stuff about us, making it impossible for me to link to his request without appearing self-serving. Oh well.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 3, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Color commentary
If you've followed Terry's link and read the list, now follow mine and read the riff. Jenny D. kibitzes entertainingly on those 100 best first lines.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 3, 2006 | Permanent
...which is just about all I do anymore, New York Review of Books has just this morning published an essay by John Banville called "Homage to Philip Larkin." Can't wait to read this. Thanks to the Literary Saloon for the tip.
I drank a couple of tankards' worth of red wine. Nice at the time, but now I'm good for nothing. So that was mixed.
But the cook also showed me a little book nicked from his parents called Poet's Choice and, when I became wholly absorbed in the book and not quite so fascinating or, um, at all responsive a guest, urged me to bring it home with me. For the sole purpose of regaling you with its contents. And politely correcting my manners. Again: very and entirely nice.
Poet's Choice was published in 1962 by Time-Life Books. Its editors asked more than 100 well-known poets to select one of their own works for the volume and to say something about their selection—a condition that many of them meet with reluctance, reserve, or outright obfuscation. In at least one instance, the poet compares his poems to his children, whom it would of course be unseemly to choose among. There's a surprising amount of creative evasion in play. Some of our bards you can just envision shifting from leg to leg uncomfortably and eying the exits.
Held to the task, some disdain explication: of "In the Night Fields" W. S. Merwin says, in toto, "If I had to use one as an amulet I hope this one would serve." Conrad Aiken answers with a fragment of a different poem.
Kingsley Amis, who chose "After Goliath," throws cold water on our expectations and then can't stop from hedging his bet anyway: "I wrote this poem three years ago and I can still read it without irritation (except perhaps at lines 4, 13, and 34)...."
Reed Whittemore, author of "Reflections upon a Recurrent Suggestion by Civil Defense Authorities that I Build a Bombshelter in My Backyard," seems to have been lying in wait for just such an occasion to say: "I like this one partly out of malice toward the editors of The New Yorker, who rejected it six or seven years ago...."
George Barker's articulate bark makes me continue to want to go back in time and somehow release Elizabeth Smart from the irresistible but corrosive spell he casts with his swaggering brain:
I don't have any favourite poems, not even anyone else's, let alone my own. (And I rather suspect this goes for a lot of poets—if there are a lot of poets. It's as frivolous to have a favourite person—imagine a menagerie full of those monsters.) So that in the circumstances I would like to offer a little verse which I like for its simple sexual irony. I also favour it because it is, I hope, opposite to much of the pretentious pseudo-poetastery parading about public places now.
Glad you asked, punk?
There are more riches where these came from. But it's late and, you know, the wine, so just one more: Philip Larkin on "Absences," which I can't immediately find on the information superhighway, so here's that, too.
Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs. Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows, Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise, A wave drops like a wall: another follows, Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play Where there are no ships and no shallows.
Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day, Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries: They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.
Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!
And on why this poem rose to the top:
I suppose I like "Absences" (a) because of its subject matter—I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there; (b) because I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet rather than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation of a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often.
Incidentally, an oceanographer wrote to me pointing out that I was confusing two kinds of wave, plunging waves and spilling waves, which seriously damaged the poem from a technical viewpoint. I am sorry about this, but do not see how to amend it now.
That one I find wholly excellent, and a fine note on which to retire. Goodnight 'til next week.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, February 3, 2006 | Permanent
TT: That sinking feeling
It’s Friday, and I’m in The Wall Street Journal. (What else is new?) This week I report on a new Broadway play, Rabbit Hole, and one of the plays I saw two weekends ago in Chicago, the Court Theatre’s revival of August Wilson’s Fences:
What makes a play great? Sometimes the difference between high art and earnest mediocrity is less than obvious at first glance. Consider David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” which opened last night on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre, and August Wilson’s “Fences,” now playing at the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre. Both plays are homely kitchen-sink dramas about families in crisis. Both pivot on the death of an offstage character. Both productions are well cast and well designed—yet “Rabbit Hole” is dullish and “Fences” a masterpiece.
On closer consideration, though, it isn’t so hard to see why “Rabbit Hole” fails to measure up: It’s a family drama with punch lines, a genre that at best runs to glibness, and Mr. Lindsay-Abaire sweetens the loaf of his characters’ suffering with a double spoonful of sugar...
The Court Theatre’s revival of “Fences” is a theatrical experience of a wholly different order. Yes, August Wilson tucked a lot of laughs into his Pulitzer-winning 1985 play about the splendors and miseries of a working-class Pittsburgh family, but he didn’t pull any punches in portraying the kind of inter-generational agony Philip Larkin had in mind when he wrote his most famous poem: “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf.”...
As usual, no link. To read the full review (which contains much more about Rabbit Hole and Fences, plus a brief but laudatory mention of Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel), pick up a copy of this morning’s Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the complete text of my review, along with lots of other worthy art-related coverage.
Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
"Welcome to the best-kept secret in Newark!” So said the smiling woman who took my $7 and admitted me last Saturday to the Newark Museum, whose superlative collection includes such marvels as a flawlessly installed Alexander Calder mobile, one of Arthur Dove’s pioneering abstract paintings of 1919, and "Laburnum II," a small Hans Hofmann canvas so outrageously vital that I longed to tuck it under my arm and cart it back to my Manhattan apartment. What’s more, you can admire these masterpieces in blessed silence when you go there—because there’s a good chance you’ll be all alone. I spent an hour touring the two floors of "Picturing America," the museum’s installation of its permanent collection of American art. During that time the only other people I saw were seven kids who breezed through the second-floor gallery....
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
I’ve been listening to Erroll Garner
for some inexplicable reason (not that the desire to listen to him needs explaining!). Younger readers may not recognize Garner's name, or know him solely as the composer of “Misty,” but people of a certain age (i.e., mine) will at the very least remember his many TV appearances, if only because he was so short that he had to sit on a Manhattan phone book placed atop his piano bench in order to bear down on the keyboard with sufficient comfort.
Garner was hugely popular in the second half of his life, and because of that, many critics failed to take him seriously. I once wrote a piece for the New York Times that was intended to squelch this foolish notion:
In jazz as in the other arts, worldly success can be a decidedly mixed blessing. As the critic Max Harrison has pointed out, "People do not object to artists deserving success—only to their getting it." The bigger the triumph, the snarkier the reaction, at least among those who mistakenly believe there is an inverse relationship between accessibility and quality. From Louis Armstrong to Diana Krall, talented musicians lucky enough to crack the code of popular taste without compromising their art in the process have invariably found themselves fending off flying brickbats. Some are flung by prissy colleagues who think jazz should be packaged in plain brown wrappers, others by critics who review reputations instead of music….
Garner was a self-taught musician who could not read music. (Asked why he never bothered to learn, he famously retorted, "Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.") Though he worked almost exclusively with trios, his irresistibly buoyant playing had a near-orchestral feel. At medium and fast tempos, he brusquely "strummed" close-clipped chords with his left hand—four to a bar, just like the rhythm guitarist in a swing band—while his right hand, which often lagged tantalizingly behind the beat, alternated between bustling single-note lines and delectably squashy chordal riffs….
One of Garner’s albums was called The Most Happy Piano, and that sums him up very nicely. As Joseph Epstein wrote of H.L. Mencken, "He achieves his effect through the magical transfer of joie de vivre." You simply cannot listen to his best recordings without breaking out in an ear-to-ear grin. What's more, Garner was by all accounts as likable as the music he made. As George Avakian, his producer at Columbia, recalled, “He was really like a pixie or an elf. When you split with Erroll at the end of an evening you left with a happy smile and a good feeling. No worries at all. Off to bed feeling great. That's what Erroll did for people."
The trouble is that Garner recorded extensively and indiscriminately throughout much of his long career (he died in 1977). Many of his early records, which are now out of copyright and are constantly being reissued on fly-by-night European labels, fail to do him justice, and at least as many of the later ones are of lesser interest than the performances he recorded between 1950, when he signed with Columbia Records, and the mid-Sixties, when his distinctive style started to harden into mannerism. Alas, a comprehensive Garner-on-CD series on Columbia (now Sony) was aborted fifteen years ago after just two volumes, and the bulk of his recorded legacy has yet to be reissued systematically.
Someday—I hope—Sony will put out a carefully chosen two- or three-disc collection of Garner’s best Columbia recordings. (It damn well better include his stupendous eight-minute-long 1956 version of “The Man I Love,” which at present is available only as part of an obscure multiple-artist anthology called Gershwin Jazz that I only found out about last week.) Until then, I suggest you give a listen to Erroll Garner’s Finest Hour, a single-disc greatest-hits compilation from Verve (it contains "Misty"), and This Is Jazz: Erroll Garner, a fifteen-track Columbia sampler.
On second thought, just start with This Is Jazz, which contains the first two Garner recordings I ever heard, “It’s the Talk of the Town” and the 1951 remake of “Laura,” his first hit single. If it doesn’t ring your bell, I suggest you enter psychotherapy at once—you’re seriously depressed.
I’m the featured blogger on today’s Hotline Blogometer, which normally devotes its space to political blogs.
Here’s a sample:
What is your favorite television news program, either network or cable?
In the absence of hurricanes, terrorist attacks, or lawyer-led coups, I don't watch any TV news programs, and haven't for years. The last TV-news personalities I really liked were Harry Reasoner and Charles Kuralt.
To read the whole interview, go here (you may have to scroll down).
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.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG, some adult subject matter and strong language, reviewed here, closes Mar. 12)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
DC Moore Gallery, one of my favorite midtown art galleries, is about to open a pair of shows that I mean to see as soon as possible, “Milton Avery” and “Jacob Lawrence: Mural Studies.” Both go up next Wednesday and run through March 11.
"Artists are not, on the whole, intellectuals; they do not try to be particularly articulate and, when they do speak of their art, they do not do so in the terms of the critic or connoisseur. But that is not their job. They simply do it."
I wrote yesterday about how much I was looking forward to Lincoln Center Theatre’s upcoming revival of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! Well, guess what? I’m looking forward to it even more today. Says Playbill:
Mark Ruffalo will star in Lincoln Center Theater's spring 2006 revival of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!, it was announced.
As previously reported, the show will also star Lauren Ambrose, Ned Eisenberg, Ben Gazzara, Jonathan Hadary, Peter Kybart, Pablo Schreiber, Richard Topol and Zoe Wanamaker.
Ruffalo, who will play Moe Axelrod, first garnered notice in the original Off-Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth Soon after, he was discovered by Hollywood, and has appeared in such films as "You Can Count on Me," "In the Cut," "Just Like Heaven," "Rumor Has It" and "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." This will be his Broadway debut.
Lonergan’s directorial debut [has] a novelistic richness that defies the simplifying art of the pitchman. To say that it is about Terry, an immature drifter (Mark Ruffalo), and Sammy, his stay-at-home older sister (Laura Linney), orphaned in childhood and desperately lonely as young adults, is to convey nothing of the moral complexity of Lonergan’s script, which pays the viewer the compliment of not making his mind up for him. Terry is never romanticized and Sammy is never treated with condescension: they are both treated as human beings, deeply flawed but not without virtue....
That was my introduction to Mark Ruffalo, who may not be a Hollywood star—yet—but whose on-screen presence has briefly brightened any number of movies (he also had a nice little bit in Collateral). I’ve never seen him on stage, alas, and for a time I feared I never would: he survived an operation for a benign brain tumor in 2001. So that’s all the more reason for me to look forward to Awake and Sing!, which goes into previews at the Belasco Theatre on March 24.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 1, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Time capsules
I once knew a man who saw Nijinsky dance, heard George Gershwin play, and was present at a recording session by Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson. The party in question was B.H. Haggin, the famously curmudgeonly
music critic. He was in his eighties and I was in my thirties when we met, and the vast difference in our ages gave additional force to his memories: Gershwin, after all, died in 1937, while Nijinsky’s only visit to the United States was in 1916. Even more powerful, though, was the fact that Haggin’s memories were unique, since Nijinsky was never filmed and the only surviving sound film of Gershwin at the piano is a mere snippet.
Now that I’m on the verge of turning fifty, I find myself wondering what memories I’ll trot out to stun the youngsters of 2036. (Note the planted axiom in that sentence!) My last “Second City” column for the Washington Post was a list
of the ten most memorable events I covered for the column, which ran from 1999 to 2005. They were all extraordinary in their various ways, but this is the one I expect to still be talking about thirty years from now. It happened in 2001, three months after 9/11:
Of all the things I did in December, the one that best summed up the spirit of this wounded city was a midweek visit I paid to the Village Vanguard, New York's oldest jazz club, down whose narrow stairs I stepped gingerly one night to hear the Bill Charlap Trio. Imagine my astonishment when my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I spotted Tony Bennett sitting in the corner—and imagine my delight when he sauntered up to the tiny bandstand and sang "Time After Time" and "The Lady Is a Tramp." Yes, we're battered and bruised and living with the worst kind of uncertainty, yet there we were, drinking up our minimums and goggling at a living legend, after which we all rushed home to call up our envious friends and tell them what they'd missed.
The age of mechanical reproduction, alas, has sharply diminished the value of the eyewitness account: I saw Count Basie in concert a half-dozen times when I lived in Kansas City, for instance, but I also saw him on film and TV so many times that it’s hard for me to distinguish between my first- and second-hand memories. Still, I’ve seen plenty of amazing things at which no cameramen were present. What else measures up in sheer uniqueness to that unforgettable night at the Village Vanguard? Here’s my top-ten you-had-to-be-there list, arranged in rough chronological order and subject to revision without warning:
• I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance Spectre of the Rose—and I was sitting directly behind Lauren Bacall when I saw him.
• I saw Van Cliburn give a solo recital in 1978, the year he retired from the concert stage.
• I’ve interviewed Paul Taylor
twice, once at his Manhattan home and once at his Long Island beach house (and was present at the performance of Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera seen at the end of this documentary).
• I saw Bill Monroe play at the Grand Ole Opry, then met him backstage after the show. This is what I wrote about the latter experience in the Teachout Reader: “He stood six feet tall and looked at least seven, and his expressionless face might have been carved from a stump of petrified wood. He wore a white Stetson hat and a sky-blue suit with a pin in each lapel—one was an enamel American flag, the other an evangelical Christian emblem—and everyone in earshot called him ‘Mister Monroe.’ Never were italics more audible.”
• I saw the original off-Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.
Does anyone else feel a meme coming on?
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 1, 2006 | Permanent
"There is no reason why an artist of genius should not also be an astute businessman."
Peter Ackroyd, J.M.W. Turner
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 1, 2006 | Permanent
UPDATE: Also Outer Life. Then you can have a snack.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, January 31, 2006 | Permanent
TT: In lieu of an obit
Wendy Wasserstein died yesterday morning. I met her several years ago when I interviewed her for a story in Time about Central Park, a trilogy of one-act operas to which she had contributed a libretto. I liked her enormously—everybody did—and I was always pleased to run into her at New York City Ballet, which she frequented once upon a time. Then she dropped out of sight, had a baby, and more or less vanished from the theater world. Her plays were no longer being performed in New York by the time I became a drama critic, and it wasn’t until last October that I had occasion to write about her in The Wall Street Journal.
Alas, her last play wasn’t any good, and I said so. I hated to give Third a bad review, not least because I knew Wasserstein was sick, though I didn’t know she was dying. (One of the characters in the play had cancer.) In fact, I didn’t think much of any of Wasserstein’s plays, and I dreaded having to say so in print, since she was an exceedingly nice lady. I fudged the point in my review, calling her “one of our best theatrical journalists, a keen-eared social observer with a knack for summing up cultural watershed moments like the coming of age of the baby boomers and putting them on stage to memorable effect.” All true, and none of it incompatible with the fact that I considered her to be a glib, punch-pulling lightweight, a kind of feminist Neil Simon who never cut too close to the knuckle.
Needless to say, you won’t find such heretical sentiments in any of today’s obituaries. Even John Simon wrote affectionately about Wasserstein, making it clear that he liked her both as a writer and as a person. Might my own feelings about her work have been softened had I gotten to know her more than casually? It’s quite possible. George Orwell once wrote a letter to Stephen Spender in 1938 in which he made this wholly characteristic confession:
You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you….Even if when I met you I had not happened to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being & not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more.
It is partly for similar reasons that I don’t mix much in theatrical circles. In addition, The Wall Street Journal is extremely fussy about conflicts of interest (as it has to be, seeing as how it devotes so much of its space to financial affairs), so I mostly keep theater people at arm’s length. If I did otherwise, I’d be a different kind of critic—not better or worse, just different. There are many ways to be a critic. I write about theater as an interested spectator. I write about the visual arts as a connoisseur and collector. I write about music as an ex-practitioner. I write about writing as a working professional. It’s always me—everywhere you go, there you are—but it isn’t hard to tell which me has the floor at any given moment.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m feeling a little guilty about my review of Third, which is one of the risks an honest critic runs. It isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Criticism is a morally dangerous profession, and those who practice it without ever feeling guilty are…well, not very nice. As I wrote early in the life of this blog:
You don't review a college opera production the same way you review the Met. That's another reason why critics should ideally have hands-on experience in the areas about which they write: It teaches them proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls "the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night." It's hard to sing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, or to dance in Concerto Barocco. It's scary to go out in front of a thousand people in a dumb-looking costume and put your heart and soul on the line. Unless you have some personal experience of what that feels like—of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up—then you may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and your reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result.
None of this is to say that criticism should be bland and toothless. Sometimes it’s your duty—your responsibility—to drop the big one. But you shouldn’t enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can’t, even when you don’t think they do it very well.
Hey, ALN pal and local public radio impresario Edward Lifson has a new blog! It's called Teatro Lifson, is part of the website of his Sunday morning arts show Hello Beautiful!, and is off to a very auspicious beginning. Edward is a great arts polymath, though he's especially passionate and knowledgeable about architecture and design. In fact, he was responsible for one of the great moments of Terry's visit to Chicago last weekend. Following the Chris Thile-Mike Marshall mandolin concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music, we strolled with my friend David down Lincoln Avenue to indulge in what turned out to be one of the best cups of hot chocolate I ever have encountered. En route, we passed a striking storefront, but it wasn't until we retraced our steps that I discovered it was none other than Louis Sullivan's last building, the Krause Music Store. And the only reason that I, alone among us, knew of the significance of the Krause Music Store? Mr. Edward Lifson, natch.
Last summer Edward hosted a special live edition of HB! devoted to music and architecture, which I attended. I wrote about it only briefly here, holding back the best material as the show hadn't aired yet. (It has now, and you can still listen.) Edward's guest for that show, Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, ended the episode with a story about the symmetry of the ends of two great careers, Scott Joplin's and Louis Sullivan's. By the end of his life, each man had outlived the fame and fortune of his earlier career and, around the same time, each pursued what would be his last projects in relative obscurity. The last building Sullivan designed was the facade of the modest Krause shop; he needed the money, if you can believe that. Joplin's last surviving composition was the luminous "Magnetic Rag." That evening at the Cultural Center, Tim Samuelson had brought with him a player piano reel of "Magnetic Rag" that recorded Joplin's own performance—his last known recording of his last surviving composition. We looked at slides of Sullivan's building while listening to Joplin play. I don't know when else I've been in an audience that was simultaneously so hushed and so electrified by a recording. It was an amazing thing to see and, especially, to hear. And that's why it was so cool to run headlong into the Krause Music Store last weekend, even without the benefit of the proper soundtrack. And that's one of the reasons we might kind of gush when we say, Hello Teatro!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, January 31, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Pigeons on the grass
Fame is intense but fleeting in a TV-driven culture, which is one of the many reasons why I love watching the old What’s My Line? kinescopes that air at three-thirty each morning on the Game Show Network. Most of the celebrities who appeared on the show between 1950 and 1967, when CBS cancelled it to make way for Mission: Impossible, are now dead, but a few are very much with us, though many of them are long forgotten. I saw an episode a couple of nights ago in which Mitch Miller
was the mystery guest. The audience all but tore the roof off when he came on stage—yet who now remembers him save for pop-music historians and retired oboe players? On the other hand, Jerry Lewis, a guest panelist on another of last week's episodes, is both alive and well remembered, so much so that I’m actually giving serious thought to reading his new book, unlikely as it may sound.
The difference, of course, is that Lewis was a movie star. As a rule, TV stars are remembered until their shows are cancelled, after which they fade away quickly. Sometimes they find work in the legitimate theater, but it’s been a long time since success on Broadway made anyone a household name. (Pop quiz for readers outside the New York area: who is Cherry Jones? Don't peek.) Yet the producers of What’s My Line? regularly booked stage stars, confident that the show’s viewers would know who they were. Sic transit gloria Broadway!
Ben Gazzara, the mystery guest on a 1961 What’s My Line? that I saw recently, is a case in point. He created the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof before relocating to Hollywood, where he appeared in a hit TV series, Run for Your Life, in 1965. Alas, he never quite managed to parlay his short-lived small-screen celebrity into bonafide big-screen stardom, though he’s worked steadily ever since and turns up from time to time in choice little roles (he’s in The Big Lebowski). Still, Gazzara is far from famous, and the fact that he starred in the original Broadway production of a celebrated American play is scarcely more than the tricky answer to a better-than-average trivia question, especially since some other fellow was tapped to play Brick in the movie.
It happens that Gazzara is returning to Broadway this spring: he’s been cast in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival
of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, which opens April 17 at the Belasco Theatre. Odets, who died in 1963, is another one of those half-remembered names who used to be really, really big. In the Thirties he was one of the best-known American playwrights of his generation, a red-hot fellow traveler who palled around with all the big left-wing names (he commissioned Aaron Copland’s wonderful Piano Sonata, for instance). Then, like Ben Gazzara, he moved to Hollywood, and now he’s better known, if at all, for Sweet Smell of Success than Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, or even Waiting for Lefty.
It happens, too, that I’ve never seen a production of an Odets play, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Awake and Sing, about which I first learned from reading “Clifford Odets: Poet of the Jewish Middle Class,” one of Robert Warshow’s finest essays (it’s collected in The Immediate Experience, an essential book to which I paid tribute in the Teachout Reader). I’ve never seen Ben Gazzara on stage, either, though I remember watching Run for Your Life as a child, and more recently was impressed by the videotaped snippet of his stage performance as Brick that Rick McKay included in Broadway: The Golden Age.
I’m not going anywhere with this: I’m just rambling. It's the privilege of a blogger with a long memory who turns fifty next Monday. Believe it or not, I don’t live in the past. No working journalist does, especially one with so many young friends. Even so, I do enjoy rummaging around in my well-stocked memory, and I don’t mind admitting that there are times when I prefer communing with the increasingly distant past to grappling with the uncomfortably proximate present. Ben Gazzara, Clifford Odets, Aaron Copland, Robert Warshow, even Jerry Lewis: today they all seem far more real to me than the pretty people I’d be reading about in Entertainment Weekly if I read Entertainment Weekly. No doubt this has something to do with my recent brush with mortality. To borrow a line from Patrick O’Brian, I’ve been a bar or two behind ever since I got out of the hospital, and though I’m sure I’ll catch up sooner or later, I find it oddly pleasant to linger among ghosts.
I reread Brideshead Revisited last week, and found that Evelyn Waugh had once again summed up my mood better than I could myself:
My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.
These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, single, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.
I, too, am surrounded by pigeons this morning, and I'll be sorry when the noon gun booms.
On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon -
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.
Philip Larkin, "Coming"
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 30, 2006 | Permanent
TT: Who could ask for anything more?
I got up first thing Saturday morning, ate a whole-grain English muffin and a bowl of raisin bran, took a cab down to Integral Yoga in Chelsea, and spent a couple of hours twisting myself into heart-healthy positions. I came back to my Upper West Side apartment to take a shower, then picked up a Zipcar and drove to the Newark Museum of Art, where I spent a couple of hours looking at paintings like this and this.
Once I’d seen enough, I drove to Rutt’s Hut and dined on a pair of “rippers” slathered in Rutt’s secret relish, thereby satisfying to the fullest a long-standing wish. (No, they weren't the least bit heart-healthy, but ooooh, did they ever taste good!) I read the first chapter of Peter Ackroyd’s newly published brief life of J.M.W. Turner as I stood at the counter.
I popped a Fats Waller album into the CD player of my Zipcar as I drove home on the New Jersey Turnpike. At five o'clock on the nose I pulled off the exit ramp of the George Washington Bridge and onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. The sun was mere seconds from setting and the bright blue sky was flooded with Turneresque orange light (it looked something like this). Mr. Waller obligingly chose that precise moment to launch into It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.
I dropped the car off at a garage around the corner from my apartment, picked up some oatmeal-raisin cookies and two bottles of lemon-lime seltzer at the neighborhood deli, and spent the evening watching Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait. As Laird Cregar leered diabolically at Don Ameche, I said to myself, I couldn’t possibly be happier.
Some of you may have read my Wall Street Journal column about the return of the e-book, in which I reported on the Sony Reader and speculated on the possible effects of the e-book on the culture of reading and writing. (If you didn’t see the column, it’s here.) In that column I made a point of saying that eventual popular acceptance of the e-book was inevitable:
So will it fly? I don't know. Still, I'm certain that something like the Sony Reader will catch on, if not this year then in a short time. The phenomenal success of the iPod strongly suggests that many, perhaps most, consumers are ready to start buying digital books on the Web and storing and reading them electronically.
I did this for three reasons. One was rhetorical: I thought it would make the column more effective to take the coming of the e-book for granted. One was practical: my “Sightings” columns are only 850 words long, and I preferred to devote my space to speculating on the long-term effects of the e-book rather than taking the time to explain why I thought it would become popular. And one was a simple matter of honesty: that’s really what I think.
I got an e-mail the other day from my friend Rick Brookhiser, author of many fine books about the founding fathers (I especially like this one), in which he begged to differ:
e-book = iPod? Same solution, different problem, so maybe not.
The iPod created a universe of immediately available songs—not in the order the Beatles laid the album out; not with the dumb songs included (don't like “Maxwell's Silver Hammer”? Skip it!). Glenn Gould's paradise had arrived, as you wrote in the Teachout Reader.
The DVD does the same thing for movies. Watch that car chase fifteen times!
But, unlike albums/CDs or movies, readers already enjoy immediate availability, in the form of pages. This was the book's great advance over the scroll, and the reciting bard. You can skip ahead, go back, read one paragraph over and over, etc. If you had been alive in the dark ages, or whenver scribes began writing in books, you would have commented on it in Ye Teachoute Reader (Gutenberg made reproduction faster).
The e-book will NOT increase immediate availability, because you must hit a control of some sort to move. Even a thumb click or a finger tap is as much of an effort as a page turn. (The e-book you showed doesn't even have two pages open at once, though that presumably is fixable.)
The great gain of the e-book is having several thousand books in one little machine. But apart from the psychotically inattentive—a large audience, given computers and the tempo of TV editing—people read one book at a time, or at most two or three. In that situation the e-book provides no advantages, or few.
What e-books will make wonderful is research—Grove, the encyclopedia, and all those bound volumes of the Atlantic Monthly may well be killed by them.
If your prophecy is fulfilled, and all books are sent to a landfill, in five years some geek in Bangalore will announce breathlessly his newest discovery—the printout, bound together with glue for easy live-ware accessibility.
These are all good points. The printed book, as I said in my column, is an “elegant” technology, meaning that it solves a great many problems in an attractive, simple, and economical way, and e-books will not catch on if they don’t solve the same problems with comparable elegance. But assuming they do, here are some of the further advantages of the e-book:
• It will allow you to buy books without going to a brick-and-mortar store and have them delivered to your computer more or less instantaneously.
• In theory, it will give you immediate access to a vastly larger number of books than even amazon.com can provide.
• You’ll be able to carry dozens of books with you wherever you go (unlike Rick, I think this is one of the e-book’s biggest draws).
• Books in bulk are heavy and awkward and take up a huge amount of space. E-books take up no physical “space” at all, thus freeing up wall and storage space—a major consideration for apartment-dwellers and other people with good-sized personal libraries. Yes, books do furnish a room, but I’d rather furnish my living room with more art—and I’d be more than happy not to have to box up my thousand-odd books the next time I move to a new apartment.
In addition, the e-book is a technology so powerful and far-reaching in its implications that I’m sure it will offer countless additional advantages I can’t even begin to foresee. Scott Walters, who blogs at Theatre Ideas, suggested two of them in this e-mail he sent after reading my column:
As a 47-year-old recent convert to the iPod (which I use for listening to books on tape from Audible.com), I am fascinated by the new Sony e-book hardware. As a college professor, I can see all kinds of opportunities. For instance, what if students could download all of their textbooks to their Sony e-book—no more huge backpacks filled with a dozen heavy textbooks! Also, it might help us disconnect from the pirates running current textbook publishers. I published a textbook with McGraw-Hill that is about 120 pages and lists for $30, which is ridiculous! I would certainly consider pulling the book from the publisher and selling it myself via download. This could be a real solution for the student!
All of which serves as a reminder that the coming of the e-book will trigger the law of unintended consequences. That’s what I was getting at in my column:
Best-selling novelists, for instance, will soon be in a position to "publish" their own books, pocketing all the profits—but so will niche-market authors whose books don't sell in large enough quantities to interest major publishers.
Might the e-book make the writing of serious literary fiction more economically viable? Consider the experience of Maria Schneider, the jazz composer whose CDs are sold exclusively on her Web site, www.mariaschneider.com. Ms. Schneider uses ArtistShare, a new Web-based technology that makes it easier for musicians to sell self-produced recordings online. Not only did she win a Grammy for her first ArtistShare release, "Concert in the Garden," but she kept all the proceeds as well. Several other well-known jazz musicians, including the guitarist Jim Hall and the trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, have since signed up with ArtistShare, which frees them from the need to compromise with money-conscious record-company executives. Will e-books have a similarly liberating effect on authors? I wouldn't be surprised.
I’m not saying, by the way, that the unintended consequences of the coming of the e-book will all be pleasant or desirable. Our Girl and I went shopping the other day at a well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore in Chicago. I bought three books for myself and a belated Christmas present for OGIC, and enjoyed the experience immensely. As we drove home afterward, we chatted about how delightful it is to browse the shelves of a good bookstore. But is it delightful enough to survive the coming of the e-book? I doubt it. To be sure, I had a lovely time—but it was the first time I’d done any serious in-person book-browsing in nearly a year. I now buy virtually all of my books online.
As I wrote in the Journal:
Yes, I miss the bookstores of my youth, and I'm sure I'll miss the handsomely bound volumes that fill the shelves in my apartment as well (though I won't miss dusting them, or toting them around by the half-dozen whenever I go on vacation). The printed book is a beautiful object, "elegant" in both the aesthetic and mathematical senses of the word, and its invention was a pivotal moment in the history of Western culture. But it is also a technology—a means, not an end. Like all technologies, it has a finite life span, and its time is almost up.
“Perhaps the strangest aspect of life is the sense it conveys of having a pattern—everything falling into place, nothing happening by chance; outward phenomena an image of the inward reality; and therefore inevitable in their relation to that inward reality.”
Malcolm Mugggeridge, Affairs of the Heart (courtesy of Christopher Porterfield)
Last night I took two friends, a music critic and a jazz pianist, to watch New York City Ballet dance what George Balanchine’s admirers refer to as “the Greek program”: Apollo, Orpheus, and Agon, the three great Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations. The pianist was seeing all three dances for the first time, and the critic had never seen any of Balanchine's ballets. They reacted pretty much the way I'd expected, and we went our separate ways after the performance looking as though we’d all had one too many. Or maybe two.
I got up at seven-thirty this morning, knocked out the last 850 words of an essay on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and shot the piece off to my editor in Washington via e-mail (the galleys are rolling out of my fax machine as I'm typing this sentence). Then I jumped in a cab and headed crosstown to meet my friend Bass Player at Knoedler & Company, where we spent an hour looking at Milton Avery: Onrushing Waves (the show closes on Saturday, so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t wait!). From there we went to Tibor de Nagy to see Jane Freilicher: Paintings 1954-2004, she for the first time, I for the second. By then we were booming and zooming, so instead of hitting a third gallery, we decided to grab a bite to eat, after which we talked our heads off. (Bass Player and I are so closely in sync that we don’t really need to tell each other what we’re thinking, but we do it anyway.)
At length she went downtown to pick up her bass and take a lesson, while I returned home to do…nothing. I have no more appointments today, no deadline to hit, no work of any kind that can’t wait, no show to see tonight, and nowhere in particular that I need to be until 1:45 Saturday afternoon. Limitless luxury, in other words, made all the sweeter by the fact that it’s so bitterly cold outside. What do I care? My calendar is blank, my refrigerator full. Josh White is playing on my iBook, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, and Kind Hearts and Coronets are cued up on the DVR, and a book I’m looking forward to reading awaits me in the loft. The only thing I have to do in the next twenty-three hours is keep the solemn promise I made with hand on heart to Bass Player at lunch today: I’m going to pop open my watercolor set and put brush to paper before I go to bed tonight.
I know exactly how lucky I am today, in part because I also know how it feels to be so busy that you can’t see straight. As a matter of fact, I’ve been feeling outrageously happy for the past couple of days. Whatever troubles the future may hold in store for me are currently being held in abeyance, and instead of worrying about them, or even thinking about them, I’ve been following the advice of the man who made the ballets my friends and I saw last night. “Why are you stingy with yourselves?” Mr. B used to ask his dancers. “Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” And that’s where I've been all today: in the moment, and glad to be. Ecstatic, really.
Nothing new from my corner today. Life insists on my active participation, besides which my modem connection has gone funky again. I'm expecting a big box of DSL sometime late next week or early the week following, but until that miraculous time I have to type with my hands suspended above the keyboard and holding my breath if I want not to disrupt the dial-up.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, January 28, 2005 | Permanent
TT: And she can write, too
Time again for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. This Friday I reviewed Little Women: The Musical and the off-Broadway revival of Hurlyburly, and I seem to have cut sharply against the grain of critical wisdom as regards the former:
Sutton Foster is a gawky, gamine version of the young Judy Garland whom the Great Producer Upstairs clearly intended for a revival of Jerome Robbins’ “Peter Pan.” Until somebody down here gets the message, though, I’ll make do with “Little Women: The Musical,” the immensely likable stage adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved 1867 novel that just opened at the Virginia Theatre. Ms. Foster, lately of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” plays Jo, the bookwormy tomboy who “reminded one of a colt,” and gets her just right. She’s not an immaculate singer—her voice is raw on top—but her spunky charm and hell-for-leather energy are impossible to resist. I didn’t even try. Ms. Foster caught my heart on a short string the second the curtain went up, and I twitched at her command all night long.
Apparently I’m one of the few people in America who has neither read “Little Women” nor seen any of the countless stage and screen versions that preceded this one. A quick riffle through the book, though, made it clear that Allan Knee has not only slashed it to ribbons but modernized the dialogue extensively, if not egregiously (the punchlines are all his). In addition, he has turned “Little Women” into a meta-narrative about the writing of “Little Women”: Jo, an aspiring author who launches her literary career by churning out swashbuckling tales for the Weekly Volcano, decides to fictionalize her own family life, and the show reaches its climax when she takes pen in hand to write the first chapter of the story we’ve just seen played out on stage. It’s a clever idea, and if the result is more a filet than a full-fledged fish, it still zips along with confidence and skill….
I also had good things to say about Hurlyburly:
It’s a grimly funny tale of cocaine and its discontents, written and set in Hollywood in the early ’80s and horrifyingly reminiscent in every particular of what I now think of as the Age of Jay McInerney.
I didn’t see Mike Nichols’ 1984 production, which had an awesome cast—William Hurt, Judith Ivey, Harvey Keitel, Cynthia Nixon, Ron Silver, Jerry Stiller and Sigourney Weaver, believe it or not—but I can’t imagine how this one, directed with surgical precision by Scott Elliott, could be bettered. Ethan Hawke, for one, is breathtakingly fine as Eddie, the drug-sodden, woman-hating casting director on whose tortured soul the California sun has set, and Halley Wegryn Gross, Catherine Kellner and Parker Posey are nicely matched as the three women who skitter across his zigzag path....
No link—you’ve got to pay to read the whole thing. Why not shell out for today’s Journal and find out while you’re at it how we cover the other arts? Or go the whole hog by clicking here. Either way, you won’t be sorry….
"'Good, that,' he said to himself, while her eyes rested upon him, black and impenetrable like the mental caverns where revolutionary thought should sit plotting the violent way of its dream of changes. As if anything could be changed! In this world of men nothing can be changed—neither happiness nor misery. They can only be displaced at the cost of corrupted consciences and broken lives—a futile game for arrogant philosophers and sanguinary triflers."
Last week I linked to the snapshot of Charles Bukowski found by Colby Cosh in a used copy of the poet's Love Is a Dog from Hell. What started out as a nifty bit of show-and-tell has now turned into an astonishing little story of Colby karma, with comic artist R. Crumb making an unexpected appearance. The photo seems to have found its way into the right hands.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 27, 2005 | Permanent
TT: The momentary miracle
Most of my e-mail regarding what I wrote about Johnny Carson’s death has turned out to be unexpectedly favorable, but I won’t burden you with it. Instead, I want to pass on a thoughtful letter from a reader who disagreed.
* * *
I’ve been a daily visitor to your delightful blog for several months now. I’ve never written to you before and I am pained to find myself one of the people commenting about your Johnny Carson post….
I am truly sorry that you got some rude e-mails in response to your thoughts on Mr. Carson’s death. I agree that it is quite unreasonable of anyone to be offended by what you wrote. However, I do think that sort of personalized outrage is a common, if illogical, response when the worth of someone or something you love is being questioned. And I think a great many people loved Johnny Carson. Or rather, they loved what they saw him do.
You wrote: “Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous....If he did, then he died a wise man.” I could not agree with you more. Almost all fame is ultimately meaningless. However, I don’t think it necessarily follows that what he did to achieve his fame is equally without meaning.
I must tell you where I am coming from, so you can understand why I would care enough to write to you about this. I grew up “in the theatre.” (Hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious). My father is the artistic director of a professional theatre. My mother and sister are both working actresses. As a child I spent my summer days watching rehearsals. As a teenager and young adult I worked backstage, on stage, and finally did some directing myself….
This theatre has been in continual operation for more than 35 years. Because we take no grants and are entirely self-supporting, most of our shows are of the “crowd-pleasing,” light comic variety (though occasionally we are able to do something “daring,” just for the fun of it). We have staged more than a hundred productions. Some of them have been truly great; most of them have been entertaining. Yet there is no lasting record of any of them. As a girl, I found closing nights wonderfully, horribly poignant because I knew that I would never see that particular show again. Even if Dad did the same play a few years later, it would never be exactly the same. And each of these productions, even the finest of them, is remembered by no more than a couple of thousand people. And my parents have given their lives to this. You said that Johnny Carson was engaged in “that most ephemeral of endeavors.” With respect, I think my family has Mr. Carson beat.
It is a cliché that comedy is difficult, but like so many clichés it is true. Johnny Carson’s comedy may not have been groundbreaking or revelatory; it may not be for the ages. But he was funny, consistently funny, day in and day out for thirty years. That is quite an achievement.
Escapism may not be high art, but I think that its value is often underrated. In fact, I think “escapism” is a misnomer. We are never truly able to escape from the problems of our lives. But we are able to put them aside, rest for a while, and then, refreshed, get on with things. And that, I think, is what Carson provided: some rest, amusement, and comfort to people who were dealing with stress, worry or grief. And surely that is a good deed. And from a religious perspective, of course, good deeds do leave a lasting record. Even those quickly forgotten by men are remembered by God.
Anyway, enough. Sorry to trouble you with such a long email. And again, thanks for the blog. My upbringing left me with an inherent dislike for the profession of critic, but I have found myself thoroughly enjoying your writing. Please don’t tell my parents!
* * *
While I don’t agree with my correspondent’s appraisal of Carson’s gifts as a comedian, that’s strictly a matter of opinion. What strikes me about her letter is the way in which she puts her finger on one of the most distinctive aspects of live theater, which is its radical evanescence.
A theatrical production comes together in the moment, exists there for a finite period, then vanishes, never to be seen again. Certain aspects of it may be retrievable (like, say, Jerome Robbins’ dances for the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, which have been reproduced for the current Broadway revival), but for the most part it’s gone for good. A skillfully made film or telecast may preserve some of its quality (once again, Robbins is the model—the TV version of Peter Pan conveys a remarkably clear sense of what the stage version must have looked and felt like), but never all of it, and in any case such documents are rare indeed.
In a way this is tragic, but it also explains the irresistible romance of theater, which is embodied in the phrase You had to be there. When it comes to a great production of a play, you do have to be there, and if you are, you become a witness to the ineffable. For the rest of your life you can say, “I saw Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife, and it was soooo great…but you know what? You had to be there.” And that’s part of the magic—part of what makes theater so enduringly indispensable a part of the world of art, even though film and TV long ago pushed it to the cultural sidelines.
I hope what I wrote about Carson, by the way, doesn’t leave anyone with the idea that I don’t appreciate the not-so-simple joys of being entertained. Like Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins, I love to laugh, and though Johnny Carson didn’t make me laugh all that much, especially in his latter days, I owe an incalculable debt to the countless men and women who have, from Shakespearean buffoons to stand-up wizards. Nobody has to tell me that comedy is hard, or that it is a blessing. In fact, I think it’s wiser and more profound than tragedy. As I recently observed in an essay on the music of Haydn:
Just as Haydn the man was deeply religious, so was Haydn the artist a classicist of the highest seriousness—but one who did not assume his seriousness to be incompatible with humor. Like most (but not all!) of the greatest artists, he seems to have understood by instinct that “life is such an indissoluble mixture of heartbreak and absurdity that it might be more truly portrayed through the refracting lens of comedy.”
I originally wrote those words a few weeks after 9/11, at a moment when artists in New York City and elsewhere were turning their backs on comedy and succumbing to the temptation of portentousness. At such times we are at the mercy of those who confuse seriousness with solemnity—a mistake Haydn never made.
I hope I never make it, either.
(P.S. Most critics are halfwits.)
UPDATE: Another reader writes:
When I was in college I had the privilege of hearing Brendan Gill
speak. One thing he said has always stuck with me: we go to the movies by
ourselves because it's static, but we go to the theater because each
performance holds the possibility that there will be a disaster and we
don't want to be alone for that.
I went to my framer yesterday afternoon and picked up the presidential commission for my appointment to the National Council on the Arts. It’s a splendidly old-fashioned document, about twice the size of a college diploma, printed in copperplate script on thick cream paper by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It is, of course, a fill-in-the-blank form, starting with a space on top for the current president’s name, with the blanks filled in by a calligrapher.
Here's what it says:
To all who shall see these presents, Greeting:
Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the Integrity and Ability of Terence Alan Teachout of New York, I have nominated, and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, do appoint him as a Member of the National Council on the Arts for a term expiring September 3, 2010, and do authorize and empower him to execute and fulfill the duties of that Office according to law, and to have and to hold the said Office, with all the powers, privileges, and emoluments thereunto of right appertaining, unto him the said Terence Alan Teachout, subject to the conditions prescribed by law.
In testimony whereof, I have caused these Letters to be made Patent, and the Seal of the United States to be thereunto affixed.
Done at the city of Washington this twenty-ninth day of November in the year of our Lord two thousand four and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty-ninth.
It’s boldly and illegibly signed at the bottom by the autopens of Secretary of State Rice (whose signature looks like "A.C. Pfft") and President Bush (his is a dead ringer for "Byurze").
The part I like best is the first blank. Reposing special trust and confidence in the—what? Are “Integrity and Ability” reserved for low-level appointments like mine? And if so, what do the presidential commissions of cabinet members say? Is the Secretary of the Interior also praised for his Integrity and Ability? Or does his commission contain doubly juicy superlatives reserved for the exclusive use of Washington’s really heavy hitters?
I kind of hate to admit this (well, no, I don’t), but I’m irresistibly reminded of a passage from Michael Collins’ wonderful Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys in which he describes one of the little-known steps a male astronaut must take when putting on his pressure suit in preparation for being shot into outer space:
Then it’s time to don a triangular yellow plastic urine bag by inserting the penis into a rubber receiver built into one corner of it. There are three sizes of receivers (small, medium, large), which are always referred to in more heroic terms: extra large, immense, and unbelievable.
Perhaps the bigger dogs get the equivalent of “extra large” or “immense” on their presidential commissions—though presumably not “unbelievable.”
As for those "emoluments," there aren’t any. Outside of my traveling expenses whenever I visit Washington on NEA business, this one’s on me, and I’ve been warned that I’ll be paying through the nose for the honor of hanging a presidential commission on my wall: I’ve already filled out enough paperwork to decimate a shady grove, and there’ll be plenty more to come before my six-year term expires. That’s all right by me. Aside from the fact that you don’t say no when the President of the United States asks you to do something for him, I consider it not merely an honor but a privilege to be able to give back something to the arts in America. Art has given special meaning to my life. Now it’s my turn.
All this notwithstanding, I figure I’m entitled to a little more than my train fare and the satisfactions of a job well done. Obviously the White House agrees, which I assume is the reason why presidential appointees are given such handsome-looking documents to hang on their walls. It went without saying that I’d put mine in a first-class frame, one identical to the ones I use in the Teachout Museum—but where to hang the damn thing? It’s too big to fit in any of the remaining empty spots (of which there are no longer very many) on the walls of my minuscule one-bedroom Upper West Side apartment, and when I considered taking down a piece of art to make room for my commission, my heart sank.
I thought and thought, and suddenly it came to me: why not the bathroom? Not only is it tastefully decorated in cornflower blue and yellow, but it’s next to the living room, thus allowing me to show off for my visitors by leaving the door discreetly ajar. But would it be disrespectful to hang a presidential commission there? Though a friend assured me that many actors keep their Oscars in the bathroom, I wasn’t satisfied. Such a gesture smacked of phony humility. (As Thomas Mann allegedly said to a fellow writer who was eating a bit too much humble pie, “You’re not great enough to be that modest.”) Then it struck me as I was giving a new acquaintance a tour of the Teachout Museum that my bathroom also contains a small lithograph by Pierre Bonnard, Le Soleil. If it’s good enough for Bonnard, I told myself firmly, it’s good enough for a presidential commission. So I took down my Suzanne Farrell poster and hung up my latest acquisition…and you know what? It looks pretty great. Besides, its presence will also help to remind me that no amount of good fortune relieves a man of the inescapable commitments of the flesh. Even a presidential appointee has to spend a certain amount of time in the bathroom each day, just like everyone else.
No doubt I’ll move in time to a somewhat larger apartment, and when I do I'm sure I’ll find a more appropriate spot for my Official Certificate of Integrity and Ability. For now, though, I like it just fine right where it is.
UPDATE: A friend who should know writes:
I do NOT think commissions are auto penned -- I am fairly certain they are not -- there are not enough of them to do that, and they really are a mark of honor. But I don't think the president's signature is real -- I think that is printed on the commissions at the beginning of each admin. But Condi's sig is, I am almost certain, Condi's sig.
Just so you know.
And another sharp-eyed reader points out that "A.C. Pfft" can't possibly be Condoleezza Rice, who wasn't confirmed until after my commission was signed: it must be Colin Powell. Now that's what I call illegible!
"Gulley's old father in this book is taken from life and I, as a boy playing with paint in school holidays, remember very well the feelings of pity and surprise with which I looked at a gilt-framed canvas which he had brought out to show me, and propped against an apple tree among the weeds and cabbage stalks of a Normandy farm garden. I have an idea that it had just come back to him, rejected by the Academy which ten years before had been glad to hang his works. I remember my discomfort, as I realized that this man of fifty or so was appealing for sympathy from me, a boy of sixteen; that there were tears in his eyes as he begged me to look at his beautiful work ('the best thing I ever did') and asked me what had happened to the world which had ceased to admire such real 'true' art, and allowed itself to be cheated by 'daubers"'who could neither draw nor glaze; who dared not attempt 'finish.'
"I was myself in 1905 a devoted Impressionist, one of the 'daubers.' I thought that Impressionism was the only great and true art. I thought that the poor ruined broken-hearted man weeping before me in the sunlight of that squalid vegetable patch, was a pitiable failure, whose tragedy was very easily understood—he had no eye for colour, no respect for pigment, no talent, no right whatsoever to the name of artist.
"I don't know even now what that man's work was worth. I suspect from recollection that in these days it would be once more highly appreciated. For several schools have intervened, and having worked through Impressionism and Post Impressionism, the Fauves and the Cubists, we can look upon the late Victorians with a fresh eye and judge them, outside the passing fashion, for what they really were."
Joyce Cary, 1951 prefatory essay to The Horse's Mouth
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 26, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Too much information
I awoke a bit earlier than usual this morning, booted up my iBook, started my usual pre-breakfast surf of the Web, and suddenly it hit me...I soooo don't want any information today, except (maybe) the weather. I don't want to know the news, don't want to be in touch, don't want to read anybody's opinion of anything, don't care about the Oscar nominations, don't want to consider the short-term implications of the demise of the C train, don't give a damn about what's happening outside my front door. If I could, I'd cancel all my appointments, take the phone off the hook, ignore all incoming mail (including snail mail), skip my afternoon deadline, correct no proofs, blow off tonight's Broadway press preview, and spend the rest of the day and night in a state of elective mutism, communing with the contents of the Teachout Museum and listening to music about which I have no plans to write.
Alas, I can't do most of those things, or even very many of them. I have to schedule my days off well in advance, then defend them vigilantly against all comers. This isn't one of them. What's more, the mounting intensity of my desire to batten down the hatches suggests to me that I'm in severe need of more than just a day off. The world is too much with me, and I need to hole up and hide out for at least two consecutive days, preferably somewhere else. I can't hear myself thinking. I need some silence.
Like I said, none of that is on the menu, not immediately. But at least I can turn off the incoming information tap all day long, and that's my plan.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 26, 2005 | Permanent
TT: That's all he wrote
Sorry, no postings today. I wrote a three-thousand-word piece from scratch Tuesday morning, just returned from two sets at a nightclub, and have another deadline this afternoon and a Broadway preview tonight. For the moment, I'm somewhat more than lightly toasted.
I leave you in the caring hands of Our Girl. See you Thursday. Or Friday.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 26, 2005 | Permanent
"That was my favorite thing about playing England—all the girls looked like Brigitte Bardot, and all the guys looked like me."
Paul Desmond (quoted in Marian McPartland's Jazz World)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 26, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
OGIC: Take my metaphor. Please.
It must be so stressful to be the designated pop culture obituarist at your publication when someone like Johnny Carson dies. Everyone, but everyone is going to run a competing piece. Not only every print publication in English, but now bloggers, too. Pesky never-sleeping bloggers, overcrowding the field. Everyone is going to pull out all the stops for this one. Everyone wants to turn out the single remembrance that will be remembered, that will be the beacon in an undifferentiated sea of "he was the man Americans went to bed with." How will you make sure your appreciation stands out among the multitude?
The formula that Carson perfected was beautiful. First came the stand-up routine, in which, as the audience sat at home, he stood erect as a needle, puncturing presidents, public figures, and celebrities. He was the Midwestern needle in a haystack, which no one could find and blunt, who emerged from the haystack every night to lash out at large, impersonal forces and then withdrew as sleep and morning beckoned.
Americans went to bed with a needle. All I can say is, ouch.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, January 25, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Thumper's lament
We were flooded with visitors on Sunday and Monday, and they didn’t come to read about high culture, either. No, they wanted to see what Our Girl and I wrote about the death of Johnny Carson. It never fails to make me smile when one of our pop-culture posts causes the hits to pour in (posting about off-Broadway shows rarely has that kind of effect!).
Here’s something else that interested me: a not-insignificant percentage of our readers were actively offended by the fact that we didn’t join in the chorus of praise for Carson. You can’t post comments on this blog, but Roger L. Simon linked to what I wrote on Sunday, and a lot of people responded with angry comments. (Go here to read them.)
So far I’ve only received two sharply critical pieces of personal e-mail, one obscene, the other temperate but unequivocal:
The point is not that there were things to critique about the Carson style. No. The thing is, Johnny Carson was not an artist nor an intellect; he was a personality, and among people above a certain age, a fairly universally beloved personality.
Shame. Might you not have waited a few days to speak ill of the dead?
In addition, other bloggers are starting to weigh in, and this posting is fairly representative of what they're saying:
Terry Teachout, the esteemed art critic and in-house blogger for ArtsJournal.com, has a remembrance of the late Johnny Carson of note for its spectacularly negative view of the seminal comedian. It's all the more spectacular because it's done with the least emotional of tone.
Consider Teachout's closer, which comes perilously close to being contemptuous, something never seen in obituaries, especially hours-old obituaries….
Now look again at what I wrote about Carson. No, it wasn’t favorable, and yes, my tone was cool. I was reacting to the floodtide of unctuous celebrity comment in which we were immersed within hours of his passing. But I didn’t call him stupid or offensive or evil—in fact, I didn’t say anything personal about him at all. My point was that his comedy was inoffensive and ephemeral, and that I suspected it wouldn’t be remembered for very long. It isn’t obvious because I didn’t mean for it to be, but in a sense I was writing about Carson’s own celebrity from a religious perspective. “Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous,” I said in closing. If he did, then he died a wise man.
I can think of a lot of plausible responses to what I wrote (one of which I’ve already posted). But why on earth would anyone be offended by it? And what possible difference would it have made for me to wait a day, or even a week, to post it? Johnny Carson didn’t read what I wrote, and I can’t imagine he would have cared if he had. De mortuis nil nisi bonum has never made any sense to me whatsoever, nor is it practiced by the infinitely more robust obituarists who write for English newspapers. For them, the statute of limitations on candor expires when the death certificate is signed. I think that's as it should be, though to be honest all along is better still. I like what Rex Stout made Nero Wolfe say in The Black Mountain when he had occasion to speak frankly about his recently murdered best friend:
I pay him the tribute of speaking of him and feeling about him precisely as I did when he lived; the insult would be to smear his corpse with the honey excreted by my fear of death.
It's also worth pointing out that I didn't go on Oprah and call Carson a talentless hack (which I don't think he was). Instead, I posted what I had to say on a blog, where it’s been seen by something like ten thousand viewers so far—not an insignificant figure, but trivial by comparison to the hundreds of thousands of people who presumably tuned in to one of the various TV tributes to Carson that aired on Sunday night. Exactly how is that shameful?
The funny thing is that I’m not known for being nasty. Most of the reviews I write are favorable, mainly because I’m an enthusiast who seeks out opportunities to write about things I like. I believe that silence is the most powerful form of negative criticism, and when I do feel obliged to drop the big one, I try to be careful to drop it only on those in a position to shoot back. I go out of my way not to slam little-known actors or musicians. A dead superstar, by contrast, seems to me fair game—yet it’s been quite a while since anything I wrote provoked such furious responses.
So what’s all the fuss about? I’m not altogether sure, but I’m not even slightly surprised, because I’ve been stirring up similar fusses all my life. I got my start as a critic in Kansas City, which is about as close to the center of the midwest as you can get, and I noticed early on that a great many readers of the Kansas City Star were actively averse to the frank expression of unfavorable opinion—any unfavorable opinion, however mild. These chronically agreeable people clearly agreed with Thumper’s mother in Bambi, who said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Not surprisingly, they thought me rude, but more than that, they seemed to take what I wrote personally. It was as if they felt threatened by the mere existence of someone who disagreed with them.
This attitude puzzled me, and does to this day. I wish I could plumb it more deeply, but I can’t, possibly because I don’t share it. I don’t care what other critics think unless I know their work well and respect it, and even then I’m not threatened by their disagreement. Sometimes it may cause me to rethink my own opinion—there are a few critics with whom I don’t differ lightly—but what’s wrong with that? I don’t mind changing my mind. I’d rather be right than consistent.
Which brings us back to the late Johnny Carson. To those readers who didn’t like what I wrote about him, I say: what’s it to you? Why do you care? I’m just a guy with a blog. If you don’t like it, start one of your own. That’s the wonderful thing about the blogosphere—it puts all its participants on a potentially equal footing, something that was never true of the mainstream media. By all means feel free to get into the game. But let me give you fair warning: blogging isn’t for the thin-skinned. If you were offended by what I wrote about Carson, wait till you start opening your e-mail.
Here's something I posted last year:
These three words, when used in the same paragraph, automatically turn my ears off:
The RSS feed alone from Ann Althouse's blog is providing quite a bit of drama today. Her post headings tell a story entire, and although it starts out dicey, it seems to have a happy ending. Here are the headlines in order from oldest to newest:
The resiliency of the human spirit is a thing to behold. Thank goodness nobody was seriously hurt. And that in the end there was shopping.
Also at Althouse.com you'll find that the good professor has read Newsweek's pre-Oscar-nomination actor interviews so you don't have to. She shares all the good bits here, including this eyebrow-raiser from Ponce de Leonardo DiCaprio:
This art form is only 100 years old, and I am truly curious to see how the medium is going to change in the next couple hundred years.
And we're truly curious to see how you plan on doing that, Leo.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 24, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: The temptation of Hockey Girl 1*
Some kindly intentioned emailers have been inquiring whether this news makes me hopeful. To be honest with you, it just makes me want to cry. I feel a little like a deflated punching bag after last week's ups and downs in the world of no-hockey. It's the same old story: we were led to hope just a little bit, knowing better. We found ourselves, at the end of the week and two bargaining sessions, smacked back down. Our own fault, I'm sure. Which is why this week I'm going to leave it at a mirthless "HA!" and get back to my reading.
You know, I think it is undeniable that this winter I have been a more productive and sociable member of society than usual. I believe, too, that I've had more time and mental space to attend to books, art, music, world news, my friends, blogging, and piles and piles of beauteous snow. And I know the winter has still been a little prosaic and joyless and dead. Such is my affliction.
* Yes, that's how I am known among a certain set of friends, I just discovered. I actually don't mind, but they should feel lucky it's not Hockey Girl 2 or 3. Verrrrrry lucky.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 24, 2005 | Permanent
In 1978 Kenneth Tynan received $15,000 for his New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson. Today the equivalent would be a cool $43,501.85. Curiosity quenched.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 24, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Beatrice, meet Beatrix
Litblogger Ron Hogan, who writes Beatrice, launched a new blog this morning under the auspices of artsjournal.com, our illustrious host. It's called Beatrix, and it's not the same as Beatrice. I'll let Ron explain the difference:
How did this season's hot books generate their heat? And why do other novels surrounded by buzz turn into duds? Beatrix openly speculates about these questions in the form of a "book review review." I'll watch the major book reviewers to discern patterns of taste and/or critical strategy, and sometimes I'll follow a book through the review matrix to see how opinions coalesce or wildly diverge. Occasionally, I'll get the reviewers themselves to answer a few questions so we can learn more about where they're coming from--maybe I'll even find an author or two willing to review their reviewers….
Beatrice continues as an author-driven blog; in addition to gathering news items about various writers, it also includes original insights from them in the form of interviews, blog excerpts, and guest articles. My hope is that Beatrice and Beatrix will each be a standalone blog worthy of your attention...and although you don't have to read them both, I hope you will.
We will. You should.
By the way, it’s been quite a while since I last explained the relationship of “About Last Night” to artsjournal.com, and we’re getting a whole lot of hits today on account of yesterday's postings about Johnny Carson (yikes!). So here goes:
"About Last Night" is hosted by artsjournal.com, a daily digest of English-language arts and cultural journalism—news stories, reviews, commentaries—drawn from newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and blogs around the world. Ever since it was featured in the New York Times in 2003, artsjournal.com has become essential daily reading for art-conscious Web surfers everywhere.
A year and a half ago, artsjournal.com began launching a series of arts-related blogs, most but not all of them subject-specific. Scroll down to the bottom of the right-hand column and you’ll find descriptions of and links to all of these blogs, of which “About Last Night” was the first. It’s quite a portfolio, and worth your regular attention.
If you read “About Last Night” but don’t look at artsjournal.com, you’re missing a big bet. I check it out every morning. It’s how I know what’s going on in the world of art. Take a look. And while you’re at it, say hello to Beatrix for me.
That's where I'll be on this day next week (possibly wearing my large-lettered "OGIC" hoodie, ŕ la Ray Nicolette). And I quote:
Film critic and historian David Thomson will discuss his new book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, Monday, January 31 at 7pm at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St. in Hyde Park. For more information, call (773) 684-1300 or visit www.semcoop.com.
Film critic and historian David Thomson explores the entire ecology of Hollywood and American movies in his absorbing new history-cum-sociological study-cum-philosophical meditation. Thomson chronicles, analyzes and deconstructs Hollywood, exploring the personalities, the films, the business and the culture of the movies, as well as the place of the movies in American culture. He asks, and tries to answer, questions that would daunt most of his thumbs-up-thumbs-down colleagues: "What have movies done to us?" and "Do movies offer education or rather a lifetime of impossible desire?"
David Thomson is a teacher, critic and author, whose books include The Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Even if I weren't automatically sold on a talk by the author of my favorite movie tome, this press release might well have lured me there. Publicity materials are not, after all, customary lurking grounds for out-and-out snarkery like "thumbs-up-thumbs-down colleagues." That may be more of a little snarl than a big bite, but it's meaner for coming from a bookstore in certainpeople's backyard.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 24, 2005 | Permanent
The Stars Hollow Elementary School production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
The event is not, unfortunately, actually witnessed by the Girls nor by the viewing audience. A minor disappointment that, but some things are best left to the imagination.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 24, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Sketch in four strokes
Over at Tingle Alley, Carrie was provoked by the news of Johnny Carson's death to do a little research. She went to Kenneth Tynan's diaries and looked up entries relating to the writer's 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson. In these she found a portrait in miniature of the writing life—or of one kind of writing life, anyway.
There's enough in Tynan's diary to make one shudder at such a life. He has cause to damn the New Yorker staff as "the inquisitorial logicians on 43rd Street." But the redeeming moments are in there, too. After he turned in the piece and waited an agonizing week, the cash-strapped Tynan got good news from William Shawn:
He thinks the piece "stunning" and "marvellous"...
And better news from William Shawn:
I believe Terry has in his possession a secret decoder ring that will tell us what that is in 2005 dollars. I, for one, would be interested [read: pruriently curious] to know.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 24, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Touches of class
OGIC pointed the other day to a fascinating post by Colby Cosh on class differences among journalists, correctly (and testily) noting that there aren’t many:
I bring this up because becoming a political writer has had the perverse effect of radicalizing me, emotionally, about class matters. I followed what now seems like a pretty singular path into this job; the enormous majority of my colleagues, on all points of the political spectrum, seem to have backgrounds that can safely be described as affluent. There are exceptions, but very few….
I’ve noticed the same thing, at least among political journalists, though not quite so much when it comes to people who write about the arts, which are by their nature more purely meritocratic. I’ve also noticed a tendency on the part of some of my readers (not you—you know me better than that—but those who encounter me only in print), as well as more than a few of my colleagues, to take for granted that I must have come from a fancy home and had an expensive education, being a ballet-quaffing art collector and all. Not surprisingly, then, Colby’s post set me to thinking about the circuitous, illogical road I took to the world of art, and how it shaped the way I think about artistic and cultural matters.
The family into which I was born could best be described as small-town middle class. We didn’t belong to the country club, didn’t go to one of the upper-crust churches, didn’t travel very much or very far. Except for a few summer trips to Gatlinburg, a sort-of-resort town in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and a single midwinter vacation in Florida, we mostly stuck to southeast Missouri and its immediate environs. I never made it to Disneyland (and still haven’t), much less Europe, New York, or even Washington. I flew for the first time as a senior in high school, and I’ve never ridden (or wanted to ride) a horse.
My father was in hardware. He ran a store in my home town, went briefly and unsuccessfully into business on his own, then hit the road as a salesman for a couple of medium-sized wholesale distributors who kept him on the move. He spent his last years running the hardware department of a rural lumber yard. He loved big-band jazz, especially Stan Kenton, but had no other aesthetic interests, and if he ever read a book (other than the half-dozen James Bond novels he kept tucked away in a drawer of his bathroom), I don’t know about it.
My mother came from a town far smaller than Smalltown, U.S.A. She was baptized in a river, grew up on a Depression-era farm, and looked upon Smalltown as the closest available equivalent of a big city, moving there as soon as she graduated from high school and landing the first in a long string of quasi-secretarial jobs that continues to this day. She loved books and music but had to find out about them pretty much on her own, and her other cultural opportunities were severely limited. I took her to see her first ballet, her first museum, and her first professionally produced play, in all cases long after I’d grown up and left home.
How, then, did I catch the fire? I was lucky in three ways, the first of which was the high quality of the Smalltown public school system. We had a surprisingly good music program, and I took full advantage of it. (I must have been the only boy in my elementary school who liked music appreciation class.) We also had a number of townspeople who were sufficiently interested in art to launch and sustain an amateur theater group and a Community Concerts series. Finally, I grew up at a time when the powers-that-be at CBS, NBC, and ABC were obliged by the FCC to air a certain amount of cultural programming, not just in what used to be called the “Sunday-afternoon cultural ghetto” (God, does that phrase date me) but in prime time as well.
All these things were manifestations of what I refer to in the introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader as the culture of “middlebrow aspiration”:
Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows—but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture.
Though middlebrow cultural aspiration was already on its last legs when I came along, small towns tend to be a bit behind the curve. Not only did I get a stiff dose of it, but it took: I studied music, tried out for plays, read books by the carload, and spent virtually every nickel of my modest allowance on records of every imaginable kind. What’s more, my parents, puzzled though they were by my burgeoning strangeness, backed me to the hilt. They took me to the public library as often as I cared to go, and later on they bought me an encyclopedia, a violin, a piano, a guitar, and an electric bass, spending money they couldn’t easily spare in order to give me opportunities they’d never had to explore a world of whose existence they were largely unaware.
These opportunities, as I’ve said, didn’t include travel, and so it wasn’t until I went to college that I went to my first museum and saw my first operas and ballets. I didn't go very far from home: I received my undergraduate degree, the only one I have, from a small Southern Baptist college near Kansas City. Still, I made the most of what it had to offer, and by the time I was twenty years old I knew I wanted to pursue the life of art. Wishing alone wasn’t enough—I spent much of my late twenties fumbling at random—but I moved to New York in 1985 to take an entry-level job at Harper’s Magazine, and from then on the path was fairly straight and unexpectedly smooth, a few scary potholes notwithstanding.
Make of my story what you will, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in it any evidence of privilege, though I don’t claim to have been particularly disadvantaged, either. Louis Armstrong was born in a one-room shack on an unpaved alley in the poorest and roughest part of New Orleans, the scion of a part-time whore and a factory worker who abandoned him and his mother when he was a baby. That’s a hard row to hoe. Mine was easy by comparison, but it didn’t offer me any cultural shortcuts, either, least of all the ones available to any middle-class child who happens to grow up in a reasonably large city. Nor did I have the advantage of going to what is popularly known as a “good school.” I suppose we might have been able to swing it, my parents’ limited financial resources notwithstanding, but the truth is that it simply never occurred to me, not for a moment, that I could have gone to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia, much less that I might have wanted to do so.
The world has changed greatly since I was young. The diversification of the media and the emergence of the Internet have made it much smaller, in the process widening our collective sense of possibility. At the same time, the middlebrow culture of aspiration is long gone: Americans as a group are no longer encouraged to believe in the intrinsic moral value of high culture, and many of the institutions that arose from that belief are as a result either dead or in terminal decline. I can’t tell you to what extent the Web compensates for our loss of cultural faith. My guess is that it’s a wash at best, but I don’t have any children and don’t know any teenagers, so I’m not in a position to report from the field. And while the cultural opportunities I had were far from exceptional, even in small towns, it’s also true that I was an unusual child.
All this notwithstanding, I still think my early experience is not without continuing relevance. I have any number of friends, some my age and some much younger, who grew up in approximately similar circumstances and went on to lead the life of art, and I believe that many (if not most) other people, given sufficient aptitude and application, can do as we did. And while I occasionally wish I’d had certain kinds of opportunities that never came my way, I’m mostly glad that everything in my life happened just as it did. Instead of spending my whole life as a dedicated practitioner of a single art form, I’ve become a professional appreciator of all the arts, and I can’t think of a better way to make a living. Yet it might not have come to pass had I lived down the street from a museum, or taken my first piano lesson at the age of three, or gone to a school whose professors might well have pressured me to canalize my energies toward a single goal.
As for my class loyalties, such as they are, they haven’t changed a bit. I love New York, but I couldn’t even begin to pass for a native, even when I don my All-Black Outfit and venture south of Theatre Row, or put on a suit for an opening night. People with backgrounds like mine have been known to retreat into snobbery in order to conceal their origins, but I'm homemade and proud to be. Oscar Wilde said that a cynic was someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, which suggests that a snob might be someone who appreciates the prestige of everything and the beauty of nothing. That’s not me. I cry at the theater and buy prints because I like to look at them. I’m too enthusiastic to be cool and too shy to be clubbable. I am, in short, a small-town boy at large in the biggest of all big cities, having myself a time.
"I have been torn all my writing life by two conflicting desires—the journalistic desire to say it at once and have it done, and the more scholarly desire to say it carefully and with some regard to fundamental ideas and permanent values."
Johnny Carson, who died this morning at the age of 79, devoted most of his adult life to that most ephemeral of endeavors, hosting a late-night talk show. I must have seen several hundred episodes of The Tonight Show in my lifetime, and I even went out of my way to watch the last one, yet I doubt I've thought of Carson more than once or twice in the thirteen years since he retired, just as I doubt that anyone now alive can quote from memory anything he said on any subject whatsoever.
By an odd coincidence, I happened to see a clip from The Tonight Show last night, on stage at the Acorn Theatre, where the New Group is reviving David Rabe's Hurlyburly, a play set in Hollywood in the early Eighties. In the last scene, Ethan Hawke watches TV as he snorts all the cocaine he can cram up his nose, and it's Carson that he watches, ranting wildly all the while. It startled me to hear again the once-familiar theme song and Ed McMahon's stentorian Heeeeeere's...Johnny!, yet a moment later I asked myself, How many people in this theater recognize the man on the screen? Not many, I fear.
Strange, then, to think that Carson was once one of the most powerful people in show business, that he could make (or break) careers, that his quips were quoted constantly, at least in the first years of his tenure. He gradually lost interest in The Tonight Show, appearing less and less frequently and to steadily diminishing effect, and in his last few seasons he bordered on self-caricature. Not that there'd ever been much to parody: his comedy routines were dullish, his charmingly casual manner too slender a reed to support vivid impersonation. My parents' generation recalls Steve Allen and Jack Paar, his predecessors, in a way they don't and won't recall Carson, partly because TV was still something of a novelty back then but mostly because they were so much more idiosyncratic as personalities, Paar in particular. What's more, they took chances, something Carson never did. He always played it safe.
The obits are being written now, the TV retrospectives being readied for tonight's newscasts, and I'm sure they'll be properly sentimental and respectful. I might even tune in NBC, his old network, to see what they have to offer. But probably not: I'm increasingly disinclined to wallow in nostalgia about nothing, which is what will be on tap for the next couple of days. And after that? A fast fade to black, I expect. American popular culture is cruel and brutal when it comes to the immediate past: it respects only extreme youth, and has no time for the day before yesterday.
All of which somehow makes me feel sorry for Johnny Carson. I wonder what he thought of his life's work? Or how he felt about having lived long enough to disappear into the memory hole? At least he had the dignity to vanish completely, retreating into private life instead of trying to hang on to celebrity by his fingernails. Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous.
UPDATE:Jeff Jarvis reflects on Carson and the common culture.
Also, a reader writes, summing up what I suspect a lot of other people are feeling tonight:
It would be wrong to gauge Johnny Carson's fame in the ordinary ways: What lasting words did he leave? What lasting monument? What lasting anything, for that matter. He wasn't famous for being great; he was famous for being familiar. He was always there. He was always okay. Always sorta funny, sorta personable. Just plain sorta. I can recall a number of high points of my life when I was particularly daunted or worried -- first having moved out of my parents' home; first having been married; first visting New York to flog my work; these times and others -- and I recall how at each of these times I would tune it to the Tonight Show (or my wife & I would tune in) and there was Johnny: sorta funny, sorta risque, sort of a friend. I never saw the guy in person, on the street, but I'm sure that if I had I could not have resisted overiding my better judgment and accosting him with a "Hi, Johnny!" as though we were old pals.
This is just to say that even though, yes, he was only a pixelated picture on a tacky TV studio stage (I visited it once: it looked like the set of a High School play decorated with Elmer's glue and glitter) and, as you point out, he's now pretty much forgotten -- certainly unknown to teens and young adults -- I still mourn him like a lost friend.
For what it's worth, that's how I felt when Charles Kuralt died.
The very long, very ambivalent entry for Johnny Carson in David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film contains too many truly bon bon mots to cite them all here. You may as well throw a dart. I don't have a dart, but I choose an excerpt that captures the man's characteristic contradiction by invoking another popular icon of his heyday:
He was all antennae, sweeping an audience for sullenness or the sweet mercy that liked him. "I don't know why, but I'm in a silly mood tonight," he'd claim, a thousand times, trying to believe it. Whereas Johnny Carson was about as silly as Jack Nicklaus putting for money.
For what it's worth, I'm a little too young to know what I think about Carson. My parents watched him, but by the time I was staying up that late there was Letterman, whose first NBC show I'd watch after my parents had gone to bed. So I have a certain nostalgia-once-removed for Carson's Tonight Show. It was the show I mildly looked forward to being old enough to watch, but whose appeal had dwindled and been displaced by the time I was.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, January 23, 2005 | Permanent
Saturday, January 31, 2004
TT and OGIC: New wrinkles
We're gradually trying to make "Sites to See" a useful one-stop navigation tool for anyone interested in arts coverage in major American newspapers. Take a look at the right-hand column and you'll find direct links to arts and book sections and pages in the New York Times, the New York Observer, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and the Baltimore Sun.
Conspicuously missing from this roster, alas, are the Los Angeles Times, which segregates all of its arts and book coverage behind a pay-only firewall, and Terry's own Wall Street Journal, which is very restrictive in the cultural coverage it makes available for free on the Web. We hope these papers change their mind, and if they do, we'll let you know.
We're interested in linking to the Web sites of other newspapers which offer serious arts coverage that might be of interest to readers elsewhere. Keep us posted.
In addition, we've also reorganized "Sites to See" into four separate categories for greater ease of use. From the top down, they are:
(1) Blogs and personal Web sites primarily about the arts (though they may touch on non-art-related subjects from time to time)
(2) Art-related non-blogs and informational sites
(3) Art-related newspaper sections and magazine sites
(4) Interesting blogs and Web sites not primarily about the arts (though they may touch on art-related subjects from time to time)
We hope you find all these changes helpful. If not, say so.
Robert Harth, who became the head of Carnegie Hall days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and led America's premier classical music venue into an adventurous new era, has died. He was 47.
The hall's executive and artistic director was found dead Friday evening at his apartment near Carnegie Hall, said Ann Diebold, a spokeswoman at the hall. She said he suffered a heart attack.
Harth had planned to announce the hall's new season on Tuesday, including the second year of programs at the Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall, the $72 million, 644-seat hall that sealed Harth's reputation as a cutting-edge arts administrator.
Harth spearheaded an eclectic blend of programming at Zankel, from new classical compositions, jazz and rock to avant-garde theater that drew a wider audience than usually attends Carnegie performances.
Courtesy of Pejmanesque, this story from the Washington Post:
The school honor roll, a time-honored system for rewarding A students, has become an apparent source of embarrassment for some underachievers.
As a result, all Nashville schools have stopped posting honor rolls, and some are also considering a ban on hanging good work in the hallways -- on the advice of school lawyers.
After a few parents complained that their children might be ridiculed for not making the list, lawyers for the Nashville school system warned that state privacy laws forbid releasing any academic information, good or bad, without permission.
Some schools have since put a stop to academic pep rallies. Others think they may have to cancel spelling bees. And now schools across the state may follow Nashville's lead….
Read the whole thing here. Unless, of course, you live in Nashville, in which case I guess I shouldn’t say that, for fear of diminishing the self-esteem of those who can’t read, and thus getting hauled into court.
Which reminds me (excuse the enharmonic modulation) that one of the things Sarah Weinman and I talked about at lunch the other day was the potentially fearful prospect of libel suits against outspoken members of the blogosphere. Believe me, it could happen, and then some, and I very much doubt that more than a handful of us bloggers have thought about it.
As you know, I believe in the amateur culture fostered by the blogosphere, and support it enthusiastically. But I did learn two things from my years of 9-to-5 work on a big-city newspaper that are highly relevant out here in the sphere:
(1) How to edit my own copy.
(2) How not to commit libel.
Back when I was on the editorial page of the New York Daily News, we were given regular updates on the evolving state of libel case law. What's more, our copy was scrutinized by editors who knew a thing or two about libel (in some cases because they'd been sued). I'm not saying that made me libelproof, and I hope it didn't make me unreasonably cautious, but it did make me aware of the perils of preemptive litigation in a way I suspect most bloggers are not.
Enough of these grim reflections. I want to go out and play in the cooooooold weather. But I did want to pass them on to any of you who don't have anything better to do than sit at your computer on a Saturday afternoon.
Golden Rule Jones posted (scroll down a bit)
some really funny excerpts from Joe Orton’s play Loot, which reminded me that it’s been a long, long, long time since any of Orton’s plays were revived in New York. I sure would like to write about one (ideally What the Butler Saw, though Loot or Entertaining Mr. Sloane would do just fine). And while I’m no kind of Anglophile, I can think of any number of other modern English plays it would be a pleasure to see and review, among them Noël Coward’s Present Laughter and Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears.
I could use a laugh—preferably an intentional one. I get too many of the other kind in my current capacity as a drama critic.
Author photos for literary fiction -- that most introverted of artforms -- try to squeeze intellectual noblesse out of a writer's physiognomy and convince us that "depth" has a surface appearance; thus, in my opinion, author photos are funny. And how funny they are is in direct proportion to how seriously they want to be taken. The more they try to signify "thought," the more their authors look like what they'd hate to write: clichés….
I’m relieved to say that my author photo
for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (which I think we’re reusing on the dust jacket of A Terry Teachout Reader) steers clear of most of the pretentious trickery enumerated later on in this post. However, I did come up with a fresh one of my very own: I’m sitting on the bench of a piano on whose music rack reposes the open score of…an opera.
Yes, I really do play piano, and yes, the opera in question
is one that I know well and love with all my heart. Does any of that earn me a pass from the strictures of the alarmingly witty Cup of Chicha? Probably not….
It suddenly occurs to me that I haven't mentioned for quite some time that "About Last Night" is graciously hosted by artsjournal.com, the Web site that offers a daily digest of news stories and commentaries about the arts gleaned from all across the English-speaking world, not to mention a whole bunch of cool arts blogs.
I visit artsjournal.com every morning, without fail (and I did it before I started "About Last Night," thank you very much). It's the quickest and best way I know to keep abreast of the wide world of art.
To visit the artsjournal.com home page, click on the artsjournal logo at the top of this page.
To check out any of my fellow artsjournal.com artbloggers, go to the OTHER AJ BLOGS module at the bottom of the right-hand column.
And while you're at it:
If you enjoy reading "About Last Night," tell your art-loving friends.
Tell them all.
Tell them often.
Tell them that Our Girl in Chicago is not Joseph Epstein.
Tell them...oh, never mind. It'll take at least a few more weeks before I live that one down.
In other news, I finished my Kandinsky-Schoenberg essay, then took a sixtysomething musician friend to the New York State Theater to see New York City Ballet dance an all-Balanchine program, Donizetti Variations, Apollo, and Serenade. He just discovered dance last month, and these were his very first Balanchine ballets. To say he was blown away would be a considerable understatement. In fact, he was reduced to near-blathering, which is no surprise. I've taken a lot of people to see their first Balanchine ballets, and they tend to blather all over the place afterward, the same way they do the first time they see Paul Taylor's Esplanade or Mark Morris' L'Allegro or Merce Cunningham's Sounddance, three other great dances that have a way of overwhelming the novice viewer.
I particularly liked one thing my friend said about Serenade: "I kept wishing I could stop the action and point at all the beautiful things on stage, so that we could talk about them." I know just how he feels. The first time you see a dance like Serenade, the events fly by so fast that you start to feel swamped by the dizzying onrush of beauty.
The good news is that NYCB dances Serenade a lot, as do most Balanchine companies. Like all the great Balanchine ballets, the more you see it, the more you see.
Memo to all of you who visited "About Last Night" for the first time this past week in search of whatever it was you were searching for: I’m sorry you didn’t find it. But you’re welcome to stick around anyway.
The head of a once-secret Russian committee that maintains the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin denounced calls to bury him yesterday and vowed to preserve the revolutionary for generations.
Members of the Mausoleum Group still tend to his body 80 years after their predecessors embalmed it.
Valery Bykov, head of the 15-man group, criticised politicians for using this month's anniversary of Lenin's death to reopen a bitter debate over his future. "These people are mostly fools," he said of a broad spectrum of politicians who want Russia to bury Lenin, close his tomb and let his legacy lie. "They have left no mark on history and never will, they are of no interest to us," Prof Bykov said.
Opinion polls suggest growing support for removing Lenin from Red Square. There was constant debate over the issue during Boris Yeltsin's presidency. His successor, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy, has discouraged such talk, although he has restored the Soviet national anthem and encouraged Russians to be proud of their history under communism.
Prof Bykov is the fourth man to lead the Mausoleum Group since scientists were summoned to the Kremlin to freeze the decomposing body of Lenin, who died after a fourth stroke on Jan 21, 1924. They also removed and studied his brain in the search for the source of genius.
Prof Bykov's team checks Lenin's body every week for damage caused by the lighting in his mausoleum or changes in temperature or humidity.
They treat it with a chemical solution developed in secrecy and periodically change his clothes. "Lenin is in a fine state and we will make sure he remains so for our descendants," Prof Bykov said. "We can guarantee preservation of his body indefinitely, certainly for a century and more."
The Mausoleum Group also mummified and helps to maintain the bodies of Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh. It is based at Moscow's Biomedical Technology Centre. Some say the basement holds Lenin lookalikes ready to take his place in Red Square if his corpse crumbles. Prof Bykov denies this.
So why do you think OGIC and I are going to the trouble of making a joint radio appearance on Superbowl Sunday? Just to talk about the arts? Nothing doing. Not only is she possibly going to reveal her secret identity, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it emerges that she’s someone else, too. (And I don’t mean Joe Epstein.)
Courtesy of Mildly Malevolent, here’s an interesting observation made by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ new documentary about Robert McNamara:
Then there's a score by Philip Glass (a standby to which Morris has become very accustomed), a metronomic New Age pulse that encourages not thought but the impression that one is thinking. "No one does `existential dread' as well as Philip Glass," Morris has offered by way of explanation. "And this is a movie filled with existential dread." But "doing" existential dread is a far cry from understanding it or, better yet, addressing it.
I used to be a big fan of Glass's music when I heard it performed live, largely because of its meditative qualities. But one might question the use of meditating on Robert McNamara as opposed to thinking analytically and critically about him. If we meditate on charts and figures or feel existential dread about them without even knowing what they say, there's a danger that we'll think we're doing something serious just by gaping at what's in front of us. The same thing applies to gaping at McNamara even when we know what he's saying, in part because of the high gloss of that chugging Glass music. It's almost as if Morris were characterizing McNamara's discourse as "Glassy" (rather than simply gassy), the same way Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins tried to make Richard M. Nixon seem Shakespearean.
I’ve never been a big fan of Philip Glass’ music, whether live or on record, but it always used to strike me as rather effective when used as background music to a more interesting event taking place in the foreground—a movie, say, or a ballet. But Rosenbaum has put his finger on something significant about Morris' use of Glass' music that I sensed (I think) but never completely understood.
For those of you who read what I wrote yesterday about A.J. Liebling and had your curiosity piqued, here's an excerpt from The Earl of Louisiana, plucked from my electronic commonplace book. It's too long to be an almanac entry, but it deserves to be quoted, as they say, in extenso, so here you are.
* * *
For one thing, the expression of conventional indignation is not so customary in Louisiana as farther north. The Louisianans, like Levantines, think it naive. A pillar of the Baton Rouge economy, whom I shall here call Cousin Horace, had given me an illustration, from his own youth, of why this is so.
"When I was a young man, fresh out of Tulane," he said, "I was full of civic consciousness. I joined with a number of like-minded reformers to raise a fund to bribe the Legislature to impeach Huey [Long]. To insure that the movement had a broad popular base, subscriptions were limited to one thousand dollars. When I went to my father, who was rich as cream, to collect his ante, I couldn’t get but five hundred from him—he said he felt kind of skeptical. So I put up a thousand for me and the other five hundred for him. I wouldn’t pass up a chance to give the maximum for such a good cause.
"A vote of two-thirds of each house was needed to impeach, and there were then thirty-nine state senators. But before our chairman could see ehough of them, Huey induced fifteen—a third plus two—to sign a round robin stating they would not impeach no matter what the evidence was. Earl says now that he thought of that scheme. We were licked, so I went around to the eminent reform attorney who was treasurer of our enterprise and asked for my money back.
"’Son,’" he said, ‘I am keeping all the subscriptions as my fee.’
"I was mad as hell, and told Dad, and he said, ‘Son, it shows I did right to hold out my other five hundred—I gave it to Huey as part of the contribution he levied on me to pay the fellows on his side.’"
Cousin Horace, who looks like Warren Gamaliel Harding, the handsomest of Presidents, imbibed deeply of a Ramos gin fizz.
"Right then," he said, after the interval, "I made up my mind that it didn’t make any difference which side was in in Louisiana, and I have stuck to business ever since."
As you know, I’m all tied up writing an essay about Kandinsky and Schoenberg for Commentary, so in lieu of something brand-new, here’s a column I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio-and-music magazine, back in 1997. I doubt anybody who reads this blog will remember it—in fact, I doubt any of you read it in the first place! I think it’s still relevant, too, though regular readers of "About Last Night" will know that I wouldn't put it quite the same way today….
* * *
Was the invention of the phonograph a good thing for music?
This question will no doubt strike the average audiophile as a bit peculiar, if not actually bizarre: anybody prepared to shell out ten thousand bucks for a pair of speakers is by definition a true believer in the virtues of recorded sound. But as far back as John Philip Sousa, thoughtful musicians were expressing serious reservations about its possible effects on music—with good reason, as it turned out. For the phonograph completely transformed Western musical culture, and the fact that we now take this transformation for granted doesn't lessen its significance in the slightest.
It's no secret, for instance, that the rise of the phonograph basically killed off domestic music-making. My grandfather, who was born a century ago, played banjo, but neither of my parents played any instrument at all, and when I started making music, it was at school, not home; I am the sole member of my extended family who not only learned a musical instrument as a child but also continued to play as an adult. What's more, I majored in music in college, making me even less typical of my fellow baby-boomers: I have just one close friend who plays classical music on a purely amateur basis.
To be sure, I have a lot of other friends who listen to classical music, but I'm struck by how few of them go to concerts at all regularly: their participation in the culture of classical music consists mainly of buying compact discs. Indeed, I know thoroughly civilized people who actively disdain concertgoing, preferring to shovel money into the care and feeding of high-end systems. I don't mean to knock them—they love music as much as I do—but it seems to me that there is something fundamentally parasitical about their love: they reap the benefits of the musical culture without directly supporting it. This is part of what Benjamin Britten was getting at when he called the phonograph "the principal enemy of music," adding that "it is not part of true musical experience." Sitting down in your living room and throwing on a CD is not the same thing as going to a concert, much less playing for your own pleasure: though it can be intensely meaningful, it is nevertheless experience once removed.
Needless to say, this coin has two sides. Leafing through B.H. Haggin's Music in the Nation the other day, I ran across this revealing passage:
Haydn's Symphony No. 104...I heard for the first time a year ago; and several others of the London symphonies I have never heard at all; nor have I ever heard performances of a number of Haydn's clavier sonatas that are superb pieces of music. I began to attend concerts in 1914, but didn't hear Mozart's Piano Concerto K. 467 until 1934, his K. 595 until 1936, his K. 491 and K. 271 until 1937; Webster Aitken's recent performance of K. 450...was the first I had heard since 1922; and I have yet to hear a performance of K. 453.
Haggin wrote those lines fifty-eight years ago. Today they sound—well, quaint. At a time when Le Sacre du Printemps takes up a full column in the Schwann/Opus record catalogue, it's easy to forget how the phonograph made it possible for serious music lovers to do an end run around the entrenched conservatism of symphony orchestras and big-money soloists.
What was true of a lifelong New Yorker in the '30s was triply true of a small-town Missouri boy in the '60s: I lived hundreds of miles away from the nearest concert hall, and it was through the phonograph that I became part of the larger world of music. I fell in love with Stravinsky and Shostakovich because my high-school library had a well-chosen classical record collection; I bought Toscanini reissues at Wal-Mart for $2.98 a pop, not because I knew who Toscanini was but because they were cheap (and because I loved those classy Robert Hupka photos on the jackets). Nor was my youthful musical life entirely passive: I learned the Brahms D Minor Sonata as a teenage violinist solely because the local piano store happened to have a dusty copy of David Oistrakh's Angel recording in its lone classical bin, and I taught myself the rudiments of jazz bass by listening to my father's battered copies of In a Mellotone and Jazz Goes to College, thereby taking my place in a line of descent that started with Bix Beiderbecke, who taught himself cornet by playing along with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's earliest 78s. Without the phonograph, jazz might well have vanished into the humid night air of New Orleans, to be remembered only by those who first played and heard it; instead, it became America's principal contribution to twentieth-century music, known around the world.
It may well be that the most important thing about the phonograph is its unique capacity to reproduce and disseminate those aspects of musical performance which cannot be notated. (If you doubt this, take a moment to reflect on the difference between reading about The Who and listening to Live at Leeds.) This capacity is not without its disadvantages. For one thing, it has caused us to grossly overemphasize the role of execution in musical experience: veteran record collectors habitually spend far too much time talking about whose recording of the Bartók Violin Concerto is best, and not nearly enough talking about the Bartók Violin Concerto itself. But it has also made it possible for us to re-experience great performances of the past—including, among many other things, the world premiere of the Bartók Violin Concerto. I've been listening to old records for well over half my lifetime, and yet it never quite ceases to amaze me that simply by pushing a button, I can hear Joseph Joachim playing Bach, or Louis Armstrong rapping out that golden introduction to "West End Blues."
As this example suggests, collectors of historical recordings are perhaps most vividly aware of the power of the phonograph to take the evanescent and make it permanent. But there is a sense in which all recordings are historical, no matter how recently they were made. I've recently spent several blissful hours listening to Turn Out the Stars, an extraordinary six-CD set of previously unreleased recordings made by Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1980, just three months before he died. These performances may not be "historical" in the same way that, say, Percy Grainger's 1925 recording of the Chopin B Minor Sonata is "historical," but they've certainly changed my understanding of Bill Evans' artistic development—I had no idea how brilliantly he was playing at the very end of his life—and I suspect they will have a powerful effect on the way jazz historians of the future write about Evans. Yet we wouldn't have known the difference had these performances not been recorded (and, just as important, released).
As it happens, I never heard Bill Evans play in person: he died before I moved to Manhattan. Thus, my whole knowledge of his playing derives from his recordings. In fact, I suspect most of the really important musical experiences of my life (not counting the ones in which I was a participant) have come to me not in the flesh but through the medium of recorded sound. Since I moved to New York, I've attended my fair share of live musical performances of all kinds. But even during that time, there has been no shortage of important artists whom I first heard on record. Four who come immediately to mind are Anne Sofie von Otter, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss and Liz Phair, all of whom are now central to my listening life, both on record and in concert; had the phonograph not been invented, I might never have heard any of them.
It is for this reason that I find it difficult to wave the Luddite banner with any real enthusiasm. Of course recorded sound is a mixed blessing: we pay a price for its ubiquity, and that price is getting steeper. But all blessings are mixed, and it is up to us to make the best of them. If I had to choose between the continued survival of the Podunk Philharmonic and the existence of the recordings of Louis Armstrong, I'd probably take a deep breath and vote for Louis—but it's our job as music lovers to make sure that such choices never become necessary. You might think about that the next time you decide to blow ten thousand bucks on a pair of speakers instead of buying a subscription to your local opera company.
"Renoir asks us to see the variety and muddle of life without settling for one interpretation. He is the greatest of directors; he justifies cinema. But he shrugs off the weight of 'masterpiece' or 'definitive statements.' The impossibility of grasping final solutions or perfect works is his 'rule.'"
David Thomson, "Jean Renoir," in A Biographical Dictionary of Film
Jonathan Yardley, who is writing an occasional series of Washington Post pieces about "notable and/or neglected books from the past" (and what a good idea that is!), has just gotten around to A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana:
Turn to the opening sentences of A.J. Liebling's "The Earl of Louisiana," and three things happen. You are dazzled by the wit and acuity of Liebling's prose, you want to keep on reading for as long as he keeps on writing, and you are struck by how deeply the character of American politics has changed in the four-plus decades since "The Earl of Louisiana" was first published. To wit:
"Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas -- stale and unprofitable. The consumer forgets that the corn tastes different where it grows."
That was 1960, when the first article in Liebling's series about Earl Long, then governor of Louisiana, appeared in the New Yorker. Now, 44 years later, you still can "experience the old-fashioned traditional corn flavor of Golden Bantam," as one seed company puts it, but the old-fashioned traditional corn flavor of Southern politics is as dead as Earl Long himself. Yes, you still can buy a Moon Pie in Ol' Dixie, but the rumpled rustics who inspired Al Capp to create a comic-strip politico called Sen. Jack S. Phogbound long ago vanished, replaced by the blow-dried suburban slicksters who've turned the Solid South into Anyplace, U.S.A….
I share nearly all of Yardley’s admiration for Liebling, whom he rightly compares to H.L. Mencken. I also have strong feelings of nostalgia about him: Liebling was the subject of the first book review I ever wrote for a national magazine, all the way back in 1981. He wasn’t that well known then, and he’s not now (The Earl of Louisiana, in some ways his best book, was reissued by an academic press), even though he was one of The New Yorker’s most admired contributors back in the unimaginably far-removed days of Harold Ross.
I’ve never quite understood why Liebling isn’t better remembered, though I have some suspicions. For one thing, his prose is a rich dish, by no means indigestible but a bit much for many palates. For another, he was a journalist, not a familiar essayist, and most of his pieces, intensely personal though they may be, are about something or somebody other than himself. Nor did it help that his books went out of print early and stayed that way for a very long time. Most of them, including The Earl of Louisiana, are still out of print.
Liebling was no paragon, least of all in his much-admired press criticism, which for me hasn’t held up well. It didn’t help that his own grasp of "journalistic ethics" (not quite an oxymoron, but close) could be alarmingly shaky. He was, for example, privately advising Alger Hiss’ defense team at the same time he was dissecting press coverage of the Hiss-Chambers case in The New Yorker, a feat of ethical elasticity comparable only to the similar services provided by Mencken to the defense team in the Scopes trial. That is a big fat juicy blot on the escutcheon of a writer who deserves to be remembered for many things other than his too-cute "Wayward Press" pieces in The New Yorker. It, too, should be remembered, but in perspective, much like Mencken’s anti-Semitism, a dismaying footnote to a career of the highest possible individuality, one to which Yardley’s Washington Post piece is a fine and timely introduction.
I’m not quite sure that The Earl of Louisiana is the best place to start with Liebling, though. When I wrote about the Library of America’s superlative two-volume set devoted to journalism in World War II, I was struck by how many of the least dated pieces had originally appeared in The New Yorker—one doesn’t usually think of The New Yorker as a source of first-rate war coverage—and by how many of the best of those pieces had been written by A.J. Liebling. He originally made his name writing about peculiar New Yorkers, and nobody except Ross expected that so utterly urban a character would have the slightest notion of what to do in a war zone. But time and again, Liebling buried the puck in the net, never deeper than in "Cross-Channel Trip," filed from a landing craft in the English Channel on D-Day:
I looked down at the main deck, and the beach-battalion men were already moving ahead, so I knew that the ramps must be down. I could hear Long shouting, "Move along now! Move along!," as if he were unloading an excursion boat at Coney Island. But the men needed no urging; they were moving without a sign of flinching. You didn’t have to look far for tracers now, and Kallam and I flattened our backs against the pilot house and pulled in our stomachs, as if to give a possible bullet an extra couple of inches clearance. Something tickled the back of my neck. I slapped at it and discovered that I had most of the ship’s rigging draped around my neck and shoulders, like a character in an old slapstick movie about a spaghetti factory, or like Captain Horatio Hornblower. The rigging had been cut away by bullets….
A sailor came by and Shorty, one of the men in the gun crew, said to him, "Who was it?" The sailor said, "Rocky and Bill. They’re all tore up. A shell got the winch and ramps and all." I went forward to the well deck, which was sticky with a mixture of blood and condensed milk. Soldiers had left cases of rations lying all about the ship, and a fragment of the shell that hit the boys had torn into a carton of cans of milk. Rocky and Bill had been moved belowdecks into one of the large forward compartments. Rocky was dead beyond possible doubt, somebody told me, but the pharmacist’s mates had given Bill blood plasma and thought he might still be alive. I remembered Bill, a big, baby-faced kid from the District of Columbia, built like a wrestler. He was about twenty, and the other boys used to kid him about a girl he was always writing letters to. A third wounded man, a soldier dressed in khaki, lay on a stretcher on deck breathing hard through his mouth. His long, triangular face looked like a dirty drumhead; his skin was white and drawn tight over his high cheekbones. He wasn’t making much noise.
First-person journalism will never get any better than that.
I must thank you for listing Dance in America: Acts of Ardor in your top five. I just finished watching it and was overwhelmed. I really did enjoy it. I am a relative new comer to art appreciation and I have been somewhat skeptical about whether I would enjoy dance. That show definitely changed my mind and to think it was on the same day that I received your book The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken
in the mail. I am sure I will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
I sure hope so. The pleasure is all mine. And for those of you who missed Acts of Ardor, some stations are replaying it. (In New York, for example, it’ll be shown again next Tuesday at 12:30 a.m. on Channel 13.) Click on the Top Five link for more information.
Another reader writes, apropos of my Wall Street Journal piece about the Lake Shore Limited:
experience with trains was last March, when I traveled with a friend from
Chicago to Tucson on the Texas Eagle, a three-day trip. The wonderful
thing about a train trip is that you can't possibly do anything else except
eat, drink, and socialize. We spent afternoons in the lounge car, grumbling
that we were behind schedule (as train passengers are obliged to) and
exchanging rumors that the conductor had told someone that there would
be a smoke break in St. Louis, or that we would make up time after San
Antonio. At 4 o'clock, the dining steward walked through to take dinner
reservations. My friend and I were always seated with two other people, so
as not to waste space at the tables (which, happily, are still appointed with
fresh flowers). One evening, we dined with a delightful older lady named
Margaret, who, upon hearing that coach passengers were not provided with
a shower, invited us to the use the one in her sleeper car--"if the steward
tries to stop you, tell him your Aunt Margaret is traveling in the sleeper and
said you could use it." In the evenings after dinner, we sat in the lounge
until 1 or 2 o'clock drinking bottle after bottle of dreadful Amtrak
Cabernet, talking about philosophy and staring out at the Texas night.
While I never experienced the grand old days of really first-class train
service, I believe it is still the most civilized way to travel. It was nice to
read about your experience and your other reader's train memories on the
I’ve been getting other nice letters from people who remember their own train rides, past and present, with great fondness. Thanks to you all for writing.
Finally, this wildly amusing speculation:
I have to admit, there was a period of time in which I thought Our Girl
was just Joseph Epstein having a little fun pretending to be a woman.
All that gushing about Henry James... But your recent statements
concerning Our Girl looking ravishing (or something like that) while
listening to Johnny Cash (and not Schubert's "Trout") have been poking
huge holes in my thesis. Either that, or your blog is no longer
grounded in reality.
I may tune in to your radio appearance and miss all those cool
Super-Bowl commercials just to hear my best guess as to Our Girl's
identity smashed once and for all.
Fond as I am of Joe Epstein, he isn’t nearly as pretty as OGIC. And she’s taller, too.
I’m surprised by the response to my recent list of books I read for relaxation and comfort. I mean, it wasn’t even my idea—I was just responding to a curious reader! Nevertheless, fellow bloggers from far and wide (starting, naturally, with Our Girl) have chimed in with comments, demurrers, and lists of their own. You can see some of the latter by going here (scroll down), here (ditto), here, and here.
Seeing as how I have the night off and am disinclined to do any gainful work, I thought I’d post a similar list, this one of music to which I turn when my brain and/or heart are stuck on 11 and I feel the urgent need to gear down:
President Bush will seek a big increase in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest single source of support for the arts in the United States, administration officials said on Wednesday.
The proposal is part of a turnaround for the agency, which was once fighting for its life, attacked by some Republicans as a threat to the nation's moral standards.
Laura Bush plans to announce the request on Thursday, in remarks intended to show the administration's commitment to the arts, aides said.
Administration officials, including White House budget experts, said that Mr. Bush would propose an increase of $15 million to $20 million for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That would be the largest rise in two decades and far more than the most recent increases, about $500,000 for 2003 and $5 million for this year.
The agency has a budget of $121 million this year, 31 percent lower than its peak of $176 million in 1992. After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995, they cut the agency's budget to slightly less than $100 million, and the budget was essentially flat for five years.
In an e-mail message inviting arts advocates to a news briefing with Mrs. Bush, Dana Gioia, the poet who is chairman of the endowment, says, "You will be present for an important day in N.E.A. history."…
Our Girl and I will be on WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public-radio station, this Sunday from eight to nine p.m. EST (opposite the Super Bowl, but who cares about that?). I’ll be speaking from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she from a studio in Chicago. The occasion is the last episode of a week-long series called "Should I Stay or Should I Go?: The Local Artist’s Lament." We’ll be chatting about the art scene in Chicago and—more generally—the state of the arts outside New York City. I dare say "About Last Night" will be mentioned, too, and there’ll also be a call-in segment.
This, by the way, is Our Girl’s first public appearance since taking the veil of anonymity, and while I don’t think she’ll demand that a voice filter be used, she has no intention of disclosing her secret identity on the air. Guessing is discouraged—we’d prefer not to have you killed, though we’ll do whatever’s necessary.
I might quibble with you about Brookmeyer being the greatest living jazz composer/arranger, and he might, too. Bill Holman
is alive, well, and more brilliant than ever. How nice to have such a close race.
As the saying goes, I’d hate to have to live off the difference. Holman was already damned good in the Fifties (back when he was dedicated to the proposition that even the Stan Kenton band could be made to swing), but he’s grown and grown and grown since then, to the point where he ranks with the best of the best. Alas, precious little of his recent music is currently available on CD, but between them, A View from the Side and Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk offer a pretty good snapshot of what he’s up to these days.
I just returned from Good Enough to Eat, my Upper West Side hangout, where I lunched with Sarah Weinman, whose blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, is one of my daily stopovers. Being Canadian, she was unfazed by our 10-inch snowfall (and polite enough not to mention my widely reported infirmity), and we chatted up a storm about life in the blogosphere. She went out drinking with Mr. TMFTML last night, but was largely unaffected by the ordeal, notwithstanding a certain hint of puce around the gills.
If you haven’t visited Sarah’s litblog, do. It’s v. smart.
(Incidentally, the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan are almost completely clear of snow this afternoon. That’s one reason why I love New York—we gripe about everything, but we don’t let it stop us from doing anything.)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Riding the rails
A reader writes, apropos of my piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal:
I love the stuff about the trains. I had the good fortune to take a train to New York (not a sleeper, alas, but from Wilmington that would have been just plain silly!) with my mother when I was very, very young. My father usually drove us to New York. I have no idea why we took the train on this one occasion, and without my Dad, but the memory is incredibly vivid for me and fills me with the most incredible nostalgia. I would imagine that traveling by train for the first time would be pretty exciting for a young child even on today's much diminished Amtrak experience. Still, I somehow caught the last gasp of traditional railway service, and it made an impression, even though I could have had no idea that I would never see its like again. I swear the best eggs I ever ate were on that train! Can you imagine getting farm fresh eggs cooked to order on an Amtrak train? The dining car was the most miraculous place. It was like a fancy restaurant that moved! The tables were covered in white table cloths, the cloth napkins were neatly folded next to the silverware, a bud vase graced each table. And the black waiter in his white jacket made a fuss over my brother and me. No doubt we were all dressed up in matching Florence Eisenman outfits. People dressed up to travel in those days, and my mother kept my brother and me looking like we came off a band box (what does that mean, anyway?). I can remember walking from our seat to the dining car and being terribly scared of the connection between the cars. We must have walked through the old Penn Station when we arrived but, unfortunately, I have no memory of the station at all. I must rely on pictures to imagine what it must have been like. Thanks, I think, for reminding me of a time gone by.
Nice. And thanks to you, too.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
In today’s New York Observer, Robert Gottlieb holds forth on New York City Ballet’s Balanchine-related festivities. It’s a must.
(My own preliminary thoughts on "Balanchine 100" can be found in my "Second City" column for this Sunday’s Washington Post, which will be linked to this page as soon as it goes on line.)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
TT: On my walls
I just snagged two inexpensive but deeply satisfying pieces of art via eBay, an undated Arnold Friedman lithograph of a female nude and a 1962 pastel landscape by Jane Wilson. I'm not exactly sure where I'm going to hang them, but I'll figure out something. (The links, by the way, aren't to photos of the actual pieces—they're just to give you a taste of the artists in question.)
Incidentally, I'd like to put out an all-points bulletin to art-savvy readers of this site: I'm interested in acquiring a pastel still-life by Arnold Friedman, if I can do so without bending my wallet too far out of shape. A beauty was auctioned on line back in December, but I didn't find out about it until the day after the hammer fell (for a price that was well within my means, arrgh). Should any of you know where such a thing might be found, kindly drop me an e.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Ars longa, vita brevis
just goes to show what happens when you pal around with a problem drinker.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
"The Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates and researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks he has found."
Miguel de Unamuno, Essays and Soliloquies
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Sleepless on the Lake Shore Limited
Some of you will recall that I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, visiting the shockingly beautiful Our Girl, admiring her Eames chair, and covering three new plays for The Wall Street Journal. I went there and came back to New York via Amtrak sleeper, and I wrote up the experience in a short essay published on the Arts & Leisure page of this morning’s Journal:
I grew up dreaming of long-distance trains. They were in the songs I loved ("I took a trip on a train/And I thought about you") and the movies I watched ("I tipped the steward $5 to seat you here if you should come in"). Their tracks criss-crossed the main street of the small Missouri town where I spent my childhood, and their braying whistles cleaved the night air as they carried sleeping strangers to places I’d never been.
Alas, the highways and airlines were killing off passenger trains long before I figured out exactly what Cary Grant wanted to do to Eva Marie Saint on the Twentieth Century Limited. By the time I was old enough to travel alone, I took it for granted that I’d never spend a night in a sleeper car, watching the world rumble by. So when the Department of Homeland Security raised America’s alert status from yellow to orange a few days before I had to fly from New York to Chicago to look at plays, it struck me that this might well be my last chance to satisfy a longtime craving. I tore up my plane ticket, paid a visit to www.amtrak.com, booked a Viewliner Standard Bedroom on the Lake Shore Limited, and prepared to find out what I’d been missing all these years….
No link, blast and damn it, so if you're not covered with 10 inches of snow, do pick up today's Journal and take a gander. I’m kind of pleased with the way this one came out.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
I got back from the ballet at Lincoln Center about an hour ago. Barely. We're getting a lot of snow in Manhattan, and it doesn't look like it'll be going anywhere any time soon, either.
I'm supposed to be lunching tomorrow with a blogger in the right-hand column, but at this point I'd say it's no better than even money that she makes it to the Upper West Side. Should she bag me, I plan to stay right here and blog (after sleeping in, of course).
Memo to anybody who wants me to write anything today: no.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, January 28, 2004 | Permanent
A hard-to-find MIA title is now on the slate at Image Entertainment — 1998's Croupier has a March 9 street-date.
I've been waiting for this one. Croupier is the best piece of cinematic neo-noir to be released in ages. (Which reminds me: a composer friend of mine called me a "paleo-modernist" the other day. That's not quite right, but I like it anyway.)
And yes, I made both deadlines. Next stop, Balanchine.
No more blogging today, alas. I have two deadlines-for-money, one of them frighteningly pressing, followed by a night at the ballet, and Our Girl is tied up in double knots.
Eat what’s here. We’ll put more in the dish tomorrow.
P.S. All sorts of folks in the right-hand column and elsewhere have been checking in with their own lists of comfort reading (or, in Maud's case, discomfort). We'll post a readers' guide later in the week. Or you could just work your way down "Sites to See," one cool blog at a time, and find out what you've been missing.
Lileks has a way of tossing off a trenchant little nugget of arts criticism right in the middle of a Bleat about something completely different. Like yesterday:
People talk about the golden age of television (grainy, overexposed hard-to-watch kinetescopes of big braying vaudevillians in drag) or the golden age of sitcoms (Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family) and I suppose that’s correct. But TV today is better than TV ever was. There was never a show like "The Wire." There was never anything as brutal and knowing as "The Office." "Curb Your Enthusiasm" would have made no sense in 1967. It makes perfect sense today.
For the most part—with some exceptions—I think he’s right. But the exceptions are important, and worth remembering. It’s true that the Golden Age of Television was mostly Milton Berle and low-budget westerns and mysteries. But it was also Ernie Kovacs, An Evening With Fred Astaire, Noël Coward and Mary Martin, Your Show of Shows, my beloved What’s My Line?, The Sound of Jazz, New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker on Playhouse 90, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, and Toscanini and the NBC Symphony—not every night, but often enough.
We don’t have anything like that today, at least not on network TV (nor is there nearly as much of it on cable TV as is commonly thought). What we do have is an unprecedentedly candid style of TV comedy and drama that reflects the brutal knowingness of our postmodern age with startling, even alarming clarity. I like it. I’m not so sure I like what it tells us about ourselves.
"Life grows more equable as one grows older; not less interesting, but I hope a little more impersonal. An old man ought to be sad. I don’t know whether I shall be when the wind is west and the sky clear."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., letter to Frederick Pollock, March 22, 1892
I just this minute got back from the Village Vanguard, where I heard a special one-night-only old-fashioned "battle of the bands" in which the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (which plays there every Monday night) squared off against Bob Brookmeyer’s Europe-based New Art Orchestra, in town for the annual International Association for Jazz Education conference. Only there wasn’t any battle, not really. The Vanguarders were on their mettle tonight, but Bob Brookmeyer is no ordinary bandleader.
He is—just to start with—the greatest living composer of music for big band. I don't call it "jazz" because Brookmeyer’s music, though it’s certainly jazz, is in certain important ways something else as well. He is one of the very few jazz composers to have mastered large-scale form, and his pieces have an organic wholeness and flow usually found only in classical music. He is also a superlative valve trombonist whose blunt, burry tone and no-nonsense solos are as recognizable as the face of a friend. He leads the New Art Orchestra with the lucid gestures of a first-class symphony conductor (think Fritz Reiner, not Leonard Bernstein). As for the band itself, I don’t know when I’ve heard better ensemble playing from any group, regardless of idiom. These guys crackle and burn—elegantly.
Brookmeyer and the Vanguard go back a long way. "I’ve spent more time in this place than in some of my previous marriages," he said wryly at the start of the first set. In fact, he put in a memorable stretch as music director of the Vanguard band starting in 1978, after Thad Jones moved to Europe, and did some of his best composing and arranging for the group (which returned the compliment tonight by playing his celebrated version of Hoagy Carmichael’s "Skylark"). But his earlier efforts, impressive though they remain, don't hold a candle to what he’s writing now. At 74, Brookmeyer has pared away the thorny dissonances of his middle-period style. His music is simpler, more linear, unequivocally tonal—and full of joy. It’s the sort of development one sometimes runs across in the work of major artists as they grow older and strip their art down to the barest of essentials. That’s what happened to Matisse and Bartók in their old age, and it’s what’s happening to Brookmeyer now.
I’ll have to put my thoughts in better order tomorrow morning in order to write about the Brookmeyer band for my "Second City" column in this Sunday’s Washington Post. I hope that what I write will profit from a good night’s sleep and a bit of reflection. But I also wanted to post a few lines tonight, while I’m still bubbling over with the excitement that comes from having heard the kind of performance that reminds us critics of why we do what we do. And no matter how well my column turns out, it won’t be any more to the point than the one-line note scribbled on a cocktail napkin that a musician friend passed to me midway through the first set: "Colors are flooding down the walls." That’s just what it sounded like.
If you’ve never heard the New Art Orchestra in person, go here and here to order its two CDs, which contain some of the music performed tonight at the Vanguard. I guess you had to be there, but if you weren’t, it’s the next best thing.
You asked here what books I turn to for comfort reading. My list overlaps with yours by one essential item, the Westlake/Stark double threat. Speaking of which, I loved your Dortmundrian almanac entry last week.
John D. Macdonald does very well for me too—although, since I find it hard to stop after just one or two, even getting started can mean courting some really catastrophic distraction from actual life. Series really fit this bill, don't they? Several of your choices are series, strictly or loosely defined. There's serious comfort in knowing that more of the same flavor is available for the asking, and imagining that the comfort zone can be indefinitely extended.
Elaine Dundy's circa-1960 novels The Dud Avocado (based on her involvement with Kenneth Tynan) and The Old Man and Me (alas, almost impossible to find) are major stalwarts for me. I've read them each ten times at least, and have given away half a dozen copies of the former (most recently to cinetrix, so we'll see what she thinks). Nobody I give it to ever likes it as much as I do, by the way—a source of ongoing amazement to me, but no damper on my proselytizing.
Jane Austen does the trick, as does M.F.K. Fisher. On the pricklier side, Mary McCarthy and Lorrie Moore—despite being more like a sharp stick in the eye than a warm blanket, the both of them. That big old David Thomson Biographical Dictionary of Film, of course. Robert Benchley. Joan Didion. Walter Scott. Robert Louis Stevenson.
Just thinking about this question makes me want to take a sick day. Sadly, that's the last thing I can do anytime in the near future, and I won't be blogging much in the next week either. The Friday deadline I'm facing is scary enough that I'm going to have to play the Luddite this week and shun the computer as far as possible. No comfort reading, no newfangled technology. Just me, a fistful of sharpened blue pencils, and a stack of defenseless manuscripts.
That's the goal, anyway. I may weaken and poke my head in and out once or twice. If not, I'll miss you and see you next week. We can talk some more about Freaks and Geeks and scenes from old movies (did I tell you I broke down and joined Netflix? So far, making the queue has been the best part. Well, it's been the only part. But it was pure pleasure.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, January 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT: In the belly of the beast
A reader writes, apropos of my posting
on crowds at the Art Institute of Chicago’s "Manet and the Sea":
An ex-student of mine is now a senior staffer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I ran into
him at the catastrophically crowded Da Vinci drawing show of last spring,
having just come from the much better crowd-managed blockbuster at MOMA
Queens. I none-too-gently asked him how the Met could have done such a
ruinous job of anticipating and managing the Leonardo mania. His theory:
Philippe [i.e., Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met] wanted it that way.
According to this gentleman, Philippe thought
it looked bad for the museum that the Jackie O fashion display should be
most crowded show of recent times, much more popular than the epic Vermeer
show alongside at the same time. It was thus in the Director's interest
that an exhibit of "fine" art should also give the Met that appearance of
all the world wanting to see what it had to show. Crowds, publicity,
all this for a hundred tiny pieces of paper from a long-dead Italian (when
was the last blockbuster drawing show?) - this at least was his theory.
it been more managed, the appearance of popular frenzy would have been
less dramatic, his thinking went.
Whether true or not, the fact is the Leonardo show was the most egregious
example in my experience of body count burying art. The Met made it even
worse by encouraging the use of magnifying glasses, thus ensuring even
battles for the one favored viewing position that would end up blocking
everyone else. As you know, the Met hasn't ticketed a blockbuster in
and whatever we might think of the phenomenon itself, a ticketed
(assuming a reasonable allotment of tickets per hour) sure beats a
That’s why I blog. How can I top a letter like this? The Italians have a saying: Si non e vero, e ben trovato (roughly, "If it’s not true, it ought to be"). Whether or not de Montebello really had such considerations in mind, consciously or otherwise, who can doubt that the Blockbuster Mentality permeates and contaminates the thinking of all similarly placed museum executives?
Once again, I’m not saying that All Blockbusters Are Bad. I am, however, saying something less clear-cut but more important: Bigger Isn’t Better. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, and the difference matters—a lot.
I've been thinking about how you describe blogging and the Internet as the future of arts journalism. As a neophyte arts journalist who wants to make more money, I'm wondering: if what you say is true, how will arts journalists earn a living?
(1) Most committed bloggers hope they’ll eventually find a way to make money off their blogs, whether by advertising or tip jars or fund-raising drives or premium-content subscription models or…whatever. That’s not quite as naďve as it sounds, though so far as I know the only individual bloggers to make any money to date have been the "warbloggers," those politics-oriented bloggers whose sites draw infinitely more daily traffic than us poor artbloggers.
(2) In the meantime, we keep on blogging anyway, just because we love it and find it stimulating.
(3) Moreover, I know a few arts bloggers whose blogs have brought them to the attention of the print media, and who now are starting to get writing assignments that pay actual cash money—not much, but some. It’s a start.
(4) In any case, I think the real significance of the blogosphere is that it fosters and fertilizes a true amateur culture—a very old-fashioned notion, rendered freshly viable by a new technology. Lest we forget, you don’t have to be a full-time critic in order to have something worthwhile to say about the arts. (My mailbag proves that in spades.) The blogosphere makes it possible for amateur "critics" to say worthwhile things in public. What could be more stimulating, both to them and to their readers? I think that’s a hell of a lot more important than whether OGIC and I someday figure out how to make a little money off this blog of ours.
"Important! Fearful contemporary word, smacking of the textbook, the lecture-hall, the 'balanced appraisal.' So-and-so may be readable, interesting, entertaining, but is he important? Ezra Pound may be pretentious and dull, but you've got to admit that he's ever so important. What? You haven't read Primo Levi (in translation, of course)? But he's important. As the philosopher J. L. Austin remarked in another context, importance isn't important. Good writing is."
I've been thinking about
your recent posts on the future of adult films and wanteed to ask you a
follow-up question. Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse, but as an
aspiring screenwriter (yes, I'm a masochist) I have an above-average
interest in these topics.
My question is this--when you say (and I agree with you, by the way)
that the indie films of today will become the novels of tomorrow, are
you really saying that indie films will become even less important to
the culture than they are today? Let's face it, the overwhelming
majority of novels make zero impact on the culture, and even a mediocre
Hollywood film has greater reach than a Nobel-prize-winning novel. And
it's not that indies have such an impact today. The intenstity with
which indie filmmakers fought against the proposed Oscar screener ban
only highlights the sad fact that even critics won't watch the majority
of these films unless they get a freebie in the mail.
If you don't mind a followup question, assuming this scenario plays out,
what does that mean for mainstream films? It's hard to believe that
they'll get any worse (and this is from someone who absolutely loves
mainstream films when they work, which they rarely do).
Just curious for your opinion. I may be a masochist, but I don't have to
be a fool, and if I'm going into this business I want to know what I'll
This letter, which I received last month but am only just getting around to answering (sorry!), has acquired a new resonance in light of the recent whirlwind of lit-blog traffic triggered by OGIC’s recent posting about the state of the New York Times Book Review. I don’t really have good answers to any of my correspondent’s questions, either, just a couple of observations.
To begin with, it’s true that novels have become increasingly peripheral to the cultural conversation (such as it is). But it also seems to me—as I’ve said before in this space—that arts blogs might possibly be changing that state of affairs for the better. I don’t mean the whole world is suddenly going to start reading literary novels next week, all because of Our Girl and Maud and Bookslut. What I do mean is that the blogosphere makes it easier for people who care about serious fiction to communicate with one another, and that these people appear to be coalescing into a cybercommunity which over time could start to have a significant affect on book sales. Could, I say: the blogosphere is still very young. But it’s already stirring up conversation and controversy all out of proportion to its actual size, and that’s a good sign, an indication that we’re not fad-snuffling eccentrics but "early adopters" who comprise the leading edge of a full-fledged cultural shift.
As for independent film, well, I think my correspondent actually has it backwards. Outside of major cities, most Americans don’t have anything remotely approaching easy access to independent films until they finally make their way to DVD (if then). Hence it would be an improvement were such films to be released via Web-based new-media channels. As we city folk have a tendency to forget, America is a big country, and the smart people don’t all live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. In fact, most of them don’t. From my art-oriented point of view, the most valuable thing about the new media is their ability to distribute high culture (a phrase I don’t define narrowly, by the way) to smart people who don’t live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, I hasten to remind my correspondent that those who want to make serious art must take it for granted that they won’t make serious money doing so. If that’s what you’re in it for, don’t even think about writing indie screenplays or literary novels or symphonies—go work for Donald Trump. Making art is its own reward, or ought to be. George Balanchine (about whom you’ll be reading a lot more on this blog in the course of the next few weeks) was once asked why the members of New York City Ballet’s pit orchestra were paid less than New York City’s garbagemen. His answer? "Because garbage stinks."
I was at Google's headquarters in Silicon Valley a few days
ago, and they have this really amazing electronic global
map that shows, with lights, how many people are using
Google to search for knowledge. The region stretching from
Morocco to the border of India had almost no lights.
Now showing on my magic cable box, Garden of Evil (Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, directed by Henry Hathaway, score by Bernard Herrmann) and Beat the Devil (Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, written by Truman Capote, directed by John Huston). I flip from one to the other every three or four minutes, which is easy to do with a digital video recorder. By now, the two movies are pretty thoroughly scrambled up in my head. That's quite a cinematic frittata.
I still haven't done any of the stuff I hadn't done as of three o'clock this afternoon (see my earlier posting). It is now eight-fifteen. Boy, does it ever feel good to blow a whole day. I feel like I've cheated the world, or at least a bunch of editors.
Do other semi-recovering workaholics take whole days off? Or did I just discover a radical new idea?
A bitter, months-long dispute within the American Library Association -- the largest nation-based organization of librarians in the world -- continues as to whether to demand that Fidel Castro release 10 imprisoned independent librarians found guilty of making available to Cubans copies of George Orwell's 1984 and the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights.
Along with 65 other Cuban dissenters, the ''subversive'' librarians were sentenced to 20 or more years in Castro's gulag. Some urgently need medical attention, which they're not receiving.
At the ALA's annual midwinter meeting this month in San Diego, Karen Schneider, a member of the ALA's governing council, wanted to amend a final report on the meeting to call for their immediate release. In proposing her amendment, Schneider told her colleagues that Castro's police had confiscated and burned books and other materials at the independent libraries.
The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated by the 182-member council. The report was swept through by a raising of hands.
From Sept. 25 to Oct. 2, libraries across this country will invite their communities to the annual Banned Books Week, decrying censorship. I've spoken, by invitation, during those weeks at libraries around the country. Will any library invite me this year to talk about the burning of library books in Cuba?…
If you haven’t been following this story, read the whole thing here. It’s not pretty.
Here are some of the many interesting pieces of e-mail I’ve received in recent weeks:
Did you ever stop to think about the line you wrote regarding a lack
of modernist impact on the little heartland town? Maybe there is
something purposeful in the lack of appreciation for most of the high
art of the twentieth century. Modernism has little to say to the folks
who, like me, choose to live in the great dead heart of America. We
are not politically or artistically correct. You came (apparently) from small-town roots and were always drawn to
high culture. Nothing wrong with that but it is not the only world.
You went to NY and are our representative to that town I refer to as
"east of the Hudson." Your sensibilities are more complex than most of
the folks whose voices are important on that $24-dollar hunk of rock.
But there are only a few of us out here who care much at all about what
is current in NYC. Manhattan is very, very inbred, by our standards
and while we read the NYT and the WSJ, both of which are now delivered
every morning to our mailboxes. But our daily lives are not very much
I saw Casablanca for the first time in the big auditorium at college, on one of those ratty screens that aren't quite large enough to be a real
screen but are still bigger than a filmstrip screen in a classroom. It
was part of the Student Union's film series (which was shown in
University Hall -- logic? at my university? riiiiight). Most of the time
they showed current or near-current films (Wayne's World, The Freshman)
but one quarter they did old movies. I loved Casablanca deeply. After years of oppressive jokes by the Baby
Boomers about films I'd never seen but was still supposed to worship, I
honestly was sure it must suck. Instead it felt so fresh and nasty and
cynical and romantic that it might have been written just yesterday,
for me. I bought my mom the DVD for Christmas, but really, I wanted it for
myself. (But I gave myself Firefly and a great deal of anime, so don't
feel too sorry....) I do plan to convert my cousins. Soon.
I'm 28, and I first saw "Casablanca" on the big screen; my college showed it
as a part of its campus film series. (It screened on Valentine's Day,
appropriately enough, and caused great distress among my group of
girlfriends, as we had neither Ricks nor Victors in our lives that year.)
The film program typically showed more recent films, but periodically it
would screen classics, and those screenings were a wonderful opportunity to
see these films the way they were meant to be seen.
You wrote: "Not for the first time, I wondered why no painter has ever taken for
his subject what one sees from the window of an airplane." And I refer you to this.
I think your New York location is skewing your thoughts a bit on
regional orchestras. I live in Portland, OR, home of the Oregon
Symphony, one of the orchestras mentioned in your piece. Portland is
also home to the Portland Art Museum, a passable regional museum with a
decent permanent collection and plenty of traveling shows. I think that the experience of seeing classical music performed live is
quite different than that of listening to a CD. I can buy books with
many great paintings from Amazon.com as well, but is that the same as
seeing the original? I can watch ballet on TV-- same thing.
Experiencing even a mediocre performance of an old standard is
something that still captures me, but maybe that's my small town roots.
The symphony also gives us rubes the opportunity to see a variety of
soloists we would not otherwise see, many world-class. In New York, you have an abundance of culture. Portland is really not
bad given it's size, but losing the symphony would be a blow.
Furthermore, there is considerable synergy between various arts
organizations. For instance, the principal percussionist for the Oregon
Symphony is also the music director for the Portland Opera (or is it
the ballet? I forget, but you get the point).
I also thought TWILIGHT was wonderful, for the same reason that I love the
Lew Archer novels; it puzzles me why you don't share that enthusiasm (as I
recall from your review of a Ross MacDonald biography a couple of years
back). Like the Archer stories, TWILIGHT transmutes the smartass patter of
Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade into a more realistic look at an aging
outsider. And also like them, TWILIGHT's murderer, when uncovered, seems
sadly inevitable, a convincing portrait of tragic choices made - rather than
the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre monsters of more black-and-white private
eye adventures (not that I don't also love THE MALTESE FALCON, understand,
but this is more interestingly complex in some ways).
You say that the Boetticher/Scott Ranown Westerns "never even turn
up on TV" but they actually have aired on Turner Classic Movies and fairly
frequently over the past couple of years. I'm a freelance
writer/researcher for TCM (in fact I wrote the Boetticher obit on the
website, along with a bunch of other stuff such as DVD reviews) and have
done work on these. I think TCM may have even shown the entire cycle but
could be wrong about that because I don't remember Decision at Sundown, a
particular favorite because it's so disillusioned (even ending with a
cowboy riding off into the sunset though in probably the least heroic
You know, I think you'd make your life a lot easier with respect to reviews
if you lowered your standards a bit. Take a look at this.
I was reading your new post about Zankel Hall, and I figured I'd toss in a
data point about the issue of subway noise. I just saw a classical concert
there (Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Messaien's Vingt Regards; fantastic
performance, incidentally). I found the subway to be audible, but not
particularly obtrusive, especially because as the concert went on and I got
used to it going by. I should mention that this was only during relatively
quiet sections; during louder passages (of which there were quite a few),
the subway noise was pretty much masked by the music.
We have coffee together each morning -- like it or not. I may be a bit quieter than you and a bit farther from civilization, but I have that odd sense that we've struck up a friendship. You don't seem to listen to me when I pound the desk and say that you've lost your mind about something, but that's a rare occasion, anyway, and I'm willing to forgive. I'm out here, just beyond where god parks his bicycle in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and I enjoy your blog tremendously. My wife (who never reads blogs) thinks I've become something of an authority on all sorts of things because I steal liberally and give credit rather stingily.
I'd planned on writing today, and maybe even going out to see a movie, but the truth is that I'm worn to the nubbin. I wrote too much and did too much this past week, and it's too cold outside this afternoon. I think maybe what I need to do is stay indoors and look at my new Arnold Friedman lithograph and catch up with some of the movies stored on my magic cable box.
Last night I watched Kings Row. The movie itself is more or less preposterous, a whole field full of stale corn, but I marveled at the late-romantic beauties of the Erich Wolfgang Korngold score—more Straussian than Strauss—and marveled, too, at how utterly inappropriate it is to the small-town story it purports to illustrate but in fact overwhelms. I was no less surprised to discover that Ronald Reagan was a damned good actor. The only Reagan movie I'd ever seen was Bedtime for Bonzo, not exactly a fair test of his skills, but he was definitely up to the challenge of the demanding part he played in Kings Row. (In case you've forgotten, it's the one where he wakes up, sees that his legs have been amputated, and shrieks "Where's the rest of me?") Just to confirm my first impressions, I looked up Otis Ferguson's 1941 New Republic review of the film, and found that it refers in passing to "Ronald Reagan, who is good and no surprise." Obviously Ferguson, the best American film critic of his generation, took Reagan's gifts for granted—surely the finest kind of tribute.
Today, in an odd parallel, I've been watching Will Penny, a Seventies western with a slightly off-key score by David Raksin (he wrote "Laura"), lovely to hear but not quite right for the Old West in winter, and a first-rate performance by Charlton Heston, another gifted actor whose reputation has gotten lost in the political shuffle. Whatever you happen to think of gun control, he sure could act—in the right roles, anyway—and he's excellent here as an aging cowboy whose best years have slipped away from him. Heston actually made quite a few interesting small-scale films in between Ben-Hur and the big-bucks disaster movies with which he occupied himself in the waning years of his stardom. Will Penny is one of the best of them, not at all the sort of vehicle you'd expect from a name-above-the-title Hollywood star, and decidedly worth seeing on a cold Sunday afternoon.
What do you know? I actually wrote something! But that's enough for now: I've got a lot of work to do this week, and I think it might be smart for me to lay fallow for the rest of the day. I may tinker with the Top Fives, and I might even post a bit of reader mail if I start to feel restless, but otherwise I'll stick to sitting on the couch, chewing through some of the other old movies my digital video recorder has stored up for me. Have a nice day.
"I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.
"There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.
"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?"