Saturday, November 23, 2013

Suggested reading: Sex and death

Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora's Box (1929)

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Is the marriage plot still possible?

It can seem as though contemporary mores have killed the time-honored marriage plot. In the post "Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The new Bollywood romantic comedy," I wrote: "So in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible?"

Adelle Waldman thinks so ("Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old," New Yorker, Nov. 14, 2013). Not because we resemble the heroes and heroines of the great 19th-century novels, but because they resemble us:
"The issue turns on where we think the narrative power of those older novels originates—whether it’s attributable to the social constraints on their characters (as well as the satisfying decisiveness of their fates—the suicides on the one hand or marriages that last “forever” on the other), or if, instead, these novels are, like so many contemporary novels, primarily dependent on psychological and internal drama.

"I think that, if we look closely, we find that much of their strength derives from the internal and the timeless—from conflicts rooted in the perversity of human nature and the persistent difficulties of social life."

2. The revenge of Lulu

Would Emma have avoided marrying Charles Bovary if she'd known he was #ObsessedWithMom? Would Elizabeth Bennet have been more on her guard if she had learned that the #TallDarkAndHandsome Wickham had a #WanderingEye?  Deborah Schoenman writes about Lulu, a social networking app where women can rate the men they date ("What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App," New York Times, Nov. 20, 2013):
"Last summer, Neel Shah, a comedy writer, was at a bar in Los Angeles on a date with a woman who pulled up his profile. 'She started reading me these negative hashtags and I was like, "Uh, this is awkward,"' said Mr. Shah, 30, whose profile has been viewed 448 times and 'favorite' eight times for an average score of 6.7 [out of 10]. His hashtags include #TallDarkAndHandsome and #CleansUpGood, along with the less flattering #TemperTantrums and #WanderingEye."
Lulu sounds a lot like RateMe Plus, a formerly fictional feature of the near future in Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010). As Shteyngart describes RateMe Plus, it's an app that allows others to instantly rank you in categories such as "Fuckability" and "Male Hotness." The main character of Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny, "naturally had a lot of problems with his Fuckability—entering a bar in newly chic Staten Island (one prediction that has not yet come true), he is immediately and publicly ranked as the fortieth-ugliest man out of the forty men present." (See "Suggested reading: Google Glass.")

Lulu, of course, was the anti-heroine of Franz Wedekind's plays Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora's Box (1904), which became the basis of both G.W. Pabst's film Pandora's Box (1929) and Alban Berg's opera Lulu (1937). In the plays, film and opera, Lulu is outcast, condemned, and ultimately murdered for daring to adopt behaviors—having sex purely for pleasure, and using her partner's desires for her own ends—that men have always been able to take for granted. Is the way that Lulu (the app) enables women to assume the formerly male prerogative of publicly rating and shaming (or praising) their sex partners the ultimate revenge of Lulu (the character)?

3. Bad sex, part 1

Bad writing about sex just makes you feel embarrassed for the writer, especially one whose literary pretensions are painfully obvious. Jonathan Franzen's first novel The Twenty-Seventh City has been reissued, and Parul Sehgal reviews it ("Jonathan Franzen’s First Novel Was Terrible (But It's Being Reissued Anyway)," Slate Book Review, Nov. 2013):
"In this novel, Franzen first glimpses his plot, that small fertile plot that will sustain three more books: the psychosexual dramas of the nuclear family; his horror of Midwestern complacency, hectoring mothers, militantly joyless fathers. We see, too, the missteps that will continue to dog him, especially the satirist’s blind spot for his own fallibilities, for his own Midwestern complacency, his propensity for hectoring and militant joylessness. For how completely he is a Jonathan Franzen character."
The villain of Franzen's novel is a sexually manipulative South Asian woman whose aim is to subvert a morally pure Anglo man who stands in the way of her corrupt (and profitable) real estate schemes—and terrorist plots. Alas, Sehgal writes, "I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is."

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux as Adèle and Emma
in Blue Is The Warmest Color

4. Bad sex, part 2

Film critic Manohla Dargis has bravely opposed the (largely male) critical consensus that has anointed Blue Is The Warmest Color as a masterpiece about women's desire. In "Seeing You Seeing Me: The Trouble With ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color'" (New York Times, Oct. 25, 2013), she writes,
"I first saw 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' at Cannes, where I wrote 399 dissenting words on the movie and raised some of the issues I had with it...Primarily, I questioned [director Abdellatif] Kechiche’s representation of the female body. By keeping so close to Adèle, he seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience, specifically with the hovering camerawork and frequent close-ups of her face. Yet, early on, this sense of the character’s interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Adèle, I had wondered then, dreaming of her own hot body?"
In her original article, Dargis wrote that "the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else....'Men look at women,' the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. 'Women watch themselves being looked at.'* Plus ça change...."

For a contrary view, see Richard Brody's "The Problem With Sex Scenes That Are Too Good," New Yorker, Nov. 4, 2013. Brody has called Dargis' article "malevolent" ("Out Loud: Sex Onscreen," New Yorker, Nov. 18, 2013, 8:10 - 8:30).

Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders (detail). Luca Signorelli (ca. 1500)

5. Death, boredom, and smart phones

Do Italian Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli, the boring but strangely compelling contemporary novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle) and Tao Lin (Taipei), and Louis C.K. have anything in common? The wide-ranging intelligence of Zadie Smith discovers that they do: each is struggling to come to terms with the unfathomable—our own mortality ("Man vs. Corpse," New York Review of Books, Dec. 5, 2013):
"'You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there…. That’s being a person…. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.'

"That’s the comedian Louis C.K., practicing his comedy-cum-art-cum-philosophy, reminding us that we’ll all one day become corpses. His aim, in that skit, was to rid us of our smart phones, or at least get us to use the damn things a little less ("You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your products, and then you die"), and it went viral, and many people smiled sadly at it and thought how correct it was and how everybody (except them) should really maybe switch off their smart phones, and spend more time with live people offline because everybody (except them) was really going to die one day, and be dead forever, and shouldn’t a person live—truly live, a real life—while they’re alive?"

* John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972, p. 47.

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