From the rat’s nest of a Lower East Side studio of Stranger Than Paradise to the … rat’s-nest of a crumbling Detroit mansion of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s work always feels vaguely familiar—and yet, not quite like anything else.
His purview is supposed to be limited to the last week, but John Oliver has spent the first few months of his HBO show’s run reaching a lot further back into America’s psyche. Whatever nominally topical subject he’s taking on, he uses Last Week Tonight to treat it like a springboard, launching off of a piece of congressional testimony or a Supreme Court decision into a kind of miniature State of the Union, a barbed look at how this ridiculous bit of news is a data point on a much broader, and often considerably less funny, chart.
Not quite a year removed from his name-making summer of guest-hosting work on The Daily Show, the crown of seven years spent as the dryly sarcastic Senior British Correspondent, Oliver still isn’t entirely out of that show’s long shadow, nor is his approach really light years away from the exaggerated exasperation that is Jon Stewart’s most exportable good. Still, if Stephen Colbert is (soon enough, was) the satirical Satanic message you get from playing TDS backwards, Oliver so far is its slowed-down SoundCloud track, explicating and dissecting exactly why so much in the news deserves to be treated with bitter irony.
The D-list, so far: I went on some dates for paparazzi to photograph. I folded shirts. I got a few modeling gigs. I found cash inside of a fire hydrant. I changed my outfit but not my makeup. I lined up a lucrative appearance at the Immaculat Vodka party tonight. I enlisted an unscrupulous talent-management type to help troll my nemesis on Twitter, until she started yelling about Obamacare (very realistic). I hung out with Kim Kardashian. It’s like Louise Brooks wrote at the end of Lulu in Hollywood:
Although our sexual education had been conducted by the élite of Paris, London, and New York, our pleasure was restricted by the inbred shackles of sin and guilt. Thus at the same time our reputation for immorality excluded us from the parties of respectable Hollywood, which devoted itself to presenting a picture of moral beauty to the world, our reputation for sudden attacks of puritanism excluded us from the delights of the carefully arranged parties that ended for us after lunch or dinner when we were dismissed with a firm goodbye.
In 1992, MTV premiered a reality TV show, billed as the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and. Start. Getting. Real. The Real World, about to enter its 30th season and often credited with spawning the reality television phenomenon, is successful because of this simple premise: stick a group of young people with different backgrounds in a house, turn on some cameras, invite a bunch of voyeurs to tune in and watch in thirty minute installments. It’s not scripted, just edited.
Shuichi Yoshida’s novel Parade is not The Real World: Tokyo, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. Four twentysomethings and one teenager, all with the loosest connections to one another, share an apartment in Setagaya, Tokyo. They are intimately familiar with each other in ways made possible only by living in the same space: washing each other’s laundry, sharing a bathroom, seeing each other during the most vulnerable moments of the day. But none of them really know each other, not in the ways we consider that one human can truly understand another. They are five private people, each with their own secrets.
It was said that actor Peter Sellers so excelled at his craft because he had no identity of his own—he simply became whoever he was playing. This tidbit goes through my mind often as, almost out of my control, I find myself shifting back and forth between accents.
My family moved from London to Toronto when I was 12. I was too old to simply absorb a new accent, but young enough to want to. For years, I tried affecting a Canadian accent at school to fit in better, only to return to an English one when I got home. What Degrassi Junior High’s Stephanie Kaye did with makeup, I did with accents.
Before the Toronto date of their outlaw-themed On the Run tour, I fantasized about Beyoncé tying Jay Z to a chair, only removing his gag when she needed a guest verse for “Upgrade U” or “Crazy in Love.” Such havoc only went down last night during the interstitial video, where they played a pair of bank robbers blasting through a French New Wave pastiche, Pierrot le fou remade by Michael Bay—although they seem to like Godard’s Brechtian period too. “NOT REAL,” the frame declared mid-firefight, “THIS IS NOT A GUN.” Anyone who arrives onstage in a lace ski mask is working with a sophisticated understanding of artifice. It was a little ironic, then, that everything surrounding her strained to disguise that as much as possible, blending two disparate discographies like somebody following the employee manual at a juice bar.
I went to the concert because I adore Beyoncé the singer and Beyoncé the album; her husband I mostly thought of as an additional Ticketmaster charge. Jay Z has now spent half his career in embarrassing-dad mode, as if preparing to become an actual dad. Several of the recent hits feel like he composed them to distract himself while sorting a dresser full of luxury brands. He moved through the classics with practiced staccato—I imagine Sinatra still sounded pretty good in the ‘80s, too. But baseball stadiums never flatter a prerecorded backing track, and some of Jay’s best ones were hardly steely by design: The speakers crushed all that flamboyant delicacy out of “Big Pimpin,” losing the ebullience of “Izzo” amidst industrial acoustics. “No Church in the Wild” and “Ni**as in Paris” held up better, even while inviting unfavorable comparisons to Kanye’s obsessively theatrical Yeezus tour. When Jay appeared solo, he had the manner of somebody doing a private show for an illustrious but distant acquaintance.
In the absolute sense of the term, there is a subatomical case to be made that we don’t actually touch anything. The natural repelling force of electrons would seem to suggest that we and the physical world around us are at best asymptotes, our valences perhaps intertwined, but never, strictly speaking, coming into contact. That we seem to actually grasp things, that we can know something of their being by touching them, is maybe just a trick of the mind, our limited perception making the most sense it can of a world that we can only really just reach for.
Daniel Holden’s bent is more philosophical and psychological than physical, so when his tender sister-in-law asks him about the literal lack of human contact he experienced during nearly two decades on death row, he says only that the absence has left him profoundly ambivalent about it, sometimes yearning for and sometimes afraid of its power. These opposite poles define most of Daniel’s experience of the outside world, prosaic minutiae infused with an almost horrid vividness by time spent in a nearly featureless white cell.
Unlike Sam Cooke, who discovered him, or Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin, for whom he served as a session guitarist, or the Rolling Stones, who made his song “It’s All Over Now” their first #1 hit, Bobby Womack only intermittently got over beyond a particular niche. His, though, was R&B—a broad church then and now.
That was, in fact, where Cooke found him, singing for a family gospel act called the Womack Brothers, who changed their name to the Valentinos before recording secular music in an attempt to circumvent the routine backlash. Although his solo material became a feature of Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart from the ‘60s through to the 1980s, he’d mostly been dormant for a decade or two until his most recent, harshly abbreviated comeback. Womack was one of those musicians fated to be known most widely through other artists, whether Mariah’s teary invocation on “We Belong Together” or Pam Grier’s long poised glide through LAX to the tune of “Across 110th Street.” If you’re only familiar with the latter song from Jackie Brown, let the death of its creator last week lead you to the original source.
Michael Bay takes a fair bit of justifiable heat for his suite of bloated, nearly incomprehensible Transformers movies, but if we’re portioning out blame for one of the nadirs of contemporary blockbuster cinema, we should probably start with Mark S. Fowler. Fowler was the head of the Federal Communications Commission, the board tasked with overseeing broadcasting in the United States, during most of the Reagan years. Like Bay, he took a somewhat dim view of his medium; he once called television—his primary area of focus—a “toaster with pictures.” In his six years as head of the FCC, he oversaw the most significant deregulation of television broadcasting since the invention of the medium.
Though not necessarily remembered as his biggest move—Google “FCC + anti-trafficking regulation,” and get a brief history of corporate ownership of the airwaves—the one with the most lasting effect on the Gen X/Millennial nostalgia market involved removing the regulations on program-length commercials. Once one of the board’s more strictly enforced guidelines (they once used it to go after Romper Room, which is basically a public park puppet show compared to almost anything on the air today), it prevented something like, say, a toy company creating a show based entirely on its most recent line of products.
The first season of Orange is the New Black, easily Netflix’s best original show, was something like a big bang: it started with our comfortably blond middle-class protagonist, Piper, but expanded as quickly and widely as possible, leaving her, essentially out of necessity, not even a gravitational centre so much as just one of the brightest stars. Piper’s story is our way in, but the ostensible protagonist might not have even made a list of the show’s ten most interesting characters.
Though we continue to receive episode-length glimpses into the histories of everyone who isn’t Piper, in the second season, Litchfield prison already has its firmament, and we spend far more time charting what we’ve already seen than boldly going anywhere in particular. There are only two real additions to a prison that felt almost borderless its first season: a starry-eyed hippy named SoSo, who shows us how far into cynicism Piper has sunk, and Vee, a long-time drug dealer and returnee to the prison.
“Chaka Khan has never bothered with great albums because she has such a great voice—juicy, airy, spunky, transported,” the critic Robert Christgau wrote a few years ago, wisely implying that a musician might nurse aspirations beyond the great album. She’s always preferred the variety a string of singles affords: This is someone whose discography encompasses the black feminist anthem “I’m a Woman” (in her youth, she was a Panther, serving free breakfasts to the children on Chicago’s South Side), the didgeridoo and fiddles of “Best in the West,” and covers of Fleetwood Mac circa Tango in the Night, not to mention all those ventures into jazz. Like Patti LaBelle, she devoted herself to a vision of female funk that never would be fully realized commercially—and then she tried other things. “I am a species born to die / Understanding this, I hardly cry,” as “I’m a Woman” announces.
The Bechdel test, so named for the cartoonist Alison B., was first decreed thirty years ago by a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For like so: “I have this rule, see … I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” What began as a mordant joke and corrective thought experiment now receives certain weirdly literal interpretations, as if it were the feminist equivalent of the Nintendo Seal of Quality, or antagonistic viewing were impossible, or a dimly well-intentioned ally type couldn’t write a screenplay that technically passes the test while failing to explore female subjectivity at all.
A more egregious misreading of Bechdel’s work, however, is going on in South Carolina, where a very male state legislature just punished the College of Charleston for recommending her comics memoir Fun Home.
No, you needn’t be ashamed of reading young adult fiction! Such was the resounding reaction to an article by Ruth Graham in Slate last week that insisted adults should feel embarrassed to read The Fault of Our Stars and other books ostensibly aimed at teens. There’s no point in rehashing the debate, as responses were legion and furious—skip them all and just read this brilliant and hilarious one from Kathleen Hale that retorts in the form of Twilight gone wrong.
Still, the vociferousness was understandable. Those immersed in literary culture feel especially under assault these days, and the idea that one would admonish people for actually reading books seemed like rubbing some condescending, fair-trade Himalayan salt into already raw wounds.
John Waters can’t get a film financed, but he’s been making a good living as a “John Waters impersonator.” His latest book, Carsick, gives just a hint of who else he might be.
Unless her release party involves euthanizing the Queen’s Corgis, it’s safe to say that Lana Del Rey’s follow-up to Born to Die will not manage to generate the nattering controversy of that record. Ultraviolence certainly has a lot of repugnance soaked into its lush beauty, but by now at least we’ve come to expect that from Del Rey; last time, it was precisely because she wasn’t what we expected that made her everyone’s favourite target for at least two glorious weeks, maybe a month.
Why a stage name and a murky backstory should have caused such a stir is slightly confusing, particularly if we accept that one of pop’s hallmarks as a genre is a concern with its packaging. Still, to many it had the whiff of a bait and switch, a pretty young thing dressed in the tropes of indie culture—a retro fetish, an ostensible DIY aesthetic, a practiced indifference—championed by blogs and the right Twitterers and Pitchfork, for god’s sake, who turned out to be generously supported by both a major label and a rich dad. It’s probably a mark of the times that the latter seemed somehow more damning, as if trust-fundery isn’t at least partially inherent to a culture that lionizes urban core scenes in the age of revitalization.
Whether writing fiction, non-fiction, or something in between, Dyer manages to make the implausible possible. A few recent releases—two reissued novels and a new work of journalism—show the author at three distinct yet complementary apexes.
1. If your right eye twitches, you’re plagued with a bad omen. If your left eye twitches, good things are bound to happen. My mom is an immigrant from India, and though she’s adapted to North American culture over the last 30 years, little pieces of her traditional upbringing still come out at the strangest times. My mom is practical, logical, and often calculating—and yet, she believes in karma, energy, and the divine cosmos. I was born with my left eye smaller than the right, and sometimes it spasms when I’m nervous. Maybe I’m going to be okay?
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The fish’s head, with eyes as gleamy as Brigitte Bardot staring up at you from the beach, the waves washing against her legs like the breath of angels that always knew your name and your love and your God, and the hot yes and now of it, had been set on the bottom of the bowl so that it looked up at you as if asking the question you always knew that one day you were to be asked, and beside it the chef had placed another piece of trout, this one rolled with herbs and sea salt and smoked just to the point of ruby-hued doneness, like a sunset fallingfallingfalling and then rising, now within. It was one of the most exquisite things I ate last year, and I would beat the gravel, returning to Adega in an explosive, radiant, madly speeding paroxysm in time.
As a full retrospective of Jarman’s films opens this week in Toronto, we look at the director’s approach to queer filmmaking, which often meant more than simply telling queer stories—it meant responding, sometimes in hostile fashion, to a suffocating status quo.
As her masterwork Kontakthof plays to sold out audiences in Toronto this week, we reconsider the legacy of the great, late German choreographer Pina Bausch.