Very Good Paragraphs – Horny Film Crit Edition

Unlike so many movie stars, Robert Ryan was able to portray a real heterosexual. But Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952), seen on Channel 11 at 2 a.m. March 30, 1983, is not impressed. It is very, very, very hard to impress Barbara Stanwyck. She is authentically blue collar in this picture, utterly credible when she says she used to sell sheet music in a dime store, and able to make us forget that she is a glamorous millionaire movie star. She drinks what she calls a “slug” of whiskey out of a shot glass with no chaser and holds a cigarette in her teeth when she lights it. The picture would not be the same without cigarettes; the climax for me occurred not when the director intended it but earlier in the picture when Ryan, fairly tough himself but of course no match for Stanwyck, lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. She accepted it but looked at it with an easy, graceful scorn for just a fraction of a second and tossed it over her shoulder. I was so shocked I didn’t notice what Ryan did. I believe he did nothing; what could he do?

This is Boyd McDonald’s review for Clash by Night in its entirety. It does two things I love, which every movie review McDonald wrote for Christopher Street and other gay pubs does:

1. It asserts the viewer’s right to shape a movie, deciding not just what does and doesn’t have value, but when its climaxes and low moments fall.

2. It takes the actor’s body as the lone source of all movie art.

Most of McDonald’s task is to write from his hardon—he is consistently leering over (or dismissing) the asses and bulges of male actors throughout the golden years of Hollywood. But this approach to criticism finds its way to a kind of radical rethinking of what movies can do, who they are for, and what they can do for the people they’re for.

Take, for example, this bit from his review of Fireball 500: “it is especially calming to watch a[n Annette] Funicello picture after being overexposed to such excessively gifted players as Liza Minelli, who relentlessly ram their talent up the viewer’s ass.” Or when he dismisses Katherine Hepburn’s “scenery-chewing” performance in Adam’s Rib as not worth watching.

Instead, McDonald is gaga over Hope Emerson, the 225lb 6’2″ character actress whose unconventional (i.e. “unfuckable”) body makes every (male) director in Hollywood overlook her magnetism and understated talents.

One of the joys of criticism is feeling yourself able to elucidate the presence and textures of talent better than the average person can. (I’m kind of doing this right now.) Critics then, love stars and the abundantly skilled, and they love to play to our similar enthusiasms. If you go to movies to be allowed closer to the more ideal versions of us, conventional film criticism is for you.

If you feel that beauty is cheap and you’re more interested in real human faces,[*] buy McDonald’s book. His eye is so honed to the real that slips through a film’s worth of sheeny inauthenticity, and his variant (deviant/perverted) tastes open movies up as documents to a kind of U.S. viewership unreported by critics reading movies as auteur narratives.

What I love about the above paragraph-review is how succinctly he gets at those moments of the real, and how confidently he shuts out whatever gets in their way. As a “movie review” aimed at telling you what the thing is about and whether you should spent money on it, McDonald’s blurb provides no service, which is what lets it hang out as art.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. No surprise I count myself among you. My favorite film performance of the year is Louise Latham in Hitchcock’s Marnie (which I just saw last month in Finland so it counts). Go see it and watch what her face is capable of.

On Amanda Goldblatt’s Hard Mouth

A gal with a sick dad and a lab assistant job leaves both to live (and possibly die) alone in the sort of off-grid cabin you need to be flown to. That’s the quickest summary I can give you of this book I loved a lot. It is not really an adventure book, and not at all a testament to the human spirit like you might expect from Wild or Into the Wild or Where the Wild Things Are. (Well, maybe that last one actually.) It’s a character study of somebody who sees her life wrong and feels (or pretends to feel) mostly untroubled by that.

The book’s big selling point is its sentences. I should say Amanda’s a good friend. I saw her read from this in Brooklyn when I was there seventeen years ago on this endless trip I’ve been on for seventeen years, and since August I’ve carried the book to Vermont and to Finland, and now here in Maine, where I just finished it. I kept emailing her about sentences I loved.

Flipping through at random, here’s an exemplary couple:

While walking I did idly wonder what animals I would find in the cabin, what disarray. It would be good, I thought, to confront the entropy. To embrace the surprise, to discover, to not know till.

Denise (our protag) is lyrically hypererudite, batting language about the way a cat does a mouse. That might be inaccurate. I just flipped through and saw “My temples hurt from squint,” and it’s probably more exemplary of her voice than the above. Note: not squinting. There’s like this pruning or honing that goes on throughout the book toward the kinds of constructions we all use casually, as though everyday language were shabby and unkempt and Denise wants to better capture her life and viewpoint not by dolling or gussying that language up, but by stripping and even malforming it into a way that makes us look more queerly as what we say and why.

It’s a pose and a mask, too. Language helps Denise focus on the how of her speech when the what of it might be too difficult.

Like I said, she exits her life for the woods. Perhaps the biggest gift Amanda’s novel gave me was getting to spent a lot of time with a woman on her own. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel where a woman departs on her own for the woods, and when I think about Women In The Woods, I feel like they traditionally fall into madonna-whore dichotomies of like a Linda-Hamiltonian Take-No-Shit prepper type on the one hand or a hubristic, silly trespassing horrorfilm victim on the other.

Denise, instead, is just a gal who commits to a stupid but important idea. She does her research on how to survive and does her best. She is strong and weak, shrewd and dumb, compassionate and cold. In her unreal voice she appears very real.

Plus there’s like these satisfying wisdoms she can voice in ways that make the unknown ring out as eternally true. Here’s a great ¶ that comes when she’s saying goodbye to the man who flew her to the cabin:

“Do you have headlights on that thing?” I asked. He laughed and said yes, that he’d get off and back fine, long as he didn’t have to land in the water, which he didn’t. What if I undid his overalls, I thought, though I didn’t move. We exist with sets of stories or lists: the ways we must feel during loss or solitude, the ways we must present the self to others, the ways we must act. But there are other and scarier ways to be.

One of my favorite things about Denise is how she’s horny, like a person is. Not horny like a frat dude or like a nymphomaniac (whatever that is). Her horniness is neither a comical trait nor a conflictual one. She just lets herself want sex and sometimes enjoy it and sometimes regret it. Like a person.

A nonpathological erotic mind is a pet concern these days, given what I’m writing about. Sex in non-pornographic art is more often terrible than good, and by “good” I mean It Helps Us See Sex For What It Is And Not What We’ve Been Told To Make It.

So chalk that up as the other great gift of Amanda’s book.

At any rate, you should buy this novel if you want an adventure story that’s always more human than an adventure story. Oh and it finds just the perfect image to end on. Really a treasure. Find it here.

Boy-Lesque

This is a still from Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion documentary I finally got around to watching, here in Sysmä, Finland, where I’m eating and drinking very little and trying to work very hard on the next book. It’s from Vegas, I imagine, from the part of the movie where they talk about John Gregory Dunne’s Vegas memoir, which I hope to read as soon as I’m back in a place where I can readily find English language books.

I love this image for its fonts and camp lushness. The Didion doc was inspiring, of course, the long story of a writer so strong in her commitment to seeing through images like this one, or past them, or—later in her career—toward more sobering and weighty subjects, but I’ve just come off a month in Vermont with very queer people, writers and artists, who in response to my antics and my writing—which is seeking out what’s funny the way a drowning man seeks air—didn’t look away or roll their eyes. With my shaky ideas that moving art can begin from a place of stupidity and silliness, my very queer friends all seemed to Get It.

I’ve loved Didion for so long. She made me want to be a writer, or at least a better one. But tonight I’m trying to remind myself of a feeling I had the second day I got here, doubting that I had anything of value to write again: What if all we had in the world was Joan Didion, like a remote part of the country where you can tune in only one radio station?

I would hate to live in that place. So thank you, Griffin Dunne, for including the above image in the movie about your elderly aunt.

Check It Out: My New ASMR Discovery

Let’s take a look at Prasanth. He’s a man in India who reviews consumer goods and more on YouTube. He places the item in front of a white posterboard display so that it seems to appear on a cloud, or in some void outside the spacetime continuum. Then he speaks off-camera into a close microphone with a touch of echo in the background, like what we imagine the voice of God sounding like.

Behold:

Prasanth has a voice like feathers strumming muted guitar strings. His plosive P’s and B’s are wet enough to tingle my scalp without being spitty, and his vowels are carried by this low husky rasping that for me seems requisite (hail Bob Ross, ASMR King). But the real magic of his voice is the thrumming of his half-trilled R’s. It feels exactly like having your hair stroked gently, or your back scratched. I could listen to him for hours.

ASMR is as subjective as comedy, and so I don’t expect you to find Prasanth soothing. But I do expect you to find him interesting. Here is a list of some of the nearly 3000 things Prasanth has reviewed:

Every video is the same. The thing to be reviewed materialized on the already vacant white space. “Let’s take a look at this NAME OF OBJECT,” Prasanth says. Usually when it’s a food item, he’ll show you all the sides of the box, point out its country of origin, list many if not all of the ingredients. He’ll tell you how much he paid for the item in rupees, and then say, “or uh … X dollars or so,” for us Americans. He likes to read aloud some of the package copy, or in the case of his review of the Mag Magazine Board Game, he’ll read a number of the playing cards inside.

He is vocal about his disappointments. The one video I have saved, and the first I discovered, is his compilation of stationery sets. The first one contains a pad of paper that looks like a USD 100 bill, but when he unwraps the thing he sees that only the cover is the 100, the rest of the papers are blank white. Later, a pen that has a plastic flipping hourglass at the top has only enough sand to count about 3 seconds. “That’s a little disappointing,” he says, and points out it would be great if it were more like a minute,

Still he gives it 5 hearts at the end, and he says what he always says: “Quite nice. Check it out.”

Then he reviews a plastic Disney’s Frozen slingshot with a pencil sharpener inside.

Prasanth never uses the term ASMR in his videos, though his bio page admits that his videos are a good cure for insomnia. While there are now links to purchase the items reviewed (there didn’t use to be), the point of the videos seems less a public service and more a kind of David Byrnean art project. Prasanth seems not to have found a consumer good he didn’t find Quite Nice, and as somebody with anxieties about rampant consumerism there’s almost an exposure therapy effect of these videos: I’m made to accept, and in short time to wonder, about all the pointless crap the world creates.

Plus, Prasanth’s enthusiasm for the world’s goods comes with a voice and tone that sounds flatly dead in the YouTubiverse of young pretty folks being all up in the camera and Just So Excited To Show You This Thing Today Guys! He never exhorts. He doesn’t ask us for anything, but only to Check It Out.

So Check It Out.

The Feelings Cafeteria

I thought to title this “The Feelings Factory”, but social media isn’t a feelings factory, exactly, in that feelings are manufactured in our minds and bodies. Social media is more a place you go to get something you don’t have or can’t make right now. A Feelings Cafeteria? Let’s go with The Feelings Cafeteria.

Here’s where this post is coming from:

The characteristic that best describes the difference between people at various points on the scale[*] is the degree to which they are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process. Associated with the capacity to distinguish between feelings and thoughts is the ability to choose between having one’s functioning guided by feelings or by thoughts. The more entangled and intense the emotional atmosphere a person grows up in, the more their life becomes governed by their own and other people’s feeling responses.

It’s from a book on family psychology (Kerr & Bowen’s Family Evaluation) I’ve been reading for research, and the moment I came across it I could only think of Twitter—replacing, that is, one’s family of origin with one’s online “fam”.

The science of it may be wrong and off, in that one is not raised at formative stages over years by one’s Twitter fam, but the comparison feels apt to me. I would call social media an intense emotional atmosphere engineered to get one entangled. And opening Twitter while bored or between life events, I’ve very quickly felt that my life had become governed by other people’s feeling responses.

I’ve felt that people online are usually feeling and not thinking. I didn’t judge them for it. (Or I tried not to but I’m coming off a couple decades where judging others has been the only thing that makes me feel secure.) I saw that one of the gifts of social media, besides its manufacturing the feeling of social connections, is how amid the dull periods of one’s life it can provide some emotional simulation.

That emotion is usually rage or disgust, but it’s still a stimulation.

Like with certain books or activist language, I felt it wasn’t the right place for me to engage in the world—politically or otherwise—because I’m feeling dozens of things about the world already, and I’d like to think through some stuff to help. And while posts might link to places where thinking is happening, wading through the mess of social media to find those links is like looking for a sunny spot to read and heading to a protest rally.

Twitter is a place where I can’t think—where I think thinking is discouraged. I’ve felt this for months, and so what a discovery in my reading yesterday to see some psychology about why this is so.

Is one reason why more and more I can’t be there.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. i.e., the “scale of differentiation”, which is Bowen’s admittedly arbitrary way to measure the degree to which someone has emotionally separated from their family of origin (and therefore become a more distinct self).

My Year of Queer Reading: Nick White’s Sweet & Low

Nick is a dear friend. Fellow Nebraska alum (though later), fellow Sewanee alum (we were suitemates). You’re not going to get an objective review here of a collection that is gorgeous in its compassion, and in the compassion it made me feel for its characters.

Maybe it’s not compassion I want to write about, because the OAD has it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and that’s not what I felt reading these stories. But I don’t want to write about empathy because I’m bored of talking about empathy in fiction.

Let’s try this: Nick’s writing made me feel feelings toward made-up people I have a very hard time feeling in my waking day-to-day life.

I’ll start with his final story, and I think his best: “The Last of His Kind”. It’s about a family in Mississippi, a somewhat bare-bones family of son, dad, and grandmother. The inciting event is a woodpecker hammering away at the house at early hours, which bird turns out to be the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (hence the title). Family lore has it they’re under the spell of a Choctaw curse, and it’s the task of the son, Henry, task to try to rid them of it.

The story comes at the end of the book’s second section, which is a story cycle centered on the life of the dad, Forney, and much of its wonderfulness comes from Nick’s skillful way of tapping into the histories of these characters we’ve been dipping into over the past 100 pages. Many of the passages felt buoyed by the culmination of lives I’d seen so much of.

The wonderfulness also comes from the wide range Nick allows himself in the POV, dipping even into the woodpecker at times. Here’s a moment, for instance, I loved:

She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her rib cage one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.

The boy, becoming braver, swigs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.

“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”

MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”

I loved “mouth hole”, but mostly I loved the simple grace here, and how much love emanates from the scene. It’s one of Nick’s gifts. He’s got a heart bigger than anyone’s, and a vocab more colorful than a Cezanne.

You can buy Sweet & Low here.