52 SONGS

...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Monday, March 10, 2014

6. American Hustle


I enjoyed writing little capsule reviews for the now-dead District Weekly. I was paid peanuts but had fun boiling down, in 75 words, why someone should see a revival Chinatown or Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

I wanted, as part of this lent project, to write about movies again, for whatever reason--maybe just to get more practice writing prose. So, when, a few weeks back, students in a class I taught read "How to Write a Theological Sentence," by Stanley Hauerwas, I was given some idea why I was not happy with the way American Hustle ended, which I had seen just before the reading: It was in the movie's syntax! Here's are some relevant passages from Hauerwas' lecture, where he talks about Stanley Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One:
...when Fish uses the word "organization," he means it in the strong sense that "the skill to produce a sentence - the skill of linking events, actions, and objects in a strict logic - is also the skill of creating a world."
... [Fish] insists that sentences are best understood as "logical forms that link actor, action, and the object of action in a way that makes available simple and complicated predications." He even argues in the early chapters of his book, an argument he will later disavow, that if you want to learn to write a good sentence it is better to pay no attention to content and attend to the structure of logical relations that can be catalogued.
The reason Fish disavows that last sentence is because the syntax, enacted in the grammar of a sentence, works on (and is worked on by) its content. Neither diction nor syntax "happens" in a vacuum. One of my favorite Public Enemy songs, despite a dated reference to Y2K and a weak Flav verse, is "He Got Game." In the chorus of the song ("It might feel good it might sound a lil sumthin'") the "game" is judged twice. [1] The first time: "damn the game if it don't mean nothin'." The second time: "Fuck the game if it ain't sayin' somethin'." The apparently more moderate term, "damn," is used to condemn meaninglessness. And to damn is a god's, not a person's, job, ground laid in the first verse ("My wanderin' got my ass wonderin' / where Christ is in all this crisis"). "Fuck," on the other hand, is used here to condemn empty speech, and that's something people--especially rappers--can do. The "F"-word gets its power here in part because of its rarity in PE's canon [2], and you get the sense that Chuck D, rapping several years after the gangsta revolution, is not only calling out the various cultures interrogated by Spike Lee's movie but those artists emptily exploiting tropes of gang- and drug-life. It also gets its power because, no matter how often the word is said in popular culture, it still signifies for most people forbidden or extreme speech. A term we're not supposed to say is used to rebuke verbal vacuousness. [3]

Despite the importance of syntax in the example above, its main power is diction-al. A pattern is established in the chorus ("damn the game") that is then, through a difference in word choice, disrupted. That disruption comes in the flow of a syntactical construction. A sentence I often say in poetry classes to help illustrate the importance of syntax is this: "I find a duck's opinion of me is very much influenced by whether or not I have bread." That's by comedian Mitch Hedberg, and the joke depends on the sentence "landing" on its last word, the spring that makes the sentence a trigger for laughter. The syntax mimics a kind of urbane sophistication in its clauses (that little "I find" at the beginning, or the formality of "is very much influenced by"), which is subtly undermined by the premise--the opinion of ducks. This is cocktail party banter in form if not subject, banter tinged with surreality by the presence of a single word, "ducks." [Hauerwas: "What we need to say theologically is that the truth is in the details, and it is the details that produce sentences that matter."] Rearrange the sentence, so that it begins with "Whether or not I have bread," and the comedy dies. In other, obvious words: Syntax matters.

Which brings me, finally, to American Hustle, a movie I enjoyed as I sat in the theater, but which bothered me after the fact. I was bothered most by its structure [4], which undermines its moral seriousness. A brief contextual rundown (and spoiler alert for those who haven't seen it): The most unambiguously "good" person in the movie is Carmine (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, who works an illegal political bribery scam with con-man Irving (Christian Bale) and his mistress, con-woman Sydney (Amy Adams). Both Irving and Sydney, unbeknownst to Carmine, are working as FBI informants. Carmine gets involved in the scam, the details of which are too complicated to include here and which I can't entirely remember anyway, largely to help his constituents, a mostly impoverished population whom he genuinely cares about. Carmine trusts Irving, whom he sees as a friend, having no suspicion that Irving is working a job that will put Carmine behind bars, away from his loving wife and children. It's clear, too, that Irving has affection for Carmine and feels badly about entrapping him, but, as is true of most anyone in a situation like this, Irving would rather use his informant status to avoid prison than go down for a friend like Carmine.

Here's where the problematic syntax comes in. When everything eventually blows apart, Irving goes to Carmine's house to tell Carmine that he's been duped and will shortly be arrested by federal agents. Irving honorably lays everything on the table, and in person. It's a painful scene, especially as it takes place in Carmine's home, and it involves a clearly saddened Irving confessing his own involvement in the scheme that's going to take Carmine from his family and ruin his political career and his chance to use that career to help a people he genuinely loves.

Several scenes follow, where storylines are resolved. Irving's estranged wife finds love and happiness, the various threats to Irving's life and well-being dissipate, and Irving and Sydney end up, in a beautifully composed series of shots, living "happily ever after." All the "words" of a serious movie are there, but the syntax makes the film, at the end, frivolous. Irving and Sydney's happiness has come at great cost--to others, not to them. They're able to be together, in their opulent comfort, because they were instrumental in sending Carmine to jail. Aside from a brief plea to have his sentence reduced, he is forgotten in the lyrical intensity of the last montage of scenes. Had Irving and Carmine's confrontation come a few minutes later, the movie might have made Irving's and Sydney's happiness more ambiguous, as all our material happiness must be, for someone somewhere is paying for it.



Notes:
[1] What's "the game"? You have to ask?
[2] Chuck D seems to admit this at the beginning of the second verse: "Damn, was it somethin' I said?" 
[3] It's hard not to see the use of the sample that is the foundation of the song, Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," as an ironic critique of the 60's rock generation's idealistic but ultimately "empty" speech about social change. 
[4] Though not only by its structure. In one of the last scenes, the mobster who has taken up with Irving's ex-wife thanks Irving for "doing" his boss "a solid." That choice in anachronistic diction takes me out of the late '70s, when the movie is set, and puts me in the oughts. 

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