John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.
André Aciman is, by training, a scholar of Comparative Literature. He is part of the Comparative Lit faculty at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and he assembled The Proust Project, a volume comprised of prominent writers’ insights on passages from In Search of Lost Time. But Aciman is perhaps better known as a novelist, memoirist, and essayist. Memory, its endurance and mutability, rank high among his running concerns, which is fitting given his affinity for Proust. And while memory can seem stale when taken up by a lesser writer, in Aciman’s hands it seems fresh and complex once again.
Alibis follows one previous collection of essays by Aciman, False Papers, and a memoir, Out of Egypt. Early on in Alibis, he refers to himself as, “an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.” This exile began at fifteen, when his family emigrated to Italy, and continued one remove further at age nineteen, when they moved on to New York. On the occasion of Alibis, his project is ostensibly the result of his travels, and he does indeed treat readers to lengthy reflections on Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Tuscany, and New York, among other locales. But these are not simple city guides. They are personal, searching efforts, prompted by places which hold some mythic quality for the author, places which have figured prominently in his life. On traveling with his wife, Aciman writes, “I have no tolerance for monuments…I care nothing for small picturesque hill towns…The last thing she wants is to be reminded of home; I can’t wait to pick up remnants of mine.”
In fact, Aciman views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident. In “Place de Vosges,” he writes, “I come to the Place de Vosges to make believe that I belong, that this could easily become my home.” A similar impulse is revealed when he writes that the “peculiar spell” of “this dreamy Tuscan landscape” is “to make you think that it’s yours forever.” He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’” Curiously, he steps outside himself when considering New York (“New York, Luminous”), where he has lived for many years, instead imagining the reactions Walter Benjamin might have had, if only he “hurried and crossed the Pyrenees before the Nazis closed in on him.”
Place itself is a door to other concerns for Aciman – the role of memory in particular, as well as how we form our identities across years and experiences. If his concerns sound weighty, he balances them against a fluid, engaging style, one equally suited to handling painful memories and dear ones alike. He opens with “Lavender,” a memory piece organized around his relationship with scent. “Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender,” he writes. “My father is standing in front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a shirt.” From there, Aciman traces his life through the scents he has worn. One fragrance recalls an evening when he met his mother downtown in Manhattan, while another is all he remembers of the woman who offered it as a gift, years earlier. Places return to him: Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts on a snowy evening; a tiny shop in Florence, where the walls are lined with tiny drawers, each holding a different scent. The fragrances also point up how far he has come and how much he remains unchanged. “Me at 16 and me at 32: twice the age and yet still nervous about calling a woman,” he writes, and later, “I had so much going for me at 34, why then was I longing to be who I’d been at 17?”
Throughout Alibis, Aciman uses his chosen subject matter as a means to examine himself. He is not a famous man, but his treatment of his assets and shortcomings is never less than even-handed. At times it verges on the hyper-critical. The most remarkable outcome is that this course of deliberate reflection on how we form memory prompts the same impulse in the reader. Aciman determinedly unravels the thread of memory, questioning even the factual accuracy of his own previously published accounts.
This course of questioning is perhaps the most curious, and initially the least felicitous, part of Alibis. Aciman refers to his own, previous work on several occasions, even quoting from it once, a choice which is initially jarring. In “Rue Delta,” he refers to an episode from Out of Egypt, his last walk in Cairo, which he had written previously as a time he shared with his brother. His retelling in the memoir casts him alone on the walk. This is not the first time Aciman has explored the dueling versions of the tale, but he goes a step further this time, teasing out the inventions common to each version. The snack he claims to have had? A fabrication, either as falafel sandwich or Ramadan pastry. His brother disappears from the latter version of the story, but a more significant revelation emerges – the walk so minutely examined, never occurred, alone or in company. But because Aciman’s control is so total, he manages to render irrelevant the question of whether he is lying in his first two accounts of the night; instead, the matter of how he fashioned his memories of Egypt ends up far more compelling. He recalls a return visit to Cairo in the mid-1990s, and a trip down Rue Delta, and finds himself unable to summon an image of the street at night without his brother in it. His “true” memories of the street are lost, and the fictionalized version now holds all the piquancy once contained by the storefronts and scenery which surrounded him daily in youth.
Alibis is a slim volume, but this is testament to Aciman’s economy of language, and the preciseness of his observations. Whether exploring the limitations of his faith in “Barcelona” and “Reflections of an Uncertain Jew,” or reflecting on the changed circumstances after his sons have all left for college in “Empty Rooms,” Aciman’s work is consistently thoughtful and unsentimental. Maintaining that tone, particularly on a series of journeys to the past, is no small feat. But André Aciman is a writer in full command of his powers. He meets these demands deftly, without breaking stride. Alibis is a quiet, unassuming triumph. All that’s left is to wonder where Aciman will take us next.
Sipping Champagne at my kitchen table on a hot August night, I flipped through the fat book, Women In Clothes. There was my little blurb, which made me cringe only a little to see in print, in which I talk about how, after my boyfriend telling me I needed to dress better, I went out the next day and spent $250 on clothes. My confession was right there alongside other similar personal confessions from over six hundred women around the world. Women In Clothes is a crowd-sourced, multi-form anthology consisting mostly of survey responses from regular, everyday women (like me) as well as from famous intellectual-artsy women (including Lena Dunham, if you needed me to even tell you that; you’ll find Eileen Myles and Roxanne Gay in there, as well). The survey answers, which are cleverly organized, are supplemented by essays from and transcribed conversations between similar such intellectual-artsy women, and wonderfully minimalistic and eclectic photo essays made up of personal collections, ranging from nail polish to handmade guitar straps to ear plugs.
Women In Clothes is the result of a collaboration between authors Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, and visual artist Leanne Shapton. It is a striking endeavor in that it is, as mentioned before, verifiably “crowd-sourced” and contains no input from anyone who could be considered a style icon, although a former fashion model and a prominent fashion critic are amongst those who contributed survey responses. The book is, in this sense, a truly contemporary item, representing an age brought along through the Internet’s dominance, in which all opinions are valid, and sharing private thoughts and practices is acceptable.
Right away, I enjoyed the book’s overall light-heartedness, its tiny glimpses into people’s metaphorical and physical closets, and its whimsical and eye-pleasing artwork. Then I flipped to an interview with human rights journalist Mac McClelland, and read, on page 174:
And H&M, oh my god, I can’t even be in an H&M, I feel like I’m having a heart attack in there. It smells like . . . To me it smells like diesel or something—gas fumes and textile chemicals. Urban Outfitters—I have the same thing. Every time I walk in there I’m just like, oh my god, it smells like plastic and chemicals and bad news and bad politics and I just (laughs) I don’t want to be there.
I paused, looking down at my outfit, which consisted of two summer staples: an Aztec-print tube top from Urban Outfitters, and a striped skirt from H&M.
In cities like New York, a capital of both the fashion and art worlds, there is no limit to how well-dressed a woman can be—and not just fashionably so, but also and perhaps of greater import, uniquely and singularly so. It’s a competition to be at the height of stylishness, and yet appear to have risen there almost effortlessly. Despite this competitive veneer, however, when prompted for fashion advice, women may extend solidarity. Occasionally, minding one’s own business on the subway, a tap on the shoulder will interrupt.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I ask where you got that?”
The information will be received with a grateful smile—unless the store named is someplace expensive, like Anthropologie, in which case there might be a slight roll of the eyes.
If fashion is divisive, then literature may be the opposite. It creates camaraderie. Female authors I have never met, or have brushed with in New York, are in my imagination my colleagues, as if we are somehow expressing different facets of the same contemporary voice. Reading a work by a female author that relates to the world you live in is like having a therapist who speaks to you in poetry: it doesn’t make things necessarily clearer, but it makes them beautiful and interesting. (Of course, such bonds may exist only in my imagination; one well-known female author whose work I admired—and who contributed to Women In Clothes—not only ignored my e-mails seeking her advice on a project, but seemed physically pained when I tried to speak to her about it at a magazine party.)
Last fall, I saw a co-worker who I didn’t know very well on a lunch break, reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I ran over and hugged her, so glad that she was sharing this magical literary treat. Had she been wearing the same dress as me, the reaction would have been much different: a snide glance instead of a hug.
A pivotal scene in How Should a Person Be? occurs following a trip to Art Basel Miami during which the narrator, Sheila, purchases the same yellow dress that her best friend Margaux has just decided to buy. Back in Toronto, Sheila receives an e-mail from Margaux confessing that she is upset about the incident. She has even decided to give the dress away.
4. i think it’s pretty standard that you don’t buy the same dress your friend is buying, but i was trying to convince myself that maybe it was okay to buy the same dress your friend is buying. you know, trying to think about it positively, hence the “we’ll wear them in our music video statement from me.”
Sheila and Margaux are not just any women; they are intellectual-artsy type women. They consider themselves serious—and often mention how glad they are to have found each other, “a girl who was as serious as me.” In a September, 2013 article in the New Yorker about Eileen Fisher, Janet Malcolm leads with this confession: “There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected.” And yet the message of Women in Clothes is clear: daily fashion choices are incredibly important for most women, often involve an incredible amount of anxiety as well as a good deal of creativity and resourcefulness, and ultimately consume a good deal of our time, energy, and emotions—regardless of whether we exist in a style-conscious setting or not.
Reading Women in Clothes, I became interested in how it was a collaborative endeavor. How had a subject that I felt created anxiety and divisiveness amongst women—as it does in Heti’s novel—been channeled into a creative endeavor? How had it become something shared not only between the three editors—as well as various collaborators who worked closely with them in analyzing the surveys (Mary Mann) and designing the book (Kate Ryan)—but also by hundreds of everyday women, like me, who had become involved in its making? I reached out, via e-mail, to the book’s editors.
The project’s birth was rooted in its absence, when Heti sought and could not find a book that would explain “what women thought about when they shopped, when they put outfits together,” she wrote me. “All the books I found approached dressing from the outside, not the inside. They were so image-based, or else about a specific stylish woman, like Audrey Hepburn.” Upon this realization that the book she wanted to read did not exist, Heti began e-mailing her friends, asking them “What is your process when getting dressed in the morning?”Heidi Julavits replied with some thoughts, suggesting the subject could become a book; the next thought was to include Leanne Shapton. The three began communicating over e-mail, over time incorporating other online collaboration programs into their process: Google Hangouts, Skype, Dropbox, and Google Docs.
At a certain point, the three women convened in a Toronto hotel for several days of what Shapton dubbed “book camp,” which, Julavits wrote me, “involved basically not sleeping for three days, and at one point ending up on the floor in bathrobes eating room service soup at midnight.” All three women stated that the process of making Women in Clothes was somehow transformational on a personal level, and that collaborating resulted in a work that was greater than the sum total of each individual. “I think the book is a million times smarter than any one of us, individually. We filled in each others’ gaps,” wrote Heti. As Shapton put it, “Like a swimming medley relay ream, we each had a strong stroke, and then brought opinions and support to the others.”
I suspected that producing Women in Clothes may have made its editors more aware of their own fashion choices. To this, Julavits shared a story that took place when she and Heti were having a drink at one point during the early stages of the book. “I was tired and not feeling very chatty, but I was very actively checking out and admiring her dress, which was a vintage nightgown. We parted ways, and she wrote me a bit later to say, ‘I went home and changed out of that ridiculous dress.’ I realized that she’d misunderstood my close attention for criticism, and it made me also realize that I want to be more vocal when I see a woman who’s looking great.”
Only a week before my e-mails with the editors, I had sat in a coffee shop, my attention distracted from their book by a woman sitting near me, conversing with a friend. Everything about this woman was perfect—her oversized necklace, her silky white tank top, her casual, baggy black pants, her minimalistic make-up. She saw me eyeing her, again and again. But I said nothing. Who knows how she took my glances—perhaps as praise, but also perhaps as criticism. And these glances happen so regularly on the subway, in shops, on the street. They are, it seems, part of the secret language of being a woman—the way we constantly judge ourselves and others based on superficies and artifice.
Can a book like this counteract these tendencies, likely instilled in many of us through too much time in our teenage years reading fashion magazines, which told us how to dress and what to look like? Can it, furthermore, make us think twice before we purchase clothes that implicate us in a web of human rights violations via factories around the world, and move us toward slightly more sustainable enterprises (I won’t even get into the whole American Apparel situation here, but let it suffice to say that many humanitarian companies do exist). A book like this can probably do that work, to some extent. But what it really makes me want to do is create art in a collaborative fashion—to find ways to work with other women rather than against them. I am jealous of the editors of Women in Clothes not because they have cool clothes or great hair, or perfect bodies. I am jealous, and admire, that they found a way to work together to create something a little bit revolutionary, and then shared the experience with so many people, giving us the opportunity to contribute in ways small and large.
For couples seeking a Valentine’s Day more astringent than saccharine, I suggest the following: settle down after dinner, light some candles, and read Dan Rhodes’s Marry Me aloud to each other. Start with “Fate,” the entirety of which runs as follows:
When it comes to matters of romance, my fiancée is a firm believer in destiny. “If fate has decreed that I end up married to you,” she’ll sigh, “then there’s not much I can do about it, is there?”
If there is some uncomfortable fidgeting, take a slug of red wine, perhaps something stronger. Then flip to “Worst” and read the opening line in your sultriest voice: “My wife told me that she and her friends had voted me the worst at sex out of all their husbands.”
Cough awkwardly and mop your sweating brow if you must. Now you’re primed for the opening story, “Ex,” about a woman who won’t stop talking about her former lover and the “sun-drenched and culturally enlightening holidays they had taken together.” Lying naked in the arms of her new husband on her wedding night, she tells him: “It’s funny — if things had turned out just a little bit differently, it would have been him I’d just done that with, not you.” The story breaks off before we learn whether or not the narrator laughs.
On second thought, what’s playing on TV? Perhaps it’s best to save Marry Me to read in solitude at a later date.
In his latest collection, Rhodes sends out 79 telegraphic dispatches from the land of generally mismatched lovers. (His debut, Anthropology, covered similar terrain while adhering to Oulipo-like constraints: each of the 101 stories had 101 words.) Like the heroine of “Fate,” Rhodes is a believer in destiny. His short tales — usually a paragraph or two — bear the seed of an impending tragedy in even the most innocent of opening clauses. As the love affairs between cloying obsessives, callous monsters, oblivious saps, and determined romantics are narrated one by one, the title Marry Me becomes increasingly ominous. A hint of menace creeps in; the title seems less and less like a question or plea and more like an imperative to submit to Eros and the attendant havoc.
Marry Me’s epigraph is an opaque quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Marriage is the only legal contract which abrogates as between the parties all the laws that safeguard the particular relation to which it refers.” I confess to reading that three or four times, increasingly frustrated at my obtuseness for missing what was obviously an invaluable nugget of truth, before scanning down to a small author’s note at page’s bottom: “I have no idea what this means, but I’m sure it’s very wise.” That earned my first chuckle, but my initial befuddlement could also be thought of as a little allegory of the cluelessness, willful or otherwise, afflicting many of the lovers I’d soon meet.
Marry Me generates its humor from the disconnect between a relationship’s form — its personal, sexual, and social expectations — and that relationship’s unexpected, and often grotesque, content. Reading the scores of first-person stories straight through is a little like watching a long standup act, the comic adopting various roles but maintaining a signature voice throughout. The trick is to condense all those roles into one narrating persona, which can register as boorish, naive, ironic, cloying, poetic, wistful, or blithely cruel. Rhodes’s flat affect stays consistent even as he plays the lovesick fool or the cool ironist; no humiliation or catastrophe ruffles the calm surface of the text, not even in “Fear,” in which a skydiving marriage ceremony goes terribly wrong. When the chutes fail to open and his new wife screams in terror, he realizes it’s never too late for passive aggression: “I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.”
One of the most impressive, bizarre tales is “News,” which in the space of a couple hundred words crams in a lot: a fiancé with cold feet, a tiger mauling, an elaborate mime by a man named Demetrio, and a clinically logical abdication of personal responsibility. To explain how they fit together would ruin the fun. It’s a small wonder of constantly shifting sympathies amidst mounting absurdity.
There are some duds, especially when Rhodes goes for the overtly jokey. In “Issues,” the narrator claims not have any body image issues, prompting his fiancée to tell him that that’s precisely the problem: “Just look at yourself. You’d better get some — and fast.” And in two uncharacteristically stale satires, “Her Old Self” and “Her Self,” Rhodes belabors the nagging harridan trope. However, the virtue of the form is that these misfires (unlike some bad relationships) quickly conclude. Before long, it’s on to the next new conceit.
The best stories, like “Dress,” skillfully build up to their punch lines. Honoring his wife’s final wish to be cremated in her wedding dress, an undertaker informs him with “impeccable politeness” that it won’t be possible. Maintaining his professionalism throughout, the undertaker explains how the deceased’s very short, black leather dress would clog the machine and fill the streets with an acrid odor. Decorum finally gives way in the last line’s perfectly timed eruption: “‘Perhaps,’ he suggested, ‘madam has something in her wardrobe which was comparably whorish, but rather more likely to conform to council regulations?’”
Male anxiety supplies Rhodes with plenty of material. His world is populated by good looking, funny, and virile suitors; they sometimes gather together en masse, perhaps on a parade float (“Champions”) or on the bride’s side of a wedding (“Commitment”). The narrator is repeatedly cuckolded, the betrayals made even worse by the brutal honesty of the confessions: “Do you remember that time you told me I was way out of your league, and how you were worried that one day I would find somebody a lot more handsome than you, and much, much better in bed? Well, now I have.” Others have more tact in breaking things off. In “Mistakes,” a woman asks her new husband to proofread a letter she has written on her honeymoon to a friend; he happily corrects her grammatical and orthographic infelicities: “the most biggest mistake I have ever made;” “it feels like a life sentance [sic];” “I dont [sic] know what I did to deserve this.”
Midway through the collection, a young woman quotes Goethe to her fiancé: “One should only celebrate a happy ending; celebrations at the outset exhaust the joy and energy needed to urge us forward and sustain us in the long struggle.” Though most of Rhodes’s stories focus on that long struggle, several of the strongest tales celebrate a happy ending, or at least his unique take on a happy ending. Particularly memorable is “Perfect,” about a couple whose pricy wedding eventually leads to their eviction and homelessness.
The story pushes past its initial comic conceit to arrive at a hard-fought poignancy reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. As Vladimir thinks back on the respectable days when he and Estragon stood “hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first,” so does Rhodes’s destitute pair turn their thoughts to happier days: “Now, years later, as we huddle together for warmth under whichever bridge happens to feel the safest, we reminisce about our special day.” Wishing for some boric acid to “keep the cockroaches away,” the smitten, laughing husband listens to his wife, “her eyes bright with memory,” rhapsodize about place settings, the exquisite calligraphy, the exact “shade of orchid” on the corsages and finally Uncle Desmond:
At the reception Uncle Desmond had done an amusing dance with his arms outstretched, as though he were an aeroplane, or a bird or something.
After the loving recall of every precise detail, there is something especially inspired about that concluding uncertainty over Uncle Desmond’s dance, a mystery to ponder until death do them part.
A young boy enters a large and exotic palace, pulsating with people, their faces alive with excitement, their eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a man and a writhing, devious woman. They are all elated and as one. The young boy is now a grown man, and he writes, not without regret and memories of lost glandular joy, “That is a hard ecstasy to abandon.”
The grown man is David Thomson, a respected and prolific film critic and historian, and this description, of his first viewing of Cecil B. deMille’s Samson and Delilah (with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr) is a defense of the experience of seeing a movie — along with more than half the population of the world — once a week, in the dark, young and open, suspended from time and care, in full submission of whatever appeared once the heavy curtain rose and a shaft of light from behind threw the great images on a huge screen. Thomson’s latest book has been given a perfunctory, even pedantic, title: How to Watch a Movie, but don’t be fooled: Thomson, like that witchy, raven-haired Hedy Lamarr, is teasing us, peeling off insights as if they were gossamer underthings, and revealing not only what films have meant to him, but what the watching of them, and the ultimate harvesting of them in our memories, means to all of us.
It is true that Thomson misses the glory days of movie-going, the rushing off to places with names like Palace, Plaza, Regal, Odeon, Astoria, Lux, Electric, designed in Spanish or Moorish or Egyptian style, comically inaccurate but baroque, but he is not ready to give up the pleasures of films (which he quixotically terms movies), which are often seen now in the glow of an iPhone or in a lap on a plane on a tablet or while seated in front of a personal computer. We now see films in cinder boxes redolent of pine cleaner, and no theatre owner delays the raising of the lights after an emotional film, as they once did, to give us our privacy as we collect ourselves: We are now hustled out of the theatre without a chance to watch the closing credits, because people need their next aesthetic desire slaked. We are able and eager to turn to YouTube to call up specific scenes from films to get a quick, free hit of what seduced us years ago, or — and this Thomson might find tragic — to see for the first time someone like Marlon Brando or a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have all become divorced from our experiences by various distractions. In our homes we watch movies — or anything else — while cooking or talking or crocheting or masturbating or flipping through a magazine. The viewing of movies is simply one of the options available to us at any given time. We need always to be hooked up. This has been going on since the 1950s, when television came into our homes and the size of the movie audience plummeted. Special effects and sounds and gimmicks were invented to lure us back, and by the 1960s, film — or cinema, as many came to call it — became an elite, extracurricular activity. Some people believed that the free stuff coming into our homes was just as good as the movies we had once depended on like a fix, to which we had once been so devoted, but others disagreed. Movie audiences may have grown smaller, but they grew fervent. The studio system diminished, and bolder, brasher films were being made. A congress of critics grew out of this time, and they had rapt and large audiences, ready for their predictions and pronouncements. Collections of film reviews became best-sellers, and magazines bulged with long-form reviews. What happened? I was fortunate to become friends with the critics Andrew Sarris and his wife, Molly Haskell, and one evening, goaded by me, the conversation centered on that gilded age, when movie criticism became a highly competitive, vigorous sport, with critics fighting over how and why films were made; who made them best; why they mattered. Sarris thought that two things inflated the importance of film criticism at precisely the time when the quality and quantity of American films was declining: the number of Americans attending and graduating from college, where films were watched, discussed, studied; and a sense of nostalgia among those writing about film who, like Thomson, could see what had been lost in the film experience. We were now freer, on our own, lost, literally, to our own devices.
The means of watching movies may have changed, but film is there to be loved and studied; it is there to change us, improve us, allow us to look at the other aspects of our lives with a clearer vision. “Watching cannot rest with mere sight,” Thomson writes.
It waits to be converted into aesthetic judgment, moral discrimination, and a more intricate participation in society. That sounds ominous, I suppose, and part of a creeping unease at how the Internet can be a spectator sport that condones our lack of concentration and begins to deepen feelings of futility over dealing with the world. In that mood, there are film commentators who lament the loss of the large screen, the locomotive of the movie, and our amazed attention of it all. Things have been lost, but now I have to make the most challenging point — that cinema, movie (whatever) always had the seed of dislocation about it…The novice at the movies is often overwhelmed by the reality of it all…[and] “primitive peoples shown close-ups of the face are sometimes fearful that decapitation has occurred. When I saw [Laurence] Olivier’s Henry V at the age of four, I “saw” the faces of page boys in the English camp at Agincourt on fire. It was one of the occasions on which I had to be carried away in tears. Later on, I realized I was reacting to a dissolve — the faces and the fire had been laid together. Anyone poised on the edge of a miracle is “primitive.” (Italics mine.)
In that last sentence is, I think, Thomson’s primary argument, one shared with both Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, two men with whom I engaged in lengthy conversation, and men saved, created, and sustained by movies, and they thought of them as miracles: Miracles of art and technology and talent, yes, but also miracles of healing. Both Williams and Brando — and dare I add Thomson — had lives shattered or lacking in many things, but they went, mind and eyes open, to the experience of a movie, and they were altered, even if for only two hours. Whatever we face in our lives — movies, love, sensuality, enlightenment — should be approached from the perspective of a primitive. Leave your prejudices behind. Not for Thomson the oddly ascetic (and laughable) claim from Pauline Kael that she saw a film once and that was that; it was over. Would you only kiss or make love or enjoy champagne once? Then spend your life recalling, as best you could, how it felt? Thomson is that rare critic who wants you to have and to share your passions, and in How to Watch a Movie, he writes more of the experience of watching than in rating a film or excoriating the ambitions of anyone. The key is in watching, noting.
“Watching and seeing are both physical (optical) and emotional (irrational),” he writes. “In its first sixty or so years, movie had made us all more conscious of looking; it had invested appearance with a new excitement, glamour, and erotic force. That energy is still there, but is it wearing off? This is the dilemma of the Internet — of so much to see that attention wavers or loses faith in itself…Instead of rapt spectators of the lifelike, we have become like screenwriters or editors.”
We are, in short, not watching movies — or living our lives — with the full capacity that once seemed so natural to us. We are more and more unable to submit, and our films and our lives suffer for it. Every year there is boasting of the billions of dollars made by the movies, but where is the passion for current film? The Internet is full of sites devoted to movie stars of the past, to directors who changed the medium, but outside of gossip, what is being said about our current film stars? We no longer ask our films — or any art form — to do its thing to us: We ask films to disprove our preconceptions, but we do not ask films to amaze us.
What is our film culture now? The social media fury is reserved for occasions when an actress is called fat, or when we delight in the latest special-effects kapok drowning in debt. Movie reviews — a vanishing act — are more like disgruntled Yelp comments on cold food and diffident waiters, and most could have been written before the screening, as they bristle with deals and back stories and budgets and what was expected. Critics on websites and with Twitter accounts are now courted by film studios and publicists to shore up an increasingly bored and capricious audience, and they speculate on what’s working and what isn’t in the industry. But what did they think of the movie? That is often shoe-horned in as a desultory requirement. Even as I write this — in the throes of Oscar season — no one has any firm idea of who or what will win or why: It’s all a hunch, a guess, and more and more people are waiting to see the films or the performances only if they are awarded, at which time they will be something of a safe investment of time and interest. In my own erratic, interesting life, I have worked on various Oscar campaigns, escorting actors to interviews and industry screenings, mailing DVDs to various guild and academy members, and I am here to tell you that a great number of those voting for these awards are not watching these films — free of charge and with booze and snacks afterward — and they are underwhelmed a great deal of the time. Their complaint — to me, a freelance non-entity who stocks hand sanitizer for stars and directors — is that movies are not “big” enough; they don’t engage. Engagement, I want to tell them, is a two-way street, and highly unlikely to blossom as you watch portions of Carol or Spotlight or The Revenant on the dedicated iTunes account set up for guild voters. Our films, they seem to be saying, need to satisfy a desire they can’t even articulate, or to which they feel superior. They might be the people of whom Tennessee Williams once said “They know so much they have been rendered stupid and immobile.”
Brando, when I asked him why he became so disdainful of the Oscars, stated that “We give awards for effort and endurance, and this is soul-crushing and it demeans the art we claim to be honoring.” The bottom line for Brando? “We are more and more terrified of any value judgments — on anything — because we do not trust ourselves to have an authentic and original experience. We need someone to tell us what or whom to love, and how to move and sigh when we do it. Let’s just watch the fucking movies and get high on them.”
I think everyone is down with that. Let’s see some movies — past and present — and get high on them. But how? Where? Thomson reminds us that the power to be amazed by all things — with movies as our starting point — rests with us. Our vision is our own, as is our experience. Toward the end of this bewitching book, Thomson offers a confession (yet another of his submissions): “You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.”
“If you really want to watch a film,” Thomson concludes, “you must be ready to recognize your own life slipping away. That takes a good deal of education. But you have to be stupid, too.”
Wise men — Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Richard Schickel, Andrew Sarris, and now, David Thomson — are asking or have asked us to forget what we think we know and to become reacquainted with what we feel, with what moves us. Share the stories and the sensations. Recall where you were emotionally when a film hit you. The movie you saw on a first date or with the mate you now love will become a part of your DNA, as will the film you saw right before the horrible phone call about the sick friend or parent. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett will be fine and will feed their families and their assistants. Studios will keep making movies that will delight and disappoint us. These are not our concerns. We need to submit to things, to life, and we need to feel. This book will help you with this. This book will help you hold on to parts of your life as it slips away.