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The Oscars? They never change....

Say what? They've got to be kidding.

No Best Picture nomination for "The Dark Knight?" Or "Wall-E?" Not in my universe, anyway. In any list of 2008's best films that I could possibly concoct, those two films would always--ALWAYS-- be front and center.

But then you can always count on the Oscars to be the Oscars, that historic mix of the sublime and the ridiculous we've all come to know and love,

So it was with Thursday morning's Oscar nomination announcements.

The big losers in this year's Oscar nominations are: 1) Clint Eastwood, whose "Gran Torino" will have to content itself with major box office rather than major nominations; 2) Christopher Nolan, absolutely and ridiculously robbed of a Best Director nomination for "The Dark Knight" by Benjy Button's David Fincher and 3) "Revolutionary Road," which got no major nominations whatsoever.

The big winner  was "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,", now officially the most over-praised Oscar-bait of 2008. And yes, a lot of studio politics was involved with that. (We'll go into all that later, closer to the event itself.)

The three big surprises--all of them delightful--were Richard Jenkins as Best Actor in the extraordinary film "The Visitor," Melissa Leo for "Frozen River," and, by God, yes, Robert Downey Jr. for his hilarious, gut-busting blackface turn in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder."

That last, by the way, should probably be chalked up to the biggest surprise of the whole roster. To have film satire with that kind of 100-proof chutzpah as an Oscar nominee is mildly mind-blowing.

One critic's notes, category by category:

Best Picture-- Wondererful to have "Milk," "The Reader," "Frost/Nixon," and "Slumdog Millionaire" where they belong but putting the quasi-"Gump" "Benjamin Button" in there seems to be a way to feel sorry for all that money screenwriter Eric Roth lost investing with Bernie Madoff. If the Oscar were changed to The Simons, "Slumdog" would be the easy winner.

Best Actor--Predictably, it's Rourke vs. Penn vs. Langella with Jenkins and--unfortunately Brad Pitt--getting "attaboys." If it were the Simons, I'd give it to Mickey Rourke without a second's qualm. 2008 is going to be an underdog year and you don't get any underdoggier than Mickey Rourke.

Best Actress--Nice for Melissa Leo to be in there with Jolie, Streep and Winslet (for "The Reader", not "Revolutionary Road) but if the final prize doesn't go to Anne Hathaway for "Rachel Getting Married," they're nuts.

Best Supporting Actor--A nice supporting cast for deserving sure thing Heath Ledger but still it's awfully delightful to see Downey in there for "Tropic Thunder."

Best Supporting Actress--Probably the best and least predictable category of the entire night. My preference would be Viola Davis for her tiny but utterly haunting turn in "Doubt."

Original Screenplay--What? No Jenny Lumet for "Rachel Getting Married? Nonsense, no matter how nice it is to see "In Bruges" in there. Lumet would have been my choice to win the whole category.

Adapted Screenplay--Phooey on Benjy Button and his swollen Gump-tale. It doesn't begin to belong with "Doubt" or "The Reader" or "Milk" or "Frost/Nixon" or, my choice, "Slumdog Millionaire."

Best Director--You can't imagine how much I wish David Fincher had been recognized years ago for "Fight Club," not Prestige Benjy and His Magic Button. But everyone else in Danny Boyle's supporting cast is solid: Ron Howard, Stephen Daldry, and Gus Van Sant. To me, and countless others, it's virtually automatic for Danny Boyle, for "Slumdog."

It goes without saying, I hope, that all reader contributions are hereby welcome. The Oscars, after all, are by and for Hollywood but ever since they've been on TV, they've really beloned a little bit to us all.

--Jeff Simon

On Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day"

It was announced on Wednesday that Graywolf Press, the St. Paul, Minnesota based independent publisher of such poets and prose writers as Charles Baxter, Percival Everett, Eamon Grennan, and Tracy K. Smith, will issue a 32 page commemorative chapbook edition of Elizabeth Alexander's presidential Inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day" on February 6th.
If you're interested in ordering a copy of the chapbook or any one of Alexander's three previous collections Antebellum Dream Book (2001), The Venus Hottentot (2004) and American Sublime (2005), you can do so at .
Alexander told reporters after the ceremony Tuesday that the poem was written in tercets (three line stanzas) with a single line coda--something not reflected in my transliteration of it or in the "prose poem" version of the text circulated by the Associated Press.  Alexander used italics to indicate shifts in voice, where I employed quotation marks.  Her use of punctuation is also more relaxed than in my Chicago Manual of Style guided transcription.   The American Academy of Poets posted what looks like a definitive version of the poem Wednesday on Alexander's academy web page.  You can view it at Praise Song for the Day - - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More.
What did I think of the poem?  Many friends have asked.  I don't think it's a great poem, but "occasional" poems seldom are.  The late Robert Creeley, some local readers may recall, was invited to read a poem at former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello's first inaugural ceremony in January of 1993, and later told me that the point of the exercise seemed to be to lend some gravitas to the proceedings without overshadowing them.
Alexander did well by that standard. 

Addressing what was almost certainly the largest live audience ever to hear a poem read aloud at a public occasion--an estimated 1.5 million in the Washington Mall and many hundreds of millions more watching or listening worldwide--I think she was wise to draw back from the historical significance of the ceremony and offer us a view of what might be happening across America on a more typical working day, but keep the focus on the transformative power of language.
Just when it appears that the poem is about to trail off into a litany of folk wisdom, the lines "Say it plain: that many have died for this day./ Sing the names of the dead who brought us here," snap us back to the moment.
If evoking the Golden Rule ('love thy neighbor as thyself"), the conservative principle of ethics ("first do no harm") and what might be considered the mantra of the Green Movement ("take no more
than you need
") in rapid succession suggests that Alexander might be a post-ideological poet in the same way Obama is said to be a post-ideological politician, then her deceptively simplistic question ("What if the mightiest word is love?"') yields an almost Lincolnesque rejoinder: "Love that casts a widening pool of light,/ love with no need to pre-empt grievance."

To tweak a formulation made popular by the Rev. Rick Warren (whose invocation seemed more suited to a third Bush term or the first Palin Administration), this was a "context-driven" poem.  In America,  the context is always changing, but Alexander's poem reminds us that language still matters, ideas still matter, history matters, maybe even poetry matters because it reminds us that "any thing can be made, any sentence begun."
--R.D. Pohl

'Action/Abstraction' wins critics association award


The buzz surrounding the forthcoming Albright-Knox exhibition "Action/Abstraction" is only intensifying as the show makes its way to Buffalo for a Feb. 13 opening. The gallery announced today that the exhibition, which was previously on view at The Jewish Museum in New York City and the St. Louis Art Museum, has won the AICA/USA International Art Critics Association award for the best thematic museum show in New York City.

This particular plaudit is hardly surprising, given that the show is as much an examination of Abstract Expressionism as a paean to two of the 20th century's most influential art critics. By doling out this award, today's significantly less influential art critics have essentially handed themselves a big pat on the back. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's all the more fuel for what looks to be a very worthy exhibition, which has already wound up on its share of Top Ten lists.

Look for more on the show in The News as it approaches.

--Colin Dabkowski

Photo from Julien Jourdes / New York Times

Elizabeth Alexander's Obama inaugural poem

In case you missed it, or would like to read it as text, here is my transcription of the poem Elizabeth Alexander read at President Obama's Inaugural this afternoon.

I would hasten to add that this transcription is not based on Ms. Alexander's manuscript, which has not been published as of this point, but upon my repeated listening to an audio tape I made of the reading. 

The linebreaks and punctuation are also my own, but based upon a my listening to the natural inflexions of her voice and a general familiarity with her published work, particularly her Pulitzer Prize nominated collection American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005).   As soon as I can find a definitive version of the text, I will post a link to it.  In the meantime, your comments are welcome.

--R.D. Pohl

        Praise Song for the Day. 

Each day, we go about our business,
walking past each other,
Catching each other's eyes (or not).
About to speak, or speaking.
All about us is noise.
All about us is noise and bramble,
Thorn and din,
each one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem,
darning a hole in a uniform,
Patching a tire.
Repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum.
With cello, boombox, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words.
Words spiny, or smooth,
whispered or declaimed.
Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways
that mark the will of someone
and then others who said,
"I need to see what's on the other side.
I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.
Who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
Picked the cotton and the lettuce.
Built brick-by-brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle,
praise song for the day,
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself."
Others by "First Do No Harm,"
or "Take No More Than You Need."

What if the mightiest word is Love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national.
Love that casts a widening pool of light.
Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
anything can be made.
Any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.
Praise song for walking forward in that light.

                         --Elizabeth Alexander

Tim White benefit performances

UntitledTwo performances this and next week will honor the memory of Tim White, the much-loved Buffalo actor and broadcaster who died last week.

The first, at Road Less Traveled Theatre, is a $10 preview performance of Darryl Schneider's new play "Twice Around," on Thursday (Jan. 22) at 7:30 p.m. The second, a performance of "American Rhapsody" at MusicalFare Theatre, in which White was starring at the time of his death, is slated for Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. White's close friend, Richard Satterwhite, has taken over the late actor's role.

Proceeds from both shows will go to pay expenses for White's funeral, which was held on Saturday in Buffalo's Faith Baptist Missionary Church.

--Colin Dabkowski

Photo courtesy MusicalFare

A conductor's career, taking off

ChristieConductor Michael Christie, left, who grew up in Buffalo, is on the cover of the January/February issue of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras. It is called "In Flight." Flying is one of Christie's hobbies.

It is quite a splashy story! You can read it on Christie's personal Web site here.

The 34-year-old Christie, a graduate of West Seneca East, is currently the conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He is also the music director of the Phoenix Symphony in Phoenix, Ariz., a post he assumed in 2005. And he is also music dirctor at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, Colo. At least the Boulder job is seasonal.

"It helps that he has a pilot's license," the story's headline reads.

In the story, Christie is quoted as saying, "I'm trying to slowly take the better attributes of the Brooklyn and Phoenix experiences and sort of blend them together." He also talks about his Buffalo background. At 14, he joined the Buffalo Youth Orchestra, and at 16, he went backstage at a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert and made friends with the associate conductor, Eiji Oue. The discussions he had with Oue, he says, helped point him in the right direction.

The story spotlights a few initiatives Christie has taken in Phoenix to attract new listeners. One is "Intermission Insights." During intermission, a soloist or principal musician takes the stage and fields audience questions. Another is "Keeping Score." The program notes are coded with numbers. And while a performance is in progress, these numbers will flash onto the wall at the appropriate point, reminding the listeners where they are in the piece.

Christie's personal life has kept pace with his career. In 2006, he married Dr. Alexis McGrath, an Australian-born physician who works at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. Last summer, they welcomed a daughter, Sinclair. Symphony magazine reports that Alexis has been able to take two years off, and the family often travels together.

Buffalo is scoring big with Symphony magazine these days. Just last summer they did a cover story on the BPO and its financial and artistic successes.

We can also lay claim to the conductor William Christie, who specializes in early music and leads the European early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants. (Amazingly, the two Christies are not related.)

The music world must be grateful to our town for giving them such good copy.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

Continue reading "A conductor's career, taking off" ยป

Shaw Festival to screen inauguration


The Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., tomorrow morning, know that you can swing by the Festival Theatre for a special screening of the inauguration ceremonies for President-Elect Barack Obama. The screening is sponsored by the Shaw Festival, which acknowledged in a release that 40 percent of its audience comes from the United States.

"As a bi-national organization, we feel this historic event is something to be shared and celebrated among all our friends," Shaw Fest Executive Director Colleen Blake said in the release. Tickets are free and on a first-come, first-served basis.

--Colin Dabkowski

A prince of a polka master

DarlakBuffalo has inherited some wonderful musicians because they have married people from our town. That was the case with the great jazz pianist Al Tinney, who came here years ago because his wife was from here. And the young jazz pianist Michael T. Jones, who moved to Buffalo for the same reason after graduating from Oberlin.

A third treasure we inherited through marriage is the polka musician Jerry Darlak, who this year has a chance to win his third Grammy Award. That is Jerry Darlak at far left in the picture above. The picture was snapped by News photographer Derek Gee when Darlak and his band, the Buffalo Touch, were doing a Christmas show at Arty's Tavern next door to the Central Terminal.

Talking to Darlak at his Lovejoy home last week, I found myself thinking that his story resembled Al Tinney's in some ways. Both musicians had made a name for themselves in their (admittedly wildly different) musical fields before coming to Buffalo. Both of them stayed on in Buffalo although the marriages that brought them here ended.

Here is another interesting coincidence: Both musicians moved to Buffalo and found non-music jobs -- Tinney as a shoe salesman, Darlak as a county employee. Both of them intended to give up music, to hang it up. And both of them found that they couldn't. The people in Buffalo simply wouldn't let them.

Both of them also are tremendously humble, considering their accomplishments. Last week, talking to Darlak for the story appearing in this week's Spotlight section, I was struck by the contrast between the celebrity he enjoys when he goes to the Grammy Awards and his warm, down-to-earth, working-class life in Buffalo. Perhaps the musicians in his band take their cue from him, because they are the same way.

Darlak was marveling good-naturedly at the memory of TV bandleader Paul Schaefer congratulating them. "Here's a guy you see every day, and he's congratulating us!" he laughed.

"We saw Gwen Stefani and Samuel L. Jackson. And then the paparazzi, they started snapping pictures of us!" his band mate Ken Machelski exclaimed.

Then the bass player, who goes by the name of Tadj, made just the kind of self-deprecating joke the whole band loves.

"We didn't tell them who the hell we were," he said. "Because then they'd stop taking our picture."

May Jerry Darlak and the Touch triumph at the Grammy Awards this year.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

UPDATED: Andrew Wyeth: 1917-2009


"Christina's World," 1948, by Andrew Wyeth. Tempera on gessoed panel.

A print of this painting, Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," hung on my grandparents' wall for many years. I suspect, like many thousands of children growing up in houses where a Wyeth print of this particular painting was somewhere around, I was captivated by it.

The sheer loneliness of the painting, the mystery of why this girl was such a long way from her solitary house in the distance, got my brain spinning. I invented stories about what was happening up in that frame above the couch. Sometimes the girl was an Indian princess perplexed by the presence of this ominous old farm house on an otherwise pristine landscape. Or maybe she was just taking a break from her overbearing parents who lived in the house, and the painting captured the aching moment she realized she wanted to go back.

Christopher Knight, at the L.A. Times, writes that the painting embodied "a nostalgic yearning for a return to what had been normalcy" for troops returning home after World War II. Whatever it means to you, the painting ranks as one of the most popular of the 20th century, and a huge attraction at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it is always on view.

Today, Wyeth, who disavowed "Christina's World" as "a complete flat tire" in 1948, according to The New York Times, died today at the age of 91. It's probably fair to say that, until today, he was the most popular living artist in America.

Wyeth's most popular work, like his entire oeuvre, was largely reviled by the art world but embraced by the public at large. He was, as Time writer Richard Lacayo put it, "one of those beloved artists the art world never quite knew what to do with."

And to me, that's not a small part of his appeal. Like Norman Rockwell (but unlike Wyeth's artistic relatives Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and others who were better received), Wyeth never gave much credit to the elite circles of the art world and never participated in its stylistic or intellectual movements. In return, the art world was sometimes vitriolically dismissive of his work.

Works by Wyeth are in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (which owns two watercolors and one ink drawing), as well as dozens of other major museums and collections. The Farnsworth Museum Brandywine River Museum, in Wyeth's hometown of Chadds Ford, Penn. and the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, are also largely dedicated to the work of the Wyeth family.

This painting, by Jiang Lin, is a sort of homage to Wyeth's most famous work. It's in the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and is now on view in its main opening exhibition:


Obituaries, reminiscences and postmortem critiques:

Terry Teachout  / CultureGrrl / New York Times / Los Angeles Times / Christopher Knight at Culture Monster

--Colin Dabkowski

Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art and Burchfield Penney Art Center.

"Confessional " poet W.D. Snodgrass (1926-2009)

Last night we learned of the death of poet William De Witt Snodgrass on Tuesday in the village of Erieville, New York (in Madison County, about 30 miles southeast of Syracuse) following a four month struggle with inoperable lung cancer.  He was 83.

Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his first full length collection Heart's Needle (1959), a deeply meditative and self-questioning volume in which he wrote of a bitter divorce and the lost of contact with his beloved daughter in both traditional and free verse forms using a voice--radical at the time--that was unapologetically personal and sentimental.  Heart's Needle, along with his friend Robert Lowell's Life Studies (which won the National Book Award that same year), are widely credited with launching the "confessional" movement in American poetry.

Although Snodgrass never accepted the "confessional" label, and subsequently did everything possible to distance himself from the movement, it's clear that the early mainstream acceptance of his literary psychodramatics ushered in an era when many poets of his generation--not only Lowell, but also John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and even, in more profoundly avant garde direction, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley's For Love--explored material previously thought too personal and language too intimate to be the incorporated into the discourse of poetry. 

Snodgrass released two more volumes of poems in the 1960's and early 1970's, while broadening his reputation as a literary translator, essayist, and critic.  By the mid 1970's, however, he was immersed in a widely misunderstood project that would occupy him for the better part of a decade and isolate him from many of his peers and former supporters.  The Fuhrer Bunker (originally published as a  "cycle in progress" in 1977 and again as a "complete cycle" in 1995), was a series of dramatic monologues based on research and invention that attempted to reconstruct--again using the language of psychodrama--the paranoia, self-indulgence and rage that had consumed the members of the German High Command and their families inside Adolf Hitler's infamous Berlin command center in the closing weeks of World War Two.

While the project could in no way be thought of as sympathetic to Nazism or the Third Reich, Snodgrass's immersion in psychopathology of fascism was confusing to many readers and critics and became something of a puzzlement in the literary world.  He rebounded strongly with a half dozen volumes over the last two decades of his life, the best of which are collected in Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (2006), an excellent companion to his earlier volume Selected Poems: 1957-1987.

A native of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Snodgrass attended Geneva College before joining the Navy and serving in the Pacific during World War Two.  Upon his return, he enrolled in the then nascent Iowa Writer's Workshop where was he among the first generation of writers-including Lowell, Berryman, and Randall Jarrell--to be instructed by the likes of Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren.

Snodgrass was a true intellectual vagabond during much of his long career, teaching at Cornell University, the University of Rochester, Wayne State University, Syracuse University (1968-1977), Old Dominion and the University of Delaware, from which he retired in 1994.  BOA Editions Ltd., the Rochester-based independent press founded in 1976 by the legendary Al Poulin, Jr., was Snodgrass's publisher from 1977 until his death this week.

Snodgrass read in Buffalo on a number of occasions in recent decades, most recently at Canisius College in April of 2002.  I happened to attend that reading, and was struck by how self-absorbed even his new poems sounded by contemporary standards.  I mean this not as a criticism of the man or his work, but rather as an echo of an observation made originally by critic Laurence Lieberman in the Yale Review: namely, that Snodgrass had essentially launched the "confessional" movement in American poetry, but that the movement did not return the favor.  His work remained obsessive and idiosyncratic: brilliant, but in many ways isolated from where American poetry had gone in the intervening decades.

--R.D. Pohl

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