Review Of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” (2015)

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Emma Stone Joaquin Phoenix Irrational Man Woody Allen

Image via FlickeringMyth.

Yes, the question of ‘why’ is often a satisfying one, but it is just as often immaterial. And while there are many reasons for this, just one should suffice: that people, being quite curious, will apply their curiosity towards questions that are insoluble, wrongly assuming that, since the cosmos offers up some answers, it can provide all of them. It simply won’t, however, since the questions we have learned to ask are not questions we have adapted to. In some cases, this is easily solved by letting go, by recognizing appropriate human limits. In others, however, it is more so that the relevant terms have never been defined, out of ignorance, out of inability, or both.

Art falls somewhere between these two realities, partly because it is more a question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ to begin with. Take, for instance, the issue of artistic trajectory: the inevitable arcs that all artists seem to go through, and, despite thousands of years of examples, these same artists’ failure to recognize them, much less avoid them. In short, it is true that most great artists will eventually start to repeat themselves in rather pallid ways; most great artists will forget how their art came about in the first place, content, as they are, to merely re-capture the spirit of youth; most great artists will, for lack of a better term, dull, dull, dull, and many (if not most) will never notice this in others or in themselves. Indeed, it is as if their decline somehow forces the world — or at least their conception of it — to acclimate to such, wherein nothing seems to move, nothing seems ‘wrong’. Sure, it is easy for people to see a boxer as washed-up, or smile at a fat, aging baseball player with the knowledge of what they had once accomplished. But this doesn’t seem to apply to the arts, for while every animal has a functional body, the human mind is somehow thought to be unique. It does not age. It doesn’t go. And this conception does not die, or else it is assumed that there was not much there to begin with.

Yet as limiting as this view of art and the artist is, connoisseurs can be quite rabid, which is sometimes a good thing. Recently, this has been the case with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015), a mediocre film that (as with other films he has done over the past decade) borrows heavily from earlier masterpieces. Yes, this is a common plaint, but the deeper point is that he’s borrowing things with little understanding of how those elements worked so well in the original films: the real sin, in fact, since a borrowing that leads to artistic greatness is no sin at all. Thus, I find myself in agreement with not only the consensus surrounding the film (42% on RottenTomatoes, which is about the same score that Woody’s 2007 classic, Cassandra’s Dream, Continue reading →

Tale Us Of Your Triggers

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Lenny Kravitz Trigger

Image via Mematic.

It seems that while human violence is on the ebb, the world’s arsenal is maturing for a very different kind of war:

In a way, this is to be expected. Material concerns have no future. Poverty, in time, shall no longer be in business. And if ideology is less and less in vogue, there must be other things — other means of self-expression — to club each other over the head with. But while the weapons have always been around, their location tends to shift according to the needs of civilization. Today one prods the world for signs of power yet comes up short. One looks for strength and is turned away. Such values are no longer a point of negotiation, for strength is undemocratic- is deemed tyrannical– and has, therefore, been replaced with victimhood and frailty as a new ideal.

Yet the club is no less heavy; is not, to be sure, to be put away merely on account of personal weakness. After all, the drive is still to hurt, to outdo- to overpower. To this end, there’s been a long list of hurts written somewhere in the ether: a catalogue of ills, attachments, and offenses — called “triggers” — that people can freely choose from and indulge as part of their natural identity. Their numbers are numberless, and by extension can pretty much be anything. There’s racism, rape, homophobia, there’s sexist thoughts, ‘fatphobia’, the wrong feelings, or the right ones expressed at the wrong time. In fact, the more of life is seen, the longer this list becomes, for any desire to take offense — and it IS a desire — will forever search for new stimuli, new ways to engage a rapidly narrowing world. Of course, none of it is new at all: it merely comes in greater quanta to satisfy this ever-growing threshold for pain. The lust, here, is to take on as many hurts as possible, to really FEEL them until the world is little more than the sum total of one’s own eye.

Indeed, you could even argue that this is all a hermit kingdom with its own rules, its own army, and its own peculiar sense of decorum. The rule is simple, really: do not offend. Or rather, learn to read the cues to KNOW what offense entails. As for enforcement- there is anger, of course. There are guilt-trips and mobs to help turn others in acolytes. There are emotional fits meant to keep the ‘debate’ (whatever it may be) from crossing the parapet. At times, these kingdoms are too distal, too fucked up, emotionally or otherwise, to truly let others in. At other times, however, a confederation of the offended will come together to- essentially- find ways of never moving past the safety of these walls. Sure, a few might turn into genuine relationships- I do not doubt this. But they will be friendships that, instead of building upon one another’s best, tend to wallow … Continue reading →

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

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Samuel Johnson History Of Criticism

Samuel Johnson, via WikiQuote.

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 … Continue reading →

New Interview At Joel Bocko’s “Lost In The Movies”

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Joel Bocko New Interview Woody AllenFor those that regularly follow Joel Bocko’s website, you will have probably seen my new interview posted last week. I contacted Joel late last year since his work is quoted in Woody Allen: Reel To Real. In fact, he was one of the only critics mentioned, within, that correctly declared the late 70s/1980 of Woody’s cinematic output to be a genuine high point- and, yes, this includes Interiors as well as the supernal Stardust Memories. Joel expressed an interest in reviewing the book and interviewing me. The result is 15,000 words on art, criticism, philosophy, and film– with only a slice of it on Allen.

This Fall, I’m updating Reel To Real with new material, including an unexpurgated version of the above interview- another 5,000-8,000 words, probably- that was simply too technical to include on Joel’s site. Still, those interested in the macro of my judgments- their inner ‘why’- will do well to read it. They are a blueprint to the arts as a whole.

Anyway- here is my answer to the first question. The interview can be read in full here.

Before we begin, for the sake of readers can you introduce yourself, your interest in Allen, and the reasons behind your outlook and approach to this book?

I am a poet, critic, and novelist living in New York City. I have a variety of interests- hence my desire to do film criticism from a wide “art-first” approach, where issues of character, writing, narrative, imagery, music, and their summation(s) matter. More than anything, however, I wanted Woody Allen: Reel To Real to be a kind of blueprint for critiquing art as a whole. It covers dozens of films at great depth so that, over time, the reader knows what to look for, and can extrapolate some of these ideas to the art-world at large. In an important sense, this book isn’t merely ‘about’ Woody’s art. It is about ART, with Woody serving merely as a convenient specimen.

For this reason, I don’t necessarily state my premises outright- I don’t give readers a ‘list’ of what to look for in a good film, as that’s the quickest way to formulaic thinking (which is counter to art) and a way of avoiding the exceptions that utterly DEFINE so much of art. For instance: to many viewers, John Cassavetes’s best films might ‘go on too long,’ or Walt Whitman’s great poems have too much ‘stuff’ within. Yet a careful look at either reveals that there is purpose- there is communication- in the excess, even though concision is a good rule of thumb. The point is that any artistic rule immediately calls up sub-categories, exceptions, sub-exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions… save for one. And it is this: whatever ends up on the screen, page, or frame, it must be purposeful- it must communicate something of substance, or at least act as a route to substance, of re-framing substance. And the measure of ‘substance’ is Man at his apex. I am … Continue reading →

Review Of Marina Julia Neary’s “Saved By The Bang”

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Saved By The Bang Marina Julia NearyA few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.

Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.

Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, … Continue reading →