Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Clint Eastwood The Director

As you may already know Clint Eastwood’s war drama American Sniper has earned six Oscar nominations, including the Best Picture and Best Actor categories.  Eastwood, a San Francisco native who grew up in Piedmont and Oakland, has long starred in and directed films that pose difficult moral questions.

Critics are divided about American Sniper and a twitter war is on. Rogen Seth has likened the film to "Nation's Pride" about the Nazi sniper in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Michael Moore’s tweet is even more acerbic: My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse. This tweet earned a response from Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House: Michael Moore should spend a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram. Then he might appreciate American Sniper.

While some have praised the movie for various reasons, others have reacted to it in the fashion of the earlier critique surrounding Zero Dark Thirty which the critics believed seemed to have justified the use of torture. Eastwood’s American Sniper focuses on the concept of war brought home as the soldiers, even the best of them, return, they are victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome which can lead to a wrecked family life.

The film's critics argue that while the movie presents the U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in heroic light, it never questions the morality of our occupation of Iraq, not to mention the racism Chris Kyle exhibits in his memoir which the movie is based on. Laura Miller, writing about Kyle's book, points out that,
It is both cruel and perverse to reproach soldiers for killing the enemy when that’s what they’re sent to war to do, and when they do so in defense of their own lives and the lives of their comrades. Nevertheless, you can expect soldiers to kill and still recoil when they kill blithely and eagerly. In 'American Sniper,' Kyle describes killing as “fun” and something he “loved” to do.
In our collection there are some very good books about the Western actor turned acclaimed director. Sara Anson Vaux’s The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood is a good starting point to explore the sources that anchor his moral vision and what they are. The following quotation gives a good summation of Eastwood's outlook:
He decided instead to celebrate the journeys of the losers, the immigrants, outcasts, and vagrants who made the winding journeys, those whose poverty or race or country of origin increasingly had excluded them from a so-called successful American life.
This poses the question whether Eastwood is cautioning us that the conditions of modern American warfare are turning our returning soldiers into new outcasts?

Here is a reading list for those interested in further exploring Eastwood's complex body of work.

The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood by Sara Anson Vaux (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2012).

Clint Eastwood: Interviews / edited by Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz (University Press of Mississippi, c1999).

Clint Eastwood: A Biography by Richard Schickel (Knopf, 1996).  [Overdrive Ebook]

American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood by Marc Eliot (Harmony Books, 2009).  [Overdrive Ebook] [CD audiobook] [Overdrive audiobook] [Hoopla audiobook]

Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker by John H. Foote (Praeger, 2009).

Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives (University of Utah Press, 2007).

Clint Eastwood's America by Sam B. Girgus (Polity, 2014).


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How To Read Oceanic Art

One of the pleasures of being a San Franciscan is ability to visit local museums that allow us to view great art from around the world.  One of the strengths of our DeYoung Museum is their collection of Oceanic Art.  In addition to Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, the DeYoung has many excellent works from Australia, New Zealand and many South Pacific Islands.

While these artworks make strong statements by themselves, it is difficult for cultural outsiders to understand their significance.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has published a new title, How To Read Oceanic Art that helps to explain the mystery and power behind these creations.

How to Read Oceanic Art opens with introduction discussing the background of the artwork, discussing the regions, religions and spiritual practices, uses of decoration and the depictions of humans and animals.  It also looks at the role of the artist in these societies and considers the impact of the contact of these cultures with the West.  The book then looks at 42 individual works of separated into six regions: New Guinea, Australia, Island Melanesia, Island Southeast Asia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above image of a Female Figure made from a sperm whale's ivory tooth on the Ha'apai Islands, Tonga in the 19th century is used to engage with the now almost trivialized notion of the "tiki."  The book's author notes that tiki has been used through many parts of the region to refer to images with human features.  He describes the significance of the over-sized head -- another common feature of Polynesian art -- as reflecting the seat of a person's mana or power.  From these he concludes that the figure is a representation of a "powerful female deity" and goes on to describe the ritual use of such an object.

With this book in hand you will gain a new appreciation of the art you view on your next visit to the DeYoung.

How to Read Oceanic Art by Eric Kjellgren (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"American music is not jazz. Jazz is not music."

Paul Rosenfeld
Paul Rosenfeld, photographed by Alfred Stieglitz (image source: George Eastman Archive, Still Photograph Archive)

Today these words shock.  They were probably even shocking to some who read them at the time in 1929.  But they were written by one of America's most esteemed music critics, Paul Rosenfeld, who wrote at various times for prestigious publications like The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and The Nation.  That he was a recognized figure in America's cultural life is attested to by his being the subject of the portrait above by famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

The Library owns six books of Rosenfeld's writings about music.  The notorious quote above comes from An Hour With American Music.  This book was part of publisher J.B. Lippincott's "The One Hour Series" which commissioned introductions to a variety of topics "by an expert in the field."  For instance, Ford Madox Ford wrote "The One Hour" title for the English novel, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the title for American history, and Gilbert Seldes wrote An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies (the Library still has a reference copy of the latter, but has not owned the former two books for a long time - but you can request them using Link+).

A closer look at the entirety of of An Hour With American Music will show that Rosenfeld set up this polemic not so much to run down jazz as to introduce and advocate for other contemporaneous American music.  The composers he discusses and extols read like a roster of what our San Francisco Symphony's music director Michael Tilson Thomas would call "American Mavericks."  He devotes parts of chapters to composers like Leo Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland, and Edgard Varèse.

What we get with this book (after a not fully comprehending, but nevertheless interesting and opinionated put-down of jazz) is an informed look at some of the most daring classical composers of the roaring twenties.  In the the twentieth first century both kinds of American music can be found together in our concert halls, but it's informative to know one critic's reaction to them when they were current.

An Hour with American Music by Paul Rosenfeld (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1929).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Current Museum Exhibits - new books

At the Art, Music and Recreation Center reference desk, we make an effort to display catalogues of current or recent museum shows in San Francisco. We currently have three new titles on display.

Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel accompanies an exhibit that originated at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York and that will be on display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor through January 4, 2015.  This book documents objects that had been preserved in a cave in the Judean Desert for 6,000 years until their discovery in 1961.

Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection will remain on view until January 4, 2015 at the DeYoung Museum.  This collection of ceramics and textiles was donated to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by the Theodore W. Weisel family in 2013.

The Salon Doré from the Hôtel de la Trémoille is now a permanent display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.  This French Neoclassical interior was renovated for 18 months during 2012-2014 and opened to the public on April 5, 2014.

In addition to these reference copies of the books, the Library has circulating copies of each title at the main and a few branches.

Shortly we will have copies available for the Keith Haring: The Political Line which is current on display at the DeYoung Museum.  Place a hold to be notified when a copy is available to borrow.

Keith Haring: The Political Line by Dieter Bucchart, et al. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2014).

Lines on the Horizon: Native American Art from the Weisel Family Collection by Matthew H. Robb, and Jill D'Alessandro (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2014)

Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel, edited by Michael Sebbane, et al. (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University; Princeton University Press, 2014).

The Salon Doré from the Hôtel de la Trémoille by Martin Chapman (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2014)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"They Talk About Music"

Nowadays there are so many ways to see the early days of television programming - streaming video on Archive.org or Youtube, and classic television channels.  This was a period of variety shows where high and low culture frequently intermingled.  Owing to the availability of these programs we are able to witness many celebrities of serious and popular entertainment of the past.

They Talk About Music, published in 1971, is a time capsule of that period.  The publishers of the The Music Journal, a popular music magazine of the time, put together a series of short essays by musicians familiar to audiences of that time.  Luminaries were as varied as Mischa Elman, Mahalia Jackson, Skitch Henderson, Benny Goodman, Connie Francis, Al Hirt, Roland Hayes and Duke Ellington.  The book also provides basic music appreciation with essays like "Good Music is Timeless," "What is a Conductor?," "Cultivate That Musical Youngster," "Selecting a Voice Teacher," and "The World of Sound."

There are many insightful and unique passages to be found in They Talk About Music

In "How Jazz Came To Life," Louis Armstrong talks about the profound affect that watching the funeral processions in the New Orleans of his youth had on his belief in music that "has as its base a great sympathy and feeling."  He asserts that "jazz came to life" from these ceremonies of public mourning.

Nat "King" Cole, in "Fads, Fans and Foreign Ambassadors," writes of the significance of music to him and his aim as a performer:
I guess I could best sum up what I have tried and am still trying to get out of success by saying that it truly gives me a good feeling to bring people closer together through music.
Noel Coward writes a precis of his life in "To Thine Own Self, Be True!"  The author of Bittersweet propounds a rather bittersweet worldview:
As to myself, I am optimistic.   As to life, I am pessimistic.  I explain this duality this way: I amuse myself and I am happy, being first of all disposed to mirth.  But I detest the follies and stupidities of the human race.
Another delightful moment is when Jack Benny addresses the subject "How well do I play the violin?"  His modest answer might do for many amateur musicians: "Not so badly as I often sound, but no as well as I would like."  From here he goes on the extoll the "amateur" - someone who "does something for the love of it, not necessarily badly."

There are many other entertaining vignettes for those interested in musicians of the mid-20th century.

They Talk About Music (Belwin/Mills, 1971).

This book also includes a number of whimsical illustrations by Walt Trag - a musical note plucking a bouquet of musical notes.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Know Your SFPL Call Numbers - Drawing (741, 743)

 The call numbers for books on learning how to draw are located in two separate Dewey Decimal sections.

741.2 is the call number for "Drawing-Technique."  743 is the call number for "Drawing By Subject."

Within these numbers there are books with greater subject specificity.  For instance, the drawing technique numbers also have exact numbers for different drawing media:

741.22 - charcoal
741.235 - pastel
741.24 - pencil
741.26 - pen

The drawing by subject area likewise has exact decimal numbers for various categories of people (men, women), human anatomy, and other living things (animals and plants), nature, landscapes and fantasy.

743.4 - human figures
743.42 - portraiture
743.43 - men
743.44 - women
743.49 - anatomy for artists
743.6 - drawing animals
743.7 - drawing plants
743.8 - nature and landscapes
743.87 - fantasy
743.89 - the supernatural

With this in mind you can browse in our online catalog or on the shelves of any San Francisco Public Library location.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Two Music Critics

In the Pink Section of last Sunday's paper (November 2, 2014), in an article entitled "A Critic Worth Emulating," San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman wrote a comparison of two of the most esteemed English-language music critics -- George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson.  This article was originally published online with the title "Rubin Institute for Music Criticism hits a critical note in S.F." (October 30, 2014) on the occasion of a conference on music criticism currently taking place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Virgil Thomson has been called a "music critic of singular brilliance" by Nicholas Slonimsky (in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians).  Given that Thomson was a Pulitzer prize-winning composer as well as a venerable music critic for New York Herald Tribune, such an accolade may seem fitting.  Yet Kosman does not concur.  He finds Thomson's criticism uncreative and  unsubstantial, faulting it for a "lack of description or substantive discussion."  For Kosman, Thomson is "a virtual paragon of how not to practice music criticism."

Bernard Shaw, on the contrary, is the model of a music critic.  "Shaw's writings are fearless ... yet genial in their tone."  Kosman praises Shaw's tone and avoidance of technical language.  While not always in agreement with his judgments, Kosman sees Shaw's work as an examplar of true criticism:
The job of the critic is not to be “right” (especially not when “right” means “in sync with someone else’s opinion”), but to make his or her case persuasively and with conviction. Shaw did that every week.
Here, Mr. Kosman also makes his case persuasively and with conviction.  But, of course, you need not take a critic's word for any of this.  You can go to the sources to read and evaluate the works of both men yourself.  The Library awaits with a number of books collecting the writings of George Shaw and Virgil Thomson.  While here you can also check out the writing many contemporary music critics like Alex Ross, Alan Rich, Kyle Gann, and Tim Page.

Works by Bernard Shaw:

How to Become a Musical Critic, edited with an introduction by Dan H. Laurence (Hill and Wang, 1961).

Music in London, 1890-94 (Constable and Company Limited, 1932)

The Perfect Wagnerite; A Commentary on the Niblung's Ring (Dover Publications, 1967).

The Great composers: Reviews and Bombardments; edited with an introduction by Louis Crompton (University of California Press, 1978).

Shaw's Music: The Complete Musical Criticism in Three Volumes; edited by Dan H. Laurence (Dodd, Mead, 1981).


Works by Virgil Thomson:

The Art of Judging Music (A. A. Knopf, 1948).

Music, Right and Left (Holt, 1951).

The Musical Scene (A. A. Knopf, 1945).

A Virgil Thomson Reader; with an introduction by John Rockwell (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

Virgil Thomson: A Reader: Selected Writings, 1924-1984, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Routledge, 2002).