Archive for 2011 December

What really happened to the developer: Chekhov

Dianne wiestThe New Yorker's great theater critic, John Lahr, hasn't been writing enough. Then on Dec. 12 the magazine doesn't put the compressed grace of his review of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" on line, and further goes on in the truncated "abstract" it does post to mangle Lahr's dramatic wisdom.

It's criminal! But no matter — here's the gist.

Lahr begins with the obliviousness of the central character [played by Dianne Wiest, in the image]

When a character tells Madame Ranevskaya (the vulnerable and resolate Dianne Wiest), who is as sensationally blind to her predicament as she is to herself, that he saw "a very funny show at the theater last night,": she snaps…"People shouldn't be going to plays. They should be looking at themselves. Lives are so gray…gray, and you talk about things that don't matter."

This, of course, is a perfect description of the play we're watching. 

Which raises the question — what are we watching? 

…as the actors enter Santo Losquano's elegant circular arena, where canvas is spread on the floor as in a circus ring, spotlights isolate a toy train, a hobbyhorse, and a minaiature table and chairs. Madame Ranevskaya and her entourage recall their former bliss on their soon-to-be-lost estate ("Happiness and I would wake up together," she says) while sitting on the miniature furniture, like giants in a child's universe. 

Chekhov began the play in a nursery for a reason: the adults before us are unwilling to take responsibility for the lives they are lamenting; they are infantile and unformed. "I feel young. As a child," Charlotta (Roberta Maxwell), the governess, says, adding, "Where I'm from, who I am — not a clue." Cluelessness is the essence of Chekhov's comedy. 

What are these alleged grown-ups missing? Something does matter…the issue of the enormous natural estate that no longer can support these feckless nobles and their serfs must be faced. 

The cherry orchard must be saved — or not. 

"The Cherry Orchard"…was Chekhov's last and most Expressionistic play. (Less than six months after its debut, in January 1904, he died, of tuberculosis, at the age of forty-four.) Chekhov insisted to the play's first director and star, Konstantin Stanislavsky, that "The Cherry Orchard" was "not a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce." 

In other words, this will be in part about the question of the fate of the orchard — which could easily turn melodramatic — but it will also be about the larger question, which is us, our foolishness.

The playwright will examine us, like the doctor he was, "interrogate" us, as the academic phrase goes, and mock us at times. It's not just an environmental question, but an existential one.

What will be our relationship with our land, our property, and, ultimately, our planet?

The pushy but compassionate Lopakhin (John Turturro), who grew up on the estate as a peasant and is now himself a landowner, has a sound suggestion: in order to liquidate their debts and keep their property, which otherwise will be auctioned off, Madame Ranevskaya and Gayev must cut down their enormous cherry orchard, divide up the land, and tease it out in small parcels, on which summer cottages can be built. "It's all just so vulgar," Madame Ranevskaya says.

After days of coaxing the family to take action, Lopakhin implores Gayev, "Tell me what you want me to do!" "About what?" Gayev says. He and his sister cannot see what's right under their noses. 

Lopakhin, who represents the new economic order, on the other hand, recognizes an opportunity and, finally, buys the estate himself. (Turturro does a fine, high-stepping boot-tapping cakewalk around the stage in celebration of this social and financial coup.) 

What could go wrong for this winner? 

Lopakhin, however, is blinkered in matters of the heart. In a superb, devastating scene with Madame Ranveskaya's daughter Varya (the excellent Juliet Rylance), who wants to marry him, Lopakhin lets love pass him by. 

It's a moment out of John Cage. The most devastating line in the play is the one not spoken.

The nobility cannot see one "thing that matters;" the developer cannot see another. 

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Why does the White House disrespect Paul Krugman?

The great Steve Brodner wants to know why the White House ignores the left's most knowledgeable, effective, and lauded advocate.  


He writes: "Paul Krugman, locked out of Obama’s party with the 1%. Three years on, who had it right!!???"

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From Adele to Frank Zappa: 2011 in music

This year in music has been simply overwhelming.

Impossible to know where to start, but relieved to see veteran entertainment editor/critic Ken Tucker agree that this year has been a big one…and also that the discovery of 2011 is Adele. 

If any one musician held center stage in pop music this year, it was probably Adele, the English singer whose 21 was one of the bestselling albums of the year, as well as one of the most highly praised by critics. I would daresay it reached the widest range of listeners, too.

Proposal: when we consider year-end stand-outs, we should give added weight not to artists who are a little more or less popular than their peers, but to artists who are orders of magnitude more popular.

All of the artists mentioned here are successful, but Adele's astonishing Someone Like You has garned 78 million hits, and seems to be adding to that number by about a million a day. She is, as she says in the song, "making memories." And not just for herself. That deserves respect.  

But Adele needs no favors; she's perfect for the American Idol era, and you'll end up hearing her almost whether you want to or not. I was gratified to hear Tucker bring up the charismatic young Deertick, which will never be featured on the TV show, but no matter. It glories in the creation of raw rock, on its own and as a Nirvana cover band, which I would freaking kill to see. (This perf at SXSW gives some idea, despite — or aided by — the terrible production value.)

And not all the discoveries were new bands. For instance, this song surfaced this year on Liza Richardson's radio show. Sounded to me like an anthem for the Occupy movement, an ode to —

the left behinds of the Great Society

I wondered which new band this was, which featured everything from an electric guitar to a kazoo, and was shocked to learn it was by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, from l966.

Jeez. I think I'm a little behind. 

Other unforgettables included the Mountain Goats, whose lead singer John Darnielle not only writes weirdly fascinating songs but is the first rocker to really seem to get Twitter (his born howling voice is an inimitable mix of self-deprecation,  boxing, and strident opinionating on all matters pop cultural).

Yet more highlights included: overhearing Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy continue to develop their heartening You're Not Alone in live perfs, at benefits and D.C. protests. Bon Iver's immaculately beautiful Holocene. Fleet Foxes' flawlessness, especially on their Helplessness Blues, which (as one critic noted) suggested an entire philosophy in its opening verse. Mumford and Sons, the acoustic electricians who had a sell-out crowd at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit on their feet an instant after beginning to play, a feat accomplished by none of the other ten or so other popular bands on the show. Watching Rufus Wainwright set out to write a hit with pro Guy Chalmers in a BBC doc, and nearly succeed with WWIII. This year was as much about seeing the creating, as the creation itself. 

A last example: A bass-heavy remix of Gil Scott-Heron's epochal Angel Dust…and a great tribute w/extensive interviews from Gil Scott-Heron, complete with his first recording, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a poem with drums, when the grandfather of rap is just learning his craft.

Tom Schnable's interviews with Scott-Heron date back to the early 80's, before "the godfather of rap" became famous, before what we know of as rap today came along, and long before Scott-Heron disappeared. (As chronicled last year in Alex Wilkinson's harrowing New York is Killing Me.)

But Scott-Heron is in fine form with Schnable — you're not likely to hear him, both the man and his music, better presented.  

Still, in the end, this is the year of Adele, an old-fashioned pop star who combines the power of Aretha with the delicacy of Dusty Springfield. It's especially apparent on her Someone Like You

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Two roads diverged in a wood: Robert Frost

Louis B. Jones pens a great essay on Robert Frost, which thankfully The Threepenny Review puts on-line. 

Here are two gems from it, set together: 

It seldom occurs to me, frankly, to contemplate any of the thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird; nor could I recite from memory more than a few lines of “Four Quartets,” poems which on the Truth-Beauty Meter (or the Ambition Meter) must score up there near the Tao Te Ching and the Sermon on the Mount. I wonder if, in the dark times of my life, or the merely dim times, I’ve gotten more of real consolation and upbringing from Frost. Frost’s having been acquainted with the night; his temptation to pause a little too long in the dark, cold, futile woods; his letting a boughful of snow dump over his head and not worsen but improve his dreadful day; or just his thinking it’s important that a newborn calf “totters” when its mother licks it—all these homely considerations have come to rescue me often, in the real life I lead while my hand is on the hoe-handle or the steering wheel, my eye on the oncoming road, my ear attentive to NPR or just the valley winds. Moreover, in almost every Frost poem, there’s somewhere the encounter with darkness, darkness deepened and worsened, perversely, by putting on light versification’s frock.

Then into Frost's most famous poem

Frost used to speak with mockery of himself as “that poet of stone walls, birches, and belilaced cellar holes,” with a sarcasm licensed by the open secret of his career: that most of his work is about the terrors, death and meaninglessness and solitary inarticulacy. The temptation to linger which is offered by cold dark woods is not a lightsome one, it’s rather a desolate one. And anybody who will simply read the twenty lines about choosing the road less traveled will see that it’s not a boast of the poet’s own nonconformity, nor any kind of endorsement of nonconformity—not at all. It’s an admission that no existential decision of ours really ever makes any “difference.”

But even if said ironically, how can "I took the one less traveled by/and that has made all the difference" be dismissed? The music transcends the philosophy. 


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Climate change denial at Drudge

The day after an excellent story by Justin Gillis in the Times lays out the impact of climate change denial in the GOP re: science, the popular right-wing Drudge site headlines theastonishing number of weather-related disasters that hit the U.S. this year — 2011: The year in extreme weather.

Included was a NASA satellite picture of Hurricane Irene, about the size of western Europe. 


For decades respected climatologists have been warning that pumping gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere will result in more climactic extremes. Mentions of that fact in the Drudge-linked story?


Of course not –that's why he chose it. Drudge is the site that believes that a cold wave disproves climate change. Nor should we forget that this summer he linked to a denier who claimed Hurricane Irene wasn't a hurricane. Nor should we overlook the endless hating of Al Gore. 

The amplified denial is making all the more likely that we will hit 400 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2…by 2015, if we continue on our heedless course.   

 400 ppm

When will Matt Drudge face reality? 

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Phoenix: Not busy being born is busy dying

Speaking of Dylan…one of his most famous lines, written forty-six years ago, is standing up to the test of time just fine, thank you, in Phoenix this year. 

How so? 

An example: The title of a High Country News story about the city's fate is called Demise of a Housing Growth Machine.

The story focuses on a weighty study published five years ago that predicted that soon ten million people would be living between Tucson and Phoenix; generating mountains of cash.

Instead Phoenix has been devastated by the Great Recession — unemployment, foreclosure, debt, and economic misery. When I visited fora convention a couple of years ago, the only billboards you could see for miles around were for short sales. Housing prices have collapsed.

It gets worse, much worse:

The dark cloud, meanwhile, continues to hover over Phoenix and Las Vegas, where housing prices have plummeted nearly 10 percent even during the last year, not to mention the 50 + percent drops that they’ve experienced since the peak of the boom. Tucson, Boise and many a mid-sized California city aren’t faring much better. That’s in spite of mortgage interest rates being lower than they’ve been in about four decades. 

The apocalyptic James Howard Kunstler would say — told you so. Phoenix and Las Vegas will soon "depopulate", he warns, due to oil shocks. And rising gas prices have contributed to the city's economic woes, as they heighten the cost of sprawl. Intensifying heat and dust hasn't helped. 

A few years back Timothy Egan of The New York Times brought up the possibility of the city becoming "uninhabitable" (in a great column reprinted here). Could this be happening already? 

Look at the numbers, and it's clear the Great Recession hit Phoneix very hard. In 2009 the city appeared to be losing people.

Looking at decadal stats, experts say only that it's population has dramatically slowed — from 35% to 9%. They suggest it's still growing.

But then I see something like this in Phoenix this year, and I think of Dylan and the apocalyptics…


From the Phoenix Sun.

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The Little Drummer Boy — Bob Dylan

Just when you'd given up on him, he comes back in the perfect key, with the perfect song, and sings it not just faultlessly, but with soul — Bob Dylan, backed by the Ditty Bops. 

For this day, via John Fugelsang

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Why we shouldn’t like writer’s houses

From a marvelous piece by April Bernard in the NYRB (only partially available on-line, I should add):

Here’s what I hate about writers’ houses: the basic mistakes. The idea that art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work. That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.

Once long ago someone took me to visit Shakespeare’s house in Stratford. I couldn’t go inside; it felt like snooping, it felt like preening, as if we could own a piece of him for ourselves. As far as I know, the only way to claim our real inheritance from Shakespeare is by reading and studying and memorizing—and, if we are lucky, by acting—his words.

All true. but it's still hard to resist the word made flesh


Wordworth's house in Cambria, England. 

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Ron Paul is a racist paranoid homophobic crank…

…if what was published in his newletter for over ten years can be believed. 

As one smartie put it, there are three options for Paul supporters, when faced with the massive weight of evidence (just see the scans of his newletters, aforelinked)

…there's no way Paul could have been ignorant of the content [of] 8-12 page newsletters published under his name for over ten years. Paul supporters face three losing propositions:

• He lacks the competency to control content published under his own name for over a decade, and is thus unfit to lead a country.
• He doesn't believe these things but considers them a useful political tool to motivate racist whites, which makes him fit to be a GOP candidate, but too obvious about it to win.
• He's actually a racist, which makes him unfit to be a human being.

An example? Sure:

From October, l992, entitled : Carjacking: A Hip-Hop Thing to Do:

"If you live in a major city, you've probably already heard about the newest threat to your life and limb, and your family: carjacking. It is the hip-hop thing to do among the urban youth who play unsuspecting whites like pianos. The youth simply walk up to a car they like, pull a gun, tell the family to get out, steal their jewelry and wallets, and take the car to wreck. Such actions have ballooned in the recent months. In the old days, average people could avoid such youth by staying out of bad neighborhoods. Empowered by media, police, and political complicity, however, the youth now roam everywhere looking for cars to steal and people to rob. What can you do? More and more Americans are carrying a gun in the car. An ex-cop I know advises that if you have to use a gun on a youth, you should leave the scene immediately, disposing of the wiped off gun as soon as possible. Such a gun cannot, of course, be registered to you, but one bought privately (through the classifieds, for example)."

Never in my lifetime have I seen a candidate for U.S. President endorse killing by gun.

Ron Paul Political Report, October, 1992 - [Carjacking] Is the Hip-Hop Thing to Do Among the Urban Youth Who Play Unsuspecting Whites Like Pianos

Via Tim Dickinson

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From Romney to Rome to murder: today in inequality news

The inequality news from just one day in December 2011:

The likely GOP contender is almost certainly a member of the 1% (from a great story in the Times): 

During his political career, Mr. Romney has promoted his experience as a businessman while deflecting criticism of layoffs caused by private equity deals by noting that he left Bain in 1999. But records and interviews show that in the years since, he has benefited from at least a few Bain deals that resulted in upheaval for companies, workers and communities.

One lucrative deal for Bain involved KB Toys, a company based in Pittsfield, Mass., which one of the firm’s partnerships bought in 2000. Three years later, when Mr. Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, the company began closing stores and laying off thousands of employees. More recently, Bain helped lead the private equity purchase of Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio station operator, which resulted in the loss of 2,500 jobs.

Much information about Mr. Romney’s wealth is not known publicly. Federal law does not obligate him to disclose the precise details of his investments. He has declined to release his tax returns, and his campaign last week refused to say what tax rate he paid on his Bain earnings.

But since Mr. Romney’s payouts from Bain have come partly from the firm’s share of profits on its customers’ investments, that income probably qualifies for the 15 percent tax rate reserved for capital gains, rather than the 35 percent that wealthy taxpayers pay on ordinary income. 

The U.S. economy today is significantly more unequal than Rome at its imperial height, if you judge from the amount of total wealth owned by those at the top. From ThinkProgress:

"In the United States, the top 1 percent controls roughly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. According to the study, which examined Roman ledgers, previous estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages, Rome’s top 1 percent controlled less than half that at the height of its economic power, as Tim De Chant notes at Per Square Mile:

Their target was the state of the economy when the empire was at its population zenith, around 150 C.E. Schiedel and Friesen estimate that the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control.

Of course, the millions of Romans at the bottom of the empire’s class structure — the conquered and enslaved, the poorest Romans, and the women who had little civic or economic empowerment — would probably disagree with the study’s conclusion. Still, it serves as yet another highlight of how large the income gap in the United States has become over the last three decades."

And, most startling of all, a great story in The Guardian about how in Ohio unemployed men were lured to their death by offers of $300 a week [corrected] and a trailer to live in.

[Ron] Sanson, 58, replied to a job advert on Craigslist in October looking for a watchman on an Ohio farm. The position paid just $300 a week but came with a trailer home to live in free. The applications flooded in from desperate men across the country willing to work for low pay just to have a little income.

Except there was no farm and no job.

Richard Beasley, a self-styled preacher with convictions for burglary, is alleged to have posted the advert to lure men to an isolated wood and shoot them.

Beasley and a 16-year-old schoolboy, Brogan Rafferty, are accused of shooting four men, killing three of them, who travelled from as far as Virginia and Florida as well as from Ohio. The police suspect there are more victims.

Here's a picture of Beasley's alleged co-conspirator:



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