The Art of Reviewing: Cintra Wilson (Part One)

Every blog needs a large-scale project. The Art of Reviewing will explore reviewing as an art form and as a valuable element to understanding society.  During this project, I will profile specific reviewers of merit.  Several specific cases also explore other facets of reviewing.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson was a columnist at Salon, retail reviewer in the New York Times Fashion & Style section (Critical Shopper), and lately political columnist (the C-Word), appearing in the New Haven Advocate, the Hartford Courant, and the Fairfield Weekly.  Wilson also authored the ferocious cultural commentary entitled A Massive Swelling: celebrity re-examined as a grotesque, crippling disease and other cultural revelations.  Imagine the bastard love child of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag.  Imagine Antonin Artaud, but with better fashion sense.  Imagine Vivienne Westwood in print, both the Vivienne Westwood the punk rock fashion terrorist and Vivienne Westwood the Neo-Victorian artificer of haute couture.  If you can imagine these things, then you can imagine what reading Cintra Wilson is like.  She is a rara avis that can slaughter pop culture sacred cows with intelligence and wit fueled by genuine outrage while bringing the usually staid, incestuous maelstrom of contemporary political commentary cast through the darkly comedic lens of pop culture.  Whether it’s reading about an Ike Turner concert or about the latest idiocies of the Beltway, she possesses the singular talent to piss you off while making you laugh.

A Massive Swelling: Illuminations for the Ill Communications Set

My first encounter with Cintra Wilson was reading A Massive Swelling.  In the book, Wilson covers everything from the cultures of Las Vegas (“Las Vegas – Death Star of Entertainment”), Los Angeles (“As a Dog Returneth to Its Own Vomit, So Doth L.A.”), beauty pageants (“Jump Through the Flaming Tire, Honey … Thatta Girl”), and Bruce Willis (“Crossing Boundaries: Towards a New Hermeneutics of Dumb Pimps like Bruce Willis”).  Written in the halcyon year of 2000, the book is a “yowl in disgust” at the alleged superiority of the famous.

The outrage emanating from A Massive Swelling originates in neither the dour unimaginative conservatism (“The kids these days with their hippidy hop music and their iPods.”) nor the cautious, inoffensive, jellyfish-like PC rhetoric of liberalism (“We can’t judge, because we aren’t from their culture/lifestyle/society/etc. ad infinitum”.)  Hypocrisy, lack of talent, and bad taste face obliteration in her rhetorical salvos.  The bombastic style buttresses with razor-sharp wit.  Unlike the beige prose that characterizes what passes for journalism in this country (invisible style to match invisible commitment), Wilson’s prose is purple and glorious like a drag queen brandishing a switch-blade to a bullying cop.

In the essay about Las Vegas, she describes Siegfried and Roy thus:

“Siegfried and Roy seem to best typify the kind of bizarre, hydrocephalic celebrity life that is possible to have only in Las Vegas; they are completely freaked out on a vision of themselves as beautiful New Age twin-alien butterfly emperors, and they are, through rude will, able to sell this myth to a huge cross section of humanity.”

The sentences of the essay resemble the hotels of Las Vegas: gaudy monstrosities that go on forever and shine with a vicious brilliance.  “Deep in Nevada, just like everywhere else, the face of Big Brother is that of Ronald McDonald, saluting in front of a taut vinyl American flag.”

“The rhythm of the streets of L.A. is the soundtrack of Faust performed by Yanni and John Tesh, and it sells zillions and zillions of copies.”  She describes Los Angeles as the “Mexican prison of art.”

When she attended a concert by infamous rocker Ike Turner, she rendered the account of his duet with a talented female singer in terms both sacred and profane:

“While she and Ike sweatily pawed at each other with viscous bedroom rhymes from across the stage, we felt as if we were watching the wings of an angel being dipped in McNugget sauce and chewed off by a team of alcoholics in raincoats, her halo tossed like an ultimate Frisbee into a churning lake of Shame.”

The only other place I’ve seen verbal bombast welded to social outrage was in the fiction of Alexander Theroux.

Critical Shopper: Commodity Fetishism in the Age of Apocalypse

In Critical Shopper, Wilson lends her trademark style to the éminence grise of respectable journalism, the New York Times.  Granted, the column is relegated to the Fashion & Style ghetto, but Wilson, like former theater critic Frank Rich, brings together tremendous erudition and a singular approach to an otherwise disposable area of the newspaper.  Unlike A Massive Swelling, the writing is toned down and cleaned up for the “family newspaper.”

The column regularly has her exploring the wares and characters occupying high-end fashion boutiques.  It is writing both steeped in and aware of its commodity fetishism.  She begins her description of the late Alexander McQueen’s boutique:

“Alexander McQueen’s designs strike me with such terrible love, I avoid the place — it crowbars the knees of my financial intelligence. I was in the shop once, several years ago. In a fit of design intoxication, I plonked down $500 for a perfect black pencil skirt, a reckless expenditure that launched me into nosebleeding panic for months afterward.”

(“Metamorphosis has a Price Tag,” Critical Shopper, New York Times, October 9, 2008)

Tiffany and Co.:

“Tiffany’s roots run deep in our nation’s history. Tiffany is as American as guns.  …  To accommodate a retail area, they fit an angular modern interior inside the original walls, almost like a stage set, where it manages to look both discrete and harmonious: a 1960s, butch-romantic Burt Bacharach habitat of glass, wood and mirrors, under a canopy of curlicues set into the vaulted ceiling.”

(“If Bling Had a Hall of Fame”, Critical Shopper, New York Times, July 30, 2009)

Each column ends with vital information about the store and three bulleted points.  These points distill the shopping experience into little knobs of Beckett-ian minimalism.  For Tiffany, there’s “Stiffany … Spiffany … Epiphany.”  For Barney’s Shoe Department it’s “Barmy … Belfry … Barfly.”

Wilson should be commended for reviewing shops, but adding the necessary critical gloss.  She routinely finds herself ensorcelled by the beauty and design.  Unlike a lot of her fellow citizens, drowning in debt, she knows the alienation caused by capitalism is a two-edged sword.  The desire for conspicuous consumption remains closely related to feral instincts and psychotic bloodlust.

Continued with Part Two at Coffee for Closers.

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