Monthly Archives: April 2008

In which Carrie Brownstein reminds us why she’s cooler than you and me by giving Madonna the NPR treatment. When she tells us how she discovered music with “fewer filters and disguises, less affect, greater intensity, and most of all, substance” after the apostasy of her youth, it’s as if she never listened to her former band’s “Milkshake & Honey” and “Combat Rock,” both of which have more affect, more filters and disguises, and less intensity in their quest for substance. But she knew this already – The Woods has a ditty called “Entertain” (get it? Irony!) that could only have been recorded for a valedictory record; the extra time off meant she got to watch Classic VH-1 once in a while. 

Rob Trucks’ touching interview with Robert Forster adds new wrinkles to his story, not the least of which is the revelation that he’s finished a few of his late partner Grant McLennan’s notes for songs for The Evangelist, Forster’s first solo album in 12 years (more on the album next week). As in the best Go-Betweens songs, a cursory line reverberates in unexpected ways:

“My idea of what the future’s going to be and what’s going to come has gone completely out the window,” Forster says. “I can no longer predict things.”

He’s referring to his experiments in rockcrit, which have led to a monthly column in The Monthly and publication in 2007’s edition of Da Capo Best Music Writing (thanks to a eulogy to McLennan). Now he’s finishing his partner’s songs, and very likely singing them on tour. He can’t predict things, and he can.

Letter from and to a contrarian

I recognize in Christopher Hitchens a kindred spirit – a spirit that relishes combat, embraces contrarianism, and has no problem pissing off friends. My brief flirtation with supporting the Iraq War was inspired partly by the seductive idea of supporting a president whose mediocrity, obtuseness, and messianic zealotry dovetailed with my long-brewing sense that we had to atone for the Reagan-Bush era’s chicanery in the Middle East. In 2002 George W. Bush’s repulsiveness made him the ideal vessel through which ideologues could put long-deferred ideas about “regional transformation” into action; call it a redress of grievances. Leftists like Hitchens and (to a lesser extent) Paul Berman understood the paradox – had made peace with it – in ways that their colleagues, schooled in dialectics, could not. Sometimes your enemy has a good idea. Even a stopped clock is right, etc. A perverse experiment I could afford to make because I’d nothing at stake except a handful of glares from friends, and I’m sorry about it now.

This profile of Hitchens is the most thorough I’ve read, in large part due to Alexander Linklater’s prodding his subject into defining himself. Linklater is not afraid, like so many of Hitchens’ interlocutors, of challenging him; the analytical transitional paragraphs are occasionally more enlightening than the quotes. The results are not very attractive. Linklater exposes the authoritarianism inherent in contrarianism, the deep vein of orthodoxy that runs through its most fervent adherents. If Marxism at its purest subordinates individuals to history, contrarianism is its unacknowledged accomplice, showing an equal disregard for casualties and principles. Those who’ve known suffering understand the consequences. Linklater quotes Kanan Makiya: “`Bodies matter. I come from a tradition in the far left, back a long time ago in my life, where… bodies did not count…You know: the historical process, the victory for the working class. I would not make that argument any more. It is utterly repugnant to me.’” Hitchens’ acknowledgment of this fact allows the reader a rare compassionate sigh (the other is a fairly horrifying account of the death of his mother and her lover, which I knew nothing about). Otherwise we get these bits:

What Hitchens says he experienced after the 2001 attacks was exhilaration, a sudden return of a kind of energy that he last recalled from 1968—a sensation described as “encouraging signs of polarization” by his friend Israel Shahak. “As soon as I saw the impact of those planes, I realized what was going to happen,” he says. “I knew it would be something apocalyptic from Islam. It was the flash that illuminates the whole scene, a way of thinking from the days of the old left. And I also knew what all the comrades would say, and what I would have to say about that.”

In the days after the death of Jerry Falwell, Hitchens assured himself a generous royalty stream for God is Not Great by rightly denouncing this repulsive man’s cruelty and ignorance, the worst manifestation of which being his statement after the 9-11 attacks that the victims had it coming to them. Now imagine Falwell – “giggling and smirking” and pinching his “chubby flanks,” as Hitchens said last May – saying what Hitchens told Linklater. It’s not a stretch, is it? Of course a contrarian would welcome the apocalypse: bodies in mounds, chances to extract delight not so much from being right as in seeing the look in your opponent’s face as his brown eyes realize that he’s wrong.

For all that, there’s a dialectics in contrarianism too, and Hitchens makes clear that he’s got principles. One can deplore the quickness with which he betrayed former friend Sidney Blumenthal at the height of the Bill Clinton impeachment nonsense yet acknowledge that the former president’s comportment this primary season comes close to proving Hitchens correct:

“My dislike for [Clinton] stemmed from his discrediting of something precious to me: the alliance between the anti-war and civil rights movements of which he’d been a vestigial member in the 1960s, and which was my formative politics. The way he cashed that in, lied about whether he was a draft-dodger; the way he smarmily pretended to be more in favour of civil rights than he had been at the time, the way he cheapened everything. He was nothing but a cynical, self-seeking, ambitious thug, and the reali[z]ation that this would be the closest that my class of ’68 would get to the top job gave me a terrible sickening feeling.”

To wish that Hitchens would devote himself entirely to literary criticism (in which he’s shown discrimination and an embrace of contradictions from which his agitprop side would surely benefit) is missing the point. Take his friendship with the late Edward Said – the latter’s insatiable appetite for literature could not be severed from his sense of how art demands the conflict of the world as much as it illumines the compromises and defeats of political beings, which we all are. Final word:

“I’ve never been impressed by middle-ground or art-of-the-possible stuff,” he says. “Why would people bother with politics if that’s all they wanted to do? If you weren’t trying to see if you could expand the art of the possible, break the limits of the feasible, redefine it, expand it — why would you bother? Who wants to be just a manager?”

When I saw Daisy Kenyon a few weeks ago, I thought it was not just Otto Preminger’s best film noir, but his best film. Putting his considerable craft to use in enlivening a Joan Crawford love triangle in which the corners (Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews) are regarded as partners worthy of her respect and therefore ours, he comes closest to satisfying David Denby’s wildest dreams about his ecumenicism. Daisy Kenyon would be memorable just for the rare opportunity of watching Crawford play a human being of warmth and grace without telegraphing semaphores of empathy with her Eyebrows of Death to the lady in the very back row of the theatre; it may be the most attractive performance I’ve seen of hers. Matt Zoller Seitz:

Crawford never seems like she’s slumming in these parts. She treats “working girls” with respect, embodying their hopes, their dreams, their small pride in possessions, their sadness. Crawford came from nothing herself, and her trip to the top was probably interspersed with many questionable choices. She understood compromise. She knew what it took to make it. So when I see her in Daisy Kenyon putting on a smock to get to work, fluffing up her couch pillows, crying because she’s had a fight with O’Mara or lying in bed disgruntled because Peter didn’t call when he was supposed to, I am not aware of Crawford the actress acting. I see Daisy Kenyon doing the best she can, trying to work things out.

And Dana Andrews is a wonder. This man got not one Oscar nomination, yet in films like this, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel, and The Best Years of Our Lives, he’s the most believable man-of-the-world of forties cinema.

I won’t go so far as to agree with James Wolcott that Daisy Kenyon surpasses Laura, but it’s the work of a man whose flirtation with humanism allowed room for an irony that had no use for Douglas Sirk’s paintbox colours and outsized Brechtian gestures.