Monday, November 28, 2011

Watching music

In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Video Music Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum chart the rise and fall of a cultural movement

The following review was posted last weekend on the Books page of the History News Network.

Before there was Facebook, before there were iPhones, there was MTV. After an unprepossessing launch in 1981, the cable network became a powerful force in American popular culture, exerting a much-noted impact not only on the music and television industries, but also on film, fashion, and even politics. Some of the attention MTV got was celebratory; some of it highly critical (from a variety of directions). About the only thing more striking than the network's dramatic impact is the degree it has receded since its first decade of cultural dominance. So the time seems right for an assessment of its trajectory.

Former Billboard editor Craig Marks and music journalist Rob Tannenbaum make a shrewd choice in rending the MTV story as an oral history, taking a page from Live from New York, the 2003 Tom Shales/James Andrew Miller history of Saturday Night Live (and before that, George Plimpton's ground-breaking 1982 biography of Edie Sedgewick, Edie). Tannenbaum and Craig conducted hundreds of interviews that that they arrange in a kaleidoscopic array of voices that include corporate executives, performers, video directors, and so-called "VJs" like Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman.

From its inception, MTV was a slick corporate product. Underwritten by the somewhat unlikely duo of Warner Cable and American Express -- which at the time hoped to sell financial services via interactive television -- the network's commercial premise rested on an audacious concept: to use one kind of advertising (musical acts promoting themselves) in order to sell another (ads that would be sandwiched between the videos). Even more audacious is that MTV got programming, at least initially, free, as it expected record labels to supply the material it broadcast, though the actual cost of the videos was typically charged to the artists in the form of an advance against royalties. There was widespread skepticism in just about every direction that this business model would actually work, but it proved to be spectacularly successful.

Like the advent of sound in motion pictures, the rise of music video rearranged the power structure of the music business. British musicians, who had long been using video clips for shows like the much-beloved Top of the Pops, were better prepared, both in terms of having content at hand and their willingness to produce more, in exploiting the opportunity, spawning a second British invasion in the early 1980s that included acts like Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, and the Human League. Similarly, established acts with photogenic and/or charismatic lead singers, such as the Police and U2, were also able to exploit the potential of the new genre. By contrast, those without such assets or an inability to fully understand it suffered; there's an amusing chapter in I Want My MTV that chronicles the way rock star Billy Squier's video "Rock Me Tonight" was directed in a gay-friendly manner that wrecked his credibility among his core audience.

In aesthetic terms, music video evolved with remarkable rapidity, its development greatly accelerated by Michael Jackson, who overcame early resistance to having his videos broadcast and took the form to a whole new level. Madonna was similarly successful in bending the channel to showcase her talents, not the least of which was creating a sexual brand. But MTV was finally a director's medium, and was important in launching a series of careers, among the most important of which was that of David Fincher, whose apprenticeship in music video became the springboard for a distinguished, and ongoing, Hollywood career.

But almost from the start, MTV had a remarkably decadent corporate culture that over time sapped its vitality. In part, it was corrupted -- insofar as the term makes any sense in the music biz -- by an unholy alliance between executives and artists, who collaborated in a regime of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that made the counterculture of the 1960s seem tame by comparison. But MTV's indulgences were not only sybaritic. The network cultivated incestuous commercial relationships with certain performers, as well as indulged in racist, sexist and other questionable practices. Above all, it was corroded by money, chiefly in the form of inflated video budgets that gave accounting precedence over art.

Marks and Tannenbaum chart these developments at the network with surprising detail and clarity, the panoply of voices showing both multiple perspectives on the same video as well as the way in which prevailing perceptions were widely shared. The authors also document the many memorable highlights and byways of MTV's history, like Madonna's notorious appearance in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Awards ceremony, for example, or Tipper Gore's notorious crusade against Twisted Sister and other bands with the Parents' Music Resource Coalition (PMRC) in the late eighties. They also chart the network's gradual move into hip-hop, which revived the vitality of pop music as well as video in the early 1990s, and the role of MTV in electing Bill Clinton president in 1992.

By this point, however, the vast center MTV had created -- for much of the eighties it was the de facto national radio station, creating and/or sustaining huge mass audiences for the likes of acts like Prince and Bruce Springsteen -- was beginning to crack. A rotation that included R.E.M., Debbie Gibson, and Public Enemy was intrinsically centrifugal, and as such less attractive to advertisers. The rise of grunge rock, particularly that of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, represented a bracing new chapter for MTV, but that's because such bands overtly challenged much of what the network stood for. At the same time, the channel found other sources of cheap programming, like The Real World, that squeezed time for music videos, which gradually but inexorably disappeared from sight. Finally, the advent of the Internet, which empowered viewer choice to an unprecedented degree, balkanized audiences to the point of no return. As Marks and Tannenbaum note, "Offering MTV to a kid in 1993 was like offering a board game to a kid in 1981."

Today, MTV is just another cable channel, albeit one that enjoys commercial success with Jersey Shore, a tawdry show that honors the network's brash roots in style, though not in content. Music video lingers, chiefly on Internet sites like You Tube, where it remains the marketing tool it always has been. It's much less important than it used to be, but something closer to what its more modest champions imagined three decades ago. Reliving the glory days of MTV in this book is entertaining but sobering: the things that once seemed to matter so much now seem so small. Sic transit gloria mundi, Facebook. As Elvis Costello put it so memorably way back "Girls Talk," his 1979 song from before the MTV era "You may not be an old-fashioned girl but you're gonna get dated."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jim is observing the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. His recent reading has included The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis's 2010 account of the how reckless behavior in the mortgage business wrecked the U.S. economy. The Big Short is an emperor has no clothes tale, in which a small groups of attentive people pay enough attention to opaque financial documents most people are too lazy or ignorant to understand. When they do so, they realize that the economic foundation of the nation is actually built on sand. Their challenge is to maintain their confidence in the face of apparently intelligent people who work for investment banks and pretend -- or, worse, actually seem to believe -- that the business they're in is actually sound.

Though the information Michael Lewis provides becomes increasingly more arcane, the narrative arc of the book is such that you have a growing sense of suspense as these people steel themselves to maintain their nerve as pressure on them grows on the very cusp of success. And yet there's an unreality about their story, in that the catastrophe they predict both finally arrives and yet doesn't quite prove catastrophic enough to fundamentally change the way financial speculation continues to work in this country. Though the consequences would probably be bad for everyone, you find yourself wishing that the financial titans at places like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs paid a higher price. Alas, we still seem addicted to an economy predicated on making money on nothing rather than producing real things that improve the lives of ordinary people.

For the moment, however, we can be thankful that an experiment that began 391 years ago in Plymouth, Massachusetts continues to bear fruit. A happy Turkey Day-- and Turkey Day leftovers -- to all.


Monday, November 21, 2011

'Glass' Window

In The Glass Harmonica, Dorothee Kocks depicts the pursuit of happiness as a metaphysical principle

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network

Dorothee Kocks has had an intriguing career. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she went on to pursue a doctorate in American Civilization in the decidedly different climate of Brown (where our paths crossed almost a quarter-century ago). She got a tenure-track job at the University of Utah, proceeding to publish a richly suggestive piece of scholarship, Dream a Little: Land and Social Justice in in Modern America (California, 2000). Then she ditched her teaching post, took up the accordion, and began traveling widely, supporting herself with odd jobs. Last year, she made a foray into fiction by publishing her first novel, The Glass Harmonica, as an e-book with a New Zealand-based publisher. It has just been published in a print edition.

Kocks's unusual vocational trajectory is worth tracing here, because The Glass Harmonica is an unusual book. A work of historical fiction that bridges the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it also sprawls across Europe and North America. Napoleon Bonaparte makes a cameo appearance, but its core is a love story between a commoner Corsican musician, Chjara Valle, and an entrepreneurial American purveyor of erotica, Henry Garland. The two lovers encounter any number of obstacles -- principally in the form of spiteful people on either side of the Atlantic -- but nevertheless manage to build a life together,  one animated by the mysteriously alluring (and thus to many threatening) glass harmonica, a musical instrument which enjoyed a vogue in the age of its inventor, Benjamin Franklin.

Such a summary makes the book seem simpler than it is. For one thing, The Glass Harmonica is rich with historical texture. Brimming with research, it vividly recreates any number of subcultures, ranging from continental drawing-room entertainments to the feverish intensity of revivial meetings. As one might expect of a writer who has spent much of her life, and much of her work, exploring the concept of place, Kocks also evokes varied geographies -- urban Paris and Philadelphia, rural upstate New York, coastal New England;  et. al. An afterword limns her sources and provides set of footnotes worth studying for their own sake.

Kocks also boldly trespasses over contemporary convention in realistic fiction, eschewing the spare, lean quality of modern prose in favor of lush, omniscient narration. "On the morning Chjara Valle quickened in her mother's womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea," the novel opens. The book is engorged with such biological/anthropomorphic motifs.

But at its core, The Glass Harmonica is a novel of ideas. Sometimes those ideas are suggested in deceptively simple language, as in this exchange with her mother that suggests the paradoxes built into the the very notion of an autonomous self:

"My destiny is here," Chjara said.
"Your destiny is not yours to decide."
"Who decides then?"
"Don't be impertinent."

Other times, characters engage in explicitly philosophical discourse, discussing theology, politics, and other topics.

But for all its its intellectual sophistication, the argument of the novel -- part of its hybrid quality is that one can speak of it having a thesis -- rests on a simple idea: the pleasure principle, expressed most consistently in sexual terms. (The libertarian ethos of the book extends secondarily to economics as well.) Over and over again, her characters affirm it. "She wondered at this idea -- we are God's instruments -- and she vowed to live by the principle that would make us feel more alive was good," Chjara declares at one point. Henry, for his part, "understood that his father's [Puritan] religion was not the only one in the world; Jefferson's deists gave [him] the confidence that the world had been made to work well regardless of his breakfast." The lovers will be forced to question this conclusion repeatedly over the course of the novel, most seriously in its when it appears their choices have damaged their children. Faced with trauma, they look to themselves: when, in a desperate moment, Henry feels compelled to pray, it's not to God but to Chjara. Later their son prays to himself. And yet for all their intimacy, Chjara and Henry also have the secrets, a challenge to their fidelity more vexing than any adultery.

Kocks's libertine stance is both consistent and subtle (no mean trick). As such, it's hard to contest; though her protagonists encounter resistance, some of it internal, to their way of life, she makes a convincing case that that their quest for self-actualization is a bona fide American tradition with deep roots in the Enlightenment. The problem I have with it is less one of contradiction -- or a disposition of intolerance reflected in characters who block the couple's path to bliss -- than insufficiency. The fuel of happiness ultimately depends on sources of power such as money, looks, smarts, health, or the admiration of others (reflected here in the proto-celebrity culture that springs up around Chjara, who exults in adoration), which are in short supply under the best of circumstances. Notwithstanding their obstacles, the couple is suspiciously well endowed in these categories. Lacking them, most of us try to find ways to redeem our lives beyond ourselves, which typically involves some sort of self-sacrifice, beginning with raising children, truly an electric transfer of energy at least as transformative, if not always as felicitous, as procreation (or sexual recreation). But beyond such private leveraging of personal resources, a libertarian sensibility seems like a thin reed on which to build a community life, too; it seems no accident that the Chjara and Henry are itinerant. Nor is it easy to see, beyond a sympathetic disposition, how constructive their approach might be in other life-affirming quests, like the struggle to end slavery, for example.

As someone of who pledges his loyalty to Adams more than Jefferson, as it were, I'm not sure how much better a life of duty, variously constituted, really is. To be sure, it has evident costs, often paid by others than those who make such a pledge. It is a strength of this book that it forces one to consider such questions. The Glass Harmonica is a provocative novel by an elegant writer who has blazed her own path. It's a path worth surveying, whether or not one takes it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The private sector

Feminism, Streep style, in the 1980s

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Streep continued to play strong-minded women in all of her film roles of the 1980s, but the power her characters wield is largely defined in sexual terms. She landed a high-profile double role in the 1981 film The French Lieutenant’s Woman, based on the 1969 novel of the same name by John Fowles. Fowles’s book is that rare case of a commercially successful postmodern novel—only Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Antonement, also made into a (weaker) movie, was comparably successful—in which characters defy the narrator-author’s wishes in a story with multiple endings. It would not appear to be particularly promising movie material, except that it was skillfully adapted by playwright and fellow Briton Harold Pinter, who created a parallel movie-within-a-movie plot involving actors making a romantic drama set in the Victorian era. The two pairs of characters, played by Jeremy Irons and Streep, are both in love. Their different fates at least initially appear to hinge on their different historical circumstances. In one case Streep is an abandoned woman, left desolate by the unseen French lieutenant of the title, who insists on lingering as a social outcast in a seaside town until she becomes a source of growing fascination for the affianced gentleman played by Irons. In the other, her character is a privileged professional actor in metropolitan London, empowered to conduct an extramarital affair and largely dictate its conditions to the (also married) Irons. But as with the novel, the point of the movie is very much that things are not what they seem. The French lieutenant’s woman has more resources, principal among them the power to beguile, than her pursuer realizes. And while the professional woman is, in the parlance of the time “liberated,” the problems she is seen grappling with are primarily romantic, not professional. (It might have been interesting, for example, to have a scene with her arguing with her director about the portrayal of her character.) I don’t want to go overboard in emphasizing how the bottle is half-empty here: women, and the actor who portrays them, are at the center of the story. But in retrospect their compass of action seems limited, precisely because the overt tenor of the discourse is emancipatory.
The same might be said for Still of the Night (1982), in which Streep returned to the supervision of Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton in an overt work of homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Here Streep is a blue-blooded femme fatale named Brooke Reynolds, who may or may not have anything to do with the murder of a man who was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time of his death. Roy Scheider is the therapist who finds himself drawn against his better judgment to Reynolds, who works at an East Side auction house. The film is competent but boring, in large measure because Streep and Scheider are lacking in chemistry.
Even more boring is Streep’s 1984 film Falling in Love, much-ballyhooed at the time of its release, because it marked a reunion with De Niro. This time the two play married Westchester suburbanites who fall in love courtesy of the Metro North commuter railroad, despite their better judgment. De Niro is a construction executive, and we see him at work repeatedly. Streep does a little freelance artwork on the side, but is otherwise a housewife without children. This is one of those movies that make you impatient for the lovers to hurry the hell up and overcome the tedious obstacles that stand in the way of their inevitable triumph. Were it made ten or fifteen years later, a divorced Streep would start a business involving chocolate chip cookies or some other form of home economics, which would provide the perfect way for the lovers to accidentally run into each other at a strip mall. For now, they have to settle for Rizzoli’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue (seeing that got me pining for a long lost love).
In Heartburn (1986), Streep for the first time of many subsequent times tackles playing a real person, in this case journalist, later turned writer/director, Nora Ephron. (“It’s a little depressing to know that if you go to an audition to play yourself, you would lose to Meryl,” she later joked.) The film, directed by Mike Nichols, is based on the 1983 roman a clef of the same name, which chronicles the rise and fall of Ephron’s marriage to Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein, played by Jack Nicholson. It’s refreshing to note that we do see Streep’s character in workplace settings, unlike her husband, known to the world for his role in breaking the Watergate story. Not surprisingly, that working style is more fluid—the personal and professional aspects of her life are apparent both in showing up for meetings pregnant, and in her warm relationship with her younger boss, played by Jeff Daniels. Moreover, Ephron makes the bold choice of making the resolution of the story her decision to leave Bernstein for his infidelity without another man waiting in the wings, a clear breach with the normal logic of romantic storytelling.  Such an approach makes real demands of an audience, even a predominately female audience, and the pitch for its protagonist’s sympathy is further strained by the obvious elite status of a woman who can literally afford to be divorced, even with children. No doubt about it: this is a feminist movie. But it is decisively feminism of the private sector.
What’s striking about the pattern I’m describing is the way in which even a movie that seems a world away—1985 Best Picture Out of Africa, set in colonial Kenya—turns out to be pretty much the same old story. Writer/director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) was a true Hollywood professional, and Africa is, from a visual standpoint, simply gorgeous. But its racial politics amount to little more than a postcard for imperialism, and its gender politics are also finally retrograde. Streep again plays a real person, Danish writer Karen Blixen, later known to the world by her pen name, Isak Dinesen (1885-1962). From the start, we see her as a maverick figure. During a frigid European hunting expedition, she proposes a marriage of convenience with a friend, Baron von Blixen-Finecke (an amiable Klaus Brandauer), whereby the two will start a diary farm in Kenya, which turns out to be a coffee plantation because he changes his mind without telling her. Mrs. Blixen arrives in Kenya and blithely walks into a men’s-only private club, causing a stir. (Naturally, they’ll collectively stand her a drink by the time the movie is over.)  She also takes a strong hand in running the plantation, not only because her husband would rather go hunting, but also because that’s the kind of woman she is, a woman who, when her husband sends word to send supplies to himself and British soldiers fighting the Germans in East Africa in the First World War, insists trekking across dangerous terrain and delivering them in person (with a retinue, of course).
But none of this, or even a Blixen writing career we know about chiefly through the flashback voiceover device that frames the film, can compete with the romantic charms of Robert Redford, who plays her lover Briton Denys Finch Hatton with an incongruous American accent. Redford is admittedly a powerful draw, but their relationship—she pining away while he repeatedly takes off—puts the film in very familiar grooves. Blixen does finally take a hard line with Finch Hatton, but we never really learn the outcome of such militancy, because he dies before their relationship is resolved. There are any number of possible reasons why the edgy or simply novel aspects of the story get swallowed by conventional romance; a desire to sell lots of tickets to a 1980s mainstream audience was surely prominent among them. But such big, bloated and bland moviemaking is exactly the kind of cinema that has given Hollywood films of the 1980s something of a benighted critical reputation, would later help spark the leaner, edgier independent movement of the 1990s (in which, as we’ll see, Streep would participate).

Next: Streep's (smaller) body of public sector feminism

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bending with gender

In three 1979 films, Streep made the most of limited material 

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

The Deer Hunter put Streep on the map as a new force for women in cinema. In her next two movies, Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (both 1979), Streep played professional women, a writer and a politico respectively. Significantly, however, they were women whose careers were secondary in terms of their function in these movies, which turned on their sexual relationships with men. In Manhattan is a fabled work in Woody Allen’s writing/directing career, but one whose May-December romance with the high school student played by Mariel Hemingway would never fly in terms of contemporary mores, even without the later controversy surrounding Allen’s relationship with his adoptive stepdaughter. Streep plays his ex-wife, Jill, who now has a lesbian lover and is writing a tell-all about her marriage with Allen’s character, Isaac Davis. (“Look at you, you’re so threatened,” she says amusedly to Isaac, even as we know he is right to be.) A walking stereotype of the feminist as castrating bitch, the character as written is so over-the-top as to amount to misogyny, even making allowances for comic license and the fact that Allen’s purported attempt to run over Jill’s lover in his car becomes a bit of a running joke. But Streep, who plays Jill straight, endows her with an unselfconscious confidence and intensity that makes her seem alive, and, amazingly enough, almost appealing. Yet the character, who only has two scenes in the movie, is defined in terms of being a foil for Allen’s persona, right down to her literary career, which consists of turning her personal life into commerce in the form of a book with the title Marriage, Love and Divorce.
Streep’s character is the creature of a decidedly less severe stripe in writer/actor Alan Alda’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan, in which she plays Karen Traynor, the daughter of a Southern political fixer who becomes one in her own right. Alda plays the title character, a married U.S. senator from New York drawn by the siren song of national office—and, of course, the charms of his hired female gun. In the 1970s, Alda was lionized as the quintessential modern man of the feminist era—a thinking woman’s man. The Seduction of Joe Tynan suggests that Alda’s vanity got the better of him, both in his unwillingness to play the bad guy (something Robert Redford was more willing to do in The Candidate, a similar movie released in 1972), or to make Streep’s character much more than a (professional) woman in love. The Seduction of Joe Tynan proved to be a forgettable movie, and a mere stepping-stone for Streep.
Far more important was her third film of 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer, for which she won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. (It’s a bit odd, yet a sign of the times, that Streep got a supporting Oscar for a title role.) In terms of gender politics, Streep’s role as Joanna Kramer is a tough sell, as she plays an emotionally distraught woman who leaves her husband and son to go off and find herself. The rhetorical deck was also a bit stacked against the character. In part, that’s because the source material for the movie, Avery Corman’s 1977 novel, has a distinctly male point of view. (“Feminists will applaud me,” his Joanna declares when she leaves her husband at their New York apartment, in stilted dialogue that characterizes the book.)  In part, it’s also because Streep’s co-star, Dustin Hoffman, was, to put it mildly, a strong-minded actor with figurative weight he wasn’t afraid to throw around. But Streep, who was married and had her first child by 1979, took the part as a matter of conviction, determined to make a case for Joanna as a woman who loved her child but who was in too much personal anguish to continue without respite. “I think that if there’s anything that runs through all my work, all my characters, it’s that I have a relationship with them where I feel I have to defend them,” she said of her feelings for the character.
In addition to her acting, Streep made her case for Joanna Kramer by arguing for changes in the script, successfully persuading director Robert Benton to rewrite her courtroom testimony for custody of the couple’s son toward the end of the film. In particular, she added a key line responding to assertions that Ted Kramer had been the primary parent for the couple’s child for eighteen months by noting that Joanna had been so for five and a half years. “We listened,” Benton later explained. “And she became the real Mrs. Kramer.”
But the real Mrs. Kramer remains, first and foremost, a mother. In the book, her aspirations for career, which turn out to involve working as a clerk for Hertz, becomes a source of bitter humor: “She left her family, her child, to go to California to rent cars,” Joanna’s own mother notes incredulously to Ted. In the movie, Joanna testifies that she’s a sportswear designer. But while Ted’s career in advertising is central to the course of the movie, this passing mention is all we hear about Joanna’s. Any work outside the home is incidental.

Next: Streep in the '80s.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Deer" Meryl

Streep provided crucial ballast for the male-dominated Deer Hunter

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Though, as I’ve indicated, Meryl Streep underwent a long and rigorous apprenticeship, and did some relatively high-profile television and film work in the late seventies, the movie that turned her into an “overnight sensation” in 1978 was The Deer Hunter. In part, that’s because The Deer Hunter, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, was a sensation in its own right, and became a Hollywood legend for a whole host of reasons. One was that its success led United Artists to give director Michael Cimino broad license for his next film, Heaven’s Gate (1978), whose colossal cost overruns helped plunge the studio into bankruptcy. Another was that it was the among the first major Hollywood films to deal with the Vietnam War, and included a notorious plot line involving Russian Roulette as a betting game among the Vietnamese. A third was its extraordinarily gifted cast—which included Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Streep’s fiancé John Cazale, in the final appearance of his brief but brilliant career—that defined the movie as a generational turning point for a new generation of actors.
The Deer Hunter follows the lives of a group of friends (De Niro, Walken, and John Savage) from a small Pennsylvania steel town to The Horror of the Vietnam war, from which only De Niro’s character returns home anything resembling intact. The film combines a gritty working-class feel along with action sequences that rival anything from the Francis Ford Coppola school of filmmaking (Coppola, of course, would weigh in with Apocalypse Now the following year). In their phallic bravado, both movies seem dated; the extended wedding reception sequence in The Deer Hunter was much celebrated at the time as a vivid, almost anthropological, slice of working-class life, but for my taste its sweaty Eastern-European vivacity, complete with a SERVING GOD AND COUNTRY banner looming behind the dancing partygoers, verges on condescension.
Streep’s character, a supermarket checkout girl named Linda, provides crucial ballast for this male-dominated cast. We first see her on the morning of the wedding, in a gaudy pink bridesmaid’s dress, making breakfast for her alcoholic father. When she brings it to him, he assaults her. But Linda is not a passive victim. When we next see her, it’s at the bungalow her boyfriend Nick (Walken) shares with his buddy Michael (De Niro). She asks Nick if she can stay in their place while the two are in the army, and states she wants to pay them. We don’t quite know what happens—we see the action through an interior window, and Nick seems to be remonstrating at the very idea of her paying—but we get the idea that Streep’s quiet, willowy persona notwithstanding, she’s got a spine.
Michael, we figure out quickly, has a soft spot for Linda. But he’s not going to steal his buddy’s girlfriend. Even after he returns from Vietnam—Nick, badly psychologically damaged during a stint as a prisoner of war, insists on staying behind to become a professional Russian Roulette player—he’s reluctant to take up with Linda. Linda, however, shows interest in taking up with him, which becomes an unresolved subplot in the movie.
In her scenes with De Niro (the two would team up again for Falling in Love in 1984 and Marvin’s Room in 1996), Streep deploys a become facial tactic that would become a standard part of her thespian repertoire: looking directly at her acting partner, then turning her head away, her eyes cast down, sometimes rolling her eyes as she does so in moments of levity or irony (we viewers are ever-so-briefly in on the joke). What’s really quite striking about this technique is that it manages to convey shyness and assertiveness simultaneously—feminine feminism, as it were. This delicate balance goes to the heart of her performance in The Deer Hunter, where she is largely at the mercy of events beyond her control, but still manages to quietly express herself in ways that are both moving and life-affirming in the face of death, literal or psychological. It’s not entirely clear whether Linda’s feelings for Michael are for him in their own right, or whether he’s simply a living connection to Nick and a sense of possibility the war seems to have wrecked. But she knows what she wants. “Why don’t we go bed,” she says to Michael shortly after his return. “Can’t we just comfort each other?” (Streep recites the line as a statement, not a question.) Michael demurs, but the next thing we see is Linda in his cheap motel room, undressed, climbing into bed with him (“feels kinda weird!” she says, looking into the bathroom mirror before she does so). But Linda finds the fully clothed Michael asleep on top of the sheets. She nevertheless crawls under them and lies beside him, taking uneasy comfort in his presence. That sense of uneasy comfort culminates in the final scene of the movie, where in a group middle shot, Linda leads the group in singing “God Bless America,” she and Michael looking at each other, but rarely at the same time. Love and pain, public and private, are intertwined. Feeling both is an act of will, and a prerequisite for hope.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sub "Plot"

In The Marriage Plot, Jeffery Eugenides makes the academic novel . . . academic

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Click here for an audiobook excerpt of "The Marriage Plot"from Macmillan audio

Is it possible to write a successful novel with unappealing characters? I don't mean a novel in which a protagonist is repellent in an avowedly provocative way, like the unnamed narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). I mean people who it appears an author really wants us to like, but who we find tiresome. This is the question I found myself asking while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's latest novel, The Marriage Plot. My answer, finally, was no: you can't really write a compelling novel this way. But as failures go, his is an interesting one.

One reason: Eugenides is a virtuoso writer with an extraordinary capacity to render an array of topics with great authority and clarity. In this regard, he's is sort of like Jonathan Franzen with a warmer heart. Eugenides showed such brio in his multi-generational saga Middlesex (2002), and he does it again here. Whether the subject at hand are are the mating habits of the intelligentsia, the pharmacology of mental illness, or the labor force of Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta, Eugenides renders the details of subcultures with a sense of verisimilitude that impresses and informs. He has a wonderful sense of history, and in some subjects, his talents are dazzling. I can't think of another writer who can talk about religion with the unselfconscious ease he does, for instance. And his command of literary theory, in particular the 1980s mania for poststructuralism, is so sure that he can weave it in as a subtext for a novel that's also a metacommentary on bourgeois fiction of the 19th century. The ending of the novel in particular a delightfully clever.

The problem, again, are the people we're saddled with for this ride. They're a set of Brown students, class of 1982, whom we meet at that unlovely moment in the life cycle: the months following college graduation, when cosseted young adults are suddenly expected to make something of themselves. There's Madeline Hanna of the fictive Prettybrook, New Jersey, a Holly Golightly figure with a yen for literature who finds herself in a love triangle. She's close with her buddy, Midwesterner Mitchell Grammaticus, who pines for romantically. But she's in love with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant but volatile Oregonian who wins a prestigious science fellowship but struggles with manic depression. We meet these people on graduation day, flash back to their undergraduate years, and move forward as Hanna and Leonard try to find equilibrium in their relationship while Mitchell grapples with his unrequited love by taking a long global sojourn that turns into a spiritual quest. The narration rotates between the three characters, and we hear some of the same situations described from more than one point of view.

But this device gets tedious, because these characters are tedious. Madeline is beautiful and smart and rich, and she has a passion for English authors like Jane Austen. But she seems like a highly conventional person, a product of her class in the broader sense of the term, and it's a little hard to reckon what either of the other two men see in her. Leonard's manic depression is rendered with sometimes harrowing detail, but it's hard to separate his grim persona from his illness, and while you find yourself wondering whether his unattractiveness is a function of your own hard-heartedness toward the mentally ill, that's not enough to make you like him. Mitchell, who appears most like a stand-in for the author himself, is a more broadminded figure. But his visionary potential is undercut by his callowness, most evident in his feelings for a girl that we find ourselves wondering, long before he does, whether she's worth all that.

It's a tribute to Eugenides that despite all this, you keep reading. But I doubt this will be seen as his best work. The Virgin Suicides (1993) has its partisans. But for my money, Middlesex is the place to begin. The Marriage Plot is, at best, a subplot in his ouevre.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Shades of race

In Color in the Classroom: How American Schools taught Race, 1900-1954, Zoe Burkholder traces an arc that looks more like a circle

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

In the liberal imagination -- and in more than a little Civil Rights scholarship -- the story of race relations in the first half of the twentieth century is a long arc that bends toward justice. It is a progressive tale, one in which belief in the power of ideas to shape society gets battered, but ultimately affirmed, as evidenced by the most cherished dimensions of the welfare state, among them the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many, the keystone of this arch is the Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board (1954), upon which rested hopes for future generations.

One might think, then, that a chronicle of racial education in this half-century would be one of ascent to this plateau. But for Zoe Burkholder, professor of education at Montclair State University, Brown signifies a lost opportunity, a fork in a road that led away from meaningfully grappling with the the complicated reality of structural racism. Instead, she says, we've inherited a post-multiculturalism regime which, for all its putative embrace of nuanced diversity, is little different than the the static, simplistic "cultural gifts" curricular approaches that characterized attempts to manage demographic pluralism at the turn of the last century.

Though the subtitle of this elegantly conceptualized and executed little book suggests her narrative runs from 1900 to 1954, her analysis really gets underway in earnest with the First World War, when Progressive intellectuals sought to contain the simmering hatreds unleashed by the conflict. In the prewar years, an enlightened approach to ethnographic pluralism accepted the widespread assumption that the term "race" was virtually synonymous with that of "nation," so that it was common to speak of "the Italian race," "the Scottish race," and so on. Insofar as intercultural education was pursued, it was almost entirely a white affair. Yet this was nevertheless a vanguard of sorts, given the intensity of anti-German fervor and the long history of American nativism.

The key intellectual innovation in this fight against prejudice was anthropology, particularly that of Columbia University professor Franz Boas. Armed with the certitude of scientific research, Boas promoted a vision of racial difference that was less segmented and more egalitarian, one that explained it more in cultural rather than biological terms. Boas called for spreading this message to a key constituency: the nation's schoolchildren.

If Boas was the Moses of this movement, however, it found its Joshua in Boas's student, Ruth Benedict. In pamphlets like The Races of Mankind (1943), Benedict and her collaborator Gene Weltfish promoted a dynamic analysis of race relations that focused on African, Asian and Caucasian peoples: race not as nation, but color. It was coupled with a relatively nuanced approach to culture that moved away from static celebrations of foodways and dress and situated racial difference in a dynamic context of integration and change. It's clear that this approach is the one Burkholder finds most compelling, and one that gained significant traction during the war year, when the avowedly racial hierarchies of Germany and Japan made tolerance education a high national priority.

It was a different Boas student, however -- Margaret Mead -- whose approach proved most durable. Though Mead's outlook was broadly consonant with that of her mentor as well as Benedict, she was more comfortable with a milder stance toward race education, one marked by less overt proselytizing. Such an approach was consonant with an emerging Cold War order, when any form of social engineering smacked of Communist subversion. But the cultural shifts of the late forties and early fifties were not all political. Burkholder emphasizes a larger intellectual paradigm shift away from anthropology toward psychology, where less emphasis was placed on a collective approach toward social problems than a more individualistic one. In such a climate, minimizing racial difference could seem like a form of egalitarianism, and an emphasis on social adjustment and good racial manners was the locus of any explicit initiatives that were undertaken. Burkholder emphasizes that such currents were decisive in the logic of the Brown decision, which steered away from longstanding economic and political forces, instead emphasizing the importance of access to opportunity. As she points out, this is not surprising, as Civil Rights leaders themselves pointed in this direction. But following the lead of scholars like Lani Guinier and Claiborne Carson, she believes this set the bar too low, leading to racial education curricula that substituted cultural awareness for more thoroughgoing social reform.

Burkholder's position has an undeniable clarity and logical consistency, but one wonders about its realism, given the hostility that even mild forms of racial education elicited, as she skillfully documents. (There is, indeed, a dense body of research packed into the less than 200 pages of this volume, richly illustrated with revealing illustrations.) One also wonders about her confidence that scientific affirmation about the biological inconsequence of racial difference will hold firm. True, its status as a social construct has long been scientific common sense. But scientific common sense is always provisional. By way of contrast, the notion that homosexuality isn't hard-wired is widely regarded as a source of ridicule among the enlightened middle classes. Truth can be slippery.

To read Color in the Classroom is to be reminded, even sobered, by how little has really changed in our confidence that children can be taught not to engage in invidious distinctions, in the techniques by which we've done so, and in the tensions, even contradictions, involved in embracing differences while asserting they don't matter. Makes you wonder if the scholarship of millennia has improved upon authority, insight, and value of the Golden Rule.