Auteur, Schmauteur

February 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar.  With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity.  With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.

That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown (here) of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.

Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”

But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.

My students, I discovered last week,  harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.

Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”

That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?

Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films—when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don't think about the director's personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.

Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.

“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – “Honeycomb” by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”

It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.

Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films have the similarity and predicatability of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or all Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.

(Big hat tip to Mark at West Coast Stat Views.)

What Are the Odds?

February 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’d just picked this book from off the shelf – the “New Books” shelf, though I could see it was a paperback so not entirely new.

The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles,
and Rare Events Happen Every Day
by David J. Hand

I read the intro chapter, put it down, intending to get back to it some time. A few days later, at the library for the performing arts at Lincoln Center I saw the posters from their latest show – an exhibit about the plays of Shakespeare. They’d asked a lot of people in the theater – musicians, writers, actors, set designers – to talk about their loves and their dislikes: which characters, which plays, which lines, which scenes.

Jane Alexander, often overlooked but one of our truly great actresses, had this to say about her line in “As You Like It” as Rosalind in drag.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Every night when Orlando had left the stage and I turned to Celia and swooned, “O coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love,” the four hundred years that separated Elizabethan England and me simply vanished.

It is indeed a time-transcendant line. But Shakespeare has many, many more, and alas, I know so few, so I moved on to see what other people had to say. There were perhaps a dozen on display. Several didn’t quote lines. Instead they’d note a scene, a character, or cherished production. Alan Cumming hated “Timon” but loved Miranda played by Felicity Jones to Helen Mirren’s Prospera (renamed).

Cumming’s not Alexander, and I’m sure  he’s never been a Rosalind, and yet of all the lines in all the plays in all of Shakespeare, what line did he choose? From “As You Like It,” “pretty little coz.”

I still can’t help but ask, what are the odds?

Cruz-Jews News

February 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Ted Cruz says “New York,” does he really mean “Jewish”?

In a Republican debate in Iowa, Maria Bartiromo asked Ted Cruz what he meant when he referred to Donald Trump’s “New York Values.” My response (the blog post is here) was the same as Toby’s on “The West Wing” when a conservative professional Christian balks at Josh’s “New York sense of humor”: he means Jewish.

Not everyone agreed, maintaining the we should take Cruz’s remarks at face value, and that any dog-whistle overtones about Jews were in the ears of the listeners. Now Cruz himself has pretty much cleared up the question of whether he was equating “New York” with all things Jewish.  He was responding to the accusation from Trump and others that he and his wife had borrowed money from Goldman Sachs, where Mrs. Cruz works – an arrangement that puts at least a small question mark on Cruz’s claims to being a stalwart battler against Wall Street.

Dana Milbank in the Washington Post reports:

Cruz, asserting that Trump had “upward of $480 million of loans from giant Wall Street banks,” said: “For him to make this attack, to use a New York term, it’s the height of chutzpah.” Cruz, pausing for laughter after the phrase “New York term,” exaggerated the guttural “ch” to more laughter and applause.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word. It is “a New York term” only if you equate New York with Jewish. New York sense of humor, New York values, New York phrases.

So we can put to rest the debate about whether in the mind and speech of Sen. Cruz, New York is conflated with Jewish.  Thanks to the senator for settling the question.

Pittsburgh Hip

February 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A friend/colleague/co-commuter sent a link to this article.

I especially appreciated the gesture since the dude is a diehard fan of all things Seattle (we commiserated about playoff defeats). Although the article was at a Pittsburgh booster Website , the original source was ThrillList, which ranked Pittsburgh in “The next Portland: 8 Cities All the Cool Kids Are Moving To.” The list includes Missoula, Louisville, Boise, etc. ThrillList, after a shoutout to Pittsburgh’s “several expert-vetted breweries” and “superior cocktail bars,” had this to say about my home town.

There is a fake robot repair shop inside the airport, which is a totally, totally reasonable thing to have in an airport, and if you’re after artisan stuff, Handmade Arcade  – “Pittsburgh's first and largest independent craft fair”  – will have all of the trinkets and tchotchkes you definitely don’t need.

I would think that a healthy economy must be prerequisite for hipness. Not that prosperity is any guarantee. Back when Pittsburgh had steel, and the mills were glowing night and day, the city was economically healthy but hardly hip. Now the mills are malls, and the main employer (and owner of real estate) seems to be UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Yes, if your tastes don’t run to craft beer, you can still get Iron City – “a bottle of iron” (pronounced “ahrn”) is what you ask for – and you can wave your terrible towel for the Steelers. But absent tradition and trademarks, the local beer would be a bottle of Imaging, and Mike Tomlin would be coaching the Medics.*

Has Pittsburgh really improved? Brookings has a nifty interactive site that ranks the largest 100 cities on three dimensions
  • Growth (Jobs, GMP (gross metro product), total wages)
  • Prosperity (GMP per job, GMP per capita, average wages)
  • Inclusion (median wage, poverty relative to median wage, employment/population ratio)
Here’s how the former Steel City has changed in the last decade.

It comes off much better in the rankings than do Boise and Louisville.

The Brookings app and data are here. You can check out the other “hipster cities” – Salt Lake (who knew?), Asheville, the other Portland – or your own home town, hip or not.

* According to Wikipedia, Pittsburgh also has “established itself as a technology hub.” And here’s a personal note about that not-always-perfect transition. My father was in the steel business in the good years – the 40s and 50s. In the early 60s, a friend, an engineer at Westinghouse, was quitting the big company, taking a couple of other impatient engineers with him, and forming what we now call a tech start-up, an electronics company, Milletron. My father was persuaded to cash in his steel business and join. He would handle the non-tech business side of things.

The Regional Industrial Development Corporation had recently been formed by private interests who could see the handwriting on the steel-mill walls and wanted to push the local economy towards diversity and modernity. The RIDC provided some financing and helped them secure loans. The company struggled along. The contracts they got never quite paid all the bills, and they had other projects that required a little more time and a little more cash. After  three or four years, the RIDC finally pulled the plug. Milletron was no more. And my father, once well off, was more or less broke. “You lost a lot of money?” I asked him once, a few years later. “Yeah, he said, but the banks lost a lot more.”