Wednesday, July 28, 2004

High Brow Talking Points....Complete With Backhanded Compliments!
After Ron Reagan Junior gave his speech on Stem Cell Research at the Democratic National Convention, FoxNews Anchor Brit Hume noted that the Bush Campaign was already sending out e-mail missives to counter the points in Reagan's speech. It couldn't have been a few minutes after Reagan had stepped away from the podium when Mr. Hume said, "Already E-mail boxes are being inundated with the word that Federal Research Money for Stem Cells has increased from 10 Million to 20 Million under Bush."

Anybody who follows politics as either a serious endeavour or as a sport knows the idea of talking points. They are the things that need to be emphasised during a certain time period in order bolster a cause, or to defend an especially successful strike by the other side.

The High-Brow critics seem to be eerily on the same wavelength regarding the passing of the actor Marlon Brando. The retrospectives from two critics known to us would almost appear to have come out of the same strategy meeting.

I first read Bill Marx's column about Brando here. and just kind of shrugged it off as typical Hitchen's like contrarianism. (Read Hitchen's recent blasting of Ronald Reagan, Sr. while the corpse was still warm. Ick.)

Marx compares Brando to Eleanor Duse and though he begrudgingly acknowledges Brando's acting turns, he feels the need to stomp on the dead man's grave using a boot made from the life of a dead woman who has hardly given him permission. It is a weird analysis straight out of the "good-ole'-days-when-work-was-hard-and-death-was-harder," playbook.

The recent reporting on Brando's career have all included discussions of his shoddy work ethic and the fact that he never returned to the stage. However, Mr. Marx wants to blame Marlon Brando for the economic realities of life for the American actor. Perhaps if actors on the stage were paid enough to afford a decent living in the city, then a life of suffering through high-brow critical bashings of every work written after Shaw's passing, would be easier to take. While her childhood was spent fighting poverty, Eleanora Duse was eventually a celebrity who partied with the A-List set, had affairs, tried to burn down a house, (a la Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes of TLC,) and left a husband and daughter in pursuit of her "art." (How’s that for contrarian?) Marx would have done better to come up with an example of somebody who suffered through extreme poverty to their last gasp in order to worship the works of the masters.

Ms. Duse was reported to have said something to the effect that she could not understand how American actors could play the same part night after night and how that must be deadening to the artistic inspiration. I agree with the deadening part, but I am at odds with her lack of understanding.
Besides the point of the weird comparison and his throwaway line about Brando's acting turns in On The Waterfront and Streetcar being "dated," Marx’s main thesis is contradicted by the recent influx of movie/theatre actors such as Liev Schreiber, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, and Sigourney Weaver (From Aliens to an A.R. Gurney play to say the least.) Not to mention Anne Heche. Nathan Lane tried his hand at an offbeat Simon Gray play at the Huntington Theatre Company.

Like I said, I was prepared to let it go until I saw the recent post-mortem written by Robert Brustein:

Apparently the guardians of our culture have a meeting of the minds on this one. It is not enough to lament the the way that Marlon Brando personally squandered his talent, (you’ll get no argument from me,) but Brustein accuses Brando of "neglecting a crucial obligation of the actor, which is to preserve the great roles of the classical and modern repertory." He also names a bunch of actors such as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, etc., as evidence that Brando ruined the acting gene pool in this country.

I am surprised at both Marx and Brustein, since they are both usually so good at wrestling with financial and governmental policies with regard to the Arts. (Marx's recent column on how corporate sponsorship of the arts might not be the blessing it would appear to be was dead on.) Shame on both of them for taking advantage of the passing of Brando to pin on him the death of American acting. Having attended more than one of the poor productions at the ART over the past decade I might make the judgement that Mr. Brustein let the inmates run the asylum far too many times. This resulting in such sloppy and disconnected acting that one could almost believe they were in the midst of a playschool imagination hour. Yet his theatre marketing proclaims...World Class Theatre!   

In a few weeks we will watch the Republican Convention and more talking points will fly from both sides.  Brustein's and Marx's attacks on Brando represent Art criticism as ideology. They are the George Wills to their cause, much as Dale Peck is the Michael Savage to their cause.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Standing Headline.

Is Serious Drama Dying?

John Heilprin details, in the Observer, the downfall of the much-raved-about revival of The Normal Heart at the Public in New York.

Some of the highlights...

"It’s sobering to report that the critics who enthusiastically supported The Normal Heart—myself among them—had little or no influence. A spot check of all the critics of the play (newspapers, magazines, dot-com and radio) reveals this: Out of 42 reviews, seven were negative, 21 were positive and 14 were raves.

Among the thumbs-up were influential outlets as varied as The New York Times (a "gale force," “benchmark drama”—Ben Brantley) and Variety (“a defining work of theater,” “blisters with conviction and heart”—Charles Isherwood). John Simon of New York magazine—renowned for not being too easily pleased—concluded his rave review: “In the end you will hear fellow theatergoers weeping all around you, the sound muffled only by that of your own cathartic sobbing.”

Larry Kramer said, "Why didn’t the gays go to Normal Heart? I’ll tell you: They’re going to see Hugh Jackman instead."

When The Normal Heart opened at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in 1985, it ran for 10 months and attracted a crossover audience for what became the longest-running production in the Public’s history.

The current production played in the Public’s Anspacher, an intimate space with only 275 seats. But no performance ever sold out. In fact, box-office sales—including discounted tickets—were never higher than 58 percent, and in the final two weeks they were disastrously lower.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Fears of Fallout from Fahrenheit 911

An Ex Army Captain talks about his fears that the Baby Killer phenomenon will rekindle. He writes an essay in today's Salon. (Sorry, it is a paid site)

I believe Andrew Exum's fears, while definitely well-placed and well-said, betray every bit of the elitist and condescending attitude that he accuses the liberal audience of displaying in embracing Fahrenheit 911.

Without giving Moore credit for being half the intelligent and subtle thinker that he himself is, Exum frames as accidental Moore's depiction of the duality of the situation into which soldiers must assimilate, (wholly instruments of death and wholly human beings,) as accidental. But it gets worse.

It would appear that Mr. Exum thinks that films like Control Room and Fahrenheit 911 are dangerous, but not because of their ideology, partisan nature, or their convictions. No, Exum is fearful of Fahrenheit 911 because he thinks that the audience is incapable of understanding it.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Naeema White-Peppers lashes out at Will Stackman

Well, it looks as if Naeema couldn't take anything but glowing reviews any longer and lashes out at Will Stackman with an articulate letter about Stackman's preoccupation with her race. She sent it snail mail, but copied Larry Stark and he posted it it on Mere Opinions.

I have to admit, his little reference in his Popcorn review about Naeema being african-american did seem a little out of line at the time I read it.

Naeema does herself a little damage by misqouting Stackman. The whole quote from the quick-take review is..."Naeemah A. White Peppers, in her last Zeitgeist role for a while, doesn't fit the part of a Playboy centerfold/now actress and hasn't found a way to make being African-American add anything to the piece."

Naeemah quotes it as "Naeemah A. White Peppers hasn't found a way to make being African-American add anything to the piece." I have a feeling she left out the first half for reasons other than her wanting to focus on the second half. (Naeemah, darling, if you are going to parse quotes at least remember the ...'s.)

If you actually read Stackman's longer review on Aisle-Say, his paragraph about his feelings on this issue read as follows:

"The weakest part of the play begins when Bruce returns with Brook Daniels, a Playboy centerfold turned actress-- the show's stalest running joke--and a predictable seduction ensues, which includes an entertaining pantyhose stip-tease routine. It was inevitable that Zeitgeist regular Naeemah A. White-Peppers play this role. While there's nothing beyond her repertoire in the part, there's nothing in the script to capitalize on her African-American presence either, even when Brook draws a gun on Bruce to prove she can be scarey and should be in his next picture. It would have been more interesting to cast some pneumatic blond as this ambitious nude model and have White-Peppers play the avaricious wife. The part of Velvet could easily have been done by any one of several talented young local actresses of color."

Naeemah may have a point, because although Stackman seems to be advocating for the better roles for African Americans, he does seem to be overly preoccupied with the subject. It reminds me of the recent book, Redneck Nation, in which the author said that nowhere in the country is the color of people's skin so much a part of the dialogue than in the so called Liberal Northeast.

However, Naeemah then veers off in a strange direction. Her paragraph about Circle starts off OK, she is on message with the fact that African Americans should be able to play parts of hispanics, but then she goes sideways. She immediately channels August Wilson from the great Town Hall debates with Robert Brustein, and says that it is ridiculous for whites to be playing characters in plays written about the black experience.

Naeemah seems to adhere to "author's intention." If the author isn't specific about ethnicity, then it is all right to use color blind casting, but if the situation or the author's notes are indicative, then that is the law.

It is a legitimate viewpoint, but it is frighteningly limited when you expand it.

What does Naeemah think of the recent True West in New York where the brothers were played by two women? What does she think of black actors playing the majority of Shakespeare's parts?

Her criticism of Stackman is an interesting question, though.