no title

compuserve contest

This photo popped up on Facebook, where we tagged as many people as we could (our friends the Isaacs family, and another friend, Dale). What interests me at the moment is the stuff in the background.

Most of it is stereo gear, circa 1984-87. There’s a red bottle ... that’s liquid you put on the record cleaner thingie before you cleaned your vinyl. A turntable sits atop a receiver. On the right side of the picture is a dual cassette deck.

I think the books on the other side of the receiver were music-related. It’s hard to make out, but at the top of the photo, near the right, is a postcard of two boxers, one of whom is landing a punch on the other. The postcard was from Greil Marcus, in reply to a fan mail I sent him. Ah, those were the days.


happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

This blog began 14 years ago today.

Who the hell does anything for fourteen years?

There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.

And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.

But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.

Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.

I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.

What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”

Right now, the thing that has me most excited is catching up with The 100 before Season Three begins. I might have a pretty good post about that surprisingly fine show, which made #9 on my Top Ten List even though I only started watching it a short time ago.

 


xmas 2015

Some think Homeland has returned to form this year, and I’ll agree, at least to the extent that it no longer rises above its form. The show is about Carrie Mathison, and about Claire Danes portrayal of Carrie. Danes never falters, and the first season, where Carrie’s bipolar disorder turned her into an obsessive investigator who is “crazy” but also “right”, was stunning. The plot became unhinged in Season Two, and I don’t believe it has ever recovered, although for some reason I’m still watching ... probably because of Danes. (One way Homeland is true to form is that, like almost every Showtime series, it goes on for too many season.)

Season Five, which just ended, began with Carrie no longer working for the CIA. Of course, she inevitably gets involved in the same old shit. A turning point comes early in the season, when Carrie goes off her bipolar medication so that she can do a better job of figuring things out. This call-back to Season One mostly just reminded me of how good Homeland used to be. No one really likes Crazy Carrie any more. Whatever ... this subplot seems to just disappear. We never see her go back on her meds, although I guess she does because Crazy Carrie is mostly subdued.

I have been on bipolar meds for more than ten years. What was I like in the 50+ years before I went on meds? My sister once told me she thought I hated her when we were kids (nothing could be further from the truth, but she must have gotten that feeling from somewhere). There’s an acquaintance from high school ... we reconnected some years ago. She told me she always thought I was an asshole when we were teenagers. One time, I asked a good friend from those days (and today) to support me on this ... he said “you were an asshole”. And he’s my friend.

I don’t know where my sins fit on the continuum of good to bad. I know I’ve never killed anyone ... I know the person I most often hurt is myself ... I know I could have been a better husband and a better father. But lots of people could say these things. They are nothing to be proud of, but I suspect they are fairly ordinary. I’ve done a couple of things that were worse than these ... maybe we all have something like that we keep hidden.

As Xmas rolls around, I recognize how much meds have improved my life. For so long, I detested Xmas. Now, I get through it, and I hope I’m not too much of a burden on others.

But tonight, I find myself wondering what might happen if I did a Carrie Mathison. What if I went off my meds on a temporary basis? She had an explicit purpose for her actions ... what would be mine? I wouldn’t see things differently ... one of the odd things about my meds is that they haven’t changed what I think, only how I act on those thoughts. If I went off meds, that awful anxiety would return, as would the depression. But I wouldn’t be able to save the world from terrorists the way Carrie does. I’d just go back to feeling shitty.

So why would I even stop to wonder what it would be like?

Because my meds take away the one thing I have always been better at than anything else: my verbal meanness. I don’t say what I think they way I used to do, and a part of me thinks it would be liberating to return to the days of cutting barbs for a day or two.

But it would last a lot longer than a day or two, if not directly for me, than for my relationships with others. It took my high-school friend more than 40 years to get over whatever it was I did back in high school. Same with my sister.

So I dutifully take my meds, and wish people happy holidays. I update folks on our dog, Spot, who as you can see is doing as good as ever:

spot

I post a picture like this to cheer myself up:

félix in shades

And I revisit a good moment from 2015:

Got this feeling when I heard your name the other day
Couldn't say it, couldn't make it go away
It's a hard place, can't be friends, we can't be enemies
It's just too much, feel the weight crushing down on my face

The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I can not tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away

Broken pieces, try to make it good again
Is it worth it, will it make me sick today?
It's a dumb song, but I'll write it anyway
It's an old mistake, but we always make it, why do we?

The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I can not tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away

This time, it'll be alright
This time, it'll be okay
This time, it'll be alright
This time, it'll be okay

The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I can not tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away
Some things you lose, some things you give away


happy thanksgiving (these are better days, baby)

Last weekend, the following showed up on a friend’s Facebook feed:

Some thoughts as we enter the Christmas season ... It is important to remember that not everyone is surrounded by large wonderful families. Some of us have problems during the holidays and sometimes are overcome with great sadness when we remember the loved ones who are not with us. And, many people have no one to spend these times with and are besieged by loneliness. We all need caring, loving thoughts right now. If I don't see your name, I'll understand. May I ask my friends wherever you might be, to kindly copy, paste, and share this status for one hour to give a moment of support to all those who have family problems, health struggles, job issues, worries of any kind and just need to know that someone cares. Do it for all of us, for nobody is immune. I hope to see this on the walls of all my friends just for moral support. I know some will! (You have to copy & paste this one, NO sharing) Be grateful xpx

This kind of post is fairly common on Facebook, and I usually avoid them like the plague. I appreciate the sentiment, but the entire concept beneath “You have to copy & paste this one, NO sharing” turns the sentiment into a greeting card. Hey, I don’t have to think of anything to say, don’t have to add a personal touch, don’t have to make a real connection to the words. I can just copy & paste and be done with it. I’ll even look like a good person.

But this one hit home, because I find this time of year to be depressing. And so, I decided to copy & paste. At the top of the message, I wrote, “I never do these, but this one's worth it:”.

Well, several of my Facebook friends followed suit. Some of them said nice things about me in the process. They are good people. Me? Not so much. Because I’m about to complain.

Almost every person who did the copy & paste thing included “I never do these, but this one's worth it:” at the top of their post.

Man, am I being picky or what? But I can’t quit obsessing about this. It tells me that there was little thought given to the cut & paste. It was taken literally ... my little sentence was assumed to be part of the message. Perhaps all of my friends, also, “never do these”, but someone is doing them, or why do I see them on my Facebook feed?

This is why I never do these, why I generally find them irritating. It’s a simulation of caring, no different in the end from sharing or liking. It’s an easy way to “connect” with others.

I’m guilty too, of course ... otherwise, I wouldn’t have broken my “never do” pattern.

And why did I think it was “worth it”?

I spent the majority of my days embroiled in hate for the curse of my life. “Why me?” was my motto. Even now, after ten years of psych meds, I feel much the same ... I no longer have the passion of hatred, but I still have a piss poor attitude towards life.

And my attitude is so bogus, just like my copy & paste. I have a large and wonderful family. I am lucky in that most of my loved ones are still with us. I don’t really have family problems, my health struggles are still containable, I solved my job issues by retiring which is what I wanted all along anyway, and I know that some people care. Yet I hitch myself to that wagon, pretending to a misery I don’t deserve.

As Bruce Springsteen sang, “it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin, and can't stand the company.”


witness

The Dodgers officially clinched the NL West crown tonight. More importantly, they eliminated the Giants from the post-season.

Neal and I attended last night’s game, which went four hours and twelve innings. The Giants pulled off a win at the last moment. I don’t know why it mattered so much. The season’s result was inevitable. I just didn’t want to have to see it in front of me. So my son and I planned from the beginning to leave early if necessary, so we didn’t have to watch the Dodgers celebrate at our house.

Like I say, the Dodgers eventually did celebrate. But I wasn’t there, and that makes me happy. Or rather, it would have made me very sad if I’d be there tonight. Of course, I wouldn’t have seen it if I’d been there tonight, anyway, because I would have left by the 6th inning.

My son-in-law and grandson, both Dodger fans, will be at the park tomorrow night. It will be the first major-league game for Lex, who just turned 10. I’m glad he won’t see the Dodgers clinch ... I know that sounds mean, but I don’t intend that to be the case. I just assume Giant fans were shitty tonight towards Dodger fans, and hopefully Lex won’t suffer from that tomorrow night.


the moon

We tried to see the moon tonight ... even drove around looking for a better vantage point ... but the fog wasn’t letting us enjoy the big event.

Then finally it appeared, still in total eclipse. It was covered in a thin sheet of fog, and you had to put your hand up to hide the street lights, but at least we got to see it.

The best part, though, wasn’t the moon, it was the people. I was sitting on the porch. A man walked by, and I said something about the moon. We exchanged a few words, then we exchanged names, then he told us he had retired, but he had been one of our garbage men for many years. A couple of guys from down the street walked up our way, wondering if we could see anything. Robin used an app on her tablet to figure out exactly where to look, and she was the first to see the moon. After a couple of minutes, the other guys walked back to where they had come from, and immediately they called us to come over, explaining that you could see the moon much better from their vantage point. We went there and sure enough, the view was better. One of the guys went inside his house and brought his mom out to see. Across the street, a few people came outside ... they didn’t come over to our side, because from where they stood, there was no interference from the street lights. Soon, a few other families came over, parents pointing out the moon to kids, everyone just chatting about it.

I’m not big on nature, and I’m not exactly Mr. Neighborhood. But damn if that moon didn’t bring us all together for a moment.


anthologies and me

With the publication of Talking About Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers, and Scholars Remember an Icon, I have returned to the world of anthologies. I was once asked why I had never written a book, and my reply was truthful, if also a bit smart-ass: I’m too lazy and unambitious to write a book. Now, to take just one example, the combined posts on film this blog has featured over the past 12+ years would fill a couple of books. It’s not the writing that drags me down. But doing anything with that writing beyond posting it here ... I’d just as soon give it away for free.

I’ve answered a few calls-for-papers ... that’s how I ended up in the Kael book. But I’ve also been handed some assignments without my even looking. If I remember correctly, I had two such opportunities in 2005. I could be wrong (insert obligatory comment about the varying reliability of memories), but I think Nick Rombes contacted me first about participating in a book on punk cinema, having seen something or other I’d written. That ended up being one of my favorite essays, “Making It Real”, which started off quoting The Adverts and ended with Sid and Nancy. My author’s bio for that one read, “Steven Rubio is a former steelworker who left the factory and picked up a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkeley. A film major in his long-ago youth, he saw the last Sex Pistols concert to include Sid Vicious, and has waited ever since for someone to ask him to write about punk and movies in the same essay.” (The key, I suppose, is the part where I was waiting to be asked ... no wonder I never wrote a book.)

Also in 2005, I got an email from the folks at BenBella Books, who were publishing an anthology on NYPD Blue and had read something I’d written on that topic. That led to a fruitful period when I wrote six pieces for them in three years, covering NYPD Blue, King Kong, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica, House, and 24. Some were better than others ... I particularly liked the one on BSG, and both the Kong and Bond essays took on their subjects through the side door (for the King Kong book, I wrote about the mid-70s remake, and for the 007 book, my topic was the best Bond villain and I chose Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo in the “non-canonical” Never Say Never Again).

I was also proud to be in The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, edited by the great Michael Bérubé. That was arguably the best academic-style essay I ever wrote, covering Bugs Bunny, Picasso, The Proms, and more.

It was in the BenBella period that I experienced a variety of editors. One, Leah Wilson, was among the finest editors I have ever worked with. But on a couple of occasions, they used “star” editors. So Say We All: Collected Thoughts and Opinions on Battlestar Galactica was “edited” by actor Richard Hatch. The oddest one, though, was Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24. The general idea was that we should avoid being too polarizing in our essays ... you might recall that in its day, 24 elicited a lot of heat, both pro and con. My piece was called “Can a Leftist Love 24?” Late in the project it was announced that the guest editor would be Richard Miniter, whose most recent books included Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America is Winning the War on Terror and Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. I joked to one of the actual BenBella editors, “This project has come a long way, from not wanting to be polarizing, to signing up Richard Miniter!” I had been told that he was “extremely enthusiastic about the project”, and now I was informed that “he really seemed to like your essay”. Hearing that, I just asked that no one told my friends in Berkeley. (My author’s bio for that one began, “Steven Rubio has never been cornered by a mountain lion.”)

If I made an anthology of my writing, a “Best of Steven” if you will, I imagine there would be a connected feel to it, primarily because “I” is an important part of all my writing. What is interesting about being in an anthology, though, is that you aren’t connected to yourself, you are connected to others through a common topic. In the spirit of this realization, I decided to read Talking About Pauline Kael from start to finish, hoping among other things to see how I “fit”. (Until the book arrived, I had no idea who the other writers were.) My essay comes late in the book (the 20th essay of 22), so I figured by the time I got around to re-reading what I’d written, I’d have a sense of the context into which I’d been inserted.

The first two sections of the book, “Friends, Neighbors, Confidantes” and “Knowing Pauline: At Home and at the Movies,” are written by people who had a personal connection to Kael. Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill were introduced to each other by Pauline (they later married). Frost’s essay is the first in the book, and it begins, “Pauline Kael liked to dial up her friends at all hours, engaging in long conversations.” I like that the book starts with a personal anecdote, because even those of us who didn’t know Kael felt that we “knew” her, and the inspired subjectivity of her writing encouraged that kind of relationship. Frost’s thesis, echoed in the title of her essay (“Performing Pauline”), reminds us, from the perspective of someone who really knew her, that “Pauline Kael” was not the same as Pauline Kael (a point I make in my own essay). “I suspect that one of the reasons Ray and I, and a few others, became as close to Pauline as we did was that, even during her peak years, we understood that there was a distinction between the public and private Pauline Kael.... She’d created one of the great characters of our age and had given one of the era’s great performances”. Frost finishes her essay with this sentence: “Pauline taught me that in the end it’s all in how you play yourself.”

Ray Sawhill reiterates this in his piece, the longest in the book. “She trusted us, and a few others ... I think this was mainly because we let her be herself – not the “Pauline Kael” of legend, but the quirky person who’d created and put over that larger-than-life character.” (Sandwiched between the Frost and Sawhill essays is a reprinted column by Roy Blount Jr. which seems placed there because he was Kael’s neighbor.)

The next essays follow up on the “we knew her” theme, as witnessed by the titles: “Conversations, 1968-2001”, “Knowing Pauline”, and “Encounters with Kael, 1975”. And the following section, “Objects of Her Affection: Critics, Journalists, and Movie Makers”, continues this from a different angle. David Denby (a “Paulette”), writer/director “Paul Schrader” (whose essay is called “My Family Drama: Pauline Kael, 1919-2001”), writer Joan Tewksbury (who tells an anecdote about Kael on the set of Thieves Like Us), all accompanied by a couple of “What I Learned from Pauline Even Though I Never Met Her” pieces. This section also includes a reprint of Sanford Schwartz’s introduction to the Library of America anthology of Kael’s work, and it is here that we get the first evaluation of her writing that comes from a place other than the personal.

Finally, halfway through the book, we come to “Stop Making Sense: Academics Consider Pauline Kael”. I say “finally” because my impression, from the Call for Papers to my interactions with editor Wayne Stengel (a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and a pleasure to work with) to the way I approached my essay (which isn’t quite filled with academese, but I did include notes), was that this would be an “academic” book (I was thinking of the potential audience, but I suppose another way to separate “academic” from “non-academic” writing is that I didn’t get paid for this book, unlike, say, my work for BenBella). I’d say it’s the best kind of book, a blend of the academic and the ... I don’t really have a word for the opposite. Nonetheless, this section, featuring two professors, two graduate students, and Stengel himself, is pretty clearly marked off from what has come before. It is in many ways the most interesting section of the book, for Kael was well-known for her anti-academic stance (note that this was not the same as anti-intellectual ... she was never the latter, despite being accused of it on more than one occasion).

Steve Vineberg actually talks about her writing (I call him a professor, but his essay is a reprint from 1992 ... he might not have been teaching yet). Susie Linfield compares Kael to Siegfried Kracauer, which is fascinating in part because of the oddness of the subject. (She starts, “To discuss Pauline Kael and Siegfried Kracauer in the same essay seems, at first glance, exceedingly odd. And not just first glance.”) In “The Ghost of Pauline Kael,” Amanda Shubert asks for a moratorium of sorts on a certain kind of critique of Kael: “Pauline Kael lingers in a half-life in the cultural imaginary, unjustly pigeonholed and damned by derision and faint praise. It would be a grace finally to allow her to die. How else can we give her work a rebirth?” (Shubert also states, “My own frequent conversations with Pauline Kael have taken place solely in my head. There’s a good reason for that. I was only thirteen years old when she died in 2001.” Those “conversations in my head”, which resonate with people like me, remind me of the relationship between Six and Baltar in Battlestar Galactica.) Jason Kelly Roberts, like Linfield, takes on a topic that has been curiously ignored, Kael’s early essay “Movies on Television”. This piece benefits greatly from the focus Roberts can place on a single text. Finally, Wayne Stengel discusses “Performance Art and the Siren Songs of Pauline Kael”, where he claims that Kael “cultivated the most distinctive, jarring, and sexualized performance voice of any culture critic America has produced.” We’ve come full circle from Frost’s notion that Kael created “Kael” to Stengel’s recognition that Kael gave us a performance.

And then, at last, we come to the section that includes me, “Unraveling Pauline: Origins and Influences”. Maureen Karagueuzian offers an analysis of the now-legendary Berkeley Cinema Guild (in my bio for this book, I wrote that I “once lived half a block from the building where Pauline Kael had run the Berkeley Cinema Guild”), and Lisa Levy notes the importance of R.P. Blackmur on Kael’s approach to criticism. Which leads to my piece ... I’ve gotten to that point where I know what has come before, and can apply context to what I wrote for the book.

I’m trying to explain myself to myself.

My essay is called “Kael’s Influence: Expansive Subjectivity”. I don’t remember who came up with the title, but Wayne Stengel was quite taken with my concept of “expansive subjectivity”, so I suppose it was bound to be in the title somewhere. That phrase may turn out to be the one thing that lasts from my piece ... if you ever see anyone using that term, I did it first (at least, to the best of my knowledge). I used it as a counterpart to what Kael called “saphead objectivity”. The subjective part is obvious ... it’s also the easiest to emulate. Any writer who wants to attach themselves to whatever prestige comes with the Kael name can cite her whenever they offer a completely subjective response to a work. (I’m of the opinion that all criticism is subjective, but it’s kind of like fiction writers who want to write like Kerouac, or rock critics who want to write like Lester Bangs ... they copy the easy stuff, don’t understand the complicated stuff, and end up producing writing that borrows the worst from their idols.) It is crucial, I think, to understand how Kael’s subjectivity was expansive:

Kael demonstrated the freedom a critic could have to be subjective, but to this quality she added her understanding of the humanities in general. ... Kael didn’t confine her review [of The Bostonians] to the film adaptation; she also discussed in detail James’s novel and James’s life, and considered the effectiveness of the movie as a vision of the writer. Yes, her approach was subjective, but it was expansively subjective. For Kael, the movies did not exist solely for her opinions about them; she was no solipsist.

The way I honor her influence on me (and I hope I do more than emulate) shows itself in multiple ways. My first paragraph is about the Kael section at the Rockcritics.com website, as a way of showing how her influence reached beyond film. I talked about the “progressive passing along of influence”. I wrote about this many years ago, after Kael and another personal influence, political science professor Michael Rogin, died.

Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself.

I argue that the whole notion of “Paulettes” who followed Kael in lockstep was nonsense. “For the critic who truly wanted to follow in Kael’s footsteps, subjectivity would necessarily be crucial, and that subjectivity would ensure that the critic wasn’t merely parroting Kael.”

I addressed the idea that she was anti-intellectual by separating it from her very real rejection of “respectable tradition”. “[S]he never tried to hide her intelligence nor her range of reference in making connections between high culture and bastard, hybrid, but equally valid artistic impulses. She loved the pedigreed and the cur with equal ardor.” (That last sentence is a sign that my essay was carefully edited. It wasn’t in my original, and I don’t know that it “sounds” like me. But when I read it, I wished I’d written it.)

I finish with my oft-told anecdote about publically claiming that Kael was the most influential woman in my life. As always, there’s some hyperbole involved ... as I note, the real person for that role is my wife. But I was offering “some existential intention”. Perhaps it was this conclusion that led Stengel to call my essay “charming” in his introduction.

The final section of the book contains pieces by Kael’s biographer, and the editor of a book of Kael interviews.

So, where do I fit? I didn’t sense any great drop off when my essay came up. If the writing overall isn’t as idiosyncratic as my usual, well, that often happens to me in anthologies. The idea of giving your work over to someone else for improvements is perhaps essential to anthologies, and in general over the years, I’ve been happy with the results. It’s not as if I submitted a book of my own writings and it was accepted without edits ... every published book involves an editor (or it should ... I guess with the easy access to vanity-press self-publishing in the Internet age, more unedited material is out there, starting with blogs like this.)

What makes me happiest is that I am finally part of a group of statements about Pauline Kael. It’s good company ... can’t go wrong with the likes of Joan Tewksbury. But it remains odd to see my thoughts contextualized by the thoughts of others. It’s the furthest thing possible from a blog post. But now, when someone asks what I think of Kael, I have a place I can point them to.