About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, September 1, 2006
TT: The perfect musical
For those of you who read my recent posting about going to see The Fantasticks, my Wall Street Journal review of the revival I saw is in this morning’s paper, coupled with a review of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Mr. Dooley’s America:
The Snapple Theater Center, a new two-auditorium complex a few steps away from Broadway, has revived “The Fantasticks” in a small-scale production similar to the one that ran from 1960 to 2002 at Greenwich Village’s Sullivan Street Playhouse. I never saw it there—I must be the only middle-aged playgoer in Manhattan who didn’t—but I can’t imagine that it was any better than this lovely revival of a show that has lost none of its guileless freshness after half a century of hard use.
In calling “The Fantasticks” guileless, I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything other than impeccably crafty. Part of what makes it so effective, in fact, is that Tom Jones’ book takes all the stock devices of the Broadway musical, strips away their superfluities, and transforms them into timeless archetypes: two young lovers, two quarreling parents, two blundering stooges and a tall, dark stranger who appears from out of nowhere to set the simple plot in motion. Back in 1960 such extreme economy of means was rarely to be found in American musical comedy, which is part of what made “The Fantasticks” seem so fresh. Nowadays the miniature musical is an Off Broadway staple, but Mr. Jones’ concise book remains exemplary—and unlike the increasingly tuneless shows of today, “The Fantasticks” is blessed with an equally excellent score….
Finley Peter Dunne, who died in 1936, is one of those writers whom everybody quotes but nobody knows. He created Mr. Dooley, the Chicago bartender whose sly observations about politics and its practitioners (“The Supreme Court follows the election returns”) are forever being recycled, usually without credit, by op-ed columnists in search of a pithy way to restate the obvious.
Dunne’s own columns are forgotten, not because they’ve lost their point but because they were written in a porridge-thick stage-Irish dialect (“Thrust ivrybody, but cut th’ ca-ards”) that is impenetrable to the contemporary eye. To make sense of his witticisms, you have to read them out loud—or hear them read. Enter Philip Dunne, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter and the son of Mr. Dooley’s creator. Working in tandem with Martin Blaine, Dunne the younger quarried a two-man play out of his father’s best columns. First performed in 1976, “Mr. Dooley’s America,” was an eminently logical candidate for revival by the Irish Repertory Theatre, the best of all possible Off Broadway companies, and Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep’s artistic director, has revived it with skill and sympathy….
(I should add, by the way, that The Fantasticks is the most child-friendly show currently playing in the New York theater district. It’s lively, squeaky-clean, and not too long, and anyone old enough to watch a love story without squirming in his seat or going Eeuuww! is old enough to enjoy it.)
No free link. Buy the damn paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I take a look at the financial woes of Tower Records and the wider implications of music downloading. One frequently overlooked effect of downloading on the culture of music is the extent to which it discourages in-store browsing, and the serendipitous discoveries that can only be made by wandering at will up and down the aisles of a deep-catalog record store.
Or can they? Is it possible for an online store to replicate the experience of browsing—and if not, does it matter? To find out, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
Some of you have inquired about the source of the piece of advice proffered by James Burnham that I occasionally like to quote. It's one of a set of maxims that Burnham handed down many years ago to his colleagues at National Review:
1. Everybody knows everything.
2. Who says A must say B.
3. Just as good, isn’t.
4. You cannot invest in retrospect.
5. Wherever there is prohibition there’s a bootlegger.
6. In every project there’s a Schlamm.
vii. You can’t divorce yourself.
viii. Every member must pay his dues.
ix. No excuse, sir.
10. If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.
According to Burnham’s son, these were “a series of observations about the world that provided the basis for living honestly.” The first law “centers on the notion that the way in which one conducts oneself in personal relationships or business or politics can never be a secret from those who matter.” The sixth law refers to Willi Schlamm, a journalist who was briefly and unsatisfactorily involved in the launching of National Review, of which Burnham was a founding editor. (The seventh, eighth and ninth “laws” are numbered differently because they are exhortations, not universal principles.)
I like the first and last ones best, but they’re all exceedingly provocative, as was Burnham himself. If you don’t know who he was, you can read about him here. In addition, you can read “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” George Orwell’s 1946 essay, by going to this page on a Russian Web site that contains, among other things, downloadable online versions of Orwell’s writings.
“If only he could be a little ironical, many fresh topics would be thrown open to him. But Hilda did not like irony; to her it was a form of shirking, and writing to her Eustace was often conscious of being a shirker. He was apt to slip from one sorry pose to another, which was unfair between two people who loved each other, and stranged, because he did not feel self-conscious when he was with her. But his pen created a literary prsonality with whom he felt she was out of sympathy.”
Is there anything more pathetic than a houseguest with the sniffles? I caught my current cold while visiting a woman with a chronic illness of considerable gravity who nonetheless went out of her way to make over me. As she brought me my umpteenth mug of hot tea, I was seized with a convulsion of guilt and told her, “You must think it’s pretty lame of me to be lying on the couch and whining like this, considering how sick you are.”
“Actually, it feels worse to have a cold, at least in the short run,” she replied. “When you’re really sick, your point of view changes—it gets easier to cope, somehow. So shut up and drink your tea.”
This reminded me of how I felt when I was in the hospital last December. I was desperately scared until I picked up the phone and dialed 911—and then, all at once, I wasn’t. It was like throwing a switch. From that moment on, I was completely calm. You may not understand what I’m talking about unless you’ve had a similar experience, but as soon I told the operator to send an ambulance, I knew things were out of my hands, and for the first time in weeks, I relaxed.
Needless to say, my host's reassurances didn’t make me feel any less guilty, but they didn’t stop me from drinking my tea, either. Alas, I couldn’t indulge myself for very long, even with her wholehearted approval, for this was one of my three-deadline weeks. On Monday I wrote a four-thousand-word essay on John Hammond for Commentary. On Tuesday I returned to New York, writing my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal on the train from Hartford to Penn Station. Yesterday I wrote my “Sightings” column for the Saturday Journal. All this was a bit much for a middle-aged man with a bad cold, but I had to grin and bear it, so I did. As James Burnham liked to say, if there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.
I spent Wednesday evening slumped on the couch, swilling tea and watching Howard Hawks’ Hatari! It’s not one of the master's best movies: the plot is all but nonexistent, and the way Hawks handles his female characters tips over into full-fledged self-parody. One of them is named Brandy, the other Dallas, which tells you just about everything you need to know. Be that as it may, Hatari! turned out to be well suited to my modest aesthetic demands, for it jogs along amusingly for two and a half hours, the Tanganyikan scenery is soothing to the eye, and Henry Mancini’s score, which makes extensive and imaginative use of African percussion, is great fun. (This is the film for which “Baby Elephant Walk” was written.) No sooner had I shipped “Sightings” off to the Journal than I sent out for a pizza, turned on the TV, and left the rest to John Wayne. Thanks, Duke!
I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything today, and I'm not gonna. Friday, alas, is different: I’ll be catching a train to Washington, D.C., first thing in the morning, picking up a Zipcar at Union Station, and driving from there to Staunton, Virginia, where I’ll spend a day and a half watching Shenandoah Shakespeare perform Othello, As You Like It, and Macbeth. On Sunday I return to Washington (stopping along the way at the Pope-Leighey House) to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. I’ll be back in New York on Monday night.
That, if I may say so, is one damn long weekend, so if you don’t hear from me between tomorrow and next Wednesday, do not adjust your set. I know, I know, it’s only a cold, but in the immortal words of Lili von Shtupp, I’m not a wabbit—I need some west!
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
“It was sad how the fact of not being able to share a joke separated one from people. Separated, of course, was too strong a word, but it created a frontier, a water-shed for experience, instead of a valley. Failure to see the same things as funny often meant a general failure to see eye to eye, because humour was common ground where the high-brow and the low-brow, the rich and the poor, could meet without self-consciousness.”
So Terry's got laryngitis and I've got my parents in town. Advantage Ms. OGIC, by a very large margin, but in terms of blogging output, nobody wins. I'll leave you, however, with a few good links:
• Robert Archambeau is very acute, not to mention downright hilarious, dissecting audiences at poetry readings. Poetry readings get a bad rap, he admits; but "what if a big part of the problem with poetry readings isn't a matter of what's up on stage, but a matter of what's down in the seats?" (Via Dan Green).
• Peter Suderman argues that "classic TV" is not just a myth, and that the DVD medium overcomes the precise obstacles previously cited by my illustrious co-blogger to even the best series television attaniing the status of bona fide narrative art.
• Not a link but an observation. There's been much ado about Marisha Pessl's cause célčbre of a first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so I purchased a copy. Waiting one day for the oil to be changed in my car, I picked it up and read a few dozen pages. When my car was ready, I put it down. I'm not sure I'll pick it up again—it struck me as too clever by half, more than a little exhausting, and inferior to the book its breathless press reports kept reminding me of: Brian Hall's Saskiad, which is narrated by a younger precocious teenage girl but a vastly more compelling one. It's grossly unfair, I know, to pass judgment based on 44 pages of reading—but since I don't expect to get very much further anytime soon, I may as well report why not. (I will say, though, that I vastly prefer the book itself to its fatuous back-cover blurb from Jonathan Franzen: "Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink.")
• Have we mentioned lately how much we love Outer Life? Nobody chronicles This Californian Life quite so well. Docents! Read the piece and you too will be repeating that word to yourself wonderingly for the rest of the day.
Happy Wednesday! (Docents!)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 30, 2006 | Permanent
TT: In two words
(Imagine a big sick frog intoning those two words and you'll get the idea.)
UPDATE: My condition has evolved. I now sound like the subject of my next book.
“He played Franck’s Prelude, Aria and Finale. The noble, declamatory music with its military stride and confident accent marched through the room, filling it with flags and cheering crowds, a gallant expedition setting out in the morning of life to win a spiritual prize. Eustace thought he knew why Victor chose this piece; not only was it, superficially at any rate, the very breath of encouragement, but it expressed all those sentiments which he, Victor, so sedulously kept out of his daily manner. Here, at the piano, protected by the anonymity of art, he could walk in old heroic traces without being betrayed. Sir John was right to say that he played like a professional. He had the evenness of touch, the restrained, impersonal approach to emotion; he did not hurry when the music was easy, and slow up when it was difficult. He could let go without letting himself go.”
I sometimes do too much fieldwork before seeing a movie, building up a whole structure of preconceptions that I then have to trundle into the theater with me and crane my neck to peer around at the thing itself. Long ago I recognized that this sport was spoiling perfectly good movies for me, or even preempting me from seeing some of them. So I stopped giving more than a skim to reviews of new movies until after I'd seen them. But at the prospect of an older movie, I still head straight to the bookshelf and, typically, David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary and Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies: two critical voices that are always compelling to me if not infallible.
I didn't make it this weekend to Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol, written by Graham Greene from his own story and starring Sir Ralph Richardson. It's playing in a new print through Thursday at the Music Box. Despite being busy this week, I still have a chance to catch it on its final night. (The Music Box is always an added draw, as there's live organ music on weekends and real butter for the popcorn all of the time.) Beyond the obvious appeal of the Graham Greene/Carol Reed partnership, which later produced The Third Man, I'm drawn to this one by what the bookshelf critics say. Kael sounds like she never really made up her mind:
The plot is just about perfect.... There are terrifying, tense moments, too; the whole movie is very cleverly worked out. Maybe it's too deliberate, though, with its stylized lighting and its rigid pacing—you wait an extra beat between the low-key lines of dialogue. It's too deliberate and too hushed to be much fun. It's a polite thriller—which is close to a contradiction in terms.
I'm not sure what, but something about that makes me think she did have fun, then talked herself out of it. In any case, it's an interesting criticism that does nothing at all to dampen my wish to see the film. Thomson, on the other hand, has no such ambivalence, and says "The tone may be straight Greene—that drip of mortification, of agony vindicated—but Reed served it with understanding." Nice precis of Greene there, one which will no doubt please my friend who spent all last week emailing me mordant quotes from Greene's novels—just randomly trying to break my spirit, I guess—and whom I'm trying to get to accompany me to The Fallen Idol on Thursday. (People seem to love going to the movies alone, but I really don't. In my life, I've seen one movie alone in the theater, a good one: California Split. That was five years ago, and not an uplifting experience.)
Then Thomson has this from Greene himself:
When I describe a scene, I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer's eye—which leaves it frozen. In this precise domain I think that the cinema has influenced me. Authors like Walter Scott and the Victorians were influenced by paintings and constructed their backgrounds as though they were static and came from the hands of a Constable. I work with the camera, following my characters and their movements. So the landscape moves. When I turn my head and look at the harbor, my head moves, the houses move, the boats move, don't they?
And that's part of the reason Greene gets a two-page spread in the Biographical Dictionary. I like the quotation, and I know what he means. But, to nitpick only because he's possibly my favorite painter, the choice of Constable as a painter of static images is a little strange: whose clouds move more than Constable's? Nobody's, that's whose.
If I do find a victim...er, date, and do see The Fallen Idol Thursday, you'll be the first to hear about it.
Few things in life are more disagreeable than coming down with a bad cold when you have three deadlines staring you in the face. The human brain is a miraculous organism, but it doesn’t much care for being asked to generate stylish prose between sneezes. Instead of writing, I’ve spent the past four days watching TV, reading comforting books, sucking down endless mugs of hot tea, sleeping as much as possible, and waiting impatiently for my lungs to dry up.
Among other things, I watched Dumbo, which I hadn’t seen since childhood, and Twelve O’Clock High, which I’d never seen. Dumbo turned out to be even better than I remembered, and the pleasure I took in it was greatly enhanced by the fact that I watched it in the company of a nine-year-old boy whose sense of wonder has yet to be impaired by the onset of adolescent selfconsciousness. Not only is it wonderfully concise (sixty-four minutes, the shortest of all the classic Disney features) and animated with enduring freshness and charm, but the score is full of fetching details (I especially liked the Hammond organ in “Pink Elephants on Parade”).
What impressed me most about Twelve O’Clock High, by contrast, was the climactic bombing raid, which consisted for the most part of actual footage of aerial combat shot by American and German military photographers and assembled with skill and intelligence by Henry King. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that all old war movies are euphemistic: Twelve O’Clock High, like John Ford’s They Were Expendable, is startling in the frankness with which it portrays the hard choices that must be made by men in combat.
What books did I take with me to my sickbed? Rex Stout’s And Be a Villain, Prisoner’s Base, and Over My Dead Body, three of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, and Victoria Glendinning’s 1992 biography of Trollope. Only the last of these was new to me—I prefer twice- and thrice-read books when I’m feeling low—and I got much more pleasure out of it than a middle-aged man with a summer cold has any right to expect. I ran across so many fetching quotations in its pages that I thought at one point to devote all five of this week’s almanac entries to Trollope, but I’ve changed my mind. Instead, I’ll empty the bag in one fell swoop:
• “The getter-up of quotations from books which he has never read,—how vile he is to all of us!” (Travelling Sketches)
• “There is nothing perhaps so generally consoling to a man as a well-established grievance; a feeling of having been injured, on which his mind can brood from hour to hour, allowing him to plead his own cause in his own court, within his own heart,—and always to plead it successfully.” (Orley Farm)
• “God is good to us, and heals those wounds with a rapidity which seems to us impossible when we look forward, but which is regarded with insufficient wonder when we look backward.” (The Bertrams)
• “Can it be that any mother really expects her son to sit alone evening after evening in a dingy room drinking bad tea, and reading good books?” (The Small House at Allington)
• “He would use the simplest, plainest language, he said to himself over and over again; but it is not always easy to use simple plain language,—by no means to easy as to mount on stilts, and to march along with sesquipedalian words, with pathos, spasms, and notes of interjection.” (Framley Parsonage)
On the whole, it was a pleasant weekend—or would have been had I not felt so lousy—and the cherry on the sundae was a phone call from my brother in Smalltown, U.S.A., who reported first thing Sunday morning that my mother has profited enormously from a recent operation to relieve her chronic back pain. “She’s standing four inches taller,” he told me. I stood a bit taller myself when I heard the news.
I’m still under the weather, but deadlines wait for no man. On Sunday I made myself start writing again, and I’ll be spending the first part of this week doing the work I had to put aside last week. Come Friday I’ll be back on the road again, traveling to Virginia and Washington, D.C., to see plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen and paying a visit along the way to one of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the Pope-Leighey House. I’ll be blogging, too, but don’t expect anything too ambitious until next Monday. A busy blogger boileth no pots.
I reported on this year's New York International Fringe Festival (which runs through Sunday) in today's Wall Street Journal drama column. The most talked-about show I saw was Bridezilla Strikes Back!:
For those who don't keep up with reality TV, “Bridezillas” is the series that follows a group of increasingly demented brides-to-be as they plan their Must…Be…Perfect Weddings. Cynthia Silver, now a faculty member at New York's Atlantic Theater Company, was approached to take part in the first season and jumped at the chance for network TV exposure, taking for granted that it was a straight documentary and not realizing that the producers would edit the cinema-verité footage to make their subjects look as bitchy and neurotic as possible. Co-written with Kenny Finkle, “Bridezilla Strikes Back!” is the story of how she descended into the double-barreled maelstrom of a wedding and a hit TV show and emerged sadder but wiser.
I assumed Ms. Silver would tell her tale with the wised-up detachment of a media-savvy Manhattanite, but the tone of “Bridezilla Strikes Back!”—frankly confessional, rough around the emotional edges, unexpectedly poignant—is nothing like what I'd expected…
No link, so to read more about this and the four other Fringe Festival I reviewed, buy a copy of today's Journal. (Alternatively, go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, where you can read me every week and lots of other good stuff every day.)
I spent an idle hour (yes, I do have them from time to time, every month or two) trolling through "Sites to See," our blogroll. I added several new blogs and sites that caught my eye in recent weeks, as well as dropping a few old ones that had become inactive or tedious. Our Girl, who writes the blogreviews that appear from time to time in the Top Five module, is doing the same. Our goal, as always, is to make "Sites to See" as useful to you as possible, so if you run across a new or little-known blog that you think we might like, drop us an e-mail.
New blogs and sites are marked with an asterisk. Give them a look—along with any of the old blogs and sites you've yet to visit. In the twenty-first century, the 'sphere is the place to be.
The most charming guest blogger perhaps ever is currently starring at Alex Ross's. I love how the
mere thought of blogging gives her that deer-in-the-headlights stare. I know how you feel sometimes, Maulina, I know how you feel.
Let me share a few last cinematic heresies, with some annotations this time because it's 8:00 and I'm fresh as a daisy compared with my recent blogging sessions:
American Beauty. I know, you picked it, too, but I couldn’t resist. From Kevin Spacey, playing the single role he always plays, to Annette Bening, as a gay screenwriter’s idea of a castrating hag; from the ridiculously worshipful depiction of a teenage pothead to the implication that a Marine World War II vet is a repressed homosexual Nazi (it was people like Spacey, Alan Ball and Sam Mendes, of course, who actually stopped the Nazis from conquering the world), this breathtakingly mendacious picture of American suburbia takes the cake.
Thank you. I've been really gratified to see how many people actively dislike this movie. I saw it in less than ideal conditions: in a promotional preview on a college campus with Spacey, Mena Suvari, Thora Birch, and Wes Bentley in attendance. The starstruck college kids in the audience hooted and clapped through the whole thing, egging on Spacey's character. My alienation from my surroundings was complete. I've avoided the movie ever since. But judging from what many of you had to say, I wasn't simply swayed the unfavorable circumstances—there was a kernel of discernment at work, too.
Leaving Las Vegas. It seemed like an exercise in piling on the gratuitous misery and despair, and I've realized of late that I think gratuitous despair is much worse than gratuitous sex and violence. (I'm of the Jane Austen "let other pens dwell on guilt and misery" school of thought.) Watching it, I got the feeling that all the critics who praised it were congratulating themselves for being brave and
tough-minded enough to watch something that depressing. Blech.
Not having seen this one, I'm not qualified to comment. But what the hell: Blech!
The Natural. Here's the movie I hate that most people like and it usually ends near the top of best sports movies. Honestly, I can never forgive Redford for what he did to this story. Roy Hobbs doesn't hit that home run, he doesn't win the game; no, he fails and everyone thinks he was paid off by gamblers.I don't expect a movie to be 100 percent faithful to its source material, but there has to a point where someone says "You know that story we're making into a movie? This is no longer that story." Yeah, I know Malamud himself seemed OK with it, mainly because he said the movie would cause him to be thought of as something other than a Jewish writer. Sorry, can't find the exact quote. Robert Redford is one of those people I thought would have more respect for the story. For me, his reputation is forever sullied and I'd just like to ask, "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? JUST GO MAKE SOME OTHER FREAKIN' BASEBALL STORY YOU HACK!"
Reading this struck an deep chord in me. I read Malamud's novel as a teenager, right around the time the Detroit Tigers had their Cinderella season. Being caught up in baseball made me especially attuned to Roy Hobbs's plight, and I was devastated; it was one of my first truly intense encounters with a truly bleak literary vision. Close on the heels of that, the movie felt like the worst kind of betrayal, and continues to stand as an all-time low in my movie-viewing history.
This next one also loudly rang a bell.
About Schmidt. Look, I grew up in Palo Alto, California, and go through a tin of flavored hummus a day, but the sneering condescension that pervades every shot in this film had me yelling to my friends about the elitist values of Hollywood on the way out of the theater. Oh, look at those poor people in Omaha with their bleak, meaningless lives. I've heard people talk about how sympathetic this movie was, but is there one character who isn't presented as either an asshole or a desperate loser? And does anyone actually still think that Jack Nicholson is a serious actor?
Well, I'm not sure it's Jack Nicholson's fault that for a while now he hasn't been able to play anyone but Jack Nicholson. It probably is. But more to the point, this movie vexed me no end because I was such a fan of Election and Citizen Ruth (and, more lately, Sideways, though—don't write—I'm fully aware of the case against; I'm not convinced, however, that this case, or the one against Lost in Translation, would have gathered so much steam absent the movies' success). I was fully prepared to like Schmidt. I loathed it. Coming from a director who is usually such a precise ironist, the false note of the final scene, especially, left me shocked and disgusted. And yet I suspect that the tonal difference between this film and Election was a matter of millimeters—millimeters that just happened to fall across some crucial line separating lampoon from contempt. (Speaking of Election, Quiet Bubble mentions in passing that it's one of his cows. I'm curious why, but in a way I don't want to know since QB has great taste and I wouldn't want to be talked out of my love for it.)
Next, two brave souls dissent from the common wisdom on a film that I personally have never heard a heartfelt negative word about, Waking Life:
• Earlier this week the Onion A.V. Club blog tossed out the question of what movies have inspired people to walk out of the theater, which got me thinking about this kind of stuff. So I thought I'd mention Richard Linklater's atrocious Waking Life. When it came out, I was in the middle of an extremely rigorous self-imposed academic hell at the University of Chicago, so the sight of Ethan Hawke or Julie Delpy standing on a pseudointellectual soap box spewing out "chicken soup for the soul"-brand political and social philosophy made me physically ill. I think this is a controversial choice, not because I've gotten into arguments about it with my friends (in fact, I haven't allowed any loved ones to see it if I could help it), but because of the rapt expressions of those around me when I was stumbling over them to get myself out of the theater as quickly as possible. I am sure they wouldn't agree with my assessment.
• When I read your post about attacking movies that everyone else loves, I immediately thought of Waking Life. I am alone among my friends who have seen this movie in thinking that it is 90 minutes of repetitive, self-impressed, pseudo-intellectual tripe. For some reason, the pretty pictures and elementary analyses blind the rest of my friends to its shallowness.
Conveeeeeniently, I haven't actually seen the movie and can't take a side. I'm a fan of Linklater, though that principally means I'm a fan of Dazed and Confused (as is the friend who wrote the first of these comments). So this should have been a natural choice for me, but something kept me from seeing it. Now—perhaps—I know what.
Next is another movie I've never seen. In this case, however, I've been congratulating myself on my judgment from the get-go.
Forrest Gump. The idea of the novel (I'm told) is that the generation of American history from, say, 1960 to 1980 is best rendered as a tale told by an idiot. The book was ironic, get it? Like most of the movies on this list, FG shows no awareness of the possibility of irony. A movie so bad as to constitute a small ethical catastrophe.
There are moments when I feel a shred of curiosity to check in on old Forrest. My idea of this movie's badness is so extreme as to make me think sometimes that it must have been misunderstood somehow. Then the moment passes.
Finally, I wanted to share this ultimate exercise in counter-intuition:
I haven't seen Citizen Kane for many years, perhaps an older me would like it more, but I found it uninvolving when I saw it many years ago. Some of the critical praise seems to emphasize technical accomplishments (camera movement, focus things) which is pretty much not of
interest to the average movie goer.
I first saw Citizen Kane in my late twenties. I was a teaching assistant in a course where it was on the syllabus. I had to be ready to field questions and grade papers about it, so I was watching it in large part out of duty, and looking at it in large part as a work of art whose greatness was beyond doubt. (Which didn't really distinguish me from anyone watching it for the first time with an awareness of this reputation.) So it was decided ahead of time that I would find it a masterpiece. Under these circumstances, it can feel very much as though your own discernment, rather than the object of your scrutiny, is what's actually under scrutiny. And yet I think this effect is more pronounced for some acknowledged masterpieces than others. Watching, say, Grand Illusion or All About Eve for the first time, any self-consciousness I might have felt about my responses was soon extinguished by absorption. Not so for Kane.
As I told the reader who sent it, the Kane comment also reminded me of a memorable scene in The Sopranos, when Carmela gets her lady friends together for a movie club in the Sopranos' cushy home theater. For the kickoff, they watch Citizen Kane. It's Carmela's pick; she opens the evening with some critics' comments about the greatness of the movie, and the lights go down. When they come up again, everyone looks at each other rather blankly, halfheartedly attempts to discuss the movie's merits and flaws ("So it was the sled? He shoulda told somebody"; "That guy was so conceited"), and moves on eagerly to neighborhood gossip. Apart from any parallels between Kane and Tony Soprano, the scene appeared to mock the mob wives crowd for emerging from a masterpiece so pristinely unmoved. Hell, I laughed at them. But since my experience of the movie was so heavily weighed upon by its elephantine reputation, I'm not certain, in retrospect, I should have felt quite so superior. At the very least, I'm envious of their opportunity to view the movie relatively baggage-free.
My friend and colleague John Rockwell, the chief dance critic of the New York Times, has published a column called “Has Mark Morris Made Only One Masterpiece?” which is so wrong-headed that I felt I had to say something about it at once.
Here's part of what John wrote:
Mark Morris is rightly regarded as the finest modern-dance choreographer of his generation, and his "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," a richly varied, deeply moving evening-length setting of Handel's oratorio to Milton's text, is widely believed to be his masterpiece.
But if "L'Allegro," which was created in Brussels in 1988 and concluded its fifth New York run since 1990 at the New York State Theater on Saturday, is Mr. Morris's masterpiece, what's he done since? Should we, as dance lovers and Morris admirers, be concerned that a choreographer still in his prime—he's just shy of 49—and celebrating the 25th anniversary of his company has not produced a comparable triumph in the last 18 years? And if not, why not?...
Size and success are not synonymous. Scattered through the shorter dances that make up the typical mixed-repertory programs of the Mark Morris Dance Group are innumerable gems. But grandeur of scale does make an impact; it stretches out the canvas to allow more room for the rich emotional range and teeming variety of detail that enliven "L'Allegro."
Fudge the point though he does, John is not so implicitly arguing that size and success are synonymous, or something close to it. He remarks in passing, for instance, that “Mr. Morris has delivered eminently serious work in recent years. Like 'V,' set in 2001 to Schumann's E-flat Piano Quintet.” Yet that unforgettably compelling one-act dance, together with many other post-L'Allegro works of comparable weight and significance that John neglected to mention, is apparently as nothing when placed next to the full-evening L'Allegro, which to John's way of thinking is Morris' sole and only “masterpiece.”
How shall I start dismantling this argument-by-assertion? With the most appropriate possible comparison. Mark Morris is about to turn forty-nine. How many full-evening dances had the greatest of all choreographers, George Balanchine, made by the time he was forty-nine? Er, one. He made The Nutcracker in 1954, shortly before his fiftieth birthday, and while it is an indisputably great and miraculous ballet, I don't know anybody over the age of ten who'd be likely to call it his masterpiece. Too bad poor Mr. B piddled away the remainder of his first five decades on such comparatively minor jobs of work as Apollo, Prodigal Son, Serenade, Concerto Barocco, Ballet Imperial, Symphony in C, Orpheus, The Four Temperaments….
You see my point, of course. Yes, L'Allegro is a masterpiece, probably Morris' greatest achievement to date, and its scope is part and parcel of its greatness. To quote what I myself have written about it, L'Allegro is “a whole world of dance in a single evening, everything from childlike pantomime to knockabout comedy to complex groupings reminiscent of George Balanchine in their control and clarity.” This all-encompassing generosity of inspiration is one of the reasons why we respond to it so powerfully. But it's not great because it's long, nor are long works of art necessarily greater than short ones. In my opinion, the greatest ballet of the twentieth century—perhaps the greatest ever made—is Balanchine's half-hour-long Four Temperaments, which contains whole universes of thought and emotion. Jerome Robbins never made a single full-evening dance. Merce Cunningham has made only one, Ocean, and it's no masterpiece. To date Paul Taylor has made two, neither of which has remained in his company's repertory. And as for Morris, I can think of any number of his post-1988 dances which I and many other critics and dance lovers believe to be as good as L'Allegro, even if they're not as long. Dido and Aeneas, Love Song Waltzes, Grand Duo, Rhymes With Silver, The Office, The Argument, V:that's what Mark Morris has “done since,” just for starters. So unless you define “masterpiece” as “a person's single greatest achievement,” which John is obviously not doing in this context, then what he's written makes no sense at all.
Could it be that John has confused greatness with ambition? Or was he simply spinning out a big idea in haste and without sufficient forethought, as journalists, myself included, have been known to do on occasion when a deadline beckons? Beats me. But I wish he'd left this particular idea in the oven to bake a little longer before he served it forth in the New York Times.
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. 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)
• Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content)
• Fiddler on the Roof (musical, G, one scene of mild violence but otherwise family-friendly)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene)
• Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, lots of cutesy-pie sexual content)
• 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)
So I'm hatching this crazy scheme over here that just might work: to get six whole hours of sleep tonight. I've been working fifteen-hour days and am in a pretty pitiable state, so I'm going to make this quick. Here are a handful of my favorite skewerings from the recent Ebert-inspired open call—which doesn't mean I agree with them…necessarily. But there's an art to doing this swiftly and fatally, and these readers have it down.
• Collateral. Oh God. Can we please just agree that it's time for the existential hit-man character to get two in the back of the head in a quiet Italian restaurant? Wised-up, amoral people don't decide to become hit-men because they don't see anything better to do, they become lawyers or lobbyists and make twice as much money without having to run from the police. Being a hit-man is necessarily an unpleasant and short life, and people who go into contract killing generally don't have a lot of other options, so let's just stop it with these Mephisto characters. And if you are going to use one, please don't have him be Tom Cruise talking about jazz.
• Eisenstein's October has been known to induce epileptic seizures in small children. They're the lucky ones.
• State and Main. OK, it's Vermont—get a couple old actors who've never been east of the Valley, put them in flannel shirts and rocking chairs and give them some really. stupid. lines. The part of this which was a send up of Hollywood types was funny, but the "real down home America" part was worse than painful and insulting. And I hate that ingenue with the squinty eyes, Julia Stiles.
• Rear Window. A man fears he may be a witness to a murder. Everyone else tells him he's nuts. They're wrong. That's a plot? Everything Jimmy Stewart's character thinks is happening IS happening. Not a single twist, surprise, or discovery. Dreadful. And the moment where he blinds the beefy murderous assailant with...a camera flash? Woeful. The only reason to watch: The glorious women. Thelma Ritter gives a perfect performance. And was anyone ever more beautiful than Grace Kelly is here? So gorgeous, it hurts.
• My sacred cow is "Reds," Warren Beatty's 1981 ode to John Reed. I saw it then and remember it like it was yesterday. Clocking in at 200 minutes, the movie just dragged, on and on and on. Around the 60 minute mark, people started stirring, heads bobbing and turning, the realization dawning that we're not even a third of the way through. After the intermission, fewer than half of my fellow theater-goers returned. I sat in an aisle seat, one foot wandering left to the aisle, the other uncertainly planted in front, as the seats around me continued to empty out, frustrated theater-goers muttering to themselves as they all but ran up the aisle. As the movie slowly ground its way into its third hour, I stopped debating whether to leave, the whole thing having become a weird sort of endurance contest, one of those things you do just to say you did it, no matter how excruciating the pain.
And then, of course, Beatty won an Oscar for best director.
Googling "Reds" just now I was heartened to note that no less an authority than Paul Schrader, the writer of "Taxi Driver," among many others, had a similar experience:
"Paul Schrader likes to talk. Fortunately for his listeners, he is a very good storyteller. 'I remember I was over at Paramount, and Warren Beatty and I had been fooling around, doing this Howard Hughes thing. He had made the film "Reds" and he was showing it on the lot, and he wanted me to come. I was so tired. I thought, "Well, I'll sit way in the corner, way in the back. If I fall asleep, I'll fall asleep, and nobody will know." Nobody told me there was an intermission. So the lights come up, everybody from Barry Diller on down is in the room, all of Warren's friends, and I am sound asleep. Afterward, one of Warren's minions came over to me and said that Warren had expressed his displeasure. And I said, "Look, I know it took Warren 10 years to make this movie, but it took me three hours to see it, and I can guarantee you that three hours of my life mean more to me than 10 years of Warren's.'"
Hee. More where these came from tomorrowish. Sleep well!
Sorry, folks, but that crackling noise you hear in the middle distance is the sound of me burning out. I'm driving up to Connecticut this morning to see a show, which I consider more than sufficient reason not to blog again today. Though I do finally seem to be on the verge of licking this damn cold—I actually took a two-hour nap yesterday afternoon that was blessedly rich in Rapid Eye Movement, something on which I've been severely short since last Thursday....
Anyway, see you tomorrow. Or maybe Friday. (And don't ask me which Friday.)
I'm in The Wall Street Journal today with a piece about…well, you've kind of got to read it:
As of yesterday, "Atelier de Cannes," a 1958 crayon drawing by Pablo Picasso, was still on sale at www.costco.com. Price: $129,999.99. You'll find it listed under "Gadgets, Gifts & Art," along with art prints by the likes of Chagall, Dufy, Miró, Modigliani and, er, Peter Max. The quality of these latter works is fairly modest (the Picasso isn't very good, either), but the fact that you can buy them on the Web has brought the warehouse chain reams of free publicity. Yet no one seems to remember that what Costco is doing is nothing new. Forty years ago, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was selling Picassos and Chagalls, not to mention Rembrandts, Dürers, Goyas, Whistlers, Mondrians and Wyeths, all of them bearing the imprimatur of a celebrated connoisseur who was better known for making such grisly movies as "The Fly" and "House of Wax."
Vincent Price is now best remembered for his supporting role in the classic 1944 film noir "Laura," but in the '60s he was a full-fledged movie star, albeit one who never got the girl—at least not while she was still alive. An elegantly campy gent who in his later years specialized in playing pardon-me-sir-while-I-cut-off-your-head psychopaths, Price was also one of Hollywood's most passionate art collectors, a former student at the Courtauld Institute of Art who had been well on his way to becoming an art historian when he abruptly changed course, went on the London and Broadway stages and became an overnight success.
In 1962 Price was approached by George Struthers, Sears's vice president of merchandising, who believed his company could sell fine art to the American public the same way it sold lawn mowers and ladies' underwear. Price agreed to pick the pieces and serve as spokesman, and the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art was off and running, first in Sears's Denver store, then in other stores across the country, with a mail-order line added the following year….
OpinionJournal.com, the Journal editorial page's Web site, has posted a free link to this piece, so you can read the whole thing by going here. Not that I'd dream of discouraging you from buying a copy of today's paper and turning to the Leisure & Arts page (or, better yet, subscribing to the Online Journal by going here).
Here's the raw list of sacred cattle proffered by our readers, presented in clever subdivisions. Starting tomorrow I'll share some of the actual reviews, which were delightfully bitter and bilious. Ebert who?
THE EVER POPULAR
American Beauty (5 mentions)
Lost in Translation (3)
Breaking the Waves (2)
Waking Life (2)
Dances with Wolves (2)
Pulp Fiction (2)
The Third Man
I RESPECTFULLY PROTEST!
Last Picture Show
I HEARTILY CONCUR
Good Will Hunting
As Good as It Gets
A FEW PAIRINGS
Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful
Fahrenheit 9/11 and Passion of the Christ
2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
THE CRUISE FACTOR
WHO EXACTLY IS GENUFLECTING?
Cheaper by the Dozen
…AND THE REST
Ordinary People, Primary Colors, The Vanishing, The English Patient, The Crying Game, Talented Mr. Ripley, Million Dollar Baby, A Letter to Three Wives, Reds, Short Cuts,
Forrest Gump, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happy Endings, Love's Labour's Lost, The Goodbye Girl, Talk to Her, State and Main, Andrei Rublev, Gandhi, Z, Dersu Uzala, October,
Mississippi Burning, Dead Man, Everything Quentin Tarantino Has Ever Done, A Clockwork Orange, The Piano, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ferris Bueller's Day Off
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, August 23, 2005 | Permanent
Don't think I'm not still sick! I'm mostly better, but not entirely. I had to cover the Fringe Festival last night, and my Wall Street Journal drama column is due this morning. So in lieu of original content, I offer you this snapshot of my recent reading:
• Robert Birnbaum interviews Camille Paglia:
CP: I'm on a crusade—it's to say to the poets and the artists, “Stop talking to each other. Stop talking to coteries. I despise coteries in any form. You are speaking to a coterie, OK. Stop the snide references to the rest of the world who didn't vote with you in the last election.” This is big. Because we have all separated again. After 9/11, everyone was united. We are separated again thanks to what has happened in politics. People in the art world are full of [a] sanctimonious sense of superiority to most of America. But they must address America, learn to address America. Yes, have your friends, have the people who support what you are doing in the art world, but you have to recover a sense of the general audience and the same thing I am saying to the far right, get over the sneering at art, the stereotyping—
RB: They started it.
CP: Wait a minute. The far right wouldn't have any opinions about art if it weren't for those big incidents in the late '80s to the '90s when some stupid work was committing sacrilege.
RB: You're referring to Andrés Serrano?
CP: Yeah, some 10th-rate thing. It's always Catholic iconography, I might point out. I am atheist, by the way. It's never Jewish. It's never Muslim. So I am saying this is a scandal. The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people on the far right. Thinking, “We're avant-garde.” The avant-garde is dead. It has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell's Soup labels and Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avant-garde is dead. Thirty years later, 40 years later, people will think they are avant-garde every time some nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, “Oh yeah, we are getting a rise out of the Catholic League.”…
• Speaking of countertakes, Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post offers this unexpected slant on The Aristocrats:
For the comics, life is lived onstage, in the limelight, to the love and applause of anonymous crowds. It involves a great deal of travel, friendships with other gifted, crazed people but just as frequently, bitter rivalries, endless feuds, treachery and betrayal. If you win, you win the power of fame, which after the second day gets you nothing but good tables in restaurants where rubes bother you for autographs as you suck down your linguini, the right to fail with a better class of woman and, of course, the emptiness of being unconnected to anything larger than the self.
Who would win in a fight between the two meanest, cruellest, wisecrackiest critics in the history of movies: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura or Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) in All About Eve?
I'm going with DeWitt. Lydecker may be more dangerous in certain respects, but DeWitt has the size advantage, and a cooler head, and more strategic ability. His decision to blackmail and form a weird alliance with Eve (making them, according to some interpretations, 1950's original Ambiguously Gay Duo), is a far sounder strategic decision than Waldo's Pygmalion act with Laura. Addison in three rounds unless Waldo has something stashed in his old clock.
However, if it's a question of who's better at wisecracks, then Lydecker obviously wins….
The title of this posting, by the way, is “Battle of the Evil Critics.” I myself would have pleaded not guilty were it not for my most recent Wall Street Journalreview, which I fear may have been a touch on the evil side. (Not that there's anything wrong with it!)
• The Little Professor, one of the 'sphere's more obsessive bibliomanes, offers an alarming list of “signs that the books have taken over.” Item No. 1:
Your parents send you an article from the L.A. Times that describes the lengths to which people will go to house their personal libraries—converting a garage, for example. It's not clear if this article is meant to be prophetic or admonitory.
Vassar was a fiddler, plain but not so simple. To borrow part of a line, the violin is a harsh mistress. In symphony halls, it is revered and somewhat feared. In shade-tree string bands, it is just feared. Playing a violin is like spending time with a beauty. Even a virtuoso performance gains only passing admiration, the object of affection usually in a hurry to return to the mirror. But every so often a suitor comes along with the ability to tame. That was Vassar.
It sure was. I spent part of the summer of 1974 kicking around Nashville, playing in broken-bottle joints and looking for Vassar Clements—but that's another story….
It was a sad night. Sad to see an old friend who no longer has what it takes, surrounded by second or third rate musicians. He wears a suit jacket that looks slept in and no one on the bandstand smiles. He wanders on stage alone, and starts to play. I wonder if he begins his program solo, then works up to duo and builds on—then I realize he's just warming up almost as if unaware he's on stage. The pianist arrives, as does the sax. The drummer gets seated. He counts off and they begin just as the bassist walks on stage. They've begun anyway….
(No, I don't know who it was, and I'm glad I don't. I've been to gigs that were just like that.)
• Ms. Searchblog, who blogs about her struggles with chronic depression when not reflecting on other aspects of life, love, and art, waxes especially eloquent in this posting:
If anyone told me nearly two years ago that I would still be fighting to regain my mental health in August 2005, I would have dismissed such projections as delusional, or at least laughable.
Yet here I am—still struggling, still trying so hard to get better, still fighting the good fight.
Each morning when I open my eyes, my first thought is, “OK—I can make it through today. I can do it.” Although I've repeated this mantra every morning for almost two years, I don't feel sorry for myself—not at all. It's simply the way my life is lived now: a highly internalized struggle that yields inconsistent results. My major depressive episode led to a terrifying mental breakdown, which resulted in chronic depression. That's the way it is….
Read this one, whether you've been there or not. And be sure to take the test at the end—it's very good for a laugh.
Corruption contrasts with the men's hearts of gold. But this sort of yin-yang balance, this universal dualism, is the type of clichéd, glib sensibility of a twelve-year old, or someone who thinks life is really this simple. I loved Miller's comics when I was young, to be sure. But I grew up….Sin City is devoid of color, but not the kind you see. Rather, it's devoid of the kind you feel, and this is the worst sin of all.
Haven't been. Won't now.
• Lastly and conversely, the adorable Cinetrix posted about Me and You and Everyone We Know back in June, but for some reason it slid past me. Catching up with her thoughts now, I'm struck by her astute and subtle comparison to another of my favorite films:
At the end of Me and You, I felt the way I did after seeing Trust for the first time, or The Dreamlife of Angels: I had been somewhere new and strange and was reluctant to come back to the "real" world; I had fallen in love.
I also can't remember the last time I saw a film so gentle. The narrative ebbs and flows, exerting a tidal pull on the characters, exposing their glistening idiosyncrasies to our gaze for a moment before sweeping them away. I can't wait to see it again….
I'm late, I'm late, for a very important post…I promised you reader movie rants, and they are forthcoming—just not this weekend, which is now last weekend, alas. And I still have a long night ahead of me before I can rest up for next week, which has insidiously but surely turned into this week, right under my insufficiently efficient nose. Wow: I am really, really bad at Sundays. I'll be back during the week with the goods. Have a nicer Monday than my Sunday, please.
(4) Good movies for invalids: Barbershop, Clueless, Defending Your Life, Speed. (Did you realize that Clueless is now ten years old? Wow.) Also good: Nero Wolfe, Patrick O'Brian, twice- and thrice-read theatrical biographies.
(5) Soup gets tiresome.
(6) Insofar as possible, don't let unwashed dishes pile up in the sink. The resulting spectacle is depressing and inhibits recovery.
(7) If you have to choose between staying dirty and taking a cold shower, take the shower.
(8) There is no truer friend than the one who offers to run errands for you.
(9) When buying groceries under the influence of antihistamines, don't just look at the pictures—read the labels.
(10) All cabbies are sadistic psychopaths. Show no weakness!
• Gene Bertoncini, who plays for happy eaters on Sundays and Mondays at Le Madeleine, is appearing this Thursday at the Jazz Standard in a “celebration” of the release of Quiet Now, his second CD of unaccompanied solos for acoustic guitar. As I wrote in the liner notes for its predecessor, Body and Soul, Gene is
one of those musicians whom I seek out, no matter where they're working. That's the nice thing about living in New York—you can really keep up with great artists like Gene—and that's why I can say with certainty that his playing has gotten better with every passing year. The emotions grow steadily deeper, the harmonies richer and more oblique, the textures more eloquently spare. He was never one to throw around his technique, but now he doesn't waste any notes at all: every one rings true….
• Last Dance, Mirra Bank's 2002 cinema-verité documentary about Pilobolus, is playing on the Sundance Channel tonight at 9:30 p.m. EDT. It's a startlingly frank backstage look at how Pilobolus collaborated with Maurice Sendak to create A Selection, a dance about the Holocaust. I can personally testify to its candor, for I happened to be visiting Pilobolus' rehearsal studio when it was filmed (I was reporting on the making of A Selection for a New York Times story) and ended up becoming one of the film's on-camera talking heads. It is, if I do say so myself, a damned fine piece of work, and since it has yet to be released on DVD, I commend it to your atttention.
"To have no pride as an actor is fatal. To have the right amount is almost impossible. It gets in the way of good work; the lack of it prevents your taking chances, daring to go further than you have before, risking whatever reputation you have—not with the public, but with your director or playwright. You need to know they will allow you to rehearse awkwardly, embarrassingly, in your search for certain elements in the play. Not carelessly, but with the kind of abandon that only comes with real love.
"Our happiest theatre memories are those when that love exists in equal measures for the actors and the audience. When the play is received as love is received, with trust, unquestioningly. Because it is being given with confidence and truth and, yes, pride. Beautiful pride."
A few hours ago, About Last Night logged its 500,000th page view. From my perspective especially, this is a humbling and amazing figure—far more amazing, I daresay, to we bloggers than to you readers. The only thing I really want to say on this subject is simple but very deeply felt: thanks. For reading, for linking, for writing, and for blogrolling us. I'm sure that all goes double for Terry.
The weekend is now officially on, and any stray cocktails that might happen to cross my path as it proceeds will be drunk to you, dear readers.
I just got back from Theater Row, where I thought I was going to see the budding young actor who doubles as my trainer carry a sword in a studio performance of Terence’s The Eunuch. (Keep the jokes to yourself, please.) Alas, the studio door was locked and the box office unhelpful, so I hailed a cab and headed uptown to my apartment, which is currently in a fleeting state of grace, the cleaning lady having come and gone. All surfaces are dusted, all corners straightened, all flowers watered. A fellow blogger poked her head in to see the Teachout Museum yesterday afternoon and said, "It looks…monastic!" Well, maybe not quite, but ’twill serve, ’twill serve.
I have one more piece to finish before I shut the shop down, a Commentary essay on Jerome Robbins, and on the way home I tried to decide whether to stay up late or get up early. As the cab picked its way north, I saw that the night sky over Manhattan was full of alien presences—low-flying blimps and helicopters hovering in all the wrong places—so I decided to knock off for the evening, watch Cary Grant and Leslie Caron in Father Goose, and leave Robbins for tomorrow morning. If the bad guys are planning to pay a visit, I’d prefer not to be writing about West Side Story when they come. Besides, I don’t often get to spend a quiet evening in my apartment when it’s neat and tidy, and I’d just as soon spend it sitting in the living room, alternately watching TV and communing with the contents of the Teachout Museum. You don't really appreciate your surroundings when you're hunched over a hot iBook, tapping away.
Of course I don’t really think there’s trouble afoot, at least not imminently. I’m mainly just beat to the socks—it’s been a long, long week—and happy to have an excuse, however far-fetched, to down my tools. I took a nap this afternoon and dreamed I was editing a paragraph from my Robbins essay. It’s bad enough when you dream about the piece you’re writing, but when you dream about editing the piece you’re writing, you know you need to take a break. This, needless to say, is exactly what I’m planning to do. You won't be hearing from me again until September 6. Like the cleaning lady, I’ve done my best to make things neat and tidy for Our Girl in Chicago. In fact, I just finished updating the Top Five module of the right-hand column, which now contains four brand-new postings for your edification. I was briefly tempted to check my e-mailbox one last time before signing off, but I decided against it, so if you wrote to me today in the hopes of getting an immediate reply, you’re out of luck.
Me, I’m in luck. Not counting Christmas, it’s been a year since I took a whole week off, and I can already taste it. In the meantime, Cary Grant awaits, followed by rapid eye movement, followed by a couple of thousand words on the iBook, followed by…but that’s a secret. I’ll tell you what I did after it’s done.
For now, have fun with Our Girl. I see that people in thirteen time zones are reading "About Last Night" as I write these words. May all of them, and all of you, wish me well.
Regular readers know that I’ve been putting the pedal to the metal for most of the summer, both here and in my various day jobs, and it struck me that I’d earned a little time off. The Republican convention seemed like a perfect opportunity for a Manhattan-based aesthete to shut up shop, so I went to The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, hat in hand, and asked if I could skip a couple of deadlines. They said yes (not, I hope, with relief!).
Even though I write "About Last Night" for love, not money, it’s still hard work, and I need a break from it no less than from my paying gigs. So starting at midnight tonight, I’m going up the spout for a week. In spite of all temptations, I won’t be posting or checking my e-mailbox again until Monday, September 6. Until then, the blog belongs to Our Girl in Chicago, who is all freshened up after her recent hiatus and has scads and piles of things about which she longs to write.
What will I do? Where will I be? I’m not telling. Perhaps I’ll don a false mustache and walk the streets of New York incognito, eavesdropping on conventioneers. Perhaps I’ll flag a freight train and let it whisk me off to parts unknown. All I can say is that I plan to do no writing of any kind between now and September 6, except for a few hastily scrawled words on the odd postcard. Otherwise, I’m standing mute.
Have fun while I’m gone. Send lots of nice mail to Our Girl. Check out all those other cool blogs listed in the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column.
"Guantánamo" is a dramatization by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo of material drawn from interviews, letters, transcripts of public hearings and other documents. It asserts that several British nationals currently detained at the U.S. naval base on Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay are innocent—and that all 585 detainees, whom the Pentagon claims are terrorists with ties to al Qaeda or the Taliban, are being treated like "animals."
Theatrically speaking, the trouble with "Guantánamo," which opened last night at 45 Bleecker, is that it isn’t really a play. The script consists of undigested slabs of talk, coarsely woven together and staged by Nicolas Kent and Sacha Wares in the manner of a political cartoon, with some actors addressing the audience directly and others miming in the background on a sketchy prison-camp set. Though the performers, including Kathleen Chalfant ("Wit"), do their best to give it life, the first act is dull, and while the second act is more compelling, it’s still dramatically inert. (The audience response at the preview I saw was tepid.)
But "Guantánamo" isn’t a debate, either. Instead, it’s more like a reading of the court record of a show trial in which only one side was allowed to speak….
I also reported on six New York International Fringe Festival plays, all of them favorably. Since five of the six shows are still open (Chris Earle’s brilliantly polished Radio :30 has ended its run), I’ll reprint my capsule reviews here, with a strong recommendation that you try to catch at least one of them between now and Sunday:
• "The Bicycle Men," written and performed by a lunatic quartet of Chicago-based comedians, is a zany mini-musical about a nerdy American tourist (Dave Lewman) whose bicycle breaks down in a French village. Deliciously Francophobic mayhem ensues, interrupted at random intervals by totally irrelevant songs. A hoot and a half (Players Theatre, Saturday at 4:45 p.m.).
• Negin Farsad’s "Bootleg Islam" is an eye-opening I-was-there monologue by a second-generation Iranian-American woman who went to Tehran for her cousin’s wedding and saw more than she bargained for. More a stand-up routine than a fully developed one-person show, but smart, funny and fascinating all the same (Paul Sharpe Contemporary Art, Friday at 9:15 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.).
• "Go Robot Go," written by and starring Julie Shavers, is a school-of-"Avenue-Q" play with music (the band does most of the singing) about late-capitalist alienation among the twentysomething cubicle dwellers of New York. Philip Carluzzo’s score needs to be built up, but the script, staging and performances—especially Ms. Shavers’ sweetly gawky star turn—are ready for prime time (Our Lady of Pompeii Demo Hall, Saturday at 9 p.m.).
• Colin Campbell’s "Golden Prospects: A Los Angeles Melodrama" is a postmodern boo-and-hisser about dirty work in the orange groves and oil fields of sunny California. Lively, unpretentious fun (Linhart Theatre, Sunday at 2:45 p.m.).
• Rolin Jones’ "The Jammer: A Roller Derby Love Story" is a charmer about a nice Catholic boy from Coney Island (Kevin Rich) who skates his way to the small time. Though the script is a bit too thin to stand on its own, it’d make a fabulous book for a rock-and-roller-skate musical. Outstanding direction and choreography by Greg Felden and Tim Acito (Players Theatre, Friday at 5 p.m.).
On one leg of my delightful recent vacation (about which more soon) I was close enough to the northern border to be able to listen to CBC Radio One, where I heard an installment of a miniseries called "50 Tracks". Proceeding one decade at a time, the show's host Jian Ghomeshi and his guests are picking the fifty essential songs of the 20th century. Last week's show covered the 1980s, which yielded:
1. "Billie Jean" [Michael Jackson]
2. "With or Without You" [U2]
3. "Message" [Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five]
4. "Fight the Power" [Public Enemy]
5. In a tie, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" [Joy Division] and "When Doves Cry" [Prince]
The runners-up were Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" and "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran.
Now, I'm a child of the 80s, and it's the popular music from this decade that stirs up the strongest raw feeling in me. The music I love from these years, and the music I hate, rings up equally high readings on the nostalgia meter. All of it, the good and the bad, sounds affectingly like my life once upon a time. Somebody, I can't remember who, said "memory is the key to everything, but with it comes nostalgia, which is the key to nothing," a dictum I sort of loathe but grudgingly credit—although, then again, I don't think my own attachment to nostalgia is an illusion that it will unlock or illuminate anything. To flip-flop yet some more, maybe nostalgia is the key to lists like this. In other words, it's the key to something—just not something meaningful.
It turns out that "essential" is a tricky criterion to pin down, though not a bad one if you take it, as I do, as connoting influence and quality in roughly equal parts, along with a soupçon of, you know, je ne sais quoi (this is where the nostalgia comes in). By these standards, there's nothing on the Radio One's 1980s list that absolutely begs to be lopped off, and yet it's an oddly unsatisfying laundry list. Is it trying to be too representative? Is it too focused on including essential artists at the expense of great songs? Surely Michael Jackson and Prince need to be there, but the panelists' cases for including these particular songs from their respective 1980s oeuvres carried a whiff of compromise and overthinking, as though the songs were bundles of abstract qualities that needed to be checked off.
And though it may be awfully lowest-common-denominator of me, I have to question how Joy Division ended up in the top 5 while Duran Duran, a single well-chosen chord of whose music elicits a positively Pavlovian response in everyone I know who hit 16 during the 80s, didn't make the cut. A friend raised the similar question of Madonna (if she cracked our list, we agreed, it would be with "Material Girl").
And so the CBC's list does its proper work: starting some good snarling brawls. (OK, I'm not much of a snarler, but you get my drift.) Take a look at the whole list here and send some fighting words. I'll also accept predictions for the top five from the 90s, a decade that sounds altogether fuzzier to my by-then-post-teenage ears. I'll go ahead and shoot the fish in a barrel that is "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but beyond that I'm stumped.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 26, 2004 | Permanent
The series slate includes a movie I adore and long to see again, Assayas's own Cold Water. Alas, it's a hard movie to get your hands on. Originally made for French television as a sort of after-school special pour sophisticates, it's a compact, eloquent, and utterly affecting little mood piece. Here's BAM's précis:
Made as part of a series produced by French television depicting autobiographical stories of filmmakers at age 16, Assayas’ contribution takes place in 1972. Young lovers Gilles and Christine are separated after she gets caught during a robbery attempt. She is committed and he drifts aimlessly, until a rendezvous at a party in the country. Cold Water features the most celebrated sequence in any Assayas film, an astounding set piece scored to 60s rock-n-roll playing, and often repeating mid-song, from a turntable.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Terry will be at one of the four screenings next Friday, September 3d: 2:00, 4:30, 6:50, or 9:15. (I'm planning on hounding him into it.) So be sure to say Hey, Terr!
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, August 26, 2004 | Permanent
TT: They lost it at the movies
I’m in The Wall Street Journal today, a special midweek appearance—I wrote a piece for the Leisure & Arts page, a short tribute to Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and David Raksin, all of whom died recently. Here’s part of what I said:
Three important American composers died this past month. Had they written operas or symphonies, their deaths would have been front-page news. Instead, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and David Raksin scored Hollywood films, and so they never got the respect they deserved. (Raksin’s New York Times obituary, for instance, was written not by a music critic but by Aljean Harmetz, an entertainment reporter.) Yet their best work was fully deserving of critical attention….
Why weren’t these talented men more widely known in their lifetimes? Because the art they practiced was long treated as an ugly stepchild by classical music critics, most of whom took it for granted that anyone who chose to work in Hollywood had sold his soul to the devil of commercialism for the highest possible price. Even a distinguished, solidly established European composer like Miklós Rózsa was written off by narrow-minded highbrows after he wrote the music for such box-office smashes as "Double Indemnity" and "Ben-Hur."
As a result of this bigoted attitude, few major American classical composers dared to moonlight in Hollywood (except for Aaron Copland, who scored "Of Mice and Men," "Our Town" and "The Heiress," the last of which won him a well-deserved Oscar). Instead, most of the outstanding film composers of the 20th century were full-time specialists who rarely if ever wrote concert music. Nor is it likely that they would have had much luck with it, since the vast majority of them were traditionally inclined, tune-prone artists who adhered wholeheartedly to the natural law of tonality at a time when their classical counterparts were bowing to the iron will of the atonal avant-garde—and alienating audiences in the process.
Now that the stranglehold of late modernism has given way at last to the deliberate accessibility of minimalism, so has movie music come to be widely regarded as an idiom worthy of closer critical scrutiny. The yearningly romantic scores of Bernard Herrmann, who worked with Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane"), Alfred Hitchcock ("Vertigo"), François Truffaut ("Fahrenheit 451") and Martin Scorsese ("Taxi Driver"), are well on the way to becoming concert-hall staples, and the finest work of Bernstein, Goldsmith and Raksin can’t be far behind….
No link, alas, so if you want to read more, buy a copy of today’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the online edition. I recommend the latter.
I almost forgot to mention that Karrin Allyson, one of my very favorite jazz singers, is appearing through September 5 at Le Jazz au Bar, New York’s newest high-end nightclub. She’s touring in support of her latest CD, Wild for You, which contains subtly reworked jazz interpretations of 13 songs by Elton John, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Cat Stevens—the AM-radio music Allyson grew up on in the days before she discovered and embraced jazz. Like everything she does, it’s purest pleasure.
Here’s part of what I wrote in the Washington Post about her last album, In Blue:
Outside of moving from Kansas City to Manhattan a couple of years ago, Allyson (whose first name is pronounced KAH-rin) has consistently refused to play by The Rules. Yes, she's good-looking, but she doesn't glam up for gigs or pretend to be fresh out of college. She's a fully grown woman who has been making records her way for a decade now, singing what she likes and working with players she knows, shimmying up the greasy pole of renown inch by inch. The two Grammy nominations she received for last year's "Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane" suggest that the rest of the world is finally starting to catch up with her—and about time, too.
Allyson has a slender, smallish voice, precisely focused and pleasingly rough around the edges, whose distinctive timbre is at once plaintive and engaging. You can tell she knows all about life's ups and downs, and this album is more about the latter than the former. Don't be misled by the title, though, for "In Blue" isn't an all-blues program. As always, Allyson has cast her net far more widely and imaginatively, choosing 13 songs that range in tone from the sophisticated sorrow of Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues" to the no-nonsense earthiness of "Evil Gal Blues," an old Dinah Washington specialty ("I'll burn you like a candle, honey, I'm gonna burn you at both ends"). In between these two stylistic bookends is plenty of room for every other imaginable shade of blue, including a pair of dark-hued standards, "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Angel Eyes," that fit the prevailing mood perfectly.
I’m not funny, and wish I were. Witty, yes, sometimes, and I’m pretty good at making an audience laugh when lecturing (a situation in which the prevailing standards are admittedly fairly low). But plain old drop-dead funny? Absolutely not. The only time I ever brought down a house was when I contrived to be hit in the face with a cream pie in front of an audience of pubescent classmates who thought they were going to be forced to listen to me give a prize-winning speech as part of a talent contest. That stopped the show. Short of such skullduggery, though, I lacked the power to impose my personality on a crowd, and still do. As a naughty but honest colleague said of Leopold Godowsky, a legendary turn-of-the-century pianist who was miraculous in the studio but dull in the concert hall, my aura extends for about five feet. This incapacity has made it hard for me to be funny and impossible for me to be either an actor or a conductor, two professions toward which I was briefly drawn when I was young and foolish.
I also wish I were graceful. Gerry Mulligan wrote a song called "Just Want to Sing and Dance Like Fred Astaire," which has always been my own vain wish. Instead, I suffer from a chronic condition dubbed Inanimate Object Trouble by the playwright George S. Kaufman, who suffered from the same disorder. I’m a dropper and a tripper, and I don’t need anything to fall over in order to fall—my shadow is quite sufficient, thanks. This problem I attribute to my lifelong left-handedness. I once read a study whose authors concluded that most of the variance in the lifespans of lefties and righties (we die younger) can be explained by the fact that left-handed people are accident-prone. It seems we're more likely to crash cars, cut off our pedal extremities with power saws, and other such domestic tragedies. The study went on to suggest that our curious penchant for self-destruction is due to the fact that the world is arranged to suit the convenience of right-handed people, a hard truth I learned the first time I picked up a pair of scissors.
Whatever the reason, I gave up on sports as fast as I could, and never made serious attempts to master any manual skills other than typing and playing assorted musical instruments. At the former I was and am a virtuoso. At the latter I was solidly competent without touching the high C of maximal dexterity. I got work as a jazz musician because I had a good ear, knew all the old standards, and was a reliable sideman, but I never did get to be much of a soloist. What I liked to do was keep perfect time, which is more a function of mind over matter than anything else. Hence I fell in love at an early age with Count Basie’s original rhythm section—four unshowily graceful cats who did nothing but swing like the wind—and when I discovered the records
they made on their own in 1938, minus the Basie band, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. If I could have played music like that for a living, I’d have never become a writer. Alas, jazz in 1978 was completely different from jazz in 1938, and in any case I was too bourgeois to spend my life playing music in gin joints until sunup.
Having ruled out all possible alternatives, I succumbed to the inevitable and became a critic, which turned out to be what I should have done in the first place. Never since then have I doubted that I made the right choice. Instead of acting in boulevard comedies, playing jazz in nightclubs, dancing pas de deux with sylph-like women, or tossing off John Marin-like watercolors with a dazzling twist of the wrist, I write appreciatively of those who do. I can’t imagine anything more delightful than to write a profile of a little-known artist that makes him better known, and I know from experience that my abilities in this line of work are cherished by those who’ve been on the receiving end of them.
So no, I’m not frustrated—I’m fulfilled. I know exactly how lucky I am. I adore my work. And would I give it up in a heartbeat in order to be able to dance like Fred Astaire, or play piano like Count Basie? Please don't embarrass me by asking.
On the other hand, Astaire probably would have cut off his left foot in order to write songs like Irving Berlin, a thought I find oddly comforting. I don’t know about Basie, though. If he had any thwarted aspirations, I'm not aware of them. He might well have been one of the few people in the world who was perfectly happy to do what he did and be who he was, and I think he would have been right to be. That’s the way his music sounds—an eternal present in which no one is tempted to take thought for the morrow.
Basie’s divinely carefree music reminds me of something I wrote about George Balanchine in All in the Dances:
Having come so close to death at so young an age, he determined instead to spend the rest of his days living in the present. It was a resolution from which he never wavered. Of all his oft-repeated refrains, the most familiar was Do it now! "Why are you stingy with yourselves?" he would 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." His ruthlessly practical approach to running a dance company was rooted in the hard-won knowledge that his next breath might be his last. He worked within the means available at the moment, using them to the fullest, never wasting time longing for better dancers or a bigger budget: "A dog is going to remain a dog, even if you want to have a cat; you’re not going to have a cat, so you better take care of the dog because that’s what you’re going to have." He ran his private life along the same lines: when he had money, he spent it lavishly, on himself and others, and when he didn’t, he lived frugally. "You know," he said, "I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn’t, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don’t look back. I don’t look forward. Only now." This dance, this meal, this woman: that was his world.
And yes, I wish I could be like that, too. It’s the spiritual equivalent of physical gracefulness. But at least it’s a habit of being to which even the clumsy and unfunny among us can aspire. Not in this lifetime will I do a gargouillade or play Beethoven’s Op. 111 like Artur Schnabel, but I can try to live in the moment today, and try again tomorrow and the day after that—and while I’m at it, I can listen to Count Basie all I want. I can think of worse bargains.
Now and then it would vanish for hours from the scene,
But alas, be discovered inside a tureen.
Edward Gorey's books constitute a micro-genre unto themselves. They don't belong to any preexisting category, and they contain their own subgenres. One of my favorite of these subgenres is the Crashing Creature story, which to my recollection consists of two works, "The Osbick Bird" and "The Doubtful Guest" (pictures and full text here). The first of these begins:
An osbick bird flew down and sat
On Emblus Fingby's bowler hat.
It had not done so for a whim
But meant to come and live with him.
Similarly, the antihero of "The Doubtful Guest" appears unannounced one night. It has come to stay.
When they answered the bell on that wild winter night,
There was no one expected—and no one in sight.
Then they saw something standing on top of an urn,
Whose peculiar appearance gave them quite a turn.
All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall,
Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall.
It was seemingly deaf to whatever they said,
So at last they stopped screaming, and went off to bed.
It joined them at breakfast and presently ate
All the syrup and toast and a part of a plate.
Through the middle of the story we hear of the Guest's habits, none of them charming (with the possible exception of "peeling the soles of its white canvas shoes"). And the ending reveals that there is no end:
It came seventeen years ago, and to this day
It has shown no intention of going away.
Which is all by way of saying that I'm feeling a bit like the Doubtful Guest around the blog these days: moody, moochy, and mute. But all this is about to change. More blogging imminently. Doubtless.
UPDATE: I know what you're wondering: any visuals on the Osbick Bird? The best pic I can find, (darkly) hilariously, is on a coffee mug that you can purchase for a measly $7 from the Funeral Consumers Alliance (scroll down). They also offer a Gashlycrumb Tinies mug and a Gorey refrigerator magnet reading "Matters of Life and Death Inside." Can't say they don't have a sense of humor.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, August 25, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Spin the bottle, kick the can
I went to six shows presented by the New York International Fringe Festival over the weekend, and they were all good, every last one of them. Alas, I can't tell you which ones just yet, because I'll be reviewing them in this Friday's Wall Street Journal. But I can say that the festival runs through Sunday, and that if you live in or near New York, you'd be well advised to check out at least a few of its offerings.
The New York Times has already reviewed a number of Fringe Festival shows (their selection criteria, by the way, look to be about as random as mine), and two of their favorites will also be figuring prominently in my column on Friday, so you might want to check out their theater page and see if any of the recommendations ring your bell.
For more information on the Fringe Festival, including synopses of and photos from all 200-plus shows, go here and start browsing. I can't promise that you'll hit the jackpot, but I did it six times in a row, which ought to count for something.
Just because I haven’t been blogging doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading blogs. Here’s some of what I gleaned in the past couple of weeks:
• David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith, and Elmer Bernstein, three of the most important film-music composers of the twentieth century, all died recently. I marked their passing by writing a piece that will run in The Wall Street Journal as soon as a hole opens up. In the meantime, Alex Ross posted thoughtful comments on their deaths, which can be found here, here, here, and here. I especially like this one:
"Sounds like a film score" is the put-down of choice for tonal orchestral music. "Serious" composers are supposed to suffer neglect in their lifetimes, with the gratitude of posterity their invisible reward. The my-time-will-come mindset was especially widespread in the twentieth century, with composers believing that if they invented a new sound or came up with a "big idea" they would win their place in history. The result was a great deal of superficially difficult, emotionally disposable music, whose ultimate historical value is now very much in question. By contrast, it seems certain that in a hundred years people will still be talking about Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo, Goldsmith's Chinatown, Raksin's Laura. They have gone down in history, because they found a way to make their music matter.
I like what I said, but I wish I’d said that, too.
• Tobi Tobias was at the Mark Morris performance on which I bailed out at intermission
because of exhaustion. In lieu of what I might have written, read what she wrote:
From the start, Morris has gone in for nonconformity when it comes to the bodies he chooses to animate his work. Instead of selecting for uniformity and conventional notions of a physical ideal, he has regularly assembled a miniature motley society of the small, the stocky, the lushly ample, the tall-and-skinny beanpole type, the delicate, the blunt, and, yes, a few whose ballet teachers may have had high hopes of placing in one of those finalists-only classical companies that go by their initials. The flat-footed and those whom the gods of turn-out have not favored have their place with Morris, as do the fresh and frank American girl and the sultry glamour girl (Betty and Veronica, if you will), the beach hero and the fellow into whose face the beach hero kicks the sand. And of course the company has always been multi-ethnic—so thoroughly so that, simply by appearing, it defies tokenism, demonstrating that there are an infinite number of ways to be Caucasian, black, Asian, or a mix thereof….
• Speaking of Mark Morris, guess who has a stalker? Me! If only I knew what she looked like….
That night I dream about Robert Mitchum. I'm in the middle of the street. Old Tucson or something. And he's walking toward me obscured by this swirling sand. He's also singing. I can make out the words to "Thunder Road." I can see the black cowboy boots but I can't quite make out his bohunky face. He's maybe twenty yards away before the wind begins to die down. And then I see him. It's Mitchum all right, and he's still singing. I can't move. My feet won't obey my brain. I want to run. Because Mitchum is wearing a dress. One of those Gunsmoke Miss Kitty numbers. Ostrich plumes and fishnets. Ultima II Sexxxy Red lipstick on his thick lips. He stops in front of me. A spaghetti western moment. And then he says, "Pucker up."…
• Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt on Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, in TLS:
Sometimes it seems as though I can never get away from him: "Tell me, you are a Canadian pianist, known as a Bach specialist, and winner of the international piano competition held in his memory – what influence did Glenn Gould have on you and were you afraid to be in his shadow?". "No" is always the answer to the latter part of the question. (It is Bach who scares me, not Gould.) As a kid I saw him regularly on Canadian television. "Who’s that kook?", I asked my parents. Playing with his nose practically on the keyboard, and always at tempos that even at that age I knew were bizarre, he was clearly recognizable as a serious presence in Canadian musical life, but not, perhaps, one to be closely imitated. I recall a Bach class in the music festival at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto (where Gould himself played as a teenager) in which we all had to perform a Two- or Three-part Invention. One boy got up, obviously copying Gould in every respect, right down to the mannerisms. When he didn’t win, he complained to the judge, "Why didn’t you give me first prize? I played that exactly like Glenn Gould!". The adjudicator answered, "I happen not to like Glenn Gould."…
Read the whole thing here, please. I wish more artists would write pieces like this. Criticism is too important to be left to the critics.
How long will reality shows continue to dominate television? I'd guess that, as with prime-time game shows in the late '50s, the popularity of reality shows will continue until a major scandal. I think that someday, a popular reality show will turn out to have been complely rigged -- not just "staged" to a certain extent, as all reality shows are, but planned out and with the winner decided in advance. I think this will happen because the need to keep viewers tuning in will drive some desperate producer to fix the outcome in favour of a more popular participant, just as Twenty-One did with Charles Van Doren). And if that happens, it might seriously hurt not only that show, but nearly all reality shows. Because - and I know this is a shockingly iconoclastic thing to say - the appeal of reality shows is that they're, well, real. Even if they are "staged" to some extent, with producers encouraging the participants to do this and move here and smile at the camera, we want to believe that the things we see are really happening to real people. If there's ever a reality-show scandal comparable to the game-show scandals, a lot of viewers won't be able to believe that anymore….
At the risk of being branded someone who quibbles context for personally motivated political reasons, though, I hereby submit that "Chopsticks" wasn’t originally titled "Chopsticks" but "The Celebrated Chop Waltz," written by 16 year old Euphemia Allen and published in London circa 1877 under the name Arthur de Lulli. The instructions, apparently, were that "the melody be played with both hands held sideways, little fingers down, and the keys struck with a chopping motion." [Think wood. Or karate. Or tomahawk.] Thus chop = hatchet here.
Tyler Green has asked art bloggers to list their ten favorite artists as of the moment of typing them. His list amazed me for the simple reason that he includes four artists from my list along with an artist I completely loathe. I would like to see him talk more about this, but I find it amazing that someone who lists Diebenkorn and Matisse would like Newman….
I know just how he feels. To read a top-ten list by a writer you respect that contains four of your favorites and somebody you despise is a thoroughly disorienting experience—though sometimes in a good way.
Pardon me for repeating myself, but take it away, Hans Keller: "As soon as I detest something I ask myself why I like it."
• Belatedly but not leastly, heartfelt congratulations to Sarah for her new gig as mystery critic of the Baltimore Sun. Speaking as H.L. Mencken’s biographer, I believe I can say with absolute authority that she’s going to rock.
A serious amateur painter I know sent me this stream-of-consciousness paragraph describing her decision to embark on a new canvas:
God, there’s nothing on TV. I wish I could just do something fun to cheer myself up. I could just walk down to the corner and get some french fries and doughnuts. That’s what I used to do to cheer myself up…but that doesn’t work anymore, remember? Oh yeah, that’s right. Hey, I have an idea. How about painting? That’s it!! But I can’t possibly do that right now, not with my room being so messy—I don’t deserve to paint. Wait a minute, that’s not right! I do deserve to paint, whether my room is clean or not. Hmm…I know…I’ll go wash the dishes and call it even. Okay, good, I feel better having cleaned the dishes. Maybe I should just go ahead and start cleaning my room while I’m at it. No, the idea was to treat myself to something fun. Okay, I’ll do it! But can I really actually just start painting, just like that? Sure, why not? No reason. What’s stopping me? Nothing. Well…okay then…here I go!!!
I don't mind admitting that I’ve written more than a few pieces in my lifetime that got started in more or less the same way.
Current conditions: I saw two plays on Monday, with another two set for Tuesday and Saturday, plus a film screening and a nightclub set. In addition, I've got to hit four deadlines between now and Friday afternoon.
The forecast: minimal blogging until Friday.
The good news: Our Girl is back in Chicago, and has stories to tell. I'm hoping that she'll return to the blog in force in the next day or two.
I’ve seen most of Alfred Hitchcock’s major films, but for some reason Rope had eluded me until last week, when it popped up on Turner Classic Movies as part of a Jimmy Stewart marathon. Like most cinephiles, I didn’t find it very impressive, though I was fascinated to see John Dall camping it up as one of the two gotta-be-gay murderers, having only recently watched his straight-down-the-center performance as the hapless bank robber-victim of Gun Crazy.
That said, one thing about Rope struck me quite forcibly. In fact, it astonished me. About ten minutes or so into the first reel, Hitchcock’s wandering camera came to rest in front of a painting hanging in the dining room of the elaborate breakaway set on which Rope was filmed. As Dall and Farley Granger chatted away, I said to myself, "By God, that’s a Milton Avery." To be exact, it appears to be a portrait of March Avery, the artist's daughter, painted some time in the mid-to-late Forties. (This isn’t the painting I saw, but it’s of roughly the same vintage and style.) What's more, it looks like the real thing, not a reproduction. Rope dates from 1948, the same year that Avery made March at a Table, a copy of which hangs in the Teachout Museum. Hence it's well within the realm of possibility that I saw exactly what I thought I saw.
Why was I surprised? Because one rarely if ever runs across important modern American paintings in Hollywood movies. When a painting is seen in some millionaire’s living room, it’s almost always a fairly obvious copy of a French Impressionist or post-impressionist canvas. To be sure, I’ve spotted mock-Rothkos once or twice, nor is it uncommon to encounter Andy Warhol-type eye candy, but the only bonafide example of high American modernism that I can recall off the top of my head is the Morris Louis that hangs in Walter Matthau’s apartment in Elaine May’s A New Leaf. (It's definitely the real thing—André Emmerich, Louis’ gallery at the time, is mentioned in the credits.)
So how on earth did a Milton Avery find its way into the decor of Rope, along with a half-dozen other paintings that looked equally plausible? I’ve read a lot about Hitchcock, but I can’t remember any mention of the paintings seen in Rope, nor did a quick check of the various books about Hitchcock on my shelves tell me anything useful. Puzzled, I turned to Google, and within seconds turned up this paragraph from an on-line biographical sketch
The Hitchcocks were interested in art, mainly by modern painters such as the Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros and the Cuban Fidelio Ponce León. In later years, they purchased works by Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Maurice Utrillo, Georges Rouault, Chaďm Soutine, Albert Gleizes, Milton Avery, Pierre Soulages, Auguste Rodin, Georges Braque's "birds series" and Paul Klee, who he called once his favorite painter.
Could it be that Alfred Hitchcock used his own art collection in Rope? While this list of artists is certainly suggestive, I’ve never seen an actual catalogue raisonné of the Hitchcock collection. Was it broken up after his death? If so, who bought his Avery? (It's not reproduced in any of my Avery catalogues.) And was it the same one in front of which John Dall and Farley Granger spoke lightly of murder as a fine art?
Any light that connoisseurs can shed on this admittedly arcane puzzle will be more than welcome. (Tyler Green, call your office!) In addition, I’d also love to hear about other verifiable on-screen sightings of modern American art, which I will gladly pass on. I have a sneaking feeling, though, that I might just be the first person ever to notice—or at least to report—what must have been Milton Avery’s lone appearance on the silver screen.
A funny thing happened on the way to the theater yesterday afternoon. I was sitting at my desk, sending one last e-mail before I departed for a Fringe Festival performance of a musical about Robert Blake, when the lights quivered, dimmed, and died. Figuring the power on my Upper West Side block had gone out, I put my shoes on, walked downstairs in the dark, caught a cab…and realized by the time we’d gone 20 blocks that it wasn’t just my neighborhood. Assuming that there wouldn’t be any shows to see that day, I told the cabby to turn around.
Eighteen hours later, here I am, very sweaty and insufficiently slept but otherwise none the worse for wear. The power’s back on in my neighborhood, some of the restaurants are open, and I’m in the process of figuring out what to do next….
I never did get around to seeing that musical about Robert Blake. Instead, I took refuge in a neighbor’s apartment, not caring to be alone, and spent the night listening to a wind-up radio and sweating. Had it not been so hot, it would have been fun. Like most New Yorkers trapped in the blackout of 2003, I’d briefly feared that 9/11 was repeating itself, and once I knew it wasn’t, I was so relieved that nothing else mattered.
A year later, I find myself doing much the same thing, minus the flashlights and candles. I’m sitting at the same desk, clicking away at my iBook and putting into order my first impressions of the five plays I just finished seeing at the New York International Fringe Festival. I’ll be reviewing those plays, and three others, in this Friday’s Wall Street Journal, so I mustn't jump the gun, but I can say that I got quite a bit of pleasure out of my weekend of nonstop playgoing. Unlike last year, the weather in Manhattan has been intermittently temperate, though I did come close to smothering once or twice, few places in the world being less pleasant than a black-box theater without air conditioning on a humid August day. I got caught in a cloudburst on Saturday afternoon—but I don’t mind getting wet. I had to trudge up six flights of steep, slippery stairs to see one show—but I didn’t fall, and in any case I needed the exercise. Most of the seats in which I sat were variously uncomfortable—but there’s nothing like a good show to make you forget a bad seat.
Truth to tell, I love the Fringe Festival, even when it’s not so good. Seeing live actors in a small theater performing a new play by a writer about whom you know nothing can be one of the most exhilarating experiences imaginable. It can also be unutterably tedious, but my batting average so far has been excellent. Either I’m just lucky, or I’m starting to get the hang of picking Fringe shows (I endured a couple of stinkers last year).
I’ve been doing more than perching myself on folding chairs in black-box theaters. Last night, for instance, I went to the Jazz Standard, my favorite New York nightclub, to hear Gene Bertoncini and Michael Moore, who for many years were the best working guitar-bass duo in jazz. Back in the Eighties, they were all but joined at the hip. You could hear them most Sundays at a now-defunct, much-lamented Italian restaurant called Zinno, and they cut a number of first-rate CDs as well. Alas, Bertoncini and Moore called it quits in 1989—Whitney Balliett wrote a lovely New Yorkeressay
about their decision to part—and though the separation was perfectly friendly, it's been years since they last played together in a New York club.
Not surprisingly, the Jazz Standard was crawling with musicians all weekend long, it being that kind of place, comfortable and welcoming. (Among those present on Sunday were Peter Washington, Bill Charlap’s indispensable bassist, and Luciana Souza, who needs no introduction to regular readers of "About Last Night.") Musicians usually play especially well for their peers, and Bertoncini and Moore obliged with a vengeance, kicking off the first set with a medium-tempo version of Neal Hefti’s "Li’l Darlin’" that swung like the whole Count Basie band rolled into two.
After the set was over, I climbed the stairs to the street and walked a few blocks before hailing a cab, accompanied by two musician friends in no more of a hurry to get home than I was. We headed up Fifth Avenue, refreshed by the unexpectedly cool night air, and gazed with delight at the Empire State Building, whose upper stories were brilliantly lit
in green and white in honor of the independence of Pakistan, those being the colors of the Pakistani flag. As we strolled past the shuttered storefronts, looking for all the world like the three happy sailors of On the Town, I remembered a conversation I’d had earlier in the day with another friend. We’d seen a Fringe matinee, then taken high tea at Tea and Sympathy and done some window shopping in Greenwich Village.
"This is absolutely the only place to live," I told her. "Nowhere else."
"Oh, I guess it’s all right to visit other places," she replied. "And you could live somewhere else for six months, if you had to. Or maybe even a year."
"But only if you don't give up your lease," I said firmly.
We giggled, knowing perfectly well that neither one of us had the slightest intention of going anywhere else for more than a week or two.
Were we being heedless? As I thought of our exchange, a familiar stanza that acquired ominous new overtones not so long ago popped unbidden into my head:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
But I shook it off, knowing that I was neither unhappy nor afraid of the cool, clear night. Instead, I was glad to be exactly where I was, living my life instead of waiting for it to begin. I still am. So long as the lights stay on and the music keeps playing, this—right here, right now—is home.
To those of you joining us for the first time as a result of seeing www.terryteachout.com mentioned in the Wall Street Journal this morning, I say, howdy. You can orient yourself by working your way down the right-hand column, which will tell you all about this site and what’s in it. Everybody else knows what’s what here at "About Last Night," so I’ll proceed directly to today’s postings, from narrow to expansive: (1) Middlebrows in love. (2) Visit to a small planet, or, life in the blogosphere. (3) Johnny Mandel, the one that got away. (4) A footnote on Frank Lloyd Wright. (5) O.K., so who the hell is Constant Lambert anyway? (6) The latest almanac entry.
So ends my first post-vacation week, and I must say that I seem to have gotten the blog up and running again with a minimum of discomfort. Readers are returning, not in droves but more than gradually. Please encourage them—tell all your friends about www.terryteachout.com, starting right this minute.
Incidentally, a colleague asked me at lunch yesterday how to access the "About Last Night" archives. It’s simple, or at least I thought it was. Just click on the "ALN Archive" link at the very top of the right-hand column, and you can read everything that’s ever appeared on this site. That’ll keep you busy all weekend.
I posted an extra-big blog today so that I can take Monday off with a clear conscience (judging by the past week's blog stats, I'm guessing that a lot of you are already on vacation). Nor do I plan to overdo it on Tuesday...but I do promise to have something new and worthwhile for your delectation. Size isn't everything.
Now excuse me while I disappear—I’ve got to finish up my Prokofiev essay for Commentary, and then there’s that stack of as-yet-unanswered mail, yikes-and-a-half. See you around.
P.S. I am pleased to announce a small but welcome technical improvement in "About Last Night": From now on, your browser will automatically open a new window every time you click on a link. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, try it and see—you'll like it.)
I reviewed The Thing About Men, an off-Broadway musical that opened Wednesday at the Promenade Theatre, in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s the lead:
I didn’t go to "The Thing About Men" expecting to have my mind changed about the diminished state of American musical comedy. The posters for the show, which opened off Broadway at the Promenade Theatre on Wednesday, feature a photo of the torso of a half-naked person of indeterminate gender whose necktie dangles from his (or her) open trousers in such a way as to suggest…well, you get the idea. And so, I thought, did I. But "The Thing About Men," much to my surprise, turned out to be something altogether different from the silly sex farce I was prepared to endure. Instead, Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, the authors of "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change," have now made another honorable and largely successful attempt to breathe new life into the moribund tradition of the middlebrow musical….
To read the whole review, simply go to the nearest newsstand, part with one (1) hard-earned dollar, and turn to the "Weekend Journal" section of this morning’s Journal, which is, as ever and always, full of good stuff.
Courtesy of the ever-interesting 2 Blowhards, some statistics gleaned from the magazine American Demographics:
According to a study commissioned by AD with research firm Ipsos-Reid, only 17% of American adults are aware of blogs, and only 5% claim to have read one. The awareness of blogs skews towards men; 21% of male Internet users report they’re hip to the blogosphere, while only 13% of women are. Financially, visitors to blogspot.com are either rich or poor; those making under $25,000 or over $100,000 a year are over-represented, while middle-income visitors are under-represented.
These numbers strike me as intuitively right, though I’m a bit surprised at the underrepresentation of middle-income visitors. It’s certainly been my experience that most people don’t yet know what a blog is. On the other hand, what the numbers don’t tell us is exactly who those 15 million American adults are, though I have some guesses. The income spread, for instance, strongly suggests that they are either well-to-do or young (since younger people are both less likely to be making a lot of money and more likely to be comfortable with the Internet).
If you’re interested in blogging about the arts, that should make you sit up and take notice. Given the well-established fact that the Internet is an ideal way to reach highly motivated niche audiences, it stands to reason that Web surfers with an interest in the arts are likely to stumble onto an arts blog sooner or later. Bloggers typically link to and write about one another (that's a big part of what blogging is all about, as 2 Blowhards recently and rightly pointed out), and it follows that such interaction is bound to encourage significant growth in the art-related sector of the blogosphere, especially now that younger people are increasingly inclined to look to the Web as a source of news and information.
My own experience may be relevant in this connection. I first heard the word "blog" some three years ago, and like most blogwatchers of that period, it was Andrew Sullivan who first got me in the habit of looking at a blog or two each morning. Not long after I started visiting www.andrewsullivan.com, it occurred to me that it would be possible to launch an arts blog that worked more or less the same way as his political blog. What stopped me in my tracks was that I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to start such a site (the user-friendly software employed by most of today’s bloggers had yet to be invented). Within a few months, I got sidetracked by the need to finish writing The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, and my still-inchoate plans were filed away, though not forgotten.
The tremendous growth of the blogosphere in the past year revived my interest in www.terryteachout.com, and when I met Megan McArdle, who writes Asymmetrical Information, she persuaded me that it was time to give it a try. (In other words, blame her.) At that exact moment, Doug McLennan of artsjournal.com called me cold and offered to start a site for me. Within a week, "About Last Night" was up and running.
The surprising thing (or maybe not) is that it wasn’t until after "About Last Night" went live that I first encountered any of the arts blogs listed in the right-hand column. Think about that. Here I was, a potential blogger with a serious interest in the medium, yet I didn’t know of the existence of even one arts blog. It wasn’t until I started getting e-mail from fellow arts bloggers and clicking my way through their blogrolls that I finally discovered what was already out there, and how good so much of it was.
All this indicates to me that arts blogging is a phenomenon waiting to happen, in much the same way that political blogging gradually built up to a critical mass, then suddenly mushroomed in the wake of 9/11. The difference, of course, is that arts bloggers can’t count on a cataclysmic event to stimulate interest in what we’re doing. We’ll have to publicize ourselves, not only by linking to one another (though that’s important) but also by reaching out to potential readers who don’t yet know what a blog is. That’s why I always include the www.terryteachout.com URL in the shirttails to the pieces I write for the print media. That’s why I remind you each morning to tell someone you know about this site. People who come here will go elsewhere, too.
Am I having fun yet? You bet. But I want lots more people to come into the pool. As I wrote in this space a couple of weeks ago, I believe that serious arts journalism in America is destined to migrate to the Web. If you’re reading these words, you’re part of that migration. Don’t keep it to yourself.
A reader writes, apropos of my recent posting on film scores:
Add Johnny Mandel to your ALN list. Among his best on CD are I Want to Live (Rykodisc) and The Sandpiper (Verve). And The Verdict (it's almost no writing, but what there is is perfectly placed).
I couldn’t agree more, and am chagrined to have momentarily forgotten about Mandel, whose name is universally known and admired throughout the world of jazz. This may explain why I forgot to think of him in connection with film scoring—he simply does too many things well, including songwriting. To have written "The Shadow of Your Smile," the theme from The Sandpiper, is achievement enough for a lifetime. All praise to Johnny Mandel, then, for never having rested on any of his myriad laurels.
Incidentally, my favorite recording of "The Shadow of Your Smile" is by Singers Unlimited. It’s only available in a box set at present, but if you’re feeling extravagant, I can’t think of a better way to spend a hundred bucks.
Devoted blogwatchers will be aware that there’s a major Frank Lloyd Wright-related wrangle currently taking place all over the blogosphere (go here to start picking up the threads, which lead far and wide). Me, I think Wright was a genius and I’d be perfectly happy to at least try living in one of his houses, even if the roof leaked, but I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to pal around with him. Here’s my favorite Wright anecdote, from Meryle Secrest’s biography:
One of Wright’s many apprentices to study in that studio recalled that one day when he was buried underneath the Steinway making another of the innumerable attempts to restore its legs, he saw the master saunter into the room. Believing himself alone, Wright arranged three or four objects on the window ledge, then stood back admiringly. He walked over to the piano, still oblivious of the hidden observer, struck a few chords and pirouetted out of the room, singing to himself, "I am the greatest."
(Incidentally, I’ve seen a kinescope of an appearance Wright made on What’s My Line? not long before his death. It’s one of the more endearing examples of his rampant egomania.)
The author of today’s almanac entry will be familiar to some of you, but for those who don’t recognize the name of the now-obscure Constant Lambert, he was one of the most fascinating figures in 20th-century English cultural life. I suppose he’s best known for his invaluable book Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline, though balletomanes with long memories will also know him as the first music director of what later became the Royal Ballet, in which capacity he served as a ballet conductor of genius, collaborated closely with Sir Frederick Ashton, and had a stormy affair with the very young Margot Fonteyn. He also wrote quite a bit of amazingly pungent music criticism, none of which has been collected (Music Ho! will give you a feel for the way he wrote about music), and made quite a few marvelously vital recordings, only a handful of which have been reissued on CD. Lambert even pops up as a major character in Anthony Powell’s multi-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time (he’s Hugh Moreland).
In the long run, Lambert will be best remembered as a composer, and in recent years there has been a mini-revival of interest in his music, much of which has now been recorded. I once contrived to get Time magazine (which used to be interested in the arts) to list the premiere recording of Tiresias, Lambert’s last ballet score, as one of its ten best CDs of the year. It’s still in print from Hyperion, fortunately, as is an equally fine album
that contains The Rio Grande and Summer’s Last Will and Testament, two superlative works for chorus and orchestra that used to be moderately well-known once upon a time, at least in England. All these pieces are at once jazzy and unnervingly melancholic—quite a combination, that.
Every few years I try to stir up interest in Lambert, most recently in a 1999 Sunday New York Times profile called "A British Bad Boy Finds His Way Back Into the Light" (no link, alas—the title refers to the fact that Lambert was a prodigy who died of acute alcoholism in 1951, two days before his 46th birthday). It went for naught, but I’m not done trying. Read today’s almanac entry and see if it doesn’t make you at least a little bit curious.
"After some of the most memorable and breath-taking experiences in my musical life it was indeed shocking to find that the critics next day were damning it with faint pseudo-academic praise, but it was not to me surprising. For the reason that I have, in the past, had to earn my living by that melancholy trade and realise all too well that the average English critic is a don manqué, hopelessly parochial when not exaggeratedly teutonophile, over whose desk must surely hang the motto (presumably in Gothic lettering) ‘Above all no enthusiasm.’"
As expected, I had Another One of Those Days yesterday. I got up first thing in the morning to write my review of The Thing About Men, then jumped in a cab and went screaming down to Wall Street for a meeting with my editors at The Wall Street Journal, then jumped in another cab and went screaming back to the Upper West Side and started in on yet another pile of mail, after which I geared up to write a long essay about Prokofiev for Commentary that’s due tomorrow (and no, Neal, I haven’t written a word of it yet, so don't bug me).
I didn’t forget about you, though. Here are today’s topics, from general to particular: (1) V revisited, plus thoughts about being on the receiving end of a light fisking. (2) My Wednesday-night playlist. (3) Blogs that must be visited (the first in an occasional series). (4) The latest almanac entry.
My site meter is emitting comely numbers again, but not as attractive as before I left for Maine. Help keep me in the pink—tell a friend or two about www.terryteachout.com today. Without you, I’m nothing.
Of all the items I’ve posted on this blog in the past month and a half, the one that's stirred up the most comment is a mini-essay I wrote two weeks ago about the experience of seeing a masterpiece for the first time. If you didn’t read it, go
here. If you did, you’ll recall that I went to Lincoln Center to watch the Mark Morris Dance Group perform V, a dance by Morris set to the Schumann Piano Quintet. I’d seen the New York premiere of V a couple of years ago, and was curious as to the source of the absolute certainty of my reaction to that first viewing: "By now, I know V well enough to be able to talk in a fairly specific way about what makes it so good. But how did I know how good it was the first time I saw it? What made me so sure it was a masterpiece?"
It occurred to me that my immediate certainty must have had little to do with any conscious form of analysis, so I decided to take a closer look at what I felt while watching V, and came to the following conclusion:
As A. E. Housman famously said, "Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act." I know what he meant. Instead of analyzing V, I read its quality off myself, the same way you can read the seismographic chart of an earthquake and know how strong it was. Or—to put it more simply—I knew how good V was because of the way it made me feel.
It never occurred to me when writing these words that anyone would give them a second glance, much less find them controversial. Critics are always sounding off about how they do what they do—it’s an occupational hazard, if not a professional deformation. (I’m posting an assortment of these reflections all week in the daily almanac. Today’s entry is by Kenneth Tynan, the great English drama critic.) But when I published the blog that night, Our Girl in Chicago e-mailed me a few minutes later to say she thought this particular posting would draw a crowd. Boy, did she get that right.
Several readers were unimpressed (to put it mildly) by my attempts to understand exactly what it is that causes us to recognize that we’re in the presence of a masterpiece when seeing it for the first time. Among them was one of my favorite bloggers,
God of the Machine, who gave me a going-over so thorough as to border on an outright fisking:
Terry Teachout, a distinguished critic who surely knows better, unaccountably sets out to adventure among masterpieces in his review of Mark Morris's ballet V, even quoting Housman with approval. V is a "masterpiece," Terry is sure, for five reasons, none of which has anything to do with what happens on stage. He is "immediately involved," he "realize[s] that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing," he is not bored, he is "anxious," because "what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong"; and when he finds that this something, whatever it might be, does not go wrong after all, his "eyes filled with tears." This is all so refined that I nearly forgot that I began the piece knowing nothing of ballet and ended it in exactly the same state. Tell you what, Terry: if I give you the great soul, will you promise, next time, to talk about the ballet?
Pow! Thump! Ouch! A number of other bloggers quickly came to my defense, for which much thanks. For my part, I was mostly pleased by the attention, though my snap reaction was to recall what Dawn Powell wrote in her diary
upon reading a mixed review by Diana Trilling of one of her books: "Gist of criticisms (Diana Trilling, etc.) of my novel is if they had my automobile they wouldn’t visit my folks, they’d visit theirs." I respect God of the Machine greatly, and I take his point—except that I think it’s at least a few degrees beside my point. After all, I wasn’t writing a review of V. Instead, I was trying to understand how we respond to art at first sight, and I came to the conclusion that in my case, conscious analysis simply doesn’t have much of anything to do with it. Art makes us feel. These feelings are anterior to understanding, and after a lifetime of experiencing art I’ve come to trust them. In a very real sense, they are the whole point of experiencing art. As R. P. Blackmur once said, all knowledge is a descent from the paradise of immediate sensation. (I don’t know where he said it, alas—Arlene Croce quoted him years ago in an essay, and I committed the quote to memory the first time I read it.)
Is that criticism? Nope. My job as a critic is to try to understand what it is about a masterpiece that evokes these feelings, and to convert that understanding into intelligible and persuasive prose. Merely to assert is not to criticize, though mere assertion may well be of considerable interest to people who have learned from experience to trust your taste. I mean, I like to think that at least a few of you would rush right out and buy, say, Deidre Rodman’s first CD if I told you that it was really, really good—which it is—even if I didn’t explain why it was good. (You're curious now, aren't you?) But I wouldn’t ever try to tell you that I’d just committed an act of first-degree criticism.
So yes, analysis matters…but it doesn’t matter most, and it doesn’t come first. If you’re sitting in your aisle seat trying to figure out why you’re getting goose bumps, you’re missing the point of getting them. The point is to be there—to be present and fully receptive to the immediate experience. Otherwise, you’re acting just like Tom Townsend in Metropolitan, who preferred reading what Lionel Trilling had to say about Jane Austen to actually reading Mansfield Park. And that's what I was writing about the other day.
I can’t say it often enough: I go to the ballet to have a good time, not to give myself something to write about. What's more, I’ll bet that God of the Machine does exactly the same thing.
As of this evening, I’ve loaded 2,650 songs onto the iTunes player built into my iBook—a total of eight days, 19 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of music. These are the ones to which I listened as I worked on today’s blog:
(1) Del McCoury, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" (a wonderfully hardbitten bluegrass-style cover version)
(2) John Scofield with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, "A Go Go" (super-hip jazz ŕ la Booker T. and the MGs)
(3) Benno Moiseiwitsch, Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff A Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo (one of the all-time great pieces of virtuoso piano playing, recorded without rehearsal in a single take)
(4) Pat Metheny, "Midwestern Night’s Dream"
(5) Rosemary Clooney, "Do You Miss New York?" (my favorite Dave Frishberg song)
(6) R.E.M., "Radio Free Europe" (the Hib-Tone single version—much cooler)
(7) Paul Desmond and Jim Hall, "Any Other Time" (thank you, Marc Myers, for reminding me how good this Desmond tune is)
(8) Joan Baez, "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word" (and thank you, Bob Nelson, for loaning me this album 35 years ago)
I hope some of you have been venturing into the "Sites to See" section of the right-hand column. I pay frequent visits to all the sites for which I’ve posted links, a few of them every day. I realize, though, that not all of these blogs may be exactly to your taste, so I’ve decided to make periodic mention of a particular site worthy of your attention, so as to give you a clearer idea of what you’re missing.
Like me, Maud Newton just got back from a vacation (she went south, I went north), and I’m delighted to see her back at the same old stand. Newton is a New York-based writer (and a good one, too) who doubles as an editor, and her blog, whose subtitle is "Occasional literary links, amusements, politics, and rants," is a well-designed, wide-ranging daily compilation of links to news stories and commentaries about art and culture—mostly literary, though she occasionally ventures onto wilder shores. She has nicely idiosyncratic taste and an eye for interesting stuff, and it’s a rare day that I visit her blog without clicking through to at least one of the items she’s posted.
"I see myself predominantly as a lock. If the key, which is the work of art, fits snugly into my mechanism of bias and preference, I click and rejoice; if not, I am helpless, and can only offer the artist the address of a better locksmith. Sometimes, unforeseen, a masterpiece seizes the knocker, batters down the door, and enters unopposed; and when that happens, I am a willing casualty. I cave in con amore. But mostly I am at a loss."
Yesterday was One of Those Days. I had to write a piece from scratch, do a business lunch, and catch an off-Broadway preview, all in the course of 16 hours (I went to see The Thing About Men, about which more on Friday). That didn’t leave much room in the interstices for bloggery. Today and tomorrow will be pretty much the same—I’m still catching up from my week-long absence—so don’t expect miracles. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to make sure that "About Last Night" offers something toothsome every day. Today, for instance, I’m holding forth on film music, with an extra-long and super-snarky almanac entry to take up some of the slack.
Traffic is still lower than usual, partly because I was gone last week and partly because so many of you are gone this week, but if you’re reading this, do please remember to spread the word about www.terryteachout.com. Art knows no holidays!
I went to see Open Range
on Monday, and somewhat to my surprise, I liked it very much. Kevin Costner still isn’t much of a director, but the screenplay and cast were so strong that it worked anyway. Robert Duvall can do no wrong, of course, and I was scarcely less struck by Annette Bening, in part because she made no effort whatsoever to pretend that she was anything other than a middle-aged mother. Her beautiful face is now visibly careworn—you can count the lines—and that made it look even more beautiful, at least as far as I was concerned. Bening is an odd duck, a remarkably gifted actress whose career never quite seemed to catch fire, but who doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered by that fact. (I guess there’s something to be said for being married to Warren Beatty.) At any rate, she now looks as real as Emmylou Harris, and Open Range profits incalculably from her lived-in presence.
Michael Kamen, on the other hand, did everything he could to make Open Range trite by smearing his banal music all over the soundtrack. Film scores are far more important than most non-musicians realize, especially when they’re no good, and Kamen’s mishmash of Aaron Copland and John Williams was notable mainly for its odious ubiquity. He underlined each and every significant glance in the movie, laying on the sentiment with a trowel.
As I say, most people don’t think all that much about film scores, which is both normal and proper. The best ones are largely (though not always) unobtrusive, supporting the emotions of a scene in the same subtle manner that a lighting designer helps to control the way you see a play. Generally speaking, a score is something you shouldn’t notice until the second time you watch a film. If the score jumps into the foreground on first viewing, it might mean the film isn’t good enough to hold your attention.
I love first-class film music, of which there is both not nearly enough (it’s surprising how many important films have lousy or unmemorable scores) and much more than you might think (it’s just as surprising how many mediocre films have wonderful scores). A number of the best scores have been recorded separately from the films they adorn, and I thought it might be fun to point you in the direction of some albums that can help you hear how much good music adds to the immediate experience of a good film. You can purchase the CDs by clicking on the titles:
"What advice, then, would I give to someone forced—for no one could be willing—to become a reviewer? Firstly, never praise; praise dates you. In reviewing a book you like, write for the author; in reviewing any other, write for the public. Read the books you review, but you should need only to skim a page to settle if they are worth reviewing. Never touch novels written by your friends. Remember that the object of the critic is to revenge himself on the creator, and his method must depend on whether the book is good or bad, whether he dare condemn it himself or must lie quiet and let it blow over. Every good reviewer has a subject. He specializes in that subject on which he has not been able to write a book, and his aim is to see that no one else does. He stands behind the ticket queue of fame, banging his rivals on the head as they bend low before the guichet. When he has laid out enough he becomes an authority, which is more than they will."
Hi. I’m still chewing through my accumulated mail and trying to catch up with all the other things that go astray when a critic quits the scene for a week. This vacation business is really kind of disorienting, especially when you’re completely out of touch for a whole week. I must do it again sometime….
But I’m also continuing to apply nose (A) to grindstone (B), the better to keep all of you adequately arted, so prepare for today’s topics, from insufficient to supererogatory: (1) A dance that may or may not be about 9/11. (2) "In the Bag," postponed from yesterday because I was so addled from my vacation that I forgot! (3) Your monthly Technicolor fix, with a dollop of Vienna stirred in for good measure. (4) The latest almanac entry.
Needless to say, I’ve got lost traffic to regain, so do your bit and tell a friend about www.terryteachout.com today. Don’t fall down on the job—my site meter is counting on you.
Even though I receive complimentary press tickets to most of the shows I want to see, I still get a huge kick out of free performances, especially when they’re outside. I love the uncomplicated carnival atmosphere, the feeling that everybody came to play. Of course it helps that in New York, you often get to see fairly famous people for free, meaning that the crowds are staggeringly large—but it’s still fun as long as the weather is nice, and sometimes even when it’s not.
I don’t know how hot it was when I went to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park a couple of days before I left for Maine (I was too scared to check), but it definitely wasn’t balmy, and I didn’t care, at least not too terribly much, since you can never see the Taylor company often enough, hot or not. I was particularly interested in their appearance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors because they were dancing Promethean Fire, a new work that had its New York premiere in March, and I was curious to see how it would hold up on a third viewing (I also saw an incomplete runthrough last year at Taylor’s downtown studio).
As soon as I got home, I looked up what I’d written about Promethean Fire in the Washington Post back in March:
Taylor must have been in one of his apocalyptic moods when he made this jolting piece, set to three of Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions of Bach organ music. The first one, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, was used in "Fantasia," which Taylor claims was his inspiration. Maybe, but nothing in "Fantasia" is remotely as hair-raising as the final tableau of the first section, in which the dancers pile up in the middle of the stage, looking for all the world like a heap of corpses, out of which Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola emerge to dance a stunned pas de deux.
At the same time that Taylor claimed Fantasia was his inspiration, he specifically denied having had 9/11 in mind when making Promethean Fire, and I took him at his word. Like George Balanchine, he’s very careful about disclosing the "secret meanings" of his dances—he wants you to think about what’s happening on stage, not in your head. Nor was I inclined to suspect him of being coy.
Yet as I watched Promethean Fire under the stars at Lincoln Center, with low-flying jets gliding into LaGuardia Airport not so very far above my head, I started to have my doubts. It’s true that Taylor has always been drawn to the unspecifically apocalyptic (this, after all, is a man who once made a dance called Last Look). But as I watched the male dancers hoisting women over their heads in positions eerily evocative of flight, after which the whole ensemble crumpled into that terrifying center-stage heap, I found I couldn’t simply write off Promethean Fire as a piece of pure abstraction.
Once the applause had died down, I turned to the friend I’d brought with me.
"Paul says this isn’t about 9/11," I told her.
"Yeah, right," she replied.
Does it matter? Not a bit. A plotless dance is about what you think it’s about while you’re watching it. The next time, it might be about something completely different. What Paul Taylor was thinking about when he made Promethean Fire is his business, to be disclosed if and only if he chooses to spill the beans. I admire his refusal to give his viewers an easy escape path to equally easy meanings.
But…is Promethean Fire about 9/11? Your guess is—literally—as good as mine.
Time again for "In the Bag," my personal variant of the old desert-island game, featuring a twist of the wrist. In this version, the emphasis is on immediate and arbitrary preference. You can put five works of art into your bag before departing for that good old desert island, but you have to decide right this second. No dithering—the death squad is banging on the front door. No posturing—you have to say the first five things that pop into your head, no matter how dumb they may sound. What do you stuff in the bag?
As of this moment, here are my picks. I don’t mind admitting (well, maybe a little bit) that one of them is kind of dopey. Nevertheless, I swore I’d tell the whole truth and nothing but, so here goes nothing:
Calling all New Yorkers: Film Forum is showing a new, digitally restored print of The Adventures of Robin Hood
this Wednesday and Thursday. If you’ve never seen an old-fashioned Hollywood swashbuckler, here's what it’s all about, with Errol Flynn as the man in the green flannel suit, Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, and Claude "Shocked! Shocked!" Rains and Basil "Elementary, my dear Watson" Rathbone as the badder-than-bad guys. The real stars of the show, though, are Technicolor (this is one of the handsomest-looking films to come out of Thirties Hollywood) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote a score so stirring that it’ll make you want to sign right up for archery lessons.
For tickets and showtimes, go here. I’m tied up tight as a maiden on the railroad tracks both nights, so see it for me, O.K.?
"A certain amount of brick-throwing might even be a good thing. There comes a moment in the career of most artists, if they are any good, when attacks on their work take a form almost more acceptable than praise."
Here I am again, back in New York and not quite up to speed, though August is a good month for a Manhattan-based critic to take a little time off. So far as I know, nothing much happened while I was gone, though I’m pleased (and a little surprised) to see that you kept on visiting www.terryteachout.com in my absence.
In case you’re wondering, I was visiting Isle au Haut, a Maine island where I spent several days holed up in a lighthouse built in 1907. Well, not quite—I was actually staying in the keeper’s house, which has been turned into an inn. No electricity, believe it or not, but the site is eye-bogglingly picturesque and the food is as good as it gets. (To find out more about the Keeper’s House Inn, go here.) It’s the only lodging available on the island, to which I had traveled in order to see whether I could locate the scene of a 1975 lithograph by Fairfield Porter called "Isle au Haut," a copy of which hangs in my living room. I’ll be writing a piece about my adventures for The Wall Street Journal, so I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that no sooner did I discover that I’d have to spend a few hours tramping along a pathway known as the Goat Trail than I started to have second, third, and fourth thoughts….
En route to the Goat Trail, I looked at paintings. The Portland Museum of Art is currently hosting a first-class Fairfield Porter exhibition, and I spent an ecstatic hour looking at the Colby College Museum of Art’s
John Marin collection, which is nothing short of spectacular. I also tried to visit the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, only to find the place locked up tight (they were hanging a show that opens today). So my vacation was far from unartful, though I made sure to spend plenty of time doing nothing but sitting in an Adirondack chair, watching the lobster boats off the shore of Isle au Haut. (I like to think one of them might have been piloted by Linda Greenlaw.) My goal was to gear down a bit—I haven’t taken a bonafide vacation for more than a decade—and I think I succeeded.
For those of you who wrote while I was gone, don’t count on hearing from me much before next week—I found 300-odd e-mails in my box upon my return to New York. (We won’t even talk about the accumulated snail mail.) But "About Last Night" will be booming and zooming all week long, with plenty of postings about all manner of subjects, and I hope you’ll drop in each day to see what’s up.
Need I say it? Tell your friends about www.terryteachout.com. I didn’t come all the way back from Isle au Haut to spend the week talking to myself!
Not surprisingly, I toted a bag of books to Isle au Haut, two of which were good enough that I read them by candlelight. Both were memoirs, a genre notable in recent years for little more than gross self-indulgence, but these two, I’m pleased to say, turned out to be compelling exceptions to that dismal rule.
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (Free Press) is the story of Carlos Eire, a professor of religion at Yale who was a mere child when Fidel Castro took over Cuba, and who has woven his youthful memories of Havana life into a gorgeously written, unsettlingly passionate account of what it felt like for a little boy to watch his world turned inside out. George Howe Colt’s The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home (Scribner) is the story of a Cape Cod house and the family that spent its summers there, fishing and sailing and keeping unexpectedly dark secrets. It’s less intense than Waiting for Snow in Havana—Colt, after all, is a bred-in-the-bone WASP—but no less passionate or involving.
If you’re looking for a book or two to round out your summer reading, look no further.
I’ve only just started chewing through the mound of press releases that awaited me at vacation’s end, but one jumped out and bit me. I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s one-man play about an East German transvestite who kept more than a few shocking secrets of his own, is moving to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre after a hugely successful off-Broadway run. I glanced at the press release and saw my own words from The Wall Street Journal at the top of the page: "Jefferson Mays’ bull’s-eye performance is amazing, bordering on the miraculous." To which I can only add that if you didn’t see I Am My Own Wife at Playwrights Horizons earlier this year, now’s your chance.
Previews begin October 28, with opening night set for November 24. For tickets, call 212-239-6200.
One day I was trying to pick out a Mozart sonata on the piano. Like all poor pianists, I unconsciously emphasized the "sentiment" as I played. All at once, my father interrupted me.
"Whose music is that?"
"What a relief. I was afraid for a minute it was that imbecile Beethoven." And, as I expressed my surprise at his severity, he went on: "Beethoven is positively indecent, the way he tells about himself. He doesn’t spare us either the pain in his heart or in his stomach. I have often wished I could say to him: ‘What’s it to me if you are deaf?’ It’s better for a musician to be deaf, anyway. It’s a help, like any obstacle. Degas painted his best things when his sight was failing. Mozart had a far harder time than Beethoven, yet he was modest enough to hide his troubles. He tries to amuse me or to move me with notes which he feels are impersonal. And he is able to tell me much more about himself than Beethoven with his noisy sobbing. I want to put my arm round Mozart and try to console him. After a few minutes of his music I feel that he is my best friend, and our conversation becomes intimate."