As bloated Hollywood blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor and A.I. disappoint to a staggering degree this summer, foreign films without huge promotional budgets are delivering offbeat, heart-stirring cinematic experiences afflicted with one minor marketplace burden: subtitles. You'd think that an American public addicted to website scrolling, instant messaging and cell-phone menus would no longer balk at scanning words onscreen. But, no, mon Dieu, in American movie theaters, English rules! While Miramax finesses the problem with ad campaigns and trailers implying its foreign films are actually English-language (see the one for With a Friend Like Harry, for example), a trio of wonderfully genuine films are now on screens, supplying a welcome relief from the linguistic bait-and-switch game.
Hailing from Iceland, Vietnam and Taiwan, and radically different in style, all three are set within a circumscribed universe of families (one single-parent, one extended, one nuclear) beset by sexual tensions, deceit, betrayal and some decidedly odd forms of reconciliation. Plot points and character arcs come to hinge on the cold of a Reykjavík winter, the heat of a Hanoi summer and the intrusive waters of Taipei. Fierce narrative inventions combine and collide with stylistic panache. Maybe Iceland's 101 Reykjavík, Vietnam's The Vertical Ray of the Sun and Taiwan's The River are old-fashioned, for in place of digital effects and sci-fi concoctions, they expertly deliver the kind of cinematic magic that can transport an audience unreservedly into a believable and all-consuming parallel universe, only to be spat out at the end, on a summer evening, on a city street or multiplex asphalt, forever transformed.
At last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, where 101 Reykjavík had its North American premiere, first-time director Baltasar Kormakur was jazzed: His film was getting major buzz, his bar back home in Reykjavík was thriving, he had a major role in another Icelandic film at the festival and he'd just been invited into the cast of the new Hal Hartley movie, Monster. Back then, he couldn't have known that the buzz would evaporate without his landing a major distributor; luckily, New York's Film Forum has performed yet another rescue to our benefit, one that will hopefully incubate an audience.
If 101 Reykjavík has energy to burn, its protagonist most certainly does not. A slacker terminally tied to his mother's couch, Hlynur divides his time between drinking, surfing porn on the web, masturbating in his creaky bed, shagging women and visiting the unemployment office, where his surliness nearly loses him the stipend he relies on for his, um, lifestyle. Liquor virtually jump-starts the film's energy, as scenes of Iceland's younger generation partying its way into oblivion carry the same kind of freshness that Icelandic bands and singers have already brought to the global music scene. No surprise, then, that the film's soundtrack is credited to Damon Albarn, star of the Brit pop group Blur, and Einar Örn, who started the Sugarcubes with Icelandic diva Björk. The driving rhythms of the music may not be synchronized with any productive energy on the part of Hlynur, but they are indeed in pace with the sexual energies and essences that suffuse this film.
For that, there's Victoria Abril to thank. Made famous by her roles in the films of Pedro Almodóvar and other Spanish directors, Abril would seem an odd casting choice for an Icelandic film. What's she doing in Reykjavík? Why, she's playing Lola, a clever deus ex machina dropped into this frozen universe to teach flamenco dance--and set the blood of the natives on fire. Poor Hlynur! Lola is introduced as a friend of his mom's, setting the stage for a madcap sex farce, rife with mix-ups.
With Mom conveniently absent over the holidays, and Abril left to babysit mama's boy, Hlynur cannot imagine any impediment to his lusty fantasies. When Mom returns with her own agenda, though, even this jaded couch potato of a son is shocked. Mom announces proudly that she's now a lesbian and Abril is the woman of her dreams. Be happy for us, my son. And that's only the beginning.
101 Reykjavík is a straightforward sort of movie, but its unabashed innocence and stylistic aplomb are wonderfully endearing. Equally pleasing is its refusal to follow the rules of niche marketing, which would certainly prohibit a single film from aiming so broadly. A brash young heterosexual male, his masculinity mangled by a pregnant girlfriend and limited prospects, gets his comeuppance. That's one film. A middle-aged woman, responsible for aged relatives and an overdependent son, finds happiness in the arms of a foreign female. That's another. Add to that count Abril's character, an expatriate who's sick of wandering and ready for a nest, and Hlynur's girlfriend, whose pregnancy falls victim to his commitment phobia, and the mix becomes wonderfully complex. It's such a relief to find all these characters together in one movie, with a killer soundtrack to boot, that 101 Reykjavík surely deserves to be seen, if only to inspire legions of viewers to dream of Victoria Abril while stocking up on Icelandic pop and mixing a cocktail.
The time-honored trope of family gets a further, equally unpredictable workout in two Asian films from directors mining nearly opposite terrain, nationally and aesthetically.
Tran Anh Hung is a French-Vietnamese filmmaker whose early work (The Scent of Green Papaya) was suffused with nostalgia for a preliberation Vietnam, where a privileged boy romped through a fabulous manse in tandem with the child-maid in whose care he was entrusted. Shot on a soundstage in France, it was a hard sell to anyone looking for a film devoted to history, politics or modern Vietnam. As if in retaliation against his critics, Tran's next film (Cyclo) moved ruthlessly into the present, tracking the rough life of drug dealing and prostitution in the contemporary, corruption-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Now, with The Vertical Ray of the Sun, he has melded the best of both early works into a lush, poignant film, set in a near-timeless Hanoi, that traces a trio of sisters through the cycles of family relations, the vagaries of their husbands, their brother's future and finally the youngest sister's coming of age.
Public and private are fascinatingly intertwined, as are past and present. The film's action, for instance, is bracketed by two memorial observances: a banquet at the start of the film for the clan's mother and another, which they head off to prepare at film's end, for their father. In between, the fantasies and dreams of the three daughters reprise the themes of their parents' marriage in subtle ways.
Lou Reed supplies the anthem to which Lien, the youngest sister, and her beloved (too beloved, perhaps) brother Hai awaken. Other tunes haunt other locations. Visual beauty accompanies emotional shifts, from serenity to pain, from suspicion to temptation, amid shifting family fortunes. One sister suspects her husband of infidelity, another doesn't. One husband is faithful, another may not be. Nothing is quite what it seems in this romantic universe, certainly not the business trips taken by the set of husbands, with momentous results. Yet nothing is ever entirely defined either, as ambiguity itself becomes the essence of the work.
To be honest, plot is not the point here. Instead, prepare to succumb to a higher power: the shimmering essence of a Vietnamese summer. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot a great deal of Wong Kar-wai's meditative In the Mood for Love, has outdone himself. In one jewel-like shot, the surface of the water in an antique bronze bowl at the center of an adulterous liaison bubbles into a cloud of luminosity, turning the air liquid with its force. Surfaces reflect the temperature, skin shines with humidity and the languid universe of Southeast Asia claims a magnificent visual register. How ironic that the films shaping our views of modern Vietnam these days seem to be made by French--or American--hyphenated filmmakers, whose cinematic canvas has become a space for them to work out their own complicated relationships to this magnetized place. The emerald green so emblematic of Vietnam is present here, not in the sorts of battle scenes that characterized Apocalypse Now (to be re-released this month in Francis Ford Coppola's definitive director's cut) but rather in the quieter battles of a family.
It's the quotidian feel of life that is worshiped in Tran's film. Such a religious word is not out of place: The Vertical Ray of the Sun, no mere movie, is a prayer rung out across the movie palace, a benediction to the everyday, a stirring of the skin where no breeze has traveled, a visual altar upon which to gaze. Ultimately, what Tran offers is a way of experiencing life as a thing of beauty and a process of, dare I say it, enlightenment. What's important in the universe of Vertical Ray is the tenderness of life, the joy of human connection and the sense of continuity. Luckily, it's got the marketing muscle of Sony Classics behind it, beefed up with Crouching Tiger revenues, so it might just win some hearts.
The River, only now having a limited theatrical run five years after its debut, makes a completely different parable out of the common shards of parental eros, adolescent frustration and city life. More King Lear than Midsummer Night's Dream, The River continues director Tsai Ming-liang's obsession with disjointed families, isolated individuals and sparer-than-spare narratives. Instead of lush landscapes, Tsai plunges us into a cerebral world of perfect frames and rigorous compositions, where alienation becomes palpable and the physical world offers few comforts.
Ever since he first came to notice (with Vive L'Amour and Rebels of the Neon God), Taiwanese/Malaysian filmmaker Tsai has been a cinephile's favorite for his uncompromising visual minimalism and perverse goings-on. In The River, a fractured family carries out its business in near-silence, interacting like strangers. Mom is having an affair with a porn salesman, Dad is cruising for anonymous sex in gay saunas and teenage son Hsiao-kang is, well, trying to find his way to adulthood by blundering into absurd situations.
In one hilarious scene that serves as the film's central emblem, he's hired as an extra by real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui. His role? A corpse, floating in the murky waters of a local river. Afterward, he warms up with a quick sexual tryst in a hotel room with one of the production assistants. But his luck is short-lived. He soon develops a pain in his neck which may or may not be a result of his dead man's float. It gets worse and worse, even more so after a motorcycle accident that sends his neck even further out of joint and leads his mother and father on ever-escalating searches for a cure. And we, the audience, are there with them as life gets reorganized around the mysterious ailment. Soon the physical universe falls prey to maladies, too. The apartment ceiling begins to leak, occasioning another round of investigations. While his father constructs ineffective barriers and his mother performs heroic acts to stanch the flow, Hsiao-kang suffers, and suffers some more. Existentialist to the core, but never without a perverse sense of humor, The River is a minimalist masterpiece.
Admittedly, this plot summary is far more coherent than the film itself. In fact, I was halfway through the film before I realized that this was a family, before I understood that the father and mother were in fact a couple, or that the pain in Hsiao-kang's neck is not simply metaphorical, or suggestive, or a joke, but a veritable cosmology guiding the film. By the time the father and son show up, with characteristic abruptness, at the same pitch-dark gay sauna, we, the audience, thoroughly retrained by Tsai to be simultaneously saturated with anticipation and detached from narrative expectation, are ready for anything, even a terribly transgressive rewrite of the Oedipal myth.
The River ends with a spectacular rejection of film logic: We never do learn what's wrong with the poor boy's neck.
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan flattened his opponents and the religious right burst onto the national political arena, many progressives could barely believe their eyes. Only a decade before, rebellion was in the air. How could so much be lost in so little time? Observers were quick to blame the fickleness of the American electorate, right-wing backlash, a tightening of belts and the "status anxiety" of American workers. They wondered how a bunch of right-wing ideologues so far from mainstream American values could capture the nation's political will so quickly.
But conservatism wasn't an aberration, a fringe movement filled with conspiracy-theory-spouting crackpots--though it certainly had its share of them. The hippies, antiwar protesters and civil rights crusaders may have been more photogenic, but beginning in the late 1950s, thousands of "ordinary" Americans--middle-class suburbanites dedicated to the notion that government and moral laxness are the root of all evil--were hard at work in the trenches, steadily building a culture and a political movement. That this conservative movement would eventually topple the nation's liberal consensus indicated just how precarious that supposed consensus was.
Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors uses the case of Orange County, California, to tell the story of the postwar conservative "revolution," highlighting that county's pivotal role in the making of the new American right. In the process, she helps us to reimagine the 1960s as not simply a moment of leftist radicalism but one of feverish conservative mobilization as well. McGirr, a Harvard historian, begins her story in the early 1960s, when droves of Southern California housewives organized kaffeeklatches for Barry Goldwater. Only a few years earlier, William F. Buckley Jr. had begun to publish National Review, and Russell Kirk's Modern Age dedicated itself to opposing "political collectivism, social decadence and effeminacy." Orange County's conservative movement, McGirr persuasively argues, was the nucleus of a broader right-wing movement spreading through the Sunbelt and West during that period--a movement that would eventually transform conservatism from a marginal group of anti-Communist crusaders to a viable electoral contender by the decade's end.
What was it about this place, which exuded such an enormous sense of possibility, that made it such a congenial home to ideologies and politics that foreclosed so many possibilities for so many? Was it in the water? The air? McGirr locates the roots of Southern California conservatism in a variety of factors: racial and class homogeneity, affluence, social mobility and a highly privatized, socially isolated physical landscape. Throw in the cultural context of cold war America and a burgeoning network of evangelical Protestant churches, and you've got the ingredients for a potent conservative cocktail. But it took right-wing ideologues like Fred Schwarz of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and Robert Welch of the John Birch Society to give the grassroots insurgency a worldview and an organizational infrastructure.
By narrowing her focus to a particular place, McGirr is able to connect conservative ideologies to the social locations from which they sprang, painting a complex portrait of the different forces that came into play to create the neoconservative movement. Her book shares with Mike Davis's City of Quartz an attention to the importance of place, picturing Southern California as the crucible of an emergent America. Goodbye, Norman Rockwell: Middletown may be the nation's geographic center, but at least since the 1950s, the real engine of economic and cultural change has lain in the suburban subdivisions at least a thousand miles to the west.
Today the American West continues to conjure up dreams of mobility, of individualism, of becoming--which explains the shocked responses to my recent announcement that after twenty years of living in the West, I am moving back to the East Coast. The East connotes tradition, rootedness, stodginess; the West, newness. To migrate from East to West is to better oneself, to move forward, to move beyond the lot one was dealt in life; to move back suggests the opposite. How strange, then, that a place that is founded on movement, on newness, on breaking with tradition, became the home of a movement dedicated not only to untrammeled modernization but also to turn-back-the-clock notions of morality.
In reality, says McGirr, it wasn't very strange at all. Orange Countians' individualistic ethos grew out of their affluence, and their (mistaken) belief that they were self-made successes and that individual will was the only thing standing between success and failure. At the same time, their roots in small towns in the Midwest and South gave them a connection to small-town values and Protestant piety. Disneyland, "with its mixture of nostalgia for a simple American past and its bright optimism about the future," in McGirr's words, may be the supreme embodiment of this blend of modernity and tradition.
Freshly scrubbed, newly affluent Californians defined their identity in relation to Communists and East Coast "collectivists." In 1960 the conservative mobilization began when outraged Orange Countians went on a witch hunt against Joel Dvorman, who held a meeting in his backyard, having invited a speaker who publicly opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dvorman was a school-board trustee; it didn't help him that he was also New York-born, Jewish and a Yale graduate to boot. After the meeting, he was quickly denounced by angry neighbors for importing "Communist ideas" into Anaheim.
McGirr argues that Orange Countians flocked to conservative activism for good reasons--it was a worldview that resonated with their personal histories. She wants us to discard the pluralistic theories of Bell, Lipset and Hofstadter, who attributed conservatism to supposed status anxieties, persecution complexes and paranoia--psychological factors, says McGirr, that not only don't explain the overwhelming ordinariness of the grassroots conservatism but that distort reality in the process. Orange County's middle-class entrepreneurs became political entrepreneurs, spreading their vision of the Good Life, because right-wing ideas made perfectly good sense to them. Plus, in a region filled with so many new arrivals, conservative activism offered people a social outlet, a sense of community.
Suburban Warriors is a political history (unlike Davis's bricolage of politics, economics and cultural critique) that focuses primarily upon activists like Walter Knott of Knott's Berry Farm fame and elected leaders like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whom McGirr credits with mainstreaming conservative ideas and making them palatable to the masses. But the book is most compelling when it depicts the ways that conservatism permeated the culture and everyday lives of many rank-and-file Orange Countians.
Right-wing Orange County was truly a counterhegemonic culture in the making. Walter Knott headed the Orange County School of Anti-Communism, enlisting hundreds of citizens in the fight against the Red Menace. The Santa Ana Register, where most residents got their news since the 1930s, railed against spending for schools and roads and pronounced taxation "robbery." (It didn't seem to matter to them that Orange County's growth was itself fueled by massive federal military spending.) Right-wing businessmen helped to finance the publication and free distribution of magazines like the Liberty Bell and Grass Roots, which spread the conservative gospel to ordinary Orange Countians. (Women constituted at least half of the grassroots "kitchen table" activists, though they were afforded relatively few leadership roles.) Conservative activists recognized the importance of winning over the hearts and minds of citizens in a fashion that would impress even Antonio Gramsci. If they appeared at times to be snake-oil salesmen, they were also skillful organizers, imbued with a fighting spirit and a wealth of resources that have rarely been matched on the left.
Suburban Warriors is essentially a success story, charting the ever-expanding fortunes of the conservative movement in this country, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s. Orange County's success as a crucible for conservatism, McGirr skillfully argues, was rooted in the fact that it took tried and true American values of individualism and community, boldly exaggerated them and then recombined them in ways that accentuated their messy contradictions. "Strong stakes in [the] capitalist order," McGirr writes, "caused them to elide the very real market forces that challenged the material base upon which their lives were built." And still the movement thrived, for it articulated the dreams, fears and self-interests of its middle-class constituency.
McGirr's "rational choice" analysis of conservatism may hold true for conservatism's middle-class roots in places like Orange County, but it doesn't fully explain how the right has, over the past twenty years, managed to expand its base to so many Americans who share so few of the privileges of its core constituency. A couple of years ago I sat in the spare living room of a timber worker in a small Oregon community who told me that he regularly donates money to the wealthy Heritage Foundation, which opposes public restrictions on corporate power, though he fears that he may lose his job because of corporate downsizing. How can we make sense of the apparent contradictions at the heart of much working-class conservatism, particularly among white working-class men? McGirr is right that many observers, imagining a liberal consensus, have been too quick to paint conservatives as universally marginal individuals who respond to their hearts more than to their minds. But at the same time, we should not be so quick to discard explanations that speak to the fears and anxieties at the root of many conservative beliefs.
Still, progressive activists would do well to read this book and learn how diligent and painstaking the conservative road to power has been: how important the tens of thousands of grassroots activists were to the process of building a movement, how skillfully the right was able to transcend divisions in the interest of winning political power and how so many conservative beliefs, first publicly articulated in the 1960s, are still with us today.
Prior histories of the roots of the American right have tended to tell the story of national right-wing organizations and their leaders. By focusing upon one place--a not very typical but nonetheless pivotal place--McGirr blends political and social history and goes where few analysts have gone before: to the kitchen tables as well as the meeting halls of the early right-wing movement. This is the book's great contribution.
What has become of Orange County? It's still a hotbed of conservatism, though over the past two decades, with the decline of California's military industry, many of its residents have migrated to places like Colorado and Oregon, fleeing the increasingly multiracial cast of Southern California. The migrants are searching for cheap land, bringing with them California-style evangelical Christianity, an antipathy toward government and privatized landscapes filled with theme parks and strip malls. They set into motion a mania for tax-cutting initiatives, filled the coffers of religious-right organizations, fought against gay and lesbian rights, and sought to replicate their California Eden. In Washington a presidential administration is peppered with religious conservatives and free-market enthusiasts, thanks in part to their efforts. Increasingly, it seems, we all live in Orange County.
To those who say he cannot do it,
Who claim his head is filled with suet,
He says that he is plenty able
To deal with issues on the table.
Though he may have no depths to plumb,
He says for sure he isn't dumb.
It's almost more than we could hope:
The President is not a dope.
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
Why did Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick want Spielberg to direct Kubrick's A.I., the fable of a robot who wants a human mother's love? Imagine the personals ad Kubrick might have taken out:
"YOU LIKE: sweetness & light, plucky kids, happy endings, 'When You Wish Upon a Star.' I LIKE: a hope-free environment, leering homicidal teens, pitilessly ambiguous Götterdämmerungen, icy Gyorgi Ligeti melodies written 'as a dagger in Stalin's heart.' LET'S MEET FOR A MOVIE!"
Maybe they had a mutual case of genius envy. Kubrick needed Spielberg's speed. Ever since 2001's success freed him to do almost anything he wanted, Kubrick yearned to make a blockbuster as big as The Godfather or Star Wars or E.T. But he couldn't, because he enslaved himself with research. "I usually take about a year [developing a film]," he said in 1968. "In a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then as you're making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what's happening with the resources of all the analysis you've done."
After 1971, Kubrick's spontaneity expired (if not his genius). He spent decades mulling movies more than making them. Most of what he actually shot was over-thought, emotionally parched. Spielberg once (according to critic Michael Sragow) compared watching Barry Lyndon to "walking through the Louvre without lunch." Kubrick was all about making marmoreal masterworks, not pleasing mortals with morsels of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
But surely he knew, as the real 2001 approached, that he wouldn't live long enough to fulfill his own fantasy: an A.I. movie starring real robots instead of actors (most of whom he treated like robots). And a child actor would age visibly during a yearslong Kubrick shoot. He hoped Spielberg might whip up a computer-generated boy for the lead, or at least do his famous fast magic with a live child actor.
So what's in it for Spielberg, in making a Kubrick movie? Perhaps to "eat at the grownups' table," as Woody Allen put it--to join the highbrow pantheon. Spielberg makes filmmaking look too easy, and makes too much easy money. We've all spent wild nights with his flying bikes and leaping lizards, but not everybody respects him in the morning. Many say Schindler's List is sui generis and Private Ryan simplistically jingoistic; his serious-issue movies The Color Purple and Amistad suck dead eggs. But when he dares to swap DNA with über-director Kubrick, you've got to give him credit.
There could be deeper motives. Biographical critics Joseph McBride and Henry Sheehan trace a strain of father fear in Spielberg's movies, and the father figures he seems fondest of are akin to movie moguls: Attenborough the proprietor of Jurassic Park, Schindler the factory "Direktor," and in A.I., William Hurt as Professor Hobby, the entrepreneurial inventor of the robot boy David. (Professor Hobby is far kinder than David's adoptive dad, played by Sam Robards.) The company Kubrick formed to produce Aryan Papers, the Holocaust movie he scuttled after Schindler's List hit, was called Hobby Films. How better to honor a cinematic daddy than to finish his film in his style with a character named Hobby? What better way to transcend the anxiety of influence than to blend pastiche with one's own stylistic voice?
Anyhow, now it's finished: A.I., a film (as one producer put it) by "Stevely Kuberg." It's like no other movie, because it's so much like so many other movies. In one brilliant scene, the robots scavenge spare parts for themselves from a dump of less fortunate fellow robots: a new jaw here, a forearm there. The parts fit together jaggedly, but the crude welds enable the robots to function. That's the way A.I. is built: not just Spielberg's style mashed into Kubrick's, but characters and stories and particular shots from multitudinous movies (especially Kubrick's), all stuck together at odd angles. It's weird, but it works.
The primary source of A.I. is Brian Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," and two of his other very short stories about David, the robot with the mommy problem. Kubrick jammed David's story together with the story of Pinocchio. This misses the point of Aldiss's tale: Pinocchio wants to earn the right to be real, but David the robot doesn't get it that he's not a real boy. In the film, David (portrayed with sensitive precision by the eeriest boy actor on earth, Haley Joel Osment) has a more primal urge: to make Mommy (the generically cute Frances O'Connor) love him, no matter what it takes.
When David enters his human Mommy and Daddy's house, he's backlit to look like the tall, spindly extraterrestrials in Close Encounters. Then he's revealed to be an almost perfect replica of a human: a bit shiny-faced and stiff, but convincing, even by the standards of the day (the usual futuristic post-apocalyptic Earth, whose advanced gizmo science produces what Kubrick used to call a "mechanarchy"). At first, sitting at dinner, shot from above through a circular lamp that echoes the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, David seems remote. When he emits a barking laugh and points at the strand of spaghetti dangling from Mommy's chin, and then Mommy and Daddy laugh, it's hard to say whose laugh is more mechanical.
After Mommy imprints herself on David according to the owner's manual, however, his face melts into beatific rapture. Osment does a good job of conveying love at first sight. David hugs Mommy. Later, he's shot from below, with a lamp granting him a halo, like the one that gives Strangelove a nimbus when doomsday arrives. David gets his halo when he becomes aware of death: "Mommy, will you die?"
It's creepy, because of course Mommy doesn't love David--he's just a substitute for her real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who must remain comatose for years until science can revive him. (The lad is stashed in a bubble bed like the ones astronauts hibernate in in 2001.) At last, Martin is defrosted and comes home. It's bad for David, an echo of the displacement of Alex by Joe the Lodger in A Clockwork Orange. The convincingly bratty Martin taunts David, a cold, Kubrickian echo of the domestic comedy of Spielberg's enchanted suburbia.
Two scenes of mythic impact ensue. Martin tricks David into snipping a lock of Mommy's hair as she makes like Sleeping Beauty one night; Mommy makes excuses for him. But at a pool party soon after, the real boys threaten David, who clutches Martin, begs, "Keep me safe!" and falls with him into the pool. Martin requires CPR after being fished out, and as he's receiving it, the camera pans back from David, infinitely disconsolate on the pool bottom. He recedes, like the castoff astronaut drifting into space in 2001 (the one who doesn't get to be reborn as the Star Child).
David recedes yet again later in the film--in Mommy's rearview mirror when she abandons him in the woods. This is palpable horror. It's not a standard Spielberg kiddie-peril scene, though, because one uneasily identifies with the mom's predicament--at least she didn't send him back to the factory to be destroyed--and David's monomania has begun to alienate our affections just a bit.
Into the woods goes David. He glimpses those scavenging robots--a folksy lot, like hobos in a 1930s Warner flick, though their busted-upness mainly alludes to the wooden boys hacked up by wicked Stromboli in Pinocchio. He meets his rakish new pal, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot with hair like a Bob's Big Boy statue, built for sex with lonely human women. Law breathes life into a clammy mise en scène--you'll miss him when he goes. Spielberg made him nicer than Kubrick would've done, but it's no sellout. It simply buries the weirdness deeper. Joe tries to tell David that his mommy doesn't love him any more than Joe's dates love him, but David won't listen.
When Joe laments of his creators, "They made us too smart, too quick and too many," he's echoing Coppola's quote about how his crew making Apocalypse Now had "too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." The idea is to critique techno-culture, but the point is muddled, and the film's heart isn't really in it whenever it sounds the danger: technology alarm. Ominously, the woods are lit up by a false moon--an aircraft that hunts robots for the Flesh Fair, a demolition derby where humans take out their frustrations by burning and hacking up robots. The moon is a cruel parody of the kindly moon in E.T. But whereas abandonment by Mommy registers emotionally, violence against robots just doesn't.
It's a relief when Joe leads David to Rouge City, a sci-fi update of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, with big bridges shaped like women's gaping mouths, to evoke the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange (which was much scarier). Rouge City is a letdown: It's Blade Runner; it's Judge Dredd's town; we've seen it all before. Its plot function is to give David the Pinocchio prediction that a Blue Fairy will make him a real boy.
David heists an amphibicopter and buzzes off with Joe to Manhattan, flooded up to the Statue of Liberty's torch (a nod to Planet of the Apes). He meets his maker, Professor Hobby (a nod to Rutger Hauer's scene with his maker in Blade Runner), confronts the existence of other Davids and has an existential tantrum. Here's where Kubrick would nastily stress that David has become a real boy in the sense that now he kills robots too; Spielberg makes it a friendlier reunion, just as he changed Michael Crichton's sinister dinosaur-park entrepreneur to a jolly man in Jurassic Park. Either way, as a Kubrickian snarl or a Spielbergian coo, the scene would come off as abstract and unaffecting.
Arbitrarily, Hobby leaves David alone a minute, and soon we see him leap from a skyscraper (Radio City) into Manhattan's briny abyss. This is formally a quote from Pinocchio's dives to escape Pleasure Island and rescue his father at the bottom of the sea, but it has no resonance, because it's not really part of an intelligible narrative movement. There is no sense of escape; it's a slow fall, not scary at all. The whole movie is by this point as drifty as seaweed in a lulling current. David's bed at home resembles Monstro, the whale that imprisons Pinocchio, and yet it's snug and inviting. What does this mean? Plainly, this movie doesn't work at the level of straightforward causality. It's a troubling dream.
A.I. has two endings involving the Blue Fairy, and I guess I shouldn't reveal either. Suffice it to say that the one Kubrick probably would have stopped with is clearly superior, colder, mysterious without being muddled. The second, Spielbergian ending is fuzzier, more redemptive and alludes to the cosmic ending of 2001 and Kubrick's cuddly aliens and snug family feelings.
A.I. ends with a whimper (or two), but I got a huge bang out of it. It's full of stunning images: sad, disintegrating faces, a robot boy's strangely shining eyes, lively artifacts of humanized technology. Although it's in an utterly different key, the blend of sensibilities is not an adulteration but an improving alchemy. A.I. effectively combines the moody indeterminacy of Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001, and the addiction to happily-ever-aftering of Spielberg. There's also the merest flavor of what William Everson once called "one of the screen's supreme moments of horror"--the scene in Pinocchio where the boy, in midtransformation into a donkey, shrieks, "Mama!" until he's deprived of human speech and his mama can't hear him anymore. When you're not a real boy, no one can hear you scream.
One of the most surprising decisions of the Supreme Court term just concluded was Justice Antonin Scalia's ruling in favor of a criminal defendant who claimed that a thermal imaging device violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The police used the device to measure the heat leaking from Danny Kyllo's house and inferred from that information that he was growing marijuana inside with heat lamps. Indeed, he was, as the subsequent search revealed: more than 100 plants' worth.
In the most unlikely collaboration of the year, Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined forces with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter to rule that use of the thermal imaging device was an unconstitutional search. The decision is surprising in several respects--and not just because it rules for a drug defendant. It announces a bright-line rule barring the use of high-tech devices to intrude upon the privacy of the home, in an era where the Court has largely abandoned bright-line rules except where they benefit the police. It speaks in majestic tones about protecting privacy from the onslaught of technology, from a Court that has all but given up on privacy in favor of crime control. And it reaches a result that was by no means foreordained. This was a close case, as Justice John Paul Stevens's quite reasonable dissent shows.
So what's going on here? Should liberals (or drug manufacturers) start looking to Justices Scalia and Thomas for protection of criminal defendants' rights? I'm afraid not. This is a rare instance of an alliance between liberals and libertarians, united here in support of the sanctity of the home. For Scalia and Thomas, at least, it all comes down to property. Step outside, and you're fair game.
The dispute centered on whether the use of the thermal imaging device was a "search" that invaded Kyllo's "reasonable expectation of privacy." The police argued that the device merely registered information from the outside of the home. A police officer's observation that snow melted more quickly on certain parts of a roof would provide the same information, but no one would call that a "search." Since the information came from outside the house, it invaded no privacy.
Justice Scalia rejected that approach, and concluded that whenever the police use "sense-enhancing technology" not in general public use to obtain information that they otherwise could not have gathered without entering the home, they have conducted a search, for which they must have probable cause and a warrant. His opinion waxes eloquent on the home as castle and the need to protect citizens from the intrusions of modern technology. (None too soon, as police are already working on ultrasound technology for houses, although one wonders how they're going to apply petroleum jelly to aluminum siding.)
In its attempt to protect privacy from advancing technology, the decision is a landmark and will stand along with the Warren Court's 1967 decision in Katz v. United States, which extended the Fourth Amendment to include wiretapping. But in another respect, the decision marks an ironic return to the pre-Katz world. Before Katz, Fourth Amendment law was governed by property notions, leading the Court to make ridiculous distinctions between listening devices attached to an outside wall with a thumbtack, which were said to invade property and require a warrant, and similar devices merely taped to the wall, which were deemed not to invade property and therefore not to require a warrant.
Katz importantly held that the Fourth Amendment protects "people, not places" and eschewed arcane property questions for an inquiry into whether the government had invaded a person's "privacy." But Kyllo brings us back full circle, because without any reasoned explanation it expressly limits its protection to homes. Justices Scalia and Thomas's libertarian instincts stop at the doorstep. A man's home may be his castle, but in the view of these Justices, at least, the streets still belong to the police.
Augusto Pinochet entered political life in 1973 by destroying the rule of law. Now, twenty-eight years later, thanks to a decision by a Chilean appeals court, he exits the public stage still beyond the reach of the law. The July 9 ruling found the 85-year-old former dictator too sick to stand trial for his role in the kidnap and murder of dozens of civilians. Plaintiffs will attempt a last-chance reversal, but observers agree that this is probably the end of the general's legal travails, which began in October 1998 when he was detained in London on a Spanish arrest warrant.
Over these past three years, Pinochet has been extended every legal recourse and guarantee that he denied his opponents. He was not beaten, kidnapped, tortured or "disappeared." Instead of being hauled before a kangaroo court and sentenced to summary execution, he was delicately passed from the Spanish legal system to the Crown Prosecution Service to the House of Lords to the Chilean Supreme Court.
But then the courts blinked. As the typically understated Chileans would say, this final outcome is lamentable. Still, much has been gained. Pinochet's arrest by Scotland Yard and his detention for 503 days in London shook open the Chilean system and eventually led to Pinochet's indictment in Santiago. A courageous judge, Juan Guzmán Tapia, piled up more than 250 criminal complaints against Pinochet, and he boldly resisted intimidation attempts by Chile's military as well as its civilian government. Soon, dozens of other former military officers, including an active-duty general or two, found themselves formally accused. At precisely the moment when Chile's unresolved human rights debate was threatened with extinction, it came roaring back to life. The Chilean military, which had refused to accept any responsibility for the bloodletting during its seventeen-year rule, finally admitted to killing and throwing into the sea scores of its opponents. Today, even the Chilean right takes pains to distance itself from the sullied general whom it once venerated as a demigod.
Pinochet may be spared trial, but his status as an indicted criminal will stand. His closest collaborators still face prosecution, not only in Chilean courts but also in other Latin American and European legal venues. The Bush Justice Department claims its investigation of Pinochet's role in the 1976 car-bomb murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt is still active. It should be pressured to follow through with an indictment. And a fearless Judge Guzmán continues his work in Chile. In early July he was reported to have issued letters to the US government requesting that then-Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reveal what they know about the murder of Charles Horman, one of two Americans killed in the opening days of the Pinochet dictatorship. As for Pinochet, now suffering from diabetes, "moderate dementia," dental woes and permanent public scorn, one can only wish him many more years among us.
The prospect of Slobodan Milosevic facing justice before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a giant step. For the first time in history a former head of state will be tried for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war committed during his reign. Milosevic and his cronies must face judgment for the death and suffering they wreaked on the Balkans in furtherance of the delusion of a Greater Serbia. What concerns us at this point is that the trial be an exemplary one, fully upholding the ideal of an objective international tribunal capable of trying and punishing the crimes of war. There are signs that it will not.
For one thing, the indictment against Milosevic is primarily limited to the killings and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo that occurred after NATO's bombing campaign was launched. It is essential that Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte bring the additional charges covering the war in Bosnia that she has promised. A trial limited to atrocities in Kosovo will raise the issue of the legitimacy of NATO's bombing campaign, which was undertaken without UN authorization and which not only Milosevic's supporters will argue led to much of the Serb violence that followed. Would the NATO powers release secret intelligence gathered at the time that could throw light on who ordered the massacres, as well as the strategy behind the bombing campaign? The point is that if this relevant evidence is withheld, the trial will be tainted and will fuel suspicions that it is designed to vindicate NATO's war.
The slaughter in Bosnia--the massacres of Muslims, the atrocities, rapes and ethnic cleansing--was far greater than in Kosovo,and the perpetrators, some of them still at large, must be punished. But bringing in Bosnia (or Croatia) will again open up the question of the role of the United States and the West. Their long support of Milosevic as the man to deal with in the Balkans should be aired in court. Will the governments in Washington and in other NATO capitals produce evidence from their files relative to their appeasement? Not that such information would exculpate Milosevic, but without it the trial will be perceived as victor's justice.
This leads to another question: Were the means and the timing of Milosevic's apprehension proper, in terms of the objectives of international law? A case can be made that they were not. In turning Milosevic over to The Hague, the Serbian government acted under the gun--a threat by the United States that it would veto promised foreign aid. This was a power play, not law. Also, the extradition violated Yugoslav law and bypassed President Vojislav Kostunica, who heads Yugoslavia's first freely elected government in many years. Undercutting the rule of law is no way to encourage a fragile democracy. It arguably would have been better for the Serbs themselves to try Milosevic first. As Kostunica said, "In order for the people to realize what justice is, it should be in their hands."
Ultimately, though, Milosevic should answer to the international community if the principle of prohibiting war crimes is to be upheld. But the reckoning must take place before a fully independent international court. In the long run, the world must move beyond ad hoc courts like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, set up for specific crimes, to an autonomous body like the International Criminal Court. Milosevic's crimes were against humanity and international law, not the United States and NATO.
Kate Millett. Feminist, sculptor, lesbian, activist, advocate, New Yorker to the core. Just over thirty years ago, Millett published the hugely influential bestseller Sexual Politics, and Time pasted her portrait on its cover to give a face to what was then called Women's Liberation. But just a year later, it looked like the beginning of Millett's end: At nearly the same moment, she was booted out of academia (Sexual Politics had been her PhD thesis), outed as a lesbian and practically abandoned by the movement she helped create. Switching gears, she embarked on a film project and another book, Flying. As different from the highly theoretical Sexual Politics as one could get, Flying was composed literally on the fly. Jumping from Europe to the Bowery to her farm outside of Poughkeepsie, Millett produced, as the New York Times Book Review put it then, an "autobiographical work of dazzling exhibitionism"--a sort of stream-of-consciousness, blow-by-blow of what happened to her in the period following her accidental rise to fame.
Her first book as a "writer"--Millett described Sexual Politics as written merely "in mandarin mid-Atlantic to propitiate a committee of professors of English"--Flying is a trying read; too much detail, too many characters and, simply, too many words. Modeled on the style of documentary film, with which Millett was enamored at the time, Flying was meant to capture "the voice we hear in our heads, sentence fragments...phrases as familiar as guilt in childhood, as easy as the feel of wheels, as necessary to survival as food, as encouraging as the sound of an engine turning over.... I wanted to write a book in American." She accomplished that mission for sure, and has, for better or for worse, continued to write in the same pressing style for the past thirty years; from The Prostitution Papers (1971) to Flying (1974), from Sita (1977) to The Loony-Bin Trip (1990), Kate Millett has consistently captured the world the way she has experienced and lived it.
But with that kind of truth comes a ton of pain, and Millett has stepped on more than a few toes (with her oft-heavy foot) along the way. Sisters, lovers, her once-husband, sculptor Fumio Yoshimura--all have co-starred in her books, and not in the most flattering roles. But the latest co-star, mother Helen Millett, is perhaps the person Kate Millett has most worried about wounding with words. And with good reason. While others have been upset with Kate the writer, for publicizing what could have been kept private, Helen Millett was often upset with Kate the daughter, for living the way she did. In Flying, Millett describes a phone conversation during which Mother asks after her writing.
"You're not going to put that awful stuff about Lesbianism in it?" Hit finally. At last.... "Katie, you are not writing about that Lesbianism, are you?" She is a terrier after a bone now.... "Well Mother, that has to be in it because it's part of my experience." Now there is just her nervous wail.... She escalates to moaning. I am a freak. One queer drop queers it all.
Describing her mother-inspired anxiety to Doris Lessing over lunch in 1971 (the year she composed Flying), Millett explained, "You see if I write this book my mother's going to die. She has already given me notice." Lessing laughs. "Mothers do not die as easily as they claim. My own announced her intentions with every book I wrote."
Lessing, of course, was right. Helen Millett did not die after Flying was published, despite that book's leitmotif of gay liberation. Nor after the harder to handle Loony-Bin Trip, in which she had a key role as an accomplice in getting her own daughter committed to the Mayo wing of the University of Minnesota. And she made it through Sita, an elegy focused on lesbian love and sex, crafted in remembrance of the lover Millett most obsessed over, who eventually took her own life. In fact, Helen Millett lived into the 1990s; and perhaps surprisingly, this was largely thanks to her most difficult of three daughters, Kate.
"I began writing about my mother," Millett explains in her new book, "in 1985, when my elder sister Sally...forced me to pay attention and understand that our mother Helen Millett could actually die and indeed was old and recently ill enough to do so certainly, and perhaps soon." A collection of sketches composed during visits to the Millett hometown of St. Paul, Mother Millett is simultaneously a portrait of the mother as an old woman, a confessional and an argument against forced institutionalization, specifically of the aging and infirm. In the beginning, things aren't so bad; the 88-year-old Helen has trouble hearing and walking--both of which conditions her physician simply writes off as part of old age--but she is nestled happily in the Wellington, a deluxe apartment complex for the elderly who are able to take reasonably good care of themselves. Helen seems to have accepted her advanced age, and even speaks openly of dying. Still, she is not without some fear. "There are only two things I'm afraid of.... Just two things," Helen tells Kate. "I'm scared of falling. And of nursing homes." About falling, Kate can do little. But quietly, Kate makes a deal with herself over the nursing home: "You're safe with me, I think. I've been put away, I'm not likely to do it to anyone else."
Months later, after Helen undergoes shunt bypass surgery for a brain tumor her family doctor failed to locate for some ten years--fear of falling explained--Kate rushes to St. Paul once more to find her mother installed in St. Anne's Home, a full-service nursing facility. During her post-op recovery, Helen was overcome by a condition called "hypercalcemia"--literally, an attack of calcium on the body; her doctors say there is no hope, a diagnosis that excludes her from the "self-sufficient only" Wellington and lands her in the "cost-conscious box," St. Anne's. But Kate, unlike others in the Millett clan, refuses to accept this as her mother's fate. "This is my own mother abandoned," she writes of first seeing Helen, tiny in her white bed. "Dying of abandonment, parked here to die like the mothers of strangers parked to die at St. Peter's Asylum when I worked there as a college kid." So when Helen looks at her daughter and says, "Now that you're here, we can leave," Kate ignores the rules and whisks her mother out the door and back to the Wellington.
Kate relishes the moment. "She picked the right daughter," she writes. "We are on the lam. It's a movie, it's the most unlikely American car fantasy, we are Thelma and Louise, this frail old woman beside me, and I some undefined criminal type: I light a cigarette." If only for an evening of lobster and baseball (Helen's a huge Twins fan), the escape is exhilarating. But as that one lovers' evening stretches into a weekend, the jailbreak turns from a simple transgression into a bona fide scandal. Despite the considerable challenge of tending to her mother--rising every two hours through the night to see her to the bathroom, cleaning up after her frequent bouts of vomiting--Kate becomes more and more determined not only to save her mother from St. Anne's but also to restore Helen's independence and dignity. "She must have her own life," Millett convinces herself. "She risked her life giving you birth, laid down her life to support and raise you. Risk your own life a little."
This is not easy, especially for Mother, who is bullied by her daughter constantly and escorted through a grueling schedule of daily therapies. And for Kate, both the slow life of the elderly and the stifling Midwestern-ness of St. Paul are almost too much to bear; the longer she stays with her mother, the more distant and unreal her New York artist existence becomes: "You are losing your own life here somehow, your life energy, maybe even interest in your own life. Hers has become more interesting, a challenge." As she accepts that challenge--which requires canceling a book tour in England to stay longer in St. Paul, lining up various folks to help out with her farm back east, postponing work on another book--she actually begins to take pleasure in it. The smallest victories are huge triumphs, like getting through a day without Helen vomiting or working out the details of various Medicare benefits. (Few are thriftier than Kate Millett, who reminds us more than once that she gets by on just $12,000 a year.) And as the extended Millett family, who unanimously thought Helen would be safest in St. Anne's, see the changes in their matriarch, Kate is overwhelmed by a sense of satisfaction.
We have succeeded. And in succeeding I have turned back time.... we have given Mother her own life back, an acceptable life compared to the despair and quick death at St. Mary's. But in restoring Mother's life, something of mine is restored as well. As if I have prolonged my own youth, assured I would continue as a daughter not an orphan.
Through a complicated (yet cost-effective) mix of part-time caregivers, bath ladies, daughter's visits and willpower, Mother Millett lived in the Wellington for the four final years of her life, and never again put one tiny foot inside a nursing facility.
Mother Millett is moving in that way. It's the story of a mother and daughter who, in some sense, save each other: Kate rescues Helen from St. Anne's and restores her to a respectable retirement in the Wellington; Helen gives Kate the opportunity to redeem every sharp word spoken, every obscenity put into print, by allowing her daughter to save her life. But it's also a political work, an extension of The Loony-Bin Trip that reinforces Millett's first argument against forced institutionalization, but focuses on the elderly, whom we are often eager to put away.
In the course of springing her mother, Kate discovers that the use of "restraint"--strapping residents into their beds--is a not uncommon practice at St. Anne's. Looking over the nursing notes in her mother's file, she finds that such treatment was recommended for Helen--"specifically a black belt, a great hunk of rough fabric like a huge karate belt with which one is tied to the bed and made immobile and helpless"; the notes convey that Helen "does not cooperate in taking every medication put before her...and even strikes the hand that would administer, refuses many blandishments, is not adjusting. An unwilling resident, who from the moment she entered the place seems to have provoked the admitting nurse." There is a palpable sense of personal pride in Millett's account; like daughter like mother, one might say. But there is also a very important current of indignation that propels this book, and Millett's other work, down its wild course.
That indignation stems from deep beliefs in rights to self-determination, freedom and dignity--beliefs that have inspired the entirety of Millett's writing. Her involvements with various movements--feminism, gay liberation, justice for political prisoners, nonviolence--are obvious extensions of those basic convictions; each of her books, even the super-personal Sita, is a manifesto. She wrote The Loony-Bin Trip out of a desire to affirm "the integrity of the mind...its sanctity and inviolability"; Flying intended "a structure for 'coming out' and an ethic in nonviolence to live by"; the slim Prostitution Papers--lengthy and frank interviews with two New York City prostitutes--was aimed "at direct action. 'Organize, organize' this book calls out." Even though, time and again, she describes herself--wills herself--an artist first and foremost, Kate Millett is, at her very core, an activist.
Millett is, and probably always will be, thought of primarily as a face and name of 1970s feminism. Yet, although she wrote what is a pioneering work of feminist theory, Millett is largely lost to an entire generation of women. Sexual Politics--which, through hilarious close readings of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence (and lots of less hilarious theoretical analysis), showed how stifling patriarchal attitudes impressed contemporary literature--is rarely taught in the classroom, despite the rise of women's studies. In fact, most of Millett's work was out of print until a year ago, when the University of Illinois Press reissued several of her books.
Kate Millett has recorded, from the beginning, an alternative life--one centered on justice, complicated love, making art and honesty. And even as her work is self-indulgent at times, even as she pats herself on the back a bit too much for being so bohemian, her work is engaging and personal and political in a unique way; by virtue of being composed in real time--note that her memoir of the feminist movement, Flying, was written in 1971!--it lacks the nostalgia of so many popular memoirs of "the movement" today. And as Millett has moved through her life, she's left a lot of work to learn from.
I'm guessing that Mother Millett will not be a popular book, but I think it should be. As young activists search for ways to define their own movements, Kate Millett contributes a novel idea: Think outside yourself and fight for your mother's, or father's--or grandmother's and grandfather's--rights. Eventually, they will be your own.
For years, environmental advocates in and out of government have labored to construct a connecting arch between opposing interests that could lead to the first real legislative action on global warming. Last year the elements for a breakthrough deal seemed in place. Both major presidential nominees said they were on board. Then George W. Bush came into office and removed the keystone from the arch.
The keystone is the bundle of federal lawsuits that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department have filed against electric utility polluters, plus the active investigations of a hundred or more other power plants and refineries for similar gross violations. The President has ordered a "review" of these legal actions--in effect freezing enforcement and perhaps halting it entirely. Without the threat of these lawsuits, electric utilities have no incentive to accept new federal regulation of their carbon dioxide emissions--a crucial first step in the long-delayed imperative to reduce global warming.
Bush's action may sound like inside-the-Beltway intrigue--and it is--but the consequences could be momentous if not challenged by a public outcry. His action should also inspire a careful Congressional investigation. Who exactly put the fix in at the White House? The defendants, appears to be the answer, joined by old reliables like ExxonMobil. The companies threatened by the EPA's multibillion-dollar lawsuits--coal, oil and the big-time scofflaws in electricity generation--evidently went through a back door labeled Rove-Cheney Office of Political Environmentalism. Their achievement illustrates another bipartisan scandal--our torturously slow-acting and incomplete environmental laws. The government is, in fact, still struggling to get this crowd to comply with clean-air standards put in place thirty years ago.
To appreciate the contradictions, start with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which grandfathered in, as exempt from the new pollution standards, hundreds of outmoded power plants. Regarded at the time as necessary for passage of the act, this trade-off allowed the plants to keep operating--but not to expand their output--on the assumption that they would gradually be phased out. Instead, more than 300 of the grandfathered power plants are still going and produce more than half the country's electricity, as well as the bulk of its mercury, nitrogen and sulfur air pollution (electric utilities are also the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution). And, in defiance of the law, a lot of the exempted plants expanded. Those violations, after decades of regulatory debate and failed persuasion, led to the first batch of EPA lawsuits filed against seven companies in 1999, with many more promised. They involve serious lawbreaking and huge liabilities--and potentially expose companies to public-health damage suits as well.
Several of the more enlightened companies began looking for a deal: In exchange for relief from the lawsuits, they'd accept a new regulatory law curbingtheir pollution. That's when enviro groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put global warming on the table too. If Congress enacted legislation covering the other three pollutants, it made sense to include carbon dioxide, never before subject to regulatory curbs. Some utility executives, recognizing its inevitability, accepted the trade-off. Why modernize plants for the three established pollutants, then have to come back to retrofit for carbon emissions? That promising confluence of interests inspired the four-pollutant legislation now pending in Congress.
But the Bushies are proceeding to let industry off the hook. First, Bush canceled his campaign promise to support mandatory carbon dioxide reductions (his policies will likely be hammered at the United Nations conference on global warming in Bonn this month). Then Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force proposed the "review," virtually suspending compliance agreements that some companies had already negotiated with the EPA. The NRDC has identified the National Coal Council, a supposedly nonpolitical federal advisory committee, as a central meeting place where defendant firms and their lawyers collaborate with coal and oil reps on devising the counterattack. Lois Schiffer, head of the Justice Department's environmental enforcement under Clinton, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's sort of like going to the White House to get your parking tickets fixed."
White House tampering with law enforcement on behalf of accused lawbreakers who are the President's patrons ought to be treated as a big deal, even in scandal-jaded Washington. Senate Democrats do not need to engage in bipartisan niceties on this-- they must make a full-throated commitment to legislate and to make global warming a decisive election issue for 2002 and especially 2004, if Bush persists in pandering to the most retrograde industrial interests. Democrats, quite by accident, have a running start here. The new chairman of the Senate environment committee--former Republican Jim Jeffords--is the co-sponsor of the four-pollutant legislation (with Democrat Joe Lieberman). If Jeffords couldn't rally his old party to the cause of global warming, maybe he can convince his new friends on the other side of the aisle to take it seriously.
In early June I sat on a panel, in front of a large and mainly Arab audience, with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Our hosts, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had asked for a discussion of contrasting images of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The general tempo of the meeting was encouragingly nontribal; there were many criticisms of Arab regimes and societies, and one of our co-panelists, Raghida Dergham, had recently been indicted in her absence by a Lebanese military prosecutor for the offense of sharing a panel discussion with an Israeli. However, it's safe to say that most of those attending were aching for a chance to question Friedman in person. He was accused directly at one point of writing in a lofty and condescending manner about the Palestinian people. To this he replied hotly and eloquently, saying that he had always believed that "the Jewish people will never be at home in Palestine until the Palestinian people are at home there."
That was well said, and I hadn't at the time read his then-most-recent column, so I didn't think to reply. But in that article he wrote that Chairman Arafat, by his endless double-dealing, had emptied the well of international sympathy for his cause. This is a very Times-ish rhetoric, of course. You have to think about it for a second. It suggests that rights, for Palestinians, are not something innate or inalienable. They are, instead, a reward for good behavior, or for getting a good press. It's hard to get more patronizing than that. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, the Palestinians denied themselves the recourse to arms, mounted a civil resistance, produced voices like Hanan Ashrawi and greatly stirred world opinion. For this they were offered some noncontiguous enclaves within an Israeli-controlled and Israeli-settled condominium. Better than nothing, you might say. But it's the very deal the Israeli settlers reject in their own case, and they do not even live in Israel "proper." (They just have the support of the armed forces of Israel "proper.") So now things are not so nice and many Palestinians have turned violent and even--whatever next?--religious and fanatical. Naughty, naughty. No self-determination for you. And this from those who achieved statehood not by making nice but as a consequence of some very ruthless behavior indeed.
I am writing these lines in memoriam for my dear friend and comrade Dr. Israel Shahak, who died on July 2. His home on Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation--none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because--he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can 'visit' them as a privileged citizen." This apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.
Shahak's childhood was spent in Nazified Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; at the end of the war he was the only male left in his family. He reached Palestine before statehood, in 1945. In 1956 he heard David Ben-Gurion make a demagogic speech about the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, referring to this dirty war as a campaign for "the kingdom of David and Solomon." That instilled in him the germinal feelings of opposition. By the end of his life, he had produced a scholarly body of work that showed the indissoluble connection between messianic delusions and racial and political ones. He had also, during his chairmanship of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, set a personal example that would be very difficult to emulate.
He had no heroes and no dogmas and no party allegiances. If he admitted to any intellectual model, it would have been Spinoza. For Shahak, the liberation of the Jewish people was an aspect of the Enlightenment, and involved their own self-emancipation from ghetto life and from clerical control, no less than from ancient "Gentile" prejudice. It therefore naturally ensued that Jews should never traffic in superstitions or racial myths; they stood to lose the most from the toleration of such rubbish. And it went almost without saying that there could be no defensible Jewish excuse for denying the human rights of others. He was a brilliant and devoted student of the archeology of Jerusalem and Palestine: I would give anything for a videotape of the conducted tours of the city that he gave me, and of the confrontation in which he vanquished one of the propagandist guides on the heights of Masada. For him, the built and the written record made it plain that Palestine had never been the exclusive possession of any one people, let alone any one "faith."
Only the other day, I read some sanguinary proclamation from the rabbinical commander of the Shas party, Ovadia Yosef, himself much sought after by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. It was a vulgar demand for the holy extermination of non-Jews; the vilest effusions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have been hard-pressed to match it. The man wants a dictatorial theocracy for Jews and helotry or expulsion for the Palestinians, and he sees (as Shahak did in reverse) the connection. This is not a detail; Yosef's government receives an enormous US subsidy, and his intended victims live (and die, every day) under a Pax Americana. Men like Shahak, who force us to face these reponsibilities, are naturally rare. He was never interviewed by the New York Times, and its obituary pages have let pass the death of a great and serious man.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR REBATE?
Starting the week of July 23, many Americans will begin receiving tax "rebates" as part of George W. Bush's massive tax-cut scheme aimed at helping the rich get richer. Some readers, dismayed at how the rebates are being used to win support for Bush's skewed priorities, have asked us to suggest ways to protest. As we see it, the rebates, unlike the broader tax cut plan, are progressive; everyone who pays taxes gets virtually the same amount. Also, they help people hurting from the economic downturn. But for those who feel they can afford to donate their rebate, the Nation Directory (www.thenation.com) lists worthy groups working for voting rights, reproductive rights and other forms of social justice. Or why not consider a donation to The Nation? We've received letters and e-mails suggesting just that (see this week's "Letters" page). If you do forward your rebate to a worthy cause, write George W. Bush as follows: "Your tax rebate has enabled me to make a donation to _______________, which is fighting your repellent policies."
TALKING UNION BLUES
In a little-noticed but far-reaching decision on May 29, the Supreme Court dealt a body blow to nascent efforts to organize professional workers. NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care, Inc. concerned a group of registered nurses who had tried to exercise their right, under the National Labor Relations Act, to form a union. The NLRB had affirmed that right, declaring that the nurses were not supervisors because they could not use "independent judgment" in performing their duties, which included directing less-skilled employees. The Court disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia disdained the "independent judgment" test, placing instead a greater burden on unions to prove that potential members are not supervisors. As a result, the American Medical Association has called off its organizing efforts among private-sector physicians, and similar efforts among nurses and other professionals will likely be stalled as well. So, thanks to this opinion, Scalia's son Eugene, who was nominated to be Bush's Solicitor of Labor despite (or because of) his longstanding commitment to suppressing the rights of working people, will enjoy a lighter work load.
LAST MEALS ON DEATH ROW
Charles Tanzer writes: For those who felt that the media's publication of Timothy McVeigh's last meal--two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream--was a bit morbid, it only gets worse. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice apparently has so little compunction about leading the nation in executions that it posts the final meal requests of condemned men on its website. A brief perusal of them gives a telling indication of the likely economic class of those on death row: There are many, many requests for double cheeseburgers, french fries and ice cream, but noticeably absent are such upper-class treats as lobster or filet mignon. Equally poignant are those who declined a last meal, one man instead requesting "God's saving grace, love, truth, peace, and freedom," another appealing for "Justice, Temperance, with Mercy." There is no caviar on death row (see www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/deathrow.htm).
The potential domestic consequences of the Administration's national energy policy--opening up protected areas to drilling, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, building more nuclear reactors--have galvanized environmentalists, but its international ramifications, which have received scant comment in the press, give equal cause for alarm. Closer scrutiny of the National Energy Policy Report, released in May, reveals that the White House expects to obtain most of the additional oil and natural gas the United States will need in the years ahead from foreign rather than domestic sources. As the report makes clear, this will entail greater political and military intervention abroad.
According to the report, US consumption of oil is expected to rise from 19.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2000 to 25.8 million in 2020, an increase of 32 percent. At the same time, domestic oil production is expected to remain more or less flat, at about 9 million bpd--meaning that total imports will have to rise by 61 percent, from 10 to 16.5 million bpd.
In the report's final chapter, the Administration spells out how America will achieve these increased oil imports. It articulates an aggressive, two-pronged strategy for gaining access to key overseas supplies of petroleum: first, pressuring foreign governments to open up their energy sectors to significant investment by US energy firms, and second, insuring political stability in producing countries so that the US companies can safely operate in them.
In particular the report calls on the government "to continue supporting American energy firms competing in markets abroad," "to level the playing field for U.S. companies overseas" and "to reduce barriers to trade and investment." To overcome these barriers in Latin America, the secretaries of State and Commerce are directed to take steps "to improve the energy investment climate for the growing level of energy investment flows between the United States and each of these countries," especially in Brazil and Venezuela, which historically have resisted foreign involvement in their petroleum industries.
Other such directives are aimed at increasing the involvement of US energy firms in the petroleum industries of Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the Persian Gulf countries. The State and Commerce departments are expected to use economic and political pressure to remove impediments to investment by foreign firms, which could provoke strong opposition in these countries.
But it is not only State and Commerce that will carry out this policy. The report makes clear that the procurement of sufficient energy for future US requirements is a matter of "national security," and it highlights a number of areas where this effort is likely to require support from the US military. One of these is Colombia, now in the throes of a brutal civil war. Because Colombia's oil fields and pipelines are located in areas often attacked by guerrillas, any increase in production there would require intensified counterguerrilla operations by the Colombian military and its US allies, though this is not mentioned in the energy report.
Similarly, the report calls for increased energy production in the Caspian Sea basin, where the Administration seeks to accelerate the construction of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. Because these countries are suffering from internal unrest and violence, any such effort will mean stepped-up arms deliveries and the dispatch of US military advisers.
Even more worrisome are the implications of increased US dependence on the oil supplies of the Persian Gulf. As the report notes, the Gulf is the only area with sufficient petroleum reserves to satisfy expanding American demand over the long term. Given the instabilities in the region, a permanent US military presence there will be necessary, along with intervention in local conflicts.
The basic thrust of the Bush energy policy is clear: To acquire an ever-enlarging supply of imported oil, Washington will have to step up its meddling in the internal affairs of numerous countries around the world, many of which are deeply divided along political, ethnic and religious lines. The accompanying risk of involvement in foreign wars will grow proportionally.
Opposition has already been voiced to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to the construction of new nuclear power plants. Now it must be joined by vociferous protest against White House plans to funnel more and more of the world's oil to the United States, which will only lead to increased anti-Americanism overseas and endless energy wars.
When they came for Newton Arvin, as he had always known they someday would--the sex cops, the truth squad, the Cossacks, fathers and philistines--he spilled his beings. In the cross-shaped top-floor apartment of his Northampton tower, "unbreachable save for two narrow sets of steeply twisting stairs," the 60-year-old professor of English at Smith College was listening to Mozart, reading Proust and drinking Scotch. He didn't own a TV set. (Nor had he ever learned to drive.) But there were drawers full of linen shirts and cashmere sweaters, shelves stocked with leather-bound Loeb Library Greek and Latin classics, a Leonard Baskin woodcut (of Tormented Man) and the journal to which he had recently confided: "Emerson is right about old age: one of its blessings is the knowledge that there cannot be so very much more of all this."
There were also, alas, muscle magazines like Adonis and Physique Pictorial, photographs of Athenian boys at homoerotic play and, on his bedroom bureau, a bodybuilder snapshot of a nude Truman Capote. Yes, Truman Capote, the one great love of Newton Arvin's life and the only hero in this dreary tale, which is otherwise a parable of the Closet and the Snitch.
Although his criticism was admired by both H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, Arvin had all but vanished from our sonar till three years ago, when The New Yorker published Barry Werth's "encapsulation" of this book. He might turn up occasionally in memoirs of the 1930s and 1940s, back when he was still a radical, before giving it up for Harry Truman, as he gave up writing for The Nation in favor of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, but those suggestive biographies in which he looked at the secret lives of Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville through binoculars of Marx and Freud were out of print, waiting for queer theory to catch up. He was a regular, and even a trustee, at Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs Bomarzo of writers' colonies, before they dumped him at crunch time, just like Smith. And he is also mentioned in the journals of his former student Sylvia Plath, who, maybe because he had so disliked Ted Hughes, describes him as "fingering his keyring compulsively in class, bright hard eyes, red-rimmed, turned cruel, lecherous, hypnotic, and holding me caught like the gnome Loerke held." But until Werth got interested, the rest was fuzzy. Didn't he die suddenly at age 63, coincident with the publication of his book on Longfellow, during a New York newspaper strike, after some hushed-up smut-ring scandal?
Whereas we tend to recall the worst of Truman Capote: the performing seal and celebrity pudge of the talk shows, gossip columns and police blotters, devolved back into a caterpillar from the monarch butterfly on the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms; the neogothic parajournalist who propagandized for capital punishment before and after his masked ball at the Plaza Hotel; the corrupted choirboy who traded in his bamboo flute and his marzipan sweet tooth for a cold-blooded, bestselling Grant Wood grotesque (and still his boozy mother couldn't stand her sissy son); the society poodle who stopped licking and started biting the hands of those who used to pet him, only to end up with a bottle for a mother, never delivering that so-much-blabbed-about great novel, guzzling vodka in a dirty bathrobe and hallucinating assassins from whom he could only be saved by Liz Smith. Of this Truman Capote, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that he "never showed an interest in political or moral debate and perhaps this was prudent since ideas, to some degree, may define one's social life and could just be excess baggage he didn't need to bring aboard; and, worse, boring, like the ruins and works of art he declined to get off the yacht to see."
Yet only one of these two men was brave, loyal, free or even liked himself. After Newton Arvin named every name he could think of to the Massachusetts State Police in September 1960, he would explain himself to one of those he fingered: "I couldn't go through this alone." We are reminded not only of Whittaker Chambers, Elia Kazan, Linda Tripp and David Brock, but of what Marianne Moore once said about Jean Cocteau:
One has...the sense of something submerged and estranged, of a somnambulist with feet tied, of a musical instrument in a museum, that should be sounding; of valor in a fairy tale changed by the hostile environment into a frog or carp that cannot leave its pool or well. In myth there is a principle of penalty. Snow White must not open the door of the dwarf's house when the peddler knocks. Pandora must not open the box. Perseus must not look at the Gorgon except in his shield.
Newton Arvin's stereotypical story is almost as depressing to read about as it must have been to live through. From his unhappy, bookish childhood in Valparaiso, Indiana, he recalls an ominous incident with a secondhand bike when he was 12. Noticing that the seat was too low for him, his father raised it. After a long July afternoon of riding, the boy developed a painful limp. During the next few days of "nervous anxiety, irritability, and dejection," he suffered what he would come to believe was his first nervous collapse. His subsequent propensity for "crackups and breakdowns," his physical weaknesses and cowardice, his hypochondria and hysterical self-absorption, even the symbolism of the sexually injured, father-hating hero in the Ahab section of his Melville book, could all be traced back to this Philoctetes trauma, as if a bicycle seat were a pineal gland. Still, "I had succeeded in getting attention of a concerned and kindly sort from my father, and that, no doubt, was enough."
He was, he thought, "uniquely misbegotten": "I was certainly a girlish small boy, not a virile one, even in promise. I was timid, shrinking, weak, and unventuresome. I had no skill in boyish games and sports, and no interest in them, and I was quickly penalized as a result." But at Harvard, although they drummed him out of the Student Army Training Corps for failing a physical, Arvin by age 19 had already read everybody from Freud to Lenin, from Emily Dickinson to William James, plus, decisively, Van Wyck Brooks, whose Letters and Leadership persuaded him that "literary criticism was social criticism, a nobler calling" than the business culture he despised. He had also discovered a crush on his roommate.
Van Wyck Brooks was more obliging than the roommate. So impressed was the literary editor of The Freeman by Arvin's Phi Beta Kappa book reviews that he offered Arvin a job. When that fell through, Arvin taught briefly at the Detroit Country Day School, where "the strain of working with boys just a few years younger than he while concealing his ambiguous sexual longings unnerved him." He didn't finish the year. Fortunately, an all-girl student body at Smith College needed an instructor in English composition, and he fell spellbound into his lifelong locus, like a frog in a pool or a carp in a well. While he would leave Northampton--to Europe on one fraught occasion, to Yaddo whenever they said yes and to mental hospitals almost as often as Yaddo, as if they were weight-watcher spas with electroshock--Northampton was the only home that Arvin knew for the next thirty-seven years. He was afraid of Harvard, afraid of New York and afraid of himself. It is hard to imagine his ever voting for William Z. Foster in 1932.
But in the Smith library, Arvin found the clue to Hawthorne, a "queer changeling" like himself: "It was an ill thing to have a poetic imagination." Worse, "to be a writer of storybooks was little better, little less degenerate, than to be a fiddler." The indifference of the world was a punishment for "the very act of withdrawing into himself." The essential sin, Hawthorne seemed to say, "lies in whatever shuts up the spirit in a dungeon where he is alone, beyond the reach of common sympathies and the general sunlight. All that isolates damns: all that associates, saves." The "A" embroidered on Hester's breast obsessed Arvin as much as Hawthorne: "For how deep a wrong might it not be the expiation, and how terrible loneliness the cause!" Werth sums up both of them: "The root sickness of America...wasn't exploitation or deviancy. It was repression and self-hatred--shame."
And at Smith, in 1931, he met the woman who would be his wife. Poor Mary Garrison, a college swimmer with "a full face, bobbed hair, long limbs, and sumptuous breasts." If it worked for Hawthorne... Before their marriage, he asked her to read Walt Whitman's Calamus poems, hoping she'd guess his secret. Mary didn't. She was no more use to him than electroshock, morphine or tranquilizers. "Real intimacy with anyone," says Werth, "was more than Arvin could achieve." If he emerged from his "guilt-filled isolation," it was to consort with male friends, whether heterosexuals like Granville Hicks and Daniel Aaron or homosexuals like Oskar Seidlin, Howard Doughty and, later on, untenured faculty like Ned Spofford and Joel Dorius, whose names he blurted to the cops in 1960. Not even his oldest boyhood pal, David Lilienthal, busting trusts all the way up to the Atomic Energy Commission, ever guessed that Newton was a Calamus until he read it in the papers. There was room in this closet for only one hanger.
Yaddo was another story. In that magic castle, not only did he write the Whitman book that faced up to the poet's "manly attachment" and self-celebration, if not his own, but he also met Katherine Anne Porter, Louis Kronenberger, Eudora Welty, Marguerite Young, John Malcolm Brinnin, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, age 21 in 1946, after which many meals, movies, moonlit walks and, Werth tells us, a two-year love affair that was "the happiest, most productive period of Arvin's life," including most of the hard work on Melville. About this furtive scholar, Capote said: "He was like a lozenge that you could keep turning to the light, one way or another, and the most beautiful colors would come out." And later added: "Newton was my Harvard." To "Little T," Newton wrote:
Only I am not a bad boy, and neither are you; we are very good indeed and we shall be better and better as time wears on--for we are at the source of good, and we are drinking the water of truth, and what we are making between us is purely beautiful. Is it possible to be better than that?
More amusing, so much so that it breaks the heart, is a note from Newton in Northampton to Truman in New York: "LOST probably in Manhattan, one peppermint stick, beautifully pink and white, wonderfully straight, deliciously sweet. About a hand's length. Of great intrinsic and also sentimental value to the owner."
But they couldn't live together: Not in New York, where Arvin was as terrified as he was fascinated by drag queens in Harlem. Not even in Nantucket, which was all right in the mornings when Arvin worked on Meville and Capote wrote Other Voices, and also in the afternoons, when Arvin read Pascal and Capote sunbathed. But over dinner, F.O. Matthiessen and the Trillings were not impressed by Truman. (Said Edmund Wilson: "A not unpleasant little monster, like a fetus with a big head." Said Capote: "I must have looked like a male Lolita to those people.") And surely not in Northampton, where Arvin "lived under more or less strict protective cover as a faculty bachelor." It was, Werth tells us, "unthinkable that a staid New England townsman, even a reluctant one like Arvin, would cohabit with someone as flagrantly undisguised as Capote," who showed up on alternate weekends, "raced through town on his visits trailing a signature long scarf" and even sat in the back of Arvin's classes on Proust, James and Shakespeare.
Moreover, Arvin didn't want to live with anybody. Not for the first time or the last, he undertook to sabotage himself. Putting off Capote, who couldn't write at home with his alcoholic mother and wanted to spend time up north, Arvin cautioned him: "It is as if something physical like blood were ebbing out of me--not always, but much of the time--when I am not alone; and the point comes when my identity begins to slip away from me, and I cease to be a whole person even for someone I love." And no sooner had Capote sailed for Europe in May 1948 than Arvin entered into an affair with one of the young novelist's best friends in New York. Capote, as it happens, didn't find out about it from the friend himself, although he would have. He found out about it by reading Arvin's journal.
Which would have been the end of it, except that twelve years later when Arvin was sick, broke and besieged, abandoned by Smith and Yaddo, arrested and facing a trial for trafficking in pornography in a state in which sodomy was still against the law, it was Capote who phoned and wrote from New York and Europe, Capote who made repeated offers of money to help out, Capote who stuck to a friend who hadn't even liked his books, Capote who left funds in his will to endow an award for Lifetime Achievement in Literary Criticism in Arvin's name, Capote who may have been out, flagrant and undisguised, but understood his loyalties enough to stand tall and fast. One of many slogans in Alcoholics Anonymous--we call them bumper stickers--is that you're only as sick as your secrets. Like many AA bumper stickers, this one is smarter than it looks.
I see that I want to fast-forward through the rest, speed-read the writing on the wall, past behaviors simultaneously more reckless and clandestine--the blue movies, the readings from Propertius and the seducing of junior faculty; the trips by bus to Springfield to cruise the Arch and to New York for the Everard Baths; the Etruscan dancers and the public restrooms--unto hospitals (McLean's was his favorite) and suicide attempts (two, both featuring sixteen Nembutals). Of course, Arvin suffered from depression. Of course, he medicated that depression with alcohol, which is a depressant. Of course, if you are serious about suicide, try jumping like F.O. Matthiessen from eleven stories up. And, of course, he died of pancreatic cancer complicated by diabetes, both of which are associated with alcohol abuse. But, at a certain point of muddled vehemence, all these ailments conspire with one another, transcending any one origin myth. Even after Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe raved about his Melville book, he still left the light on all night long. Equally, of course, as Werth observes, "his whole life had been against the law." Death by misadventure in the closet.
How can he be read with respect, or perhaps at all, in a time when we all seem agreed that anguish, inquietude, the experience of guilt, and the knowledge of the Abyss are the essential substance of which admissible literature is made?
(Newton Arvin on RalphWaldo Emerson)
Oh, come off it, Newton.
Still, when the cops came to ransack his tower and then asked him who his friends were, who else had looked at the dirty pictures so ferociously objected to by the Postmaster General of the United States, whatever possessed him to rattle off their names and ruin their careers? Werth doesn't have a theory, any more than he has time for more than a cursory look at the scholarly books, any more than he has bothered to talk to any of the women who worshiped Arvin at Smith in the 1950s and who speak of him, even today, as "a tragic figure," any more than he has done any comparison shopping among brave and craven behaviors by literary intellectuals at moments of stress or witch hunt, even before they started mortgaging their skepticism, their intellectual property rights and their firstborn children for a think-tank sinecure, a corporate canary cage, an Op-Ed parking space, a cable-television camera and an invitation to a way-cool party. He is just relieved to be able to tell us that 1960 was the last time such a thing could happen here.
Are we so sure? I'm as pleased as anyone else that Northampton elected a lesbian mayor in 1999 and that the Empire State Building turns lavender on Friday nights before Gay Pride parades. But the blood-dimmed tide has reversed itself before, even in the ancient world, where you'd think Alexander the Great taught us something about gays in the military. And in the Renaissance, where Michelangelo proved to be a credit to his race. And in prewar Vienna, postwar Weimar and merry old England, which chose to crush its very own Enigmatic thinking machine, Alan Turing. From Harvey Milk to Matthew Shepard, the signals are scary. And the same sexual hysterics are also busy going after stem cells and French contraceptives. Meanwhile, people lose their jobs for logging on to the wrong website.
I sometimes wonder if the Closet doesn't create the Snitch; if, according to another principle of penalty, outlaw desires encoded like A.E. Housman's in Latin poetry, or Alan Turing's in cryptanalysis, or Newton Arvin's in symbolic literature, or even in the superstructure of Marxism and the manifest content of psychoanalysis and the deconstructive text, don't elaborate a psychology of secrets--a kind of underground, spycraft and espionage of false-bottomed narratives, counterfeit identities, microdots, camouflage and disinformation; the closet as deep cover and the snitch as counterintelligence. Are we all hiding? Will we all betray ourselves...and others? If any of this is true, then "outing" may contain an element of self-hatred. On the other hand, without snitches, there couldn't be a War on Drugs, nor would we need the Witness Protection Program. On the third hand, Truman Capote was transparency itself.