“Heaven Adores You” (2014) Is Bad For Elliott Smith

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Elliott Smith plays Miss Misery on Conan O'Brian, in Heaven Adores You.

In perhaps the most revealing moment in Nickolas Rossi’s Heaven Adores You, there is footage of Elliott Smith’s uncomfortable performance at the Academy Awards in 1998, just when he was at the height of popularity. It’s a ridiculous scene- Smith is forced into a silly, maudlin version of what is in fact one of his better songs, and is refused a request to play seated, as he’d so often done before. Instead, the stage moves as if to partition itself for him, as he sings in a white suit- inaudibly, at first- for an audience which had never before heard his name. The Oscars, after all, and all else like it are antithetical to anything of lasting value, and although Smith’s two minutes of music were the only thing of note in a ceremony dedicated to one of the worst films ever made, it is an open question as to what will be more remembered: the irony of Smith’s appearance, or the fact that Titanic snagged eleven awards, beating out Smith’s “Miss Misery” in the process.

And yet, despite everything one might say about this performance, it is only incidental to Rossi’s film. In fact, there would be no way to direct a biopic on Elliott Smith’s life without at least touching on the commercial high point of Smith’s career. To praise its inclusion, then, as a deft and meaningful narrative choice would be to miss the point. Put another way, there is no pathos Heaven Adores You must at all work for- it was simply handed to Rossi, purely by happenstance, just as Smith’s music was handed to Rossi, making the film’s worst missteps all the more fantastic, and predictable. How? It’s simple, really- for if one assumes that merely having access to great things guarantees their articulation, one is already doomed to fail. No doubt that Rossi and everyone the film showcases- friends, critics, relatives, former bandmates, and others- respect Smith’s work and implicitly understand its value. More pertinent, however, is the fact that no one- not even once- says anything remotely insightful about it, with Rossi thus crafting a trite hagiography of the misunderstood, suicidal artist, as talking-heads praise Smith’s music in the most bland terms.

Perhaps Rossi’s biggest narrative faux pas comes just a few minutes into the film. After a solid introduction, where footage shows Elliott Smith claiming he is “the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” it is quickly ruined by a sinister baseline which is made to end Smith’s words, thus leading the viewer by the nose into a banal narrative that will control much of the film. And, sure enough, this soon gives way to images of Smith’s Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles, covered in flowers, messages, and commemorative graffiti, as those who knew him at the time of his 2003 death recall their shock at hearing the news. But why spend one’s narrative capital so early, and eliminate all ambiguity in the … Continue reading →

Talking Woody Allen: A Conversation With Joel Bocko

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For those who missed it, I was- in 2015- interviewed by critic and filmmaker Joel Bocko for his website, Lost in the Movies. The topic was my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real, and everything that might spring from it. We ended up covering cinema and the arts more broadly, over the course of 15,000 words, with special focus on some of Woody Allen’s more misunderstood or less-known works. Joel recently tweeted it out, thus reminding me of our conversation. I am posting it here again.

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Talkin’ WA … a conversation on art, criticism & Woody Allen w/ Alex Sheremet, author of Woody Allen: Reel to Real

A year ago, writer and critic Alex Sheremet contacted me about his newest project. After editing the Take 2 guide to Woody Allen’s work, which included some of my reviews (as did its predecessor, the Take 2 guide on Steven Spielberg), Alex had immediately followed up with another e-book for the same publisher, Woody Allen: Reel to Real. In this work, the author guides the reader through every single one of Allen’s films, his work as an actor, and also the critical engagement with his work as represented – or misrepresented – by six critics: Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Ray Carney, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose subsequent exchange with Alex concludes this section). Alex wanted to discuss the book with me, and I agreed, but the book is long (627 pages according to Amazon), I had some major projects and so the conversation kept getting postponed. He was very patient, and when I was finally able to tackle the work I discovered it was worth the wait: despite its length, I read the entire text in a few days, glued to the screen by the author’s passion and rigor. (My review of Reel to Real has just been posted on Amazon, where you can purchase a Kindle version.)

Throughout the book, Alex keeps his eye on both the particular – the specific Allen film in question – and the general – not just Allen’s entire body of work, but the operation of art and criticism as a whole. I found myself both frustrated and fascinated by Alex’s assertions of objectivity, his frequently casual dismissals of celebrated works by other artists, and his implicit (and, by the end of the book, explicit) privileging of intellectual over intuitive appreciation. I agreed with a great many of his conclusions, possibly the majority, yet often questioned his overarching philosophy. As such, I couldn’t wait to talk with him. The following conversation was conducted via email, and actually represents only half of our correspondence. The other half centered around meta-issues of criticism and art, featured much longer individual responses from each of us, and will be presented in an upcoming update of Alex’s book (in its “DigiDialogue” capacity, the e-book is continually revised as new readers engage with the text and its author over … Continue reading →

The Object Of Objective Reality: Some Notes On Donald Hoffman

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Objective Reality Donald HoffmanA few months ago, The Atlantic published an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman arguing – albeit in a limited sense – against the notion of objective reality. It’s an interesting read, but only partly due to the science. More importantly, it illustrates an overlooked concept in pretty much all inquiry: that language, if ill-used or poorly defined, will ultimately poison good ideas, and generate new objects of study that simply don’t exist in the real world. In short, if people are confused by language, allowing words to invent or hide problems, scientists, in being a subset of people, are little different here. For this reason, Donald Hoffman falls into the kind of errors that even a layperson is familiar with, since they have in fact made the same mistakes themselves. The laity is inevitably corrected, however, since the real world is pretty unforgiving when compared to academia. Yet seeing just how he errs in such a low-stakes environment might shed some light on future questions: actual questions, I mean, and not the needless complications that scientists and philosophers can be quite good at.

Hoffman’s basic thesis is irrefutable: that organisms have evolved in a way that maximizes fitness, first, at the expense of things that they might have better valued under different circumstances. This, to me, is a re-phrasing of Leda Cosmides’s and John Tooby’s classic observation that ‘we are not fitness maximizers, but adaptation executors’. Yeah, the wording seems at odds with Hoffman’s thesis, but they’re in fact arguing the same thing: that we’ll do whatever it is that we’ll do, even as physical circumstances change, or (as with human beings) culture shifts and replaces older values. So, for example, whereas human beings value truth in the abstract, they are ill-prepared for what objective reality – in the totalizing sense – really is. They see sunlight, react to it emotionally, physiologically, etc., but cannot detect, say, radio waves, or ionizing radiation, because they have played such a minor role in most of human history, and have therefore had no utility, no way of capturing our biological attention. And this is true despite the fact that visible light accounts for a tiny slice of electromagnetic radiation, meaning, we are in just this one regard cut off from a huge chunk of reality. Then, when one tallies up the innumerable other evolutionary biases, it is clear that, for all of our curiosity, we weren’t built to inquire in just this way, and are using some fairly limited and imprecise tools for this purpose all the while organizing the universe along a survivalist bias that we ourselves have imbued into it.

Ok, so far, so good. Yet the issues start to come fast when these observations get mixed up with some wacky conclusions that are not at all a given from the above premises. Let us start, then, with this study on veridical perception, by Hoffman and others, and define the term in question. The word refers … Continue reading →

On The History Of Criticism (& Some Updates For My Readers!)

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Now that I’m busy working on my fourth book- a novel set in Tang-era China- I will have a more regular essay schedule, both for this website as well as my Tooth & Nail column over at Cosmoetica. But first, a few updates on Woody Allen: Reel To Real, the things that have come, and the things that will be:

First, from what readers, reviewers, academics, and film producers have written, the book is now the “standard” of Woody scholarship, as well as their favorite book on the subject. I intended Reel To Real to be both scholarly and accessible, as well as the most comprehensive text of its kind. It will continue to be exactly that, given the many updates it’s slated to receive over the coming years.

The book also won an Honorable Mention in the Non-Fiction category over at Readers’ Favorite Awards. Not sure what this really means, yet, as RFA do their publicity outreach in October, but I’m looking more at niche and specialty awards over the next few months. The fact is, Reel To Real is closer to scholarship than something that typically gets picked up by intelligent lay readers, despite being geared towards exactly that demographic. I’d like to get the book into the hands of more academics, given how- to my surprise- they’ve responded so well to it.

Then, a couple of nights ago, I was filmed as a talking-head for an upcoming documentary by Bradley Weatherholt. Oddly enough, the film deals with the cross-currents of Star Wars and philosophy/art/media studies, and although I’ve exactly zero interest in those films, the director wanted someone to discuss art history and the history of criticism. The questions were sharp, intelligent, and broad, making for a good, tangential sort of conversation. The short is that Bradley wants to expose people (such as those in a fandom) to ideas that they might not otherwise hear, much less be open to, and this is a useful way of doing exactly that. And, despite our different approaches, it seems that the both of us have the same goal: to understand art correctly, and to communicate this understanding as well as we can. I talk of Aristotle, Sir Philip Sidney, Pauline Kael (on whom my essay enticed Bradley to contact me), and others, more or less arguing the following, as per my initial e-mails to him:

My personal view is that 90+% of all ‘theory’ and academic writing on the topic of film is silly and worthless. It contributes nothing to really understanding a film, and even when it (rarely) helps one understand a particular slice of a film (ex., what it might say about race), it also exaggerates this slice by bringing an unnecessary and totally unrealistic amount of attention to it.

In short- you CANNOT split art into ‘1 thing.’ Every decade or so, one gets a new fad- a new ‘methodology’ that tries to pigeonhole cinema even as they claim to bring in a … Continue reading →

“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very suburban types it featured, replete with a sprinkling of ‘artsy’ moments that … Continue reading →