Entries Tagged 'Politics & Other Disappointments' ↓

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.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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


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


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

 


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


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

Albert Camus, Patron Saint of Editorial Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s So Great About Being POTUS?

From Amy Davidson Sorkin in the Sept. 9, 2019 issue of The New Yorker: “…Even (Beto) O’Rourke for whom, just last year, being a senator was a dream job, said that running for the same office now ‘would not be good enough for El Paso and it would not be good enough for the country.’…On a human level, it’s understandable that O’Rourke would want to directly take on [president Donald] Trump and his bigotry; on a political level, the logic is less clear.”

You think? But in America’s present frazzled state, logic is so devalued a commodity right now that if Mister Spock made a recon field trip anywhere on this rock he’d probably mutter something like “Fuck this shit!” in Vulcan, and pivot for home. Like Beto, we’re all a little too emotional about stuff we shouldn’t and we think (when we think at all) that watching a lot of television will calm us down.

Deep breath, America: The presidency is not where you should be investing all your attention. Congress in general and the senate in particular is where crucial decisions are made, and just as often, not made that affect your kids’ lives, to say nothing of their kids’ lives.

Granted, this process has been hampered, especially in recent years, by the stubborn impediment to the national blood vessels that is the senate filibuster whose dominion over that body’s regular order of business has solidified in the public mind Congress’ position as the place where Nothing Ever Gets Done. Bring out the raspberries and guffaws, but always remember that a helluva lot of damage can be done by not doing anything. And do you need to wonder who benefits most in spreading over the collective American mind the image of representative government as being such a morass that nobody should expect anything to get done?

So that’s why POTUS gets more attention that he should. But as others wiser than me keep telling people, to little avail, the president can’t tell anybody else what to do except the military over which he is commander-in-chief. Otherwise he’s just another legislator trying to convince people to go his way; not a goddam king !!!

And I hate like hell to get vulgar about this. But if you only knew how many times during Barack Obama’s presidency that I had to keep telling younger folks, and even older folks who likely slept through high school civics classes, that the president presides, executes, but does not rule the country. “Who does?” they ask. Well…in theory, you do, I say, but that just confuses them.

So I stopped answering that question and went back to my main point: What matters as much as voting for president, and sometimes more, is voting for the right person to represent you in the federal legislature. So for that matter is voting for your state governors, mayors, city councils, school boards, and so forth. All of which, I know, sounds too boring to contemplate. I agree. Contemplation of any kind is boring. But think of all the dreams that die and the lives that are ruined because of the dearth of collective contemplation. I’m asking you to think. Again.

In fact, let’s hear from somebody who knows even better than I do what it means to be a POTUS; somebody who once commanded one of the largest armies in world history. The General has a message to Beto O’Rourke and those who are similarly inclined to battle Donald Trump next year. (Oh and maybe Donald Trump needs to hear this, too):

 

 

“Anybody is a damn fool if he actually seeks to be president. You give up four of the very best years of your life. Lord knows it’s a sacrifice. Some people think there is a lot of power and glory attached to the job. On the contrary the very workings of a democratic system see to it that the job has very little power.”

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, 34th president of the United States

Off the top of my head, I blame Teddy White. If it weren’t for The Making of the President 1960 and White’s three quadrennial sequels, pursuing the presidency (a.k.a. the Highest Office in the Land etc. etc.) wouldn’t seem like the lumbering, furry and clunky pageant that eats up so much media space every three to four years. White’s books sold in bunches, even the 1964 installment that chronicled an election whose results were in retrospect a forgone conclusion practically from the start.

But blaming White is too easy. Better to blame the results of that 1960 campaign which is when we started on the road to wherever it is we are now. That was the year, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, that America voted in its first matinée idol president. Granted it was by only a sliver and there were still hardheads who weren’t about to have a Catholic in the White House no matter how pretty he and his family looked on magazine covers. But the administration following that election marked the era when the president of the United States became undisputed Star of the Really Big Show that was American government. Unlike his immediate predecessor, John F. Kennedy robustly sought the presidency “because (as he put it in his last election-eve speech in Boston) it is the center of action.” This was when he was still running for the office. When he got there, it wasn’t as easy as he thought it’d be. But after the second year, he was beginning to get the hang of it enough to try reviving the old “bully pulpit” motif – one which has, alas, taken on newer, more literal meaning today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was the same Massachusetts U.S. senator John Kennedy who only three years before accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book comprising portraits of U.S. senators who helped move the needle on History by going against the prevailing political climate. The title of the book was How To Put Your Ass on the Line For Little Fun and Less Profit. I kid of course. It was Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage written by Ted Sorenson (as everybody pretty much accepts now). What seems most authentic about the book, even today, is that Kennedy once believed that Congress mattered almost as much as the presidency and its members could be as consequential to the country’s direction; maybe more so as in the examples of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams (a more effective legislator than president), John C. Calhoun, James Blaine, Thomas Hart Benton, Joe Cannon, Robert Taft and George Norris.

 

 

Soren…I mean, Kennedy even decided to include a chapter on Edmund Ross, the Kansas senator who cast the lone vote against convicting the impeached president Andrew Johnson. It apparently didn’t matter to JFK at the time that Andrew Johnson was an incorrigibly retrograde racist and that Ross’s vote may not have been as idealistically motivated towards preserving the institution of the presidency as Kennedy’s account makes it seem. It was the gesture of courage itself that was heroic enough to Kennedy to make it glow in retrospect.

You wonder when JFK stopped believing in the messianic possibilities inherent in serving as a senator or representative. Then again, he probably never really believed in them at all, having seen whatever forces, seen and unseen, that Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned against his father when the latter was ambassador to Great Britain (even though Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. did as much if not more damage to himself than Roosevelt). Indeed, we may have started measuring eras in American history by presidential administrations with FDR’s, though some might argue that process began in earnest with the eight years his cousin Theodore was in the White House. But even at the start of the 20th century, young and bombastic TR had to share center stage with congressional titans like the aforementioned “Uncle Joe” Cannon, then a speaker of the house as powerful, obstinate and impregnable as senate majority leader Mitch McConnell seems now.

 

 

 

 

McConnell, to my mind, has been a more consequential political force in this nation’s government this decade than its two very different presidents. He’s imposed his will through stonewalling, cajolery, intimidation and, to be more specific about it, transformed the U.S. Supreme Court for generations, assuming we last that long. “But he’s only a senator,” a friend I’d thought was savvier about such things told me. Right, I said. And Keith Richards is only a rhythm guitarist and Mean Joe Greene was only a defensive lineman.

 

I mean…Yes, it’s somewhat nauseating to put someone as malign as Mitch McConnell in the same company as Clay, Webster, Adams, Taft, Robert Lafollette, Everett Dirksen, and the Lyndon Johnson who was, as Volume Three of Robert Caro’s epic biography labeled him, “Master of the Senate.” But it took gall of previously unimaginable dimension to have blatantly, cruelly mashed and baked the dreams of Merrick Garland into soot for the sake of political expediency – and getting away with it. One also recalls the bone-chilling spectacle of McConnell staring laser-like at Susan Collins as she cast her vote for confirming Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court.

That, boys and girls, is Exercising Power. Whining about your predecessor’s deal with a media company is not.

So what to do? Getting rid of the filibuster has been on the table during this presidential campaign and there’s little clear consensus among the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls as to whether they’d support its suspension if their party regains senate control. (Elizabeth Warren’s adamantly for suspension; Michael Bennet’s against; Biden’s listed as “unclear” – huh?—and most of the others are considered “open” to the prospect, at best.) But it’s probably easier to just make sure that most of the Republican right-wingers now holding senate seats don’t come back and at least permit some legislation to pass.

But as with almost everything else that matters right now, a shift of perception is what’s needed above all else. In other words, stop thinking of our three branches of government (yes, there are three) as a pyramid where the executive branch is always on top. The best way to think of government, and I do mean “think” more than “feel,” is in lateral terms, which how I always imagined those troublesome Virginians like Madison and Jefferson saw it in theory.

This isn’t going to be easy. There was no television in 1787 and even though those Founding Fathers carry lots of star power to this day, none, except maybe Benjamin Franklin, would likely know how to act in front of a video-cam. But there once was a time in the succeeding centuries when senators were stars as big as, even bigger than the president. If we mean it when we claim to love our democracy, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to reimagine such times in our own.

On Being Funny & Knowing Funny

 

“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humor are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.” 

— Clive James

 

 

Also true: an active sense of humor, at the giving or receiving end, is the great social leveler of American life, though you’d barely know it now as we’ve been squeezed tighter into this grim shouting match that passes for political discourse.

 

 

 

 

For me, being funny or at least “knowing” funny compensates for most political sins and I’ve gotten into plenty of trouble for making such allowances. There was much (we’ll put it at “everything”) about William F. Buckley’s politics that I found undigestible and racist, however much he walked back his segregationist sympathies towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, whenever the subject of Buckley came up among us intense student lefties back in the day, I would often get eye daggers aimed at my forehead when I dared suggest, “Well…at least he’s funny!” This is why for most of my life I could never be considered a reliable enough ideologue or revolutionary.

I blame my upbringing. (Doesn’t everybody?) I grew up in one of those households where if you couldn’t take a joke, you became one. My mother was the lone holdout. “That’s not nice!” she would say whenever the rest of us, especially my father, ganged up on something or somebody. But after a while she grudgingly accepted her role as comedic foil to the rest of us smart-assed Seymours. (Missing you, mom! In your own way, you too knew funny!) If you hung out with us for any length of time, you had to be funny or, failing that, accept your fate. Not everybody appreciated the vibe, but over the years my siblings and I came to cherish and even protect the leveling effect our collective joshing and jiving had on whatever social milieu was taken aback by our presence.

With my father, though, it was always a risk whether the one-liners would work even with my mother. And when it didn’t work with strangers, he’d just shrug and say, “I make a friend a day.”

Then again, it’s never been apparent, for all the pride we take in our stand-up clubs from sea to shining sea, that Americans can take a joke, even though they’ll all make passes at telling one.

What’s more than apparent is that the incumbent president of the United States is a dreary gasbag who can neither take a joke (thinking mostly of the bad Buster Keaton imitation he gave towards his predecessor’s jibes at a White House Correspondents Association dinner) nor tell one very well, though when he slow-dances with the flag, he’s at least convinced himself that he is funny.

 

 

 

My friend Colin McEnroe, who’s not only a lot funnier than President Trump but a whole lot funnier than anybody who’s after Trump’s job, conjectures that 45’s idea of funny came from repeatedly listening to Don Rickles’ 1968 LP, Hello Dummy at an impressionable age, though I would think that at 22 (assuming he’s not fibbing about his age), Prince Don T. had outgrown his need for role models. Just as generations of would-be comics thought from listening to Richard Pryor’s albums that all you needed to buy into his renown were jokes about farting and fucking, Trump likely inhaled all of Rickles’ rude noises without digesting his timing and craftiness.

 

 

 

 

Is it really so hard to be funny? To know funny? If you really want to gauge what’s been lost over the last fifty years in degrees and dimensions of political wit, compare any YouTube video of Buckley on his Firing Line talk show with ten random minutes from Fox News, his alleged ideological descendants. You may not make it past five. Tucker Carlson’s petulant browbeating veers at least forty miles wide of Buckley’s vulpine stealth. Neither Carlson nor anybody else on the Fox schedule displays anything close to Buckley’s twinkly indulgence of opposition viewpoints, during which interval either a rhetorical hammer or pointed stick loomed overhead.

Things aren’t all that giddier over on MSNBC, where one finds surfeits of enthusiasm, earnestness, passion, energy – and relatively little to make even a partisan laugh except for a sarcastic whoop here and there. I might feel a lot better being on Chris Hayes’ or Rachel Maddow’s side if every so often their respective commentaries emitted smoky-spicy ironies redolent of Fran Lebowitz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which, some may agree, might not be necessary. Because, as you’re already dying to tell me, we don’t need the MSNBC gang to bring the funny as long as the Jon Stewart Alumni Association – Colbert, Noah, Bee, Oliver, Cenac and company – is at work at its members’ respective platforms. I’m not disagreeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, comedians appear now to own the kind of credibility once claimed by journalists, though at least Oliver has said aloud that if it weren’t for journalism, nothing he has to say on HBO would matter. What worries me about those guys, however, is that their repeated bashings against what often seems a granite edifice of clueless cruelty could exact such a toll over time that they could become too absorbed by the chaos to be an antidote against it.

Besides which, wielding snarky comebacks in public brawls, however cathartic the blows may feel, isn’t as satisfying as the leveling process that comedy at its most bracing can yield. Though John Oliver at least will season his outbursts with dorky self-deprecation (making them somehow more effective than those of his peers), you wish for more of a kind of ecumenical acknowledgment by all sides that when you come down to it, we’re each as full of shit as the next person. This shouldn’t narrow the prospects for more and better funny. Quite the opposite.

But because the aforementioned discourse is now set at Defcon 3, or lower, that equanimity seems even more unreachable. Everybody’s more skittish and defensive about what they say, when and where they do it. So there’s a whole lot to laugh at – and not much that’s funny.

Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’d ask my dad about it, but he’s no longer around. But if he somehow found his way back to our present-day reality…well, the first thing I’d do is apologize for whoever did such a thing to him. Then I’d give him time to get a sense of how truly fucked up things are on all sides. And at some point he would say something he always did whenever bullshit was piling up all around him from friends and strangers alike:

“At least I know I’m fulla shit!”

Do you have a comeback for that? Then it sucks being you.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

My Own Private Top-Ten or Wonder Women of 2017

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

tracee ellis ross freeze ray

Blackish kitchen

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

4.) Nicole Kidman

 

nicole kidman big little lies

 

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

 

 

rhiannon-giddens-freedom-highway-450sq
5.) Rhiannon Giddens – She gets slammed in some quarters as just another smarty-pants “dabbler” in Americana and, contrarily, by those who believe she taints her aspirations towards authenticity (or “authenticity”) by slipping some modern pop covers into her playbook. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing her exclusively with the Carolina Chocolate Drops because as a unit they schooled you as emphatically as they kicked ass. But I prefer to think she sees everything and anything she tries out as authentic and, in doing so, dares to reshape whatever we mean by the “traditional music” that defines our troubled, fractured land. In another better time than ours, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch), released earlier this year, could have been one of those crossover albums that encourages, if not creates widespread cultural consensus. Also, I know I don’t get out much, but when I saw her live this year at WXPN’s World Café in Philadelphia, she made me dream again of retrieving lost or distant possibilities. When you hear her cover of “I Wont Back Down,” conceived originally by one of the souls who Went Home in 2017, you may know what I mean. Or not. Don’t care. Love her.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Attica Locke Bluebird Bluebird

 

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

8.) Maria Bamford —

 

 

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

9.) Gal Gadot 

Gal Godot

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

Electing Monkeys in Presidential Years…No, Wait…I Meant….

As if there weren’t enough irrational discourse about this Making of the President 2016– or, as my own book would prefer labeling it, “The Circus of the Clueless” – there’s been some chatter about this being the Chinese Year of the Monkey and how especially, and (perhaps) appropriately auspicious Monkey Year elections have been for subsequent American presidencies.  But if these years are so transformative, then what was so unusual or significant about 2004, the last Monkey Year vote for president? I mean, yes, these years always start out somehow being deemed the Most Important Election of Your/Our/One’s Lifetime. As Samantha Bee, TV’s newest investigative anchor-comedian-sage puts it, election years are like your children. Each is special in every way — except, apparently, midterms.

 

 

 

But is the Monkey more significant than, say, the Rat or (my own birth-year icon) the Dragon? Let’s make comparisons, reaching back not TOO far in the previous century:

 

 

 

 

Monkey Years

1932: “You Can Look Up Now, Everyone.”
1944:”He Aint Peaked Yet. But He Sure Does Look Peaked.”
1956: “Ike I Still Like! (You, I Don’t!)”
1968: “There Must Be Some Kinda Way Outta Here…”
1980: “Good Morning, Bitches!”
1992: “All I Want Is To See You Smile…”
2004: Still having trouble with this one. Bouncing around with stuff from “Swift-boat Me, Jesus!” to “Staying the Course to Nowhere” to “Look, It’s Not as Though Things Can Get Any Worse” (retroactive sniggering).

I see three, maybe four stars you can apply to that list. But let’s look at another recurring Chinese annum:

 

great_red_dragon_by_dubhghall

Dragon Years

1928: “Chickens! Pots!! Each as Big as Your Head!!!”
1940: “Remember that ‘Rendezvous With Destiny’ thing? It’s really here now!”
1952: “Heey! He won the war for ya, dinnee?”
1964: “Helloooooooo, Lyndon!”
1976: “Once and for all, Why Not The Best?” (retroactive sniggering)
1988: “I want a kinder, gentler nation.” (more retroactive sniggering)
2000: “Wait…whaaaat?”
2012: “Whoop! He did it again!”

The star next to that next-to-last one gets bigger in hindsight than even those Monkey elections with stars on them. And the Rat?:

 

 

 

 

Rat PBS

 

Rat Years:

1936: “It’s a very nice win, dear, but don’t get carried away!”
1948: “Sure, it’s the middle of October, but why bother polling again? This thing’s over!”
1960: “Well…Suppose we don’t want to Get Moving Again?”
1972: “Four More Years!”
1984: “Four More Years!”
1996: (um…) “Four More Years!”
2008: “We Sure As Hell Did!”

A very big star on the last one, which may only get bigger in retrospect. Otherwise, poor Rat…and, maybe, Poor Us.

 

 

Still Amused, But Mostly Disgusted

Red Hot Patriot, which ends its Arena Stage run Sunday, met most of my expectations, even the rueful ones. Mostly, it reminded me how much I regret never having met Molly Ivins in person despite our having at least a dozen mutual acquaintances. Its particulars also evoked what is already regarded as the last heyday of the glorious/terrible American newspaper trade when it was still able to attract, nurture, shelter and, most of all, break the hearts, if not the spirits of romantics such as Molly Ivins.

Lest you think I’m being in any way dismissive, allow me an urgent shout-out to everyone I ever shared a newsroom with: Whatever good things you heard about Kathleen Turner’s performance can be verified in this shabby corner of the web, and if Red Hot Patriot happens to show up in your immediate neighborhood, you shouldn’t wait a second after it lands to check it out. You’ll come away with the same bittersweet regrets I did. But mostly you’ll feel as though you got to spend a bit of hang time with the real Molly after all, if by proxy.

 

 

 

It’s been weeks since I saw the show. Yet I’m only now writing about it because, as thoroughly as I enjoyed Patriot, there was something discomfiting that chewed at me throughout. And it was crystallized today by some random acts of idiocy occurring within the previous 24-hour news cycle that need not be re-hashed, except here. Or here. Or even here.

The point being that while Ivins was as capable as any reasonably sane human being of being infuriated by these yotzes (Oh, do stop! “Yotz” is SO a word! See?), she somehow managed to channel her anger into robustly sardonic humor – Think
Mister Dooley, with more barbecue sauce and cumin – that never indulged her targets, but somehow contained her progressive readers’ collective outrage. “Sure,” each Ivins column seemed to say, “these guys (and they were always guys) are assholes. And worse. But they’re the price we pay for all the other perks we get for our democracy. So slap ‘em around, but remember: There’s always another two or three comin’ from behind.”

I am trying harder than ever to maintain even that much equanimity as this year’s campaign-from-hell staggers and wobbles along the back-nine. Somehow, laughter, however sardonic or withering, seems too good for the Mourdocks, Akins, Palins, and Trumps. It certainly is too good for the crowd that agreed not long ago that African Americans were better off under slavery. Which is just about the time I stopped finding these zealots funny. Laughing at their monstrous idiocy may not be the same as sanctioning it. But it’s a distraction from acknowledging just how dangerous these zealots are.

My loss of equanimity is neither a joy nor a relief. I cherish the example of Murray Kempton, as fierce and funny a practitioner of the 800-word screed as Ivins though a much different breed of stylist who habitually probed beneath the darkest and meanest of souls to find a glimmer of good. But I like to think even he had his limits with yotzes. Ivins certainly did.

 

Clint Am Us, Part Deux

From the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates: This too-obvious dispatch from the Carmel bureau — then again, maybe it’s not so obvious for some of you.