November 28, 2015

WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN ORDER TO LIVE: At City Journal, Ian Penman reviews a new biography of Joan Didion that isn’t quite up to its subject; Penman’s own profile of Didion is a great read, though:

If Didion possessed a quieter sensibility, it would be a mistake to peg it as a more defiantly “feminine”—or even feminist—one. Friends in liberal circles were delighted when she sent up “pretty” Nancy Reagan; less pleased when she did the same thing with some of the more starry-eyed avatars of the Women’s Liberation movement. She already had a sharp eye (and ear) for the little fudges and blind spots in ideological syntax on both sides of the street. As a working mother herself, she naturally saw the need for certain pragmatic political demands, but she talked also of “the coarsening of moral imagination to which . . . social idealism so often leads.” She seemed ill at ease with the all-or-nothing verities of an emergent identity politics: “The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.” And while it’s probably fair to say that she was never going to run for, or place, in any kind of Republican Mom-of-the-Year contest, she could offer scathing put-downs of her own gilded social circle: “[t]he public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.”

She certainly had Woody Allen’s number in the late 1970s; while most critics were dazzled by Manhattan’s gorgeous black and white cinematography and Gershwin score, Didion was astute enough to write:

This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career — something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships” — is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.

Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)

These faux adults of Woody Allen’s have dinner at Elaine’s, and argue art versus ethics. They share sodas, and wonder “what love is.” They have “interesting” occupations, none of which intrudes in any serious way on their dating. Many characters in these pictures “write,” usually on tape recorders. In Manhattan, Woody Allen quits his job as a television writer and is later seen dictating an “idea” for a short story, an idea which, I am afraid, is also the “idea” for the picture itself: “People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe.”

And the grownups would be in short supply ever since.

(By the way, fans of Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour will find much to appreciate in Penman’s discussion of the timeless semiotics of the photo that accompanies his review.)

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