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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Archives for May, 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009


I walked out of Fences, which ends its extended run at the Performance Network on May 31, in the daze you got only from first-rate theater. Only one other performance at the Network has so profoundly affected me: a production, several years ago, of Copenhagen.

The plays are very different: Fences, by August Wilson, deals with a black family dominated by a troubled husband, father, and might-have-been major league ballplayer. Copenhagen, by Peter Frayn, imagines what might have transpired duirng an actual meeting of two great physicists during World War II: Werner Heisenberg, who worked for the Nazi government and the half-Jewish Niels Bohr. Both plays arrived in Ann Arbor by way of Broadway and international acclaim.

But my reaction to Fences made me question the Network's choice of dramas.

In several years as a Network goer, I've enjoyed most of the performances (though one left me so cold I didn't return after the intermission. Sorry, I can't remember the name). The Network's yearly menu is heavy on plays by unknown playwrights, especially from the state of Michigan. Playwriting is extremely competitive, and so the Network is doing a great favor to struggling-to-be-seen talent.

The question is: is the Network doing a great favor to us, its audience?

The plays by obscure writers I've seen range from mediocre to good. It's not my intention to demean any of the hardworking unknown writers by singling them out either for criticism or mild praise. I've been touched by plays that I will doubt will ever be seen outside Michigan. But being touched is not the same thing as being carried away with an artistic experience I will always remember - which is what happened to me at Fences. (The Detroit Free Press wrote that it qualifies as "one of a handful" of plays written in the last 30 years "worth calling an American classic.")

Fences, like Copenhagen, had terrific acting. But so do most of the Network plays I've seen. There's an abundance of acting talent in our area, and when the Network plays are weak, it's usually not because of an individual performer. It's because - I'm trying to say this nicely - the dramas weren't that special to begin with.

I had an argument with a friend once, a Thackery lover, about how the writer of 19th century potboilers compared with Dickens. Another friend had the last word: "The difference is the difference between talent and genius."

I'm not declaring Wilson and Freyn geniuses. Time will decide that. But the Network touts its reputation as the city's only "professional" theater. Should it focus less on giving the unknowns - who will likely remain unknown - a chance and more on offering its audience the emotional richness that comes only from first-class dramatists? I'm just asking. So should the Network.

Posted by John Hilton at 9:40 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Today one of my best friends was diagnosed to be dying of a new and irreversible disease. A hundred or so cases have been diagnosed. But this malady appears to be sweeping across the land with deadly vengeance.

I try to imagine what I'm losing here, what a twenty-year friendship has meant to me. My friend introduced me to everything about Ann Arbor, from politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment to street fairs and those letters to the editor. My dying friend is the Ann Arbor News, one of my windows to the world.

You see, the paper can be with you while you're baby sitting, while you're on a plane, train, or bus. Even while sitting on a park bench, it is a companion. The newspaper is your partner while waiting for your cancelled flight to be rescheduled, during lunch break, or your last communion with the world, late in the evening. It helps us train puppies to confine certain activities to designated areas. It serves as a drop cloth when painting your study. Its last breath can be to start a fire in the fireplace or at the campsite, functional even in death, this friend of mine.

The News mirrors the place where we live. It instills a sense of community, a sense of village, of belonging to something other than a 'burb endlessly and homogeneously sprawling to the far horizons. Our News is part of the soul and spirit of Ann Arbor. Our city will be diminished by the death of this institution. What will be our new window to the world, and what are the implications?

The answer is: The internet.

Please understand that I use computers extensively and the Internet less frequently. Computers have some applications that work. But let us have some perspective here. Not enough people have given thought to the technical, societal, or dangerous implications of going to the tube for anything except office data processing, micromanaging, excessive e mails, sour jokes, games and other trivia. Understand that the computer revolution has done so little for us that we are now the least analytical, most controllable, dumbest emerging generation to call themselves Americans. (Not you or me, of course, but everybody else.)

First, picture the senior citizens on fixed incomes. Many of them have been holdouts against the home computer and Internet invasion, the presumed societal force without which civilization could not even have arisen, let alone function. Some senior citizens cannot afford them or will not afford them, especially with the lack of financial opportunities of late. If they do buy into this medium, they will join the millions who feel less connected, more lonely as a result of all the browsing, texting, blogging, e-mailing, and generally rummaging through the dung heap of lowered expectations. The seniors will get mindless chitchat from their grandkids, spam, and major abuse from pop up messages that attack like sharks.

At this point, we will have (and already have) young people who do no read and older people who will have the joy of reading stolen from them by technology. Did democratic statistics just take a major hit?

The whole "paperless" / computer society is mostly a sham. In the workforce, almost no one is "computing." They are word processing, packaging and reshuffling ideas with spell-check, grammar-check, and clearly, next there will be "idea-check." then we can stop thinking altogether, but our submissions will be flawlessly spelled. So we have a device with a name, "computer," that belies its principal function. How good can it get after that?

Try setting your laptop on your lap - it's the one place on God's earth where you can neither balance the thing or operate it comfortably. This is the second misuse of a functional description. It is not a Laptop!

At times your computer tries to go artificially intelligent, with a mind of its own. It then retreats into its silicone frontal lobes and pouts, blaming Norton Antivirus for the whole thing. Then you have to make nice, using carefully scripted commands, and a few expletives trying to get this machine to function, while frantically calling co-workers, friends and Comcast for Help. Think if your car ever treated you that way, or your home theater! Imagine the elders messing around with that machine, or even me! One hundred dollars per hour will bring the Geek Squad to their rescue. Elders, and the rest of us, will not have the learning curve of the Geek Squad guys, who are at least 8 years old, and not older than 10, and have 30 years experience in front of the tube. Also, it may be that initially there is no charge for access to the Internet newspaper, but there is a law of economics that says, "That day will come."

Far beyond the loss of a friend lies an abyss whose bottom or distant shore are too deep or too far to see or even conceptualize. The newspapers lend de-centralization and local or regional input to the news. The Ann Arbor News staff is comprised of many of our neighbors, the journalists are people we know. There is a fundamental accountability to this decentralization. Do you think that in time these journalists will be replaced with more and more syndicated writers? By more and more news mills with their own agenda? That in time, I predict, the Internet will collapse the complexity of all those websites into fewer and more powerful entities, owned by increasingly fewer corporations. What safeguards are there on the spam infested internet that will guard and transmit accurate information? Do you think the government will keep its mitts off the Internet?

Who will be the Grand Editor in this brave new world? The internet is powerful now and will become more so beyond our comprehension. Like the citizens in Orwell's Animal Farm, we may be squinting into that blurry screen some day, trying to remember what life was like when we heard the fading echo: "EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!! ANN ARBOR NEWS GOES BELLY UP! EXTRA, EXTRA!"

Footnote: A last thought: You read the book 1984. Behold, the interactive screen is here, today! Does it make any sense to turn the major instrument of democracy, the free press, over to this bleary eyed, flickering Cyclops, controlled and programmed by unknown and unseen operatives? We will have another "where is the outrage over that?" episode up ahead, without the outrage. Every tool, every weapon, every process that has ever been invented and developed has found its way at times to benefit mankind - and always has found its way to its most nightmarish application.

Let us plan a funeral wake, a party, or a birthday party for the loss of a friend. With some simple ceremony with a few thoughtful readings. C'mon ye citizens of our fair city. Surely our old friend deserves a fitting memorial. Let's get the word out! Extra! Extra!

Posted by John Hilton at 10:06 a.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


What you find at the Antiquarian Book Fair: A Gone with the Wind poster, autographed by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, price at $1200. A 1966 Detroit Tigers program for $45. A woman's diary from the 1890s, in spidery, hard-to-read writing, for $6.50.

For book and nostalgia lovers, the yearly fair in the Michigan Union, held last Sunday, yields the charm of the unexpected. Forty dealers from eight states were on hand; some specialize ( books about wars, first editions of popular writers); more are generalists, their old books mingled here and there with nostalgia nuggets like the uncut 1950 paper dolls, and vintage postcards (tour boats circling the Statue of Liberty, carrying women wearing hats and gloves). There are also collections of political (usually left-wing) material, like 1930s union literature. Last year, I would have loved to have bought a yellowing report on the League of Nations, autographed by early twentieth century reformer Jane Addamsâ"but the $250 asking price made me shy.

Anything in the room could probably be bought on Ebayâ"but the healthy turnout offers reassurance that people still enjoy browsing outside a computer screen, that they like the sensation of running their hands over paper, the banter with sellers, the hum of the marketplace. There's also an element of poignancy if you go, as I do, year after year. The prices of some of the books popular with the Greatest Generation (my parents) and Boomers (my own) are dropping. The fifty-year-old Oz books that I covet, with their marvelous illustrated covers, now are selling for $50 or $75 rather than $150. That's partly because of Internet competition, but it's also because we, the lovers of those books, are disappearing. Nostalgia is only nostalgia if someone is alive to remember when something quaint was once something new.

Posted by John Hilton at 4:44 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

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