The Princess and the Peon

Art, Books and Literature, Economy, Education, Justice, Plus ça change motherfuckers, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

We need a Disney Princess who one night
awakes in a sweat in her vast, cold bed to find
a prickling guilt in the back of her lovely mind:
what she has inherited is neither just nor right;
out in the fields of wheat, the peasants’ plight
is that his labor and his wealth are unaligned;
the commons closed, his status thus declined—
the owners took the surplus. Where Princess might
once have called the maid for milk and gone
back to bejeweled dreams and tiny snores,
this time she rushes to the palace’s marble stairs,
cries to the dawn that there will be a dawn,
princes brought down to raise up beggars and whores,
collective ownership, and headless heirs.

The Swimming-Pool Screening Room

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

I’ve been thinking about one of the main criticisms that has crept in under the rapturous—over-rapturous, if you ask me—praise for Luca Guadagnino’s movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, which is that it shyly looks away from all the gay fucking. After all, it’s a famously sexy book. “This novel is hot,” as Stacey D’Erasmo’s book review memorably began. But in retrospect, though I love the novel, it’s studiously euphemistic in many places: compared to all the detailed cocks and “little stoppered farts” of a Hollinghurst novel, say, Call Me often has a rather pre-lib sensibility about the facts and mechanics of gay sex, something more in common with a mid-century author like Mary Renault than with post-seventies gay literature. This isn’t always the case; Aciman occasionally does describe the mechanics of getting fingered in the butt, but many of the book’s sexiest bits are in fact gauzy and lovely rather than rough and raw, even if they do not, as Guadagnino version does, literally pan away from the lovers to the softly rustling trees.

Here, for instance, is the core description of the first time in which Oliver and Elio fuck:

[…] At some point I realized he’d been naked for a long while, though I hadn’t noticed him undress, but there he was, not a part of him that wasn’t touching me. Where had I been? I’d been meaning to ask the tactful health question, but that too seemed to have been answered a while ago, because when I finally did find the courage to ask him, he replied, “I already told you, I’m okay.” “Did I tell you I was okay too?” “Yes.” He smiled. I looked away, because he was staring at me, and I knew I was flushed, and I knew I’d made a face, though I still wanted him to stare at me even if it embarrassed me, and I wanted to keep staring at him too as we settled into our mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing by knees. How far we had come from the afternoon when I’d taken off my underwear and put on his bathing suit and thought this was the closest his body would ever come to mine. Now this. I was on the cusp of something, but I also wanted it to last forever, because I knew there’d be no coming back from this. When it happened, it happened not as I’d dreamed it would, but with a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal. I had an impulse to stop him, and when he noticed, he did ask, but I did not answer, or didn’t know what to answer, and an eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me.

Now, I’m going to be very crass and do some translating, because I think it draws into focus just how elliptical this description really is. Oliver and Elio are in bed together. Oliver has already undressed Elio just prior to the excerpted passage. Elio is so overcome in the moment that he doesn’t really realize that Oliver has stripped too, until he does. “[N]ot a part of him that wasn’t touching me.” That’s a dick, surely. Then “the tactful health question.” Another minor criticism of the movie is that it doesn’t talk about HIV/AIDS, though it’s set right at the panicked beginning of the epidemic, but here, in the novel, Elio does ask. The tactful question is probably something along the lines of, “Are you clean?” (A lousy euphemism itself, derogatory-by-insinuation, but people still ask it even in our less panicked, supposedly more enlightened moment.)

After that, a “mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing my knees.” Reader, that’s a sixty-nine if I ever heard one. And then, “it happened” with “a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal.” That is to say, Oliver starts to put his dick in Elio’s ass; it hurts more than Elio expected; Elio hesitates and quails a bit; Oliver senses it and asks if he should stop; Elio doesn’t answer; Oliver doesn’t stop. By the way, between the tactful question and the swift movement to “when it happened,” the strong implication is that they are having bareback sex.

This kind of clinical detail can make for good sex writing (Hollinghurst) and bad sex writing (Bill O’Reilly), so I don’t want to imply any sort of inherent moral or aesthetic value to either its presence or its absence, but I do think that its absence in the text is interesting. The mind races ahead of the exact content of the words and fills in the blanks. Elio’s dreams of this moment have been—with one very notable exception—dreams of submission; he at one point imagines wrapping his legs around Oliver “like a woman.” (I am obliged to say that there’s nothing inherently submissive about the receptive position in sexual intercourse, but that’s very plainly Elio’s sense of the image.) So we read the passage and fill in the details: he is on his back on the bed, and Oliver is on top of him and inside of him.

The film is shier yet; it really does look away with a sort of Hays Code demureness, and that is part of the critique, because earlier in the movie, it somewhat (though really only somewhat) more explicitly shows Elio having sex with a woman. I notice, though, that it isn’t all that different in the book:

There was nothing between our bodies but our clothes, which was why I was not caught by surprise when she slipped a hand between us and down into my trousers, and said, “Sei duro, duro, you’re so hard.” And it was her frankness, unfettered and unstrained, that made me harder yet now.

It’s not Penthouse Forum, but it’s not a “mock wrestling position” either.

The actual erotic heart of the novel consists of the pair’s trip to Rome, in which their relationship reaches a pitch of increasingly erotic desperation (including a scene of what I will gingerly call sensual defecation that seemed to confound certain book reviewers) driven by the fact that the trip marks the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy and their therefore inevitable impending separation. The movie elides most of this episode and sets it elsewhere—to me, a much more unusual and questionable choice than replacing anal sex with an image of summer foliage. Nevertheless, I think the criticism of the movie for its delicate treatment of the young men’s first lovemaking is unfair: the movie is truer in spirit to Aciman’s original text than the criticism suggests.

The movie does have other problems than these, though. The script is uneven, and where it draws dialogue directly from the book, it stumbles. “Look, we can’t talk about such things. We really can’t.” What sounds poetic on a page in a context of slowly unspooling Proustian recollection sounds, in the mouth of the game but miscast Arnie Hammer, merely weird, choked out in the husky tones of a Merchant-Ivory flick. (By the way, you do know who wrote the screenplay…) Elio’s father, in the book a caring but also distant and intimidating figure, “the great man,” who does not like to be corrected, is in the movie rendered as a sort of ingenious gnome, skipping and smiling. The physical chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is itself all wrong—nothing about them yearns, and while Chalamet’s final scene is a masterpiece of physical acting, I cannot help but think that casting these two straight boys was finally a mistake. I am not for sexual typecasting, but I wonder if any twenty-something straight guy can really know—and therefore replicate—what it feels like to be a teenage boy in the flush of realizing that a man like you wants you as well: the dread and anticipation it engenders within you, the reckless hope that if you sit near enough your knees may “accidentally” touch. This is what Aciman’s oblique and elusive prose manages, even as it too occasionally looks to the trees: it remembers what it all felt like. The film does not.

Apocalypse: A Long Time Ago and Very Far Away

Art, Culture, Media, Movies, Uncategorized

There aren’t many problems Hollywood couldn’t solve by hiring me to fix all of their scripts. Now, as a caveat: I really enjoyed The Last Jedi. It was fun. It had three really good performances. It was often visually arresting. But it wasn’t good, and that’s because it had a lousy screenplay. So here, spoilers, I’m going to fix it for them.

The good story is Benicio del Toro’s character, who a lot of folks disdained as a needless B-plot distraction, a weird device met at random in search of a different device, trusted for no reason by a couple of other characters, and hauled through forty minutes of distraction only to peter out in an anticlimactic recapitulation of the Lando Calrissian bait-and-switch from Empire. But Benicio is interesting, and not only because he has a huge screen presence that entirely outshines the dim John Boyega and the desperately underwritten Kelly Marie Tran. Hey, he says, you cruel, violent idiots, Rebels and First Order, have been grinding the galaxy beneath your endless stupid war since the Rebellion and Empire ground the galaxy beneath its endless and stupid war thirty fucking years ago! And he’s right.

That, of course, is also the interesting—and abandoned—idea underneath the Kylo/Rey relationship, the other good performances here: that Kylo is not entirely bad, and Rey is not entirely good. That there’s a spark between them, some frisson, a kind of passionate compassion. That a thousand generations of elder conflict seem suddenly gray and less-than-heroic due to the telepathic instragramming of a conflicted millennial and her fuccboi counterpart.

Well, here’s how you’d make a good movie out of it. You’d start it in the same place: the rebels on the run and the order in pursuit, but you’d rewrite the pairings. Poe Dameron, this series’ Han Solo, is in desperate need of a romantic foil. He is the one who’s grown disillusioned with the Rebellion, with imperious Leia and her stupid orders, with the endless battles he’s called upon to fight, with his friends who keep dying for no reason, to no end. He is the one who’s angry at the loss of all those heroes in the attack on the dreadnaught: good men and women, comrades in arms. This makes his pairing with Rose, a true believer, on a last-ditch effort to find one guy, who turns out to be Benicio, really work; this gives it tension: Poe and Rose are deeply attracted to one another, and she thinks he’s a hero, but he is wracked by doubt and really wants to run away. And when, at last, Benicio shows him that the same guys are selling weapons to both sides of this terrible war, it breaks him, setting up his arc for the next inevitable movie.

Finn is paired up with Leia, the Phasma-less acolyte finding a new matriarch into whom he can pour his new-found zealotry. Leia has been hardened and radicalized by forty years of war. She’ll risk it all; she’ll do anything, compromise anything to win. She is the one who sends Poe and Rose on the suicide mission. Luke is gone; Han is gone; she has nothing to live for but the war. Finn is her Ren; she operates in parallel to the evil Supreme Leader. She’s Picard from First Contact, a powerful Ahab whose many losses to the Empire and First Order have hardened her. She’s a general, not a princess. Laura Dern (or, as she should be known in-universe: Vice Admiral Lorah Durn), is the call-back to the original Princess Leia: noble but kind; a hopeful realist. Her big role isn’t coming until the next movie anyway.

Luke, Rey, and Ren are all the same. Luke is defeated and broken. Rey and Ren are powerful but lost, the children of failed teachers and parents who both sense that the orthodoxies of the older generations are a lie.

The plot works the same way, except it’s Leia who sends Poe and Rose on the probably suicidal mission to find the guy who ends up being Benicio del Toro (Lorah Durn thinks it’s a baaaaad idea). We end the film with the rebels on the run, getting picked off one by one. Luke is back on his island moping. Kylo Ren still kills Snoke; he and Rey still fight the red samurai dudes; Ren says to Rey, “Join me, and we’ll start anew.” She says no. “You’re nobody,” he said, “but not to me.” He reaches out his hand. She hesitates for just a moment, and then she takes it. Cut to credits.

Star

Art, Culture, Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

One like equals one unpopular
opinion: the movie was not good; the meal
was overpriced, but the Bordeaux blanc, a steal;
the chef was not the sky, crepuscular
and bright at once, the clouds as muscular
as the best dog, the half-moon a wheel
cracked yet rolling; you kiss him, you feel
nothing, although he looks spectacular
in his sandwich; somewhere a cat does nothing at all
and is not photographed; the song you said
was better than Bach was never sung; the earth
is flat in two dimensions; a fieldstone wall
is not a neighbor; oh, heart, you’ve beat and bled
out to be the measure of my worth.

A Few Colossi

Art, Culture, Education, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

We must never, ever take anything down.
Build on top of the built world, accrete
and do not pare; fill every ordered town
with statues of its residents, and choke the streets
with statues of the statues of the statues till they drown
all empty space beneath a solid sheet
of human matter; burst the borders; frown
at the vast wilderness, incomplete
without commemorating plaques
and towers named after long-dead architects
and roads to nowhere and great retaining walls
retaining other walls; let Atlas’ back
break; he can no longer shrug, his neck
has also snapped. We’ll build a statue to his fall.

Archaic Torso of a Chicken

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

You can hate Donald Trump’s views on and treatment of women — and lots of people do! But, to expect Ivanka Trump to publicly condemn her father or his record on women’s issues is a bridge too far. It’s impossible for us to know what Ivanka Trump does (or doesn’t do) to influence her father’s views behind the scenes. And, because of that — and the fact that she is his daughter! — booing her for defending her dad is poor form.

Chris Cillizza

Doing anything is wrong. You should
exist in a state of permanent repose,
a water-coddled jellyfish that goes
to where the current takes it. Honestly would
you be less happy, less inclined to good
behavior if you named your friends and foes,
or joined a youthful revolution in its throes,
wrote an op-ed, canvassed the neighborhood
than if you chose to live as if the tide
rising and falling were all that you need feel?
Cut out your conscience; consciousness is strife
embodied in the human mind; don’t act, abide;
nothing external to the endless dream is real.
You cannot see you. You must not change your life.

At the Mountains of Badness

Art, Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

This space has been traversed for nearly four months by Jared Kushner, whom I first met about 18 months ago, when he introduced himself after a foreign policy lecture I had given.

-Henry Kissinger

About suffering they were never right,
The Old Ones: how little they understood of fear,
An old man at the mountain when a god draws near
Still mostly pines for a restaurant that’s bright
Enough to read the menu, still delights
That the soup is hot, the winter roads kept clear.
Worshipful terror is for the young, the shear
Effort overwhelms. There was one night
Quite recently when I, arising from
My sleeping soil, called the car and went
To a cocktail party where I met the son-in-law
Of our most recent deity; he seemed
All right. I did not find it evident
That he was yet prepared for Saturn’s maw.
He smiled pleasantly and blankly beamed.

Rainbow of Fruits

Art, Conspiracy and the Occult, Economy, Media, Poetry, Science, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-
pressed juice. Much more. The value is in how easy
it is for a frazzled dad to knock the queasy
edge off the half case of Coors Extra Gold
he drank last night because his ex-wife told
him that he’d never keep them. The kids. Her breezy
iPhone alto happy. Remarried a cheesy
real-estate asshole with a Beemer and a billfold.
Fuck you, Kim. “Hey Daddy,” Jaiylyn calls,
“we’re gonna miss the bus.” He sighs and hits
the button. Nothing. The pouch, it seems, is one
day beyond the best-if-used. It all
becomes quite clear. He chews two aspirin, grits
his teeth, and goes to the closet to get his gun.

Even Hitler Didn’t

Art, Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Leave the seat up. Put the coffee grinds
in the sink. Use the water glass instead
of the wine glass. Leave just a heel of bread.
His secretaries thought him very kind.
His taste in music really was sublime.
His taste in art was lousy, and he mostly read
trash, but it’s true he’d fought well and bled
for his country. He loved his dog. In short, combined
a number of admirable qualities with those
few regrettable decisions that he made;
well, wouldn’t all of us, if forced to choose
between the genteel poverty that goes
with shitty painting and with global war, obey
the sentimental tug, and kill the Jews?

for Sean Spicer

The True Fairy

Art, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

My means for critical evaluation
all center on the fable of a little wooden toy
whose earnest desire to become an actual boy
mimics my own self-serious adulation
for a truth as narrow as a lawyer’s accusation,
all causes shorn of context, which I then deploy
to accuse Achilles without Helen of Troy,
Ulysses’s fandi fictor reputation
divorced from his desire for his wife.
Truth is never beautiful; it lies
on a vast ocean like a raft of floating turds,
a shifting host for dull, bacterial life,
an effluence of human compromise:
the foul excreta of silly nerds.