Thursday, December 2, 2010

Do What I Like, Not What You Like

I'm not exactly sure why this news story should break me out of my writing doldrums, but a few days ago Steve Martin was hosted by the 92nd Street Y, where he was interviewed by art critic, historian, and etc. Deborah Solomon. The place was sold out, 900 people paying $50 a pop, plus this conversation was streamed on the internet. The topic was art, and art history, both of which have been a, let's say, major league hobby of Martin's for decades now, and are also the subject of his new novel An Object of Beauty, which had been released just days prior to the 92nd Street Y gig. So that's what they talked about. You can read about the ensuing controversy more completely here, but basically what happened is the paying audience, or anyway a portion of that audience (probably an important point, actually), both in person and on-line, did not much like the fact that Steve Martin was talking about art -- not to mention his fucking novel -- and not about what it was like making The Lonely Guy, or what he thought the Festrunk brothers might be like now, in this modern world of 2010, or whatever it is they wanted for their fifty bucks. They so disliked this that they registered their unhappiness right then, as the conversation progressed, via e-mails to the 92nd Street Y, and, I'm assuming, through hissed whispers to that venue's staff.
More alarmingly, the higher-ups in that staff agreed that this art talk must not be allowed to continue and went so far as to pass a note -- again, all while Martin and Solomon were conducting the talk they were being paid for -- to Solomon asking that she steer the conversation towards the earlier, funnier portions of Martin's career. The upshot of all this is, the evening has been written off as a debacle, to the extent that the 92nd Street Y has offered refunds to all 900 paying customers, and Solomon and Martin are left to defend themselves against charges of boringness, and of not meeting the 92nd Street Y's "standard of excellence."
There are a lot of different ways I could begin talking about this, many of them less long-winded than the path I'm about to go down, but I find it very curious that so many people would be willing to lay down fifty dollars, not only to hear Steve Martin talk about the earliest phases of his career yet again -- he sort of wrote a whole memoir about that called Born Standing Up, which I recommend, and plus there's thirty-some years of archival interview footage that's probably just a click away -- but to pay that money even though they're evidently unaware that Steve Martin long ago changed from this person:
. this person:
Now, granted, Martin himself has confused the issue by his film work, which at some point changed from the more personal stuff like Roxanne, A Simple Twist of Fate and L. A. Story, films that, whatever you might think of them, gave a pretty strong indication of where his own creative drive was taking him, to what would appear to be straight paycheck gigs like Bringing Down the House, The Pink Panther movies, and so on. But Steve Martin is not a hermit, and you don't need to be a superfan to know that his personal sense of humor has leaned, over the past several years, to the very dry (and I do not believe, by the way, that Martin, during this 92nd Street Y gig, completely stomped down on this humor in favor of some dull, professorial demeanor, but maybe I'm wrong). Not only that, but his interest in art is very well documented, and references to it stretch way back to his absurdist days (see the Winslow Homer piece in his first book Cruel Shoes). The point of all of this being that the 92nd Street Y -- who this month will be hosting an evening with the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Octet, and later another one with Ian Frazier and John McPhee (who will be talking about families and rocks, I'm guessing), and even later still will evidently be the site of live broadcasts of The Rachel Maddow Show (I recommend audience members for those nights demand their refunds in advance, as a time-saving strategy), but nothing, so far as I know, on a night of comedy with Carrot Top, or any kind of evening that requires a warning that members of the audience will get wet -- hired Deborah Solomon, a woman who wrote a biography of Jackson Pollock, thinking, apparently, that she was going to ask Steve Martin if it was a lot of fun making My Blue Heaven, and then got all pissed off when she didn't.
Oh, there are more specific things that the complainers have pointed out, such as the fact that a large chunk of the discussion was about Martin's brand new book, which nobody in the audience would have had a chance to read yet, but I guess the folks making that complaint are entirely unaware of the tradition of authors promoting their brand new books by giving live readings. There's also the question of how the evening with Solomon and Martin was marketed. Well, here's the page for it on the Y's website, and I'll admit it's a bit vague, though I feel the biography of Solomon offered at the bottom of the page offers some interesting clues.
Regardless of all that, the real problem is this appalling desire that an artist be only what we perceive them to be, and to do what we both perceive and prefer that they do. Steve Martin talked about art; I wanted him to sing "King Tut" again. Give me my goddamn money back. Now listen, I completely understand the impulse to want an artist you've liked in the past to keep doing those things you've liked, especially if the more visible work they're currently doing doesn't seem to be as good (for the record, I haven't been interested in a Steve Martin movie since Bowfinger, and haven't really liked one since he appeared in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, but I find this personal, sideline work -- his novels, his banjo music -- really interesting and appealing, though I've experience not too much of it thus far). And you, and I, and everyone, has every right to wish an artist would do whatever the hell we might wish them to do. What nobody has the right to do is demand that they do it, even if we're putting our money down in the misguided hope that they'll read our minds.
The analogy isn't perfect, but what this reminds me of (apart from that episode of The Simpsons when Homer goes to see Bachman Turner Overdrive and demands that they play "Takin' Care of Business" even though they'd just finished playing it, and then once they start it again tells them to "skip to the 'workin' overtime' part") is all the pissing and moaning from people who think that Robert De Niro has sold out. By turning up in two sequels to Meet the Parents and one sequel to Analyze This (which was no great shakes to begin with), as well as Hide and Seek and all that other stuff, I suppose, technically, he has sold out, but the attitude from some people is that De Niro has sold us out, as if by thinking he was so amazing in Taxi Driver we were somehow doing him a favor, one he's now refusing to make good on.
Often, the line on this is that De Niro is "tarnishing his legacy." To those who say such things, let me first say "Fuck you, and until you've built up a legacy of your own, don't think you have any right to tell someone like Robert De Niro how they should go about handling theirs." After that rant, I would say that De Niro made films like Taxi Driver because he was a brilliant actor, and he wanted to make those kinds of films. Evidently, he no longer wants to do that. I don't want to get all slobbery and stupid and say that those dozen or so (or whatever, I'm not going to count them) astonishing performances De Niro gave in the first half of his career were his "gifts" to us, but I am grateful to him, as a fan, for doing that work. But I'm also not so delusional as to think he, or any other artist I like, owes me anything more, or even owed me what I've already gotten. Taxi Driver might have sucked, you know -- you buys your ticket and you takes your chances. The fact that it didn't can really be chalked up to our good luck.
Artists don't belong to us. We have no rights in these matters. Be happy you can watch The King of Comedy whenever you want, or The Man With Two Brains or Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Skip over what doesn't interest you, but maybe give An Object of Beauty a look, because who knows, maybe it's pretty good. Either way, don't buy a ticket for something you don't understand and then bitch about the fact that you don't understand it.


Fabian W. said...

Occasional reader, first-time commenter, just want to say this: "The mixer is for people to mingle" should be the name of something.

bill r. said...

It's too long for a band name, but if it WERE the name of a band, their first album should be called "Steve Martin Will Not Be There".

Adam Ross said...

I had the same response to reading this news, but I still can't believe this happened in New York, where there are boundless opportunities for entertainment. Maybe there are stupid and annoying people everywhere, and not just in the sticks.

Here's what I hope comes of this: a Steve Martin cameo on SNL. I could imagine him either being an audience member or the interviewer.

bill r. said...

Personally, I think it's hilarious that this happened in New York. Those guys think they're so big, but they're just as stupid as everyone else. As I'd long suspected!

I also hope Martin does something with this. His responses so far have been perfect, both in straight up class, and in humor.

Brian Doan said...

Bill, this is a really nice piece, and I agree with you about Martin specifically, and artists more generally. I also want to say-- wow, isn't Steve Martin great in THE SPANISH PRISONER? I'm not the Mamet fan/expert you are, but PRISONER is my favorite of his that I've seen, and a lot of that is due to how well Martin finds that line between funny and eerie, and how well he plays opposite an equally good Campbell Scott.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Brian, and I love Martin in THE SPANISH PRISONER. He's so good with Mamet's dialogue, and he just carries himself with such devious grace. If I were going to demand anything of Steve Martin, it would be that he act in more David Mamet movies.

Michael C said...

Re this post:
Utterly utterly utterly utterly utterly utterly utterly utterly agree.
(well, that was nice'n'profound, as a comment. Mmmm).

John said...

De Niro made films like Taxi Driver because he was a brilliant actor, and he wanted to make those kinds of films. Evidently, he no longer wants to do that.

Not only that. Maybe the opportunities just aren't there anymore? Maybe there just are no roles like that available in Hollywood now, and especially for an actor in his late 60s, no matter how accomplished. I figure the disappointment of Deniro's latter-day career is probably much more damning of the state of the studio system than of the man himself.

bill r. said...

Michael - I thought that was a great comment! You shouldn't be so hard on yourself!

John - To some degree, I'm sure that's all true, but De Niro did turn down the role of Bill the Butcher in GANGS OF NEW YORK, which indicates to me that his interests lie elsewhere these days. I could well be wrong, though, and, anyway, his reasons for not doing that film are none of my business.

Ed Howard said...

Great post, Bill. It's amazing the sense of entitlement and ownership that fans have towards artists and entertainers, as though they have a responsibility to keep producing the same work over and over again. It's especially baffling to me because, personally, I can't think of any artist who I'd even want to keep producing the same work over and over again, no matter how much I might like any given period of their career. Any real artist understands the need to change, to try new things, to push into new territory, and if Steve Martin isn't interested in revisiting the early, funny stuff, that's certainly understandable.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Ed. As I said, it's not like I don't understand the desire, at least to some degree. A while back, I was talking to someone on this here blog about Steven Millhauser, and we both agreed that we didn't ever want him to change. For my part, that's only because he's already writing about so many of my favorite things, so why would I want him to? But I would never get angry if he DID change, because who am I? I'm not Steven Millhauser; he is Steven Millhauser, and he's going to do what it insterests him to do.

As for Martin, I think he's just plain bored with the old days, and however many movies he might make that I, and others, don't care for, it seems clear that he's just happy to be in the position to work when he feels like it, and to, I suppose, support his art habit, and further give himself time to pursue his own interests that sometimes result in a book, or a CD, but probably just as often, if not more often, don't. He's doing what he likes. Good for him.

Iris said...

Great post. I read that NYT article the other day and my jaw pretty much hit the floor when I got to the email the Y's director sent to the audience: "We acknowledge that last night's event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y [...] We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening." Wow, that's classy! And too bad their "planning" apparently didn't include actually telling Solomon & Martin what they were expected to talk about... I love Martin's response at the end of the article, though.

I am curious now -- I wish I could have been there to see what the hell these people were complaining about. (C'mon people, it is called a "lecture" on the Y's site -- you know, like those things you used to sleep through in college?) Too bad the refund is in the form of a gift certificate -- it would be fun to write something to the Y like "Actually, I enjoyed the talk, but I'd like my $50 back so I can donate it to an art nonprofit..."

Bryce Wilson said...

"- or any kind of evening that requires a warning that members of the audience will get wet"

This whole thing was solid. But that line was kind of magnificent.

As it happens An Object Of Beauty is really good (if mannered) and people SHOULD check it out.

I can't really agree with you a hundred percent on The DeNiro continuum. I'll accept the fuck you now.

It's not that I think I can demand DeNiro do what I want him to do. But I think I can at least ask him to be awake when he does it.

When you look at something like Meet The Fockers vs. Machete I think you can see the difference I'm talking about. I mean look, I don't think anyone is going to confuse Machete with Raging Bull, but at least he looks like he's aware there's a fucking camera there, which is more then you can say about most of his post Ronin work.

Call it The Harrison Ford in Morning Glory argument. You can do whatever the fuck you want. But I'd prefer they'd at least seem a bit engaged by it.

Craig said...


Marginally related, I recently attended "A Conversation Between Jane Pauley and Meryl Streep" here on the IU campus. (I was there for Streep.) It was a fairly interesting, entertaining hour of Q&A between the two, with questions offered and selected in advance. When it was over, though, the lady next to me griped, "I wanted a real conversation!" i.e., between Meryl Streep and the audience. And I thought: Right, because nobody ever hogs the mike or asks asinine questions or rambles on forever without asking anything. (Ever a good sport, Streep did ad-lib a call for one shouted-out question. The question was: "Will you marry me?") It'd be great to have a "real" conversation, but not many people seem interested in that. Just like they weren't interested in Martin's current occupations.

Brian Doan said...

Craig, do you teach at IU? I ask because it's my alma mater (Class of 1995), and I still think very fondly of Bloomington.

Craig said...

Brian - Yes, I recently started working here, coming coincidentally by way of NE Ohio, which I think is where you are now, right? Bloomington is a great place. Next time you visit, make sure to check out the new IU Cinema in University Hall. I caught an early press screening of Bridge on the River Kwai there a few weeks ago, and it was amazing.

Brian Doan said...

Craig, that's great! Yes, I'm at Oberlin right now. I'd love to see the new cinema-- when I was there, there was the big lecture hall in the art building (where the Ryder series screened) and the charming-but-dilapidated theater in the Union. So a new theater showing classic movies sounds fantastic.