James Wolcott’s Critical Mass is, among other things, a guide through the wilds of YouTube. One way to read this book is in front of a computer screen, where many of Wolcott’s subjects, so memorably captured in his antic prose, can be experienced firsthand. He is the preeminent critic of contemporary spectacle, matching his own supercharged style to the highlights of forty years of TV, pop music, books, and movies. He writes equally well of Philip Larkin and Telly Savalas, Bob Dylan and Designing Women. He knows the secret channels that connect Mort Sahl to Alexander Haig and the Kennedys. Wolcott’s attention roves naturally from medium to medium, since wherever he looks he finds extravaganza and, inside extravaganza, the sadness, the boredom, and the loneliness it is designed to mask.
His ideal subject is live TV, where displays of frailty or pique often reward the patient viewer. In 2010, Jerry Lewis presented his last telethon, in which he was as usual joined by various celebrities to raise money for muscular dystrophy. Wolcott wrote his essay on the event for the September 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. It is partly a homage to the twentieth century and its bedraggled survivors, TV among them:
A performer since the age of five, Lewis himself embodies the end of an era stretching from vaudeville to Las Vegas—the last surviving clown prince of nightclub comedy and movie slapstick mime. His former partner Dean Martin, that golden raisin whose crooning voice poured like a pitcher of caramel goo, died in 1995 and was the subject of a crackling bromantic memoir by Lewis…. Lewis’s sidekick announcer for the telethon, Ed McMahon, whose copper pipes and heigh-o ebullience seemed immortal, passed away in 2009. The telethon will be less of a marathon this Labor Day, shortened to six hours from the twenty-one-hour gruelers of the past. Its former duration imbued it with psychodrama and suspense as Jerry, racked by fatigue and frustration, would start laying a super-heavy guilt trip on those sitting on their wallets and reluctant to give.
“Part of the telethon’s lure,” wrote Harry Shearer in 1979, and quoted in Wolcott’s piece, “was the opportunity to see this beautiful humanitarian turn self-pitying and nasty as the hours dragged by.” Viewers who held out to the small hours could “count on a really ugly rampage.”
The telethon piece is one of many here about the concentric circles of current mass culture, where one can easily find a trace of vaudeville in a film star’s shtick on a TV telethon viewed on a YouTube clip; or a Henry Mancini riff inside a Steely Dan tune inside a hip-hop single by De La Soul. The ideal reader for these nested artifacts is someone like Wolcott: a critic with an eye for their ironies, not a cheerleader for the new. Today you can see hundreds of short clips of Lewis’s telethons online, including several where he’s looking snappish. With the Internet, everything happens now on our time; but TV, Wolcott reminds us, held us captive to its time, telling us when and for how long we could fulfill our desires. What I remember about those telethons is the rage people felt that their favorite shows had been displaced by Jerry Lewis, a rage no subscriber to the Hulu service for viewing television programs today will ever feel. You could argue that the telethon, by turning watching TV into an endurance event (hence its name), was TV distilled. It wore out even its impresario.
The telethon died because network TV died, or all but died. But it was not long ago that it was born, as the late-night talk shows, with their proscenium stages and bandleaders and vaudevillian drumrolls and stunts remind us. Those shows, largely unchanged to this day, provide a cultural intersection unlike any other, and the collisions can sometimes be astounding. Look up the episode of The Dick Cavett Show where an elegant and supercilious Gloria Swanson monitors Janis Joplin, a twitching pile of scarves and bracelets, in the seat beside her. Or, for that matter, the episode with Salvador Dalí and Satchel Paige.
Talk shows turned Marianne Moore and Tennessee Williams into TV celebrities, and gave Orson Welles a platform during his late errancy. These collisions (of high culture and pop, of film and TV, of generations and temperaments) depend on a familiarity with the overall cultural mix, a knowledge impossible, Wolcott argues, in the Digital Age, with its “acute shrinkage of the audience’s frame of reference.” He’s right, and prose like his can dilate that frame.
Wolcott is at his best, for me, in the ringside pieces here about “the swivel throne” of talk shows, which flowered at precisely the moment, the early 1970s, when the idea of celebrity was elastic enough to encompass George Harrison, Truman Capote, and Twiggy. The pantomimed hospitality of the hosts, “welcoming” their “guests” to an ersatz living room, sets up the main drama of every good talk show: When and how will this phony composure and civility come apart? As a student at Frostburg State College, Wolcott published his first important piece: it was about the night Dick Cavett “welcomed” to his program Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer (you can find it easily on YouTube). It is as though Wolcott had been waiting every instant of his nineteen years for the fracas that ensued. Mailer and Vidal argue over whether the latter should have compared the former (who had, after all, once stabbed his wife) to Charles Manson. Cavett and the third guest—Janet Flanner, the New Yorker writer—sit warily between them. Mailer pleads with the audience (“Can I talk to you now? Can I reach you?”) and then delivers, as Wolcott puts it, “a five-minute peroration for himself, a short speech cauterizing with existential brilliance”:
It was a speech that the best English professor on the best day of his life could not give, because the nuances of Mailer’s voice spoke of the frustrations, victories, and attrition of pursuing the Great Bitch, that mother-woe of a novel not meant to be written. The difference between an English professor and Norman Mailer describing the quest of the writer is the difference between a war correspondent and a weary battle-wise lieutenant describing a military siege—one writes of skin, the other of blood.
The demon “English professor” (at this moment, Wolcott likely had one) bronzing his cherished masterpieces is as usual a handy adversary of immediacy, passion, and the like. For Wolcott, the culture works itself out not in classrooms but in situations of affront, conflict, threat, and surprise, and his admiring account of Mailer’s tantrum looks ahead to his telegrams from the bowels of CBGB, the music club on the Bowery, just when punk broke. Here he is on the Ramones:
I once left my notepad on the bar at CBGB’s and asked the drummer to write down the names of the group’s members and their respective instruments; later, when I looked at the notepad, all I had were the first names…which suggests that these guys are so function-oriented that they consider last names unnecessary equipment.
The band’s “solid component macho” wants only to “rock you dead in your tracks.” Patti Smith’s version of this is her “threatening” and “disturbing” way of slowly zipping and unzipping her pants onstage. Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers is “the feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” The Sex Pistols and Richard Hell have their forms of macho, as does Dylan when he is on; Wolcott is always on the lookout for mutations of the gene he found first in Mailer’s harangue.
Wolcott’s thirst for the instantaneous makes him a searching, often a profound critic of the ways artistic brilliance, after hitting us once, almost instantly fades. The poor punk guys have barely howled and spat upon him before he decides their zenith is past. Punk became “a long paper trail,” a “jungle of intellectual graffiti.” The punks themselves, as kids of the Seventies and Eighties can report, became a feature of mall food courts and the fringes of high school dances, “looking like crashed UFOs, bondage queens, and Iroquois warriors.” Mailer’s machismo doesn’t fare so well now that its costs have been totaled: the “psychologically, creatively, empathetically tone-deaf” regard for half the world’s population, “his bestowing the title of ‘Retaliator’ on his cock…or the alchemical qualities he ascribes to male ejaculate” in his biography of Marilyn Monroe.
An aging white man with a pen, a microphone, or a camera has to be afraid, very afraid of attracting Wolcott’s attention. A medium-sized almanac of male idiocy could be assembled from the examples in these essays. When asked if he liked to amble about in the woods, Richard Ford apparently responded, “I don’t walk. I hunt. Something dies when I stroll around outside.” You can guess the tone of an essay on Ford that begins with this anecdote. Woody Allen’s work from the Nineties divides all women into “menopausal nuts and coltish sluts,” who are often “biological time bombs”:
The type of lyrical kook Diane Keaton played in Annie Hall has lost her cheekboned shine and is withering into premature hagdom, her thrift-shop wardrobe destined to become bag-lady rags and her hair shot to hell.
Can it really be that Allen, after years of “portraying Manhattan as a strictly white upscale wonderland,” cast Hazelle Goodman as a hooker in Deconstructing Harry? Painfully, yes:
Now, after two decades of pretending people of color didn’t exist (aside from Bobby Short at the piano), he finally inserts a major black character into one of his films, and what is she? Superfly’s mama.
The examples pile up: Kingsley Amis wanted “mostly to be left alone to get quietly soused. Women interfered with that. To him, most of them were radios missing an ‘off’ knob.” Wolcott is surprisingly easy on John Updike, but only because others—Michiko Kakutani, James Wood—got there first.
The apotheosis of this kind of exposé occurs in Wolcott’s essay on the Rat Pack, an unsurpassed account of the guffawing, pitiful seediness of that group. A brief vogue for cocktails and lounge decor in the late Nineties brought the whole sorry moment back, and Wolcott, describing The Frank Sinatra Spectacular (a closed-circuit benefit show from 1965), was ready:
After Sinatra’s set comes the usual Rat Pack foolery, some at Dean [Martin]’s expense (“The only reason he’s got a good tan, he found a bar with a skylight”), but with Sammy [Davis Jr.] as the primary butt. The racial ribbing…conveys the edginess of the civil rights era. Sammy mentions something about getting Martin Luther King Jr.’s permission to appear. Dean lifts Sammy in his arms and says, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy.
Typically, what Wolcott notices among the “forced joviality” and “racial horseplay” is the “surfacing irritation” of the host, Johnny Carson, as the show goes long. What interests him isn’t the horseplay but the bind.
All of these takedowns of guys and guy pursuits suggest that the fascination of performance often derives from what performance thinks it can deny, shield, finesse, or otherwise deflect. You make the NAACP joke about Sammy Davis Jr. only because you think suaveness trumps everything else, even racism, even violence. Mailer clearly thought his sentences were more powerful than his politics; Woody Allen bets that art—the depicted art of conversation, and his own art of moviemaking—will attract the coltish sluts and amuse the menopausal nuts. This is strong criticism in that it shines a light on those bad bets, and assembles, from them, a countercanon of inadvertent classics.
But what about Wolcott’s own performance? The paucity of women in these pages has been noted, but I think Wolcott’s real subject is the absurdity of straight men and the terms—their own terms—they have devised to represent themselves. Women are harder to ironize, a tougher target—which brings me to my real objection to this body of work.
With Wolcott we find nearly a pure example of the critic as master and superior: always smarter, subtler, and more refined, as well as saner, more disabused, and more morally evolved than the poignant wights he captures in his prose. The few moments in this book when the critic is rendered speechless or beside himself—the reports from the frontiers of punk, the most astonished sentences about Dylan, the admiring reviews of Brian DePalma—reveal how little grappling or speculation we otherwise find here: every sentence arrives precisely where it was aimed, and right on time. This has a lot to do with Wolcott’s brilliance, but it also has much to do with his choice of subjects, which are, by and large, sitting ducks. I would like to see this arsenal of adjectives trained on really difficult books, or the movies nobody sees. I have heard enough about DePalma; a preference for him over the other auteurs is now a critical cliché, although to be fair, Wolcott got in early.
The lowest moment in this book, for me, is Wolcott’s attack on Woody Allen’s “Modern Library” culture canon (the Marx Brothers, Godard, Kafka, Mozart, James Joyce). Growing up with no other coach, I saw those films on VHS, took down the names, and did the reading. Wolcott seems to delight in the surprising ways culture works itself out: one way is for the big movies and stars, the ones that reach the pockets and byways of American life, simply to say those classic names and let others figure things out.
But Godard is a better filmmaker than DePalma, and there are better things to do with one’s three score years and ten than write about Chevy Chase’s horrible talk show, or the bloopers on Conan O’Brien, or the films of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. I have heard enough about the excellence of Mad Men; and when Wolcott, making the point for the umpteenth time that TV is currently more vital and exciting than film, asks “Does anyone think The Artist is better than Mad Men?,” I want to stick up for a movie I haven’t even seen. That can’t be Wolcott’s intent.
As his fine essay on Philip Larkin (the only acknowledgment here that poetry even exists) would suggest, this fusillade of genius could have gone in another direction. But Critical Mass is at the very least a collection of hundreds, maybe thousands, of the most consistently surprising sentences any American critic has written. This book about the ups and downs of performance is itself a great show.