Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Posts I'd Have Written Part 4

14. Urbanities - When modern New York was first built, it cearly had Paris in mind - the gigantism of its high-rise apartments, the huge avenues, the teeming mass of humanity packed like sardines into a small central location, it was all clearly a tribute to the grandiosity of Baron Haussmann's neoclassical vision of Paris; just as Paris pays tribute to Paleo-Classical Rome and Rome pays tribute to Athens. London pays exactly the same tribute, but in a different way. The sprawling austerity of modern London is in some ways more understated, perhaps after the manner of Frederick the Great's Berlin and copied by Chicago. But then the modern (post-modern?) Paris of the late 20th century made a stunning reversal and seemed to base its ideas on mid-century New York.
Contemporary New York is a very different place from the New York of the world's imagination. It is more metropolitan area than city, and as with so much of America, most people who work in it live in planned communities beyond its outskirts. The people who move to New York with dreams of living in a land of boundless opportunity and innovation are more than fifty years behind the times - by common consensus America's west coast has long since overtaken the East as the land of forward thinking, and neither holds much of a candle to many cities in Asia. But whereas New York is now a land of cars and commuters, Paris is still a land defined gargantuanly efficient public transit and continual pedestrian crossings, centrally located art museums and mid-century jazz - like a Golden Age New York preserved in Europe.

15. Le Jazz - As with so many aspects of modern French culture, the French jazz scene is like a refrigerator in which the best periods of American jazz seem to be preserved exactly as they were. Over and over again, I seem to be stumbling on jazz cubs in which the sixty-year-old set listens in worshipful reverence to the jazz combos that wouldn't be out of place in a Coltrane and Ornette Coleman set with nary a sense that the more progressive jazz of the 70's and beyond - late Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report - ever happened. You could do worse, there's a lot of later Jazz that sucks, but this is a conservative culture, freeze-blasted in the past, in no way a dynamic, evolving one. This is jazz as classical music, preserved around the early sixties, the one moment in American history when jazz and perhaps only jazz was considered the true American music. But speaking as someone completely sick of the classical world, it does not speak well for the future of jazz if it exists only as a classical canon where the gate must always be guarded. The fact that you're listening to quality music is guaranteed in such a situation, but it's also the worst possible safeguard against the kind of revelations which make great art worth seeking out.
 The early 60's was the golden era for jazz appreciation, but was it truly the greatest moment in jazz history? Moved as I'll always be by A Love Supreme, Sketches of Spain, and Ah-Um, I can't escape the feeling that jazz was already something much too "serious" by by the age of Miles Davis and all his various progeny. It was the 'romantic period' in Jazz History when artists had the freedom to create exactly what they wanted, and while the results are often fascinating, they aren't necessarily better than in periods when artists were more restricted. Just as few people would argue that Weber, Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner were better composers than Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, I find it hard to believe that Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were better musicians than Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie. In an era when artists get to do precisely what they want, they can take themselves as seriously as they want - and the inevitable byproduct is that humor is usually either thrown overboard, or totally segregated from seriousness. For me, great as Coltrane and Miles are, the real revelations in jazz come from that earlier era of Pops and Duke and Art Tatum and Earl Hines, when jazz was new and liberating, and not bogged down by all the weight of tradition. If you want revelations in the 60's, you have to find it in rock and R&B, where The Beatles and Ray Charles were able to capture life in all its facets. It is only in the sense that what's there has not yet been said that one can find the real revelations, the real new discoveries which every generation finds for themselves in their own (sweet) way.

16. France - Editors of America: A few days ago I saw a quote written in graffiti on a subway: "The mind is like a parachute, it doesn't work if it's not open." - Franck (spelled like Cesar Franck) Zappa. I thought that was amazing, showing in one small gesture the way the French seem to idolize everything great about America, even if they don't understand it. From the earliest age, America was critiqued by its earliest aly, France, a friend and sometimes frenemy of long standing which has the longest and most reliable tradition (in both senses) of critiquing America, showing America what is right about it, and also what's wrong. Occasionally France gets it wrong in both directions, but even so, France is our most devoted friend: championing the best in us and condemning the worst more than any country in our relatively short history than any other country.
But like all friends, countries often don't understand one another, often talking past each other in the ways we want to hear even if it's not at all what the other meant. France, like most countries, celebrate the greatness of America all the while reviling all those things they hate about it. Yet none of these countries seem to realize that one simply can't have one without the other. France, like most of Western Europe, is far too well-removed from history's pressure cooker to remember what it was like to live in it. The age when France was at the center of world history is two-hundred years in the past - and since the fall of Napoleon, there are other countries that have mattered far more to cultural history. For a hundred years, America has been the world's chief battleground on which those ideas are fought, and I'm sorry to say that the country may now be losing that battle (as all great civilizations eventually do) but if America does not manage to renew itself from its latest crisis, the battle will rage on somewhere else, perhaps somewhere in Asia, and America will be free to play France to their new friends - living a life of comparitive lesiure and with all the privileges of criticizing freely because the decisions won't have the same existential importance to us as they will to those who live in the thick of them.

 17. The Museum Will Close in Twenty Minutes - A Dialogue with the now deceased but still grumpy Robert Hughes:

RH: Well, what did you think of the Musee D'Orsay?

ET: A brillianty depressing place.

RH: What could possibly be depressing about such enlivening creativity?

ET: The sheer emptiness of it. The spiritul rottenness of these artists. The lack of consideration about anything smacking of a human emotion.

RH: Well surely you can't feel that way about all of it...

ET: Hardly. I love Courbet and Daumier, and the liveliness of their paintings stand out even more in relation to everything that came after.  And I especially love Van Gogh because he saw the emptiness of all those Cezanne and Monet paintings he tried to emulate and it drove him to suicide.

RH: Surely you can't be one of those phillistines who thinks still lifes and landscapes are boring.

ET: By and large I absolutely am. I can watch fruit any time I want.

RH: Well there is no hope for you then, but no matter. And your Van Gogh comment is not quite as out of left field as it seems, but I'm still beginning to think that you're just a vapid generalist who doesn't really want to understand anything.

ET: This coming from the art critic who tried to anchor 20/20?

RH: I thought American television could be more intelligent than it was.

ET: It is now, but there's no BBC, and you're no Clive James.

RH: And thank God for that, Clive's a gifted writer, but he's an imperialist toady.

ET: That doesn't make sense.

RH: A lot of my insults don't make sense.

ET: Neither did a lot of your enthusiasms.

RH: I contain multitudes.

ET: Well in the hair department, nobody's arguing.

RH: A great critic needs great hair as much as a great artist.

ET: I'm working on that.

RH: (stares at Evan's hair, makes Evan uncomfortable) Work quickly...

ET: So let's change the subject, I hate Auguste Renoir, he's like the French Norman Rockwell. 

RH: I prefer to think of him as the French Walt Disney. And besides, isn't his son your favorite movie director?

ET: He's certainly near the top. But his son has real insight into human beings rather than just weird fetishes for fat women and little girls.

RH: Well if that's how you feel abot Renoir, do you like Manet's women better?

ET: Oh god, Manet's worse - at least Renoir's fetishes were interesting.

RH: Do you like any impressionists?

ET: Do Degas or Toulouse-Latrec count?

RH: I suppose if you want to be charitable.

ET: My favorite is Rousseau.

RH: Oh god, that self-taught amateur?

ET: What's wrong with Rousseau?

RH: He can't fucking paint.

ET: And I can't fucking see.

RH: Then what the hell are you doing in an art museum?

ET: I'm a tourist in Paris with bad French, what else is there to do?

RH: I never thought I'd meet anyone grumpier than me...

18. The Veelas of Shakespeare and Co. - I'm not much of a fan of archetypes in literature, even in Harry Potter, but one of the best archetypes for me is the Veelas, the magical French beings so beautiful that the mere act of looking at them can enchant you. The veelas in the Harry Potter 4 movie could never do justice to what we could imagine in the books. But then again, right around the time I saw Harry Potter 4, I knew a beautiful French girl I nicknamed Fleur Delaceur - so beautiful it was almost irritating, smart, always the center of attention, so beautiful that the worst parts of life was pretty much guaranteed never to happen to her because the rest of us 'normies' would always go out of our way to help her just for the pleasure of being in her company, and she knew it.
It's almost needless to say, but there are so millions of women in France who could pass for Veelas - perfect women who appear to resemble nothing so much as a perfect mix of physique, intelligence, elegance, eccentricity, and sexuality. To imagine yourself with any one of them, particularly for a guy like me with the unfortunate habit of staring at the floor when in the company of beautiful women (or at her breasts), seems like a happiness too far - almost something you can't even dare yourself to do. And of all the beautifl women in France, the most beautiful women in all Paris seem to congregate at the English langugage bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. Weirder still, they all seem to be American.
 There is a very specific type of American woman who goes Francophile. They seem to do so with a specific aim - to compete with French girls at their own game, and beat them. In this age of the newly liberated women, perhaps the first generation to not remember when the glass ceiling was uncrackable, and these American girls: usually upper-middle class, well-educated, intelligent, fancy themselves among the creme-de-la-creme of their generation; and they're usually right. I must know at least fifty girls who fit this description to a T, and at one point or another I've probably been in love with all of them (don't flatter yourselves). 

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