Two Nobel literature prizes to be awarded after sexual assault scandal
The Nobel prize in literature will be awarded twice on Thursday, after the Swedish body that selects the laureates was engulfed in a sexual assault scandal that forced it to postpone the 2018 ceremony.
Among the favourites are the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, and the poet Anne Carson, both from Canada, the novelist Maryse Condé, from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the Japanese author Haruki Murakami and the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
The Swedish Academy, founded in 1786, is thought likely to try to avoid any controversy as it seeks to rebuild its reputation after the scandal exposed harassment, furious infighting, conflicts of interest and a culture of secrecy among its 18 members, who are elected for life and seen as the country’s guardians of culture.
The poet Katarina Frostenson was among seven academy members who left the body after bitter rows over how to handle rape accusations made in 2017 against her husband, Frenchman Jean-Claude Arnault, who was also accused of leaking the names of several prize winners.
The couple ran a cultural club in Stockholm that was part-funded by the academy, and several of the assaults committed by Arnault – who is now serving a prison sentence for rape – took place in academy-owned properties.
The academy has since made changes that it says will improve transparency, including allowing members to voluntarily resign, which they could not previously do. It has also pledged to review its lifetime membership policy and appointed five members to its selection committee from outside the body.
Seven new members have been appointed and a respected literature professor, Mats Malm, took over as permanent secretary in June after the resignation of his predecessor, Sara Danius.
The Nobel Foundation, which funds the literary world’s most prestigious prize, said the academy still needed to do more. “I think they can – and to some extent they have already begun doing so – act more openly than they have done in the past and I think that would be a good thing,” said Lars Heikensten, the executive director of the Nobel Foundation, who in May gave the academy the green light to crown a laureate in 2019.
“Our reputation is everything,” Heikensten said. “Obviously it is important to avoid this kind of situation we have been in and of course it cannot be repeated.”
A Swedish literary critic, Madeleine Levy, told Agence-France Presse: “The Nobel prize is for many now associated with #MeToo … and a dysfunctional organisation.”
It seems almost certain that at least one of the laureates will be a woman. The Polish writers Olga Tokarczuk and Hanna Krall, South Korea’s Han Kang, Joyce Carol Oates of the US and the Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya have all been mentioned as contenders. Only 14 of the 114 laureates since 1901 have been women.
Another male writer thought to be in with a chance is the Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu.
Previous winners of the prize include Bob Dylan (2016), Alice Munro (2013), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Toni Morrison (2003) and Gabriel García Márquez (1982).
One academy member, Anders Olsson, said the committee had looked for a more diverse shortlist this year and tried to move away from a “male-oriented” and “Eurocentric perspective of literature”.
Rewatching Taxi Driver in the Age of Joker
So wrote John Hinckley Jr. in 1981 before attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan at the Washington Hilton Hotel. He wrote it in a two-page letter to then-18-year-old actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed.
The public would soon learn why. At his trial the following year, Hinckley’s psychiatrists claimed that he’d been partially influenced to carry out this attack by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a movie about a man named Travis Bickle who attempts an assassination on a presidential candidate and becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old sex worker—Foster. Watching the movie, as Hinckley apparently did as many as 18 times, stoked an unhealthy fixation, or so it was argued in his defense. Toward the end of the trial, the jury was made to watch Taxi Driver in court, beginning to end. Hinckley’s counsel must have felt that this evidence, a piece of art, spoke for itself: With it, the defense rested its case.
It’s a famous movie; we all know how it ends. A roaring blood bath; three men dead. A camera slowly tracking through the carnage, craning upward to find a city in shock. And a bitterly ironic twist by way of a letter from the rescued girl’s parents, which informs us that the disturbed and disturbing Bickle, whose pathologies we’d been soaking in for the last two hours, had in the end been fashioned into a hero by the public. He became the avenging angel he’d sought out to be.
Maybe it’s possible to read this ending—if you don’t read it as a dream—as an endorsement of Bickle’s acts, or at least as a failure to critique them. You might even read it allegorically, as evidence that the excessive nature of Bickle’s crimes, to say nothing of his grotesquely bigoted attitudes, might still be found righteous by the public—even as a great number of us watch the movie and think Bickle is a hopeless case. Yet the movie always struck me as fairly unambiguous on the rottenness of its subject, announcing its intentions in broad, loud, literalistic (but sophisticated) tones.
That’s horror you’re hearing in the hard and heavy snake rattles of the score, the work of Bernard Herrmann—a noted Hitchcock collaborator. And while the film’s slow visual backpedal from its brutal climax may feel infused with awe, it isn’t worshipful shock I sense in its hypnotic gaze, but the petrified caution of terror itself. You aren’t meant to accept Travis Bickle’s methods, even if simplifying his reasoning to its bare essence—the world is fucked—appeals in the abstract. You aren’t meant to convince yourself that justice is what prevails in those halls awash with brain matter and blood.
It would seem Hinckley did. But Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity—so there goes his interpretation. And here, after a Thirty Years’ War’s worth of preliminary discourse, comes Todd Phillips’s Joker, which finally landed in theaters last Friday, and predictably sailed to the top of the box office, hauling in $234 million globally and counting. It’s a movie that wears its indebtedness to Taxi Driver, as well as Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, on its sleeve, down to cribbing specific shots and entire thematic lines, drawing power, all the while, from repeated reference to one of Taxi Driver’s most indelible images: a pantomimed bullet to the head. (This essay will contain spoilers from here on.)
It makes sense. These are films set in an earlier, dirtier era of New York, before the cleanup of Times Square, before the city’s crime rates nosedived under its severe “tough on crime” policies. They’re meticulous, inventive studies in mental disarray; both feature magnificent turns from Robert De Niro, who has a winking role in Phillips’s film, to that end. And both are models for the kind of story Phillips is paying homage to in his retro gloss on the tried-and-true Joker myth: hard psychological portraits in which, as in Taxi Driver in particular, the central antihero is as much a product of his environment as he is a deranged aberration from it. Taxi Driver’s is a world as dirt-choked and grimy as an exhaust pipe; you can see how it’d bear fruit like Travis Bickle. He’s society’s id—and also its worst-case scenario. He’s like one of those violent outcasts in the work of Fritz Lang—the child murderer M, or the Lipstick Killer in While the City Sleeps: men whose worst qualities feel eerily representative of the worst of all of us, in sum.
Phillips’s Joker feels representative too. This is a retelling which, like almost every take on this character of late, is powered by the culture’s love of his anarchic unpredictability, his lack of politics, his frequent silliness—only Phillips broodingly cuts down on the silliness. The strange thing is how hard it is to imagine this Joker metastasizing an equal but opposite hero in the form of Batman, even as Phillips peppers the film with indications that this will be so. But where does this Joker go from here? He has no game, no hijinks, only traumas and ugly feelings. The movie fills in the black hole of his origin—something usually left mysterious—with a story. But it leaves vague any real sense of how this guy is supposed to persist as the mastermind he traditionally is, the kind of guy a man like Bruce Wayne is, whether or not he’d admit it, supposed to fear. (I’m aware that I’m veering dangerously close to asking for an explanatory sequel.)
The new Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is—as the commentariat has suggested since at least the release of the movie’s first trailer—a riff on incels and other lonely, potentially dangerous men, or if not a riff, a peer in pain. Arthur Fleck, as he’s known, is a man failed by our social infrastructures. He was an abused child whose mother is also mentally ill. As an adult, he’s got a strange demeanor, a child-simple approach to the world that begins to give way to brutish anger. He’s also got a disconcerting behavioral tic: a condition that makes him heave with laughter even if he’s actually crying. He gets bullied seemingly wherever he goes and no matter what he does; one woman even scolds him for trying to make her child laugh. His angst is overwhelming. You sense the movie positing he’s merely one link in the citywide soul destruction of a struggling Gotham—a New York stand-in so angry and overrun with class injustice that someone could plausibly support the point-blank shootings of, say, three rich, white men. You also sense that Arthur’s peculiarities play a decisive role in this argument. The movie rightly grants him membership in a vulnerable political class, as anyone with a disability, or anyone beholden to the bureaucratic contingencies of social services, surely is.
If your theory is that a film like this might prove dangerous, the associations between Joker and Taxi Driver—thus potentially between Joker and Hinckley—prove no comfort. Never mind how strange it was for attorneys to wield art as explanation for a person’s insanity; the association is ominous. It’s been suggested for months now that the risk of Joker is that it might encourage real violence. It was assumed that this Joker would not only diagnose its central villain, it’d so overtly lay out this man’s feelings that any violence he enacted might, to the wrong sort, seem justified and worth reproducing.
This is logic I’ve struggled to wrap my head around—logic born of fear, which is itself born, at least in part, of amnesia. I was in middle school when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High School shooters, opened fire on their classmates and teachers, killing 14 people, including themselves, and injuring 21 more. It’s clear to me now that Columbine was the beginning of my political consciousness, the event that forced me to start asking my own questions, independently of anything I’d been learning at school or at home, about the world I was living in. And I was opening my eyes to the world at a time when art and media—violent video games, Marilyn Manson, trench coats, and every other variety of unfiltered cultural “evil”—had become scapegoats in our debates over gun violence, as if they were its source. Despite evidence to the contrary. Despite the obvious irony that though video games are a worldwide phenomenon, mass shootings are a disease practically endemic to the United States.
Isaw Joker—another worldwide phenomenon—twice. There’s no accounting for how people relate to or understand even the most didactic movie. But what mostly struck me both times was how rotely, how condescendingly, the movie animates the tortured soul at its center. This is not a genuine exploration of a very real, present social condition, despite a morose seriousness in the movie’s tone that would seem to imply taking the subject seriously. This is a movie that knows how far it can get by appearing to be serious and wears this as a badge of distinction. Yet it takes what’s wrong with Arthur Fleck for granted, telling us, for example, that Arthur takes seven medications while obscuring which medications or what they’re for, because the number of pills, paired with a convenient discovery of childhood trauma, is meant to speak for itself. Arthur’s illness is reduced to context, when, by all accounts, it’s the movie’s prime subject.
Joker presents us a world in which Fleck is constantly trod upon, and the movie is so singularly intent on proving this point that most every other part of his life, everything that isn’t a chance to reiterate Arthur’s trauma and psychosis, slyly evaporates from view. What seems like a sympathetic depiction is really just slick engineering. The movie’s explanations for Arthur Fleck’s mental state are only insightful in the abstract—fodder for anyone who wants to say that the movie is “about mental health” (or, even more preposterously, “about the America that gave us Trump”), because these things make the movie sound somehow more substantial, like more than the usual superhero fare.
But what’s there, really? I couldn’t fully articulate the movie’s lapses for myself until I rewatched its Scorsese influences this weekend for the first time in years. Comparison is unfair, but Joker invites the comparisons, and suffers for them. What stood out upon rewatching Taxi Driver, in particular, was how thoroughly conceived Travis Bickle is. He isn’t a mashup of character traits with a tragic backstory, like Arthur Fleck; we in fact know very little about his past beyond his military history.
Taxi Driver, as sharply written by Paul Schrader, avoids the psychoanalysis-lite screenwriting trap of childhood traumas that explain adult pathologies; these things don’t matter. What matters: the journal Travis writes, which gives voice to an inner monologue laying out his obsessions, his fixations, his ideas, things that surpass the basics of the “plot” as such, things that persuade us to see Travis Bickle as a furious, disturbed, but articulate mind. It gives us Travis at home, alone, with no one else watching: an animal in his own domain, freak flag fully flying.
Taxi Driver takes the risk that Joker was expected to take, but never really does: It is completely subjective. It forces identification, or at least a shared mental crawlspace, with its strange, off-putting hero. Travis Bickle is an insomniac, and from the film’s very opening moments, with the dank, vibrant streets of ’70s New York rolling into view, the entire movie flows, sleepless and hazy, from incident to incident. We get montages of the city streets, with the same people flying past Travis’s cab windows each night (“scum,” he calls them); we get stuttering shots of streetlights meant to convince us of their utter redundancy, of the fact that life for the insomniac can feel like going nowhere. And all of this is wielded to bind us to the terrifying spell of Travis’s demented state. It’s practically hypnotism; we’re seduced into seeing the world through Travis’s tired, increasingly manic eyes.
Which means we’re seduced into seeing the people in that world, the “scum,” the way Travis does. Look back to all the shots of black men, especially, in this movie: at the ways that the camera lingers on those faces in imitation of Travis’s own gaze. Look at the ways those black faces become more menacing over the course of the film, not because of anything these men have done, but because of the ways Travis’s mind has grown more severe, corrupted by his own fears and prejudices. This isn’t something anyone, not even Travis, has to say. You can feel it in the cutting, the shot selection, the controlled deployment of well-timed details—and in the way these choices work to reveal new territories of character, like spotlights blaring in a darkened room.
I look to these qualities and try to find where Joker does anything comparably complex, or whether it ever surpasses its simplistic moral and mental framework to include something, anything beyond the obvious. What mostly stands out are the ways Phillips has gassed his story up with a structural fake-out—a revelation that a relationship we believe exists does not, in fact, exist—and those jarring, fake-deep moments of Joker dancing, for which Phoenix is both admirably and unfortunately a bit too game. The depths are missing; the sense that Arthur Fleck is a fully-realized specimen rather than a tangle of actorly tics is not there, even if Phoenix is particularly good at those tics.
Joker shares Taxi Driver’s racial hangup, too: the rich men he encounters are pointedly white, a quintet of teens that beats him up is pointedly not, and a trio of black women—a social worker, a neighbor (played by Zazie Beetz), and an employee of Arkham Asylum—play small-to-pivotal roles in Fleck’s self-perception and, importantly, his dealings with bureaucracy. (Another black Arkham employee, played by Brian Tyree Henry, also plays a role.) The film ends with Joker walking out of a room with the blood of one of these women coating the bottoms of his shoes. He kills her, presumably, but the movie doesn’t show it; it doesn’t “go there.” Taxi Driver goes there: Bickle shoots a black man, who’s robbing a convenience store, in the back. One of the great tensions of the movie is whether he does this primarily because he’s racist and looking for any excuse, as he undoubtedly is, or because the man is genuinely bad, whereas he, the deluded Travis Bickle, has convinced himself that he’s good.
We were worried that Joker would inspire people in the wrong ways, and by the way, we’re still not quite off the hook for that. It remains strange that in an era like ours, which prizes relatability to the point of rendering everything alien, we should be so worried over people doing exactly what we keep asking mainstream art to make us do: relate. The mere idea that human lives might depend on an audience getting the right message from a film like Joker feels like the logical extreme of a culture that can apparently only make sense of art by making it about ourselves. I don’t really care that Joker isn’t as good of a movie as the Scorsese classic, which is a classic for a reason. I care that it has very little to say on a subject that matters and has wedded itself to that subject in ways easily mistaken for insight. The problem with Joker is that it wants to satisfy that urge—it wants us to see ourselves, or men we know, in the life of Arthur Fleck, and to sympathize accordingly—while having little to offer us. The problem with Joker isn’t that it wants us to relate: It’s that it doesn’t know a single thing about us.
The McRib is back again. Here’s why McDonald’s doesn’t sell it year-round
McDonald’s McRib is back again.
The fast food company announced Thursday that the barbecue sandwich will be available in over 10,000 restaurants as soon as Monday. But, McDonald’s said, the menu item will only be around for a limited time.
That’s by design. Seasonal items are an important marketing tool for the food industry, according to Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Limited releases almost give consumers a Pavlovian response. For example, when the weather turns colder, Starbucks customers habitually get excited about Pumpkin Spice Lattes. In November, customers come in to check out the new holiday cups.
“When you have these exclusive products, which exist for a short period of time, it gives people a reason to come to the store,” Chernev explained.
It’s not just Starbucks and McDonald’s that come out with seasonal specials: Dunkin’ announced a whole slew of pumpkin-flavored treats in August. As the holiday season gets into full swing, we’ll be sure to see Coca-Cola’s Christmas trucks, turkey sandwiches from Subway and more. In the spring, it’ll be Girl Scout cookie time.
For fast food chains in particular, which rely on familiarity, holilday items can offer consumers some variety.
“You need consistency because that’s the brand mantra,” said Chernev. “But no matter how much you like something, consuming something different … increases the enjoyment of what you consumed before.”
Chernev says it’s a neat marketing ploy: Although a specialty item may be exciting on its own, it can also remind consumers how much they like the basics.
Seasonal offerings can also give brands a chance to test a new product. When Starbucks announced the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte two years ago, it also unveiled the Teavana Pumpkin Spice Chai Tea Latte.
And Chernev pointed out that seasonal menu items mean brands have something new to talk about every quarter.
Starbucks has said that’s part of the rationale behind its seasonal drinks
“We strive to provide our customers with unique, seasonal offerings to celebrate each season, and customer response has been extremely positive to that,” a company spokesman said two years ago.
There are some basic supply-and-demand economics behind limited-time releases too: Scarcity can build hype.
“It’s a way to create excitement for the menu,” said R.J. Hottovy, a consumer strategist for Morningstar.
Items that might be popular for a few months probably wouldn’t generate enough year-round demand.
When the McRib debuted in 1981, it was a dud. McDonald’s pulled it from its menu four years later. Though it never achieved nationwide success, there were parts of the country where the McRib generated a solid enough fan base to bring it back every now and then.
Hottovy explained that sales typically rise for a short time when companies unveil seasonal items. But after a few weeks, that demand drops off after the core fans of the limited time product are satisfied.
So enjoy your McRib sandwiches while they last. And let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t want one in April.
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