SEVEN POST critics participated in this roundtable discussion. They are: Gary Arnold, film; Ricard L. Coe, theater; Alan M. Kriegsman, dance; Paul Hume, music; Paul Richard, art; Tom Shales, television; and Hollie I. West, jazz. The moderator is Christian Williams, arts editor.
ARNOLD: The best American movies were a great deal of fun. I think the trend in moviemaking continues to be conservative, but this isn't necessarily to be deplored. If anything, it seems to have accounted for a renewal of traditional entertainment movies with a kind of youthful showmanship we haven't seen in the past several years.
It's interesting that the more satisfying movies of the year draw on other, more conventional entertainment forms. "Star Wars" is a chivalrous kind of adventure story transformed into futuristic terms and "Close Encounters" is a story about a mystical experience that transforms someone's life and is interpreted in a new kind of way. These two directors, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, have a receptivity to the future that has been missing in movies of the last two years. In fact, I think that they believe they can use their technical skill to create a new sort of fantasy. To redeem the present and make people feel hopeful about the future.
The other interesting trend is the return of movies with substantial roles for leading actresses. The key movie is "Turning Point," which returns Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine to the screen in roles that are really worthy of their talents and their experience. But also "Julia, " with a very good part for Jane Fonda. And the Robert Altman movie "Three Women," with interesting roles for younger actresses, Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. Even, although I'm not as fond of it as most people I know, "Annie Hall," which tends to increase the star appeal of Diane Keaton. The Oscar list this year is going to be crowded with candidates for the best actress award and rather scanty for actor candidates, for the first time in about five years. Bungled 'Goodbar'
KRIEGSMAN: Where do you put "Goodbar" in all this?
ARNOLD: I think "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" should have been the most powerful contemporary American movie of the year.But the material was bungled in a deplorable way. It's one of the major disappointments of the year, the other being Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York."
But the kids' sort of stories are being done with a great deal of proficiency. "Smokey and the Bandit" is like a live-action version of the Roadrunner cartoon. Disney produced its best animated feature in many years - "The Rescuers." I don't know if this is a good thing or bad thing, but what seem to be the simplest and to some people the most inane forms of entertainment are really the most satisfying ones at the moment in American pictures.
HUME: I think the most exciting and attractive new piece of music I heard all year was Leonard Bernstein's "Song Fest," which pleased most of the audience, though a number of people walked out - not because it was in any sense hard to take, but I think they got a little put off by the time it got to the 13th song. The more I hear the score, the more I think it's remarkable. It takes poems by 13 American authors, sets them in a variety of ways with from one to six voices, and does very successfully what Bernstein thought he wanted to do - to sort of survey American poetry in American music. But it's got some kinds of writing that are new for Bernstein and go beyond what he has done before.
That certainly is a very conservative kind of music, and I think that's one of the trends in music this past year. Virgil Thomson's prediction years ago may be coming true - that in the last quarter of this century we're going to see a markedly conservative synthesizing of the experiments of the previous 25 years.
Rostropovich came in with a very conservative program for his first year. But I think some people are going to be startled by the programs in his second and third years, when he is going to have the premieres of new works by some of the most prominent composers in the world - Ginastera, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski.
WILLIAMS: There seems to be no question that Rostropovich was what the American concert-going public was waiting for. What is it about Rostropovich? Electric Conductor
HUME: There's an enormous magnetism about him. Someone said "he's very hard to resist." And because he is, in some circles, hard to resist, he will be bringing in more players to the orchestra - better and more famous world-known conductors to be guest conductors here. He now conducts a series of master classes with small groups of the players. He lets the whole orchestra play through an entire work and then talks with them about it, on the theory that if each player can improve a little bit the whole orchestra will improve a great deal. I don't know of any other major conductor ever having done that. With audiences, there's something about his presence on the stage, as there is with any great conductor.
WILLIAMS: Well, what do you think Rostropovich would think of a very emotional big mystical movie, "Close Encounters," which as it happens you have just seen?
HUME: No lawyer would allow that question in court. I've no idea.
ARNOLD: Well, he would certainly recognize his own form of showmanship, I think. And also the impulse to just perform in the biggest way possible and to give people a whale of a show.
HUME: He makes very big, very ambitious plans.
KRIEGSMAN: I think his own physical size has something to do with his appeal. He has this kind of bulkiness that he throws around, a great deal of obvious passionate abandon. On TV's Scale
WILLIAMS: It sounds from what's been said that audiences can be presumed to be drawn now to big events, which is a catchword we probably learned from television. How have "big events" been making out on television?
SHALES: Well, this'll be remembered as the year of "Roots" and "The Godfather," of course, and the year that long-form TV programming asserted itself as one thing that television can do that the movies can't, for instance. Television cannot do "Star Wars" or "Close Encounters" because they depend on immense physical size. Television can do "Turning Point" or "Julia" or something about "interpersonal relations," as they say in Hollywood. But it can't compete with that other aspect.
I think the long form is one of the most encouraging things in TV. They have to put more money into it, they have to do a little more preparation. But there's a limit to how many of them they can do because people are not going to want to be kept home every night of the week to see anything, no matter what it is, except once in a great while. Jimmy Carter's proposal for long-range funding for public TV was an encouraging thing this year. But there will probably be more, as usual, discouraging things. Like Freddie Silverman skewing the target audience of TV toward the sort of young mindless group - if that is a group - that one TV executive calls kid porn . . . "Soap," "Three's Company," and all that other stuff Silverman is making a lot of money with. The other networks tend to follow suit because whatever succeeds in television is what everybody does.
WILLIAMS: Kid porn?
SHALES: Well, porn for kids. Not porn of kids. Sex talk. There's no sex on television, no matter what the activist groups may say. There is none, absolutely none. But there's a lot of talk and innuendo and giggling and behind-the-barn gossip about sex.
Violence was taken away as an easy way to titillate audiences with movement. There's not necessarily always something evil about violence on television, especially one car chasing another down Santa Monica Boulevard, which happens over and over again. But since even some of that sort of thing has been taken away, the easiest thing to do is mildly to excite audiences with chatter about sex.
ARNOLD: In the movies, in the period in which censorship was very strong, violence became a release for a lot of filmmakers. It was the only way to express certain impulses. The Effect of Sex
KRIEGSMAN: Well, it's always been more possible to be very explicit about violence than about sex. You can show the knife going into the body . . .
SHALES: Although that was rarely done.
KRIEGSMAN: Yeah, but it happens. Even on TV. And you see bloody wounds and that sort of thing, clobberings and so on. But that kind of explicitness with sex is certainly taboo on the television screen, and even in movies it's only in a certain exploitation category.
SHALES: But while there is study after study after study that strongly suggests violence has a bad effect on viewers, at least impressionable children or at least children with aggressive tendencies, there are no studies showing that sexual innuendo or talk about sex has a negative effect on anyone. Undoubtedly it does; it becomes as numbling as car chase after car chase after a while I suppose, and TV will move on to something else. But I think theoretically sex is preferable to violence on television, if you want to look at it that way.
WILLIAMS: Whatever it was that happened to television this year in terms of violence and sex, would you say that was a response to an audience that had opinions about what television should become? Audience Opinion
SHALES: I don't think the audience has any opinion about what television should become. They only have opinions about what it is and their opinion is usually that they don't like it. In fact, there is some evidence that they don't like it more than ever this year. As the year ends, viewership is off slightly in prime time - only comparatively, of course, but enough to make them worried - and even more in day time.
KRIEGSMAN: What about the "60 Minutes" phenomenon? Isn't it a new departure that a news public affairs show should do as well as that one's done?
SHALES: It's unprecedented in prime time. And now of course the other two networks are going to be imitating it next year. Both NBC and ABC are talking about news magazine shows. And there's no way that all three can succeed.
KRIEGSMAN: But do you think maybe that's a benevolent kind of imitation for a change?
SHALES: Perhaps, but I'm not so sure "60 Minutes" is an unblemished triumph, because sometimes it seems that they use expose, and a kind of innuendo, the way other shows use sex and violence. I mean, it's often a very sensationalistic approach. It's often heavy-handed; it's edited so as to put the victims in the worst possible light.
RICHARD: There's one thing that football and news and "60 Minutes" and some of the talk shows have in common, and that is that they're not made up, the way canned laughter situation comedies are. Do you feel that as the public grows older there is a preference for what seems reality rather than what is obviously fantasy and fabrication?
SHALES: I think eventually that's what television will be. I just interviewed someone in New York who has cable TV and who watches almost nothing but the Reuter News Service, which is printed news wire copy. I think the whole way we look at the television screen is going to change; we're going to look to it, as you say, less for escapism and foolish fantasies, since they don't seem to be able to do them very well anyway. And more for relatively hard-core information.
WILLIAMS: If television was to move toward more "actuality material," as the television executives say, what might it mean for the legitimate art forms - theater, for example?
COE: Well, the theater is a great hand-tooled thing, as opposed to TV. At least in the theater there is a choice of audiences. You can play, say, for the huge audiences of "Chorus Line" or the small ones, 160 seats in the Arena Stage Old Vat Room - like "Starting Here, Starting Now." What interested me about "Chorus Line," which is one of the two big hits of the year, was the shock value that some people seem to receive from it.
Those who like "Chorus Line" in the first place usually turned out to have been people who knew something about the theater, something about dance, something about this way of life, and their enthusiasm of course captured the wider public. But when the public went, it was jolted out of its mind by not only the sexual customs of dance people but also the general sense of dejection that they themselves felt. It was a very curious audience reaction you got from that long run here. The letters we had on the editorial page.
WILLIAMS: The newspapers were accused of not informing people of certain vulgarisms in the lyrics.
COE: Yes, we become so accustomed to these vulgarisms we didn't really think too much of it. That was very peculiar. And yet the other enormous success was "Annie." There you got a return to the nice, simple, upbeat, old-fashioned, mindless kind of show, and I think an awful lot of people really like that and I don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to. People really enjoyed themselves with "Annie" for no reason at all, no deep psychological sense of improvement that makes the world better. No, they just went for fun.
WILLIAMS: How have the smaller theaters made out? Have they been able to fill their 160 seats with less of a guaranteed good time than "Annie"?
COE: Arena Stage does it because it has quality. But there are an awful lot of theaters around town that are just words and wind. Places that talk theoretically about bringing art to the poor and unwashed, but what they bring is pretty much tripe. Pure amateurism.
WILLIAMS: But surely you don't want to leave us just with "Annie" and . . . Theater Economics
COE: There's the problem. The audience now recognizes that the Kennedy Center is a great place to go, so the runs are getting longer. But what plays are they going to do?
We have these small, one-character, two-character plays coming along. The public thinks this is because of economics, and it is, to a point. But this production on the life of Paul Robeson cost over $200,000. Only two performers on stage, and only one of them's speaking.
In a one-character play, or a two-character play such as Mary Martin and Anthony Quayle did here, you have 19 stagehands to support two live actors on stage and the running cost of that was $85,000 a week. This is absurd.
But at Arena Stage we're going to have Studs Terkel's "Working," a perfectly fascinating book, and the notion of putting it into a musical form is really very adventuresome. That's a very interesting development.
WILLIAMS: One of the most committed audiences, albeit a very small one, has been the jazz audience, and Washington has, as Hollie West knows, periodically welcomed and then bid goodbye to new jazz clubs. Are jazz audiences in a period of enthusiasm at the moment?
WEST: Yes, I think there's a good deal of enthusiasm here and all over the country. One of the best pieces of news is that there are more opportunities to hear jazz on radio and in clubs in Washington. More radio stations, FM stations, are devoting time to jazz, and there's been a good deal of activity in two clubs, the Showboat in Silver Spring and Blues Alley.
But there are reservations, too, about what's been going on here.Not enough local musicians are getting chances to play, and there are some good local jazz musicians. They have a forum at Harold's Rogue and Jar or the Top of the Foolery, but little at other clubs. They can't expect to play at the Showboat or Blues Alley unless they are filling in for one of the nationally known leaders' groups. There's been no resurgence in jazz nationally. Record sales are up, although record sales of jazz amount to a fraction of what a pop performer gets, you know. If Keith Jarrett sells 70,000 to 100,000 records he has a best seller; it's comparable to a million records sold by a pop figure.
RICHARD: What about the age of the jazz audience? How old are they? Are young kids getting into bands or are they mostly older?
WEST: Many young kids. It's surprising; you can go to clubs, concerts, and see a lot of young kids. And some of the middle-aged people are dropping off. Part of that can be traced to jazz or contemporary jazz becoming more diluted. It's feeling the influences of pop music more, so you have a Herbie Hancock or a Freddie Hubbard, using the influences of pop music going the electric route, and this alienates an older audience. The Showboat had Yusef Lateef out there recently, and he has been one of the more committed jazz men, but lately he's found it necessary to become more commercial. So he has his group singing, and he has an electric bassist in his group and a guy playing the electric piano, using a good deal of pop material. So - the audience has become younger.
KRIEGSMAN: The "Two Nights of New Music" concert recently fizzled - is that a major setback, or just one bad night scene? Jazz setback
WEST: I think it's a mixture of the two. It was not purely a major setback to jazz locally because there's never been a great deal of interest for avantagarde jazz in Washington. Washington promoters know that they can't sell that kind of music.
WILLIAMS: And yet Dizzy Gillespie can come back time and time again and fill a hall, so it seems there is a "big event" factor with jazz audiences too.
WEST: I think it has a lot to do with the kind of city Washington is. I don't want to offend Washingtonians, but Washington jazz fans want the known, they want the familiar. Whereas audiences in New York, or San Francisco, hunger for the unfamiliar. It's very easy in San Francisco to hear people who are relatively unknown, but who've been on the jazz scene for 20 or 30 years. A pianist who has been an ensemble musician for most of his career can be booked in as a solo performer or with a trio at a club, and draw a sizable audience. That would't happen here in Washington.
SHALES: Isn't there sort of a depressing composite of the Washington audience emerging from this, I mean Hollie says they will only go to hear jazz they know, they won't experiment. Paul says that they storm the concert hall when Rostropovich does old war horses that have been done 100 times before. A few naughty words in "A Chorus Line" created an uproar here, and no one even noticed those words in New York or L.A. Is there an audience here for experimentation or is the stereotyped Washingtonian still very conservative? Smalltown People
COE: Let's face it, our audience here really comes from all over the country, from fairly smallish places, they're as that phrase has it, upwardly mobile. They've heard all their lives about Bach, Beethoven and Brahams, so why shouldn't they enjoy the finest there is. Take Hamlet: People will groan about the idea of Hamlet again, but on the other hand there are always hundreds of thousands who never had the experience of sitting through it. So I don't think it's necessarily a bad or a square audience.
SHALES: But are they as receptive to the new and untried as they should be?
KRIEGSMAN: That depends - one could find contrary examples to this general trend. For example, just a couple of years ago the Royal Danish Ballet happened to come to Washington before it went to New York with a nude ballet of a rather unconventional sort, and it played in Washington numerous performances without any squeak from the public whatsoever. Then it went to New York and there was a big furor and that's happened before with other events.
WILLIAMS: I'm sure that an art critic can speak to the lure of old war horses. People flock to museums to see pictures that they've heard about and may have seen many times.
RICHARD: They've heard about them and they haven't seen them many times. Dick Coe was talking about the theater, where quality is hard to find. Compared to what was available to the picture-looking public five or 10 years ago, the quality is outrageously good today. And even when there are shows, as there were this fall here and in New York, of such familiar names as Cezanne and Matisse, actually to walk into those galleries was something of a terrific surprise. The sort of shrinking of the world, the agreement between nations to send works of art around, is very much changing the kind of horizon of gallery-going. In many ways Tut is much newer to the people that walk in off the street than much of the avantgarde art of the last decade.
I found that the most impressive exhibition of the last year, in Washington certainly, was the Matisse show at the National Gallery. To see those late cutouts and to shift one's understanding of what happened in painting since they were made is a very striking and unfamiliar kind of experience.
And we've been told about how Cezanne fractured space and sort of shook up traditional painting and prepared the way for cubism. But you stand before the amazing Cezanne show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and 1,000 other things that no teacher's told us about suddenly become apparent. That show I don't think will ever happen again in our lifetime - maybe never agin.
WILLIAMS: What's the new East Building of the National Gallery going to do to museum-going in Washington?
RICHARD: I think it's going to be fantastic. It's one of those things that's going to take 10 years or 20 to really shake out and realize what we have. The new building in effect will open without a permanent collection. It will be stocked, I think, for the first few years primarily with loans. Eventually, unless someone changes the tax laws, valuable privately owned objects will continue to migrate toward public collections. Since this is the National Gallery and a beautiful and startling monument on the Mall at the Foot of Capitol Hill, I think it will be a magnet for such objects.
We'll see many big events there. The big event that will open the Gallery is an exhibition of some 300 objects from Dresden, and the theme of the exhibition is really the history of art collecting. It begins in the late Middle Ages with the Dukes of Saxony, who for the entertainment of their friends had little cabinets of wonders from which they would pull out unicorn horns, Persian carpets and gems. This treasure-gathering impulse led to really fantastic 18th and 19th-century collections, and we'll be given a kind of retrospective survey of European art collecting. Conservative Trend
WILLIAMS: Alan Kriegsman moves around from field to field more than most critics. Tell us about your multi-disciplined perceptions of the year - or tell us whether you had a good time.
KRIEGSMAN: Gary Arnold started by saying something about the general trend in movies being continually conservative, and from my perspective, it's pretty clear that this is a kind of across-the-board tendency.
Certainly in dance there isn't any sweeping visible trend that I can make out, but the things that generally hold sway with the public are big oldfashioned crowd-pleasing kinds of material, and I think it's notable that George Balanchine has been choosing to do things like "Union Jack," the big new New York City Ballet work. Since then he's gone on to do a ballet using music from a Verdi opera - that's his newest enterprise - so he's kind of pulled back from the more intellectually demanding and conceptually abstract stuff of the Stravinsky period.
WILLIAMS: "Union Jack" seems to make the point?
KRIEGSMAN: It's a big parade made into ballet by stylization and formalities that are part of the classical ballet spectrum, but it retains both the sort of visual spectacle and mass of the parade feeling and using traditional British-Scotch-Irish march music material, it's very popular.I think the company has 95 people in it; at least 75 of those are on stage. I think the significant thing is that Balanchine should do a work like this, at this point.
WILLIAMS: It hasn't been that much of a year for experimentation, has it?
KRIEGSMAN: No, it has not. I would say that there really is no avant-garde going on anymore to speak of. Element of Risk
COE: But aren't big things as much experimental as small things?
KRIEGSMAN: Well, I don't think so, if I take your meaning to be the big popularly mounted stage productions of the theater or the ballet or even in music. I think they rest so securely on past precedents and traditions that the element of risk is much smaller, they're just not stepping out of line that much.
COE: And yet you get some of the big musical disasters we've had here, I mean we've had several musicals this year that have totally bombed.
HUME: And I was certain that "Annie" would bomb, that it wouldn't last two weeks in New York. I knew I couldn't be wrong. I'm going to rent myself out as an agent because anyone who takes the opposite view will succeed. I didn't believe it. And look!
COE: It certainly seemed unlikely.
RICHARD: It seems to me that in the arts we've been talking about, there's a kind of blending of what used to be the avant-garde and what used to be the retro-grade, the conservatives. Hollie mentions Keith Jarrett, who is somewhere in between. He's half a sort of concert pianist and half a jazz musician and 10 years ago would have sounded . . .
RICHARD: Well, I think it's really easy music to take. But I wouldn't say it's either hideously old-fashioned or hideously modern. You go to Jasper Johns' retrospective in New York - he's an artist who in the late '50s and early '60s was considered one of the most avant-garde of all American painters. I was surprised at how unexcited I was by that exhibition.
KREIGSMAN: The question is what are the young and newer painters today producing and is it what we call revolutionary and daring in aspect compared to the '60s . . .
RICHARD: I think revolutionary no, but daring yes.
KREIGSMAN: Younger choreographers are few and far between who are trying to do anything like that. They're not trying to shock, they're not trying to be different from the next guy. They're trying to please the public.
WILLIAMS: Apparently, audiences have been pleased this year to a notable extent. How important is it that artists seem to be trying to do that?
ARNOLD: I'm sure that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are trying to entertain the public rather than to allienate it. There's a great deal of good will in what they do. I think we can see what can happen when an artist does put himself in a false position, like Bernardo Bertolucci in "1900." It makes no sense at all as a political and social document, which is what he imagines it was. In Lucas and Spielberg, you do have filmmakers whose command of the medium is larger than their pretentions.
SHALES: I think political turbulence breeds artistic turbulence. We've come through a horrible, turbulent time, and now people see nothing wrong with giving themselves over to old values, traditionalist values, showmanship values, whatever you want to call them. People go to "Annie" with no guilt whatsoever, knowing full well that their brains are slumming. But in pursuit of a good time. I don't think it's necessarily anything to be alarmed about. Or even to be interested in.
KRIEGSMAN: I don't know, I do think something is sacrificed, perhaps inevitably. When I look at what's going on in modern dance these days, I get a little melancholy. Modern dance used to be almost synonymous with protest and social conscience and dealing with things like oppression of minorities or at least critical personal experiences. Now it's all frippery and frivolity and being cute and parodies. And you see this not only in Tharp but in a whole slew of younger people like Louis Falco and Jennifer Muller, who are winning favor with the public. Or Pilobolus, which, interesting as it is in sexual terms, seems rather frivolous as art. But the pendulum will swing again. And we'll get tired of a certain kind of superficiality that comes with the conservative eras. Getting Perspective
COE: I'm always conscious of how enormous this country is and how rich it is and how it's in an evolutionary state. Naturally we're splintered. But on the other hand, there is this enormous public and it's hungry to find the things that have lasted and to get a perspective on what experimentation really means. I think this is one of the great things about a democracy.
WEST: Well, there's too much emphasis on being popular among jazz performers. It's not a question of making their art more accessible to a wider audience. They generally are trying to earn more money. But there's an identity crisis.Freddie Hubbard, for example, says that he wants to earn more money, he's tired of playing in small night clubs. Donald Byrd has said disparaging things about Dizzy Gillespie. That Dizzy has spent all his life playing music that is too idealistic and that he should have spent more time playing music that was popular. There have some encouraging signs - Dexter Gordon returned from Europe and he's generally regarded as kind of a conquering hero. But I think that's just one bright spot.
HUME: I've been thinking about a piece that may be the most successful new piece of the past year by a fairly young composer named David Del Tredici. It has sounds and an idiom that might have sent a lot of audiences screaming out of the hall. It's call "Final Alice," and the next is from Lewis Carroll, and audiences somehow relate to the noises they hear. Basic Dumbness
RICHARD: Well, I think if you see something like "Star Wars," you can feel that behind the top-notch technical effects, there's a kind of dumbness at the core. This is not necessarily true of museum exhibitions, even if their titles seem quite conservative. I think the avant-garde experience - the startling, new, unexpected thing - is the range that is now available to the viewer. To walk into the Tut exhibition is something totally new. These things work both ways.
WILLIAMS: The curators are bringing us in, Paul. No question about it. But what about the young artists?
KRIEGSMAN: Are they currying a large public? Are they doing dumb things to get their works seen in the same way that the makers of "Star Wars" in your opinion have?
RICHARD: There's a lot of dumbness going around. Lots of artists who used to be abstract artists are no longer. And it's possible to say they're doing this to curry favor with collectors and their dealers and the public. But the motives are much more complex than that, and I think that the amount of that sort of dumbness in the air in this country is, has been and will remain pretty high.
But the arts aren't in trouble in this country, or in this city. When we look back at what seemed revolutionary a few years ago - the Noland show, or the Rauschenberg retrospective at the National Collection - we can see that the audience absorbed these things, rather than that newer artists have forgotten how to do it.
Rauschenberg was as far out as you could be a few years ago, and now his stuff is quite easy to take.
It isn't Rauschenberg who's changed, my friends.