Reviews

Vernacular Modernism

Vernacular Modernism

Good buildings are adaptable

Buildings like these are everywhere in America. More particularly, they’re the pre-1990s inner sprawl around the multi-lane peripheries of older Eastern cities; the outer downtowns of St. Louis, Indianapolis, and other cities of the lower Midwest; the inner downtowns of the Sun Belt; and pretty much all of Oakland, California. In New York City these buildings tend to be the dull-seeming libraries, schools, police stations, and fire stations built in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as a lot of storefront offices and some of the old white-brick apartment buildings you see throughout Manhattan.

Travels with Joni Mitchell

Travels with Joni Mitchell

An oeuvre inaugurated by disavowal

Around 2014, I began to talk to friends about Joni and was disappointed—surprised—by how little they knew. These were people who listened to music. I had a conversation about her with a highly accomplished ex-student in New York, a writer who had musical training, who thought I was talking about Janis Joplin. This was related to a problem: the plethora of Js among women musicians of the time, which led to their conflation into a genre. Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell: the last three especially were seen as interchangeable. Even if I put down my ex-student’s confusion to uncharacteristic generational ignorance, I found that, on mentioning Joni to a contemporary I had to work hard to distinguish her from Joan Baez. My friend had dismissed—not in the sense of “rejected,” but “taxonomized”—Joni as being part of a miscellany of singers with long, straight hair, high, clear voices, and a sincerity that shone brightly in the mass protests of the late ’60s. Visually, in her early acoustic performances with guitar, and even in her singing, she appropriated the folk singer’s persona to the point of parody, while the songwriting was absolutely unexpected. To prove this to my friend, I played her “Rainy Night House” and “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” It became clear in twenty seconds that Mitchell was not Joan Baez.

Until the Next Crash

Until the Next Crash

The populist revolt is not against the crash, or even its immediate aftermath, but against the nature of the recovery.

This is the economic backdrop of the populist revolt. To the extent that it is driven by economics, it is a revolt not so much against the crash, or even its immediate aftermath—as Tooze seems to suggest—but against the nature of the recovery. This recovery, sustained by historically unprecedented “accommodative” monetary policies, is now nearly the longest on record. But it has proved to be yet another iteration of a now forty-year macroeconomic pattern for which centrist liberals bear much responsibility. It is the economy whose pre-crisis development they happily facilitated and which, during the 2008 crisis, they brought back to life, if moderately reformed. But since 2008, this same old asset-led global capitalism has slowly but steadily worn down the political establishment’s reserves of legitimacy.

We Can Still Think Our Own Thoughts

We Can Still Think Our Own Thoughts

Put your shit on silent.

The cancellation of both services, at this point, seems like the end of the long tail. The blockbuster model has reasserted itself and as usual seeks to muscle everything else out of the way. At the height of corporate capitalism you pay full price for bad movies improperly projected in ugly theaters whose business is selling large sodas at a 1,000 percent markup. If you want to watch a movie at home, there’s Netflix, now mostly a streaming television service, or Amazon. It’s all an insult to cinephiles and to film history. Going mass means living in the moment and throwing away what came before. The moment is crap.

Getting Past 270

Getting Past 270

On Jon Favreau’s The Wilderness

If The Wilderness doesn’t ultimately sugarcoat where the Democratic Party finds itself, neither is there a sense of truly deep foreboding. We live in a 50-50 country, the show argues, and we can win elections in that country and make it not quite a 50-50 country anymore, and so overcome the limits in the Madisonian system. But partisan control is what ultimately matters. Unsurprisingly for an Obama alum, Favreau steers clear of vast arenas in the American state that are supposedly apolitical, from the Federal Reserve to the FBI and the CIA and the NSA to, critically, the Supreme Court. Donald Trump has no interest in leaving them as separate citadels of neutral competence. Democrats should think hard about what it would mean to go beyond the platitude about letting the professionals do their work, and formulate a vision to expand the ambit of popular control.

Corruptions and Duplicates of Form

Corruptions and Duplicates of Form

He looks near-homeless at times, a street creature in a movie where pizza rat meets Pizzagate.

This post-Wonka kids’ movie about future video-game competition in dystopian cyberspace contains every pop 1980s reference imaginable, including “Blue Monday,” and stuffs them by the handful into a recycling bag like cans worth five cents each. The movie is cynical and manipulative because the ’80s it exploits means nothing to Spielberg. He uses items from that decade because he noticed that’s what kids are into, even though the movie takes place three decades from now. To Spielberg, the digitized fodder of Ready Player One is not truly classic, and can therefore be further trivialized for any reason. If money can be squeezed out of it from an undiscerning audience of nerds, so it should be and must be. Here, Spielberg has truly become Disney.

Ghost World

Ghost World

Images have become not only animate, but incarnate.

Seemingly insincere, jokey phrases flip and become the nexus of an argument. Concomitance carries weight. A border of an image can be like the border of a nation-state; tension accumulates at an edge. For an image, the tension lies in the difference between the logics created within the picture plane and outside it. For nation-states, it is often the same—tension between colliding desires, incompatible ways of understanding, communicating, and seeing.