In decadent Rome, an aging art critic rides the success of his one, long-ago novel, and wonders if there’s more to life than having the best conga line in the Eternal City. He watches young nuns playing in a hedge maze, drifts into and through relationships with damaged women, and does a lot of eloquent smoking.
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s update of/homage to La Dolce Vita, offers a lot of expected pleasures. Our antihero, Jep Gambarella (Toni Servillo), sometimes seems to be genuinely having fun, and at those points I tended to have fun right along with him. The camera swoons and swoops. The art and landscape of Rome look glorious–the many different, clashing landscapes, nuns scuttling past a satyr, neon lights and ancient stones. The satire of terrible performance art probably goes on too long (I would’ve cut the on-the-nose sequence with the man whose father photographed him every day of his life, and the knife thrower) but it ranges from acidic to surprisingly thought-provoking, disturbing, and nuanced.
Jep is a critic in the worst way: somebody who makes his living off of art. It’s a job which breeds cynicism. And Rome is famously a city of cynics.
But somewhere around the three-quarters point of the movie, something unexpected occurs. “The Saint” comes to Rome from Africa. This tiny old lady is a Mother Teresa caricature, surrounded by sycophants and bandwagoners, sitting propped up at the dinner table practically drooling, looking like humid death.
I picked up Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl at the Neue Galerie in New York, basically on a whim. It promised to be a dizzying tour of Weimar Berlin, last call before Hell and all that, from the perspective of a young, single woman whom the introduction compares to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Certainly our heroine, Doris, is materialistic in a certain sense. She pays her bills by dating men. Her closest relationship is with her stolen fur coat. (The letter she writes to the coat’s rightful owner is a terrific, tilt-a-whirl study in ambivalent amends.) But she isn’t hard-headed; her desires are a collage of sentiment and hunger. She maintains her girlish figure easily, since throughout most of the novel she can’t actually afford food. She writes her hopes and dreams in the notebook she’s covered with little paper doves:
I’m going to be a star, and then everything I do will be right–I’ll never have to be careful about what I do or say. I don’t have to calculate my words or my actions–I can just be drunk–nothing can happen to me anymore, no loss, no disdain, because I’m a star.
Kathie von Ankum’s translation is full of sharp, funny cockeyed lines, usually describing men—”his usual politics is blonde,” for example. But Doris goes through some truly rough times, and the most memorable sections of the book are its most poignant. This book made me choke up over a dead goldfish: “Put him back in the water!”, this universal human desire to reverse the irreversible. There are parts of this book which sound like Walker Percy:
So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.
I don’t really like him all that much, but I’m with him, because every human being is like a stove for my heart that is homesick but not always longing for my parents’ house, but for a real home–those are the thoughts I’m turning over in my mind. What am I doing wrong?
Perhaps I don’t deserve better.
The future does hang over this book, and thin acrid drifts of it waft through the novel here and there: Doris ruminates on being asked whether she’s a Jew; she gets caught up in the ecstasy of a political rally. Berlin is filled with the desperately poor, especially veterans. It’s a city of people who have slipped down many rungs of life’s ladder, and Doris begins to feel herself slipping too.
I ended this book loving poor Doris, and Keun seems to love her too. She strains to come up with some kind of demi-happy ending for her heroine, Doris who believes that “it is particularly those things you have stolen with your own hands that you love the most”; but she can’t quite reach happiness, and settles for chastening.
Now that the shutdown is over, I can tell you about a small but punchy photography exhibit at the Sackler.
“Sense of Place,” which runs through November 11, disrupts many of the cliches of East vs. West. In these tired oppositions, Europe is a clash of swords and horses; China, Japan, or any other part of the undifferentiated East is a lone monk crossing a quiet pond. The West is the land of change and history, the East is the land where life is as fleeting and yet eternal as the seasons.
Well, there is a lone man crossing a quiet pond in “Sense of Place.” Hai Bo’s image is gentle, sad and misty, as a bridge arches in graceful curves over the placid water. But this is only the first in a series of three images. The bridge is destroyed. The man is left wandering in a foggy forest, and then abandoned among concrete structures under a blank white sky. In just three photographs we’ve entered the modern world: a world of industrialization and rapid change. Despite the exhibit’s title, time rather than place is the major theme of the small show—it takes up only two rooms—and the emphasis is on the aftermath of distinctly twentieth-century destruction in China, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam.
The engine which runs “After the Revolution,” a play by Amy Herzog that will show at Theater J (the theater of Washington’s Jewish Community Center) through October 6, is a generations-old betrayal: A fledgling leftist activist from a family of Communist Jews learns that her much-honored grandfather spied for the Soviet Union during World War II and then perjured himself in front of HUAC denying it.
The revelation shatters Emma Joseph’s trust in her family and in her own righteousness, and, because she’s the founder of a legal defense fund for Mumia Abu-Jamal which she named after her grandfather, it threatens her career. As her family struggles to deal with her intense reaction to this news from the Venona decryptions and their own conflicted, complicit responses to it, further family secrets and resentments get unearthed.
Emma and her family never quite arrive at a full reckoning, but there is enough meat here to make the play well worth seeing if you have any interest in its subject matter. Be sure to have somewhere you can go afterward for drinks and arguments. (I am only half a Jew, but I had at least three opinions about this play all by myself!)
Because most of the traditional pathways to adulthood—marriage, economic independence, stable job—seem out of reach or prove to be reversible, working-class young adults have developed a new definition of maturity. This new pathway relies heavily on therapeutic culture: You become an adult by overcoming the trauma of your past, whether that involved abusive parents, drug addiction, mental illness, or less flamboyant hardships. Young adults who take on this new definition focus on protecting the fragile self, and they reject solidarity and close, committed relationships in favor of individualistic, judgmental competition.
This is the basic thesis of Jennifer M. Silva’s insightful, frustrating new book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. “At its core,” Silva writes, “this emerging working-class adult self is characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health.”
Silva interviewed 100 white and black working-class adults, defining “working-class” as native-born Americans, with native-born parents who didn’t have college degrees—Silva herself fits this definition. A lot of what she found rang very true to me from my own conversations with young adults in low-wage jobs, although I suspect her findings don’t generalize quite as much as she thinks: The worldview she describes has definitely influenced some of the women I counsel at the pregnancy center, for example, but they’re also shaped by communal ties, religious history and their own religious fervor, and a culture of childbearing.
Silva finds relatively little of the “redemption through procreation” language which men expressed in the recent Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, and none of the catastrophic romanticism which drove premarital relationships for the “red-state” young adults in 2011′s Premarital Sex in America. So she’s only capturing part of the picture of working-class or poor young adulthood.
And there were many times when I felt the heavy hand of the medium upon the planchette, as Silva seemed to overinterpret her interviewees’ words to drag them closer to her preexisting theories. She often quotes an interview and then summarizes it in terms which don’t really capture what I would mean if I said what her interviewee said, or what people I’ve heard say those things meant when they said them. She talks a lot about “social institutions” and how there should be more of them or how they’ve failed, but the only ones she actually names in a positive context are unions, and she relies almost exclusively on government intervention for signs of hope.
Like I said, it’s a frustrating book. But its primary insights are important and true. There is a working-class therapeutic culture, that culture did arise in large part because of the disruption of older institutions which provided stability and a source of identity, and that culture is intensely prone to self-blame and judgmental “crabs in a barrel” sniping at other working-class people who aren’t sufficiently self-helping.
Somebody–I hope a commenter will remind me who it was–has suggested that the Left typically thinks in terms of an opposition between oppression and liberation, whereas the right typically thinks in terms of an opposition between civilization and barbarism. I would reframe the latter opposition as order vs. chaos; if we do that, it’s obvious that both oppositions are unrelentingly relevant, yet few thinkers or artists are able to hold both conflicts before our eyes at once.
I just finished Charles Johnson’s 1986 short-story collection The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations, a bag of broken glass which is equal parts liberationist and reactionary, yearning for freedom and knuckling under to fatalism. Centering on black American lives, mostly set within black communities, his stories shouldn’t be missed—he’s an intensely intellectual visionary, a reader of Plato who remembers that the heart of Plato is in the Symposium, a black Buddhist for whom education is not so much self-improvement as self-abnegation.
It’s the kind of Mother’s Day card you might give if you come from an especially unflinching family: A mother stands tall and imposing in front of the camera, facing it squarely and glaring at it. The daughter stands behind her mother–she’s slim enough that her body fits entirely behind her mom’s, as her face looks away and down. Their two shadows merge on the wall, creating one larger, indistinct shadow. The mother is fighting to protect the daughter, the daughter is willing to take shelter, and yet there’s that private look away from the camera, that looming shadow. A mother’s protection and a daughter’s acceptance won’t be enough. No one can protect a child completely, even when the child wants to be sheltered.
This is one of the most striking photographs in the Brooklyn Museum’s small show dedicated to Pennsylvania photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier (running only until August 11, so you should make time to go soon). There are a few extra photos from Frazier in the “American Identities” permanent collection on the fifth floor, so don’t miss those. But the main show, “A Haunted Capital,” is an attempt to tell the story of a decaying industrial town through the story of her own family. She created wallpaper which juxtaposes the heyday of the steel mill, protesters carrying signs alleging racism at the local hospital, and tender family portraits. Some of the urban landscape or slice-of-life photos here are excellent: “UPMC Braddock Hospital and Parking Lot,” from 2011, shows an abandoned building so destroyed that it looks like it’s been clawed open. The thin drifts of snow and contrasting diagonal lines create balance and suspension in the composition, taking it beyond reportage. “Mom and Me at the Phase,” from 2007, shows her mom wryly settled in at a local bar hung with Christmas stockings and festooned with a big bow; there’s a Robert Frank feeling in Frazier’s mother’s careful hair and makeup, and her holiday isolation.
The best pieces in the show is about Frazier’s family. She has an unexpected respect for the sentiment and kitsch with which we pad our habitats. Because so many of these photos are family portraits and tributes, there’s a sweetness and gentleness to the exhibit’s tone. Her grandmother collected dolls, and there are several portraits in which dolls or other bric-a-brac dominate; there’s an especially blunt one in which Frazier’s mom sits on a bed, slightly slumped, beside a big sprawling cat, surrounded by cute pictures of kittens and Jesus. In other hands this could have been a sneering portrait or a merely ironic one. Look, that’s the fake and this is the reality! But the real person chose the kitschy pictures. They spoke to something in her, and so they, too, are real.
“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“The Act of Killing” proves Nietzsche was too optimistic. This surreal documentary, which feels more like Variety Hour in Hell, began when filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer found that it was impossible to get survivors of the brutal 1965-6 anti-Communist campaign in Indonesia to describe their experiences. He settled for what he considered the next best thing: interviews with the perpetrators. And for the reason Jean-Luc Godard gives here, that turned out to be the key to making one of the most eye-opening documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Because the killers were so proud! They boasted–and they didn’t just boast about killing Commies. They boasted about lying, labeling everybody Communist in order to have an excuse to kill them; they boasted about corruption and bare-faced bribery. They boasted about the grubbiest little crimes as well as the atrocities. They call themselves premen, a term which the film translates as “gangster” but which–as they frequently point out–is derived from the English “free man.” It covers everybody from the man who scalps tickets outside the movie theater to the man who slaughters ethnic Chinese.
Oppenheimer asked these men to reenact their killings in whatever way they wished. At first the reenactments are fairly straightforward: This is how I would loop the wire around the guy’s neck, this is where I did it. Then, as Oppenheimer would play their reenactments back for them and ask how they wanted to do it over, the scenes start getting seriously wiggy. There are Western-themed reenactments and noir-themed ones, and a glorious dance scene in front of a waterfall in which a victim thanks his killer for sending him to Heaven. There are interrogation scenes in which the interrogators still have “victim” and “pretty lady” makeup on from previous scenes. It’s a vertiginous experience which makes a lot of points–for example, the gangsters are very up-front about the fact that they are consciously modeling themselves and their techniques after what they saw in movies, the way American mobsters adopted the style of The Godfather–and makes the audience feel like reality itself is up for grabs.
The premen created an identity in which violence, lies, and self-seeking were praiseworthy. “Relax and Rolex!”, as one of them chortles. They use “sadistic” as a neutral-to-positive term. I wondered whether not only fear but also the lack of any corresponding positive identity as a survivor explained the reluctance of their victims to go on the record. The killers are often explicit about their desire to create an internal reality in which their actions were admirable: They work hard to make themselves the heroes, not the villains.
There’s a blurb on the back of Christopher R. Beha’s debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which says it will “renew [readers'] faith in what literature is capable of achieving.” This is pretty close to the opposite of what the book is doing—and what it does well. Sophie Wilder is smart, painful, and insightful; it’s also a book which is deeply ambivalent about the power of the creative imagination and the desire to transform event into narrative. It’s a book about despair, and about the weakness of imagination rather than its power; in fact, one of its most striking and admirable characteristics is how up-front it is about its own failures of imagination.
The spine of the story is the relationship between demi-successful writer Charlie Blakeman and more-successful writer Sophie. At first both of them seem kind of insufferable, especially Charlie, who whines about how he got published and was reviewed in all the right places but nobody read his book. Beha is unsparing in his depiction of Charlie’s flaws. His internal monologue is very “written”; check out the lingering, self-indulgent phrase hanging off the end of the description of Charlie’s mother: “after my father’s death her mute suffering filled the atmosphere of that apartment, of her life.”
And he relies on Sophie to create him. She’s repeatedly paralleled with God: Sophie begins his real life, Sophie has a plan for him.
Sophie herself was “created” intellectually by a previous mentor, and one of the strengths of the book is the way it never tells you that making another human being your creator is cruel and unsustainable—it places far too much responsibility on the other person—but just shows you what that unsustainable mindset looks like.
Or maybe the spine of the story is a different creator-creation relationship: Sophie’s relationship with God. She’s a restless spirit who stumbles across Catholicism, first in books and then in church.
Beha has some really believable depictions of those first experiences of God’s presence; Sophie feels herself “occupied,” taken over by an overwhelming presence much bigger and more real than anything she’s felt or known before. And then she has to live with the consequences.
She marries a Catholic, she retires from the bright-young-things writing scene, she disappears from Charlie’s life. When she returns she has separated from her husband, and Charlie, who has always been aware that he doesn’t understand her faith or her choices, tries to figure out the mystery in the title.
There’s a lot going on here. There’s Sophie’s quest for identity (she has three different surnames throughout the novel), a quest she seems to be trying to escape—she wants to surrender to an identity, sink into it, rather than having to go out and conquer and defend it. She doesn’t want her conversion and subsequent changed life to be about her search for self, but about her encounter with God.
The idea that “shame works”—that stigmatizing behaviors and shaming the people who do them are necessary and honorable tools of public policy—is a recurring theme in both conservative and more communitarian/paternalistic liberal rhetoric. It’s often based on personal experience, or home truths from one’s mom, and because people do sometimes say that shame worked for them I had a hard time articulating why I rejected this rhetoric so completely.
But I recently finished reading Middlemarch for the first time. Shame motivates several of the characters, and it shapes their lives in sharply distinct ways: At least one person really does clean up his act in part due to being shamed, whereas another person becomes much worse than he needed to be and yet another reacts to shame by becoming defiant and a bit superior. Looking at these divergent reactions might illuminate what’s going on when shame “works”—and why it’s not, in my view, a valid tool of social control. Spoilers below, for those who prefer to go into their 19th-century novels with as little background as possible!