Sunday, April 26, 2009

48-hour culture blast

Welcome to my life, at least the last 48 hours. This is a mash-up of cultural activities over the past 48 hours, a pastiche of the wonderful, elegaic and pop-cult samplings of what's new, old and dynamic.

I started my odyssey Friday night in Chicago's Archicenter. The birthplace of the skyscraper doesn't have a real architecture museum (hello Mayor Daley), but this storefront shop on Michigan and Jackson is the closest thing to it. It's crammed full of touristy knick-knacks and lots of books on architecture. You can also book one of the famous architectural tours there. I usually put a bug in somebody's ear to push along the idea of a gorgeous dedicated space to showcase all of Chicago's glorious heritage. I think they're working on it.

While I have architecture on the brain, I saunter past the Art Institute, which has a pathetic display of Burnham drawings of the 1909 plan. Although it's the centennial of one of the most famous urban planning visions in history, the great museum has consigned a few dozen drawings to what amounts to a basement hallway.

Meanwhile, the Institute is showcasing its development prowess through its new modern wing, which will house everybody from Picasso and Matisse to many lesser-known, newer artists. The addition, designed by Renzo Piano, is a soaring testament to all of Chicago's more elegant structures with a cantilevered roof canopy that is nicknamed "the flying carpet."

A walkway connects the new building (still under construction) to Millenium Park across Monroe street. It's like a giant concrete blade of grass, tapered at both ends and appears to float much the way the roofline does. I follow the lithe line of the walkway into Millennium Park, which teaming with children playing in the Plensa fountain and observing the three new sculpture of a red, steel dinosaur, a golden fat man holding onto a pig that is suspended by a 20-foot red tongue and another metal sculpture that looks like 30 feet of dental fillings melted together.

The sculpture is as playful as the atmosphere in the park. Kids and teenagers are screaming as they get wet. It's a place of joy.

Reluctantly I head over to the stentorian Union League Club for the annual Lisagor awards sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It's a night in which we honor all of us newshounds, whether we're in broadcast, print, online, or all three. I am honored to receive my seventh Lisagor, yet feel a certain sadness about the layoffs and the dissapation of the great papers. Chicago was always a great news town, yet it's undergoing some sort of metamorphosis. None of us know how we're going to fare on the other end of this change of life. There will always be news in Chicago; it's now a matter of seeing how best to serve those who want to consume and digest it. We still need diligent reporting. Blogging alone won't tell us what we need to know.

After a tasty dinner and chats with my colleagues, I head back home on the train, where I meet my friends Jackie and Jerry Kendall, two true-believing progressive activists. We cogitate and groan over the fate of health care and try to unearth some new issues in Washington. I scratch my ear a little too hard and it starts to bleed.

The next morning I'm back on the train with my girls, this time to Orchestra Hall, where the world's greatest symphony -- or at least a kid's size version of it -- is playing the last of the Kraft family concerts. The series is aimed squarely at introducing kids to all kinds of great music from jazz (Wynton Marsalis) to orchestrated folk (Danny Boy). The Trinity Irish dancers, two singers and a bagpiper all parade across the space where Georg Solti, Bernard Haitnik and Fritz Reiner have held their batons. An hour's worth of Britten, Williams and Grainger and we're off to have lunch.

We return to the Plensa fountain where the girls proceed to soak themselves, dodging some real rain as we dance in the middle of the third-largest city. We walk over to check out "Cloudgate," otherwise known as "The Bean," then head back to the train.

To unwind, I put on the director's cut of "Apocalypse Now (Redux)," which includes nearly an hour of additional scenes that Coppola cut out of the original. The girls are in bed, of course, as Martin Sheen once again enters the heart of darkness that was Viet Nam. There's a compelling scene of a French family that his Captain Willard character discovers somewhere near the Cambodian border. They are clinging to the frail hope that they can stay. Like most of the other characters in the film, they are doomed like Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz, who reads aloud TS Eliot while sending his native army out to behead any number of unfortunate souls.

"Are you an assassin?" Kurtz asks Willard.
"You're just an errand boy sent by grocery clerks," Kurtz mumbles.

Few films about war have captured the pagan madness of conflict as well as this film. It's still a phantasmagorical nightmare that gave Sheen a heart attack and nearly ruined Coppola's career. The film has aged well, even as Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Sheen and Coopola have gone on to other projects.

The next morning the grimmest of scenes from "Now" is still on my mind as I shuffle off to thecheery Marriott Theatre to see "Disney's High School Musical." It's a group show for about 1,000 girl scouts; I'm one of about 8 males. The music is pre-recorded and the cast is hyperkinetic. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber for ADHD kids. It's not that the music is bad; it isn't. It's just bland and contrived. It's like eating a box of caramel turtles. The real treat is seeing energetic live theatre with the girls.

Back home I settle in with the New York Times Sunday edition. Friedman is still plugging for a carbon tax to improve fuel efficiency (I don't see it coming in a recession) and the business section has failed once again to tell me where all the TALF and TARP money went. It certainly did end up in my pocket. Maureen Dowd seems to have lost her spark and is wandering around California.

When I'm done with the Times, Kathleen and I go for a walk and talk about what American culture is all about. I claim that most Americans don't expose themselves to it -- that is, the authentic art and architecture that was created here (jazz, several folk forms, etc.) Most inject themselves with downloaded drivel that is as manufactured as macaroni and cheese.

What is authentic American culture? Is it the cusinarted mush that Disney produces? Is it an original Chicago skyscraper? Is it Woody Guthrie, The Talking Heads or Andrew Bird (or maybe just Bird/Charlie Parker)?

There's so much more to discover and it's a journey that will take me on some crazy backroads. Stay tuned.

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