Review Of Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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Woody Allen in STARDUST MEMORIES standing with glasses

[The following critique of Stardust Memories is an excerpt from a much longer chapter in my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real.]

Yet if Manhattan is often misunderstood, Stardust Memories feels as if it’s never even been watched, at least not without the blinders that so many critics have willingly put on. It’s been called everything from disjointed to mean-spirited, autobiographical, a “homage”, tribute, rip-off, or blunder that was a big step back, stylistically and qualitatively, from earlier works. But, I’d first watched the film years ago, without any knowledge of its supposed lacks, nor critical context, and so could judge nothing but what was simply on the screen. I’d not, incidentally, even watched Fellini’s , nor Bergman, and so could not be discolored by some irrelevant perception of theft — irrelevant because of how differently Allen treats some similar material, and how better executed it really is when compared to the source material. In fact,  I found the film, even then, rich and multi-layered, with sharp dialogue, wonderful experimentation, intellectual depth, and the kind of poetry and intuitive leaps that few works of art ever achieve. It is not only my personal favorite Woody film, but also probably his best (an important distinction to make), for reasons that become more and more obvious with every re-watch.

Unlike most Woody Allen films, Stardust Memories utterly defies capsule, much less a temporal breakdown, due to its use of flashback, dream, fiction, metafiction, and many other techniques. No, the film doesn’t really have a plot in terms of temporal sequence marked by ‘big events’, but it has something far more important: narrative, which is how all the important features of an art-work — emotion, ideas, music, scripting, visuals, characterization, and so on — fuse into a coherent whole, while both tuning in, as well as seemingly turning away from it, too. In Manhattan, for instance, the soap operatics are given heft by the strength of characterizations (tuning in — in fact, a laser-like focus, as on Isaac), while being undermined by the visuals (turning away). Yet, a statement emerges, nonetheless, as it does in Stardust. But while the earlier film did a great job of excoriating relationships and the personages that seemingly destroy them, Stardust Memories is focused on even higher things: art, the artist, dream, identity, and the ‘big’ questions of meaning and existence, as well as those questions’ utter pointlessness and futility. Too many have decried the film as “bleak”, in this regard — even Roger Ebert, who often gets it right with Woody — without taking the time to even examine the answers the film actually provides. They are not, at any rate, found in some serialization. If the film is too difficult to break down scene-by-scene, it is better, then, to highlight some important scenes, and what they say of such questions, of critics, as well as of the film and its characters, which respects narrative without dumbing it … Continue reading →

WAR ON WORDS: Why Race Is NOT A Social Construct

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A group of race-diverse people from Asia

Image via Wikipedia

Over the last few decades, a strange idea has taken root that I am in fact quite sympathetic to, at least in spirit. Now, the view of race as a social construct is not necessarily wrong, depending on what one means by ‘race’, and especially by ‘social construct’. Yet as I’ve proposed elsewhere, scientists are often poor communicators, and the reality of what they’re arguing can be muddied by everything from word choice to an inability to meaningfully parse definitions. Usually, the science, itself, is not at fault. It is really the packaging of science to an even less sophisticated audience that’s at issue, particularly when it deals with a highly politicized topic whose buzzwords are valued over nuance and hard data. No, race is not a social construct, but what does this mean, exactly? Moreover, what does it mean politically? Finally, what should it mean for liberals who are uncomfortable with what is, at bottom, a simple misunderstanding of their own principles?

Prior to deconstructing all this, let us look at the key claims, and – perhaps even more importantly – how these claims get articulated. The position of the American Anthropological Association is clear- race’s primary importance is social rather than biological. The issue, however, is that one can construe any number of sentences, within, as either attesting to or rejecting the existence of race as a taxonomic category. This is unfortunate, and many political activists have latched on to the statement as ‘proof’ that race is biologically meaningless. Others, like this study from 2012, note that the sentence “No races exist now or ever did” found only 17% agreement among scientists 40 years ago, with 53% agreeing today. Yet even 53% is still a far cry from ideological certainty on the Left about what is, in essence, a semantic question whose answer might very well change based on the conceptual categories the word calls to mind.

In ‘pop’ science, writers often lay out some of the most common objections to race, which, while on one level quite valid, are also quite incomplete. There is much to comb through (most of it not worth the time), but I’ve distilled them into six basic arguments laid out in ascending order of correctness. If anyone gets tripped up by my handling of earlier points, read all of my responses to them, first, to get a better sense of the science:

1. There is no race gene, which means the genetic underpinnings of race are quite tenuous

The first part of this statement is obvious, and undeniable. There is no ‘race’ gene because race is not any one thing. Rather, it is a genetic complex which encompasses everything from skin color, to disease propensity/resistance, to facial proportions, to the distribution of sweat glands, hair color, and more. No, you cannot simply use one marker for determining race and ancestry, but the more genetic markers are used, the greater the likelihood (in fact, it is … Continue reading →

Analysis Of Hart Crane’s BLACK TAMBOURINE

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Cover of Hart Crane's White Buildings

Hart Crane’s BLACK TAMBOURINE, published in White Buildings (1926).

An overlooked perk to taking one’s education into one’s own hands is that you are less prone to being swallowed up by others’ bullshit. You read selectively, at first, and merely accumulate text: poems, stories, whatever, with no real access to others’ thoughts, since you don’t have a university library, JSTOR, or professors giving you the ‘official’ line on whatever it is you are learning. And, of course, there is always an official line – don’t let anyone convince you otherwise – because for all of the supposed diversity of thought in academia, once a perspective takes root, it becomes a bias, the bias a means of re-organization, and the re-organization fads and whims and money. This is, indeed, the typical trajectory of any idea, yet one that is better observed with an example.

Say your item of study is Hart Crane. Say that you’ve gone through his poetry, and would like now to see the hear the consensus. Suddenly, however, you don’t quite know where to begin, because they are all saying things that don’t really cohere with what you have yourself read. Did the misinterpretations start with the bad – and perhaps envious – critic and novelist Waldo Frank, whose 1932 introduction to Crane’s Collected Poems spoke of the poet’s “failure”? I mean, that’s certainly one way to bias an audience: to tell them they’re about to read total shit, then slap them with some of the best poems ever written. Did it trickle out with revelations from some of the biggest names of the 20th century – Eugene O’Neill among them – that they did not even understand Hart Crane’s work? Could it be the difficulty of the poems themselves? Yet Wallace Stevens is just as difficult, if not more so. The difference, of course, is that Stevens enjoyed a historical accident in that he was championed from the very start, thus making him impossible to ignore. Crane, however, was dismissed and even derided, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy – as per fads and whims and money – where ignoring him was the safe thing to do. It didn’t matter whether you were lazy in your appraisals, because everyone else was, too, and if you were ever called out for ignoring a great poet, you could ignorantly declaim that you were in the mainstream, as if this were a proper defense of a terrible idea.

There are, therefore, virtually no close examinations of Hart Crane’s poems online, but too much repetition of the same judgments others have long come to. Yet let us do away with them for a moment and examine Hart Crane’s BLACK TAMBOURINE anew: a short poem that hints at some of the difficulties of his longer, more complex works, but is nonetheless ‘easy’ enough where I do not have to convince a good reader of its general strengths.

Black Tambourine

The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgment on … Continue reading →

“A Few Streets More To Kensington” Has Now Been Published!

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Cover for A Few Streets More To Kensington, with street and cartoon figure.A couple of weeks back, the first book I’d ever written, A Few Streets More To Kensington, was published by Crossroad Press. It is a coming-of-age novel set in Brooklyn, New York, mostly in the mid to late 1990s, and follows its protagonist through the end of middle school. It can, I suppose, be described as “young adult fiction”, albeit much closer to the ‘literary’ children’s fiction from the 1950s-70s. (Think, for example, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.) That is because it follows adult themes, in an adult way, yet filtered through the experiences of a child, whose presence and self-definition are controlled by an adult narrator looking back on his life.

Although I wrote it almost six years ago, I am, now looking back on it, still proud of the writing, even though I’ve gone on to fresh challenges and even more difficult projects. To celebrate its release, I’ve picked seven passages that struck me as I was re-reading them. They are not necessarily the best parts of the book, but parts passages, in the course of writing, had some sort of lasting impression on my creative development, or are memorable for some others. Here they are, in chronological order of appearance.

Enjoy.

1.

And so, I let him finish the level. It was, oddly, very peaceful to hear. As Fats ran through the Air Platform, hinging his own body off the filaments of chair, the piano deepened from the TV. It sounded hectic. Mario jumped from tile to tile, turning every once in a while to jerk away from an enemy Koopa, jumping up again, and falling even further, ready to navigate the sky maze once more. Yet where was he going, really? The game, like all Super Mario games, was about saving Princess Toadstool from a dinosaur called Bowser, but go a few minutes into it, and you forget what, exactly, you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. You forget who the little man on the screen is. To a kid, he’s just a bit of color blurring through caves, ghost houses, and open fields. Only on the Air Platform does he seem to be reaching for something higher, jumping through slabs of earth, coasting on bullets, yet hitting a kind of invisible ceiling once he goes too far, stepping, as it were, outside the parameters of design. Do kids ever see this? I recall wasting many hours trying to break through this ceiling, thinking there was something behind it all. And yet, Fats was simply trying to get to the very end, throwing Mario into acrobatics he, himself, could never do, grabbing on to things, running to the smash a piano he’d never learn to play.

Fats was getting near the end. A bullet flew past him, and he dodged another. A bright coin was ignored. He was hit by an enemy as the controller slipped through his greasy fingers. He laughed harshly as he stomped across the level, dying … Continue reading →

MTV’s AEON FLUX (1995): A Retrospective

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Eight screenshots from Aeon Flux

In the early 1990s, America seemed to have found a way out of at least one cultural nadir. The 1980s were, to put it mildly, a little gruesome for both film and animation, serving up not only the apogee of the ‘blockbuster’ mentality in cinema, but also cheap, mass-produced kids’ shows with dedicated networks to run them on demand. After a decade of mismanaging this new low, however, it looked as if the logical solution was not to tap high art, but to explore some deeper possibilities from the bottom, albeit with a touch of high art’s polish. Well, given the direction things ultimately went, this was not to be, yet not without some glimmers of what could have been. Nickelodeon, for example, produced several now-classic shows such as Hey Arnold! and The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, Cartoon Network launched Courage The Cowardly Dog, FOX had The Simpsons, and MTV – in their final paroxysm before the TRL coma – had Liquid Television. The last of these was an animation showcase that, while in many respects a failure, was nonetheless a noble failure, briefly cementing MTV’s willingness to eschew norms for the sake of pushing boundaries. One of the program’s more interesting features was Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux, a philosophical anime of disconnected shorts that metamorphosed into ten full-length episodes later on. Although mostly forgotten today, the show is – like Neon Genesis Evangelion after it – a good example of the anti-80s backlash, as well as the ways in which the 1990s were unable to cope with their own inheritance.

To begin, Aeon Flux’s premise is less complicated than typically suggested, since a single viewing is enough to glean the relevant details. Aeon (Denise Poirier) is an agent and possible terrorist from the state of Monica, which is seemingly at war with neighboring Bregna and its new leader, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). There may be some wider world, but it does not meaningfully expand beyond these two nations, since it is Trevor’s unilateral behavior which yields the future for the whole cosmos. The lead characters are, inexplicably, in both sexual and psychological conflict, attempting to entrap one another without an obvious plan of action and with intentions that shift from episode to episode. Sex, too, is less of a bonding exercise for the habitans of Aeon Flux than it is a ritual or game, which adds little to the narrative except to suggest that this is not ‘our’ world – and perhaps that human beings have evolved past recognition – in the most flagrant way possible. More importantly, however, the true nature of the show’s central conflict is unclear. Yes, Monica is often described as a ‘free’ anarchist society compared to ‘repressive’ Bregna, but we see almost nothing of Monica: merely that Aeon, herself, is not evil, seems to believe in her mission, and that her mission – whatever it is – is both free-form and ambiguous. This itself … Continue reading →