Yes, I know. This happened within the last few days, followed closely by this and then, for God’s sake, this. I still say 2016 isn’t, as so many insist, The Worst Year Ever for high-profile deaths; not in my lifetime anyway.
I checked. Consider 1959, whose carnage all but commenced February 3 with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crushed and shredded by an Iowa plane crash. There followed the deaths, in no particular order, of Billie Holiday, Errol Flynn, Raymond Chandler, George Reeves, Mario Lanza, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lester Young, George C. Marshall, Carl “Alfafa” Switzer, Victor McLaglan, John Foster Dulles, Cecil B. DeMille, Bert Bell, Kay Kendall, Preston Sturges, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Vian, Sidney Bechet, Lou Costello…
Some of these deaths were untimely and unexpected, others weren’t. And go sit in a corner if you even think of responding with something like, “Yeah, but these were all OLD people…”
I can easily pull other, similar examples out of my memory bank, especially Bobby Kennedy’s “very mean year” of 1961 (Ernest Hemingway, Patrice Lumumba, Gary Cooper, Booker Little, Barry Fitzgerald, Dag Hammarskjold, Sam Rayburn, Scott LaFaro, Ty Cobb, James Thurber, Maya Deren, Dashiell Hammett, Grandma Moses, Chico Marx, Jeff Chandler, George S. Kaufman, Carl Jung…) spilling right into the following year (Marilyn Monroe, William Faulkner, Ernie Kovacs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benny Paret, Niels Bohr, Isak Dinesen, Myron McCormick, Charles Laughton, Franz Kline, C. Wright Mills…) and onwards towards 1966 (Lenny Bruce, Walt Disney, Evelyn Waugh, Bud Powell, Montgomery Clift, Frank O’Hara, Bobby Fuller, Richard Fariña…) and 1974 (Duke Ellington, Earl Warren, Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Ivory Joe Hunter, Frank McGee, Cornelius Ryan, Darius Milhaud, Chet Huntley, Bobby Bloom, Frank Sutton, Cass Elliot, Joe Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, Nick Drake, Richard Long, Cyril Connolly, Gene Ammons, Otto Kruger, Jacqueline Susann, Amy Vanderbilt…)
And I could go on like this forever. Do you know why? BECAUSE SO DOES DEATH, PEOPLE. Once you stop thinking of your own era as being, like, so totally unique, it helps make everything around you less frightening.
Repeat after me and say it over and over at night to help you sleep: Years don’t make us better or worse. WE make years better or worse.
With that in mind, I’d like to submit my own random, totally subjective list of the things that made 2016 not suck quite as much as you might otherwise believe. For one thing, it was, despite the prevailing socio-political landscape, a terrific year for African American culture, as many of the attached items will attest. And that will be as true of 2016 ten years from now as it is now, no matter what state the United States will be in by then:
Atlanta – Donald Glover’s masterly FX series about hip-hop life along the edges validated my long-held suspicions that there was something about its eponymous city that transgresses laws – or at least customs – of time and space. It’s a city where Justin Bieber is magically transformed into the bratty young black man you suspect he’s always wanted to be and where every single plan that an ambitious brother like Glover’s Earn can conceive is chopped up and pureed into unrecognizable, perplexing anomalies. Though he was writing about DJ Shadow this past summer, Greil Marcus could have been talking about Earn and his milieu when he described “a sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life – finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and realizing you were born there – the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against…[But] [b]y its end, yes – you don’t know where you are.”
Mahershala Ali – From Ali’s soon-to-conclude duty as Remy Danton, the lovelorn fixer-for-the-highest-bidder on House of Cards, one sensed coiled steel, contained explosiveness and intuitive graces that this actor could call upon for more daunting challenges. Didn’t take long for him to display these qualities when playing the year’s more conflicted criminals. As Juan, the neighborhood crack dealer in Moonlight, Ali lets you see both the smoldering menace with which he quietly asserts proprietorship over his network of mules and the deep, if enigmatic well of sympathy that allows him to connect with a bewildered, vulnerable boy bullied at home and at school for reasons he can’t fathom. For the smaller screen, Ali brought gray shadows and complex motivations to his portrayal of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Harlem crime kingpin and chief nemesis of the bulletproof hero-for-hire in Marvel-Netflix’s Luke Cage. He’s so persuasive at evoking a bad man convinced of his essential goodness that one felt a slow leak oozing out of the whole series after his departure. His dual triumphs make one yearn for more opportunities for Ali to play anti-heroes who can deal with the devil while doing God’s work.
O.J.: Made in America & The People Vs. O.J. Simpson – It doesn’t matter whether you preferred Ezra Edelman’s epochal, illuminating five-part documentary series for ESPN or the Scott Alexander-Larry Karaszewski dramatization which made heroes of erstwhile laughing stocks Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) without in any way mitigating the scorched-earth genius of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); all of which actors, by the way, won much-deserved Emmys. What both these vastly different approaches to a reverberating crime have in common is what they imply about the glaring inadequacies of day-to-day news coverage. You could argue that all the nuances, subtleties and socio-historical contexts available now to screenwriters and documentarians weren’t as easily accessible to journalists as when the actual Simpson trial was unfolding 22 years ago. But as the last election cycle proved, the 24-hour news cycle, whether on cable or through the Internet, barely bothers even to try thinking such things through. All we’re left with, then and now, are the usual bromides e.g.: It’ll be years before we know what really happened; There’s always more to the story; There’s more here than meets the eye…Blah…Blah…Blah…Whimper.
The Sport of Kings – From the great, relatively forgotten, but still very much alive (at this writing) African American novelist William Melvin Kelley, I recently found out that the word “race” derives from the medieval Italian “razzo,” meaning “any given breed of horse.” I’m betting that C.E. Morgan, a intelligent, imaginative and startlingly perceptive daughter of the Bluegrass State, was aware of this arcane connection when she wrote this novel about a Kentucky horse breeder whose attitudes about race roughly parallel those of the odious John C. Calhoun. He has his reasons, of course, and Morgan’s too conscientious a novelist not to take their full measure, however petty they are and however grievous their impact on others’ lives. His venom afflicts two of those lives. One belongs to his spirited, magnetic daughter who shares his obsession with creating the next Secretariat; the other belongs to a black ex-convict from the mean streets of Cincinnati hired to help train this super horse. I’ve pressed and imposed this novel upon others and yet I’ve been struggling to figure out why. One possible answer just now came to me through David Ulin’s retrospective essay about Double Indemnity for the Library of America’s “Moviegoer” site when he cites a quote from the movie’s coscripter Raymond Chandler: “It doesn’t matter a damn what the novel is about…The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Self-serving, I suppose, since Chandler’s reputation while alive was that of an innovative genre writer. Morgan’s novel, aiming for higher ground, isn’t about “practically nothing,” but about many things at once. Yet as with great writers of American noir such as Chandler, Sport of Kings surges and leaps heedlessly into big emotions and grand melodrama, which Chandler believed “was the only kind of writing that I saw was relatively honest.” Ulin pushes these points further by defining them as “conventions of the hyper-real.” I haven’t the time or the space here to get into the specifics, but if you can imagine what base-level 20th century American melodrama, whether practiced by realists or “hyper-realists,” can bring to 21st century issues of race and class, then you will understand why I’ve been bullish on this particular horse opera. I didn’t read Sport of Kings so much as submit to its power and it’s been too long since any new novel did that to me. (I was one of the judges who singled Sport out for the Kirkus Book Prize for fiction. If you can call it up, our citation is quoted here.)
The Arab of the Future, Vol. 2– Along with Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco and the late Harvey Pekar, cartoonist Riad Sattouf has helped establish the graphic memoir as the most innovative and affecting narrative art form to have emerged in the late 20th century. Given the relentlessly bleak news coming out of Syria in recent years, Sattouf, who once was a regular contributor to Charlie Hedbo, may be providing the most timely and poignant contribution with his autobiographical account of growing up between different cultures. In the first volume, avid, adorably fluffy-haired Riad is shuttled back and forth between France, where his mother Clementine is from, and the volatile Middle East of the 1980s where his Syrian father Abdel-Razek embraces the then-burgeoning Pan-Arab movement. In this second volume, covering 1984 and 1985, Riad’s family settle in his father’s hometown of Ter Maaleh as the country reinvents itself under the dictatorship of Hafez Al-Assad. The little boy must adjust to a new school with its fundamentalist dictates, corporal punishment and the usual highs and lows of socializing with other children, complete with bullying of an especially brutal and bigoted kind. In recounting these and other vicissitudes, Sattouf maintains his wit, balance and equanimity towards all his characters, even at their worst. This is especially true of his father, who is by turns insecure, pompous, clueless and frantic to fit into whatever future his homeland devises for himself and his family. As with its predecessor, the second volume of Arab of the Future makes you wonder how long it’ll be before Abdel-Razek’s dreams come crashing down. But even with that dire prospect, the warmth and wisdom seasoning his son’s rueful memories keep you hoping for the best for the Sattoufs while bracing for the worst.
Weiner— It’s odd how some things can both become dated and gain added significance in only a few months. When I first saw Weiner in the theater, it was early summer, Huma Abedin’s mentor was still well-positioned to be the next president and I came away from the documentary thinking mostly about Abedin’s inscrutably slow-burning gazes at the movie’s main subject who, for all his energy and earnest impulses to do good, came across here as he did everywhere else in the last four years: As an incurable narcissist, stabbing himself, scorpion-like, with his own…um…wretched excesses. I saw the film again on Netflix a couple weeks ago and somehow all that tattle-and-buzz about a man, his penis and social media don’t seem all that important when compared with the brazen lies and mendacity we’ve already seen in play so far from the incoming administration. This time around, what was far more important to me were all those brown and black people occupying the periphery of the action who kept shouting at the TV cameras and their enablers to stop yammering about the man’s dickishness and concentrate on what needs to happen in their neighborhoods to make them better. Wouldn’t it be something if this documentary ended up signifying both the peak and decline of the Age of Gossip and Innuendo? As. If.
Lemonade & Daughters of the Dust – It now seems like forever and a day since Beyoncé dropped her “Formation” video into Super Bowl Week festivities the same way you imagine a visitor from the future, unrecognizable to present-day eyeballs, dropping in on the Iowa Caucus. The 24-hour news cycle chewed its immediate impact to tiny bits until there was little left to the astonishment but empty bluster and gaping bemusement. My own reaction was something akin to: Damn. It almost looks as if Julie Dash directed this badboy! Those of us who cherish Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, her gorgeous 1991 cinematic tone poem set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia Sea Islands have spent the intervening years keeping track of her movements and looking for signs that the movie wasn’t forgotten. And while Dash didn’t direct the “Formation” video, or any of the others emerging from Bey’s daring, insurgent album, Lemonade, there were enough resonances from Daughters to summon a movement to get an enhanced edition of the film out and about to art houses throughout the country. Because Daughters occasioned the first four-star review I ever gave as a Newsday movie critic, this convergence of cultural forces was the happiest I can remember.
Hell or High Water – As I’ve babbled to several people till I bored my own self, I wasn’t at all bullish on movies this year. (The worst of the summer blockbusters, in my opinion, gets its definitive raking-over here by the ever-engaging critical thinkers over at HISHE, who once again outclass what they’re critiquing.) I suppose I’m an incurable aficionado of the mid-to-late-1970s wave of gritty American cinema. And while I think this badlands chase thriller from David Mackenzie wouldn’t necessarily stand out among the glorious products of 40-something years ago, it offered elemental pleasures similar to those movies’: a taut-wire storyline that wastes no time; dry, cool dialogue that likewise goes about its business in real time and no-sweat laconic performances that play changes like a cool jazz combo. Coolest and driest of all is Jeff Bridges in his best performance in years as a Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers aggrieved by the economic unpleasantness of recent years. I also quite liked Chris Pine as one of the robbers, though unlike some reviewers I don’t think he quite steals the movie from Bridges so much as shares the win in the end. If you’ve seen it already, you know there’s added implication in that previous sentence. If not, what the hell are you waiting for?
The Liberation Music Orchestra Redux – It all keeps coming back to Chicago at whose jazz festival this year I saw Carla Bley leading the revived Liberation Music Orchestra founded almost a half-century ago by the late Charlie Haden. He’d spearheaded a restoration of the 12-piece band a few years back, but his failing health prevented him from pressing ahead. Bley, who’d been with the orchestra at its creation as both pianist and arranger, picked up the ball and carried on Haden’s dream of focusing the orchestra’s progressive agenda on ecological issues. The Chicago set included pieces from the album Time/Life (Impulse!) whose playlist includes Bley’s multi-textured tribute to Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” The timing of their return is all-too auspicious and I have a sinking feeling that global warming may soon end up being among many things they’ll be compelled to make music about.
Comments Off on Ten Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t (Quite) a Total, Absolute Steaming Heap of Raw Sewage
Here’s what I liked most about last year, period. No added explanation necessary, though you’re going to get a LOT of it as we move along. So without further ado, in no particular order, etc…
Black “Black Comic” Novels
I’m already on record declaring this to have been a banner year for African American writing, especially in this sub-genre. So I have only a few things to add: 1.) I wish I could have found a way to have included in my CNN piece God Loves Haiti, Dmitri Elias Leger’s cunning and deeply moving romantic roundelay set against the backdrop of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake though 2.) what I really wish for is a the chance to have met Fran Ross, author of Oreo, if only to reassure her, as others had before she died in 1985 at age 50, that she was neither alone nor wrong in her artistic foresight and socio-cultural insurgency. 3.) If Paul Beatty’s cheeky, incendiary and laugh-out-loud Sellout had gotten even half of the attention afforded Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, we’d all be a lot further along than we are now because 4.) these and many other novels, poems and memoirs are so far ahead of where everybody else is on race and culture, especially what used to be called “The Press,” that their authors don’t have the time or the patience to look behind them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch up…and I’m not feeling especially hopeful about those prospects as I write this, especially today.
Comic Book Superheroes on TV
MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES
You could probably fashion some kind of algebraic formula out of this theory and make yourself quite obscure, in more ways than one: Something about the comic-book superhero genre diminishes whenever contemporary Hollywood seizes one of its properties and blows it up on for big screen while, on the other hand, the smaller the screen, the greater weight and dimension are allowed for these stories. It could just mean that there are better people writing for television than for movies; a thesis that may not need too complex an algorithm to prove. Whatever the reason, TV, with or without its water-based delivery systems (clouds, streams, etc.) has provided the only superhero “product” (I really need to slap myself stupid every time I use that word) with depth, breadth and, most especially, shadows. I’d previously thought the DC stable led the way by several lengths with Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and its latest sweet surprise, Supergirl. But with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, for all its on-the-fly tinkering, still seems as though it’s fumbling in its pockets for magic and momentum), the Marvel Universe caught up big-time by going urban-neo-noir on Netflix with both Daredevil and the remarkable Jessica Jones coming at you as if every Law and Order episode came down with a severe case of the DTs. (And yes, that is a MAJOR compliment!) The relative success of small-screen super-heroics evokes simpler times when the original TV Superman was charming and cheesy while the first TV Batman was campy and cheesy and both took themselves seriously without being too solemn. Maybe the Fantastic Four franchise, having whiffed in two multiplex-targeted incarnations, would be better off lowering its expectations and looking for a cloud, or stream, to carry it forward. Or not.
I suppose there was a small part of me that wished Todd Haynes had given in to his inner Douglas Sirk with as much abandon as he had in 2002’s Far From Heaven, his previous exploration of “forbidden love” in the 1950s. There were many critics, even those who otherwise praised this movie, who felt the same way. The more I think about it, however, the more I believe Haynes was correct in opting for a mood of smoldering insinuation and rectitude since those are qualities most associated with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, from which the movie is adapted. She is a writer I will never love as much as I admire – and even then, from a shivery distance. If the movie leaves one cold, well, so did Highsmith. I’m not sure if anybody else could have done the material justice as well as or better than Haynes. Maybe the younger Kubrick since the movie at times evokes a colorized version of his 1962 take on Lolita; or, even better, the Alfred Hitchcock who made such gauzy dreams out of Vertigo or Marnie.
To Pimp a Butterfly(in the approximate, or relative context of Straight Outta Compton) –
The overlap of Kendrick Lamar’s most variegated testament (thus far) with F. Gary Gray’s astonishingly successful biopic/infomercial about N.W.A. made one ponder how much things have changed, if at all, between “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model/To a kid lookin’ up at me/Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money” and “…[T]he world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done.” The latter quote from Butterfly is, of course, more contemplative and lyrical than the more belligerent assertion of “the strength of street life” from the 1988 album that gives Gray’s movie its name (and, really, its reason to exist.) Yet both these statements, and the records they come from, are stalked, even haunted, by the vulnerability of black lives as framed within the seemingly impregnable “White Problem” in America. Their shared response, in so many words: This is who I am, mothafuckas!! Deal with it because you got to change before I do! Both Butterfly and Compton (the album) also share the imperative to sound like nothing else that came before them. And their respective makers have profited from that make-it-new impulse; though it’s clear from both the movie and the story it tells that N.W.A. has gotten over with its members’ sometimes harrowing practice of rugged individualism while Lamar’s still probing for something deeper and more messianic to carry himself and his listeners to a new, yet-to-be-defined phase of The Struggle. The real bridge between these two works is Lamar’s “Alright,” which stomps in with the “Gangsta Gangsta” swagger before morphing into an assertion of self-worth powerful enough to have made the song an anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement – and, potentially, of movements, or just “movement,” to come.
There were so many shattering revelations and shameful double-dealings in this series’ third, and best, season that one feels derelict in highlighting only one episode. But the season’s ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was one of the peaks of series television, not just of the year, but also of the century so far. Its main action takes place in a repair shop late at night where Elizabeth and Phil Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russia’s most stylish spy tandem, have taken a broken mail robot to dig out some needed Intel. An unexpected surprise materializes in the form of an elderly woman (the great Lois Smith) who was married to the shop’s original owner. She’s just as surprised to encounter the Jennings and her bewilderment gradually evolves to a weary acknowledgement that she will not survive the night. Her presumptive executioners share in the gnawing awfulness of the situation especially Elizabeth, who attempts to ease the woman’s impending fate with some intimate, reassuring conversation about family life and then with an excessive injection of drugs. It’s an interlude that makes the audience feel somewhat like intruders – and co-conspirators. Even in a golden age of cable television drama, no other series could pull off such an emotionally searing sequence. I can’t wait to see what the fourth season’s going to submit for our approval.
It took a while for me to cozy up to Bloom County in its original 1980s incarnation. At the time, it seemed as though Berkeley Breathed’s strip was trying too hard to conflate an assortment of influences from Peanuts to Pogo, from Lil’ Abner to Doonesbury (especially) without developing a clear identity of its own. I also thought the comedy was too schematic and not terribly interesting (i.e. aging frat boy Steve Dallas hurling brazenly sexist overtures to super hot feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow. Quelle Topique!) By mid-decade, though, the strip established its own blend of down-home whimsy, magical realism and soft-boiled satire distinctive enough to win a steady, fervent following – and a Pulitzer Prize!
Of course, The Penguin had almost everything to do with it. Breathed knew this since Opus was, for a while, the only character who made it to two sequels following the strip’s closure in 1989. This past July, Breathed came out with a made-for-social-media revival of Bloom County with deeper shadows, broader effects and the same antic impulses. Smartass savant Milo Bloom and his irresolute, monster-haunted school chum Michael Binkley have barely aged beyond pre-adolescence while Steve Dallas is still a self-loathing dick and (thus) a Trump supporter. Binkley has fallen in unrequited love with an enchanting pint-sized yogi named Abby. Bill the Cat is still…Bill the Cat, only more so. And Opus is very much the sun around which the rest of the cast revolves, if not evolves. I didn’t know how much I missed having these guys in my life until I started catching up with them on Facebook. And when I say the shadows are deeper this time, I refer to a recent storyline involving a small boy with an apparently life-threatening illness to whose elaborate space-opera fantasies the Bloom County gang caters. Breathed says he has no intention of bring his troupe back to newspapers and I think it’s a wise move on his part.
I still wonder, though, whatever became of Ronald-Ann Smith from Breathed’s Outland sequel strip. Is she the same age as well? Or did she grow up to become a semiotics professor at a Midwest college? I’m in no hurry to find the answer. I’d rather invent my own.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
My favorite documentary of the year may well be the most balanced, comprehensive and intensely felt history we’ll ever get of its oft-misunderstood topic. Director Stanley Nelson’s companion piece to his comparably thorough and illuminating Freedom Summer (2014) deftly weaves all the scattered, twisted fragments of Panther history from the group’s epoch-making, armed-to-the-teeth appearance at the California legislature (which resulted in then-governor Reagan signing the country’s first gun-control legislation) to its think-globally-act-locally agenda that both scared and thrilled the rest of America to its active harassment under the odious COINTELPRO scourge to its violent confrontations with police and the murder of Fred Hampton – who scared authorities, it’s clear here, more for having his political act together at a very young age than for any largely imaginary danger he posed to civilization. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the internal friction among the Panther hierarchy – and he’s taken some heat for doing so. But none of whatever happened between Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others diminishes one’s abiding admiration for what this cadre tried to accomplish – or the persistence of what they challenged, against terrible odds, almost a half-century ago.
When Kristen Wiig left Saturday Night Live in 2012, I almost did, too. She gave the show a jolt of danger reminiscent of John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and (yes, even) Adam Sandler. As these examples suggest, such bomb-throwers are rare and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come along that soon to provide a similar did-I-really-see-that buzz to the franchise. Then this ball-of-fire roars into 30 Rock’s fun house and once again, America’s on the edge of its seat wondering what this crazy person will do next. She had me, so to speak, at Justin Bieber. But her take on Hillary Clinton so thoroughly and scarily encompasses the aspects of Madame Secretary’s personality feared by millions that you feel your own worst imaginings being held at gunpoint. (And that they deserve to be, too.) Madame Secretary’s appearance on stage with her perversely avaricious doppelganger was one of the show’s highlights, as much for showing the real-life candidate’s impressive composure in not breaking character, or breaking-up during the routine; something that couldn’t be said for Ryan Gosling a couple shows later. Enjoy her while she’s there because, if past history is any guide, she’s going to get so huge that she’ll outgrow the fun house.
Philip Levine & James Tate
Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that two of my favorite poets passed away during 2015. They seem utterly incompatible at a glance: Levine’s poems were engaged with the grit, heartbreak and elusive epiphanies of blue-collar life while Tate was a deadpan emperor of ice cream who revealed strangeness in familiar things while exalting familiarity in strangeness. Yet reading their poetry gave me frissons similar to the contact highs I used to get from seeing American and European movies more than forty years ago. As I emerged from the theaters of the 1970s, my immediate surroundings attained sharper definition and broader possibility. Good movies, great art and fine poetry induce such rapture and, with the latter especially, you are grateful for those bright flashes of grace and insight whether delivered by the cosmos or summoned from the sidewalk. You need both perspectives to function as a human being, otherwise what’s it all for? Don’t answer. Just listen to Levine working up the nerve to dive into a reverie by declaring: “I place my left hand, palm up before me/ and begin to count the little dry river beds/on the map of life” (“Blue and Blue” from 1994’s The Simple Truth). And dig Tate hard when in the title poem from his 1972 collection, Absences, he neatly sums up the autobiographical impulse: “A child plots his life to the end; and spends the rest of his days trying to remember the plot.” Whenever you lose a poet (or two), you gain renewed diligence to respect the things not readily seen, including all the poets who are still around to sharpen the landscape.
Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.
Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)
Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this
Scarlett Johansson –I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.
Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown– The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.
FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)
The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.
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It’s Sunday afternoon in the Universe and one of the appliances in my apartment insists on telling me that football is back. I change the channel to make it stop, but there are at least several other voices on other channels screaming the same thing. I flip over to Turner Classic Movies, which is showing Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and I could swear Cary Grant is telling Joan Fontaine that football is back. (Probably trying to make her crazy or paranoid or something…)
Once upon a time and not all that long ago, I would have been tingly and warm all over with the idea of football being back in my life. But I’m not feeling it so much now. Given what’s been happening with professional football over the last few years, I can’t imagine any sentient being with any degree of empathy embracing block-and-tackle football with unconditional love and abandon. Fear and loathing may be closer, but still too extreme in the other direction.
Speaking of fear and loathing: Hunter S. Thompson once characterized pro football as “a hip and private kind of vice to be into.” He was, at the time — 1974 – applying those words in the past tense since by that time, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle had already been referring to professional football as “The Product.” Thompson yearned for his version of the good old days of watching the 49ers play at decrepit Kezar Stadium in the mid-1960s “with 15 beers in a plastic cooler and a Dr. Grabow pipe filled with bad hash” while trying to avoid the mean drunks looking for reasons to punch somebody out, especially if the Niners were losing, as happened frequently in those days.
But even in those funkier times, pro football had already become a “Product” with competing brand names (a.k.a. NFL vs. AFL) willing themselves toward merger through the irresistible might of television revenues. The outlaw mystique that Thompson pined for was by 1965 already being nudged aside for what would, by the country’s Bicentennial 11 years hence, become a family-friendly franchise of hype and muscle itching to spread its influence beyond the USA’s boundaries.
The astonishing rise of the National Football League from sandlot outlier to global money machine remains the prevailing narrative of American-style football, a bedtime story the management class loves to hear before drifting back to sleep. You can tell, though, that even the NFL begins this season more nervous and self-conscious about its own standing.
What’s been called “the health crisis” is the biggest factor and the cumulative effect of concussions on pro players’ lifespans isn’t the half of it. (The league’s ham-handed attempts to degrade, if not outright lie about the evidence are even worse.) But what that scandal has done most tellingly is widen the space for scrutinizing other discomfiting aspects of America’s Game that are killing or, at least, muting the buzz of unconditional fandom.
Against Football(Melville House) is written by Steve Almond, who describes himself as a long-time and, more recently, long-suffering Raiders fan. It’s probably a given that he writes this silken-swift j’accuse more from sorrow than anger; though he still sounds pretty mad at the NFL and, in equal measure, with “the two disparate synapses that fire in my brain that when I hear the word, “football”: the one that calls out, Who’s playing? What channel? and the one that murmurs, Shame on you.” This is from his introduction. He has me at “Hello.”
Almond goes on to debunk, among other things, the fallacy of the league’s “socialism” based on its revenue-sharing policy, which, through “a canny form of market manipulation” along with deft congressional lobbying allowed the NFL to circumvent anti-trust regulations. He also stretches open, to wince-inducing degrees, the homophobia, sexism and racism, conscious or otherwise, that fester beneath the sleek, supposedly more humane surface of 21st century play-for-pay tackle football. One chapter is entitled, “The Love Song of Richie Incognito,” which, given the story behind that name, sounds like a movie worth making, if not seeing. Another chapter title, “Their Sons Grow Suicidally Beautiful,” is taken from a James Wright poem about football (the best such poem from an American) and takes up the myriad ills of “amateur” football at all levels; not least of which the manner in which the collegiate game has become little more than a feeder system for the pro league in both manpower and added publicity, which, at this point, it can never get enough of. (I’m kidding.)
These and many other defects tabulated in Against Football aren’t exactly news to those old enough to have read the first-hand accounts of such renegade players of the sixties as Dave Meggysey, Bernie Parish and Peter Gent. But because Almond’s book is aimed as much as his own psyche as it is at ours, the passages that sting the most delve into the psychology of football fandom. He quotes, from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, how the book’s autobiographical surrogate “gained…the feeling of being alive” from watching Giants games in dive bars. “His hero,” Almond writes of Exley, “looks to the Giants each Sunday to awaken him from the spiritual stupor of his life. That could be religion – or addiction.” (Italics added.)
I envision millions of people who hate the game but love a fan in their lives nodding their heads in rueful recognition of this phenomenon. And yet neither Almond nor I have easy answers as to whether being ambivalent about the game, but watching it anyway is a more destructive equivalent to substance abuse than loving the game while completely ignoring its moral and ethical lapses. That the question is posed at all raises this book above the level of a mere screed.
As trenchant as Almond is, he remains solicitous and compassionate throughout towards those whose devotion to football remains absolute. At one point, he quotes a close friend who, upon hearing of the book Almond intends to write, implores, “Please don’t take this away from me.” Towards the end, he’s utterly abased by a conversation he has with a young woman, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan who tells him that football “was what kept her connected to her hometown, and to her dad especially.” Guess how low he felt when he answered her query as to what his book was about.
The Eagles. They do seem to inspire a river-deep-mountain-high devotion in their fan base. I spent eight years living and working in Philadelphia and though I was never converted to the Eagles cause (I do think you need to have grown up there to truly belong), I appreciated the city’s collective investment of passion somewhat more than those who from a distance view Eagles fans with varying degrees of alarm. Having interviewed those fans in full fury (and illumination) against their team, I can say that while they can be…how to put this…vivid in their expressiveness, I felt very safe in their company – as long as I never told them that I’d grown up in a Giants household. Such intense devotion along with a substantial historic legacy in professional football deserves more than one measly championship in the last 55 years to show for it.
Ray Didinger grew up an Eagles fan and spent most of his professional life writing about them for at least two local newspapers. He walks the walk, talks the talk of the true fan, but he’s so much more composed and rational about his engagement, which makes the second edition of The New Eagles Encyclopedia(Temple University Press), revised by Didinger from the 2005 edition he’d composed with the late Robert S, Lyons, both an invaluable tonic for the stressed-out Eagles follower and an absorbing read for anyone who savors colorful history and folklore, no matter where it’s from or what it’s about.
To pluck one example from many: Didinger’s chapter, new for this edition, about the team’s rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys. OK, OK…like, almost everybody has a rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys; at times, the Cowboys even hate themselves. But with the Eagles, it’s as if there are festering internal injuries that haven’t healed with time. And Didinger, who’s got the memory of an intelligence agency’s deep-background file system, reaches back to the mid-1960s when the two teams traded a series of wins and losses that climaxed with a jaw-breaking, teeth-severing clothesline tackle on Philadelphia running back Timmy Brown by Dallas linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. Eagle partisans maintain to this day that Jordan’s hit was late and cheap. Jordan insists otherwise. What Didinger characterizes as a “blood feud” was established from then on.
Brown, for what it’s worth, retained sufficient enough use of his oral equipment to have to a respectable career as a screen actor. (He’s in Nashville! Singing!) But in the context of this species of football book, physical injury is just the spoke on a wheel whose hub is the process of professional athletics itself. And even at a time when thoughtful people are coming to grips with their long-term affection for a brutal sport, Didinger’s book reminds you that devotion to a team and the people who live and die with its every game isn’t the only thing to think about when thinking about football. But for many people, it’s everything…and, much as some of us may disagree, enough.
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Baseball books don’t need my help, or anybody else’s. There’ll always be waves of rhapsodists and elegists waxing year after year about the aesthetic virtues and time-tested verities of what used to be The National Pastime. Football books are another matter. For whatever reason, the literary/intellectual muse can’t get as revved up by what is now certified, for better and worse, as America’s Game.
A example, slight, perhaps, but mine own: In the 1992 Norton Book of Sports, edited by that would-be quarterback George Plimpton, there are roughly 70 stories, poems, essays and book excerpts covering baseball, boxing, basketball, horse racing and even skiing. Football, by my count, gets just three items. (Just saying…)
People give lip service to the idea of “beauty” emerging from the jolting, amoebic flow of a block-and-tackle football game. But most of the books published about that sport seem to have more to do with business than with beauty. The sport itself is often used as a metaphor for corporate culture with CEOs imagining themselves as the true legatees of Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, the heart and brain, respectively, of football coaching Valhalla. The push-pull collisions get taken as analogies for the rest of us working stiffs sticking our heads into the morass for the risk of reward and, as has become distressingly clearer in recent years, the reward of risk.
Rarely do I encounter a printed account of a breakaway run or a two-minute drill as lyrical as, say, John Updike’s oft-anthologized valedictory to Ted Williams’ final at-bat. But there may be built-in limits as to how best such moments can be persuasively rendered on a page. Baseball prose is allowed to bend and pitch to Mozart-ian levels; Prose about boxing, since we like stretching analogies till they scream in pain, can, at peak performance, surge ahead like a big-band swing orchestra blasting away in 4/4 time on a printed page.
The best, most evocative writing found in Football: Great Writing About the National Sport (The Library of America) comes across like vintage rock-and-roll with varied applications of blues, country and even a little gospel. Because I happen to know that the anthology’s editor John Schulian is a knowledgeable patron of blues and country music, I suspect he did as much reading with his ears as with his eyes when choosing selections. Even the elegies (Frank Deford’s homeboy-from-Ballmer memoriam to Johnny Unitas; Wright Thompson’s “Love Letter” to Ole Miss football; John Ed Bradley’s impassioned reverie about walking away from playing days at LSU) emit streaks of syncopated roughhousing. (“Unitas” Deford writes, “was some hardscrabble Lithuanian, so what he did made a difference, because even if we [Baltimoreans] had never met a Lithuanian before, we knew that he was as smart a sonuvabitch [sic] as he was tough. Dammit, he was our Lithuanian.”)
Schulian’s jukebox carries lively, varied selections that dare you to mix them around at will. You can punch up vivid reminiscences of pro football’s primordial days from gypsy leatherhead Johnny Blood (as rendered by the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope) or watch as Richard Price struggles to shake free of goddam-Yankee self-consciousness before entering the lair of Alabama demigod Bear Bryant. Coaches, generally, are the strangest of all the characters in this anthology, whether it’s George Allen, blustering and fidgeting his way through New Year’s Day 1968 after being ash-canned by the Rams (His daughter Jennifer is affectionate without being indulgent towards her dad’s fulminations) or Tom Landry, an oracular icebox of contradictions and piety who both bemuses and exasperates Gary Cartwright.
The editor’s own portrait of the greatest of Philadelphia Eagles, Chuck Bednarik is so richly textured that you stop regretting that he didn’t include the all-but-definitive description of Bednarik’s shattering 1960 tackle of Frank Gifford found in Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a segment of which otherwise shares space in this collection with chapters from Paper Lion, the aforementioned account of George Plimpton’s adventures in training for exhibition football; Instant Replay, Green Bay offensive guard Jerry Kramer’s journal of the Packers’ last championship season under Vince Lombardi and Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s by-now-canonical examination of playing out the fall season at a Texas high school.
Of the articles from magazines and newspapers selected by Schulian, I’m especially partial to the flamboyant deadline artistry Dan Jenkins deploys in his wry dissection of the hype-deflating Greatest-Tie-Ever-Played between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966 and to the consummate reportorial chops Arthur Kretchmer shows in his 1971 account of an up-and-down season in the career of the Chicago Bears fabled middle linebacker Dick Butkis. All the game’s elements — the harsh drudgery of practice, the moments of grace emerging from the sloughs of serial bashings, the grim spoils of brutality and their stoic acceptance by players – are contained and elucidated in Kretchmer’s masterly profile, whose closest counterpart in baseball is Al Stump’s landmark account of Ty Cobb’s final desperate days (even though Kretchmer’s subject is far less psychotic, if almost as mean.)
One feels like an ingrate to submit a qualm or two. Still, I wish Schulian hadn’t locked out entries more fictional than Exley’s novelized memoir. It would have been intriguing to see how the climactic football game from Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H* would have stood with this crowd along with that venerable warhorse from Irwin Shaw, “The Eighty Yard Run” and some metaphysical hors-d’oeuvres from Don DeLillo’s End Zone.
Also, speaking from a racially chauvinistic perspective, I would have liked some representation in this book from such influential African-American sportswriters as Michael Wilbon or the late Ralph Wiley, whose gaudily Kafka-esque examination of O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence (though it likely doesn’t belong here anyway) remains for me the most thorough and persuasive dissection of that sordid episode in American celebrity jurisprudence.
But as George Blanda might have said if he were doing a commercial for Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, I can’t kick about a collection whose rapture over the written word and romance with a endangered species of sports journalism don’t prevent it from acknowledging, as Schulian writes in his introduction, the “storm clouds hanging over both the NFL and the NCAA” that are “bigger than any before them.” The collegiate clouds, mostly having to do with both abuses of NCAA rules and the association’s often myopic efforts at enforcing them, don’t get taken up in the anthology. But the NFL’s clouds are resolutely explored in such pieces as Mark Kram’s 1991 study of veteran players’ physical deterioration and Paul Solotaroff’s 2011 coroner’s report on Dave Duerson’s melancholy post-career slide into psychological despair in which the one endeavor the ex-Chicago safety was certain would have lasting value was taking his own life – and making sure his damaged brain was left intact for scientists to continue their inquiry into long-term effects of concussions.
The more one is made aware of cases like Duerson’s, the more one wonders if there’s any point in looking at football at all, much less remaining a steadfast fan. In addition to Football, there are new books that embody both these variables and I’ll tell you about them in the next installment.
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While it’s true, as articles like this (from last fall) or this (more recent) make radiantly, abundantly clear, that Coates can slice through racial cant with this dude’s ruthless efficiency, even a casual tour of Coates’ blog site discloses his facility with such subjects as history, politics, sports, science and music. Cultural arbiters will insist that, however eclectic his interests, they are filtered through an African-American point-of-view. Well, yes. He’s a young African American and he has points-of-view that are informed by his life experiences. But what if he chose to write solely (and with comparable grace and precision) about, say, chess or music videos or physics or economics? Would his mastery of these subjects be recognized, much less lionized? Probably. We live, after all, in a world where black writers become famous on TV for being sports journalists and a film reviewer-of-color receives the Pulitzer Prize, just for being excellent and eclectic.
Still, African American writers remain the default setting for editors seeking that all-important-all-encompassing “black perspective.” And that’s by no means an inconsiderable, or unnecessary thing. There are things we know, feelings we have access to that white editors and writers don’t. We ask the questions that others may not. Our loyalty and devotion to our race confers a responsibility to enlighten our white country-persons if only to make sure they don’t assume, presume or otherwise say (or do) something stupid, insensitive or ill-informed to and/or about us. Still, why should Being Black be the one-and-only-thing about which we are always counted on to deliver an informed opinion?
Coates shouldn’t have to fall into a “spokesman-for-his-people” niche conferred by whatever passes for a post-millennial media establishment, though the risk is always there. That unofficial pedestal prevented my adolescent self from fully appreciating James Baldwin back in the 1960s when I too often thought he was speaking “for” me rather than “to” me. (It’s only as a much older adult that I’ve come to value Baldwin as the visionary essayist and undervalued novelist he was at his peak.) As master of the blogging art, in emceeing and in posting, Coates has more space than his predecessors did in trumping and deflating any attempt to make him The Black Spokesperson; it also helps that he’s been generous enough to give his peers some props, something too few of our predecessors did in a more competitive era.
But black writers shouldn’t always have to be the go-to source for writing about race. Indeed, some of the finest nonfiction on this topic has come from Caucasian writers as well. Larry L. King, whose recent obituary saw fit to highlight his collaboration on a successful little musical about Texas hookers, wrote a brave, candid essay, “Confessions of a White Racist,” that was expanded to an even better memoir. And I’m now in the midst of re-reading Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Journeys,” her exhaustive and masterly 1990 report about the hysteria surrounding the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Having seen Ken and Sarah Burns’ recently-released, award-winning cinematic j’accuse, Central Park Five, I now find Didion’s epic dissection of the crime and the subsequent police investigation, arrests, convictions and warring points-of-view to be one of the most cogent examinations of how race, class, politics and hype conspire against simple justice – and, given how things turned out with those five convictions, Didion also proved how steely and forbiddingly prescient an observer she is. Could any other writer, black or white, have shown as much composure at a time when emotions about the case, for and against the original convictions, were still strident and raw? I can usually imagine almost anything I want, but I’m having trouble with that one.
Sometimes, I think everything you write about when you write about America is about race – except when it isn’t. (And when it isn’t, I’m tempted to think the writer’s trying to hide something.) But as Coates as written, it’s in the particular rather than in the general that a writer can find her true voice on this volatile topic. When the voice reaches too far, too hard and too broadly, bad things tend to happen. I shall let the Best Writer on The Subject of Race have the last words:
“No one who wants to write beautifully should ever — in their entire life — write an essay about ‘the subject of race.’ You can write beautifully about the reaction to LeBron James and ‘The Decision.’ You can write beautifully about integrating your local high school. You can write gorgeously about the Underground Railroad. But you can never write beautifully about the fact of race, anymore than you can write beautifully about the fact of hillsides. All you’ll end up with is a lot of words, and a comment section filled with internet skinheads and people who have nothing better to do with their time then to argue internet skinheads.”
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Fifty-five years ago this month, at about half-past-nine on a Saturday night over the CBS Television Network, a man pulled a pistol out of a fancy holster and pointed it at the audience:
PALADIN: I’d like you to take a look at this gun. The balance is excellent. This trigger responds to a pressure of one ounce. This gun was hand-crafted to my specifications and I rarely draw it unless I intend to use it.
Feel free to imagine the voice of Richard Boone (1917-1981) speaking these lines. The show was Have Gun Will Travel. It would last five seasons and its formula of a black suited cowboy-knight-errant was so durable and popular that no one ever wondered how a man wearing dark clothes while riding in a hot desert sun stays so imperturbably cool.
This made us wonder: How would one of America’s foremost playwrights handle this prelude? What would he bring to this classic introduction?
With our deepest apologies to Mr. Mamet (and our urgent warnings to the reader that the following filigree carries an “mature” label), we think…it would go…Something…Like…This:
PALADIN: You see this gun? You see this fucking gun I’m pointin’ at you? Nice, isn’t it? I mean, “nice”…Just a word, right? Doesn’t even do the work, that word. Like it’s too fucking lazy to try harder, right? “Nice!” Forget I even said the fuckwad word… Your sister’s “nice”! Your grandmother’s probably “nice”, too, right?…Shaddap! You don’t talk. I talk… You have any idea what it’s like holding this gun? Are you even capable of imagining what I’m feeling when I hold this fucking gun? It’s like holding… My! DICK!…That’s exactly it!…Imagine how your joint would feel if you could let it roll around in your fucking hands as you hold it out like that! Like it’s not attached, but it still does whatever you fucking want, even if it’s ripped off your body. Ex-ACT-ly Like That! Now…do you know how I came to own this gun? You know how such a perfectly balanced piece of machinery found its way into my right hand, pointed at both your fucking chins? Can your mouse-shit brain grasp what I had to go through to get this balanced to the point where if I whisper diRECtly at the FUCKING hammer, it FUCKING goes off? Do you know? Can you imagine? Don’t bother answering because I already know the answer, you prairie scumbag! This gun is worth your whole fucking ranch and all your rat-sucking livestock five times over. Don’t even ask me what it costs! You know what it cost? EAT SHIT AND DIE! That’s how much it cost. You don’t deserve to know what it costs. You don’t deserve to imagine how it feels to hold your fucking dolphin detached from your fat, worthless pelvis with six chambers locked and loaded…
And do you know why you don’t deserve to know these things? Let me spell it out for you. BECAUSE…YOU ARE A PIECE…OF SHIT! THAT’S WHY! A PIECE…OF SHIT…The bullets in these chambers cost more than your stupid cattle could fetch in the stockyards, you self-deluded prick! This gun…This…fucking gun can drive your goddam herd to Kansas Fucking City and New Fucking Jersey and back! By itself!! This fucking gun can read your whole goddam library of fake fucking books and give you a fucking test tomorrow…This…Where are you going? Where the FUCK do you think you’re going? I’m not through belittling you, you fat fuck! You wait till I’m done talking, you cheap bastard! You moronic douche-bag! You simple shit…
And that’s just the prelude. If Mamet gets his hands on this franchise, his episodes could go on for a while longer than the original’s half-hour run. If this works out, we could be around for a while, too.
Among the questions I used to get asked a lot on the back-nine of my newspaper days, “Who’s the best film critic working today?” didn’t pop up as frequently as, say, “What’s the best way to get into jazz?” or “What’s your all-time favorite movie?” or “What’s that on your shirt?” Nevertheless, I was always prepared with an answer – and very careful of whom I gave it to. After all, I was colleague to all these critics and friendly with most of them and if their egos were anything like mine, they would bruise like ripe peaches. And, no, I never answered with my name – as I remain certain that none of my aforementioned colleagues did either.
But throughout the time I worked as a full-time film reviewer, the answer I gave most often to that question was J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. I say “most often,” because on some occasions I would say Stuart Klawans of The Nation. Pinned to the mat, I might say that Jim — for that is what the “J” stands for — was number one and Stuart was one-A. It was that close. You will have a long wait for numbers two-through-fifteen. I’m still good friends with a lot of those people – though I’d be surprised if any of them would disagree with my numbers one and one-A, even if they didn’t always agree with their opinions. I didn’t either. But I always learned something from their reviews I hadn’t before, saw things differently enough to, if not change my mind, at least broaden my field of vision for the next movie. If I gave a slight edge to Jim, it may have been only because the Voice ran his reviews every week while The Nation runs Stuart’s less regularly.
Note the tense shift in that last sentence. Because, at least for the time being, only one of those guys is still in business.
The Village Voice announced yesterday it was laying Jim Hoberman off after almost 20 years as a staff writer. The once-proud weekly has already lost such longtime distinctive voices as Gary Giddins, Robert Christgau, Dennis Lim, Wayne Barrett, Deborah Jowett and Nat Hentoff (though he still contributes as a non-staffer) and I always thought it was a miracle that Jim lasted as long as he did after the corporation formerly known as New Times (now Village Voice Media) became the paper’s owners five years ago.
Jim said he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the decision and that pretty much sums up everyone else’s reaction, except mine. Nothing about this avaricious, crabbed, chronically short-sighted period in corporate publishing surprises OR shocks me anymore. As noted, I’m more surprised when someone like Hoberman survives in the prevailing atmosphere of perpetual cutbacks in both personnel and writing space. I’m even more surprised when people persist in seeing such upheaval and uncertainty as a relatively recent phenomenon. Wiser, larger heads than mine date the decline from the mid-1970s, when journalism was supposedly basking in post-Watergate glory. Someday, when we’ve touched the ocean floor on this era, we’ll be better able to look up and see precisely when we started tumbling.
I’m not too worried about Hoberman. His reputation should carry him to better places than the one he’s leaving, though I should hope it’s someplace where I could read him regularly. Maybe I shouldn’t hope. There aren’t many venues around where someone who thinks as deeply about movies as Jim will be given a platform. Nor am I optimistic that the exquisite sense of history with which Jim frames everything he writes will be seen as anything other than excess baggage in a media world, on- and off-line, where snark and knee-jerk contrarianism are better situated to grab the peanut galleries illegally downloading the latest 3D Hollywood product. When people wonder if I miss (or don’t) professional movie-going, I can now at least bring up this latest egregious insult to whatever’s left of said profession, though I admit it’s still amazing that these same people even bother to ask whether I miss it.
And I still don’t have a clear answer yet. Soon. Maybe.
I was born & raised in Hartford, Connecticut, attended local schools, graduated in 1974 from the University of Connecticut. Should have set off on my own, but lollygagged around until I drifted into a copyediting job at the Hartford Courant on Jan. 17, 1977 which, if memory serves, was also the first night of ABC’s “Roots” mini-series. Begged for a “field” job & reported in eastern Connecticut towns before finally getting the urge for going, in 1981, to Philadelphia and the last progressive populist tabloid in America, its Daily News. (Though 28 at the time, I no longer contradict people so readily when they assume that I “grew up” in Philly.) I did rewrite on the city desk, traveled to every neighborhood for reporting duties, begged for a feature writing job and finally got one in 1987.
Within a year, I was writing TV reviews four times a week, which led to a short, unhappy stint at the then-fledgling Entertainment Weekly, which in turn led to a longer, happier one at Newsday, where I wrote mostly about jazz and the movies. Sometime after 1999, I was doing film reviews full-time and this split off into such pleasant experiences as my one-and-only trip to Cannes, a year-and-a-half doing weekly TV reviews on WPIX, six annual trips to Toronto and a few good movies. Not-so-pleasant experiences: My one-and-only trip to Sundance, chairmanship of the New York Film Critics Circle (the awards ceremony was fine, everything before wasn’t), many mediocre movies. Took a buyout from Newsday in March, 2008.