Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Tree of Life is All Bark and No Bite

The reviews that The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s new film, has received are the kind that directors often dream about but seldom receive.  A. O. Scott, of the New York Times, for instance, calls the film a masterpiece and likens Malick to Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Hart Crane.  Even Time Out New York, perhaps our critically least discriminating publication, says The Tree of Life “posits an eternal conflict between nature and grace.”
And it’s not just the newspapers – The Tree of Life won the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Hum!  Well, your correspondent can only scratch his head and wonder; perhaps there was more cocaine than usual at Cannes this year?  Perhaps Scott desperately needs a vacation (or received a terrific Christmas present from Malick)?  Perhaps Time Out New York … well, you get the picture.  However, don’t be deceived.  The Tree of Life can be dismissed with a scant four words:  don’t believe the hype.
It is rare that I have had to endure such a self-congratulatory orgy of self indulgence, such a fetid stew of pretention and muddy thinking.  For the two and a half hours of its running time, your correspondent could have spent his time more constructively repeatedly pounding his head against his coffee table.
At any rate, on with the show.  The plotline of The Tree of Life is a simple affair.  In the vast cosmos, the world is created.  Then, life evolves on the planet Earth.  Then, dinosaurs wade through streams, seemingly very happy.  Then, in Eisenhower America, Brad Pitt is something of a disappointment as a father.  Then, one of his surviving sons grows up to be Sean Penn, despite the fact that he’s about 10-to-15 years too young for a 1950s boyhood.  Then, the cosmos ages and life on this planet ends.  And then, once everyone is dead, we all walk on the beach and run into each other once again.  Slow curtain, the end.  Oh, I think, because there is a haze of reddish-orange light at the finale, perhaps the whole thing begins again?  I’m not sure.  I only know that the audience at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York’s Upper West Side ran for the exits as if the the place was on fire.  (Side note about Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.  It is one of the few havens left that features films geared towards adults.  However, they are completely incapable of managing large crowds, directing traffic, or adequately training staff.  Add to that, I have seen home theaters with larger screens.  Audiences for such fare as Thor seem to get all the perks.)
At any rate, the problems with The Tree of Life are too numerous and extensive to be completely cataloged here.  Suffice it to say that we never really get a bead on any of these people, so the supposed tragedy (or grace notes, if you will) of their lives never resonate in any profound way.  Add to that, Malick depends on camera trickery and classical music to convey a sense of faux profundity when actually he has little to say and even less to show.  The camera moves more than The Blair Witch Project, and we often leave scenes so rapidly, that we have no escalation of dramatic intent.  We also have no idea of what kind of man Penn has become, other than he seems to be haunted by visions of his late brother.  He seems to have a wife -- a girlfriend?  A gracious waitress?  But his women-problems are only alluded to – we have no idea about his story, or even why he’s telling it.  And all of Malick’s cosmic small-town-America-equals-the cosmos was done before in Wilder’s Our Town, and much better, thank you very much.  There is also a lot of pseudo-Christian hoo-hah thrown into the mix, as well, which may mean something to someone.  At any rate … it’s the old Post Modern dodge of being obscure and hoping the rubes read something into it.
What works?  Well …, the dinosaurs are nice.  It’s almost enough to wish one were watching some truly wretched, but at least honest piece of hokum like When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth.  The space pictures sure are pretty, but Kubrick did it first and better.  Oh, and small-towns in 1950s America sure were nice.  And Brad Pitt sure looks good in a hat.  And … well, I’m sure there’s something else worthwhile if I could only think of it.
The performances are dire, but here I blame Malick more than Pitt, Jessica Chastain (as his wife) or Penn.  They are never on camera long enough to build up a head of steam, and the parts are so thinly written that the poor actors are left adrift.  Only Hunter McCracken as son Jack manages to shine, and that’s simply our complicity and celebration of his youth.  However, with a screenplay and director behind him, the young man may one day fulfill this promise.
If you must go to The Tree of Life because it is a critical darling, don’t say you haven’t been warned.  One final note to A. O. Scott – you owe me $12.

Friday, May 27, 2011

There is No Cure for Dr. Haggard’s Disease

To celebrate Vincent Price’s 100th birthday, I thought it appropriate to look at my favorite contemporary Gothic novel, Dr. Haggard’s Disease, by Patrick McGrath (1993).  It may be the finest Gothic of the last century and will be long remembered.
Briefly: Dr. Haggard lives in grand romantic seclusion at his sea cliff home. Limping and racked with pain, he takes drugs to forget his hip injury and to bury the tormenting memory of the woman he loved, Fanny, now dead.
Fanny returns to him in a way when her son, Jimmy, comes to his home. The men build a friendship with a highly charged sexual undercurrent. While remembering the dead Fanny’s passion, Haggard sees changes in her son and comes to believe that Jimmy is somehow morphing into her, that Fanny is coming out of the past to return to him. But is Jimmy really changing...?
The title is something of a joke -- passion is Haggard’s disease. We never really know if Jimmy is turning into his mother, or if the change exists only in Haggard’s drug-tormented mind.  The novel’s end is one that you will not forget quickly.
Dr. Haggard’s Disease is a textbook of the form. It captures not only the Gothic sensibility, but its mood, its sense of place, its sexual energy, its emotional tenor and melancholy, its obsession with the past; and, as a story, it is a model of construction. 
Haggard’s obsessive love of Fanny hints strongly of necrophilia and the Doctor, addicted to drugs, is not always a reliable narrator.  Haggard is a man of science destroyed by monomania, a slavish devotion to a feminine ideal.  And, like the vengeful lamias found in Poe’s Liegia and Berenice, Fanny’s strength and passion reaches from beyond the grave to affect the men who live in the shadow of her memory.
Author Patrick McGrath (born 1950 in London) is the author of only a handful of novels.  His grimly comic The Grotesque (1989) is a fascinating hybrid, a comedy of manners with an Edgar Allen Poe sensibility.  Spider (1990), another tale of insanity, is a fine novel, but Asylum (1996) seems curiously bloodless to me.  McGrath may not be prolific, but he is masterful.
With Dr. Haggard’s Disease McGrath rescued the Gothic from its kitschy confines. This richly textured novel transcends what the Gothic has become, and returns this great tradition back to the realm of serious literature.
It may be in time that McGrath is ranked along Poe, Stevenson, Doyle, Stoker and Shelly as one of the great Gothic novelists -- an author whose work transcends genre to become literature. McGrath writes with a passion and intensity worthy of his own Dr. Haggard, and this is a rich book to savor, to be read and re-read.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #5

In terms of cultural decay, few institutions can successfully compete with Time Out New York (TONY).  However, a real contender to the title remains The Whitney Museum of American Art, that pulsating junk heap piled high with the discarded detritus of Modernism, Post Modernism, and all the other schools that make up the intellectual garage sale we currently call art.

And so, here is a helping of both the Whitney and TONY, all in one sumptuous paragraph:

Page 42 (in the Art section) details Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools.  To quote fully:  “You might describe Arcangel as an Internet-age existentialist, a sort of “I play Xbox, therefore I am” type who hacks old 8-bit Nintendo game cartridges to showcase his own version of a first-person shooter called I Shot Andy Warhol, and uses basic Photoshop color-gradient moves to create trippy digital abstractions printed as large photos … highlights include a projection-video bowling alley, made with backgrounds from bowling video games, as well as a golf game that invites viewer participation.  No need to bring your own clubs.”  I would, however, recommend a good caddy.

Page 76 (in the Music section) Orange Goblin + The Gates of Slumber + Naam + Kings Destroy, described as: “Hammy fun U.K. stoner-metal heavyweights Orange Goblin head up a bell-bottom friendly affair chez Andrew W.K.  Indianapolis doom diehards sow their deep downer vibes in the penultimate slot, supporting an aptly named new slab, The Wretch.”  I have now both read and typed this, and still have no idea what it means….

Finally, on page 94 (the always fecund Off-Off List), we find news of Standards of Decency 3:  300 Vaginas Before Breakfast.  “Taking inspiration from a quote by bard-we-deserve John Mayer, the Blue Coyote Theater pack … creates an evening of short plays about online porn.”  I think I’ll grab a bagel, instead.

More next week!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Male Nudes of John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent Drawing of Architecture
for Boston Fine Arts Fresco

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Art historians and critics have a little trouble with Sargent – his talent is too great to dismiss, but he does not comfortably fit with either with the Academic establishment or with Impressionist movement, both of which were dominant at that time.  What Sargent was, in short, was his own thing, an artist unique to himself who managed also to wonderfully illustrate his own time.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American expatriate parents.  He would study in Florence and Paris, and live in London and Boston.  He was one of most celebrated artists of his time, famous for his “society portraits.”  Near the end of his life, he visited the battlefields in World War I France as an official British War artist.

Two of Sargent’s greatest pictures remain The Portrait of Madame X (see below), first painted in 1884, and the portrait of Graham Robertson (also below).  Madame X created a furor upon his initial exhibition – one of the straps of the lady’s gown was slipped off of her shoulder.  The subject, society-figure Virginie Gautreau (1859-1915), never quite recovered from the scandal, while Sargent’s fortune was made.   The picture now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it is a remarkable work.  Gautreau’s pale while skin, aristocratic hauteur and dramatic outfit are wonderfully realized by Sargent’s brush.  And don’t look for the dangling strap – after its initial exhibition, he painted it back in place.

My other favorite Sargent is the portrait of W. Graham Robertson (866-1948).  Robertson was a well-known dandy and patron of the arts, who later made a name for himself as a scenic designer and minor playwright.  With his languid look, elegant walking stick, and the long, stylish line of his coat, Sargent managed to sum up the entire Aesthetic Movement in a single picture.  (Oscar Wilde, High Priest of the Aesthetes, lived across the street from Sargent at the time; it’s not impossible that Wilde himself sat and amused Robertson while the portrait was painted.  At least, your correspondent likes to think so.)

One amusing story about the portrait of Robertson, which now hangs in the Tate Gallery, London – Sargent insisted that “the coat is the picture,” and Robertson posed for hours at a time in the blistering summer heat.  “What a horrid light there is just now,” Sargent said one day.  “A sort of green…. Why, it’s you!”  He then rushed Robertson outside into some much needed fresh air.

But one of Sargent’s most neglected bodies of work remain his drawings and paintings of the male nude.  Sargent had a particular gift for the subject, and worked closely with two models throughout his long life, his valet Nicola D’Inverno, and, later, Thomas E. McKeller, a bell-hop at a Boston hotel that Sargent met and employed as model for many of the figures in the Boston frescoes.

Aside from the supreme virtuosity of these drawings – many of which are merely “working drawings” that served as a basis for the business of fresco painting – is the fact that they still exist.  Society at that time mostly regarded the depiction of the male nude to be pornographic.  However, upon Sargent’s death his sister, Violet, donated many of these works to the Fogg Art Museum. 

Sargent has a special genius for the male form.  At once masculine and sensual, Sargent’s male nudes have an almost angelic grace, as if lithe and lissome gods came down among us.  As many of the surviving drawing were also created for his personal enjoyment, it cannot be doubted that these images were emotionally charged for Sargent, as well.

What was Sargent’s erotic life?  Scholarship seems divided on that issue.  Painter Jacques-Émile Blanche claimed, after Sargent’s death, that he was “a frenzied bugger.”  Others, including biographer Stanley Olson, believe that Sargent’s interior life was a mystery even to the painter himself.  In fact, Sargent was so driven by his art that is it possible that his entire emotional life existed only in his work.

Should we care about an artist’s private life?  His affairs, his politics, his relationships?  Well … yes.  We should not judge an artist’s output on his private life and convictions, but understanding the artist and his times often brings us closer to understanding the work.  For instance, it would be a shame to lose Wagner’s music because he was an insufferable monster of a human being; however, knowing something of his life, views and thoughts on mythology provide insight into creation of his Ring Cycle.  That Sargent may have been homosexual is interesting to speculate, but the evidence is inconclusive.  However, it is impossible to look upon his male nudes without appreciating Sargent’s sense of physical or aesthetic adoration.

Readers who want to see more of Sargent’s male nudes may want to find a copy of John Singer Sargent: The Male Nudes by John Esten.  Long out-of-print, it can be found on Ebay and Alibris easily enough, and it is also worth a trip to the local library.  The commentary by Esten, essentially a few pages of double-columned text, is essentially worthless, but the reproductions do justice to Sargent’s genius.  Perhaps the most comprehensive biography is John Singer Sargent: His Portrait by Stanley Olson, which comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bells Are Ringing But the Party’s Over

Frank Gorshin and Judy Holliday have fun with Method Acting Pretension
in Bells Are Ringing (1960)

Your correspondent had the pleasure of seeing the Encores production of Bells Are Ringing last November at New York’s City Center.  Encores is dedicated to performing the full book and score of musicals that are under-produced or little-remembered.  Several Encores productions have led to full-fledged Broadway revivals, and the program has done a magnificent job of keeping what has become known as the Great American Songbook vibrant, alive and zesty.

Bells Are Ringing tells the story of Ella, who works for a phone answering service run by her friend Sue, “Susanswerphone.”  (For my more youthful readers, in the days before cell phones and answering machines, an answering service was actually a live switchboard operator who took and relayed messages from missed calls.)  Ella gets caught up in the lives of her clients, including a song-writing dentist, a Brando-esque actor, and playwright Jeff Moss, who is suffering a catastrophic case of writer’s block.

In the subplot, Sue gets involved with a book-maker disguised as a classical music impresario, and all of the Susanswerphone staff are suspected of involvement in a vice ring.

The recent Encores production featured a stellar performance by Kelli O’Hara as Ella, ably abetted by Will Chase (Jeff) and Judy Kaye (Sue).  How this production did not make it to Broadway is something of a puzzler to your correspondent – it was one of my most memorable evenings of theater in 2010.  The show was played with energy, brio and great good humor. 

This musical was written by Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green (1914-2002), the duo behind Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, among others, with music by Jule Stein (1905-1994), who wrote the scores for Gypsy and Funny Girl.  Comden and Green wrote the show specifically for Judy Holliday (1921-1965), who won the Tony for her performance and who reprised the role in the later film version.  The show opened in 1956 and two of the numbers, “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over,” have become standards.

The show prompted me to seek out the DVD of the 1960 film.  Holliday was joined by Dean Martin (1917-1995) as Jeff Moss, and the film was directed by Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986) director of Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, and Some Came Running, among other classic films.  It was produced by the legendary Feed Unit at MGM, also responsible for The Wizard of Oz, Good News, Easter Parade, and Gigi and many, many others. 

For all of this firepower, the film version of Bells Are Ringing is something of a misfire.  Director Minnelli was slavishly close to the source material and, as a result, the film never “opened up,” remaining stagey throughout.  Several of the show’s numbers were cut, leaving the first half of the film flaccid while Holliday, usually an explosive presence, seems curiously subdued.  “Hello, Hello There,” sung on the New York subway in the show, was never shot for the film while the show-stopping “Is It a Crime?” was shot, but left on the cutting room floor.  (The latter number is included in outtakes on the DVD version – one of the best numbers on the disk.  Its exclusion at the time of the film’s release is another mystery.)

Happily, things pick up for the film’s second half.  Frank Gorshin does a wonderful turn as the Brando-inspired actor.  There is a moment (see above) where he and Holliday meet in a dive catering to Method Actors and they speak to one-another in monosyllables.  It’s a deft jab at the entire Kitchen Sink School – which, sadly, would have the last laugh in a changing world.    Holliday and company also do a terrific job with “Drop That Name,” a giddy parody of celebrity culture and the empty parties that sustain it.   We also get additional screen time with Jean Stapleton’s Sue (another hold-over from the Broadway production), who is romanced by the snappy Eddie Foy, Jr.

However, the real standout of the film version of Bells Are Ringing is, surprisingly, Dean Martin.  Martin was never a great musician in the same manner as Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra (though he was the first to admit he was a “stylist” more than a singer), but he had an engaging way of selling a song.  He was also a surprisingly good actor, as anyone who has seen Rio Bravo, Some Came Running or The Sons of Katie Elder would attest.  He is very touching as Jeff Moss, once part of a writing team and now adrift on his own. (How much he was able to tap into the career downturn he faced immediately after the breakup of his act with Jerry Lewis is unknown, but the fear and uncertainty seem very real.)  His singing of “Just in Time,” where he credits Holliday with saving his life, has an unusual amount of pathos and is eminently believable.

However, perhaps the most moving number in Bells Are Ringing is Holliday’s rendition of “The Party’s Over,” though, perhaps, not for reasons intended by the film.  Bells Are Ringing is really, in many ways, a last hurrah.  It was the last film made by the legendary Freed Unit at MGM.  It was the last musical directed by Minnelli, and it would be Holliday’s last film as well – she would die of cancer five years later.

But also, it was the end of an era.  Up until 1960 the Great American Songbook would coexist in an uneasy truce with rock-and-roll.  In less than five years, even that coexistence would largely vanish as the vapid rhythms and ridiculous lyrics of rock reached ascendency, and young, vibrant performers like Martin (and Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc) would suddenly find themselves relegated to “nostalgia acts.”  With Holliday singing to the vanishing New York audience of a closing era, the party was over indeed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #4

Pull up a chair and let’s see the latest bits of foolishness Time Out New York (TONY) serves up this week.  As always, TONY does not disappoint – the magazine remains a perfect bellwether of our cultural decay.

Page 44 (in the Best by Day section) promises Naked Girls Reading Presents Naked Girls Eating.  There “the in-the-buff bookworms Nasty Canasta, Darlinda Just Darlinda, the Naked Librarian and Legs Malone whet the appetite with selections from their favorite culinary writers.  Grab a Food Porn cocktail ….”  Emily Dickinson fans beware!

Page 57 (in the Books section!) includes a notice for Derangement of the Senses.  At this event “Kevin Carter amps up the standard reading format with multimedia performances from writers, and lit-minded burlesque dancers accompanied by an electronic laser harp.”  Too bad Somerset Maugham is dead … I hear he was a great little dancer.

The Theater section on page 108 lists my favorite of the week: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.  It is described thus: “in his latest solo show, slacker comedian Mike Birbiglia shares stories about love, loss and vomit in a stoner’s drawl.”  I suppose you can’t keep a good man down.

More next week!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Shtick Happens

Sometimes bad shows happen to good people.  Case in point, The People in the Picture, currently performed by the Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54.  I’m quite sure that Iris Rainer Dart (book and lyrics) and the musical team of Mike Stoller and Artie Butler all thought, “well, this will be the feel-good Holocaust musical of the year.”  Oy.

To be sure, there is much to like in this ultimately flat-footed show.  Donna Murphy is a marvel, flipping back-and-forth between young, vibrant woman and little old lady at (literally) the drop of a hat.  Her Tony nomination is richly deserved.  Chip Zien, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen and (a largely wasted) Joyce Van Patten are all capable and pleasing performers.  The staging is inventive, the sets and effects quite impressive and when the jokes work, they are funny enough.

And yet.  And yet, The People in the Picture is a wasted opportunity.  The show is about an elderly woman (Murphy), retelling the harrowing story of her life with a group of travelling players/comedians called the Warsaw Gang in Poland during World War II.  The theme hammered home repeatedly is that life is hard, often horrific, but it can be redeemed to a large degree through art.

This, of course, is a theme tailored to warm the heart of your correspondent, but if only The People in the Picture was accomplished enough in its own artistry to carry off the premise.  The songs are largely forgettable.  A comedic number about demonic possession by a song-and-dance-man dybbuk is almost something like Mel Brooks’ The Exorcist, but never quite that good, and without the manic comedic inventiveness necessary to become a show-stopper.  Hollywood Girls, sung by most of the company that make up The Warsaw Gang, is orchestrated in a real 1930s manner, but never quite sparkles in the way true period songs do.  The only other memorable number worth mentioning among the 22 that make up the show is Saying Goodbye, which has that canned, ossified Broadway sound so prized by Jonathan Schwartz.

The book is no help.  Pity poor Nicole Parker, who plays Murphy’s grown daughter.  Supposedly a comedy writer for television, Parker has not one funny line in the play.  And the mother-daughter conflict that drives most of the second act melodrama is never believable for a moment.  (I will leave the surprise for viewers about to see the show; but be warned – it never really works.)

Dart has set out a formidable task – how to make a moving story about the Holocaust, include intergenerational conflict to keep it contemporary, and stick in as many jokes as possible.  This may be the finest Holocaust musical comedy to date, but that is rather like creating the world’s best sardine-flavored ice cream.  It’s quite an achievement, in its way, but do we really want one?

If all of this sounds harsh, I hasten to add that The People in the Picture is not without its charms.  In addition to Murphy and some other cast members, there are affecting moments of both pathos and humor.  And, unlike many truly terrible shows that have great Broadway success, The People in the Picture does not include fog machines, is not an adaptation of a movie, was not created by Disney, does not have human spiders smashing against walls, and is not based on a record album or retired rock group.  Sure, it’s junk, but it’s original junk.

If you already have a ticket, by all means go.  As the Warsaw Group might say, “so, what’s not to like?” 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is This The Culture We Deserve?

Yesterday’s piece on Arts Advocates left me thinking about the recent controversy of the Obama White House inviting Chicago ‘rap’ poet, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. (“Common”) to “perform” at a poetry event.

Politics is not the purview of The Jade Sphinx, and my private political convictions are simply that – private.  However, culture is our main focus and attention must be paid when the President and First Lady point towards a current cultural icon.

Less than fifty years ago, the White House of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was celebrated for its support of the arts.  The Kennedys focused on culture in all its aspects from the culinary arts to the performing arts. Mrs. Kennedy gave encouragement to budding artists and focused attention on those who had already achieved distinction.

The roster of guests and performers during the Camelot years is a litany of some of the most accomplished, brilliant artists of the 20th Century.  George Balanchine, Sir John Gielgud, Pablo Casals, the National Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, Robert Frost, Rudolf Serkin, Marian Anderson … well, you get the idea.

Here is a brief excerpt from Entertaining at the White House, by Marie Smith (1967):

At a dinner on April 29, 1962, honoring Nobel Prize winners in the Western Hemisphere, the White House staged a "coup" for the blue-ribbon audience.

It was three readings by actor Frederic March. One was an excerpt from one of the late Ernest Hemingway's unpublished works dug out of the vaults by his widow; the others were the preface to "Main Street," the novel for which Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930; and four paragraphs from the speech in which General George Catlett Marshall launched his plan for helping Western European nations recover from the devastation of World War II, and won his Nobel Prize in 1953.

There were forty-nine Nobel Prize winners among the 175 guests and it was the largest number at a White House dinner in recent years. They overflowed from the fourteen round tables in the State Dining Room to five tables in the Blue Room.

Here is another dinner described by Marie Smith:

The all-American western ballet, "Billy the Kid," was presented on a portable velvet-mounted stage in the East Room by the American Ballet Theater of New York, as the entertaining climax to the dinner in honor of the President of the Republic of the Ivory Coast and Madame Felix Houphouet-Boigny. And when the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg was entertained at the White House, Mrs. Kennedy added a special reading dedicated to President Kennedy to the program of Elizabethan poetry and music presented by actor Basil Rathbone and the Consort Players, a scholarly group of musicians who played sixteenth and seventeenth century instruments.

The special reading by Rathbone was Henry V's famed "St. Crispin's Day Speech" spoken on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, and was added because President Kennedy was so fond of quoting those lines by Shakespeare himself.

Now, 50 years later, “Common” comes to entertain the American President at the White House.  I confess with all candor and humility that I had never heard of this individual until the story of his White House performance became common currency (no pun intended).  However, a brief Internet search provided the cream of his oeuvre in all its vulgarity.  For example, here is the text of his “poem,” Letter to the Law:

Dem boy wanna talk…
Whatcha gon do if ya got one gun?
I sing a song for the hero unsung
With faces on the mural of the revolution
No looking back cos’ in back is what’s done
Tell the preacher, god got more than one son
Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton
I walk like a warrior,
From them I won’t run
On the streets, they try to beat us like a drum
In Cincinnati, another brother hung
A guinea won’t see the sun
With his family stung
They want us to hold justice
But you handed me none
The same they did to Kobe and Michael Jackson
Make them the main attraction
Turn around and attack them
Black gem in the rough
You’re rugged enough
Use your mind and nine-power, get the government touch
Them boys chat-chat on how him pop gun
I got the black strap to make the cops run
They watching me, I’m watching them
Them dick boys got a lock of cock in them
My people on the block got a lot of Pac in them
And when we roll together
We be rocking them to sleep
No time for that, because there’s things to be done
Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come
From project building
Seeing a fiend being hung
With that happening, why they messing with Saddam?
Burn a Bush cos’ for peace he no push no button
Killing over oil and grease
No weapons of destruction
How can we follow a leader when this a corrupt one
The government’s a g-unit and they might buck young black people
Black people in the urban area one
I hold up a peace sign, but I carry a gun.
Peace, ya’ll.

This is a staggering, soul-crushing demonstration of America’s overall artistic and cultural decay.  In less than 50 years, the White House has gone from Shakespeare, great American writers and top drawer classical actors to the argot of the gutter.  Again – politics aside, as the sentiments of Letter to the Law are whatever they are – where is the beauty of language, the delicacy of grace, the aspiration of our shared human ideals?  Is this the best we, as Americans, can do?  Is this the culture to be highlighted and celebrated in our nation’s White House?

No artist of any stripe with any conscience whatsoever can find this acceptable.  The American people deserve better, the artistic community deserves better, and the debt to our cultural legacy certainly deserves better.  Shame on everyone involved.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Arts Advocates

Vincent Price

At one time, there was a distinct breed of celebrity who harnessed their popular appeal to engage in arts advocacy.  They were ubiquitous, and it was almost impossible to tune into radio or television without the likes of Vincent Price or Tony Randall or Kitty Carlisle touting an appreciation of Fine Arts.   Though many today may find this type of advocacy silly or hopelessly ‘middle brow,’ these champions of the arts, and others like them, were an important stepping stone for many into a deeper, more fulfilling world.  The accomplishments of figures like Price, Randall and Carlisle are not to be underestimated. 

Kitty Carlisle (1910-2007) was primarily an actress.  Movie buffs remember her turn in A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers, but she was also a staple on television, regularly appearing on such quiz shows as To Tell The Truth.  (She was also married to producer/playwright Moss Hart.)  Once her acting career slowed down, Carlisle worked for over 20 years as member and later chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts.  Carlisle’s greatest role was as a highly-visible advocate of the arts, lobbying the New York State Legislature and the United States Congress for funding. She crisscrossed the state to support rural string quartets, small theater groups and inner-city dance troupes.

In this role, Carlisle saw herself as a “Johnny Appleseed for culture,” especially in rural parts of New York State. “Wherever we go, the arts flourish,” she said. “It’s a cliché now that people say they want to make a difference, but I’d like to think that I somehow made a difference.”

Tony Randall (1920-2004), of course, is familiar around the world as fussbudget Felix Unger on television’s The Odd Couple (1970-1975).  But Randall was also a tireless advocate on behalf of opera, ballet, and in support of the American National Actors Theater.

Like many actors of his generation, Randall started on radio (he played Reggie York, the English detective on I Love a Mystery), but soon found supporting and starring roles in a string of now-classic 1950s film comedies, such as Pillow Talk (1959).  He transitioned easily into television, supporting Wally Cox on Mr. Peepers (1952-1955) before starring in three different television series of his own.

Randall’s devotion to the arts was broad and engaging.  He hosted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts in Central Park, sang in a Metropolitan Opera production of Die Fledermaus, and in 1991, he founded the National Actors Theater, floating the project with millions of dollars of his own money because he fervently believed that the United States needed its own national theater.  He was chairman of the National Actors Theater until his death in 2004.

Few celebrities were more beloved than actor Vincent Price (1911-1993).  Star of films, television, quiz show staple and TV pitchman, Price worked with everyone from Orson Welles to Alice Cooper, and appeared in everything from the film classic Laura (1944) to The Brady Bunch.  On stage, Price spent several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s starring in Diversions and Delights, a one-man show by John Gay about Oscar Wilde, patron saint of this blog.  It is considered by many to be Price’s finest performance.

But Price was more than an actor; he was an avid devotee of the arts.  He was a noted collector, with a taste for paintings, Early American crafts and jade pieces.  He toured schools regularly, preaching the gospel of art, and offered his expertise to a variety of public projects.

Price donated some 90 pieces from his collection to the East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, California, to establish America’s first teaching art collection in 1951. Today, the Vincent Price Art Gallery continues to present world-class exhibitions, and remains one of Price’s enduring legacies. The collection contains over 2,000 pieces and has been valued in excess of $5 million.

Price also worked to bring art to the people.  In 1962, Sears stores believed that, outside of major cities, fine art was not available (or affordable) to the general public.  The store approached Vincent Price to lead the program to change that. Sears selected Price not only for his fame, but also for his reputation in the international art world as a collector, lecturer, former gallery-owner and connoisseur who studied art at Yale and the University of London.

Sears gave Price complete authority to select the works for this daring initiative.  He canvassed the world for fine art to offer through Sears.  He bought collections, commissioned artists (including Dali) and applied his own innate sense of taste and quality.

The project was a great success.  The first show opened in Denver, Colorado, and included original works by the great masters, including Whistler, Rembrandt and Chagall.  Items ranged in price from $10 to $3,000, putting them within the reach of all Americans.  (Many of these pieces are still available, sometimes on EBay, with the legend The Vincent Price Collection stamped on the back.) 

In 1966, the Sears Vincent Price Gallery of Fine Art opened in Chicago, Illinois, featuring the works of talented, but lesser-known artists at affordable prices.  Price was involved with Sears until 1971, and was responsible for more than 50,000 pieces of fine art finding a way into American homes.
And who today has taken the place of Kitty Carlisle, Tony Randall and Vincent Price?  The public intellectual has not yet completely faded from the scene (one thinks of Harold Bloom or Christopher Hitchens), but the Arts Advocate is rare indeed.  Are celebrities leery of aligning themselves to an artistic cause due to possible charges of ‘elitism?’  Or are the Fine Arts now too alienating to the public-at-large?
It is time that some of our more public figures became advocates for the arts.  The cultural losses we could sustain without that passion and dedication are too terrible to contemplate.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cultural Decay: TONY Edition #3

To the cultural observer, Time Out New York (TONY) offers a rich and varied menu of tasty bits of critical ineptitude.  Written with syrupy irony for the intellectually undemanding, TONY catalogs the decay of a once healthy and vibrant culture.  This week’s bounty includes the following tidbits:

Page 24 features a style profile of one Charley Hendee, who is “enraptured by the formal dress of Edwardian English gentlemen.”  The photos include this worthy in his “Edwardian” garb, sporting a ring through his nose.  Insert your own joke here.

Page 47 (in the Books section!) includes a notice for the Nevada Rose Book Release After Party.  This event takes “place after an exhibition of ‘cathouse’ photos from Nevada Rose at nearby Umbrage Gallery … [and features] performance artist Amber Martin, musician Julia Haltigan, fetish model Mika Tan and one of the book’s subjects, Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof.”    In the immortal words of Louis B. Mayer, “include me out.”

The Off-Off List page always offers one tasty example of cultural rot.  This week, we find a listing for the event Be Story Free.  It promises “a whole passel of Brooklyn’s finest experimentalists wage war on narrative in the ‘story addiction destruction system,’ which promises to wean your mind off conventional theatrical paradigms.”  But, that’s another story.

The most instructive article, though, is found on page 72, which features an interview with someone named Albert “Prodigy” Johnson.  “Prodigy,” recently released from prison for weapons possession, has penned his autobiography, My Infamous Life.  “Prodigy” summarizes his book by saying, “I’m just not a happy-go-lucky mother[expletive].”  “Prodigy” has high hopes that his book will raise awareness of his band, Mobb Deep.  “Intellectuals that read a lot of books might not have been interested in Mobb Deep before My Infamous Life, but now they might go ‘Who are these guys?’ and check us out.”  Or, perhaps, run for cover.

More next week!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chantilly’s Grace

Château interior

My recent news piece on the Dahesh Museum’s upcoming exhibition of Islamic ornamentation in Dubai brought to mind that great art is often housed in the world’s most beautiful places.

I first came upon Château de Chantilly in 2006, while serving as a Public Affairs Director for Hoffmann-La Roche, the pharmaceutical company.  The Château, about 30 minutes outside of Paris, was the site of one of several dinners held over the course of a marketing conference.  However, instead of touring the manor house, or looking at its world class art collection, Roche herded its executives into the dining room, and then took us to the site of a (then) recent wedding which pared some sports figure with a spokesperson for some rock-and-roll cable channel.  A more damning indictment of corporate America would be impossible to conceive.

However, I would not let a chance to see masterworks (nor bask in a romantic milieu) slip by, and I managed to visit the Château at length before returning to New York. 
The Château is an architectural marvel.  The original mansion may have been built as early as 1528 (there is some dispute over the actual date), and was later rebuilt after extensive destruction during the period of the French Revolution. Architect Honor Daumet completely redesigned the Château when it was rebuilt in 1875-1881, and the front entrance and courtyard are remarkable in their beauty and grandeur.  My favorite interior of the entire complex is the chapel of the Hearts of the Princess of Condé, though the Hall of Honour is also lovely.
The Château was bequeathed to the Institut de France in 1897 and is now a park and racecourse.  The grounds offer stunning gardens and fountains, and the Château façade is interesting from any angle.
But most importantly, the Château houses the Musée Condé, perhaps the greatest collection of art in France after the Louvre.  Imagine if you will, a manor house holding a Botticelli, a Raphael, a Watteau, a Corot, let alone a Van Dyck, a Greuze, a Reynolds and a Delacroix!  And that is not the half of it, for the Château de Chantilly also holds over 1,300 manuscripts, and a library of over 12,000 volumes, including a Gutenberg Bible.  There is an extensive collection of incunabula along with Revolution-era textiles and furnishings, and several miniatures of merit.
My favorite work at the Château is the self portrait of Ingres (see below).  One of the great masters of academic art, Ingres painted (and drew) several different iterations of his self-portrait.  Ingres’ soulful nature, his passion for excellence, and, yes, his remote and imperious manner, are all visible here. 
Why this dispatch on the Château de Chantilly?  Two reasons, really.  First off, for many people passionate about the arts, France begins and ends with Paris.  The Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Paris Opera House, and one has ‘done’ France.  But this is not the case.  Château de Chantilly is just one of many artistic treasure chests that dot the French countryside.  And, also, an elegant place and setting for art is as essential as the art itself.  Just as beautiful and magnificent churches help bring the believer closer to a religious experience, so too museums must reflect the beauty and grandeur that is contained therein.  These are sacred spaces, and, as such, demand a certain majesty. (Of course, sometimes a hideous place also reflects the collection it houses – see New York’s Guggenheim, which looks rather like a toilet.)
Readers planning a trip to France are advised to visit the Château de Chantilly.
Ingres self portrait