About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, March 10, 2006
TT: All about Cate
It’s Friday, and I’m strictly off Broadway in this week’s Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. On tap are BAM Harvey’s Hedda Gabler, starring Cate Blanchett, and Lincoln Center’s Bernarda Alba, starring Phylicia Rashad:
Everyone who goes to the movies knows how good Cate Blanchett is, which is why the Australian production of “Hedda Gabler” in which she’s currently touring is such a hot ticket. But acting in front of an audience is different from acting in front of a camera, and this was her U.S. stage debut. So how’d she do? Stupendously well—except that she reminded me of an old-time movie star. One particular old-time movie star, in fact: Bette Davis.
That’s not a knock. Davis was matchless in the right kind of part, and “Hedda Gabler” might well have been her cup of wormwood, especially in the tightened-up, lightened-up “adaptation” of Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play by Andrew Upton (Ms. Blanchett’s husband) that the Sydney Theatre Company has brought to Brooklyn….
Speaking of scary women, there’s another show in town that you should rush to see: “Bernarda Alba,” Michael John LaChiusa’s musical version of the 1936 play by Federico García Lorca, which opened Monday at Lincoln Center, just downstairs from Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza.” Like Mr. Guettel, Mr. LaChiusa specializes in musical-theater works with the expressive weight of operas that he insists for some inscrutable reason on calling “musicals.” Whatever they are, they’re theatrical dynamite, and “Bernarda Alba,” in which Phylicia Rashad plays the tyrannical mother of a houseful of sexually frustrated young Spanish ladies, is no exception….
No link, not even with a movie star! Buy the paper already. Or, better yet, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the complete text of my review (there’s a whole lot more of it), plus plenty of additional art-related coverage.
I’ll be in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, though not with my biweekly column (that’s next Saturday). Instead, I’ve contributed the latest installment to “Masterpieces,” the Journal’s regular feature about important works of art. This time around I’ve written about one of my favorite jazz albums, Jim Hall’s Concierto, whose title track is a jazz version of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez that also features Chet Baker and Paul Desmond.
Here’s a little taste:
Irreverent jazz musicians have been swinging the classics for almost as long as jazz itself has existed. Jelly Roll Morton was playing a stomping version of the “Miserere” from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in the whorehouses of New Orleans a century ago. Since then the practice of turning familiar pieces of classical music into jazz instrumentals has acquired an impeccable pedigree extending from Art Tatum’s jaunty reworking of Dvorak’s “Humoresque” all the way to John Lewis’ silvery bebop riffs on Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” But of the many classical works to receive the jazz treatment, the one that continues to be updated most often—and most successfully—is a guitar concerto by a blind Spanish composer who sought to portray in music his anguish over the suffering of his sick wife….
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
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 and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and 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)
• The Pajama Game (musical, G, reviewed here, closes June 18)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, 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)
It's a far cry from the Teachout Museum, let me tell you, but a picture of this Constable picture, safekept from an otherwise discarded 2002 wall calendar, is what I look at when I'm at my desk. An oil sketch that I saw in person when I was in London more years ago now than I care to believe, "A Lane in Flatford" mesmerizes me even in this humble form. I'm not sure how well you can make it out in the web reproduction, but the detail I'm obsessed with is the leftmost cloud, which meets the tree to its left oddly flush. The paint seems most heavily applied here, and the cloud's white, thick brightness arrests my eye—every day—like a tear in the canvas. This bold cloud is the most aggressive, crispest detail in the picture, but it stops short of the rather fuzzy, sweet tree, meeting it halfway. The question of which is background and which foreground seems strangely, disarmingly unresolved. The picture's verisimilitude breaks down a little.
Honestly, I stare at this picture intermittently for hours most days, but before tonight I couldn't have told you what was in it besides that cloud and treetop. There are figures? A lane? A fence? Huh. So that must be where the painting gets its title. Still, to me, it's a picture of a cloud, and of painting.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 8, 2006 | Permanent
OGIC: Sweeter sixteen
The Morning News has kicked off their second annual Tournament of Books, with guest judges including Maud, Mark, Dale Peck, and Brigid Hughes, and entrants ranging from Mary Gaitskill to Kazuo Ishiguro to Zadie Smith. Should be fun, especially for those of us who are immune to the charms of March madness. A tournament for the rest of us, with brackets and everything.
And yet, until this year, some essential element seemed to be missing from the basketball tourney's bookish equivalent...I could never quite put my finger on just what it was.... Oh yeah. Betting.
Well, it's a pale imitation no more—the ever resourceful and creative (not to mention hometown) Coudal Partners have handicapped the books and are taking your bets now at $10 a pop, with all proceeds destined for a worthwhile charity that helps public schools. The prizes, natch, are books. Come to think of it, my forgoing a Janet Gretzky joke here is kind of a prize in its own right....
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 8, 2006 | Permanent
“I suppose there is a lot of fun to be had from reading the quotations on any dust-jacket more than five years old, simply because of reviewers’ besetting vice, that of taking, or appearing to take, their contemporaries too seriously."
Philip Larkin, “Lies, Fleas, and Gullible Mayflies"
Part of what I loved about Prep was its willingness to take this rawest form of self-consciousness seriously as a social and psychological phenomenon—by mercilessly anatomizing it. I think the novel is about as insightful on such matters as the late great television show Freaks and Geeks (I can't remember whether you were a fan), though it is less comic and much harder on its protagonist. Here I'll pause to note what a fantastically page-turning read Prep is—I zoomed through it at warp speed—and how great the temptation therefore is to dismiss it as fluff. It's one of those books that I would put down only reluctantly and pick up again hungrily, as if it were a letter full of juicy gossip about everyone I've ever known. So the impulse is to dismiss it, and I think that snap judgment is sadly telling about our mistrust of certain kinds of pleasure in reading. (And by "us" I mean, roughly, anyone who ever used the phrase "literary fiction" in earnest, which I do close to daily.)
So Lee hides in the dormitory phone booth or reflects, "I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction." I recognized this way of thinking; it's something I've thought before, but never very consciously. Because of the extremity of Lee's social circumstances and the almost surgical style Sittenfeld employs, the dissection Prep performs—both social and psychological—regularly unearths insights like this, bringing submerged modes of thinking to the surface.
Like I said, I’m taking a few days off from the blog, but if you want someone else’s perspective on where I went and what I did last week, go here and here. I can vouch for the accuracy of this account (especially the part about barbecue).
’Scuse me while I disappear again. See you…er, later. Friday. Sometime. Whenever.
“There certainly is a cult of the mad these days: think of all the boys who’ve been in the bin—I don’t understand it. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Hardy—it’s the big, sane boys who get the medals. The object of writing is to show life as it is, and if you don’t see it like that you’re in trouble, not life. “
Philip Larkin, interviewed by John Haffenden (Manchester Guardian, Mar. 31, 1973)
This is your last warning: I'm giving two lectures next week in Washington, D.C., and you're cordially invited to attend either or both.
• On Monday, March 7, at 5:30, I'll be delivering a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute. The topic is “The Problem of Political Art.” (C-SPAN will be videotaping this lecture for broadcast on a later date.) For more information, go here.
• On Wednesday, March 9, at 6:30, I’ll be delivering a Duncan Phillips Lecture under the auspices of the Phillips Collection at the Women’s National Democratic Club. The topic is “Multiple Modernisms: What a Novice Collector Learned from Duncan Phillips," and five prints from the Teachout Museum (by Milton Avery, Jane Freilicher, John Marin, Fairfield Porter, and Neil Welliver) will be on display. Advance reservations are required. For more information, go here.
Come up and see me some time!
P.S. I won't be toting my iBook to and from Washington, so my presence on the blog next week is likely to be sketchy at best.
Whee—I have been inundated with five-packs of movie quotes. From readers, from bloggers, from commenters on other blogs. It's fun! It's fantastic! It's full of stars!* Aw…I love you guys. I love my gay dead son.**
I can't resist—I'm busily compiling a master list alphabetized by movie title, the better to form some impressionistic observations on the exercise. It's fascinating to see which lines are cited most frequently, which movies are cited most variously, and simply to rediscover many, many killer lines I had completely forgotten about. More Monday. In the meantime, keep 'em coming.
*Close Encounters of the Third Kind, cited by Rasputin.***
**Heathers, cited by nobody.
***No, 2010. You know what I look forward to in life? Being able to read.
Last night I was all raving about Kelly Braffet's novel Josie and Jack. Now I have a couple of addenda. First, in the earlier post I pronounced myself unimpressed by comparisons of the book to "Hansel and Gretel." My (unstated) grounds were that the sister and brother in the fairy tale are victimized innocents whereas Josie and Jack are…not. Well, I'm a blockhead: I just rediscovered that the book's epigraph comes straight from the Grimm Brothers' story:
When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs, for the many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods and fields had picked them all up. Hänsel said to Grethel, "We shall soon find the way," but they did not find it.
This is a lovely, haunting, and indeed a fitting epigraph, and I must take back my short-sighted dismissal of the likeness. Although the tale does stand in more of an oblique than a parallel relation to Josie and Jack, and so works better as epigraph than as analogue. Mostly, though, I say "never mind"!
The second thing is that as soon as you get wrapped up in this book, you're going to start casting it in your head. Can't be helped. And chances are it will end up on the screen before we all get much older; when it does, these are going to be two highly juicy roles for some intrepid young up-and-comers to sink their teeth into. If and when you read the book, send me your picks—remembering, please, that Josie and Jack are sixteen and eighteen.
It’s Friday, and I’ve got another triple-barreled drama column in today’s Wall Street Journal.
First out of the box is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which looks to me like a major contender for the title of Biggest Musical Hit of the Season, even though it has a familiar ring to it:
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which opened last night at the Imperial, resembles “The Producers” so closely that Mel Brooks ought to ask for a half-point on the gross. Not only is it about a pair of unscrupulous buffoons who slip on their own banana peels, but Jeffrey Lane and David Yasbek, like Mr. Brooks before them, have turned every trick in the how-to-write-a-hit-show instruction manual, hiding their old-fashioned ways behind a thick veneer of comic songs lightly sprinkled with words you couldn’t even say on a Broadway stage 50 years ago, much less sing. Mr. Lane’s book is a fast-moving assembly line of pa-rum-pum jokes (“Do you think I should use an umlaut?” “No, you smell great”). Mr. Yazbek’s tunes are so utilitarian that they’ll have slipped your mind a good half-hour before the second-act reprises roll around. Sound familiar?
Original, in other words, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” isn’t—but it’s wonderfully, almost arrogantly entertaining all the same. John Lithgow (the suavely oily senior partner) and Norbert Leo Butz (his scene-stealing low-life sidekick) are the Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane of 2005…
Though it pretends to be a Marx Brothers-style courtroom farce, “Romance” is actually an Ionesco-like verbal fantasia whose subject is language itself. The seven characters, all of them nameless, are empty shells of cliché whose frenzied exchanges not infrequently approach outright abstraction (“Your Honor, I do not wish to descend to the ‘picayune,’ but as my colleague has wished you Gesundheit, I feel that I must wish you Gesundheit”). As Mr. Mamet winds them up ever more tightly, they grow crazier and crazier, leading to a climactic explosion of lunacy so all-encompassing that it made me weep with delight….
Stephen Adly Guirgis, the ooh-so-trendy author of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” is yet another potty-mouthed playwright, though he prefers the 12-letter Oedipal variant of Mr. Mamet’s favorite four-letter word. That’s appropriate enough, since Mr. Guirgis’ new play, which runs though April 3 at the Public Theater, is at least three times too long for its own good. Like “Romance,” it’s a courtroom drama of sorts, one in which Jesus’ betrayer petitions the Circuit Court of Purgatory for early release from hell on the grounds that God is merciful. Even if you think that’s a clever idea—and if you do, you need to retake Theology 101—the unhappy fact remains that Mr. Guirgis hasn’t the faintest idea how to develop it….
No link. To read the whole thing (as well you should), pick up a copy of today’s Journal at the nearest newsstand, or go here with credit card in hand and follow the instructions. You won’t be sorry.
I'm tired, and it's Kelly Braffet's fault. Her winningly creepy first novel, Josie and Jack, kept me up until 5:00 last Sunday morning, when I reached its perfect last sentence, dropped my head, and drifted off into dreams that were comparatively mundane.
This is how the book begins:
The worst hangovers come on the sunniest days. Even at sixteen I knew enough to expect that. The day when Jack drove me into town to buy aspirin, the sun was shining and the sky was the brilliant blue of a crayon drawing.
That's Josie narrating. She and her brother Jack live nearly alone in an isolated, sprawling old house in industrial Pennsylvania; their father teaches physics at a college some hours away, where he spends his weekdays. Josie has only Jack in the world; though Jack is also devoted to her, he is ferociously charming and relishes the easy work of bending others to his will. The two don't go to school and, up to the point where the novel begins, they don't otherwise interact with anyone outside their magic circle. When they first do bring an outsider halfway in, the trouble starts. When they sally forth into the world together, it compounds.
While the sly Braffet keeps her cards close to the vest, her narrator Josie is a naďf and an open book. The resulting tension is delicious; my sympathies were fully engaged on Josie's behalf even while I sensed evil around every corner and knew that she'd be implicated when it sprang. It's not an easy trick, making a reader so wary of a character and empathetic with her at the same time. I don't at all get the comparisons to "Hansel and Gretel" this book is attracting (see various reviews on the Amazon page), but the jacket copy's invocation of Patricia Highsmith is trčs touché.
Without getting at all supernatural on us, the book gives an inky gothic wash to our own recognizable, crayon-bright modern world. Its denouement managed to floor me while making perfect sense. (What, you couldn't see it coming? But you admit it was inevitable! Silly, befuddled reader….) What I want to know is, what will Kelly Braffet do for an encore? I know better than to try to read her mind. But whatever it is, I hope she does it soon.
UPDATE: I've had second thoughts about something in this post. Look here for clarification. Or possibly complication.
While we’re on the subject of movies, Ed posted a copy of the AFI’s list of the top 100 American films. To look at it, go here. It is, to say the least, a most peculiar list, but it does contain a reasonably high percentage of good movies. Ed has seen ninety-six of them. I’ve seen seventy (I told Ed sixty-nine, but I’d forgotten one).
I shall now octuple the ante by posting the films on the list that I haven’t seen. Kindly keep your smartass remarks to yourselves:
• Lawrence of Arabia • Schindler’s List • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest • Raging Bull • Apocalypse Now • Midnight Cowboy • The Best Years of Our Lives (I’ve seen the first 15 minutes and listened to all of Hugo Friedhofer's score)
• Doctor Zhivago • King Kong (I've seen a snippet or two)
• The Birth of a Nation (one of these days…)
• A Clockwork Orange • All Quiet on the Western Front (hey, I read the book)
• The Sound of Music (not in this lifetime, baby)
• Rebel Without a Cause • Raiders of the Lost Ark (I taped it but never watched it)
• Close Encounters of the Third Kind • The Manchurian Candidate • Wuthering Heights (and no, I haven’t even read the book!)
• Dances With Wolves (puh-leeze—life’s too short)
• American Graffiti • Rocky • The Deer Hunter • Modern Times (I’ve seen most of it)
• Giant • Platoon • Frankenstein (I’ve seen part of it)
• The Jazz Singer (I’ve seen the part with sound)
• A Place in the Sun (I read the book, alas)
• Pulp Fiction (I know, I know, lay off already)
• Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (I’ve seen part of it)
Ooh, that was fun. Now, anybody for a round of Humiliation?
You'll forgive me for taking a pass on the "Ten Things I've Done that You Haven't" meme—it's just that all of mine have already been taken. But I have a fresh one for you, from Sheila O'Malley by way of Llama Butchers.
What are the first five movie quotes that pop into your head? They must be from different movies. Mine go something like this:
1. "Oh Michael, you are blind." (The Godfather, Part 2)
2. "Evelyn Waugh was a man." (Lost in Translation)
3. "It's not a game. It's not something you play." (Out of Sight)
4. "There's something sexy about Scrooge McDuck." (The Last Days of Disco)
5. "It's okay with me." (The Long Goodbye)
I like this one because it requires you not to think. So have at it—but no thinking!
“Work, as we usually think of it, is energy expended for a further end in view; play is energy expended for its own sake, as with children’s play, or as manifestation of the end or goal of work, as in ‘playing’ chess or the piano. Play in this sense, then, is the fulfillment of work, the exhibition of what the work has been done for.”
Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible in Literature
Alas, I'll have to extend my absence from this space for one day more. I don't have a hundred deadlines, and the dog didn't eat my homework. Story is, I'm entertaining tonight—something I haven't done in an embarrassingly long time. So there's cleaning to do, recycling to schlep, groceries to buy, pasta e fagioli to make. What's the occasion? You might well ask. If you're the least bit television-aware, you will probably be able to guess when I tell you that:
a) all of my guests are of the female persuasion, and
On the other side, I'll have laugh-out-loud Henry James (really!), a new blog meme (if it doesn't exhaust itself by then), and a very enthusiastic new book recommendation. Tomorrow, my lovelies.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 2, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Back into the frying pan
As I headed down to Broadway earlier this evening to see a press preview of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I passed another cab with a sign on the roof that said TILT. Omigod, can everybody tell? I thought.
What’s with me, you may ask? Well, as Dr. Johnson might have replied, you may ask. On top of showing my dear departed houseguest the town, I wrote and filed five pieces in the past six days, which is way the hell over my quota. Nor am I quite done: I still have to write Friday’s Wall Street Journal drama column, finish the lectures
I'll be giving in Washington next Monday and Wednesday, then go to Washington and give them, briefly returning to New York to attend the Tuesday-night press opening of New York City Opera’s revival of Candide and file a review the following morning. Then I’m done, meaning that I can resume work on Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
Yikes. Arrgh. Sheesh.
What happened? Perhaps the fact that I’ve been so outrageously happy of late caused me to let my guard down and forget that I don’t really control the weather. Whenever that happens, I have a nasty but predictable tendency to say yes to people—friends, editors, publicists, strangers on the phone—with no less predictably exhausting results not long after the fact. Which is where I am tonight, which is why I’m feeling slightly bent out of shape, as in not unlike a drunken gymnast.
Alas, there’s not a whole lot I can do for the next couple of weeks but keep on keeping on. Then I'll have six days’ worth of breathing room before I return to Washington on March 22 to attend my first National Council on the Arts meeting. My plan is to spend a couple of those days holed up in my favorite undisclosed location. I know, I know, if you want to hear God laugh, make a plan…but this time I’m soooo not kidding.
And will I do it all over again? Probably. But the intervals between my spasms of pathological overwork are slowly but surely lengthening. That's progress, right? (Right.) What’s more, you’ve doubtless noticed that I’ve eased off the blogging pedal in recent days, which is another kind of progress. In addition, I’m getting a reasonable if not excessive amount of sleep—and I haven’t forgotten to laugh at myself, either.
Don’t worry about me. I’ll get through this in one piece, and I’ll even learn a little something about myself in the process. Meanwhile, I promise to blog along the way. When I have time. And only if I feel like it.
"Chris was not so innocent as to believe that perfectly requited love was the only kind that lasted. As counselor he had listened to a hundred tales of one-way love, unilateral love, hopeless love. Of course there were love stories with happy endings and there were love stories that never seemed to end at all (for years after Chris's mother died, his father went on loving her memory), but Chris knew that love for some was a continual giving without getting, love spilling from the heart like water from a hillside spring, love bubbling up from a vast reservoir and coursing off as unrestrained as a river to the sea."
“In our street we have friends with lots in common. We discuss new books, films, popular culture, politics—everything except serious music. That shuts everyone up. I don’t think they even know what I do.”
So I finally, finally watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller over the weekend. I thought it was beautiful. Strangely for a movie I've been hearing about almost all my life, it struck me as an entirely new thing in the world—I realized nearly as soon as it started that I'd never seen so much as a scene or a still from it. That's odd, isn't it?
Some plot points, I think, escaped me. Didn't bother me much. What will stay with me is the killer combination of those achingly lovely vistas (was ever a film better served by letterboxing?) and the Leonard Cohen soundtrack, so anachronistic and yet so fitting. Why "achingly" lovely? Because as the characters go about their work against these gorgeous backdrops, you realize, first, that the beauty is ordinary to them and, second, that their work is the beginning of the process of deleting it.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 28, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Woulda coulda shoulda, Oscar
In the end, I don't care what the Academy does. Hell, I might even take a certain satisfaction in seeing my favorites robbed of what I think they deserve. But in the moment, it's gratifying and honest to put your heart out there for the underdogs you love and to experience the punch in the gut when they lose. So I did right by Sideways tonight: let myself really hope it might win a few, and let myself feel the sting when it mostly didn't.
Meanwhile, Michael Blowhard finally saw Sideways—just in time to see the Academy give it the dismissive little pat on the head that was its single award, for Best Adapted Screenplay—and we should all be glad, because he's written a wonderfully perceptive appreciation. His post deftly breaks down a pivotal scene in the film, giving it the really close reading it merits, and then turns into a wider-ranging reflection on the joys of the movie close-up:
My one small film-pedant reflection on seeing this film? I was grateful to be reminded of how powerful movie closeups can be. Sandra Oh isn’t in the movie as much as I hoped she’d be. But she and Payne sketch in a convincing portrait of a confident yet vulnerable, frisky yet intelligent woman with just a few well-chosen actions and closeups.
The film’s most beautiful closeup is of Madsen. She and Giammatti are on Oh’s porch, getting used to each other’s company. Payne gives Madsen a short monologue about what wine has meant to her, and he discreetly moves the camera in as she speaks with feeling and reverence. Everything is quiet. It’s evening in wine country. Your senses are awakened; the fragrances in the air are gentle, the night’s sounds are distant, the evening’s food and wine are having their effect. And a luscious, generous woman is—with warmth, fervor, and grace—opening herself up. I don’t know how the audiences you saw the movie with reacted to this brief passage, but some of the people around me were sniffling. Wait a minute, I was sniffling.
I think we weren’t moved because the scene was sad, except in its awareness that life itself is finally sad. (Payne is of Greek descent, and he seems to me to have a Mediterranean, deep, and inborn acceptance of life’s tragic sides.) I think that people were moved instead by the moment’s combo of beauty and gentle appreciation. Without utilizing any advanced-technology whoopdedo, Payne and Madsen were working magic. Something transfiguring was happening; radiance was pouring through the screen. (The Wife whispered to me after the scene was over, “That’s my kind of special effect.”) When Giamatti bolts—he can’t handle what’s being unwrapped and offered to him—we know for damn sure how deep his sad-sackness and depression go, and how far he’s got to come back. We’re left alone for a second with Madsen, feeling the moment fade away.
Movie histories tend to make much of careers, spectacle, economics, business, and technology. Important topics, of course. But the fact is also that closeups have always been experienced as one of film’s most amazing gifts…
Read the rest! I'm tempted to quote more, but better you go read it over there. Sideways-wise, I'll just say that despite my stubbornly voting for both Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church while knowing they were bad bets, I still won the pool at the party I attended. The prize was made out of chocolate, which is always okay with me.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 28, 2005 | Permanent
TT: We interrupt this interruption
I’m so busy that I wasn't planning to blog again until Tuesday at the earliest, but I couldn't wait to tell you about my very first visit to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Columbus Circle nightclub, from which I returned a few minutes ago after hearing a breathtaking set by Jim Hall and his quartet. As regular readers of this blog know, I consider Hall to be the greatest living jazz guitarist, a tersely lyrical magician who gets more and more music out of fewer and fewer notes. He outdid himself this evening, playing a version of “All the Things You Are” so spare and elliptical that Count Basie might well have thought it understated. If you haven’t heard his latest CD, Magic Meeting, go here and buy it at once.
As I say, this was my first peek inside Dizzy’s Club C*c*-C*la (I henceforth refuse to spell out the loathsome name in full), and I was impressed. Aside from everything else, it’s the most attractive jazz club in New York, with a bandstand placed directly in front of a glass wall that looks out on the Manhattan skyline. The blond bentwood walls are acoustically gratifying. The service is discreet, the food good. If you’re there strictly for the music, the bar is both unusually long and strategically placed so as to supply a clear view of the musicians. The cover charge is $30 a head, neither cheap nor unprecedentedly high. I’ll be back.
That’s all for now—Louis awaits. See you a bit later in the week. Go get 'em, OGIC!
P.S. No, I didn't watch the Oscars. Why bother? Did anything even remotely surprising happen there? My trainer will testify that I called it for Million Dollar Baby last week....
Here's yet another plug for the two lectures I'll be giving in Washington, D.C., next week:
• I’ll be delivering a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute at 5:30 on Monday, March 7. The topic is “The Problem of Political Art.” For more information, go here.
• I’ll be delivering a Duncan Phillips Lecture under the auspices of the Phillips Collection at 6:30 on Wednesday, March 9. The topic is “Multiple Modernisms: What a Novice Collector Learned from Duncan Phillips.” The lecture will take place at the Women’s National Democratic Club, and reservations are required. Five pieces from the Teachout Museum (by Milton Avery, Jane Freilicher, John Marin, Fairfield Porter, and Neil Welliver) will be on display. For more information, go here.
If you’re an “About Last Night” reader, come up afterward and say hello. All requests to autograph books will be happily honored!
“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.”
Bart Schneider's new novel Beautiful Inez is about a troubled classical violinist and her affair with a younger woman. It should be of special interest to ALN readers—its treatment of music is knowledgeable, intricate, and intense. My review of the book appears in today's Chicago Tribune; here's a taste of what I say:
Inez's implacable depression is this novel's true subject, and Schneider turns out one of the least reductive literary representations of the malady I've encountered. He recognizes that a simple logic of cause and effect cannot satisfactorily account for a full-blown case of depression like the one that oppresses Inez. Hers has specific causes, to be sure, some of them acute. But, true to reality, no more can one or two of them be isolated and called determining than the string section can take primary credit for the impact of an orchestra concert. By the time we know her, Inez's depression has hardened from a condition to be diagnosed into a fact to be assimilated. And there is--blackest irony--something symphonic about it.
…Schneider drew much of the new novel's passionate, detailed--and hauntingly ambivalent--evocations of music from his father, a concert violinist with the San Francisco Symphony. If depression is this novel's subject, music is the sine qua non in which it's steeped. Entwined in some enigmatic alliance with madness, music confers great blessings and takes enormous tolls here. In the book's amazing pivotal scene--Inez's impromptu solo concert at a mental institution--the blessings and the tolls become indistinguishable.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, February 27, 2005 | Permanent
Saturday, March 6, 2004
TT: The value of everything
I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t plug the Inflation Calculator often enough. It’s a Web site that allows you to adjust for inflation any given amount of money (in American dollars) in any year between 1800 and 2002, in either direction. If that sounds boring, think again. I use the Inflation Calculator at least once a week in my work, and I can’t tell you how many times I used it in writing The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.
Here’s an example: I was reading a biography of Benny Goodman this morning, in which it was mentioned in passing that Goodman paid Cootie Williams, one of the top trumpeters of the Swing Era, $200 a week in 1940. O.K., fine—but go to the Inflation Calculator and within seconds you’ll know that in today's dollars, Williams made $2,493.29 a week, or $129,651.08 a year. That’s pretty serious money now, even more so for a black jazz trumpeter playing with a white dance band in 1940…and you didn’t really know how good a salary it was, did you?
That’s what makes the Inflation Calculator so useful to anyone writing about the arts. Unless you’re an economist, you’re likely to have only the haziest notion of what a dollar was worth in 1940, or 1840, or even 1975. (What cost $200 in 1975 cost $701.80 in 2002. Surprised?) Yet that kind of information is indispensable to understanding the implications of, say, a novel about life in 1940, or a biography of a painter that tells how much a particular canvas sold for in 1928. It changes the way you think about the past.
Enough said? Bookmark the Inflation Calculator today. Use it. You can always find it in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column.
My recent Wall Street Journalpiece
about Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which I declared to be the greatest movie ever made, has drawn quite a bit of reader mail. One person wrote to say that he preferred Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, and asked what I thought of it. Another wanted to know what my Top Five films were.
As it happens, Our Girl in Chicago gave me a DVD of L’Atalante for Christmas. I had to put it aside—things, as you know, have been a trifle hectic of late—so we decided to watch it together last night after coming home from Paul Taylor. The pairing turned out to be serendipitous, since L’Atalante, though it has dialogue, feels more like a silent film (which isn’t necessarily surprising for a movie made in 1934). The words are mere props for the unfolding imagery, and most of them could have been flashed on title cards without impairing the overall effect. It’s a perfectly lovely film, sweet and unaffected and very, very French, and it made me think of The Triplets of Belleville, another oh-so-French movie in which the journey matters far more than the arrival.
A keeper, in other words, though it didn’t crash my Top Five list. David Thomson, who ranks it in his own Top Ten, catches its essential quality nicely: "It is love without spoken explanation, unaffected by sentimental songs; but love as a mysterious, passionate affinity between inarticulate human animals. A fairy tale about plain, even ugly people, its intensity is always to be found in its images." All true, which probably explains why I still prefer The Rules of the Game to L’Atalante. I’m a writer, after all, and I've never doubted for a moment that the place of words in non-silent film is pivotal, far more so than most film theorists are prepared to admit.
Whit Stillman, who makes wonderfully talky movies, once said to me:
Some visual purists still think film is pictures at an exhibition. They seem to forget that we’ve been making sound films ever since the Twenties. Talk is incredibly important….Of course you have to be very careful with it, and I understand why all the screenwriting gurus warn against too much dialogue, but I think they’re making a mistake. Even action films often have very good dialogue, though there isn’t necessarily a lot of it. What’s the charm of a buddy comedy? Just to see two guys shooting bullets? It’s what the two guys say to each other that matters.
I agree. When I want to immerse myself in wordless narrative, I listen to a symphony or look at a plotless ballet. This isn’t to say that wordlessness can’t be a tremendously effective device in narrative filmmaking (remember the first scene in Rio Bravo?), but it is a device, an effect, not the normative condition of the medium. Exceptions don’t prove or test a rule: they define it. Jerome Robbins once made a terrific ballet without music called Moves—but he only did it once. Similarly, moving pictures cried out for sound, and once it came, the silent movie vanished overnight. I don’t think that was a historical accident, much less a mistake.
And what about that Top Five list? Well, I don’t know whether I really care to oblige my curious correspondent. In my experience, it’s usually not that hard to pick a One Best—absolute excellence is by definition self-evident—but no sooner do you venture below the pinnacle than all sorts of other factors crowd into your viewfinder. When Time asked me to pick the best dance of the 20th century, for instance, I didn’t have to think twice before choosing George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, but I found it much harder to decide on two runners-up, though I finally opted for Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas. Up to a point, the problems of choice multiply as the list grows longer, though eventually they subside. I suspect that most serious moviegoers’ lists of the 50 greatest films (as opposed to their 50 personal favorites) would overlap substantially, but their Top Ten lists would wander all over the map.
For me, The Rules of the Game is the obvious Greatest Movie Ever Made, and I expect a lot of other critics would agree with me, or at least consider it a completely plausible candidate. Beyond that, I have my doubts. Right at this moment—and no other—I’d be inclined to follow it up with Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The General (a silent film, please note!), and…er, um…I don’t know. The Searchers? His Girl Friday? Chinatown? I simply can’t tell you. The greatest opera ever written is The Marriage of Figaro, except when it's Falstaff, but what’s the fifth greatest? That’s a party game, and a good one, and if you’re in the right mood it’s also a way of clarifying your own feelings about art—but nothing more.
I’ll end by quoting myself. This is a snippet from "Living with Art," the essay I wrote for Commentary about my collection of prints:
Living with art teaches you things about the criteria of quality that cannot be learned in any other way, things I am still in the process of learning. If I had to guess—and it is nothing more than that—I would say the finest piece I own is Milton Avery’s March at a Table, closely followed by Isle au Haut and Piazza Rotunda. But there are many times when I would rather look at Grey Fireworks, Stuart Davis’ jazzy Any as Given, or the gossamer untitled Wolf Kahn monotype that now hangs over my mantelpiece. This never-ending cycle of looking and experiencing is one of the most instructive aspects of living with art. To see a painting or print on a daily basis is to learn from hard experience what makes some works of art durable and others ephemeral. Experienced collectors speak of how certain paintings "go dead on the wall," meaning that their appeal fades over time and with familiarity. So far, all 15 of my pieces are still alive and well, but I never cease to be fascinated by how my preference for one over another shifts from day to day.
So it is with the making of Top Five lists as with the watching of L’Atalante and The Triplets of Belleville: all the fun is getting there.
Our Girl (who says hi) and I just got back from seeing the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform Taylor’s Sunset, Dream Girls, and Promethean Fire at City Center. If you’re in New York, go. If not, eat your heart out.
We’ll both be blogging about tonight’s performance at some point in the next day or two, but not just yet. Aside from having a lot of catching up to do, we’re planning to watch L’Atalante before crashing.
In the meantime, here are a few fresh links for you to chew on:
• SlowLearner looks at the high cost of playgoing in New York from the perspective of a budding playwright:
Sometimes reading Time Out New York puts me in despair. One of the reasons I moved to New York was all the theater, right? Just about everything goes up here at some point. I can catch everything, see what everybody is up to - a nonstop showroom of all the latest thoughts and innovations in playwriting, staging, design, and performance.
Of course they all cost about sixty dollars.
Okay, that's not fair. I go to plays all the time that cost fifteen dollars. Showcases, Off-Off-type stuff. Some of which is terrific. But I'm always aware when I'm paying fifteen dollars to get into a play that I'm about to see one of those labors of love that will lose the laborers themselves at least several hundred dollars and probably several thousand.
So I understand why the producers of new plays by Tracy Letts, Doug Wright, Nicky Silver, Alice Tuan, Charles L. Mee, Wallace Shawn, A.R. Gurney, Bryony Lavery, Howard Korder, Craig Lucas, or Paul Rudnick might want to charge a bit more than fifteen dollars admission. They're trying to run a business. (No snickering in the back, please.)
Here's the thing: between the basic expenses of my existence, the non-theater things I do for fun, the occasional steep requirements like air travel, shoes, or dental work, and the various fifteen dollar plays I attend because the people in those plays came and saw my fifteen dollar play, I can really only go to one of these $50-60 deals about once every six weeks….
• Superfluities, another playwright-blogger, has a funny take on my posting from yesterday on bad theatrical press releases:
As a former publicist myself, I see his point about the hopelessly reductive nature of a press release which has the potential of rendering the most sublime into the most banal. Who would see these plays?
* Two homeless men wait for a man who never comes. Then they do it again.
* A family of actors sits around talking for four-and-a-half hours before they're interrupted by their drug-addict mother.
* An architect falls in love with a girl a third his age, then jumps off the roof of a church.
* A Danish prince can't decide who to kill, then kills everybody. (This world premiere production explores the ways we change, the compromises we make, and the price we pay for our life choices.)
O.K., I give up—point taken!
• While we’re in a theatrical mood, here’s a story from the New York Post that needs no comment from me:
For the glittering first-night audience at "Fiddler on the Roof" last week, the sudden death of Jerome Robbins' sister just before the curtain went up was a terrible tragedy.
But for the show's musicians, it was a chance to grab some overtime.
In what is surely the most ridiculous example of union overreach since the stagehands used to make producers pay for someone to raise the curtain on shows that had no curtain, the musicians at "Fiddler" have put in for overtime for the opening-night performance, which was delayed due to Sonia Cullinen's death in the theater that night.
According to union rules, if a performance runs more than three hours, musicians are entitled to overtime. "Fiddler" was supposed to begin at 6:30 p.m., but it was delayed for almost an hour as paramedics tried to revive Cullinen, 91, who had collapsed in the aisle….
Our Girl has landed at LaGuardia and is en route to the home office of "About Last Night" via psychotic cabby. Lunch will follow. Additional blogging will follow that. Paul Taylor will follow that.
In other news, I await the imminent arrival on my doorstep of the first finished copy of A Terry Teachout Reader. I held up the dust jacket at Wednesday's artsjournal.com get-together, and there were cheers. I'm hoping to be able to show off the Thing Itself to OGIC.
It’s Friday—do you know where I am? In The Wall Street Journal, of course, holding forth on Lincoln Center’s new production of King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Christopher Plummer, plus an off-Broadway show, Tristine Skyler’s highly touted The Moonlight Room.
Lear didn’t do much for me:
I confess to not being much of a fan of Jonathan Miller, who has always struck me as rather too smart for his own theatrical good. That’s more or less how I’d sum up this well-bred, largely uninvolving "Lear," which runs through April 18 on a limited schedule of performances. Shakespeare was no intellectual, and his plays don’t benefit from "thoughtful" stagings. Mr. Miller may think he’s given us a Shakespearean-style soap opera, but in his hands "King Lear" comes off more like a slide show on the perils of bad estate planning.
I had sharply mixed feelings about The Moonlight Room, but not about its young star:
As for Laura Breckenridge, she’s definitely worth watching. Like Linda Cardellini in "Freaks and Geeks," the TV series that perfectly captured the same youthful anxieties Ms. Skyler has sought to put on stage, Ms. Breckenridge is a dark-eyed, tense-looking young woman whose very pores ooze adolescent angst. If she can play other parts as well as she plays this one, we’ll be seeing more of her. Totally.
Would you go see any of these plays, based on the way they’re described in their press releases?
• "A stylized, irreverent romantic comedy about loneliness and isolation – in which six awkward and impulsive innocents search for love with hilarious (and potentially hazardous) results."
• "This world premiere production explores the ways we change, the compromises we make, and the price we pay for our life choices."
• "A poignant and humorous study of three dynamic characters whose lives collide on an abandoned street corner in NYC."
I didn’t think so. And I’m not going to. Sure, I may be missing something good, but a whole lot of plays are opening in New York at this time of year, on and off and off-off Broadway, and I can’t even begin to see them all. Quite often I don’t know anything about them except for what I read in the press release, and when I read drivel like that, MEGO MEGO MEGO. Multiply it by, oh…ten? Twenty? Anyway, multiply it by some figure in the low double digits and you’ll start to see why being a drama critic isn’t all champagne and roses.
Aside from which, nobody has ever sidled up to me and said in a tremulous baby-girl voice, "Oh, Mr. Teachout, I’d do anything to get a good review. Just…anything!" (Maybe I should put this URL in my Journal bio.)
As of mid-afternoon Friday, the activities of "About Last Night" will be temporarily centralized. Our Girl in Chicago is en route for a three-day visit to see the Teachout Museum and other cultural goodies. She’ll be doing a bit of blogging from here, and—brace yourself—her secret identity will be revealed to Supermaud in a ritual ceremony from which some participants may not return.
Me, I’ll be hacking away all weekend at the you-know-what, just like always, though I plan to pry myself away from the iBook long enough to take OGIC to a couple of cool performances. You’ll hear about it all in good time.
For now, here are some links to whisk you into the weekend:
• This one’s spreading across the Web like kudzu, with (alas) good reason. From L.A. Observed:
Here's why reporters want newspaper corrections to make clear that an editor is at fault for an error introduced to their copy. Last week, the L.A. Times' Mark Swed filed a review of the opera "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" at the Music Center. He wrote that the Richard Strauss epic is "an incomparably glorious and goofy pro-life paean..." But when it ran in the paper, pro-life had been changed to anti-abortion.
Swed was reportedly mortified, since the opera is not remotely about abortion….
There’s more—and believe it or not, it gets worse. Read the whole thing here.
In case you were wondering why I blog—and why the blogosphere is rapidly becoming a major center of serious arts writing—there’s your answer.
I was fascinated with Bolero for a short time when I was just beginning to explore classical music but it quickly became boring and then seriously annoying. Now it is one of the few pieces of classical music that I truly hate….
Actually, Bolero is kind of cool, at least in theory. But I had to play the bass part in a college performance—the same two notes, over and over again, for about six weeks, or maybe ten—and since then I’ve been unable to listen to it.
• Courtesy of Cinetrix, a chunk of Alistair Macaulay’s recent Times Literary Supplement piece about Fred and Ginger:
It’s dismaying to see how often, even when a ballet is being broadcast live, camerawork chops up the dancing. Fred and Ginger, by contrast, really do dance several of their duets in a single take, some of them almost three minutes in length. In the annals of cinema, these takes should stand beside the finest feats of D.W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles….
Sorry, but I won't be blogging again until well into Thursday, if then. I wore myself out on Wednesday working on the Balanchine book and writing my Friday drama column for The Wall Street Journal, and instead of staying up late to work on "About Last Night," I've decided to play it smart and crash.
I do, however, want to briefly mention the Wednesday-night artsjournal.com get-together at the Landmark Tavern. Doug McLennan, the mastermind and boss of artsjournal.com, "About Last Night"'s blessed host, was in New York for a couple of days (he runs the site from Seattle), so he took the opportunity to convene all those New York-based AJ bloggers who had a couple of hours free to go drinking, plus any readers who cared to show up. We didn't expect a crowd, but we got one anyway, and I met a lot of very nice people, the same folks who send OGIC and me all that cool e-mail.
As I was getting ready to hit the road, one reader said to me, "You know, artsjournal.com will probably be a Big Institution in a couple of years, and all of us here tonight will probably look back on this get-together and say, 'Ah, yes, those were the days.'" We laughed. But he was right: these are the days, the dawn of a new medium, and all of you reading these words are a part of it. You're the postmodern counterparts of those prescient people who bought their first TV sets in 1948 and watched Toscanini and Milton Berle and Harry Truman and said to themselves, "I wonder what will come of this?"
And now...to bed. I have to finish Chapter Three. I have to get this place straightened up in time for Our Girl's arrival on Friday. I have to call my mother. I have to get some sleep. I have to pick an almanac entry. In lieu of me, go visit all those cool blogs in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column. Do it yourself.
"The Lyric Suite was my triumph—Constance’s triumph, that is. I had liked Wozzeck at first hearing and Berg’s violin concerto at the third or fourth: there was no reason I shouldn’t like the Lyric Suite, as Constance said, and she had made up her mind that I was going to. Whenever she had dinner with us, whenever she came by in the evening, she held in her hand a long-playing record of the Lyric Suite, and once each time she played it to us. I would sit and read, sit and talk, sit and dream—at first. I have to admit, I’d sit and suffer; my wife suffered but did not sit—she would say with a vague sidelong smile, 'All that darning...Call me when it’s over, Constance.'
"After four or five playings I was getting used to it, my wife did not get up and leave any longer: there were parts we liked very much better than other parts; three or four more times and we liked the other parts—we were, we found, crazy about the Lyric Suite: how could any of it ever have seemed hard to us? Constance was very polite, and didn’t once say, 'When I was young I was the same way about it.' So far as the Lyric Suite is concerned, we had been foolish and young and Constance old and clever; and we were grateful to her for that best of gifts, a change in one’s own self."
"It is said that the London police can always distinguish among the corpses fished out of the Thames, between those who have drowned themselves because of unhappy love affairs and those drowned for debt. The fingers of the lovers are almost invariably lacerated by their attempts to save themselves by clinging to the piers of the bridges. In contrast, the debtors apparently go down like slabs of concrete, without struggle and without afterthought."
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 3, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: The mouse that roared
Today's Wall Street Journal contains a memorable sketch of the late William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker. In 1966, Lucette Lagnado reports, New York Times reporter Murray Schumach turned out a long profile of Shawn and his magazine:
It was 5,500 words—far longer than the typical newspaper story. It contained some generous praise of Shawn, noting, for instance, the "perfection" of his editing. But there were also pointed criticisms: Some articles were much too long; the Talk of the Town section lacked its old bite; and there was a sense that even the renowned fiction was no longer cutting-edge. It was what a good newspaper piece is supposed to be—neither black nor white, neither a hatchet job nor a puff piece.
But Arthur Gelb, then deputy metropolitan editor of the Times, had, under pressure, agreed to give Shawn right of approval.
Shawn hated it. Though hate doesn't begin to capture the maelstrom of emotions that poured into the 11-page memo he sent to the Times in November 1966 after seeing the draft. He opens by damning the piece with faint praise, calling it "well-intentioned," possessing "merits of its own." He then he proceeds to demolish it—idea by idea, paragraph by paragraph, almost sentence by sentence. The article is "misleading," he declares. It "misses the point." It isn't so much what the reporter has written as what he has "not written." He has "missed the magazine," described "parts of its body (an arm and a leg perhaps)" but "left out the mind and the soul." And that represents only the first few lines of an opening paragraph that runs 2-1/2 pages.
But Shawn was just getting started. He devotes a page to summarizing the contents of his four most recent issues, listing the names of his renowned writers—Hannah Arendt, Janet Flanner, Alistair Cooke, Calvin Trillin. Then, the man described as timid and self-effacing asserts that these four issues surpass what is being done "in any other magazine in the world" and adds, parenthetically, "And they did not come about by accident."
The rest of the memo is a catalog of 37 alleged errors, delicately referred to as "some points of fact." They are more revealing of Mr. Shawn's obsessive, controlling persona than of any significant flaws in the Times piece. The weighty issue of The New Yorker's "philosophy" is at the top of his agenda. Mr. Schumach wrote benignly that the magazine "has a clear idea of its philosophy on editorial matters," and he goes on to quote Shawn's own succinct explanation of its essence: "We do not go beyond consulting our own judgment and tastes and what interests and pleases us," Shawn stated, adding that "The word 'reader' does not come up.
Although negotiations between Gelb and Shawn (nicknamed "The Iron Mouse" by staffers) dragged on for months, the Times was licked before it started. Arguing with Shawn, Gelb recalls, "was like arguing with butter." The story never made it into print. Surrender your dollar and read the whole saga.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, March 3, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Mine aren't nearly that big
The Baltimore Sun’s books page recently featured a symposium
whose participants were asked what book they wished had never been written. Some of the answers were deadly serious (I picked Das Kapital, while several others opted for Mein Kampf), some funny (one person sent A Year in Provence to oblivion), but Joan Mellen covered herself in honor with this response:
A book that never should have been written is my own Kay Boyle: Author of Herself (1994). At 552 pages in minuscule publisher's revenge type, it is a loose and baggy monster of a biography. Kay Boyle's modest if decisive contribution to the modernist short story and to expatriate Twenties Paris could easily have been covered with force and simplicity in a neat biographical study of two hundred pages in length.
Check out the right-hand column, where you'll find some new Top Five items and some new blogs listed in "Sites to See." I've also updated the "Teachout in Commentary" module with a new essay called "Kandinsky's Mistake."
I may not be blogging much this week, but I never stop thinking of you.
Yep, still writing about Balanchine, though I took time out this afternoon to write my Washington Post Sunday column—watch this space for linkage—and go see Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts, which was even cooler than I expected. I’ll tell you all about it the first chance I get.
This reminded me of a line the WP's Blake Gopnik wrote a while back in a Gerhard Richter review: "Richter has done everything he could to question all the things that paint can do while proving that the ancient medium still has things to say."
As if the medium does the talking. The artist does the talking and makes the work, not the medium.
• Chicha is running dirty pictures of me (scroll down), plus a very naughty blogparody. She’s on a roll.
We had fun. That's the big secret about opera. It's actually fun. In order to enjoy a classical concert, it's probably necessary to feel some reverence for the music but opera is not just great music, it's a show. This is what people did for fun 200 years ago and it's still fun today.
I have more audience for this humble personal blog than I ever imagined I would have. But I will admit I had to adjust my own old, big media thinking about how big is big in the blog world. I've given this illustration before: Back before I was a hasbeen in a suit, I used to write for TV Guide and People, where -- according to the inflated readership numbers -- I supposedly had an audience of more than 20 million. Granted, there was no way to know how many skipped over, tore out, or spat upon my page but even taking away a large percentage, that's big, measured in millions. Then I started blogging for an audience measured in the low thousands. Felt small. But then one Sunday, I looked out on the congregation in my church and saw about 70 attentive faces looking up at the minister, who had worked darned hard -- much harder than any weblogger -- on his message to them. Is that audience big enough? Ask him and he'll tell that two or more gathering is big enough.
Does the question of spam highlight the drawbacks of dogmatic libertarianism? I may be going off half-cocked here, but I think it might. In the material world, there's a standard way to deal with much bad behavior. You pass a law against it, you hire people to enforce the law. and you get on with life, provided you can live with complications and imperfect results. In the libertarian paradise that is the electronic world, things go "whoosh" in a way many people seem to think is swell. But the dealing-with-misbehavior thing is a serious, new-style headache. It seems that life online can mean being stuck forever attending to negotiations, to pricing and standards disputes, and to technological arms races. Who exactly is it who finds this desirable, let alone preferable?
The Big Mac, epitome of American culture and the junk food revolution, receives an unexpected thumbs up from two leading French nutritionists in a "good food guide" to supermarkets and fast food restaurants published today.
The relative fat-to-protein contents of a Big Mac is considerably healthier than classic French snacks such as quiche lorraine and better than many other sandwiches or fast foods on the market, the authors say….
"Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I'm certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight—three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, 'It's disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can't the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?' Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful."
I’m in this morning’s Wall Street Journal with a tribute to my favorite movie, now out on DVD:
"The Rules of the Game" is the greatest movie ever made—but it doesn’t act that way. For much of its 106-minute length, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, filmed in France on the eve of World War II, plays like a chic bedroom farce in which a group of well-to-do Parisians spending a weekend in the country seek to sleep with persons not their spouses. Only toward the end does it become fully clear that high comedy is about to precipitate into violent tragedy, and that Renoir’s true purpose (as he later acknowledged) was to portray a society he believed to be "rotten to the core." Small wonder that the film’s 1939 premiere sparked a near-riot. The audience must have felt as if it had been slapped in the face. "The truth is that they recognized themselves," Renoir explained. "People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses."…
One can never see a film like "The Rules of the Game" often enough. Indeed, I have returned to it more than once at times of great personal stress. I watched it, for instance, not long after 9/11, knowing that recent events would have cut yet another facet in its jeweled surface, and as I watched it yet again in the Criterion Collection’s DVD version, I realized that I was seeing a requiem not merely for France but for Old Europe, exhausted by modernity and willing to pay any amount of Danegeld in order to be left alone.
No link, so go buy a copy of the Journal and turn to the "Leisure & Arts" page. I never cease to be amazed by the number of people who don’t know that The Wall Street Journalhas an arts page—and a damned good one, too. Believe it or not, the Journal isn’t for rich people only, or even primarily.
• Franklin has posted some new watercolors. (One of these days I’m going to go to his studio and see his stuff in person, even if it is way the hell down in Maudland.)
• So far, Jennifer has mentioned one (1) blogger by First Name Only. I think she’s getting the hang of this….
• Return of the Reluctant is boycotting M&Ms. I don’t think I can go there—a life without M&Ms is unimaginable—but I approve.
• Finally, those of you who read artsjournal.com every morning already know about this:
ArtsJournal Live and In Person: Wonder what those ArtsJournal bloggers look like on the other side of that computer screen? Well, we wonder what you look like too. So Wednesday, March 3 at 6:30 pm, AJ editor Doug McLennan and seven of our AJ bloggers are getting together in New York City at the Landmark Tavern (11th and 46th), and you're invited. Greg Sandow, Terry Teachout, Jan Herman, Kyle Gann, Tobi Tobias, James Russell and John Perreault will all be there from about 6:30 on into the evening. Very informal - come talk ideas, arts and culture with us.
And for those of you who don’t read artsjournal.com every day:
The Brazilian-American jazz singer Luciana Souza, in whom "About Last Night" has taken a great interest from its first day onward, has a new CD coming out on April 6 called Neruda. It’s a song cycle based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda and featuring Edward Simon on piano.
I wrote the liner notes:
If Luciana did nothing more than sing, she’d still be a miracle. But she also writes music, sometimes to her own graceful words, sometimes to those of poets who catch her curious ear. Neruda is an hour-long song cycle based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda and the piano pieces of Federico Mompou, sung in her Brazil-perfumed English (a language she speaks with the freshness and surprise of an explorer charting a new world) and as uncategorizably protean as everything else she does. "House" dances down the street in a sinuous 7/4, spurred on by her own deft percussion playing. "Poetry" has the concentration of an art song by Fauré or Copland. The long melody of "Tonight I Can Write…" unwinds like the slow course of the moon through the night sky….
Neruda will be performed live at Joe's Pub, the cabaret at the Public Theater, on four consecutive Fridays, April 9, 16, 23, and 30. All shows start at 9:30. You can buy tickets here. To make table reservations, call 212-539-8778. Plan ahead—some of these shows will sell out.
"Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. Someone who is translating into English a German novel, the hero of which is named Heinrich, will leave the name as is; he will not Anglicize it into Henry.
"The early epic poets, composing for an audience with the same mythology, heroic legends, topography as themselves, had half their poetic work done for them. Later, when the poet's audience became a cultured elite, their cultural background was still the same as his own: Milton, for example, could assume that any name taken from Greek and Roman mythology or from the Bible would be familiar to his readers. A modern poet, on the other hand, can hardly use a single proper name without wondering whether he ought not to footnote it. In 1933 I wrote a poem in which the name Garbo appeared, assuming, I think rightly, that at that time her name was a household word. When, after the War, Mr. Richard Hoggart included the poem in a selection he had made from my work, he felt it necessary to gloss the name."
The New Republic has reprinted Delmore Schwartz's colorful and moving remembrance of Wallace Stevens, first published in the magazine in August 1955, a few weeks after Stevens' death.
In 1936 Stevens read his poems for the first time at Harvard—it was probably the first time he had ever read his poetry in public—and the occasion was at once an indescribable ordeal and a precious event: precious because he had been an undergraduate and a poet at Harvard some thirty-seven years before and had not returned since then, in his own person, although he had often gone to the Yale-Harvard games incognito. Before and after reading each poem, Stevens spoke of the nature of poetry, a subject which naturally obsessed him: the least sound counts, he said, the least sound and the least syllable. His illustration of this observation was wholly characteristic: he told of how he had wakened that week after midnight and heard the sounds made by a cat walking delicately and carefully on the crusted snow outside his house. He was listening, as in his lifelong vigil of awareness, for such phrases as this one, describing autumn leaves: "The skreak and skritter of evening gone"; no single one of thousands of such inventions is enough to suggest his genius for experience and language.
After his comment, Stevens returned to his typescript, prepared and bound for the occasion with a fabulous elegance which also was characteristic: but an old Cambrdige lady, holding an ear trumpet aloft, and dressed in a style which must have been chic at Rutherford Hayes' inauguration, shouted out, hoarse and peremptory as crows, that she must ask Mr. Stevens to speak loudly and clearly, loudly and clearly, if you please. She might just as well have been shouting at President Hayes. Stevens continued in a very low voice, reading poems which were written in that bravura style, that extravagant, luxurious, misunderstood rhetoric which is as passionate as the most excited Elizabethan blank verse. And throughout the reading, although Stevens was extremely nervous and constrained, this showed only as a rigid impassivity which, since it might have expressed a very different state of mind, made his feeling invisible; nevertheless, as such readings became more frequent in recent years, it was impossible to persuade Stevens that no one save himself perceived his overwhelming nervousness, just as, when the first reading ended, Stevens said to the teacher who had introduced him: "I wonder what the boys at the office would think of this?" The office was the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., the boys were those who knew him as a vice-president, lawyer, and the most solid of citizens.
No one who thought a poet looked pale, distracted, unkempt and unbarbered was likely to recognize Stevens: he was a physical giant, robust, red-faced, and his large round head suggested not only a banker and judge, but Jupiter. He said then and after that the boys would hardly be more shocked to discover him the secret head of an opium ring—and although I would guess that in this instance he may have mistaken tact for ignorance—the important point is that he felt sure that this was how others regarded a poet. He had written poetry for many years a kind of "secret vice;" and he told many stories about himself of the same kind, resorting to that self-irony which often marks his poetic style.
Where many commentators simply register Stevens' insurance gig as a gross incongruity and leave it at that, Schwartz does a nice job of showing how Stevens' unpoetlike bearing and work life, necessitating his cultivation of a separate solitude for his writing, were actually essential to his greatness as a poet.
If you're interested in more on Stevens, see this excerpt from a Helen Vendler lecture, where she works the Keats-Stevens angle. Vendler shows that Keats is more than just an influence on "Sunday Morning"—his great ode on death, "To Autumn," lives in Stevens' poem in ghostlike form.
Vendler pulls these lines from the last stanza of "Sunday Morning":
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
Compare, from Keats:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats wrote his poem after a Sunday morning walk in September 1819.
There was a time, perhaps when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, that actors and other winners at big award shows tried to come up with smart and clever remarks when they made their acceptance speeches. It was almost a competition in itself. The practice has dwindled to almost nothing. Mostly people come out and simply recite long, boring lists of names -- lists and lists of lists -- that ironically or not help make the program listless. There is probably no way the practice can be stopped, and winners will continue to thank their relatives, lawyers, first-grade teachers and anyone else whose name pops into their heads instead of attempting to be witty.
It is about as entertaining as watching Jell-O congeal, and it helps dispel whatever vestige of excitement remains in the doling out of the Oscars. The show was moved up earlier on the calendar this year in part because there are so many other programs handing out showbiz trophies on television. The Oscarcast should probably be put back where it was, because when it's the last or almost last of the award shows, it at least has a sort of climactic sensibility to it, and that helps one tolerate the torture….
Read the whole thing here. And as you do so, recall the prefaces to the last half-dozen non-fiction books you read, and resolve anew not to do likewise when you write the preface to your next book….
I just got word that A Terry Teachout Reader was reviewed in the current issue of Publishers Weekly.
Here's the money quote:
Woe to be an artist, writer, musician or fellow critic who incurs Teachout's wrath. In this hefty, erudite collection of essays and reviews from the past 15 years, Teachout (The Skeptic) turns his scathing wit on some of high culture's most sacred cows....This book is an impressive testament to Teachout's talents, eloquence and integrity.
How about that? Not bad for a first review.
The book isn't out until May, but you can pre-order it by going here.
Now, back to work! In the immortal words of Crash Davis, the moment's over....
I’m not going to be watching the Oscars tonight. I rarely do—awards ceremonies bore me stiff, though I’m sometimes interested in the results—and in any case I expect to resume work on my Balanchine book as soon as I get home from an off-Broadway matinee. No doubt various actors will say and do stupid things, and no doubt I’ll read about them tomorrow.
I expect to be working on the Balanchine book very intensely for most of this week and next (as well as entertaining Our Girl this coming weekend, about which you will read in this space). Please don’t be vexed if I don’t blog as much as usual, or am slow in answering your mail. Which reminds me to tell you that we got a lot of e-mail in response to our "Reading Habits" survey, and I’m looking forward to going through it as soon as I get a couple more chapters wrapped up.
Apropos of the Oscars, I watched a movie yesterday that I hadn’t seen for years, Annie Hall, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies (which is broadcasting all of the best-picture Oscar winners) and my trusty digital video recorder. I saw Annie Hall in the theater in 1977, back when I was in college, and found it fresh and disarming. I saw it again on TV in 1985 or so, by which time I’d already started to have second thoughts about Woody Allen (Stardust Memories brought me to my senses), and was startled by how poorly it had aged. In light of the fuss that my recent throwaway posting about Allen kicked up, I thought it might be worth revisiting a film I once loved, in order to see whether and how two decades’ worth of additional hindsight had changed my mind.
Alas, I found even less to like about Annie Hall this time around. Such innovations as the subtextual subtitles, the animated sequence, even the cameo by Marshall McLuhan now strike me as cutesy. Far more exasperating, though, is Allen’s both-sides-of-the-street portrayal of his neuroses, which he pretends to mock while actually reveling in them, proving as they do that he is not as other men. On the surface, Annie Hall purports to tell the tale of how his peculiarities alienate the woman he loves, but its true subject matter is how their relationship actually makes Diane Keaton a better person. I suppose this must have been the first on-screen manifestation of Allen’s Pygmalion complex, which in Manhattan would explicitly reveal itself as an obsession with malleable young women. The trouble with such fixations, of course, is that even though the obsessed one grows inexorably older, the objects of his affection stay the same age—and we all know where that leads.
David Thomson is usually so insightful that I was surprised to see that he excepted Annie Hall from the scathing criticism of Allen’s work found in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film:
In his films he seems so averse to acting yet so skittish about real confession that he risks dealing in self-glorification by neurosis…. Allen’s development in the eighties, his rate of work, and the sophistication of narrative were all seemingly devoted to ideas and attitudes against the gain of that decade. Yet Allen’s audience relied on urban yuppies, and his films only fostered that group’s self-satisfaction….He has been a Chaplin hero for the chattering classes, yet he is trapped by something like Chaplin’s neurotic vanity. No director works so hard to appear at a loss.
That’s Woody Allen in a nutshell—and it’s all foreshadowed in Annie Hall.
Infinitely more to my liking was the hair-raisingly sociopathic Ripley’s Game, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. I saw it because of Anthony Lane’s review
in a recent issue of The New Yorker, and I agree with every word:
"Ripley’s Game," directed by Liliana Cavani, sees the welcome return of Tom Ripley. On his previous visit to our screen, he was played by Matt Damon, but that milky substitute can now be put behind us. Ladies and gentlemen, the award for Best Ripley—the deathless bringer of death, a man with a mine shaft where his moral sense should be, and a hero so beloved of Highsmith that she gave him five books to himself—goes to Mr. John Malkovich. The moment that he appears onscreen, you think, Of course: that is Ripley. Highsmith groupies might find him too old, but I see Ripley as being of any age—no less devilish at eighty than he was at twenty-one, and as comfortable in the eighteenth century, perhaps, as he is in the twenty-first. I have no family tree to hand, but, were Malkovich’s Ripley proved to be a direct descendant of his Vicomte de Valmont, in "Dangerous Liaisons," I would not be remotely surprised. The blood of both characters is rich in the patient scorn of the cultivated; consider our first sight of Malkovich, in Cavani’s film, as he stands perfectly still in a Berlin square and gives the impression, as he has done throughout his movie career, of posing for an invisible sculptor.
Ripley is in Germany to sell some Old Master drawings. He is not a dealer but a persuasive go-between, and his outfit—long dark coat and beret—is the uniform of a modern centaur, with the body of an entrepreneur and the head of an artist. The sale does not go well, and Ripley interrupts his courteous discussion of Guercino to pick up a poker from the fireplace and beat a man to death. This is the only shocking, as opposed to gruelling or mock-glamorous, act of violence that I have witnessed onscreen in the past year, because it flashes out of nowhere, like lightning across a clear sky. Ripley has the same frustrations as you and I, but deals with them quite differently, and in so doing rebukes our inhibitions. Where you or I would say, "God, I could have killed him," because some guy cut in and took our parking space, Ripley really would kill him, and call it a job well done. But that is not the strangest thing about him. The oddity of Ripley is that he likes to see others do harm as well. He leads them into temptation and, in a parody of human companionship, lends them a helping hand. Although he would never admit as much, he is bored and even lonely, and that is why "Ripley’s Game," which could have been a freak show, seems more like a portrait of evil making friends….
Alas, this superb film will not be released theatrically in the United States, but it’s coming out on DVD next month, and it also pops up from time to time on the Independent Film Channel, which is where I saw it the other day. One way or another, catch it as soon as you can.
Gotta go. Have a nice week. I’ll poke my head in as often as possible.