Here we are again. Easter. The Day of the Dreadful Bunny comes once more.
The tale, as I must tell it every year, is this: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.
In years past, I’ve made note of the familial investment in continued acts of lapine comedy (giant cards, dog costumes, threats to acquire yet another giant inflatable rabbit) This year, I turn my attention to defense. Surely the giant rabbits can be stopped!
Alas. There are few remedies.
While summoning a dinosaur seems promising, in the end I suspect that it would make an even larger and more terrifying mess than the rabbit. In the end, there is little hope to be had.
In the end, we must all bow before the Easter Throne.
As is my annual Good Friday habit, it is once more time to revisit that Day of Infamy from my childhood, the moment of unadulterated terror in which I learned the hard way that Rabbits Are Not To Be Trusted, that eternally fluffy nightmare vision of long-eared dread…the Bunny Story.
The tragically amusing tale in brief (first told here on some version or other of my blog back in 2015; see it in its more-or-less original glory here) is this: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.
Over the years since, they have also (as previously noted) engaged in various acts of rabbit-related comedy, and we’ve all had jolly good fun with giant cards, threats to purchase ANOTHER DAMNED INFLATABLE RABBIT, etc., ad inf., ad naus. I thought, what with the pandemic slowing things down on the bunny front, that perhaps my fluffy-tailed travails were ended. The Plague Years had made us sadder, wiser, more sober people, no longer so much amused by the slapsticky entertainment of watching an inflatable rabbit scare the bejeezus out of someone.
I did not reckon on my sister-in-law and her obsession with clothing my dogs.
In addition to the ears, Henry also received a gift of two small and very squeaky carrots (which Buddy will thoroughly destroy) and a Harry Potter costume.
I am doomed. I give in. It’s rabbits all the way down, so I might as well enjoy myself. If anybody needs me, I’ll be at the bar.
Studying the table of contents for any given issue of The Saturday Book reveals a sort of consistent inconsistency. The publication’s founding editor, Leonard Russell, laid out a plan that included some essentials, but their inclusion was never tidy or regimented, and the book’s very inconsistency was a central feature of its structure and identity as a publication. In a funny little postscript appended to the table of contents for the 12th issue (the first edited by Russell’s successor, John Hadfield), for example, we learn that
As we were going to press, we realized that this issue contained nothing about Crime, which our revered Founder, in his first issue, twelve years since, postulated as a necessary ingedient in the book. Shamefacedly, and as a manifest fill-up, we have squeezed in this Elizabethan woodcut of that cobwebby whodunit, the murder of Thomas Arden of Feversham, in February 1550-1, by Black Will and Shakbag, to the order of Mistress Arden and her paramour, Mosbie.1
The Saturday Book, Issue 12 (1952), p. 6
This is the sort of thing one has to get used to in order to read The Saturday Book — a kind of oopsie-daisy, throw-it-all-in-there-and-don’t-sweat-the-details attitude that sits right on top of some actually quite meticulous design and organization.
Some issues have lots of essays; most have lots of photographs. Some have poetry with cartoonish illustrations; others have numerous selections of short fiction. There are oddball photo essays about The Household Brigade, collections of paintings of roses, fondly nostalgic Victoriana, faintly mocking Victoriana, and in at least one notable instance a “photo quiz” that appears to be an attempt to fill out a section of glossy image pages with leftover photos from various essays in a way that also serves as a sort of in-joke for contributors and long-time readers (one of the photos is, in fact, a shot of a well-loved long-time friend of the editors). While there were (sort of? usually?) section titles represented in the table of contents for each issue, they were not always the same section titles. Some were more descriptive than others, some leaned toward the clever side, and some were just…odd. Russell and Hadfield appear to have had similarly whimsical senses of humor and both leaned decidedly toward the absurd on any given occasion in this context, so their whims tended to be well-represented in both the choice of content and the mode of its presentation.
Particularly in the earlier years of The Saturday Book, the Introductions to each issue were nearly more absurd than informative, exemplifying rather than describing what was most Saturdiurnal (Hadfield’s apparent coinage) about the text and its expected readers: subjects “beautiful, curious and disregarded” and afficionadoes of same (Issue 13, p 5). Russell’s farewell Introduction in the eleventh issue is both heartfelt and entirely silly, archly illustrated with “a farewell garland” of “dogs, Sunderland lustre, Victoriana, everything practically except Poll Sweedlepipe himself” (Issue 11, p. 11), and Hadfield’s Introduction as the new editor in the twelfth issue is mostly a ridiculous sidetrack about house-hunting and Elizabethiana that ends by affirming the apparent frivolity of the whole enterprise of the Introduction (and the book) itself:
When we try to survey the History of Our Own Times we find it written in the Charleston and the cloche hat. We prefer insects and embroidery to Movements and Trends. We would rather gaze through Arthur Devis’s vistas to the distant gazebo than consider the economic effects of the Seven Years’ War. Even when we try to focus our attention on such awe-inspiring portents as guided missiles and the A, H, or is it now the Z? bomb, we find ourselves cutting out a woodcut of an Elizabethan whizbang and sticking it to the bottom of the page.
Alas, we have no Serious Purpose to commend us. Indeed the only serious task we have tackled — and, we observe, completed — is to fill the pages allotted for this Introduction to the twelfth, the largest, and, as our revered Founder has graciously assured us, not the least interesting issue of The Saturday Book.
The Saturday Book, Issue 12 (1952), p. 14
A large part of the charm of the book’s thoroughgoing purposelessness, for me, may lie in the publication’s close community of contributors and readers, including Russell’s wife, the great film and cultural critic Dilys Powell, and frequent flyers Olive Cook and Edwin Smith (Smith also served alongside Laurence Scarfe as a designer and photo editor for The Saturday Book). This is a production in play created by and for that community of creative people, working out their engagement in all of the little curiousities and side projects and collections that might never otherwise have seen the light of day as they both represented and turned away from the culture of their time and looked just slightly backward, turned a bit topsy-turvy. The closing of issue thirty-four (the final regular publication run, in 1974) sets this present-comment-looking-back tone one last time with a selection of photos curated by Mary Anne Norbury, titled “Then and Now.” It features eleven pairs of black-and-white images, each pair composed of a photo from the 1880s-1920s and a photo from the late 1960s-1974. Victorian and Edwardian styles and poses are set in sharp relief against streakers and naked sunbathers from the 1970s. As absurd as the comparisons are, they are also curiously ironic for The Saturday Book, which was never so much conservative in its leanings as it was nostalgic; the matched photos simultaneously invoke that nostalgia in the context of an apparent “look what the world’s come to” statement and poke fun at any judgement one might make about it. My favorite, I think, is a cricket jab perfectly designed to appeal to anyone familiar with the Ashes:
The Saturday Book, in its friendly playfulness, reminds me of nothing so much as a high school yearbook put together by a plucky staff of clever, artsy school chums who tried regularly to outdo themselves and each other for oddball new ways to fill out the pages available, and often succeeded in creating astute cultural criticism.
In the Before Times (back when I had the energy to update this blog more than once or twice a year) I had a notion that the blog itself was meant to function as a space for all of the random nonsense I wanted to write about that I couldn’t convince myself to put somewhere else. Stabs in the direction of an academic idea that didn’t have much chance of blooming into an appropriate publication, odd little obsessions, occasional observations that I just wanted to ramble about, doomed attempts at humor or fiction, and the rare book or film review — that’s what belonged here. I could pick up all of the oddities from the back burner or the printer’s floor and inflict them upon the two people and fifteen bot accounts that comprise my main readership, thereby exorcising whatever obsessive thought had driven me to write and making room for something else. This is one thing that blogs, as a format for online communication, are generally good for — they began (or so I dimly remember) as a sort of digital hybrid commonplace book/miscellany collection, curated by persons or organizations whose priorities and interests were reflected in the content they shared and the connections they maintained with others (the blogroll of days gone by…). A part of what’s awkward and interesting and kind of wonderful about blogs now, I think, is that much of the commonplace book stuff has moved to other social media formats and platforms, leaving behind some (all?) the miscellany functions.
The distinction between a commonplace book and a miscellany that I’m drawing here is actually a bit idiosyncratic on my part, given the fact that we do have extant examples of commonplace books that are also called miscellanies (see, for example, Rigg’s Glastonbury Miscellany). Nonetheless, for my purpose here they are different (albeit related) things. A commonplace book is a kind of personally curated and organized collection of quotations, texts, ideas, etc., typically created by and for an individual (I have more to say about it here in a previous blog post, if anyone is curious). It’s a sort of interactive diary of assorted things one might want to remember and use later. They were originally not designed for publication, just as personal diaries were not originally designed for publication, although that hasn’t stopped a fair number of them from actually being published. The point of creating commonplace books was to use them to collect things to be used or referred to later. While these are obviously “miscellaneous” things, such a collection isn’t quite what I mean by a miscellany. In the sense that interests me here, a miscellany has more in common with an anthology than a commonplace book — it’s an artifact of the printer’s art and labor rather than the diarist’s memory. The miscellanies in question are print (rather than manuscript) collections of oddities, news items, quotations, stories, articles, images, etc., sometimes organized for specific purposes or around a particular topic or genre of writing, sometimes a bit more random. They could be found in a variety of forms, ranging from something sort of like a newspaper or pamphlet to a robust bound volume of several hundred pages. Their typical focus is upon current on contemporary material, some of it reprinted from elsewhere, some solicited for or submitted specifically for publication in the collection, but there aren’t really rules — printers do as they please.
For the next few weeks, I’m going to explore the eccentric, unpredictable wonders to be found in a print miscellany published in annual editions from 1941 to 1975 called The Saturday Book. Why? Well, first of all, because it’s kind of fun. I accidentally happened across the few volumes still in the collection in the library where I work, and was instantly hooked by the general oddity of the thing. It’s exactly the sort of magpie stuff that my brain adores, an annual print treasure trove of everything from Wodehouse essays to absurd remarks about roses to erudite and amusing tours of architectural wonders. It’s hard to explain the range of the thing, simultaneously timely and nostalgic. It is also, cleverly, not at all as unpredictable or random as it seems, and it is a triumph of book design, not simply an example of a hodge-podge of amusing or informative content. “If one book, and one book only, had to represent the full versatility and fanciful possibilities of printing today, this would be it,” said Sir Francis Meynell, commenting on the publication’s tenth volume:
It is not made in the traditional manner of a book or even of a keepsake or album. It is a ‘mixt-maxty,’ to use a pleasant old term for a medley, not merely in its contents, as are other albums, but also in its typography and illustration. Every section is designed anew to fit its theme: but so closely interwoven are theme and presentation that it is hard to determine which partner predominates. The editor and the designer must to some extent have shared functions, even perhaps on occasion exchanged them. The result is a brilliant tour-de-force…the whole is a magazine light-hearted, intelligent, civlized, and ‘amusing,’ like a clever, intimate revue.
Quoted in the publisher’s announcement of the retirement of founding editor Leonard Russell in vol. 11 of The Saturday Book, 1951 (p. 7)
The second reason I have for taking up this little weekend project is to plumb some of its oddball cultural depths and functions as a collection of the work of collectors (of things, of ideas, of words, of concepts), a sort of curatorial busman’s holiday in print format for editors. How does one make sense of its combination of evolving contemporary humor, nostalgic Victoriana, and the sense of being surrounded by people who just like talking about slightly silly paintings alongside more serious cultural critique and the occasional travelogue? I have no idea, but I’m willing to give it a whirl! Welcome to Sunday Mornings With The Saturday Book!
It’s not an especially interesting or remarkable portrait, and he was not an especially notable Prime Minister. He certainly didn’t hold the post for very long. No, what’s interesting about this photograph is not its subject or its composition. What’s interesting about this photograph is a mistake.
This was, it seems, a fairly common error — the man’s name was von Knilling, and newspaper folks in the US struggled to remember that “n” in a way that accidentally created an absolutely terrific supervillain moniker. Victor von Doom? Ha! He’s nothing compared to Eugen von Killing!
I now really want to see a Dr. Killing vs. Dr. Doom faceoff.
Once upon a time, there was a silly person who imagined that it would be the very easiest thing in the world to maintain a simple little blog — who reads those anymore, anyway, right? How hard could it be to just post a thing every couple of weeks? Why, there could even be some regular, repeating features that would take the burden of originality off the author’s shoulders every now and then! SO clever!
Then (as you may have noticed) The Pandemic Interregnum arrived, and all and sundry were thrust into the Void. Those best-laid plans gang pretty darn agley.
As it happens, the very last post I wrote here also marked the point at which I began to work from home for the foreseeable future, isolated and isolating atop my lonely wooded hill, with no one but my small, goofy dogs for company and no idea just how intensely I was eventually going to loathe Zoom, Teams, and all of their ilk. That post gestured in the direction of one of my little recurring features, the Annual Re-telling of the Terrifying Tale of the Infamous Attack of the Inflatable Rabbit that Scarred My Soul FOREVER (But was Also Comedy Gold). The short version (as originally posted in 2019) is this: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.
What has followed, with my annual retellings, has been the slow escalation of Easter-themed forms of humor from my parents, which I have come to expect and sort of enjoy. This year, however, my mother actually forgot to play her Giant Bunny Card game with my nerves, because time doesn’t mean anything anymore, anyway. Dad chose not to remind me exactly how funny that inflatable mostrosity was for a change (we all have other things on our minds). This poses a bit of a problem. How do I milk them for content when they’ve rudely chosen not to provide any?
But wait! What’s this? Where my parents have let me down, the Universe has seen fit to intervene! Instead of escalating parental pranking, I have been given the gift of Mystery!
A few days ago, as I went out to walk my dogs, I discovered this charming little Easter wreath hanging from my front door. “Aha!” I thought. “The parents have stepped up their game! I wonder if it plays obnoxious music?” When asked, however, neither parent took credit for it. There was no note or tag or card attached, and I never saw or heard anyone at the door. It just Appeared. Naturally, I took to social media to crack the case, but so far no one I know has taken credit for placing this wreath on my door. The Mystery of Easter now includes the Mystery of the Easter Wreath. Ooooooooh!
Anyway: Thanks, whoever left this wreath and puzzle (we’re all doing puzzles for the pandemic now, aren’t we?). Happy Easter!
As my tiny group of regular readers knows very well by now, I have a little Easter tradition here on the ol’ blog: I tell The Story and (usually on Good Friday) post about a little hymn thing I like. This year, for a variety of reasons (most of which involve the effects of an entirely non-digital concept of virality on my workload), I’ve decided to mix it up a bit. I’ve been pretty silent for a while here (BUSY!), so I’m overdue to update on a number of fronts anyway, and have decided that this year, you’re getting hasty gestures in the direction of an omnibus update post.
Conversations With Small Dogs: Human Resources Edition
As I now have the luxury of working from home, I find myself constantly in the company of a pair of canine coworkers. I also find myself collecting a file of HR complaints about one of them in particular.
Seriously — given the size of the file of violations I’ve collected on Buddy, I’m pretty sure the only thing that could possibly explain his continued employment here is nepotism.
I am in the unenviable position of being his co-worker, his supervisor, AND the nepotistic connection responsible for his uninterrupted tenure here. This may represent a conflict of interest. I’ve assigned Henry the task of looking into it, but he’s a bit busy — there’s a prime sunny spot by the front window that requires further study, so he’s back-burnered the conflict of interest investigation until he completes his Sunny Window Spot report.
Also: It may be time for a vacation. This morning, I started sketching a paper about determining whether or not dogs are Humeans about causation and what that might mean in my head.
The best place to enter the linguistic and social-psychological rabbit hole this post is about to drag you down is with one of the best and most well-known XKCD cartoons — “Duty Calls” (#386):
Recently, on Facebook, Duty Called upon me once again (as it often does in that wretched hive of memes and misinformation). Someone was wrong on the internet, and by golly, I was going to do something about it!
Yes. I am that person. I am that joyless buzzkill who actually insists that people not post outright bullshit as if it were decent content. I am the person who reports the spam posts.
I am vengeance. I am the night.
Someone Is Wrong On The Internet
Anyway…here’s a screenshot of the image in the post that caught my joyless buzzkill eye a few days ago:
Now, if you don’t know any ancient Greek or even a little Latin, there is nothing objectionable here. It’s sweet, really. Look at all of those words for love! How nice! The dusty ancient folks sure knew how love worked, right? If, on the other hand, you’ve got just enough Greek to get by (c’est moi — although I’ve obviously got no French to speak of) and enough Latin to get in silly trouble (it me), this is…painful. It is painful for at least two reasons:
Ludus is Latin, not Greek, and it is not a Latin word for “love” as such, as far as I know. It is a word for play or sport or training (and related concepts — see its entry in Lewis & Short). While Spartacus might have blurred the lines for us a bit, the ludus gladiatorius was a place where gladiators trained and “played” at their particularly violent sport, not where they got their fun little flirty love game on. A school for young children might also be called a ludus. The term can be used figuratively for a dalliance, but play is its primary sense.
Pragma is Greek, but it’s not a word for “love” in ancient Greek, at least not if we take Liddell & Scott seriously. The closest we get to “love” in that good ol’ L+S entry is an instance in which the word is used as a part of a phrase to describe a love affair (where pragma constitutes the “affair” bit, not the “love” bit, of that phrase).
I’m not going to go into the failure to distinguish between ancient Greek and Biblical Greek and whatever the heck C.S. Lewis was doing in The Four Loves (which also frequently shows up as a source for Greek words for love in Google searches). Mentioning it all is enough pain for one day.
Because I cannot abide Other People’s Wrongness on the Internet (even though, frankly, I’m no classicist, I’m probably missing something, I probably should have let it go, and I’m likely to be seven kinds of wrong myself here), I promptly suggested a correction to the Facebook friend who had reposted this particular crime against All That Is Good And True In The World. Mission Accomplished!
There is, however, something more interesting to be found in this wee love list, in all its not-really-correct glory, and being a joyless (and possibly not as right as I think I am) buzzkill in the comments on someone’s repost of someone else’s post doesn’t quite capture it. It becomes visible when we try to do the responsible, scholarly thing and source the list in the image above.
Misattribution, Erasure, and the Corruption of the Discourse
So what happened here? Who is responsible for this ridiculous list of not-really-all-Greek-words-for-love? The college student’s go-to strategy, Googling “Greek words for love”, turns up an appalling collection of folks who just perpetuate the error, some of them with actual scholarly training and advanced degrees who ought to know better. On the first page of those results when I initially ran the search, only two sources actually came close to being something other than wrong: the Wikipedia entry on Greek Words for Love (!) and a post by Neel Burton on the Psychology Today blog, both of which refer to the original thinker behind this particular selection of words: Canadian sociologist John Alan Lee. In the usual way of the Wild, Wild Internet, Lee’s work seems to have been detached from its author and telephone-gamed into a misleading life of its own as a comment on ancient Greek love vocabulary by people who either simply didn’t know better, were too lazy to check for the original source, or trusted other, similarly ignorant or lazy folks.
This collection of names for love is actually drawn from the term set for a typology of what Lee calls “love styles,” using Greek and Latin words that he either borrowed or re-purposed as terms of art; the beginnings of the “love styles” discussion appear in his 1973 book Colors of Love, and the concepts are worked out elsewhere by Lee and others in both theoretical and experimental contexts. Lee was not reporting on the cultural norms, philosophical concepts, or linguistic practices of the ancient world. As he explains in an article on his typology that he published in 1977, he was developing a way to talk about human social, sexual, and emotional relationships, and he chose to use Latin and Greek words to do it for the purpose of conceptual and clinical disambiguation (or at least so he could sound more science-y in his Official Science Version of the typology written for Actual Scientists).
Interestingly, Lee asserts in 1977 that ludus is a word for love found in the works of Ovid. What I think is more likely the case is that Lee (apparently no more of a classicist than I am, and certainly not a Latin specialist) was familiar with Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (AKA The Art of Love), where Ovid doesn’t appear to use the word ludus to refer to love as such. Rather, Ovid talks at some length about love as a sort of play, and in that context he more frequently uses amor, not ludus, as a literal word for love, with the latter term used to modify the former. It’s at best a figurative usage that Lee takes up (“ludic love”). I don’t believe, however, that this implies or supports the claim that Ovid himself used or understood ludus as a word for love. It’s probably more accurate to say that Ovid treated some kinds of love as forms of play (not the other way ’round), and spoke of it in those terms (hence the figurative use of ludus to describe a dalliance or a flirtation). Lee himself was, in asserting this as a definition or usage drawn from Ovid, also accidentally perpetuating a misleading deployment of Ovid, and lending his scholarly cred to the error.
Of course, you probably shouldn’t quote me as an authority on any of this. I Am Not A Classicist, and I will happily bow to the expertise of people whose Latin and whose acquaintance with Ovid is better and deeper than mine. My scholarly cred here is certainly no better than Lee’s!
The above disclaimer is the point of this post, at which we have finally arrived.
So much of human communication depends on some kind of trust. Scholarly communication in particular depends on its own variety of trust, characterized by research methods tested and judged to be reliable over time, dissemination procedures designed to check for the appropriate deployment of said methods, and elaborate educational credentialing systems designed to signal the likely presence of procedural and methodological trustworthiness. When library instruction focuses on training students to seek out “scholarly” or “reliable” sources, it often invokes the trust-mechanisms of scholarship as a shorthand for the quality (i.e. accuracy, rigor, etc.) of those sources. At the introductory level, we don’t talk at any length (if at all) about scholarship controversies or spend a lot of time on the sacred work of the good folks at Retraction Watch. We mostly try to steer students away from dodgy material spat up by Google and toward the less dodgy stuff in our collections (presumably selected to be there by virtue of the aforementioned signs and mechanisms of scholarly trustworthiness). Sometimes, both before and in college, students are taught other shorthands for trustworthiness (the “use .org and .edu and avoid .com” nonsense advice, for example, which I think is worse than useless).
Yet we can’t shorthand our way past the fact that even the existing scholarly record has its own little corruptions, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and outright errors, and that these little corruptions were there long before there was so fast and easy a way to spread them around as the internet. We need, somehow, to cultivate practices of judgment and habits of critical engagement with material that really do privilege better work over nonsense. We are hampered in doing so by the little fissures in scholarly trust that become chasms over time under the corrosive flood of repeated and popularized errors that are often given unwarranted trust because the searcher who comes across them isn’t yet competent to recognize the signs of error and doesn’t know where the edges of scholarly trustworthiness really lie.
Put another way: When our students turn to Google before they turn to CREDO Reference (for example) and find goofy nonsense, the real danger lies not in the flood of popular mistakes to which they’ve gained access. It lies instead at the intersection of ignorance and trust, at which stand many or most of the people who are Wrong On The Internet.
This is not a recap of the year. It is not a recap of the decade, or a Top Ten List of any kind. Instead, it’s a little bit of a look back at an earlier few decades, occasioned by a charming photographic moment from sometime around 1921.
Harry Lauder (1870-1950), in addition to being a vastly popular Scottish singer and comedian during the early years of the 20th C., was also a rather marvelous giggler. While other images of him in the collection in the LOC ‘s Flickr stream showcase the usual nicely posed theatrical ham, every now and then we see something like this — a man often and easily brought to laughter, infectiously hilarious.
He is so wonderfully easy to move to laughter that he brings his audience effortlessly with him into his story and into his song (one for which he was already particularly well known) — undoubtedly a large part of his personal charm. This is the great joy of a music hall performance — the scale just big enough to be exciting, but still small enough to be jolly and personal. He laughs the way a child laughs (even as he is making a decidedly adult joke). Lauder also made an art of simultaneously dialing back and exaggerating his Scots dialect, so that one gets the odd experience of a genuine accent and dialect (he was born and raised in Edinborough and Arbroath, and worked a decade in the coal mines in Lanarkshire) straightened and smoothed to an artifice for the English music hall scene.
If Lauder’s singing voice (which is just as charming as the rest of him) sounds familiar, it might be because a number of Scottish songs that entered the popular consciousness in the 1910s and ’20s were sung and recorded by him.
There’s a sort of risk in an act like Lauder’s — a temptation to reduce his carefully cultivated stage persona to a stereotyped Scots schtick. It’s an easy temptation to give in to, in light of Lauder’s very careful work to turn identity and history into a performing advantage, a kind of colorful self-deprecative caricature (putting a fake horn on a real unicorn). But the stories and the songs he shares are not cleanly reducible to a stereotype or a lie, and if some of the edges are sanded off his dialect, they nonetheless often reappear, sharp as ever, in the nature of his humor. It’s a complicated and difficult act to perform authentically and well (keeping Hannah Gadsby’s recent remarks about self-deprecation in humor in mind), and while some of Lauder’s schtick might clang a bit to contemporary ears, it’s still an honest laugh from a man much given to laughter.
This is, in a roundabout sort of way, a review of The Report (2019, Amazon Studios). Not the whole thing, of course. Really, it’s more of an executive summary of an even longer and more substantive review that I started writing in my head as I drove home from the movie theatre.
It’s still pretty long, so buckle up, kiddies. Also: While the events depicted in The Report are for the most part a matter of public knowledge (brace yourselves, spoilerphobes), I’m not going to spend a lot of time on story or scene details (so you don’t have to brace yourselves too much, spoilerphobes).
Every Film Its Viewer, Every Viewer Their Film
A movie (film, bit of cinema, whatever) is a marvelously complex thing. It takes a lot of moving parts to tell a story on screen, all working appropriately together to generate some sort of experience or other for the audience. The end effect is one that is designed (with varying degrees of success) to cause and manage audience reaction to and engagement with the story being told. In one sense (and I am hardly the first person to observe this), a movie is a sort of curated experience in which the audience is prompted to respond to a carefully assembled set of cues, all aimed toward the filmmaker’s various ends (which can include everything from basic commercial profitability to making fairly subtle artistic or political points).
Some movies are more aggressively managerial about the work of curation than others. They are built to guide the viewer’s interaction with their content in such a way as to require very little audience contribution to the experience. Other movies are more suggestive than managerial — they lay out the puzzle and encourage or prompt the viewer to assemble it. Either sort of movie may use varying subtle or overt prompts, and those prompts occur across the experience (in the order of the narrative, in the editing of scenes, in the language in the script, in the use of the score to emphasize the moment, etc.). Some movies are intensely managerial about parts of the experience, but inspire creative responses over and above what they prompt (which is how viewers can come up with richer and better headcanon for themselves for a story that leaves just enough room for it).
Some viewers like to be managed aggressively by the movies they watch, at least some of time; they want to sit back and respond as prompted, and they want their prompts to be reasonably clear and easy to interact with. They do not want to work at their viewing pleasure, they just want to enjoy it. Other viewers prefer the challenge of mining a viewing experience for signs, for meaning — they want to be shown the mystery and assemble an understanding of it for themselves. These are often the viewers who will build more complex experiences of their own out of even rigidly curated film experiences, either by analyzing the experience in the context of broader knowledge or by making symbolic connections to their own experience of the narrative that go beyond what the filmmakers deliberately prompt.
It is possible for a movie to blend managerial and suggestive approaches in various ways (rigid curation using very subtle prompts, for example, or mysteries that look suggestive but are in fact…not). It is possible for a person to be both kinds of viewer at different times and for different reasons, or even all at once. I don’t mean to suggest here that one or the other sort of film or viewer is preferable to the other. I only want to put forward the notion that the continuum between rigid and merely suggestive curation or between more passive and more active viewing is one way to explain why a film might succeed with some audiences and fail with others.
All of which is, I suppose, a really longwinded way of saying that The Report can be an intensely rewarding and interesting and important viewing experience while simultaneously being, from the point of view of a certain sort of audience, profoundly dull stuff. If you’re the sort of viewer who wants an aggressively managed emotional experience that builds in an inevitable crescendo to an obvious fortississimo and falls to a readily expected mezzo-forte denouement, all writ large and immediately gripping, this is probably not the movie to see. If, on the other hand, you want to spend some quiet time with an elegantly constructed prompt for further reflection on a complex political and ethical subject that is remarkably accessible to the non-wonk, this could easily be worth your time. I liked it very much when I watched it on the big screen Saturday, and I will definitely be watching it again (probably more than once) when it streams on Amazon Prime later in November — there are some clever things going on, little editing and visual and narrative puzzles that I want to play with again. So: with this movie, I am that sort of viewer. Your mileage, as the kids used to say, may vary.
The Narrative and Visual Geometry of The Report
Let’s get something out of the way: the plot is the dull part of this movie, really. It’s dull in just the way that important realities often are (the reader may choose to insert their own comment on current events here) — a highly condensed narration of the process of doing vitally important work that was, for the people engaged in it, often some combination of tedious, exhausting, enraging, disillusioning, stressful, and just plain bureaucratic (for clarity: I’m talking about the work of compiling the Senate’s report here, not the events the report so damningly details). There is a kind of existential horror to bureaucracy (Hi, Kafka!), especially when set alongside the ways in which the internal mechanisms of bureaucratic management groan and bend and twist when they encounter certain external events or traumas. The audience bored by this part of The Report is, in their boredom, immersed in exactly the kind of nightmare the participants in the events the film depicts came to understand so very well. Knowing that probably doesn’t help, though, if you need a differently curated and more exciting experience.
I have very little to say about the plot.
I do, however, have just a little bit to say about boxes in this movie.
What’s in the Box?
Visually and narratively, The Report is an exploration of boxed spaces (their structure, their relationship to each other, their effects on the things inside and outside of them). There are a lot of boxes in this movie — rooms, hallways, file boxes, office doors and windows, safes, car interiors, actual wooden boxes in which bodies are horrifyingly placed, figurative boxes defining agency turf or bureaucratic responsibility, television and computer screens, etc.
The visual world of The Report is made up of tight spaces, framed by the process of characters entering and leaving them. The concrete boxes of federal buildings and black site cells are constantly juxtaposed, alongside a variety of Senate offices and conference rooms, situation rooms and workspaces. The report’s research and writing team occupy a closed basement bunker of a room in the “hostile” territory of the CIA, set in vicious parallel with the cells and wooden boxes (deliberately and carefully called out by the filmmakers) that make up the world of the detainees and their torturers. There is a kind of persistent symbolic claustrophobia lending an edgy tension to even otherwise prosaic bureaucratic scenes in this movie from its very beginning (don’t worry, folks who have seen it already, I’ll get to the snow globe). The real tension in some of the discussions characters have with each other — which are often not especially informative or emotional for the viewer, in terms of their literal content) comes from the closed space in which these conversations occur, the way in which the otherwise unremarkable walls are made unexpectedly menacing by their closeness and signal everything awful contained within them.
The filmmakers’ various uses of television and computer screens as event boxes on-screen is interesting, especially insofar as they tend to be used for visual and historical context. In a film that already has a wonky info-dump for a plot structure, the filmmakers efficiently avoid excessive dumping by using transitional screen boxes and background images and asides (the psychologists weirdly cheery graphic representations of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, for example, projected on a screen in a conference room) to fill in the narrative space behind the action.
The story itself shows us Federal agencies and branches of government in and as boxes, protecting their territories and prerogatives, transitioning from one set of walls to another as administrations change and still have to deal with the leftover moving junk from their previous occupants. Agencies protect their legal and conceptual spaces. Whole parts of government and their individual personnel are thrown into disarray by the breach of the nation’s conceptual walls on Sept. 11, and they scramble to figure out how to repair the walls while not being cast out of them for failing to prevent the damage in the first place.
Most horrifying of all, though, is the set of legal and logical boxes built by and around the torturers and their enablers. For them, people driven mad by a need to do something, enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) never fail — they are only failed by their users. They are legal as long as they work, so they must work (not in the imperative sense that might occasion accountability, but in the inferential sense in which EITs’ working is fallaciously taken to follow from the need for them to work). Competing concerns or implications are boxed out of this self-sealing nightmare, in which the architects of “learned helplessness” make themselves helpless against their own unquestioned commitments.
The Snow Globe
At the very beginning of the movie, Daniel Jones arrives in DC like one of those starry-eyed country kids getting off the bus at Hollywood and Vine with a silver screen in their eyes (an experience Driver himself understands quite well). Somewhere between the first photo he takes of the Capitol rotunda and his first meeting with eventual Obama WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (played by Jon Hamm), Jones picks up a souvenir: a snow globe with the capitol building inside. It’s cheesy and hopeful and tacky and charming and full of a sort of desperate belief in what the sacred architecture of that building ought to mean.
It is the first thing Jones loses or leaves behind. It is not the only thing.
That is not an accident.
If what you want from a movie review is a rating or a recommendation, then this is what I have to give you:
Ask not what this movie can do for you. Ask what you can do for this movie.
If that sentiment turns you off from the film, then The Report is not for you. If it is, then join me in viewing and re-viewing and reviewing it, as you like, and then decide whether or not it’s your cup of tea.