I had never heard of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas before it was recommended to me by my friendly, typically overqualified neighborhood barista. I sought it out on a somewhat aimless whim, and am I ever glad that I did—it is a masterpiece, a true reward for my venture into the literary unfamiliar.
Comprised of five thematically related mini-novels and presented in a parabolic structure wherein the first and last sections are the two halves of one story, the second and penultimate sections the two halves of a different story, etc., with the novel’s vertex the only undivided part (credit where credit is due—the barista is the one who came up with the clever parabola analogy). It is a real tour de force, demonstrating that Mitchell has mastered the medium to such a degree that he needn’t strain in the least to exhibit his powers; the writing is fluid and casual in each new, wildly disparate novelistic idiom Mitchell leaps confidently into. One section takes the form of an explorer’s journal from the 1800s; another is an epistolary novel of European correspondence from the 1930s. There are also a politicized pulp/detective novel set in the very polluted "new dawn" of Reagan's America; a dystopian sci-fi segment; and, at the aforementioned vertex, a postapocalyptic folktale written as if it were directly transcribed from some indigenous oral tradition, which somehow manages to successfully convey everything in an entirely invented future dialect a la A Clockwork Orange.
There is a high degree of intertextuality in Cloud Atlas, which is decidedly postmodern (by which I mean familiar with all styles, forms, and tactics, while privileging none). But one does not need to be familiar with the structural terminology that aptly describes Cloud Atlas in order to appreciate that it is the finest novel to derive a clear majority of its power to move the reader solely from its structure since Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
Todd Haynes says it better than I ever could about the vitality of feminism—-not the middlebrow, commonplace, rather shallow and pointless Gloria Steinem variety, but the passionate, brave, intelligent, invigorating, and bracing Simone de Beauvoir/Germaine Greer kind—-in his introduction to Three Screenplays:
”From my first encounter with the invigorating notion of gender as a product of ideology, feminist theory has left an indelible mark on my own critical—-and creative—-thinking. As far as I knew, at least until the emergence of AIDS in the late 1980s, there was really no study of homosexuality that could rival the complexity—-and diversity—-of feminist thought, from its incorporation of Marx and Freud to its reexamination of film and society. For me, everything I questioned about what it meant to be a man—and how much my sexuality would perpetually challenge those meanings—could be found in arguments posed by feminists.”
I was reminded of Haynes’s thoughts as I read through Molly Haskell’s feminist film history From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, first published in 1974. My selection of Haskell’s book was inspired by the enlightening and entertaining (if somewhat overedited and artificially convivial) videotaped conversation between Haskell and the great Andrew Sarris-- who is also Haskell’s husband-- that was included as a supplement on the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.
Twenty years on from the initial publication of From Reverence to Rape, Haskell, in the Heaven Can Wait conversation, comes across as smart and energetic, full of movie knowledge (and love) and Southern-accented bemusement toward both Lubitsch in retrospect and Sarris in person; she’s like the one they excluded from Designing Women for being a bit too academic and substantial, neither frivolously regressed nor a sassy/coy Southern belle caricature (Haskell originally hailed from Richmond, Virginia, but escaped to the Sorbonne before landing in New York’s intelligentsia). In her writing as of 1974, which one suspects is a bit more militant than it would be (or need to be) in 2005, Haskell is not nearly so vehement and defensive as the book’s agitprop title would seem to indicate. In fact, she spends more than a few pages calling the feminist movement—-at least as it stood at that time—-on their own contradictions, their own misplaced or unwarranted vehemence and defensiveness, which she seems rightly to regard as blind spots or, worse, only superficially “empowered” and even unconsciously concessionary political and ideological quicksand.
Instead, Haskell reminds the movie audiences of 1974 that films rarely, if ever, directly mirror the cultural moment; rather, she argues, what she sees as the previously unheard-of misogyny of cinema screens circa 1974 was a conscious and/or unconscious reaction, on the part of mostly male film establishment, to the actual reality of increased political self-exploration and awareness of women at that time. Haskell accords all due respect to the talents and innovations of Kubrick, Antonioni, Bergman, and Godard even as she critiques their various patronizing or re-mystifying ways of handling “their” women, making a strong case that the shifting focus and artistic freedom of auteurism in the wake of the studio system’s collapse constituted a decreased level of liberation for women onscreen in comparison to the old star/studio system, in which the much more hands-on involvement of women at various levels of the industry (both in front of the camera and in the roles of screenwriters, suppliers of additional dialogue, even costume and makeup departments) created a variety of silver-screen roles and archetypes for women that were much more multifarious and humanized than the ones afforded by the inarguably inventive, original, and revolutionary—-but almost exclusively male—-auteurs of the sixties and seventies.
By acknowledging that a film can be simultaneously great and tainted by misogyny (wondering all the while where the great non-misogynistic films are, or where they will come from), Haskell creates an excellent dialectical pattern that serves her views, the reader, and cinema itself very well. Her attitude is learned, erudite, and collegial rather than vituperative toward fellow critics—-like Sarris and Kael—-with whom she would seem to have some rather sharp divergences. It is unsurprising that Haskell shares, in sharp contrast to Kael’s fevered and sometimes disingenuous anti-ideological stance, the Village Voice-favored objectivity and global sensibility of Sarris and J. Hoberman (probably the most interesting and relevant regular film critic reviewing today): she has actually been the film reviewer for that venerable institution, and her style adroitly balances itself between engagement, astuteness, and obsession without ever tipping into desperation or smugness. In fact, despite its impressive range and confidence, From Reverence to Rape can most interestingly be read as Haskell’s simultaneously personal and ideologically analytical struggle to find a new way of responding both observantly and with a specifically cinephilic generosity—-without any ideological judgments to the point of exclusion—-toward the history and content of the medium, but on her own (feminist) terms.
Just in case anyone thought that the art of the spectacular marriage of brilliant lyric and complementarily brilliant melody was a dead or forgotten aspect of the starmaking machinery behind the popular song, the very welcome behemoth omnibus Luke Haines is Dead–a collection of salient album tracks/singles, b-sides, rarities, and radio sessions by all Luke Haines projects from The Auteurs to Baader Meinhof to his solo work, unfortunately excluding anything by Black Box Recorder—is an ample and thorough reminder that, in England at least, pop songwriting artists possessed of miraculous sensitivity, observation, and articulation are still hard at work.
Luke Haines is Dead is not as consistent as the last manifestation of Haines’s sublimely fucked-up idea of a “best-of,” 2002’s Das Capital: The Songwriting Genius of Luke Haines, in which his “greatest hits” were re-recorded with a symphony orchestra to almost unexceptionably fantastic effect, but three discs packed with tracks the likes of which you’ll hear nowhere else are still very well worth the investment of listening time and money (not much money, either; the set runs for about £13.99, approximately $25 U.S.). Included are very rare vinyl-only b-sides—the little piano-and-glockenspiel (or xylophone?)-driven b-side “She Might Take a Train;” the deep-cello mindless-entertainment attack “Disneyworld,” which contains the timeless protestation “There’s nothing wrong with Louis Mayer;” the ominously political “I’ve Been a Fool for You” by Baader Meinhof—and some alternate versions that best the originals, like a recording of “Johnny and the Hurricanes” that sounds like a Das Capital outtake; snare-drumless Rough Trade single versions of “Valet Parking” and “Housebreaker;” an “Oliver Twist Manifesto” that, like Morrissey’s “Billy Budd,” contains samples from the David Lean film, etc.
It all adds up to the kind of thing that makes you glad to have your wits and senses intact enough to take it in and appreciate it, and it is a further reinforcement (as if one was needed!) of Haines’s well-earned place—alongside Morrissey, Brett Anderson, and Jarvis Cocker—as a contemporary pop singer/songwriter whose work will remain timeless and is very likely to find a perpetually refreshed audience in the appropriately appreciative sectors of future generations.
I now forget what ‘net-surfing whim led me to look up Roland Barthes on Wikipedia, but I’m glad I did, as I unearthed this happy-making, heretofore unknown to me autobiographical tidbit: “His long, productive career reached from the early days of structuralist linguistics in France up to the peak of post-structuralism, and Barthes' works are considered key texts of both structuralism and post-structuralism. Because Barthes was gay, although not openly so until late in his life, some take him as an antecedent for queer theory.” Somewhere in literary heaven’s gay bar, someone is saying, “Roland Barthes, meet Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Gertrude Stein.”
Many things I’ve come across in my life and in my explorations of film, music, and the vicissitudes of our culture have led me back to my bookshelf to dip into Barthes’s Mythologies, an endlessly useful and inspiring book—probably his best and certainly his most accessible—for those of us interested in cultural studies and criticism (it is also featured, alongside Susan Sontag’s Death Kit, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers as a touchstone text for inquisitive and rebellious ‘60s youth). This time, I just opened to the beginning to read a few passages, and was struck by a paragraph in the preface explaining why Barthes wrote the essays (originally published in 1954-1956 in Les Lettres Nouvelles) collected in Mythologies:
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