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« Acting | Main | John Baldessari »

January 14, 2005

Elsewhere

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Martha Bayles praises Sideways (here):

Let me state my praise this way: If you admire Jane Austen, and take pleasure in her delicate distinctions of right and wrong, not to mention her angelic patience toward human weakness, then you will very likely savor the long, smooth finish of Sideways.

A.O. Scott (here), by contrast, calls it the most overrated film of the year:

Criticism always contains an element of autobiography, and it is not much of a leap to suggest that more than a few critics have seen themselves in Sideways. (Several have admitted as much.) This is not to suggest that white, middle-aged men with a taste for alcohol are disproportionately represented in the ranks of working movie reviewers; plausible as such a notion may be, I don't have the sociological data to support it just yet. But the self-pity and solipsism that are Miles's less attractive (and frequently most prominent) traits represent the underside of the critical temperament; his morbid sensitivity may be an occupational hazard we all face.

By the way, have any of you read Martha Bayles's book Hole in Our Soul? The subtitle is The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. It came out in 1994. And though the title may make it seem a lament, in fact I think it was a riposte to Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind contained a sharp denunciation of rock music (from a thoroughly grounded Platonic perspective). Bayles wrote a book that was in fact a spirited defense of pop music. Now, that's just the sort of thing a real rock critic would hate. Because the real rock critic doesn't think pop or rock music needs defending. But if you come out of certain intellectual traditions (like the one that causes Martha Bayles to thank both Hilton Kramer and Allan Bloom in her acknowledgments) then you may feel you must somehow justify your love of pop and rock, and as such exercises go, I thought hers was damned good. Stanley Crouch thought so, too, and I think his blurb on the book jacket is worth reprinting here:

However one might disagree with this book, particularly with its interpretation of Jazz movements past and present, the overall achievement is exceptionally rich. There is no dog in the prose of Martha Bayles. She writes clearly and superbly of the darkness that has overtaken popular music, and understands well the defeatist techniques that would-be radical pop entertainers inherit from misbegotten fine art--the assertion of the shocking, the vulgar, and the perverse as a way of scalping the bourgeoisie. Her unsentimental grasp of what went wrong when teenage music was taken too seriously, and how Rhythm and Blues decayed into the pornographic coon cages of MTV, is especially important. Through this work we arrive at a more thorough recognition of the difference between fresh, artistic vitality and contrived, impotent vulgarity.

I really liked Bayles's book. Yet as the years go by, I shall forever associate it with the phrase "pornographic coon cages of MTV." Roger Kimball is putting together a book of great footnotes he's read over the years. How about a book of the all-time best jacket blurbs?

By the way, I remain a big fan of Stanley Crouch, and pray that he is going to be well in the aftermath of his recent ill health, even though the one time I met him at a party I told him I was a big fan, and he replied, "Yeah, you and everyone else," and walked away.

Martha Bayles, by the way, now holds down the film slot among the ArtsJournal bloggers, of whom another, far more prolific, one is Terry Teachout.

In The New York Times, Roberta Smith weighed in on the Barnes and the Frick. I hadn't read this when I wrote here on the same subject. Smith writes:

Many have compared the Barnes relocation to dismantling the Frick Collection in Manhattan and moving it up the street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But who wouldn't enjoy seeing some of the Frick's great paintings - Bellini's St. Francis, Vermeer's laughing girl - free of the trappings of Henry Clay Frick's robber baron lifestyle?

Now that Muschamp's gone, someone has to say breathtakingly dumb things in the Times.

Turns out I'm not the first to compare Guy Davenport and Susan Sontag. Bruce Bawer did it, here, much better than I, way back in 1992.

To read her alongside someone like Guy Davenport, whose essays bear a superficial resemblance to hers in many respects (e.g., the formal discontinuity, the frequent highbrow name-dropping and quoting, the attraction to demanding and obscure literary works and to extreme political and sexual phenomena), is to appreciate more than ever Davenport’s captivating and elegant prose, his eagerness to comprehend and clarify, his lack of interest in obscuring or making an impression. While Sontag is all over the place, strip-mining the intellectual landscape, Davenport is sinking a shaft. Reigning over the New York intellectual scene, plugged into every trend, Sontag is a writer very much of the moment, whose essays read like self-conscious footnotes to the history of the time in which they were written; Davenport is a writer for the ages. Her temperament is essentially romantic, postmodern; his is classical, modern.

While looking in on Bawer's site, be sure to read this essay, the best essay I read in 2004.

And this, one of the best things I've ever read on Proust.

Bawer's critique of Christian fundamentalism, and especially of Premillennial Dispensationalism, Stealing Jesus, is a book I'm really glad I made myself read in 2004.

John Brockman asks many high thinkers "What do you think is true even though you cannot prove it?" D.C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, John McWhorter, David Gelernter, and the novelist Ian McEwan are among those queried. The best answer, though, comes from Denis Dutton:

In a 1757 essay, philosopher David Hume argued that because "the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature" the value of some works of art might be essentially eternal. He observed that the "same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and London." The works that manage to endure over millennia, Hume thought, do so precisely because they appeal to deep, unchanging features of human nature.

Some unique works of art, for example, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, possess this rare but demonstrable capacity to excite the human mind across cultural boundaries and through historic time. I cannot prove it, but I think a small body of such works—by Homer, Bach, Shakespeare, Murasaki Shikibu, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Wagner, Jane Austen, Sophocles, Hokusai—will be sought after and enjoyed for centuries or millennia into the future. As much as fashions and philosophies are bound to change, these works will remain objects of permanent value to human beings.

Read the whole thing.

Sideways was the best movie I saw in a theater in 2004. It wasn't even close--given that it was, ahem, the only movie I saw in a theater in 2004. I know. How could that be? Well, in 2004, I also, for the first year of my entire life, did not take a vacation. I was busy. I did catch up with some things on the television, however, and the best recent movie I caught on IFC or Sundance (can't tell 'em apart) was Terry Zwigoff's lovely Ghost World. (Here is Terry Teachout's review from the Catholic magazine Crisis.) Zwigoff also made Crumb, about one of my favorite American artists. Explore the Crumb Museum and you may be astonished by the range of the man's talent.

Sideways made me think of Ghost World made me think of Crumb made me think of Crumb made me think of...Elliott Banfield. Elliott is one of the gifted illustrators of our time. I adore his work and I really, really like his deceptively simple but actually very deep and rich web site. Look at his works and at his honest commentary, and be sure not to miss his World Trade Center Monument design, absolutely the best thing I've seen proposed. Oh, Elliott's a fan of Crumb. So that's how I got from Sideways to Elliott. Gee, the human mind works just like the World Wide Web.

If you live in New York or are planning to visit, be sure to look at my friend Amy Langfield's web site New Yorkology. This is an amazingly deep site, updated daily and smartly indexed, of news you can use. I look at it all the time. And while you're there, scroll down a bit on the main page to the heading "Architecture + Food=Francis Morrone," or, if it's slid off the page, click here, where you will learn what I consider to be New York's best pizza. Then click on the link to see some of my other "best of" recommendations for New York--and to see my grinning visage in front of the Church of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Carroll Gardens. And, while you're at it, visit Amy's blog, Amy's New York Notebook. Amy writes beautifully, and also has a bunch of great New York City links.

Finally, I cannot believe that Rudy Giuliani never thought of this.

Best,

Francis

posted by Francis at January 14, 2005




Comments

I'm with A.O. Scott on "Sideways". It was a relief to read his NYT comments as I'd been in the definite minority on this film. Acting was superb, directing was fine, script was o.k. (well, it was great compared with some of the other films offered this year). But the story???! It sucked! Just another guy-on-a-life-journey film with two shliemels in the title roles. Perhaps if the story were about the two main women, the movie would not have been the bore that it was. This was just another guys are idiots film, with the difference being the idiots were witty.

As far as movies not boring this year, I'd say Pixar's "The Incredibles" is a great choice with my top choice being Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions". Although Nicolas Philibert's "To Be and to Have" comes a very close second.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 14, 2005 7:14 PM



I've heard of that opera-drives-away-crime thing before. There was a McDonald's downtown Dallas that blared classical music all the time, because the hoods couldn't stand it and stayed away!

Posted by: annette on January 14, 2005 7:20 PM



Thanks for the recommendation on the Bawer essay. The most interesting part of the essay was the description of how the news media presents a relatively uniform brand of opinion. I wonder how the web will affect that consensus. The least interesting was the need to cover in depth several books (like Hertsgaard's) that don't appear to be interesting.

DarkoV: The Barbarian Invasions is the best film of 2004? You've got to be kidding me. I like talkie, intellectual films and it wasn't a particularly strong one. Gotta disagree.

Posted by: JT on January 14, 2005 7:42 PM



Sideways was a perfectly lovely film and I only wish I had waited to see at home, on the TeeVee, while I was ironing or polishing silver or some other worthwhile use of time.

Posted by: J.C. on January 15, 2005 11:27 AM



J.C.'s back! Missed you.

I wonder how many films I saw in theaters in '04 ... Fewer than a dozen, I'm pretty sure. I looked at a few best-of and worst-of lists, and was amazed to realize that I hadn't even heard of half the movies. So I guess I qualify as a total convert to the DVD world.

I'm between you guys on "Barbarian Invasions." I thought it was beautifully made and sometimes touching, but tedious too. Actually wrote about a little too, here.

I'll second Francis' recommendation of the Martha Bayles book. Fun to read a conservative making a case for popular music of a non-fuddyduddy kind. Not every rock critic has to be a Greil Marcus wannabe, thank heavens. I recall too that she put a big, big (and right-on-the-money) emphasis on not just the genius and influence of black music on American pop music generally, but on its (until rap) positivity, its "up"-ness. I miss the up-ness from contempo pop music, which seems to veer back and forth between a kind of hysterical out-there-ness (which I guess is the new form of up-ness), and a pushy, surly, cartoonish, thuggish nihilism. Not an emotional axis that speaks to me. I wonder if it's an emotional axis that does speak to young people -- does it express what they actually experience emotionally these days? (If so, too bad.) Is it just what the music industry, for whatever reason, finds it can successfully sell? Some combo? Something else entirely?

Thanks for the other links too, which I'm happily exploring...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2005 12:11 PM



Hey, your friend Amy is great. What a terrific spirit, and what a terrific resource.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2005 1:42 PM



Darko, I agree that some of us may have a tendency to overrate any film these days that's actually about and for adults. That said, I think "Sideways" avoided the "witty idiot" trap by its use of the wine conceit, which was _very_ deftly handled. Reviewers who say that the Giamatti character is "pretentious" miss the point completely. I don't see the movie as a "buddy movie" or a "road movie" or even a "romantic comedy," but as a study in the psychology of obsession. As an obsessive sort myself, I related. Then again, I'm also a witty idiot (OK, just idiot), so maybe _that's_ what I was relating to.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on January 15, 2005 4:45 PM



Hume's argument that "the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature" is correct in the sense that there are some things such as symmetry that are pleasing to the human mind unless the particular mind has something organically wrong with it. However, there are aspects of taste that vary for genetic reasons. For instance, level of IQ certainly exerts a large influence over will seem tasteful or esthetically pleasing. Rap music is more appealing, on average, to lower IQ people and other musical forms have greater appeal to other strata of cognitive ability.

There is also a difference in average appeal of musical forms between the sexes. Females probably place, on average, a heavier weight on the lyrics than males do.

As for the idea that the types of art and music that are most appealing will stay constant going into the future: Nonsense! Currently higher IQ is being selected against and so the higher IQ art and music are becoming less appealing the average person in America. Eventually genetic engineering will produce a big average rise in IQ (hopefully before American society decays too much as a consequence) and I predict Bach and Mozart will experience dramatic increase in popularity far beyond their previous peaks in popularity (whenever those peaks were).

Also, I expect genetic engineering to produce other changes in esthetic sensibilities that can only be guessed at. Who knows what cognition-altering genes people will genetically engineer into their offspring.

Posted by: Randall Parker on January 16, 2005 10:37 PM



To put some flesh on my previous point about what is esthetically pleasing: Does anyone doubt there are genes that influence what we find sexually attractive? Look at the Mona Lisa or other portrait paintings of men and women. Certainly it will become possible in the future to genetically tinker with human minds so that some future semi-human offspring will greatly prefer gray skin and purple hair along with fang-like teeth and much larger chins for example. So I do not see existing art works which are regarded as great today as having eternal value into the infinite future.

Posted by: Randall Parker on January 16, 2005 10:46 PM



Randall Parker:
Rap music is more appealing, on average, to lower IQ people and other musical forms have greater appeal to other strata of cognitive ability.

That's nonsense, and here's the proof.

But seriously, I know plenty of braniacs who like rap music, although a lot of them go for lesser-known underground stuff.

Posted by: Jesse M. on January 18, 2005 2:19 AM



"What a terrific spirit, and what a terrific resource" (MB)

I, on the other hand, found Amy's site completely inane! Why do we need a cyber-iteration of likes and dislikes, as if it were the last word on the subject?

This site, too, seems to consist largely of men preening and posing for one another, like the popinjays at Elizabeth's court. C'mon, guys! Keep the mutual admiration society in the frat house.

Posted by: martine mallary on January 18, 2005 3:55 AM



Jesse M,

No, statistical outliers do not disprove group average differences in behavior and esthetic sensibilities.

I'm willing to bet serious money that each rock band or classical music composer has a signature IQ distribution for their audience. So Mozart fans have different average IQs from Bach fans (not sure but Bach fans are probably smarter). Clash fans are probably smarter on average than Megadeth fans by at least 10 points. I'm guessing that Dire Straits has smarter fans than Guns And Roses too. I would even bet that Led Zeppelin attracted smarter average fans than all the forgettable heavy metal clone bands that came in the 1980s.

I bet classical fans are smarter than jazz fans who are probably smarter than rock fans.

Martine,

I show up to disagree and criticise. I hate to preen too.

Posted by: Randall Parker on January 18, 2005 6:02 AM



Barbarian Invasions: Pro: the first half hour of the movie is the most interesting part. The depiction of the Canadian health care system is absolutely damning if accurate and will force any US defender of a single payer system to reconsider their position. Can a Canadian vouch for the accuracy of the film in this respect?

Con (Spoiler!): About the film being beautifully made, I found the succession of images following the death of the protagonist singularly inept.

Posted by: JT on January 18, 2005 9:41 AM



Mr. Parker,

Flipping thru Rantburg articles today, I came across a comment (triggered by the matters unconnected to this thread) that seems to relate nicely to your basic premise of higher IQ is being selected against and so the higher IQ art and music are becoming less appealing the average person in America

In the eyes of this engineer ( and I don't think you could say the guy has a low IQ) the trend is clear: the less knowledge(=IQ, in your terms) top "artistic talent" has, the more money he/she earns. He has in mind such incredibly knowledgeable people as Michael Moore et al :

Little bit of math for you that will explain why the big money players at the top of the entertainment industry are so clueless. In the entertainment business, Time is Money. Also in the entertainment business its well known that Knowledge is power. So I'll look at this as an engineer... As an Engineer, I know Power = Work / Time. So given the conditions of the entertainmen industry I can substitute Knowledge for Power and Money for Time, giving the following equation: Knowledge = Work / Money. Solving that for Money we have: Money = Work / Knowledge. So the more knowledge you have the more work you need to do to get money in the entertainment industry. But also - notice that no matter how much work you do, the less you know the more money you will have. So that explains it! In Hollywood, it doesnt matter how much you work, the less you know the more you make! Those who make the most know the least - this is readily observable in the general population in the entertainment business, especially with Michael Moore and other leading leftie looines as prime examples. This yields the conclusion: To be on the top of the money list in entertainment, you dont need to know anything at all!
Posted by: OldSpook...
...


Posted by: Tatyana on January 18, 2005 3:32 PM



Randall Parker:
No, statistical outliers do not disprove group average differences in behavior and esthetic sensibilities.

It is of course ridiculous for you to make a statement like that when you have no actual statistical studies to base your comments on, you are making a guess which is presumably based just as much on anecdotal evidence and personal intuition as my own. My anecdotal evidence comes from being a physics student at an Ivy League school--based on this, I would bet quite a lot that if you look at the CD/mp3 collection of an average student at a top school, it will be predominated by rock music, I'm not sure whether rap or classical (or jazz or techno) would come in second. It's plausible that the proportion of classical music would increase as IQ increases, but even at the highest IQs I would not expect it to make up the majority of the collection of an average high-IQ young person (older people might be a different story). Likewise, among high-IQ young people I think you'd find that the proportion of rap in their collection is not too much smaller than the proportion of classical or jazz, although again, rock would probably outweigh them all.

Posted by: Jesse M. on January 18, 2005 5:05 PM



Today's New York Sun features a beautiful illustration by the wonderful Elliott Banfield showing Condoleeza Rice crossing the ice, like Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin, pursued to the very edge of the pond by snarling dogs marked Biden and Boxer.

Mary

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on January 21, 2005 11:51 AM






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