Monthly Archives: June 2010

June 24, 2010

12. This is Spinal Tap (1985)

directed by Rob Reiner
written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner

[though, as Rob Reiner himself says at the beginning of his commentary track: “Really in all fairness it should be ‘directed by’ the four of us. … It says ‘written by’ the four of us, but the writing credit should read ‘everybody who’s in the film,’ because they all made up their parts.” Later someone says that they wanted to run that credit, but the Writer’s Guild nixed it.]


Criterion Collection #12. Yeah, that’s right — remember when I was watching these in order, like, 18 months ago? You don’t? Well, the important thing is that I remember.

This is Spinal Tap is clearly better and more satisfying than any of Christopher Guest’s later directorial efforts in the same vein. While watching this time — I have seen it many times — I figured I’d try to identify why that is. What has it got that they ain’t got?

The answer I came up with: this movie is better — both funnier and a more admirable piece of filmmaking — because it takes seriously the premise that it is a documentary, and those later movies don’t. The existence of the film is itself legitimately part of the comic conceit here. The presence of Marty DiBergi may not seem all that significant, but it’s actually crucial, because even when he is not onscreen, we can still attribute the film’s perspective to him, to a character. When you watch a real documentary you can always sense the agenda, or at least the personality and philosophy, of the filmmaker. In Christopher Guest’s later movies, he tries as much as possible to eliminate this element, I imagine because he’s much more interested in actors than in films. But when an ostensible documentary has no authorial point of view, it becomes much harder to be invested in the nuanced specificity of the moments, which is where so much of the humor is meant to lie, because we can’t really believe in the space behind the camera. In Spinal Tap the comedy feels genuinely three-dimensional, extending behind us, around us, and into every aspect of what’s going on.

In fact, DiBergi and his camera might constitute the best straight man ever, because unlike most straight men he has a clear and pathetic motivation to take all the nonsense dead seriously – namely, his desperate, film-school-schlubby need to scrounge together a movie he can sell. We know that he is sweating about this project and thus is willing to work with absolutely any material he can get. He can’t afford to find any of it absurd.

That the title is the super-lame, old-fashioned, self-serious “This Is Spinal Tap” is itself comic, because we know it’s the title chosen by the kind of guy who wears a “USS Coral Sea” cap everywhere. The title card, see above, continues the joke. I don’t think there’s every been any other “mockumentary” that’s half so thoroughly realized as an artifact in itself.

Closely related is the vital contribution of cameraman Peter Smokler (seen here with the concert lighting designer, whose snapshot this is), who gives a pitch-perfect offscreen “performance” as DiBergi’s cameraman. He manages to make us believe that the guy holding the camera is really thinking on the fly and that what we are seeing is simply the result of someone scrappily trying to make the most of every situation as it unfolds. In great part he is, in fact, doing exactly that, but he never tips his hand enough to reveal that he’s really going for comic beats. He seems always only to be going for the moment, whatever it happens to be. It’s real documentary camerawork, as opposed to the tepid caricature of documentary camerawork used by later imitators. In the commentaries, everyone eventually notes in passing that Smokler had good instincts. Which is true but it seems to me like insufficient acknowledgement of the subtle trick he’s constantly pulling off. The camera is what really makes this movie feel like something special, like a place worth visiting.

I originally tried to bring up specific counterexamples from Waiting for Guffman while making the above points, but it turned out to be hard to write it that way, because what at first seems to be a matter of degree is actually a difference in kind. In the wake of This is Spinal Tap, a whole new genre has come into existence that actually doesn’t make any sense on its own terms, and Christopher Guest’s later movies are of this new type. To enumerate the thousands of ways that, say, The Office isn’t at all convincing as a documentary is to miss the boat utterly, as any fan of The Office would exasperatedly tell you. And yet at the same time, the premise that it “is” a “documentary” is absolutely essential to its functioning. It’s sort of a mimetic split-level. Having your cake and eating it too has become its own set of conventions. When the desired pitch of comedy requires that the audience be brought in close and raw enough to feel the grit of discomfort, the superficial trappings of “documentary” are now institutionalized as a viable shortcut for getting us there. (The very convenient device of solo interviews comes as a bonus.) But that’s the full extent of it; none of those movies (or TV shows) are actually the least bit interested in thinking about documentaries per se, and so they bring nothing else about documentaries with them. In a present-day “mockumentary,” there is, generally, no filmmaker and no film.

Interestingly, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a close stylistic relative yet manages to do away with the baggage of the “documentary” device. It’s improv shot handheld without pretense, and that’s that. In Waiting for Guffman, by contrast, the camera is constantly bobbling around absurdly to telegraph handheldness because, since there’s no real “movie” in the movie, in they feel obligated to remind us superficially of the “movie” conceit. Spinal Tap has no such layers of conventionalized affectation. It is a fiction, but a single cohesive fiction. Style and content are unified.

This whole issue reminds me a bit of the fact that when sound film was introduced, filmmakers were slow to feel comfortable playing incidental music without identifying a source. We seem to be similarly slow now in getting acclimated to the idea of a non-diegetic handheld camera in improv comedy. John Cassavetes and others were doing that sort of thing in an artsy way decades earlier, so I’m not sure what the problem is. In any case, even the interviews and glances at the camera on The Office are ultimately processed as existential rather than filmic, right? People are always psychically aware of both a sympathetic audience and a humiliating judgmental audience loitering somewhere nearby in social hyperspace; letting the characters glance at each of these occasionally really has nothing to do with camera crews or documentaries. Likewise the solo interview segments tend to read as exactly what they are — strange interludes.

Okay okay, back to Spinal Tap.

Much credit must be given to the editors, Kent Beyda and Kim Secrist, for their excellent balance of the various layers of comedy, and sensitivity to all sorts of nuances. They show up on the commentary and are justly proud of their work. The funniest single beat in the movie, to me, is when Nigel is in the middle of complaining about the size discrepancy between the salami and the bread, and briefly falls silent as he tries to fold the salami around the edges of the bread, as though for just a moment he has become un-self-consciously wrapped up in the problem he is attempting to solve. Watch it closely and you’ll see that the moment has been entirely created in editing.

June Chadwick is perfect as the wrong-energy girlfriend and gives a really fine performance, improvising just as fluently as the rest of them in a non-“joking” role, arguably a harder trick to pull off. Ditto Fran Drescher, but that’s less noteworthy since we all know she’s The Nanny. And ditto Tony Hendra but yick. Why didn’t Christopher Guest ever hire June Chadwick again? Why is she teaching Alexander technique instead of acting? Maybe she didn’t have range. Or maybe it’s because she’s married to a top facelift surgeon (seems like she’s gotten a couple of freebies, too) and doesn’t need that acting career anymore.

It goes without saying, I think, that: Michael McKean seems like the most versatile wit and the most astute about managing the fiction; Christopher Guest gets all the funniest and most memorable moments because he’s willing to descend into such depths of self-involvement, but he also seems genuinely, possibly unpleasantly self-involved; and Harry Shearer seems to be working in a nerdier, less subtle tradition than the others — his contributions all strike me as a little too obviously “the line he just came up with” — but that kind of mild clunkiness suits the Ringo vibe.

This Criterion edition is notoriously rare and very out of print for many years. It is much coveted for the material exclusive to it: actual behind-the-scenes commentaries by cast and crew (where the currently available version only has an in-character joke commentary track), the 20-minute demo short made to pitch the film, and a generous selection of high-quality cut material, a good chunk of which does not appear in the similarly generous selection on the current DVD. This movie is an unusual case in that several of the “deleted scenes” seem to be considered, by those that have seen them, to be a very real part of the movie. The sequence where Bruno Kirby gets stoned and sings “All The Way,” and the scene where Artie Fufkin smashes an egg on his head feel like truly essential pendants. I think what I’m responding to here is again related to the uniquely inclusive quality of this movie’s make-believe. In most movies, deleted scenes are often things that, as it turns out, didn’t actually happen in the movie’s world. Not so here! Whether or not they were in the final cut of film, those are things that actually occurred on Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove tour! They are historically every bit as real as the rest of the movie.

But hey, enough of my yakkin’!

Here’s the track for your Criterion soundtrack compilation: Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight, as heard at the start of the movie when the band is introduced, which is as close as this movie gets to a Main Title cue. Soundtrack is of course available.

Pointlessly full disclosure: my home-burned copy of the otherwise-totally-unobtainable Criterion edition is corrupted at exactly and only the spot corresponding to this snippet of music, so the above track was, by necessity, ripped from the MGM DVD instead, which I own legitimately – thus breaking my made-up rules for this cumulative soundtrack thing I’m doing. It unfortunately can be distinguished from the Criterion edition that it purports to be, in that it has crisper sound. Ah well!

June 21, 2010

Disney Canon #29: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)


[Due to miscommunication, BETH was not present at the appointed hour for the screening; she watched the movie on her own a few days later and was coaxed into recording a few thoughts independently, without having heard ADAM and BROOM’s conversation. Her comments appear at the end.]

ADAM That was a lot more visually sophisticated than I was anticipating.

BROOM I remembered that about it, so I can’t say it was more than I anticipated. But yes, visual polish is definitely its greatest distinction.

ADAM And yet as a whole it’s distinctly inferior to both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Why? I don’t think it has respect for kids’ intelligence. To me, the dominant mode of this movie is a sort of wiseacre jokiness that really would have appealed to me as an eleven-year-old, but which is not wholesome.

BROOM How much jokiness was there, really?

ADAM All of the Wilbur stuff. A lot of the slapstick comedy. A lot of the Jake stuff.

BROOM Who’s Jake? Oh, the Australian mouse.

ADAM “Who’s Jake?” Exactly. When I was a kid I loved Tiny Toons, and Tiny Toons did that same kind of “wokka wokka! talking fast and using incongruous adult concepts!” — in a way that made me feel knowing, as a child, but was not wholesome or good.

BROOM I hear what you’re saying. But I also think that if I were reading this and hadn’t just seen the movie, I would be getting the wrong impression from you about how witty it was. It wasn’t witty at all. This movie wasn’t like Tiny Toons; it wasn’t full of wisecracks. It was full of things that are just as lazy, though.

ADAM When Wilbur crashes on the roof and he says, “passengers should remain seated until the flight has come to a complete stop!”… I would have cracked up at that, as a kid. Because it’s like a snippet of grown-up life inserted into this ridiculous context. That would have tickled me. But as an adult looking at it, I’m ashamed.

BROOM That’s a problem with a lot of humor, including a lot of stand-up comedy — that they just go for the laugh of recognition of what they’ve co-opted, what they’re sampling. That’s a cheap kind of humor. But I feel like there was a different cheapness at work here.

ADAM Well, there were many kinds of cheapness.


ADAM When Bernard says, “Maybe next time we can take the train,” that’s the most inoffensive and lazy way to signal his timidity.

BROOM I didn’t even understand that line. Is the joke that you can’t take a train to Australia?

ADAM I think that’s the joke, yeah.

BROOM I think you were on the money with your first comment, that the movie doesn’t respect kids’ intelligence. Everything is just trope upon arbitrary trope. So much of childhood is the process of learning these things, and then when you return to them in adulthood you realize, “Oh, it never made sense. No wonder it was hard for me to assimilate as a child!” All these cartoon tropes, these things that always happened, I eventually picked up how they worked, what the standard playbook was. But now it’s no shock to me that so many of those things seemed so quizzical and took so long to become normalized — because they weren’t genuinely meaningful even to the adults making the cartoons.

ADAM The moment when Wilbur says “I’m never doing that!” and then, squawk!, now he’s doing it! — That’s a bit. It’s pleasing to a child not because it’s intrinsically funny but because it’s a bit that you recognize. It’s like seeing a hamburger on the menu at a strange hotel.

BROOM An example that was more central to this movie is this issue of “When is Bernard ever going to find a chance to propose to Bianca?” What is that? Why is that happening? What kind of a problem is that? The only justification for it is that it has happened in other movies. You can trace it back to basic dramatic principles — you know, tension and conflict; challenges creating empathy for characters — but that’s not actually the function that it serves in this movie. Toward the end they sort of retroactively suggest that Bernard needed to prove his bravery or else this more attractive, stronger guy really did deserve to end up with Bianca instead of him. And then of course he proves his bravery and so is now “allowed” to marry her. But the fact that he’d been comically interrupted several times before while trying to propose is really neither here nor there. As a kid watching that, you just pick up on the lazy rhythms that govern such things and you get that it’s all one big meaningless formula.

ADAM There’s also the Three’s Company routine when they’re at dinner — he says “But this is so sudden, don’t you need a gown?” and she says “No, I just need khaki shorts and hiking boots!” and he’s like “What??” I loved Three’s Company, as a kid… but that’s just not a sophisticated or, ultimately, a good-for-you kind of humor.

BROOM Isn’t that in Shakespeare too? Isn’t that just the crossed signals joke? I’m sure that goes back way before Three’s Company.

ADAM But that’s where I knew it from. Chrissie overhears Jack and Janet talking about going to dinner, but she thinks they’re talking about having sex!

BROOM “Hiking boots??” It’s actually surprisingly risque for this movie, if you take it as that. Details like that can end up a little bit out of bounds because they only crop up out of laziness in the first place. Like that second-rate Chaplin routine where the eggs get stolen out from under McLeach’s nose, which felt like it was from another movie. They put it in that one long continuous shot. That was one scene where I felt like the boldness of the visuals crossed over into the actual staging.

ADAM I liked that scene.

BROOM The movie wasn’t generally that interesting about staging, but it did have a lot of visual choices that were obviously considered. It looked cared-for.

ADAM It had a glossiness to it that looked expensive.

BROOM Yes, there was a sheen over the whole thing.

ADAM There was a pastel ugliness to a lot of it. Everything was reflective in a way that was unappealing.

BROOM It had more shadows indicating three-dimensional rounding than any movie we’ve seen yet. And possibly than any to come. But they’re definitely going to keep cranking that stuff — Pocahontas is going to look very bulbous. To me, it gives things a slightly unsavory quality. Everything is supposed to have a tactile appeal, and I feel like, “why? Why should I want to touch that kid’s boots?” or whatever we happen to be looking at that’s so lovingly rounded.

ADAM That’s what what people say it’s like to take Ecstasy. Everything has a roundness to it that’s really…

BROOM A little horny?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM In that Huxley essay where he was on acid, he said that the legs of the table had a transcendent tubularity.

ADAM I think the lowest point in the whole movie for me was when they’re trying to take off in the snowstorm and Wilbur says “Cowabunga!” while drums are going.

BROOM That music cue was really bad.

ADAM I think that even as a kid I could see through moments like that to grown-ups trying to be kidlike for the sake of pulling one over on you. It felt like a Doritos commercial.

BROOM I know you’re particularly sensitive to that. You got pissed off at the vultures in Jungle Book for the same reason. But I feel like if you’re going to go looking for that, you can find it in every inch of this thing. Isn’t it all sort of pandering?

ADAM Yes! That’s why I’m recoiling.

BROOM Okay, but that’s not what bothers me. I would say the part of this movie that was my least favorite was when they fired a syringe into someone’s butt with a rifle. That’s a very unpleasant thing to think about, and I still don’t know why it was in this movie.

ADAM Yeah, but at least the sadistic nurse-mice had a certain novelty. Say what you will about them, but the idea of tittering mice in wimples engaging in medical torture is more genuinely funny than most of the humor here.

BROOM But why was that in this movie at all? Three scenes later, you said, “Oh look, it’s The Rescuers!” because we hadn’t seen the heroes or the main quest in such a long time. We’d been watching a seagull get tortured.

ADAM The “main quest” didn’t consist of anything but modes of transportation.

BROOM The sadism is a thing that’s been running through the 80s, but that will get turned around, right? In The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast and the rest of them, the violence isn’t as offhand as this. That stops here.

ADAM I think so. But that’s because it gets replaced with a kind of faux-nobility. It will be interesting to see if there’s any of it in Aladdin.

BROOM Aladdin is slapstick, but I don’t think its moral compass is so out to lunch.

ADAM John Candy seemed to be directly reprising his role from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

BROOM I couldn’t identify him as John Candy! I’m pretty sure it was Dom DeLuise in the first one [ed. wrong, you’re thinking of this] and it really sounded to me like someone else was doing Dom DeLuise. I guess they’re similar voice types to begin with.

ADAM Introducing him with “Orville’s not here, now it’s Wilbur!” was like Dennis the Menace.

BROOM Like kids in 1990 are really going to remember the exact voice of Orville from 1977. Actually, I guess by then it was the age of video, so consistency mattered more. But still, the idea that kids would remember The Rescuers at all…? Why did this movie happen at all? If they wanted to make a sequel why didn’t they make a sequel to, say, Dumbo? Why on earth would they make The Rescuers Part Deux? And then “down under” of all things? It’s like the special episode of a sitcom where they spin the globe and go to some arbitrary place, just to mix things up.

ADAM It was like the Simpsons episode where they go to Australia.

BROOM Yes. The movie’s very existence is a symptom of the same kind of laziness that was in each scene. And “laziness” isn’t a good enough word for the problem. There’s no there there. It’s like to create the substance of the movie they just used some machine that churns things out. Whereas to create the individual shots, they actually used something much more interesting than what they had used for Little Mermaid.

ADAM But again: although it was superficially attractive, it all looked sort of tinselly, in a way that I found distinctly unappealing. Everything seemed like it was coated in cellophane.

BROOM I’m not endorsing the look, but it did create a point of interest in the movie. “Look at this zooooomy shot we put in here, and now look at this extreme focus-pull effect we put in here…” If you think about Little Mermaid, it doesn’t have very much of that sort of thing; it’s mostly simple, old-fashioned camerawork, which works just fine. I didn’t like it this way. This was your classic polished turd. It was highly buffed nothingness.

ADAM They discarded characters freely and randomly. What happened to the kangaroo friend from the beginning?

BROOM What happened to Frank?

ADAM We never see the international Rescuer assembly again; we never see the mother again…

BROOM Not seeing his mother at the end is a real offense, and I called in advance that they were going to commit it. It’s an offense that we should have to see the “Ma’am, your son is dead” scene and then never get to see any kind of reunion. And when the kid is released from captivity, he doesn’t go home to his mother first before he goes to save the eagle eggs? The movie didn’t take place in a world of people with emotions. Yes, I know: “duh.” But why shouldn’t it? Why should any kid have to watch a movie without a soul? I hated the way Cody looked, by the way. I hated his face.

ADAM He looked like a Toy Story object.

BROOM He looked a little like Lilo will look, but not as clean.

ADAM He looked intentionally de-eroticized.

BROOM I also thought McLeach had been clearly “de-eroticized.” What does you mean by that — you mean if they had just made him a “good looking boy” it would have been creepy to you? Has that been a problem with kid characters in the past?

ADAM No, I don’t know — maybe it wasn’t on purpose. It was just striking to me that he looked like Piglet.

BROOM He didn’t look quite human. He looked like a stuffed boy doll. And McLeach was so awkwardly ugly. His face was okay but his body looked like a milk carton. He was up there with Fagin in ugliness.

ADAM And why did he have a Texas accent?

BROOM For all that it was the point of the movie, the Australianness of it was actually pretty thin. Though they do happen to live right at the base of Ayers Rock.

ADAM It was convenient that their flight arrived right at the Sydney Opera House.

BROOM Those were the two things about Australia that they managed to get in there. And I guess they included Australian animals.

ADAM The non-speaking animals had beady black eyes whereas talking animals had whites to their eyes. It was a weird sort of racial hierarchy.

BROOM Did the mice talk openly to the girl in The Rescuers? When this kid runs into the woods and then a kangaroo says “get on my back!” to him, it was weird.

ADAM It was. No-one was talking, and then the kangaroo spoke, and it was the only voice with an Australian accent, and then none of the other animals spoke after that for like twenty-five minutes.

BROOM All this said: watching it was not as chorelike as a watching movie this worthless ought to have been, because it kept having things to look at.

ADAM That’s true. Every five minutes it paused for some swooping.

BROOM I’m not sure “give it its due” is the right phrase, because I don’t think it’s “due” anything, but… if this had been DuckTales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, for example. we would be much angrier now because it would have given us nothing. I think this regularly gave us something. The backgrounds were pretty bad. The framing I think was pretty good!

ADAM But the visual interest was very nerdlike. I know if I had made an animated movie as a kid, I would have been extremely proud to have made an accurate representation of the New York City skyline, or of the map from Hawaii to New York. And indeed there’s a credit here: “New York City skyline data provided by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.”

BROOM That was in Oliver & Company, too.

ADAM It’s clear they took a lot of pleasure in an accurate, toylike approach. I’m sure all the animals were anatomically accurate. It all had a “collector’s” quality to it, which is not wholesome.

BROOM You’re making a good observation here, and I think it reflects an overarching issue: I think what you’re seeing is a generational turnover in what it means to be animator. The “nine old men,” the guys we saw make Dumbo and Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and all those movies — I think Fox and the Hound was the last one where any of those guys were leads, and they felt old, by that point — those were guys who had come out of a time where there was no “world” of animation. They were guys who knew drawing, and animation was this fresh opportunity to make drawing into acting, and they got to figure out how. That’s the task that got them going. Whereas now, these are second or third generation people who explicitly want to be making cartoons that remind them of cartoons. They’re there because of the older Disney movies. These people probably didn’t have aspirations to be painters — they’ve always wanted to be animators. It happens in any kind of art: the second generation feeds off what the first generation did, not necessarily the spirit in which they did it. And I think that inevitable process of misunderstanding is going to continue — by the time we get to The Princess and the Frog, that’s going to be yet another generation. Those people grew up on this movie!

ADAM That’s going to be weird when we get to those people, who want to restore the lost art of The Little Mermaid.

BROOM I think the wholesomeness of intention of the first generation will never be gotten back, because you have this huge powerful studio investing huge amounts of money, so of course the people who rise to the lead positions are going to be the ones who are most specifically driven to be at the top of the animation game. You’re not going to get generalists, non-nerds. They’re never going to be, like, smart fashion illustrators that Walt spotted somewhere. I don’t know what those guys’ stories were, but none of them were cartoon nuts.

ADAM Yeah. Maybe I’m imagining it, but this movie felt like it had a whiff of like, the Mary Worth phone.

BROOM Yes! I think one of the most rewarding things about older movies is that they don’t feel incestuous. Whereas almost everything these days has the thumbprints of obsessives on it. In 1994 it was still a novelty that Quentin Tarantino, a film-nerd video store guy, who totally is the Comic Book Store Guy from the Simpsons — for those of you who didn’t know what Adam was referring to — had made a movie. That he was a geek connoisseur and an actual creator. Now it seems like nobody just sort of stumbles into the business anymore. I in my real life in the theater know that there’s just oodles of theater written by those connoisseur people who love theater, and it’s terrible. The things that are the most interesting are by the people who have the fewest aspirations toward that. If you feed yourself only Disney movies, you’ll make a fetishized Disney movie.

ADAM A weird albino Disney movie.

BROOM Which is what you’ve been saying — this movie felt fetish-y.

ADAM The surfaces did.

BROOM The degree that the animators want to lick their own work has increased.

ADAM I was going to say it had sort of a RealDoll feel.

BROOM And I don’t know how that can possibly be turned back. What can a studio do to keep out the people who want to be there a little too much? If they’ve got talent, those people are going to rise.

ADAM You can go down the road to Shrek or The Emperor’s New Groove — those sorts of things seem like they’re inspired by commercials.

BROOM The diameter of the circle that must be traversed before one’s tail can be eaten gets shorter and shorter. I’m led to understand that a big part of the reason Little Mermaid felt fresh is because Ashman and Menken showed up, and guess what? They were not cartoon nerds! They were theater nerds, and theater nerdism was relatively fresh blood for this world. Whereas this movie felt like it was made by people who not only had worked on He-Man but also watched He-Man. I’m not sure what other kinds of blood can be poured into the mix to turn it back.

ADAM It would be interesting to see a Disney movie made by, like, Chris Ware; comic book people. What if a Disney cartoon was made by Marvel comics type people? Or what if you had a legitimate director, like… Alfonso Cuaron?

BROOM I’ll bet that’s been considered and I’ll bet it’s been dismissed because the task of an animation director is so completely distinct from the task of a live action director. Though there was The Nightmare Before Christmas, where Tim Burton didn’t technically direct it because they needed a real animation director, but Tim Burton sort of told them what movie to make. And people love that movie! It’s a weird movie and it has some problems, but it definitely felt fresh.

ADAM There’s also, like, Spirited Away.

BROOM That’s right. I think Miyazaki is as much of a second-generation geek as these people, but it’s filtered through a different cultural sensibility. I think it his work comes out of growing up watching Peter Pan too, but since he’s Japanese it’s all different to him. I guess the real issue is whether you have the craft so under your belt that you can waste it, or whether you have to earn what you’re doing and keep thinking about the underpinnings. I think the people who are a little fresher to the problems involved are forced to think more clearly.

ADAM Well, the upshot is that this felt like a room that had been sat in for a little too long. For whatever reason. I would have liked to say something about gender, but there was no gender of any kind in this movie.

[We read the New York Times review]

ADAM That was not very thought out.

BROOM That wasn’t on the money. And I think the fact that she “remembered” the maitre d’s name from the beginning must mean that she got most of this from looking at the press packet afterward. It didn’t feel like a very engaged review. Vincent Canby puts more on the line. And god bless Bosley Crowther; he wasn’t always right, but he was always for real.

ADAM That review was just a list of things. And what is this about the movie being too dark? I don’t agree with that.

BROOM We said it had a sadistic strain to it.

ADAM But she said the hospital scene was a more lighthearted moment.

BROOM The sadism ran throughout. For the comedy scene to be “we’re gonna get you with a chainsaw!” and for the serious scene to be “I’m gonna lower you into a crocodile’s jaws!” comes from the same careless impulse.

ADAM Itchy and Scratchy’s revenge.

BROOM It’s only appropriate if you have no investment in the characters and it’s just a series of images. Which is what it was, and which is exactly what was wrong with it.

BETH The Australian mouse was more appealing than the Bob Newhart mouse. The Bob Newhart mouse is a pathetic mumblebum. There’s nothing appealing about that mouse! And then this dashing safari mouse appears — kids would want that mouse to be her husband. Even at the end, he’s nice about the marriage proposal and gives a thumbs-up.

The hospital scene was my least favorite part of the movie. The scenes with Wilbur felt unnecessary and extraneous, like a distraction, even though at the end he does play a role. It’s like they needed to develop his character earlier on so that we cared later when he was helping them. But that scene made everyone look bad. It made the hot mouse look bad for saying that he needed to go to this hospital, which was like a crackpot hospital.

I did like the opening when they were at that restaurant hidden at the top of another restaurant. It was cool that it was in the chandelier and they had this beautiful view of the city, and it was snowing. That was a nice scene, to me. I didn’t like everything that happened there. I liked where I thought it could have gone, but then it got silly.

The whole bird adventure at the beginning was dumb. It really was ridiculous. We were working with nothing, and that’s what was given to us. You have absolutely no sense of where things are going to go from there. Then they go in a pretty pedestrian direction.

I liked the CGI at the beginning with the 3D scenery and the big zoom. It reminded me of 3-D WorldRunner. But I had questions right away about why it was in Australia. The kid in the movie didn’t have an Australian accent. His mom kinda did. Did they really use Australia very well as a setting? No! They didn’t do anything with it.

The sidekick, the minion, the lizard thing, was, you know… standard.

The breaking out of jail scene was really long. It bothered me that the little creature could easily have just gotten out, and that no one suggested that to him.

I thought it was funny that there was a “wanted” posted nailed to a tree. In the middle of the forest? This took place in modern times!

[Bonus link: Siskel & Ebert review]


June 6, 2010

What Is to Be Done? (1863)

Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889)
Что делать (1863)
translated into English as What Is to Be Done? by Michael R. Katz (1989)

Roll 22 was 165, which is a blank divider row. Roll again.

Roll 23 was 995, which is What Is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. There’s only one modern English translation, and there’s only one edition of it. My local libraries and bookstores couldn’t come through for me on this one so I had to purchase it online, used. The copy I got was completely pristine, except for a stamp across the closed page edges: “NON-RETURNABLE.” This tells me that in a former life, it had been a course-required purchase that the university bookshop knew was too hot a potato to allow back through its doors. Not promising!

And maybe you can’t tell from the image, but the layout and presentation of this edition breathe academia, too. I’m sure Cornell University Press can muster more appealing design when they think they have something with a wider audience. This book, to my eye, has “for only one lecture? there’s no way I’m reading that” written all over it. The interior body font is the dated and size-inappropriate Zapf Book, which made me feel like I was sitting in an itchy chair in an ugly 70s office. Waiting for professor Katz’s office hours, I guess.

I just spent like an hour working out what font it was. Thanks for nothing,

What Is to Be Done? was truly fascinating to read: idiosyncratic and intriguing in style, form, and content, of unique and undeniable historical interest and significance, and not without charm. Whenever I was reading it, I was full of thoughts. I would have had plenty to say in section for this class had I done the reading.

That all said and meant, I unequivocally discourage any of you from ever touching this awful book. It was a total drag. A highly rewarding total drag. Is it possible for a book to be terrible and also really interesting? The six months I spent lugging this thing around say: “Sure.” What the work was, why it was, what it was saying and how it went about saying it — essentially, everything that falls comfortably within the purview of academia — all these questions were worthwhile and the answers were interesting. And remained interesting page for page; the book was continuously revealing new facets of itself in those regards. But at a more fundamental level, as an immediate artistic experience, it was NON-RETURNABLE.

Or… well, I think that’s how it breaks down. But I must admit to being a bit stumped by this one, aesthetically. It was a puzzler.

Let me quote from early in the book itself, from one of its many passages of noodgy second-person address:

I possess not one bit of artistic talent. I even lack full command of the language. But that doesn’t mean a thing; read on, dearest public, it will be well worth your while. Truth is a good thing; it compensates for the inadequacies of any writer who serves its cause. … But then again, dear readers… When I say that I have not one bit of artistic talent and that my tale is a very weak piece of work, you should by no means conclude that I’m any worse than those authors whom you consider to be great, or that my novel is any poorer than theirs. …

You may thank me. You so love to cringe before those who abuse you; so now you can cringe before me, too.

So yes, that’s the author assuring us that his ideas are more important than his admittedly graceless writing. But that passage itself should give a nutshell impression of the reading experience: it’s interesting — to the point of being amusing — that such an absurd and obnoxious passage exists at all, right? And that sort of interest can count for a lot. I grinned when I first came to a page of the author hectoring me outright — I was having genuine fun, encountering this, contemplating it. And yet there’s no getting around the fact that you would never want to read a book by this guy. That’s how the entire book was: generous of interest, and peculiar, and unappealing.

And here’s why: The book is actually an elaborate piece of agitprop. Yes, it bears some resemblance to a novel, but it’s not a real novel — it’s a phony one, a hollowed-out book with a pistol in it. It’s a big honking “truth pill” meant to wake people from the Matrix, hidden under the dust jacket of a soapy women’s romance. Basically, it’s a call to revolution dressed up to play as a formulaic love triangle story. Chernyshevsky seems to have done this for three reasons: firstly so that it would appeal to the masses who didn’t know they needed it, secondly so that it would go down easier, and thirdly to sneak it past the censors… who nonetheless must have been complete idiots not to have sussed out that something was fishy in this flagrantly ill-formed romance novel full of radical chit-chat.

Maybe there was a fourth reason too: I think Chernyshevsky may have felt that to couch his ideas in the interpersonal affairs of a few individuals — that is, within the world of “the novel” — was intellectually and aesthetically necessary. Ideas about social justice and social reform are, at heart, ideas about the souls of people, their inner lives, their needs and struggles. That is, the same stuff art is about. From a certain perspective, casting an ideology into novelistic form is not only more marketable and more vivid than passing out dogmatic pamphlets, but also more human and well-rounded, more true.

This attitude seems to me to have been fairly widespread in the era of the great novel, especially in Russia, and I basically agree with it. Art can embody ideas in ways that transcend the limitations of “mere language,” and that includes ideas of great practical consequence. Perhaps this is the biological function of art, in fact. Yes, mere language obviously has many clear advantages over art in its capacity to convey information. Language is like Legos: complex structures of meaning can be broken down, carried anywhere, and re-built more or less exactly. But the resolution is unfortunately a little blocky; subtleties can get lost. Art, on the other hand, can embody meaning with a resolution so fine and complexity so great that “resolution” and “complexity” seem like insufficient words… but that meaning is much harder to transport, especially as it gets more elaborate, and near-impossible to reconstruct exactly after being broken down. It’s an infinitely flexible but not particularly reliable way of conveying information. My dad the communications professional would probably have some technically appropriate words for these parameters. Art has unlimited bandwidth but a very high error rate (and, sadly, rapidly decreasing standardization of codes); language has very narrow bandwidth but a low error rate and very well-documented codes. Maybe?

So, what was I…? oh right right right. I was saying the book is just propaganda, ideology disguised as “a novel,” but then I said that I think he might have written it that way in good faith, for more or less the same reason that real writers write real novels. And, hm, real novels certainly embody ideologies, too. The Grapes of Wrath has just as clear a social message as What Is to Be Done?, but I wouldn’t call it “propaganda.” So what’s the difference?

I’m not sure I know the answer. This is part of what stumped me, and likewise a big part of why this was an interesting read. I was constantly asking myself “What is this? Is it a ‘work of literature,’ or something else? Might it not be that every work of literature is really just a Trojan horse bearing an ideological payload, and the only difference is that this book is more obvious about it?” I know that “all art is politics” is a notion that appeals to a lot of critics, but I’ve always instinctively rejected it as foolish; it’s like saying saying that every animal is essentially a walking skeleton, dressed up. The problem being that first of all, that’s an idiotic observation, and second of all it’s completely untrue. I’m at least as interested in invertebrate art as I am in mammalia, if not moreso. Certainly far more than I am in a book like What Is to Be Done?.

An easy answer to why it seemed like mere propaganda rather than art would be “because it was badly written,” but that feels like a cop-out. A more interesting answer is that it didn’t feel like art because it wasn’t actually right about the world. I think that this is probably why The Grapes of Wrath and the like get a pass — because we read such things and think, “hm, yeah.” I think Chernyshevsky might actually have been on to something when he said that Truth could redeem his stylistic failings — his real problem was that he also missed the boat on Truth.

This might also be a good answer to the question “why is it sometimes pleasurable for a movie to be ‘manipulative’ and sometimes completely infuriating?”, which has been rattling in my brain since seeing Amistad (as I mentioned back here). Namely: because we really do care about Truth. Amistad and Everything Is Illuminated were opportunistically disingenuous about the nature of the human soul, which is a far more odious sin than anything committed by, say, Avatar.

I don’t have a clear enough sense of Chernyshevsky’s milieu to accuse him of being disingenuous — but I do know that he was wrong. A critic’s quote on the back cover calls the book “psychologically sharp,” but it’s actually just that it’s intricate in its wrongness. The book is all about psychology, to be sure, and the author is obviously convinced that his understanding goes very deep indeed, but it’s all distorted and willful. He saw what he wanted to see and no more. His depths are all impossible halls of mirrors, soap opera as game theory: A knows that B knows that A knows that B intends to make a noble sacrifice for A, and so A must pre-empt B from pre-empting A from making a noble sacrifice by preventing B from doing so. Etcetera! They’re all chess geniuses of being considerate of one another. All of which, he assures us, is in fact quite self-serving and in keeping with the overall theory that people pursue only that which benefits themselves — because being noble gratifies the ego. That’s all well and good, but really? Really?? This is what you see when you look at people?

Chernyshevsky seems to have been a reasonably smart guy, and there is something sort of acute in the way he tries to write about psychological nuance; the problem is just that the subjects of his investigation are ridiculous paper doll contrivances in his own didactic scheme. The behavior he is supposedly teasing apart and exploring is all poppycock to begin with, so the layers he’s uncovering just feel like a journey down some crackpot rabbit hole. It’s like being told what really motivates The Man in the Yellow Hat to keep bringing that damn monkey to inappropriate places, at great length. Twenty pages about his basic human need to become a fully-realized individual, and how bringing the monkey everywhere somehow serves that need. Would that deepen Curious George, or would it in fact make it shallower, by giving it more chances to be wrong? I think the latter.

Now, a parallel universe of elaborate bogus psychology would be perfectly excusable if it were in the service of an interesting plot, but it’s not: here, in fact, it’s in the service of half-baked proposals for total social reorganization, which makes it dangerous — or, since from my historical vantage point the danger has already come and gone, pitiful. A theory of society is only as good as its theory of the individual. And so it turns out that the very thing that makes the work artistically legitimate is also what makes it bad: yes, casting it in human terms is a good way to show the world whether your utopia makes any sense, and no, it clearly doesn’t, because you’re so utterly blinkered. Toward the end I would find myself involuntarily shaking my head “no” as I read.

I can now see Notes from the Underground as a very important rebuttal to Chernyshevsky’s cockeyed premises. No, people aren’t always rational! No, people don’t even always have their own best interests in mind! The world is full of muck, and so are human beings. You could say that Dostoevsky’s writing was about why communism would never ever be able to work the way it was supposed to. He was so right.

Toward the end of the book we get a long and detailed description/advertisement for a wonderful, wonderful seamstresses’ cooperative, from which the reader is free to extrapolate a fantastic new world built on the same principles. Here is just one of many reasons he gives why it makes fabulously good sense for co-workers to all live together and all work in the same place where they live:

… Many other expenses are either drastically reduced or completely unnecessary. Consider this, for example. To walk two or three versts a day to the store puts extra wear and tear on shoes and clothes. The following example is trivial, but it can be applied to other things of the same sort. If you don’t own an umbrella, your dress can suffer major damage as a result of rain. … Let’s say a simple cotton umbrella costs two rubles. There are twenty-five seamstresses in the workshop. Umbrellas for all would cost fifty rubles. Anyone who didn’t have one would face a loss much greater than two rubles. But since they live together and each one goes out only when it’s convenient, in bad weather it rarely happens that many of them have to leave the house at the same time. They found that five umbrellas would be quite enough. These five umbrellas are of fine silk and cost five rubles apiece. The total expenditure on umbrellas was twenty-five rubles, or one ruble per seamstress. You see, each one gets to use a fine umbrella instead of a worthless one for only half the price. So it is with a large number of things, which together result in major savings.

Hard to read that without shaking your head “no,” isn’t it? It was for me. Not for Lenin! Seriously: it was part of the communist utopia — way back before anyone had to make real plans! This was part of the utopian vision! —  that there would only be one umbrella for every five people. It boggles the mind.

The workings of the new society are a just mess of snake oil doodles like this, which clearly don’t actually interest our author, except for insofar as he is utterly convinced that they are oh so brilliant and oh so simple! The thing that really interests him is that once all this new stuff — whatever it is — gets put in place and gets working, everything will be much, much, better. Toward the end of the book I found myself strangely moved by our heroine’s dream where she has a vision of a futuristic post-revolutionary society, in which people are living communally in huge crystalline palaces built of aluminum in the middle of lush, spreading fields. The people sing and smile as they work the crop; a huge flowing canopy is moved over them so that they are always in the shade; the palaces have showerheads on the roofs so that they can create rain whenever they like, and the interiors are provided with electric light so that people may party late into the night — which they do every night after eating luxurious feasts. These fairy-tale wonders are presented with a quiet, loving simplicity, and in reading that passage I finally felt some (pitying) sympathy for our author’s cause. A revolution would be solely to bring this about — and of course no sacrifice is too great if heaven on earth is the reward. I think that was the first time that I was able to understand the emotional appeal of revolution. Only if we undo everything and start again might we ever be allowed finally to embrace our hopes; not just our tight, calculated hopes, but our expansive, unbounded hopes, the hope for magic and wonder and joy to be present in all things. When the ways of the world seem clearly to preclude our hearts’ fantasies, the only way to stay true to those fantasies is to tear down the world. To make room for aluminum palaces!

Chernyshevsky gets one thing very right and must be given his due: that the inner lives of women are exactly as real as the inner lives of men, despite the fact that almost nobody in 1863 believed it. He is very clear on this point, and, I think, very insightful as to just how deep the problem goes. I.e. he understands that worshiping women as sublime and ethereal goddesses is still a kind of oppression. One section in particular, a historical pageant of women’s long, long march toward personhood, is sympathetic and nicely done. It was painful to me that at the heart of this dreadful muddle was such a fundamentally admirable observation. If this had been a pure feminist novel — if someone had cut out all the cooperatives and “materialism” and revolutionary insinuations, I would have had a very different response to it. Well, okay, they would have had to do a lot more editing than that.

Chernyshevsky walks his heroine progressively from philosophical darkness to light, presumably at the same pace as an imaginary reader would need to become slowly acclimated to the truth. This progression governs the underlying structure and timeline of the book; the ostensible love triangle plot is actually subsidiary, which results in bizarre pacing for anyone trying to read the pedestrian story advertised in the prologue. The author’s attention swerves unpredictably around this “plot” like the screwy orbit of a planet in some pre-Galilean model of the universe with the wrong body at the center. And after Vera Pavlovna has finally reached her enlightened state, he has to make some more structurally wacky choices — he suddenly lurches into the story of a brand new female character so that he can resolve the triangle happily into two couples, and then drifts into a really peculiar epilogue that introduces yet another new female character known only as “the woman in mourning,” who is apparently meant to be his (Chernyshevsky’s) wife, grieving while he languishes in prison writing this very book. We get to see these lively young people having a grand, grand old time of things, partying and whatnot, and singing songs, and wink wink, talking about certain things, wink wink. I think he honestly thought that he and his friends were absolutely the bee’s knees, but it’s actually all rather ominous. He calls the book a “tale about New People,” and by “New People” he means him and his friends, the clique of awesomeness who were finally going to set the world right.

The last pages tell us that by 1865 (2 years after publication) the revolution will have already come and all will be well on its way to wonderful. In fact what happened is that the book created a tremendous scandal but no social change, and Chernyshevsky was eventually sent to Siberia and had the spirit crushed out of him.

Harold Bloom says of his list that of non-fiction it includes only that which is “of great aesthetic interest.” On those grounds I agree with this work’s inclusion: it’s a work of great aesthetic interest. (He didn’t say “great aesthetic beauty,” after all.) This is writing that very intentionally seizes on fiction itself as a tool, but only as a tool, and wields it self-consciously — sometimes sincerely, sometimes tongue-in-cheek — to aesthetic ends. There’s a modernistic attitude in that, a bit ahead of its time; Chernyshevsky apparently came to it through his own pure inventiveness and radical heart, and it is raw indeed. When he would smirk and snark directly at me, the reader, about this strange book that he was writing and I was reading — which happened often — I couldn’t help but feel that I had really been drawn into an actual philosophical-aesthetic engagement with this strange man from 150 years ago. And yes, I enjoyed that.

The title, by the way, is a leading question to which the unspeakable answer is obviously “a revolution.” That’s one for the FAQ.

If you google about this book, you will find quite a few people writing about how the most important character is named Rakhmetov. This provides an easy way of distinguishing the people who actually read the book from those who read it in college, wink wink. Rakhmetov is in fact a walk-on; the main characters are Vera Pavlovna, Lopukhov, and Kirsanov. Rakhmetov is described, in his brief appearance, as an astounding, near-superhuman figure, a hero of idealized revolutionary strength, intelligence, and zeal… and then the author says outright that this Rakhmetov has been placed in the work solely so that a bewildered (and lowly) reader who thinks the protagonists seem extraordinary in their oh-so-forward-thinking ways will have a truly extraordinary figure to place beside them, better to see that this is in fact a story about quite ordinary people doing achievable things. As it turns out, the passage about the “extraordinary man” ended up making a strong impact on Lenin and other revolutionaries, so naturally any course that covers the book is going to talk about Rakhmetov. But make no mistake! He only appears for a few pages in the middle of a long book about other people, and anyone who implies otherwise is probably faking it.

Okay, I finally reached my 4000 word quota! No, just kidding. Really sorry about the length.

For those of you who, having read this, are now considering an intervention to stop me from reading another randomly chosen book, rest assured that the next random number has directed me to be a short and well-liked book that people actually read and that I would have wanted to read anyway. A book that some of you have already read and enjoyed. So don’t worry!

Thanks for your concern, though.