Critics who set out to write about popular culture for the general reader will almost certainly have a tough time of it. Determining exactly who that reader is seems a Sisyphean struggle: How well versed is she in media studies? Is she prepared to forgo television and Facebook in order to read about their grander implications?
These and other dilemmas leap to the fore in This Is Running for Your Life, by film critic and essayist Michelle Orange. Five of the ten essays collected here—which originally ran in The Rumpus, The Nation, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among other sources—address the ways that film, the Internet, and music affect the imaginative capacities of viewers, users, and listeners. The rest are personal narratives inflected with Orange’s range of enthrallments: nostalgia, shared reality, time, death, taste, distraction. At her best, she writes generously and thoughtfully about the way mass culture molds the human heart, but sometimes she seems troubled by the specter of her audience.
Orange writes assuredly in the collection’s standout, “One Senior, Please.” The essay concerns the decline and death of her maternal grandmother, Rita, once a dedicated moviegoer, in her final years languishing in a remote nursing home. When Orange was a child, she and Rita were “movie buddies.” When Orange moves to New York to study film, Rita sends her reams of matinee tickets on which she has dashed off pithy, often very funny appraisals. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “Black Comedy—hard for a 90 yr old to follow but interesting. I liked it.”) Shortly after Orange becomes a film critic who sees countless mediocrities a week, Rita degenerates to the point of not being able to recognize her visitors. The narrative is an elegant consideration of a deeply personal loss into which Orange manages to sneak striking observations about the nature of memory, the challenges of aging, and the sometimes oblique ways “movies help us know one another.” The essay is bighearted, unsentimental, and very smart.
Other essays find Orange less poised. In “Have a Beautiful Corpse,” she looks at the American mythos of geniuses who die young and her own ambivalence about it, spooling her argument out of a childhood fascination with James Dean.
“We discount [the potential for catharsis in] our own participation in popular culture, as though great tragedies can only play out in repertory theaters or come clothed in togas,” she writes, and then rather inappositely cites Nietzsche’s views on tragedy—one among several confused invocations of cultural authority in This Is Running for Your Life.
Is the reader, like Nietzsche, judging Orange’s prurient interests like she seems to be judging the reader’s critical acumen? Well, yes. Even though Orange implicates herself when she uses the first-person plural, the diction here still makes the reader defensive: Hey, speak for yourself! At times like these, she seems spooked by her audience and its relative erudition.
Elsewhere in this same essay, Orange is less chastened by imagined cultural authority. As she seeks to explain the persistent link between art and suffering, she engages the writings of David Foster Wallace and Susan Sontag, together with a film review David Edelstein wrote for New York magazine and a speech Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert delivered at a TED conference. Were James Dean and Michael Jackson doomed to suffer and die for their art? Edelstein seems to think so, and so does Wallace, but Sontag and Gilbert both suspect the artist as martyr might be a contrivance. This choice of material and the nimble way Orange builds her argument from it amount to a thumbed nose at any snobs who might be offended by her assemblage of this strange coterie, and the piece is more interesting as a result.
Unfortunately, Orange’s problems with authority aren’t limited to her thoughts on celebrity death. In “The Dream (Girl) Is Over,” she rails against the cultural conditions that produced the whimsical cliché of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She gives special attention to how the immediacy and ersatz intimacy of the Internet have diluted the emotional transactions governing the relations between starlets and audiences, and diminished the potency of archetypes. Zooey Deschanel pales next to Marilyn Monroe because of the Internet, or something—“Dream (Girl)” is such a long and complicated essay told in such a pedantic manner that it’s difficult to follow.
“Film’s power to build and rebuild romantic ideals penetrated the core of human memory . . . itself a highly fungible storytelling concern,” she says. “What I am saying is that it is my solemn belief that I entered the world with the idea of Marilyn Monroe built into my dreaming mind, like a coiled box spring of memory beneath the mattress of consciousness.” The opacity of the consciousness mattress aside, Orange does make clear her penchant for alliteration: “Maybe this is what the poets warned about—Werther and Wordsworth and Whitman, all the wigged-out piners down the ages—maybe it wasn’t precisely petunias and print-media and high-speed rail they were worried about but this exact moment.”
As a steadily employed film critic—the ivory-billed woodpecker of the mediasphere—Orange is herself a certified cultural authority with plenty of interesting things to say. But her grand pronouncements can seem like bluster when there are so many of them stacked so close together.
Happily, the rest of the book is largely free of them. “Pixelation Nation: Photography, Memory, and the Public Image” is an especially deft and pleasing analysis of digital photos and social media. Elsewhere, she writes about cutting-edge neurological market research, running, and what it means to find resemblances between friends and celebrities. In “Beirut Rising,” the reader discovers Orange is the kind of person who travels to Beirut for fun—and who then proceeds to get a good read of its complicated cultural temperature. As it turns out, when Orange sets aside her preoccupations with cultural authority and lets her arguments speak for themselves, they can be quite engaging.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and a contributing editor at The Baffler.