Tag Archives: movies

Lonely Planet

5 Sep

José Quiroga


    1. From the onset, lawyers for the plaintiff argued that “Ronell created a false romantic relationship between herself and Reitman and by threat of, among other things, not allowing him to advance his Ph.D., asserted complete domination and control over his life.” The link between this “false romantic relationship” and the domination she exerted over this student is not entirely clear. But the same point is made in the “factual evidence” section of the lawsuit, where once again the “fictitious romantic relationship” is linked to “complete domination and control” over Reitman’s life. For any student of literature, the main problem with this argument is how conservative its notion of authorship is. For the “romantic relationship” just happens to unfold over emails both parties wrote separately, and then exchanged. One could imagine that in a different court of law—say, copyright law—the plaintiff would have argued for his rights as co-author. In such a case, Reitman’s lawyers would have insisted that he deserved a share of the profits of Future Miniseries X given the considerable efforts taken, on his own account, in order to keep up the narrative momentum. At this point, twenty or thirty years ago, any graduate student would have quoted Stanley Fish: “Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled.”  One text understood as authored by one person is used as evidence of control and domination in a sexual harrassment case. The same text (sic), understood as a collaboration, has multiple authors that deserve to be credited in copyright law.
    2. I don’t recall a teaching assistant ever telling me that sometimes “analysis is simply denial with more words,” nor do I recall an administrator cutting graduate lines in the Humanities arguing that interpretation was unnecessary since “the text just means what it says it means.” This is because most graduate students and some administrators understand that most of the times, the text never means what it says it means. The text in the Ronell / Reitman exchange could very well stand for the absence of any romantic relationship other than the one that takes place on the page. One does not need a PhD in Literature to know this, just as one does not need to be a lawyer to understand that when the lawsuit states that there was “groping, roughing, and kissing on a regular basis” or that “Ronell would touch, grab, fondle and kiss Reitman” it doesn’t mean that at each and every instance all of these acts took place. Not every author is a lawyer, but some lawyers are authors—and some can even recall the occasional undergraduate course on D.H. Lawrence. To put it simply: this is a case about the possibility that writing alone can create facts. Thus it is, ultimately, a case about literatureDH-Lawrence.jpg
    3. In the slow-moving August news cycle, the case caught on. Or, as rendered in the ominous lead sentence of Andrea Long Chu’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[t]he humanities are ablaze.” Chu is referring here to what Jacques Derrida would have called the “dissemination” of the case. But as Derrida himself would have warned us—and Borges before him—dissemination tends to multiply errors of fact. This point is evident in the very first paragraph where Chu states that Judith Butler, Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam have defended Avital in writing. That no such thing ever happened as Chu has recounted it should be clear by the time you read this text online. And it baffles the mind to believe there is really a lot of abuse in expecting teaching assistants to read the work of their supervisor. Would you go to an interview at the NYT op-ed section without at least familiarizing yourself with the work of Maureen Dowd? Would you be an intern at The Nation never having read Katha Pollit? There are photocopier assistants at The Washington Post who know about Bernstein and Woodward although they were born decades after these two penned All the Presidents Men. And Chu’s complaints about life under Ronell pale in comparison to the treatment suffered by a young intern (Anne Hathaway) under the despotic rule of a famous fashion magazine editor (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.rs_500x206-160624105104-500-devil-wears-prada-thats-all-062416-1485457517
    4. In this sorry proxy for the death of academia we are all living, where the stakes are so low and so inconsequential, I find myself doing a lot of extra (uncredited, unpaid) labor: from reading stacks of tenure and promotion files for institutions around the country and abroad, to serving as external referee for academic journals, and making sure that—over and beyond their work in my classes–graduate students have peace of mind and time to do the work they want to do. Yes, graduate students teach courses, which means they are workers within the university. And yes, they are also students and they are mentored by faculty. For years I find myself directing four and five dissertations, writing untold number of rec letters, correcting innumerable dossiers, reading more than my share of tenure files, and recommending others for grants when I myself should be applying for them. That this is all entirely my fault it goes without saying. “I should be meaner,” I say to myself, “I should protect the little time I have. I should not cover for those who think that advising a grad student simply means reading a completed, camera- ready chapter that someone else has edited.”
    5. I suppose like many of my colleagues I am an obsessive advisor. I will push and push students, but I know that at some point I have to let them go. So even if I think the dissertation should have four chapters and not three, I understand the pressures of the job market, the very real anxieties of student loans, and the fact that when a good job shows up at the MLA and you have a good chance at it, we all have to make our way back to the reality principle pronto. Graduate school is a challenge on many levels in the new, corporatized university–with its mid-level administrative bloat and reduced faculty lines– and I don’t blame those students who think that I can give or withhold job offers. But I’m revealing no secret by stating that this is part of grad student myth-making. The reality is much more complex, which is something I imagine Reitman heard at some point because it’s something I tell all graduate students, again and again. Most often than not, at the other end of the interview process there is a department with ten or fifteen independent minds that need to achieve a consensus. And surely, the more of an “academic superstar” you are, the more there’s people out there who resent you for a lot of things that are really beyond your control. It’s not always in your best interest to have a superstar as mentor—everybody knows that, including “academic superstars.” Hence the tact shown by Avital Ronnell meeting with Andrea Long Chu in order to make sure that “you and I are OK.” But why does Chu then turn around at a moment of public humiliation for Ronell, and cast this as a cheap Game of Thrones-like scene? It befuddles the mind of anyone who ever suffered viewing the depiction of law school in The Paper Chase.the-paper-chase
    6. Like the majority of my peers, Ive been rejected from many jobs, accepted a couple,and I myself have rejected one or two–not without regrets. I’ve had better luck than many, and have done worse than others. The times in which I’ve been forced to choose between my ambition and my principles, my ambition has taken a hit. But then again, my principles have also taken a hit every once in a while. And yes, there have been periods when I’ve spent my life in purgatorio. That’s academia these days. All of us who have worked on gender and sexuality, or on “deconstruction” or even on telenovelas and popular culture, have had to navigate through a lot of difficulties and misunderstandings in our careers. But it hasn’t all been despair, and for that we have to thank students, both graduate and undergraduate. When nothing else makes sense, I go into a classroom where I have the rare privilege of sharing some time and space with twenty, or thirty different, diverse minds. Let me give just one example among many: when the “romantic fiction” that Ronell and Reitman created via email first came to light, I remembered the joy I felt when I suggested to a brilliant graduate student the work of a man, now deceased, who was the most important Cuban writer still alive then. For many years, as an older man, the poet worked as a bagboy in a Miami Publix supermarket, and then retired and lived in a modest Miami house with his wife and their middle-aged daughter. My student and the poet hit it off, and he proposed that they write a joint epistolary “novel” based on what he called the japanese principle of the “zuihitsu” in which, according to rules which he himself had set, he would start off writing something, and then the student would continue writing whatever she wanted, and vice versa. Now that the poet is fully recognized as one of the Great Poets in an island of superb writers, this work has assumed its place as one of the last books he wrote in his life. The young woman who at that point was my student took a risk and worked on this on her spare time, while teaching her regular graduate student courseload. I can’t promise all my students that this will happen to them. But sometimes good things happen if you are receptive to the possibility of being surprised by people—and that includes French intellectuals, German philosophers, and bag boys at Publix. Here is a link to the final entry of that blog a deux Margarita Pintado wrote with Lorenzo Garcia Vega: images-2.jpeg
    7. I wish I could produce an equally beautiful ending for the Reitman / Ronell saga. I’ll let the lawyers do that, since they always end up having the final word. And in the aftermath of the messy election of 2016, we seem to have abdicated everything to them. But let me just say one thing: given the chance at writing such a perfect volume as The Telephone Book, I’d give a couple of fingers of my right hand. Go and live in that book for a while if you can. Immerse yourself in that mess, take a chill pill as you plunge in the midst of its typography wildness, in the lunacy of its ideas that are also evidence of the highest philosophical rigor, brilliantly turned upside down. And thank the higher powers that you never wrote such a book just as you were coming out of grad school. Because yes, you’ve put your brilliance out for display, but we know how stupid that is, how naïve. For the challenging work of a sharp, young woman, thirty years later turns into fodder for twitterati attacks by one segment of what is thankfully a much broader feminism. Then again brilliance, like social media, was never meant to be aligned with justice. But that’s what we old farts are supposed to be doing, no? Reminding you about history, or juggling your memory. Some fuddy-duddy thing like that. While we solemnly open our dog-eared copy of a translated Borges and have you stare for the next hour at the following phrase from his story “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination, now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated. . . “

September 1, 2018


Brüno? Color me ünconvinced

15 Jul


By Tavia Nyong’o

That Bruno was more or less what I expected should have come as no surprise: by the time the movie opened last weekend, it had been subjected to so much advance media coverage that, it turns out, we are all now familiar with about 75% of the stunts in the film, even before seeing it.

What’s more, most of what you’ve already heard repeatedly described (acrobatic sex with a “pygmy”, trying to get kidnapped by a terrorist in “middle earth”) is actually funnier in the description than on screen. When “I can’t believe they would do that!” turns into “Oh, they actually did that,” it’s inevitably deflating. One scene I was looking forward to (well known because it is the subject of a lawsuit) didn’t even make it into the final cut. I was kind of disappointed, until I realized I was probably better off relishing how squirm-inducing the hilarity must have been.

Chalk one up to the imagination: the high concept of Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art turns out to be superior to its execution.

That this is so is in part due to public’s growing familiarity with Cohen and his pranks. What’s most surprising now about Bruno is less the antagonistic reactions his outrageous character elicits than the frequent indifference that greets him. During a seance, a psychic lets him mime fellatio and analingus with a dead lover, literally without batting an eye. Riders try to look the other way when Bruno and his assistant tumble onto a bus tied together in S&M gear, with all manner of objects stuck into all available orifices. Most damningly for those who would claim an antihomophobic effect for the film: Bruno fails to get a rise out of Fred Phelps and his band of deranged “God Hates Fags” placard bearers.

Going to LA in search of people who will be surprised by outrageous behavior is admittedly a bit of a non sequitur. While at moments the film strikes the same comic gold as the original HBO series — getting sub-lebrities and those who aspire to become them to self-satirize with the camera’s rolling — these moments have little to do with Bruno’s industrial strength gayness or any discomfort induced by it. They are more about an army of bottom-feeders perpetually, and pathetically, on the make: pimping out their infants to unsavory photo shoots, sitting on human furniture while gassing on about humanitarianism, and “celebrity charity consultants” who suggest the best way to support an endangered animal species might be by selling bracelets made from its skin.

None of this is unfunny. But none of it is really superior to an average Christopher Guest film. The use of “gotcha” techniques hardly produces a more insightful critique of the celebrification of reality than scripted narrative does. Often, it produces far less.

bruno1In search of true homophobic dupes, Cohen’s film crew ultimately had to travel to Kansas and Arkansas, because, well, we all know how funny laughing at “white trash” in the fly-over states supposedly is. Being myself one generation removed from lumberjacks, with truck drivers in my extended family, I have to say I have always failed to appreciate this strategy. The final scene where Bruno — posing as “Straight Dave” — gets a crowd to boo and throw beer at a cage-fight that descends into a bout of homosex struck me as particularly sad and repellent. I don’t care for homophobia, but classism sucks too. And blaming rednecks for everything wrong in America seems counterproductive and just blaming the victims.

It’s not that I’m unaware that the homophobia exhibited in the scene was real and possibly lethal. Myself, I would have high-tailed it out of there. I just want to know why we don’t hold the person who created and stoked the situation accountable as well? The Smoking Gun has the bare details: a blue collar crowd drawn by offers of $5 entertainment and $1 beer (raised arbitrarily to $4 at one point, just to rile them up), given the homophobic shirts some were seen wearing (of course they chose to wear them, but again, who designed and printed them?). Long before the moments captured on screen, the crowd had been manipulated and egged on. And apparently they shot this scene several times in different locations before getting the “spontaneously” hateful reaction they desired.

My point is that Cohen has perfected the art of setting the scene in just the right way to make bad behavior predictable, if not inevitable. At the same time, his films mask the elements used to construct the scene, thus maintaing a false verite feel. I find it interesting, and almost redeeming, that the snookered audience members whose comments are preserved at the Smoking Gun were mostly grateful that they had sat far back enough in the crowd not to make it into the film. Indignant at Cohen and undoubtedly disgusted at (the fairly tame, I thought) man-on-man action, they were sensible enough to be ashamed at the thought of being shown as intolerant or hateful on screen. I actually think it’s progress when people are ashamed of their prejudices.

Of course one can say that the power of Bruno is that he pushes people’s buttons until they expose their “hidden” homophobia. But this relies on a bogus and outdated model of psychological interiority. Any spelunking expedition for our inner, supposedly truer attitudes — particularly one that relies on setting up the unstable or unprivileged in weird and uncomfortable situations and then laughing at them — will usually turn up what it’s looking for. But while this may count as entertainment, I don’t think it counts as antihomophobic.