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)
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 the 56 Vermonter train out of New York, I put on a movie because everyone in the Quiet Car wanted to deny the fact of their having chosen the Quiet Car, and I chose The Cruise. Perhaps my favorite documentary, it’s about Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who in the 1990s was a rhapsodic, erudite, and literary bus tour narrator in New York City.
About midway through the movie, the crew follows him around town, and he points out a white comforter bundled over a sleeping person in a dark nook on a quiet street, and he speaks, extemporaneously, this monologue:
The image makes me think of a conversation with this woman the other day. She was a fastidious, Judaic-type woman, in very sexual slacks, and we were talking about the Grid Plan. I made the comment about how the Grid Plan emanates from our weaknesses. This layout of avenues and streets in New York City, this system of 90-degree angles. To me, the Grid Plan is puritan. It’s homogenizing in a city where there is no homogenization available. There is only total existence, total cacophony. A total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of consciousness and awareness and cruising. And this woman turns to me, and she goes, “I never even thought of that.” She goes, “I can’t imagine it. Everyone likes the Grid Plan.” [Here, Levitch makes a dubious face.] And of course the question is like Who is Everyone? I mean it’s just like I said, and whoever that is under the white comforter, cuddled up with 34th Street and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and disheveled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island with all their machinated rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories—I mean what does that person think about the Grid Plan? Probably much more on my plane of thinking, my gradation of being, which is: Let’s just blow up the Grid Plan and rewrite the streets to be much more self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles. I mean doesn’t she find it infuriating? By being so completely allegiant to the Grid Plan, I think most noteworthy is this idiom, I can’t even imagine changing the Grid Plan. She’s really aligning herself with this civilization. It’s like saying, “Oh I can’t imagine altering this civilization. I can’t imagine altering this meek and lying morality that rules our lives, can’t imagine standing up on a chair in the middle of the room to change perspective, can’t imagine changing my mind on anything, and in the end, can’t imagine having my own identity that contradicts other identities.” When she says to me, after my statement, “Everyone likes the Grid Plan,” isn’t she automatically excluding myself from Everyone? How could you not like the Grid Plan! So functional! Take a right turn and a right turn and a right turn, and this is a red light and a green light and a yellow light! It’s so symmetrical! By saying that everyone likes the Grid Plan, you’re saying: I’m going to relive all the mistakes my parents made. I’m going to identify and relive all the sorrows my mother ever lived through. I will propagate and create dysfunctional children in the same dysfunctional way that I was raised. I will spread neurosis throughout the landscape and do my best to recreate myself and the damages of my life for the next generation.
I was struck most by isn’t she automatically excluding me from Everyone? It’s a familiar feeling, but what made me want to pause the movie and type the monologue out was the greater feeling I got that here, as I start the first of three 4-week writing retreats, is an excellent artist’s statement.
It’s a perfect image of the artist’s job of going against the grain of accepted norms, and it’s also the perfect example of the essayist’s job of taking an encounter from your past and making something more of it. You may think Levitch is Making Too Much Of Things when he claims that believing in the Grid Plan is like promising to be complicit in the Boomer-Republican project of leaving the world a worse and less inspiring place, but the beauty of the idea as an idea is that it is indefensible, unproveable, and it sticks in your mind like a song you can’t tell is good or bad. It puts two things together I have never myself put together, and even if I decide he’s wrong those things won’t soon unstick, and loving essays the way I do, I love Levitch for essaying me to that place.
I have been for two weeks in New York City, home of the Grid Plan, and many of the people I have seen and spent time with stood somewhere on the plane of Levitch’s thinking, and some of the people aligned themselves, in some way or another, with the Grid Plan. Not Everyone, but some. I’m knowing myself more and more as not among them, and that used to make me feel so terrible and lonely.
This bit from Jon Baskin’s NYRB review of Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk left me looking hard at myself and recognizing finally, in words, something I’d felt creeping up on me but not feeling able to name (emphasis mine):
That the final articles in Souls, as well as some Yang has written for the liberal-centrist Tablet since the book went to press, criticize aspects of these [i.e. neo-socialist, post-Bernie] movements—a development that has disappointed some of his former admirers—may be seen as indicating an underlying consistency: where before he had resisted, from the perspective of the “singular” individual, the flattening out of social life into a series of market-based transactions, today Yang opposes the “politiciz[ation] of everyday life” on similar grounds. But it also suggests a characteristic dilemma for those who came of age when authenticity was experienced predominantly as a personal, rather than a political, possibility. To learn to measure all against the barometer of the “hard and unyielding” self is to come to distrust the demands of unified groups and movements, no matter how well meaning. For every “movement” revolves around a set of orthodoxies that will be unacceptable to one habituated to defiance.
It me, as the kids online say. Being true to thine own self feels less like a virtue in these times of oppression.
Came across this one, from one of Kafka’s letters, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.
I love how this starts out as contentious and misanthropic and then swerves to end on something akin to salvation and hope.
I’ve got more to say on Sade’s book, but for a future post. For now this quote’s going on the wall of my office.
When Jane Click still read, she preferred the language of displacement and estrangement that prepared a path to revelation over language that simply refreshed and enlarged upon what she already knew. But if you asked her what was the very last book that she had read—that one that had ultimately led her to the conclusion that books wanted only to expose and destroy you, tear your heart out and leave it in the dust, like the soul of a murdered and soon forgotten little animal—she wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Does this all mean it’s a game? Yes, in a sense. Literature is a game with language, and hoaxing alerts us to the fact that the rules are not written down anywhere—in the same way that someone who goes barefoot to a wedding alerts us to the fact that there are actually no regulations governing these things. Those acts draw our attention to the thinness of the social fabric by tearing a little piece of it. Literary hoaxes appeal to critics and theorists because they expose the fragility of the norms of reading.
Here’s maybe the place to point out that, amid a Twitter discussion this weekend on which Hogwarts house I was a member of, I chose Slytherin.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Shameful, this might be the first Joy Williams story I’ve read. And of course it was incredible, the best story I’ve read in months. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.↵