White Girls by Hilton Als: The physical effects of power on resistant bodies

These pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his b

White Girls
Hilton Als
McSweeney’s, 338pp, £14.82

This is not an easy book, though that shouldn’t stop you wanting it. It feels incendiary, like a box of fireworks that might go off in one’s hands. It’s beautiful and deeply intelligent, but also profoundly resistant to being simplified or boiled down. Indeed, it sometimes seems to have been written in a language of such density and opacity as to deliberately replicate the complexity of the ideas with which it tangles.

Hilton Als is the New Yorker’s theatre critic and White Girls his long-awaited second book, after 1998’s The Women. As the title suggest, this roving collection of essays is preoccupied with race and gender. But it will come as no surprise to regular Als readers that the idea of the white girl is not confined exclusively to the bodies of white women. Instead, he uses the concept to pry open larger issues of colour, masculinity, power and sexual desire. Tacking back and forth between memoir, profile and cultural criticism, his white girls include Michael Jackson, Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Richard Pryor.

The opening three words, “Sir or Lady”, serve as the name of Als’s first subject, a beloved friend: the platonic twin by whose companionship and example the writer discovers and assembles his own self. “We were, in short,” he writes, “colored male Americans, a not easily categorisable quantity that annoyed most of our countrymen, black and white, male and female alike, since America is nothing if not about categories.”

Exploring these categories and particularly the places where they rupture under pressure has always been Als’s speciality, his special style. In a profile of Michael Jackson, he notes that in the 1970s, before the singer’s physical transformation, black gay men “began to refer to Jackson as ‘she’ and, eventually, ‘a white woman’ – one of the slurs they feared most, for what could be worse than being called that which you were not, could never be?” Later, discussing the black comedian Richard Pryor, he quotes one of Pryor’s ex-wives, who explains how women “saw themselves in him, in his not fitting in, the solitude of it all, and his willingness to be vulnerable as women are. And disenfranchised, of course, as women are.” There is a gap between these two statements, between solidarity and mutual mistrust, and it is to this space that Als applies his formidable attention.

Much of this necessitates looking at the body, and these pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his body and sets himself on fire: “And my smoldering chest smelled like a burned piece of meat . . . ‘Is there?’ I asked. ‘Is there what?’ someone asked. ‘Oh Lord, there is no help for a poor widow’s son, is there?’” This image and vernacular returns hard on an earlier essay on lynching, in which Als examines images of maimed and burned bodies while challenging the desire of white editors who pay him to look, to perform his distress, “to be a Negro on the page”.

Both these incidents also connect to one of Als’s most acute moments of observation. It occurs in a profile of André Leon Talley, the flamboyant creative director of US Vogue During a shoot, a white woman refuses to be photographed unless “André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy”. “None laughed louder than André Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.”

This ability to witness and record the physical effects of power on resistant bodies is combined with an almost incantatory knack for language. Als’s sentences are gorgeous, adorned, antagonistic, slippery and driven. As to what drives them, in a companion to the Pryor profile, he creates a monologue from the imagined point of view of Pryor’s sister, a voice-over artist for porn films. In between describing barebacking and money shots, she turns her ferocious gaze on “Suicide Bitch” – Virginia Woolf and the casual racism of her work. “Listen,” she says, “my job depends on my physical invisibility but never my absence. My voices are real because I believe in them enough to apply my interior voice to their reason. I resent Suicide Bitch. I resent her talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room.”

From Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, to Marshall Mathers III, the boy who became Eminem, all Als’s subjects have been spoken about at one time or another as if they weren’t in the room. In taking up their stories, White Girls stands as both a work of reparation and a call to arms: an act of audacious magic that summons voices where there seemed to be none.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)

White Girls explores issues of colour and gender. Image: Gallerystock

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era