Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Country for Grown Men, or Is There a Cure for Ty Burr (Part II)?

Okay, this is a minor thing - but like many minor things, it hints at a much larger assumption moving beneath the surface of our cultural life. In a recent post on his "blog" (and I use the term advisedly) over at the Globe, movie critic Ty Burr wrote a paean to The Clean House (currently at the New Rep; I didn't much like the play, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better production). Burr's main point was that Clean House shifts in its focus and tone over the course of its two acts in a way that movies (at least today) almost never do.

In the old days, of course, things at the movie house were (a little) different - The Wizard of Oz makes one bizarre leap after another, The Bridge on the River Kwai heads down an unexpected road after its first act, and Psycho and The Birds basically implode and start over halfway through (indeed all these films morph quite a bit more than The Clean House, but never mind). This may, come to think of it, be due to the fact that classic movies are far more closely tied to the theatre than movie critics like to admit. Oz is in many ways a series of vaudevilles, Casablanca is a barely-opened-out stage play, and what is Citizen Kane's "deep focus" but an attempt to reproduce on film the atmosphere of the stage? Even today the open-mindedness of the theatre persists onscreen, but only at the arthouse - right now, Michael Haneke's Funny Games, for example, is twisting before its audience's eyes from torture porn into straight-on torture, without the porn (and most of Haneke's films are equally open-ended).

But Burr's point is nonetheless well taken, and one might imagine hints at an awareness on his part that generally he's reviewing hackwork - except for this telling, highly irritating aside:

I have to admit I'm fairly sour on the Boston area theater scene -- 20 years in New York followed by two subscription seasons at The Huntington that just about put me into a coma will do that.

To which I can only say - are you f-ing kidding? I just tried to find a new movie to watch this weekend. My options included College Road Trip, Drillbit Taylor, 10,000 B.C., Horton Hears a Who and Never Back Down - out-and-out junk that would never find its way onto a local stage. Okay, I know what you're saying - what about the Kendall? Even there the pickings were slim - In Bruges I had heard was overrated, and I just wasn't up for The Counterfeiters, yet another ironic WWII genre piece. (My friends and I settled on No Country for Old Men.)

So I had to wonder - Ty Burr was almost sent into a coma by two years of Boston theatre, while my eyes are glazing over just scanning the ads for what amounts to his daily diet? I mean really - seeing Hollywood product at something like Burr's rate would destroy my soul in short order, and I think would do about the same thing to just about anyone of any real sensitivity. It would be like eating the equivalent of a cultural Big Mac every single day - you'd wind up in the hospital, like that guy from Supersize Me. Indeed, Burr tries to limit his exposure to the toxic extremes of his own medium as much as possible - he hews closely to the Kendall calendar too, but is still sometimes stuck with "critiquing" the likes of 10,000 B.C. Me, I count myself lucky to have escaped from that kind of "entertainment" entirely, via the fact that I happen to be a writer whom hundreds of people want to read - without that, I'd never be able to afford my cultural calendar, and I'd be stuck at the multiplex many a Saturday night, just like everybody else, weighing the relative "virtues" of the latest chick flick versus Spiderman 7.

I know some will claim this is snobbery - but isn't that claim in itself a form of reverse snobbery? Indeed, I've all but given up trying to convince a lot of folks that I really like Shakespeare and Mozart - they're just too deep in denial. I'd only point out that it's hard to square their claims of snobbery with the fact that when real culture is presented at low prices, or for free - like the summer opera and Shakespeare programs on the Common, or the Met broadcasts at local cinemas - the public turns out in droves. They're hungry for the real thing - they by and large simply can't afford it!

Indeed, just indulge me in a little thought experiment - imagine, for a moment, that the tickets to local theatre productions - like The Clean House, The Tempest, or Some Men - were $10, and that Drillbit Taylor and 10,000 B.C. cost $50. Which do you think would be the hot tickets? And something tells me Ty Burr's blog would suddenly reverse itself - all at once, no doubt, the moviehouses would be full of catatonia-inducing sludge, while the theatres would be chock-a-block with lively, popular entertainment.

So don't fall for Burr's brand of flattering double talk - it's obviously false on its face. And ignore the silly adjuncts to his arguments, too - such as the old canard that those of us who frequent high culture do so only because "it's supposed to be good for you." Because you know what? It is good for you. You do become a deeper, more sensitive, more open person the more you're exposed to high culture. I don't see why that's considered uncool, or some kind of debit; the effect of the opposite claim is rather like hearing a smoker sneer at you, "Oh, the only reason you don't smoke is that it's healthier," or listening to someone snort, "Oh, you just eat fresh produce because it's good for you," as they wolf down an extra-large order of fries. I mean, what can you say? Except, of course, "Uh-huh; that's right!"

So my advice is to skip 10,000 B.C., College Road Trip, and Horton Hears a Who, and use the $30 you've saved to buy a half-price ticket at Bostix to Some Men or The Tempest, or even The Clean House or Shining City. You'll have a better time - and you'll be a better person, too.


  1. My first question after reading that opening of Mr. Burr's column was:

    What two seasons at the Huntington was he talking about?

    Ed Siegel used to pen the occasional compare and contrast columns about Theater and Television as well.

    I remember one such column was very frustrating in that it compared the very best movies of that year, to the pretty average productions of that theatre year.

    In your listing of the art house offerings you include In Bruges, which is, of course, the first film by one of the hottest PLAYWRIGHTS of the last five years.

    As for me, I would gladly pay more than $50.00 to see Never Back Down, The Broadway Musical. ;)

  2. Burr's bio says he joined the Globe in 2002 - wasn't that the year of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme? 2003 saw Ain't Misbehavin' and As You Like It, 2004 included What the Butler Saw and Sonia Flew, 2005 saw The Rivals, Trumbo, CultureClash, and Falsettos, 2006 brought Love's Labour's Lost and Rabbit Hole . . . so which of these do you think almost put Burr in a coma? Sure, there were other weak productions along the way - but nothing, I repeat NOTHING, like what Hollywood churns out year after year. The comparison is absurd. And I think it's about time theatre folks began saying that out loud. Theatre is a perpetual invalid, true - but mainstream cinema is just about a flatliner.