Saturday, August 31, 2019

American Monarchists

A surprising number of Americans seem to romanticize Britain's upper classes, and its associated trappings--the ultimate symbol, idol, fetish of which is the monarchy.

The tendency clearly extends far, far beyond the well-known Anglophilia of blue-blooded Eastern Establishment types who feel the more blue-blooded and Established for a trans-Atlantic connection to the even older Establishment in Britain. Even some who should know much better seem awed by the upper strata of British society, feel inferior to them. I remember, for instance, C.M. Kornbluth's rather gratuitous remark regarding George Orwell's literary craftsmanship in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The prose is the prose of a man with an English public school education, and I have noticed that these old Eton and Cambridge boys can write rings around anybody unfortunate enough not to have attended a public school and an ancient university.
The lecture in which Kornbluth made this remark was, on the whole, deeply disappointing in its intellectual shallowness and sheer enervation (the title was "The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism"), but this line was nothing short of disgusting in its bowing and scraping before a pretension and snobbery that the individual object of his praise happily did not share (for the man who gave the world Oceania and The Road to Wigan Pier could never have made his mark on history had he shared it). And it says a great deal that a writer as intelligent and talented and accomplished as Kornbluth (six decades on The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law remain as relevant as ever, in their ways even cleverer and more relevant than Orwell's book) spoke it publicly in such a context, apparently without anyone thinking anything of it.

One reflection of this is that many Americans hear Received Pronunciation, and immediately attribute to the possessor of the accent an erudition and intelligence on a higher plane than their own--just as the only school whose name can beat "Harvard" in the snob stakes among adherents of the Cult of the Good School is "Oxford."

Another more significant reflection is that they think the feudal trappings of a British social system that, as H.G. Wells remarked in Tono-Bungay, was, and a century later remains, frozen circa 1688, are quaint and picturesque and essentially harmless, essentially not at odds with their cherished notion of Britain's as the Mother of Parliaments, which brought the light of democracy back into the world--and that, indeed, it is in poor taste, gauche, to criticize such things. However, the reality, as Adam Ramsay recently put it in his book, is a
House of Lords where a combination of the only hereditary legislators in the world, the only automatic seats for clerics outside Iran, and hundreds of appointed cronies get a say on all the UK's laws. This valve in the British state allows the interests of the powerful to flow freely, while holding back progressive change.
All this is combined with, as his colleague Laurie MacFarlane explains, "a head of state that is appointed not on the basis of merit, but by bloodline," with the whole operating under "an 'uncodified' constitution, which is to say that we don’t really have one." And it all gets crazier from there--the "less equal than others" status of the inhabitants of the seven-eighths of British territory outside the British isles, the principle of "asymmetric devolution," and the rest, complemented and reinforced by the culture of the civil service, and the culture of "empire-kitsch nationalism" sustained by the tabloids, which causes many to speak such stupidities as "We need a monarchy because we don't have a Hollywood!"

Altogether it is a spectacle of backwardness, unearned and unjustifiable privilege, reaction, which if similarly displayed by a nation of Africa or Asia (especially one which had suffered the kind of industrial hollowing out Britain did, living off of accommodating foreign financiers and the kind of balance of payments Britain has), would be treated by the very same people as grounds for racist scorn, proof that "those savages" are unfitted for industry, democracy, modernity and the rest of modern life. And all of it has real-world consequences, with the Queen's Stuart-ish, pre-1688-ish suspension of Parliament to permit Boris Johnson's shoving a No-Deal Brexit down the throats of the British people only the latest and most recent example. (Ask the Australians what happened in 1975 for another.)

Online, at least, one seems to encounter a little more alertness to the fact from British observers.

One wonders if this will give American observers, or at least those who pretend to be at least a little bit progressive, similar pause where fawning over "the Queen" is concerned.

Alas, to go by the fawning over Prince Diana I see today, I do not think it likely.

Flouting the Conventional Wisdom (On Quentin Tarantino's Films)

Over the years I have found that anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion on the matter of Quentin Tarantino's films almost immediately runs up against the intolerance of his fans for such an opinion--in real life, and of course, online. One may object to the violence, profanity, etc. in Tarantino's films (though his fans will take that as a compliment to Tarantino, whose "edginess" is thought part of his accomplishment, and testament to the critic's being a laughable prude). One may, to some extent, take issue with his films on the grounds of identity politics--the scripts drenched in racial epithets, the allotment of roles to women and so forth (because so few dare to challenge criticism coming from that direction, while even here, Tarantino fans stand their ground more than most).

However, one is not at all allowed to criticize, or even analyze, his movies as movies, to speak seriously of their aesthetic content, technical execution, or intellectual or political substance (or lack thereof). David Walsh, perhaps the most consistently interesting film critic working today, especially when it comes to discussion of the sort of "independent," art house filmmakers toward whom the middlebrow reviewers of the upmarket pages tend to be obsequious (though the team he works with is by and large very good here), has been a rare exception from the start. Writing about Pulp Fiction he did not deny credit where credit was due, in particular praising the performances of some of the cast (particularly that of Samuel L. Jackson). However, he saw the film as characterized by a "lack of spontaneity . . . self-consciousness . . . posturing . . . substitut[ing] for a serious look at life"; thought the filmmaking the filmmaking of a "show-off," constantly "overdo[ing] things," and "call[ing] attention to everything in his film which he considers clever or daring" with "a dozen exclamation marks," not least because he is more concerned with developing in the viewer a "certain attitude toward the filmmaker" than anything else. This was certainly the case with the trademark Tarantino dialogue, which he thought "inane" and (this bore that notice specifically) "called attention to itself far too often." Meanwhile, whatever faint "strand of revolt" and "sympathy for the underdog, the outsider" there may have been in it, whatever "feeling for the banality of lower middle class existence . . . its linguistic rhythms . . . kitsch . . . pathos of dead-end lives," is "swamped" by the reality that it is nowhere near so subversive as it may look to the untutored eye, Tarantino's "nonconformism" thoroughly conformist, not in spite of but in its brutality and nihilism.

While somewhat more warmly receiving Jackie Brown, Walsh made clear that the posturing and show-offiness and conformist non-conformism remained, while his opinion of the director worsened after he saw Kill Bill and its follow-ups, an output he deemed "unwatchable." In his review of the last Tarantino movie he covered for his publication, Django Unchained, he observed that Tarantino is "a seriously unskilled artist . . . a cultural huckster, with a minor talent for pastiche, reworking genres and creating blackly comic moments." He also notes that "[u]nder healthier circumstances, no one would have paid much notice" to him, and that he did get so much notice reflected the very "unhealthfulness" of those circumstances, what is retrograde in Tarantino aligning with what is retrograde in the prevailing opinion-makers, whose powerful response to Tarantino's "flippant tone and cynicism" reflects their decreasing "sympathy for democratic niceties."

What Walsh has to say of the artistic traits of Tarantino's films--the self-consciousness and the posturing, the inane dialogue, the self-satisfied show off-iness, the conformist non-conformism and general vacuity to which one can, with rare confidence, apply words like "middlebrow" or "Midcult"--has rung true for me since nearly the start. Indeed, already by the mid-'90s it seemed to me that those qualities virtually defined the much ballyhooed independent film movement, especially its neo-noir component, much of which has been directly imitative of his work. (Already seeing the first commercials for Suicide Kings I couldn't help burst out laughing at what a pack of cliches it had come to seem.)

Walsh's reading of the politics of Tarantino's reception may seem more arguable, shifting away as it does from specific features of a piece of . . . film, to the less certain matter of what it means, but it seems to me that Walsh is at least broadly correct here--the intellectual shallowness with which all this is received, the gleeful nihilism that the gullible take for "cool" and "edgy," but which is really just fascistic garbage (or actually fascist garbage). It is an opinion that I suspect Tarantino would reject, and I think he would be honest and sincere in his denial. (I had the impression that his support for Black Lives Matter, which seems to have cost him a measure of favor in recent years, was genuine.) Still, a deep political thinker he does not seem to be, especially when making his movies (nor a terribly consistent thinker, period, to go by what many have written about his latest, Walsh's very capable colleague Joanne Laurier among them). And, if unintentionally, he seems to reflect and play to and be welcomed by his reviewers and his fans not in spite of but because of exactly what these critics find so tiresome and repugnant about his work.

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