Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

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December 31, 2013

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ published in the Irish University Review

In 2010 I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun‘ to the Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture conference in the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD. I’ve written about that very stimulating conference in a previous piece on this blog, and now I’m pleased to report that a revised version of my paper has just been published as an article in the 2013 Winter edition of the Irish University Review. The online version can be read here.

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This essay takes up the challenge of Joe Cleary’s provocative characterisation of John McGahern’s work as naturalism that retreats into pessimistic fatalism by instead considering Rising Sun as the end-point of a career-long journey fraught with Kierkegaardean implications. Kierkegaard’s concept of infinite resignation in Fear and Trembling is noted in McGahern’s characters Bill Evans and Johnny Murphy, but John Quinn raises ethical problems soluble only by considering the co-existent presence of precepts from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This Stoicism, it is argued, is Aurelian through the prism of O Criomhthain’s An tOileanach, which McGahern greatly admired, so the characters are religiously Catholic and simultaneously philosophically Stoic in response to the harsh landscapes that order their lives. The inhabitants of this lakeside community lead messy spiritual lives that are Stoic and Kierkegaardean, with the Catholic Church continuing to be an important source of ritual. This eclectic but harmonious combination represents a hopeful new mode of life as play, exemplified by Jamesie, which is worth passing on. Rising Sun can thus be read as the end of a Kierkegaardean transition from infinite resignation to exulting in finitude through a vision of the absurd.

December 15, 2010

Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture

I delivered my paper ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ to the ‘Space, Technology & Modernity in Irish Literature & Culture’ conference held in University College Dublin in May this year. With that paper now revised and submitted as a journal article I thought I’d look back at the proceedings held at the Humanities Institute of Ireland in UCD and organised by Graham Price and Liam Lanigan.

HI

Friday 21 May

Panel 1: Beckettian Aesthetics
Chair: Dr Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘‘‘Antiquarians and Others”: Beckett’s Irish Modernists’
Alan Graham (University College Dublin)

‘The Phenomenology of Pain in Beckett: The Tedium and the Message’
Siobhan Purcell (University College Dublin)

Panel 2: Gender, Culture & Society in Ireland
Chair: Dr Anne Mulhall (University College Dublin)

‘Desire Lost and Found: Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Kate O’Brien’s As Music and Splendour’
Maggie O’Neill (NUI Maynooth)

‘Kate O’Brien’s Modernism – Selves, Subtexts, “Mixed Media”’
Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka (Independent Scholar)

‘“A Sweet Colleen and a Salty Sinner”: Conceptions of Irishness, Catholicism, Homosexuality and Modernity in the Fiction of Emma Donoghue’
Annie Galvin (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 3: Comparative Modernisms
Chair: Dr Sharae Deckard (University College Dublin)

‘“A Place on the Road to Somewhere Else”: The Fictional Writing of Colm Toibin in the “World Republic of Letters
Sonia Howell (NUI Maynooth)

This Side of Princeton: Ireland and F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise’
Gavan Lennon (University College Dublin)

‘Adding “new beauties”: Joyce and Rushdie’s critical works’
Pauric Havlin (University College Dublin)

Keynote Address: Moynagh Sullivan (NUI Maynooth)
‘Space & Interspace: Medbh McGuckian’s Poetics, Maternal Aesthetics, and Matrixial Borderspaces’
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

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Saturday May 22

Panel 4: The Evolution of an Irish Modernist Aesthetic
Chair: Dr Lucy Collins (University College Dublin)

‘Modernism and Modernity in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
Stanley van der Ziel (University College Dublin)

‘“Pealing out a living message”: Sean O’Faolain, The Bell and The Artist’s New Ireland’
Muireach Shankey (University College Dublin)

‘“Dear Dirty Dublin” or “The Parable of the [Fair Trade] Plums”: Representing Dublin in Ulysses
George Legg (Trinity College Dublin)

Panel 5: Consumption, Globalisation and Tradition in Recent Irish Fiction
Chair: Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin)

‘“A Simple and Genuine Sense of Homecoming”: Transition in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer
Eoin Delap (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Binge and Purge: Excess, Ekstasis, and the Celtic Tiger’
Niamh Campbell (Trinity College Dublin)

‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

There were a number of universities represented at the proceedings and an even greater number of writers. Beckett finally triumphed over Joyce by getting his own panel which illuminated his off-beat early literary criticism and the philosophy of pain in his mature work. Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen and Emma Donoghue were usefully placed in a continuum of female writers complicating received notions of gender and sexuality. Joseph O’Neill justified the Gatsby comparisons for Netherland by not feeling out of place after a paper on F Scott which brought out his Irishness to a surprising degree. Moynagh O’Sullivan’s keynote address meanwhile was a suitably dazzling display of theoretical fireworks used to illuminate the dense rich poetry of Medbh McGuckian. My own panel looked at work by Brian Friel, Kevin Power, John McGahern and Paul Murray, proving that not only is Irish literature engaging with modernity, despite the constant complaints by some commentators, but that a hefty reading list of must-read Irish novels of the last decade could be jotted down from texts cited in discussion of any one panel of this conference.

Ireland remains a republic of letters…

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