The Woman in the Sunlight

Pride will vanish and glory will rot
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot

Peter Wood’s amazingly graceful little book, Near Andersonville, tells how a Winslow Homer painting of an African American slave woman was lost to history and then found. In an act of imagination that’s worthy of the painter’s, Wood gently brings home the undiminished power — and deep relevance to our own time — of Homer’s way of seeing his black subject from within.

Near Andersonville by Winslow Homer Newark Museum

Near Andersonville, Newark Museum of Art

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On Present-Mindedness in the Writing of History

In The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008), the distinguished American historian Gordon Wood warns against the distortions of reading the present into the past or seeing the present as an inevitable outcome of events in the past. At the same time, he knows that present-mindedness is not entirely avoidable. Its complete absence from a historical perspective turns into antiquarianism.

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Hustle and Blows

Two weeks ago, the author sent First this commentary on the state of boxing.

Last night, HBO aired the best thing it has shown all year: a live broadcast of a middleweight championship boxing match between champion Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez and Paul “The Punisher” Williams. Both are widely regarded as two of the top five fighters active in the sport, and the drama and ferocity of their first match earned it widespread acknowledgement as the Fight Of The Year 2009.

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Hipsters ‘R Us

Where were you on April 11, 2009? On that day, writers for and readers of the lit-journal n+1 participated in a symposium at NYC’s New School on “the contemporary hipster.” Papers were read, then a panel discussion was held to which audience members—there were 175 attendees—were invited to contribute. I missed it.

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Left Behind: The Rapture

Michael Berube, The Left at War, New York University Press
The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotexte
Tom McDonough, ed., The Situationists and the City, Verso

The three works under consideration here – the first, a survey of assorted leftist interventions from the past couple of decades, the second, a political sensation from a couple of years ago, the third, an assemblage of texts from the 50s and 60s – have nothing to do with anything in the news now. But, taken together, they tell us enough about where we are. It isn’t good.

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Fish and Chips: The Crisis of the Humanities in the U.K. and U.S.A

Politics in the United States and Great Britain are again marked by intense hostility toward the expanded role of modern liberal states. Since most opponents of public investment are simultaneously enthusiastic consumers of many of its results—for example, public education—the feebleness of most defenses of public investment is usually hard to understand. But not always, because it is notoriously difficult to persuade people one cannot be bothered to understand, or toward whom one is visibly contemptuous.

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

ELGIN REDUX?

When Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng missed his second of two free throws with two seconds remaining and his team leading 108-106 in the third game of the Chicago-Cleveland first round NBA playoff series, it was clear LeBron James would not have an overtime period of five minutes in which to add to his total of 39 points.

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Battles of Ajami

Fifty years ago, the Israeli film industry was largely churning out pro-Zionist propaganda films (Ephraim Kishon being the rare exception). To represent its face to the world in 2010, Israel brought to the Academy Awards an Arab-language flick co-directed by a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, focusing largely on inter-Arab issues; Ajami was one of the five nominees in the Best Foreign Film category.

The Palestinian co-director has been called a collaborator. Israel’s nominating committee has been demonized as a pack of lefties. But something is changing on the streets of Jaffa, whose citizens have been given, in Ajami, both a mirror in which to behold their own community and an international voice.

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Nailing Avatar

The fallacy that great events have great causes tempts both film critics and civilian interpreters to explain mass ticket sales in pretty grandiose terms. Avatar, touted to displace Titanic as the movie with the biggest box office gross in history, has provoked this impulse with a vengeance.

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Two Nations

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

Disraeli published Sybil, or The Two Nations in 1845, when his two nations were very famously the rich and the poor. The thought the phrase encapsulates is in part obsolete, for modern societies combine increasing economic inequality with a striking amount of cultural egalitarianism via a pervasive mass culture. In another respect, the phrase is very far from obsolete. A little over a year ago Elizabeth Samet published a fascinating book about a meeting of two nations between whom there is nowadays disturbingly little intercourse and sympathy: American military officers, and academics who have very confident opinions about what military officers are like.

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Things Done Changed

Ten years ago Armond White surveyed the state of “the movies” and film criticism in his “First of the Month” piece, “Things Done Changed: The McDonald’s Theory of Moviegoing.” White began with a quote from Pauline Kael’s classic 1968 essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies” – “Can one demonstrate that trash desensitizes us, that it prevents people from enjoying something better, that it limits our range of aesthetic response?” – and he came back to Kael’s essay in the body of his article, explaining how her premises had been “undermined.”

 

Kael memorably ended her piece with the line. “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” She stood on a solid foundation of traditional Liberal Arts education while rebelling against stodginess. But in the 30 years since – in the wake of “Star Wars,” “Flashdance,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Titanic” – it’s apparent that trash increasingly gives movie audiences a taste for more trash. And film producers as well as film critics and their editors have responded accordingly – praising top grossers, steadily tallying weekend box office results, championing hits, not artists; gimmicks not vision. “Is it a blockbuster or a dog?” asked a late-night NBC movie maven.

“Arts and Letters Daily,” the popular internet cache of contemporary cultural criticism, recently linked to a piece that re-upped on White’s line on Kael’s legacy [http://www.nationalpost.com/story-printer.html?id=5f09359a-f961-4c63-86aa-da0d2741a100]. A decade after “Things Done Changed” it was striking to read Robert Fulford’s “sad and rueful” (and otherwise unremarkable) attempt to connect Kael to “the spirit of the Age” – “the dynamic that turned most of the slick magazines into abject publicity sheets…the same mysterious impulse that drove university professors to write books about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“Arts and Letters Daily’s” link to Fulford’s take on the Zietgeist serves as a reminder that Armond White is often years ahead of his peers. The following excerpt from “Things Done Changed” remains right on time.

Cinephilia has been replaced by hysteria: the quiet hysteria of those who defend personal passions against the loud, inexorable drive of the marketplace. Hysteria that is the result of the triumph of capitalism and the changes it has wrought in the ways people use film to ease their anxieties. The dialectic between the idea of cinema and commercial convention (what Pauline Kael prefers to call “the movies”) is inoperative. That’s the reason, in the 80’s, Jean-Luc Godard resorted to making video auto-critiques to explain his own features Sauve Qui Peut/La Vie and Passion. Since there was no longer a community he could address by making new films, he wound up talking to himself, as serious critics must.

But most criticism these days simply does the bidding of the film industry. It’s advertisement. Not the work of the thinker, the scholar or even the discriminating fan. “Liking” movies (a diminishing of cinephilia) is now the approved pop impulse and the adolescent McDonald’s response – unconnected to adult intelligence – rules. Contemporary audiences don’t have a vision of art or a high ideal to which they can aspire. The “entertainment” rubric has superseded the expression of concepts and feelings that past generations of filmgoers – weaned on Griffith as well as Renoir and Welles and Godard and Truffaut – once appreciated. Critics have forsaken films’ humanist tradition in the service of a new sensation-hungry audience – generations who only know thrill rides and big grosses at the object of film-making.

The old idea of film as a great democratizing art is a bludgeoned faith. La Scala once honored Visconti for “the cultural maturity he encouraged in audiences.” But after years of seeing “popular” decline into “gross” – years when pop art devolved into inept formula – we can only despair for the movies (and for the prospect of Jim Carrey’s audience) rising above the mythicizing lies of The Truman Show to commune at the best as at a fountain of paradise. Now the best is no longer popular but seems beyond people’s reach, beyond their ken. We who see disjuncture between movies and audiences long for the connection between art and people, the bond of understanding that once transformed kitsch into art. It made Boyz N the Hood credible but not Menace II Society, Bulworth pertinent but not Rosewood. Audiences that only want their own reflections – or Hollywood’s funhouse distortions – have lost the link to others taught by the Humanities. We once learned that Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury matter because of the richness and guidance to be found there. And it was the blessings of cinema to bring such richness and guidance out of the Academy and into the air. Movies used to be American Studies 101. THINGS DONE CHANGED.

It all comes down to the prevailing aesthetic of triviality. The rejection of Amistad and Bulworth may indeed demonstrate that trash desensitizes us to something better, limiting our range of moral and aesthetic response. So how does a critic address that popular audience that matters most initially – the youthful one that must fuse tradition and taste with currency? I think the first priority is for critics to stand up for the idea that movies are not simply entertainment – better yet, that entertainment need not be simplistic. The 60’s pop notion that trivial/disposable culture ought to be celebrated is indefensible now. Critics should train their readers to expect complexity and daring in art; to disengage from Hollywood and tv equations of film-watching with escapism. Right now, intellectuals seem committed to diversion – especially those disingenuous film critics who celebrated last year’s film release of Star Wars but not The Godfather, who recently cheered the trailer for the next Star Wars installment rather than confound the market by explicating the subtleties of Saving Private Ryan and Beloved.

Above all, practicing film critics, as well as scholars, should recall the movies’ cultural heritage, underlining film’s relation to other arts. In doing so, though, it will be necessary to insist on – and celebrate – the transformations in cultural tone reflected in Amistad, Bulworth, and [Ira] Sach’s The Delta. These culturally radical movies make conventional films like L.A. Confidential or The Truman Show unacceptable. Truffaut famously lamented: “Once you are able to make movies, you can no longer make the movies that made you want to make them.” Something similar has occurred along the way as film culture has sped up from buffdom to cinephilia to our current hip-savvy. It’s tragic that all our sophistication about movies and genre and popular culture has alienated filmgoers from the values of humanist cinema and the importance of human continuity. It could be related to the growth of home viewing via video cassettes and dvds – which encourages isolation while reducing the medium’s visual and spatial dimension. As movies shrink, so does their popular effect.

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Unwritten Rules

Excerpted from First of the Year: 2008 Copyright Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

It’s been an elegiac time for our crew lately. In the past year, we lost (among others) Hans Koning, Ellen Willis, George Trow, Kurt Vonnegut and, a year before that, Benjamin DeMott. They were First readers as well as writers for our tab. You could count on them to give it to you straight and there were occasions when one of their opinions could outweigh all others due to its cogency. There are no substitutes for irreplaceable elders but we’ll try to sustain what they valued in First by finding new originals to help carry us into the future. Which, sorry to repeat myself, remains unwritten (despite the chorus of that slack Natasha Bedingfield song).

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Boom

George Trow sent us the following squib lampooning Tina Brown and her circle as he was composing “Is Dan Mad?” for First back in 1999. It shouldn’t be confused with his more serious “media studies,” but it’s not quite a throwaway either. Trow’s New York Times obituary gave Tina Brown the last word when it invoked his feud with her over the celeb-mongering turn at The New Yorker during her editorial tenure. This gives Trow a chance to talk back…

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