Postmortem on My “Hail Caesar Project”

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Gee, thanks Robert Picardo playing the rabbi in Hail, Caesar! (2016/Working Title Films)

I’ve gotten in the habit of writing about some of my essays here when they go live, so I thought I’d share some random thoughts about my latest, “‘Sometimes a Bee Can Move an Ox’: Biblical Epics and One Man’s Quest to Promote Jewish Values in Blacklist-Era Hollywood,” now online at the journal Modern American History (MAH), which, in a reflection of the paper’s provenance, still sits in my computer in a folder labeled “Hail Caesar Project.” I like to write these postmortems just to get some of my thinking on the record, so to speak, but if you’ve already read the essay and might like to know a little more, please do read along. Continue reading “Postmortem on My “Hail Caesar Project””

Popular Culture Fatigue

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I have no opinion on this show. (Brooklyn Nine-Nine/Fox)

There’s a kind of fatigue on display in social media these days, at least among the circles that I follow, that suggests people are tired of parsing the deeper meanings and dangerous discourses of popular culture, and it’s manifested in a malaise and backlash to the criticism surrounding Kanye West and Brooklyn Nine-Nine specifically. In the maelstrom, meanwhile, I think some basic premises are being lost. I’m going to enumerate them here, briefly, not because I’m invested in either Kanye or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but because I think the moment can remind us about what we find valuable about cultural criticism, cultural studies, and other disciplines and methodologies that teach media literacy.

1. It’s ok to like popular culture.

Being a critic doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy popular culture. Roxane Gay reminded us when discussing the new Roseanne reboot that it’s fine to enjoy entertainment that might be nevertheless “problematic.” Critics and scholars exist to start conversation, to open our eyes to new and different ideas, and in terms of poststructuralism and queer theory, to lay bare the ways in which power works through media, and specifically, the way it reveals how that which is understood as normal is in fact contingent, and rooted in histories of chance, opportunity, inequality, and domination. Continue reading “Popular Culture Fatigue”

Haunted by Churchill: Civic Nationalism and Churchill-Philia

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Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, here addressing the British House of Commons in 1940.

Winston Churchill wasn’t a saint—he was anti-labor and pro-imperialism, and responsible for a famine in India and an ethnic cleansing in Kenya. But I don’t need to tell you this. Since the latest Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, began earning accolades and awards in late 2017, plenty of columns have been written to remind us that Churchill is not worthy of our veneration.

These columns are worth your time if you are not familiar with Churchill biography. But for cultural critics to write solely about what gets left out of our present day American conversations about the British prime minister is to perform a kind of critical dodge. We should be asking: What is it that makes this moment ripe for a renascent Churchill-philia? What is it about the story that is being told about Churchill that seems to be resonating with American audiences and critics? Continue reading “Haunted by Churchill: Civic Nationalism and Churchill-Philia”

Let Them Eat Logan Lucky

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Adam Driver and Channing Tatum plan to rob the Charlotte Speedway in Logan Lucky (2017).

The 2017 film Logan Lucky opened with some relatively good reviews, but I’m surprised at the degree to which the film has been ignored in critical circles. I found the film refreshing, fun, and warm, and I recommend everyone watch it—it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s tightly scripted, and has some great performances by Adam Driver, Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, and even Dwight Yoakam shows up.

But more than all this, I think the film offers a kind of counter-script to a trend in popular culture that is exemplified by the overrated, misanthropic, and lazily written Three Billboards. Logan Lucky is what literary scholars call a carnivalesque—a genre in which hierarchy is overturned as the bottom of society gets to subvert traditional order, often in bawdy and revelrous tones. And the characters of the film do the subverting in the pursuit of a vision of justice that is wholly positive, in contrast with the negative, retributive vision of justice at the heart of Three Billboards. Continue reading “Let Them Eat Logan Lucky”

The Antimodern Misanthropy of mother!

*spoilers will follow*

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is a thrilling movie. Several actors give excellent performances, including a wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer. But for all of the commentariat’s hemming and hawing over what the film is supposed to be about, and its alleged provocativeness and innovation, I believe one thing is quite clear: the film is profoundly conservative. mother! uses the trope of human nature as inherently fallible and sinful to forward a story about how the appropriate response to modernity is nothing but pious and dutiful suffering. Continue reading “The Antimodern Misanthropy of mother!”

Abraham Polonsky and the Contest of Metaphysics vs. Realism

I came across a 1947 Abraham Polonsky essay recently, that includes the following critique of American culture, where he contrasts a realist approach with a metaphysical one:

In treating social events it is necessary to know their precise historical conditions in order to evaluate the operation of moral choices. In a metaphysical inquiry we are mainly interested in defining the abstract terms for logical manipulation. Nowadays, a whole literary school has arisen, antirealistic in nature, which is devoted to deciding whether organization-as-such is evil (not whether this organization is evil or not), and whether man’s inner agony is a condition of physical existence (not whether this social existence or that creates terror and anxiety in his spirit). [1] Continue reading “Abraham Polonsky and the Contest of Metaphysics vs. Realism”

A Quick Thought on Wonder Woman

The worst part about superhero movies is always the villains. (There is one exception, the greatest and most underrated superhero movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Seriously.)

My problem with superhero villains tends to be their generic and over-exaggerated evilness. The problem is that there’s nothing inherently interesting or even real about pure evil. It needs to augmented by motives, brought down to earth by context, or at the very least, given new life by a particularly good or idiosyncratic performance. The problem of villains exceeds superhero movies narrowly defined; we find the same issues in recent James Bond films, or in crime dramas like Sherlock or Hannibal. (I will confess to have watched very little of the latter.) Continue reading “A Quick Thought on Wonder Woman”