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How to best come to terms with the fiction of Philip Roth seems an almost idle question. What need do we have of any special terms? Can’t it simply be the old problem of how best to talk about the books we read, and some of those we come to love? And is it hagiography we might be after, or a stern desire to avoid any hint of such? Shouldn’t Roth take his unabashed stance and his licks with the others: Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, who are at once his compeers and his opponents, even in part his creation (think of the character of Lonoff in The Ghost Writer)? But more than a shadowy suspicion colors the problem. Could it be that Roth is the greatest of all his generation of American novelists, even with a nod to others such as Updike and Delillo? Would he himself be willing to play the games of genius and fortune and pace setter and the varied counters by which we measure literary achievement? In his work the (authorial) self is always trying to make the (existential) self answerable to the snares and glitter of ambition, irony, and self-delusion (not to mention self-abasement.) It might be the better part of wisdom to let Roth deal with his own artistic legacy, for after all his recently announced retirement from the life of writing suggests that he has come to terms with his own final self-estimations.

More… “Philip Roth’s Indignation

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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“Does anyone under 25 play an instrument anymore?” grumbled one veteran producer in response to the recent MTV Video Music Awards show. “They need to take the M out of these awards.”

Audiences had an even harsher verdict on the MTV event. Ratings were down a whopping 34% over the previous year — and 2015 ratings had shown a comparable decline versus 2014. In an industry that agonizes over shifts of a fraction of a percent, this kind of free-fall is unprecedented. The music business brought out its biggest guns for the MTV event — Beyoncé, Kanye, Rihanna, and Britney, among other one-name phenoms — and the show was broadcast on 11 different networks, including VH1, BET, CMT, and Spike. Even Comedy Central gave the event wall-to-wall coverage. But I don’t think anyone is laughing now.

More… “Does the Music Business Need Musicianship?”

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books, most recently How to Listen to Jazz
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Netflix’s newest series, Stranger Things, premiered July 15, and it has swiftly become one the most talked about shows of the summer. Each major media outlet has published their own think pieces, quizzes like “Which Stranger Things Character Are You?” have circulated, and Winona Ryder (who stars in the series) has made her comeback as a magazine cover girl.

There aren’t spoilers in this essay. Or shouldn’t be, unless you consider the lack of information an incredible spoiler (and I hate these type of concessions, because plot is secondary to the creation of character, formation of relationship between audience and narrative, and the feelings depicted and attached to the narrative). The only spoiler I’m going to provide happens by episode three, when teenager Barb goes missing, pulled by a monster into a pool and through to the “other side.” Despite being a minor character, I became infatuated with Barb.

More… “We Got to Talk about Barb”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
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In the 1984 novel The Boys on the Rock, by John Fox, a 16-year-old student relays scandalous information about a pair of identical twin brothers on his high school swim team. “I was forever hearing rumors about them being incestuous and things like that from guys who didn’t even know them,” the narrator reports. “They got called pretty insulting things right to their face but they didn’t give a shit.” On this the teenager offers clarification: “I don’t mean they just pretended not to give a shit, I mean they truly did not care what anyone thought about them.”

This passage resurfaced from the depths of my consciousness recently while I read every extant interview with Woody Allen I could get my hands on, though I’m not alluding to sexual innuendo about the director. Yes, Allen did seem oblivious to the uproar that ensued in January 1992 after Mia Farrow — his longtime romantic partner and the star of 13 consecutive films under his direction — discovered in his Manhattan apartment racy photographs of her 21-year-old daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen later married. Eric Lax, whose updated Conversations with Woody Allen (2009) is the most recent edition of book-length Allen interviews, dealt with the Soon-Yi material previously in the revised 2000 edition of Woody Allen: A Biography. “Woody has a remarkable ability to compartmentalize his life,” Lax wrote then of the custody battle that ensued over Farrow and Allen’s three children. By so saying, Lax seems to have originated what is now the most oft-repeated maxim about the filmmaker: in Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012), the director Robert B. Weide assembled a brief montage of Allen’s friends and colleagues, each repeating the same line about Woody’s ability to compartmentalize his life. All evidence points to Allen similarly taking this compartmentalization approach toward allegations that he sexually molested his and Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter.  (After an investigation, the police brought no such charges against the director.) Allen himself explained at the time of his legal wrangling that, in all the months of public and private turmoil (which cost him $7 million in lawyers’ fees alone), he was not distracted for a moment from his creative work. When he informed his friends of this fact, they thought something was wrong with him — that he had a surprising lack of feeling, as Allen phrased it. “But it isn’t so,” the director insisted. “I had the appropriate feeling at the time, but my work is a separate thing.”

More… “The Teflon Director”

Myles Weber is the author of Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish. His literary criticism appears frequently in such journals as The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Salmagundi, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is an associate professor of English at Winona State University in Minnesota.
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Eytan Fox
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Eytan Fox, one of Israel’s most acclaimed filmmakers, turns 52 today. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him to be funny and deep. Walk on Water (2004), his most famous film, is both a social critique and a work of suspense.

More… “Like a Fox”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Willow Pape is the bane of my existence. When I see her at Lif Club in Miami, I get anxious. There will be conflict. She once told me I should slip into something more comfortable like a coma. She continually works against me as I climb the ladder upward toward A-list stardom. On my best days, I roll my eyes at her. On my worst, my publicists spread rumors about her on social media. Being complicit in this process is the trouble with chasing fame.

More… “The (Cult)ure Industry”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
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Last Halloween, my husband opened our closet door and reached for the topmost shelf where he keeps his Zipperhead mask.

“Not again,” I said.

He ignored me as he is often wont to do and pulled it on over his face.

My husband had worn this mask all through the 90s and now, in 2015, looked forward to going out in public in it that very evening. The rubbery skin covered my husband’s face. A half-opened zipper to match the one painted on the store’s façade next to the gigantic metal ants, stitched through the mask’s forehead and nested in the mask’s crown of red, kidney-shaped brains. He opened a flap and beneath it found two switches. He flicked them on and the exposed brain particle lit up with tiny dancing lights. My husband also dug out his black Dr. Martens and a Zipperhead T-shirt. Punk is long dead. My husband sold Zipperhead in 2000 to Rob and Steph, his two top employees who were married to each other. They ran it as Zipperhead for several years, then relocated it around the corner in a smaller space, and renamed it with a touch of levity Crash Bang Boom.
More… “Philly’s Flagship Store”

Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch, forthcoming October 28th 2016, has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
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Recently, a colleague and I were talking about television shows we watched, particularly the ones stigmatized as “bad,” “junk,” and “garbage.” She threw in a few suggestions, none of which I thought were particularly terrible – a few sitcoms and reality shows. Finally, I said, “well, I watch wrestling,” to which, she replied, “you win.” This response is not unfamiliar. As somebody who regularly watches wrestling, my fandom is frequently approached with raised eyebrows, “seriouslys,” and the inevitable “you know it’s fake, right?”

More… “Spandex Ballet”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
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The history of modern art is strewn with the wreckage of obscenity charges. At the beginning of the 20th century, a work of literature with sexual content might initially be deemed obscene but eventually embraced for its esthetic and social importance. James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover are notable examples. They opposed Victorian standards of propriety, but after passage through the courts and critical opinion, emerged as high art.

In the realm of cinematic representation, obscenity was initially an industry-wide concern. The Motion Picture Production Code was developed in the 1930s under the assumption that movies, as mass entertainment, needed to be monitored to protect public morality. Strict enforcement began to wane in the 1960s, and the Code was replaced by a more indulgent film rating system. Nonetheless, certain films struggled to maintain their integrity in the face of a dreaded X rating. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Tango in Paris refused to amend its subject-matter to avoid such a rating, which reduced its box office profits. In time, however, it emerged as a film classic.

Television, too, began by monitoring its sexual content until the advent of cable TV did away with most forms of censorship. On premium channels at least, sex and art are now permitted to consort.
More… “Pay to Play”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Bernardo Bertolucci once told me that I became an actor to get out certain emotions that I couldn’t get out in life. And I thought about that for a long time and, uh, uh, uh…um…uh…I think that’s right.
(Robert DeNiro in Esquire)

Yeah, well … I think that … umm…you know… uh-hah.
(De Niro to Richard Schickel, in Time)

I, uh, can’t, ah, umm … Well, let’s, ah, see uh, I, uh.
(De Niro cited in the Toronto Star)

In any list of all-time most taciturn celebrity interviewees, Robert De Niro would seem to have a lock on a top spot, along with fellow inductees Billy Bob Thornton and the late Lou Reed. Observers are frequently puzzled that De Niro, regularly hailed as one of the most powerful, nuanced actors of his generation, has so little apparent interest in displaying verbal power; as Barry Paris observes in the journal American Film, “It’s ironic that the very thing that draws people to De Niro on the screen — this powerful, largely nonverbal projection of character, emotion and meaning — is what baffles and annoys…people about him offscreen.” But De Niro’s well-known bouts of verbal blockage do not tell the whole story about his relation to celebrity promotion and the performance of a public subjectivity. Indeed, they are representations that do specific kinds of cultural work. As Greg M. Smith perceptively notes, journalists reproduce these inarticulacies, in the way you see them here, on these slides, transcribed literally. “Usually,” Smith reminds us, “a reply in such halting, ‘naturalistic’ speech would be cleaned up, and awkward false starts would be edited out.” Drawing upon recent affect theory that explores so-called “negative,” obstructive affects, I see these moments of inarticulateness as only part of the complex construction of desire and disinclination that I call “reluctant celebrity.” De Niro’s reluctance, then, represents: but how, and what?

More… “You (Not) Talkin’ to Me?”

Lorraine York is Senator McMaster Chair of Canadian literature and culture at McMaster University. She is writing a book on reluctant celebrity.
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