The Best Minds of My Generation and Odd Future [bothoverused]
This weekend I watched two movies about mid-20th century obscenity trials: Lenny and Howl. Both are on the ‘flix so you can repeat this experience for yourself, if you’d like.
The former was directed by Bob Fosse, whose sharp-cuts-to-crowd-members style differs from the long, lingering shots that I love in most 1970s cinema. Fosse’s directing often feels super contrived for me (you should be feeling this way now), but I appreciate that he forces his actors to move— so that Dustin Hoffman running excitedly down a hallway becomes Dustin Hoffman skip-dancing down a hallway to his girl. I liked Lenny because I liked the acting and I like the focus on Lenny Bruce’s work (with which I was not super familiar) as well as the emphasis on hipness. However, hipness was given as an explanation for heroin use and lady mistreatment but only hints at the fact that Bruce’s work was often a translation of a very specific trajectory of cool: jazz and beat poetry.
And for a movie about the work of art that is the hub of cool kids, Howl was certainly uncool. It’s not terrible, but you’re probably better off just watching a bunch of interviews with Allen Ginsberg, listening to a recording of him reading “Howl,” and putting on Waking Life absentmindedly, then turning it off halfway through and switching to an episode of Mad Men (the one where Peggy smokes pot and Kinsey recalls his time in the Tiger Tones). Again, the movie attempted to provide some context for the “Howl” obscenity trials, but the only scenes that really resonated with me were Ginsberg cuddling with Neal Cassady, howling at the sky with Peter Orlovsky—the scenes with sweet movement. But for all of Howl’s sweetness and mention of friendship, there was no demonstration of that onscreen— just a celebration of Ginsberg’s genius, without much Kerouac and without much Cassady. (This, I think, is because if you spend enough time with beat writers, you realize that Ginsburg is the only one worth his salt— and I say this as one of the many many NYU kids over time who wrote her entrance essay on On the Road— but on screen I’d like to see the interaction in a less romantic, more tangible friendship and professional influence.)
Both Howl and Lenny use the biographed’s work as a thread to connect the film, as a way to demonstrate how ridiculous obscenity trials are, and as definitive statement to the fact that true genius in retrospect could never be considered obscene. Neither Howl nor Lenny questions the creators of great poetry and great comedy as anything but brilliant.
I think obscenity trials are bullshit— the First Amendment is great, y’all!—but genius and its motivations and should always be questioned, especially in the case of work (art) that uses how we talk about sex and the body as a means of expression, and of professional advancement. Both Bruce and Ginsberg got in trouble mostly because they used rhetoric of homosexual sex to make artistic and political statements; if they had just focused on women really who would have much trouble with that? nudes have been around forever. Both films depict the beauty of the female body, address sex as this beautiful, hilarious, even foreign thing— of course it should be depicted in art.
So both of these films (well, mostly Lenny) got me thinking about Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator and rape rap because I’ve been reading about it, on occasion. How do we get from obscenity trials to popular rape rap in 50 years? (I am pretty sure we get there because women’s opinions aren’t actually considered in movies about obscenity trials, and also openness about sex in all forms is something that happened as a consequence of the sexual revolution and also the women’s movement of the 1970s and not actually something that resulted from the genius of men who were poets and comics.)
And both movies seem to condemn the aggressive questioning of “obscenity” in the name of art, which (again) shouldn’t be done really in a legal context— but it absolutely should be done. We should be able to clearly articulate the connection between obscenity—and violence—and purpose.
Well-used obscenity has a purpose, and if that purpose is just “to shock” or “to express my frustrations at women” then that is not much of a purpose, no matter how formally good the art behind it is.
All art is a decision, every word is a choice, and we can choose to consume it or reject it or at least think a little more about its context.
Generally I am opposed to the questioning of taste. Why do you like this? is usually a terrible question and generally implies some superiority in part of the asker (although I think part of being a high-functioning consumer is being able to explain why you like the things you like, if only to yourself).
But if you’re talking to an adult man who likes music specifically about violence against women, Why do you like this? is a perfectly legit question. Like, really, if you are over 25 and not severely uncomfortable with vivid descriptions of rape, I am allowed to question you about your taste and make you feel uncomfortable.
The nice part about my life now is that I don’t hang out with people who talk about Tyler, the Creator on places other than the internet, but if it comes up: I expect you to be able to defend your decisions of taste on the matter of work that vividly depicts rape, gentlemen! I will ask you about it. I will go out of my way to make you uncomfortable, because that’s what the “goofy kids boys will be boys” or “lots of artwork is obscene” angles make me feel.
Because obscenity is a choice and is not a matter of genius.
Thank you, Glenn W. LaFantasie, for saying what I’ve been writing emails and chats about for the past few days. I have felt a little off-kilter since Sunday because my initial reaction to the Giffords shooting was Are you really that surprised? Social media people wrote things like “What is this world coming to?” and “What will I tell my kids?” and I was astounded. It’s why I’m not getting super upset about violent political rhetoric because really, do you think this is new? Do you think you can stop it?
Experiencing violence is a condition of being American.
Do you agree with this statement? Because I don’t! (Note: I am disagreeing with everything today.)
Perhaps you shouldn’t construct timelines of what happened when based on movies, but one of the reasons I love movies—specifically movies about history—is that how history feels and how it is remembered is intensely more important than how events played out.
None of this, however, applies to Oliver Stone.
I think I just wanted to use this opportunity to recommend Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner. It has everything: cultural stereotypes and the madwoman in the attic and censored desire and why capitalism is bad and why communism is bad and why tzars are bad and girls on bikes! It is all that history is.
Sunday Night Screed #2: Cosmopolitans
Surfing the Internet looking for something to read on a Sunday night? Here, let me occupy ten minutes of your time.
As some of you may know, I work at a cocktail bar and I’ve been reading about the art of drinking with much more regularity. Articles like this one make me laugh knowingly— it is so true, friends, even though the word “invented” is used wayyy too much re: cocktails—and I annoy my friends with my tippling snobbery and unnecessary lecturing. Recently I’ve read most of Imbibe! and, via a long-ago recommendation from Maura, I’ve been reading And a Bottle of Rum, which is all about rum and American history and is pretty wonderful.
But when gentlemen start talking about drinking, along with how awful prohibition was, there’s only a sentence or two about how temperance was closely linked with suffrage, even though there are extended descriptions of Ernest Hemingway’s distended liver. Cultural histories of drinking are almost exclusively about men, with women like the hardass Carry Nation or super annoying flappers arriving to ruin Gatsby’s good time. The few books that examine women and alcohol, prohibition, or temperance are relegated to the academic shelf.
Even in our enlightened age where women are allowed into all the bars, drinking is a problem for women, while men can drunkenly roar by relatively unnoticed. Esquire publishes drink recipes but Cosmopolitan does not.* If we go by what is published, women can’t consume a cocktail without someone or other raising an eyebrow.