Culture weeknote 4

Sunday Mar 6

AFTERNOON Quick news brief @ at the NYT before heading out. Some people REALLY do not like Janette Sadik-Khan, queen of Bloomberg's surface streets. She's the one who blocked off that huge swath of Broadway for people who like to sit on Broadway. I do not, particularly, but I'm in favor of anything that promotes pedestrian justice and the vaunted traffic calming while sticking it to the perpetrators of car alarms.

EVENING Rain rain rain rain rain, so I host my own Veronica Mars season 1 mini-marathon, which gives that beachy soap vibe a thin layer of smartypants teen angst that does not include Mischa Barton. Of course, I also have The O.C. on DVD. As Woody Allen says, the heart wants what it wants, and sometimes the heart wants Peter Gallagher. But tonight it wants a mouthy underage PI with a pit bull sidekick and sass to spare, because I also like to remember a world in which skinny jeans hadn't yet been invented.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the best bloggers around, is reading Jane Austen. Here he addresses the unintended whiplash effect of assigning books to the higher-ed canon:

It's not like I wasn't reading. I read Gatsby on my own. I read The Sound and The Fury on my own (though I wish I hadn't.) I read Moby Dick on my own. Ragtime on my own. "London" on my own. Thinking back on what compelled me, all I have is various people who I respected essentially saying, "This is beautiful, and you might like it because you like beautiful things."

This is not a post about how you "fix" higher education. This not a post about the constant travails of "young black males." I am not, in this instance, particularly concerned with the "achievement gap." What happened between me and school is something particular which may, or may not, have broader application.

But I do wonder what might have happened if, instead of droning on and on about recognizing  foreshadowing and allegory, someone had said, this is the work of a fantastic stylist. I do wonder what might have happened if Jane Austen had been more than just another name on a "need to know" list.

Bedtime reading: True Grit by Charles Portis. I think this fell out of print for a couple of decades, until the Coens turned it into a hugely entertaining film. Turns out the book is just as entertaining. Crazy!

Monday Mar 7

MORNING This Chicago Sun Times article on framing in The Social Network leads me to why David Fincher is the best design thinker in Hollywood:

Faced with the merciless constraints imposed on him by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin -- a relentlessly talky script, a suffocatingly insular setting, barely any "action" to speak of -- Fincher finds solution after elegant solution. The Winklevoss twins' rowing competition scene stands out: the relentless music strains along with the twins in their bid for Olympic glory, but the tilt-shift cinematography makes everything in the scene look small and toylike. Their whole world is, literally, child's play compared to what Zuckerberg is building -- they just can't see it yet. It's cool, cruel and perfect.

AFTERNOON More from The Social Network, a gift that just keeps giving: lunch with Sean Parker. Here's Sean Parker on the film's most famous line:

So is a billion dollars cool? He ponders the question carefully. “No, it’s not,” he says. “It’s not cool. I think being a wealthy member of the establishment is the antithesis of cool. Being a countercultural revolutionary is cool. So to the extent that you’ve made a billion dollars, you’ve probably become uncool.” He laughs at his retort to Aaron Sorkin.

Flipping through LUCKY magazine. I unilaterally decide that spring coats count as culture since I frequently wear them in the public sphere, and often to cultural events.  After that I attempt to dig my way through Susan Sontag's famous essay "Against Interpretation" and surrender in the middle. Did Susan Sontag have a sense of humor? That's the essay I'd like to read.

EVENING Oh no! Angela Gheorghiu strikes again! Pulling out of next season's Faust at the Met, approximately one week after dropping out of this season's Roméo et Juliette.

Ms. Gheorghiu’s manager, Jack Mastroianni, said she could not abide the production, which is being directed by Des McAnuff. Mr. McAnuff has moved the action from its more typical 19th-century setting to the World War I era.

“She felt uncomfortable with the concept,” Mr. Mastroianni said. “She conceives of the work in a more French Romantic way, in the period, as opposed to something being updated.”

Angela Gheorghiu is the kind of artiste who refuses all sorts of things for artistic reasons. When she toured with the Met as Micaela in Carmen in the '90s, Franco Zeffirelli wanted her to wear a blonde wig and she refused until General Manager Joseph Volpe told her "That wig is going on with you or without you." When she finally gave in, she just pulled the hood of her cloak up to cover the wig. They don't call her "Draculette" for nothing.

Watching last week's Law & Order: UK, which is wildly, needlessly complicated, something about the killing of a pregnant doctor in a parking garage which is somehow connected to the same type of crime committed by two young boys a couple of decades earlier. The only good thing about it, besides Dame Harriet Walter, is learning what a life licence is. All things considered, not much of a consolation.

Bedtime reading: a New York mag feature on Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose new musical The Book of Mormon is in previews on the Broadway. Mostly I like that the only person they won't make fun of is Andrew Sullivan.

Tuesday Mar 8

AFTERNOON My subscription to the New Yorker has mysteriously dried up, so in its absence I have to make due with their blogging engine. It's not the same, but otherwise how would I have learned I'm a book slob? My apologies to all, I guess, but I am not running a museum here, or even a library. I don't dust, I don't practice spine control, and they're taking sun baths all the livelong day. Sometimes I just toss 'em on the floor, and some of them I end up leaving on the sidewalk or dumping in the recycling bin. Oy, the horrors.

Over at the Guardian, they tell me Münchausen-by-Internet is a real thing.

Whereas Münchausen syndrome requires physically acting out symptoms to get attention from doctors, online scammers just have to be able to describe them convincingly. There's a potentially limitless audience of sympathetic ears, and success can be quantified by the number of concerned emails and message board posts generated by your lies. Some even go so far as to fake their own deaths, reading their own obituaries and observing the torrent of grief from the comfort of their living room. If they are rumbled – and they rarely are, conclusively – they just go to another support group, and to a fresh batch of trusting victims. The people they've fooled rarely find it so easy to move on.

EVENING Apple TV renting Morning Glory, which is a satisfactory comedy if not a great film. Rachel McAdams has the smarts necessary to play a smart character (thumbs up), but she's not slapsticky enough to be believable as a bumbler. I'm not sure why we need slapstick anyway, since there is more than enough female bumbling on film these days, but as always, props for a film focusing on a female character whose sole object in life is not a man, although she gets the man, too. This is Hollywood! Work and friends are not enough! (It's okay, she doesn't have any friends.) The whole thing would have been more interesting had it been about the two crabby anchors played by Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton, but since they are both over 60, I will dream on.

More True Grit. This book should be stocked on YA shelves; the heroine Mattie Ross is a budding proto-feminist with zero sense of irony. A real ankle-biter. My favorite passages are those where she's "negotiating" with Colonel Stonehill, the auctioneer:

He worried with his eyeglasses for a minute and then said, "I will pay two hundred dollars to your father's estate when I have in my hand a letter from your lawyer absolving me of all liability from the beginning of the world to date. It must be signed by your lawyer and your mother and it must be notarized. The offer is more than liberal and I only make it to avoid the possibility of troublesome litigation. I should never have come down here. They told me this town was to be the Pittsburgh of the Southwest."

I said, "I will take two hundred dollars for Judy, plus one hundred dollars for the ponies and twenty-five dollars for the gray horse that Tom Chaney left. He is easily worth forty dollars. That is three hundred and twenty-five dollars total."

"The ponies have no part in this," said he. "I will not buy them.

"Then I will keep the ponies and the price for Judy will be three hundred and twenty-five dollars."

But wait, is Mattie Ross a feminist? I guess so: she cries over her horse!

Reading on the iPad. Vogue's Grace Coddington is "elusive, severe, silent," according to the late Liz Tilberis. She is also a scene stealer.

Wednesday Mar 9

MORNING Epic day for the battle of the bike lanes! Hoo boy, can open, worms everywhere. Writes A Driver at the New Yorker:

Undoubtedly, during all those years, I should have been paying higher gas prices to cover the putative costs of cleaning up the carbon emissions I was creating, but that doesn’t diminish an important point: Americans love their cars for good reason. They are immensely useful and liberating contraptions.

Part of my beef, then, is undoubtedly an emotional reaction to the bike lobby’s effort to poach on our territory. But from an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes—more than two hundred miles in the past three years—meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. Beyond a certain point, given the limited number of bicyclists in the city, the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns, and the costs to motorists (and pedestrians) of implementing the policies must increase. Have we reached that point? I would say so.

How noble! As one of those beleaguered pedestrians, I'll concede that bikers can be annoying as shit (see also: Central Park as racing track), but compared to DRIVERS? In this city? Please. Buy yourself a pair of feet and then shut the fuck up.

And here's something that should scare the everlovin' crap out of all: Facebook wants to be the internet.

Facebook is reaching its tendrils into every single thing we like about the internet, far, far beyond the actual reasons we rolled up to Zuckerberg's site in the first place. IMing? Check. Email? Check. Photo sharing? Check. Apps? Check. Location check-ins? Yup. Twitter ripoff status updates? But of course! What Facebook hasn't stuffed into its maw by its own will, it's given developers plenty of incentive to do so themselves. The consequence? Over a decade after the web portal stopped making sense, Facebook is trying to assemble itself, like some ill-conceived Voltron, into the next.

After AOL began its decade-long implosion, gradually descending out of relevance, the real internet sprang up in the fertile mush that'd been left behind. AOL was hemorrhaging money like a hemophilic boxer, but the rest of us were having too much fun with the tools we'd be introduced to by this collapsing corpse to notice. IMing, emailing, video, websites, games—AOL didn't invent any of these things from thin air, but it brought them all together in one convenient (when you had a dial tone), hideously-90s Mecca. It was easy! It was slow! It was familiarly and comforting—and stifling. AOL's vision of the online world was what AOL deemed worthy of its walled topiary garden. It was closed—locked up tight. Integrated tightly, but, in retrospect, really pretty mediocre.

AFTERNOON Ordered tickets to Good People (Frances McDormand!) and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (Lynn Nottage!)

Lots of comebacks to the bike-hater:

Now, if drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, then it might be worth asking what the optimal level of bike lanes to have is and discussing whether the lanes themselves are subject to rising congestion and need to be priced. Of course, if drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, there would be fewer drivers complaining about bike lanes and more people using them. As things stand, given that cyclists help alleviate some of these externalities (a cyclist takes up dramatically less road space than a car, doesn't use on-street parking, does not emit ozone, and does not contribute to climate change) it seems quite sensible to allocate a larger share of New York's roadways to lanes for cyclists. From an economic perspective.

I'm gonna buy a bike this summer, and then I'm just going to stand around with it in parking spaces all across the city.

In other news, this list of sitcoms that will still be funny 20 years from now unsurprisingly includes That '70s Show, which is now playing in blocks on MTV. I would also put Scrubs on that list if it isn't already. 

The NYT has an interview with Tom Stoppard on Arcadia, which SarahB and I are seeing in previews tonight:

“When you write, it’s making a certain kind of music in your head,” he explained. “There’s a rhythm to it, a pulse, and on the whole I’m writing to that drum, rather than the psychological process” — the time it takes for one character to digest and respond to what another said — “which creates its own drumbeat.”

EVENING ARCADIA!!!!! Reviews aren't out yet, so I'm mostly snapping my trap. It's a beautiful play and the production is lovely, the acting is strong (with some reservations), but if you want to see it, I'd wait a month or so. I think the cast needs a little more time to cohere in order to speed up the pace a bit.

Thursday Mar 10

MORNING Oh, Wisconsin. Way to stick it to all those high-living, hedonistic, speedboat-loving teachers in order to save billions. Oops! You mean they removed the budgetary incentive in order to ram this through the legislature and achieve the singular GOP goal of weakening the unions and further strangling the middle class? (See how well I've rehearsed my rabid lefty talking points!) Lesson: VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE.

From Gail Collins at the NYT: Q: what could possibly go wrong with guns on college campuses? A: Nothing!

The core of the great national gun divide comes down to this: On one side, people’s sense of public safety goes up as the number of guns goes down; the other side responds to every gun tragedy by reflecting that this might have been averted if only more legally armed citizens had been on the scene.

I am on the first side simply because I believe that in a time of crisis, there is no such thing as a good shot.

“Police, on average, for every 10 rounds fired, I think, actually strike something once or twice, and they are highly trained,” said Bill Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner.

Concealed Carry on Campus envisions a female student being saved from an armed assailant by a freshman with a concealed weapon permit. I see a well-intentioned kid with a pistol trying to intervene in a scary situation and accidentally shooting the victim.

Lesson: VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE.

And the real news of the day: AHHHHHHHHH! COFFEE IS IN DANGER! Better keep these people away from guns.

Also: flushing Julie Taymor down the toilet. What do you do when you're a committed perfectionist whose creative vision by all accounts is wrapped in a package labeled "do not bend"? The problem is that commercial theatre is a collaborative effort that must, almost by definition, bend in a thousand directions at once. Blinded by her own science, I guess.

AFTERNOON Reading Time Out New York on the subway, including (as never before) the dance section, which features an interview about a Black Swan parody called SWAN!!! Choreographer Jack Ferver, who plays Lily, is especially enamored of the ending:

It's a terrible thing to realize that you've lost your mind. I think everyone has felt that to some degree. But that moment is the most important in terms of commenting on what it is to dance. You see that you've really, really hurt yourself… [Pauses] And then you reapply your makeup.

My, but this week is rich with internetual ripostes. Here's Roxane Gay at The Rumpus on careless language in the New York Times' coverage of the "alleged" sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl in Texas:

The Times article was entitled, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” as if the victim in question was the town itself. James McKinley Jr., the article’s author, focused on how the men’s lives would be changed forever, how the town was being ripped apart, how those poor boys might never be able to return to school. There was discussion of how the eleven-year-old girl, the child, dressed like a twenty-year-old, implying that there is a realm of possibility where a woman can “ask for it” and that it’s somehow understandable that eighteen men would rape a child. There were even questions about the whereabouts of the mother, given, as we all know, that a mother must be with her child at all times or whatever ill may befall the child is clearly the mother’s fault. Strangely, there were no questions about the whereabouts of the father while this rape was taking place.

And also this, from Mac McClelland at Mother Jones, on the Times' "rape-friendly reporting":

This is the point at which, as the writer's editor, I would send him an email. "Dear James," it would say. "Thanks for getting this in! I have some concerns that we've only got quotes from people who are worried about the suspects ('The arrests have left many wondering who will be taken into custody next') and think the girl was asking for it, especially since, even if she actually begged for it, the fact that she is 11 makes the incident stupendously reprehensible (not to mention still illegal). We don't want anyone wrongly thinking you are being lazy or thoughtless or misogynist! Please advise if literally no other kinds of quotes are available because every single person who lives in Cleveland, Texas, is a monster."

That leads to a round robin of old articles on the coverage and reactions to the 2009 arrest of Roman Polanski, including this one at Salon, which simply begins with "Roman Polanski raped a child."

Friday Mar 11

MORNING Save to Instapaper:

And here's the only good thing in tech this week: Google Chrome now lets you block search results from certain sites. You can also install the Google Personal Blocklist extension. So long, HuffPo! Screw you, eHow!

Back to fashion at The Cut. Men wearing ladies' shorts? I'm all for subverting gender roles in the interest of forming a more perfect union, but this is a very bad idea. Actually I don't even want to see women in those shorts. They are terrible.

AFTERNOON Finally Parks and Recreation is getting the notices it deserves. Its best feature? It isn't cynical, nor does it play any character (save Jerry) strictly for laughs:

Amy Poehler, the show's star, plays Leslie Knope, a preternaturally effervescent Indiana bureaucrat who is neither lovable antihero nor bewildered straight woman. Leslie defies all television (and cinematic for that matter) tropes. She is not a figure of fun — she may be perky, but she is not stupid — and does not have a hidden psychosis or agenda. She is just a regular gal, a solid B student, who believes in the power of positive thinking and is surrounded by a disparate, and at times desperate, group of people including the sweetly goofy Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), the hilariously troubled Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and the mildly normal Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones).

Get this: fake freckles! As a person of freckles, I find this offensive. I'm as insulted as I am by right-sighted people who wear glasses as fashion accessories that have nothing to do with impending blindness. It's all fun & games 'til the lord refuses to taketh away.

EVENING Attended a Noah Himmelstein-directed reading at a black-box up at Columbia, featuring Strindberg's The Stronger, Cocteau's The Human Voice, and a new piece by Danny Mitarotondo titled The River Has No Water. An elegant, delicate production guided by a sure hand and a clear vision.

After that we jet over to the Upper East Side to see Kate Baldwin perform at Feinstein's in a show dedicated to the work of lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, Fiorello!, The Apple Tree, etc.). About a quarter of the way in, Sheldon Harnick joins her on stage, where he duets on most of the remaining numbers, and performs "If I Were a Rich Man" as a solo.

The two of them end together with a gorgeous "Sunrise, Sunset," and then we float out into the night. Pure magic from start to finish. Feinstein's does it again!