Gotham Diary:
8 November 2011

For the sake of the mortification of my flesh, I am reading James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. Ordinarily, the reviews, with their references to Norman Mailer and to New York’s sometime gritty downtown scene &c, would have put me off, having reminded me once again that, if I did have to spend a decade in exile, at least it was the 1970s — the city’s Buttcrack Decade. It was in the Seventies that James Wolcott became a journalist. I can’t say that I ever decided not to be a journalist, but a disinclination was already in place by the time I was graduated from Notre Dame in 1970. It came down to this: I didn’t like the kind of people who were journalists. (The feeling was mutual.)

Instead, the effect of the reviews of Lucking Out was to make me wonder if this was still the case. Lucking Out seemed to be a good test: turning its pages, would I be suffused with regret at paths not taken? Would I wish that I’d had a little more backbone, and followed my dreams? Would I have liked to be one of the cool kids? I’ll let Wolcott answer the question.

There was another home-brewed brand of criticism practiced at the Voice — informal, unsolicited feedback that was delivered like a body check in hockey and intended to put you on notice. It was not uncommon for a fellow writer, in a warrior spirit of collegiality, to let you know that the piece that ran in last week’s issue or the new one teed up in the galleys carried the risk of making you look like a fool. Not simply mistaken, not merely misguided, but a fool — a dupe who made everybody else look bad. One year at the Voice Christmas party, a columnist in ambush mode, having filled his tank to excess capacity with holiday cheer, intercepted me, even though I was standing still, to put me wise that a campaign piece I had done about a presidential candidate that was set to run proved that I didn’t know a thing about politics and if it were published I would look like a fool and the editors would look like fools, a diatribe/dire prediction he delivered so close up his face nearly went out of focus. He was telling me this for my own good, he said, but nobody at the Voice ever told you anything for your own good unless they were up to no good. Another Voice staffer, whom nobody dared call a fool for fear he’d do a calypso number on their heads with his fists, speculated that the weaponized use of the word was rooted in Old Left discourse, evidenced by how often Voice writers would quote August Beble’s pronouncement “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” one of those thudnering dicta certainly inteded to stop an adversary dead in his rhino tracks. … Or perhaps “fool” simply caught on in the office because some alpha force began using it and everyone else added it to their repertoire, just as so many writers picked up on Ellen Willis’s use of “cranky” as a positive descriptive, indicating someone out of sorts with the prevailing political norms. Whatever its origin in the lingua franca, “fool” was a strangely shame-laced word, intended to make you feel like an object of ridicule based on the snickers and scowls of some invisible jury. … I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. but I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.

In short: No. No, I do not wish that I had become a journalist in the Seventies. If for no other reason: weigh and consider the violence implicit in this passage! Quite aside from the danger of calypso numbers and other manifestations of actual physical aggression, Wolcott attests to a blood-soaked state of mind that conceives of journalism as a schoolyard scrimmage. A schoolyard scrimmage, I hasten to add, that’s of no interest to non-partipants with better things to attend to. (I excised a reference to Carrie.) Having been called an asshole by professionals is unfortunately no protection against actually being one, and those who celebrate the glories of the Buttcrack Decade are perhaps uniquely destined to live in it.


Having been going to the movies in my semi-professional way for a few years now, on almost every Friday morning, I have developed two handy precepts. First, I don’t go to movies that I would expect to dislike. (“No action figures” covers a lot of territory, if you include comic books.) By ruling out egregiously antipathetic experiences, the first rule makes it easy to follow the second, which is to try to enjoy each movie as it was intended to be enjoyed. What kind of movie did the filmmaker want to make? I ask myself that. It is rarely a difficult question to answer. Sometimes, it’s true, a movie tries to be two or more things at the same time, resulting in a degree of incoherence. But I don’t have a problem with a degree of incoherence.  I’ve also acquired a third insight, from thinking about the recent films of Woody Allen: a movie is a magic show, a display of wonders. Every good movie is both a spectacle and a joke. Well, almost every good movie.

I thought of these rules while watching Tower Heist last week. The movie itself did not inspire these thoughts, or any other thoughts; it was Anthony Lane’s unfavorable review that raised the issue. I understand that a film critic is expected to sit through movies that he or she doesn’t care for, although why this should be so is hard to figure. Who would be the poorer if The New Yorker took no notice of Tower Heist. We might all be the poorer for missing this dandy dismissal of Brett Ratner’s “style”: “The origins of his style are unclear, but the influence of, say, early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.” Okay, that’s funny. Why not just say that, and then move on to something else?

Tower Heist aims to be a lot of fun, and it succeeds. It tries to do several things at the same time, and it would objectionably incoherent if coherence were an element of Brett Ratner’s style, but it isn’t; Tower Heist is a deeply untroubled motion picture. Tower Heist takes place in an alternative New York that New Yorkers will probably appreciate more than most. A good deal of the movie’s spectacle, and its biggest joke, concerns the staff at The Tower, a luxury residence on Columbus Circle. The movie uses the Trump Tower — built as the Gulf & Western Building in 1970 —as its location; one part of the joke is that its battalion of impeccable service providers would be more likely to be found next door, at the new Mayflower. Another part of the joke is that, while the highly-skilled maids and doormen marshalled by Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) do exist — flourish — in our fair city, the movie’s tenantry seems imported from Los Angeles. They’re much too nice. Fortunately, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the richest of all the residents, and the man entrusted with investing the staff’s pension fund, is nice only on the surface; scratch his enamel, and he’s a bastard. When Shaw turns out to have been running a Ponzi scheme, the director knows how to rouse the audience’s inner Astoria, and we rejoice when justice is done, as it is, very sweetly. The only thing that Tower Heist lacks is a bigger, a much bigger part for Téa Leoni, who plays the FBI Special Agent who’s in charge of nabbing Shaw. At the very least, Tower Heist ought to have ended as 16 Blocks did, “two years later.” Josh and Claire ought to have had that Saturday-night date after all.

As to Anthony Lane’s diatribe/dire prediction about the future of the movies in an age of VOD, I can only say that I go to the movies in the morning because the audiences are small; more than once, I’ve been the only member. I like going to the movies principally for the popcorn (no butter), and I always take an aisle seat because I can’t make it through a feature film without a visit to the men’s room. If I were conscious of an imperative to “surrender our will,” I’d stay away. Lane is arguably the funniest writer to to have been published by The New Yorker in my lifetime, but he does have his hobby-horses. I prefer to encounter them at home, which is where I also get to know the movies I love; the element of compulsion that kept me in my seat during his homage to Ava Gardner at a bygone New Yorker festival was disagreeable. But it was theatre, in its way, and I’m glad that rules in effect since the Athens of Aeschylus are in force during staged performances. But the movies? Forget about it.