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The Mona Lisa of Hillbilly Literature
The Ron Howard film Hillbilly Elegy, a cinematic extract from J. D. Vance’s eponymous memoir, has received savage reviews. Remarkably so, in fact. One suspects that this is not entirely a question of its cinematic merits.
Howard is a conventional Hollywood commercial filmmaker and has made a conventional Hollywood commercial film. Howard’s record for adapting literature into film is mixed: His adaptation of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind is good, but his films based on Dan Brown’s novels are dreck, as are the novels themselves. Howard often has been at his best when there is no underlying literature to agonize over (as in The Paper and Cinderella Man) or when adapting a play, as in Frost/Nixon. In Hillbilly Elegy, Howard has bitten off a big morsel, and, though he intelligently shapes the film as a family drama in which the social commentary is generally implicit, it may be more than he can chew.
I know J. D. Vance a little, and occasionally we are lumped in together as writers who sometimes share a subject (this is in the same sense that the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Brewers both are comprehended by the category of Major League Baseball teams) and broadly similar origins, and I will confess to having a slightly proprietary feeling about certain aspects of his work and its source material. I have criticized certain aspects of the book but, failing to take my own advice about one-armed paper-hangers, I often have bristled at criticism of the book offered by people who seem to me unqualified to do so, and much of that criticism has been stupid. (Writing in Slate, Rebecca Onion insists that Vance’s citation of Losing Ground is a “warning sign” and suggests that the author of that book, Charles Murray, is a racist, one of the most genuinely stupid ideas in general circulation.) You can take the foregoing as a full disclosure.
There is much in the film that is physically true. The filmmakers went to great lengths to make Glenn Close resemble Vance’s grandmother, who is in turn a pretty good representation of a certain class of grandmothers. She looks a lot like a lot of grandmothers, including my own. (Her glasses, on the other hand, are almost identical to the ones my mother wore.) The omnipresence of cigarettes, the houses and their interiors, the clothes, the sight of someone washing disposable plastic utensils in order to reuse them — all of these have the feeling of documentary truth. And there is much that is situationally true in the film as well: the difficulty of traveling while broke and the loneliness of the late-night long-distance driver, household finances upended by the ruinous expense of untimely car repairs, the lordly attitudes certain low-class people affect toward people in service positions who are their temporary social inferiors, the perversity of families whose members suffocate one another with verbal and physical affection but who cannot bring themselves to behave in the way someone who genuinely loved them would, the immoveable objects of bureaucracy and mulish corporate policy. Some of the events are familiar to me and must be to others: the woman who loses a good job in health care because she is raiding the company pharmacy, the emotional manipulation of a purely pro forma suicide attempt, etc.
And there is much that is emotionally true as well: Hillbilly Elegy is in its largest part a story about shame that is almost never named or acknowledged.
(I watched the film under the immediate influence of The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams, and could not help thinking that a little Yankee reserve and Puritan repression would be just the things for these people, and also that it is unfortunate that orphanages developed such a bad reputation in the 19th century.)
One of the reasons that the shame in Hillbilly Elegy is acknowledged only obliquely is the fact that it is shame connected to maternal guilt of a nature that is at least partly sexual: When the cinematic Vance flies into a violent rage after one of his mother’s former lovers calls her a “whore,” it isn’t because the characterization is unwarranted. This emotional situation put me in mind of T. S. Eliot’s famous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” in which the poet defended a lonely (and eccentric) critical position about Hamlet, that “far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. . . . More people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of literature.” Eliot argues that “the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother,” and quotes the critic J. M. Robertson, who writes that Hamlet’s
tone is that of one who has suffered tortures on the score of his mother’s degradation. . . . The guilt of a mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama, but it had to be maintained and emphasized to supply a psychological solution, or rather a hint of one.
“Hamlet,” Eliot writes, “like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.” Eliot goes on to consider the “excess” of Hamlet’s emotional situation: “The words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.”
Excess seems to me exactly the right word for the emotional state of the protagonist of Hillbilly Elegy. After leaving his family for service as a Marine in Iraq and then succeeding in the gentler ordeal of Yale Law School, he not only had the opportunity to extricate himself from the snake-pit of his family but had successfully done so as a matter of practical fact. It is difficult to understand why the escaped hostage would return to the hostage-takers. In the film’s most deft moment, Vance is gushing sentimentally about his young grandparents uprooting themselves from their home in Kentucky and going all the way to Ohio, at which point his polished Ivy League girlfriend reminds him that her father emigrated to the United States from India with nothing. I believe that much of the anti-immigrant sentiment — and particularly the sometimes-shocking anti-Indian sentiment — that one encounters in parts of poor-white America is a reaction to the rebuke Indian (and Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Nigerian, etc.) immigrants represent to those native-born Americans who believe themselves to be victims of mysterious external forces. In that quick exchange with the woman Vance would go on to marry can be seen the great political truth of Vance’s memoir and Howard’s film is intensely concentrated: Whatever it is that American poverty ultimately and finally is about, it isn’t about being poor.
The critics say that Glenn Close — in the inevitable stupid phrase — “chews the scenery” as Vance’s grandmother. I would suggest that it is the case that she is about as stagey and histrionic on film as the characters she represents are in real life, and that in this dramatic play-acting we can detect the wet, rotten smell of a great quantity of that “stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”
Words About Words
A headline in Wired reads: “Meet the Microbes Living on Da Vinci’s Iconic Sketches.” There once was an artist named “Leonardo.” He came from a town called “Vinci,” near Florence. His surname was not “da Vinci,” and it was not “Da Vinci,” either: He did not have a surname at all, although it would not have been wrong to identify him as “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci.” There are at least three (that I know of) reasonably well-known writers named “Kevin Williamson.” (That is why I use my middle initial.) I’m the one from Texas, and it would not be wrong to describe me as “Kevin Williamson of Texas” if you were trying to distinguish me from the famous screenwriter or the Scottish politician. But that would not make me “Mr. of Texas.”
Sometimes, geographic descriptions such as “da Vinci” and up becoming toponymic surnames, family names derived from places. Examples include the surnames of Thomas à Becket, Winston Churchill, Richard Attenborough, Clint Eastwood, Aldous Huxley, etc. But many figures of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Galileo among them, had no surnames, and left behind no family bearing such a name as “da Vinci” or “Galilei.” Leonardo, like Michelangelo, Raphael, and the rest of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, had only the one name — and, like Prince, he needed only the one name.
(Prince didn’t even need the name, as it turns out, during his “the Artist Formerly Known As” years.)
Sometimes, even people with surnames or quasi-surnames end up being known by a toponym. Michelangelo Merisi is generally known as “Caravaggio,” possibly to the eternal annoyance of an earlier painter, Polidoro da Caravaggio (no relation). Caravaggio, like Vinci, is the name of a town.
About “meet the microbes” and the promiscuous abuse of “iconic,” the less said the better.
There are two ways to be hyperbolic. (“There are countless ways to be hyperbolic!”) Sometimes, hyperbolic describes a curve, a hyperbola — as Merriam-Webster puts it, a “symmetrical open curve formed by the intersection of a circular cone with a plane at a smaller angle with its axis than the side of the cone.” Sometimes, hyperbolic describes the language of someone engaged in hyperbole, or rhetorical exaggeration. Both hyperbola and hyperbole come to English via Latin from a Greek phrase literally meaning “to throw beyond.” The dictionaries report that hyperbole was used to mean rhetorical exaggeration or extravagance in both Latin and Greek. Why this was also used to describe the “symmetrical open curve formed by the intersection of a circular cone with a plane at a smaller angle with its axis than the side of the cone” is unclear. “Perhaps so called because the inclination of the plane to the base of the cone exceeds that of the side of the cone,” say the authors at Etymology.com.
Though I cannot think of a good example in which the rhetorical sense of hyperbolic might be confused with the geometric sense, I do prefer having different words for different things. I suggested hyperbolicious to my correspondent, for the rhetorical sense, but I am not sure that it will catch on.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
Joe Biden’s presidential cabinet is shaping up to be Swamp Things 2: The Sequel. Prominent figures in the administration will include John Kerry, who is still alive. From my New York Post column:
Biden, having satisfied his pledge to choose a black woman as his vice president, is settling into the familiar pattern of staffing up his administration mostly with mostly rich, mostly white Democratic functionaries long associated with elite institutions: The international law firm of O’Melveny & Myers can count among its veterans not only Mike Donilon but also incoming Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas, while incoming chief of staff Ron Klain was a Fannie Mae lobbyist who is married to an Obama veteran currently serving as a fellow at the Walton Family Foundation. Big jobs like Treasury and State will be filled by familiar faces, while black lives matter mostly for feel-good portfolios such as Cedric Richmond’s new gig over at the White House Office of Public Engagement.
You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It’s a little bit like Hillbilly Elegy without the empathy.
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As I have mentioned above, I have at times been surprised by some of the negative reactions to J. D. Vance’s book, and, now, to some of the reactions to Ron Howard’s film. In a time when we are eternally being lectured about the need for a “national conversation” on this or that, Vance actually succeeded in starting one, and contributed to it intelligently. That is the sort of thing nonfiction writers should aspire to. I know I do.
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