Gene Seymour’s Objectively Subjective Top Ten List of Political Novels

When I was a UConn student in the early 1970s, I had an English professor named Donald Gibson, a kind, soft-spoken gentleman who by that time had become one of the nation’s most respected authorities on what was categorized in those days as “Afro-American literature.” When teaching courses on all of American literature, including one I took that covered the 19th century of Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Twain, and Douglass, Professor Gibson wanted it known from the beginning that he considered all novels, and therefore all literature, to be political in nature, even, and maybe especially, when such writing went out of its way to avoid taking any kind of explicit political stance. This to me seemed on the one hand understandable since Gibson had made his reputation with books by Black writers that were always viewed by critics in and out of academia as being primarily political in nature at the expense of all other aesthetic considerations. So I figured that he’d countered their assertions by saying, well, if that’s true, then the same can be said for the rest of the literary canon, in America and elsewhere. On the other hand, I also wondered whether his perspective as applied to all literature turned out to be as aesthetically reductive as however white critics were analyzing Black American literature.

I have in the intervening years outgrown my reservations. Don Gibson was right. Novels are all political in some form or another, whether written by Tolstoy or John D. MacDonald, with all kinds of things in between: The Charterhouse of Parma and The Grapes of Wrath; The Godfather and Gulliver’s Travels ; The Plague and The Plot Against America; Candide and Babbitt ; The Handmaid’s Tale and The Autumn of the Patriarch;A Tale of Two Cities  and The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the Martian trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson, the Albany cycle of William Kennedy and almost all the spy novels of John le Carré especially the ones that came out after Karla turned himself over to The Circus…. 


Whatever’s left of the reading public might think it’s too constricting to bring political angles to works of imagination, especially when (just guessing) the political angles clash overmuch with their own perspectives. They also believe that imposing politics upon a literary work ensures its loss of posterity. Tell it to 1984, which has retained its currency for almost forty years after the real 1984 receded in History’s rear-view window. You wish some things could be made obsolete. But mass mind-fucking and state-enabled terror may never go out of style and George Orwell’s somehow always around to remind us of this dismal fact.

In fact, that may, oddly, be one of the assets of political fiction: to remind us of what we’ve always had to deal with as human beings struggling to make livable spaces for ourselves; you, know, what we tend to call , “societies,” or maybe just leave it at “Society.” And that, however much we try to make things better for humanity and however little we manage to push the needle ahead every once in a while, we’re always left with our messed-up selves and our perennially broken hearts. If love doesn’t break them for us, politics invariably will.

That, for me anyway, is what has always made up the romance of political fiction, which, as Faulkner said of all literature that matters, is about the human heart in conflict with itself. The indifference-bordering-on-contempt that most people hold for politics can be tied directly to how it breaks so many hearts to the point that those people can’t or won’t care about politics anymore.

It’s OK to be mad at politics, even bitter. But if the last decade, and maybe the couple before that has proven anything, it’s that you retain indifference to politics at your peril – and, in the longer run, democracy’s peril as well.

I am in no way saying that any or all of the ten books I’m listing below will save the Republic or preserve democratic values. (Books alone can’t do that; readers can or are supposed to.) But these are all political novels, or novels with politics in them (and yes, there is a difference, but one not worth parsing here) that have shaped my own perspective on politics’ interplay with imagination – and, most of all, how that interplay magnifies possibilities in both. You’re probably going to notice omissions: All the King’s Men (still moving in parts, terribly dated in both its overripe rhetoric and grandiloquent tactics) or Advise and Consent (enthralled with it when younger, doubt I will ever read it again, especially given its author’s skewed, frothing follow-ups). We’d be here all night going over all the others, some of which I cited earlier, as well as those I haven’t gotten around to yet, from Trollope’s Palliser novels to Henry Adams’ Democracy to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo (me neither, until I heard about it a month ago from a fellow voracious reader). So much to look forward to.

Anyway…in no particular order (other titles in bold  within each entry are recommended, but not as urgently):

 

 

 

 

 


The Gay Place — I got to admit that my recent re-reading of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 trilogy of interlocking novellas about arm-twisting in both love and politics has been primarily an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Not only do most of the characters in circa 1950s Austin, Texas seem to be having so much more fun back then than me or anybody I know in this age of pandemic, but one also yearns for somebody in public life who can fall back and fire away with something that goes like this:

“I tell you, boy, there aint ‘nothin’ else but power an’ change an’ improvement. The rest…is all a mere middle-class business. Aint no use fomentin’; Learned that long ago. Aint no use ‘cept in the last extremity. You want to overturn the existin’ institution, that’s fine. But you got to be sure you know how to build a better one. The thing to do is to work through the institution…figure a way to do that…to make change and build a city and save the goddam world from collapse.”


That there is Arthur “Goddam” Fenstermaker, the Brobdingnagian governor of Texas and the invigorating glue that holds Brammer’s novellas together. Fenstermaker is a thinly disguised version of Lyndon B. Johnson, for whom Brammer served as an aide in Washington when LBJ was the most effective, significant and unapologetically Machiavellian senate majority leader before Mitch McConnell. Described by one character as “a combination of Mahatma Gandhi and Rasputin . . . The Prince of Darkness and the Goddamn Mystic Angel,” the bluff, profane and cunningly manipulative Fenstermaker provides both direction and meaning to the lives of three wayward, wooly young men: an epicurean state assemblyman, a diffident U.S. senator (“very junior”) and the governor’s circumspect press aide. All are pressed hard by the centrifugal force of Fenstermaker’s wheeling and dealing to do better for themselves and for their families and constituencies. Never mind the often-distasteful things you have to do to get what or where you want. As the governor insists, it’s always about “power,” “change” and (you hope) “improvement.” What else is a democratic goddam republic for anyway?

 

 

 

 



The Dispossessed (An Ambiguous Utopia) — Along with The Left Hand of Darkness, this 1975 multiple-award-winning science fiction novel is considered one of the high points of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Hainish Cycle” about interplanetary civilizations. This one makes you think hard and deep about that thing Governor “Goddam” mentions above about wanting to change “an existin’ institution” while needing to know how to build a better one. The protagonist is Shevek, a physicist born and raised on Annares, an anarchist-collectivist settlement on a near-uninhabitable desert world where wealth and responsibility are shared by the inhabitants. It’s all worked well for over an Earth-like century. But there are signs of both stagnation and fraying in the social structure; there are even “propertarians” challenging the consensus of selflessness. Shevek travels from Annares to its “mother planet” of Urras (enough with the giggling!), which embodies everything the Annares colonists were escaping from: rampant individualism, unchecked capitalism, brutally enforced social stratification and gross disparities in both resources and opportunities for rich and poor. On the other hand, there’s enough intellectual freedom on Urras for Shevek’s “theory of simultaneity” that the folks back home in Annares view with suspicion because it could ruin their proud isolation from other, less egalitarian societies. It’s an ingenious, elaborately wrought novel of ideas that keeps your brain lit up without shortchanging suspense and romance. And the social and political dualities it grapples with have managed to ooze from the 20th century into the 21st with plenty of room for arguing one or more sides. What might a Fenstermaker conclude after reading it? That whatever else Utopia is, it aint paradise, it aint perfect, and it damn sure aint easy.

 

 

 

 



The Book of Daniel — As much as any conventional nonfiction narrative on the era you can name, E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 tour de force — which, as I now have the floor, I will declare   his best novel – manages to encompass the whole history of the American Left in the early-to-mid-20th century as reimagined through the riffing, riotously discursive and profoundly haunted “doctoral thesis” submitted for our consideration by Daniel Levin nee Issacson, whose parents were executed in the fifties for allegedly selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Doctorow’s boldness in mining fictional possibilities from the real-life saga of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is enhanced by the detailed intimacy with which he evokes Daniel’s memories of the traumatic childhood he shared with his sister Susan. The book is like a hipster’s revision on John Dos Passos’ rip-roaring pastiches, only with language that is at once more introspective and musically vibrant. The overall trajectory of Doctorow’s narrative is like that of Ralph Ellison’s metaphorical boomerang: always coming back, but never in identical arcs. As it is so, Ellison maintained, with history – and, I would add, with politics, too.

 

 

 

 



The Marrow of Tradition — In November 1898, a mob of about 2,000 white supremacists assembled in Wilmington, North Carolina to carry out a violent insurrection against its more than 10,000 Black citizens as well as the homes and businesses they owned in the city. The duly elected Republican government, which supported the Black community, was ousted from power and between 60 and 300 people were killed. Events were (of course) widely misrepresented in public accounts of the time as a Black riot put down by vigilante justice. But just two years later, Charles W. Chesnutt , perhaps the nation’s most prominent Black novelist at the turn of 20th century, published this fictional depiction of what would much later be acknowledged as the only overthrow of an elected government in American history. If you can look past some of the anachronistic rhetorical flourishes, you’ll see how much nuance and sophistication Chesnutt shows in detailing the complicated racial heritage secretly joining together two families living in what he’s here calling Wellington. There is the white family whose patriarch Major Carteret owns the local newspaper and is involved in a plan to take over the town and there is William Miller, a Black doctor trying to establish a practice and a home with his wife Clara, who is half-sister to Carteret’s ailing wife Olivia. The scheming and maneuvering carried out both covertly and openly towards a racist uprising is persuasively rendered as are the myriad consequences to both the Carterets and the Millers. Chesnutt is just as prodigiously attentive to class disparities as he is to the myriad legacies of slavery and the blunted promises of Reconstruction. Chesnutt would later recall of the novel’s immediate reception (poor in the South, mixed everywhere else) that it was treated “with respect, but no great enthusiasm.” For reasons that are likely not obscure to anybody reading this, I suspect it would now be read as keenly, if horrifically prescient.

 

 

 

 

 


The Last Hurrah — Much like Texas governor Fenstermaker, Frank Skeffington is a flamboyant, swaggering force-of-nature who can lie grinningly through his teeth and lay waste to careers while working the levers of power for the greater good. Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, enormously popular enough in its day to be made into a John Ford movie two years later, is inspired by the real-life Boston politician James Michael Curley who dominated the city and its politics for most of the early 20th century in various offices, mostly as the city’s mayor. The novel chronicles Skeffington’s final mayoral run through the eyes of his newspaperman nephew Adam Caulfield. The old man deploys all his proven weaponry — streetwise guile, perpetual glad-handing and backroom machinations – in his go-for-broke effort to hold on to power. But his once-effective tricks are barely enough to compete against a younger, less experienced, but more media-savvy candidate. By the time O’Connor published the book, big-city machine politics of the kind embodied by the Skeffingtons of the nation was well along its inexorable decline and Last Hurrah, while acknowledging and even accepting mid-century tectonic shifts in urban government, is itself a bittersweet relic of its time. Those finding O’Connor’s depiction of a Boston pol’s swan song too tame and judicious have the option of reading George V. Higgins’ A Choice of Enemies, his 1984 novel depicting the plug-ugly decline and fall of Bernie Morgan, an omnipotent Massachusetts state speaker and mean-drunk gremlin leaving physical and emotional wreckage wherever he goes in and around Boston; sort of what Last Hurrah would have been if somebody like Jim Thompson wrote it. If you’re in the mood for Higgins’ misanthropic slant, it’ll do. At this precise moment, I prefer O’Connor’s melancholy reverie.

 

 

 

 




The Quiet American – Am I the only one who notices that this 1955 Graham Greene novel has a kind of perverse doppelganger in Greene’s screenplay for 1949’s The Third Man? In Alden Pyle, the novel’s eponymous “quiet” young American attaché in Indochina, one sees a variant for Holly Martins, the comparably earnest and  clueless American pulp writer in Third Man who bumbles and stumbles around postwar Vienna carrying his illusions around like overstuffed luggage. As for the novel’s narrator (and Greene surrogate?) Thomas Fowler, one sees elements of both the charmingly amoral Harry Lime and the coldly pragmatic Major Calloway. Then again, in Pyle’s secretly enabling a “third way” of staving off Communism in Vietnam, there’s quite a bit of Harry’s duplicity and (even) arrogance while Fowler’s own romantic yearnings, as with Holly’s, cloud his better judgment at times. Once again, as in all the other books cited here, the personal and the political tango with each other, leading to a resolution that makes sense and feels lousy at the same time – much like election results we used to wake up to in a world much different than the one we share now. Journalists who covered Vietnam in the early sixties carried this book as an oracular text hoping that Alden Pyle’s real-life doppelgangers in Saigon and Washington would take the hint and not get in deeper. They didn’t take the hint and as Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches, it was possible for many observers late in the game to believe that time may have already been up for America and Vietnam “when Alden Pyle’s body washed up under the bridge at Dakao, his lungs all full of mud.” Even second-hand, Greene’s imagery leaves a mark beneath your forehead.

 

 

 



Jack Gance – To aficionados of Washington novels, Ward Just led the list of practitioners who weren’t nearly as famous as they deserved to be. At the time of his death last December at 84, Just, who first won renown in the 1960s as a Vietnam War correspondent for the Washington Post, had published 17 novels and at least a couple of short-story collections beginning with The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, a title that doesn’t sound nearly as implausible back in 1973 as it does now. Few writers in any genre wove the effects of the personal life on the political – and vice-versa – with as much deceptive ease and seamless grace as Just. This particular novel from 1989 doesn’t get the kind of props that such works as A Family Trust (1978), An Unfinished Season (2004) and American Romantic (2014) have received from various critics. But I like this one best because it’s as outwardly unassuming and craftily impassioned as its title character, who on the surface is a prototypically fretless DC pollster and “fixer”, as blithe about his proficiency at swinging elections as he is immune to emotional commitment to women. It turns out that there’s a context in Jack’s past life for his determination to avoid skid marks within the system: his father, a failed real-estate broker in Chicago, took the fall for tax evasion because he wouldn’t accept a political favor to avoid prison. Jack’s dances with political machinery in both Chicago and DC are impeccably crafted and timed and it’s enough to make him a valued source for data and dirt . But then, relatively late in life, Jack decides he’s burned out with fixing stuff and wants to be a Democratic politician instead of merely advising them. A less experienced or proficient novelist than Just likely couldn’t pull off such a transition convincingly. But Just gives you a character complex enough to calibrate sensitivity and toughness towards what seems an unlikely, but inevitable transition. This is as satisfying a portrait as you can find of an artist of the possible – e.g., a politician without horns egregiously painted on his forehead.

 

 

 

 

 



The Gilded Age – Mark Twain collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner on this 1873 melodrama that, had it done nothing more than provide a name for the era it chronicles, would have been a landmark in the national culture. The reason it’s endured for as long as it has is the rich and pungent depiction of post-Civil War Washington’s carnival of crooks, plutocrats and thwarted schemers. It all starts with a stretch of Tennessee backwoods belonging to a poor family who can’t give it away despite its best efforts. Colonel Sellers, an unsavory amalgam of Mister Micawber and Falstaff, involves the family in land speculation in Missouri and eventually the family’s alluring and intelligent adopted daughter Laura Hawkins winds up in the District as a lobbyist; it’s mostly through her gimlet eye that we get the full panoply of rapacity and corruption. The sardonic set pieces and wild interludes are of such heft and variety that it’s possible to view the whole book as a portable quasi-steampunk Netflix series that at once tempts and discourages binge-ing. In an essay written on political fiction several years ago, New Republic editor Chris Lehmann cites Gilded Age for establishing the template for the American political novel: one in which “Washington was to be the premier setting of a strikingly continuous American political fable of innocence at risk.” Such a convention would become hackneyed or overplayed in successive generations of novels. But what Twain and Warner subtitled   “A Tale of Today”   manages to stay news because the distinctions between Selling Out and Buying In remain as tricky to parse as they are impervious to time.

 

 

 

 



King Strut — As the 1960s were recombining dourly into the 1970s, a sub-genre was making its way through the nation’s bookstalls that, for want of a better phrase, I’ll label “race revolution thrillers.” I’d put the trend’s origins as far back as the apocalyptic ending of 1967’s The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams, who followed that underrated classic about Black literary lions making their way through the American century with 1969’s Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, which is all about Black conspiracy and revolt in the Great Society’s wreckage. The standard for the sub-genre was all but established that same year by The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Sam Greenlee’s saga of a Black CIA agent who goes from being the Company’s “showcase negro” as implied by the title to taking what he knows about guerrilla warfare and subversive tactics to the streets. You had to figure that a white writer would somehow get in on the action and that somehow it had to be Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate and Winter Kills, whose 1976 novel, The Whisper of the Axe imagined that a Black criminal lawyer named Angela (I know, right?) Teel leads a band of revolutionaries on an attempt to overthrow the U.S. Government the same day as the nation’s Bicentennial.
I am, however, going to bypass all these variably worthy options for King Strut and a big part of the reason is blatant conflict-of-interest since its author Chuck Stone is my late uncle and also because it shares with Gay Place and Last Hurrah a larger-than-life American political titan as inspiration. When my uncle published the book in 1970, he was still seething over the expulsion three years before of his then-employer and all-time hero Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. This novel remains the closest thing to a published account of my uncle’s reminiscences of those years, only reinvented as an exuberantly satiric roman á clef. The   protagonist’s name is Hiram Elliot Quinnault Jr. and, instead of Powell’s Harlem, Quinnault instead hails from and represents the Black neighborhoods of Chicago (which is where Chuck attended graduate school at the University of Chicago and later worked for about a year-and-a-half as editor of the Daily Defender before running afoul of the Richard Daley oligarchy). Chuck seasoned his wise insider’s knowledge of politics, white and Black, with some outrageous set pieces including a raucous sex scene in the Lincoln Bedroom involving Quinnault and the First Lady (and that, too, has a basis in fact because…well, never mind.) The climax comes, as with the aforementioned novels, with violence in the streets. But (again) never mind how all that happens. Don’t want to spoil too much in case you happen to come across Strut in second-hand book sites, which is the only way you’ll find it these days.
As with everything else my uncle wrote, King Strut is willful and unyielding direct action in the service of his people. Also, as with everything he wrote, there was unfettered joy and heedless abandon in the process. “I got my rocks off writing this thing!” he exulted to the family shortly after publication. You may well feel the same as he did while reading it.

 

 

 

 



Briarpatch – This may be, by default, the best-known of Ross Thomas’ 25 dark and bloody comedies-of-manners by virtue of a mondo-quirky TV mini-series adaptation aired earlier this year on USA Network with Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming, Kim Dickens and a gaggle of vicious carnivores, not all of them human, wandering loose and at-large somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border. The book is nowhere near as surreal, but it’s still a svelte, acerbic page-turner, very wise in the ways of power and money as are so many of the books published by Thomas (1926-1995), both under his name and that of Oliver Bleeck. People have often linked him with Elmore Leonard because of their droll, taut and wickedly subversive ways with genre fiction. I prefer to believe Thomas to be what Evelyn Waugh would, if, instead of being an English Catholic Tory, the latter were a yellow-dog, large-D-Democrat from the American Southwest.
The story’s protagonist is a congressional investigator whose sister, a police detective still living and working in their hometown (never named but very likely in Thomas’ native Oklahoma) is blown to bits by a car bomb. When he comes home for the funeral, the investigator finds evidence that his sister was seriously “bent” in her ethical conduct. He suspects otherwise and uses his own professional chops to uncover a squalid legacy of murder and corruption deeply embedded in the local history that entangled his sister’s complex-but-not-necessarily-crooked life. That may be as much the book has in common with the series. But it’s not the narrative here so much as Thomas’ wry-but-doleful observations about how easy it is for appalling human transactions to become normalized by socio-political imperatives. It will be easy for most Americans to relate this notion to the last four years. But as much of Thomas’ oeuvre and many of the books cited above attest: ‘twas ever thus.



Our 100 Year Inheritance from Charlie Parker

 

 

Jimmy Cannon used the phrase “an American heirloom” to describe Babe Ruth. I like to think the same could be said for Charlie Parker, even if most Americans, know relatively little about him when compared with the “Sultan of Swat.” Both seemed supernatural phenomena who seemingly came out of nowhere, capable of leaving witnesses spellbound in the very different ways their profound sense of swing reshaped the air around them. Both had massive, seemingly insatiable appetites, living fast, playing hard, dying too soon, making indelible history in their respective art forms.

 

 

 



With the Bird, I think the legacy is even subtler than what you find on his recordings, which still can astound new listeners on first contact.

 

 



The tone is what shocks you before the tempest of invention all but overpowers your resistance. It is a bright, hard tone, shiny and serrated like sheet metal edgy enough to scratch any surface, supple enough to shape into any form, whether terrifyingly new or dreamily familiar.

 


The things that remarkable-on-its-own voice could do within the cramped space of a two-to-three-minute recording are what made its owner a near-divinity even in his brief lifetime. At any speed, in any context, Charlie Parker could fold into the narrowest blank space stream upon stream of inferences, wisecracks, mimicry, thematic variations and nonverbal poetry. I can imagine all those ex-servicemen who left for war at the end of the swing era and returned to hear this coming out of their 78-RPM players and thinking, as Parker and his combo created a whole new front end for “Cherokee” (“Ko-Ko”)  or “Embraceable You”, “He can do that? He can actually do all that?”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Springing outward like weeds from such questions were others that asked, “Should he do all that?” Critics as different from each other as Ralph Ellison and Phillip Larkin were adamant that he shouldn’t have. Sharing their corner were moldy figs of varied ages who echoed Emperor Joseph II’s sentiments in Amadeus when he told an astonished and infuriated Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his otherwise “ingenious” compositions. Louis Armstrong dissed what he famously labeled “Chinese music” a.k.a. bebop and many still blame jazz’s precipitous decline in widespread popularity on boppers like Bird, his “worthy constituent” Dizzy Gillespie and others for making music that made social dancing difficult, if not impossible. (My parents and their friends thought differently, and I know this because I saw them dancing to a Parker record as if it were just another of what were once labeled “pop platters.”)

 

 

 

 


Nevertheless, for true believers in the primacy – and the imperative — of improvisation, Charlie Parker was and is a secular god. Every virtuosic barrage of notes he emptied into space has been chased down, contained and examined on both masters and outtakes by obsessives of all ages and temperaments. The irrepressible Phil Schaap has for almost 30 years used morning airtime on New York’s WCKR-FM to provide detailed exegeses of every note Bird blew, even the wrong ones, if, in the minds of Parker cultists, there were such things.

 

 

 



Guys like Schaap existed even when Parker was alive and blowing, the most fanatical of these being Dean Benedetti, a saxophonist who followed Bird around with a wire recorder and stuck a microphone in front of Parker whenever he soloed. Those solos, and only those solos, were recorded and transcribed by Benedetti, who died in 1957 at 34, the same age as Parker did two years earlier. (The Benedetti recordings were released in 1988 and, even with the hi-tech production wizardry of Mosaic Records at work, they’re a strain to hear, but worth the trouble if you’re a true believer at the altar labeled “Bird Lives!”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


That Parker died so young and packed his brief life with as much density and turbulence as one of his solos (the coroner’s report put his age at 53, or so legend has it) is part of his everlasting mystery and magnetism. He did all that? you think when hearing his work. He actually did all that? Wave upon wave of surviving colleagues, younger acolytes, historians, musicologists and poets have struggled to explain how he did “all that.” Sooner or later, however perceptive or intuitive their engagement might be, all of them end up doing little more than projecting their own version of Bird to the point that there are many different Birds flying around the world. Early in my own such engagement, I always thought it was interesting to wander through Robert Reisner’s 1962 “oral biography” Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker and note how there seemed to be no two photos of him that looked exactly alike.

 

 

 


Stanley Crouch does plenty of his own projecting in 2013’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker mostly because there is so very little verifiable data on Parker’s early life that can be found despite Crouch’s valiant research. Still, this first of what is intended to be a two-volume biography rides towards its conclusion with as vivid and as persuasive an assessment of the Artist as a Young Man on the precipice of discovery as James Joyce’s own:


“Wherever he was in whatever room playing whatever horn whether owned by him or not, Charlie Parker was in a condition of confrontation. That was inevitable. By now he knew, deeper than his marrow, what all serious artists realize: that no matter how great and perfect a major creator is at a moment of sublime delivery, there are always limitations. No one person is perfect enough to conjure what another person feels as he tries to express what is inside. Parker…was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough, and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was actually his and his alone.”

If Charlie Parker is an heirloom, his inheritance encompasses  not only musicians but all who yearn to Play What They Hear, whether with paints and brushes, pencils and word processors, ballet slippers and soft floors, turntables and microphones. William Blake aside, the idea was never to Go to Extremes – and Parker would be the first to tell anybody who tried to follow his example that there were places he went that weren’t necessary to perform his miracles. Life, not Art made all that mess. Learning to negotiate the distinctions is part of the process and at some point, you are left with the beautiful mystery of his speed, power and lyricism. It’s enough.




 

Not the Perry We Want, But Maybe the Perry We Need

 

 

 

You had to wait till HBO’s Perry Mason ran its course to realize how good it was in the same way you had to wait till the end of a vintage CBS  Perry Mason episode to find out who the real murderer was.

It was good and, at times, great. But it was touch and go throughout, world. If you’re binge-watching it now, you might not appreciate how many of us who took each episode in weekly installments were ready to bail on this old/new/new/old iteration of the Lawyer Who Never Loses. The art direction, which remained the true star of the series till the end, kept our heads in the game with its meticulous recreation of Los Angeles in the deepest pit of the Great Depression.  

 

But brothers and sisters, did this ship take its sweet old time to reach port! It seemed intent, at times, on creating its own fog and squalls along the way. One more histrionic revival meeting, one more instance of Perry (Matthew Rhys) physically and emotionally getting his butt kicked, and some of us were ready to abandon ship without bothering to find out what kind of asshole sews open the eyelids of a dead infant as a way of making his parents think he’s still alive.

Which doesn’t sound even remotely like the kind of murder case that would create billable hours for Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason back when he was sweeping the courtroom floors with William Talman’s Hamilton Burger on CBS’s prime-time schedule in the late fifties and early sixties. Granted, those old shows could get pretty weird themselves with their noir-ish SoCal landscapes, berserk red herrings, cobra-like plot shifts and absurdly alliterative episode titles like “The Case of the Woeful Widower,” “The Case of the Bountiful Beauty,” “The Case of the Devious Delinquent” – and that was just the seventh season!

 

 

 


Yet I happily and regularly devour those old CBS episodes as have many of my friends lately for the tasty, caloric comfort food for the soul they always were. Yes, they were formulaic. But as art critic Dave Hickey writes in his wondrous essay, “The Little Church of Perry Mason,” there remains after all these years something at once sublime, gnomish, fortifying and finely wrought about the series; Hickey especially appreciates how, after a murderer’s confession was successfully yoked on a witness stand, Perry, Paul Drake (William Hopper), Della Street (Barbara Hale), and sometimes Ham Burger and LAPD Lieutenant Tragg (Ray Collins) would always get together for coffee, dinner or a late-night office nosh to go over how Perry figured out yet another one.

 



I came later to read some of the original Perry Mason mysteries by his creator Erle Stanley Gardner. In all there were roughly 80 such novels published between 1933 and 1973 (two years after Gardner’s death) and I know only one person who managed to read all of them after combing through used bookstores, tag sales, church basements and garages. Apparently, he finds them just as addictive as the old TV show. They can seem just as formulaic but, to their immense credit, just as unaffected and straightforward in their overall presentation.

 

 

 

 


“I write to make money,” Gardner once said, “and I write to give the reader sheer fun.” He called himself a “Fiction Factory” and he dictated his stories to typists, at least two or three books at a time, or so I’m guessing. Every once in a while, they read as if they were dictated and Gardner’s friend Raymond Chandler once wrote a note warning him of occasional discrepancies and inadvertent repetitions finding their way into published texts.

 

 

 

 


Even so, the Mason books are fun to read, as crafty, rakish, unflappable and droll as their hero. Burr’s interpretation of Mason retains the character’s almost eerie composure and serene command of the legal code to the point of breezy, but never brash arrogance.

Speaking of Raymond Chandler, here’s part of a morale booster he wrote to his friend Gardner in early 1946 that pretty much sums up how the world felt about Mason even before he became a TV icon :

“I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don’t mean a thing to me. [NOTE: THEY REALLY DIDN’T] But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have quality….
“You owed nothing to Hammett or Hemingway. Your books have no brutality or sadism, very little sex, and the blood doesn’t count. What counts, at least for me, is a supremely skillful combination of the mental quality of the detective story and the movement of the mystery-adventure story….Perry Mason is the perfect detective because he has the intellectual approach of the judicial mind and at the same time the restless quality of the adventurer who won’t stay put. I think he is just about perfect…” 


HBO’s Perry Mason, on the other hand, has plenty of brutality, blood, sadism and sex…all the lurid stuff that Chandler appreciated the Gardner books for avoiding. You could say it’s a lot closer to Chandler’s vision than to his friend’s. Try imagining, to press the point further, what Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West’s house-of-horrors vision of Depression-era Los Angeles would read like if Chandler had written it instead.

Having this iteration of Mason start out as a bottom-feeding private eye is at least consistent with Gardner’s roots as a Black Mask contributor of hard-boiled crime stories in the twenties and thirties. But devotees believed it altogether inappropriate to bring up the baggage of Mason being a shell-shocked WWI vet adrift and hopeless in 1931 Los Angeles, all too ready to dive headfirst into a Hooverville, a speakeasy or between the legs of his sultry Latina lover (Veronica Falcón). I suppose it’s possible to imagine this grimy, war-haunted vagrant evolving from the depths of the Depression into the coolly competent smoothie we remember from the dawn of the Space Age. In those latter days, we would never expect Mason to get into the kind of trouble this poor schlub endures.

Burr’s Mason, as noted, was like a sheet of ice on the sidewalk at night: too cold, too slippery and too devious to get stuck in mundane dangers like guns to the head or being roughed up and tortured by goons. What danger was for Mason, especially in the Gardner novels, was risking disbarment for – how did Della put it? – “stepping over the line” to prove his client’s innocence. The law for that Perry Mason wasn’t an occasion to be cynical; it was a near-holy order, a call to secular grace:

“I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice … Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that’s government. That’s law and order.” – from 1943’s The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito.

 

 



Matthew Rhys’ Mason climbs up from the mire to where he’s supposed to be, eventually. There are hints throughout the series that he was always there, even if for much of the series he looks less like a budding smoothie and, in his still moments, like the ravaged, doom-haunted photos of James Agee taken by Walker Evans in the late thirties while they were struggling to finish Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

 



The kidnap-murder of the infant boy and its ties to an evangelical church run by an Aimee Semple McPherson-style superstar preacher (Tatiana Maslany) is so sordid and complicated that you look forward to the light-and-lively banter among Mason, legal secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and her cuddly, curmudgeonly boss Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow). But Mason can’t truly relax with them any more than he can figure out how to hold on to his family farm somewhere near the Mojave. Or figure out how he can get enough scratch for his keyhole-peeping to cover himself and his partner-mentor Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham).

But this apparent inaugural season isn’t about a dead baby, a glitzy temple or even a murder case whose thinness, wearing away even more during the trial, makes one wonder the same thing Murray Kempton wondered while covering New York City’s (Black) “Panther 21” trial in 1971 after the prosecution rested its case: “And is it all no more than this?” (from Kempton’s The Briar Patch, 1973). It is, in short, not about the central mystery at all. It’s about the growth of a human being.

“And is it all no more than this?” you may well ask. Quite a bit more, especially at this point in our own real-life history.

Let’s do what we always do in a Perry Mason story and look for clues. To me, the biggest clue comes towards the end of the first episode, when a movie mogul and Groucho Marx look-alike takes Mason into a back room and has him trussed up by a couple of goons, shaking him down for the compromising photos he took of a naked horndog comedian. “You need to think about your actions,” the mogul purrs to Mason who’s about to get a heated gun barrel applied to his chest. ”You need to decide what kind of person you want to be.”

The protests we’ve been seeing since May throughout the country over police brutality and systemic racism have been asking variations of the same question. And it’s been hurting us to ask that of ourselves, about as much as that hot rod is hurting Mason.

It’s worth remembering here that Erle Stanley Gardner shared the same view of justice vs. law-and-order that his lead character did. His early career as a litigator was taken up with defending underdogs, often Mexican and Chinese immigrants, who he believed were unjustly indicted and couldn’t afford the defense they deserved. In the early forties, he formed an organization, “The Court of Last Resort”, devoted to helping those imprisoned unfairly or couldn’t get a fair trial. Both a prize-winning book and a short-lived TV series carried the name and the mission of Gardner’s precursor to today’s Innocence Project.

Maybe watching Rhys’ Mason, as opposed to Burr’s, struggle, stumble, whine and grumble his way towards his ultimate destiny is an analogue for our own halting, stumbling and grudging efforts to restore balance and fairness to our legal system. And while Gardner, if he were alive today, would likely shudder over just how much of a mess the American criminal justice system has become, he would likely put his man, high-handed tactics and all, in the forefront of setting it all right again.

From the apparent success of the HBO series, we’re going to see more of this new/old Mason, and it’ll be interesting to see how or if his self-improvement continues as his cases get as weird or weirder than the ones his predecessors dealt with on- and off-screen. I’m also wondering just how the producers are going to finesse a Black Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) trying to pry buried secrets from white people in an L.A. mired in Depression, impending war and racial segregation.

 



No, it’s not your father’s or grandfather’s Perry Mason. But this stressed-out, caffeinated and volatile Perry Mason belongs to us more than we’re willing to acknowledge. He knows we’re all guilty. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up on us. So don’t give up on him.

A Referendum on a Statue? No. It’s Another Referendum on Lincoln.

 

Both my age and my lifelong inclination to study  History place me squarely on the side of those who want to leave the Emancipation Statue where it is in DC’s Lincoln Park. I do, however, understand the problem today’s Black Lives Matter generation of activists have with it and why they’d like to see it go away.  The sight of a newly freed slave crouched beneath the Great White Father/Emancipator looks  so patronizing when framed against the present-day urgency that it likely doesn’t matter to Millennials and Generation-Z African American activists that this particular piece of public art was paid for almost entirely by freed Black slaves and that it was unveiled in 1876, which would be the last year of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow’s reign of terror in the South and elsewhere. Nor will it matter to them that before that statue (sculpted by a white artist named Thomas Ball) there were precisely no statues in the Nation’s Capital depicting a black person and quite likely a very long time before there would be another. 

No, I suppose that there may be from here on a dispute between generations of Black folk in Washington and elsewhere over the optics of this statue. But “optics,” I’m thinking, are the least of it. This isn’t just a dispute over a statue. It revives an ongoing referendum Black Americans have had for at least a couple generations over the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a dilemma that goes all the way back to the statue’s unveiling, when Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the dedication ceremony, rehashed some of his own mixed feelings towards the 16th president he got to know well enough to be impatient with him when it came to not only Emancipation, but what would, or could, happen afterwards. 

I came of age at the outset of Lincoln revisionism among Black writers and historians such as Lerone Bennett Jr. and Julius Lester during the 1960s. Decades later, I had a chance to openly declare where I landed, more or less, on the Lincoln dilemma when in 2009, the bicentennial year of his birth, American History magazine assigned me to review  Lincoln on Race and Slavery (Princeton University Press),  in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone gathered together excerpts from speeches, letters, and debates to create a mosaic of Lincoln’s racial politics which, though by no means conclusive or satisfying to anyone, may well be the best we’ll ever get in one volume beyond making the effort to sift through his papers ourselves.

My piece, printed in its full (pre-publication) form below, wont settle anything either. But I love the process of coming-to-grips with things that is as American as a burger or a blues joint. Which is why I love the arguments over the Emancipation Statue for their own sake.  I hope they never stop arguing about it because, to a considerable extent, it serves Mr. Lincoln right. 

 

 

 

This year’s bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday finds us in a far different state-of-mind than 100 years ago, when the 16th president’s stature as a secular saint was pretty much taken for granted. Now we have questions. They come from many walks of life, but the civil rights movement that, many believe, finished what Lincoln started, has especially made African Americans, once his most devoted and unequivocal acolytes, turn a more gimlet eye towards the Great Emancipator and his legacy.

Among their questions: If Lincoln really hated slavery, why did it take so long for him to declare emancipation? And is it possible that he didn’t love black people as much as they loved him? After all, he kept insisting that, once slaves were freed, he’d rather have them all shipped back to Africa rather than given the same rights as all American citizens. Or did he?


You can get whiplash sifting for answers to these and related questions through the corpus of Lincoln’s letters, speeches and official documents. So Henry Louis Gates Jr. does the work for you with Lincoln on Race and Slavery, a compilation of excerpts from Lincoln’s writings dating back to his earliest anti-slavery statements as an Illinois legislator in the late 1830’s to his last public address on April 11, 1865, in which he said black Union troops proved they were worthy of enfranchisement as voters. John Wilkes Booth heard those words and decided the president had to die for them – which, with Booth’s help, he did four days later.


Along with the PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln, Lincoln on Race and Slavery represents Gates’ conscientious effort to re-engage, if not altogether reconcile, with Abraham Lincoln as man and legend, hero and conundrum. The film, however, is more travelogue than analysis. Gates, both host and co-producer, lugs Lincoln’s complexities and contradictions into personal encounters with fellow scholars, tour guides, schoolchildren and even some present-day stars-and-bars sympathizers. The image of the nation’s “go-to” black public intellectual making nice with proud sons and daughters of the Confederacy makes for interesting television, but seems symptomatic of the intermittently provocative drift permeating the entire enterprise. Viewers could be forgiven for complaining that the film doesn’t answer any of the above (or related) questions; nor does it resolve issues it raises.

 


But as Gates makes clear in his far more cogent introductory essay to Lincoln on Race and Slavery, looking for simple or comforting resolution even in the man’s own words (the only rational option at hand) may be a fool’s errand. With a surgeon’s deftness, Gates (with help from editor-writer Donald Yacavone) fashions a simulacrum of a state-of-mind at constant war with its assumptions and ambitions. To read the segments gleaned from the epochal 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, you’d think Lincoln spent most of his time reassuring his white audiences that, of course, he didn’t believe blacks were sufficiently human to mix with their kind; at the same time, he kept insisting that the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” applied to black men as well. A contemporary reader could at once bemoan such brazen avoidance of consistency while marveling at the rhetorical agility of what Robert Lowell, in an otherwise disapproving sonnet to the Emancipator, deemed “our one genius in politics.”


And yet, the artifacts of that genius become more tangible, more manifest, when they surge from beneath the web of its owner’s calculation, forcing his listeners to confront not only “the better angels of our nature” but the darker forces within. One thinks, particularly, of the moment in his 1858 speech in Edwardsville, Illinois when he dares to ask whites about dehumanizing and subjugating blacks: “Are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?” Skeptics of all colors are free to doubt whether Lincoln still belongs to the ages. But when you see how such a question may still be posed in your own life and times, you’re hard-pressed to deny lasting resonance to such fierce and mighty words.

On “Picard”: Hope & Dread in the Siege of Corona

 

 

 

So let me tell you a little of what it’s been like living in the epicenter of the epicenter (sic) of a global pandemic: We’ve been getting phone calls every day from people, often the same people, checking in on us to ask how we are, how we’re feeling, are we breathing regularly, when we washed our hands last, and so forth. Meanwhile we have to remind ourselves to use gloves when we push the elevator button because we don’t have enough hand sanitizer to place on each floor of our building; and in those relatively quick interludes outdoors we remember to give every dog walker and jogger a wide berth, even though we’re noticing clusters of people in Prospect Park not keeping their distance from each other as they should.

In the absence of available testing, we find ourselves wondering with every involuntary twinge of one’s joints, every clearing of one’s throat, every dull wave of fatigue whether we’re in trouble no matter how quickly such moments pass. And we seem more aware than usual of   the sirens  blaring through our apartment windows at regular intervals, night and day. That is what life is like these days in the Promised Land of Brooklyn, New York, USA and I don’t think I can bear getting more specific than that.

What I also can’t get specific about right now is how Star Trek: Picard comes to an end. The tenth and final episode of what they’re insisting is its first season plopped into CBS All Access’s streams the day before I’m writing this. I’m betting that there are a lot of housebound people, Trekkers or not, who haven’t even seen the first episode yet, but have held off on watching the series so they can dig deep into their quarantined cocoons at some point this weekend or afterwards to binge-watch the whole thing from beginning to end.

If that’s the case, this is all they need to know: the climactic episode of Picard is balm to sensibilities   battered by  dread and upheaval; so much so that it’s worth going through the previous nine episodes to get there.  Star Trek: Picard   justifies the existence of pop entertainment in our lives, especially (I can’t emphasize this enough) now. Yes, it may strike some as ridiculous whether they’re people with no use whatsoever for science fiction in any form or longtime fans so deep into the mythos of the Trek franchise as to hold every attempt to build on it to an implausibly higher standard. I am no hard-core Trekker, but paraphrasing what a friend of mine said after watching the Picard finale, this was what made us keep faith with Trek from its beginnings more than a half-century ago.

 

 

Even I wasn’t sure would this would happen back in January, when the threat of Covid-19 seemed so remote as to be inconceivable. Back then, in the immediate wake of the phenomenal success of The Mandalorian on Disney’s streaming service, Picard began its run with a general sense among science fiction buffs of “show me” as soon as it brought the legendary starship captain Jean Luc Picard (the legendary Sir Patrick Stewart) out of a bucolic retirement making wine in the South of France. Twenty years have passed since “J-L”, a stalwart, paternal compound of warrior and statesman, was last caught up in intergalactic conflict and his universe is sadder, more constricted and compromised than it was in his years at the Enterprise helm. His best friend, the wise, winsome android Data (Brent Spiner), sacrificed himself in a conflict involving the Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire during which Data’s fellow androids – here labeled “synthetics” or “synths” for short – were blamed for mass slaughter on Mars and have been demonized by humans and extraterrestrials ever since. Trek completists may deem it necessary to see the 2002 movie, Star Trek: Nemesis for further enlightenment. But I never saw it, was in fact encouraged not to and I had no trouble following what happened here. Another point, I think, in Picard’s favor.

In fact, I wont bother explaining what Romulans are or why some Romulans are nicer than others or the uneasy, even threadbare alliances between interplanetary beings, whether “synthetic” or not. If you can’t ride this vehicle without a scorecard, you wont be able to ride it at all. So what you  need to know going in is that Picard finds out that Data had a “daughter”, twins in fact (Isa Briones) , who don’t know they’re artificial but find themselves targets of militant Romulans intent on exterminating all “synths.” Picard can’t save one of them from assassination, so he and a motley assortment of misfits and cast-offs go boldly back into the Final Frontier to save her sister and take her “home” to a planet of  artificial beings; her “family”.

 

 

 

 

Throughout the series’ run, I admit to being skeptical, even with Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Summerland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union et al) as a showrunner, that Picard would pull this   off, even when I got all perked up with Jeri Ryan’s both-guns-blazing return as Seven-of-Nine. I peeked at what the trolls and grumps were saying on-line and their complaints ran along the general lines of “Too slow” or “Too dark.” I wasn’t persuaded much either way. Even at its most bombastic, Star Trek was never about blowing stuff up ; more like talking things through and working them out. (Do you know, or care that there’s a big difference between Star Wars and Star Trek? If not, what are you doing here?) As for the “too dark” complaints? Hell, you guys were all in on Deep Space Nine, right? I called that show Trek Noir and nobody I know who’s  seen it disputes the point. Besides which, if you weren’t even mildly amused at some point by some of the more outlandish bits of self-referential humor in Picard then someone should check to see whether you came from a factory.

 

 

I’m still withholding specifics here and elsewhere because you need to see it all before seeing the end. You will have your quarrels, I’m sure, with the content and especially with how it all turns out for the title character. But that’s not my concern here, so I will leave it at this:

Somebody somewhere once labeled Gene Roddenberry’s vision as a hymn to human possibility. At its best, in all its varied iterations, Star Trek ‘s mission wasn’t so much to “seek out new life,” but to grapple with what “life” actually entails, what it means, in short, to be human. The most recent big-screen renderings of Trek tended to neglect this in favor of, you know, Blowing Stuff Up. On the small screen, Trek calms down, scales back. It remembers to take its time, take your hand and encourage you to remember that it’s all about imagining your way beyond your mundane prejudices and worst terrors.

“Fear,” as Picard says at some point in Episode 10, “is an incompetent teacher.” This is something I need to hear right now and I bet you do, too. Take the ride.

Seymour Movies Senses Oscar Isn’t Going To Take Much More of Whatever This Is

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It will do no good to say, as we tend to do every year at about this time, that there are far more important things to think about than the damn Oscars. Of course there are. There always will be. The hum of impeachment hearings in the background as I’m writing this blog keeps pulling my attention away from such burning issues as whether Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is better than Jackie Brown (not quite) or whether Charlize Theron’s impersonation of Megyn Kelly is as scary or as bravura as Renee Zellweger’s of Judy Garland. (A  hard “yes.”) But here I am asking myself these questions anyway and you know why, don’t you? Because you can be entertained by senate hearings for only so long and we go to the gauze of Oscar because we need escape hatches from solemnity.

The troublesome part comes in gauging whether the media industrial complex now cares more about the Academy Awards than movies. Moving pictures come and go through whatever delivery system we can imagine and we still wont know for another ten years which of these movies will last, or what we’ll even mean when we talk about movies in 2030. I am sure that no one will remember or care who wins what in a couple weeks because none of you (I bet) will remember who won what a year ago.

I do know this: a borderline-exceptional year for movies yielded, as I wrote someplace else, one of the least exceptional list of Academy Award nominations in years. Not that the movies themselves are bad. Quite the contrary. But this was a year so filled with quality pictures that the Academy could have taken more chances, nominated less-expected-but-just-as-worthy movies and actors. We can delve deeper into the MIAs as we always do: with a For Whatever It’s Worth (FWIW) blurb, whenever and wherever applicable.

The competition, as depicted below, is pretty much coated with chalk; in sports terms, this means prohibitive favorites with apparently unimpeded rides to victory, especially in the acting categories…maybe.

What I’m also sensing from this year’s assortment is a (somewhat) reactionary bent from an academy that may have gotten (somewhat) fed up with the hoops it’s had to leap through over the previous decade on matters of diversity, independent films and streaming services. If there were a comic-book superhero movie successful enough to be worth the trouble, members might not only have nominated it, but given it several key awards just to spite the cinema snobs.

Oh wait. There is, in fact, a comic-book supervillain movie showing signs of doing exactly that on the evening of February 9th.

Zounds! That means this thing is bearing down on us harder than usual this season. So why wait any longer to get to the picks? The future, in more ways than one, is now.

 

Best Picture:
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
JoJo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
x-1917
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite

Director:
Martin Scorsese The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
x-Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

The Irishman looked like an early favorite heading into the season. But the suspicion here is that, as with Marriage Story, there’s just too damn much Netflix around this stuff for movie traditionalists to come to terms with. Roma had the same problem last year, along with English subtitles. This latter aspect would seem to disqualify Parasite, though its overall popularity is far broader than Roma’s ever was. Something tells me that, of all the rest, 1917 is exactly what we think of when we think of “Oscar bait.” It has all the elements: a big-screen narrative far more suited to theatrical than living-room viewing; technical virtuosity in service to a grandly mounted tribute to The Human Spirit (plus it’s a truly absorbing ride); and it has Sam Mendes, who carries the kind of cachet of Serious Adult Film Director that Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler or David Lean used to carry into battles for Oscar, even though I happen to think he’s closer to Zinnemann than to the other two. That Mendes already has one of these (2000 for American Beauty) won’t necessarily keep him from getting another. Lately, however, the splits between best film and best director have happened more often than they used to, and Parasite has connected so hard and deep with all kinds of audiences living life in the 21st century’s global economy that it’s not inconceivable that its director will be honored individually for it, along with the all-but-inevitable Oscar the movie will receive for what they’re now calling “International Feature Film.”

FWIW: Just for the record, my favorite movie of 2019 was The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is the very antithesis of whatever “Oscar bait” means. I also would have been OK with The Irishman or Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood winning the top prize. But those two, I think, were made for the longer haul of historic debate, not for Oscar’s ultimate approbation.

Lead Actor:
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
x-Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

 

 

 

 

Phoenix has specialized in desperate, marginalized men driven to erratic, often explosive (mis)behavior. He once played somebody with those traits named “Joaquin Phoenix” who showed up on David Letterman’s couch seemingly intent on setting his career on fire. Here he’s perceived as having gone “all out” with this persona and there’s nothing Hollywood likes better than honoring performances perceived as being “all out” as opposed to just “out there.” It will do no good to maintain that he was better in Inherent Vice or even The Master because those characters just, you know, bothered people. As God’s Lonely Guy who became Batman’s nemesis, he’s made marginalization palatable, even tamer, by ramping up the pathos and making The Joker (or is it now just “Joker”?) a surrogate for all those who feel left out. Which is no small achievement – and destined for the Academy’s enshrinement.

FWIW: Of course, I preferred the quieter and thus more unsettling alienation afflicting Banderas’ aging artist in Pain and Glory. And however much I became annoyed with Driver’s younger, more mercurial artist in Marriage Story, I believed him to be much more an embodiment of the present-day zeitgeist than Phoenix’s prancing sociopath. But I’d much rather talk about Eddie Murphy’s noticeable absence from this list. What happened? Was Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore not outrageous enough? Or would the Academy have been more wowed if he’d done his own spin on Moore’s Dolemite character? Maybe there simply wasn’t enough room for Murphy – or, it would seem, for anything else connected with Dolemite is My Name, which may not have been the year’s best, but was a better and more revelatory movie than Green Book. And while I understand Adam Sandler’s relief over not having to wear a tux for a few more nights, he should have been in this mix for his nitro-powered jitteriness in Uncut Gems.

 

 

 

 

 

Lead Actress:
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
x-Renee Zelwegger, Judy 

As with Phoenix, Zellweger is this year’s exemplar of a performer going “all out,” specifically in an eerily on-point evocation of a stage-and-screen legend in decline. Also as with Phoenix, pathos has a lot to contribute to her big lead — and she does all her own singing, too. It’s such a compelling turn that almost everything else about the movie blurs around it. And this could be a problem for her. She wouldn’t be the first star whose movie ultimately lets her down. (It seems a recurring liability in biopics.) Because of this as well as some shade being thrown on her movie by Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, Zellweger’s lead is the one most vulnerable to an upset – though one wonders if a Scarlett Johansson win would be much of an upset. Hers is the performance on this ballot that grows on you the most with its emotional variety and tonal progressions. And the fact that she’s under Academy inspection for another performance in another category could enhance her chances here. Hollywood worships Judy Garland and admires anybody willing to do her justice. But to take a cue from Sally Field, Hollywood likes, really likes Scar-Jo and could show her how much they do in this category – or even in the other one. But we’ll get there soon enough.

 

 

UPDATE (2/6) — Forget Marriage Story. Not at all as beloved in L.A. whose residents, I sense, feel somewhat dissed by their depiction. It’s Zelwegger after all. 

 

 

Supporting Actor:
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
x-Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I hope Pitt appreciates the magnitude of his competition. All the other guys have won before and been nominated more often. The thing is: Pitt does appreciate it, which is what makes him as lovable among voters as Johansson. Then again, they liked Sylvester Stallone, too and Mark Rylance picked his pocket (deservedly so) four years ago in this category. The same thing could very well happen here as this is the one category where acting chops are given heavier weight than in others. (Pesci or even Hanks could be the beneficiary.) Pitt’s performance, however, is a marvel of subtle grace and containment, verities of terrific screen acting that never – or practically never – are honored by Oscar whenever they surface. I’m still going with Pitt, but I think his triumph here will be a bigger “upset” than most believe.

FWIW: Would Christian Bale or Matt Damon in Ford vs. Ferrari qualify here or for lead actor? Either way, I’d have been happy to see one or both in this board game along with Wesley Snipes in his sneaky-great eccentric turn in Dolemite.

Supporting Actress:
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
x-Scarlett Johansson, JoJo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

 

 

 

 

Dern is Hollywood royalty and Hollywood’s been waiting for an opportunity to reward her years of daring and diligence. Though I think her harder-than-it-looks work in Little Women was what should have landed here, her icy, commanding divorce lawyer is likely very familiar to most Academy voters and the shock of recognition alone could be enough to power her to the winner’s circle.

 

 

 

 

FWIW: Then again, Johansson’s performance as single mom to a Nazi brat in JoJo Rabbit is, as critics have observed, the luminous soul of the movie and if she doesn’t upset Zellweger in the lead category, she could very well pull it off here.  (UPDATE  (2/6) — I’m now thinking she will.) As for MIAs, my one-and-only here is Idina Menzel as Adam Sandler’s taking-no-shit-and-giving-negative-fucks wife in Uncut Gems

 

 

Adapted Screenplay

The Irishman, Steven Zaillian
JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi
Joker, Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Little Women, Greta Gerwig
The Two Popes, Anthony McCarthy

Here is where the consolation prizes are usually given for those movies otherwise overtaken elsewhere and it’s where I think Irishman avoids getting skunked for the night – though either Joker or JoJo could take it away.

FWIW: The case has been advanced — though not, in my opinion, made – that Gerwig’s interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s book errs too much on the side of modernist, or even post-modernist thinking, robbing the story of the warmth and magic that has sustained it through several previous adaptations. I can’t believe that the Academy carries similar qualms, but I suppose it’s as good an excuse as any to wave her along. I hope in any case that I’m wrong about this.

UPDATE (2/2) — Whoops! The WGA has spoken and it done fell in love with JoJo. Nobody said a motherin’ word about Irishman or Joker or any of Those People.  I’m going with them, though it’s by no means a mortal lock. 

 

Original Screenplay:
Knives Out, Rian Johnson
Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach
1917, Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
x-Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won Han

Another strong field, and the tendency as always is to go with the dude with the smartest, freshest mouth in the pack. Johnson’s crafty script is a dark horse. But here is yet another opportunity to gauge the degree to which Parasite has become a global phenomenon.

FWIW:  OTOH, if 1917 gets this, the night is essentially over.

Animated Feature:

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
xKlaus
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Jérémy Clapin’s odyssey of a disembodied hand in search of its owner was one of the most original films of any kind this past year. Of course, this means it hasn’t a chance in hell of overtaking Buzz and Woody’s latest adventures. Curiously, though, any of the remaining three contenders could.

 

 

 

 

UPDATE (1/27) — And if the shockeroo pulled off by the “Annies” the other night is any indication, it looks as though it’s going to be the St. Nick origin story. 

 

Best Documentary Feature:

American Factory, Julia Rieichert, Steven Bognar
The Cave, Feras Fayyad
The Edge of Democracy, Petra Costa
For Sama, Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts
x-Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov

Despite the Obamas’ enthusiastic endorsement, American Factory likely wont overtake the near-miraculously rendered account of Macedonian beekeepers in conflict over the future of their ancient trade – and in a larger sense, the future of the planet. That it’s also nominated in the category just below speaks to its preeminence.

Best International Feature Film:

Corpus Christi
Honeyland
Les Miserables
Pain and Glory
x-Parasite

Sorry, Maestro Almodóvar. But the South Korean juggernaut, as dark and wild as anything you’ve wrought in the past, is too strong for your masterly elegy to overpower.

FWIW: I was sort of hoping for some love here for Mati Diop’s haunting, allusive Atlantics.

Cinematography:
The Irishman
Joker
The Lighthouse
x-1917
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Robert Richardson’s orchestration of sunlight and shadow in Once Upon a Time… is invaluable in achieving a sense of a lost world that almost, but never, was. I’m rooting for him, but guessing that Roger Deakins will repeat a year after his long-denied first-time win.

 

Original Score:

Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

 

Original Song:
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
x-“I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“I’m Standing With You,” Breakthrough
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen 2
“Stand Up,” Harriet

If anybody is going to beat a drama-laden rouser from the Frozen machine, it’s Sir Elton, who even at or near his dotage can out-rouse anybody who throws down the spangled gauntlet.

My Own Private Top Ten List for 2019: Shifting Lines

Another year for people to hurry along into the dustbin – and the one just ahead doesn’t look at the outset to be much better, at least politically. But culturally at least, 2019 was a whole lot better than one comes to expect in Times Like These. So maybe pessimism about the immediate future is misplaced, though I’m keeping my cards hidden for now. Whatever the future holds, here once again is my own private top-ten of everything that got a rise out of me in the past year. And once again, they are in no particular order:

 

 

 

 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco – It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie three times in the same year, much less have it grow inside my head with each viewing. The first time I saw it, I came away thinking of it as a lyrical, idiosyncratic meditation on the cumulative impact on gentrification and the ways it has, over generations, shattered whatever meaning to be found in the words, “home” and “roots.” The second time I saw it, I listened closer to its dialogue, its depiction of families vulnerable to fault lines of denial, delusion and not-so-benign neglect. For whatever reason, the third viewing brought out in sharp relief the speech by budding playwright Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors) about the violent death of a friend and how whole lives, especially those belonging to young black men, are so often put in boxes by others and how it’s left to those young men to break out of those boxes by themselves. It made me think of boxes I’d been forced to occupy and bust open on my own throughout my life and, in the context of Joe Talbot’s debut feature, I started to wonder, with some distress, whether home, or even the desire for home, made up a kind of box that constrains one’s best aspirations. I bet if I watched it for a fourth, fifth and seventh time I’d start thinking of other, different things to unsettle me. No matter how many times I see it, the one line that’ll stay with me belongs, appropriately, to Jimmie Falls, the movie’s star and co-screenwriter, who gently chides a bus-riding sourpuss for bad-mouthing the home town that’s picked him up and slammed him down: “You don’t get to hate it, unless you love it.” Some movies are too small for the thoughts that contain them. But this movie has a soul big enough to set free hundreds of dreams, whether renovated or built from scratch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watchmen – “I’m not a Republic serial villain,” Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias insists in the original 1986-87 Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons graphic novel just before he makes millions of heads explode in New York City. Damon Lindelof’s sequel/reinvention for HBO made America’s heads explode by fashioning a harrowing version of a 1940s Republic movie serial spiked with sex, drugs and sociopolitical science. Among the many miracles of this brash and daring venture, the most noteworthy may be how it shares with its source material the way it weaves pulp mythology of costumed vigilantes into an oddly plausible version of 20th century history, leaving us all in pretty much the same sorry, disheartening mess we’re in at the precipice of true-life 2020. On a far less cosmic level, I have along with many others in the Twitter-verse found among many new reasons to love Regina King the way her character says “motherfucker” with the sweep and precision of a nothing-but-net three-pointer.

 

 

 

On The Media – I’ve long stopped watching nightly newscasts and would just as soon skip whatever the 24-hour news cycle has to offer at any given interval. But for the sake of whatever sanity I can maintain when dealing with the awfulness of the present, I never miss WNYC’s inquiry into all things media. Week after week, co-hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, along with their doughty support team of editors and producers, manage, with probing intelligence and gimlet-eyed scrutiny, to get at whatever’s been bothering me about the way things are and – mostly – aren’t covered by what we used to call “the press.” They are the go-to source for slicing and dicing though the smoggy mendacity of the Trump administration and its enablers. They secure your trust by chasing down truth, lies and, most of all, context. It isn’t enough, for instance, to say that the justice system is dysfunctional. So they will give you the historical factors – cultural, political and racial – behind mass incarceration. And not just that issue, but also poverty, climate change, education, foreign policy and housing. The program’s signature achievement in this especially estimable year was its series on “The Scarlet E,” as in “eviction,” one of many stories festering in post-Millennial America that doesn’t get as much attention in the media biosphere as, say, whatever Bill Gates is or isn’t doing with his money – even though they’ve got that covered like a blanket too. More than most of the media it holds accountable, this series fulfills the basic requirement for delivering the news by telling you things you didn’t already know and reminding you of things too important to forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood & Dolemite is My Name – If I owned a repertory house or a drive-in, I would make these a double feature that I made sure to exhibit every year (late summer, I think). Though they’re set a few years apart from each other near the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s, both movies appear to be conversing from opposite ends of the culture about a transformative era for American movies. Traditions that were either falling apart or recombining in Quentin Tarantino’s iridescent alternate history of 1969 were pulled from back alley trash compactors by the working-class L.A. schemers and dreamers brought to merry life by director Craig Brewer and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. The reinvention of Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy in what some keep insisting is a “comeback” even though he’s never really gone away) gives off a giddy vibe of a rags-to-raggedy-ass-riches saga, a kind of  lounge-lizard’s version of Up From Slavery with an upraised middle finger goading you to eat its dust. Once Upon a Time…is in a starkly different manner a Pilgrim’s Progress saga, though you’re left wondering at the end whether it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s has-been TV western hero or Brad Pitt’s deceptively blithe stuntman-handyman who’s made the most progress. Such questions matter more than whatever conclusions some have extracted from Tarantino’s vision – and it is more than anything a vision, whatever you want to make of its depictions of both imaginary and real-life characters.

 

 

 

The Old Drift – My favorite novel of the year is best described by its author Namwali Serpell as “the great Zambian novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.” It begins with an implausible accident at the start of the 20th century involving three individuals in a hotel along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. The lives of their families – one African, one British, one Italian – are intertwined for what’s left of that century and for several years into the 21st. In between, there are sagas within sagas; some dealing with a woman’s hair that cannot stop growing and whose fallen strands make things grow out of the ground. Another story arc is based on the true-life effort by Zambia’s “Minister of Space Research” to train his newly independent nation’s best and brightest science students to beat both the Russians and Americans to the moon before the end of the 1960s. Eventually the tangled destinies of these and other characters are swept up by a public health calamity referred to here as “The Virus.” Serpell’s novel dares to imagine her native country into a technologically advanced near-future that is at once exhilarating and frightening in its prospects. Add to all this the constant presence of mosquitoes as both a kind of Greek chorus and vigilant corporate godhead and you have a willfully imaginative and (I almost forgot to add) gorgeously written contribution to the shelf of such novels as The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight’s Children and (wothehell) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that realize a whole country’s heritage and destiny in a rich, capacious fictional narrative. I also forgot to mention that this is Serpell’s first novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Kristen Scott Thomas on Fleabag — There was a lot to love about the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s universally-acclaimed series, beginning (of course) with Waller-Bridge herself and her bemused, stressed-out and agreeably horny alter-ego stumbling and grappling through her fraught early thirties. I was all in on her Fleabag persona throughout her search for love, even if the approach-avoidance thing with The Priest (Andrew Scott) began to grate for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with its presumptive “impropriety.” For all its humane and bittersweet wit, the series, for me, glowed brightest in the approximately five minutes Fleabag spends in a bar with Belinda (Thomas), a corporate mogul fleeing a cocktail party in her honor. Over martinis, Belinda gives Fleabag – and us – the gift of her wisdom about things like menopause, why women are better able to deal with pain than men and the categorical imperative to flirt. Never before have I (and, I’m betting, anybody else I know) seen Kristin Scott Thomas so juicy, so fired-up-funny and lit-from-within as she is here. No wonder Fleabag makes a pass at her. We all would. But instead of a tumble, Belinda bestows to Fleabag something more precious by declaring, “People are all we’ve got.” And in case you didn’t hear her, she repeats, “People. Are. All. We’ve. Got.” Much as you don’t want to agree (and almost everything else about the series encourages you not to), you know, deep down, that she’s right about this, along with everything else she’s laying down.

 

 

 

 

 

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story – A word to those who insist on believing that Martin Scorsese’s meta-mixing of imaginary sidebars to the actual Rolling Thunder tour conducted by Dylan during the Gerald Ford administration is somehow contiguous to the “fake news” ethos abetted by the Right. That word is, to be polite as possible about it, no. The movie states its business at the outset: what else would an old magic trick be doing there? If you can’t tell from jump street that it’s playing fair with its variations on a theme, that’s on you, not on Scorsese and not on Dylan. I may disagree with the latter’s typically gnomic pronouncement that wearing a mask is a means of telling the truth. (As with much else with Dylan, he borrowed that observation from someone else; Oscar Wilde. I believe, in this case.) But the movie’s mischief is nonetheless consistent with a rock music tour whose whole concept was steeped in shadows, disguise and craftiness. Those whoppers with Sharon Stone and Jimmy Carter may rankle the literal-minded. For me, the movie’s willingness to tease at and toy with the parameters of literal and figurative storytelling is far less a concession to the present-day political madness than a provocative means of climbing out of the smog. To elaborate: I remember going to a November 1975 Rolling Thunder gig at the Hartford Civic Center deep in the doldrums of economic blight, especially in down-and-depressed New England, and coming away from the show feeling buoyed and even cross-eyed hopeful about the immediate future. Which is sort of how I felt when this movie was over. I can’t tell you why any more than I could explain my reaction back in the day. It may have something to do with being more open to possibility and risk than to cloistered indignation and fear. Or maybe it has something to do with whatever Allen Ginsberg is telling us all to do at the end of this film: “You who saw it all or who saw flashes and fragments, take from us some example, try and get yourselves together, clean up your act, find your community, pick up on some kind of redemption of your own consciousness, become mindful of your own friends, your own work, your own proper meditation, your own art, your own beauty, go out and make it for your own Eternity.” Now you tell me: what does any of this have to do with whether something is fake-fucking-news or not?

 

 

 

 

In the Dream House – Imagine a warm-hearted Patricia Highsmith who retains enough delicacy and detachment to train upon herself as well as those around her. But Carmen Maria Machado’s not writing a thriller – or more to the point, she’s not writing just a thriller. Her memoir of a psychologically abusive relationship with another woman inhabits multiple genres and motifs. Its chapter headings conceive segments of this story, by turns, as a “road trip to everywhere,” or “bildungsroman,” “lesbian pulp novel,” “creature feature,” “comedy of errors,” “sci-fi thriller,” “soap opera,” “American gothic” and “stoner comedy.” There are also categories such as “hypochondria,” “dirty laundry,” “word problem,” “queer villainy,” “Chekhov’s gun,” “house in Iowa,” “apartment in Philadelphia,” “second chances” and so on. Maybe you can figure out a narrative of sorts from these clues. But Machado is not only engaging openly and honestly with personal pain, but probing for different ways to articulate it. In the process, she reinvents “memoir” itself as an arena for scholarly speculation, cultural inquiry, links to folklore, fairy tales and even an especially grisly episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She is using all her imaginative resources to get to the kind of truth promised, but intermittently achieved in more conventional memoirs. Besides Highsmith, you think of W.G. Sebald and Raymond Queneau and their experiments with narrative and reminiscence. The real thrill one feels in reading In the Dream House is in encountering a means of personal storytelling that is original and, in more ways than one, transformative.

 

 

 

 

 

Russian Doll – Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is a brittle, habitually grouchy New Yorker who’s in a unique rut. She keeps coming to at the same birthday party at a friend’s apartment, leaves and, in some way or another (falling down stairs, struck by a car, blown up by a gas stove, etc.), dies soon after, only to find herself immediately getting ready to leave the same party and the same apartment for yet another “Appointment in Samarra.” So far, so “Groundhog Day.” But this Netflix series is different in many ways, not least because eventually Nadia finds that she’s not the only one going through this. “I die all the time,” a guy named Alan (Charlie Barnett) tells her as the elevator car they’re sharing is about to crash to the ground. So now they’re each other’s chronic-death buddies, roaming the streets of Lower Manhattan in search of clues, patterns, some kind of rational explanation for their shared predicament before one or both of them get killed again. Somehow this feels less like a “Groundhog Day” variation than a post-9-11 version; one where New Yorkers feel stalked and at times overcome by the prospect of death from anywhere, but are somehow more intensely in pursuit of life. What makes this more than a clever conceit is Lyonne’s magnetic presence. As with everything she does, Lyonne combines the brassy tempo of a thirties screwball-comedy heroine with the brainy poise of a fifties TV private eye. She keeps us on the edge of our seats even though we know she’s never really going anywhere. At least, we hope not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott’s novel is so durable and well-crafted that it’s next-to-impossible to make a bad movie out of it, even if you were trying hard to do so. The challenge, however, comes in trying to find new ways of telling the story that doesn’t mitigate its power to charm and move its audiences and Greta Gerwig, of whom I said two years ago (Lady Bird) had the stuff to be a great director, has deftly rearranged the March sisters’ saga into fragments that shift back and forth through time. You notice Gerwig’s innovations without being in any way thrown by them and the glue holding these elements together are the uniformly superb performances, perhaps the most subtly remarkable of which is Laura Dern as Marmee, who is at once remote and warm, imperious and giving; able to contain what she concedes is a deep well of anger over her circumstances while wearing her circumspection as though it were her own battle uniform. Gerwig’s film arrives at year’s end like an unexpectedly bountiful gift to her audiences, emotionally accessible, yet quirky in parts, especially in those dance sequences. But Gerwig does love dance and she’s learning how to make her craft move to its own rhythms.

And now, as a public service to at least two people who’ve asked me about it, my own private top-ten movies of the 2010s. Once again, as with the preceding inventory, these are in no particular order. They are also submitted with no additional comment beyond those you’ll (probably) find elsewhere on this site:

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Mad Max: Glory Road (George Miller)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

BEST DOCUMENTARY: The Act of Killing & O.J.:Made in America (tie).

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse & The Shaun the Sheep Movie (tie).

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE: See directly above.

FILMMAKER OF THE DECADE: Paul Thomas Anderson

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2019

I’m not going to say this past year in jazz was stranger than any other. But my list is sure a surprise, at least to me.

I mean…just look at the top five…not just one, but two organ albums? Yes…and not only that, they were both different approaches to jazz organ, having little in common except some righteous tenor sax interaction and all-out commitment from their respective leaders. More on them later.

It makes me remember something told to me back in the 1980s by a very wise man named Jerry Gordon, founder and manager of Philadelphia’s hallowed and still much lamented Third Street Jazz: “There’s no middle ground on organs. People either love them or they don’t.” Jerry would know since Philadelphia has a legitimate claim to being “the jazz organ capital of the world” and indeed, one of the organists on this list has deep Philly roots, deeper even than those of Sun Ra, another organ player who called Philadelphia home and whose massive, unparalleled body of work Jerry would later help curate for Evidence Records.

If anybody occupied Jerry’s nonexistent middle, I was sure it was me, even if I could never avoid such music because as far as my dad was concerned, organ jazz was Dah Joint. This was especially true in the 1960s when he was looking for something to make the rec room jump at odd hours of the night. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, Charles Earland, Shirley Scott…those were all his peeps, his boon pals and drinking buddies. Not that I didn’t jump up and down to Jimmy Smith by my own self in those years, but I had so many more outlets for musical comfort and joy. So “love,” as Jerry characterized it, had little to do with it.

Still, as much as Dad would find the basic trappings cozy and familiar, I can’t say for sure whether he’d be able to hang long with these two organ albums. They swing hard, but they also aim high. As much as he liked to jump, Dad likely wouldn’t want to go as high as these two albums. As I say, more on them later.

I suppose that having jazz organ front center aligned somehow with a need I had from jazz and from culture in general to go hard and aim directly at the heart of things. The music that grabbed me the most this past year didn’t dwell on stuff too much, but showed commitment, energy and drive. In plain terms, these albums all followed the ancient bandleader’s imperative to “Hit It!” And that was enough for me.

There was too much else to think about this past year – and also not a whole lot of thinking to go with it. So, if passion was there to be had, my sense of things was that it had better be engaged, tough and above all smart to know where it was going and how it wanted things said and done.

So, let’s hit this!

 

 

 

1.) Etienne Charles, Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1 (Culture Shock) – I like gumbo. No, I don’t. I love gumbo. I especially love it when its ingredients are scraped, plucked, dug up, mashed, dashed and liberally strewn into the pot with seeming abandon, but also – and always – with instincts homed in on what combinations will at once surprise, awaken and enchant the senses. Charles, a trumpet tyro from Trinidad, has made it his business to collect musical seasonings and spices from all over the Caribbean to create mind-body release music redolent of their cultural origins while intent on illuminating the region’s complex history. His previous work, including 2013’s Creole Soul and 2017’s San Jose Suite, gave off rushes and thrills while disclosing the calculation and intelligence behind them. On Charles’ full-bore inquiry into the festival music of his native land, the erudition isn’t as conspicuous, but the eclecticism is. And the rush invigorates from the jump as an on-site recording of Trinidadian street musicians laying down a rollicking, swiveling beat is amped up by some slash-and-burn post-bop inventions of Charles, also saxophonist Brian Hogans pianist James Francies, guitarist Alex Wintz, percussionist D’Achee and drummer Obed Calvaire and others. David Sanchez adds his agile tenor sax to the simmering pot on other tracks and the leader himself kicks in some percussive support, even a cowbell, to the proceedings. This is the enrapturing and beautiful album one long suspected Charles is capable of delivering and maybe the best part of the whole deal is that this is only “Vol. 1.” Here’s my bowl. More, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.) James Carter Organ Trio, Live from Newport Jazz (Blue Note) – It’s been almost twenty years since Carter, a fire-breathing, bottom-voiced avatar of croon-and-holler saxophone, last took a deep dive into the repertoire of gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt. And it’s been almost ten years since he’s released an album of any kind. As if to remind us of what we’ve been missing, Carter audaciously re-engages with Reinhardt’s music and brings along his power backup of organist Gerald Gibbs and drummer Alex White. Thus, two raucous traditions – the red-hot “jazz manouche” of 1930s-1940s Parisian bars and the smoky-blue hardbop of 1950s-1960s uptown nightclubs – were in each other’s arms at Carter’s 2018 Newport Jazz Festival appearance and the clinch proved intoxicating, even transformative. Unlike 2000’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Carter’s not here to pay homage, but to revitalize such Reinhardt chestnuts as “Le Manoir De Mes Reves,” “Anouman” and “Melodie Au Crepuscule” with soulful strutting and hard-rock shouting. The trio opens “Crepuscule” with a grinding vamp borrowed from Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” drawing the crowd to their side and keeping it in their pocket with Gibbs’ spirited riffing and Carter’s bait-and-switch inventions. While Carter can still blow the doors off any nearby building with his sky-scraping honks, bleats and wails, his deep tone on tenor, alto and soprano sax is supple and lustrous at any tempo or altitude. The smoldering, bewitching variations he makes on “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” induce both terror and awe and apply a diamond-hard exclamation point to this triumph for Carter, for Newport and for tradition, wherever it can be salvaged and recombined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Marsalis Music) – Through the years, nay, decades he and his family have held presumptive dominion over the national jazz discourse, Branford has always been my favorite Marsalis grumpy-pants: testy, feisty, dryly funny and brazenly confrontational with his peers over what jazz music really is and what the public really wants from it. Whether in dispute or agreement with his tirades, I’ve often found them livelier than his music, however solidly crafted and polished in presentation. There’s been no doubt that he and his bandmates – pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner – have as keen a rapport with each other and with their audience as any working combo. But there hasn’t been a full-blown album that evokes what this rapport can achieve at its best. Until now. Something about this one pulls hard on your coat and ramps up the unit’s commitment and drive. Every member brought their A-game for this session to the point where it’s hard to single out, say, Calderazzo’s sweet, steady-rolling changes on his pieces “Cianna” and “Conversations Among The Ruins,” or Revis’ combustible compositions, “Dance of the Evil Toys” and “Nilaste.” Faulkner, the relative newbie in the group, contains and advances the apparatus with a fiercely applied command of weight and balance belying his youth. And the leader seems more locked in than usual, playing with blazing verve and urgency that enhance his habitual ingenuity. To get the full impact of this group’s high-spirited interaction, you need only listen to its exuberant rendition of Keith Jarrett’s “Windup” that, appropriately, brings this set home. Many moons ago, Marsalis showed his drolly churlish side speaking of Jarrett’s own prickly-pear personality, insisting even then that he had nothing whatsoever against Jarrett’s music, proving that even the hardest-shelled curmudgeons can call upon their generosity when properly inspired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox) – At 85, South Africa’s greatest living jazz artist finds himself deep in the winter of…not discontent exactly, but of wistfulness that stops just short of melancholy. His piano still dances with as much command of space and time as it ever did. But it now takes its time, forsaking much of the whirling-dervish momentum of Ibrahim’s youth with a more deliberate pace that nonetheless resolutely forsakes caution. The sepulchral mood of “Dreamtime” at first throws you off. But as soon as his seven-piece band Ekaya kicks in full gear on “Jabula”, Ibrahim gets frisky enough with the beat to let you know he’s nowhere near ready to slip into the shadows. He remains as open to riding the rugged and unfamiliar in rhythmic combinations as he ever was and as moving as his performance is of “Song for Sathima,” the paean he wrote for his late wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, there’s a grand and open-hearted spirit to the recital that envelops multitudes. Now more than ever, it’s possible to hear — and feel — what got Duke Ellington all het up when he first heard the Artist Formerly Known as Dollar Brand (a name he still uses on the cover of this one, though not as prominently).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Joey DeFrancesco, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue) – When I first saw him as a student at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, he was still “Joe DeFrancesco” pounding the hell out of an acoustic piano as if his life depended on it. (The kid playing electric bass behind him was then known as “Chris McBride.” As you’ve heard, his grown-up self is likewise better known under another first name.) Joey went on to follow in his dad’s footsteps on the Hammond B-3 and became keeper of the jazz-organ tradition. This album takes his talents to an unexpected direction and, as much as I’d detected way back in his prodigy period, he seems to be going all-out on this one, using all his considerable resources to probe the mystical and spiritual realms explored by African American jazz artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He even brought along Pharaoh Sanders, one of the key figures of that movement, to sit in on a couple of tracks, and damned if the 79-year-old Sanders doesn’t sound here as nimble and propulsive as he did in his “Karma” period. (He even takes the late Leon Thomas’ role in singing the lyrics to “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”) DeFrancesco’s regular saxophonist Troy Roberts plays with similar force and grace and it’s always a treat to hear Billy Hart on drums with Sammy Figueroa ably in support on percussion. But as usual, it’s the leader you can’t wait to hear whether he’s vamping and swinging with deceptive ease, comping with dexterity or surging through the changes with near-demonic energy – though on second thought, “near-demonic” (a compound I think I used when I first wrote about him in his middle school days) is an inappropriate characterization for such a spiritually-based enterprise. Bright moments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.) Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel) –– Rivera (1931-1987), also known as “Maelo” or “El Sonero Mayor,” was a genius of salsa singing, a master of antiphonal improvisations spinning choruses within, through and above choruses with such groups as Los Cachimbos and Cortijo y su Combo, table-setters for bomba and plena genres. This makes him an inevitable and fertile subject of inquiry for Zenón, who has dedicated himself to framing and extending the motifs to his native land’s pop music with modern jazz motifs. Once again, Zenon, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole find fresh, ingenious and uplifting possibilities from their source material without in any way mitigating its subtle graces. Their effervescent interaction is bracing at any pace, whether in the somber dirge “Las Tumbas” or in the rough-and-tumble “El Negro Bembón” with its rapid-fire quintuplets. As effectively as the rhythm section tamps down each eccentric shift in tempo throughout the album, it’s Zenón’s alto saxophone, by turns fiery and elegiac, that most enraptures in conspicuously, appropriately assuming lead vocals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Steve Lehman Trio with Craig Taborn, The People I Love (PI) – Put an intense maximalist like alto saxophonist Lehman together with a dedicated minimalist like pianist Taborn and you get…well, is “harmony” the word we’re aiming for here? Probably not since the word assumes they meld with their personalities fully intact. Their give-and-take on “In Calam & Ynnus” suggests at the very least a mutual affinity for ripping stuff apart and slamming the distended shapes back together into odd, but logical coherence. Lehman’s facility for rapid-fire riffing is taken up by Taborn, who is willing to fade their discourse out and let Taborn carry the rest of their colloquy home. Here, even more than on his previous albums, Lehman’s bright, bristly tone proves adaptable to a variety of contexts, whether it’s Autechre (“qPlay”) or Kenny Kirkland (“Chance”). He seems most empowered by a burner like Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design,” where he, Taborn, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid weave into each other’s embroideries so well that you can’t always tell who’s keeping time. (All of them. likely.) This, to me, is the warmest, sunniest album yet from Lehman and, for that matter, from Taborn. Once again, I’m hoping for seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8.) Nicholas Payton, Relaxin’ with Nick (Smoke Sessions) – As a colleague said to me the other day, Payton may not appreciate being on this list at all, given his contempt for the word “jazz.” He prefers the acronym, “BAM” for “Black American Music” to define what he does. As if to drive the point home, the album includes his composition, “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word,” inspired by the title of Max Roach’s unpublished autobiography and if you want to know what he and Payton mean, the late drummer’s recorded voice is there to explain, both in full and in sampled bits. It’s one of the highlights of this two-disc live trio recording, an unvarnished triumph of multi-tasking as the one-time trumpet prodigy proves himself to be a master of acoustic and electronic keyboards, capable of even comping his horn solos, which are as powerful, vibrant and pulsing with narrative energy as ever. (His singing of “Othello” and “When I Fall In Love” isn’t as masterly, but his downy phrasing suggests he’s on to something nonetheless.) One suspects he’d try being his own rhythm section someday. But at least for this laid-back marathon session, he is fortunate to have bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at his back. They’re not related to each other, but share years of veteran savvy, impeccable timing and implacable focus. As with the Marsalises, Payton isn’t shy about courting controversy and he has in like fashion used whatever rancor he arouses as fuel for his forward progress. However you feel about his pugnacity, he’s at peace with it – and you should be, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

9.) Wadada Leo Smith, Rosa Parks: Pure Love (TUM) – The peerless and, at 77, apparently tireless Smith previously paid tribute to Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott seven years earlier in his epochal opus Ten Freedom Summers. He takes what he characterizes as the boycott’s “381 Days of Fire” and unfurls from its core an oratorio in Parks’ honor with seven songs, three singers (Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar, Karen Parks), a string quartet, a brass trio (including Smith’s trumpet), two percussionists and some electronic sound mixing. Smith also augments this blend with excerpts from recordings he made about fifty years before with fellow “creative music” insurrectionists Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall. The music may not be “easy,” but its message is elemental: a plea for simple justice in the face of fear and loathing. Not to put too fine a point on this, but given the imperatives of the present day, such a testament would be worth the investment of those who are closest to you – and especially those who aren’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.) Paolo Fresu, Richard Galliano, Jan Lundgren, Mare Nostrum III (ACT) – One of the treasures of European jazz has put out three gorgeous albums in more than a decade and still aren’t as famous as they should be on these shores for emitting some of the most transfixing sounds on the planet. The great Galliano (as I’ve come to call him, mostly because it sounds cool) remains a formidable paragon on the accordion and related gadgets. But what’s become apparent over time is how he’s made his virtuosity merge so seamlessly with Fresu’s plangent horn and Lundgren’s dulcet keyboard. They collectively merge their distinctive voices so as to now seem to speak as one delicate, riveting entity. Both the familiar (“Windmills of Your Mind,” “Love Theme from ‘The Getaway’”) and the not-so-familiar (Lundgren’s “Ronneby,” Galliano’s “Letter to My Mother,” and Fresu’s “Human Requiem”) are rendered in short takes, densely packed with rich melodic invention and tightly contained passion. Some might dismiss it all as “pretty,” but you can pass by “pretty” with ease. These guys make the kind of terrifyingly beautiful music that stops you in your tracks if you’re not careful.

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION : Steve Davis, Correlations (Smoke Sessions), Anat Fort Trio, Colour (Sunnyside), Matthew Shipp Trio, Signature (ESP)
Ed Palermo Big Band, A Lousy Day in Harlem (Sky Cat), Anat Cohen Tentet, Triple Helix (Anzic)Toni Freestone Trio, El Mar de Nubes (Whirlwind)
Fabian Almazan Trio, This Land Abounds with Life (Biophilia)

 

 

 

 

 

BEST VOCAL ALBUM
Catherine Russell, Alone Together (Dot Time)

HONORABLE MENTION; Annie Addington, “In a Midnight Wind” (Annie Addington) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST LATIN ALBUM: Miguel Zenón, Sonero

HONORABLE MENTION: Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST HISTORIC ALBUM
Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
Stan Getz, Getz at the Gate: The Stan Getz Quartet Live at the Village Gate, Nov. 26, 1961 (Verve)
Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at F1rehouse 12 (Sunnyside)

Albert Camus, Patron Saint of Editorial Writers

Of all those who’ve had their say, and then some, about Albert Camus, A.J. Liebling likely came closest to summing up his essence when, in a footnote to one of his columns about what we used to call, “The Press,” he wrote that Camus’ energies “were dissipated in creative writing and we lost a great journalist.”

Except I’m not as sure as Liebling was that we “lost” Camus as a journalist. If anything, I’m thinking that in the almost 60 years since Camus was killed, at 46, in the crash of his publisher’s sports car, he’s come into even greater definition as a writer whose nonfiction, most especially his journalism, has more to tell us these days than the novels, stories and plays that forged his reputation during his lifetime.

He was often classified as a philosopher and this seems to me as misapplied as using the same word to describe Norman Mailer. At their respective peaks, both were remarkable, relentlessly penetrating observers, not only of their own psyches, but also of whatever energies were swirling around them. One need only read some of Camus’  Lyrical and Critical Essays published posthumously in 1968 and the intensely rendered landscapes of Prague, Oran, Algiers and the Mediterranean to see how he could put a reader alongside him in the places he describes. You also see this fidelity for pertinent detail in his last novel, The First Man as he vividly evokes what it looked, sounded and even smelled like to be in the houses, neighborhoods and schools of his childhood.

Tagging Camus as a journalist, however, may seem to devotees a kind of demotion from being the globally revered “conscience” of the Western world. A review of Herbert Lottman’s 1979 Camus biography suggested that the book made its subject sound more like “a species of ballasted newspaperman, a French James Reston.” Clearly this wasn’t meant as a compliment to Lottman, Camus or Reston. (And, by the way: “ballasted”?) All those iconic photos of a brooding Camus in an open trench coat, a cigarette dangling Bogart-ishly from his lips seal this overall impression, adding noir-ish glamour and affirming to some that there was less than met the eye to Camus’ philosophical repute.

His journalistic repute, however, remains to me valuable and important. His was the kind of skeptical mind that was even skeptical towards its own skepticism. Journalists insist that this is a worthwhile quality in the abstract; in the workaday world, however, it’s seen as an immobilizing liability. Can’t keep second-guessing yourselves, people! Got to nail something down before deadline.

When he nailed things down, Camus was unequivocal and the impact was, if anything, only amplified by the pitch and yaw of his self-inquiries, especially when it came to such subjects as capital punishment (which he was forcefully, persuasively against) and resistance against World War II Nazi occupiers and Vichy collaborators alike.

There’s a shock of recognition to be found on the first page of Camus and Combat: Writing 1944-1947 (Princeton University Press), a collection of his journalism for the French Resistance newspaper for which Camus served as editor-in-chief and editorial writer. In March 1944, the 55th edition of Combat ran his editorial, “Against Total War, Total Resistance.” If you’ve been alive and aware over the last few years, the following excerpts are going to feel…eerie to read:

“Lying is never without purpose. Even the most impudent lie, if repeated, often enough, and long enough, always leaves a trace. German propaganda subscribes to this principle, and today we have another example of its application. Inspired by Goebbels’ minions, cheered on by the lackey press, and staged by the Milice [a French militia backing German efforts to put down the Resistance], a formidable campaign has just been launched — a guise which seeks, in the guise of an attack on the patriots of the underground and of the Resistance, to divide the French once again. This is what they are saying to Frenchmen: ‘We are killing and destroying bandits who would kill you if you weren’t there. You have nothing in common with them.’
“Although this lie, reprinted a million times, retains a certain power, stating the truth is enough to repel the falsehood. And here is the truth: it is that the French have everything in common with those whom they are today being taught to fear and despise…
“Don’t say, ‘This doesn’t concern me. I live in the country and the end of the war will find me just as I was at the beginning of the tragedy, living in peace.’ Because it does concern you…”
“There is only one fight, and if you don’t join it, your enemy will nevertheless supply you with daily proof that that fight is yours. Take your place in it because if the fate of everyone you like and respect concerns you, then once again, rest assured, this fight does concern you. Just tell yourself we will bring to it the great strength of the oppressed, namely solidarity in suffering. That is the force that will ultimately kill the lie, and our common hope is that when that day comes, it will retain enough momentum to inspire a new truth and a new France.” (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer).

This is not writing as evasion, or redirection or submission. This is not writing as an alternative or as an amendment to action. This is writing as action. To write is to act.

When Camus wrote this, the occupation and the war were approaching their conclusions. Right now, whatever it is we’ve been going through since 2016 appears to be starting its end. Whether it happens or not, the resonance of these words and, for that matter, of Camus’ other editorials, may never dissipate as long as there are fears and loathing to be exploited by monsters.

Seymour Movies: How Batman Cartoons Are Better For You Than Batman Movies

 

 

 

The best thing about Joker, as far as I’m concerned, is that it makes Batman: The Killing Joke look far better in retrospect, if only because the latter animated feature from 2016 doesn’t try so hard to be anything other than a longer and more-risqué-than-usual Batman cartoon.

Given all the noise and clatter preceding and following Joker ‘s premiere, the controversy accompanying Killing Joke ‘s release three years ago sounds relatively quaint. It, too, presented a Joker origin story as first conceived by nonpareil comics writer Alan Moore in a 1988 graphic novel. As some of you may recall, the Joker was, as with the guy in the new movie, a struggling comedian. Only here, he’s got a pregnant wife and no prospects. So in desperate search for scratch, he agrees to aid and abet an attempted heist at a chemical plant only to be disfigured and, thus, deranged from falling into a huge vat of  toxic glop.

 

 

Which turned out to nowhere near as interesting as what happened in the same movie to Batgirl, who ends up shot and paralyzed for life by the Joker, but not before a separate subplot during which she and Batman…Oh boy, do I want to spoil it for you! (Maybe I already have.) But some shocks to the system are most productively sustained in direct encounter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, fan boys and fan girls of all ages were scandalized, screeching, “How dare you heartless pigs do all this to Barbara Gordon?” They were likely remembering all the good times they had back in the nineties when the original Batman animated series was humming along as (since I have the floor and whether anybody cares to argue with me or not) the finest iteration of these characters on ANY sized screen.

There were also many critics who wondered whether the world really needed an R-rated animated action feature. But even if Killing Joke’s animation wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, the film was about as pure a noir product as any black-and-white early 1950s thriller with Lisabeth Scott and/or Glenn Ford. The storytelling was lean and measured, the dialogue was crisp and juicy and the vocal work was superb, most especially by Mark Hamill, whose rasping and cackling as the Joker over three decades of Batman cartoons showed more engagement, invention and audacity than anything he’s done as a on-screen actor.

 

 

 

 

Better than Joaquin Phoenix?   Maybe…And so here we go…

 

 

Yes, Phoenix is brilliant in Joker, a bony wraith with hooded eyes and a heart so broken that its fragments seem to poke out of his spine. But it’s a lot of trouble to go to for a character we have no reason to connect with emotionally. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was no better, the movie’s defenders insist. But Robert De Niro’s Travis had just enough charm at the outset to at least make Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker agree to a date, even if that date was a fiasco. The movie gives neither Phoenix nor us any escape valve, any outlet for irony, wit or joy save for a few precious seconds when Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck joins an audience of entitled swells in laughing at Chapin’s blindfolded roller skating in Modern Times, a glimmer of footage evoking almost everything the movie either forgot or omitted.

Joker isn’t a movie so much as a giant boulder in the middle of Culture Gulch that’s too big to move or ignore. I suppose that’s why there’s been something about the Joker in every New York Times arts section over the last week and a half, at least. This morning’s paper had an article contending the Joker was a case study in thwarted white privilege. Sure. Fine. Whatever. Let’s by all means pump up the rhetoric about Joker being both metaphor and rallying cry for the dispossessed who would rather watch the world burn than engage in any rational effort to save it. The conceit lasts for as long as one forgets how yellow and frayed comic book pages can get over time and how fragile a vehicle they are, ultimately, for the most complex of societal dilemmas.

Still, there’s one aspect of Trump-ism I found in Joker that I haven’t yet found in any review or analysis, though it’s possible I may have missed it. The Gotham City depicted in the film looks most like a doppelganger for the New York City of the seventies with its graffiti-covered subway cars, its rampant street crime, its grimy, cluttered and combustible architecture. It has always struck me that at the core of so much of the president’s rhetoric and, for that matter, the Fox News Channel patter that both feeds and feeds off it is a perverse nostalgia for those Drop-Dead years of the Imperial City, when the hopes and dreams of reformers literally went up in smoke, white flight was at its peak and stigmatizing people-of-color for being the sole agents of their own desperate circumstances was used as fuel for a slow-building mad-as-hell conservative resurgence in the eighties. The Trumpeteers may not have dug the seventies — except for the way those years of squalor and decline made it so much easier for them to hate the sixties.

I realize that by bringing all this up that I’m adding to the same overestimation of Joker’s significance that I’m criticizing. My pallid excuse is that I’m only going along with the rest of the culture – and with the movie itself. I need to stop it here before it gets worse.

 

 

 

So I’m going to end this the way Killing Joke ends: with both Batman and Joker, mortal enemies and mirror images of each other’s obsessed, damaged souls, laughing together at the same dumb joke. It may not have the grandeur and oomph of Joker’s windup. But as with much else about that full-length Batman cartoon, it makes for a much more satisfying and logical conclusion – or do I mean punch line?