A proposed book chapter (forthcoming on Palgrave-Macmillan, I guess) just got the thumbs up. At some point I promised this:

“The Pick-Up Artist and the politics of virtuosity, or, “Has anyone ever told you that you have the rhetoric of an Erasmus and the delivery of a Reagan?””

James Toback’s The Pick-Up Artist (1987) references the director’s previous film Fingers (1978) through its doo-wop soundtrack, its focus on a nice boy in conflict with the mafia, its inclusion of Fingers stars Harvey Keitel and Danny Aiello, and most powerfully through its investigation and querying of virtuosity. Whereas Jimmy Fingers’ failure as a musical virtuoso and turn to violence reflects the reduced economic circumstances of late-1970s New York, The Pick-Up Artist’s protagonist Jack Jericho, played by Robert Downey, Junior, finds that his verbal virtuosity can create abundance – a discovery very much in tune with the “Morning in America” narrative provided by the Reagan administration. Fingers and The Pick-Up Artist both end with a showdown between a potential virtuoso and a mobster. Instead of Fingers’ desperation in the form of the failure of a man who “works with his hands”, The Pick-Up Artist presents the 1980’s triumph of rhetoric and financialization in the mouth of a virtuoso, Robert Downey, Junior.

We should thus read The Pick-Up Artist as a sequel to Fingers – one that reflects a belief in virtuosity very much informed by the former film’s historical moment and the particular skills of its lead actor. Jack Jericho believes – and Downey proves, through the force of his charisma – that the virtuoso deployment of rhetoric can and does create what he desires. In this way, The Pick-Up Artist not only represents the difference between the Carter years and the Reagan era in terms of virtuosity, but deploys that change as a solution to the major problems people face, and the means to provide unlikely but satisfying happy endings.

What the abstract doesn’t mention is that much of my argument is based on the ways in which the rhetoric of pick-up artists does exactly the same thing as Reaganite conservative. That is, pick-up artists use a version of neuro-linguistic programming which not only prefers to think about how to change how you think about material conditions rather than how to change the actual material conditions, but also uses what in political discourse gets called dog whistles.

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