Filed under: Television | Tags: Cherry Pie, Coffee, David Lynch, Eggs, Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks
On February 24, 1989, Pete Martell, Dr. Will Hayward and Sheriff Harry S. Truman found Laura Palmer washed up on the beach, and were moved to bring in the greatest criminal investigator ever seen on film or television, Special Agent Dale Cooper. To celebrate, I’m going to have a cup of coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night, and two eggs, over hard. (I know, don’t tell me; it’s hard on the arteries, but old habits die hard — just about as hard as I want those eggs. Bacon, super-crispy. Almost burned. Cremated. That’s great. And, I’ll have the grapefruit juice, just as long as those grapefruits…are freshly squeezed). And to finish up, I’ll probably have a piece of cherry pie for dessert, in the place where pies go when they die.
When we found out our beloved Laura was dead, we were never the same again.
Filed under: Film | Tags: Academy Awards, Colonialism, Danny Boyle, Dharavi, Horatio Alger, Imperialism, India, Irvine Welsh, Mitu Sengupta, Mumbai, Oscars, Q & A, Ragged Dick, Salman Rushdie, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, Vikas Swarup
“I think we can afford to leave Mott Street now,” he continued.
“This house isn’t as neat as it might be, and I shall like to live
in a nicer quarter of the city.”
“All right,” said Dick. “We’ll hunt up a new room to-morrow. I shall
have plenty of time, having retired from business. I’ll try to get
my reg’lar customers to take Johnny Nolan in my place. That boy
hasn’t any enterprise. He needs some body to look out for him.”
“You might give him your box and brush, too, Dick.”
“No,” said Dick; “I’ll give him some new ones, but mine I want
to keep, to remind me of the hard times I’ve had, when I was an
ignorant boot-black, and never expected to be anything better.”
“When, in short, you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name,
and think of yourself now as”–
“Richard Hunter, Esq.,” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.
— Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks (1868)
Boy we love that rags to riches song. And so does the Academy, with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) picking up a trunk-full of Oscars Sunday night. I thought the movie was fun, and my initial response was that considering the minefield of potential exploitation such a project portends, director Danny Boyle did rather well. He even hired an Indian co-director, Lovleen Tandan, to give the film that added oomph of authenticity. I forgot, of course, that I don’t know anything about India, Mumbai or the slumdogs. Boyle caught me, like the American tourist johns in his film, staring at my own navel and liking what I saw.
Of course, Slumdog‘s Mumbai bares little resemblance to the real one. As Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University writes in a wonderful anti-colonialist tonic in the Star,
Most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast and crew regard (and are promoting) it not as a cinematically spectacular and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.
Nothing could be more worrying. Slumdog, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor, which undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice….
If anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.
However, the real problem with Slumdog is not its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty. Its real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it claims to speak for. It is no secret that large chunks of Slumdog are meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film’s depiction of the legendary area, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion.
Other than the children (the “slumdogs”), no one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to The Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay, of a raw, chaotic tribalism.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi’s small businesses is between $50 and $100 million (U.S.).
Dharavi’s lanes are lined with cellphone retailers and cyber cafés and, according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum’s residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.
In a somewhat more cantankerous tone, Salman Rushdie echoes Sengupta’s analysis and states that Boyle’s film ‘piles impossibility upon impossibility’, citing the geographical difficulty of travelling 1000 miles to the Taj Mahal between scenes and the significant improbability that the Malik brothers could procure a handgun in India.
Indeed, when we compare Slumdog to Boyle’s masterpiece, Trainspotting (1996), the fulsome laminate of the former begins to peel. While Renton, Spud and Sick Boy evince a startling grit and humanity in the tenements of Glasgow, there is no consonant authenticity to the flat protagonists of Slumdog. Indeed, when we examine the source material of both scripts, the dissonance between them is severe. Consider Irvine Welsh’s disjointed and vernacular novel set (unlike the film) in Leith where Welsh was born and raised, and the author of Q & A (2005), Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who writes in English. Surely, too, Boyle, with his working-class Irish roots, is closer to the source material of Trainspotting than he is to the hearsay evidence from which he created his vision of the Dharavi slums.
I admit that discussions of ‘authenticity’ get us nowhere, but it is important to point out the scale of this illusion when it comes to films like Slumdog Millionaire. Not because we shouldn’t enjoy such films, of course we do—after all, Horatio Alger made a career out of feelgood picaresque tales of the poverty stricken achieving bougeois comfort through the power of their courage and generosity over a hundred years ago, and he was hardly the first. But because when movies like this begin to seem like more than they are (I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the nauseating Oscar-winning Paul Haggis film Crash ) we need to inject a bit of perspective into the whole operation. Slumdog Millionaire was not an ‘extraordinary journey’; it does not prove that if you have ‘passion and…belief… if you have those two things, truly anything is possible’. It proves no more than that we like the taste of popcorn; that we like to believe that the poor of the world are so cursed because of their cold hearts and moral failings, and that true spirits can persevere if their will is strong; it proves, finally, that as long as we can paint our own imaginative versions of the Other, we need not confront her ourselves.
Blind Man with a Pistol is one year old today!
Filed under: Democracy | Tags: Academic Freedom, Bartleby the Scrivener, Charles Dickens, Denis Rancourt, Hard Times, Herman Melville, John Henry Newman, Mr. Gradgrind, Stanley Fish, The Idea of a University, University of Ottawa
In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.
In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”
—Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853)
Denis Rancourt, the embattled activist physics and environmental science professor who looks to lose his job at the University of Ottawa because of his unorthodox and subversive pedagogical philosophy, is becoming an international nuisance to his soon-to-be former employers. Rancourt (who, it should be said, has previously courted controversy by minimalizing global warming as an imminent threat and labelling it the concern of solitarily the ‘First World white middle class’) is under fire for ‘squatting’ a first-year Physics course, ignoring the department syllabus in authoring the course, dispensing with conventional grading (everyone was to recieve an ‘A+’) and focussing on ‘student-driven learning’. Claiming insubordination as an academic right, Rancourt found little sympathy from the university administration, who arrested him on campus and led him away in handcuffs. His plight has raised myriad questions about academic freedom and dissent.
In his weekly op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish has this to say on the subject of academic freedom:
In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Professor Fish offered his own editorial in put to Rancourt’s case, he reached the following conclusion:
It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision, and in this case the narrower concept of academic freedom has won. But only till next time.
Professor Fish does not discriminate between the University and any other workplace. Indeed, his opening gambit suggests that since Rancourt’s behaviour would get him fired from a law firm, he should expect similar treatment from his faculty. It is as if Fish adpated his views on higher education from what Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) called ‘the one needful thing’:
“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
Yet Fish seems to take this caricature as—ahem—fact. Certainly, with an increasing dependence on corporate donations and emphasis on producing so-called ’employable’ graduates, the University has parted somewhat from its historical role as an essential ally of democracy. To defend against this erosion, we can turn to no more eloquent exposition than the Catholic Victorian philosopher John Henry Newman. In his discourses on The Idea of a University (1852), Newman argues:
Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by haphazard. The best telescope does not dispense with eyes; the printing press or the lecture room will assist us greatly, but we must be true to ourselves, we must be parties in the work. A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill….
[The University] will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. (My emphasis)
Academic freedom, then, is not a workplace-specific mandate to render research and instruction more efficient, it is grease for the engine of democracy. It is the synthesis of fact and fancy, the petrie dish of society. Academics and students have a pivotal role to play in that construction. This is why education is an inalienable and universal human right, while working in a law firm is not.
No wonder, then, that Rancourt’s dissent haunts the university like Bartleby’s obstinance haunts his former employer. It seems to me that Rancourt is doing his best to uphold the spirit of Newman’s concept of the University. Granted, he is severely insubordinate—on such a shocking and incomprehensible level that the administration of the University of Ottawa appear at a loss on how best to handle him. Indeed, Fish’s evaluation of Rancourt’s subversion as ‘comical’ coincides with the popular opinion, if the comments to any news story touching this case are to be believed. Rancourt stares at Bartleby’s dead brick wall behind the pale screen (albeit with a bit more panache), willing it to change with a simple act of defiance, as would-be peers and allies nonchalantly transfer him to the dead letter office, prison and anonymity.
Filed under: Film | Tags: American Beauty, Cold War, James Woods, John Updike, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mad Men, Mark Grief, Nostalgia, Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates, Sam Mendes, The Lives of Others
Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.
— John Givings, Revolutionary Road
I saw Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) last night, which earned Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe for her performance as a postwar housewife in suburban America, who is not only caught in the suffocating tediousness of the bourgeoisie, but has lade bare the lie that sustains it for so many: the fallacy that she is ‘better’ than her neighbours and deserves to ‘break free’ more than anyone else. I was initially surprised at the press this movie was getting, or indeed, that it was made at all. Surely the recent death of John Updike reminds us that we’ve seen this before: the ‘American Pastoral’, to use Phillip Roth’s phrase—working a job you hate to support a joyless marriage in a cookie-cutter home—is a myth, and authors, filmmakers and playwrights have been telling us this for 50 years. In fact, the film’s source material, Richard Yates’s original 1961 novel, emerges in this criticism of America’s utopian promise.
So why now? Perhaps Mendes is tapping into the recent resurgence of 1950s nostalgia. Of course, wistful pining for the Cold War has popped up everywhere from the latest Indiana Jones calamity to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s excellent Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). But this nostalgia is perhaps best encapsulated in the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. As Mark Grief put it in last October’s London Review of Books:
Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over….
Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.
If Revolutionary Road has a darker subject material than Mad Men, what Grief calls the ‘Doesn’t that Look Good’ comes out in the glossy production values: the beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet simply glow in the foreground of a dreary, overcast decade. The stacattoed, pronounced acting style of the two protagonists emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the film: the tragedy of this couple might appeal to modern-day audiences, but their predicament is not our own.
Indeed, ‘suburbia’ as it exists in the social imagination, is no longer the domain of the white middle-classes. The young professionals DiCaprio and Winslet represent are increasingly eschewing the suburban lives of their parents and turning to the hip urban centres of the West. Moreover, as this article at CBC Toronto suggests, new immigrants turn first the suburbs when looking to purchase their first Canadian home. It’s not surprising, then, that this social reality disappears in the nostalgia of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. In the first season of Mad Men, the racism of pre-civil rights America is relegated to the odd anti-Semitic joke and the voiceless black elevator operator. In Mendes’s examination of middle-class struggle—in both Revolutionary Road and his modern-day-staged Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999)—race is entirely absent.
Nevertheless, Sam Mendes is a competent filmmaker and Revolutionary Road is a well-made testament to his craft. Winslet is indeed compelling in demonstrating the boxes that crop up around us, keeping our hopes and dreams at bay. To be sure, even Winslet and DiCaprio’s antidote to America’s oppression—a move to Paris ‘where people are alive’—seems pale and ill-thought out. So what then, is the benefit of superimposing a nostalgic gloss over the emptiness of life under twentieth-century capitalism?
The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition. Just as April’s first pregnancy scuppered the original European escape (but didn’t really, because Frank never intended to go), so her third scuppers the later one (but doesn’t really, either, for the same reason). Frank’s father also worked at Knox. A play opens the novel, and a performance ends it, as the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Campbells, tell the new owners of the Wheelers’ house about the tragedy that has vacated the property. In the very last pages, Mrs. Givings, the appallingly eager real-estate agent who had sold the Wheelers their house, describes, to her husband, the new owners in the same language she once used to describe the Wheelers: “She’s very sweet and fun to talk to; he’s rather reserved. I think he must do something very brilliant in town.” Frank’s children, now motherless, will have the kind of parentless existence with their uncle that April Wheeler had as a child, and which, her husband felt, damaged her. So the horror begins all over again: these repetitions and circularities overlap to make the novel’s heavy plait of determinism.
One could say that the nostalgia inherent in Mendes’s interpretation of Yates’s novel was prefigured by the original work. The ‘hopeless emptiness’ that infects Frank and April Wheeler infects us now, but the feeble solution held up to them—moving to Paris—yields an appealing simplicity embodied and totalized by Mendes’s revisionist 1950s that is foreclosed to us. We can appreciate and invest in the tragedy of the Wheelers because it seems somehow more manageable. We engage with their struggle because it allows us to disavow our own; even as we see ourselves in the Wheelers, our hopeless emptiness in theirs, the veneer of nostalgia whisks us away to share the Wheeler’s pain without the complication of postindustrial economies, feminism and globalization. And so we beat on, boats against the current, etc.