This essay is excerpted from E.L. Doctorow's new book, Reporting
the Universe (Harvard).
How much, in just twenty years, Donald Revell has changed! From the
Abandoned Cities (1983), his debut volume, included a villanelle, a
sestina, rhymed sonnets and meditative terza rima.
Ever since Clark Kent first donned a pair of oversized glasses and,
somewhat improbably, hid his Superman persona from Lois Lane, questions
of identity have been a staple of the comic-book genr
The film begins with a federal marshal intoning "This is a very
difficult time for our country" and ends with the singing of the
national anthem, performed before Rudy Giuliani himself. Between these
moments comes a journey of emotional healing, undertaken by an average
American Joe (or Dave, actually) who
can rightly describe himself as "a pretty nice guy." Too nice, perhaps.
Although this quiet hero lives underneath an Army recruitment billboard,
Dave has grown used to letting others push him around. He can--he
must--learn to stand up for himself. So must we all.
I affirm that the preceding paragraph is entirely descriptive and
contains no interpretation, except for that "So must we all" part, which
is hard to avoid. Such is the message delivered to a troubled America by
Anger Management, the movie in which Adam Sandler shows the way toward
national renewal by getting angry, and also really feeling his lust for
Jack Nicholson. I recommend it to everyone.
Now, I know there are skeptics among you. Some dismiss all Hollywood
movies as commercial products, incapable by nature of rising to the
level of art. (When art lovers want to watch moving images these days,
they turn to Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle. Barney has taken to
embedding DVDs of his films into limited-edition sculptures, which then
sell for the price of a nice vacation home.) Others admit that Hollywood
movies may occasionally become artlike; but since the medium is
collaborative and famously prone to compromise, there are people who
doubt that an Adam Sandler comedy can mean anything, except in the
haphazard, semiconscious way that calls for ideological decoding. That
Anger Management might develop a coherent argument, point by point--that
it might think--is itself unthinkable.
So let's put Anger Management to the test. Granted, it is twice over a
genre picture: a buddy movie (meant to combine the audiences of two
stars) and an Adam Sandler vehicle (which operates by its own
now-familiar rules). If this were fast food, it would come with fries.
But then, maybe we're the ones who shouldn't be too fast.
The story casts Sandler as a 35-year-old corporate drone who abruptly
finds himself enmeshed in a legal proceeding fit for Josef K. Presumed
guilty from the start--and of what, exactly?--he is remanded to the
custody of one Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), a therapist who specializes
in treating the criminally enraged. This sentence seems not so much
unjust as inexplicable, since it's handed down to a man whose bland,
blinking face is an apology made flesh, whose tenor voice barely has the
strength to force itself through his nose. I might carelessly laugh at
the judge's decision and pass on; but I prefer to factor its incongruity
into the first proposition the movie sets forth, a proposition that
again recalls Kafka: It is absurd to treat a punishment as a cure, or a
cure as punishment.
The movie arrives at the next stage in its argument approximately one
reel later, when Nicholson moves in with Sandler, the better to perform
"full contact" therapy (or punishment). This is the moment when
Nicholson strips away his tweedy, professorial disguise to don a black
beret and shades, so that he may revert to his image as a cinematic lord
of misrule. The proposition here, I suppose, is that the person given
power over you to punish or cure might turn out to be a fraud or madman.
Sandler reasonably fears this possibility, which the audience, too, is
led to entertain, given the predatory looks that Nicholson keeps
stealing at his charge--predatory in a lounge-lizard way, I mean. No
sooner has Nicholson settled into the apartment than he's bedding down
naked with Sandler, demanding to see his penis, forcing him to sing
about being gay and taking him cruising for transvestite hookers. Third
proposition: The fraud or madman given power over you wants immediate
access to your body. Or maybe he won't be satisfied until you want
access to his.
By the way, did I mention that Sandler fears sudden, unprovoked assaults
below the waist, perpetrated by other men? That's why he's always
scanning the perimeter for danger, in a shlemiel's version of post-
September 11 anxiety; and that's why it's interesting that this
alertness to criminal threats (at a very difficult time for our country)
should temporarily be resolved into a psychological problem, through the
force of Nicholson's assaults.
Let's say there's a rupture of personal boundaries. (As description,
this is a fair minimum.) Such interpenetration is evidently needed
before Sandler can question himself seriously, so that he may wonder,
for the first time, whether he does need help. Self-questioning is also
needed to make criminal guilt go away. Once Sandler begins to yield,
Nicholson willingly announces his patient's innocence, in a speech that
may be insincere but makes an impressive racket. Through a form of
sexual submission, Sandler has changed himself from a potential
terrorist (a ticking bomb, as they say) into a loyal American, which in
this context means being a nut-case pure and simple.
But as I said, "pure and simple" is only temporary. Like a bright
teenager who's just picked up some Freudian jargon, the movie goes
through a phase of explaining everything psychologically and then,
fortunately, moves on. I think it would have been unsatisfyingly simple
just to say that wars are made by homophobes who obsess over basket
size; and the screenwriter of Anger Management, David Dorfman,
apparently agrees with me, since he complicates the argument during a
third act that sometimes plays shakily but is always worth thinking
about. To complete its train of reasoning, Anger Management reintroduces
the motif of crime, forces Sandler to act in a civic arena and demands
that his problems be solved not through private candor but by public
Without giving away too many of the jokes, I can say that this
conclusion involves a significant relaxation of official vigilance
against surprise attacks, accompanied by an assertion of the ties of
community; and by a stroke of cinematic integrity, both these actions
are conveyed through a well-known convention of the Adam Sandler movie,
the celebrity cameo appearance. As the famous faces pass by, you're left
with the impression that everyone in New York City, Dave excepted, had
already known Dr. Buddy Rydell. Now Dave, too, is at home in the big
group, which functions (to Kafka's astonishment) as a kind of benevolent
Q.E.D. I need add nothing more than that I laughed out loud about thirty
times, or approximately once every three minutes, with background smiles
and chuckles left unclocked. Peter Segal directed, efficiently for the
most part, with an obvious determination to put Sandler and Nicholson
together in the frame as often as possible (not a foregone conclusion,
in today's buddy pictures). The fine supporting cast is headed by the
ever-welcome Marisa Tomei as Dave's long-suffering girlfriend.
Did I mention he has a girlfriend? Did I say he's accused of being a
chronic woman-beater? It occurs to me that my point-by-point reading of
Anger Management is coherent but incomplete. So go--fill in the blanks.
Christopher Guest's comedies are pretty much free of celebrity cameos,
but they, too, seem like community affairs, since they're made with an
ever-widening circle of friends. A core group that includes Eugene Levy,
Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Larry
Miller worked with Guest in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, two
mock documentaries about low-grade forms of show business. Now these
performers, joined by about a dozen other lunatics, are helping Guest
make not-quite-loving fun of yet another orphan genre of the
entertainment business: folk music.
As an object of satire, this would seem to be as unnecessary as it gets.
Searching for some reason for the existence of A Mighty Wind--a title to
bring out the sixth-grader in all of us--you might imagine that Guest
wants to laugh at those paunchy, graying people who still look back,
with earnest nostalgia, on their acoustic-strum youth.
I'm talking to you, hypocrite Nation reader--my lookalike! My brother!
But then, what Guest has always liked best in his characters is their
unstoppable, otherworldly belief in themselves, or rather in an image
that no setback or indignity can shatter. With grinning amazement at
such optimism, Guest now presents the ultimate show of the self-deluded:
a reunion concert in New York City featuring three folk-music acts of
the 1960s. They are The New Main Street Singers (a sweater-wearing
"neuftet" featuring John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey);
the love-bird duo of Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine
O'Hara); and the less-than-stellar Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and
Harry Shearer--the same guys who were Spinal Tap, now playing identical
roles relative to one another but performing ditties about the Spanish
Civil War, or a train wreck in a coal mine).
All three acts are delectable, as are the showbiz oddities who gather
around them; but the most engaging of all are Mitch & Mickey. In a
departure from the previous movies, which featured balanced ensembles,
Guest has made this duo the focus of A Mighty Wind. The disadvantage is
unevenness; sometimes the film sags, when it turns to characters who
aren't fully developed. The benefits are two performances of
contrasting, demented intensity from O'Hara and Levy. As Mickey, O'Hara
seems to vibrate slightly from keeping in check her rage against Mitch.
After decades of separation, he remains to her the most powerful figure
in the world. To the audience, he's a guy who shuffles through the movie
in a daze, popping his eyes at the phantoms that hover before his face
and swallowing his words like spoonsful of codeine-laced cough syrup,
never quite understanding what Mickey's so upset about.
You should know that the climactic concert, sung and played by the
actors themselves, was recorded as a live performance. A wonderful
decision. It gives you all the fun of participating, without the
embarrassment of actually being there.
Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle
In the past 200 years, all of the earth's great territorial empires,
whether dynastic or colonial, or both, have been destroyed. The list
includes the Russian empire of the czars; the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
the Habsburgs; the German empire of the Hohenzollerns, the Ottoman
Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the overseas empires of Holland, England,
France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" and the
Soviet empire. They were brought down by a force that, to the
indignation and astonishment of the imperialists, turned out to be
irresistible: the resolve of peoples, no matter how few they were or how
poor, to govern themselves.
With its takeover of Iraq, the United States is attempting to reverse
this universal historical verdict. It is seeking to reinvent the
imperial tradition and reintroduce imperial rule--and on a global
scale--for the twenty-first century. Some elements, like the danger of
weapons of mass destruction, are new. Yet any student of imperialism
will be struck by the similarities between the old style of imperialism
and the new: the gigantic disparity between the technical and military
might of the conquerors and the conquered; the inextricable combination
of rapacious commercial interest and geopolitical ambition and design;
the distortion and erosion of domestic constitutions by the immense
military establishments, overt and covert, required for foreign
domination; the use of one colony as a stepping stone to seize others or
pressure them into compliance with the imperial agenda; the appeal to
jingoism on the home front. True, American officials state at every
opportunity that they do not intend to "occupy" Iraq. But then the
British in the nineteenth century said the same thing. Two years before
the liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered the conquest of
Egypt he declared that his heart's desire was an "Egypt for the
Egyptians." The liberal imperialist Lord Palmerston said in 1842 in
defense of his gunboat diplomacy, "It is, that commerce may go freely
forth, leading civilization with one hand, and peace with the other, to
render mankind happier, wiser, better." When it came to rule, the
British preferred, wherever possible, not "direct rule" but a sort of
covert domination called "influence"or "indirect rule" or "paramountcy"
(the British were as richly inventive of euphemisms as the United States
is today). Then as now, imperialism, in the words of the great
anti-imperialist Ernest Hobson, was "floated on a sea of vague, shifty,
well-sounding phrases which are seldom tested by close contact with
It was one thing, however, for Europeans, in newfound possession of
modern tools of technical and organizational superiority, to subjugate
"backward" foreign peoples in 1700 or 1800 or 1900. But can it be done
again, in our century, in the wake of that project's universal rejection
by the peoples of the earth? So far, the outlook is unpromising. The
United States vowed to bring about "regime change" in Iraq. The phrase
has rightly been criticized as an outrageously mild euphemism--a vague,
well-sounding, shifty phrase if there ever was one--for an extremely
violent act; but now it turns out that the expression defined a deeper
problem. If I am going to change the oil in my car, I must, before I
remove the old oil in the crankcase, have new oil ready to put in.
Otherwise, my car will quickly overheat and break down on the road. This
is roughly the condition of Iraq two weeks after the destruction of its
former government. The United States, it turns out, forgot to bring a
new government with it when it set out from Kuwait to Baghdad. The
troops brought plenty of MREs (meals ready to eat) but no GRR
(government ready to rule). American forces had no intention of becoming
a police force, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told the press. Did the
Administration perhaps take its own slippery rhetoric about not
occupying Iraq too seriously? The result was a vacuum of authority soon
filled by nearly universal looting. Many Iraqis made clear their hatred
of the old regime and their joy at its disappearance; but it appears
that they had little more confidence in the invader. Finding themselves
caught between local misrule and foreign rule, did they perhaps decide
that they had a momentary opportunity to grab something for themselves
and set about sacking their own country? A journalist, upon arriving in
an Iraqi city, described it as "prelooted." Did the Iraqis, in
anticipation of foreign exploitation, "preloot" their whole country?
The United States thus achieved Regime Removal but not the promised
Regime Change. There were, we can now see, no plans even to keep order
in Iraq, much less to administer it, or organize a government there. The
famous war plan was much discussed; the peace plan, it appears, did not
This became clear when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the
raging anarchy in Iraq as "untidy," and America's new viceroy in Iraq,
retired Gen. Jay Garner, newly arrived in the city of Nasiriyah from the
Hilton hotel in Kuwait, likened events to the American constitutional
convention of 1787, remarking rhetorically, "I don't think they had a
love-in when they had Philadelphia." Does he really think that mayhem in
Iraq, including the extinction of the better part of the country's
cultural treasures, has any resemblance to the deliberations by which
Washington, Franklin and Madison framed the Constitution of the United
States? Is such a man fit to run a country?
So far, the American military giant has proved to be a political pygmy.
The Shiite cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was imported into Iraq from
London by the "coalition" forces, was promptly hacked to death by local
people. The gathering of Iraqis invited by the United States to meet at
a US military base has been boycotted by the country's most important
political groups. In Mosul, American troops have fired upon an angry
mob, killing seven. "It's a show of force, but people don't understand
it," a soldier in Mosul told the Times. "They're not grateful."
Before the war began, it was often said that winning the war would be
easy and winning the peace hard. And it was surely always clear even to
the war's opponents that the United States could drive its tanks from
Kuwait to Baghdad, whereupon the regime of Saddam Hussein would
dissolve. Yet was it ever certain that what followed the conventional
engagements would be a peace? With every day that passes, "the peace"
looks more like another war.
Consider this hypothetical situation.
Globalization: Use this word in a sentence, especially as the cause of
something bad, and you will get knowing nods all around.
The quest for El Dorado, the mythic city of gold, is at the heart of the
tumultuous history of the Americas.