Entries Tagged 'on writing lit — and unlit' ↓

Gene Seymour’s Favorite Things in 2023

The preponderance of books and television series cited below suggests that I still don’t get out as much as I should. And while COVID isn’t going away (and did, in fact, bite me sometime earlier in the year), there’s still so much to behold in person as opposed to a screen. Or a page.

Still, I did, for the record, travel more than usual in 2023, mostly to northwesterly places on the continent where I saw bears, moose, elk, glaciers, and geysers. By my count, I still have twelve states in the union to visit in my lifetime and sustain the hope, however faintly it is articulated these days, that there will still be a union for as long as I hope to live.

Still.

If democracy is under siege and things are as bad as cable news networks insist (I don’t think they are, but that’s another discussion for another time), it’s not because culture failed us. The items below, even though they represent a relative sliver of what’s available, all tell eternal truths in up-to-the-minute fashion. Even when they depressed me, they gave me hope. So, the lesson here is a clear one: Stop watching cable news. Watch and – especially, for the love of God – read stuff like this. You’ll feel better. You’ll know more. That’s the best I can say. The rest, especially in 2024, is up to you.

Once again, these are in no particular order:

 

 

 



The Survivalists – Another outstanding year for African American fiction – and, at this point (for varied reasons), why don’t we just say, “American fiction,” period? – began with this silken-swift comedy of manners that’s as dark, rich, and intensely stimulating as the gourmet coffee that, along with heavy artillery, is a major trope in Kashana Cauley’s novel. Its central character is Aretha, a fast-tracking corporate attorney whose peripatetic love life seems finally to have found mooring with Aaron, the dashing founder-proprietor of Terminal Coffee, which roasts and sells coffee from his home base in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. Beyond mutual infatuation, Aretha and Aaron are such kindred spirits in their droll hipness, Type-A impulses, and wily diffidence that she moves into the commodious old rowhouse he shares with two somewhat singular housemates: Brittany, a churlish, taciturn “Angry Flo-Jo” who’s responsible for assembling the backyard bunker, and James, a sullen, pallid ex-reporter fired from the Washington Post for plagiarism. It turns out this motley band is warehousing more than coffee beans. There’s also a deep, wide stash of guns and ammo, part of which they’re hoarding as protection from an as-yet unspecified urban apocalypse while the rest is being sold to all manner of dubious buyers in the Tri-State area. Aretha at first keeps a respectful distance from the gunrunning business. But when her hitherto upward trajectory towards full partnership hits the ceiling, Aretha throws herself into Terminal Coffee’s off-the-books operations – and becomes scary-good at it. Cauley, herself a lapsed attorney who was once a Daily Show staff writer, nails down rueful insights about cultivating high ambitions in cloistered times and tallies the ironies in striving for space in a future you otherwise fear and loathe. In other words, it’s about living one’s best possible life near the upper reaches (and below the radar) in the 21st century.



 

 



The Bear – I’m going to imagine that at some point during the filming of the second season of The Bear that the ghost of John Cassavetes somehow made it to the Chicago locations where the series was being shot. He (it?) likely felt very much at home, especially within the intimate, more ramshackle surroundings like the restaurant kitchen being ripped apart to make room for a newer, sleeker, higher-end eatery than the one it’s replacing. So much of him yearns to assume corporeal form even for a minute or two, if only to offer advice, encouragement, maybe a few suggestions, once he can find out the storyline, the schedule, and what the theatrical specifications are. First off, he probably can’t believe this is all being made for television. Then, with sheer wonder, he thinks: These kids really know what they’re doing. He is especially galvanized by Ayo Edebiri, who plays the precocious young chef Sydney. Despite her age, she seems the wisest, worldliest person among her stressed-out colleagues; except for those times when she isn’t, and her own insecurities come at her from unexpected places, like muggers in dark alleys. His attitudes towards The Bear’s male leads are more complicated. With both, it’s like staring at a looking glass. Jeremy Allan White’s portrayal of Carmen (“Carmy” or sometimes just “Carm”) Berzato, the perpetually frustrated genius-chef stalked by guilt, haunted by death, keeping fear of failure at bay, is the kind of soulful, belligerent savant Cassavetes used to play all the time. He’d have nailed his role down like an iron fencepost back in his day. The other guy, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Carmen’s best bud and restaurant manager, is also a role made for him, meaning the self-sabotaging stick-of-dynamite with the short fuse who needs just one more thing to go south for him to blow himself up and everybody else with him. All these three kids with dreams way bigger than they can carry without tripping on the curb are magnificent creations. But Cassavetes knows they’re not even all of it; it’s also the family background, which all comes to a head in that bravura Christmas episode with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The ghost thinks: That was something I could have never pulled off the way they did. It managed to fire all over the place and still come through ferociously contained. And besides, Cassavetes thinks, even I wouldn’t have had the stones to end the whole episode with the mother driving a car through the living room. And that the mother was played by somebody you only gradually recognize as Jamie Lee Curtis, but in another time and place, could have easily been Gena Rowlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 



The Chain Gang All-Stars – I’ll admit it. There’s this teeny, microbe-sized Imp-of-the-Perverse way down deep inside me that’s tempted to wonder, if for no more than a nanosecond, whether the alternate universe depicted in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s ingeniously dystopian first novel is onto something: that giving the most abject violent criminals in custody the option of fighting televised duels-to-the-death would be something of a win-win situation for them and for a society that can’t get enough of real-world violent spectacle. Before you judge me, you should know that at least one reviewer of Adjei-Breyah novel opened the piece by asking whether he was having too much fun reading about a world in which there is such a thing as a Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE) program and that such a world could all too easily adapt its moral compass to take in pay-per-view packages showing wanton, all-out bloodshed between otherwise doomed convicts, some with their own fan bases and merchandise. It may not be the kind of thing I’d shell out my hard-earned streaming dollars for, but the fact that I can imagine as easily as Adjei-Brenyah does fans of all ages having wall-poster-sized devotion to gladiators like Loretta Thurwar and Hamara Stacker a.k.a. “Hurricane Staxx,” who, inconveniently, are lovers as well as competitors. In addition to these awkward situations, Adjei-Brenyah is conscientious enough in his world-building to conceive a web of corporate enablers of his madness from all-sports cable networks to the incarceration industrial complex (which is what I’m calling it this week anyway). The heretics travel along with a protest movement stalking the CAPE caravan at every stop on its tour, making some of the arguments you can hear in “real life” about the malign growth of the private prison industry and the seemingly impermeable hold that mandatory sentencing, capital punishment, wrongful convictions, solitary confinement, and other, similar aspects of the “real” legal system has on those who want their loves ones protected. At what point, one asks, does “safety” itself become its own kind of prison? Part of Adjei-Brenyah’s purpose is to arouse such self-interrogations in his readers – who, in turn, could subdue their own meaner instincts enough to ask more questions of our society and ourselves. So you can question your fears…

 

 

 

 



The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store – …or you can engage with your hopes. We were as urgently in need of James McBride’s  depiction of collective strength and courage in the 20th century as we were of Adjei-Brenyah’s  more acerbic alternate vision of the 21st. McBride follows up his 2020 triumph, Deacon King Kong, with another exuberantly polyphonic novel in which a community, if not the notion of “community” itself, is the protagonist. It’s a murder mystery set off in 1972 by the discovery of a skeleton, along with a mezuzah, found at the bottom of a well in the Chicken Hill section of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, once a lively, tumble-down community of mostly Jewish and African American residents. The narrative steps back more than 40 years before when Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian Jew owned and operated a theater and dance hall while his American-born wife Chona ran the eponymous grocery store nearby. Events are set in motion when Nate Timblin, a Black employee at Moshe’s theater, asks the couple to shield an orphaned and deaf 12-year-old boy child Dodo from state officials seeking his institutionalization. Moshe is reluctant, but Chona, a woman of deep compassion and iron will, insists, despite threats, explicit and otherwise, from the city’s white power structure, many of whose members disdain the easy-does-it interaction between Chicken Hill’s ethnic minorities to the point of taking part in Ku Klux Klan parades. In clumsier, hammier hands than McBride’s, this is the kind of story whose melodramatic elements can be ramped to needless excess. But here, as McBride’s previous work, it is his exquisite sense of tone, timing, humor, and nuance that allows the novel to earn our tears — and our faith in each other, whenever we need it.

 

 

 

 




Lily Gladstone – Screen stars always emit a field of magnetism that at once draws us in and keeps us at a distance. With Gladstone, these warring elements somehow merge into an aura of repose that’s eerie to behold. Her less-is-more triumph in Killers of the Flower Moon is powerful and dominant enough on its own elemental terms as to all but redefine the very nature of bravura performance. She is a virtuoso of stillness in ways that harken all the way back, if you can imagine it, to Buster Keaton and other silent-movie icons. And not even they could convey with their faces whole landscapes whose emotional weather systems can shift from wary to vulnerable to kittenish to sensual to bemused, braced throughout by resilience whose sources are probably a mystery even to her. Perhaps one way to account for this composure is Gladstone’s portrayal of
Hotki in Reservation Dogs. As jail-bound mother to Danny, whose suicide pitches the series’ teenaged characters into upheaval, anxiety, and confusion, Hotki has distanced herself emotionally and otherwise from everyone in her family except for her niece Willie Jack. When in the series finale Willie Jack brings Hotki an “offering” of snacks and sodas, the “auntie” summons the spirits of the ancestors passing on to the younger woman the obligation of looking after the friends and family members most in need. Once again, a majestic act carried out with understated humor and minimal flourish. She’s a trickster goddess with more surprises in store for us.

 

 

 

 

 





Barry – Of the hustlers, victims, losers, loners, narcissists, innocent passersby, and low-life sharpies making their way through four seasons of auteur-star Bill Hader’s inky, deadpan tragicomedy, none was as manipulative or as disingenuous as Monroe Fuches (the amazing Stephen Root), friend-mentor of Hader’s Barry Berkman, the mentally-unbalanced ex-GI who was guided by Fuches through an underground career of lucrative assassination before Barry decided he’d rather be a professional actor. Towards the conclusion of this so-dazzling-it-physically-hurt-to-watch-it season, Fuches, who emerged as something of a crime capo following some hard prison time, confronts his Chechen counterpart Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), whose bumptious naivete was darkened and deflated when he was forced by his own bosses to abet his lover’s murder. Now Hank and Fuches are haggling over who gets to kill Barry. (The “why” would take too long to get into here, requiring a rehash of Dostoyevskian proportions). It’s enough to say that Fuches, perhaps more than any other character in the whole sordid story, has arrived at something close to a complete reckoning for his many abysmal acts and is best able to assess where he’s landed in life. And why:

“I used to think I was a soldier, ignoring the fact that I never fought a battle in my whole life. I was a poseur. And I thought myself a mentor fostering other men’s natural abilities. But it wasn’t until I was in prison, and I got beaten to within an inch of my life day after day that I finally cut the bullshit and just accepted who I am: a man with no heart.”

Now, Fuches wants Hank to reach the same self-realization:

“I walk away, You’ll never hear from me again. All you have to do is admit that you killed Cristobal, admit that you fucked up, admit that you were scared, that you hate yourself, that there’s some days you don’t think you deserve to live. And the only thing that’ll make you forget is by being someone else.”

Hank wants none of it. There are consequences.

 

 



Now, this wasn’t how the series ultimately ended. Still more grisly jolts are in store. But it figured that Fuches would use his curtain call to sum up the self-deluding, perpetually denying soul of present-day America. Keep his monologue in mind as 2024 unravels like a soggy bedsheet.

 

 

 

 


Scavengers Reign – Further proof that science fiction flourishes best in a television series format, the better to let ideas and themes grow, bend, and metamorphose in the same manner as the flora and fauna on the planet Vesta Minor, where survivors of the calamitous wreck of the cargo ship Demeter 227 are scattered and struggling to cope with the planet’s astounding and hazardous ecosystem. Horror and wonder are weaved into Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner IV’s conception with as much fascinating dexterity as the characters’ complications which are themselves transformed by the intractable natural elements coming at them from all sides. Even Levi, the dutiful and empathetic AI, is as susceptible to transformation through Vesta’s organic matter as the humans. Whether the changes are good or bad are difficult to gauge; in fact, “good” or “bad” turn out to have as little use in classifying the survivors as the wildlife. The gorgeous animation, owing as much to the comic strips of Jean “Moebius” Girard as to the films of Studio Ghibli, keeps you alert to illumination and revulsion. Because of the relentless progression of new exotica at every narrative corner, you shouldn’t be surprised if, upon encountering the first of this series’ 12 installments, you find yourself compelled to stay with it all the way through. Nor should you be surprised if, after you’re done, you have a whole new reverence for Earth’s increasingly vulnerable ecosystem, which, as with Vesta Minor’s, should be properly regarded as a single living entity worth engaging at eye level.

 

 


Apple TV – I still believe Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the See It Now of the 21st century (and if you don’t know what I mean by that exalted comparison, let’s go to the kinescope one more time). But occasionally, the host will get a little Too Extra for his, or his show’s own good. Recently, Oliver declared that Apple TV carries shows nobody wants to watch, hammering home the point by saying the streaming network is where celebrities go to hide. I get it, on some level. They canned Jon Stewart, and it’s understandable that Oliver would take the spiked baseball bat out of the glass case to vent his displeasure on behalf of the mensch who made him the force for good he is today. But were I he (sic), I’d think more than twice about that “nobody wants to watch” slur. As I write this, I am happily engrossed in both season three of Slow Horses and season four of For All Mankind and have gone through several digital hoops when away from home to make sure I don’t miss a single installment. Also, I’ve found myself keeping up with series that, however unpromising they seemed at first, got their hooks into me even with their quirks and shortcomings jutting out at odd places. I’m thinking principally of Ted Lasso, which overcame some glitches at the start of its third and final season to bring everybody home literally, figuratively, and, in general, smoothly. And despite what Oliver alleges about the network keeping its talent buried, it was the surprising strength of some big-name performers that carried me through their respective shows. Harrison Ford’s droll, affably wooly presence on Shrinking compensated for much of that series’ overreaching New Age-y kitsch and once Brie Larson’s character shook away the icy veneer on Lessons in Chemistry, her magnetism and charm held the show together. The network even carries what may well be my all-time favorite hate-watch series in The Morning Show, exactly none of whose characters make me want to let them into my foyer, much less my living room. And yet Billy Crudup, as the network president, is having such an insanely good time playing the leering, unapologetically two-faced butthole that every time he exits a scene I feel like applauding. Granted, it’s not Paramount/Showtime, FX or HBO Max — but then again, HBO Max doesn’t feel much like HBO used to be, as even John Oliver might agree.


 


Jeffrey Wright – Thelonious Ellison, the character Wright plays in American Fiction, bears the first and last names of artists who, among their many achievements, gave permission to subsequent generations of artists to be as crazy and individualistic as they need to be. Such empowerment isn’t enough for “Monk” Ellison whose complex, resolutely philosophic novels confuse so many people that booksellers put them in the African American section only because he’s Black. But not Black enough until…well, you can read about it here. The point to be made here is that Wright’s whole career has been made up of characters you don’t expect him to play, whether it’s Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig Bond movies or the odd amalgam of A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin he portrays in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021) or the enigmatic man-machine doppelganger Arnold Weber/Bernard Lowe on HBO’s Westworld. Wright’s ability to contain giant waves of emotional complexity has expanded possibilities in almost the same manner as Thelonious Ellison’s two namesakes. As with all great actors, Wright’s brilliance shines even in the tightest, narrowest corners, notably in his portrayal of the flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Rustin where the legendary Harlem congressman’s cruel mischief oozes like spilled honey on an expensive carpet. It’s one of those mesmerizing cameos you wish you could pull away from the rest of the movie to expand into a full-length feature all its own. But why stop with Adam Powell? If we’re all serious about widening the stage and screen for color-blind casting, why not place Wright in the role of that great American exemplar of conflicting motives Richard Milhous Nixon? Is it possible that Wright’s Nixon could go deep and broad enough to cut such accomplished renderings as those of Lane Smith, Frank Langella, Dan Hedaya, or even Wright’s old Westworld boss Anthony Hopkins? I wouldn’t bet against him.



“The Future of The Future is the Present”: Tuning Back to Marshall McLuhan

 

 

 

I discovered Marshall McLuhan where you were supposed to: on television. It was during the late winter of 1967 in what was in those days referred to as the Sunday afternoon “ghetto” for “highbrow” programming. The series was called NBC Experiment in Television and it featured everything from absurdist theater to unknown Black writers in Watts workshopping their poetry and prose. Even then, my teeming high-school-age brain was a sucker for eclecticism served up fresh and hot and that lizard brain somehow seemed especially primed for a white middle-aged Canadian college professor shooting off aphoristic sparklers about my best and most faithful pal, TV, and why it mattered.

 

 

 


The show was called “This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage” which was basically a filmed adaptation of the paperback book with the same title (the latter half, anyway) and whose hip, flashy visual design was laid out by Quentin Fiore. But the book and the documentary ramped up the heat on McLuhan’s then-burgeoning fame for his ideas about “hot” and “cool” mediums; how electronic media has all but overrun print’s autonomy over civilization and that mass communication has transformed the world into a “global village” that is, as McLuhan characterized it in the film and elsewhere, “as wide as the planet and as small as a little town where everybody is engaged in everybody else’s business.”

 

 

 

 


I was so dazzled by it all that I not only secured a copy of that slick little book as soon as I could get my hands on it, but I wrote my senior AP term paper on McLuhan three years later. On a typewriter, of course, because who knew from computers back then except as those big blocky things with magnetic tape at my father’s workplace. (He, by the way, dug most of what McLuhan was laying down on that NBC special, even if he wasn’t entirely sure of all the specifics.) I ended up reading some of the McLuhan books with no pictures like Understanding Media (1964) and even The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). even if I ended up cherry-picking my way through the latter for material that I found mostly to be similar, at times word for word, as the later book.

 

 

 

 


Which was a big reason why my teenage self connected with him. Even without pictures and fancy graphics to augment it, McLuhan’s prose was what many readers, pro and con, called mosaic-like; I’m guessing what they meant was the way his oracular, inscrutable assertions and observations swooped, doubled back, and swooped again (in case you didn’t get them the first time) in flashy, sometimes puffy and dense, but riveting patterns, much like the panels in the Marvel comic books I was devouring at about the same time. He kept you reading for the same reason as Tom Wolfe, one of his first promotors (“What If He is Right?”). Put a toga on him and the Romans would have had to invent their own word for “beatnik” to classify him.

Even at the time I wrote my school paper, he was getting divebombed by scholars and various other defenders of the status-quo believing him to be too slick to be taken seriously. They thought he was a charlatan, spinning the kind of buzzy phrases (“hot” and “cool” mediums, “global village,” “participation mystique,”) that only baby boomers and the advertising agencies that  catered to them could embrace as higher wisdom. I might even have mentioned some of these qualms in my paper, though I’m sure that if I did, I chose to give them cursory attention.


Still, for most of what was left of the 20th century, cursory attention is what I mostly gave McLuhan and his vision of the future. Like everybody else who saw Annie Hall in 1977, I was charmed by Woody Allen dragging him from off-screen to suavely scold the obnoxious pedant waiting in line to see a movie about knowing “nothing of my ideas,” even though in the years since, I’ve wondered how much space in the soul of that same movie’s writer-director-star is rented by said pedant. The year before, I remember being pleasantly surprised that McLuhan’s observations of the Carter-Ford presidential debate, as registered the morning after on the Today show, were as sour as my own.

But as the 20th century wound down and the 21st began, McLuhan himself seemed less present in the culture than his observations – most of which, thanks to the Internet and its myriad spoils, were coming true. As one writer put it, we were too busy living out McLuhan’s prophecies to go back and read them. Or watch them.

Until I did, for the first time in over fifty years. It’s no longer a matter of, as Tom Wolfe asked, “What If He Is Right?” It’s how “right” is he? Watch the show above. Now watch this excerpt from a 1966 interview. Think he’s just talking about TV? He’s also talking about the Internet…and AI

 

 

The Prisoner of the Time of His Time

 

 

 

 

I often think Norman Mailer would have been better remembered on his 100th birthday if he’d used his engineering degree from Harvard to write science fiction. Assuming he’d also retained what he’d absorbed from Dos Passos, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hemingway, James T. Farrell and Rafael “Captain Blood” Sabatini, Mailer might have melded such anomalous elements with the influences of Kafka, Verne, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapleton, Karel Capek, and the pulp magazine prodigies to lift the SF genre to a higher literary standing – and in the process learned not to be so intimidated by the contingencies of plot. Hints of this furtive lyricism with technology can be found throughout the second half of Of a Fire on the Moon, his freewheeling, undervalued reflections on the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing.  (Check out his chapter on “The Psychology of Machines” and tell me if you don’t think Arthur C. Clarke wouldn’t have envied such virtuoso empathy with the mechanical.) If he’d followed this aspect of his muse from the start, Mailer could have been the proto-socialist yang to Robert Heinlein’s libertarian-right yin, an Americanized Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick with the sex, drugs, and paranoia ramped up…

 

 

 

Then again, forget it. For better and worse, we got the Norman Mailer he and we likely deserved. If he’s largely neglected and considered irrelevant in the 21st century, it’s mostly because he made himself so visible in the 20th.  In his Advertisements for Myself, the 1959 miscellany that jump-started his literary reputation, Mailer proclaimed that he “was imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” Of the myriad risks Mailer took with this impulse, however, the biggest was making himself so unavoidable in his own time that his work wouldn’t endure in public renown too far beyond it.

 

 

 On some level, he asked for it. For much of his lifetime (he died in 2007 at 84), Mailer was not only a household name as a novelist, but he was also a provocateur, an enfant terrible whose public displays of rancor and violence often overshadowed his literary output. He’d stabbed his second wife Adele Morales at a November, 1960 party celebrating his impending candidacy for major of New York City. (He didn’t run for mayor until 1969 and finished fourth in a field of five in that year’s Democratic primary.) He behaved badly on television, made independent movies (in one of which he bit Rip Torn’s ear), sealed his legacy as an anti-feminist after publishing The Prisoner of Sex in 1971 and summarily got into a shouting match at Town Hall with feminists on stage and in the audience. (That was all caught on film, too.)

Even in absentia from the known world, Mailer’s still causing trouble. A year ago, there were online reports that Random House cancelled plans to publish a collection of Mailer’s political writings because “a junior staffer” objected to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro.” The publisher, Mailer’s son, and agent denied the reports. But it was a straw fire that made Mailer conspicuous once more and aroused this thoughtful evaluation from Darryl Pinckney, an African American novelist and journalist.

 

 

My own relationship with “White Negro” is complicated and all but sums up how I feel about Norman Mailer to this day. When I started reading his work as a teenager enraptured mostly with his journalism (about which more later), friends, Black and White alike, kept urging me to read “The White Negro” before I read anything else. So, I tried. And tried. And tried again. And I couldn’t get past the first, to me, impenetrable paragraphs of that chapbook edition that made the rounds in those days. I tried again when I finally got around to Advertisements for Myself and even then, I ended up sort of going around it as though it were a dead oak that keeled over in the middle of an intersection.

 

Indeed, it wasn’t until deep into my forties or maybe even fifties, that I managed to read it all the way through and decided that the reason I couldn’t push my frontal lobes past “White Negro’s” first page was that it was totally, ridiculously alien to my own knowledge of what it meant to be Black or, for that matter, to be Hip. In short, I thought it was too absurd (again, not the way he’d likely intended) to be taken seriously as anything more than an anxious glandular discharge.  I couldn’t even get angry with it the way Black people did (and still do) because I think it’s too dumb to get worked up over, even after reading Mailer’s subsequent writing about African Americans, as when he argued against Ralph Ellison’s conception of “invisibility” in Black Americans, saying that we were, in fact, the MOST visible people in America. “That’s not how he meant it, dammit!!” I always shouted back — though in his typically adroit sussing-out of individual psyches, Mailer did correctly perceive the depths of anger simmering beneath Ellison’s patrician scholar’s patina.

(And while we’re passing by Advertisements, what has occurred to me in recent years is that his grandiloquent pastiche of stories, novel fragments, reviews, polemics, and autobiographical spritzing can now be viewed retroactively as a precursor to the blog site or Substack page. I can’t possibly be the first one to notice this, but it would be Very Mailer of me to assume that I am.) 

 

 

You could always count on Mailer being spectacularly wrong when trying to take History’s heartbeat. (I read somewhere that Marina Oswald, no less, was dryly amused by Mailer’s aspirations to be America’s Tolstoy.) But he was so much better with the human than with cosmic than most give him credit for. That was why I kept faith with him even when he self-sabotaged in public and in print.

 

 

Besides which, I owe him too much, even if I haven’t – and likely won’t – read every single book he’s written.

 

 

 

 

 

I remember the anticipation accompanying a magazine article with Mailer’s byline about a major event that, though it happened months ago, was made fresh and new again by his freewheeling imagination, and flamboyant prose style. We all knew what happened at the 1968 political conventions, Ali-Foreman in Zaire, or the Apollo 11 moon mission. But some of us looked to Mailer for deep, wide dispatches from beneath the surface of things, whether dragged from within the subconscious (his and others’) or projected from the outside. This process allowed him to dig up insights or angles that we either dimly suspected or couldn’t perceive in the moment. At its most lucid and vivid, the prose could lead you in the dark towards a light switch you didn’t know was there. Whole continents could be evoked by this style, as in this lead paragraph to the second section of Miami and the Siege of Chicago from 1968:

 

 

 

“Chicago is the great American city. New York is a world capital and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic. San Francisco is a lady. Boston has become Urban Renewal. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town. Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle. St. Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.”

 

 

 

Paragraphs like this made me want to write paragraphs like this; also, pages and whole books. It’s an example of what Joan Didion was talking about in her review of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) when she wrote: “It is a largely unremarked fact about Mailer that he is a great and obsessed stylist, a writer to whom the shape of the sentence is the story.” Maybe that’s why I go back to Mailer’s sentences more often than his books, though I’m one of the few people I know who’s read The Naked and the Dead three times, most recently just three years ago. Though it made history in its time as a contender for Best World War II Novel by an American, Naked and the Dead is, I believe, better viewed as one of the very last novels of the Depression (its flashbacks to the past lives of its soldiers) and among the first to intimate the coming socio-political tumult set off by the Cold War. And even though this once phenomenal best-seller has been somewhat undervalued compared with Mailer’s other work (by Mailer, too) because he hadn’t yet found the “voice” he achieved in Advertisements, the novel’s accumulation of raw details, its depictions of dread, drudgery, and the physical sensations of combat can now be seen as nascent signs of the gifted reporter Mailer would become. (A new edition of the book, published by the Library of America, includes letters Mailer wrote home from the Pacific Theater to his first wife Beatrice, which taken together come across as a working notebook for the novel.)

 

 

 

 

Mailer wasn’t as big on baseball as he was on boxing or football. (You know, the violent sports.) But as with great sluggers like Ruth, Mantle, or Reggie Jackson, Mailer’s swings and misses were as compelling to watch as the home runs, even when the odds were against him. At times, he could be embarrassing, abusive, or thin-skinned; at others, he could be magnanimous, urbane, and warm-hearted. Mercurial as Mailer was, there were two things you could always count on: his self-deprecating humor and his irrepressible candor. You could get mad at him. But you always believed what he said, even when he was wrong. And it was part of his grace that he could cop to being wrong and move on. In fact, being “right,” whatever that meant, didn’t seem as important to Mailer as maintaining an intensity of focus on one’s interior life and a constant, even heedless surge of energy towards acting on what one discovers from such self-scrutiny. This, I now think, was what Mailer meant when he kept using the word, “existential,” though I still don’t know if that’s a precise definition of the word.

 

 

 

Mailer’s honesty, I think, also compelled him to bend and reshape journalism the way his beloved Picasso transfigured representational art. Acknowledging that “objectivity” is a myth, Mailer leaned hard into subjectivity, eventually making himself the protagonist of his own account of actual events. Conventional wisdom still asserts this makes such accounts suspect, but to this day, the intensity of Mailer’s vision of the actual framed with the idiosyncrasies of his personality somehow makes you trust his version of the Pentagon March and the other events. Other reporters envied or hated him for getting away with this third-person approach. But as many found out when they tried it themselves, it could only work with Norman Mailer because he had the knack for simultaneously inflating and deflating his persona to the proper pitch as a trumpeter tests his tone and tempo.

 

 

 

 

And what does this have to do with the Self-Advertising Sexist Monster Ego of the Great White Male Bully Avenger of the 20th Century? While all the hype and bluster is hard to overlook and, in many cases, excuse, I doubt in the very long run it will matter. Because while I agree that much of the nonsense Mailer attached himself to is outmoded and of no use to anybody in the 21st, his renderings of the self, pressed hard by history as it happens, offer plenty of room for writers of all persuasions to probe further. If I were to let every dumb thing  a smart man says and does get in the way of learning from his better side, I wouldn’t learn anything at all. In that spirit, I conclude with a memory of a graduate seminar on the history of nonfiction I taught at NYU sometime in the aughts. One of my texts was a collection of articles about the 1962 heavyweight bout between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston that included such journalistic heavyweights as James Baldwin, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and A.J. Libeling. To this class of eight women and one (minority) male, I singled out Mailer’s “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” his Esquire essay on the bout notable for its digression into the welterweight bout earlier that year between Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret that ended with Griffith savagely beating Paret into a coma from which the latter never recovered, dying ten days later. That traumatic event, broadcast live on network TV, aroused some of Mailer’s most lyrical and poignant reportage and when, towards the end of that semester, I gave the class the option of writing about any of the pieces we’d discussed throughout, most chose Mailer’s fight piece. 

 

 

 

One way or another, the art always leaks through time’s cages. Fact, not theory.

 

 

 

 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten 2022 List of Everything Else

There’s so much stuff to keep track of these days that it’s easy to lose track of stuff that seemed so great to watch, read, or even glean. So, this took a longer time to assemble than previous lists because it took that long a time to process the maelstrom that was 2022. I’m not going to tell you what I think is missing here because you’ll all have your own lists, some of which will likely include, say, the January 6th hearings or Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Multiverse itself likely deserves a slot all its own, except how do I know I don’t have a whole other list somewhere that’s all different. But there’s no time left to figure all that out. This is what I’m going with, and, except for the very last item, I feel altogether good about it. As always, these are not in any particular order – except, again, for the last one.





Reservation Dogs – Two things, I’ve recently decided, make life worth living: a sense of purpose and an active connection with each other’s souls, no matter how remote or hostile. Such were the animating forces of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s poignant blend of teen anomie, vacant-lot naturalism, and stoner surrealism. As with its predecessor, Season Two found its indigenous American kids adrift in their ramshackle Oklahoma hood, still grieving the suicide of their friend Daniel and still getting haphazard and not altogether lucid counsel from varied elders, living and dead. My personal favorites among the latter demographic include, among the dead, William “Spirit” Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth), a Lakota ancestor to confused-and-abandoned Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), whose half-baked advice to his teen descendant include lyrics from “Carry On Now Wayward Son” (yes, that one); among the living, it’s a three-way tie between Officer Big (Zahn McClarnon), a tribal policeman who stumbles his way towards a wholly innate sense of law, order, and even (such as it is) justice; woozy, weed-mongering Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer), and the oracular-if-shabby Bucky (the great Wes Studi), with his hard-won cosmic wisdom. Still, it’s the kids who occupy the series’ fitful center; not just Bear, but also Cheese (Lane Factor), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), and Elora (Devery Jacobs), whose single-minded path towards California anchored the second-season narrative, and now appears ready to affect her friends’ destinies. Whatever happens and wherever all the rest of the grownups and kids end up, I hope I see more of those rapping, bike-riding bros LilMike and FunnyBone. Even if I don’t, I’ll happily settle for more Bucky and Brownie.

 

 

 


The Philosophy of Modern Song — Don’t call it “Bob Dylan’s Pop-Rock Criticism” or apply any socio-political ideology to its 60-plus selections. More than anything else, this is the authentic follow-up to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One and should be acknowledged as the autobiography of a personal aesthetic. Its illustrations and its text are as illuminating, evocative, cryptic, funny, and exploratory as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” “From a Buick 6,” “Positively 4th Street,” or any other Dylan song, even those with no numerals in them. Also as with a Dylan song, whatever its intentions or origins, much of the raw content of these mini-essays, addenda, outbursts, and eruptions may arouse your subconscious to something it never considered before but recognizes as familiar. And no, I’m not going to explain what I mean by that.





Star Trek: Lower Decks – I’ll always place Matt Groening’s ribald space opera Futurama first above equals among animated science fiction TV series, even above the underappreciated, trailblazing, and scarily prescient Jetsons, which marked its 60th anniversary this year. Nevertheless, after three seasons, this doughty, wily offshoot of the ever-expanding-like-the-universe-itself Trek franchise has not only leaped towards the front of this personal pantheon, but it also threatens to become my favorite among the Trek shows that streamed into being over the last five years. As its title implies, the show moves its focus away from the Alpha Dogs of Star Fleet like Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Picard, Riker, La Forge, and other Heroes on the Enterprise Bridge and more towards the scrubs, swabs, and junior grade drudges several floors down from whose ranks would routinely come cannon fodder with imperiled landing parties in previous Trek incarnations. The series’ core clique waiting and serving on the USS Cerritos (itself a relative second-stringer among Star Fleet ships) is made up of science nerd D’Vana Tendi (Noêl Wells), super-striving Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), sweet-tempered cyborg Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and last-and-certainly-not-least Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), thorny, determinedly underachieving daughter of the ship’s captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis), whose own insecurities and thwarted ambitions are of such comparable dimension that you come away from this ingenious, often touching series affirmed that even in deep space, nobody ever gets out of high school, dead or alive.

 

 

 

 



Percival Everett – Suppose Chester Himes was an actual cowboy who spent as much time working out ontological riddles as riding ranges and fishing in mountain lakes. At age 65, Everett, who claims Himes as an influence, along with Herman Melville, has published more than twenty works of fiction of startling range, deadpan humor, and formidable intelligence. This year, for instance, he published Dr. No, where he borrows both a title and a plotline from Ian Fleming’s James Bond’s novels to fashion a blackout-adventure spoof judiciously seasoned with red herrings and philosophical conundrums. If I told you it’s about Nothing, you’d still read it, right? You’d have to read it. But if I were you, I wouldn’t start with the new one, but the one just before that was short-listed for the Booker Prize: The Trees, a very different, but no less provocative and inspired comedy thriller in which cool, dry Black agents from, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) investigate the serial murders of white racists whose bodies are somehow accompanied by the corpses of long-dead lynching victims, including Emmett Till. It made you almost wish Hollywood had made this into a movie instead of Till. But Hollywood was barely ready for that straight-ahead story to be told on-screen. And I doubt it’ll ever be ready for Percival Everett. But you might be. (Other recommended titles: Glyph, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, For Her Dark Skin, Damned If I Do.)


 

 

 



Nope – Though I honor the memory of Rod Serling and what he did for me as a child in the warm bath of his Twilight Zone, the grownup I am now is less drawn to those Serling-esque episodes making broad and direct sociopolitical points and more towards those Zone stories written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont that were more interested in pure jolts and unsettling visions for their own sake. Maybe that’s why I think this third feature by Jordan Peele is his best thus far for the same reasons much of the word-of-mouth I’d heard when it came out was so antagonistic: it was all over the map, in both theme and tone; it didn’t sustain a straight storyline or deliver a hard, sharp point. And it left me with more to unravel and think/dream about than either Get Out or Us. Yes, there’s a racial subtext (what Hollywood did for, and mostly to its Black workers, on- and off-camera), but it’s only one of several layers in this aliens-from-outer-space movie that manages to evoke the dry-mouth aura of a 1950s drive-in chiller while being up to date with its eccentric supporting cast, especially the marvelous Keke Palmer as steely, feisty sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s dispirited horse trainer. For the record, Michael Abels’s score reaches new heights here, too. Almost as high, maybe higher, than the big black disc in the sky that causes all the trouble.

 

 

 

 


Abbott ElementaryAs I’ve previously testified in public, I was so much in love at first sight with Quinta Brunson’s tender and whimsical workplace comedy series about an economically challenged South Philly public school that I took its premature cancellation as an inevitability. Now it’s a firmly established hit which may well be single-handedly rescuing the analog network sitcom from oblivion. Somewhere, Mister Peepers is grinning – and idly wondering how he’d cope with a principal like Ava Coleman.

 

 

 



Matthew Goode in The Offer — For most of Goode’s career, I thought I had him nailed down as a pleasant, perfectly comported prototype of the British smoothie capable of an eccentric tic (in the manner of British smoothies) or even a swerve into hysteria because of, say, combat fatigue from whatever beastly war harshed his erstwhile empire’s mellow. Watching him bring Robert Evans back to life in The Offer was a massive revelation. Those who know or have seen the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture don’t need to be told that Evans was something of a Hollywood superhero in the mid-1970s when the movie business was generally lost at sea while the art form was at its peak. Evans’ one major misfire of that decade was The Great Gatsby and what you see in Goode’s evocation discloses where he went wrong: to do Gatsby right, what Evans really needed to do was to let cameras follow him around for a year and have somebody edit all the raw footage into a feature. That hypothetical verité could have been just as innovative and grand an achievement as both Godfathers and Chinatown. As it was, Goode’s rendering of a Gatsby-esque Hollywood legend, a “Last Tycoon,” if you will, elevated an otherwise middling docudrama to near-classic tragedy.




 



Prey – This was the prequel to the Predator franchise than no one, not even those who don’t care about hunter-gatherers from outer space, knew they wanted until it materialized in front of them. Set in a primeval American Great Plains more than three centuries before Arnold Schwarzenegger was a gleam in his mother’s eye, the film stars the magnetic Amber Midthunder as Nuru, an indigenous young warrior itching to show her brother and the other young tribesmen that she’s as great at stalking and hunting as they are. But the first in a series of hairy, insect-faced extraterrestrial hunters begins to pick off the incredulous young braves, eventually leaving her to figure out how to protect the rest of her village from being harvested. The special effects are, in their elemental way, just as spectacular as the hi-tech pyrotechnics of previous installments. (You will believe a bear can fly.) But Midthunder is, on many levels, the most dazzling of the movie’s assets, her character’s intensity and self-possession announcing both a young woman’s coming-of-age and a screen star’s arrival.

 

 




Atlanta: The Final Season(s) – Where to begin? The crew’s WTAF adventures during Paper Boi’s (Bryan Tyree Henry) European tour, including strange encounters with, among others, a friendly-but-oddly-abusive Liam Neeson, some well-heeled gourmet cannibals, a Blackface Dutch Christmas icon, along with streams of misread signals, overpriced fashion goods, exotic and dangerous drugs, and a missing phone. Or what about the seemingly “free-standing” stories, including the one about the wealthy white Manhattanites who discover their little boy is emotionally and psychically closer to their recently deceased Caribbean caregiver? Things got even weirder when Earn (creator-producer Donald Glover) and his posse returned to Atlanta where things are as dislocated as ever; how Van (Zazie Beets) somehow ends up searching for her daughter within a sinister cult-like entertainment complex run by the exploitative, enigmatic Mister Chocolate (Glover), all of it finishing off somehow with harrowing adventures in sensory deprivation with perpetually stoned Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). And that just scrapes the surface of this layers-within-layers, worlds-within-worlds cultural excursion that resembled exactly nothing else anywhere on any screen. They say it’s over. Not in my head, it isn’t.

 






Top Gun: Maverick – This is on the list primarily for its significance as a cultural phenomenon and not so much because it’s a great, or even very good movie. Not that I didn’t like it. In fact, I liked it a whole lot more than its 1986 predecessor, when its star’s grin was devouring everything in its path, symbolizing both the era’s avarice and obliviousness. TG:M provided such a massive, exhilarating surge to theaters struggling to shake loose from the COVID-19 doldrums that some audiences used the word “great” without qualification or irony. There were great things in it, most having to do with aerial ballet. But as all-American paeans to duty go, I much prefer John Ford’s calvary trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and even with Ed Harris around for the first act, I’d still rather watch The Right Stuff than either Top Gun movie.

In that first act (and if I’m really spoiling things for you here, then, dammit, go watch it on a streaming channel), Tom Cruise’s Maverick flies a state-of-the-art craft based on the now-decommissioned SR-71 “Black Bird” modified to reach Mach 10. Harris’s crusty admiral is about to shut down the manned flight experiment in place of drones, which kinda sorta makes sense. But “Mav” being “Mav”, he takes the plane up into the stratosphere and not only reaches the optimum speed but decides to stretch that old envelope a tad past Mach 10, which causes the plane to break up in flight. The next thing you see is Maverick, woozily lugging his parachute into a small-town diner, chugging ice water and asking where he is to which a small boy replies, “Earth.”

Now I don’t claim to be an aeronautical engineer. But I’ve absorbed enough histories of test flight and space travel to know that any corporeal being who even tries to eject from a flying object traveling past Mach 5 (a.k.a. hypersonic speed) will at the very least break every single bone and rend almost every tissue in its body, even in the highly unlikely event that a parachute opens. I’ve heard explanations (a.k.a. excuses) that the plane was likely equipped with some manner of “escape pod” that broke away and carried its pilot safely to the ground.

Yes, well…


It’s only a movie, right? And a movie that works so conscientiously to please its audience as Top Gun: Maverick needs to sacrifice credulity to roll the turnstiles and leave everybody happy.

But suppose, just suppose, that what we see when that plane breaks up high in the sky is the death of Captain Pete Mitchell, USN? And what if everything we see afterwards, including – and especially – Maverick’s reunions with his ailing wingman and the embittered son of the Lost Goose, make up an extended posthumous dream sequence, a Sixth Sense with G suits and F-35s? You’d have a less satisfying popcorn epic. You might also have a resonant masterwork of American storytelling.
As it stands now, it’s likely the loudest, most ornately apportioned shout of “olly-olly-oxen-free” ever issued to the moviegoing public. Thus, it’s a masterstroke of some kind. But not quite the one we, or the movies, really needed.

Gene Seymour’s Ten Favorite Things in 2021

Going to live performances for most of the past year was pretty much out of the question for me (with one notable exception cited down below). And there were so many reasons for this that relatively few of them had to do with the pandemic. (Here, for example, was a big one.) As for the brave not-so-new-anymore world of streams and clouds, one wasn’t always sure where one wanted to dump several hours of one’s life into binge-watching. Most evenings found me staring at the available options, all but completely immobilized by the sheer mass of “content” to the point where I frequently found myself saying, “The hell with all this noise!” and go to sports or Turner Classic Movies – or both. Or neither.

So given the myriad, metric tons of possibilities for my favorite things. of 2021, it’s possible that there may be things I’ve neglected, passed by, haven’t caught up with or entirely forgotten about. It may say something about the sheer glut of “content” that my top pick was a 2020 release, but it took me most of this year’s first half to absorb its content, and even longer to assess its impact. It’s still Up On Top, so to speak, because it’s too important to ignore – even if much of the culture, popular or otherwise, pretty much has:

 

 

 

 

 

 




Turn Me Loose, White Man – Now that “critical race theory” has affected state and local elections, driven school boards up a wall and perplexed a mass media that doesn’t quite grasp the concept (or know exactly what it means), it may be time to consider the possibility that we’re all going about this “racial dialogue” thing the wrong way. Mostly we need to stop worrying about making Black and White people “feel better” about being what they are. “Feelings,” after all, are what got us all into this mess in the first place. Somebody needs to break the news, however gently, that none of us is as “Black” or as “White” as we think we are, thanks in large part to an ongoing cultural transaction that began centuries ago with music created by African slaves, propagated by their descendants, absorbed and, yes, appropriated by Whites only to be reinvigorated and even reinvented into new forms by pink and brown alike.
Fellow Americans and worthy constituents, it’s in all our DNA, whether we like it or not. We’re all different, and always the same.
Few people this side of Ralph Ellison’s ghost care to even consider such concepts, booby-trapped as they are with anachronisms, racial slurs, ribald and sacred outbursts swarming and popping on scratchy old 78-RPM records, archaeologic souvenirs of an earlier, exceedingly weirder America.
But Allen Lowe, saxophonist, composer, historian, educator, and cultural gadfly, has long believed that if you gathered as much aural arcana as can be assembled, you could approach something resembling a unified field theory about what makes up the American soul in all its contradictory restlessness and conflicting exuberance.

 

 

 


It takes 30 compact discs with almost 900 songs and two volumes of hypertext for Lowe to fashion Turn Me Loose, White Man, a survey of the national sound in all its permutations, blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, burlesque, C&W, R&B, rock and rockabilly in so many mutant and mongrelized strains that “genre” loses all meaning. As, Lowe implies, it probably should.
Lowe’s archival efforts have been compared in range to those of such intrepid pioneers as Alan Lomax, Paul Oliver, and Harry Smith. But there are far more idiosyncratic and illuminating patterns Lowe draws from and, in some cases, imposes upon his discoveries. You’ll probably need to follow along, as much as possible, with Lowe’s written text (pure pleasure on its own) to gauge how and why on the first volume he chose to follow, say, the great Black vaudeville comedian Bert Williams’ 1906 recording of his deathless “Nobody” with the more obscure May Irwin’s whimsical 1907 sliver of minstrelsy, “If You Aint Got No Money, You Needn’t Come Around.” Note the use of dialect in the title’s first clause and the grammatical precision of the second. Such tensions are played out in big and small ways throughout this cosmic juke box whose selections cover the 20th century’s first sixty years.
From the shuck-&-jive of Irwin’s “coon song” (defined by Lowe as “that odd phenomenon of progressive melody and harmony, advanced white singing, significant black co-optation and racist bait”) through the 1920s emergence of Black blues queens Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and a panoply of artists from the widely celebrated (Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Leadbelly, Count Basie, Bill Monroe, Bing Crosby, Kitty Wells, Charlie Parker, Roy Rogers, Little Richard) to just-below-the-radar legends (Geeshie Wiley, Babs Gonzales, Blue Ridge Quartet, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Yancey, Riley Puckett) and many more obscure or little-remembered artists whose contributions glow like searchlights struggling to be seen through twilight mists.

 

 

 

 


The zillions of epiphanies and discoveries along the way are too numerous to adequately summarize. The best I can do for now is to mention the shock of hearing the original bust-out 1911 recording of Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days,” composed by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and thus an early example of appropriation; but one whose impact was galvanic enough to give safe passage to Tucker’s stardom well past the 1960s. Another shock: the spare, haunting 1941 recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by the ill-fated blues singer Lil Green that Peggy Lee credited with influencing her own hit version the following year. And on and on…

Whether things should have turned out this way (and artists like Lee are the ones least deserving of blame) shouldn’t be a matter of concern to contemporary listeners anxious to throw as many red “racism” flags at the past as can be flung. (You’re better off blaming the Southern segregationist bloc in Congress for ruining what could have been a nice party for all.) The main point, as Lowe continually asserts, is that such push-pull dynamics, this braiding of cultures on record, as it were, didn’t validate or encourage racial separation. It was very much the opposite, even when the lyrics were far from conciliatory or respectful to Black people earlier in the century.


Lowe’s magnificent treatise comes to us as a gift we’ve needed for a long time, though this era being whatever it is, I don’t know whether the skittish, hopelessly judgmental masses who now dominate social media are prepared to deal with its sheer weight or its propensity for nuance, irony, wit, and surprise. For the moment, I choose to be optimistic enough to speculate that when these masses are ready for Turn Me Loose, White Man, it’ll still be around somewhere to both explain and evoke a world where the Light Crust Doughboys are as “ivey-divey” as the Sun Ra Arkestra.

 


The rest, as usual, are in no particular order:

 

 

 



Rita Moreno – You know how you have those people in your life or in your personal pantheon of whom you always say, “If you don’t like —-, then I don’t want to know you”? Well, Rita Moreno has for most of my life been at or near the top of that list for me and it was as much for what she did when she was Being Herself on talk shows and interviews as for when she exploded on-screen in the original 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story and collected her supporting-actress Oscar the following year. As most of the known universe knows by now, she’s also in the Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner version and not a few people believe she can win the same Oscar sixty years after she got her last one. It may not matter much either way as she’s practically a charter member of the EGOT sisterhood. What does matter is that this year, at a supernaturally energetic 90 years old, Moreno has been given her proper due and then some; not just with the new West Side Story (of which she is also a producer), but this past year’s release of Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, a PBS documentary about Moreno that gained viewership when it streamed on Netflix. She made being Rita Moreno look easier and much more fun than it likely was, especially when struggling through her dispiriting and (especially) demeaning early years as a studio ingenue. From those experiences, she developed superior emotional intelligence and fervent empathy towards all who struggled as she did. At about the five-minute mark of this interview clip, she talks about how when working as a series regular, she would go out of her way to make guest actors feel more welcome in unfamiliar, and in some cases, less hospitable surroundings. It’s not in the documentary, but it’s yet another reason, as if any more were needed, to cherish her forever.

 

 

 

 



The Beatles: Get Back – As Samuel Johnson didn’t say, but would have, whosoever gets bored from watching four active imaginations pooling their resources to make music in a studio is bored with life. Eight hours of footage didn’t seem an exceptionally long time to get embedded in a handful of hard day’s nights in the studio. Much as they may have wanted to get back, so to speak, to live concerts, their basic instincts turned out right: they were better together in a studio than they would have been on stage in their latter days as a group. (The guess here is that if they’d stayed on the road any longer than they did, one or more of them would have gotten physically, seriously hurt as the decade they helped create began curdling like cream left open too long on the patio.) Even with all the tiffs, tantrums, and tensions sharing the room with them, the guys were in their safe space, as capable of mutually assured generosity (still loving the sequence where George is helping Ringo erect a bridge for the latter’s “Octopus’s Garden.”) as of sticking tiny needles into each other’s self-esteem. All of which happens when you’re just “hanging out” and this may well be for all time the sine qua non of cinematic “hangs.” The sainted Cassavetes couldn’t have pulled it off if he’d staged everything in advance: he could never have drawn up those two “what’s-all-this-then?” constables trying in vain to get the lads to shut down their rooftop concert. Questions for further study: Can we be sure Phil Spector didn’t put the old lady up to calling the cops? And where, in all this footage, was Phil Spector anyway?

 

 

 

 



Passing – With episodic television now firmly in the center of popular storytelling, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of the year’s most critically-lauded feature films tended to leave more of their narrative details to the imagination, much as producers, directors and writers tried to do in the mid-20th century as commercial television squeezed movie houses into tight corners. Jane Campion’s award-winning western noir The Power of the Dog was a revelation to many for its calculated ambiguity. I preferred Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut if only for the daring aesthetic and personal choices she made in adapting a Harlem Renaissance classic and thus proving (a.) that Nella Larson has earned serious reconsideration as a major American novelist and (b.) judging from some of the reactions to the movie, there remain some things about skin color we feel uneasy about.

 

 

 

 

 



Samantha Fish – So let me tell you how this happened: I was wandering around YouTube this past summer in search of vintage fifties black-and-white videos of the great country-rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson to show a friend of mine what she’d been missing. In the process, whatever algorithm mediates such things kicked up more recent live performances from a guitarist/vocalist I’d never heard before.  Among the many things that led me from the Telluride thing was this solo recital above for New Orleans’ fabled WWOZ from a year ago when things were too locked down for live audiences.

Damn! I said to myself. Where’d she come from? I then asked myself.

 

 

 

 

Born 33 years ago this coming January in Kansas City, Fish’s been performing kickass blues, soul, and country rock for more than a decade and has recorded seven albums under her name, the latest of which, Faster, came out this past September on the Rounder label. She plays several different types of guitar at several different speeds and may well be the master of the amplified cigar-box. With composure and conviction, she can belt, purr, growl, and shout like a grizzled juke-joint veteran, a swampland Marilyn Monroe with a surfeit of sang-froid. She’s always on the move from one medium-cool venue to another, her smitten fans following her trail and hanging on her every well-wrought lick and riff. By autumn, I was so enamored that when I found out her tour would land at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on my birthday night, I gave her concert as a present from me to me as the first live music show I’d attended since lockdown. I keep wondering why this woman isn’t ruling the world. One answer, the best I can come up with for now, is that the world as it is now constituted would need to be at once older and newer to deserve her reign. As things stand now, she already travels the world, finds love wherever she goes, and, as The Fugs would say, is doing all right.

 

 

 




Tear Across the Dotted Line – In a time like ours where narcissism and its toffee-nosed sibling solipsism rule the populace regardless of ideology, anything that chips away at what legendary basketball coach Pat Riley famously labeled “the Disease of Me” is worth your time. I’m certainly glad for the time I spent absorbing this six-episode animated series by the Italo-Franco cartoonist Zerocalcare, who also voices (in the Italian-language version) his cartoon alter-ego Zero, a snarky, self-absorbed, and self-sabotaging professional illustrator whose personality is best expressed by the giant orange armadillo who hangs around as his sardonic Jiminy Cricket: “You’re a black belt at dodging life.” Exhibit A for the armadillo’s diagnosis is Zero’s fraught, constricted relationship with Alice, a shy, enigmatic young woman with whose feelings Zero plays an exasperating game of keep-away, until tragedy forces him to confront his own mangier inhibitions. On this description alone, you may be inclined to take a hard pass. But there is genuine charm, wit, and ingenuity in execution, and it wins your heart, fairly and honestly, at the end, even if you’re left feeling that Zero would still be more annoying without the armadillo tagging along.

 

 

 

 

 



The Love Song of W.E.B. DuBois – “We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell the story of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt. Her trees and her water.” If you’re going to try writing a “great American novel,” you better come at it with a killer lead, especially if what follows is almost 800 pages long. Award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers fulfills this first obligation in her first novel, an audacious, dense-star potpourri of bildungsroman, multi-generational history, socio-political inquiry and, as the title implies, love story. The coming-of-age story belongs to Ailey Pearl Garfield, habitually impertinent, intensely probing, and passionately engaged in the pursuit of her family background with all its upheavals, hardships, duplicities, and hard-won victories. For those who wonder if going so long and deep is worth the trouble, I yield the floor to culture critic Davin Seay who in 1982’s The Catalog of Cool posed the rhetorical question, “Ask yourself…you looking for something to do while the coffee cools or do you want to read a book?”

 

 

 



Lashana Lynch, Ana De Armas & Lea SeydouxNo Time to Die took its sweet time getting its business done, making Daniel Craig’s long goodbye to the James Bond franchise seem even longer than necessary. Still, the movie’s generosity of spirit towards its cast and its audience compensated for any number of longueurs and Craig’s comfort level with the 007 persona was never more evident, or more disarming, than it was on his way out. What also helped was a dazzling trio of what would have once been branded “Bond girls” for convenience’s sake, though somehow, they each seem emblematic of Things to Come rather than What Once Was. We’ll start with Lynch as Agent Nomi of MI-6, who in the wake of Bond’s resignation from the secret service, was granted “license to kill” status and made the most of it with a skill set formidable enough to get her out of any jam the franchise could conceive. Seydoux, reprising her role from SPECTRE as Bond’s enigmatic love interest Madeleine Swann, got to show additional bad-assery in an unexpected place beyond Bond: as the truculent prison guard who doubles as an artist’s nude model in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Last, and by no means least is Armas, who made perhaps the biggest splash with critics and audiences as Paloma, the callow, but poised CIA agent, whose one action set piece with Craig’s Bond showed she could take command of the screen on her own. When Armas’s Paloma split for Parts Unknown, you felt she’d taken much of the movie’s vitality with her. It’s been whispered that Paloma will be given her own movie as will Lynch’s Nomi. It’d be OK with me and I suspect millions of others if they paired up somehow, if the world could withstand so much magnetism from the same place.

 

 

 



The Underground RailroadI’ve had my say and then some about Barry Jenkins’s masterly, unsparingly corrosive adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s antebellum magical-realist picaresque. The only thing I can add is that I still believe there’s been nothing like it on television before. If it weren’t so tough to watch the first time, I might be able to say for sure after a return viewing. And I don’t know if those faint whispers about a second season are or should be for real. It’d be intriguing to see Jenkins, or somebody else, try.

 

 

 


Succession – For those who haven’t watched the third season, or for that matter, its two predecessors (and what are you all waiting for anyway?), I’ll try hard not to spoil anything for you by being of no real help whatsoever. Moving stuff around without changing anything about their miserable selves: that’s what being a member of the Roy family is all about, beginning with Mister “Fuck Off “himself, his satanic majesty Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Part of the reason Season 3 reached a new peak in dialogue was its many cogent deployments of the f-word as verb, adjective, noun, and adverb. beginning with what retains pole position as Snap of the Decade: not-as-smart-as-she-thinks sister Shiv (Sarah Snook) telling her not-as-hep-to-the-jive-as-he-thinks-younger bro Roman (Kieran Culkin): “Oh, you love showing your pee-pee to everybody, but sooner or later, you’re actually going to have to fuck something!” Then there’s Shiv’s not-as-pliant-as-he-seems husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden) telling nowhere-near-as-cool-as he-thinks renegade son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) why he can’t join the latter’s uprising against Big Daddy: “I don’t mean to be insulting, but having been around a bit, my hunch is you’re going to get fucked. Because I’ve seen you get fucked a lot. And I’ve never seen Logan get fucked once.” In the end, there’s Logan (and, as Tom says, this shouldn’t be a spoiler to those of us who’ve “been around” these jackals since 2018) proclaiming “I! Fucking! Win!” closely followed by Shiv’s doleful last words till next season, “Mom fucked us.” That’s more than enough fucking “fucks” for you to begin piecing together where things go from here. And you can count on so much more — and potentially worse — fuckery to come.

Winners and Losers in the Race for the Future

November 3, 2021

 

 



Reading J.W. McCormack’s overview in the latest Baffler magazine of Donald Barthelme’s life and work while watching the sixth and final game of this year’s World Series added a thin, but pliable layer of poignancy to a bittersweet evening. I had by then finally decided after days of back-and-forth that I wanted the Astros, Don B’s hometown team, to at least take the Braves to a seventh game, if not (necessarily) Win It All. Part of it was about redemption for the Space Cowboys’ dismal and now apparently embedded reputation for cheating their way to a 2017 championship.

 

 



Mostly I was rooting hard for their manager Dusty Baker, who at 72 may be past hope of smelling the metaphoric roses but will likely be remembered as the kind of manager who took unruly, star-crossed and/or degraded franchises and got them to stand upright enough to move forthrightly towards Ultimate Victory. He likewise fell short with the Giants, Cubs and Nationals, all of whom would, in time, reach the promised land without him. While I wasn’t altogether sorry to see the Braves bathing in champagne (paternal family ties to the state of Georgia, plus which they ended up being my late mother’s favorite baseball team) their triumph left a taste of melancholy; an altogether suitable context when reading about Barthelme’s Houston roots, since as his old pal Thomas Pynchon once wrote of him, melancholy was at the core of Don B’s exotic, eccentric body-of-work. Quoth Tom P:

“As any Elizabethan could tell you if they all weren’t dead, melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior, even what may be identified as a sense of humor. Barthelme’s was a specifically urban melancholy, related to that look of immunity to joy or even surprise seen in the faces of cab drivers, bartenders, street dealers, city editors, a wearily taken vow to persist beneath the burdens of the day and the terrors of the night. Humor in these conditions leans toward the anti-transcendent — like jail humor and military and rodeo humor, it finds high amusement in failure and loss, and it celebrates survival one day, one disaster, to the next.”

Put another way, it’s the kind of melancholy that accommodates conflicted emotions, whether they come through winning while losing, loving while hating, or resisting while enduring: a natural progression (a musical analogy that Barthelme the jazz hound would appreciate) to the off-off-year election results that yielded a Democratic loss of the Virginia gubernatorial election and an apparent stand-off in the New Jersey gubernatorial race. I knew last night that it was a mistake to switch from the Series’ postgame festivities to CNN for the latest vote tallies, further eroding my mood and devastating prospects for a good night’s sleep. What depressed me weren’t the results so much as the exasperating inevitability of “post-game assessments” by the punditocracy: “Uh-oh. Looks like BIIIIG trouble for President Biden, Nancy!” “How right you are, Cliff! This is clearly a referendum on the administration and the early returns look pretty bad for Biden and the Democrats!” “Yes, they should take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s winning formula and reach out to the disaffected white middle-and-lower-middle classes and blather-cliché-platitude-placate-pander-pander-pander …”



Nobody asked me, but (thanks once again, Jimmy Cannon) I don’t think any of this is Joe Biden’s fault. Or at least it’s not entirely Joe Biden’s fault. In fact, the president seemed to have had, despite some mishaps along the way, a pretty good week in Europe, patching up leaks, reasserting leadership in the climate crisis and generally staying upbeat as is and has been Joe’s way, whatever the situation or the odds. But however pugnaciously he keeps insisting otherwise, #46 isn’t close to getting “moderate” and “progressive” members of his own party on the same page with what seems to any rational human being his vitally needed package of economic-recovery expenditures. Placating those who holler “Socialism!” or (a euphemism I’ve decided I hate now more than any other) “Critical Race Theory!” at them seems to be the Democratic game plan, along with giving the billionaire senator from West Virginia a far bigger public profile than he or anybody else requires.

White Guys, in other words, are The Solution as far as the political establishment and their media enablers are concerned. And yet, candidates-of-color (including one woman) triumphed in mayoral races in Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York City. Cities are cities (especially in the northeast) and states are states. But did anybody in Virginia bother to consider what a candidate-of-color could have done in what experts insist is an increasingly blue state against a Trumpian mediocrity like Glenn Youngkin? Instead, the Democrats ran Terry McAuliffe, who was, besides being Another White Guy, a retainer from the Clinton years. Old news, as even the dimmest bulb in the political press corps could and should have suspected.


Some people think I lean too much on the wisdom of my late fellow worker Murray Kempton. But among his many wise observations was (and I paraphrase) that political success is most attainable by those who ally themselves to the future while bearing little to no responsibility to the past. “The past,” Murray once said in this context, “already has a job.” And yes, I know who’s president (for the time being). But Biden was smart enough back when the primaries were seemingly happening a million years ago to understand that his best chance to get nominated was to leapfrog his way to Black power brokers like Jim Clyburn and make them see that his years with Barack Obama allowed  him to perceive as others didn’t the possibilities #44’s presence, of not his policies, signified for the party’s future. Whatever their respective ideologies, Eric Adams (basically as “moderate” as they come), Michelle Wu and Ed Gainey represent, at the very least, the chance for Something Different in their party than whatever came before, including, maybe especially, the Clinton era.

I’m willing to bet whatever pittance I’m carrying in my wallet that you’re not going to hear any Political Insider hired by television say such things. I refuse to take whatever these talking heads say seriously unless they are in any way familiar with the aggregate works of Albert Murray AND James Baldwin, Toni Morrison AND Grace Paley – and, of course, the aforementioned Donald Barthelme (had to get back to him), whose short fiction was once regarded as surreal, but I’ve lately come to believe was farsighted enough in the sixties, seventies and eighties to now comprise hyper-explicit accounts of our present-day reality. Writes McCormack: “[Barthelme] dwelt in the fissures of the conscious mind and made work that was neither one thing nor the other because it was both and neither…a trickster spirit…who took nonsense so seriously it congealed into wisdom, the effect of staring so deeply into the void that not only does it stare back, it becomes cross-eyed.”

Don’t take his word for it, or mine.  You’ve got time. Look into him – and don’t be surprised if those stories we’re talking about look into you.


Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Favorite Things from 2020

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 


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

 

 

 


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

 

 


Soul Ethan Iverson has declared this latest Disney Pixar project to be the best jazz movie in a long time. And as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m with him on this — with the caveat that one of the things that disquieted me a little was its implication that the jazz calling and the dedication it requires so obsessed Joe the protagonist that it kept him from appreciating everything in his life that had meaning and resonance. Most of us who love music (and I’m not just talking about “the music,” but all music) believe it to be one of the gateways towards embracing life in all its outward and inward graces. Maybe Pete Docter’s movie was saying the same thing ultimately. But I fear it will nonetheless give haters more ammunition for disdaining or dismissing “the music.” As soon as the closing credits started rolling, there was also the melancholy suspicion that Soul wasn’t going to find as much love out there as other Disney/Pixar inquiries into the metaphysical such as Coco or Inside/Out. It left more questions open than answers, which makes it my favorite DizPix movie since WALL-E – and 2008 now seems a long time ago. Meanwhile, the jazz head in me was more caught up with the movie’s digressions and diversion e.g. the rat dragging the pizza slice in one direction while the cat is dragging another one in the other; the offhand little jibe by the afterlife’s gatekeepers over how too many new souls were being herded into the hovel set aside for self-absorption; the modernist depiction of those gate-keepers that tipped its cap to the UPA and Terrytoons shorts of the 1950s; and. most of all, the characterizations of all its Black supporting characters from the older ladies rocking with Joe’s mom in the tailoring shop to the brothers at the barber shop simultaneously keeping it real and cool. When Oscar time rolls around, I’ll be rooting for Wolfwalkers to win the best animated feature prize because those guys at Cartoon Saloon deserve the love for keeping hand-painted animation alive and kicking in the digital age. But as Ethan says, if there’s an envelope somewhere for Best Jazz Movie of this year (if not the last 10-to-30), this is what it’ll say on the card inside.

 

 



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

 

 

 



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

 




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


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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

 



First there was Stephen Wright’s Processed Cheese, a surrealistic pillow stuffed with sharp objects. It’s set in a funhouse version of present-day America whose largest, wealthiest metropolis is called Mammoth City, whose wealthiest and most powerful resident, Mister Menu, lives in a penthouse apartment of a very shiny skyscraper. One day, Mister Menu’s supermodel wife (Her name? Missus Menu, of course) hurls a canvas bag loaded with cash at her husband. The bag sails past him, off their terrace and fifty-two stories to the street where it lands smack dab in front of an unemployed-and-desperate citizen named Graveyard. Not knowing where the million-dollar sack came from or to whom it belongs, Graveyard takes it home to his wife Ambience and, once they’re convinced no one’s looking for their money, they proceed to Live Larger than they ever have before, buying everything and anything they want. You name it: sex, drugs and other commodities with brand names like Walleyed Monkeys champagne, DominationDonuts, the HoochieCoochie flatscreen TV and, inevitably, guns like the Gibe & Cloister 418 firearm or “The Last Judgment” (with a) “silver barrel engraved with lifelike drawings of people in sexual positions most of us couldn’t even imagine.” All this and more sounds as over-the-top as that canvas bag’s trajectory and yet this Stephen Wright, a meta-novelist highly recommended by the seemingly incongruent likes of Toni Morrison and Stephen King, applies a thick Buster Keaton-esque sheen on all this slapstick avarice. You can think all you want that it’s way too outrageously conceived to have anything to do with you– until the next time you walk out of your house and see all those empty Amazon boxes spilling out of the nearest available dumpster.

 



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 


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

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


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

 

 

 

 



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

 

 

 

 



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

 

 

 

 



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

 

 

 

 

 


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

 

 

 

 




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

 

 

 



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

 

 

 

 

 



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

 

 

 

 



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

 

 

 

 



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



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 are as American as a burger stand 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