Tuesday, January 6, 2009


What's fascinating about an academic like Stanley Fish deigning to share his views on the best American films with us is not so much his arrogance as it is his ignorance. But there are clues here about Fish and about the Obama world to come, so it's worth taking a minute to explore how far out of touch with reality selective perception can put us.

Here's Fish on The Best Years Of Our Lives, a William Wyler film that Fish considers the best American film ever made.
The three intertwined stories are resolved with a measure of optimism, but with more than a residue of disappointment and bitterness. Al Stephenson is still a drunk. Fred Derry is still poor and without skills. Homer Parrish still has no hands.
Still. As in stasis. As in nothing has changed.

I think not.

Al may be a drunk, but he's a drunk making loans to GIs, based on their character and his own judgment. Fred may be poor and without skills, but he's not a soda jerk anymore. He's just landed a job beating swords into plowshares and building post-war America. And Homer Parrish may still have no hands, but, by the end of the film, it's Homer's girlfriend helping him into his PJs instead of his dad.

That's narrative. That's character development. And if it's not great film, it is solid literature.

Flip it on its head. If a guy like Fish can't see that the characters in a film he thinks is the best American movie ever made are changing in front of his eyes, can we expect him to see that Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, people he thinks are a couple of the solidist citizens around, haven't changed at all? They're still the over-privileged white kids who couldn't make it in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements and set out on their own, starting a two-bit, terrorist organization that ended up making zero difference, except to the people who got hurt and killed by the Weathermen. Just a couple of saps with a dumb idea who've never owned up to their sappiness or the dumbness of their idea.

Cut to Europe, where Government officials and Jewish leaders are concerned that the conflict in Gaza may spill over into violence in Europe as attacks are reported against Jews and synagogues in France, Sweden and Britain.

But, what the hell? Those people, according to Mr. Ayers' and Ms. Dohrn's sappy code, are honor bound to attack those Jews, aren't they?

Years from now, they might even wish they had done more.

But don't get me wrong. I could care less about the Weathermen. I thought they were entertaining. I wasn't political in the '60s. By 1967, I had tuned in, turned on and dropped out. I wasn't looking for a street fight, I was looking for sex, drugs and rock and roll. I was looking for long hair, long legs and conical breasts that year. It was much later that I realized, stoned and watching Nixon on TV, that even the President Of The United States could go insane. Then panic set in until Tim Leary told me a few years later not to worry about the government, the people who were stealing hub caps at the Atlanta film festival a couple of years ago were now running it. I decided to join them.

So you tell me. Should I worry about the Obama administration or not?


Cypher Blueman said...

Every morning I try to get to work early. Part of my routine to really get working is an effort not to look at Billy's blog.

Here I am, looking, and I find two posts of great interest, Should I work or comment ? I'll do a quinn: "Can't do it now, I'm on my way around the world with barely enough time to drop a card to TPM. "

But I'm coming back.

Lots to argue about here. Lot's of angles, not all camera angles. Politics of these Best Ten movies? I'll be starting with another "list" of ten. I'll be back, and I say that without an Austrian accent. Blueman is an American. He and his friend Donnerpass have crossed the great divide.

Quinn the Eskimo said...

Yup. BG nails it again. Ennui & stasis. This amazing utterly boring time. Takes me back to my TS Eliot. Again.

But this time-between feels to me like it'll be brief. And with an ugly ending, likely this Spring.

Worry about the Admin? Well, they're probably better than any available alternative. Which still leaves them nowhere near up to the task. Old story.

Better - Mr Bryne. "Don't Worry About The Government"

I see the clouds that move across the sky, I see the wind that moves the clouds away, It moves the clouds over by the building, I pick the building that I want to live in.

It's over there, it's over there, My building has every convenience, It's gonna make life easy for me, It's gonna be easy to get things done, I will relax alone with my loved ones.

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building, take the highway, park and come up and see me, I'll be working, working but if you come visit, I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important.

Don't you worry 'bout me
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry 'bout me
Don't you worry 'bout me

I see the states, across this big nation, I see the laws made in Washington, D.C., I think of the ones I consider my favorites, I think of the people that are working for me.

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones, They work so hard and they try to be strong, I'm a lucky guy to live in my building, They all need buildings to help them along.

I wouldn't worry 'bout
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry 'bout me
Don't you worry 'bout ME....

Cypher Blueman said...

At first it was hard to figure why this Fish guy and his list of movies annoyed me.

It started with the New York Times. How does something like this Fish thing make it? I looked at the date. Christmas vacation. The grownup editors must have been on vacation.

The Fish likes the films of Billy Wilder. Who doesn't? But can WIlder survive the Fish?

Fish writes about THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES “the movie is filled with thrilling and affecting scenes.” Thrilling? When the wife realizes her husband is home from the war it’s “thrilling?” Come on Fish. “Affecting” does it. “Thrilling” is a word you might save for a chariot race.“ Edit please.

Then he writes “the movie ends with a residue of disappointment.” Dude. Ya kinda missed the point.

SUNSET BLVD. How about this for a sentence that made it to print in the New York Times: “But even before the final incredible scene of Desmond descending a staircase while the camera, empty of film, rolls, she has earned the sympathy we extend to the terribly needy, and he has revealed himself to be the true monster, a betrayer of Desmond, of the young girl (Nancy Olson) who sees more in him than there is, and of himself.” Yikes. Fish, I know that you know that Wilder, himself, of whom you speak in tones that are at once thrilling and affecting, was, at first, from Austria. So are you translating your own writing from the German?

Thrilling words keep a’coming. The father in SHANE is characterized as “a tree-like Van Heflin.” About RED RIVER he writes “brooding over all these characters is the cattle drive itself, a force both of nature and history.” VERTIGO: “There’s no getting to the bottom of this movie; its vertiginous.” Christ. Is he putting us on?

Wait a minute old Blue. Pull up. Where have you read crap like this before? There’s something familiar in some of these words about RED RIVER. “There are two triangles and one dyad.” Now that's an odd line to read about a movie. And "dyad" isn’t your everyday word-- even for the NYT. Hey. It's dime store structural anthropology. Say what? FIsh ! You wouldn’t be an academic by chance?

He is. And ungifted. But I’m still annoyed. Something about the list. Something about how all these characters move thrillingly yet vaguely through binary oppositions as dyads.

Ah. Here it is at the end of his piece: “So there they are, 10 movies marked by sentiment and cynicism in equal doses, but with sentiment winning out more often than not.”

A rather cynical way to assess the best American movies of all time--great because sentiment wins out at the end.

Fish-dude ! What about a moral? What about a narrative that leads to a place of certainty, a point when the movie makes a case for right or wrong? There are more than a few movies on your list that do.

But the Fish ain’t having none of it. The Fish ain’t happy in Heaven nor Hell, but floating between, a dyad of “this-or-that” because neither matters.

He’s an elitist, our Fish. No mistake that most of these films are half a century gone. Academic elitists are uncomfortable with the present, with what is close and populist. No mistake that he prefers SHANE to the UNFORGIVEN. Our dyad- drinking professor wouldn't be caught dead nor alive with Clint.

By claiming sentimentality as the defining element in the best American movies of all time, Fish has missed what makes these films American.

Like Billy, I couldn’t resist a google on Fish. I found another of his articles. It seems he has a regular blog for the New York Times.


A comment about our Fish below the piece:

"The author of this article, Stanley Fish, was the victim of the famous Sokal Hoax. Sokal is a physicist who wrote a mock essay criticising modern science from a post modern perpective. Fish, a fervent post-modernist who views science as a white male dominated "discourse", fell for the hoax hook, line and sinker and published the essay in his Social Text journal. He became a laughing stock in the academic world when Sokal revealed the ruse in the jornal Lingua Franca. He explains his reasons for the hoax here:

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html "

It all makes sense now. Darn dyads, dagnabit.

Billy Glad said...

Does he translate his own writing from the German? Pretty damn funny, Blueman. And the Sokal hoax is priceless. Working over these elite, ungifted but tenured academics with their two homes and their hidden agendas could keep us amused for years. Can we spare the time, or do we have bigger fish to fry? I say we let this fish off the hook. Put him in a footnote. Some guy who never saw a Cassavetes film.

Just finished Faces. Talk about your Stasis.

Cypher Blueman said...

Well, onward then. I was having difficulty with a transition from Billy Wilder to the William Ayers earring. Did Wilder make a pirate movie? And I think
that both Obamas liked the UNFORGIVEN.

No more Billy Wilder then. Back to our own Billy the Wild.

Billy Glad said...

I notice this morning that another Obama World figure has checked in at the NYT. Rashid Khalidi has a word for us about Gaza today. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/08/opinion/08khalidi.html?_r=1&em&exprod=myyahoo

Apparently, Fish is not much admired by the Left or the Right, by working guys like us or by profound thinkers like Sakol. Khalidi is well thought of by Juan Cole, whom I used to admire, until the lack of balance in his thought became too grating. I guess somewhere Fish has admirers, too. For me, your question about how a guy like Fish becomes a regular around the Times is fascinating. Obviously, if Murdoch gets his hands on the Times, that will come to a screeching halt. So I imagine the restructuring of the failing NYT will become a fight to the death between the Left and the Right to see who comes away with the Gray Lady.

Cypher Blueman said...

I feel guilty that I terminated my daily NYT. I've read that thing since I was in 10th grade. Speaking of change, what high school today would assign editorials from the Times to 15 year olds?

It was about the actual bulk of paper. If someone else would recycle it, I'd keep on. (What have I become? A tree-hugger?)

We'll miss it if it goes down. And ideas will never have the (possible) gravitas that print imparts compared with the web. The Fish souffle only shows a downfall, with the underpaid and depressed editors drinking heavy Christmas grog while the 20-somethings run the shop.