Culture Watch


For a week or so after the midsummer rain and floods in the Northeast, the rapids on the Housatonic between two Connecticut towns. Falls Village and Kent, were negotiable—rare event in that season. My son the sophomore, my wife, I, and another couple drove down from the Massachusetts Berkshires one chill, brilliant, high-vaulted July Sunday dawn, rented canoes from Riverrun Outfitters, rapped a bit with the boatmen about which approach to take to the covered bridge a few miles downstream, and launched our run.

Looked at from the James Dickey & Deliverance perspective, this effete eastern mode of thrill-seeking is tame stuff. Riverrun Co., branches in Colorado and elsewhere, supplies the intrepid not just with canoes (kayaks or rubber rafts, your choice) and lifejackets, but with good dope about difficulties ahead (where the rapids shift from Class I to II or III), reminders about hidden rocks and about how to judge where you are, after West Cornwall, in relation to Bitchy Ledge. What’s more. Riverrun fixes it so that once you pull in at Housatonic Meadows, Kent, or wherever-having zipped along, part of the way, through the closest thing to a Wilderness experience left in southern New England a phone call brings a van and trailer to haul you and your craft (no sweat) back to your car. The general organizational elan of the thing never before troubled me, and we had a hell of a run that day, especially under the covered bridge, flying up out of the shade into a flashing canyon, bamming down, soaked and rubber-kneed, whacked around in wild white water, yet no overboards or overturns. But on the way back . . .

Coming round a bend on the river road in the van, we spied a kayak chap surfing—lovely sight. This skinny, glistening red twig, skidding upstream at a crazy pace, stuck and held one instant, then tearing up over the crests, blades bright, riding back currents in the tips of waives, a sensation you could practically feel even watching a hundred yards off, in a car. Sisyphean strain, long swooping glide . . . beautiful.

The kayak disappears. Immediately our van pulls off, our driver’s out in the road, racing across the bluff. An accident? disaster? Everybody’s craning out for word, and then I see a kayak going up on the trailer behind us. There’s a breathless bearded guy, soaked through, banging on the van door the kayak chap. The doctor beside me moves over to give the kid room and looks at him a minute.

“This your pickup point? That was pre-arranged?”

“Yup,” says the dripping kid, grinning at the logistic neatness of things. “What’s wrong with that?”


Nashville, the movie about the country music scene down south, looks like becoming a cultural episode, an event on the order of Woodstock. Hair, or the birth of streaking, about which all at once everybody on earth decides to gabhle. It took off overnight from the entertainment sections to the Op-Ed page. Senator McGovern said that it “looked into the soul of our country . . . the poignant condition of our lives in the Seventies.”Tom Wicker liked the portrait of “the American mobility culture, with its autos obsolete and crunchable the day they’re sold, its fast food parlors, plastic motel rooms, takeout orders, transient sex and junk music ....’” And before the box office ever opened. Nashville generated controversy. Pauline Kael broke a release date to cheer the show in The New Yorker, making other journals natter about breaches of reviewerly ethics. A week after the official opening, a music writer on the New York Times wrote slightingly (and pretty justly) about Nashville’s songs, triggering another media explosion -a new set of reviews done by a corps of music specialists.

People have quarreled in print about whether the flick is a mini-Bicentennial or an attempt to kill off the birthday parts before it starts. They’ve quarreled about critical vocabulary. Rolling Stone seemed to praise the movie’s director. Robert Altman, for being undisciplined, whereupon the Boston Phoenix shot back that Altman was “the most disciplined director working today,” and The Nation came in to arbitrate. (The Nation’s notion was that Nashville was “perfectly disciplined chaos.”) And while the Tom Wicker thesis that Nashville was Nashville for real, that the film did indeed reproduce America, had plenty of backing, plenty of dissenters spoke too. George Will, columnist on the right, said the movie wasn’t even “a close approximation" of America. Robert Mazzocco, in the New York Review of Rooks, said the locale reminded him of Los Angeles. Not even the director’s formula, passed on to a zillion interviewers, that Nashville was a “metaphor for America.”put an end to the flap.

Controversy. murmur the flacks, money-money. I doubt, though, that it’s “just" controversy, or, for that matter, “just" straight entertainment values, that account for this box office triumph. Nashville has several good jokes about Country and Western cupidity, one first-rate ballad in a manner close to early Bob Dylan (“I’m Easy,” sung astringently by Keith Carradine, who wrote it), fragments of superb gospel singing by a Fisk University choir, and manv extraordinarily evocative images. (No face I’ve seen has expressed so profound vet uncomplaining a certainty that music cannot surprise as that of the red-headed, middle-aged, studio guitarist who strums unchanging C&W changes at the recording sessions in this film.)

But Nashville also has other dimensions. It places some standard-brand, post-Marxist, culture-critical bleats about the U.S. in an air nobody could have guessed they’d ever breathe—the air of the Hollywood musical, by tradition the most beamish and electric of cinematic forms. Chat about the venality of Our System, the corruption of Our Politics, the crudity of Our Popular Mind, the viciousness of Our Rage to Consume lost its bloom round about the time that the conventions of Hollywood musicals were themselves beginning to seem loony. But set that same culture crit to music, dress it up in production numbers with an eight-track sound system, segue with guitars from thin Marcuse to thin Slater to thin Roszak, and all at once the dread old alienation solemnities got rhythm—and a measure of freshness anti surprise.

Then there’s the ease of fit between contemporary attitudes about authority and Nashville’s attitude toward explanations. Not surprisingly, this movie is, from start to finish, a “no right answers" show; the audience never feels subservient to an explanation or an evaluation because no explanations are offered. An assassin shoots, a singing star has fainting fits and turns catatonic, a sensitive woman marries a slug, a housewife accepts the advances of a rock singer, a housewife rejects the advances of a rock singer, a father declines to learn the sign language used by his deaf son and daughter, a talentless hopeful is humiliated for her fantasies, yet refuses to shed thembut nowhere are you burdened with accounts of motivations, or any other trapping of the homely universe of cause and effect.

Chris Hodenfield, a Rolling Stone writer who loved the movie, pointed out links between Robert Altman and Kurt Vonnegut (personal friendship, agreement to collaborate on a film version of one of Vonnegut’s books) and quoted, as relevant to Nashville’s documentary approach, the passage in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in which the novelist claims that only fools believe life has “significant details, insignificant details . . . lessons to be learned, tests to be passed. . . The movie’s tone reminded me of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, a novel that mocks the idea of “knowledge of the heart.”(“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask,”the narrator says in the opening sentences, and goes on to assert that “nothing applies.”) There’s an edgy, half-brutal self-protectiveness in the movie’s treatment of feeling that struck me in the end as mean-spirited. Characters who open themselves up to each other, even for a second, are treated as dumb. The occasional “unavoidable descents" into purity of feeling (grief at the death of a loved one) are invariably punished, or clotted with distorting irons. The actors themselves, at the moments of reversal when they’re encouraged to turn enigmatic, to drop their roles as interpreters of life and seal themselves off from the audience, seem to feel the cutoff as pleasurable or releasing.

No, I’m not forgetting that I chuckled often watching this flick; I’m simply remembering that 1 fell surprisingly blackish afterward. The director’s avowed aim was to bring you closer, through documentary techniques, to the grain of the people, and his famous sound track certainly does carry a richer hum and buzz, the kind of talk that doesn’t know it’s dialogue, much less that it’s prose. But at the core of the experience there’s a deep fear or scorn of feeling, and I hope it’s not this that’s made Nashville all the rage.

New course listing

“Psychokarate is now taught at a New York college, a course in the art of psychological weaponry against the assault of feeling”—Herbert Hendin, the Age of Sensation (Norton, $8.85).

Liberty v. Equality

READ BOOKS NOT BUMPER STICKERS, says my neighbor’s bumper. Reading Edgar Z. Friedenberg’s The Disposal of Liberty and Other Industrial Wastes (Doubleday, $7.95), just after seeing Nashville, I felt like pasting the words on my own heap. I don’t mean to call the movie a bumper sticker, or to imply that, as a social commentator. Professor Friedenberg, author of The Vanishing Adolescent, is bare of faults. But he does have a clear and demanding subject the rending contradictions within the hard-hat classes who are exploited from above yet prevented, by a kind of programmed fury at bearded radicals and welfare loafers, from achieving the political solidarities that might end their impotence. Beyond this he has significant targets (the puerility and greed of thoughtless egalitarian sentimentalists who assume “the masses” bear no responsibility for their political choices) and commitments (to the essential dignity of the elitist cause). Many a page could serve as a gloss for the electioneering interludes in Nashville, and one reason for praising the book is exactly that: the glosses are clearer than the movie images, inviting counterposition, qualification, refutation, examining their own fundamental assumptions, demanding the reader earn the right to differ by working a critical pen in the margins.

But it’s the content, not the clarity, that counts. The Disposal of Liberty is overcocky, wrongheaded in parts, not sufficiently reluctant about gunning down the softhearted in our midst. Its wiseacre comedy can be tasteless (“Even the author of The Merchant of Venice might have some difficulty composing The Tragedy of Antony and Golda Meir”). And while the argument owes much to Herbert Marcuse, the author has a far less subtle and elegant mind than his master. But Friedenberg’s dearest cause, the preservation of space for the truly liberating feelings-generosity, openness, tolerance, enthusiasmis admirable. And no less so is his adeptness at identifying and weighing up the punitive and envying motives that constrict American political life. A stimulating and entertaining polemic.

Inside the net

Enthusiasm was the initial note when, last month, I and sixteen other duly sworn citizens (thirteen women, three men) did our first three days’ service in Washington as members of the President’s Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs. (Our main job is to oversee and evaluate programs funded under the Women’s Educational Equity Act for the purpose of creating new educational structures suited to women’s special needs.) And while my conversational line when I came back was, predictably, antibureaucratic and unimpressed, as though no learning experience had occurred, I actually picked up a lot. The old rule applies: no substitute for a view from inside, even if you’re miles from the top.

It’s true, of course, that portions of what you learn about how the government does its business, about the functions of the Federal Register, about budget procedures, job classification loopholes, departmental monitoring, and the like—are available to anyone up for a quiet read in the Congressional Directory and a few related source books. (I’m not sure where you’d go to learn that there are some three hundred or so Presidential Advisory Councils, ten of them in the Office of Education alone, or that the White House and many departments have fully staffed offices whose sole function is to shepherd councils into position to “advise.”) It’s also true that the language problem is vexing. (I’ll he a long time learning to love phrases like “mainstreaming women’s concerns,” or “folding in our operational planning system,” or “tracking our training activities,” etc.)

But the lesson of consequence was of another kind altogether, having to do with the texture of bureaucratic life—its capacity to persuade you of your total expendability and of the sheer pointlessness of failing to observe, in every situation, the precise limits set for you by the System. Common usage makes much of the absence of spontaneity from bureaucratic scenes, and in describing the texture of such scenes this is a good place to start but what matters is that the nonspontaneitv sometimes threatens to cost you your life.

Our temporary staff and White House helpers had been dealing with us, our abstract putative selves, for months before we showed up in person. Owing to Office of Management and Budget requirements and other time line constraints, they’d prepared present budgets, future budgets, guidelines, evaluation procedures, heaven knows what else, before any of us so much as hit the FBI wire, with the result that there was inevitably a sense it got itself expressed in a certain sadness or wanness of tonethat we ourselves, the warm bodies, were more or less . . . secondary.

What you are even more aware of than lack of spontaneity is the feeling of being carefully knitted into the web, securely fastened in a world of tough interdependencies, where each action is impacted almost before undertaken, wherein each movement or fluttering of intention is, ideally, savvy enough to hold in mind a thousand dense adjacencies.

We Council members were enthusiastic, as I say, about our having come into existence. The Education Commissioner came in and told us we were a “watershed moment.” Caspar Weinberger (he hadn’t yet quit) came in too, and said he was relying on the council “to keep us in touch with the real world.”But the processes of our orientation were, inevitably, a schooling in how to stop worrying and learn to love being hemmed in. Explanations of our privileges and our rights—when we can lobby and when we can’t, what we can evaluate, what we can’t, where we can have an office, where we can’t, whom we can hire, whom we can’t—all carried the burden of steady alertness to the thick governmental surround. Once during our Washington stay, a House committee chairman undertook to whip up anger among his colleagues about HEW regulations calling for equal gym facilities for male and female students. Reading the Washington Post in the hotel room, I had a feeling for the fellow as a free agent, but once in our meeting again, the sense of containment returned: I understood that he too, this would-be maverick congressman, was one of us, caught in the web. Freeswingers, go home.

I’m prepared as the next person to concede that too long a residence in such air could cause harm. But it’s nevertheless highly instructive to be reminded of what it feels like deep inside the System. Somewhat dry and abstract? Unbrightened by the light of fantasy? Well, I think yes, but also realistically preoccupied with the conditioned nature of things.

Clear the set

An underused campus in midsummer is a stage set, and if you hang around through the season you may find yourself at intervals playing prof. By which I mean that the undergraduate tour guide, if he happens to be a friend, will try to enliven his spiel, as he shows the place off to a subfreshman and his folks, by passing the word that there’s one of his profs coming out of the libe. It’s no problem unless you, the prof, are among the world’s self-conscious, in which case . . . Myself, spying the campus guide. I regularly work at looking right. That tennis racquet in my handwill it signify we’re a country club? Maybe leaving my glasses on another minute will give off a good vibescholar still cudgeling his brain over faded medieval text back on the desk inside? Straighten overlong hair to counteract aging radical appearance? . . . Ridiculous, no doubt, but I’ve known people who’ve said they made up their minds for or against a college partly on the basis of the way somebody on campus answered a question about where to find the theater or gym. Am I hurting or helping our image?

The impossibility of knowing is yet another reason for feeling happy about the local onset of the real world fall term looming near. In a week or so thev will be here, the new students, the ones who don’t any longer have to be sold. Their being on hand doesn’t quite give you the white water sensation, simply a surge of legitimacy, of at least being better than a mere rent-a-prof prof. Acting, it turns out—even acting a teacher, when that’s what in fact you are—is still the trickiest work in this world.