When New York Press critic Armond White panned the universally admired Toy Story 3, the disapproval he expressed and the backlash it inspired were so “predictable” that they were, well, predicted. Bumping TS3 from its briefly “100% Fresh” standing at the critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, White’s piece (entitled “Bored Game”) channeled a steady stream of pissed off Pixar loyalists to the Press website. “Registered just to say I think you are a massive twat and I feel really sorry for you,” user woahreally weighed in. “Whoever ur boss is should be slapped for allowing you to publish this disaster of a review,” opined the inventively pseudonymed usuckballs.
The comments-section calls for White to be fired are occasionally hilarious in their venom and vulgarity, all the more so for being so spectacularly self-defeating—could the Press have mounted a more successful campaign to increase their web traffic and user registrations? And there’s the rub. White’s detractors accuse of him being a “contrarian,” someone who bucks the critical establishment and defies popular taste out of little more than cynical self-promotion and antisocial perversity. (This highly circulated chart of Armond’s pans and praises has been offered as definitive “proof” that his opinions are reflexively reactionary.) But if this is true, any principled stand against White paradoxically rewards and enables him. “Don’t feed the trolls,” as the saying goes.
For what it’s worth, White insists these aren’t his motives: “I don’t say these things to call attention to myself or to get a rise out of people. I say them because I believe them.” And he is not without his supporters; check out House contributor Steven Boone’s celebratory profile. More common are the agnostics who abstain from passing judgment on White’s sincerity but object to the mob-like mentality manifested in, say, a petition to have White’s byline expunged from Rotten Tomatoes. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, the anti-backlash argument goes, Tomatometers be damned! Even if Armond is a contrarian, his consensus-busting reviews make for a useful kind of thought exercise, forcing readers to look “beyond the hype.”
Now honestly: does this whole post already sound a little blah blah blah? Armond-fueled flare-ups have attracted progressively larger crowds of commentators and rubberneckers, but the (let’s be charitable) dialogue hasn’t advanced in any meaningful way. Each new controversy, dominated by culture-war caricatures and the politics of personality, feels increasingly manufactured for its own sake. Substantive insights tend to get lost in a sea of snark, ad hominem and empty polemics. New York magazine’s 2009 profile of White was admirable in its way for lowering the temperature of the debate, but its even-handed insistence on balance (that there are two sides to every argument and each must be presented in an equally sympathetic light) was ultimately just as mystifying. Is Armond White a principled critic or an opportunistic crackpot—or something in between?
Here’s what I’d like to do in this post. Let’s concede White his de gustibus however much he insists on the disputandum. With all due respect to Cinema Blend’s Joshua Tyler, there is no such thing as a film “so self-evident[ly] good” that arguing “the opposite isn’t just a different opinion, it’s a wrong opinion.” To counter an evaluative judgment with an “objective” consensus is simply untenable—critical orthodoxy evolves over time and even the most rarefied masterpiece can be productively critiqued. But Tyler is right in his belief that not all opinions are equal. We can evaluate the evaluations. Reviews should be challenged on the grounds of descriptive accuracy, clarity of expression and intellectual consistency. More ephemeral qualities like fairness, usefulness and originality can be grounded in textual evidence and comparative criticism. No one’s opinion is more objectively right than any other, but there’s no question that some are better argued, better supported and ultimately more interesting.
So let’s go through White’s TS3 review one paragraph at a time. (There are five total.) Maybe you think this is a tedious waste of time. It’s one thing to retweet “What an idiot!” but to offer a comprehensive close-reading may seem pointless, even pretentious. My feeling is that if the subject is worth discussing, it’s worth discussing well. At a time when fuzzy think pieces repeatedly wonder “Do critics still matter?”, Armond has been one of the few professional reviewers whose arguments have inspired popular debate—for better or for worse? White will no doubt find himself mired in future dust-ups and the same arguments will be trotted out yet again. So what’s the harm in a piece that tries to tackle the topic systematically? We all know how White has been judged by his peers. What interests me more is how he will be judged by history.
The core of White’s critique is right in the lede (somewhat predictably packaged in one of his better-than tropes):
“Pixar has now made three movies explicitly about toys, yet the best movie depiction of how toys express human experience remains Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan. As class-conscious Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) tries fitting in with East Side debutantes, he discovers his toy cowboy pistol in his estranged father’s trash. Without specifying the model, Stillman evokes past childhood, lost innocence and Townsend’s longing for even imagined potency. But Toy Story 3 is so besotted with brand names and product-placement that it stops being about the innocent pleasures of imagination—the usefulness of toys—and strictly celebrates consumerism.”
Metropolitan is a film that White likes a lot; he refers to it regularly in his reviews and last year introduced a screening of the work at New Directors/New Films. So how can he so categorically misremember this moment? The scene involves Clements and Stillman stand-by Chris Eigeman, and it’s the latter who discovers the junked toys and lets loose a wistful reverie: “It’s incredible the things some people throw away: Steiff stuffed animals, an Aurora model motoring set, a Derringer! Do you remember the Derringer craze? These are the toys of our generation. The childhood of our whole generation is represented here.” The toys are not Eigeman’s own and yet he too has an immediate emotional connection with them, one that hinges explicitly on brand-name nostalgia; the “specif[ic] model” of cap gun is not only named, it’s named twice. There’s something of the connoisseur in Eigeman’s reaction—these are collector’s items!—but his monologue mainly speaks to the ways that our childhood memories are inextricably (trade-) marked by the corporate past.
So it’s not surprising that recognizable brands provide the models for several of TS3’s main characters (Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie and Ken, Slinky the dog) and a few minor ones (the Barrel of Monkeys, the Farmer Says See-n-Say, Chatter Telephone). White’s complaint that this is commercially crass “product placement” misconstrues a much more interesting reality. As a subsidiary of Disney, Pixar could have best maximized the ancillary profits from prefabricated toy sales in one of two ways: limiting themselves to the Disney pantheon (like in the Kingdom Hearts video-game series) or the roster of a single, highest-bidding manufacturer. The TS3 lineup is instead drawn from the stables of many companies: Milton Bradley, Hasbro, Tyco, Mattell, Fisher Price. By licensing individual properties from multiple agencies, Pixar is making far less money than they could; their choices have little to do with the financial imperatives of corporate synergy.
So what do the above toys have in common? I’d say they are all iconic brands, perennial favorites that have transcended their historical specificity to become timeless classics. They are brands in the way that “Kleenex” and “Band-Aid” are brands. In that sense they are not that different from the original characters based on generic models: Woody (the cowboy), Buzz (the spaceman), Hamm (the piggy bank), Lots-O’-Huggin’ (the teddy bear) and the majority of TS3’s characters, instantly identifiable but non-proprietary. Of the vast array of playthings on display at the Sunnyside Daycare Center, only a handful correspond to trademarked designs. There are literally dozens of opportunities for product placement that are not capitalized on. The branded exceptions are of a piece with the film’s world-making and with the Pixar team’s layered homages to their creative predecessors. In an era of productions that mechanically monetize preexistent properties (Alvin and the Chipmunks anyone?), White’s canned anti-corporate critique is embarrassingly misdirected.
You’d never know it from Armond’s review, but the entire plot of TS3 is a self-evidently explicit critique of commercialism’s two complimentary principles: endless novelty (Andy’s emotional connection to the toys is based on his life-long relationship with them) and disposability (the idea of simply junking old toys is made horrifying, that of donating them to a younger generation elevated to a moral good). One could argue that these themes are insincere or hypocritical in the context of a commercial mega-production, but this is not an argument White makes. He dismisses the film as “strictly a celebration of consumerism” without any reference to these tropes. That’s either oblivious or dishonest.
Paragraph two is primarily plot synopsis, with a second better-than thrown in:
“I feel like a 6-year-old having to report how in Toy Story 3 two dolls—Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen)—try to save a toy box of childhood playthings from either disuse or imprisonment as donations to a daycare center because their human owner, 17-year-old Andy, packs them up as he heads off to college. The toys wage battle with the daycare center’s cynical veteran cast-offs: Hamm the Piggy Bank pig, Lotsa Hugs and Big Baby. But none of these digital-cartoon characters reflect human experience; it’s essentially a bored game that only the brainwashed will buy into. Besides, Transformers 2 already explored the same plot to greater thrill and opulence.”
As many commenters have noted, Toy Story mainstay Hamm is not one of the daycare’s denizens. It’s a small but glaringly obvious mistake that your average “6-year-old” could have caught, and arguably a testament to how little attention White was able to muster.
The comparison to Transformers’ “greater opulence” seems beyond dispute—one may prefer the cartoonishly simplified Pixar aesthetic to Michael Bay’s retina-searing CGI, but on a purely descriptive level the latter’s greater visual complexity is undeniable. The question of “thrills” is more subjective. Transformers’ cinematic spectacle is more viscerally overwhelming, but one could counter that TS3’s investment in characterization enables a deeper emotional investment in the action. White’s criticism about a lack of “human experience” is somewhat nebulous, but preceding an unfavorable comparison to Transformers, it seems willfully perverse. Bay’s Autobots were barely differentiated characters; one could generously describe them as “archetypal,” but even that seems like a stretch. Beyond the literal point of comparison (visual styles), this better-than juxtaposition seems intellectually inconsistent and self-negating.
“While Toy Story 3’s various hazards and cliffhangers evidence more creativity than typical Pixar product (an inferno scene was promising, Lotsa Hugs’ cannily evokes mundane insensitivity), I admit to simply not digging the toys-come-to-life fantasy (I don’t babysit children, so I don’t have to) nor their inevitable repetition of narrative formula: the gang of animated, talking objects journey from one place to another and back—again and again. It recalls how Tim Burton’s atrocious Alice in Wonderland repeated narrative stasis without exercising the famous line: “It takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place.” Burton’s omission of that legendary, therapeutic slogan parallels how Toy Story 3 suckers fans to think they can accept this drivel without paying for it politically, aesthetically or spiritually.”
The breathless run-on sentence that opens the paragraph is syntactically confused; one of White’s two parenthetical examples of “hazards and cliffhangers” is an unrelated point about characterization, and what exactly does the preposition “their” refer back to? Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (White both gets the name wrong and tacks on an apostrophe that would be incorrect in any case) is an emotionally warped and diabolically manipulative character; to say that he embodies “mundane insensitivity” (everyday thoughtlessness?) is just incredibly wide of the mark.
White’s categorization of the franchise’s “narrative formula” accurately describes the storytelling template, but he then pawns off this descriptive insight as an evaluative appraisal. Yes, the story is based on a quest scenario—much like the majority of children’s fantasy. Another franchise where the characters “journey from one place to another and back, again and again” is the Indiana Jones series, which White (a Spielberg enthusiast) adored. Again it’s a question of intellectual consistency. As for “not digging the toys-come-to-life fantasy,” should one take this as a tacit confession that White never gave the film a chance? But how would you then square this with his enthusiasm for Small Soldiers (below)?
The Alice in Wonderland analogy is indefensibly incoherent. The “legendary” line White quotes is from Chapter Two of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where it appears in an exchange between Alice and the Red Queen. After running at high-speed to the point of collapse, Alice discovers that she is in exactly the same place as she started:
Alice looked round her in great surprise. “Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’”
“Of course it is,” said the Queen, “What would you have it?”
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
“I’d rather not try, please!” said Alice.
That line manifests the impossible logic of a maddeningly illogical world. How can White possibly construe this as a “therapeutic slogan”? It suggests to me that he is far less familiar with the Carroll works than he pretends. As for the criticism that Burton’s film “repeated narrative stasis without exercising that famous line”—what could this mean? That Burton’s stasis was static when it should have been dynamic? And what is the logical point of comparison in the final sentence’s “parallel” between Burton’s narrative structure and TS3’s refusal to challenge audience complacency? It seems completely apples and oranges to me. Maybe there’s an interesting insight buried there, but it’s lost in White’s sloppy prose.
Here are paragraphs four and five:
“Look at the Barbie and Ken sequence where the sexually dubious male doll struts a chick-flick fashion show. Since it serves the same time-keeping purpose as a chick-flick digression, it’s not satirical. We’re meant to enjoy our susceptibility, not question it, as in Joe Dante’s more challenging Small Soldiers. Have shill-critics forgotten that movie? Do they mistake Toy Story 3’s opening day for 4th of July patriotism?
“When Toy Story 3 emulates the suspense of prison break and horror films, it becomes fitfully amusing (more than can be said for WALL-E or Up) but this humor depends on the recognition of worn-out toys which is no different from those lousy Shrek gags. Only Big Baby, with one Keane eye and one lazy eye, and Mr. Potato Head’s deconstruction into Dali’s slip-sliding “Persistence of Memory” are worthy of mature delectation. But these references don’t meaningfully expand even when the story gets weepy. The Toy Story franchise isn’t for children and adults, it’s for non-thinking children and adults. When a movie is this formulaic, it’s no longer a toy because it does all the work for you. It’s a sap’s story.”
The fashion show sequence is most definitely satirical; one could arguably find its satire witless or excessively broad, but to declare that it is not satire is descriptively inaccurate. Nor is it a “time-keeping” digression but rather a narratively integrated episode in the final act’s escape scenario. And the connection White makes between these two points is still more dubious—why can’t a narrative interlude be satirical?
The comparison to Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers is another self-defeating comparison. In Dante’s enjoyable and underrated film, a toy company is acquired by a conglomerate that specializes in Defense contracting. Using microchips from missile guidance systems, the company creates a series of action figures with artificial intelligence who can fully interact with children. Where TS3 is a tale about the “secret life of toys” who become inanimate whenever their owner plays with them, Small Soldiers is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about cutting-edge playthings, ones that come preprogrammed with their own narratives and personalities. It’s the latter who “do all the work for you.” White’s comparison gets it completely backwards. And if Small Soldiers has a critique of commercial culture, it’s that corporations shouldn’t be marketing violence and militarism to children—a critique that extends more logically to Transformers 2 than Toy Story 3.
The opening sentence of the final paragraph is logically confused. The generic parody in the third-act prison break has nothing to do with the cartoon cameos made by old toys—not only are these separate discourses, they barely overlap (only one new character, Monkey with Tambourines, is introduced in the final act). It’s a total non sequitur.
The suggestion that Big Baby references the work of Barbara Keane seems like a stretch; her eyes looks like perfectly average-sized doll eyes to me, nothing like Keane’s waifs. The Dali analogy is interesting (the materialist inversion of softness and hardness is apt), though I’m not sure this is really a “reference.” (If the animators were referencing anything, I’d think it was the facial disarticulations of late-period Picasso).
The rest of the review is comprised of empty invective. There’s an obligatory swipe at the “shill critics” who have praised the film. In characteristic fashion, White rails against his colleagues en masse but does not substantively engage a specific argument by a specific writer. Ultimately though, it’s the swipes he takes at the audience that are most objectionably nasty: viewers who enjoyed TS3 are “brainwashed,” “suckers,” “saps,” and (my personal favorite) “non-thinking children.” Take that, kids!
So where does this leave us? By my count there are about three declarative statements in this entire piece that are not categorically inaccurate. The rest is a seething tissue of factual errors, self-negating examples, glaring elisions, logical inconsistencies, specious industrial analysis, mystifying rhetorical constructions and basic grammatical errors. It speaks for itself. As White’s critical hero and much invoked “mentor” Pauline Kael once said in an interview, “No one should trust any critic who does not take the art form he is writing about seriously enough to write a decent paragraph. I simply do not trust the observations of people who write sloppily or in illiterate hyperbole.” Of course, all of these mistakes would be far less objectionable if they weren’t used to prop up some of the most misanthropic mudslinging that any “professional” reviewer has passed off as criticism since, well, the last outrageous thing Armond wrote.
Is White being sincere? I think so. I think he sincerely despises his “shill” colleagues and the “brainwashed” audience. I think he sincerely sees himself as a maverick outsider to the media establishment (“They don’t see what I see, where I’m coming from—they couldn’t”) and that he is sincerely invested in this narcissistic fantasy to the exclusion of most everything else. Reading White, I am constantly reminded that the human intellect, which we often analogize to a courtroom judge dispassionately weighing arguments and evidence, actually operates much more like a lawyer-for-hire, rationalizing and enabling our emotional narratives. What makes Armond’s reviews perversely fascinating is that he is so obviously intelligent, yet this intelligence has been harnessed to the warped imperatives of an increasingly frustrated personality. Where your average critical hack job is just banal, White’s ability to disconnect the dots exerts a kind of bizarro brilliance. Try to take any of his recent reviews as seriously as he insists and you’ll find yourself, like Alice and the Red Queen, running in hermeneutic circles, getting nowhere fast. It makes for mediocre criticism but lurid psychodrama.
Most readers enjoy critical controversy for its own sake and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Spirited debate leavened with a little bit of vitriol is a guilty pleasure I wouldn’t begrudge anyone. Personally I find White’s dependably combative stance emotionally exhausting, but I recognize that the polemic is a rhetorical form like any other, and I read him in the hope of gleaning substantive ideas. Unfortunately, his work has yielded progressively diminishing returns. His TS3 review contains practically nothing (nothing!) in the way of analytical insight or emotional truth. It’s little more than a hate letter to humanity—can’t say I’m surprised that humanity has been hating him right back.
But I have to object on principle to the movie-mad mobs who would like to see Armond banished from Rotten Tomatoes. The anger they’ve expressed may be perfectly justifiable, but their underlying insistence that critics affirm public taste is absurd and even (I’ll concede you this one, Armond) fascistic. It’s about much more than the reviewer’s freedom of expression. It’s about the reading public’s right to access materials in an open-source culture. I value the free exchange of ideas above and beyond the desire to see White punished for his antisocial agitation. If Armond can be digitally deleted from a public forum, who’s next? The Internet age must insist on its own civic virtues.
That said, I think White is only worth engaging if the response expresses more than the reader’s indignation. Where there is smoke, there is not necessarily fire. One needn’t provide an exhaustive analysis like I’ve attempted here; this was really more of a one-off exercise. But the above paragraphs on “product placement,” for example, could productively stand as an autonomous blog post. In disagreeing with White on this point, I tried to provide my own take on a material issue raised by the film, one that has interest in and of itself. If this scores Armond’s review a few extra “uniques,” so be it. We can afford to extend White the generosity that he so stubbornly refuses everyone else. After all, isn’t it easy to be kind knowing that the history books won’t?
Paul Brunick is a freelance writer living in New York.
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.