Previous month:
May 2004
Next month:
July 2004

Spencer's Gifts

The Eyes of Stanley Spencer [w/ link to complete painting]

::: wood s lot ::: notes that today would have been the 103rd birthday of Sir Stanley Spencer, the fine somewhat-more-than-slightly mystical British figurative painter.

In 1998, I was in San Francisco about to start a trial in a case involving a dispute between owners of a racehorse. Thanks to the diligent efforts of the judge (and my opponents' unspoken knowledge that I was likely to be proven right on the dispositive legal point) the parties managed to arrive at a settlement. We finished hammering out the details that afternoon just early enough for me to race over to the Palace of the Legion of Honor to view a large Spencer retrospective before closing time. I have been a Spencer fancier ever since. (No visuals from that exhibition are available, but the museum's press release provides useful information.) I've mentioned Spencer previously here.

Those are Sir Stanley's eyes at upper right, in a fair use excerpt from his very late 1959 self-portrait. Among the largest holdings of his work are those in the Tate Modern, collected online here. (The Tate's collection includes Spencer's semi-infamous "leg of lamb" nude of himself and his then wife, Patricia Preece, but copyright restrictions prevent even the Tate from reproducing it. In a 2001 Slate piece, Timothy Noah quoted a character in a novel by Philip Roth, of all people, describing that painting.)

To the links at ::: wood s lot ::: I will add this one: an extraordinarily deep analysis of Spencer's great Cookham Resurrection, part of a much larger site maintained by Spencer biographer Kenneth Pople "especially for those who find [Spencer's] paintings odd or obscure."

Cinematic Crosstalk

Outtakes or the "blooper reel" have become near ubiquitous among the '"extras" included on super-collectable-widescreen-director's-shaken-not-stirred edition DVDs. Once compiled for the entertainment of cast and crew at the end of a long shoot, then displayed during the closing credits of action pictures -- and memorably lampooned in the credits of several Pixar films -- these sequences have become less and less "spontaneous" as everyone involved has gotten into the habit of anticipating their use in the DVD.

Now, I confess that I look at bloopers and outtakes whenever they are available on a disc that we happen to be watching of a Saturday night -- the selection included on the DVD release of Pirates of the Caribbean is about the most amusing I've seen recently -- but on reflection these sequences wear very thin very fast. Why? Because there are really only a handful of possible types of bloopers, and all one can do is recycle this film's particular variant on themes we've seen in every other film's leftovers:

-- someone flubs a line, repeatedly;
-- someone flubs a line repeatedly, then curses;
-- someone drops an important prop;
-- a prop is dropped on someone;
-- actor A causes actor B to break up with laughter;
-- a beautiful actress is caught in a coarse moment (e.g., belching);
-- a physically imposing actor trips over his own feet;
-- people and things collide, usually in the vicinity of the groin;
-- and so on.

Some films, it seems obvious, would not benefit from the circulation of such a reel. The more "serious" the film, the less likely we are to see the outtakes, even though a serious film is just as likely as a flippant one to produce amusing candid moments on the set. Consider, then, this item from the online journal the New Pantagruel, providing a preview of the blooper reel from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Hitsville UK

Zounds! Just in time for the weekend, it's another list, and a very British one at that.

The Observer polled 100 British musical figures (panelists listed here), asking each to name ten choices for inclusion among the 100 Greatest British Albums. The #1 choice is, for a change, not from Liverpool.

You can read the list in full as well as a vast editorial apparatus including a traditional "Why are we concocting another ruddy list?" piece, item by item commentary on the contents of the list, and samples of individual panelists' choices both brief and more expansive (scroll down). (The whole thing came to my attention via the hardy perennial Hit & Run.)

Having a soft spot for British popsongcraft, I am compelled to re-start the "Bold List" game previously played with books. Again, the assignment is to bold those items that one has owned/listened to complete. The large subset of "albums from which I've heard a track or three" will go unmarked, as will the much smaller class of "albums I've never even heard of."

The first 30 listees follow, with the remaining 70 consigned to the continuation for the benefit of completists. Reader comments welcome, of course. Now set your mental turntables spinning with these fine products of old Albion:

1. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
2. Revolver, The Beatles
3. London Calling, The Clash
4. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison
5. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
6. The Beatles ['White Album'], The Beatles
7. Sticky Fingers, The Rolling Stones
8. Exile on Main St, The Rolling Stones
9. Blue Lines, Massive Attack
10. Metal Box, Public Image Ltd.
11. The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, David Bowie
12. Beggars Banquet, Rolling Stones
13. The Clash, The Clash
14. Never Mind The Bollocks, The Sex Pistols
15. Club Classics Vol. 1, Soul II Soul
16. Five Leaves Left, Nick Drake
17. The Specials, The Specials
18. Closer, Joy Division
19. Definitely Maybe, Oasis
20. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
21. The Smiths, The Smiths
22. Hounds Of Love, Kate Bush
23. For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music
24. OK Computer, Radiohead
25. Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Pink Floyd
26. Roxy Music, Roxy Music
27. Unhalfbricking, Fairport Convention
28. Abbey Road, The Beatles
29. Stranded, Roxy Music
30. Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division

Continue reading "Hitsville UK" »

Vortices, Gherkins and Domes, Oh My

Architecture is the third rail of cultural weblogging. If you don't believe me, please refer to the comment left me by the estimable -- seriously, when is he going to re-activate his own weblog? -- ac douglas below, in response to a post in which I wasn't even talking about architecture, except obliquely.

I generally don't bring up architecture here because I know that I don't know much of anything about it, beyond knowing case by case, not unlike the nameless hero of Green Eggs and Ham, what I Like and what I Do Not Like. In Los Angeles, for instance, I definitely like the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. I definitely do not like (though I admit that I have not yet seen the interior firsthand) our new Cathedral. (Embarrassing confession: while the cathedral was under construction and I was driving past it on a regular basis, it took me months to figure out that its coloring was intentional and permanent and that it was not in fact still encased in plywood.)

I also like much of what I have seen of the newer buildings of London. That seeing has been entirely through photographs, and most of those have been filtered through the camera eye of Brian Micklethwaite. This week, Brian has given us two posts -- one at, the other on his Culture Blog -- about The Vortex, a project proposed by architect Ken Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth, who has just struck out on his own after years of close association with Norman Foster, is responsible for the SwissRe Gherkin -- now there's a building I'd like to see in person -- and the no-longer-wobbly Millenium Footbridge across the Thames.

Click to see it all

Click to see it all

Brian has considerately re-linked one of my favorites of his photos: this one (detail at left) of walkers on the bridge with St. Paul's behind. The arrangement of figures and the tone of the light in that photo always reminds me, in a sudden mental shift from London to Paris, of the splendid rainy street scene by Gustave Caillebotte (detail at right) that is displayed so prominently at the Art Institute of Chicago.

As you can gather, these also are things that I like.


In Slate - where the motto of late seems to be: "If you can't say anything nice . . . publish it here!" - Christopher Hitchens provides what is likely to stand as the definitive vivisection of Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11. It is long on detail, outlining with specific examples and barely suppressed fury the array of untenable positions Moore is obliged to adopt to support his predetermined thesis. One example out of many:

We are introduced to Iraq, 'a sovereign nation.' (In fact, Iraq's 'sovereignty' was heavily qualified by international sanctions, however questionable, which reflected its noncompliance with important U.N. resolutions.) In this peaceable kingdom, according to Moore's flabbergasting choice of film shots, children are flying little kites, shoppers are smiling in the sunshine, and the gentle rhythms of life are undisturbed. Then—wham! From the night sky come the terror weapons of American imperialism. Watching the clips Moore uses, and recalling them well, I can recognize various Saddam palaces and military and police centers getting the treatment. But these sites are not identified as such. In fact, I don't think Al Jazeera would, on a bad day, have transmitted anything so utterly propagandistic. You would also be led to think that the term 'civilian casualty' had not even been in the Iraqi vocabulary until March 2003.

Moore stands accused - and by Hitchens convicted - of falling into the same moral trap that has ensnared those he opposes: convinced that his cause is just, he feels free to pursue that cause by any means, no matter how abhorrent. For that, Moore's punishment is to be revealed not as a noble, crusading satirist, but as a self-absorbed huckster aspiring only to call attention to himself and to persuade you to part with your cash at the box office.

Some people soothingly say that one should relax about all this. It's only a movie. No biggie. It's no worse than the tomfoolery of Oliver Stone. It's kick-ass entertainment. It might even help get out 'the youth vote.' Yeah, well, I have myself written and presented about a dozen low-budget made-for-TV documentaries, on subjects as various as Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton and the Cyprus crisis, and I also helped produce a slightly more polished one on Henry Kissinger that was shown in movie theaters. So I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a 'POV' or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your 'narrative' a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised. At no point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective. At no moment does he pass up the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer. He pitilessly focuses his camera, for minutes after he should have turned it off, on a distraught and bereaved mother whose grief we have already shared. (But then, this is the guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling for Columbine, at the onset of his senile dementia.) Such courage.

(Emphasis in original.)

Getting Hitchens' dander up is one thing, but Moore is beginning to get on the nerves of even those who would be his friends. In today's edition of the Los Angeles Times (registration required) Patrick Goldstein - who allows as how his own politics and Moore's are "in complete sync" - brings some Tough Love to bear and calls Moore out as a serial prevaricator, even on such relatively trivial topics as whether Moore was "banned" from Jay Leno's or Bill O'Reilly's television shows.

O'Reilly went to a screening of the film, though because of its late start, he had to leave early to honor a prior commitment. (His mini-review: 'It's what I expected — Bush and his crew are a satanic cult, and we live in a police state.') On his way out, he bumped into Moore and asked if he would be coming on the show. He says Moore responded, 'Yes, I am.' So far Moore's handlers are hedging, saying they haven't committed.

The Leno camp also offered an account at odds with Moore's. They said that far from being banned, Moore was invited to appear after Cannes and was asked to be on the show twice in recent years, most recently after 'Bowling for Columbine' won the Oscar for best documentary and Moore gave an inflammatory acceptance speech. After hearing of Moore's charge about showing his house being blown up, Leno went back and watched the tape, which he said shows not a house but a shack in the desert being hit by a missile. Through his publicist, Leno said, 'If the jokes bothered him, I wish Michael would have called. Or he could have come on the show. I was just telling jokes about what made headlines, and that included him.'

Leno's producer, Debbie Vickers, added: 'Michael may feel he has a feud with us, but I know of no feud we have with him.'

Goldstein reproduces a passage from his own interview with Moore, focusing on the film's assertions of an unhealthy closeness between the Bush family/administration and the Arabian royals. Direct questioning yields little in the way of direct answers, and the quoted segment ends with this whopper:

Q: You make the point that the Bush administration has a special relationship with the Saudis. How is that any different from the special relationship many Washington leaders have with the state of Israel?

Moore: One big difference is that Israel is a democracy and Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. They celebrated New Year's Day a few years ago by chopping people's heads off. Maybe I missed that when it happened in Israel. Anyway, the support Bush and the Republicans feign for Israel is because Israel is near our oil. If the oil wasn't there, I bet those same Republicans wouldn't [care] about Israel."

(Emphasis added.)

Glad he set us straight on that: I had been under the impression that American support for Israel had proven itself over most of my lifetime to be a sure fire obstacle to freely accessing what he so endearingly calls "our oil", not to mention seeming to rub the Bin Ladens of the world the wrong way. And what of the larger question: just what was Moore's choice of (colorful? odoriferous?) phrase that the Times has replaced with "[care]"? Egad, another cover up!

Updates: Rick Coencas @ Futurballa -- he and I being compelling proof that political disagreement is no obstacle to a decades-long friendship -- comments.

And if you are not inclined or able to slip through the Los Angeles Times' pesky registration, Patrick Goldstein's article has been reproduced here. Make of it what you will.

A Little Learning

We've had no links to education issues in quite a while here, so in the interest of posting something/anything, I'll offer you these:

♣ Kimberly Swygert notes a new initiative to help those left behind.1 The beneficiaries of the proposal in question are members of the journalism fraternity, but Kimberly is prepared to take an analogy and run with it:

Continuing on in this vein, doesn't this mean that homeschooling is the analogy to blogging? Let's see, both are becoming extremely popular with 'ordinary' people who want to bypass the power structure, in order to impart truth rather than ideology...yep, I'd say they're analogous. And the powers-that-be who believe bloggers are 'irresponsible' and 'inaccurate' (due to a lack of editorial bureaucracy) are probably the same who spread the word that homeschoolers are 'backwards' and 'uneducated' people who do a poor job with their kids (due to a lack of educational bureaucracy).

♣ Elswhere, Erin O'Connor opines on offensive language, here defined as "words one hates. Not words that mean hateful things, necessarily, but words whose sheer phonetic misshapenness repels us." Abundant examples ensue, and continue into the comments. [Caution to sensitive readers: a few of the more patently unpleasant words in the language make fleeting appearances.]

1 The Rand Simberg piece that serves as the hook for Kimberly's did not amuse me as much as it appears to have amused her. It is of the sort found all too frequently across the political spectrum these days, finding self-consciously clever ways to state positions with which the sympathetic reader almost always already agrees and of which the unsympathetic reader will hardly ever be persuaded. The phenomenon is neatly anatomized by P.J. O'Rourke in the current Atlantic.

Spare Aaron the Rod

"You know my methods. Apply them!"
-- S. Holmes, to Dr. John Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Aaron Haspel is defending himself in typically capable fashion against divers calumnies launched by some who disagree with one or more of his critical judgments. The scoffers' most recent targets include Aaron's suggestion of a simple test to tell poetry from prose ("poetry is what scans") and the righteous lambasting he handed out to Wordsworth last month.

Jan Schreiber's recent consideration of Yvor Winters, to which I linked below, includes several remarks on Winters' critical approach that apply with comparable force to Aaron's. Examples:

The undeniable delights associated with certain admittedly non-rational poems did not constitute a counter-argument for this critic, who viewed delight with scant charity among the array of poetic values.


He wrote habitually in a tone of irascible self-confidence, but he often wrote with insight, and his judgments offered a needed corrective to the pieties of his time. Even his misjudgments were salutary for many readers: they demonstrated that genius never deserves to be taken on faith but must justify itself, and that many texts admired uncritically out of reverence for tradition might or might not bear rigorous scrutiny but should at least receive it. For ordinary readers, students, and aspiring poets, that was a liberating perspective.

That works for me, but there is ample evidence that others beg to differ.

Call me naive, but I am constantly surprised by the splenetic, even vicious, rhetoric that culturally oriented weblogs vent at one another. You have not swum in invective until you've spent time, for instance, looking at some of the more adamant poetry weblogs, especially those who engage in the interminable "formalist" vs. "post-avant" grudge match. Or perhaps you would rather revel in the mire that is the "functionality and comfort for the occupant are irrelevant/indispensable to architecture" discussion. The particular points of view matter not a whit: each is happy to explain colorfully and at length why the other is a benighted troglodyte, or worse.

I suppose the depth of conviction on display is heartening -- as Aaron observes "Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal." -- but it's hard not to worry that someone's eye could get poked out. So play nice, kids. And remember: just because a fellow can defend himself is no excuse to pick on him.

Tonight, Tonight . . . Let It Be Middlebrow

Away back when in October 2003, thanks to a fine thoughtful bit by Terry Teachout [linked in the links that follow] the cultural weblogging community paused en masse to drop a curtsy to the late, lamented phenomenon of American Life that was middlebrow culture.

I have been reminded again of the world of the middlebrow by a piece by Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard¹ on the demise of classical music programming on public radio. [The article came my way via more or less simultaneous links at Arts & Letters Daily and ArtsJournal.] In the midst of it, Ferguson offers this description of public radio ca. 1970, as the very distillation of middlebrow:

Public radio was thus a creature of what we have come to know, since its demise, as middlebrow culture. From the Book of the Month Club to television shows like Omnibus and Playhouse 90, the middlebrow bridged high culture to low and tried self-consciously to make the best of artistic achievement accessible to the general population of the great commercial Republic. It was earnest and self-improving and unashamedly hierarchical, summoning everyone who showed a glimmer of interest to the ideals of beauty and excellence. It was elitist and populist all at once.

I was going to expand on this -- starting, I suppose, with yet another assertion that you could do plenty worse than embracing some forward-looking variant on the middlebrow ideal if you wanted to maintain a vibrant republic -- but that will have to wait for another day, if at all. I'll be taking a weblogging break now until at least Monday while I pay attention to an event that is of more personal significance to me than all the great works of all the great cultures combined, an event without which this weblog would most certainly not exist: Tomorrow marks my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, and we are gathering their progeny and progeny of progeny together with them for the occasion. If you have ever read anything here that you thought worthwhile, my Mother or Dad or both merit at least some of the credit. I'll be sure to thank them for you.

More anon.

¹ Tip to my three or four 'progressive' readers: The Standard shares with the Wall Street Journal the condition of purveying cultural coverage of a quality such that you should be reading it even though the publication's politics, as a whole, may cause you (poor soul) to reach for the anti-itch liniment.

"Laurel, archaic, rude"

From the current edition of Contemporary Poetry Review (available free for the month, before it slides into the pay archives) comes a lengthy consideration of the criticism and poetry of Yvor Winters. This longish excerpt from a much longer article (which I'm still working through) serves to highlight the essence of Winters' critical approach:

A succinct expression of Winters’ theory of poetry can be found in The Function of Criticism, in his essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins:

…[T]he poem is a rational statement about a human experience, made in such a way that the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of the experience is communicated simultaneously with the rational understanding: the poem is thus a complete judgment of the experience, a judgment both rational and emotional…. The poem … is a method for perfecting the understanding and moral discrimination; it is not an obscurely isolated end in itself. [FC 139]

[* * *]

Appropriateness of emotion may seem a rather narrow basis for evaluating a poem, and it may seem a perversion of terminology, at the least, to say that in evoking an 'appropriate' feeling as he depicts a situation, a poet is rendering a moral judgment on that situation, but it is worth remembering that much of Winters’ criticism was written when the critical values of the Romantics were still ascendant. Editors of the major anthologies gave pride of place to poems in which the language might well be clichéd and derivative, but which featured emotional crescendos not clearly tied to the matter at hand. Edgar Allen Poe among the “traditional” poets, and Hart Crane, among the contemporaries, showed this emotional disparity, though Winters credited Crane with far more poetic talent than Poe. To achieve a sensible balance of emotion to material, to write without evocative clichés, cleanly and honestly, is a rare and noteworthy feat. Such writing attracted Winters’ attention throughout his career.

(Emphasis added.) See also this earlier citation. Also see also the Web's major proselytizer for Winters, Aaron Haspel, as exemplified in essays such as these. However,

As Bill Cosby used to say, I told you that so I could tell you this.... Follow me now as I jump without warning from poetry to the visual arts.

That emphasized sentence above reminded me of my reaction a couple of weekends back when I ventured downtown with our teenaged sons to the Museum of Contemporary Art to take in the enormous retrospective of minimalist art running through August 2. The show's full title is "A Minimalist Future? Art as Object 1958-1968" and that subtitle -- "art as object" -- neatly captures the way in which these works would run as a group straight into the buzzsaw of Winters' scorn for art that operates as "an obscurely isolated end in itself". Self-reference, "thing-ness" if you will, is the entire point of minimalist art, and once you've "gotten" that -- which doesn't take long, it's not as if these strategies haven't been deployed endlessly since the late 50's -- there's not much further to go with it. Move along to the next gallery, there's nothing more to see here.

Mind you, I liked a lot of what I saw in the show, and I'm glad we went. Our eldest (16) found much of it pretty interesting; the 13-year old ain't got no culture and is happy to tell you so, politely and with a grin. But the satisfactions to be had from this art are fleeting, and it seemed to me that this sort of work only shows itself to advantage within the artificial confines of a museum. Out in the world, it nearly evaporates, or becomes part of the furniture.

Indeed, the fact that so much of minimalist art simply endeavors to disappear into itself, simply to be there without grabbing you by the lapels and insisting that it is about something other than itself, may account for its having devolved from something cutting edge and new -- as I'm sure it was in, say, 1961 -- into one of the three or four inoffensive default choices for decorating the hallways of your corporate headquarters. Heck, eliminate the company name and what is the Enron logo but an inverted version of a minimalist sculpture such as this one?

Minimalism is, I suppose, a victim of the very questions it set out to raise. Insisting that a painting or sculpture is simply itself, simply there making no other claims, in short order sped the movement down the slope from Art one day to high-class bric-a-brac the next. Watch for it in a conference room or reception area near you.

Postscript: The mighty Statistical Engine at TypePad informs me that this is Post #400 on this weblog. Make of that what you will.