The journalist-turned-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has, either in spite or because of his standing as something of a self-important clod, made several significant contributions to the lexicon of show business. I was reminded recently of his late ‘80s citation of his former agent, the diminuitive and feisty Michael Ovitz. Ovitz, according to Eszterhas, responded to Eszterhas’ announcement that he was leaving Ovitz and his agency CAA by telling Eszterhas that he, Ovitz, had “foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day” who would “blow [Eszterhas’] brains out.” Such colorful language. Hollywood, like so many other fields of endeavor, is full of emotionally disturbed people who often fancy themselves tough guys.
What brought the denied-by-Ovitz Ovitz pronouncement to mind was a piece that appeared on New York magazine’s Vulture website nearly two weeks ago, by one Brian McGreevy, entitled “Don’t Call Lena Dunham ‘Brave.’” I need not go into the larger substance of the piece here; I’m not a television critic and I’ve already (I think) expressed my opinions on the use of the word “brave” as applied to performers, artists, what have you. What struck me was what came after McGreevy’s largely sensible exhortation that Lena Dunham’s public persona does not necessarily line up with Lena Dunham’s function as a creator or artist. “Lena Dunham is not weak,” McGreevy warns the reader. “Lena Dunham will cut your throat in your sleep.”
“She will do no such thing,” I laughed. I laughed even more because prior to his fulminations in this vein (and there are a lot of them), McGreevy included a clause reading “as a producer.” What has McGreevy produced? According to his bio below the piece, he has executive-produced a Netflix series based on a book he has written.
I know that David Foster Wallace once made mild fun of Susan Faludi for referring to a porn movie set as an “ecology,” but reading McGreevy’s piece I myself found myself contemplating a cultural ecology in which an individual with precisely one producing credit to his name feels sufficiently confident to swing an inflated rhetorical dick around like he’s Mace Neufeld or something (I’ve actually met Mace Neufeld and I doubt he’d stoop to anything so vulgar, or unnecessary). A cultural ecology in which the Internet arm of a major publication will pay probably-not-that-good money for the inflated rhetorical dick swinging. And most of all, a cultural ecology in which consumers are expected to be pleased to be told that Lena Dunham will cut their throats in their sleep.
“[A]ll art is a product of shameless opportunism that deserves to be applauded,” McGreevy continues. “[Dunham] is a woman who has risen through a masculine power hierarchy to become one of the most important culture-makers of the 21st century without compromising her artistic identity, and is fucking a rock star, this is more or less as baller as it gets.”
The unfortunate adolescent quality of McGreevy’s language aside, we are, once again, quite a long way from the ethos of our old friend Andrei Tarkovsky, who once wrote: “Ultimately artists work at their profession not for the sake of telling someone about something but as an assertion of their will to serve people. I am staggered by artists who assume that they freely create themselves, that it is actually possible to do so; for it is the lot of the artist to accept that he is created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives. As Pasternak put it:
“Keep awake, keep awake, artist,
Do not give in to sleep…
You are eternity’s hostage
And prisoner of time.
“And I’m convinced that if an artist succeeds in doing something, he does so nly because that is what people need—even if they are not aware of it at the time. And so it’s always the audience who win, who gain something, while the artist loses, and has to pay out.”
Call me crazy, but I see a pretty straight line connecting a skepticism toward the “difficult” in art and “We Saw Your Boobs,” a production number I’ll admit to having missed during its initial broadcast, and still haven’t caught up with. Hostile, ugly, sexist: these are the words that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson uses to describe Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s schtick as host of the ceremonies. I have to admit my reaction to some of the outrage (not Davidson's, I hasten to add), in part, is to say, in my imagination, and now here, to a certain breed of multi-disciplinary pop-culture enthusiast, well, you picked your poison, now you can choke on it. It’s all well and good to make “fun,” “irreverence,” “FUBU” or any number of related qualities the rocks upon which you build the church of your aesthetic, or your worldview. But you might want to remember the precise parameters of the choices you made on the occasion that they bite you on the ass. Not to mix metaphors or anything.
Also published on the Internet around two weeks ago, on the website Buzzfeed, was something I guess is referred to as a listicle, entitled “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” in which the author, Amy Rose Spiegel, expressed her immense disdain for the musical form in digital rebus style. She takes immaculate care to only lampoon the white, and rather hackish (per conventional wisdom), practitioners of the form, until the very end, in which she allows “But really, the worst part of despising jazz is when people say ‘No, no, you just haven’t heard the good stuff! Blah blah blah Miles Davis Charles Mingus blah blah blerg.’ Actually, I have. I have, and I hate it.”
Now all this is arguably ignorant, arguably hateful, arguably racist. It excited a fair amount of disapprobation in my circle on Twitter, where it became clear that some of the people complaining about it were friendly with the piece’s “editor,” to whom I myself expressed some displeasure, and she in turn expressed displeasure that I was making it “personal.” Call me crazy, again, but I can’t see too much of a way not to respond “personally” to such a piece. Plenty of people in the “conversation” allowed that, well, Buzzfeed DOES do great things, but that this wasn’t one of them, and that it was regrettable. I see it completely the opposite way. I see “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” as absolutely emblematic of Buzzfeed and all it stands for, just as I see the charming piece called “Django Unattained: How Al Sharpton Ruined A Cool Collector’s Item” as absolutely emblematic of the site Film School Rejects. I know I’m possibly coming off like Susan Sontag yammering about how a million Mozarts could not cancel out the fact that the white race is the cancer of civilization. I’m aware of the good that is out there. But let’s face it: Robert Fure, Amy Rose Spiegel, and tens of thousands of others are eager to bulldoze it, and the Jeff Jarvises of the world are happy to let them do it, if only because it will prove their theories about the Internet to be correct.
In 1998 a couple of writer friends, who I’ll call K and L, made me the gift of a personal introduction to a man I’ll call D, whose work as a journalist and an artist I had long admired. Our first dinner was at a steakhouse on Tenth Avenue, after which we went to see P.J. Harvey at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Great show, you shoulda been there. Anyway, during the course of the dinner conversation, K was talking about how he had recently seen the movie Belly, a kind of hip-hop gangster movie starring DMX and Nas and directed by Hype Williams. K described his discomfort with the movie and some of its depictions, but was having trouble articulating that discomfort. D, a person of exceptional perspicacity and directness, and someone who had been something of a professional mentor to K in the past, cut to the chase.
“Did you find it morally objectionable?”
K thought this over for a bit. It was clear that he did not want to seem prim. It was also clear that trying to bullshit D wouldn’t do.
“Yes,’ he said. “Yes, I found it morally objectionable.”
D smiled and cut into his steak and said, “Well then you should say: ‘I found it morally objectionable.’”