Friday, March 15, 2002

"What is it that people think they are hearing?" That was the very apt question posed almost ten years ago by then New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter in a review of a performance in which an over-the-hill German baritone had shouted his hoarse way through Winterreise and then received a half-dozen ecstatic curtain calls at the 92nd St. Y - one of Manhattan's most self-regardingly "sophisticated" culture venues, if such can be claimed by a place that regularly features Charlie Rose. And it's a question that still can be posed with even more pithy aptness nowadays, and not only with respect to "hearing" but to "seeing" or "looking at" or any of the other mediations via sense by which we apprehend manifestations of so-called culture. Today, having a spare hour, I wandered over to the Museum of Modern Art to see the retrospective of the German painter Gerhard Richter, who is being peddled to us as one of the towering giants of milennial art. A shallower, less engaging show I can scarcely ever recall seeing, and certainly not one so highly touted. Shallower and more boring. My MO in such exhibitions is to walk through the galleries slowly, letting my eye take in what's on the walls, and if it's caught by something that demands closer looking, to follow its urgings. I couldn't even finish the Richter show, quitting after half the upstairs portion. The thing is, everything on offer reminds a halfway-educated eye of something already seen elsewhere - and done better. There are hint-reminiscences of Warhol, of Velasquez, of Fragonard (in which Times critic Michael Kimmelman claimed to see Vermeer, suggesting need of an early visit to a competent opthamologist,) there are knockoffs of Richter's German contemporaries so superficial they amount to pastiche - and all hung within a few yards of the great stuff Alfred Barr and successors built MOMA on. And what of the crowds thronging the show? What do they think they're looking at? Why is the most common audience sound one hears nowadays a kind of nervously uncomprehending giggle? Apart from the efforts of publicists and column-whores, I suppose the popular success of shows like this, or most of the other crap that's ringing the cash register around town, is proof positive and pecuniary of Lady Bracknell's praise of natural ignorance. Ignorance - an utter lack of cultural experience, knowledge or context, usually excused by "Well, I thought it was fun!" - can account for the success of "Godwaful Park," a movie cordially disliked for its lack of sense, accuracy and honesty by practically everyone I know. I suppose I should also admit that I only managed to sit through one act of the "The Sweet Smell of Success," to which we were given previews tickets, and which I thought missed on all cylinders by just this much, the way a show can when TOO much talent is involved and falls all over each other, the way that it's supposed to have happened back in the '40s with "One Touch of Venus." These days, however, anything can be gotten away with.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

One of the few pleasures of writing for The New York Observer is to see the big boys come huffing & puffing in one's wake on an angle of news interpretation or commentary two or three weeks or more after I got there, wrote that. Today's Times has a big piece on Vinson Elkins, Enron's #1 law firm, a piece redolent of "Look, Ma, I'm scoopin'!" Those who read "The Midas Watch" back in January, as perhaps the Grey Lady of 43rd St. did, might recall the following passage:

"My mind keeps going back maybe thirty years, to a cocktail party in the swank Houston quarter of River Oaks and a conversation I had with the late David Searls, managing name partner of the great Houston law firm then known as Vinson Elkins Weems & Searls.
For whatever reason, I found myself asking “Judge” Searls, as he was called by his friends, “David, which is the biggest legal shop in this town: you guys or Baker Botts?”
David had one of those snapping-turtle mouths you often see in power-Texans, a snicker-snee of a mouth with a cruel overbite that looked like it could take the head off a rattlesnake in a second’s quick chomp. It was a physical trait he shared with Lyndon Baines Johnson. At my question, the fierce lips twisted into a clever sneer. “Hell,” he exclaimed, “Baker Botts is the biggest law firm – but we’re the biggest investment-banking house!”
An answer which left him pleased as punch and which, as far as I was concerned, made perfect sense. Back then, as we in the finance business knew, you could never get at anyone at the top of Vinson Elkins to give you a legal opinion; the partners were all off promoting or doing deals, their own and their clients’.
Now a law firm that thinks in investment-banking terms is going to be more concerned with “Yea!” than “Nay!”, more with facilitation than rectitude, more with what can be gotten away with than what shouldn’t be done in the first place, more as enablers than counselors. I therefore wasn’t surprised to learn that when Enron fell over like a tall tree, disclosing roots that were rotten and vermin-riddled, among the grubs, beetles and other parasites to be observed blinking in the unwelcome daylight was Vinson & Elkins.
De mortuis etc….and David Searls is long dead and had no part in this, but attitudes do tend to institutionalize within firms, to become part, as it were, of the genetic material. Before taking its current name, the firm went through an interlude as Vinson, Elkins, Searls and Connolly, when there was added to the names on the door another old East Texas snapper-mouth, John Connolly, the late former Governor and Treasury Secretary who would be crushed like Laocoon in coils of public- and private-sector scandal and insolvency. Someone once asked me, “What do you think went through Connolly’s mind when he was proffered the envelope with the milk-fund money for Nixon?”
By then I knew the Houston good-old-boy form and my reply was a matter of reflex: “Hell, that’s easy. He was just trying to figure out which pocket to stick it in.” That’s the sort of answer that marks a lawyer as the sort of folks you can “work with.”
Vinson & Elkins – which signed off a whole bunch of misleading accounting stuff and very likely honchoed the setting-up of Enron’s close to 900 offshore tax havens - will be one of the deep pockets that those seeking Enron redress will go after, and that’s probably as it should be. My purpose is not to rail at lawyers and the distortions in the law. Suffice it to note that of the eleven men elected to the Presidency in my lifetime (Ford doesn’t count,) only three (FDR, Nixon and Clinton) were lawyers by training. Of these, two – fully 67% - came close to being impeached, which seems a high ratio and cause for alarm.
The more interesting aspect of the big law firm’s enabling role in all this is symbolic, as I see it. Because – as I see it - Enron is the crowning metaphor for the Clinton ascendancy. Its operating philosophy - “How much can I get away with?” (endorsed by the big energy-trader’s lawyers, accountants, politicians-in-pocket and so on) – was the very mantra by which this nation, from the White House on down, began to live in 1995. This was the period during which the worser hens of our nature laid the eggs from which have been hatched the jetliner-sized chickens that have come home to roost, at a cost beyond calculation, beginning last autumn."

Forgive me for tooting my own tin horn, but in fifteen years of writing for NYO, no one else there has.

Monday, March 11, 2002

One amusing ploy for which one now has to watch out for in the NY Times (motto under little Sulzberger: "As Much of Our Agenda As We Can Disguise as News") is the "reverse knock" as I think of it. Say/Write "X" to achieve NET effect "Y" in the sensible readers' mind. For example, to denigrate Bush, whom the Times hates, the paper will write that Cheney' - who, take it from me, couldn't run a fire hydrant - is actually running the government. IE if #2 is in charge, #1 must be a dolt. A nice example, that fooled a lot of people, was in last Sunday's Week in Review. a parody attack, in the lead-footed obvious style that Christopher Buckley has ridden to Op-Ed fame and fortune, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "baseball" writing. People took it seriously and then had to eat crow when it became obvious that it was a jest - huh, huh! But the point was, by parodying Imus-whore Goodwin's proclivity for "borrowing," to minimize it - take the edge off the offense - by making a joke out of it. Thus goeth the Paper of Record. The "Arts & Leisure" section now exhibits a greater variety of fruitcakes than that place in San Antonio that sends me Christmas catalogues. I happen to be opposed to, and by now fed up with, sexuality-based arts criticism unless the work under review genuinely – and within its own terms, as did the John Koch show – justifies it. I'm waiting for the Times to print a photograph I saw mentioned in a recent Tatler: a photo of one of one its leading critics taken in younger days at an Oxford revel, nude - except for a hat with a long feather. I'd like to see how the Gray Lady's photography critics - or Doris Kearns Goodwin - might deal with that image!
Most of the people I know would not be caught dead reading PEOPLE unless the magazine just happened to be on the table next to their chair in the waiting room. But week in, week out, PEOPLE delivers the goods in the review department. Although my own experience is that a good review from PEOPLE doesn't translate at the box office, the problem being (I guess) that the sort of people who read PEOPLE don't read reviews and the sort of people who read reviews don't read PEOPLE. I was reminded of this when I went cruising around the Web to see what critics' views of Monsoon Wedding had been. As I've learned from long study to expect, PEOPLE's review was right on the money and to the point.
Bottom line: if you're a reasonably cultivated, intelligent, non-"trendentious" human being whose cultural taste is not driven by sexuality - a species uncatered-to by, say, The New York Times - looking for something good to look at or read, you can do a lot worse than check out the front of PEOPLE.
Do yourselves a favor a see the new Mira Nair film "MONSOON WEDDING"! We went last night. I put it in my top five! It's full of life and wit and family pathos, and it's wonderfully eye-opening about India, and beautifully made - but in addition to these vitalities, the movie's suffused with a quality I find generally if not utterly lacking in hard-faced American pictures, no matter how "good". That quality is tenderness.