The Book Club

I’m Not the Crab You Think I Am

Dear Sarah,

Your last was, again, a pleasure, although this one was a bit disorienting. It’s like we’re sitting at a party, and I’m grooving on what seems to be your elegant reply to what I’ve said–until I notice that you’re looking past me at somebody else, and maybe talking to him too (or him entirely).

Like, for instance: “You might argue that people are being sorted and isolated in cable TV niche markets,” etc. Yeah, I might, but I never have, and didn’t in my last. Likewise, you do go on about your many hours of guilty pleasure at the set, as if daring me to gaze down my long, disapproving nose and sermonize against your lowbrow penchant for the Smithfield Muses. Well, I don’t do that sort of thing. It’s true that I don’t watch much TV nowadays except for The Simpsons, Law & Order , and the odd (extremely odd) congressional slugfest, but that’s primarily because I have less time for it than I once did, and find a lot of it real boring, but there’s no snobbery in my attitude. In that confessional passage you address not me but a straw highbrow (much as Gabler does); and you do so with a fervor that, if I may say so, hardly indicates “uncomplicated pleasure.” (I’m not sure that there is such a thing, but maybe we can talk about that by and by.)

Similarly, I never railed against irony per se: How could I? I’m an ironist myself, and some of my best friends, etc. You’re absolutely right: There are all kinds of irony. There’s, say, Congreve, Jane Austen, Ambrose Beirce, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Vladimir Nabokov, Elvis Costello; and then–like, duh !--there’s televisual irony, ad-irony, Pulp Fiction irony, which is another and much easier matter, and all around us now. Between Voltaire and Bill Maher there is a world of difference, no? And it seems to me that any thorough analysis of epidemic “entertainment” ought to bring this up, since such lite irony appears to serve a prophylactic purpose, letting us feel trés superior to TV while also sitting still for it and basking in it.

So lighten up, kid: I’m not the crab you think you see before you, and am ready to discuss these matters seriously–as opposed to passing facile judgements, screaming of apocalypse, and otherwise behaving like a tight-assed academic in a movie.

Now, let’s talk about that ever-widening gap between, on the one hand, what actual people want and like, and, on the other hand, what tends to get green-lighted by brain-dead executives. I do agree that there is such a gap, and I too see it as encouraging. Now what? I also see it as encouraging that most Americans disapprove of what is going on in Washington this week–and yet it’s still going on. The fact is that power unchecked can do a lot of damage as it all-too-slowly kills itself; and it is also true that it can bring some folks around to see the world its way. It’s therefore not enough to concentrate just on the likeable exceptions to the norm: as if to say, “Hey! Let’s talk about what’s right with America!” That would be an abdication of one’s critical responsibility. I have a similar objection to your hint that there is something maybe liberatory in the fact that folks are “bored,” “tune[d] out,” etc. Of course they are! What then? Baudrillard, for one, has made that claim–which I would say mistakes an apathetic cynicism for a revolutionary possibility.

Finally, let me urge you to rethink your view of Psycho and of Alfred Hitchcock generally. That film is infinitely more complex than you imply (and in referring to the knock-offs I meant not just all the sequels, but the movie’s current status as a sort of site or theme-park ride); and your vision of the artist is, if I may say so, pure cliché. His dozen-or-so masterpieces are far more than expert jolts. (It is significant that he was really not so good at propaganda.) And there are some filmmakers out there who have learned from him, and who’ve therefore made cinema the better for it–against all odds.

Listen, have I gotten real? If not, or if so, let’s get down to the question that you raised just at the end of yours: whether “entertainment” (I’ve begun to hate that word!) “either dictates or reflects as much about American hopes, anxieties, etc. as it used to.” You think it did? does? doesn’t? Say.