Monday, July 27, 2015

The George Washington Bridge: "Inside Llewyn Davis," James Baldwin, and Portraits of Grief

I looked forward to watching Inside Llewyn Davis for a long time before it came out. I grew up on folk music and some of these songs will probably be the last thing I remember when I've forgotten my own name. 

I wasn't disappointed, but a lot of people were. Critics and friends alike - and my folk-loving parents - all focused on the how "unlikeable" Davis was - like David Edelstein, they found him/the movie "sour" or "snotty." 

I was intrigued by this reaction. As anyone whose read a single think piece about the "Golden Age of Television" knows, we're living in the age of anti-heroes: the more anti the better. So what had Llewyn done that soured the deal when unrepentant murderers, meth dealers, and racists were compellingly "complex"? 

The brilliant Eileen Jones writes persuasively in her piece at Jacobin that viewer's contempt has to do with the American valorization of success - the film doesn't give its hero a narrative of upward mobility, of movement towards success, and we're not open to stories of failure, so much so that "If Inside Llewyn Davis weren't so funny, none of us could stand it."

I think she's undeniably right about all of that. But after watching the movie again recently, I was struck by the extent to which it is also a movie about grief. It strikes me that Davis' problem isn't that he's not talented or successful enough, it's that his friend and former singing partner died in a terrible way, and he doesn't pretend not to be wrecked by that. 

I think I missed this the first time because Davis doesn't talk a lot about his grief - and that's the point. Like unrequited love, grief in a happiness-obessed and death-denying culture is the love that dare not speak its name. This time, when, midway through the film, we learn through a conversation with John Goodman's unsympathetic jazz musician that his friend jumped off the George Washington Bridge, I thought of another portrait of New York Bohemia from around the same time, James Baldwin's Another Country. Here we have another suicide by another young musician from the same bridge. Unlike in Inside, Baldwin takes us right to the scene: 
Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire. 
This scene comes on page 78 of a 365 page novel. The rest of the book deals with the fallout among his group of bohemian friends. Straight and gay, black and white, talented and otherwise, they are truly marginal in a way recent hipster culture would make us forget. They are wrecked will various kinds of guilt and anger they take out on each other without recognizing it as such. It's an incredibly portrayal of grief and what artistic expression can and can't do with it. 

I played this audio of Baldwin reading from this scene in a fiction class about a year ago. I didn't have a particularly good reason except we were reading a Baldwin story and I'd just come across these and wanted them to hear his voice. There was an awful tension in the room when it was done. Turns out when you play audio of a suicide scene people's first reaction isn't "those sentences!" I had violated some rule by putting something like that out there and just letting it hang. I imagine that's how people in deep grief feel - like they are stinking up the party wherever they go. 

In her piece Jones taIks about  the key scene when Davis has a chance to play for the powerful agent Bud Grossman and he picks the resolutely bleak "The Death of Queen Jane" to which Grossman replies "I don't see a lot of money here." The first time I saw this, what struck me was Davis's acceptance: he doesn't, as the heroes of countless art versus commerce movies might do, tell Grossman where to stick it or that he will rue the day or some such. I wonder if people would have found him more "sympathetic" if he had. 

But what I noticed this time was the other part of the exchange. Grossman, trying to be helpful, doesn't reject Davis out of hand. He tells him he's a musician, not a star. His advice is to get a partner, to which Davis replies, "that's good advice." 

There's something deep going on in this film about music and catharsis as there is in Baldwin's novel. The one Baldwin story that's in all the anthologies, "Sonny's Blues," is also all about this. We need music because it's where we're allowed to be sad, irrational, but we want even the people who make this for us to shut up about it the rest of the time. And so it seems we don't forgive Davis not because he's not successful or because of some of his genuinely dickish moves during the movie but because of his sadness. We forgive so much, but not sadness, and that makes me sad.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Marlene Sanders, 1931-2015

For my research reading Bonnie Dow's excellent "Watching Women's Liberation 1970." One point she convincingly makes is that coverage of the movement was not as uniformly hostile as we might expect. Part of this was due to women like Marlene Sanders, who died this week, and, among other things, produced a substantive piece on the Ladies Home Journal strike of 1970. As Dow explains, activist Susan Brownmiller cultivated this sympathetic coverage by leaking word of the sit-in to Sanders in advance, assuring she would be the one on the scene. There are a lot of great stories of these little collaborations at the time - my favorite being another one Dow describes, when a secretary at Playboy leaked to feminist activists a memo Hugh Hefner had written asking for "a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart." , Dow devotes a chapter to the documentary she produced for ABC about the movement and how she navigated her sympathy for the movement with her position at the network and her views about the role of journalists. Those of us on the left are rightly suspicious of the idea that getting more people of X group on the inside is a solution to social injustice, but in this case it did really make a difference.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Some Stupid Test

Over the course of my sabbatical, I'm hoping to write a range of personal reflections on teaching. It's a hard topic to talk about. A lot of the formal scholarship is notoriously bad, which makes a lot of teachers hesitant to read about it, which is a shame. 

One aspect of teaching I think about a lot is how our own histories as students shape the way we teach and, especially, how we relate to our students. One of the reasons I think faculty diversity is important, despite being an inadequate method of addressing institutional racism and sexism, is that people tend to mentor students who remind them of themselves. And one thing most, though not all academics have in common is the experience of being told they were "smart," of doing well on tests, and, crucially, getting the message that intelligence wasn't just a tool, it was an identity. At its best, this identity can help people develop and take pride in their capacities and curiosities and resist our anti-intellectual culture; at its worst, it can foster smug superiority, the belief that if one is brilliant, everything one does must be brilliant too. When too many people who've been told this their whole lives are put in the same place, you get this.  

If nothing else, any teacher worth her salt quickly learns that there's no one such thing as "intelligence."  This isn't some great sentimental statement about equality - in fact it's about difference. There are such a range of qualities everyone has - abilities that are verbal, cognitive, physical, social that can reveal themselves in such a range of ways. There's curiosity, there's focus. There's the ability to do what someone tells you no matter what, there's the desire to say fuck it if it doesn't seem to serve you. Any of these can be useful or harmful or be seen as intelligence or its opposite depending on the circumstances.  

Last year, Michael Kinsley had a moving piece in The New Yorker about his experience living for twenty years with Parkinson's disease and his fear of losing his mental capacities. This experience helped him understand what teaching has taught me. He notes that what he unfortunately calls the "P.C" view of intelligence is actually the one being supported by science. But just as cubically, he's having the experience, for the first time, of being on the wrong side of the test taker who doesn't make those distinctions:
As the word gets out that Parkinson's disease is not just a movement disorder, there will be people whose careers will be destroyed because, on a particular day at a particular time, they can't recite a seven-digit telephone number backward. Allowing someone's fate to depend on whether he or she can do well on some stupid test is just the reductio ad absurdum of the meritocratic machinery that has been pretty good to me (and to you, I suspect) over most of a lifetime.
Notice the parenthetical. It's most likely true that most people who read The New Yorker did well on stupid tests, just like most professors did. I don't want to pick on Kinsley for only now realizing this - what he's talking about is the kind of personal, felt knowledge it's hard to reach without personal experience. We know so many of the stupid tests that are in the news these days are bullshit, but we don't always have access to what it does to the psyches of those on the other side of the line. 

When you work with students who didn't have that experience, you realize just how insidious the process can be. In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould's classic look at the sorted history of IQ and related attempts to prove the superiority of the entitled class, he talks about how these classification systems set the conditions that give more and more resources of all kind: to each according to their abilities, when ability = some stupid test. I've been thinking about this passage from the book a lot recently:
We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
What's interesting to me about this is the extent to which its inverse has become a motivational cliche: your imagination is your only limitation, and all that. A lot of the time we lefties talk about why people buy into the myths of social mobility and all that as if it's a lack of knowledge about social inequalities or the ideology of individualism. But I think a lot of the times people know the game is rigged against them. Putting the blame on oneself can be a way to have hope - if that fault is hard, we can change it, we can work harder next time.

What's also interesting to me is how much, despite all their processed investment in the meritocracy, people who have been raised to be rewarded under the system are often happy, in private of course, to acknowledge that it's all a game. Part of being socialized for success in the U.S. is about knowing which rules apply to you and how; it's about knowing that not all of them do, because if you try to follow all of them you go crazy.  Perversely, the much vaunted failure of students of working class backgrounds to take learning seriously is just the opposite: they take it so seriously it seems overwhelming. Trying to help them navigate the system while still maintaining the value of intellectual work that isn't a game is hard work and I don't know how good I am at it but I know it won't get any easier the more of these stupid fucking tests there are.