Sunday, February 02, 2014

Evil and Art

The resurfaced Woody Allen accusations (terrible if true yet never proven) and the debate over the Golden globes, got me to thinking about Michael Jackson, Picasso, Marlowe, and evil in art. To the artist and to the  connoisseur, art transcends everything else. The actions of an artist outside of his or her art don't matter. In fact, because all great artists are also mad, they are expected to be a little bit or even a great bit evil. Woody Allen may be the greatest artist ever in my chosen field of art. I have loved him and his work for my whole life. Although aware of the fact that he is quite probably an evil bastard, if he keeps making movies like "Midnight in Paris" and "Blue Jasmine," well, ... I don't know. Joyce Haven once said "I don't know much about art, but I do know this: God lives in museums." I find God in the films of great directors, including Woody Allen. And I don't want him to stop. And I want to say from time to time he is great and deserves to be recognized as such. But it is perfectly reasonable for some people to think he should be dragged into the street and beaten within an inch of his life. Or the very least, spend the rest of his life in jail if what is said about him is true. Falstaff deserved what he got in the end. He deserved more. He was wicked through and through. And that is also Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, because like Hal, we loved him. Although not an artist, except perhaps in mirth, Falstaff is the same as Woody Allen and Phil Spector: how can I not love them for what they gave the world? And truly what else about them matters? I am well aware that most people (sane people?) Will be reviled by what I am saying. It also puts an interesting spin on the first commandment.

With all this confusion in mind, I leave you with this:

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Der Wienerschnitzel....

So here is the thing. There are a bunch of people running for Mayor of New York City. I can't name them all. But I can name a few of them and I have a few things to say.

Anthony Wiener took pictures of his junk and sent it to girls over the internet. Sexting is not a crime. My mom says that she wouldn't support Wiener because he does not have the good moral character that she expects of an elected official. Like that's a requirement? On the other hand, when he was in congress, Wiener was a hero to a lot of middle class New Yorkers. His speeches on the floor of congress defending health care reform and fighting for tax reform that favors workers over the rich marked him as a champion. Then he had the good sense to marry a Muslim who happened to be Hillary Clinton's top aid. You want to know why Wiener was doing well? It's not just his name, it's the fact the he is the true populist in the race.

Christine Quinn is just a clone of Bloomberg. There is nothing to separate her from the current mayor, which is the best reason I can think of not to vote for someone.

The only candidate I have met is Bill DeBlasio. Bill DeBlasio screwed us over--by us I mean residents of 81 Ocean Parkway. He promised to fight with us to get concessions from a developer who was building a condo next door to us. Then he turned around and helped the developer get everything he wanted. He earns points for marrying a radical black separatist lesbian, but he also wants to ban carriage horses from Central Park. That alone is enough reason not to vote for anybody. But he has screwed me personally.

The other guys? I don't really care. I like Wiener (and you can make all the jokes you like). :)

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Monday, March 25, 2013

I guess they listened

Apparently the outcry over removal of the Pied Piper was so great that the Palace reconsidered.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

You have to pay the piper....

Today my friend Shannon McSmith sent me a link that told me that my San Francisco is dying.

For years drinking in the United States--for the serious drinker, the sophisticated drinker, the drinker who knows that drinking is not only good booze and good company but a good setting, a dark and smoky room where the walls are oak, the ties are silk, and the fate of the world is being decided in a corner by two bankers and an oil magnate--has been bracketed by two bars, one in New York City and one in San Francisco (the only two cities in America that have ever really mattered). They are the kinds of places where the Kennedys would go to drink with Sinatra, or where corporate execs would wine and dine presidents, or where lonely artists would go once in a while to soak up the atmosphere of what life among the top dogs during the Mad Men days. 

While shouts should go out tot he Oak Room and the 21 Club in New York City (I have dined in the cellar dining room at the 21 Club, where they have private stock with presidents' names on the bottles), and to the Top of the Mark in San Francisco, the real bars that matter most, the most beautiful drinking establishments in the world, are King Cole's at the St. Regis in New York City and Maxfield's Pied Piper at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and it's because of Maxfield Parrish. On opposite ends of Interstate 80, these two bars allowed you to drink in the presence of true artistic greatness, a sublime experience which can be duplicated few places on earth. 

In 1906 John Jacob Astor IV commissioned Parrish to paint the Old King Cole mural for the bar at the Knickerbocker Hotel (with Astor himself portrayed as the old King). It was moved to the St. Regis in the 30s. In 1909 Parrish painted The Pied Piper of Hamlin for the Palace in San Francisco.  I now live in New York, but when I lived in San Francisco, Maxfield's was one of my treasured spots. I didn't go there often--I couldn't afford even a beer in that place most days--but on special days I would, just to sit at the bar and drink a good whiskey and stare up at the mural. If you've never seen a Parish mural up close, they are amazing sights. Parish is one of my favorite American illustrators. His work has a magical, dream like quality to it. It is extremely romantic. Ecstasy and Daybreak may be the two most beautiful paintings of the 20th Century. But the Pied Piper has always been my favorite Parrish. It is huge. The colors are almost three dimensional. The way his checkered cape flows through the painting it almost jumps out at you. The first time I saw it in person, my jaw dropped to the floor. 

Today Shannon, who was my girlfriend during some of those years and loved San Francisco and Maxfield's as much as I did, sent me this link. The Palace has removed the mural and is selling it at at Christie's American Art sale in May.  It will probably be on view for five days in May, so I will make an effort to go see it then. It might be the last time I get to. 

It raises the old question about ownership and art. Some people are naturally upset about a cultural treasure being removed from San Francisco. Other's lament the passing of an era when great art graced the walls of hotel bars. Most people really could not care less. To whom does such a treasure belong? The hotel that legally owns it or the community that cherishes it? The answer, of course, is the hotel, but some people think that in itself is wrong, that art should not be privately owned, that it belongs to the people. 

The value of the Parrish is estimated at about 4 million dollars (I think that is low, and that it will fetch a much higher price at auction). When the St. Regis had Old King Cole restored in 2007 it cost them $100,000. Insurance on a $4,000,000 painting has got to be huge. Can we blame the owners of a business for deciding that putting $4,000,000 in their pocket is better than the ongoing costs of owning, in a public place, an icon of 20th Century art? No, I can't. It upsets me that it is going away--I'm furious--but I can't really complain. It's a business decision. I worry about who will buy the painting. The obvious hope is for the DeYoung museum, so that it would remain in San Francisco. It won't be another bar. Bars don't invest in that kind of art anymore. It could be a bar in Vegas, I suppose. I could totally see Steve Wynn or Sheldon Adelson buying it and putting it up in a casino in Vegas. Of course the fear is that it would be bought by one of them and end up in a casino in Macao. But the biggest fear is that it ends up in some private collection somewhere, and we never see it again. That would make me terribly sad. 

Regardless, my San Francisco, which was the San Francisco not only of the Jefferson Airplane and the Greatful Dead, but of Dashiel Hammet and Armistaud Maupin, of the Hearsts, the Spreckles, and Joe DiMagio as well, is losing one more piece of itself. Both Oscar Wilde and Tony Kushner compared San Francisco to heaven. Heaven is losing one of its most beautiful sights. 

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Vulgarity and Popularity at the Oscars

With Seth MacFarlane hosting it was not hard to get my students to watch the Oscars this past weekend. They are all Family Guy fans, or seem to be, and find his brand of humor hilarious. For the record, so do I. They were pretty much unanimous: the Oscars were fun this year because he was great.

The critics, meanwhile, went apoplectic. He was offensive, vulgar, sexist anti-semetic, and downright mean, and he did not belong anywhere near such a serious and dignified event as the Oscars.

Therein lies the problem. Because while all of these things might be true, the Oscars drew a 42 rating on Sunday, and was up huge in the 18-49 demo--those people who have been deserting the Oscars in droves recently. That it was down almost ten percent among people over 50 is irrelevant as far as advertisers are concerned, and it is advertisers who run this show. If the Oscars want to appeal to a younger demographic they need to do two things: nominate films, and then hire hosts, that appeal to that age group. With MacFarlane they certainly did the latter, and a strong year for movies with good box didn't hurt: but the critics still complained that he was vulgar.

They have a point, of course. MacFarlane sang a song about actresses showing off their boobs, and another one called "here's to the losers." He quipped that for Rihana and Chris Brown, the ultra-violent "Django Unchained" was a date movie; suggested that it would be 16 years before 9 year old  Quevenzhan√© Wallis would be "too old for Clooney"; and when discussing Daniel Day Lewis said "the only actor who ever really got inside of Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth." When the joke fell flat he responded "What, 150 years and it's still too soon?" That is the essence of MacFarlane's humor. It is gutsy, referential, in your face non-sequitors that throw people off. Nothing is sacred in his world, and the Academy knew that when they hired him. MacFarlane knew it too. In one of the best bits of meta-theatrical reflexivity I've seen in a long time, MacFarlane opened the show with a skit in which Captain Kirk comes back from the future to stop MacFarlane from ruining the Oscars, showing his headlines that say things like "Seth MacFarlane Worst Oscar Host Ever." It was brilliant. MacFarlane got out in front of his critics by acknowledging what they were going to say ahead of time and letting them know that it was not a mistake and he didn't care. It was a bit worthy of Andy Kaufman (can you imagine Those Oscars?). MacFarlane was everything his critics accused him of being. 

But what do we want in an Oscar telecast. Do we want something dignified that nobody under 50 will watch? Do we want more of Billy Crystal in black face? Yes, the James Franco experiment was a terrible disaster, but MacFarlane was a success. As a great (and vulgar) Oscar-winning mind once said, it doesn't matter because "I've got a big, fat, big-titted hit!" 

Do we care? Perhaps it is just another example of the long and steady decline of civilization that started somewhere around the summer of love, if the malcontents are to be believed. Maybe young men between 18 and 49 are just neanderthals who like beer and girls gone wild and tasteless jokes about dead presidents, and do we care if they watch the Oscars (I know many would just as soon see the Oscars ended all together). Who cares in the end if the Oscars become modernized?

In fact this broadcast was one of the most traditional Oscar broadcasts in years. With the musical comedy team from Storyline Entertainment, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, running the show, this telecast was a call back the days when musicals ruled the film world. The theme of the broadcast was "the music of the movies," and it showed in many ways. In addition to the "boob" song, the opening included a huge song and dance number that saw Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron doing a ballroom number (Tatum even donned spats for his dance) to "The Way You Look Tonight," Daniel Radcliffe, MacFarlane, and Joseph Gordon Levitt doing a soft shoe to "High Hopes," and a big chorus finale to a filked version of "Be Our Guest." They concentrated on music in the "In Memorium" section, finishing with Babs singing "The Way We Were" in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, and the Bond Tribute ended with what was probably the best Oscar moment ever, Dame Shirley Bassey singing "Goldfinger." (yes, the numbers from Chicago and Dream Girls were way too much). This was not Leterman turning the broadcast into a three hour edition of Late Night. Bob Hope could have done most of this stuff (although MacFarlane is a better dancer). In the end, I usually find my students are right about these things, and if they liked MacFarlane that means it was probably a good thing. 

I did like the whole Music of the Movies theme, but I'm really looking forward to the Chase Scene Oscars... 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Baby It's Cold Outside

On my friend Liberty's Facebook feed, a discussion popped up that I found fascinating, and a bit challenging. She posted that "Baby It's Cold Outside" had her vote for "creepiest holiday song." Now "Baby It's Cold Outside" has always been one of my favorite songs. I am a musical theatre geek, and I consider it one of the great duets of the American theatre. There are several versions of it of which I'm fond. It has been covered by everyone, from Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton to Dean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell, to Michael Buble and Anne Murray. Most students know it from the soundtrack to movie "Elf," where it was sung by Zooey Dachenel and Will Farrell in a frightening bit of workplace sexual harassment. (and later beautifully reprised by Dachanel and Leon Redbone). The version I like most is probably the one Sigourney Weaver did with Buster Poindexter on "Saturday Night Live," where she practically rips his clothes off.

To me the song is about the subtext. It has never been about the actual lyrics: the lyrics are brilliant, but they are not telling the story of what is going on. The subtext is that these two people desperately want to jump each other, but being hung up on traditional American morality they can't actually come out and say it. They are, as one of Liberty's friends put it, "creating a mutual fiction" around the fact that they want to sleep together without actually coming out and saying it. I liken it to the famous lie "would you like to come up and see my etchings?" Both parties know that etchings have nothing to do with it. It is innuendo. The etchings are a metaphor for sex, and both perties know it. It is a lie that protects both people. The woman does not have to be offended if the thought of sex would offend her, and she can say no without damaging the fragile male ego. The storm is a similar fiction.

But listening to the lyrics I have to admit that they are a bit creepy. The girl protests that she wants to go, the guy insists that she stay. He plies her with alcohol and she says "what's in this drink" (what indeed?). She pleads with him and he asks why she woud hurt his pride and how she can "do this thing" to him. It is the language of date rape, no doubt about it.

Wanting to get a better handle on it I looked up the original, which I had never seen. It is sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the 1949 musical "Neptune's Daughter." It was written by Frank Loesser, who also penned "Guys and Dolls," and won the Oscar for Best Song.  The song is not different in theme to the Havana scene from Guys and Dolls, where Sky Masterson gets Sister Sarah drunk on Bacardi and she sings the highly sexualized "If I Were A Bell," where a life time of sexual repression suddenly bursts forth. The thing is, although Sarah begs Sky to take advantage of her, knowing that she could not say "no," while drunk nor "yes" while sober, Sky refuses to do so. He insists on being a gentleman and taking her back home to New York. All the elements of a date rape are there, but it does not happen.

At times like this I like to access Shakespeare. It is particularly relevant in this case. The two-couple comic structure used in "Neptune's Daughter" is sometimes called "Shakespearean Comedy" because he employed it so much--in "A Mid Summer Night's Dream," in "As You Like It," in "Much Ado About Nothing," in "Twelfth Night," in "Two Gentlemen of Verona," in "The Comedy of Errors." It is the same structure found in modern musicals such as "Guys and Dolls," film farces such as "Wedding Crashers," and of course "Neptune's Daughter." The common approach to the immorality of Shakespeare's plays is to create an ironic subtext,  like taking "The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare's comedy about spousal abuse, and emphasizing Kate's agency in the courtship, making her truly love Petruchio, so that her submission is actually a way of dominating him. Sometimes a production will go father and present it as a BDSM romance. Likewise, with "The Merchant of Venice," Shylock's forced conversion is usually either condemned through the reactions of some of the characters on stage, or else Shylock is given some business in which he wordlessly assures us that he was just kidding. This type of ironic approach  is the standard way to undermine the immorality of texts from an earlier time. The solution with "Baby It's Cold Outside" is to emphasize the subtext, the idea that the female character really does want to stay and that the whole thing is a game the two of them are playing, just a bit of foreplay. This is how Sigourney Weaver and Buster Poindexter approach it.

Looking at the original version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" on Youtube creates real problems. It is clear that Esther Williams' character wants to leave and Ricardo Montalban's is forcing her to stay. He even lays hands on her, grabbing her arm, which shocks her, to do so. She looks worried and powerless. She does not have the agency that Sigourney Weaver has in her performance. Gone is the playfulness, the wink and a nod to the double entendre. In the SNL version Sigourney Weaver is the agressor. Her words are ironic, because she has no intention of going home and makes that playfully clear. Buster Poindexter is just along of the ride. In the Original version, although she is probably attracted to him, Esther Williams really wants to get away from Ricardo, and he is not permitting it. It plays to all the standard stereotypes--the macho Latin lover, the frightened and demure woman, and the objectification of all women as vessels of male desire no matter what they might feel about it.

However, there is a different subtext to the original. The plot of "Neptune's Daughter" is confusing in a typical Musical Comedy sort of way. Esther Williams' sister, played by the great Betty Garret (best known as Edna Babish-DeFazio on Laverne & Shirley"), thinks she is in love with a polo player whom she has never met. She falls for Red Skelton thinking he is the polo player. Esther Williams invites the real polo player, Ricardo Montalban, in order to expose Red Skelton, but then Williams falls in love with him herself. Everybody is confused about who loves who, the whole thing is resolved in the end, and they go swimming. The original version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" is complicated by the presence of a comic version sung by Garrett and Skelton. This explains the rather well choreographed clowning bits between Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban with her hat and coat, considering that they are about to be repeated by one of the great movie clowns of all time. In the reprise, the nervous and bumbling Skelton is trying to get away from the sexually aggressive Garrett.  They are the second couple, the comic version of the ingenues. This is a common trope in mid-century musicals, from Ado Annie and Will Parker in "Oklahoma!" to Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls." These girls and their lovers hold up a kind of comic mirror to the courtship of the main lovers around whom the stories revolve, a satirical commentary on the progression of the romance. This also plays to another negative stereotype of women, the comic slut: a highly-sexualized air head, a stripper with a heart of gold, a girl who just can't say "no,"  who shamelessly and comically pursues a man (in this case a man singing with an outrageous and racist Latin accent). The reprise of "Baby It's Cold Outside," ends with Skelton and Garrett wrapped up on her coat on the couch in a sexual embrace (even though Garret does keep one foot on the floor). The reason Esther Williams  character doesn't want to stay with Montalban is not that she wants to get away but that she feels guilty having fallen in love with the man her sister is supposedly in love with. She has shown Montalban that she loves him and he can't understand why she is running away. The meaning of the juxtaposed numbers is clear. In both cases the reluctant party is resisting nature. Garrett, a force of nature, is seeing that nature's demands are met by, essentially, raping Red Skelton. Montalban will not rape Estehr Williams (clown rape is ok, but rape among the ingenues is not), but she does join him in the end.  But we are not meant to see this as violent or even "bad." It is natural--the force of their love driving them together. The comic resolution is always mutually agreeable copulation, and resisting that is, as Ned Beaty would say, "Meddling with the primal forces of Nature."

Maybe Andrea Dworkin was right. We have a rape culture in America. Certainly what was commonly referred to as "seduction" in the 1950s and 60s would be illegal today. I know several women who are made squeamish by the so-called "seduction" scene in "Goldfinger", where James Bond rapes Pussy Galore (this is made even more problematic by the subtext that the lesbian Galore only needed to find a "real man"). I have run these ideas past several of my students and colleagues this week, and most of them think it's ridiculous. Especially telling is that even my liberated and liberal female colleagues teaching theater don't see what all the fuss is about.

Quite frankly, I love this song. I have always loved this song. I see what people are talking about but I have to say "lighten up." Does that make me a horrible person? I don't know.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The State of the Art(s)

This great article on Angels in America and NEA funding came across my Facebook feed just now. I shared it but it deserves more words. A lot more. As a playwright, an actor, and a theatre scholar, I have a lot of words to say on this topic and most of them are not kind. The question the article asks is whether or not Tony Kushner could find the support, in today's funding and political climate, to write Angeles in America. It is a scary question, because the answer is likely "no."

Last night I went to an awesome donor development event for Dancewave, the Brooklyn-based non-profit that Hanna is on the Board of. I met the founder of Brooklyn Boulders, and there was a principle dancer from ABT there. It was in the board room of ABC headquarters. It was cool. Hanna had invited a German couple she knew, one of whom works for the Goethe Institut. At one point he said what we all there know to be true: in Germany, arts companies don't need todo all this donor development, all this networking and begging, because the state pays for the arts in Germany.

Reading this article on Angels in America, I thought back to that statement. I have been involved in new play development before. It is seldom what people think it is--a person at a computer banging out a few thousand words and then sending it off to a company (though that is how I have written a lot of stuff). Play building is often a collaborative effort that takes a lot of time and effort. It takes a lot of support, both for the company and the playwright, to pull it off, and the bigger the play the more support is needed. Because of its size, its scope, its subject matter, and the process it went through, it is indeed possible that Angels never could be created today.

However, there has also been a lot of buzz recently around the fact that Kickstarter is expected to distribute more funding this year than the National Endowment for the Arts. That is both inspiring and terrifying. It is inspiring because crowdsourcing is an awesome force, and it is terrifying because you know some yokel who wants to kill the NEA along with Big Bird will hold that out-of-context fact up as a reason why the NEA is unnecessary. Such a sentiment would have to ignore a lot of truths. Kickstarter is more for startups than for the arts. What theatre Kickstarter does fund is the small-grid type stuff that the LA Times article mentions--small projects and individual branding that artists today have to go through, the type that keeps them from writing the big, messy, complicated works that take forever, like Angels in America.

Perhaps it could still happen. Perhaps there is an Angel of the old theatrical type out there, a rich patron who will support a company or playwright or both throughout such a grueling process. The University was established, in part, to support scholars in doing research that doesn't pay, and that has been extended to artists. Perhaps some artist in residence could write the next Angels: but university funding is being trashed now too, and anti-intellectual bias is even more viscous and virulent in America than anti-theatrical bias is these days. A lot of ink has been dedicated to how extending the corporate paradigm into the universities is destroying them in the same way it has destroyed many arts organizations, so probably not.

It is sad, and yet there has to be some way that it, or something like it, could happen again. The next Tony Kushner is out there, and we can only pray that he will find a way to write the next Angels in America.

I met Tony Kushner twice. Not only is he the greatest living playwright, but he is one of the kindest men on Earth. The first time I met him I just went up to shake his hand at a rally we were both participating in. He looked at me quizzically, reached up, pulled my rain-streaked glasses off my face, cleaned them, put them back on my face, and smiled.  It was a gesture of pure kindness. I would be fond of him even if he weren't the greatest living playwright. But he is, and it's important to make sure that the next person who comes along has the same opportunities that he did.

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