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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Summer on the Stones

August 1, 2016 | by

Chekhov, Thomas Mann, and the longueurs of vacationing.

After a proposal from a rich but ridiculous suitor, Tony Buddenbrook, the high-society heroine of Thomas Mann’s first novel, leaves the German city of Lübeck for Travemünde, a resort town where the Trave River meets the Baltic Sea. “I won’t pay any attention to the social whirl at the spa,” she tells her brother Tom. “I know all that quite well enough already.” Tony stays instead in the modest home of her father’s friend the harbor pilot, whose son, a medical student named Morten Schwarzkopf, is also on vacation. On her first day, he accompanies Tony to the spa, and she invites him to meet the friends she had pledged to avoid. “I don’t think I’d fit in very well,” Morten says. “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones.”

By the end of the summer, Tony and Morten have fallen in love, and “on the stones” is a “fixed phrase” in their relationship, Mann writes, meaning “to be lonely and bored.” I visited Travemünde recently and after a few hours felt rather on the stones myself. The Baltic Sea was impotent at raising waves, and an incontinent gray sky drizzled on the city. The riverside homes along the Front Row, where the harbor pilot lived, are now tourist shops and restaurants filled with old German couples not talking to each other. The other nineteenth-century landmarks of Tony and Morten’s romance haven’t aged much better. The Sea Temple, a waterfront gazebo where they sit so close their hands nearly touch, fell into the Baltic in 1872, drowning with it the records of young lovers who scratched their initials on the walls. Read More »

The Backside of the Painting, and Other News

July 29, 2016 | by

Vik Muniz, Verso (Illha de Itamaraca), 2016.

  • The hatchet job isn’t what it used to be. To read Tobias Smollett’s book reviews from the eighteenth century is to discover, as J. H. Pearl writes, ever-higher concentrations of venom: “Smollett, who helmed The Critical Review from 1756 to 1763, never minced words in his judgment of whether a particular text was worth the paper it was printed on … All Smollett needed, it seems, was a target for his wrath. And as the pages of the Review attest, targets abounded … Specific reviewers remained anonymous, the better to create the impression of a unified voice, but writers of badly reviewed books tended to blame Smollett, returning their fire on him. It’s easy to understand that anger. Would you want your book called ‘a very trivial, insipid, injudicious and defective performance, without plan, method, learning, accuracy, or elegance; an unmeaning composition of shreds, rags, and remnants … a patched, a pie-bald, linsey-woolsey nothing’? (That was the assessment of a book called A New and Accurate History of South-America.)”
  • Because people excel at finding new ways to waste other people’s time, a small but vocal faction of conservative educators and politicians have called on our schools to start teaching cursive again. Tamara Thornton, the author of the 1996 book Handwriting in America, sees the reactionary anxiety at the center of their argument: “Learning cursive has never been just about learning how to express yourself in writing … In the early twentieth century, it’s about following models and suppressing your individuality … We get very interested in cursive when we feel that our morals are in a state of decline, all hell is breaking loose, people are doing whatever they want … And I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch that the sort of people who believe in the standard model of the family get very nervous when we depart from the standard models of the cursive script. So there have been periodic bouts of hysteria about the decline of cursive. And it’s always when we feel that as a society, we’re going down the tubes.”
  • At the White Plains Annual Reptile Expo, Madeline Cash dissects the strange bond between lizard and lizard keeper: “That unspoken connection no one else could understand, which maybe didn’t even exist, echoed all over the Convention Center. A lizard’s inhuman qualities are its appeal. They are whatever you need them to be—loving, smiling, a good listener — because the relationship is all a projection … When I saw the bearded dragons, my heart swelled. The gold-breasted beasts had the same long mouths carved across their faces that, as a child, I’d understood to be a smile. The vendor handed one over in an attempt to make a sale off my nostalgia. It cocked its head up at me with that permanent grin and it all flooded back.”

Tell Me How You Really Feel, Bro

June 6, 2016 | by

Thomas Mann, right, with his brother Heinrich.

In December 1903, Thomas Mann wrote his older brother, Heinrich, a long letter reviewing the latter’s novel—with brutal candor. Some of the most scathing bits are below. The complete missive is in The Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900–1949.

My impressions? They are not exactly very pleasant—which impressions, indeed, don’t absolutely need to be. It didn’t exactly make agreeable reading—which, indeed, however, is absolutely not necessary either. I struggled back and forth with the book, threw it aside, took it up again, groaned, complained, and then got tears in my eyes again … For days, in the lowest barometric pressure in a hundred years (according to the meteorologist), I went about in the agony your book caused in me. Now I know approximately what I have to say to you.

That I am not in agreement with your literary development—that must finally be said … When I think back ten, eight, five years! How do you appear to me? How were you? A refined connoisseur—next to whom I seemed to myself eternally plebeian, barbaric, and buffoonish—full of discretion and culture, full of reserve toward “modernity” and historically as talented as could be, free of all need for applause, a delicate and proud personality for whose literary endeavors there would quite probably be a select and receptive public … And now, instead of that? Instead, now these strained jokes, these vulgar, shrill, hectic, unnatural calumnies of the truth and humanity, these disgraceful grimaces and somersaults, the desperate attacks on the reader’s interest! … I read them and I don’t know you anymore. The psychological constant of the work, the desire of weak artificiality for life, this desire that would gladly masquerade as amorous desire within the lonely and sensuous artist—how is it supposed to move, to work convincingly when not even an attempt is being made to come close to life, to observe and capture even the air of the inner impulse of this simple madcap? Everything is distorted, screaming, exaggerated, “bellows,” “buffo,” romantic in the bad sense … Read More »

A Raving Maniac of the Cinema

June 3, 2016 | by

The anticriticism of Jonas Mekas.

Jonas Mekas

Discussion of American film criticism in the sixties and seventies tends to hew to the Andrew Sarris–Pauline Kael binary. Their legendary, exasperating debate over auteurism and the One True Criticism shaped a generation of writers and the trajectory of film culture, so much so that both writers and their acolytes still haunt the field. But while Sarris/the cultists and Kael/the Paulettes slap-fought at center stage, a third party lobbed firecrackers from the back of the theater—at them, at anyone, at everyone—to disrupt of the status quo and redefine “cinema art.”

Jonas Mekas, now ninety-three, occupies an outsize yet virtually ignored place in the pantheon of film criticism. In 1955, he cofounded the influential magazine Film Culture, which in a 1962–1963 issue included both Sarris’s landmark “Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962” and Manny Farber’s seminal “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” Three years later, on November 12, 1958, he introduced film criticism to the Village Voice. But rather than adjudicate the week’s releases, his “Movie Journal” column was a pulpit for spreading the gospel of underground cinema and the launchpad for broadsides against the establishment and its critics, censorship and its enforcers. Mekas claims a lot of titles—pioneering filmmaker, poet, activist, organizer, rabble-rouser, patron saint of the underground—but, he stated bluntly in 1968, “I am not a critic. I don’t criticize. I am a cold, objective, ‘piercing’ eye that watches things and sees where they are and where they are going and I’m bringing all these facts to your attention.” Read More »

Timbuktu’s Massive Book Heist, and Other News

April 25, 2016 | by

Abdel Kader Haidara in Timbuktu, 2009. Photo: Brent Stirton/National Geographic

  • Today in censored statues: in Italy, the fashionable thing to do with one’s nude statues is not to display them but to conceal them with some plywood or maybe a heavy drop-cloth or whatever else you’ve got lying around. The Capitoline Venus, which resides in the hall of the Capitoline Museums, in Rome, was boxed up last month to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the visiting Iranian president, but really this sort of thing happens all the time: “True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’s horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall … This kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it had been only five months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed … And—in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment—it was eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin ... were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.”
  • A few months ago, I used this space to hawk Saul Bellow’s ten-thousand-dollar desk, which was not, at the time, a hot seller. But things have changed. That desk is gone. As Bellow’s son Daniel explained to Atlas Obscura: “All of a sudden, everyone from famous journalists to doctors from the Mayo Clinic contacted him about purchasing his father’s desk … In the end, though, Bellow’s desk was sold to his son’s niece, who matched the top bid at the auction, and kept the desk in the family … The desk will be put in his niece’s new home in Hudson, New York. As for the money from the auction, Daniel says he is going to use it to build a kiln chimney in his new pottery studio.”
  • Faced with an al-Qaida invasion, librarians in Timbuktu oversaw a massive smuggling operation in which some 300,000 rare books and manuscripts were secreted away to safety: “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks. We’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep, and then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses—safe houses scattered around the city. And hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation … They’re in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali.”
  • In which Meghan O’Gieblyn decides to give Updike a chance, takes Couples off the shelf, and finds … many things she expected and a few she didn’t: “There was plenty in the book that lived up to Updike’s contemporary reputation: women who think things no woman would think (‘She had wanted to bear Ken a child, to brew his excellence in her warmth’) … There are many passages in which Updike’s prodigious gifts as a prose artist are given over to the effects of gravity on women’s bodies. Nobody can write the female body in decay quite like Updike. So clinical and unrelenting is his gaze, he manages to call attention to signs of aging that even I—someone in possession of a female body—had never considered. ‘Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands,’ he writes of Piet’s wife, Angela, ‘their stringy backs and reddened fingertips’ … What intrigued me most about Couples, though, was the sense of doom that undercuts the orgy.”
  • Jonas Mekas was the first film critic for the Village Voice, and a new collection of his critical writing reveals “an artistic time capsule of New York at a moment of crucial energy”: “There’s a live-wire spontaneity to Mekas’s writing, an excitement sparked by his sense of beauty, by his sheer pleasure in cinematic imagination, and it’s connected to a soulful sense of inwardness and empathy … What energizes his discussions and exhortations is the impulse behind the films, rather than the films themselves—the lives and dreams of the artists, the harsh demands placed on filmmakers by the effort to create homemade, self-financed, independent films, made by oneself and one’s friends. These are films that repudiate openly the conventions of the commercial cinema, the norms and limits on subject matter and representation, while the filmmakers submit to a horrific range of deprivations and afflictions for the sake of their art. In effect, Mekas offers, both in and as film criticism, extraordinary and enduring sketches of downtown lives.”

Little Match Girl

April 13, 2016 | by

A nineteenth-century illustration for The Little Match Girl.

The first time I remember lying about why I was crying was in second grade. I’d burst out sobbing in the middle of social studies and, rather than admit I’d been thinking about the plot of “The Little Match Girl,” I claimed vaguely that there was some problem at home, prompting a humiliating private lunch with my teacher and a parent-teacher conference. You’d think that would have cured me.

But being upset about nothing is galling. It’s hard to explain to a stranger on the subway that no, tears are actually rolling down your cheeks because of an episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson, or a piece of music you’re not even listening to. Read More »