America’s Prima Ballerina Comes Home to California

Returning to the San Pedro stage where she first got her start some 20 years ago, ballerina superstar Misty Copeland quickly broke through the classroom jitters as she began to guide 50 young dancers who had aced a spot in a rare master class with her. – — Donna Littlejohn, LA Daily News

Among the growing number of indicators suggesting that California now rivals New York as an American arts hub is the story of Misty Copeland, the little girl from San Pedro who was discovered at 13 and is now a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre.

Yet Copeland’s story also offers a painful indicator of how far California has to go in its growth as an arts center: the great dancer must still ply her craft on a New York stage.

New York’s continued primacy is by no means inevitable: California has an abundance of venues and a growing number of schools and companies. What it is missing is the kind of sponsors and well-heeled trustees of which the Big Apple has no shortage.

It may well be that California’s efforts to excel would be best applied to other arts, such as film, literature, fine arts, and interactive works. But ballet and the theatre remain areas where, arguably, we could be doing much better.

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Why Michael Hiltzik is Wrong About “The Force Awakens”

On Christmas Day, I fulfilled my duty as an American consumer and took the family to see the new “Star Wars” movie. The excursion solved a mystery: Why do so many of the reviews, even the enthusiastic ones, carry an undertone of disappointment? 

Source: Admit it: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ stinks — and here’s why – LA Times

Michael Hiltzik is an outstanding reporter, a man who has won the Pulitzer Prize for proving that forty years after the Payola Scandal of 1959, corruption in the music industry was alive and well. If there is a single reason that we today are not discussing Hiltzik’s work on a daily basis, it is that less than two years after winning his prize Apple introduced the iPod and iTunes, and turned the entire industry inside out. The big music story became disruption rather than corruption.

That is a shame. But Hiltzik is now turning his righteous indignation away from music and toward the film industry, accusing it – in the guise of Disney – of having given up on anything approaching originality, and offering Star Wars: The Force Awakens as Exhibit A.

It is a fun read, especially for those of us who are more amused than irked at attacks on the franchise. But once you slice through Hiltzik’s entirely unoriginal rant about those terrible pop culture tyrants at Disney spoon-feeding us measured portions of franchise tripe (a point articulated better with less indignation long ago by, among others, Mark Harris at GrantLand.com), what we are left with is “same movie, different decade.”

Let’s grant Mr. Hiltzik this much: there was a lot about this movie, plot-wise, that echoed Episode 4, known to most of us as the first Star Wars movie. What Hiltzik fails to ask, however, is whether there is a narrative purpose to the repetition. Could it be that the filmmakers and their House of Mouse overlords do not actually think that the audience are idiots? Is there a reason this all looks familiar?

I would suggest that there is, that the writers are setting up a moral point, albeit doing it in a manner that comes near to being patronizing. They are hinting that the reason this is all happening again, in a similar way, is that somehow that in the process of crushing the Empire and restoring the Republic, something crucial, fundamental, was forgotten, and thus we’re having to go through the same stuff again, only worse.

Lest you might think this far-fetched, look, if you will, on recent history. This “fix it right or do it all again” conundrum is perhaps the overarching moral of the 20th Century. Yes, the allies won World War I. But after all the parties were over, we had a world that was playing beggar-thy-neighbor games and a vanquished Germany itching for revenge for the humiliation, all thanks to a group of self-righteous bad losers at the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles. Thus WWII, a far more destructive conflict, arises from the ashes of the vanquished, and for at least the first 30 months of the war looks eerily familiar.

If you want a later example, it could be argued that we failed to learn the lesson of Vietnam – or failed to learn the right ones – and we have thus found ourselves playing referee or B-team in a long season of local insurgencies.

I think J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and all of their co-writers and co-producers get this, are trying to make a narrative point, and that over the next two movies this is going to be driven home: we failed to learn the right lessons last time, here are the lessons we failed to learn, and here’s what we’re going to do to end all of this once and for all.

All it takes to see that is a smidgen of confidence in the filmmakers and an average sense for the rhythm of history, and the courage to use both as a guide. It seems clear that Mr. Hiltzik fortifies himself with neither. But then, I suppose nothing pumps the adrenaline more than tweaking the company’s nose when you live in a company town.

An Ode to the Writer’s Bungalow

The late Ray Bradbury, at home in his not-so-big-house in Cheviot Hills.

Defenders of mansions replacing smaller, individually designed homes insist that these are needed, and if they can be paid for, why should they not be available? They are a reward, an entitlement; the natural product of both the confidence in the housing market and the inherent confidence of the American persona. But to some observers, the McMansion is less the natural culmination of a “man’s home is his castle” ethos, and instead the apex of American isolationism.

Sarah Jane Stratford
Home and History in the Fiction of Los Angeles”
The Los Angeles Review of Books

Is the Lincoln Center too large?

And this may prove in the long run to be Lincoln Center’s legacy: It has had a paralyzing effect on the capacity for innovation of the fine-arts groups that once gathered together so hopefully under its outsized umbrella.

via “Article Lincoln Center’s Dark Legacy
Terry Teachout
Commentary
July 1, 2015

A quiet testimonial, perhaps, to the idea that the New York arts scene – like the Lincoln Center itself – may have grown so large that meaningful innovation and aesthetic breakthroughs are crushed.

Does It Matter if Playwrights Can’t Make a Living?

In his 2009 study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, Todd London, artistic director of the playwrights’ advocacy organization New Dramatists, reaches a bleak conclusion: “Financially speaking, there is no way to view playwriting as anything other than a profession without an economic base.”

Alena Smith
“You Can’t Make A Living: Digital Media, the End of TV’s Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright”
Los Angeles Review of Books
December 8, 2014

Here’s the unspoken part of that last sentence: it was not always that way. Ask Neil Simon.

The elephant in the room is that the economic base for screenwriters is being eroded by the combined onslaught of digital video and unscripted television. Late at night when we’re all lying in bed and our deepest fears come out of our subconscious to play, this is the cloud that hovers over the wordsmiths of the Golden State.

I don’t buy the “Doomsday is Nigh” for writers nonsense. The media for storytelling have changed regularly since Neanderthals began drawing on cave walls. The opportunity for great storytelling will always be there. All that will change are the tools we will use for doing it.

Ebooks have opened the door to books between 20,000 and 50,000 words, sending some of us back to look up “novella,” “pamphlet,” “chapbook,” and “monograph” in search of a term to fit our new formats. YouTube is becoming a repository for a growing library of scripted content. And as video game storylines become more flexible and complex, a screenwriter’s art is more essential than ever.

Is it going to be difficult to figure out how to make a living at this? Naturally. And a lot of us won’t: most of us who write will find that it becomes either an avocation or a means to a living rather than a living itself. But with apologies to the Bard of Avon, the play is the thing: man will ever need storytellers, and we need good ones now more than ever.

Liberty and Conscience

Ashes and Bullets – The New Yorker.

Long after we have (hopefully) forgotten who Christopher Dorner was, I hope we are remembering this Susan Straight story that was inspired by Dorner’s bloody demise and the bloodier acts that preceded it.

Straight writes with unearthly cadence of a day to day world haunted by guns and ghosts. Her cri de cour is not an anti-gun screed. She rejects that temptation to dive into something more elemental: the effect that the proximity of an instrument of death has on our psyches; the changes that such a presence wreaks on us over time; and how those changes drive us into different directions.

Can a man of peace living in a place of strife rise above death while living in an armory? Does the mere presence, visibility, and accessibility of armaments fundamentally alter us? Or are we making more of this than we should? This is the quiet challenge Susan Straight throws at us.

I am neither an advocate for gun control nor a member of the National Rifle Association. I support the Second Amendment as a tripwire for tyrants, yet I am troubled by the havoc wrought by guns. A lifetime of cogitation suggests only that there are no simple solutions, but this does not mean we should stop probing for answers, and Susan Straight nudges us in this direction without preaching, without grandstanding, without vilifying. We could use less political grandstanding on this and the other issues that vex us, and a lot more of her brand of subtle genius.

Reclaiming Literature for Its Own Sake

Losing the Ability to “Lose Oneself” | The American Conservative.

This superb piece by Gracy Olmstead explains how the academicization of the study of literature has placed a barrier between us and fiction. Quoting William Geraldi from VQR, she notes:

Literature will not be harnessed for any cause, no matter how an academic distorts it, and literature that harnesses itself in the service of a cause is not literature at all but agitprop.

Bravo, cubed. I want to read Grapes of Wrath, The Last Tycoon, Black Boy, and The Color Purple as stories about people, not political tracts on workers rights, the corruption of Hollywood, civil rights, and homosexuality. If there are messages on those themes, fine, but ease up: the author managed to avoid pedantry, so why throw it back in?

While we’re reclaiming literature, let’s rehabilitate Dead White Guys. Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett happened to have been male and caucasian but were culpable for neither, and to deny ourselves a vast chunk of the Western Canon simply because the authors were masculine palefaces is as stupid as ignoring great works of people of color because they were, in fact, people of color.

We can argue about what makes a book great, good, mediocre, or awful. But please, let us stop using the author’s race, religion, color, sexual proclivities, gender identity, slave ownership, personal foibles, or country of origin as a means of either elevating or ignoring a great work.

If we could just remove politics from our study of literature, then maybe we could all feel good about losing ourselves in great books again.