Cult classics revisited: ‘Nuts’

Nuts is a 1987 drama based on Tom Topor’s play, which tells the story of a prostitute named Claudia Draper who kills a john in self-defense and then has to defend herself in a competency hearing. The film was directed by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae), and starred Barbra Streisand, Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, Richard Dreyfuss, and Karl Malden, with Leslie Nielsen in a cameo. The film was a rarity for Streisand in that it was one of the few movies in which she tried giving a performance, free from all the schtick and schmaltz that usually marred her work. It was also the last genuine bit of acting she would ever do in her storied career.

What I found interesting about Nuts is just how dated and 80s it feels – not because of the fashions but because of the genre (court dramas were all the rage in the 80s) and because of the film’s status as a Barbra Streisand vehicle. I would argue that the 1980s was the last decade that produced the classic “female movie star vehicle.” I’m not saying we don’t have female movie stars now – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep are all still bankable – but in the 1980s, there was still a strange archaic trend to use a female superstar as the tent pole of a film. Think about it: Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith, Jessica Lange, Sally Field, Cher, Goldie Hawn – all these actresses would be handpicked for their talent, star power, and beauty, and would have a film essentially created around their performances. Since the 1990s, few female stars have deemed bankable enough to green light a project – Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, and Reese Witherspoon come to mind – but we haven’t had an across-the-board female movie star in a little bit. So that Nuts acts as a showcase for Streisand’s acting talents is just one of the few aspects of the film that date it.

Nuts is a reasonably gritty film that explores misogyny, perceptions of sanity, as well as moral relativism. Topor’s screenplay (written with Darryl Ponicsan and Alvin Sargent) asks a lot of questions through its protagonist, Claudia. There are people around Claudia: her lawyer, her parents, her doctors – all of whom want to conveniently want her declared mentally incompetent when she kills a murderous john (Nielsen) is self-defense. Because she’s an intelligent woman, she understands that she may avoid a criminal sentence, but instead she may be locked away in a mental institution. Rightly, she sees this as unfair because she was acting in self-defense, a very normal, sane, reaction to having a man try to kill you.

Part of her detractors’ arguments lay in her chosen profession: she must be nuts to be a hooker. Topor wisely examines class distinction and race when he approaches these arguments. As Claudia herself sneers sarcastically, hookers aren’t “nice white girls from nice white families.” Because a seemingly intelligent, self-possessed, white woman like Claudia turns to prostitution, it stands to reason to her doctors, that she must be nuts. During her address to the court, she brings up the relative nature of prostitution, by pointing to married women whose lives and choices aren’t that different from her own. In the speech, delivered by Streisand with bravura and passion, Claudia points out:

“I know what you expect me to do…But I’m not a picture in your heads…do you understand? I’m not just a daughter, or a wife or a hooker or a patient or a defendant. Can’t you get that? You think giving blowjobs for $500 is nuts…I know women who marry men they despise so they can drive a Mercedes and spend summers in the Hamptons. I know women who crawl through shit for a fur coat. I know women who peddle their daughters to hang on to their husbands. So don’t judge my blowjobs, they’re sane. I know what I was doing every goddamned minute and I’m responsible for it.”

It’s a well-written speech that lets the readers know just how punny the title is. What is nuts? Why do we judge certain people to be crazy, when if one looks at it, a lot of “normal” behavior is strange, when examined objectively. One of the taglines for the film reads, “Mad as in angry, or just plain nuts.” Topor creates a character that stands in for the repudiation of societal expectations of decency and normalcy. And the viewers are asked to turn off their own expectations, because, as seen in Claudia’s case, these rigid rules have real world consequences.

And all of this is done with severe sincerity by the cast, the writers, and the director, all of whom step it up, putting together a very serious film. It’s not necessarily an excellent film, or even a very good one, but it’s a solid couple hours of choir preaching.

Because the film is based on a stage play, much of the action and dialogue is, well, stagey. People in Nuts don’t just speak naturally, but they also give rousing speeches, often to explain plot points or to highlight context. When delivering her defense speech, Streisand the star blends in with Claudia the character – and it’s difficult to see if Streisand’s performing or if she’s merely grandstanding. These are one of the few instances in the film when the script works against its star. The quieter moments with Streisand gently sparring with Dreyfuss as her crusading attorney, Aaron Levinsky, are much better, and show off the actress as the talented craftswoman. But too often, Streisand is supposedly gifted with monologues, during which she paces back and forth. as if she was holding court on a stage in Madison Square Garden.

Aside from Streisand, the other actors in the film represent the then-surviving members of the Actors Studio. Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, and Karl Malden were disciples of the Method and are predictably excellent, disappearing in their roles in a way that Streisand couldn’t (the “curse” of being a superstar). Dreyfuss, a star equal to Streisand’s star power, also is more powerful in his performance than his leading lady. As the bedraggled and overworked lawyer who takes on Claudia’s case, Dreyfus plays the altruistic weariness beautifully. And interestingly enough, Malden and Nielsen, both actors primarily known as playing genial gentlemen, do very well subverting their affable screen personas and portray men with dark and sinister tones.

But unfortunately, the success of the film rests on Streisand’s shoulders and despite her yeoman efforts, she ultimately fails in successfully portraying the caged-in paranoia of Claudia. When she’s called on to act extravagantly crazy, Streisand pops her eyes, flails, and shouts her lines in tough girl speak that feels hollow. And it’s not that she’s terrible in the film – in fact, she’s very good, but viewers can always see when Streisand is acting. Her internal acting gears are visible when the script calls for high drama. And as mentioned earlier, when Streisand gets to calm down, the film’s tone shifts, and there are momentary peeks of just how much stronger her performance would’ve been if she was allowed to remain subtle. As it is, in Nuts, Streisand’s acting prowess isn’t elastic enough to stand up to the script’s roller coaster of emotions.

Nuts is an interesting entry in Streisand’s oeuvre: it is, to date, her last drama, and the last time when she tried valiantly to hang up her diva persona and get inside of her character. In the handful of movies that followed, Streisand’s roles have been little more than just highlights of various facets of her onscreen persona (with the possible exception of the little-seen Seth Rogen comedy The Guilt Trip). The movie feels a bit sleepy, weighed down by its good intentions, but is nonetheless worth a view.

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Parenting when poor – unless you can afford childcare, don’t have kids…

Debra Harrell was arrested because she left her 9 year old playing in the park by herself while she was working at a South Carolina McDonald’s. Being in a fix, she left her kid at the park.

I understand the concern people have with a woman leaving her kid by herself at the park, but realistically speaking, instead of arresting the woman (and other parents who have to figure out alternatives to daycare), we should start looking at pushing for subsidized, affordable, or (let’s just say it) free daycare.

Some may grouse, “Don’t have kids if you can’t afford childcare” which essentially means, “Don’t have kids if you’re part of the working poor.” In an ideal world every parent could afford to pay for his children’s food, education, healthcare, and education. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We also live in a world (and a country) where comprehensive family planning is constantly under threat. It’s interesting that some are calling for Harrell’s arrest, when many of those same people would insist that birth control and access to abortion are both immoral.

Others point out that Harrell took an unforgivable risk: leaving her daughter in the park by herself would leave the child vulnerable to kidnappers. Even sympathetic commentators have clucked that it’s no longer the 1950s, when it was safer to leave kids out on their own. Aside from this cockeyed and incorrect nostalgia, we also have to point out that a child has a much better chance of being a victim with a family friend or relative.

Debra Harrell is just the public face of many parents who face agonizing choices when it comes to parenthood. These choices aren’t fair and are onerous. When commenting on the issue, some have said that even if it’s hard, Harrell should’ve just found someone – as if by magic, Mary Poppins would glide in to administer some top-shelf babysitting.

Harrell isn’t a criminal. She’s a victim. Her daughter is, too. They’re victims, along with thousands of other children and parents who are making do, improvising and doing what they can. Harrell’s decision to leave her kid at the park couldn’t have been an easy one, but it’s one that she felt she had to do, to ensure that she could work her shift and provide for her daughter.

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Cult classics revisited: ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ (1980)

Because of PBS, ITV, and Masterpiece Theatre, Agatha Christie stories have long become exclusive to television. But there was a time years ago, when her books enjoyed big screen adaptations. The biggest hit was of course the Academy Award winning Sidney Lumet classic, Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Because of the success of the film, other Christie thrillers were made into films, copying Lumet’s all-star approach. Unfortunately, each successive film saw diminishing returns and before long, Christie’s creations were relegated to TV.

The Mirror Crack’d is an interesting entry in the Christie filmography because it featured Miss Jane Marple, not Hercule Poirot. The joy of watching Poirot is his dashing adventures. As a professional detective, he sparred with hostile police officers and traveled to exotic locales. Miss Marple was largely confined to the cozy confines of her little village, St. Mary Mead. Also, Miss Marple was a very unassuming character. Instead of being boastful and eccentric, she was slightly dotty and self-effacing (that is until Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie took on the role).

In Guy Hamilton’s 1980 adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d (the title referring to a line in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”), we have an interesting take on the story – a campier take on Agatha Christie. The director assembled a hugely starry cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Geraldine Chaplin, Edward Fox, and as Miss Marple, future TV detective Angela Lansbury.

Before I go on, I have to comment a bit on Lansbury. Because of Murder, She Wrote, she would seem like a perfect fit for Miss Marple. She would be. Now. In 1980, the actress was only 55 years old – a good 20 years too young. The aging makeup was rather unflattering and not terribly convincing. There are peaks of Jessica Fletcher, but one only feels Lansbury is good for the role because of hindsight. Normally a brilliant actress, in The Mirror Crack’d, Lansbury has a hell of a time working against her miscasting, and ultimately, she doesn’t succeed, which is a shame.

But aside from the miscasting of Lansbury, The Mirror Crack’d benefits from the other stars – namely Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak. They play actresses who are nursing a healthy rivalry. They trade insults and bitchy quips that sound like vintage Joan Collins/Linda Evans duels in Dynasty. Obviously, a large bulk of their sniping deals with age, weight, and beauty. Both Novak and Taylor are heralded as great beauties, and inform their respective roles with that history.

In the film, Novak has maintained much of the looks she had at her peak. She’s outfitted in slim-fitting suits that push up her bust. Taylor, while still beautiful, has become slightly matronly due to her well-publicized issue with weight and food. Novak, always a limited actress, does well with the two-dimensional role, allowing for primping and preening.

Taylor’s performance is more interesting because she shows a good, healthy sense of humor about herself. By the 1980s, Taylor’s image shifted from the glamorpuss of the 1950s, to the extravagantly loud and brassy celebrity. She injects a slight coarseness into her acting, laughing louder and screeching more shrilly than everyone else. A very underrated actress, Taylor also gets a chance to show off hidden comic talents with some great one liners.

The plot is a predictably convoluted affair. St. Mary Mead is the improbable location for a film shoot about Queen Elizabeth I, and Taylor’s Marina Rudd is even more improbably cast as the Virgin Queen. Novak’s Lola Brewster is starring as Mary, Queen of Scots. Marina is staying in St. Mary Mead with her husband, hack director Jason (Rock Hudson), who is devoted to his tempestuous wife. Also on hand is Marina’s devoted, if resentful, assistant, Ella Zelinsky (Geraldine Chaplin).

During a swanky party, crashed by Lola, a pretty young village girl is poisoned. Because the daiquiri she drank was meant for Marina, it’s quickly established that the famed movie star is in mortal danger. Police Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox) is called to investigate the murder and to figure out who is trying to kill Marina; luckily, he happens to be the nephew of the local amateur sleuth, Miss Marple.

Those familiar with Christie’s book, will know the ending – I’ll leave it be because I don’t want to spoil it. There are tiny clues sprinkled throughout the play, and Hamilton’s good about dropping them without cheating. Unfortunately, there isn’t much suspense in the story, but still The Mirror Crack’d is an enjoyable campy film.

And much of the success of the film is due to the screenwriters: Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler. Without delving too much into stereotypes, I imagine that a lot of the film’s arch, waspish, bitchy sense of humor is due to openly gay Sandler’s input. There’s something practically Warholian about some of the jabs, as well as, an historic nod to queer cinema. In one memorable scene, Taylor is scrutinizing her face in the mirror, singing “Wrinkles, wrinkles, go away, come back on Doris Day,” which gets a bemused double take from Hudson (Day’s perennial costar in a series of sex comedies in the 1960s).

What’s interesting about Hudson’s contribution to the film, is that he comes off as the most natural. While the other performers mug for the camera, chewing scenery and practically winking at the camera, Hudson gives a nice, warm performance that is understated. Like Novak, he was never a great actor, but he was a great star. But his naturalism and subtle emoting doesn’t fit with the film, and despite his looks and tall stature, he actually starts to blend into the background (it doesn’t help that his wardrobe, oddly, matches the scenery).

If Hudson is too low key, then it has to be said that Tony Curtis’ performance as film producer Martin Fenn could be characterized as near-Kabuki. As if spoon fed on every Jewish stereotype as well as every Hollywood film producer cliche, Curtis’ performance is a jumble of grimaces, hand waves, and sentences punctuated with “bubbe.” It feels as if Curtis’ performance has been inspired by a large oil slick (it’s also strange seeing the actor without his signature pompadour, and he looks not unlike a weird combo of Joe Pesci and Frank Sinatra). If anything does work with Curtis’ work, it’s his clipped, deep voice.

Aside from the cutting dialogue and the hammy acting, another notable aspect of the film is that it begins with a film: elements of the 1931 Frank Strayer potboiler Murder at Midnight opens the film. It’s black and white, and the night sky is illuminated by shards of lightening. The movie-in-the-movie is a classic whodunit, and like every whodunit, a detective assembles the guests in a drawing room to reveal the murderer. Hamilton and his scribes ramp up the corniness of the genre, by having the suspects all act idiosyncratically, with one young lady madly twirling a string of pearls like a demented flapper. Before we’re told who the murderer is, the film cuts off, and we’re suddenly transported to a rec hall at a church, filled with disgruntled villagers, all frustrated at being denied a satisfying conclusion. It’s at this moment that we are introduced to Miss Marple, who stands up, gathers her things and quickly solves the mystery with an air of smugness.  Interestingly enough, because Murder at Midnight only takes about ten minutes (maybe even less), the whodunit cliches are announced to the audience, almost with horn-filled fanfare. Maybe two hours of this would be tiresome, but the ten minutes or so we watched was pretty funny, and strangely enough, was far more compelling then the denouement at the end of The Mirror Crack’d. It doesn’t bode well for a film when its jokey send up, a minor plot point, comes off stronger than the film’s own climax.

Still, at the end of The Mirror Crack’d I have to say, I did enjoy it. It’s clear that it isn’t on par with Murder on the Orient Express, nor is it even on par with its inferior followups (Evil Under the Sun, Appointment with Death, Death on the Nile). I understand that ITV’s Marple is finished – because Angela Lansbury is still in incredible good health, it’d be great if she returned to the role that now would be far more appropriate for her. Miss Marple is a nontraditional heroine – rarely do films revolve around an elderly woman as their central protagonist, so just for that reason The Mirror Crack’d is worth a try.

 

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Chicken salisbury steak recipe – a story of a recipe

I don’t eat red meat, and haven’t for a few years now. I don’t really miss it all that much, but there are some great American recipes that use beef that I miss – namely burgers and salisbury steak. I thought about adapting salisbury steak by using ground turkey.

At home, we never ate salisbury steak – but I used to get it occasionally in my school lunch. In Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood’s St. Pancratius school, I was served salisbury steak in prepackaged heated lunches that resembled airplane food. The steak would come sealed in a tiny foil tray with a foil lid that one would have to roll off. Like a mini TV dinner, there would be a compartment for the steak and another for the mash potatoes – which I have to assume was made from a mix because the potatoes were silky smooth – almost liquid.

When we would get the salisbury steak, I’d make teeny tiny sandwiches with the roll we got – I buttered the roll, and chopped up my steak and made a little butty for me to dip in the gelatinous gravy. Looking back, I’m sure the food was junk, but at the time, I loved the meal, declaring it to my friends as “the best meal I’ve ever eaten!”

I asked my Polish grandmother to make salisbury steaks – but the closest thing we got was sznycel - basically, hamburger cooked in a green casserole with charred onions and mushrooms. Like any immigrant kid living in the U.S., I was spitefully ungrateful of this transgression – it looked nothing like my cute little lunch. I wanted the thick, almost gel-like gravy and the over-salted patty, and I wanted potatoes whipped up to the consistency of Cool Whip.

As I grew older, I found an appreciation for the dishes my grandmother tried to make, and I find myself looking back a lot. My partner on the other hand, had childhood memories of salsibury steak – his mother used to make it for him as a child. I always liked to quiz my partner on his childhood meals, his mother making the kinds of dishes I only knew about from television: tuna fish casserole, chicken and dumplings, meat loaf, and salisbury steak. These very Americana dishes informed a lot of his growing up. He described his meals as “a meat, a vegetable, and a starch, like potatoes or rice.” He also described how he hated it if his food touched, so to be cute, I dug around and found ceramic TV dinner trays that I ordered from Uncommon Goods. I bought the trays to be funny, but we actually use them now.

So, I researched salisbury steak on the Internet to find out how to make it, and found the most recipes followed a pretty basic template: ground meat, egg, breadcrumbs, canned soup, powdered soup, onions, mushrooms, and ketchup.

I’m trying to eat healthier, so I worried about all the salt in the canned soup and the powdered soup, so I left that out. I still needed the flavor, so I replaced the canned soup with dry red vermouth. Instead of powdered soup, I used Vegeta, a sort of one-size-fits-all spice that is used to toots up soup or sauces. Instead of ground beef, I looked for ground turkey, but was thrilled to find that Perdue also makes ground chicken, which I always found to have a nicer flavor (and a quick comparison of the nutritional information showed that they both were comparable when it comes to health benefits).

To serve, hopefully you have a heavenly batch of fluffy mashed potatoes or a loaf of crusty bread.

Chicken salisbury steak – serves 2, very generously

  • 1 lb of 99% fat free ground chicken (or ground turkey, beef, pork, or whatever kind of meat you’re eating – I think lamb might be nice)
  • 2 cups of chicken broth – all recipes suggest “low sodium” but I always buy unsalted, and if I can’t find that, Rachael Ray’s low sodium chicken broth is really good with very little salt.
  • 1/2 an onion, minced finely, divided in half
  • 8 oz. of mushrooms – I like baby bella, but usually people get white button.
  • Dry red vermouth – you’ll be splashing/sloshing this into the recipe, so it’s up to taste
  • 1 tablespoon of Coleman’s mustard
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic powder - not garlic salt, but garlic powder
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup of dried breadcrumbs – get the plain kind without any seasonings or cheese
  • Olive oil
  • 1 tbl of ketchup – I used an organic brand with low sodium.
  • Worcester sauce (some folks say soy sauce works okay)
  • 1 tbl of flour
  • 1 tbl of butter – I used Land O Lakes butter, cut with Canola oil to cut down on the fat and cholesterol.
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper

You’ll need a big, heavy pan with a lid.

In a large mixing bowl, mix the ground meat, half of the minced onion, the Coleman’s mustard, the garlic powder, the egg, breadcrumbs,  cayenne pepper, ketchup, salt and pepper. Mix it well, but don’t over mix. At this step I realized just how different ground chicken is versus ground beef – ground chicken acts almost like a paste, and it’s very sticky, so be careful how you handle the meat that you don’t accidentally brush some off on your cooking surfaces. Divide the ground meat into four sections, and form patties – you should get four patties, about the size of tennis balls.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick pan over a medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, carefully slide the meat in and cook, letting the patties brown on both sides. This will take about five minutes on each side. The patties won’t be cooked through, but there will be more cooking later, so that’s fine. Another quick note – some dredge beef patties in flour to create a crust – I don’t know if that’s possible with the chicken because of its sticky texture, and I didn’t try it – I don’t suggest you do, as well.

Once the patties are browned on both sides, remove and set aside. Add the remaining minced onion and mushrooms and saute for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. While cooking, add a bit of salt to draw out the mushrooms’ liquid and slosh in some of the red vermouth. Cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is evaporated and the mushrooms are browned and the onions are translucent – all this should talk about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add the butter, and stir quickly – the pan is really hot, so it’s important that you move quickly, otherwise the butter will burn, and burnt butter tastes very bitter. Once the butter melts, add the flour and stir quickly – you’ll be making a roux. Mix and stir constantly, making sure that none of the roux burns – you’ll get a brown, crumby mixture. Add the broth slowly, whisking constantly, so that you get rid of the lumps. This step is difficult because the lumps are really hard to whisk out. Also, be careful what kind of whisk you use – on a nonstick pan, you should use a good plastic whisk to avoid scratching the pan’s surface. Keep adding the broth until you run out, and raise the heat to high and let it boil. Add the Dijon mustard and keep stirring, letting the mustard break up. Splash a bit of the Worcester sauce – just two or three shakes. Grind some fresh pepper. Boil the sauce for a bit until it thickens and reduces a bit – maybe down a quarter. Slide the chicken patties back into the pan and drop in the onion-mushroom mixture. Spoon some of the sauce over the patties. Cover and cook for about 10, 15 minutes, until the patties are cooked through – your meat thermometer should read 160 F. Once you uncover the meat, the sauce should be reduced to a thick gravy – if not, remove the meat and place in a hot oven and raise the heat, stirring constantly until it cooks down more.

To serve put the patties on a heated plate and spoon the gravy. Serve with your starch of choice – rice, potatoes, pasta, etc. Last night I served it with a simple tomato salad (chopped tomato with sliced red onion and chopped basil, sprinkled with olive oil). Oh, and enjoy.

 

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Beauty has different meanings, and art doesn’t always have to be beautiful

So apparently liberals have sapped beauty away from society. According to John C. Wright, “The most precious, profound and important of the great ideas which the Left has raped from us is beauty.” In his article, “How We’ve Been Robbed of Beauty by the Left”  Wright attributes a strange dearth of discourse on beauty to the rise of the Left.

By cherry picking certain works of art that he finds ugly, he laments that because of this free-for-all attitude of “everything is beautiful” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” we no longer have an appreciation of real beauty or real art.

Yeah, I’m not kidding.

It’s funny that I’m writing about this, because just the other day I was slamming Tom Junod who was going on and on about how beautiful 42 year old movie stars can be.  But his thesis that those who embrace “ugly” art have lost some sort of innocence is ridiculous. Art doesn’t always have to be beautiful – and yes, beauty is subjective.

In his article he creeps into (I think) dangerous territory by comparing high culture with pop culture, extolling the virtues of the former, and writing that the latter is merely fast-food consumption. He may be right – that’s a different argument, but let’s for the moment agree with Mr. Wright and say that if something is “high culture” than it’s better: no where in his article does he talk about access to high culture. If most people don’t embrace classical music, masterpiece paintings, or fine literature, it’s not because we’ve been blunted by “ugliness” or because we soulless creatures unable to appreciate high culture. It’s because of access – museums and classical concerts are expensive. And the literary canon is so removed from most readers that teachers have a hard time trying to make it urgent and relevant to their students.

But what about the works of art he looks at – he uses examples of art that is meant to provoke, maybe even disgust. One of the pieces is Piss Christ (1987), a photograph by artist, Andres Serrano. The photograph is of a crucifix in urine. Even though I find the work arresting and yes, maybe even beautiful, Serrano’s work is merely a way to show its audience just how commercialized and meaningless the image of Christ has become; so there’s more to the work than just an attempt to shock.

Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off (2000) is just that – a room with a light blinking on and off. Do I get it? Not really. But just because I don’t doesn’t mean that it has no value – in fact, if anything it does make me question the boundaries of art – if flicking a light on and off can be an artistic expression, just how pervasive is art in our everyday lives? You see – even though Creed’s work may not be “beautiful” and even though I personally don’t get it, it still has some value because it gets people to talk.

Wright goes on to write, “At any point before World War One, if you asked any philosopher or intellectual what was the point of art, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, all of them of each generation all the way back to Socrates would have said the purpose of art is to seek beauty. Socrates himself would have said that by beauty, by the strong love and longing created in the human breast at the sight of something sublime, we are drawn out of ourselves, and are carried step by step away from the mundane to the divine.”

Great – then let’s just agree that since WWI, the point of art, poetry, music, painting, etc has changed and it’s become not just a seeking of beauty, but also a way to make meaning of the ugly. In the 20th Century and 21st Century, we’ve seen some very ugly moments in history and we’ve seen humanity do some terrible things to itself: WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, the Balkans War, Rwanda genocide, Vietnam, Katrina, Iraq, AIDS, 9/11 – the list is exhaustive. And no, I’m not claiming that we had it the worst, because evil has always been around, but because of advances in technology and communication, we’ve been able to broadcast and share a lot more information. And survivors of these instances of evil or tragedy have been using art to express their pain, anger, grief – and yes, some of the resulting art can be seen as “beautiful,” but if some of the art isn’t, then that’s okay, too – because art isn’t solely made to be pretty.

Art is also made to disturb and disrupt our sensibilities. We an appreciate gorgeous works of beauty that are transcendent (and I have – this past summer I visited some of London’s greatest galleries and feasted on works by Leonardo di Vinci, Michelangelo, Pissaro), but we can also appreciate works of art that are strange and abrasive, and that challenge our ideas of what art is.

Wright insists that his critics will merely say that he’s blind to the beauty of the works he cites – that may be true of some, but I would argue that the art he was referencing wasn’t meant to be beautiful, at least no in the traditional sense of what beauty means.

****

 

He writes, “There is no discussion of it because by convincing the public that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Left has placed it beyond the realm of discussion. According to the Left, beauty is a matter of taste, and arbitrary taste at that. There is no discussion of taste because to give reasons to prefer tasteful to tasteless things is elitist, nasty, uncouth and inappropriate. To have taste implies that some cultures produce more works of art and better than others, and this raises the uncomfortable possibility that love of beauty is Eurocentric, or even racist. To admire beauty has become a hate crime.”

Wright wages into the tired culture wars by lamenting that somehow political correctness has made appreciated “classic” works of art (read: White) impossible. But again, this tired refrain – something I encountered in my years of teaching when old fusty professors complained that more students read The Color Purple than Shakespeare (which wasn’t true, but anyways…) is just wrong. Plain wrong. He’s writing as if there has been a shift and the masters have all been relegated to the crypts, hidden away, while these upstarts (which by the way include Marchel Duchamp whose work cited Fountain was made in 1917) have taken over.

He also touches on atheism, insisting that the Left (which is synonymous with atheism, because there are no such thing as liberal religious folks) hates beauty because to acknowledge beauty is to acknowledge something “bigger” than us – and atheists (or the Left, either one will do) hate doing that. So, that’s it. We surround ourselves with ugliness because we hate God.

I don’t know – I live my life – a liberal atheist – and I see beauty all around me and I appreciate it. I hear it when I listen to great music (both classical and popular). I experience it when I read great literature (again, both popular and literary). I feel it when I watch great television and film. It’s not that we’ve abandoned beauty, or that we’re turning away from the canon because we want to deny the existence of a higher power (which doesn’t exist). It’s just that those of us who Wright accused of “raping” away beauty merely see that both beauty and ugliness exist in art and often work simultaneously. Some will find Piss Christ beautiful, others will find it ugly, and others will be see-sawing back and forth – and that to me is beautiful: a complicated, fractured look at art the will provoke not only questions of aesthetics, but questions of blaspheme, religiosity, legitimacy of contemporary art – discussions, by the way, that are also had when looking at the masters. Beauty is complicated and messy and beauty can also be ugly (just listen to Marianne Faithfull or Nico and tell me that there isn’t something shockingly beautiful about the ravaged ruins of the singers’ voices).

In a sense, I’m glad that Wright brought up some of these questions because he is participating in a conversation that’s been going on for a long time. Art has always been up to scrutiny; I just wish he didn’t couch is argument in his Left vs. Right, Christian vs. Heathen rhetoric, because it’s reductive and unfortunate. And the funny thing is, like Wright, I don’t like some of the art he’s included in his piece, and I’m not a fan of all contemporary work – a lot of it I don’t understand and a lot of it is unpleasing to me, aesthetically. But that’s okay – I don’t feel robbed because “ugly” works of art exists, nor do I see it as a larger sign of a degradation of society – I see it merely as a large, swirling, contradicting mass that makes up our culture.

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Perennial supporting actress Judy Greer displays a charming wit in ‘I Don’t Know What You Know Me From’

If our generation had a Thelma Ritter, it would be Judy Greer. Like Ritter, Greer has forged a substantial career playing supporting roles in a wide range of roles – from big blockbuster movies (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Carrie) to a string of popular romantic comedies (13 Going on 30, 27 Dresses) as well as TV (Arrested Development, Two and a Half Men). She never became Nicole Kidman or Reese Witherspoon, but instead swiftly stole scenes, usually as the best girlfriend of the heroine in the film. Her role in the upcoming FX sitcom Married is a rare chance for Greer to step up as the lead, but she’s largely known for being the cool, smart, and sassy costar, ready with a quip or a sharp-one liner. If the cover plays up her second-tier status (she’s pictured with a name tag introducing her as “???”), it’s evidence of her ability and willingness to laugh about her place on the Hollywood hierarchy.

In her humorous memoir I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star, Greer writes about her Hollywood life – and because she’s just shy of the A-list, her tales of stardom are surprisingly accessible to readers – this isn’t the work of some globally-famous superstar like Julia Roberts; instead, we have the clever musings of a hard-working woman who has made a name for herself by plugging away, building up an enviable resume.

Raised in suburban Detroit before moving to L.A., Greer’s tales of growing up paint a picture of a John Hughes-like childhood. Greer is self-deprecating (referring to herself as “Ugly Judy” when describing her teen years, and punctuating his sobriquet with photos). She has a great way of writing about her family – her mother in particular is a very interesting character – a former nun student who left to go to nursing school. She also writes with affection and a wry sense of humor about summer jobs, boyfriends, her first car, her father, vacations.

For some who are expecting a show business memoir, they’ll be disappointed because while her Hollywood life is included (she writes about her repeated forays into network television as well as her film work), her acting is merely another part of a larger tapestry that makes up a pretty interesting life. But even better than that, it’s Greer’s distinct voice that makes I Don’t Know What You Know Me From especially interesting to read: it’s a wise, quippy voice that reflects the actress’s intelligence and great sense of humor.

Click here to buy Judy Greer’s I Don’t Know What You Know Me From on amazon.com.

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Elaine Stritch (1925-2014)

Elaine Stritch

Picture by: Allan Warren

I first became aware of Elaine Stritch on The Cosby Show. She had a recurring role as Rudy’s long-suffering teacher, Mrs. McGee. What I loved about her performance on the show was that she perfectly captured the simmering burnout that was just peeking at the surface. She was a dedicated teacher and loved her students, but her patience was always tested. She had an especially wonderful chemistry with Deon Richmond who played Rudy’s best friend, Kenny. Kenny was a typical kid – good-natured, but hated school, and Mrs. McGee was one of those saintly teachers who did her best to make sure that he got an education. There’s a scene in which the two are dancing – the class was learning about manners, and Kenny was left alone without a partner to dance with.

“Mrs. McGee?” Kenny asked.

“Uh, yes, Kenny, what is it?”

“I can’t dance.”

“What do you mean, you can’t dance,” McGee asks, “what’s the matter?”

“All the girls are taken” is his simple response.

A look washes over her faces as she takes off her glasses and strolls to the middle of the makeshift dance floor. She then stretches her arms wide (she had an incredible wingspan) and drawled, “No, Kenny…Not all of them.”

With a pained look Kenny steps up and the two do a simple box step, during which Stritch starts to croon “The Man I Love” with Ella Fitzgerald, getting another grimace from Kenny. Quickly Stritch breaks character, laughing and grabs her little costar and dance partner in a big hug. It was such a great, honest moment.

I always thought Elaine Stritch was just fabulous. I loved everything about her: her attitude, her looks, her voice. I played her At Liberty CD over and over again. She was a born story teller, and she had a lot of stories to share.

Whenever I think of Elaine Stritch I always go back, though, to that day in the AMC River East Theater. She was making an appearance to promote the documentary Just Shoot Me, which chronicled her life and work. During the brief Q&A the host veered strangely onto the topic of Angela Lansbury, and before long, Stritch bristled and barked, “Can we stop talking about Angela Lansbury?”

Rest in peace, Elaine Stritch – a woman who personified the words “irascible” and “talented.”

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