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The Comb, The Thrill And The Flop

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012.

Saturday at about 10:30 in the morning, as New York took a turn for the muggy in what turned out to be anticipation of rain, I climbed the steps to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and rented one of the audio guide units that hang around your neck on an orange strap. I stayed about five hours, wearing out the battery on the audio unit and turning it in for another, wandering from the Egyptian art into the Temple of Dendur, through European sculptures to Arms and Armor and the American Wing, through Oceania, Africa and the Americas. Then upstairs, through the European paintings and the Modern and Contemporary Art; through some of the Asian Art, some of the Near Eastern Art and the Greek and Roman statues. Somewhere around Athens, it became clear that the curiosity was willing, but the feet were weak.

Saturday night at 8:00, I saw a live performance of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Ben Acker and Ben Blacker's "staged production in the style of old-time radio." It was packed with comedy podcast royalty and guests, including Paul F. Tompkins, Scott Aukerman, Scott Adsit, Paget Brewster, Wyatt Cenac, Busy Phillips, Zachary Levi, Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm, John Hodgman, Marc Evan Jackson, too many funny people to list if we're being perfectly serious as you can now see, and Dick "Yes, That Dick Cavett" Cavett. They performed radio plays about vampires, Martians, time travel, glamorous married people drinking to excess, robot hands, a succubus, and roving bands of invisible stupid wise men. The audience at Town Hall whooped and roared so unreservedly that a lady sitting near me kept sticking her fingers in her ears, overwhelmed.

In between, and all weekend, I read The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco, Julie Salamon's 464-page, more than 20-year-old book – dishy, sad, and fascinating – about the making and flopping of Brian De Palma's film The Bonfire Of The Vanities. In the book, a project that begins with the conviction that adapting Tom Wolfe's novel can only result in the rare film both admirable and popular suffers wound upon wound: an unrealistic schedule, unrelenting industry gossip, a cynical casting change, location debacles (one involving a scene that couldn't be shot as planned in the Temple of Dendur), resistance in the Bronx to stereotypical depictions thereof, enormous egos coexisting about as successfully as a family of elephants in a college dorm room, and the fact that from the beginning, Wolfe's acidic outlook seems utterly incompatible with the desire – and, given the money being spent, the imperative – to make a hit.

At the museum, there is an ivory comb from the Egyptian Predynastic Period. Roughly 3200 B.C., they say. They suggest it might have been part of the accoutrements of someone's funeral more than 5000 years ago; more than 20 times the entire history of the country the museum is housed in. More than 115 times as long as I've been alive. The teeth of the comb are broken off; what remains is a little more than two inches tall and a little less than two inches wide, and those four square inches hold more than 20 individual renderings of animals. The carvings have symbolic significance, but they're also carefully and elegantly done, particularly on a piece so small. The comb played a role, perhaps, in an important ritual, but it's also a beautiful object, like many of the drums and bowls and pieces of blown glass.

The piece was, then, meant to be an offering of the artist's skills, to convey a meaning, to evoke an emotion, and to bring pleasure. So was The Bonfire Of The Vanities. So was The Thrilling Adventure Hour.

Those aren't the only purposes to which these other works are being put: the film was also engineered to make money, of course, perhaps cripplingly so. The live show, while far less damned by its relationship to commerce, is part of the performers' livelihoods particularly in the broad sense, since many of them remain people whose projects might well be described using, at some point, the word "cult." It supports you, the cult, but only sometimes does it keep you in food and shelter. And it demands to be fed in return, of course.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities didn't just aspire to keep people in food and shelter; it aspired to keep people in mansions and private planes. What it doesn't have that The Thrilling Adventure Hour has is an animating love of the material. Everyone involved seemed to have assumed Wolfe's book was capital-G Great, whether or not they had read it, but they began excising its controversial elements – which in this case meant its essential elements – almost immediately. There was so much money, there were so many trailers, there was so much fake rain, there were so many gowns and extras ... but the way Salamon tells the tale, few of them were – maybe nobody was – there for love.

At The Thrilling Adventure Hour, everybody is there for love. They sweat it into the air and the audience inhales it, then directs it back as enthusiasm, and the cycle repeats. The theme for the Western sendup segment "Sparks Nevada, Marshal On Mars!" is both a joke and not a joke; it's a parody and, like the best parodies, also a great theme song, and the audience knows when it's time to yell "POW!" People are right in it. They pride themselves on how much they love it and how much it is their thing, those are their people.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities, on the other hand, spent tens of millions of dollars, and while the internet will teach you that everything has its adherents, it's not inaccurate to say that nobody cared, particularly if we're rounding to the nearest Hollywood definition of "nobody." It wasn't for lack of attached talent that could deliver with audiences: De Palma had just made The Untouchables, Bruce Willis had just made Die Hard, and Tom Hanks was well on the way to becoming Tom Hanks. It wasn't enough. For all the cynical Hollywood efforts to reduce it to science, audience reaction remains a complex, mystifying dance, and the more it defies all efforts to predict it, the more it underscores that people do respond to artfulness – or at least to something more complex than calculation and deliberate provocation.

There's a painting at the Met called "Madame X," which the artist, John Singer Sargent, sold to the museum after hanging onto it for decades after painting it around 1883. It shows Madame Pierre Gautreau standing in a simple black gown with beaded straps, one of which Sargent originally showed slipping off her shoulder. The painting created, as the audio guide explained it, a scandal. So much so that her name isn't in the title, even though it's known. So much so that he eventually repainted the strap to show it back in place. The suggestion of her slipping strap, together with the expanse of her unadorned pale skin, was an embarrassment.

The actress Beth Broderick has a scene in The Bonfire Of The Vanities in which she pulls off her underwear and hops up onto the glass of a copy machine. It wasn't in the book; it was added for the movie, and at the time, Broderick was dating Brian De Palma. Salamon quotes her explaining that she didn't love playing scenes like this, but for pretty actresses, options were limited. "What you hope and bank on," she said, "is that with your training and your other qualities you'll get a chance to exercise them, if you do this first." As Salamon tells the story, Broderick filmed the sequence for nine hours and wound up "with bruised buttocks and thighs and feelings of humiliation quite unlike anything she'd experienced before in her professional life."

There was a great deal of painting done – for centuries – for wealthy people and for the church. There are works at the Met of pure playfulness and delicacy, but also of compromise and patronage. Even the ancient art reminds you that those who had beautiful things were often those with wealth – wealth with which they were not uncommonly buried, wealth they hoped would help smooth their way to the afterlife.

Even the museum itself is a constant reminder of the relationship between art and business, as walking from gallery to gallery becomes a dizzying sequence of tasteful but conspicuous reminders that you are enjoying this art courtesy of, let's say, Margaret (or John or Peter or William) P. (or S. or D. or L.) Stone (or Anderson or Franklin or Hughes). It's stunning to think just how much money and effort is devoted to making these beautiful things available: there are people whose entire jobs seem to center around making sure no one leans where they shouldn't. I sat and pondered the value of something like Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. It's not for sale. It's 12 feet tall and more than 20 feet wide — what are you going to do with it? Steal it? Fence it? Put it in your basement? What does it mean to assign a value to it at all?

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is part of a growing DIY cultural movement that capitalizes on the cheap distribution capabilities of the internet to make art with fewer resources, and thus fewer compromises. There are sponsors on the podcast, and there is certainly an exchange of money any time you're showing anything in a place like Town Hall. But much of the show's juice comes from social media, from the enthusiasts who are its evangelists. It's often said that live performances are a dialogue between performers and an audience, but that rarely feels more true than it does with a shaggy, funny, made-to-look-easy comedy showcase that will always give more to that live audience than it ever can to anyone else, simply because they're seeing it, and everyone else will only hear it. The mischievous recoveries from small flubs that enrapture the live audience will be snipped out; what remains will be 10 percent more perfect and 10 percent less wonderful. We are the only ones who will ever see it; it will be shared, but it won't be shared, not beyond this room, not exactly.

When you make Bonfire Of The Vanities within the Hollywood system – even within the Hollywood system of 1990, which was before the full effects of Batman could be felt but after it first rattled the earth the year before – you intend to share it with everyone. You intend to make as many people as possible eager to see it and as few people as possible reluctant to see it. De Palma is an artist who came from independent filmmaking and was tasked with making an end-of-year tentpole intended to be an Oscar contender.

The Met has a collection of 19th century miniature portraits, mostly watercolor on ivory, about the size of snapshots you might frame on your desk at work. They're meticulously done and staggeringly detailed for their size. A few are curiously composed to show just part of a person – one eye, in one case. They were mementos, perhaps something to wear or pull from your pocket to look at someone you loved. They fell out of favor when photography came around. That they contained the touch of an artist, and that they represented the exercise of great skill, didn't keep them from being replaced by what was easier, more real, and eventually much, much cheaper. Not only are we not living in the first era to see improvements in technology create lost arts, but we are nowhere near it.

The Devil's Candy spends a good amount of time with second unit director Eric Schwab, who conceived and executed Bonfire's opening shot – singled out in some reviews as one of the film's few strengths – of New York from the vantage point of a gargoyle, as well as a much fussed-over shot of the Concorde landing against a view of the setting sun and the New York City skyline. The Concorde shot takes about eight seconds on screen; Schwab worked on it for months. It affected his career. A skeptic might tell you they'd probably do it all with computers now. You'd make the sky the way you wanted it, put the plane where you wanted it, and tinker with it the same way you would with a spreadsheet. Like the slicing and splicing of physical film that consumes the editors, exhausting yourself and blowing your budget to arrange real shots using real things the way Schwab was doing – getting the Concorde pilots to land in exactly the right spot at exactly the right instant – may eventually be a lost art just as much as the miniature portraits.

Part of what protects The Thrilling Adventure Hour is its very raggedness; its reliance on simple elements that have been part of art and amusement for thousands of years. Jokes, characters, scenes, music. It's like a folded sheet of very thin paper where you can see through it to the layers underneath — not just to old-time radio, but to Westerns, cartoons, vaudeville, the Globe Theater. It feels hearty because it's so simple. Things like this don't remain the way physical objects do, of course. We can look at a drum that accompanied dance in an ancient civilization, but we don't see the dance. Objects have a certain permanence that makes them beautiful; performance has a certain impermanence that makes it precious.

I stopped for a while in front of a 16th century boxwood rosary bead from the Netherlands that's two inches across and is carved with elements so tiny they have to have been done with a magnifying glass, as the guide points out. Inside, the figures hold spears the breadth of a hair. While the bead is certainly beautiful, what resonates is the humanity that was poured into it. There is a profound sense of a person or people, precisely because it's such an impractical object, made for the purposes of devotion, but carrying the carver with it. It's impossible not to wonder about the hands that made it and the eyes that peered at it until it was done, and to wonder what that person would make of where the bead is now and of my eyes looking in.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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