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The Culture Diaries

A Week in Culture: Richard Brody, New Yorker Film Critic

June 30, 2010 | by

DAY ONE

10:02 A.M. The week’s first cultural object is a new, yet-unreleased film by Claude Chabrol, The Son of Summer, starring Isabelle Huppert as a childless, married bourgeois intellectual who has a special, foster-like relationship to a young, disabled boy whom, one day, she kills. The film is so new that, in fact, it doesn’t exist—I dreamed it at the end of a morning of troubled sleep.

10:15 A.M. A chamber transcription of Haydn’s Symphony no. 94, the “Surprise” symphony, is playing on WQXR, New York’s classical-music station. It’s music I know and love—I play a spare transcription of the middle movements on recorder—but have never heard in this arrangement.

11:00 A.M. Twitter (and every hour or two for a few minutes, throughout the day). Love the sense of listening in on discussions at the next table when they know you’re listening. Good to chat back and forth with people I don’t know but would want to, with others I do know but don’t talk with often enough, with a surprisingly large yet tight group of fellow cinephiles. The 140 characters? A snapshot of an idea.

11:10 A.M. Heading for the subway, unusually late.

11:20 A.M. The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, by Jeffrey Meyers on the No. 6 and the R. Anticipating something like a twist on the line from Saturday Night Fever: “Maybe he’s not so smart and maybe she’s not so dumb.”

11:47 A.M. The New York Times’s Web site, checked intermittently throughout the day’s editorial duties.

3:20 P.M. Glenn Kenny’s blog Some Came Running led me to his piece at Mubi about politicized viewings of “Sex and the City 2.” It concludes with a citation from Slavoj Zizek, which prompted me to revisit Adam Kirsch’s critical debunking, in The New Republic, of Zizek’s politics (The Deadly Jester), and Josh Strawn’s debunking of Kirsch’s, at Jewcy.

7:52 P.M. “The Young Schubert,” a recording by the pianist Leonard Hokanson, a student of Artur Schnabel. Hokanson delights in Schubert’s adolescent inspirations.

8:20 P.M. NY Post: the bridge column. I played a lot in high school, not at all since then—but I read the bridge column every day. And Page Six: the item about Ron Jeremy lunching at Condé Nast. I saw him in the lobby beforehand, where lots of employees came up to greet him. Afterwards, plenty of people in the office were talking about him.

8:30 PM. The Times: Read the front-page story with the headline, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.” Put any noun in the place of “gadgets” and there would be a price to pay; that’s true of any addiction or abuse, not just of electronic stimuli. Read the op-ed piece about legislative battles in Wisconsin over raw milk.

9:27 P.M. Bud Powell, A Portrait of Thelonious. Powell, the definitive bebop pianist and my favorite jazz pianist, whose scintillating yet melodious right-hand runs are anchored by the dark lightning of his left hand’s chords. His later recordings (such as this one, from a Paris studio in 1961) are much and wrongly maligned. What he lost in exuberance he gained in profundity; and where they’re exuberant (Live in Geneva 1962, for instance), they’re still more profound.

9:40 P.M. On-line Driver’s Manual and Study Guide—having let my license lapse, inadvertently, decades ago, I need to start again, with a learner’s permit: “You may not cross any railroad tracks unless there is room for your vehicle on the other side. If other traffic prevents you from crossing all the way, wait, and cross only when there is room.”

12:05 A.M. A few minutes of John Ford’s The Rising of the Moon, his low-budget Irish film, from 1956.

1:11 A.M. While preparing to DVR No Sad Songs for Me (which Jean-Luc Godard wrote about in Cahiers du Cinéma at the age of twenty-one), I burn to DVD—and start to watch—High Time, a 1960 comedy directed by Blake Edwards, starring Bing Crosby as a prosperous fifty-ish businessman who decides to get a college education.

2:48 A.M. The Genius and the Goddess. Reading about Arthur Miller’s troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee and its heinous methods, in 1956-57, even after the fall of McCarthy: “Miller said his battle with the committee was ‘a fraud and a farce, except it cost me a fortune [$40,000] for lawyers and a year’s time lost in the bargain, worrying about it and figuring out how to react to it.’”

DAY TWO

9:47 A.M. WQXR: Chopin’s “Barcarolle,” played by Artur Rubinstein, a little too elegantly for my taste.

9:48 A.M. Stanley Fish, blogging at the Times site, exhorting the nation to give children the same classical education that he enjoyed. I immediately responded in a blog post, written in the heat of the moment at the speed of typing.

11:27 A.M. WQXR: Schumann, Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra: one of my favorite, expansive, autumn-afternoon romantic pieces of music.

11:45 A.M. The Genius and the Goddess, page 156: “Marilyn told Susan Strasberg, ‘I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.” Page 157: “When Marilyn converted to Judaism, Egypt retaliated by banning all her movies.”

2:41 P.M. Kartina Richardson’s remarkable blog The Mirror Image, and her post and video essay on the surprising racial politics of Tammy and the Bachelor. Much of the best critical work is being done by people who aren’t getting paid to work as critics.

6:00 P.M. A screening of Wild Grass, the new film by Alain Resnais. A meticulous, absurdly artificial elaboration of strong emotion by way of self-absorption and obsessive concern for trivia and effluvia. There may be an intellectual point to his much ado about almost nothing—namely, an ironic view of a Paris at peace—but its intelligence offers no challenges to the intelligence, let alone to the emotions, the world-view, the self-image. It’s like using a cyclotron to produce a marshmallow.

8:10 P.M. No reading on any public transportation—walked home, and, at 72nd and Madison, stood in the middle of the street and savored the sun setting through the trees of Central Park.

9:15 P.M. Paul Badura-Skoda playing Chopin—the four Ballades on a 1923 Bösendorfer, with a warm yet restrained lyricism, without pianistic eye-rolling or heaven-storming, and with a thoughtful inwardness, conveying a sense of speaking quietly to initiates in no need of underlining to make the composer’s points.

10:15 P.M. The Mets, on TV: in the bottom of the 11th, Ike Davis homers into the upper deck (450 feet) and the Mets beat the Padres, 2-1. I like the SNY announcers—Gary, Keith, and Ron—but usually watch the games with the sound off in order to hear music instead.

12:20 A.M. Grant Green: the guitarist’s complete quartets with Sonny Clark. First side, with Art Blakey, who drives the band hard; I like the second disk better (Green’s first recording of “My Favorite Things”—who else dared to take up the challenge after Coltrane?

1:12 A.M. While setting up the DVR to record Easy Rider, which I haven't seen since college, found, on TCM, Rebel Without a Cause, just in time for the chickie-run scene. James Dean's immortal inflections: "May I have some dirt, please." And then: "I am involved! We are all involved!"

DAY THREE

9:25 A.M. Smetana, a movement from Má Vlast, on WQXR; the undulating figures are a forerunner of the supposedly hypnotic, and more usually sleep-inducing, repetitions of Glass and Reich and Adams.

10:36 A.M. The Genius and the Goddess: “With no official role in the production of the movie and nothing much to do, Miller roamed nervously about the mansion, so different from his own modest home. He played the piano, wrote a bit, filled up Marilyn’s scrapbooks with press cuttings and read film scripts that had been sent to her. . . . The tabloids called him ‘Mr. Monroe’ and ‘Marilyn’s Boy.’”

12:01 P.M. I check the three leading French papers, Le Monde, Libération, and Le Figaro throughout the day, intermittently. Le Monde, on-line: the movies page; new release of a film by Romain Goupil, whom I had the privilege of interviewing eight or nine years ago. “Les mains dans l’air” ("Hands in the Air," or "Hands Up") about students who unite to save one of their classmates, an illegal immigrant who is threatened with deportation. Then there’s Nannerl, Mozart’s Sister, a costume drama by René Feret, starring his daughter, Marie Feret. The critic Jacques Mandelbaum writes: “Born in 1751 in Salzburg, she is the first child prodigy of the family, until her father abandons the young girl, who got too old for the part, to subordinate tasks, by refusing to teach her composition. Sacrificed to Wolfgang, she makes a practical marriage at age thirty-two to a widowed baron, the father of five children; composes a few scores which are now lost; scrapes by on piano lessons, dies destitute in 1829, after having watched over the legacy of her brother’s works. . . . More than the story of the music itself, than of Nannerl’s ultimate destiny, the film is the story of this renuniciation.” I’m ready to go see it. Will it ever be shown here?

2:12 P.M. The op-ed debates in Libération regarding the nine deaths caused by Israeli soldiers aboard one of the boats in the flotilla that sought to break the blockade of Gaza.

5:08 P.M. The news wire on Le Figaro: “Afghanistan: 39 dead during a wedding.”

6:55 P.M. The Genius and the Goddess: “Using the Method for the frivolous Showgirl seemed like taking a deep dive into a shallow pool. When Olivier, as director, urged Marilyn to ‘be sexy,’ she took this as an insult. The caviar-eating scene required no less than two whole days, thirty-four takes and twenty jars of the costly sturgeon roe.”

7:30 P.M. Mozart’s last three violin sonatas, played by Jaap Schroeder and Lambert Orkis, on period instruments. The opening vibrato-free moan of the violin takes the music off the stage and finds in it the voices of the street.

8:25 P.M. NY Post: an article on celebrity chefs and their unwillingness to change their food to please the customer.

9:05 P.M. Schumann, Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra—a CD of it, played by the Hermann Baumann horn quartet and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra, conducted by the late Hans Vonk (a fine Schumann-ist).

9:37 P.M. Grant Green, Sunday Morning; Green in great form, skipping over chord changes with a dancer’s grace, ably abetted by Kenny Drew’s piano and Ben Dixon’s light, melodic drumming. He plays Miles Davis’s “So What”—that guitarist had guts to challenge the luminaries on their own turf.

10:04 P.M. A friend, reading my post about Stanley Fish, sent along a PDF of the first chapter (put online by the publisher) of Martha Nussbaum’s new book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities that Fish refers to for support. It’s a cri de coeur about the decline of humanistic education:

Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

What are these radical changes? The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world.

10:55 P.M. Grant Green, Standards: this recording, from 1961, really is his best—trio, featuring the great bassist Wilbur Ware. Lots of solo space, and the tricks and turns of well-known songs propel the guitarist into chorus after chorus of invention. I notice a pattern.

12:21 A.M. A DVD of the new independent film Tiny Furniture—a droll and self-deprecating act of Woody-Allen-ish milieu-nuancing from a twenty-three-year-old filmmaker, playing a recent college graduate returning to live in a Tribeca loft with her mother and her sister. Independent filmmaking has no greater moral claim on attention than studio productions, but when it works, the results are truly exhilarating because they fuse with and reflect their methods of production and feel like two movies, the movie and the making-of.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Richard Brody’s Culture Diary. Brody is The New Yorker’s movies editor for Goings On About Town and the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.

 

4 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Steven Augustine | July 1, 2010 at 3:39 am

    Now THIS is more like it. A “cultural diary” a reader can curl up with. Hooked from entry-one, I love it when I read material for free I would have paid for gladly.

    (Disclaimer: I’m an owner of a copy of Mr. Brody’s book on JLG; persuaded my oldest friend to buy a copy, too, because I didn’t want to loan it to him).

  2. Steven Augustine | July 1, 2010 at 3:55 am

    PS, Re:

    “Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines…”

    I think it’s a tad more sinister than that. A dumbed-down, pop-addicted, anti-intellectual “The People” become political zombies: much more easily manipulated. Literate masses with an active interest in the Fine Arts and other thought-provoking cultural artifacts are much harder to dupe and bully.

    You never could have sold “Iraq 2″ and “Afghanistan” to the generations that made Picasso famous or Arthur Miller rich. And the things that they *were* duped about (eg, the Red Scare) would have been impossible had there been an Internet to circumvent the newspapers; the Internet is perhaps wasted on the generation it was given to (like youth is wasted on the young…?).

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