Greil Marcus

  • the best books of 2003


    Though photography was first believed to entail the death of painting, early photographs presented viewers with a dead world: Objects could be rendered with clarity only under the conditions of nature morte. Unlike paintings, which were able to depict the fact that, say, horses were in motion, the camera could capture animals only when immobile. Eadweard Muybridge’s achievement in 1872—thirty-three years after photography’s invention—was to bring the new medium abreast of painting by depicting the fact that a live horse was in motion. Muybridge had taken an important



    IN HIS 1957 ESSAY “Hard-Sell Cinema,” Manny Farber talks about “the business-man-artist”: someone who “has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful non-conforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation.” Farber names Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz in jazz, Larry Rivers and Franz Kline in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, Paddy Chayefsky, Delbert Mann, and Elia Kazan in movies. It's one of many pieces in Negative Space where you get the idea Farber was in a bad mood pretty much from the beginning of the '50s to the


    Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic from 1968 until 1991 (save for a brief hiatus in 1978, when she took a short-lived job at a Hollywood studio), died on September 3, 2001. With all of the predictable eulogizing behind us, we asked five critics—Gary Indiana, Annette Michelson, Geoffrey O’Brien, Paul Schrader, and Craig Seligman—to step back and take the long view on Kael’s celebrated if contentious career. Contributing editor Greil Marcus leads off by introducing Kael’s first published essay—inexplicably excluded from her eleven collections of reviews—which we reprint here in its

  • “Some Notes on Chaplin's Limelight” (1953)

    THE STORY GOES THAT PAULINE KAEL’S FIRST review was called “Slimelight”: That was what the late poet Robert Duncan, with whom Kael had gone to see Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, called the picture when they walked out of the theater. The word is used nowhere in or on Kael’s piece, which—appearing in 1953 in City Lights, a journal that, like the San Francisco bookstore that published it, was named for another Chaplin movie—is still harsh enough to bring the reader up short.

    At the end of City Lights (1931), Chaplin’s tramp leaves prison so filthy and destroyed you don’t want to look at him. He walks

  • Manifesto

    MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE MANIFESTO is the “Manifesto of the MX Missilists,” issued September 8, 1980. “All passéist, immobile, fixed-launcher guided-missile systems present such a monstrous spectacle of backwardness and obsolescence that our MX Missilist eyes turn away with profoundest disgust and contempt!” the Missilists announced. And, they declared, “We shall go further. We are prepared to argue that stasis itself is dead. For if missiles should be placed upon cars, and those cars upon tracks, to move hither and thither in response to the universal urge to avoid nuclear annihilation, why then,

  • the Afterlife

    THE END OF THE YEAR is supposed to be a time of adding up accomplishments, separating winners from losers, declaring, in a smug, vaguely bored tone of voice, that the year wasn’t a complete waste of time. But a given year is more than anything else time that has passed, that is gone, an occasion that will never return—and in 1997 most of what could have been done wasn’t. Think about it that way and you might find yourself drawn not to ten-bests but to the cut-off, the broken-down, the used-up, the morbid. Never mind what Bill Clinton did or didn’t do in the last twelve months; from this seat on

  • Greil Marcus


    Two moments stood above all others: hearing NEIL YOUNG’s “I’m the Ocean” for the first time (and then playing it as loudly as I could for the rest of the afternoon), and the scene in Crumb when R., explaining how in old American music he hears the purest, deepest struggle of human beings to confront the truth that “not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words” (Sophocles, not Crumb), puts on a treasured 78, lies back on a daybed, and lets a peace beyond dreams float across his face. He is listening to one GEECHIE WILEY sing and play a song called “Last Kind Word Blues.”

  • Art Spiegelman’s The Wild Party

    Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party: The Lost Classic, with drawings and an introduction by Art Spiegelman (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 111 pages.

    ART SPIEGELMAN’S FIRST book since Maus is a pet project: the rescue of a long bit of 1926 doggerel he found in a used-book store (mark of a true bibliophile: he was attracted by the spine) and has now relaunched with his own artwork. March, who died in 1977, had already republished the thing in 1968 in a self-censored version (he took out the ethnic slurs considered so cool among slumming white people in the ’20s; Edmund Wilson loved using the word “

  • FILM


    High Travoltage

    Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a perfect little movie. It aspired to nothing that it didn’t do, brilliantly. Tarantino knew how to keep the camera moving while the actors tossed their lines like they were grenades: he fast-forwarded the gangster genre way past the previous innovations of Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese. Reservoir Dogs was wildly funny, unremittingly brutal, and heroically human. It also knew how to stay small while trying out some big ideas.

    Pulp Fiction is an imperfect big movie. But imperfection has seldom felt so liberatingly giddy. The


    THERE’S A BRIEF SEQUENCE in Robert Frank’s Home Improvements that, like so many defining moments in his work, seems to take leave of the context that’s been made for it: to exist solely on its own terms, the found revelation. Narrated by Frank, this 29-minute video shot in 1983 and 1984 begins in Nova Scotia, where Frank has lived since 1970. The movie is about family and terror. “Pablo, I promise you, I won’t give up,” Frank says flatly in a voice-over as he approaches the Bronx Psychiatric Center to visit his son, his only surviving child. In the hospital, Pablo Frank seems drugged, depressed,

  • Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies

    NINETEEN-SIXTY-TWO was the year I found out there was more to movies than rooting for the good guys and cowering in your seat. I saw Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Manchurian Candidate, probably the first American movie that could have carried Fassbinder’s title Fear Eats the Soul. But 1962 was also the year of a filmic incident I’ve recalled at least as often as I’ve thought of any of those classics: the night I saw The Pirates of Blood River.

    It was the last day of school. The theater was jammed with students, most of them graduating and most of them


    READING GREG TATE’S CRITICISM is like joining a conversation already in progress. His writing is fast on the eye and fast on the ear, full of play and delight in language for its own sake. At the same time, Tate knows writing isn’t talk. “DisCOINTELPRO”—his term for “a form of record industry sabotage dubbed `disco’”—would never work around a table but it stops you dead in a line of prose.

    Since his work on music, art, politics—an ongoing argument with his colleagues, culture-makers, himself, and the esthetic weather—began appearing in The Village Voice in 1981, Tate has built up a head of steam



    Bruce Conner the sculptor, filmmaker, photographer, graphic artist, etc., has been making engraving collages off and on for more than 30 years, but lately their intensity has increased. There’s less of the easy humor of juxtaposition: an eagle’s head on Jesus’ body. There’s more of a hovering threat delivered by whole and unified fields.

    These are “paper collages made up of images from steel and wood engravings” (Conner), images from around the turn of the century. The stylistic link to Max Ernst’s collages is as self-conscious as it ever was (Conner once thought of mounting a show of his


    THE LAST TEMPTATION of Elvis: Songs from his Movies is a double CD featuring 26 numbers by the likes of Bruce Springsteen (“Viva Las Vegas”), Tanita Tikaram (“Loving You”), the Primitives (“[You’re So Square] Baby I Don’t Care”), Dion DiMucci (“Mean Woman Blues”), the Blow Monkeys (“Follow That Dream”), Vivian Stanshall & the Big Boys (“[There’s] No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”), the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra (“Crawfish”), Nanci Griffith & the Blue Moon Orchestra (“Wooden Heart”), the Hollow Men (“Thanks to the Rolling Sea”—never heard of it), Sydney Youngblood (an acapella “[Let Me Be

  • S—f-censorship.

    IN COLLEGE, I LEARNED ABOUT Plato’s ideal Forms, and mused that if there were Forms of justice, eros, agape, and the like, there really ought to be a Form of rock ’n’ roll—an Essence, preexisting what we benighted prisoners of Plato’s cave of illusion ’n’ reality called the music’s “form” and certainly outlasting it. I didn’t have to think too long to be convinced. Transposed into the vulgate, this was an argument rock ’n’ roll had been making about itself from Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” to the Showmen’s “It Will Stand,” and on, and on. If these people were reaching for something, even

  • Music

    I LIKE THE LOW, almost subliminal growl from the guitar that opens “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” the first cut on Chris Isaak (Warner Bros.). The Ana sound fixes the doomy aura that surrounds the whole album; emotionally, it suggests almost everything Isaak and his band have to say. Each element of the music is subsumed into a romantic dream so seamless that after a dozen playings there’s little chance of separating Isaak’s singing from his band’s playing, and no reason to. The second lp from a San Francisco rockabilly acolyte, this is a self-conscious, formal record, at once an argument and

  • Music

    JERRY LEE LEWIS EMERGED in 1957 with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a piece of rock ’n’ roll as powerful and seductive as any made before or since. He was the Ferriday Flash with the pumping piano, and he was the new Elvis at Sun Records in Memphis, which in those days must have felt like the center of the universe. He was the wildest white rocker ever seen or imagined, king of excess and folly, glorying in the most intense fame possible. Then, when the scandal of his bigamous marriage to a 13-year-old cousin broke around the world, he was suddenly expelled from the light and banished to the

  • Music

    RELEASED IN 1977, FLEETWOOD MAC’S “Go Your Own Way” was the initial single from Rumours, which eventually sold more than 12 million copies. As the first shot by the group since their quadruple-platinum Fleetwood Mac, “Go Your Own Way” should have been an automatic smash, no matter what it sounded like, but it surfaced a few times and then vanished, quickly replaced by “Dreams,” which sailed easily to number one. “Go Your Own Way” was rough, harsh, hard to follow. From its opening notes it was a maelstrom, excitement and nothing else. It was an assault, a hammering, the singer moaning and

  • listening to the words.

    NOVEMBER 4, ELECTION DAY: I was thinking about Lino A. Graglia, a law professor at the University of Texas. Earlier in the year President Reagan had submitted his name to the American Bar Association for preliminary approval before nominating him to the Federal Court of Appeals; the ABA, in its own measured way, had thrown up. “It is doubtful that the net contribution of the Constitution to our national wellbeing has been positive,” Graglia had written in 1984. “The ultimate source of authority is simply force, physical force.” The nomination had been shelved, but there were more where he came


    FOR EVERY NEW ART FORM there’s someone to come along and pronounce it dead, but rarely has an art form been born dead—as is the case with rock video, and its major outlet, MTV. MTV is the pornography of semiotics. Available around the clock, a closed system where nothing outside its frame of reference is ever allowed to intrude, it most closely resembles the lowest porn commodity, the loop: a continuous, circular repetition of signs whose meanings have been frozen long in advance. Promising pleasure through immersion in a seamless collage of visual and aural surprises, delivering instead the