If you want to develop a schizophrenic attitude about the value of a dollar, I suggest dividing your adolescent listening time between finger-wagging punk/hardcore music, and licentious, make-it-rain hip-hop. The first is produced (mostly) by white kids hailing from various points on the upper-to-lower middle-class spectrum, preaching (mostly) a doctrine of abnegation and indifference to the pecuniary rewards of the sell-out, establishment world. The second is produced (mostly) by black kids coming from somewhere between a lower middle-class and Section 8 background, preaching (mostly) a doctrine of C.R.E.A.M. GET THA MONEY DOLLA DOLLA BILLS Y’ALL.
As to which side of this the author of this column fell you can probably divine from the fact that he is writing an online-only column for an hourly rate that compares unfavorably to pizza delivery. Nevertheless, I always keep one eye on the numbers—mind on money, money on mind.
I was recently made aware of both a post on the MSN Money site confirming, should anyone have doubted, that the pursuit of anything worth doing is a one-way ticket to penury, as well as a Forbes article by J. Maureen Henderson asking ‘Are Creative Careers Now Reserved Exclusively for the Privileged?,’ which handily rounds up a number of recent pieces asking the same question, concluding: “Basically, yes.”
While ruminating on these tidings, my last couple of weeks have largely been given over to covering the New York Film Festival, where I saw Alice Englert, daughter of the filmmaker Jane Campion, in Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, and Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting, in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Sumner appears opposite Greta Gerwig, who assumes the lead role in a film she co-wrote with Baumbach, about a 27-year-old trying to make it as a dancer in New York. “Someday when cultural historians look back at this era, they’ll wonder why we so obsessively documented the lives of college-educated city-dwelling Americans between the ages of 22 and 28” opines The Onion AV Club’s Noel Murray, setting himself to analyzing the role played by class guilt—his own, and that of other critics—in the reception of the Toronto International Film Festival’s fare, particularly Frances Ha and the Swedish film Eat Sleep Die, which has a working class subject (I am presuming that the title refers to the life-cycle of the menial laborer).
Frances Ha, incidentally, also stars Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls—like Baumbach and Gerwig’s film, based on the tribulations of being a young NYC creative—and as Frances Ha concluded its NYFF run, news arrived that 26-year-old Girls-creator Lena Dunham had sold her first collection of essays to Random House for upwards of $3.5 million dollars. By the time she was Frances’ age, Gerwig had already been anointed by the NY Times, and Baumbach had completed his first feature; Dunham has at most the experience of one summer of straightened circumstances to draw upon when speaking to the life and post-collegiate hard times of her demographic coevals.
As it happens, I liked Gerwig and Baumbach’s movie, which was humble but not apologetic in presenting its subject as one worthy for consideration, and had a nice, glancing way of touching on class, fitting to the way that young people in the process of self-definition tend to efface their backgrounds. I think often of a passage in the 1940 novel Angels on Toast by the great Ohio-born New York City-novelist Dawn Powell, about Midwestern transplants who would:
“…sit in the dark smoked-wood booth drinking old-fashioneds and telling each other things they certainly wished later they had never told and bragging about their families, sometimes making them hot-stuff socially back home, the next time making them romantically on the wrong side of the tracks. The family must have been on wheels back in the Middle West, whizzing back and forth across tracks at a mere word from the New York daughters.”
As for Dunham, I haven’t revisited her body of work since making it the subject of two of these columns, lo many months ago, though she has ever since been in the periphery of my sight, be it through netting more money than I will ever see in my entire life in a single afternoon, vowing to satisfy “women of color who want to see themselves reflected on screen” in upcoming Girls episodes, or inadvertently offending the entire nation of Canada with a jocular Twitter reference to the Bernardo/Homolka “Schoolgirl Killer” murders, before breathlessly backpedaling. (I am indebted to my adviser in Canadian affairs, Adam Nayman, for drawing this last item to my attention.)
“Generally not a proponent of apologizing for one’s work…” Tweets Dunham, who has recently announced plans to redress perceived racial imbalance on her program, while waving the hashtag white flag “#Canadaphile.” It should be added that the multimillionaire master of the humblebrag has meanwhile made it known that she is currently on a bus tour of Europe, proof positive that all them simoleons haven’t taken away our Lena’s common touch, and that she will continue to travel in the style that almost no-one with the money to do otherwise would. Will Lena stay at youth hostels? The Petit trianon? The particular marriage of class obliviousness and self-absorption disingenuously masked under the guise of self-depreciating her “First-world problems,” which constitute Dunham’s persona is, I can only surmise, the very thing that makes a vocal minority of pop culture observers want to apply a rock to her face. Perhaps instead of all the nervous scuttling, Lena might do better to take a page from the Mitt Romney corpus: No Apology!
Who loves a rich girl? Certainly not The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman, whose insipid “don’t rock the boat” column wonders if the daughter of software magnate Larry Ellison, 26-year-old Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Productions financed P.T. Anderson’s The Master and the upcoming Killing Them Softly, might “ruin what is left of the independent movie business” with her too available checkbook. But why is it, exactly, that women seem to get the lion’s share of flack for nepotism? One hears constantly that Dunham is the scion of successful artists, but it’s mentioned as a point of pride and nothing more that Anderson’s dad was onetime Cleveland horror host Ernie ‘Ghoulardi’ Anderson… who certainly made his pile as the voice of ABC-TV when Paul was growing up.
‘Are Creative Careers Now Reserved Exclusively for the Privileged?’ Well, not exclusively… though the continuance of an eternal imbalance is hardly surprising. Heed the words of Edwin Reardon in George Gissing’s New Grub Street of 1891, a copy of which should be sent to every household where a child plans to enroll in the liberal arts:
“The difference between the man with money and the man without is simply this: the one thinks, ‘How shall I use my life?’ and the other, ‘How shall I keep myself alive?’ A physiologist ought to be able to discover some curious distinction between the brain of a person who has never given a thought to the means of subsistence, and that of one who has never known a day free from such cares.”
The space of one column is not sufficient to solve the problem of The Muses Out of Work—apologies to Edmund Wilson—so I will end with a eulogy. As of this Wednesday, the numbers of the working men in cinema became one less with the death of Kōji Wakamatsu, the construction worker and petty gangster turned filmmaker, whose film Go, Go Second-Time Virgin I wore out on an American Cinematheque DVD as an undergraduate. I can only hope that Miss Dunham’s European vacation will sufficiently broaden her worldview to allow the creation of work on the same level.