A few weeks ago I was thumbing through a GQ and somehow or other got sucked into a narrative piece about a writer’s attempt to reconnect with a one-time primary school bully (“Running with the Bully.” GQ June 2007: 122-127, 164, 166-167). The piece was fairly well done, though at the time I wasn’t necessarily excited to be reading it (I think that after I read more than a quarter of something, I’m compelled to finish it so that I can convince myself it wasn’t a waste of time – probably not a good system). In any case, one thing that did push me to keep reading the essay was the surprisingly lyrical quality of the writer’s prose. Alex Abramovich managed to keep my attention throughout the entire essay, largely by virtue of perfectly crafted sentences, innovative syntax, and energetic insight dispersed throughout.
I like to visualize the people whose work I’m reading, so I hopped online and googled “Alex Abramovich.” I don’t recall ever having found a picture of him (if you find one, send me the link!), though I did find a book with his name on it: a compilation of his “best” essays, curiously titled Cinderella Story: Notes on Contemporary Culture. I was attracted to the name – somewhat prescient, I couldn’t help feeling – and started reading up on it. Eventually I had read so many reviews and summaries I figured I could have read the damn book already, so I ordered it on Amazon for the convenient, low, low price of $9.95.
As always, my hope was to be astounded by the brilliance of the author and enriched by his writing, while my expectation was to finish the book weeks after receiving it, grumbling darkly about having felt the need to read the entire book just in case the last few strides redeemed the load of shit that had preceded them.
As it turns out, my expectation was far exceeded and my hope very nearly realized. The collection starts off with Abramovich’s strongest, most poignant piece by far (after which the collection is titled), though it readily, and startlingly, displays his well-practiced fluency with the critical analysis of cultural texts. Readers are not confronted with a neophyte, here, but a full-fledged initiate; someone skilled in the tools of his trade. Very quickly he lives up to the praise that Sam Lipsyte, his one-time editor, lays at his feet in the Preface: “Abramovich is that rare kind of critic who can set himself aside enough to see what he is seeing. Rare too is the grace and energy of his prose and the startling power of his imagery” (Abramovich 9).
This first piece, “Cinderella Story,” runs just 10 pages, but in that incredibly short stretch of paper Abramovich accomplishes so much. He begins simply, holistically reviewing the convention of the romantic comedy as it has emerged and progressed in American cinema. Through his recap he notes that the quality of romantic comedy scripts has steadily declined, that they once “were pure in a way that nothing seems pure anymore.” He wisely judges that the major accomplishment of good romantic comedies was that they allowed audience members to lose themselves in the film, and that current products issued under this genre have largely failed to achieve this distinction with any consistency. Abramovich focuses on intimacy as the major culprit of the romantic comedy’s fall-from-grace, stating that it is “no longer viable as either a cultural or commercial commodity.”
Underlining that sentence, I wondered, and proceeded, becoming more and more convinced that Abramovich’s perspective is clear and well-honed. Intimacy has somehow become less possible in our own culture: “intimacy – the space two people create to ward off the trespasses of the world at large – now runs counter to the interests of the people who shape the tone and tenor of our lives” — media moguls, as I understood it (Abramovich 12). While his vision of the retreat of intimacy is valid and suggestive of some of the greatest issues society faces today and young generations will face with greater urgency in the near future, Abramovich would benefit from considering the many shades of intimacy on a spectrum ranging from “casual,” perhaps, to “authentic.” I wonder if it isn’t that intimacy has lost its importance, but that we have gradually abandoned the best ways of achieving it, and have steadily become less aware of what really satisfies that innate, human need of ours to be intimate with others.
Had he considered the difference between authentic intimacy and other types, he may have been better prepared to slice through the rest of his essay. Still, though, his does admirable work. Using Julia Roberts as his main cultural text and her various romantic comedies as examples (especially Erin Brockovich), Abramovich confidently traipses through the process of building an impressive argument. Essentially, while romantic comedies may no longer offer us the chance to escape within them as a way to sate our need for intimacy, a nascent form of film, the deposition movie, is taking the reigns in that regard. We haven’t stopped looking to film to satisfy our needs: we have just altered what cross-section of celluloid we turn to. Through the deposition film, Abramovich sees us relating to people who suffer (such as those affected by pollution in Erin Brockovich) and coming to depend on their defenders (e.g. Erin Brockovich/Julia Roberts) to deliver us to a catharsis when the wounds we have adopted are addressed (I can’t wait to see if he ever attacks Law and Order). Appropriately, Abramovich proceeds to remark on the place of celebrity in all of this mess: the ways in which people grow to depend on celebrity figures like Julia Roberts to act as our personal saviors. Abramovich warns us away from this approach, and wisely so, finishing his essay with one of the most powerful observations I have ever read:
“How do any of us [sleep at night]? More and more, it seems, we sleep alone, or not at all. As the common ground of geography, community, and family disappears, we’re forced more and more to connect through contexts that are pre-established for us, and find ourselves with less and less to talk about. We spin in a cultural centrifuge, the earth drops from beneath our feet, and all that’s left to look at is the blur of faces spinning next to our own. Ultimately, we all begin to look the same, and to check the same boxes on movie-screening questionnaires. Meanwhile, art – the most direct, intense means we have of connecting to what’s inside another individual’s head, and a last refuge from cultural vertigo – no longer seems to be made by individuals, or for them. Certainly, it isn’t being made about them” (Abramovich 10).
When I came across this passage, a chill ran through my body. I stopped reading, set the book down in my lap, and thought long and hard on the state of the world, as well as on my own place and practices in it. Anyone interested in popular culture, critical theory, film, the ways in which we connect with each other, or just a damn good read will benefit from reading – no, not reading: absorbing – this book. Readers beware, however: Abramovich will likely challenge you to reevaluate assumptions about the world and your place in it. Although powerful, his observations can also be unsettling.
Bravissimo, Alex. I, at the least, am grateful for your work and will be thinking on your words for a long, long time.
Abramovich, Alex. Cinderella Story: Notes on Contemporary Culture. Cybereditions, 2002.