I Don’t Care If Cuties is a Good Movie

It seems that people have been left by their education unable to put values in the correct order. People who consider themselves intelligent and sober are defending twerking 11-year-olds for no better reason than to annoy conservatives, because apparently child exploitation doesn’t count if it’s done on the set of a movie in France.

Let’s just go ahead and stipulate that the film is well-made. Hell, let’s stipulate that the overall message is something on the order of “sexualizing children is bad and we shouldn’t do it.”. Let’s say it merits the Palm d’Or it’s now guaranteed to get.

It still sexualized kids in order to make it, and is therefore bad and shouldn’t have been made.

Let’s talk about values. On the one hand, there’s not exploiting children in real life. On the other, there’s making art. Which is more important? Think hard.

Just in case you need me to spell it out for you, Art has merit as an expression of ideas, or as entertainment. Entertainment isn’t bad, but it’s a lesser good than expressing ideas or values in a truthful way. And both of them are lesser goods than living out your values with choices and actions.

Charge of The Light Brigade, entertaining as it may be, is thus diminished by the number of horses that were injured or killed in the making of it. We prefer that the safety of living things not be sacrificed to make a military potboiler. That shows values out of proportion. No one says “Hey, let’s give Harvey Weinstein a pass because he bankrolled Tarantino’s filmography.” That’s ridiculous. Art does not excuse crime.

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936. A trip-wire was used to make horses fall down at an appropriate moment. 25 horses died as a result. Eroll Flynn was so enraged at the ill-treatment of the horses, he nearly physically attacked the director.

A movie that salaciously depicts girls dancing inappropriately is thus not excused by the quality or truthfulness of its message. It’s still bad to do that. It should not be done. Everyone seemed to understand the importance of preserving the innocence of pubescent children when Stranger Things happened. And they weren’t being sexualized by the show they were on.

For the record, I don’t think most people defending this film is doing so out of a wish to normalize the sexualization of children. It’s just a pattern they’ve fallen into. A piece of risque art is made. Conservatives and other groups make a big noise about it. Therefore, they must be Phillistines who just Don’t Get Art. Don’t you see, you knuckle-draggers? Don’t you see the Nuance and the Bold Look it takes, you Satanic-Panickers, you?

Very filmmaking. Much Art. Wow.

And again, let’s say it’s all those things. That’s still not good enough to justify what is done to produce it. The industry that has a long and savage history of exploiting adult women (and men) does not get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to children. Maybe back when Free Expression was still argued as a Primary Good, you could have slipped this one by. But we don’t live in that world anymore. We haven’t for a while now.

Therefore, I do not care. To the void with it.

Notes on Ruskin: The Absurd Rule

Much of Ruskin’s On the Nature of Gothic involves a pre-Marxist critique of industrialization. I’m not sure if it qualifies as being From the Right, as I’m not certain of Ruskin’s politics, but it reads very Romantic, which is at least half a Reactionary movement. The old-school Romantics and Goths gazed back at pre-modern “natural” conceptions and the light footprint man had on Nature with longing. Rationalism and Enlightenment were, in their eyes, as tyrannical as they were liberating.

But so too are the critiques. There is much to sympathize with in Ruskin’s dislike of the Grand Standardization that industrialization entails, but he arrives at conclusions that boggle the mind. For example, he advocates regulation of industry in order to preserve human invention, human art. He creates three broad rules for this:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 20

Let’s not spend any time arguing about how such a schema would be practically enforced, as that’s the least of the difficulties with it. We could get lost in haggling about such terms as “necessary”, “noble”, or “imitation”, and even if we agree on what exactly Ruskin meant, we might not agree to be bound by them. This is the problem many 19th century texts leave us with.

But in his examples, he constructs a thing I have noticed many times among those who establish a strong rule, and implement it strongly: a rule yielding absurd results. And by “absurd” I mean widely divergent results among things of minor variation. You see it often in the self-flattering exceptions our Modern Puritans make for their particular prejudices and bigotries. I will refer to it as The Absurd Rule:

So again, the cutting of precious stones, in all ordinary cases, requires little exertion of any mental faculty, some tact and judgment in avoiding flaws, and so on, but nothing to bring out the whole mind. Every person who wears cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is, therefore, a slave-driver.

But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewelry and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence. Therefore, money spent in the purchase of well-designed plate, of precious engraved vases, cameos, or enamels, does good to humanity; and in work of this kind, jewels may be employed to heighten its splendour; and their cutting is then a price paid for the attainment of a noble end, and is thus perfectly allowable.

Ruskin, pg. 21

We have thus created a rule under which jewels may be used to adorn objects, but not people. This has nothing to do with the nature of jewels, objects, or people, and even less to do with the goals and results, but the way cut jewels are created. It’s a highly specific distinction being made, and the results is quite strange. And in any case, jewels are going to be cut.

And let me stipulate that I understand his distinction: between creative and monotonous work. I even agree with the criticism that monotonous work is degrading to the human spirit. But the center of our value should therefore be on the humans who do the work, not the objects. The market for jewels and the market for plate, vases, and other goods are the same market, that of having beautiful things. If there’s no reason why someone can’t both cut jewels and make fine plate – and evidently to Ruskin, there isn’t – then we can simply create a rule allowing workers time to work on stimulating projects, and not spend all their time on dull repetitive work. That pus the humans at the center, rather than the objects, and does not anathemetize something (wearing jewels) that carries almost no moral value.

One finds the correct solution by focusing on the primary value.

Notes on Ruskin: The Geography of Gothic

I don’t know what caused Penguin to introduce a Great Ideas series, or by what criteria they determine what ideas are great. I do know that I read Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life, and I enjoyed the packaging as much as the philosophy (Stoicism is a useful ethos, but hard to expand upon. It’s pretty much “life sucks, enjoy the ride” with a lot of contra-cultural argumentation). Of course, I couldn’t stop there, so when I was trying to decide between Montaigne’s On Solitude and Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise, I settled upon John Ruskin’s Art and Life. Because, duh.

I’ve not heard of him before I purchased it, so this was entirely a Blind Buy. But such things can be the most instructive, because you go in with no pre-concieved notions. I was expecting a Victorian-era aesthete exploring Victorian-era understanding What Art Is and how it intersects with Life. And it is that a bit, but it’s many things more.

It’s divided into two sections: a portion from his manuscript The Nature of Gothic, and a lecture given in 1858 entitled The Work of Iron, in Nature, in Art, and Policy. I’ve taken notes as I’ve read, and I’m going to share them with you in pieces, as they are precisely what this blog is about.

Being English, Ruskin can be expected in the first piece to speak up in defense of Gothic architecture (which was rather enjoying a stylistic rebirth in the early 19th century, if perhaps only a nostalgic one). He does not disappoint. On pages 7-9, he treats us to an impressive narratio on the geologic, and therfore biologic, distinctions between Northern & Southern Europe, so as to center the Gothic as a Northern style (as against the Romanesque or NeoClassical styles):

And, having once traversed in thought this gradation of the zoned iris of the earth in all its material vastness, let us go down nearer to it, and watch the parallel change in the belt of animal life; the multitudes of swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea, or tread the sands of the southern zone; striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple or scarlet. Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of colour, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse and the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey; and then submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice in the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 9

Form doesn’t merely follow Function, it seems, but follows Place, and Observation of the Diversity therein. The Gothic style rises as a Northern response to Southern cultural imports, especially as an adaptation of the Christianity that was the means by which the Germanic tribes were brought into the Graeco-Roman civilization. I had always observed Gothic as a High Medieval style, a flowering of the Germanic Kingdoms in their purest expression of themselves. I had not observed them as a Northern style against a Mediterranean one, a Savage against a Refined one. But with that frame before my eyes, it becomes very clear what Ruskin was talking of. One perceives a geometric simplicity even as it elegantly reaches to Heaven.

Amiens Cathedral, 13th Century.

Why Movies Need Stars

Movies are a strange art form. They immerse an audience in a world that looks and sounds real, yet we can only access them through two-dimensional screens. We observe them as though we’re part of them, but the Fourth Wall is absolutely inviolable to us (not to the movie itself, mind). We can’t crash them or disturb them as we can a live performance. Movies are perhaps more product then they are performance. This isn’t to say the form has no artistry or craftsmanship. I rather think, with all the moving pieces involved, there’s more ways a movie can go wrong, and so more craftsmanship and discipline to do it right. But a greater part of that’s the responsibility of the filmmakers and their army, not the performers. There’s only so much even a brilliant actor can do if the director, cinematographers, editors, sound engineers, etc., fail at their jobs.

But the audience can’t see the filmmaker’s army. They can only see the performers. The filmmakers mediate how the audience sees the performers, which can be done a million different ways.

This differs from theater. A stage director puts together the moving parts of a show, rehearses it, builds it, tweaks it, sweats with his actors. And then he walks away, leaving the actor and crew to put together the show, night by night. Once this happens, the show belongs to the actors. I once went to a run of shows at a theater in Baltimore (Single Carrot Theater), where my wife was performing, and saw a performer give a different take of a single line every night for three weeks. It was just one line, but it differed by minor variations, each one communicating a distinct meaning. In a play, every show is different from the one before.

Movies don’t do that. Once the thing is “in the can,” it exists as an infinitely reproducible entity that will be exactly the same every time it is watched. In a film, it’s the actor who does his work and goes. In a very real way, film actors are almost entirely removed from the audience experience of the film. If an actor does ten takes of a scene, he’ll have no way of knowing which one the director will decide to use, or what it will look like. This explains the phenomenon of film actors not even bothering to see the movies they’re in. Such a thing could be an alienating experience.

This is not to say that none of the craft of performance goes into film acting. In fact, knowing from a shooting script and a treatment how to give the director and the camera something resembling what they want, and to give ten variations on that, cannot be easy. But it does present a challenge of a different order. It’s a challenge that will depend to a great degree on whether the actor looks like he fits in the world being built around him. This will depend on the kind of movie being made, and whether the actor steps into the world effortlessly or is swallowed up by it. So the movie actor needs to present a lifelike stability, a persona that the lens can interpret, that the director can build a world around.

And that’s why this quote from Rotten Chestnuts explains the 80’s far better than any nerd-sniffing ever has:

The reason you can’t make an “Arnold movie” without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man, in a starring role isn’t because he’s such an indispensable thespian. It’s because Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. Even when he’s doing comedy (and I think we can all admit, now that he’s in his 70s and effectively long retired, that he could be quite funny), he’s deadly serious. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he’s always 100% in it. No scriptwriter in the 1980s ever felt it necessary to explain how this enormous Austrian bodybuilder ended up being a colonel in the US Special Forces, or a small-town sheriff in Bumfuck, Idaho, or a New York cop, or a CIA agent, or whatever else.** He just went with it, and because he did, we did.

Insert John Wayne, Marylin Monroe, James Dean, anyone Warhol iconographed, and you get the idea. Schwarzenegger, above all else, was a known quantity: he shows up, commits to the bit, gets his work done. He’s a professional. You can build a movie around him and never have to worry about him not giving you everything he’s got. Arnold was never anyone’s idea of an actor, but the camera loved him. He made, over the course of his peak working years, a slew of films that not only were hits, but that are endlessly rewatchable, and will continue to be rewatched long after this year’s art-house cinema is forgotten by everyone except the Criterion crowd. Schwarzenegger made adventure films for the ages.

And those are the films studios relied upon to keep the wolf from the door. That army a director needs doesn’t pay itself. Star power, of the plodding, committed, Schwarzenegger kind, keeps people buying tickets. Once an actor becomes a star, he becomes a bankable commodity. That’s why Tom Cruise keeps making Mission:Impossible movies. More the point, it’s why he was hired for making the first one. Tom Cruise is a star: he’ll commit, he’ll get it done. What everyone laughed at in that leaked footage from The Mummy – Cruise yelling loudly at nothing – was precisely why he was there.

It sounds way less ridiculous in context, doesn’t it?

It becomes paramount, then for films to have stars whose personas fit the movies being made. Some actors will have greater range than others, and be able to make their work fit a variety of worlds. Others will be more limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less stars or that their work is any less valuable.

Take Harrison Ford. He was and is a star. But after his initial hit films, his career went on a weird tangent. He seems to have picked up the idea that he was, or could be, a Serious Actor, and so wasted decades of marketable time chasing roles that never suited him. Ford was, when all was said and done, the low-rent Clint Eastwood. If he’d had the balls to go truly counter-cultural, he could have made westerns relevant in the 80’s (and at what time in recent history would movie audience have loved Westerns more than in the 80’s?). Instead, we got The Mosquito Coast, a movie no one except Ford still cares about, and pseudo-emotional schlock like Regarding Henry. No one wanted that. We wanted variations of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, who were really just Harrison Ford, as much as John P. Chance and Rooster Cogburn were just John Wayne. “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage” was, if not a line for the ages, at least memorable and droll. Watching him yell about how he didn’t kill his wife (more than one film centered on this) had an unpleasant desperation to be liked. Even DiCaprio doesn’t sweat that hard.

{Also, not a great Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan isn’t an action hero; he’s a bookworm who has a Marine somewhere in his muscle memory. Alec Baldwin got that, and made his Ryan vulnerable, constantly trying to keep ahead of a world-historical devestation, so when he gets the drop on the KGB guy at the end of Hunt For Red October, and reveals that really, Ryan has seen death before, and isn’t just an analyst, it means something. Ford fulminating about “right and wrong” is not only boring, it’s words no one at Langley has ever said, ever. But there hasn’t been a good Tom Clancey novel since Red Storm Rising, anyway, so whatever.}

The result is, movies need stars, and stars need to know themselves as such, that they may understand their work. And critics need to understand what stars bring to movies, and stop judging them by theatrical thespian standards (Meryl Streep might be a star, but Elizabeth Taylor was a bigger one, and Taylor’s films are more rewatchable than Streep’s), the way the audiences already do. Then the art of cinema might finally understand itself.

Beyond Cowboys and Indians

{The following was first written for my defunct Medium.com account in 2012. In some sense it has been overtaken by events. The success of the indie film Bone Tomahawk, among others, in some sense supports my premise. And the points it has to make about the nature of the Western, especially as against the Noir, are worth reconsidering.}

I am an unrepentant fan of Westerns. I love old ones; I love new ones. I love John Ford and Sergio Leone. I appreciate them at their most romantic, and at their darkest. I enjoy it when they confound the genre’s expectations and when they play to them. And I weary of the contention that they are irrelevant.

People have been declaring the genre dead for decades. They said it in the Eighties. They said it in the Nineties, despite the existence of two big-budget films — one the truth, one the legend — about The Gunfight at the OK Corral (Everybody loves Tombstone, but it’s Costner’s Wyatt Earp that gets better on repeated viewings). Most recently, the utter collapse of the big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger prompted Atlantic writer Michael Agresta to offer an interesting premise:

If The Lone Ranger goes down in history as the last of the big-budget oaters, it’ll be a sad milestone for moviemaking—and for America. For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don’t like what we see staring back at us.

He goes on to craft a curiously incomplete history of Western films of the last quarter century, seeming to believe in the hype of Unforgiven as the “last Western”. He makes no mention in his piece of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, of 2003’s Open Range, 2008’s Appaloosa, all of which were traditional westerns with known stars, and all of which turned a profit (a more modest one in Appaloosa’s case, but still better than The Lone Ranger’s utter commercial flop).

Agresta then praises The Lone Ranger on highly questionable grounds: for being a film with the courage to stare the subjugation of the American Indian in its face without blinking, thus faintly suggesting the film’s honesty made it simply too much for an American audience, clinging quietly to the white privilege of a conquered continent, to bear. He also suggests that such continued honesty might be the seeds of a reborn Western, heroically confronting the baggage of the past.

This is wrong for two reasons. In the first place, The Lone Ranger hardly broke new cinematic ground on the suffering of the American Indian. In the second, Western stories are not really about the Indians.

Indians are less important to the Western than they would seem. Most of the time, they exist as part of the backdrop — a threat that can irrupt, but may not. True, some films — John Ford’s 7th Cavalry trilogy, for example — deal with the conquest of North America directly. But even these do so with a great deal of moral ambiguity. The righteousness of white colonization of the West is rarely assumed, and often challenged.

The Red Man’s View, 1909

In fact, awareness of the injustice meted out to the American Indian is present in the earliest Westerns, from D.W. Griffith’s The Red Man’s View, to Buster Keaton’s The Paleface. Even 7th Cavalry films like Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On, make a point of portraying the natives as more sinned against than sinning.

This does not mean that those depictions of Native Americans are without their own problems — how could they be? And certainly, the Nations should be encouraged to tell their own stories, find their own voices (provided, of course, they want to do so). But collective guilt over the conquest of North America is a nonsensical reason to avoid our homegrown genre of romance. We can deconstruct it, and we have. But we can reconstruct it, too, and that must be just as legitimate.

In any case, most Westerns take place in a land where Indians are already gone, but the new civilization barely present. The reality that everything could come crashing down is the true driver of the plot. You can argue that this glossing over of how and why the Indians are gone is itself questionable, but it’s a problem of what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. Every act of writing or speaking consists of saying one thing and not another. The existence of once voice does not preclude another.

Claudia Cardinale on the set of Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969

So if the Western is not really about the Indian, what does that leave us? A bunch of white people killing each other? How is the Western then any different from any other setting of shoot-em-up?

To answer this, I compare the Western with that other old-school genre of violence, the noire. In noire, evil triumphs, or at least survives. The rich bastard has the cops in his pocket and gets his way. Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown. No matter what happens, the powers that be remain the powers that be. They have been too long on the ground, they fulfill a need. They have become respectable. Noire takes place in the tight, square urban landscape: the only way out is through a door that only leads to another room. The city has been built, and you cannot fight city hall.

But the western takes place in the wide open, in untamed land. Possibility has not yet been closed off into concentric squares of concrete and steel. Have gun, will travel. Civilization is light on the ground and we can make up the rules as we go.

And as Deadwood points out, that’s not always a good thing. Natural man is remarkably un-free from exploitation; indeed, he makes exploitation his common coin. When the powers-that-be are still in flux, they are the more ruthless because of that.

James Caan, Robert Mitchum, Arthur Hunnicut, and John Wayne, El Dorado, 1967

But they can also be fought. The first Western I ever saw, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, pits a ruthless, cruel cattle baron against a drunken sheriff (played with flinty brilliance by Robert Mitchum) and his gunslinger friend (John Wayne, showing a few small chinks of vulnerability in his usual heroic panoply). Indians are mentioned only once, in passing and already passed. The rich man employs thugs to push out competitors and acts as thought the law does not apply to him; the sheriff must see him punished. Law and wealth are directly opposed to one another, and it’s possible for one side to win, and for that victory to matter.

Or take Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the jumping-off point in the Man With No Name Trilogy and at first glance, the polar opposite of a film like El Dorado (both were made around the same time). A reimagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo¸ Fistful depicts a border town under the uneasy dominance of two warring clans, one Anglo, one Mex. Both claim to be the true authority, both employ gangs of hoods and engage in an endless cycle of murder on each other. Our anti-heroic protagonist plays both against each other to put money in his own pocket. This would seem a brutal inversion of the law vs. lawlessness tale that El Dorado spins, in which the camps of good and evil are clear.

But it happens that the leader of the Mexican clan, Ramon, exceeds his opponent in cunning and cruelty. He is a man without scruple, who murders the innocent and forcibly steals a poor man’s wife. That the level of his corruption differs only in degree from his enemies does not matter. He is manifestly a bad man. He’s got it coming, and in the Wild West, one man with courage can make sure he gets it.

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, 1964

“What does it take to make justice happen?” is a common question in Westerns, from True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Shane. “What are the fruits of violence?” is another, found from The Magnificent Seven to Unforgiven and on and on. These issues are timeless, and they should be discussed at face value. Westerns are a good vehicle for discussing these issues precisely because the wildness of the backdrop puts them at the center of human existence, where they belong.

So I propose that we dispense with the notion that the Western needs to be “fixed”. It doesn’t. It just needs to do what it always does, spin tales of good and evil, of corruption and honor, of exploitation and heroism. And it will adapt itself naturally to the needs of our culture, if we let it. The Western is only as dead as we declare, and nothing that has to be declared dead ever really is.

Brutalism’s Anti-Aesthetic.

In Ruskin’s On Art and Life, discussion of the features of Gothic archtecture lead to a passage nicely prophetic:

From these facts, we may gather generally that monotony is, and ought to be, in itself painful to us, just as darkness is; that an architecture which is altogether monotonous is a dead architecture; and of those who love it, it may truly be said, “they love darkness rather than light”

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 35

My immediate thought, jotted down in my Bullet Journal (where I have a couple “Notes On Ruskin” pages), was “the perfect condemnation of the Brutalist style”. Brutalism is certainly given to monotony, to an almost deliberate exclusion of the kind of varied detail that Gothic or even Deco goes in for. It’s perhaps the most 20th-Century style, appearing in the immediate postwar era. One associates it with Mid-Century scenes, apartment blocks, government offices, and the like. It’s been left behind in favor of loopy Deconstructionist styles and has very few defenders. Bashing it is a favorite activity of aesthetes and faux-aesthetes, especially on the cultural Right.

But let’s consider that any style is trying to create an effect, as I said the other day. What effect does Brutalism create?

I perceive a few:

  1. The experience of sublime power, in the manner of the Pyramids or other monumental construction,
  2. The eradication of any concept of unnecessary adornment. The beauty of the building would be in its grandeur and in its function, nothing else. This is Bauhaus logic taken to extreme.

These are my takes, of course, but I think them readily evident in the style. Now, note how the first of these is actually trying to say something, to express something real, and the second, isn’t. So the first rises to the level of an aesthetic, by our previous definitions, and the second seems more of an anti-aesthetic, a negation.

These are not new observations. What I find interesting is that Brutalism’s positive aesthetic seems to provoke the more intense dislike. Detractors of the style associate it with totalitarianism, noting the enthusiasm for it in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. One can hardly dispute this intimidating effect. And the anti-aesthetic means that we have nothing else to soften or diminish that effect. It’s a massive stone block, and nothing else.

With nothing to catch the eye, nothing to engage, it quickly becomes a void on the imagination, a bore. It doesn’t even seem to reach skyward so much as take up space. That is why people dislike it so intensely. They strike our eyes like the black monolith in 2001.

Yet, this isn’t an alien power cube. This was a building, designed by humans, for humans to work and live in. We must retain that fact as we examine the whys and wherefores of it. The desire for simplicity and power are not alien to humans. Brutalism evokes both. We may criticize it for its Modernist excesses, for its unintended dwarfing of human spirits. But the error is never all there is.

Aesthetics as Performance: Tanner Guzy’s “The Appearance of Power”

I began reading this book some months ago, out of my growing general interest in aesthetics as such. In earlier posts, I’ve lamented how aesthetics became an academic sophistry rather than a practical philosophy, after spotting Tanner Guzy on Twitter, this seemed just the right tonic. I’ve always been a man who dresses himself and buys his own clothes. This struck me as one of the great privileges of adulthood: unless your job requires a uniform, no one gets to tell you what to wear unless you let them. Male professional dress has certain strictures, but within those strictures are variety and expression.

“Expression” is the key word. Style is a performance, and regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re communicating our sense of self and how we expect the world to relate to us. Clothes create expectation. They reflect your perception of your status and role in the world.

Women tend to understand this more easily, as non-verbal communication has always been a female area of comfort (and anxiety). Men tend to regard it with suspicion, as the ambiguity of NVC raises suspicions of deception. The mistrust of the statement “clothes make the man” lies here. The aspirational part of style cannot be discounted. One need only be reminded of the actor George Hamilton arriving in Hollywood without a contract, spending his last penny on a tux and a limousine, and crashing a premiere. It’s the flip side of “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” When dress is communication, it can be a lie.

But again, whenever you put clothes on, you’re already expressing who you are and where you consider that you belong. And once you get past this point, doing so intentionally becomes obvious.

In the sense that clothing is something that is put on and replaced, dressing remains a performance. But dressing well is also an expression, and a specific expression of you, as you are and as you see yourself. Understanding this spares us the worry that dressing well is somehow unmanly. Paradoxically, we can avoid that worry by being even more nonverbal. Giving off the impression that you dress well effortlessly, without giving a second thought to it, certainly without making any noise about it, silently conveys mastery, another word Guzy uses quite seriously. Physical, social, and financial mastery, among others, can be attested to in dress.

None of this is new. Armies and Aristocrats have always known the importance of appearance. Democratic ages have differing styles, but not an absence of style. Therefore, the conscious study of how style works will be to any man’s benefit, without the risk of becoming a false, dandified version of himself (Guzy spends some time varying Rugged, Refined, and Rakish style archetypes).

Drawing back from this, we note something central to Aesthetics: the conveyance of an idea, or more properly, the creation of an effect. The very point of literature, film, and the other arts is how we respond to them. Very often in film the important thing is less what a character is saying or doing than the visual framework under which you observe it. To craft that framework is to create an emotional effect. The great directors are known for how they build their visual frameworks. Many of them have a particular signature – Kubrick’s grand broad shots, Hitchcock’s feverish close-ups, etc. These individuated styles stem from learning and mastering the craft.

If style is an art – and what else would we call it? – then it can be learned, crafted, and mastered. I would recommend reading Guzy’s book to any man, as it has some beginning practical advice as well the argument of this point I have touched upon. Then you can begin the process of mastering your own sense of style, and become in a quiet way an artist of your own life.

Quick Review: Doctor Sleep

I had planned to try and view this prior to recording our most recent Shallow & Pedantic podcast, but didn’t get around to it. Nevertheless, with the absorption of all things Shining, it was bound to happen. So we grabbed it at the library and gave it a watch.

Sequels are a delicate business. In order to have any hope of being worthy of the original, it must have more story to tell (Empire Strikes Back), or at any rate build upon the universe without breaking the spirit of it (Back to the Future, Part 2). Unnecessary sequels transform a movie into a slog of repetition, slowly bleeding the point away (The Hangover).

As a sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep largely succeeds in this. It helps that, as with Trainspotting 2, a sequel novel existed to draw from. Exploring how grown-up Dan Torrance deals with the legacy of his traumatic childhood isn’t boring (and as with Trainspotting 2, Ewan McGregor is good in the lead role. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen him do recently). The world of Doctor Sleep builds on that of the first story without repeating it.

Until it does repeat it. Because the Kubrick film of The Shining veered so hard away from the King novel (do check out our aforementioned podcast for a discussion of how hard), a movie attempting as it must to be a sequel to both has to take us back to the Overlook Hotel. We have to have Tub Lady and Grady and “Come Play With Us Danny”. We have to have the Hedge Maze. We have to see Danny sitting at the bar, just like Jack did.

And because of that, we’re forced into an ending that was borrowed from the first novel, which frankly misses the point. I won’t spoil it for you, but it commits the Prime Sequel Sin of Undercutting the First Story. In movie logic, the ending makes sense. But I would have preferred something different, even if that violated what has become convention.

It’s a shame, because there’s a good movie in here, that had it stuck the landing, could have deservedly gone on to cult status. As it stands, though, all work and no play makes Dan a cliche.

Quick Review: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, I finally watched it. I’d had a hard time getting into it: first off-put by the banality of “LOL HItler” (World War 2 was eighty years ago), then by being bored during the first half-hour. Frankly, for a film that billed itself as a trangressive comedy, there weren’t nearly enough laughs (the most transgressive thing in it is the opening credits, which juxtaposes Nazi propaganda reels with a German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). The funniest character is Sam Rockwell’s Captain K, a one-eyed drunk with deadpan lines and a silent humanity miles under the surface. He’s actually a character, unlike Rebel Wilson’s Nazi matron, who’s a parody.

One struggles to find laughs otherwise. The Hitler Imaginary Friend bit isn’t as funny as it wants to be. One gets the gag – Hitler talking like a ten-year-old – and it’s not bad for all that. But it’s a shade short of being brilliant, especially as the film’s hook.

I must pause here to make the Historian’s Grumble. What year is this supposed to be? There’s talk of The Allies Landing in Italy, which was 1943. But then Imaginary Hitler references the Von Stauffenberg plot as occurring “last year”. But that plot occured in 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since the film ends in the Gotterdamerung of 1945. But it annoyed me, and prevented me from getting into it.

That said, the charms outweigh the faults. Scarlett Johanssen picks this film up and carries it on her shoulders. She’s easily the best thing in it: a performance light and nimble, yet utterly grounded. The film grows whenever she’s on screen, and her character’s arc provides meaning and heart to it. The character of Jorgi – Jojo’s porky pal, who ends up in the Volksturrm – is a delight, remaining entirely child-like as the world goes blood-mad around him. The relationship between Jojo and the Girl in the Wall gets better as it goes on, becoming less “LOL Nazis” and turning into something human. Both characters overcome distrust and establish grounds for social intercourse, which grow into a familial relationship. Elsa becomes Jojo’s long-lost sister (who is dead at the start of the film, for reasons that remain intriguingly unknown), and they come to rely upon each other. In that respect, the film is a human success.

Quick Reviews: Dovlatov and The Death of Stalin

What can I say, sometimes my mood becomes very Russian.

Dovlatov is a film about a Soviet dissident writer before he became well-known. It’s less a move than it is a portrait of the writer as a winsome rapscalion. Not very much happens except you spend a week or so in this guys’ life in 1971, deep into the Brezhnev Twilight, which is my favorite era of Soviet history because of the pure Empty Nothing of it. It’s after the War and after the Purges, but before anyone dared to let anything thaw. And the movie positively swims in that: letting the USSR of the 70’s make you want to put a bullet in your brain, and enjoy the fact that Our Hero remains himself in spite of the fact that he can’t get 25 rubles together to buy his daughter a doll. In an era where everyone feels oppressed, watching a man deal with actual oppression while refusing to give into it is quite inspiring. Nothing happens, plotwise, but that’s kind of the point. It feels bad in that way that feels so good.

The Death of Stalin was one of those things that I waited eagerly to finally pop onto Netflix. In today’s poltical climate, the idea that anyone would satirize the Soviet Union is kind of astounding. The ever-present Communist Alibi would seem to preclude its existence. And yet, it was praised by all the usual suspects. Sometimes things aren’t as black as you fear.

That being said, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The Death of Stalin bills itself as a black comedy, but the reality of the Soviet regime really defies humor. You can draw mirth from seeing hapless individuals drawn into the blood void of communism for a little while, but the ferocity of the feud between Kruschev and Beria is too real to be laughed at. When Kruschev shouts “I will fucking bury you in history!” to Beria’s burning corpse (Spoilers if you’ve never read a history book), you agree, you sympathize, but you don’t laugh. It isn’t funny.

Also, those two are miscast. Steve Buscemi, playing Kruschev, looked like the real-life Lavrenti Beria, and Simon Russel Beale, playing Beria, is practically a ringer for Kruschev. And it’s not like Buscemi, who spent 5 seasons as a gangster on Boardwalk Empire, couldn’t have pulled off that mix of worming and psychopathy. A missed opportunity.

I will say that the film doesn’t even attempt the line that the Soviet Union was a good idea inexplicably run by bad men. After the monster Beria is shuffled off, we get barbed postlude captions telling us that Kruschev stayed in power only so long as he could keep a wilier sharp – the aforementioned Brezhnev – down. There may have been no pure monsters after Stalin, but gangsters they had, and Dovlatov doesn’t speak well of the world those gangsters maintained.