Contrarianism Over Coffee

A conversation with Phillip Lopate

By Alexandra Warrick

Phillip Lopate wears many hats–he is a critic, essayist, poet, Columbia professor and lifelong movie-mad cinephile. Author of such compilations as the memoir collection Against Joie de Vivre and the lm criticism compilation Totally Tenderly Tragically, he has written on everything from the wild and unexpected connections between his youth and the screen, the ever-irritating habit of luxuriating in life, and the experience of ambitiously mounting a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a cast of middle-schoolers. Contributor Alexandra Warrick paid a visit to Lopate’s beautiful Carroll Gardens home to chat over coffee about contrarianism, irony, Instagram, the Columbia Spectator and the act of being a scholar of one’s own life.

The Blue and White: Let’s kick this interview off right with a little attack on joie de vivre! You literally wrote an essay collection entitled Against Joie De Vivre, that “knack for knowing how to live” that can be performative at best, and at worst outright insufferable. I think that the current incarnation of the joie de vivre junkie is the Instagram obsessive–people snapping pictures of wine and cheese spreads on marble countertops and gorgeous vacation vistas. Have you had much exposure to this flavor of joie de vivre? Why is it such a compulsion with today’s youth?

 

Phillip Lopate: No, I’ve stayed far away from it! I’m not on any social media, also, but I have a daughter who just graduated from college and so she can do all that. I myself am not really against joie de vivre—it was a kind of posture or dare. Sometimes it’s useful to take a contrarian position and see how far you can play it, you know. I mean, I guess I do feel that there’s a certain amount of pain and suffering that goes with existence and that people, especially Americans, who want to do away with it all, or don’t accept sickness and think that they should be healthy, you know, beyond death–that doesn’t jibe with my philosophy of life. I can have a good time in nature, or at a dinner party–now that I have written that I got it out of my system, you know! And I certainly take pleasure in various things. But I don’t need to broadcast it in an Instagram way.

B&W: While some use Instagram and social media to natter on about their knack for living, others use it as a visual record of sorts–a way to reflect. I personally have a terrible memory, which is why your work astounds me… the sharpness of your recollection of significant moments in your essays and, furthermore, how they may fit together makes me very jealous.

conversationlopate.jpg
Illustration by Kristine Dunn

PL: Well, let me just say that I have a writer’s memory, which means that there’s lots that I don’t remember, but I remember details or events that connect effectively to something I can use, you know. So it’s a memory that sorts itself out in order to be useful. But I have kept diaries all my life, actually, and sometimes I’ve consulted them in order to write something.

B&W: Would you say you’re a religious diarist?

PL: I’m not a religious diarist; I’m an agnostic diarist! But I keep basically writers’ journals, which means not so much a record of what I’ve done every day, just ideas, things that have perplexed me, maybe scenarios. Recently I sold all my papers to Yale to the Beinecke library, all my diaries–so now if I want to write about that period of my life, I have to go to New Haven and be a scholar of my own life.

B&W: That’s so trippy! An academic of your own past experience. “Phillip Lopate: The Phillip Lopate Academic”!

Do you nd your recollections ever becoming fuzzy, or do you ever feel unsure of your own retention and the images in your mind?

PL: There’s a lot of imagination in memory, and it doesn’t bother me essentially. I know that I’m not giving testimony in a court case. I’m just doing the best I can to retrieve a sense of what happened and then to shape it. Just in shaping memory on
the page, we are already subjectively distorting, and I’m not going to beat myself up for that. I’m just going to say, “Okay, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best we have, and I’m grateful for any memories even if they’re not completely accurate.”

B&W: Do you feel literary nonfiction as a mode allows you to apply overarching meaning to life when it perhaps feels without rhyme or reason and sort of existentially troubling?

PL: I definitely think that, in writing literary nonfiction, we supply meaning to a lot that would otherwise be random. We project meaning onto a lot of discontinuous material. Again, I don’t see anything wrong with that–you can choose to think that we’re living in a completely random, disconnected universe, or you can say, well, maybe there is some underlying meaning, you know? And something that art does is give us some underlying meaning. I sometimes feel that something has happened, and underneath it there’s a pattern. I’m looking for the pattern. It may be that there’s no pattern, but it suits me as a writer to pretend there’s a pattern and to try to bring it to the surface.

Sometimes it’s useful to take a contrarian position and see how far you can play it, you know. I mean, I guess I do feel that there’s a certain amount of pain and suffering that goes with existence and that people, especially Americans, who want to do away with it all, or don’t accept sickness and think that they should be healthy, you know, beyond death–that doesn’t jibe with my philosophy of life.

B&W: Your filmic essays are exquisite–you truly understand that lm informs life informs lm informs life… no film is watched in a vacuum. So Samson and Delilah and the Kids–wherein you compare biblical epics to the home life of your youth–is a great example, kind of an intricate web of connections. Where do you begin when trying to create this kind of map of a film’s connection to your life?

PL: Most artists have another art that allows them to map out, uncompetitively, their own sensibility. If I start to read a book by a contemporary and I don’t like it, I’ll probably put it down after ten pages. But as far as a movie’s concerned, I might give it a chance and watch the whole movie. I’ve loved movies ever since I was a boy, and they’ve taught me so much. One of the things that they’ve taught me is pace, and how a good movie can breathe–that it doesn’t have to be in-your-face all the time. Also, I guess on some level I go through life thinking about physical spaces as though I were filming them, you know? I used to do this when I was a teenager: I’d be at a party and I’d be very alienated and I’d think, “now where should I put the camera?”

B&W: Oh my god, yes, of course!

PL: So basically, I have this store of movies in my head and I’ve written a lot about movies as you know. I still write a lot for Criterion and places like Film Comment. Without even bothering to think, these movies pop into my head, you know. They do provide a sense of where I want to go, because some of my favorite movies have a sense of fatalism, you could say. They’re shaped, you know. I always look for that somehow. What I’m really looking for is a kind of wisdom, a kind of sense that–how to put it into words?–that things are not arbitrary, that, if you’re worldly, you can accept the amount of loss that is going to occur. That’s something that movies gave me.

B&W: So, uh—you were one of my early influences as a young writer and film essayist—or film essayist hopeful. So which writers and thinkers were yours when you were a Columbia student?

PL: When I was a Columbia student, and Columbia was a really pivotal experience in my life, I was first of all in love with the Russians–with Dostoyevsky, especially, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Gogol, and Chekhov. A writer like Dostoyevsky addresses adolescent anguish in a very direct way, you know? And I felt like he was talking about my family. Later on, I became more interested while still at Columbia in a more ironical way of writing, so I read Henry Fielding, I studied some of the English novelists like Richardson, Fielding and Smollet… these are writers who were playful and were not so sorrowful. I felt like, in my first few years of college, that I’d gone as deeply into the pit of sorrow as I’d wanted to go. Afterwards, I pulled back and started to become more interested in a more detached, ironical perspective. I took a course at Columbia in Diderot and Sterne, and they’re both very playful.

The other writer who was very important to me was Nietzsche. Nietzsche taught me to be a kind of guerrilla essayist, where you get in and you snipe and then you get out. You don’t have to sort of build up everything with these large clauses of cause and effect. You just kind of make your perception. It was true of Nietzsche and it was also true of a writer Nietzsche loved, Stendhal. I loved the way that Stendhal, instead of building up to a conclusion, would just…

B&W: He’d just throw the grenade.

When I was a Columbia student, and Columbia was a really pivotal experience, I was first of all in love with the Russians–with Dostoyevsky, especially, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Gogol, and Chekhov. A writer like Dostoyevsky addresses adolescent anguish in a very direct way, you know?

PL: These writers taught me really a lot, and my whole education at Columbia I think laid a good foundation.

B&W: In Anticipation of La Notte, an essay partially about your Columbia days, you mention that you picked Columbia partially because of a Flaherty revival it was hosting, a promesse de bonheur for the Morningside experience. You also participated heavily in the lm scene at C.U. What was that like, especially in the ‘60s, which was such a heyday for film?

PL: It was a heyday for film, and we would run into our professors downtown, but there weren’t many film courses! There were almost no film courses. So basically you learned lm on your own, which was great–it was like–there shouldn’t be courses in garage bands in college. You know what I mean? So basically you learned it on your own. And during the ‘60s, don’t forget, there were basically… at most 55, 60 years of filmmaking. That was a great incentive! You could kind of feel that, after a few years, you could see all the masterpieces that were acknowledged, let’s say.

B&W: Like…the canon.

PL: Yes, the canon. I was very interested when I was in college in film and jazz, and one of the things about both those areas of interest was that they both had short histories so you could feel that you could do it, you know?

B&W: That you could conquer the terrain!

PL: You could conquer the terrain. I got ahold of this book The Liveliest Art and I went about trying in a very methodical way to see all of the films that you were supposed to see. I was also seeing all the new films, and what was so exciting about the ‘60s was that you had the French New Wave, you had the Italians like Visconti and Antonioni and Fellini, and yet you had a lot of the oldsters who were still making films, like John Ford and Howard Hawks and Hitchcock. So it really was a very fertile period.

People were writing seriously about film; they were looking to film for philosophy in a way, which is funny because I would go to these films and take them incredibly seriously as if they were philosophical texts. And then years later I would meet filmmakers and directors and I’d think–they’re not so bright, they’re basically opportunists! They’re not really intellectuals. We were making believe that they were giving us the intellectual texts of our time, whereas they were thinking, oh, you know, I’ll just throw this together like a pastiche almost.

So perhaps we were overinvesting in film, the way people sometimes do now with pop music. They attribute too much meaning. What happened for me was that at first I fell in love with foreign film and was disdainful of American film, and then through Cahiers Du Cinema and French New Wave directors, they pointed me to Hollywood lm and then I fell in love with Hollywood film.

B&W: Yeah. For all its gloss, there’s so much in there that’s almost life-affirming. Even the clunkers are very like–you walk out all shivery, excited even though you’re like, “that was trash.”

PL: Exactly! Well, that was Pauline Kael’s argument in Trash Art and the Movies that there’s something to be said for trash. Recently I was at Skidmore and I was showing a film there, this Mankiewicz film called Letter to Three Wives that was really wonderful. And then someone said, “isn’t it a little trashy?” And I realized I couldn’t even see it was trashy because I loved it so much. And if you see movies from the ‘40s for instance, you’re not just seeing a story–you’re seeing the hats they wore and the dresses women wore and the way people inhabited masculinity or femininity…

B&W: It’s a time capsule.

The other writer who was very important to me was Nietzsche. Nietzsche taught me to be a kind of guerrilla essayist, where you get in and you snipe and then you get out. You don’t have to sort of build up everything with these large clauses of cause and effect. You just kind of make your perception.

PL: Yeah, it really is. I really started to become more in love with literature, and my sense was that, if I could attach myself to older literature, I could detach myself from the obsession with the topical, the edgy. I went in the opposite direction to a kind of anti-hip thing. Fielding became someone whom I really loved. And then I also realized that, if you write in an older, older way, that it will seem innovative because people have no memory anyway.

B&W: It just reminds me of– if you’re anti-hip, it wraps on around to being hip. That’s what punk is, basically. And now that punk is mainstream, the punk thing to do would be to wear New Balance sneakers.

PL: It’s impossible to keep up with the hip. So I would say that my friends at the time at the Columbia Review were much more invested in the cutting edge of modernism. There was something kind of bullying about that to me, so I said no, no, I don’t feel like going in that direction. Samuel Beckett was sort of like the reigning genius of the hour. So I just didn’t feel–I felt it was kind of too bleak for me, you know? It wasn’t amusing enough for me. So I thought, “I’m going to get off this train of the next best thing, and just do what interests me.” Of course, eventually I became very interested in essays, and essays are sort of a way of thinking on the page and evading narrative. It’s a very old-school form. They’re another kind of narrative. I would find in everything I was reading patches of essays; I’d read Balzac novels and suddenly there’d be three or four pages where he’s just describing the changing Paris or something like that. Tolstoy would have an essay embedded in one piece and so on. So I began to attach myself to the essay form.

It’s much harder than it looks. It seems to people that oh, well, you’re just rambling and it doesn’t necessarily have to have a concentrated form like a short story or a poem. But it requires a lot of deftness, it has a lot to do with tone and voice, creating a credible narrator on the page, you know? At the moment I’m engaged in a project, a really large project which is that I’m editing another big anthology on the American essay from the Puritans to the present. I’m reading all of American nonfiction literature, I’m reading all of it. It’s vast, and since my previous anthology, The Personal Essay, did so well, I’m hoping that these could be a kind of set, and that they could be adopted by colleges and universities, you know, and I can get some royalty checks.

B&W: Do you keep up with your old film-kid gang? If so, how have your relationships changed with them as your bonds reach a certain vintage?

PL: Mostly I don’t keep up with the old film buffs. But I keep up with film. That is, I completely don’t agree that lm is dead, or anything like that. Every year, I see a lot of really interesting films. I think that maybe they’re kind of becoming a niche art, but there still are wonderful films being made, very complex and interesting ones, so that’s the extent of my investment. A lot of the friends I have from the college days who were film buffs graduated to the ballet, the opera and so on… and I stayed in the trenches with the films.

B&W: This is for better or for worse–you mention seeing your bleak, depressing Columbia quarters as an underclassman as similar to that in Diary of a Country Priest–“blessed, poeticized” in their near-filmic squalor. Do you still have moments where this creeps up on you, where you see your life as a bit of a movie?

PL: There are moments, but I must say that I now resist the impulse to see myself as a hero in a film. My daughter goes to a lot of rom-coms, and she still wants her life to be like the rom-coms, you know? And I’m very suspicious of those narratives embedding themselves in our consciousness.

B&W: You wrote a piece on the terrible state of current cinema, “The Last Taboo: The Dumbing Down of American Movies.” That was in 1994–the year in which many of my friends and I were born. Have things deteriorated even further since then?

PL: I do think that that comes out of the whole Rotten Tomatoes and worst-film-festival things. I don’t think that the culture has gotten dumber–I think that it has remained at a consistently dumb level because obviously, when it comes to movies, you need a much larger audience than just a kind of intelligentsia. You’re going to try to appeal to something larger and sometimes that doesn’t have to be compromised but sometimes it does have to be compromised. But I still think that there are very able scriptwriters, directors, crew that bring an extra element of intellectual pleasure. It’s just like the elections–we elected our dumbest president–but it’s not the only thing that’s happening, it’s much more dialectical. There’s pushback against Trumpism, so we can’t just say the world is going to hell.

I don’t think that the culture has gotten dumber–I think that it has remained at a consistently dumb level because obviously, when it comes to movies, you need a much larger audience than just a kind of intelligentsia. You’re going to try to appeal to something larger and sometimes that doesn’t have to be compromised but sometimes it does have to be compromised.

B&W: As a cinephile, you’ve written that you’re not a walk-out kind of guy–you allow flawed movies to play out in a way that a bum novel cannot. Despite this, what’s a filmic plot convention you absolutely can’t abide, the kind that will hurl you out of the film?

PL: There are certain kinds of sentimentalities that I don’t like… actually, and it’s funny to say this to you, because you are a young person, but I don’t like movies where the young people are all sensitive and the adults all are dolts. It always bothers me when the adults don’t have a clue and the young people have all the clues.

B&W: Wishful thinking.

PL: Well, playing to a certain demographic, exactly–wishful thinking on the part of the young. It’s weird–any convention can be either obnoxious or could work. It depends on how much sophistication you bring to it. You can’t think that you’re the first person to use it.

B&W: I can tell you are passionate about cities and urban living. What’s your predominant haunt in New York and why? What would you call your base of operation?

PL: I mean, there are favorite places that I go back to again and again, the Lincoln center area. For years I was on the NYFF selection committee and I would go there all the time. I think my favorite institution in the city is the Frick Museum, which I really love. It’s a doable museum. I wrote this book Waterfront and I walked all around Manhattan and I’m quite familiar with the edge of Manhattan. I still like to walk around a lot. I’m still discovering New York because it’s in nite; a few weeks ago I walked out to Sunnyside, this neighborhood in Queens that Lewis Mumford lived in, sort of like a planned neighborhood with lots of alleys, things like that. It was really beautiful. I still want to explore. There are a few friends I do this with. It never stops being interesting. Walking is the thing to do in New York. When people come to New York and they say, “what should I do?” I say just walk around a lot.

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