Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thursday Questions

Would anybody mind if I blog once a week? It's not that I'm busy--although I am--it's more that I'm lazy. I have lots of trenchant political commentary on the primary I could blog about, but frankly, I have too much commentary to distill down to a blog post. This is what happens when you work at home, and spend all day listening to CNN in the background and checking in at Daily Kos every five minutes.

A few questions I'm asking myself these days:
  • Who would want to recall from me the transcript of the 1949 HUAC hearings on "The Negro in the Communist Party"? It's not that I mind returning it, as I've finished that chapter, but I'm curious who else at UCLA is interested in the subject. It is actually a very interesting hearing, held in the wake of Paul Robeson's famous remark that if the United States ever went to war with the Soviet Union, African Americans wouldn't fight. In response, the HUAC committee subpoenaed Jackie Robinson, who rejoined, "yes, we would." Good stuff. Earlier in the hearing, one "expert witness" testified that the reason there were few black members in the Communist Party was because strong black women kept their more shifty men in check. You can bet I get a lot of mileage out of this comment in my chapter.
  • If I work as a receptionist at my wife's vet clinic, will I lose all self-respect? Not because of the nature of the job, or the nepotism, but because I would have to wear nurse scrubs printed with cartoon cats and dogs. On the other hand, it fills in some financial holes until I start adjuncting in the fall.
  • When did Hillary Clinton become the symbol of feminism in this country? I would write a 5000 word blog post on this subject, but it just makes my blood pressure go up unhealthily.
  • Why was I previously unfamiliar with Roy Harris's Third Symphony? It's a beautiful piece. I knew of it abstractly, before, but as it is relevant to my Bernstein chapter I found a score and sat down for a listen. Lovely!
  • I've been helping a friend copyedit the bibliography for her book, on a fifteenth-century topic, and I've got to say: thank goodness we twentieth-century Americanists don't have to deal with the gnarly world of fascimiles, twenty-volume multi-year editions, nineteenth-century reprints, and paragraph-long titles. They might get disciplinary capital and the ability to give a paper at AMS whenever they want, but at least our footnotes are a lot neater.
  • Is my Fu-Wah tofu hoagie ready yet? I hope so. West Philadelphians will know of this delicacy. I know the idea of a "tofu hoagie" probably sounds disgusting--it did to me--but it is one of the best things you have ever tasted, and only costs $3.50.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Confessions of a Newly Suburbanite Griller

West Philly was the original suburban development of Philadelphia, its gigantic Queen Anne-Victorian manses hurriedly thrown up by mid-nineteenth-century developers, proto Toll Brothers mowing down the landscape offering city dwellers the promise of rural peace and lots of square footage.

West Philly doesn't feel so suburban today, but we still have front porches and back yards. Our apartment is on the ground floor of a garish blue-and-pink late Victorian, and includes a large back porch that opens up into a little backyard. It's a lovely porch, and came complete with a hammock, a boarded-up jacuzzi, and our landlord's gigantic grilling machine.

This isn't it, but it looks a lot like this one. I guess technically it's a "smoker" or something? Anyways, it's ours to use, if I remotely knew what I'm doing. Now that spring is here I have cooked two meals on it, both successful thanks to the careful following of recipes and online grilling guides. The first meal was a big chunk of beef (pre-seasoned, sue me) from Trader's Joe, paired with asparagus we bought that afternoon at the Clark Park farmer's market, and which had been picked on a Mennonite farm the day prior. That was good.

This was the first picture I got when searching Flickr for "men cooking." Incidentally, there is actually an entire Flickr community called "Special Men Who Cook For You." ("Pic's [sic] of nude men which displays [sic] good taste/artistic is [sic] more than welcome. ") Whatevs, but when I went to Target to buy some implements for grilling, I was shocked by the size of grilling utensils. They are huge! The tongs looked like they were designed for picking up small poodles, the spatulas like you could use them as a diving board. Why is that? You know, the grill gets hot, but not so hot that you really have to stand ten feet away from it and prod your meat from a distance. I can barely fit my poking fork into our not-so-small grill. The answer probably has to do with phallic anxieties, but that seems so...obvious.

Anyways, I bought the smallest pair of tongs I could find, and tonight managed to make some hamburgers on the beast. I have to admit, I don't quite feel some primal masculine urge to roast meat over fire. I definitely enjoy cooking outside; it's lovely to be on our back deck with a Yuengling and a warm breeze. But I miss the proper gas burners of our kitchen, and the easy access to cupboards and a variety of pots and pans. It's not that I am a very good cook, but it seems actually a little wimpy to me, to use a grill. It's like, if you're not actually going to collect kindling out in the woods and make a campfire and cook over it with MSR pans, you might as well cook like a normal human being in the kitchen. A Weber on a back deck is a measly little simulacrum for the actual meat-over-flame cro-magnon experience, and no gigantic spatula is going to cure that.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Frida Kahlo

Left to right, that's Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and André Breton. How much would you love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?

This photo was taken by Fritz Bach in 1938. Trotsky was living with Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and Breton was visiting from Paris--this is the famous trip where Kahlo was "discovered" as a kind of homegrown surrealist. The photo is part of the touring Frida Kahlo Exhibition, put together by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and currently in its last weekend at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

It's a pretty good exhibition. I'm not enough of an expert on Kahlo to know if her art was well-represented, (haven't even seen the movie) but from my sketchy knowledge it seemed like everything I expected to be there was there, and appropriately contextualized. The real gem is that that the curators display, apparently for the first time in public, a series of candid snapshots that Kahlo had given to a friend for safekeeping. They are revelatory, showing Kahlo and her international circle of modernist friends in intimate and revealing moments. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. You read about how painful her life was, with constant surgeries to deal with damaged caused by polio and a childhood car accident, but it is harrowing to see photographs of her body trussed up in a hospital bed. I particularly liked the pictures of Kahlo and her beloved Xoloitzcuintli dogs.

The show moves next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Check it out if you are in town. It was insanely crowded here in Philadelphia, so advance tickets might be in order.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)

Gossip Girl and Varèse

Apologies for not liveblogging Gossip Girl last night. I did watch intently, but was also cooking dinner (salmon and orzo) at the same time, and did not have enough hands to run over to my computer and write pithy comments. A few random thoughts:
  • I'm still not satisfied with Georginia's character development. It's not enough for her just to be a psychotic stalker and nothing else. I'm concerned that when we finally learn her motivation, it's going to be stupid.
  • The guy Serena killed/let die "would have died anyways"? Now that's a cop-out if I ever heard one. And why didn't we get to see her apologize to the family? Yet another example of how the character of Serena never really has to face any consequences for being really annoying.
  • Still very pretty though.
  • The gossip around Gossip Girl is nearly as good as the show.
  • As a musicologist, I would like to point out that Rufus's music does not at all sound like it came from the 1990s. Also, has Lisa Loeb been shilling that same song for the last fifteen years? Poor thing.
  • Why was Jenny not in this episode at all? Or gay Eric? Weird.

Sometimes I worry that my blog is not serious enough, and therefore I will never have academic employment. So here's Varèse's Poème Electronique. If you don't enjoy it, you are a bad modernist subject.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Shake Those Hips, Lenny

I write from the Library of Congress, where I am spending a rainy afternoon perusing the mammoth Leonard Bernstein collection here. I paged the wrong box of correspondence, so while I wait for the right one I'm idly leafing through random letters. I love working at the LOC--comfortable chairs and free wireless.

One discovery: in 1989, Bobby McFerrin sent Bernstein a James Brown mixtape, with the instructions to "put it on when your hips get stuck." That's a vivid image.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

West Side Stories

There is an old truism about Golden Age Broadway that when a show is about some exotic location or historical period--the kingdom of Siam, say, or the Salem witch trials--the intention is actually to create a metaphor for some contemporary situation. Thus The Crucible is actually about McCarthyism, or Camelot about the Kennedys, or what have you. When we watch these shows, we see ourselves.

That's all well and good, but it all hinges upon one word that is rather fraught with ideological implications: "we." Who is the "we" in a broadway audience?

I got to thinking about this because Mary and I were in NYC recently, and went to go see In the Heights, the new (to Broadway, at least) musical based on a Hispanic neighborhood in Washington Heights. I'm not really going to review in detail here. The quick rundown is that In the Heights was written by a twenty-seven year-old New Yorker named Lin-Manuel Miranda while he was a sophomore in college. It had a very successful run off-Broadway, and now just opened, with some revisions, at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Miranda himself still stars as Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner. The music, I feel qualified to say, is outright amazing. When I first heard that it was a "hip hop musical" it's safe to say that I was concerned, but I was completely won over by the musical experience. Often when commercial music theater attempts to use "youth music" it sounds forced. I tend to think it is a matter of tempo more than anything--I love Rent as much as the next artsy suburbanite, but the painfully slow tempos of Larson's "rock music" always make it clear that you are in a very different musical world. At its best moments Miranda's music--and credit equally goes to the music director and excellent pit orchestra--pops along as if unaware of the millions of dollars in revenues weighing upon it. The result is energetic and immensely appealing. Everything else about it is great too, and I hope that next time you are in the city you should run over and see it. If you want to read a real review, try here or here.

In the Heights comes five decades after the definitive Broadway portrait of Nueva York, written by a queer Jew from Boston: West Side Story. West Side Story cheerfully participated in the traditional exoticist Broadway style. When the idea was suggested to Bernstein, he was thrilled to have the chance to play around with Latin rhythms, even if, truth be told, most of them still sound like Stravinsky. Originally the musical was actually to be called East Side Story, since the Bernstein and Co. assumed that was still where the Puerto Ricans lived.

So if "we" all had a great time watching Puerto Ricans fight and dance on stage, what happens with Puerto Ricans themselves go from being the object of a musical to being the creators? Well, one thing was very obvious to me Saturday night: the majority of the audience at the Richard Rodgers theater was speaking Spanish to one another during intermission.

This causes consternation to some people. The critic Terry Teachout, for one, had some praise for the musical, but decided that it rang essentially false:
Mr. Miranda is clearly a very talented young man. Why, then, did he settle for this casserole of warmed-over Disney slathered in hot sauce? It occurs to me that the answer may have something to do with his background: Mr. Miranda's father is a political consultant and his mother a child psychologist, while he himself directed "West Side Story" as a senior in high school, then attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Might all this explain why his cheery portrait of street life seems the least little bit faux? Stew, by contrast, drew forthrightly on his experience as a middle-class black kid in Los Angeles to write "Passing Strange," every bar of which rings true to life. I liked "In the Heights" more than well enough, but I have a sneaking feeling that a show about the real Lin-Manuel Miranda might have been a whole lot more interesting.
I'm not even sure where to begin taking this apart. Let's start with the judgment that In the Heights should have hewn more closely to autobiography. Needless to say, that's an unusual aesthetic standpoint with which to judge Broadway musicals, a genre not known for its unsentimental portrayals of gritty realist subjects. Teachout's favorite musical, after all, is Sweeney Todd, which I sincerely hope is not the product of autobiography. Teachout himself makes much of the fact that he himself moves articulately in several different social worlds--small town Missourian living on the Upper West Side, conservative critic in the liberal world of the arts--so one might imagine him to be sympathetic to an artist moving between worlds, and not being confined to his or her origins. But Lin-Manuel Miranda bugs him.

Well, I'm going to say something unpleasant about Teachout: I suspect that the reason In the Heights rang false for him is because the characters in the show did not do drugs, were not criminals, had upwardly mobile class aspirations and were generally good people. In Teachout's world, Lin-Manuel Miranda's parents were well-to-do, therefore Miranda is unqualified to write about Hispanic life in Washington Heights.

The fact is, cloying sentimentality aside (and there is plenty of it!), Miranda is writing autobiography--or at least as autobiographically as Meredith Willson did with regards to River City, Iowa. As the observant might have noticed from Teachout's mini-biography, Miranda and I went to college together. We were in fact classmates. We didn't know each other, and I admit that I didn't go to the production of In the Heights he did our sophomore year because I thought the idea of a Wesleyan student doing a "hip hop musical" sounded ridiculous. But I can at least vouch for the fact that he is indeed Puerto Rican, and is indeed from the Washington Heights/Inwood part of the world. And I hate to break it to Teachout, but there are many people like him in Washington Heights.

The problem, I think, is that In the Heights does not match Teachout's own fantasy about what Hispanic life in Washington Heights is like. And this, I would argue, is because Miranda's musical does not go out of its way to speak to Teachout. Unlike the Jets and the Sharks safely performing a knife-fight ballet to Stravinskian rhythms, the cultural difference of In the Heights spills into the audience, and for many a "typical" Broadway audience member there is the shock of recognizing that perhaps this musical is not speaking to me.

Not in any kind of radical way, of course. The politics of In the Heights, such as they are, are mostly a rather tepid multiculturalism. But at the same time, there's a lot to be said for allowing a new generation of American theatergoers a chance to see themselves in a Broadway musical.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

How To Give Money To Higher Education

Are you rich? Like, really rich? Do you want to use your excess money to help higher education in this country?

Here's one suggestion: This is the right way to do it. This is the wrong way.

Thank you.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Gossip Girl Liveblogging: Episode 16

Warning for West Coast devotees: spoilers ahead.

8:59 Finally! Serena's big secret is not entirely unexpected, but it's a little dramatic. I really hope that Gossip Girl doesn't become The OC post season 1, or Friday Night Lights season 2, with the constant jumping of sharks. It used to be that television series had one jumping of the shark; Josh Schwartz has developed a narrative approach wherein an episode isn't complete without a whole school great whites flopping about.

8:54 "Serena Van der Woodsen, if you don't tell Dan, I will!" That's what I am yelling at the television right now.

8:45 I just love the actresses who play the little minions of Blair and Jenny. They are the oddest looking little creatures. Also, Eric Van der Woodsen: the Michelango Signorile of Upper East Side prep schools. I love him.

8:37 Ha, called it!

8:35 I just find the character development with Georgina a little...undercooked. It's fine for it to be a mystery, but we need some better clues as to why she is so hellbent on destroying Serena.

8:31 Worse analogy for virginity ever. I'm not even going to repeat it.

8:28 I like Michelle Trachtenberg much better with red hair. And what is with all the evil gays?

8:15 Loving the constant allusions to actual real world gossip. Especially after reading this article. Show creator Josh Schwartz planting gossip items about the actors to compliment plots on the show? Brilliant! Baudrillard would approve.

8:08 I predict that Jenny's boyfriend Asher will make a pass for little Eric. You read it here.

8:02 Did Dan and Serena ever talk about the fact that she was horrible to him last week? They just "got over it"? God I hate her. Although, she is very pretty.

LOL Pretension

I didn't make this, and having stolen it from somewhere a few weeks ago, unfortunately don't remember where it came from. (If you know, tell me! Figured it out!)

(For those not implicated in the idiosyncrasies of the New York art world, that's Matthew Barney, an artist whose trademark is large sculptures made of vaseline.)