About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, July 28, 2006
TT: Hard at it
My next Commentary column, in which I hold forth at length on the life, music, writings, and posthumous reputation of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, is taking a bit longer to polish off than I’d expected. One reason for this is that I put my trusty iBook to sleep on Thursday afternoon and took a subway down to the studios of WNYC-FM, where I chatted about Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for an upcoming episode of Studio 360. It seems that a producer there ran across an “About Last Night” posting in which I discussed that classic album and thought it might be fun to have me do the same thing on the air. I don’t know whether she had fun, but I sure did. I love talking on the radio. It’s a good thing nobody’s ever offered me a full-time radio gig, because I doubt I’d write another word if that were to happen.
Anyway, that’s where I was all afternoon, and that's why I’m still at my desk at midnight, doing my damnedest to finish my Gottschalk essay. I’d better go back to work—I’d really like to get some sleep tonight. See you Monday.
TT: Theater for tourists
In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on my recent visit to the Utah Shakespearean Festival:
To get to the Utah Shakespearean Festival, I flew into a small airport perched atop a bluff and stepped out of the plane into shockingly hot weather (the temperature was 110 when I arrived two weeks ago). Then I drove north through the most spectacular countryside imaginable, a gaudy parade of red cliffs, mesas and buttes so redolent of the films of John Ford and Budd Boetticher that I half expected to see Randolph Scott riding over the next hill. At the end of the trip was Cedar City, a college town near the mouth of a canyon, home since 1962 to one of the biggest Shakespeare festivals west of the Mississippi.
The Utah Shakespearean Festival, which runs from June to October, puts on four Shakespeare plays, three revivals and two musicals each season. The company, which performs on three different stages on and around the campus of Southern Utah University, won a Tony in 2000 for outstanding achievement in regional theater. No doubt because its audience consists in large part of tourists who come to the area less for Shakespeare than the scenery, the festival is unabashedly conservative in both programming and production style. Big-city visitors may well find its Ye Olde Renaissance Faire atmosphere a bit on the twee side—the snack bar actually serves turkey legs and Cornish pasties—but most of the onstage offerings I saw were solidly entertaining….
As usual, no link. To read the whole thing, pick up a copy of the Journal at your neighborhood newsstand, or be smart and go here to subscribe to the online edition.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
"I know nothing more ill-bred than a fashionable Englishman, unless it be two fashionable Englishmen."
Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist
TT: Exterminate all the brutes
Via Household Opera, a pet-peeves meme:
• Grammatical pet peeve. Misplaced apostrophes. My father, God rest his soul, once commissioned a huge sign that read Season’s Greetings From The Teachout’s. I secretly attempted to paint out that damned apostrophe, but to no avail. It caused me years of annual adolescent embarrassment, though I’m pleased to say that I wasn't enough of a smartass to tell my father about it.
Orthographic runner-up for jazz musicians only: if you can’t spell Thelonious Monk’s first name correctly, write about somebody else.
(I was irked by the increasingly indiscriminate use of the singular “their” until I ran across this Web page. Enough already—I give up!)
• Household pet peeve. Guests who don’t close lids completely. May they be forced to walk barefoot over kitchen floors littered with shards of broken Mason jars.
• Arts and entertainment pet peeve. Over to you, Mr. Superfluities.
• Liturgical pet peeve. Two words: crappy music.
• Wild card. Logorrheic quarterwits who jabber on their cellphones while walking down the street—especially those who use handless headsets. The garrote is too good for them, but it's a start.
TT: Smack dab in the middle
My trip to the Village to hear Julia Dollison was the fourth time I'd set foot in a nightclub since getting out of the hospital last December. I can remember when I went to hear live jazz at least twice a month, and usually more.
It’s not just jazz, either. Just the other day I read Jay Nordlinger’s New Criterion chronicle of his favorite classical-music concerts and operatic performances of the 2005-06 season, and was startled to realize that I hadn’t attended any of them. Since December I’ve heard two concerts, seen two dance performances, and gone to the opera once. Nor have I been to a single movie, even though I very much wanted to see Art School Confidential and Nacho Libre (not to mention The Lady in the Water, in which an actress I know has a featured role). And with the exception of my regular Wall Street Journal and Commentary columns and the postings on this blog, I've published only one piece.
At first my semi-sabbatical was motivated by an understandable desire to stay out of the hospital. Then I got wrapped up in writing Hotter Than That, my Louis Armstrong biography, which failing health had forced me to put aside for several months. After that the theater season started its downhill run to the announcement of the Tony nominations, and all at once I was seeing a minimum of three shows each week, which didn’t leave me much time to do anything else. Now I’m hitting the road once or twice a month to cover regional theater companies.
My plate, in short, is full. I’m no invalid. Yet I feel restless and out of touch, not so much with the world of art—I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s out there—as with the steady flow of immediate artistic experience on which I’ve been nourishing myself for the past couple of decades. To put it another way, I used to be a boulevardier, and now I’m not.
Might that be a good thing? It’s no secret that I’m a workaholic, and the frequency with which I once spent my nights on the town was a symptom of what finally turned into a life-threatening problem. Two years ago, at the height of my performance-going frenzy, a fellow blogger posted this cautionary item:
Critic Terry Teachout
Consumes Too Much Art,
MANHATTAN—In news that has the arts world reeling, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout exploded yesterday after consuming too much art.
In New York, art lovers are asking whether the fatal tragedy could have been prevented.
According to one art historian, “Most critics don’t eat art. But it has been known to happen from time to time. What’s surprising in this case is that Teachout actually wrote about his strange proclivities on the Internet.”
Now that I'm well again, I have no intention of returning to my past state of life, not merely for the sake of staying alive but also for the sake of my soul. I used to fill my waking hours with so much aesthetic experience that it left next to no room for the contemplation without which the mere accumulation of experience can have no meaning.
On the other hand, I’m not cut out to be a full-time contemplative. I don't claim to have any original ideas of my own. I was born to celebrate other people’s ideas, both as a critic and as a biographer. As Kenneth Tynan put it:
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.
In order to be unlocked with sufficient regularity, I have to be out and about. What's more, I want to be, so long as I don’t kill myself in the process. The trouble is that striking balances doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a head-first guy, an enthusiast who jumps first and looks on the way down. Right now I’m not doing enough. Next month I may be doing too much. Somewhere in between manic activity and paralytic passivity lies the point of equipoise that I seek—in vain, of course. Equipoise is for teeter-totters. Real life is full of earthquakes. The trick, I've decided, is not to bounce around too much, or get knocked off too soon, and I think I can manage that without staying home five nights a week.
To this end, I put down my tools Wednesday afternoon, jumped in a cab, and headed over to Salander-O'Reilly Galleries to see a pair of exquisite small paintings by Albert Kresch, then down to the International Center for Photography for a long-deferred look at Unknown Weegee. After a healthy bite to eat at a noodle shop, I walked to Madison Square Park and took in a free outdoor concert by Fred Hersch and Kate McGarry, two jazz musicians whom I admire greatly and hadn't seen for at least a year. As if to express approval of my venture, a cool breeze blew the cloying humidity out of the park just as Fred struck up "At the Close of the Day," one of his most beautiful compositions. Not too shabby for a boulevardier emerging from temporary semi-retirement—and I even got home by nine!
I think I can live with that.
TT: So you want to see a show?
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• The Drowsy Chaperone (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
• The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)
• Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
• Pig Farm (comedy, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here, closes Sept. 3)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Aug. 6)
• Faith Healer* (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Aug. 13)
• Susan and God (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
"William Shakespeare, who liked magic and liberally employed ghosts and spirits as persuasively and meaningfully as you could wish, understood not only magic's dazzling effects, but also—and this is what's important—the power of its source in the human heart. We all wish for things with a passion that feels powerful enough to warp matter itself. We fear things we can neither see nor name. We want things we know logically we cannot have. And we are all haunted by demons and visited by grace. The power of magic, in fiction as in life, is its ability to draw us near the tempting and sometimes terrifying threshold of possibility."
Carrie Brown, Creating Fiction (courtesy of Litwit)
• Mr. Parabasis, one of my favorite stagebloggers, begged to differ vigorously with Charles Isherwood’s panning of Pig Farm in the New York Times. So did I, but he did something about it: he talked a bunch of other bloggers into going to the show and writing about it. His report on Pig Farm’s “blogger night,” with links to the various online reviews, is here.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote about the show in The Wall Street Journal:
If, like me, you relish the lowbrow foolery of such anything-for-a-laugh movies as “Airplane!” and “There’s Something About Mary,” then Greg Kotis’ “Pig Farm,” in which three bumbleheaded, sex-crazed pig farmers run afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency, is the play for you. Mr. Kotis, who wrote the book of “Urinetown,” is a parodist who works exclusively in primary colors, and “Pig Farm” is a crazy-quilt pastiche stitched together out of bits and pieces of “Tobacco Road,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and God only knows how many other half-remembered films and TV shows. It’s as subtle as a whoopee cushion—a really, really loud whoopee cushion—but it kept the audience laughing pretty much continuously, which is, after all, the point.
Nobody directs comedy better than John Rando, who undoubtedly deserves most of the credit for much of the laughter. The four characters, whose names are Tom, Tina, Tim and Teddy (it’s that kind of show), are played by John Ellison Conlee, Katie Finneran, Logan Marshall-Green and Denis O’Hare, all of whom are very clearly having a very good time. So did I. So will you.
• Ms. Culturegrrl has risen to the bait I dangled on Monday when I posted at length about the Web sites of regional theater companies, complete with links to good and bad sites. I invited her (and Mr. Modern Art Notes, from whom I haven’t yet heard) to share their thoughts on the Web sites of prominent museums. The first installment of her response is here.
By the way, Ms. Culturegrrl has now officially joined the roster of artsjournal.com bloggers. Welcome aboard!
• Kate’s Book Blog asks a question: “Which authors dominate your bookshelves?” She defines domination as owning “five or more books by or about” the author in question.
Here’s my list:
Louis Armstrong (but not H.L. Mencken!)
Marcel Proust (by definition)
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Care to play, OGIC?
• Many thanks to British blogger Clive Davis
for his flattering shoutout in the Times (London, not New York).
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
The first night after guests have gone, the house
Seems haunted or exposed.
Robert Frost, “In the Home Stretch”
OGIC: Young critics in love
"Every time we pick up a book, we expect to fall in love; but after a certain number of disappointments, our expectation turns to mere hope; and eventually we give up even that. But no true reader ever gives up entirely. We still want to be moved deeply; we are still looking for books that, as Orwell put it, will burst the thermometer."
Lots of interesting critical self-reflection is afoot lately. The quotation above comes from a piece linked seemingly everywhere, Ruth Franklin's half-essay, half-review of Black Swan Green, published in the New Republic and reprinted at Powell's Books, addresses some of the pitfalls of positive reviewing. Positive reviews are harder to write well, she claims, for any number of reasons. For one, the well-pleased critic finds herself in unintentional competition with a book's jacket copy and associated hype—all of the productions of the publishing house's publicity machine--and it's not always easy to avoid sounding like part of that machine herself. "We damn not with faint praise, but with hyperbole." she writes.
I entirely agree with Franklin's sentiments about overly nice reviewing, which only makes me part of a large chorus. The Believer's Snarkwatch was a trial balloon, as she notes, that quietly but quickly sank. But, as someone who reviews ten or twelve books a year, I'd say the problem is less that many bad books are being given glowing reviews, and more that there are a lot of pretty good books out there. Quite good books. Blown kisses to my editors, but it is a rare thing and thus, frankly, some fun, to receive a book for review that's truly bad—in large part because it happens so seldom. The great majority of the novels and short story collections I review are pretty good—but not essential. In the long run, they probably won't be remembered as important. In the short run, though, they'll give the right readers some considerable pleasure and perhaps enlightenment. As a critic, then, my job as I see it is to set aside that perpetually recurring dream of making a great discovery—and all of the attendant overblown adjectives—send out some sort of signal to the readers who I think will appreciate this particular book, and describe the book using verbs instead of adjectives as much as possible—not what the book is like, but what it does. The hardest thing is to maintain an honest sense of proportion in describing what a book achieves. (And for the record, I basically agree with Franklin's high assessment of Black Swan Green).
Meanwhile, A. O. Scott had a piece in the New York Times last week (warning: the link may expire today) that tries to parse the yawning difference between the critical and popular receptions of a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. As you might imagine, plenty of film and culture bloggers have had something to say about that. It was the always sharp Peter Suderman, though, who pointed out that nowhere in his piece does Scott venture an answer to a key question: "What is the job of the movie critic?" In lieu of anything along these lines from Scott, Suderman graciously obliges with some thoughtful musings.
The subquestion, I suppose, in Scott’s essay was about what, if any, responsibility a critic has to the general moviegoing public. This is a tough question for many critics, and for someone like me especially. Most critics would bristle at the thought of having to serve the masses. Pandering, they’d call it, and dismiss the whole idea. As a firm believer in the usefulness of markets in determinging value, however, I'm not as sure. Now, while I have no love for the inscrutable non-taste of the moviegoing masses, I find myself wondering if a critic doesn’t have some obligation to them. Newspapers and magazines are businesses, after all, and they have an obligation to sell papers. A critic without a public is hardly worth whatever investment—however tiny—his or her publication has made in his or her writing.
In the end, he lands on a close analogue to what he tries to do as a critics: "it seems to me that the best description of a film critic is as a public teacher, one whose job is to be interesting, helpful, available (answer those emails!) and knowledgeable. One hopes that film critics are also film enthusiasts who enjoy not just the entertainment part of film but the intellectual side as well." One does.
Monday, July 24, 2006
"Two kinds of person are consoling in a dangerous time: those who are completely courageous, and those who are more frightened than you are."
A.J. Liebling, "Paris Postscript," The New Yorker, Aug. 10, 1940
TT: Words to the wise
Jazz singer Julia Dollison is in town for a one-nighter this Tuesday at Sweet Rhythm. I wrote the liner notes for her debut CD, Observatory, and what I said then still goes:
“There’s this singer I want you to meet. She’s really, really good.” I must hear at least three variations per month on that tired old theme, but when Maria Schneider spoke those words to me five years ago, I took them seriously. What kind of jazz singer, I asked myself, would be interesting enough to catch the ear of the outstanding big-band composer of her generation?
Here’s the answer.
It starts with the voice: warm, airy, dappled with summer sunshine, technically bulletproof from top to bottom. (Check out those honking low notes in “Your Mind Is on Vacation.”) Such voices are born, not made, and Julia Dollison has one. Yet she never coasts on her chops. Instead, she sings like a horn player in love with lyrics, the way Lester Young knew all the words to every ballad he played. Her solos are pointed and meaningful, little musical stories that take you to places you’ve never been.
Then comes the style, an alchemical blend of jazz and pop that makes Harold Arlen and Rufus Wainwright sound not like strange bedfellows but the oldest of friends. Don’t call it “fusion,” though: that might smack of calculation, and there’s nothing calculated about Julia’s singing. She grew up listening to all kinds of music, and now she just sings what she hears, naturally and unselfconsciously.
Did I mention the arrangements? Actually, that’s not quite the right word for her root-and-branch deconstructions of standards. They pass through her mind like light through a prism, emerging refracted and transformed. “In a Mellotone” is nudged into a joltingly ironic minor key, while “Night and Day” is superimposed atop a Coltrane-like harmonic steeplechase. “All the Things You Are” becomes a spacious, Latin-flavored soundscape decorated with the pastel washes of overdubbed vocals that are Julia’s trademark….
The band includes Geoff Keezer on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Ted Poor on bass, and Matt Clohesy on drums—remarkable players all.
For more information, go here.
TT: Information, please
I keep an eye on the Web sites of more than a hundred American theater companies. Many of them are well designed, but at least as many are thoroughly exasperating to anyone looking for information about a company and its schedule—especially a journalist with a deadline who doesn’t have time to root around for basic facts.
If you want to keep traveling critics like me happy, make sure that the home page of your Web site contains the following easy-to-locate information:
• The title of your current production, plus its opening and closing dates
• A link to a complete list of the rest of the current and/or upcoming season’s productions
• A "CONTACT US" link that leads directly to an updated directory of staff members (including individual e-mail addresses)
• A link to a page containing (1) directions to your theater and (2) a printable map
• Your address and main telephone number (not the box office!)
An elegantly designed home page that conveys a maximum of information with a minimum of clutter tells me that you know what you’re doing, thus increasing the likelihood that I’ll come see you. An unprofessional-looking, illogically organized home page suggests the opposite. This doesn’t mean I won’t consider reviewing you—I know appearances can be deceiving—but bad design is a needless obstacle to your being taken seriously by other online visitors.
Two examples of good design:
• Paper Mill Playhouse
Seven examples of bad design:
• This is an informative but cluttered home page.
• This is an uncluttered but insufficiently informative home page.
• This is an informative but amateurish-looking home page.
• This home page gets just about everything wrong—and it also contains a hugely irritating sound bite that plays each time you go there.
• This is a textbook example of unattractive, eye-resistant design.
• So is this.
• This superficially attractive site is so poorly organized that it's hard to use.
(You don't have to spend a fortune on an effective Web site, by the way. Remy Bumppo's bare-bones home page gets the job done.)
All this free advice applies equally well to other arts organizations, by the way. Any specifically museum-related suggestions, Mr. Modern Art Notes and Ms. Culturegrrl?
TT: It's my party
I made my will last week. Not to worry—I’m as healthy as a middle-aged horse—but in light of my recent illness, it seemed prudent to ensure that my worldly goods, such as they are, will be properly distributed should my cardiologist turn out to have been wrong about my future prospects.
Making a will is an uncomplicated affair for those who, like me, are neither rich nor overly endowed with possessions. I do, however, own forty works of art (not counting my cel set-up from The Cat Concerto), and at one point I considered leaving them en bloc to some small regional museum whose permanent collection is weak on the American moderns. In the end, though, I decided it would be more appropriate for me to share some of the vast pleasure I’ve derived from living with art. I’m leaving two of my most treasured objects, Milton Avery’s March at a Table
and John Marin’s Downtown. The El, to the Phillips Collection as a gesture of gratitude to my favorite museum. The rest will go to friends and family members.
It took me two days to figure out who was to get what. By the time I was done, I felt so ceremonial that I started drawing up a list of music to be played at my funeral. At that point my sense of humor finally kicked in, and I found myself recalling this passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
I have known him at times exceedingly diverted at what seemed to others a very small sport. He now laughed immoderately, without any reason that we could perceive, at our friend's making his will; called him the TESTATOR, and added, “I dare say, he thinks he has done a mighty thing. He won't stay till he gets home to his seat in the country, to produce this wonderful deed: he'll call up the landlord of the first inn on the road; and, after a suitable preface upon mortality and the uncertainty of life, will tell him that he should not delay making his will; and here, Sir, will he say, is my will, which I have just made, with the assistance of one of the ablest lawyers in the kingdom; and he will read it to him (laughing all the time). He believes he has made this will; but he did not make it: you, Chambers, made it for him. I trust you have had more conscience than to make him say, ‘being of sound understanding;’ ha, ha, ha! I hope he has left me a legacy. I'd have his will turned into verse, like a ballad.”
Mr. Chambers did not by any means relish this jocularity upon a matter of which pars magna fuit, and seemed impatient till he got rid of us. Johnson could not stop his merriment, but continued it all the way till we got without the Temple-gate. He then burst into such a fit of laughter, that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and, in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement, and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet-ditch.
Is there a more revealing anecdote in all of Boswell? Better than anyone else, Dr. Johnson understood the vanity of human wishes, so it was wholly typical of him to find the blackest of humor in so grave an undertaking as the making of a will. I know just what he had in mind when he laughed uncontrollably at the puffed-up presumptuousness of poor Mr. Chambers, the TESTATOR—yet even so, I felt the need to do as Mr. Chambers did. Anyone who thinks knowledge leads to wisdom hasn’t lived long enough.
I don’t claim to be wiser than the next man, but my sense of humor is at least as healthy as my heart, so I've scrapped my plans for the Terry Teachout Memorial Concert. Should a pianist happen to be present when the time comes, I’d like her to play Aaron Copland’s Down a Country Lane. (Remember that, Heather.) The rest I’ll leave to whoever is in charge of disposing of my earthly remains, with the caveat that she keep it simple. I've never cared for funerals, nor do I wish to burden my friends with the chore of attending an elaborate one.
Neither did H.L. Mencken, whose bald, uncomforting obsequies I described in The Skeptic:
The next day, a small band of family, friends, and colleagues joined August, Gertrude, and Charlie [Mencken] in the chapel of a Hollins Street funeral parlor to say goodbye. Hamilton Owens led a delegation from the Sunpapers; Alfred Knopf and James Cain represented the world of literature; a sprinkling of Saturday Night Club members was on hand, including Ed Moffett, the oldest surviving member, and Louis Cheslock, who had seen more of Mencken in the past eight years than anyone other than August and his servants. In 1927 he had issued a “clarion call to poets” for an agnostic funeral service that was “free from the pious but unsupported asseverations that revolt so many of our best minds, and yet remains happily graceful and consoling,” but none having obliged, his final instructions to August were passed on to Hamilton Owens. “August asked me to stand up for a few minutes,” Owens told the mourners, “and repeat what most of you already know. His brother Henry, orally and in writing, said he wanted no funeral service of any kind. All he wanted was that a few of his old friends gather together and see him off on his last journey. That we are doing.”
It did little to ease their sorrow. “Somehow, we were made to subserve a gag,” Cain recalled, “and the effect wasn’t so much bleak as blank.” Cain, Owens, Knopf, and Frank Kent went straight from the funeral parlor to Marconi’s, there to drown their sorrows in loud reminiscence, while August and Charlie accompanied the coffin to Loudon Park Cemetery, where it was cremated and the ashes placed in the family plot next to those of Sara. Mencken had gone there in 1945, ten years after her death, and gazed at the lone white marble stone that bore the family coat-of-arms and the names and dates of the dead. “There is room left for all the rest of us,” he wrote in his diary that day. “My own name will be there soon enough.”
That's carrying simplicity a bit too far. What I'd like is for the thirty-odd friends to whom I’m leaving the Teachout Museum to gather at my apartment, drink a toast, strip the walls, then go home and hang up their booty. That’s my kind of funeral—complete with party favors.
Saturday, July 23, 2005
"I believe that the great painters, with their intellect as master, have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom."
Edward Hopper, "Notes on Painting"
Friday, July 22, 2005
TT: On the air
One more thing before I resume my nursing duties this morning: in case you missed it the first time around, WNYC's Studio 360, hosted by Kurt Andersen, is rerunning an episode in which I talk at some length about criticism in America today, and how it's being affected by the new media. I was very pleased by the way it turned out, as were those of you who listened in and wrote to me about it.
If you live in the New York area, Studio 360 is heard over WNYC at ten a.m. Saturday on 93.9 FM and seven p.m. Sunday on 820 AM. For a list of radio stations in other cities that carry the show, go here.
To learn more about this particular episode, go here. You can also use the same page to listen via streaming audio or download the episode as a podcast. (To find out more about podcasts and how they work, go here.)
Now, back to work!
Thursday, July 21, 2005
“Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing.”
Sir Ralph Richardson (quoted in Garry O'Connor, Ralph Richardson: An Actor's Life)
TT: Walking distance
I sometimes wonder whether the rural Missouri town where I grew up is losing its individuality. I turned on the car radio yesterday morning and found myself listening to “Sympathy for the Devil,” which wasn't exactly what I'd expected to hear on a small-town radio station at eight-thirty in the morning. As I drove to the hospital where my mother is recovering from spinal surgery, I found I had to go well out of my way to see the quirky homemade roadside signs that were commonplace when I was a boy: Hail Sale. Green Tomatoes. It's Sweet Corn Season! Now that computer-generated graphics and franchise trademarks are increasingly ubiquitous, Smalltown, U.S.A., is looking more and more like Anyplace, U.S.A.
One thing that hasn't changed is the local accent, a pungent brew of flat, twangy Midwestern vowels and soft-centered deep-South elisions like y'all. Some of the locals call it a “brogue,” while others refer to it less euphemistically (though by no means critically) as a “hick accent.” Call it what you will, it's the way most folks talk down here, and I see no signs of its having been flattened out by the neutralizing effects of movies and network TV. As I waited for the elevator at the hospital the other day, I overheard two self-evidently gay men chatting away in the thickest of hick accents. I'm not quite sure what that proves—probably nothing—but I have no doubt that it's a social detail worth recording.
Even so, the mass media have left their mark on Smalltown in other, more subtle ways. I ordered my breakfast yesterday from a girl whose name tag disclosed that she calls herself “Destinee,” a name that could only have been devised by a mother who spent her own childhood watching hours and hours of TV each day. A block or two down the street from the restaurant where I ate my biscuits and gravy is the Powerhouse of God Church, a local institution that doubtless would have been called something rather more sedate a quarter-century ago. Slowly but surely, my home town is being transformed by the urban world far beyond its borders, a world the Web has made instantaneously accessible to everyone everywhere, including here. (Maud learned yesterday that her blog had been hacked when my sister-in-law, who lives three blocks away from my mother's house, pointed the damage out to me via e-mail, after which I passed the word on to Maud in New York, also via e-mail. That's how plugged-in Smalltown is.)
How will our children know the way things used to be? America's artists have tended either to demonize or sentimentalize small-town life. Even my own City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy occasionally errs in the latter direction, a fact I didn't realize when I wrote it. I can think of several movies, Hoosiers and Sling Blade among them, that get some of the details right, and one, Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me, that conveys much of the essence of how it feels to live in a place like Smalltown. But I can't think of any work of art that captures the flavor of small-town life more succinctly than a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter called “I Am a Town”:
I'm a town in Carolina
I'm a detour on a ride
For a phone call and a soda
I'm a blur from the driver's side
I'm the last gas for an hour
If you're going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco
I am dust you leave behind
I'm a church beside the highway
Where the ditches never drain
I'm a Baptist like my daddy
And Jesus knows my name
I am memory and stillness
I am lonely in old age
I am not your destination
I am clinging to my ways
I'm a town in Carolina
I am billboards in the fields
I'm an old truck up on cinder blocks
Missing all my wheels
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American,
And Southern Serves the South
I am tucked behind the Jaycees sign
On the rural route
Smalltown used to be like that, and some of it still is, if you know where to look. But much of it has changed irrevocably. It says a lot about the nature of those changes that the Smalltown Depot, from which I took my first train ride forty-four years ago, is now a museum. I'm giving a lecture there next Tuesday, which I suppose makes me a museum piece. It said
in the local paper yesterday that I'm “one of the East Coast's elite critics,” but all I see when I look in the bathroom mirror is a middle-aged Manhattanite who wanders around his home town thinking about places that closed their doors decades ago: Blackburn's, the War Drum, the Malone Theater, Buckner-Ragsdale, the Moore Company, all of them tucked behind the Jaycees sign on the rural route, visible only in the mind's eye of a gray-haired, nostalgia-prone singleton like me.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
TT: Specimen days
• Just fine, thanks. We don't yet know when she'll be coming home from the hospital, but everything else is going swimmingly. She ate a hearty dinner—as hearty as institutional cuisine gets, anyway—and walked fifty feet on the arm of a nurse. Tomorrow she starts physical rehabilitation.
• I'm on dialup for the duration, which makes it difficult for me to read my blogmail. Please don't be surprised (or offended) if you don't hear back from me until early August.
• I wore one of my Hip Black New York Outfits to the hospital this morning (all my other clothes were dirty). When I left to get some lunch, a nurse asked my mother, “How does it feel to have a priest in the family?”
• Here are the headlines on the front page of last night's local paper: (1) “Rain Brought Much Relief for Farmers.” (2) “Life-Saver Award Goes to Officer.” (3) “Smalltown Resident Gets the Price Right” (i.e., she was picked as a contestant on The Price Is Right). (4) “Sometimes You Spell Allergy Relief, S-H-O-T.”
That's how I know I'm back in Smalltown, U.S.A. And glad to be.
• Further proof that there's no place like home: I can walk in total darkness from one end of my mother's house to the other without bumping into anything. (I can't even do that in my own apartment!)
• I brought a big stack of books with me to Smalltown, and so far I've been chewing them up at a rate of approximately one and a third per day. Here's what's on my nightstand:
The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, by Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi (yes, I read Louis Menand's New Yorker review).
Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, by Penny M. Von Eschen, and Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, by Jean Pierre Lion (I'm yoking them together for a Commentary essay).
J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan, by Andrew Birkin (I'd been meaning for years to read this book, and when a friend asked me the other day whether there was any truth to Finding Neverland, I decided it was time to put up or shut up).
Elia Kazan: A Biography, by Richard Schickel (now in bound galleys, out in November).
A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, by Czeslaw Milosz (no special reason, except maybe that Ms. Searchblog admires him so extravagantly).
At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch (sent to me by a former protégé who is now a heavy-hitting New York book editor).
That ought to keep me afloat for two weeks, don't you think?
• Our Girl's blogging again! Scroll down and be glad.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
“Strangers always love us for what we've accomplished, ignoring the fact that, by definition, that very accomplishment no longer touches us.”
Ned Rorem, letter to Glenway Wescott (August 31, 1967)
TT: Words from the wise
A friend who should know writes:
One of life's greatest joys is that relief rush that follows a loved one's successful surgery, not to mention the reunion afterwards with whoever had to brave the table. The world briefly seems to be about the simple basics and I wouldn't have it any other way.
What she said.
Now I'm off to the hospital to amuse my mother. Work can wait. Likewise the world. See you tonight.
OGIC: Toe, meet Water
I'm back up and running computerwise, finally, though there are a couple glitches with the email (also, I lost a bunch of July email in the crash, so feel free to write again if you didn't get an answer). Most of the relevant glitches, though, concern my schedule, which is very, very overbooked. Would you believe me if I said I'm going to be back with a vengeance over the weekend? No, I wouldn't believe me either. But that will make it all the more titillating when the threat/promise actually materializes....
In the meantime, though, there is one thing that has been on my mind since before the changing of the Macs, which is simply this: the new Erin McKeown totally lives up, and check out those adorable bird innards. Charming, no? The album isn't what my previous experience of Ms. McKeown's music had led me to expect—and I mean this in the best possible way. The capacity to surprise is an excellent thing. Listening to WWBLB (as Terry and I shorthand it), I've found, can be a little like reading a decompressed sestina. And haven't you always wanted to hear a really, really good song about The Columbian Exposition? Of course you have. Case closed!
TT: Smooth operation
Yesterday morning I arose before dawn, took my mother to the hospital where I was born forty-nine years ago, and watched her vanish down a corridor, wondering if I'd see her alive again. Seven hours later I was feeding her ice chips from a plastic spoon and doing my best not to get choked up as I told her she didn't look too bad, considering.
In fact, she came through her operation somewhat bloodied (she lost a cupful) but mostly unbowed, and when it was over the surgeon informed us—convincingly—that the prospects for her recovery were excellent. I passed the word to her a couple of hours later in her hospital room, and she smiled wanly. Then I pulled out my cell phone and started calling all the people on the list she'd handed me the night before.
I don't know what you do on the eve of major spinal surgery, but my brother, a man of action, decided the situation called for a cookout and proceeded to barbecue a mountain of pork chops, chicken breasts, and jalapeño sausages on his charcoal grill. Since my mother was under the strictest possible orders to eat no solid food after seven p.m. and we had to hit the road at five-thirty the next day, we dined on the early side. Neither one of us felt much like sleeping after I drove her back home, so we watched The High and the Mighty on AMC. We were nervous and didn't care to admit it, mutually self-evident though it was, so I said the most outrageous thing I could think of in order to break the ice.
“Don't die, Mom,” I told her during a commercial. “I didn't pack a suit.”
There followed what actors call a beat—well, maybe three—followed by an explosion of wild laughter and a bear hug. Then John Wayne saved the day, and we turned off the TV feeling much better and headed for bed.
Now I'm home alone in the house where I grew up, preparing to fall into the same bed after what I think it's fair to call a really long day. I wanted to post something profound before retiring, but it's all I can do to spell profound. Instead, I'll settle for feeling something profound, and go to sleep.
See you later.
P.S. If you want to know what kind of mother I have, here's the answer: she baked me a cake the day before I came home.
Friday, July 23, 2004
Beloved, we are always in the wrong,
Handling so clumsily our stupid lives,
Suffering too little or too long,
Too careful even in our selfish loves;
The decorative manias we obey
Die in grimaces round us every day,
Yet through their tohu-bohu comes a voice
Which utters an absurd command—Rejoice.
W.H. Auden, “In Sickness and in Health”
TT: Not exactly ribbeting
I’m in The Wall Street Journal this morning, writing about The Frogs, the new Nathan Lane-Stephen Sondheim musical, greatly expanded from Burt Shevelove’s original 1974 adaptation and choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman. The buzz was bad, and as so often is the case, it was accurate:
Unfortunately, Mr. Lane and his collaborators have forgotten the Iron Law of Modern Musical Comedy, which is that no musical, no matter how good its songs may be, can succeed without a bulletproof book. What works in a straight play does not necessarily supply enough emotional energy to propel a musical. As rewritten by Shevelove and bulked up by Mr. Lane, the largely plotless "Frogs" is driven by its one- and two-liners, which aren’t even close to funny enough to keep the show afloat: "What kind of a god are you? "The kind with lower back problems."...
So what works? Pretty much everything else. Ms. Stroman’s spectacular staging of the title number, in which evil right-wing frogs fly through the air on bungee cords, is one of her happiest choreographic inspirations. The set and costumes, by Giles Cadle and the peerless William Ivey Long, are unimprovably good. Mr. Sondheim’s score includes three first-class songs, two old and one new. The new one, "Ariadne," is a spare, elegiac ballad of regret sung by Mr. Lane (limply, I’m afraid, though he does his best). From the original "Frogs" come "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," a raucous curtain-going-up prelude, and "Fear No More," a tender setting of Shakespeare’s poignant lyric from "Cymbeline." It’s the only time Mr. Sondheim has set another man’s words, and the results are exquisite—one of his most haunting musical inspirations.
You’d think a show with so much going for it would soar like a skyrocket. Instead, "The Frogs," which runs through Oct. 10, stumbles through the first act and fizzles out at the end, all because of an ill-crafted book. It’s an object lesson in Musical Comedy 101. Too bad it cost the students so much to sign up for the class.
I also wrote about Broadway: The Golden Age Rick McKay’s marvelous documentary, which you will find in the Top Five module of the right-hand column. Some additional details from this morning’s review:
Mr. McKay knows when to ease back on the throttle and simply let his subjects talk. And talk they do, often amusingly and always movingly, about what it was like to work alongside such near-forgotten giants as Laurette Taylor (who is seen in her Hollywood screen test, the only sound film she ever made) and Kim Stanley (where on earth did Mr. McKay dredge up what looks like a kinescope of a live performance of "Bus Stop"?). You’ll weep—I did—to hear them share their fond memories of crummy apartments, Automat meals and big breaks.
Produced and marketed on half a shoestring, this one-man labor of love is slowly making its way across America, one screen at a time. At present it’s playing in Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, with additional openings scheduled for Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Diego, Washington, and other cities. (Go to www.broadwaythemovie.com for further information.) If it’s not coming to an art house near you, call and complain. A DVD will be released in due course, but "Broadway: The Golden Age," like the performers to whom it pays unforgettably eloquent tribute, deserves to be seen in a theater—even one that sells popcorn.
No link—the Journal expects you to pay for your pleasures. To read the whole thing, buy this morning’s paper and turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, where you’ll find me, Joe Morgenstern on film, and lots and lots of other irresistibly readable things.
Thursday, July 22, 2004
"The only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view."
Howard Hawks (quoted in Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood)
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.
Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
Philip Larkin, "A Study of Reading Habits"
TT: Never too late
Two "About Last Night" readers wrote to let me know that Tim Page, the classical music critic of the Washington Post and an old friend of mine, mentioned me in a Post online chat
earlier today. I’m vain enough to want to pass on what Tim said:
The book that's dazzled me lately is by another friend, Terry Teachout. A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale) covers all the arts -- film, dance, music (of all kinds), literature, and any variety of crossroads. Even when I find myself in disagreement with Terry, the fact remains that this is a book one vividly enjoys disagreeing with -- one test of truly stimulating criticism. (How many of us found ourselves in this field in order to "win" arguments with critics of the past -- Haggin, Thomson, Schonberg...!) A strong personality -- and spectacularly unpredictable.
The part I like is the last two words.
TT: Made manifest
Life is going by too fast today. I went to Lincoln Center last night to see a press preview of The Frogs, the new Nathan Lane-Stephen Sondheim musical. This morning I lashed myself to the mast and wrote my Wall Street Journal theater column for Friday in a single sitting. After that I filled out yet another National Council on the Arts-related form, this one for the Senate, then ran around in the noonday sun getting it notarized, making photocopies of various personal documents, and shipping the results off to Washington, D.C., via Federal Express. (The NEA warned me to FedEx everything—their incoming snail mail is irradiated and often delayed as a result, sometimes forever.) Tonight I return to Lincoln Center, this time to see Complicité’s production of The Elephant Vanishes, and in between I should have spent at least an hour or two hacking away at my Commentary essay on Isaac Bashevis Singer. But I didn't. Instead, I knocked off for an hour and took my first look at the page proofs of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, which arrived this morning and have been sitting on my kitchen table ever since.
No one who hasn’t written a book can know what it feels like to see it set up in type for the first time. Your own manuscript, however neatly printed it may be, simply isn’t the real thing. It's homemade, and looks that way. You can edit it as painstakingly as you like, but you still don’t know what your words will sound like in your inner ear until you see the thing itself. It’s unnerving, half scary and half thrilling, to pull the proofs out of their package and start riffling through them, pretending to look for typos (and sometimes finding them) but mostly just gazing raptly at each page, feeling your half-forgotten sentences and paragraphs quiver to life.
In Newspaper Days, H.L. Mencken wrote a wonderful description (quoted in my Mencken biography) of the day that he received the page proofs of his very first full-length book. He was twenty-five years old and an up-and-coming young man at the Baltimore Herald, edited by Lynn Meekins. As he recalled years later,
I was so enchanted that I could not resist taking the proofs to the office and showing them to Meekins—on the pretense, as I recall, of consulting him about a doubtful passage. He seemed almost as happy about it as I was. "If you live to be two hundred years old," he said, "you will never forget this day. It is one of the great days of your life, and maybe the greatest. You will write other books, but none of them will ever give you half the thrill of this one. Go to your office, lock the door, and sit down to read your proofs. Nothing going on in the office can be as important. Take the whole day off, and enjoy yourself." I naturally protested, saying that this or that had to be looked to. "Nonsense!" replied Meekins. "Let all those things take care of themselves. I order you to do nothing whatsoever until you have finished with the proofs. If anything pops up I’ll have it sent to me." So I locked myself in as he commanded, and had a shining day indeed, and I can still remember its unparalleled glow after all these years.
Meekins was right—it only feels that way once—but even after you’ve written a half-dozen books, you never, ever take your first look at a new set of page proofs for granted. I just finished reading mine, and as I glanced at the first chapter, my eyes grew moist. It seemed impossible that I’d written all those words mere months ago. I simply couldn’t think my way back into the fearfully intense state of arousal
with which I’d raced against the clock to finish the manuscript and ship it off to Harcourt. I felt oddly detached from the thick stack of photocopied pages I held in my hand, detached and proud at the same time, the way one might feel while watching a child graduate from college. Had I really written this book? Could it possibly be as good as it looked?
I glanced at the living-room clock: five p.m. Time to jump in the shower, get dressed, and head downtown to meet a friend for a quick pre-theater dinner. The spell was broken, the moment over. Life had begun again.
OGIC: The airwaves are ours…
Or the blogwaves are theirs; it hasn't quite all shaken out yet. The point is that bloggers and WBEZ, Chicago's NPR station, are finding themselves in various forms of collaboration, both more and less formal, this month.
First up, ALN friend and fellow culture blogger Sam Golden Rule Jones has been brought on as the book critic of Ed Lifson's new Sunday arts show, Hello Beautiful. This is a brilliant move. Sam will focus on Chicago writers; last week he reviewed a book with "strong bones," Irene Zabytko's story collection Luba Leaves Home. Sam reflected on the relative paucity of well-known fiction about women coming of age in Chicago—relative to the bevy of Bellows and Farrells writing about young men—and found that Zabytko is "particularly good at showing a young woman's difficult devotion to both her bonds and her dreams." Hear Sam's sparkling review for yourself. He returns next week with a review of Ward Just's latest, An Unfinished Season. I'll be listening.
The shoe is on the other foot too this week, as Gretchen Helfrich, who anchors WBEZ's consistently fascinating interview show Odyssey, will be guest blogging at Preposterous Universe beginning Friday. Gretchen is fiercely smart and knowledgeable and has a sense of humor, so it will be fun to see what happens when Preposterous's regular proprietor (oog, try saying that five times fast), physicist Sean Carroll, hands her the reins. Go check it out now, while Sean's still in the house—only about half of his content is about physics, making fully half of it comprehensible to science know-nothings like me.
In other switcheroo news, I'm going to teach my mother's fifth-grade class for a day while she edits, blogs, and goes home to watch seven consecutive episodes of "Law and Order." Somebody should write a book about it.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 21, 2004 | Permanent
OGIC: One from the memory banks
Not the most ambitious all-time feat of memorization, but:
My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never wither,
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy's mean gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze,
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone,
When I am no one.
It's Theodore Roethke, published in 1964, and I had to look up the punctuation and the title: "Wish for a Young Wife."
Meanwhile, such bloggers as Maud Newton, Carrie at Tingle Alley, and Will Baude at Crescat Sententia have spun off on a variety of tangents from my original post about the joys of memorizing poetry. Each of these folks takes the topic in their own new direction, with fascinating results all around. It's all very bloggy and good.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, July 21, 2004 | Permanent
TT: 'Scuse me while I disappear
I have two intense days' worth of writing and playgoing ahead of me. Then I'm off to Smalltown, U.S.A., first thing Friday morning (the car comes at 4:30) for a family reunion. Next week I'll be writing like a madman for a couple of hectic days in New York, after which I'm off again to see plays in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
My point? You won't be seeing much of me in this space for the next couple of weeks, save for the odd almanac entry. I'll look in whenever I can, but mostly I'll be leaving you in the lovely hands of Our Girl in Chicago. Enjoy the pleasure of her company. I always do.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
"John Pickford, BBC World Service, came to interview me about George Orwell. A pleasant young man, but the questions these people put are impossible to answer. One wonders whether the generality of people expected easy answers to the human condition before their minds were rotted by popular journalism, TV, the notion that all life's problems could be answered off the cuff by TV 'personalities,' suchlike, in two or three sentences. All the same there is perhaps a faint impression of a person given by the worlds, demeanour, of a friend."
Anthony Powell, Journals 1982-1986, entry for October 27, 1983
OGIC: By heart
I was excited to find this piece in City Journal extolling the educational benefits of memorizing poetry. "Empower" is a word I mostly tuned out long ago, but this use of it seems to me warranted: "Progressive educators call it 'drill and kill,' but learning poetry by heart empowers kids."
I wish I had more poetry committed to memory, and every now and then I make a plan to learn, for instance, a poem a month. Lately, alas, such enlightened self-improvement plans haven't had much chance of surviving the onrush of everyday demands. The last poem I half-learned was W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," where the biggest hurdles come early, but the last half is all downhill. I always found Auden's poem to be one that almost entreats you to learn it. Read it just once through, and chances are good you'll come away with the commanding cadence of "the day of his death was a dark cold day" echoing in your ears well into tomorrow.
Michael Knox Beran has a fuller account than I do of what is so valuable in learning poetry by heart—an expression, by the way, that he takes somewhat literally. Here he talks about what, exactly, the heart has to do with it:
Some of the ancient methods, [St. Augustine biographer Peter] Brown conceded, strike a modern mind as "servile": but the paradoxical result of this early servitude was mental liberation. Augustine, Brown wrote, came "to love what he was learning. He had developed, through this education, a phenomenal memory, a tenacious attention to detail, an art of opening the heart, that still moves us as we read his Confessions." In Virgil’s epic picture of the multiple passions of human life—paternal, filial, pious, romantic, patriotic, heroic—Augustine found a key to understanding his own heart, and in the rhetorical perfection of the Aeneid’s speeches he found a key with which to unlock the hearts of others.
"An art of opening the heart": this is a nice way of capturing the extra-intellectual aspects of memorizing poetry. To memorize something effectively, you have to expend some interpretive effort on it, and with this effort you wind up in something like a conversation with the text. Grasping at least the literal meaning—not necessarily as easy as you might think, I've learned in my teaching—is the most efficient way of mastering a poem, so you can't help but learn something more than just the words in the process. And the richer the text, the more there is to absorb. It's sad that such a truly mind-expanding practice has been saddled with a reputation as just the opposite.
Here's a brief history of my happy career as a memorizer of poetry. I had a teacher in elementary school who made us learn and recite poetry, as well as some famous orations, weekly: "The Walrus and the Carpenter," "Paul Revere's Ride," The Gettysburg Address, and "Casey at the Bat," to name a few. In high school we memorized speeches from Shakespeare and, most rewardingly of all, stretches of "The Canterbury Tales" in the original Middle English, with audiotapes as aids. During and after college, I memorized some Romantic and Victorian poetry in the process of writing papers (sometimes, of course, memorizing happens by accident in the course of studying something intently) and, later, just for the pleasure of it. The one poem I'm certain I'll take to my grave is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," one of the most melodious and indelible works in the language. Once you know it, its music leads you inexorably from one line to the next. If you're looking for something to start with, I highly recommend Coleridge's heady little fragment. It's got a wicked hook.
Here's some more of what Beran has to say, all of it more empirical and less impressionistic than my free-associating:
No less important, memorizing poetry turns on kids' language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language—an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease. Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, argues that memorization "builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax." The student "who memorizes poetry will internalize" the "rhythmic, beautiful patterns" of the English language. These patterns then become "part of the student’s 'language store,' those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking." Without memorization, the student’s "language store," Bauer says, will be limited: memorization stocks "the language store with a whole new set of language patterns."
It also stocks those bins with a generous supply of the English language's rich accumulation of words. Research suggests that the size of a child's vocabulary plays an important part in determining the quality of his language-comprehension skills. "The greater and wider the vocabulary," says education historian Ravitch, "the greater one's comprehension of increasingly difficult material." Bauer points out that if "a student reads a word in a novel, she might or might not remember it for later use. But when she commits it to memory in proper context (as the memorization of lines of poetry requires), she is much more likely to have it at her 'mental fingertips' for use in her own speaking and writing."
Terry also reminds me that "when Nabokov taught in America, he gave his students extra credit on their final exams for disgorging accurately memorized excerpts from the works under discussion," which I'd heard but forgotten.
TT: Quotations from Chairman Nick
As I mentioned a week or two ago, I’ve been rereading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time in preparation for writing a review of Michael Barber’s Anthony Powell: A Life, out in September from Duckworth Overlook. At lunch with Maud the other day, I was trying to describe Powell’s technique of alternating Hemingway-like naturalistic dialogue with discursive commentary by Nick Jenkins, the narrator of Dance and Powell’s fictional alter ego. I’ve been posting quotations from Dance as almanac entries of late, but I’ve dogeared so many pages since I started rereading it that I thought it might be fun to go ahead and empty the whole bag.
Forgive me if some of these quotes have already been posted. As an old Powellian, my experience has been that they profit from repetition!
• "Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one’s dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction." (A Question of Upbringing)
• "I felt unsettled and dissatisfied, though not in the least drunk. On the contrary, my brain seemed to be working all at once with quite unusual clarity. Indeed, I found myself almost deciding to sit down, as soon as I reached my room, and attempt to compose a series of essays on human life and character in the manner of, say, Montaigne, so icily etched in my mind at that moment appeared the actions and nature of those with whom that night I had been spending my time. However, second thoughts convinced me that any such efforts at composition would be inadvisable at such an hour. The first thing to do on reaching home would be to try and achieve some sleep. In the morning, literary matters might be reconsidered." (A Buyer’s Market)
• "These hinterlands are frequently, even compulsively, crossed at one time or another by almost all who practise the arts, usually in the need to earn a living; but the arts themselves, so it appeared to me as I considered the matter, by their ultimately sensual essence, are, in the long run, inimical to those who pursue power for its own sake. Conversely, the artist who traffics in power does so, if not necessarily disastrously, at least at considerable risk." (A Buyer’s Market)
• "Prejudice was to be avoided if—as I had idly pictured him—Members were to form the basis of a character in a novel. Alternatively, prejudice might prove the very elemtn through which to capture and pin down unequivocally the otherwise elusive nature of what was of interest, discarding by its selective power the empty, unprofitable shell making up that side of Members untranslatable into terms of art; concentrating his final essence, his position, as it were, in eternity, into the medium of words." (The Acceptance World)
• "I reflected, not for the first time, how mistaken it is to suppose there exists some ‘ordinary’ world into which it is possible at will to wander. All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary." (The Acceptance World)
• "Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one." (At Lady Molly’s)
• "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." (Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant)
• "Erridge, a rebel whose life had been exasperatingly lacking in persecution, had enjoyed independence of parental control, plenty of money, assured social position, early in life. Since leaving school he had been deprived of all the typical grudges within the grasp of most young men. Some of these grudges, it was true, he had later developed with fair success by artificial means, grudges being, in a measure, part and parcel of his political approach." (The Kindly Ones)
• "One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people can be. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be." (The Kindly Ones)
• "One never takes lessons to heart. It’s just a thing people talk about—learning by experience and all that." (The Valley of Bones)
• "I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already." (The Valley of Bones)
• "Lovell was an odd mixture of realism and romanticism; more specifically, he was, like quite a lot of people, romantic about being a realist." (The Soldier’s Art)
• "How one envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel suprior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy for the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity—particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning." (Books Do Furnish a Room)
• "You know growing old’s like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed." (Temporary Kings)
• "People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reserve is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned in his own egotism. He must always be suspect." (Hearing Secret Harmonies)
TT: This, that
In case you haven't noticed, slip over to the right-hand column and feast your eyes on four brand-new Top Five picks. (It would have been five, but I haven't yet managed to get to a show of Joan Mitchell lithographs on which I have my eye. Be patient.)
Incidentally, our traffic has bumped sharply upward of late, and it shows no signs of sinking back. Don't rest on your laurels—tell a friend about "About Last Night"! The more, the merrier.
Monday, July 19, 2004
TT: Guest almanac
"After the lunch conference I run into my cousin Nell Lovell on the steps of the library—where I go occasionally to read liberal and conservative periodicals. Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive."
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (courtesy of Doug Ramsey)
• In The New Republic, Jed Perl calls the Art Institute of Chicago's new Seurat show a golden opportunity, but one that the AIC fumbled:
"Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" is the latest salute to the museum's crown jewel, and while the show's strengths do honor to the painting and to the city, the exhibition is very, very far from being an unadulterated success. Its failures speak volumes about what the people who run today's museums think the public wants--and how, perhaps, in the eighty years since La Grande Jatte came into the museum's collection, the people in charge at the Art Institute have shrunk their assumptions about what the public can absorb. A transcendent medium-sized exhibition has been nearly ruined by the museum's insistence on producing a multimedia extravaganza.…
A great chance to educate the public has been botched in Chicago. For Seurat's studies for La Grande Jatte, seen in such dazzling profusion, tell a story of the workings of the imagination that anybody can understand without audio-visual assistance. The one thing that the Art Institute has been wise to include is an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of paper, a handout that is available as you enter the crucial phase of the show, which contains a reproduction of La Grande Jatte and a brief explanation of the way that the studies for the painting have been grouped in order to reflect, as best we can understand, the stages of Seurat's thinking. Walking around with this information sheet, people can begin to grasp Seurat's strenuous process of trial and error, and his arrival at the riveting vision of the final painting. One morning, I saw a woman and what I expect was her second- or third-grade daughter making their way around the room. The girl was picking out the changes, the shifts that Seurat made as he developed and honed his ideas. All it took were her eyes and her native intelligence. She didn't need a movie to help her compare a study of a figure to the figure in the painting, and she didn't need a simulated zoom-in to enable her to look at the texture of Seurat's paint strokes. By looking directly, by seeing things for herself, this girl was taking possession of the painting. The magic of creation is there for all to see, for all to embrace, if only the museum would let people get on with it.
Perl's review has much to say about Seurat's virtues as well as this particular show's failings. I'll try to go see the exhibit anyway; the painting is so iconic and ubiquitous here in Chicago that I think I stopped really seeing it years ago. It will be good to go and take a fresh look.
• Word Wars, the Scrabble documentary whose directors I interviewed last January, is finally hitting Chicago. It opens at Facets Cinémathèque this Friday for a week, plus in a matinee screening each of the following two Saturdays (July 31 and August 7). Go, go, go! I finally caught the movie myself last weekend at Cambridge's Brattle, incidentally the former stomping grounds of the lovely Cinetrix, who apparently still haunts the place—after the screening I spilled out of the theater into Harvard Square and ran directly into her while still squinting dazedly in the sunlight. I'm fairly sure she wasn't just a figment of my sun-drunk imagination, as she, the 'Fesser, and I later successfully met up to get, um, drink-drunk. (There should be more room in life for matinees, and post-matinee squinting; already intoxicated by the movie, if it was any good at all, you swoon and swerve in the surprising light. It's a minor, but excellent, brand of euphoria.)
I loved the movie and, yes, I would say that even if it hadn't been made by one of my oldest friends. It's a slice of a life you've probably never imagined. The obvious comparison is with Spellbound, and what the Word Wars characters lack in youthful charm, they more than make up for in eccentricity and passion. They're there by active choice, and the film makes clear that professional Scrabble is not a life you choose for any dispassionate reason. There's no percentage in it, yet the competition is cutthroat. What the main characters go through may fit many viewers' definition of suffering. And yet they're happy, in their way, and the most unguarded of them are especially fascinating. Marlon Hill in particular, from the mean streets of Baltimore, steals the show. Here is a man who will put to rest forever any illusions you may have that this is a game solely for introverts or nerds. There are many kinds of intelligence; part of what's fascinating about Word Wars is how it shows you that even within a group of people with one particular, ridiculously specialized talent, there is an enormously wide range of ways of being good. Marlon, having the most unorthodox ways, establishes the range. And, well, the guy's a star. Did I say it already? Go, go, go!
• This greenest of cities has a brand-new park, which I haven't yet seen up close. From the pictures, it seems to me that the giant mirrored jelly bean is the pièce de résistance. I look forward to seeing myself in it in the very near future, and will certainly report back on the experience.
TT: His aim is true
I went on Saturday night to hear the North American premiere of Il Sogno, Elvis Costello’s first full-length orchestral work. It’s a ballet score based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed in 2000 for an Italian dance troupe, and the Brooklyn Phiharmonic performed it as the climax of a three-night Costello mini-festival presented by the Lincoln Center Festival.
Though I’m a Costello fan, I confess to having had a small critical chip on my shoulder. But as I reported in this morning’s Washington Post, Il Sogno deserves to be taken seriously:
Not only did Costello write it without assistance, he orchestrated it as well, and though the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by Brad Lubman, was conspicuously underrehearsed, the performance was decent enough to leave no doubt that Costello knows what he's doing. The scoring isn't perfect -- the middle register is cluttered and thick-sounding at times, and the vibraphone is used to sugary excess -- but it's perfectly competent.
That alone made my jaw drop. Even Duke Ellington relied on professional orchestrators when writing for symphony orchestra, while Paul McCartney hired so many collaborators to help him produce the embarrassingly bloated "Standing Stone" that I described it at the time of its 1997 premiere as "the first as-told-to symphony." What's more, "Il Sogno" ("The Dream" in Italian), though it rambles a bit, is more than just a long string of songlike cameos placed end to end: Costello has channeled his thematic material into simple, formal structures that he uses in the disciplined manner of a bona fide classical composer….
It's not cut-rate Prokofiev or Bernstein, but a lively, ingratiating piece of mainstream modernism, with decorous snippets of symphonic rock and jazz thrown in from time to time to spice things up. If anything, it's too polite: Costello was clearly on his best musical behavior when he wrote it, and I'm sure he felt he had something to prove to all the "legit" musicians who took it for granted that no mere rock star could bring off so ambitious an undertaking….
Mind you, Costello doesn't need to write large-scale orchestral works to be taken seriously as an artist. Rock has produced no better songwriter. But if he really wants to set up shop as a part-time classical composer, he'll need to polish his craft still further. After the unexpected success of "Rhapsody in Blue," Gershwin toiled for 11 years and ended up with "Porgy and Bess." Is Costello in it for the long haul? Or will "Il Sogno" turn out to be a fluke? I hope not.
Read the whole thing here.
UPDATE: Alex Ross has a fascinatingly different take on Il Sogno. You can tell from reading our pieces side by side that we were, as the saying goes, at the same concert—only we didn’t come to the same conclusions.
Once again, it’s time for the regular "About Last Night" Monday-morning Web surf. Here are some links from the past week that I thought worth passing on:
• In case you haven’t seen it yet, Anne E. Kornblut, the Boston Globe’s senior political correspondent, put together a neat little are-you-red-or-blue culture quiz for Slate. Go here to take it.
• The Out of the Past bandwagon continues to pick up speed! Something Old, Nothing New has posted some characteristically shrewd reflections
of his own on the quintessential film noir:
The popularity of the film noir was in part, I think, a way of increasing sex and violence in movies -- sex implied rather than shown, of course -- without violating the rule that movies had to be moral and uplifting. A film noir shows or implies all kinds of debauchery, but then adds that all the debauched people get punished in the end. (Or in the case of The Big Sleep, gets the audience so confused that they can't tell who committed which act of debauchery.) It's the equivalent of those early Cecil B. DeMille movies where two hours of orgies are followed by five minutes of spiritual uplift.
• New to "Sites to See" is a blog by West Coast dance critic Rachel Howard called Footnotes (great title). Howard writes
in defense of assigning star ratings to performances:
But why shouldn’t we recommend dance performances to one another with various degrees of enthusiasm? Why shouldn’t we codify that degree of excitement in a symbol that will bring more readers to dance reviews? Instead, right now, the absence of a rating signals to the Everyman Joe reader, "Don’t bother reading about this show, it’s very serious and too arty for you and therefore can’t possibly be entertaining."
Somewhat to my surprise, I agree—though I’ve never been good at coming up with letter grades and star ratings on the rare occasions when magazines and newspapers require me to supply them. Nevertheless, Howard has persuaded me that it’s not a bad idea.
• Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes interviews Jerry Saltz, art critic of the Village Voice. Money quote:
People often ask me, "Why do you write about things that you don’t like?" And it breaks my heart. You would never say that to a sportswriter or a restaurant critic or a film reviewer or a book reviewer. But in the art world, for some reason, people get down on or even demonize you for saying something is faulty. It's a very Bush-Cheney time. I think writing what you really think is a way of showing art respect.
Once again, I agree, at least in principle, even though I happen to think I’m better at writing about what I like. Most other critics aren’t—and they ought to work harder at it.
• More on Fahrenheit 9/11 and the problem of political art, this time from Steven Zeitchik of Publishers Weekly, who writes in The Wall Street Journal:
Of course, the documentary form doesn't always function this way. At its best--e.g., Frederick Wiseman's films on high schools and hospitals, the weird constellations of "Crumb" and "Capturing the Friedmans," the Vietnam-centered "Hearts and Minds"--it is propelled by a sense of discovery. Neither filmmaker nor viewer knows what he is getting into until he really starts busying himself with it.
Movies like "Outfoxed," "Control Room" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" work differently. They begin by knowing their thesis--and their audience--and operate backward. In the process, artists keen to point up the propagandistic efforts of others show themselves all too willing to take part in such efforts themselves.
Yet to call these films propaganda is also to misunderstand them. They don't seek to convince the unconvinced or herd the untamed. They aim directly at the sheep….Call them flockumentaries, movies people attend en masse, to nestle together in easy confirmation of their most cherished beliefs--to learn, really, what they already know.
• Courtesy of Gnostical Turpitude, a fun piece by Philip Hensher on indexes with character:
A fine example came last year with Ruth Dudley Edwards's book about Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King. The author had a very difficult time with King's appalling widow, Dame Ruth Railton, a woman for whom very few people ever had a good word. The book itself was a model of restraint when dealing with her excesses, but when it came to the index, the gloves came off, in part running: "marriage; psychic powers believed in by King; disliked by his friends; King wants as musical director of ATV; encourages his megalomania; increasing possessiveness... moves to Ireland with King; denounces Cudlipp; hatred of Ireland; gets rid of family correspondence; cocoons King from children and grandchildren; and King's death; disposes of his money; treatment of his family; traumatises Secker and Warburg."
I’ve never done anything like that in any of my books, but I’ve been tempted….
• Michele Williams, call your office. (And no, the rest of you aren't supposed to get it. This is a coded announcement going out to Smalltown, U.S.A. We return you now to our regularly scheduled posting.)
• A point to ponder, from Dan Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column about the survey of American literary reading habits issued two weeks ago by the National Endowment for the Arts:
It's also worth noting that while the Endowment explicitly says mysteries are literature, its definition doesn't include biography or history. Thus, taking a month to read Ron Chernow's magnificent biography of Alexander Hamilton doesn't count. Surely it should.
Under normal circumstances, my next sentence would have started "Speaking as a biographer," but now that my nomination to the National Council on the Arts has been announced, I’m not supposed to write anything about the NEA, good or bad, until the Senate votes on me. So I won’t.
• A friend of mine who recently had a baby swears that this is her all-time favorite New Yorker cartoon. In fact, she actually thought of sending it out as a birth announcement. (I guess it beats the old Charles Addams cartoon whose caption, if I remember correctly, was "Congratulations...it's a baby!")
• Speaking of The New Yorker, yes, Alex, I noticed the anagrams for "Terry Teachout" in the title of your posting celebrating the first anniversary of "About Last Night." Very clever. This brought to mind a posting from a year ago in which I reported the results of my own anagrammatic self-analysis. For those who’ve forgotten, these were the best ones:
Reroute thy act
Outcry at three
Hey, actor, utter!
Etch your tater
That cuter yore
Ratty, cute hero
Retract ye thou!
And my own favorite:
The Tory Curate
• Finally, Ed outs Our Girl. Who knew?
Friday, July 25, 2003
"The good parts of a book may be something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life—and one is as good as the other."
Ernest Hemingway, letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sept. 4, 1929
Alive and well
Hello, there. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m distracted by pressing deadlines, but I hope "About Last Night" is as scintillating and pungent as ever, if necessarily a bit more concise than usual.
Today’s topics, from in to out: (1) Deaf West Theatre's production of Big River comes to Broadway. (2) At last, the truth about British artists! (3) Classical composers party down. (4) A Gen-Xer succumbs to Bossmania, featuring the debut of our latest guest blogger, Omahattanite. (5) Behind the scenes at a play reading. (6) The poet laureate blurbs a bad movie. (7) Impressionism and its malcontents. (8) The latest almanac entry.
Now, back to the grindstone. Don't let a day go by without whispering www.terryteachout.com to your nearest and dearest. See you Monday.
Deaf West Theatre's revival of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opened last night on Broadway. Here's the first paragraph of my review in this morning's Wall Street Journal:
Why on earth—and how on earth—would a deaf theater company bring a musical to Broadway? Neither part of this question can be briefly answered, but in the case of Deaf West Theatre’s magical production of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theatre, the results need no explaining. This stage version of Mark Twain’s novel, first seen on Broadway in 1985, is now being revived by a mixed cast of deaf and hearing actors who not only speak and sing their lines out loud but simultaneously "say" them in American Sign Language. Laborious as the process may sound, Jeff Calhoun, the director and choreographer, has shaped it into a miraculously fluid theatrical spectacle....
To read the rest of the review (plus my thoughts on Angelica Torn's performance in Edge, reviewed here on Wednesday by guest blogger Demolition Angel), you'll have to fork out a dollar for the Journal, whose "Weekend Journal" section is worth at least that much in gold.
Speaking of the Wall Street Journal, I read a front-page story there yesterday (no link, sorry) about how the U.S. and its allies sent artists to Iraq to paint pictures of the war. Here's the fourth graf:
The U.S. Air Force sent eight civilian illustrators. The Navy sent two of its own. The Army's lone staff artist has just made it to Baghdad. Britain will send an avant-garde artist known for his "film installations."
That odd sound you hear is me, suppressing a very loud titter.
Not as you or I
I had lunch the other day with a classical composer I know. He told me, perfectly seriously, "I just had the worst nightmare—I dreamed I was trapped inside an E minor chord."
He also told me about attending a drunken dinner party of fellow composers, who clustered around the piano after dessert to sing funny songs. Did you know that every poem Emily Dickinson ever wrote can be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme? "Beeeeee-cause I could not stop for death/He kind-ly stop-ped for me…." Or that all limericks can be sung to the tune of "It Ain’t Necessarily So"?
Think about this the next time you see a composer take a bow at a new-music concert. Don’t let appearances fool you—these people are kinky.
P.S. A reader writes:
I've only very recently overcome the unfortunate habit of singing Emily Dickinson's poems. "Yellow Rose of Texas," "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "The Marine Corps Hymn," and, perhaps worst of all, "Deep in the Heart of Texas" also work. But I warn you: That way madness lies.
The Boss' butt
Omahattanite writes from New York:
From Montclair to Cherry Hill, "the city" means only one thing, and it’s not Trenton. Culturally, Manhattan wields it over New Jersey, a fact that even Kevin Smith would reluctantly admit. New Jerseyites flock here for museums, shopping, theater, restaurants, and all the rest. But when it comes to down-home rock and roll, the Apple has nothing on the Meadowlands right this moment. Bruce Springsteen is midway through a week’s worth of sold-out shows at Giants Stadium—the first time in Ticketmaster history that a performer has sold out tickets for seven consecutive stadium dates in a single day. Sitting in a huge football stadium in East Rutherford, watching one of its local heroes do good, all I could think was, thank God for Jersey.
Even the threat of rain (and an eventual downpour) couldn’t dampen the spirits of fans at last Friday’s show. Tailgaters turned the parking lot at Giants Stadium into a huge concrete party, complete with barbeques, chairs, tables, and thousands of stereos all blasting the same thing—the Boss, of course. The talk centered on set-list possibilities. Would he play "Rosalita"? (Yes.) What bonus songs might he do? ("Who’ll Stop the Rain" opened this waterlogged show, and the first encore was a Detroit medley featuring special guest Garland Jeffreys.) Did he still have the cutest butt in the music business? (O.K., maybe that was confined to the ladies in my group—but he does.)
Until you’ve seen 50,000 fans screaming "Bruuuuuuuuuuce" as one, you haven’t seen loyalty. As a naïve college freshman, I turned to my then-boyfriend and asked "Why are they booing him?" "They aren’t saying boooooooooo," he responded kindly. "They’re saying Bruuuuuuuuuuce." Now it’s 10 years later, and I have fully succumbed to Bossmania. And I’m not the only one—the stadium was full of those in my generation, as well as many a decade younger, or two (or three) decades older. I always seem to be behind the times musically—I never did get Nirvana’s appeal, and currently I’m not a huge fan of Coldplay—but on Friday night in Giants Stadium, that didn’t matter one bit.
It takes a lot to get a curtain up, most of which is invisible to the audience. Richard Brookhiser, a writer not normally known for his theater criticism, got a peek way behind the scenes one evening and came away with this lovely, precisely evocative piece about a part of the process that civilians never get to see:
The theaters of Broadway, given over to spectacle-hungry suburbanites and gay aficionados of musicals, are several blocks, and quantum levels of success, away. We are in the shadow of the Port Authority bus terminal, among the small venues sustained by public subsidy and cheap production values, where dreams and talents are tried out: Broadway's back offices, television's sweatshops, the Bangalore outsourcing of Hollywood. Tonight's performance is a reading of a new play....
For the rest, go here.
A Fool in the Forest has noticed that some very strange names are popping up in the ad campaign for the movie Masked and Anonymous—including Andrew Motion, England’s poet laureate. Say what?
Modern Art Notes has absolutely had it with impressionism.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
"Boredom is one of the flattest, most self-evident, most self-justifying of all esthetic judgments. There is no appeal from boredom. Even when you tell yourself you like boredom, there the verdict is."
Clement Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics
Gather ye rosebuds
Welcome to "About Last Night," the blog that brings you all the arts, all the time—or at least whichever ones I happened to be thinking about yesterday. Today I will be scrambling to meet a deadline (you know, for a piece I'm getting paid to write) and visiting an artist’s studio in Brooklyn, so tomorrow’s blog may be a trifle skimpier than usual, though not without its delights. Just wanted to warn you.
Anyway, here are today’s topics, from inside to out: (1) Aging performers who don’t know when to quit—and the hangers-on who aid and abet them. (2) Humphrey Bogart meets the Suicide Blonde. (3) Two very hip saxophonists. (4) Other bloggers weigh in on Ground Zero architecture, Morandi, and Woody Allen. (5) The latest almanac entry.
You were expecting maybe hang gliding?
How long is too long?
I recently saw a public performance by a very old artist. No names or details—it wouldn’t serve any purpose—but it was a disastrous, pitiful self-parody of ruined greatness, the kind that leaves a dark and permanent stain of humiliation in the memory. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Yet it did, and the results set me to thinking about the problem of the aging artist who doesn’t know when to just say no.
I’m no advocate of compulsory retirement for artists. I’ve seen plenty of performers who held it together well into their seventies and eighties, sometimes with seemingly unimpaired powers (Blossom Dearie, who has settled into Danny’s Skylight Room for what looks to be a permanent run, sounds almost exactly the same now as she did in 1959), sometimes with a loss of technique that is balanced by a gain in insight (Hank Jones and Marian McPartland aren’t playing jazz piano quite as nimbly as they used to, but their harmonic language has grown still more subtle now that they’ve crossed the 80th meridian). I’ve also seen other performers come to grief at far earlier ages. I spent the last couple of years of my tenure as classical music critic of the New York Daily News listening to Luciano Pavarotti’s voice slowly disintegrate, and believe me, it wasn’t any fun.
That’s the point, or ought to be. No critic in his right mind likes to write that terrible review saying the time has come to hang it up. I remember the year Isaac Stern was supposed to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the New York Philharmonic’s opening-night concert. He didn’t, and what he did end up playing was a hopeless mess. I went home wondering how to say what I had to say without being needlessly cruel. This was what I wrote:
Isaac Stern, who is 78 years old and gave his first concert with the Philharmonic 54 years ago, was originally slated to perform the Beethoven D Major Concerto, one of the longest and most demanding pieces in the violin repertoire. Blaming a strained tendon, he chose at the last minute to substitute two shorter pieces by Beethoven and three Viennese cream puffs by Fritz Kreisler; it was a wise decision, given the fact that his technique is now in an advanced state of disrepair. The audience applauded warmly, no doubt in tribute to the golden-toned playing of his younger years.
I didn’t enjoy writing that paragraph. Nor do I feel like dropping the big one on the unnamed artist I heard the other night. But to the person or persons responsible for booking that performance, I say this: You did a bad, bad thing. Whatever your reasons, they weren’t good enough. Don’t do it again.
Film noir is the porn of pessimists, who like nothing more than to watch stylishly photographed movies in which the Robert Mitchums of the world make the mistake of going to bed with the Jane Greers of the world, for which they pay with their lives. In LaBrava, Elmore Leonard dreamed up the perfect title for a nonexistent film noir: "Obituary." That’s a movie somebody needs to make.
Alas, I’m just as hopeless a case—I’m one of those pathetic cinephiles who can’t settle on the best place to hang his framed On Dangerous Ground lobby card—and in the interests of spreading my addiction more widely, I want to pass the word that Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is now available on DVD. In a Lonely Place is well known to serious film buffs and Humphrey Bogart fanatics, but if you don’t fall into either of those two categories, you probably haven’t seen it. Do so. Bogart plays Dixon Steele, an almost-washed-up screenwriter who gets tagged with a brutal murder at the precise moment that he falls hard for Laurel Gray, a blonde with a past-and-a-half. Gloria Grahame, the ultimate film-noir babe, is eerily perfect as Laurel, and as all cinephiles know, she was simultaneously (1) married to Nicholas Ray and (2) having an affair with Ray’s teenage son while the movie was in production. Yikes!
As for Bogart, he never made a better movie, and I do mean Casablanca. David Thomson nails it: "This last [film] penetrates the toughness that Bogart so often assumed and reaches an intractable malevolence that is more frightening than any of his gangsters."
This, by the way, is the film in which Bogart rasps out the line of a lifetime: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." If that doesn’t make you go ooooh, film noir is not for you.
Four years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times about great jazz LPs that hadn’t yet been tranferred to CD. Rarely have I managed to combine altruism and selfishness so indissolubly. I wrote the piece because I wanted those albums on CD, but I also wanted to share the wealth. Since then, several of the records in question (Jim Hall Live!, Pee Wee Russell’s New Groove) have crossed the great divide, but others remain in limbo, most notably Ahmad Jamal’s Chamber Music of the New Jazz. Arrgh!
Anyway, I’m still keeping score, and it is with altruistically selfish delight that I inform you that the good guys just knocked another runner in. Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges, originallly released on Verve in 1959, is an uncomplicatedly wonderful album featuring Mulligan, the master of cool jazz, and Hodges, the premier soloist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, accompanied by what in 1959 was just about the best of all possible West Coast rhythm sections, Claude Williamson on piano, Buddy Clark on bass, and Mel Lewis on drums. Nothing tricky or fussy, just a bunch of riff tunes by the two saxophonists, but the results are bluesy and super-sly, and you can hear on every track that Mulligan was having the time of his life.
Moral: Good things come to those who wait—but not in silence.
Just in case you don’t see the Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts page, Ada Louise Huxtable, the noted architecture critic, wrote there this morning about development at Ground Zero. Here’s the lead:
The announcement of the collaboration between Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the winning design for the World Trade Center site, and David Childs, the architect working for Larry Silverstein, the developer who acquired the leases of the Twin Towers six weeks before their destruction on 9/11, is something that would be normal under any normal circumstances. This is common practice when more than one interested party is involved in the
development of a site; properly pursued, the procedure usually works out to everyone's advantage. But nothing is normal about this site. It was created by extraordinary circumstances requiring an extraordinary solution; the enormity of the disaster and the cataclysmic nature of the destruction turned a real estate operation into a mandate for a rebuilding plan in the city's greater public interest. Mr. Silverstein does not recognize that mandate….
To read the rest of the piece, go here.
Artblog.net has weighed in on the Great Morandi Debate, and very thoughtfully, too.
Meanwhile, the amazing James Lileks swerves off the road at the end of a blog about the Hussein boys to run over my least favorite filmmaker:
I have to quit, hit the main computer upstairs, upload this, download the column I have to tweak for tomorrow, and commence tweaking. This will leave me with 20 minutes for TV entertainment, and that will consist of a grim slice of "Hollywood Ending," part of my Woody Allen Punishment week. In "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," 65-year-old Woody had a 30+ girlfriend; in "Ending" his girlfriend is about 23. At this rate he will make a movie in 2009 in which he sleeps with a zygote; by 2012 he will make a movie in which he has sex with the actual DNA strands of a female embryo.
Question: Why is this man not famous? Answer: In cyberspace, he is.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
"If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him."
C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Notes of a dragon slayer
Good morning, and welcome to How to Ride a Roller Coaster Without Really Trying. No, just kidding. I did ride the damn thing, though, and I'm proud of it, and we'll let it go at that. We return you now to your regularly scheduled blog, which features the debut of our latest guest blogger, Demolition Angel.
Today's topics, from here to eternity: (1) A new play about Sylvia Plath. (2) Stokowski's Wagner. (3) Snappy answers to not-so-stupid questions about art. (4) How Washington's Hirshhorn Museum is making its permanent collection look like an expensive blockbuster exhibition. (5) A word to the wise about the Guggenheim Museum's attempt to do the same. (6) Today's almanac entry.
That's about the size of it. Have you told a friend about "About Last Night"? If not, how can you bear to show your face around here?
Enough already. I have to go see a man about a parachute.
Demolition Angel writes from Queens:
Let’s face it: if someone asked to spend a whole evening with Sylvia Plath, you might think to pop your Prozac early. Eloquent poet that she may have been, Plath was also just a more verbose version of your friend with too much baggage who won’t shut up about it. So why pay to suffer through all that talk when they don’t allow alcohol in the theater? Or so I first thought when invited to see Paul Alexander’s Edge, the one-woman play about Plath which opened Monday at the DR2 Theatre for a limited off-Broadway run.
The reason, it turns out, is Angelica Torn. She tears through the script like a woman on a mission, which indeed she is: this is the last day of Sylvia Plath’s life, and she has a few things to get off her chest. Out of a very literal and linear script, this remarkable actress wrings all the bitterness and pain one might expect from Plath after having read her poetry—plus vivacity, sardonic humor and, every so often, a glimpse at the vulnerable young girl inside who could never please her father. No actress in New York should miss this performance. It’s an invaluable lesson in nuance, spontaneity, availability. The play itself is loooong for a one-woman show (two hours plus intermission), and the second act isn’t as well-written as the first, but the universal frustration of feelings of inadequacy and agony of betrayal keep us rooting for this woman whom we know will make her fourth and final suicide attempt in a matter of minutes.
I felt an odd mixture of hurt and relief as I filed out of the theater, then plain awe at what Angelica Torn had exposed for us. The follow-up question is inevitable: Do you have to be in that much pain to create such great art? But that’s a discussion for another day.
If Wagner we must
I started writing about music a quarter-century ago, and one thing I’ve learned since then (the only thing, some of you may already be muttering) is that the quickest way to start a fight is to say something nasty about the operas of Richard Wagner. Most of his admirers are reasonable, but some are fanatical, and the fanatics are all compulsive correspondents. Since I find Wagner a near-unendurable bore…O.K., O.K., enough already. Let’s just say that staged performances of Wagner’s operas usually fill me with unenthusiastic respect, and drop it. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it in his inimitable manner:
In the concert-hall Wagner’s music is still immensely effective; none other, new or old, can match its brilliance at its high points, which may be isolated there very conveniently and effectively. But in the opera-house it has to carry a heavy burden of puerile folk-lore, brummagem patriotism, and bilge-water Christianity, and another and even heavier burden of choppy and gargling singing. No wonder it begins to stagger.
For some (though not all) of these reasons, I occasionally enjoy listening to excerpts from Wagner’s operas in the privacy of my own home, and I definitely have a depraved taste for the super-sensuous Wagner performances of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski may have been a bit of a fraud, with that phony Slavic accent and those pretty-pretty hands, but he knew how to make an orchestra play its heart out, and his Wagner recordings, which I once described as being as hot as an atomic pile, are the antithesis of dull.
Hence it was with unexpected delight that I learned that Andante has released a five-CD set of the complete Wagner recordings made by Stokowski and the Philadelphians between 1926 and 1940, exquisitely remastered from the original 78s by Ward Marston. I shelled out good cash money for this set, and considering the way I feel about Wagner, I’d say that’s a pretty strong recommendation. Maybe Stokowski’s Wagner is for people who don’t really like Wagner, but I have a feeling it’s for everybody, especially his 35-minute-long "symphonic synthesis" of Tristan und Isolde, which consists of all the good parts lined up in single file with nothing in between.
One last slapshot at the Bryan of Bayreuth. This is what I wrote in the New York Daily News a few years ago about Robert Wilson’s Metropolitan Opera staging of Lohengrin:
"Though Wagnerites are a famously conservative lot, I confess to being puzzled by the displeasure of the opening-night crowd. Wilson was born to stage Wagner, and his ‘Lohengrin’—epic in scale and often deeply poetic in effect, but also inhumanely symbolic and portentous to the point of self-parody—is as precise a translation into contemporary terms of Wagner's windy German romanticism as could possibly be imagined."
Heh, heh, heh.
Posts from the host
Here are a couple of stories that caught my eye when I saw them linked on my host site, artsjournal.com (which you can visit by clicking on the logo at the top of this page).
(1) The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is inviting its readers to send in any questions they may have about the arts, no matter how seemingly naïve. (Some sample questions offered by the paper: How do those actors fight on stage without getting hurt? Who writes the supertitles for the opera? Does a dancer ever drop his partner?) This is a perfectly wonderful idea. As far as I’m concerned, there are no dumb questions about the arts. Everybody has to start somewhere. Short of mass murder, I can’t think of many things I loathe more than the hyper-aggressive snobbery whose effect—perhaps even its purpose—is to frighten away well-meaning people who want to dip their toe into the pool of beauty for the first time.
(2) Blake Gopnik wrote an interesting piece for the Washington Post about "Gyroscope," currently on display at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum. It’s a blockbuster-style show, only drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, and Gopnik suggests—I think rightly—that other museums ought to pay similar attention to finding interesting and provocative ways to display the art they already own.
Words to the wise
Speaking of which, the Guggenheim Museum is currently presenting "From Picasso to Pollock: Classics of Modern Art" (through Sept. 28), a 100-piece overview of the museum’s permanent collection, which I look forward to seeing at the earliest opportunity.
Amazing how much good art you can hang once you send Matthew Barney packing….
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Stop hanging by your thumbs
I just got back from riding the Dragon Coaster at Rye Playland. No broken bones, no obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. You may all start breathing again.
Now I'm off to hear Karrin Allyson at the Blue Note. See you tomorrow, unless I decide to give up blogging and become a full-time thrill-seeker.
We get letters, too
I’m getting great mail (and answering it in a reasonably timely fashion, at least for the moment). I’ll be posting the occasional letter from time to time, together with what I hope are helpful, appropriate, or at the very least amusing comments. I think your e-mail is going to be at least half the fun of this blog.
Today’s topics, from top to bottom: (1) Adam Guettel and the state of post-Sondheim musical comedy. (2) A new novel about teenage cruelty (reviewed by my latest guest blogger, Our Girl in Chicago). (3) A British musicologist sings the blues, sort of. (4) Cash-and-carry dust-jacket blurbs. (5) A word to the wise about the National Academy of Design. (6) Today’s almanac entry.
And now, as some of you may have heard, I'm off to ride a roller coaster for the first time since I was eight years old. Would that I were doing it for fun! I have a fear-of-flying problem, and my therapist has "recommended" that I ride a roller coaster as part of my treatment, so I'm headed for the nearest one (unless I get rained out). Should I fail in my mission, "About Last Night" will disavow any knowledge of my actions.
Otherwise, come back and see me sometime. Like, say, tomorrow morning. I'll tell you all about it.
It's pretty, but is it Art?
Jesse Green recently wrote a smart piece in the New York Times Magazine about Adam Guettel, the composer of the off-Broadway musical Floyd Collins (it's about the guy who got stuck in the cave) and the pop-song cycle Myths and Hymns. I’ve been interested in Guettel for some time now—I think he’s the most gifted and significant of the post-Sondheim musical-theater composers—and I’m very much looking forward to seeing his latest show, The Light in the Piazza, once it finally makes its way to New York. (It just had its premiere at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre.)
Having said all this, I’m puzzled by one thing. Green, who obviously admires Guettel as much as I do, described The Light in the Piazza as a "serious chamber musical" and emphasizes its musical complexity:
Anyone can whistle a happy tune. But take a look at the score of ''Piazza.'' To create its highly chromatic, yearning atmosphere (Guettel calls it faux-Lisztian), the harpist is kept so busy changing pedals that she's basically doing a clog dance. The other instruments—piano, violin, cello, bass—aren't spared, either. The vocal lines are compulsively notated down to the last crotchet, specifying the kinds of inflections and back-phrasings that other composers would leave to the singers' sense of style. It's not pedantry; it's how Guettel hears, and in some sense tries to stabilize, his damaged world. Is ''Love to Me''—the romantic climax of the score—less heart-melting because it is set mostly in the compound time signature of 5/8 + 4/8? No, it is more so, thanks to that strangely limping extra eighth-note, which seems to argue that imperfection can be another kind of beauty. But just try learning it without Guettel's longtime music director, Ted Sperling, hammering out the beats.
What few can learn, few can love. ''I can't help that,'' Guettel says. ''We can finally admit, confidentially, that being a prominent theater composer is like being a prominent manuscript illuminator. So let's not ask people to think more of this art form than they want to.'' Which seems a shame because, with enough tinkering, ''Piazza''
could be a classic….
Well, duh, it sounds to me like it wouldn’t take any tinkering whatsoever for Piazza to be…an opera. So why not call it that, and invite an opera company to produce it? I am fascinated by, and have written more than once about, the continuing resistance of "new music theater" composers like Guettel to thinking of their work in operatic terms. Stephen Sondheim is the same way. It’s as though "opera" were the dirtiest world in the language.
Does it matter whether you call a show like The Light in the Piazza or Sweeney Todd a musical or an opera? I think so. As I wrote in the Times a couple of years ago apropos the failed Broadway run of Marie Christine, whose composer, Michael John LaChiusa, similarly insisted on calling it a musical:
"The key word here is ‘elitist.’ Mr. LaChiusa, who admits to having had to pawn his piano after writing ‘Marie Christine,’ clearly longs to be popular. Alas, he longs in vain. Broadway today is about ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Footloose,’ not complex scores that demand your full attention at all times. To call ‘Marie Christine’ a musical is implicitly to claim that it has more in common with these simple-minded shows than ‘Carmen.’ Not only is this untrue, it's bad marketing, the equivalent of a bait-and-switch scam. Labels are unfashionable these days, even politically incorrect, but sometimes they still matter. Had ‘Marie Christine’ been billed as ‘a new opera’ and produced by, say, Glimmerglass Opera, it would have drawn a different, more adventurous kind of audience, one better prepared to grapple with its challenging blend of pop-flavored rhythms and prickly harmonies."
Judging by Jesse Green’s piece, I’d say Adam Guettel, for whatever reason, is making the same mistake—and I don’t think it will serve him well in the long run.
But don’t get me wrong—I love Broadway….
Hell is other teenagers
Our Girl in Chicago writes:
Is there a woman out there who doesn't carry around the invisible scars of her teenage social life? If so, I don't know her. For everyone else, though, I recommend Special, Bella Bathurst's psychologically acute, emotionally charged first novel. Why it hasn't been more widely reviewed is a mystery to me. The perfect title captures one aspect of the angst that makes girls of 13 treat each other so cruelly, even at the height of their own psychic tenderness. How do you square the idea, carried over from childhood, of your own inalienable specialness with the beginning of an adult social life and the regard for others it entails? How can everyone be special? In the adolescent social algebra that Bathurst renders with heartbreaking verisimilitude, to remain special implacably requires that someone else be chaff—to put it politely.
Bathurst tells the story of a school trip that brings eight girls to a shopworn English countryside. Removed from their usual setting, the girls quickly shake off the flickering authority of their two chaperones and hammer out their own pitiless social contract. Early on, one character looks out over the Severn River: "Something about the water seemed misleading to Hen. Over there in the distance the river looked harmless. Only when she looked down through the railings of the bridge could she see how fast it was going. You'd never know until you were dead that it might kill you, she thought." It’s a powerful metaphor, both for the feelings churning inside the girls and for their shifting alliances with one another. Throw in boys and sex, distracted absent parents, and everyday insecurities, and you have plenty of lit matches to go with this powderkeg.
No doubt you’ve thought by now of Lord of the Flies, a point of reference duly noted in the book's jacket copy. But it isn't power that's at issue here so much as the struggle to shape an acceptable self to present to the world. When the audience is narrowed to seven others involved in the same endeavor, beset by the same vulnerabilities, things get dangerous—like the Severn. The girls' little world smolders, rather than explodes, but the conclusion is every bit as devastating.
This book dredged up uncomfortable memories of junior high school, but gave me new sympathy with my tormentors of old—something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Maybe it’s because I'm a woman that I find Bathurst's girls even more fascinating than William Golding's boys, and her novel at least as penetrating as his. But I think it's because Special is simply that good.
Summarizing the blues
I’ve been reading Edward Brooks’ The Young Louis Armstrong on Records: A Critical Survey of the Early Recordings, 1923-1928, a record-by-record study of Armstrong’s early work written by a Brit with a Ph.D. in musicology. Most of what he says is astute and well-informed, but I have to confess that I get the giggles whenever he writes about one of the many recordings in which Armstrong can be heard backing up such classic blues singers as Bessie Smith. Each of these latter entries begins with a wonderfully starchy summary of the lyrics of the song in question. To wit:
"The words describe a life of emotional imprudence, but without chronological plot; they are more a series of sorrowful, impressionistic comments about a wasted life caused by a wild temperament." (Reckless Blues)
"A melancholy but resigned complaint about an uncaring, ill-treating, improvident, impecunious man, sung by a voice well acquainted with grief; it ends with a resolve to find another." (Cold in Hand Blues)
"A demand for emotional status, the words contain a grain or two of oblique humor." (I Ain’t Goin’ to Play No Second Fiddle)
I suspect—I hope—that Brooks is pulling our legs, but either way, his decorous little summaries somehow remind me of George Bernard Shaw’s parody of over-technical classical-music program notes:
I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated "analysis" of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, in the same scientific style. "Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.
I’m not exactly a Shaw fan, to put it mildly, but I forgive him a lot for having written that.
Amazing news, courtesy of BookSlut: British book publishers are now paying for blurbs!
In the immortal words of the Unknown Musician, where do I go to sell out?
(In fact, the Unknown Musician in question was Paul Desmond, my favorite jazzman ever. So, at any rate, I am assured by Doug Ramsey, who is hard at work on a Desmond biography, about which more as it happens. I want the first copy!)
Words to the wise
The National Academy of Design recently opened two exhibits that sound equally promising. "Visages and Visions: American Art of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (up through Sept. 7) is a 50-piece overview of the Academy’s huge collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art. As for "Challenging Tradition: Women of the Academy, 1826-2003" (up through Jan. 4), I’m not usually a fan of women-only shows, which seem to me to diminish the significance of individual female artists for whom no apologies need be made, but when the artists in question include the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Isabel Bishop, Mary Cassatt, and Helen Frankenthaler, I say shut up and deal.
More about both shows once I’ve seen them, but I’ve gotten tremendous pleasure out of most of the Academy’s recent exhibitions, and I’ll be surprised if these two don’t measure up.
Monday, July 21, 2003
"As soon as I detest something I ask myself why I like it."
Hans Keller, Essays on Music
Possible signs of excess
Welcome to Week Two of "About Last Night." I'll begin by reporting two unintended and unexpected consequences of a week’s worth of intensive blogging:
(1) I no longer have to tell my friends what I’ve been up to—they already know. (This can be conversationally inhibiting.)
(2) I took a nap the other day and dreamed about posting links to other sites.
Someone suggested over the weekend that I start off each day's postings with a list of topics. O.K., here goes: The Producers and Jewish assimilation, the plight of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, an exchange with a reader about Morandi and modern art in general, best-seller lists, a word to the wise about Karrin Allyson, and today's almanac entry.
You'll also find new stuff in the right-hand column, including some fresh Top Fives and additional links to other arts-related blogs.
Oh, yes, I wanted to pass on this e-mail from Maria Schneider, who just wrapped up a three-night stand at the Jazz Standard: "A couple of people came up to me and told me they read about my gig in your blog and that's what made them check it out. I am sure there were more who didn't make a point of telling me that."
Sounds like we're off and running. Please help spread the word about "About Last Night," open 24/7 at www.terryteachout.com. And thanks for stopping by.
Not that there's anything wrong with it
I went to The Producers last Friday to see the new leads, Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson. I’ll leave their performances for my drama column in this Friday’s Wall Street Journal, but what struck me most forcibly about the show is how old-fashioned, even quaint it seemed, from the slam-bam-zowie overture to the billion-decibel acting to—above all—the corny rim-shot jokes.
It stands to reason that The Producers should be old-fashioned, Mel Brooks having been born in 1926, but it occurred to me that what I was seeing on stage at the St. James Theatre was not so much a hit musical as the last gasp of a dying comic language. Strip away the four-letter words and self-consciously outrageous production numbers and The Producers is nothing more (or less) than a virtuoso homage to the lapel-grabbing, absolutely-anything-for-a-laugh schtickery on which so much of the stand-up comedy of my childhood was based. That kind of comedy was for the most part explicitly Jewish, as is The Producers itself, in which Yiddish slang is forever popping up, even in Brooks’ lyrics (which, if I heard right, go so far as to rhyme "caressing you" with "fressing you," a couplet that would have made Lenny Bruce giggle).
It is this aspect of The Producers that I found…well, poignant. Back when I was a small-town Missouri boy, Jewish humor still had the crisp tang of the unfamiliar, which was part of why it was so funny. But Jewish comics assimilated a long time ago, as was proved beyond doubt by the colossal success of Seinfeld, that least overtly Jewish of Jewish sitcoms. Jerry and his friends shed their parents' accents and became cool and ironic and put the past behind them—and now it’s gone, never to return.
To see The Producers is to be immersed one final time in that older style of pressure-cooker comedy, and for those of us who were born before 1960 or so, the experience is as sweetly nostalgic as a trip to the state fair, which I rather doubt is what Mel Brooks had in mind. My guess is that he still thinks it’s titillating, even shocking, to put swishy Nazis on stage. It’s no accident that he hasn’t made a movie for years and years: Broadway is the last place in America where he could possibly draw a crowd with that kind of humor, and it’s not an especially young crowd, either.
"It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes," says a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. It can also be sad—and even touching.
Speaking of the Wall Street Journal, Eric Gibson, who edits the Leisure & Arts section of that paper (and is himself a noted art critic), reviewed John Anderson’s Art Held Hostage: The Story of the Barnes Collection for "Weekend Journal" the other day. The Barnes is, of course, the renowned private museum created by a Philadelphia millionaire to house his huge collection of Renoirs, Matisses, and Cezannes, which can only be viewed by appointment. It’s in dire financial straits, and Anderson’s book tells how it got that way. Here’s the money graf from the review:
For almost eight decades, the Barnes
Foundation, outside Philadelphia, has housed the superb collection of Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951). Art lovers have long visited the suburb of Merion to see, among much else, his Renoirs, Matisses and Cezannes—arranged crowdedly on the walls of the small, stripped-down classical building designed by Paul Cret. But in recent years, the Barnes collection has been in trouble, its fate uncertain, its coffers drained by legal battles and mismanagement. Mr. Anderson's book, a chronicle of chaos, contains one mind-boggling revelation after another.
To read the full review (and you should), go here.
Pistols for two, coffee for one
A reader writes, apropos of last week’s postings about Giorgio Morandi:
Morandi looks a bit like our local Sacramento Wayne Thiebaud—rather creamy unfocused objects.
Ask yourself—is this really beautiful? Exquisite? As good as Leo Da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks (London version)?
I submit it is not. If it is not as beautiful, why should I care about it? Why is it worth my time or eyesight?
I only care about the Good, the True, the Beautiful. Not the sort of good etc. So why should anyone care about the sort of?
I never know quite what to say to people like this, other than what Stephen Maturin says in Treason’s Harbour to a slickster who tries to sell him on the idea that Napoleon was actually a great guy: "Sure, it is a point of view." But I’ll give it another try.
To begin with, I don’t think Morandi is "sort of" good. I think he’s great, as do many other people who take art seriously and know far more about it than I, among them Karen Wilkin, the author of the eloquent monograph about Morandi I cited in my original posting. Yes, we could all be wrong, just like those 50 million Frenchmen, but as a college teacher of mine once gently informed me in response to my declaration that I didn't think much of the music of Robert Schumann, "That may say more about you than it does about Schumann."
I like "Leo Da Vinci," too, but I also like lots of other painters, many of whom were alive in the 20th century and some of whom are at work right now, whereas there are more than a few people out there—including, I fear, my correspondent—who don't like any modern art, and are proud not to. Such a lack of receptivity makes no sense to me, if only because there is a vast amount of modern art which is both deeply rooted in tradition and completely accessible to the open-minded traditionalist. Nobody’s asking you to fall in love with green women with two noses, or listen to symphonies with no tunes. If you like (say) Chardin, Brahms, Trollope, and Swan Lake, I can’t think of any earthly reason why you shouldn’t like (say) Morandi, Vaughan Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Balanchine.
And if you don’t? Well, you don’t. De gustibus and all that. But what sort of person doesn’t even want to try to engage with the art of his own day, much less the comparatively recent past? That’s like a six-year-old who refuses to taste anything he doesn’t already like. I spend a lot of time—most of my time, really—engaging with art of all kinds, and I’m here to tell you that there are people out there right now who are busy creating "really beautiful" works of art that will make sense to even the most conservative viewer, reader, or listener, so long as he has sufficient curiosity to give them a try. Once again, I’m not talking about bisected pigs and dried bull dung—I mean this. Or this. Or even this.
If none of these things strikes you as "really beautiful," all I can say is that you may have come to the wrong blog. Fair enough?
2 Blowhards has an interesting post-plus-comment on how best-seller lists work—and why they may soon become obsolete.
Also mentioned on that site is something I knew but had forgotten, which is that Paul Johnson's Art: A New History will be out in October. Like it or loathe it (or a little of both), I have no doubt that it will be maximally readable from cover to cover.
Words to the wise
Starting Tuesday, Karrin Allyson (pronounced KAH-rin, if you please) is doing a week at the Blue Note, sharing the bandstand with Anita O’Day (Tuesday-Wednesday) and Jon Hendricks (Thursday-Sunday). I don’t often write liner notes, but I was delighted to supply a set for Daydream, one of Allyson’s many superb albums for Concord Jazz. Among other things, I said that she "sings well-chosen, smartly arranged songs in a slender, sunny voice that makes you feel warm inside." Another CD of hers that I find similarly addictive is From Paris to Rio, which contains a deliciously offhand version of "Samba Saravah" that I play—repeatedly, if necessary—whenever I get the blues.
Two shows each night, at eight and 10:30.
"I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening, because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me."
Marshall McLuhan, "This Hour Has Seven Days"