Thursday, November 08, 2007
The Atlantic's bad, bad bash
For about two minutes, this scenario had a certain Pirandellian charm. That quickly evaporated. One celebrity guest, a woman in a black dress with phenomenal back muscles, was dancing at the lip of the stage, doing all sorts of Isadora Duncan moves. Even her fellow celebs seemed a little bemused at this exhibition, snapping pictures of her with their cell phones.
At this point it was clearly time to ratchet up the theater of cruelty. An Atlantic employee came up the aisle with a video camera, interviewing the pathetic audience members. "What do you think is going on here?" he asked me. "I"m assuming that's a cocktail party for the celebrity guests, and the groundlings are sitting down here watching the cocktail party," I told him. No argument from Errol Morris. "And how does that make you feel?" he said. I thought about it. "It makes me feel pretty good," I replied. "Well, you can still say you were at a party with the mayor and Robert De Niro," he told me, moving on up the aisle. I jotted down a few notes with my complimentary Atlantic pen, which kept skipping, and wondered if maybe the magazine needed to hire a new party planner.
I scanned the stage for recognizable faces. The only one I could pick out was Ben Schwarz, the magazine's book editor, plus several bald men with glasses, all of whom I assumed were Moby. The privileged guests kept their backs turned to the audience most of the time, which made it harder to identify them. Finally Justin Smith, the president of Atlantic Consumer Media, welcomed the common folk to "this incredible party." Gee, thanks! Editor-in-chief James Bennet said a few words ("In this business, you're only as good as your next story") and turned the microphone over to Master of Ceremonies P.J. O'Rourke.
To his credit, O'Rourke couldn't help but allude to the petting zoo arrangement. "Us having a party up here, while you watch it from down there, is stupid." He then lost all credit for his defense of what he called "an appropriate kind of stupidity"--something to do with the magazine being very staid, very Old Media, which I assumed O'Rourke had just dreamed up while the waiter refilled his Chardonnay. The theme of the evening, he went on to explain, was the American Idea. He would pursue it with his fellow panelists, all of them standing awkwardly around a pair of little round tables.
First up: Arianna Huffington. She recited four haikus of 17 syllables each (I’m not making this up). Here's the second one, in its entirety:
Our Founding FathersCall me nuts, but that sounds like 20 syllables to me. But who's counting? Having done her bit, Huffington passed the microphone to Mark Bowden, who immediately answered the question on everybody's mind: yes, there is a Black Hawk Down video game. Bowden is a tremendous journalist, but he wasn't going to rise above this mess without some major effort. "The idea of an idea about America is antithetical," he ventured. And "being properly ignorant" ensures that you ask the right questions. Next.
Said to pursue happiness.
We pursue the latest vice.
That would be Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. "America is a constant poetic vision in the making," she announced, slipping into the very same mud puddle of abstraction that had already claimed Bowden. Jeff Goldberg said a few words about Iraq. O'Rourke introduced William Weld, in a greenish suit and bright red tie, as "the Joni Mitchell of American politics. You've observed our political scene from both sides now." As the former governor spoke, the celebrity guests swiveled to stage left, resembling an army of extras from Alexander Nevsky. Weld suggested a "fusion ticket," with a presidential candidate from one party and a vice-presidential candidate from the other.
And finally it was time for Moby, slumping onto the podium in a blue hoodie. Pronouncing himself "feeling very hung over and slow," he lobbied for an easy question. Instead O'Rourke asked him about the future of intellectual property rights. The crowd, already restive, grew more restive still as the sample-happy cue ball groped for an answer. "I apologize for not being able to give a better answer," he concluded. "But don't invest in a company that makes things that can be downloaded."
Christopher Buckley spoke last. He's a very funny man, but I was too irate to listen. Regaining the microphone, Smith now introduced the musical entertainment, starting with "the next Bob Dylan"--meaning Josh Ritter. The onstage audience now swiveled to the right. Ritter was quite charming, playing a jolly version of "The Temptation of Adam," with its persistent missile-silo humor, and offering to take drink orders between songs. He seemed like the only participant so far to be embarrassed by the caste system in the auditorium. Following up with a briskly strummed "Kathleen," he gracefully got off the riser and ushered on Patti Smith. (By the way, her name was misspelled in the program--nice touch.)
In a dark jacket and tie, and with a long mane of graying hair, Smith looked even more out of place than Ritter, "not bein' much of a party girl." Apparently her last mind meld with the magazine took place in 1963, when her father read her Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was a lesson that stuck with her to this very day. "Sometimes," she said, "we are forced to resort to civil disobedience.... It is not unpatriotic, and it is not a form of terrorism." These sentiments got a big round of applause from the audience, even though they weren't in the form of a haiku. Smith went on to perform "My Blakean Year," with the sort of nasal, incantatory sound that did in fact suggest a new Bob Dylan--or the old one.
She followed with a recitation of "People Have the Power," and although I'm not a huge fan, I was touched by her passionate delivery, and by the neo-Blakean pastoral of song itself. For one brief shining moment, the evening was almost redeemed. But Smith climbed down, and the publisher wrapped up with one last, marvelously tone-deaf touch. "Let's all drink a toast to The Atlantic!" he exclaimed. The people onstage could raise their glasses, he added in a jovial footnote, while the hoi could wave their complimentary magazines in the air. I did not. There was supposed to be some golden opportunity for the audience to mingle with the Brahmins at the edge of the stage. I did not. As far as I could see, most of the audience bolted straight out of the auditorium, putting this festival of rudeness and snotty exclusivity behind them. Am I just projecting? You tell me. But as a longtime admirer of the magazine (and occasional contributor), I wish I had a current subscription, so I could cancel it tomorrow.
NB: For an equally dismal report from onstage, check out this New York Observer dispatch. Strange, I didn't recognize Robin Byrd up there. Oh, wait--maybe she was the one humming "Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box."
After such a strange night, I searched the net and found your fantastic blog. Thanks so much for that picture perfect account. I went as a guest of a friends and i couldn't believe my eyes when i walked out into the party space to discover i was onstage, drinking a cocktail while the dry mouthed audience looked on. When O'Rourke said his bit at the beginning about it not being fair, I thought, "oh I get it, now everyone will be invited up." How Naive. And as each speaker made his way to the podium, the sound of ice being scooped into another cocktail echoed across the stage. Shame the audience didn't start throwing their pens at us. That would have been ink well spent. Alas, the theatre of cruelty, danced on.
but besides all that they are the most socially inept bunch of people you could ever want to meet, and yet profoundly pretentious. a truly hideous combination that offended me then as an expatriate Southerner, and now as New Yorker.
But this thing... it's not Atlantic, and it's not even really Bradley. Weird. Me, I'm hoping James Bennet has a pre-written essay slated for the next issue explaining this as a performance experiment, not a real party.
It was a psychology experiment! What else could explain the video they created?
Next time they should put the luminaries in the seats and see if the regular folks onstage turn their backs to them.
A truly brilliant description of a truly appalling evening. How sad to think that Marie Antoinette died in vain