Saturday, April 28, 2007

It wasn't broke

Presumably this has been going on since December and I was too preoccupied to notice, but now I have and I come before you to ask: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH THE MET BROADCASTS?

For something like eighty years, there was a live opera broadcast every Saturday afternoon with one announcer who filled you in on the cast, the plot, the details of the production, the number of bows everybody took, and other pertinent details. Milton Cross, then Peter Allen, and lately Margaret Juntwait handled this job with knowledge, enthusiasm, and a certain amount of grace under pressure, occasionally vamping when the curtain was delayed because of a baritone's split trousers or a mezzo's panic attack. The intermission features were polished and professional (full disclosure: I once won a prize for having my question used on the quiz), and it usually ended before the witching hour of 5 pm, no matter how slowly Maestro Levine was conducting Parsifal. And we were content, and sometimes more than content.

In retrospect, everything began to go sour when Texaco (now ChevronTexaco) withdrew its decades-old sponsorship. Apparently their gasp-inducing profits did not justify spending five or six million dollars a year on opera, even with alleged music-lover Condoleezza Rice on the board of directors. I think Mrs. Wallace of the Reader's Digest fortune stepped in for a year, while an effort was made to assemble an endowment which would make the broadcasts self-supporting. This does not seem to have happened, for the Toll Brothers are the current sponsors. Really, before last season I thought Toll Brothers made cookies. Toll House cookies? But they just make the houses, McMansions for the ostentatiously loaded. Anyway, good for them for keeping up one of the few cultural traditions that make the world loathe us a little less (these broadcasts even reach China).

Then came the Met's new boss, Peter Gelb, a former producer of classical records. For the past twenty years, "producing" classical records has followed two paths: coming up with crossover projects for the PBS audience (The Three Tenors Sing the Elton John Songbook kind of thing) and re-packaging material from the vaults. Take an old set of Brandenburg Concertos, slap a couple of bare-chested hunks on the cover and call it "Baroque-Bach Mountain." Mr. Gelb did all that after serving as Vladimir Horowitz's manager, which involved putting a small notice beside the Carnegie Hall box office -- HOROWITZ TICKETS ON SALE -- and getting out of the way. Thus are careers in musical management made, and it doesn't hurt at all if your father works for The New York Times.

Mr. Gelb decided the broadcast needed some sprucing up, so now Margaret Juntwait has a co-host to provide color commentary. Another person is positioned backstage to bring us you-are-there reports from the stage manager, who is supposed to be supervising a hundred men as they move gigantic sets over a stage the size of Bryant Park, but no -- he's chatting about how many trucks are required to bring in the scenery. This is a class-action suit waiting to happen. Another deputy, often Renee Fleming, is in the dressing room to interview the champ -- I mean, the diva. All that's missing is a Tim McCarver-type analyzing every doubtful note. ("Boy, I mean, that's only a B flat, he's gotta make that. You kinda wonder about that high D that's coming up. Let's hear it again...") As quizmaster, Edward Downes may be truly irreplaceable, but I wonder if they tried hard enough. Worse, the panel have been issued with little bells like the ones used to summon bellhops in William Powell movies. Listeners are given a question and instructed to respond by e-mail, like those snap polls on TV news. Will this attract more listeners than it drives away? Did people complain about the old format, or is this just Gelb's way of marking his territory?

It's sad, especially on a beautiful spring day like this, with a perfectly splendid, hot-blooded performance of Il Trittico to enjoy. I'm not against change per se, but I used to feel like part of a tradition stretching back to the yellow brick brewery on 39th street and all those unforgettable afternoons shared with people in every part of the world. (And, inevitably, some I couldn't wait to forget.) Maybe I'll get used to it. Maybe the new, spectacle-hungry Met will abandon terrestrial radio altogether for movie theaters and the satellite channel it already operates. Free opera will go the way of the NBC Symphony and the Young People's Concerts. As Falstaff says, "Tutta declina."

The world is flat-out crazy

April has been crueler than usual, and we are certainly entitled to celebrate Silly Season, however briefly. For a start, we owe a debt to India, where Richard Gere is now a wanted man for kissing an actress rather too showily at an AIDS Awareness Day event (I know). Apparently public displays of simulated heterosexual affection are offensive in the land of the Kama Sutra. Who knew? Meanwhile, in Australia -- no, I have to quote this one:

"'He doesn't seem to be the sort of bloke we want in this country,' Australia's Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, told Macquarie Radio in Sydney. Mr. Andrews was explaining that a visa for Snoop Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, had been canceled because he failed to pass Australia's character test, which takes criminal convictions into account." Well, I should hope so. After all, Australia was founded as a penal colony for Britain's incorrigibles. I only hope Mr. Dogg -- Mr. Broadus -- is aware of this and draws full attention to the irony. (The Times loves it when rappers die or get into hot water, because then it can print their real names: "Lil' Pimp, whose real name is Percy Snodgress III...")

I find it comforting that other countries are willing to behave foolishly in keeping out the famous unwanted. The Land of the Free has acted swiftly in the past six years to protect us from Iranian film directors, Lebanese clerics, and just anyone whose name resembles a name on a super secret watch list. (Don't bother asking if you're on it; it's a secret. Just show up at an airport and take your chances.) Again, I find it reassuring that such obtuseness has been the norm for decades. For the benefit of my reader, I have dug out an article Spike Milligan wrote for Punch of May 1, 1974. The presiding genius of The Goon Show was commissioned by Punch to cover a celebrity backgammon tournament on the QE2, which required him to fly to New York and board the ship there. Although he would be in America only long enough to travel from JFK to the West Side pier, a visa was required. After his assistants were unable to obtain this, Milligan presented himself in person at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I'll let him tell it:

"We fill in the form...which demands answers from 'When, where, why and how were you born?' to 'Which side do you dress during an Equinox?' Every other question is ARE YOU A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY? HAVE YOU EVER SLEPT WITH A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY? DO YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KARL AND GROUCHO MARX? We fill in all the gunge...He points at the entry: PLACE OF BIRTH...India.

"It's insufficient evidence."

"I'm standing in front of you, a position I could only have got to if I was born, isn't that evidence?"

Third day of the great visa story: "What's bloody wrong now?"

"It's about your mental condition. In the form against ANY SERIOUS MENTAL ILLNESS? you have put No."

..."Look, if I was seriously Mentally Ill, you think I'd be appearing on BBC television? My God, it takes enough trouble getting them to accept sane people."

"I'm sorry, we need to see a doctor's certificate."

"Look, mister, if it's Richard Nixon you're worried about, the CIA will get him long before I do."

I go to my him the latest form. (a) Have any of your parents ever tried to assassinate anyone? (b) How many times have you seen Hair? (c) Are you related to Jack Ruby? (d) If you were given the opportunity, who would you kill first: President Nixon/Ronald Reagan? (e) What time? (f) Do you like the United States Marines or Doris Day? (g) Did you ever touch Lenny Bruce?
The doctor writes a detailed description of Milligan's mental breakdown (in 1956) complete with drugs and dosage, and he finally obtains permission to get off a plane and into a taxi, muttering, "I sent off a secret donation to the Wounded Knee Legal Fund." Which leaves only the question: Did the CIA get Nixon?

1974 doesn't seem so far off, especially with so many Watergate characters popping up all over the No Man's Land of media/politics. Hillary Rodham, of course, was on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee when it voted to send articles of impeachment to the full House; Fred Thompson, a protege of Howard Baker, was minority counsel to the infinitely more entertaining Senate Select Committee chaired by Sam Ervin a year earlier. John Dean is a regular visitor to Countdown With Keith Olbermann, and Fred Fielding holds down Dean's old job of White House counselor. I think I glimpsed the massive form of Lawrence Eagleburger in the Iraq Study Group. And Fred Malek has joined the McCain campaign. Remember Fred Malek?

You don't?

Back in the day, an increasingly paranoid and self-medicating Richard Nixon became convinced that his own Bureau of Labor Statistics was cooking the unemployment figures to make him look bad. For Nixon and his spiritual adviser, Billy Graham, that could mean only one thing. Malek was deputized to find out exactly how many Jews worked at the BLS. (As Anna Russell used to say, "I'm not making this up, you know.") Before he could purge all those disloyal economists and numbers crunchers, Nixon was himself purged, and the Great Jew Survey became a footnote to the vast plague known familiarly as Watergate, not as sexy as the celebrity-rich Enemies List or as oh-no-he-didn't as the profanity-laced Oval Office tapes. Malek has emerged from obscurity, as McCain's deputy finance director, and I know he'll do well: those people are good with money.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Call him Ishmael

That national dialogue on racism and sexism hardly got started before being shoved aside for the national dialogue on mental illness and gun ownership (with perhaps a footnote on the Barney Fife policing of small Virginia towns). The emotional response was easy: Yesterday I wanted to round up every gun dealer, every NRA member and every politician who does their bidding, and make them dig the graves, much as Eisenhower forced German civilians to witness at last the results of the policies they supported by burying a few of the dead. As long as they were in Blacksburg with their easy pieties, George Bush should have scrubbed blood off classroom floors, while Laura sewed up the corpses after the autopsies were done. Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney, the mighty hunters, could have carried the bodies to the hearses, and lest we forget our bi-partisan guilt, Jim Webb and Harry Reid could notify the families in person.

The problem is, I'm a pragmatist. I know that prohibition does not work, whether of alcohol, drugs, Cuban cigars, weapons or pornography (which at various times has included pamphlets by Margaret Sanger, Tijuana bibles and Ulysses). Whatever people want, other people will get for them. The "dry" experiment of the 1920s -- perhaps the first division of this country in red and blue states -- led to the growth of organized crime, a spike in violence which encompassed many innocent bystanders, corruption, contempt for law, the creation of a new class of criminals and the sale of an unregulated product which killed, blinded and crippled thousands of mainly poor people. It also made drinking attractive and sexy, something for young people to try. And, surprise, we learned nothing from its coming and it passing. We still think you can solve a social problem by passing another law.

I am not in favor of more gun laws. There are plenty of fine reasons to own a gun. Maybe you like to hunt. OK, I guess, go ahead. Then there's target shooting, a recognized sport, an Olympic sport. Perhaps you are attracted to the history of the gun; many of the old ones are quite beautiful. It could be the technology that interests you. Maybe you just have a small penis. It's a cliche, but it must be true sometimes. It seems obvious that the Second Amendment was intended only to create the National Guard, but generations of judges have found otherwise, so who am I to complain?

Just do me a favor. Don't insult my intelligence by mouthing the slogans of the gun industry and the gun lobby. Don't tell me guns will make you either safe or free. It's crap.

Go anywhere in the US, turn on the local news, and chances are the lead story will be about crime. How often do you hear, "But then Mr. Bloggs pulled out his Glock and foiled the home invader/carjacker/mugger"? Mr. Bloggs couldn't get to his gun, or he got excited and shot himself, or the bad guy took it away. About once a week, Junior Bloggs finds the gun in Daddy's dresser drawer, with catastrophic consequences. Guns made us safer two hundred years ago, when American cities were unpoliced and most people lived in isolated places, menaced by cattle rustlers, angry natives and wild animals. That country is gone now, as are the muskets the authors of the Second Amendment had in mind.

"If they take away my guns, they can take away my freedom." It's the cry of the libertarian and the militia type. And my response is, "Do what Congress didn't bother to do before they rubber-stamped it: Read the USA PATRIOT Act. They have already taken away your freedom. The only freedom they left you is the freedom to own a gun, because they know it doesn't matter. No matter how many guns you get, they have more and theirs are bigger. This is why nobody every wins a shootout with the federal government."

Freedom, unfortunately, is a political process. It's slow, uncertain and impermanent. It involves writing letters, collecting signatures, registering to vote, going to meetings. Worse, it involves compromise with people who are just too dull-witted to grasp the brilliance of your ideas. Freedoms we thought we had secured, like voting rights and -- well, read the latest outrage from the Roberts-Scalia-Alito court -- have a way of evaporating overnight. Battles are fought and re-fought, and guns can't play any part in them. If freedom means living in isolation and communicating by manifesto, there are still places you can build your cabin. For those of us who choose to live in communities, freedom is a lot less obvious. Your cigarette smoke, my lungs. Your dog, my flowerbed. Your gun, my life. It sucks, doesn't it?

Soon it will be Sunday morning, and the punditocracy will be puckering their brows over how easy it was for an untreated psychotic to buy two handguns in Jefferson's home state. We should put this discussion on video and play it after every massacre. It's the same one we had after Columbine, after Charles Whitman, probably after the OK Corral. Nothing will happen. We are a nation in love with violence and death, preferably visited upon others. As Keith Olbermann pointed out, we grieve these campus dead to the point of obsession and we try not to think about other Americans of their generation dying every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dead are dead, forever, whether from the cynical schemes and lies of powerful men or the simmering rage of a sick boy. As with the war, politicians will stake out positions about Cho Seung-Hui, and millions of words will fly, and the killing will go on.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


In honor of Ennio Morricone and his lifetime achievement Oscar, I recently watched my favorite Brian DePalma film, The Untouchables. Sharp pacing, full-bore performances by Robert DeNiro and Sean Connery, and Morricone's score carry you along, and it isn't until the movie ends that you realize it makes no sense at all.

Take the scene at the Canadian border. The Mounties are all mounted up and waiting to intercept the bootleggers, but it's Eliot Ness and his men who thunder down on them. Two Chicago cops, a federal agent and an accountant, and they ride like Jesse James. There's a little more to galloping over rough terrain than keeping one leg on each side of the horse, but it's so exhilirating, who cares? Stranger things are to come.

The climactic courtroom scene, for instance. I'm not conversant with the laws of Illinois, but I'm willing to bet that divorce cases there are not heard in federal court, and do not involve juries. And I'm absolutely certain that no judge ever swapped juries in mid-trial. Presented with evidence of jury tampering, a judge will declare a mistrial and start over. He will not accept a guilty plea from an attorney over the loud protests of the defendant. What the hell is going on here?

David Mamet is one of the smartest writers alive, and he doesn't turn in dumb scripts. He isn't interested in Al Capone, or law enforcement in the Prohibition era, or even in Chicago, really. The Untouchables is the story of Eliot Ness's transformation from by-the-book Boy Scout into the kind of man who can answer Malone's dying question ("What are you prepared to do?") with "Anything, including murder." Into Mamet's kind of man. When the deck is stacked against you, why even bother to read Hoyle, much less play by the rules? Ness in The Untouchables, the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, the professor in Oleana, the lowlifes in American Buffalo, all very different but all victims of forces they can't control, doing what a man's gotta do. That's the Chicago way. Worse, it's the American way.

We are all victims, and proud of it. If not of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny or some other form of discrimination, then of political correctness which keep us from expressing our hatreds freely and profitably. Even George Bush probably considers himself a victim these days, of the Democrat Party and those people in Congress who won't do what he wants. Since his power comes from Jesus, doesn't that make them Judases? Come to think of it, isn't Jesus the ultimate victim?

Don't worry, I'm not venturing into the dark forest of theology without even a trail of breadcrumbs to guide me back. I just want to know how we got to be a nation of victims for whom the rules don't apply. Is it just easier that way? Are we so sure the system hates us and can never be fixed? If you are unquestionably a victim, what is your responsibility? If, say, you managed to survive until your camp was liberated, and on that day you picked up a brick and smashed in the skull of an SS guard, no one would ever accuse you of murder. But that's what it is. Ness will never answer for murdering Frank Nitti (to get back to the movie), but it would be reassuring to think it will trouble him just a little. But this is not The Godfather, where every fresh killing leaves its mark on Michael Corleone. Asked "Where is Nitti?" Ness responds with a grim joke: "He's in the car." So he is, and Kevin Costner's lack of affect is for once completely appropriate. Is it cold in here, or is it me?

Pawn takes queen?

"If the Left Takes Imus, We'll Take Rosie" is the sinister headline of an essay on the blog of Tom "Six Million and One" DeLay. Several months ago Rosie O'Donnell did a tasteless imitation of pidgin Chinese on The View, for which she was slapped down by New York City Councilman John Liu, the Al Sharpton of all things Asian, among others. The right simply won't stand for that kind of racism, and O'Donnell is in the crosshairs. She was there already for being, well, you know, the noisy lesbian (as distinct from Ellen DeGeneres, the friendly lesbian who isn't fat), but now the gloves come off. Thus spake the Hammer, or whoever writes his blog.

Well, Tom, the left didn't take Imus. I asked around the left, and nobody wanted him. What happened was, corporations like General Electric threw him away, just as they throw away any worker they no longer have a use for. They laid him off. They downsized him. They outsourced his job to Mike and the Mad Dog. Phrase it any way you want. More than a few free-speech lefties of the kind you despise came to his defense, but he's just too toxic to sell office supplies and toilet cleanser right now.

When you say "we'll take Rosie," you may not be aware of the sexual overtones. (When you compared your legal troubles to the position of the Jews under Nazism, I got the impression that nuance is not a weapon in your arsenal.) To take someone -- it's hard not to hear that sorriest of locker-room cliches, "All a lesbian needs to straighten her out is a good fuck from a man." How exactly will you take Rosie O'Donnell? Your efforts so far to get her fired from The View have been less successful than the judges' efforts to get Sanjaya off American Idol. People like her. They like that Donald Trump doesn't like her. The ratings are good, the sponsors are happy, and she hasn't repeated her gaffe with the Chinese accent. She learns from her mistakes. Don Imus never did, and apparently never will.

So, Tom, are you watching a lot of daytime television?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday, bloody Friday

I'm going to need a minute, because the dog turds at Google screwed me over again. New password, new email, new bla bla, waste of time, accept new terms of crap, more wasted time, why doesn't somebody just collect every Google employee and use them in nerve gas experiments?

Thank you.

Well, I was wondering who had the worst week. John McCain is still the butt of jokes, as he should be, for his farcical Baghdad shopping spree; only the doltish Lindsey Graham came off looking worse, and he's not running for president. A hundred troops and three helicopters which could have been better employed elsewhere -- not to mention twenty dead Iraqi merchants -- well, it works out to a lot more than five bucks for five rugs. Senator Maverick looks good in Kevlar, doesn't he? He should wear it to the convention. Fred "I'm Not a DA But I Play One Badly" Thompson announced that he has lymphoma, which looked like climbing on the cancer bandwagon. At least he won't be leaving for Iraq.

Perhaps it was Simon Cowell. He put his whole heart into giving us a show that celebrates incompetence, cruelty and desperation, and the Americans turn around and ruin it with their dark dark sense of humor, repeatedly voting for the worst of the worst. We don't deserve Simon Cowell. We really don't. Really.

Paul Wolfowitz had an unpleasant week at the World Bank, where employees object to his Michael Brown-like managerial skills and his Rudolph Giuliani-like penchant for hiring his mistress. Unless he dislikes bad publicity, however, the cheerleader for the Iraq debacle should survive unscathed.

Don't tell me it was Don Imus. This germ barely registered with me (I have better things to do in the morning than watch a radio show, like sleep) until his paralytic features and slurred inanities were suddenly everywhere. Like Bush, he should probably go back to staying drunk all the time, and now he has the chance. Luckily for CBS radio and MSNBC, the term "nappy-headed ho's" does not appear on the list of words that will get you a jaw-dropping fine from the FCC. (For the record, they are fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.) That's because we're more comfortable with racism and misogyny than we are with sex and bodily functions. Imus will publish a book about his PC victimization and metastasize at some other station, still in that stupid hat; and no-hope candidates like McCain and Joe Biden will grin and fawn at his microphone like hungry mutts. In the deepest irony of the week, Governor Jon Corzine was rushing to referee a meeting between the I-Wad and the young women he had trashed when he was nearly killed in a car accident. Our winner?

No, because Kurt Vonnegut died this week. He is so much a part of our consciousness that it was impossible to find a blog entry or obituary which didn't sound like Vonnegut, with "So it goes" and "Poteeweet" cropping up everywhere. We all owe him so much, not least the concept of the granfalloon, a wholly artificial construct, like a nation, which is nothing more than an agreed-upon fiction. "If you want to examine a granfalloon, Just remove the skin from a toy balloon," sang Bokonon in Cat's Cradle, and I do it every day.

We had the worst week of all.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Not-too-much Freedom Tower

The New York Times of March 28 advises that "Ground Zero Arts Center Won't Have Theater Company, Only Dance," the latest revision of the assurances that the site of the World Trade Center would become a cultural mecca. Two years ago the Drawing Center had its invitation withdrawn when an exhibition was criticized for being insufficiently patriotic; it may move to Burling Slip on John Street. (I couldn't find it on a map either, but I'll keep looking.) Then the New York City Opera abandoned all hope of building a suitable home, and will remain in the State Theater at Lincoln Center. Now the Signature Theater has been told it won't get its proposed three-stage complex, leaving only the Joyce Theater, a dance company. The article goes into much detail about PATH train access, the performing arts center's "limited footprint," and of course money, but are those at the heart of the decision?

Theater means plays, and plays contain words, and words have the power to upset people even more than drawings. It's increasingly clear that this part of the city has been designated a no-controversy zone, where visitors must not think, or question, or even laugh. Listen to the splashing of the fountains, read the names of the dead (in whatever order is eventually agreed upon), then watch the dancers move their beautiful bodies in abstract patterns which couldn't possibly embarrass Our Leaders or besmirch Our Heroes.

Can art be made at all in a mausoleum?