Archive for the CRITICISM/ REVIEWS Category

Why SNL of Late is NOT All That

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd
"I'll get back to you later", indeed

“I’ll get back to you later”, indeed

Sometimes the difference between comedy and satire can seem slight, but when the latter is properly done, you can drive a truck through the gulf. Satire is comedy made by an angry moralist. The greatest of satirists, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglican clergyman. You see something that is wrong, you take aim, you shoot at it, hopefully you hit it, but you MUST DRAW BLOOD.

So I’m worried about SNL. It succeeds as I would hope sometimes, but only sometimes, and what’s worse, more often, its aims seem ambiguous. They make the administration figures of fun, which is fine, but too often I feel the fun is too much fun, or their fun is beside the point. The danger in doing that is in normalizing these monstrous figures. The mere presence of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer was more than enough last week — it was a hilarious stunt, audacious and shocking, and hit those insecure pigs right where they live by having it rubbed in their face by a woman. But that was last week. Now we’re used to her — she’s cute and lovable, even when she’s angry, she can’t help herself. So there must be something else, something pointed. It can’t be about gum-chewing or whatever. That’s a mere wacky foible and the message it sends is that Spicer is like any other SNL targeted pol, Jimmy Carter, for example. For the most part I felt there was a real danger of Spicer being the HERO of that sketch, that it’s now becoming exciting and lovable to watch him tear it up. The only part of that sketch that I felt had any real impact was the end…it felt quite powerful when he was herding the reporters around the room like a sheepdog. That is a comic, satirical image with a point: funny but also scary. I had the same criticism about the Kellyanne Conway sketch, it was glamorizing, not a take-down. The sketches with Baldwin as Trump are usually much more on point, although there is a danger there as well, about it being about funny faces or something.

Lorne Michaels is mercenary. He’ll triangulate if he can. If he thinks he can get Trump viewers as well as anti-Trump viewers by steering some toothless middle ground he will do it. But you can’t just do it to do it, you must DRAW BLOOD. If you do not, as when Kate McKinnon appeared for a brief second as Jeff Sessions, it becomes business as usual. Sessions becomes that hilarious guy we laugh at on Saturday nights who deprives blacks of voting rights. It’s worse than nothing not to go for the jugular vein in political satire. It can never be a case of “Hey, isn’t what’s going on in America right now kinda offbeat and FUNNY?” This is a life or death situation. The only legitimate goal is to END THIS ADMINISTRATION. There is no “wacky” here. Some Mexican mom just got yanked from her kids last night, maybe next door to your house. I’m obviously not saying the sketches shouldn’t be funny, but they must be on point, and they must reduce the target to ashes or we are doing the administration’s work for them. 

Carrie Welton: A Novel

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , on February 11, 2017 by travsd

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It may be beyond the capacity of younger people to imagine, but there was a time within living memory when New England’s smaller cities (towns like Worcester, Providence, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport) were nationally renowned and sources of regional pride. Founded in the early colonial period, they boomed with the coming of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and flourished until the mid-2oth. Waterbury, for example was the “Brass Capital of America” and for a time the products of the Waterbury Watch Company were considered the finest in the world.

We mention Waterbury in particular because it’s the setting of Charles Monagan’s novel Carrie WeltonThe title intrigued me, with its echoes of Sister Carrie and Daisy Miller and the like, as did the cover image, which turns out to be based on an actual portrait of the real-life Caroline Welton by Abraham Archibald Anderson at the Mattatuck Museum.  Welton (1842-1884) was one of Waterbury’s most prominent citizens during the city’s heyday. Intriguing monuments to her still exist there, such as the family mansion Rose Hill, and a fountain in the town green featuring a statue of Welton’s prized black stallion “Knight”, paid for with funds from her will which stipulated they be used for just that purpose. The lore about the statue in Waterbury must be prodigious, for it is impossible to look at the statue without wondering, “Why would someone erect a statue to a horse that had kicked their father to death?”. For Knight had done just that. Carrie must have hated her father very much — but why? It’s the sort of thing that might inspire speculative fiction.

And that is what Monagan gives us, an imaginative filling-in of those mysterious gaps that nag and vex (but give us so much pleasure). It is known that Welton was a painter and moved in artistic circles (she studied with the Hudson River school painters William and James MacDouglas Hart, and knew their sister Julie Hart Beers (Kempson). It is known that she was a major early supporter of the ASPCA, giving them around $250,000 over the course of her life, which would amount to roughly $7 million in today’s money. And it is known that she died in a blizzard while climbing Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains — a highly unusual death for a woman in 1884, it must be noted. Particularly a society woman. Hers was also the first recorded death on that mountain; she was one of its earliest climbers.

But it is the private life that intrigues us and the meat of Monagan’s novel gives us well-researched and vividly-rendered guesses as to its nature. The story is told from the perspective of Welton’s neighbor, the real-life Frederick Kingsbury (1823-1910). Living across the street from the Weltons, the Kingsburys have a front row seat at the drama; it is sort of like Bewitched told from the point of view of the Kravitzes. It’s just close enough to give us a better idea than anyone else what is going on behind the walls of that house…but just far away enough not to have the whole story, which keeps us on the hook for the duration. The book is organized in three sections; the first (and best, I think) tells of the tumultuous teenage years. The second imagines her time in New York and Boston, where to my great delight she hangs out at Pfaff’s and encounters the likes of Whitman and Ada Clare (this gave me great delight because these people and places also played a role in my play Horse Play; there must be something in the zeitgeist).  Carrie witnesses the Civil War draft riots and has adventures in Five Points and even gets poisoned in an opium den! And the third part concerns her return to Waterbury, the death of her father, and her mysterious behavior afterwards.

I found it an enormously pleasurable read. Stylistically it is evocative of American realists like Howells, Crane, Wharton, James, Tarkington, and Dreiser. I thought of them all at one point or another while reading this book. Interestingly, though, most of the tale is laid in the 1850s and 60s, when the predominating literary style was Romanticism. The transference is welcome though; the heavier, more ponderous metaphysical style of the ’50s would be a very different, far less welcome book. Necessarily, Monagan’s style is more modern that even the period realists I mentioned, accomplishing in 300 pages what might have taken James twice as long to do. The strategy has its bonuses. While greater restraint, and more cultural reticence toward “sharing” and “getting things out in the open” in the manner of James might feel more period appropriate, the contemporary reader is grateful for the faster ride. And yet, while the writing is lean, there’s a lot there. I confess I tried to skim it, as one often does when reviewing books, but I found I couldn’t, and for two reasons. The first is that his writing is so spare and economical that you simply miss vital points if you try to plow through, and you become quickly disoriented. The second is that I was enjoying it too much.

Above all, the book strikes me as a loving valentine to to the author’s native city. And nostalgia for that time we never got to know, that era of seemingly unbounded growth, when essentially the whole country was getting in on the ground floor of Something Big. Frederick Kingsbury founded Waterbury’s first bank! As in, before him, there was NO bank! If you could scrape together the capital and had some ideas, it was possible to FOUND something, to make an empire of brass. As opposed to the American years of our lifetimes, which have been characterized by decay and decline and the boarding of storefront windows. I often think: sometimes the past can be as pleasant a fantasy as science fiction. But at the same time, Monagan reminds us, beneath the gilt and finery, there was also unhappiness. Therein likes the difference between a Realist and a Romantic.

The book is available here.

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

“It Can’t Happen Here”

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great American author Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951).

And today I must take this opportunity to apologize to the members of my old book club. Ten or 15 years ago at my behest we made Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here the monthly pick. I’d gone through my initial Sinclair Lewis phase in my early twenties, when I read his best known novels Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). It Can’t Happen Here had been next on my list. I love such dystopian visions, so it was a book I’d wanted to read for a long time. I owe my old pals the apology because at the time I argued that “it” (a Fascist takeover of the United States) could never happen in 21st century America. My reasoning was essentially that the country had become too diverse and (silly me) that though there were still many racists about, there weren’t enough to tip the balance electorally. I actually said that! And my book-club friends, who were all Democrats but no wild left-wingers by any means, being all businessmen, bankers, corporate lawyers, and guys of that ilk, were like: “You’d be surprised.” And was I ever surprised. Most unpleasantly. Much like the dupes and naifs of Lewis’s own day (who inspired the book’s title) I always assumed that in the clinch, America was above all that. For a peek at how naive I was even just a few years ago, you can see my earlier post on Lewis and the novel here. 

It Can’t Happen Here paints a dystopian picture of what would happen if an American Fascist party gained control of the national government. This was in 1935. Mussolini had been ruling Italy for some time, but Franco was not yet dictator of Spain, and the Nazis had only been in power for two years, with most of their most heinous atrocities still ahead of them. Lewis’s portrait of oppression is thus mild in light of what would happen in later decades (murder on a genocidal scale), not only in the Fascist countries but in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, Communist China and elsewhere. Still Lewis had his native inspiration in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, the German-American Bund, and demagogic Louisiana politician Huey Long, who had Presidential designs but was assassinated that year.

But today the parallels with Donald Trump seem uncanny, particularly the unholy marriage of corporate oligarchs and rank and file lower class racists who form a paramilitary militia in the book called the “Minute Men” (sound like the “Tea Party”?) And as with Trump, the book’s blowhard dictator-villain, named by the always-satirical Lewis “Buzz Windrip” can’t deliver on his fantasy campaign promises. Luckily this eventually causes the collapse of support for his regime. The book may be read for partial inspiration. It’s hero, a newspaper editor participates in a healthy underground, though when Windrip is eventually toppled, his army general replacement seems hardly better. The historical trend is that when the power of an office has expanded, it is seldom voluntarily relinquished by a tyrant’s successors. Which is why you always wind up looking at phrases you thought you’d never see, such as “Obama’s drone strikes”. Still you must hope. And It Can’t Happen Here does end on a hopeful if inconclusive note, with the forces of Good still fighting the forces of Evil. And in the end, that’s always the best you can hope for, even if we sometimes live in blissful ignorance of just how evil Evil can be.

White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Crackers, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 5, 2017 by travsd

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I find myself much disappointed in Nancy Isenberg’s much hyped White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America. If anything, as far as I can tell this particular “untold story” happens to be WELL KNOWN to anyone whose head is attached.

While the book is impressive in scope and exhaustive in detail, it is also shallow in useful insight. Once again, we come upon a cultural product that treats of those at the bottom from the perspective of a great height. This is another book “about” poor whites, without perceptively being “by”, “of” or “for” them. It is essentially a sequential chronicle of how the powerful in America (planters, politicians, presidents, the ruling class and later the media) have dealt with the masses beneath them, culturally, socially, legally and politically. We learn (if we didn’t already know) that large numbers first came to America as convicts or indentured servants, and were kept down. Then we learn that they were scorned in polite society and depicted derogatorily in pop culture. What we don’t learn is who they are, how they think and feel, or what they’ve ever made or accomplished. In fact, it’s rather difficult to tell from the tone of this book if the author feels differently from the elites in her opinion of the titular “rubbish”. Since, let’s be frank, those very elites are the very people who’ve been reading this book and touting it as some sort of lodestone of understanding into the mind of the Trump voter, I am not particularly heartened by the book’s success. It bridges no gaps, blazes no trails, brokers no new understanding. What it does do is provide us with an alarming revelation: if the elites take this book’s self-evident truisms for insights, it means that they hadn’t even thought that much about poor white people.

It may be countered that this is the very point: spending all our time in the heads of the aristocrat Thomas Jefferson or the eugenics-friendly Teddy Roosevelt points up the aloof, cold distance between those at the top and those whom they pay lip service to admiring, even as they take steps to keep them culturally quarantined. And there are clues that that may be the strategy. I came across a perceptive quote in the book from an Australian observer to the effect that in America we place great stock in adopting democratic manners without actually being democratic. The supreme example of this of course is Donald Trump, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and eats a thousand poor people every morning for breakfast, but somehow won the allegiance of millions of them merely on the strength of being coarse and crass and thus “authentic.” Another great quote I found in the book and must always remember, “It’s better to be a Corleone than a Loud” (i.e. of a genuine, human folk culture than part of the antisepctic, vapid, modern American suburban middle class). And I walked away from the book with an enhanced and renewed respect for Lyndon Johnson, a problematic figure to be admitted, but the sort of man I would vastly prefer to the present autocrat in the oval office. Johnson of course, may have done the poor some good. Trump’s plan seems to be to wipe them out.

My stake in this of course is that I am of the benighted class and care about them, even as I have moved away from the majority of them in how I look at things politically. It pains me to see them duped for the millionth time and once again politically disempowered. It seems right now America’s only hope as a nation is for some kind of conversation to happen between its starkly polarized halves. This book won’t break the ice.

Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Child Stars, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.

As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.

The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.

Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.

 

Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in NYC 1952-1965

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by travsd
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John Cohen, “Red Grooms Transporting Artwork to Reuben Gallery, New York, 1960”

I found everything to love about the Grey Art Gallery’s current exhibition Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965. It’s not the world’s most exciting title for an exhibition, but on the other hand, it doesn’t lie. A moment’s contemplation will conjure the excitement: those were years of enormous ferment in New York, artistic, political and social. This exhibition curated by Melissa Rachleff,  clinical associate professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School, samples work from 14 different artist-run galleries, including works by Robert Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, Romare Bearden, Aldo Tambellini, et al.

For me the show is just as engaging as history as it is art. It’s a period in time I’ve always envied, when the ice was beginning to melt, and some refreshing anarchy was being unleashed across all disciplines. Abstract Expressionism was still ascendant; Pop Art had yet to explode. A political consciousness was emerging. The struggle for civil rights and third world liberation are alluded to here and there; and my over-arching takeaway from the show was a feeling of Cold War terror, although my own heightened anxiety level at the moment might have made me especially sensitive to the jitters informing a lot of the work. A feeling of “Fuck it, we’re all going to die.” But it’s also interesting because it is not yet “the Sixties”. The escalation of the Vietnam War and the youth-driven opposition to it were in the future. The Black Panthers had yet to come into existence. Be bop and Lou Reed are overlapping. That’s the New York I always wanted to move to. Dark and cold and gritty and cynical but bursting with creativity and still working toward building a future of some kind. I bet they were hoping for a better one than this.

A poster for Sam Goodman’s Doom Show evoked that energy. My favorite work in the show is probably Stanley Fisher’s “Untitled (Help)”, 1959-1964. A collage with cut-out advertising photos, pin-up girls and swimsuit models, covered with paint and graffiti, spelling the words “peace” and love” and — most prominently — “HELP”. Hints at Pop Art, commercialism, being overwhelmed by darkness and fear. Any wonder it spoke to me this week?

It’s open through April 1. More info is here. 

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