Friday, January 26, 2024

About Barbie and being good

Oh what a brouhaha there is about the lack of love Barbie has received in terms of nominations for the upcoming Oscars. (In short, it got a nod in the Best Picture category, but its female director and female star were less happy. Ryan Gosling, nominated for Best Supporting Actor, spoke up for his spurned sisters but not to the extent of throwing his own chance away.)

For the record, I enjoyed the movie, especially its design (definitely one that has to be seen on the big screen) although it probably wouldn’t be in any of my best-of lists. Gerwig and Robbie are talented people but they’ve each done better things (Lady Bird and I, Tonya). That’s not what this is about, though, is it? Barbie, beneath the pink gleam, is a satire of sexism and patriarchy and masculinist assumptions and, so the logic goes, to deprive it of recognition is to condone all those bad things. 

Except that it really isn’t, is it? Films that are on the side of the angels aren’t inherently great films and yet the Oscar voters have long had a tendency to reward movies on the basis of their social values alone. The nadir of this came at the 78th awards, when the Best Picture gong went to Crash, a movie at once incoherent and simplistic, the script of which is pretty much the song ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ stretched over two hours. To add to the fun, it edged out Brokeback Mountain, so even as the Academy patted itself on the back for acknowledging that Racism Is A Bad Thing, it was panicking in case anyone might think it considered homophobia not to be equally reprehensible. Barbie’s relatively slim pickings may be a sign that Hollywood is finally shaking its way out of such ethical quandaries.

Society as a whole isn’t there yet. Maybe the problem is that at the same time as we have become more confident, even to the point of sanctimony, in our moral and political opinions, we feel less able to make aesthetic judgements, to declare that one film (book, song, play, etc) better than another by virtue of imagination, craft and skill rather than just, well, virtue. To argue on purely artistic grounds that X is a better actor or director or composer or balloon sculptor than Y takes us too close to assumptions about class and education that feel too uncomfortable to express. (Incidentally, we are in similar territory when it comes to language. We are encouraged seize on instances of misgendering or outdated racial epithets, but suggesting that the phrase “would of” is in some way incorrect looks plain rude.)

It almost feels as if we’ve slipped back to the Victorian era, when finger-wagging critics dismissed the likes of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, not for any inherent literary faults but because they were morally suspect. The specific criteria have changed (racism and misogyny and homophobia rather than fornication) but the priorities would be familiar to Hardy or the Bront√ęs. We know what’s good, but not what’s good.

PS: My old mucker Clair, who used to hang around these parts as the Urban Woo, deals with the matter in characteristically brisk, no-nonsense fashion in The Independent.

PPS: Reductress, as it tends to, also gets it right:

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

About Barthes

Stolen from someone. Can’t remember who, which is grimly appropriate, I guess. Not for the first time, I think how much Barthes would have relished social media.

Also, from John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure
Roland Barthes observes somewhere that the meaning of any list of likes and dislikes is to be found in its assertion of the fact that each of us has a body, and that this body is different from everybody else’s. This is tosh. The real meaning of our dislikes is that they define us by separating us from what is outside us; they separate the self from the world that mere banal liking cannot do.

Monday, January 15, 2024

About Ballard

In 1974, JG Ballard gave an interview to an 18-year-old admirer, Akihiko Kokuryo, and offered a message to readers of the speculative fiction magazine in which it was published. Translated into Japanese and then back into English it feels like a pretty good way of coping with the modern world that he predicted so well, so often: 

I hope that you will always be skeptical, passionate, analytic, revolutionary, idealistic, dream-like, serene and hallucinated.

And in searching for an image, I find this clipping. We all have those mammoth novels deep inside, don’t we?

Thursday, January 11, 2024

About Mean Girls (and mean girls)

The new movie Mean Girls (which is in fact the film version of the stage musical of the old movie Mean Girls) would appear to have been stripped of its, well, meanness. 

“If we really had people speak to each other the way they spoke to each other in 1990, everyone would go to the hospital,” says screenwriter Tina Fey, although whether she means it would provoke actual fisticuffs, or that Gen Z-ers are so fragile that verbal hostility might provoke a full-on breakdown, isn’t so clear. But then she seizes on what’s really changed, and what hasn’t: “People are still horrible, they're just more likely to anonymously type it. I would like to take but not teach a graduate school class on the ways in which people are just as divisive and horrible as they ever were, but now they couch it in virtue.” In other words, people are still reassuringly vile but maybe not in a way that transfers so easily to celluloid.

But it’s not just nastiness we need to be warned about. For a forthcoming show at Stratford East, we are alerted to “themes of joy, loss and grief”. I wonder whether you can experience so much joy it puts you in the hospital.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

About Theseus

The Ship of Theseus, aka Trigger’s Broom, isn’t quite the same thing as Baudrillard’s simulacrum, but it occupies a similar space. And it does emit some lovely memeage.