Category Archives: longreads

Fall In

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

I’m writing this on the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

Depending upon where you are, it might not feel like fall yet. Right now, for instance, it’s 92°F outside where I live. And humid. More summer than fall. Yet, at the same time, school’s back in session, football is being played, and Halloween paraphernalia is appearing in stores.

The leaves on one of the trees outside my window are starting to change color. Some leaves have even started to fall. It’s getting darker earlier and lighter later. And even though it’s still hot out during the day, it’s cooling down more at night.

Change is in the air.

This leads to a question: Should one also change in conjunction with the seasons? By this I mean more than donning a natty scarf when the temperature drops below a certain level—I mean changing things about the way you eat, sleep, live, and work.

Conventional productivity advice doesn’t really take up this question. One of the things, in fact, that irks me about such advice is that it tends to frame things in terms of daily routines, routines that are ostensibly the same regardless of the season. In other words, most productivity advice is seasonless. Here I’m thinking of things like Mason Currey’s engrossing 2013 book Daily Rituals and Tim Ferriss’s more tech bro-y late-2016 knockoff Tools for Titans.

Now, I’m as interested in famous people’s daily routines as anyone. But at the same time, I feel it’s important to resist the tyranny of “the day.”

What do I mean by that?

Well, we live in a world of seasons—and increasingly more variable and violent seasons at that—but productivity advice seems to always think in terms of the day, the week, the year, or five years, never the season, the sun, and the shadow.

In Lewis Mumford’s endlessly-rich 1937 book Technics and Civilization, he explains how the clock altered human relations by organizing everything around twenty-four little hours instead of, say, the rhythm of the seasons.

The consequences of this, Mumford argues, are profound:

When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence.

Because of the clock, Mumford continues, “Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it. A generalized time-consciousness accompanied the wider use of clocks: dissociating time from organic sequences….”

Since we all pretty much live according to “clock time” now, the autumnal equinox presents us with an opportunity to cast off our Apple Watches and reflect on some of the benefits of living according to what might be called “seasonal time.” To that end, I encourage you to step out of “clock time” and into “seasonal time.”

This will, no doubt, strike some as unappealing. Many people see nature as something to overcome or counteract, not as something to flow with or submit to. For others, it will be impossible. “Clock time” is simply imposed on them too strongly. But if you can do it, even just a little bit, I strongly recommend it, if only for the perspective it brings.

To quote Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To every thing there is a season.” What if we took that adage seriously, not just by buying pumpkin spice lattes but by doing key things in a more fall-like way? Fall-like might take different forms. The point is to embrace fall in particular and seasonal change in general. I’m definitely not recommending becoming “Mr. Autumn Man”. I’m talking about something else, something deeper.

One example I like is how novelist Lee Child sits down every September and begins work on a new Jack Reacher novel. He finishes up sometime the following spring and then spends the rest of the year doing other stuff—stuff like spending the entire month of August on vacation. (I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty nice.) Note, too, that this routine produces a book a year. (As someone who writes much more slowly, this sounds pretty nice to me as well.) And Child has been doing things this way since the late 1990s. (For more on Child’s process, see Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me.)

Fall is a time to write for me as well, but it also means welcoming—rather than fighting against—the shorter days, the football games, the decorative gourds. Productivity writer Nicholas Bate’s seven fall basics are more sleep, more reading, more hiking, more reflection, more soup, more movies, and more night sky. I like those too. The winter will bring with it new things, new adjustments. Hygge not hay rides. Ditto the spring. Come summer, I’ll feel less stress about stopping work early to go to a barbecue or movie because I know, come autumn, I’ll be hunkering down. More and more, I try to live in harmony with the seasons, not the clock. The result has been I’m able to prioritize better.

And yes, fall for me also means some of the stereotypical stuff: apple picking, leafy walks, we’re even trying to go to a corn maze this year.

In sum, as the Earth wobbles around the Sun, don’t be afraid to switch things up. I can’t promise an uptick in productivity, but when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.

Zoe’s Desk

Netflix’s first second original series House of Cards appeared online earlier this month. Set in a parallel universe Washington D.C. circa the present, House of Cards follows the rib-eating, Southern American English-speaking Representative Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as he maneuvers for position after being passed over for Secretary of State. David Fincher is one of the show’s producers and directed the first two episodes. The whole thing is based on a BBC miniseries by the same name that was based on a novel by Michael Dobbs. I found it addictive but ridiculous.

Perhaps most of all I was struck by the shots of Zoe Barnes, the intrepid female reporter character played by Kate Mara, working in her apartment in show’s first episode.

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Shots like this are consistent with Fincher’s habit of documenting — in films like Zodiac, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — work. Or rather, his habit of conveying the feeling of massive amounts of what is often referred to as knowledge work taking place. In a number of Fincher’s films we’re given glimpses of characters doing things like researching, writing, or coding. At some level, the bulk of his films are about characters trying to make sense of information. But such glimpses are by definition fleeting. Fincher does not so much film work as cleverly give the impression of its occurrence.

Another good example of this from House of Cards is the education bill Underwood — whose name recalls a brand of typewriter — commissions. (Minor spoilers ahead.) We see Underwood hire a bunch of young speechwriter, K Street types, we see him charge them with writing a bill, we see them with their laptops open, we see them batting around ideas, we see them with their ties undone and their no-iron khakis wrinkled, we see them struggling to stay awake, and finally we see the 300+ page document they produce, but we never actually see them working. It’s a neat trick on Fincher’s part. It’s difficult to render knowledge work cinematically (quick, what’s the last great movie about writing you remember seeing?), as opposed to physical work which more readily lends itself to Rocky-style montages, but Fincher has figured out a way to short circuit the process. Like all good filmmakers, he knows that if he gives us the signs, we will fill in the rest.

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On a more basic level, I just love images like this. I am a workspace voyeur — especially writer’s workspaces. My bible here is Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk, a collection of wonderfully evocative photographs of, well, writer’s desks. In the introduction, John Updike writes, “I look at these photographs with a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans. Except that the beds would tell me less than these desks do. Here the intimacy of the literary act is caught in flagrante delicto: at these desks characters are spawned, plots are spun, imaginative distances are spanned.”

Now, Zoe Barnes isn’t really a famous writer, and her workspace has been meticulously constructed by a production designer right down to the garbage, but there’s still something thrilling about getting a peek at it. Sadly, it’s the only peek we get. It’s as if Fincher knows this one look-see can legitimize all the work Zoe does throughout the rest of the series that we never see.

Finally, I know her apartment is supposed to be junky — in a later episode Spacey’s character essentially asks her whether her parents know her place is a dump — but I sort of like it. With its stacks of paper, piles of books, and conspicuous coffee pot, it reminds me of a prototypical grad student’s apartment. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that Zoe seems to be halfway living with Lucas by the end of the thirteen episodes. Living like a grad student is no way to live.

Coors

Paul Newman

This may sound absurd to anyone born after 1975, but there was actually a time when Coors – and I mean Coors, not the watered-down Silver Bullet stuff your girlfriend drank on spring break – was, bar none, beer of choice for the man’s man. Both Hud and the real-life Paul Newman loved the stuff. Tom Waits was known to knock back a few. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young swilled it while hanging out in Laurel Canyon (okay, so Nash was never quite a paragon of masculinity, but back in the day Stephen Stills was a country-blues-slinging demigod – look it up). And what did The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock take to drinking while drifting in the pool after getting his first taste of red-hot American cougar? Coors.

—Tyler Thoreson, “Coors Original: An Appreciation” (2009)

Other famous Coors fans? Burt Reynolds, at least in Smokey and the Bandit, a movie whose McGuffin is smuggling a truckload of Coors from Texas to Georgia. Also, king-of-cool Steve McQueen, who not only loved the stuff so much he asked for it on his deathbed, but for whom the beer figured so prominently in his cosmology, a lover once described his penis as “two Coors beer cans welded together.” Then there’s singer-songwriter John Denver, baseball hall-of-famer Carl Yastrzemski, 38th President of the United States Gerald Ford, the late, great Ray Bradbury, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestial. Yes, even E.T.

Now, I realize that appealing to celebrity is a common fallacious appeal to authority, but maybe, just maybe, these (white, save for E.T.) guys knew something – at least when it comes to easy-drinking, pale, fizzy lagers in a can – the beer connoisseurs don’t.

Dean Martin

Dean Martin

Keith Richards

Keith Richards

Coors the company, it must be said, has, by some accounts, a pretty shady record, Ice Cube’s recent shilling for them notwithstanding. But that certainly doesn’t make them unique among corporations.1 Assuming products can stand on their own merit regardless of what company produced them, let it be said that I like their beer, not their (past) politics. Besides, I never pay for my Coors, I steal it.2


  1. All sorts of corporations do all sorts of shady things, and while that’s not good, it doesn’t, for the most part, stop us from giving our money to them. As Adrian Woolridge notes in Masters of Management, “Philip Morris is still one of the best-performing stocks in the world. A study by the Wharton Business School … found that ‘ethical’ funds underperform the general market by 31 points a year. A study by the European Union showed that while 75 percent of consumers said they were willing to adjust their shopping habits in light of ethical and environmental considerations, only 3 percent had actually done so.” In other words, people tend to like products from companies that are evil.  ↩
  2. Not really.

Jamin’ on the One

Prince at the drums back in the day

On what was an otherwise quiet Sunday evening for me a couple of weeks ago, Questlove – of The Roots and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon fame – tweeted this:

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The L-Word

One week ago, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner tried to kill U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords outside of a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. Nineteen other people were shot in the process, six of them fatally, including cute-as-a-button–9-year-old Christina Green.

People wasted no time in branding Loughner a loner.

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Books vs. E-Books

Photo by troyholden.

Much of the discourse surrounding electronic books – e.g., Apple’s iPad, Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s nook, and Sony’s Reader – is what David Edgerton might call “innovation-centric.” That is, a lot of the talk about electronic books is about how, at some indeterminate but nevertheless rapidly approaching point in the future, after having definitively obsolesced printed periodicals, electronic books will supplant the granddaddy of all media: printed books.

Here, for instance, is Jacob Weisberg on the Kindle:

The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.

Yet old and new technologies tend, more often than not, to co-exist for a while. Old technologies, to borrow a line from General Douglas MacArthur, never die, they just fade way.

Moreover, new doesn’t necessarily mean better. Indeed, printed books may actually be technologically superior in many ways – at this stage of the game at least – to the e-books vying to supersede them. (People sometimes forget that books are a technology.)

To explain what I mean by this, I turn to Gabriel Zaid’s wonderful little book So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. In it, Zaid gives six reasons why books are superior to other forms of media.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Zaid’s first point is that books can be skimmed easily. That is, one can flip through a book to get a quick idea of its content. In this respect, Zaid argues, only paintings and photographs are superior to books because you can take them in all at once. Yes, you can scrub through video and audio recordings, but not nearly as easily as you can flip through a book. At this point I think it’s probably safe to say it’s actually easier to skim articles on the Web than it is to skim e-books, and that’s a pretty damning indictment of e-books in my view. Electronics books can, of course, be searched, but they can’t easily be skimmed. This strikes me as an important distinction.

Zaid’s second point is that books can be read at a pace determined by the reader. He writes, “A book can be explored at thousands of words per minute with speed-reading techniques, or one revelatory line can be lingerly contemplated. And it is so easy to turn back, to reread, to halt, to skip things that are of no interest.” In theory, you can read e-books at your own pace as well, but I wonder if the fact that electronic texts are hard to skim also makes it hard to take them in at different speeds. After all, if you can’t skim an e-book first, how do you know what to linger over and what to skip?

Zaid’s third point is that books are portable. But then so are e-books. You never have to plug a book in first in order read it however. [Idea for a Twilight Zone episode set in the not-too-distant future: Everyone on Earth is killed in a nuclear war except for one man who loves to read, and finally he has all the time in the world in which to do so. By this point, however, all books are e-books. The twist is, just as our main character is sitting down in the ruins of the public library to read, the power goes out and he has no way to recharge his Kindle.] And although something like an unabridged dictionary isn’t very portable, a small, slim paperback is clearly more portable than any present-day e-book device expect for maybe the iPhone, not to mention infinitely more flexible.

His fourth point is that you don’t need to make an appointment to read a book. This is one of the major advantages books have over something like television, though digital video recorders increasingly allow people to “time shift” TV shows, but that’s interesting in and of itself because it points to one of the areas where books have had the advantage all along. Zaid’s larger point here seems to be that books are available whenever and wherever, that you can move between books easily, and that you can move within books easily, a potent trifecta.

Zaid’s fifth point is that books are cheap. “Millions of readers,” he observes, “can afford to buy a collection of great books.” E-books might be cheaper in the long run because they can be copied for free and distributed for pennies, but the initial costs are still pretty high. E-book readers are bourgeois devices. Think about how many books can you buy for the price of the cheapest iPad (currently $499). Particularly if they’re used books.

His final point is that books permit greater variety. One day, I suppose, nearly all books will be available electronically. But that day isn’t here yet. And there are some real legal and technological hurdles to be worked out before that happens.

Taken as a whole, Zaid’s points make me think not only that books have some real advantages over other forms of media but that other forms of media may actually be trying, without realizing it, to become more like books, e.g., DVRs help make TV shows more like books.

As Zaid puts it:

Perhaps modern technology’s greatest tribute to the advantages of the age-old book is the attempt to develop electronic screens as thin and flexible as paper, hundreds of which could be bound into something like a book, which would have the same visual and typographic appearance as a book and even the same tactile feel, without electric or electronic cords, e-book readers disguised as printed books.

Viewed from this perspective, it’s not so much that books are getting replaced as it is perhaps that new media forms, in order to compete with books, are increasingly taking on some of the characteristics of books. All of which raises the question: Why not just read an old-fashioned, printed book?

Get Yourself a College Girl

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Last week I was watching TCM in the middle of the afternoon when Get Yourself a College Girl (1964) came on. It’s a Beach Party clone, one of those mindless ’60s movies where girls wear bikinis almost exclusively and everyone dances the Watusi.

Though I’ve never felt any particular affection for the genre, I literally couldn’t stop watching Get Yourself a College Girl. I found myself feeling a bit like Giles De’Ath (John Hurt) in the criminally-underrated Love and Death on Long Island (1997) when he stumbles upon the work of Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), star of such B-movies as Hotpants College 2 – i.e., inexplicably finding great depth and beauty in kitsch.

The film is easy to dismiss, and as dismissals go, Howard Thompson’s 1965 New York Times review is a classic: “Get Yourself a College Girl deserves – and gets here – a one-line verdict: idiocy strictly for the birds. Or maybe the Animals. They’re in it, if anybody cares.”

On one level, Thompson may have been right. The movie isn’t available on home video, which suggests maybe nobody does care. (If you want to watch it, you’ll have to wait until TCM airs it again.)

The film’s plot – such as it is – revolves around a demure college student named Terry (played by 24-year-old former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley) who is paying her way through college by writing provocative pop songs.

There’s some interesting stuff to be found here about academe, nascent second wave feminism, and race (e.g., the scene in which, in order to show the Senator Morrison character’s fuddy-duddy point of view, shots of white American teenagers dancing are intercut with stock footage of African “savages” jumping around).

Perhaps the most notable thing about the film, however, is its music. Indeed, after watching it, I felt compelled to buy a used copy of the soundtrack (which, as luck would have it, was released on compact disc in 1992).

Produced by Sam Katzman (who was also responsible for Rock Around the Clock [1956]), the movie features performances by The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, Stan Getz, the Jimmy Smith Trio, The Standells, and Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys with Roberta Linn. As perhaps the definitive overview of the film puts it,

Get Yourself A College Girl features not just a great list of starring musical acts, but an extensive one: in addition to a performance of the title number by Mobley, we’re treated almost every ten minutes [to] … a wonderfully broad array of acts, running the gamut from two variants of the British invasion, to Latin-flavored jazz, to early garage rock, and even Las Vegas-type lounge.

The Dave Clark Five’s appearance is noteworthy because it’s apparently the first time a British rock & roll group appeared in an American 1960s pop film, but it’s the Stan Getz Quartet featuring Astrud Gilbero’s performance of “The Girl from Ipanema” that’s the real show-stopper. It may even be “the single finest performance of the entire Beach Party genre.”

In true Giles De’Ath fashion, however, it’s the stupid, sexy title number by Mobley that captivates me the most. Have a listen.

Did the Joker Kill Heath Ledger?

One of the more intriguing things bandied about in the days following Heath Ledger’s tragic death last month was that the Joker — the comic book character Ledger plays in the upcoming The Dark Knight — killed him.

By this people didn’t mean that the Joker, a fictional character, literally killed Ledger, but they didn’t exactly mean it in a wholly figurative sense either. Rather, people seemed to be suggesting that Ledger was haunted by the Joker, unable to get him out of his system after playing him, and that this might at least partially explain his untimely death. In the words of John Brackett, “So did the Joker take over his mind and eventually end his life in a horribly ironic twist worthy of his green haired alter-ego?”

As more of the facts surrounding Ledger’s death came to light, the less people suggested that the Joker killed him. Yet, after reading Rolling Stone’s recent obituary for/appreciation of Ledger, I’m not entirely convinced it’s frivolous to ask whether the Joker might in some weird way be responsible for Ledger’s death. And if that is indeed the case, what does it say about the psychic power of fictional characters?

The following lines in the Rolling Stone piece seem to reinforce, if only subtly at times, the idea that the Joker killed Ledger:

  1. “He couldn’t seem to disengage; the inexactness bothered him.”
  2. “Ledger had no formal training, and there’s this to be said for acting school: it teaches you to approach a role as foreign, as a language you’ll temporarily speak. Ledger didn’t appear to have that. He needed to dig for (and inhabit) the part of himself that was the character. ‘Performance comes from absolutely believing what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘You convince yourself, and believe in the story with all your heart.’ It didn’t always shut off when a production did, and I think it ground him.”
  3. “As The Joker in next summer’s The Dark Knight, he will appear as a man severed from all connection. A ‘psychopathic, mass-murdering clown with zero empathy,’ is how he described it to the New York Times. On set, Michael Caine said the performance sometimes turned so frightening he forgot his own lines.”

I find these three quotes really provocative.

Interestingly, the article begins by mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis’s heartfelt reaction to the news of Ledger’s death on Oprah.

Most people probably thought that Day-Lewis was simply being classy and emotional, and that he deserved kudos for saying what was really on his mind, for acknowledging something Oprah probably wouldn’t have mentioned otherwise. But maybe Day-Lewis’s reaction had more to do with the fact that both he and Ledger approached acting in the same way, i.e., they both sought to become the characters they played. Maybe Day-Lewis expression of grief had something to do with the kinship he felt with Ledger, not just as a fellow actor, but as someone who knows how hard it is to detach after inhabiting a character body and soul.

Consider, for instance, a recent profile of Day-Lewis in The Guardian which tries halfheartedly to debunk “the popular image of him, namely that, for all his extraordinary talent, he is a tortured genius, living the life of a recluse, reluctantly breaking cover once every few years to inhabit body and soul hugely demanding screen roles,” but in the end simply reinforces this view.

The article notes that for The Last of the Mohicans (1992), “Day-Lewis underwent rigorous weight training during which he added 20lb of muscle to his body. Not content with that, he also learnt to live off the land and forest, as his character would have done, by spending six months learning how to camp, fish and skin animals. By the end of his training he had built himself a canoe. He also carried a Kentucky rifle at all times during filming and learnt how to load and fire it while running.”

Likewise, for In the Name of the Father (1993), “Day-Lewis lived on prison rations to lose 30 lb and spent extended periods in the jail cell on set, while crew hurled abuse and cold water at him.”

For The Crucible (1996), “Day-Lewis went back in time. He stayed on a Massachusetts island in the film set’s replica village — without electricity or running water — planted fields with 17th- century tools, and built his character’s house.”

For The Boxer (1997), Day-Lewis “trained with former world champion Barry McGuigan, who said he could have been a professional: ‘He was in the gym twice a day, seven days a week for nearly three years.’ Injuries included a broken nose and a herniated disc in his lower back.”

For Gangs of New York (2002), “Day-Lewis hired circus performers to teach him how to throw daggers and trained as a butcher. He got pneumonia during shooting, initially refusing to have treatment or trade his coat for a warmer one.”

Stories like these make me think that maybe Ledger couldn’t leave the Joker behind as well as Day-Lewis seems to be able to leave the characters he plays behind. Callous as it may sound, if the Joker really did have something to do with Ledger’s death, it actually makes me even more interested in seeing The Dark Knight.

Cigarettes Are Sublime

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There’s a great scene in Definitely, Maybe in which the characters played by Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher bump into one another in a convenience store and flirtatiously debate the merits of Marlboro Reds versus American Spirits. Reynolds’s character can’t believe Fisher’s character pays a couple dollars more per pack for “natural” cigarettes. Fisher’s character counters that Marlboros contain additives to make them burn faster; thus, although she pays more per pack, each of her cigarettes lasts longer so she ends up paying less money in the long run. Skeptical, and more than a bit intrigued by her joie de vivre, Reynolds’s character agrees to an impromptu “smoke off” outside the store. Outside they light up at the same time and continue their flirting. Reynolds’s character loses the contest when his Marlboro Red burns down before her American Spirit, but he wins an opportunity to accompany Fisher’s character to a party that evening. It’s her birthday and her boyfriend has stood her up. She’s looking for a date and he quickly agrees to accompany her.

What’s noteworthy to me about the scene – other than the chemistry the two actors have – is the role cigarettes play in it. That is, cigarettes help bring the two of them together. They also lend the scene an erotic charge. It’s as if time has stopped and these are the only two people in the world. When Fisher’s character coolly blows smoke out of her mouth and seductively gestures with her cigarette, she’s arguably more appealing to Reynolds’s character (and to us as audience members) than she would be if she were sans a cigarette. As Richard Klein writes in Cigarettes Are Sublime, a wonderful, nearly 200-page apologia for the beauty and benefits of cigarettes,

For many women, at certain moments, lighting a cigarette is the socially countenanced mode of signaling hostile or aggressively sexual feelings aroused by the intrusion of another subjectivity. In circumstances when a man might display anger or come on to her, a woman will often light up, summoning fire and smoke, jabbing with the tip of her cigarette between nails or teeth. That explains why, among women, smoking began with those who got paid for staging their sexuality: the actress, the Gypsy, the whore. Such a woman violates traditional roles by defiantly, actively giving herself pleasure instead of passively receiving it. Lighting a cigarette is a demonstration of mastery that violates the assumptions of feminine pudeur, the delicate embarrassment women are expected to feel, or at least display, in the presence of what their innocence and dignity are supposed to prevent them from desiring. A woman smoking may be thought to be less “feminine” because more active, aggressive, masterful, but she is not therefore more “masculine” – in her own eyes or in those of many men; she may in fact be more desirable because she appears to be more free. (117)

Scenes such as this one, of course, can be found in lots of movies (e.g. The Big Sleep [1946]), but they seem less and less common. It’s significant that the scene is set in 1992, before the present anti-smoking campaign in the United States really took off. Though I don’t smoke, scenes like this one almost make me want to. No wonder some people bemoan Hollywood’s glamorization of smoking. Still, as Tom Chiarella’s recent and fascinating Esquire piece “Learning to Smoke” suggests, I am not alone in wanting to do something that movies make look so cool, if only for a short while.

Rambo (IV)

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Some thoughts on Rambo (2008) — or as Alex Muniz calls it, Rambo IV — on this, the day after I first saw it.

In his review of the film, A.O. Scott notes that Rambo’s name “is sometimes still used, perhaps a bit unfairly, as a synonym for revanchist, go-it-alone militarism.” Note the parenthetical “perhaps a bit unfairly,” for Rambo’s politics — and for that matter the politics of Rambo franchise — have always been more a bit more complicated than most people think.

Stallone maintains that Rambo himself is apolitical, and suggests that Reagan is the reason everyone thinks of him as an essentially conservative, reactionary character:

Rambo has always been apolitical, but once Ronald Reagan, who I admired, stated, “Rambo is a republican.” In some reference to Rambo and Gadhafi in the ’80s, that sort of sealed my fate and since then Rambo has always been equated with America’s military aggressiveness, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rambo is a solitary creature, not part of any military machine.

In short, according to Stallone, Rambo is a loner, a warrior.

Tom Lutz, by contrast, in his wonderful book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, sees Rambo as a liminal figure:

Rambo was an ambiguous hero, of course, not the tough John Wayne type … or the neotough Clint Eastwood. Rambo straddled the cultural conflict between the peaceniks and law-and-order forces, a hippie Green Beret, a decorated macho killer with long hair and antiestablishment anger: when the [first Rambo] film opened in 1982, Variety deemed the film itself “socially irresponsible.” Rambo’s position on the margin allows him to act in ways unavailable to the men around him, men in more obviously proscribed social roles. He knows no fear and feels no physical pain, but sobs and moans and cries out his emotional woe. Unlike the Greek hero who is expected to cry because he is heroic, Rambo earns the right to violate the macho prohibition against crying (as does Stallone’s previous character, Rocky) through his heroism.

(Of course, one could argue that the Rambo of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988) is more conservative than the Rambo of the first film, but even in these films it’s not quite as cut and dry as people make it out to be. In Rambo III, for instance, Rambo fights on behalf of the Mujahedeen!)

In his aforementioned review, Scott brushes aside questions about Rambo’s politics by suggesting that what’s really important is (1) the quality of the films and (2) how similar Rambo is to the archetypal male characters found in Westerns and Samurai films, two genres with considerably more status among the so-called chattering classes than action films. Scott writes:

The first installments in the cycle were better films than polite opinion might lead you to believe. At the time their politics made some people nervous, but to dwell on Rambo’s ideological significance was (and still is) to miss his kinship with the samurais and gunslingers of older movies.

My point here is to suggest that Rambo (both the character and the movie franchise) deserve to be taken seriously. To its credit, the New York Times published an article titled “Tough Guys For Tough Times” a couple weeks ago that I blogged briefly about. The article unfortunately perpetuates some of the one-dimensional thinking that I have tried to complicate above by including Rambo in a list of the “leading action symbols of the Reagan era — with all their excess, jingoism and good vs. evil bombast,” but it at least tries to make sense of why, two decades after Rambo III, Rambo is suddenly back.

Sociological and cultural reasons aside, the obvious reason, of course, is so Stallone can cash in on his second-most successful screen persona before he gets too old. I wonder, however, if Stallone just wanted a crack at directing a Rambo film? Maybe he thought he could do better than Ted Kotcheff, George P. Cosmatos, and Peter MacDonald, the directors of the first three Rambo films, respectively.

Did he do better? I don’t think so — the characters are paper thin even by action movie standards, the Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore was a little too one-note for me, and action set-pieces aren’t particularly clever, save perhaps for the scene were Rambo dispatches a group of bad guys with his bow and arrow while a well-armed team of mercenaries cowers on the hill above — but Rambo is still a fascinating film for all sorts of reasons.

I was surprised, for instance, by how critical it was of missionary/relief work. The white bourgeois Christian group from Colorado that engage Rambo to take them into Burma are presented at best as naive, at worst as contributing to the destabilization of the region by sticking their noses in other people’s business. “Go home,” Rambo tells them at one point. A case probably could be made that the movie is actually anti-Christian. It certainly seems contemptuous of humanitarian efforts, religiously based or otherwise, which is odd considering that one of Stallone’s reasons for setting the film in Burma, at least according to his comments on Ain’t It Cool News, was to draw attention to the injustices there.

Military intervention is hardly presented in a better light. The mercenaries are just as incompetent as the missionaries. In the world of the Rambo movies, the only solution to a problem is Rambo. Anything short of Rambo is doomed to failure.

Yet as critical of the movie is of missionary/relief work and military intervention, it also falls into the trap of presenting the Burmese people (both the good guys and the bad guys, I thought) as non-white, primitive “Others.” Whatever light is shed on the problems of Burma, it’s overshadowed by the implicit message that whatever is going on over there in the jungle isn’t something “we” (read: white Americans) have to worry about, unless of course, we’re stupid enough to try and help. For this reason, a case probably also could be made that the movie is racist.

Some might read all this ambivalence as a deceptively sophisticated problemization of American foreign policy, but I don’t think I’d be that generous. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it confused, but I will say it’s complicated, which is what the Rambo franchise ultimately is, despite people’s attempts to reduce to something that’s anything but.