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Arts and Culture:
Transcript: Jane Wallace interviews Frank Rich
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WALLACE: Revered, reviled, and always rich. Our guest is Frank Rich, theater critic turned op-ed columnist, now Associate Editor at the NEW YORK TIMES. He'll have, starting in March, an essay in every Sunday's Arts and Leisure section. He's a man of many words and he doesn't mince them. He joins us tonight. Welcome to NOW, Mr. Rich.

RICH: Thanks for having me, I'm glad to be here.

WALLACE: Your memoir, GHOST LIGHT. Very, very evocative memoir.

RICH: Thank you.

WALLACE: You escaped an emotionally difficult, sometimes downright troubled childhood.

RICH: Yeah.

WALLACE: Through the arts. Through the arts, through your love of music, and stage.

RICH: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).


RICH: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

WALLACE: You became a theater critic. You spent all those years having people cower from you on Broadway. Then you spent all these years with a front-row seat on the larger world. Where do you find more truth? The real world, or the unreal world of the arts?

RICH: The whole premise of my writing and I realized it even, going back before I realized it, is that they're permeable. That these things intersect.

And as a drama critic, in the 1980's, I suddenly discovered that happening on the beat of reviewing plays in New York was a major news story. Which was the advent of AIDS. And the discovery of AIDS. And at a certain point, it literally came knocking down walls in the theater, by killing people, and ultimately by becoming the subject of plays. In some cases, great plays, like ANGELS IN AMERICA, which happened when I was on that beat.

WALLACE: Is there more truth for you in the emotional chord struck by something artistic?

RICH: Yes. There is. I mean, than in politics? There's no question about it. I mean, first of all, I find so much of politics synthetic. And this has nothing to do with ideology, or political party, or anything of the kind. That — politicians now are so scripted, they all are. Doesn't matter what their political views. Everyone has a script. Everyone is quaffed to the nine's. The… you know. You know, it's… if a candidate…

WALLACE: Or done over…

RICH: …doesn't know the price of milk, is asked a question — that's like, considered a major event in this political culture. But who writes those scripts? They're written basically by pollsters. Focus group guys, and so on. They're completely…

WALLACE: So they're like bad drama.

RICH: They're like bad drama. They're synthetic. They're contrived. A lot of the art's not great. Most of it isn't. Most of it's mediocre. But when something really comes from the soul, I think it has a truth that you cannot find in politics.

WALLACE: This change of job, where you're gonna be the — an essay every week, starting in March, on the front of Arts and Leisure, this is something you want?

RICH: Yeah. I mean, the thing is to write a long — I mean, not long. But, 14, 1500 word essay. The same as I was doing in Op-Ed. And broaden the sweep. It'll still have some politics in it. And certainly news. But add more culture, and a little bit less Washington.

I mean, it is kind of tedious after a while, to parse politicians doing the same thing over and over again. The facts change from week to week, but the sort of masquerade doesn't. And it'd be fun to mix that up, and look at the culture, too. Particularly since so much of news now happens through the culture.

WALLACE: What do you mean by that, news happens through the culture?

RICH: Here's an example. I wrote this piece for the TIMES MAGAZINE in the fall, about Eminem. And what fascinated me about Eminem was, here he was a guy that two years ago was the subject of Congressional hearings, condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Lynn Cheney testified against him. And he was, you know, the enemy of America's youth. Here it is, two years later. And he had a movie coming out, as we all know now, 8 MILE. But he had songs of, you know, a new album, THE EMINEM SHOW that came out over the summer that was just as incendiary. It ended-- one song in it ended with, you know, urinating on the White House lawn, and crying out obscenities at both Lynn Cheney and Tipper Gore.

And you didn't hear a peep from Washington. Now, what's that about? Eminem really hadn't changed.

WALLACE: What's it about?

RICH: It's about a change in the news and the culture. After 9/11, we realized that all these silly culture wars, and arguing about rock lyrics…

WALLACE: Aren't worth it.

RICH: What the hell is it, who cares? You know, we, for some reason, remembered what our real problems are. And the reaction to Eminem, to me, is a barometer of that. And that kind of stuff fascinates me.

WALLACE: I'm reading you back to yourself : "Our history still repeats itself. First as a tragedy, then as a farce. But most of all, as entertainment. With a full line of merchandise and an undertow of nostalgia. Only the time frame has been compressed. In merely a year, 'Let's roll' has gone from being a hero's brave cry, to a Neil Young song, to the Florida State Football Team's official slogan, to a t-shirt, to number one on next week's TIMES best-seller list."

"This is all reassuring. If the terrorists aim was in part to wreck America's premiere export, our culture, we can say with confidence they have not won."

RICH: The fact is, that, you know, most people now get their news through the culture in that way. So, when "Let's Roll," became a song, it probably meant much more to people than — particularly people who aren't news junkies the way we are — than it did to people who read it in the newspaper.

And then — and as a t-shirt, it may mean as much as a best-selling book. I don't know. But it's not necessarily a bad thing. People do get their news in different ways. Not everyone reads the NEW YORK TIMES, or watches PBS.

And that's very important to monitor, too. And so in that sense, when a Bush or a Gore, or whomever, goes on David Letterman, that's the news, too. It isn't — in fact, it may be more the news than the canned statements that have been manicured for them…

WALLACE: Oh, yeah.

RICH: By their handlers.

WALLACE: What grabs you about the culture today that makes you wanna write? What grabs you?

RICH: Well, I think we have two tiers in a lot of the arts. For instance, in movies, yes. We have these big impersonal…


RICH: Bland, often gory movies, that are really not only lowest common denominator, but lowest international common denominator. You know, they're designed so you know, they can be just dubbed in a million languages, and…

WALLACE: For young males in Yugoslavia. Yeah.

RICH: Exactly. So, they're very unspecific. On the other hand-- I may not like every one of them. But if you see movies like ABOUT SCHMIDT, or ADAPTATION, or THE PIANIST, those there may be — they may be technically not independent movies.

But it's a tier — those movies do have something to say. I'm not saying I like every one that I just mentioned. But they're idiosyncratic, and they express the views of artists.

WALLACE: That indie streak.

RICH: And, yeah, and similarly, on television — I mean, one of the good things about television is that there's such alternatives now to what's often homogenized network entertainment.

You know, when a show like SIX FEET UNDER, for instance, I think is as well-written and well-acted as anything I've ever seen on television. And you know, and I've also been a fan of THE SOPRANOS, too. And there, you know, and there's interesting stuff that's not on HBO as well.

You know, I've liked things like SOUTH PARK, for instance. There's always something happening. And there's…

WALLACE: THE SIMPSONS maintains its appeal in an unbelievable way.

RICH: THE SIMPSONS is an amazing phenomenon. It, and you know, and that really is made by a corporation. I mean, and so it sometimes happens even there. And it's not as if HBO isn't part of AOL Time-Warner, after all.

WALLACE: And one of the most interesting things I saw recently, is that culturally, now, the poll numbers weren't different between black Americans and white Americans, about how they saw each other and themselves. What was different was their television viewing habits.

RICH: Yes. Yes.

WALLACE: They were watching different worlds.

RICH: They are. Although that's very much about network television.

WALLACE: Yes. Shrewd.

RICH: Yeah. And…

WALLACE: But I'd never seen THE HUGHLEYS. Have you?

RICH: No, I haven't. Fair enough. But I think — and look, sitcoms and networks, whether they're pitched to minorities, or white people, or whatever, are never going to be that fascinating. Occasionally it does happen, as we know. There've been some wonderful shows, starting with I LOVE LUCY. And THE HONEYMOONERS.

But it's such a — I just find it such a window on America. I'm just fascinated.


RICH: By watching the commercials (LAUGHTER) on the Super Bowl.


RICH: You know, even if you don't give a damn about the Super Bowl — and I don't — it's just, it's very interesting to me. And always has been. And I guess, you know, thinking of my book, I grew up in Washington DC. But also loving the theater. So, I've always sort of felt these things intersected in a way that's interesting.

WALLACE: As you look at the landscape now, are you hopeful about American culture?

RICH: Yeah. I'll tell you what makes me hopeful. I am not hopeful about all of it. But after this period of tremendous consolidation by a few media companies, it seems to me that while there'll always be a lot of junk, and there's still a lot of sort of mass-produced junk, flowers sort of rise through the concrete. And it's, you know, it's amazing.

Some of the things happening in music, including hip-hop, in my mind, and also stuff in the movies. Stuff in television. Stuff certainly in books. The theater, a little bit. This is not a great period for the theater. I can't argue that.

It's cyclical, too. It — you know, culture — for instance, the theater is always dying. It's called the fabulous invalid. (LAUGHTER) But it always — and the theater will come back, too, eventually. But people love it. You know, movie attendance this past year has been at all-time records. And have, you know, VCR, and then the DVD were supposed to kill movies.

Well, what is that? It, people, there's, you know, there's something there that speaks to people, that's profound. And people need it.

WALLACE: It…creative..

RICH: People — yeah. People need it. I'm always struck by the kids who turn up in New York and LA, and places in between. Chicago. Wanting to do theater, wanting to do independent film. Wanting to break into television or radio.

WALLACE: Needing to create.

RICH: Needing to create. And not all of them are talented, but many of them are. And it's electrifying, when, you know. Someone like Eminem, I feel, is really a — he's not so young any more. He's 30. But…


RICH: But he, you know, he really is an authentic talent. And sure, for every one of him, there are 15 phonies in that business. Or 20, or 100. But those gems do emerge.

WALLACE: And they bubble up, and so do writers like Frank Rich.

We will miss you on the op-ed page. We will…

RICH: Well, thank you.

WALLACE: …look for you on the front of Arts & Leisure every Sunday, the NEW YORK TIMES, starting in March. Thank you for being our guest.

RICH: Delighted to be here. Thank you.

Read more about Frank Rich in the Columnist Biography provided by the NEW YORK TIMES.

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