Catching Up #3

  • For Undercurrent, A. S. Hamrah praises the film criticism of Manny Farber, who was also a painter:

    Asked whether his painting and his criticism had things in common, he answered, "The brutal fact is that they're exactly the same thing." He did not accept the idea there was a difference between artists and critics. ("I get a laugh from artists who ridicule critics as parasites or artists manqués—such a horrible joke.") In fact, his prose equals the subjects he wrote about and often surpasses them. While this may be true of some film critics writing today, saying their prose equals the subjects they write about is not a compliment.

  • Who's finer: the Temptations or the Four Tops? At Moistworks, Sean Howe answers by imagining the romance and disappointment of a couple named Bill and Liz:

    Tonight, he puts on "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and starts singing along, and before long is thinking about the ridiculousness of the idea that begging Liz would do any good at all. As if life was anything like a Motown song. And at the part where Ruffin sings about a crying man being "half a man, with no sense of pride," Bill can't sing along anymore. Ruffin is hitting way too many high notes to be nearly as upset as he claims, and Bill begins to get furious at the record. It feels like some kind of cruel facsimile of pain. The way the other four Temptations buoy Ruffin at every turn, he's not alone, not by a long shot; his buddies have his back, and he's still dancing. Bill thinks that maybe The Big Chill had it right, and that "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" is simply a way to make doing the dishes more enjoyable. He tries not to think about how he is now older than the Kevin Kline and Glenn Close characters.

  • For the London Review of Books, Mark Greif parses the disingenuous chic of the television series Mad Men (subscription required):

    Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

    Sooner or later, though, unless you watch the whole series with the sound off, you will have to face up to the story.

  • In an essay commissioned for my boyfriend Peter Terzian's forthcoming anthology Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives and pre-printed in the November 2008 Harper's, John Jeremiah Sullivan remembers calling up legendary blues savant John Fahey for help in deciphering lyrics:

    A front-desk attendant agreed to put a call through to Fahey's room. From subsequent reading, I gather that at this time Fahey was making the weekly rent by scavenging and reselling rare classical-music LPs, for which he must have developed an extraordinary eye, the profit margins being almost imperceptible. I pictured him prone on the bed, gray-bearded and possibly naked, his overabundant corpus spread out like something that only got up to eat: that’s how interviewers discovered him, in the few profiles I’d read. He was hampered at this point by decades of addiction and the bad heart that would kill him two years later, but even before all that he’d been famously cranky, so it was strange to find him ramblingly familiar from the moment he picked up the phone. A friend of his to whom I later described this conversation said, "Of course he was nice—you didn’t want to talk about him."

    Fahey asked for fifteen minutes to get his "beatbox" hooked up and locate the tape with the song on it. I called him back at the appointed time.

    "Man," he said, "I can't tell what she’s saying there. It's definitely not 'boutonniere.'"

    "No guesses?"


    We switched to another mystery word, a couple of verses on: Wiley sings, "My mother told me, just before she died/Lord, [precious?] daughter, don’t you be so wild."

    "Shit, I don’t have any fucking idea," Fahey said. "It doesn't really matter, anyway. They always just said any old shit.

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