Friday, February 1, 2013


Here's Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (credited as screenwriter on Spider-Man 2 and John Carter), from the introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales:
For the last year or so I have been boring my friends, and not a few strangers, with a semi-coherent, ill-reasoned, and doubtless mistaken rant on the subject of the American short story as it is currently written.

The rant goes something like this (actually this is the first time I have so formulated it): Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. Not merely from the critical canon, but from the store racks and library shelves as well. Nobody could be paid, published, lionized, or cherished among the gods of literature for writing any kind of fiction other than nurse romances. Now, because of my faith and pride in the diverse and rigorous brilliance of American writers of the last half-century, I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic masterpieces would have emerged. Thomas Pynchon's Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick's Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. One imagines, however, that this particular genre--that any genre, even one far less circumscribed in its elements and possibilities than the nurse romance--would have paled somewhat by the year 2002. Over the last year in that oddly diminished world, somebody, somewhere, would be laying down Michael Chabon's Dr. Kavalier and Nurse Clay with a weary sigh and crying out, "Surely, oh, surely there must be more to the novel than this!"

Instead of "the novel" and "the nurse romance," try this little Gedankenexperiment with "jazz" and "the bossa nova," or with "cinema" and "fish-out-of-water comedies..." Suddenly you find yourself sitting right back in your very own universe.
Chabon's yawlp has been the most persistent, if not the loudest, in American lit. His PP-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, along with Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, were the first--most noticeably--in a movement to re-braid the come-loose hanks of "literature" and "popular culture." (The movement had been simmering with the post-modernists for years, but it was only in the twilight of the twentieth century that it got to a boil rolling enough to attract the masses.) It was around this time that Bryan Singer, of underground The Usual Suspects fame, released X-Men--arguably the watershed movie of good superhero movies. As a pubertal fan of The Usual Suspects, it seemed odd that Singer was doing costumed combat stuff in the wake of such a patient and gritty crime film. Since X-Men, Ang Lee has directed a Hulk movie, Kenneth Branagh a Thor one, and sort-of indie darling Jon Favreau kicked the door in with Iron Man. Gradually, the types of movies you went to never expecting them to be good, were getting kind of good.

By the 90s, the Bond franchise had pretty much become a joke, being more about seeing a girl you never get to see in a bikini in a bikini. In the four years between Die Another Day and Casino Royale, tastes seemed to have changed significantly. It's convenient to hang this carpet-pulling the culture suffered on 9/11, but this is no academic investigation. As viewers, we apparently still wanted to see egregious violence and buildings falling down (insert footnote re: cultural catharsis), but couldn't stomach any of it to be frivolous. Now we wanted meaning or, in the absence of meaning, heart- and soul-sick confusion at these loops we're in. If James Bond was to exist in our world, he couldn't be Sears catalogue-handsome, like Pierce Brosnan. With his craggy, sometimes sickly-seeming face, and a coldness to his blue eyes that can make Stephen Harmer look like a dough-eyed softy, Daniel Craig made the perfect fit. This was not a Bond for whom peril was a breeze, or who was dumbly convinced about the righteousness of his job--the reliable British cheek was less a come on, more a gallows gag.

Sam Mendes is steering Skyfall. American Beauty made such a splash that Mendes's follow-ups have seemed slight in comparison. But with films like Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Away We Go, the director has been burnishing, within the framework of different genres, his depiction of the conflict between an individual and his or her assigned role--be it the role of a soldier, the role of a spouse, the role of a parent. In Skyfall, all of these, let's say, deeper themes have been pretty deftly folded into the tried and true Bond genre. There has been an increasing tension throughout Craig's 007 residence, as though the real world, our world, has been slowly eking into the stylized spy novel world of the characters.

This twenty-first-century movement towards more inward, meaningful, and--dare I say--literate entertainments is nothing new. It seems to me that there was this roughly twenty-year spate where the folks selling movies assumed the public was awash with boobs, dolts, and dimwits. And those who weren't mush brains, were snobs. We had movies and films, fiction and literature, and the low and high weren't permitted to consort. Slowly, we're being trusted with our own minds, with our own emotional intelligence. We want to be entertained, but we don't want to be pandered to. The purpose of entertainment, at least in my lifetime, has mostly been to disengage, to get away, but Skyfall is an apt example, I think, of the change that's afoot; the way out is doubly a way back in.

- Andrew


  1. I wonder, though, if one should be so eager to celebrate a state of cinema where all things become one (which was, I think, the point of the preceding quote by Michael Chabon who, to be fair, did write one good script: Wonder Boys). I fear that it will lead to a similar situation that we are facing in publishing, whereby works of cream puffery like, to take but an example, The Life Of Pi are mistaken for serious literature (or to take a more tragic example, an English teacher I met at exhibition park can assert that Stephanie Meyer is a great writer). It seems to me that elevating a film such as Skyfall above what it is is (a cash sucking machine) steers us ever more perilously towards a world in which the mildly amusing is our new standard of greatness.

  2. On a related topic: I am nearing the end of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (there's been enough hyperbole surrounding this book so I won't comment on it except to say that the reviews I've read have neglected to make the connection between our 20th century decadence and the marauding horde of scalphunters, something McCarthy most certainly does). In it, through the character of the judges - defacto leader and moral guide to the marauding horde of scalphunters - states (and I'm paraphrasing here as I don't have my copy handy) that the stakes are the game. It makes me wonder if perhaps the apparent flowering of Hollywood cinema in the, so-called, post 9/11 period has more to do with the stakes than with any one specific event. One recalls that the last time Hollywood managed to shake loose its apathy and start making some pretty darn in good films, was in the seventies when the cold war, the energy crisis and the shadow of nuclear armageddon seem to have convinced certain creative types that the end game was upon them so they better make it good (it's no surprise the pinnacle of this cycle was called Apocalypse Now).