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March 2009 Archives

March 7, 2009

The Washington Post: Our "Local" Paper

On Feb. 15, the Washington Post printed its last Sunday "Book World" section. One week later, it premiered a combined Outlook-book review section, with a somewhat expanded book review section the following Wednesday.

The Post claimed this was "good news" for Book World fans, and I guess it's not all bad news. Ron Charles' reviews on Wednesday are as lively and intelligent as they ever were for the old "Book World"; Jonathan Yardley continues to publish his periodic essays on once-popular or unfairly forgotten books (his most recent essay was on Irwin Shaw and "The Young Lions"); the Monday mystery-thirller reviews of Patrick Anderson continue to appear every Monday, and on Friday we can still count on Carolyn See's always-delightful, wide-ranging reviews of current fiction and non-fiction. There are even book reviews on Saturday now, which never happened before "Book World" was laid to rest.

And yet I cannot help but feel that the role of both books and ideas has been much diminished at The Washington Post. On Sundays before the change, we could count on sixteen pages of incisive literary commentary in "Book World" and eight pages of inslightful political and cultural essays in "Outlook." Those were always the sections of the Sunday paper that accompanied my first cup of coffee that morning. Now, in the combined section, we have five pages of political essays and three pages of reviews. How the Post could consider this an even trade, or hope to maintain its reputation as a national paper of record after this, can only be considered an exercise in self-delusion. Blended together, "Outlook" and "Book World" look gray and unprepossessing; though it would be unfair to say the quality of the writing has diminished, the current presentation of the essays and reviews makes them appear much less significant. (That isn't even considering their reduced number.) With "Book World" ceasing publication and the San Francisco Chronicle poised to go under, this means that the New York Times will be the only newspaper in the country with a dedicated Sunday book section. Gore Vidal once said the United States is about as signficant culturally as Albania; why are the nation's newspapers so hellbent on proving him right?

The Post complained that "Book World" hemorrhaged money for years, and that publishers just weren't buying ads. Maybe so, but I know a lot of people on the verge of canceling their Post subscriptions for the want of "Book World." Does the paper's management really consider that a good trade?

When I was a kid in Ohio, the commentary and book review sections in the Sunday papers were always combined, and always uninteresting. I guess the Post wants to be Washingtonians' "local" paper, in more ways than one.

The Worst Oscar Prognosticator

Returning belatedly to the Oscars two weeks after the broadcast, I see that I am still the worst prognosticator, thank God. I had really felt the 13 nominations for "Benjamin Button" meant the fix was in, and I'm glad to see I was wrong. "Slumdog Millionaire" was a perfectly respectable, even laudable, Best Picture winner (though personally I would rather have seen the award go to "Milk" or "Frost/Nixon"). I was generally pleased with the acting awards, particularly Sean Penn's, and if the broadcast was still a bit on the longish side, Hugh Jackman was a superb host, and his opening musical number was the most delightful I remember seeing on any Oscar broadcast. (For years after the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White-Merv Griffin debacle, I always kept the remote in my hand throughout every Oscar broadcast, ready to push the Mute button at a moment's notice.) Also, I liked the new feature of having five previous winners in each acting category deliver an encomium to each of the nominees. It was thrilling to see all those beloved actors on stage at once, but even more, it drew the nominees into the show in a way that had never been done before. Instead of having one winner and four also-rans, this broadcast reminded us that even if only one of the nominees actually gets to take a statue home, ALL of them are winners. I like this kinder, gentler Oscar ceremony, and I hope it continues in years to come.

March 10, 2009

Two Eulogies

My friend Chris Conlon has written an eloquent tribute to the late Horton Foote on his blog, http://chrisconlon.livejournal.com. Foote had an enviable life and career, winning two Oscars and a Pulitzer Prize, and dying just short of his 93rd birthday on the eve of a premiere of a new play. Chris' tribute is superb, and there is nothing I can add to it, except to say that it is marvelous to consider the career of a playwright so concerned with making his characters real, and so naturally a gentleman, that he declined to put himself above them. Read Chris' essay, and you will understand exactly what I mean. (My only quibble with Chris' eulogy is, in discussing at length Foote's long association with Robert Duvall and correctly identifying "Tomorrow" and "Tender Mercies" as masterpieces, he did not even mention the name BOO RADLEY!)

Meanwhile, yesterday during a routine Internet search, I was saddened to hear of the death of someone whose life and career have been discussed previously on this blog. Kathleen Byron, the beautiful and idiosyncratic actress who was a key member of the Powell and Pressburger stock company in the 1940s, passed away in London in mid-January, a week after what was either her eighty-sixth birthday (according to the British Film Institute) or her eighty-eighth (according to the "Guardian" and "Independent"). Byron's death, to my knowledge, was not noted by newspapers in this country--and also, shamefully, not in this year's Oscar broadcast. Byron was not as lucky in her career as Foote was in his, and also not as lucky in her old age; in the early 2000s she was supposed to play Lauren Bacall's sister in Lars Von Trier's "Dogville"--what a glorious pair those two would have made!--but ill health forced her to drop out. Nevertheless, Byron will always have to her credit what is, for my money, one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film: the love-crazed Sister Ruth in "Black Narcissus." To see this film is to be under its spell forever, and Byron's performance is crucial to its impact.

The best way to memorialize great figures of the theater and cinema is to keep their work current in our memories. See "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies," "The Trip to Bountiful," and especially "Tomorrow"--a work of such exquisite purity that to see it is to have it burned in your memory forever--and you will see at work the embodiment of the gentleman artist, a phrase considered an oxymoron in our day. Then see "Black Narcissus," a masterpiece of an altogether different sort, and get blown away by the power of one woman's performance.

March 21, 2009

Natasha Richardson

"Family Vacation Turns Tragic." It's the sort of senseless tragedy the news bombards us with, on any given day. Sometimes it's the children, or the father; this time it was the mother, a young and vital woman, taking what seemed to be a trivial spill on the beginners' slope at a ski resort. But in an hour she complained of a blinding headache, and in three days she was dead.

I hope and pray that those who read this have never had anything like this happen in their families, but we have all known families--in our neighborhoods, in our circles of friends--who have suffered such sudden, horrible losses. In a very real sense, Natasha Richardson was our neighbor. We didn't know her personally, but we knew her face, we knew her voice and manner, better than we know the faces and voices of most of the people on our block. And we also know her family, in exactly the same way: her husband, her mother, her sister, her aunt. Their bewilderment and grief are appallingly easy to imagine, just as if they lived next door. John Donne's admonishment hits home through the centuries: the loss of any soul diminishes all of us.

I saw Natasha Richardson live only once, more than twenty years ago, in the London stage revival of "High Society," Cole Porter's musical version of "The Philadelphia Story." In the role played first by Katharine Hepburn and then by Grace Kelly, Ms. Richardson glowed. She had her mother's luminosity, but with a straightforward charm all her own--a statement that held true throughout her career. Thinking about it now, however, it conjures the unpleasant thought that Grace Kelly, too, died long before her time in a senseless accident...

With Stephen Rea, Trevor Eve and Angela Richards as Ms. Richardson's co-stars, that performance of "High Society" is one of my cherished theatrical memories. I never thought until this moment, however, that it could make me cry.

About March 2009

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in March 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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