Saturday, April 14, 2018

some links for the weekend


some more eulogies for the recently passed Isao Takahata

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/04/remembering-isao-takahata/557597/
https://hyperallergic.com/437954/remembering-studio-ghibli-co-founder-isao-takahata/

Chris Spannos argues that the internet cannot really be saved and that the nature of the internet is so steeped in what some are now calling "surveillance capitalism" that alternatives to it should be sought out.

https://mondediplo.com/outsidein/can-the-internet-be-saved
...

Grey power and surveillance capitalism nudge regulators to come down too often on the side of commercial and state interests against the public good. But it is the Internet’s own design features which ultimately give rise to new and unprecedented global monopolies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest. It enables the NSA and GCHQ to surveille the personal lives of people around the world. The Internet has become the largest global platform to amplify power and privilege since the end of the cold war; and it cannot be saved.
...



Of course some context for this sort of rumination has something to do with questions Zuckerberg has and has not answered about the nature of Facebook.

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/04/3-questions-mark-zuckerberg-hasnt-answered/557720/

over at Slate, an observation about the "tech bro" idiom used to describe men like Zuckerberg downplays the significance of what men like him have done.

https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/04/mark-zuckerberg-is-not-a-child.html

...

...
 
Peter Pan mythology is rampant in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, where adult men get free laundry, food, and access to “toys” bearing the ability to change the very fabric of our democracy. These ostensibly eternal children are encouraged to move fast and break things, never looking back at the things that they broke. Even the term “tech bro” evokes youthful collegial stupidity, the anti-frat star armed with hoodies and flash drives rather than Solo cups and Vineyard Vines. And a fair amount of the older journalists covering these “boy kings” play right into this mythos, covering Silicon Valley with a kind of bemused avuncular air, attributing missteps to guilelessness and the apparently inherent childishness of social media and tech toys.
 
When Uber CEO Travis Kalanick berated an Uber driver for “blaming everything in [his] life on somebody else” rather than taking responsibility, the apology he issued said he had some growing up to do. Kalanick was 40 at the time. And yet eternal youth isn’t available to everyone in Silicon Valley: Despite the fact that Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is only a few months older than Zuckerberg, her well-deserved fall from grace wasn’t covered with the soft language of immaturity. She was treated like the adult that she and Zuckerberg both are because—surprise!—she’s a woman. As soon as girls hit puberty, they’re subjected to the old adage that women mature faster than men; we face up to the consequences of our actions while simultaneously being treated as ignorant children in any other context. Black girls in particular are never allowed the innocence of childhood: From the age of 5 we’re perceived as needing less protection and nurturing. And lives that are multiple decades long, let alone extended growing up periods, aren’t afforded to actual children like Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, who were perceived as adults before puberty even ended.
 
Yet with Zuckerberg, we’re supposed to believe that at 33, with children of his own, this “boy-billionaire” is just now coming to terms with his own age. Maybe he’s actually bought into this narrative—it would explain why he’s been issuing the same mea culpa for 10 years. Children are selfish, and they rarely learn from their own mistakes if they aren’t held to any consequences. And that’s one of the many lessons here: If we don’t treat people like an adult the minute they become one, and not a moment earlier or later, they’ll never learn how to act like one
 
The likelihood that Mark Zuckerberg will get to do a "I was an immature young buck but I'm better now" not altogether unlike some other Mark we've discussed here at considerably more length. 

Over at First Things Paul Griffiths has a letter to an aspiring intellectual.

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/05/letter-to-an-aspiring-intellectual

It's about as long on the long side as to be expected.  One of the observations made along the way is that there are people who would fancy themselves aiming to be intellectuals who are dilletantes (though these categories can and do overlap), people for whom the aura of mystique of being intellectual is the real objective and not the actual life of the mind. 

Which gets me thinking about some blogs at which the question of why there aren't more Christian intellectuals or where they are if they exist.  It has seemed that what those sorts of for-the-public-record musings end up being is the desire for the posture or the pose, for the aura of intellectual this or that rather than actual thought. 

There's stuff about interlocutors and how you might not have them as living contemporaries or you might have them but they might not be in universities.  The distinction between an intellectual and an academic can seem like hairsplitting but I'm going to just run with the distinction as given since it seems that many an academic is not an intellectual at all.  Academia as a credentialing mill is not the same as cultivating a life of the mind. 


Wes Anderson films as iterations of "boys not growing up" over at The New Republic--a few thoughts on Generation X growing up with the puzzle of how to play with the trademarked toys our parents bought for us

As fusillades indicting a class of white males for not growing up go, it would be remiss to assume that the only people who go on such rants are men such as Mark Driscoll or Jordan Peterson or people ostensibly or observably associated with the "right".  There's room at places like The New Republic for bromides about how certain types of art and entertainment somehow depict or catalyze a stratum of males "not growing up."

The new Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs can be taken as a case in point. Now I've seen, I think, exactly one Wes Anderson film but rather than get to that I'll proceed to large swaths of this review.

https://newrepublic.com/article/147387/good-boys
From the start, Anderson’s characters have been cursed with a delusional nostalgia. It’s easy to look at Bottle Rocket and see just another 1990s comedy about slackers. Until the gang of amateur thieves put on yellow jumpsuits to rob a warehouse, they dress like typical overgrown suburban preppies without fashion sense. But there’s a reason Martin Scorsese cited the film when he told Esquire in 2000 that Anderson was the next Scorsese. Dignan, the twentysomething fuck-up played by Owen Wilson who leads his friends into this folly, fancies himself a gangster out of a ’70s heist flick. It’s a parody Scorsese movie—complete with a classic rock soundtrack, which for two decades would be an Anderson hallmark—about men who never had the chance to become gangsters.
Nostalgic delusion would afflict Max Fischer, who longs to embody the fading traditions of the prep school that expels him. The Tenenbaum children are haunted by the glories of their lost days as child geniuses. Everybody in The Life Aquatic wants to return to a state of being eleven and a half, what Zissou calls “my favorite age.” The Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited fetishize the luggage they inherited from their dead father. Mr. Fox, having gone straight and become a newspaper columnist, wants to return to a life of stealing food from farms. The narrative of The Grand Budapest Hotel is presented through the frame of a memoir by a dead author who, decades earlier at a dilapidated resort, encountered an aging former lobby boy who told him the story of its glory days. It can’t be said that Zero the lobby boy is deluded; he’s filled with sadness because he lost everyone he loved after the arrival of shock troops who look a lot like the Nazis.
Bottle Rocket introduced another recurring character type: the flawed, or malignant, middle-aged mentor, James Caan’s Mr. Henry. As the bad father figure, who double-crosses Dignan, Caan says his lines as if his character from The Godfather, Sonny Corleone, hadn’t been shot up by the Tattaglias but had moved to Dallas to become a landscaper and small-time crook. Rushmore would cast Bill Murray as Herman Blume, who sees something of himself in Max Fischer, because it’s the nature of a midlife crisis to turn a man back into a boy. As Blume, Murray embodied a louche, fiftysomething wreck in need of redemption. The quest of saving the aging man falls to the boy, who surrenders his crush on the schoolteacher, Miss Cross, and instead plays matchmaker between the two adults.
Though Murray has made a second career of it, a cigarette or two dangling from his mouth, it was Gene Hackman who perfected this persona for Anderson as Royal Tenenbaum. He’s a failed parent, a cheating husband, a bankrupted rich man, a casual racist, a liar: a decadent portrait of the charismatic, urbane, and decadent white American male born in the 1930s. He’s redeemed by having his fraud exposed (he’s been faking cancer to get his wife and adult children to let him live with them), being stabbed by his servant, taking a day job as an elevator operator, accepting that a black man will marry his ex-wife and most likely prove to be a more loving husband than he was, and dying of a heart attack.
We'll interrupt the review at this point.  I saw The Royal Tenenbaums.  One of the punchlines, of course, is in the title. These people aren't royalty.  If they're not titled aristocrats in the explicit sense deployed in lines from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (who has been explicitly making films about American aristocracy pretty much his whole career) they could be construed as non-titled aristocrats.  Each of his children is some child prodigy who fails to live up to cultural and familial expectations of greatness.  To use one of the phrases cycling through internet discourse, each of these children (Margot included) could be christened a "failson".  there's a type of character enervation that spans generations in this film.  Royal isn't so much redeemed as he confesses. 

If there's a problem rampant in American story-telling indicated by all this complaint at TNR about "redemption" it may just be that in American parlance, and here it's far more potent in the indie/arthouse realm than in blockbusters, confession is often conflated with repentance and conflated with redemption.  Now in lowbrow blockbuster fare "redemption" generally looks like a person confesses he/she has been on the wrong side, repents of being on that side, joins a different team and because the messiah for that team.  That's what we see in James Cameron's Avatar, for instance. While the indie/arthouse form of "redemption" is more psychologically plausible only in the sense that people confess before they become a hero/soldier for a new team, and in the sense that repentance may precede confession or follow it in non-soteriological terms, this kind of cinematic "redemption" is no more "real" in the highbrow or middlebrow than it is in the lowbrow.  The basic arc of "redemption/savior" is the same in Spielberg's The Post as it is in Cameron's Avatar or even Favreau's Iron Man.  Now, let's get to Royal's kids.

The redemption of his children, who have to go on living, is a trickier matter. They are a set of three failed prodigies whose early brilliance in business, sport, and theater has been betrayed by their parents’ divorce. We meet them as depressed adults. There’s a grizzly suicide attempt at the film’s climax by the former tennis star, Richie Tenenbaum, when he perceives that his love for his adopted sister, Margot, is doomed. The episode is a preposterous black hole in the middle of the comedy, a grasping at gravitas. Anderson modeled the Tenenbaums on J.D. Salinger’s Glass family—who appeared in a series of his short stories—but the incest plot doesn’t match the war trauma that haunts Salinger’s fiction. The film tips into the maudlin and quickly scoots back to the twee. Similar moves would mar Anderson’s next films—such as the accidental deaths of Zissou’s son in a helicopter crash in The Life Aquatic and of an Indian boy drowned in a river in The Darjeeling Limited.
... on the order of "it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell?"

The Royal Tenenbaums was a commercial success and aligned with the late–Gen X zeitgeist that went by the name hipster. [last I checked the majority of Gen X hasn't died off yet] For the rest of the decade, it was impossible to go out in Brooklyn on Halloween without seeing a couple dressed as Margot and Richie Tenenbaum. The thrift-store aesthetic of the costume design, the shabby-chic gestalt, and the theme of dissipated childhood promise connected with the back end of a generation whose achievements did not match its sense of entitlement and so compensated with nostalgia and an aesthetic of reclamation. But Anderson had reached the culmination of his youthful phase. It would be some time before he would again link his eccentricity and cinephilia so neatly to a popular American myth.
It is here that I would interject that this seems substantially the same as a Mark Driscoll lament about a "Pussified Nation".  He spent years complaining about how lazy and entitled a generation of men was.  At least now we know that a Gen X indictment of this kind can be construed as able to emerge from either a left or right origin point, or perhaps we could deploy the term neoliberalism.  The failure of Generation X is construed in terms of entitlement, failed promise and nostalgia. 

But what is that nostalgia for, exactly?  Are we entirely sure that the depiction of Royal doesn't shift that narrative in a direction that the nostalgia in question is a kind of class nostalgia for which Royal's children are given a chance to see that the class role as exemplified by their father was a nasty racist fraud?  "Redemption" in a twee/maudlin cinematic sense for the children of Royal is that they are given to understand that they don't have to live up to Royal's fraud.  It's still kind of mean as "redemption" goes, they get to find out they're better people than their old man but what generation of Americans hasn't thought that over the last, well, century?

Wes Anderson can be thought of as a kind of funhouse mirror variation of Whit Stillman.  Stillman is more conservative and direct in proposing that the American aristocratic classes are losing and have lost their role in society.  They are starting to face downward economic and class mobility whether they recognize it or not.  But by making his films more explicitly about class up front Stillman's films hold up better, at least as a Generation X sort who has seen a couple of Stillman films and Anderson films.  Stillman's films, as I understand them, riff on the idea that the bourgeois is doomed but it also deserves its fate.  We can eel some pity for them because they fail to recognize their own moral failures and ignorance while not feeling bad for them out of any sense that they are materially deprived.  To put things more in the idiom of current internet discourse, Stillman characters may not recognize their privilege but Stillman does, whereas in Anderson's films the characters may not recognize their privilege and it's not always clear from an Anderson film that Anderson is entirely clear that he's making films about a kind of American aristocracy, if of a non-titled kind.

As for Andersonian nostalgia ...

Like Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a stop-motion animation feature that built to a finale of military violence between talking animals (with American accents) and humans (with British accents). The daddy issues—Mr. Fox’s son Ash wants to get his father’s attention and a role as his accomplice—are explored within a functional nuclear family, albeit one that’s being hunted. There’s an emotionally superfluous mid-film funeral for a rat, and the classic rock soundtrack tilts away from the Kinks and David Bowie toward the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. It was proof that there wasn’t much distance between a Wes Anderson movie and a commercially viable children’s movie. Eliminate the swearing and the sexual innuendo, and you’re mostly there.
...

At this point I'd say there's more to be said in favor of children's entertainment than a lot of what passes for grown-up now. If there's an implication that kid stories are less grown up than "adult" entertainment and that those who make films primarily for children that's a bias I have seen recurring in Anglo-American film criticism.  I don't get the sense that Hayao Miyazaki's films, nearly all made with children as the intended audience, are signs that Miyazaki has not grown up.  I don't think Wes Anderson has it in him to make a film like The Wind Rises on the one hand or like My Neighbor Totoro on the other.

We might have to back up a bit and establish what we mean by Generation X.  If all it means is that someone was born after the Baby Boom generation but before the Millenials then how do we define that date range?  We could try to say that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan could be construed as Generation X.  Whit Stillman was born in the 1950s so he may be Baby Boom as long as the Baby Boom ran for a decade after the end of the war.

If there's a cinematic generation primed to have an anxiety of influence in Anglo-American cinema Generation X might be that generation.  We've grown up with all of classic Hollywood from the studio era up through the 1970s auteur and blockbuster stuff.  The entire idiom of film and all its genres have been laid out before us.  There's nothing to innovate. We can refine and consolidate but innovation in the medium is harder to achieve.  James Cameron may really believe his own hype but he can't revolutionize film. 

But let me get back to Wes Anderson and Joss Whedon because I propose there's a point of commonality with these two.  They're arch, they're self-aware, they're steeped in cinema as an art form in a way that suggests multigenerational engagement and debt (Whedon's a third generation of a family that has been in the entertainment industry for some time).  What some regard as a Gen X refusal to grow up can be interpreted, from within the context of Generation X itself (hint) as an anxiety about American culture and class.  We of Generation X seem like the first generation since the Baby Boom who will have less than what the Baby Boom generation had.  Perhaps no show explicitly explores this sense of failure than a show like The Venture Bros.  Rusty Venture is a terrible, self-absorbed man who can't live up to the greatness of his super-scientist father.  He's a failure as a "hero" but in a moment when given a chance to realize his full potential (as a supervillain) he can't bring himself to be that, either.  His self-designated archnemesis The Monarch is a trust fund kid with delusions of grandeur who jokes that how he gets anything cool done is by squandering his inheritance that he got from his dad.  Generation X exists within a self-aware moment in American culture and global culture in which it's clear that "we" can't solve the problems bequeathed to us by the Baby Boom generation or The Greatest Generation and that "we" can't live up to the potential of the generations before us ... but as more history is unfolded it may be that the kinds of great men who make history are such self-aggrandizing assholes settling for a lesser "legacy" may be the better trade-off than trying to equal or exceed the glories of earlier generations as recounted to us through popular culture and history.

That's kind of an aside, what I was meaning to get to about guys like Anderson and Whedon is that they are so arch and so self-aware, so depending on witty patter (if that's what we have to call it, all the time) that the quips come so fast and furious that when the time comes for an Anderson or a Whedon to go for what's supposed to be a heart-rending moment the whole thing fails.  Anderson and Whedon can have moments where they want to go for what's colloquially known as "the feels" but they don't have it in them. 

A friend of mine who likes Whedon's work but has granted that in the end he is, as I've been saying, a one trick pony, told me that he's noticed Whedon has a preferred trick.  When it works it works really well but when it fails it fails completely--something terrible happens at the start of an episode and after that emotional moment has its beat we're jumping to "18 hours earlier".  There's an eagerness to build up to some moment of expectation and then pull the rug out from under the viewer or, to borrow a gruesome phrase a friend of mine from college had about soprano repertoire, "This is one of those `rip your heart out and stomp on it' songs." Whedon's quippiness and archness gets in the way of his capacity for emotional viability. Anderson, I would suggest, can have a similar problem.  In someone whose whole career has been slapstick and horror, like Rumiko Takahashi, an insistence on jokes defusing emotionally vulnerable moments between characters is expected.  But Anderson and Whedon are not making slapstick or horror even if Whedon ostentatiously traffics in genre trappings. 

Generation X may have spent so much time using wit and arch genre awareness to emotionally insulate itself from the reality that we can't possibly live up to the American Dream as handed down to us by the Baby Boomers (who changed everything!) and the Greatest Generation (who saved the world!) that our jaded consideration of how both of those narratives turned out to be grand lies (if, at the time, seemingly necessary ones, and on this score I'd suggest that among blockbuster film-makers Nolan is one of the directors of Generation X.  His stories are about men who deceive themselves (sometimes knowingly and more often not) into believing that what they're doing is the right thing when it may not be; his characters tell lies or believe lies that are considered necessary for "society" to continue or to change it.  But Nolan's men deceive themselves so well they don't understand what they have done (the exception to this pattern, by necessity, was Batman).  The way the death of a child in Dunkirk is transformed into "heroic sacrifice" when the boy was really killed by a shell-shocked soldier is easy to skip over but it's one of the central motifs in Nolan's film-making.  We tell ourselves we're heroes because if we just admit we're in a panicked, desperate effort to survive and that in order to survive we do horrifying things to other people, well, we can't have a heroic narrative based on that! 
Dogs on movie screens either bite or they’re adorable. Anderson’s dogs are the latter, and there’s something inherently corny about them. There’s also something stunted about Anderson’s eternal regress to age twelve. If blockbuster American cinema, now bleeding into the prestige category, weren’t already so dominated by superhero movies, it might be easier to stomach an art-house auteur bent on concocting ever more sophisticated and exotic ways not to grow up.

Yes, well, Mark Driscoll can still talk about how so many people are finding more sophisticated and exotic ways not to grow up, too.  There's a point at which, freely admitting to being someone within Generation X, there's little inspiration to buy into the mythologies of the Baby Boomer generation or the Greatest Generation on the one hand and even less reason to buy into Millenial optimism.  Generation X has had moments in which people felt inspired to make the world a better place, after all.  It's not like nobody thought to move fast and break things in order to innovate.  Some of us were even part of something that was billed as not selling out to the American Dream and not making the same mistakes as earlier generations did.  What was that around here in Puget Sound?  Ah, right ... Mars Hill ...  it was in the July 1998 issue of Mother Jones ...

So what on earth can you do if you reach the point where you can't sign on for the mythologies of your ancestors because of the legacy of destruction and self-regard they produced, yet you also have become cautious about monomythic tendencies in popular culture and are skeptical about the possibility for real innovation or revolutionary change that doesn't devolve into cults of personality?  You're kind of stuck.  My skepticism about Millenials is not that they're lazy or entitled or whatever, it's that they want a new mythology in which righteous Americans save the world and I can't sign on for that because I don't believe that. 

Anderson's films are arch enough to be self-aware and quippy enough to seem witty but the problem isn't the "not growing up" stuff it's more like Anderson's nostalgia is a nostalgia for an unfulfilled promise, a promise of a generational capacity for greatness he may realize isn't capable of fulfillment in the real world but that he nevertheless can't bring himself to actually repudiate.  He doesn't have it in him to admit there are myths of greatness that are in some way necessary lies that are the foundation of any society, which is pretty much every Christopher Nolan movie.  If society is predicated on a lie why do we keep fighting to save a society or a narrative based on a lie? Because we can't say "no" to the lives of flesh and blood people.  Even Selina Kyle, cynical as she is, ultimately comes back to help Batman keep Gotham from being incinerated.  Love of neighbor does not have to be mythic or self-mythologizing all the time. 

Nolan's films may have choppy action sequences, stentorian moods and po-faced seriousness but so what?  Nolan's films, among those made by Generation X, may go over as well as they do because compared to other Generation X filmmakers on the big or small screen ranging from Joss Whedon to Michael Bay to Zack Snyder within the big franchise Nolan's moral seriousness may seem like absurd moralizing to the Richard Brodys of film criticism but he is not, along the way, defusing what emotional content his films have with a river of snark that only gives way long enough for "the feels" to show up when they're supposed to.  A comparision between Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson may be instructive here because what Nolan's films lack in "art" as tentpole productions in comparison to an Andersonian sense of set design they also lack in a realm that Anderson or Whedon have in abundance, snark.

 Snark may embody what people find wrong with Generation X, its snide and condescending know-it-all tone replete with an inability to demonstrate that for all our snarkiness we can do any better than the mythmaking of the Baby Boomers or the Greatest Generation.  All we can manage to do is either subvert those mythologies and optimisms in the idioms of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Archer, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Ricky and Morty or The Simpsons or attempt to find some way to plausibly reinvent and recontextualize the existing mythologies in a way that is perhaps easiest to see in the superhero scene.  I've proposed that Generation X is the Mystery Science 3000 generation before.   In that context I was reflecting upon Mark Driscoll's previous shtick about how our generation wouldn't fall sway to the materialism of the American Dream and yet here we were in 2015 with Mark Driscoll as a Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors.  It seemed that Generation X had the ability to snarkily put down the efforts and dreams of previous generations without being able to come up with anything better themselves.  A snarky distance from earlier myths may be one of the defining traits of Generation X, however broadly we define it.

And yet ... obviously ... another strand of Generation X reinvents myths within contemporary contexts.  Superhero films from Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins, Brian Favreau and others won't appeal to those people who have decided in advance what "kid stuff" is and what by definition can't be art.  In a similar way Brad Bird and John Lasseter and the Pixar founding generation won't rise to the level of art for those who have already assumed animation is moralizing kiddy stuff.  For those who want to make what you embrace as an artist an indication  of whether or not you're really a "grown up" the class foundations of such a judgment might be worth escavating. 

Virtually no one I've read in arts criticism seems at all interested in considering the changes to trademark and copyright laws that happened during the period in which Generation X was born and we were all raised playing with the toys and hearing the stories our parents bought for us and gave to us.  Coming into an adulthood in which the glory days of indie and studio film were all in the past; and raised with pre-packaged mythologies from preceding generations but with a new expanded practical regime of intellectual property laws, what lazy film critics imputing adultescence to Generation X can forget is that our generation, Generation X, has shown a persistent pattern of ..

we've spent our lives trying to figure out what we can actually do with the toys our parents bought for us.  Some of us decided to make Archer and some of us decided to make Skyfall.  Some of us made Isle of Dogs but ever since Joseph Campbell branded the monomyth Generation X was raised with the teaching that there was nothing new we could actually invent.  We had no choice but to play with the toys we were given.  Is it altogether surprising that a generation raised with that "imaginary" might take solace in snark?  If you can't invent new toys and everything is the monomyth you either have to try to reinvent the game in a way that makes it fun to play or you resort to snark to show that you won't play with the toys in the way you're expected to based on the marketing on the boxes.

I won't call it anxiety of influence, I'll say that Generation X was force-fed nostalgic Camelot mythologies tethered to the JFK/LBJ and Reagan administrations; we grew up with the mythologies and playing with the toys that were given to us; we were also introduced to the possibility of artistic mythologies from Asian contexts (anime, obviously)   It's no surprise at all if Generation X remakes Star Trek and Star Wars and Robocop and keeps the Terminator franchise alive.  Nor is it a surprise if we keep retooling James Bond and Batman. 

If in our contemporary era of intellectual property, licensing and trademark you can hardly invent new toys, or new stories because Joseph Campbell distilled the entire human experience down to one American imperial monomyth the best you can hope for is that if you can't snarkily subvert things the rest of your life you find a way to refine the existing rules of play into something that you hope can work, even if you know there's a lot of dubious elements to the pre-packaged mythos.  That, arguably, is why sincere efforts by Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins to get Spiderman, Batman and Wonder Woman to come across on screen have worked.  Anime was a breath of fresh air for those of us on the Pacific coast who got exposure to it because whatever it was it was not some post-Campbell monomyth in the Star Wars variety.  It turned out that exposure to Asian folklore and ancient near eastern literature unmediated by an East Coast Anglo-American idiom revealed that the monomyth was a myth, and a particularly pernicious one. 

I'd say the artistic crisis Generation X has had to face down is not that there are no new ideas, it's that we've grown up in a trademarked and licensed era in which we were told implicitly and explicitly up front what the available options were and had to figure out how to make do with that.  We we're sold and given the range of options that were available.  We're a generation that was told there's a monomyth and that all our favorite stories and characters from our childhood are trademarked and licensed.  The central creative crisis Generation X has faced isn't whether or not to grow up but how to make something of the toys we were given in our childhood.  It's in that sense of trademark and copyright that a film like Toy Story can be thought of as a quintessential film for Generation X for those of us who saw the movie back in the mid-1990s.  It's also why for some of us in Generation X Batman: the animated series is a cultural touchstone, and the associated DCAU.  Whether it's a Christopher Nolan Batman film or a cartoon like Archer's riffs on the James Bond idiom Generation X has been given the toys and the toy box and our central creative challenge has been, "Okay, this is what we've got so what can we do with this?" 

Our ... cultural appropriation of borrowing toys from Japan isn't even new or something that should be imputed to Wes Anderson Vice style as though he's a bad person for it.  It's not so much a defense of Generation X as an observation to say that when we were given Transformers toys we were given cultural appropriation in the form of rebranded toys from Japan that were given American narratives..  Hasbro pulled that stunt of cultural reappropriation and invention back when Generation X was too young to even know what trademarking was. 

If Millenials and Baby Boomers on either side of this rather momentous legal divide can't appreciate the ways in which Generation X has attempted to figure out how to play with the toys in the toy box, having grown up without the resources or the legal permissions and market sympathies to really invent new ones or think of them, that's understandable.  But speaking from within Generation X I would suggest that people try to have some idea of the practical impact of intellectual property laws on a generation that was force-fed the idea of a monomyth on the one hand and given a pre-packaged set of utopian political narratives with DNC and GOP fables a la JFK and Reagan.  We could play with the toys as instructed on the toy boxes or we could do something snarky but the toys themselves were in every possible sense of the term, a given.  It's not surprising to me here in middle-age to look back on what Generation X has done and see that it has frequently bracketed into sincere or snarky engagement of the toys in the toy box our parents gave us. 

But as I get older I suspect that this at times desperate at times playful at times engaging struggle to make do with the toys we were given can be read by some cultural pundits on the putative left and right as a sign that the ways Generation X has figured out how to make do with that has been labeled "a refusal to grow up".  A similar ploy is apt to be made about Millenials, too. Not everyone rejected the nostalgia implicit in accepting some of the cultural mythologies and stories, to be sure, but reflecting on how we can't live up to a now discredited myth that had a lot of skeletons in its closet isn't quite the same as "not growing up". 

And just what, exactly, is growing up?  The cultural script of "growing up" mediated by Woody Allen films?  Or Bill Cosby's notion of growing up? As more tales of the lurid and predatory behavior of the men who made "grown up" film in the 1970s keeps emerging it's hard to take seriously the idea that people who have worked in artistic idioms known as "kid stuff" are necessarily less grown up. 

POSTSCRIPT

Gently recalibrating known, existing elements doesn't always turn out badly.  The Incredibles was pretty fun.  The Incredibles 2 could be fun. But the take-away for superhero films is that if any of the Fantastic Four films was even a fifth as fun as The Incredibles was the property wouldn't be a punchline in this day and age when, half a century ago, The Fantastic Four was considered a daring and innovative take on the superhero genre.  There are times when extracting the essential idea or core set of relational dynamics and dispensing with the rest is called for.  There are times when archly subverting the tropes to show that you know what the tropes are works, and at other times it can work out better to tweak the tropes a bit to show why the old tropes became tropes.

So, yeah, I like Brad Bird better than Wes Anderson. Longtime readers of the blog could have guessed that. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Samuel D. James has a new platform, and there he writes about Why Blogging Still Matters. I never thought it didn't matter, myself, but it may be James' view on blogging is evolving

Despite the earlier noted semi-incubation period the little project in question was completed much, much faster than I thought it would.  That's all to be said on that matter for now.

So, now ...

Since I do read stuff in the Mere O orbit I came across this, Samuel D. James case on behalf of blogging.

https://letterandliturgy.com/2018/03/22/why-blogging-still-matters/

...
Not only that, but blogging matters because it is an intellectual exercise in a passive, “content”-absorbed internet culture. On social media, even writing itself tends to be transformed into an unthinking spectacle rather than a careful expression of ideas. Twitter is notorious for this. The  most effective Tweeters—and by effective I mean the people who seem most able to take advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to get their tweets in front of people who do not ask for them and would not know they exist any other way—are people who are good at snark, GIFs, and gainsaying. Even worse, the unmitigated immediacy of Twitter’s ecosystem encourages a hive mentality. I’ve watched as people I respect have shifted in their beliefs for no better reason than the punishing experiences they’ve had after saying something that offended the wrong people online. Trolling has authentic power, and Twitter makes it a point of business to put trolls and their targets as closely together as possible.
 
Blogging, on the other hand, allows writers to think. Good bloggers use their spaces to both publish and practice. Thinking and writing are not purely sequential events. Writing is thinking, and thinking shapes itself through writing. Blogging is still, by far, the best option for non-professional writers to expand their gifts and sharpen their habits. Blogging is also a slice of personalism in a fragmented online age. Because social media and the online content industry demand maximum mobility and applicability over as many platforms as possible,  much of what you see is thoroughly generic (and most of the generic-ness is either generically progressive and identity-obsessed or generically conservative and angrily conspiratorial). Blogging brings out a more holistic vision from the author for both form and function.
 
This is not even to mention the benefits of moving our information economy away from the emotionally toxic effects of social media. There is good reason to believe that apps like Facebook and Instagram make people feel lonelier and less satisfied with their life. An information economy that requires aspiring writers to heavily invest in technologies that promote FOMO and cultivate tribal resentments is probably not an information economy that is making a lot of honest writers. By slowing down the pace of online life, blogging enables a more genuine interaction between people. Good social media managers need to win the rat race; good bloggers want to connect with readers in a meaningful way beyond analytics.
 
Blogging still matters, because it’s still the medium that most ably combines the best aspects of online writing. If we want to escape the echo chambers that dominate our online lives; if we want something other than the hottest takes and the pithiest putdowns; if we have any aspiration for exchange and debate that goes beyond outrage or mindlessness, we should reinvest our time, resources, and attention in the humble blog.

...
Now I basically agree that what a blog can do is provide long-form presentation and analysis of events and information that isn't tethered to social media in the form of Twitter or Instagram or Facebook or other things more conventionally thought of as social media.

Yet ... this "is" the Samuel D. James who told Christian bloggers to not "follow Mark Driscoll around", right?  Was it not just four years ago Samuel D. James was imploring Christian bloggers about something?

https://web.archive.org/web/20141115184929/http://www.patheos.com:80/blogs/inklingations/2014/11/11/to-christian-bloggers-from-a-pastors-kid-dont-follow-mark-driscoll-around/

and, of course, there was "For Whom the Blog Trolls: A Drama"

https://web.archive.org/web/20150518011923/http://www.patheos.com:80/blogs/inklingations/2015/05/12/for-whom-the-blog-trolls-a-drama-in-10-acts/
Thursday, Somewhere in CyberspaceScene 1: A humble, 20something blogger writes a short, probably simplistic post about how (not) to talk about the church.

Scene 2: Our youthful hero writes disparagingly about a certain genre of online blogging that he finds distasteful and generally unhelpful. He is careful, however, to mention no names and no real scenarios.

Scene 3: He publishes the post, expecting little feedback. After all, it is a brief post, and makes only one real point: That Christians should not be bitter towards the church.
...

and that, for those who didn't see any of the posts, came in the wake of this:
https://web.archive.org/web/20150508160636/http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inklingations/2015/05/07/what-not-to-do-when-a-fellow-christian-embarrasses-the-rest-of-us/

Now I've discussed what I thought at the time about James' blogging on bloggers in a few posts (here, here and here, for instance).  Given how "first-person industrial complex" blogging can be I don't want to imagine that blogging is an unqualified good, and arguably nobody does.

But a few years back James was advising

7) Don’t start a “watchdog blog.” Seriously, don’t ever.

Of course as I've written dozens of times this is not, in fact, a watchdog blog.  It's never been a watchdog blog.  All the stuff about chamber music and sonata forms for classical guitar and all the stuff about Batman cartoons or Pixar films or anime like Eureka Seven or rhapsodies on Scott Joplin and Stevie Wonder should clear up for anyone this isn't a "watchdog blog".

But here we are a few years later and I still contest the assumption that seems to lurk behind that Samuel D. James admonition to "Don't start a "watchdog blog." Seriously, don't ever.  Since this blog has provided years upon years of material about the history of Mars Hill and its leadership culture in a way that people would call ... you know ... I doubt anyone would be surprised that I think blogging can play a valuable role in contributing to the public knowledge and discourse of all sorts of topics.

What's a bit of a surprise is that Samuel D. James now seems to think blogging can be important.  Now maybe James thinks Christian bloggers shouldn't follow Mark Driscoll around or maybe he's had a change of heart there, too.  After all, that was written way back in 2014 when it was not yet clear to him or others that Mark Driscoll was going to keep doing the celebrity Christian thing.  Now ... somebody was relatively sure that the Christian celebrity thing, being a man's bread and butter, could not be given up.  But I was hoping Mark would step away from Christian ministry and preaching and the whole business side of professional Christianity for half a decade and be a run of the mill real nobody tithing and serving in some lay person's capacity in a Christian community.  But hope is not the same thing as expectation.

So, here we are in 2018 and if Samuel D. James wants to write about why blogging is important it might inspire a person to ask if watchdog blogging is still "not" part of the importance blogging still has.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

another incubational phase

I have been mulling over writing about film again, here, and elsewhere.  But other writing projects have taken precedence, ones that involve a good bit of reading and score study.

I've been meaning to write a few thoughts on Black Panther (which I enjoyed, actually) and The Last Jedi (which I find exasperating).  In lieu of maybe not doing so I'd say the Marvel blockbuster is fun but that I would propose its core political conceit is one that I find unpersuasive, which is essentially positing a peak global level empire that refuses imperialism.  Though I enjoyed the film the least believable part is Wakanda as a non-imperialist or anti-imperialist empire.  Everything else except that foundational political theorem about the nature of Wakanda made sense to me as popcorn movies go.  The real power fantasy of the film isn't that T'Challa has the strength of many men and has access to fantastic tech, it's that an empire like Wakanda would not be imperialist. 

The Last Jedi ... I'll have to write about later, perhaps.  I will say, for now, that people complaining about Rey as a Mary Sue are partly right.  The problem as this franchise proceeds is not so much Daisy Ridley's take on the character as the writing.  Rey is awakened by The Force in The Force Awakens and while she's given a huge amount of power it's given to her with no agency.  She's not given a choice.  The Force forces itself on her, more or less, and she's just so pure of heart she can handle it.  That, actually, I don't really have a problem with.  I think she's an okay actress and I thought she did decently well  in the English language dub of the anime Only Yesterday.

What I did have increasing trouble with as I thought about things after I saw The Last Jedi is that we get Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, both capable of charismatic and likable star turns, and then The Last Jedi chumps these two characters Poe Dameron and Finn with the toxic masculinity idiot ball and for what?  So that Rose can give a speech or two about war profiteering?  So Rey can battle Kylo?  So Vice Admiral Holdo can do something so route in action films that if a guy did it (like Chris Pratt does in The Magnificent Seven remake of the remake of Seven Samurai that I only sat through because Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt were in it, and which I largely hated except for the part where the black guy, the Mexican and the Native American are alive at the end. :) )) it would be pedestrian action movie fare. 

Let me put this another way, the problem I ended up having with The Last Jedi is that thinly drawn white female characters kept "saving the day" in the wake of stupid decisions made by non-white males that were supposed to be taken at face value as stupid or dangerous decisions. 

But ... in the vacuum of space how do you really run low on fuel flying endlessly in a straight line?  That's the kind of plot-induced stupidity that's impossible for even a genre film to escape.   It's not like the expanse of space is a paved road and the starships in Star Wars are automobiles.  The disconnect between Rey being righteous but having those Force powers forced on her by plot mechanics means that the girl-power motif is a sham not because Rey is a bad person but because in contrast to Luke Skywalker, who chose to learn the ways of the Force, Rey has the ways of the Force forced on her by The Force itself.

If Vice Admiral Holdo were a guy in a Chuck Norris film and played by a guy the stupidity of the set-up for her "moment" would be easier to spot for what it is.  What makes the moment more dubious is that, of course, when Finn attempts a parallel life-ending save-my-friends gambit in the final act of the film he gets thwarted and told that you have to save what you love and not destroy what you hate.  When this kind of double standard is at work in which the white character played by Laura Dern is supposed to get the feels from the audience for a gambit that Finn's not supposed to be given because author's message it seems like an especially egregious double standard.  Finn's an ex-Storm Trooper for the First Order.  An ex Storm Trooper. If there's any sort of person trained from birth to be anonymous canon fodder for the sake of a cause it's a Storm Trooper.  It's in character for someone like Finn to decide that if self-sacrifice accomplishes the mission that's a good thing to do.  Based on everything we know about the training and creation of Storm Troopers what Finn tries to do to destroy the ground base laser howitzer/drill is what you'd expect even an ex-Storm Trooper to do.

Now, sure, a person could ask why people fled to a salt mine planet and then proceeded to dig a trench as if the exigencies of trench warfare had anything to do with anything.  Maybe the Resistance just wanted to make sure everyone was dug into trenches so they were easier fish in a barrel targets ... .

But I digress.  I've practically written what I meant to not get around to as it is. :)

There's other stuff I'm incubating that won't necessarily appear here, and so I'm going to be writing a bit, but not necessarily blogging for a bit.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Ryan Gibney at The Guardian floats proposal that in the era of #metoo we might be seeing the end of the auteur? Unlikely, but I won't miss any decline in auteur theory, either

 
It is plausible that our disillusionment with once-revered directors could hasten an end to the auteur worship that has dominated cinema since the 60s. In an age of popular activism, when none of us can claim we cannot see the connection between principles and actions, it may become harder to celebrate blindly the output of a director who derides #MeToo, or dismisses the fact that they have a company linked to an account in a tax haven, as Pedro Almodóvar , named in the Panama Papers along with his brother Agustín, has done. (His response? “My name and my brother’s name are some of the least important names in the Panama Papers. If it was a film, we wouldn’t even be extras.” Hardly the sort of penetrating insight that has made him a world-class dramatist.) Many of our film-making heroes will inevitably fall from grace. But does that mean auteur theory will go down with them?


Auteur is one of those words, like diva and masterpiece, that has been devalued to the point of redundancy. Prolonged misuse has resulted in a situation in which any director with an immediately recognisable style, or a recurring set of themes and concerns, is an auteur.


The word was never supposed to denote a star director. When the Cahiers du Cinéma critics, including such film-makers-in-waiting as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, used the label “auteur” under the influence of Bazin in the mid-50s, they were recognising directors whose ability to bring personality to movies that had not necessarily originated with them, and to make ambitious, expressive work within the limits of the studios, had gone unappreciated until that point – John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles among them. Most of those film-makers had enjoyed success, but the suggestion that their work might also have artistic merit came first from the auteurist critics.


There have been many reasons over the course of the past 70 years to dispute or disparage auteur theory. “Auteur theory just denigrates everyone else’s job,” said Fred Schepisi, the Australian director of Six Degrees of Separation and Roxanne. The British film-maker Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, The Commitments) said it was “cooked up by a bunch of Frenchmen with an exercise book and a 16mm camera, perpetuated by the people who write about film, and fed by the insatiable vanities of us directors”. And although Sarris died in 2012, he lived long enough to witness the depreciation of ideas he had helped propagate. “Every director has to show his wild visual style in order to establish himself and blaze a trail immediately,” he lamented in 2005.
 
Now, though, the demise of auteurism may finally be upon us. The revelation that brilliant directors have a darker side, whether it’s Bertolucci’s bullying or Haneke’s intolerance, is nothing new. Like any cliche, the image of the tyrannical film-maker with riding crop, jodhpurs and loudhailer has survived in our cultural currency because it has a strong component of truth. But it is difficult to see how the unquestioning reverence of directors can continue in this new climate of hyperawareness, where the constant drip-feed of discrediting stories proves once and for all that time’s up.

I find it difficult to hold the 1960s or the 1970s in higher esteem than other eras of film and music.  Yes, there's a lot of music from that era I enjoy.  I still basically enjoy Bob Dylan from that period and Pinkfloyd and The Who.  I also love the music of Stevie Wonder.  I have a respect for The Beatles as a boy band that transcended the inherent limitations of their initial idiom but I was more into The Rolling Stones.  The other thing is that having heard Xenakis and Stockhausen the Fab Four made it both too obvious and not obvious enough (in the sense of the number of fifth Beatles) what a collective and corporate product their work has been.  One of the manifestations of an auteur theory in popular music is to insist that either John or Paul was the "real" genius guiding The Beatles.  The collective and collaborative activity was what made that band what it was.  Take away George Martin as their producer and advisor and we wouldn't be talking about the same Fab Four in a lot of ways. 

So if auteur takes a nosedive as it gets rediscovered what abusive jerks many of these men were that's not something I object to.  There's something to be said for some of Tolstoy's aspirations that good art should be able to come from decent people.  The idea that only monsters can make "great art" shouldn't be something we take seriously, whether we have Christian convictions or not, but particularly for those who do have Christian beliefs.  Whoever would be greatest among you must be the servant of all is not going to lend itself to being some Byronic artist hero.

The idea that if the beauty of the experience is great enough we just have to accept that monsters are the architects of that beauty seems to still have some traction with the plastic arts, cinema, literature and music in a way that I'm not sure we see replicated in athletics.  Is there anyone in the realm of athletics who would suggest at this point that if you remove all the coaches and medical doctors who assist athletes who are predators or bullies there'd be no sports left?  That's not even taking up the question of whether the physical and mental damage to athletics as practiced in the United States may itself be a big part of the problem, I don't want to say that brain injuries in college and professional football is a reason to ban athletics.  They're clearly healthy and pro-social activities for a whole lot of people even if I never got into them for a number of reasons. 

I'm just thinking lately that the proposal that if we tried to get rid of all the art made by monsters we'd have no art left as formulated by an Mbird contributor doesn't seem to hold water within the realm of the arts and that one of the ways to highlight this is to ask whether this line of assertion (not to say argument) holds up if we apply it to athletics or to dance.  If every choreographer treated his or her muse the way Roman Polanski treated someone wouldn't that give us reason to doubt the virtue of choreography? 

The idea that for the sake of something beautiful or ostensibly life-changing you just have to accept that we're all monsters doesn't fit anything about how in Christ, new creation as I understand it.  I didn't spend half a decade meticulously chronicling the peak and demise of Mars Hill Church on the assumption that because we're all monsters, what can you do?  The idea that we even lie about our lying or that everyone, including you, is a bigot is the kind of gambit that seems it is only possible to take up in bad faith in every sense of that phrase.  Now maybe monsters would say everyone is a monster.  What do you think? That, deep down, everyone is as bad as you?  Doesn't Batman say something like that to The Joker in The Dark Knight? So if we want to insist that "everyone" is a "monster", congratulations, The Joker says stuff like that.  Way to affirm the metaphysical claims about the human race of one of the more famous villains of the last twenty years of film. 

I've written about the subject before, but I believe there's a world of difference between saying each of us has a capacity to be a monster and that each of us actually is a monster. I mean, I'm a Calvinist, yes, and I'm even able to understand prelapsarianism as distinct from infralapsarianism but even I don't think it's an honest account of the human condition to say "we're ALL monsters".  That makes a hash of some doctrine colloquially known as common grace.  The Bible tells us stories about those who do not know the Lord who, nevertheless, show they can have less broken moral compasses than those who did call on the name of the Lord at different stages in their lives.  If all the Christians in the early churches Paul visited were living up to what they were taught we'd have fewer epistles.  But needing reminders and spurs to love God and neighbor is not the same thing as being told "we're all monsters".  That's not even what Paul was ultimately driving at saying he was chief of sinners. 

What about photographers?  If we're told that if we remove all the art made by monsters we'll have no art left, what passes muster as art great enough for which monsters get to be monsters?  I don't recall Margaret Bourke-White being in anyone's pantheon of photographers among most people I've met but I respect her work and legacy as a photojournalist.  I don't recall that her work involved her treating people in a way that has come up in allegations made against someone like Bruce Weber or Terry Richardson.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/27/style/terry-richardson-sexual-harassment-fashion-photographers.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/style/mario-testino-bruce-weber-harassment.html


Not to say that either of these photographers make what would probably be regarded a "great art".  Richardson's whole catalog, at least among those I know who have done any work in the fashion and modeling industry, is ... well, some would say his idea of art inherently involves harassment and assault.  But Woody Allen is considered higher brow, I guess, than a Richardson.  Photographers for fashion magazines are below the film auteur. 

On the whole I think we need a lower view of what the arts are and what they can do.  This is not just because I'm dubious about variants of Western art religion but also because I believe that kind of art religion is partly why monsters were given a wide berth.  Many of these men (and some women, I suppose, too) are given the task of re-enchanting the world through art in our largely disenchanted world.  Even if many might say Ivan Karamazov's polemic against God is potent what if the religion is not Christianity but the Western art religion of cinema or dance or literature or athletics or whatever civic religion is embraced as a substitute for a more traditional religion?  What if it's the DNC or GOP?  What if it's film?  Is the "heaven" of art re-enchanting the world, so often just for the length that we're observing the art, worth the sacrifice of one small child praying, "dear, kind God?"  To say that if we remove all the monsters we will have no art left is to say in response to Ivan's Grand Inquisitor that, yes, the sacrifice of one child is worth it for the art because what else is there for the human condition?  The assumption has to be there's just nothing else for it because if we're all monsters there's nothing else we can do. 

Even as a Calvinist who has a pretty grim view of the overall human condition I still have to say "no" to that. 

It's one of those kinds of topics I can't not think about because, as I mentioned before, I didn't spend half a decade blogging about Mars Hill on the assumption that the whole lot of us humans can only be liars, bigots and monsters because a couple of people say stuff like "we even lie about our lying"; "everyone is a hypocrite" or "yes, we're ALL monsters."  Not even a Calvinist really has to say that, even if plenty of stupid and lazy people would say it does.  I don't assume every Catholic priest abuses kids, even if I am a Protestant for a few reasons I won't waste your time delineating. 

If anything I would say the post Weinstein #metoo era is showing that Hollywood is the last place on earth that has any business looking down on priests or athletics leaders for how they prey upon women and children (and men, though that may not be quite as prominent overall). I just don't see that the argument stands for film but it seems more strange if we try to ay that it could apply to a Paterno or a Sandunsky.  It applies to neither but perhaps by looking at how strange and disagreeable the assertion looks in athletics can help illuminate why I believe it's so unpersuasive when applied to the arts.  No sane person could, would or should say that every coach is a Sandunsky or that every sports team doctor is a Nassar. 


 

Alex Ross' next book looks like it will be about Richard Wagner, Wagnerism.



I have a huge preoccupation with Wagner right now. My third book, a very big, long-term project, is going to be called Wagnerism. It will not be a book about Wagner per se, but an account of his vast cultural impact from the latter part of his life to today in all the arts. I’m not actually going to talk about his impact on music, which is a book or many books in itself.
 
Nietzsche as a young man was completely besotted with Wagner, and had to fight his way out of this obsession – not only with the music but the man, because they had quite an intense personal relationship. In the latter part of the 19th century, this reaction of Nietzsche against Wagner points to a new strand of thinking, which became modernism in a lot of ways. It’s the case with many other major figures of the later 19th and early 20th century. Very often, you see an early infatuation with Wagner, followed by a reaction against him or a modification of the passion. You see it in Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and many others.

People have forgotten just how overpowering a figure Wagner was in the late 19th century. If you were an intellectually or artistically leaning young person in any field, you more or less had to come to terms with Wagner, or at least expose yourself to him. He influenced every imaginable form. He had an impact on socialists, communists, feminists, early gay-rights people, as well as the right wing of course, which is all that people remember in a way.

One very significant problem that classical music has faced in the 20th century has been an association with fascism, and in particular Hitler’s notorious love for Wagner. There was a sense that something had gone spiritually awry in classical music itself, or that Hitler’s love for Wagner had somehow tainted the music or revealed something evil inherent to it. This is something of a misunderstanding, or a far from complete picture of Wagner – but it needs to be confronted and talked about.

The other thing about Nietzsche’s writing about Wagner is that it’s wonderfully brilliant, unpredictable vivid and perceptive, even when he’s deliberately distorting the material for a certain effect or working out his own profound ambivalence about Wagner. It’s fantastic music criticism exactly because it’s so wild and eccentric and unreliable – he’s the last person you should turn to for an exact account of what’s going on in Wagner’s librettos, but it’s insidiously quotable and fantastically expressive. It’s a dangerous model to use for music writing, but an inspiring one nonetheless.

He's been working on this one for a while.  I enjoyed The Rest is Noise, his perhaps too sweeping but very readable history of 20th century art music in the Western tradition. He's not writing quite as much for The New Yorker these days but he's still writing stuff.  Writing a book about Wagner's influence through the last two centuries sounds like a worthy project, even writing as someone who regards Wagner's operas as being somewhere between Star Wars and Michael Bay movies for drama.  I don't say that as someone who can't still appreciate the fun of the original Star Wars trilogy.  For that matter I own Transformers Prime.  Steve Blum's turn as Starscream was really, really funny. 

But Wagner was, in his way, an extension of what Douglas Shadle called "the Beethoven problem" in art music.  Beethoven, Wagner insisted, had written the last symphony, the point beyond which no one could successfully bother writing yet another symphony.  The Ninth was the be all and end all of the symphonic idiom.  What was left, however, was to take Beethoven's innovations for the symphony and apply those musical insights to the musical drama, e.g. opera.  Wagner set out, obviously, to achieve that.  He wrote his own libretti, composed the music, handled the orchestration and exerted control over every aspect of each multimedia extravaganza and laid the foundation for festivals that would, as Roger Scruton has said about Wagner's work, tell us the story about our stories.

There's all kinds of ways in which Joseph Campbell's monomyth could be seen as indebted to Richard Wagner's theorizing that it was the task of Art to recover and preserve the kernel of truth lost in all those old absurd religious dogmas.  The Hero's Journey was arguably in utero in Wagner's operas before a Joseph Campbell began to formulate American takes on the concept.  While Wagner is credited or blamed with an explicitly Germanic ideal of art he was shooting for art that would represent the hero and the entire universal human condition in which humanity could in some way redeem itself, if through a kind of tragic redemption.  It's not like everyone lives happily ever after in The Ring cycle.  Everybody dies but some face their deaths with tragic dignity and come to understand the value of love and a woman's worth ... .

Seeing as I have come to the view that Francis Schaeffer failed spectacularly to read the intellectual and artistic history of Western culture in the 19th century by not addressing Wagner and by also not addressing the monomythic elements of Joseph Campbell's quasi-Wagnerian take on how all folklore could be boiled down to a hero's quest, I'm probably picking up Alex Ross' book on Wagner and Wagnerism when it comes along.