Out and about (June 2008)

Light graffiti

When, oh when, will Zadie Smith publish a book of her literary criticism? Along with being a ferociously talented novelist, she’s quickly becoming one of the most astute critics of her age. Here she is on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, perhaps the greatest of all English-language novels. Another Smith volume that needs to be out in the open is novel #4. In the New Yorker, she’s teased us with two great stories—“Hanwell in Hell” and “Hanwell Senior”—which makes me think she’s hard at work.

Speaking of tributes, Craig Fischer at Thought Balloonists pays his respects to cartoonist Will Elder, with a detailed, illustrated analysis of Elder’s “chicken fat” aesthetic.

Yet another tribute: Roger Ebert celebrates the life of Studs Terkel on the historian/raconteur’s 96th birthday. Terkel’s introduced me to labor history, oral history, humane leftist politics, and the pleasures of a daily martini, so I consider him a hero and a shaper of my soul. It pleases me to no end to know that Terkel’s still alive and productive at his age.

Enough with the tributes. With all the essays about the “crisis” in contemporary film criticism, it’s good to have a long view on what criticism is, does, and can do in the online climate. David Bordwell provides a terrific examination, essentially giving his philosophy and ideal practice of film criticism. Anyone interested in the subject should read his essay.

To be more particular, Wesley Morris uses his critical podium to wonder about the African American presence in cinema:

A few weeks ago I got to see Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose play Brick and Maggie “the Cat” in Debbie Allen’s Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I went home depressed. Not because the show was bad, although, in its clanging way, it is. I was depressed because for all its shortcomings, the show was a big entertainment event that doesn’t happen much in the movies: It had premium melodrama and black stars being starry. As a moviegoer, I hurt for that kind of glamour.

I felt the same hangover leaving an exhilarating concert by Erykah Badu and the Roots earlier this month, and watching both The Wire, which just said goodbye to us and HBO, and the staggering acting in that production of A Raisin in the Sun ABC aired in February: Why isn’t black life this interesting, vibrant, or complex at the movies? How is it that Terrence Howard can play a legendary character on the New York stage but is stuck as the sidekick who’s jealous of Robert Downey Jr.’s hardware in Iron Man?

When it comes to black America, the movies are stagnating. Well, when it comes to any nonwhite male subject matter at the movies, the pickings are slim. But there’s such a wealth of black stars, producers, and directors that the scarcity of movies—big-ticket or small, serious or light—focused on the lives of black people is surreal. There’s a gaping entertainment void. It’s not just the lack of quantity. It’s the lack of variety.

Finally, I think I’ve found a hobby I’d like to pursue: light graffiti. See some pictures here.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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2 Responses to Out and about (June 2008)

  1. gorjus says:

    I . . . I am about to ashame myself here.
    I agree nearly totally with Mr. Morris’ critique, but must add that in the comics, many African-American “sidekicks” have ultimately displaced their white predecessors. Notably, Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes actually becomes Iron Man, before then transforming into the War Machine role, much as John Stewart (the “Black Lantern”) ultimately became Green Lantern (and thanks to the Justice League cartoon, likely “is” Green Lantern for a generation of kids). This “training period” can be analogized to the evolution of civil rights in American history, where many decades of deferment or repression culminate in achievement or , arguably at the least, access.
    Grant Morrison has seemed to take a particular interest in this displacement of the old gods with new ones, furthering Jack Kirby’s obvious intention to have Shilo Norman replace Scott Free, and having the former-cop Jake Jordan assume the mantle of the Guardian. By doing so with Kirby characters–the backbone of the entire superhero genre, oftentimes the crux of the Marvel and DC mythologies–Mr. Morrison cracks through the ivory ceiling and reforms our superheroic models as African-American instead of solely white (if, at times, Jewish, cf. Chabon + Superman). This has been attempted before with minor characters (I’m thinking of the Wolfman/Perez reimaginings of Doctor Light as an Asian woman, and Wildcat as a Hispanic female, as well as the recent recast of the Blue Beetle as a young Latino living in El Paso), but rarely touches the core mythology of the comics.
    Also: if comic books are more racially advanced than the movies, then we all need to jump off a cliff.

  2. Michael says:

    Walter, Zadie Smith’s critical acumen is indeed impressive. In some ways, I think her criticism might be even better than her fiction, and I’ve personally adopted some of the ideas she’s had about literature and its purpose. I’ve read that she’s actually been working on a book of critical essays devoted to ethics in modern fiction. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out her introduction to “The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003”, edited by Dave Eggers. It’s a fun read, and she makes what I think are some illuminating points.

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