Can Sexual Violence in Movies Be Edifying? From Straw Dogs to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

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The irreproachable way to deal with sexual violence on screen, and in art generally, is not to represent it, even if it’s your subject. Samuel Richardson originated this approach in Clarissa (1747), a 2000 page novel whose central event is the heroine’s rape—though that rape is so glancingly described that an inattentive reader might miss it. (J.M. Coetzee followed suit in Disgrace.) The idea behind this code of silence is that depicting rape graphically turns an act of violence into a sex scene. Naked bodies turn us on whether we want them to or not, the argument goes, and so to depict a rape victim’s body graphically is to turn it into an erotic, arousing object. Such depictions make readers and viewers voyeur-accomplices to the rape and inevitably teach them to take pleasure in sexual violence. And as Susan Brownmiller insisted in her then revolutionary book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975), rape is violence not sex. Rape should not turn us on: It should enrage and disgust us.

So one might, quite justifiably, adhere to the position that sexual violence on screen is reprehensible, whatever form it takes; whether from the feminist perspective, that such films celebrate and promote violence against women, or from the religious, socially conservative position, that explicit representations of sex and violence are morally corrupting, that they create an appetite for more sex and violence. There’s also a growing consensus among scholarship from various fields that exposure to violent sexual images has detrimental effects on the behaviors and attitudes of the men who look at them, so one might now bolster either political position with scientific data.

But you don’t have to be a social scientist or a man, or a feminist, or a conservative to feel the negative effects of watching rape, quasi-forced sodomy, sexual humiliation, or sexual mutilation. Many who watch Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), or Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Pier Palo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988), Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009), or, most recently, Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2010) and Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs (2011) find themselves feeling assaulted rather than entertained or enlightened: shaken, crying, exhausted, enraged—more traumatized witnesses of a crime than exhilarated cinema patrons. And then there’s the fact that many films about sexual violence that abide by Richardson’s code of silence are no less powerful for their lack of explicitness: Dracula (1931), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Proposition (2005), The Lovely Bones (2010).

Without being a professed feminist or a social conservative, you might just instinctively recoil from explicit sexual violence on screen. And you wouldn’t be alone: Film festival audiences walk out of these movies (Irreversible), countries ban them and occasionally prosecute their directors for obscenity (Straw Dogs, Last Tango, Salò, Clockwork), critics report feeling battered by them (Precious, Irreversible) or becoming so enraged by the experience of watching them that they feel impelled towards violence themselves (Antichrist). And that’s only among the short-list of films above, films that received much critical acclaim and have been more or less canonized.

The feeling of being assaulted is not an experience many would consciously seek out, as Roger Ebert acknowledged in the conclusion of his positive review of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (one of the most graphic non-porn movies ever made about rape—also one of the most intelligent): “As I said twice and will repeat again, most people will not want to see the film at all. It is so violent, it shows such cruelty, that it is a test most people will not want to endure.” Even for those with the determination to endure these films and find value in them, the experience, whatever the intellectual payoff, is inevitably tinged with a feeling of troubling complicity and fallenness: Am I self-hating? A misogynist? A sadist? A pervert? Is human nature really so ugly, so capable of ugliness? Did I enjoy that? Does having gotten something out of that movie make me a “a bad person”?

In his review of Niels Arden Oplev’s movie version of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime-thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (also known as Men Who Hate Women), Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips wrote of the film’s graphic rape scenes, “…I’ve sort of had it with this stuff…every 10 minutes in the multiplex, we settle in for one more load of appalled, appalling evidence of what men who hate women do for their amusement. And for ours.” But it’s not amusement for some, not in Dragon Tattoo, nor in the other movies listed above.

For some, narrative art is also a means of gathering vicarious experience and coming to terms with our own experiences; it is a means of learning, in a safer way, about the world and human nature, especially its terrifying aspects. (And now cognitive criticism, an emerging field of literary theory, contends that collecting and studying stories and characters are the means by which we make sense of ourselves, protect ourselves, achieve our ends and that they are crucial to our success and survival.) From this intellectual position, watching unflinching portrayals of sexual violence can also be a way to guard against such evil in yourself, to identify it in others, to understand, in some small way, the horror that victims of sexual violence experience, and the damage that sexual violence inflicts on the lives and personalities of victims, their families, and their communities.

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott agreed with Phillips about Dragon Tattoo. He argued that Opvel’s “feminist impulse” (to indict violence against women and to show “how one woman fights back”) “is overpowered by the unwavering attention to the vulnerable suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen.” But others felt differently. A self-identified survivor of sexual violence calling herself “Warrior” left a comment on Manohla Dargis’ more positive review of movie: “…I love the movie. I love that Lisbeth has not been broken but is a fighter and a survivor—yet still has compassion when required.” This response reflects my own sense of Lisbeth’s rape scene, which I found a portrayal of violence rather than sex. Yes, there is one brief shot of Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) naked from the waist down and another brief shot of her rapist on top of her (his body appears fully clothed), but most of the scene focuses on Lisbeth fighting back against his attempt to subdue her, fighting to keep her self-determination.

She resists her attacker with a ferocious physical rage (one few actresses can muster and fewer films give them the chance to exhibit), a rage bordering on madness, and a rage that had enabled her to fight off a group of drunk hooligans in an earlier scene. The final shot is a close-up of Lisbeth’s face. She’s screaming, and the outrage and pain she communicates are almost emotionally obscene. The physical presentation of her body, however, is not, nor is it, as Scott contends, titillating.

Scott and Phillips also objected to the scene depicting Lisbeth’s revenge on her rapist: she tazes her assailant in his home (the site of her rape), gags, strips, and ties him up, beats him, sodomizes him, and tattoos “I AM A SADISTIC PIG AND A RAPIST” on his chest and stomach. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone pronounced this scene “graphic enough to freeze your blood,” but those more intimate with sexual violence might’ve felt something rather different.

Rape survivors report using fantasies of torturing and killing their rapists as a therapeutic technique (a mental exercise to help them sleep, for example). In her autobiographical account of her rape and its aftermath, One Night: Realities of Rape, anthropologist Cathy Winkler found some relief from her post-rape trauma and anxiety in educating herself about rape, reading and watching all of the accounts and movies about rape she could find. And her reactions to these surprised her. Watching a rape-revenge scene in the movie Lipstick, in which the rape victim shoots her rapist, Winkler found herself yelling at the avenging heroine on the screen: “Don’t stop shooting until there is nothing left of him.” My sister, who was raped in 2004, was less gratified by having her rapist found guilty and sent to prison, than by the relative certainty that he would be raped in prison. I also found deep satisfaction in this—though I had forgotten it until I saw Lisbeth inflict on her rapist the pain, humiliation, and loss of control he had inflicted on her. Sometimes blood, real or fictional, is the best means of expiation. Not, perhaps, a heart-warming fact to discover about yourself, but no less true for that—which is to say that art is never just about the author’s intentions, but also about the experiences and the emotional and intellectual temperament that each viewer brings to her watching.

Sexual violence and perversion can also represent things beyond themselves with startling power. In Salò, set at the end of World War II, four Italian officials kidnap a group of teenagers on whom they perform elaborate sexual tortures and humiliations. In one scene, the fascist libertines throw a banquet: they serve the teenagers’ feces on silver platters. The libertines find this fare delectable, as they find forcing their prisoners to urinate on them or in front of them arousing. Of course, the horrors of fascism are established facts of history, but Pasolini’s representation of these men’s taste for death (excrement), their erotic pleasure in it, estranges these horrors, makes them new—more vivid and more horrible than reading the history again. After Salò, I also found myself seeing Lisbeth’s rape at the hands of her state-appointed guardian as a critique of paternalistic governments. Lisbeth’s rape is first and foremost a rape, but rape is also a symbol for the loss of self-determination, and I couldn’t help but see Larsson’s political commitment to libertarianism in Lisbeth’s repeated abuse at the hands of the agents of the democratic socialist government who are supposed to be taking care of her.

But it’s still true, that for some the horror will be all. And intellectual quibbling can’t diminish or deny that. It is the fate of the intellectual quibbler to find herself a devil’s advocate, and sometimes I think that questions such as whether and how sexual violence should be portrayed ought rather to be a debate about whether hyper-intellectual aesthetic criticism has any real redeeming social value—or if it too is a form of pornography (look at that big, throbbing…brain).

In an attempt to be intellectual and anti-intellectual at once, I’d say that a hard and fast general theory of the value of sexual violence in film isn’t possible. Viewer temperament, historical mood at the time the film is made and watched, personal history—all these mean that my Last Tango won’t be yours. Nor will or should yours be Pauline Kael’s (she loved the movie with what now, to me, seems a curious effusiveness). If horror is all you’re left with (if you can’t get beyond the content) the finer points of the cinematography, the script, the acting—don’t really matter.

Last Tango, like Straw Dogs, features a rape-like sex scene. Both movies offer sensual, flirtatious, petulant child-women as their heroines and because neither film presents any other substantial female characters both seem to offer their slight, silly, half-sketched heroines as emblems of Woman. The fact that these heroines seek out, accept, even seem to enjoy forced sex has to be, at the very least, troubling and provocative.

Rape scene aside, Straw Dogs is a chilling, deeply convincing portrayal of the Hobbesian potential that lies within even the most cerebral and confrontation-averse of human beings (a mathematician, David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman). The rape scene begins by mimicking the structure of the classic porn plot: the lady of the house, Amy Sumner (Susan George), wearing a robe, opens the door for her day-laborer and invites him in for a drink. What starts as a rape (she resists, screams “Get out!”, is grabbed by the hair, pulled to the sofa, slapped, her clothes torn, a look of stricken terror on her face) becomes a scene of pleasurable, consensual sex: she sighs and quivers, caresses her rapist’s head and neck, pulls his face to hers. When the day laborer’s buddy shows up with a gun to have his turn, the scene becomes rape again, but it’s a sex-scene from start to finish. I dare you not to find Susan George sexy in this scene (even if you won’t ever admit it publicly).

Uppermost in my response to this scene is shock and disgust. I imagine, rape-porn fanciers aside, that that’s the average viewer’s response. But I also can’t decide if I am more angry at Peckinpah for bolstering the myth that women invite sexual violence and enjoy it (Bertolucci can be accused of this in Last Tango’s famous forced-sodomy “butter scene”), or at the possibility that there really are women like Amy, women who enjoy sexual violence. Plath believed it—”Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you”—but the idea feels more sinister coming from a male director (whether Peckinpah in Straw Dogs and Bertolucci’s Last Tango, David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Lars von Trier in Breaking the Waves and Antichrist; women don’t seem to make movies about how they punish themselves sexually). Amy’s character throughout Straw Dogs (like Jeanne’s in Last Tango) is unsettled and unsettling: she is by turns coquettish, masochistic, bored, spiteful, angry, easily amused. As with the rape scene, I can’t decide if Amy’s shallow, erratic character is an insulting reflection on the nature of women or if it’s a critique of her type. Do I know any Amy-ish women? Is it the faintest tinge of Amy-ishness in myself at certain moments, shameful to recollect, that makes me so angry? Or the idea that men who hate women hate them because women want them to? Or the idea that men who hate women (these filmmakers?) think women want to be hated?

Of course, the feminists, the conservatives, and the gentle souls may all be right; and the social scientist may soon prove that lessons about life and self learned from buttered sodomy and scissors applied to tenderest parts are not the sort of lessons anyone ought to learn. As I come to the end of this piece, I feel it myself. But I also can’t deny that I have learned a great deal about dark, fallen things from “brute hearts.”

The Devil in a Cadillac: Langston Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory

“It’s a singing, shouting, wailing drama about the old conflict between blatant Evil and quiet Good, with the Devil driving a Cadillac. What kind of car have you got?”

So Langston Hughes described his “urban-folk-Harlem-genre-melodrama” Tambourines to Glory, first conceived as a play/musical (1956) and then re-born two years later as a novel (1958).  It’s the novel I recommend—though there are a lot of folk and gospel songs in this too (“Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “When The Saints Come Marching In,” “A Rock On Which To Stand”) and it is more vivid and arresting as read and sung by Myra Lucretia Taylor for Recorded Books.

Tambourines is the story of the stolid, kind Essie Belle Johnson, and the lusty, flamboyant Laura Reed, two middle-aged women on home relief (welfare), neighbors in a low-rent apartment building in 1940s Harlem, who strike upon the idea of founding a church.  Actually, it’s Laura’s idea, Laura whose motives are not exactly pure: Love of “men, wine, and something fine”–and thoughts of tambourines heaped with coins—inspire her: “This religious jive is something we can  collect on,” she tells Essie. Essie, on the other hand, feels called by God through Laura to do his work—and these conflicted motives, as you might imagine, drive the plot.

With their two commanding voices—Essie’s angelic and Laura’s “deep, strong, wine-rusty, and wild”—and Laura’s glib flare for preaching (she learned at the knee of her “jack-leg preacher” uncle), and a Bible and a tambourine, they begin holding prayer meetings on a corner of Lennox Ave. And the spirit is with them: they’re good, so good that before long their church has moved into a grand old Harlem theater (with a little help from the sly, handsome “motherfouler” Buddy Lomax—Laura’s “king-size Hershey Bar”).

Some critics have called the novel’s plot thin or slight, but that’s missing the point (Paradise Lost isn’t a lesser work because its conclusion is foregone); It’s a failure to appreciate the spare, clean lines of Tambourines’ morality tale plot and how this plot allows Hughes’ tremendous gifts for poetic language and description, dialogue, and character through voice to come to the fore.  This is a living book—one that summons the age of the Great Migration and Sarah Vaughan and Joe Louis.  And while it’s a morality fable, its characters aren’t the flat allegorical kind: Laura especially (like Milton’s Satan) is no mere caricature.  Nor is Hughes take on good and evil as easy to parse as the plot’s simplicity suggests—like Milton, Hughes offers a too dull, sedentary vision of “good”—and a too seductive vision of “evil” in the lusty Laura.

I Was A Teenage Grave Robber: Daniel Kraus’s Rotters

Lest you fail to detect the skeleton of historical fact that gives shape to Daniel Kraus’ unsettling, baroque, and surpassingly lurid new young adult novel, Rotters, I begin this review with a short history of the resurrection men, vulgarly referred to as grave robbers or body snatchers–the ignoble offspring of the European Enlightenment.  While the Enlightenment era is bedecked with many marvelous achievements in human thought and practice—the Rights of Man, the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” an explosion in literacy rates and books and newspapers, coffee houses and salons, a vast increase in the circulation of ideas, the advance of natural history, navigation and exploration, chemistry, scientific classification, mathematics,  microscopy, medicine (the circulation of the blood, inoculation) and anatomy—like any revolution, the Enlightenment had its less savory side.

The resurrection men offer us a glimpse of the maggoty underbelly of the Scientific Revolution: As the idea of the body as a rational system, a machine of sorts, took hold in Europe, so the numbers of students eager to learn the science of anatomy increased–along with the demand for fresh corpses for dissection. And with this rise in demand, a new class of professional grave robbers was born: the resurrection men. These men disinterred buried corpses not for jewelry or clothes, but for the bodies themselves, which they sold to medical schools and anatomists. Poor medical students were known to moonlight as resurrection men in order to pay their medical school tuition—in dead bodies.  And when corpses were in particularly short supply, a few very enterprising resurrectionists were known to turn to murder to meet the medical schools’ demand (most famous among these: Brendan Burke and William Hare, who were tried in Edinburgh in 1829 for the murders of more than a dozen prostitutes, beggars, and boarding house lodgers—all of whose bodies they had sold to an anatomy professor. Burke was hanged and his corpse, as was usual in capital cases in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, was given to a medical school for dissection).

Out of this gruesome prehistory, comes Kraus’ Rotters.  Kraus’ novel imagines (and I say imagines reservedly—perhaps such men do live among us) a modern breed of grave robbers: the Diggers, proud self-proclaimed descendants of the eighteenth and nineteeth-century resurrection men. Kraus uses this unwholesome sub-culture as a setting for one of the darkest, wildest, most unsettling adolescent novels I’ve ever come across. The novel’s scenes contain a superabundance of maggots, necrotic flesh, “coffin liquor,” and rat kings (masses of coffin rats whose tails have become  entangled such that they move as a single entity)—there’s plenty of all, but these are actually the least of the book’s horrors.  More sinister is the loveless, punishing fate that Kraus inflicts on his hero, 17-year-old Joey Crouch, whose story begins when his mother dies and he’s sent to live with his father, a man’s he’s never met, in Iowa.

Ken Hartnett, Joey’s father, is a Digger who lives in a hovel surrounded by onion beds on the banks of the Big Chief River.  Initially repulsed and enraged by his father, who is brusque, negligent, often drunk, and smells like rotten meat, Joey is gradually drawn into his underworld. Joey becomes entranced by the varieties of decay available to human corpses, relishes his own prowess with a shovel, his ability to leave a grave plot looking pristine, even after he’s excavated the coffin and taken the corpse’s jewelry—because while Joey’s dad proudly claims the resurrection men of Scotland and England as his professional forebears, he and his kind, the Diggers, are actually just old fashioned grave robbers: sawing off fingers for rings, prying out gold teeth, pocketing watches.  But they take great pride in what they do, how quickly and tidily they’re able to do it, who they’re able to do it to (Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, John Scott Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison): Once you’re in the ground, you’re just an anonymous rotter, no matter who you were in life.

What draws Joey to the rotter world is more mundane: Once in his father’s care, Joey’s destined to become his small-town high school’s untouchable.  Forced into his father’s quasi-savage way of life, Joey begins to look and smell feral—sometimes worse than feral.  He’s brutalized and humiliated by the jocks, taunted and blackmailed by a sadistic teacher, and ignored by everyone else. This is adolescent misery of a most exquisite variety.  I’m actually not sure why or how Joey is standing at the end, between the high school horrors and the more exotic, Digger-related horrors that he endures. Kraus shows Joey’s isolation, humiliation, loneliness, and hopelessness drawing him into the world of the Diggers. The less life offers him, the more he wants to dig—the more he wants to be among the dead, where pain and sorrow are finished forever.  Digging is an art and Joey’s got his father’s gift. And among the strange, death-scented old men who compose the Diggers’ union, Joey is cherished and admired, a wonder and a last hope for a dying profession.

Somewhere around the middle of Rotters, though, things start to feel a little unhinged. The plot begins to unfurl at an unnerving speed: grotesque demented vignettes are heaped on grotesque demented vignettes in an alarming, precarious array (example: Joey lures the king of the high school jocks into the weight room at school where he knocks him out and then entwines his victim among several naked female corpses in an orgy-like configuration). At this point, I began to imagine the structure of the book as something like the interior of the Kostnice, the bone church outside of Prague whose interior is decorated with tens of thousands of interlocking, piled human bones. Though, Rotters is less beautiful, more genuinely grotesque, more alarming—and not necessarily in an aesthetically useful way.

I am not squeamish–not at the sight of blood, nor in contemplating the hideous things that people can and do do to each other.  I’m also very fond of the grotesque: Goya’s Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, most of Swift, Archimboldo, Tristram Shandy, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey —but I found Rotters hard to take.  It felt sometimes—beautiful though some of the writing is and beautifully conceived as some of the scenes are—as if the novel was a manic exercise (…here’s yet another scene in which the crazed, drug-addled clown-dwarf-digger loses a body part–an eye, now a foot, now his face is cleft with a shovel, now coated in slick black mud—now he falls face first into a pile of jewels and comes up with a diamond where his eye used to be—as he floats out to sea on a coffin…in the middle of a hurricane).  This stuff was too baroque for my taste—it was sensory overload.  Mind you, in a world rife with oatmealy workshop-cookie-cutter fiction, Kraus is absolutely original—which is what kept me reading—even when I started to feel like the novel itself felt a little poisonous, unwholesomely keen on human misery, failure, and despair (and I’m quite fond of human misery, failure, and despair as literary themes–what else is there, really?).

It also seemed that (perhaps?), taken as he was with the minutia of the Digger and high school life, Kraus lost sight of the ultimate shape he wanted his book to take—what it’s supposed to mean.  Though the novel seems intent on destroying Joey for about 400 pages, it gives him a kind of bland happy-ish-but-not-really-happy ending that I couldn’t make sense of. And looking back from the last page, I’m not sure I know what the book’s larger vision was.

What did it all mean? I’m not sure I can say.  But there’s something to be said for taking a dose of such wildness–such tumbling, aggressive, unkempt fiction–every now and again.

American Laurels: The Poets Laureate Anthology

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As a volume in the cultural history of American poetry, there’s no doubt that Elizabeth Hun Schmidt’s The Poets Laureate Anthology is a valuable text. For starters, it’s the only book of its kind: The collection offers substantial (but not overwhelming) selections from the 47 poets who have served and continue to serve in the only official position for an artist in United States. Perhaps with a mind to easing readers into our official poetic past, Schmidt has organized the anthology in reverse chronological order: She begins with W.S. Merwin, our current laureate, appointed in 2010, and works backwards to the now little-remembered Joseph Auslander, the first American laureate, then called the “Consultant in Poetry,” who was served from 1937 to 1941 (some call him dusty, but “Severus to Tiberius Greatly Ennuyé” is as fine a poem as you are likely to read).  The work of every laureate is deftly introduced by a short, succinct biographical essay that describes his or her intellectual and aesthetic temperament.

Whether the collection’s aesthetic value matches its cultural and historical value is another question altogether, and a question worth considering in the midst of this, our National Poetry Month. If you’re an avid reader of poetry, you might feel the glaring absence of some of the most important names in American poetry of the last (almost) 100 years: Allen Ginsburg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, Countee Cullen, Ogden Nash, Robert Bly, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Ezra Pound, Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Robert Creeley, Maya Angelou, and John Berryman.  You’ll find none of these among the laureates, though any sense  of American poetry formed without them would be impoverished.

Of course, you do get Robert Frost, Robert Hass, Robert Hayden, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Joseph Brodsky, Mark Strand, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. This is an accomplished crowd, certainly, if by and large, a rather safe, rather white, rather male crowd. Of course, the institution of the national laureate has a long history of not always picking one for the ages. A classic example of this from across the pond: Colley Cibber. Cibber became the poet laureate of England during the reign of George II. Have you ever heard of Colley Cibber? Read his poems? I thought not. They’re dreadful and should be avoided. Yet Cibber reigned as laureate instead of Alexander Pope (at the height of his poetic career when Cibber was crowned), largely because Cibber wrote some thumpingly patriotic/jingoistic plays that the not-very-artistically-inclined king managed to remember.  Which is to say that you may find a Cibber or two of your own among the members of this anthology.

So, another question that Schmidt’s anthology raises is, what does it mean to be a state-sponsored poet and what does it take to become one?  Sure, it means a $35,000 stipend (I’d always thought more), a few readings and a beautiful office in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, but what does it mean to be “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,” as the Library of Congress describes the role of the laureate its librarian selects?  Sounds rather grand and magical—but also, perhaps, a little ridiculous or impossible too.

Schmidt’s answer to this is her introduction, which offers a short history of the fraught relationship between poetry and the state, beginning with Plato’s banishing of poets from his ideal Republic, and ending with Robert Penn Warren’s declaration that he would not be writing “odes on the death of the President’s Cat,” when the official title of his position was charged from “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” to “poet laureate consultant in poetry” in 1986. And, indeed, American laureates have never been required to write odes or hymns on state occasions (as British laureates still are)—though some have chosen to put their poetic shoulders to the wheel of state: our first laureate Joseph Auslander, for example, voluntarily used his poetry to raise money for war bonds during World War II.

Schmidt’s take on American poetry and the office of laureate is that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence gave Americans an exceptional relationship to the poet’s voice—to one man’s voice speaking out in beautiful language: “Our very sense of state emerged from the deft and memorable use of language and the compelling sound of one man’s voice on the page.”  What Schmidt implies is that poetry is an imperative, a foundational aspect of our national character, and a private means of declaring independence: “…a poet’s very vocation, whether she or he winds up laureled or not, can be seen as a declaration of independence.” From this perspective, the office of laureate is a figurehead for the American character: its self-assertion, strength of voice and conviction, multiplicity (though Schmidt also acknowledges that the ranks of the bay wearers are still very white and male), its commitment to individuality.

As for the poetry, there are a lot of old favorites here: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Fire and Ice” (recently given a cameo in Twilight: Eclipse—and they say poetry is dead!), and Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  Schmidt has also inclined toward the inclusion of explicitly political poems (usually poems of warning or critique, though not always). These include Mona Van Duyn’s “For William Clinton, President Elect,” Joseph Brodsky’s “To the President-elect” and “Once More by the Potomac,” William Meredith’s “A Mild-Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House,” Robert Hass’ “Bush’s War,” Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” and Frost’s “The Gift Outright.” In this aspect, the anthology also contains within itself a sub-anthology of American political poetry (again, of course, some of our great political poetry isn’t by laureates, Ginsburg’s “Howl” and “America,” for example, but there more to political poetry than the Beats, as is sometimes forgotten). These poems prompt the old question of whether and when and how politics and poetry should intersect (and the nice thing about an anthology is that you get to decide for yourself).

One of Schmidt’s other pronounced editorial taste is for ars poetica type poems, poems about the making and reading of poetry: Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry,” Meredith’s “A Major Work,” Josephine Jacobsen’s “Gentle Reader,” Stephen Spender’s “Word,” and Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.” In an anthology of public poets–poets who are in some way connected to the citizenry or charged with their poetic enlightenment–this is a particularly deft editorial choice. These poems give the anthology an approachable aspect: They are teaching poems, poems that are simultaneously poems and instructions on how to read poetry–and how not to: Collins describes ill-advised readers of poetry tying the poem to a chair to “torture a confession out of it,” and “beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”  This isn’t the way: As Collins and Josephine Jacobsen both explain, you have to let the poem have its way with you (not the other way around). For Jacobsen in “Gentle Reader,” an encounter with a good poem seems hardly distinguishable from a night with Casanova: “O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;/this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow.” And for Mark Strand, in “Eating Poetry,” the poetic immersion leads to something like a werewolf’s metamorphosis. After a day’s reading and writing in the library, he’s “a new man,” half-feral; and even as he terrifies the librarian, he delights himself: “I snarl at her and bark,/I romp with joy in the bookish dark.”

If you thought poetry was tame, the stuff of effete university men or Victorian ladies, be forewarned: Not among the American laureates (at least, not all of them—a few have not aged well). Many of the included poets and poems go a long way toward proving Hun’s provocative and interesting claim that among American poets, poetry inevitably offers a personal means of making a declaration of independence.

This is a thoughtful, important collection and whether you’re a patriot or a poet or a reader of poetry (or some combination of these), this anthology deserves a place in your library.

All quotations from The Poets Laureate Anthology, published by W.W. Norton in association with the Library of Congress. “Introduction to Poetry” copyright Billy Collins. “Gentle Reader” copyright Josephine Jacobsen. “Eating Poetry” copyright Mark Strand.

A Beginner’s Guide to Drugs For Girls

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Tasteless and horrifying–nay, even a sign of the apocalypse–or rather excellent advice for college-bound young ladies?  You decide: Vice Magazine’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Drugs For Girls.” (A taste: “Here are some pointers for the beginners out there so you can get high without becoming that girl slumped in the corner of the night bus with vomit all over your shoes and lockjaw so bad your teeth have all snapped in half.”)

James M. Cain’s Serenade: Fate and Blindness

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When it comes to terse, morally ambivalent novels about sexually compromised men and bullfighting, I pick James M. Cain’s Serenade any day of the week over Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Sure, Hemingway’s novel’s got its beauties, but there’s a humorlessness about Hemingway, a feeling of high seriousness–in The Sun Also Rises, especially–that’s a little off-putting, a little ridiculous. Cain, on the other hand, even though his work’s very much in the tragic line, still has a taste for comic details (He describes a whorehouse in Guatemala City with cans of vegetables stacked behind the bar: “When a guy in Guatemala really wants to show the girls a good time, he blows them to canned asparagus.”) Somehow these comic touches make the tragedy hit you that much harder.

And I’m not the only one who thinks Cain’s the crack-shot of the masculinist/Noir/laconic/hard-boiled set of early twentieth-century American writers: “Nobody has pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler,” wrote Tom Wolfe.  And yet Cain’s not half so well-known as his peers—maybe because his two most famous novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, became two even more famous Noir films—films so famous perhaps that they all but eclipsed their literary origins.  Also, it was Raymond Chandler who adapted Cain’s novel for the film version of Double Indemnity—so there may be some legitimate confusion about where Cain ends and Chandler begins.

But the point here is Cain’s Serenade, which is, like The Sun Also Rises, a novel about an exiled American whose sexuality’s in a bad way. Cain’s American exile, John Henry Sharp, is a once-great opera singer whose voice has dried up mysteriously, though he’s still in his prime. The mystery of what happened to Sharp’s voice is tied up with sex, but I leave the specifics out, since the book’s better if you don’t know ahead of time. Sharp’s been relegated to the opera in Mexico City—where supposedly even washed up singers can get along alright. Except that what’s left of Sharp’s voice isn’t even good enough for the Mexicans and he’s had to quit that as well.  When you meet him, he’s down to his last three pesos and he’s just seen a woman he can’t stop looking at–the woman, it goes without saying, who’s going to mean big trouble for him:

I was in the Tumpinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in.  Everything about her said Indian, from the maroon rebozo to the black dress with the purple flowers on it, to the swaying way she walked, that no woman ever got without carrying pots, bundles, and baskets on her head from the time she could crawl.  But she wasn’t any of the colors that Indians come in.  She was almost white, with just the least dip of café con leche.  Her shape was Indian, but not ugly. Most Indian women have a rope of muscle over their hips that give them a high-waisted, mis-shapen look, thin, bunchy legs, and too much breast-works.  She had plenty in that line, but her hips were round and her legs had a soft line to them…All that I only half-saw. What I noticed was her face.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for Cain’s hit-the-ground-running Noir story-telling–talk as straight and sharp as a machete blade and twice as likely to leave you sore, since Noir heroes’ stories never end well. Cain, by his own account “shuddered at the least hint of the highfalutin, the pompous, or the literary” and true to his word, there’s none in Serenade. Yet, for my money, Cain’s writing is a far more satisfying and impressive literary experience than much of the self-consciously “literary” and “poetic” and “lyrical” stuff that passes for fiction nowadays.  It also has a real, artfully designed plot—something that contemporary “literary” authors apparently find vulgar—and this plot rip-roars along with astonishing agility and speed.  You also don’t know where’s it’s going, how’s it’s going to end (other than pretty badly—it’s a Noir novel, after all), and that uncertainty about what might be coming round the next page is exhilarating too.

There’s also something breathtaking about Cain’s hero/narrator’s unabashed frankness about sex and race (“Yes, it was rape, but only technical, brother, only technical.”), something that makes you realize how constricted the parameters of our cultural discussions about sex and race have become, and our books and movies about them—how timid and polite we’ve all become. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a hankering for hate-speech or stereotypes, nor do I want to return to the good ol’ pre-civil rights, -women’s rights, -gay rights days—shiver me timbers, no.  But I do sometimes feel—especially in the middle of a ripping Noir crime novel that’s tossing off generalizations about women, nationalities, cops, and pretty much any group you can think of like handfuls of confetti—that we’ve all become so nervous about being offensive and our sensitivity to offense is so heightened that we’d all just rather not talk about sex and race in any real way, certainly not explore the murkier side of things.  (Manohla Dargis recently wondered why we don’t make movies like Last Tango In Paris anymore in “The Closing of the American Erotic“; Katie Roiphe, in “The Naked and the Conflicted,,” why the sex in contemporary literature is so tepid—this would be why: we’re fucking terrified. I know I am.)

But Cain wasn’t terrified. The murkier side of things is where Cain’s novel pitches it tent—where it begins, middles, and ends. And, really, Cain, for all his name implies, and for all of his hero’s deliciously off-color opinions and confidence in his own perceptions, tells in Serenade, a story about how utterly, even tragically, wrong most of these opinions turn out to be. Juana Montes, the girl in the maroon rebozo, whom Sharp first takes to be “a little dumb muchacha,” is a lot sharper and stronger than Sharp knows; She sees him a lot better than he sees her, for all of his keen, meticulous descriptions of her body, her country, her people.  The tragedy of the Noir hero is always some version of this: He sees so much, narrates and describes what he sees so meticulously, beautifully, and yet fails to see the destruction that awaits him.  This blindness is the mark of Oedipus, the original tragic hero and the Noir hero’s earliest ancestor.

Cain wrote of his work: “I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination…I think my stories have some quality of the opening of the forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex, or any of the things usually cited by way of explanation, that gives them the drive so often noted. Their appeal is first to the mind, and the reader is carried along as much by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive, and his curiosity to see what happens to them, as by the effect on him of incident, dialogue, or character.”  What he describes sounds an awful lot like Greek tragedy—and this is the feeling you have throughout a Cain novel, a Noir novel or film: the inexorable movement towards disaster—that begins in Serenade as soon as John Howard Sharp lays eyes on Juana Montes. (But the novel and it’s tragedy isn’t just about sex, it’s very much about art, namely singing opera, and in this it shares with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan the idea that the art sometimes destroys the artist.)

These days, novels and people seem to have lost their sense of fate and destiny (Tana French is something of an exception—she’s doing a beautiful sort of brogue-Noir right now).  Fatalism is out of fashion—and it’s infantile world-view, I’m often told when I defend it—but it does make for a damn good story.

Jane Pratt & Tavi Gevinson’s New Rag

Attention Sassy and Jane fans: Infant savant/fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson and Jane Pratt (founder of Sassy and Jane) are starting a new magazine.  The publication’s a bit of a mystery right now (no name or website yet), but if you want to be notified when the project launches, click here to get on the e-mail list.
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On Race, Class and the Hollywood ‘Whiteout’

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In Sunday’s New York Times, inspired, I suspect, by Black History Month, movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had a long piece on the glaring absence of black writers, directors, and actors in this year’s Oscar nominated movies. They refer to this phenomenon as a “whiteout.”  Some might say that Scott answered his own question—why there are no major movies this year by or about black characters (never mind the rest of America’s non-white racial panoply; Scott never mentions them)—with his rather insightful piece of a few weeks back, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” which argued that in the wake of the financial crisis, in the midst of mass unemployment, mortgage defaults, and forecloses, many American filmmakers became preoccupied by class, and that some of the best of this year’s movies (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town) were about working-class and underclass lives, the kinds of lives that the dominant American class mentality—we’re-all-middle-class-here—doesn’t acknowledge or examine all that often.

Yes, I know: there are still a great many statistics that demonstrate that race and poverty’s fault-lines still mirror each other, still have a causal rather than accidental relationship, and thus that class is not the new race: that race is the new race and the old race. But, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, and we can’t ask them to attend to too many weighty aspects of American life at once.  So, at least for this year in American movies, the answer to the rhetorical question in “Hollywood and the Year of the Whiteout,” “Is class the new race?,” is yes: For Hollywood this year class was the new race.

That doesn’t mean that this year’s “whiteout” isn’t a problem. But neither the problem nor the answer to the problem are quite what the authors here take them to be, though they touch on the real answer fleetingly.

The problems with the argument? First, and most obviously, when there’s a whiteout year in Hollywood, black isn’t the only color that’s missing.  And, second, the solution to the whiteout is not, as is suggested, a new black indie cinema movement—a few new Spike Lee/Lee Daniels-style black moviemakers. Or, at least, that’s not the full answer.

My sense is that the way out of the whiteout requires something more subtle, something unprecedented. The answer isn’t just a new coterie of black directors making movies in the line of Do The Right Thing or Precious. More serious films about black American life in our yearly cinematic output would be great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something else American cinema needs more now—something we’ve only had accidental and fleeting glimpses of thus far.

What we need are more serious movies with multiracial characters/casts that aren’t SCARE QUOTES MOVIES ABOUT RACE END SCARE QUOTES. We need more movies that simultaneously are and aren’t about race: movies that are dramas and comedies, about love, death, the usual human plots—and also happen to be about race. We don’t need only highly self-conscious, politicized movies about race, but movies that look at race the way Ben Affleck’s The Town look at class: askance—Affleck uses a popular genre, a crime-thriller, to smuggle a story that’s really about class onto the big screen. This is also how Lisa Cholodenko asks us to think about sexual orientation in The Kids Are Alright: The movie’s lesbianism is sort of incidental. The movie is about a marriage undergoing a crisis brought about by a daughter’s departure for college–oh, and the couple happens to be gay.  Cholodenko does not tell us that gay love, marriage, or family exist in a special category of experience unfelt and un-feel-able by heterosexuals: She tells us that the struggles marriage and children involve are a basic human experience, whatever the sexes of those involved.

I’m not saying that we as a nation have arrived at an idyllic, post-racial (or post-sexual orientation, or post-class) age in which we do not need MOVIES ABOUT RACE, but we could also use a less melodramatic, less strident cinema of race in the vein of The Kids Are Alright that’s just about sort of normal human plots inflected by the post-racial-ish reality that has come to define more and more of our lives.  Because in some American communities, in some American homes and workplaces—more and more, I think—a version of the post-racial age has arrived and it’s not because we have a biracial president. We’re married to and related by marriage to and work with and hang out with people of other races and nationalities, and at the end of the day our relationships with these people aren’t really all that different from our relationships with those of our own races. It’s sort of mundane, actually. Bi-racial marriages and friendships are actually pretty much like any other marriages and friendships most of the time.

Are there moments of fracture sometimes—a sense that your partner of another race is experiencing or feeling something you can’t? Yes, certainly. And are there strange moments in bi-racial relationships in which you suddenly feel as if your marriage/friendship is some sort of radical political choice—that you’re poster-children for something (usually caused by other people’s delighting in/awkwardness about your biracial-ness)?  Again, yes. And I hope that this new cinema I imagine would capture and explain such moments with the subtlety they deserve. But most of the time in interracial relationships, it’s all the same laundry-on-the-floor, bills, celebrations, in-laws, dishes, fights, compromises that the same-race couple next door are dealing with.  And I hope my new cinema would capture this too—how normal and humdrum inter-racial relationships can be.

This American experience has yet to make its way onto the screen, but we catch glimpses of it: A.O. Scott sort of touches on this idea of naturalizing race when he talks about 2009’s The Hurt Locker and its focus on “the volatile friendship between two soldiers, a hot-headed white bomb-disposal specialist played by Jeremy Renner and his cautious black sergeant played by Anthony Mackie.  Race in that movie was not a theme or a problem to be solved, but rather a subtle, complex fact of life.” This is what I’m talking about.  In an ever-increasing number of American lives it’s probably this kind of representation—race as “subtle, complex fact of life”—that feels most resonant. This understated mode (friends and coworkers first; incidentally, black and white) is a norm for more and more Americans and it should become a stronger presence in our movies.  Race, for some of us now, isn’t a be-all-and-end-all melodramatically determinative fact of life, but a fact nonetheless—one that inflects our lives in increasingly subtle, nuanced ways—ways that have only just begun to be reflected in our movies.

What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.