"Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy" (Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, $26). It's best not to buttonhole Barbara Ehrenreich and ask her "what's the big idea" -- not unless you're prepared for 320 pages of fascinating research and analysis. She's got one -- an idea big and radical enough to plop this book squarely in the tradition of radical Big Think '60s books like Norman O. Brown's "Life Against Death", Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media" and Herbert Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man."
She's still functioning as a reporter in "Dancing in the Streets" (don't, by the way, look for Martha and the Vandellas or Motown here, despite their relationship to her title). This is not the kind of personal account "Nickel and Dimed" was but rather about the intellectual grip of a big idea exhaustively researched -- the big idea being that, as she finally and most succinctly puts it "the capacity for collective joy is encoded into us almost as deeply as the capacity for the erotic love of one human for another."
It is the Western tradition to frown on collective ecstasy and Carnival and yet, in Ehrenreich's-eye-view, the celebrations of Woodstock and the painted face, shirtless whoopings of the screamers at NFL games are as much a part of human civilization as love affairs and libraries. She insist on it despite the fact that Freud, for instance, preferred not to mingle with what Ehrenreich calls the "lower-class revelers" at a town fair, opting instead for "an hour's chat nestling close to one's love" and "the reading of a book."
Which is all well and good except that ecstatic rites and collective joy in the West extend from before Bacchus to the Who and the Superbowl -- and can always be exploited by fascist rallies. To Ehrenreich their ancestry is in the French Revolution ("A fascist rally in Rome or Nuremberg, the British Queen jubilee celebration in 2002, a small town American Fourth of July celebration -- all owe their basic form to the official festivals of the French Revolution.")
Let the likes of Elias Canettti figure the poetry and metaphysics of it all in "Crowds and Power," she's here to prove her point through good old journalistic research.
Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (edited by Antonia Lant with Ingrid Periz (Verso, 872 pages, $39.95 paper). An important first here -- an immense and inclusive anthology of women's writings and statements about movies from their first half century of existence. You'll find everything from poems by H. D. to arch cryptogrammatic utterances by Djuna Barnes to Katharine Anne Porter's espousal of favorites to Janet Flanner (in 1918!) observing simply that so much of "what we know. . . of brigandage, holdups, kidnappings and even of love" comes from Western movies, a condition unchanged almost 90 years later in the world of TV police procedurals.
Flanner is only one of many surprise delights encountered here. Actress Madeline Carrol in 1931 (!) observes that "there is something wrong in the fact that the talkies are almost exclusively man-made entertainment."
And then there's aesthetically forward-looking Sarah Bernhardt, in 1914, casting an admiring eye on movies but complaining that cinema is worse the more it tries to "imitate the theater and reproduce famous plays."
This is a massive and precious and unexpected sourcebook.
-- Jeff Simon
NOTE: Fred. R. Shapiro, editor of "The Yale Book of Quotations," assures us by e-mail that while it's true -- as mentioned in a previous Editor's Choice -- that "everybody wants to get into da act" is not directly attributed in his book to Jimmy Durante himself, it indeed shows up on page 627 amid 24 "radio catchphrases" and is attributed to "the Jimmy Durante Show."