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From Fellini to Obama?

So Nine bombed. But I don’t want to talk about that movie, which I haven’t seen.

I’d rather talk about Fellini, but only to get someplace else…

Even half-naked Oscar-winners didn't help.

…And let’s first take a look at the trailer for Nine. As you can see, it makes no mention of the original stage production (which won a Tony). Or the play before that. Or Fellini, whose film it’s all based on. Me, I assume that’s because the producers worried that young audiences don’t know these things, and therefore said, “Make it clever and sexy and look like Chicago.” (Young audiences must have been part of the target demographic, because the film’s budget was $80 million, and you don’t make that much back without winning over teens and twenty- and thirty-somethings.)

Fellini’s star dimmed considerably starting in the mid-1970s (even though he directed at least one great film in the 80s, the neglected E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983). He was famously booed at Cannes in the early 1990s, right before his death.

I see some signs that his popularity is returning, at least among film critics. There’s a new print of Juliet of the Spirits out there, as well as one of Amarcord. And according to the IMDb, “In the 5th edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die […], 7 of Fellini’s films are listed.” And is in the top 250 at the IMDb, so… (it’s #165).

Still not enough, though, I guess, to hang Nine‘s hat on. (Personally, I think they should have tried relating the film to Austin Powers: “Before Swinging London, there was…Swinging Cinecittà!”)

…But I don’t want to talk about any of this, not really. What I really want to talk about is: The Zeitgeist.

It’s 2010. Obama was elected president over one year ago, has been serving as president for almost one year. And last year around this time, many people were talking about Hope. And the audacity of it. And the end of cynicism. As well as racism! Maybe it was even the start of a brand-new Era of Good Feelings!

I tend to think of the current culture—contemporary mainstream US culture, inasmuch as such a thing exists—as being very:
. insincere
. fragmented
. juvenile
. shallow
. ironic
. sexist
. violent
. spectacular

Fellini is none of these things. Rather, he’s a very giving, very exuberant filmmaker. He’s melancholy, but loving and sincere. His movies require patience, and personal investment. They’re often metatextual, but it’s a “deep” kind of metatextuality—they aren’t fragmented. (They cohere, unlike in Last Year at Marienbad.) And I think it’s easy to see Fellini as being sappy, or silly, or naive—which presumably played a big part in why his later movies tanked: his work became more nakedly sentimental, putting Fellini out of step with increasingly cynical audiences. Whereas 1963 was a great time to make something like .

Well, I’m treading in Siegfried Kracauer territory here. I can’t really speak with any authority about the zeitgeist, then or now, so…I’m eager to hear what others think!

Consider this entire post, then, a very roundabout question: am I wrong to say that our culture is insincere, fragmented, juvenile, shallow, ironic, sexist, violent, spectacular? Can we characterize the culture? Is there a zeitgeist?

I saw Sherlock Holmes last night, and I’d claim it’s all of those things. It’s also #3 at the box office right now, having grossed 11.5 times more than Nine has. …But are movies, a la Kracauer, a good gauge of mass consciousness?

Personally, I think there is something to it. People are influenced by what’s around them (duh). And art in particular is often “of a kind”—certain things become common, and in vogue. And the national character changes. Right now, for instance, people seem really into superhero movies. So there are a lot of superhero movies. Which I think reflects and contributes to certain ideologies:

Question: Why did you write a book about men becoming “boys” at this time?

Gary Cross: I am an historian who asks questions of the past by observing the present.  So when I saw evidence everywhere of how growing up male has changed and how increasingly maturity is mocked and denied in the popular and commercial culture, I was compelled to explain it historically.  All this not only profoundly shapes the many (especially women) who have “boy-men” in their lives, but it has led to much confusion among men of all ages about who they should be and what they should want.  As important, the boy-man has shaped contemporary culture in many, often undesirable, ways.

(Maybe ‘s Guido should find resonance, then, with young men today? Ah, but Fellini was being critical of Guido—and of himself…)

…But what do you think?

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

23 thoughts on “From Fellini to Obama?

  1. This is interesting…particularly the Gary Cross interview in relation to a discussion of zeitgeist. I like too your list of current cultural ‘traits.’ Something about the word “spectacular” (perhaps its association with the notion of ‘spectacle’) seems especially apt. We have become a culture in which spectacles (in the form of reality shows, tabloids, etc.) have invaded every aspect of media and entertainment. Even the news channels are arguably more interested in spectacle than substance. Were we always like this?

    1. Hi, Edward. I do think that we were once different. But I really don’t know.

      One book I really like is Neil Postman’s AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH (1985). I find it convincing, even though Postman doesn’t really prove his arguments or anything. I just think he has his finger on what’s going on, and I agree with him. Which I find suspicious, but. (If anyone has critical things to say about him or his book, I’d love to hear them!)


      I don’t have a copy in front of me, but (from memory) in one chapter Postman argues that television cannot be used for anything serious, because of its nature (he’s of course a McLuhanite). Time in TV is always too limited, with the need to cut to a sponsor. So you can’t, for instance, give a four-hour-long uninterrupted speech on TV. The way you can at…a speech. And the format is also relatively boring, a relatively small screen with small sound, in a well-lit room with other things and people in it, so to keep viewer’s attention TV has to keep cutting and keep its volume high all the time, etc. So it’s a format that favors, say, arguments over calm discussion. And entertainment over anything serious at all.

      Here’s one of the most serious televised things I think I’ve ever seen:
      …and I’d rather just read articles by both men. For one thing, they wouldn’t be constantly interrupting each other. (But that’s what makes it good television!)

      And what’s shocking, as un-serious as this debate is, it’s impossible to imagine anything even this serious happening today! So I think cable news has proven Postman right on this one.

      I sometimes note to my students that cable news always uses the present and present perfect tenses. Nothing has ever “happened.” Things are always happening, or have just happened. Why? To keep you watching. Once something’s over, there’s no longer any urgency.

      Whenever I catch a glimpse of cable news at the gym, Wolf Blitzer is always yelling about something (all he does is yell!), and there’s always a “BREAKING NEWS” sticker thing on the bottom of the screen. 24-hour urgency. And then other people shout at one another in ten-second soundbytes.

      Anyway, television pushes things toward brevity. Toward interruption. And spectacle. Not toward research, depth, serious discussion. And I don’t think it used to be this way. And I think it’s had a huge impact. (I know this is hardly an original thought.)

      What did people do before television? Maybe they didn’t know what was going on? People used to read papers, right? Some people? Do people still read papers? Maybe the papers were no good back then. They aren’t very good today. (An exception: Here in Chicago, the Chicago Reader is pretty excellent. Very long, in-detail investigative articles that talk about really important things happening right now. A simply amazing paper.)

      Here’s something else that I think our culture is, but I don’t know the word for it. We’re titillated, or something like that. In love with titillation. But not with sex. Sheer titillation. You can see that in the NINE trailer: the cabaret striptease elements of it (all women, of course). But no actual sex. The IRON MAN 2 trailer is the same thing: scantily-clad women dancing around behind Robert Downy, Jr. That’s OK. But there’s no actual sex in the film, I’m sure. (It’s PG-13. Of course, there will be lots of violence in it!)

      There was an AV Club review recently, of a film called NINJA ASSASSIN, and the reviewer said something that stuck with me:

      “If Ninja Assassin boasted sexual content equivalent to its level of violence, it would be rated NC-17 and repulse even the most dedicated perverts. However, the MPAA is much more accommodating when it comes to wall-to-wall bloodshed than consensual relations between loving adults. So while the ratings board might go into conniptions over an art film in which a woman receives oral sex, it has no problem with a protagonist who spends most of his time vivisecting enemies with a sharp chain that tears through flesh like a knife through butter. Ninja Assassin is ostensibly a vehicle for Korean pop star Rain, but the real star is the blood that gushes and spurts from the wounds of an army of interchangeable bad guys.”


      That’s also what mainstream US culture is like: afraid of actual sexuality, but meanwhile in love with the most absurd violence. I think. Again, I know this is hardly a revolutionary observation…

      In SHERLOCK HOLMES, there is a scene where a female character is chained to a conveyor belt that’s leading her toward a giant saw. And the saw is slicing pig carcasses in half. And before that, the belt passes through these giant flame guns. It’s a death machine like anything out of the SAW movies—toned down some, sure, but still very disturbing and graphic. I was disturbed by it. The scene asks you to consider what it would be like to get roasted, then sawed in half! And for no good reason. I think that’s pretty sick. (Mainly because it feels thrown into a PG-13 film that doesn’t take its own content—not even its own violence—at all seriously. I don’t mind violence when it’s serious about itself. For instance, I think HANNIBAL is a pretty good movie, but it’s also pretty depraved. It is about depraved, gruesome violence; that’s its subject. It’s pulp! And disturbing pulp; you know what you’re getting when you choose to watch it. It isn’t flippant about its own violence, the way SHERLOCK HOLMES is. Although even HANNIBAL is only so interesting… One could find better examples.)

      Well, Holmes rescues the woman in peril, and then…they run around and there are explosions. And then more violence and then nothing else. They love one another, I suppose. But this film wouldn’t even know how to begin exploring what a real relationship between an adult man and woman is. It has no interest in such things! In the world of Sherlock Holmes, women exist to get chained to conveyor belts and pushed toward giant saws. I guess.

      Well, I’ve seen a lot of movies from the 1930s through 1970s, and that’s not what those movies are like. Maybe some of them—but not most of them. A lot of them are about adult relationships! For instance, HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943), one of my favorite movies of all time, which has both a very playful but also a very adult view of relationships, and why they’re so important to us, and why we nonetheless mess them up so much:


      It’s really too bad that the people who made SHERLOCK HOLMES didn’t give Kelly Reilly more to do. She’s really excellent in PUFFBALL (2007), which is a film that is serious about sex—and still fairly loopy. But that’s Nicolas Roeg for you—a filmmaker who started in the 1950s, and who made great, serious films about relationships in the 1970s.

      Meanwhile, what’s a good word for this kind of attitude toward sexuality that I’m describing? Pubescent? Movies today all strike me as having the maturity level of the PORKY’S films. Strike that—PORKY’S was much more sexually sophisticated! It at least acknowledged that teenagers want to have sex. A movie like SHERLOCK HOLMES doesn’t even acknowledge that—there’s simply no such thing as sex in the world of SHERLOCK HOLMES.

      Here’s a better Holmes movie by way of contrast:

      Well, anyway, this is very different attitude than I think people had in the 1960s (although I wasn’t alive then). And it’s different than the view Fellini had of sex, I’m sure.

      Long-winded of me, I know, but I really am curious about all of this. I feel so disaffected by so much of contemporary culture.

      Cheers, Adam

      1. Violence is fine, sex is not – what a message? It’s amazing that these random killings keep happening and there is little serious discussion about it. A young man kills 32 people in a few hours and it’s just dismissed as another crazy person, end of discussion.

        You know we live on the site of maybe the greatest bloodbath in history and I truly believe that spirit is here with us and in many of the different tribes’ prophecies, the Indians get their land back. This was emphasized in THE SHINING.

        I’m reading Hans Koening’s book on how the Indian’s lost their lands so I’m making all these connections, but they seem to have a truth to me.

      2. I like how Adam describes the limitations of TV in the context of the current zeitgeist. 

        Check out this old TV interview from CBS – Mike Wallace talks to Ayn Rand – one of many “portraits” from his “gallery of colorful people.”

        It’s a bit dated, but it has a sincerity and an atmosphere of moral and intellectual concern that, if not absent from most contemporary news programs, is arguably diminished by extraneous factors within them. 

        Notice how the darkened studio setting, and even the black and white camera technology, effect a level of focus or concentration in both us (the viewers) and them (the subjects) that we might contrast with the more cluttered, hysterical programs of today.  


        1. Thanks for sharing this link, Edward. I’d not seen this interview.

          You’re absolutely right about how stark and focused this program is, especially when contrasted with today’s news programming.

          That said, note how we can already see the seeds of today’s television. Here’s a shot list, with some notes:
          0:30 clip really starts
          —–title moves forward: The Mike Wallace Interview
          0:48 cuts to Mike Wallace
          —–text on the screen: The Mike Wallace Interview
          1:07 cuts to Ayn Rand
          1:13 cuts back to Wallace
          1:21 cuts to a commercial break, then back to Wallace. (The content really starts here.)
          1:44 cut to Rand
          1:49 cut to Wallace
          1:55 cut to a wider shot of the two of them
          —–“capsulize your philosophy”
          2:02 cut to Rand
          —–“let me explain it as briefly as I can”
          —–Rand keeps shifting her gaze between Wallace and at the camera
          —–2:48 Wallace interrupts her (briefly)
          —–3:05 Wallace interrupts her again (briefly)
          4:00 cut to Wallace: “May I interrupt now?”
          —–camera begins moving in toward Rand
          4:38 cuts to the second camera, close-up of Rand
          —–5:05 Wallace interrupts her again (briefly)
          —–(by this point Wallace is rather agitated–which is a performance)
          6:02 cuts to a wider shot, which then moves in again on Rand
          —–6:27 title “Ayn Rand” comes up
          —–6:30 Wallace interrupts (briefly)
          7:22 cut to Wallace
          7:27 cut to Rand
          —–7:52 Wallace interrupts
          7:55 cut to Wallace
          —–8:05 Rand interrupts Wallace
          8:15 cut to Rand
          —–8:40 Wallace interrupts Rand
          9:28 cut to a wider show

          . nine-minute clip
          . 16 shots
          . Average Shot Length (ASL) of 34 seconds
          . longest uninterrupted shot: 2 minutes (minutes 2 to 4)

          . Motion graphics to capture attention.
          . Conflict after a few minutes (argument as the mode of discourse), featuring frequent interruptions.
          . Regular cuts not to reveal information, but to refresh the viewer’s interest.

          1. This breakdown of the show’s minutes is convincing – I wonder how much of my initial impression originated in nostalgia, or in a sort of well-intentioned sentimentality.

            1. The cuts are fairly unobtrusive, as are the textual graphics.

              Meanwhile, I saw this clip last night, because someone forwarded it to me:


              What a piece of garbage! It’s nothing but an eight-minute commercial. And consider the first two minutes alone:

              0:00 moving camera
              0:06 cut to graphic of revolving book over computer-generated background
              0:09 short cut to Stewart
              0:11 cut to rapid track in
              0:17 cut to another tracking shot in that becomes the master shot
              0:49 cut to Lucas
              0:52 cut to wider shot
              0:56 cut to Lucas
              0:59 cut to wider shot
              1:01 cut to Stewart, who jumps about, the return to master shot
              1:34 cut to Lucas
              —-fancy graphic comes up
              1:45 cut to wider shot
              1:50 cut to Lucas
              1:58 cut to wider shot

              Fourteen shots in about two minutes.
              ASL = 8.6 seconds
              longest shot = 31 seconds

              Notice, too, that in the wider shots, the camera is often moving, even if only subtly.

              Not to mention that that set is completely obnoxious.

              And it’s all just mindless goofiness. Do we learn anything in these eight minutes? Anything at all? It’s a commercial.

              Which is what television has become. It’s capable of more—not much more, I think—but this kind of faux-intellectual content reveals its true nature. Playhouse 90 this is not. Mike Wallace this is not.

              1. There’s something perplexing about the hyperactivity of camera shots in most TV programs. The tendency of the camera to move quickly from one object (or person or conversation) to the next amounts to something like hostility to the viewer; the viewer needs time to contemplate, or process, what he or she is viewing, but that time often isn’t granted.

                1. Hi Edward,

                  I’ve long heard that the rationale for such movement and cutting (and constantly high volume) is as follows: When you go to see a movie, you enter a room that shows nothing but the movie (and ads, beforehand). And it’s dark and you can focus. But the TV has to compete with a bright, busy room. Although given the size of TVs these days…

                  Film critic and scholar Fred Camper wrote a good essay about the differences between film and video. His motivation isn’t to critique TV, but to champion seeing experimental film on film, not on video. And as such, he takes an anti-video stance. But that context aside, he does a good job pointing out many of the fundamental physical attributes of TV.

                  Regardless of why the people who make TV do what they do, I would indeed call the result hostile to the viewer: an attempt to monopolize his or her attention.

                  Meanwhile, a lot of movies have adopted this approach. The recent Lord of the Rings films (which I despise more than any other contemporary films) cut every 2–4 seconds, feature wall-to-wall sound, and never stop moving the camera. And are half comprised of close-up shots of the actor’s faces. Consider this clip:

                  138 seconds

                  0:00 Frodo
                  0:05 Sam getting up
                  0:15 master of all three
                  0:18 Sam with Gollum in bg
                  0:26 Sam pov
                  0:29 Sam again (begins monologue)
                  0:36 Frodo
                  0:48 battle: people rushing
                  0:51 battle: people rushing
                  0:52 battle: people rushing
                  0:53 battle: people rushing
                  0:56 battle (“Victory!”)
                  0:59 Gandalf
                  1:03 Aragon
                  1:06 flooding
                  1:12 Pippin and Merry
                  1:16 Ents
                  1:20 Saruman
                  1:23 tower (flood)
                  1:31 Sam again
                  1:45 Frodo
                  1:48 Sam
                  1:52 Gollum
                  1:55 Sam picking up Frodo
                  1:57 Frodo and Sam (push in on sam)
                  2:07 push in on Frodo
                  2:10 Gollum
                  2:14 Frodo

                  ASL = roughly 4.9 seconds
                  longest shot = 14 seconds
                  only five of the shots are stationary

                  14 close-ups
                  7 medium-close shots
                  3 medium long shots
                  3 long shots

                  I’ve analyzed large sections of all three of these films, and this is rather typical.

  2. This is a great post. I want to read that book, I will read it. I can see why it hasn’t gotten much mainstream attention.

    In what ways do you think the culture is sexist? I’m not disagreeing, I just want to know more.

    I see this zeitgeist, but I think if one kind of dropped away from society, less tv etc., one could see less. I have at certain points. I mean, we have to block out so much information nowadays and that I don’t know much about Will Ferrel or Lord of the Rings and concentrate on Gary Lutz puts me in something like the ‘missing out’ club. Cultural hysteria – you haven’t seen this, you don’t know about this – yeah, I don’t, and it’s okay, I’m not going to shrivel up and die (though I probably strike this attitude too about certain authors and films-ah to escape…)

    Mystery is for me a key ingredient in being human. There’s so much emphasis on investigation and seeing how someone, a criminal for instance did something. And what have all those investigations in Washington yielded? Well Nixon, but that was two reporters more so. It’s so funny that absolute waste of investigating the last two presidents, I surely agreed with impeaching Bush and Cheney, but that never even came close, the Dems took that off the table as soon as they won.

    I hope there is a resurgence in Fellini as you say. I think his closest companion now is Almodovar and he has quite a following. Just to have some fun, an exuberant spirit-what a change from the serious Haneke and the oscar crowd.

    The thing wrong with young men today liking Guido (and young american men) is that it seems cooler to not even have affairs, but to have a lot of stuff – that’s what attracts the women. But Guido was a filmmaker, weren’t the women in 8 1/2 attracted to his creativity? And beyond that, it’s more than enough to be thought of as ‘hot’ on f book and dating sites. The illusion, the spectacle, the shadows of the shadows as Plato would say. Can you imagine Lao Tzu or Vermeer having a myspace page? Joan of Arc posting ‘cool’ pictures of her on her horse?

  3. My response to your assertion that “the current culture—contemporary mainstream US culture, inasmuch as such a thing exists—as being very: insincere, fragmented, juvenile, shallow, ironic, sexist, violent, spectacular” is unequivocal agreement. I would probably collapse insincerity, shallowness, and being juvenile under general immaturity. Also, contemporary mainstream US culture is politically disengaged. It is at best, apathetic, but at worst simply woefully ignorant about international affairs, not to mention domestic concerns. It is driven by insatiable consumerist appetites, or simply stated greed, jealousy, and envy. It is a patriarchal-based society, and by patriarchy I mean a system governed by males and male dominance in social or cultural systems. It is ageist meaning that it perpetuates stereotypes about and institutionalizes discriminatory practices against older people. At the same time, while it valorizes youth, or rather, the image of youth, it also discriminates against children and youth in countless ways, too. It is homophobic. When will members of the LBGT community be accorded the same civil rights as everyone else? It is racist, defined by its institutionalized racism which is, as Stokely Carmichael stated, “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.” Rather than calling contemporary mainstream US culture violent, I would call it militaristic. The War Resister’s League puts the military budget at 965 billion dollars (http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm). There are at least 700 U.S. Military bases in foreign countries. The United States is currently at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the U.S. continues to bomb Pakistan.

    And that’s just for starters.

    1. Well said, John.

      Greg, as for sexism, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Maybe I’ll post more about sexism in literature. But I see evidence of sexism everywhere. One obvious example is the ideal image of womanhood that is put forward in our society. We have ideals of men’s beauty, true, but it covers a pretty wide range, and unattractive men can be successful. But women are generally pushed toward a rather narrow—and unrealistic and unhealthy—ideal. And unattractive women can have trouble finding success, which is very unfair. (Think of how many fat old white men are in politics, business, etc. Now think of how many fat old white women are. Keep thinking.)

      But it’s more than just image (although that’s a big one). I want to note that sexism cuts both ways. When women are put under tremendous social pressure to adhere to particular styles of beauty, dress, and behavior, then /so are men/. And while women get the shorter end of that stick, it doesn’t do men much good to live in a society where women are discouraged from being truer to themselves.

      Like you say, concentrating on the kind of writing we do, and that we like, gives us less time for TV, mainstream movies, etc. And for you and for me, this is a better way of living. I haven’t watched TV in over a decade, and I often have no idea “what’s going on.” (Although we shouldn’t let the culture industry decide that that is what’s going on. It’s just orchestrated spectacle.)

      This is what Curtis White would call a real counterculture. You and I are living counter to the dominant culture. Sites like Big Other create their own culture. And so on.

      > Mystery is for me a key ingredient in being human.

      Wholehearted agreement.

      > I hope there is a resurgence in Fellini as you say.
      > I think his closest companion now is Almodovar
      > and he has quite a following. Just to have some fun,
      > an exuberant spirit-what a change from the serious
      > Haneke and the oscar crowd.

      That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of Almodovar that way. I’ll have to revisit him with that in mind.

      And your comments about Guido are spot on.

      Cheers all, Adam

  4. Adam:

    Interesting post. I think our culture is still quite sexist, obviously, I don’t think it’s new, I don’t think it’s gone away. This invades almost every aspect of our life. I do agree with the idea that patriarchy can also poison men, these ideals of masculinity, but men are much less objectified and Othered in society, if they are white, heteronormative, English speaking, etc. In terms of TV, it is mostly still riddled with stereotypes. As Baudrillard writes, “Television knows no night. It is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.” Women are still placed as “inferior” in this binary, and the media likes to simplify with stereotypes. So our culture is sexist because this difference between genders is still constructed as natural, normal. However, TV is not the absolute baddie I don’t think. In some ways TV is better than film. The analysis of sexism in work culture in Mad Men. Interesting portraits of complex older women on TV.

    In terms of sexism in literature, that’s a whole mess of worms. I think the mainstream literary establishment is still quite sexist, this is well documented, privileging masculine values for literature, allowing inferior products by women to be the status quo even though they cater to the lowest common denominator, and even how women are reviewed. Christine Brooke-Rose writes in her Mistresspiece that male experimental writers are allowed to enter the mainstream, to be read, but this is much less frequent for female experimental writers (are there female equivalents of the male system novelists currently being published in New York publishing)? However I think there’s a wonderful counterculture in small presses, presses run by women, such as Les Figues and by Renee Gladman, and many radical women being published in this countercultural world.

    1. Hi Kate,

      (Returning to teaching classes means I can get caught up at the Big Other blog, in the break between classes!)

      Thanks for taking this up!

      > I do agree with the idea that patriarchy can also
      > poison men, these ideals of masculinity, but men
      > are much less objectified and Othered in society,
      > if they are white, heteronormative, English
      > speaking, etc.

      I totally agree, and I myself am wary when making the kind of argument like the one I made above—that men suffer from sexism—because of course one doesn’t want to put too fine a point on it. I don’t want to be David Horowitz, and play the “poor white man” role. Because that’s utter nonsense.

      No doubt someone somewhere has made the point that I want to make, and done so with actual insight. I look forward to seeing it! In the meantime, the thought that’s been buzzing around in my head is something like this:

      My mother went to college, got an English degree, got married upon graduation (the Baby Boomers married fairly young, didn’t they), and then worked in a bookstore for a couple of years. She quit that job when she had me and my sister. She then stayed at home and raised us for about ten years.

      After that, she got a teaching certificate and taught fourth grade for a decade. After that, she worked in a bookstore again. After that, she got a job in an office.

      Obviously, her career was very much disrupted by having kids and staying home with them. And our society, being sexist, did nothing to help her with this (even though family supposedly counts for quite a lot in this country). She received no income, no assistance, no affordable daycare access, no health care, no pension, no Social Security benefits. (None of her own, that is.) Later, she received no assistance returning to the work force. This is, of course, Complete Nonsense.

      I have a tremendous respect for what my mother did. It had benefits, of course, for her and for my sister and I. I’m fairly close with my mother. And I learned a great deal from her. She read to me all the time, for instance, and then took me to the library every week. And encouraged me to read and write. So I think it’s deranged that our society does nothing to support people—either women or men—who would do that kind of work. Raising children is a full-time job, and should be recognized as such.

      My father, meanwhile, worked all the time to financially support us. Like, seventy-hour weeks, eighty-hour weeks. And so he missed out on a lot of my childhood, and my sister’s childhood. Which is a real cost! And this is where I’m trying to go with this particular thought, this particular point.

      Obviously, men benefit from getting to leave the home and work and go make money and move in external spheres of power. And women suffer from being shunted into the home to raise kids, and then have few other options in life. (And of course I’m talking here about older gender roles.) But the cost isn’t one-way. If the gender roles are such that “men go out and work,” and “women stay home and raise kids,” then women may suffer from having less direct influence in society, and from not being able to have careers, but men suffer, too, from being removed from the domestic.

      What’s better, I think, is for parents (single, hetero, same-sex, whatever) to be able to have options in terms of what they want to do with their lives. Both want to work? One wants to work, one stays home full-time? Something in between? There should be ways to make it work. And it shouldn’t be pre-decided by established gender roles. Having your future pre-decided for you isn’t fun for anyone, regardless of what sex they are.

      Again, no doubt someone somewhere has made this point already, and with greater insight, and with more thought.

      In the meantime, give stay-at-home parents Social Security benefits! And give everyone health insurance!

      As for your points about TV, I don’t want to argue that it’s an absolute baddie. It’s insidious, I think, due to its very nature and the role it plays in our society, and I don’t think that it can be rehabilitated. Which isn’t to say that good content can’t appear on it. But that content will always be constrained by the medium’s nature. Which I think is quick, shallow, spectacular, loud, argumentative. In McLuhanite terms, it’s “hot.” It encourages passive appreciation. It’s always in your face.

      I think it’s hard to imagine what cold, slow, abstract, meditative, contemplative television would look like. Brian Eno made some attempts at it, for example here, with his video paintings:


      (The aspect ratio is vertical because you’re mean to actually physically turn your TV sideways. Good luck doing that with a wall-mounted flatscreen!)

      Bruce Nauman’s video art is also one suggestion (for example, “Violin Tuned D.E.A.D.”). But that was never meant to be televised—but seen in a gallery.


      As for what you wrote about publishing, 100% agreement. The basic problem, I think, is when women (or anyone) are excluded from having control over the medium—when they are systematically kept out. Then we see all sorts of obscene exclusions and stereotyping. But when executive power is more evenhandedly distributed, we see a much more diverse field of work. This has been one of the great accomplishments of the small presses.

      Cheers, Adam

      1. Adam,

        I applaud your personal story and that of your family here. I hope we see more of this from the Big Other contributors. Very touching.



        1. Thanks, Greg! I should add that I had a wonderful childhood, largely due to the sacrifices my parents made. I wish I’d seen my dad more, and I think it’s terrible how my mom had to give up so much, career-wise, to raise my sister and me. But we did all right regardless. I’ve talked with my parents a lot about this, and they say now that they don’t regret anything.

          That said, we as a society should work to create more options for people. If nothing else, we should make it easier to raise families. Ideologically, our country values the idea of family above everything else (save “freedom,” republicanism (which it calls “democracy” for some reason), and the free market)—but there aren’t many resources in place to actually support families.

          We must demand them!

  5. Kate, I have to check out Mistresspiece. Great points.

    A D – I appreciate your SINCERE post. I think there is a lot we can quote to represent the “insincere, fragmented, […] spectacular” in the mainstream. In interrogating what is there, or in seeking out the otherwise, we, as you show, generate the reverse sentiment. I think Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes (though not my favorite Varda film) is an example of a recent film that draws on the filmic references you mention and is contemporary in all the ways we don’t “see” the contemporary mainstream today. Incidentally, I like your more recent post citing Duras’ the Malady of death http://bigother.com/2010/01/05/brevity-part-1/#comments about novel-novella. A measurement of length seems a default shorthand, where a truer distinction is what Edward said, “a measurement of intention.” So what’s the intention behind these mainstream films, news media outlets, etc we cite…whatever it be, be it brief.

    1. Hi Danielle,

      Beaches isn’t my favorite Varda film (that would probably be VAGABOND, although it’s hard to pick one as she’s so brilliant). But what’s so shocking about her work is how imaginative it is. And how grassroots it is. She makes the most down-to-earth films I’ve ever seen, in terms of looking around oneself and then making art from it. Even as she engages in the tradition of filmmaking (which she knows intimately well), her films are never dictated by what’s been done before her: they arise from her immediate circumstances and surroundings. I don’t want to over-romanticize this (of course illusion and a film industry is still involved), but she does as much as anyone to reveal how immediate and personal filmmaking can be. Straub and Huillet are another group of filmmakers who really understand this, and who make brilliant works in a similar (albeit more didactic) mode. Pedro Costa is another.

      And the work of all four of these filmmakers is slow, contemplative, human. It’s not slick. It’s not hip. It’s not trendy. It’s even willing to appear overly sincere, a little goofy. It’s sentimental without being pandering.

      It’s also very experiential. In VAGABOND, Varda tries to take us, very patiently, through Mona Bergeron’s journey, to convey what it feels like to live “sans toit ni loi.” Or, rather, to watch someone live that way—because no one but Mona knows what that is like. But Varda also to convey, as honestly as she can, the reactions that Mona inspires in other people. We aren’t meant to idolize her. We aren’t meant to villainize her. Or even criticize her. By the end of the film, what I feel is a tremendous, gut-wrenching sympathy for her, and her plight.

      I think it’s possible to do something like that in television, but it’s more common to see it done in film. But even there it’s all too rare. We see it in Fellini, in something like NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, even LA DOLCE VITA (which is still a very cool, very sexy, very hip movie).

      We DO NOT see it in something like SHERLOCK HOLMES, which has no interest in anything human. And no interest in sincerity. It’s interested only in selling a vicarious hipness. And it’s good at doing that. And there’s even a place for that in our society, I like to think! I adore the Rolling Stones. But Mick Jagger was also in PERFORMANCE. The problem is when things go out of balance, and I think our society is severely out of balance. Too many things are made with both eyes on the hip-o-meter. Too many things are too cool for school.

      (Godard was always so great at being hip and human at the same time. Wong Kar-wai is capable of the same thing. But few people seem to know how to do it.)

      Cheers, Adam

  6. Cheers Adam. The Vagabond is probably my favorite film. (I’ve even used it in some video work!) Talk about ethical filmmaking regarding gender – no romaniticization, the viewer is forced to consider their own response/reasons for empathy…
    Who was it that said the best analogy for po-mo is a television turned on with static? ;)

  7. danielle, adam: the vagabond is also one of my favorite films of all time. i think my favorite of varda’s, although have such a soft spot for “gleaners” and “cleo”. but why is varda called the “grandmother” of the new wave? that always pisses me off. straub and huillet, yes. i also really love the documentaries of su friedrich, in terms of filmmaking that is, as you write, slow, contemplative, human. margarethe von trotta i love as well.

    i think though there have been some smaller movies, like wendy and lucy, recently, more humanist portraits, that can mirror vagabond.

    i appreciate what you have to say about gender roles, adam. i like angela davis’ answer that there should be a team of nationally well paid houseworkers. i like that idea. it is also interesting in terms of women and literature. recently elaine showalter mused in a book that perhaps there was more literature by british women in 19th century/early 20th century because it was more socially acceptable to hire maids and nannies (which of course brings in all sorts of class considerations, etc.) And then also thinking how many famous women have been parents.

    in terms of page count you should check out my post on radical anorexic vs. radical bulimic text! i just posted it today!

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