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by Sean Murphy

4 Mar 2009

This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features a lengthy, but worthwhile appraisal of John Cheever by Charles McGrath. The piece reassesses Cheever’s current status (McGrath correctly concedes that Cheever, who died in 1982, has had his star fade in the last decade or two), and perhaps in light of John Updike’s recent passing (he made it to 76), it is difficult to believe the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as he was sometimes called (in a way that only a regular contributor to The New Yorker, that literary bible of upper-middle class, over-educated and angst-ridden WASPs could be) did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his collected short stories. Those stories, taken along with his novels (some highly regarded, others not so much) seemed to constitute a significant pillar in the modern American pantheon (modern meaning three to four decades ago).

When Cheever died, McGrath recalls: his literary reputation seemed as secure as literary reputations get. You would have bought shares in it if you speculated in such things. He was a widely acknowledged master of the short story, in a league with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, who said that Cheever wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Now, not so much. The aforementioned collection of short stories, still largely regarded (for better or worse) as one of the seminal works of 20th century American fiction, sells approximately 5,000 copies a year. Not shabby, McGrath acknowledges, but pretty depressing when you consider that James Patterson, for instance, probably sold more books in the last ten minutes than the Cheever catalog will sell in the next ten years.

Nevertheless, (and this seems to be one of McGrath’s implications) it stands to reason that with the understandable hubbub stirred up by Updike’s death and the celluloid reincarnation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s half as depressing as the novel, it will be very depressing indeed), the time may be ripe for a reassessment of Cheever, that bard of suburban despair. We’ll see. As we slouch toward a not-so-great Depression, I suspect that nostalgia for the black-and-white TV era in America might not entice too many young readers. Having to brown bag lunch it once in a while (do they even make brown bags anymore?) is about as retro as most middle-aged clock punchers want to get. I can’t say I blame them. Also, remember how quaint some of the characters seemed, when we read about them in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Think about how ancient, and boring, those loquacious and well-mannered (not to mention mostly lillywhite) characters will seem to X-box educated pupils today.

Let’s put it this way: to get a handle on Cheever, you need to have at least a passing appreciation of a time when people poured their spirits out of glass decanters (you need to know what a decanter is). An era when women drank, and smoked, all through their pregnancies just so they could keep pace with their husbands. McGrath speaks to Mary, Cheever’s 90-year-old widow, and she reminisces about how certain folks rolled back in the day: “I just couldn’t keep him from drinking,” and went on: “But everyone drank a lot back then. People don’t always understand that now. Sometimes someone would even have to be put to bed before dinner, but that’s just the way it was.”

That remark, remarkable in its stoic, unsentimental honesty,  reminded me of Cheever’s much-anthologized short story “The Swimmer”. The story is not autobiographical so much as a stark document from the same era Cheever lived, wrote and drank in. Old school: Most of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his briefs, then up and out the door before sunrise—-like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—-who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out.

It was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives. It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

by Jer Fairall

4 Mar 2009

“You haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.”  Out August 21.

by Vijith Assar

4 Mar 2009

As you probably already know, SNL alum Jimmy Fallon made his debut Monday night as a late-night talk show host in an attempt to fill departed comic royalty Conan O’Brien’s (figuratively and literally) enormous shoes. The poor dear was clearly dysfunctionally nervous, as evidenced by (figuratively) robotic delivery of the opening monologue and asking his guests (literally) point-blank to do impressions without any semblance of a contextual setup. (Yes, Conan and the random-ass non sequitur were the dearest of friends, but that’s not what was going on in this case.)

Let’s focus instead, then, on the introduction of hip-hop dynamos the Roots to the bandstand in the Max Weinberg Seven role, a bizarre career move which initially left me wondering if instrumental prowess was once again on the way out in hip-hop. No, Weezy’s guitar fetish doesn’t count.

The good news: they nailed it right off the bat, and the opening sequence clearly raised the bar on Conan’s. An apparently-late-for-work Fallon scrambled through the streets of New York trying to outrun a deliciously filthy funk-rock guitar riff that culminated in synchronized yelps from the band members and a wiggle of ?uestlove’s wig. That’s the kind of late night I wanna have; sorry, Pender.

The bad news: Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter still has to sell me on his importance in this context. Granted, he wasn’t half bad as a comic foil, singing Fallon’s Slow-Jam The News bit to a remarkable, er, climax—specifically, with the line “she added an amendment.” (One hopes the genre will change each night, but I guess we have to wait a few more hours to find out.)  But despite his front-and-center role with the band for the past 15 years, the fact remains that they’re doing transitional music and intro/outros now—they reportedly worked up 200 microcompositions in preparation for the debut. Unfortunately, a seven second canvas doesn’t give Tariq enough time to drop any coherent grammar, let alone the usual profound lyrical insights. Vicki Randle from the Tonight Show Band might sing Leno out frequently enough, but when guitarist Kevin Eubanks takes the spotlight—that is, most of the time—she plays percussion instead. Black Thought, on the other hand, just stands there looking slick. Can we at least get him some castanets?

Of course, I’m down with any excuse to hear these guys play Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” (or, as I knew it for years, “Regulate”), and although Fallon still needs to defrost a bit, he does deserve a little more time to ease into the role even if his band outpaces him from the get-go. It’s going to be hard to switch back and forth with Craig Ferguson and still catch Late Night’s ad bumpers, but I’m going to give it a shot.

by Rob Horning

3 Mar 2009

Commenting on British reality-TV contest shows, Chris Dillow makes a great point about what he labels “consumption deskilling”:

The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing also reflect the fact that once-basic skills such as singing and dancing have become specialist tasks performed by professionals and merely passively consumed by the rest of us. What’s going on here is a form of deskilling. But it’s a different from the one brilliantly described by Harry Braverman, who showed how workers were robbed by capitalists of their production skills. What we’re seeing here is the decline of consumption skills. Which raises a question. How can capitalism have achieved this? After all, the capitalist might have control over production - and is thus well-placed to deprive workers of productive skills - but he doesn’t have control over what we do in our own homes. So what’s going on? ...Scarce time… needn’t displace consumption skills. I suspect something else is going on. That something is the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money. Many of us take it for granted that it’s rational to spend as little time cooking as possible, and that music should only be a consumption good. What this ignores is that many things are worth doing for their own sake.

Exactly. Consumerism tends to encourage us to think of “doing things” as work and touts vicariousness as superior to actual participation. Watching and imagining become the convenient short-cuts to mastery —“rational” ways to save time and maximize consumption, which we have limited time for, after all, in this era of free content and attention deficits.

What makes instrumental rationality spread is advertising discourse, which conveys that ideology regardless of what specific product it touts. Consumer-goods manufacturers obviously have a vested interest in promoting vicariousness: If we find little meaning in our work and prefer consumption to concentration and collecting things to hobbies, they obviously benefit to a far greater degree than they do if they are merely outfitting us for activities other than shopping.With marketing to remind us of all the goods we are missing out on, the pressure to conserve time is always growing; and consuming instead of doing lets us save time while working through our leisure to-do list. (It’s apropos here to cite my favorite Minutemen song, “Shit From an Old Notebook”: “Let the products sell themselves; fuck advertising, commercial psychology, psychological methods to sell should be destroyed because of their own blind involvement in their own conditioned minds.”)

Vicariousness lets us evade that supposedly dismal slough of practice necessary before the “rewards” begin to come in—before our guitar playing or cooking or whatever is professional grade. That is what Dillow is talking about with “instrumental rationality”—the idea that only the ends justify the means, which must be kept minimized. The end result of anything we do is reified, in the sense that it becomes a kind of object we add to our collection of accomplishments. That feat of collecting such end results outweighs, or even obfuscates, the pleasures of having experiences themselves. (This is also why the “buying experiences” idea bothers me.) Dillow notes that happiness research suggests this is actually happening—people are finding it hard to identify what will make them happy and make systematic mistakes.

Losing touch with the desire to pursue pleasure through doing things, the pleasure of the sheer fact of being alive and humanly productive, is a fundamental sort of alienation, and, as Dillow notes, Marx’s critique of capitalism pivoted on this idea. “Marx’s gripe with capitalism was that it transformed work from a means of expressing one’s nature into a force for oppressing and demeaning people. So great has been capitalism’s triumph that many of us don’t even appreciate the possibility that Marx could have been right. It’s just taken for granted that work must be alienated drudgery.”

So it is vis-a-vis consumption deskilling: Consumption should take work; it is not work’s opposite. We must be actively engaged for consumption to be meaningful, or life-affirming or some such slop. If we instead look for short cuts to accelerate our processing of leisure goods, we, ironically enough, succeed in making consumption more work-like—at least in terms of how work is falsely conceived under capitalism, as disutility.

by Bill Gibron

3 Mar 2009

Right now, it’s the studio’s only concern. The film has been completed, the marketing has been revved up, the press has been invited and the (so far mixed) reviews are starting to pour in. Years ago, a pan from someone like Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael might have meant something. In past decades, bad buzz (or in the opposite, unstoppable hype) could have helped predict the upcoming scenario. But Warner Brothers - with a little forced legal cooperation from FOX - are now playing the waiting game. They are gauging the media, deciphering the focus group cues and messageboard clues. They are baiting geek nation and hoping that the critical clique will take the hook and run like Hell. Watchmen is poised to be the first real ‘event’ film of 2009, and its time to crunch the all-crucial numbers.

That’s right; it’s all down to numbers now. Box office returns. Butts in seats. Watchmen may be a fine entertainment, or a stunning piece of visual art (or both…hint, hint), but the bottom line is just that - the reason for the film’s existence. FOX didn’t run to their local civil courthouse to complain about aesthetics. The studio who apparently passed on the film several times wasn’t crying over spilt special effects? No, they sensed a potential cash cow and wanted to make sure to get a bit of the cream for themselves. If the movie doesn’t make back it’s budget, it will be seen as a full blown failure, no matter how it functions as cinema. If it only makes a couple of hundred million, it will stand in line along with The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and other “not Dark Knight” successes.

So who will be there come Friday morning (or in some instances, Thursday midnight)? Fans will surely be some of the first in line, their thirst for anything Alan Moore and the Minutemen almost unquenchable. For them, this is more than niche. For them, this is the answer to a prayer long genuflected over. Surely, they will be rewarded, minor changes and all. But the truth is, the rabid lovers of the original graphic novel will not be enough to sweeten the greenback starved suits - not in this or any economy. Even if each and every lover of the book came and sat through the nearly three hour movie twice, Warners would still be waking up with a clear case of the deep in debt cold sweats. So how does Watchmen reach beyond this determined demographic? Will anyone other than the faithful show up come 6 March?

Surely, the overwhelming publicity propaganda both on and off line will draw in some of the neophytes, especially those who are already prone toward comic book adaptations. For them, Watchmen will walk a fine line between brilliant and baffling. Moore’s narrative is very much steeped in personal angst and individual alienation, not grand heroics and epic gestures of action goodwill. There’s no prancing Tony Stark substitute, no hardline post-millennial Bruce Wayne wannabe. Instead, all the characters carry the perplexing personality issues of the everyday human. They’re afraid of war. They’re concerned about their aging well being. And they are worried that someone may be trying to end their reign as the world’s mythic masked vigilantes. If they can breach Moore’s tangled web of weakness and self-deception, newbies will find themselves instantly intoxicated.

Teens, especially, will be rewarded for their rapt, text message attention. Zach Snyder, notorious for ladling on the ultra-violence with Kubrick/Burgess abandon delivers enough squishy splatter and luscious gore to make even the most seasoned blood fan cringe - if just a little. Adolescent males will cheer like soccer hooligans over Rorschach’s revenge on a nasty child killer, and the last act jail break features a power tool prototype that even Leatherface at his most Texas Chainsaw Massacre-y can’t match. This may turn off a few of the gal pals in the 15 to 21 pool (those capable of getting in to see this very hard “R” film), but there is also a romanticized lure to the material that makes it the perfect fodder for new age geek girls. After all, when was the last time your saw caped crusaders copulating while flying over a failing city? Or full frontal blue male nudity?

Adults however, will remain Watchmen‘s wild card - and Achilles heel. It’s hard to see anyone over a certain age falling for this high minded spectacle of surreality. The Dark Knight certainly drew in the over 50 crowd because of its decision to go against type. While steeped in funny book formulas, Christopher Nolan simply shifted everything over into the realm of serious crime drama and let the situations sell the stranger stuff. And it worked to the tune of a billion buckarinos. Watchmen has no such realistic core. It’s an alternate reality, a Brazil like combination of socio-political pomp and revisionist retro-raw circumstance. The opening montage may stir a few of the faithful down memory lane, but it’s hard to see a senior citizen sitting still as Silk Specter gets her face smashed by a sex-crazed Comedian - or better yet, as the narrative turns grim and very, very disturbing. 

Watchmen now clearly stands on a precipice. It will either be seen as a risky, rewarding experiment or a noble failure that still fulfills the vision of both its director and its devotees. Judgment on the final effectiveness of the film may have to wait until the proposed FOUR HOUR director’s cut that Snyder has promised come DVD/Blu-ray time, and some of the missing subplots - the Black Freighter/Under the Hood angles, for example - will have to bear up to their own sense of scrutiny come release date (a separate disc arrives in stores on 24 March - a SE&L review will arrive shortly thereafter). After all the talk, after all the advertising and viral manipulation, Watchmen stands to be judged on criteria that are as callous as they are indicative of the industry. Get ready to experience the kind of backseat driving and Monday morning quarterbacking that only a potential entertainment phenomenon can create. It’s no longer about the movie. For Watchmen and Warners, it’s all about the money. 

//Mixed media