December 2010 Archives

Since it's a working assumption around here that if you want to be read you post rather than comment, I would like to call readers' attention in this second post to the long, garbled in-comments debate that my brief post on Julian Assange and Robert P. Baird has inspired. Let me begin by explaining that I wrote the post for two basic reasons. 1) I admired Baird's essay and was struck by how decisively it connected Assange to our putative topic, arts journalism--in fact rather highbrow arts criticism, but that's close enough. 2) I believed and believe that Assange's heroism has been vastly overrated by the left-liberal community most of us here are part of, and wanted to suggest that possibility in solidarity with anyone who'd been having doubts about that heroism.
December 31, 2010 1:53 PM | | Comments (29)
I hate to go after a fellow arts critic, but Neil Genzlinger's review of the movie The Red Chapel in this morning's New York Times is too infuriating to let go.

I saw this documentary just over a month ago at MOMA, and I have been telling everybody about it ever since.  It is such a weird and interesting and in many ways brilliant little film that I am amazed it is getting a general release at all.  And then to have it instantaneously smashed by a critic who hasn't paid enough attention is too disappointing for words.

Genzlinger gets several things factually wrong.  For one thing, he says that the director, Mads Brugger, is visiting North Korea with a "bogus" comedy troupe consisting of two Danish-Koreans, Jacob (a self-styled "spastic") and Simon.  But this is a bit like calling Stephen Colbert a "bogus" comedian because the North Koreans wouldn't find him funny (which they wouldn't).  Jacob and Simon are both practicing comedians, though not as a duo, in Denmark; it is the way the North Koreans receive their particular brand of low-key, self-mocking humor that in part makes this film at once so hilarious and so chilling.

More importantly, the Times reviewer alleges that "the film has nothing to show but pretty buildings and pretty people."  Where was he when Mads and Jacob were forced (against Jacob's clearly voiced and therefore quite risky objections) to participate in a huge and active street demonstration against the U.S.?  Where was he when Simon and Jacob repeatedly received instructions about how their comedy routine should be "modified" so that it would appeal to North Korean audiences -- orders that mainly involved putting Jacob in a wheelchair and leaving him there?  Where was Genzlinger when the three Danes were taken on an honorary visit to the highest authorities, the innermost chambers, for a particularly terrifying ceremony of gift-exchange?  Where was he when they toured the windswept, abandoned-looking border between North and South Korea?  And where was he when they visited classrooms full of terrified, perfect, "pretty" (in the most horrible way imaginable), singing schoolchildren?  I suspect he must have slept through the film.
December 29, 2010 10:24 AM | | Comments (1)
December 20, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)
I've been wanting to write long and complex about this, but there's just too much food-on-the-table-work to be done, so it's a blogger's quick over-and-out or nothing. It's about Julian Assange, about whom I recommend this essay by Robert P. Baird, which was flagged in TPM a week or so ago.

To state my interest up top, let me reveal that I am far from sanguine about Assange's WikiLeaks document dump. In fact, I am in opposition, though that doesn't mean I have a clear notion of whether he should be prosecuted (I'm leaning not). What does Julian Assange have to do with arts journalism, you well might wonder. Well, Baird traces his underlying philosophy to the language poets of the '70s, who were themselves devotees of the poststructuralist idea--conceit, I'd call it, if not canard--that language itself is a tool of the authoritarian state, usually meaning state-which-is-authoritarian-by-its-very-nature, and must therefore be "transformed" by us smart poet guys. So, very roughly speaking, the purpose of the dump is to devalue and indeed destroy diplomatic language itself. That's a poor summation, but it's complex and food on the table calls. Read the essay--it's not long. The comments are interesting for once as well. The other side gets in important points, but I think mine prevails.

Why am I anti-Assange--which I was not at all, let me add, when his Iraq war bundle dropped? Because I believe the practical effect of the dump will be to trip up a US diplomatic system that, for all its deplorable perfidies, is considerably less deplorable than those of, to name just a few, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and--most ominously, given the proximity of Islamist extremists and nuclear weapons--Pakistan. (And probably no more deplorable than that of France, a major source of the brand of reflexive anti-Americanism to which Assange seems to subscribe.) Absolute external transparency is not a practical or desirable way to run any even moderately complex organization. And the most likely result of Assange's dump will be a radical decrease in intra-governmental transparency in our foreign policy complex, which will increase its perfidy quotient by freeing its bad guys from the oversight of its less-bad guys.

Now back to the blog entry I get paid for.
December 17, 2010 4:57 AM | | Comments (17)
Right now, at the Barrow Street Theatre in lower Manhattan, is a great little play called Mistakes Were Made that was imported from A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago.  Even though The New Yorker gave it a positive capsule write-up, it is apparently not selling well, so tickets are available at half-price on the TDF site, which is why I ended up going to a matinee last Sunday.  When I emerged from the theater after 95 intermission-less minutes, I had that exhilarated feeling you only get from live theater, and from no other art form, however superbly executed--the feeling that you have been right there when something excitingly risky and wonderful and scary and human took place before your very eyes and ears.

I don't want to give away the plot or the various clever devices.  Let me just say that the central performance by Michael Shannon (who briefly appeared as the Stage Manager in last year's terrific production of Our Town at the same location) is the kind of thing that makes going to the theater worth it.  And he could only have given this performance in a theater the size of the Barrow, which seats somewhere between 100 and 200 people.  That's not only because the play itself (beautifully devised by Craig Wright and directed with enormous intelligence by Dexter Bullard) is in part about theater-size, but also because Shannon's delivery--ranging all the way from screaming rages emitted at the top of his lungs to quiet murmurings with his back turned to the audience--could only be properly heard and felt in a theater this size. 

A big part of the reason that Broadway consistently stinks is that no good play is meant to be performed in a venue that seats big crowds.  Theater just can't make it as a big-money proposition (that, too, is partly what this play is about), especially if it is to retain any connection with life as we know it (ditto).  So our only recourse is marvelous little plays like this, cultivated in great theater towns like Chicago and then brought to us intact, which means emphatically not given the Trojan-horse gift of a Broadway production (as, for instance, A Steady Rain was last year, to its tremendous detriment).  The Red Orchid Theatre, according to its own press information, "maintains the conviction that theatre is potentially the greatest sustenance for the human spirit."  That this principle can coexist with, and indeed reinforce, the horrifyingly dark, grotesquely funny vision that Mistakes Were Made conveys is just one of the reasons that live theater will continue to survive in small downtown venues, no matter what mistakes get made elsewhere.
December 14, 2010 9:05 AM | | Comments (0)

"Debbie Allen's Hot Chocolate Nutcracker" premiered over the weekend at UCLA's Royce Hall. Some details are evident from the title, such as... 

A) Debbie Allen: film and television actor ("Fame"), director, writer, choreographer, wife of a retired NBA All Star. Owner of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City. In addition to having great theatrical chops as a director of children's theatre, she has clout and good connections. This production featured Raven Symone ("That's So Raven"), Jaleel White ("Family Matters"), and composer Arturo Sandoval, among other big-name talent.

B) "Nutcracker" can be magic at the box office. 

C) The three presentations were sold out. Duh.

But is it truly "Nutcracker" if it doesn't have Peter Tchaikovsky's score? Still, a "Nutcracker," but a cousin, I would say. But truth be told, the various composers whom Allen tapped for the patchwork musical numbers -- Sandoval, James Ingram, Chau-Giang Thi Nguyen, Mariah Carey, Shiamak Davar and Thump -- did not do as well by her, as Tchaikovsky did by choreographer Lev Ivanov back in 1892.

December 13, 2010 9:23 PM | | Comments (0)

This week's links to NAJP members' work:

Hilton Als on street photography after Henri Cartier Bresson (The New Yorker)
Hilton Als on "Harlem: A Century in Images" (The New Yorker)
MJ Andersen on the MFA's new Art of the Americas Wing (The Providence Journal)
Alicia Anstead on Diane Paulus, Stephen Schwartz and the musical (Harvard Arts Beat)
Martin Bernheimer reviews "La Fanciulla del West" at the Met (Financial Times)
Larry Blumenfeld on the Microscopic Septet (The Wall Street Journal)
Laura Collins-Hughes on Julie Taymor at the center of the storm (The Boston Globe)
Laura Collins-Hughes on "Spider-Man" and an early audience (The Boston Globe)
Steve Dollar on Issue Project Room and its new director (The Wall Street Journal)
Steve Dollar on the Punch Brothers (Time Out Chicago)
Michael Feingold on new work by Tim Miller and Holly Hughes (The Village Voice)
Sasha Frere-Jones on Kanye, Diddy et al in 2010 (The New Yorker)
Matthew Gurewitsch's essay in "Franco Zeffirelli: Complete Works" (Beyond Criticism)
Christopher Hawthorne on the architecture of Stephen Kanner (Los Angeles Times)
John Horn on the fantastical ideas of Julie Taymor (Los Angeles Times)
John Horn does a Q&A with Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (Los Angeles Times)
Ann Hornaday reviews "All Good Things" (The Washington Post)
Ann Hornaday reviews "Marwencol" (The Washington Post)
Michael Kimmelman on opera and political discourse in Italy (The New York Times)
Julia M. Klein interviews Oliver Sacks (
Julia M. Klein on Elizabeth Edwards (Obit Magazine)
Anne Midgette on classical Christmas music (The Washington Post)
Laurie Muchnick on the year's top nonfiction (Bloomberg News)
Craig Seligman on the year's top fiction (Bloomberg News)

December 13, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Last night, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center's Movado Hour, I heard the Ensemble Organum, a group of unaccompanied French singers, perform Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame.  This fourteenth-century work (it dates from around 1364) is generally considered to be the first complete mass to which a single composer's name has been attached.  That is interesting enough, and so is the way in which these six male singers performed the mass, with harmonies that mingled an uncanny underlying drone with a filigree of strange melodies overlaid on top.  But what made the evening for me was the way their sound strenuously evoked three other kinds of music: that of a Hebrew cantor in a synagogue, that of an Arabic singer of folk melodies, and that of a Russian Orthodox choir.  You could not hear this early Christian music without, I think, thinking of those other three strands of musical history.  It is as if all these religions--Islam, Judaism, Byzantine Christianity, and Roman Christianity--started with a common musical root, and only began to diverge sometime after the fourteenth century.  Of course, I do not know how accurate the Ensemble Organum's reconstructions are; perhaps this is just a lovely myth of origin that they have created for us, a common past belatedly imposed on a fragmented present.  But even if that is the case (and somehow I doubt it: these guys seem very serious in their purposes, both musical and religious), I am grateful for the gift of the illusion--or allusion, if it does indeed turn out to be historically true.  Can anyone who knows more than I do about the history of music please shed some light on this?
December 9, 2010 7:37 AM | | Comments (0)

This week's links to NAJP members' work:

Alicia Anstead interviews Leonard Nimoy's "Secret Selves" (WGBH, Boston)
Alicia Anstead interviews Stephen Greenblatt on "Shakespeare's Freedom" (WBGH)
Martin Bernheimer on Bread and Puppet's "Return of Ulysses" (Financial Times)
Larry Blumenfeld on the recovery of pianist Fred Hersch (The Wall Street Journal)
Tim Cahill on Pearl Harbor Day (Art & Document)
Robert Christgau on the Roots, Kanye West et al (MSN Music)
Francis Davis on Bill Frisell et al (The Village Voice)
Steve Dollar interviews the makers of "You Won't Miss Me" (The Wall Street Journal)
Steve Dollar on madness, performance and "Black Swan" (GreenCine Daily)
Michael Feingold on Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat" (The Village Voice)
Sasha Frere-Jones on Kanye West (The New Yorker)
John Horn on the Sundance Film Festival's 2011 lineup (Los Angeles Times)
Ann Hornaday reviews "Black Swan," "Tiny Furniture" (The Washington Post)
Hillel Italie on Michael Chabon's new MacDowell Colony gig (The Associated Press)
Michael Kimmelman on "degenerate art" in Berlin (The New York Times)
Michael Kimmelman on escapism in austere times (IHT Magazine)
Renee Montagne on the late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (NPR)
Ann Powers on the phrase "Me love you long time" (Los Angeles Times)
Ann Powers on the Grammy nominations (Los Angeles Times)
Craig Seligman does a Q&A with Mark Twain's editor (Bloomberg News)
Laura Sydell on an e-mail exchange between a pirate and an indie filmmaker (NPR)
Laura Sydell on Google's online e-books (NPR)
András Szántó on museums in the digital age (The Art Newspaper)
Douglas Wolk reviews "Special Exits" and other new releases (The New York Times)

December 7, 2010 5:53 PM | | Comments (0)
... will be a little late this week. My apologies!
December 6, 2010 8:49 PM | | Comments (0)

I was in the cast of "The Nutcracker" for many years before I actually sat in a theatre and watched this holiday classic (or chestnut, depending on your point of view). It never occurred to me to question the passed-down, century-old portrayals of bobble-headed Chinese, gauzily shrouded Arabs, and leaping, twirling Russians, all of whom populate the ballet's second act in the Land of the Sweets. Until, that is, I went to Denmark in 1992. It was there, at the Royal Danish Ballet's Bournonville Festival, that I ran headlong into "Far From Denmark," one of the dozen or so remaining 19th-century ballets from Danish master August Bournonville. It was a scene with black-faced, flat-footed South American "natives" in nappy wigs that stopped me cold. I finally understood how "The Nutcracker" -- an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's children's fantasy "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" -- could offend.

Yet, we don't generally throw a work out the canon because, by definition, it has enduring value that transcends the particular period in which it was created. We adapt it. We make it palatable.

December 5, 2010 9:35 PM | | Comments (0)

Laura sent out an e-mail asking if any of us "ARTicles" bloggers would like to respond to the censorship situation at the National Portrait Gallery. Alas, I feel a creepy sort of onus on me, as a visual-arts person on "ARTicles," to say something. I don't think I have anything especially insightful or different to say, except, perhaps, that people ought to tell the truth when answering the inevitable, "What if it were an image of Mohammed?" question. But, for the record:

1. Once an item in an exhibition goes up, it shouldn't be taken down by a museum. (All right, if it turns out to be emitting toxic fumes--literal, not metaphorical--or is short-circuiting the phone system, or something...) Politicians' pressure to remove something from an exhibition is the sort of thing over which museum directors are supposed to resign, not into which they're supposed to cave.

December 2, 2010 6:48 PM | | Comments (0)



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