Most films make the unspoken assumption that their characters are defined by and limited to their plots. But lives are not about stories. Stories are about lives. That is the difference between films for children and films for adults. —Roger Ebert
It’s astonishing, when you think about it, how many of our classic places for randomly meeting people, of having unpredictable and perhaps romantic experiences, have disappeared in the last five years. If they aren’t gone completely, they are in the process of becoming so rarified that they are not part of our everyday radar. This struck me the last time I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop when I had this sudden urge to wander over to the Borders bookstore that used to be nearby and browse and maybe buy something if it stimulated me. Then I realized I could no longer do this. People used to do this all the time—buy a book or magazine, wander over to Peet’s, and drink and read, think and discuss, but now, in this age of technological miracles (ie, the Internet), it was no longer possible. The fastest I can hope for is 2-day Amazon delivery for a premium, and they wouldn’t bring it to the coffee shop anyway.
Think of how many romantic scenes from Woody Allen movies are set in bookstores, where the co-stars fall in love while talking about Kierkegaard or Proust or something appropriately Woodyesque. While some town still feature off-beat used shops with shelves of dusty titles from the far and recent past, bookstores in general are about three steps removed from the Dodo bird. The only chain left is Barnes and Noble, and it’s on oxygen. Where will nerds go after a date, to lap up cappuccinos and talk about their favorite writers or the Focus Features flick they just saw?
Same with record stores. Music nerds male and female used to love debating about their favorite bands over piles of vinyl or even clattery plastic CDs cases. Now music exists as bits that flow through wires—you don’t even get cover art anymore. College kids have likely never been in a music store, never had the pleasure of asking a clerk his thoughts or arguing on behalf of their favorite music. More than that, though, as with books there’s something about leafing through the covers, reading the liner notes, or unexpectedly bumping into something that becomes your favorite, or reminds you that it used to be your favorite and you haven’t given it the time of day in a while and maybe you should. How many book or album titles did you discover just because you impulsively reached out your hand to something on a shelf. It could have been the art work, it could have been anything, but whatever it was, a thumbnail on a tiny screen isn’t as compelling.
I remember one day I went to a bookstore in my last year of high school looking for something—I have no idea what—and for some reason, was drawn to a title on the same shelf that had nothing to do with my quest. It was called Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary by Robert Nisbet. I had never heard of him and didn’t even really understand the point of the book at first…being young and indoctrinated with a public school “civics” education, I felt the word prejudices reflected only racial bigotry and intolerance, and was surprised that someone would name a book with that word, framing it in a positive light (A Philosophical Dictionary) at that.
On sheer impulse I bought the book, and discovered it was a collection of alphabetical essays of the author’s view on all sorts of subjects: abortion, envy, love, religion, wit, genius, intimacy. “Much in the spirit of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary,” the forward told me—there was another title and another man I knew nothing about. Today I know a lot about both of them, and both have effected my view of life, thanks to that random encounter in a bookstore when I wasn’t even looking for it. While it’s not impossible to have something similar happen while browsing titles from a virtual bookstore on an iPad (“If you like this you’ll probably also like…”), it’s far less likely to happen with the narrowly-targeted titles borne of algorithms that just don’t reflect the wandering curiosity of, well, at least me. (No, I won’t want to buy all the Twilight books because I once googled an unrelated Kristen Stewart movie, thank you.)
Wandering down aisles in book and record stores and checking out the newest titles, these were things I did as a kid the way a generation before me rode the roller coaster at Coney Island or drank from soda fountains at drugstores. Today we turn on our screens, heads down, tuning out the real world for our synthetic one of bits and bytes.
And that’s why I think writing engaging novels is going to get harder. We’re encased in our private universes more, universes designed to feed us exactly what we ask. That’s not good for the random experiences that shake us up, which is how every story has to begin. We can still be shaken up by dinosaurs and superheroes, aliens and werewolves, but I wonder what the Woody Allens of the future will do with no bookstores, old movie houses, and coffee shops for a rainy day of contemplating, arguing, romancing. How else can Welsey and Daniel even meet?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I buy lots of CDs online, use the net as much as anybody to find what I want, and profit from it, at least in the budgetary sense. And to some extent I’m just dragged along, kicking and screaming. I ignore the silly automated recommendations, and am a curiosity seeker. I do wander through virtual stores (as well as actual—I’m lucky that where I live there are still a relatively large number—although shrinking every day—of indie shops). I try to go out of my usual areas of exploration. I’m glad I do this even if the result is disappointing. Last night I watched a movie that was off the beaten path for me and I disliked it. But I’m still glad I watched.
We need spaces for random experiences. Environments tailored exclusively for us sound like a great idea, but they make our world smaller, because they only know as much about us as we know about ourselves—and that’s not nearly as much as most of us think. Sure we are able to skim faster and easier than ever before, but that’s not the same. There’s something about bumping right up against something new and challenging and, dare I say it, even confrontational and annoying, that’s exhilarating. We need to be randomly shaken and stirred every now and then, reminded of things we’d forgotten or gotten away from, something outside the scope of your recent past purchasing patterns and “like” clicks. When the late Roger Ebert learned that movie-watching was switching from the large-screen experience to home VCRs, he said in his book A Kiss Is Still A Kiss, “Count me in with the marauding bands.” Me too.
In 1851 a novel by an obscure American made its quiet debut. It did not turn out to be a best-seller. Exactly 40 years later, after the death of its author, the New York Times stated, “There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week…a man who is so little-known even by name to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and that of only three or four lines.” Herman Melville was then known only as an ex-sailor who had described life among the cannibals of the South Sea. Oh, and incidentally, he also wrote a few unsuccessful novels. One was about a big whale.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, unsold copies of The Great Gatsby were still in the publisher’s warehouse. The man who today is iconic with the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties experienced only relatively modest success in his lifetime, and most of that was for magazine potboilers forgotten today.
It’s interesting to note the letter Fitzgerald sent to his publisher when he finished the work: “I think that at last I’ve done something really my own, but how good ‘my own’ is remains to be seen.”
Such self-doubt! Nowadays we live in a very different universe.
I’ve always been amused by the term “Instant classic,” because it’s an inherent contradiction. A classic endures. It’s the exact opposite of instant.
And we really don’t know what’s going to endure.
I often think I would like to go 50 or 100 years into the future and look at what’s still in print, or byte, or whatever the format is by then. Will Harry Potter still be a massive favorite? Will teens be devouring Bella and Edward’s romance? Or will the standard-bearers be titles we have never heard of, or are only modestly popular today?
It’s hard to say, because what determines popularity has changed in the last decade or so—something almost no one has noticed or at least commented on. Used to be there were people in society who were entrusted to know a little more about their given subject than anyone else. Don’t get me wrong: critics have never been entirely popular, and have often been vilified. But in the past most people accepted the general concept of expertise. Artistic canons were not considered a product of the devil. The critics, whose job was to see more product in his area than we possibly could and have greater experience with it than we had time for, were taken seriously.
Today that’s changed. Critics are so irrelevant that Yahoo’s movie page no longer even links to their reviews. Most magazines of criticism have gone belly-up or become unabashed cheerleaders for their industries. The dean of movie critics, Roger Ebert, has recently announced his TV show has gone on hiatus because it’s out of money. No one reads professional reviewers anymore. Art criticism is dead, having been replaced by art promotion. In this age of the Internet and instant marketing, the voice of the people matter, because collectively we’re supposed to be so smart.
In 1813 a new symphony was premiered by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was the single biggest success in his career, and sent the crowd into wild delirium. To put it in modern terms, Beethoven rocked the house. He was now the number one favorite composer among listeners in Vienna and probably the rest of Europe as well.
The critics, however, hated it. And they still do.
Today this work isn’t even found among his nine numbered symphonies, and it’s almost never performed. This “tenth” symphony, called Wellington’s Victory or sometimes The Battle of Vitoria, is so abysmal that admirers of the composer would rather just forget that he wrote it, and we tell ourselves he did it for altruistic reasons (as a benefit to raise money for wounded soldiers). The motivation may have been laudatory, but it doesn’t change the fact that, like “We Are The World,” the music itself is horrible.
Now imagine if the people instead of the critics were allowed to decide Beethoven’s canon. That little gem called the Fifth Symphony likely would go by the wayside, not to mention the late string quartets and piano sonatas, today largely regarded as the peak of instrumental music, not just by Beethoven, but by anyone.
To be fair, the critics didn’t get those works immediately either. But they eventually did. The public took longer. A lot longer. About a hundred years.
As another great composer, Gustav Mahler, once commented about his immediate lack of a fan base, “Someday my time will come.” It has. And without Twitter, too.
The audience did not bring these works to the forefront. As un-PC as it is to say today, critical consensus did.
It’s harder to know what from this era will await us in 2060 or 2100. Will tweets and “Likes” determine our future canons? Will everything in life be a popularity contest? Will the smart money say Salieri was really the great one, with Mozart only liked by “elitists” and “pretentious people”?
I recall an interview a while ago wherein a very popular writer of “chick lit” novels said the critics who derided him did so not because he is a bad writer, but because they were “jealous” of his success. Well, no, take my word for it, he is a bad writer. But putting oneself in the position of authority is very unstylish today. It sets one up for all sorts of personal attacks. It’s classist, racist, sexist, elitist, and a hole bunch of other -ists. The masses have wisdom, we’re told again and again. So siddown and shaddup.
That writer I just mentioned stands in very sharp contrast to Fitzgerald, who wrote his publisher he hoped “his own” was any good. (Woolf said something almost identical after finishing Mrs. Dalloway.)
I like the opening sentence in the editor’s preface of the Gatsby that I own: “The Great Gatsby does not proclaim the nobility of the human spirit; it is not politically-correct; it does not reveal how to solve the problems of life; it delivers no fashionable or comforting messages. It is simply a masterpiece.” Amen.
One of the things I worry about when ordinary people are judge, jury and executioner is that, like children in a bakery, we are going to want what makes us feel good. What’s wrong with that? The same thing that’s wrong with eating cake for every meal. Yes, the brain rots too.
This is why we used to turn to teachers and critics for some guidance and perspective that’s outside of our necessarily limited sphere. When I want an opinion on a construction project, I ask a contractor, not my neighbor. Sure “experts” are wrong sometimes: they’re human. But millions of Twitterers and Facebookers are wrong too, and with them the wrongness is multiplied and projected unchecked. There’s this belief of collective intelligence, that the opinion of millions has more value than the lonely one. Some people were astonished when grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat millions of who’d logged in to collectively “challenge” him in chess in Kasparov vs. the World. But anyone who was surprised doesn’t understand how the bell curve works. And I wouldn’t want any of those people deciding what’s an instant classic for me.
I feel sorry for Steve Martin. I really do. Mr. Martin has just written a new book, An Object of Beauty, which was to be the object of discussion at a recent event at the 92nd Street Y in New York, with New York Times editor Deborah Solomon. Now, I’ve never been to one of these shindigs, but I understand the crowd is fairly highbrow, or is expected to be. These aren’t the same people who would watch Martin on Jay Leno.
Now, his novel is about the art world, the world of galleries and curators and exhibits. Martin himself is a long-time art collector. I’ve seen some of his stuff on exhibit in Los Angeles.
So perhaps not surprisingly, on this night the talk at the Y centered around the art world and Martin’s experiences in it, which he utilized to write his book. Sounds reasonable, right? Not to the attendees, nor to those watching the event on closed circuit television. About halfway through the talk, someone handed Solomon a note saying they were getting emails from viewers requesting—demanding—she steer the conversation instead to the comedian’s wild and crazy career as a comic and movie star. They wanted less Titian and more Tut.
Well, excuuuse me.
Is the public—the erudite New York public with its $50 bottles of table wine and its Lincoln Center galas—really that lowbrow? Martin himself has long been trying to break out of the crazy comic image that allowed him to buy all his Rembrandt etchings and Monet oils in the first place. While he’s inexplicably done some sorry comedies with Queen Latifah and while he’s tried to walk in Peter Sellers’ paw prints, he’s also written some accomplished novels, had one of them made into a movie, and has been a frequent contributor to some of the country’s finest magazines.
But apparently this audience wanted to hear from the movie star, the man with two brains, because it was collectively thirteen years old and couldn’t sit through a discussion about the very subject he wrote his novel about.
Solomon actually read the note to the crowd—more dish, please!—and received the loudest applause of the evening. Now, there’s a place for lowbrow—I love TMZ—but this ain’t it.
To add insult to injury, the Y is agreeing with the mob, offering $50 refunds to anyone who attended. They are essentially admitting that listening to Mr. Martin talk about art and the art world—the subject of his novel!—was boring. In my humble opinion the Y’s executive director Sol Adler, who the next day emailed attendees that Martin’s conversation with Solomon was not the “discussion that was hoped for,” is the jerk.
Ms. Solomon says she was given no guidelines or restrictions for the interview, and since Martin’s comic career is largely in the past, and his latest book is about art, she would talk mostly about art. Silly girl. She adds that she thought things were going well before she was handed the note, and was “appalled” the Y publicly criticized their conversation and felt it deserved a refund. Martin said it was like “an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s text to ‘shorten the soliloquies.'” To dumb down or not to dumb down? These days that’s hardly even a question.
Were I Martin, I would never do a talk with these folks again. They’re letting dummies with smartphones dictate content. Next we’ll have presidential debates wherein the moderator says, “I’m getting tweets that the audience would prefer you talk about sex scandals instead of the economy, foreign policy and education. And could you stop using big words, please?”
There are some ways that the democratization the Internet has brought us is a bad thing. This is definitely one of them.
What’s really sad is most of the people probably weren’t interested in him because of his book. They just wanted to see Steve Martin, The Star. “I saw a celebrity!” A package, more accurately. Charles Chaplin was similarly never able to shed the image of the bowler hat and the cane, much to his dismay. In the single best piece of writing I’ve ever read from Roger Ebert, Chaplin once stood in the doorway to his own banquet in an evening meant to honor him, unrecognized by all.
I guess a lot of people still see Steve Martin as that guy with the arrow through his head.
King Tut must be spinning in his grave.