March 30, 2006
On Books

My latest American Enterprise column is a review of the new reference volume American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia:

If conservatives have anything in common, it may be a love of arguing with other conservatives. The Left is content, on the whole, to work together plotting a return to power. The Right, on the other hand, spends a great deal of its energy debating the question of who belongs in its club...

March 29, 2006
Hot and cold

Jim Henley might be correct in saying that my "picture appears in the 'Target Demographic' section of the New Criterion's marketing plan." But I can also get down with the best of them. Here's my review of the Arctic Monkeys' DC show at the 9:30 Club from today's Washington Times:

At the beginning of Arctic Monkeys' sold-out 9:30 Club show Monday night, lead singer Alex Turner hid himself under a hoodie. It certainly couldn't have been because he was cold; as usual, the place was stifling.

Perhaps Mr. Turner was just a little nervous about how the audience would treat him. No band in recent years has been hyped as much as Sheffield, England's Arctic Monkeys...

March 26, 2006
The Prime of Miss Muriel Spark

The Winter 2006 issue of Doublethink magazine contains a long essay by me on Scottish novelist Muriel Spark. Spark is one of my favorite living novelists, and my aim was to provide a sort of introduction for readers who might not be familiar with a writer who, despite her awards and acclaim, isn't nearly as appreciated in this country as she should be.

For much of the last year, I have been immersed in the novels of Muriel Spark. It's had the effect of making me feel not quite myself. Spark would probably be glad to hear it. She wishes, I think, nothing less for her readers than to leave them off kilter.

The fictional world of Muriel Spark is a world where the absurd is appallingly real. Where time shifts fluidly back and forth, and the surprising fate of a character is sometimes divulged in the first chapters. Where fiction writers--professional liars--are the only ones who tell the truth. Where ghosts long dead tell stories as genuine as those of the living. Where blackmail, treachery, and fraud are everyday events, and treated with a disarming lightness of touch. But as the title character of her satire The Abbess of Crewe says of another art form: "They need not be plausible, only hypnotic, like all good art."

"Readers of novels were not yet used to the likes of me, and some will never be," Spark writes astutely in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Nowhere is that more true than in America...

March 22, 2006
Front page

Is there really not much going on in the world right now? Even in the world of entertainment? This is on the front page of the Washington Post website right now:

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Oh, you might be thinking, some new poll released. That's... kind of news. But no, the Post is referring to a list National Review put out twelve years ago. And that's front page news for washingtonpost.com? Well, I suppose conservatives can't say the mainstream media doesn't pay attention to them... eventually.

March 21, 2006
Happy Birthday, Bach

Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?

--Michael Torke

March 20, 2006
Man and myth

My latest Brainwash column is a review of the documentary Bukowski: Born into This, which is released on DVD this week:

"Hey, baby, when I write, I'm the hero of my own shit," Charles Bukowski once told filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who was disgruntled about his appearance in one of Bukowski's columns...

March 18, 2006
In which I admit I was wrong

Scene: A local Mexican restaurant.

Boyce joins a group of employees and the boss at lunch to welcome a new co-worker.

Lunch is almost finished and it's time to pay the bill.

Boyce takes a few tortilla chips.

Boss watches. He reaches over and moves the basket of chips away from her.

Workers freeze in place, incredulous -- afraid to hear what is about to happen, but too entranced by his next move to look away.

Boss, in sing-songy voice, to Boyce, who's soon to be married: "You want to fit into that wedding dress, don't you?"

Boyce, a size 4, stares at boss, slack-jawed.

No, this isn't a scene from NBC's show The Office. It's from a Washington Post story in tomorrow's paper on art imitating life--all too closely. For many of us, The Office is more like a reality show than a sitcom.

I've actually become a reluctant fan of the show myself. In a piece written just before The Office's premiere last year, I joked that the California Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 should be enforced in Hollywood. "It seems America has run out of writers. What else explains our need to remake British TV shows and movies?" Given the track record of Hollywood remakes--and the very British nature of the original--I think I was justified in my skepticism. But after being forced to watch the American version by one of its fans, I was pleasantly surprised. It manages to keep the spirit of the original--it's just as physically painful to watch sometimes--but has turned into something of its own, something quite American. Much of the credit should be given to the cast. To a person, they play the assortment of oddballs with pitch-perfect precision.

March 16, 2006
On Books

My latest American Enterprise books column is a review of Stephen Miller's Conversation: A History of a Declining Art:

There is a Kmart ad making the rounds on television right now in which a family bemoans its broken TV. Dad tries to see the bright side. Maybe it’s a good thing, he says. Now the family can actually have a conversation. “You start,” he says to his young daughter. She looks horrified. This doesn’t have to happen to you, the ad implies—Kmart has plenty of TVs on sale at reasonable prices.

This ad isn’t an anomaly. Another for a cable company ran during the same show. It urged viewers, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Clearly, the days when most people spent their free time conversing with each other are over...

March 13, 2006
The quest for American opera

In this week's Weekly Standard, I appraise John Adams' latest opera, Doctor Atomic. It premiered this season in San Francisco:

Of course, wringing emotion out of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may be easy. Explaining how it happened is harder--particularly in a dramatic opera. It's a genre, after all, that tends to the black and white; the real world does not. You don't find too many flawlessly virtuous heroines in real life. Or thoroughly evil villains. But that is basically the model on which librettist Peter Sellars has forced the people and events of 1945.

Some--like Kitty Oppenheimer--just can't bear the weight. The role of Kitty was written for the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, but estimably, if not powerfully (despite amplification), performed by Kristine Jepson when Lieberson withdrew due to a back injury. The wife and her maid give the opera its feminine foils, musically and stereotypically. While the men are out building bombs to blow things up, the women stay at home and sensitively worry about the consequences. While the men ignore the people of Japan, Kitty sees visions of the dead. Her theme of life--"Nothing can black that glow of life," she sings--is odd for an alcoholic, as they're usually self-destructive.

In Doctor Atomic she's ambivalent, at best, toward her husband's job; their real-life shared Communist sympathies, which must have been intertwined with his important work, go completely unexplored. The complexity of the real events is lost. But then, these flaws wouldn't have served Sellars's purpose...

The global village

M. Night Shyamalan is interesting. He's a film director who shares a relationship with his audience more like that of a writer. People go to see his movies because he wrote and directed them. People look forward to the next M. Night Shyamalan (even if they have trouble pronouncing that). His last two films, IMDB notes, had promotional titles that included his name: M. Night Shyamalan's The Village and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. There are other very big directors whose names are used to sell their films. But their films don't have the sort of unity his do. Spielberg certainly has themes he returns to, but his movies are all quite different. An M. Night Shyamalan film has a definite feel to it, just as a Danielle Steel novel has a definite feel. His audience has certain expectations, that, in my experience anyway, are fulfilled. A director like Wes Anderson is similar--there is a sort of Wes Anderson world--but Shyamalan has a bigger audience.

I think his latest venture is quite original. I tuned into part of the Oscars last week, and caught what is the oddest of the slightly odd American Express ads. (You might remember the one in which Kate Winslet, with her winsome voice, recalls all the crazy characters she's played.) It's a mini-M. Night Shyamalan film--starring M. Night Shyamalan. Weird things happen, just like in one of his movies. But he's just trying to get a meal.

You might think, why is someone who might be thought of as an auteur shilling for Amex? But then I read in The Wall Street Journal that M. Night hasn't sold out at all:

I don't really do commercials. This was a perfect situation for the thing I was looking for. I have an author's type of relationship with the audience. You have to connect with them in different ways. For me, going on Jay Leno is not just the only way. I have done Leno but a certain amount of this doesn't always strengthen the relationship with the audience. I didn't get a big fat check and I am giving the money to charity. It has nothing to do with money. I would never do anything for money.

WSJ: The America Express ad you created doesn't seem to sell very hard. Why?

Mr. Shyamalan: For me, it was more about the lady in Minnesota who has seen three or four of my movies but isn't aware of who I am.

Shyamalan is actually using American Express to further, quite directly, himself. A smart idea from a very smart man.

March 12, 2006
Color, glorious color

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Color, glorious color. The National Gallery of Art's exhibition "Cézanne in Provence" has brought some much-needed bloom to what has been a rather dreary Washington winter. I was struck almost as soon as I walked in by the work above: The House of the Jas de Bouffan, a beautiful 1874 painting of the Cézanne family estate. "To paint is to record sensations of color," the artist declared. The works in this exhibition, which celebrates the centenary of Cézanne's death, are a testament to that mission.

Cézanne may be best known for his post-Impressionist landscapes and still lifes. But there are a handful of portraits in this exhibition, too, and they are worth noticing. I found this 1891 painting, titled simply Le paysan (Peasant), particularly moving:

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I'm quite fascinated by portraiture. The moderns do seem to have spent less time than their predecessors showing the world the celebrated and more time examining the personalities of, for lack of a better word, the common. But Cézanne's thoughtful painting, I think, can stand alongside some of the greats.

Thought for the day

"If by 'dissident' we mean a person who, against his wishes, is legally or practically barred from participating freely and fully in the political life of his country, how then is the prince not a dissident? Charles--by many accounts a man of strong political views--cannot vote, cannot join a political party, cannot take sides in political debates and cannot express himself on political subjects except discreetly and with the prior approval of the government...

To judge by his writing, [Lewis H. Lapham] thinks of himself not as a voice of ordinary disagreement in a free society but as a man heroically opposed to a 'regime,' that is, as a dissident. During the course of his prominent career, he has written about a dozen books, including the recent 'Gag Rule,' whose argument is neatly summarized by its subtitle: 'On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy.'

As complaints go, there's something amiss about this one. How exactly is 'dissent' being 'suppressed' when the dissent in question is also being published, distributed and widely sold throughout the U.S. (and by no less an imprint than Penguin Books)?"

--Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal

March 05, 2006
Oscar night

The major Oscar battles tonight will be among smaller films with politically or socially charged themes. The Los Angeles Times offers five articles criticizing the realism of each Best Picture nominee. And thoughtful film critic Steve Sailer offers his thoughts on each.

Steve also has a smart take on why the short story has fewer readers these days:

What are incredibly depressing, however, are contemporary literary short stories, which always end with the protagonist having some disillusioning "epiphany" where they realize they'll never achieve their dreams. The problem is that you don't get to see the character do much living before then, all you hear about are the dreams, so the endings are just plain bleak. That explains a lot about why almost nobody reads short stories anymore.

The length of the sad ending relative to the length of the work is a big factor. If a novel takes 20 hours to read, a grim ending will make up a relatively small part of your memory of the story. But in a two hour movie version, the ending has a much larger role. And in a short story that takes only 30 minutes to read, the ending is just about everything.

I did a reported piece a while back for Doublethink on the "death of the short story." My interviewees all had interesting insights. And then the magazine decided to take matters into its own hands, and we started publishing fiction ourselves about a year ago. (My story "Hack" was the first.)

Perhaps it's a good time to remind readers that we're always looking for quality submissions. Doublethink is a print quarterly. We prefer stories of 2,000 to 4,000 words, although we will consider fiction of any length. Stories can be on any subject, but we are particularly interested in those written with an audience of youngish, ambitious, intellectually engaged, politically astute readers in mind. Successful submissions will receive payment. Stories should be sent to the fiction editor—that's me—at kelly dot torrance at gmail dot com. And please pass this notice on to friends, colleagues, blog readers, etc.

But who are the real sharks here?

You know those annoying plastic packages that are just about impossible to open without seriously cutting one of your fingers? You know the ones, they often encase software, tech gadgets, even toys. Well, I have good news, readers: You don't have to worry about them anymore. No, companies haven't voluntarily decided to retire the menaces. That would be a public service. No, it seems they're here to say, or at least that's what the makers of the Package Shark are betting on. This is an implement you can buy that serves the sole purpose of opening these devilish packages. And some people think capitalism never results in progress.

March 02, 2006
On Books

My latest American Enterprise column is a review of David Horowitz' new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America:

About a year ago, a relatively obscure professor of “ethnic studies” was to give a lecture at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Talks like this are given across the country every day. This one, however, never took place. So why is Ward Churchill now practically a household name?