Herbie Nichols: A Study in Frustration

 

 

 

 

So this is what happens when you’re double-sequestered by piles of snow from a big, beautiful nor’easter along with the ongoing threat of pandemic – and NO damn vaccines available and accessible within miles of where you are. You hear a Herbie Nichols record and think to yourself: this is exactly what makes sense right now.

It wasn’t the music itself that brought me back to Nichols so much as a YouTube video posted by Jason Moran a few weeks ago featuring a rare WBAI radio interview with Nichols from 1962, which meant it took place on Mait Eady’s “The Scope of Jazz” show when the nonpareil pianist-composer had months left to live before dying, at 44, in April, 1963 from leukemia.

The conversation is, therefore, a blessed gift from the universe. It retains Nichols’ lovely and lucid speaking voice and affirms what writers like A.B. Spellman have attested about his warmth and wide-ranging intelligence. One also infers that if Nichols was getting interviews like these, then the relative obscurity he’d faced after his mid-1950s run of albums for Blue Note and Bethlehem may have shown signs of dissipating at last and that listeners were ready to engage what once seemed even to the adventurous an eccentric body-of-work.

 

 



It’s only towards the end of this fascinating interview, with plenty of his compositions and recordings weaved into the mix, that you hear Nichols’ frustration with being marginalized in comparison with fellow modernists such as Thelonious Monk, who was by the Kennedy years enjoying a burgeoning nationwide vogue thanks to his contract with Columbia Records. Nichols aims his irritation, ever so gently, at jazz critics, who he wishes had more grounding in formal musical education and could therefore better appreciate, or at least begin to understand what he’d been trying to do. Eady, sounding somewhat flustered, confesses to Nichols that he has no musical training, prompting Nichols to suggest, with all the geniality at his disposal, that he should consider getting some.

In my time as a jazz journalist, I used to hear this a lot from musicians who believed, not entirely without justification, that we were getting in the way of their transactions with the audience by not being able to satisfactorily explain the technical nuances of what they’re doing. Once, early in my jazz reporting tenure at New York Newsday, I was taking notes at a Carnegie Hall concert when I glanced across the aisle at a competitor for another daily who seemed to be scribbling harder than I was. I tried to match his intensity before leaning close enough to see what he was writing: not words, impressions and titles (as I was), but actual musical notation! Like…notes, key signatures, clefs, man!

I slunk into my chair, despondent, believing myself to be an imposter and wondering what the hell I thought I was doing here. But I still had a deadline to meet and went back to whatever it was I was doing.

In time, I got over this by eventually reminding myself that my job, in the end, wasn’t to deconstruct technical information well enough to satisfy the demands of those I was writing about. My job was to report back to readers how it sounded. To me and, in doing so, convey to those who weren’t at Carnegie Hall that night or any other venue on any other engagement what it felt like to be there. My readers and, for that matter, the musicians on stage were just going to have to trust that I’d listened to enough jazz, done enough background research and cultivated my instincts sufficiently enough to tell my story to others who, to varying degrees, were as familiar with, or more to the point, as interested in the subject as I was.

That was all. Maybe it wasn’t enough for some. But my readers trusted me for a long enough time to put up with my reporting. So I must have done something right.

And while I understand the frustration of musicians like Herbie Nichols, I now believe that having critics with the keenest first-hand musical knowledge try to mediate their art with the public doesn’t necessarily guarantee a bigger, more receptive audience. Even scholarly musicologists, I submit, can be overly influenced by conventional wisdom and they can be just as oblivious to Something Totally New as whatever musicians imagine to be the clueless masses. It’s as true with all art: movies, books, paintings, dance and fashion. There are whole eras where it’s hip to be square, or at least, safe. Even “square” can catch people off-guard when they’re expecting something more rhomboid or triangular. If that makes any sense…

Whatever. It’s just a pleasure to be able to argue with a long-lost master in absentia. And as long as we’re here, in case you aren’t aware of who Herbie Nichols was and why he mattered to so many of us who still exult in modernism’s resilient wonders, here’s an entry I wrote for a long-defunct biographical jazz site. It also places before the court an example of how a relative “amateur” in formal musicology tries explaining genius to whomever shows up to listen. Consider this, also, a sideways homage to Frank Kimbrough, a keeper of Nichols’ flame and a great pianist in his own right, whom we lost sometime close to the start of this new, presumably better, year.

 

 




NICHOLS, HERBIE (HERBERT HORATIO) Jan. 3, 1919-April 12, 1963

Herbie Nichols’ compulsively inquisitive spirit lives within every session player struggling to cultivate an individual sound within the din of the marketplace. Nichols spent most of his career working in bands whose music wasn’t nearly as idiosyncratic or progressive as his was. If the stars had been better aligned in his favor (or, as some of his friends have suggested, he was less self-effacing), Nichols would have been regarded in his lifetime as a modern jazz pianist as innovative as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Yet it is only in the years since his death, at 44, from leukemia that Nichols has slowly achieved the stature he deserves. He has seduced subsequent generations of listeners and musicians with his angular melodies and rhythmically-sculpted harmonies.


The son of emigrants from Trinidad and St. Kitts, Herbie Nichols was born Jan. 3, 1919 in New York City’s San Juan Hill section in the West 60s. At age 7, he moved with his family further uptown to Harlem where, two years later, he began studying piano with a teacher who stressed classical training. As a youth, Nichols was said to be introspective and fun-loving, good at checkers and chess, steeped in books (a favorite author, according to his friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd, was the Russian Nikolai Gogol) and attracted enough to the popular music of his teen years to play jazz with a high school combo.

 

 


His first professional gig came in 1937 with the Royal Baron Orchestra, led by saxophonist Freddie Williams and featuring bassist George Duvivier. A year later, Nichols began working regularly at Monroe’s Uptown House which, along with another Harlem venue, Minton’s Playhouse, would become legendary in jazz lore as an incubator for the modernist upheaval in jazz music. In later interviews, Nichols would say he was both stimulated and put off by the hothouse competitive atmosphere generated by the virtuosi who would invent bebop and other post-swing genres. He was unhappy with what he later characterized as a clique mentality among the musicians who worked at Monroe’s and Minton’s. The critic Leonard Feather, in liner notes written for one of Nichols’ 1955 Blue Note albums, recalled Nichols being “pushed off the piano stool” at after-hours jam sessions by less-talented players.


He was drafted in 1941 and served 18 months in the Infantry with little opportunity to either take part in battle or play music. When he returned to New York in 1943, Nichols was unable to connect with the burgeoning bebop movement, playing mostly with rhythm-and-blues or New Orleans-style bands. Among his more prominent employers from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s were Danny Barker, Hal Singer, Illinois Jacquet, Snub Mosely, Arnett Cobb, Edgar Sampson and John Kirby. Through it all, Nichols was also struggling to find his way as a composer, sending off musical pieces that were either neglected or rejected by publishers.

 

 

 


Then in 1951, Nichols met Mary Lou Williams, a pianist attracted to the kind of quirky, insurgent music being written by Monk and his contemporaries. After hearing Nichols play some of his compositions, Williams recorded three of his tunes, “The Bebop Waltz” (which she re-titled “Mary’s Waltz”), “Stennell,” which she dubbed “Opus 2” and “At Da Function.” (Nichols’ flair with titling his own work would become apparent as he recorded as a leader, though his most famous piece, “Lady Sings the Blues” was originally dubbed “Serenade,” until Billie Holiday heard it and was so taken with the melody that she wrote her own lyrics to the tune, whose new name was also the title of her 1955 autobiography.)
Nichols continued to work mostly for traditional jazz and swing bands throughout the northeastern United States while auditioning for his own club dates and recording sessions. Blue Note Records co-owner Alfred Lion remembers Nichols being especially persistent for more than a decade in asking for a chance to record his own music. Lion gave Nichols his shot. In May and August, 1955, Nichols recorded with bassist Al McKibbon and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He recorded another session the following August with Roach and bassist Teddy Kotick. Two 10-inch albums were released by Blue Note from those sessions and were immediately hailed by critics, though relatively neglected by the public. The same outcome greeted his only other album as a leader, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, released in 1957 by Bethlehem to glowing reviews and anemic sales.

 

 

 


Nichols went back to playing Dixieland music for dough, though in his latter years, his recordings had acquired cult status among an emergent generation of progressive musicians, including Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Buell Neidlinger and Roswell Rudd. Nichols’ reputation as a composer and innovator was still a well-kept secret and his frustration only deepened with every throwaway gig, every indifferent audience he faced. “He seemed to be dying of disillusionment,” wrote A.B. Spellman, the critic and historian whose 1966 book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, helped set in motion Nichols’ posthumous restoration. “He knew his worth, but it seemed as if nobody else did.”


Perhaps only a sensibility as independent, contemplative, wistful and tenacious as Nichols could have forged such alluring, yet provocative music. As with his friend and rival Monk, Nichols plays and writes with calculated indifference to melodic and harmonic convention. His main themes, as with the aforementioned “Lady Sings the Blues”, are accessible and even “hum-able.” Yet his variations often spread themselves in eccentric patterns within, around and through the song’s intervals. Listen, for instance, to his rendition of “The Gig” on his Blue Note collection and you’ll hear phrases repeated, stretched, smashed and re-shaped along a seeming riot of tempo shifts that never veer too far from the rhythmic core. You sometimes wonder whether the piano is bracing up the rhythm section or vice-versa. Either is plausible, given Nichols’ affinity for harmonies that keep time as much as they play with it.


The title track from Love Gloom Cash Love   is as melancholy as acerbic as its title  would lead you to believe. Yet its progression owes as much to classical music as it does to Tin Pan Alley song structure. Nichols’ sense of mood, drama and narrative timing can be found in just about any one of his compositions, such as “House Party Starting,” which trumps the sense of anticipation aroused at the start for the eponymous party with what Nichols, in liner notes he’d written for one of the Blue Note albums, “grave and silent doubts as to whether there is really going to be a parry, whether there is going to be lots of fun.” Contrasts stalk a Herbie Nichols composition as disappointment often trailed his life’s achievements.

 

 

 


After Nichols’ death, a host of musicians from Rudd, Neidlinger and Shepp to John Coltrane, Steve Lacy and Misha Mengleberg performed and enhanced his work in order to help fix his name in the global jazz repertoire. One can also hear Nichols’ influence in an eclectic assortment of younger piano talents, notably Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Frank Kimbrough, who in the 1990s helped spearhead the Herbie Nichols Project, an ensemble of musicians dedicated to performing Nichols’ compositions, including those never before performed, though ensconced in the Library of Congress.


RECORDINGS
Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (1955-6) (Blue Note), 3 Discs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Spellman, A.B., Four Lives in the Bebop Business, 1966, Limelight paperback
Davis, Francis, “The Mystery of Herbie Nichols” from Outcats: Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists and Singers, 1990, Oxford University Press.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Favorite Things from 2020

Just so you all know: I had a tougher time than usual with my annual everything-but-jazz list and not for the reasons you think. There was an awful lot that gave me comfort and joy in the past year because what else did I or anybody else have to do in 2020 but seek such things whenever they could be found. So I left a lot of things I could have included to the side. But I don’t regret anything I retained because the main point for me is to let you know that I recognized and embraced the same things you did and also found out stuff that you may not know about, but need to. So here we go and sorry if I missed something here. Chances are I didn’t. But because I once again reside in the global capital of It Is What It Is (a.k.a. Philadelphia), I’m in no position to regret anything here. Next year? That’s next year. For now…in no particular order…

 

 

American Utopia – I saw it live in January on one of its last pre-lockdown Broadway performances and again this fall as a Spike Lee movie. The whole bouncy, juicy enterprise is just as you’ve heard: an invigorating, beautifully staged tonic for nerves frayed and hopes stressed by the previous four years (if not longer). Yet for all the show’s ecumenical uplift and big-tent benevolence, I couldn’t help but think back to its producer-writer -star’s early life as a Talking Head. And by “early,” I mean all the way back to Talking Heads ’77 and such lines from that long-ago breakthrough as: “Other people’s problems/They overwhelm my mind/They say compassion is a virtue/But I don’t have the time.” Of course, David Byrne’s a different person from whatever or whoever he was back then, as am I. And I’d like to think he now wonders sometimes, as I do, whether the spirit animating that chorus from “No Compassion” is in any way partly responsible for whatever culminated over the intervening decades into a Donald Trump administration (especially given how some of you kids, at whatever age, may not be as fluent in irony as you think you are). But while there’s plenty of Heads music to sing along with here (and you invariably will), you’ll never hear a song like that in this show. And you don’t see even a trace of Byrne’s I’m-smarter-than-you glower from those late-seventies days when CBGBs was the place to go for the Next Big Thing. You do hear a lot from Byrne’s gnomic side; the part of him that can’t stop bringing up potato chips even as he’s urgently decrying injustice in all its domestic and foreign manifestations. Only now it doesn’t register as smart-assery so much as cozy schtick and, as such, it enhances Byrne’s bright-beaming avuncularity and, yes, compassion. He’s evolved from not-having-the-time-for-empathy to: “ As a people, we’re a work in progress. Who we are extends beyond ourselves.” Just another way of saying “Happy New Year.”

 

 

 

Lovers Rock – Taken together, the films that make up Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s multi-tiered chroniclie of the West Indian experience in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, are a revelation, sweeping and intimate in their depiction of tribulation, perseverance and resistance in the face of white bigotry. The eruption of militant Black protest is given the same respect as the determination of a young Jamaican to protect his community by becoming a patrolman. The harsh coming-of-age of a celebrated YA writer illuminates an era as powerfully as the account of promising, but misunderstood Black children systemically funneled into subpar educational facilities. At times, McQueen can be overly emphatic. In Education, for instance, he piles on the soul-killing drudgery imposed upon warehoused children, making you, at one point, resent the movie almost as much as the clueless white teacher mangling “House of the Rising Sun.” But you don’t in the least mind the way McQueen goes all out in Lovers Rock, a one-of-a-kind depiction of a 1980 reggae house party in which two young people (Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) manage to go through a full courtship during a tightly wound night of music, food and dance. You’re spellbound by the way these smart, resilient and beautiful kids inject their own martial arts movies into “Kung Fu Fighting.” And you give in to rapture as the young women keep swaying to and singing the lyrics of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” after the record stops playing, in key and keeping the beat. You fall in love with the movie in the same way that the movie – and McQueen’s series — loves its people.

 

 

 

 


The Queen’s Gambit – Its worldwide popularity has set off the inevitable backlash for any number of perceived sins, e.g. too slick, too soapy, too pulpy, whatever. But I was all in with this Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel, if for no other reason that I preferred living a world in which America’s leading contender for global supremacy in chess dead center in the American century was a moody, pill-popping orphan girl from Kentucky instead of the bombastic, deranged Bobby Fischer. In the lead role of Beth Harmon, the winsome Anya Taylor-Joy grabbed and sustained your attention with the way her complicated, not-always-admirable character grew from gangly teenaged social awkwardness to demure grownup self-possession, even when, near the crest of triumph, she’s still barely holding it together. Verisimilitude is always valuable when it comes to such period melodrama and the series kept excellent time with its sense of detail from the fifties showroom nature of the furniture to the sixties chic of its fashions and, most especially, the soundtrack that took in the Vogues’ “You’re the One,” the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” Quincy Jones’ chrome-plated arrangement of “Comin’ Home Baby,” Gillian Hills’ “Tut Tut Tut Tut,” and Shocking Blue’s “Venus.” The supporting cast was uniformly excellent; in particular Marielle Heller as Beth’s thwarted dreamer of a stepmother and Moses Ingram in a best-friend-from-childhood role that she almost single-handedly rescues from hackneyed “magical negro” convention. But it’s Taylor-Joy’s star-making show all the way through. And her total magnetism was more than enough to get most of us to dust off our old chess sets and figure out how her character’s huge, espresso eyes are able to see everything happen before it happens – as useful a skill in art as it is in chess.

 

 

 


Glynn Turman – In a world that makes much more sense than this one, Glynn Turman would be nationally renowned as a generational icon of his profession. It’s enough to say that, at 73, he is a living, breathing retrospective of Black cultural advancement from the civil rights era to the present day. At 12 years old, he played Sidney Poitier’s son on Broadway in the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Less than a decade later, at 21, he helped integrate TV’s Peyton Place and was to the 1975 coming-of-age comedy Cooley High what fellow child actor Ron Howard was to its 1973 counterpart American Graffiti. Over the succeeding decades, he became as much of a cult hero for the parts he got (the spit-and-polish Army colonel on A Different World; the sleazoid Baltimore mayor in The Wire) as for the one he didn’t (he auditioned for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, but George Lucas reportedly backed away from the idea of a Black Han playing approach-avoidance games with White Princess Leia). This year found people sitting up and taking full notice of Turman’s contained intensity and mastery of space. In Netflix’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom he was Toledo, the circumspect piano player for Ma’s band trying to retain composure and dignity amidst the tempest of resentment and rage in the recording studio. And in the fourth season of FX’s Fargo, he was Black mob consigliore Doctor Senator, who displays so much shrewdness, gravitas and diplomacy among the short fuses going off like fireworks throughout circa 1950 Kansas City that you wish he were in charge of all the city’s warring mobsters, Afro- and Italo-American alike. The attention Turman’s been getting for these turns is as gratifying as the grace with which he’s greeted the renewed acclaim. He seems more than happy to be regarded at this stage in his long and illustrious career as an “actor’s actor.” And while some of us still wish he were regarded as so much more, if he’s cool with that status, we should be, too.

 

 


Soul Ethan Iverson has declared this latest Disney Pixar project to be the best jazz movie in a long time. And as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m with him on this — with the caveat that one of the things that disquieted me a little was its implication that the jazz calling and the dedication it requires so obsessed Joe the protagonist that it kept him from appreciating everything in his life that had meaning and resonance. Most of us who love music (and I’m not just talking about “the music,” but all music) believe it to be one of the gateways towards embracing life in all its outward and inward graces. Maybe Pete Docter’s movie was saying the same thing ultimately. But I fear it will nonetheless give haters more ammunition for disdaining or dismissing “the music.” As soon as the closing credits started rolling, there was also the melancholy suspicion that Soul wasn’t going to find as much love out there as other Disney/Pixar inquiries into the metaphysical such as Coco or Inside/Out. It left more questions open than answers, which makes it my favorite DizPix movie since Ratatouille – and 2007 now seems a long time ago. Meanwhile, the jazz head in me was more caught up with the movie’s digressions and diversion e.g. the rat dragging the pizza slice in one direction while the cat is dragging another one in the other; the offhand little jibe by the afterlife’s gatekeepers over how too many new souls were being herded into the hovel set aside for self-absorption; the modernist depiction of those gate-keepers that tipped its cap to the UPA and Terrytoons shorts of the 1950s; and. most of all, the characterizations of all its Black supporting characters from the older ladies rocking with Joe’s mom in the tailoring shop to the brothers at the barber shop simultaneously keeping it real and cool. When Oscar time rolls around, I’ll be rooting for Wolfwalkers to win the best animated feature prize because those guys at Cartoon Saloon deserve the love for keeping hand-painted animation alive and kicking in the digital age. But as Ethan says, if there’s an envelope somewhere for Best Jazz Movie of this year (if not the last 10-to-30), this is what it’ll say on the card inside.

 

 



Quarter Life Crisis – I’ve watched enough Netflix stand-up comedy specials over the now-all-but-completed decade to know that the raunchiest, most incisive and most double-dog-daring of these comics have been women. I’ve found something to like and/or admire in most, if not all their provocations. But for whatever reason, none of their specials have kept me coming back for seconds this past year like this recital by Taylor Tomlinson. The title refers to her up-front fatigue with being in her twenties. “I am done with this shit!” she declares. “They are ten years of asking yourself, ‘Is this a phase or is it a demon? Am I fun or should I go to a meeting?’” She’s had a fairly conventional rise through the talk-show circuit and Last Comic Standing duels, but has somehow pulled together a fascinating self-portrait of a Millennial caught squarely in a conflict between her nice-girl upbringing and her nascent yearnings to be a bona-fide mean girl. (And she probably would be, if she didn’t find mean girls to be lame as well.) Watching this tension play out is what keeps you strapped in her passenger seat, along with her gift for the seemingly offhand, Day-Glo zinger. (“[If] love is blind, lust is Helen Keller.”) She’s got so much figured out at such an early age, even with her white-bread religious upbringing, that you can’t wait to see what’s spilling out of her next. And even if she doesn’t figure all of it out (and who does?), it’s still going to be fun watching her try well into her thirties.

 

 

 



James McBride – If this country has a Poet Laureate, then why shouldn’t there be, officially or otherwise, an office for “America’s Storyteller”? McBride has been a rock-solid contender for the title ever since his canonical 1995 memoir of his mother, The Color of Water, endeared itself to generations of readers. He has since demonstrated his chops as a screenwriter (Miracle at St. Ann’s), socio-cultural history (Kill ‘Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul) and short-story writer (Five-Carat Soul). This year provided a double-jolt of added luster to McBride’s reputation: his critically acclaimed novel, Deacon King Kong, an effervescent, humane comedy of errors set in and around a circa-1969 Brooklyn housing project and Showtime’s multi-part adaptation of his award-winning 2013 historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, a boisterous picaresque about a young Black boy’s adventures in Antebellum America with the insurrectionary abolitionist John Brown, played with bravado and poignancy by Ethan Hawke. An accomplished jazz saxophonist, McBride not only knows the secret to holding an audience, but to reaching into its core for shared trauma, yearning and faith. He is capable of making everybody laugh at the same joke at once, which doesn’t seem possible in a time as polarized as ours. If you wonder where to go next, I’d suggest both Five-Carat Soul and the James Brown book, the latter as indispensable in its rock-pop-critical-bio subgenre as Chet Flippo’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire and Peter Guralnik’s Feel Like Going Home.

 




First Cow — I’ve heard Kelly Reichardt’s latest exemplar of sneaky-great filmmaking described as both an “anti-western” and a “near-western.” It’s almost as if she were working beyond John Ford’s vision, except I suspect Ford would  appreciate exactly where First Cow was coming from, even if it is set all the way back to 1820s Oregon and carrying an implicit anti-capitalist message that Depression-era insurgents could identify with. (Two ill-fated wanderers, one Jewish, the other Asian, struggle to make a business for themselves by using milk from a rich man’s cow to make ambrosial desert cakes.) It’s a movie that’s both beyond and steeped in its genre conventions and as somebody cheering for the western, in any form, to carry on however it’s able, I’m delighted to see both her and her movie get their props.


Julie Nolke – Not that we’ll ever be nostalgic about 2020. But should the (albeit unlikely) occasion arise to retrieve a taste of what it felt like to be alive in that near-unprecedented maelstrom, the YouTube series of videos by this Canadian comic actress will bring it all back alive. And, just as they did during the past nine months, her videos will continue to offer solace and commiseration for our shared bemusement and exasperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Stephen Wright & Steven Wright –Just before Everything Changed earlier this year, I came across two very different and eerily relevant novels written by two very different authors with almost the same name. (Neither of whom, to be clear, are stand-up comedians, though each is very funny in a grim, caustic way.) Looking back, I’m a little startled by how effectively both books nailed down deeply rooted illnesses in the American psyche that explained a lot of messed-up behavior over the succeeding months in the face of mass disease and systemic racism.

 



First there was Stephen Wright’s Processed Cheese, a surrealistic pillow stuffed with sharp objects. It’s set in a funhouse version of present-day America whose largest, wealthiest metropolis is called Mammoth City, whose wealthiest and most powerful resident, Mister Menu, lives in a penthouse apartment of a very shiny skyscraper. One day, Mister Menu’s supermodel wife (Her name? Missus Menu, of course) hurls a canvas bag loaded with cash at her husband. The bag sails past him, off their terrace and fifty-two stories to the street where it lands smack dab in front of an unemployed-and-desperate citizen named Graveyard. Not knowing where the million-dollar sack came from or to whom it belongs, Graveyard takes it home to his wife Ambience and, once they’re convinced no one’s looking for their money, they proceed to Live Larger than they ever have before, buying everything and anything they want. You name it: sex, drugs and other commodities with brand names like Walleyed Monkeys champagne, DominationDonuts, the HoochieCoochie flatscreen TV and, inevitably, guns like the Gibe & Cloister 418 firearm or “The Last Judgment” (with a) “silver barrel engraved with lifelike drawings of people in sexual positions most of us couldn’t even imagine.” All this and more sounds as over-the-top as that canvas bag’s trajectory and yet this Stephen Wright, a meta-novelist highly recommended by the seemingly incongruent likes of Toni Morrison and Stephen King, applies a thick Buster Keaton-esque sheen on all this slapstick avarice. You can think all you want that it’s over the top and has nothing to do with you — until the next time you walk out of your house and see all those empty Amazon boxes spilling out of the nearest available dumpster.

 



Unlike Processed Cheese, The Coyotes of Carthage by (the other, differently spelled) Steven Wright is set in this plane of reality. But it’s no less trenchant or unsettling. Its protagonist (not at all the hero) is Dre, a jaded young Black operative for a K Street consulting firm who’s assigned by his bosses to supervise a ballot initiative enabling a metals conglomerate to strip mine an Appalachian rain forest in South Carolina. Saying the least, an African American smarty-pants seems the least likely person to galvanize a predominantly white and right-leaning constituency into parting with such fertile land. So he pulls hidden levers and disperses dark money to enable a local bar owner to become the face of the initiative. Eventually, the trickery and duplicity involved in making people vote against their own interests take their toll on Dre, whose self-loathing reaches red-zone levels. “Aren’t elections about getting people to like you?” the bar owner’s God-fearing wife asks Dre. “That’s a common misconception,” he answers. “Elections are about getting voters to hate others.” Whatever happens over the next 12 months and beyond, both these novels are neon-lit arrows pointing to the pile of crap we’re going to have to clean up if we want to survive as a democratic republic.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2020

With a couple of (qualified) exceptions, there’s not a whole lot on this year’s list that will wake the neighbors or set off cowbells and car alarms. This, somehow, didn’t feel like the year for that kind of noise, though there sure was a whole lot of unwelcome noise pounding on the walls of wherever we hunkered down to Stay Safe. I would like to think that for every two or three people shut in by the pandemic who could do nothing but keep some form of broadcast news on in every room of their houses, there were one or two others determined to find in music, or any other art, some deliverance from the relentless meanness of this year. Maybe that explains why most of the items listed below emit vibes owing to the ruminative, the elegiac, even, at times, the shadowy and ethereal. If you needed swinging, swaying and rocking, you could find all that, too and I wish all three were more conspicuous than they appear to be on this list. My own impulse for breadth and adventure is otherwise mostly indulged here with the hope that you all will do likewise.

One question for further study, and by now it’s a familiar one: Just what the heck is an album these days? And is that really how you all still listen to music these days? I know that’s two questions and I’m not going to go too deep into the weeds on either of them. Discuss. We’ll talk later.

 

 




1.) Jimmy Heath, Love Letter (Verve) – Even before he began recording this gleaming array of ballads two days before his 93rd birthday and polished it to a fine gloss weeks before his death this past January, Jimmy Heath seemed infused with a magical elixir whose ingredients were known only to him. I remember watching him conduct a concert of the Queens Jazz Orchestra en route to his 90th year and his compact, five-foot-three-inch frame seemed as agile as ever; plus he was blowing his tenor saxophone with as much force (if not velocity, but you can’t have everything) as he did when he was a badass young composer, arranger and leader in the 1950s. In each of these tracks, the power of Heath’s playing emerges in its conceptual energy, the soft glow and austere intricacy of his thematic variations, whether on Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and “Left Alone,” whose lyrics, written by Holiday for Mal Waldron’s melody, are tenderly, fastidiously enacted by Cecile McLorin Salvant; or on Heath’s own pieces, including “Inside Your Heart,” “Fashion or Passion” and “Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite.” The formidable supporting cast comprises Salvant, pianist Kenny Barron, vibraphonist Monte Croft, bassist David Wong, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Lewis Nash, vocalist Gregory Porter (featured on “Don’t Misunderstand,” a tune Gordon Parks wrote for his 1972 feature, Shaft’s Big Score) and Wynton Marsalis, appropriately bringing his trumpet along for “La Mesha”, composed by Heath’s onetime confrere Kenny Dorham. Though properly regarded, to quote Gary Giddins’ liner notes, as a “stunningly elegant last testament,” Love Letter sure doesn’t feel final; rather as though its leader is summoning a hard jolt of giddy-yap for the next album. Which is the kind of monument we’d all like to leave behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign (Blue Note) – The title track immediately conjures up references to the biblical admonition cited at the conclusion of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. (I’ll just let you look it up, if you don’t already know it.) But while such a connection seems especially timely this year, especially for a follow-up to cornetist Miles’ 2017 album I Am a Man given that title’s reference to the signs carried by striking Memphis garbage workers when Martin Luther King Jr. made his ill-fated stand with their picket lines, the polychromatic music on this Blue Note debut is more contemplative and probing than its immediate predecessor. The gorgeous mosaics forged by Miles’ crystalline musings, guitarist Bill Frisell’s laser-light interjections, pianist Jason Moran’s stealthy adornments, bassist Thomas Morgan’s vertically inclined strumming and drummer Brian Blade’s sandman grinding make for a graceful, variegated sound that is deceptive in its seeming calm. The music may secretly wish to cry out, but mostly unravels in a kind of sang-froid wariness for whatever’s ahead. The presence of spirits, including those who have departed this very year, are sensed more than heard outright. As much as Miles’ music fixes your attention overall, tracks like “The Rumor,” “Custodian of the New,” “A Kind Word” and “Like Those Who Dream” also makes you restless with the known world’s prevailing dread. You’re ready to move somewhere, anywhere away from Fear Itself, even if you’re not entirely sure where and when you’re due to arrive.

 

 

 

 




3.) Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond (Mack Avenue) – The fifth album featuring Cecile McLorin Salvant’s onetime/sometime accompianist displays what may well be his most comprehensive immersion in musical tradition, whether modernist or post-modernist . Thus, both Prokofiev (“March from Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12”) and Philip Glass (“Piano Etude No. 16”) are in the house for interpretive tweaking. But so are Sir Roland Hanna (“A Story Often Told, Seldom Heard ”) and John Lewis (“Milano”), whose rhythmic poise and lissome riffing find in Diehl a stunningly worthy exponent. With his own compositions, Diehl makes his own way through the motifs and dynamics of jazz piano history. Hence the deft negotiation of space and time on “Park Slope” and “Kaleidoscope Road,” reminiscent of both Lewis and Ahmad Jamal in the latter’s latter-day period. His years of comping behind Salvant have bestowed upon him ears big enough to listen, respond and gently steer his conversations with bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. The whole enterprise emits a soft glow of intimacy braced by a subtle urgency for wider vistas. It leaves you with no doubt whatsoever that Diehl, in whatever context, has more of those in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 





4.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (Artists Share) — Within every tender lament for a lost time, there is rage at whatever’s shoving it aside. Most times, that anger is implied. But Schneider, on her first album since the masterly 2015 tone poem, The Thompson Fields , takes her regular patrons aback somewhat with this Janus-faced inquiry into what we once only hypothetically regarded as “cyberspace” has done to our collective minds and hearts. The first disc, “The Digital World,” leans hard on the foreboding, the invasive and the insidious in evoking what the composer-arranger-conductor characterizes as concurrent erosions of public and private space. “Don’t Be Evil” piquantly appropriates its title from one of Google’s maxims to its employees and weaves into its thematic progressions the familiar melody of “Taps.” One isn’t used to this kind of acid spurting out from Schneider’s orchestrated tapestries and at first it seems as if she’s swinging too wildly at her digitized demons.. But what makes this particular recording stand out, both in the first volume and in the second, more typically Schneider-esque volume, “The Natural World,” is the considerable room she’s giving to her musicians to run wild and unfettered on both acoustic and electronic instruments. One could cite as examples tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s shape-shifting wails and trumpeter Greg Gisbert’s electronically enhanced narratives making their way through “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?” or how, on the subsequent “Sputnik,” Scott Robinson’s baritone sax climbs the registers in tandem with the rest of the horns to replicate both the relative barrenness of outer space (towards which the orchestra likewise urges you, later on, to “Look Up”) and the lengthening chain of satellites playing pitch-and-catch with our unending data streams. Or how guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Frank Kimbrough, accordionist Gary Versace, reed player Steve Wilson and all the others contribute so distinctively to their leader’s vision of awe, terror and hope in the ongoing percussive shock of the new in conflict with whatever remains of biology, oxygen, water and blood. The more you listen to the whole thing, the less certain you are about where those two worlds it explores begin, end…or, even, merge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



5.) Liberty Ellman, Last Desert (PI) – Maybe the best way to walk into Ellman’s fifth album as a leader is to imagine the guitarist sitting with friends at a table on the first track — conveniently labeled “The Sip” for the purposes of our analogy – and just to make the afternoon lively, opens up a conversation with a few random phrases, each reaching around for some connection with one of the others hanging out: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Steve Lehman, bassist Stephan Crump, drummer Damion Reed and tuba player (tubaist?) Jose Davila. Since none of these guys are strangers to each other (one or all of them has at some point played with each other on other PI albums), it’s easy enough for outsiders to follow along, even if there doesn’t always seem to be a steady beat to hang on to. So you listen to what each of them contributes and what continually impresses is how lucidly the “talk” seems to flow, sometimes with Ellman augmenting Lehman’s ideas by either sliding alongside in harmony or hanging back with Reed as Lehman elaborates with mounting intensity. Davila’s tuba steps out of the background because it can’t keep quiet for long and Finlayson, now barely able to contain himself, completes somebody else’s premise with sparkly ingenuity. This is all a bone-simple way of saying that this album is mostly and ultimately about group interaction and however you want to listen, talk back or even dance along can only carry the conversation to another level, or tangent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



6.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of Wayne Shorter (Blue Engine) – I can remember a time, maybe a decade-and-a-half before this landmark 2015 concert, when things were nowhere near as collegial between the mercurial, enigmatic Mr. Shorter and the “uptown” jazz classicists of Lincoln Center. The details of this impasse are now blurry to me and, I suppose, everybody involved. All I knew, even then. was that sooner or later there had to be some rapprochement between the Imperial City’s dominant jazz institution and the music’s greatest living composer. Still, going in, one wondered whether Shorter’s oeuvre, most of which was configured for small combos, would be adequately retrofitted for the demands of a 15-piece band. David Weiss pulled it off nicely with his tribute ensemble two years earlier. But Weiss didn’t have The Man Himself playing alongside them the way Wynton’s outfit did that night. The possibilities seemed rife for tension between J@LCO’s imperative to swing and Shorter’s impulse towards introspection. And from the jump – a Victor Goines arrangement of “Yes or No” from Shorter’s 1964 album, Juju — there was a possibility that Shorter would be overpowered by the band’s might. But the deeper their dialogue progressed, the more invigorated Shorter and the band seemed by the exchange. After a while, it became apparent that the tension between these sensibilities wasn’t something to be resolved or overcome during the show; the tension was the show. And through their smart, measured and diligent exchanges of ideas and invention, Shorter and the orchestra managed to make each of these works – “Lost,” “Teru”, “The Three Marias,” even the knotty “Contemplation” sound staggeringly fresh and (very much) alive.

 

 

 

 



7.) Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, Round Again (Nonesuch) – Hard to believe that this is only the second album recorded by this celestial body and that its predecessor (Mood Swing) was released way back in 1994. Somehow you’d like to believe in a world where this band of Super Friends could have hung together for that whole 26 years while continuing to veer off occasionally for their respective projects. But that deprives us of the illuminating perspective of their cumulative growth between those albums – and the attendant revelation that they now sound fresher and more inventive, individually and together, than they did when they were daring young tyros. Redman is the nominal leader here, as he was back in Bill Clinton’s first term. But, having just edged past 50, the erstwhile swashbuckling prodigy from Harvard here sounds more authoritative and more relaxed, giving his bandmates plenty of room on the marquee and on these sessions to share with the class everything they’ve learned since they first played with fireworks together. In pianist Mehldau’s case, it’s the spherical sense-of-play on “Moe Honk” that gives his still-frequent cohort Redman another opportunity to light up the sky with his own ballistic spinoffs while McBride, now as prodigious a bandleader as he is a bassist, flashes both his virtuosity and ingenuity on his “Floppy Diss.” Perhaps the most surprising contributions come from Blade, whose trap-set back in the day emitted enough rumbustious flash and bravado to compete with Redman’s own magnetism. Here Blade sounds relatively circumspect and cagey, having figured out as the canniest veterans eventually do, that what you don’t fill in is as important as what you do. Redman’s party favor for the gathering is “Silly Little Love Song,” a soulful romp that gives all four guys a case of the grins as it also seems to be waiting for someone not named Sir Paul McCartney to write lyrics for it. (No knock intended. He’d probably suggest someone else to do it anyway.)

 

 

 



8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk) – It’s tough to stay an angry young man of progressive jazz piano when you’ve turned 60. But age will never deter Shipp’s impetus to color outside the lines. The older he gets, the more apparent it becomes that few people now living can lay down as many dense clusters of chords in as many combinations as he can. With bassist Michael Bislo and drummer Newman Taylor Baker (I think this is their fifth year together, but one is never totally sure of such things), Shipp is expanding the possibilities for jazz piano trio while at the same time allowing his more lyrical side to gradually emerge from behind his polychromatic walls of sound. The title track provides the best vantage point for where Shipp is right now: a Tyner-esque roller-and-tumbler propelling Shipp’s hands back and forth across his keyboard, shagging and snapping eccentric, oblong riffs that Bislo and Baker field with grace and idiosyncrasy. Baker, by the way, figures prominently on a series of tracks labeled, “Virgin Psych Space,” which I am taking to mean exactly what it says it means. There is even (merciful heavens!) a samba, “Regeneration,” that should someday be a global dance phenomenon when the world figures out how to colonize Venus. That this is among the more satisfying albums of Shipp’s prolific career won’t slow his roll. He’s never satisfied. Besides, angry young men can often evolve into valuable curmudgeons. Shipp, trust me, is already there.

 

 

 






9.) Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note) — Conventional wisdom insists that supergroups never work for the simple – or simplistic — reason that star players can’t, by definition, be team players. Maybe that’s true most of the time. And maybe that’s why the seamless interplay of this septet’s members – pianist Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jenson, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant – is a surprise large enough to grab your lapels at the outset. What keeps you involved are the different ways each track hugs and tugs at the core of its respective composition, economy without restraint, minimalism with soul. They all play so well with each other that it’s difficult to single any of them out. But as quarterback for this all-star all-woman team, Rosnes also does most of the arrangements and her bold, slow-hand reimagining of Lee Morgan’s four-on-the-floor burner “The Sidewinder” along with her incisive collaboration with Cohen on arranging the latter’s “Nocturno” provide sufficient evidence that this contingent has far more on its mind, and in its quiver, than Making A Point to male supremacists. She and the rest of the band give Salvant a sultry, multi-dimensional frame for Rocco Accetta’s “Cry, Buttercup, Cry.” Jensen applies unexpectedly deeper shadows in her arrangement of “The Fool on The Hill” while Miller (“Goddess of the Hunt”), Aldana (“Frida”) and Ueda (“Step Forward”) make their own striking contributions to the repertoire of this road-tested murderer’s row.

 

 

 

 




10.) Fred Hersch, Songs From Home (Palmetto) – Not long after the Black Swan of pandemic first locked us out of our schools, churches, gyms, theaters and interstates, Hersch, sheltering in his rural Pennsylvania home, brought some added light into his Facebook followers’ afternoons with his “Tune of the Day’ live piano recitals from his living room. Call this then, “Tune of the Day: The Album,” a ten-track compilation of classic standards (“After You’ve Gone,” “Get Out of Town,”) “contemporary pop” hits (“Wichita Lineman, “All I Want”), originals (“Sarabande,” “West Virginia Rose”) and even a folk tune (“The Water Is Wide”). You are transfixed and startled throughout by the stark intimacy and the quiet intensity of Hersch’s variations and ruminations. The wistfulness lurking within the presumptive gaiety of Lerner and Loewe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” is gently, resolutely funneled to the forefront of Hersch’s interpretation while Ellington’s “Solitude,” as familiar to a jazz lover as a tender old robe, becomes something far eerier and more profound given both the immediate present-day context and the implied long-term uncertainties towards whatever happens when the coronavirus is finally subdued. There’s not a single piece of this album – whatever albums are supposed to be right now – that we don’t badly need for solace, commiseration and grace. It wishes nothing more than that we stay safe, be well and hang on for dear life.

 

 

 




ARCHIVAL
1.) Edward Simon, 25 Years (Ridgeway)
2.) Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (Verve)
3.) Frank Sinatra, Nice n’ Easy (Capitol)

 

 



VOCAL
Allegra Levy, Lose My Number (SteepleChase)
HONORABLE MENTION: Kurt Elling, Secrets are the Best Stories (Edition)

 

 




LATIN

Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Four Questions (Zoho Music)


 

 





HONORABLE MENTION

Rudresh Manhanthappa, Hero Trio (Whirlwind), Charles Tolliver, Connect (Gearbox), Joe Farnsworth, Time To Swing (Smoke Sessions), Ambrose Akinmusire, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note), Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions)



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 have 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 heady 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