In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Friday, June 11, 2004

More on FLW
Dear Vanessa -- In a posting a while ago (here), I wondered out loud about Frank Lloyd Wright. Sure, many of his buildings are show-stoppingly beautiful, and that's something that needs to be acknowledged. But why shouldn't some of their other qualities and characteristics also be acknowledged? Many of them leak; some have had terrible construction problems; some are absurdly unfunctional. And it isn't uncommon for inhabitants of a FLW house to feel like it never really belongs to them. Instead of feeling like they live in their own home, they wind up feeling like the curators of a FLW monument to himself. Comments continue to appear on this posting occasionally, nearly all of them outraged. I enjoy checking them out, though few people seem to come up with anything but a variation on the old "it's not that you disagree with me, it's that you really don't get it" argument. And quel shockeroo to learn (for about the zillionth time, sigh) that those in the architectural know consider "architecture" something apart from such values as usefulness, soundness, and a willingness to serve rather than dominate. No, "architecture" -- for those in the know, bien sur -- is something else entirely. Something along the lines of "design completely divorced from all other considerations." I dunno, I guess that's just too durned sophisticated a thought for a rube like me. No matter how hard I try, I just cain't figure out why I should think of a building as being all that much different from a car. And when I think about what makes a "good car," such questions as price, utility, comfort, safety, and durability count as high in my mind as "brilliance of design" does. I'm sorry, I just cain't help it. So imagine my feelings when I read a NYTimes article this morning by Carol Vogel about Wright's Guggenheim Museum, here. Trustees are getting ready to give the building a $25 million restoration. Ever-popular the Guggenheim may be, but it's never been the greatest place to display art. It has also looked suspiciously ratty for many years now. I've taken photos of its peeling exterior and cracked sidewalks, planning to put them up on the blog. Too late, though: I've been scooped by the Times. Dang! A fun passage from Vogel's article: Neither the building's design, which was commissioned by the Guggenheim in 1943, nor its construction, which was completed in 1959, went smoothly. The only builder Wright could find to execute his drawings economically was a man whose expertise was in constructing parking garages and freeways. The building's outer wall was made by spraying layers of gunite (a mixture of sand and cement commonly used to line swimming pools) from within the building, through steel reinforcements, against pieces of plywood that were molded into the building's shape. Every few years the exterior is patched and painted, but the cosmetic touches camouflage far deeper problems. In extremely cold weather, moisture from the skylights and windows that have not... posted by Michael at June 11, 2004 | perma-link | (56) comments

How To Refer to "It"?
Dear Vanessa -- How often are you and the Hubster getting to the theater these days? The Wife and I recently treated ourselves to a little theatergoing for the first time in a while. Back in my unsuccessful-pro-who-nonetheless-kept-up-with-the-arts days, I was able -- thanks to a generous artsgoing expense account -- to see a lot of plays. Boy, did we sit through a lot of bad theater. But we sat through some awfully good theater too. So it was nostalgic fun to indulge that groove again. It was even more fun when I reminded myself that for me these days, "keeping up" is an option. All of which may mean nothing more than that, even as an arts-goer, I'm a born amateur. To run through the plays we saw: The limited-run Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. Are you a Stoppard fan? I'm split, myself. I've seen a handful of the plays, none of which I've been crazy about, yet I often love his screenplays. My suspicion: he's at his best (and he's best able to set aside his own ego) when adapting other people's material. But I'd never before seen one of his pinwheeling-extravaganza-type plays given a full-dress, big-budget workout, and I was curious to see what such an event would be like. Not great, is my answer. Stoppard's certainly a funny guy, and he's got to be one of the world's cleverest-ever playwrights. And there's something endearingly puppyish about his eagerness to entertain. But his plays can also get to feeling antic, hectic, and wearying; his determination to dazzle loses its charm and starts feeling compulsive and competitive. A pet theory of mine: nearly all in-linear-time art-things that last longer than a half-hour need some sense of the human, the narrative, and the relaxed to carry an audience's goodwill along with them. But you may be a bigger fan of nonlinear theater than I am. It seems to me that the challenge for a director and actors would be to figure out how to supply the energy while at the same time drawing the audience into the drama. David Leveaux's production was super-professional -- he produced a very well-done evening. But it didn't lick the central problem. The production, by the way, seems to exist in large part to show off Simon Russell Beale, the lead actor, who's evidently a legend in England for his self-amused verbal prowess; he's a Charles-Laughton-on-speed type. At first I was suitably amazed by Beale, but as the evening went by I lost interest in his performance. But the real problem of the evening, it seemed to me, was the fact that the play was being presented on Broadway. A huge house ... A clueless, bussed-in audience ... Up on that immense stage, the play seemed tiny and elitist; the audience behaved restlessly and unappreciatively, and left me with the impression that it'd have been happier watching the tube. I came away thinking that Stoppard's plays are perhaps best thought of as good... posted by Michael at June 11, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Hi and Hello
I just want all you fellas in 2 Blowhards land to know that I have agreed to make a monthlong appearance here for two reasons: 1) I have a secret longing to blog. And, 2) I sensed that Michael's joie de vivre had become slightly deflated after losing his blogging pal Friedrich. It's the epistolary form, it seems, that encourages Michael to write with playful abandon. So, consider this my two bits for charity. Besides the fact that I learn a lot by reading this blog. Hell, the word "epistolary" didn't exist in my vocabulary until, like, 5 minutes ago. Therefore, think of me as the bodily stand-in for Friedrich, minus all the super erudite art stuff and incisive commentary. Cheers!... posted by Vanessa at June 11, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

New Blowhard
A brief timeout to introduce a new addition to the cast here at 2Blowhards. Vanessa del Blowhard is an old friend, as well as a fellow media-artsworld semi-pro. She's based in Chicago and ... Well, to be honest, she's content to leave the personal details at that. But I can say that she's talented, smart and funny, and that she never fails to find her own wry take on things. I'm pleased I was able to persuade her to climb on blogboard for the next month, as well as relieved to be able to go back to the old "Dear Someone .... Best, Somone Else," epistolary format that Friedrich and I made use of. (Lord, I do hate being a solo artist.) I'm looking forward to co-blogging with Vanessa, and I know y'all will enjoy getting to know her.... posted by Michael at June 11, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

B&N's Portable Professors
Good news for lifetime-learning buffs: the Teaching Company now has serious competition. Barnes and Noble has launched what they're calling a "Portable Professor" series. Some decent subjects: Mozart; American business history; Ben Franklin. And some classy professorial names: Colin McGinn, Robert Dallek, Joseph Ellis. I haven't tried any of B&N's titles yet, but I certainly will. Here's a page that lists their current, attractively-priced offerings. Incidentally, I'm in the middle of another fabulous Teaching Company title, Darren Zarefsky's "Argumentation," buyable at an amazingly low price here. More on this terrific lecture series later.... posted by Michael at June 11, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Thursday, June 10, 2004

FvB's American Art Timeline
My former co-blogger FvB, in the midst of some Deepthink about American art, cooked up the following timeline. I got a lot out of eyeballing it, and persuaded Friedrich to let me post it here. AMERICAN ARTIST TIMELINE 15-year “generations” 1775 Rembrandt Peale 1778-1860 (American Neoclassical?) 1790 Samuel Morse 1791-1872 (American Neoclassical?) Asher B. Durand 1796-1886 (Hudson River School) Thomas Cole 1801-1848 (Hudson River School) 1805 John Frederick Kensett 1816-1872 (Hudson River School-Luminist) Martin J. Heade 1819-1904 (Hudson River School-Luminist) 1820 Jasper Francis Cropsey 1823-1900 (Hudson River School-Luminist) Frederic Edwin Church 1826-1900 (Hudson River School-Luminist) Albert Bierstadt 1830-1902 (Hudson River School) James A.M. Whistler 1834-1903 (Hard to characterize) 1835 John La Farge 1835–1910 (American Renaissance) Winslow Homer 1836-1910 (American Realist) Thomas Moran 1837-1926 (Hudson River School?) Thomas Eakins 1844-1916 (American Realist) Edwin Howland Blashfield 1848–1936 (Muralist, American Renaissance) Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) (American Realist) Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1848-1907 (American Renaissance Sculptor) William Michael Harnett 1848-1892 (American Realist) William Merritt Chase, 1849 – 1916 (American Realist/Impressionist/ Post Impressionist) Abbott Handerson Thayer 1849-1921(American Renaissance) 1850 Theodore Robinson, 1852 – 1896 (American Impressionist) Julian Alden Weir 1852-1919 (American Impressionist/Post Impressionist) John Twachtman, 1853 – 1902 (American Impressionist) John Frederick Peto 1854-1907 (American Realist) Kenyon Cox, 1856-1919 (Muralist, American Renaissance) John Singer Sargent 1856 – 1925 (Hard to characterize) Maurice Prendergast, 1858 – 1924 (American Post Impressionist) Childe Hassam, 1859 – 1935 (American Impressionist) Robert Reid 1863-1929 (American Impressionist) 1865 Robert Henri 1865 – 1929 (American Ashcan School Painter) William Wendt 1865-1946 (California Impressionist) George Luks 1866-1933 (American Ashcan School Painter) Guy Rose 1867-1925 (American Impressionist Painter) John Sloan 1871-1951 (American Ashcan School Painter) Granville Redmond (California Impressionist), 1871-1935] William Glackens 1870-1938 (American Ashcan School Painter) Maurice Braun 1877-1941 (California Impressionist) 1880 Edward Hopper 1882-1967 (American Scene Painter) Edgar Alwin Payne C.1882-1947 (California Impressionist)... posted by Michael at June 10, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Neha and Bollywood
Where filmgoing is concerned, I enjoy (and probably over-enjoy) putting on a jaded, seen-it-all act. But the sad fact is that, despite years of the worst kind of movie-geekiness, a few holes still remain in my film education, prime among them the films of Bollywood. Well, I've finally watched my first Bollywood movie musical, Taal (buyable here, rentable here). For those who haven't run into the phenomenon, "Bollywood" is the name given to the popular-movie industry of India, the country with the world's most prolific filmbiz. (No one seems to take offense at the name Bollywood, by the way.) Although highbrow Western film buffs have long treasured the arty films of Satyajit Ray -- I'm a big fan myself -- most of what the Indian filmbiz produces is extravagant, escapist entertainments. Some Westerners have become aficionados of Bollywood movies; I notice that Netflix offers a lot of them for rent. Do Western fans love Bollywood films straightforwardly, or in a camp way? I'm not entirely sure. And how enchantingly strange are these films? Lord knows that it can be a lot of fun to dive into an unfamiliar film culture and get a taste of an entirely different set of conventions than you're used to. So what was "Taal" like to watch? Here's some of what it contained: Many unwittingly-surrealistic, out-of-nowhere musical numbers that mixed up traditional Indian singing and temple-dancing with heavy techno beats and rap moves. Hindi breakdancing is a sight to see. A fleshy, balding star pretending to be a hunky 22-year-old rich boy. A gorgeous, slender young actress (a former Miss World, I believe) pretending to be an ingenuous country girl. Scenes of romantic partner-yoga performed on a cliffside at sunrise. Schticky supporting-role performances by actors who, back in the home country, are no doubt much-beloved for their schtick. Endless story manueverings involving family-honour issues I had trouble decoding. A riot of Busby-Berkeley-meets-Ravi-Shanker colors. I'm not sure what the film's art-director had in mind aside from "bright" and "strong"; the film was full of turquoise, gold, saffron, emerald ... As a friend who'd just returned from India once said, "It's like they've never heard of the concept of a muted color." Enough plot to service three or four seasons of an American TV series. Part novelty, part campfest, and pretty hard to resist, if also exhausting and overrich, in other words. The film was three hours long, for one thing; I managed to get through it only by spreading my viewing out over four nights. I was left with the strong impression that the Indian mass audience demands a lot of movie for their hard-earned rupee. The hot and rich colors ... The enormous length of the picture ... The bizarro plot elements ... The unfamiliar conventions ... The mixed-ethnic-cuisine musical sequences ... Snoozing off as the DVD machine played on ... I found that the film merged with my dreamlife in the strangest ways. Looking back on these hours, and cheesy though the movie in... posted by Michael at June 10, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

I'm a huge, although half-educated, fan of the Austin-based branch of the alternative country-music scene. I suspect lots of people would enjoy this music as much as I do, but it isn't as well-known as it deserves to be. The Texas alt-country world got its start back in the '60s when a group of hippie and local musicians who didn't want to go the glitzy Nashville route created their own scene. By comparison to commercial c&w, their music is rootsy, loose, personal, literate, and open to incorporating folk and rock elements. The gods of this scene, IMHO, are Townes Van Zandt (this CD here is priceless), Guy Clark (I love this CD here), and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (this here is tiptop). Currently on my CD player's endless-repeat is the music of someone I'm relatively new to, James McMurtry. I love the two CDs of his that I've listened to so far. (They're buyable here and here.) McMurtry, who's the son of the novelist Larry McMurtry, is a firstclass singer/songwriter: pungent and funky, and harder-rocking than most of the alt-country crowd. He writes tunes that are catchy but that don't shy from the sour and the bleak, and he leads a loose-limbed, bluesy and lowdown band. The way he brings together the regional, the embittered, and the ruefully triumphant reminds me of the Welsh folk-rocker Richard Thompson. McMurtry's also one terrific lyricist. Like some of the others in the alt-country scene, McMurtry is such a good writer that he can make you think that the current literary world should just kiss your ass. His words are defiant, rocky, eloquent, and drily funny, and they're set to lonesome-highway music that makes you want to get drunk and make a fool of yourself. What's not to like? I can't resist typing out a few examples: It's a small town Can't sell you no beer It's a small town, son May I ask what you're doin' here? ... And my judgment may be shakey And my shoes are soaking through 'Cause the weeds are wet And I haven't yet Made any sense of you. ... I wrecked the El Camino Would have been DWI Just walked off and left it Layin' on its side. Troopers found it in the morning Said it's purely luck I wasn't killed I probably oughta quit my drinking But I don't believe I will. ... Mama used to roll her hair Back before the central air And sit outside and watch the stars at night. She'd tell me to make a wish. I'd wish we both could fly. Don't think she's seen the sky Since we got the satellite dish. ... For knowledgeable (and fun to read) commentary and info, be sure to check in with The Fat Guy, here. Here's an Amazon Customer's Guide by someone who's listened to a lot more of the music than I have.... posted by Michael at June 8, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

* I bought a painting the other day by a talented young artist named Runcie Tatnall. I was hurrying through the Washington Square Art Fair on my way home when his work caught my eye. Nothing cheesy or touristy about it; I saw a little Sargent there, a little Sloan, and a little something pop-y and Diebenkorn too. Here's Runcie's website. I'm very pleased with my new acquisition, which is now making one of our walls look very, very good. * Steve Sailer's recent piece comparing India and China explains a lot, here. * A rant I'd love to compose yet probably never will concerns self-help books. One of the most-despised of all book forms, of course. And why not? Many are laughably bad. Yet I've met very few people who didn't eventually lower their voices and confess that ... well, they'd found one or two self-help books pretty damn useful. Is there anything necessarily more contemptible about the self-help form than any other book form? I can't see why that should be so. Self-help even has its own perfectly-legit history. The Library of Economics and Liberty reprints the first chapter of the form's granddaddy, Samuel Smiles' 1859 "Self-Help" here. Here's a short Economist piece about Smiles. * In his review here of D.C.'s new World War II memorial, John Massengale gets off a lot of substantial good ones about Modernism and Classicism. * I don't know much about the current Japanese-movie world, a few "Beat" Kitano flicks aside. The Wife and I were recently wowed, though, by Audition, our first Takeshi Miike film. (It's buyable here and rentable here.) "Audition" starts off like a quiet Ozu drama, then morphs into a truly alarming horror extravaganza. By the end of the film, things had gotten so intense and gory that the two of us were taking refuge behind the sofa. "Audition" is one of the most distressing films I've ever watched, which I intend as a strong recommendation. Next up on the over-expensive home-theater system: Miike's Ishi the Killer. Here's a q&a with Miike. * James Kunstler wonders here what the virtual-reality addiction is doing to kids. * Is there a more annoying TV host than James Lipton, of "Inside the Actors Studio"? Still, credit where credit's due: what other show gives performers the chance to discuss their work at any length? And what other interviewer of performers brings real knowledge and sympathy to the conversation? OK, so 3/4 of the shows consist of content-free butt-licking and actor-babble; the others are startling and terrific. Be sure not to miss Lipton's current conversation with Bette Midler, who's in spunky, funny and down-to-earth form. I find Midler, when she's on her game, hilarious and even touching. I'm in good, and even classy, company. Back in the early Divine Miss M days, I read a talk with the immortal Sir Laurence Olivier, who'd just seen Midler's show in London. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" he said enthusiastically. "I mean, the energy!!!"... posted by Michael at June 8, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

FvB on France, America, Modernist Art, etc.
He may have retired from blogging, but Friedrich von Blowhard is obviously powerless to keep his brain from its usual concerns. Here's something I've slapped together from a few of the recent emails my former co-blogger has sent me. It will no doubt amuse you to hear that I am still reading about art, religion, France and America. To wit, I can't make sense out of the collapse of the French between the World Wars out of your notion of a highly disciplined bourgeois life made liveable by a measured (if psychologically central) indulgence in the pleasure principle. I can only assume that what you saw in the early 1970s was the result of the French having renounced their one-time world-historical role (i.e., the Grand Nation, the Revolutionary Nation, the Napoleonic Empire, Paris as the capital of the 19th Century, etc.) as exhausting and beyond their means. I suppose one could say that ambition had been beaten out of them by the World Wars, by their rather humbled position in the Cold War era, by Algeria, by Vietnam, etc. My guess would be that the dilemma of the last three centuries for the French-- .e., what might be termed the post-Louis XIV era--has been that their fundamentally feudal culture has simultaneously been so out of touch with the needs of the modern world and yet somehow impossible for them to give up and still think of themselves as French. They spent decade after decade (really, century after century) trying to "fix the problem" without really changing anything that was a "core principle" (and working really hard, most of the time, to avoid acknowledging that they would never regain the glory days of Louis XIV). Every ambitious attempt to adjust to the modern world -- the attempts at reform by the 18th century monarchy, the Revolution, the Napoleonic "distraction," the Third Republic (which actually kind of worked, but only kind of), the Popular Front, their attempts at imperialism, etc., etc., kept ultimately blowing up in their face, either from within (because they wandered too far from their core, essentially feudal, conservatism) or from without (because other societies that had made better adjustments to the modern world kept kicking their asses.) Hence they raised the art of the public "argument" about what they needed to do to a much higher pitch than in any other society, which gave their country a uniquely intellectual form of amusement (but not just amusement; there was a serious problem that they needed to solve and it was a really tough nut to crack). In their defense, I guess you could say that the French--rather heroically--kept picking up the pieces and trying again to master the Sisyphean task of reconciling feudalism with the modern world, and each failure seems to have helped them adjust, if only incrementally, in the next period (if only by reconciling them to the notion that "greatness"--that most dangerous of addictions--was further and further out of their grip). I guess what I've just... posted by Michael at June 8, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments