Walking (and Stumbling) with Martin

President Obama gave the following sermon at a D.C. Church on January 17th. His Sunday text has historical interest since it hints the President wasn’t ready to hear the hard news from Massachusetts where Scott Brown would win Teddy Kennedy’s old senate seat two days later. But Obama’s speech is worth more than a snarky look back. While it underscores his over-confidence about the prospects of passing health insurance reform, it also speaks to what keeps America’s parties of hope alive. Take it as one true story behind the key line in the closing graph of his (much duller) State of the Union speech: “I don’t quit.”

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Who’s To Blame? (II)

Right after the Massachusetts debacle, Bernard Avishai published a short post on “Who’s to Blame” at his website BERNARD AVISHAI DOT COM. Avishai spoke as someone “marinated” in Massachusetts politics who wondered at Coakely’s grudging (“forced and fake”) nods to Obamacare. He argued: “The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy’s seat has to speak so defensively about.” Talking Points Memo linked to Avishai’s post and it sparked argument. Here’s Avishai’s response to his critics.

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All and Nothing

Fr. Rick Frechette is a Passionist priest-doctor (and FIRST contributor) who has been working in Haiti for a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port-au-Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. One of the two hospitals he directs was destroyed by the earthquake. (Two medical volunteers from the U.S. died there.) The other, newer, state-of-the-art hospital, was damaged but it’s functioning. NBC reported on the work being done there last month. The reporter noted Fr. Rick had been taking care of his dying mother in Connecticut when the earthquake hit. She insisted he return to Haiti. He went back and forth, returning to U.S. in time to be with his mother as she died. He’s now in Port-au-Prince again and he’s updated friends and donors on the situation there. Please consider donating to Fr. Frechette’s hospital and orphanage.

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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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My Summer Vacation in Afghanistan

My first time in Afghanistan was late winter 1968/69, making the Overland Trail fast as possible through howling cold of Central Asian steppes. Minibus from Mashhad to Heart, arriving at the border crossing: dark, dusty, cold and bleak (Later I was to discover that somehow Afghan border-crossings were always dark dusty cold bleak, even on nice summer days.) Busload of hippies pulls up at the checkpoint. Suddenly a huge Afghan officer with bristling mustaches and fierce scowl thrusts himself into the bus: “Any you got hashish?,” he screamed.

Chorus of “No,” “No,” “Not me,” “Not me, sir”—squeaky and scared. What the hell?!

“Sssooo…” hissed the officer, reaching menacingly into his jacket…”You like to buy?” He whipped out a chunk of hash the size of a loaf of Wonder Bread. “Very good, grade-A Afghani.”

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A Piece from “The 14 Ounce Pound”

Nat Finkelstein, who died earlier this month, contributed photographs and prose to “First.” He’s best known for his 60s pictures of Warhol’s Factory (such as the one above), but his life was bigger than his images. This piece, “Kandahar, 1971”, about his time in Afghanistan is from his memoir, “The 14 Ounce Pound.” (You can read another chapter here.) Nat knew this hunk of his past was pretty far gone, but he wondered if Afghanistan has “changed much in the past 1200 years.”

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How I Became a Writer (Pt. 1)

Brandeis accepted me on a Thursday, May, 1960. Friday, it dropped football. I had two varsity letters. I should have read the sign. I was leaving a land that valued touchdowns and jump shots for a preserve where the only score that brought respect was your G.P.A. “A place,” said Don Nussbaum, a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center, “run by the first ones out in dodgeball.”

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At Ease in Azania

Charles O’Brien’s “At Ease in Azania” was originally printed 20 years ago in an obscure (and now defunct) journal. It will be reprinted this fall in the next volume of “First of the Year”. O’Brien’s piece begins with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but it rock and rolls back to the 60s before returning to the Motherland to show how pop music may “exist in its time justly.”

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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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