Friday, March 17, 2017

some notes about grandstanders and Emily Nussbaum

I like a grandstanding critic. Sometimes.
In the postwar era, there were a number of grandstanders. Pauline Kael, though, stood out. A grandstanding critic is one who, while specializing in some department of American flotsam and jetsam – rock n roll, movies, comic books, tv – finds broader and deeper applications for her appreciations and pans. The goal is to give a sense of How We Live Now. Of course, the we is the uppercrust, and that interested segment that forms a suburb of the uppercrust – academics, journalists, that lot. Currently, the heir to Kael at the New Yorker is certainly Emily Nussbaum, who “does” television. I’m tempted to play with that sentence, to bring out its erotic and pornographic double sense, the way Kael would play with innuendo in the titles of her books – I lost it at the Movies, and the like. It is not inappropriate. Movies, as Kael saw, were a promiscuous medium, the select site for the range of our (upper and lower-crust) libidinous projections. But the movies got smaller – literally, they jumped onto discs and we play them at home. TV has evidently usurped the role of our libidinous puppet play, our naked Punch and Judy shows. Nussbaum is well placed to be the premier tv critic of the “golden age”. As everybody calls it.  Tom Carson is a distant contender. Carson, though, moves around too much.
My own taste, I confess, is mostly anti-Kael: I love Bergman, she hates Bergman. Kael felt that Chinatown was an essay in dopy nostalgia, I thought it reinvented the urban detective by making the object of the case the foundation of the city itself. Fuck the Maltese Falcon, it’s Water, my friends! And generally I agree with Renata Adler and Joan Didion, who both enjoyably jumped on Kael. The two were fiercer guards and critics of uppercrust moeurs. In a sense, the battle was between two divas of the ascetic modernist impulse and a sloppy voluptuary. But I have a weakness for the latter as well.
Nussbaum, like Kael, not only enthuses about her favorites, she enlists them in her own crusades. This is what she has done with “Girls”. This is what she has done with Megyn Kelly. I see no merit in “Girls” – I prefer both Sex in the City and Broad City – and I see less than no merit, I see positive political vice, in Megyn Kelly. When Nussbaum described Kelly as a Valkyrie, I don’t think she quite felt all the resonances of that particular comparison – all the Aryan Brothers mythology of it, which Kelly has quite consciously entertained. It is the grandstander’s vice to make cultural generalizations in a vocabulary that encodes fierce dialectical tensions and to never really tease out those tensions. Which is another way of saying that just as Kael often seemed to go off the rails (the most famous example is Last Tango in Paris), Nussbaum, too, sometimes seems to end up in corners that say more about uppercrust blindness than about the American wilds. The wilds, when all is said and done, is where, literally, the energy is expended that the upper crust captures. To be Marxianly vulgar, the wilds must be exploited economically, aesthetically and erotically in order for the uppercrust to function, however dimly it proceeds to do so.
All this verbiage to take me to Nussbaum’s review of “The Feud” and her divergence into a meditation on the parts offfered to aging actresses. Like Jessica Lang and Susan Sarandon, who play Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in “The Feud.” This is a perennially pickable topic, and the Film industry perennially acknowledges it even as it proceeds to pair aged men with 20 something cuties.
At a certain point, however, Nussbaum’s Eloi feminism, her lean-in-ism, gets the best of her. That point is here:
“Feud,” like “Baby Jane,” does occasionally veer into an eerie voyeuristic space, getting off on closeups of wrinkles while defending our right to stare. And yet choosing to be grotesque can be a form of liberation, too. Decades after Davis pulled on a doll’s dress, grotesquerie has been key to modern female comedy, as self-assertion, not self-loathing. Sometimes that means letting one’s face swell up, like Ilana on “Broad City,” drooling from a seafood allergy, or puncturing an eardrum, like Hannah on “Girls.” One of “30 Rock” ’s most magnificent moments had Tina Fey embracing full repulsiveness: on the subway, she became a mentally ill hag, wearing a gray wig and a mole, and hissing, “I’m pregnant with a kitty cat!,” like Baby Jane, Jr. Nothing scares people so much as a woman letting herself go; once you can scare them or make them laugh, you’re in charge.
You’re in charge? I find this an utterly bizarre comment. I can easily walkk out of my apartment to the park four blocks away, where the homeless spend the morning and afternoon, and find mentally ill hags who’ve spent the last millenium outside. And none of them is in charge. In fact, in comparison to them, even the three year old Valkyries who go to the expensive day care school another three blocks on from the park – who are led there in the morning by their Montana avenue mothers and their flocks of nannies – are postively senatorial. The confusion here is between the well compensated actress, who can afford to scare us and make us laugh, and the objective correlative she is imitating. Tina Fey actually is in charge. She is ensconsed in the upper 1 percent. This is not blameworthy, but you can’t generalize about the American wilds and be so utterly blind about class. Another 1 percenter, Lilly Tomlin, has also done the bag lady, but she came up in the politically charged sixties and seventies and never lost her sense of the meaning and meanness of marginality.

Nussbaum’s talent for grandstanding is a gift. However, I wish she would not so often blind herself to the difference between the dancer and the dance. Because she’s never – or at least very rarely - going to say something about the American Wilds this way. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

dangerous tears

 One of the most cited witticisms of Oscar Wilde concerned the climactic sentimental scene in the Old Curiosity Shop when Little Nell dies.  Wilde said that  “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”. The remark  became a sort of benchmark for the change from Victorian to modernist attitudes towards the presentation of sentiment.  Dickens readers in 1850, of course, felt differently about Little Nell.  There’s a famous story that a crowd in New York awaited the ship carrying the last bit of the serialisation of the Old Curiosity Shop demanding the fate of little Nell, and when they heard she died, they burst into mass tears.
However, at some point in the 70s or 80s, I think, the tide began to run against Wilde’s attitude.  Little Nell again came into her own as the modernist anti-sentimentality itself became suspect, was uncovered as a sort of masculinist gesture meant to impose a bogus stoicism that made  a great show of covering wounds to the ego in silence in order to have us all bow to those wounds.   And so Little Nell, that abused child, who begins Dickens’  novel by repulsing the repulsive Quilp, who lusts after her, changed into a very trendy figure. 
The politics of tears go back a long way in a certain “western” tradition. According to Darja Erker, a classics scholar, women’s tears in ancient Rome aroused peculiar fears. The repression of women’s emotional lives in public was part of the repression of women’s political role in the republic. However, the ritual of mourning was an exception to this regime of censure. Here, tears fell in public.  
When the family “admits” or recognizes (agnoscere) the death of one of its members, it becomes impure, and is provisionally separated from the rest of society. During the  feriae denicales, time stops for the members of the family, who are polluted by the death. After the period of marginalisation, the family reintegrates into the life of the civitas due to the banquet celebrated by the tomb.  (lautum novemdiale) The marked characteristics of the funeral ritual are displacements, or inversions of normal behavior, symbolic of the period of marginality.
The participants in the funeral ritual don’t wear their normal clothes, they neglect their hygene and reverse the practices governing eating together. These rituals express a temporal alteration of social values. In regard to this,  John Scheid borrows the words of Servius for characterizing the funeral service as a ritual of inversion: contraria facere. Similarly, when the time of the annual feast of the dead  (Parentalia) came around, magistrates marked the presence of a pollution incompatible with their public functions in not wearing their insignia.
Tears preside over the world of inversion.  And this has always had a frightening potential. Perhaps it is for this reason that modern scholars make much more of the carnivalesque, where laughter reigns, than the world of mourning, with its own characteristic revolt against hierarchy. It is the case in America that the tears of a man are celebrated, in the political sphere, while the tears of a woman are mocked.   
Myself, I grew up in a period, the seventies, when public crying was briefly, and in some social sets, non-taboo.  Also, I’m a crybaby. Thus, I knew last night, when we were heading towards the Arc Cinema to see Moonlight (at last!) that I’d probably leak like a faucet.  And I did.  I was redfaced and gasping by the end.  Typical for me. I always embarrass myself  this way.
Through the scrim of tears, I did notice the influence of Douglas Sirk, the… the Leonardo da Vinci of the weepy, the Picasso, the Newton and Einstein. Especially in the final scene between Chiron and his mother I felt some breeze from the beating wings of Imitation of Life,  one of my favorite films, and Sirk’s masterpiece.

Chelsea Clinton, in a much mocked interview with the NYT (in their By the Book series) said “I avoid most fiction in which children are harmed or seriously threatened in any way.” I understand her impulse.  But her criteria would ban all fairy tales, definitely all Hans Christian Anderson, much of Dickens, and much literature since, including most  YA literature. I’m reading Sandra Newman’s apocalyptic sci fi novel, Ice Cream Star, right now, and the toll on children in the plot is heavy. In Moonlight, the threat to Chiron as a child drives the entire movie. I wonder if the gesture of avoidance, here, is tied to old, old taboos about tears in public – a censoring of the atrocities that are a normal part of function of the everyday machine- you know the one, the thing that produces streets, cars, tv, the paycheck, and the death of the holocene. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Ode to melatonin

 Certain subjects fill me with a wild and passionate interest, even if I have no specialist insight into them. One is laterality – the literature of the left/right dichotomy is, to my mind, full of the kind of insight that one could spend a lifetime meditating upon. A genuine classic in this field, Chris McManus’s Right Hand, Left Hand, is the modern equivalent of the Anatomy of Melancholy – it starts off, unashamedly, galloping in all directions, and yet by the end, you have a strong sense of the wierdness of Left and Right in nature and culture. The other subject which always interests me is sleep. The anti-sleep bias that arose in the Enlightenment – the curtailment of our freedom to sleep, which parallels the development of industrial society, the curious yoking together of knowledge and waking – makes sleep a troubled locus in our badman times. In my opinion, Freudian theory is resisted as much because of its emphasis on sleep as for its emphasis on sex. Anti-Freudians commonly dismiss dreams as junk, without ever pondering the fact that scientists might be biased against a human situation that rules out science. The dreaming scientist, while he or she dreams, is no scientist, but, like the rest of us, an argonaut, traveling under strange compulsions. Hence the pretence that sleep is a sort of annex or footnote to humanity. Jonathan Cray’s recent book about the current “war” aganst sleep, 24/7, contains some alarming information about the US Military’s effort to create a force of soldiers who never sleep. DARPA, the agency that was involved in studying forest fire scenarios in Vietnam – burn down the jungle and win the war! – is studying the chemical processes in the brains of certain migrating birds that let these birds go for days without sleeping. Isn’t that precious?
Which brings us to the best long read in this weekend’s NYT, Richard Freedman’s exploration of sleep, depression, mania, melatonin and the reason traveling East from, say, California to France exposes the traveler to mania, while traveling from France to California makes you more vulnerable to depression. In between, Freedman plays variations on the theme of Jet Lag, and why it is important to exercise more when you have a midlife crisis. 
In my opinion, the circadian rhythm produces a basic unconscious effect that comes through more clearly in Magic Mountain than in The Interpretation of Dreams – although the latter conditions the former, obviously. All those patients laying out on their balconies, sun-curing, and all the time slipping away. I am one of those people who somehow let massive blocks of time get away from me. For instance, I can’t believe that we will soon be returning to live in France from Santa Monica. We have been here almost four years, and I can believe it when I look at Adam – but otherwise, everything seems so recent to me. I have a Jet Lag soul, perhaps. I do nothing very quickly, and that is why I am so poor on tasks like driving the getaway car for revolutionary bank robbers and such (kidding, mr. FBI man! You know I love ya!). I’m not a quick draw.
And I love melatonin. It has to be in my top five bodily secretions. If that is what it is.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...