Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964) is a work of impressive scholarship that remains extremely (and sometimes depressingly) relevant today. It traces periods of intellectual flourishing as well as the reactions against them, from the deeply intellectual Founding Fathers to the incoherent and incandescent anti-intellectual aggression of the McCarthy era. The overarching point of the book seems to be that since its inception, America has undergone cycles of anti-intellectual sentiment. These rise when expertise oversteps its bounds, and makes mistakes, or perhaps even when it is needed too badly. At other times, expertise and intellectuals can come to be valued, though a latent suspicion often remains. Overall the book is well worth reading for an understanding of how such a large proportion of America acquired anti-intellectual sentiments, as well as for providing insight into many cultural and social aspects of American life and history. Continue reading
I’ve often felt that many of Bergman’s middling films, had they been directed by virtually anyone else, could be another filmmaker’s masterpiece, but Bergman made so many phenomenal films that he more or less overwhelms any possible selection process. Dreams is like that; minor for Bergman, average even, but still outstanding in its own right. Beginning with no dialogue, it introduces its two female protagonists in opposite power dynamics: Susanne (Eva Dahlbeck), owner of a model agency, watching and judging, while the she and the rest of the room ogle Doris (Harriet Andersson), the passive and tortured model. The silence of this opening, punctuated only by the infuriating drumming of a morbidly obese, never-named onlooker, is a purely cinematic experience. It abruptly gives way to a return to the darkroom, then to dialogue, gossip, and finally an argument Doris has with her fiance Palle (Sven Lindberg), becoming highly theatrical. This tension between magnificently modern camerawork and impressive traditional stagework characterises this and much of Bergman, who despite his enormous filmography directed an even greater number of plays. The mastery of both cinematography and staging, and of course the painfully incisive writing, can make it dizzyingly difficult to pinpoint exactly why his films are quite so powerful as they are. Continue reading
David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years is a magnum opus, with a scope so vast that any attempt to summarise it exhaustively, in a review such as this one, is unlikely to do it justice. This resistance to summary is partly due in straightforward fashion to its 544 page length, but length alone is an insufficient explanation for its expansive defiance—and it defies much more than mere summary. It begins with seemingly simple questions: “Must one pay one’s debts? If so, why?” The answers seem obvious, even self-evident, until, that is, one tries to justify them. Even within standard economic theory, it is not the case that all debts must be repaid: interest rates reflect the risk that the creditor assumes that the debtor might default. So whence the pervasive sense that all debts must be repaid? Very quickly one starts to see the looming spectres of moral judgment and threats of violence, in just two basic questions. With even a tiny bit of scrutiny, the complex relationship between economic questions and morality, which is central to this book, begins to surface. Continue reading
The Misfits (1961) is a beautiful (if hard-to-watch) elegy, not only for the American West it depicts in a slow fade into obsolescence, but also for three of its actors. Plotwise, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) goes through a dismissively quick divorce (for which Reno was already famous by 1931) at the start of the film. Through a divorcee friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) she meets Guido (Eli Wallach) and then Gay Langland (Clark Gable); Steers disappears without fanfare about halfway through the film, to be replaced by Perce Howard (Montgomery Clift), met by chance en route to a rodeo. The men are outwardly tough western types, though only Gay is explicitly called a cowboy. Guido is a mechanic, a former airforce bomber traumatised both by the war and by his wife’s unexpected death. Perce (Clift) completes the trio of men, as a youth formerly destined to inherit his father’s ranch, but ousted by his father-in-law, winding up a sort of doomed protégé to Gay, who is himself waning in relevance. Along with Roslyn the four form a strange sort of family and are presumably the titular misfits, though there’s a clear parallel with a handful of horses they seek in the hills, to corral by plane, the pathetic remnants of thousands that once ran wild in the hills of Nevada. Continue reading
I recently read Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography A Fighting Chance which came out in March. Although at times it’s intensely personal, its historical and political aspects are really what make it an engaging read. It presents a compelling history of bankruptcy law in America, an overview of how financial deregulation since the 1980s has fuelled political corruption, and her often ill-fated attempts to fight these trends. It’s not quite Steinbeck, but as an epic on inequality it’s not a million miles away either, and it is definitely worth a read.
And they couldn’t have been more different. Last Thursday I had the privilege of seeing mclusky* at The Garage in Islington. I’ve been a big fan of theirs since uni, and because they broke up in early 2005 (before I’d ever considered coming to the UK), I figured I’d never get to see them. I bought tickets the minute I got the Songkick alert. The band has only performed once since then with a revised line-up, so there was a great atmosphere at the sold-out venue.
I’ve just read John McPhee’s Basin and Range for my book club. It’s not an easy book to summarize. Part itinerant tour of America’s geology, part history of geological theories, part dreamlike, hypnotic reflection on the formation of the world, it’s a mixture of nonfiction and beautiful prose that’s reminiscent of Carl Sagan. Continue reading
Several years ago I watched Winter’s Bone (2010) and thought it was quite good, opening my eyes to rural devastation in America. I read a bit about it and found out that the director, Debra Granik, had directed a film in 2004 called Down to the Bone. It aired in July on Film4 and I just got round to watching it. It shares with Winter’s Bone themes of poverty, drug abuse, and desperation, but it finds its desolation in the life of a coke-addicted mother in upstate New York, rather than in the grim family ties of the meth-addicted Ozarks.
Quite enjoyed Leviathan (2014). The Book of Job adapted to modern Russia, about losing everything one values in life and all hope for the future. Like Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Bergman’s Winter Light, or Akin’s The Cut, it’s about whether a life of suffering can or should be endured (when you’ve lost possessions, people, and freedom). It shares with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Edge of the World, and Yol the stark indifference of nature to human endeavours, and with On the Waterfront, Touch of Evil, The Sweet Smell of Success (maybe even Brazil) the crippling powerlessness created by corruption. Like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance its slow takes are made even more difficult by being shot incredibly wide, and like The Searchers the worst violence takes place just out of frame, making it traumatically ambiguous and turning the audiences’ imaginations against them. It has a scene like the opening of The Grapes of Wrath that must be seen to be believed. It works on political, philosophical, religious, and personal levels as an inquest into deprivation, pain, and the meaning of life. ★★★★☆
A few weeks ago I watched eXistenZ (1999). I was surprised to realize that it’s the seventh David Cronenberg film I’ve seen. Not that I’ve avoided him, but I didn’t think I’d seen that many. The first I ever saw was The Fly (1986) which I think we had on Betamax when I was young. Unsurprisingly it left a pretty strong impression on me, particularly the graphic arm-wrestling scene, but having seen it again more recently I don’t think it’s actually that great of a film. Continue reading