Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hail Caesar (by Candy Sagon, the Washington Post)

Note to the caption: .FD-CAESAR Date: 03-23-06 Photographer: Susan Biddle/TWP Neg#178645 Location: Washington, DC Summary: Caesar salad as prepared at the Willard Room in Willard Hotel by Willard Room Director Francisco Nieto. The completed salad. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Thu Mar 23 20:44:02 2006 Photo Credit: Twp Photo

The Salad That Conquered the Country

Wednesday, March 29, 2006; F01

America cannot get enough of the Caesar salad. In the last two decades, the simple combination of romaine lettuce, creamy dressing and Parmesan cheese has:

· Become America's most popular main-dish salad, showing up virtually everywhere from fast-food chains to white-tablecloth restaurants to the takeout counter in the supermarket.

· Dramatically altered the lettuce industry as the demand for romaine has skyrocketed.

· Turned the chicken-topped Caesar into the chicken item most frequently found on restaurant menus -- more often than wings or even that perennial kid favorite, chicken fingers.

And still we want more.

Three-fourths of all full-service restaurants now offer a Caesar salad, compared with 57 percent just a year ago, according to a new survey of the country's top 500 restaurants by market research firm Technomic.

Dole Foods, which introduced the bagged Caesar salad kit 12 years ago, says sales of its classic Caesar kit continue to grow each year, despite competition from other companies and Dole's own eight other bagged salad kits. "Americans just don't get tired of that flavor," says Eric Schwartz, president of Dole's fresh vegetable division.

Although the Caesar may seem like the all-American salad, it actually was invented in 1924 by an Italian immigrant in Mexico.

Caesar Cardini, owner of a popular Tijuana restaurant, concocted the salad one night for some late-partying Hollywood guests, most food historians agree. He used romaine, then considered an uncommon delicacy, and just six ingredients to make a creamy dressing: garlic, olive oil, lemon, egg, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese.

The salad was prepared tableside, and posh restaurants in Los Angeles soon began offering it as well.

"The ingredients today don't impress us, but back then they were much more expensive and difficult to find. The Caesar, when it was first introduced, was considered exotic," says Vogue magazine food critic and author Jeffrey Steingarten.

As ingredients like olive oil and Parmesan cheese became more common, however, the Caesar made the jump from upper-class rarity to mass-culture staple.

Demand for the salad grew and the effect began to be felt in the lettuce industry. Over the past 15 years, romaine has gone from a tiny portion of the nation's lettuce crop to one of the fastest-growing vegetables to be produced, consumed and exported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Romaine production has soared so dramatically that in 2002, for the first time, the USDA's agricultural census gave romaine its own category. According to the government's figures, California, the country's largest lettuce producer, grew romaine on 15,500 acres in 1992. By 2004, that had quadrupled to 64,000 acres.

The Caesar also has proved a boon to the poultry industry, thanks to the idea of topping the salad with strips of chicken to turn it into an entree.

A 2003 survey of about 1,400 restaurants conducted for the National Chicken Council found that the chicken Caesar was on 66 percent of restaurant menus; chicken fingers showed up on 50 percent. "We were surprised. We thought wings or tenders would be higher [than the Caesar]. But I guess it's the universal chicken dish," says council spokesman Richard Lobb.

The popularity of the Caesar, particularly as an entree salad topped with chicken, beef or fish, is expected to keep on growing.

The National Restaurant Association's 2005 restaurant industry forecast showed entree-salad orders registering the largest increase of all menu items at both full-service and quick-service restaurants. Nearly 80 percent of quick-service places reported that customers are ordering entree salads, such as the Caesar, more often.

And it's not popular only in the United States. When Didier Armand, chef at the Paris La Defense hotel, was named Renaissance Hotels' chef of the year in 2005, he noted at a luncheon that no matter what he put on the hotel's lunch menu, "the chicken Caesar always outsells everything."

Who says it's only for rabbits?

Consumption of all lettuce varieties has been increasing since 1960. Iceberg remains the most popular, but we're eating less of it and more of romaine. In 1985, per capita consumption of romaine was less than one pound. By 2004, that had increased to 8.1 pounds, nearly doubling between 2001 and 2004, due in part to the increased popularity of the Caesar salad.

(Source: USDA Economic Research Service)

Get dressed

Although ranch dressing is the most popular at home, Caesar is the dressing most likely to appear on restaurant menus.

(Source: Mintel menu monitor base, 2005)

By calories and pounds

It may be a salad, but it's not necessarily low-calorie. Some examples, with dressing: A nine-ounce chicken Caesar from Au Bon Pain is 920 calories (60 grams of fat); a 14-ounce salad from Panera is 560 calories (34 grams fat); and an 11-ounce salad from McDonald's is 470 calories (25 grams fat).

For its 861 hotels in North America that serve Caesar salads, Marriott International in 2005 bought nearly 2 million pounds of romaine lettuce.

(Source: Restaurant Web sites; Marriott International)

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Writer, Edit Thyself (By Jen Weiss,

How can a writer and editor edit her own writing? A book editor and freelance writer gives tips on how she does it.

– February 11, 2004

Editors don't often call themselves writers, and vice versa, because writing and editing are two largely different skill sets that don't always live under the same roof. So where does that leave writers who want to edit their own work a bit, people who prefer to polish their drafts before turning them in? It's possible to edit yourself, but it's not always easy: Editing one's own writing requires the ability to chisel away at work one created and labored over.

Editing yourself—forgive the metaphor—is like making a good split-pea soup. You've got to skim away the yummy chunks, the tasty herbs, all those great ideas you threw in at the get-go—and then blend, blend, skim, and blend, for that nice, smooth finished product. You're sad to do it, because you chose all those good ingredients in the first place, but you also remember that when the finished, blended soup is good, it's really good. Well-edited writing, similarly, is beautiful, and it's worth it to make that first, painful, editing pass on your own.

Good self-editing can start even before the writing does, with good outlines. Many of us writers put together some sort of outline before plunging into writing a piece. But how many of us stick to it? I tend to create an outline and revise it to death—at which point I just write my piece. Perhaps I'm using outlining as a way to procrastinate, but I prefer to think of it as laying a strong framework and base for my piece. Sometimes whatever I end up writing is only inspired by my original outline, containing a hint of the outline that gave birth to it. This risky endeavor sometimes leads to greatness, a piece stronger than I could ever have imagined in the 20th draft of outlining. But usually what I get is a mess of writing that needs a lot of polish before it'll be understood by anyone other than me. But when I actually use my outline as a roadmap, following it point-by-point through the piece, I tend to end up with work that is near-final, needing only minor tweaking and no major structural changes. And this is always helpful when working on a tight deadline. Pre-editing—and sticking to that pre-edit—works.

Once you've cracked into the piece, you might feel compelled to edit as you go. I've heard some writers talk about how they spend lots of time on each sentence, rolling it over and over on their tongues before moving on, making sure everything about it, and about the way it links to the next, is perfect before moving on. For writers who work that way, it often means that once they finish writing, they're finished. Having actively and aggressively edited as they worked, they tend to be quite happy with the end product. But, on the other hand, it's taken them a lot longer to get there, and it's a disaster if you find you're not happy with the end product after all the work you've put in. It's also tough to do this. Those who can edit as they work have a rare talent; they can instantly step back from writing they're extremely close to and look at it from an objective standpoint. I prefer to spew a whole bunch of thoughts onto a page in some sort of order, and then sculpt my creation—but if you can edit on the spot, go for it. Though it might be time-consuming, it usually means less work for you in the end.

Though I can't edit as I go, when writing articles, I do always think about a question often posed by a favorite professor of mine in college: “So what?” It's a simple question, but oh-so-helpful when trying to make a point in writing—and trying to make that point clearly. The technique for applying it is simple: as you work your way through each paragraph, ask yourself what your point is. Become a pain in your own butt about it. You might find yourself a tad cranky and annoyed after going through this exercise, but I promise it'll lead to a stronger piece than you would have written had you not asked the question.

You might also try mapping your writing, especially if you didn't stick to your original outline. I do this when editing other people's writing, and sometimes I'll do it with my own. It helps me figure out the shape of the piece, what should stay and what should go. Basically what you're doing is outlining in reverse; examining your piece and plotting out the shape it's taken, paragraph by paragraph. When I'm looking at just the skeleton of the piece I've written, it's much easier for me to see what belongs and what doesn't than when I'm reading and re-reading the entire piece.

Once you've finished writing, try putting it away for a while. A day, a week—however long it'll take you to nearly forget about it. Most writers I know agree that this is the only way they're able to hack into their writing effectively. This sort of skill is especially handy when you need to somehow hack your 5,000-word masterpiece down to the 2,500 words you've been assigned. You'll have to be able to look at your own writing—your baby—objectively to do it. Revise those metaphors you thought were beautiful when you wrote them but don't mean a darned thing, lose paragraphs that you felt at the time were essential to your line of reasoning but aren't in the least. I can't possibly lose chunks of my writing immediately after finishing; I'm too close to it. If I thought anything I wrote wasn't important, why did I write it? But once I've put it away for a while, and perhaps have started writing something else, it's much easier to get in there. Of course, this takes some advance planning. If you're working against a tight deadline, you might not be able to afford more time away than a bathroom break. But, even so, a bathroom break is worth it. Pause for any amount of time you can take.

And what about doing those 2,500 words of cuts? How to even get started on that? A good place: Take a second look at your original first few paragraphs (or more, depending on how long the piece is), and see if they're necessary. I've seen countless cases of writers taking a long time to get to their point. There's nothing wrong with a nice, entertaining lede, but hooking your reader is key—and a long way to get to your point might cause your reader to lose interest. Try cutting the first paragraph or two, and see what you've got. You might be surprised to find a new, snappier introduction to your piece.

And also be sure to focus on the finale. Ask yourself whether the conclusion satisfies the needs of the rest of the piece and if it will satisfy the reader. There are few things more irritating than too abrupt an ending, or one that doesn't seem to finish a piece at all. Your aim, when crafting the conclusion, is to close up the piece—or, if you plan on writing a sequel, closing up what you've written and leaving a few question for the reader that will pleasantly linger in his/her head. So before you turn your piece in to your editor, make sure you've got this nailed. You'll probably have to nail it sooner or later—few editors will let a weak ending get by.

By doing all this editorial work before your piece goes to Editorial—if you can do it well—not only will you ensure that your piece looks in print much as it did when you turned it in, but you should get more work. Because the cleaner a piece comes in, the less work an editor needs to do on it. And this makes a happy editor—who'll want to keep you on board.

Jen Weiss is a freelance writer and children's book editor in New York.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dancing to the rhythms of a violent history (by Amanda Hopkinson, the Independent)

The Tango Singer, by Tomas Eloy Martinez trans Anne McLean

Published: 10 February 2006

Madonna performed it in Evita. Sally Potter directed it in The Tango Lesson. Hundreds, mainly women of uncertain age, dance it across British cities. And the Argentines, who claim to have choreographed it - although the roots lie in the male partnerships of Cuban sailors improvising on the rhythms of the habañera - have written about it. Even Borges's brief "History of the Tango" opens by paying homage to the many histories that precede his. And British visitors to La Boca (the port where tango emerged) write glamorous accounts of their encounters.

Tomas Eloy Martinez takes a less glamorous approach. The novelist is interested in tango's myth and mystique, related through the lyrics rather than the movements of this lament that balances on a knife-edge between consummate control and intense passion. As with The Peron Novel and Santa Evita, The Tango Singer is about the Buenos Aires of his youth, before a right-wing bomb ousted Martinez from his newspaper and brought exile in the US.

The eponymous singer is Julio Martel, discovered by a North American PhD student during a chance conversation with the cultural historian Jean Franco. Again, this mingling of actual and fictitious protagonists belongs to a Latin American genre of "meta-historical fiction".

Bruno Cadogan's quest for Martel leads him to Buenos Aires, where he is led to the house that was the original site of Borges' kabbalistic tale, "The Aleph". From there he pursues Martel across the city, attempting to divine the connections between the odd occasions when the crippled singer makes erratic appearances and sings in a strange voice between a tenor and a falsetto. Martel refused to record: the only way to hear him is to see him, although an early fairground recording precipitates a national furore.

Martel's repertoire includes laments from the earliest and lewdest period of immigration to the city, in the late 19th century. But the year now is 2001, when the Argentine economy collapsed. Graphic descriptions abound of a city under siege by the migratory poor, camped on the streets, desperately attempting to find food or beg a living - a city of ragged shadows and bonfires on corners, of a political structure in crisis. The city that Martel maps out for Cadogan is an even bleaker one, superimposed on an even blacker past. It is this recent history that Cadogan explores through a variety of subplots.

The Tango Singer delivers on every Buenos Aires myth, but goes well beyond the familiar. This is the city in which ghostly legends - Peron, Evita, Borges, Gardel - haunt everyday reality. It is also where the secrets of a recent past cannot be contained. The legend of the charismatic singer "with sunshine in his throat", vocalising the "long roll of thunder" unleashed under Peronism and military dictatorship, gives a sharper, more urgent voice to the tango. From being merely a sexy and exportable dance craze, it translates as the popular history of a nation in violent change.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA

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Monday, March 06, 2006

'Crash' is a stunner (By John Horn and Susan King, the Los Angeles Times)

Note to the image: The cast of "Crash," including Sandra Bullock, right, Matt Dillon, second from right, and Terrence Howard, left, celebrate the film's best picture win.
(Timothy A. Clary / Getty Images)

Note to the image:
Lions Gate Films' Crash - 2005

Racial drama pulls off best picture upset; Ang Lee grabs director honors for 'Brokeback.'

March 5, 2006

It split audiences, divided critics and even left its own producers warring. But "Crash" ultimately unified the one constituency that matters most in Hollywood: Academy Award voters.

In one of the biggest upsets in recent Academy Award history, "Crash" defeated "Brokeback Mountain" for the best picture Oscar on Sunday, also winning in the categories of best original screenplay and editing.

Though the provocative ensemble drama about race relations in Los Angeles dealt a blow to the heavily favored "Brokeback Mountain," the ascension of "Crash" symbolized not only the rise of independently financed movies but also this award season's emphasis on personal stories about divisive social issues.

"What an amazing night!" one of "Crash's" two credited producers, Cathy Schulman, said after the film's win was greeted by astonishment and applause inside the Kodak Theatre. Addressing her fellow best picture nominees, she said: "You have made this year one of the most breathtaking and stunning maverick years in American cinema."

"Brokeback Mountain," which had cleaned up at awards shows leading up to the 78th annual Oscars and was among the year's best-reviewed films, did win an Oscar for Ang Lee, the first non-white director to win the industry's top filmmaking prize. The controversial movie about cowboys in love also won trophies for adapted screenplay and score.

In upsetting "Brokeback Mountain" for best picture, "Crash" delivered as big a shock as when "Shakespeare in Love" toppled "Saving Private Ryan" seven years ago.

In choosing "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain," the academy was picking between two small movies dealing with prejudice and intolerance. "Crash" isn't playing in theaters anymore, having been released on DVD in September. Not one of this year's best picture nominees has grossed more than $80 million in theaters; only "Brokeback Mountain" has come close.

Even though its win was unexpected, "Crash" represents an Academy Award trend. For the fourth consecutive year, none of the major Hollywood studios could claim credit for making and releasing a best picture winner — a span stretching back to Universal Pictures' "A Beautiful Mind." (Last year's winner, "Million Dollar Baby," was distributed by Warner Bros. but financed by independent Lakeshore Entertainment.)

And unlike past independent best film winners, which were fully financed by specialized companies such as Miramax Films, this year's non-studio films were bankrolled by a patchwork of private investors.

Of the best picture nominees, "Capote," whose Philip Seymour Hoffman took the best actor Oscar, was partially financed by a German investment fund and Canadian tax credits; "Good Night, and Good Luck" attracted deep-pocketed patrons in Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and EBay co-founder Jeff Skoll; "Brokeback Mountain" was helped to the screen by Bill Pohlad, whose family owns the Minnesota Twins; and "Crash" was bankrolled by a German media fund, the Blockbuster video chain and a bank loan.

Only "Munich" was 100% underwritten by a studio, but had not Steven Spielberg been at the helm it is unlikely that Universal — or any other studio, for that matter — would have backed the production about the aftermath of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Prominent movie critics were sharply split on "Crash's" artistic merits, and audiences fell into two sharply polarized camps: those who loved the $7.5-million film, and those who loathed it. When the film was released in May, it carried the names of six separate producers, but only two — Schulman and the film's co-writer and director, Paul Haggis — were deemed eligible for the best picture trophy.

Financier Bob Yari, the film's first Hollywood supporter and one of the four delisted producers, has sued Schulman and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of the credit dispute, and Schulman has sued Yari. Schulman did, however, thank Yari in her acceptance speech.

Yari wasn't invited to the show, and watched the ceremony with colleagues at a Burbank burger joint. He said the controversy over the producing credit tainted his ability to enjoy the Oscars, but that the win gave him hope.

"It almost takes away all the hesitation I have to continue," he said.

Many of the other best picture nominees also split audiences along political, religious and aesthetic lines — and their box office returns suffered as a result. Eric Bana, who starred in "Munich" and was a presenter Sunday night, said the Oscars helped draw attention to movies some ticket buyers dismissed out of hand.

"There were a few films this year where people made up their minds without actually seeing the films or knowing much about them," Bana said as he entered the Kodak Theatre.

The ceremony's first award — a best supporting actor win for George Clooney in "Syriana" — was indicative of the evening's slate of nominees. Released by Warner Bros., the political thriller about oil and terrorism was subsidized by Skoll's Participant Productions; Clooney himself waived his up-front salary in order to get the outspoken movie made.

"This is not an industry that says OK. It has to be about big business and big budgets," Clooney said backstage after his win. "I think the beauty of the academy is that it finds little moments to say, 'Let's talk about these films and let's talk about things that maybe the rest of the mainstream doesn't get a chance to see.' "

Neither "Syriana" nor "The Constant Gardener," a drama about pharmaceutical corruption in Africa that won a best supporting actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz, sold nearly as many tickets as the winner for documentary feature, "March of the Penguins," which grossed $77.4 million.

Actor William H. Macy, whose wife, Felicity Huffman, was nominated for best actress in "Transamerica," said before the ceremony that he was encouraged by the kinds of movies Oscar voters singled out, and that they had performed well relative to their costs.

"The [best picture nominees] this year were not blockbusters but they were movies of depth," Macy said. "These films were successful too, and that's not getting enough attention."

Some Oscar-winning movies that were conceived as fully financed studio films were different animals by the time they hit theaters. "Memoirs of a Geisha," which won Academy Awards for costume design, art direction and cinematography, was developed at Sony Pictures, but the nervous studio sold a hefty share of the film to Spyglass Entertainment.

Even the specialized film companies that distributed four of the five best picture nominees are not immune to the relentless business pressures that make daring filmmaking increasingly difficult. Focus Features, which released "Brokeback Mountain," adheres to a rigid model that balances a film's artistic merit against its foreign sales potential. That formula prevented Focus from making 2004's "Sideways," which went on to be a critical triumph, win the adapted screenplay Oscar and turn into an art house smash, grossing more than $71 million.

The ceremony's honorary Oscar was presented to maverick director Robert Altman, recognizing a filmmaker who often works outside of — and has often expressed his open disdain for — the big studios.

Those studios could take some solace in the three wins collected by "King Kong" and the best actress trophy for Reese Witherspoon of "Walk the Line."

The show was hosted by Jon Stewart of the satirical news program "The Daily Show," the fourth Oscar host in as many years. Ratings for last year's show, for which Chris Rock was host, were down 3% from the previous year, and Oscar organizers worried that television viewership might be down again this year because so few people had seen the five best picture nominees.

But these movies were never intended to be blockbusters. They just had something to say. Noted Yari as he drove away from Mo's Restaurant to celebrate his film's unexpected triumph, "No matter how much we want to believe important messages drive Hollywood decisions, the greatest driver is financial potential."

Times staff writers Robert W. Welkos and Geoff Boucher contributed to this report

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest? (By Eric Gibson, In Character)

Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with.”

They might have added “vain.” Through the ages artists have honored modesty more in the breach than the observance. The Wittkowers point to the example of the architect of the Pisa Cathedral, who identified himself as the builder (in a Latin inscription on the wall of the cathedral) in no uncertain terms: “Rainaldo, the skillful workman and master builder, executed this wonderful, costly work, and did so with amazing skill and ingenuity.”

Peter Paul Rubens, though widely considered one of the few true gentlemen in the history of art, was not immune to displays of ego. Like all artists-in-training until the twentieth century, he served his apprenticeship by copying the masters. But instead of striving to create a meticulous reproduction, Rubens would sometimes go one better, by taking it on himself to improve on the work of an artistic forebear.

This became clear in a superb exhibition in 2005 of Rubens drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show included Rubens’s 1601 copy of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – that famously muscled woman seen with her back exposed to us as she turns to lift a large book off a shelf in the background. Most young artists – Rubens was in his early thirties – would have been properly cowed by the prospect of matching their skills against so august a personage, and may have dared no more than a respectable line-for-line facsimile. Not Rubens. He adjusts the Sibyl’s pose, making her lean forward more and giving a more pronounced tilt to her head.

Minor details perhaps. But those two small changes transform the image. In Michelangelo’s painting, the Sibyl seems lost in reverie, somewhat absent-mindedly picking up her heavy tome. Rubens’s adjustments sharpen and clarify the action. In his hands the Sibyl becomes charged with greater energy, more mentally and physically engaged in her task.

Contemporary painter Julian Schnabel, one of the Young Turks who helped define the 1980s art scene in New York, once blithely told an interviewer that he believed his peers to be “Duccio, Giotto, and van Gogh.” The jury is still out on that one.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by such displays of immodesty. Artists are in the business of drawing attention to themselves. Their work is intended for public exhibition; they record their likenesses for posterity – sometimes, like Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso, many times over. And, lest we confuse their achievements with someone else’s, they affix their names to their work, always prominently, occasionally ostentatiously. In “The Arnolfini Wedding,” for example, an interior scene of a couple holding hands, the artist’s signature on the rear wall is in script so large and florid that it threatens to upstage the actors in the scene: “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434.”

A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist. Until the end of the Middle Ages, artists belonged to guilds, or unions. In the social pecking order, they were simple laborers, no different from bricklayers, carpenters, and silversmiths, generally guaranteed steady work. This changed during the Renaissance when society began to recognize artists as creative individuals in their own right. This new status brought with it a new set of challenges that had to be overcome if they were to be able to earn a living. It fell to artists to secure commissions and sell their work, cultivating patrons in the church and aristocracy and, after the nineteenth century, among private individuals, corporations, and governments.

The onset of the modern era created new difficulties, as art’s forms and subjects ceased to be grounded in ideas and values common to society at large and instead were invented by the artist to express subjective values. The artist now faced the more difficult task of persuading an often hostile and uncomprehending public of the seriousness and merit of his work. Finally, of course, there is the challenge faced by the artist since the beginning of time, of giving visible form to the elusive mental image. Small wonder that success, when it comes, occasions Rainaldo-like displays of self-praise.

But if artists tend not to be modest in the conventional sense – in their day-to-day relations with other human beings – it does not mean that we cannot speak of them as modest in some respects. Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as “imagination’s chamber” – with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone – that ego falls away.

Consider Michelangelo. The great sculptor, painter, architect, and poet was not a man unduly afflicted with modesty. He claimed he was self-taught and in debt to no one for his magnificent skills. So upset was he when, in 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote in The Lives of the Artists that the young Michelangelo had served as an apprentice to a pupil of Donatello’s as well as to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, that he published a ghostwritten autobiography restating the Virgin-birth theory of his artistic development.

Nonetheless, his Pietà reveals a somewhat different attitude to self. Michelangelo carved the statue, a life-size sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ across her lap, in 1499. It won instant acclaim when it was unveiled in St. Peter’s Basilica the following year. Over the centuries, of course, it has established itself as one of the preeminent artworks of all time.

But the artist himself wasn’t so sure of its worth. On the band that runs diagonally across the Virgin’s robed torso, where it could not be missed, he chiseled the words: “Michael Angelus Bonarotus Florent Facieba” (Michelangeo Buonarroti of Florence Created This). As James Hall tells us in his recent book, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, the inscription is grammatically incorrect, but intentionally so. “The incomplete ‘facieba[t]’ writes Mr. Hall, “was a revival of an ancient method of signing artworks. By saying that the artist ‘was making,’ rather than ‘made’ the artwork, it suggested he had stopped before the work was finished. This demonstrated the humility of the artist (‘my work is imperfect and so it cannot be regarded as finished’) as well as the enormity of the task.”

Such forthright public acknowledgment by an artist of his limitations is the exception rather than the rule, however. Normally such knowledge comes to us indirectly, through biographers, memoirists, intimates, and other privileged witnesses to the creative process, and even then only in passing, in a sentence or two snatched from a letter or conversation. Thus we know from a late letter to the symbolist painter Emile Bernard that Cézanne considered himself merely “the primitive of the way which I’ve discovered”; we learn from a comment made to amanuensis Hélène Parmelin that Picasso equated painting with “death in the [bull] ring”; from biographer Hilary Spurling we find that Matisse regarded the act of painting as “a rape,” and, from a poem Michelangelo wrote while working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we find this thought: “I am not ... a painter.”

A slender volume published forty years ago by the Museum of Modern Art gives us an in-depth look at an artist’s modesty. In A Giacometti Portrait, a diary kept by American expatriate James Lord, the author’s own observations are combined with direct quotes from Giacometti himself, making this the nearest thing we have to a first-person account by an artist about his work.

Giacometti had originally planned “a quick portrait sketch” of Lord, the work of an afternoon. But the project lasted almost three weeks. At the time Giacometti was in his mid-sixties. Renowned the world over for his sculpted and painted portraits, he was eagerly sought out by collectors, the media, and hangers-on. Major museums around the world displayed his work. In spite of all this, his worldly station was the last thing on his mind when it came to the task of creating. Throughout Lord’s book, Giacometti is depicted as invariably unhappy with what he has done, feeling that his work is falling short – almost as a matter of destiny – of what he wants it to be. A passage from his first session with Lord sets the tone:

A number of times he remarked that he was hungry, as he hadn’t had anything but coffee since getting up several hours before. Again I suggested that we stop, but he refused.

“We can’t stop now. I thought I’d stop when it was going well. But now it’s going very badly. It’s too late. We can’t stop now.”

Finally, though, he admitted that he was tired. His back ached. He had been working then for a little more than two hours. “That’s enough,” he said. Taking the canvas from the easel, he placed it at the back of the studio .... After studying the picture for several minutes, he said, “The head isn’t too bad. It has volume. This is a beginning, at least.”

“A beginning?” I asked. “But I thought we were going to work only once.’”

“It’s too late for that now,” he said. “It’s gone too far and at the same time not far enough. We can’t stop now .... If only I could accomplish something in drawing or painting or sculpture, it wouldn’t be so bad. If I could just do a head, one head, just once, then maybe I’d have a chance of doing the rest, a landscape, a still life. But it’s impossible.”

I argued that what seemed impossible to him might seem to other people not only to have been possible – since, after all, it had been done – but fine and satisfying as well. That, however, was no consolation to him. The opinions of other people concerning his work, though of interest to him, are naturally unrelated to his own feelings.

“It’s impossible to paint a portrait,” he said.

Giacometti’s remark, “But it’s going very badly .... We can’t stop now,” hints at a deeper dimension of artistic modesty than simple humility before the task at hand. It’s not uncommon for artists, once at work, to unquestioningly follow in whatever direction their art may lead them, however mysterious or absurd, and no matter what price they have to pay in terms of public acceptance or material well-being. This posture of self-abnegation and suppression of the ego is a unique expression of modesty. Once again, the example of Giacometti is instructive.

Giacometti had begun his career as a surrealist. Starting in the mid-1920s, he made quasi-abstract, erotically charged figures and objects whose forms were drawn entirely from his imagination and dreams. He made a respectable living and a considerable reputation with these sculptures. Then, in the mid-1930s, believing such works were becoming glib and superficial, he began working from nature, primarily from live models. He was after something more elusive than a faithful record of a person’s physical attributes. He wanted to explore how we see and understand reality – reality in this case being defined as the appearance of a person within his spatial environment in a moment of perception.

It should have been a simple matter. After all, artists had been working from nature for millennia. Indeed, so fundamental was the idea of “I paint what I see” that, in art circles in Paris in the 1930s, it was deemed passé. As a result, the art world regarded Giacometti (as they did Matisse) as a burned-out case at best and at worst a traitor, someone who had turned his back on the ideals of advanced art in favor of the comforting certainties of conventional representation. Photography, the argument went, had eliminated the need to replicate nature, so the artist was now free to articulate deeper levels of reality through his own invented language of forms. Indeed, if he was to be considered truly “modern,” he was required to. To do otherwise was to be a bourgeois reactionary.

Giacometti’s challenge to this idea would ultimately yield the tall, slender, scabrous bronze figures for which he is primarily known today. Not surprisingly, the process of their creation was fraught with difficulty. It wasn’t just that the form itself was hard to bring forth, it was that he quickly lost control of the process. Then he resorted to the paradoxical strategy of surrendering himself completely to the work in an attempt to regain control over it and bring it to fruition. Art, not the artist, was to be the master.

In the biography he published twenty years after A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord vividly describes the quandary Giacometti now found himself in:

Working directly in plaster [Giacometti] started with a figure about eighteen inches high, representing a nude woman standing with her arms at her sides. As he worked, he found to his amazement, and to his consternation, that the sculpture grew smaller and smaller. The smaller it grew, the more troubled he became; yet he could not keep it from shrinking. The sculpture itself seemed to have determined in advance its appropriate size, would accept no other, and compelled the sculptor to comply .... Bewildered, alarmed, he began again with a figure the same size as the first. Again it shrank while he worked on it, growing smaller and smaller despite his reluctance and distaste, finally ending as tiny as the first. Again he began. Again the outcome was the same .... Sometimes the figure grew so minuscule that the last touch of the sculptor’s knife would send it crumbling into dust.

With the outbreak of the Second World War and the occupation of Paris, Giacometti moved to Geneva, living in a hotel. There he continued his quest, with similarly frustrating results. Lord observed, “Change of scene had not changed the sculptor’s predicament. His figures kept on shrinking.”

A measure of what this cost Giacometti personally, and of his determination to press on regardless, can be seen from an incident that took place before his flight to Geneva. In 1939, his brother Bruno, an architect, had secured an invitation for Alberto, whose career was now in a rut, to show one of his sculptures at an outdoor trade fair in Zurich. Lord describes what happened next:

The artist arrived in Zurich well in advance of the opening of the exhibition. A man in charge of installations told him that a truck was ready to go to the railway station to fetch his sculpture. Alberto said, “There’s no need. I have it with me.” From one of his pockets he produced a largish matchbox and took from it a tiny plaster figurine not more than two inches high. The architects, including Bruno, were surprised – unpleasantly. They argued that a sculpture so small on a large pedestal in the center of a large courtyard made no sense visually, since it would be virtually invisible .... Alberto insisted that the sculpture should remain. The architects insisted that it must not .... The architects had their way.

Yet Giacometti persisted. It was not until the war ended and he returned to Paris that the importance of this work was recognized. In the meantime, in Geneva, he continued working in the face of a greater humiliation than that which he had experienced in Zurich, greater because it was intensely personal and ongoing.

With no work to sell and no other means of support, Giacometti had to turn to his mother Annetta for money – a man in early middle age dependent on his aged mother for support. Annetta didn’t make it easy for him. She considered her son self-indulgent and adrift, and she registered her disapproval of his choice not by withholding money, but by a more psychologically potent method – rationing. As Lord describes it, she “gave only a little at a time, compelling him constantly to appeal for more, to acknowledge his dependence while at the same time asserting his will, but showing his gratitude and even, perhaps, in the labyrinthine tangle of contradictory emotions, making a kind of tacit admission that she was right because he could not do without her.” Giacometti surely had not envisioned this future for his art, yet when it presented itself he surrendered to it, sacrificing everything, including his own ego, on the altar of his creative impulse.

A skeptic might argue that artists’ modesty before the task of making art is no more than garden-variety anxiety, the same faced by people in other walks of life – athletes, actors, film directors, writers – who have to produce a succession of one-of-a-kind creations or performances. Their predicament is summed up by the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last [insert name of endeavor here].”

This may be true, but it only takes us so far. In fact, the modesty that artists display about their work derives from something deeper and more powerful, from what T.S. Eliot, in his celebrated essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” called “the historical sense.” Eliot defined this as “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past but of its presence.” Eliot was speaking of poets, but his words apply equally to artists: “The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

It is here, in relation to the past and their sense of their place in the history of art, that artists exhibit modesty in the truest sense of the term. It’s not uncommon to see, on an artist’s studio wall, a small gallery of reproductions of favorite works of art. One might expect these galleries to be exact mirrors of the artist’s own aesthetic sense – that an abstract painter would have only reproductions of works by Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock and others on his wall. On the contrary, not only are they always startlingly eclectic in terms of style, period, date, and civilization, but they often contain examples of the very type of art the artist has repudiated in his own work – a narrative painting on a biblical subject by an Old Master in the studio of a contemporary abstract painter, for example.

These aren’t just souvenirs or decorations; they’re a pantheon, a partial catalogue of the artists and objects he admires and against which he wants his work to measure up. The rest of the catalogue might be in the artist’s head, in his library, and, if he is fortunate, on the walls of his home. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” writes Eliot. “His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

Artists know this instinctively. Because art history tends to dwell on the influence older artists have on younger ones in the early stages of their development, we assume that once an artist has reached maturity – formulated a distinctive personal style, in other words – the art of the past ceases to be an important consideration. In fact, artists are engaged in a constant dialogue with the past. It is the only standard that really matters to them. This is the point of James Lord’s observation: “The opinions of other people concerning his work, though of interest to him, are naturally unrelated to his own feelings.”

The British sculptor Henry Moore was both a prolific draftsman and a student of drawing. Among other artists, he cited Seurat as an important influence on his work in two dimensions. Among the books Moore owned was Otto Benesch’s six-volume catalog of Rembrandt’s drawings, published in the 1950s. According to the detailed inventory of his library published by the Henry Moore Foundation in the 1990s, Moore lavished a good deal of attention on this set, signing his full name (something he rarely did), inserting page-markers and – most significant of all – inserting six of his own drawings into the volumes. Alas, we don’t know which drawings he chose to insert, nor where. But we can be fairly certain that the purpose was to have a conversation with a revered predecessor, juxtaposing examples of his work against Rembrandt reproductions and comparing the two.

Perhaps the most vivid and moving example of an artist’s “historical sense” comes from an unlikely source: Pablo Picasso. Picasso was famously arrogant and egotistical in his dealings with fellow artists, never missing an opportunity to deliver a backhanded compliment or, more often, an out-and-out putdown – anything, that is, to make certain other artists understood who was superior.

But in his relation to the past there was a lingering anxiety that played itself out in an incident recorded by Pierre Cabanne, one of Picasso’s many biographers. In the early 1950s Picasso gave a number of paintings to Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne (now part of the Pompidou Center). He asked if they could be placed next to some of the Louvre’s masterpieces. No other artist would be allowed such a privilege (and few would dare request it). But Picasso being Picasso, he got his wish:

Pablo got there with Françoise [Gilot, his common-law wife] at 11:00 a.m., an unusually early hour for him. [Museum official Georges] Salles tells of taking him to where his paintings were and how the guards then carried them down to the various halls. “Put them near some Zurburans,” said Picasso, in a voice trembling with emotion. Several were set up near St. Bonaventure on His Bier, one of the Spanish golden-century works that meant most to Don Pablo. Nearby were the Velázquezes, the Murillos, the Goyas. He looked them all over, silently, while those present tried to divine the reaction in his intensely impressive eyes. Finally, in a quiet, as if pacified voice, he said, “See, they’re the same thing.” And repeated, “The very same thing.”

For Picasso, the past was the only altar before which he would bow in humility.

“The rich are different,” goes the saying. So are artists. On the surface they may swagger and show off. But in their innermost selves, perhaps buried in some part of their DNA, is a deeply felt modesty that informs their work. Would that we could say the same about the rest of society.


Eric Gibson is the Leisure & Arts Features Editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Brokeback Spoofs: Tough Guys Unmasked(By Virginia Heffernan, the New York Times)

Note to the image: A truth they couldn't deny? Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in "Brokeback to the Future."

March 2, 2006
Critic's Notebook

Gay cowboys, it seems, are shaping up to be like "Who's on first?" or "the aristocrats": a joke that keeps on giving. While the "Who wants to see that?" humor columns about "Brokeback Mountain" have waned, online parodies of the gay-cowboy movie are still proliferating faster than the curatorial video sites — including,, and (which has a section called "Brokeback Spoofs") — can keep up with them. Some of them are stupid. Some are droll and great. But as commentary on the forms and ceremonies of proto-gay relationships, they're surprisingly sharp, and worth taking seriously.

All of the parodies assume the same form: they're trailers for imagined mashups that combine elements of "Brokeback Mountain" with other movies. The actual mashups, of course, don't exist; only these trailers do. They're made anonymously or by comedy troupes or design shops, like Chocolate Cake City and Robot Rumpus, both of which give their web addresses at the end of their parody videos, "Brokeback to the Future" and "The Empire Breaks Back." (The creators who stay anonymous might be trying to avoid nagging copyright issues.)

If they're well made, the parodies can presumably serve as a calling card for those who sign their work; some of them are viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Generally, though, the "Brokeback" spoofs are nothing but labors of love, or gay panic, or both.

The parodies typically use Gustavo Santaolalla's sexy, mournful theme from "Brokeback Mountain," together with the title cards from that movie's trailer, to reframe clips from another movie. It works almost every time: a gay movie seems to emerge when scenes between male leads, or a male lead and a supporting actor, are slowed down, set to make-out music and bumpered by portentous cards that say things like, "A truth they couldn't deny." The editing, and the use of slow motion, do suggest that close-ups, especially viewed at length, are intrinsically erotic. All that these parodies need to do to set up the relationship is show one man's face in protracted detail, and cut to the other man, who seems to watch with the same rapt attention that the viewer has been compelled to give by the slow-mo. A gay subtext suddenly seems plain as day.

But what's more adroit about these parodies is the use they make of the dialogue from the movie they're mashing up with "Brokeback." Very little "Brokeback" dialogue has been repurposed here, with the exception of two of the ranch hand Jack Twist's impassioned lines "It's nobody's business but ours," and "God, I wish I knew how to quit you!" — which turn up now and then when a parodist gives up trying to make the point another way. Most of the parodists don't give up, though, and strive to tease a gay plot out of what's already in the older movies, all of which, unlike "Brokeback Mountain," are already available on DVD, so they can be manipulated using software like iMovie.

These movies — "Heat," "City Slickers," "Titanic," "Fight Club" — throw up plenty of evocative lines for use by the parodists. Almost every scene in which a wiser man is trying to encourage a naïf to follow his dreams, for example, seems to double as a gay dialogue. "Stop trying to control everything, and just let go, let go!" Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) says to Edward Norton's unnamed character in "Fight Club." In the "Brokeback" parody, the line seems to be part of a pushy seduction. In the "The Empire Breaks Back," Anakin Skywalker says: "Something's happening. I want more, and I know I shouldn't." At another time, Palpatine advises him: "In time, you will learn to trust your feelings." When the lines are run together in the parody, they again work convincingly as a love scene.

Other Hollywood-hero problems, put in new context, seem like cries from the heart by gay men. In "Point Break," Keanu Reeves's character, Johnny Utah, wails, "I can't describe what I'm feeling"; when this line comes in "Point Brokeback," the parody, it seems to express Johnny's inability to face his gay desires. (For frisson, or maybe for authenticity, some of the parodies use scenes with actors, like Mr. Reeves and Tom Hanks, who have played gay characters in other movies.)

A problem of the traditional sci-fi hero, particularly the time traveler, is that he can't describe his relationships to other people; if he's traveled back in time, can he be his mother's contemporary? This is true for Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox's character in "Back to the Future," which was one of the first movies to appear in a mashup parody with "Brokeback Mountain" (predictably: "Brokeback to the Future"). In the scene that the parodists borrow, Marty introduces Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), saying, "This is my — uh — Doc. My uncle. Doc!" In the new framework, this introduction sounds like the confused, stammering introduction that a closeted young man might make of his older boyfriend, whom he's trying to pass off as a boss, an associate, an uncle.

Similarly, when Frodo (Elijah Wood), introduces Sam (Sean Astin) in the appealing "Lord of the Rings" mashup, he's asked, "Your bodyguard?" Sam corrects him, "His gardener."

Nearly 60 years ago, Leslie Fiedler argued that the great American novels of the 19th century dramatize a love story between men, typically a white man and a man of color: Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Huck and Jim. He made his brilliant academic career on this startling thesis, which he went on to demonstrate in "Love and Death in the American Novel" in 1960. Now Fiedler's thesis seems to apply to Hollywood movies as well, but the thorough close-readings that have refined and broadened Fiedler's argument this time have been provided not by graduate students, but by online pranksters using little more than laptops, a broadband connection and Final Cut Pro.

My favorite of the parodies, however, didn't require much technology or even editing, just a good sense of double entendre scenes of emotional intensity between men. It's the "Brokeback" mashup with "Heat," the underrated Michael Mann movie with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. "Heat" was a psychological tango movie, with the alpha actors playing a police detective, Vincent, and a bad guy, Neil, respectively. They're supposed to be talking about the cops-and-robbers life, but in "Brokeback Heat," which just replays without legerdemain a whole scene between them, they seem for all the world to be talking about their love, and gay love generally, and their unwillingness to be straight.

"So then, if you spot me coming around that corner, you just gonna walk out on this woman?" Vincent asks. "Not say goodbye?"

"That's the discipline," Neil says.

"That's pretty vacant, you know," Vincent says.

"It is what it is," Neil replies. "It's that or we'd both better go do something else, pal."

"I don't know how to do anything else," Vincent says.

"Neither do I," Neil says.

"I don't much want to either," Vincent says.

"Neither do I," Neil says.

Taken straight or as a sendup, this is simply Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro playing a smoldering scene. And what they mean by it is no business but theirs.

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