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J.W. McCormack's reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Books Daily, The Baffler, Bomb, Vice, and The New York Times.

If Only There Were Someone Who Would Listen

An engraved illustration image of the prophet Jeremiah lamenting over Jerusalem.

J.W. McCormack | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,167 words)

Imagine, if you can bear it, that we were sired and came of age in a world where all the works of antiquity had perished, leaving us with no Homerian sense of saga, no anguished Euripides or blood-spangled Oresteia, and few myths with which to orient ourselves. Now imagine we began to recover the Bible, and all its storied variants, book-by-book, in hastily translated installments, hot off the presses. Imagine a whole culture thrilling, for the first time, to the horrifying faith of Abraham at the binding of Isaac, chilled by the fate of Moses in the desert, riveted by the tearjerker hermeneutics of Job, and following the rise of the prophets as they struggle to maintain their faith in a fallen world like it was Dickens-at-his-peak or the Marvel Universe or Game of Thrones. Experiencing the original doorstop systems novel, we readers would be party to a renaissance in what story can and should be, our critical lenses refitted for new eyes through which to see the world. Of course, naysayers would argue that the planet and its creator are too seriously at odds for such an engagement with the substance of scripture. “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly,” wrote Kierkegaard (expressing a sentiment I imagine could apply to more than just Christians). And one of Martin Buber’s inaugural assumptions in I and Thou is Mundus vult decipi, “the world wants to be deceived.”  Read more…

Defeating the Celluloid Axis

Charles Chaplin Film Corporation / Bettmann / Getty

J.W. McCormack | Longreads | August 2018 | 9 minutes (2,429 words)

Here is what we know for sure: in mid-September of 1932, the actress Peg Entwistle, who had galvanized the young Bette Davis to pursue acting after Davis witnessed Entwistle in a Boston production of The Wild Duck, climbed the Hollywoodland sign (years before the sign would be bought by the Parks Department, the last syllable jettisoned) and jumped to her death from the top of the H. In Hollywood Babylon, arcane filmmaker-turner-tattletale Kenneth Anger gruesomely referred to the her as the “skydiver Peg Entwistle” opposite a photograph of an unknown, topless blonde woman.

It’s understandable. By the time Anger published his chatty, often spurious volume of gossip, few readers would have known the difference. Entwistle had appeared in only one film, RKO’s Thirteen Women, unreleased at the time of her death and in which her starring role as the rapacious and lesbian-coded Hazel Clay Cousins had been mercilessly reduced on-set to a mere cameo (still, it could have been worse; only 11 women survived the final cut). And yet, Peg Entwistle’s outrageously on-the-nose suicide would become a kind of synecdoche for L.A.’s glut of broken dreams, placing her firmly among the very first of the tragic blonde bombshells that Hollywood would chew and spit out over the course of subsequent decades, and confirmation for the tabloid-buying public that the movies were an amoral industry, ruinous to female purity, and fatal to those who chased success on its terms while being blinded by its lacquer, froth, and Satanic illusions.

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