Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Department of Petty Gripes or, Greil Marcus

What's happened to Greil Marcus? Yes, I know many of you have been pondering this urgent question.

Marcus has had a long and distinguished career as an astute commentator on contemporary culture. Mystery Train was a groundbreaking book on the roots of American popular music, though its approach clearly owed a great deal to Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel. Much of what he's written on Dylan, especially, has been first-rate, if just barely this side of Bob-dolatry. His co-editing, with Werner Sollors, of A New Literary History of America, was inspired. And then of course there's his magnum opus on avant-garde modalities, The Lipstick of History. That book codified the Marcus style: a free-wheeling and exciting series of associations and vivid, if sometimes, problematic transhistorical leaps poised halfway between New Journalism and more sober scholarly analysis. It was refreshing, even galvanizing, writing: culture critique at its most enthusiastically incisive and an enormous pleasure to read. In retrospect, though, it may also have marked the beginning of his style's decay into mannerism.

Before I go on, I should note that re-reading Mystery Train inspired me to place Lorene Niedecker alongside the blues of Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson. The Marcus method at work!

Marcus belongs to a certain generation of writers that heralded an exciting moment in American music journalism. They were part of the larger vanguard, riding the shockwave rippling out from Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, and Thompson. I associate him with writers like Peter Guralnick, Paul Nelson, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Robert Palmer, to name a just a few: firebrands who rewrote the rules. Who said that pop music is culture and is here to stay, Roll over, Teddy Adorno, while we borrow a few lines from Benjamin. Cue bewitched crossroads.

If Marcus is preeminent among this group as a critic, Guralnick strikes me as the most erudite and finally most penetrating. Marcus, in his brilliant "Presliad," elevated Elvis to the status of Serious Icon, but it was Gurlanick who gave us the thick description of The King in all his monstrous glory and heartbreaking banality. At the end of the day, though, I'll turn to Marcus first.

The source of my particular petty gripe about what Marcus has been doing lately stems from my having just completed his hugely disappointing 2002 book on The Manchurian Candidate for the usually excellent BFI film guide series. My initial thought was: who better to cover the terrain of this baroque masterpiece of pop anarchy? I'm afraid I must report that John Frankenheimer's crazy political allegory from 1962 has been poorly served here.

In the middle of this slim book, which includes a needless and lengthy plot synopsis, Marcus intones:

"Something -- something in the story, something in the times, in the interplay of various people caught up consciously in the story, and consciously, unconsciously or half-consciously in the times -- came together, with the challenges and warnings of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address still lodged in the hearts of those making the movie" (41).

This is the Marcusian pop-prophetic voice: flabby, self-indulgent prose that gestures vaguely at the main chance through invocation.

He returns to this theme in his conclusion: "What The Manchurian Candidate did prefigure -- what it acted out, what it played out, in advance -- was the state of mind that would accompany the assassinations that followed it" (75).

These stale New Journalistic tics -- the over-vaunted, valorized "Something;" the repetitive play on prefiguration -- is classic Marcus, working up a lather of rhetoric that substitutes exhortation for thinking and which invites the reader to share in intimate revelation; the pop critic as prophet. It "all" came together, man, in the 60s.

This book gives every indication of having been dashed off over a long weekend. Its method can be pretty much summed up like this: hey, I screened this film for these naive undergrads at Princeton; they had no idea what was going to hit them; plus, what's with that crazy dream sequence?

Dear Greil, you might want to look into something called montage. And while you're at it, a smattering of gender theory would not go amiss either. But don't stop there. Check out Jameson's ideas on the political unconscious. I know it's "theory," but it actually would help think through some of the problems the film poses. The book's conceptual weaknesses and its woeful inattention to matters of form are patched over by its chronological jumps (probably sold to the editor as innovative, but really just intellectually empty).

Marcus on The Manchurian Candidate is an embarrassing sentimental journey; a nostalgia piece about the movies of his youth -- and the domestic thrills of the Cold War -- filled with lazy, gratuitous references to the measure of all things, Dylan. The final gambit of the decaying Marcus style, I suppose, would be to read all of Western history and literature through specific lyrics from Dylan like some kind of deranged autodidactic savant. Or, come to think of it, like Harold Bloom shellacking the canon with Shakespeare.

For a critic, nothing is sadder than being a herald of a moment that's already passed.

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