Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Who is Itzhak Perlman and what has he done for me recently?

I wasn't happy with Saturday's post. I'm still not, for several reasons.

First, in it I seemed to be sneering at The Andy Griffith Show and for the most meritricious of reasons---because it didn't conform to, present, adhere to, portray, or even give lip service to my personal political ideology. "There was no racial tension in Mayberry, because there were no black people," I wrote, but I meant it as a simple statement of fact, not an artistic judgment. The Andy Griffith Show didn't acknowledge the Civil Rights movement or racism, but so what? Anybody who wanted to see the Civil Rights Movement at work and the truth about life in the South just had to watch the evening news. Mayberry was a fantasy and it wasn't about life in an idyllic Southern town. It was about the charm and good nature of Andy Griffith and the comic genius of Don Knotts.

An awful lot of movies, TV shows, and plays are about nothing other than the talents of the actors starring in them, and that's a fine thing, although it's a fact of life that often confounds critics and pseudo-intellectuals and Right Wing crytpo-Stalinists who can't see that Million Dollar Baby was about Hillary Swank and Clint Eastwood acting together and not about "the culture of death" and Capote is about Philip Seymour Hoffman.

So, let me see flat out, I like The Andy Griffith Show, but only the ones with Barney in them, and of those the ones that featured a minimum of Gomer Pyle.


Second, I don't like the way I keep refering to Terry Teachout as Terry, like he and I are old chums. I've never met the man. I'd like to, altough he'd regret meeting me because if we ever get together I plan to make him talk non-stop about the biography of Louis Armstrong he's working on and the worst thing you can do to a writer is make him talk about what he should be at home writing.

But that's the way the blog world works. We're all such pals.

And at any rate his last name doesn't lend itself to friendly use. I can call Wolcott Wolcott and it sounds respectful, a foot soldier watching a fighting general ride by and shaking his head in admiration and pride. But calling Teachout Teachout sounds wrong in my head---like a teacher catching a little boy pulling a classmate's pigtails.

Maybe I'll start refering to him as TT.

Tennessee Tuxedo.

Third thing I didn't like about the post was the way it seems to make TT guilty by association. I tried to make it clear I wasn't directly attributing the attitudes of Right Wing bloggers about Hollywood to him, but Terry himself made that difficult by echoing at least one of those attitudes, that the five movies nominated for Best Picture this year weren't "popular." Besides not being true, it's the Right Wingers' attempt to delegitimize the political views they saw represented in those movies. I doubt Terry spends much time reading the featherweight likes of Michael Medved, but I know he likes Roger L. Simon, and Simon is pure poison. You can't read his stuff without coming away dumber than when you went in and I worry about liberal bloggers who read Simon's gunk in order to critique it. To me it's like drinking from a well you know's tainted to find out how much mercury it contains.

Terry's post also went too heavy on the nostalgia. Nostalgia's not a poison but it's like wine, one of those overly sweet fortified kinds. A little bit's tasty and even mellowing, but you'd better stop after one glass because you don't know when the drunk's going to kick in, and it's always a morose, melancholy, misanthropic, self-pitying kind of drunk. (See Wodehouse.)

But the last thing I didn't like about my post was that while nitpicking Terry's Don Knotts post I made only a passing reference to another, much better post of his. This isn't really a flaw, just one of those things. You can't juggle too many knives at one time. Actually, it's more the case that while you're juggling knives you shouldn't also try to pull a rabbit out of your hat. One act at a time.

The good thing is that you can always blog again and go after that rabbit later.

This is the post of Terry's I liked. It's about how when he was a kid network television routinely introduced its audience to the works of great artistry. There were symphonies, plays, ballets, documentaries about painters, all on network television, often shown in prime time.

And people watched, millions and millions of people watched.

Terry writes, with a touch of nostalgia, but a light, healthy, attractive touch, about learning about classical music as a small boy from watching Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts and experiencing the thrills of live, professional theater while watching Mary Martin in Peter Pan and, most importantly as far as he's concerned at the moment, discovering Louis Armstrong when his mother sat him down to watch Armstrong on the Ed Sullivan Show. It may be that watching television set Terry on the path to his career as a critic and writer.

At the same time network television was giving Middle America the Clampetts and Gomer Pyle, it was also introducing them to the likes of Pablo Casals and Margot Fonteyn.

And because I'd read Terry's post I was thinking about this when Itzhak Perlman appeared Sunday night onstage at the Academy Awards to play selections from the Oscar-nominated movie scores. It was one of the nicest moments of the ceremony, but I wondered how many people watching at home knew who Perlman was.

Probably a lot. But a lot relative to the number of people watching? If Pablo Casals had appeared at the Oscars when Terry was a kid to play the love theme from Doctor Zhivago---which for all I know he might very well have done---a much higher percentage of the TV audience would have recognized him. Because they'd have seen him on TV before, plenty of times. On the Ed Sullivan Show, playing at the White House for President and Mrs Kennedy, on other variety shows. I have a dim memory from when I first started watching the Tonight Show of Johnny routinely having classical musicians as guests.

That's all gone now.

As Terry writes:

The three networks basically gave up on high culture after the founding in 1967 of PBS (which we didn’t get in Smalltown, U.S.A.). Forty years later, PBS has done the same thing, more or less. You can still find a certain amount of high-culture programming on cable TV, but you have to go looking for it, and it doesn’t have anything like the same impact that Horowitz had when he played Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann, and Scriabin in prime time—and did so with the imprimatur of CBS, back when that still meant something.

It is different now. Parents who want to introduce their kids to art and culture have to do it themselves and that makes for a very piecemeal approach. Plus, it may strike kids as homework, something mom and dad are forcing on you like vegetables, instead of something wonderful and dazzling magically appearing on your TV as if it's just as important and just as fun as Gilligan and Jeannie and Lassie.

You could almost think it's too bad that PBS was ever created. It stole art from the networks and made it the exclusive property of the white wine drinkers who bother to watch public broadcasting.

Or you could if you haven't been watching TV for the last few decades and so haven't seen how desperate the Networks have been to dispense with everything that isn't a purely money-making feature of television. There used to be real works of investigative journalism in prime time too. In his Don Knotts post Terry wondered how likely it was that a network would green-light a show like Andy Griffith these days.

A lot more likely than it would green-light one like Harvest of Shame.

And, not to nitpick, but PBS didn't give up high culture to the boutique cable channels the way the networks gave it up to PBS. PBS still tries, but it's been made very, very difficult by 25 years of assaults and budget cuts by Republicans and Conservatives who have been determined to drive it out of existence, the same kind of Republicans and Conservatives who read and write for the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Which happens to employ as its drama critic one Terry Teachout.


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