Books
11:09 am
Wed July 17, 2002

Castaways

Geoffrey O'Brien's new book charts the terrain for "Castaways of the Image Planet."

Boston, MA –

Twenty years ago, the stately "New York Review of Books" didn't deign to cover much pop culture, aside from analytic examinations of boxing (via Joyce Carol Oates) or the peculiar ruminations of John Updike on his crushes for such movie stars as Doris Day. The exceptions prove the rule: Joan Didion got a free pass on pop subjects, but that was because she turned in rigorous pieces on cultural politics.

Then something peculiar happened. The latter half of the past century saw a mysterious overlap of high and low, and a search for a language to explore the fusion. Rock music turned inexplicably respectable; orchestral conductor Michael Tilson Thomas let on that he was a Prince fan. Comic books became "art" in the good old-fashioned sense, thanks to "serious" works like Art Spiegelman's "MAUS." College curriculums sprouted arcane courses on television, radio, and hula-hoops.

The Boomers' ascendance into the White House and the corporate boardroom pushed things along. The major cultural organs adjusted, and gave fluent critical stylists like Louis Menand and Geoffrey O'Brien free reign to talk about what were previously considered closeted (and shameful) tastes. In his first collection of essays (a number of which originally appeared in "The New York Review of Books"), O'Brien covers a broad array of mainstream and fringe subjects, exhibiting a lot more sympathy than you'd suspect from the Editor-in-Chief of the canon-waving "Library of America." Somehow the pieces in "Castaways of the Image Planet" manage to examine much of what's fascinating about pop culture (especially movies) without patronizing what's downright vulgar.

O'Brien is intrigued by innovative meshes of the old and the new, the obscure and the immediate, the mundane and the profane. He's not so concerned with the structural bravura of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" as he is with the details of its violent banality against which the film's characters "pursue their endless jags of more or less amiable small talk." Tarantino's underworld is a ballet of accidental gunfire and crude scenes of needle-jammed-through-the-chest resuscitation of a heroin overdose. But when it comes to gossip, these goodfellas are as bad as a sewing circle, and the dialogue is often all about how that guy from "Kung Fu" would roam the earth, or how the French refer to the Big Mac.

Pop culture induces peculiar time warps, and these temporal contradictions are O'Brien's pet theme. In Tarantino, he notes how the score spews "music out of a twenty-four-hour oldies station for which all the decades since the fifties exist simultaneously." All mass-marketed pop, O'Brien perceptively suggests, taps into this freewheeling, reality-distorting current, often to great expressive effect.

His observations on individual artists are close, without becoming claustrophobic: a Marlon Brando profile is somehow sympathetic yet merciless. Carefully chosen quotes ("You could write a whole chapter on the ways he could make people feel uncomfortable") are strengthened by piquant rejoinders: "...and indeed his art of acting could be read above all as an art of inducing unease." Of Brando's famous film with Bertolucci, O'Brien writes: "He is at once the secret author of Last Tango in Paris and its prisoner."

When the target is plum, O'Brien bruises away. In "A Kinder, Gentler Perversity," his portrait of B-movie director Ed Wood, O'Brien quotes lavishly from the director's overwrought critics and acolytes ("because we don't often get this level of barely articulate dialogue in print"). The critic goes back to the source material, where he discovers that Wood's work is only as "intermittently bad as has been claimed."

Even on popular topics, O'Brien summons uncommon insights. In "The Republic of Seinfeld," he points out how the show upends sit-com norms: "Where it might once have been asked if Seinfeld was a commentary on society, the question now should probably be whether society has not been reconfigured as a milieu for commenting on Seinfeld." This essays contains a vivid description of the comic dexterity of Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Her face is "a complex ballet in which eyes, nose, mouth, neck, and shoulder negotiate hairpin turns or spiral into free fall. The smirk, the self-satisfied grin, the effusion of faked warmth, the grimace of barely concealed revulsion: each is delineated with razor precision before it slides into a slightly different shading."

The most recent subjects here are reviews of Steven Spielberg's "Artificial Intelligence," Gary Giddins's biography of Bing Crosby, and a soaring essay on Hitchcock et L'art, the Centre Pompidou's ambitious exploration of artifacts and visual metaphors that make up the great filmmaker's visual vocabulary (called "The Hidden Power"). Missing in the volume are several notable music pieces that would have rounded things out without unduly extending the book's length: "Seven Years in the Life," his reminiscence on the Beatles, and "Recapturing the American Sound" on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

In O'Brien's view, pop is less a vast wasteland of pulp than a dizzying labyrinth that suspends time, dashes assumptions, and toys with our received cultural ideas, which are less about high and low than good and bad. Throughout these essays, O'Brien's accomplished tone is rarely precious or sentimental, although at times you wish he'd drop the studious facade and go native (Just what does he make of Lou Reed, for example, or Courtney Love?) But if the best criticism goads you to watch movies with renewed attention, or hear music with new ears, O'Brien belongs in the very special company of thinkers whose writing does just that.