Entries Tagged 'on writing lit — and unlit' ↓

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.

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

Albert Camus, Patron Saint of Editorial Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bifurcating Bill Conlin

 

 

 

 

Bill Conlin was a terrific writer and a dreadful person. He was larger than life and among the lowest forms of life. This is where things begin and end with him and I’d just as soon start here with how it ended since that’s what so many now think foremost about him while preferring to forget everything else.

On December 20, 2011, less than six months after he’d accepted the J. G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for lifetime achievement in sports writing, Bill Conlin abruptly retired from the Philadelphia Daily News when its sister paper, the Inquirer, published accusations from three women and one man that he’d sexually molested them as children during the 1970s. (One of the alleged victims, a prosecutor based in Atlantic City, was Conlin’s niece.) Three more people later made similar accusations.

From what I’ve read in several outlets, it’s clear that as horrific as the crimes were (and because the statute of limitations had long expired, he was never formally charged), the manner in which he was said to have intimidated, browbeaten and otherwise manipulated children and their parents to remain silent for so long was as despicable as the crimes themselves. Worse – but then cover-ups often are.

Conlin, protesting his innocence to the end, banished himself to Largo, Florida where he spent the remainder of his days in debilitating seclusion before his death in January 2014, at 79, from kidney failure. Among its many unbearable-in-retrospect outcomes, Conlin’s steep, rapid and mortifying fall from grace was a hard kick in the collective stomach of those of us who consider ourselves proud veterans of the Philadelphia Daily News, for which he’d been among its more glittering ornaments.

During my own tenure at the “People Paper,” accounting for just nine of the forty-five years he’d spent there, I saw Conlin in person just once. It was sometime in the mid-1980s when he’d come to pose for photos with other Daily News stars for a magazine article about the paper. His appearance in broad daylight was a rarity, given the wee hours he kept at work and at leisure, along with the fact that he did practically all of his writing from his New Jersey home.

Those of us on the clock that afternoon peppered his Brobidngnagian aura with smart-to-semi-stupid questions about baseball, its content and discontents. He didn’t mind answering any of them. In fact, one had the feeling that the only thing he loved more than baseball was talking at length about baseball, sharing clubhouse gossip about the Phillies and their National League antagonists, dropping the occasional dime on a general manager or player for this or that off-the-books peccadillo and theorizing with abandon on any number of topics whether it was the Battle of Balaclava or Larry Bowa’s endless war on third-base umpires.

Yet for all his rangy intelligence and lordly indulgence, Conlin also gave off the unsettling aura of one of those broad shouldered smartasses you remembered from high school who out of sheer boredom would body-slam you against the lockers while you were on your way to class, shouting loud enough for the hall monitors to hear that he was sorry about your chipped tooth, but you were in his way and made him late for chem lab, so later, gator!

Hence my first and only one-on-one impression: A bully; bright, expansive, sophisticated, but a bully, nonetheless.

And, as it turned out in the end, much worse besides.

Almost ten years will have soon passed since the disclosures and Conlin’s soul still drifts in a Negative Zone, from which there is neither a chance of, nor inclination towards recovery or escape.

 

 

 

 

 

However…

It’s March again. And as usual around this time of year, I am engaged in my annual ritual of poking and gleaning my library of baseball books as a way of psyching myself for the forthcoming season. One of those books I always turn to is Batting Cleanup, Bill Conlin, an anthology of Conlin’s newspaper writing collected and published in 1997 by Kevin Kerrane. I remember buying the book that year on my one and, thus far, only visit to Cooperstown and that it was at or very near the peak of Conlin’s national fame as resident curmudgeon on Dick Schaap’s Sunday-morning panel show The Sports Reporters on ESPN.

There are those who insist that reading old newspaper articles is about as useful or as transformative as reading old newspapers – which is to say not much. And there are those like me who avidly read old newspaper articles, between hard covers or not, because, at their best, they can convey the immediacy of a past moment more vividly than a work of history conceived years after the fact. It is like that with Batting Cleanup: Conlin’s deadline artistry was such that one of his columns can, like a “golden oldie” pop hit, take you back to the moment they were new, fresh and in the air, most especially when baseball was the topic.

I don’t want to stretch the point too much; in some ways I am as conflicted about Conlin the writer as I am towards the thorny pathos of his personality. Even during my time in Philadelphia, I never shared in the all-but-universal acclaim Conlin received on the Phillies beat as Earth’s Mightiest Baseball Writer. My own tastes in newspaper baseball scribes in the seventies and eighties tended to favor the Boston Globe’s super-grinding hard rocking Peter Gammons and the Washington Post’s wry and graceful Tom Boswell.

But however impressive were Gammons’ and Boswell’s respective strengths as well as those of countless others who regularly covered baseball over decades, there is general agreement that Conlin had few peers (if any) in being able to break down the nuts and bolts of any game and lay them out for readers who, having already heard the score on radio or TV, looked for something edgier and more “inside” from an informed, idiosyncratic spectator. Unlike Gammons, Boswell, the New York Times’ George Vecsey and other more urbane sportswriters roughly in his generation, Conlin cast his lot with a scratchier, more combative tradition, extolling both Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young as his role models. These influences made Conlin a sometimes unwieldy, but often compelling compound of street corner poet and barroom brawler – the latter of which he literally, habitually, notoriously was.

His single greatest column, since I now have the floor, was his 1970 sendoff to Connie Mack Stadium, written in sorrow, bile and reverie, from which it is all but impossible not to quote at length:

“Connie Mack Stadium is an old woman dancing nude at the Medicare Senior Prom. You know what she might have been , but tonight she is an obscene accordion of yellow flesh.
“Connie Mack Stadium is a joke played by a 1909 high school class in Architecture. At its best, the architectural style could be described as St. Louis World’s Fair Lavatory. It makes [Philadelphia] City Hall look like the Palace of Versailles.
“Connie Mack Stadium is the adrenaline pumping, the terror rising as furtive footsteps draw closer at 1 a.m. after a twi-night double header.
“Connie Mack Stadium is four flat tires on Smedley Street. Next time, you’ll let that kid watch your car for a dollar. Maybe next time you’ll stay in the suburbs and mow your lawn…
“Connie Mack Stadium is a night under a Lehigh Avenue moon, first discovered by the noted astronomer [longtime Phils broadcaster] By Saam. It is Saam making the game come alive for those of you at home scoring in bed. It is Rich Ashburn in his floppy tennis hat, preceded by a decade of floppy singles.
“Connie Mack Stadium is a [Richie] Allen drive searing the night, the wonder of it leaping a tall sign and muting the boobirds. It is Allen tracing out “Oct. 2” in the first base dirt while Bowie Kuhn blanched. It is a lone couple necking in the upper deck in rightfield.
“Connie Mack Stadium is an old man sitting in erect in a sun-drenched dugout. It is where the organ lady quit one night, to be replaced by years of scratchy Guy Lombardo records.
“Connie Mack Stadium is the lengthened shadow of a man sliding finally to rest. A small step for any other city, a giant step for Philadelphia.”

This is what you could read beneath Conlin’s byline somewhere in October, 1977, the day after what was then a prototypical Phillies Phold in crunch time:

“Dusty Baker hit a tough chopper to third, and Mike Schmidt pounded on the wicked short hop like a jaguar running down a rabbit.
“That was one out in the top of the ninth, seven straight ground balls thrown by Gene Garber . And 63,719 fans were on their feet , a shrieking chorus that all afternoon had roared with the blood lust of a Roman Coliseum mob rooting for the lion.
“Rick Monday bounced out to Teddy Sizemore. The Vet throng was chanting ‘DEEFENSE.’ Eight straight ground balls by Geno. Game three was history. One more out, Geno baby, and this was a 5-3 Phillies victory. The Dodgers had coughed up two eighth-inning runs to go with the three the crowd and plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt had bled from starter Burt Hooten in the second.
“The Dodgers were down to their suspect bench. Ancient Vic Davallio hauled his well-traveled bones to the plate, more wrinkles on his leather face than there were base hits left in his bat. On deck was Manny Mota, 39 years old, one final straw for Tommy Lasorda to clutch at should Davallio reach first base.
“Thus began the shortest, most devastating nightmare in the history of a town steeped in an athletic tradition of flood, fire and famine, a place where down seemed like a long way up.”

It doesn’t matter whether you had a dog in this race (though Conlin’s constituency obviously did). These graphs put you in that park with a sweep and intensity that no digital feed can match.

Here’s another lead from 1981 recounting a night when the Cardinals “chain-sawed” the Phillies 11-3:

“Last night, the Phillies outfielders spent more time in the alleys than the Guardian Angels. And by the time the Cardinals savaged Dickie Noles for five ninth-inning runs, the infielders were suffering from advanced windburn. When they weren’t ducking bullets, Larry Bowa and Manny Trillo were sprinting to the outfield to take relay throws from the warning track. Pete Rose spent so much time crouched at the cutoff position, he could have been designated an historic landmark.” 

 

 

Somewhere between these two calamities, the Phillies won their first “world’s championship” in 1980 and this was how Conlin chose to end his back-page lead story of the sixth and final game:

“[T]o paraphrase William Butler Yeats, 97 years of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking ballpark. And this rough beast of a ball club slouched towards JFK Stadium to be reborn.”

A risky conceit for a baseball beat writer to drag Yeats from left field, so to speak. But Conlin’s copy often dared going to places it didn’t belong. He could be both antic and lyrical in the same paragraph with little strain or clutter showing in the result, “antic” and “lyrical” comprising an unruly juxtaposition of terms that fit neatly over the collective personality of his tabloid home.

It may be a kind of chicken-egg question as to how much the Philadelphia Daily News’ house style, to the extent there was one, empowered Conlin’s style and those of others. Clearly, his presence was large enough to have encouraged those of us who wrote in different sections of our paper to be as brashly erudite as he was. Along with the other members of the Philadelphia Daily News’ storied sports staff (and such front-of-the-paper columnists as Pete Dexter and This Guy), Conlin’s way of writing influenced our own and those of us affected/infected with its swagger forged our own variations on his pugnacious energy.

Again, I don’t want to overstate things: There was in Conlin’s writing a streak of cruelty poking through the crustiness of his persona that, as with his idol Dick Young, could egregiously bruise and bloody someone who made him angry. I prefer instead to acknowledge those bluff interludes of tenderness he could summon, as he did for the passing of Arthur Ashe in 1993: “…when a genius dies, you grieve for the acts of genius left undone…Black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, athlete or couch potato…we are all terribly diminished.”

Still it’s difficult, if not impossible to reconcile my admiration of Conlin’s “termite art” (and pantheon movie critic Manny Farber, if he’d read any Conlin, would surely place him in that category he’d coined) with the craven squalor of his crimes against children. But I haven’t in the years since Conlin’s death been able to abruptly or casually “cancel” such prose from my life because, whether I like it or not, it’s part of swarm of voices that helped me create my own. He was never as great a professional role model for me as others I’ve met along the way. And I never knew him well enough to regard him, abstractly or otherwise, as even an acquaintance. But I reject the idea that his sordid deeds inflect his work with toxins that might somehow infect me with his same disease if I were to pick up a clipping or a chapter with his name on it.

We are all left with the good and bad of what others leave behind and as furious as I am on behalf of his victims and those he bullied into keeping their pain under wraps, I can, along with the rest of you, only move into the baseball seasons ahead with recrimination, regret and, every once in a while, sadness over the deep scars ruining what could have otherwise been an awesome legacy.

My Own Private Top-Ten of 2018: The Paradigms Do Shift

2018 was, as I’ve recently written elsewhere, a year of boundary-busting black achievement in the arts and  much of what follows below will re-emphasize this point. But it was also a year when you needed black storytellers to step up, lean in and heave grenades at whatever retro-reactionary politics are throwing their weight around the country.

And you also needed these stories to reinforce something you wont hear on Meet the Press or anywhere else on daytime TV: whatever the “alt-right” or its enablers believe they’re trying to defeat has already triumphed. We have become, in pop-cultural terms, so diverse, multi-ethnic and blended together that even using the “multicultural” term so despised by Fox News and its minions is redundant and likely no longer the point. I’m aware that stuff keeps happening to innocent, unarmed people-of-color that mitigates this impact. But whether anybody in positions of power cares to acknowledge it or not, the “culture wars” they’ve been fretting about since at least before the century started have been all but won – and those of us on the winning side should start acting like it no matter what the legacy news organizations say.

It’ll take more time for this news to sink in – and part of acknowledging victory is accepting the fact that there will always be a hard, prickly core of humanity that will never accept the results. But what James Baldwin published sixty-five years ago is truer now – and, for many, harder to accept: “The world is white no longer and it will never be white again.”

My totally subjective, utterly random list of whatever moved or grooved me in 2018 is not totally white or black or pink or yellow. I’m not sure where on the prism it is and I like it that way. As usual – and I cannot stress this enough – these are all in no particular order:

 

 

 

Killing Eve – The wiggiest British TV spy series since a fat white blob immobilized Patrick McGoohan a half-century ago was also the year’s most irresistible dish of nuts: eat one and all the rest are instant history. Nutty is the ideal word to characterize this continent-spanning cat-and-mouse game between a frowsy, doggedly inquisitive MI-5 analyst (Sandra Oh) and a button-cute sociopath (Jodie Comer) who can’t help showing off when she’s murdering people in secret. The story, awash in sultry inference and disorienting menace, carries more double- and triple-crosses per episode than a John Le Carré novel. And creator-producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s variations on Luke Jennings’ “Villanelle” series of short-form thrillers are jolting and darkly witty enough to make you feel throughout as though you’re watching Patricia Highsmith convulse on laughing gas. Among the show’s myriad satisfactions is seeing Oh thrive in the deep-dish central role her brilliant career has merited and in beholding the relatively lesser-known Comer, a hoot-and-a-half as an angel-of-death who is as good at her work as she is poignantly flawed. We await a second season with these damaged souls wondering how they and their respective handlers, enablers and hangers-on can possibly continue, much less surpass, the craziness they – and we – have already undergone.

 

 

 

Lorraine Hansbury: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart – The year was so crowded with turmoil and exasperation on a day-to-day basis that it was easy to forget that Tracy Heather Strain’s illuminating documentary had aired way back in January on PBS’s American Masters series. Remembering it now renews one’s profound gratitude for not only restoring the author of A Raisin in the Sun to contemporary consciousness, but in bringing forth the complete person in all her complexities, contradictions and, above all, courage, whether in living out her precociously uncompromising radical politics, confronting Bobby Kennedy over his brother’s foot-drag on civil rights and coping with love and life as a closeted lesbian. It felt bracing and, above all, timely to have her back among us, even if her most significant work of art never went away.

 

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – If you abhor comic-book movies, I’m not going to judge, or dismiss your qualms about seeing this one. As much as I loved Marvel Comics in my protracted adolescence, I now find in the whole superhero movie corpus a distressingly anti-democratic strain that implicitly encourages its devotees to abandon their individual agency and submit to those with greater, higher powers. (It remains my principal misgiving towards Black Panther and the accompanying “Wakanda Forever” phenomenon, however much I enjoyed the movie and endorsed its salutary impact on global movie markets.) But the giddily “meta” nature of this iteration of the web-slinging wonder both opens up the genre to fresh appreciation and brings its inflated pretenses and aspirations for personal transcendence to something resembling ground-level; actually more like street-level in the case of Miles Morales, brown-skinned schoolboy prodigy resisting the isolation of his nascent genius as he finds himself bitten by the same radioactive spider that juiced Peter Parker’s metabolism to near-invincibility. The Peter Parker in Miles’ world has been killed, but a tear in the cosmos caused by…oh, never mind…results in a riot of multiverses from which a handful of other similarly bitten boys, girls, men, women and even cartoon pigs spill into Miles’ Brooklyn all capable of walking on walls, shooting out web fluid and pounding evildoers three times their respective sizes. The narrative is persistently clever and the animation is surprisingly evocative. Which brings me to another of my biases towards comic-book movies: that a pair of feature-length animated Batman movies are far better realized than all their live-action counterparts and that no Superman movie, not even those with the late, lamented Christopher Reeve resides as deeply in my devotion as the Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s. The lesson being that maybe, just maybe, the best comic book movies are those that look most like a damn comic book.

 

 

 

 

 

Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce – Don’t get me wrong. I’m as charmed by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season as I was with its predecessor. And yet, as was the case last year, the show’s sheer momentum threatens to exhaust me before I’m halfway through its run. It seems to start from a point way above my head and just keeps rocketing skyward on hyper-thrusts of spritz. More often than not, I kept wondering whether Rachel Brosnahan walks that fast in real life and if so, how much carbo-loading does it take for her to get through an average day. It’s only when Luke Kirby’s Lenny Bruce materializes from the shadows that Mrs. Maisel takes a knee, along with a deep breath, to retrieve its bearings. At first Kirby’s dead-solid rendering of Bruce’s mannerisms, vocal tics and stage swagger seemed little more than a plot device, a sharkskin Jiminy Cricket, or Obi-Wan Kenobi in thin lapels popping up to remind Midge of Her One True Way. This season, there was something more haunting and maybe a shade more ominous in Lenny’s once-insouciant temperament; faint traces, even as far back as 1960, of blue meanies closing in on his incendiary shtick. Back then, as some of us are old enough to remember, the straights went after Lenny for speaking the unspeakable. It’s a good thing we’ve evolved to the free-and-open cultural dialogue of our own time, isn’t it? That little qualifier at the end should make watching Kirby’s Lenny an even more unsettling interlude to the wacky-pack chronicles of Miriam Maisel’s midcentury coming-of-age.

 

 

 

 

Brian Tyree Henry as Everyman I’m not alone in believing that the second “robbin’” season of Donald Glover’s masterly Atlanta saw the ascension of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles to the series’ center stage. As the eternally grumpy, enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle rap-star-in-the-making, Brian Tyree Henry himself became a rising star as he made his working-class-stoner persona bend and react to the narrative’s quasi-surrealist tropes and to the increasingly dubious rewards of Paper Boi’s cult stardom. Henry’s own presence has, like Al’s, been spreading throughout the cultural mainstream from a vocal role in the aforementioned Spider-Verse to a Tony-nominated performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero to a wide range of movie roles, including the political kingpin in Widows and an ex-convict in If Beale Street Could Talk. Though he isn’t in the latter movie for very long, Henry’s presence during a sad, tense conversation with the movie’s star-crossed lovers (Stephan James and KiKi Layne) crystalizes the legal system’s devastation upon black men’s lives and the oblivion that swallows their dreams. At that moment, Beale Street becomes something larger and more all encompassing than even the intense love story at its core and Brian Tyree Henry is transformed into every friend we ever had whose life was unjustly ruined by casual systemic racism.

 

 

 

The Sisters Brothers – The year’s most talked-about western movie was the Coen Brothers’ cheeky, rusty-dusty Netflix pastiche The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I liked it, too (most of it anyway). But I very much preferred Jacques Audiard’s statelier, more traditionally mounted genre piece that was unfairly gunned down in cold blood at the box office. It was in its way as quirky as the Coens’ mash-up, but its satisfactions were deeper, more redolent of what those of us who grew up with westerns (like, say, me and Audiard) remembered best; their measured pacing, ritualized stoicism and gritty characters. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the eponymous outlaw brothers offered familiar personality contrasts with Phoenix, not surprisingly, throwing off wayward sparks and Reilly, maybe more surprisingly, evoking enough gravitas to carry the movie’s moral core. That some critics dismissed the story’s rambling manner said less about the movie’s shortcomings than the collective amnesia of contemporary audiences towards the kind of discursive storytelling that moviegoers took for granted in the days when Ford, Hawks, Mann, Boetticher and Peckinpah rode directors’ chairs on desert sound stages.

 

 

Heads of the Colored People – Among the auspicious debut story collections published in 2018 by African American writers, this one remains my favorite for the stealthy wit and acerbic observation sustained in a variety of settings. “Belles Lettres,” for instance, is presented in the form of increasingly snarky notes planted by black “bourgie” moms in their daughters’ backpacks. The title story is a darkly comic and ultimately tragic tale of an encounter outside a comic book convention between a “cos”-wearing fan and a street entrepreneur. Then there’s the inventive and similarly harrowing/funny “Suicide, Watch” [sic] in which a young woman uses social media to determine how, or if, she should do away with herself. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a talent large enough to propel her towards a novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does. An honest-to-goodness African American variation on Catcher in the Rye? It’s certainly within her grasp, but I dunno: I really like what she does within the tighter corners of the short story

 

 

Equalizer 2 – What throws you a little when watching Antoine Fuqua’s pared-to-the-bone franchise sequel isn’t how much Denzel Washington has aged. (His character is called “Pops” by one of the preppie predators he’s about to break into several gratifying pieces.) It’s how beautiful he remains to watch in stillness, even though his eyes at times betray a compound of world-weariness and cumulative horror over what his sixty-something vigilante-bibliophile has witnessed in a gloomy, bloody life. Washington has achieved more than a veteran’s smooth grace in front of the cameras. He’s made watchfulness into a movie star trademark and is carrying this stripped-down persona into what promises to be a golden age of elder statesman roles, only without the implied stiffness and solemnity. Artist-craftsmen who casually wear their gifts are easily taken for granted; a mistake that has not and should never be made in Denzel Washington’s case.

 

 

Random Acts of Flyness — “RACE IS A SYNONYM FOR WHITE SUPREMACY” is one of the flash cards whizzing by in the fifth and penultimate episode of this HBO series which along with
Sorry To Bother You was the year’s most emphatic and adventurous expression of black-bohemian-futurist consciousness. I’ve already had my say about Boots Riley’s impudent phantasm of a feature film. But I’m still sorting through my reactions to Terence Nance’s mash-up of sketch comedy, animated shorts, ideological infomercial and time-warped romance. It’s been called “Key & Peele on Acid” and “Monty Python for Woke People,” though I think the whole notion of “woke”-ness is among the many present-day rhetorical motifs Nance and his collective of artists, actors and insurgents are interrogating. In that same episode (to my mind the best and most intensely realized), the “woke” concept is countered with the idea that sometimes sleep may be good for you and I’m still not sure, after many weeks of “sleeping” on this show that it’s being in any way sarcastic; it even implies that sleep, or at least, rest (e.g. contemplation) isn’t an evasion or a denial of “woke”-ness, but a means of protecting one’s own autonomy over one’s – whadyacall? – soul? If that drive-by notion can plunge the unwary into a deep, broad pool of thought, you can imagine how the myriad content of the other five episodes seeps into your head; “imagining “being both the method and the meaning behind Flyness – which has been given at least another season to snap at your comfort levels.

 

 

 

 

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions 1965-2016 – It has all come down, or risen up to this: The largest, most expansive exhibit the Museum of Modern Art has ever staged for a living artist. For the first half of 2018, MoMa’s whole sixth floor was occupied with drawings, photographs, videos, cards, signage and whole rooms of Piper’s variegated output over six decades as performance artist, minimalist, creator of “happenings” and insurgent Kantian philosopher. The sheer heft and breadth of her oeuvre  taunt anyone’s efforts to express its essence, but Thomas Chatterton Williams, in an New York Times Magazine article as illuminating and frustratingly complex as his subject, came as close as anybody could when he wrote that Piper “has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered.” Whether it’s a “humming room” whose guards encourage everybody entering it to hum a melody, any melody; or the mercurial self-portraits that play approach-avoidance games with her African American heritage; the “space-time-infinity” pieces tearing and nibbling at the perceptions of useable space on a geometric plane; the famous, or infamous calling cards that tweak unsuspecting strangers for casual or unwitting racism and sexism…All of it breathtaking, intimidating and provocative at once. Piper now lives a near-monastic existence in Germany and has, as of four years before, “retired” from being black, issuing this announcement in yet another irony-infused self-portrait in which she darkened her pale brown skin. All this and she can still dance her ass off. I remember wandering from the exhibit dazed, bemused and utterly refreshed. (Two words flashed in my frontal lobes: Trickster Goddess.) The last century didn’t quite know what to make of her. Maybe this one will..

 

 

Seymour Movies Feels Wrinkled

 

 

wrinkle meg pic

 

 

THE MOVIE

Before she began directing films, Ava DuVernay publicized them – and was very good at her work. No surprise then that her adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time is, at the very least, a triumph of promotion. She was all-but-unavoidable on media outlets leading up to the movie’s release — and she’s still selling the movie even while it’s playing in front of you. The theatrical screening I saw opens with a message from DeVernay welcoming the audience, very much in the manner of Disney’s vintage TV anthology series Wonderful World of Color whose weekly offerings often began with Uncle Walt himself handling the introductions to whatever story or animated mélange would ensue over the next hour.

DuVernay’s Wrinkle In Time is a movie that continues to promote itself throughout. Almost every character in the movie is in the act of persuasion whether it’s Alex Murry (Chris Pine), the astrophysicist-dad obsessed with finding a means of “shaking hands with the universe” through psychic dimensional travel, his precocious young son Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe) who somehow seems to know where and how to find his dad who went missing somewhere in the cosmos and the trio of spectral women (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling) who are trying to convince Charles Wallace’s implacable, mercurial older sister Meg (Storm Reid) that they are best equipped to lead the way past the dark, insidiously transient cosmic evil – Camazotz– that threatens to swamp everything in dread and rage. The movie sidesteps the novel’s religious underpinnings to promote a broader, more secular means of transcendence: Be brave, be daring, be empathetic, be a “warrior” for peace, love and understanding. etc. The lyrics to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” just about cover it and the anthem’s forty-plus years of existence may account for its being kept off the movie’s pop-loaded soundtrack.

If the overall spirit of DuVernay’s movie intends to prod its audiences to buy into what its selling, then most of its critics thus far are like Meg: grouchy, withholding and not terribly happy with the terrain. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern characterized DuVernay’s Wrinkle as “a magical mystery tour minus the magic and mystery” while New York magazine’s David Edelstein found the movie’s gaudy visual effects suffused with earnest talk of self-fulfillment and uplift adding up to little more than “a transcendental guidance counselor’s movie.” Even some of the more positive reviews, all of which laud the movie’s big heart and open mind, were muted; Richard Brody of the New Yorker thought the movie captured the story’s “sense of exhilaration and wonder” while lamenting that the script “eliminates the most idiosyncratic aspects of the novel.”

Brody, by the way, is so taken with the novel after reading it as an adult that he wishes he’d come across it earlier in life. He’s not the only one.

 

 

 

 

WrinkleInTime book

 

 

THE BOOK

The copyright year is 1962. This would have placed me somewhere between nine and ten years old when A Wrinkle In Time was published. I might have been a shade too young, then, to easily connect with all the references made to tesseracts and other matters related to numbers and physics. I say “maybe” because in that year especially I was deeply invested in space travel and, by extension, in the possibilities of inter-dimensional travel.

Such interests, however, refused to keep pace with my affinity for what was then known as arithmetic. Both parents and teachers were at a loss to figure out how this disparity could be reconciled, especially in what was then known as junior high school. (Question for Further Study: Is boredom with school a requisite for underachievement? Discuss – and try to keep up with the rest of the class.)

Probably, then, not that year; but more likely the next couple of years when my solitary romance with time and space only intensified would have yielded more fertile ground for my fascination with Meg and her travels.

More likely, it would have been Meg’s travails that could have drawn me into the center of Madeleine L’Engle’s wheelhouse. By 1965, I would have been the same age as Meg and, thus, better able to relate to her as someone who, like me, had a head that was way too big for the rest of her body; someone who was also spectacularly uncoordinated, socially awkward and prone to wildly annoying behavior to overcompensate for low self-esteem.

The older person I am now reads L’Engle’s breakthrough novel far removed from the emotional cacophony of adolescence and assesses it as the hypothetical outcome of an Italo Calvino’s spin on an L. Frank Baum story idea as rewritten by Rod Serling – which is in no way a dismissal. In fact, one wishes Serling could have written as tautly as L’Engle does without shortchanging his patented sentiment.

Still, in the end, I don’t really know whether reading Wrinkle would have made much of a difference when I was Meg’s age because by that time, other fantasy authors with an older demographic (Bradbury, Sturgeon, Beaumont) were pulling me away from the YA label in libraries; so far away, by then, that it’s likely I would have thought the book too light and airy for the tougher, more lyrical things I was dipping into by Grade 7. But if the multi-cultural casting has done anything at all, it’s made me wonder how it would have affected my own adolescent conduct. Likely such questions would never have occurred to me if DuVernay hadn’t had a say in such casting.

That said…

 

 

 

 

Oprah Winfrey is Mrs. Which and Storm Reid is Meg Murry in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

 

THE MOVIE, AGAIN

To sum up my own apprehensions going in: I thought it was the most amazing luck that Ava DuVernay decided not to direct Black Panther because I don’t think she’s as good as others believe/hope she is. I supported Selma  not because I thought it was great filmmaking (it wasn’t), but because it was necessary to have a movie that prominently placed its black characters as actors in their own deliverance as opposed to just about EVERYTHING of its kind made and distributed by Hollywood beforehand. I was also disappointed by The 13th because I thought it was more of a big fire-breathing billboard populated by talking heads than a documentary that made the necessary deep dives into the political intricacies behind crime bills & other initiatives that made “The New Jim Crow” possible.

She’s better here, but as with Selma the actors save her bacon, especially Ms. Reid, who holds together this thing pretty much on her own and is, I think, a real find; almost as good in her way as Mary Badham was in To Kill a Mockingbird. But Robert Mulligan was a more adroit director of kids than just about anybody who was a better director of movies than he was (if that makes any sense)  and, from the way she directs the other kids, DuVernay is no threat to that reputation. Directing McCabe’s Charles Wallace, especially, requires the kind of imaginative approach to human behavior that DuVernay does not have at her disposal. If she had, she’d have dodged the trouble she’d gotten into over her characterization of LBJ in Selma because she’d have better apprehended the full Brobdingnagian complexity of Lyndon B’s personality.

Also for all her engagement with special effects, she doesn’t seem to know how to travel with them. That whole set piece where the kids are riding on the transmogrified back of Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit (or was it Whosit? I lose track) goes nowhere except around the field as if Disney were already planning the ride for one of their theme parks.

Finally, I still can’t quite get over that introduction where DuVernay tells you not only what you’re going to see, but also how you’re supposed to feel at the end of it. This is altogether appropriate for a 50th anniversary of a restored classic. But this is neither an anniversary nor (really) a classic

AND YET…

For all my misgivings, I also understand that this movie isn’t made for me, but for every pre-teen who somehow feels ill at ease under their skins. Which is, last I checked, pretty much all of them. I am hearing of large groups of young people, most of them girls, who leave the movie with moist faces and glistening eyes. I may feel let down by this Wrinkle, but clearly they aren’t. If this is, for many of them, their first encounter with this species of science fantasy, then good on them and the grownups to take them to see it if it leads them to Bradbury, Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, even Phillip K. Dick, though if it were my pre-teen, I might tell her to wait just a little bit for that one.

AND SO…?

As of last weekend, Wrinkle in Time made up little more than half of its $103 million budget. This is leading some to say the “F” word (“flop” or “failure,” depending), though I think it’s still too early. There’s always the possibility that, as with most such movies with very tight close-ups stacked like cordwood, the smaller screen may be a hospitable place for DuVernay’s Wrinkle. Until that happens, let’s, shall we, stop comparing this to that other Disney-produced fantasy-adventure directed by an African-American. Neither Black Panther nor A Wrinkle In Time should be viewed as ultimate referenda on the economic efficacy of black American filmmaking. Things may have changed as much as Panther’s success indicates. But life goes on and memories are short. Unless, that is, you’re an impressionable 9-12-year-old whose horizons need raising. She can – and likely will – do far worse than take Wrinkle into her heart.

My Own Private Top-Ten or Wonder Women of 2017

To repeat: I don’t do Top-Ten lists of movies or television or even books, mostly because none of them need my help as much as jazz does. What I’ve done instead over the past few years is assemble potpourri of popular culture items that I’ve found especially meaningful, ennobling and distinctive over the previous 12 months. I chose this year’s theme for many reasons, some of which you may infer from recent headlines. But primarily because it’s been clear to me for some time now that women have achieved prominence and glory disproportionate to the overall respect, economic or otherwise, they receive from society-at-large. Besides: Women have been doing some remarkable stuff in The Culture this year, as you’ll see below. So yeah, we’re so doing this. Here and now. And I apologize in advance for anybody I may have forgotten about or omitted. There’s always next year, yes?

tracee ellis ross freeze ray

Blackish kitchen

1.) The women of black-ish – There are few things more satisfying to a couch potato emeritus than watching a sitcom hit full stride. By my own reckoning, black-ish, now in the middle of a how-can-they-possibly-top-this Season 4, is striding so confidently ahead of the analog TV pack that it’s hard to imagine anything else in the genre catching up to it, which is saying a lot given how strong that competition is, even on its own network (ABC). Creator-producer Kenya Barris, his collaborators and the whole cast deserve serial Emmys, most especially for its hyper-magnetic women. Begin with the routinely magnificent Tracee Ellis Ross who, as Mama Doc Rainbow, is the post-Millennial master of the “freeze-ray” stare deployed throughout sitcom history against bombastic, self-deluded husbands. (See Alice Kramden nod, scowling at Ralph.) It’s probably working since husband Dre (Anthony Anderson) has gotten less delusional over time, especially about his mother Ruby (the National Treasure that is Jenifer Lewis), at once the grand dame, caffeinated diva and galloping id of Family Johnson. I’ve missed the languid graces of big sister Zoey (Yara Shahidi) now that she’s in college most of the time. But kid sister Diane (Marsai Martin) more than makes up for her absence. She’s poker-faced anti-matter to terminally cute Rudy Huxtable, throwing shade on everybody else’s pretenses with a neurosurgeon’s icy precision. Of course, she’s my favorite – but don’t tell the rest of them. Everybody in this household is special in her (and his) own way.

 

 

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2.) Greta Gerwig & Laurie Metcalf – All I’m going to mention about Lady Bird is one scene. Just one. Laurie Metcalf is alone in a car, driving around in a circle, saying nothing. That’s all that happens – or at least that’s all I’m disclosing here. Yet when you see it, you’ll realize once again how such moments make a small picture gigantic. Alone, that scene reveals three bankable, self-evident truths: You will be talking about this movie well past New Year’s, Laurie Metcalf will win an Oscar and Greta Gerwig has the potential to make a masterwork. This isn’t it, despite what you’ve heard. But it’s within her reach. Wait.

 

 

Tiffany Haddish
3.) Tiffany HaddishGirls Trip was the year’s springiest jack-in-the-box-office coup. Directed with unassuming charm by the habitually underrated Malcolm L. Lee, the movie carries a set-up that could have been too sudsy by half if it weren’t for its gently timed raunchiness and, most especially, Haddish’s explosive presence. Not since a young Michael Keaton ate Henry Winkler’s lunch, along with most of the scenery, in 1982’s Night Shift has anybody burst forward on the big screen with such lets-get-this-party-started swagger. The only thing that’s been more fun to watch than her performance (which has already won a New York Film Critics Circle Award) is the smart and jaunty manner with which she’s been carrying her triumph throughout the Global Village. Take ten minutes off from a hard day to listen as she tells tell Jimmy Kimmel how she took Mr. and Mrs. Fresh Prince on a road trip. Guaranteed, you will come away thinking: Now this is how you’re supposed to treat a power couple!

 

 

 

 

4.) Nicole Kidman

 

nicole kidman big little lies

 

With all the chatter over the last decade about J-Law, Emma Stone and other emerging young stars, we somehow forgot that Kidman was still very much in the game. We won’t make that mistake again any time soon. Being the droll, commanding backbone bracing Sofia Coppola’s gossamer remake of The Beguiled would have been enough to renew our curiosity. But what truly realigned Kidman with our over-extended attention spans was her riveting portrayal in HBO’s Big Little Lies of an affluent, formidable attorney who carries the ongoing trauma of her husband’s physical abuse with barely-sustained composure. I can’t say it any better than The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum who wrote, “While other actors specialize in transparency, Kidman has a different gift: She can wear a mask and simultaneously let you feel what it’s like to hide behind it.”

 

 

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5.) Rhiannon Giddens – She gets slammed in some quarters as just another smarty-pants “dabbler” in Americana and, contrarily, by those who believe she taints her aspirations towards authenticity (or “authenticity”) by slipping some modern pop covers into her playbook. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing her exclusively with the Carolina Chocolate Drops because as a unit they schooled you as emphatically as they kicked ass. But I prefer to think she sees everything and anything she tries out as authentic and, in doing so, dares to reshape whatever we mean by the “traditional music” that defines our troubled, fractured land. In another better time than ours, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), released earlier this year, could have been one of those crossover albums that encourages, if not creates widespread cultural consensus. Also, I know I don’t get out much, but when I saw her live this year at WXPN’s World Café in Philadelphia, she made me dream again of retrieving lost or distant possibilities. When you hear her cover of “I Wont Back Down,” conceived originally by one of the souls who Went Home in 2017, you may know what I mean. Or not. Don’t care. Love her.

 

 

 

 

6.) Jemele Hill, Jessica Mendoza & Rachel Nichols on ESPN

 

Bristol, CT - April 20, 2017 - Studio X: Jemele Hill on the set of SC6 with Michael and Jemele (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Sep 17, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; ESPN reporter Jessica Mendoza during the MLB game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports usp ORG XMIT: USATSI-169850 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

rachel nichols jumpThe Worldwide Leader in Sports has gone/is going through a rough patch, losing many of its best-known employees through layoffs, defections, retirement and overall attrition. What keeps me dropping by, mostly, are dauntless worker bees such as Nichols, a crafty veteran of the sports media wars who presides over the daily NBA forum, The Jump, with such easygoing authority and knowledgeable wit that the show’s become one of the major factors in luring me (almost) all the back to the Church of Professional Basketball. On the other hand, I’ve never left baseball and Mendoza’s game analysis on the Worldwide Leader’s Sunday Night Baseball is both bright AND smart without coming on too hard with attitude or being too soft on the players. With play-by-play stalwart Dan Shulman stepping away from the booth and tag-team partner Aaron Boone heading for the Yankees dugout to put his managerial presumptions to the ultimate test, Mendoza is now the Last One Sitting for the 2018 season. My choice for a partner would be the redoubtable Ron Darling (who admires her work), but that would break up the Gary-Keith-Ronnie rock-and-roll band that makes Mets fans like me smile through our tears and sorrow. Last, but by no means least is Hill, who’s shown both class and resilience during two high-profile dust-ups over inopportune (but to this reporter, not altogether inappropriate) tweeting. There’s not much she or anybody else can do about Donald Trump or Jerry Jones. Nor is there much to be done about varied harpers and carpers who don’t believe she and her co-host Michael Smith should helm the Worldwide Leader’s plum weekdays-at-6p.m. edition of SportsCenter. All she can do is what she’s been doing: Trading fours with Smith at the dinner hour the way Bird and Diz used to after midnight on 52nd Street during the Truman era and deploying her sportswriter’s street wisdom on every knotty sports-related controversy the Digital Age can set off.

 

Attica Locke Bluebird Bluebird

 

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7.) Danzy Senna & Attica Locke – It’s been another stellar year for women-of-color in the Lit Biz. Leading the parade, and not just in my opinion, is Jesmyn Ward’s haunting Sing, Unburied, Sing, which has already been short-listed for almost as many awards as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a year ago. I’m going to use this space, however, to celebrate two relatively unsung achievements: Senna’s New People, a rom-com about interracial love in 21st century New York City, which is, quoting brazenly from Newsday’s review, “a martini-dry, espresso-dark comedy of contemporary manners” with a “compound of caustic observations and shrewd characterizations [that] could only have emerged from a writer as finely tuned to her social milieu as [Jane] Austen was to hers.” Locke, who also writes scripts for Empire, has spent this decade ascending to the front rank of America’s crime novelists, many of whom have sung her praises for such novels as 2009’s Black Water Rising and 2015’s Pleasantville. This year’s Bluebird, Bluebird, about a black Texas Ranger who has to both tread delicately and act decisively in two racially-charged murder cases, displays leaner, tighter sinew in her storytelling and deeper, more controlled lyricism in her style. And are we all agreed that Locke has one of the coolest bylines ever, regardless of genre or place-of-origin?

8.) Maria Bamford —

 

 

I have not yet seen the new season of Lady Dynamite, but I think she belongs on this list anyway because she remains a galvanizing  inspiration to humanity, which quite likely doesn’t deserve her, just as it didn’t deserve Jonathan Winters in whose company among great stand-up surrealists she surely belongs. If I didn’t think it would slow her roll, I’d insist Duluth’s pride-and-joy (she gave the commencement this year at the University of Minnesota) take over regular hosting duties at Prairie Home Companion. This recent clip from the show suggests, at least to me, how prominently she stands out in this crowd.

9.) Gal Gadot 

Gal Godot

Yes, she was the best reason to see Wonder Woman and, really, the ONLY reason to see Justice League. If you miss her whenever she’s not on-screen, that opens up the working definition of a movie star and Gadot may well be the closest we’ve come in recent years to seeing somebody completely inhabit that enchanted aura. Not yet, though. We still need to see her prominently placed in something besides Diana Prince’s battle armor. Off-screen, she’s also thrown some superhuman muscle against Hollywood sex predators. But if there’s a single moment from last year that makes us thankful that she’s in our world, it didn’t come from her Saturday Night Live hosting gig or any of her talk-show appearances. It was this moment at San Diego Comic-Con where she connected most tenderly with a young fan. After seeing this, I didn’t want to hear from anybody with a real or imagined gripe against her. To borrow and bend a phrase associated with both Walter Brennan and Elliot Gould, she’s OK with me.

 

 

 

 

10.) President Laura Montez from HBO’s Veep – At concluding points of Veep’s last two seasons, Montez (Andrea Savage) came across mostly as a plot device, an immaculately coifed sharp stone jutting out in the spiraling trajectories of Selena Meyer’s (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) political career and self-esteem. But when she gets sustained on-camera time, Savage’s character displays hints of a powerful motor humming beneath her decorous surface. That engine roars during an Oval Office encounter with the clueless one-term congressman and “sentient enema” (not my phrase) Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) with whom the president wearily negotiates terms for settling a government shutdown almost as meaningless as the ones carried out in real-life. Watching this scene, you somehow find communion with Montez as she reacts to every stupid thing that spews out of Jonah’s mouth the way we’ve been reacting to whatever our — um — “real” president’s been tweeting and blustering about every morning. Even Veep can’t altogether compete with the actual absurdities of the Trump administration, which may be one of the reasons it’s set to close shop after next season. Right now, I would be up for a whole new series with Laura Montez’s White House struggling to clean up the messes left behind by its predecessors. Who’s with me on this? Don’t answer until you check The Real Donald Trump’s tweet page…wait! What did he do? What did he do NOW?

 

Ten Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t (Quite) a Total, Absolute Steaming Heap of Raw Sewage

Yes, I know. This happened within the last few days, followed closely by this and then, for God’s sake, this. I still say 2016 isn’t, as so many insist, The Worst Year Ever for high-profile deaths; not in my lifetime anyway.

I checked. Consider 1959, whose carnage all but commenced February 3 with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crushed and shredded by an Iowa plane crash. There followed the deaths, in no particular order, of Billie Holiday, Errol Flynn, Raymond Chandler, George Reeves, Mario Lanza, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lester Young, George C. Marshall, Carl “Alfafa” Switzer, Victor McLaglan, John Foster Dulles, Cecil B. DeMille, Bert Bell, Kay Kendall, Preston Sturges, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Vian, Sidney Bechet, Lou Costello…

Some of these deaths were untimely and unexpected, others weren’t. And go sit in a corner if you even think of responding with something like, “Yeah, but these were all OLD people…”

I can easily pull other, similar examples out of my memory bank, especially Bobby Kennedy’s “very mean year” of 1961 (Ernest Hemingway, Patrice Lumumba, Gary Cooper, Booker Little, Barry Fitzgerald, Dag Hammarskjold, Sam Rayburn, Scott LaFaro, Ty Cobb, James Thurber, Maya Deren, Dashiell Hammett, Grandma Moses, Chico Marx, Jeff Chandler, George S. Kaufman, Carl Jung…) spilling right into the following year (Marilyn Monroe, William Faulkner, Ernie Kovacs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benny Paret, Niels Bohr, Isak Dinesen, Myron McCormick, Charles Laughton, Franz Kline, C. Wright Mills…) and onwards towards 1966 (Lenny Bruce, Walt Disney, Evelyn Waugh, Bud Powell, Montgomery Clift, Frank O’Hara, Bobby Fuller, Richard Fariña…) and 1974 (Duke Ellington, Earl Warren, Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Ivory Joe Hunter, Frank McGee, Cornelius Ryan, Darius Milhaud, Chet Huntley, Bobby Bloom, Frank Sutton, Cass Elliot, Joe Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, Nick Drake, Richard Long, Cyril Connolly, Gene Ammons, Otto Kruger, Jacqueline Susann, Amy Vanderbilt…)

And I could go on like this forever. Do you know why? BECAUSE SO DOES DEATH, PEOPLE. Once you stop thinking of your own era as being, like, so totally unique, it helps make everything around you less frightening.

Repeat after me and say it over and over at night to help you sleep: Years don’t make us better or worse. WE make years better or worse.

With that in mind, I’d like to submit my own random, totally subjective list of the things that made 2016 not suck quite as much as you might otherwise believe. For one thing, it was, despite the prevailing socio-political landscape, a terrific year for African American culture, as many of the attached items will attest. And that will be as true of 2016 ten years from now as it is now, no matter what state the United States will be in by then:

 

 

Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis Köln 2014 - Verleihung an Kerry James Marshall - 12.04.2014

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Kerry James Marshall – Along with Wrigley Field, the Billy Goat Tavern and the architectural river cruise, the best part of my late summer trip to Chicago was “Mastry,” a comprehensive exhibition of Marshall’s paintings and drawings at the Museum of Contemporary Art whose breadth and intensity of vision almost brought me to my knees. The exhibition later travelled to New York where it likewise riveted, astonished and inspired millions more. There were many who saw hope with the Cubs’ long-deferred triumph in this year’s World Series. I saw hope and much more in this living Chicago institution.

 

 

ATLANTA -- Pictured: (l-r) Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s masterly FX series about hip-hop life along the edges validated my long-held suspicions that there was something about its eponymous city that transgresses laws – or at least customs – of time and space. It’s a city where Justin Bieber is magically transformed into the bratty young black man you suspect he’s always wanted to be and where every single plan that an ambitious brother like Glover’s Earn can conceive is chopped up and pureed into unrecognizable, perplexing anomalies. Though he was writing about DJ Shadow this past summer, Greil Marcus could have been talking about Earn and his milieu when he described “a sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life – finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and realizing you were born there – the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against…[But] [b]y its end, yes – you don’t know where you are.”

 

moonlight1 Ali

 

 

Ali in Luke Cage

 

 

 

Mahershala Ali – From Ali’s soon-to-conclude duty as Remy Danton, the lovelorn fixer-for-the-highest-bidder on House of Cards, one sensed coiled steel, contained explosiveness and intuitive graces that this actor could call upon for more daunting challenges. Didn’t take long for him to display these qualities when playing the year’s more conflicted criminals. As Juan, the neighborhood crack dealer in Moonlight, Ali lets you see both the smoldering menace with which he quietly asserts proprietorship over his network of mules and the deep, if enigmatic well of sympathy that allows him to connect with a bewildered, vulnerable boy bullied at home and at school for reasons he can’t fathom. For the smaller screen, Ali brought gray shadows and complex motivations to his portrayal of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Harlem crime kingpin and chief nemesis of the bulletproof hero-for-hire in Marvel-Netflix’s Luke Cage. He’s so persuasive at evoking a bad man convinced of his essential goodness that one felt a slow leak oozing out of the whole series after his departure. His dual triumphs make one yearn for more opportunities for Ali to play anti-heroes who can deal with the devil while doing God’s work.

 

 

OJ

 

 

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O.J.: Made in America & The People Vs. O.J. Simpson It doesn’t matter whether you preferred Ezra Edelman’s epochal, illuminating five-part documentary series for ESPN or the Scott Alexander-Larry Karaszewski dramatization which made heroes of erstwhile laughing stocks Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) without in any way mitigating the scorched-earth genius of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); all of which actors, by the way, won much-deserved Emmys. What both these vastly different approaches to a reverberating crime have in common is what they imply about the glaring inadequacies of day-to-day news coverage. You could argue that all the nuances, subtleties and socio-historical contexts available now to screenwriters and documentarians weren’t as easily accessible to journalists as when the actual Simpson trial was unfolding 22 years ago. But as the last election cycle proved, the 24-hour news cycle, whether on cable or through the Internet, barely bothers even to try thinking such things through. All we’re left with, then and now, are the usual bromides e.g.: It’ll be years before we know what really happened; There’s always more to the story; There’s more here than meets the eye…Blah…Blah…Blah…Whimper.

 

 

CE Morgan Sport of Kings

 

 

 

The Sport of Kings – From the great, relatively forgotten, but still very much alive (at this writing) African American novelist William Melvin Kelley, I recently found out that the word “race” derives from the medieval Italian “razzo,” meaning “any given breed of horse.” I’m betting that C.E. Morgan, a intelligent, imaginative and startlingly perceptive daughter of the Bluegrass State, was aware of this arcane connection when she wrote this novel about a Kentucky horse breeder whose attitudes about race roughly parallel those of the odious John C. Calhoun. He has his reasons, of course, and Morgan’s too conscientious a novelist not to take their full measure, however petty they are and however grievous their impact on others’ lives. His venom afflicts two of those lives. One belongs to his spirited, magnetic daughter who shares his obsession with creating the next Secretariat; the other belongs to a black ex-convict from the mean streets of Cincinnati hired to help train this super horse. I’ve pressed and imposed this novel upon others and yet I’ve been struggling to figure out why. One possible answer just now came to me through David Ulin’s retrospective essay about Double Indemnity for the Library of America’s “Moviegoer” site when he cites a quote from the movie’s coscripter Raymond Chandler: “It doesn’t matter a damn what the novel is about…The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Self-serving, I suppose, since Chandler’s reputation while alive was that of an innovative genre writer. Morgan’s novel, aiming for higher ground, isn’t about “practically nothing,” but about many things at once. Yet as with great writers of American noir such as Chandler, Sport of Kings surges and leaps heedlessly into big emotions and grand melodrama, which Chandler believed “was the only kind of writing that I saw was relatively honest.” Ulin pushes these points further by defining them as “conventions of the hyper-real.” I haven’t the time or the space here to get into the specifics, but if you can imagine what base-level 20th century American melodrama, whether practiced by realists or “hyper-realists,” can bring to 21st century issues of race and class, then you will understand why I’ve been bullish on this particular horse opera. I didn’t read Sport of Kings so much as submit to its power and it’s been too long since any new novel did that to me. (I was one of the judges who singled Sport out for the Kirkus Book Prize for fiction. If you can call it up, our citation is quoted  here.)

 

 

 

 

Arab Future Panels

 

The Arab of the Future, Vol. 2 – Along with Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco and the late Harvey Pekar, cartoonist Riad Sattouf has helped establish the graphic memoir as the most innovative and affecting narrative art form to have emerged in the late 20th century. Given the relentlessly bleak news coming out of Syria in recent years, Sattouf, who once was a regular contributor to Charlie Hedbo, may be providing the most timely and poignant contribution with his autobiographical account of growing up between different cultures. In the first volume, avid, adorably fluffy-haired Riad is shuttled back and forth between France, where his mother Clementine is from, and the volatile Middle East of the 1980s where his Syrian father Abdel-Razek embraces the then-burgeoning Pan-Arab movement. In this second volume, covering 1984 and 1985, Riad’s family settle in his father’s hometown of Ter Maaleh as the country reinvents itself under the dictatorship of Hafez Al-Assad. The little boy must adjust to a new school with its fundamentalist dictates, corporal punishment and the usual highs and lows of socializing with other children, complete with bullying of an especially brutal and bigoted kind. In recounting these and other vicissitudes, Sattouf maintains his wit, balance and equanimity towards all his characters, even at their worst. This is especially true of his father, who is by turns insecure, pompous, clueless and frantic to fit into whatever future his homeland devises for himself and his family. As with its predecessor, the second volume of Arab of the Future makes you wonder how long it’ll be before Abdel-Razek’s dreams come crashing down. But even with that dire prospect, the warmth and wisdom seasoning his son’s rueful memories keep you hoping for the best for the Sattoufs while bracing for the worst.

 

 

 

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Weiner — It’s odd how some things can both become dated and gain added significance in only a few months. When I first saw Weiner in the theater, it was early summer, Huma Abedin’s mentor was still well-positioned to be the next president and I came away from the documentary thinking mostly about Abedin’s inscrutably slow-burning gazes at the movie’s main subject who, for all his energy and earnest impulses to do good, came across here as he did everywhere else in the last four years: As an incurable narcissist, stabbing himself, scorpion-like, with his own…um…wretched excesses. I saw the film again on Netflix a couple weeks ago and somehow all that tattle-and-buzz about a man, his penis and social media don’t seem all that important when compared with the brazen lies and mendacity we’ve already seen in play so far from the incoming administration. This time around, what was far more important to me were all those brown and black people occupying the periphery of the action who kept shouting at the TV cameras and their enablers to stop yammering about the man’s dickishness and concentrate on what needs to happen in their neighborhoods to make them better. Wouldn’t it be something if this documentary ended up signifying both the peak and decline of the Age of Gossip and Innuendo? As. If.

 

Beyonce Lemonade

 

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Lemonade & Daughters of the Dust – It now seems like forever and a day since Beyoncé dropped her “Formation” video into Super Bowl Week festivities the same way you imagine a visitor from the future, unrecognizable to present-day eyeballs, dropping in on the Iowa Caucus. The 24-hour news cycle chewed its immediate impact to tiny bits until there was little left to the astonishment but empty bluster and gaping bemusement. My own reaction was something akin to: Damn. It almost looks as if Julie Dash directed this badboy! Those of us who cherish Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, her gorgeous 1991 cinematic tone poem set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia Sea Islands have spent the intervening years keeping track of her movements and looking for signs that the movie wasn’t forgotten. And while Dash didn’t direct the “Formation” video, or any of the others emerging from Bey’s daring, insurgent album, Lemonade, there were enough resonances from Daughters to summon a movement to get an enhanced edition of the film out and about to art houses throughout the country. Because Daughters occasioned the first four-star review I ever gave as a Newsday movie critic, this convergence of cultural forces was the happiest I can remember.

 

HELL-OR-HIGH-WATER-4-1200x899

 

 

 

Hell or High Water – As I’ve babbled to several people till I bored my own self, I wasn’t at all bullish on movies this year. (The worst of the summer blockbusters, in my opinion, gets its definitive raking-over  here by the ever-engaging critical thinkers over at HISHE, who once again outclass what they’re critiquing.) I suppose I’m an incurable aficionado of the mid-to-late-1970s wave of gritty American cinema. And while I think this badlands chase thriller from David Mackenzie wouldn’t necessarily stand out among the glorious products of 40-something years ago, it offered elemental pleasures similar to  those movies’: a taut-wire storyline that wastes no time; dry, cool dialogue that likewise goes about its business in real time and no-sweat laconic performances that play changes like a cool jazz combo. Coolest and driest of all is Jeff Bridges in his best performance in years as a Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers aggrieved by the economic unpleasantness of recent years. I also quite liked Chris Pine as one of the robbers, though unlike some reviewers I don’t think he quite steals the movie from Bridges so much as shares the win in the end. If you’ve seen it already, you know there’s added implication in that previous sentence. If not, what the hell are you waiting for?

 

 

 

LMO 2016

 

LMO Time Life cover

 

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra Redux – It all keeps coming back to Chicago at whose jazz festival this year I saw Carla Bley leading the revived Liberation Music Orchestra founded almost a half-century ago by the late Charlie Haden. He’d spearheaded a restoration of the 12-piece band a few years back, but his failing health prevented him from pressing ahead. Bley, who’d been with the orchestra at its creation as both pianist and arranger, picked up the ball and carried on Haden’s dream of focusing the orchestra’s progressive agenda on ecological issues. The Chicago set included pieces from the album Time/Life (Impulse!) whose playlist includes Bley’s multi-textured tribute to Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” The timing of their return is all-too auspicious and I have a sinking feeling that global warming may soon end up being among many things they’ll be compelled to make music about.

My Own Private Top Ten of 2015

Here’s what I liked most about last year, period.  No added explanation necessary, though you’re going to get a LOT of it as we move along. So without further ado, in no particular order, etc…

Black “Black Comic” Novels

 

 

Sellout coverOreo I’m already on record declaring this to have been a banner year for African American writing, especially in this sub-genre. So I have only a few things to add: 1.) I wish I could have found a way to have included in my CNN piece God Loves Haiti, Dmitri Elias Leger’s cunning and deeply moving romantic roundelay set against the backdrop of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake though 2.) what I really wish for is a the chance to have met Fran Ross, author of Oreo, if only to reassure her, as others had before she died in 1985 at age 50, that she was neither alone nor wrong in her artistic foresight and socio-cultural insurgency. 3.) If Paul Beatty’s cheeky, incendiary and laugh-out-loud Sellout had gotten even half of the attention afforded Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, we’d all be a lot further along than we are now because 4.) these and many other novels, poems and memoirs are so far ahead of where everybody else is on race and culture, especially what used to be called “The Press,” that their authors don’t have the time or the patience to look behind them. It’s up to the rest of us to catch up…and I’m not feeling especially hopeful about those prospects as I write this, especially today.

Comic Book Superheroes on TV

 

 

MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES

MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES

 

 

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You could probably fashion some kind of algebraic formula out of this theory and make yourself quite obscure, in more ways than one: Something about the comic-book superhero genre diminishes whenever contemporary Hollywood seizes one of its properties and blows it up on for big screen while, on the other hand, the smaller the screen, the greater weight and dimension are allowed for these stories. It could just mean that there are better people writing for television than for movies; a thesis that may not need too complex an algorithm to prove. Whatever the reason, TV, with or without its water-based delivery systems (clouds, streams, etc.) has provided the only superhero “product” (I really need to slap myself stupid every time I use that word) with depth, breadth and, most especially, shadows. I’d previously thought the DC stable led the way by several lengths with Arrow, Gotham, The Flash and its latest sweet surprise, Supergirl. But with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, for all its on-the-fly tinkering, still seems as though it’s fumbling in its pockets for magic and momentum), the Marvel Universe caught up big-time by going urban-neo-noir on Netflix with both Daredevil and the remarkable Jessica Jones coming at you as if every Law and Order episode came down with a severe case of the DTs. (And yes, that is a MAJOR compliment!) The relative success of small-screen super-heroics evokes simpler times when the original TV Superman was charming and cheesy while the first TV Batman was campy and cheesy and both took themselves seriously without being too solemn. Maybe the Fantastic Four franchise, having whiffed in two multiplex-targeted incarnations, would be better off lowering its expectations and looking for a cloud, or stream, to carry it forward. Or not.

Carol

 

 

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I suppose there was a small part of me that wished Todd Haynes had given in to his inner Douglas Sirk with as much abandon as he had in 2002’s Far From Heaven, his previous exploration of “forbidden love” in the 1950s. There were many critics, even those who otherwise praised this movie, who felt the same way. The more I think about it, however, the more I believe Haynes was correct in opting for a mood of smoldering insinuation and rectitude since those are qualities most associated with Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, from which the movie is adapted. She is a writer I will never love as much as I admire – and even then, from a shivery distance. If the movie leaves one cold, well, so did Highsmith. I’m not sure if anybody else could have done the material justice as well as or better than Haynes. Maybe the younger Kubrick since the movie at times evokes a colorized version of his 1962 take on Lolita; or, even better, the Alfred Hitchcock who made such gauzy dreams out of Vertigo or Marnie.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly (in the approximate, or relative context of Straight Outta Compton)

To Pimp a Butterfly

 

Straight Outta Compton

 

The overlap of Kendrick Lamar’s most variegated testament (thus far) with F. Gary Gray’s astonishingly successful biopic/infomercial about N.W.A. made one ponder how much things have changed, if at all, between “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model/To a kid lookin’ up at me/Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money” and “…[T]he world don’t respect you and the culture don’t accept you/But you think it’s all love/And the girls gon’ neglect you once your parody is done.” The latter quote from Butterfly is, of course, more contemplative and lyrical than the more belligerent assertion of “the strength of street life” from the 1988 album that gives Gray’s movie its name (and, really, its reason to exist.) Yet both these statements, and the records they come from, are stalked, even haunted, by the vulnerability of black lives as framed within the seemingly impregnable “White Problem” in America. Their shared response, in so many words: This is who I am, mothafuckas!! Deal with it because you got to change before I do! Both Butterfly and Compton (the album) also share the imperative to sound like nothing else that came before them. And their respective makers have profited from that make-it-new impulse; though it’s clear from both the movie and the story it tells that N.W.A. has gotten over with its members’ sometimes harrowing practice of rugged individualism while Lamar’s still probing for something deeper and more messianic to carry himself and his listeners to a new, yet-to-be-defined phase of The Struggle. The real bridge between these two works is Lamar’s “Alright,” which stomps in with the “Gangsta Gangsta” swagger before morphing into an assertion of self-worth powerful enough to have made the song an anthem of the “Black Lives Matter” movement – and, potentially, of movements, or just “movement,” to come.

The Americans

 

 

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There were so many shattering revelations and shameful double-dealings in this series’ third, and best, season that one feels derelict in highlighting only one episode. But the season’s ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” was one of the peaks of series television, not just of the year, but also of the century so far. Its main action takes place in a repair shop late at night where Elizabeth and Phil Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys), Russia’s most stylish spy tandem, have taken a broken mail robot to dig out some needed Intel. An unexpected surprise materializes in the form of an elderly woman (the great Lois Smith) who was married to the shop’s original owner. She’s just as surprised to encounter the Jennings and her bewilderment gradually evolves to a weary acknowledgement that she will not survive the night. Her presumptive executioners share in the gnawing awfulness of the situation especially Elizabeth, who attempts to ease the woman’s impending fate with some intimate, reassuring conversation about family life and then with an excessive injection of drugs. It’s an interlude that makes the audience feel somewhat like intruders – and co-conspirators. Even in a golden age of cable television drama, no other series could pull off such an emotionally searing sequence. I can’t wait to see what the fourth season’s going to submit for our approval.

Blooming Again 

 

 

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It took a while for me to cozy up to Bloom County in its original 1980s incarnation. At the time, it seemed as though Berkeley Breathed’s strip was trying too hard to conflate an assortment of influences from Peanuts to Pogo, from Lil’ Abner to Doonesbury (especially) without developing a clear identity of its own. I also thought the comedy was too schematic and not terribly interesting (i.e. aging frat boy Steve Dallas hurling brazenly sexist overtures to super hot feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow. Quelle Topique!) By mid-decade, though, the strip established its own blend of down-home whimsy, magical realism and soft-boiled satire distinctive enough to win a steady, fervent following – and a Pulitzer Prize!

Of course, The Penguin had almost everything to do with it. Breathed knew this since Opus was, for a while, the only character who made it to two sequels following the strip’s closure in 1989. This past July, Breathed came out with a made-for-social-media revival of Bloom County with deeper shadows, broader effects and the same antic impulses. Smartass savant Milo Bloom and his irresolute, monster-haunted school chum Michael Binkley have barely aged beyond pre-adolescence while Steve Dallas is still a self-loathing dick and (thus) a Trump supporter. Binkley has fallen in unrequited love with an enchanting pint-sized yogi named Abby. Bill the Cat is still…Bill the Cat, only more so. And Opus is very much the sun around which the rest of the cast revolves, if not evolves. I didn’t know how much I missed having these guys in my life until I started catching up with them on Facebook. And when I say the shadows are deeper this time, I refer to a recent storyline involving a small boy with an apparently life-threatening illness to whose elaborate space-opera fantasies the Bloom County gang caters. Breathed says he has no intention of bring his troupe back to newspapers and I think it’s a wise move on his part.

 

 

 

 

Bloom County sick boy

 

 

 

I still wonder, though, whatever became of Ronald-Ann Smith from Breathed’s Outland sequel strip. Is she the same age as well? Or did she grow up to become a semiotics professor at a Midwest college? I’m in no hurry to find the answer. I’d rather invent my own.

 

 

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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution 

 

 

Black Panthers

 

My favorite documentary of the year may well be the most balanced, comprehensive and intensely felt history we’ll ever get of its oft-misunderstood topic. Director Stanley Nelson’s companion piece to his comparably thorough and illuminating Freedom Summer (2014) deftly weaves all the scattered, twisted fragments of Panther history from the group’s epoch-making, armed-to-the-teeth appearance at the California legislature (which resulted in then-governor Reagan signing the country’s first gun-control legislation) to its think-globally-act-locally agenda that both scared and thrilled the rest of America to its active harassment under the odious COINTELPRO scourge to its violent confrontations with police and the murder of Fred Hampton – who scared authorities, it’s clear here, more for having his political act together at a very young age than for any largely imaginary danger he posed to civilization. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the internal friction among the Panther hierarchy – and he’s taken some heat for doing so. But none of whatever happened between Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and others diminishes one’s abiding admiration for what this cadre tried to accomplish – or the persistence of what they challenged, against terrible odds, almost a half-century ago.

Kate McKinnon

 

 

When Kristen Wiig left Saturday Night Live in 2012, I almost did, too. She gave the show a jolt of danger reminiscent of John Belushi, Eddie Murphy and (yes, even) Adam Sandler. As these examples suggest, such bomb-throwers are rare and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come along that soon to provide a similar did-I-really-see-that buzz to the franchise. Then this ball-of-fire roars into 30 Rock’s fun house and once again, America’s on the edge of its seat wondering what this crazy person will do next. She had me, so to speak, at Justin Bieber. But her take on Hillary Clinton so thoroughly and scarily encompasses the aspects of Madame Secretary’s personality feared by millions that you feel your own worst imaginings being held at gunpoint. (And that they deserve to be, too.) Madame Secretary’s appearance on stage with her perversely avaricious doppelganger was one of the show’s highlights, as much for showing the real-life candidate’s impressive composure in not breaking character, or breaking-up during the routine; something that couldn’t be said for Ryan Gosling a couple shows later. Enjoy her while she’s there because, if past history is any guide, she’s going to get so huge that she’ll outgrow the fun house.

 

 

 

 

Philip Levine & James Tate

 

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James-Tate

 

 

 

Sunday’s New York Times reminded me that two of my favorite poets passed away during 2015. They seem utterly incompatible at a glance: Levine’s poems were engaged with the grit, heartbreak and elusive epiphanies of blue-collar life while Tate was a deadpan emperor of ice cream who revealed strangeness in familiar things while exalting familiarity in strangeness. Yet reading their poetry gave me frissons similar to the contact highs I used to get from seeing American and European movies more than forty years ago. As I emerged from the theaters of the 1970s, my immediate surroundings attained sharper definition and broader possibility. Good movies, great art and fine poetry induce such rapture and, with the latter especially, you are grateful for those bright flashes of grace and insight whether delivered by the cosmos or summoned from the sidewalk. You need both perspectives to function as a human being, otherwise what’s it all for? Don’t answer. Just listen to Levine working up the nerve to dive into a reverie by declaring: “I place my left hand, palm up before me/ and begin to count the little dry river beds/on the map of life” (“Blue and Blue” from 1994’s The Simple Truth). And dig Tate hard when in the title poem from his 1972 collection, Absences, he neatly sums up the autobiographical impulse: “A child plots his life to the end; and spends the rest of his days trying to remember the plot.” Whenever you lose a poet (or two), you gain renewed diligence to respect the things not readily seen, including all the poets who are still around to sharpen the landscape.

Only a Few of My Favorite Things (for 2014)

Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.

Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)

Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.

So anyway…(as this fellow might out it)

 

 

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The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this

 

 

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Scarlett JohanssonI’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?

 

 

 

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.

 

 

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Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown – The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.

FX Stuff

FARGO - Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

 

 

 

FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)

 

 

Oxford American music cover

 

 

The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.