Culture weeknote 3

The latest in a series tracking my weekly cultural intake. Basically, anything goes.

Sunday Feb 13

3:00 P.M. Read The Seagull. That's all I have written down: "read The Seagull." It's a short book, so it couldn't have taken that long. Maybe I was subconsciously resisting the impulse to wikileak every detail of my existence. Otherwise I was napping.

Anyway, I've thoroughly enjoyed this Stage Edition series of Chekhov translations by Laurence Senelick. He provides a handy pronunciation guide of character names for non-Russian-speaking dum-dums like me, and a solid introduction to the play's background, historical setting, and themes. I'm a huge Cliff's Notes fan (as supplemental to the source material!), so this is right up my nerd alley.

Monday Feb 14

Morning. Compose a neo-pastiche aria/military anthem titled "Coffee, My Friend, Climb Into My Cup." Perform it before an inanimate studio audience that includes but is not limited to my coffee. Others in attendance: the stove, the TV, a laundry hamper made of wicker, eight million clumps of dust. The floor lamp remains stoic in the face of artistic élan, and the fireplace refuses to applaud. Up yours, non-functioning flue!

Afternoon. Is there any civilization the Internet isn't simultaneously enabling/destroying these days? To wit: this Don Norman article "I have seen the future and I am opposed to it." As if opposition is an option, says Jeopardy!

But what about the Internet, an open system, with open standards where any browser has instant access to all of its delights? Isn't this the wave of the future? Yes, but this future is in danger of becoming one of walled gardens, where different services are contained within the bounds of subscriptions. Want one group of television shows? Join this garden. Want another? Join that garden. Want news articles, there is yet another garden to join. Want to buy a book or magazine for your electronic reader? You might have to match the item to the reader, the service provider and perhaps even the device. Different items will be sold through different distributors and not all will work on your particular brand of reader. We will all have to purchase multiple brands of readers.

This leads me right into an interview with Alexi Murdoch in Time Out New York, which describes his "tiny seaside house facing the Hebrides, seven miles from the nearest village and with nothing but water separating it from Canada." I daydream about places like this all the time, where I would eschew modernity and eke out a bleak, ironic existence on some unforgiving coast like a character in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel, an isolated target of scurrilous village gossip who travels only on foot or by ancient motorbike, the handlebars of which I would decorate with plastic carnations and dried chili peppers, and maybe a couple of shrunken heads. Yet I hesitate. Could I get my Lapham's Quarterly delivered out there? Where would I buy hot dogs? Who will save me from snakes? These questions and more must be answered before I withdraw from the future.

Evening. Read Tom Stoppard's translation of The Cherry Orchard. This is the version I saw at BAM two years ago with Sinéad Cusack, Rebecca Hall, Simon Russell Beale, and Ethan Hawke. I'm tragically disappointed I didn't read it before I went — I missed all the poetry and nuance. God, why was I so stupid in 2009?

Watch The Kids Are All Right. Lisa Cholodenko does it againand bless her for spelling the title correctly ("shadowy acceptance" aside). I love films without villains, in which everybody acts like an asshole at one time or another and makes mistakes that can't be rewound by a pat, sentimental ending. Everything about this is note perfect, from the way Annette Bening silently implodes at the dinner table ("The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die"), to Julianne Moore's "I work in landscape design" costume, to the irresistible, irrepressible sweetness and arms-wide expectation that is Mark Ruffalo. Nobody starts out wanting to damage the people they love, but we do it anyway, all the time, every day, and survive. This would be in my top five for 2010 (rounding out The Social Network, Greenberg, Please Give, and ... I guess there's only four.) 

Start Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, which opens next month (previews begin next week). Oh, boy. I am in for it with this one, I can tell already.

Tuesday Feb 15

6:30 A.M. Finish Arcadia. No energy for news this week. This happens sometimes: the mind must purge itself of contemporary tragedies. And I'm deeply in love with this play.

10:00 A.M. Doing some recon for tonight's Nixon in China. The Met has posted some great video clips online, my favorite of which is "Flesh Rebels." Is the accent on "rebels" a noun or a verb here? A little of both? Also, Madame Mao was known as "the white-boned demon."

11:00 A.M. Order a ticket for The Queen of Spades. Tchaikovsky is too good to resist.

12:30 P.M. "What else is there in life but time and irony?"

5:00 P.M. Re-read Arcadia alongside the Faber Critical Guide to Tom Stoppard. I descend into what I call Immersion Tendency Madness when something strikes me the way this play does, where the love fans out almost immediately into obsession. And there's so much to dive into! Classicism vs. Romanticism, Determinism vs. Free Will, Order vs. Chaos, Thinking vs. Feeling, math as sex, science as sex, duality, simultaneity, the history of garden design, Lord Byron, where is your heart and what is the proof? And yet none of it reads like a speech or didactic window dressing: that's the difference, I think, between a comedy of ideas and a drama. At least that's what I'm hoping. I haven't even seen it yet, but this is it, my perfect play. Divine.

8:00 P.M. Nixon in China. Unexpected Mao sex! I have a terrible habit of looking for narrative where there is none, and the post-tweens surrounding us distract to no end. Would I have liked it more if I were seated in the orchestra? If I had a more sophisticated ear? But the music was gorgeous! I confuse myself.

Wednesday Feb 16

10:30 A.M. I don't know what to say about Borders. I've run out of space for books in my apartment; this is a limitation. I don't go to the library because I need to write in my books; this is either a choice or a character flaw. Dear Pen Pal: what are my options?

1:30 P.M. The Met announces its 2011–12 season amid a Twittering flurry. Such excitement! Please come see Rodelinda. You will fall in love. And look at this amazing shot of David Daniels and Joyce DiDonato from the world premiere of The Enchanted Island. EEEEEEEEEE! They're pushing Netrebko hard next year.

6:30 P.M. Re-read Arcadia. Again. I've underlined and annotated almost every page by now; it's impossible to decipher (best of luck, SarahB!). And here's where the difference between printed books and e-books runs right into the wall. There's no efficient means by which to browse an e-book; you can either search for something specific, provided you have the proper search term in mind, or you can "flip" from page to page by way of the forward/back buttons or by swiping the screen of an iPad. But the control is out of your hands; you can't leaf a finger into a page to mark your place, you can't reference two or three pages simultaneously, and whether or not you actually find what you're seeking is up to the luck of the mechanical draw. Again I have no answers, only questions.

9:00 P.M. Terrible episode of Modern Family. I'm a little tired of all the plot point redrawing from last season, although I guess it would be fine if any of it were that funny. Shelley Long was way over the top, Matt Dillon was miscast, and Fizbo needs to die.

9:30 P.M. DVR last night's excellent bug-centered, adult-Asperger's episode of Parenthood. More people should be watching this show. It's consistently satisfying, although I'm not sure why Coach and Holly McClane can't share the screen more often. Is there some kind of separation clause in their contracts? Is it a budget thing? It's noticeably weird.

10:30 P.M. Start Kenneth Tynan's piece on Tom Stoppard in Show Peoplewhich I was surprised to find I already ownI'm so awesome that way! Stoppard used to play cricket with Harold Pinter, who skips the match Tynan watches, since his estranged wife is also expected to attend. (This is the wife he pitched over in favor of Lady Antonia Fraser, whose recent book about her life with Pinter, Must You Go? also waits patiently in my Kindle queue). Here's Tynan's description of Pinter:

Pinter has two basic facial expressions, which alternate with alarming rapidity. One of them, his serious mask, suggests a surgeon or a dentist on the brink of making a brilliant diagnosis. The head tilts to one side, the eyes narrow shrewdly, the brain seems to whirr like a computer. His stare drills into your mind. His face, topped by shiny black hair, is sombre, intent, profoundly concerned. When he smiles, however, it is suddenly and totally transformed. "Smile" is really the wrong word: what comes over his face is unmistakably a leer. It reveals gleaming, voracious teeth, with a good deal of air between them, and their owner resembles a stand-up comic who has just uttered a none too subtle sexual innuendo. At the same time, the eyes pop and lasciviously swivel. There seems to be no halfway house between these two extremes, and this, as Pinter is doubtless aware, can be very disconcerting.

I like that very much, especially the whole "dentist / drill" callback.

Thursday Feb 17

Morning. On the subway: the chances for Middle East democracy in The New Republic. "[W]ithout economic justice—that is, without the hope of making a decent living, receiving adequate medical treatment, and no longer living in squalor—these democratic dreams are likely to benefit only a small minority of the population, even if, in a country as populous as Egypt, that is still a great many people in absolute numbers."

Back home: Matt Taibbi on David Brooks, re: the work ethic of the rich vs. the working class:

Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.

Matt Taibbi is gleefully unconcerned with kissing asses.

Ordered a ticket to see Tom Stoppard at TimesTalks. Not one of those Somethings I Can Pass Up, even on a Running Team Tuesday.

Afternoon. Chris Rock in Esquire on optimism in the time of the Tea Party:

Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism's almost over. Because this is the last — this is the act up before the sleep. They're going crazy. They're insane. You want to get rid of them — and the next thing you know, they're fucking knocked out. And that's what's going on in the country right now.

BOOK FLIGHT TO PARIS!!!! SarahB and I are going in May for Sweeney Todd, "Le Diabolique Barbier de Fleet Street." It's directed by Lee Blakeley, who also did the gorgeous Night Music I saw last year.

Evening. Finish Tynan's essay on Stoppard and watch Parks and Recreation. I wonder how Kenneth Tynan would feel about Parks and Recreation? Did he own a TV?

I also watch today's episode of Coach, and realize I love Coach because Luther reminds me of my father.

Friday Feb 18

Morning. Back to the news in bed: Rick Gekoski at the Guardian says we over-praise books. I don't know, I think the world has other problems, so I'm not gonna worry too much about this one. I could be out over-praising Two and a Half Men or something.

A surprisingly well-tempered prediction for the future of books from the recently unemployed at Powell's:

I don't have a Kindle, but I'm not resistant to the idea. I'm more interested in content. However, I see a lot of people attached to the concept of a book. People have a hard time curling up in bed with a piece of metal and a monitor. I just don't see people going en masse to ebooks. Maybe in 10 years, Kindles will be a little more prevalent, but Powell's will still be downtown selling lots and lots of books. I'm excited to see what's going to happen. I think these kinds of changes are natural processes.

Afternoon. Anne Enright reads John Cheever's "The Swimmer" for the New Yorker podcast. (Omilord, Cheever in Irish!) She calls him "companionable and social." Ian Crouch says "Cheever writes like a slightly demonic contributor to some suburban social register."

It takes me a while to realize this piece on Angela Carter in the London Review of Books was also written by Anne Enright; Carter was her tutor for a semester at the University of East Anglia back in the '80s. Enright's recollection of one session with Carter, the purpose of which was to review Enright's novel-in-progress: "She indicated the pages with a graceful hand. She said: 'Well this is all fine.’ And then we talked of other things." It's gentle, this meeting: "The most important thing I have to say about Angela Carter is that she was kind to me. She read my work. She said: ‘Well this is all fine.’ "

Thus far I've read only Carter's Wise Childrenit's about a pair of quasi-abandoned theatrical twins trying to chase down their father over a long span of decades and countries and lovers. The hyper-dexterity of her pacing is right in line with the whiz-bang of her plot, but it scared the crap out of me, a little.

Evening. The Arcadia dumpster dive continues. Skidmore College has a great online analysis of the themes in the play from various perspectives — scientific, historical, mathematical, etc. The introduction reprints part of a speech Stoppard gave at the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, on the difference between drama and theatre:

Years and years ago, there was a production of The Tempest, out of doors, at an Oxford college on a lawn, which was the stage, and the lawn went back towards the lake in the grounds of the college, and the play began in natural light. But as it developed, and as it became time for Ariel to say his farewell to the world of The Tempest, the evening had started to close in and there was some artificial lighting coming on. And as Ariel uttered his last speech, he turned and he ran across the grass, and he got to the edge of the lake and he just kept running across the top of the water -- the producer having thoughtfully provided a kind of walkway an inch beneath the water. And you could see and you could hear the plish, plash as he ran away from you across the top of the lake, until the gloom enveloped him and he disappeared from your view.

And as he did so, from the further shore, a firework rocket was ignited, and it went whoosh into the air, and high up there it burst into lots of sparks, and all the sparks went out, and he had gone.

When you look up the stage directions, it says, "Exit Ariel."

Later. Raúl Esparza at the Allen Room, singing Cuban classics and Sondheim showtunes. Have I mentioned he's playing Valentine in Arcadia on Broadway? Do you see how this magic all comes together?

Saturday Feb 19

Afternoon. A Netflix of The American starring George Clooney, which could also be titled "George Clooney Walks Around." I'm so over the "assassin who no longer wants to be an assassin" sub-genre of assassin films (is there any other kind?), as well as this recent "George Clooney refuses to smile" phase of George Clooney's oeuvre.You got the teeth, honey, please remember how to use them.

Evening. Kate Baldwin plays the Allen Room. We love Kate Baldwin and will be seeing her again at Feinstein's — with Sheldon Harnick — in March (you should come!).

Tonight she's seven months pregnant and sings a song called "What the Fuck Was I Thinking?" at Lincoln Center. It's a perfect synchronicity of time, place, and performer, and she's got the wit, delivery, and cute little expectant tummy to both charm and disarm an audience of the standard age and temperament typically drawn by Lincoln Center (i.e., mostly gray, plus us). It makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.