Friday, October 01, 2004

Say What?

When Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert gives some movie a "thumbs up," do you ever ask yourself, "Up what?"

Well, wonder no longer.

Here's a quote from his review of The Motorcycle Diaries:

Che Guevara makes a convenient folk hero for those who have not looked very closely into his actual philosophy, which was repressive and authoritarian. Like his friend Fidel Castro, he was a right-winger disguised as a communist.

Did your jaw just hit the floor, gentle readers? Ebert just said that Che wasn't really a Communist -- which is kind of like saying that Herr Himmler wasn't really a Nazi. There's more:

He said he loved the people but he did not love their freedom of speech, their freedom to dissent, or their civil liberties.

Yes, you heard right: Ebert is claiming that Communists were staunch defenders of freedom. Which must surely come as news to the more than one hundred million people currently mouldering in their graves for daring to exercise their "freedom" under the regimes of Stalin, Lenin, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung ....

Or were these leaders also "right-wingers"?

In theory, most news organizations have editors, whose job it is to strike idiotic statements like this one before they can damage anyone's credibility. But they failed to act in this case, which suggests that either nobody at the Sun-Times dares to challenge their head critic, or no one objected to it at all. Had Ebert claimed that Fascism was, on the whole, a good ideology but Hitler somehow misrepresented it, I suspect the resulting embarrassment would have led the Sun-Times to seek a new film critic. As it stands, I doubt he'll be called on his folly.

Still, everybody here reads these blog doohickeys, right? Well, now that bloggers have brought down a major network news anchor (sort of), surely we need no longer fear the strictures of the moribund, leftist news media. Here is Roger Ebert's e-mail adress. Tell the man what you think.

Bigger Red One

How could I have missed this story? Sam Fuller's The Big Red One is one of the best World War Two movies ever made (some critics claim it's the best), and this November it'll return to theaters in a 163-minute version, newly reconstructed by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel. The Big Red One: Reconstruction is not the four-and-a-half hour cut Fuller claimed to have turned in to Lorimar twenty-five years ago. But it's closer to his original concept than anything we've seen before, or are likely to see again.

Whatever you do, gentle reader, don't miss this film.

That Damned Debate

During the 2000 election, I taught a freshman writing course about the year's presidential campaigns. We studied the fundamentals of rational argument, then watched all four debates -- three presidential, one vice-presidential. Afterward, we all came to the same conclusion: We'd been snookered. These forums weren't debates at all. The candidates put forth no shortage of opinions (mostly prepackaged), but they didn't really speak to each other, and they offered no evidence whatsoever to support anything they said. Instead, the candidates moved from position point to pious platitude, without saying anything that could persuade or convince us. If Bush or Gore were students in our class, they'd have flunked out. The bad news, as someone once said, was that one of these guys would be our next presideny. The good news was that the other guy wouldn't.

I could say the same thing for this year's first presidential debate. It was unwatchable and interminable, even by the lousy standards of the 2000 election. Of all the networks, FoxNews may have come closest to honoring the candidates' terms regarding debate coverage: It used the fewest over-the-shoulder shots (explicitly prohibited in the debate agreement), and seldom cut to the other debater while one candidate was speaking (also prohibited). Of course, no broadcaster could play by these elaborate rules and regulations, because they violated several basic principles of television editing. Technically, the various networks could not use a variety of shots, could not edit between multiple camera angles as a candidate delivered a speech, could not show a visually dramatic perspective on the action. The result would have been more visually austere, and twice as dull, as a film-school student's imitation of late-period Bresson.

Luckily for us, the telecasters did what any responsible craftspeople would do with these ridiculous demands: They ignored them altogether. As Bush spoke, we saw John Kerry scribble notes like a college student; perhaps he believed he was running for senior class president. While Kerry blathered earnestly, we could observe Bush's impatient grimace and condescending smirk, gestures which surely won't endear him to the American heartland. In terms of basic presentation, neither candidate came off well. Kerry seemed cold, calculating and deeply unlikable. Bush, meanwhile, was everything his detractors have claimed he is: a stupid, babbling, arrogant wreck, coasting on his dubious credentials.

The president carried out a few successful attacks on Kerry's character -- he's a flip-flopper, he can't be trusted, he'll send 'mixed messages' to the rest of the world. But Bush's apparent lack of preparation, his impatience with dissenting views, his blithe assurance that "I know how the world works," did not inspire confidence, either. If Bush really knows how the world works, why does nothing he says about it make sense? A good one-liner about the president's incoherence would have given Kerry a decent right hook, if not quite the knockout punch he needed.

Kerry won this debate, barely. But it may prove his high water mark. Tonight's subject was foreign policy, which has been the Democratic campaign's main point of contention with Bush. Subsequent debates will focus on issues like the economy, where Kerry has a much weaker hand. At some point, the conversation will turn to his support of massive tax increases, and Bush -- or more likely, his campaign staff -- will deliver the coup de grace.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

99.9% Content Free: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The newest tourist attraction in Cincinnati, Ohio, is titled the “National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.” It's a large brown building on the Ohio River, between the US Bank Arena and the Paul Brown Stadium. Dedicated just last month, the Center has blanketed the television airwaves with public service announcements, none of which actually mention the Underground Railroad. This is appropriate, strangely enough, because for the most part the Center doesn’t mention it either.

The courageous men and women of the Underground Railroad mounted what may be the largest, most sustained act of civil disobedience in American history. Yet only two of the Freedom Center's eight “galleries” focus on their efforts. The larger of them contains "Brothers of the Borderland," a half-hour video which purports to depict a typical evening in a small town on the Ohio River. The Center describes "Brothers" as a "unique 'environmental theater' experience" with "Film, music, and special effects." However, the reality is more prosaic: A short movie plays behind a simple nature diorama. Because "Brothers" emphasizes nail-biting action at the expense of historical overview, it leaves visitors with no idea of how the Underground Railroad might have worked. It is a disappointment.

The other gallery, “Escape! Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad,” is the museum’s smallest section. It consists of a short video, several touch-screen kiosks, a few haphazardly placed text panels (as well as an obligatory historical time line), and a central display of push-button audio recordings. This “interactive” exhibit is geared toward younger grade-schoolers, so most of the information has been dumbed down and sweetened up. Worse, it fails to address some basic misconceptions most Americans hold about the Underground Railroad: It implies that a sizable percentage of slaves managed to escape via the Underground Railroad (when the reality was more like one in four hundred), and it overemphasizes the organizational role of white abolitionists. With its small space and shoddy content, "Escape!" feels like an afterthought.

A third-floor exhibit, “From Slavery to Freedom,” attempts the impossible task of relating more than two centuries of slavery in the Americas. Like "Escape!", this area seems tacked on, but it offers a more traditional museum experience, with display cases, an occasional push-button audio booth, and plenty of text panels to read. Unfortunately, this format makes the Freedom Center’s primary shortcoming all the more apparent: The Center owns no more than a few hundred historical artifacts, none of them interesting or noteworthy. An average county museum has more raw material to work with. So it's only natural that most items displayed in the Center are replicas, often from the Smithsonian. "From Slavery to Freedom" also offers a brief introductory video, though it's found at the exhibit's midpoint rather than the beginning. This arrangement is bewildering, to put it mildly.

Other galleries range from pointless to irrelevant. One cavernous theater shows a fifteen-minute cartoon called “Suite for Freedom,” which is artistically accomplished but content-free. It is purely and simply a waste of time. The third-floor exhibit of “Everyday Freedom Heroes” has some content, but is no less vacuous overall: A handful of computer kiosks offer access to some 100 “audiovisual portraits” -- in other words, videos -- devoted to local, regional, and global left-wing activists. (The Center plans to supplement or replace the "Freedom Heroes" exhibit with "The Encounter," a small display area designed to showcase the advancement of non-European societies prior to their first contact with the white man.)

The final gallery, “The Struggle Continues,” veers even further from the Center’s alleged subject. One corridor -- paradoxically, the only exhibit space in the museum that doesn’t seem too large or too small -- features videos of torture and genocide, projected on the walls. Television monitors, placed at knee level (I banged my shin on one), feature talking-head interviews with contemporary civil rights leaders. One suspects that this section is meant to provide contemporary relevance to the Underground Railroad. But since the Freedom Center fails to discuss the Underground Railroad in any depth, the area becomes nothing more than a sermon in political correctness. Conservatives need not apply.

Only one area of the Freedom Center merits positive mention: A reconstructed slave pen on the second floor greets visitors as they enter the exhibit spaces. The building has been glamorized, with commemorative panels on its interior walls. But the section's uniformed docents, who talk with visitors and answer questions, make it more interactive and exciting than any other exhibit in the building. Alas, the distinction comes by default.

The Freedom Center does not call itself a “museum,” which I suppose is proper. A museum usually possesses educational content, and the Freedom Center has none to offer. The Center promises an enriching experience, but at twelve dollars per adult admission, visitors will likely find themselves somewhat poorer instead.

In Cincinnati OH: The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tues. - Sun. Admission $12 adults, $10 seniors and students with ID, and $8 children (age 6-12). Open year-round.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Has that NEA position finally gone to Terry Teachout's head?

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is planning to raise its adult admission fee from twelve dollars to twenty. A typical round of urban hand-wringing ensued: The fee increase will cut back on visitation, deny New Yorkers access to one of their cultural monuments, and prevent the poor and the working classes from viewing great works of art (except, of course, during "free hours" on Friday evenings, when admission is gratis). Gone are the days of the hour-long lunch break at the MoMA -- gone forever, do you hear? And the liberals of New York City, most of whom never cared much about MoMA before, cry with a single voice: "Surely the government must intervene!"

To call New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg plain-spoken is a bit of an understatement. When queried about MoMa's price hikes, Bloomberg stated with characteristic bluntness, ""Some things people can afford, some things people can't. ... MoMA is a private institution. It's not a city institution. And they have a right to set their own pricing policies." Bloomberg added that "If you can't afford [admissions] at any one, you can go to another one." Journalists have had a field day with Bloomberg's statement, noting that the mayor is one of America's wealthiest men. With his multi-billion dollar personal fortune, he won't be affected by a mere eight-dollar increase.

Online arts critic Terry Teachout, who usually combines informed connoisseurship with common sense, claims that Bloomberg "just earned himself a swift kick in the crotch for his personal contribution to the ongoing debate. (Not in the head—that wouldn’t hurt him one bit.)" Yet Bloomberg's reasoning is absolutely correct: Private institutions should set their own admissions policies, without interference from government. He neither condemned nor condoned the new admission rates, but he did state that the price of MoMA admissions was not his concern as a government official.

I wonder what happened to Teachout's own head. When he accepted a prestigious position with the National Endowment for the Arts, I feared that the moribund institution might alter him more than he would alter it. Once you start to work with government-sponsored arts projects on behalf of "the masses" -- who presumably are too ignorant to make informed judgments in matters of taste -- the idea that artists and government institutions should work together to bring art to the people becomes embedded in your brain like a virus. The results may have Uncle Sam's seal of approval, but they run the gamut from redundant (NEA's ongoing "Shakespeare in the Suburbs" tour!) to banal ("Piss Christ," anyone?).

The NEA tends to forget that art is not only accessible, it is everywhere. From television commericals to art-house cinema, from down-and-dirty blues music to fun-house postmodern architecture, even the poorest of Americans are sated, even glutted, with products of human imagination and creativity. That may explain why most Americans don't go to art museums: They've had enough truth and beauty for one day, thanks, and staring at colored squares isn't going to do anything for them. When interior designers on cable television can paint household cabinets in the style of Piet Mondrian, it's time for all government-subsidized priests of high culture to declare "Mission Accomplished" and call it a day.

Granted, the MoMA's fee structure affects Teachout more than me; Teachout lives in New York, and presumably enjoys the museum enough to visit it on a regular basis. I, on the other hand, live in Charlottesville, Virginia, and haven't so much as laid eyes on the Big Apple in fifteen years. So you might say I view the entire MoMA debate at a considerable remove. All the same, I hope Teachout's position is not a sign of things to come.

Update (10/4): I've corrected one typo and trimmed this post a bit since arts-and-politics blogger Laurence Jarvik linked to it.

Birthday Greetings

Today I turn thirty-three, and I'm not too happy about it. You see, birthdays don't mean presents, parties and cake anymore. Now all they do is remind me that I'm one year closer to that big pas de deux with the Reaper.

When Mozart was my age, he had written some fifty symphonies, Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. When Beethoven was my age, he was composing the "Eroica" symphony. And when Schubert was my age ... he had been dead nearly two years.

I really need a drink.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Classical Gas: Menotti's Consul, and the 2004 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival

For me, listening to classical music is a solitary pastime. This may explain why, although I go to classical concerts on a fairly regular basis, I seldom write about them. All the same, Charlottesville has recently hosted two classical-music events which, though they may not be important on the world scene, were impressive enough for west-central Virginia. In one case, the achievement was all the more remarkable for having been organized locally, more or less on the fly.

But first, let me offer a few observations about the fifth annual Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival, which wrapped up another triumphant series yesterday afternoon. For those of my readers who don't know about the festival, it's held over two weeks at the Jefferson Theater, a second-run cinema in downtown Charlottesville. Anticipation runs high, and the concerts sell out well in advance. This year's offerings ranged from the merely excellent to the sublime, and if the repertoire tended to cater to more conservative tastes than my own (largely 19th-century German), the performances were no less superb for that.

Some of this year's highlights were "smaller" pieces for two or three instruments, rather than the longer quartets or quintets that ended each program. Paul Hindemith's viola sonata, a fairly early work, combines Mahler-esque flourishes with rippling piano chords a la Debussy and a heavy dose of what would be known as "entartete musik," while the Debussy cello sonata exemplifies the compositional rigor of the composer in his last years. A Schubert string trio (B-flat, D. 581, if you must know) managed to be intimate without sounding pared-down, and in the hands of the festival players, the Brahms Quintet in F Major sounded positively symphonic, as Brahms's chamber works often do.

I was a bit disappointed with their rendition of Messiaen's Quatuor pour le fin du temps: The "Dance of the Seven Trumpets," was as precise as one could wish, but the slower movements felt a bit frayed around the edges. There's usually one piece during the festival that stretches performers to their absolute limit, or perhaps a bit beyond; this year, it was the Messiaen. Other avant-gardist twentieth-century works fared much better, I think: The high modernism of John Harbison's Piano Quintet moves from apparent joviality to deep pessimism (with a brief stop at sarcasm, in which the strings seem to bray like jackasses).

As for postmodernism -- which in classical music could best be described as "everything you've heard before, only all mixed up" -- we heard Stephen Hartke's playful, slightly frivolous (but in a good way) "King of the Sun" quintet. Hartke's work is based loosely on a medieval canon, which flits in and out of the music like a nightingale on speed. Then there's Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag's heavy Hommage a Robert Schumann. Kurtag may represent the quintessence of postmodern classical music: The lion's share of his pieces seem to commemorate other musicians, from Tchaikowsky to Nancy Sinatra. His other works are usually inspired by non-musical figures -- Kafka, for example. A writer, whose name I forget, suggested that in a postmodernist's heaven, the angels can do nothing but sing laments for the recently deceased God. If Hommage to Robert Schumann is any indication, Kurtag's pieces are written in much the same spirit.

I've attended the Chamber Music Festival all five years, and each year I think, "Surely the festival will move to a better location next year." It never does, but I wish it would. The Jefferson Theater is a fine movie-house -- there are few places in Charlottesville where I would rather see a film -- but it is not good for musical concerts, chamber or otherwise. The stage space works well, and the backstage area is adequate, but the acoustics in the building are terrible. Thanks to a drop ceiling where the balcony used to be (and where the upstairs theater currently is), it's difficult to hear performers past the fourth or fifth row. Squeaking movie-house chairs and sticky floors make the ambience that much worse, and the performers even harder to hear. The Jefferson could make an excellent performing-arts center if its balcony were either restored or removed, and the row seating replaced with something newer and less noisy. As it is, the venue is simply not up to par.

The venue chosen for a local production of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul was also less than propitious: Gravity Lounge, a basement club off Charlottesville's famed "Downtown Mall" (and just around the corner from the Jefferson), is better known for alt-rock, refugee-hippie folk guitarists, and the occasional free-jazz musician. Leon Russell played there once, I believe -- and Gravity Lounge is the sort of place where booking Leon Russell is a really big deal, maaaan .....

Since The Consul is the only opera I know to deal explicitly with the evils of Communism, it may have been appropriate for me to view the thing in a secret basement; Charlottesville is not always so tolerant of conservative or neoconservative viewpoints, however tentatively they may be expressed. The opera itself is an odd cocktail of Italian emotion, American politics, and Kafkaesque nihilism. Given such disparate elements, the opera holds together surprisingly well, and it's almost entirely due to Menotti's craftsmanship as composer and librettist. Each scene moves with nearly clockwork precision: An aria here, a recitative, a duet, an ensemble number, each leading inexorably toward the emotional climax. In fact, the craftsmanship is too precise, as if Menotti were striving for effect (or affect) instead of art. Only the aria "To This We've Come," a grand aria for the lead soprano, manages to transcend its setting -- though its position at the end of Act II (in a three-act opera), is exactly where a showstopping aria "should" occur.

The plot, such as it is, involves a youngish woman in an unnamed East Bloc country, who seeks a visa from a neighboring non-Communist country so she can join her husband, a freedom-fighting insurgent, in exile. She goes to a consulate, pursued by secret agents, but finds that the paperwork for a visa is insurmountable (and that there are thousands of cases similar to her own). She lives with her baby and her mother-and-law, both of whom (we are told) die from lack of medical care. Eventually the husband hears the bad news and returns in a panic, only to be captured -- inside the consulate! -- by secret police. The wife commits suicide. It's grim stuff, with little in the way of comic relief.

The Charlottesville production of The Consul was mounted not by a professional opera company, but by a group of local amateur performers, with piano accompaniment and nothing in the way of sets or costumes. As one might expect from an ad hoc troupe, vocal performances were uneven: Some cast members had opera-caliber (or nearly opera-caliber) voices, while a few seemed barely able to carry a tune. Luckily, the leads were well chosen: Kate Lambert gave a bravura turn as harried housewife Magda Sorel, while David Zuby more than held his own as her freedom-fighter husband. Marthe Rowan offered a strong performance as the consul's secretary (in true Kafkaesque fashion, no one ever sees the eponymous Consul), and Wendy Novicoff did an admirable job as the mother-in-law. Director John Carden made the most of his limited resources, though his decision to divide the opera into two acts instead of three led to some awkward "dead spots" in the staging. In addition, the occasional use of a live CD recording (the only one available, alas) proved a major distraction, especially when the recording featured audience applause.

Carden and his performers claimed that they were protesting George W. Bush by staging this opera: If Bush were elected to a second term, they seemed to think, America would become a frightening country where secret police run rampant, and where freedom-seekers look for the quickest way out. In a way, I suppose this position represents progress: Leftists have finally admitted, albeit in a vague, noncomittal fashion, that Communism was truly evil. That said, no one can seriously take The Consul as some left-wing, anti-American screed. If Menotti has any beef with the United States, it's that we didn't do enough to crush the Communist machine, which caused such misery for so long. Of course, this criticism was perfectly valid when the opera was written in 1950. But by the early 1980s, it was largely moot: Reagan's message against the "evil empire" restored hope to the East Bloc, and his policy of pushing the Cold War to its breaking point helped its people to smash the chains of Communism, hopefully for good. Far from a work of protest, this opera could have been performed onstage at the Republican National Convention (though not, perhaps, at the Democratic one).

Menotti's Consul may be mechanical and manipulative, but it possesses a compassionate heart and a genuinely conservative point of view. With a relatively small cast (six men, six women), and economical sets and costumes, the opera is easily adaptable to a chamber setting, and since most of the roles are not especially demanding, it could even be performed with young, up-and-coming singers. This local amateur production proved beyond a doubt that The Consul can -- and should -- be staged more often, not only as an antidote to left-wing agitprop, but as a solid, if decidedly minor, twentieth-century opera.

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