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As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.
Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)
A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."
West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.
By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.
The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.
There is a moment at the end of the hourlong monologue that constitutes Act I of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul when I realized I'd be happy to sit and listen to this mentally promiscuous, verbally curious London housewife (played so superbly by Linda Emond) for another two hours. Or more. Like many theatergoers, I was soon to wonder why her thrilling meditation on history, calamity and Afghanistan had to be followed by the events of Acts II and III, when the Homebody has vanished, leaving her husband, daughter, a British aid worker and various Afghans to play out their all too obviously caricatured lives. Kushner wrote the opening monologue as a stand-alone piece for the English stage, after all. Surely it could have been left at that.
Or could it? The problem, if we are to take this theater piece as something more than a dutiful twitch of political concern, is that the Homebody and her monologue require some consequence to her wandering thoughts. For one thing, these thoughts are way too winning, and Kushner, whose writing oozes charm like toothpaste from a tube, knows the dangers of charm. The woman is talking about suffering, after all. She is speaking to us from the security of her living room, safe in her culpable life, dilating on the most hopeless of catastrophes. And we are listening from the comfort of our theater seats. The setting is 1998 and the United States has just bombed supposed terrorist camps in Afghanistan, one more episode inflicted on a place that, as a character later comments, is not so much a country as a populated disaster. The Homebody wants to tell us about buying Afghan pakools as party hats for her guests, for God's sake. She needs to describe finding them on an unnamed London street in a shop run by a man who has had three of his fingers neatly severed by--well, by the mujahedeen, by the Russians, by the Northern Alliance, by, in short, the calamitous history of his country. She is not at all immune to the horrible dislocations that the hats may represent or to the transformation they can effect on her life, or to the corruption of culture into consumerist junk. She reads to us from Nancy Hatch Dupree's heartbreaking 1965 guidebook to Kabul, goes from there to the antidepressants she and her husband take, and on to infant mortality rates and back again to the guidebook. In between she serves up the many cast-off bits of knowledge left by history's losers that she treasures as important clues to understanding whatever it is she needs to understand. She loves the world; she makes all the connections. The act ends. As I say, dangerously charming because the question remains: What exactly does a person do when faced with a calamity of historic proportions? When we are so overwhelmed, she says, we succumb to luxury. Or to words.
Instead, she goes to Kabul. Thus the unlovely Acts II and III begin with the aftermath of this latter-day Clarissa Dalloway's disappearance. She may, following one local account, "have been torn apart to pieces" by an angry mob, or she may have traded places with Mahala, a Muslim woman, so that, according to her hilariously xenophobic husband (the superb Dylan Baker), who has set off with their daughter (Kelly Hutchinson) to find her, "she can spend the rest of her life in what must never have been more than a Himalayan bywater at the best of times, draped in parachute sheeting stirring cracked wheat and cardamom over a propane fire." The point is she's gone, and her family can't mourn her any more than we do. From now on there is nothing for them (or us) but the harshness of history, as daughter Priscilla and her guide (Dariush Kashani) search for her mother's body, while her father moves swiftly from whiskey to heroin holed up with Quango Twistelton (superbly played by Bill Camp), an aid worker left over from the great colonial joke. Even the gruelingly spare sets make you want to leave your seat.
The transition from the lonely housewife's antic mind playing upon the great and tiny themes of the opening to the Brechtian drama of the last two acts asks a lot of an audience, but Kushner is used to waging war on the way things "have to be" in the theater. It's one reason that, even without having a major play produced since 1992's Angels in America, he seems to be among its principal saviors right now. Angels, among other wayward things, ran to something like seven hours on two separate nights; its ambition was huge, and the result was a vast, chaotic kaleidoscope that managed to bring nothing less than an entire zeitgeist into momentary focus. Homebody/Kabul has big ambitions too, so it's not surprising that its author is willing to court our hostility in pursuit of them. One hallowed rule of stagecraft holds that after a play has established its contract with the audience, the rules of the game can't be changed. Homebody violates its contract by abandoning the character, mood, pace and manner of address that have brought us into the evening.
Thematically, the shift makes sense. As the father and daughter struggle to understand the Homebody's act, they are able, by the end, to move from their domestic hurt to the universal disaster of Afghanistan. It is a painful struggle--especially for the audience, who must wait a long time for these thin characters to, so to speak, get out of the house. The daughter, who suffers from the therapeutic malaise of her inarticulate generation, is particularly annoying. This seems a deliberate choice on Kushner's part, but it's hard not to wince whenever she opens her mouth. It surprised me at first that a playwright who rarely uses stereotypes without shedding some light on them, whose plays are literature on the page as well as the stage, has written a character so easy to dismiss. Her father is more appealing because he has the outlandish bigotry of his class; but he too is a stock figure, enlivened by Kushner's willingness to give him better lines than he deserves. These are the sleeping souls of the Homebody's world, unmoved by any pain but their own, so perhaps they need to be thin until the very end, when they are transformed by love and suffering and loss. But their journey is so arduous, and often so irritatingly melodramatic, that by the time the transformation comes, it has too little force. Whether some of this is a matter of the pacing in Declan Donnellan's directing, it's hard to say.
The mullahs, poets, prophets and especially Mahala, the errant Muslim wife (played so well by Rita Wolf), leaven the action even when they are speaking in untranslated Pashto, a risky theatrical device meant to increase our discomfort and confusion. The playwright's insistence that many of the characters speak over each other at crucial moments is less effective, even if we get the point of the Babel. I much preferred two running jokes about universal understanding: Priscilla's guide speaks and writes in Esperanto: "It is a language that has no history, and hence no history of oppression," he says. "A refugee patois. The mad dream of universal peace. So suitable for lamentation." A seller of hats and a former actor (Zai Garshi) speaks in the universal currency of Sinatra: "The Taliban, yes? They go to extremes with impossible dreams, yes? And so my record player is smashed and all each of the LPs of me, Popular Frank Sinatra Sings for Moderns slips through a door a door marked nevermore that was not there before. It is hard you will find to be narrow of mind." Witty lines on serious matters, reminding us that this playwright has not given up on the possibility that mainstream entertainment can address big issues, that serious politics arise out of very basic needs, that theater can be a force for transformation. The issues of Homebody/Kabul may be complex and irresolvable, but the dramatic mission is not. It's as simple as Brecht's response to an interviewer who once asked him what theater should do: "Try to discover the best way for people to live together," he said. How many living dramatists other than Tony Kushner would know how to begin to do that?
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt's Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.
The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings--it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish--are shrouded in mystery.
It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music--in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian räi (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning "people," an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)--had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it's what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.
A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified rock guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.
Peter Gabriel's World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music "cool" in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described "human Gaza strip" of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.
It is, arguably, sad that Arabic music has to be adulterated with pop influences to be palatable to Western audiences, but the artists themselves--many of whom live in France or the United States--are enthusiastic participants. Khaled, the Algerian räi singer who is among the most popular Arabic performers in the United States, rocks it up with production help from British progressive rocker Steve Hillage. Cheb Mami, another räi star, goes into the studio with producer Nile Rodgers to record "Le Räi C'est Chic."
Aside from Peter Gabriel, the rocker with the biggest influence in promoting Arabic music has been Sting, who was introduced to räi by his manager, Miles Copeland. In 2000, Sting recorded the song "Desert Rose" as a duet with Cheb Mami, and toured with him. The song, which even made it into a Jaguar commercial, was a huge hit, and the collaborations continued. That's Sting singing backup on "Le Räi C'est Chic," and the rocker's endorsement is stickered on many a current Arabic music album.
Just a few months ago, there was considerable optimism that Arabic music would "cross over" in a big way, like Latin pop, country, cajun or any number of other styles. As producer and kanun player Ara Topouzian points out, movie soundtracks--from The Crow and Dead Man Walking to Gladiator--use the duduk, an Armenian wooden flute, for a taste of the exotic, and pop stars from Gloria Estefan to the Colombian singer Shakira give Joe Zeytoonian a call when they want some oud on their records.
But then September 11 happened.
Dawn Elder, vice president of Miles Copeland's label, Ark 21/Mondo Melodia, was in Egypt, on her way to the airport with eighteen musicians "about to embark on an almost sold-out ten-city US tour with Khaled and Hakim, who's known as the Sheik of Egyptian shabbi," she says. "It was stunning, surreal. Obviously, the tour had to be canceled." Simon Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and is one of the world's foremost oud players, troubled over going on with a September 22 performance at the Chicago World Music Festival. In his case, the show went on, to standing ovations; but Shaheen, born in Galilee and educated in Jerusalem, says many of the musicians he has worked with regularly have had trouble getting visas since September. "This horrible event has nothing to do with Arabic music or musicians," he says. The Taliban, of course, banned all music, even though Shaheen points out that the Koran calls music "the light for the heart."
Shaheen, who was nominated for no less than eleven first-ballot Grammies for his album Blue Flame, went on Politically Incorrect to, as he puts it, "talk about American foreign policy. I think the United States needs to put pressure on the repressive Arab regimes it supports. These countries have to let the people breathe and express themselves."
Many Middle Eastern musicians are Armenian or Lebanese Christians, or non-Arab Turkish Muslims, or even Greek. The problem, of course, is that Americans have trouble telling Arabs from Sikhs, so they're unlikely to appreciate fine political distinctions of the type Shaheen makes. Arabic music can sound like an ecstatic expression of deep humanism or it can be perceived as the soundtrack to terrorism. Fears of the latter led to cancellation of many bookings at the club level. Live Arab music almost disappeared from New York. (Sadly enough, the club scene in Dearborn and Detroit, home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, died out long before September.) According to deejay Addis Pace, some New York clubs that had featured Arabic dance music simply stopped spinning it after the World Trade Center attacks.
Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane now lives in Arizona, but as of September he was part of Boston's tight-knit Arab music community. A regular with Hassan Hakmoun's ensemble who has toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with Morphine, Fribgane was numbed by the attacks. "For the first few days, I couldn't play at all," he says. "I had to break through this idea that I couldn't play music because I'm an Arab. But on September 14, I had a gig in Boston with Atlas Soul, a UN-type of North African funk band with a Jewish-French sax player, a German drummer and an American bass player, and I found I could perform again." Fribgane is a regular at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and loathes the idea that Arab music could in any way be associated with hate or terrorism. He hopes that it can be seen as a healing force instead. "Music is about love and peace, right?" he says.
That view is common among Middle Eastern musicians and producers. Dawn Elder calls September 11 "a setback, a step backward" for Arabic music, particularly after there had been an August 11 cover story in Billboard ("Arabic Music Moves West") and big spreads in the Los Angeles Times and Rhythm. "We were waylaid. But this awful time has also reinspired me to spread the word about this music," she says. "It's not just about having a good time or a great cultural experience. It's truly a much-needed healing force."
Oud player Shaheen expresses the hope that Americans will want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture "because of this event that happened." Shaheen is himself an educator, lecturing regularly about the music at colleges and workshops. He is also the founder of the Arab American Arts Institute, which organizes an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kay Campbell, banker by day and oud player by night, helps administer the retreat, which brings together amateur and professional musicians from around the world. Campbell says she could sense "a door opening" before September 11, that "people from all over were getting into the groove of Arab music. The attacks were, obviously, devastating to the progress we were making. There is seething and justifiable anger. But this is also an opportunity to educate people about this culture that has fabulous music, great food, wonderful poetry and true joie de vivre."
Reports of the death of Arabic music in America would be premature, however, despite the sense of setback. Deejay Addis Pace, who doubles as the head world-music buyer at a major New York record chain, says, "This has been a very robust year for Arab music, and we were very worried about a backlash after the attacks. But it hasn't happened. Sales have maintained. Four of our top five world-music sellers right now have a connection to the Middle East. I guess people want to understand that part of the world."
Fabian Alsultany, manager of the Moroccan gnawa virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun, says the the cross-pollination among world performers has opened arms wide to Arabic music. Alsultany is himself half Iraqi and half Cuban, so crossing over between cultures is natural to him. Alsultany also deejays in New York, and he says people are still asking for Natacha Atlas and such unique fusions as MoMo, an electronic band from Morocco, and Badawi, Israeli desert music with a reggae dub overlay.
The crossover music is so strong, and so popular, that it threatens to swamp the modest movement that is attempting to preserve traditional Arabic performers. The Egyptian classical composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, who died in 1991, viewed the western pop influences in shabbi and räi as a distressing development. "The new wave singers have damaged the music scene with their songs," he said. "In Europe, they are not attempting to replace the 'old with the new,' or classical with modern, as is happening now in Egypt."
But purity is hard to find in any musical tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, John Berberian, despite his having given birth to the first Middle Eastern fusion album, is frequently cited by traditionalists as the oud player with the truest sense of kef, or Armenian soul. Berberian, now living in Massachusetts after many years in New York and New Jersey, is still doing what he has always done, playing ethnic club dates, performing at Armenian and Greek dances, parties, weddings and anniversaries. "I'm still working," he says. "One club where I play, the Middle East in Cambridge, suspended operation for a couple of weeks. The name above the door was not very attractive for a while. But they're back in commission." Most Middle Eastern musicians are hoping that they'll have a similar experience. A pause to reflect and heal, then back to the seriously peaceful business of making music that is "the light for the heart."
Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
"Loving Rockwell is shunning complexity," the critic of the Village Voice declares, who goes on to concede that "many of Rockwell's illustrations can turn you into a quivering ball of mush." Of how many painters in the history of art is something like that true? It seems to me the pictorial psychology of paintings that can have that effect transcends present knowledge.
Though it's choked with dead bodies and disappointments, The Royal Tenenbaums comes before you with a smile.
Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez isn't someone you are likely to know about. Yet his legendary role as the revitalizer of the corrido--as the Mexican border folk song is known--is unquestionable among the 24 million people who inhabit the territories that unite or separate Mexico and the United States.
The Taliban may have met its match: the American Dream Machine.
In 1878, Henry James reported in these pages the outcome of Whistler
v. Ruskin, the buzz of the London art scene that year. Whistler,
Ruskin had written, was "a coxcomb," demanding "200 guineas for
flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The painter sued for
libel, and was awarded nominal damages consisting of one farthing. The
trial was a Gilbert & Sullivan farce brought to life, since the language
of litigation in its nature is comically unsuited to aesthetic
determination. Ruskin's critical and Whistler's artistic reputation were
left largely unaltered by the verdict, but there is little question that
it was an immense personal defeat for Ruskin. The vehemence of his
critical prose registered the urgency he attributed to aesthetic
matters--so to call his language into question was to call into question
his vision of the world. Whistler probably was a coxcomb, whatever that
Edwardian epithet means. But Ruskin was a figure of tragic stature, and
the episode helped precipitate his final emotional breakdown.
The unhappy confrontation between Whistler and Ruskin is the subject of
a brooding introspective aria in the second act of Modern
Painters, the 1995 opera by David Lang and Manuela Hoelterhoff,
based on Ruskin's life. It was an inspiration to see in Ruskin a subject
suitable for operatic representation, and it recently occurred to me of
how few art critics this might be true. Ruskin's tragedy was internally
connected with his stature as a prophet of aesthetic redemption. If good
art is as integral as he believed to a good society, art criticism is an
instrument of social change. Ruskin could hardly have agreed with James
that it was at most an agreeable luxury--like printed talk. And Ruskin's
assessment of it has continued to inflect the art criticism of writers
who might not fully subscribe to his particular social vision. How are
we to explain the often punitive edge of critical invective if critics
supposed themselves engaged in mere agreeable discourse--like reviewing
restaurants, say, or fashion shows? The lives of art critics may not be
the stuff of grand opera--but face-offs between critics and artists have
at times risen to operatic heights because the art under contest was
viewed by both as possessed of the greatest moral weight.
I am thinking about opera just now because the art I want to discuss
here--Philip Guston's seventy-five caricatures of Richard Nixon, loosely
organized to tell a story--has its subject and something of its tone in
common with the 1987 opera Nixon in China, by John Adams and
Alice Goodman. If someone were inspired to compose an opera Guston in
Woodstock--the upstate New York village to which Guston withdrew
after a critical debacle in 1970--the climactic moment of it would be an
agon between the artist and the Ruskinian critic Hilton Kramer. Kramer
was by no means alone in deploring the turn Guston's art had taken in a
wildly controversial exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. But the
language of his review in the New York Times, of which he was
then chief art critic, was worthy of Ruskin in acid indignation, and a
librettist would have no difficulty in composing a fierce duet between
the opposed protagonists. The contest, however, was far deeper than that
which pitted Ruskin against Whistler. It was deeper not just because
Guston was deeper as an artist and a man than Whistler ever aspired to
be, but because nothing less than the future of art history was at
stake. Kramer understood that the kind of art Guston was now making--to
which the Nixon drawings belong--was radically inconsistent with the art
to which he as a critic was dedicated in every fiber of his being. The
contest was, in my view, a surface reflection of a deep turn in art
history. Kramer saw in Guston the betrayer of a shared faith. What he
could not acknowledge was that Guston was helping consolidate a new
The review's headline, quoted now whenever Guston is written about, was
"A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum." Not only are the words
demeaning, but together they condense Guston's career into an unedifying
tale of artistic opportunism. Guston had in fact been regarded as the
most lyrical of the Abstract Expressionists, and in the spirit of full
disclosure I admit to having adored Guston's abstractions at the time. I
adore them still: I cannot look at one of those dense, shimmering works
without feeling the exaltation of pure beauty. In the way in which they
crowd the center of their canvases, they put me in mind of how Morandi's
boxes and bottles endeavor to occupy one another's spaces in the middle
of his compositions. The late critic David Sylvester, who admired them,
wrote in 1963 that Guston is "committed to luxury. His paint is
exceedingly rich, even luscious--in its texture, in its implications of
high virtuosity." Sylvester compared them with Monet's late paintings of
waterlilies, and described the paintings as intensely withdrawn and
private. The 1970 paintings, by total contrast, were huge pictures of Ku
Klux Klan figures in patched hoods, executed in a kind of classical
comic-strip style that was being reinvented at the time by Robert Crumb
in Zap Comix. It owed something to Krazy Kat, something to Mutt
and Jeff, something to Moon Mullins. I greatly admire Guston's raw
Klanscapes, but it would be an aesthetic category mistake to speak of
adoring them. They were not designed to gratify the eye but to injure
the viewer's sensibility. Kramer had no better way of characterizing him
than as pretending to a na vet Guston did not honestly possess. So he
was a false lyricist now masquerading as an artistic lowlife--a mandarin
pretending to be a stumblebum. Kramer probably did not write the
headline, but I'll co-opt whoever did for my libretto. And I'll use
Guston's own words from the time to give me my duet: "I got sick and
tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."
Artistic purity was much in the air at the beginning of the 1960s. In
his profoundly influential Modernist Painting of 1960, Clement
Greenberg described Modernism as a set of purgations, in which each of
the arts seeks to identify what is essential to its defining medium, and
eliminate everything else. "Thus would each art be rendered 'pure,' and
in its 'purity' find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well
as its independence." For Greenberg, illusion was an impurity in
painting, which properly should be abstract. Using their own words, we
can imagine another duet, early in Guston in Woodstock, between
Greenberg and Guston. For Guston must have had Greenberg's thesis
precisely in mind when, sitting on a panel that took place around that
same time, he said, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the
myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and
for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define
its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of
'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and
image-ridden." The confrontation could hardly be more stark. But it
sounds as if it refers to the dilemma that defined artistic
consciousness from the onset of abstraction and became acute in America
in the 1940s--whether to paint the figure or go abstract. There was
certainly a dramatic moment in the lives of each of the Abstract
Expressionists, with the exception perhaps of Motherwell, when they left
the figure behind and discovered the style through which each became a
master. Guston himself had gone through the crisis. But his painting of
1970 marked a crisis of an entirely different order. Guston did not
merely do the figure, as de Kooning had done in 1953 with his famous
Women. For de Kooning had discovered a way of having his cake and eating
it too--painting the figure using the same gestures that were so
effective in his great abstractions. But Guston did the figure in a way
that repudiated his entire philosophy of painting. It was, Guston later
wrote, "as though I had left the Church: I was excommunicated for a
while." The shift was precisely as dramatic as that from mandarin to
stumblebum. It really was like leaving the Church. But the decision was
not merely artistic. It was a moral decision that took an artistic form.
The question for Guston was how one could go on painting beautiful
pictures when the world was falling apart. The pursuit of aesthetic
purity was not an acceptable option. For Kramer, to abandon aesthetics
was to forsake art. Obviously this was not Guston's view. He needed to
find an art that was consistent with his moral disquiet. "The Vietnam
War was what was happening in America, the brutality of the world." And
here his language really does take on a lyrical intonation:
What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a
frustrated fury about everything--and then going into my studio to
adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do
something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude,
inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.
I assume this soliloquy refers to the time of his retrospective
exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. The abstractions of those
years, one can now see, had a crude, inchoate quality. But that was not
the road Guston was seeking. "There is nothing to do now," he went on,
"but to paint my life.... Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures,
or think about art. If someone bursts out laughing in front of my
painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."
Guston began to work in two ways in the months ahead. "I remember days
of doing 'pure' drawings immediately followed by days of doing the
other, drawings of objects.... Books, shoes, buildings, hands--feeling a
relief and strong need to cope with tangible things." It is this return
to the commonplace objects of daily life, away from the exalted forms of
Abstract Expressionism, that became the central truth of 1960s art--in
Fluxus particularly, but also in Pop and even in Minimalism. The impulse
came from Zen, which had become so strong a spiritual current in New
York intellectual life. With John Cage, Guston attended Dr. Suzuki's
seminar in Zen at Columbia University, and he often alluded to Zen ideas
in his discourse. On the other hand, he was conflicted about Pop. With
several other Abstract Expressionists, he left the Sidney Janis Gallery
in 1962 in protest because it had organized an exhibition of Pop. But by
1967 he saw, through the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, the power of
vernacular illustration. Unlike Lichtenstein, who used the vocabulary of
the comics to ironize high art, Guston was able to make it his own. He
was not pretending--he became a Zen stumblebum. The drawings were
and are brilliant. This may have solved his artistic quandaries, but not
his moral ones. For this he made use of the Klan.
The Klansmen, drawn in his new comic-strip style, were depicted in the
Marlborough paintings wearing tattered hoods, with slotted eyeholes,
riding through empty urban streets in stubby roadsters like Mutt and
Jeff, holding smoking cigar stumps between two extended gloved fingers,
or moving hither and thither in desolate symbolic landscapes, filled
with coarsely painted clocks, severed limbs, shoes, boards studded with
bent nails and a sun rising--or setting--behind the horizon. In one,
titled The Studio, a Klansman, holding the omnipresent cigar, is
shown painting a self-portrait under a bare light bulb. In later years,
Guston acknowledged that Studio was a kind of self-portrait--that
the hooded figures were all self-portraits in a way. "I almost tried to
imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be
evil? To plan and plot." He was painting the evil in each of us in a
style every one of us knew. When he was a mandarin in 1957, he did an
exquisite abstraction called The Mirror. When he became a
stumblebum in 1970 he painted the kind of moral mirror in which Hamlet
meant to catch the conscience of the king.
The Nixon drawings belong to the last great phase of Guston's career,
and they constitute a kind of comic intermezzo. All seventy-five of them
were done in Woodstock in the late summer of 1971, and they appear to
have been conceived as frames in a kind of comic-strip book, narrating
the self-mythologizing life of our scariest politician. Guston titled
the book Poor Richard and made unsuccessful efforts to get it
published. The book's version of Nixon's story was in any case overtaken
by history. It was overtaken in the first instance by triumph--Nixon
actually went to China in February 1972, whereas that event is treated
with a fictive indefiniteness in Poor Richard (the drawings
having been completed the previous year). And of course it was overtaken
by Nixon's disgrace--by Watergate and resignation--in the years that
immediately followed. So the drawings remained almost unknown to any but
specialists in Guston's work until now, when, thanks to the initiative
of Debra Bricker Balken, they have been reproduced in their entirety in
the new book Poor Richard (University of Chicago), together with a
spirited explanatory essay by her, telling how they came about.
Moreover, the originals can be seen at the David McKee Gallery, 645
Fifth Avenue, New York City, September 7-October 6, and enjoyed for
their sharp humor and graphic brilliance. I can think of no historical
parallel in which a great artist has shown himself to be a cartoonist of
genius while engaging himself directly in the political reality of his
moment--though Picasso used a comic-strip format in the two etchings of
the Dreams and Lies of Franco.
Who knows what impact they might have had? Caricature has at times
succeeded in putting certain public figures in a light so unflattering
that their power has been damaged and even destroyed. It became almost
impossible for the French to take Louis Philippe seriously once they saw
him through Daumier's drawings as having the form of a pear--the term
connotes stupidity. Thomas Nast found such damaging ways of drawing Boss
Tweed and his corrupt Tammany cohorts that they were graphically and
then politically discredited. Nixon's nose and stubbled jowls were a
ready-made cartoon, with an irresistible resemblance to a cock and
balls, which is the way Guston shows him. Poor Richard is perhaps
too playful--too funny really--to have inflamed public indignation
beyond the point it had already reached at the time. But who can really
say? What would we think had Daumier's lithographs remained hidden until
today, and all we knew were his marvelous paintings of Don Quixote and
peasant women in a railway wagon? Or if Thomas Nast did not have the
outlet of Harper's Weekly, and the fierce caricatures of Boss
Tweed were discovered in an attic years after his death? The powers that
images can release are unpredictable, which is why censorship exists.
Even at their brilliant best, of course, there would have been a moral
disproportion between the ludic preposterousness of Nixon and his
cronies--Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger, as they are
depicted in Poor Richard--and the actual evils of Vietnam and
Cambodia. Still, Nixon's soiled image has been so cleaned and polished
since his fall that the historically unaware might think him a candidate
for Mount Rushmore. So Guston's drawings might after all do some real
good in reminding us of the abject truth of a personage whose unique
character so combined evil and absurdity.
Nixon is first shown as a college football player, with shoulder pads
and a varsity letter. His features had not yet evolved into their
genital configuration, though the nose shows phallic promise. He is
given Little Orphan Annie eyes to emblematize his sham innocence. We
next see the politically obligatory poverty of his childhood home--a
log-cabin-style interior with wood stove and log pile, and a volume
titled LINCOLN prominently displayed on a bare table. In the next frame
Nixon is hitting the books hard, under a bare light bulb (note the
volume titled WILSON). Soon he is standing in his patched and ragged
garments with his faithful dog Checkers (in an inspired touch, Guston
shows the latter with checkerboard markings). Suddenly we are at Key
Biscayne, Nixon's favorite hang-out, soon to be kept company by
Kissinger (always represented as a pair of walking horn-rimmed glasses);
Agnew, in Hawaiian shirt and inseparable from his bag of golf clubs; and
Mitchell, never without his pipe. This is the cast of characters.
Pat--who plays an important role in Nixon in China--is not to be
I'll let the rights to Guston in Woodstock go--well--for a song.
But it has some wonderful theatrical possibilities I have not mentioned,
like a scene at the Marlborough opening, where a chorus of Tenth Street
painters sing "This isn't painting, Phil." Guston and de Kooning throw
their arms around each other, caroling together "It's all about freedom"
(Chorus: "This isn't painting, Bill"). Then a scene back at Woodstock,
where Guston and his neighbor, Philip Roth, entertain each other with
their hilarious Nixon imitations (Roth's satire Our Gang was,
like Poor Richard, an artistic product of those sessions).
History gives us a better ending than Guston dared dream of: Nixon
bidding farewell to his presidency as Kissinger's glasses mist with
tears--and a pilgrim chorus of Neo-Expressionist painters singing
Guston's triumph as the curtain falls.