Thursday, August 30, 2007

Three's a crowd

Aaron Tveit (D'Artagnan) and John Schiappa (Athos) buckle some swash in The Three Musketeers.

When the usher handed me my program at the North Shore Music Theatre last Sunday, I noticed she already had opened it to the plot summary. "Read this," she whispered. "You'll need it."

It was good advice. The NSMT's new musical version of the Dumas classic follows its source closely - "to a fault," in fact, opined the Boston Globe - but without the clarity required to keep focus through the story's shifts in perspective and tone. I was able to hang on to the impacted first half via vague memories of my junior-high encounter with the novel, but only just. The second act, where Peter Raby's book drops a major subplot (Milady de Winter's imprisonment), flows more smoothly - largely because the development of Milady's nefariousness, even in its curtailed state, supplies the show a serviceable spine. Indeed, the sang froid of Kate Baldwin in that key role, combined with the show's good-but-not-great score and a final, rousing duel, brought most of the audience to their feet at the finale. Still, despite the current New York chatter around the production (which has been in development for some time), I'm afraid that it's still not in shape for the Great White Way (although it offers an amusing afternoon in Beverly).

But how to fix The Three Musketeers? I beg to differ (once again!) with the Globe's Louise Kennedy, who advises, "Give the guys a bunch of nifty capes and weapons, stitch together the merest scrap of a plot -- sure, keep Dumas's diamonds and the cardinal and the queen if you want, but make sure they're just a backdrop for the real stars, the musketeers -- and let the swordplay begin." (Sigh. If even the plot of The Three Musketeers is a bit too trying for the Globe's attention span, how in the world are we to take the paper seriously?)

Sure, the original Dumas is almost overstuffed with story, but the issue here isn't plot, frankly - it's stagecraft. Book author Raby and lyricist Paul Leigh simply drop the ball when it's time to pass it from leading man D'Artagnan to the court's intrigues and back again. The smart, screwball Richard Lester film managed this trick easily enough - should it be so hard for a musical? You wouldn't think so - but Raby and Leigh never clearly lay out who Cardinal Richelieu is, or what's at stake for Queen Anne (she doesn't get a single real scene with her lover, the Duke of Buckingham), and the swordplay and music, while solid, aren't strong enough to distract us from the vague sense that we're not exactly sure what's going on, or why everyone's riding to and from Paris (on barrels, no less - perhaps the least evocative props I've seen at the North Shore in a long time).

What the show needs is to lay out the major players, devise a much bigger, more athletic skirmish for Act I (where are all those tumbling singers from Seven Brides?), and yes, give the Three Inseparables (at left) a bit more comic stagetime. There are other tweaks I'd suggest: Mick Bleyer's Rochefort could use a dash more menace, and D'Artagnan and Constance need more of a love song (and one that draws out their parallel with the Queen and her consort); and while designer Lez Brotherston's scenery and costumes are richly done and certainly of the period, together with Hugh Vanstone's moody lighting they're a bit grim. There's no reason for The Three Musketeers to trash Dumas - but carrying off his threading of personal intrigue through impersonal history will require a book as fleet, and lyrics as sharp and precise, as the swordplay of the Musketeers themselves.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why all the love for the "Matter Pollocks"?

Geoff Edgers has been doing a bang-up job reporting on the ongoing imbroglio at CitiCenter - so why does he suddenly go all mushy when reporting on the "Matter Pollocks" (a particularly yucky one is at left)? Incredibly, the McMullen Museum at Boston College is going ahead with "Pollock/Matters," an exhibit that supposedly explores the relationship between Jackson Pollock and the Swiss-born photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter, but is transparently a vehicle for keeping afloat the possibility that a cache of small Pollock-like paintings "discovered" by Alex Matter a few years back are truly by the master. "Now you can decide for yourself," the Globe helpfully explains, as if, Bush-administration-like, we were all free to create our own personal art-historical reality (I've personally decided that La Grande Jatte is by Thomas Kinkade).

It took one glance for me to decide the "Matter Pollocks" were junk - either outright fakes or so bad that Pollock hid them out of embarrassment. Over the past months, of course, the evidence has tilted toward fakery: a Harvard study declared some of the pigments weren't available in the U.S. in Pollock's lifetime, and soon after it came to light that another study, by forensics scientist James Martin, had for all intents and purposes been suppressed by Alex Matter. Since then, it's been announced that the paintings will be hung at the McMullen without attribution (Thomas Kinkade, anyone?) and the show's curator, Ellen Landau, has been spinning possible explanations for those problem pigments (she has hinted they may have come from a shop in Switzerland - after all, Pollock pal/promoter Herbert Matter - at left - was Swiss).

Yeah, and maybe that Martin report should simply be released! It's possible, I suppose, that the "Matter Pollocks" are actually just really bad, but authentic, Pollocks, done in Swiss paint - but no university should be involved in presenting a show in which a key piece of evidence has been withheld from the public. There's a longwinded explanation from the McMullen about how Martin was invited to include his findings in the show's catalogue, but refused (for reasons that remain unclear). The point is that whether or not the Martin report backs up Matter's claims is simply immaterial; the fact that it exists, but is not included in the show, makes the McMullen's methods and intents suspect, and inconsistent with what we think of as normal academic standards. Essentially, the McMullen could be viewed by those unsympathetic to Ms. Landau as colluding with Alex Matter in a deception which could reap him millions. Is that sort of activity part of the Boston College charter? The university should be backing away from the "Matter Pollocks" - or at the very least demanding that the show not go on without public access to Martin's report.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Wang circles the wagons, but can that stop the Sheriff?

In a widely-reported letter to its supporters last week (signed by Board chairman John William Poduska), the Wang Center (at left) effectively circled the wagons - its message, essentially, was that despite allegations of executive overpayment, declining arts programming, and insider employment, "We're not changing, so shut up and give us your money." Unfortunately, a few folks who had already given money have come sniffing around the door anyway, wondering exactly where and how their cash was being spent. The Massachusetts Cultural Council has held up a grant until more information is forthcoming, and state legislators are wondering exactly what happened to a $350,000 grant for Shakespeare in Springfield, as Shakespeare never got to Springfield this year (the Wang claims the money will go toward a future visit). Even Attorney General Martha Coakley's office is getting into the act; Wang officials met with representatives from her office last week.

At this point, somehow I don't think stonewalling is going to work for the Wang; that train has sailed, and the cows have come home to roost, as they say - particularly as the latest revelations (particularly about that $350,000) are the worst yet. In short, only a fool would write these people a check at this point.

So, while the Board plots its next move, I'd suggest the following moves on the part of potential donors (possibly in the form of a joint communiqué) - simply because nothing is going to break this deadlock but money:

- Insist that Shakespeare on the Common, and its funding, be structured independently of CitiCenter's overall budget;

- Require that all strategic plans currently under development be made public;

- Demand the resignation of Board chair John William Poduska as well as that of Josiah Spaulding; and,

- Demand the immediate formation of a Leadership Task Force with its first priority being the appointment of an interim CEO.

CitiCenter has so far exhibited only defiance in this ongoing debacle; it's time its partners began to insist on a little cooperation.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Angels on the down low

When José Rivera's Marisol opened in New York in 1993, many took it as a kind of Latino riposte to Tony Kushner's too-white-for-its-own-good Angels in America, which had opened the year before. Marisol, however, had actually been completed in 1990, about the same time as Millennium Approaches; the two works had developed in tandem - and intriguingly, were shadowed by the same sense of thematic overreach. Neither brought off their promised sense of annihilation and re-alignment (neither did the millennium!), but Kushner, with his gay Mormons and his face-offs between Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, nevertheless orchestrated stunning collisions between the extremes of American culture that still reverberate today. Marisol, by way of contrast, has practically dropped off the cultural map - perhaps because, despite a savagely-etched vision of apocalypse that Kushner never matches, Rivera fails to pull together what amounts to a series of disturbing vignettes into anything approaching a real play; in fact, he doesn't even try.

And if the brand-new Orfeo Group, which is staging Marisol at BU's Studio 210 through Monday, can't transcend the script's limits, it's obvious why they chose it anyway: these perversely spicy sketches, peopled by on-the-edge or over-the-top types wielding machine guns, knives and golf clubs (!), must taste like catnip to talented theatre grads. Thus it's no suprise that in its maiden effort, Orfeo has pulled together some of the best young actors in town. As a whole, the ensemble is certainly among the strongest of the year, and deserves IRNE and Norton nominations, although said whole is essentially elevated by three of the six performances. Elizabeth Hayes, who last impressed as a smart, knockabout Helena in Boston Theatreworks' Midsummer, here builds on that impression with an up-to-the-minute career grrl who's unfazed by the moon dropping from its orbit, and who is soon believably splashing gasoline on vagrants and setting them afire. Risher Reddick likewise delivers a memorably gonzo performance as a homicidal loser who winds up, once the apocalypse has reversed the natural order, as the first pregnant man. But the show really belongs to Daniel Berger-Jones, who, fresh off his success as the fey personal assistant in Mr. Marmalade, here confidently executes a brutal suite of hair-raising turns (most memorably as a seemingly flayed-alive street person who's still searching for his skin) that may cement a reputation as Boston's most versatile actor.

Elsewhere the performances are solid, but perhaps not strong enough to cover the plot's roughly Winnebago-sized holes. Ramona T. Alexander, whom Brandeis has been keeping all to itself the past year, gives her guardian angel role her best shot, but can't really cut through its rhetorical limits, and Georgia Lyman is only intermittently compelling as the Woman in Furs, who even though the city is in smoking ruins is still looking for her matinee of Les Miserables. At the show's center, Cristina Miles once again provides an appealing ingenue performance, but little more. Given that Marisol's Puerto Rican identity, and her hard-won entry into the middle class, should resonate with the curious ability of Rivera's apocalypse to play hacky-sack with the social hierarchy, Miles' lack of specificity in accent and physicalization is disappointing - director Sarah Golden Martin, who has drawn such high quality work from others in the cast, should have demanded more. She certainly got a lot out of sound designer Peter Bayne and lighting designer Caleb Jon Magoon, who with the help of a little haze, together manage to conjure quite a bit of end-of-the-world atmosphere. The only real downside to the evening is that finally, Orfeo's trip to hell hasn't been worth the trouble; but with a more worthy script, it will be interesting to see just how far this group can go.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Family fun from Silicon Valley

A few posts back I bemoaned Hollywood's abandonment of "American" films for the global market; there are, however, a few exceptions to this general rule, and one of them is certainly the films produced by Pixar, now the animation arm of Walt Disney Studios. Over the past dozen years, Pixar has created eight digitally-animated features (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story II, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille) which have been startling in at least two respects: first, their advancing technology yielded ever-more-ravishing imagery (see Ratatouille's dazzling vision of Paris, above), and second, they used this edge of novelty to disguise a surprising commitment to old-fashioned standards of craft. Pixar's films take shape over a period of years, and, despite their almost luminous imagery, lean toward the time-honored technique of witty seduction of the audience rather than the full-frontal assault of most Hollywood product. Indeed, something in Pixar's light but confident touch hearkens all the way back to the heyday of American film comedy in the 30s and 40s, even if their movies also seem utterly in touch with The Way We Live Now.

Perhaps for these reasons, it's hard to find an adult who isn't addicted to Pixar's pictures (even though all have been G-rated) and without Hollywood's prejudice against "cartoons," it would be easy to imagine Pixar's product taking the Oscar for Best Picture most years (consider: Toy Story vs. Forrest Gump; Monsters, Inc. vs. A Beautiful Mind; Cars vs. Crash; is there any real debate?). Needless to say, I concur with the general admiration for Pixar (and its presiding genius, John Lasseter) - for good reason, all of its films have been hits, most have been blockbusters, and several have been showered with Oscars in the "Animated Feature Film" category.

Yet as everyone oohed and ahhed over this oeuvre (even the Museum of Modern Art got into the act), few have pondered the deeper significance of these movies - or how unusual they are in the tradition of "family films." In a way, this is simply because Pixar reflects with such surprising accuracy both the cultural and economic zeitgeist (indeed, sometimes Pixar seems like the avatar of an entire industry) that the content and style of their movies seem overwhelming "natural" and "right" to today's audiences.

In fact, whenever I begin to discuss Pixar skeptically - or simply objectively - I sense people pulling back: some even unconsciously begin shaking their heads, a la Amy Winehouse contemplating rehab ("No, no, no!"). I realize, of course, that any cool appraisal will put many in mind of the self-indulgent tropes of Anton Ego (left), the hilariously funereal critic of Ratatouille. Still, the truth will out, and on careful examination, one begins to see that in the "family film" tradition, Pixar's product has been most unusual.

The first thing that strikes one when pondering Pixar's output is how rarely children figure in these children's films. Children or adolescents have generally been the stars of traditional family fare, but only Finding Nemo has a child as its protagonist - and even there, Nemo shares top billing with his father. In general, Pixar's fairy tales are mainly concerned with adults: Woody and Buzz lead Toy Story, Sully and Mike are the stars of Monsters, Inc., and Lightning McQueen dominates Cars. True, children were no doubt difficult to render in the early days of digital animation (hence the reliance on toys, cars, and bugs) - still, Pixar rarely wasted time on developing young ant or car characters, and it's intriguing that when children do figure in the story, they're usually portrayed as either cute but undependable (Monsters, Inc.), or as dangerous little terrors (Sid in Toy Story, Darla - at left - in Finding Nemo). John Lasseter has often said that the blueprint for Pixar's films is the traditional quest - but it's almost always a quest by a grown-up, as if Pixar's talent, like many in the narcissistic Baby Boom, couldn't help making even their children's films about themselves (and in the case of Ratatouille, barely disguising what is essentially an adult comedy of manners).

There's also a comparative lack of leading female characters in Pixar movies. That staple of the fairy tale - the girl on the cusp of sexual maturity who wanders through the looking glass, or flies off to Oz - has no place at Pixar. There are certainly positive female images in such movies as The Incredibles and A Bug's Life, and Pixar in general exudes a healthy awareness of sex and romance (compare Lasseter's output, say, to that of the sexless George Lucas) - but still, the Pixar mood is overwhelmingly masculine. Sensitive, but masculine. And somehow deeply solitary (like that of a software developer, unsurprisingly); no Pixar movie ends with the hero winning the hand of - much less wedding - his soulmate, or settling down to reproduce.

Instead, everyone is more concerned with their careers. Jobs and the vicissitudes of corporate life loom large in these family films, from the expert consultants of A Bug's Life to the cease-and-desist orders of The Incredibles, and of course the assembly lines of Monsters, Inc. Most recently, Ratatouille (left) concerned the triumph in the culinary rat race of Rémy, a - yes- rodent. Indeed, if traditional children's tales stressed finding your heart's desire, or bravely saving the kingdom, Pixar's tales usually revolve around passing your performance review.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! One could argue that in devising family films sans families, Pixar has cleverly - and discreetly - adjusted the genre to the current culture, which advises its sons and daughters to stave off marriage until ensconced in the economy, preferably with advanced degree in hand. The corporation has replaced the kingdom, and all the dragons (that aren't digital) reside in those dungeons known as corner offices.

But on second thought, maybe there is something wrong with that. The essentially ex-urban Pixar worldview, though often trembling with threat, tends to avoid genuine shock or emotional chaos. Terrible things may loom, but never actually come to pass, and there is nothing wrong with the world at its root. Bambi's mother is never shot, and Mufasa is saved from the stampede. Evil is really just a big misunderstanding, and so life is always manageable.

And that management has a curious political dimension. Family films have never worn their politics on their sleeves, but in a way Pixar does. Its clever satire of corporate folly disguises the fact that Pixarland is permeated by a "green"-yet-corporate collective mentality to which even the family feels somehow secondary (except, perhaps, in Finding Nemo). The hero in Pixar's pictures is generally attempting to master- or save - that collective through exceptional talent or skill; think Steve Jobs leading a strategy session at Apple, and you have the blueprint for Flik in A Bug's Life and Bob Parr in The Incredibles and Rémy in Ratatouille (minus, of course, the famous Jobs arrogance and micro-management - that's fobbed off on the villains!). And I suppose that's great, if you're Steve Jobs - the rest of us, however, are stuck in the collective, where there's little chance of being seen or heard, but where we no doubt belong (another unspoken Pixar assumption is sociobiological - its heroes have to work to succeed, but they've also got better genes - a central trope of The Incredibles). Of course, many in the audience no doubt enjoy being a Beta - it's certainly not so bad when you've got a Pixar movie to watch. And I suppose it's no surprise that Pixar's pictures should serve as a kind of palimpsest for Silicon Valley culture. But if Bruno Bettelheim's thesis is true, and fairy tales are essentially a child's psychological rehearsal for life, then one wonders what kind of life Pixar's vision is a rehearsal for.

The iconic image

Every war has its iconic image, argues the blog Welcome to Pottersville; World War II had its flag-raising at Iwo Jima; Vietnam had its shocking shot of the screaming, naked girl seared by napalm. Due to the Bush administration's control and manipulation of the imagery coming out of Iraq, however, we have little sense of the thousands of Iraqis we've killed, and even less of the Americans who have died in the carnage (for months the Bush administration even refused to allow photographs of the coffins being shipped back to the States). We are left, then, with the record of the walking wounded who returned home, and my guess is that "Wedding" (above left), by Nina Berman, will become the iconic image of the Iraq War. It's a formal photograph of a bride and groom, Renee Kline, 21, and Ty Ziegel, 24. Ziegel is wearing his dress uniform and combat medals, including his Purple Heart; the destruction of his features resulted from his being trapped in a burning truck following a suicide-bomber attack. His appearance in the photograph follows 19 separate surgeries.

Other photographs of Iraq War veterans by Ms. Berman can be seen in her current solo show at Jen Bekman Gallery in New York; a review with images appeared in yesterday's New York Times.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Me vs. Marx, Round II

In a response to my recent post, “Persona non grata – cura te ipsum!,” Bill Marx first takes me to task for my memories of his long reign of error in the print media:

First I want to get some of the silliness out of the way. I am not now nor have I ever been a Marxist, I have no hatred of “filthy lucre” nor do I resent theaters that make money, and I never described my job as wanting to “shut down as many small theaters as possible.”

Now I can’t claim that I personally heard Marx say that line about shutting down theatres; I can only report, persona non grata, that I heard the quote ad nauseam. If you never said it, you might ponder why so many people would want to put such words in your mouth. As for your claim that you’re not on the left politically, and that you’re not resentful of profit in the theatre, I confess I’m rather shaken! I wonder what else I may have gotten wrong about local arts figures – could Robert Brustein actually be a Mormon? Is James Levine straight? The mind boggles!

But then again, I hardly expected Marx to ‘fess up – and it may be that indeed, he hath ever but slenderly known himself. Perhaps he has no awareness of what is all too apparent in his writing. Or perhaps he simply believes that by shifting this way and that within the plausible confines of his prose, he can get away with statements like:

Garvey wrongly believes that I was outraged when the Huntington . . . quoted from his WBUR arts blog review of Love’s Labour’s Lost . . . I was glad that Garvey contributed his reaction, but wanted to clarify that the words came from him and not from me.

Let’s put it this way: the appropriate time for saying that was in the original post, and not a year later. Another good thing Marx might have mentioned at the time was that he himself had invited me to contribute to the WBUR blog – leaving out that key fact threw a shadow of disrepute on me as well as on the Huntington; is Marx really too obtuse to understand that?

And as for his later claim, “I have no problem when quotes are attributed accurately from reviews,” there’s this (from his earlier post about LLL):

I steer away from heavy-breathing statements of comparison such as "towers above" or "greater than" because they sound like ad copy. But critics can't escape being blurbed, no matter how hard they try.

No matter how hard they try – that’s a bit telling, isn’t it. Marx doesn’t mind being accurately quoted – he simply writes his reviews in such a way as to make any accurate quote commercially useless. Do I have that about right, finally?

Marx does offer this justification, however, for his loco M.O.:

Criticism becomes mindless mush when reviewers fill it with hyperbole tailored to wind up as ad copy.

But surely passionate praise is not necessarily mindless mush; it’s here that Marx stumbles into a prejudice of his own. My rave regarding Love’s Labour’s Lost (at left), while full, yes, of “gush,” as Marx called it, was also full of careful evaluation and criticism – indeed, because of this my review was far longer than his own perfunctory take. And whatever Marx may want to believe, sometimes gush is appropriate – when I wrote that Love’s Labour’s Lost “towers over the whole theatrical season,” I meant it as a sincere critical evaluation, from someone who’d seen at least a half dozen productions of the play, and the vast majority of professional Shakespeare productions done in Boston for the last quarter century (frankly, LLL towered over almost all of them, too).

(A point Marx never makes, btw, is that negative criticism may be just as stupidly damaging as the positive variety; pans can be “mindless mush,” too, but I’ve never seen him hound anybody about them.)

But to continue:

Garvey agrees with me that the current Globe regime doesn’t want serious theater critics. His charge is that I don’t have the authority to say so. I am tainted – I have written puff pieces! It would be hard to find a theater critic, especially a second-stringer, who hasn’t. Even the NYT assigns Ben Brantley occasional personality features. When I wrote theater and book reviews for the Phoenix and then for the Globe I supplemented the meager fees paid freelancers by producing fluff. I wasn’t happy about grinding out publicity pieces; I am not alone in disliking that part of the job. When WBUR hired me, I stopped doing features as soon as I could and concentrated on reviews in the online magazine. I haven’t covered up the fact that I sinned – but throughout the decades I never forgot the difference between advertising and criticism and never stopped believing that preserving the distinction matters.

Aww, poor Bill – driven on by poverty to prostitution! (Really, all that paragraph needs is a violin.) So Marx was willing to compromise his principles for a buck – some of us, however, never saw how writing puff pieces counted as slumming to begin with. I wrote truckloads in my day, too – and why not? I was happy to give various shows a shot.

Ah, you say, but the heart of the matter lies in that last sentence - I never forgot the difference between advertising and criticism and never stopped believing that preserving the distinction matters. Okay, I’m willing to give Marx that much, sure – but, to put this as sweetly as I can, who the fuck cares? Marx held onto a distinction between features and reviews – so did I (I just happened to also write positive reviews!). And I’ve got news for him – Louise Kennedy and Terry Byrne no doubt think they’re hanging onto that distinction, too. Louise apparently likes to imagine heavy, middle-aged women are still sexy – hence Tina Packer (above left) makes the ideal Cleopatra; perhaps Terry has a jones for the left-lesbian tropes of Double Edge, or feels that simply hanging on for years out there in the sticks means the troupe deserves a pat on the back – thus her rave for The Magician of Avalon. And in much the same vein, Marx had a soft spot for the lit-crit pretensions of the ART, which led to him to overrate mediocre shows at the Loeb. Take out the academic snobbery, Bill, and you suddenly begin to look a lot like them.

And there’s a deeper problem here – in a word, that criticism is parasitic; its health is contingent on the health of theatre itself. Marx says, and rightly so, that “when stage criticism provides reasons for its verdicts it serves the theater by articulating values and raising the standards of discussion.” But this doesn’t go very far when too many shows have closed, does it? You don’t have to be Kurt Gödel to perceive the problem in Marx’s logic: surely the first duty in raising the standards of discussion is ensuring that the discussion stays alive – and that means keeping theatre alive. Really - who cares what the pilot fish are chatting about in their literary magazines if in the meantime the whale shark has died? This is the trump card that the likes of Louise and Terry hold over Marx: whatever he may say about their accuracy, they can always claim they’re erring on the right side, i.e., the side that will keep the whole show afloat.

Marx has his answers to this problem, of course – the trouble is, together they form a pretzel. On the one hand, he says:

Garvey’s second charge is that hard-hitting criticism has no beneficial effect. He insists that the Boston stage scene blossomed while my vitriol flowed in reviews that misled readers and harmed theater companies. If that level of impact was extremely arguable then (the ability of second-string critics to close shows was exaggerated), those days are long gone. Thankfully, the era of the concentration of critical power (and authority) in the hands of a few publications and radio stations is ending.

Now I never said that hard-hitting criticism had no beneficial effect; I said Bill Marx's brand of criticism (i.e., with negative, but no positive, passion) had no beneficial effect – hardly the same thing. The next sentence is even crazier – I said that the scene blossomed as Marx’s influence declined, NOT while his “vitriol flowed in reviews that misled readers and harmed theater companies.” It’s somehow telling that he gets this key point wrong – although, indeed, Marx grew less vicious as theatres increased the size of their audience, and his misjudgments were more clearly discerned; that’s always the way this kind of thing works. As for his line about “the ability of second-string critics to close shows was exaggerated” – that’s probably true now, but not then. Second-stringer Globe raves for my productions of Tartuffe and The Seagull, for instance, more than doubled the size of their houses (the Phoenix had less box office power, and probably none at all now).

Then there's this line:

I agree with Garvey that theater critics have less influence than ever before and in many ways that is a liberating development.

So they had little to no influence, but now they've lost it, or something like that . . . and that's a good thing . . . but it's still a bad thing when weak productions are overpraised . . . okay, whatevah!

Marx goes on with something like an explanation for these convolutions:

What will be at stake online is the quality of the discussion, with opinions surely clashing over what is right and wrong with Boston theater . . . A certain number of people (not huge) want to read critics who take the arts seriously, who do more than tell readers what is worth spending their money on . . . The payoff for the reader[in criticism like my own] is in the intellectual stimulation you provide, the chance to butt heads with your ideas and sensibility.

Hmmm. . . so that's what's at stake online . . . he disapproves of Kennedy and Byrne because they're not elevating the discussion . . .

Well, I hate to say it, but have to admit I don’t really care about what's at stake online; nor do I care about my readers unless they go to the theatre or the concert hall or the museum or the cinema (and I don’t mean by getting comps). I admit it - I care about criticism - the discussion - far less than I do about the arts themselves. Far, far less. In a word, when it comes to the arts, I’d rather do it than review it – my criticism exists as a service to the muses, not as an end in and of itself.

But to get back to my central question to Marx:

How much does he challenge orthodoxy - how often does he open new avenues of inquiry? How often is he a principled contrarian, how much do his insights surprise and enlighten? The answers, I'm afraid, are not often and not much.

Marx offers little reason to overturn this verdict. Perhaps he’s written with more vigor about books – but in his Boston arts career, he has rarely pondered the larger questions of the scene, and I can’t really remember him courting controversy in any deep or sustained way. Was he held back by unseen forces at WBUR? Are we on the brink of discovering a new, more interesting Bill Marx? Perhaps. And when and if that happens, he can beat up on Louise Kennedy and Terry Byrne all he wants. But not before.

Cornell Show revisited

In a rare fit of pique (actually, they're getting less and less rare), CultureGrrl answers a question I had about the fascinating Joseph Cornell ("Untitled (Ship with Nude)" at left) exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum (but never mentioned in my plugs for it): where was the show's catalogue? Only a secondary publication, Imagine Joseph Cornell, was available in the gift shop. I assumed that, given the impact of the show, the catalogue might have sold out. It turns out it has yet to be produced. CultureGrrl gets the following lame explanation from Donna Desrochers, public relations manager at PEM:

First of all, glad you could make it to the Peabody Essex Museum to see the Cornell show. Like the exhibition, the book is a major, complex undertaking. The book's level of ambition merited that it take more time than originally planned. As a result, it's even more comprehensive. The hardcover and the softcover editions of the book will be available for the opening of the exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 6.

Well, I guess I'm glad SOMEBODY's getting the catalogue! But really - can you imagine? And this wasn't even the show's first stop (it opened at the Smithsonian)! You can order the book from SFMOMA (you just won't get it till late October).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

More on Les Simpsons

Just a postscript, as it were, to my earlier post about the vanishing "American" film, from the International Movie Database:

Who would ever have thought that The Simpsons Movie would become a bigger smash overseas than in the U.S.? But that's what has happened. According to Daily Variety, the animated movie remained in first place overseas for the fourth straight weekend, taking in $23.4 million to bring its gross to $270 million, 64 percent above its domestic total of $165 million. The movie remained in front of The Bourne Ultimatum as it became the only movie of the summer to win four straight weekends. Not even Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End or Spider-Man 3 could do that.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Stratford Festival Round-Up

Sorry for the gap in blogging, but I've just returned from my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival in Ontario. At left is Brian Bedford, in the title role of King Lear - which, incredibly, he also directed. Reviews were mixed - the gist was that Bedford had delivered a star turn, but had neglected to shape a full production - but by the time I saw it, through the alchemy of repeat performance, somehow the precisely opposite effect had been achieved: now the production as a whole was stronger than Bedford was, and easily eclipsed the Christopher Plummer/Jonathan Miller staging which Stratford mounted some five years ago and toured to New York.

Bedford has given us a traditional (if somewhat creatively edited) and strikingly straightforward Lear - and the results are always gripping, and at times staggering. In fact, this is the best Lear I've ever seen (although that call may change after I catch Sir Ian at BAM later this year, in a production which crosses the pond to very positive buzz). Bedford's own performance is not perfect; he doesn't quite bring off the shattering finale - and even, unforgivably to some, leaves Cordelia's corpse to expire by himself, in a spotlight, of course. But this is the only slice of ham served by an actor who's been prone to far more generous helpings. For the remaining three hours, Bedford remains utterly disciplined, etching a portrait of a petulant, increasingly decrepit patriarch who realizes rather earlier than the average Lear, and with lacerating self-awareness, the depth and breadth of his folly.

But the production is never merely a setting for a star turn, whatever the local critics said. Bedford has surrounded himself with talent, and there are penetrating, spirited interpretations from Dion Johnstone (Edmund), Wayne Best (Cornwall), Wenna Shaw (Goneril), Wendy Robie (Regan), Scott Wentworth (Gloucester) and Gareth Potter (Edgar). I found myself particularly moved by Wentworth and Potter - in this Lear, more tears were shed during their encounters on the blasted heath than were spent at the finale. One last mention - at the performance I attended, Keith Dinicol had to step in for Bernard Hopkins as the Fool, and acquitted himself admirably.

I'd urge any Bardolator like myself to make the trek to catch this version - but of course it's a long way to go for a single show; what else should you see at the Festival if you do decide to book that flight? What my friends and I found worthiest were Richard Monette's intelligent (if, again, traditional) An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde (at left), and a worthy attempt to put over Albee's A Delicate Balance (featuring a Tony-worthy performance from Fiona Reid), which rewardingly scaled the first two acts, but lost ground in the inferior third. Elsewhere, Richard Rose directed a Merchant of Venice that was studded with intriguing ideas, but hobbled by a listless Antonio and a lackluster Shylock (and some of the worst costume designs to ever traverse the Stratford stage). Of the musicals, we found My One and Only far superior to Oklahoma, and can recommend the reliable Seana McKenna's solo rumination on Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's Will. Shows not seen by my merry band, but enjoying a positive (i.e., often sold-out) response, include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead and Of Mice and Men - but we feel compelled to dissuade all comers from either The Comedy of Errors or Othello. Now get thee to Canada - if only for a sample of what a real theatrical culture feels like.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Do "American movies" exist?

Freed from its stuffy European antecedents, American film reaches new heights - in Europe.

I wandered over to Bill Marx's website this evening, to see if there was any reaction there to my dissection of his critical career - only to find praise for my analysis of Pauline Kael's effect on American film! Oh dear . . . I wonder if he'll admire my style quite so much when he's on its receiving end? Somehow I don't think so (but it should be a fun catfight)!

Still, Marx raises a good point in his response to my post (maybe he's taking my advice already):

Kael largely ignored the beneficial foreign influences because her goal was to agitate for an American cinematic revolution whose roots were in homegrown pop culture. To that end, disguised by the hypnotic zest of her prose, she never wavered from celebrating a narrow, no-merit-without-entertainment aesthetic. Moral seriousness and formal complexity marked the highbrow taste of Old World farts.

This is true - and it's something I left out about Pauline; she was mad to pull the mantle of High Cinema onto American shoulders (a hat trick Clement Greenberg had managed to do the decade before in the visual arts with his promotion of "American-type painting," i.e., Abstract Expressionism). Indeed, for years - probably until the end of her career - Kael would proclaim this or that moment in a movie was "American" as if that were the highest praise.

But what does "American film" mean anymore? I'd argue that the "American movie" doesn't really exist. People always look startled when I say that, but what, precisely, is "American" about Rush Hour 3 or The Bourne Ultimatum - or Pirates of the Caribbean or Ocean's Thirteen? The casts are (largely) American, true - and they're financed by Hollywood; but the vast majority of "American" films are designed to play as well in Hong Kong and Dubai as they do in Peoria - better, actually. And why? Because the economics of entertainment - Kael's highest value - have meant that Hollywood films' audiences must be global.

You could argue, I suppose, that something of the dregs of Americana still clings to the vulgar sides of Knocked Up, say, or maybe The Simpsons Movie - but then remember that at least The Simpsons has seen its biggest box office returns overseas.

Oh, well! I guess there's just no stopping globalization - which is a good thing, because it's so super-wonderful in every way. Still, it does seem like other nationalities have clung to a bit more of what you might call a cinematic identity. Somehow the phrase "French cinema" still makes sense - if only because French movies don't play all that well in Hong Kong. Maybe what we need is a little office in Paris to save American film too . . .

Poetic Theater

"Untitled (Soap Bubble Set),” by Joseph Cornell

I've already pimped for the Joseph Cornell show in my "What to See" column, but I can't resist giving this best-of-year show one more plug - to theatre lovers in particular. It's hard to explain, but in the shadowy, vaguely lunar installation at the Peabody/Essex Museum, Cornell's strange assemblages and collages often strike one as evocative, miniature stage sets (he called them "poetic theaters" for good reason). Beautiful in and of themselves, they're also clearly obsessed with the perception, memory, and delivery of beauty - a classic concern of the stage - and far more than most surrealist works, seem impregnated with an almost Beckett-like sense of the passage (and stasis) of time. Rarely have the worlds of visual art and theatre overlapped so hauntingly. ["Untitled (Tamara Toumanova)," at right.]

Persona non grata - cura te ipsum!

In case you haven't noticed - and only a theatre nerd would - Bill Marx (logo-ized at left) is finally back blogging (as "Persona non grata" on following his mysterious fall from grace at WBUR (where he was replaced by the less-abrasive Ed Siegel, who had just retired from the Globe). And as usual, Marx is once again exhorting the critical community "to use the point of your pen, not the feather" (a favorite quote from Swift), and taking many of his former print colleagues (in particular Louise Kennedy and Terry Byrne) to task for recent puff-pieces.

Now far be it from me to attack anyone who's criticizing Louise Kennedy or Terry Byrne - they're skilled suburban-feature writers (to varying degrees) but neither is by inclination or talent a theatre critic (the Globe, for some reason, obviously thinks of its reviews as suburban features). Still, one does wonder why Marx imagines he's in a position to hurl critical brickbats - sure, he's smarter than Kennedy or Byrne, but is his own record really so exemplary? Let's take a look!

But first - yes, I admit there's all but an ocean of bad blood between me and Marx. Years ago, when I was trying to shape productions of my favorite classics from the local, non-professional theatre scene, he was something of a nemesis - but then he was everybody's nemesis, openly hated in the theatre community (as in people spat when they spoke of him). He was widely quoted as describing his job as "shutting down as many small theatres as possible," and he certainly seemed to take that duty seriously; I personally lost thousands of dollars in productions that he panned, and despite raves from other critics (including Anthony Tomassini, now a music critic at the Times), my little company never managed to gain much momentum. I was broke, the scene was moribund, and I gave up on that particular dream.

Of course said scene is different now - but is it stronger because of Marx's brand of criticism? I'd argue not - in fact, he seems never to consider (although I once ruined a fatuous symposium he hosted by pointing it out to him repeatedly) that as his influence - and the influence of critics in general - has waned, the Boston theatre scene, rather than withering, has blossomed instead. This is an irony I think he has to face: local theatre has done better without him (and perhaps without the rest of us, frankly!).

This dichotomy is all the more glaring when one ponders Marx's own history. In the bad old days that he gazes upon so fondly, nastiness was de rigeur (reviewers took their cue from the Globe's bitchy Kevin Kelly), with Marx, ensconced at the Phoenix, as its acknowledged junior avatar - and the theatre scene was basically a flatliner; Marx was like a surgeon scraping away for cancer in a patient that was already dead. Looking back, in fact, it's almost funny to imagine him styling himself as Kenneth Tynan or John Simon - but having to expend his acid on my productions, and others like them, in basements and church halls, starring recent college grads and community theatre types.

Still, if you imagine him as some incorruptible Robespierre, riding above the fray, think again; Marx eagerly fluffed major-league players like the ART, and was hardly above penning fawning puff pieces, such as one he wrote for the late Skip Ascheim's amateurish production of The Winter's Tale (Ascheim's company, ironically enough, fell before the point of Kevin Kelly's pen). Even now, there's a fluffy interview on his site with Suzan Lori-Parks, arguably our most over-rated living playwright.

Marx was, it's true, better at book reviews (he's really a bookworm masquerading as a theatre critic) and gained a positive reputation (and I think an award or two) in that field - but even this, I'd argue, is something of a debit. It's apparent that his literary nature, combined with his lefty politics (he's a Marxist in more ways than one) led him to unconsciously envious positions on several cultural fronts. Like many an armchair critic, for instance, Marx seems to resent the prerogatives of actual theatrical production; he just never thrills to live theatre - it's like a sad also-ran to some production he's got playing in his head. And so while there's still a certain urgency, at times, to his prose, it's always tied to critical issues, not in-the-moment aesthetic experience - in short, he loves criticism, not theatre. (He's not alone in that regard - does Carolyn Clay, for instance, love theatre? If so, you'd never tell it from her bloodless, pun-clotted output.)

There's an argument, I suppose, for valuing criticism for its own sake (even if it amounts to little more than an intellectual echo-chamber), but Marx's Marxism makes his position even more extreme: he seems disgusted in general by filthy lucre, and nothing sends him into a tizzy faster than the prospect of someone actually making money on a show. Indeed, in a widely noted dust-up with me over my rave for the Huntington's Love's Labour's Lost, he admitted:

I steer away from heavy-breathing statements of comparison such as "towers above" or "greater than" because they sound like ad copy.

Well the good Lord save us from ad copy! Now in that brouhaha, in which the Huntington quoted my rave in WBUR's online blog (where I posted at Marx's invitation) but credited it to simply "WBUR," Marx had something of a point - the Huntington, no doubt, was trying to insinuate that the famously pissy Bill Marx had been wowed by their show. Still, ponder, just a moment, how weird his outrage was, and consider what it means that he consciously avoids promoting even the shows he likes (and he admitted liking Love's Labour's Lost). If I had been Marx, I'd have certainly complained to the Huntington, and demanded that they specify the source of those quotes - but I also would have winked at their little gambit; they are, after all, trying to sell tickets, and I'm trying to get people to see the right shows. But Marx spurns both goals; for him, instead, it's all about the integrity of his armchair.

So okay, Bill disdains criticism's real-world purposes - but that still leaves the question of just how good his intentionally rarefied writing actually is; how gorgeous is that critical castle he's been building in the air? How much does he challenge orthodoxy - how often does he open new avenues of inquiry? How often is he a principled contrarian, how much do his insights surprise and enlighten? The answers, I'm afraid, are not often and not much. At WBUR, to be fair, Marx built an interesting and forward-looking web presence - his own contributions, however, were reliably intelligent, but little more (Debra Cash, who wrote on dance, was actually the far more interesting critic). He was also no great stylist, and it's surprising how often he marched in lockstep with the Globe and Phoenix. He learned to see through some of the ART's fatuousness, but was still bamboozled by productions that played to Marxist delusions (Olly's Prison) or 70's-era avant-garde posturing (Three Sisters). In short, he was sometimes slightly ahead of the herd, but just as often behind it.

And more and more, Marx's writing was directed at other critics - perhaps, some argued, as a kind of revenge-by-proxy for his career disappointments. Indeed, of his last ten posts, six have dealt with the decline in book reviewing in the mainstream press; three have dealt with the money scandals at the Wang (that filthy lucre!); only one has dealt with any actual artwork (a takedown of "modern classics," Ayn Rand, and H.P. Lovecraft). Surely the proportions here should be close to the reverse - who cares about some guy whose idea of incisive criticism is demanding that other people write it?

So I suppose my message to "persona non grata" is "cura te ipsum" - i.e, physician, heal thyself! Marx might more effectively stimulate thoughtful criticism if he took a crack at it. He could start by considering a question he raises, but never answers, in that hatchet job on Kennedy and Byrne:

How about looking at the ways the yeasayers do a disservice to theater and the craft of criticism?

Well, how about it, Bill? This would seem to be the question of the hour! Theatre seemed to get better as your influence waned - was that just an illusion? If so, why - and if not, then what exactly is your value-add, and that of criticism in general? And let's be blunt - simply being untainted by commercial concerns is not in and of itself a justification for criticism. There has to be something more - so what is it?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Kael, Bonnie and Clyde

The pint-sized Pauline Kael (at left) put an outsized mark on American film – or rather on American film critics, although many such scribes would like you to believe the difference between those two accomplishments is even tinier than Kael herself.

Indeed, the debate over that difference has been running off and on now for decades – since only shortly after Ms. Kael’s compelling, colloquial style vaulted her to the New Yorker, from which she long held forth (while securing similar perches for her acolytes in journals across the country). But get ready for a new surge in the urgency of the argument, as we’re passing the 40th anniversary of both Ms. Kael’s most famous review, of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and, of course, the movie it praised – even as the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni remind us of everything that Ms. Kael and the “Paulettes,” as they’re known, left out of their reviews in the last four decades.

A.O. Scott (at right) of the New York Times recently offered his contribution to the dialogue, complete with the usual grandiose claims: according to Scott, Bonnie and Clyde represented not just “a new mode of expression and a new set of values entering the cultural mainstream” but “a battlefield in an epochal struggle” between young and old. What’s more, “the squares” (as represented by poor old, pompously middlebrow Bosley Crowther, who panned the film) “were routed.” Perhaps more importantly to critics, the film’s success was deemed largely due to a New Yorker essay by Kael extolling its virtues. After weak box office returns, Bonnie and Clyde was re-released, and went on to become a hit (though not a blockbuster on the order, of say, The Graduate, which Kael hated).  The obviously unhip Crowther retired from the Times and was replaced by Renata Adler, from the New Yorker – while Kael, who at the time was a freelancer, got half of Adler’s job (for a time, she shared the position with Penelope Gilliatt). And thus was a critical dynasty born.

But you can see immediately the problem - both the critic and the criticized are here entwined; subject and object have been conflated; they are as one.  And ever since, a brief against Bonnie and Clyde would be seen as a brief against Pauline Kael (who became further enmeshed in the later efforts of Bonnie's star and writers).

A deeper problem, of course, was that Bonnie and Clyde wasn’t all that new or interesting – it was obviously indebted to earlier films, most clearly Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Indeed, its writers had shopped the Bonnie screenplay to Godard and Truffaut as an American "Breathless-with-banjos" (Jean Seberg in Breathless at left; look-alike Faye Dunaway in Bonnie at right).

Thus few have wasted much breath, as it were, on Arthur Penn’s actual movie (which, don’t get me wrong, is still effective, if a bit dated).  They have, instead, lavished praise on its phenomenon, in such careful phrases as Scott’s “a crucial episode in the entwined histories of Hollywood, American film criticism and postmodern popular culture” and Kael’s own “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about.”

Note that Kael doesn’t claim the movie is original or insightful (it hardly rewards repeat viewings). Instead, Bonnie and Clyde represents the entrance into the commercial world of a certain arthouse stance – that of the genre films of Kael’s youth re-configured as, well, a newly-youthful playground. As Louis Menand once pointed out, Kael was most turned on by an odd blend of nostalgia and invigoration; she adored the pop tropes of her adolescence (the 30s), and likewise worshipped at the altar of the Actor’s Studio (the 50s). When these two rivers ran together, in Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather(s), The Long Goodbye – her praise, as Freud might say, was almost over-determined.

Michael J. Pollard, Faye Dunaway, and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde.

So Kael’s psychology isn’t hard to understand – the kids were all right, and she was one of them.  What’s harder to justify is how these internal needs have continued to be construed as something of a theory (or rather as a naïve pastiche of Susan Sontag’s theories). Of course initially the “youthquake” of the sixties provided justification enough – but the wheels quickly came off Kael’s “trash-is-art” critical cart. Her famous “preview” of Nashville asserted that America would embrace this latest Altman masterpiece (when it wasn’t even finished) – but unlike Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, though it made its money back, didn't catch fire at the box office. She wrote a famously fatuous rave of Last Tango in Paris (yes, I know, it’s a great movie), in which, seemingly discombobulated by the sight of idol Marlon Brando’s nude body, she equated its premiere with that of Le Sacre du Printemps. She continued to flail against Stanley Kubrick, who managed to combine highbrow ambition with pop success, even though her criticism insisted this was impossible (eventually she was reduced to calling Kubrick a pornographer and a racist); she was generally cold toward Hitchcock, yet trumpeted the Hitchcock pastiches of Brian De Palma; and her sneers at David Lean were widely credited with discouraging him from making a film for years after the failure of Ryan’s Daughter. And soon, the public would embrace a new, sexless kind of trash – the Star Wars movies – which Kael’s ideas seemed powerless to stop.

Surely her early nemesis, Bosley Crowther, never wreaked quite so much artistic havoc – even though Kael and Crowther were not as unlike as many supposed. Like Crowther, Kael had it in for movies she thought too pessimistic (Chinatown) or cold (A Clockwork Orange), and she didn’t like movie violence when it satisfied an audience in the “wrong” way (as in Dirty Harry, at left, or Death Wish). Orgiastic violence promulgated by glamorous young people (Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets) – in short, violence as sex - was good; but violence by older white guys (Dirty Harry, The French Connection) – i.e., plain old angry violence - was bad. Got it? Fewer and fewer people did, and in the 80s, many began to back away from Kael – perhaps because even as her aesthetic seemed triumphant, American cinema seemed to have suddenly hit a wall. So why did she remain so “influential” for so long?

Part of any answer, of course, lies in her prose, which even today is hilariously sharp. Kael had a genius for actor description (I’ll never forget that she described Debra Winger’s upper lip as “almost prehensile”), and her poison pills of encapsulated invective against moral uplift were always brilliantly funny.  Her rhythms were likewise perfection (every insult seems inexorable); many of her pieces deserve to be classics, at least of rhetoric. More importantly, many people figured out that her gnomic, highly personal style was even better suited to rock albums than movies, and her signature self-centeredness was adopted by pop music critics – the ensuing "Rolling Kael" hybrid still dominates American press writing. (This, in fact, is probably her greatest legacy, God help us.)

Under the saucy style, however, you could often feel Kael twisting inconsistently from one contrarian position to the next, even within a single review; she was against this, and then against that, without realizing she’d contradicted herself (her simultaneous disparagement of Hitchcock and praise of De Palma was only one of many obvious examples). Some of this was due to her transparent obsession with either creating or bucking "trends," but that hardly counts as an excuse. One must admit that Renata Adler’s brutal putdown of her work – that it was "piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless” – is true, in its way, when it comes to any sustained salience: Kael’s oeuvre reveals no critical development, and makes no real sense (this is spun as her “unpredictability”); she herself admitted that her contribution to criticism lay in “style, not substance.”

The tortured cop in Reservoir Dogs.

But in this gap lies the shadow that dogs her legend: in the end, she may have done the medium she loved more harm than good. And that’s a hard shadow to shake: she herself once mused that "When we championed trash culture, we didn’t know what it was going to become." Perhaps she didn’t – but shouldn’t she have? Isn’t that part of what a critic is supposed to do – anticipate the effect of praise? Kael may have tried to put the brakes on the white-vigilante violence of Dirty Harry, but what would she have made of, say, Reservoir Dogs (above), in which wild stylization barely conceals the sadism of director Quentin Tarantino, or the even more baroque murders of his Natural Born Killers, an obvious update of Bonnie and Clyde? Would she warm to the torture porn of Eli Roth –would she applaud when Tarantino’s testicles melt off in Grindhouse? I have to say I think she would – while still insisting that A Clockwork Orange was “sucking up to the thugs in the audience”! (Her last directive, in fact, was against her old nemesis – word came from her that Eyes Wide Shut was “a piece of shit,” and the Paulettes fell into lockstep; Salon alone published not one but multiple pans. Needless to say, Kubrick's reputation survived.)

In the end, perhaps most damagingly, patronization was built into Kael’s mindset – she adored the sex and violence of the young from a kind of bohemian matriarchal perspective; she reveled in it the same way a mother coos at her baby. But one has to ask while watching people torn limb from limb in the latest incarnation of Saw: are the kids still all right? Even A.O. Scott – who, despite his expert knowledge of its legend, was only one year old when Bonnie and Clyde was released – now has second thoughts. “I can’t escape the feeling,” he worries, “that just as it has become easier since Bonnie and Clyde to accept violence in movies, and more acceptable to enjoy it, it has become harder to talk seriously about the ethics and politics of that violence . . . I still get a kick out of Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s accompanied by a twinge of unease, by the suspicion that, in some ways that matter and that have become too easy to dismiss, Bosley Crowther was right.” (Egad!) And Scott’s not the only apostate – top Paulette David Denby distanced himself from Kael (almost) as soon as he no longer needed her, and pseudo-Paulettes like Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein do amusing pirouettes around their relationship with her (she died in 2001).

But if the Paulettes have all repudiated their maker, where’s her baleful influence to be found, you may ask? Well, perhaps it lies in the fact that it’s too late for her apostles' re-appraisals to have any real power; their twinges of regret about pop-culture violence are utterly undermined by their very embrace of said culture. They can't imagine life outside it, in fact.  Because what Kael accomplished, above all, was a shift in the terms of published intellectual debate from individual artworks to pop culture itself - thus unintentionally shutting out the sources of real cultural ferment. Sure, she bet on low, not high, and had a great early run, but eventually she came up a cropper (this is the part Scott leaves out); high, oddly enough, turned out to be more important than low over the long term, and her heirs simply can’t seem to figure that out.

Today, critics like Scott and Ty Burr ponder directors like Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, or even Eli Roth, as if their derivative work was in some kind of line with that of Kieslowski or Haneke; it’s as if Bonnie and Clyde were, indeed, the original, the source, rather than Breathless. It’s not the artwork that counts anymore, but its position in “the entwined histories of Hollywood, American film criticism and postmodern popular culture.” And criticism simply can’t survive like that; indeed, Scott and Burr and the rest have long since succumbed to writing a kind of high-toned, self-aware publicity; they’re not really critics in the time-honored sense of the term - and funny, movies aren’t really movies anymore, either.

Friday, August 10, 2007

He just doesn't get it

Just days after I posted the following -

. . .Not only greater transparency, but greater integration with, and support of, other arts organizations is required for the Wang to survive . . .

- we learn via the Boston Globe that:

The Citi Performing Arts Center has launched talks with First Night, which organizes Boston's popular New Year's celebration, and other local arts and culture groups with the aim of merging or partnering with them . . . The idea is to reduce financial risk by relying less on revenue from the Center's hard-to-fill theaters while spreading the Center's brand across a swath of revenue-generating programming elsewhere in Boston and Massachusetts.

But as I also said, the devil is always in the details, and the details in this case don't look good. According to the Globe, Spaulding (above left) and CitiCenter have approached First Night, the Boston Cyberarts Festival, Berkshire-based Shakespeare & Company, and Young Audiences of Massachusetts, a chapter of the national nonprofit that works to bring arts education programs into schools. Now First Night, as far as I know, will add exactly 1 evening of performances per year to the Wang's hectic schedule; the 2008 Boston Cyberarts Festival will last all of two weeks, and Shakespeare & Co. seems an unlikely fit for the Center's spaces (or will they be moving into/partly funding the summer Shakespeare slot, now that Steve Mahler is "in hiatus"?).

As for the major players who could help to bail out the Center - groups like the Celebrity Series - well, relations there still seem frosty. Clearly, Spaulding and the Center have been approaching either groups with limited seasons or budgets, where the Wang would have the clout in negotiations. That ain't gonna work. The Wang's "brand" is all but lost, and the CitiCenter Board is going to face the fact that they are going to have to be partners, not "directors" of whatever long-term solution may emerge. Perhaps Joan Moynagh, one of CSC's cofounders and a Citi Center trustee until June, put it best:

"I think anyone would rather see that [major donation] go to a company that's actually producing something," she said. "Don't give it to [Spaulding] to pay his consultants to figure out a way to partner with smaller organizations. Give it to the smaller organizations. This virtual arts institution model, I don't think anyone gets."

No, they still don't get it. Spaulding isn't part of the solution. The Wang needs to drop its pretentious ways, realize that it's wandering around, hat in hand, with not much to "leverage," and must learn to deal with the players who can help it - and the sooner the better.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Is there a cure for Ty Burr?

Getting cranky at Zabriskie Point!

After apparently reading my earlier post, "Never trust anyone under thirty," Ty Burr (at left) picks up the gauntlet on his Globe-blog (Something of an oxymoron, no? Aren't blogs supposed to be an alternative to, rather than a brand-extension of, dead-tree journalism?) with the following:

. . . ex-Globie Thomas Garvey takes my own Sunday piece on Bergman and Antonioni to task on his HubReview blog for not insisting on their greatness strongly enough and for cutting the MySpace generation slack for not knowing their movie history (or worse, not caring to know). He makes some excellent points, but his dismissal of a younger generation's tastes is awfully broad, bordering on plain cranky.

I just came from talking to a classroom full of Harvard journalism students, none of them hardcore cineastes and none of whom had heard of Bergman before last week's obituaries. This is ignorance, as Garvey says, but it's not willful: They're 20. They're still finding things out. This is how they find things out, especially when you're talking about a filmmaker who hadn't released a new theatrical film during their lifetime. It's worth noting that Bergman has been at the top of the IMDb Starmeter -- meaning he's the most searched person on the site -- for a week now. But, yeah, Zac Efron is #2.

Garvey's trashing of current film -- "Trust me, little intern - you can skip ALL that shit - Grindhouse, The Darjeeling Limited, The Host/D-Games, Once - none of them are really worth your time" -- is just obnoxious, even if you agree with him. Tom, these are the movies, or movies like them, that speak to a kid, just as "Persona" once spoke to you and still does. Maybe that's a horrible thing, maybe the standards of serious cinema have fallen precipitously, but you'll never get a college junior from Point A to point B by being a hardliner. You sound like Bosley Crowther upon being presented with "Bonnie and Clyde," unwilling to concede meaning where you see none. (Of course, I could regularly be accused of the same. I hated "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," which one normally sane critic likened to Bunuel. Let us together shriek as one, Mr. Garvey). Still, is there a movie made in the last 15 years of which you approve?

Well, hose me down and call me cranky! Heavens to Betsy - far be it from me to criticize Harvard journalism students; I will point out, however, that in the past few years I've heard one Harvard grad wonder aloud just when, exactly, William the Conqueror invaded Angleterre ("I'm pretty sure it was 1086, Tom," she concluded with a confident nod), while others have insisted you didn't really have to hear Beethoven in the concert hall (what with today's totally awesome ear buds), and still others informed me that Shakespeare (like Bergman?), had no "relevance" today because of his "obvious racism and sexism." Given this evidence of the best education money can buy, I'm hardly shocked to learn that none of this latest crop of Ivy Leaguers has heard of a film director who hasn't released a theatrical film in their lifetime - I mean, seriously, could anything important have happened prior to their lifetime? "They're still finding things out" about William the Conqueror and things of that nature, okay? Cut them some slack!

Sorry, no. Too much slack is what they have already been cut. Harvard students should at least have HEARD of Ingmar Bergman - or if they haven't, they should have the temerity to shut up and listen when he's mentioned. If it's "obnoxious" to insist on that, so be it. Small price to pay, etc. As for my "trashing of current film," here Burr is being dishonest - I'm only trashing his intern's ideas about current film. In my prior piece, I cited several recent films which belonged, if not in the Bergman/Antonioni pantheon, then certainly in their shadow - the films of Michael Haneke (whose Benny's Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance just came out on DVD), Kyoshi Kurosawa, Abbas Kiarostami, and especially Krzysztof Kieslowski, to name a few. But do you think Burr's Harvard students know these filmmakers either? I'd bet you they don't.

And therein lies the rub. Burr's kids don't know the great filmmakers of today, either - and for him to pretend that the giants of current film are Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson is simply flattery of their immature, self-centered taste. As for his argument that film is just bustin' out all over - strange, then, that our recent crop of great auteurs has seen so little glory, in fact is generally in a constant battle with obscurity. If Burr's forgiving thesis were anywhere near true, wouldn't at least Kieslowski (whose Decalogue - image above - may be the greatest film achievement of the last quarter century) be a name as well known as Bergman's or Antonioni's? But it's not.

So sorry, but I won't be coming to Burr's "Come Dressed as the Hip Soul of Harvard" party. I'll keep sticking to my obnoxious guns - guns which Burr himself, who clearly is no intellectual slouch, has long since set aside. For it's obvious Burr knows better than to imagine Wes Anderson is anywhere near the stature of Bergman or Antonioni - but simply put, his job depends (or at least he thinks it depends) on pretending otherwise.

Never trust anyone under thirty

Viewer and screen in Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

Perhaps the only thing more depressing than the concurrent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni has been the critical reaction to their passing. Of course by-rote praises were published for their achievements; but there was also a wheedling insistence that they were no longer relevant. In a rambling, unfocused essay in the New York Times, A.O. Scott opined that "the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good," but he didn't seem to think that was such a bad thing, musing that "The institutions that keep art alive do so at the risk of embalming it." (And I suppose the institutions that embalm art also do so at the risk of keeping it alive!) More tellingly, in an unguarded moment of self-revelation, Scott admitted, "For generations that were not part of the great cinephile vanguard of the ’50s and ’60s, for those of us who grew up in the drab age in between the flourishing of the art houses and the rise of the Criterion Collection, the masterworks of modern cinema had lost their novelty." Ah. So it was novelty that drove Bergman's and Antonioni's reputations - a novelty which inevitably wore off. Even Lionel Trilling, apparently, would concur: "“Time has the effect of seeming to quiet the work of art,” Mr. Trilling observed, “domesticating it and making it into a classic, which is often another way of saying that it is an object of merely habitual regard."

Ugh. Why, oh why, does every middlebrow hack trying to elevate his discourse quote Trilling (at left)?? Perhaps it's because criticism is much, much more likely than art to be 'domesticated' by habitual regard into a cultural commodity. (Still, the poor guy must have spun in his grave so many times by now that he feels like an unassimilated dreidl!)

No doubt Lionel - and Tony - got bored by the classics in the classroom; how could they not? The dimming of their power at the lectern, however, has no connection to their longterm purchase on the soul (as long as it exists, that is). In short, classic status is only a liability to the critic/academic, not to the work itself (as the steady sales of so many classics attest). Of course Tony does hint at this problem, although he can't quite say it aloud: "More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness." This is a bit like being sung to sleep by someone who thinks you're already dead, isn't it? But never mind.

In the Boston Globe, (reprinted here) meanwhile, Ty Burr was crooning a similiar tune, if a bit more bluntly: "[After their deaths]The two filmmakers almost seemed relevant again. In truth, they're anything but." At first it's hard to imagine what Burr might mean: they're still relevant to me, for example - but then perhaps the point is that I'm not relevant, because (and I admit it's true) I'm old:

. . . as I put together the Globe obituary . . . one of our department interns — a 20-year-old student who knows her pop history better than most — admitted she had never actually seen any of his movies. After a pause, she confessed she had always confused Ingmar Bergman with Ingrid Bergman, and what did he actually do? The next day was worse: She hadn't heard of Antonioni at all.

Ingrid, Ingmar . . . let's call the whole thing off! And as for Michelangelo Antonispumoni, didn't he paint the Sixteenth Chapel? Gosh, you'd think maybe an arts department intern who'd never heard of either might be fired on the spot, but you'd have thought wrong! Of course not - as Burr assures us, "her only crime is youth" (umm, and ignorance, right?) - and after all, "today's artistic rebel is tomorrow's old fart."

Image as object in Blow-up.

Uh-huh. Never mind about young farts, I suppose. The trouble is, though, that it's hard to see either Bergman or Antonioni as "rebels" - indeed, parsing them in that way already does obeisance to a pop mindset they were generally opposed to (even in Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, Antonioni deploys his pop soundtrack with a deadpan distance) - and robs them of their true significance. (And needless to say, once you've set up their reputations this way, it's oh so much easier to knock them down.) Essentially, they operated outside the boomer/Woodstock consensus that spawned A.O. Scott and Ty Burr. They had their social concerns, true, and both offered withering critiques of modern life, but what was essential to them was their internality; without a sensitivity to this, their movies can, indeed, seem at times like so much meandering pretentiousness. Of course perhaps that very internality has vanished in the audience - Burr gets closer to saying this outright than Scott does when he ventures that "The ironic detachment that the great post-war directors saw as a symptom of malaise has become the primary way of doing business." Indeed it has, Ty: what Bergman and Antoinioni were warning us we were becoming, our children have indeed become. But saying so might ruffle a few feathers out in Wellesley and Cohasset, mightn't it?

What's perhaps most horrifying about Burr's article is his quick sketch of what "an attuned young moviegoer should attend to": "a new Wes Anderson coming out in the fall and bleeding-edge videos to watch on YouTube, and that Irish rock musical you still haven't seen, not to mention the Korean horror flick — and wait, they've re-edited "Grindhouse" as two separate films for DVD."

Existential questions doggy style in Grindhouse.

Trust me, little intern - you can skip ALL that shit - Grindhouse, The Darjeeling Limited, The Host/D-Games, Once - none of them are really worth your time. In the same 12 hours or so (depending on how much sludge they've packed into Grindhouse 1 & 2), you can see The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Shame, and L'eclisse, Blow-up, and The Passenger. OR, you can check out the later work of Bergman and Antonioni's true heirs - perhaps Blue or Red, or part of The Decalogue by Kieslowski (whose grave is at left - note the hands framing a shot at the top of the headstone); then you could move on to The Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami); Cure (Kyoshi Kurosawa); and Funny Games (Michael Haneke), or even Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón). You may not have a soul now, but even today, with a little time and effort, you can still get one at the movies.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

What to do with the Wang?

Surely the Wang (above) is the least aptly named of Boston's theatres - indeed, to quote Jon Stewart, it most closely resembles "the inside of Marie Antoinette's vagina" - as in it's plushly, vulgarly fabulous; not only gi-normous, but brimful of biomorphic French curves and recesses, encrusted with gilt, and garishly painted with tacky Max Parrish rip-offs. But it's also waaay too big (3600 seats) for most arts events, and its acoustics leave oh-so-much to be desired. In short, it's a beloved red-velvet elephant that folks just don't want to admit is of little practical use.

Said pachyderm, of course, is not only the centerpiece of the newly-named CitiCenter, but also the centerpiece these days of a tasty scandal: even as CitiCenter cut back its summer Shakespeare (which had become, once the Wang had kicked out "The Nutcracker," its major contribution to the city's cultural life), it was revealed by the Boston Globe that its President, Josiah Spaulding, Jr., had pocketed a $1.265 million retention bonus on top of his $409,000 salary. Spaulding had already come under the Globe's scrutiny for a compensation package that was out-of-whack with the scope of his arts programming, but Board members had explained that quality, not size, was what mattered at the Wang (sorry, I just had to).

Now, perhaps Spaulding's pay day was not "obscene" (as some bloggers would have it) - at least not by the standards of a Republican scion - but still, it's hilariously out of line with the organization's $6.3 million budget and shrinking level of activity (recently the Wang has only been open 1/3 of the year). The Globe's attendant revelations - that Spaulding hired his wife to do website work, and that two Trustees were likewise on the payroll - only re-inforced the sense of a crew of insiders with their hands in the till as the Center's arts programming collapsed around them.

Now the Globe has called for Spaulding's dismissal - which is probably a good idea (although there's not much that can be done about that Board); but this alone is hardly a solution to Boston's "Wang problem": nobody still has much of any idea to do with that oversized piece of Marie Antoinette (below).

And neither do I, really, although as I ponder the problem, a few thoughts keep recurring:

- The Wang is generally inappropriate to dramatic theatre; its future probably lies with dance (Boston Ballet remains a tenant, despite the indignity of having to stage "The Nutcracker" elsewhere), touring musical extravaganzas, and such pop attractions as Michael Bublé. Said attractions will probably require upgrades such as (removable?) video screens for the upper balconies, and an improved sound system (better ideas, I think, than the recently-mentioned video screens on Boston Common).

- Cutbacks at Celebrity Series have endangered their tradition of bringing in major dance companies other than Alvin Ailey; isn't there some way these two organizations can pool or drum up resources to bring more world-class dance to the Hub?

- The brief appearance of North Shore Music Theatre at the Schubert after the fire in their pit seemed to be a big success; is there a possibility of an on-going partnership there, too?

- Why, exactly, is Boston's summer Shakespeare tied to the Wang's budget? Can't this be funded (and organized) separately?

- How does the Cutler Majestic do it? Sure, the house is smaller, and sometimes the offerings are a bit tatty (Teatro Lirico, or Steve Connolly, anyone?), but at the same time, the joint is always jumpin.'

Clearly, it seems, not just the firing of Spaulding, but a thorough re-organization of the "city center" is in order. But whatever happens, certain new realities of the Boston arts scene have to penetrate the thick skulls of local Board members:

- Boston's Theatre District is now the South End, and city dwellers either go there for theatre, or to the Huntington or the ART;

- The touring-Broadway-show business model is no longer viable for the Wang (it can hardly sustain the Colonial and the Opera House);

And finally:

- Not only greater transparency, but greater integration with, and support of, other arts organizations is required for the Wang to survive.

Ah - how I do love generic suggestions! The devil, of course, is always in the details. And I, for one, hardly minded seeing the Commonwealth Shakespeare season reduced - I actually thought of it as kind of a blessing in disguise. Still, it seems obvious now that the Wang is in serious decline (if only because these unsavory details have begun to slip out); reversing that trend should certainly be a civic priority.