Pauline Kael in 1989

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Pauline Kael’s writing has been riling people since she published her first movie review in the early 1950s. The way she made sexual awareness and boldness contribute to a kind of heightened intelligence upset people — and may still. As a critic and a journalist, she combines a knack for what “works” in a theatrical sense with an analytical mind and a performer’s spirit. Her first collection, “I Lost It At the Movies” (1965), was one of the landmarks of ’60s nonfiction. Since then she’s had an enormous influence on how popular culture is thought and written about (and she sometimes takes the rap for the sins of her imitators).

Kael’s work is exciting in the way Norman Mailer’s or Tom Wolfe’s or Ryszard Kapuscinski’s is. You come away buzzing; you take it personally in ways you’re not used to taking nonfiction. (“Why doesn’t she like Tarkovsky’s or Sirk’s films as much as I do?”) Her reviews are so persuasive that when you don’t agree with her you can go around for days arguing with her in your head.

Kael was born in 1919, the fifth and youngest child of immigrants from Warsaw who ran a farm in Petaluma, California, north of San Francisco. The family moved to the city when Pauline was eight. At the University of California at Berkeley she majored in philosophy. Before being able to earn a living as a writer she worked as a seamstress, a cook, and a ghostwriter of travel books, among other jobs, supporting herself and her daughter, Gina, while turning out film criticism and broadcasting reviews on Berkeley’s Pacifica radio station. From 1955 to 1960 she managed the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio, the first twin cinema in the country. After “I Lost It at the Movies” she began publishing in mass-circulation magazines. Since 1968 she has written for The New Yorker, except for a break in 1979, when she spent five months working for Paramount in Hollywood. Her latest volume, “Hooked,” has just been published and includes review of films by Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, and Philip Kaufman.

Kael has given her house in the Berkshires a sensuality you don’t expect from a writer. You walk into it and think “visual artist” or “musician,” not “writer.” It’s a big, old, turreted place she bought years ago, when it was sagging and rotting. She and her daughter repaired it and opened it up, baring the woodwork. Art hangs on nearly all the walls — much of it by her daughter, most of the rest by friends. Kael has an instinctive feel for the placement of things; every object in the house seems to be something she responded to immediately. She often has music playing — a broad range, from Branford Marsalis to the countertenor Russell Oberlin. The day we stopped by, it was Aretha Franklin, her six-year-old grandson Will’s current favorite. After a visit from her daughter and grandson we sat by the fireplace while snow piled up outside.

pauline with dog

RAY SAWHILL: Which of the other arts has it been most important to you to follow?

PAULINE KAEL: When I began writing about films I was almost equally interested in jazz, which I followed through much of my life. I used to be able tell you who played what instrument on just about every jazz record that ever came out.

I was very lucky to grow up in San Francisco, because although I had no money things were cheap. You could go to the Broadway plays that came out there; you could see almost anything for fifty cents. And there were kids’ rates for concerts. So I had a terrific introduction to theater and music.

I was terribly interested in fiction. And in theater. And opera. And in painting. (Laughs) I’ve had to narrow my interests, because you can’t raise a child or be involved in taking care of a house and do everything you want to do in your life. Certain things have gone by the boards simply because of the time and energy it took to live and to write.

POLLY FROST: Did you play jazz at some point?

PK: Oh, I stopped doing that fairly early. I was a young teenager when I played in a girls’ jazz band. I played classical music mostly. I used to go hear Papa Hertz — Alfred Hertz — conduct every week. But my tastes ran very heavily to jazz.

PF: I can see you coming to writing from a jazz background — the use of words in a different way and the rhythms. Did jazz influence the way you write at all?

PK: If so, indirectly. I do tend to riff. I’ve got a lot of parentheses in there. (Laughs)

RS: The spontaneity too.

PK: Well, I want that. I want what I do to move along by hidden themes. I rarely try to think anything out ahead of time. I want it, paragraph by paragraph through the whole structure, to surprise me. But I want the fun of writing. I don’t want to take the juice out of that.

RS: Your writing has a conversational tone, and yet it has a freedom that people don’t have in conversation. How consciously have you pursued that?

PK: Very consciously. People often think I’m saying things inadvertently, and it amuses the hell out of me. They think that I don’t know what I’m saying. Mainly I’ve been trying for speed and clarity, trying to write the way I talk.

When I started writing for magazines in the ’50s, I was dissatisfied with the studied, academic tone of my first pieces. I hated fancy writing, and I tried to write as simply as possible. I was conscious of the fact that I was writing about a popular art form. I don’t think I would have written in the same way if I had been writing about classical music. How can you deal with movies truthfully, in terms of your responses, if you don’t use contractions, if you don’t use “you” instead of “one”? I mean, I’m not a goddamned Englishman. I don’t say, “One likes this movie very much.” (Laughs) I was trying for the freedom of an American talking about the movies, but it took me awhile. What broke me loose from academic writing was that I wrote a lot of advertising copy anonymously — and unsigned notes for theaters I managed. Writing in an unsigned form frees you of the inhibitions of academic writing. I was just trying to reach the public as directly as possible. And I found I was doing it more naturally. It’s mainly a kind of courage you need to in order to write the way you think instead of writing the way you’ve been taught.

RS: Were there critics who excited you?

PK: A lot of writers and artists excited me. There were movie critics that I liked a lot — James Agee more than anyone else, I guess. But I never thought of Agee as a role model; I simply liked reading him. I disagreed with him a lot, but I loved the passion of his language. He got exercised about movies in the more personal writing he did for The Nation, where he expressed real rage if he didn’t like something. It seemed to me the way we actually react to movies. We don’t react in cultivated terms; we come out and say, “I hated that piece of …”

RS: Did you read people like Shaw or Lionel Trilling or R.P. Blackmur with pleasure?

PK: Oh, sure, I read them all. I read Blackmur with a great deal of pleasure. I probably identified with him more than with any other critic. I can’t explain that to you now, but Blackmur, when I first read him, just struck some chord with me, and I read all the authors he talked about.

I was living with a young poet named Robert Horan at that time. And we were reading Blackmur together and being excited about him. For several years Horan and I discovered books of poetry and jazz musicians and other artists together. We read Dylan Thomas’ first teenage book of poetry together, Horan reading the poems aloud to me. And it was sort of “Eureka! This is the new work we’ve been waiting for!” We experienced a lot of things together like that. We would spend our Saturdays going to art shows together. And we had a very, very close relationship in the arts. We would argue viciously when we disagreed about something. It was tremendous fun. We were both young and a little bit crazy, in the sense that practical things didn’t matter the way matters of the mind did — matters of mind and emotion.

You make discoveries in the arts with other people. Robert Duncan was a very good friend of mine, and we explored a lot of things together. We had our biggest talkfests in the late ’30s. Later, when we were on different sides of the country, we would write letters to each other. We would read the same books and exchange impressions and ideas. And then we would get together somewhere and talk for forty-eight hours straight. (Laughs)

RS: You once told me that you’d read everything Henry James published.

PK: My James kick came a little bit later. When I went to the hospital to give birth to my daughter in the late ’40s I was just reading “Notes of a Son and Brother,” which was the last volume to complete whatever was available in James.

PF: Do you tend to binge on writers?

PK: I tend, when I get interested in a writer, to read everything, though there are writers that I like a lot, like Dickens, that I still haven’t gotten through. But most writers — you know, if I started Firbank I would read everything by Firbank. When I started Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” I read from beginning to end, volume after volume. I love getting immersed in a sensibility.

RS: Is that true of all the arts, or does it mainly hold for reading?

PK: It mainly holds for reading. You learn funny things about it. For instance, you’re reading everything by Virginia Woolf, and you adore “The Waves” and “Mrs. Dalloway” and this one and that one, but that damn “The Years” … Something is wrong; it’s dreary. But usually you read a book by someone, and you get really involved, and you just keep going, book after book. And then you feel you’ve got that writer; you know him — there he is.

But I wouldn’t want you think that at the time I was reading, say, Melville or James I wasn’t also being a foolish woman — or a foolish girl, really. I mean, I was crazy about Jack Teagarden’s singing. (Laughs) He’s somebody you probably have never heard of — a trombonist. Just a particular style of singing. Every once in a while I’ll catch him on the radio when they’re playing old music, and I’ll think, Oh, that’s how to do it. You don’t need a voice; you just sing. And I was always wild about Harry Ritz’s dancing; I thought it was in a class of its own.

PF: I’ve heard that during your freshman year at Berkeley you went out dancing every night.

PK: I love dancing.

PF: What was the dancing-and-music scene like then?

PK: Well, it was all in San Francisco and Oakland — Turk Murphy, Bunk Johnson … a lot of terrific jazz in the Bay Area. And somehow or other I went out every night.

PF: How’d you get your studying in philosophy done?

PK: I’m a fast take. (Laughs) The professors in the Berkeley Philosophy Department wanted me to go on and teach phenomenology, but I got a little tired of it around that point. The idea was for me to take a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree at the same time, but I decided I’d had it and kicked up my heels some more instead.

PF: What kind of dancing did you do?

PK: Oh, to Dixieland and Chicago-style jazz in the ’40s, and before that to a lot of Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo at the San Francisco hotels, because that was the big-band era — this was ’36 to ’40, my college years. All the big pop bands were playing at hotels then. And every night you could go dancing at some shebang. Sometimes it would be to Woody Herman, and that would be great.

RS: How many hours of sleep could you get by on at that point?

PK: Four or five. If you wanted pleasure enough, you’d cut down on sleep, because that’s the only thing you can cut down on. (Laughs)

RS: Was this partly being off on your own?

PK: No. I was also a serious student, and I was working as a teaching assistant and reader at Berkeley. I was correcting papers for seven courses a semester and going half blind. But I was spending an awful lot of time in conversation and dancing, too. And going to a lot of movies.

PF: At what age did you feel the urge to write?

PK: Well, writing criticism came relatively late, much later than for most of my friends. It was the orgy of all the talk with Robert Horan at college that somehow finally got me out of the notion I had of going to law school. I suddenly couldn’t face law school and all that dry material when I was getting so excited by everything else. I wrote some pieces with Horan — essays. They were quite funny, but nobody published them. Maybe they were over-witty, because the two of us would build on each other’s jokes, and they just got wilder and wilder.

I got interested in playwriting after college and wrote plays fairly intensively for a number of years but was very discouraged at the difficulty of getting them on. Stanford was going to put one on; they had it in rehearsal. But the students decided they wanted to do something of Giraudoux’s instead — they wanted clowns and jugglers. So I didn’t get anywhere. But I actually think I was not too bad. (Laughs)

RS: What sorts of plays were they — comedies?

PK: No, they weren’t comedies, I’m afraid. Damn, they should have been. There was probably too much soul-wrestling. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m not more impressed by Ingmar Bergman. I did my own share of soul-wrestling, and it’s not too tough to do.

When I started doing movie pieces, all this interest in the arts clicked together, as if I’d found my medium. And maybe because I didn’t take it too seriously it was easier for me to find my voice and my tone; I wasn’t inhibited the way I was in other art forms. Writing about movies, you could be playful, you could be colloquial, you could be American. Whereas writing plays, you were struggling to express yourself, and it was altogether more painful and less entertaining for other people.

PF: What about your radio work?

PK: Well, that was in the ’50s, after I’d published a few movie pieces. Weldon Kees, who was a well-known poet and man around the arts at the time — and a good friend — had a struggling radio show on a commercial station in the Bay Area, and he asked me on as a guest. Later the Pacifica radio people asked if I’d like to record some pieces I’d written. And the they asked me if I’d like to review regularly. It was hell in some ways because I didn’t have any money and they didn’t pay at all. They didn’t even pay my way into the movies.

So I was doing a weekly show for no money. I had a small child, and it was very rough. I had a loyal following in the Bay Area, with people buying my tapes and talking about them, but I didn’t get any work on the East Coast out of it.

PF: Was it a shock to move from San Francisco, with all of its sensual pleasures, to New York?

PK: Well, I was in New York briefly during the early ’40s. A lot of people that I met in that period took me to amazing things. Gian-Carlo Menotti took me to the Met for the first time, and it was Ezio Pinza in “Don Giovanni.” I saw Marlon Brando in “Truckline Cafe.” I had some great experiences. And I had some absurd experiences.: Samuel Barber took me to Radio City Music Hall for the first time, and we saw “Mrs. Miniver”! (Laughs) It was ghastly, and we sat there staring at each other in horror.

PF: You lived in New York for a couple of years?

PK: I lived in New York for about three years, and then I went back to the West Coast until 1965, when I published “I Lost It At the Movies” and came East to write for Life and other magazines. And in ’65 it took a lot of writing to pay the rent. That year I was on a plane, going to give a lecture, and a husband and wife were sitting across the aisle from me. She was reading me in Mademoiselle and he was reading me in Holiday, and then they swapped magazines. It was very cheering, but it was also sort of scary, because I was writing in half a dozen magazines in the same month.

RS: How have your work habits changed over the years?

PK: Well, I don’t work all night anymore. During my early years at The New Yorker, when I was writing long pieces every week, I would often stay up all night to finish something for the deadline day. And I would see very beautiful dawns. But also you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you stagger toward your bed. (Laughs) Then the phone starts ringing three hours later. And people who phone you in the morning just laugh when you say, “I just got to bed.” They think you’re some lazy bum.

Mainly I get to work earlier in the day now. It used to be that, writing weekly, I was rushing to movies. And sometimes I didn’t find the movie I wanted to write about till the night before the copy was due, so I just splattered it out. In many ways that’s the truest reaction you’ll ever get. But even so, I can’t do that anymore. I can’t use the words that come to me most readily, because those phrases have become stale. So now if friends use a good term in describing a movie, I say, “Can I use that?” Because I think, Gee, it’s different from what I would say — that’s great.

RS: Do you have any regrets about your career or about your writing over the years? Do you wish you had started earlier or had gone about things differently?

PK: Oh, well, I did start fairly early; I just didn’t have a livelihood to sustain it. I published my first pieces before I managed theaters. But I had to manage theaters to make a living, and do programming for colleges and a lot of other jobs. By the time I got hired at The New Yorker I was almost 50. And so, yes, I regret all the years and energy that went into crummy jobs and trying to sustain life. On the other hand I probably gained a certain amount of experience and breadth from them. But there’s no question in my own mind that I could have done more as a writer had I gotten an earlier start, when I had all that crazy energy.

RS: Do movies stand in a different relation to the culture as a whole now?

PK: Yes, I think they do. In the ’60s and ’70s movies played an adversarial role in the culture. And a lot of middle-aged and elderly people were very offended when they went to the movies. The language was freer than they liked. There was an easygoing, comic attitude toward American patriotism, a more easygoing attitude toward sex relations. The older people stayed away from a lot of movies, and when they did go they often claimed they didn’t understand them, because movies moved faster and were more elliptical. So movies became sort of the enemy. Now they are definitely not the enemy. I wish they were.

PF: When I was in college my friends and I would go to movie marathons — we’d go to see five Kurosawa films. Kids don’t seem to do that now.

PK: Now they see things on VCRs, but they’re probably not having orgies of Kurosawa. (Laughs) There are people who use VCRs well. But it isn’t the same thing as sharing that excitement with an audience. There’s no way of discussing a film when it’s not affecting the whole culture at the same time. That was always part of the excitement of movies. You went to a restaurant and you’d hear everybody in the next booth talking about the same movie you’d seen two days before, which you’d been arguing about. And with VCRs movies don’t stay in your mind the same way. You need the big screen.

PF: How has your reviewing changed over the years?

PK: I felt an excitement about writing about movies, particularly in the late ’60s and the first half of the ’70s — the period when Altman made one terrific movie after another, when Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma were doing sensational work, when Bertolucci was coming through. The movies fed my senses then. I had the feeling that all I was trying to do was keep up with what was going on in movies.

The director I left out just now was, of course, Godard. It was Godard who got me hired at The New Yorker, indirectly. William Shawn, who had seen some of the Godard films and realized that something new was going on in them, read me in The New Republic, where I expressed my excitement about them, and wanted me in The New Yorker.

RS: Imagine that! William Shawn was interested in Godard films!

PK: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Shawn had a vast interest in what was going on in the arts. And when he saw something going on he reacted with great intensity.

Godard represented the big turning point in ’60s movies. While college students were talking about Bergman the new voice was Godard. I felt tremendous excitement at almost every Godard film right up through “Weekend.”

There are still movies that come along where you feel something’s going on with the individual artist. Blier’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” was exciting to write about. So was “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” But when Coppola and Altman and Scorsese were breaking through, they spoke to what was going on in the country. And so the act of writing criticism wasn’t just talking about whether the movie was any good. You were talking about what the movie meant, how you felt about it, what it stood for.

In general I’m looking for something that shows some talent, some freshness. You can see what I mean by analogy to literature. Suppose you were one of the first people who read “Middlemarch” — you’d want to tell people about it. That’s how I felt about “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville” and “Godfather II.” I wanted to say, “Look what’s going on here!” That doesn’t happen much right now in movies. There’s something rather paralyzing in the culture.

PF: You’ve spoken in the past about a particular kind of excitement that you can get from a good American film.

PK: Well, I respond to American films when they’re good in a way that’s much more direct than the way I respond to foreign films. It makes sense that we want films that represent American culture, especially since it has a kind of crazy energy. There’s a particular kind of humor and a speed that we get in a good American film. You get it in, say, “The Lady Eve,” the Preston Sturges comedy. I’ve never seen a European comedy that gave me the kind of buzz that “The Lady Eve” did when I first saw it.

American movies are pop for us in a way that foreign films rarely are. That’s the fun of Almodóvar; he has that pop element in his work, because he’s so influenced by American movies.

PF: I know you enjoy Almodóvar’s films. Did you enjoy the work of Charles Ludlam?

PK: I loved Charles Ludlam. I once took Claude Jutra, the French Canadian director, down to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And Claude said, “This is theater.” And he had tears streaming out of his eyes, he laughed so hard. I loved Charles Ludlam’s shows, and I thought there was a real craft and polish and crazy elegance in what he was doing. And, of course, it’s like Almodóvar. Almodóvar has the resources of movies, but he basically has that feeling for a company, too. It’s a wonderful kind of theater because you can do mad, excessive things and the audience digs it because they’ve grown up on the same cultural references you have.

RS: You always seem to be able to enjoy the campier side of show business and art.

PK: It’s a basic element in any theatrical art. It’s so vital to theater, that campiness. Maybe being able to make fun of what you’re doing is so much a part of the sophistication of theater and movies. It’s what’s fun in something like “Tequila Sunrise.” There’s just enough …

RS: Overripeness?

PK: Overripeness, sure. People want to regard that as decadence. As if any mention of Charles Ludlam were a tribute to trivia. A lot of people don’t really get it. Or they think you’re making some bow to the gay readership. And it’s not that. It’s subversive — in the sense of making fun of dull, proper values. And it’s much wider than the gay readership.

Part of the fun for many of us — you see it now if you look at old movies of the ’30s — is that extravagance of gesture, doing things to excess. Every emotion is made bright. And it helps us satirize ourselves, helps put our own emotions in perspective, because they are so overdramatized. I think that growing up at the movies you get a sense of perspective on yourself through the campiness of what you enjoy.

I don’t think I could have a close friend who didn’t respond to the craziness of certain kinds of theatrical art, who didn’t enjoy that kind of ripeness. I’ve generally become friends with people because we laughed at the same things. And we’re laughing at ourselves, at our responsiveness to this phenomenon.

It’s a way, also, of not taking the arts too seriously. It’s one of the things that I’ve tried to write about and that readers get most indignant about, because they feel you’re not being a cultivated, serious person if you talk about your pleasure at silliness, at lushness. But if I see a “Jean de Florette,” I die with boredom. I can’t sit there and watch Gérard Dépardieu playing a hunchback and not have people realize how ridiculous it is to have a tall hunchback. That’s the kind of thing Charles Ludlam played to supreme extravagance. When I was a child I loved John Barrymore because of his buffoonery. He was always making fun of himself.

PF: So it’s safe to say that you don’t go to the movies for self-improvement?

PK: Self-improvement and art don’t really belong together. If art opens your eyes and opens your senses that’s something else. I do think that a great movie makes you experience things more intensely. But that intense thing often comes to you via extravagance.

RS: Since the Bertolucci-Blier years, the “Last Tango,” “Get Out Your Handkerchief” years —

PK: I wouldn’t put those in the same class. I think “Last Tango” really is extraordinary and stands by itself, even in terms of Bertolucci’s work. In the same way that Godard and Altman each burned up the screen for a period, with a whole series of movies, I think Bertolucci did it faster. “Before the Revolution,” “The Conformist,” “Last Tango” — nothing he’s done since has had that kind of lush excitement, or the total involvement, or the freedom. “The Last Emperor” has a kind of simple flow to it, but the passion seems to be missing.

PF: It must be hard to sustain the kind of energy that went into those early films.

PK: Well, filmmaking is peculiarly a burning-out medium. I think it takes so much out of you because you can express so much of yourself. There are very few directors who haven’t burned out.

Peckinpah kept going longer than most. Of course, he didn’t live very long, really, but there was a crazy excitement burning in that man. He was the least theoretical of them all, and I think that accounts for it. He often thought that he was saying things in movies that weren’t what he was expressing at all. What came through were his feelings, not the meanings he intended to put there. He became rather spiteful in many ways, but he was an amazingly gifted man. It was a great pity that because of the violence in some of his movies he became a figure that the American press loved to jeer at. And he played along with that, in a way. But, you know, you can become perverse if you’re treated stupidly enough for a long time and hampered in doing what you want to do. It doesn’t take much to get hold of a pencil. But people who really want to work in movies, and who are as passionately addicted to it as Peckinpah, are in a terrible position. They’re at the mercy of a lot of people who basically hate them.

PF: You knew Peckinpah. How good was he at making enemies?

PK: He would spot the weakness in people and really twist the knife. On the other hand he was generous, wonderful. He was a very civilized man in many ways and an utter monster in other ways. And those things are not unusual in a movie director.

RS: A moviegoer interested in movies for their erotic possibilities can find himself looking in odd directions these days, like Diane Keaton’s performance in “The Good Mother.”

PK: Well, Diane Keaton is one of the rare actresses who’ve had one role after another that was sexual. Debra Winger has brought sexual elements into her performances in some movies, too. And Jessica Lange. I think those three are the best young actresses on the American screen. They’re the ones whose work I go to see with the most excitement. Keaton astonishes me, because in movie after movie she does daring sexual, revealing things. And then she’ll do something that’s unbelievably inventive, like her performance in “Crimes of the Heart.” And in “The Good Mother” she goes totally out on a limb. She’s probably the finest young American actress we’ve got. But then Debra Winger or Jessica Lange will come along and do something, and I’ll say she’s the finest. (Laughs)

But Michelle Pfeiffer really is extraordinary, too. She’s so crystalline in her beauty, she’s such a vision, that people may not recognize what a talented actress she is. I loved her in “Natica Jackson,” that little film she did on television from a John O’Hara story.

PF: What did you learn during your stay in Hollywood in 1979?

PK: I learned how many good scripts there were that weren’t going to be made or were going to be made in such a distorted form that no one would ever know how good they’d been. For myself I learned how much fun it was not to have deadlines and to spend time with young writers. And I learned how scared people were of me. People treated me as if I were a high priestess!

But I began to miss writing. I got the sense that my mind was going to sleep. Because you would talk to a writer about his script, or a director about his plans, and you would have to say the same thing the next day because they get so obsessed and nervous and tense that nothing fully sinks in. And you just keep repeating yourself.

Of course, when I talk about the good scripts going begging it has to be understood that my idea of a wonderful script doesn’t necessarily mean a script that would please the public. I can’t pretend that the pictures I like are hits. A great many of them are not. Some of the pictures I’ve loved the most in the last decade have been only marginal successes or box-office disasters — “Shoot the Moon,” “Melvin and Howard,” “Citizens Band,” “Pennies From Heaven” … These pictures failed. Yet there’s some glory for the executives in having done them.

PF: You once wrote that lousy movies left you with an appetite for facts and information, and real people and real events.

PK: Yes. Every once in a while there’s a film like “Thy Kingdom Come,” and there’s a purity in the excitement you feel, because you’re seeing the complexities of people’s emotions — the people who get caught up in the fundamentalist movements. What you rarely get from a documentary is the aesthetic kick or the pop kick that you also go to movies for. Unless it’s a very great documentary, like, say, Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad,” it may not have much in the way of aesthetic dimensions. Or, if it does, as in “The Thin Blue Line, possibly you resent them — at least I did. It’s a beautifully made film, but the beautifully made element in it works against the subject. You feel the director is aestheticizing a factual situation instead of approaching it more simply. There’s something morally offensive in that approach, I think.

PF: Are you a news watcher?

PK: Yes, I’m a news freak. I catch the 6:30 news on one network and the 7 o’clock on another. I watch CNN hearings. I love watching news. Or else I’m obsessed with it — I don’t know which.

RS: I have trouble getting through the way the news is presented. Do you fight that?

PK: Oh, sure, it’s a parody, the way they all say the most obvious things, when what you see in a few seconds of footage contradicts what they’re telling you. It’s quite incredible to hear the vacuous lines that come out of the news readers’ mouths.

PF: Is that part of the fascination for you?

PK: Yeah, because you’re watching these people crippling and strangling the news, and when they do have a great event and can’t miss with it — when it’s an earthquake or something of that sort — each network will concentrate on the same pathetic figures. They manage to pull your emotional strings so blatantly that you want to smack them one. Except for “Wiseguy,” which I really enjoy, and “L.A. Law” sometimes, I can’t watch series television. But I can watch the news endlessly, because there’s always enough new happening to keep me fixated, and there’s always this rage at the way it’s presented.

RS: Can movies be made now with the kind of honesty of De Palma’s “Blow Out”?

PK: Well, the box-office failure of “Blow Out” was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta — it’s just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It’s as if people get penalized for sophistication. I think that’s true of Altman — he got ornery. Like Peckinpah, Altman became difficult to deal with, but at the same time the man is a genius, and he came through with a string of the greatest films ever made in this country, so you’d think people would put up with his orneriness. The studio executives don’t mind somebody ornery if he’s a mediocrity, because they understand the terms in which he’s functioning.

PF: I find “The Untouchables” depressing, because it’s as if De Palma acceded to the Reagan era’s nostalgia for heroes, whereas “Blow Out” was a personally felt expression of what’s going on in this country.

PK: I think De Palma’s script for “Blow Out” is infinitely superior to the David Mamet script for “The Untouchables.” The script for “The Untouchables” is square. But, on the other hand, that squareness did make it possible for De Palma to reach a big audience, and he did direct it marvelously. De Palma’s a ranking American director who had never been given his due. Just in human terms you have to be glad when somebody good comes to the fore. People don’t sell out or give in to the system or anything like that quite as simply as we thought when we were kids.

PF: Are there movies you really can’t justify enjoying or writing about?

PK: Damn it, if I enjoy it, it seems to me I’d better be able to write about it. It would be dishonest to enjoy something and not admit it. If you laugh all the way through a comedy and then write a pan, something is wrong with you. You have to be able to believe in yourself enough to be truthful about how you react.

PF: Should everyone trust their instincts?

PK: I can’t speak for everybody on that; I think a lot of people have lousy instincts. (Laughs) But to be a critic it sure helps to be able to trust your instincts. What else have you got? If you don’t trust your instincts maybe you’re in the wrong profession.

RS: Couldn’t somebody argue that the other thing you have is your taste?

PK: But tastes become instinctive. Your instincts aren’t something apart from your knowledge and your education and your tastes. Your instincts are everything you know acting together immediately, viscerally.

PF: Is it possible that a critic could not have great taste and still show us something about the medium?

PK: Yes, there are critics whose judgments are way off but whose perceptions of a movie are quite stunning. I’ll read a review and think the person is blind to what the narrative is doing, but he’ll describe certain details and I’ll think, Gee, I took that in and yet I didn’t fully register what it meant. In many ways, the perceptions and the observations are more important than the judgments. We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn’t fully grasp when we saw the work. The judgments we can usually make for ourselves.

©1989 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Denis Dutton

Denis at UCSB

By Ray Sawhill

Denis Dutton, editor of the popular Web site Arts & Letters Daily, has the kind of damn-the-torpedoes, strapping intellectuality that figures like Camille Paglia, Robert Hughes and John Searle do. Over dinner with him, trying to keep up with his knowledge and ideas about wine, Glenn Gould, Kant and evolutionary psychology, you can feel like Boswell invigorated by the company of Dr. Johnson.

Dutton, 56, grew up in Los Angeles, got his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, spent time in India with the Peace Corps (he still twangs away at his sitar on occasion) and eventually accepted an appointment to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. A gleeful contrarian, he edits the academic journal Philosophy and Literature, and in 1996 founded the Bad Writing Award. A thinker who prefers to measure his thoughts against what actually exists, he once took time out to live with the wood carvers of the Sepik River region of New Guinea to learn what art, craft and beauty mean to them.

Arts & Letters Daily has been one of the Web’s surprise hits, a text-heavy site that consists of little but one long scrolling page — technologically, it’s about as un-cutting-edge as can be. On it are found no animations or applets, just links to articles and essays published elsewhere, with teaser paragraphs describing the highlighted articles. The site caught on quickly as a kind of unofficial “best of the Web.” (Full disclosure: A few of my Salon pieces have been highlighted by ALD.) For readers interested in ideas and the arts, the site, which was purchased by the journal Lingua Franca in November 1999, is like a daily digest assembled by brainy, freewheeling grad students.

Now Dutton — the scholar as Internet impresario — has struck again, founding the online publishing house Cybereditions, dedicated to making available worthwhile scholarly books that had fallen out of print. Cybereditions offers them up as e-books, HTML downloads and print-on-demand paperbacks. I caught up with Dutton by phone, as he took a break between a meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics and an e-book conference in New York. As always, the conversation hit the ground running.

Denis Dutton sunset

Ray Sawhill: You just attended a conference of estheticians. How is the concept of beauty doing these days?

Denis Dutton: I think the idea of the social construction of beauty — this idea that beauty is simply whatever culture or society says it is — is on the run. Of course, beauty does arise in a cultural context. No one ever denies that. But there’s also a natural response people have to it.

RS: But wouldn’t it be fair to say that an enjoyment of haute cuisine and Bach generally comes only with an education?

DD: Sure. It’s clear on the one hand that an education enriches and informs a response to beauty, even makes it possible in esoteric cases. On the other hand, there’s no question that someone with no musical education whatsoever might wander into a concert hall and be overwhelmed by the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony. Any theory of esthetics that ignores these two sides of the appreciation of beauty is missing something important. I feel that as a young person in the Peace Corps I was too impressed by cultural differences and didn’t look closely enough at similarities. Evolutionary psychology is a terrific corrective to the idea that we’re all purely products of culture.

RS: When did you start Arts & Letters Daily?

DD: I designed it in July of 1998. It first went live on Sept. 28 of that year. The design of the page is based on an 18th century broadsheet.

RS: Why?

DD: The 18th century broadsheet tries to pack the maximum content on the minimum amount of paper. So I took that classically simple idea and turned it into a Web page.

RS: I imagined it had something to do with your enjoyment of clashing points of view.

DD: I do like the idea that there’s a range of views on the page, and all sorts of competing voices.

RS: How quickly did people discover the page?

DD: It took off very fast. These days, we’re often above 20,000 visitors per day. As with most Internet sites, weekends have smaller numbers, and Friday isn’t as big as Monday.

RS: What do you know about your readers?

DD: They’re the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and the New Republic — people interested in ideas. One of the things that pleases me about the Internet is that people have for a long time idealized the ’50s and 1960s as some kind of golden age of journalism. With three networks and every city having a monopoly morning daily — as if that were a golden age! For diverse points of view and open, robust criticism, things have never been better than they are today.

RS: What has been the most controversial piece you’ve linked to?

DD: A couple of times when we had some pieces that were excellent, sober, scholarly articles from the magazine Christianity Today, these seemed to get up some readers’ noses. People who wouldn’t think twice about something out of Commentary were objecting that we were publishing out of Christianity Today. They seemed to think we were somehow forcing religion down people’s throats.

RS: What have you learned from your readers?

DD: One thing that surprises me is that people are not necessarily looking for short pieces. Many of our most popular items have actually been quite long. This challenges the idea that everything on the Internet ought to be short and sharp. People are also looking for longer, meditative pieces that provide an occasion for thinking.

RS: There is an audience out there for high-end material. You don’t hear much about them.

DD: It’s all supposed to be shallow glitz.

RS: In the media biz it’s taken for granted that magazines have to work a niche market. Yet if your site has a theme, it’s variety.

DD: We’re very conscious of that. The site is intended to expand the reader’s sphere of interest. It’s a grave mistake in publishing, whether you’re talking about Internet or print publication, to try to play to a limited repertoire of established reader interests. A few years ago Bill Gates was boasting that we’ll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let’s expand ourselves intellectually.

RS: I know people who love your site but scratch their chins, because they can’t figure out your point of view. They want to know your agenda.

DD: [laughs heartily] I heard recently about a British Marxist who finds that the site enrages him. But he can’t help but look at it every day. We’re reacting against cant and clichés wherever we find them. Whatever’s prevalent in the universities and among the chattering classes is sometimes something that needs exploding. And we’re willing to throw the dynamite. On the other hand, there are certainly many items on Arts & Letters Daily that present a fairly standard line that educated people take on many issues. A vegetarian gun-control advocate who opposes capital punishment is fine. But what pricks my interest more is the vegetarian anti-capital punishment cowboy who carries three shotguns displayed in the back window of the cab of his truck.

RS: Let’s talk about Cybereditions. Book publishing is such a nutty field. Why would a professor of philosophy want to get involved?

DD: My parents were in the book business, my brothers still run the Dutton bookstores in Los Angeles and I’ve been interested in editing books and journals all of my life.

RS: When did Cybereditions go up?

DD: It’s been selling books off its site since the middle of this year. We have about 30 titles in process right now, and we’re hoping to raise that number to over 100 in a couple of months. Books have been going out of print at the rate of 30-40,000 a year for the last 40 years. So Cybereditions takes high-quality, out-of-print books that the authors have the rights to and does a new edition where possible. Some of our books are unchanged from the original edition, but most are in some way updated.

RS: What are your bestsellers?

DD: Frederick Crews’ book “Skeptical Engagements” has been selling, Norman Holland’s book “Poems in Persons” has been selling. And Mark Turner’s “Death Is the Mother of Beauty” has been popular. We recently acquired Ihad Hassan’s “The Postmodern Turn,” and Brian Boyd’s first book on Nabokov’s “Ada.”

RS: As successful computer people are beginning to kick back a little, are they becoming more interested in the cultural applications of the technology and the money?

DD: A couple of years ago it was impossible to interest people in the computer world in anything that used the dreaded word “content.” If it wasn’t a switch that made something go faster or some kind of whizbang program, they weren’t interested. Cybereditions is an application of computer technologies to a very traditional business. Book publishing is and always was, as Jason Epstein has said, a cottage industry. It’s a matter of authors working with editors to produce books that are useful to readers. There’s no way to mass-produce good editorial work. And good books are no more going out of fashion than good stories or good food. We have found backing in Silicon Valley, though it’s very modest.

RS: Authors tell me that, now that publishing houses are aware of electronic publishing, they won’t let rights revert to authors anymore. The publishers are refusing to admit that books have gone out of print.

DD: That’s exactly right. This is going to enrich a lot of lawyers. Ask the publishers for the rights, and they’ll dawdle and claim a book is simply out of stock. At the same time, there are thousands of authors who, before all this, when they were told their books were out of print, simply took the rights back. So there’s a huge field that Cybereditions can work with even if the current publishing scene is not entirely friendly to a new entrant.

RS: What rate do you pay?

DD: We pay up to 40 percent of what we net, and with electronic downloads that can be done.

RS: Does Cybereditions have a physical location somewhere?

DD: The server’s in Santa Clara, Calif. The company doing the editing is in Christchurch, New Zealand. The technical people are there too. We’ll be using contract editors all over the world. Our authors will certainly come from everywhere. It is a New Zealand corporation, but with international investment. And the print-on-demand books will be done, mostly, in the U.S.

RS: How do you react to the new Gemstar e-book readers?

DD: The quality of the devices is excellent. But Gemstar is intent on controlling and licensing what the devices can actually be used for. Rather than using an open format, which allows you to use any file of your own, you can only read what you download either through their site, or what is licensed by them.

RS: A lot of commercial publishers are high on Gemstar’s approach.

DD: If this is the future of electronic publishing, I think you can count most readers out. Who would have bought a television set in 1955 if it turned out that the television-set manufacturer controlled what programs you could watch?

RS: What kinds of opportunities does electronic publishing offer someone interested in scholarly publishing?

DD: For one thing, it changes the concept of the book. Normally a book comes out in a final finished edition. Perhaps years later a second edition follows. But an electronic book can be continually revised, more like a computer program than a printed book. You can have an initial edition, then make some corrections — that’s edition 1.01. Some more and you have edition 1.02. Right up to a really new edition, and that’s version 2.0.

RS: Everything becomes software.

DD: We can continually update. Another thing: Traditionally, the book is published and sits out there alone and undefended while the critics pick it apart. With e-publishing, a scholar who’s worked for years on a book can now come out with a revised edition answering critics. We think that the idea that writers can now answer their critics is very important. That’s why we’ve registered the domain name booksthatbiteback.com.

RS: So much of what gets said about electronic publishing is about how the floodgates will finally be opened and the native genius of the people will finally be released.

DD: I sing the praises of the many contrary points of view that are available on the Web. The downside is that much of the material that’s available on the Web is unedited and self-indulgent. More than ever, the Web demands good editors who can knock writing into line and make it serve readers rather than the egos of writers.

RS: Internet utopians tend to use the term “gatekeeper” as a synonym for “devil.” As a publisher, what’s your view of the role of gatekeepers in the Internet world?

DD: The old libertarian paranoia about gatekeepers is passé. Gatekeeping is impossible on the Internet anyway. What we do need, as much today as ever in the past, are intelligent editors and publishers who can be relied on to select the best material.

RS: We need guidance.

DD: And guidance of that sort isn’t manipulation. It’s entirely rational, and an economic use of time.

RS: In a way that’s what the canon is — guidance.

DD: The classical canon is a great way to begin an open-ended reading list. It was never intended as a straitjacket, nor should it be.

RS: You’re an egghead who has created an intriguing business. What have you learned about the business world?

DD: Many of the people I’ve encountered, particularly in the computer industry in California, are some of the smartest and most imaginative people I’ve ever met. And one has to laugh a bit sadly at academics who look down their noses at people who happen to have done well in the computer industry.

RS: I’ve always been amazed by the way some academics seem to think that they’re smarter than everyone else.

DD: I once read that people with Ph.D.s in fact have slightly lower IQs than people with M.A.s. Apparently, a lot of really smart people feel, once they’ve got the M.A., enough of this, I’m out of here. And some people who go on to get the Ph.D. have a kind of stupid doggedness. As a Ph.D. myself, I suppose I might admit it takes one to know one! Even so, you also find some of the best minds in the world in academia.

RS: Are there assumptions academics make about businesspeople you’d like to shake them out of?

DD: The usual leftoid malarkey — that the business people are only interested in profit, really, while we academics worry about the good of the world, and whether our four-month vacations might be reduced to three and a half.

RS: I left academia in the late ’70s. Bring me up to date.

DD: There’s a very serious divide that’s developed in the academic community. The science departments have remained strong. And those departments such as psychology or economics that have tried to give an empirical base to their research and teachings have remained lively and productive.

The sad story is over in the English department. English as a discipline has been reduced to a laughingstock by its adoption of cultural studies as its central focus. In a sense you can see how it happened. The students don’t want to read long, hard, old books. And many faculty members find it unrewarding to teach classic literature to recalcitrant students. But to rescue the situation by turning to politicized readings of comic books, soap operas and the media has been a big mistake. Of course, there are still holdouts for real quality — Bard College is a notable example. But increasingly they’re an embattled minority.

RS: The radicalism of the cult-studies approach seems to go hand in hand with a complete caving-in to commercialism.

DD: Yes. There’s an odd way in the which the left, by trying to remain avant-garde, has gleefully adopted commercialism as the only reality — playing perfectly into the hands of the philistine right. Realistically, we have to understand that there’s always a considerable percentage of students who are not given to independent thought, and who rather enjoy being told how to talk about their favorite soap operas in deconstuctionist jargon. In any society there are people who are easily led.

RS: I’ve run into a syndrome among some younger people recently. At about the age of 30, they start to realize they were brainwashed instead of given an education. And only then do they start to wake up from it.

DD: So long as you have contrarian sources of news and information, hope is not lost for intellectual independence. And we’d love Arts & Letters Daily to be the meeting place for critical thinkers from all over the map.

RS: A novelist who has also taught at colleges told me that the people who are really interested in reading and writing are leaving English departments and going into creative-writing departments instead.

DD: So the abiding classical interest in great prose and how it gets made will persist. It will just be reborn in another department.

RS: You aren’t a pundit bemoaning the end of culture!

DD: All of these interests can go only temporarily into eclipse, because they’re permanent human concerns. I’m a democratic optimist — I live in the belief that the more information people have, the more they can be trusted to make the right choices.

  • Arts & Letters Daily.
  • I’m sad to report that Denis died near the end of 2010. Here’s the obit of Denis that the New York Times ran.
  • At Denis Dutton’s personal website you’ll find a rich selection of essays and links.
  • In 2008, Dutton pulled his thoughts about art, culture, and Darwinism together in “The Art Instinct.” Buy a copy of this influential and thought-provoking book.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

David Carson

david carson head shot

By Peter Plagens and Ray Sawhill

Now read this — or try to, anyway: words in oddly mixed capitals and lowercase with some letters blurred, overlaid on photographs or crammed into little tilting boxes. That’s just a magazine page, which at least stands still. Try TV: the same, except everything moves — in and out, up and down, over and under — to the sound of giant gears grinding and a voice-over hustling Hardee’s burgers or Glendale Federal’s friendlier checking accounts. (Hitting the MUTE button doesn’t stop the sell; the type keeps on coming.) You start to feel like a top gun with a MiG in his sights, doing a barrel roll at 900 mph.

If you can read any of it, you’re probably under 50. If you really like it, you’re most likely under 30 and recently weaned from your skateboard. And if you dig it enough to stand in line and pay $10 to hear the designer of all this give a lecture, you might be a starry-eyed student at New York’s Cooper Union or Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, and David Carson has been your graphics hero since you subscribed to the magazine Ray Gun. Like, you’re probably carrying a just-bought copy of Carson’s and Lewis Blackwell’s new book (with a foreword by Carson client David Byrne) “The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson” (Chronicle).

Carson, a 40-year-old former professional surfer, stumbled into graphic design when he was 24 and teaching high school on the West Coast. He came across an advertisement for a two-week design course for high-school seniors and decided to catch that wave. Then his grandmother staked him to commercial art school in Oregon. He stayed all of six months. Carson pestered art directors at surfer magazines until one finally let him intern for free until somebody else was fired. Carson temporarily left Del Mar, Calif., to do short stints at Self and Musician. But he first hit his stride at Transworld Skateboarding. “They had 200 pages every month, in full color, and no budget restrictions,” Carson recalls. “I had an audience that wanted something experimental.”

Equipped with a conveniently inadequate design education (“There’s a conformity that comes out of some of the schools,” Carson says), he changed the public face of graphic design. The pre-Carson problem, as one designer puts it, was that “the modernist grid subverts the personality of the designer to the primacy of the corporate.” Carson shattered the nice, clean, readable grid, scattered headlines and text across overlapping photos, and raised illegibility to an art form. (Carson says that “overall people are reading less,” and he’s merely trying to “visually entice them to read.”) At Transworld Skateboarding and then Surfer, he worked improvisationally. “His work reflects his work habits — disarray,” says Joni Casimiro, his successor at Surfer, with admiration. Once, he accidentally cut his finger on an X-acto knife. He decided he liked the drops of blood that fell on the layout, and left them in the final design.

Transworld Skateboarding wasn’t the most mainstream publication, and neither were the two magazines Carson completely designed himself — Beach Culture and Ray Gun. But they appeared when such companies as Nike and Levi Strauss were looking for ways to make their ads appeal to the generation who squirrel into 7-Elevens on skateboards and say, “Make that two Big Gulps, dude.” They hired Carson and it worked, and on more than just the plaid-shirt crowd. Carson now counts MCI, Ray-Ban and Jaguar among his clients. He’s gone bicoastal, opening a New York office and taking an East Village apartment. LiFe IS gOOD.

In the hypercompetitive design world, however, Carson has his detractors. One is Rudy VanderLans, co-owner of Sacramento’s Emigre Graphics, the Home Depot of the postmodern graphics business, and the source of many of Carson’s favorite fonts. “He’s been the Billy Idol of graphic design,” VanderLans says. “A lot of suburban kids who were afraid of the Sex Pistols could suddenly like him … He’s a ferocious promoter and he has a gigantic ego.”

Which is exactly why Ray Gun publisher Marvin Scott Jarrett fired Carson last fall. Andrew Blauvelt, who chairs the graphic-design department at Cranbrook (the Harvard Law of the field), says, “I don’t find his ads interesting at all. The ads are kind of crude. They just have the hip factor.” There are even grumblings from young designers and illustrators who feel that Carson has taken all the credit for what is essentially a collaboration with them. Carson says, “I’ve never said I’m the one who’s done the whole thing.” And in his most recent talks, he scrupulously mentions other contributors.

But cannibalism — or at least collage-ism — is in the nature of graphic designers. They take this typeface, that photograph, this copy, that illustration, and cobble together a screen, a page, an article, a magazine or a book. They’d rather quibble about who deserves credit for changing recent design history. “If you look back at the dadaists and the futurists in the 1910s,” says ARTnews design director David Walters, “they were doing things that were more unreadable.”

The first postmodernist grid-loosenings occurred in Europe a few decades ago. Americans such as Los Angeles designer April Greiman went over in the ’70s and brought back a Euro-American hybrid (lots of diagonals, lowercase type and color bars poking into the page). Typographic designers like VanderLans and Barry Deck chipped in new fonts (Deck’s oscilliscopish Template Gothic is the hit of the ’90s). But what shook tradition most was the advent, in the mid-’80s, of the Macintosh computer, whose infinitely malleable screen began to replace the pencil and T-square for most designers.

“I’d call Carson a popularizer,” says designer and historian Steven Heller. Carson concurs — with an edge: “I’m experimenting in public. At the design grad schools, these are people sitting around in groups, putting their work on a wall, analyzing it and putting it back in a drawer. I think there’s little risk in that.” Carson himself may be tiring of playing typographic bumper cars. Speak, a new Carson-designed quarterly concerned with “design, culture and a smattering of rock and roll,” debuts in April. “You’re going to see things getting cleaner now,” says Carson. Which is just what you’d expect from someone who’s jumped from a skateboard to a Jaguar.

Peter Plagens, an artist who was also Newsweek’s art critic, wrote this piece; I came up with the idea and did the reporting. I’m including the piece on this website with Peter’s kind permission.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Cannibal Culture 2

By Ray Sawhill

Over and over I hear — sometimes from young people, sometimes from video-parlor clerks — that people in their 20s won’t watch black and white movies. Yet ads and music videos aimed at young people often use black and white.

How to account for this? My guess is that it isn’t just a question of pacing. In the ads and videos, black and white is used as a sign. We read its meaning: “low-budget integrity,” “drained of affect,” “1950s glamor” — nostalgia for the childhood someone, somewhere must have had. In the old movies, black and white doesn’t need de-coding.

20somethings seem to find it inconceivable that one might move into and inhabit a language. Suggest that it’s possible, and they look at you with “what kind of dinosaur are you?” disbelief. External reality consists of a desktop to be customized, and icons to be clicked on.

Movie language, evolved during the “organic unity” modernist era, strikes young people as fit only to be parodied, referred to ironically, or shunned.

***

The baby boomers who now run the media were once known as the Movie Generation. The 20somethings, their progeny, may be the Anti-Movie Generation, even when they make movies. In their films, people wander out of frame, someone horses with a videocam, partners shift, time drizzles by. Finally, someone confesses that he feels miserable.

***

“Bodies, Rest and Motion,” “Clerks,” “Reality Bites,” and the grandaddy of the genre, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” — even the titles demand a lower-case, sans-serif typeface. There’s something abroad that’s beyond language, we’re being told. It demands diagramming-out, new thought patterns, new technologies.

***

“Late Bloomers,” by David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams, is subtitled “Coming of Age in Today’s America: The Right Place at the Wrong Time” (Times). There aren’t any surprises in the Generation X complaints it sets forth: AIDS, the deficit, divorced baby boomer parents. GenXers of the most self-conscious type — MediaSomethings — Lipsky and Abrams spend most of the book worrying about media portrayals, complaining about them in one paragraph, using them to bolster their case in the next.

***

The MediaSomethings have grown up surrounded by cameras and recording devices. They seem to want to protest against the society of the spectacle, and to be videotaped doing so.

As prose writers, the MediaSomethings have two major modes: the mock-selling (ie., commercial) style, and the no-style (ie., truth or art) style.

The commercial style seems to come equally from ads, stand-up comics, e-mail, and video jockeys. It’s raucous — full of imperatives, YO!-style attention-grabbers, dropped subjects, and invisible auxiliary verbs. It’s prose that wears its baseball cap backwards, and pushes its snout into a wide-angle lens. Entire sentences seem to turn into contractions. “Never mind those stories about … “; “So it’s gross. So what did you expect?”

***

The art style is in love with the poignancy of nothingness. Lipsky and Abrams stand firmly, or limply, in this camp. Their specialty is the forlorn, stray clause, and the whimsically dangled participle: “It wasn’t a surprise, exactly … Perhaps, in a weird way … Divorced, you see them as people … ” These are words lying immobile among dirty sheets, mourning another drab day, unable even to shut off the alarm.

***

Elements of the MediaSomething magazine style include mix-‘n’-match visuals, splatter-font typography, and tail-end-of-the-roll photos. In book-jacket design, the wan, faded-and-blurred photograph has already become a cliché. So have brackets used for no grammatical reason.

The mainstream has been quick to pick the style up. Nonsense brackets have made appearances in ads for Ikea, the discount-furniture chain. New York Magazine’s recent makeover features blocks of type crushed together, and a color-Xerox-and-video palette. When layouts first started being done on Macintoshes, the idea was to use the machines to streamline the design process. Now ads, magazines, and books are made to look like computer screens. The world inside the computer has become primary. “The trash can in your office has become an icon for the trash can on your Mac screen,” an artist friend says.

***

Another artist tells me that when he shows his students a slide of, say, a Velázquez, he can’t get them to see it as a unique work. It registers instead as “Old Master.” “To them, an image is only an example of a category of images,” he says.

***

The professor and critic Hal Foster described in the Times what he sees as a new “ethic of the loser,” and managed a good description of Nirvana’s music: “a lullaby droned to the dreamy beat of the death drive.” Still, I think he’s wrong to find only defeatism there. Not working in a media factory, he may not hear the sound — it may be a whine, but it’s a self-confident whine — of the MediaSomethings making their way.

My theory is this: the MediaSomethings were raised under the spell of victimology and deconstruction, yet they still crave stardom and sex. So they brandish not self and language, but the signs of victimhood. Hence, young guys in granny dresses and dreadlocks, young women in washed-out babydolls and tatoos.

***

A man who once did business with Kurt Cobain told me (with wry exasperation) that what isn’t understood about Cobain is how badly he wanted stardom. My theory suggests that Cobain’s suicide was the ultimate act of MediaSomething self-assertion. Bookstores are awash in new titles by and for MediaSomethings, but none have sold many copies. Why? Shannon Maughan and Jonathan Bing report in Publishers Weekly that young people prefer to buy products that blur boundaries — CD-ROMs, book-and-disc packages. A bookstore manager tells me that what he sees young people buying are books about television. One hit was “The Entertainment Weekly Seinfeld Companion.”

Publishers are still trying to find a formula, according to Maughan and Bing. Silhouette has kicked off a series of romance novels featuring “dismal entry-level jobs, credit card debts, drugs and HIV infection.” One agent has reached a sensible conclusion. Since “corporate America is obsessed with marketing to Generation X,” he said, let’s sell the books about 20somethings to the baby boomers.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Cannibal Culture 1


By Ray Sawhill

In his new “The Gutenberg Elegies” (Faber and Faber), the literary critic Sven Birkerts wants us to know how much reading and writing matter to him. Really, that’s his theme. The changeover from ink-on-paper to electronics elicits from him ruminations, intimacies, autobiographical scourings. We learn about his spells as a bookstore employee, his attempt at novel-writing, the time he met Joseph Brodsky. We learn that reading and writing matter a lot to Sven Birkerts.

It’s a fussily literary, drippy book, but that drippiness may be one of the perils of book-besottedness. We bond with some books. They can seem to speak to our most private selves. We can even feel that our autobiographies consist of the books we’ve read. (At surlier moments, we can feel that our truest autobiographies consist of the porn we’ve collected.)

We learn that Birkerts disapproves of computers, although we don’t find out why we should care. Birkerts doesn’t propose any way of putting a stop to the things, and he doesn’t assemble an entertainingly, or enlighteningly, Luddite vision. His book is finally a symptom of the mush-headedness of the bookish; what it expresses is a reverence for books per se.

My quarrel with Birkerts, who’s generally a good critic, may be a matter of temperament. I love some books; some I hate; some I like OK; most I couldn’t care less about. It’s what people do (or don’t do) with them that matters to me.

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If Birkerts is at the stern, waving a damp hankie at the native land he fears he’ll never see again, Paul Goldstein, in “Copyright’s Highway” (Hill and Wang), stands at the helm alongside the harder-headed people. We may not know what lies before us, Goldstein seems to feel, but that’s no reason not to pull out the sextant.

What makes copyright a fascinating topic right now is that digital electronics permit flawless duplication. Plug into what Goldstein calls the “celestial jukebox,” and such concepts as “uniqueness” and “authenticity” become meaningless; you’re instantly in a post-Walter Benjamin, post-Situationist, post-Derrida world. Everything’s a copy, or maybe nothing is.

Goldstein runs us through copyright’s history, compares Anglo to non-Anglo assumptions about intellectual property, and takes us inside some key recent cases (photocopying, sampling). His theme is: what will happen to producers of intellectual property when “digital sampling shreds their works into bits and pieces, free for users to recombine into entirely different forms?”

This isn’t the book on the relations between copyright law and artistic form you may hope for, even though Goldstein pauses to comment that “copyright law indelibly colors the works it encompasses.” Still, his discussion of legal practicalities sparks off more brain circuits — even those concerned with aesthetic matters — than Birkerts’ self-scrutiny does.

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New York isn’t a bad place to watch the celestial jukebox take shape. Warner Books has given an imprint — traditionally a kind of fiefdom awarded to an editor of distinction — to the TV executive Brandon Tartikoff. He’ll be developing projects with “multi-platform” possibilities. Hyperion has paid as much as a million dollars to the brothers who created the computer game “Myst,” for a novel they have written with a collaborator. Mischievously, Catbird Press, Online BookStore and the author Floyd Kemske have been posting drafts of Kemske’s novel-in-progress on the Internet, so the public can help edit the book.

***

Vintage, in their publicity material for Camille Paglia’s “Vamps and Tramps,” include a page-long statement from James Wolcott that was found on a computer chat board. This may be the dawn of the unsolicited electro-blurb.

Paglia’s (very entertaining) book consists of articles, reviews, interviews, transcripts of TV shows she’s appeared on, even blurbs (of Gutenberg-era vintage) she’s written for other people’s books. There’s also an appendix that’s a detailed record of her ongoing assault on popular culture. (Several references are made to The Modern Review.) It has to be the most miscellaneous miscellany of all time. You might call it a multimedia extravaganza.

***

The reputation of that former godhead Sigmund Freud has fallen so low that his defenders are resorting to desperation measures. Harold Bloom, Paglia’s mentor, includes Freud among the great writers in his “The Western Canon.” Here’s his rationale: “Freud called himself a scientist, but he will survive as a great essayist like Montaigne or Emerson.” It’s almost too easy to point out that Montaigne and Emerson didn’t pretend to be scientists.

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Bloom supplies a blurb for “Freud’s Wishful Dream Book” by Alexander Welsh. Another of the book’s blurbs is from Frederick Crews, Freud’s most relentless debunker. How can this be? Welsh’s book is a lit-crit treatment of “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it’s the lit-critness of it that brings Bloom and Crews together. Bloom, eager for Freud’s scientific pretensions to be forgotten so as to get on with enshrining him as a literary genius, is delighted. Crews, eager to see those pretensions demolished so as to destroy Freud’s reputation entirely, is delighted too.

***

In “The Myth of Irrationality” (Carroll & Graf), John McCrone argues that the Freudian model of personality walks hand in hand with romanticism and modernism, and that we know too much now to see these doctrines as anything but quasi-religions. McCrone suggests that part of the appeal of Freudianism is simply that it makes life seem more dramatic. In his view, personality consists of a body — literally — of animal needs, atop which sits a cultural superstructure. Language is what connects the two; it trains the animal.

In one passage, he reviews the evidence we have of people without any culture — feral children, and untutored deaf and blind children — in order to venture an answer to the question: what do unmediated lives consist of? It turns out that when these children are hungry, they eat. When they need to crap, they crap. Occasionally they hump something. The rest of the time, they snooze, scratch, and rock on their heels. Such, it seems, may be the real beast within.

***

If appearances — as in haircuts and clothes — are any indication, no doubt can remain any more that digital media are the coming thing. The best-looking kids I’ve seen since my last trip to California were students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (the wired generation’s equivalent of film school), and employees at Voyager, a publisher of literary CD-ROMs.

Meanwhile, audiences at the New York Film Festival look seedier every year. They’re really in a rut. During the q&a sessions after screenings, the audiences asked the same questions they’ve asked for decades: how difficult a time did you have making your film? How horrible was it to get financing? There’s something almost pornographic in the festival audience’s need to do battle for the artist.

By contrast, after an evening of CD-ROM presentations, the well-groomed, bright-eyed crowd didn’t want to know how society should protect and nurture its poor artists. They wanted to know how to do this nifty multimedia stuff for themselves.

***

At another evening’s presentation — this one of rock videos — our host called the videos he was showing “subversive.” I took him to mean that he liked them. It’s a mystery why more art and entertainment-world people still haven’t caught onto the fact that the — or at least a — revolution has already occurred. With computers infiltrating work and home like invaders from Mars, there’s no need for anyone to promote deconstruction anymore. The machines are taking care of it by themselves.

An example: the place of literature within the marketplace of books. Look at the way fiction is broken down into horror, westerns, mystery, romance, literature, fiction (i.e., current literary titles), and other categories. 20 years ago that wasn’t the case. If fiction was broken down at all, it was into fiction, bestsellers and “classics.” In other words, in the typical American bookstore, right now, literature has already been de-privileged. It doesn’t represent the pinnacle of anything. It’s simply one category like any other. (Harold Bloom is probably right when he says that the battle for “greatness” has already been lost.) The reason has nothing to do with Marxist theory, and everything to do with the computerization of inventories.

***

The computer world doesn’t lack for utopians with therapeutic agendas. The faith of the digital propagandists — I think of them as the Digi-Props — is that the computer will set free the native genius of the people. (Therapist/utopians always see such energies as being released, not created.)

One Digi-Prop at a recent conference recounted her dismay at finding so very much bad writing on the Internet. A moment of bracing realism? Far from it. She told us that she finally realized that what she had encountered wasn’t poor thinking, poorly expressed. It was rich with qualities of its own. She colored slightly as she said this, but with fervor, not embarrassment. It was up to us (presumably the rightly-guilty cognitive elite) once again to reserve judgment, and (wouldn’t you know it?) to deconstruct our thinking about what constitutes “good writing.” She looked shyly beatific. She had confronted her doubts, and overcome them.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Pickford” by Eileen Whitfield and “Becoming Mae West” by Emily Wortis Leider

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Mary Pickford

By Ray Sawhill

In the early part of the century, before the movie business outgrew its seedy origins, it was one of the rare fields where an ambitious woman could hope to make a professional mark. Women wrote and directed; some stars had a measure of control over their movies that a Julia Roberts can only dream of today.

Among the most influential early film women were Mary Pickford and Mae West. In 1909, when she landed her first movie job, Pickford was just scraping by; in 1915, she was one of the world’s best-known women. Despite her winsome on-screen persona, she became the first actress to produce her own films, a cofounder of United Artists, and a major shaper of film acting. In “Pickford” (Univ. of Kentucky), a knockout of a biography on sale next month, Eileen Whitfield shows a rare gift for making sense of acting styles, and for bringing to life the world of silent movies.

Mae West was Pickford’s on-screen opposite, a sashaying cartoon of a woman of the world, appraising (and enjoying) men with self-mocking relish. Behind the scenes, she was Pickford’s match in tenacity and nerve; her producers never thought they were making anything but “Mae West movies.”

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Mae West

In her zesty “Becoming Mae West” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Emily Wortis Leider points out that by the time she barreled into movies, West had 35 years of theater and vaudeville behind her. She liked prizefighters, cross-dressers and stealing credit from collaborators. She wrote a lot of great comic lines (“I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far”) and gave them all to herself. But by the mid-’30s, Pickford had stopped acting, the business was aspiring to respectability and West’s freedom was curtailed. Since then, few actresses have managed to wield their measure of creative power.

© 1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

The Rise and Fall of An American President: Nixon in the Arts and the Media

Nixon01

By Ray Sawhill

The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?

No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.

nixon in china stage

We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.

By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.

But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.

Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.

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Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”

Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.

nixon departs white house

Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.

The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”

For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.

Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”

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Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in “Secret Honor”

Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.

But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.

Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.

Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?

Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”

By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”

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Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon”

The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.

The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)

The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.

In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.

But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.

Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”

For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.

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Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”

The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.

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At Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda

At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.

If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.

©2011 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.