Critical Difference: October 2009 Archives

Just in time for the World Series, WNYC has a seriously fascinating report on the effect the new Yankee Stadium is having on its Bronx neighborhood. With the team having built what one fan approvingly describes as a mall, brimming with pricey dining and shopping options, there's correspondingly less economic benefit to area restaurants and stores -- though local impact is always a significant part of the argument when a sports team, or any other organization, is seeking incentives and concessions from municipal or state officials. Nationwide, reporter Ailsa Chang says, that's the trend: New athletic facilities are designed to get and keep visitors inside, spending money on concessions there.

To a lesser extent, in-house dining and shopping have been the trend in arts facilities as well. But it would be a rare theater, concert hall or museum that could meet the needs of every visitor who wants to pair a cultural outing with lunch or dinner, coffee or a drink. The actual numbers can be squishy in the extreme, but arts patrons really do flock to neighboring establishments before and after they get their culture fix. Even die-hard Yankee fan (and opera buff) Rudy Giuliani acknowledged as much in the weeks and months after the September 11 attacks, when he begged tourists to come back to Broadway not just for the shows but for the sake of the surrounding businesses. 

The self-sufficient new Yankee Stadium, then, is both ammunition, in that it appears to provide another argument against sports teams in the battle for government funding, and a cautionary tale -- albeit maybe not for the Yankees, who have an annoying habit of getting whatever they want the instant they want it, and throwing a tantrum otherwise. But arts organizations have to tread more lightly. For them, the lesson is this: If, with the help of public dollars, you engineer things so that the rising tide helps only your boat, people might get the idea that their aid, next time, might better be directed elsewhere.
October 28, 2009 6:45 PM |
Former "Late Night with David Letterman" writer Nell Scovell's excellent Vanity Fair piece about the show's hostile work environment is juicy reading, and illuminating, too. But it's worth mentioning that the point Scovell makes from the inside -- that "there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien combined" -- is one Nancy Franklin made nearly a month ago in The New Yorker:

Did a bomb go off and kill all the women comedy writers and leave the men standing? The other night on the Emmy Awards broadcast, the names of the nominees for best writing on a comedy or variety series were read, and, out of eighty-one people, only seven were women. Leno has no women writers on his show. Neither does David Letterman, and neither does Conan O'Brien. Come on.

Score another one for Franklin, who worked that eloquent little cri de coeur into her takedown of Leno's prime-time show, just as the Letterman extortion attempt was grabbing headlines.

One of the great things about scandals is their function as catalysts for evolution that's long overdue. Is it too much to hope that, in the wake of Letterman's sexual-harassment debacle, the comedy-writing clubhouse will go co-ed for good, and the behavior of those who toil there will become professional at last?

Sexual attraction is natural; it happens in every workplace. But adults are expected to have some impulse control, and funny people are grown-ups just like the rest of us. Feeling attracted doesn't have to mean acting on it, especially when acting on it is illegal. No one should have to compete sexually at work -- and that's exactly the dynamic that's set up for the entire staff when superiors and subordinates sleep together.

Separate but related is the trouble female comedy writers have getting in the door in the first place (and, as this week's headlines remind us, the trouble persists even in fields perceived as relatively female-friendly, like dance and independent film).

"I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect," Scovell writes. "And that goes for Jay and Conan, too."

Comedy writing jobs are just that: jobs. This whole discussion is, at bottom, about the right to work, and to work unmolested, literally and figuratively. For most men, that's the status quo; they take it for granted, and they ought to. It shouldn't be any different for women -- but at the moment, it still is.
October 28, 2009 1:29 PM |
My friend Tim keeps a spreadsheet listing the details of every concert he's been to since the early '80s -- or is it the late '70s? Either way, it's very "High Fidelity," but with an emphasis on the Grateful Dead that Nick Hornby's own spreadsheet probably wouldn't own up to.

When I find myself at a concert, it tends to be with Tim, and it tends to have been his idea. Likewise, when he finds himself at the theater, it's because it was my idea.

So there we were the other night at the Public, for a LAByrinth Barn Series reading of Padraic Lillis' "Lights Up on the Fade Out," when we spotted a woman in a fuchsia "Where the Wild Things Are" t-shirt, Maurice Sendak's characters swinging in a line across her chest.

I confess that I was not a huge fan of "Where the Wild Things Are" when I was small. It didn't take up residence in my heart until I was older, in high school, babysitting for Stephanie and Billy, my favorite little kids down the street. Once I'd roared my terrible roars, gnashed my terrible teeth, rolled my terrible eyes and shown my terrible claws along with a couple of spectacularly adorable moppets doing the same, I couldn't not love Sendak's book.

I almost wrote "Sendak's tale" there, but it truly isn't the tale as much as it is his telling of it, in words -- which repetition soldered into my memory decades ago -- and pictures.

So Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers' movie adaptation? Not so attractive to me. I feel about it the way I feel about the movie of "Atonement," which I haven't seen and won't see: I don't want a movie to mess with what's already in my head. If the Narnia movies had come out back when I was nine years old and as enraptured by the books as I was unaware of their Christian imagery, I wouldn't have wanted to see those, either.

And the Variety review of "Where the Wild Things Are" that just popped into my inbox? I don't even want to read that.

My militant opposition to the very idea of this movie is monstrously closed-minded, I know, and maybe intellectually inconsistent, too, given that I once owned a Max doll and a couple of Wild Thing dolls, and have been known to give Maxes and Wild Things (and the book, of course) as gifts to children in my life. But the dolls, three-dimensional though they are, are faithful to Sendak's drawings. The faces, the legs, the toes: The details are from his pen.

Still, at least the movie was made with Sendak's blessing. When Tim and I noticed the woman in the t-shirt the other night, he told me a story about a Dead show years ago, where he'd run across a guy selling "Let the wild rumpus begin" shirts. "It's 'start,'" Tim told him. "'Let the wild rumpus start.'" No, no, the guy insisted; it's "begin."

Sigh. People who trample on intellectual property: You just can't trust them with the details.

If nothing else, Jonze and Eggers will get that line right.
October 11, 2009 9:37 PM | | Comments (3)
Let's just admit straight out that the Nobel people relish a surprise far more than the average world-renowned prize-granting organization does -- and far more, too, than do many of the interested parties they startle with their choices.

This year, as ever, the primary reaction to the naming of new laureates has been grumbling and snark. On NPR, 1986 laureate Elie Wiesel's initial response to President Obama's peace prize was graceless ("It's certainly strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate"), while in The Washington Post a "prominent editor and writer in New York" suggested that Herta Müller's win over authors like Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie tarnishes the literature honor. "If the Nobel prize committee awarded the medicine prize like this, we'd still have polio," he grumped.

But Müller's victory is part of a happy trend this year: As AFP reports, this is the best year ever for female laureates. Of the 39 women who've won in the 109-year history of the prize, four won this week, three of them in science (take that, Larry Summers!). That's just north of 10 percent of all female recipients, and exactly 10 percent of the 40 Nobels ever bestowed on women, two of which went to Marie Curie (um, Larry?). Women make up 36 percent of this year's laureates, and prizes in three of the five categories go entirely or in part to women.

The stats on that matter -- not out of so-called political correctness but because of the widespread tendency to downgrade or dismiss women's work, whatever it happens to be, rather than take it as seriously as men's work is automatically taken. The brilliant Nancy Franklin expressed one tiny facet of that disparity this way recently in The New Yorker:

Chick lit [...] gets a lot less respect than the male equivalent, which people tend to approach as if it were automatically more artful, more written. Women write "thinly veiled accounts"; men write "romans à clef." Women writers may have a room of their own, but men who thrash around in front of the mirror and record their every failure, humiliation, moue, and excretion for an audience's consumption still own the house, even if all they do in it is lie on the couch--and then write about it.

It's not an even playing field, not in literature or elsewhere, so it's significant when women win. It's progress. Every victory is a reminder not only of what an individual woman has achieved, but of what other women can aspire to achieve. Being recognized on the world stage is no small thing; just ask Elie Wiesel and that bitter, nameless writer-editor. So if this is what a Nobel laureate looks like, good.

Update, Oct. 12: The numbers for women got even better today with a Nobel in economics for Elinor Ostrom, the first woman ever to win the economics prize. She shares the category with Oliver E. Williamson. So that's five women this year (12.5 percent of all female laureates, 38.5 percent of this year's winners), in four of six categories. Not bad. Not bad at all.
October 9, 2009 3:04 PM |
I'm not going to name names -- not of the artistic director, not of his theater. But a post on the Salon blog Broadsheet brought him to mind with this line: "Bosses who are hound-dogs taint the reputation of their women subordinates who don't sleep with them."

Broadsheet is talking about the David Letterman scandal, but the issue that quote raises applies to all bosses (male and female, gay and straight) and all workplaces. And although Letterman's production company is very much a for-profit enterprise, nonprofits would do well to take the talk-show host's forced confession as a wake-up call.

The artistic director I'm thinking of is well known (as is his theater), straight, married and given to hitting on any reasonably attractive woman in his vicinity who has less power than he has. Even in the touchy-feely world of theater, he does more pawing of the women on his staff -- especially, of course, the young ones -- than many of them find comfortable. The drain of female talent from his theater over the years has been striking and harmful. More striking is that apparently none of the women has sued him, or the theater, which does, after all, have an obligation to protect them in the workplace. (I am not optimistic that his board will stop his behavior anytime soon. When I covered him as a journalist, he once loudly announced a crush on me, then kissed me lingeringly on the lips right in front of one of his trustees, mere yards from where his wife stood unaware. I was frozen in horror. The board member didn't seem at all perturbed.)

The absence of employee lawsuits against that theater may or may not hold, but the current economic climate likely gives workplace predators like that artistic director -- and there are plenty of them -- even freer rein. What better time to prey on the staff than when they're fearing for their jobs?

Conversely, for boards, there's no better time to be vigilant, protecting the staff from unwelcome advances and protecting the institution from scandal, embarrassment, internal turmoil and the financial drain of legal payouts. Trustees need to ensure, too, even in this tough job market, that their institution can attract top talent: that good people aren't turning down positions there because of what they've heard about a boss with boundary problems.

Boards of arts organizations are often filled with people enamored of the notion of the artist and infatuated with the myth that bad behavior is inherently artistic behavior. The charisma that's so attractive in artistic leaders can also be used to charm trustees into overlooking sexual transgressions. Board types aren't always sure where the line is with creative types.

But there's nothing creatively healthy or normal about a hostile work environment in which subordinates, female or male, believe they have to submit to advances if they want to be successful. There is something, to use Letterman's term, creepy about that -- and, too, about a workplace in which superiors and subordinates are consensually involved, romantically or sexually. Whether the relationship ends well, badly or not at all, there's a perception of quid pro quo.

Which means the tainting of reputations for the talented and untalented alike. At an institution known for pervasive sexual harassment, staffers' rise through the ranks will be marred -- even if the boss never touched them, and especially if he did.
October 6, 2009 2:48 PM | | Comments (5)

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