The writing [in Mad Men] is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish. Worst of all — in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues” — the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.Should the Mad Men sixth season opener astonish us by disappointing our expectations we'll come back here with an update — and an apology. Meanwhile, don't hold your breath.
The new [Met] Ring, I loved it, in the Met and in HD. The sets were fantastic, and elastic. The singing was very good as well. So why exactly are so many against it?To which we replied:
Because it ended up being a Robert Lepage spectacular (actually, a spectacular that failed as a spectacular; but that's quite beside the point) with Wagner's music serving as sound track and Wagner's drama given only lip service. Mr. Lepage's focus seemed to be on what he could get Le Machine to do that would result in some visually arresting effect for its own sake at any particular moment rather than on how the capabilities of the contraption could best be exploited to support, express, or frame the drama moment by moment from work's beginning to end. It's a tail-wagging-the-dog approach that's all but guaranteed to result in shallow (at least attempted) coups de théâtre pretty much every time, precisely as it did in this production.After a repeat viewing of the Met's HD film of the tetralogy (via our HD DVR recordings of the HD PBS telecasts), we saw nothing to alter that opinion. For our comments on each of the music-dramas as telecast, you might want to consult the following S&F entries: Das Rheingold
While I take your point (and it's a reasonable one), saying we ought to accept the lesser of two evils with some measure of gratitude is hardly an answer to the problem. The Lepage staging of the Ring is in every way unacceptable, especially for a company with the prestige and stature of the Met. And what makes it unacceptable is NOT fixable except by doing away with it altogether as it's flawed conceptually. The Lepage staging centrally features Le Machine as the looming, hulking, impotently conspicuous star of the show as it could not otherwise be, and that's utterly and fundamentally perverse. And when I say the staging must be done away with altogether, I mean doing away with both Lepage and his humongous, dead-weight, ill-conceived, Frankenstein contraption to which contraption he's devoted entirely. The ONLY way such a contraption could justify itself is if it were capable of becoming THE ENTIRE STAGE ITSELF, perfectly plastic and malleable, and by so doing become invisible or transparent as a contraption. That's nowhere in the cards with Le Machine, either technically or practically; ergo, it has to go, along with its creator who cares infinitely more for it than for Wagner's great work which work both he and it were supposed to serve.And so it goes.
Sam knows no progress is possible on getting a policy in place so that gays and lesbians can openly serve in the military; Josh confronts a group of Republican Congressional staffers who threaten him with poison-pill legislation if he even thinks about pushing for campaign finance reformers on two newly opened Federal Election Commission seats; and Toby screams to Leo that they've had only one victory in office and that was putting Judge Mendoza on the Supreme Court. The staffers and the President feel listless and ineffectual in their jobs, and worry that they will be unable to achieve anything meaningful due to the constraints of the political system. The memo and news coverage of how Bartlet too often compromised his positions to placate his opponents and avoid controversy resulted in Bartlet's popularity going down in the polls. On seeing his job approval rating dropping five points in a week to 42 percent, the staff comes to realize that the Bartlet administration has been ineffective because it has been too timid to make bold decisions, focusing instead on the exigencies of politics. Finally, Leo confronts President Bartlet with his own timidity, challenging him to be himself and to take the staff "off the leash." – in other words, he seeks to "Let Bartlet be Bartlet". The President and his staff resolve to act boldly and "raise the level of public debate" in America by moving forward with a more liberal agenda.As we said, an eerie similarity.
...perhaps the most wooden, most vapid, least evocative, and most utterly empty staging of a Wagner music-drama it's ever been our displeasure to witness, Le Machine accomplishing nothing but constrain the action of the singer-actors who, for the most part, moved to and fro seemingly willy-nilly along the thin strip of real estate provided them downstage doing vaguely appropriate things most, but by no means all, of the time, and make itself impotently conspicuous merely by its looming, hulking, contribute-nothing presence.We saw nothing in this viewing to alter our opinion of this staging except to note that we missed a couple adjectives in our above assessment; namely, silly and idiotic. Silly were the costumes (this entire Ring is in urgent need of a new costume designer) and the entirely redundant shadow play pantomimes projected behind Siegmund's Act I telling of his and his family's early history, and of how he managed to lose his weapons and end up wounded and weaponless at Hunding's hut. And idiotic (and we use the term advisedly) was the giant "eye" (at least it looked like an eye, presumably symbolic of Wotan's lost eye) that slowly appeared downstage center out of nowhere and for no reason at the beginning of Wotan's great Act II monologue and within which are seen images referring to those things of which Wotan is singing at the moment (e.g., Alberich's theft of the Rhinegold, the ring, Erda's warning, etc.) as if Wotan's words and their leitmotif-rich music were insufficient on their own. (One can almost hear Mr. Lepage saying to himself: "The man will be sitting there singing almost all by himself for some twenty minutes and NOTHING ELSE IS HAPPENING! Can't have that. The audience will be bored out of their skulls. Have to put something in there to liven things up.") Needless to say, that "eye" served only to trivialize Wotan's deeply searching and deeply mined confession which confession, along with the immediately preceding scene that provoked it, is the very linchpin not only of Die Walküre but of the entire tetralogy. And speaking of that immediately preceding provoking scene wherein Fricka, sung by the big-voiced Stephanie Blythe, forces Wotan to see and understand what a conniving self-deceiver he's been, was itself trivialized by none other than Stephanie Blythe herself by virtue of her transformation of Fricka into a wounded-wife character out of some Italian soap opera. Whether she did that on her own hook or at Mr. Lepage's ignorant direction the responsibility for the trivialization lies squarely at Mr. Lepage's feet and it's unforgivable. So much for the dramatic aspects of this production. As to the musical, James Levine made a rather better job of it than he did with Das Rheingold but, still, nothing to write home (or a blog entry) about; and principal protagonists Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) all performed respectably, Mr. Terfel bettering his Rheingold Wotan by an order of magnitude. The only outstanding voice and characterization in this production belonged to Hans-Peter König who made one helluva Hunding. And so it goes — or, rather, has gone so far. Onward to Siegfried.
...perhaps the most wooden, most vapid, least evocative, and most utterly empty staging of a Wagner music-drama it's ever been our displeasure to witness, Le Machine accomplishing nothing but constrain the action of the singer-actors ... and make itself impotently conspicuous merely by its looming, hulking, contribute-nothing presence.The same could be said of this staging of Das Rheingold. Dramatically, it was leadenly static and absent any hint of "directorial shaping of the musico-dramatic realization of Wagner's cosmic vision" which, it seems, was "left to the dictates and requirements of Le Machine and the whims and inclinations of the individual performers, each according to his or her wont," (to quote ourself), and musically no more than merely competent on all counts from all performers, from the conductor (James Levine) on up. It also badly miscast vocally the two principal protagonists — Bryn Terfel (Wotan) and Eric Owens (Alberich) — each of whom should have been singing the other's role. To detail all the myriad badness of this staging would take far too much of our time and in the absence of payment in serious money for the effort we refuse to undertake the task except to point out that this is a Rheingold absent a Walhall (we kid you not). The only thing positive one could say about this staging is that it isn't a Eurotrash (i.e., Konzept Regietheater) staging — although on second thought, perhaps that would have been preferable.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. [...] And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at. Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.RTWT here.