Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #9


We gave the benighted bohemians of Brooklyn a much-needed respite last week, and in return we are now tormented by the Must-See Museums edition of Time Out New York (TONY).  Clearly, no good deed goes unpunished, as the good people of the editorial staff have once again committed crimes of taste, lack-of-discernment and muddled reportage. 

This being TONY, the Museum Must-Sees article highlights the artistic detritus that can only be found in the Whitney Museum of American Art.  (I am sure it’s no surprise that the Whitney is listed below the Museum of Sex, or, perhaps they were purposely grouped by type?)  The Whiney is currently showcasing work by Cory Arcangel, which are essentially video game images projected on the wall.  Or, as TONY writes, “you’ll be bombarded by seven bowling video games, dating between the late ‘70s and the early 2000s.  The backgrounds are projected onto the wall in a row, like the lanes in any alley.  Two cool things to note: The artist hacked each game and programmed it to bowl only gutter balls; and you get to see some awesomely retro consoles, including ‘80s and ‘90s Nintendos and an Atari 2600 from 1977.”  In other words, your garage sale is now big-ticket art.

The Whitney is also displaying No Title by Eva Hesse, “considered one of the Whitney’s treasures” TONY obligingly tells us.  No Title is, of course, that bit of plastic-covered netting hanging from the ceiling.  Or, as curator Donna De Salvo writes, “it’s a paradigm shifting work … [that] captures that whole moment that was going on after Minimalism, moving beyond rigid objects defined by solid borders.”  Well, that’s what Ms. De Salvo wrote, and we can only imagine that her check cleared.

Page 26, the Shopping & Style section, profiles Rob Ordonez.  Mr. Ordonez is a rather beefy young man with a blue Mohawk haircut and a ring through his nose.  But, let’s have Mr. Ordonez explain himself:  “I’m inspired by freaks, skins and people that don’t fit in with regular society … I have six piercings, and I brought my diamond hoop earring to cheer myself up after a bad breakup.”  One shudders to think of what would happen if he were truly heart-broken.

Finally, TONY again demonstrates that it is incapable of admiration for truly distinguished work on page 88, when Looking Forward describes 1968 film great Planet of the Apes as a “campy we-are-the-chimp-ions classic.”  Campy?  Meaning … it’s intended to be good?  Sigh.  Once again, TONY shoots from the Hip.

More next week!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

William Somerset Maugham and Of Human Bondage

William Somersert Maugham

Many critics consider Of Human Bondage (1915) to be the great masterpiece of William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965).  I haven’t read the book since my earliest youth, and a longing for Maugham (or, perhaps, my youth) led me to reread the novel.
Bondage is the story of Philip Carey, born with a clubfoot and a deeply sensitive nature.  After the death of his mother, Philip is sent to live with his cold and distant uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, where he is largely unloved or ignored.  Philip soon goes to school, where his clubfoot is the source of some ridicule, but young Carey does well and seems destined for Oxford.  Instead, yielding to impulse, Philip moves to Heidelberg to study on his own.
Returning to England, he enters into an unsatisfying romance with an older woman before moving to London as a chartered accountant.  Unhappy in an office, Philip then goes to Paris to study painting.  He lives a wonderful Bohemian life until a fellow failed art-student, Miss Price, commits suicide.  Though he has had a great deal of pleasure in Paris, Philip realizes he’ll never be a ‘great’ artist, and returns to England.
It’s in London that Philip finds his true calling, medicine.  He works as a medical student while forming an unhealthy, obsessive passion for a slatternly waitress, Mildred.  Despite his adoration, Mildred treats Philip with disdain, exploiting, insulting and humiliating him.  When Mildred leaves town with a friend of Philip's (who pays for their trip!), our protagonist runs out of money and takes a low-paying position as a shop clerk.
Once his uncle dies, Philip receives a small inheritance.  Mildred comes back into the picture, now with child, and Philip pays for the pre-and-post natal care.  Mildred has become a prostitute and, to spare her that indignity, Philip invites her to live with him in exchange for house-keeping duties.  Once it is apparent that Philip has overcome his obsession for her, Mildred flies into a rage and destroys all of his belongings, trashing the apartment.  She leaves him … perhaps forever.
As Philip finishes his residency, he slowly falls in love with a young country girl, the daughter of a friend.  He passes Mildred in the street, now secure in his freedom from her, and later proposes to the young woman prior to moving off to become a country doctor in a small seaside town.
Of Human Bondage is a remarkable book that plays to all of Maugham’s strengths and weaknesses.  Maugham is perhaps the most interesting, insightful and polished short story writer of the Twentieth Century, looking at raw human behavior with honesty and compassion.  His short stories “Rain,” “The Letter,” and “The Outstation” are all masterpieces of the form.  He also had a special gift for observing the Englishman Abroad, and his stories of Southeast Asia reflect his own extensive travels throughout the Empire.  His ‘travel books,’ for want of a better phrase, are important aesthetic and historical documents, chronicling a time when the world was small and many of its peoples simple. 
His novels, however, are often a mixed bag.  They suffer from an episodic quality that often feels like a series of inter-connected short stories, rather than a sustained narrative.  As you can see from this synopsis, Of Human Bondage has material enough for several short stories, and perhaps even three-or-four novels.  For this critic, the most successful Maugham novel is The Moon and Sixpence (1919), a masterful evocation of Paul Gauguin and his world, because the story is sustained and each digression is central to the overall narrative structure.
Bondage is a largely autobiographical novel.  Like Philip, Maugham was orphaned, raised by a chilly Vicar, had a disability (he stammered rather than had a clubfoot), was fascinated by art and became a doctor.  This overlapping of fact and fiction became a Maugham trademark, later writing that “fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other."
The central interest in Bondage is the story of the Philip-Mildred relationship.  It seems as if there is no debasement, no humiliation, and no attack (physical or emotional) to which Philip will not submit in his love of her.  Mildred is a creation both comical and horrific: a prostitute with aspirations of gentility, a nitwit with pretence of learning, a living vampire in human form.  Though the abuses she heaps on Philip rivals the trials of Job, the fact that he loves her and willfully submits to her torments is always believable.  Perhaps Maugham, a homosexual at a historical period that encouraged self-loathing and recrimination, was exploring his own sexual anxieties in the Philip-Mildred relationship.  We may never know.
Maugham’s biography is the stuff of legend: world traveler, espionage agent, playwright, art collector, literary stylist.  Those interested in learning more should read Somerset Maugham (1980), by Ted Morgan, my favorite biography of this fascinating man.  Future installments will revisit Maugham and his work.
Maugham was something of an anomaly even in his own time, a ‘literary’ writer who was also popular with mainstream audiences.  This popularity has, perhaps, led to his dismissal by some literary critics who equate readability with irrelevance.  This is a mistake, as Maugham is one of the defining English language voices of the last century, who continues to be insightful, relevant and informative today.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Master of Ballantrae


My recent musings on the movie Black Magic cast my mind back to one of my favorite swashbuckling novels, The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) written in 1889.

Ballantrae is the story of two brothers, one good, the other bad, and the conflict between them that mars their lives. (Think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde turned into a familial drama).   This novel is a great, Gothic-flavored adventure featuring a fascinating villain, Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae.

Jamie Durie is the most colorful character in the book; as is often the case in swashbuckling adventure tales, the villain gets all the best parts.  Like the Cagliostro of Black Magic , Ballantrae features the villain as the main protagonist.  The attainments of Jamie are formidable: master swordsman, soldier of fortune, athlete, dandy, scholar and possessor of a fatal charm.  Jamie is aggressively charming – and his is a fatal charm.  He treats people badly, but it doesn’t matter.  He is more highly regarded than his decent (and publicly despised) brother Henry because Jamie’s charm is charged with color and vitality and energy.  Life around him is an event, leaving even his bitterest enemies entranced.

Think of what the great charmers of the classic movie era would’ve done with him!  John Barrymore may well have made the definitive Ballantrae.  Or Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  Or George Sanders or Basil Rathbone or even Louis Haywood.  All, for different reasons, would’ve been great.

It is notable that the most memorable swashbuckling characters, and characters who define what it is to be a swashbuckler, are the villains. It is almost as if there is something in the makeup of the swashbuckling hero – the theatricality, the dandyism, the artifice, or some other quality (the freedom, perhaps?)  – that reads more effectively outside the realm of angels.  The best swashbuckling villains often embody the attributes of the best swashbuckling heroes – almost as if these qualities in abundance lead to villainy.

Like Cagliostro, Jamie is undone by his own overarching passions.  Jamie lacks Cagliostro’s Gothic flourishes – he would never hypnotize a woman to make him love him, he’d move on to the next wench.  But he has insouciance, a sense of fun, a delight in his own villainy that makes Master of Ballantrae, the book and the man, delicious.

There are two movie versions of Ballantrae.  The first, starring Errol Flynn as Jamie, was released in 1953.  It is a very disappointing affair.  Flynn (1909-1959) famous as a screen hero, could not play an out-and-out villain, and the screenplay by Herb Meadow had a last-reel turnaround to clean up the character.  The other, infinitely superior, adaptation was in 1984, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.  That starred Richard Thomas as good-boy Henry, and a wonderful Michael York as Jamie.  (York exuberantly portrayed D'Artagnan in the Richard Lester Musketeer films, again proving that the line between charming hero and beloved rogue is a thin one).  Sadly, this version is not currently available on DVD, but it can sometimes be found on eBay.  It is worth searching for.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jacob Collins in The New Yorker


This week, instead of the usual hectoring of the benighted Brooklyn Bohemians at Time Out New York (TONY), let’s focus our attention on a worthy publication and an important article that gets it (mostly) right. 

The New Yorker has been a beacon of intelligent reportage and arts coverage since 1925.  Reading The New Yorker after a steady diet of TONY is rather like drinking from a clean, clear mountain spring after living off of spunk water.   This week, journalist Adam Gopnik details his attempts to learn to draw and, in the process, profiles artist Jacob Collins.

My long-established admiration for Collins as an artist, an arts activist and a teacher is without bounds.  He has been at the forefront of a strong, pervasive and ever-growing movement to correct the course that art (and art history) has taken after its disastrous, dehumanizing collision with Modernism.  For Collins (like your correspondent and millions of others in an invisible majority), the break from the Academy was not an explosion of new freedoms, but an invitation to hollow, ridiculous and often offensive amateurism and self-indulgence.  Aside from the beauty of his work, Collins also joins such diverse figures as Graydon Parrish, Ted Seth Jacobs, Anthony Ryder and Ephraim Rubenstein as an important teacher to new generations of artists who aspire to virtuosity.

There is much to savor in Gopnik’s story, as well as much that induces the shrug of resignation that always greets comments from critics steeped in the Modernist/Post Modernist tradition.  Gopnik relates how he met Collins at a dinner party, but obviously does not know who he is.  For a reporter with a history of arts reportage not to know of Jacob Collins is rather like a music critic unaware of Simone Dinnerstein – but I suppose that’s not too surprising.  The line that pierced me to (and through) the heart, however, was the comment Gopnik records while learning to draw at Collins’ atelier: How do they do that trick?

This is the kind of misguided thinking that has made artistic technical virtuosity suspect while applauding the childish scrawls of Julian Schnabel.  Beautiful drawing is not a trick … it’s a discipline, it’s a skill, it’s a state of grace.  It comes only after a long, arduous and committed apprenticeship, and only to those with both talent and dedication.  The flight from beauty (to use Roger Scuton’s felicitous phrase) that reduces this sublime mystery to a trick is endemic of the Modernist mindset, and the enemy of art.

But, happily, Gopnik gets it in the end.  After a trip with Collins to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they view both the Bonzino drawings and doodles by Alex Katz, Gopnik finally comes to some détente with Collins on the idea of beauty.  He writes, “I had come to feel not just inadequate as an art critic, in the absence of any skill, but also alienated from art in its current guise.  Learning to draw was my way of confronting my disillusion with some of the louder sonorities and certitudes of the art with which I had grown up and for which I had once been a fierce advocate … Over the years, however, the absence of true skill – the skill to do something with your fingers at the command of your mind, which can be done only by a few, after long practice – unmanned my love, and that created a problem for me.”

Gopnik is also ready to entertain the notion that it is possible that the abstract approach might be, well, wrong.  “Jacob knew the score,” he writes.  “But what if he was right, and the whole thing had been a mistake, and we all had to start over from scratch, or at least from a sketch?  It was a possibility worth looking at.”

This article, I think, is an important moment in the reclamation of our artistic tradition.  The invisible majority mentioned previously is becoming more and more visible.  Perhaps the saturation of absurdity found in most pop culture has finally persuaded art’s critical establishment that it is a game without rules, and therefore not worth playing.  We’ll see.  However, I think the intellectual garage sale that has been Modernism (and all the pufferies that followed it) is collecting its last dime before closing up shop.  Now we just have to wait for galleries and the market they manipulate to catch up to the rest of us.

One last brief word about The Grand Central Academy of Art.  This is the school founded by Jacob Collins, located in mid-town Manhattan.  To quote their Web site, “The Grand Central Academy of Art … is built on the skills and ideas that have come from the classical world, the Italian Renaissance and through to the Beaux-Art tradition of the nineteenth century.   The Academy is a center for the revival of the classical tradition where a new generation of artists is supported in the pursuit of skill and beauty.”  Interested readers can learn more at: http://grandcentralacademy.classicist.org/index.html.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That Old Black Magic

Orson Welles and Partner-in-Crime Akim Tamiroff in the
little-known, little appreciated Black Magic (1949)


One of the great mysteries to me is why so many films of note have never made it to DVD.  Case in point the little-known but fascinating film Black Magic, starring Orson Welles and directed by Gregory Ratoff in 1949.  (Movie buffs are probably more familiar with Ratoff the actor – he played producer Max Fabian in All About Eve.)  I first saw this film on television during its annual 3:00 a.m. showing on the New York CBS outlet, and it has effectively cemented itself to my psyche ever since.  New York’s Film Forum (an oasis for serious cineastes) ran it in 2004 and I was enthralled once again.

I think what was so compelling for me (then and now) is that I can think of no other film that so embodies the spirit of literary Romanticism.  Black Magic could well serve as a checklist for the touchstones of this literary tributary.

The film is based on Joseph Balsamo by Alexander Dumas, Sr.  In fact – both Dumas, father and son – appear in a delightful framing sequence.  In short -- Alexander Dumas, Sr. (Berry Kroeger) tells his son Alexander Dumas, Jr. (Raymond Burr!) the story of Joseph Balsamo (Orson Welles), who later nearly enslaved most of Europe to his hypnotic will under the name Cagliostro.

As a boy, Balsamo witnessed the murder of his parents at the hands of a corrupt nobleman.  Becoming a traveling player and medicine man, Balsamo learns that he has charismatic gift of hypnotism.  Looking into his eyes, Balsamo can literally will a subject to health or illness.

Balsamo comes to the attention of Dr. Franz Mesmer (a real-life figure and one of the fathers of modern hypnotism), who helps Balsamo realize his gifts.  Balsamo then disappears from the scene, only to return later as the master healer, Cagliostro.

But simple accumulation of wealth is not Cagliostro’s sole plan – he devises a scheme to substitute a young girl called Lorenza (Nancy Guild) for the French queen Marie Antoinette, and thus become the power behind the throne.  He also manages to eliminate the aristocrat who murdered his family.

Like many great Romantic and Gothic texts (and Black Magic is both), the film is densely over-plotted; filled with schemes and intrigues, replete with royal shenanigans and intricate love triangles.  Black Magic is also a multi-generational revenge plot, much like Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The action of the story is pitched on a high emotional plain of  fever-pitch passion.  The film’s version of Dumas claims that the character of Cagliostro has possessed, hypnotized, and consumed him, the creator of Edmund Dantes and the Three Musketeers!  This is lush Romantic-era hyperbole and a wonderful evocation of the Romantic imagination. 

Welles makes for an appealing, Byronic anti-hero.  He is conflicted, contradictory and both heroic and villainous.  Draped in black cape and outrageous robes with magical symbols, he’s a crazy house reflection of his earlier radio characterization of The Shadow.  In fact, his eyes – controlling, hypnotic, powerful -- are almost an individual character in themselves.  Welles’ eyes are superimposed over people, over images, over Europe, as slowly, Cagliostro takes control….

The cult of personality is largely an invention of the Romantic era, and Black Magic also rather critically looks at our slavish devotion to charismatics as Cagliostro bamboozles an entire continent with his hypnotic personality.

Black Magic is a fascinating amalgam of swashbuckling adventure, Gothic horror, florid Romanticism and political intrigue.  Scenarist Charles Bennett includes premature burials, gibbets, sadistic aristocrats, gypsies, magic, hypnotism, and revenge.  I am amazed that this film is so little known, even among Welles aficionados, and fervently wish it would become available to movie buffs in DVD or Blu-Ray format.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Winsor McCay and Little Nemo in Slumberland

The Genius of Winsor McCay (click to enlarge)

Since we started this week with cartoons, it seems only fitting that we end it with our animated fancies, as well.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Winsor McCay’s short film Little Nemo.  It was not the first animated film, but it was the first animated film to enter the realm of art.  McCay, who worked during both the infancy of comic strips and animated films, was a draftsman of remarkable ability.  Like many great artists, drawing was a compulsion for him.  McCay started drawing in his earliest boyhood, and did not stop until the day he had the stroke which would later kill him.  In a letter to cartoonist Clare Briggs, McCay wrote: “The principal factor in my success has been an absolute desire to draw constantly. I never decided to be an artist. Simply, I could not stop myself from drawing. I drew for my own pleasure. I never wanted to know whether or not someone liked my drawings. I drew on walls, the school blackboard, old bits of paper, the walls of barns. Today I’m still as fond of drawing as when I was a kid — and that’s a long time ago…”
McCay drew several different comic strips, as well as editorial cartoons, before beginning Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1915.  These beautifully drawn strips rely heavily on a fluid (almost languid) Art Nouveau sensibility, along with a restless imagination and rich sense of whimsy.  One of the great ironies of Winsor McCay was that while he worked during the infancy of comic strips, he was also perhaps the last great master of the medium.  (It is also important to remember that most newspaper comic strips of the day were broadsheet size with lush, lavish color.  To look at them reproduced on your computer – or even in most books – is akin to understanding a symphony when someone is simply humming it.)
Little Nemo chronicled the adventures of Nemo, who entered Slumberland every night in his dreams.  There, he encountered King Morpheus, the Princess of Slumberland, Flip (a cigar-chomping huckster) and Impy, a cannibal.  Each strip ended with Nemo awaking in bed, often contorted in a manner mimicking the end of his dream.
Beginning in 1911, McCay took his artistry to the vaudeville circuit.  McCay had made flip books for his son Robert and the seeds of animation took root in his mind.  McCay made over 4,000 drawings for his Little Nemo cartoon, working in India ink on rice paper and timing the movements with a stopwatch.  An assistant worked with him to hand-tint each frame of the film to keep a consistent look with the comic strip.  The cartoon was a tremendous success, and McCay followed it years later with another, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). 
McCay stopped making animated films in 1921, but the fruits of his genius did not wither when he retired.  He had a tremendous influence on an entire generation of artists, illustrators and animators – including a young man named Walt Disney.
McCay was not enthusiastic over the work of many who made cartoons after him.  He was the guest of honor at a dinner in 1927 thrown by fellow animators.  During he speech, McCay said, “animation should be an art, that is how I conceived it … but as I see what you fellows have done with it is making it into a trade … not an art, but a trade … bad luck.”  He then sat down.
Readers interested in McCay should read John Canemaker’s monumental Winsor McCay: His Life and Art one of the finest artist biographies your correspondent has ever read.  Many of McCay’s cartoons are online, and readily available through a You Tube search.  Prepare to be amazed.



Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #8


The tragic thing about this weekly visit with the cultural rot that is Time Out New York (TONY) is that, on some horrible level, I have grown to enjoy it.  Much like Philip debasing himself to Mildred in Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, wallowing in the swill that is TONY has its own peculiar, addictive satisfaction.  Now, I eagerly await each issue, thinking … what abomination have they for me next?  And … I like it. 

The stupidity begins as early as page 6 (the Staff Question section), where TONY-toilers were asked, “what’s your ideal night in?”  Fairly simple?  The Associate Editor, Features (no need to embarrass her again by naming her), says, “On an ideal Friday evening, you’ll find me holed up in my apartment, gorging on spicy chicken-and-vegetable red curry, and watching Glee or Buffy reruns.”  This is bad enough, but it’s not a patch on the reply of TONY’s Senior Designer, who responds, “video games, booze and bad movies.  My Netflix queue is overflowing with box-office turds that must be watched!”  Now … we can be charitable and simply believe these ironic Gothamites are simply struggling to be clever.  Or, more tragically, we can take them at their word…

Art on page 49 includes a write-up of the MoMa PS1 show, Nancy Grossman: Heads.  Now, to the credit of TONY reporter Claire Barliant, she does wonder if this collection of S/M leather masks in an almost empty room is really “a celebration of sadomasochism or a commentary on patriarchal oppression.”  Or something.  I would ask, perhaps, if it was merely junk.  However, the howler in the article is this quote by Susan Sontag, “the color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”  Now, among dimwits embraced by a benighted intelligentsia, Sontag hovers somewhere behind the goofy and unbalanced Ayn Rand.   One can only read scrofulous prose like this with an indulgent smile and the fervent hope the writer will eventually recover. 

Page 105, in the Off Broadway Theater section, reviews Sex on the Beach.  In this play, “former Classical Theatre of Harlem chief Alfred Preisser directs the Off Broadway premiere of Roy Arias’s 2006 portrait of three Caribbean sex workers: one male, one female and another in-between.”  I have a somewhat better title for them: The Riddle of the Sands.

More next week!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Modest Proposal: A New Mathematical Theorem

Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to find mathematics in these pages, but there are times when questions of art can only be settled through the precise measurements of science.  With that, I propose a new scientific model by which one can gage both intellectual and aesthetic attainments, as well as IQ.  It is, simply, this: an individual’s taste and intelligence is in direct contrast to the volume of his or her car radio.

Attend: let us assume that an individual’s “normal” IQ is 100.  A person listening to his car radio at a normal volume (e.g., audible only to people within the car, even with windows open), is at 100.  If that person is listening to Classical Music, or melodies as defined by the Great American Songbook, add anywhere from 10-to-30 points, depending on taste and depth of understanding.  Listeners to Vivaldi and Jule Styne, for example, are closer to the 110 range, while listeners to Brahms and Cole Porter nearer the 130.  Add additional points for an understanding of musical history and/or theory, details of the composer’s or performing artist’s biography, as well as one’s support for public radio.

Now, working with the same “normal” baseline of 100 and the same car radio at an even volume, let us look at other musical tastes.  If an individual has a taste for country music, deduct 5-to-15 points.  For rock (including, but not limited to, funk, punk, glitter, glam, metal, etc.), deduct 15-to-30 points.  For rapp, hip hop, gangsta ad nauseam, deduct 30-to-60 points.  If you have a taste for gospel, you are a living contradiction – it’s impossible to like gospel and still possess an immortal soul.  (And every adult should  feel intellectually diminished by simply writing the words funk, punk, glitter, rapp, gangsta….)

However, the real key to this intelligence test is volume.  Using the score received above, adjust thusly: any individual playing a car radio in a volume audible to those in the car, but no more, add 20 points.  If the volume is audible to those within the car, but does not inhibit conversation within the car, add 45 points.

If the volume is audible only within the car, but conversation is impossible, deduct 35 points.  If the music is audible five feet away from the car with the windows open, deduct 50 points.  Ten feet away with the windows open, deduct 65 points.  Twenty-to-30 feet away, deduct 75 points.  If the volume is audible 100 feet away from the car with the windows open, you are clearly too stupid to drive.  If the volume is audible 100 feet away and the windows are closed, it is quite possible that the driver is brain dead.

From this, it is clear that those who score lowest on this new theorem are those who play their music the loudest.  Have you never noticed that passing cars never blast (or, to use the common vulgar parlance, crank) Tchaikovsky or Schubert or Jerome Kern or George Gershwin?  That is simply because lack of musical taste plus excessive volume equals the most dire stupidity.

To test the validity of these assertions, in your travels throughout the day, look closely at those drivers whose car radios are the loudest.  Are they usually not unrefined and ugly, antisocial and filled with adolescent aggression?  Indeed, when have you last had to cover your ears because a passing motorist was cranking Stravinsky or Mahler?  Odds are, never.  Civility may be a word that currently has little cultural currency, but it does mean something to the select few.

With these findings on hand, I propose a new set of tests for prospective drivers.  Individuals arriving for their written or road test wearing headphones are immediately excluded from the licensing process.  A complete list of records/CDs/music downloaded must be part of the application process, and a taste for any of the juvenilia that encompasses so much contemporary “music” makes ownership of a car radio or stereo set punishable by law.

I am convinced that application of this new theorem will maximize driver safety, increase civility in our culture, and drive (if you’ll pardon the verb) cultural social responsibility. 

Think about it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tempest Tossed

Last night the Julliard School, along with actors Richard Clifford and Monica Raymund, performed selected readings from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, accompanied by 17th century songs and instrumental pieces.  WQXR, an oasis in a culturally retrenching New York, provided live streaming of the event.  (If you missed it last night, it will be repeated on the WQXR Web site, wqxr.org, Sunday, June 26th, at 4:00 p.m.)

The great reason to have tuned in (or to tune in on Sunday) was that Sir Derek Jacobi joined the company to read Prospero.  This is obviously the summer of Jacobi for lucky New Yorkers; in addition to his magnificent Lear at BAM, lucky Gothamites had the opportunity to meet him at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine last week, or watch him perform in last night’s staged reading.

Sadly, last night’s reading of The Tempest was surely the least of these events.  Jacobi, as usual, was brilliant as the exiled magician of Shakespeare’s greatest play.  It’s just that the surrounding mediocrity did little to support the great man.

I knew we were in trouble when Richard Clifford, who directed and adapted the production, opened the evening by coming onstage and explaining how he adapted Shakespeare.  Clifford came across as so horrifically unctuous, so vulgarly “artistic,” that the evening had trouble recovering from its own introduction.  (Clifford did not quite open with, “greetings culture lovers and doily sniffers,” but it sure was close.)  It is this unintentional camp that often prevents people from embracing the fine arts.  Clifford is a fairly wretched actor, to boot.  His Caliban was a more reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash than that tormented creation; he could give cartoons a bad name.

He was abetted by Monica Raymund, playing the major female parts of Ariel and Miranda.  She failed at both.  Countertenor David Daniels, baritone Bob McDonald and Juilliard415, the school’s student historical performance group, were also in the cast.   They left no impression on me whatsoever.

The Juilliard benefit reading employed Shakespeare’s text from a 1674 staging of The Tempest as well as other period works; the composers included Matthew Locke, John Banister, Pelham Humfrey, Georg Frideric Handel and Antonino Reggio.  Amazingly, they managed to fit all of this into a brief 90 minutes.

Enough with the bad (and heaven knows there was enough of it) and on with the good.  No, make that great.  Though only a staged reading, Jacobi’s Prospero was a marvel.  Because Prospero includes some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language, it has become the custom for actors to sing the part.  Sir John Gielgud was the most egregious offender is this respect, but his beautiful voice made it a forgivable sin.  Frank Langella, one of our finest North American classical actors, mostly sang the part during his New York run (with a fabulous B. D. Wong as Caliban); Patrick Stewart, playing Prospero in New York’s Central Park and later Broadway managed to avoid this trap.

But Jacobi absented the over-sweetness so common in the part during last night’s reading.  Jacobi delineated the full man: wizard, dreamer, victim, avenger, and redeemer.  He is certainly among the small handful of brilliant classical actors working today, and for the brief snippets we were afforded his Prospero, everything else was forgivable.

A few words now about WQXR.  It’s amazing that New York, one of the great cultural centers of the free world, has only one radio station dedicated to classical music.  It was previously owned by the New York Times, but the newspaper unloaded the station last year as a cost-saving measure.  It has been a public station ever since, and relies on the generosity of its listeners.  I urge my readers to listen – and to give – to WQXR.  It’s 105.9 on the dial, but can be heard online at www.wqxr.org.  The playlist is often magnificent, and most of the on-air personalities easy-to-take.  Anyone involved in the arts should make time to get aquatinted with this wonderful resource.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Classic Cartoons Preserved


Of the indigenous American arts forms, few are more satisfying, as delightful, and as ultimately ineffable as animated cartoons.  Often mistakenly dismissed as entertainment for children, many animated cartoons rank among the great American film classics.  Surely What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd crucify Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is the work of a certain type of genius, as are the Popeye cartoons produced by Max Fleischer in the 1930s and the great Felix the Cat cartoons of the silent era.

Sadly, the very thought that so much of this material was disposable led to poor (or no) preservation, and often restoration of many fragile films is an effort requiring prohibitive amounts of time and money.  Add to that, there are gaps in the animation record that film historians have been trying to fill for decades.  Interested readers would do well to check Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin (1980) and Before Mickey by Donald Crafton (1982).

One of the most prolific animation studios during the silent era was Bray Studios.  Founded in 1914 by J. R. Bray, Bray Studios was the first successful production company solely dedicated to animated films.  Such celebrated animators as Max and Dave Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Milt Gross and Pat Sullivan were all part of the Bray stable at one time or other.  Bray produced many series cartoons that would help shape and define the medium, including the Fleischer Out of the Inkwell cartoons, Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan.

The Golden Age of Bray’s animation output was the era from World War I to the end of the 1920s, but animation continued, in a limited way, until as late as 1963.  The complete history of the company has become lost to scholars and archivists, and many of the classic films missing.

Happily, young animated film historian Thomas Stathes has started work that will find and restore some of these films, as well as create a complete history of Bray and its output.  That is all here at his new Web site, The Bray Animation Project, found at:  http://brayanimation.weebly.com.  We caught up with Mr. Stathes recently and he shared some of his story with us.

You are such a young man – what spurred your interest in lost and vintage animation?

I've never been able to figure out the exact origins of my interests. Like most children, I was very interested in cartoons but was attracted very early on to the few black and white cartoons I could see at the time, in the early 1990s. I suppose a childhood fascination with history and past forms of graphic design attracted me to the earlier films, but I cannot explain the fascination in any more detail than that, as it's also part mystery to me. As I grew slightly older, I started reading into the history of animated cartoons and began to realize that so few actual examples could be seen, this prompted me to begin searching for the films. 

There are a lot of great animated classics out there.  Why have you focused so clearly on what is missing?

Everyone loves and patronizes the classics. The lost and obscure films are so much more interesting to me for the very reason that finding them is like a treasure hunt. What's more, our rich animation history should be preserved, so aside from my personal joy gleaned from searching for and finding these films, I feel the need to rescue them when so few others have made the same kind of concerted effort.

What first attracted you to the Bray output?

As we've established, J.R. Bray's studio was the first successful model for an outfit that produced primarily animated cartoons. This fact alone makes the studio's films extremely historically and culturally relevant in terms of film studies. Unfortunately, however, some historians and many casual fans who have seen the few circulating Bray cartoons over the past 40 years have been stuck on the fact that some of the films were not always aesthetically pleasing or overly fluid in terms of animation. As I entered my teenage years and became more of a film print collector, it became clear to me that the Bray cartoons were a sort of 'underdog' in the silent animation category and needed to be further located and studied. I believe the general outlook on Bray cartoons in previous years had caused some disinterest in organizing a large hunt for the films, or at least before the launch of this project. On the Web site, I openly state that the project seeks not to critique the films artistically, but to collect and preserve them for their historical significance.

Tell us about the Web site?

The Web site features several useful tools. First and foremost, surfers can enjoy plenty of text and imagery as educational tools. Of direct interest to archivists and collectors is the animated cartoon filmography, which is presented as one full list and also broken down into series, artists, or characters on their respective pages. The filmography is color-coded based on film survival; for example, titles in red are not known to exist while titles in gray are known to be in other collections and titles in green are the films I have personally found to date. In addition, there is a discussion board for all interested parties to peruse.

How many cartoons are now on the site and how many will you be adding over time?

Currently, there are approximately a dozen cartoons which can be viewed on the site, as linked to YouTube. Over the next few months, I look forward to uploading several more. It would be great to have at least one cartoon viewable on each series or character page; if such an example exists.

What are your future plans, both for the Bray Animation Project and in general?

I expect to gradually add more to the project Web site such as text and images, as well as cartoons. More importantly, though, is that the website will hopefully attract collectors and archivists who can verify films surviving in other collections. From that point, I hope more of the films can be acquired or copied so that the project collection can become more and more complete. Within one week of launching the Web site, I've already received leads for three or four films that I originally had marked as red, or "lost", so I am especially hopeful that the site will bring together 'outlier' knowledge and films related to the Bray Studios. In a general sense, I will always continue to collect all silent-era animated films, and may create websites for other studios in the future.

Readers interested in both early animation and Bray should visit The Bray Animation Project. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

First (and Last) Contact For Evan Mandery


Irony is a potent weapon in the writer’s critical and artistic arsenal.  However snark, the debased and juvenile distant cousin of irony, is the enemy of art.  Snark, a portmanteau word combining snide and remark, is a spoiler; it diminishes rather than elevates, cheapens rather than adds value, and appeals to the lowest common denominator.

These thoughts crossed my mind while reading First Contact: Or, It’s Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded) by Evan Mandery.  It is, if we need such a thing, a textbook example of everything that is wrong with snark.

Ostensibly a science fiction novel, Mandery’s attempt at irony in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut (in fact, in several instances of clumsy solipsism, the novelist points out the parallels between this book and the work Vonnegut) tells the story of a young presidential aide involved in the historic First Contact between human beings and an alien race.  Then, in the true province of snark, everything is cut down to size.  Alien civilizations are tacky mirror images of our own, human emotions are reduced to stupid misunderstandings, and the life is robbed of its meaning.

In addition, the book chokes on countless “humorous” asides that are simply not funny.  Midway through the novel, for example, the action stops as we are treated to a scene of an alien mother reading First Contact to her precocious two year old son, who criticizes the book mercilessly.  (He has our sympathy!)  Whether this is a defense mechanism on Mandery’s part – “gee, I know it’s lousy, too!” – or simply one of the many jokes that misfires, is unknown to your correspondent.  Indeed, the title of the book itself is also a humorous aside, as the story points out that the famous Monty Python parrot sketch is not included.

Here is a taste of one of Mandery’s asides: “At a certain level of abstraction, it is very difficult to draw a distinction between the class of pursuits that might be deemed worthwhile and those that would not.  If someone’s pastime were, say, feeding soup to the homeless, this would certainly strike me at first blush as more important than contriving interstellar car accidents.  But if one looks at things with the kind of angst-ridden, metaphysically paralyzed what-does-any-of-it-mean sensibility that underlies this book, then nothing really matters.  I mean, we are all going to die anyway, perhaps as soon as eighteen months if Fendle-Frinkle is right, and many homeless people don’t even like soup.  From this perspective, none of these choices make one bean of a difference.”

I’m sure legions of 14 year olds would find this piffle satisfying, but it is really ramshackle stuff.  It also hits precisely the underlying problem with snark – its complete and utter contempt for sincerity, for depth of emotion and for the rigor of true irony. 

Evan Mandery (born 1967) also peppers his novel with countless pop culture references to figures as disparate as Sinclair Lewis, Einstein and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the usual assortment of musical tropes geared toward those who would argue the rock is somehow a valid art form: Sting, the Police, Green Day and the Beatles.  Sting, in fact, is mentioned often in passing, working on Sudoku puzzles, drinking tea and worrying about the environment.  There is no point, really, to any of these references, but it does help Mandery meet his page numbers.

There are those, I suppose, with a taste for this stuff.  However, one has the feeling after reading First Contact that one hasn’t really read anything.  Perhaps that’s the intent.  Snark, indeed!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #7


And so, Time Out New York (TONY) has once again hit the stands.  You know the drill: inane criticism, lead-footed irony, poor reportage… So, let’s get to it.

On page 54 (the Your Perfect Weekend section), we find: “Even though Keith Olbermann is starting his new gig as the host of the relaunched Countdown with Keith Olbermann on June 20, it’s unlikely that he’ll delve into the show too much tonight.  Instead, the former MSNBC talking head will discuss humorist James Thurber, who regularly penned pieces for The New Yorker before his death in 1961.  Olbermann isn’t the only one celebrating Thurber tonight: New Yorker contributors Calvin Trillin and Robert Mankoff will also be there, as will Thurber’s daughter, Rosemary.”  Now, your correspondent is second to none in his admiration for Olbermann.  I once met him where he presented on a forum dedicated to humorists Bob and Ray, where I was happy to shake his hand and call him a true American patriot.  However … is this notice really about Olbermann?  Is this, just perhaps, really about James Thurber?  And wouldn’t TONY have been more correct to say something (albeit briefly?) about Thurber?  And perhaps even Trillin and Mankoff?  Perhaps TONY should file this under a brand new section, called Bury the Lead.

Best by Day on page 58 includes the Underground Rebel Bingo Club, which reads “London import Underground Rebel Bingo Club dispels the notion that bingo is for losers and old people.  This raucous party, which will take place in a secret Gramercy location [?], involves burlesque dancers, trippy prizes (like LED-covered umbrellas), and drawing all over strangers’ bodies with brightly colored pens.”  Suddenly, losers and old people look very appealing to us.

Same section, page 71, details Reverend Billy and the Church of Earthalujah, with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.  There, “Anticonsumerism activist Reverend Billy brings his chorus to Housing Works for a performance to celebrate the release of his forthcoming book, The Reverend Billy Project: From Rehearsal Hall to Super Mall with the Church of Life After Shopping.”  Wait a minute … doesn’t that mean he wants us to buy his book?  No matter; gospel music has the delightful side-effect of shutting down all normal brain function.

Art on page 77 has two treats for us this week.  First off, we have David LaChapelle, “Raging Toward Truth.”  Here we are told, “The famed photog tries his hand at collage, using his own ripped-up images as material, as well as watercolor and drawing.  The show’s centerpiece is a large-scale take on Raft of the Medusa, the 1818 masterpiece by Theodore Gericault.  Instead of starved sailors, however, the benighted vessel in LaCahpelle’s version is crewed by naked fashion models.”  The puerility of this supposition is just too easy to comment upon; have we really descended from making masterpieces ourselves to playing vapid Post Modern tricks on the few we legitimately have? 

Same page, we have John O’Reilly, “Recent Montage.”  Here we are told “The artist’s photomontages blend elements of Old Master art with softcore homoerotic pornography.”  Once again, insert your own joke here.

More next week!