Scott Takes

In one of my classes, we just finished a unit on journalistic criticism, which ended with students writing their own brief review of an assigned novel. (It was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Most didn’t hate it, and I’ve read some excellent papers.) One of the things I emphasized to them was that reviewers have a major sociocultural function, which is to stand attentively amid the incredible, endless stream of artistic productions (books, films, clothing, music, whatever), and venture to make judgments about what’s good and what isn’t–about what is worth one’s time and what is not. There is too much stuff out there. Critics help us make decisions.

When it comes to film, Grantland’s Wesley Morris is my favorite American critic, but the New York Times‘ house expert, A.O. Scott, runs a very close second. He often writes moving, meditative reviews of new movies, but I like Scott best when he gets out his hatchet and goes hunting for bad, lucrative art. His treatment of the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore excreta Blended is a cruel classic. It opens this way:

Because life is short and I have other things to be upset about, I will not dwell on the offensive aspects of “Blended,” the new Adam Sandler comedy: its retrograde gender politics; its delight in the humiliation of children; its sentimental hypocrisy about male behavior; its quasi-zoological depiction of Africans as servile, dancing, drum-playing simpletons; its … I’m sorry. That’s just what I said I wouldn’t do.

Take caution, the review concludes, because the film “will make your children stupid.”

Hey, have you heard from those billboards? They turned the fan-fiction phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey into a film. Yesterday Scott got around to it.

*ties napkin around neck, readies knife and fork*

Scott’s work has what Lionel Trilling would call a liberal imagination: it prioritizes and praises films that have a sense of variety, fluidity, complexity, and indeterminacy, and excoriates those with a wooden, simplified, comfortable view of human life. Thus, what makes Fifty Shades such an awful (and it sounds awful) “tale of seduction, submission and commodity fetishism” is primarily its etiolated depiction of human sexuality, which it manages to reduce to kitsch and cliché despite foregrounding BDSM sex, which would seem to offer plenty of opportunities to explore the strangeness of desire.

Jamie Dornan, the actor who plays the handsome bondage-loving plutocrat in the story, “given the job of inspiring lust, fascination and also maybe a tiny, thrilling frisson of fear, succeeds mainly in eliciting pity.” He has, observes Scott in a fantastic slash, “the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego.” Meanwhile, the female lead character, who is named Anastasia (yeah, I know), “makes no sense. Her behavior has no logic, no pattern, no coherent set of causes or boundaries.” It seems that her main function is to be surprised by wealth, then fucked unconventionally, mostly off-screen of course.

Or not so unconventionally. Scott doesn’t indulge in the cheap snobbery that pegs all popular romantic narratives as melodramatic “women’s stuff,” and indeed you get the sense from the review that he was hoping the movie would be good. After all, it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. The film “fall[s] back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires,” and “love . . . functions less as an emotional ideal than as a literary safe word.”

Trilling would approve. Not only is Scott willing to make judgments–no cheap aesthetic pantheism in his game–he makes them according to the only standard narrative art can really be held to: Does the text engage the frightening, glorious intricacy of human lives, or does it reduce them to pasteboard typology, received narrative, and worn-out, ersatz forms of knowledge? Well, which is it?

Weekend Links: Stocks, Bonds, America on Loan

The weekend just pulled into your driveway. Let’s eeease the seat back, as the man says. Here are some links to help you be as intelligent and dynamic as you can be, however chill things might get between now and Sunday. Call us whenever you want.

  • When he wasn’t curating his open-necked-shirt game, economist Thomas Piketty was writing what sounds like a mind-bending study of wealth stratification in the West since the late 1700s. You should buy Capital in the Twenty-First Century book right now, dear reader, as these two reviews (John Cassidy in the New Yorker and Paul Krugman for the NY Review of Books) advise; but don’t try to use Amazon, because it is sold out there. Harvard UP’s Belknap label is scrambling to print more. Let’s hope their scrappy operation can pull through! In the meantime, ruminate on the fact that a work of academic scholarship that is still in hardcover sold this much this fast (it was released only five weeks ago). You can also download the homie’s Technical Appendix for free if you want to wade into some Excel spreadsheets, wizard-math modeling, deep-cover historical footnotes, and other academic flora.
  • America, meet yourself. Sarah Kendzior has written a cool-eyed but harrowing narrative (“The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”) on the efforts of Midwestern fast-food employees to organize for a living wage. Built almost lyrically around the accounts of individual witnesses, this ethnography of labor will remind you that economic collapses are usually also moral catastrophes. Millionaire stockholders and billionaire capital managers exist thanks to workers who, thanks to millionaires and billionaires, don’t make enough to buy a bus pass. If the United States really were an Enlightenment democracy, if the twenty-first century hadn’t become a grim rewind of the late 1800s, Kendzior wouldn’t have needed to write anything. Her work here is so bracing, I don’t mind that the title’s phrasal adjective is missing a hyphen. (Should be “Minimum-Wage,” unless it’s a very subtle pun. I know, I’m a pedant.) Read SK’s work wherever you can—Al Jazeera America publishes a lot of it—because she’s fantastic. Her Twitter feed is also lively. Oh, and she has a PhD in anthropology. Amazing how those useless degrees turn out to be useful.
  • Welfare for humans, bad! Welfare for corporations, very good! (But keep it quiet.) WalMart is on food stamps, y’all, and the company is just about the only food-stamp recipient who deserves your scorn. Add this to your purple-rage-inducing knowledge that ExxonMobil gets federal subsidies and Apple stashes money in Irish shell companies and et fucking cetera.
  • Science is finally catching up with literature: Research published last October in Science indicates that “literary” reading (basically, immersion in fictional narratives that compel aesthetic and philosophical attention while also entertaining the reader) makes you better at recognizing that other people are autonomous subjects, not merely actors in your personal movie. Humanists have been making this argument for centuries. In a recent essay titled “Why Fiction Does It Better,” Lisa Zunshine (whose scholarship draws on narrative art as well as neuroscience) updates the case. No doubt President Obama will mention this in his UC Irvine commencement address.
  • Working within the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC, Dowell Myers and Joel Pitkin have assembled a fascinating report with a deeply academic title, “The Generational Future of Los Angeles: Projections to 2030 and Comparisons to Recent Decades.” Partial preview: The city’s population is not growing quickly, far fewer immigrants are arriving anymore (contra paleocons like Pat “CULTURE WAR MEXIFORNIA” Buchanan), and we need to spend smarter on our educational infrastructure immediately. Angelenos, I promise the report is quite readable, so read it.
  • More on John Keats, language wonder, in the coming weeks; for now, here is a poom by Emily Dickinson—for my money, the purest practitioner of lyric in English not named Shakespeare. The odd punctuation, syntax, and capitalization is all hers. Snakes in a backyard!

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

Linking in the Rain

I am well aware of the fact that much of the rest of the country is laughing at Los Angeles right now. “Oh, poor babies can’t deal with a wittle wain?” Laugh all you want. We accept your derision as the price we pay for living so well 350 days a year. But seriously, this rain IS NUTS. Last night, lightning struck just down the street from my house, and downtown got more rain yesterday afternoon than it had in the previous year. LA is uniquely poorly equipped to deal with this kind thing, which (as Ryan pointed out) John McPhee, Mike Davis, and Carey McWilliams have discussed in some of the classic works of Los Angeles naturalism (and LA naturalism is always at least 50% anthropology). So you could read those this weekend as you wait out the storm, or you could read some of the following;

  • Edward Mendelson, the editor of W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems, has written a terrific essay in the New York Review of Books about Auden’s private acts of charity. The following anecdote is my favorite: “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” Auden’s personal kindnesses were just that, personal. Mendelson argues that, “[b]y refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it…On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.” This is a provocative thesis, but it makes intuitive sense. Auden was a liberal, but one with a sense of humor. And with a sense of humor comes a sense of the tragic ways every man fails to do what he should. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t judge obviously bad actors (from Stalin down to a casually racist relative), just that in holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue we fail to scrutinize not only our own actions, but even our own potential to do evil. Auden sounds like he was, in most respects, a pretty decent dude. But one could probably make a similar case for the pre-presidential George W. Bush (not Dick Cheney, never Dick Cheney). And we all know how that turned out, right?
  • I guess this is a NYRB-themed post, because we’re sticking with that publication, but getting in the Way-Back Machine and heading to 1979. Just read this opening paragraph from Joan Didion’s “Letter from Manhattan,” an essay about Woody Allen (yes, yes, I know, I am not supposed to mention his name): “Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in ‘real linen,’ cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. ‘Groucho Marx’ is one reason, and ‘Willie Mays’ is another. The second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.” I’m always trying (and probably failing) to explain to my students why introductions matter. Perhaps I should just show them this and ask if it makes them want to keep reading. Anyone who says “no” gets an F.
  • To bring things back to Los Angeles for a few minutes, please read this excellent Nicholas Miriello essay from the Los Angeles Review of Books that engages with the following topics: Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Frasier, Spike Jonze’s Her, and Netflix binge-watching. It’s as if he has some sort of NSA file on me…
  • Finally, speaking of Her and the evil we are all capable of, I will once again shamelessly plug work I have recently had published in other outlets. It’s Oscars weekend, so we’ll frame this like an acceptance speech: “First, I’d like to thank Southern Spaces for publishing an essay I wrote on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I’d also like to thank Religion Dispatches for running a piece I wrote about Her. Finally, I’d like you all to support the Hawai’i Pacific Review, without which my poem, ‘Two by Two,’ would have remained but a dream.” (Cue the strings, his head is twice its normal size!)

Stay dry, kids.