I like a grandstanding critic. Sometimes.
In the postwar era, there were a number of grandstanders. Pauline Kael, though, stood out. A grandstanding critic is one who, while specializing in some department of American flotsam and jetsam – rock n roll, movies, comic books, tv – finds broader and deeper applications for her appreciations and pans. The goal is to give a sense of How We Live Now. Of course, the we is the uppercrust, and that interested segment that forms a suburb of the uppercrust – academics, journalists, that lot. Currently, the heir to Kael at the New Yorker is certainly Emily Nussbaum, who “does” television. I’m tempted to play with that sentence, to bring out its erotic and pornographic double sense, the way Kael would play with innuendo in the titles of her books – I lost it at the Movies, and the like. It is not inappropriate. Movies, as Kael saw, were a promiscuous medium, the select site for the range of our (upper and lower-crust) libidinous projections. But the movies got smaller – literally, they jumped onto discs and we play them at home. TV has evidently usurped the role of our libidinous puppet play, our naked Punch and Judy shows. Nussbaum is well placed to be the premier tv critic of the “golden age”. As everybody calls it. Tom Carson is a distant contender. Carson, though, moves around too much.
My own taste, I confess, is mostly anti-Kael: I love Bergman, she hates Bergman. Kael felt that Chinatown was an essay in dopy nostalgia, I thought it reinvented the urban detective by making the object of the case the foundation of the city itself. Fuck the Maltese Falcon, it’s Water, my friends! And generally I agree with Renata Adler and Joan Didion, who both enjoyably jumped on Kael. The two were fiercer guards and critics of uppercrust moeurs. In a sense, the battle was between two divas of the ascetic modernist impulse and a sloppy voluptuary. But I have a weakness for the latter as well.
Nussbaum, like Kael, not only enthuses about her favorites, she enlists them in her own crusades. This is what she has done with “Girls”. This is what she has done with Megyn Kelly. I see no merit in “Girls” – I prefer both Sex in the City and Broad City – and I see less than no merit, I see positive political vice, in Megyn Kelly. When Nussbaum described Kelly as a Valkyrie, I don’t think she quite felt all the resonances of that particular comparison – all the Aryan Brothers mythology of it, which Kelly has quite consciously entertained. It is the grandstander’s vice to make cultural generalizations in a vocabulary that encodes fierce dialectical tensions and to never really tease out those tensions. Which is another way of saying that just as Kael often seemed to go off the rails (the most famous example is Last Tango in Paris), Nussbaum, too, sometimes seems to end up in corners that say more about uppercrust blindness than about the American wilds. The wilds, when all is said and done, is where, literally, the energy is expended that the upper crust captures. To be Marxianly vulgar, the wilds must be exploited economically, aesthetically and erotically in order for the uppercrust to function, however dimly it proceeds to do so.
All this verbiage to take me to Nussbaum’s review of “The Feud” and her divergence into a meditation on the parts offfered to aging actresses. Like Jessica Lang and Susan Sarandon, who play Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in “The Feud.” This is a perennially pickable topic, and the Film industry perennially acknowledges it even as it proceeds to pair aged men with 20 something cuties.
At a certain point, however, Nussbaum’s Eloi feminism, her lean-in-ism, gets the best of her. That point is here:
“Feud,” like “Baby Jane,” does occasionally veer into an eerie voyeuristic space, getting off on closeups of wrinkles while defending our right to stare. And yet choosing to be grotesque can be a form of liberation, too. Decades after Davis pulled on a doll’s dress, grotesquerie has been key to modern female comedy, as self-assertion, not self-loathing. Sometimes that means letting one’s face swell up, like Ilana on “Broad City,” drooling from a seafood allergy, or puncturing an eardrum, like Hannah on “Girls.” One of “30 Rock” ’s most magnificent moments had Tina Fey embracing full repulsiveness: on the subway, she became a mentally ill hag, wearing a gray wig and a mole, and hissing, “I’m pregnant with a kitty cat!,” like Baby Jane, Jr. Nothing scares people so much as a woman letting herself go; once you can scare them or make them laugh, you’re in charge.”
You’re in charge? I find this an utterly bizarre comment. I can easily walkk out of my apartment to the park four blocks away, where the homeless spend the morning and afternoon, and find mentally ill hags who’ve spent the last millenium outside. And none of them is in charge. In fact, in comparison to them, even the three year old Valkyries who go to the expensive day care school another three blocks on from the park – who are led there in the morning by their Montana avenue mothers and their flocks of nannies – are postively senatorial. The confusion here is between the well compensated actress, who can afford to scare us and make us laugh, and the objective correlative she is imitating. Tina Fey actually is in charge. She is ensconsed in the upper 1 percent. This is not blameworthy, but you can’t generalize about the American wilds and be so utterly blind about class. Another 1 percenter, Lilly Tomlin, has also done the bag lady, but she came up in the politically charged sixties and seventies and never lost her sense of the meaning and meanness of marginality.
Nussbaum’s talent for grandstanding is a gift. However, I wish she would not so often blind herself to the difference between the dancer and the dance. Because she’s never – or at least very rarely - going to say something about the American Wilds this way.