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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

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 persaaonlity 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 »

Here’s to Hearing the Hum, and Other News

April 11, 2016 | by

A visualization of the Hum made by Louviere+Vanessa, who broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer then print them onto handmade Japanese kozo paper Dibond-primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. Photo via New Republic.

  • Though his criticism can be acid, and though it sometimes deploys words like gassy, Michael Hofmann isn’t “a lit-crit Johnny Fartpants,” experts say: “As he sits in an incongruously rowdy Hamburg bar, all shy eyes and nervous hands, one is reminded that he is also a poet and translator: a humble servant of words, not just their sneering judge. In smooth RP tones that belie his German parentage, he explains that none of his hatchet jobs were written out of personal animosity … ‘I have a sense of the enterprise being ecological,’ he says. ‘There is so much excessive praise and excessive interest in the books world, and it’s all too focused on too few people. If you cut things down to scale, you do something good.’ ”
  • Tinnitus is more than a condition. It’s a worldview. Or so it is if you’re among the lucky 2 percent of the population who can hear the Hum, widely reported as “a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors.” Colin Dickey looked into it: “Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus … It’s important to remember that there’s so much we still don’t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans—indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as nonlethal weapons … Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we’ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don’t more of us hear it?”
  • There’s an argument to be made that any and all instances of the Hum are in fact to be pinned on Tony Conrad, the experimental filmmaker and drone-music progenitor, who died last week at seventy-six: “After his graduation in 1962, Mr. Conrad briefly worked as a computer programmer and immersed himself in New York’s experimental music scene. As part of Mr. Young’s ensemble, he performed seemingly improvisational pieces that involved holding notes for what might have felt like hours at a time. Some audiences found the music maddening; others were exalted. ‘It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,’ Mr. Conrad said … ‘Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.’ ”
  • For aesthetes, the mug shot provides a great reason to avoid a life of crime—it’s so unforgiving, so permanent. A new exhibition at the Met, “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” looks at its history: “In the 1870s, a Parisian policeman named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as part of his ‘anthropometric’ system of criminal identification based on minute physical measurements. For no pay, he spent his free hours examining inmates at La Santé prison, using calipers and rulers to record the length and width of prisoners’ fingers, noses, foreheads, and mouths … If one measure of a photograph’s power is the extent to which it inspires us to fill in the circumstances around it, then the mug shot of a 1930s Baltimore shoplifter is a small masterpiece of portraitist art. A woman in her late forties, with whitening blonde hair, turns slightly away from the police photographer’s camera with a mix of melancholia and trapped defiance. The flesh around her left eye is badly bruised, a messy black puddle that spills along her cheek and temple. Who slugged her—the department store security guard, the arresting cop, the shopkeeper himself, or an intimate friend? Her lips are thin and subtly crooked, her jawline is just beginning to sag. The life before (and after) the picture rushes in on you in an imagined story of filled-in time.”
  • Violette Leduc was a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir, and yet she seldom appears on syllabi—why? “A journey through Leduc’s rejections, documented in her autobiographies La bâtarde (1964) and Mad in Pursuit (1970), lay bare the insidious gatekeeping that money and masculinity exert on literary inclusion, then and now. Leduc was born poor and illegitimate; her mother is the help, her father is the heir and she, the child of their furtive union, is unwanted … De Beauvoir spent her time earning the title ‘intellectual.’ Her story is one of early erudition, acing exams, stunning philosophical acuity and a romantic (if also conveniently strategic) alliance with Sartre. In Leduc, she sees the authenticity that she theorizes, and in playing midwife to her self-exposition she seeks the vindication of her philosophy. In existentialism, we are all free to choose, exercise our radical free will; the constraints of past experience can be shaken off, truth told and freedom achieved. Leduc’s life, told in her writing, has to be evidence of the truth of this. De Beauvoir’s feminism, unleavened by any literal struggles with the whims of men, needs Leduc’s literary liberation to prove its practical application.”

Rambling Through Rio, and Other News

March 11, 2016 | by

Kurt Klagsbrunn, Dama acompanhando a corrida no Jockey Clube (detail), Rio de Janeiro, 1945. Image via Aperture/Museu de Arte do Rio

  • Today in zits: if you like to spend your free time watching grotesque pimple-popping sessions on YouTube, you’re not alone. (I may or may not have dedicated an hour to zit vids in the very recent past.) Sandra Lee, a dermatologist, has turned her science into art, posting “extraction” videos and picking up 850,000 subscribers along the way: “Sensing an untapped audience, Lee began posting more videos of things popping from the skin, and her audience gradually grew … Her online fans didn’t seem to mind the ick; in fact, many of them relished it. Some fans reported that their mouths inexplicably watered when they saw a particularly juicy pop; others claimed that they found the videos so soothing that they used them as a sleep aid. Lee began setting videos to punnily titled music, like Duke Ellington’s ‘Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me).’ ”
  • Milking the rest of it,” a new poem by Dorothea Lasky, is rich in bodily fluids, too: “Turn the faucet on / Turn the breast on / Emptied completely of milk / With the tiny hoses in a row … ”
  • The photographer Kurt Klagsbrunn captured the people of midcentury Rio as no one else could: as a stranger. Ali Pechman writes—“A Jewish Austrian refugee, he arrived in the city in 1940 and photographed its people and places until 1960, the year the government decamped for Brasília … He took no less than 100,000 photographs of his new city. The austerity of his early pictures quickly gives way to crowded street scenes with a focus on character, whether a trolley fish seller, a carnival samba dancer, or a Carioca walking her dog in Copacabana. A chic young journalist eyes the camera suspiciously as two white-coated waiters dote on her; a grisly greengrocer looks on tiredly from inside his shop … The photographer’s own off-kilter sense of humor is never out of sight.”
  • Today in critical shrugs: a critic shrugs. That critic is Barry Schwabsky, who understands the degree to which his role is in flux: “I have to admit that the critic’s loss of power doesn’t worry me much. I don’t see my job as mainly that of making or breaking artists’ reputations, or of informing collectors or curators what they ought to buy or exhibit. If they don’t listen to me, fine; I have other responsibilities toward art … If there is a crisis in art criticism, it has to do instead with an inner transformation in the nature of art itself. What if art no longer requires a public—that is, someone like the active spectator Duchamp spoke about? That would be a conundrum, for the critic would no longer have a position from which to evaluate art. It’s not impossible, and it’s not even a new idea: Back in 1966, for example, Allan Kaprow called for “the elimination of the audience”—for participation rather than a merely “empathic response.” In recent years, in great part as a result of their revulsion toward the financialization and globalization of art, more and more artists have been taking this idea seriously, avoiding the audience and instead working only with participants, with collaborators and communities.”
  • Meanwhile, in China: everyone is really into this rom-com about a mermaid. It’s called, appropriately enough, The Mermaid, and it’s just become China’s highest-earning film of all time. How, you ask? One word, my friend: environmentalism. “The Mermaid is not pure escapist entertainment. The ills it addresses—environmental pollution and rampant speculation against the backdrop of a widening income gap—are impossible-to-ignore facts of everyday experience for a Chinese audience. The film opens with a montage of documentary-style footage: sludge pouring from factory pipes, oil-smothered animals, dolphins being herded up for slaughter …  It serves a cathartic function, providing an anxious Chinese audience with an opportunity to laugh at their daily injustices, pairing an everyday violation with a larger dose of fairy tale, one in which everything will work out in the end.”