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A huge translation of hypocrisy, / vilely compiled, profound simplicity.

November 18, 2011

So—have you seen Anonymous yet?  Do you plan to?

Yeah, me neither.  I did, however, read Stephen Marche’s “Riff” on the movie in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, and I recommend that you do the same.  It’s pretty entertaining, and more importantly it does a good job of articulating what’s objectionable about Anonymous—which is not just that it promotes nonsense about the plays of Shakespeare, but that it doesn’t seem to give much of a damn whether the case it argues against the historical record is accurate or not.

One minor quibble with Marche: at one point he refers to the Oxfordian quasi-scholars (who hold that Edward de Vere was the “real” Shakespeare) as “the prophets of truthiness”—and though he’s absolutely right to evoke truthiness in the context of Anonymous, I think his aim is a little off.  Truthiness isn’t being perpetrated, exactly, by the committedly snobbish Oxfordians, whose attempts to braid the stems of a few cherry-picked facts seems quaint and almost respectable by contrast to the film their research has inspired: wrongheaded though they may be, the Oxfordians hold their ground when they’re called out.

Anonymous, by contrast, DOES traffic in something like truthiness—it may be more accurate to call it bullshit—in that its makers are perfectly content, and indeed prefer, to lob irresponsible assertions and then fall back with a shrug, like drunk revelers who shoot pistols in the air at a carnival and melt into the crowd when all the shouting and running starts.  Pressed on his film’s fast-and-looseness by NPR’s Renée Montagne, screenwriter John Orloff tap-dances a little about how, y’know, the Shakespeare plays themselves stretch the truth for the sake of a good story—as if depicting Richard III as a hunchback is comparable to suggesting that his reign was entirely the invention of Polydore Vergil—and then says the following:

At the end of the day, what we’re really doing is having a question about art and politics, and the process of creativity, and where does it come from—and THAT’S what the movie’s about.  It’s not about who wrote these plays.  It’s about, how does art survive and exist in our society?

Montagne only has a few seconds left, but she doesn’t let this pass: um, of COURSE the movie is about who wrote the freaking plays; to suggest otherwise is absurd.  Among the jawdropping qualities of Orloff’s vacuous statement—and they are many: I mean, are we seriously supposed to accept that a film that assumes that a regular guy from Stratford couldn’t have had the skillset or the résumé to produce great literature is really about “the process of creativity?” or that the best way to show “how art survives and exists in our society” is by means of a byzantine conspiracy yarn set in late-Elizabethan England?—surely the worst is the maddening implication that Orloff himself may not be totally convinced of the veracity of his own film’s premise, and indeed may not have thought about it all that much.  It’s just material to this dude: it’s a pitch, a tagline, designed to stir things up; it possesses and aspires to no more substance than the hook of a pop hit.  What if I told you that Shakespeare never wrote a single word!  Eh?  You see what I did there?  Do I have your attention?

But where, one might legitimately ask, is the harm?  Does Anonymous really cheapen the culture when the culture is already, y’know, pretty cheap?  Does it really make us dumber than we already are?

Yeah, actually, I think it does.  Sure, one can (and many will) argue that Anonymous is a net win for Shakespeare (or whomever) and also for the literate culture at large because it will prompt new and closer readership of the work, in much the same way that Dan Brown sent tens of thousands of fresh-minted armchair art historians into museum gift shops and onto the internet in search of Leonardo’s Last Supper(This seems to be the position that Sony Pictures is taking, promoting the film with a classroom study guide ostensibly intended “to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions,” which sounds just excruciatingly fair-’n’-balanced to me.)  Sorry, but I just don’t buy this argument.  Yeah, maybe there’s value to motivating attention toward works that have become inert from neglect or (and?) over-familiarity, but I see approximately zero evidence that the works of Shakespeare have been neglected of late, nor any sign that their reception has grown inert.  To the extent that Anonymous introduces the works of the Bard to a new audience, it introduces those works not as artifacts of a superlatively imaginative human consciousness using language to engage an audience, to curry political favor, to struggle with major questions of existence, to earn cash and prestige, and to tell an ascendant nation complex stories about itself, but rather as an already-cracked code: an enormous crossword puzzle with all the letters already filled in and all the clues missing.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I can be as postmodern as the next guy when it comes to issues of interpretation . . . but I also try to be pragmatic on such questions, and the ultimate rubric in a case like this one is probably whether the works being interpreted become more interesting or less interesting when viewed through the lens of the theory under consideration.  The Oxfordian hypothesis does not perform well on this particular racetrack, and Anonymous can barely roll itself out of the pit.

Okay, then, lit snob (one might also legitimately ask): since you brought up Dan Brown, how is Anonymous any worse than The Da Vinci Code?  Or, for that matter, worse than JFK?  Now that the guy who directed Independence Day is crapping on your precious Shakespeare you’re urging the troops to the battlements, but where were you when those other conspiracies were getting mongered, huh?  You’re saying Anonymous is different somehow?

Yup, pretty much: different and worse, for a number of reasons.  There is, first of all, the matter of Anonymous’s target selection.  While Dan Brown and Oliver Stone seek to encourage suspicion of powerful and entrenched institutions that have earned close scrutiny and that frankly can afford to take the hit—Roman Christianity and the American military-industrial complex, respectively—I’m not sure what corrupt institution Anonymous aims to disinfect with daylight.  No matter how you felt while trying to memorize Romeo’s But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks speech back in middle school, Shakespeare isn’t really oppressing anybody.  Opulent and hidebound though it may be, the British monarchy isn’t exactly being propped up by the plays of Shakespeare.  And if the villain here is supposed to be the academic establishment—I’m imagining a scrapped preview trailer set at the MLA Conference, featuring cloaked adjunct professors darkly muttering stuff like our secrets must be preserved! in the incense-befogged corridors of a Midwestern convention center—well, to me that seems a little like bullying the skinny, bespectacled dork on the playground.

I tend to roll my eyes at tales like Brown’s and Stone’s, but they don’t make me nervous.  When conspiracy stories start accusing groups that are relatively powerless in practical terms of hiding the truth, or perpetrating hoaxes, or exerting occult and improper influence over the unsuspecting rabble, then I feel obliged to start clearing my throat.  If the implicated groups are made up of harmless managerial-class dissenters like Shakespeare scholars (or for that matter environmental activists, the favored late-90s-post-Communist-pre-terrorist bogeymen of  contemptible hacks like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton: a particularly hilarious premise for those of us who actually know environmental activists, and understand that they’re unlikely to accomplish a successful mass mailing, never mind world domination), then I think it’s sufficient to simply mock the offending conspiracy yarn, the way I’m mocking Anonymous now.  When the alleged conspirators are groups that are broadly disempowered, and are defined by ethnicity, religion, gender identity, national origin, etc. . . . well, then it’s not really funny anymore, is it?  I’m not remotely suggesting that Anonymous is guilty of that—but the irresponsibility of its approach is the same kind of irresponsibility.

There is also, with Anonymous, the problem of narrative mode: i.e. the manner in which screenwriter Orloff and director Roland Emmerich choose to present their tale.  More specifically, Anonymous dispenses with a frame narrative—which is to say the story of de Vere’s conspiracy is the only story it has to tell.  Terrible though it may be, The Da Vinci Code doesn’t suffer this shortcoming: Dan Brown has the good sense to keep his pseudohistorical esoterica strictly confined to his book’s backstory, while all the action in the present involves the unmistakably fictional adventures of his Indiana-Holmesian protagonist.  (In other words, while Mary Magdalene—understood by Christians to have been an actual person—is a key figure in the book’s plot, she is not a character in the book.)  Although JFK is played in a far more urgent and sincere key, we should note that it too uses a frame narrative: it’s presented (at least initially) not as the story of a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy, but of the efforts of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison to uncover and prove that conspiracy.  The closest thing to a frame narrative Anonymous has, however, is the what-if-I-told-you teaser prologue spoken by Derek Jacobi.  (Who also played the non-diegetic narrating Chorus in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V!  And who’s also an outspoken Oxfordian!  See?  Evidence accumulates!)

This absence of a frame narrative might not seem like a big deal, but it is.  In a conspiracy yarn, the use of a frame accomplishes a couple of important things: first, it creates a point of entry for the audience, a detective character who’s (almost) as ignorant of the conspiracy as we are, and who’ll walk us through it as she or he figures it all out.  While this character’s constant exclamations of eureka! and/or this goes all the way to the top! may grow tiresome, they perform the useful function of signposting the audience’s own reception of the conspiracy as it unravels.  Second, a frame narrative allows some critical daylight to creep between the story and the peculiar theories that make up its content.  This fictional ambiguity—an ambiguity that’s present in the audience’s experience of the narrative, not the kind that materializes outside it, when some jackass screenwriter backpedals in an interview—has the effect of critically engaging us, and making us work to get out in front of the story.  Is this conspiracy just something that the main characters believe in, or is it literally true in the world of the narrative?  Is this story pulling our legs, or do its makers really expect us to buy into this stuff?

Thanks to its frame, The Da Vinci Code can function effectively even for readers who aren’t prepared to get on board with its swipe at orthodox Christianity; I think we can safely assume that the 80 million people who own a copy haven’t wholeheartedly embraced the gnostic gospels.  In purely functional terms, Dan Brown’s conspiracies are MacGuffins; the linchpin of his plot could be the Golden Fleece or the toothbrush of Odin as easily as the Holy Grail.  JFK—which is both more overheated and more serious about what it’s doing—handles its subject conspiracy in roughly the opposite way: as it becomes clearer and clearer that not only the fictionalized Jim Garrison but also the film itself both really believe and really want us to believe that the historical JFK assassination was in reality a vast antidemocratic plot, the Garrison narrative begins to recede and collapse (along with Costner’s accent—zing!), and the illusionistic continuity of the fictional world is repeatedly ruptured.

Oliver Stone famously characterized JFK as a “counter-myth” to the official account, which it really isn’t: it’s a fictional depiction of the Clay Shaw trial that gradually transforms into a polemical documentary heavy on speculative reenactments.  The term “counter-myth” could be better applied to the all-but-frameless Anonymous, which doesn’t bother to depict the uncovering of the Oxfordian conspiracy, but only the conspiracy itself.  Anonymous doesn’t argue for de Vere’s authorship of the plays, nor does it display any understanding that that’s the sort of thing that might need to be argued for; instead it just presents de Vere’s authorship as part of a series of plot events, which may or may not correspond to some extra-filmic historical record.  Were I convinced of Anonymous’s sincerity, I’d be inclined to regard it in sort of the same way I do contemporary Christian music—i.e. I’m not especially inclined to entertain its initial assumptions, I’m irritated that it seems to assume that I am, and I’m therefore not able to set those considerations aside and just enjoy the craftsmanship of the product, such as it is—but Anonymous is not sincere.  And were I convinced of its insincerity—if I thought its aim was just to make a little mischief with history and literature, in a manner akin to that of, say, Shakespeare in Love (which fills in gaps in the Bard’s scant biography without coloring outside the lines), or monumental goofs like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, or even an honest-to-god masterpiece like Brad Neely’s (NSFW!) “George Washington”—well, then I could muster some respect for it as harmless entertainment, something clearly not intended to mislead or confuse anybody.

But with Anonymous, of course, sincerity and insincerity aren’t even on the table.  It doesn’t make sense to ask whether the film really believes the story it’s telling, because the film itself doesn’t know and doesn’t care.  In keeping with its extraordinary lack of narrative and rhetorical ambition, its only goals are functional: it wants the extra jolt of adrenal seriousness that comes from rooting its story in supposed real-world events, but it’s unwilling to surrender the freedom to make stuff up . . . and its bookkeeping regarding what among its contents is factual versus speculative versus full-on fictional appears to be slapdash and/or nonexistent.

That being said, I might still be willing to let Anonymous pass in silence if irresponsibility were not so central to its project.  I thought, for instance, that Braveheart was pretty stupid on the whole, but at least its tagline was “Every man dies, not every man really lives,” rather than “What if William Wallace was the illegitimate father of Edward III?”  I guess I’m also bugged by the fact that unlike other conspiracy potboilers, which generally take historical events as their raw material, Anonymous is a dramatic work that wants to function as a gloss on yet another body of dramatic work, essentially laying its cuckoo’s egg in the well-feathered Shakespearean nest; this amounts not to boldness but to laziness.  It also seems to position Anonymous as a successor to, and possibly a substitute for, the plays of Shakespeare: all that gnarly iambic pentameter sure is tough to parse, but thanks to Anonymous we now know that it’s just a bunch of coded propaganda intended to sway contemporary court intrigues, and we can comfortably interpret it—and dismiss it—as such.

Parting shot, disguised as a clarification: in the foregoing paragraphs I have made comparisons between Anonymous and conspiracy stories like The Da Vinci Code and JFK to the detriment of the former; I hope I have been clear that my intention has NOT been to endorse the latter.  Conspiracies are like the potato chips of the narrative food pyramid: very appealing, fleetingly satisfying, and nutritionally void.  Unless a particular conspiracy story is robustly, voluptuously fictional—willfully impossible to take seriously, and therefore more concerned with the nature of truth and knowledge than with its chosen posited cabal or plot (I’m thinking here of a family of works that includes The Crying of Lot 49 and Foucault’s Pendulum, Twin Peaks and The X Files)—then its contribution to the culture is probably a net negative.  Even if their intentions are honorable, such stories always encourage us to think of history as something to which we’re spectators: a few of us can rattle off all the players’ stats from memory, while most of us spend the whole game trying to flag down a beer vendor, but all of us are stuck in the stands while the real action happens on the field.

This is not an accurate or a productive way to understand the world.  The course of history is not generally set by small groups of scheming individuals, but rather by enormous impersonal institutions; we are not passive subjects, but active and implicated (if individually powerless, and generally unthinking) participants.  Power is invisible, sure enough, but it doesn’t maintain its invisibility by hiding; it doesn’t have to.  We willfully avert our eyes from it, or we fail to see it when we’re looking right at it.

In a piece that appeared in Z in 2004, Michael Albert does an admirable job of explaining the appeal and the limitations of conspiracy theory; he also presents an instructive contrast between it and what’s often called institutional analysis.  I suspect—and hope—that his piece has been widely circulated among the campers in Zuccotti Park, McPherson Square, Frank Ogawa Plaza, and Seattle Central Community College as they collectively plan their next move.  The Occupy protestors’ habit of identifying a particular human sin (i.e. greed) and/or a small group of individuals (i.e. the One Percent) as the perpetrators of our present international crisis has been rhetorically effective, but it’s kind of a philosophical dead end: sure, there are indeed scoundrels out there with a lot to answer for, but rather than heating up the pine tar and gathering the feathers, now seems like a good time to focus on the complex unmonitored systems that empowered and encouraged those scoundrels, and maybe even to try fostering some kind of broad and serious national conversation about the way we assign value to things.  To pick up that dropped baseball metaphor, rather than dissecting the weaknesses of the visiting team, or speculating about who’s been doping, it may be time to consider reassessing the rulebook and redesigning the ballpark.

If we’re to stand any kind of chance of doing that successfully—of doing much of anything successfully—we’ll have to cultivate and safeguard our capacity to sort through facts.  And by facts I mean, y’know, facts: independently verifiable data about conditions and circumstances, causes and effects.  You can’t make policy without facts; not honestly, anyway.  Twenty-odd years of a pretty-much-constantly ballooning economy proved to be a golden era for postmodern ideologues both left and right (although the pomo left mostly seems to have used its rhetorical chops for seducing impressionable undergrads, while the pomo right mostly used theirs to, like, invade Iraq and stuff), and made this notion easy to deny or forget.  The assumption always seemed to be that the value of ideas, just like everything else, is best proved in the consumer marketplace: what’s true is what polls best, what goes viral, what pulls in the best ratings, and to suggest otherwise was to reveal oneself as a member of the pathetically outmoded “reality-based community.”  (That’s a shot at Dubya, of course, but Clinton governed more or less the same way.)

And this cavalier disinterest in facts, of course, brings me back to Anonymous.  What’s most troublesome about the movie isn’t that it’s a 130-minute-long lie, it’s that it doesn’t bother to lie: unlike the Oxfordians, who make their feeble case by means of citation, quotation, and coincidence, Anonymous aims to convince via bald-faced assertion amped up with fancy production design and ample CGI.  Anonymous seems to suggest—even to declare, by means of its de-Vere-as-Shakespeare-as-propagandist premise—that this is how ALL history is made: not by contest or argument, but by spin and obfuscation and special effect.  This thesis might not always be mistaken, but it should never be regarded as acceptable.

Wait wait wait wait, some of you are now saying.  You seriously just blew 3500 words trash-talking a movie you admit you HAVEN’T SEEN?  If you haven’t seen it, how do you know it’s bad?  To which I’ll respond—just as I have said in the past—that whether the movie is any good has nothing to do with the point I’m making.  I’m not saying Anonymous is BAD.  I’m saying it’s EVIL.  Dig?

In other, me-related news, the latest victim of my short-fiction campaign is Joyland, the awesome web-based literary magazine published by Emily Schultz and Brian Joseph Davis.  If you aren’t familiar with it, Joyland is to my knowledge unique among litmags in that it publishes work from throughout North America, but is curated regionally by several geographically-dispersed editors.  As a current Chicagoan, my story falls in the domain of Midwest editor Charles MacLeod, and it seems appropriate to thank him for encouraging me to get off my ass and send him something.  (K and I know Charles from our extended honeymoon in Provincetown.)

The story of mine that’s up at Joyland is called “Seven Names for Missing Cats;” it came about while I was in grad school in early 2004.  I was studying at the time with the novelist Jane Alison, who is a genius of the highest order and who is very good at fostering an atmosphere that’s conducive—at least it was for me—to reassessing the core principles underlying whatever it is you think you’ve been doing, writer-wise.  With “Missing Cats,” the object of the game was to write a story that omitted as many standard narrative operations as possible, or anyway left them up to the reader to create, or infer; it’s probably the thing I’ve written that I am most happy with, and I’m grateful to Joyland for giving it a home.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2011 3:37 pm

    Thanks for this insightful posting. It gave me a chance to think out exactly what it is that bothers me so much about conspiracy theorists: it is the inherent laziness of the conspiracy mentality. It is a wholesale adoption of a developed theory that you had nothing to do with. The cachet is that it is a minority opinion. This gives you not only satisfaction of being in the know about something that only a handful of ‘enlightened’ people like you know, but it allows you to cast the the non-believers as naive.

    We can be sure that the vast majority of the Oxfordians have never done any of their own research into the matter, but have just adopted the predigested rants put out by so-called scholars looking to make a name for themselves. Honestly, if these theories were the product of rigorous research and testing they would no longer be theories. We believe in a heliocentric solar system now because the science adequately upturned the previous earth-centered model of the universe. The same can’t be said for displacing The Bard.

    A personal note on the ‘Shakespeare didn’t write them’ theory: A few years ago I was talking to David Bevington, the great U of C Shakespeare scholar. His view of the matter was extremely interesting. He says that this way of thinking only came to the fore in the late 19th Century and was inseparable from the rise of psychoanalysis. One of the predominant tropes of this early period was the Oedipal killing and replacing of the Father. Who is a greater father figure to writers and readers than Shakespeare? He had to go!

  2. April 19, 2012 9:29 pm

    Wonderful comparison with both JFK and the DaVinci Code. However, Anonymous does provide more of a framing device than merely Jacobi’s weakly phrased Eli-Cash-style “What this film presupposes is: maybe he didn’t?” Although it’s not depicted throughout the film like the Costner narrative, the frame of Anonymous is that Jacobi is speaking to an audience in a New York theater, and the actors to be seen in the rest of the film are shown on the same stage as Jacobi, behind the curtain, preparing for their imminent performance.

    At first I was just surprised by how blatantly the film presents its story as a fictional play intended for entertainment, not historical scrutiny. But then, the rest of the movie explicitly portrays the plays-known-as-Shakespeare’s to have been intentionally written as political propaganda to whip up the mob onto one’s side!

    On one hand, then, Anonymous plays only by the same dirty rules as it alleges its subject did, while nodding to the proscenium arch frame of so many films of plays. On the other hand, Anonymous not only fails to endorse its suppositions with claims of sincerity, but actively relinquishes any posture of credibility by drawing a methodological if not moral equivalence between itself and the cynical historical revisionism it supposedly exposes in Richard III.

    I don’t mind insincere conspiracy theories, like Transformers 3’s version of Apollo 11, so I was pleasantly surprised by how effortlessly Anonymous sabotaged its true-believer sources with such an implicitly self-undermining frame. Like the DaVinci Code, the film does more to remind us of the affinities between conspiracy theories (this one included) and Hollywood storytelling conventions than to lend any plausibility to its premise. Although the film is too fatiguingly humorless to be recommended as enjoyable, I can appreciate it for driving several nails into coffin of anti-Stratfordianism (in the popular mind at least) because it treats the theory as a cheeky pitch for a sensationalistic thriller rather than encouraging it to be taken seriously. Finally.

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