Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #1

There is no better yardstick of America’s tragic cultural decay than the weekly horror show that is Time Out New York (TONY).

Written with rancid ironic wit by arrested adolescents self-congratulatory in their cultural aridity, TONY has a loyal readership of hygiene-challenged “hipsters” who live in one of Manhattan’s outer boroughs.  Each week, TONY provides tragic/comic illustrations of our intellectual and cultural decay.  This week’s issue does not disappoint.

Page 42 includes a listing for The Poetry Brothel, which “presents a literary cathouse, where male and female ‘poetry whores’ provide private readings behind closed curtains.”  I imagine it’s only half-price if you want a quick limerick.

Page 88 (in the Classical and Opera listings!) includes a listing for Anti-Social Music, which celebrates 10 years “of punctuating the ‘who cares if you listen’ attitude of some modernist composers with a punk rock middle finger.”  I suppose we should be grateful the tradition of serious music is in such good hands.  Or fingers.

Page 89 of the same section lists the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is too delicious not to quote in whole.  “It’s okay to feel giddy when Charles Dutoit brings his awesome Philly players to town, especially when the program features a pair of mythical Stravinsky sizzlers, Apollo and Oedipus Rex, with dynamo soloists Paul Groves as Oedipus and Petra Lang as his mama, Jocaste.”  This may be Dadaism, but I’m not sure.

More next week!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Working for Peanuts

Charles Schulz (1922-2000) wanted to be a cartoonist since his earliest boyhood.  It was his sole ambition, his dream, the realization of his best self.  And when he died, little more than 11 years ago, he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, his fame was worldwide, and his creation, Charlie Brown and Peanuts, were familiar to young and old alike.

I spent some time considering Schulz and his contribution to Americana while reading Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (2007).  This is a densely packed biography, filled with exhaustive detail.  There was some controversy when it first appeared, as several members of the Schulz family argued that Michaelis misrepresented the facts to fit his central argument: that Peanuts was a thinly veiled mediation on the Schulz’s own life.  I would suspect, however, that the central point of contention is that the Schulz family expected a fuzzy and nostalgic valentine, and, instead, got a balanced picture of the real man.

Before moving on, let’s address the question – does an artist reflect his own life in his art?  Perhaps not consciously, but yes, always to some degree.  If the role of the artist is reduced simply to “maker of beautiful things,” then the artist is fully half of the equation.  We often react to art without any real knowledge of the artist’s life, but knowing an artist’s background, life experience and historical moment provides insight into the finished work.  If Schulz’s first wife, Joyce Halverson, grew shrewish and withdrawn as Schulz ignored her in favor of his drawing board, then it does not beggar the imagination to see some similar tone or trace of color in the tense relationship between piano-playing Schroder and ignored Lucy.

And who was the real Charles Schulz?  Well, the 704 pages of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography can be condensed into two words: he drew.  It is rare that any creator in any medium attacked his life’s mission with such monomaniacal zeal.  Schulz wanted to draw, taught himself to draw (with the help of correspondence courses), and spent the better part of his life at the drawing table, creating and populating his own world.  His achievement is a prolonged body of work dedicated to a single theme – as such, it is difficult to ignore.

Peanuts has been interpreted and re-interpreted endlessly over the last 50 years or so, and this is not a forum for a précis of his critical consensus.  However, I do think that Schulz revolutionized the “funny kid” comic strip by taking children out of the sandbox, and putting confused and conflicted adults into it.  These are children in name and conception only, and Peanuts works on two levels: comedy for the children and existential angst for the adults.  His innovation became diluted over the years as he allowed his characters to become pitchmen for everything from Met Life to children’s vitamins, but Schulz’s worldview can still be heard through his noisy commercialism.

Which begs the question … “is it art?” This must also result in the question, “is the comic strip art?”

I would say, unequivocally, yes.  (And here let me parenthetically separate comic strips from comic books.  Comic strips are often the work of one dedicated creator, or creative team, who guide their creations through decades of change and innovation.  Comic books, though occasionally of interest, are too often hack work of variable quality.)  There are few indigenous American art forms, but the comic strip certainly qualifies.  And while the comic strip may not quite reach the elevated levels of Fine Art, it is indeed worthy of sober consideration and appreciation.

Back in the Golden Age of American comic strips (staring roughly with Winsor McCay’s art nouveau Little Nemo and ending with the marginalization of the American newspaper in the 1970s), comic strips were printed in four colors, often in broadsheet (or full-page tabloid) format.  Working with so much space and with improvements in the color printing process, cartoonists during this period created works remarkable in tone, composition, color and design.  Giants -- such as McCay, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Harold Gray (Orphan Annie), Milt Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) -- consistently created work of great beauty and originality.

Charles Schulz was never more than an able draftsman, but he put his entire life into his work and made it unique.  As he grew older, his line grew wavy; rather than diminishing his style, it leant later Peanuts strips a certain wistful nostalgia.  He died the day before his last, original Peanuts strip ran in newspapers around the world.  His identification with his art was complete.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Andy Warhol’s Bad

It is rare that a work of art is in complete harmony in style, material, execution and subject.  I was fortunate enough to come across an example yesterday.

It is a statue dedicated to the memory of Andy Warhol located in Union Square, the nation’s epicenter of pretension and expensive bad taste.  The statue, named The Andy Monument with a sort of haunting concision, looks as if it were made of papier-mâché covered with tin foil.  The Warhol figure sports sunglasses, camera and shopping bag, either as a nod to his vulgar commercialism or to the hoards of tourists who pass him by.  As an example of the puerility that was Andy Warhol, it would be hard to beat.

Before we go, a few words about Andy Warhol (1928-1987).  Perhaps the greatest mountebank and con artist in the history of American art, Warhol did much to ‘deconstruct’ the meaning of art and what it meant to be an artist.  It will take several decades for art history to get past his crass pop star poses and errant crack-pottery before relegating him to the dust bin, but until then we have this supremely ugly monument by which to remember him.  It’s junk, but it’s better than he deserves.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Easter Parade of 1948

My Easter observance would not be complete without a viewing of the 1948 musical Easter Parade.  It is a wonderful confection, and a superb example of what Hollywood once did best and can now do no longer.

The plot is simple.  Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) is discarded by his dancing partner, the ambitious man-eater Nadine Hale (Ann Miller).  Vowing that he could make a dancer out of anyone, Don recruits barroom hoofer Hannah Brown (Judy Garland).  After many missteps, including a failed attempt to mirror the glamour of Nadine, Don and Hannah establish their own rhythm and meet with great success.  Complicating the various relationships is handsome law student Johnny Harrow (Peter Lawford), who is courting both Hannah and Nadine.

From such simple elements are made great jewels.  The score is by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), one of the trio (along with Cole Porter and George Gershwin) that are the bedrock of what has become known as the Great American Songbook.  The score, with many tunes more than 20 years old when Easter Parade was filmed, includes many familiar gems and several overlooked delights.

Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was lured out of retirement to play Don when the original star, Gene Kelly, broke his ankle playing touch football on his lawn.  This is one of the most fortuitous sport injuries in history, because Astaire is wonderful in the part.  Astaire aged dramatically throughout the 1940s (compare the Astaire of Easter Parade with the boyish dancer of Holiday Inn only six years pervious), and with age came a gravitas that suits the part.  Kelly, a fine actor and dancer in a very different way, would have been brash and somewhat abrasive in the role, while Astaire operates with a sense of creeping disappointment and uncertainty.  It is an elegant performance.

Many of Astaire’s signature dance numbers occur here, including the jaunty “Drum Crazy” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby.”  The latter is regarded by many to be one of Astaire’s finest moments, but I find the slow motion effects somewhat dehumanizing – it’s the one misstep in the film.

Berlin thought Astaire a wonderful singer, and I concur.  His phrasing is masterful, and his voice has a pleasant lilt.  Add to that his consummate physical style (he glides rather than walks) and natural dandyism, and you have one of the most beguiling artists to grace the movie medium.  When good men die they go to heaven; when better men die, they become Fred Astaire.

Astaire was never noted for his romantic ardor as a performer, but he is ideally matched in Judy Garland.  Though she could not dance as well as any of Astaire’s other screen partners, they play so wonderfully well together that it doesn’t matter.  In fact, there is one instant when Garland generates true sexual heat in Astaire.  It is at the end, when he takes her in his arms as she sings the title number.  It lasts only a few seconds, but one can see everything written on Astaire’s face: the recapturing of young love, the promise of a younger woman, and the possibilities of life starting anew.  I’m sure the 23 year age difference between the stars is responsible in part for the reaction, but it is a naked and delicious moment.

Judy Garland (1922-1969) was a powerhouse.  There is an entire cult of Garland to which I have been largely immune, but she amply displays all of her considerable strengths in Easter Parade.  The secret to the Garland persona, I believe, is a febrile vulnerability mixed with resiliency.  Her singing here is something to behold.  Her delivery of “Better Luck Next Time” displays all of her strengths – powerful and lovely voice, vulnerability, a hint of resignation, and longing.  Despite all the carefree shenanigans of Easter Parade, it’s her plaintive longing in this number that lingers in the memory.

Garland was also a gifted comedienne and dramatic actress.  Astaire’s Hewes would come off a clutching Svengali without an actress able to rise to his talent, and Garland gives as good as she gets.  Whether subverting Astaire’s grander schemes, admonishing his bad behavior or inspiring his love, she fully owns half the film.

Peter Lawford (1923-1984) was never a compelling performer, but he is certainly a charming presence.  Happily, the best moment in his film career occurs in Easter Parade – rebuffed by Garland in favor of Astaire over dinner, he responds with genuine pathos and sympathy.  No other film was able to inspire in him such honesty and depth of feeling, and, perhaps Lawford was capable of better things than his career ultimately delivered.

Ann Miller (1923-2004), usually brazen ingénues or enthusiastic hoofers, is very effective as comic villainess Nadine Hale.  Her solo turn, “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” is one of the real treats of Easter Parade.  Perhaps she is another talent who requires re-evaluation.

Beyond the performances of the main cast, Easter Parade is awash in other delights as well, including Jules Munshin’s turn as the waiter Francois, and the large production number, “The Girl on the Magazine Cover.”

Watching a film like Easter Parade during the harsh realities of 2011 cannot help but inspire wonder.  The film debuted within the confines of living memory, but does it not seem an artifact of a distant and fabulous past?  It would be impossible to craft a film like Easter Parade today – we have become too jaded, or, perhaps, less worthy.   We no longer seek our better selves or strive to create beauty in our popular entertainment; our popular films and music work in concert with us to degrade us further. 

After decades of veneration, the classic era of American film has fallen into something like disfavor with the common audience; even some filmmakers today have taken to sneering at the accomplishment of mid-20th Century movie-making.  They are philistines.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Page Turner by David Leavitt

David Leavitt first jumped to popular attention with his 1986 novel The Lost Language of Cranes.  I first came across his work in 1993 when reading the acclaimed While England Sleeps. 

Though I have not read later, expurgated editions, the first edition of While England Sleeps was a compelling novel of lovers separated by class, intellectual attainment, and later, revolution and war.  Leavitt was sued by poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995), who claimed that Leavitt plagiarized (and vulgarized) his own life story.  Leavitt settled out of court, and altered portions of his novel.

Leavitt followed While England Sleeps with The Page Turner (1998), another story of an ultimately failed love affair.  The Page Turner is the story of Paul Porterfield, an 18 year-old music student, and his romance with Richard Kennington, a famed pianist approaching 40.  Paul meets his idol while turning music pages for him at a concert.  Chance brings them together again months later in Rome where they begin their love affair, complicated by Paul’s mother, Pamela, who also develops feelings for the senior artist.  Months later in New York, Paul becomes sexually involved with Kennington’s long-term lover and agent, Joseph Mansourian, who is 61.

Unlike the rich first edition of While England Sleeps, Leavitt here falls into the fatal misconception shared by most contemporary novelists:  thinking that less-is-more rather than simply … less.  The four protagonists are drawn with deft sketches, but we never inhabit their interior minds as we would in the hands of a more generous novelist. 

Paul, the ostensible protagonist, is little less than a cipher, and at best markedly unsympathetic.  The novel opens with his burning passion to be a great pianist, a passion which, it seems, is crushed all too easily some months later when he is first passed over for a more talented student, and because one of his teachers tells him he’ll never be “great.”  Such youthful ambition is seldom amputated so quickly, and his conversion to bitter cynic (while still an adolescent) rings false. 

Pamela, his mother, is drawn with such broad strokes that it is impossible to really mine whatever riches the character has to offer.  Is she worthy of our sympathy, or our scorn?  Leavitt never seems to know.

It is only with Kennington that Leavitt approaches complexity and a fully-realized human portrait.  Kennington is a man under siege, plagued by doubt, by conflicted feelings over his affair with Mansourian (which started when he was 15), and by his deep-seated ambivalence about live performance.  But still, Kennington is too thinly drawn to transcend his book and haunt the memory.

Thin, here, is the operative word.  Since Leavitt does not imagine a richly populated reality, he often resorts to parenthetical asides to add flavor or necessary background information.  His secondary characters – and we know they are secondary as they are known by diminutives, Teddy and Bobby – exist only to ease the plot and supply a bit of tawdry comic relief.  Such scarcity of imagination robs the novel of any possible romantic grandeur. When Paul is told that he will never become an artist of any particular merit, Leavitt lets drop an opportunity for great feeling and deep pathos.  Instead of an exploration of thwarted artistic ambition, Leavitt has Paul accept this condemnation with mournful resignation and a crying jag.  In other hands, this realization would be worthy of an entire novel…

Unfortunately, The Page Turner does not end so much as simply … stop.  Though key characters all have had profound experiences, there is no resolution as such.  The Page Turner, despite its wonderful romantic and melodramatic possibilities, never soars.  As a New Yorker short story, it would be interesting enough; as a novel, it is insufficient.

There still is room for a great novel about accepting artistic limitations, shattered expectations, artistic disparity and the challenges of inter-generational passion.  Leavitt touches on all of this, but only touches the surface.  The Page Turner remains a readable misfire.