The Accidental Modernist

March 26, 2010

I’m only about 70 pages into The Book of Basketball, but it’s already quite clear that Bill Simmons is Sholem-Aleichem’s heir to the title of mythologist of the mundane, transforming everyday occurrences into the stuff of legend. (Feel free to substitute Proust for Sholem-Aleichem if that better fits your frame of reference). Haverstam is right: Simmons is something of an accidental modernist. His “fan’s voice” is a unique, stylized version of language on par with Hem or Stein–though completely different–and his use of footnotes is unparalleled as a means for cultivating digressions. Modernism is both William Carlos Williams and Thomas Mann. And now, at a new century’s start, Bill Simmons.

Whither the TV Critic?

March 25, 2010

As you’ve no doubt heard, At the Movies has been canceled. That means that Yesterday’s Salad favorite A. O. Scott is out of a (second) job. Good Tony Scott: there’s always room for you at the Salad!

I’m really sad to see the show go. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert and their approaches to film no doubt shaped my own. I always liked Siskel more, but the last few years of reading Roger Ebert have shown me how great a critic he really is. Amazingly, for someone whose fame derives from TV, Roger Ebert was a terrific writer, capable of writing long, penetrating essays and perfectly crafted reviews. It’s rare to find someone as adept at writing both short and long. Yet beyond style or a set approach to film, the most important lesson the show taught me was that films were something to talk about, something we could participate in long after.

But the reason I’m sad to see At the Movies go has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the present. A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips were doing great work. They were smart and funny and had a good rapport with each other. Sometimes they had to review too many movies in a week to make the show really compelling, while other times they got to focus on one or two films, taking the time to situate the movie within the context of an actor or filmmaker’s career.

It was incredibly smart–though it might not have been TV enough. I liked watching the show because I like to hear intelligent people discuss modern culture. Then again, this is also why I like the PBS Newshour. Both feature conversations between talking heads instead of conflicts between screaming interrupting heads. I hope A. O. and Michael can find a way to continue their dialogue. I hear people do great things on the internet these days and that someday someone will figure out a way to make it pay.

Price of Beatuy

I’ve now seen two episodes of the Jessica Simpson “Price of Beauty” show, and I have to say that I don’t quite know what to make of it. (Make what you will of my watching it.) It’s generally lighthearted, though every episode features a segment with a woman permanently scarred by pursuing beauty at all costs. These bits come comfortably in the middle of each episode, before and after various revelry. I also don’t know what to make of her friend “Cacee” (pronounced Casey, she seems to be testing the bounds of signifiers), while Jessica herself comes across as likable if bland. This is better than likable and stupid, although traces of idiocracy abound.

But mostly I like the show as an experiment in accidental anthropology. Jessica sets out to see how the rest of the world views beauty, documenting her experiences. She’s refreshingly unburdened by the critique of Western definitions set out in Said’s Orientalism: Jessica documents her others without worrying about her own complicity in the enterprise of representation. Nor does she worry about the Spivakian critique that her representation obscures cultural diversity. Instead, she happily recognizes that beauty is culturally constructed–and that even she isn’t beautiful in all parts of the world (She’s too short and curvy to make it as a full-time Parisian fashion model!)–and sets out to document difference. It’s not a grand statement in the cause of cultural determinism, though it is a return to an earlier type of ethnography, and a great start for Cable TV.

I can’t help but thinking, though, that the best part of the show is that success could lead to other celebrities accidentally taking on the roll of academicians. Maybe a show with David Cross as an accidental sociologist, deliberately sending out comical surveys to document responses; or Larry David as an accidental deconstructor, challenging the clear meanings of literary texts? Hey it could happen!

I had a number of thoughts watching “Breaking Away” the other day, and there doesn’t appear to be a truly logical way to concatenate them, so you’ll have to settle for something in between a notes post and an outline (and no, I don’t generally write with outlines—though I did recently start holding my pen between my index and middle finger).

1. “Breaking Away” could only have been made during Carter’s America and, as such, can be considered emblematic of Carter’s America. Consider the context: weak employment market, declining industries/natural resources; the entree of Globalization (here: Kids pretending to be Italian and later French; the beginnings of expanded presence of foreign cars); and most importantly, the energy crisis.

A used car salesman tries to tell a customer that a car gets 30mpg (in the words of Walter Sobchak: hardly, dude), while the sport the film takes as its subject matter is bicycle racing. Movies about fringe sports are great (see the great rowing epic, Oxford Blues), but they don’t come about very often, and the sport has to be chosen with great delicacy. Crew works for Oxford Blues because most Americans think rowing is elitist and old fashioned, but in that charming way that the Brits rock so well.

Bicycling works for the late 70s because no one has any money for gas.

2. What fringe sport represents today’s America? Or, what sport would a film about Obama’s America feature? The movie(s) and sports that best represented the Bush era were “The Dark Knight” (torture) and “There Will Be Blood” (pursuing Oil! at all costs). But Obama’s America?

Clearly the sport of choice would have to be curling. Cricket is too Netherlandy while trivial pursuit is too erudite. No, the answer is curling. Perhaps fat schlubs team up with Wall Street bankers to defeat Communist North Korea in the final? CNBC will broadcast.

3. Pretending to be Italian only works in the mid-West. Especially if you have a bad fake accent.

We’re really still waiting for someone to propose a unified field theory of the internet. I remember the New York Observer had an article saying that Virginia Heffernan, a Times reporter, was shopping a book proposal promising just that. Haverstam tells us that Yesterday’s Salad is really a miscellany, to which he turns to discover what’s going on in the world of intellectual discourse.

Without setting out to do it, I think we’ve become an accidental aggregator. We don’t just post links, but all of our discourse relies on them. We hope someone will find us by linking to other pages, or share our tangents via link. Our original pieces become aggregations of our intellectual process.

Of course, the same could be said of footnotes, but links are rather different. 1) Footnotes require effort to follow; with links, you just click. 2) Links are the metric for determining page rank across the internet. Only with links do you exist in this global economic space.

This is overly reductivist, but it’s still something to consider and keep in mind when next I post about the year in film that was 1979.

Jonesin’ For Reality

March 16, 2010

I’m very excited for David Shield’s new Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a quest to define our obsession with the appearance of the real, truth, and authority. You know, truthiness. Half of the book is made up of unsourced-until-the-end quotes. You’ll never know what belongs to Shields, and what he lifted from other authors unless you constantly flip through the index. Some might find this fun, and others might just enjoy the ride. The mash-up culture orwhathaveyou.

Everyone invokes Walter Benjamin’s desire to write a whole piece consisting of nothing but quotes, so I won’t do that here. Nor will I address the scandal over James Frey and the general proliferation of memoirs in recent years. I will mention Andrew Sullivan’s running list of “The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin,” (because it’s great) many of which stem from her own memoir, since it led Stanley Fish to revisit his argument in the Times that a memoirist is incapable of lying since the lie serves their project of constructing the narrative of their life. This is interesting. Perhaps the conflict here owes to the fact that we (at least some of us) expect our politicians to be honest. How else could we know if they’re representing us? Either way, Fish is far from the (more accepted) idea of the “autobiographical pact,” the compact said to exist btw readers and autobiographer that everything about to be described is the truth.

My own thought on the matter is that all autobiography is like Roth’s The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, in that all autobiography is a draft waiting for someone to smack it down, but one impression of a life. Truth and reality is only ever provisional.