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11.11.03

Happy Anniversary to the Tallis Scholars

An article by Roderick Conway Norris (What They Really Do: A Wall of Sound, November 11) in the International Herald Tribune drew my attention to the fact that the Tallis Scholars have been giving extraordinary concerts of Renaissance polyphony for 30 years and that Peter Phillips has published a memoir of that remarkable career, What We Really Do (the link takes you to the online order form where you can buy the book). Having been an undergraduate piano major and choral singer in the late 1980s, I enjoyed performing Renaissance polyphony from the first time my high school choir director made us sing O magnum mysterium by Victoria. However, my first experiences with hearing recordings of Renaissance music in my undergraduate music history class made me cringe. When I went to graduate school in the early 1990s, I heard the recordings of the Tallis Scholars for the first time. I remember very clearly listening to their recording of Thomas Tallis's settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Week and thinking that it was heaven on earth. Now the Tallis Scholars have performed all over the world (including a televised performance of Allegri's Miserere in the Sistine Chapel) and made a pile of recordings. I wish them a happy anniversary and many more years of performance.

10.11.03

The Intermittents du Spectacle Strike Again

In case you missed it, an article by John Rockwell (Ground Zero and City Opera, a May-December Match, November 9) in the New York Times has made quite an impression on all sorts of arts-related people. The e-mail list (AMS-L) of the American Musicological Society (about to have its annual meeting this weekend in Houston), for example, was buzzing with indignation that a Bruce Springsteen album "has touched more people, and is better art besides, than a high-minded classical score like John Adams's 'On the Transmigration of Souls'." And Terry Teachout at About Last Night and Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes have been lamenting the decline in real arts coverage in the American mass media (see my related post on November 6, Popularizing the Arts).

As an antidote to this depressing state of affairs, here is my translation of the account of the latest action of the intermittents du spectacle in Paris. This is the union (another taboo word in the United States) of part-time workers in the performing arts, whose subsidies and insurance, which they have traditionally received from the French state, are on the block in the right-wing government's attempts to cut the budget (see posts on August 30, August 13, and July 30). These people still care very strongly about the arts and their livelihood in the arts, as this account (Des intermittents du spectacle se sont invités au JT sur France 2, November 11) in Le Monde makes clear:Intermittents du spectacle on France 2 News, November 10

Monday evening, part-time arts workers briefly interrupted France 2's television news program, presented by David Pujadas, and read a message to protest the reform of their unemployment insurance program, less than a month after an intervention on the set of TF1's program "Star Academy."

The workers came onto the France 2 television set brandishing signs behind the anchor, who decided to yield his seat to allow one of their spokespersons the time for a live statement. "We want a true reform negotiated with all those concerned. We want our proposals to be taken into account. We want a primetime televised debate between both sides on these questions," the spokesperson declared.

The spokesperson concluded by calling the part-time workers to demonstrate Thursday in front of the home office of Unedic in Paris, where a meeting is planned for that date between employers' organizations and unions to ratify the agreement protocol reforming the specific plan for payment to unemployed part-time arts workers. This protocol will then be submitted for final signature to the Minister of Social Affairs, Work, and Solidarity.

The part-time workers who had invaded the France 2 set loudly applauded the statement of their spokesperson and then left, allowing the news program to continue without further incident. "We apologize for this interruption; we chose to give the floor to the representatives of the part-time workers," explained David Pujadas to the viewers. About a hundred part-time workers had made a scene, on October 18, on the set of the entertainment show "Star Academy," in La Plaine Saint-Denis, requiring TF1 to suspend the transmission of its star show for two hours.
The story on this event from France 2 (Les intermittents s'invitent au 20H) includes a statement of condemnation from the television network's administration, and from Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Minister of Culture and Communication, who denounced the disturbance in a message: "This taking hostage of a television news program goes seriously against the principle of the freedom of information."

Maybe Terry Teachout should lead a band of bloggers into the offices of Time or onto the set of NBC News. The difference is that in France you would be welcomed by the anchor and in the United States you would be arrested. Not that the trend of elevated arts coverage being crowded out by the mass media cannot be observed in France, too. For example, the sexual memoir appears to be established as a new genre in France. The book by Catherine Millet (La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. is completely out of stock at Amazon.fr; the English translation by Adriana Hunter is still easily available), I noticed on my recent trip to Paris, has been made into a play (adaptation by Arnaud Bédouet) now at the Théâtre Fontaine, directed by Jacques Malaterre. Opinions are divided in France about whether or not this book can be taken seriously as literature (see the endorsement as a "must read" by blogger Parisiana on September 25). Now the inimitable Merde in France has sent up the latest sexual memoir, Warm Up by Bénédicte Martin, who has been compared to Henry Miller by Thierry Ardisson on his show Tout le monde en parle (the author was one of his guests on November 8). I love to read the slangy and sometimes grossly vulgar French text of Merde in France, which is not always really translated in the accompanying English text. (For example, "et tout le monde trouve une place dans son garage à bites" is much funnier than "and you drive her home.")

UPDATE:
Read about the group of intermittents who stormed France 2 in this article (Juliette dans la peau de David Pujadas) by Bruno Masi in Libération on November 12.

9.11.03

St. John Lateran

Apse of St. John LateranToday is the feast day in commemoration of the dedication of the basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano (see some pictures here, here, and here), the cathedral church of Rome and the historical seat of the pope Bishop of Rome. Although the present church has been extensively altered, it is still honored as the first place of public Christian worship in Rome, which is why the inscription on its walls reads "Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput" (Mother and head of all churches of the city and the world). It is on the site of the Laterani family palace, seized by the emperor Nero when a consul of that ancient family was accused of treason. It passed into the belongings of Constantine who gave it to the church of Rome no later than 311. The basilica or meeting-hall of the palace was apparently adapted to serve as a church, and it was dedicated as the church of Sancti Salvatoris (Holy Savior). A monastery named for St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist was established next to it, and that name of San Giovanni has come to be the principal name of the church. The early popes, who lived in the Lateran Palace, decorated the church so extensively that it came to be known as the Basilica Aurea (Golden Basilica), all of which splendor was destroyed or removed in the fifth-century attack of the Vandals. Very few original elements of the church have survived its many destructions and rebuildings, with the major exception being the fourth-century mosaic of the original apse which was incorporated into the larger apse built in the late 19th century. (You can see this oldest part of the mosaic, the head and shoulders of Jesus surrounded by nine angels, at the top of the image at right; for a better view see the top of this image.)

The feast celebrating this church's dedication was considered quite important in many churches throughout the Middle Ages. For example, there is an unusual set of chants for the office of S. Salvatoris that was celebrated in the Cathedral of Florence, which is recorded in a manuscript (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.) that I worked on for Project CANTUS when I was a graduate student. This is certainly the most elaborate body of liturgical music that I know of for this particular feast. The texts recount the story (De Imagine Domini) of a miraculous image of Jesus that is possibly related to the mosaic preserved at the top of the Lateran apse. The liturgy of Florence Cathedral has been studied extensively by Marica Tacconi (now teaching at Penn State) in her dissertation, Liturgy and Chant at the Cathedral of Florence: A Survey of the Pre-Tridentine Sources (Tenth-Sixteenth Centuries), and in her book The Service-Books of Santa Maria del Fiore: Cathedral and Civic Ritual in Late-Medieval and Renaissance Florence (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).

At the National Shrine today, the choir sang Anton Bruckner's motet Locus iste (text is the gradual of the Dedication of a Church), written for the dedication of a chapel in the cathedral of Linz, Austria. In 1993, I was with the choir of the National Shrine on a trip to Rome, where we sang a private concert for the Holy Father. One of the performances we gave on that tour was for a Mass in S. Giovanni in Laterano. One of the pieces we sang was a polyphonic Mass ordinary by Francesco Soriano, who was maestro di cappella at the Lateran from 1599 to 1601. We were seated in the choir stalls at the left of the image shown above.

8.11.03

Kodály Quartet

Kodály String Quartet, 2003The latest chamber music performance in the series of free concerts at the Library of Congress, on November 7, featured the Kodály String Quartet (shown at left in a memorable image like rock musicians on an album cover). I had known this group only by reputation, and the chance to hear them here in Washington was most welcome. (They are on a U.S. tour right now and go from Washington to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.) Students of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music formed the group in Budapest in 1966, and they have become one of the most highly regarded groups in Hungary, with quite an international following because of their recordings. (The present members are Attila Falvay, first violin; Tamás Szabó, second violin; János Fejérvári, viola; and György Éder, cello. None of the founding members still play with the quartet.) To enter the Coolidge Auditorium, you have to pass through a metal detector and send your bags through an X-ray machine. Since one of those machines was malfunctioning Friday night, many of us were delayed getting in but fortunately the start of the performance was delayed. (Those who straggled on the way were seated noisily, following the third movement of the first piece.)

The idea of their program was a chronological cross-section of the formative years (1755-1785) of the string quartet genre's development: three quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn, a nice selection from their recording of the complete Haydn string quartets (from Naxos), and one Mozart quartet from the same period as the last of three Haydn pieces. Mozart and especially Haydn are justifiably cited as being largely responsible for creating the genre of the string quartet by taking the forms of chamber music before their time (the trio sonata and the light sort of outdoor music called a divertimento or serenade) and creating something of substance, eventually intended for trained performers rather than amateur players in their own homes. The first piece was Haydn's String Quartet in E major, op. 2, no. 2, composed around 1757. Haydn continued to give his first 30 or so string quartets the title of divertimento, and this piece is one that still reflects the five-movement format of that earlier genre, in this case, with a fast-slow-fast arrangement of tempos for first, third, and fifth movements and minuets in the second and fourth slots. The piece is short and pleasing, with a brief sonata form in its first movement (Allegro), a poignant melody in the second violin in the third movement (Adagio), and an off-kilter tune with a grotesque sforzando on the second beat for humorous effect. The trio of the fourth movement showcases the first violin, and the entire quartet showed off its technical power in a very fast rendition of the fifth movement (Presto).

Then in 1761 Haydn went to work for the Esterházy family, in what is now Hungary, the home of the Kodály Quartet. He continued to transform the genre that would eventually be called the string quartet and, although he still called the six quartets of his op. 20 divertimenti, they are far from that. As in the next piece on the program, the String Quartet in D major, op. 20, no. 4, he settled on the four-movement format that eventually became the norm for most instrumental genres: fast-slow-fast with only one minuet, although the placement of the minuet was still not set in stone. The second movement of this performance was quite striking, with a short, sad song that serves as the basis for three variations. In the first variation, the second violin and viola have a dialogue while the first violin sits silent, and the cello dominates the second variation. When the air returned at the end of this movement, the Kodály Quartet played it very simply, almost without vibrato. The third movement is a Menuet alla zingarese ("in gypsy style") with offbeat accents that create an unsettling effect by trying to reproduce the folk sounds of Hungary. (For remarks on Bartók and Hungarian folk music, see my post on October 24.) The last movement, Presto e scherzando ("fast and jokingly"), seems to be in part a depiction of lots of kinds of laughing, with little twitters in the first violin, a loud up-and-down braying in the second violin, and chortled grace notes, in a charming performance.

After intermission, we moved forward another ten years to Haydn's String Quartet in B Minor, op. 33, no. 1, published in 1781, the year that Mozart settled permanently in Vienna. Lest you think that the typical Washington audience is not informed, I observed one spectator carefully following the performance of this piece with a score. Haydn himself acknowledged that he began to use a new compositional technique in the op. 33 quartets, what he called thematic elaboration, a form of melodic fragmentation and development that would shape the Viennese classical period and reach perhaps its culmination in Beethoven. This performance by the Kodály Quartet was excellent, especially the impressively fast final movement, Presto.

Mozart was so influenced by Haydn's string quartets that he ended up dedicating to him a set of six string quartets now known collectively as the "Haydn quartets" but not actually composed as a group. The final piece on the program was Mozart's String Quartet in G Major, K. 387, composed around 1782. The Haydn quartets were probably first performed by a group of composers in Vienna who met in 1784 to 1785 to play quartets, usually with Haydn on second violin and Mozart on viola, and sometimes with Mozart's father Leopold on violin. K. 387 is a favorite of mine, and I found the Kodály Quartet's performance to be thrilling. The second theme of the first movement (Allegro vivace assai), presented by the second violin, is one of the cheeriest melodies Mozart ever wrote, not laughing like the joking last movement of Haydn's op. 20, no. 4, but something that just makes you feel happy, as if the world really were a bright place filled with kindness. The group also played this quartet's fourth movement (Molto allegro) at a very fast tempo, showing off the fugal writing that is a tribute to what Haydn was doing in his quartets of the same period. The closing theme of this movement is more in the joking mold of Haydn's rondos, with a clownish rhythmic variation when it is repeated.

In a most unusual gesture for a Washington audience, the generous applause at the end of the concert convinced the Kodály Quartet to sit down to play an encore, another very fast finale movement, with a short pianissimo tag after the rondo refrain, a tag that humorously concludes the piece. Although I could not identify it at the time, I suspected that it was a piece by Haydn, which another informed listener has since confirmed by identifying it as the fourth movement (Finale: Presto) from Haydn's String Quartet op. 54, no. 1. This was composed around 1788 and provided a tantalizing look forward into the sublime years of the Viennese classical string quartet.

7.11.03

Putting Together the Pieces of "Shattered Glass"

The opening scene of Shattered Glass starts with its protagonist, Stephen Glass, giving a speech to a classroom of mostly young girls about the standards and practices of being a journalist at the tony publication The New Republic. ("The only in-flight magazine on Airforce One" is their pedigree.) Glass, portrayed here by Hayden Christensen, glows with boyish reluctance and pride as he pontificates to these swooners about the difficulties of getting your name in print. It's not only Glass who's aglow but the entire scene. A wash of white light bathes the school room and one half-expects one of his devotees to bat their eyes with the words "I love you" written on her lids. The scene is so serene and ideal that its effect is quite contrary to its setting. You know something is wrong. That beyond Glass's young republican exterior (the very image he will lambast in his articles later) and dreamy, reluctant pride is a person who needs this. You suspect somewhere in that sheen is a slight crack so fine and delicate, yet deep, that it cannot be traced yet it has the ability to break the whole into pieces.

This scene is the closest the film comes to giving any definition to writer Stephen Glass's past or motivations for the future and yet it's all one needs to understand him. There's no secret to the fact that Glass was discovered late into his time as a writer with the The New Republic to have fabricated some or all of the content of his articles. Unlike most, I had the distinct advantage of not knowing the details of Glass's life or times at The New Republic. The movie, based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger (Shattered Glass, September 1998), has no interest in linear explanations or by-rote biopic "flashbacks" where we see young Stephen telling his parents that he DID NOT chop down that cherry tree. The film seems far more interested in the notion of integrity and its costs. The quiet desperation of those who seem to suffer for their values and those who step over them on their way to the top. Quite simply, championing substance over style, which these days seems like a revolutionary act.

Director Billy Ray, who wrote and directed the picture, starts with his Glass as a nerdy, gratingly nice boy-wonder who just wants to be everyone's friend. His endearing traits are things like offering colleagues gum, asking if they'd come to a 'monopoly party', and asking anyone with a furrowed brow if "they're mad at him?" We see from the start that Glass isn't putting out fires (yet), but rather, squelching embers before they even catch hold. Yet, so effective are these slight-of-hand manipulations, that even when his lies flare up most of the people around Glass smell the smoke but can't see the flame. Juxtaposed with Stephen is Chuck Lane, a fellow journalist and soon-to-be editor, who bears all the weight of adulthood and responsibility. Chuck (played with masterful restraint by Peter Sarsgaard) is a paternal authority figure and not a barrel of laughs. Chuck, you see, writes stiff, humorless articles on Gabriel García Márquez while Stephen continually lights up the conference room with tales of celebrity hackers and drug-abusing politico conventions. The only problem is that not only are Stephen's stories untrue but the only source material for the fact checkers are himself.

It's a testament to Ray and his actors that the film never comes off as preachy or as a two-dimensional morality tale. Besides similarities to All The President's Men (1976) and The Insider (1999) this film also bears a certain resemblance to Quiz Show (1994). Both Fiennes' Van Doren and Christensen's Glass teeter upon the same slope of dissatisfaction that ability and accomplishment have wrought. The difference here being Van Doren's regret and apology for his actions and Glass's constant descent into further lies and denial. His only regret seems to be the fact that he was caught. One of the film's greatest assets is in Christensen who is a delight to watch squirming and wriggling into any nook and groove of 'reality', no matter how desperate, to keep his version of the story alive.

It is the very word reality that seems to be pressing at the core of the entertaiment industry and makes this film so timely. I found it quite ironic that, on the day I went to the screening of Shattered Glass, on the front page of The Daily Variety was the news that CBS was pulling its television biopic "The Reagans" after much criticism of its accuracy. It seems after The Insider that CBS is suddenly very sensitive about its journalistic integrity when transferring the news via such age-old vehicles of truth like the movie-of-the-week. One wonders when Walmart will be selling copies of Oliver Stone's JFK: The Studio Cut or NIXON: The Version We Can All Agree On. With the airwaves awash with 'reality shows' that bear less resemblance to reality than a typical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the recent Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times it seems the culture is in a quandry. The question being posited seems to be whether life in the Matrix is actually better if we just don't know or care if it's true or not. This film takes the position that it does.

6.11.03

Popularizing the Arts

The opinions are diverse about the financial windfall from the J. Seward Johnson show at the Corcoran, discussed in my post from yesterday (Corcoran Doubles Attendance). Lenny Campello of the new Washington, DC Art News (whom I also thank for linking to Ionarts) wrote about this in a post on November 5, in which Ionarts is cited by a link as "some writers who actually liked this show." I have not actually seen the show, and I can't really say that I like it. I am more interested right now in the polemical divide in reactions to the exhibit. Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes also reacted with emphasis in bold on November 5 to my characterization of the disconnect between critics and the public on this exhibit: "The JSJ flap is not about elite art writers and art-world-types looking down their noses on the masses who like Impressionism or J. Seward Johnson." Tyler continues in a vein that seems to contradict rather than support his first statement: "Should art museums, which . . . have a quasi-academic role in the cultural discourse, put on shows of wretched stuff just to move bodies through the turnstiles? Or should they be paragons of culture? Should their mission be to share quality art with the public?" If I understand the distinction correctly, it's not that elite art writers are looking down their noses on the masses, it's that a museum, to raise its profits, is pandering to the masses with art it knows is cheesy and inferior, when they should be conscious of their role to improve the public's taste. Judging by the public reactions to Gopnik's review on the Washington Post Web site (thanks to Lenny Campello for bringing this to my attention), the masses do not feel they are being pandered to (both people who had published comments at the time of this writing gave the show four stars), but they do seem to feel like Gopnik may have been looking down his nose at them: one wrote, "I was saddened that someone would be so critical . . . I had every intention of seeing it and the review would not deter me," and the other wrote, "I won't contend that Johnson's exhibit has any redeeming artistic value, but . . . put down the pince-nez and take the toddlers" (emphasis mine).

This thread relates well to a recent book that was sent by its publisher, HarperCollins, to Ionarts for review: The Middle Mind, by Curtis White. The book has already generated a lot of interest online (as you can see by the results of a Google search on "middle mind"). You can read an excerpt of the book's first chapter and read Scott Spires's less than favorable review of the book at New York Press. White teaches English at Illinois State University and is president of the Center for Book Culture, which he runs from Illinois State. This book grew out of an essay published in Harper's Magazine (a version of this article is available online in Issue 9 of Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture), a forum and length that seem more appropriate to the subject than a full book.

I will probably write more about White's ideas when I finish reading his book, but his basic premise applies to the question of the mass appeal of J. Seward Johnson's sculpture installations at the Corcoran. White uses the term "middle mind" to describe a mainstream approach to cultural issues that is broad-minded and mildly liberal but also homogenizing, sanitizing, and lacking in imagination. A couple of points really seem to rankle Curtis White, one is "that the Middle Mind is winning." That is, mass media programs like the great bugbear White mysteriously singles out as a "pornographic farce" (Terry Gross's Fresh Air on NPR) have a greater influence over popular opinion than true critics of "the academic left or ideological right" (think here of someone like Blake Gopnik). The second problem is its wide-spread appeal: "it has the most plausible claim to being the true representative of the public's opinion." The fact that mass media have merged with cultural commentary means that support of the arts that is somehow popularized is actually insidious:

The Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports the symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for the state arts council. The Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded.
Personally, I never listen to Fresh Air for some of the same reasons as Curtis White: "Terry Gross has no capacity for even the grossest distinctions between artists and utter poseurs. (Many of the 'writers' she has interviewed recently have been writers for TV series and movies. People who can with a straight face say, 'Seinfeld is a great show because of the brilliant scriptwriting' love Fresh Air." I enjoy watching television from time to time, but I do not want to waste any time analyzing television. The fact that television programs are sometimes reviewed now in The New Yorker, for example, strikes me as a waste of resources. However, this is more a matter of my taste than any sense of cultural value that can realistically be applied: I do like to read about film and photography, two genres that until recently had the same problems of gaining legitimacy with critics. If a book or work of art has popular appeal, is it for that reason unworthy of serious consideration? (This was not Gopnik's motivation for panning the Johnson show. He simply thinks it is bad art, which is Tyler Green's point, but they appear to be a minority.) Is it really a bad thing for more people to give money to public radio or their local symphony, to engage their politicians on behalf of the arts, or to attend plays and go to museums?

5.11.03

Corcoran Doubles Attendance

In my post on September 4 (Living Inside Art History), I first wrote about the J. Seward Johnson show at the Corcoran. Before and since, this exhibit has gotten a lot of press, including a vitriolic review by Blake Gopnik in the Washington Post on September 12, which itself caused quite a stir. In another post (Savage Review on September 14), I linked to several other reviews of the exhibit, all of which were overwhelmingly positive, just to make the point that Gopnik's ideas about Johnson's work do not represent the mainstream. I must clarify that I agree with Gopnik's assessment and was simply trying to point this out as an example of a trend that is hardly new: the disconnect between critics and the public. This is no different from the indignation many literary critics felt about Stephen King receiving an honorary National Book Award. As I said in my September 14 post, "I still believe that the Corcoran is going to make a lot of money on this exhibit."

From ArtsJournal I learned about an article by Harry Jaffe (Too Much Poison in Art Critic's Pen?) in the November issue of The Washingtonian, recapping the dispute between Gopnik and the Corcoran, which confirms that I was right:

Perhaps it comes down to money. Being a private enterprise, as opposed to the National Gallery, which receives $80 million a year in federal funds, the Corcoran must charge admission. Seward is a draw. The Corcoran says it has doubled its attendance, from an average of 5,000 visitors a week to 10,000. Cher showed one Saturday and stayed for two hours. Perhaps kitsch draws—and sells.
Several of my Humanities students have been to see the Johnson exhibit at the Corcoran and have enjoyed showing me photographs of themselves with the sculptures, "inside" the paintings he tries to recreate. Yes, the work is derivative, and yes, I wish painting styles other than Impressionism would fascinate larger audiences. Still, in my opinion, it's good if kids spend hours reading, even if it's "Harry Potter" and they get headaches, and anything that gets high-school students to think about art and to remember it as part of their lives is ultimately worthwhile. Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes will be glad to know that a few of my students also enjoyed Gyroscope at the Hirshhorn, as well as my favorite, the Picasso exhibit at the National Gallery (see my post on October 27).

4.11.03

Les Compères

By writing about film, I am secretly hoping to goad the Ionarts film critic into writing something. Les Compères [The Emcees, with pun on père, or father] (1983) is a classic French comedy I have just seen again recently. It reunited the triumvirate of actors Gérard Dépardieu and Pierre Richard and writer/director Francis Veber, who had collaborated with such success on the even funnier La Chèvre [The goat] in 1981. (The team milked the same cow in Les Fugitifs [The fugitives] in 1986.) Veber's comic writing is legendary: his best work includes La Cage aux Folles (1978 [The Crazy Women Cage]) and the cruel but hilarious Le Dîner de Cons (1998 [The Dumbass Dinner]).

Still from Les CompèresVeber's work is directly in the line of French comic playwrights from Molière onward. He has a comic type, the hapless neurotic François Pignon, who appears in several of his screenplays and is played by different actors. In effect, the character is really only a mask in the sense that it doesn't matter who plays him; he is universal. Much of the comic development occurs because of misunderstandings and often the audience understands a situation perfectly that none of the actors in the film understand. In Les Compères, for example, both protagonists are chasing after the same teenager, but each has been told that he is the boy's father. For the first part of this chase, they tell each other and other people about their sons, who are as different as the two supposed fathers. The conceit is sustained until they both show duplicate photographs of the same boy to a gas station attendant (see image at right). As they instantly go from confirmed bachelors to opinionated parents, Veber uses his two opposing characters to skewer society's conventions about raising children: one that is disciplinarian and machoistic in style and the other that is touchy-feely psychobabble.

Why do Hollywood companies insist on remaking successful French films into mediocre American ones? Ivan Reitman adapted Veber's script of Les Compères for Robin Williams and Billy Crystal as Father's Day (1997). Veber himself remade Les Fugitifs in English with Nick Nolte and Martin Short as The Three Fugitives in 1989. Mike Nichols adapted La Cage aux Folles for Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as The Birdcage in 1996. Happily, Le Dîner de Cons has yet to be remade as an American film, although I'm sure there is a pitch being made right now somewhere in Studio City. Are subtitles really so odious?

3.11.03

Your Proust Excerpt for Today

One of the most captivating parts of Marcel Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu is the final section of the second volume, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur [In the shadow of the blossoming young girls] (Moncrieff's translation is called, blandly, Within a Budding Grove). This section is subtitled, in Moncrieff's translation, Seascape with Frieze of Girls, a phrase which creates an indelible image in my mind, again a way of creating and elevating memory by association with art. The descriptions of the band of girls the narrator encounters during his stay in the hotel at Balbec are lyric and beautiful and incarnate adolescence in an inimitable way. Perhaps Proust had in mind something like the image below, from the eastern side of the Parthenon frieze, showing girls in the Panathenaic procession.
Detail of frieze from the east side of the Parthenon, Athens, now in the Louvre
Balbec is a fictional beach town based on Proust's many vacations to the Grand-Hôtel in Cabourg, a real place that is well worth a visit. You can actually stay in a room (the Chambre souvenirs Marcel Proust), which has been decorated to match the careful description of the narrator's room in the hotel in the novel. I have made some corrections to Moncrieff's translation at points where I think it strays too far from the original. However, it is probably impossible to capture the insolence of the girl's mean-spirited and clipped remark about the old man, but a modern American equivalent might be something like "Old dude's bringin' me down with his half-dead self."

And were they not noble and calm models of human beauty that I beheld there, in front of the sea, like statues exposed to the sunlight upon a Grecian shore? Just as if, in the heart of their band, which progressed along the shore walk like a luminous comet, they had decided that the surrounding crowd was composed of creatures of another race whose sufferings even could not awaken in them any sense of fellowship, they appeared not to see them, forced those who had stopped to talk to step aside, as though from the path of a machine that had been let loose and which you should not expect to avoid pedestrians, and if some old gentleman of whom they did not admit the existence and thrust from them the contact, had fled with a frightened, furious, headlong or ludicrous motion, they were even happier to look at one another laughing. They had, for whatever did not form part of their group, no affectation of contempt; their genuine contempt was sufficient. But they could not set eyes on an obstacle without amusing themselves by crossing it, either in a running jump or with both feet together, because they were all filled to the brim, exuberant with that youth which we need so urgently to spend that even when we are unhappy or unwell, obedient rather to the necessities of our age than to the mood of the day, we can never pass anything that can be jumped over or slid down without indulging ourselves conscientiously, interrupting, interspersing our slow progress—as Chopin his most melancholy phrase—with graceful deviations in which caprice is blended with virtuosity. The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him on a folding chair, facing the shore walk, sheltered from wind and sun by the band-stand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had just gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him, to distract him—little absences during which she left him alone and which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed long enough to him but which she repeated at frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal, should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection. The platform of the band-stand provided above him a natural and tempting springboard, across which, without a moment's hesitation, the eldest of the little band began to run; she jumped over the terrified old man, whose yachting cap was brushed by the nimble feet, to the great delight of the other girls, especially of a pair of green eyes in a doll-like face, which expressed for that act an admiration and a merriment in which I seemed to discern a trace of timidity, a shamefaced and blustering timidity which did not exist in the others. "Oh, the poor old man; he makes me sick; he looks half dead," said a girl with a croaking voice and with a half-ironic tone. They walked on a few steps, then stopped for a moment in the middle of the road, with no thought whether they were impeding the passage of other people, in a council, an aggregation of irregular shape, compact, unusual and shrill, like birds that gather on the ground at the moment of flight; then they resumed their leisurely stroll along the shore walk, above the sea.Et n'étaient-ce pas de nobles et calmes modèles de beauté humaine que je voyais là, devant la mer, comme des statues exposées au soleil sur un rivage de la Grèce? Telles que si, du sein de leur bande qui progressait le long de la digue comme une lumineuse comète, elles eussent jugé que la foule environnante était composée d'êtres d'une autre race et dont la souffrance même n'eût pu éveiller en elles un sentiment de solidarité, elles ne paraissaient pas la voir, forçaient les personnes arrêtées à s'écarter ainsi que sur le passage d'une machine qui eût été lâchée et dont il ne fallait pas attendre qu'elle évitât les piétons, et se contentaient tout au plus si quelque vieux monsieur dont elles n'admettaient pas l'existence et dont elles repoussaient le contact s'était enfui avec des mouvements craintifs ou furieux, précipités ou risibles, de se regarder entre elles en riant. Elles n'avaient à l'égard de ce qui n'était pas de leur groupe aucune affectation de mépris, leur mépris sincère suffisait. Mais elles ne pouvaient voir un obstacle sans s'amuser à le franchir en prenant leur élan ou à pieds joints, parce qu'elles étaient toutes remplies, exubérantes, de cette jeunesse qu'on a si grand besoin de dépenser même quand on est triste ou souffrant, obéissant plus aux nécessités de l'âge qu'à l'humeur de la journée, on ne laisse jamais passer une occasion de saut ou de glissade sans s'y livrer consciencieusement, interrompant, semant, sa marche lente—comme Chopin la phrase la plus mélancolique—de gracieux détours où le caprice se mêle à la virtuosité. La femme d'un vieux banquier, après avoir hésité pour son mari entre diverses expositions, l'avait assis, sur un pliant, face à la digue, abrité du vent et du soleil par le kiosque des musiciens. Le voyant bien installé, elle venait de le quitter pour aller lui acheter un journal qu'elle lui lirait et qui le distrairait, petites absences pendant lesquelles elle le laissait seul et qu'elle ne prolongeait jamais au delà de cinq minutes, ce qui lui semblait bien long, mais qu'elle renouvelait assez fréquemment pour que le vieil époux à qui elle prodiguait à la fois et dissimulait ses soins eût l'impression qu'il était encore en état de vivre comme tout le monde et n'avait nul besoin de protection. La tribune des musiciens formait au-dessus de lui un tremplin naturel et tentant sur lequel sans une hésitation l'aînée de la petite bande se mit à courir: elle sauta par-dessus le vieillard épouvanté, dont la casquette marine fut effleurée par les pieds agiles, au grand amusement des autres jeunes filles, surtout de deux yeux verts dans une figure poupine qui exprimèrent pour cet acte une admiration et une gaieté où je crus discerner un peu de timidité, d'une timidité honteuse et fanfaronne, qui n'existait pas chez les autres. "C'pauvre vieux, i m'fait d'la peine, il a l'air à moitié crevé", dit l'une de ces filles d'une voix rogommeuse et avec un accent à demi-ironique. Elles firent quelques pas encore, puis s’arrêtèrent un moment au milieu du chemin sans s'occuper d'arrêter la circulation des passants, en un conciliabule, un agrégat de forme irrégulière, compact, insolite et piaillant, comme des oiseaux qui s'assemblent au moment de s'envoler; puis elles reprirent leur lente promenade le long de la digue, au-dessus de la mer.
Rereading this passage now brings to mind a very different encounter between youth and age on a beach, that of von Aschenbach and Tadzio on the Lido in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Von Aschenbach watches Tadzio come back out of the water at the call of his governess: "He turned and ran back against the water, churning the waves to a foam, his head flung high. The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the element—it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods." What von Aschenbach first admires when he sees Tadzio is his disdain for the world around him, exactly what sets the "petite bande" apart for Marcel, the petulance, single-minded and ignorant, of the blissful young.

2.11.03

Music at the National Shrine

This weekend has been very busy at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with All Saints Day on Saturday and All Souls Day today. Except for individual funerals, the words of the Requiem Mass are proper only to the feast of All Souls, November 2, contrary to the common programming of Requiem Masses on Good Friday or Palm Sunday (Jesus does not need a Requiem Mass) or All Saints Day, November 1 (the saints in heaven do not need a Requiem Mass). At the National Shrine, the choir performed extensive excerpts from the Requiem Mass and the Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Fauré at the solemn noon Mass.

The future repertoire at the Shrine will include, notably, performances of music by Ned Rorem (see my October 23 post on celebrations of Rorem's 80th birthday). We will perform the first of the Three Motets (1973), "O Deus Ego Amo Te" (text, O God I Love Thee, by Gerard Manley Hopkins) at the Mass for the American Catholic Bishops on November 10 and the wild, powerful Praise the Lord, My Soul (1982, text from Psalm 146) on the feast of Christ the King, November 23.

1.11.03

Voltaire's Candide: An Autobiography?

A review in Le Figaro Littéraire, which has now disappeared from the Internet, drew my attention to a new edition of Voltaire's classic story Candide, ou l'optimisme (there is also an English translation available online) by Frédéric Deloffre [Paris: Gallimard, Coll. Folio classique (no. 3889), July 2003]. (I also found a review of the book from July on EspacesTemps reviews, Candide, c'est moi.) On the surface, this may not seem all that interesting, but Deloffre has a reputation for shaking up our thinking, even about well-known and often-critiqued books. He has advanced a new theory about the autobiographical background of Voltaire's most famous story, in which Candide is Voltaire, Cunégonde is Madame de Bentinck, Pangloss is Heinrich Meister, the king of the Bulgarians is Frederick the Great of Prussia, and "Make your garden grow" is a reference to the paradise Voltaire found at his château in Ferney. This is one of those books I expected to go for the rest of my life without being confronted with a truly new thought about it. Deloffre's work should be a warning to all of us not to be content with what scholarship there already is, even about the best-known works.

30.10.03

One Hundred Days of Ionarts

Eye of the Sun, rock formation in Navajo lands of Monument Valley in southern UtahYou read that correctly: today is the 100th day of this blog, which seems like as good an occasion as any to take a look back at some of the topics that have appeared here. It's remarkable in the world of blogging how things end up working out as they do, in the freeform way that is the hallmark of this new medium. (If you can't stand this sort of retrospective because it's repetitive, just hang in there for another day, because more posts are on the way. Maybe something about the theme of eyes in art, like the Eye of the Sun, shown at right, a rock formation in Monument Valley in southern Utah.) As I see it, here is an assortment of some of the big posts and ideas that have been worked out here:

• July 24, Marsden Hartley at the Phillips Collection and Gertrude Stein (as an art collector)
• July 26, Latest Reading, was the first appearance of the Paris Reading List, which has evolved into a separate part of this site
• July 28, A Whole New Perspective on Realism, about a controversial painting by Gustave Courbet
• August 1, Field Trip!, about the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce
• August 3, Glaring at Cardinal Law, one of several posts about seeing Cardinal Law, former archbishop of Boston, at Mass at the National Shrine
• August 4, We've Been Googled, first discovered that you could find Ionarts with a Google search
• August 5, Das Ring at Bayreuth Festival, first post about Wagner
• August 6, The Idea of a National Patrimony, about Prosper Mérimée
• August 7, Mel Gibson, about seeing Mel Gibson introduce a viewing of clips from his controversial movie The Passion
• August 8, More Renoirs Than You Can Shake a Stick At, about a visit to the Barnes Collection
• August 11, Changes Planned for the Château de Chambord?, about the plans for the future of that castle
• August 13, More Artistic Strikes Planned in France, about the summer strikes by the intermittents du spectacle
• August 14, What Would Mozart Think?, about a controversial sculpture in Salzburg
• August 18, The Popularity of Impressionism, about an exhibit in Auvers-sur-Oise
• August 19, Wagner Festival in Washington?, first notice of an article in Die Welt on the Millennium Wagner Opera Company
• August 21, Eugène Atget Photographs for Sale, about the sale from the collection of the Modern Museum of Art
• August 23, One Month of Ionarts, about the recovery of lost 18th-century marble reliefs by the Louvre
• August 25, Albéniz the Opera Composer
• August 27, Centenary of the Prix Goncourt, about the anniversary of the prestigious literary award
• September 10, REVIEW: The Rivals at the Shakespeare Theatre
• September 11, Now How Much Would You Pay?, about determining the authenticity and value of a recently stolen Leonardo painting
• September 12, American Cultural Imperialism, about the battle over American interests in the new Jeunet film
• September 14, Translation of Interview with Don DeLillo, which provoked some strong reactions both positive and negative
• September 19, European Patrimony Days, about an annual event in France
• September 20, INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington, first installment of six-part interview with Carol Berger, founder of Millennium Wagner Project
• September 24, The Marquesas, about Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel and their time there
• October 1, Botticelli at the Palais du Luxembourg, about the Botticelli exhibit and the concept of the profile portrait
• October 2, Tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill, about the excavations under St. Peter's
• October 3, András Schiff on the Goldberg Variations
• October 7, Your Weekly Proust, about Botticelli and the character of Swann in Proust
• October 8, Botticelli Exhibit, Ionarts in Paris begins
• October 10, Conference on the Air de Cour in Versailles, Ionarts in Versailles on early Baroque music
• October 14, Concerts at Versailles, Ionarts in Versailles continues
• October 16, Photographs at the Musée d'Orsay, Ionarts in Paris continues
• October 17, Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (in four parts), end of Ionarts in Paris
• October 20, Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center, Ionarts back in Washington
• October 22, Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress (and October 24)
• October 26, "The Texas Chainsaw" Massacred, guest blogger Todd Babcock weighs in with his first posting on cinema
• October 27, Picasso at the National Gallery, Picasso and Fernande Olivier
• October 28, Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress

29.10.03

Update on Festival d'Automne in Paris

On September 27, I wrote a short post (Autumn Festival in Paris) about the plans for this year's edition of the annual Festival d'Automne in Paris. I have just learned that Le Monde has created a Web page with more information and links to other sites about the festival. You can also read and print out a copy of the newspaper's special Supplément (.pdf) about the festival, and read several articles about Chinese artists and musicians in France, who are featured prominently in this year's festival (Dominique Frétard, Un bataillon rouge mène les artistes chinois en France, October 15; Frédéric Edelmann, A Pingyao, l'architecture et la photo en trompe l'oeil, October 15; links to other articles can be found on the latter page). This is also the occasion of the year-long celebration of L'année de la Chine in France, which will be bringing a large number of Chinese artists, musicians, dancers, and so on to France in an important cultural exchange.

28.10.03

Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress

I was once again in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress tonight, to see the latest in the 2003-2004 season of the annual series of free concerts. The Chilingirian String Quartet presented a program of three quartets by Mozart, Bartók, and Dvořák. This was my first time hearing this group perform, and I discovered that their reputation, particularly as interpreters of Bartók and Dvořák, is well merited. The quartet was formed by four graduates of London's Royal College of Music in 1971, and two of its founding members are still performing, Levon Chilingirian on first violin and Philip DeGroote on cello. Charles Sewart has been playing second violin since 1992, and violist Susie Mészáros is playing her first season with them this year. The Chilingirian Quartet is now in residence at the Royal College of Music, where Mr. Chilingirian is a professor. They have also partnered with the remarkable vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, for which collaboration John Tavener composed an octet for string quartet and four voices. (This piece, titled "The Bridegroom," was just performed by them in a concert called "Darkness into Light" on October 23 at the World Financial Center Winter Garden in New York City. There is also a CD of the program available.)

The concert began with Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465 ("Dissonance"), which was beautifully played but not the best part of the concert. (Mozart is not one of the quartet's areas of specialization, according to the biography included for them in the program.) This is the last quartet in the set of six "Haydn" quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and it owes many of its characteristics to that composer's influence. The nickname "Dissonance" was attached to the quartet after Mozart's death, and it refers to the strange harmonies in the brief Adagio introduction to the first movement, the only such slow introductory movement among Mozart's final string quartets. The piece has troubled many listeners since it was composed: Mozart's wife Constanze related a story about one Prince Grassalkovich, who got angry because he thought his string players were making mistakes when they played the Dissonance quartet. When they assured him the notes they played were on the page, he tore up the score. The Chilingirian Quartet chose a very fast tempo for the first movement, which was perhaps just a hair too allegro for the extremely agile second theme. The movement came to a soft and charming conclusion, in spite of Mr. Chilingirian's mishap with his music: it fell from the stand as he turned a page, but he quickly recovered without missing too much. The variations of the rather slow rendition of the Andante movement were dark and lovely. The happy Menuetto of the third movement is contrasted with a Trio of an almost Sturm und Drang feel. There were occasional minor inaccuracies in the first violin spiccatos in this movement, but a soaring and pure E string sound that was quite beautiful. The strongest influence of Haydn, I think, is the humor of his Rondo movements, with their quirky starts and stops, which is lovingly imitated by Mozart in the final movement here. Again the Chilingirian chose a very fast tempo, which required the first violin especially to be extremely adroit.John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Library of Congress

The best performance of the concert was Bartók's String Quartet no. 5, a piece that was commissioned by and dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (the great music patron for whom Coolidge Auditorium is named, shown at right in a charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent) and first performed in Coolidge Auditorium by the Kolisch Quartet in 1935. (If you want to learn more about Mrs. Coolidge and her incredible work supporting the cause of new music in the 20th century, you should read Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music, a book by my former professor at Catholic University, Cyrilla Barr.) Although it is usually considered to be less harshly dissonant than the third and fourth quartets, Bartók's fifth string quartet begins with a strident and marked opening that was played with great force this evening. Since this piece includes many examples of Bartók's fascination with the mirror form or chiasmus, those striking harmonies from the beginning of the first movement return toward the end of the last movement. What Bartók began with folk music in his first quartet (see my review of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of that piece on October 24), he develops fully in this piece, with its Bulgarian and other folk rhythms and sounds. The many effects called for in the piece (muting, tremulos, percussive off-string bowing, glissandi, and even glissandi in pizzicato) were used by the Chilingirian to create marvelous sound worlds. I don't know their recording of all six Bartók quartets (made before the present second violin and viola were members), but on the basis of this performance, I would be willing to buy it. The famous moment near the end of the last movement, where the music breaks into a sort of Viennese serenade gone insane, is marked by the composer "Allegretto, con indifferenza" when a theme is restated absurdly and then given a satirical twist harmonically. This was performed tonight with the perfect mixture of humor and banality.

The concert concluded with Antonín Dvořák's String Quartet in G Major, op. 106. This performance was also excellent, especially the deep-throated folk song of the second movement and tragic folk lament that begins and returns throughout the fourth movement. This was the first time that I had ever heard this quartet performed, and the more I get to know Dvořák's music, the more I like it. His harmonic vocabulary and folk-derived melodic construction have had, I think, a significant influence on American film composers especially, something which I appreciated even more hearing this piece. It was a night of many discoveries, for which I again thank the Library of Congress.

27.10.03

Picasso at the National Gallery

On Sunday I went to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. In the East Building is one of the current exhibits, Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier (through January 18, 2004). I like the idea of this exhibit, to bring together a large number of portraits of the same subject. As it turns out, in Picasso the curators had an apparently rare example of a single artist drawing, painting, and sculpting the same woman intensely in a large number of works. What got the ball rolling was the National Gallery's acquisition this year of a version of the sculpted Head of a Woman (Fernande), modeled in 1909 and cast before 1932. Three versions of this sculpture are the centerpiece of the exhibit, placed in the central of the three rooms devoted to it in the East Building. Surrounding it are an array of paintings and drawings that the curators believe are Fernande Olivier or Picasso's idealization or deconstruction of her. (You can consult a list of works in the exhibit, with no images, online.)

Fernande OlivierPablo Picasso, Portrait of Fernande Olivier, 1906, Worcester Art MuseumPablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman, Spring 1909, from a private collection
The curators have placed a single photograph of Fernande (not the one shown above) in the show, at the entrance next to a photograph of Picasso, and I made more than one trip back out of the exhibit to refresh my mental image of the actual woman's attributes, for comparison with Picasso's renderings. (You can see many more photographs and images of Fernande, thanks to the On-Line Picasso Project.) Picasso met Fernande Olivier in 1905, soon after he had settled in Paris. They were born in the same year and were in their mid-20s at this time. Some time before she met Picasso, Fernande had left her abusive husband and found refuge among the art students of Paris. Over several months in 1909 to 1910, in Paris and over that summer in a rented house in the mountain village of Horta de Ebro, Spain, Picasso worked out his understanding of the female form inspired by Fernande's attributes. Within a couple of years, in 1912, Fernande's relationship with Picasso was finished. Gertrude Stein, writing in the persona of her companion in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, wrote about Alice's position, which was to speak to the wives and girlfriends of Ms. Stein's visitors:

Fernande, who was then living with Picasso and had been with him a long time that is to say they were all twenty-four years old at that time but they had been together a long time, Fernande was the first wife of a genius I sat with and she was not the least amusing. We talked hats. Fernande had two subjects hats and perfumes. This first day we talked hats. She liked hats, she had the true french feeling about a hat, if a hat did not provoke some witticism from a man on the street the hat was not a success. Later on once in Montmartre she and I were walking together. She had on a large yellow hat and I had on a much smaller blue one. As we were walking along a workman stopped and called out, there go the sun and the moon shining together. Ah, said Fernande to me with a radiant smile, you see our hats are a success.
(You can find out more about Fernande in the published translation of her journal and some of her letters, Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier, or her book Picasso et ses amis, available in French.) Fernande had appeared in Picasso's work before 1909, in a sketch owned by the Worcester Art Museum (shown above), and in a non-Cubist sculpted head (clay model in the Musée Picasso and bronze cast in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). She has also appeared in works by Kees Van Dongen: Fernande Olivier (1905, collection Samir Traboulsi, Paris) and Portrait de Fernande Olivier (1906), for example.

The National Gallery has published a selection of 16 images from the exhibit on its Web site. I suspect that some paintings not in the show may also be representations of Fernande: for example, Woman with Fan (After the Dance) (Summer 1908, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), or from Gertrude Stein's description of her love for hats, maybe the Woman with Fan (Spring 1909, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). To get a broader look at Picasso's work at this time, as well as to find other images from the Fernande show, look at the detailed pages on 1909 from the On-Line Picasso Project. This exhibit at the National Gallery is well worth the short visit required to view it; from here it will travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, Texas), from February 15 to May 9, 2004.

26.10.03

"The Texas Chainsaw" Massacred

Hollywood SignIonarts is proud to host the cinematic musings of a friend in Hollywood: beginning today, guest blogger Todd Babcock will be contributing movie reviews and other posts related to the world of cinema, that quintessential American art form.

The new "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" plays out as a 90-minute cinematic equivalent of a 'dead baby joke'. It's jarring and offensive and leaves one with nothing but repulsive images that linger on afterwards. While both had a series of endless revamps and evolutions during the seventies and eighties (i.e., "a truckload of dead babies" or "unloading them with a pitchfork" with "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" and "TCM: The Next Generation") it seems a bit pointless to rehash them twenty years later. It's akin to someone telling Lenny Bruce jokes thirty years after the obscenity trials. Without the temporal setting of its origin it gets lost in the wash of "just another foul-mouthed comedian/slasher film." Which it is.

The hope of anyone going in with title recognition here is that somehow this 'new' director (Marcus Nispel, who has spent upwards of twenty years on commercials and music videos) has found some innovative way to reinvent a dusty classic. The original's appeal was not in its realistic effects or its Oscar-caliber cast but, rather, in its very bargain-basement approach. For some reason the horror genre seems to be the only one that benefits from low film quality. It's as if moviegoers have been coddled by the comforting filters and film stock of major motion pictures over the years. They have been slowly taught that if a film has an immense budget and major stars no one up high is going to present anything too nasty to rock the boat. This point is evidenced by the recent hit "28 Days Later" and, like it or not, "The Blair Witch Project" that even under the recent decade mark seems to have stolen this film's possible thunder.

The problem here lies in the fact there is no thunder to steal. While the film pays homage to the original in its opening with its faux-documentary presentation (even here we see the tell-tale post-production grain effect added to a too-clean image), it quickly fades to our 'cosmetically dirtied' teens playfully awaiting a headlong run-in with everyone's worst notion of what exists in the darkest recesses of our country. This Calvin Klein cum Scooby-Doo clan of oversexed tokers look more retro-chic than period (the bumper sticker on the van reads "Hippie Chicks Rule") and far too attractive for our eye to accept them as everyday unfortunates. The risk here was that with all these supposed upgrades in quality (the actors are actually quite competent) one is presented with a new set of challenges. Mainly, after removing the home-cooked quality of the original, what quality are you replacing it with?

The answer lies in the question which, one assumes, was never asked upon incubation. The horror genre has always had a history of making its money back. The Raimi brothers grabbed a camera and ran around the woods chasing their friends and turned it into the "Evil Dead" franchise. Video shelves are filled with endless titles evoking suspicious renters looking for authentic thrills ("They Come Back," "Never Dead," "Please Stop Killing My Daughter"). In this way the horror genre shares much of its appeal with the porn industry. No one cares if the acting's good, if it's shot well, or if there's a story. The question is, Does it get the job done? Which is mainly the documentation of body parts and what we do with them. Referring back to Mr. Bruce, it has been endlessly commented on that one must enter a private booth for renting erotic exploitation and simply have HBO for the other (not his actual words).

The difference is that, with mayhem being a socially acceptable form of 'getting off', that genre has suddenly taken center stage. Horror has been put in the spotlight and has a new generation of cinematic savants in its charge. Ever since Kubrick made a masterpiece of a Stephen King book one must ask oneself truly what a horror film is. Is it fair to categorize "The Sixth Sense" alongside such titles as "I'll Kill You, Bitch," "Still Killing You," and "Killing You III: The Final Chapter in the Kill Trilogy"? Every genre has a way of reinventing itself over time. It's a natural progression of any art form that it gets referential of other forms and periods and yet breaks new ground and asks more of the viewer. With the advent of Wes Craven's "Scream" trilogy, the horrror genre had finally taken a large step forward. The incorporation of protagonists who are aware of what type of movie they're in and address its clichés would seem to put an end to horror-by-rote filmmaking. Which is why it seemed like such a misstep when the previous pedestrian outing of "Freddie vs. Jason" seemed to go backward instead of forward. Wes Craven had already pushed that franchise and genre to the limits when he had Freddie Krueger stalking the very actor who portrays him. Once, it seems, these steps are taken there is no going back. Yet here we have our marquee heroes (not villains, heroes) slashing open teens during drunken bouts and premarital sex. But even more shocking than its formulaic sensibility was our inability to believe that any of these kids hadn't heard of Freddie Krueger. Guys, he's on lunchboxes. Perhaps these kids were from the same 1973 that the "Massacre" club were from and weren't quite aware that in small, inbred towns you don't meet the sheriff at the deserted 'old mill'.

What has suddenly emerged from these name-brand horror franchises is a comfort level. The very comfort that these films are meant to shed with their low-budget, anything-goes tactics. Now we have a relationship with Freddy, Jason, Michael, and the backwoods clan of "Massacre." Like its outlaw cousin, the porn industry, we all are just waiting for an ever-changing hero/heroine to get fucked. Which really draws into question the nature of horror and the pathos of violence. It's easier now for audiences to relate to these one-time villains because they have spent more time with them. These baddies have personality, goals, and irreverence, unlike their victims whom we resent for their stupidity and comfort ourselves in our superiority. What began as possibly a horrific concept has now devolved into a cuddly monster flick with as little or no shock value as a Saturday afternoon with "Godzilla." The litmus test being the post-screening chat heard in the theater lobby where fright-hopeful lines stare expectantly at the reaction of the departees. The standard query of "Was it scary?" is responded to with "No, but there were some good killings." While standard porn/horror will always recycle the same stories with different faces and box covers it reveals a desperation in the moviegoers, that they are constantly willing to shell out the now outrageous $10 asking price.

The conundrum this film presents is that it has an all-around 'quality' and polish like that of one of Nispel's Nike ads. Yet one has to wonder if there was a director present at all. Couldn't a competent director of photography and technicians grab the same glossy footage and have a talented editor assemble it? While one is transfixed in its commercial glaze and by repeated opportunities to dampen Ms. Biel's white tank-top one can actually lose sight of the fact there is really no craft going on. Certainly there are jumps and starts here and there but I'd challenge even the most pedantic filmaker not to get a rise from his audience by simply having a chainsaw buzzing near pretty young things. Once again, if we actually just filmed a truckload of dead babies...

Of course it follows that many a peer has cited the common charge, "It's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre': what did you expect?" Well, quite honestly, a good movie. Which is exactly what does this film in...expectation. Had this title not existed previously and was simply a 'concept' slasher film starring Jessica Biel it wouild probably go under the radar with marginal profits like this year's "Wrong Turn" with its inbred baddies, simmering TV stars (Eliza Dushku, Jeremy Sisto) and mayhem. "Massacre" carries with it a history, and one assumed from the slick, enticing trailer and the fact there wasn't a numerical tag on the title's end that something new was going to be done. Otherwise, why do it? The answer, once again, lies in the question. Audiences keep showing up in droves in vain hopes of seeing something 'great' or, perhaps, even just 'good', and it's a testament to that hunger that these films open so well. The promise of this over-hyped "retelling" is that it had something to say other than simply glamming a previous concept (the inbred boy looks like he should be modelling Gap Jr. wear without the fake wax teeth; great skin, really), and one wonders how many times Hollywood can go to that well before it runs dry. Most likely, a lot.

The loss here is not simply that another mediocre film has found its way to a big opening. I think the audiences are inured to that possibility at every sitting. It's in the missed opportunity. "Massacre" finds its suspence and anxiety not simply by possible chainsaw execution but by its juxtaposition of sensibilities. Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" and Boorman's "Deliverance" truly horrified us with the notion there are 'lost' people and places in every society who aren't sitting around watching Nispel's commercials and music videos and consuming his products and fitting into targeting demographics. Perhaps that's a notion too horrifying for Nispel and Michael Bay to consider.

Cost of making the movie? Millions.
Cost of marketing the movie? Tens of millions.
Cost of making a movie that will last beyond its three-week opening money clutching push? Priceless.

25.10.03

Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Follow-up)

These are some afterthoughts about the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004; be aware that the museum has forecast attendance at over 300,000 people. (My observations on a visit to the show in Paris on October 13 are here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

There are a few more works in this show that I did not list before, including one painting in the sixth room of the exhibit, the Self-Portrait (1893-1894, Musée d'Orsay) in which an inverted image of Spirit of the Dead Watching is hanging on the wall behind him. There are also a number of sculptures that represent Gauguin's sincere if perhaps naive attempt to recover, save, or recreate the culture and religion of his adopted home, most of which you can see in the article Gauguin and Tahiti by Philippe Peltier in the most recent issue of Art Tribal (along with images of many of the Tahitian and Marquesan artifacts in the show):

• Tehura (Tahitian head of wood, 1891-1893, Musée d'Orsay)
• Tua (Idol made of wood, fish teeth, mother-of-pearl, 1892, Musée d'Orsay); the female version of this idol, in a private collection in Toulouse, is not in the show
• Tamanu (Idol with pearl, 1892, Musée d'Orsay)
• Oviri (ceramic sculpture, 1894, Musée d'Orsay); a version in bronze is in a private collection and is not in the show; the body type presented in this work and others like it had an influence on Picasso (see La toilette from 1906)
• Saint Orang (wood sculpture, 1902-1903, Musée d'Orsay)

Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Les Misérables), 1888, Van Gogh Museum, AmsterdamTo try to encapsulate my various reactions to the show, I go back to what Gauguin wrote to the government minister (quoted in Part 1 of these posts) about his plans for a trip to Tahiti, "whose character and light I aim to capture." Seeing so much of the Tahiti period works in one place shows how Gauguin proceeded in that plan and how he succeeded. (For a dissenting view to this idea of success, see an article by Keith Morrison, Perspectives on the Art of Gauguin: For Nonwhites, It's Racist Propaganda, published in The Washington Post in 1988.) On one level, Gauguin's Tahiti works are intensely self-absorbed and may express more about his own fantasies, sexual (for example, Aita Tamari vahina Judith te Parari, or Annah the Javanese, from 1893 and now in a private collection) and otherwise, about the identity the artist created for himself there. On another level, seeing the paintings and especially the sculptures side by side with actual Tahitian artifacts and Gauguin's notebooks and engravings made clear in my mind how sincere he was in his devotion to the islands' culture, at a time when even its native residents believed it was lost.

I would have liked to see more of the self-portraits in the show, but there is such a surfeit of important paintings that it seems ridiculous to complain of a lacuna. Still, the self-portraits could have been placed strategically throughout the show, to represent the intense self-inspection Gauguin was making alongside that of his exterior. Self-portraits from the Tahiti and Marquises periods, not in the exhibit, include:

Self-Portrait (1890s, Puskin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Self-Portrait with Idol (c. 1893, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas)
Self-Portrait with Palette (c. 1894, private collection)
Self-Portrait (1896, Museo de Arte, São Paolo, Brazil)
Self-Portrait (1896, Musée d'Orsay)

I also really like the humorous Self-Portrait (1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which although it predates his first stay in Tahiti is from the same year as the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ which begins the exhibit. The most beautiful of the self-portraits is that shown above to the right, Self-portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Les Misérables) (1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). For many more images of Gauguin's works, not necessarily in the exhibit, see this Gauguin Expo and collection of Gauguin images from Olga's Gallery and Orazio Centaro's Art Images on the Web.

24.10.03

Juilliard Quartet at the Library of Congress

This evening the Juilliard String Quartet was again in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress (see my post on their last performance on October 22). This is part of the 2003-2004 season of the annual series of free concerts hosted by the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C. There were no special, oversized violas for tonight's program, so I think that the quartet was once again performing on the matched set of Stradivari instruments, donated to the Library in 1934 by Mrs. Gertrude Clarke Whittall.

Béla BartókThe program began with an absolutely stellar performance of Béla Bartók's String Quartet no. 1 (op. 7). The Juilliard Quartet was the first group in the United States to play all six of the Bartók string quartets, in 1949, and the various members have made three recordings of the these important works, starting with the first recording in 1950. Not only can a listener trace the progress of Bartók's musical style over the course of the six quartets, but you get a chance to hear some of the best music the 20th century had to offer. In fact, it is really not an exaggeration to say that, by composing them, Bartók did a lot to preserve the string quartet as a modern genre. I expected the Juilliard to give a fine performance of Bartók, given the group's history, but I was truly astounded by the beauty of this performance. At this point in his life (1907-1910), Bartók was still composing in a surprisingly tonal, or post-Romantic, style. However, there are moments of tension and dissonance in the piece that already were becoming part of his vocabulary. Furthermore, the influence of Hungarian folk music is felt strongly in this quartet for the first time, as Bartók's friend Zóltan Kódaly noted. Bartók and Kódaly at this point were preparing their study and collection of Hungarian folk melodies, eventually a total of over 100,000 of them (see the introduction to Hungarian Folk Songs). If you want to learn more about Hungarian folk song, take a look at Zoltán Bodolai's The Timeless Nation: The History, Literature, Music, Art and Folklore of the Hungarian Nation (1978), available online among the incredible collection of resources from the Corvinus Library of Hungarian History.

This was followed by another piece by Milton Babbitt, the Clarinet Quintet, featuring guest clarinettist Charles Neidich. This piece was premiered by the Juilliard Quartet and Mr. Neidich, to whom the composer dedicated it, for the quartet's 50th anniversary in 1996. It's a slightly more melodic piece than what was on Wednesday's program, but the effect of discombobulation was basically the same. Between the wild bobbing of Mr. Neidich's head and the obvious foot tapping of members of the quartet, it was obvious that the shifting rhythm of the piece is difficult to coordinate. It is one long movement, which is rather disconcertingly monochromatic. (For an older assessment of Babbitt's work, Greg Sandow has made available online his article The Fine Madness of Milton Babbitt, from The Village Voice, in 1982.)

The second half of the concert was the next installment of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of the entire cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven's string quartets, in celebration of its 40th anniversary at the Library of Congress: the String Quartet no. 14 in C# Minor, op. 131. The quartet's performance was excellent, but the Bartók had already been the high point of the concert. Op. 131 was completed in 1826, just a year before Beethoven's death, and is one of the longest string quartets he wrote: it is divided into seven movements and takes about 40 minutes to perform. Beethoven's study of counterpoint, which I discussed in relation to Wednesday's performance of op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge, is also in evidence. The opening of the first movement features the fugal entrance of the four parts on a solemn, tragic melodic subject. This learned style is in contrast to a sort of graceful folk sound featured in the third movement (Allegro moderato) and the Haydnesque humor of the fifth movement(Presto). In the fourth movement (Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile) the pizzicato sforzandos were very accurate, loud, and pleasing to hear, as was the high playing of the first violin in the Presto. All in all, this was again a most pleasing concert at the Library of Congress.