I might as well just come right out with it, people: I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Dunno if it's the heat, or the fact that I'm getting behind in my work because my plasma display's still broken, or because I cannot count among my readership any authorized Hitachi parts and services providers who are fans to the extent that they would offer to repair my plasma display for free, or some combination of all of the above. (And by the way, many thanks to the readers who have taken such sympathy to my plight that they've hit the tip jar—it definitely helps.)
Who am I kidding? It's all of that, but it's not only all of that.
The other day, some online exploration—which I'm beginning to think is just never, ever a good idea—directed me to something that I would have otherwise avoided, that is, Armond White's review, in the every-issue-thinner-than-the-last New York Press, of Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, a film I admire substantially. Now I understand that, around the time of Transformers 2 if not well before, Armond traded a more-or-less conventionally "contrarian" stance for an extremely aggressive Bizarro World ("Us do opposite of all earthly things!") approach to film criticism; it was no longer enough to condemn that which was largely embraced by the critical community, such as it was; White now took up as his duty the slathering of thoroughly irrational praise on certifiable dogshit. None of this would matter if people just stopped paying attention to White entirely, but one peculiar bit of blowback from the situation is that White's praise for a particular film can now be used as a cudgel against that picture by those who aren't as enthused about it. Hence, someone such as myself can be put into a position of defending Solondz's film not only from attacks against it, but from White's praise of it. An odd, interesting situation, to be sure.
White's review, of course, is worthless from word one, with which he begins to evoke a film he didn't like, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. Solondz decorates the dorm room of one of Wartime's characters with a poster for that film; White reads this as Solondz forgiving "the thief who purloined then degraded his [Solondz's] highly original concept." Welcome to Armond's world, where if he likes what you do, it means you must think exactly like him. Christ, what a dingus. And on it goes, with one of the most thoroughly simplistic readings of the film's explorations of the themes of forgiving and forgetting, and a lot of meaningless sentences along the lines of "The gravity of Solondz's satirical bent—a modern version of what Bellows' generation joked about as Jewish guilt—adds universality to his observation of the contemporary condition." That phrase "Bellow's generation"—it still makes my head spin. White means Saul Bellow, although he might as well be talking about Dr. Alfred Bellows, the I Dream Of Jeanie character, for all the fucking sense he's making. He wraps up the review by saying of the film "as an expression of modern compassion, it's genius." And then Mr. Modern Compassion begins his Salt notice by sneering at Angelina Jolie's "Benetton brood" of adopted children. (He must be a trifle worried about the fate of his current, diminishing semi-legit berth, because the rest of the review reads for an audition for Big Hollywood, with its excoriation of "Hollywood liberals" who "exploit their privilege, defaming America, undermining national confidence and carelessly trifling in politics," blah, blah, fucking blah. Again: what a dingus. Also, I can't wait until he finds out what Big Hollywood pays its contributors.)
So there was that, and I thought that maybe I could cobble a relatively amusing post out of it. Or not. And shortly thereafter, as I began to, with some slight but distinct rue, mull over the general futility of the reviewing-the-review idea, I began to come across various bits of online reaction to a negative New York Times review of the film Audrey the Trainwreck, which had its New York premiere on Friday at Brooklyn's ReRun Gastropub Cinema. "NYT review of Audrey The Trainwreck gives voice to acid reflux in written form," sniffed Ray "Charley" Pride on his Twitter feed. (For the record, my general feeling about Mr. Pride finds its precise articulation in Miles Davis' description of Symphony Sid.) The more intellectually congenial and estimable Richard Brody, after a description of the film that is typically deft but skates pretty close to the special pleading area while trying to build a straw man out of what most people would call craft or professionalism, also notes the Times review, and calls it "shameful;" noting that its reviewer, Mike Hale, describes the film's perspective as "condescension masquerading as observation," Brody counters "an apt description of his review." Aha, the old "I know you are, but what am I?" trick! And finally, there was the inevitable, and inevitably re-tweeted,"Can I have Mike Hale's job? Because he sucks." Ha ha ha ha ha, wishing for somebody's unemployment is fun! (And one once again contemplates money. And wonders whether these not-at-all self-satisfied snark maestros know what the New York Times pays its lower-level staffers and freelancers. I recall, twenty or so years ago, doing the requisite number of mother-impressing Arts & Leisure pieces for the Old Gray Lady and then defecting with nary a second thought to the New York Daily News, not just because Elizabeth Pochoda was a difficult person to say no to, but because the pay was substantively better.)
Understand, incidentally, that this isn't about Audrey the Trainwreck, which I haven't seen, and which, if I do see it, I will likely be happy to form and perhaps even articulate an opinion on. It's about my being put off by the insular and cliqueish wagon-circling in response to a negative review of the thing, and to the adolescent mix of resentment and triumphalism in that response: "Aww, the big bad New York Times didn't like our raw, honest, no-budget, maybe-mumblecore movie. Well it figures, because they SUCK anyway." Whereas had Mike Hale loved Audrey, it'd be all "Yay! We got a rave review in the Times!" and no mention, of course, of the inescapable fact that Hale is to Times movie reviewers as, by the lights of Guy Woodhouse, Dr. C.C. Hill is to OB/GYNs. It's just as intellectually deformed as any Roger L. Simon rant about the "lame stream media," when you come right down to it. I stopped reading Simon, Ann Althouse, and Glenn Reynolds, some time back, and it did wonders for my sanity. To stop reading this sort of thing is a bit more of a challenge, as I am, so to speak, in the same room with these people.
And so, yesterday afternoon, I despaired somewhat, taking off from "What's the fucking point?" and spiralling down from there; and my thoughts turned, as they frequently do, to David Foster Wallace, and to this passage from his essay "Big Red Son," describing the first pieces of "random spatter" he experiences on entering the "Adult CES expo" in January of 1998:
A second-tier Arrow Video starlet in a G-string poses for a photo, forked dorsally over the knee of a morbidly obese cellphone retailer from suburban Philadelphia. The guy taking the picture, whose CES nametag says Hi and that his name is Sherm, addresses the starlet as "babe" and asks her to readjust so as to 'give us a little more bush down there.' An Elegant Angel starlet with polyresin wings attached to her back is eating a Milky Way bar while she signs video boxes. Actor Steven St. Croix is standing near the Caballero Home Video booth, saying to no one in particular "Let me out of here, I can't wait to get out of here."
The real person who appears in Wallace's essay under the pseudonym "Harold Hecuba" was/is my friend Evan Wright, who gives a brief account of how he came to meet Wallace in the introduction to his latest collection of journalism, Hella Nation. (Also for the record, I, who appear in Wright's account as well, have an entirely different recollection of certain events described therein, which is something I have to take up with Evan some time, and is of no import here.) Wright, who at the time of this meeting was on the staff of Hustler magazine, and trying rather desperately to get leave the staff of Hustler magazine, also discusses his initial befuddlement at some of Wallace's references (the two in fact became pretty fast friends not too long after first meeting, though), as here:
I spent several days trying unsuccessfully to decipher the meaning of his reference to Hecuba, torturing myself over my inability to decode the meaning of the great author's reference. Finally I called Wallace. He was stunned that I didn't get who Harold Hecuba was. "He's, you know, the Phil Silvers character who guest stars on Gilligan's Island," Wallace explained. "I thought you would get it. You don't feel bad about it?"
"Why should I?"
"You shouldn't," Wallace said. "Hecuba's on stuck on the island like everybody else. He gets off of it. Makes it back to the mainland, I think, that is, if I have my Gilligan's Island references right."
And you see where this is going. I thought of a friend of mine, who's written quite a bit of terrifically acute criticism, who's soon leaving the country for pretty much good, and of a conversation he recounted to me, one that he had with an ostensible Bright Young Critical thing who's a big booster for "youth" and also something of a presumptuous highbrow wannabe, at least by my friend's lights (the fellow has some champions; I'm not one). And when the question came up as to why my friend was moving from New York, he said to the Bright Young Thing, "You." And he wasn't entirely kidding. Sounds a little extreme, I know. But I got where my friend was coming from.
And so it was in this particular state of mind late yesterday afternoon that I got myself ready to attend a party...hosted by a couple of film writers. And to be populated by dozens more. Some of whom have Twitter accounts. What incredible irony, right? And both My Lovely Wife and I had a lovely time. The people were great, the food terrific, the cinematic ambient video amusing (The Big Cube and Mahogany both got play). Yes, my ego was fed—I heard "I'm a big fan!" and "You look great!" more than once. But even without that, I would have concluded that for at least a few hours, the island, at least this particular corner of it, wasn't really at all a bad place to be. And that the no-doubt ultimately Sisyphean efforts engaging against its more questionable traditions was worth waging for such moments of illumination, respite, and pleasure.
So what can a poor individual do? Lighten up, probably. Fight fire with fire, maybe. Try to have some fun with the whole thing, why not? Get his ass in gear to make the two p.m. press screening of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, absolutely.
There's no guarantee I'll be basking in any such an afterglow at this time next week, though...